Thursday, April 30, 2009

Notes on the 2009 APA Conference

The republicans descended on St. Paul last fall, the planners, commissioners, and engineers all came to Minneapolis for the 2009 APA conference. Having relocated to the Twin Cities last November, and living ten minutes from the convention center, this was the perfect opportunity for me to attend my first APA conference. After 4 long days, 25 different sessions, running into old and new colleagues, and giving a tour of downtown Minneapolis with a new colleague I would have to say I was happy with the conference.

A few major themes and ideas really stuck out to me at the conference and they were all good in my opinion. While some of the sessions were a bit dry and not very informative, others really tackled some specifics and case studies really showed some great work around the country. But I wanted to talk about three main things that I thought was really great to see as common themes of the conference.

Anti-auto or not planning around the private automobile
I would have to say shocked is not the right word to use, but throughout the conference the planning field and community has decided it is time to stop planning around cars. Although I felt I would hear some of this, it was a major theme from all aspects and from many different working professionals. The head of city planning in Cleveland discussing eliminate all parking requirements for new arts overlay districts and the planner for Montgomery county looking at how to change the suburban landscape by providing more public transit. Other hints and more blatant statements were made throughout the conference on how we need to move away from auto oriented planning.

Walking and Biking take center stage
While Portland is always held up as the biking Mecca and NYC as the most walkable city it was great to see other mid-size and smaller cities share what they are doing. At the conference it was clear that the pedestrian and bike are finally being considered as equal modes of transportation and not as recreational activities anymore. For instance, Louisville Kentucky just finished a huge walking plan and in the process of creating a greenway throughout the city. Communities that wouldn’t discuss bike lanes ten years ago are now focusing on how many miles of lanes and where to put them. It was encouraging to see these modes of transit being given their time in the spotlight.

Engineers are smelling the coffee
It is common in the planning field to laugh at and be frustrated with engineers. The common notion is that they rely on data only and plan with blinders on. This is the criticism of traffic planning engineers. I am here to report we have some fine civil engineers out in NYC (all academics though) that are challenging the old notions and looking at the new ways. Although they still seem to be a bit to heavy on the quantitative data still (I would like to see more empirical and qualitative incorporated), a session I attended gave me new hope and a new respect for some engineers who are working outside the box and doing some great work. This really gave me the hope that this divide between the planning and engineer professions will get smaller as we can work together better on future projects.

No growth and shrinkage (I added a fourth)
I am tacking this on because I thought it was important as well. It was refreshing to see sessions about areas that are not growing or are actually shrinking. It was great to see Duluth MN and Youngstown OH and how these cities, even though loosing populations, are working to stay vibrant in a global economy.

Over all the conference was a success for me. Although the sessions I really wanted to attend got cancelled, there were plenty of other sessions to make up for it.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Business retention during LRT construction

By Sheila Regan , TC Daily Planet
April 23, 2009

Seattle community organizer Thao Tran stirred up controversy last week as he spoke at various forums and events, proposing the idea that businesses along the proposed Central Corridor line seek direct funding to cover their loss of revenue during construction. Tran is the former executive director for the Vietnamese American Economic Development Association and chaired the effort among community and political leaders in Seattle to create a $50 million mitigation fund, which included $12 million in business interruption grants to 166 businesses during construction of the Seattle light rail and re-establishment payments for 30 businesses that had to move.

Tran described the moment when he decided that instead of working to stop the Seattle rail from happening, he would focus on figuring out the best way to protect his community during its construction. He was fly fishing with his mentor, a dean at the University of Washington, and the dean said: “This project is going to come into your community like a giant snowball, you can’t resist it. The best thing you can do is try to deflect the impact.” Tran said the best way to deflect the impact is to provide direct assistance to businesses to cope with the loss of revenue during construction.

On April 16, Tran spoke in the morning at an event hosted by the University Avenue Business Association (UABA), and co-hosted by the Asian Economic Development Association (AEDA). The morning lecture was geared toward Central Corridor business owners. In the evening, Tran was one of three keynote speakers, including Sushma Sheth and Harold Lucas, at a community forum on resisting gentrification, hosted by the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability , AEDA, and the Aurora St. Anthony Neighborhood Development Corporation. Community members gathered at Lao Family Community in the Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul.

“I believe small businesses are the heroes of our community,” Tran said. Because construction impeded access to businesses in Seattle, many inevitably suffered, losing 20-60% of their gross sales during one or more consecutive quarters, according to data collected by the Rainier Valley Community Development Fund. Tran said one of the first things his steering committee did was rename “grants” and “loans” to “payments” and “advances.”

