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, February 27, 2015

Olympics: for most cities 7 years isn't enough to build lots of infrastructure

Dead fish in Guanabara Bay, Rio de Janeiro (Photo: Ricardo Moraes / Reuters)

In 2009, Brazil's bid for the 2016 Olympics was chosen, giving the country 7 years to build and/or prepare the facilities and infrastructure for the event.  This week, USA Today reported ("Rio backpedals on key legacy projects before Olympics") that Brazil's plan to make the Guanabara Bay suitable for rowing events--the Bay is seriously polluted--and proposals to expand the subway system, and a social housing upgrading scheme for Rio de Janeiro's slums (favelas) will not be realized.

Also see these past blog entries:

-- (Not enough time for a) 2024 DC-Baltimore Olympic Bid (to make sense)
-- Big sporting events (World Cup/Olympics), economic development and trickle down economics
-- US bidders for the 2024 Olympics winnowed to Boston. DC temporarily escapes the drumbeat to pay for a new Redskins stadium

Other resources:

-- Civil Engineering 164, May 2011 Special Issue: Delivering London 2012: planning and people, Institution for Civil Engineers, UK
-- Civil Engineering 164, November 2011 Special Issue Two: Delivering London 2012: Infrastructure and Venues, Institution for Civil Engineers, UK

-- arq, Architecture Research Quarterly, published by Cambridge University Press, has just published a special issue evaluating the legacy of the London 2012 Olympics.

The introduction to the issue, "Materialising the Olympic legacy: design and development narratives," by Juliet Davis, is open access through the end of March.

Abstract: The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in east London has a fantastic opportunity to lead the way in sustainable living for its neighbours across London and beyond. However, sustainability in the Park goes beyond the environment. It is also a story of social equality and employment, and of economic growth and prosperity.

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Parking districts vs. transportation/urban management districts: Part two, Takoma DC/Takoma Park Maryland

The new Busboys & Poets restaurant in Takoma DC is located in the Takoma Central apartment building, which is located one block from the Takoma Metro Station and has no provision for commercial parking.  One of the benefits of the new building is a much wider sidewalk.

Valentines Day was a great day for Greater Takoma, when the new Busboys & Poets opened to the public after more than one year of anticipation.  An added bonus is a small bookstore as part of it, run by Politics & Prose.

But the building and the business doesn't provide parking, making it somewhat difficult or confusing for patrons to figure out what to do--accentuated of course by the cold temperatures of winter.

While I myself bike, walk, car share, or use transit to get around, not everyone does so and while we should endeavor to assist more people in using sustainable mobility modes, the reality is that commercial districts need to plan for parking.  Takoma is no exception.

Parking space availability signage, Essen, Germany.

Many places have plenty of parking, but it's hard to use. I argue that many commercial districts "have enough parking," but usually it is broken up into separate parking lots where people are not allowed to "park once" and go on about their business.

Instead, parking lot users are supposed to limit their use of the lot to the time they spend within the businesses that control the lot.  They are then expected to drive to their next destination and park there.

Another element of parking complexity is the failure to provide coordinated parking wayfinding systems, adequate signage and brochures, etc.

No DC municipal parking system.  But there are some activity centers that don't have much parking.  The pro-sustainable mobility part of me says "yes, screw the drivers."  But that's pretty short-sighted from the standpoint of commercial district revitalization planning.

Unlike Montgomery County and their parking lot districts, which provide a set of public parking garages in destination districts like Bethesda and Silver Spring, DC had been prevented for many years from creating a system of municipal parking options, as a result of Congressional restrictions created at the behest of the private parking industry.

Generally, that's been a good thing, as the city has instead invested in transit.

And the city has tens of thousands of street parking spots serving commercial districts across the city.

Still, the reality is that automobility is a mode that many people use and needs to be planned for and accommodated at some level, especially in those commercial districts that get a goodly amount of patronage from people who drive--whether or not we plan for it, people will drive, so we might as well plan.

Places like Takoma, Tenleytown, Georgetown, H Street NE, and Capitol Hill need to provide better parking options than they do currently.  But the city hasn't developed a method for addressing the need.

And we have to be careful in not building "too much" parking like what was done at DC/USA in Columbia Heights, where half of the parking structure went unused.

Park and Shop ad, Washington Star, 4/10/1968Downtown Park and Shop ad, Washington Star, 4/10/1968.

Shared parking as an opportunity.   Except for downtown, most of DC's commercial districts have limited parking options except for what's present on the street.  (Friendship Heights is a major exception.)

Coordinating the use of parking resources across a commercial district allows the resource to be better used, as was suggested by the concept of "mixed primary uses" in Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs.

More recently there have been some articles about the concept, in Planetizen ("Onsite Parking: The Scourge of America's Commercial Districts") and Urban Land Magazine ("Multiblock Underground Shared Parking").

ULI also has a book on the topic, which I have not read.

Parking map for Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia.

Best practice examples that come to mind are in College Park, Maryland, where certain private lots are metered with the revenues going to the city, as a way to limit the use of the lots as all-day parking for college students commuting to the University of Maryland and the Chestnut Hill district in Philadelphia, where a number of in-block parking lots are run by the Chestnut Hill Parking Foundation.  The lots used to be free, but now are metered, which paid for paving the lots and other improvements.

