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.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Federal tax provisions for "small" retailers help big retailers more


Mayor Nutter Small Business Saturday 2013 092

According to Chain Store Age ("House approves bill to help retailers with remodeling costs") the House passed a bill authorizing a 15-year depreciation period for store renovations, instead of the 39 year period required in current law.

Mayor Michael Nutter promoting Small Business Saturday in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. Flickr photo by New Kensington Community Development Corporation.

Yet, retail stores have to be refreshed every 5-7 years anyway.  

It would make sense to have a depreciation period more in line with the expected useful life of the expenditure--15 years is 1/2 to 2/3 too long a period.

Similarly, the bill approves "bonus depreciation," allowing the claiming of a deduction of half of the total costs in the first year, but only for "leased stores."

That puts small store proprietors who own their properties at a comparative disadvantage to chain stores. Along with many other tax and legal stratagems (for example, big companies put their intellectual property, like logos, in a separate corporation and require individual stores to pay royalty fees for use of the logos, depressing reportable income).

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Solid waste management update

Maryland just released the draft of the state's Zero Waste Plan, with aggressive goals for significant diversion and reduction within the waste stream by 2040.  The plan has 56 action steps.   Steps include banning unrecyclable materials, 90% diversion of food waste, and significant take up of recycling in multiunit buildings.

In an editorial, the Carroll County Times recommends that counties begin adopting the action steps that make sense for them ("Plan to reduce waste").

Note that I have recommended that center cities develop differentiated waste management policies for the urban vs. sub-urban sections.  For example, we live in a less dense part of the city with a relatively big lot and treess compared to rowhouse neighborhoods, so we generate a lot of "yard waste."  See "A way for DC to begin adding yard waste collection as a separate element of waste collection and reduction programming" and "Urban/community composting,"

This photo is from the Birmingham (UK) Mail, but I have many similar photos from around my neighborhood.  By contrast, our household composts this kind of yard waste on site.

But rather than "throw it in the trash," we compost on site, including food wastes. Excluding recycling, we generate about 10 gallons of "trash" or less every 10 days to two weeks.

But households in our neighborhood are given 96-gallon trash cans.

Good Magazine had an interesting article about waste reduction efforts in Taiwan ("Yes, Richer Countries Produce More Waste. But Do They Have To?"), which are amongst the best in the developed world.  Residents have to buy specifically colored bags and rather than put "trash" in cans for later pickup, trucks come to neighborhoods each night to various pre-arranged pick up points and residents bring their trash to the truck.

Note that the book Green Metropolis about the environmental impacts of cities points out that New York City uses less energy and generates less trash per capita than any other community in the US.

Birmingham, UK has major budget issues because they city has to pay a £1 billion legal judgement concerning a history of unequal pay for women (another big difference from the US...).

Now that the city has to reduce costs and sell assets to pay the judgement, they have big problems with waste removal because unions have been striking and working to rule, because they don't want the system to be privatized, which if it occurred, would reduce costs.

Photo: Birmingham Mail.

One of the fees the city imposed last year was a £35 annual fee for "green waste" ("Birmingham garden tax price slashed for 2015," Birmingham Mail) which is now collected separately and composted.

But like my recommendations for DC, the city could develop differentiated policies and many households could compost on-site for free.

DC.  The DC Environmental Network reports ("DC Council Takes a Step Towards Zero Waste!") on DC's efforts in this area.  DC was an early adopter">Why a Bag Tax Works Better Than a Reusable Bag Bonus," Wall Street Journal).  Now the city has banned certain unrecyclable materials, like styrofoam, and has mandated the development of a zero waste master plan, not unlike the Maryland effort.

And DC Department of Parks and Recreation is implementing a community compost program at community gardens, where trained "members" in the program can compost their food and yard wastes.

The thing is because the State of Maryland has certain mandates on counties for waste reduction, and a waste reduction authority that works with multiple jurisdictions, they are ahead of DC right now. For example, Montgomery County's information materials and support for composting is years ahead of DC.

Although the DC Water and Sewer Authority has recently put into place energy generation and waste reduction processes that have made a tremendous difference for that organization ("D.C. Water adopts Norway's Cambi system for turning sewage into energy and fertilizer," Washington Post), and proves that DC can be innovative in this area.

National standards needed.  Still, with regard to packaging and unrecyclable materials and package notices, it would be better to legislate at the national level certain standards concerning packaging, such as banning styrofoam peanuts (plastic bags with air or paper are  equally good packaging materials) and requiring food manufacturers to label whether or not paper-based packages are compostable (and to work to develop 100% compostable packaging).

Europe does this more than the US.  Because manufacturers are tasked with the responsibility for recycling items at the end of their useful life, products are designed for recycling at the outset.

Brighton & Hove UK "One Planet" Master Plan. I was reading up on Brighton, England because it is the only local government run by the Green Party, which is proving problematic for a variety of reasons, including internecine factions concerned with ideological purity ("Have the Greens blown it in Brighton?," but cf. "The Green party surge – and why it's coming from Bristol," Guardian).

One Planet Living principles.

But one of the plans they produced is definitely based on out of the box thinking. Typically, per capita consumption of resources in developed nations is 2.5 times greater than global carrying capacity.

