Saturday, January 31, 2009

There goes the Neighborhood

There is nothing better than a billboard sign to keep people out of a neighborhood. This billboard in Frogtown sends a clear message to anyone passing through: meth addicts live here. Extreme you may think, but it really does send a message that this is a place you don't want to be. To make things even better, the burnt out auto repair place makes a nice backdrop to the billboard.

Moderate and low income communities are usually the ones that get this sort of treatment. Why couldn't this billboard have been done more tastefully, or better yet, why not act as an entrance and inviting sign into the area(Welcome to Rice Street or Frogtown). While I have dealt with clear channel in the past (in NYC) around advertising on buses and billboards, it is really time to ask yourself: would you put up with this?

Here is the Street view from Google. This could be a very inviting corner that could provide seating and a smaller recreational area. Some urban design principles could really make it into a community asset. Also, it is only a few doors down from the famous international market.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Pedestrian Safety in Chinatown (NYC)

Here is a good segment from the Brian Lehrer show about pedestrian safety in Chinatown.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Shovel Ready?

Is the new package to support "shovel ready" projects the best way to move forward for our country? While we clearly need a serious boost of adrealine to the economy, does projects for projects sake really make sense? Or rather, should we take a step back and take a look at projects more comprehensively and look at the long term effects of those projects. James S. Russell over at Bloomberg news thinks we can do a lot better:
What’s wrong with America’s way of building transportation has long been known. We segregate roads, mass transit, railways and air. Each has its own pot of money. It’s no one’s job to assemble a transportation system that offers the right travel mode for the task at hand.

Obscure MPOs

Aside from the odious earmarks, most transportation funding decisions are made by Metropolitan Planning Organizations. Never heard of MPOs? They’re supposed to set priorities based on real needs, though instead they operate in obscurity and allow the political horse-trading to go on unimpeded by real oversight.

So much is made of the nation’s neglect of infrastructure, yet the U.S. actually is spending record sums on it.

We don’t make progress because the nation fails to lay out new communities so they can be efficiently served by means other than the auto. A start would be to group people-intensive colleges and commercial centers as hubs along corridors served by transit and walkable streets.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Budget cuts and quality of life

Listen to this MPR segment about White Bear Lake. How does the lack of maintenance affect people's lives?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Economy threatens non-profits

It should be no surprise that the lowest hanging fruit is always the first to go. With the economy slipping further towards a depression everyday, foundations, charities and non-profits find themselves with little cash. To make matters worse the financial crisis is now killing their one life line: credit. This NY Times article discusses how the banks are no longer giving lines of credit, and in some instances are freezing funds that are backed by government funds and contracts.
SCO Family of Services, a nonprofit agency based on Long Island, started the year with a $25 million credit line at its bank, which it planned to use to pay its bills while awaiting government reimbursements and donations.

Nancy Biberman, president of Whedco, a housing group in the Bronx, wants Congress to create a $15 billion bridge loan program for nonprofits that cannot tap banks for short-term loans.

Now, after its bank has cut its credit line twice and withdrawn a promise to support a critical bond offering, the organization is worried about whether it can pay its employees this month.

“I spend a good part of my day every day just trying to manage cash flow,” said Johanna Richman, chief financial officer at SCO, which provides services to children with developmental disabilities.

SCO is one of hundreds of charities caught in the credit crunch as skittish banks reduce their lines of credit or cut them off entirely at a time when the need for their services is climbing sharply, nonprofit leaders say.

“While nonprofits are working feverishly to accommodate increased demand, they are facing severe financial constraints that are threatening their ability to go on, much less expand their services,” said Diana Aviv, president and chief executive of Independent Sector, a nonprofit trade association.

So the non-profit world is stuck between a rock and a hard place. They need cash to keep running while they wait for their funding (private or public) but if they can't secure the money, they won't be around in a few months to execute the grant/contract funds.

To put this in perspective lets say you are low on cash but know your check is coming in two weeks. All of sudden the credit card company says you can't use your credit to get by for two weeks. What would you do?

This is the situation the non-profit world is facing. The very funds they use to secure the lines of credit are now not being accepted by the banks. We have a serious crisis when the Federal government is injecting billions into the financial industry, only for that industry to turn around and not accept government funding as a security to back credit. Maybe the government should worry a bit more about the non-profit sector that provides many of the social services that get families by every day and keep communities vibrant. In Minnesota 257,000 employees were employed in the non-profit sector in 2005. Yes, that is roughly the population of St. Paul.

