Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Friday, December 09, 2016

Two articles on federal agencies: FEMA and the National Park Service

1.  There is a great article on FEMA in the current issue of Governing Magazine, "FEMA's Plan to Make States Pay More for Disasters," about how the director, Craig Fugate, has been working at reorienting the agency, understanding why people may not evacuate and respond accordingly (people didn't want to leave their pets, which they weren't supposed to evacuate), and increasing the "deductible" that states and localities should pay towards disaster response based on how proactive those communities have been in shaping land use, building codes, and other practices around resiliency.

The story lays out a great model for how government agencies need to reorient and can be capable of doing so.
National Park Service marketing billboard.

2. In the past I used to be particularly critical of the National Park Service because it runs a number of parks in DC that are locally serving, not "national" in their mission, and for the most part the facilities do not operate at best practice level.

 For example, while the Trust for Public Land's methodology for rating city park systems always ranks DC highly because of the amount of federal land they count towards serving local residents ("How surveys based on gross data can be very misleading: DC and parks"), no credible parks planning expert would claim that DC's system of locally serving parks is an example of national best practice.

Nonetheless, I've come to appreciate the reality that the National Park Service has an almost impossible job as it relates to their management of parks in the DC area, even though they aren't really set up to run these kinds of urban, locally-serving parks, because:

  • They are required to follow the National Environmental Policy Act to the letter, and it is a detailed and incredibly long and expensive process, and it has to be performed for any and all projects, regardless of significance, cost, etc.
  • All of their overseers -- the 535 Members of Congress, the President and Vice President, the leadership of the Department of Interior, and the leadership of the National Park Service -- are all local, putting anything and everything they do under hyper-scrutiny and subject to grandstanding, review, etc. It makes them "cautious."
  • They are underfunded, significantly ("National Park Service turns 100, but facilities not being kept up," Columbus Dispatch).
  • For the most part, Congress is no longer interested in investing in federal monuments, parks, historic sites, and cultural facilities in Washington, DC ("Neglected National Mall languishes," Associated Press). Instead they'd rather use whatever money they can get on projects in their home districts and states. This accentuates the general problem of underfunding.

As an example of the first point, NPS just released new guidelines for dog access at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco ("Final dog-management plan for GGNRA has owners growling," San Francisco Chronicle).

Technically, dogs aren't allowed off leash in national parks, and in most national parks, dogs aren't allowed, but dogs have been allowed in certain GGNRA facilities, and off leash too.

When trying to enforce the regulation, which was challenged by people who got tickets, the Courts required the NPS to acknowledge they had been applying the regulation inconsistently and they needed to develop a consistent policy.

That required a Federal Environmental Impact Study which has taken over a decade, and is more than 1,200 pages long.  This comment response document is almost 400 pages.  Economic analysis document, 72 pages.


That puts into perspective how difficult it can be for the National Park Service to act.

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Jay Forrester, Urban Dynamics, and unacknowledged tradeoffs between economic stability and social justice

While I knew already that Jay Forrester, a professor at MIT, was a founder of the field of systems dynamics ("Jay W. Forrester Dies at 98; a Pioneer in Computer Models," New York Times), I didn't know that he published a text, Urban Dynamics, applying system dynamics to cities, the focus being on complex systems being immune to simplistic approaches ("The beginnings of system dynamics," McKinsey Quarterly, 1995).

In Forrester's speech, he has this to say about what we now call affordable housing:
Urban Dynamics was the first of my modeling work to produce strong emotional reactions. It suggested that all of the major urban policies being pursued by the United States lay somewhere between neutral and highly detrimental in their impact, whether from the viewpoint of the city as an institution or from the perspective of unemployed, low-income residents. More, it argued that the most damaging policy of all was to build low-cost housing. At that time, this policy was thought essential to reviving the inner cities.

The conclusions of our work were not easily accepted. It took people several hours to come to an understanding of what urban dynamics was about. City officials and members of local communities would become more and more negative and emotional until they could see and accept the way in which low-cost housing was a double-edged sword for making urban conditions worse. Such housing used up space where jobs could have been created, while drawing in people who needed jobs. Building low-cost housing was a powerful process for producing poverty, not alleviating it.
That is very controversial, but there is no question that there is a lot of truth to it from a strict economic standpoint.

I am not saying don't build affordable housing, but if you want affordable housing to not overly impact negatively a community's revenue stream and costs, then you have to recognize the opportunity costs involved with affordable housing need to be countered with other actions that smooth over the economic impacts.

That's "development," and development that generates greater revenue than costs.  In most communities, residents believe that single family housing generates more net revenue when it actually costs money, while multiunit housing generates more net revenue than costs.  In DC, which collects income taxes, the average household without children generates net revenue for the city while households with children attending public schools are money sinks.

To deal with such costs, be it for affordable housing, great schools, or other public facilities and parks and transit that make the city livable, it means that the opportunity costs of "lopping a floor or two from a building, not having reasonable density bonuses near Metrorail stations, and not taking full advantage of the full capacity of build out in redevelopment opportunities have serious, persistent, and long term economic consequences that are not favorable.

Interestingly, a paper ("Urban Dynamics: the first fifty years,"System Dynamics Review, 1995) on five examples of application of the Urban Dynamics model has some model assumptions that don't necessarily pertain today, such as that all old housing becomes undesirable over time or that buildings as they age aren't able to be reused for higher value applications (Jane Jacobs' point that cities need a large stock of old buildings to seed innovation).