The One Planet Living plan commits the city to working towards a consumption level where per capita consumption is equal to world carrying capacity, requiring significant reductions in the use of a wide variety of natural resources and finished goods.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A reminder about winter-time conditions for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit users

WEATHER-USA/Drew, 2, struggles with a snow shovel as he helps his father clear the sidewalk outside their home on Capitol Hill in Washington February 8, 2010. The federal government announced it would remain closed on Monday and most schools planned to shut down as residents of the mid-Atlantic struggled to dig out from a blizzard that dumped two feet of snow on the region. REUTERS/Jason Reed.

Last winter season, we didn't have much snow, so it wasn't much of an issue.n But that doesn't mean we shouldn't prepare.

Ideally, before it snows, cities committed to sustainable transportation have already been planning for "maintenance of way" for people on foot and bike, not just for cars.

This post "Snow reminds us of the necessity of a "maintenance of way" agenda for the "sustainable mobility city"" covers the gist of the argument.

Night-time lighting.  Similarly, as winter approaches it gets darker earlier. Cities ought to pay better attention to night time safety on walking and bike routes. See "Night-time safety: rethinking lighting in the context of a walking community" and "Lighting as an element of urban design and community identity."

Lighting master plans.  Some communities, like Eindhoven, Netherlands, have lighting master plans. That plan has six elements:
  • urban lighting (streets, public areas)
  • buildings and objects
  • art (indoor and outdoor)
  • events and festivals
  • information
  • advertising.
San Diego has a Downtown Lighting Plan, which includes subplans for sub-districts, such as Little Italy and the Gaslamp District.

Current developments in the DC area.  More recently, Arlington County has announced they will be providing snow clearance on trails in the county ("Arlington to plow up to 10 miles of bike trails after snowstorms," Washington Post)   And DC has announced new regulations concerning sidewalk snow clearance ("D.C. residents, businesses face fines for not shoveling snow,"  Washington Post).  Montgomery County is moving forward on similar planning ("Montgomery to create plan for snow removal from sidewalks," Gazette).

Best practices.  The Minnesota DOT has a best practices report on Pedestrian snow removal best practices and lessons learned.

And FHWA has similar information, but focused on roads: Best Practices - FHWA Road Weather Management.

Snow removal at the White HouseA snow blower vehicle clears snow from a driveway around the White House in Washington under heavy snowfall February 6, 2010.  REUTERS/Yuri Gripas.

"Stunts."  If I had run for Ward 4 city council this coming April, one of the campaign stunts I had planned was to get a "snow brush" and clear some of the major routes in the Ward, such as around Petworth Metro, along Georgia Avenue, in Takoma and the Takoma Metro, etc.

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Saturday, December 13, 2014

Blowback for renaming streets in honor of a person's accomplishments when the broader truth is revealed

Recently I wrote ("Marion Barry: ceremonial vs. real name change of a street") about the calls for naming streets in DC after recently ecased former mayor Marion Barry, saying this is a difficult issue because communities have to be concerned about what such statements say about what they value--and Marion Barry's legacy is checkered.

All the various suggestions have led Mayor Gray to form a committee to consider ideas systematically ("Committee will vet potential Marion Barry memorials, Gray says," Washington Post).

Photographer unknown.

In light of the recently released US Senate report on the post-9/11 CIA torture protocols, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorializes ("Street-sign honor for Gen. Hayden should be taken down") that the City of Pittsburgh should take down the street signs renaming a stretch of North Shore Drive in honor of General Michael Hayden, a Pittsburgh native.

This has been an issue for awhile according to the 2010 article, "Residents want North Side sign honoring general removed," which makes sense because the nature of US "enhanced interrogation" techniques used on "terrorists" is not a new revelation.

 From the article:
When you next visit Heinz Field, you might notice the “Gen. Michael V. Hayden Blvd.” sign on North Shore Drive facing the Carnegie Science Center. To find out who he is, just turn to the Senate report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s detention and interrogation programs.

The final appendix, 38 pages in all, details the inaccurate statements Gen. Hayden has made defending the programs in his capacity as the former director of the CIA. The CIA’s own internal communications show both the effectiveness of the “enhanced interrogations” and the intelligence they produced were greatly exaggerated. Some of Gen. Hayden’s assertions are directly contradicted by the record, suggesting he either intentionally lied to the public or was not fully briefed on the programs he supposedly oversaw, both completely unacceptable scenarios for someone in his position.
They raise a good point, and ought to provide some cautioning to other communities about such reflexive renaming of public buildings, streets, and spaces.

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Another example that school bus-based transportation is increasingly unsustainable

One of the problems with moving away from a neighborhood-based elementary school planning and development paradigm is that school systems become dependent on buses for transporting students to school.

This is problematic for many reasons, including health and wellness--which has triggered the "Safe Routes to School" initiative.

But it's also problematic financially, especially as local government budgets become increasingly hard pressed, as communities reach the ceiling of what they can charge for property and other taxes. According to various studies, it typically costs at least $500 per year to bus one student to and from school.

During the recession, more school districts began enforcing regulations concerning access to bus transportation--with some exceptions, most districts won't provide bus service for students living within one mile of a school--and increasing the distance from school before bus transportation would be provided.

Some school districts have imposed transportation fees, which some residents have opposed as illegal.  There is a case pending before the Indiana Supreme Court ("Fair fees? Facing cuts, more schools charge for busing," USA Today) on this issue.  Also see the Indianapolis Star piece, "Indiana Supreme Court to hear case on school bus fees."

