Monday, June 30, 2008

Pic o' the Day

Hat tip to the Munnster. Pittsburgh Streetcar.

I remember PA weather...not fondly.

Park-n-Ride Lots Overflowing


Anecdotally, a similar phenomenon is occurring here in DTx, where, ironically enough, big box lots are being used as overflow.

Over the Weekend

Added Brazil, Moldova, and Austria.

12 countries down, 38 more to go.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Ask the Car-less Guy.

Email question from a friend...

Q: Hey, Car-less guy, our mortgage is a straight xx year, x.x%. We definitely aren't looking to move but I was just wondering about the future. With the current "move to the city" movement, shouldn't that be increasing the value? Or is the fall of the dollar and the recession just overpowering everything?

A: I think the falling dollar's effect is minimal to this equation. If anything, it will bring foreign investors into the game eventually…and new investment…that will probably be what it takes to help get outta the recession. But that is smart money, and smart money will wait and time the bottom, which looks like it won’t be til at least 2010, at the earliest.

The problem was all the fake money stimulated by deregulation driving our best and brightest to find loopholes and figure out ridiculously complicated financial entanglements that nobody could figure out. All the deals were made with loans and debt and money that never existed, from the biggest brokered deals to the newlywed couple in ft. myers florida buying their first house right out of school.

It was a house of cards doomed to fail and there will be lots o’ mcmansions on the fringe that will lose 100% of their value and return to nature presumably. We have mucho surplus of housing, particularly single family housing, which is only worsened by the combined effects of people moving back to cities because of fuel prices and the mind numbing monotony of suburbia.

You have two GREAT things going for you. You have a house in Georgetown. There are few places in this country that are and will be always of great value, and Gtown is one of them. The housing there isn’t hyper-inflated like joe schmo’s cul-de-sac development in Leesburg, which had no real value. Gtown is a historic neighborhood – plus, has transit – plus, has a mix of housing types – plus, mix of incomes (somewhat) – plus, and is close to DC (mega-plus). If it is inflated much, it is only because there are so few places like it.

I always tell people to buy for need and shelter and make it a home. It is a long investment (if at all), but rarely is it a good short term investment, these last couple years were essentially a fraudulent anomaly, that any sane economist would rather not allow to repeat, but it is always a Home.

You will be there for a long time and it will always have value. Remember, the Case-Shiller looks at MSAs, i.e. the entire metropolitan area. Historic neighborhoods, traditional neighborhood developments, and downtowns (and areas close therein – aside from condo hi-rises) are holding their value quite nicely. So short-term you may, MAY see a bit of a dip, but I doubt that. Long term, G-Town is a great place to own and just a downright great place to live…which is the most important thing.

Latest Case-Shiller

Home price index. Losses now in all 20 MSAs.

End result of a wicked cycle of loaning with fake money, building with fake money, buying with fake money and the end result is a surplus of houses that nobody can sell.

How Does This Jive?

Country and Baby Update

Countries attending the blog in the past month: 9
Countries shy of the Jan. 1, 2009 Goal: 41

Added the U.K. and Poland yesterday...still waiting on a hit from Monterrey, MX...hmmmmmm

As for those infernal rodents now plaguing our fair City. I witnessed one baby in stroller last night and two on my two minute walk to work this morning, proving they've found a way to replicate and infest the downtown area. More to come on this developing crisis...

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

San Fran De-couples Parking from Residential Units

Chronicle Link
"We hope the legislation increases housing affordability for people who don't need a car and that the space that might have been used for parking can be used in a more productive way," said Tom Radulovich, executive director at Livable City, a nonprofit organization that promotes a less auto-dependent society.
Most cities have zoning ordinances requiring (at least) one parking space per residential unit and often the market is similar. But in places where the market trends towards less, it proves the ridiculous nature of parking minimums, ie San Fran where it is a downright burden to have a car in some places.

