Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Housing Crisis: Investors

This NY Times opinion piece by Paul Reyes left a bad taste in my mouth. What Mr. Reyes seems to be missing is his own point. Alan, the savior of neighborhoods, is simply continuing a streak of predatory lending and crap renovations. The result will be owners with limited incomes who will need to make major repairs down the road. Guess what? These homes have no equity so these new homeowners will have to pay out of pocket or get more questionable lending to make these repairs. It seems the cycle continues on and on.

From the article:

True, the very speculators who helped lead this economy into a crisis are becoming an increasing part of the solution, especially as banks continue to shy away from financing, preferring instead to work with “all cash” offers. But if banks persist in their financial stubbornness, you could very well see such investors filling the financing void for a portion of the housing market — a longstanding trend known as “owner financing.”

Here’s how it works: Alan buys property on the cheap — he sets his threshold at $50,000; other investors I’ve met set theirs even lower. He makes a few repairs (or not, depending on the condition of the property) and puts out a sign to attract a buyer.

In many cases, in poor and blue-collar neighborhoods especially, the would-be homeowner has trouble getting traditional financing from the bank. And this is where Alan and others fill the void left by the banks, financing a mortgage or even leasing with an option to buy. In the past, Alan had success financing mortgages to new buyers for a low down payment (around $5,000) and a reasonable rate of interest (around 10 percent). To protect himself — and to give him a return on his money so he could reinvest it — he’d set a balloon rate, in which the new buyer was given three to five years to find a conventional mortgage before the entire sum on the house was due.

I firmly believe we don't have a housing market currently. We have not bottomed out and new buyers looking at rehab of foreclosures are going to loose out in the end. We need some national leadership right now and a program to support it. More tax credits for first time home buyers are not the answer.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Portland's Worst Enemy: Itself

When neighborhoods, cities, and regions become to successful that people want to move there in droves it can sometimes have the impact that is not what that city had intended. Many places are the victim of their own success and it seems Portland these days is having that struggle about keeping its identity, while being on the national and international spot light.

This NY Times article explains:

Portland ranks high nationally for its rate of entrepreneurship, as measured by things like self-employment and the number of small businesses. Even during the recession, some local independent restaurants and manufacturers have increased sales and opened new outlets.

While other states lost workers, Oregon’s labor force grew because people kept coming. The livability crowd led the way: young, white, well-educated people drawn to an outdoor — and local — lifestyle.

“We get people who self-select,” said Joe Cortright, a longtime economist here. “And there’s no fervor like the converted.”

That does not mean the local economy has figured out how to absorb the stream of newcomers: the Portland area’s unemployment rate was 10.2 percent in May, compared with 9.7 percent nationally.

As the city’s corner coffee shops, indie bands and handmade bicycles have gained national and international renown, becoming — gasp — brand names, cries of corporatism have followed them.

The question seems to be can Portland keep its identity while being a victim of its own success? I guess we will just have to wait and see how they manage this over the coming years.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Housing Choice that is affordable

Two articles this week have proven that what we need in this country is not a fight of urban vs suburban and ultimately which is better. The NY Times article profiled this couple who had to move from the city to the suburbs to get what they wanted at the price point they could afford.

Ultimately, deciding which lifestyle best suits you — and where to buy — comes down to personal preferences. But if the deciding factor is the relative cost of each, the answer is quantifiable, even if it not immediately obvious given the different tax rates and other variables.

So we set out to do the math, based on an apartment and a house in the New York metropolitan area. Here’s what we found: a suburban lifestyle costs about 18 percent more than living in the city. Even a house in the suburbs with a price tag substantially lower than an urban apartment will, on a monthly basis, often cost more to keep running. And then there’s the higher cost of commuting from the suburbs, or the expense of buying a car (or two) and paying the insurance.

The NY Times math is very fuzzy and doesn't really prove much at all. Urban living can be quit costly, but so can the suburbs. The choices you make in regards to both is what really dictates costs. With the unaffordability of homes in NYC these folks decided to go to the suburbs. A clear lack of housing choice that is affordable for all.

In this post Joe Kotkin blasts Richard Florida for pushing a "back to the city" theme when that is not what is really happening. He blames the over abundance of downtown condos as one reason people aren't excited about the city. He clearly believes that the Amercian Dream is a singly family home. Kotkin states:

But the great migration back to the city hasn't occurred. Over the past decade the percentage of Americans living in suburbs and single-family homes has increased. Meanwhile, demographer Wendell Cox's analysis of census figures show that a much-celebrated rise in the percentage of multifamily housing peaked at 40% of all new housing permits in 2008, and it has since fallen to below 20% of the total, slightly lower than in 2000.

The problem again is that we deem suburbs single family homes on large lots and cities are high rise condo buildings. This simply is not the truth when it comes to many urban and suburban neighborhoods. Actually many places have a decent amount of mixed housing (single family, duplex, apartments, condos, ect.) so I am not sure why we have drawn this line in the sand.