The solution: the federal government should bypass the banks and establish a reserve fund that can be used to back credit directly to the non-profits that need it most. Obviously not every organization is going to make it through the next year or two, but with out credit, organizations that have been around for years might not be around either, which would make 2010-2011 a pretty frightful future.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Road Rage

From NY Magazine:

Twenty-three-year-old Jack Zaiback did not have a good Wednesday. He was out on Staten Island when his car nearly collided with another on the West Shore Expressway. The driver of the other automobile, chef Yao Zhou, jumped out of his car and began slashing him in the face with a twelve-inch sushi knife. By the end of the day, he had 100 stitches and wounds that will leave permanent scars on his face. But that was not the end of the indignity! Once the Post got ahold of the story, they couldn't stop themselves from punning the heck out of it. Their best efforts included:

• "Here's one guy you wouldn't want to face on 'Iron Chef'!"
• "He whipped out his work knife and tried to fillet a Brooklyn man like a yellowfin tuna."
• "Zaiback and Zhou wound up in their own bloody kitchen nightmare."
• "'He tried to make sushi out of my client,' said Zaiback's attorney, Alex Grosshtern."

See? Getting slashed in the face is hilarious. We're sure the irony of the article's headline, "HITTING A 'RAW' NERVE," was not lost on the victim.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Retrofitting the Highways

The interstate and highway system has gotten a lot of attention the past few months leading up to our new president taking office. The infrastructure is in place, but how do we maximize it's use? Karrie Jacobs over at Metropolis Mag has a few good ideas:

But it’s time for us to look at the interstate system not as an aging network of highways in need of repair or replacement but instead as we might look at a navigable river. Congressman Earl Blumenauer, of Portland, Oregon, a noted infrastructure advocate, says the system represents “a tremendous national untapped resource.” It encompasses a lot of land. Funds were appropriated at the outset for the purchase of two million acres; according to one estimate, the system actually takes up 40 acres per mile, or 1.87 million acres. But what if we could make those highways beautiful, not by removing bill­boards, as Lady Bird Johnson did in the 1960s, but by using the corridors for more than moving cars and trucks? What if we thought of them as the backbone of a new, more diverse 21st-century transportation system? “It’s time for a different vision,” Blumenauer says. “And a principle for that is how we coax more out of existing resources.”

This is not a radical idea. Obviously, the interstate, with its generous rights-of-way, is a prime spot for new rail lines, both high-speed intercity trains and commuter rail. In the Bay Area, BART trains to outlying suburbs often run in the median strip. The same is true in Chicago and Blumenauer’s Portland. There are similar plans all over the country, including one for a Midwest system that would use high-speed trains and commuter rail to link major cities in nine states; and a scheme in Colorado to run high-speed rail along I-25 and I-70. The recently opened New Mexico Rail Runner connects Santa Fe and Albuquerque along an interstate corridor. It makes sense that rail would go where the people are, and over the last half century, people have settled along highways. But while there are many regional rail projects around the country, there is no national plan. As Shelley Poticha, president and CEO of Reconnecting America, a transit-advocacy group, points out, “One thing that would need to change is we would have to ask the federal government to think in an integrated, interdisciplinary way.” In layman’s terms: the highway planners and the rail planners would have to be in the same room.
Having lived in Chicago, the Bay Area, and NYC I am always thinking why do we have 6-8 lanes of bumper to bumper traffic instead of BRT, LRT, and commuter rail running along these main arteries. Now, living in the Twin Cities I see that we need to really rethink the use of the highways and move beyond seeing them as infrastructure that moves cars. We need to better integrate them into the urban fabric and make them multi-modal tools that can supplement private automobile use and public transit. Wouldn't it be great to head over to 94 and have numerous options on how to utilize it. Just maybe someone has a complete streets concept for our major highways.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

New Urbanism

Below is a good article from the Atlantic.
The locals on the light-rail line in Charlotte, North Carolina, seemed mused by the horde of transportation tourists that crowded onto their cars one afternoon in early November. The visitors carried cameras, took notes, and seized on every detail: “This used to be an industrial corridor?” “How much do those station-side condos sell for?” “Does that bike trail follow the tracks the whole distance?” At the end of the line, the group followed a guide off the train and over to a large concrete park-and-ride garage. It was completely filled with cars! It had a soccer field on top! The crowd gawked and snapped photos like they were looking at Machu Picchu.

The explorers—a city planner from the Bay Area, an analyst for New York City Transit, a sustainability consultant from Indianapolis, an urban designer for the city of London, Ontario, and a dozen others—were members of the Congress for the New Urbanism, an organization of developers, architects, engineers, and activists who champion traditional, mixed-use neighborhoods over car-dependent suburban sprawl. The congress’s choice of Charlotte for this year’s transportation summit was a belated endorsement. Ten years ago, downtown Charlotte was notable for its enormous bank towers, the staggering array of parking lots around them, and a paucity of city nightlife and historic charm. In 1998, the fed-up citizens of Mecklenburg County voted to increase their local sales tax by half a percent to pay for new transit, and today the city has a thriving bus system and the year-old Lynx light-rail line, which has already sparked more than $1 billion in planned neighborhood development near its stations. About 17,000 riders board the train every weekday—a figure not far short of the initial projections for 2025.

