Thursday, December 31, 2009

Fleeing the BIG CITY

Lately it seems more people are thinking about downsizing. Maybe it is with all the job loss and poor economy that folks don't want to get stuck in large expensive cities. I for one made sure it was time to leave NYC before the meltdown took place. Other colleagues and friends seem to start growing fond of the idea that smaller, in regards to a city, might just be better.

I know for my wife and I smaller was a major factor in our decision to move to Minneapolis. Rob Baedeker over at the SF Gate seems to be having that issue. It seems to be the new mid-life crisis: where should I live?

For at least a couple of years now, my wife and I have been rehearsing a break-up conversation with the Bay Area. As much as we love it here, we're just not sure if it will ever work out.

A lot of our uncertainty revolves around money, and our realization that we can't afford to buy a home here. That fact, rightly or wrongly, has become a touchstone for other uncertainties -- about finding a neighborhood we can stay in for the long term; about having good school options for our two-year-old daughter; about making enough money to afford the high cost of living without giving all of our waking hours over to work.

It seems that quality of life and money have a clear connection these days. Are bigger cities (NYC, SF, LA) really all that much better than say smaller (Portland, Minneapolis, Kansas City) cities. I would argue that they are different but that these smaller cities, and usually cheaper, tend to have a better quality of life but at the same time reduced costs. Are we on the verge of a new trend where people will want to live in affordable smaller cities so that a job at McDonalds (as the article points out) means you can still be a home owner.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Newburg Project: Embracing Density at the Urban Fringe

John Stillich with SUDA has this new plan, Newburg, for how to make density work in the outer fringes (or suburbs really). It is an interesting model and might just be a key to how we approach chaning behaviors and travel patterns to meet the new energy and sustainablity demands we will face now and for year to come. From Planetizen:

"Newburg: Embracing High Density at the Urban Fringe", published by the Sustainable Urban Development Association (SUDA), presents an illustrative and descriptive example of a high-density city-building concept for the fringes of urban areas. It is an urban form concept developed at SUDA that is inherently environmentally progressive, fosters social vitality, is economically efficient, supports a high number of jobs within the community, and reduces the impacts of future energy shocks.

The principal characteristics of the Newburg model that serve to increase density and sustainability are:
1- Elimination of almost all single-storey non-residential construction in favour of multi-story mixed-use buildings;
2- Apartment-style residential accommodation as a significant share of all residential units;
3- A reduction in the percentage of single detached homes to a very small proportion, replacing them with attached homes (rowhouses) with private backyards;
4- Minimal or no setback requirements for most buildings (non-residential and residential);
5- Replacement of most private parking spaces on non-residential properties with shared public parking lots and garages;
6-Reducing overall road space as a percentage of total transportation space, in recognition of higher modal shares for public transit, walking and cycling, and shorter trip lengths;
7- More efficient provision and use of parkland;
8- The integration of non-residential uses into the community in ways that support active transportation.

Pie in the sky or some real principles we can start to thrive for? While some don't seem to mesh with reality, I do like the approach and think just getting a few things on the list would be a major plus for communities and neighborhoods.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Central Corridor LRT line?

It seems that institutions and many organized groups would rather not see the Central Corridor Line get built in the Twin Cities. This would be our second LRT line that would connect downtown Minneapolis with downtown St. Paul. It would enhance and replace bus service and bring much needed public transportation to the cities.

Instead of embracing this, the university of Minnesota, MPR, and local community groups have decided to challenge the project based on the environmental review and mitigation. Honestly, the only group that has any ground to stand on are the community groups worried about gentrification and displacement. But they are also taking the wrong approach.

What they should be doing is fighting the good fight and organizing to get, and maximize, the future benefits. C'mon, this is really a once in a lifetime opportunity. They have chosen the hard road and are opposing the new line instead of trying to get the met council to make the needed changes they desire to the project. Another hurdle that threatens to derail the new line.