Tran stressed the importance of getting elected officials on board a mitigation plan, as well as strong neighborhood and business councils. In Seattle, the mitigation fund had strong support from the mayor and several key council members. He encouraged businesses along the proposed Central Corridor line to work together, using organizations such as UABA to obtain a mitigation fund similar to the one set up in Seattle to deal with the loss of revenue during construction.
Laura Baenen, manager of communication for the Central Corridor Light Rail Transit Metropolitan Council (Met Council), responded to Tran’s lecture by saying the Twin Cities Central Corridor Light rail is very different than what happened in Seattle. The Met Council is the agency that implements the planning and the logistics for the light rail construction.

“We’re not shutting down University Avenue,” Baenen said in an interview following the UABA presentation. “We have experience with the Hiawatha and North Star Lines.” Baenen said that traffic wouldn’t be interrupted, and delivery trucks and foot traffic would still have access to businesses. She pointed to a Met Council website, which shows examples of the support the Met Council would provide to businesses, including marketing signs. Baenen said that the Met Council has hired six bilingual outreach liaisons to help communicate with residents and businesses. When asked whether the Met Council would financially assist University Avenue businesses during Baenen said that Met Council would provide marketing support and other similar services, but wouldn’t provide grants or loans to cope with loss of revenue. The amount of marketing support will be a percentage of the contractors’ bid prices, which the project will receive next year, Baenen said.

“There are different levels of assistance,” Tran said in a follow up interview. “Outreach and marketing are very superficial. Sure, they’ll pay for window washing and doormats, but that’s not replacing the loss of income. It’s not going to cover people’s loss of business.”
Linda Winsor of UABA, said in an interview: “I’ve been told for so long no one would give money directly to business.” Winsor is hopeful to hear of Tran’s experience with doing just that in Seattle.

Of the Met Council, Winsor said: “They have outreach workers, but it’s kind of a waste of time. Nothing comes of it that’s meaningful to business.” Winsor said the perception of University Avenue business owners was that the outreach liaisons acted more like public relations than liaisons. “You shouldn’t be reaching out to people until you can provide follow up and support,” Winsor said. Winsor said that she’s been asking how much funding the Met Council had for business mitigation, but hasn’t gotten answers.

Baenen said the Met Council is working with three groups to help with business mitigation. The Central Corridor Partnership (CCP) will hold first Friday meetings, support communication efforts regarding 4th Street advance utility work, bring in experts to speak with business groups to help them prepare for construction, and attend Central Corridor Sustainable Energy Working Group.

Karri Plowman, director of the CCP, said while the group helped bring Tran to speak in St. Paul, they disagree with his proposal. “We’ve seen that [grants to cover revenue losses] might immediately appeal to people because it’s free money,” Plowman said, but “other models such as a collaborative approach and mass marketing” are more effective. Plowman said that marketing efforts by the CCP would utilize in-kind donations, such as donations by printing firms and graphic designers.

The Central Corridor Funders and Collaborative Learning Network (CCFCLN) will promote learning, join community partnerships, and provide investments into promoting collaborative ideas. Jonathan Sage-Martinson, of the CCFCLN, said the group funds both learning and implementation of ideas that support small businesses. They have made a grant of $200,000 this year to the University Avenue Business Preparation Collaborative (U7), to help with Central Corridor mitigation. Sage-Martinson said CCFCLN was not opposed to funding U7 or other groups that would give money directly to businesses, but would not directly give money to businesses themselves.

The U7 formed three years ago through the encouragement of Nancy Homans, policy director in May or Chris Coleman’s office, who approached the Neighborhood Development Center (NDC), and asked them to lead the effort to organize Community Development Councils along University Avenue in preparation of the rail line, according to Mike Temali, CEO of the NDC. Temali said U7 was “all for it” when it comes to giving money to businesses to recoup for revenue loss during construction, but that U7 was only a small piece of the puzzle in terms of providing that kind of funding. “We don’t have the money for [grants for small businesses] yet,” Temali said, but they are currently seeking more funding, including a $25,000 grant from the St. Paul Foundation. He said that other U7 efforts include small business consulting and advocacy efforts to ensure that the construction period is short. “The biggest killer is when construction drags out,” Temali said.

“We can play a small, useful part,” Temali said, “but we’ve been careful because we could also cause more harm than good.” Temali said that that politicians need to step up to the plate in terms of providing mitigation as well. “We don’t want to be the chump, the fall guy,” Temali said. “We don’t want a situation where all the big boys are saying U7 will take care of it, but don’t give us a nickel.”

Monday, April 27, 2009

APA Conference

I have been at the APA conference for the past two days. It is not really what I expected. It is being held in Minneapolis this year (a 10 minute walk from where I live) so I had to attend. The sessions have been a mix bag for me. I tried to attend things that would help at my current job, but those aren't really paying off that well. I am trying to attend some sessions that are more based on my interests in general and those have been a bit better. Over all pretty good so far. I have two and half more days to go.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Sprawling from Grace

Here is a preview of the new film.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Artists are the answer?