These are hopeful times for mass-transit boosters. Public concern over gas prices and exurban home values has prompted voters in Los Angeles and Seattle, for example, to approve half-percent sales-tax hikes for new bus and rail lines. Not only is the federal transportation spending bill up for reauthorization in 2009, but Barack Obama (whose hometown of Honolulu just voted for its own local rail project) has explicitly supported smart-growth agendas, and plans to create a White House Office on Urban Policy.

How might the future look if the New Urbanists have their way? Like an idealized past, according to the suggested reforms they laid out in Charlotte, which they planned to present to Representative James Oberstar of Minnesota, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. John Norquist, the congress’s president, spoke of replacing elevated freeways through cities with boulevards for driving, biking, walking, and shopping. Geoff Anderson, the president of Smart Growth America, said it was time to build morerail—“the second half of our transportation system,” he called it.

Andres Duany, a co-founder of the Congress for New Urbanism, whose critiques on suburbia have often been dismissed as snobbery, told the group that the current synchronicity of the real-estate crash, global warming, and peak oil is not “some kind of cosmic punishment … But there is one connection, and that’s our urban pattern.” It’s not too late for Americans to change our ways, he said, but “it will be much harder to do better in the 21st century, because of the way we’ve built the 20th.”

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

NYC in DC's shadow

Is NYC going out of style? Clearly all eyes and ears were on Washington DC today, but what does the future hold for NYC? One of the worlds greatest cities is being hit hard by the economic times. Are young twenty somethings going to flee like rats from a sinking ship and move to other cities. Is the cost going to overburden residents. Here is what the New York Times thinks:

The sudden downturn has affected the very industries that give New York its identity — finance, media, advertising, real estate, even tourism — with extreme prejudice.

The result is that some New Yorkers feel that the city is losing, along with many jobs, its swagger and its sense of pre-eminence, which is no small matter in a town where many feel like it takes an outsize swagger to survive.

Dan Geiger, a journalist for a real estate trade publication, said he left a meeting on Sixth Avenue and 55th Street at 10 a.m., on a recent Tuesday and was alarmed to find the customary Midtown bustle absent. “The place was deserted, I mean dead,” he recalled. “I’ve never seen Sixth like that at that time of day before. It had a strange feeling to it, like a holiday almost.”
Are the days of a run down Times Square and poorly maintain subway trains making a come back? Let's hope not.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

More lists about the best and worst (NYC #1)

I love it when the best and worst lists have the same cities on them. What does this really mean? Look who is #1.

Best Cities to Work and Live:

New York Rank: 1

Workers who would like to move there: 11%Median household income:$48,631Median home value: $584,761Annual home price change: -2.18%

New York, one of the world's great cities, is home to Wall Street, the Broadway theatre district, and many of the best bars, art movie houses, and restaurants in the world. The city's largest employers include New York-Presbyterian Healthcare System, and financial companies such as Citigroup and J.P. Morgan Chase. Top attributes include entertainment options, professional/personal opportunities, and ease of transportation. Entertainment was cited by 51% of respondents.

Worst Cities to Work and Live

New York Rank: 1

Workers who would not like to move there: 15%Median household income: $48,631Median home value: $584,761Annual home price change: -2.18%

Americans have a love/hate relationship with New York. It does have loads of high-paying jobs, Central Park (one of the largest urban parks in the nation), a great public transportation system, and one of the best restaurant, bar, music, and art scenes in the world. But people sacrifice to live here, paying sky-high rents for tinyapartments, and enduring long, crowded subway commutes. And by the way, the city's top restaurants sometimes require customers to make reservations months ahead of time. The high cost of living is an unattractive attribute of New York, according to 72% of respondents. Health and safety was also listed as a negative attribute by 45% of respondents.

Are we just undecided as a society or does this mean we really have no clue as to what makes a great city? New York City, Los Angele, Chicago, Les Vegas, and DC all make the best and worst list. This confirms that the nations (and this blogger) have a love/hate relationship with the big apple.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Is the city hurting your mind? had this interesting article that explains how the city is not what our natural habitat should be. Is the concrete jungle really that bad for our minds?

"The mind is a limited machine,"says Marc Berman, a psychologist at the University of Michigan and lead author of a new study that measured the cognitive deficits caused by a short urban walk. "And we're beginning to understand the different ways that a city can exceed those limitations."

One of the main forces at work is a stark lack of nature, which is surprisingly beneficial for the brain. Studies have demonstrated, for instance, that hospital patients recover more quickly when they can see trees from their windows, and that women living in public housing are better able to focus when their apartment overlooks a grassy courtyard. Even these fleeting glimpses of nature improve brain performance, it seems, because they provide a mental break from the urban roil.

