Friday, May 29, 2009

The Greening of Southie


The new film from the duo behind King Corn. Here is a good article about the film in Good Magazine.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

BMW - Brooklyn Machine Works

From NY Times:

Brooklyn Machine Works has been making specialized bicycles in a small shop in Williamsburg since the mid-1990s. The company has a following among downhill and BMX racers, and its five employees produce about 400 frames a year.

At top, a frame is being welded; above, it is the crank design for one of the company’s downhill racing bikes. The bikes are intended for professional riders and serious enthusiasts. According to Joe Avedisian, the founder of the company, a frame costs $600 to $2,800.

“As a born and raised New Yorker,” Mr. Avedisian said, “there is an unbreakable attachment to this city. This attachment is created by the creative people who live and work here to test and/or break the molds or their own past and to make something new.”

“My father always said to me, ‘If it’s not for sale in New York, it’s not for sale,’ ” he said. “So I figured I could take that one step further and manufacture it here as well. New York has a long history of manufacturing, and you know what the song says: if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.

“And with the name Brooklyn Machine Works, how could I move, even if I wanted to?”

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Row Houses making a come back

Love them or hate 'em, row houses provide an affordable limited space that provides what many need in housing. Boston, Philly, and New York row houses demonstrate how well they can work in dense urban areas. The new craze is building this stock in other cities and even suburbs. This Chicago Tribune article talks about the new housing stock trend.

First-time buyers David and Jennifer Waxberg considered a single-family house. After shopping different new-home developments and various housing styles, though, they bought a rowhouse at The Plaza on New York in Aurora for three reasons, says David.

"One, it's a new house with an attached garage, but at a better price than most single-family houses. Two, it's low-maintenance and I am not handy. Three, no yardwork!" says David of the 1,900-square-foot, three-bedroom rowhouse they will move into later this month. A condominium was out of the question, says David, because as renters they are tired of sharing walls and ceilings with neighbors and "hearing their babies cry and doors slam," he says.

"The rowhouse is nothing new, nothing novel," notes Friedman. "But it is appealing to more than the downsizing empty-nesters. It offers the green, walk-to-everything, more urban lifestyle that many buyers want. It's still a niche, but despite the recession, it's selling."

The row house is a good solution to creating more density and limited our footprint in areas and downsizing from super-sized houses.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Road to the Future

Another Great installment from the PBS show Blueprint America:

Over the next 40 years, America’s population will grow by more than an estimated 130 million people - most will settle in or near the country’s major population centers. At the same time, an unprecedented multi-billion dollar public works investment has just been made by the federal government to rebuild both the weakened economy and stressed national infrastructure. And, Congress is about to consider a transportation bill that will determine the course of the nation’s highways and transit for years to come.

On May 20th, Blueprint America: Road to the Future, an original documentary part of a PBS multi-platform series on the country’s aging and changing infrastructure, examines the choices we can make as the country invests in its infrastructure, and how they can affect the way we live.

Host and veteran correspondent Miles O’Brien goes to three very different American cities - Denver, New York and Portland, and their surrounding suburbs - to look at each as a microcosm of the challenges and possibilities the country faces as citizens, local and federal officials, and planners struggle to manage a growing America with innovative transportation and sustainable land use policies.

With roads clogged and congested, gas prices uncertain, smog and pollution creating health problems like asthma, cities that once built infrastructure to serve only automobiles and trucks are now looking to innovative new forms of transportation systems - like trolleys, light rail, pedestrian walkways and bike paths.

Whether it is talking to residents pushing sustainable development in the Bronx, smart growth in Denver, or a journalist in Portland whose beat is bicycling, Blueprint America finds a common theme: America’s love affair with the car may be a thing of the past.

Watch it here.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Suburban Sprawl not Cities fault

This article in New Geography challenges the idea that suburbs sprouted around cities because of the flight from inner-cities. Instead, it argues that what we really have, in most cases, is an exodus from rural areas to the suburbs, by default creating more density. Here is an excerpt:

Most suburban growth is not the result of declining core city populations, but is rather a consequence of people moving from rural areas and small towns to the major metropolitan areas. It is the appeal of large metropolitan places that drives suburban growth.

In a few cases, both the core city losses were greater than the suburban gains, such as in Pittsburgh, Liverpool and Manchester. In these cases, it is fair to attribute all of the suburban gains to core city losses.

