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, September 04, 2015

Lloyd's City Risk Index, 2015-2025

Based on research by the University of Cambridge's Centre for Risk Studies and their World Risk Atlas, Lloyd's of London, the major insurance company that specializes high risk coverages, has put together a risk profile for cities, called the Lloyd's City Risk Index, ranking 301 cities around the world, based on an evaluation of 18 different natural or man-made risks, and the potential for negative impact on metropolitan economic output (what they term GDP@Risk) from 18 different man-made and natural threats:
  • Stock Market crash
  • Oil price shock
  • Cyber attack
  • Human pandemic
  • Flood
  • Wind storm
  • Freeze
  • Drought
  • Solar storm
  • Power outage
  • Nuclear accident
  • Heatwave
  • Plant epidemic
  • Terrorism
  • Sovereign default
  • Earthquake
  • Tsunami
  • Volcano
There is a downloadable sheet for each city and listings by country and continent.

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The UK's leading architecture publication has an annual award for the worst designed building

Building Design, one of UK's leading architecture and construction trade journals, calls attention to the nation's worst new buildings, in its annual "Carbuncle Cup," based on nominations from readers.  From the article:
Sadly mediocre architecture is rife in our towns and cities with too many new buildings blighting rather than improving the built environment. These buildings suffer from a number of failings including blank, faceless facades, cheap shouty cladding, bad proportions and ill-conceived design “features”. Frequently examples of gross overdevelopment, rather than mitigating their impact, too many of these buildings stick two fingers up to their context.
Can't see an equivalent "award" being handed out annually by Architectural Record, Metropolis, or other similar US publications.

Of the list of the six worst buildings for 2015, London's Walkie Talkie building, designed by Rafael Viñoly, got the nod ("It should never have been built," BD; "Carbuncle Cup: Walkie Talkie wins prize for worst building of the year," Guardian).

A few months ago I wrote about an element of the building that I found interesting ("Public access to building tops in the vertical city: cinemas, parks, and plazas"), an upper story garden and viewing area (with restaurants, one with stratospheric prices) ostensibly open to the public. even if in practice the garden is not well executed and the quality of public access and the experience is stunted.
Sky Garden at the top of the "Walkie Talkie" building, London
Sky Garden at the top of the "Walkie Talkie" building, London. Photo by Alex Lentati, for the London Evening Standard.

From a post-modern architecture perspective, the design of the Walkie Talkie building is reasonable and playful, even if elements of the design ended up concentrating the sun in ways that melted car parts and blistered the paint off nearby storefronts. Awnings had to be added to de-concentrate the sun rays that would otherwise bounce off the building.

The problem is that the building is the definition of the term "context insensitive."

It was built in an area not otherwise zoned for skyscrapers.  In a triumph of capitalism, the reason the building gets wider as it rises is because rents/s.f. increase significantly on the higher floors.

Therefore, it will always stick out, more as sculpture than as a building, and it will always tower over its much much shorter neighboring buildings.

Peter Rees, the former chief planner of "The City," London's square mile financial district, justifies the building as acting as "the prow" of "The City" conceptualized as a ship.

But in practice from the perspective of being on the street rather than from an aerial view, it's not possible to grasp the complete landscape of "The City" in a single glance and therefore, the building doesn't function as an element in a perfectly formed cultural landscape that fully executes and illustrates the idea of "The City" as a ship.
Effective viewing distances for pedestrians
Effective viewing distances for pedestrians. From "Close encounters with buildings" by Jan Gehl, Lotte Johansen Kaefer and Solvejg Reigstad. Urban Design International 11: 29-47;

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Thursday, September 03, 2015

Car2Go agreement with Montreal's Trudeau Airport could be a model for other jurisdictions

The Airport has an agreement with an off-site parking lot that allows Car2Go vehicles to be parked there.  A $7.50 parking fee upcharge is charged to the user.  The Airport covers extra costs if more than ten cars are parked at the AéroParc lot, which is the number of spaces that has been contracted for normally. See "Car2Go users can park at the Trudeau airport" from the Montreal Gazette.

Note that US members of Car2Go have full access to cars in all US and Canadian cities that participate in the Car2Go program. (In other news, in some cities in parts of the city where Car2Go is less successful, they are cutting back on the size of the home service area. See "Car2Go proposes scaling back service area in Twin Cities" from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.)

Given the large capacity for parking at National Airport's various parking garages and lots, it seems like something could be worked with regard to access to DC Car2Go members.

DCA has about 10,000 on-site parking spaces, so they could spare 10-20 spaces for Car2Go use--especially if they think about this in terms of "managing the quality of the passenger experience" at more touchpoints than they normally consider.

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Redundancy and good state of repair in transit systems: why a decision made 50 years ago cripples WMATA today

(EE shared with us a link to a Gothamist story about a meltdown on the LIRR today because of a signal system failure, which led to a shutdown of the system and diversion of the passengers to the subway system.)

A couple weeks ago I met with a journalist who is working on a big story about WMATA's meltdown, and today's Post editorial ("Metro focuses on corrections after accidents but fails at preventing them") reminds me of the key point I made at the start of that conversation.

That insight built on these recent posts:

-- "Getting WMATA out of crisis: a continuation of a multi-year problem that keeps getting worse, not better"
-- ""

Flickr photo by Barbara Krawcowicz.

WMATA's current problems were engineered into the system from day one (in the late 1960s) because the system was designed without redundancy--it's a two track system without a third (or fourth) track.

We all know how poorly single tracking works in practice.  Generally, trains run every 20 to 30 minutes, not every 4-6 minutes.

I don't think it is possible to achieve that level of ridership with a high level of customer satisfaction--which requires a minimum of track and train failures--without redundancy.

I don't understand how that design went forward considering the original projections for ridership exceeded one million riders daily.   But it did.

No express service. Lack of additional tracks also prevents the development of express service, and makes track shutdowns for maintenance and repair much more problematic.

No 24-hour service.  Additional tracks would also have enabled 24-hour service for the same reason, you can shift service around tracks for maintenance while still operating.

To maintain service without interruption, lack of track redundancy requires that tracks and transit vehicles are always in a state of good repair because even minor track or car breakdowns result in system failures, usually with cascading and increasing negative effects.

It is foreordained that without adequate funding for maintenance and repair the tracks certainly and the signals system possibly will break down.

Plus train cars are expected to be in service for 40-60 years, with regular maintenance.  But even with regular maintenance and occasional complete rebuilds, rail cars as they age are more susceptible to break down as well.  And of course, some cars are built better than others, and the cars less well built break down more, etc.

Conclusion.  In short, irrespective of management failures, WMATA's design and failures to adequately fund maintenance and new equipment purchases to maintain a state of good repair, sets the stage for failure rather than success.