Furthermore, construction costs of garages to handle the parking loads forced upon developers in urban locations (thus meaning urban densities) by antiquated zoning becomes a downright burden as covered parking spaces can range from 20K to 30K per spaces, location dependent.

My building in Dallas, where yes, it is indeed possible to live sans-auto, built a parking garage for the retail and residential components of the building as part of the renovation a few years back. The parking for the grocery store and cafe is downright minimal, one level. The remainder of the five-story garage, sits maybe half-full at peak times in a building that requires you to pay $75/month for non-marked space and $110/month for private parking space, an expense of which I opted out.

The issue is that mandated parking requirements such as these are what is hindering the preponderance of vacant and underdeveloped lots in downtown Dallas from redeveloping, among other things (read: out of town ownership of surface parking lots). The City should think strongly about removing parking minimums if not placing parking maximums on new and existing development.

"Outer Suburbs Will Get Clobbered"

NYTimes Link
“Living closer in, in a smaller space, where you don’t have that commute,” he said. “It’s definitely something we talk about. Before it was ‘we spend too much time driving.’ Now, it’s ‘we spend too much time and money driving.’ ”

The only reason these homes were able to be built in the first place was cheap energy (and the fact that the hidden costs of dirty energy are...well hidden). So if everybody returns to cities (variety of densities and affordability) and we are able to return to traditional neighborhood design featuring a variety of affordabilities and densities and universal accessibility to amenities and open space, will people ever want to even move back to exurban environs even if clean energy becomes ubiquitous? Me thinks no.

The problem that exists now is that good urban neighborhoods (whether they be in high-rise or single family neighborhoods (key word: not "development") or so rare and such a commodity that they have become largely unaffordable. Even if the homes were built of moderate size and moderate affordabilities (see: M Streets and Hollywood Heights/Santa Monica neighborhoods in Dallas for example), they now sell around 200 bucks/foot and up.

Then, worst case scenario, what happens when all of the money moves back in, poverty is displaced back to the edge creating an absolute dystopia on the fringe?

New Goal get hits from at least fifty different countries by the end of the year.

yesterday added:

Dusseldorf, Germany
Teheran, Iran(!)
Seoul, South Korea

bringing the blog up to seven countries total.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Houston City Council Approves 5 More Light Rail Lines

"I'll say it loud and clear: No longer is the city of Houston waffling on rail," Councilman Peter Brown said. "With gas headed to $8 a gallon and oil to $200 a barrel, we have to rethink Houston as the happy motoring paradise."
And they say they can get all of them finished by 2012. I'm dubious. They better hope for a certain Presidential candidate that would help shift funding from unnecessary new highway projects to metro-rail. 2012 is awfully aggressive. More power to them, but I do hope they think that it is more than simply adding rail.

Transportation and development go hand-in-hand. They must think about how the stations tie into mixed-use walkable urban development and furthermore blend the new development into the existing for improved connections and accessibility for existing neighborhoods to those stations.

A Whole 8 Cents?!?!?!

Off-shore Drilling Saves a Dime.

New City Livability Rankings


Never heard of Monocle Magazine, but their criteria and 3-month research consisted of:
  • International Connections/Quality Airport
  • Violent Crime (Lack Thereof - seeya most American Cities)
  • State Education & Healthcare
  • Hours of Sunshine/Avg.Temps
  • Cost/Quality of Public Transport
  • Local Media
  • Access to Nature/Greenspace
Pretty good list. I would have to take some time to add to/subtract from it, if at all. The rankings:

1. Munich
2. Copenhagen
3. Zurich
4. Tokyo
5. Vienna
6. Helsinki
7. Sydney
8. Stockholm
9. Honolulu
10. Madrid

B-Rock to the US Conference of Mayors

Cities: The Wealth of Nations:

"Now is not the time for small plans. Now is the time for bold action to rebuild and renew America. We've done this before. Two hundred years ago, in 1808, Thomas Jefferson oversaw an infrastructure plan that envisioned the Homestead Act, the transcontinental railroads, and the Erie Canal. One hundred years later, in 1908, Teddy Roosevelt called together leaders from business and government to develop a plan for a 20th century infrastructure. Today, in 2008, it falls on us to take up this call again – to re-imagine America's landscape and remake America's future. That is the cause of this campaign, and that will be the cause of my presidency."