This research arrives just as humans cross an important milestone: For the first time in history, the majority of people reside in cities. For a species that evolved to live in small, primate tribes on the African savannah, such a migration marks a dramatic shift. Instead of inhabiting wide-open spaces, we're crowded into concrete jungles, surrounded by taxis, traffic, and millions of strangers. In recent years, it's become clear that such unnatural surroundings have important implications for our mental and physical health, and can powerfully alter how we think.

I am sort of torn on this issue. I find some cities extremely pleasant and great places, others seem overcrowded and too aggresive for my liking. I do think they have a good point about how the lack of nature does have an impact on us.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Brooklyn bike lanes are trouble?

NYC has been on a war path lately trying to make it a better place to live by reallocating street space to uses other than moving cars. While most projects have been successful, the new bike lanes in Brooklyn on Kent Avenue have cause quite the stir. What is even more reveling is that not everyone in NYC is ready for this new city where street space is allocated more equally among its users. The New York Times has this good rap up of what is taking place.

New York City has created more than 100 miles of bicycle lanes in recent years to encourage and accommodate the number of people who, compelled by a desire to preserve the environment or preserve their bank accounts, have taken to getting around on two wheels.

But the effort to turn the city into a place that embraces bicyclists has clashed with a long-entrenched reality — New York is a crowded, congested urban landscape where every patch of asphalt is coveted.

The latest illustration of this reality — and among the more contentious — is playing out on the Brooklyn waterfront, where bike lanes less than two miles long have set off a verbal battle among a growing cast of interested parties, including business owners, residents, bicyclists and their advocates, and politicians.

I take the side of DOT on this one. Anyone who rides a bike knows that the low traffic volume on Kent Avenue is one of the best places to ride in the city. In addition, it will eventually be a part of a greenway that goes along the waterfront in Brooklyn. It seems these days those who scream the loudest seem to get their way.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Obama weekly address, transit???

Remarks of President-elect Barack Obama
Weekly Address
January 3, 2009

As the holiday season comes to end, we are thankful for family and friends and all the blessings that make life worth living. But as we mark the beginning of a new year, we also know that America faces great and growing challenges—challenges that threaten our nation’s economy and our dreams for the future. Nearly two million Americans have lost their jobs this past year—and millions more are working harder in jobs that pay less and come with fewer benefits. For too many families, this new year brings new unease and uncertainty as bills pile up, debts continue to mount and parents worry that their children won’t have the same opportunities they had.

However we got here, the problems we face today are not Democratic problems or Republican problems. The dreams of putting a child through college, or staying in your home, or retiring with dignity and security know no boundaries of party or ideology.

These are America’s problems, and we must come together as Americans to meet them with the urgency this moment demands. Economists from across the political spectrum agree that if we don’t act swiftly and boldly, we could see a much deeper economic downturn that could lead to double digit unemployment and the American Dream slipping further and further out of reach.

That’s why we need an American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan that not only creates jobs in the short-term but spurs economic growth and competitiveness in the long-term. And this plan must be designed in a new way—we can’t just fall into the old Washington habit of throwing money at the problem. We must make strategic investments that will serve as a down payment on our long-term economic future. We must demand vigorous oversight and strict accountability for achieving results. And we must restore fiscal responsibility and make the tough choices so that as the economy recovers, the deficit starts to come down. That is how we will achieve the number one goal of my plan—which is to create three million new jobs, more than eighty percent of them in the private sector.

To put people back to work today and reduce our dependence on foreign oil tomorrow, we will double renewable energy production and renovate public buildings to make them more energy efficient. To build a 21st century economy, we must engage contractors across the nation to create jobs rebuilding our crumbling roads, bridges, and schools. To save not only jobs, but money and lives, we will update and computerize our health care system to cut red tape, prevent medical mistakes, and help reduce health care costs by billions of dollars each year. To make America, and our children, a success in this new global economy, we will build 21st century classrooms, labs, and libraries. And to put more money into the pockets of hardworking families, we will provide direct tax relief to 95 percent of American workers.

I look forward to meeting next week in Washington with leaders from both parties to discuss this plan. I am optimistic that if we come together to seek solutions that advance not the interests of any party, or the agenda of any one group, but the aspirations of all Americans, then we will meet the challenges of our time just as previous generations have met the challenges of theirs.

There is no reason we can’t do this. We are a people of boundless industry and ingenuity. We are innovators and entrepreneurs and have the most dedicated and productive workers in the world. And we have always triumphed in moments of trial by drawing on that great American spirit—that perseverance, determination and unyielding commitment to opportunity on which our nation was founded. And in this new year, let us resolve to do so once again. Thank you.