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.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Marion Barry and the missed opportunity for eradicating (or at least systematically addressing) poverty East of the River

While most of the articles on the death of Marion Barry have discussed his personal and professional failures, the articles also highlighted his early efforts to achieve Home Rule for the City of Washington, as well as successes from his first administration.

Although the articles also attribute the success of U Street and H Street today to moving DC government agencies to those locations during his mayoralty, which is an assertion that I have disagreed with for a long time ("It's time to retire the old saw about the Reeves Center being a great economic development contribution to U Street," "The community development approach and the revitalization of DC's H Street corridor: congruent or oppositional approaches?").

The old phrase about never speaking ill of the dead makes it difficult to sit back and do a sober assessment of Marion Barry's career, although I would say that the Post's obituary in yesterday's paper did so ("Marion Barry's death stuns D.C. politicians and residents").

But the thing is, I think it's fair to ask what could have been done to help DC's ever-downtrodden "East of the River" area to improve, considering Councilman Barry's representation of the area since 2004 and his unparalleled political skills. 

Imagine Your Business Name Here, Martin Luther King Ave. SE, Washington, DCDC could have developed a substantive and pathbreaking anti-poverty agenda for the area that focused more than on real estate development (and the city and private company WC Smith have done many great and successful projects EOTR aimed at improving the community, "Why Did Developer WC Smith Buy Up Most of Congress Heights," Washington City Paper).

Other local governments are working to do so, even as DC continues to focus on real estate driven projects, while typically failing to leverage the value of city projects to accomplish multiple objectives ("Public buildings as vehicles for community improvement").

It's fair to ponder on the lost opportunity.
From the RTD story:
... four of the five major recommendations of the Anti-Poverty Commission report focus squarely on employment. These recommendations include: 
• Expand investment in workforce development, building on the city’s successful Workforce Pipeline, which trains workers and connects them with specific employers. 
• Pursue targeted economic development focused on long-term growth industries with significant numbers of jobs accessible to low- and moderate-skilled workers, including health services, advanced manufacturing, logistics and call centers. Development of the Port of Richmond to its full potential also must be an economic development priority. 
• Develop a regional rapid-transit system to increase city residents’ access to suburban employment and create a truly regional labor market. ... Richmond must no longer settle for being in the bottom 10 percent of large metro areas in transit accessibility. 
• Improve the skills of Richmond residents through long-term improvements in the public school system to better prepare children for college or work. Key ideas here include expanded focus on early childhood investments, development of a “Richmond Promise” scholarship fund for college-bound Richmond Public Schools graduates (modeled on a successful initiative in Kalamazoo, Mich.), and greatly enhanced vocational training. 
Taken together, these initiatives will increase residents’ access to jobs, better prepare them for a successful work experience and increase the city’s attractiveness to new businesses capable of employing significant numbers of city residents. 
Over the long term, these initiatives will also increase the skills and educational level of city residents — through improvements in the schools themselves, and because reducing poverty and increasing the number of economically stable families will improve children’s ability to learn and develop to their full potential. 
• The commission’s fifth major recommendation concerns the city’s longstanding large public housing communities. The concentration of public housing in the eastern half of the city is extraordinary and reflects ill-considered public policy decisions made decades ago. But history also teaches us that zeal to tear down the physical symbols of poverty (blight) is risky for impoverished people. The commission therefore endorses redevelopment of these communities.

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Small Business Saturday, November 29th, 2014 and shopping locally

The holiday shopping season is touched off by so called "Black Friday," the day after Thanksgiving. Companies offer lots of deal busters to get shoppers in stores, opening as early as midnight--although in the last few years some companies have started opening on Thanksgiving Day.

Small Business Saturday is an event created a few years ago to promote holiday shopping at local and independently owned businesses, as opposed to how most holiday shopping is focused on big box stores and national chains,  I believe that the event was created by the American Independent Business Alliance, the group that actively promotes the "Shop Local" movement.

But now it's sponsored by American Express, which offers inducements to card members as an incentive to shop local on that day.

Other "interest groups" have jumped on the bandwagon.  E-commerce retail aims to make the Monday after Thanksgiving their biggest shopping day of the season and year, calling it Cyber Monday, while nonprofit organizations promote receiving fundraising donations on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, Giving Tuesday.