What we need to discuss is how to provide housing opportunity for all people regardless of where they want to live. Not everyone in the suburbs wants a single family home and not all city dwellers want to live with 40 other units. Housing choice needs to be a key factor and the cost of that housing. I find all these arguments wrong because there are suburbs, long island for example, that are denser than some of our biggest cities. What we need to do is find a way to integrate these different housing typologies so that we can accommodate all our current and future residents.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Great Plains: Making a Come Back?

For people who live in the Great Plain states this news is no big surprise. For quite some time people have known that salaries are relatively high when associated with the cost of living. A dollar goes a lot further in North Dakota than say on the east or west coasts. What also is a key factor is the high quality of life that people enjoy. I have always thought there would be a steady migration to the area because good jobs can be had, housing is affordable, commutes are short, and schools are good. Regardless of the suburban or urban conflict, living in one the Great Plain states has its advantages once you get past the stereotypes.

Joel Kotkin has this great article and explains what is happening to attract these new comers:

The trend has been particularly strong in urban areas. Based on employment growth over the last decade, the North Dakota cities of Bismarck and Fargo rank in the top 10 of nearly 400 metropolitan areas, according to data analyzed by economist Michael Shires for Forbes and NewGeography.com. Much of that growth has come in high-wage jobs. In Bismarck, the number of high-paying energy jobs has increased by 23 percent since 2003, while jobs in professional and business services have shot up 40 percent.

That’s not bad for a region best known by East Coast pundits for the movie Fargo. It got so bad a decade ago that even local boosters suggested North Dakota jettison the “North” to make the place seem less forbidding. Two Eastern academics, Frank J. Popper and Deborah Popper, predicted that the region would, in a generation, become almost totally depopulated, and proposed that Washington speed things along and create “the ultimate national park.” Their suggestion: restock the buffalo.

Nowhere is this potential clearer than in Fargo, which is emerging as a high-tech hub. Doug Burgum, from nearby Arthur, N.D., founded Great Plains Software in the mid-1980s. Burgum says he saw potential in the engineering grads pumped out by North Dakota State University, many of whom worked in Fargo’s large and expanding specialty-farm-equipment industry. “My business strategy is to be close to the source of supply,” says Burgum. “North Dakota gave us access to the raw material of college students.”

While Fargo is mostly known for the movie (although very little of the actual film takes place in Fargo) it might just be the next big urban destination in the upper Midwest after the Twin Cities.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Planes, Trains, and Flying Cars

Once again we prove that we just don't get it. We need fewer cars and planes and a lot more trains. The solution is not the flying car. Maybe these flying cars (which are right out of Disney cartoons) can be parked at the new Disney McMansions?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Safeway leads the pack

I live in a wasteland of big box stores with miles and miles of asphalt. Well, not entirely true, but the Twin Cities is plagued with parking lot footprints that exceed the footprint of the store it is supplying parking for. I get frustrated because this is such a simple fix to create a more user friendly store in the core urban areas and even the suburbs. As with most things, we need an example we can point to so that the large retailers can see that it actually works.

This safeway in Georgetown is a becon of light:

The recently rebuilt "Social Safeway" on Wisconsin Avenue NW, at the northern edge of Georgetown, is not just another remodeled supermarket. It represents a positive evolution in thinking about merchandising strategy and about being a good citizen through pedestrian-friendly architecture and urban design.

This new supermarket follows a completely different set of rules than its predecessor. Safeway and other supermarket chains traditionally have adhered dogmatically to rules about selection of sites for stores and, in particular, rules about how such sites should be developed. And one of the primary rules was: Cars rule.

For decades, supermarket thinking was driven by one dominant premise. Motorists approaching a shopping destination absolutely had to see -- and expected to see -- a parking lot with plenty of spaces directly in front of the supermarket. Otherwise, it was assumed, they would drive elsewhere to shop. Further, part of the gospel was the belief that setting back a supermarket from the road gives drivers more time to see the store and read its signage.

Maybe we can bring this new concept to the Midway (picture above) in the heart of the Twin Cities.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Dubuque going Green

The residents of Dubuque, Iowa, have signed onto a unique experiment to revitalize their city though a focus on sustainability. Local historian and museum director Jerry Enzler shares a little bit of the background — where Dubuque came from — and how and why this focus on sustainability is important for his city’s future.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Redefining Human Capital

Cities seem to want the quick fix. These days the quick fix is paying Richard Florida large amounts of money to come to your city to "fix" whatever ails you. Create class, Human capital are all just gimmicks about how to attract or retain your residents. I think the recession has leveled the playing Field because the cool cities aren't that cool when you have been looking for work for 24 months and unemployment is about to run out and your $500 dollar rent (for that 3 bedroom you share with 5 people) is due.

Vincent Valk over at Next American City has this to say:

Urbanophile, aka Aaron M. Renn, suggests that cities work at finding a niche and exploiting it, rather than all chasing the same goals. “The question is what specific types of people you can attract to your city,” Renn says.

