Friday, February 27, 2009

Free Beer Friday - Guess The City

Starting off the tour. Where else? At a bar. And any bar named "Kennedy's" gets a thumbs up from me.











Thursday, February 26, 2009

Links

DMN: Spanish company wins job to rebuild LBJ Freeway. Unfortunately, though to not DEconstruct it. I have a friend that works for that company.

Wired gets on board the (pedestrian) Luv Train: It's Time to Favor People over Cars.

Papandreou called for an end to "state, federal, and local land use policies that are literally forcing people to have to drive" and told Wired.com we're on the cusp of an inevitable "mode shift" away from individual car ownership toward a greater reliance on mass transit and sustainable transport.

"We're already at that crossroads," he said.

------

Car-friendly policies have created a "carbon shadow" that vehicles can't escape -- the result of "all of the regional consequences of all these policies and collective actions," he says. Instead of the "manufactured value" of personal car ownership, we should adopt "demand management" by creating disincentives for driving that will, in turn, encourage people to walk, ride mass transit, carpool and use other means of getting around.

In Papandreou's eyes, freeways are wasted space. Consider this: 200 people can jam the I-405 riding along in 177 cars (the average ratio). Or they could use just two lanes in three city buses, or have plenty of personal space around them if they rode bikes.

"All that road space could become something else," he said, stressing that the only way to achieve that vision is with a total "eco rehab" that avoids the sort of ineffective piecemeal programs that only survive due to their political popularity. The Obama Administration's economic stimulus package could be a first step toward that future.

"It's a down payment to a massive mortgage," Papandreou said. "I'm hoping that the stimulus gets the ball rolling."

Transit is essential during big events.
In case no one has noticed, there's a pretty good stadium in Anaheim where no professional football has been played in 15 years, even though there's a train station in the parking lot that accommodates about 40 Amtrak and Metrolink trains a day. It's no coincidence that the two big-city downtowns we at CP&DR decided were the best in California – San Diego and San Francisco – have great ballparks downtown right near transit stops.
GOOD Magazine compares subways and ridership, click on graphic or link to see full image (firefox is killing me this week) and notice the graphic to the right comparing the network of each image and how tightly-knit (or not) each system is...then notice the correlated ridership.

Thursday Funday

NYC to Close Broadway thru Times Square

Linky (NYT).

Last summer, the city narrowed Broadway from 42nd Street to 35th Street by setting aside two lanes on the east side of the street for a bike lane and promenade with tables, chairs and planters.

That project, called Broadway Boulevard, met with some skepticism at first but quickly became a popular lunch spot for office workers and tourists. Under the new plan, officials are considering creating a similar promenade from 47th Street north to the vicinity of Columbus Circle.

Sort of what always happens when quality of life decisions are made, right? People are skeptical and resistant to change at first, and then in practice it becomes popular. See: Stroget, Copenhagen. People said the businesses would die. In fact, they thrived.

BUT (big but), the city has to be primed for such measures. i.e. the density and form to accommodate density has to be in place. Ped malls in the states failed in the 60s (the same time Stroget was going car-free) because people were moving OUT of cities. We need to get people back INTO cities by "de-car-ing" [sic] the city.

Lesson 2: Paris, Champs Elysees
A 1994 restoration helped the boulevard regain some of its charm as a promenade. New street furniture was added, cars were diverted to side roads, the sidewalks were widened and improved, bollards were installed, parking problems were appeased by an underground garage, and the street's general appearance was improved with granite paving and double rows of trees.
What this quote doesn't mention, is that lanes were removed in order to accomplish the above. The ground floor businesses had all died, prompting such drastic action. It is now some of the most, if not THE most, valuable real estate in the world.

I predict this area of Manhattan to become similarly treasured. A whopping 9.5 babies to Bloomberg and Manhattan.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Case for Fare-Free Transit

At Alternet:
A major analysis of U.S. public transit systems found that for larger systems, fare collection costs can be as high as 22 percent of the revenue collected. Another study showed that New York City's Metropolitan Transportation Authority spends roughly $200 million a year just to collect money from transit riders. What about switching to "smart card" technology? Wouldn't that save money? In Toronto, the city's Transit Commission estimates the switch will cost almost $250 million (or about 520 new buses) for card readers, vending machines and retrofits, and over $10 million a year (22 new buses) after that, which has some transit authorities saying the money could be better used in improving service.
While, the switch of convenience (ease of use vs. ease of private automobile use) creates greater ridership, which in turn means greater localization, or predictability of where travelers will be which promotes businesses along its routes, generally the types of cafes and shops, and restaurants that make for interesting places:
By making public transport free of charge, it became possible to guarantee the right to mobility for all residents in Hasselt. Their position was that an improved public transport system simply means a better use of the public space that will not only improve the quality of traffic, but the quality of life in general.

...
[ed. more, since we've brought up the idea of VMTs]

Imagine if a government tried to put a farebox into every car. Each time drivers took a trip, they would have to dig into their pockets to find a couple dollars -- in exact change.

And yet, we force the poorest among us to live this way. In British Columbia's Lower Mainland, one of the most expensive places to live in North America, a family traveled from a suburb to Vancouver by public transit during spring break. It cost the mother and her three sons $26 in day passes.

For those without well-paying jobs, a bus fare of any amount can be a barrier to finding work, making it to school, visiting friends and relatives or even getting food to eat.

Wouldn't it make more sense to treat public transit the way we treat most road infrastructure and pay for it all by some method of taxation?

Next Burst Bubble: Credit Cards?