I've been meaning to write about business district promotion, because some communities do it very well, supporting promotion on the part of the local downtown or community business districts in a programmed, systematic fashion, while others don't do a very good job at all.

One example of how a county business promotion division is using "Small Business Saturday" as a way to promote its businesses and business districts is Macomb County, Michigan.  See "Macomb County Shops Make Big Deal of Small Business Saturday," C&G Newspapers.

During the holidays, many communities do a great job of organizing a wide variety of events and promotions.  In the DC region, Fredericksburg, Virginia and Frederick, Maryland do a  particularly good job.

The Petworth district in DC has a holiday crafts fair on Saturday December 13th, and if it's like last year, the local library holds its annual book sale on the same day, restaurants have specials, etc.

DC has its Downtown Holiday Fair, while Baltimore is modeling a similar event after the traditional European Christmas Markets.

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How many DC charter schools are defrauding the citizens by enrolling non-residents?

Money Faucet #2Whenever I ride by charter schools when students are being dropped off or picked up from school, I am struck by a disproportionate number of out-of-state license plates on the cars.  Sure, some of the children are probably in divorced households, with split custodianship, but not that many.

Earlier in the month, the Washington Post reported ("Excel Academy Public Charter School under scrutiny for alleged residency fraud") that two-thirds of the students at Excel Academy haven't been certified as being DC residents. That's the equivalent of almost $7 million in instructional funds being paid to support non-residents.

From the article:
Because students at the city’s public charters and traditional public schools must live in the District to attend — and receive an education funded with thousands of dollars in taxpayer money — enrolling from outside the city’s borders could be considered residency fraud. ... 
A copy of the audit, obtained by The Post, showed that just 196 of the 618 students enrolled at the school were in compliance with OSSE guidelines for residency verification. No documentation to verify residency was provided for 356 students, and 65 student files had residency documents that were out of compliance with OSSE guidelines, such as pay stubs that showed tax withholding in Maryland or utility bills or lease agreements that were provided without a corresponding receipt or canceled check. 
On Monday night, the charter board asked Deborah Lockhart, chair of Excel’s board of trustees, to speak at the board’s meeting “to provide us with assurance that the school was going to be running a clean enrollment operation,” Pearson said.
Separately, apparently two schools have been declared ineligible for playing in the annual high school football Thanksgiving Day game because of having nonresidents on the team.

I presume this is a big problem across many of the schools in the charter "system."

And no one is doing much about it, not the Public Charter School Board. Assurances are not enough. The school should be have a temporary receivership appointed, and a full audit of student residency should be conducted.

2.  This kind of fraud could be a great item for the new elected DC Attorney General to start off investigating. Separately, the current AG (non-elected) has initiated lawsuits alleging fraud against Options Charter School and the Community Academy PCS system for officials creating separate for profit businesses to provide high priced services to their schools, to the pecuniary benefit of the self-interested officials.

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The complicated questions involved in the support or opposition to charter schools

Jay Mathews of the Washington Post has a column, "Do some charter schools have too many white students," quoting former DCPS teacher Erich Martel and his contention that DC charter schools provide misleading reporting about educational outcomes, implying that theiir programs have extranormal benefits for low income children, when higher outcomes are most frequently obtained not from low income children, but by students from higher income households.

There's a complicated discussion in the piece about equity etc. From the article:
He told me he thinks some urban charters with high achievement rates “claim to be meeting the needs of children in poverty, but they are really just skimming off those who have the socialization for success in school and throwing the rest back to” the rest of the D.C. public schools.

This contradicts those who think having significant numbers of middle-class children is a plus for urban schools and should be encouraged. The nation’s leading advocate of giving urban schools a good mix of poor and affluent students is Century Foundation scholar Richard D. Kahlenberg. He has written several books on research showing such balanced enrollment raises achievement for all students. Racial integration is also good, he said, because that reduces racism and teaches students “what they have in common as Americans.”

I have spent much time in charters with almost no middle-class children but impressive achievement rates. The reasons of their success, in my view, are mostly better teaching and more time for instruction. But many educators, including Martel, think their test scores are higher because they attract more children raised with middle-class values, even if their parents don’t have much money.
Partly, the complications ensue because there are at least four reasons for creating charter schools and these reasons can conflict.