I found this discussion interesting, about a project in Concord, Massachusetts, because it is exactly the issue faced by the City of Washington today, in terms of the failure to acknowledge complex tradeoffs are required to fund the city and to pay for things people say they want, such as "affordable housing." In this particular case, people were concerned about Concord "becoming too popular," and losing the characteristics that made the community special and desirable.
Town goals and tradeoffs

The first models exhibited S-shaped growth patterns, with population equilibrium reached after exhausting whatever resource fueled community attractiveness. Instead of the “Land Fraction Occupied” hypothesis, we substituted housing costs, open space, schools, commuter access, town services and utility use as potential resource constraints. All proved initially attractive, only to ultimately turn negative when population grew to high levels. Little by little, the participants in the “Concord Project” recognized that they faced a very difficult choice: what to sacrifice and what to preserve?

In most communities, such tradeoffs go unrecognized, much less openly debated. Although the simple models did not pretend to forecast future growth, they did get across the point that growth was not inevitable. The town could control its own destiny. It had only to agree which problems to live with, which counterpressures to inflate, and it could lower its attractiveness as a target for developers and a magnet for regional population growth.

In a pluralistic society, such choices are virtually impossible to make. Each group, in seeking its own goals, unwittingly blocks others from achieving theirs. ... After mastering the dynamics of the simpler models, we plunged ahead with several larger models. One combined all of the attractiveness factors in order to examine their interrelationships. Another sought to disaggregate the single population level by age and income.

The models suggested that the tradeoffs would not be enough. The town could not supply affordable housing without fueling rapid growth. Nor could the town purchase sufficient open land for conservation without driving up the price of remaining land. High land prices coupled with restrictive zoning guaranteed high housing costs. Every option led back to the same conclusion: limiting the amount of housing effectively stopped further growth. Yet limiting the housing supply would drive prices sky-high.
Sounds like DC in a nutshell.

I guess I need to track down that book.

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Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Who knew there is such a thing as "artistic cycling"

UCI Indoor Cycling World Championships, Stuttgart, 2016

Monday, December 05, 2016

Bike share and sustainable bike share systems: sometimes other programs can have more effect for less cost

Georgia’s Own Credit Union has become the first presenting sponsor of the city of Atlanta’s bike share program, Relay. Photo: City of Atlanta.

There was an article ("Atlanta partners with Georgia's Own to expand bike share program," Atlanta Journal-Constitution) about the Atlanta bike share system expanding slightly in response to their lining up a sponsor, the Georgia's Own Credit Union, which was communicated on Twitter.

My counter was having the bikes used somewhat less than once/day is nothing to write home about.

(See the past blog entry "The problem when you define every outcome as a succoess, you don't learn, and therefore failure is more likely: bike share in Seattle and Los Angeles as examples," as well as this article from the Seattle Times, "‘It’s not lipstick on a pig’: City shows off new electric bikes," about how they are replacing their "failed" bike share system with a much more expensive but bigger e-bike based system.)

The response back was well, at least they're adding bikes, while systems in Columbus and Cleveland don't have any money to add bikes at all.

I think people are asking the wrong question.  The question isn't "how can we launch a bike share system?" or "where can we get more money to expand?"

The right question is "what is the best way to get more people regularly riding a bicycle for transportation?"  For a lot of communities, "traditional bike share" isn't the right answer -- although it's hard to fight the belief in bike share because people see bike share in another community and want to port it to their community.

I think there are (at least) four answers to the question "what is the best way to get more people regularly riding a bicycle for transportation?" and it costs a lot less money than traditional bike share:

1.  Have a program that is either free or very low cost where people can borrow a bike, helmet, and lock for a few weeks to try it out, like the various programs in the UK, called "Cycle to Loan schemes" such as in Hounslow borough in London.  The London Cyclist Campaign is a lead organizer of such programs, Urban Cycle Loan, which were written about in CityLab, "How Cycling Is Becoming More Equitable in London."

This way people don't have to spend hundreds of dollars to try out biking without being sure they will stick with it.

2.  Have a program that loans people money to buy bikes.  At first I thought only the Virginia Credit Union did this, which they launched in association with Richmond's hosting the UCI World Championship bicycle race in 2015, but it turns out that if you do a Google search, you find many other credit unions have similar programs.  (Note that in the UK, they have a payroll deduction program that funds bike purchases also.  And it doesn't seem that the Georgia's Own Credit Union has such a program.)

This reduces barriers to entry in terms of the potentially high cost to purchase a bike.  This type of program is best paired with a "Cycle to Loan" program so that people can move seamlessly from one to the other.

3.  Separately, institutions -- office buildings ("Property Funds See the Value in Being Green," New York Times), large employers, hotels ("The Colony hotels' bicycle rental service is part of growing trend," Dallas Morning News, and college campuses ("In Dayton, Giving Out Free Bikes To Keep Cars Off campus," Forbes") -- can make bikes available in simple programs that don't require a lot of technology and therefore are much cheaper to offer.

4.  Have a program that targets under-represented populations, like the Community Cycling Center of Portland's "Create a Commuter" program, which teaches people about biking, and provides them with the "kit"--bike and gear, lights for night and early morning riding, etc.--so that they can take up biking.

This helps broaden access to biking for people who could not otherwise afford to do so. In Portland they started this with funds from the Federal program, Job Access and Reverse Commute Program.