Unlike the cases above, however, most core cities gained population. This includes all in Canada, Australia and New Zealand and many in the United States. As a result, none of the suburban growth in the corresponding metropolitan areas can be attributed to an exodus from the city, because there, on balance, was no exodus.

Suburbanization is often characterized as reducing densities, but in fact it has done just the opposite. Most suburbanites come from smaller places; they may prefer suburbs because they are less dense, safer, or simply more manageable than the core cities. But they are also, almost invariably, more dense than where they lived before. Suburbanization is thus a densifying dynamic, albeit one that is less dramatic than preferred by many planners and architects.

In this sense, suburbs have to be seen not as the enemies of the city, as just a modern expression of urbanization. They are neither the enemies of the city, nor are their residents likely to move “back” there. You cannot move back to some place you did not come from.

What do you all think? Does this article and theory hold water?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

I-80 and high speed rail

Being no stranger to driving across the country (I think I have made the trip numerous times now) it never seems to make much sense. Having just drove 1,205 miles from New York City to Minneapolis in a moving truck I was honestly shocked. Of course I am not the first to think of this, but we have the infrastructure in place already for High Speed Rail. All we need to do is take the median of the interstate system and start building. Crazy you may say, but I don't think so.

Considering the use of the interstate it would have made more sense for me to get a shipping container and have loaded my belongings into that. Then that container could travel by rail along freight lines. I could then have gotten on a train and hopefully been in Chicago in about 8 hours. Spent the night and then got on another train and been in the Twin Cites three hours later. What a world of high speed rail could be.

Instead, I drove a small truck half way across the country because, frankly, that was my only option. So instead of taking a total of 11 hours where I could have slept, read, or done whatever I wanted on the train, I was driving along the interstate passing one 18 wheeler at a time. WOW, what a system we created.

Yes, I-80 doesn't really hit any cities from NYC to Chicago, but they could easily be connected with feeder lines. Maybe a 100 years from now our grandchildren will have the opportunity to move around freely without the need for a moving trucks.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Dreaming of a car-free landscape?

If that is the case, wake up and move to Germany. Vauban is a little suburb that decided to buck the trend and keep cars out and reward those that bike and walk. This could be a model that might finally prove that suburbs can be done right. Here are some excerpts from the NY Times article:

Residents of this upscale community are suburban pioneers, going where few soccer moms or commuting executives have ever gone before: they have given up their cars.

Street parking, driveways and home garages are generally forbidden in this experimental new district on the outskirts of Freiburg, near the French and Swiss borders. Vauban’s streets are completely “car-free” — except the main thoroughfare, where the tram to downtown Freiburg runs, and a few streets on one edge of the community. Car ownership is allowed, but there are only two places to park — large garages at the edge of the development, where a car-owner buys a space, for $40,000, along with a home.

While there have been efforts in the past two decades to make cities denser, and suburbs and focusing specifically on environmental benefits like reducing emissions. Vauban, home to 5,500 residents within a rectangular square mile, may be the most advanced experiment in low-car suburban life. But its basic precepts are being adopted around the world in attempts to make suburbs more compact and more accessible to public transportation, with less space for parking. In this new approach, stores are placed a walk away, on a main street, rather than in malls along some distant highway.

Who thought suburbs could look so livable and vibrant.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Free internet and cable for homebuyers

Grants. Loans. Down payment assistance. All tools to attract buyers to foreclosed and vacant homes. Well, add Internet and cable as the newest perk being offered in West St. Paul.

Why do we continue to push more and more on homeowners. I for one don't understand why they don't give them a grant for $xx.xx for homeowners insurance or a partial break on taxes. Two things any homeowner must pay. No, instead they will give you free cable and Internet. I would rather see them put the money and programs towards needs and necessary costs that you have when owning a home rather than wants.

It seems we have learned little from the foreclosure crisis and housing bubble and still stuck in our old ways of thinking. Incentives to get homes brought up to code and health and safety standards and curb appeal would go so much farther for the homeowners, the block, and larger community.

Read the article here.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Fixing the nation's roads

The fight over the renewal of the transportation bill has begun. In one corner are the granola eating transit advocates who hate cars. In the other corner are the suburban SUV energy sucking drivers who want better road conditions. Yes, a bit of an exaggeration but it is not going to be pretty with limited funds for roads and transit and a real need to rethink our entire transportation system and network.