Along the lines of deciphering where debt that can't be repaid is, Arianna Huffington at HuffPuff suggests Credit Cards are next.

I, for one, am not looking for any bailouts. I paid off all the credit card debt that I had accrued in college while studying abroad and being on three leases at one time (one in school, one where I interned (Atlanta/Orlando successively), and one in Rome. But, if we are going to punish the predatory, when do student loans get looked at?

The rise in tuition over the last twenty years spiked similarly to housing, but proportionately much worse. Obama addressed making college affordable again to those who seek it, which is admirable, but what about those of us that got caught in the cross-fire and are already thru school and saddled with debt?

The Millennial generation is the one spending right now, and perhaps foolishly. What if we didn't have to pay half (or more) of our rent on repaying greedy shitheads that saw college students for suckers?

Oh well. I'll just soldier on. Or as Mayor Carcetti says, "how many bowls of shit do I have to eat from these guys?"

McMansions: Good for Something...

Storage (link).

Part 2a: DTD's Cavities



As promised from this post regarding the challenge of revitalizing downtown Dallas, I mentioned that there are several issues facing the City that residents, City staffers, and/or the cultural consciousness may or may not know, but the decision makers must have the will to address, i.e. these are the cavities to be rooted out, not merely glossed over with some veneers or else the city stagnates if not collapses:

(Probably not in order of importance, but certainly in the way I think of them. Now for caveats:

This is strictly from a physical standpoint. These are opportunity areas that if we fix, can go ahead and make the City more livable and place it where Dallasites either want to be or incorrectly already envision themselves, as a world class city. Downtown is the iconic element that everyone thinks of when they perceive any city. It has to be the successful shining star in order to define the place as an attractive destination drawing talent, commerce, industry, etc.

I will also not go into detail with things that have been done wrong in the past, i.e. issues of speculation that led to the tearing down of buildings, the construction of some of the hi-rises, etc. Once again, only issues that are fixable (and really not that difficult either).

These are also not meant to be site specific, but general plagues hindering the City, in particular downtown. I can address more site specific and/or project oriented ideas in a Part 3 - but whenever we do that they turn into projects other people get paid for like Main Street Gardens and the Woodall Rogers Park.

CAR CULTURE
1) Highways - OK, so I said not that difficult and start out with the most difficult and this gets at the overall issue of interconnectivity or lack thereof. I think of City's as organisms, much the way a human is, or any fractal; infinitely complex shapes formed by a group of similar interconnected and communicative "cells" or "units": the human body or the way two or more properties react and interact with each other to form a greater whole than the sum of parts.

So I say get the wrecking balls out. The issues holding us back here are access to downtown from the suburbs and sunk costs. Which I guess could be considered the PROS. The CONS would be 1) despite the intention of connecting suburbanites to their offices, those offices have since left for greener pastures because highways have made downtown so intolerable to be in.



The lesson is that jobs (and pretty much everything else) wants to be close to housing. So we have to make downtown more amenable (and cost effective) for housing, i.e. more livable. We have to start thinking about downtown as something different than a 9-to-5 office park. It should be a unique neighborhood unto itself and unlike anything else in the city. The skyline shouldn't just be photographed at night while all the buildings are empty, but should be the "emerald city" the beacon calling us to exciting happenings below the 60-story silhouettes.

As soon as D2 (the second DART line is completed in 2014), there needs to be a serious debate about the purpose of the highways choking off downtown from its surroundings. Perhaps by then Dallas will be ready to follow the lead of San Francisco (Embarcadero), Milwaukee (Beer Line), and other cities that have either already torn down or are in planning stages of tearing down the elevated freeways severing (moreso than connecting) their respective downtowns.

Below is a rough adaptation of Vienna's Ringstrasse, which replaced (ironically enough) the city walls, overlayed on Downtown Dallas for a sense of scale. It essentially became an urban boulevard or greenway linking important civic and cultural functions. [I dunno say like, an arts district? a convention center? city hall? Oh wait, those are the Dallas landmarks that would be linked together.]



2) Parking - I don't want to waste my breath on each of the top ten plagues, but the next issue under car culture is parking. This is obvious by now, but it affects downtown in several forms and facets.

First, is that developers think they have to "build at market" rate, whatever that means. I know exactly what it means, but it also means that the market can fluctuate and they're really only following the dictates of a market report predicated on past projections. I'm living proof that owning a car isn't necessary (nor desired!) and the construction costs of 1 space per bedroom at 15-, 20-, or even $30,000 per space is a monstrous barrier to investment.

New residential building do not need to add parking with their (re)development. Nearly every garage in downtown is empty at night. The City of Portland thirty years ago ignited their downtown revitalization by constructing 4 large public parking garages, to which the spaces would be for lease. Thus, allowing future residential developers the freedom to not build (by code or by market demands) the parking load that a residential building requires, often upwards of 20% of total construction costs.

Lastly, is surface lots. They are everywhere as evidenced by this map. Many of which are owned by out-of-town ownership groups, but that is for a later topic. People don't feel safe in parking lots. Scary when they're empty and who knows who jump out from behind a full lot. So the natural response is to floodlight the sh!t out of them until they are even more intolerable to be near (let alone live near).

Some cities are aggressive in developing surface parking lots. Dallas is not one of those cities.



I conclude with this rhetorical question. Is parking cheap, easy, and ubiquitous in anywhere that is worth being?

3) One-Way Internal (to downtown) Roads - The racetracks. You have never been downtown if you haven't heard a valet revving engines and drag-racing down Elm, Commerce, or Jackson Streets (in fact, it was probably your new 3-series (link - click me) that the valet driver is going all Ferris Bueller's Day Off with).