I think for the cities that don't possess the right characteristics for success in bike share--a functioning core with a lot of population, lower car ownership, and short distances between activity centers, residential areas, and employment centers, undergirded by a robust transit system--it's a lot better to focus on and invest in different kinds of access to bike programs that have greater return--measured by use--on much less investment.

SDOT’s Andrew Glass Hastings demonstrates electric bike that possibly could be part of a new Pronto rollout, Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2016, in Seattle.  ST photo.

Seattle moving to an e-bike based system.  With Seattle it's hard to say. The original system "failed" because they didn't have enough stations and bikes covering a large enough area.

The new system will be larger with a lot more bikes, but it will be e-bike based. It may be more successful because it will cover a bigger area, but e-bikes are even more expensive to buy and maintain within a bike share program than traditional bikes.  (Unsaid is the likelihood that the provider is motivated to fund the system as a way to demonstrate the technology, and it might not make sense to do otherwise.)

Similarly, Baltimore is using the same bike technology (Bewegen) and again, the increased cost to operate such a system decreases the likelihood of success rather than increases it.

In Seattle, the new bikes will be able to be checked out with transit fare cards (there, the Orca card) which is definitely a step forward (Divvy in Chicago and STM/Bixi in Montreal are working to integrate similar technologies into their transit-bike share systems too).

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DC's youth sentencing program, recidivism, and failures at "rehabilitation"

DC's Youth Rehabilitation Act stresses the opportunity for rehabilitation over trying youths as "adults" with the possibility of very long adult sentences if found guilty, instead sentencing youths to much shorter terms, no terms but with monitoring, etc.

For many many years, Washington Post columnist Colbert King has been writing about the failures of the DC Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services to properly manage, monitor, and rehabilitate youth criminals, recounting many many terrible incidents where youths and young adults under the supervision of DYRS commit heinous acts.

Because of a string of some particularly bad incidents ("How an accused rapist kept getting second chances"), the Washington Post did an investigation and published a very long piece yesterday, "Second-chance law for young criminals puts violent offenders back," about the systemic problems.

Note that the Washington Times ran a series about problems with DYRS back in 2010:

-- "Part 1: Youths lost to violence often in city's supervision"
-- "Part 2: DYRS wards increasingly violence-prone"
-- "Part 3: 'Anti-prison' at root of DYRS problems"
-- "Part 4: Violent crime of DYRS wards knows no bounds"

Why can't the model of the DC Pretrial Services Agency be applied to the youth criminal justice system?  Interestingly, for adults accused of crimes, DC's pretrial supervision/incarceration system is considered a national model, and DC is a national leader in limiting incarceration and not requiring bail.

The DC Pretrial Services Agency unit of the court system manages this process and for the most part "gets it right," limiting incarceration to the people with the greatest propensity for violence.  (Of course, the system is not perfect.)

-- The D.C. Pretrial Services Agency: Lessons From Five Decades of Innovation and Growth, Pretrial Justice Institute

It does not appear that the youth criminal evaluation and monitoring system has developed in a similar fashion.

Without such a rigorous system, the liberal-progressive approach of giving youthful criminals the benefit of the doubt, tends to be quite problematic, as the most recent Washington Post investigation, the many many columns by Colbert King, and the previous coverage by the Washington Times indicate.

Other approaches to reducing youth crime.  While Operation Ceasefire in Boston ("Straight Outta Boston," Mother Jones) focused on gangs, it was part of a broader program called the Boston Strategy to Reduce Youth Violence, and the combined approach is relevant to interdicting youth violence more generally, and is definitely worth taking up in DC, along with approaches comparable to the "Los Angeles police department "Community Safety Partnership".
The Boston Strategy to Prevent Youth Violence has three essential elements. The most concrete, visible element consists of programs: key law enforcement programs, Operation Night Light and Operation Cease Fire; and a broad array of prevention and intervention programs. A second key element is the principles that inspire and guide those programs and make them effective. The third element is the most intangible, but also the most indispensable. It is the collaborative, problem-solving process by which the principles and programs were developed. ...

Operation Night Light is a partnership between police and probation that provides the court with a tool to enforce the terms of probation. Teams of police and probation officers together make evening visits to the homes of youthful probationers to ensure the terms of probation are being met.
Interestingly, Mayor Bowser proposed a program similar to Boston's Operation Night Light, but for adult criminals, in the wake of DC's uptick in murders, as part of a broader set of anti-crime initiatives, and it was opposed by community activists.

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Preparing for winter weather in advance of winter

This video ("Montreal buses, cars, police cruiser and even salt truck slide down hill," CBC-TV)  showing the consequences of an icy road in Montreal reminded me it's time for my annual pre-winter post on snow.

Location: Côte du Beaver Hall toward Viger Street, Montreal

I have a bunch of posts over the years about how cities should adopt a more general "maintenance of way" agenda appropriate for urban areas, with special attention to walking, biking, and transit, since those modes dominate, although most systems preference motor vehicle traffic both in terms of snow clearance and lighting. The basic point is that cities where a majority of trips are conducted not by automobiles need to better prioritize these modes in terms of maintenance generally and winter snow clearance specifically. One of the things that always comes up is snow clearance on trails, especially trails on park land.

In particular it means how we do snow clearance, maintenance of bike lanes, and night time lighting of sidewalks and walking paths. DC is committed to snow clearance on its trails. This is less true of the suburban jurisdictions.

