Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Breaking Bad

There is a story up at the Urban Land Institute about an increasing number of cities filing for bankruptcy.  It's worth a read, though not particularly for the all-to-predictable conclusion (private sector partnerships to the rescue!) nor for the quoted commentary (some of it is far more useful and insightful than others), but rather to simply understand that this is a serious issue and the beginning of the end.  Not the end for cities, but for the end of the broken manner in which we've built cities for the last 50-80 years.  It takes a few generations for flaws to reveal themselves as fissures until ultimately the cracks hasten, accelerate, and splinter until everything falls into a dust heap.



I've been following Stockton, CA's issues for a while now as I have Valencia, Spain's, as well as Harrisburg, PA's.  I'm originally from Harrisburg and their demise is something that's been coming for a while now.  Just like all the rest, despite the blips of high times that papier-mache over the faulty foundations.

Dumb people, despite their qualifications and accreditations, cite things like the bust in the housing market as the problem with places like Stockton.  Sad day.  Except it wasn't the bust that was the problem.  It was the boom, that displaced and destabilized cities into something lacking the connective tissue of highly complex ecosystems, anti-city.  Sprawl.


"That ringing in your ears?  That [high-pitched] eeeeeee... That's the sound of the cells dying."

Harrisburg is a city of 50,000 people.  It's also a state seat.  It's boundaries are very small and its major industry is tax exempt, obv.  Most of the people that work in said state seat, live outside of city proper.  Because they can.  Because said state built an infrastructure availing housing opportunities at an ever increasing edge, chewing up evermore agricultural land.  There is no mass transit available, and like most increasingly sprawling and disconnected places, it wouldn't make a difference.  The infrastructure is built in a way that mass transit would never be as "convenient" as driving.  Striving for "convenience" makes for a whole lot of inconvenience.

The metropolitan area of Harrisburg, PA is about 650,000 people.  And that doesn't even include metropolitan York, PA nor metro Lancaster, PA.  A triangle, all about 30 minutes apart.  Or less than it is from Dallas to the majority of its suburbs.  Combine those three metropolitan areas and Harrisburg, a city (tax base) of 50,000, as its primary job center, has to support a super-metro area of about 1.3 million people.

It's all too easy to point to single elements as the root cause.  In Harrisburg, it's an absurdly expensive and mismanaged incinerator.  But these are generally only the straw that broke that camels back.  A mistake made when blinded when riding high.  Or similarly, these singular objects are the cherry on the top of a much broader foundation when they're considered the cause of all the good in a city's revitalization.  Like Bilbao, which I've shown over and over, their revitalization began fifteen years prior to the Guggenheim.  Serious economists and urbanists know that.  Few are actually serious.

We've built our cities to fail.  These privatization and partnership solutions are acts of desperation and short-term at best.  If they're not fiscally sustainable for the commonwealth, the private sector will surely see their way to the door once they clean up on the initial hand-out and handover of public commons.  There is little to no margin in the fiscally unstable and unsustainable.  But there is plenty when its given over to you at first before you can turn it around and divest.

Most cities simply don't have an organization in place to balance the cost burden of infrastructure for a region with the limited tax base of city propers.  And even those that do are often holding on by a thread if the core city isn't growing, metropolitan planning organizations too often support the metro region as a whole rather than a collection of centers.  Exasperating the problem with same old policies.  The MPO is simply now the brain of the formerly headless parasite sucking the life out of the city.  Sure, it's fat and happy.  Until it bursts with the blood and viscera of its unwitting victim.

Have I told you that the City of Dallas grew by the least amount of people since the 1880 census?  Not percentage. No.  Actual people.


Harrisburg, and cities like it, possibly need to be taken over by the state it resides in.  Unfortunately, that won't solve it, as state legislatures will simply cut services as an act of punishment and "budget balancing."  The underlying problem is that you can't balance the budget with an imbalanced physical environment.  Too much infrastructural burden and too little tax base.  The infrastructure we've built is simply the straws sticking out of the neck for the parasites to feed more easily.

The horrible and true irony is that ultimately, this hurts those suburbs too.  And they can't even really be called suburbs anymore, because they aren't lesser parts of a greater whole.  Instead, they've subjugated the host organism, like the machines did to humans in the matrix.  Kept alive as office parks or general entertainment/stadium venues, just enough to keep the heart beating.