Notice that I didn't say Main Street. They couldn't get away with driving fast on Main Street if they tried. It has on-street parking, is two-ways, and is too narrow (oh, and the valets themselves must hang out on them). Exactly the reasons why there is a four-block stretch of Main Street in Downtown that actually works.

We need livable streets. Complete Streets. The are escape routes out of downtown. Hardly the message we should be trying to send.

Of CHICKENS and EGGS
4) No Green, Only Gray - Aside from a few excrement filled (mostly dog - but I wouldn't put it past a few humans) patches of lawn, there is virtually no green space in Downtown Dallas. Hell, there are hardly even any trees to create some measure of shade or micro-climate apparently it was cheaper to build tunnels. And trees generate an ROI but we externalized those values long ago:

Over the course of 50 years, a single tree can generate $31,250 of oxygen, provide $62,000 worth of air pollution control, recycle $37,500 worth of water, and control $31,500 worth of soil erosion. (Arbor Day Foundation)

The Downtown Parks Plan attempts to remedy this, but I question its efficacy towards the larger role of parks that is needed here, i.e. leveraging investment. Yes, Dallas needs parks many of which are in the right places, but it also needs some gaps in the smile filled with other teeth rather than parsley.



Is merely filling every surface lot with a park going to accomplish that or can we shrink some of these to more urban-scaled "pocket sized" parks with new development adjacent?

5) Lack of Residential Opportunities i.e. Affordability - I believe the real estate market went swinging for a home run in Downtown, expecting uptown like returns. Except it isn't uptown. Uptown is the by-product of twenty-plus years of improvements to get it where it is today. Downtown merely has some office nearby as an amenity to being close to work. That isn't enough.

And by affordable, I don't mean the legal definition of affordable housing (although there should be ideally a 10% inclusionary housing measure with all new housing developments. It is better to sprinkle affordable units throughout rather than to isolate and essentially "warehouse".)

Several other issues listed here have alluded to ways of making development cheaper to cover the potential losses due to subsidized rents, but are they subsidized? Many of the "affordable" downtown units, listed for those "households" making under $38K/yr. still run at a similar price per foot basis as every other unit in downtown. Often somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.50-1.75 per sq.ft. They are simply smaller. These need to be larger units for families. They types of homeless that include families sleeping in cars, not the type of crazy single men we see downtown every day.

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6-10 coming tomorrow.

Arch Record on ToonTown

I mean the Arts District (link):
But Cloepfil (ed. note: the architect of Booker T. Washington High School) says it might be misguided to expect Jane Jacobs-style urbanism to sprout in north Texas, and that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Dallas might have to accept the arts district as a successful destination, not a way of life. "I'm trying to be a realist to other urban types," he says. "I do think there are other models of urban success that we may not want to believe are successful."
"Other models of urban success," huh? LOL. I guess anything can be a success depending upon what the goals are. If the goal is a vibrant place, it sure as he11 has not and will not achieve it on its current course. I can't decide if he is being glib with the intended (or unintended?) backhanded compliment to Dallas or not...

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

NPR on High Speed Rail

Bear with me as it seems Firefox has developed some screwy formatting issues with regards to pictures...

On the fast track (link).
LaHood has sent Obama a memo outlining a half-dozen rail corridors across the country that could be in line to get some of the high-speed rail money.
Of all the things Obama has to face, this is the one opportunity for a real legacy project, perhaps not greater in significance, but more influential than the trans-continental railroad or Eisenhower's interstates. One that shapes the future of this country and stimulate increased investment in our left behind urban cores.

While it is good to see the hometown of Harrisburg, PA get on the list, it is interesting that a Texarkana to Little Rock connection is more important than Dallas to Houston. There is a full size map of the entire country and all lines at the link above. Here is a zoom in locally:

















So what this is telling me is that if I could somehow get to Houston, greyhound of the skies or actual greyhound, I could hi-speed train it all the way back to mama's house. With the new green line, I would be able to DART to Love Field, Southwest it to Houston, somehow get to wherever their train station might be and then get on the 1500 mile trek home.

Meh, it would be easier to just fly. How about we focus on the Megalopoli [sic] as I mentioned previously and worry about linking them later (and to second/third tier cities). Bo-Wash, Charlotte-Richmond-Atlanta-RDU, DFW-Houston-Austin-San Antonio - California corridor, etc.

Here was my take from a couple of months back on a full hierarchy of new routes from Hi-speed, to commuter, to streetcar:

Monday, February 23, 2009

Bird's Nest to Hatch Western Consumerist Wonderland

Will anybody ever learn? From the LaTimes.
"They wanted to build 'the world's biggest this' and 'the world's biggest that,' but these buildings have almost zero long-term economic benefit," economist Huang said.

Moreover, the makeover of Beijing for the Olympics led to an estimated 1.5 million residents being evicted from their homes, according to the Geneva-based Center on Housing Rights and Evictions.

Quote for the Day

A critic such as Frederick Ackerman in 1925 could dryly note that "a community with a stable population is now referred to as a dead one." Interestingly, this was in a paper titled "Our Stake in Urban Congestion," noting that contemporary proposals to "solve" urban congestion by building elevated and limited access highways would kill the golden goose, which is based on the ability to tax the increases in land value and specialized transactions that cities create.

Friday, February 20, 2009

OpEd to the DMN

We'll see if it gets published:

It is true that it is a sad time for the economy and all of us these days, but I see reason for optimism around the corner. It’s just going to take some introspection, some creative thinking, and good old fashioned elbow grease.