It is interesting that such a long term project and asset, which will benefit the region, can get bogged down in the local politics. Steve Berg over at Minn Post has some good insight into the entire situation:

The U dispute is only one of several that have placed Bell and the Central Line project in a bureaucratic vise. Various parties are taking bites out of the budget while time runs short on keeping the project viable for federal funding. The Federal Transit Administration has made it clear that lawsuits and other complaints, if left unresolved, would push the project off the front burner. Failure to get the Central Line into President Obama's budget next year could jeopardize the start of construction next summer and push its opening to 2015 or later.

More troubling, perhaps, are the unresolved civil rights complaints from two St. Paul community groups, the Concerned Asian Business Owners and the Preserve and Benefit Historic Rondo Committee. The groups expect the Central Line to cause disproportionate damage to minority communities, and they want compensation. They accuse the Met Council of failing to address the issue in its environmental review of the project, as required by federal civil rights law.

While the Met Council should be more engaging with this process with all parties, it seems that right now we are bogged down in what can I get now, instead of what benefits will I receive later.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Spending because...

Next American City is asking about 2010. I found this excerpt from Minneapolis one of the most telling. Cities basically are going to prioritize what the federal government is going to be funding. Once again, the agenda is not going to be set on the local level and deal with immediate needs, but rather will follow the national trend of energy improvements.

Andrew Dahl
Assistant to the Economic Development Director for the City of Minneapolis.

2010 will be the year of energy efficiency. With few major economic development deals to look forward to, cities will launch varied energy efficiency programs to reduce their own expenses, free up discretionary income of their residents, and help their business’s bottom lines.

All major cities this year received an extra allotment of the CDBG through the Recovery Act, called the Energy Efficiency Community Block Grant, which can only be spent on fairly specific energy uses. Currently, cities are also competing for an extra, much larger, portion of these funds being distributed competitively. Here is Minneapolis’s plan.

I think this will be the big issue since there aren’t many other big deals to be had - companies aren’t expanding or relocating very much - and there’s less and less money available for cities to spend on other ambitious projects. This is the one thing that’s well-funded and an easy sell. I think this nation-wide push will really transform the way cities do business, both within their own enterprises and in collaboration with other organizations. We’re working more closely now than we ever have with our utilities, unions, non-profits, banks, state government, even our neighbors in St. Paul.

Let's hope this is not the trend.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Does community engagement stiffle good development?

As a community developer we take the lead from what the community wants to see in their own backyard. But having worked in NYC for 7 years I also came to realize that communities can be their own worst enemy. What is good for the larger community is not always what happens.

Is citizen participation a good or bad for good responsible smart growth? I would have to say I have seen it go both ways where a community will kill a project that would have been a major asset in the future, but could not get beyond knee jerk and NIMBY issues. Builder has this great article with Andres Duany. He states:

Citizen participation in the planning process is probably the biggest roadblock. If you ask people what they want, they don’t want density. They don’t want mixed use. They don’t want transit. They don’t even want a bike path in their back yard. They don’t want a grid that connects, they want cul-de-sacs. They can’t see the long term benefits of walkable neighborhoods with a greater diversity of housing types. This book is a quick read and is dedicated explicitly to them. It’s for the people, not for planning professionals.

There is a theory of subsidiarity that considers at what level a decision is properly made. Most of today’s planning decisions--large and small--are made at the wrong level. Take transit. You do not ask the neighbor next to a 16-mile bikeway whether they want a bikeway in their back yard because they will say no. That’s a decision that needs to be made at the regional level. Conversely, let’s say you want to have free-range chickens to provide eggs for you and your neighbors. Right now that’s controlled by municipal ordinance. City zoning codes say no chickens, when really this is a decision that should be made at the block level, because chickens affect the block, not the whole city. Then you have municipalities enforcing rules about what color you can paint your house, which is ridiculous. That’s the wrong level of decision making.

I see how this can go both ways, but you do have to realize that you can't please everyone in the planning process. You might just have to break some eggs to make an omelet.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Ignorance of Geography

Fly over land? Does Illinois (stress the S) touch Canada? Dinner or supper? Pop or soda? These are just some of the things in my past that I have come across living in many parts of the country. It still amazes me that the coasts don't know the middle nor each other. It would help if people actually visited different parts of this country because most states In the US are mini countries.

