Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The fall (literally?) of certain American city neighborhoods …

   Cities rise and fall.  Famous places such as ancient Jericho, Chang-an, and even Rome declined and nearly disappeared, and their abandoned buildings were torn down, as the cities’ economic or political reasons for being dissolved.  There has been a lot of talk recently about how American industrial cities are going to cope with “depopulation.”  Not surprisingly, much of the attention has focused on Michigan, with the decline of its linchpin auto industry.  (And if you think that the federal government will save the big American automakers by forcing them to build small cars, consider the observation that there are two kinds of auto buyers in the country – those who buy big American trucks and those who buy small Japanese cars (see the stats here) – and then tell me how building more American small cars will save the car companies.)    
Abandonedcities    From Flint, Michigan, infamous as the focus of Michael Moore’s “Roger & Me” and as the place hurt perhaps more than any other by the decline of the auto industry, comes an idea to try to shut down entire neighborhoods of the city.  After all, Flint holds barely half as many people as it did 50 years ago.  The cash-strapped city could save much money and avoid many social and land use ills if it could simply move the handful of residents who live in certain neighborhoods and then level and shut down entire sections of town. 
   But the idea of city-shrinking could be considered on even broader scales in municipalities such as Cleveland, Detroit, and St. Louis, the populations of which have fallen over the past half-century even more rapidly than Flint’s.  All of these big cities have less than half the populations they did in 1950.  Bulldoze sections of the city and turn them into parks or (perhaps safer) farms?  This is not easy to do politically, especially if a number of existing residents want to stay.  Remember the much-ballyhooed efforts to shrink New Orleans after Katina?  These ideas foundered, in large part, on the shoals of public opposition.  Complicating matters further is that all of these big cities have (as has Flint) a black majority.  Why does government consider kicking people out of their homes instead of, perhaps, encouraging white suburbanites to repopulate the cities (where houses can be bought for pennies)?
  We are likely, therefore, to suffer, for years to come, though the extraordinary phenomenon of mostly abandoned but standing neighborhoods in the middles of cities in the world’s biggest economy and third most populous country …

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April 29, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Pedestrian malls, cities, and shoppers …

Pedestrian mall    Whither the pedestrian mall?  I considered the paradox of the foot-only shopping thoroughfare as I visited the fairy unsuccessful example of Franklin Street, once upon a time the prime shopping street (here’s an old photo), of downtown Tampa, Florida.  Why have so many of these efforts failed?  Why do some succeed?  And why have cities such Chicago reopened their retail streets, as discussed in this recent article about State Street?    
   Pedestrian ways popular in the 1960s and 1970s, when cities were considered unpleasant places, and the idea of removing traffic was thought to be an attraction.  After all, it works in places such as Florence and Paris’s chic Rule Mouffetard – why not Tampa or Chicago?  The reasons for failure are tiptoed around by many commentators, in my opinion.  Here’s my two cents:  Pedestrian malls haven’t worked as well as they have in many European cities because of the different dynamics of American cities, whose shopping and entertainment attractions simply aren’t as appealing as those elsewhere. 
   Many American cities were in the doldrums in the ‘60s and ’70s, of course, and, in a fit of anti-urbanist sentiment, many cities tried to help their declining retail streets by closing them to auto traffic.  This step only made things worse.  As these streets, which were already shifting toward lower-income patrons only, became “quieter,” this quietude had two unfavorable effects.  First, the quiet exacerbated the unease that middle-class shoppers felt about a somewhat-run-down urban setting.  Second, the quiet and the empty space encouraged homeless sleepers, drunks, and other anti-social persons.  A little movement in these two directions often created vicious circles – a few more homeless sleepers discourage the remaining middle-class shoppers, and so on.  Thus many pedestrian malls turned into blighted areas of closed shops, urine puddles, and no shoppers.  (As, with some exaggeration, Tampa’s Franklin Street was just a few years ago.) 
   The solution?  Bring back the cars.  As the late Jane Jacobs could have told us, city people like bustle and noise, at least in some instances.  Traffic reassures shoppers (and, yes, Americans often like to see a store from their car before stopping) and flips the vicious circle into a virtuous one.  Chicago’s State Street and Washington’s F Street (between 7th and 9th) were revitalized by the return of auto traffic.
  Where do pedestrian malls “work”?  In places where there is especially strong foot traffic, such as tourist towns.  It works in Salem, Mass., and to some extent in Charlottesville, Va., where successful pedestrian malls are created for tourists who shop for souvenirs, and in college towns, where auto-challenged students travel in interactive gangs on their way to pizza.  But the auto-free ideal typically doesn’t work in big, serious cities such as Chicago, Boston, or Tampa. 
  The lesson is counterintuitive, but it makes sense:  To bring back the pedestrian, cities shouldn’t block the car.   Free Franklin Street!