For the Sake of Balance

Oy, tired from a 3 am wakeup call and flight back from Vegas...

Also, in France...

Lyon, to be exact.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Houston, You're Solving Your Problem

Houston Mayor Bill White on NPR this morning:

"We need to reorder the way we live. ... Mass transit is critical. More people are using mass transit in our community, it's up sharply this year. We're going to be the most aggressive builder of light rail lines of any community in the United States in the next three years. .... We don't have to encourage people, they get it. There's a tremendous demand for people who want ot give up that car, or go from two cars to one, and live near that transit line. ... We really don't have to channel what consumers want (as far as density), but we do have tools such as where we put our infrastructure .... Some communities that have had zoning are trying to dismantle it because it segregates (uses) ... We've had large changes in behavior. No question about it, we'll be bigger, we'll be denser. There's a new attitude cropping up every day when somebody fills up their tank."

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Photo Essay: 8 Days in Copenhagen; City of Bikes

The significance of Copenhagen to this blog, is that, like many European cities, it began seeing an influx of cars onto its winding medieval streets after World War 2. Professor Jan Gehl noticed the negative effect automobile congestion began to have on the city's intimate spaces, as well as way of, and quality of, life.

Little by little, he was able to convince the city to start creating "car free" zones that began as the Stroget and with success have continually expanded to the city that exists today, with further plans of removing cars from more areas of the city as the citizens turn to droves.

Train in from the Airport, get to the hotel, first things first... grab a beer. Can't do all that walking on an empty stomach.

Step out of the hotel into Radhuspladsen. The "town square" where City Hall sits.

Stroget, the original car-free street and now the "main street" for shopping, dining, etc. in Copenhagen extends northeast from Radhuspladsen.

Courtyard thru a carriageway off of Stroget.

Stroget, on one of the waning sunny days in Copenhagen.

Modern building showing off the contemporary Danish design sensibility.

Kongens Nytorv. The King's Square. You want a difficult language to learn? Try Danish. Fortunately, they all speak English. "Very well," as one waiter responded to our query as to whether he spoke english, with nary an accent.

Public art display in the King's Square.

To Nyhavn, the area where the typical Copenhagen "postcard" shot comes from...

The Copenhagen Opera House (view shown at the link demonstrates how it terminates the view down Frederiksgade) is across the canal by itself. It was one of the most expensive opera houses in the world to construct, coming in at a cool $500 mill. They don't do things on the cheap over there.
Different day, different part of town. Having a bite to eat in Halmtorvet we witnessed the only "crime" to ever occur apparently in Copenhagen. Demonstrating to us foreigners how safety gets rather boring, a "fight" broke out at an adjacent restaurant. Bored cops with nothing to do were awoken from their naps arrived on the scene in seconds to break it up. The cops then said to each combatant, "now apologize, and mean it....MEAN ITTTT," before sending them each on their way. Okay, we added the dialogue Mystery Science Theater style, but it really wouldn't shock me if it went down in a similar fashion.

Summer is gone. Downpour sends us inside.
Night time reveals blemishes on the window.
You figure this one out.

Danish Design Center. Looking modern, yet urban and humane.

Headed through the more residential Christianshavn on our way to the hippy commune Christiania.

Residential buildings on the canal. Penthouses on the top with private terraces.

Okay, so we we thought Christiania would be pretty cool. Well, we weren't allowed to take any pictures and it was an experience alright. A creepy one, that sent us fleeing walking rapidly to get back to civilization. Check out the Danish version of a park and ride above.