Another is the North Park Main Street district in San Diego, where they have a system of valet parking serving the entire commercial district at various points, backstopped by a public parking garage.

Park and shop programs as an earlier form of shared parking.  But this type of approach is not new.  In response to shopping malls, many downtown business districts, including in DC, banded together to provide a coordinated parking system with a validation program that provided "free parking" for Downtown shoppers.  The program lasted into the early 1970s.

I suppose with the decline of the relevance of Downtown in the face of the widespread development of suburban shopping malls the program finally fell apart.

"Park and Shop" programs were pioneered by a businessman an newspaper publisher in Allentown, Pennsylvania, who even created a game, Park and Shop, to demonstrate the project. See "Exhibit tells how Milton Bradley's Park & Shop game was invented" Allentown Morning Call.)

No regulatory framework to share parking.  In DC, this is complicated by the fact that there is no regulatory framework for transportation coordination at the sub-city level, including for commercial districts, although by default in places where there are business improvement districts there is transportation coordination but not parking coordination in any substantive way.

DC's transportation plan parking element fails to adequately consider the need to coordinate all parking resources regardless of ownership status (public or private) and on-street or off-street.

DC needs transportation management districts.  It happens I've argued for the creation of a framework for transportation management districts in the city for some time (including a proposed but rejected amendment to the Comprehensive Plan), but instead DC focuses on street parking management through various "performance parking pilot projects" (see "Testimony on parking policy in DC").

Takoma Park directory mapThis directory of the Old Takoma Business District is produced by the Main Street Takoma business association, and is posted on kiosks places.

Takoma is an opportunity for DC (and Maryland) to pilot shared parking.  (It'd be a little complicated as it would be cross-jurisdictional.)  Parking demand spurred by Busboys & Poets has spurred spirited discussion on the neighborhood e-list about the lack of parking and the inconvenience of the building not providing parking.

But the reality is that there is plenty of parking, it's just that in the current paradigm, access is restricted to building users, even if much of the parking remains unused at night and on weekends--when it is needed most for night time oriented businesses.

Recently, I did a parking census of 12 public-serving surface parking lots in Takoma located between the Takoma Village Shopping Center on Carroll Avenue, the Strayer University campus on Laurel Avenue, and the Metro Station parking lot on Cedar Street. (In addition there are two indoor structures that I couldn't access.) Five of the lots are in Maryland, the rest in DC.  The Metro lot is metered.  Some of the lots charge and/or have forms of access control.

In a valet parking scenario, at least 25 additional spaces could be created in certain of the lots.

At night, these lots have a total of 474 unreserved parking spots.  Two of the lots (and the structured parking) are within one block of Busboys and Poets and are minimally used at night.

Setting up a system in Takoma similar to the way the Chestnut Hill Parking Foundation operates could coordinate access to this set of parking lots and would strengthen the commercial district.

And it would make it a lot easier for patrons than the current system of disconnected parking lots.
Old Takoma parking map
Old Takoma parking map

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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Parking districts vs. transportation/urban management districts: Part one, Bethesda

While the Bethesda commercial district in Maryland is centered around a Metro Station, the reality is that many patrons are area residents who find it most convenient to get to and from the district by driving.

To provide parking and other services, a "Parking Lot District" was created and is funded by a tax on certain properties for foregone parking and parking charges at meters and in structures.

Besides maintenance and debt service on parking structures, the funding mechanism pays for the Bethesda Urban Partnership which provides management, clean and safe, and marketing services for the district as well as certain transit services (like the Bethesda Circulator bus service).

But the PLD is projected to run short of money (Parking Lot District Fiscal Management and Budgeting) according to a study by the County Council Office of Legislative Oversight.  (Current projections show enough money to pay debt service but not to fund the urban district and transit services.)

Skimming the report, I'd say besides suggestions from GGW about raising fees slightly and/or charging parking fees where they aren't assessed currently ("Bethesda's parking district is going broke while its most popular garage remains free"), there need to be two other fundamental changes to how the district is conceptualized and funded.
Barnes and Noble patio, Bethesda Row
One of the functions of the Urban District is marketing and promotion.  Note the area information kiosk at the Barnes and Noble fountain.  A similar kiosk is also present outside of the Bethesda Metro Station.

1.  The district should be re-termed as either a Transportation Management District or an Urban Management District that includes mobility management functions.

This might be a problem in terms of State of Maryland or Montgomery County enabling legislation, but the reality is that Bethesda's "parking district" handles and pays for more than parking.

I recommend calling it an Urban Management District, with the same functions it has currently.

This would better align the title/name of the special services district with its functions.

It also makes clear that the district already addresses multiple transportation modes, not just parking, in managing transportation demand for the area.

2.  The system for assessing property charges on buildings within the district should be changed.

Besides parking charges, the primary source of revenue for the district is an assessment charge on those buildings which don't provide "enough parking" based on zoning regulations.