As an urban design professional in Dallas, I get a chance to interact daily with business leaders from architects to brokers, developers and lenders; all of whom are feeling the pinch in the current economic stasis. It seems that the prevailing opinion is that if we wait awhile, everything will spring back to “normal” like previous burst bubbles that DFW has endured in the last thirty years.

And why not, there are merely going by experience and it is true that Dallas is one of the ‘boomier’ and ‘bustiest’ [sic] cities that I have known. I like to joke that this trend is represented by the current iteration of the city skyline, with high highs, low lows, and very little in between.

I am writing to tell you that we will come out the other side completely different. I expect a tidal shift on the scale of the industrial revolution driven by necessity and changing demographics. The magnitude of the tectonic shift is evidenced by the current intensity of the growing pains.

The last 80 years have been a great ride for this country, but what has made it great is our ability to adapt to changing times. The growth witnessed during this period was one based entirely on cheap energy, sun baked for millennia and fossilized underground and the real estate development directly associated with it.

However, we know that we can not grow outwardly forever given the finite nature of this energy source. And perhaps more importantly, based on the recent Pew Research Center study, we don’t even like the end results of this development: Americans are unhappy with their cities.

We need to recalibrate our thinking from quantitative growth to a model of qualitative growth, improving what we already have. What this means for Dallas is that we must begin to focus on quality of life improvements, reinvestment in the core (the “face” of any city), selective infill in and around downtown and within walkable distances from transit.

The market is there. The two largest population bubbles in American history, the Baby Boomers and the Millennials (approximately ranging in ages from 8-30) are both looking for quality in-town housing and interesting urban places.

Boomers are retiring and desire the type of freedom found in ideal “retirement communities” like the Upper East Side or Key West rather than being “warehoused” in an actual retirement village. Millennials want to escape similar confines of suburbia for more authentic and diverse (yet affordable) experiences and ways of life.

I often say that cities progress from being Viable to Livable and finally to Memorable. To the City’s credit, they are undergoing several projects that would register as “memorable,” in some cases admirably so, but we still have not yet achieved livability (the hard part) in downtown (and this coming from a downtown resident).

At RTKL, we are working to develop a multi-family prototype geared to the needs of Millennials. It generally consists of smaller units, but more embellished common areas and amenities to accommodate their highly social nature and attract talented college graduates to Dallas.

A focus on urban infill housing and creating a more livable city will provide the foundation for getting out of this rut. The will is there, even if it is subcutaneous, but we also need leadership to guide us there through the darkness.

Free Beer Friday Happy Hour - Guess the City












LaHood to Consider VMT Tax

In my younger and more disconnected from reality days of yore, I would have supported this (link):
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says he wants to consider taxing motorists based on how many miles they drive rather than how much gasoline they burn — an idea that has angered drivers in some states where it has been proposed.
However, in a world of "drive til you qualify" which has forced moderate and low income families far into the nether reaches of sprawling cities, we would be once again forcing them to foot the bill for the mistakes of the power brokers and decision makers.

This can work in Portland, NYC, DC, San Fran as a means to disincentivize living at the edge. However, not many of those cities are exactly affordable inside the loops or near transit, exactly the types of places the lower and moderate income need to be to save on transpo costs.

In Dallas, everybody drives (except me!). Do we want to punish them for the world they didn't create? Or should we focus our efforts (spurred by cash flow from toll roads - which I do support for similar but less drastic measures than the VMT tax) on qualitative growth, infill around transit stations, new modern streetcar lines, and making the city more livable - thus creating a better option for people to choose.

Matthew Iglesias at ThinkProgress also questions the logic:
So I’m not sold. When it comes to pricing driving-related activities, it makes sense to charge people from things that actually impose costs on others—burning gasoline, and taking up space on crowded roads—not the mere act of driving.
Or, we could be like Detroit:
















Which we tried...but fortunately, we saved our current office space, the Republic Bank building from being turned into a parking garage itself:





Always Two-Steps Ahead

But, never paid attention to. *Sigh*

Andrew Sullivan has been chronicling a growing debate of the overlap between "liberals" and "libertarians." I add quotation marks, because I question whether these words still have any meaning, having been stretched too far to encompass individuals who don't even come close to resembling the original intention of the parties.

I have been saying this for years - however, I'm not sure that I have yet chronicled it in the millions of words already on this blog in the 8 months it has been up and running. But, I prefer the terms progressives and social libertarians. I consider myself a leftist libertarian in the mold of Thomas Jefferson, not a bad model IMO.

I think we are seeing this "coming together" in the form of the Millennial generation. They are socially very liberal, i.e. libertarian, but are seeing the utterly corrupted end state of a completely deregulated free-market economy. We just need a similar takeover of ideals and solution-oriented togetherness in the Senate that we have seen in the White House and are seeing in the House of Reps.

It's clear that a free (and fair) market system is the most democratic. I know I'm ready to compromise with free market libertarians and I'm pretty sure I can make the socially beneficial case for free higher education, single-payer healthcare (cheaper for preventative reasons - sorry insurance companies), and strict enforcement of anti-trust laws. I'm even willing to step back from my living wage stance to help accommodate. If we maintain many smaller businesses, I think we can begin to flatten the obscene wealth gaps in this country and begin to restore the middle class.