Cleveland is working hard to attract artists to neighborhoods hit hardest by foreclosures and dis-investment. While this is a good tactic to pursue, I find that it is short sighted and will end up gentrifying instead of stabilizing communities. We need artists, blue collar, white collar, and other residents to move into neighborhoods to stabilize them. As history has shown, when you attract the artists they will eventually get priced out and gentrification takes place. This Wall Street Journal article discusses these issues.

Last month, artists Michael Di Liberto and Sunia Boneham moved into a two-story, three-bedroom house in Cleveland's Collinwood neighborhood, where about 220 homes out of 5,000 sit vacant and boarded up. They lined their walls with Ms. Boneham's large, neon-hued canvases, turned a spare bedroom into a graphic-design studio and made the attic a rehearsal space for their band, Arte Povera.

This September, Cleveland's Community Partnership for Arts and Culture will host its second conference, titled "From Rust Belt to Artist Belt," with artists, city leaders, local banks and real-estate agents to discuss ways to transform Cleveland into a regional arts hub. Tom Schorgl, the group's president, said it's creating a Web site for artists that will include a searchable database of cheap properties. His group is also helping artists find vacant properties through the newly created county land bank -- a bank of distressed properties the county will manage until they can be redeveloped.

The strategy is controversial. Some urban planners warn against treating the arts as a cure-all for urban development, particularly since low-income residents are often forced out when artists move in. "Artists have had the effect of gentrifying neighborhoods that were working for the existing communities," says Dana Cuff, an architecture professor at UCLA and founder of cityLAB, an urban-design think tank.

Cities need to attract a diverse mix of people to these neighborhoods in regards to class, income, profession, and race/ethnicity. I think this approach will be a vibrant mix neighborhood that hopefully won't end up down the same path again.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

NY state unemployment benefits

How quickly can your quality of life take a 180 degree turn: job loss. You are now without income, retirement plan, and health insurance. What could be worse, that in the high cost of NYC, your weekly unemployment checks will barely cover rent and cobra. Anybody who has been given the pint slip (I have been there myself) in NYC will find, that unemployment benefits (assuming you were making enough to begin with) won't cover many of the basic needs (food, shelter, and clothing). This NY Times article gives a few examples of how residents finding themselves with more free time these days are coping with a public benefit that hasn't been increase to match the cost of living.

Lose your job in Boston, Pittsburgh, Seattle or Trenton and you could collect $544 or more per week in unemployment benefits. But get laid off in New York City, as almost 200,000 workers have in the past year, and the most you can collect is $430 a week.

When Ms. Moran was dismissed in March from her position handling internal communications for a publishing company, she had a sense of déjà vu about her unemployment pay.

Ms. Weissman, 27, said there had been “a steady three years where I really didn’t have to worry about where my next paycheck was coming from.” When she was told of her dismissal, she was shocked to learn how little she would receive from the state.

Michael Sklar, 51, said he had resorted to asking his parents for financial help after several months of trying to support his family of three on the unemployment pay he collects from New York State. The federal unemployment insurance system was designed to temporarily replace about half of a laid-off worker’s lost income, but Mr. Sklar’s benefits amount to just one-fifth of what he said he had earned as a senior systems analyst for Sony Music Entertainment in Manhattan before he was dismissed in late August.

Making ends meet will be difficult and if things stay this way a new Exodus will happen in NYC, the young leaving in droves.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Housing bubble = new affordable housing units

It seems like a logical partnership with private and public. Developers are stuck with way too much inventory that is not going to move in the next 5 years. Cities needs more units for affordable housing, especially in high cost cities were prices for real estate are still beyond most people's reach. The solution is to bring the two together, fill empty market rate units with families that need affordable places to live. What a better place to do it than NYC. Here are some excerpts from a good article.

Quinn’s proposal focuses primarily on using an aquisition fund to purchase luxury units and convert them into moderate- and middle-income housing. Jeffries is considering using subsidies to lower rents, or creating a new state tax incentive program similar to the 421-a program, which requires developers receiving tax breaks to build affordable units in select neighborhoods.

“Who takes the haircut is a complicated situation here,” said Brad Lander of the Pratt Center for Community Development, which is working on recovering the Kensington project for affordable use by possibly buying it through the foreclosure process. Jeffries is working with Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-Brooklyn), who chairs the House Oversight Committee, to get banks receiving federal bailout money to help refinance landlords’ mortgages. If they can lean on banks to help restructure those deals, they say, landlords could then afford to offer their luxury units at lower rates.