Timothy Egan over at the New York Times gets to the point when a Costco opened in the center of the universe - Manhattan.

Geographic illiteracy from the Eastern Time Zone is a given, especially among the well-educated. A New York book publisher, and Harvard grad at that, once asked me if I ever take the ferry up to Alaska for the afternoon. No, I replied: do you ever go to Greenland on a day trip?

Costco is a brilliant retail concept, but it’s not news. It’s been around for, oh . . . a quarter-century or so. Some of the gushing posts on New York-based Web sites after Costco opened on East 117th Street have all the breathless urgency of a tourist who has discovered bagels in Boulder.

“It’s amazing how many things you can get for a fairly decent price!” One shopper wrote on Yelp New York, the online review site. Um, that’s the idea. And other observers have seemed befuddled in the big box, overwhelmed by the lure of tube sox and toilet paper to last a lifetime.
It still amazes me how ignorant we are of ourselves. Read the comments section for a good discussion and the proof.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Street cars in Rockford, Il

So I grew up in the Chicago metropolitan area and now live in Minneapolis. Some of my family in the past few years just moved to Rockford. This city is pretty much in the middle between Madison and Chicago. I have never thought it would come back other than a bedroom community with malls and cookie cutter developments. But Rockford just threw me a curve ball. This is a quote from this article in Rockford Register Star:

Streetcars are returning to cities around the United States. There are classic-looking ones taking tourists to the lakefront in Kenosha, Wis., and sleek, modern ones zipping around Portland, Ore.

They’re catching on so much, even Rockford is taking a look.City officials say a looped streetcar route might be a good way to move residents and visitors around downtown without clogging the streets with cars.

They like that the electric vehicles are energy-efficient and cut emissions. Advocates say they can spur economic development and promote tourism.“It’s a transportation choice that we can’t afford to overlook,” said Steve Ernst, executive director of the Rockford Metropolitan Agency for Planning. “They’re becoming popular, and the technology has gotten to the point that it’s affordable now.”

I really like the way they are thinking about the future.

“If someone gets dropped off at a downtown train station, how do they get from that train station to their ultimate destination?” Morrissey said. “If it worked before everybody had an automobile, maybe it’ll work for us again.”

With a population of 150,000 can this small city turn things around downtown by planning for future commuter rail and that connecting to streetcars downtown? I for one would love to be able to take Amtrak to downtown Rockford and then hope on street cars. Hopefully they keep pushing forward to see if this is a feasible plan.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Increased population in Philly

Philadelphia has always been one of the great east coast cities in my opinion. While it has always been in the shadow of NYC, it has some great housing stock, excellent walking neighborhoods, some good parks, and a mass transit system. It has the foundation to be a great city once again, but Philly has been a city with declining jobs, population, and lack of political will to make the needed changes.

It seems good news that the new census shows that population has increased in Philadelphia.

For the first time in 59 years, the city of Philadelphia actually increased its population in 2008, according to an official annual estimate made for metropolitan areas. That was the decision by the U.S. Census Bureau, which accepted a challenge to its previous estimate, one that indicated another decline.

The new number, representative of the city’s population on July 1, 2008, is 1,540,351. That’s about 93,000 more people than the Census Bureau had originally estimated. More importantly, it’s 23,000 more people than the city officially had on its books according the main census from the year 2000.

Congrats Philly, I hope this is a spark for brighter days ahead.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Final LRT station

The Hiawatha LRT line in Minneapolis opened years ago and has been a good success. Some criticize the fact that is goes from downtown to the airport to the Mall of America, not the most traveled route, but it has established LRT in the Twin Cities and successfully. Just this past week this chapter closed in the final station of the line was opened.

"It serves a section of the Airport South district that we hope will become part of a new residential neighborhood," said Larry Lee, director of community development for the city. "It's especially important for residents, but ... tourists and business people [also] have the option of getting around by LRT instead of riding in a car."