Now only if we can get a new round of low-interest small business loans for startups for all the architects and everybody else currently out of work (to be timed with the cash flow from the initial stimulus plans). As Muhammad Yunus has shown, everybody possesses the entrepreneurial gene (only few have the means to do anything about it), not just the few barons of industry exemplared in times of extreme centralization...which incidentally always seem to lead to a crash!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Sullivan on the Housing Plan

Many liberals think that the plan is too small. Many conservatives and libertarians think it will prove wasteful, ultimately ineffective, and that we shouldn't be trying to prop up housing values anyway. And this is surely the fear behind the gist of what Obama has done so far: it avoids the brutal re-balancing of the right while lacking the full metal Krugmanism of the left. Maybe this is a pragmatic sweet spot. Or maybe it's falling into some kind of ghastly, protracted abyss. I do not pretend to know.
Amazingly, I tend to fall slightly to the right of Andrew here - if only because I was wary enough to steer clear of that nonsense (which reminds me to figure out where I was reading that too much home ownership (as seen in the states, 70%) is bad in a macro-sense on top of being illogical at the micro level, for a similar reason: that it is too much wealth AND people being illiquid). Housing prices have to fall back in line with fundamentals, otherwise they shall remain UNaffordable, and frankly NOT at market rate. We have to find the true value of homes to allow the homes/properties in the right places to survive, the rest? To whither.

My optimistic guess is that the Obama team is merely applying a parachute to the prices because it is economically wrong to improperly inflate the prices and amoral if not downright toxic to many neighborhoods/communities to toss people on the street.

Personally, I like the plan put forward by the woman interviewed on Dan Rather Reports the other night suggesting that if refinancing can't be achieved that home owners are given the option to rent the place at fair market rental value.

Nothing to Do with Anything

But, I just sat mesmerized for the past half-hour watching the videos of a student artist at this site:

http://vimeo.com/rezado

Octo-Dancing from Reza Dolatabadi on Vimeo.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Dovetailing Conversations

Unintentionally, I had a conversation with a reporter, a client, and ahem, myself I suppose while reading this take at HuffPuff: Can Obama get us to the Long View?

When do we start looking at life cycle costs? How can we get past looking at a day on Wall Street like reading our daily horoscope? How can we stop externalizing costs? How do we balance the need for budgeting up front costs with expected or even guaranteed ROIs?

Are these inevitable? Or merely stumbling blocks as we throw out the Rube Goldberg political and cultural apparati of the Baby Boom generation for the Bullet Train of Millennial progress.
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By the way, I was able to catch Dan Rather Reports on HDNet. It is clearly the best news program on television right now and has found a permanent place on my DVR rotation.
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Side note 2: I also recently watched the Behind the Scenes feature on the Wall-E dvd b/c I'm the type of nerd that watches movies with the director's commentary on. Whenever you sit and think just how competent these movie makers might be when viewing the end product - thinking "wow, this is something that I just CAN NOT do," and you get to see some of the work in progress, you no longer feel so inadequate. Holy crap the initial story was utter shite compared to where it finished. More like a bad episode of an otherwise mediocre show, Futurama.

Especially when they mention that if it was the end result of one artist working around the clock, it would take that person 400 years to finish the movie. And the finished product is the better for that collective effort, once again undermining Ayn Rand's notion of the solitary genius.

This is exactly the same reason that I discuss Placemaking as places being greater than merely the sum of the parts. A building is a postcard, a snap shot. A real place is drama.

Leinberger Interview

At the Infrastructurist.

The opening statement pretty much sums it all up:
The suburbs are really suffering. What’s the short-form diagnosis?

Americans are undergoing a fundamental shift in where they want live, work, and play. So this is not just a normal cyclical downturn. We’ve structurally overbuilt retail, office, and housing, and we’ve done so in the wrong places.

TreeHugger Touts Rail Investment

Link.

But, how far will $8 billion get us? Let's say a typical high speed rail line costs $80M per mile. Throw in another $20 for gubmint waste (or just to make nice round numbers). That is 80 miles. WooHoo, high speed rail to Waco!

Or at least it's enough to get started on planning and design throughout the country. Oh well.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Back from the Desert


















And riding PHX's new light rail into PHX from Tempe for the Dunk Contest and All-Star festivities. I didn't take this image, but found it appropriate since you can see ASU's Sun Devil Stadium, where we were most of the time...got into plenty of conversations about mass transit in general and was actually surprise at how little seating there is on the new trams (I say trams because the ride felt more like a tram than say DART's light rail trains with more seating, higher speed, etc. etc.).

















[I did take this pic however with my camera phone, literally across the street from the picture above of a parking garage with a rooftop solar array that rotates to point directly at the sun throughout the day -- If anybody finds info on how much power this generates, I would love to find out.]

I'm not surprised that much of the b!tching about the expense of the light rail has died down. It is tremendously convenient linking downtown Tempe and Arizona State to the airport (not a direct link but it gets there nonetheless) and eventually to downtown Phoenix, the baseball stadium, and the basketball arena. $2.50 for an all day pass which was nice as well.

On to the links for the day...
......................................................

Nothing outrageous here, but the Boston Herald asks Are McMansions McHistory?

A recent Better Homes and Gardens poll of 733 potential new-home buyers found that one in three wanted a house “somewhat smaller” or “much smaller” than their current places.

Builders are already responding to such a shift in demand.

You know what they also want? Complete communities.

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Kunstler's Monday Morning Quarterbacking:

Americans drew the false conclusion that Ronald Reagan was an economic genius (a similar thing happened in Great Britain with Margaret Thatcherism). The price of oil went down steeply while they were in office. Britain could kick back and enjoy it's last remaining industry, banking, on a majestic cushion of energy resources. The USA resumed its major post-war industry: suburban sprawl building. Reaganism got elevated to the status of a religion, though it was little more than a twisted version of Eisenhower-on-steroids. Under Reagan, WalMart embarked on its campaign to destroy every main street economy in the nation. The Baby Boomers came back from the land, clipped their pony tails, discovered venture capital, real estate investment trusts, securitization of "consumer" debt, and the Hamptons. Greed was good. (No, really....)