That sound you hear is simply the emergency call to the triage staff at the hospital of cities, the host organism, flatlining.  It's time to keep them alive.  But not TOO alive if you're to listen to any of the so-called experts.  Just enough to keep sucking the life out of it.  Until it's some other generation's problem.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Olympus?

As you know, because you may live in Dallas or otherwise, Dallas is pursuing an Olympic bid for 2024.  Before we go running off and making plans to house german tourists, we've made a cut of 35 American cities.  Including Tulsa.

Dallas seemingly always chases the Olymipics.  Of course it is.  It's Dallas.  It's what we do (though that doesn't mean we can't land it).  We try to get into the party with London and Barcelona and Seoul and Vancouver, but we're not allowed because we're just not pretty enough.  So we're forced to wait outside the club in line.  It's a wonderful irony.  There we wait, bitching about the cities that get to cut in line.  So we adjust our outfit to show a little more leg and curve.  That still doesn't work.  Until we bum a cigarette from Atlanta, the worn out wait staff out on break sharing a smoke with Salt Lake, who gives us the one and only necessary piece of advice: "just slip the door men a hundy if you want into the club so bad."

Now, I loathe gargantuan boondoggles of the highest order more than just about anything else.  Though I'm not opposed to the idea of the Olympics here in Dallas if only for the sheer nihilistic wonderment and entertainment value.  Or better put, it would be held in the Metroplex.  Yes, I know you hate the term "the Metroplex."  Hate it for its honesty.  Hate it for what it implies.  Hate it for the placelessness it describes.  Because it's true.  

That won't stop the IOC from awarding the Olympics to DFW, as Atlanta can attest.  We just have to do what is necessary.  Like offering free tuition to IOC offspring to Georgia Tech or Emory.  Oh wait, that's Atlanta.  But you get my point.  And if you don't, it is: we can make it happen if the chips fall in place and the timing is right given whoever is on the various national and international selection committees at a given time.  Keep in mind, many other cities will also do what it takes to get it, so it often falls to whims and endless, ever-fluid dealmaking.

Cities want the Olympics because it is the new Urban Renewal.  A chance at "free money" to overhaul parts of their city they are less proud of if not ashamed (particularly if they're afraid of the truth that those realities are of their own doing).  So, whoosh.  Wipe it all away with one fail swoop without regard to repercussions or things like 'what happens afterwards.'  In Urban Renewal you don't think about repercussions, externalities, or spin-off effects.  Just focus on the illusion to help sell the dream.  

However, London did specifically address those issues.  As I commented on D's article:
The lesson of the prior and most recent olympics is that 1) don't worry about the money to build facilities, it will appear - these are boondoggles of the highest order - and (more importantly) 2) what happens to all of those generally narrow use, single-purpose facilities afterwards. The most interesting thing about London is they specifically addressed this point in their bid and subsequent planning. All of the facilities had to have a long-term utilization strategy, many of which included disassembly and relocation as smaller facilities for local athletics programs around England as smaller venues. 
The lesson of the prior and most recent olympics is that 1) don't worry about the money to build facilities, it will appear - these are boondoggles of the highest order - and (more importantly) 2) what happens to all of those generally narrow use, single-purpose facilities afterwards. The most interesting thing about London is they specifically addressed this point in their bid and subsequent planning. All of the facilities had to have a long-term utilization strategy, many of which included disassembly and relocation as smaller facilities for local athletics programs around England as smaller venues. 
The lesson of the prior and most recent olympics is that 1) don't worry about the money to build facilities, it will appear - these are boondoggles of the highest order - and (more importantly) 2) what happens to all of those generally narrow use, single-purpose facilities afterwards. The most interesting thing about London is they specifically addressed this point in their bid and subsequent planning. All of the facilities had to have a long-term utilization strategy, many of which included disassembly and relocation as smaller facilities for local athletics programs around England as smaller venues. 