Whether or not they pay into it, the reality is that all buildings in the "Parking Lot District" benefit from the urban management and transit services provided within the district.

Therefore many of the properties are "free riders" because they don't pay towards the urban management and transit functions consumed by the tenants. and indirectly benefiting the property owners.

The free rider problem will get worse when zoning regulations take effect that reduce parking requirements, further reducing the number of properties paying into the Bethesda "Parking Lot District."

A two tier property assessment system should be developed as a funding element of a redefined Urban Management District so that (a) all buildings pay a base assessment for non-parking related services delivered to the district, (b) with an additional assessment levied on those buildings not providing enough parking according to zoning regulations.

This change would ensure full funding to cover the debt service, operational costs for the district, maintenance for the facilities, and transit services presently provided.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Social impact bonds

I had a hard time wrapping my head around these financial instruments, but they are merely a way for financially-pressed governments to get loans.

They work like "tax increment financing," where bonds are sold against a presume rise in property tax revenues beyond a base line number, in response to various infrastructure investments, such as in transit.

But instead of being sold against a property tax revenue stream, social impact bonds are sold against future spending on particular government programs.  Here, the new investment enabled by the bonds is supposed to improve outcomes and reduce costs.  The "reduced costs" are monetized as a way to pay off the bonds.

Another comparable financing instrument are "green infrastructure bonds," which do the same kind of thing, focused on reductions in energy or other utility costs.

One example of a social impact bond is Salt Lake County's use of this form of financing to support the creation of Pre-K schooling programs for lower income children, in the belief that earlier investments in education will reduce other social and economic costs--paid out by various program services of the County---down the road.

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Chicago election update: Runoffs for the Mayor and 19 council districts

For the Mayoral race ("Mayor Emanuel heads to runoff against Garcia," Chicago Tribune) and 19 aldermanic districts ("City Council races headed to runoffs," CT), the election campaign continues as for these seats no one candidate received 50%+1 of the vote.

Final turnout was expected to be about 34% of those registered to vote, a reasonable indicator that February in Chicago is a bad time to hold an election.

Tribune Columnist John Kass argues ("Chumbolones stand tall in Chicago mayoral election") that the runoff will be about neighborhoods vs. the so-called Downtown agenda, not unlike the way that the election of NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio has been characterized as a boon for progressive politics and a more populist agenda (see the new e-book from Nation Books, Inequality and One City, Bill de Blasio and the New York Experiment, Year One, by Eric Alterman).

In a weekend column, "Do Chicago a favor, don't let Rahm win Tuesday," Kass argued for a runoff so that the issues faced by Chicago get a greater hearing.  He got his wish.  From the article:
Wealthy people with access to politicians don't go in much for public discussion and debate about what they want or don't want. What's the point of huge campaign contributions if you have to talk about what you want? 
If there were a runoff, the two candidates would be forced to talk public issues and civic needs and wants, so the people who live in the city could determine what kind of future they want for themselves. 
Some of the wealthy and influential backers of Rahm believe themselves to be thinking only of the public good. And I certainly respect a few of them who, I truly believe, have the best interests of the city at heart. 
But here's the problem: One fact of human nature is that humans can't help but think of their own interests. 
And with serious questions facing Chicago, it's not a good idea to have a few insiders and property owners deciding things.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Shocking semi-example of accountability with DC charter school corruption (but still mishandled)

Last week, DC's Public School Charter Board voted to rescind the charter of the Community Academy Public Charter School group ("DC Charter School Board revokes charter for Height Community Academy Public Charter Schools," Post) because Kent Amos, the founder-director, was using related corporations to "manage"' the school and pay himself about $1 million/year ("D.C. officials allege improper diversion of charter funds," Post).   Sadly, parents were advocating for Amos and the schools, in face of the corruption.

While I think that was a somewhat sound move because of the corruption, rather than withdrawing the charter, if the schools are in fact high quality, I think they should have been able to put the school in receivership, keep it going, and put out for bid new management.

2.  Today's Post has an article ("DC charter school executive salaries vary widely, Post analysis shows") about varying salaries, many outlandish, of charter school personnel.  Many principals/school leaders make significantly higher salaries than DCPS equivalents, including school leaders who make more than the Chancellor (who is overpaid too, given that DC's student population is about 1/3 of that of the area's largest school districts).

3.  Note that this issue of related businesses and management contracts of various sorts to mis/direct money for private gain is not new.  It's been around probably since the beginning of the schools (e.g., I know of a case where the Charter School's founder has a separate company that handles the transportation needs for the school, and I can't believe that's the only example).

But the Charter School Board claims that they can't force private entities to disclose information about their financial arrangements with the schools ("Charter board could close school amid allegations that leader diverted money," Post).

The basic problem seems to be that the "contracts" between the school and "the city" which are not between "the city" and the charter schools but are with the Public Charter School Board--which is appointed, with limited oversight--FAIL TO INCLUDE SOME OF THE MOST BASIC PROVISIONS TO PROTECT LOCAL INTERESTS.