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Gotta put Richard Florida's Atlantic cover story on here:

How the Crash will Reshape America

Stratospheric real-estate prices have made New York less diverse over time, and arguably less stimulating. When I asked Jacobs some years ago about the effects of escalating real-estate prices on creativity, she told me, “When a place gets boring, even the rich people leave.” With the hegemony of the investment bankers over, New York now stands a better chance of avoiding that sterile fate...
...
Economic crises tend to reinforce and accelerate the underlying, long-term trends within an economy. Our economy is in the midst of a fundamental long-term transformation—similar to that of the late 19th century, when people streamed off farms and into new and rising industrial cities. In this case, the economy is shifting away from manufacturing and toward idea-driven creative industries—and that, too, favors America’s talent-rich, fast-metabolizing places.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Challenge of Downtown Dallas


From an old interview transcribed in full on New Urban News that has never left me since:
Cities and towns go through cycles, or different stages of a cycle. Some cities are in a “viability” cycle. They’re just trying to survive and create a sustainable economic base. Many of these issues are really regional in scope. A sustainable economic base, good infrastructure, and regional facilities are some of the issues. Other cities are in a “livability” cycle or a “memorability” cycle. Livability issues tend to revolve around how to make a city a good place to live: housing, schools, parks, and open space. Memorability issues tend to organize around how cities can do things in a way that is unique and idiosyncratic to the people and influences of that time and place.

Much unsuccessful planning in America has been due to using strategies that do not align with a city’s current phase of issues, often fighting the last war or the one that people wish to fight.

The interviewee referred to these stages as cyclical, which in some ways within the competitive nature of cities can be, but do you really see a place like Copenhagen falling from Memorable to something below livable any time soon? Furthermore, economic issues are certainly at play, but they can only be viewed along a much longer time line than pinpointing what stage a given City is at a fixed point, i.e. Detroit in 1920's "The Paris of the States" vs. today, where it is more like the Acropolis of the States.


















Obviously, today Detroit is trying to stay viable after its auto industry has floundered helplessly despite all efforts otherwise. Dallas, on the other hand, is certainly viable from an economic standpoint as a banking and corporate center.

It is also livable in many places depending upon what you are looking for, but this continuum can also be pinpointed on certain places. Why else would 5 million people (and growing) be in the metroplex? In this case, I'm referring to Downtown Dallas. Once again, it is viable currently as an office park and a modicum of individuals like myself who choose to live near to where they work and want something a little different than the Ken and Barbie world of uptown (despite how nice the view might be).

As Heapes points out in the interview, during any planning or design process, one has to accurately assess where a City (or place) stands along this axis. Downtown Dallas in my estimation is in between Viability and Livability. No matter how positive I attempt to be, it is impossible for me to call it Livable currently, and it needs to be. I think all of the dark units in the Mercantile Complex illuminate that point for us.

I have been saying since I moved here in 2002 that developers were going after the wrong market in downtown. They were chasing uptown rents/demographics without all the twenty years of Livability creation that went into State Thomas, McKinney Avenue and CityPlace/West Village. But, as Alex Krieger recently said, vibrant, urban streets aren't populated by the patrons of the W hotel.

The mistake the City has made thus far in attempting to stimulate downtown is that it is trying to skip the hard part. Through big, high profile projects like the Arts District, the Calatrava Bridges, the Trinity River, and last and most certainly least the Convention Center Hotel, the City is trying to jump directly from Viability to Memorability.

It is easy to just throw money at a city in the form of glitzy projects. What is difficult is being honest with yourself and accurately addressing the critical issues preventing a City from becoming Livable. I question how honest Dallas is prepared to be with itself (and by "Dallas" I don't mean any particular group, class, or profession, but simply my perception of the collective consciousness).

[I like to equate that process of critical self analysis to that of a dentist drilling down to the heart of the problem (without novocaine) rather than simply applying a veneer.]






















I've gotten into several arguments with people (on this blog no less) accusing me of "not supporting the arts." As I have tried to say, I do, but not at this time or to the extent or expense quite yet when it comes to their effectiveness at stimulating any sort of real revitalization of downtown. All efforts should be made to make Downtown Dallas LIVABLE first, and then the special projects can really have an impact (and a tax base to support them).

If for no other reason, do it for all those visitors they expect to the Arts District (for that proposed subterranean garage) and to save the Arts District itself. You really think Dallas Socialites will enjoy visiting the Arts District when Downtown Dallas is crime ridden, blighted, vacant, and covered in surface parking lots????

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I think I'll create a "Part 2" addressing all the physical design issues hindering the Livability of Downtown Dallas.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Project Mayhem?



























Burning Koolhaas Down via the New Yorker, Andres Duany fwd this himself to the Pro-Urb listserv, but since I've done my fair share of Rem (and his protege) bashing, it makes sense to include it as well here:
When the architect Andres Duany and his wife and partner, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, recently received the Driehaus Prize, given annually to honor traditional architecture, Duany delivered a talk in which he mocked modern architects for having “explored every shape that could be hyper-cantilevered, crashed, randomized, slashed, perforated, upturned, bent, dematerialized, dissed or otherwise transgressed.” He didn’t say he was thinking of Koolhaas’s CCTV building, but he might have been, since its shape is about as irrational, and as self-consciously bizarre, as you could imagine.