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April 21, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, April 17, 2009

Density debates in Oakland, the Brooklyn of the West …

Oakland    Few places in the nation crystallize modern America as well as Oakland, California.  One of the most diverse cities in the country – diverse both in range of wealth as well as in race – Oakland stretches from fantastic million-dollar hillside homes to some of the most dangerous slums in the country, along with corporate headquarters and major league sports teams.  As the bluer-collar side of a very wealthy, educated, and white-collar oriented metro area, with convenient public transportation, comparatively low housing costs, and a pleasant climate (without all the fog of that other city across the Bay) and wealthy exurbs that strain against the mountains behind it, Oakland should have been set for a great revival in recent years.  And indeed it did, to some extent, boom during the recent boom – its population even rose to all-time high of nearly 400,000 (bigger than Minneapolis or St. Louis) and a revived downtown.
   But happiness has not come to Oakland as quickly or as thoroughly as circumstances might have suggested.  It has not really become “the Brooklyn of the West.”  (I thought I had just coined this, but Google has disabused me.)  One reason is a disturbingly high crime rate (see this article in this week’s Economist).  Another is a contentious debate over density.  Commentator Joel Kotkin has chastised former Oakland mayor Jerry Brown and others for slow-growth policies that hamstring California today.  Columnist Chip Johnson also criticizes what he views as excessive zoning and land use restrictions in the city.  But Oakland is considering widespread changes that would allow for greater density and height in the city.  Some may complain that they don’t want Oakland to become overbuilt, like Dallas or Los Angeles.  But, hey, what about Vancouver – another west coast city with a diverse population, very high density of modern buildings, some serious crime problems, and but all in all a success story? …

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April 17, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Public transportation, in the heart of the Sunbelt …

   I went to Ft. Worth, Texas, this week and decided, as I often do on travel, to check out the public transportation, both for the adventure of it and to assess the nation’s commitment, or lack thereof, to alternatives to the car.  It is often an eye-opening experience.
   Finding online, before leaving, that the Trinity Railway Express (TRE) runs from the huge DFW airport to downtown Ft. Worth, just blocks from my hotel, I decide to take the plunge, with visions of a train pulling right up to my terminal, as in Washington, DC, or many European cities.  Although I’m scheduled to arrive after dark, the online schedule indicates that a few trains run late into the evening.  Rail-TRE    Upon arriving at the DFW terminal, I look for signs to the train.  Seeing only a sign for “Ground Transportation,” I follow the arrows.  I’m quickly dumped outside along a lonely service road, surrounded by acres of concrete (like much from the 1970s, the mighty DFW airport has not aged well).  I see arrows heading to a taxi stand and rental cars, but no train.  After a little wandering around, I find a phone for information, supposedly reached by dialing single digits.  I pick up the phone, get a welcome message, and then notice a sign that says to dial “0” for “public transportation.”  I dial “0,” but then receive the same welcome message.  I try again, with the same results.  Stymied, I then try “8,” for “Remote” (what’s this?) and am connected to a human being.  I ask how to locate the TRE train.  I’m told to take a bus to “Remote South,” and then another bus for the TRE.  I sigh, wait for the “Remote South” bus (which arrives with no indication that this is the way to get to the TRE) and, many miles and a half hour of travel across the north Texas prairie, finally arrive at a nearly deserted rural train stop.  No building; no employee; no working Snickers machine (and dang, by then I was hungry).    
   After a brief panic that I have only a lone single and 20 dollar bills for what I expect will be a few-buck ride (it’s $2.50), I’m thrilled that the outside ticket machine both accepts credit cards and actually works.  The double-decked(!) train arrives on-time.  The nearly deserted conveyance is clean and gets me to Ft. Worth on-time.  Over the next two days, I hop on the TRE for a round trip to Dallas – it’s also on-time, busier, and holds a more diverse array of customers than on my first night – and then successfully use it get back to DFW at dawn today.
   I return home to news that President Obama (story and video here) wants to have the government fund more high-speed rail lines, including one through the self-proclaimed cow town of Ft. Worth.
  My conclusions?  We spend, and probably will spend, much money on rail lines that work fairly well, as far as they go.  But the option of public transportation, especially extra-urban rail, still has not worked its way into our nation’s consciousness, and we do not do the little things that would facilitate its use.  Until then, the United States will not join countries such as Japan and those of western Europe (see Obama’s speech) as a nation in which rail is once again an integral part of the nation’s land use fabric …