This hints at something larger, I think: an evaluation of what we really mean when we say “human capital.” People hear about “human capital” and “talent” and, at least in urbanist circles, tend to think vaguely of freelance graphic designers bringing bikes on to light rail while happily sipping flavored coffee (yes, I am stereotyping). But the world only needs so many designers, researchers and programmers. Is a good mechanic or electrician not “human capital”? How about high-tech factory workers, or medical assistants, or traveling salesmen

What does it mean to redefine human capital in your city?

Monday, June 28, 2010

Urban Farming in Birmingham, AL

The new movement has started and it seems we are all finally catching up. Urban Farming was an oxymoron for years. Why would we farm in the middle of dense, dirty cities. With the recent events it seems that land has become affordable enough that we can not use it for more than just development of retail, commercial, or residential. Green space is all the rage, but urban farming can provide a real benefit for neighborhoods with no real healthy food options.

Jones Valley Farm is just one of our recent urban successes. From the Grist article:

In fall 2001, Edwin Marty and Page Allison drove across the country, back home, to start a farm. That might be when the Breaking Through Concrete idea began.

Edwin and Page had been living on the West Coast, farming in Baja, Mexico, and instructing youth at Washington’s Pacific Crest Outward Bound School. The young 30-somethings belonged on the West Coast, surfing and teaching among the burgeoning, youthful tribe of educated, worldly organic farmers. But Birmingham needed them more than any of the progressive, farm-friendly towns out west.

Jones Valley Urban Farm began on a skinny vacant lot in Birmingham’s Southside neighborhood. Abandoned houses surrounded the weed-and-rubble-strewn plot. A corner convenience store across the street sold everything but wholesome food. The afternoon ice-cream truck supplied the freshest food for miles. That is to say, this food desert was not much different than most neighborhoods in downtown Birmingham and much of Southside. But, just up the street, Frank Stitt’s James Beard Award–winning restaurants were catching the first wave of the national Slow Food movement and tapping into the regional bounty of the Deep South, from Apalachicola Bay oysters to Black Belt, Alabama, produce. And every Saturday in the summer, the Pepper Place Market, about 20 blocks away, sold produce and fruit from Alabama farms to a growing consumer pool.

This would be great to replicate in our neighborhoods in cities through out the U.S.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

OH NO! Guerrilla Gardeners

As usual cities can't even take advantage of residents that are willing to spend their own time and money to beautify the city. I for one am more than happy to see sprouting vacant lots, instead of trash ridden vacant lots. Guerrilla Gardeners seem to have gone to far and have come out of the shadows planting directly on city owned land.

From the Pioneer Press:

Tully Hall doesn't look like a criminal.She pays her taxes, loves her family and obeys the law — with one glaring exception.Hall is a guerrilla gardener. She plants flowers and vegetables on land she doesn't own — like a growing number of undercover green thumbs emerging from the shadows.

To Hall and her furtive cohorts, beautifying ugly land can't be a bad thing. "All it means is that a little bit of ground is being improved," said Hall, gazing at her 8-by-12-foot garden on city property behind her town home.

I say take Hall away like the criminal she is! What is even more ironic is that with all that is happening in the world this made the front page of Monday's newspaper.

Monday, June 14, 2010

New Streetcar Plan for Oakland - Cost $987

Since states and cities have less and less funds these days it would seem that to get things accomplished and cutting expenses would be at the top of the priority list. Anybody who has worker with any municipal body about a future project realizes that it can get studied to death and they pay a lot for those studies. Stanford University undergraduate Daniel Jacobson has started a new trend without even knowing it yet. Jacobson decided, with the help of a small grant, to design and do the feasibility work for a Oakland downtown Streetcar line. This seems like a great win win situation for everyone.

From the SF Chronicle:
The 20-year-old native of Point Richmond spent nine months of independent study producing a detailed and ingenious plan to revive Oakland's economy: build a 2.5-mile streetcar line that runs through the heart of the city, connecting Piedmont to Jack London Square. The plan would create up to 24,000 jobs, housing opportunities for an equal number of new residents and breathe life back into downtown Oakland.

Jacobson's plan is an impressive and comprehensive 140-page how-to manual on how to build, run, operate and finance a successful streetcar project in Oakland.

He lays out a route that would link two BART stations, the Oakland ferry, Amtrak and main AC Transit lines. He projects residential and commercial growth along the rail line, identifying 125 acres of underutilized land adjacent to the line. He provides job projections for the next 20 years. He also provides a road map for local, state and federal funding to pay for the $92 million price tag of the streetcar line.

Most students in urban planning, architecture, and design need to complete real world project in order to graduate. While some of this cross pollination has been happening (I remember working on a Staten Island project in graduate school), would it not behove cities to seek out programs and students to work on some real projects? The students get great experience and the city you get a clear vision and feasibility of the project. Seems like a great partnership in these budget cutting days. You can see the full study and plan here.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Jay Walljasper hearts St. Anthony Park, St. Paul

From the Line:

Former editor of Utne Reader, author of The Great Neighborhood Book: A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Placemaking (New Society Publishers/Project for Public Spaces) and of the forthcoming What We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons, Jay Walljasper likes to stroll, explore, lounge at cafe tables, chill on park benches, meet friends, window-shop, and just generally enjoy the micro-environments called neighborhoods in the world's cities. He's got a trained eye for the little things that make neighborhoods great, and a sense of the history that lies behind those details. One of his favorite Twin Cities neighborhoods is St. Anthony Park, in western St. Paul. Join him as he strolls Como Avenue, pops into College Park, and celebrates the street life of this urban village.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Get on the Bus!