Since the bulk of school funding comes from "the city" and the schools are public, there should be protections and standards in place to protect the city's interest.  This should include:

- ownership of the building
- ceilings on salaries
- restrictions on the creation of allied but "separate" corporations to provide services and siphon funds
- financial disclosure requirements
- etc.

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Cold Februarys as a way to suppress voter turnout (in Chicago)

One of the negatives of the Progressive Movement was its focus on limiting popular vote, out of an idea that ethnic voting blocs were being manipulated in ways counter to good government.

In many places, the scheduling system for local elections were changed--usually to the Spring--and disconnected from the national election cycle.  This reduced turnout but was justified out of the idea that people who voted would be motivated and knowledgeable.

A related practice is to hold local/state elections in odd years, rather than the even years when national elections are held.  For example, Virginia does this with state offices (Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, State House and State Senate), New York City does this with its local elections, etc.

Another technique to reduce the impact of voting blocs was to shift to at-large voting rather than having council districts, again, to limit the impact of minority blocs of various sorts.  OTOH, some argue that having at-large districts makes it easier for elected officials to vote in favor of tough decisions, which can be hard to do when elections are district-based and it's somewhat easier to vote out incumbents.

These are still issues today.  Herndon, Virginia is being blocked in its effort to move its municipal elections to the same cycle as national elections ("Va. House effectively kills bill moving Herndon elections," Washington Post) and Hispanics in Anaheim, California complained about how the at-large councilmember system kept Hispanics from winning election even though about half of the city's population is Hispanic ("Anaheim residents to vote on 2 measures that affect City Council," KABC-TV).

However, in the 2014 election, Anaheim voters approved measures to move to district-based elections and added to the number of Councilmembers.

Today is the day that municipal elections are held in Chicago.

I have to believe that Chicago's practice of holding municipal elections in February--if the winner gets 50% +1 of the total, there isn't a runoff election, which normally is scheduled for April--one of the coldest months of the year, is designed to reduce voter turnout.

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Historic Preservation Tuesday: Development moratoriums as a way to catch up building and zoning regulations

Image: Rhoda Barfoot.

Nashville's identity is tied to its history as the center of the country music industry. Along with the Grand Ole Opry Hall and Museum Complex, Music Row had been the major center of the industry, featuring recording studios, record label offices, and small performing spaces.

Nashville's Downtown, like many other cities, is experiencing a renewed interest in center city living, so there has been a great deal of development energy over the past few years, putting many of the small buildings that harkened to the industry's earlier days at risk for demolition.

RCA Studio A Building, Nashville.  The building isn't particularly distinguished architecturally, but historic preservation isn't always pretty.

In October, after community opposition and organizing, a proposed condominium project that would have demolished RCA Studio A, site of recording sessions for artists such as B.B. King, Loretta Lynn, and Dolly Parton, was halted through the sale of the property to owners committed to retaining the building.

"Preservation" of buildings in the Music Row District (not formally designated historic) is tough now because many of the buildings are "obsolete" and not necessarily still used for music-related activity. And the real estate market is strong, so the prices offered to property owners for "old" "obsolete" buildings are very attractive. But at the same time the city's "Music City" brand, for tourism (Nashville's Convention Center has the Music City name) and business development, is based on this history.

According to the Nashville Business Journal ("Nashville halts future development on famed Music Row"), galvanized advocates and the recently created Music Industry Coalition have successfully petitioned the local planning commission to put a halt on development for the next 16 months, while they assess historic assets and come up with a plan for retention of the most important.  (Also see "Momentum builds to preserve Music Row" from the Nashville Tennessean.)

A moratorium on development gives the community a chance to catch up building and zoning regulations to current conditions, rather than let the velocity of the real estate market run roughshod over other considerations.

It's a tool that more cities should use when it is evident that gaps in building regulations mean that community concerns, such as concerns about the preservation of historic buildings or the lack of strong regulations concerning big box development, fail to be addressed in the current zoning regulations.

DC is a good example of how the failure to use development moratoriums judiciously leads to the creation of poorly thought out changes to building regulations.

However, the way the city's constitution (the Home Rule Charter) specifies zoning and building matters--that they are under an independent Zoning Commission, not subject to the authority of the Executive or Legislative branches--indicates to me that only the Zoning Commission is able to promulgate such moratoriums.  Case law says the same thing (Tenley & Cleveland Park v. Bd. of Zon. Adj. 550 A.2d 331 (1988)).

Moratoriums allow for a more careful consideration of issues, rather than a quick and dirty submission of poorly thought out proposals, like what the DC Office of Planning did concerning rowhouse expansion and conversion ("D.C.'s Fiercest Neighborhood Battle Goes Before Its Ultimate Arbiter," Washington City Paper).

At the same time a defined time limit "focuses" attention on the issue and doesn't allow it to be drawn out indefinitely.  (This piece on Land Use Moratoria rules in New York State outlines how the process works, although isn't relevant to DC.)

DC's rowhouse development limitation proposals have some good points but many bad. But it is very difficult to modify the proposed regulation given how the approval process works.

 In my opinion, approving the proposed regulations as is will be suboptimal in terms of balancing competing desires of conserving neighborhood character while allowing larger houses to be "rightsized" to accommodate the smaller households that typify today's housing market.