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April 16, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, April 13, 2009

Bacchus versus Stoic, on the beach in Florida …

   Among the contradictions of the American psyche that worm their way into land use law is the combination of, on one hand, an acceptance of even wild-eyed “individual expression” with, on the other, a puritan regulation of alcohol use.  This contradiction is playing out in a local controversy at Sunset Beach, a peninsula that is part of the city of Treasure Island near me on Florida’s Gulf coast.  

    The beach is one of few in the area in which alcohol has been permitted.  This system of varied laws seems to be a good Tieboutian approach, under which government laws create a market:  those who want to avoid alcohol have many other options, while those who want to drink choose Sunset Beach.  One of the better results of the compromise is a famous beach bar and restaurant called Caddy’s, where patrons watch the sun set with sand under toes from pleasant beach tables.
    But the attraction of alcohol and beach-going is sometimes too much; residents have complained that this spring’s tourist season brought an overflow of cars (it’s a dead end peninsula, remember), drunks, and urination.  This unpleasant situation led to a proposal before the city council to at least temporarily ban drinking on the beach.
   But, at least for now, Bacchus holds the field.  Faced with much public opposition to the proposed change, the city council decided last week not to put the ban to a vote.  I suspect that this compromise may not hold.  Last call? …

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April 13, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Jobs, like people, sprawled over the past decade …

   Okay, we’re in the middle of a recession in which nothing is being built, exurbs are hemorrhaging foreclosures, and we’re still shook up from last year’s spike in gasoline prices.  Does this truly signal the “end of sprawl,” as so many critics have predicted (hoped)?  Perhaps.  But if so, it will be something truly new, according to a new report on “job sprawl” by the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution (author: Elizabeth Kneebone).     
   The report studied private-sector jobs (remember those?) from 1998 to 2006 in the 98 largest American metro areas, which comprise about two-thirds of jobs in the country.  Despite the efforts of urbanism to bring “life” back to city, the report found that employment “steadily decentralized” in nearly all the areas, and that jobs “shifted away from the city center” in almost every private industry.
   The Brookings report also noted troubling policy implications for this continued sprawl.  Not only did the drift deplete the tax bases of central cities, but the movement of jobs to suburbs created an ever greater “spatial mismatch” between jobs and residents of color.  Interestingly, it also noted studies that suggested that decentralization tends to spoil interactive “innovation” (which reminds me of the ideas of Richard Florida; see Land Use Prof Blog, Feb. 20, 2009).  
  True, the report finished its study with 2006 data, just as the housing boom was ending, and just as the recession and high gas prices were hitting.  A follow-up report in 2019 might conclude that “jobs and middle-class families returned to the cities over the past decade, as the result of economic forces and smart land use laws to revive urbanism.”  But I’m not holding my breath ….

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April 9, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Will this be a landmark? How might I know?