-- "A "maintenance of way" agenda for the walking and transit city," 2010
-- "Snow reminds us of the necessity of a "maintenance of way" agenda," 2013
-- "Testimony on the Winter Sidewalk Safety Amendment Act of 2011," 2011
-- "Level of service and maintenance requirements in planning #2: winter maintenance of bike paths," 2012
-- "Night-time safety: rethinking lighting in the context of a walking community," 2014
-- "Planning for Winter Weather," 2015
-- "Who knew?: there is a Winter Cycling Federation and annual conference," 2015 -- the upcoming Congress is in Montreal, February 8th-10th, 2017

Better practice through better weather data?
Last week, Dr. Gridlock ran a story, "Highway departments preview their snow cleanup plans," discussing the late in the day snows last year and over recent years that crippled the evening commute, extending it by many hours. From the article:
Among commuters, there are dates that live in infamy. One of them is Jan. 20, 2016.

The highway departments in the D.C. region know that date, too, because many of their road crews shared the experience with the commuters. When highway officials talk about winter storm preparations, they use “Jan. 20” as shorthand for a certain set of inputs and outcomes they know everyone in their circle will react to with a shudder.

For those who have the good fortune to be mere casual observers of the daily commute, this wasn’t the date of last winter’s major event, the blizzard, which swept into the region a few days later. Jan. 20 was the day of the dusting, when the afternoon commute was crushed by a light coating of snow.
It reminded me of a recent article in the New York Times Magazine, "Why Isn't the U.S. Better at Predicting Extreme Weather?," which discusses how the National Weather Service/NOAA is so underfunded by Congress that it can't afford to buy the best software or the computers necessary to run the models.

One of the points made by the person featured in the article is that the "micro-areas" that the NWS provides weather forecasts for are too big, and it is possible, with the right software and computing power, to provide much better forecasts for smaller areas than is typical currently.  From the article:
While Mass is the most outspoken on the subject, many experts insist that if the Weather Service wants to meaningfully improve its predictions, it must employ a technique called ensemble forecasting. The basic premise is either to tweak the physics equations or to make repeated changes to a model’s variables: You might bump up the temperature slightly, for example, and then run the model again. After a half-dozen or so reruns, you get a set, or “ensemble,” of forecasts that can be compared with one another. When all the forecasts in an ensemble agree, it’s a reasonably sure bet that the predictions will pan out.

Nobody I’ve spoken to doubts the superiority of ensembles. Yet they haven’t been widely adopted in the United States at the resolution required to forecast localized, or “mesoscale,” events — specifically, thunderstorms, flash floods and tornadoes — because high-resolution ensembles require more computing power than the National Weather Service can currently provide. Higher-resolution ensembles translate to greater accuracy in the same way that HDTVs are clearer than analog sets. I met with a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder who showed me a prototype mesoscale ensemble for the United States. But at the moment, he can’t exploit its full potential because the supercomputing cluster at the Weather Service simply couldn’t handle the load. ...

In 1995, Mass founded the Northwest Regional Modeling Consortium in Seattle to create better local forecasts. At the time, the National Weather Service used models with resolutions of 80 kilometers, or about 50 square miles. In Washington State, a sample that large might encompass topography ranging from 10,000-foot-high snowcapped volcanoes all the way down to the Pacific Ocean; the resulting forecast, forced to produce sweeping overgeneralizations, renders itself essentially useless. “My first test was at 27-kilometer resolution, and then I started doing it higher and I found something absolutely magical,” Mass says. “We could actually forecast the local weather.”

Jeff Renner, the chief meteorologist for Seattle’s NBC television affiliate KING 5, who retired in April, told me, “It really allows us to see some beautiful detail.” KING pays more than $20,000 a year to buy model data from the consortium, which it incorporates into its on-air forecasts. “[Mass] was doing a much better job than the Weather Service, where you were basically getting vanilla ice cream,” Renner says. With the consortium, “it was like walking into Ben & Jerry’s.”
Reading Dr. Gridlock, I was thinking that the first thing that the MWCOG TPB should do is working with all the relevant transportation authorities, contract independently of the NWA for such detailed weather forecasting.

It could help reduce the kinds of forecasting problems that contribute to inadequate preparation for snow events, which then lead to major commute snafus.

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Sunday, December 04, 2016

Earthquake preparedness and disaster recovery: Lessons from Christchurch, New Zealand

Update: my e-correspondent from New Zealand, Nigel Foster, points out to us that in 1945, New Zealand created the Earthquake and War Damages Commission to address various matters concerning earthquake disaster preparedness and response -- in the US, the US Geological Survey does some of this, but responsibility for response is a mixture of federal, state, and local government and typically states and localities lag in action.


The Belltown neighborhood Downtown is a mi of old and new buildings.  Photo: Gene Balk, Seattle Times.

In the summer of 2015 the New Yorker published a piece about Seattle/The Puget Sound's vulnerability to a disastrous earthquake ("The Really Big One: An earthquake will destroy a sizable portion of the coastal Northwest. The question is when") and the relative lack of preparedness activities (cf. Los Angeles, e.g., "Los Angeles will have the nation's toughest earthquake safety rules," Los Angeles Times). From the LAT article:
Under the law, property owners will have seven years to fix wood apartments and 25 years to fix concrete buildings. The city has already identified about 13,500 apartment complexes that officials suspect need repairs. A Times investigation in 2013 found more than 1,000 older concrete structures — including landmark buildings in downtown, Hollywood and Westwood — that require close scrutiny for retrofitting.