American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials has already thrown their hat into the ring. This article covers what is going to be a cornerstone of the auto centric lobbying campaign for more money for roads:

A third of major U.S. interstates and major highways are in poor or mediocre condition, but it’s a particular problem in urban areas with populations of 250,000 or more, said the report by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and the road advocacy group TRIP. It was released this morning at a news conference in Bloomfield Township.

The groups are using the study as ammunition to get federal lawmakers to significantly increase spending in the next six-year federal highway bill, which Congress will begin debating this summer. AASHTO is pushing for an increase in federal spending from $286 billion to $470 billion in the next highway

So the question is how can we fix our roads? I have a few ideas.

1. Less roads means less repairs. We can start reclaiming more pedestrian space by extending sidewalks, bump outs, boulevards, islands, green landscaping, and auto-free streets.

2. More transit right-of-ways and use. While this will still wear down roads would it not be more practical to have buses that can carry hundreds of passengers instead of single occupied vehicles.

3. Eliminate on-street parking. City's have the power to change their zoning codes to reflect maximum parking requirements instead of minimums. Or even better yet how about eliminating parking requirements.

4. Streets that are built and designed to have bicycles. We all know that the wear and tear from bicycle use on the streets is almost nonexistent. Why not give them more space and priorities on our nations streets.

What would this all accomplish, huge savings for road repair while nudging the nation in the right direction in regards to our current and future use of our streets.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Going Dutch

Here is a good article about living in the Netherlands. Known as the bike Mecca, it has a long history of taking pretty good care of its citizens. It is long but a good read. Some good excerpts below:

First, as in the United States, income tax in the Netherlands is a bendy concept: with a good accountant, you can rack up deductions and exploit loopholes. And while the top income-tax rate in the United States is 35 percent, the numbers are a bit misleading. “People coming from the U.S. to the Netherlands focus on that difference, and on that 52 percent,” said Constanze Woelfle, an American accountant based in the Netherlands whose clients are mostly American expats. “But consider that the Dutch rate includes social security, which in the U.S. is an additional 6.2 percent. Then in the U.S. you have state and local taxes, and much higher real estate
. If you were to add all those up, you would get close to the 52

The Netherlands has universal health care, which means that, unlike in the United States, virtually everyone is covered, and of course social welfare, broadly understood, begins at the beginning. In Julie and Jan’s case, although he was a struggling translator and she was a struggling writer, their insurance covered prenatal care, the birth of their children and after-care, which began with seven days of five-hours-per-day home assistance. “That means someone comes and does your laundry, vacuums and teaches you how to care for a newborn,” Julie said. Then began the regimen of regular checkups for the baby at the public health clinic. After that the heavily subsidized day care kicked in, which, Julie told me, “is huge, in that it helps me live as a writer who doesn’t make a lot of money.”

Decent housing is another area where the Dutch are in broad agreement. As does nearly every Western nation, the Netherlands has a public housing system, in which qualified people get apartments for below-market rents. About one-third of all dwellings in the country are “social housing.” But here again, attitudes are different from those in the United States. I was surprised to learn, for example, that a friend who is a successful psychologist lives in a social-housing apartment, which he has had since his student days. It turns out the term does not have the stigma attached to it that “public housing” does in the United States. (“In the U.S., public housing is a last resort, but here it’s just a good, cheap house,” said Fred Martin, an official at Impuls, an Amsterdam social-services organization.) Beyond that, while my friend obviously can afford to pay more than his bargain-basement rent of 360 euros ($470), the system doesn’t require him to move on, and one reason is that there is perceived to be a value in keeping a mix of income levels in the units.

And while I certainly wouldn’t wish the whole Dutch system on the United States, I think it’s worth pondering how the best bits might fit. One pretty good reason is this: The Dutch seem to be happier than we are. A 2007 Unicef study of the well-being of children in 21 developed countries ranked Dutch children at the top and American children second from the bottom. And children’s happiness is surely dependent on adult contentment. I used to think the commodious, built-in, paid vacations that Europeans enjoy translated into societies where nobody wants to work and everyone is waiting for the next holiday. That is not the case here. I’ve found that Dutch people take both their work and their time off seriously. Indeed, the two go together. I almost never get a work-related e-mail message from a Dutch person on the weekend, while e-mail from American editors, publicists and the like trickle in at any time. The fact that the Dutch work only during work hours does not seem to make them less productive, but more. I’m constantly struck by how calm and fresh the
people I work with regularly seem to be.

Although the grass always seems greener on the other side, can we not learn from other models and see what can work better of us locally?

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Protecting the River or Nimbism?