My concern about the Fair Park as Olympic Village idea (though I do believe it is a good use for Fair Park) is that Fair Park can (and must) redevelop as a village with or without the Olympics. The Olympics and its financial weight can be used to leverage more difficult problems if we so choose. Why wait ten years to start repurposing Fair Park as multi-purpose, full-time neighborhood (ie infilling the parking lots)?
My concern about the Fair Park as Olympic Village idea (though I do believe it is a good use for Fair Park) is that Fair Park can (and must) redevelop as a village with or without the Olympics. The Olympics and its financial weight can be used to leverage more difficult problems if we so choose. Why wait ten years to start repurposing Fair Park as multi-purpose, full-time neighborhood (ie infilling the parking lots)?
My concern about the Fair Park as Olympic Village idea (though I do believe it is a good use for Fair Park) is that Fair Park can (and must) redevelop as a village with or without the Olympics. The Olympics and its financial weight can be used to leverage more difficult problems if we so choose. Why wait ten years to start repurposing Fair Park as multi-purpose, full-time neighborhood (ie infilling the parking lots)?
The lesson of the prior and most recent olympics is that 1) don't worry about the money to build facilities, it will appear - these are boondoggles of the highest order - and (more importantly) 2) what happens to all of those generally narrow use, single-purpose facilities afterwards. The most interesting thing about London is they specifically addressed this point in their bid and subsequent planning. All of the facilities had to have a long-term utilization strategy, many of which included disassembly and relocation as smaller facilities for local athletics programs around England as smaller venues. 
The lesson of the prior and most recent olympics is that 1) don't worry about the money to build facilities, it will appear - these are boondoggles of the highest order - and (more importantly) 2) what happens to all of those generally narrow use, single-purpose facilities afterwards.  The most interesting thing about London is they specifically addressed this point in their bid and subsequent planning.  All of the facilities had to have long-term utilization strategies.  Many of which included disassembly and relocation as smaller facilities for local athletics programs around England as smaller venues.
My concern about the Fair Park as Olympic Village idea (though I do believe it to be a good use for Fair Park) is that Fair Park can (and must) redevelop as a village with or without the Olympics.  The Olympics and its financial weight can be used to leverage more difficult problems if we so choose.  Why wait ten years to start repurposing Fair Park as multi-purpose, full-time neighborhood (ie by infilling the parking lots)?
y concern about the Fair Park as Olympic Village idea (though I do believe it is a good use for Fair Park) is that Fair Park can (and must) redevelop as a village with or without the Olympics. The Olympics and its financial weight can be used to leverage more difficult problems if we so choose. Why wait ten years to start repurposing Fair Park as multi-purpose, full-time neighborhood (ie infilling the parking lots)?
The other issue about repercussions is always, "how will the Olympics be remembered?"  As I've written before, my fondest memories of olympics generally fall in line with how integral the context is to a particular event.  The three that jump out in my mind immediately:  1) diving in Barcelona from atop Montjuic with the entire city in the background, 2) beach volleyball in London set at the horse stables, and 3) running of the torch through the rainy city of Vancouver with seemingly the entire drunken city running behind.  

Of course, those are my biases.  But, they all have a direct connection between what I guess is globalism of the olympic stage with the local context. Intertwined.  The funny thing about the Olympics though, are the ones that are seemingly most fondly remembered by history are those in the best, most interesting cities/places.  They are representations of that particular place in time and they do not lie.  

Beijing was bloated fabrication as preposterously over the top and disingenuous like a North Korean missile parade.  Sydney was suburban and vapid.  Atlanta was in budget because it was a done on the cheap.  A throwaway olympics for a throwaway city.  Athens?  Well, that was all done on borrowed money of course.  A cocaine and stripper party in the Hamptons from ill-begotten insider trading.

What would the Olympics tell the world about us?  And is it a story we want told?*

*Caveat:  the story you tell others isn't always the one they hear.
The lesson of the prior and most recent olympics is that 1) don't worry about the money to build facilities, it will appear - these are boondoggles of the highest order - and (more importantly) 2) what happens to all of those generally narrow use, single-purpose facilities afterwards. The most interesting thing about London is they specifically addressed this point in their bid and subsequent planning. All of the facilities had to have a long-term utilization strategy, many of which included disassembly and relocation as smaller facilities for local athletics programs around England as smaller venues. 

My concern about the Fair Park as Olympic Village idea (though I do believe it is a good use for Fair Park) is that Fair Park can (and must) redevelop as a village with or without the Olympics. The Olympics and its financial weight can be used to leverage more difficult problems if we so choose. Why wait ten years to start repurposing Fair Park as multi-purpose, full-time neighborhood (ie infilling the parking lots)?

Friday, February 15, 2013

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

"Would we EVER consider doing that now?"