Bonus: A major lost opportunity to build redundancy into the system via the Silver Line project

FWIW, it's unfortunate that the Silver Line was allowed to be built (1) without four tracks; (2) without the requirement to build a second crossing from Rosslyn to DC; and (3) without using it to bootstrap the creation of a separated blue or silver line, something I first wrote about in 2006 ("Blinking on urban design means you limit your chance for success").

Although you can argue the relative lack of density in the Silver Line's catchment area in Virginia doesn't justify multiple tracks, they would be useful for service to Dulles Airport and would be highly useful within the proposed DC section of the Silver Line discussed below.

Tysons Tunnel diagramAdding tracks at least to that segment, and within the city building a double stack tunnel for a new separated blue line (which I think should be re-termed the Silver Line), would have begun to right the 50-year old design mistake.

Also see "Transit redundancy" from 2009.

Multiple tracks and extension into the city would have enabled:

-- express service to and from Fairfax and Loudoun Counties, including to Dulles Airport, which likely would improve that airport's positioning within the region as a place to fly from, which is important given its passenger traffic continues to decline ("Overall passenger decline at Dulles Airport," Loudoun Times)

-- additional throughput capacity between Virginia and DC by adding a second crossing on the north side of the system

-- redundancy in case the current northern tunnel has to close for any reason (for example the signal failures with the LIRR today meant it was unsafe for trains to cross through to Manhattan in the East River Tunnels)

-- expansion of the system without forcing a truncation of service for the current blue line ("Rush Plus still feeling like Rush Minus to Blue Line riders," Washington Examiner

-- an increase in capacity in DC's core--the system is expected to reach capacity in 2025

-- an expansion of areas served within DC, adding Metrorail service to Georgetown, Mount Vernon Triangle, and H Street, with more stations

-- more transit service to Union Station, enabling Amtrak's proposed expansion program to be realized with complementary in-city transit service and adding transit service redundancy (an additional line serving the station) to WMATA's most highly used transit station.
Proposed changes for the WMATA system, 2001 (separated blue line)
In this Washington Post graphic from 2001, the "Silver Line" is shown as an extension of the Orange Line, and a separated blue line emanates from the East Falls Church station, crosses into DC in a new tunnel, and provides service to Georgetown, service east of the current Downtown alignment of the blue and orange lines, provides service to Union Station via a new transit line, and continues eastward to H Street.

This proposal was junked in 2003, when a short recession impacted WMATA's budget, and WMATA eliminated many of the positions in the construction division and devolved expansion planning responsibilities to the separate jurisdictions.

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Sports events and the transit city: participation in transportation demand management shouldn't be an option

One of the many problems with local government "contracts" with sports teams is that the contracts tend to be written in favor of the team.  (See "Stadiums and arenas as the enabling infrastructure for "money-making" platforms" and "An arena subsidy project I'd probably favor: Sacramento." The latter entry includes a framework for shaping stadium and arena projects in favor of better outcomes for the local jurisdiction.)

Some places--especially New York City--deal with this some by having certain provisions conditional within use permits or zoning.  And often, use permits are not granted "forever," but have to be renewed, so that there are opportunities for renegotiations and the addition of provisions based on the operating experiences of the facility over time.

That isn't the case with jurisdictions in the DC area.

There are three main sports facilities in the DC area: the FedEx Field in Prince George's County, home to the area's NFL team, and is located 1.2 miles from the Largo Metrorail Station; the Washington Nationals baseball stadium, across from the Navy Yard Metrorail Station in DC; and Verizon Center, home of the Washington Wizards basketball team and the Washington Capitals hockey team, and located above the Gallery Place Metrorail station.

Only the Verizon Center has an agreement in place to pay WMATA, the area transit authority, for extended Metrorail service beyond the time when the system would otherwise be closed.

The Washington Nationals have refused to put such an agreement in place, despite the city's preference that they do so and the fact that the city is paying hundreds of millions of dollars for the team's stadium.  The city didn't put a provision for transit coverage in the contract so the Nationals, see no reason to do so.

The difference between Verizon Center and the Washington Nationals is telling.  Verizon Center aims to manage as many elements of the guest experience as they can, including convenient travel to and from their event, while the Nationals don't care enough to extend their management of the "brand experience" to travel.

Like the Nationals, there are issues with the Redskins football team and transit also.

First, they located in a place with deficient transit connectivity, although Largo Town Center station opened in 2004 to serve the area, seven years after the stadium opened to the public.  Second, in the past--less so today--they make it very difficult for attendees to walk from the Metro station to the stadium.  But they have contracted with WMATA to extend service when necessary, to ensure that transit-using attendees can make it home.

But the Washington Post reports in "No late Metro service for Thursday night's preseason game at FedEx Field," that the Redskins haven't agreed to extend service for tonight's pre-season game against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

According to the article, the team justifies the decision on the expectation that the game will end long before the last trains from Largo Town Center, while others argue that the time it takes to get out of the stadium and walk to the station means that it will be cutting it close as the last trains, depending on the final destination, leave at either 11:14 PM or 11:27 PM.

But this shouldn't be up to the Redskins necessarily, having contingency plans in place to provide for extra service if it is needed should be a permanent transportation demand management requirement as part of the zoning and use permits for the facility.

Note to other jurisdictions: be sure to put transportation demand management requirements in your stadium/arena contracts, to ensure that seamless service is provided beyond the time when the transit system normally operates.

Note also that in DC, the stadium and arena are located immediately adjacent to heavy rail stations, although the baseball stadium is on only one line--the Green Line--while Verizon Center is served directly by three lines, and just a few blocks walk to Metro Center, which is served by the transit system's three other lines.

By contrast FedEx Field is not so well located, quite a distance from the Metrorail station.

This came up in a "Fan Day" forum held by the Redskins team in June, according to the Washington Post ("Could the Redskins learn from the Nats game-day experience").  From the article:
Among the most notable features of this spring’s Redskins fan forum held with top team executives: just how many fans referenced policies the football team could borrow from its local baseball, hockey and basketball counterparts. And as I recall, the Nats were cited most frequently among Redskins fans trying to improve the game-day experience at FedEx Field.

Now, no one would say that a day at Nats Park is perfect. The stadium itself is often described as forgettable. Fans often leave early, especially because there is no plan to extend Metro service in the case of extra innings. Lines can be long, there are often throngs of visiting fans, and there have been complaints about the apathy in premium sections and the uninspiring views of the city.

... The second-biggest difference, fans would argue, is stadium location. Nats Park is in the city, near bars and restaurants and a short walk from Metro, while FedEx Field is in the suburbs, without much nearby entertainment, and nearly a mile from Metro. These realities pre-date Daniel Snyder, and they aren’t going away any time soon.
The article makes a number of recommendations on improving the game day experience, including physical and programming improvements between the stadium and Metro station, because:
... the walk from Metro to FedEx Field could not be more drearily different than the walk from Metro to Nats Park: there is nothing to look at save townhomes and vendors selling bootleg beers and Jell-o shots.
Note to other jurisdictions: when you have rail-based transit systems in place, be sure to require in zoning and other contracts that stadiums and arenas are located where transit service and stations are already present.