I really can't remember that last time I rode the bus, but this was a great story by MPR the other day about bus ridership in the Twin Cities region. While the good news is that ridership is up, this story really demonstrates that how our 50 years of sprawl are making it difficult for some to use public transit.

From the MPR article:

Americans collectively make billions of trips a year -- to work, shopping, to the corner store. But the number of trips made via mass transit is still a very small piece of the pie -- just 2 percent, according to some national research. On a given workday in the Twin Cities, fewer than 10 percent of commuter trips are by transit, according to the Metropolitan Council. But the selective use of trip statistics irks Twin Cities Metro Transit spokesman Bob Gibbons. Gibbons says a more meaningful measure is to look at how many people ride buses at critical times -- at rush hour, for example.

Metro Transit says its surveys show lots of people want to ride the bus. But there aren't any bus routes close to them, or bus trips take too long, or buses don't run often enough. The excuses, of course, are often true. Laura Graves describes as "fantastic" the bus service from Edina to downtown Minneapolis, when she worked there. Now she lives in Minnetonka with a job way across town in Woodbury, a commute that is a transit desert. "I investigated the bus option and there's nothing, there is absolutely nothing. There wasn't a way to make it work," said Graves. So, every workday she endures a 45-60 minute commute each way.

The answer is clear that people need to move closer to work, but we still need to build a strong transportation network that will provide real options for those people living in first and second ring suburbs to get to work in other first and second ring suburbs. The reality is that many of our job centers are no longer in the city center.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Bike Sharing has Arrived: Nice Ride MN

Our new bike share program in Minneapolis kicks off this Thursday. Over the weekend the docking stations have sprung up like daisies after a long rain. While I still remain a skeptic, I must admit that I am excited to see this infrastructure being put in place and will be happy to try it out in a few days.

The Start Tribune had this to say:
The annual celebration of alternative commuting will culminate Thursday with the official launch of a bike-sharing system in Minneapolis that organizers say will be the largest of its kind in the United States. Nice Ride will feature more than 700 neon green and sky-blue but otherwise sensible bikes docked at 65 solar-powered, automated kiosks around Minneapolis, where anyone with a credit card can check one out for a ride.

The idea, said Bill Dossett, executive director of Nice Ride MN, is to provide short-distance, fuel-free transportation (and exercise) to people who aren't bike commuters. "What it's all about is to make it easy for people who got downtown a different way to use a bike to take short trips when they're downtown," Dossett said. "They're for people who might like to take a three-mile trip to go buy something, or meet some friends, go hear music, whatever."

I'll have a full report in a few days after I take one of these bikes for a spin. I will say they are putting the bike stations close enough to make this a real viable option for the everyday person. In the meantime you can read all about the program here.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The City We Imagined / The City We Made

From Urban Omnibus:

In that light, Archipelago seeks to explore how the physical environment of New York is used and experienced in one neighborhood in each of the five boroughs. Each of these communities has undergone changes both visible and invisible in the past ten years, wrought by development in some cases and disinvestment in others. Each defies preconceptions while attesting to the baffling complexity of the city’s systems, from the world’s largest food distribution facility to the AirTrain JFK, from the luxury high-rises along the High Line to the mobile homes beneath Goethals Bridge. And each is worthy of a visit.

If Archipelago whets your appetite for some intrepid urban exploration, then read some basic information about each neighborhood below and get inspired to visit the New Fulton Fish Market, ride the AirTrain just for fun, go shopping on the Fulton Mall, wander the industrial fringes of Staten Island, and, of course, stroll along the High Line. As you do so, consider that these sites do not possess their singular senses of place by accident. These neighborhoods are the way they are because of a layering of choices made by planners, policy-makers, developers, designers and citizens.

New New York 2001-2010: The City We Imagined / The City We Made is on view until June 26th at 250 Hudson Street (entrance on Dominick). Stay tuned for info on summertime venue for the exhibition starting July 4th weekend.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Is New Urbanism Working?

I have long been skeptical of New Urbanism. While I agree with them on principles, I find that the actual developments tend to be not in line with my way of thinking. I have been following this New Urbanist development in Atlanta and I must say that I am very intrigued. Is Glenwood Park a hold over from the past or our new bright future?

From the NPR Story:

Many New Urbanist developments are located in suburbs, but the movement's influence is increasingly showing up in cities like Portland and Denver. Glenwood Park, which has more than 300 townhouses and condominiums, is one of several developments arising near downtown Atlanta. Its founder was Charles Brewer, who also started the Internet company Mindspring.

Brewer was on the lookout for a new business opportunity when local architects introduced him to the writings of New Urbanist pioneer Andres Duany. He was hooked.