I recently showed this to a well-connected, high finance professional who then asked, "would we EVER consider doing that today?"

That was in reference to the destruction of 54 fully-functioning city blocks:

1930's Dallas with 345 study boundary:



















Aerial oblique looking from the North, today:

Tearing out Highways to Improve Connectivity: Intersection Density Edition










Advice for Getting into Professional Urbanism

I get this email quite a bit.  People come across the blog or a published article I've written and they're hoping to get some advice for course of study, career path, or if they're already out in the work force how they can get more involved.  There is quite a bit to say about that and how lost we are in terms of city building that matches our needs.  That need of course being improved quality of life.  And people want to help.  They have an inherent need to improve the world around them.

My advice is pretty terrible.  I don't know the answer beyond quoting Morpheus from the Matrix, "there is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path."  Our institutions are set up to funnel you into commodotized and compartmentalized silos.  This doesn't help expand our horizons and the possibilities for the world.  But it takes an awful lot of risk to step out from the institutional order and orthodoxy even if we know deep down these institutions aren't currently set up to improve our world, and more specifically, our city building to meet our needs.  There is far more long-term gain to be had from value creation rather than value-extraction.  This is probably overly abstract and imprecise but precision is impossible given the context.  Everybody is different and everybody has their own specific interests and skill sets which can contribute to a greater good, for self and others.  We're really a remarkable species in that way (sometimes I have to remind myself, like every time I turn on the local news).

We can build some roads though.  Oh buddy can we build some roads.  Roads that funnel and create their own congestion so we need some more roads.

This most recent letter came from someone
Happy to hear it [redacted].The funny thing about urbanism and urban design is that it is all-encompassing.  Literally any course of study can relate to it if given the right focus, from design to finance, economics and development to community organizing to politics.  Even agriculture with the rise of urban farming and similar endeavors.  Ultimately, it's all about taking your interests and skill sets and aligning them with improving the place around you.  I happened to go to undergrad for Landscape Architecture because at the time I knew it had a focus on urban design and I had been interested in cities since I could walk.  During school and afterwards, I became more and more focused on my particular interests which is the nexus between transportation networks, real estate, and design.  No field was established in this direction, so I had to learn more about transportation and real estate economics and realities on my own.   
Each of those fields have an easy and direct path.  Want to go into transportation, the field is civil engineering.  Architecture? It's design school. Real Estate? Business school.  There isn't really a path for trying to bridge those fields.  And that's where our cities need interested, motivated people like yourself.  I guess I would say, of the big world of cities, find the specific element you're most interested, follow that field, and then seek to expand that field in a direction that interests you and improves the place around you.  We can't change the entire world, but a million hands can make a big change.  I hope that helps and feel free to ask more questions as they arise.

Outline Notes on Highway Tear-outs

I was in Colorado for the past few days and on the way from the mountains back to the city (and eventually airport) I tapped out the outline notes for the presentation I gave today about highway tear-outs.  I wanted this particular presentation to be more conversational and less formally ordered by a powerpoint, though I'll be evolving this into a powerpoint at some point.  Here is how the sausage is made, err those notes before they're formalized even though I ended up just speaking extemporaneously with these general points in mind:

*Btw 2000-10 census metroplex grew by 1.21 million ppl. City of Dallas captured only 9,000. Or 0.007 of the total growth.

Studying 345 began 2 years ago with a real estate developer friend.

It began with our critique of the various downtown plans and efforts as mostly superficial improvements, not addressing underlying issue: the upside down market. That land costs were too high and demand too low.

In essence, developing downtown was unprofitable and thereby require(s) subsidy or charity to build anything

Cities wouldnt exist if they werent profitable.  What we have built is effectively anti-city where the only profit margin is outside.

real estate markets take on the shape based on the bones of infrastructure

The real estate market is the invisible hand but the infrastructure is the invisible arm that guides it.

We have an infrastructure where the demand pressure is forced outward rather than inward, profit margin in having public sector build a hwy to useless land and making it somewhat less useless = sprawl. Doesn't allow for tax base that can support the infrastructure past a generation.

We have to worry less about moving cars and move the real estate market so it favors infill and development rather than growth towards oklahoma.

