Tuesday, September 17, 2013

How Detroit went Broke

This is much more helpful than the typical "auto industry and unions killed Detroit" intellectual laziness.  The Detroit Free Press dug into the history of the city's finances and put together some terrific infographics, as such:

In general, it's a story of diminishing tax base (population + wages) during periods of increased cost burdens (infrastructure + pensions) and the sum total of many attempts to paper over the cracks with increased fees, revenue sources, and symbols of progress, none of which actually addressed the underlying issue of population loss which was the real key.

The key points:

  • City debt actually dropped below revenue during the late 1970's/early '80's.  

  • Detroit had pretty significant debts back in the 1950's when the population was at its peak
  • Absurd pension payments are still a prob, obv.
  • Debts REALLY spiked in the late 1990's when the state drastically reduced state-wide tax revenue sharing.
  • Oh, and then there is Kwame Kilpatrick's pension refinancing which was lauded at the time, but turned out to double the city's burden, while in all likelihood landing him in jail.  More jail.  On top of what he's already in.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Mark Lamster at the DMA and a Defense of CNU

Last night I was able to attend the Dallas Architecture Forum event at the DMA featuring new DMN architecture critic Mark Lamster.  It was as uncomfortably formal as it sounds (through no fault of Lamster's) and the audience seemed a perfectly Dallas split between "tell us how to fix everything, Howard Roark" and "tickle our belly and look on our works, ye mighty, and despair."

You may or may not be surprised to find that I agreed with everything he said, from the slight subjective critique of Klyde Warren Park's busy overclutteredness (something I echoed about Main Street Garden and the nature of public design processes turning into wish lists and the designer into geometric arranger of over-programming) to the more objective poor urban interface and relationship between KWP's off-ramp/barrier next to the children's play area and the Perot Museum (I have yet to enter the Perot so I can't comment on his perception of claustrophobia in its interior display spaces) to Museum Tower's alien presence in the Arts District (which is too bad, because something OTHER than performing arts venues is exactly what the Arts District requires).

Where you might think I would disagree is with his criticism of the Congress for New Urbanism, or CNU, of which I'm not only a card carrying member, I'm also the President (of the North Texas chapter - one of the nation's largest).  In his analysis of CNU he is right to point out that CNU has had the biggest effect on city coding.  The reason is CNU is fundamentally viral.  It has infected all things, from transportation to architecture to planning.

His criticism is that CNU is overly conservative from both an architecture and social standpoint.  The picket fence, the retro-1950's leave it to Beaver house and family.  He's both right and wrong.  There's also a notion (which he didn't repeat) that seems to be swirling in the NYC design illuminati circles that CNU is somehow racist, which is absurd.  I'll get to that in a moment.

He's right in that these are the exact same issues I fight against.  I detest Celebration, FL and all of the off-center "town centers" built as Potemkin Villages to hide their true nature as malls without roofs.  They're walkable!  See: sidewalks!  You just have to drive to get there.

This is one of the reasons (as new president of the CNU-NTX chapter) I've been visiting various local architecture firms to introduce CNU and the pending national congress in 2015 to talk about what CNU is and more importantly what it is not (which are often the common misconceptions about style).  Please, read the charter if you have the chance.  Linked here: http://www.cnu.org/charter

He's wrong in that he's merely responding to one perception of CNU (which has some merit, which I'll get to).  From the perspective of the charter, it is much like the constitution, with 20-something fairly generic adopted bullet points, that serves as a framework of an operating system.

And like the constitution it is merely an input.  We, as designers, developers, and consumers, the market, are the throughput.  What comes out, we may not always like, but that has more to do with the filter that is the market and the inherent politics, economics, and culture of the day.  For example, as Americans we believe in the constitution, though we may not believe in the manner that some parts of it are currently interpreted, like the 2nd amendment (don't shoot me, I'm a Kennedy and that would look bad this year).

Similarly, the CNU as based on the charter can't possibly be blamed for the faux 1950's new suburbia.  That is simply one way in which the market interpreted it.  Similarly, CNU can't possibly be racist, but people or outcomes could be (within any organization).  Therefore those that buy or espouse that notion are being small-minded and petty, usually because they're worried about loss of market share.

Shocking, I know, but there is still racism in the country and that is abhorrent.  There is also some pretty terrible aesthetic sense out there.  Because the CNU and its viral nature infects all things, it is somehow blamed for these two maladies.  Instead, maybe it should be given more credit for that which is good that it is directly responsible for, which is the return of interest in downtowns and walkability, the development of places like Pearl District in Portland or State-Thomas, which catalyzed the rest of the urban infill that comprises uptown Dallas.

There is also nothing about architectural style in the CNU charter.  And frankly, within CNU circles the debates between modernism and traditional are nauseating, something that are entirely subjective and not within the realm of the charter.  I avoid them at all costs (and will hopefully prevent them from occurring at CNU2015).  Instead, the underlying theme of the Charter is connectivity, buildings to the street, streets to the network, uses to compatible other uses, etc.

