Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Role Governments Play

So we have two recent reports out, one from the Harvard Business Journal showing just how timely they are in the article: Smart Money is Moving Back to the City. They seem so proud. So prescient.

In the second article, Kaid Benfield from NRDC writes in the Washingtonian that it is already happening.

Need a more striking graphic:


Orange arrows mean a local drop in housing prices of 25% or greater. Green monopoly house graphic means the opposite. Hmmmm, Harvard. I think the smart money was in long ago. Glad to have you at the table.

This however does raise a few issues. Obviously, in our country, in our time, the private market makes the cities. However, to ignore government agencies roles in doing so is to not understand our system in the first place. The invisible hand is attached the invisible arm. And if the invisible hand is wandering aimlessly around the countryside, it ends up leaving behind the wastes of its explorations.

Well, on the bright side, it tested the value of exurban land, and found that it is far less than the value of the similarly isolated single family house now sitting on it.

So what does that mean for us here in DFW, real estate, new urbanism, and just plain old urbanism. I often point out that probably the most serious of all issues creating sprawl and underperforming urban environments is the disconnection between transportation planning and design and its counterpart of placemaking or city building.

What I find most interesting about the "new urbanism" of the past two decades, is that even the best projects occurred in all the wrong places. At best they were road side attractions. At worst they were positioned at the end of a virtual cul-de-sac. Take Addison Circle for example. It was only built where it was because of the availability of land. Urban forces however, if they weren't at odds, would want that kind of development along Belt Line Road. Addison Circle is the center of community, but off-center.

Because of the failings of DOTs, City, and State policies, the real estate industry stomps around cluelessly hoping to squeeze value out of any and all piece of land that they can get their hands on cheaply. It is a process built on wish and prayer. "We're gonna develop this property and hope people come." It is supply side rather than demand driven. Creating well-designed points of convergence is city building, it is also economic development. It removes the barriers to delivering supply to a pent-up demand wanting to be near movement, near activity, at the heart of places. It makes the real estate industry smart and productive rather than the enemy of NIMBYism.

Commerce needs activity, it needs movement and predictability of location. Commerce is driven by emotional need. Here is where it is important to point out that consumerism by nature isn't bad. It is the material waste inherent in open-loop systems that is particularly insidious. Commerce is the exchange of goods, services, ideas, and genes. It has to happen. It is biologically wired into us.

However, our transportation planning and road design has undermined this. "High Streets," "Main Streets," and markets always occurred at crossroads, at intersection points, at points of convergence. Density wants to be at these convergence points, which is exactly what downtowns are/were until we gutted them with highways.

The real estate market needs predictability to infuse intelligence into the price and value of land. Otherwise, we end up with a supply of development in the middle of nowhere with no demand to match. Las Colinas once fit this bill and it has taken at least two generations to slowly ingratiate it with the rest of the City. Hence, it was a financial flop for the longest time until the introduction of DART to provide some level of convergence, of predictability, of movement.

Our highways and arterial system are repulsive forces. Nobody wants to be on them nor near them. But, we have no choice. They are unsafe and inhumane. The very nature of their planning and design violates the nature of convergence and how cities function (and their economies). Our points of convergence, the intersections of our busiest streets have to the be most pleasantly designed. The most enjoyable to be on or otherwise, our local economies will continue to leak oil, literally.

Complete Streets, Context-Sensitive Design, and incentive-laden TODs are all steps in the right direction. All of which would allow the private market (the hand) adapt the City to and work cohesively with the transportation network established by government agencies (the arm). So why do we keep widening roads when we have some of the worst traffic in the country:

John Horsley, Executive Director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, relayed the information during a news conference Monday at the National Association of County Engineers' annual conference.

The AASHTO's report, Transportation Reboot: Unlocking Gridlock, is the first in a series aimed at boosting transportation capacity.

It identifies what the agency considered needed projects across the country, including in Texas.

The study says bottlenecks cause 40% of all congestion, and the gridlock costs Americans time and money.

The solutions presented Monday include using millions of dollars to build new highways.

Texas, however, does not have the funding.

Hey John. You know what costs Americans time and money. Your industry. IntraCity highways are a drain. The cause, not the solution. How many studies do we need to undermine this nonsensical thinking?

Here is where it is important to remind of the corruption that once plagued streetcars, then railroads, and now highways. Too many are dependent upon that breast milk. We're like an 18-year old still living in the basement with an Oedipus Complex.

A monopoly is never good for markets, but particularly in transportation it becomes exceptional corrosive. If for no other reason, we need a range of transportation choices just to undermine the corruption that occurs within any one dominant form. History doesn't repeat but it rhymes.