Of course, many communities are so eager to get a team that transit service and station adjacency ends up being, at best, an afterthought.

For example, the Atlanta Braves baseball team is moving out of the city to the suburbs, to the Galleria district of Cobb County, located at the intersection of I-285 and I-75, which is an area not served at all by MARTA's heavy rail transit system.

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Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Could a corrupt political system be a legitimate defense when a city sues a contractor for winning a contract through bribery?

An anonymous contributor alerted me to this Bloomberg Businesswek article, published yesterday, "Stop bribery by legalizing it." So this article is being republished with a new time.

Chicago is known for its "pay-to-play" culture, capricious and arbitrary land development approval system (Chicago Tribune article on aldermanic privilege, "Neighborhoods for sale"), various examples of misuse of funds for private benefit (e.g., the "Hired Truck" scandal), and poor decision-making concerning contracting such as the long term lease deals of their parking meter system and city-owned public parking structures, where the city left at least $1 billion on the table in the favor of the lessees ("Chicago's ongoing debacles: parking and governance" and "A lesson to cities that they need to be very careful when leasing assets to public private "partnerships"").

In one particular case, where a commercial property owner sued for not being able to develop because they refused to pay off an alderman, the court ruled that clearly this system was in fact legal because it is ensconced in how the city operates concerning land use.

Anyway, the City of Chicago is one of the plaintiffs suing a red light camera firm--since fired--which got the contract to operate in the city because of bribes.  See the Chicago Tribune article "Chicago sues red light camera firm for $300 million."

The city is suing for the amount they paid out to the company, about $134 million, and are seeking punitive damages, which increases the total amount they are seeking.

Granted the contract was let during the Daley Administration, but I think the defendants could argue that while what they did was wrong, that's the way things work in Chicago.

Which of course is not a legal defense likely to win.

But in any case, it doesn't seem "fair" for companies forced to be corrupt to participate in a political system being penalized by the creators and maintainers of the corrupt system for doing what was expeccted of them.

-- "The system of corruption: when you don't understand "systems", of corruption or anything else, you don't understand outcomes"
-- "The travelogue of the world's Corrupt Cities includes DC, what does that say about us?"

From the description of the book Corrupt Cities: A Practical Guide to Cure and Prevention:
Corrupt Cities is a practical guide to assist in the diagnosis, investigation and prevention of various kinds of corruption. Bringing together both a conceptual and practical framework, the publication is designed for citizens and public officials, especially at the municipal level. The approach presented discourages more controls, more laws and more bureaucracy, while focusing on systematic corruption and its preventive measures. It encourages consideration of the economic costs of corruption, rather than moral or ethical factors, as the driving force behind anti-corruption efforts. It also emphasizes that "fighting corruption should not be considered an end in itself, but an orienting principle for reforming urban administration."
The arguments put forth are supported by examples of anti-corruption strategies, particularly from Hong Kong and La Paz. The publication also includes practical tips to adapt these strategies to difficult scenarios, for example, in cities/communities characterized by political indifference, bureaucratic inertia, and where citizen support may exist but is yet to be mobilized.
Ironically, coming back on the plane I was talking with a college student sitting next to me. She is studying business, at a university in Michigan. I opined that there is something to be said for "competition" in government, given how the oligopolistic "Democratic" control of municipal government in DC leads to terrible behaviors and actions. I didn't even know about this most recent example that decisively proves my point.

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Another failure in city operations: sewer grates and biking

Most urban design manuals and bike plans specify the use of particular types of sewer grates and manhole covers so that bike wheels can safely cross over them.

DC has such rules too, I am pretty sure.

But that didn't seem to prevent the installation of noncompliant sewer grates at the northwest corner of 6th Street NW and Massachusetts Avenue.

I guess there is a preference for grates with angled openings to better prevent overflows from debris clogs.

But such openings need to be placed within a grate so that they are perpindicular to the roadway--of course with narrow, not large, openings--or when parallel to the roadway, of a width narrower than bicycle tires and flat, so that bike wheels can safely ride across.

Just as WMATA workers don't seem to be following checklists and related protocols for installation of equipment in ways that can have catastrophic or at the very least negative consequences, so too do other government agencies.

See the guidance in LESSON 14: SHARED ROADWAYS, from the Federal Highway Administration University Course on Bicycle and Pedestrian Transportation. From the lesson:
Care must be taken to ensure that drainage grates are bicycle–safe. If not, a bicycle wheel may fall into a slot in the grate, causing the bicyclist to fall. Replacing existing grates with bicycle–safe grates (see A and B in figure 14–14, preferred methods) or welding thin metal straps across the grate perpendicular to the direction of travel (see C in figure 14–14, alternate method) is required. These should be checked periodically to ensure that the straps remain in place.

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Parks: maintenance, budgeting and contingency planning

DC converted a "pocket park" that ended up being used mostly by neighborhood loiterers (not homeless people) for illegal public drinking into a fenced-in garden.
4th and Blair park-garden space, DC
4th and Blair park-garden space.  Google Street View image, July 2014.

One of the problems with such spaces is that they require tending different from merely cutting the grass, and likely the Department of General Services--the GSA-like DC government agency that now has the responsibility of maintaining all government-owned facilities, even parks--doesn't have many "gardeners" on staff.

Ornamental plantings after being "mowed."

Someone told them the plantings were getting out of hand and needed to be mowed.  And even though most of the plantings were flowers, this didn't seem to concern the employees sent "to mow" the "park."  And they did.

It's sad but also funny and an illustration that the typical government agency doesn't have the skill set to provide differential maintenance as needed for spaces outside of the typical and average installation.

That's the main reason for the creation of "business improvement districts" and other special services districts that under agreements with local governments, get funding from additional assessments and provide day-to-day "extraordinary" maintenance of public spaces.

And it's one of many examples that ought to support my point that despite national measurement reports from TPL, DC probably doesn't have the nation's "#2" park system.  See "How surveys based on gross data can be very misleading."

2. On my list of books to read and write about is Place-Keeping: Open Space Management in Practice, published by Taylor & Francis/Routledge, and the product of a European Union knowledge capture initiative on managing open space.

There is a companion website, Place-Keeping, maintained by the authors, which addresses in an ongoing way issues that were studied and discussed in the book.

3.  To reiterate the need for local governments to include contingency planning for county, state, or federal parks and open spaces located within their jurisdictions in their parks plans, for budget reasons, a number of states are threatening to cut funding for parks or close them altogether.

See "Contingency planning in parks planning: Montgomery County edition."