Article below:

Parking lot, park or apartment complex?
By Cristof Traudes

Developers want to build a second phase of the Stone Arch Apartments. Neighbors say it’s on the wrong side of Main Street.For an example of what happens when a group of developers has an idea for a site that has a half-dozen plans and a concerned neighborhood attached to it, read closely.

First, some history: In the early part of this decade, Bluff Street Development created the Stone Arch Apartments near St. Anthony Main despite a heavy flank of disapproval from the Marcy Holmes neighborhood and the University of Minnesota. Overruling the outcry, the City Council approved a necessary zoning change in 2001. A lawsuit from direct neighbors Metal-Matic followed. That was later settled, the apartments were built and most controversy faded away.

Back to the present: Bluff Street is back, a sequel of sorts in hand. The scene is fairly familiar, with a similar name (Stone Arch Apartments, phase two), a plan for mostly small apartments, and the same general location — plus, like all good sequels, most of the original controversy’s cast.

Bluff Street wants to construct a new six-story, 98-unit mixed-use building on a triangular plot at 600 Main St., currently a parking lot between Stone Arch Apartments No. 1 and the Southeast Steam Plant. Steve Minn, a former City Council member and one of the project developers, said it would be a beneficial project, creating more housing in Minneapolis.

The site’s current zoning allows for a building to go up, but it doesn’t allow for some of the more unique ideas Bluff Street wants, Minn said. They want to be able to tilt the building so that it doesn’t block views of the Downtown skyline for Stone Arch Apartments residents. They want to add some distance from Main Street and include green space to reflect its park-like surroundings.

When Bluff Street approached the city to request a rezoning, here’s what happened: The Marcy Holmes neighborhood, the Friends of the Mississippi River, the Friends of the Riverfront, Council Member Diane Hofstede (3rd Ward) — all came out strongly in opposition, providing numerous concerns.One was a case of aesthetics. The development would be located at what some Marcy Holmes residents consider the gateway to their neighborhood. The view of anyone heading northeast on the Stone Arch Bridge would likely be overwhelmed by the sight of the new building. Irene Jones, of the Friends of the Mississippi River, called it a wall at the end of a scenic artery.“We just have one riverfront, and we’re very protective of it,” said Melissa Bean, executive director of the Marcy Holmes Neighborhood Association.Another argument involved precedence.

Despite the boom of new residential projects along the Marcy Holmes side of the river, none have been proposed or built on the Mississippi’s side of Main Street. More than any other argument, though, this is what was most repeated: A 1978 agreement signed by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board marked the site as a probable plot to be purchased or condemned for parks purposes sometime in the future. A 1982 Park Board plan for Central Riverfront Regional Park labels it a parkland parking lot.

The Marcy Holmes neighborhood plan marks it as green space. At least three more plans continue in the same vein. Not one labeled it a site for development.“This is not an ordinary parcel of land,” Hofstede said.But does it matter?Not really, according to Bluff Street. They own the site, and they can build regardless of the rezoning. It’s simply a matter of the quality of what will be built, Minn said.Still, the arguments weighed on members of the City Council’s Zoning and Planning Committee. They denied the rezoning by a 3-2 vote.

While they can’t direct Bluff Street to build a park, they said they couldn’t support possibly intensifying development along the river.Council Member Lisa Goodman (7th Ward), who dissented, was concerned the committee set up Bluff Street to build a lesser building.“I think it’s a case of be careful what you wish for,” Goodman said.But committee Chairman Gary Schiff, of the 9th Ward, said council members weren’t calling a bluff. There’s no guarantee, after all, that Bluff Street would build anything, without or even with the rezoning. In other words, maybe the developers will have a change of heart and 600 Main St. could end up parkland after all.

“This is not going to be a park,” Minn said adamantly. Or not.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Where's the office of urban policy?

With current economic dive down and recovery act money heading out the door is this not the reason a federal level agency was going to be created to inject urban issues? While money is going to states to repair roads and highways our cities are starting to crumble under the pressure of reduced tax revenue, increasing unemployment, and disinvestment because of city budget issues.

In the current economic conditions why isn't more attention, and yes, money, being directed to help out urban regions. If we want to stimulate our economy this seems like a logical direction. Pumping money into transit improvements, green collar job creation, and a real foreclosure plan would help revive cities, rather than leaving them on the sidelines being treated like bench warmers. This article in the Root breaks down some of these issues.