Their brand spankin' shiny and new subway system. Hey, who is driving this thing?

And where did it let us out? Oh, Kultorvet, or "coal square," where danish use to buy their fuel. Now it is a typical plaza with street venders and sidewalk cafes.

Headed back towards Stroget.

El Gordo dreaming of a Danish girl eating a real danish in Denmark.

A: Only if it is Breakfast...which it is...

Kastellet on a rainy sunny day on my way to the US embassy to replace my lost passport.

Architecture nerd.

Breakfast at a cafe near the US embassy, on "The Lakes" and Dag Hammarskjolds Alle.

Rush Hour - Danish style.

For all those bikes, best to make the tunnels more amenable.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Andrew Sullivan on Global Warming

Frankly, however painful it is for many, the high price of gas is perhaps the best anti-global warming non-policy there is.
Perhaps? I'm quite certain of it. Imagine if we didn't artificially deflate the cost of gas through a myriad of subsidies in the first place. Cheap dirty energy got us into it. Only human ingenuity and the capacity for cheap clean energy gets us out of it... oh, and not being so drunk on excesses as to build so wastefully in the first place. Doesn't economics teach us that free goods throw markets out of whack?

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Sprawl: Revealing the Man Behind the Curtain.

CNN Link

"Is America's suburban dream collapsing into a nightmare?"

In Shaun Yandell's neighborhood, this has already started to happen. Houses once filled with single families are now rented out by low-income tenants. Yandell speculates that they're coming from nearby Sacramento, where the downtown is undergoing substantial gentrification, or perhaps from some other area where prices have gotten too high. He isn't really sure.

But one thing Yandell is sure about is that he isn't going to leave his sunny suburban neighborhood unless he has to, and if that happens, he says he would only want to move to another one just like it.

"It's the American dream, you know," he said.
"The American dream."

There is nothing preventing suburbs from regaining vitality, but at a lower price point. It is certainly possible to develop unique economies there with a diversity of affordabilities, i.e. remaining mcmansions while others renovate to multi-families. It certainly gives mexican immigrants, here in Texas and other places a chance to develop small renovation and development businesses. The buildings will certainly need it.

The big issue is of design and construction. The buildings are made of shite, helped by former guvna GWB removing liability from home builders as one of his final farewells to Texas. Secondly, is the unpoliceability (word?) of the cul-de-sac style development.

I guess the final point is to remind everybody that "The American Dream" is about upward mobility, education and opportunity for children, NOT a piece of shit house in the suburbs with an hour commute. This was shallow marketing, plain and simple, which reminds me of the ad on the DART bus I saw yesterday. " - Now IS the best time to buy."

And we wonder why, as a people, Americans are cynical about marketing. I guess marketing as an attempt to fool or swindle is merely the end-game of neo-classical economics, where profits are made thru cutting services, costs, and quality.

NYC to try Street Closings

CityRoom Blog Link.

He added: “In the end, Summer Streets is an experiment. If it works, we’ll certainly consider doing it again. If not, we won’t. But we have never been afraid to try new ideas, especially the ones that have the potential to improve our quality of life.”

Monday, June 16, 2008

Katrina, The Facts

I wasn't going to post again today, but I'm angry and need to vent or otherwise I'll go home beat a pillow with a tennis racket.

There have only been a handful of times in my life that I've been truly offended. Call me happy-go-lucky. However, every so often I'm reminded of the last time I nearly, and truly, snapped. I was at a bar for happy hour the weekend after Hurricane Katrina struck, and some idiot wanna be intellectual suggested that those stranded on roofs deserved it for not evacuating when they are told. So I may or may not have had double digits beers threatened to smash my beer in his face...and unlike Walter Sobchak, I'm a passivist.