Missed in the discussion is how school systems developed on the sprawl land use paradigm end up being financially crushed by the financial implication--dependent on school buses, diesel gasoline, and drivers.

Buses need to be replaced at the end of their useful life, energy costs continually increase (with a current respite), and it becomes increasingly difficult for school systems to recruit and retain enough bus drivers, given the split shifts and difficulties inherent in the work.

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Los Angeles as the rare example of a Mayor hiring a Deputy Mayor (Rick Cole) as well qualified as the Mayor

The Planning Report, a subscription newsletter covering California land use and development issues, has a great piece ("Cole: Successful Placemaking Arises From Dynamic Pedestrian Environments, Not 'Starchitecture'") on Rick Cole, the Deputy Mayor of Los Angeles.

He has a very interesting background, starting off as a City Councilmember and then becoming Deputy Mayor in Pasadena, and then moving to the executive branch, as a city manager in Azusa and later in Ventura, before taking the position in Los Angeles.  (Recently, Governing Magazine has a nice piece on his work in LA as well, "Does Eric Garcetti Have a Big Enough Vision for L.A.?.")

It takes a Mayor with a lot of confidence but also real concern about and commitment to dealing with the future of the city to hire as Deputy Mayor someone so well qualified.  I wish we could get such competent and qualified agency hires in DC.

From the article:
My classroom was my hometown of Pasadena. It was a microcosm of the same megatrends that Jane Jacobs identified and dedicated herself to battling—so-called “urban renewal” that destroyed the human-scale fabric of city life; misguided plans to build cities around cars instead of people; abandonment of inner cities for outward suburban sprawl; and top-down master plans that overrode the interests and democratic rights of city residents. 
I think Pasadena and other cities make a compelling case that enhancing community quality of life is not in opposition to economic success. Rather, it is the foundation for sustainable economic success. Growing up in Pasadena, I intuitively believed that healthy neighborhoods are the underpinning of a vibrant economy, not an obstacle to be demolished for speculative real-estate development. 
How do you outpace affluent cities like Beverly Hills, or Santa Monica as well as cities that were growing rapidly in population like Lancaster and Palmdale? We did it by pursuing community-based development—through public-private partnerships to reinvest in older neighborhoods. And because of the sensitivity of doing infill development in established communities, we sweated the details of making great places, including insisting on the highest standards of design and materials. ...

Too many cities remain mesmerized by big plans and big projects—and neglect the elements that create a vibrant pedestrian environment. Rick Caruso* has never made that mistake. Cities need to learn from what he’s done inside his wildly successful developments and apply it to the everyday public realm. I used to say to planners that I worked with in Pasadena, Azusa, and Ventura, “Our purpose isn’t to make great plans. It’s to make great places.” ...

Are there other lessons that Old Pasadena’s success foretells for Los Angeles and other cities?

It’s not so much that Pasadena did everything right as that we learned some common lessons that apply broadly to cities throughout the heart of our region. I think the most important challenge we all face is the widespread narrative that urban revitalization is the same as “gentrification.” The media promotes a stale and one-dimensional portrait of urban life that goes like this: Neglected neighborhood draws artists and hipsters. They gather in trendy coffee shops. Eventually outsiders take over the neighborhood. Sometimes this is told as a fairy tale that ends with everyone sipping $7 lattes, oblivious to displaced businesses and residents. Sometimes this is told as a gothic horror story that results in the death of local character and exile of the poor. If we are going to truly fulfill the promise of urban life in Southern California, we need to write a better story about how to create widespread great places—in ways that benefit existing businesses and residents.
Pedestrian scramble intersection, Colorado Boulevard, Pasadena, CaliforniaGina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times: Pedestrians cross at Colorado Boulevard and Raymond Avenue in revitalized Old Pasadena. Thirty years ago it was seedy, but today restored buildings radiate charm.

Pasadena is well respected in revitalization and transportation circles for their commercial district efforts in Old Pasadena and the implementation of pro-pedestrian infrastructure such as "Barnes Dance" crosswalks, its implementation of a wide variety of parking pricing initiatives, and directing the revenues from parking to neighborhood and business district improvement initiatives, as well as its embrace of connection to the expanding LA MTA fixed rail transit system.  See "The New Old Pasadena May Just Bowl You Over."

* Rick Caruso is the creator of The Grove and other mixed use retail and commercial projects, comparable in some respects to the projects done by the DC region's Federal Realty like Bethesda Row here or Santana Row in San Jose, California.  Although generally the developments don't have residential components, the Americana at Brand project does include residential, a first for the company.

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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Another argument for biking transportationally: U.S. commuters wait approximately 40 mins. a day for public transit

See the article from Metro Magazine.

This reiterates a point I make often, that biking can be either a great substitute or a complement to riding transit, as a way to significantly improve the efficiency of the trip.

For example, when I lived at 6th and H Street NE, one of my jobs was in Crystal City.  I didn't ride all the way to Crystal City but I rode to L'Enfant Plaza Metro and took the train three stops from there, rather than riding from Union Station to Gallery Place and transferring there.  Another job I had was in Bethesda and I would ride to Dupont Circle and take the Metro from there.

Those are examples of biking significantly shortening trips by complementing transit.  And obviously, trips you can take by bike exclusively are typically much shorter than transit when you take waiting into account.