    Imagine that you’re on the landmark commission of a big city with a lot of architectural history – say, Chicago.  What would you prefer as criteria for designating landmarks or landmark districts?  You’d like a lot of flexibility, of course, to include places as disparate as the famous industrial gothic Water Tower, a neighborhood of prairie-style bungalows, a 1950s modernist office tower, and baseball’s Wrigley Field.  You’d like the criteria to include broad terms such as “significant,” “important,” and “distinctive.”  This way, you’d have broad discretion to designate as landmarks a variety of places.      
    But now imagine that you’re a citizen considering the purchase of a brick row house in a typical old urban Chicago neighborhood.  You like the narrow house, but you have long-term hopes of knocking down some interior walls (you don’t have five kids, like families did a century ago) and expand into the small backyard.  How might you know whether your neighborhood will be designated as a “landmark district,” which might severely restrict your ability to alter “your” house (which, if designated, would in effect be co-owned between yourself and the landmark commission)?     
    The dilemma of the landowner certainly spurred an Illinois Appellate Court to hold last month that Chicago’s landmark ordinance, to the extent it relies on the terms mentioned above, is “vague, ambiguous, and overly broad.”  (An earlier version of the decision is here; the case is Hanna v. City of Chicago, Ill. App. Ct., 1st Dist., 5th Div., No. 1-07-3548.)  Moreover, the intermediate-level court held, in reversing a dismissal by a trial court, that the criteria for membership on the landmark commission are too vague and unintelligible.
    The case almost certainly will be heard by the Supreme Court of Illinois, and I expect the high court to hold that the standards are acceptable (after all, so much of administrative law uses vague terminology in its grants).  It seems close to impossible to delineate with specificity all the various factors that make places historically or aesthetically worthy of landmark designation.  But this does not change the open-ended incentive of landmark commissions across the nation to designate more and more landmarks (after all, why not, unless the owners affected are politically powerful?) and does nothing to help our imaginary prospective buyer in her dilemma ….

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April 7, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Preserving a pawn shop, in the heart of affluent America …

   When is a LULU (locally unwanted land use) no longer a LULU?  Perhaps when it becomes a comfortable part of the community.  Perhaps when exclusionary land use laws squeeze out an established business.  And perhaps when economic times call for a reassessment of a business that an affluent community might have found undesirable just a few years ago.
Pawnshop     According to the Lookout News of Santa Monica, Cal. (hey, when most of the traditional newspapers are gone, sources such as these will be the best places to find accurate news), the Santa Monica City Council voted last week to order the drafting of a zoning change that would allow for more locations for pawnshops in the downtown area.  (Here’s corroboration from the city, listed after a request that the new Bloomingdale’s store use “a color palette appropriate for Santa Monica” and not so much white.)  The impetus, according to Lookout News, concerns Angelo’s Pawn Shop, the last remaining such business in the city, once famous as a laid-back beach community, but increasingly wealthy over the past decade.  Angelo’s is being pushed out of its current downtown home, which is being remodeled, and can’t find another location in the small area that is currently zoned to allow pawnshops.  Lookout News quotes the city’s mayor as saying that the pawn shop is good for downtown.
   We’re likely to hear more mayors of wealthy communities express such opinions in the coming years …

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April 2, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Helping the homeless with housing first ..

   Which should come first in responding to homeless persons with alcohol or drug addictions:  cleaning them up or getting them into permanent housing?  Much of traditional thinking has been that addressing the personal problems needs to come first.  But a notion called “Housing First” argues that permanent housing should be the first step; with the security of safe housing, homeless persons are more likely to be able to fix their personal and abuse issues.  If this seems like a pie-in-the-sky insight – along the lines of: studies have shown that giving  homeless persons a million dollars each helps them with their problems – is the more down-to-earth benefit that a homeless person who is given housing first tends to necessitate far less public dollars, over the next few years, than those handled in the more traditional order, according to new report.  Here’s the press release from JAMA and a story from NPR.  This advantage should make an urban taxpayer smile.
 Homeless    My chief concern, however, surrounds the housing for these homeless persons.  Where are we going to find enough permanent housing for persons that still have serious alcohol or drug abuse issues? The organization “Beyond Shelter” discusses success here with Housing First in Los Angeles.  But not every city in the country can find hundreds of apartments that will readily accept residents with serous substance abuse issues.  We know that the federal government’s Section 8 housing program serves only a fraction of those who might desire it.  In a sense, this concern with Housing First reflects my thoughts about school vouchers – it’s great for those who get one, but there is unlikely to be enough to go around.
 One benefit of the current housing slump is that NOW, when prices are so low, is the time for governments to buy, build, or lease housing that can serve projects such as Housing First.  A few years from now, it may be too late …              

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April 1, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)