So I'm reading a football message board which is, of course, full of intellectual heavyweights those undeterred by the wisdom, "better to remain silent and be thought a fool then to speak allowed and remove all doubt internet anonymity and I come across a post updating the disasterous floods in the midwest, and the impending threat to the University of Iowa's campus. Some fool had to "remove all doubt," by steering the subject to some personal agenda by threateningly suggesting, "they better not get all uppity and blame the government like they did after Katrina," [paraphrased].

While I'm not sure who "they" are, or why "they" moved from NOLA to Iowa City (unlucky), I thought I would just lay out the facts that are indisputable without getting into the he said/she said blame game of left vs. right:

1. The United States federal government rejected hundreds of millions in aid from various countries. We knew this immediately afterward, but apparently it wasn't a big enough story until the WaPo "uncovered" the story a year ago.
Allies offered $854 million in cash and in oil that was to be sold for cash. But only $40 million has been used so far for disaster victims or reconstruction, according to U.S. officials and contractors.

The current administration sure likes to "go it alone."

2. Recently reported, $85 million in supplies was just given away after sitting in warehouses for years afterwards, still unpacked but ready to head to NOLA. It just never made it.

3. The levees around New Orleans had never been upgraded since the 60's. I might as well have been out there holding back flood waters with a supersoaker. See what other "first-world" countries were able to construct.

4. Our rail system, as Kunstler puts it would shame Bulgaria, and was unfit to evacuate the tens of thousands who were without means to get stuck in traffic flee on the few highways out of NOLA. A functioning rail system could have evacuated thousands every five minutes, whereas the highways inched along at a few miles per hour. There were buses, but some were unwilling to part with their pets (if it were me, well let's just say my mutt better get over her fear of water).

Livability Indicator #5 - Creative Panhandling

I should start this post off by first admitting my ignorance. I am no expert in finding solutions to the homeless problem and this post will mostly be related to the difference in panhandling between different places, say Austin (friendlier) and Dallas (often pushy if not lewd), except exacerbated to the extremes.

I realize that there is no glorious patronizing liberal solution to cure homelessness, however much we might wish there is (which one might argue is really just an intellectually lazy and socially disconnected last resort of merely throwing money and a shelter at the problem).

Dallas has recently opened its new service and shelter facility for the chronically homeless (article) called The Bridge, so it seems an appropriate time to discuss the different approaches towards asking for change taken in different cities.

Thus far, I can't tell whether it has had much of an effect. There were and still will be homeless in downtown; the dynamic of which I find somewhat fascinating. Nowhere in the city, and perhaps unlike many places on Earth are the "haves" and the "have nots" in such close proximity with no other range or diversity of class. In DTD, it's pretty much the condo owner and the homeless guy...all of which like to ask what breed of dog mine is.

We've all been asked for change at some point. The Onion has noticed a guy who has taken it to another level that keeps demanding change. Panhandlers in Dallas take an approach more like this one in South Park. This post is dedicated to places where the cups of change usually accompany a street performance, a lonely musician, a pantomime, etc. However, the only places I've encountered these performances are in areas of what I would deem higher livability, or at least more interesting, more cultural, and more stimulating places: NYC, DC, Venice Beach, New Orleans, Rome, and Madrid, to name the ones that pop into my head most immediately. I would presume Paris is way up on the list, but alas I have never been (hangs head in shame).

What I DO know is that these street performers gather in well known places and highly locations to ensure the maximum visibility like any retailer providing a service would want. I have no idea whether there is a relationship between the street performers shown below and homelessness, but I can't imagine they make much money performing their art. The point is the difference between being bugged for change with a bogus story that I've heard one hundred times in Dallas, the presence of which is corrosive to investment and quality of life, and the visually interesting (or at least comical) methods of asking for a buck below:

Musician performing in a plaza.

I always wanted to get these mimes to break character, but was never successful. Perhaps, I should have pushed one over. I'm truly fascinated by people that do this. Are they normal? Did I share a pint with one at a local pub and discuss the election? international relations? the middle east?