From the article:
New York City: Respondents spend an average of 149 minutes on public transport each day, 38 minutes (26 percent) idly waiting for the bus or train to arrive, with a 40% dissatisfaction rate 
Los Angeles: 131 minutes per day on public transport, 41 minutes (31%) waiting, 43 percent dissatisfaction 
Boston: 116 minutes per day on public transport, 39 minutes (34%) waiting, 38% dissatisfaction 
San Francisco: 104 minutes per day on public transport, 36 minutes (35%) waiting, 35% dissatisfaction 
Chicago: 115 minutes per day on public transport, 31 minutes (27%) waiting, 19 percent dissatisfaction
I like how the maps as part of the new Seattle Pronto bike share program differentiate between the "walk shed" and the "bike shed" in terms of the distance that can be covered by walking vs. biking.

Image from the Geekwire story "My first bike-sharing ride in Seattle was lots of fun — but not without some speed bumps."

That's something I haven't thought of mapping for the public outside of plans in quite the same way, although it has been done, for example in the publication by VeloQuebec (image below).

It would be a useful element to add to mapping illustrations of my "mobility shed" concept.
Catchment area of public transit stops for pedestrians and cyclists

Catchment area of public transit stops for pedestrians and cyclists from Planning and Design for Pedestrians and Cyclists: A Technical Guide.   The beige area is the bike shed.

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A crisis in confidence and the capacity of local government to execute transit projects

One of the things that struck me when I was writing about revitalization in various European cities last year and this year relating to a European Union National Institutes of Culture initiative in Baltimore was the difference in perception about the role of government and local government in creating and building quality communities, and in SUCCESSFULLY constructing new infrastructure between those countries and the US

(Even though government has been demonized in the UK as well, as part of the same neoliberal anti-government agenda that shapes political discourse in the US, London in particular has successfully delivered many projects including the 2012 Olympics and many transit expansion projects, some of which like the Crossrail program, are still underway, as are other transit projects elsewhere in the UK.)

Don't get me wrong, there are examples of less successful or "failed" initiatives in Europe too, such as the City of Culture project in Santiago de Compestela in Spain, which is building underutilized but grand buildings in a poorly sited location.  And the process to build subways in Athens and Thessaloniki have been long and drawn out, but still have come or are coming to fruition.

New and old subway stations in Hamburg, including the new stations in HafenCity are stunningly beautiful in terms of incorporating artistic and design treatments compared to most stations in the US.

The lights in the HafenCity University subway station constantly change color.

But the achievement of local government initiatives in cities like Hamburg, Bilbao, Barcelona, Marseille, and Helsinki are quite remarkable and on a scale much bigger and grander than just about anything that comes to mind in the US.

Tram service in Bilbao.

This is relevant in the DC region because of the aforementioned debacle of the Silver Spring Transit Center, but also the incredibly long periods of time required to move streetcar projects forward in Arlington County and Washington, DC, and to some extent, the process concerning planning the Purple Line light rail system in Montgomery and Prince George's Counties in Maryland.

Recently, the Arlington County Board voted to stop the streetcar projects there, and in DC, as the streetcar is about to open, there is a drumbeat of opposition, especially as evidenced by the recent editorial D.C. should hit the brakes on any streetcar expansion") in the Washington Post, calling for a "time out" in moving forward on streetcars.

(Ironically, it's not unlike the initiative to overturn the regional sales tax in Charlotte, NC, the vote of which occurred in 2007, just as the light rail system was about to open--the vote to overturn the tax failed.  See the past blog entry "Charlotte light rail and transit.")

Separately I intend to write another post about the streetcar on H Street (but I need to take a bunch of photos).

While the analysis will be subject to criticism, it's fair to say that at least $500 million of new construction on H Street--either already built or in the pipeline--wouldn't have been pursued without the expectation of streetcar service.

So it surprises me that "the DC business community" is diffident about streetcars, at least in those areas like H Street-Benning Road, Georgia Avenue, the SE-SW Waterfront, and Anacostia, which have so much build out opportunity.  (In that case, Bladensburg Road should be added to the list.)

In any case, $500 to $750 million of accelerated development is a huge payoff or "return on investment" for the current very short line that will soon become operational.  There is no question that these projects wouldn't be happening without the streetcar--it's fair to say that any project east of 6th Street would be considered "too far" from Union Station to pursue in the current development and financing environment.

My understanding is that the DC business community is not united around the streetcar and doesn't favor spending money on expanding the program--probably seeing the service as competition for increasingly scarce public financing for other projects like soccer stadiums, Olympics facilities, and deals that need tax incentives to be able to move forward.

Plus DDOT's failures in execution support suggestions of putting the streetcar program on hold for a couple of years to "sort things out."

While there are many things going on with opposition to these projects, ranging from a preference for automobility and personalized transit, cars, over mass transit and riding with others, fear of change, a mistaken belief that streetcars are "olden" technology, selfishness--for example most of the votes for the Arlington County Board candidate with a stated position against the streetcar came from wealthier sections of Arlington, including areas that already enjoy Metrorail service, we have to acknowledge that planning and execution failures by local government play a big part in messaging and agenda setting, and make it difficult for under-funded proponents to make the case in favor of new projects.

What is it about the Washington region that breeds failure?