This is why CNU is a big tent.  It houses modernists and traditionalists alike.  I, for one, am a design agnostic, particularly with regards to the exterior of buildings.  My personal aesthetic for interiors is a weird post-industrial/modernist style that I wouldn't push upon anybody.  Yet those that do push styles on others and litter the world with their own personal aesthetic seem to be those that are most critical of CNU for just a mere subset of by-products that are quasi-attributable to CNU.  Instead, the problem is the filter, the throughputs, and that means the body politic and economics of the day producing that which is worthy of scorn.

In terms of style, there is a time and place for just about anything, just don't be terrible, internalized, nor destructive to your surroundings.  The CNU shouldn't be blamed because one market output is a terrible suburban fake town center nor because there are stoops on a house with picket fences in some ode to an imagined history of the previous century (which does indeed seem to appeal to a wide market on a political level).  Perhaps it's the market's preferences, the economics of the day, the politics, or the transportation that warps the charter into something less than desirable.

What DOES matter and where those projects went wrong had nothing to do with style nor really the market but the underlying rules that the system of cities play by, their inputs.  This is why CNU is most effective at trying to re-write codes so that mixing of uses isn't prohibited or why we're trying to breakdown the inertia of transportation planning by formula and standards that produces sprawl and inhumane, unwalkable roads.

This is why I consider architecture (and Dallas's obsession with object architecture) to be the tail wagging the proverbial dog of local design culture and dialogue.  The architects are merely working within dystopian, hellscapes as context, engineers are just following the standards imposed upon them, and developers are just playing by the rules of zoning and market- and spatial- response to the transportation system that is wholly inequitable and destructive to the city as a functional system for social and economic exchange.

All that matters is that cities focus on that which effects us all, that which is universal: equality of opportunity, accessibility, walkability, choice in housing type, neighborhood character/density, choice in mode and route of transportation.  Through those form of universal empowerment, and once they're taken care of, then we can get to the less critical, subjective items such as style.

This is why I think we can create a lot of positive change through two simple fixes to the DNA of the city: 1) take power back from TxDOT (which just so happens to be serving it up on a silver platter) in determining how our streets and blocks look, feel, and function, and 2) rewrite the parking code to be sane, contextually-based, and market-oriented.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

NYC Owes Jane Jacobs Soooo Much Money

Manhattan was supposed to have more freeways than it does.  Not only did the West Side Highway crumble and replaced by a surface boulevard (the only perimeter road around Manhattan NOT to be a highway), but there were supposed to be two cross-town connectors that never were.

Robert Moses originally conceived of the Lower and Mid-Manhattan Expressways in the 30s and 40s, but plans weren't finalized for them until the 60's.  At which point, there was a woman named Jane Jacobs living in the way (in more ways than one).

Combined the two crosstown connectors would've cost about $150 million.  Calculating for inflation, that's about $1.2 billion in today's dollars to give you a sense of what such a thing could cost today (however, as we'll discuss Manhattan property has outpaced inflation).

Perhaps my favorite aspect of this story is the fanciful belief in progress that underscored Moses and the highway builders as exemplified by the image below:

Oh yeah.  Just add the freeways and then new high-rises will spring up along the freeways.  Even showing graduated heights of buildings rising towards the edges which is the opposite of how real value and demand graduates towards centers.  Best illustrated by taxable value heat maps like below:

This is why I despise the term value-capture.  It's a meaningless word.  Had it been around in the lexicon of the day, Robert Moses surely would've used it in conjunction with this drawing and talked of all the economic benefits or "value-capture" if people would just listen to him.  And most did.  Like so much rhetoric, the term value-capture is an empty vessel for an audience to fill with their own personal meaning and happy thoughts.

To see how much value was actually spared from capture, I've decided to highlight all the properties these two highway plans would've directly affected.  I've had to leave out those indirectly affected because we just don't know how the nearby properties would've reacted despite pretty ample evidence that these properties would've been depressed and in all likelihood become the highest and best use for highway adjacent property, parking.

As you  can see the Midtown Expressway would've razed 23 city blocks and the Lower, a much more significant 51.  Those numbers may not seem like a lot given how big some freeways have expanded, but Manhattan has very large blocks.  The blue areas I've highlighted represent 90 and 118 acres respectively.  Of Manhattan dirt, that's a pretty penny indeed.

So I wanted to find out exactly how much.

The areas in question.  Picture them without buildings. Or people. But keep the cars.

So I dug up various NYC assessment maps, graphs, figures, and statistics and slowly building a database of all the properties in question.  Doing so, I've found that some of these blocks can have dozens and dozens of parcels within them, each with their own owner, assessment value, and approximate market value (which NYC keeps track of, luckily).

Needless to say, it's going to take a long time to build this database.  But one thing is clear, NYC is better off without the highways and surely doesn't regret letting a little beer-loving lady from Greenwich Village stand in the way of progress.