In New Hampshire, the issue is that the Governor vetoed the budget and so all agencies are operating on a budget line of one-half of their FY2015 budget.  This affects parks and fall-related foliage tourism ("Committee votes to keep state parks open," Manchester Union-Leader). Slate reports that tourism around the fall foilage season--not limited to the state's parks--generates $1 billion for the regional economy (although it's also threatened long-term by climate change).

All 22 of Alabama's state parks are in danger of closing ("All Alabama state parks in danger of closing over budget woes," Huntsville Times) because the Legislature and the Governor are in a deadlock over massive state budget cuts versus increasing taxes.  The Governor favors tax increases, the Legislature doesn't.  From the article:
Rogersville Mayor Richard Herston spoke on the ripple effect that would result if the parks are closed. He said about 10 percent of his town's budget comes from people visiting Joe Wheeler State Park.
Other states face similar problems.  For example, Wisconsin's state park system is slated to stop receiving funding from the annual budget ("Elimination Of Tax Funding For State Parks Approved By Budget Committee," Wisconsin Public Radio) even though no state park system in the US is fully funded by self-generated revenues, and budget cuts in Oklahoma could lead to parks closures or privatization initiatives ("State Parks in Danger After Tourism Department’s $16 Million Budget Cut," StateImpact, Oklahoma NPR).

A broken park bench in McKinley Park came to symbolize the disrepair of city parks during the Great Recession. Photo: Randall Benton Sacramento Bee.

4.  In Sacramento (and other cities, such as Seattle) budget cuts for parks agencies in response to the 2008 recession had major negative impacts on the parks system, and citizens responded by approving property or sales tax levies specifically to fund parks and open space operations.

In the past, such levies funded capital improvements but not operations.  The Seattle Times editorialized unsuccessfully against the property tax levy in Seattle because it was intended primarily for operations.

The Sacramento Bee just reported ("Don’t forget about Sacramento’s parks") on the positive impact of the sales tax funding for the parks system, but mentions how with the park system still growing, each new facility adds demand for maintenance, outstripping the monies raised by the sales tax.

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Friday, August 28, 2015

Some cool public art projects

1.  I wish Banksy's Dismaland, a parody of (Disney) theme parks and commercialization put together in a vacant amusement park in the distressed seaside resort of Weston-super-Mare, UK would be open for more than six weeks--its last day of operation is September 27th--because then maybe I'd manage to figure out how to get there and see it.  There is a nice video ad promotion created for the project that shows off many of the elements.

-- "Welcome to Dismaland: A First Look at Banksy's New Art Exhibition Housed Inside a Dystopian Theme Park," This is Colossal
-- "Dismaland: Banksy's grim new art theme park," CNN
-- "Dismaland: The artists doing cooler things than Banksy at his 'bemusement park'," Independent. This article has images of the various works, listed by artist.
-- "I'm Not Going To Dismaland," New Yorker.  Discusses the decline of seaside resorts in Britain.  (Something those of us who watched the film Quadrophenia back in the late 1970s probably know a bit about.)
-- "Banksy's Dismaland mean - and a little bit green," Telegraph

2.  In Massachusetts, artist Brian Kane bought up advertising slots on billboards along two highways display "Healing Tools," work intended to be seen by commuters with the pop of art as a stress reliever.  See "Artist Buys Billboard Advertising Time to Display Art Instead of Ads on Massachusetts Highways," from This is Colossal.Brian Kane Healing Tool billboard
Photography by Nate Wieselquist and Simone Schiess

In digital billboard and ad systems, such as for bus shelters, I have been tinkering with the idea of ad slots for nonprofits, community events, and other public service messages. Why not display art as well? In Baltimore ("Walters Art Museum goes off the wall: Reproductions of paintings pop up around Baltimore," Baltimore Sun) and some other cities, local art museums have done campaigns where facsimiles of art works are displayed in various public places.

Baltimore already does this with the "Baltimore LED Art Billboard" along the Northeast Corridor railroad tracks across from Penn Station in the Station North Arts and Entertainment District.

3. This is Colossal also has an article, "Street Artists Collaborate with Mexican Government to Bring Vibrant Splash of Color to an Entire Neighborhood," about a mural project in Mexico, where the Germen Crew street artists group painted a mural using as a canvas 209 houses on a hillside in the Palmitas neighborhood of Pachuca.

Houses, Palmitas district, Pachuca, Mexico

Houses painted with the mural, Palmitas district, Pachuca, Mexico

The mural in the distance, Palmitas, Pachuca, Mexico

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A lesson that seeing is believing: Panasonic's new building in Newark, NJ as an example, positive and negative, in businesses coming back to the city center

A couple months ago Smart Growth America released a report, Core Values: Why American Companies are Moving Downtown, and had a press conference/webinar on the findings, about the positive trend of office-based organizations moving "back" to the city from suburban locations.

I wrote a long piece about it, "Smart Growth America report on businesses moving back to center cities (and suburban core business districts)."  But I haven't seen any of the places in person.

It turns out that I only had part of the story, which I learned when  I saw a presentation a few weeks ago about some revitalization projects in Newark, and Newark's new US headquarters for Panasonic was discussed--although interestingly the presenter refused to identify the building or the company.

It turns out that as far as street level integration, ingress, and urban design matters were concerned, the Panasonic building is as much an example of failure as it is of urban success.

The image below, from Google Street View, shows how the building's perimeter is fenced off from the sidewalk and street.

1.  Many of Panasonic's top officials and employees likely were afraid of the center city location, even though they understood the relocation as a forward thinking move for the company.

These kinds of fears aren't unusual, even in DC.  For example, employees at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission were angry about moving to the then "frontier" location in NoMA across the street from the Metrorail station.  I wrote about it in 2007:
Part of it too is perception, as the Post reported in this short, "EEOC Is Moving On; Fast Food and a Dicey Neighborhood Await," workers often look askance at having to work in revitalizing places. The caption of the photo accompanying the article states "Some at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission fail to see the upside of moving from downtown Washington to Northeast. The new headquarters' neighbors will include 'one of the largest open-air drug markets in the region'" and the article doesn't get much better: 
"The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is in an uproar over a decision by Chair Naomi C. Earp to move its 500-employee headquarters from fine offices in downtown to a "developing" -- but not quite arrived -- area in desolate Northeast near the old Woodie's warehouse on New York Avenue."
At a hostile meeting yesterday to quell a growing rebellion, Earp told several hundred employees -- and others viewing on closed-circuit television -- that "the determining factor is price" in her decision and that employees "should not overreact to concerns about safety."
These days the area where EEOC is located is quite successful, with a full-line grocery across the street, and an increasing array of amenities.  I can't imagine that EEOC employees are particularly concerned about their safety there, these days.