But celebrations about the potential triumph of urban policy may be premature. In recent weeks, the Obama administration has begun referring to the office as “urban affairs,” rather than “urban policy,” a small but notable downgrade. And while other offices and Cabinet agencies have been staffing up—the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships has representation in 12 government agencies—100 days in, urban affairs has announced only two senior staffers: Derek Douglas, who was special adviser to New York Gov. David Paterson, and former Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion, Jr., who faces allegations of mismanaging campaign donations and development projects in New York City.

The comparative silence from urban affairs has not gone unnoticed. Diana Lind, editor of Next American City, a journal that covers urban policy, frets that “this isn’t going to be as serious and as powerful a role as many urbanists had hoped.”

The office faces challenges aside from Beltway bureaucracy—namely coordination on a national scale. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has lobbied repeatedly—and “unsuccessfully,” he said last week—for Recovery Act funding to bypass governors and statehouses and go directly to city officials better attuned to constituent needs. Twenty-five mayors, including Bloomberg, have sent a letter to the president asking for a federal “Urban Innovation Fund” that would strategically invest and rigorously evaluate outcomes when it comes to urban policy. But there has been no indication that the White House or the office will lobby for more city-friendly appropriations; in fact, Recovery Act negotiations stripped $40 billion in aid that would have directly helped city budgets. And, when asked about the mayors’ letter, Douglas said that the two-person leadership team “is tossing around” a similar idea but is not working with the group.

Let's hope that time will prove us wrong.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Planning for Shrinking Cities

Growth, growth, and more growth is all that seems to be talked about these days. I have to say it was great to see the topic of shrinking cities come up a few times at the 2009 APA conference. Some planners are actually dealing with issues of lost economic base, population loss, and vacant land. Growth, and smart growth, plays no role in the lives of residents in Youngstown, Flint, or Detroit. Instead new models and approaches need to be taken to deal with the issues for cities that are shrinking in size. It is a great opportunity for reuse, preservation, and open space. This article in Crosscut is a good example of many of the concepts.

A big question facing urbanists is, what to do with shrunken cities? One possibility would be re-populating them. Could the New Homestead Act be revised to give a boost to places urban zones like Detroit? Isn't it more environmentally sustainable to re-populate existing cities where land has already been cleared, infrastructure is in place, and homes can be re-inhabited? Possibly. But in very distressed urban areas that cannot count on a resurgence of urban settlers, cities could be permanently re-scaled to something smaller. There's a new movement to reclaim urban areas by clearing parts of them and even letting them go back to nature.

Instead of waiting for an economic or growth upswing that might never come, county and city planners can work with land bank properties to pick and choose which neighborhoods to invest in, and which to bulldoze. In other words, why fight for more growth when downsizing and re=greening a city might make the city more viable and more livable for those who remain? Business could be relocated into more dense, more transit friendly neighborhoods. Cleared areas could be turned into open space, parks, greenbelts, or even forest. It would be a reversal of urban sprawl.

If you are interested check out the Shrinking Cities Institute.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Zoning out uses

This is an interesting article about zoning codes that restricts bars and restaurants. It seems a bit top heavy, but an interesting concept for areas that rapidly gentrify and retaining some of the local small businesses. One main issue I see is that retail recruitment for more investment in an area usually starts with trying to attract restaurants. I have been working with commercial corridors from Brooklyn, NY to St. Paul and what is evident is that food, coffee shops, and bars are the things that attract local residents and other visitors.

Restaurants, especially those allowed to serve alcohol, can afford higher rents than neighborhood-serving businesses, like grocery stores, hardware stores, pharmacies and dry cleaners. As bars and restaurants become successful, an area draws more foot traffic, attracting more of those businesses. Landlords can charge higher rent, which pushes out the local businesses. This is basically an economic game theory problem: the most natural equilibrium states are a mostly-vacant corridor on the one hand, and nothing but bars on the other.

Can zoning or other regulations help keep corridors in more of a balance? Is that desirable? One options is to allow market forces to determine the retail mix. But many residents are concerned about their neighborhoods becoming "another Adams Morgan." At the same time, regulation also hampers business, leading to more vacant storefronts. Is there a way to strike a balance, encouraging free enterprise while also maintaining some diversity of store types?

I am intrigued about a comprehensive approach and some local control of what does go into a commercial corridor, especially those that have had disinvestment for years.

Friday, May 1, 2009

The Future of KC

Imagine KC from Arnold Imaging on Vimeo.

Via TC Streets for People via Livable Streets Network