Pres. Obama: "Sprawl is Dead"

Said today at an appearance in Ft. Myers, FL:

http://cspan.org/Watch/watch.aspx?MediaId=HP-A-15317


"We get a D in infrastructure all across the country. We saw what happened in Minneapolis. A bridge collapsed and resulted in tragedy. And not only do we need to rebuild our roads and our bridges, our dams and our levees, but we also have to plan for the future...this is the same example of turning crises into opportunity. This should be a wake up call for us. You go to Shanghai, China right now and they've go high speed rail that puts our railroads to shame. They've got ports that are state of the art. Their airports, compared the airports we've got, you go to Beijing Airport and you compare that to Miami Airport (laughter, scattered applause). Now look, this is America (applause). We always had the best infrastructure, we were always willing to invest in the future. Governor Chris mentioned Abraham Lincoln, in the middle of the Civil War, in the midst of all this danger and peril, what did he do? He helped move the intercontinental railroad. He helped to start land grant colleges. He understood that even when you are in the middle of crises, youve got to keep your eye on the future, so transportation, when it is not fixing our old transportation systems, it is also imagining new transportation systems. Id like to see high speed rail, where it can be constructed. Id like for us to invest in mass transit, because potentially thats energy efficient. I think people are a lot more open now to thinking regionally. The days when we were just building sprawl forever, those days are over. I think that Republicans, Democrats, that that is not a smart way to design communities, so that we should be using this money to help spur this kind of innovative thinking when it comes to transportation, thatll make a big difference."

Generational Update

I noticed a spike in hits today on the ppt regarding the Millennials I posted. The date I put it up on this site was 9/22/08. The date the economy nearly collapsed was 9/18/08, however when I originally did this as part of a study for how Millennials will change the housing market was back in July '08.

I think it is safe to say that this particular slide could be updated and we are in full-fledged panic mode:

The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same

A literal groundswell sweeps change into the Whitehouse and the House of Reps, but the Senate? Still the same ineffectual pawns to corporate lobbyists and antiquated interests of the status quo. I don't disagree one bit with this:
It's the definition of politics as usual. And in this particular case, there's a reasonable argument that it's actively pernicious - that if you can't shrink the stimulus package much more substantially than the centrists have done, you shouldn't shrink it at all. There's a case to be made for a stimulus that's radically different than the one we have now; there's a case to be made for a stimulus that's like the one we have now, but a great deal smaller and more targeted; and there's a case to be made for a stimulus that's absolutely gargantuan. But thanks to the centrists, we're getting the cheapskate version of the gargantuan version: They've done absolutely nothing to widen the terms of debate about what should go into the bill, and they've shaved off just enough money to reduce its effectiveness if Paul Krugman is right - but not nearly enough to make it fiscally prudent if the stimulus skeptics are right.

This means that if the damn thing doesn't work, we won't even know whom to blame. But it wouldn't be crazy to start by blaming the centrists.

Anybody Qualified to Drive a Nail Thru a Railroad Tie?

I'm sure some of these people would like to learn how...

Bank Execs Can't Live on 500K/yr.

I weep for them with my fists:
“People inherently understand that if they are going to get ahead in whatever corporate culture they are involved in, they need to take on the appurtenances of what defines that culture,” she said. “So if you are in a culture where spending a lot of money is a sign of success, it’s like the same thing that goes back to high school peer pressure. It’s about fitting in.”

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Myth of the Efficient Car

Let’s get something straight about green industry: in its basic form it means we all have to buy new stuff … lots of it. As an industrial policy that will create jobs and increase spending, it’s pretty sound. As an environmental policy, it’s largely a fraud.
Bravo.

...and what you might not think about:
But there’s an even more profound problem with building more efficient cars. In 1865, English economist William Stanley Jevons discovered an efficiency paradox: the more efficient you make machines, the more energy they use. Why? Because the more efficient they are, the better they are, the cheaper they are and more people buy them, and the more they’ll use them. Now, that’s good for manufacturers and maybe good for consumers, but if the problem is energy consumption or pollution, it’s not good.

I See You Giiirrll, Lookin' at my Links

Derrick Jackson on Tax Rebates for New Cars:
Mikulski mustered all the Chicken Little she could. "My amendment is not about bailouts," she said in a prepared statement. "It's about jobs, jobs, jobs. Six million jobs are at stake in the American car industry . . . The only way to save the Big Three is to get people into showrooms, but 1,000 dealerships could close this year. That's 53,000 jobs that could be lost just at the dealerships."
Ugh..the stupidity of saving jobs of the 20th century at the expense of jobs of the 21st century.
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On a day when the WSJ has an article that opens with, "It's tough to be green when money is tight," treehugger has an article on learning from the inherent sustainability from the world's poor (because it is actually easier, if not imperative to be more "green"):
...contains the attributes for environmentally and socially sustainable settlements for the world's increasingly urban population.... The district's use of local materials, its walkable neighbourhoods, and mix of employment and housing add up to "an underlying intuitive grammar of design that is totally absent from the faceless slab blocks that are still being built around the world to 'warehouse' the poor."
"I strongly believe that the west has much to learn from societies and places which, while sometimes poorer in material terms are infinitely richer in the ways in which they live and organise themselves as communities," Prince Charles said. "It may be the case that in a few years' time such communities will be perceived as best equipped to face the challenges that confront us because they have a built-in resilience and genuinely durable ways of living."
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From the Center for Neighborhood Technology:

In turquoise, areas of the DFW metroplex where housing + transportation costs equal more than 48% of median household income:

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And finally, the best for last...Treehugger, which tends towards either of two extremes; the very granola low-tech or the super high-tech gadgetry, comes this article that ghasp, sustainability and tackling sprawl is about proper planning rather than new "eco-towns."
“Everyone gets seduced by the ‘green bling,’” Stephen Platt of Cambridge Architectural Research told me. “Making the houses energy-efficient is the easy bit. The key problem is making this a long-term socially acceptable place where people will want to live and prosper.”