The Panasonic building is located a long block, 0.2 miles, from transit--Newark's Penn Station, a major station on Amtrak, NJ Transit, and PATH.  But allegedly the company wanted the city to develop a completely underground connection between the transit center and the building, so that employees wouldn't have to mix with the riff-raff on the street.

Note that according to the company, at least 57% of the employees arrive to work by transit.

2.  These fears about their urban location have been reified by the company and/or the developer in that a fence was constructed around the building, so that the outdoor spaces around the building are decidedly not public.
Torre de Gas NaturalBy contrast, I came across a mention of the Natural Gas company headquarters in the Barceloneta neighborhood in Barcelona (pictured at left), where in return for height increases and other variances, the company made the spaces around the building publicly accessible and deeded the space to the local government.

The spaces outside and the ground floor of the regional headquarters of Unilever in Hamburg, Germany are also open to the public.

Public space along the waterfront in HafenCity, outside of the Unilever building.

A ground floor open to the public was one of the design requirements specified for the property by the area's development corporation   From the article:
The program brief required that part of the building be open to the public, which inspired a dynamic layout not often found in office buildings. Visitors enter a light-filled atrium, criss-crossed by walkways and ringed by interior facades with operable windows. The ground floor features an employee cafeteria and test kitchen, along with public amenities—a café, small spa, and grocery store stocked with Unilever products. Outside, a patio merges with stairs leading down to a riverside promenade.
The coffee cafe features Unilever coffee brands, etc.

3.  Panasonic failed to use space within the new building as an opportunity to showcase their brand.

I believe that Panasonic has a small product space on their ground floor but it isn't opened up to the public or on the scale of the Unilever store in Hamburg--and Unilever has created similar stores in other of their office buildings in the US, Singapore, and elsewhere.

Ironically, Panasonic has a big showroom--three floors, each devoted to a specific product category--at their headquarters in Osaka, Japan.

Think if Panasonic would have created a signature "store" like how the Nike ("Nike Reopens its Flagship Brand Presence in Chicago," press release), Sony, or Apple stores have been created by those companies as a way to showcase and represent their brands.

Ironically, Panasonic has done something similar, at the Mitsuwa Marketplace Japanese supermarket (pictured at left) in Edgewater, NJ, just not at their headquarters.

Such a move would have helped the brand and the company's image, as well as improved "the retail offer" and experience and attraction possibilities in Downtown Newark.

The presenter laid this out with the narrative of "look how much the company sucks."

Others in the audience (all artists) thought the project was an example of businesses going back to the center city but an example of "corporations taking over and remaking the city in disconnected ways."

I was more focused on the failures of the planners because it's our job to show a better way, which we can't expect to come about unprompted from traditional developers or corporate facilities managers and officers.

After all, we have plenty of bad examples to learn from.

1.  Newark should have already had in place a station area urban design plan for the area, specifying activation-related improvements and connections for the ground plane in the mobility shed of the station.   There are various city plans (Master Plan, Downtown Revitalization Plan, etc.) in existence but clearly they were inadequate to the task.

Since the State of New Jersey has a major "Transit Village" transit-oriented development initiative, that seems a logical first step for all major transit stations.  The city created such a plan for the Broad Street Station area in 2008.

Had such guidelines been in place, it would have been easier for the planning department "to persuade" Panasonic to do more of the right things for the ground plane of the building and site.

2.  Alternatively, states and cities should build into their tax incentive provision agreements urban design requirements, to ensure the maximum positive economic and social return on the use of public funds.

Panasonic received a $104 million tax credit ("Panasonic gets tax credit approval for Newark move," Newark Star-Ledger) for the move.  Some criticized the credit because the company moved from one part of the Newark suburbs to Newark proper.  However, the state has lost a number of headquarters facilities recently (e.g. Mercedes Benz moved to Atlanta), so you can see how the state may have been motivated by retention as much as by recruitment.

Still, in return for that amount of money Panasonic and the developer should have instituted urban design-appropriate treatments for the ground floor and surrounding spaces of the building.

2.  There should have been organized "familiarization" activities for the employees beyond what was done focused on increasing their comfortability with their new urban setting.  (Note that this is a problem in most center cities where a preponderance of employees herald from the suburbs.  For example, most of DC's suburban office workers don't deviate much and explore Downtown outside of the short distance between their workplace and whatever Metrorail station they use.)

See "Newark goes all out to assure arena visitors' safe passage," Newark Star-Ledger, for an example of how Newark employed a similar approach concerning their then new arena.

3.  If at the outset the planners were unsuccessful in convincing Panasonic to change their treatment of the ground plane at the building's opening, they could have specified a program of phases where over time, improvements leading to a re/opening and re/connection of the ground plane to the station area and business district could be implemented, with the end goal of removing the fence and connecting to the city rather than walling off from it.

4.  In any case, I believe that the Newark City planners should have laid out these kinds of counter-examples as a course of action in order to yield a better urban design outcome, and they should take some responsibility for the failure, especially because there are many examples around of how this could have and should have been done differently.

Conclusion.  I still believe that Panasonic should be commended for moving from the suburbs to a center city, transit-connected location.

But at the same time, the SGA report should have included some lessons on the negative urban design experiences of the Newark example--elementary school students had a petition focused on trying to get the company to not fence in the building.

By being aware of these issues, and being armed with other, better examples, other cities can get better results from similar relocations than is the case so far in Newark.

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Thursday, August 27, 2015

The time to plan for retail in and around the Convention Center was long before it opened in 2003 and certainly before 2015

WBJ photo by Joanne Lawton.

The Washington Business Journal reports ("Convention center tries to lease its retail space yet again") that the Convention Center is aiming to fix its retail. Granted the retail spaces within the building are a different issue from 9th and 7th Streets.
“We want to be able to connect Shaw and U Street all the way down to New York Avenue,” Brown said. “Right now it’s just sort of a gray-facade block, but we want to make it an exciting looking place.”  Brown expects the work on the building’s exterior and streetscape to begin in the next 12 months. He hopes Events D.C. will be announcing its first new retail and restaurant tenants before that, perhaps this fall.

It’s not the group’s first attempt to lease its retail space. Many of the storefronts in the convention center have been empty since it opened in 2003. Old Dominion Brewhouse was there for several years, but closed last fall. In March, the convention center announced that Sbarro has leased space there; it is currently the center's only retail tenant.
In the past I wrote some entries (e.g., "If you don't understand linkage and context then you have learned nothing" from 2007) about the failure of the DC Convention Center to spark "improvement" of 7th and 9th Streets NW abutting the center.    From that piece:
The interesting thing about today's Post articles about the Washington Convention Center, "Convention Center Not Living Up to Lofty Goals," subtitled "Declining Attendance Limits Economic Impact," and "Ninth Street Corridor Still Awaits Renaissance," was that before the Center was built, the paper ran little criticism, until the day it opened when the articles on the front page of the business section did offer some critical analysis. (You know the phrase, "a day late and a dollar short...")
The point of criticism is to bring about success. Too often, people focus on being criticized and not the message.
There are five primary reasons for the failure.