While this model will have developers taking a good amount of lost on their projects, what would be the alternative? They are going to lose out one way or another, so it is good that the city and state are looking to push and make units affordable out of the housing bubble and foreclosure crisis.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Community garden bonds Chicago Neighborhood

This is a great article that highlights how a community garden is an incubator for the community to gather around and discuss neighborhood issues. Most find it is hard to mobilize blocks and communities by holding the old traditional meeting. I like how this Garden, a new asset for the community, has become a gathering place for residents to meet and work together. What a fabulous way to motivate residents with a vacant lot.

Ald. Ed Smith (28th), who grows vegetables of his own in East Garfield Park, said he loves that the neighbors are shoulder to shoulder."I think that's a good move. We need more people doing it. If people really talked about their concerns on their blocks and worked together to find a way to avert a lot of them, it would be much better," Smith said."It's one good thing [that] leads to other things. If growing gardens means sharing information, I think it's a good idea."Despite having one of the heaviest concentrations of drug dealing in the city—partly because of its proximity to the Eisenhower Expressway and the suburbs—residents are quick to say crime does not define all of Austin.

Urban gardens can change the focus of struggling communities, said Harry Rhodes, executive director of Growing Home, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping ex-convicts and homeless people rebuild their lives through urban farming."You can change from looking at unemployment and looking at what people don't have to looking at what people have. When you show people growing their own food, everyone eats," Rhodes said. "When you go in and you see green—you see flowers, you see gardens—it changes a whole community."

Monday, April 20, 2009


With all the foreclosure and false starts on major housing development projects a new trend is developing: un-development. Land that had been acquired for future development is now being target as land that can be returned to it original use or some type of green space. Here is an excerpt from the LA Times article.

Reporting from Tampa, Fla. -- The Georgetown apartment complex was one of this city's most coveted properties back in 2005. Now Greg Chelius and Alex Size were touring it as if examining an exotic ruin.

These two men have big plans for the Georgetown property, 160 acres on the southwest side of the Tampa peninsula. But they are not planning to build. Chelius is state director for the Trust for Public Land. Size is from the nonprofit's St. Petersburg office. Because of the steep decline in property values here, they believe they have a chance to help local government purchase and preserve this stretch of waterfront. A few months ago, it was slated to be covered with luxury condominiums, "mansion" town houses and single-family homes.

Will this new trend preserve much needed land? Instead of slating every inch of real estate for development (smart growth), doesn't this new growth, a return to natural state, make more sense for everyone?

I know we are in discussion in St. Paul exactly about this idea. A 3 acre site that was going to be developed into housing might now instead be turned into a community green space.

Friday, April 17, 2009

New rail lines for the Twin Cities region

A lot of talk and attention has been given to various transit projects in the Twin Cities region. Some have been on the drawing board since the 1980's. This MN Daily article gives a break down of the top five that actually have a really good chance of being built. The Central Corridor and North Star are done deals, while the other three are gaining serious traction.


The Northstar Commuter Rail line began as an 82-mile passenger train running between Minneapolis and the St. Cloud area, but in 2004, in order to get half of the project funded by the federal government, the line was shortened to run between Big Lake and Minneapolis. The line is planned to be up and running by the end of this year and will eventually connect to the up-and-running Metro Transit Hiawatha Line. Plans are in the works to eventually reach the original goal of extending the line out to St. Cloud.

STOPS: Elk River, Anoka, Coon Rapids and Fridley between Big Lake and Minneapolis.
COST TO BUILD: $320 million
TRAVEL TIME/DISTANCE: The train will travel 40 miles between the Minneapolis and Big Lake at 79 mph in about 45 minutes.


The Central Corridor light-rail line, which will connect downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis via University and Washington avenues, has consistently run into snags along its way to completion.
The line has had the initial construction date pushed back from summer 2009 to late summer 2010 after Minnesota Public Radio raised concerns about noise vibrations from the line. The line could be up and running by 2014 if all goes according to plan, eventually connecting with the Hiawatha Line.

STOPS: The Central Corridor line will stop in more than 15 locations between St. Paul and Minneapolis before it connects to the Hiawatha Line, including the University of Minnesota East and West Banks, Stadium Village and the state Capitol.
COST TO BUILD: It will cost an estimated $915 million, half of which could be funded by the federal government.
TRAVEL TIME/DISTANCE: It will take 40 minutes to travel down the 11-mile line between downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul.


The Northern Lights Express, an inter-city passenger train line that would connect Duluth to Minneapolis, has been getting a lot of attention recently. The reason for the added attention is because of a federal grant totaling $1.1 million from the Federal Transit Administration that set the project into a preliminary environmental study phase. In December 2007, The National Passenger Rail Study Group identified this line as one of eight top priorities for development in the country, and the Minneapolis/Duluth Superior Passenger Rail Alliance hopes to begin the engineering work on the line next year. If all goes as planned, it could be running in 2012.