Americans - Whimpering Puppies

So Pew did some research [HT to McCready for sending me this article] on where people would like to live vs. where they actually do. Since people are stupid, I'll trust Chris Leinberger when he cites the statistic referenced in his latest book that only 3% of people live in walkable urbanism while 30% wish to.

I'm guessing it was a better done poll than merely asking the questions of lay people because we end up with answers like this:



Now let's shrink "Small Town" and "City" to a fraction of these numbers and throw all that into suburbia. I'm confident based on personal experience administering visual preference surveys that this is how Leinberger went about his research...or maybe not, because 30% actually seems low. In every case, the more walkable built version wins in popular vote. 30% seems low to me, but it is still effective b/c of the pent up demand between those two numbers.

The problem is that people don't see the better version. They don't know it exists. The average American is like the puppy on the electrified flooring in the experiment I read about in Psychology class in college (why this has stuck with me so long, I don't know). As animals, we learn to accept a certain environment no matter how shitty which is how markets can become so skewed when there lacks proper choice.
In part one of Seligman and Steve Maier's experiment, three groups of dogs were placed in harnesses. Group One dogs were simply put in the harnesses for a period of time and later released. Groups Two and Three consisted of "yoked pairs." A dog in Group 2 would be intentionally subjected to pain by being given electric shocks, which the dog could end by pressing a lever. A Group 3 dog was wired in parallel with a Group 2 dog, receiving shocks of identical intensity and duration, but his lever didn't stop the electric shocks. To a dog in Group 3, it seemed that the shock ended at random, because it was his paired dog in Group 2 that was causing it to stop. For Group 3 dogs, the shock was apparently "inescapable." Group 1 and Group 2 dogs quickly recovered from the experience, but Group 3 dogs learned to be helpless, and exhibited symptoms similar to chronic clinical depression.
More interestingly (to me) is this statistic:
Americans are all over the map in their views about their ideal community type: 30% say they would most like to live in a small town, 25% in a suburb, 23% in a city and 21% in a rural area.
Doesn't seem all over the map to me, seems more like a continuum...or a transect:



But, of course we've only built in the T3: Suburban model, not the full range offering appropriate choice, as seen in this post on Valencia, Spain.

In other news, it is amazing how low these numbers are. Nobody wants to live in the modern American city (in its current form). Maybe we should start looking to Copenhagen, where the people are the happiest (and most well educated) in the world.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Livability Indicator #12 - Hailing a Cab

"Hey girl...wanna share a cab??"



(I'd play guess the city with this one, but I'll ruin the suspense cuz I can. This is Austin as the Frost Tower, blurred and backgrounded suggests, and she probably scored a pedi-cab rather than a taxi cab to be location and culturally specific.)

To be perfectly honest, I didn't think of this one myself, but it was brought up in jest during a meeting today by the inimitable Alex Krieger (ahem, name drop) when we started joking about the ease and/or difficulty of finding cabs in various cities, which he so succinctly put, "a measure of great cities, the ease of finding a cab."



So when starting to think about this a little further, one feels compelled to ask, "where are cabs and why are they there?" In a time where LA and all of its absurdities, in a sort of Rube Goldberg machine of agglomerated decision making, is trying to limit (or not) the locations of cab stands (which admittedly can aid in predictability), contrast this with New York where they are everywhere.

In Dallas, we find them at the airport (where it will run you in the neighborhood of $50-60 w/ tip to go to/from downtown to the airport one-way or vice versa, at the downtown hotels at certain hours, and outside of some of the larger office buildings during the weekday. That is about it, unless you feel like calling yellow cab or cowboy cab and waiting 45 minutes to get picked up (if at all).

Me? I prefer Karaoke Cab, and yes, it is exactly as it sounds with disco ball and everything. I'd publish the number for advertising purposes, but I care not for having my rides delayed b/c of you might be wont to do. You people have cars. Leave the fun, chauffered commutes to the experts. That being me. You haven't lived until you have seen Baby Diego belting out "Like a Virgin" out the windows at 2 in the morning to stunned club-goers.

I take cabs quite a bit these days. Often anywhere between two and five times a month I would guess. Usually I just wander over to the Magnolia or Adolphus Hotels if I'm still downtown and have little trouble, although some more difficult cabbies might be looking for bigger fares than my 1.5 mile trip to the Loon. That all means less drunk driving. Care to compare where more DD occurs, NYC or Dallas?

It also means less need for car ownership. In a place where it is financially viable (if not advantageous) to use other means of transportation than private automobile for mobility, this means less land tied up by all the facilities constructed to support the car: garages, highway, arterials, etc. This is all land (particularly) when dealing with a downtown and its increased land costs, better suited for usable development. Car infrastructure has built-in structural inefficiencies.

Also, it makes city living more affordable on both ends. The developer can cut cost by building less parking (sometimes as much as 20% of construction budget) and it allows a greater variety of demographics to afford urban living. As Mr. Krieger also put it today, "Vibrant streets aren't populated by the patrons of the W hotel [paraphrased from memory]."