1.  The center was not built to be permeable on its west (9th Street) and east (7th Street) elevations. For the most part, entry occurs on the north and/or south sides of the building at K and L Streets primarily.

2.  Lack of a convention hotel for many years limited positive street activation along 9th Street especially, but also 7th Street.  The Washington Marriott Marquis convention center hotel opened in 2014 (pictured at right, photo from Marriott).

While I might normally be against public financial support of such facilities, which often don't work out so well (e.g., ">Hilton Baltimore's woes par for course for city-owned hotels," Batlimore Business Journal), the reality is that to better support large events at the convention center, large hotels are necessary.

I experienced this first hand with the 2004 American Planning Association national conference in DC.  The meeting was spread across two different hotels and the events at the secondary property experienced significantly reduced attendance, even though a shuttle service was provided.

While the convention hotel is focused on capturing restaurant and bar consumption from its guests and not sharing their customers with nearby businesses, not everyone limits their activity to on-site consumption, and some of them end up going to establishments nearby or elsewhere in Greater Downtown.

3.  The retail spaces within the convention center are poorly designed/subpar/badly situated.  And there is a lot of wasted space that could have been used as retail as well.

Most provide entry only from the outside of the building, and for the most part, most people enter the Convention Center from K Street, and secondarily from the Metrorail station/L Street.
1200 block 9th Street NW, west side
1200 block 9th Street NW, west side, 2006.

1200 block 9th Street NW, west side, 2014, Google Street View.

4.  The Convention Center program didn't include a property and business development investment initiative focused on improving the commercial properties on 7th and 9th Streets in its catchment area.

Although it must be acknowledged that in 2003, when the Convention Center, this area was "emerging" at best in terms of the vitality of the commercial properties in those areas.  It would have been a stretch, even if the properties had been fixed up, to see--at least back then--the possibility of a thriving commercial district.  On the other hand, that a complementary investment program for the neighboring properties wasn't created ordained continued failure of the district.

Fortunately, in the past few years 9th Street around the Convention Center has begun to improve as the old Giant Supermarket on O Street has been redeveloped into O Street Market and from development efforts moving west from U Street and retail improvements in response to the addition of apartment and condominium buildings in the area, which has added population.

The more recent improvement of 7th and 9th Streets around U Street has little to do with the Convention Center, but has derived from new construction and rehabilitation projects there, which on 7th Street have centered around the Metro station and the fixing and reopening of the Howard Theater.

5.  The reality is that for conventions in DC, especially those focused on the federal market, many of the attendees are not visiting from out-of-town, but live in the area, and they aren't interested in spending time or money outside of facility.

It's not clear to me that the mistakes are well understood or that the new initiatives will have much positive impact.

As it is now 12 years after the opening of the Convention Center, what's incredible to me is that these problems weren't identified in the design phase of the project, from the 2008 entry "Another example of 'trickle down policy' and service failure":
It's not enough to "merely" build the big project. You've got to take simultaneous steps to ensure that the community outside the lot boundaries of the big project is ready to connect.

A classic example is 7th and 9th Streets NW abutting the Convention Center. There is a major disconnect. 7th Street is mostly housing. And 9th Street is mostly bombed out still. Is it a surprise that the Convention Center, which face it, mostly attracts people who stay inside the Center during their time there, leaving little time to patronize the local shops, hasn't jumped started neighborhood improvements?

In fact, on 9th Street the retail improvements are happening far to the north of the Convention Center, as if the Convention Center has little impact whatsoever. Although it is true that new housing is being developed around the Convention Center proper, plus eventually the Convention Center Hotel.

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In about 23 years, maybe we'll have gun control in the US

Around when I first moved to DC, 1987, I thought that there was a strong likelihood of the creation of a national health insurance program, something like the Affordable Care Act, which passed in 2010.

It wasn't because I thought policymakers were motivated by improving the state of the nation's health but because in an increasingly globalized economy, large US companies were at a disadvantage compared to their competitors elsewhere, because they provided health insurance to their employees, while in other countries (if they have insurance) that cost is borne by the national government.

Chrysler had gone through bankruptcy, in part because of their health insurance obligations, but also for many other reasons.  And many steel companies had by that time gone out of business as well, for similar economic reasons.  And we were a couple years out from Caterpillar reducing health and wage benefits.

And there were lots of articles and editorials about the health insurance crisis.  I remember one by Joesph Califano, who was on the Chrysler board of directors, and he had been US Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare during the Carter Administration.

It didn't happen then, but took 23 years later, and in a final form that is still not optimal.

In the meantime, wrt guns, roughly 33,000 people die each year in shootings of various sorts (not just murders, also accidents and suicides), and so far in 2015, there's been at least one major shooting--defined as at least four people being shot in one incident--every day.

Instead of focusing on gun control, theaters, stadiums, arenas, and even churches are deploying security and search protocols.

See "The blasé acceptance that you might get shot is a fact of American life" and "Gun control is political: So is refusing to address the politics of gun violence" from The Guardian and Courtland Milloy's recent column, "We've ignored a reason for homicides of blacks," in the Washington Post.

Outside of war zones, the US is perhaps the most dangerous country in the world as it relates to death from violence.

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Sunday, August 23, 2015

Another update on UCI bicycle championships in Richmond, and companion programming

The UCI world bicycle racing championships are mostly held in Europe, but out of a ten year cycle, from one to three races are held on other continents.  This year they will be racing in Richmond, September 19th-27th.

Over the years in the run up to the event, the city has been using their hosting of this marquee event to push forward a more active pro-bicycling agenda ("Richmond Biking roundup sparked by the UCI Road World Championships held this September), as well as to use the event as a way to promote Richmond's tourism program more towards international visitors.

They've had some failures.  The city's first cycle track won't be in place before the races and the same goes for bike sharing ("City running out of time to launch bike sharing by cycling event," Richmond Times-Dispatch ).

I thought it was interesting that the local Keep America Beautiful group is organizing litter cleanups in advance of the races.

Some activists called for the racing route to be changed, to avoid Monument Avenue's memorials to the confederacy.

I am not particularly into bike racing, but I am really impressed that many of the area's museums and other cultural attractions are organizing bicycling-specific exhibits during the races--some of the exhibits will be up beyond the races. The RTD has a full lineup of the programs here, "See cycles of history at bike exhibits all over Richmond."

And many of the city's cultural institutions will be open later during the event (my sense is that it won't necessarily result in greater attendance, because most people are there to see the races--but it's still a good idea).