It's proof that allowing evident problems to fester for years doesn't help bring about optimal solutions.

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Friday, February 20, 2015

Some innovative disaster planning initiatives in Tulsa, Santa Fe, San Francisco, and Davenport Iowa

The "Designing for Disaster" exhibit at the National Building Museum isn't particularly big but among the displays four initiatives stuck out as worth looking into more, as examples of the best in planning, when it is proactive.

The minor league baseball stadium in Davenport, Iowa has its own floodwall. (Paul Colletti/The Dispatch/AP.

Davenport, Iowa, like many cities in the midwest that are built on rivers, in this case, the Mississippi River, experiences a great deal of flooding in the spring, as a result of snow melt and the concomitant rise in rivers.  But they have avoided building a flood wall.

Davenport joined with Rock Island, Illinois on the other side of the river, and other cities, to create a common River Vision Plan. As Davenport has been pushing revitalization of their riverfront forward, facilities are built to evade water, deal with water and/or capture and hold it.

From "Davenport Resists Flood Wall as River Swells: Iowa City Leaders Stand By Decision For Levee-Free Town," Wall Street Journal
Davenport's waterfront features a downtown park with a historic bandshell and a minor league ballpark protected by its own floodwall. A new skateboard park is vulnerable to floods but easy to clean up. A large art museum was built in the last few years atop a flood-ready parking garage. 
Under a plan called RiverVision, Davenport and Rock Island, Ill., right across the river, are making other river-friendly changes. Davenport is seeking $10 million in federal funds to develop another stretch of riverfront with special landscaping and materials that will allow the water to come in and make cleanups even easier. The hope is that all the attractive green space will draw residences and more businesses downtown. 
Rock Island, long protected by its 1960s-era flood wall, has lost some of its connection to the river, city officials said. It is building a city park with raised elevations so the river is more visible. A riverboat casino is being moved, to make way for more riverfront access.
San Francisco's wooden buildings are particularly vulnerable to earthquakes.  They have a program for retrofitting these buildings, which they call "soft story buildings," that are multi-story with at least five residential units, constructed on a weak "foundation," usually a garage, which is particularly vulnerable to shaking during an earthquake.

All such buildings in the city are evaluated and must be retrofitted with earthquake protections.   Property owners are eligible for no-interest loans to pay for the improvements.

Los Angeles is now implementing a similar program.

The watershed of Santa Fe's source of drinking water is particularly susceptible to wildfire.  After nearby Los Alamos experienced millions of dollars of wildfire-related damage to their water resources, Santa Fe figured it would make sense for them to be proactive.  They created a watershed fire protection plan and a water fund to pay for various land protection initiatives.  While a water tax for watershed protection measures was proposed in the plan, thus far private and philanthropic donations have negated the need for a tax.

-- Municipal Watershed Management, Santa Fe
-- "Healthy Headwaters Success Stories -- Santa Fe, NM,"  Carpe Diem West

Historically, Tulsa has been prone to bad flooding, resulting in deaths and hundreds of millions of dollars of property damage.  While the city had been engaging in floodwater management initiatives since the 1970s, in 1984, after flooding which resulted in 14 deaths, the city created a Department of Stormwater Management and developed a Citywide Flood and Stormwater Management Plan, which provides for specific improvements across the city.

The primary focus of the plan is removing buildings from the flood plain and converting these spaces to greenways and parks as a way to absorb flooding while minimizing damage.  The plan has been frequently updated--another iteration is underway--and since 1990, no structure built before 1987 has been damaged by flooding.

-- From Roof Top to River: Tulsa's Approach to Floodplain and Stormwater Management 

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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Trends in farmers and public markets

1.  In January, USDA released a report Trends in Local and Regional Food Systems, which finds a slow down in the creation of farmers markets, and a decrease in patronage.

The Santa Barbara Market is totally awesome with an incredible variety of vendors, is very busy with many patrons--which results from a limited number of markets in the area, concentrating the market.  (It helps that California is such a great agricultural producer.)

This makes sense to me, because farmers markets are but one element of the food marketing system, and appeal to select consumer segments.  It makes sense that after 40 years most of the good locations have already been developed.

Plus, farmers markets generally have shifted to a more upscale clientele--it's rare to find farmers markets where the food is priced cheaply, the Downtown Farmers Market in Baltimore is definitely an exception in the Baltimore-Washington region where you can buy locally grown high quality fruits and vegetables for less than a supermarket (except for Aldi).

2.  LA Times Food section columnist Russ Parsons wrote about the findings ("Has the farmers market movement peaked") in terms of Greater Los Angeles, which has some of the nation's best farmers markets, including in Santa Monica and Hollywood, and two great farmers market buildings/complexes (both privately owned), LA Farmers Market and Grand Central Market.

In general, markets have grown faster than the number of available farmers, and seem to have maxed out on those customer segments that are open to shopping at such venues.  From the article:
"Every little borough, every little community wants a farmers market now,” Rodgers says. “Not because of what farmers markets are, but because they attract foot traffic.