STOPS: Currently, the only planned stops are Minneapolis and Duluth.
COST TO BUILD: $560 million
TRAVEL TIME/DISTANCE: The line would travel 155 miles at about 110 mph, making the trip within two hours.


A high-speed rail line from Chicago to St. Paul has long been under discussion, but the recent surge of federal stimulus funding has brought the project to the forefront for many Midwest rail authorities.With the stimulus money favoring projects that are ready to go, Ramsey County officials are pushing a proposal to get the high-speed line up and running.

STOPS: It’s too early to know exactly where the train will stop, but there have been discussions on connecting the line to Milwaukee and Green Bay. Officials from Rochester have also asked for a stop in the area. The recent call for consideration came from Hennepin County, who would like to see the line stop in Minneapolis.
COST TO BUILD: The most current cost estimate of the St. Paul-Chicago line is $1.2 billion.
TRAVEL TIME/DISTANCE: The train is expected travel up to 110 mph, reducing the trip from about seven hours by car to about five hours.


Although the Southwest Transitway is not the most talked about line proposed in the Twin Cities area, it has been on the table for discussion since 1980, when the Metropolitan Council first did a feasibility study of light-rail projects in the metro area. Since then, three possible routes for the line that will connect Eden Prairie to Minneapolis have been proposed and are undergoing an environmental impact study. After the environmental impact statement is complete, initial engineering could occur within two years, with final design and construction starting by 2013. The line is projected to open between 2015 and 2017, Katie Walker, Southwest light-rail project manager with Hennepin County, said.

STOPS: The specific route for the line has not been finalized yet, but the line would serve Minnetonka, Edina, Hopkins and St. Louis Park.
COST TO BUILD: $865 million - $1.4 billion.
TRAVEL TIME/DISTANCE: The train will travel 14 miles between 30 and 50 mph, and is estimated to take about 35 minutes.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

What is Urban Design?

Alex Kreiger has a new book Urban Design. At this point no one for sure truly knows what is urban design? I like this definition below:

Shifting disciplinary allegiances

The modern concept of urban design grew out of still familiar mid-20th century concerns: urban sprawl at city peripheries and decay in aging central areas. A goal was to find “common ground” among the design disciplines (namely architecture and urban planning) for dealing with the kinds of exasperating problems that are beyond the mastery of any single design discipline. However, most agree—some enthusiastically and others with reservations—that urban design has largely been the domain of architects interested in urbanism.

The proponents of this view argue that since giving shape to urban space and settlement is an essential task of urban design, it requires an architect’s training. Still, as the planning profession increasingly reengages physical planning, which it more-or-less abandoned for a generation or more, its claims on urban design grow. And physical planning, planners say, involves many issues that, while carrying spatial implications, are not at heart architectural, so an architecture-dominated approach to urban design is limiting. Meanwhile the public at large, with their everyday concerns like housing affordability, traffic calming, neighborhood enhancement, and containment of development, sees urban design as a more proactive, less abstract concept than planning (which has never completely shed its urban renewal era reputation as a top/down approach to problem solving) and so demands good urban design from its public planners.

But the most recent and radical (in view of the prior half century) relationship being forged is with landscape architecture. Urban and landscape design have generally been viewed as separate if not conflicting activities. The initial cadre of self-described urban designers, primarily architects, viewed urban design as at the intersection of planning and architecture, where it would mediate and overcome the perceived gaps between the two. The goals of landscape architects were seen as peripheral and over time were even accused of facilitating decentralizing tendencies and suburbanization. Urban design, many believed, had to concern itself primarily with the tougher mandates of Modern architecture and its transformative urban manifestos, not with the softer art of designing with natural things or fostering kindness to ecosystems.

An emerging generation of designers calling themselves landscape urbanists questions the supposition that urban design insight is the prerogative of architectural form-making sensibilities alone and asks, “Isn’t the landscape the real glue of the modern metropolis?” This startling proposition becomes less revolutionary the moment one tours virtually any contemporary metropolitan area from the air to observe the small proportion of building as compared to landscape. We are no longer building the solid city represented in figure-ground plans in which open space is what is left where there are no buildings. While still somewhat vague in methodology and projects, the promise of landscape urbanism is powerful, since it promotes a logical integration of land use, environmental stewardship, and place-making.

The increasing intellectual claims on urban design from urban planning and especially from landscape architecture present the most fascinating recent developments for the field. Given the complexities of urbanization, the placing of urban design concerns closer to the center of each of the design disciplines is promising, and in a belated way fulfills the instincts (if not the actions) of the urban design pioneers of a half-century ago. Conversely, the increased attention to matters of urban design has forced the field to become alert to more aspects of the social and natural sciences, to transportation and civil engineering, water and waste management, zoning and public policy, and other areas earlier considered largely the responsibility of others.