Street acrobats?

Creepy guy sings the blues?

Star Wars is popular.

City's Ranked by Quality of Life

QoL indicators/statistics should be our fundamental methodology for understanding/ranking places and working towards progress.

Zurich ranks 1. Baghdad pulls up the rear.

I've only been to Zurich once, but I can vouch for it.

Modern building subtle and mature enough not to disrupt the urban fabric.

The perfect scale.

Cool airport too.

I haven't yet found the full list, but Dallas is nowhere to be found in the top fifty, which shouldn't come as a surprise given that Seattle and NYC are 49 and 50.

Gas Price Protests and Riots


Ironic that we're essentially protesting to maintain a doomed status quo.

"Smart Architects Build Dumb Building"

...and that's what is great about it.


Thursday, June 12, 2008

All Things CNN related...

Two things, first a poll on CNN, asking how many Americans could get by without a car. Apparently, I say apparently because the poll has changed, but I've been told the results are 17% Yes. I'm shocked they are that high. The fact of the matter is our entire built environment outside of a few places (albeit highly populated places, NYC, DC, Portland, etc.) is predicated on car ownership and auto-oriented development.

Second, is this related article about Mayors requesting financial help for crumbling infrastructure. I've been to too many cities where they have been so sparsely built that there literally is not the tax base to support the amount of roads and subterranean infrastructure to pay to even maintain it, let alone upgrade it to sufficient standards. Ironic that the most "liberal" in terms of land development allowed are the most "conservative" politically, yet these "conservative" communities often have the highest tax rates to support their unsustainable development patterns.

Don't build more densely because I say so, support dense development because it is all we can afford.

Finding Real Estate Equilibrium...

...the evidence mounts, and land finds its proper value:
Nationwide, home prices in neighborhoods with long commutes and no public transportation are falling faster than prices in communities closer to cities, according to a study by Joseph Cortright, an economist at Impresa Consulting. For example, his study found that prices in distant suburbs of Tampa fell 14 percent in the last 12 months, versus a 9 percent drop in areas nearer the city.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Crime Wave in the 'Burbs

At least it's good to know Dallas is no longer the violent crime capital of the country.

This article could be turned into a book. I find it overly simplistic that section 8 vouchers (not taking a stand yay or nay on them) are solely at fault. Look at the picture of the neighborhood in question in "nice" North Memphis:

Hmmmm... gated garden-style apartment. Never woulda guessed.

These are all over Dallas as well and you know what? They are often full of trouble as well, even in "nice" North Dallas. Aside from other factors and over conglomeration of one type of unit/building in one place, I have seen too many that are literally structurally failing: sagging balconies, floor joists caving into the units, etc.

Gates don't mean security. I'm reminded of a Goodie Mob lyric:
Were the gates put up to keep crime out or keep our asses in?
While this is very much a policy issue, there is also a design element. Proper design would have created an interconnected series of public streets (or private with at least a public-access easement - if maintenance is an issue) plugging into the contextual transportation framework, pulled buildings up to the street with architecture that feels more like a home and less like a filing cabinet and is built to last, and creates a variety of unit types and affordability.
This cul-de-sac style development prevalent in the 'burbs is and will be a crime haven. They are virtually impossible to police.

The article then goes on to say that crime is worse when areas have 20-40% below the poverty level than 40% or above. Of course it is. There is still an abundance of concentrated poverty, while the lesser percentage means it is in more places affecting greater areas and more populations.

The magic number often tossed around is 10%. That is ten percent of units in a development should be "affordable." I, personally, am a believer in this, at least conceptually, when public subsidy is involved in a project. But, the poverty level is now, what? 15 percent? How is it physically possible to build at a 10% ratio if that is the case?

Next question, with the falling dollar, rising costs of personal transportation and food, isn't that like a rising tide now drowning a greater percentage of the population???

Dallas, TX