“Everybody wants to put them in but they don’t want to make sure they’re valid farmers markets. A lot of these are called farmers markets, but they’re not actually farmers markets. They operate in name only.”
Note that I have an old piece about the various reasons that farmers markets are created ("The reason(s) why a farmers market is created shapes the type and mix of vendors allowed to sell").

Photo source.

3.  He was also featured on KPCC, a Los Angeles NPR affiliate ("LAT food columnist Russ Parsons on fate of farmers markets"), and one of his comments was pretty apt, calling farmers markets like those in Santa Monica--which get many thousands of patrons--street festivals in all but name, featuring food.

That's how Larry Gallo, former member of the Eastern Market Community Advisory Committee, correctly termed the weekend market at Eastern Market, as a special event.  It's true, 52 weekends, year round.

Tacos Tumbras a Tomas -- Three bucks gets you an obscenely generous portion of chewy carne asada heaped over corn tortillas at this 19-year-old stand. Lime wedges and extra tortillas come on the side, making it enough for lunch and dinner. Photo from Bon Appetit. Try finding such a deal at DC's Union Market.

4.  Grand Central Market had been in decline, but over the past few years has been undergoing revitalization, sparked in large part by adding very creative prepared food vendors--restaurants and stands--to the point where Bon Appetit Magazine has named the market as one of the country's Top 10 new "restaurants."

5.  I haven't been there for awhile.  I imagine it's getting a rejuvenation not unlike that at DC's Union Market, formerly the DC Farmers Market, but with much bigger scale.

The new iteration of Harvey's Butchery at Union Market only sells regionally-sourced meat products.

DC's Union Market definitely been upscaled and the vendor mix has shifted mostly to prepared foods--there are a couple of butchers (one also has a cafe area) and one seller of fruits and vegetables.

Only two vendors made the shift from the old market, which targeted low income consumers, to the new, and their concepts got a complete reboot.

(I'm told that vendors aren't at the point of making money and that the landlord isn't providing much in the way of rent reductions, although they seem to be ok with late payments and not imposing penalties.)

An advantage possessed by GCM is that it is significantly larger.  But I have warmed up to Union Market.  It allows small proprietors to start businesses and sell on a much bigger scale than they would normally have access to.  And face it, while the items might be expensive, they are pretty good.  The proprietors are really motivated and turn out some great products.

And the Coffee Bean Frappe ice cream at Trickling Springs Dairy has to be about the best ice cream around and is well worth the price.  (We first tried it at R&B Oyster Bar in Colonial Beach, Virginia, which made us big fans of Trickling Springs' ice cream.  All their flavors are for sale at the Union Market branch.)

Lexington Market in Baltimore
Lexington Market in Baltimore by YouTuber, on Flickr.

6.  A massive market study (331 pages!) has been produced for Lexington Market in Baltimore (accessible via this WBAL-TV story "$26M plan to renovate Lexington Market detailed in report," ).  One of the interesting suggestions is setting different rental rates for prepared food vendors that would be higher than the rental rates for the vendors of fresh food.

I am only 1/4 of the way through the plan, but it's somewhat disappointing as it misses out on some key opportunities (becoming once again Downtown's key food hub, not just for the Westside, and as a center for entrepreneurial food business development) and is overly facile in listing potential vendors--they basically listed vendors selling at places like Union Market in DC, without much of a focus on Greater Baltimore or Maryland more generally.

John Rennison,The Hamilton Spectator. Hamilton Farmer's Market along York Boulevard.

7.  Relevant to DC's Eastern Market, people in Hamilton, Ontario seem to be surprised that despite a recent renovation of their public market building, they need to conduct regular maintenance and capital improvements, and that it costs money ("Farmers' Market needs $1M in upgrades," Hamilton Spectator).

Interestingly, the project was part of a co-located project with the city's main library.

8.  Back to LA, I saw a presentation at the New Partners for Smart Growth conference by the Thai Community Development Center, and one of their initiatives--similar to something I've suggested for Anacostia--is the opening of a food and craft market, called Thai Town Marketplace, to expand food access options and as a platform for small business development.


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Today DC shut down (including Metrobus service) in response to four inches of snow

Meanwhile in the past couple months, Boston has received more than 6 feet of snow and Michigan is "frozen" over according to this National Weather Service photo.

I do understand the value of anticipatory planning.

Given that MBTA estimates that it will take them a month without snow to dig out and clear all of the snow blockages--they are paying people $30/hour to dig out railroad tracks--it's easier to open back up if you do a measured shutdown.

But the reality is for the most part, the DC area doesn't get hit all that hard by snow.  The two back-to-back snowstorms in February 2010 were an exception.

And one of the competitive advantages of a city--excepting snow on the level of a Montreal normally ("Montreal does great job ridding itself of snow - but it takes time and costs a fortune," Attleboro Sun Chronicle) or Boston this year (Minneapolis gets hit badly as well)--is being able to get around despite snow and other adverse weather conditions because of the mobility efficiencies produced by proximity and density.

Also see "A "maintenance of way" agenda for the walking and transit city."

Photo of a graffiti-ed MBTA system map ("Boston Mess Transit") from Facebook.