The definition above might be too academic, I like the fact that it incorporates all the things that can fall under urban design and is a pro-active approach to our landscapes. Let's hope this definition becomes more mainstream as well as the discipline itself.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The future of transit

Transportation Advocates are gearing up for the fight of a generation. The federal transit legislation SAFETEA-LU will expire this year and this will be the chance to change the playing field to direct more funds directly to transit. Just two weeks ago I was one of many individuals taking part in a listening session to figure out what those changes should be.

This article in In These Times does a great job of explaining the past, what is happening now, and what we can expect in the future. Give it a read (long article) but it really breaks down what needs to happen to push through legislation that favors public transit, instead of the private automobile.

Short excerpt:

The United States is a nation of cars. For more than 60 years, federal zoning, housing and transportation policies—including President Eisenhower’s monumental 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act—have diffused the population and established the automobile as the primary means of travel.

Prioritizing highway construction over mass transit was justifiable following WWII, when gas was cheap and abundant, climate change was not yet understood and cities were struggling to handle population growth. Today, it is a recipe for economic and environmental disaster.

Yet the federal government remains in a time warp, prioritizing highway funding even as Americans ditch their cars for seats on trains and buses. This year presents two enormous opportunities to alter the equation: First, the economic recovery package, which will include billions on transit infrastructure, and second, the reauthorization of the surface transportation bill, which could redistribute federal funds.

If bureaucratic inertia and a lack of political imagination don’t squash substantive restructured in 2009. But—especially to judge from the stimulus negotiations—that’s a big “if.”

Find out even more and how you can help at Transit 4 America.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Quality of Life Fees

What do our taxes pay for these days? We honestly don't know anymore. As the economy has taken a dive, residents are now faces with new fees (in some cases enforced fees) for things that most would consider a function of the local government. Many of these things are quality of life issues to many communities. This NY Times article discusses a few.

If you date the start of the downturn to last September, the ticket-writing is just getting under way. And New Yorkers can expect more days like the one in mid-March, when the police wrote 9,016 driving-while-phoning tickets within 24 hours, roughly 20times the usual number.

Wisconsin’s governor, James E. Doyle, has proposed a charge on slaughterhouses that would be levied on the basis of each animal slaughtered. He also wants to more than triple the application charge for an elk-hunting license to $10, an idea that has raised eyebrows because the elk population in the state is currently too small to allow an actual hunting season.

Washington’s mayor, Adrian M. Fenty, has proposed a “streetlight user fee” of $4.25 a month, to be added to electric bills, that would cover the cost of operating and maintaining the city’s streetlights. New York City recently expanded its anti-idling law to include anyone parked near a school who leaves the engine running for more than a minute. Doing that will cost you $100.

Monday, April 13, 2009

A new bus shelter for a bus not coming

Cities and transportation are so ironic these days. This NY Times story about the B23 bus in Brooklyn was a telling tale of red tape and waste. Before I relocated to the Twin Cities I use to live along this line. Since I really never waited for the bus I would usually make the 15 block trek to the Ditmas F stop. In traditional fashion, new bus shelters are replacing old ones on a line that is on the cutting block.

Antonio M. Rosario, a photographer who lives on Ocean Parkway, noticed earlier in the week that the old shelters had been dismantled. “I figured they were just beginning to prepare for the service shutdown,” he said on Friday.

Then, on Friday, he saw that a brand-new bus shelter had gone up at Cortelyou Road and Ocean Parkway. “This makes no sense,” he said as he watched the crew pouring concrete around the base of the new shelter.

The prospect of losing the B23 bus is upsetting, he said. “I just moved to Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn with my wife last September from Park Slope,” he said. The B23 “made the move more tolerable,” he said, and they take it often — and often in opposite directions.

He said his wife often takes the B23 to and from the Ditmas Avenue subway station on the F line, especially when she is heading home late at night from her job as an advertising agency proofreader in Manhattan. Mr. Rosario said he values the bus when he takes the Q train from the Cortelyou Road station, 15 blocks from the Ditmas Avenue station.

And he often goes out heavily loaded, carrying 30 to 40 pounds of equipment: cameras, lenses and other gear for his freelance photo shoots.

One of the workers installing the new shelter, Robert Irizarry, said he had heard about the plan to get rid of six bus lines in Brooklyn, “but I didn’t know this was one of them.”

We can at least hope the line will be restored and all this work won't be for nothing.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Greening foreclosed properties

It is no surprise that greening foreclosed properties is going to be a major focus of our new president. Mr. Donovan has taken the first step to set up a process in NYC. I am glad to also report that a similar program is in the works in the Twin Cities as well. Here is the gist of it:
The Bloomberg administration is launching a pilot program to retrofit foreclosed one to four-family homes to green standards. The announcement was made Friday by Sean Donovan, US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, at a conference sponsored by the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

Initially, five homes will be retrofitted in a partnership between the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development--where Donovan was commissioner before being tapped by the Obama administration--Restored Homes Housing Development Fund Corp. and Enterprise Community Partners. An HPD spokesman did not respond by deadline to’s inquiries regarding the locations of the properties, the cost of the pilot program or the number of foreclosed homes that could eventually be retrofitted to green standards.