To do that we have to change the infrastructure network. TxDOT doesn't want to change, they want the status quo to move 160,000 cars and trucks past here. Problem is this road is crumbling
---------------
We chose this specific freeway b/c we felt it had the most value to leverage...believing that downtown to White Rock Lake was the past expansion of the city and its the future of its redevelopment - most potential for combination of re-use and infill

Road is now 40 years old on a 40 year lifespan.

We wanted to get ahead of TxDOT b/c we knew this day was coming

now TxDOT is pursuing 9 options ranging from complete reconstruction to continued minor repair.

We don't know what any of TxDOTs options cost yet

Thing is, there is nothing more to be gained from having the road except status quo. -- IT IS A COST/MAINTENANCE BURDEN IN PERPETUITY -- with no free federal money available and no new economic development to be leveraged.

We're suggesting we must study a 10th option including the removal of the highway and re-knitting of the grid of streets between downtown, Deep Ellum and East Dallas....accounting for the benefits...

for about the cost of Klyde Warren Deck Park...we can take down 345, rebuild the street network for developable blocks and leverage $4billion in investment in the 245 acre study area, $110m in yearly property tax revenue for the city, in an area where they currently only generate $3m.  25,000 new residents, and several new parks, each as the centerpiece of new neighborhoods linking downtown and Deep Ellum

The spinoff benefits for downtown, deep ellum and the rest of east dallas are then exponential.  This would be the catalyst for that change.
-------------

TRAFFIC:  ~160,000 cars

Regional - if they're not coming to downtown, we don't want that traffic anywhere near our downtown neighborhoods. This is why we built loop 12, 635, and 190.  Westside Hwy 57% drop NJ-NJ

Local grid - way under-capacity - 252,000 vehicles per day under capacity
- east dallas grid needs more traffic (as long as it's tamed and pedestrian friendly) since businesses look at traffic counts - but they also look at population nearby and that's what we need. More people living here, going to local businesses

Long-term - we're moving people back to the city -- in places where DART, biking, walking, and city streets make more sense than using the highway.  25,000 people moving in with real choice of route and mode rather than funneling to highway.

1996 article - SF chronicle - traffic planners shocked they cured congestion but didn't understand how or why. simple, they took down a highway, but they predicted it would be carmageddon

Short-term - which leads me to modern day carmageddon in LA. Short-term, every time LA has shutdown a highway for construction or cities have taken out highways - there is an immediate 25% drop in traffic demand.

Case Studies:
San Fran - Embarcadero - 300% jump in land value. so successful, planning to take out another 15 blocks of the highway

Central Expressway

Milwaukee

Vancouver never had highways

Seoul South Korea is the most famous

Baltimore, OKC, Seattle, etc planning highway tear-outs. They're understand cities are competing with each other for ppl, but they're competing with their suburbs even more. So they're removing liabilities and replacing them with parks and walkable n'hoods

What we need is a more walkable city... b/c more walkable places carry a premium, they are more popular, are much safer, they generate more sales, more tax revenue... and to get there, we have to start taking out a highway.

D is for Density

Today, I gave a presentation/participated in brief table as part of D Magazine's on-going D Academy, where local professionals from a variety of fields learn about various subjects affecting the city.  I was thinking this presentation was taking place later this evening and I'd have time to put together the presentation at the end of a typical workday.

That is, until my sub-conscious jolted me awake from a rare, pleasantly deep sleep at 4 am this morning and said, "dude! Dude!  Wake up!  I wanna play!  Did you check what time the round table is?  Maybe you should?  It's not during the day?  Maybe you should double check."  And so I did once this internal monologue rattled me fully awake.

So I checked. YIKES!  It's at lunch in a place entirely unwalkable or transit-able (sic). So I wrote out an outline stream of conscious-style of what I wanted to say. Put on a pot of coffee and got to work on a new powerpoint from scratch, caffeine-addled to the gills.  Jonathan Swift would've been proud.  Of the caffeine intake and productivity if not the quality.

I wanted to talk about the deeper, driving impulses towards density, towards cities and urbanization rather than grunt grunt tall building is density grunt.  I think to fully explain the complex nature and inter-dependencies inherent in urbanism, this could and should probably double in size to include more statistics and anecdotes, but I was given 15 minutes.  So here is the 19-slide show (I'm going to try and post Noah Jeppson's as well because there were some kick-ass photos in his):




Thursday, February 7, 2013

San Francisco Saves New Orleans from Itself



"We're not talking about a highway. We're talking about an act of barbarism."