Owners will be required to find a way to pay for the work, which can range from $60,000 to $130,000 for wood apartments and millions of dollars for large concrete towers.

While renters and owners remained concerned about their costs, there has been a growing recognition from both groups that retrofitting was necessary.

“We want the buildings to be safe,” Martha Cox-Nitikman of the Building Owners and Managers Assn. of Greater Los Angeles said earlier this week. “But we need to figure out how we get people there without ruining businesses.”

The City Council is still mulling exactly how the retrofit costs will be shared. The law currently allows owners to increase monthly rents by up to $75 to pay for required earthquake retrofits, but both sides say they do not think Los Angeles renters can afford such a hike.

The city's housing department has suggested that renters and owners pay for the retrofit on a 50-50 basis, allowing owners to charge a monthly maximum surcharge of $38 to pay for the seismic retrofit.
There was a lot of pushback in social media to the New Yorker article, which ran a follow up piece, "How to stay safe when the Big One comes," with some recommendations ("bolt your house to the foundation, Know your neighbors," etc.).

Unreinforced masonry was responsible for dozens of deaths in the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand. Seattle has a similar building stock. (Martin Hunter/Getty Images)

The Seattle Times has just published a set of articles about Christchurch  and what happened there ("An earthquake worse than the ‘Big One’? Shattered New Zealand city shows danger of Seattle’s fault"), and lessons for Seattle ("Lessons from Christchurch: 4 key ways Seattle can prepare for earthquake devastation").

 Christchurch too lagged on requiring earthquake retrofitting before the 2011 quake, and this contributed significantly to the death and injury toll there. Buildings that were retrofitted or built with earthquake protection in mind mostly did not fail.

It's easier for Southern California to put earthquake preparation at the forefront of planning because they frequently experience earthquakes.

-- The ShakeOut Scenario (for Southern California), US Geological Survey

Road damage after the Christchurch earthequake.  Photo: Martin Hunter.

It's harder for communities and states that have less direct and less frequent experience with earthquakes, especially because for the most part, politics is about warding off change and response for as long as possible, although Oregon and Portland tend to be ahead of Washington State and Seattle when it comes to future planning for earthquake disasters.

Saving buildings and saving lives with new measures.  Another interesting finding from Christchurch is that even though many buildings retrofitted or newly constructed with earthquake protection did not fail in terms of loss of life, the buildings were still so damaged that they had to be demolished anyway.

David Hallett, The Press.

New Zealand is exceptional in that it has a basic earthquake insurance program in place where most house owners participate, but even so the fund has mostly been depleted because of the 2011 earthquake, and were the country more populated and dense, insurers could have been wiped out.

Some civil engineers suggest therefore that a new standard for earthquake protections be set for new construction and retrofitting focused on buildings staying functional and usable, because the cost of disaster recovery when most buildings must be replaced is too high ("Seismic resilience means much more than good building codes," LinkedIn).

Lessons for disaster planning.  Of course, these lessons are relevant to other elements of disaster planning, including from storms and the impact of climate change on sea levels.  Such as in Florida ("Flooding of Coast, Caused by Global Warming, Has Already Begun," A Sharp Increase In 'Sunny Day' Flooding","  and "Intensified by Climate Change, 'King Tides' Change Ways of Life in South Florida," New York Times).

Notably, a few years ago the North Carolina Legislature voted to reject planning recommendations to address sea level rise along North Carolina's coast ("North Carolina Bans Use of Latest Science on Rising Sea Level," ABC News), which isn't an example of proactive planning.

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Thursday, December 01, 2016

Testimony on adding residential buildings as paying members of business improvement districts in Downtown DC

I wrote earlier about the Downtown DC Business Improvement District's proposal to include multiunit residential buildings as an eligible class of property in its assessment district.

-- "If apartment buildings are "forced" to join Business Improvement Districts, there must be a way for residents to be represented on BID boards independent of property owners"

I am fine with the inclusion of such properties as residents are big beneficiaries from the programming and public space management activities by the BIDs. And I don't see a justification for resident owners -- in cooperatives and condominiums -- of being excluded since they garner significant appreciation in property values as a result of a BID's management, planning, and maintenance activities. But I do think more attention needs to be paid to ensuring the inclusion of residents on BID boards and committees. This is my testimony from a couple weeks ago.

Bill 21-905 “Downtown DC Business Improvement District Amendment Act of 2016

Committee on Finance and Revenue
Council of the District of Columbia

Wednesday November 16th, 2016

Thank you Councilmember Evans and members of the Committee for the opportunity to speak to you today about Bill 21-905 concerning the inclusion of multiunit residential buildings in the assessment class for the Downtown DC Business Improvement District.

Including residential properties in BID districts makes sense. Such property types are already included in other BID assessment districts elsewhere in the city. It is eminently reasonable to include these types of properties in the assessment district for the Downtown DC BID.

The importance of formalizing the inclusion of residents in BID governing and oversight processes. However, Bill 21-905 affords the opportunity to raise an important issue, inclusion of residents in BID governing and oversight processes.

BIDs in and around the Central Business District especially are increasingly mixed use districts including commercial office and retail properties, civic assets, and residential buildings among the many property types represented, although only some are assessed the BID tax. It was not anticipated when the process for creating BIDs was developed in the late 1990s that these geographies would become home to thousands of residents mixing with commercial activities.