The green pilot program is an offshoot of the Real Estate Owned Program that HPD and Restored Homes created, and which itself a component of the Bloomberg administration’s $7.5-billion New Housing Marketplace Plan to create and preserve affordable housing for 500,000 New Yorkers. HPD’s REO program uses a $24-million HUD grant awarded in January, and will acquire, rehabilitate and sell bank-foreclosed one to four-family homes in New York City to qualified low and moderate-income families, according to a release.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Ballparks should be...

Great rant from Frank Deford:
In a front-page article in The New York Times, architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff expressed "disappointment" on behalf of "students of architecture, "because the Mets' and Yankees' new baseball parks don't embrace the modern but, instead, celebrate a "nostalgic vision."

Speaking for students of baseball, I'm sorry, but in constructing some things, thetrick is not to run away from nostalgia but simply to monkey around with it and try to gussy it up a bit. Architecturally, baseball parks are like mousetraps. No one has found a way to build a better one than the Orioles did in 1992, when they gave Camden Yards to a grateful world. All of the 18 major league fields and scores of minor league parks built since then have been wise enough to follow that pretty model. Well, yes, the new $1.5 billion Yankee Stadium is a little grander — gold lettering on limestone, with something of a mausoleum aspect to its massive front palisade — but then, the Yankees are as nostalgic as everybody else in baseball. It's just that Yankee nostalgia deals with the majestic instead of the lovely.

People simply feel more affection for ball yards than they do for other sports' stadiums and arenas. Madison Square Garden, for all its fame, is merely an address, not a home. And a place like Gillette Stadium may be a cathedral to New England Patriots fans, just as Old Trafford is to Manchester United fans, but linear football stadiums — of both varieties — and the cereal boxes that accommodate basketball and ice hockey are pretty much just so many efficient people containers. Ball yards are quirky and idiosyncratic living things, because the architecture is part and parcel of the outfield itself — all the better that that's in utter counterpoint to the infield, that diamond of inviolate geometry.

In a subversive way, ballparks even sort of divert attention from the game itself. Football and basketball and soccer and hockey fans probably pay more attention to the action, but baseball fans are more engaged by the whole experience. It's rather like how some people go to restaurants primarily for the food, others just as much for the ambience. If football fans act more like baseball fans, it's when they're outside the stadium, tailgating. Baseball parks are sort of made for interior tailgating.

Well, two more major league parks — in Minneapolis and Miami — are coming. May we hope that they are wonderfully up-to-date with the toilets and the concession stands and the escalators and all that stuff, and horribly nostalgic with the architecture and the atmosphere.

Monday, April 6, 2009

MPLS Midtown Greenway to get power lines

Lots of controversy over the proposal to put power lines along a portion of the Midtown Greenway. Is there a solution that will work for everyone?

Escaping to Portland

Taking a trip soon? Well head to the bike mecca: Portland. This NY Times article gives you the skinny how to get around PDX on two wheels.

Careering through streets on a bicycle in Portland, Ore., this time of year can be an easy weekend adventure that mixes showers, sunbursts, cafes and a robust bicycle culture. And equipped with a sturdy rain jacket, booties, fenders and a bike map (a waterproof version that folds to the size of a credit card is handy), visitors can enjoy the city the way locals do.

On a recent misty Friday evening, bicyclists wearing blinking safety lights a spontaneous, festive parade across the Hawthorne Bridge. The impromptu peloton flashed by like a line of flickering fireflies.

Tourists will find that Portlanders seem to know how to avoid the biggest gushers, perfecting the art of ducking into a cafe at the moment that passing showers soak the streets. “I’ve seen a lot of double rainbows this winter,” said Andrew Butterfield, a teacher at da Vinci Arts Middle School, who was drinking a coffee in the Hollywood neighborhood during one cloudburst.

Enjoy the ride next time you head out to PDX.

Friday, April 3, 2009

To build a bridge or light rail?

I know most of you are thinking why the silly question. As it turns out British Columbia is faced with this question. This Tyee article lays out what has happened as plans for a public-private partnership for a new bridge is no longer feasible because of financing. Instead, UBC Design Centre for Sustainability has the bright idea to take the 3.1 billion and see what else was feasible:

What other transportation infrastructure, they asked, could we instead have for $3.1 billion?