Frequently, I use the example of streetcar planning as an example of failure.  DC (and Arlington) started planning for streetcars in 2003.  So did Seattle.  Seattle's first leg of streetcar service opened in 2007.  DC's first leg is about to open this December or January, more likely in January 2015. five years after Seattle, and when Seattle is on the verge of opening its first extension ("First Hill Streetcar delayed: Line is ready, streetcars are not," Seattle Times) which only took them 2.5 years to construct.

On the other hand, the DC Circulator bus service has been comparatively successful.  Then again, it's a lot easier to launch bus service than to build the infrastructure for a (new again) transit mode that requires tracks, power substations, new signals, overhead wires to provide electricity, and a servicing facility.

Still, compared to how Bilbao built a new subway system and added tram service after circumstances warranted additional higher capacity surface transit in the face of increased tourism--they created and opened the line in about the same time as Seattle did, or how Helsinki built a subway, and how Helsinki and Hamburg have extended subway lines to serve newly created mixed use districts, the area efforts are definitely wanting.

Note that comparatively speaking, the Silver Line has been reasonably successful in terms of actually opening its first phase, albeit with some delays (although frankly, delays are pretty common to such projects).

However, the financing and political winds in Virginia have been incredibly problematic, making it difficult to use the Silver Line as an example of great local success of local government bringing to fruition big infrastructure projects.  Similarly, the Inter County Connector toll road in Suburban Maryland--a key element of the agenda of previous Republican Governor Robert Ehrlich--is lightly used.

What these failures to execute, or at least execute quickly and successfully do is poison the ability to pursue other projects, especially good ones.

Government officials, both elected and appointed, need to take much greater responsibility for execution and for ensuring that the personnel and financial resources are in place to ensure success.

And they shouldn't be so cavalier with time.  People need to see results.  Otherwise all they do is whine and complain and obfuscate.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Maybe the ideal solution for the Silver Spring Transit Center would be to start over

While decrepit today, in its heyday, Detroit's Michigan Central Railroad Station and (18 story) office building was quite majestic.  We aren't building train station complexes like that today.

The Silver Spring Transit Center is nothing short of a debacle ("Cost of Silver Spring Transit Center repairs jumps another $21 million," Washington Post), with construction defects delaying the facility's opening by at least 18 months and drastically escalating the cost, which will be around $150 million.

The SSTC will be a multimodal facility, linking the subway, MARC commuter railroad services, Metrobus, RideOn bus service, intercity bus services, and connections to the Capital Crescent and Metropolitan Branch bicycle trails (but not a bikestation), plus a connection to the proposed Purple Line light rail system which will run east from Bethesda in Montgomery County west to New Carrollton in Prince George's County ("Go big or go home: Prince George's County needs to think big and consider better revitalization examples for New Carrollton).

Washington Post photo of the SSTC by Yue Wu.

Not even getting into all the construction problems, but from the standpoint of civic architecture and urban revitalization ("Transit, stations and placemaking: transit stations as gateways and entrypoints into neighborhoods"), the Silver Spring Transit Center is a serious disappointment.

A failure.

Rather than enhance the architectural, identity, and gateway elements of Silver Spring, instead it is butt ugly, a parking structure on steroids--a terribly missed opportunity to create a grand transit center modeled on the way and harkening back to the period when grand transit facilities--railroad stations--were constructed as urban centerpieces.

Nothing other than lack of vision and a concern for quality prevented Montgomery County from designing "a grand facility" and supporting it with commercial space on the site.

Recently, Anaheim, California ("Gleaming new transportation hub reflects OC's embrace of public transit," Los Angeles Times; "Anaheim's new ARTIC: Icon or eyesore?," Orange County Register) and Rochester, New York ("Touring Rochester's shiny new transit center," Rochester Democrat & Chronicle) opened new multimodal stations that provide a different example.

The Anaheim station was created as a display of noteworthy architecture, while the Rochester Transit Center isn't particularly beautiful on the outside, it still looks better than the SSTC.

Rochester.  The station in Rochester took a long time and had issues ("Learn from mistakes with transit center," RDC), not in construction, but originally the plan was to do a mixed use project with other revenue generating commercial space, but the economics of doing so were not favorable.

Rochester's commercial real estate market has been battered by the decline of Kodak and Xerox, the city's two biggest corporations which once employed many tens of thousands of workers.

Images from the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle.

The station cost $50 million to build and was tied up for decades in squabbling between Republicans and Democrats (Democrats opposed it because former Republican Senator D'Amato came up with seed money).

It's 87,000 square feet and provides indoor waiting areas for riders, not unlike how an inter-city bus terminal is set up, with "gates" where passengers board.  The station has an integrated bus arrival and departure information system.

They aren't providing wi-fi services, don't have restaurants (they direct patrons to nearby businesses) and it's unclear what accommodations are provided for bicycle parking.

Interior of the new Rochester New York Downtown Transit Station.  Image from the transit authority.

Anaheim.  With a grand opening this weekend, and in operation for the past week, the new ARTIC, or Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center, was built by the Orange County Transportation Authority for the city, as a replacement for the city's existing train station, and integrates bus and other mobility services.  The station will have a number of restaurants and retail shops.

A 120-foot-tall glass wall makes up the entrance of the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center. The building has an LED light system that cost effectively allows for the building to be lit at night. Rendering by HOK.