The act and regulations enabling the creation of BIDs allows for a diverse membership on BID boards, including residents, although in reality such boards are dominated by commercial property owners, as it is commercial properties that provide the bulk of the assessment revenue which funds BIDs.

Currently, only the Mount Vernon Community Improvement District includes residents, albeit representatives of resident owner-occupied buildings, that is condominium properties, on its board.

No BID has a broad category of representation for residential tenants even though increasingly BIDs are populated by residents and ultimately the assessment is paid, pro-rata, by residential tenants as part of their rent.

The Council should address in its consideration of this bill, and when other relevant BID matters come before Council, including reauthorization of BIDs and the creation of new BIDs the representation of residential tenants on BID boards.

Ensure resident tenants, not just resident owners, can serve on BID boards. This is especially important because by default BIDs are the primary planners and managers of their geography, including the public spaces therein, it is important to raise the matter of lack of direct representation of non-property owning residents, that is, tenants, on BID boards. Building owners are represented on BID boards but it cannot be presumed that they can adequately represent tenants in terms of their interests as citizens in the neighborhood in which they reside.

In San Francisco, the Dogpatch and Northwest Potrero Hill Green Benefits District specifically includes a board representation category for tenants. Similarly, in the Charles Village Community Benefits District in Baltimore, which includes a variety of residential property membership categories, including even single family properties, in its assessment district. These offer models going forward for the inclusion of residential tenant members on BID boards. In DC, the Eastern Market Community Advisory Committee has members appointed by various organizations, as well as a community member who is elected by the board, but any resident is eligible for nomination. These and likely other models demonstrate that it is possible to include residential tenants on BID boards.

It has been suggested in testimony that the Downtown BID will add staff to address resident participation and engagement issues, hold various public meetings, etc. But it is still important to offer the opportunity for tenants to be on the BID board, although we must recognize that many residents may not be interested in serving, and may have shorter term goals and interests when compared to property owners.

Inclusion of condominiums and cooperatives in BID assessment districts. Some testimony today referenced the new Southwest DC BID, which will include apartment buildings but not cooperatives or condominiums. Similarly, earlier testimony suggests that there could be financial hardship on the part of condominium owners, especially as they age, if condominium buildings were to be included in the eligible assessment district.

I argue that condominium owners benefit extraordinarily in terms of added appreciation and property value from the services of BIDs, which indirectly and directly improve the area around residential properties in their districts. There is no real justification for condominium and cooperative buildings to be automatically excluded from eligibility for assessment in BID districts because it is not in the public interest to support “free riders.” It is reasonable for condominium and cooperative owners to pay into BIDs, in recognition of the extraordinary financial benefits that they reap from BID services.

Thank you for the opportunity to offer this testimony.

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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

(Prince George's County) Elected officials have to take responsibility for failure to enact necessary transportation demand planning and implementation

Today's Post has a column by Courtland Milloy, "The biggest gamble at MGM National Harbor may be on the traffic getting there," which whines about the lack of improvements to the transportation infrastructure serving the National Harbor development in Prince George's County, which will soon feature the opening of the MGM National Harbor Casino.

Traffic is expected to double to about 180,000 cars/week.  Frankly, while that seems like a lot, it really isn't.  A typical four-lane arterial (plus parking lanes in DC gets 25,000 to 35,000 cars/day, and suburban arterials even more traffic.

But that level of traffic growth can be problematic even so depending on the nature of the system, chokepoints, queuing capacity at intersection, traffic signal timing, etc.

-- Traffic Volume Map, Prince George's County, Maryland

And that concerns County Councilman Obie Patterson, in whose district National Harbor is located.  From the article:
But Patterson is worried that the good luck is about to run out. When the slots begin to spin at MGM National Harbor on Dec. 8, weekly vehicular traffic to the site is expected to double — from 90,000 cars, buses and trucks a week to an astounding 180,000.

Given the casino’s location — where the heavily traveled Wilson Bridge links Virginia and Maryland and connects with the District on Interstate 295 — a traffic tie-up could potentially cause disruptions from Charles County in Southern Maryland to downtown Washington as well as for miles along the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and on the Beltway.

“The casino has a pretty slick traffic plan once you get on the property, but off-site, it’s going to be nothing more than a nightmare,” said Patterson, who lives in Fort Washington, Md., just a few miles from the casino. “I expect people to go crazy when they can’t get to the doctor or work or church.”

When Maryland state legislators approved a casino for the county in 2012, the bill called for developing a comprehensive transportation plan for the site and the surrounding area. The National Harbor location was selected in December 2013. The county finally unveiled a traffic plan last month, but it is far from comprehensive.
After the fact pointing out of the obvious is worthless.  (Also see "Construction is officially underway on the Wynn casino," Boston Globe.)

Where elected officials can make the most difference is in advance of the change.  I've made this point about the need for transportation demand management planning for National Harbor over the years, including "Transportation demand management requirements for large developments and the MGM National Harbor Casino as an example of why this is absolutely necessary," "Yet another example of failures in metropolitan transportation planning: no transportation demand management requirements for casinos in Maryland," and "National Harbor in Prince George's County and the Inter County Connector in Montgomery and PG Counties: belated critical analysis in the Post."