Is Glenwood Park a model we should be following, or are the New Urbanists tied to a past that is no longer relevant for today? You can find out more about Glenwood Park here.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Central Corridor and Complete Streets

University Avenue is the main thorough fare to get from St. Paul to Minneapolis without using one of the many freeways we have in the Twin Cities. University Avenue is also where the new LRT line will be running in 2014. Over 80% of on street parking is going to be eliminated and only two lanes of auto traffic will be allowed. With the new design that will accommodate the new LRT line one this has been lacking: bikes. Bikes using University Avenue have never really made it into the discussion or even considered in the planning process for the new line.

Russ Stark, Saint Paul Council Member, had this to say in this MPR story:

University Avenue isn't what you'd call a scenic route. Russ Stark, a bike-riding St. Paul city councilman, says all the trucks and cars can make for an unpleasant ride. "It's not my favorite place to be on a bike. It's pretty dirty, and loud, and hot," he said.

Stark is standing with his bike on University Avenue, near the western edge of St. Paul. Just north of him is an expansive rail yard where many other east-west streets come to a dead end.But he does find a practical elegance in this wide, urban thoroughfare. It's the most direct street that connects downtown St. Paul to Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota.

"So University is such a straight shot -- it goes right through. The people who are used to riding in traffic and who don't mind the noise, dust, and cars use it all the time," he said.

Two years ago, Stark floated what seemed like a radical idea: Cut the number of vehicle traffic lanes from four to two. That would make room for the planned light-rail trains, bike lanes, as well as street parking. But when that idea didn't meet federal funding standards that were in place at the time for light-rail projects, Stark backed off.

Since the new line has taken years to become a reality many things have been lost in the process not to jeopardize the project as a whole. Now we have to do the work of looking what we have and making that work. Some fights have been fought and resulted in victories, but I know that the bike lane argument for University Avenue is going no where and fast. I think we are much better off fighting for a better bike network in St. Paul in other areas where more people will actually ride, otherwise we might end up wasting a lot of political capital on University Avenue.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Leaf Sells out

In today's world it seems hype can just about sell anything. How many people really needed the iphone when it came out? It seems just about everybody has one these days. Well, the news in the automotive world is that the Nissan Leaf, with its preorders, is already sold out. 19,000 vehicles have been presold in the US and Japan and should be hitting the dealers later this year.

I have to ask the questions why so much hype about electric cars now? It seems we are spinning our wheels since we have been through this before. I really don't see this making any progress forward other than reduced environmental impacts.

From a NY Times story:

Nissan has given the Leaf a starting price of $32,780, minus a $7,500 federal tax credit. The Volt, whose price has not been disclosed, is expected to sell for close to $40,000 before the tax credit.

Among the other electric vehicles planned for sale in the United States within several years are a battery-powered version of Ford’s compact car, the Focus, and the Tesla Model S sedan, which will be built in California as part of a new partnership with Toyotaannounced last week.

The preorders for the Leaf include 13,000 in the United States, where dealers take a $99 deposit, and 6,000 in Japan. Mr. Ghosn said sales in the United States would be concentrated in areas where there was sufficient means to support electric vehicles, like cities in California and other states that are installing charging stations.

We are going to charge large amounts of money to purchase these cars and then waste money building additional infrastructure for a means of transportation that seems to be less than worthwhile these days. For too long now cars have dominated our way of thinking how we move ourselves to get form point A to B. It might be time to start investing in real transportation infrastructure that gives people choice, rather than another monthly car payment.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Seattle's Backyard Cottages

Homeowners talk about building, and living in, cottages in their backyard to generate more income, and to live in a smaller space where they can keep family as close as a walk across the yard. Full article can be found here.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Transit Rider (we don't like)

For those of us that ride public transit we know all the different types of riders that join us for the daily journey. You could come up with of list of about 100 when you ride the NYC subway on a regular basis. Instead here is a list of these riders from the Bay Area BART rider. Below are some of my favorites:

Not to be confused with the Music Demon, these are the BART riders who wear their handbags, satchels or computer bags over their shoulders and walk down the center aisle banging heads and shoulders as they go, oblivious to the damage they cause. This species is often experienced in the center aisle on domestic flights as well. Be careful because they are also known to attack your cheek, your ears and the occasional eye. Advice: Put your bag on the floor between your feet. I would like to get off the train in a half-hour without damage to my facial features.

Bathroom Bessie
She proceeds to primp and preen herself on the ride in and applies creams, powders and jells, plucking her eyebrows, spraying perfume and, on occasion, painting nails. Please note, those of us afflicted by asthma really don't appreciate the smell of nail polish or cologne in confined spaces.

Usually observed during morning commutes, these riders take the seats just inside the doors. They normally wear dark glasses or read newspapers so that they can't make eye contact with any one boarding who may need the seats. These riders seem to have the built-in ability to ignore the elderly or frail riders, parents with young children and pregnant women. You will see them happen to doze off just before the train pulls into each station and hold that pose until the doors close again. Something in that tunnel is working miracles because the person occupying those seats designated for riders in need has undergone a transformation — by the time we're pulling into Embarcadero they've mustered all their energy, are jostling at the exit door and pushing their way up the escalator and out of the station.