By the time Prof. Patrick Condon and researcher Kari Dow at the UBC Design Centre for Sustainability finished punching in the numbers and mapped their results, they produced a startling alternative vision. For the same money, concluded the team, the government could finance a 200-kilometre light rail network that would place a modern, European-style tram within a 10-minute walk for 80 per cent of all residents in Surrey, White Rock, Langley and the Scott Road district of Delta, while providing a rail connection from Surrey to the new Evergreen line and connecting Pitt Meadows and Maple Ridge into the regional rail system.

They point out that while building a bigger Port Mann Bridge reinforced commuting patterns in the region, building a robust light rail network likely would change how development occurs in the region, eventually shortening commutes as businesses elect to locate at various new public transit nodes.

"The Port Mann project is propelled forward by assumptions that are 20 years out of date. Commuting patterns are changing rapidly. The commute from Surrey to downtown Vancouver is relatively rare and getting even rarer each day. Jobs continue to move closer to housing all across the eastern part of the metropolis. What is needed is a system that gets us out of the car and serves our emerging complete communities, not guts them," said Condon.

Here is a great example of how we need to change the way we think about projects. Instead of looking at the cost effectiveness of a project, maybe the alternatives should be a more real and viable option. Not based on supply and demand (in regards to automobile patterns), but rather looking at changing commuting patterns through a multi-modal approach to large capital projects.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Economic development, staying local makes sense

Who says the monster job centers of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles are the only places to find capital to start new adventures. This Business Week article does a good job of explaining how and why smaller cities are attracting, or in many cases, keeping the entrepreneur at home instead of heading to the coasts to relocate a start up. It might seem contradictory on some levels, it seems to make sense to leverage local resources to keep these jobs local because the money at least we recirculate within the community and city, instead of larger city centers. Here are some favorite excerpts:

Philip Eggers has started six medical device companies in his Dublin, Ohio, hometown. His last five followed a pattern: Eggers would develop the product in his Ohio lab, fly frequently to the Bay Area or Boston to raise money, then relocate the company to one of the coasts when ready to commercialize the product. But Eggers has a different plan in mind for his latest startup, Cardiox, founded in 2006 to develop a noninvasive way to detect heart shunts: He wants to find funding locally and keep his five-employee business in Dublin.

In fact, places like Boulder, Colo., (population 91,000) and Fairfax, Va., (23,000) are just as favorable for startups as San Francisco (733,000) and New York (8.2 million), according to research conducted for BusinessWeek by GIS Planning, a San Francisco-based geographic data firm that helps companies select optimal sites via its online tool ZoomProspector. The analysis weighed 11 factors to gauge an area's entrepreneurial climate, including the number of small businesses and startups, the quality of the workforce, how many universities were in town, and measures of innovation such as the number of patents issued and the amount of venture capital invested.

Startups also found skilled workers—especially younger ones—drawn to the perception of a higher quality of life. "A lot of people say, in rural areas, sometimes people are concerned they can't find employees, but my experience is that the quality of life and amenities actually draw people to the area, and they tend to be underemployed," says Bill Moseley, president of GL Suite, a Bend, Ore., 40-employee firm that makes software for regulatory agencies. "You have a really strong talent pool that's not nearly as expensive as in a big city."

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Traceability of food

Following up on yesterdays post this NY Times article talks about a new trend in the food community that is gaining traction: traceability. It is not just about what you eat, but even just as critical, what is the departure and destination of your food? Are you shopping at Whole foods, while better for you, might not be so good because of the miles travelled to bring fresh food. Are we committed to our local farmers and joining CSAs? While some regions have extremely large populations can we change the patterns of food production so they are closer to where we live?
The underlying idea, broadly called traceability, is in fashion in many food circles these days. Makers of bananas, chocolates and other foods are also using the Internet to create relationships between consumers and farmers, mimicking the once-close ties that were broken long ago by industrialized food manufacturing.

Traceability can be good for more than just soothing the culinary consciences of foodies. Congress is also studying the possibility of some kind of traceability measure as a way to minimize the impact of food scares like the recent peanut salmonella crisis.

The theory: if food producers know they’re being watched, they’ll be more careful. The Stone-Buhr flour company, a 100-year-old brand based in San Francisco, is giving the buy-local food movement its latest upgrade. Beginning this month, customers who buy its all-purpose whole wheat flour in some Wal-Mart, Safeway and other grocery chains can go to findthefarmer .com, enter the lot code printed on the side of the bag, and visit with the company’s farmers and even ask them questions.

Although the article focuses on the personal and safety of food, does this traceability not open up the door to see where the food we eat actually comes from? We can determine our shopping habits by safety, nutritional values, and miles traveled. Also, to take it step further we can look at energy produced to create the food we consume. This would lead to a broader understanding of our carbon footprint. Not just where we live, but what impact we are having with our consumption habits in our cities, regional, countries, and globally.