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Everything you need to know about urbanism in four blog posts from Larry Littlefield

I was reading an entry on the NYC transportation blog Second Avenue Sagas about the proposed AirTrain to LaGuardia Airport in response to a not very informative press release from NYC's Global Gateway Alliance--business advocates for the city's airports--about transit connections to the world's 30 busiest airports, and some of the comments were by Larry Littlefield, the back and forth patter congratulated him on a letter he had published in the Economist, so I dug a bit deeper into his oeuvre.

He appears to be an investment analyst, maybe a couple years older than I. Lives in Brooklyn. He focuses a lot on urban economics, the real dynamics of the housing market, and municipal finances, especially pension liabilities (in fact, his reasoning reminds me a lot of blog commenter charlie). His blog is called Saying the Unsaid in New York.

These four posts are the rough equivalent to reading Cities in Full by Belmont, but much more dark.

His writings make me appreciate more that DC proper is an outlier in that its economic future is rosier than most cities--because we are a true city-state.  Even if Congress controls some of the city's destiny, having control over most of the tax revenue stream (with the exception that we can't tax nonresident income earned in the city) puts DC ahead of most others.  Although, we still have the municipal worker pension overhang in the city and in the transit system, which will handcuff the city quite a bit still, especially as we can only grow our revenue streams intensively, not by annexation.

1. "The (New) Urban Crisis"

2.  "Can The Urban Archipelago Be Recreated?"

3. "How Then Shall We Live: Housing in the Wake of Generation Greed

4. "How Then Shall We Live: Transportation in the Wake of Generation Greed"

FWIW, the section of his blog, Helpful Background and Greatest Hits, is even more dark. We're f*ed. And maybe it's better I don't have kids, as it's that generation who are stuck with the consequences of what they're being left by the previous generations--what Mr. Littlefield calls "Generation Greed" and  the policies and practices they have begat, to their financial benefit now but at a mortgaging fo the future.

It's not just about crony capitalism, but pensions, housing policies that supported suburban development, and other policies that supported automobile dependence, etc., which happened to be sustainable only in the immediate conditions after World War II, when the US emerged, temporarily but we didn't know that at the time, as the globe's richest country.

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Atlanta's "response" to people arguing that streets are too narrow for streetcars

Atlanta Streetcar
Atlanta Streetcar by Central Atlanta Progress, on Flickr.

Talking with Suzanne about creating the best circumstances to move change forward, we were talking about Anacostia and streetcars as an example--people opposed streetcars, generally for reasons that I see as illogical, and one of the points made is that the streets are too narrow.

I argue that for change to occur, it's best to start from a place where the chances of success are the greatest, rather than trying to do so in places where the ability to successfully implement change is much more difficult--even with the best of intentions such as concerns for equitable development.

As Donald Shoup said once, at a conference on the DC "Great Streets" program in 2005, when you have to make choices about where to spend limited funds, "it's best to help people who are already helping themselves."

Martin Luther King Junior Avenue SE in Anacostia is plenty wide enough for a streetcar. Photo from Wikipedia.

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Historic preservation Tuesday: historic preservation and earthquakes

Earthquake protection is one of the factors that influences the ability to rehab historic properties on the West Coast more so than on the East Coast, and this can drive up significantly the cost of rehab and makes large properties particularly difficult to protect.

However, the East Coast isn't immune to the effect of earthquakes as people in the Washington, DC area may remember, when a 2011 earthquake in Virginia ended up damaging many monumental buildings and structures in DC including the Washington Monument and the National Cathedral ("Earthquake Aftermath: National Landmarks Damaged." ABC News).  Stone buildings are more vulnerable to ground shaking.

House in Fillmore sits askew six months after the 1994 Northridge earthquake, having slid off its foundation. (Joe Pugliese / Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles Times has a nice article, "Retrofitting pre-1979 homes can prevent much costlier quake damage," focused on single family houses.

The article points out that larger buildings draw most of the attention, that houses are equally vulnerable although the potential for loss of life is less compared to the big buildings, but the cost to add protections isn't particularly high, from $2,000 to $10,000 per property.  

Homeowners in many places in California are eligible for grants to help pay for the cost of earthquake hardening.

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Monday, February 16, 2015

Atlanta falling behind as a "capital" of the South

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (temporarily providing full open access to articles normally behind a paywall) ran a series assessing the state of the city, specifically comparing Atlanta to Charlotte, a leading financial center, and Dallas-Fort Worth.

Sunday: A big-picture comparison of Atlanta with its perennial economic competitors, Charlotte and Dallas.

Monday: A deep look at Dallas-Fort Worth’s Texas-sized ambitions compared against metro Atlanta’s.

Tuesday: Charlotte’s turn under the microscope. While the market is smaller, its vibrant downtown is enviable.

Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge StarmanThe Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge--designed by Santiago Calatrava--connects Downtown Dallas to the Trinity River Corridor Project and is now a defining element of the city skyline. Flickr photo by Mabry Campbell.

While Atlanta is doing better than many cities, it lags both Charlotte and Dallas-Fort Worth on many indicators including income, attraction of younger demographics, number of college degrees, poverty, etc.

