Friday, August 1, 2008
In a former job, I got to see a detailed wide-area aerial photo of downtown Oklahoma City, not long after the 1995 bombing. It was an eye-opening sight. Like many American cities, about half of the land use in downtown OKC consisted of large surface parking lots. Office, commercial, and industrial buildings covered nearly all of the remainder that wasn’t streets. How different this was from the traditional image of a densely built-up urban “downtown”! And I knew that the same vantage in 1920 would have revealed far more small buildings, small apartment houses, and single-family homes. But like much of America, residential housing pretty much disappeared from downtowns as the 20th century, and its automobiles, progressed.
But the revival of downtown housing has spread even to Oklahoma City. In many spots around its downtown, the city -– which will have an NBA team this year –- boasts a number of new, often-high-priced housing developments. And not just a few “bachelors’ arms” apartment blocks. The new construction includes a lot of townhouses. Thirty years ago, a residential developer would have scoffed at the idea of “high end” townhouses near downtown in a city such as the OKC. Who would want to live downtown, when one could buy a big house with a yard in the suburbs, just as quick trip away on the freeway? And haven’t you noticed all the parking downtown for the business end of the commute? Today, of course, the commute may not be so easy, and the advantages of living in the city –- the city's got an NBA team now, if you didn’t know –- are encouraging more affluent people to make the plunge and become an urban pioneer. And Oklahoma City is not the kind of place to have a dense new development stopped by land use law concerns about too much “traffic” –- most city streets haven’t been crowded for decades, of courses.
Who’s moving into these townhouses? Mostly empty-nest couples and young professionals, a developer says. The fact that fewer American households include a school-age child is another factor in making urban living popular. The Oklahoma developer also states the hope that more families with children will follow. After all, the video-obsessed generation doesn’t play ball in the backyard, so who needs one? Getting families to move downtown is, of course, the biggest hurdle to the larger success of urban revival. How are downtown OKC public schools? Unless the answer is, “As good as those in the suburbs,” very few affluent families will move downtown.
If they ever do, our 20th century conceptions of land use law and policy, which were predicated on separation of uses and sprawl, will have to change, and cities such as Oklahoma City –- did I mention the NBA team? –- may look, feel, and be regulated much differently than it was in the days in which downtowns were half parking lots.
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Thursday, July 31, 2008
Surprisingly news from HUD this week is that the number of chronically homeless people fell dramatically from 2005 to 2007, according to the agency. Analysts attribute the success largely to a policy of “housing first,” which focuses on getting homeless people into permanent and stable housing before trying to tackle problems such as mental counseling, drug addiction, etc.
If accurate, the success undermines some preconceptions about the problems of street homelessness. One preconception has been that most homeless people are too socially alienated to be helped for the long run. If homelessness is largely the result of bad personal choices, such as alcoholism, domestic abuse, or other problems, the argument goes, government and social aid wouldn’t work. An opposing preconception is that homelessness is less an issue of housing than of “empowerment.”
It is very difficult, I imagine, to get an accurate count of the number of homeless persons. One problem starts with the definition. Some advocates desire to include within the definition people who are living in very precarious housing conditions, such as in short-term flophouses or in temporary arrangements with relatives. But this kind of near-homelessness is always going to be with us, and certainly is not as big a social concern as chronic homelessness –- that is, people who truly live on the street for long periods of time. Counting these people is obviously problematic. But if the HUD numbers are truly accurate, then the “housing first” policy should be applauded loudly. And we should still appreciate them when the repercussions from the housing debacle pushes the rate back up again …
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Tuesday, July 29, 2008
I often suggest to my students that the success of re-urbanization depends on the “white sock” test. How far does a central city dweller have to travel to buy a pair of plain white socks? (And no, one sock doesn’t count.) Yes, the question is about socks and the city. If the answer is that the urban dweller has to take some form of transportation to buy a pair of plain socks, then re-urbanization has still not met its potential.
Even more essential than clean socks is food –- grocery food, not restaurant food, which almost every city has in abundance. In Sam Francisco, one of the city’s poorest districts –- the Tenderloin –- is trying to bring a full-service grocery store to the neighborhood. Although it lies just beneath tony Nob Hill and just to the west of the affluent shopping mecca of Union Square, the Tenderloin is more famous for its cheap residential hotels and large homeless population. Although it holds dozens of liquor stores, it has no real groceries for sale, other than at a few understocked corner convenience stores. Despite the efforts of a local citizens groups and personal appeals of Mayor Gavin Newsom, no grocery firm seeks willing. High start-up costs, taxes, and the threat of crime perhaps are dissuading factors. But also at play is the sad fact than many poor residents simply aren’t in the habit of (or are physically incapable of) preparing a square meal for themselves, which further dissuades groceries from locating in very poor neighborhoods.
The absence of grocery stores is –- like the absence of white socks for sale –- another reason why life in the central city remains different, and not in a good way, from life in other sectors of America.
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