1.  Better educational outcomes for impoverished children;

2.  Competition for traditional public school systems with the intent of fostering improvement within traditional schools through organizational improvement initiatives spearheaded by "market-based competition;"

3.  Retention of families that otherwise might move out of center cities in search of better schooling choices;

4.  Demonization of government organizations of all types as failures in the promotion of a  neoliberal agenda promoting privatization.  ("Privatizing Public Education: The Neoliberal Model");

Too frequently anti-government and/or pro-privatization agendas are hidden within stated goals of improving opportunities for either poor or higher income children.

Plus some people object to the concept of "choice schools" being offered as a way to retain higher income families as center city residents, seeing this as ultimately an inequitable practice.

As I keep repeating, the irony of the purported "school reform" initiative of Michelle Rhee, former "chancellor" of the DC Public School system, is that as Mathews says, mostly better outcomes in charter schools comes from more instruction time and a greater variety of resources and programs.

Whenever people would say to Rhee that impoverished children need more resources, her response was "you're saying children can't learn."

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Police killings, demonstrations and emergency management

Last night, the jury in St. Louis County, Missouri empaneled to hear evidence on whether the Ferguson police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown should be indicted for murder or manslaughter returned its decision, which was that the officer shouldn't be indicted.

There were demonstrations and protests in Ferguson, and elsewhere in the country.  The Denver Post has a gallery of images on the topic.
APTOPIX Ferguson
Police gather on the street as protesters react after the announcement of the grand jury decision Monday, Nov. 24, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. A grand jury has decided not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown, the unarmed, black 18-year-old whose fatal shooting sparked sometimes violent protests. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

In advance of the decision there were an abundance of stories about planning for the demonstrations that were likely to occur ("Officials make preparations for Ferguson grand jury decision," Reuters), with the aim of reducing violence--not just in Ferguson, but in other cities around the country ("Local protesters prepare for Ferguson grand jury," Orlando Sentinel, such as DC, where officers were put on alert, more officers were assigned to duty, and leave requests were cancelled, to prepare for possible demonstrations ("Ferguson watch: DC police preparing for possible protests," WTTG-TV/Fox5).

The topic touches on many dimensions of government organization, public administration, public financing, and order maintenance, which are questions of planning, including planning in advance for protests and working to minimize unrest and damage.

While governments and police departments need to do this, so do commercial districts and business owners.  Also see "San Francisco Readies for the Big One, a Block at a Time," from the Wall Street Journal.

And apparently, demonstrators ("In St. Louis, Protesters Plan an Orderly Response to Indictment News," Wall Street Journal).

Need for structural changes in policing.  Besides the issue of militarization of police ("Senators Criticize Militarization of Local Police Departments ...," Wall Street Journal; "War Gear Flows to Police Departments," New York Times) illustrated by the Ferguson Police Department's initial response to protests immediately after the killing, and the shootings and killings by police officers which are inadequate tracked ("How many police shootings a year? No one knows," Washington Post) is managing the aftermath, even riots, in terms of demonstrations, and public response to jury actions--who can forget the riot in Los Angeles after the police officers who beat Rodney King in the course of an arrest were acquitted ("What Ferguson Cops Can Learn From LAPD Response to Rodney King Riots," NBC News), and the need to improve "the system" so that police brutality and police killings don't occur.
Hundreds of demonstrators gather outside the White House to protest after the Ferguson grand jury decision in Missouri November 24, 2014 in Washington, DC. A St. Louis County grand jury has decided to not indict Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown that sparked riots in Ferguson, Missouri in August. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

I didn't get to see the film Fruitvale Station, about the killing of Oscar Grant by a BART police officer, but I was amazed in the aftermath, that the new BART police chief authorized the cooperation with the filmmakers ("A Bay Area Killing Inspires 'Fruitvale Station'," New York Times, both to acknowledge the responsibility of the police department in the killing and the desire of and need for the police department to improve its practices so that such an incident would not reoccur.

Need for structural changes in criminal justice revenue generating practices in St. Louis County.   Much has been written about the kind of "involuntary poverty" produced by municipalities in Greater St. Louis and their system of arrests, ticketing, and fines--the fines are a major source of income for the municipalities--which for the impoverished create a spiral of problems that can be impossible to escape ("How municipalities in St. Louis County, Mo., profit from poverty," Washington Post).