Unlike the SSTC, the ARTIC was designed to project a strong image and identity for the city, which is best known as the home of Disneyland, and secondarily as the home of the Anaheim Ducks professional hockey team.

The 68,000 square foot structure cost $105 million to build, but other costs pushed the total project cost to $190 million, mostly paid for by the transit system, and the intent is for retail rent revenues to cover the annual operations, which will be the responsibility of the City of Anaheim.

The interior of the ARTIC looks like it will be much more interesting than that of the Silver Spring Transit Center, based on this rendering from HOK.  

The idea is that the station would serve as a terminal for high speed rail.  Present-day expectations are for about 8,000 riders to pass through the station each day, using Metrolink, Amtrak (the Pacific Surfliner is a kick-butt regional transit service that is much nicer than the Amtrak regional service in the Northeast corridor), local and regional bus service, inter-city bus, and taxis.

ARTIC at night, lit by a changeable array of LED lights.

The station also has enhanced bike parking, free wi-fi service throughout the complex, and phone stations with extra electric charging capabilities.

Conclusion.  When you're spending more than $100 million on transit infrastructure, you might as well make it attractive rather than utilitarian and ordinary, so that the project will have more and a greater number of benefits to the community beyond providing a roof for transit riders.

The Buffalo Central Terminal was built as the Depression started, and the 17 story office building never did that well financially (similarly the Michigan Central Station was not built in the central business district so there was limited demand for office space in that otherwise majestic station).  But the building looks great.

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Foreign language learning and (DC) schools: an old H Street idea

There's been media coverage lately of parent interest in ensuring the opportunity for language learning in DC schools ("Parents want elementary pupils to learn foreign languages," Washington Post; "How One District School Is Tackling English Language," WAMU).  It reminds me of an idea I developed about ten years ago, but didn't seem to resonate, at least at the time.

Group singing on the Atlas stage, H Street Festival, September 20th, 2014Back in my H Street Main Street days, and the planned focus om the arts for the east end, one of my Promotions Committee members, Vanessa Ruffin, made the very good point that the "arts and culture" focus shouldn't be limited to the Atlas Performing Arts Center and some taverns, that it should go beyond the commercial district and permeate the neighborhood.

So we started to explore and expand on her point.  One way we took up the idea was to promote artist studios in homes not unlike how the Maryland Arts & Entertainment Districts work to do that in their respective areas.

And we talked about recruiting artists to live in the area, like the Paducah Kentucky Artist Relocation Program-- it's hard to remember that back then, housing prices in H Street, Trinidad, and Rosedale were still comparatively cheap.

Another was to explore the use of some commercial space on Florida Avenue for galleries, something that happened for awhile with the Conner Contemporary Gallery, although the space is now going to be used by the Capital Fringe Theater program.  (One of the best potential buildings, Jimmy's Tire, burned down...)  One suggestion was to expand on the idea of the RL Christian Library "portable" to a bigger and better library focusing on the arts, to leverage the arts focus of the commercial district.

Finally, to reposition the schools in the neighborhood as an element of the arts district, the idea was that each of the elementary schools could specialize in different arts disciplines (performance, visual, media), including "language arts" and :foreign language arts."

And the three public buildings in the area at the time that were vacant (a school building on the Miner School campus, the old firehouse on Maryland Avenue (pictured at right), and the old police building on 9th Street NW) could be converted to arts facilities, for example, a glass studio, ceramics studio, etc.

(Another model would be the Gateway Arts Studios and Gallery in Brentwood, Maryland.)

Again, a new library could have been developed to support the program as mentioned above.

[Since then two of those buildings have been converted to private housing.  The third building is still vacant.  The area has another school building, Prospect, and the Sherwood Recreation Center, which could be integrated into the concept as well.]

Each studio building site and the schools could also have a resident artist program, and the idea was that the school would develop cultural programs around the language in association with other cultural organizations, embassies, etc.

The elementary schools in the broad catchment area of the H Street commercial district were Gibbs, Ludlow-Taylor, Maury, Miner, Wheatley (Trinidad), Webb (now closed), JO Wilson (which already has a well-respected French language program).  Someone else suggested that Eastern High School (or Spingarn) could be repositioned as an arts high school and the schools boundary patterns could have been changed accordingly.

Note that recently it has been proposed that Roosevelt High School in Ward 4 develop an "international focus."  That could have been developed as a counter-focus for either high school, and a joint arts-international studies cluster could have been developed for middle and high schools, with students taking courses at both schools.

In terms of foreign languages, at the elementary school level that would have been six different languages in addition to French, which is already offered at Wilson and has been for many years.

German?  Russian?  Chinese?  Spanish?  Japanese?  I never developed the concept to the level where these languages had to be specified.  (And of course, charter schools are eating DCPS' lunch in terms of offering foreign language studies as a way to recruit students to their programs.)

It would have been interesting to work with those embassy-connected institutes like Goethe Institut (German) to co-promote language learning, and even to extend it to the community beyond the programs specifically for the students in the DCPS system.  Or to work to get some of those institutes to open in DC, where they are not currently operating (like Spain's Cervantes Institut).

The basic idea as far as the schools were concerned was that special "cluster school" programs were already successful elsewhere in the DC Public Schools district and using the same concept as a springboard to school improvement would be another way to recapture, repattern, reposition, and improve a set of schools, in conjunction with other public improvement initiatives in the area (the H Street improvement program primarily).