That vision of a community built around transit is already a reality at the Reflections condo development by Bloomington Central Station, Lee said. Many couples who bought homes there have gone from two cars to one and some are living with no car at all, he said.The new American Boulevard station is the only one of the Hiawatha line's 19 stations to have a split platform for north and southbound trains.

It is great to see the Hiawatha line completed. Now we just have to make sure the central corridor line makes it to the light of day.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Green Homes

This NPR story talks about the need and market for green homes, but who is buying? It is always ironic that new windows and more energy efficient appliances get a home "green." The reality is that some older homes, because of design, placement, windows, and porches are and can be more efficient than new homes that have a few key features.

"I would notice things like a 1920s house with all of its original appliances, heaters, windows, all of that. And then another 1920s bungalow that had a high-efficiency furnace and Energy Star appliances," says Lacher. "And they were selling the same [price] per square foot, and that just made me really upset."
I think we need a new term; Green lite to label these homes. Yes, some homes are better off in the green realm than those that have made no improvements at all. But is it really fair to call a regular with some improvements Green, when some real and serious high efficient homes are being done.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Trolley line that never was

Great video about Ben Franklin Bridge leading into and out of Philadelphia.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Strasbourg, France: a Paradigm Shift

Ben Adler over at Next American City has this great post about Strasbourg, France. In about twenty years they went from a car dependent system to a mass transit city serving a city with a population of 700,000, the size of many American cities.
Most important, the system has been built and expanded with an understanding of the commuter’s psychology. Once people are in their cars, they would prefer to drive all the way to their destination rather than switch modes. So the city has created powerful incentives for suburbanites to switch from their car to the tram: Parking is provided at suburban tram stations, free with a tram ticket that covers everyone in the car (also incentivizing car-pooling). Conversely, parking is prohibitively expensive at the lots downtown. As a compromise with the business community, parking garages were constructed in the center city, but they are elegantly tucked away below ground, and are not even full.

In keeping with this approach, the city intends to improve integration between the suburban commuter trains, which enter the main station just a few tram stops from the heart of town, and the local tram system. One might expect that to be enough to get people out of their cars. But, Naas explains, if you live, say, a 30-minute drive from central Strasbourg, and you must drive to the train station and park, wait for a train, walk through the train station to the tram stop, wait for the tram and then walk from the tram to your final destination, it may take an extra 10 minutes door to door. So to improve ridership on the commuter trains they are building “train-tram,” a suburban commuter train that can move seamlessly onto the tram tracks once in the city. No transferring for suburbanites will mean less hassle, less time and, hopefully, more riders.

What I really like about this article is it demonstrates that with the political will things can change. I also like that Strasbourg was, and still is, open to different types of transportation to complete it's network. In America we get stuck on a the magic bullet (high speed rail these days) but forget to look at the bigger picture of how auto use, buses, light rail, commuter rail, walking, and biking all need to be planned for in one network. In the Twin Cities, we still tend to plan for these things separately not making the logical connection for the user. Hopefully Strasbourg can be a model for some of us to look at to make the needed changes moving forward.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

They call it a come back

The Infrastructuralist provided the above image that shows all the potential and proposed street car lines by regions. It is amazing that 50 years ago many of these same regions had extensive street car networks. Fast forward 50 years and we are back to where we started about 100 years ago. The difference now is that these lines have to be built with the current environment. The days of neighborhoods and commercial corridors popping up along street car lines are long gone. Instead we now have to make sure these new lines mesh in with the current urban fabric. A much more difficult task for sure.
Here is a link to the local plans here in Minneapolis.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Is Blight the New Eminent Domain?

Diana Lind at Next American City has this great post talking about how "blight" is now being used as a tool for urban renewal. I deal with this issue a lot in my day to day work, but this really gets to the issue of who is defining blight and for who? Usually projects that are initiated in the community, or have strong community support, never tread down this path because they don't have to. Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn is a great example of not getting community buy in or input early on and had resulted in law suits. When the word blight is used, nine out of ten times it is because someone from the outside is moving in.