These are the people we share our daily commutes with. You can read about the spitting on bus driver phenomena taking place in NYC here.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Store Front Window No More

I am not sure when it happened, but it did happen at some point where retailers (chain and mom and pops) have decided a window is something that needs to be covered up. I have heard the numerous excuses in regards to safety, safety, and safety. It seems that some business owners don't realize the amount of customers they are loosing because you can't see into the store. There is zero transparency from the street to the interior of the store and vice versa.

These store fronts further kill what street life we have left. The Washington Post had this to say:

So the mature response might be to acknowledge that hollow, empty, blocked-out windows are simply a sign of the times, to be embraced as a truth about the new economy. But while windows were always an extension of advertising, they were also transparent, and transparency brings with it many happy accidents. The best of these is the vision of human activity -- even if in a CVS -- through the storefront.

That voyeurism, so essential to city life, can't be accounted for in a city code, a zoning ordinance or a phrase such as "street activating uses." But it is part of the fundamental substratum of sexiness that makes cities so exciting. A covered window is more than a concession to the hard realities of the retail economy or to the fear of crime. It is the loss of a form of consciousness -- the mutual regard of urban people for one another. It is the loss of an urban space that can't be found on any map, a place where you are on stage but not an actor, in the audience but part of the show, mixed up among I and you and we and us, a liminal space that has thrilled and terrified people since cities grew large enough to dissolve us in collective identity.

This is my plea to small business owners everywhere - FREE YOUR WINDOWS AND LET US GAZE IN.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

I am Limping here!

I'll admit this story totally made me laugh when I was reading it. I completely agree with Pamela Hill Nettleton and all the points she makes in the article. Having worked with numerous transportation groups and elected officials, I am of the mind that we need to plan access for children, seniors, and the disabled. If we do that, and do it right, we are planning for those populations that have the hardest time with access on many different levels. I see infrastructure changes as the first key way of getting people to change their behavior. But first, Pamela's story:

So I have this immobilizing boot thing stuck to my foot. Apparently, there are tendons in my feet, and I have annoyed mine. Or, there’s a fracture and I stressed it. Either way, my left foot is now encased in plastic and I drag it around with me wherever I go.I figured out that I can still garden. I stick my leg in a Hefty trash bag and off I go to sit in the mulch and weed. In a pinch, I can even manage to hoe with my toes, more or less. I can still teach. Once I maneuver myself across campus, a lengthy and hopping sort of task that involves cursing in Gaelic (well, it does for me, anyway), I can sit to lecture, and the students don’t mind.And I can still write. Feet never were required for that gig.

But what I can’t do, as well as one might wish, is walk around town. I cannot get my gimpy self across the street fast enough. Even at a corner, even walking between the white lines, which are supposed to create a sanctum sanctorum for pedestrians, I get honked at for my lack of speed. No, this is not happening because I am so darn cute; the glare from behind the steering wheel telegraphs another message. The driver has been delayed for 30 seconds or so by being forced to share the planet with me.

He has been wronged. He has been maligned. His rights have been impinged upon, his personal space violated, his sense of himself as the center of the universe disrupted. He has been asked to do what is, simply, too much to expect. He has had to pause and wait for another human being. If blood pressure medication sales have spiked over at Walgreen’s, stockholders can, apparently, thank me. I can turn faces red at 50 slow, slow paces.

Complete Streets legislation just passed here in Minnesota so that might be the legislation we need to change the way we live our lives in the public domain. It is time for us to equally share and respect each other on the streets. We have lost the diversity of use and desperately need it back. That is why I was laughing at the story, because it is ironic how disengaged we have all become from one another.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Food Desert

One thing has become clear in my work these days is the lack of real sources of healthy food in neighborhoods. Yes, we find that the better neighborhoods have their selection of grocery stores, delis, and co-ops. When you get into the middle and low-income neighborhoods we see a drastic difference. Usually no food choice or if there is a grocery store, not the best selections. This seems to be the case in the Twin Cities where the food choices are unevenly distributed throughout our metro region.

The Grocery Gap shouldn't be news:

Urban revitalization does not at first glance relate to the growing national interest in fresh fruits and vegetables. But the Pennsylvania-based Food Trust views the supermarket as the perfect starting point for improving the commercial viability of a neighborhood. When the group launched back in 1992, it was originally dedicated to expanding farmers' markets throughout Philadelphia. Today, the group is working tirelessly to eliminate food deserts--areas without any access to "real" food.

To accomplish this goal, the Food Trust is working with Pennsylvania lawmakers to develop a series of public/private partnerships that address food access problems. One such program is the Fresh Food Financing Initiative, a grant and loan program that encourages supermarkets to open in underserved areas. The group is also working on nutrition policy for Philadelphia schools and is helping corner stores improve their produce offerings. Yael Lehmann, The Food Trust's executive director, spoke with The Atlantic about what supermarkets can accomplish for cities nationwide.