... and like how economic impact data touted for various sporting events tends to be overstated, according to the RTD, "Some hoteliers say bike race numbers 'really overhyped'." Although bookings are higher. It's just that some hoteliers thought that the totals touted for the number of spectators, 450,000, were comprised of all out-of-town visitors needing hotel rooms, which wasn't the case.

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Friday, August 21, 2015

Police officers aren't always the best placemakers

Image from a street artists news webpage.

The Associated Press reports, in "Could Times Square's pedestrian plazas disappear to get rid of panhandlers?," that NYC Police Commissioner William Bratton suggests that one way to get rid of aggressive pandhandlers and other problem people in Times Square would be to remove the pedestrian plazas that were created there during the Bloomberg Administration.  From the article:
One possibility being considered is a separate zone just for the women. Another is to require them to obtain a license. And then Bratton shocked the civic-minded by suggesting that the city do away with the pedestrian plazas.

"I'd prefer to just dig the whole damn thing up and put it back the way it was," he said in a radio interview Thursday morning.

When de Blasio was asked about Bratton's comments a short time later, he confirmed that it was an option the task force has discussed.

"That's a very big endeavor and like every other option, comes with pros and cons," said the mayor, who added that the plazas would be given "a fresh look." ''You could argue that those plazas have had some very positive impacts. You could also argue they come with a lot of problems."

Image by Robert Miller via the New York Post.

Problems with aggressive street artists and panhandling have been increasing ("Why Times Square is becoming the worst place on earth," New York Post). The Times Square Alliance has called for licensing costumed artists performing in the public space.

Although apparently the issue is more complicated and the ministrations are coming from a much higher level than the Police Commissioner.

According to the newspapers ("Violence in Times Square could send businesses fleeing" and "The business fears behind the sudden Times Square furor," New York Post), what's driving the issue is concern that the problems are hurting the market for commercial office space.  From the New York Times article "Mayor de Blasio Raises Prospect of Removing Times Square Pedestrian Plazas":
But there was some support for Mr. de Blasio, from an atypical pool of bedfellows.

Kathryn S. Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, which represents large corporations, said many employers in Times Square “would be happy to have the plaza disappear.” "It’s not the plaza itself; it’s the activity going on in the plaza,” Ms. Wylde said in an interview. “I’m not questioning the urban planning, traffic management purposes of the plaza. The issue is whether or not it’s creating an atmosphere that is creating inconvenience and potential danger.”

Giving street space back to pedestrians on Broadway Avenue in Manhattan, New York CityBroadway, Manhattan, New York City.

From an urban design, placemaking, and public space perspective, the creation of public plazas along Broadway Avenue in Manhattan has been seen as a major step forward by cities, a step that is increasingly emulated across the country ("Broadway Boulevard: Transforming Manhattan’s Most Famous Street," Project for Public Spaces; "New York Traffic Experiment Gets Permanent Run," New York Times).

In many ways, NYC is a special case, and hard to generalize from.

They have extremely liberal interpretations of public speech laws as it relates to dressing up and playing to tourists and asking for money ("Topless in Times Square: A Legal View," New York Times).

The most typical government response to problems is "elimination," the suggestion for getting rid of the pedestrian plazas is typical of this, when the real problem is unruly people.

Granted that's a lot harder to deal with and an ongoing issue, but it addresses the problem directly and fundamentally without diminishing quality of life for the majority of people.

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Been distracted, forgot about the Seattle election

Seattle's City Council used to be elected at large. With the current cycle, the city shifted to districts, with two of the nine council members elected at large. With the new system--technically local elections are nonpartisan, but of course, candidates have affiliations--the two candidates with the highest vote totals move on to the general election.

Image via The Stranger.

District 3, covering Capitol Hill and Central Seattle, is the District that Kshama Sawant, affiliated with Socialist Alternative, has chosen to run in and represent. She received just over 50% of the vote, while a leading opponent, Pamela Banks, director of the Urban League, came in second with about 34% of the vote.

Seattle's Port Commission also features commissioners who are popularly elected, and according to The Stranger, the candidates leading in the vote for the two open positions espouse anti-pollution platforms, which is a significant change.

That the Port Commission there is publicly elected should be an example to other similarly situated organizations, such as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which also controls a significant revenue stream.

While I argue that perhaps the DC area WMATA transit agency board should be popularly elected, the fact is that the organization doesn't control the bulk of its revenue stream, which comes from supplemental appropriations from the member jurisdictions and more recently the federal government.

Move Seattle proposition for transportation infrastructure funding.  This fall, Seattleites will vote on an extension and reworking of the previous "Bridging the Gap" initiative--a program that included taxes and general fund revenues, and was used for specific transportation and streetscape improvements, but not for transit improvements.

The new initiative is called "Move Seattle."  The Seattle Times, which is pretty much anti-tax, likely isn't favorable ("City’s Move Seattle transportation proposal needs careful scrutiny," Seattle Times).

I use the "Bridging the Gap" initiative and the "Metropolitan Area Projects" program in Oklahoma City ("MAPS4: New generation bids for quality of life investments in Oklahoma City," Daily Oklahoman) as financing, branding, and program delivery models for my "Signature Streets" concept. From the article:
MAPS transformed downtown and enlivened the Oklahoma River through public investment in projects including construction of Bricktown’s canal and ballpark, construction of the Ronald J. Norick Library, and Civic Center Music Hall renovations.

MAPS 3 includes construction of a whitewater recreation park on the Oklahoma River and downtown construction of a streetcar line, central park and convention center.

MAPS 3 also is making a down payment on neighborhoods with about $100 million for senior health and wellness centers, trails and sidewalks.

Gaining traction

By the time MAPS 3 is complete, MAPS investments including MAPS for Kids projects in public schools will have totaled around $1.6 billion.
The MAPS article includes an almost 20 minute long video which is worth a listen.  It would be amazing to have locally elected officials able to talk at this level about quality of life and placemaking benefits derived from investing in community infrastructure.

Both the Seattle and Oklahoma City initiatives are city specific, even though the Oklahama City program is termed "Metropolitan".  By contrast, the "Regional Assets District" levy in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, which includes Pittsburgh, is county-wide.

===Signature Streets=====

Public Realm as an Interconnected system, Slide from presentation, Leadership and the Role of Parks and Recreation in the New Economy, David Barth

Public Realm as an Interconnected system, Slide from presentation, "Leadership and the Role of Parks and Recreation in the New Economy," David Barth and Carlos Perez, AECOM.

* At the very end of the development process for the Western County Pedestrian and Bicycle Access Plan, I came up with a concept that I called "Signature Streets" but I just didn't have the time to develop it more thoroughly or "sell" it adequately to the advisory committee.