From "The ups and downs of a great city [Cleveland]":
  • Metro Atlanta’s overall economy as measured by GDP is down nearly a full percentage point since 2007. Charlotte’s is up 10 percent. Dallas’ has risen 14 percent.
  • Atlanta last year employed 4 percent fewer people than prior to the recession. Dallas employed 8 percent more, Charlotte 6 percent more.
  • Average weekly wages in metro Atlanta remain 6 percent below pre-recession levels, while in Charlotte and Dallas they‘ve dropped 3 percent or less.
  • Metro Atlanta home prices remain 13 percent below the pre-recession peak. In Dallas, they’re 13 percent above peak.
  • Atlanta’s suburban poor population jumped 159 percent between 2000 and 2012 — the largest increase in the nation.
Planning map, Trinity River Vision Authority, Fort Worth.

Dallas and Fort Worth in particular have many high profile public and private projects underway, from light rail expansion and efforts in both cities to better leverage the presence of the Trinity River as a place to live, work, and play.

Some of the people quoted state that unlike other Southern cities, Atlanta doesn't stand out in having a competitive advantage in specific sectors, such as Nashville and entertainment, Charlotte in finance, or Raleigh in health care.

Atlanta StreetcarAtlanta Streetcar by Central Atlanta Progress, on Flickr.

By contrast, the State of Georgia has not been helpful to its leading city, especially when it comes to public transit and other infrastructure development.

However, Clayton County has joined MARTA, the area's transit authority, in December the City of Atlanta launched modern streetcar service, being the first city on the East Coast to do so, the Port of Savannah is being expanded, and the city's Beltline project is moving forward.

-- MARTA's push for bus service"

Meanwhile, Mercedes-Benz is moving its headquarters to suburban Sandy Springs from New Jersey, suburban-based NCR is moving to Midtown Atlanta, but the Atlanta Braves are relocating to Cobb County, even as a new stadium is being built for the Atlanta Falcons football team.

I do think the issue in part is, as discussed in the article on Charlotte, "cityness" or lack thereof. Charlotte has focused development downtown (which they call Uptown) and so there is a four square mile comparatively dense mixed use center that is increasingly attractive.

Atlanta too is a small city, and the bulk of population growth and economic activity has shifted to the suburbs--even the newspaper moved of the city--and the automobile dominates the mobility paradigm.

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Cities tend to be "liberal"

Not that this is news, see the past blog entries:

-- "Progressive City Leaders, Progressive Urban Politics and Policies," 2006
-- "Repositioning cities (at least on the coasts) for greater political prominence, and a city-first agenda," 2012
-- "Local elections in New York City and Seattle as a temperature gauge for progressive politics," 2013
-- "A new progressive urban politics and social housing," 2013

But this chart from the Economist, recently re-covered by Vox, and based on a journal article from the American Political Science Review,"Representation in Municipal Government," is an interesting illustration of the reality.

But the data also illustrates that charts like these aren't always that useful.  DC is considered the second most liberal city in the US.  Maybe I am a flaming radical, but it doesn't feel that way to me.  Unless the failure to realize greatness is inherent within liberalism.  Although the list is derived more from policies on issues such as marijuana legalization or gay marriage, and not on the execution of policies and practices related to progressive urbanism.

DC's liberalism isn't very engaged, the nature of government is very much top-down, and the city isn't particularly committed to progressive urbanism--most of the city's elected officials live in the more suburban parts of the city.

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Pennsylvania has a stricter interpretation of the justification of nonprofit property tax exemptions

If you read the section of the Internal Revenue Code about the justification for a nonprofit tax exemption, one of the key elements is "reducing the burden on government."  For example, a hospital provides uncompensated health care to indigents, saving money for the social welfare system.  A commercial district revitalization organization helps improve the building stock, economic success of property owners and business proprietors, and generates more property tax revenue for the city, etc.

But for the most part, groups engaged in activities "serving the public" don't necessarily have to simultaneously "reduce the burden on government" to be able to get a federal tax exemption.

Generally, local governments follow this interpretation, although I have noticed in DC that nonprofits engaged in national activities with no local service elements tend to not get property tax exemptions, although they might be eligible for sales tax exemptions.

In Pennsylvania, there is a five-part test that organizations must meet to justify a tax exemption, and it is focused on providing services to the indigent, not to the general public.  According to an article on the legal case, Hospital Utilization Project v. Commonwealth, 487 A.2d 1306 (Pa. 1985) ("HUP"):
The institution must: (i) advance a charitable purpose; (ii) donate or render gratuitously a substantial portion of its services; (iii) benefit a substantial and indefinite class of persons who are legitimate subjects of charity; (iv) relieve the government of some of its burden; and (v) operate entirely free from private profit motive.
As a result, more Pennsylvania nonprofits are losing property tax exemptions because the primary beneficiaries are not the indigent.  See "Small non-profit groups losing property-tax exemptions in first wave of county's review," from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

-- previous entry, "Proposal to eliminate nonprofit property tax exclusion in Maine"
-- interesting paper, PILOTs and SILOTs Revisited, National Association of Independent Schools

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