It seems we are finally starting to see the connections between land use, transportation, housing, job centers, and now food. We still need to bring education into the mix (with a host of other things), but this is a foundation on which to build and sustain healthy, affordable, and thriving neighborhoods. Just like when you bake, some the key ingredients have to be present.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Let them Leave

So the MN Viking are threatening to leave our state if we don't build them a new stadium. I say let them leave. The metrodome, on the eastern edge of downtown Minneapolis is a wasteland. Very little retail, a sea of surface lots, and little to no housing. What have they really contributed to the economic well being of Minnesota?

With a price tag in the realm of $800 million I say they can pack up and leave when their lease expires in 2011. In our current economic environment we need to spend this money elsewhere.

With two seasons left on their lease and no stadium bill, the Vikings on Tuesday insinuated next year's legislative session is Minnesota's last chance to keep the 49-year-old NFL franchise. "Having an NFL team in Minnesota requires a stadium solution," the team said in a written statement. "This solution must be finalized in the 2011 Session." Lester Bagley, Vikings vice president of public affairs and stadium development, said the team had no additional comments.

"The statement will speak for itself," he said. "But it shows just how strongly ownership feels about this." The team's Metrodome lease runs through the 2011 season. The Vikings say that without a stadium deal in place, there will be no extension. But next year's legislative session doesn't look any more promising than the one that ended Monday with little substantive movement on the stadium issue.
Lawmakers began this session with a $1.2 billion deficit. Next January — when the Legislature begins to draw up a two-year budget — the deficit is projected to be $5.8 billion, though Gov. Tim Pawlenty said Tuesday that number is misleadingly high.

I think the Vikings are forgetting that we had the Gophers here long before they became the new kids on the block. It seems I am not alone with my frustration.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

1 Step Forward, 2 Steps Back for St. Paul's Downtown

St. Paul has the potential to be great, I currently just think it is good. As with all economic development it seems that we have to give a lot to gain a little. Downtown St. Paul has been struggling for years to create a vibrant street life (day and night). What is ironic about this is that downtown St. Paul is at a great pedestrian scale already, near the River, and has some excellent parks. The city wants to move forward with extending some outside seating on one of the main streets that has some great places to eat and drink. The problem, well this will mean the loss of parking and a $270,000 assessment to the building owners - 1 step forward, 2 steps back.

From the Pioneer Press article:

The proposal calls for adding 8 feet to the current 10-foot-wide sidewalk on the north side of Sixth Street between Sibley and Wacouta streets, allowing space for about 25 more tables on the block's patios. Instead of four lanes, Sixth Street would narrow to three lanes, including one for bike and bus traffic. All metered parking on the block would be eliminated.

The Central Corridor project already does away with six of the parking meters that provide $6,000 in annual revenue; extending the sidewalk would mean losing another 16 meters, which bring in $20,000 annually. If the proposal goes through, Bulldog's current outdoor seating would double to 10 tables. Barrio would triple its outdoor space, with seating for 36. Bin, which currently has no outdoor seating, would get room for 14 customers to sit outside. A vacant fourth space on the block could get space for 16 customers. Chuck Repke, a consultant hired by the block's building owners, said Illinois-based Bar Louie has been in talks for that space.

Although no one so far has opposed the idea of more patio dining space on the block, critics say seasonal decking paid for by landlords would be a better option than extending the sidewalk, so the city doesn't risk unforeseen construction costs and losing meter revenue.

Loss of revenue? Adding outdoor seating would add value to the street, neighborhood, and the downtown buildings that front it. This could create a great asset now, and down the line, and would also increase tax revenue. It is called successful commercial economic development.

Call it radical, but what if we closed that block off entirely on Thursday and Friday nights? Might just be a revolution starting in Downtown St. Paul. This investment has the potential to bring in a lot more than $20,000 in revenue in taxes alone, not to mention all the non-revenue benefits it would create.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Share the Road, really!

With bike commuters on the rise I am not sure why drivers are still griping at folks like me. Just the other day I had one of those wonderful conversations with a motorists at an intersection. Clearly, we were just going to have to agree to disagree. During the rest of my commute I realized that motorist should be extremely thankful for my daily bike commuting. I realized I have achieved the following for this driver:

  • One less car on the road
  • One more parking spot freed up
  • One less car on our congested freeways
  • One less garage built
  • One less car at line in the gas station
  • One less car polluting the city
  • One less car to get into an accident with
  • One less car for wear and tear on the streets
  • A shorter commute for all

Yes, I realized that motorists should be on our side. As transit mode shifts and the numbers of bike commuter rises that is a huge win win for everybody. The more I thought about it, it is even a bigger win for motorists. If we can achieve high numbers of ridership, just think of how many cars will be taken off the road. This USA Today article had this to say:

Bare is one growing number of people turning to bicycles for transportation. According to the most recent U.S. Census figures, the number of adults who bicycled to work in 2008 was 786,098, up 26% from 2006. That number continues to grow, says Wiley Norvell, spokesman for the New York City-based Transportation Alternatives advocacy group.