While I would agree that there is much vacant land in the Atlantic Yards area, that there is an “inadequate street layout” and other problems, the fact is that the neighborhood is fairly vibrant nonetheless. And while I think that the train yards could be revitalized, I don’t think that other buildings, where people currently live and don’t want to leave, need to be taken over. Is the definition of blighted problematic or is the whole concept of eminent domain the problem? I’m curious to know if there are lots of instances when non-controversial eminent domain usage radically transformed a neighborhood into a much better place.

This is not to say blight is not a real factor in redevelopment and new projects. What is really key is that blight be determined by the community, because blight can take many different sizes, and one size does not fit all.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Friday, December 4, 2009

Is Community Development Dead?

It seems with the current economic crisis, states and city's budgets, and the foreclosure crisis that community development work would be a top priority. With a long history and past community development corporations (CDC) have been able to make positive and long term changes in all different communities. Yet, today when they are needed most it seems that public and private support no longer agrees.

Noel Nix, an urban planning student at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute, has spent the last several months examining these issues and has compiled a report entitled "Community Development at a Crossroads: CDCs, CCIs, and the Future of an Industry". It is required reading for anyone who has a stake or interest in exploring how to move the work of building healthy neighborhoods forward.

Your thoughts?

Thursday, December 3, 2009


I am still not sure why PRT gets any attention. So it is not a car, but yet private. We have PRT, it is called the bicycle. Listen to the NPR segment here and read the article here. I think we miss the boat with PRT:
Steve Rainey is a sales representative for ULTra, the company that's building Heathrow's PRT. He can see a day when people will choose pod transit over driving alone. "It has gone for me from this journey of being a weirdo pushing exotic technology to more acceptance and more doors opened," he says.

But would people really switch to a driverless pod?

Jon Carnegie, executive director of the Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University, thinks so. He says energy prices over the next decade will have an impact on the way people choose to travel.

I can think of an even better way to save money while improving transportation. Why not take the existing infrastructure that we currently have and redesign it for proper bicycle use. I am sure this would be at 1/3 the cost of proposed PRT, if not even less. As many cities around the world have proven it might cost nothing at all other than the salary of a few pedestrian and bike planners. Oh, I almost forgot, we'll need some white paint.

By rethinking how our roads are used and simply by retiming lights, creating bike right-of-ways, and changing some legislation and laws, we could have PRT in the matter of a few years. I guess my flawed theory is that my PRT is based on an old mode of transportation that has been working for more than 100 years. Maybe it is time that we caught up to the modern day of the two wheeled human powered vehicle.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Downtown Ann Arbor

What makes a downtown district appealing? Why do people go out of their way to walk down one side of the street and not the other? Using the city of Ann Arbor, Michigan as a case study, this exploration of successful downtown streets weaves together pedestrian interviews with footage of streetscapes and sidewalk behavior to show what healthy blocks have in common.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Transit Freedom

Todd Litman over at Planetizen has this excellent article about automobility and freedom. He does a good job of illustrating the loss and gains from an auto focus land use pattern.
For example, is it possible that some motorists would actually prefer a transport system in which walking, cycling and public transportation were more convenient, attractive and affordable, so they could rely more on these alternatives for commuting, and to reduce their need to chauffeur children to schools and recreational activities, or senior parents to medical appointments and shopping?

In many situations, alternative modes provide more freedom than driving, because they are affordable and impose minimal costs to other people. A transportation system maximizes freedom by offering a diverse range of mobility and location options, so people can choose the combination that best meets their needs.

Automobile-oriented transportation systems and land use patterns tend to reduce freedom in many, sometimes indirect and subtle ways. Wider roads and increased motor vehicle traffic volumes and speeds tend to degrade walking and cycling conditions, which also reduces access by walking, cycling and public transit. Dispersed land use patterns, with individual buildings with large parking lots located on busy arterials and highway intersections are difficult to access without a car. Investments in roads and parking facilities reduce the funding available for alternative modes, resulting in a cycle of reduced service, declining ridership and reduced service. This causes major losses of freedom for anybody who, due to physical, legal or financial constraints, lacks unlimited ability to drive.

As Litman points out, is automobile use the new cigarette?