At the time, the school system had worked with the urban design studio of the University of Michigan School of Architecture (one of the professors has a focus on urban schools) to create an improvement concept for the Spingarn campus (which at that time had a high school, a vocational high school, a junior high, and an elementary school), and that could have been a simultaneous lever of improvement as well.  That proposal fell by the wayside in the various changes of Superintendents of the school system.

cf "A case for cutting foreign language from US schools" -- I disagree of course, especially when you have the opportunity to integrate native speakers in the classroom and in a broader set of activities.  (The article misses the point that the issue isn't teaching foreign language as much as it is teaching it properly, and in cities like NYC--subject of the article--where there are so many native speakers of other languages, there is a rich opportunity to do it right and better.)

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Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Rethinking (some of) the DC local elections process: starting with eliminating the primary altogether

I have a bunch of past posts about DC's political and governance structures and ideas and frameworks for "reform," including "DC special election redux: Part 2."

A few weeks back the Post editorialized again ("Three ways DC can improve the electoral process for voters") in favor of ranked choice voting, where within the balloting process voters rank candidates rather than only voting for one candidate.

Separately, the City Council is considering legislation to separate the local elections process from the national elections, so that the city could go back to having a September primary.

In response to federal election requirements, a few years ago the city shifted to an April primary, which is too early and favors incumbents (see "DC primary elections").  This has been the subject of a great deal of criticism, mostly which has been ignored, until very recently.

Now I have a new/re-codified set of proposals, starting with a stunner:

1.  Why even have a primary election for local offices?   Just have the vote simultaneous with the general election for federal offices. (Since DC is so small.)

Since the Democratic Party dominates local elections, getting the nomination in the primary is the major element to winning office ("tantamount to victory") in local elections.  But many people complain that shuts out many voters out of the process and is highly oligarchical and static.  But if DC elections are the equivalent of Snow White and the seven dwarfs anyway, because of the overwhelming dominance of the Democratic Party, is a primary even necessary?

2.  Just let all candidates run on one ballot (without a primary), with multiple candidates from each party if candidates are so inclined and able to meet the petition requirements to get on the ballot.

Ranked choice voting graphic, Pierce County WashingtonVery briefly, Pierce County, Washington had ranked choice voting for local elections.  Left is a graphic outlining the process which appeared in the Tacoma News-Tribune in November, 2008.  Used with permission.

3.  And rather than having a runoff if no one candidate garners more than 50% of the vote, use ranked choice voting to determine the final results.

Previously I argued in favor of runoff elections ("DC needs to add a runoff element to the elections process"), but since runoffs are somewhat anti-populist, it makes more sense to just have one election, DC being so small.

4.  While authorizing "electoral fusion" or candidates running with multiple party affiliations ("Legalizing electoral fusion as another election improvement").

This is how it is done in New York State, where parties like the Conservatives, Liberals, and Working Families possess the ability to shape the election agenda, because candidates come looking to those parties for a secondary endorsement, which can make the difference between electoral success and failure.

5.  While at the same time, shift special elections to a mail ballot, to reduce costs, although with one early voting location for the entire ward (like how the city runs early voting processes now) where people can still vote in person.

Since it costs at least $300,000 to run a special election, this would save a bit of money.

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Monday, December 08, 2014

A follow up on an earlier point about Houston and extractive economies

The earlier piece:  "I get tired of the articles that ascribe Houston's economic success to its lack of zoning."

A line of pump jacks in production for Fasken Oil and Ranch Ltd., near Midland, Texas. Photo by Jerod Foster, Texas Tribune.

It always bugs me when people ascribe success for a reason which is mostly extraneous.  In the case of Houston, Texas, while it is true that housing costs are lower because of sprawl, it's not becuase of the "lack of zoning" (which is often countered with a serious regime of deed restrictions), which is touted by people like Joel Kotkin.

Despite claims about small government and low taxes (e.g., "Everything is bigger in ... including job gains"), Texas' success has to do with its place in the oil economy in terms of production, processing, refining, and chemical manufacturing.  Houston is the headquarters region for the oil industry, and as the price of oil has increased, and as production from fracking has increased, the impact on the economy in Houston, Dallas, and other Texan cities has been significant.

Petrobuildings in Houston.

But the job growth isn't because Gov. Rick Perry is particularly noteworthy or miraculous ("Oops: The Texas Miracle that isn't," Washington Monthly).  He can thank George Mitchell and fracking for the big increase in US oil production, and for awhile the simultaneous rise in demand from Asia, countered by supply reductions due to unrest in the Mideast, which for awhile jacked prices significantly.

Now that the price is falling, depending on where the price levels off, states reliant on oil production, especially Texas, Oklahoma, and North Dakota, risk economic contraction.

From the Main Street article "Plummeting Gasoline Prices Can Wreak Havoc on Economy Short Term":
Lower oil prices will benefit the regional economies of the energy consuming states of New York and California, the East and West coasts and the industrial Midwest, said Kutasovic. In those states, lower oil prices act as an effective tax cut by boosting consumer discretionary income and at the same time lowering production costs for manufacturing firms. ... 
Yet the impact on the energy producing states such as Texas remains uncertain and depends largely on the magnitude of the decline in oil prices. If oil prices decline enough, exploration and production companies will cut both production and capital expenditures on new projects, resulting in significant job losses and a slowing in regional economic growth in these states, Kutasovic said.
cf. the Businessweek story, "The Petro States of America."