I think one less car should really be for the cagers, since they all have more to gain then I do.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Why I moved to "fly over land"

Mr. Renn's post over at the Urbanphile about authentic cities made me realize once again why I moved to fly over land. For those of you not in the know, this usually consists of the entire Midwestern region of the United States (From at least Ohio to Nebraska). A little less than 2 years ago I packed my bags and moved from NYC (the center of the world) to the Twin Cities. At that time most people didn't know where it was, nonetheless, ever heard of or had a geographic inkling about where the upper Midwest was. If they knew where Chicago was I was lucky.

What I love about living in Minneapolis, and working in St. Paul, is that I, and most residents, could care less about NYC, Chicago, and SF (all places I have lived). It really is ironic that in the Twin Cities region the next "big city" is Chicago (350 miles away), which Amtrak only goes to once a day from St. Paul. Here in the upper Midwest we live in the shadow of nobody. No NYC to Philadelphia, no Chicago to Milwaukee, we just seem to exist up here all by ourselves with no clear reflection from somebody else's shadow.

This brings me to Renn's post about looking at your history, past, heritage, and what you have as a way to identify yourself. From the post:

To renew our cities, we have to build on what they are, not what they aren’t. The lesson of Portland is not the physical things Portland did. The lesson of Portland is that they went their own way and did what was right for them. Other cities need to find their own paths. That doesn’t mean you can’t do something or aspire to be something you’ve never been. That’s how we grow as people and as cities. But suddenly deciding to just chuck your whole heritage, history, character, etc. and go in a radically different direction is probably not going to work. One reason, for example, the 1970’s era amateur sports strategy for Indianapolis worked is that sports was something that was already compatible with the local culture. It was a reworking of something that was already there, positioned for the future – and it fit the city.

People think we are crazy up here with our 6 months of freezing weather, long summer days, pick up trucks, lakes and rivers, thriving economy and culture, and overall pretty good quality of life. I think for the Midwestern cities to hit there stride again we might want to take Renn's advice and stop listening to the Richard Florida's of the world, who make a living pointing out what we are not, instead of what we are and can thrive to be.

I like it up here, and guess what, I am staying.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Braking for the Law

This is a great op-ed in the NY Times. Chris Raschka talks about what has changed in the past 10 years on NYC streets in regards to cycling. It has changed so much so, that the new environment gives Chris the idea it might just be better to stop at the red lights and wait.

Ten years ago, riding a bicycle through the streets of New York was still considered outlandish behavior at best, and possibly insane. At the time, I viewed this with chagrin, but also complacency. I biked everywhere.

Like a goat in a cattle drive, I was jostled by a delivery van on Ninth Avenue, went over my handlebars because of an out-of-town driver on Seventh, and was casually bumped into by a limousine driver on Sixth who stopped and got out to see if I had damaged his side-view mirror, while I lay unattended on the sidewalk.

But in the last few years, bicycling has become an accepted and much safer way to get around the city. Bike lanes abound, putting cars, trucks and vans at least a couple of feet farther from me. On the many paths along the rivers I can find breezy quiet and truly fresh air.

Perhaps looking for a new challenge, I’ve been attempting something unexpected in New York City bike-riding behavior: I stop for red lights.

Is the tide changing enough for cyclist to start following the rules? Or is Chris just showing his excitement for the new changes through his new found behavior?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Being Green in the Twin Cities

The Green Store, which supplies green products for the Twin Cities, is moving it's store a few miles south to a new location. Why you ask, Parking.

May is the last month to shop Twin Cities Green at 2405 Hennepin Ave. S. before the store changes names and moves from the area.

Ryan North, who started the business a couple years ago with wife Tina, said the store would be moving a couple miles southwest, closer to the lakes, but he couldn’t provide the exact address yet because the deal was still being finalized.

The main reason for the move, he said, was problematic parking at the current location.

Oh, the Irony. I also see the move into a wealthier part of the Twin Cities as the real driving force.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Capping I-94

Decking over expressways is not anything new, but since Boston's BIG DIG it seems cities are now looking at this as a real viable option to reconnect spaces that have been cut off from each other because of the creation of the freeway running through the cities.

In the Twin Cities I-94 immediately jumps out as a great project that could be capped from downtown Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul. If we caped it the following could be accomplished:

Re-establishing the Rondo Neighborhood in St. Paul
Connecting Stevens Square with downtown Minneapolis
Creating a public trail, greenway, and even transit way
Parks, parks, and parks
Create a new corridor with mixed-use development

From the USA Today article:

Cities are removing the concrete barriers that freeways form through their downtowns — not by tearing them down but by shrouding them in greenery and turning them into parks and pedestrian-friendly developments.

This gray-to-green metamorphosis is underway or under consideration in major cities seeking ways to revive sections of their downtowns from Los Angeles and Dallas to St. Louis and Cincinnati.

Transportation departments are not opposed as long as the plans don't reduce highway capacity. In most cases, traffic is rerouted.

"It's the coming together of people wanting green space and realizing that highways are a negative to the city," says Peter Harnik, director of the Trust for Public Land's Center for City Park Excellence. "Covering them with green space gives you a wonderful place to live and work."

Have we found a possible solution to our urban freeways? Costs would be high, but would the benefits justify these monster projects of decking our expressways?