For example this project would have been a great opportunity to put on the table the extension of the Purple Line from New Carrollton to Alexandria, to serve among other destinations, National Harbor.  Although that is very much a long term transportation system improvement.
Purple Line Map  DC Metro

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BTMFBA revisted: nonprofits and facilities planning and acquisition

Because of DC's height limit, the kinds of buildings that Jane Jacobs was thinking about when she wrote that healthy cities need "a large stock of old buildings" that have been paid off and have low running costs and therefore lower rents affordable to start ups, nonprofits, and other innovative uses looking for lower cost space, tend to get demolished and rebuilt to the maximum allowable size, and because the buildings are new, at the current highest rents.

A few weeks ago there was an op-ed in the Washington Post, "The rent is too darn high for nonprofits, too," about how DC nonprofits face a crisis because of the cost of space.  This isn't a phenomenon unique to DC, it's a particular problem in San Francisco ("SF takes action: perspectives on nonprofit displacement, NCG; "Skyrocketing Rents Challenge San Francisco Bay Area Nonprofits, Nonprofit Quarterly), New York City, and other high cost markets.

Like my frustration with the art community complaining about the same problem, but rarely availing themselves of the opportunity to buy buildings ("BTMFBA: the best way to ward off artist or retail displacement is to buy the building" and "When BTMFBA isn't enough: keeping civic assets public through cy pres review"), the nonprofit community needs to come together, develop a facilities/space plan, and create vehicles to assist them to buying and holding buildings.

Organized as the Center for Public Administration and Local Government, in the late 1980s, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments did this for themselves and a couple of related nonprofits, including the International City/County Management Association, constructing a building close to Union Station.

But there hasn't been much of a push to do something similar for groups of lesser means. I discuss some options in the BTMFBA article.

Photo: Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register.

Nonprofit shared spaces.  The Nonprofit Centers Network is an organization that assists facilities across the country that offer shared spaces for nonprofit groups.

The Village in Orange County is one example, with a focus is providing space to housing-related organizations ("This Village is Orange County's first building dedicated to housing nonprofits," Orange County Register).

More communities should work to develop spaces to support nonprofit groups as well as civil society initiatives (although neighborhood groups could be provided space/facilities access at community centers and branch libraries).

A way to "use up" a so-called "white elephant" buildings: multi-faceted arts centers.  With deindustrialization, many communities have large manufacturing buildings that have been abandoned.

In many instances, buildings and communities have been revived by redeveloping these buildings or complexes into multi-faceted arts centers.  Examples include the creation of the MassMOCA contemporary arts museum in North Adams, Massachusetts, which has huge spaces capable of displaying very large art pieces and installations, the GoggleWorks in Reading, Pennsylvania, the Cablefactory in Helsinki, or LaFriche in Marseille, France.

The Trans-Europe Halles organization is a collective of such arts facilities across Europe.

-- New times, new models: Investigating the internal governance models and external relations of independent cultural centres in times of change
-- CREATIVE BUSINESS MODELS: Insights into the Business Models of Cultural Centers in Trans Europe Halles
-- Managing Independent Cultural Centres

In my opinion, DC should have done this with the old Walter Reed Medical Center building on Georgia Avenue in Northwest DC.

The 2.1 million s.f. building could have seeded arts and cultural initiatives for a generation.

But white elephant buildings can be used more generally for nonprofits too.  Note that the best nonprofit arts centers also provide low cost office space to cultural organizations.

Central libraries have the potential to become multi-faceted cultural centers.  There are some examples of libraries sharing some of their space with related organizations.

In the DC area, Arlington County expanded the Shirlington Library to include theater facilities, the Signature Theatre Company. Some Montreal neighborhood libraries include cultural centers.  The provincial "state" library in Montreal has spaces on its back alley/court for small booksellers.  The Hollywood library branch in Portland has a cafe on the ground floor and affordable housing above.

The Drumbrae Library in England has a teen center, cafe, and day care.  Some libraries have space for used bookstores.

The best example is how the Salt Lake Central Library has space for related facilities such as the local NPR station and the Community Writing Center program of the local community college.

I've suggested that libraries could expand upon the SLC example in significant ways ("Civic assets and mixed use: Central Library edition") but thus far we don't see many examples of such co-locations.

Note that community center facilities could be similarly reconfigured to serve more and multiple uses along these lines.

Conclusion:  Um, how about some planning?  The point of urban planning is to manage community needs, land use, and other characteristics of a community.

Given the increasing importance of the nonprofit sector as an element of a community's social, cultural, and community health, as well as a source of economic activity, planning offices should step in and provide leadership for planning space needs for the nonprofit sector, and work with local governments to create ways of providing such space, perhaps through community development corporations comparable to the "Center for Public Administration and Local Government" or the SEMAEST organization in Paris.

In San Francisco, the Northern California Community Loan Fund has stepped in to provide such assistance through the San Francisco Nonprofit Displacement Mitigation Program, which is a model easily exported to cities like Washington.

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Another ahead of the curve moment: Trader Joe's to open in DC's Union Market district

According to WTOP ("DC's next Trader Joe's coming to Union Market"), the Trader Joe's food store group is opening a store at 4th Street and Florida Avenue NE, in the Union Market district near the NoMA Metrorail station.

In testimony I gave/submitted to the DC Zoning Commission concerning a project in what is now again called the Union Market District, a wholesale and retail food district in Northeast Washington, DC, I laid out a framework for a retail plan and public space improvements, including an analysis of gaps in the retail offer and suggestions on how to fill those gaps, including recruiting particular store marques, including Trader Joe's.