Here are some early numbers, having only fit a few so far into the database and then extrapolating them across the full acreage:

Combined market value of the study areas in question currently sits at $13.38 billion.

Furthermore (and again these are VERY preliminary numbers, like .1% of the total data), I'm estimating the city gets $192 million each year in property taxes from these areas.  Factored over 50 years (in 2013 dollars), that's $9.6 billion into the city's coffers.  And none of these statistics "captures" all of the social and economic exchange that occurred within these sites, how many sales, and sales taxes generated.  How many leisurely walks which might've been prevented by elevated expressways.  How many friends met.  You get the idea.  I hope.

As I have time, I'll continue to build the database and update the projected numbers.

PS Oh, and I also hope to build a formula based on the Austin data about how the negative effect of freeways on property values increases based on proximity to roughly determine how much value could've been lost within the quarter- to half-mile range (or whatever it turns out to be) of the freeway.  The numbers could be staggering.

Reduncacy Department Redux

I promised (perhaps to myself) that I was finished writing/talking about Museum Tower.  Everything had been said I thought.  Then new DMN architecture critic Mark Lamster took a tour of the building and actually reported from the inside. Go read his review of it here. It's accurate, often funny, and perfect.

There is one point he makes within it that I want to dig into further because it's something that infects quite a bit of the public understanding of urbanism and cities.  And that's the idea of what should have been done.  Mark writes about the need for a retail base that engages the public realm and transitions the tower to its context in a way that ingratiates itself to its context, forming the seam between private and public spaces while further activating what is an incredibly dire streetscape.

And he's right.  It should've been more like the typical Vancouver point building where the tower occupies a smaller volume, set back further then the 1- to 4-story base that fills out the entire block.  See image below or more from my trip to Vancouver from a few years ago.

It's telling that Dallas seems to want to be a cheap knock-off of Vancouver while mimicking the building it's most known for when what Vancouver ought to be best known for is the rejection of any highways through the city.  The point tower is simply a by-product of the protection of the walkable, pedestrian-scaled street and block system uninterrupted by car-first engineering.  The city needed to accommodate the demand for density (again, by-product of underlying conditions) while mitigating the negative impact that towers can have on the public realm below (too much shade in a cloudy city, windshear, and scale as towers loom uncomfortably out over the sidewalk) so they created the concept of the point tower where buildings had invisible volumes they were allowed to fill.

Again, that part is fairly irrelevant except for the fact that hypothetically it would be better than the defensive posture and isolation that the final design of Museum Tower instills.  Isolation is anti-urban.  Urbanism is fundamentally about connectivity.  Dallas struggles to understand what connectivity means and that it should be the priority rather than a rube-goldbergian after thought.  Why?  I answer that in this post on the Prime Directive.  Ease of car movement and the perpetual struggle against the bogeyman of congestion trumps every other consideration.  The actual function of the city as an efficient machine for social and economic exchange for all is subservient to car movement.  Don't have enough money for a car?  Don't enjoy driving? Don't feel safe with your life in the hands of the lady applying make-up passing you on 75?  Or the teen texting?  Or somebody heading back to Wylie after having a few too many in West Village?  Tough cookies.

That's important to understand the hypothetical of what could've been done to Museum Tower.
There are systemic issues preventing what SHOULD'VE been done from being what COULD'VE been done.

The first is of a formulaic nature.  During the development process I can see somebody suggesting the idea of adding retail to the development and design program.  At which point it could be derailed by a million different players along the decision chain.  The lender is afraid of mixed-use.  The developer doesn't want to deal with the complexity.  The brokers say no retailers are interested in the site.  The retailers plug demographic data from the surrounding 'customer shed' (a 1-, 3-, or 5-mile radius) and decide that there aren't enough people, or dollars, or pedestrians, or vehicular traffic to trigger their decision making process.  It could be any or all.  And based on those backwards or sideways looking metrics, they'd be right.  Formulas can't see into the future.  Only thoughtful people.

It's the other issue that underlies all of the above.  And this is what I wrote about three years ago when the Museum Tower design was first unveiled.  The building's design did nothing about the cloverleaf exit ramp of Woodall Rodgers, essentially making a defensive posture for the design a rational response to harsh physical conditions.

To generate pedestrian activity, it's less about the supply of ground floor retail or towers in the sky, but more about the soil conditions being right to foster life to grow.  And that requires pedestrian-scaled street and block system.  But unfortunately that is subservient to the free flow of cars.  Watch out kids!  Car comin' thru!

It is that which drives demand and pedestrian activity from which ground floor retail and density responds.  Because we refuse to do the hard work of tilling the soil (restoring a pedestrian-scaled street and block network and rightly prioritizing it), we're left jamming shiny aluminum Charlie Brown Christmas trees into the dirt.

In case you're wondering, yes, the vestigial walkable pockets of Main Street, Deep Ellum, Lower Greenville, Bishop Arts, etc., are the little, actual living thing.  Perhaps they could use a bit more stewardship if we want to the full flowering ecology of Vancouver.