The basic ideas were:

(1)  combine complete streets principles
(2)  with smart growth ideas (the County has a policy prioritizing investment in extant places)
(3)  along with the integrated public realm concepts of David Barth
(4)  by designating a subset of the county's road network as foundational or "signature"

(5)  and upgrading these streets with systematic special and complete treatment so that sustainable transportation modes (walking, biking, and transit) are integrated into the mobility system (also related is Barth's concept that streets should be treated as linear parks), along with streetscape improvements (the County already has an excellent streetscape improvement program, just not a focus on sustainable transportation)

(6)  and justifying using bond funding to pay for the development of the upgraded mobility network and acquisition of the necessary right of way.

Iin counties, to expand the right of way, you have to buy the land.  That's expensive.  The government doesn't want to do it.  But by laying it out in terms of developing a road-based complete mobility network that extends quality of life and how the county "deserves" a road-mobility system that meets its needs in the 21st Century and as the third largest jurisdiction in the State of Maryland makes this kind of re-thinking achievable.

With regard to bond funding, even in bad times, parks-related bond initiatives pass overwhelming in Baltimore County.  And this idea is kind of an extension of parks.  The model that I suggested was Seattle's Bridging the Gap initiative.

Garden District
Flickr photo of a "street sign topper" in Toronto by Steven Hoang.

I suggested denoting "Signature Streets"--a community's primary mobility network--with special street signs, not unlike how the City of Toronto has special "sign topper" designations for all sorts of areas in the city.


Proposition 1: Seattle levy for improvements in King County Metro bus services.  Last fall, Seattleites also voted in favor of a special tax that supports King County Metro, providing additional transit service within Seattle only--this was in response to a previous initiative covering all of King County, which didn't pass. It was only in Seattle where the previous initiative received a majority of the vote in favor.  So advocates and the city council moved a specific initiative to the ballot for Seattle only.

In my occasional trips to Seattle, I have always been "struck dumb" on coming across materials from government agencies reporting back to the citizenry on the impact of levies on the operation of agencies.

Below is an infographic on the improvements that will result from the Proposition 1 transportation levy.  And I've seen similar reports on the impact of library and parks levies.

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Thursday, August 20, 2015

Quote of the day: rail transit is antiquated, like delivering a bucket of ice to Congressional offices

ASU has dropped shuttle service in favor of the light rail
Image: Mark Henle/The Arizona Republic, 2009.

Phoenix's local elections are underway and a transportation sales tax referendum is on the ballot.

In 2000, an increase in the sales tax was approved to help fund the then under construction light rail system.  That tax remains authorized for five more years.

But there is a proposal to fold that tax into a broader transportation sales tax, which would also fund other transportation infrastructure.

With the new tax, the sales tax would be 8.6%, but unlike the current tax, which only funds light rail capital improvements, the new tax would also be used for operations--20% of the total for light rail capital improvements, 7% for light rail operations, and 73% for other infrastructure--mostly road improvements, but also investments in pedestrian, bicycle, and bus programs.

-- MovePhx, pro-Proposition 104 website

The Arizona Republic has a fair amount of coverage on the topic, and plenty of op-ed pieces for and against.  But my favorite quote on the subject comes from Felix Garcia, candidate for City Council in District 5:
"During a recent visit to Washington, D.C., I learned from the elevator operator that, up until recently, Congress paid for daily ice delivery to its members and their staffs. Every morning before 9 a.m., employees would deliver 900 buckets of cubes to congressional offices. No one was quite sure how the practice got started, but it had been going on for years. The cost was estimated at $500,000 a year! Ice delivery is like rail. It’s costly and outdated. Technology develops too quickly to pin our transit hopes on rail. A 35-year tax will become a painful joke to the next generation.”
The reality is that rail transit works fine in the 21st century to move people around. Just like ice is still a good way to make a beverage colder. It's all about how you go about getting it.

Of all the candidates interviewed for the AR article, only two, the Republican candidate for Mayor, Anna Brennan, and Mr. Garcia, are against the tax/light rail.  Matt Jette, the independent candidate for Mayor, argues that the plan doesn't go far enough.

Cool Train A Comin - Phoenix Light Rail Tempe Town Lake Tempe AZThe light rail bridge across the lake in Tempe incorporates architectural lighting and treats what could be ordinary and unattractive infrastructure as an element of civic architecture.  Flickr photo by Grant Brummett Photography.

Phoenix is a lot bigger than Salt Lake City and Portland, but very much sprawled.

Heavy rail transit isn't an economically efficient option there, given the paucity of "density."

But places like SLC and Portland have demonstrated that in smaller places, light rail can be an effective and efficient method for shaping transportation and land use in optimal ways.

For a one line system--20 miles of track, 28 stations--Phoenix is doing pretty well with ridership, with 47,500 daily riders according to the latest transit ridership statistics.

That compares very well to Salt Lake, which has 65,000 daily riders but 45 miles of trackage and 69 stations over three lines, and Portland, 116,000 daily riders, over four lines, 52 miles of track and 87 stations.

The Phoenix numbers are better than Houston's--which has about the same amount of track and a few more stations, but on three lines--and triple that of Charlotte, NC.

According to some studies ("Valley Metro: Development along light rail tops $8 billion," Phoenix Business Journal), the Phoenix Light Rail system has fostered slightly more than $8 billion in new development, which is six times greater than the cost to build the system.

-- Light Rail Economic Impact Analysis Task 1 Final Report, ASU
-- The Businesses of Light Rail: A Compilation of Local Business Interviews, Arizona PIRG Education Fund (more a qualitative study about the experience of individual businesses located in areas served by the then new light rail system)

Given the strong anti-tax Republican tinge of Arizona more generally, it will be interesting to see what happens, although according to the Phoenix Business Journal ("Phoenix Proposition 104: Wrong side of the tracks or transit vision to contain sprawl?) it's likely to pass.

Artist Tour by Light RailFlickr photo by Nick Bastian.

Like mayoral candidate Matt Jette, the piece points out problems with the proposed transit expansion, and how Scottsdale, one of the metropolitan area's leading destinations, isn't much committed to light rail connections.

We'll know after August 24th.

With regard to the economic impact numbers, it's hard to be definitive.

There is no question some of the development would have occurred anyway.  But the velocity of development is impacted by the existence of transit and the way location choices are reshaped by it is significant.

More importantly, what a lot of people fail to realize is how long it takes to begin to see impact. With the WMATA system, in many respects it took about 25 years to really begin to see significant impacts.

(Individual building projects can take a long time.  One building on H Street NE, a couple blocks from Union Station, took about 13 years from the start of one process and the completion through a completely different project than was originally intended.)

Only now are stations outside of core sections of the system (Downtown DC, Wilson Boulevard in Arlington County, Bethesda, Silver Spring) starting to reap the benefits, although a goodly reason for this is the dissipation of build out opportunity in the core as well as a better understanding of how to do "transit oriented development" "properly."

By contrast, the Phoenix light rail system has been operating for seven years.

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