-- "Retail planning and Florida Market"

Although at that time I figured to get Trader Joe's an incentive payment would have to be proffered, as I hadn't foreseen the speed at which the area is adding population, as well as the resurgence of the market district after the repositioning of the Farmer's Market building after a fire which pushed out most of the old tenants, who focused on satisfying the needs of low income consumers, in favor of the creation of a food hall with restaurants and vendors selling artisinal and higher priced goods.

Interestingly, despite the company's reputation as a low price provider, a survey of supermarket pricing by Washington Consumer Checkbook ("How Do Trader Joe's and Aldi's Prices Compare to Supermarkets'?") found when weighted for package size, prices at Trader Joe's are comparable to the area's major supermarket chains, Safeway and Giant (although recently Safeway's prices seem to have taken a significant upward jump), although produce prices average about 10% lower, according to the survey.  (Also see "Which Supermarkets are best for price and quality").
Union Market Sign

The Union Market area is quickly moving away from its somewhat dingy and disinvested state.

For the longest time, that part of Northeast had access to one grocery store, the Safeway at Hechinger Mall.

Now they have additional access to Harris-Teeter and Giant, with a Whole Foods and a Trader Joe's coming, not to mention an upscale food hall, all within walking distance, and Walmart (ugh) and MOM's Organic Supermarket within an easy bike or car trip, and the Walmart is easily accessible by transit.

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Monday, November 28, 2016

Toronto's Laneway Project and November 30th Summit

Toronto's Laneway Project aims to enliven the city's alleys, with more housing (what in DC we would call carriage houses or accessory dwelling units--ADUs), events, greening, and public art, and general advocacy and promotion.

-- "Toronto Laneway Project launches photo contest," The Bulletin

The organization's website is full of resources including guides to organizing events, creating public art in alleys, and greening, comparable to Toronto's Park People Project's set of guides, "Park People, Toronto, new report on modern parks planning and amenities, and parks toolkit resource guides."

Photos from the contest will be exhibited at the upcoming The [Lane}Way Forward 2016 Summit and Exhibit Wednesday evening, November 30th, which features a presentation, reception, and the exhibit.

Moderated by Annabel Vaughan, Project Manager at ERA Architects and principal of publicLAB, five panelists will discuss:

• Opportunities and challenges to improving Toronto’s laneways
• What needs to change to realize the potential of our laneways
• Who and what we need to create a stronger laneway movement in Toronto 

• Jake Tobin Garrett, Manager, Policy and Research, Park People
• Jessica Myers, Executive Director, Junction Bus. Improvement Assn.
• Jonathan Morrice, Community Safety and Social Media Officer, 55 Division, Toronto Police Service
• Mark van Elsberg, Project Manager, Pedestrian Projects, Public Realm Section, Transportation Services, City of Toronto
• Monica Wickeler, Laneway Mural Artist
Even though it's not a full-blown conference, I think it's still a great concept and event, because it brings attention to the opportunities presented by "alleys."

Alley housing as an option in a time of rising housing costs.  The City of Toronto sees the advantage of laneways as another place for housing that is relatively less expensive, as a way to add to the city's housing stock.("Campaign aims to boost laneway housing in Toronto," Metro;  "Laneway house owner says homes like his are 'real opportunity' for Toronto," CBC-TV).

Public meeting.  Two city councillors have scheduled a public meeting to discuss alley housing as an option for Monday December 5th.

Edmonton ADU incentives program. But there are a lot of barriers to moving forward and it's hard to scale since property owners have to take the initiative one at a time.  Edmonton addresses that in part through an incentive program of up to $20,000 per created unit.

DC has recently made it easier to build accessory dwelling units in more parts of the city, but unlike programs in other cities such as Seattle (A GUIDE TO BUILDING A BACKYARD COTTAGE) as yet there is no pilot program aimed at figuring out what the potential barriers might be and how to address them.

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Friday, November 25, 2016

Steps at Smithsonian American Art Museum featuring an homage to the Gene Davis exhibit at the museum.

The reality is I am sucker for graphic design featuring stripes and blocks and bold colors, as well as architectural lighting.  This treatment calls attention to the Museum's exhibit on Gene Davis, called "Hot Beat."  Other exhibits in the past on the Washington Color School featured painting of color bars on nearby streets, but that gets eroded pretty quickly and loses its visual impact.

Steps at Smithsonian American Art Museum featuring an homage to the Gene Davis exhibit at the museum

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Very good American Express television commercial promoting shopping tomorrow, on "Small Business Saturday"

I think the Amex commercial running in support of Small Business Saturday is quite good.  It shows a way forward for doing more of this kind of advertising, in support of independent retailers and commercial districts.  The differential impact of independent retailers and districts on local economic activity needs to be explained, constantly.

This is what I call the difference between "economic development" -- which typically is a "strategy" in favor of any type of business activity -- versus "building a local economy" which is focused on making better choices and looking at multiplier effects, economic flows, etc., and choosing accordingly.

For example, while sports events like All Star Games and the Super Bowl are touted as a great economic development activity for communities because most of the money spent is on travel, lodging, rental cars, and those businesses typically aren't locally owned, much of the total money spent doesn't remain within the community after the event is over.

Therefore, it doesn't have the same kind of multiplier effect as different types of spending, such as a local festival, or at a locally-owned retailer or an independent commercial district versus a chain retailer or shopping mall owned by a distant developer.

-- Shop DC challenge from Charles Allen, Ward 6 Councilmember

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