Interestingly, those of us in carless or car-light households that don't purchase much gasoline aren't seeing the same significant increase in disposable income that is currently being enjoyed by car-dependent households.

In high price of gasoline scenarios, we do better, disposable-income-wise.

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Holiday gift ideas, part one: memberships

(Mostly this is a reprint from last year, but the content is evergreen.  Reminders never hurt.)

The holiday season is a good time to join a membership organization promoting sustainable transportation, arts, history, etc.  Here are some ideas:

1.  Membership to a national (advocacy type) organization such as Rails to Trails Conservancy, League of American Bicyclists, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, GreenAmerica, or the National Gardening Association.

2.  Membership to a state advocacy organization such as Preservation Maryland or Futurewise, the state smart growth advocacy group in Washington, the Virginia Bicycling Federation or BikeMaryland.

Or a multi-state/regional group like the Sightline Institute or Ecotrust, both based in the Pacific Northwest, or the Civil War Trust.

3.  Membership to a regional, county, or city preservation, mobility, or land use advocacy organization such as DC Preservation League, the Landmark Society of Western New York, Cleveland Restoration Society, Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans, Transportation Alternatives of New York City, SPUR--San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, Gotham Gazette, Chicago Reporter, Municipal Arts Society of New York, Regional Plan Association (New York), WalkBoston, Washington Area Bicyclists Association, etc.

In the DC area we have the Coalition for Smarter Growth.  In Richmond, there is the Partnership for Smarter Growth.

4. Membership in a local history museum, including  state railroad museums and house museums, such as the Detroit Historical Society, Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, the New-York Historical Society or the Museum of the City of New York, the Valentine History Center in Richmond or a regional trolley or transit museum like the NYC Transit Museum, the Baltimore Trolley Museum, or the National Capital Trolley Museum.  The Market Street Railway organization in San Francisco publishes an awesome newsletter for members.

And it turns out there is a great friends organization associated with the Gettysburg National Battlefield Park, Friends of the Gettysburg/Gettysburg Foundation.
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5.  Membership in a local nonprofit cinema such as the Byrd Theatre in Richmond, the Tampa Theatre, or the Avalon Theater in DC, etc.

6.  Membership in local arts museums.  They get a lot of members already, but still.

7.  Membership to a neighborhood organization such as a friends group for a local library or park, a neighborhood preservation group such as the Capitol Hill Restoration Society or Historic Takoma, a friends group for your community library, etc.

8.  Membership in a citywide friends group for parks or libraries.  I am truly jealous of Atlanta's Park Pride park support organization.  Of course, there are local groups too.  Related parks groups in our area include the Anacostia Watershed Society and Potomac Riverkeeper or trails organizations like Catonsville Rails to Trails outside of Baltimore.

9. Membership in other types of local groups doing good things, such as a building materials resale organization like Community Forklift in Prince George's County Maryland or Loading Dock in Baltimore, your local Habitat for Humanity or Rebuilding Together housing development and repair organization, etc. The BRIC arts and media group in Brooklyn is awesome...

10.  Membership in your local public television station, public radio station, or community media outlet.  Despite all their on-air fundraising campaigns which can be bothersome, they do need money, and it's total b.s. that "the Internet" and "cable and satellite television" substitute for these kinds of media resources.  Hell, most of the shows on "History Channel" and "Arts & Entertainment Channel" are reality shows that don't have much history.  We need PBS and local affiliates, public radio, including low power community media, like Radio CPR in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of DC.

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Saturday, December 06, 2014

Police misconduct and grand juries: a separate prosecution and grand jury system is necessary

The Christian Science Monitor has a story, "In wake of Eric Garner case, should grand jury system be reformed?," positing that the grand jury process is flawed because of the recent incidents in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City, where Michael Brown and Eric Garner were killed by police officers.

I think the article gets it wrong somewhat when it says that juries always return indictments, except in instances of alleged police misconduct.  From the article:
Two grand juries – one in New York, where Mr. Garner was choked to death, and in Missouri, where Mr. Brown was shot – failed to return criminal indictments against police officers a little more than a week apart.

Rooted in history as a skeptical check on the crown, the American grand jury – a secret panel of 12 citizens – has become largely a prosecutor’s rubber stamp. Grand juries almost always return an indictment, except in one specific instance: when it comes to cases involving a police officer.
The real point is that juries do just about 100% of the time what the prosecution suggests should be done--return indictments against alleged criminals and not return indictments against police officers.

We have to remember that prosecutors work with police officers to make cases against alleged perpetrators. Police and prosecutors are two separate but integrated components of the same system.  So it is very difficult for prosecutors to bring cases against police officers, especially when the case is problematic (but not when cases are clearly egregious), because police officers are their primary witnesses in all other matters.

The solution is to have an independent prosecution and grand jury system for police misconduct cases, featuring prosecutors who are not normally involved in trying those crimes where police officers are part of the case for the prosecution.

Of course that will create a different problem, a special police misconduct prosecution unit will be considered pariahs by both police officers,comparable to how police officers cast opprobrium on internal affairs units--which investigate police officers for misconduct, as well as by other prosecutors, who normally work with the police, and "not against them."

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