Businesses have to plan for disruption and interruption.  And many of the businesses in Ferguson have boarded up their windows, even though the stores remain open, to limit the possibility of window breakage and other damage from demonstrations that may end up with violence.
(This is a McDonalds.) A man steps out of a vandalized store after the announcement of the grand jury decision Monday, Nov. 24, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. A grand jury has decided not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown, the unarmed, black 18-year-old whose fatal shooting sparked sometimes violent protests. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

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Sunday, November 23, 2014

Marion Barry, DC's "Mayor for Life," dead at 78

Some things you don't really imagine (although in good scenario planning you should), and one I hadn't really thought about is Marion Barry, former Mayor of DC and Councilmember of Ward 8, dying, which happened last night.

-- "Former DC Mayor Marion Barry dies at 78," WTOP radio
-- "Marion Barry, Former Mayor of Washington, Dies at 78," New York Times
-- "Marion Barry dies at 78; 4-term DC mayor was the most powerful local politician of his generation," Washington Post

The "Mayor for Life" moniker was devised by Ken Cummins, the original "Loose Lips" columnist for the Washington City Paper.  The former mayor adopted the phrase as the title of his autobiography ("Marion Barry officially embraces 'mayor-for-life' title," City Paper).

I've always said chapter 4-it turns out it is chapter 7--of the book Dream City (",Dream City: Race, Power and the Decline of Washington, DC" Washington Monthly), was the best description of the way that the local coalition of politicians and real estate developers works together along the lines of the Growth Machine theory of Harvey Molotch (City as a Growth Machine: Toward a Political Economy of Place).

Howard Gillette's Between Truth and Beauty: Race, Planning, and the Failure of Urban Policy in Washington is a good explication of what we might call the "city beautiful" vs. "social justice" agendas of the first generation black mayors more generally, although the book is about Washington.

I haven't read The Last of the Black Emperors: The Hollow Comeback of Marion Barry in a New Age of Black Leaders by Jonetta Rose Barras.  She has a reprise opinion piece in the Post, "The death of Marion Barry."

The book The Future Once Happened Here, focusing on DC, New York, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia, is widely derided by progressives, but I think it's a good discussion of the decline of cities in the 1980s and 1990s,

It describes DC's decline in part as a result of the massive expansion of the local government--despite the city possessing "county and state functions" as well as those of a municipality, DC had thousands more employees than much larger cities.

The big increase in government employees, decline in federal payments to cities, continued outmigration of the Black middle class to Prince George's County especially, and minimal in-migration of higher income households contributed to the city's bankruptcy and the takeover of the city's finances by the federal government through a specially created Financial Control Board.  While this happened during the mayoralty of Sharon Pratt Kelly, the stage was set by the previous administrations of Marion Barry.

Lately there has been some discussion among the younger set that the older and mnority urbanites had their chance at "fixing the cities" and failed, with the conclusion that it's time for them to move out of the way.

The reality is much more complicated.  Urban decline and urban improvement lies on a continuum, and was built, positively and sometimes negatively, through the efforts of many, including Marion Barry, who had so much promise and sadly, threw much of it away.

A new councilmember for Ward 8.  Newer and younger residents of Ward 8 have clamored for different representation, even running candidates against Marion Barry in the 2008 and 2012 primaries, although each time Marion Barry received between 70% and 80% of the total vote.

Now that he has died and didn't create a true machine that could designate and elect a successor, it will be interesting to see what develops in the run up to the special election to replace him.

At one time, it was asserted that Marion Barry aimed to make his son, Christopher, his successor on Council, but that's no longer a real option.

The special election for the seat--probably in May but maybe in April and it is unclear if it will be set to be the same day as the special election in Ward 4 to fill the Council seat vacated by incoming Mayor Muriel Bowser--is likely to be wild, with as many as 20 candidates.

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Thursday, November 20, 2014

A point about the investment priorities of local governments, stadiums, etc.

Rendering of a possible soccer stadium in Sacramento.

With regard to DC's machinations about funding a soccer stadium ("Muriel Bowser says she will remove Reeves Center sale from DC United stadium deal," Post; "The Incredible Shrinking Stadium-Deal Benefits," Washington City Paper), it's interesting to keep up with and compare media coverage about similar ongoing negotiations now in other cities such as Boston ("Soccer stadium could create an urban opportunity, if done right," Globe), Sacramento ("Mayor: MLS meeting productive, no timeline for expansion decision," Sacramento Bee), and South Florida, where David Beckham will be an owner ("David Beckham's Miami soccer gamble: If they build the stadium will the fans come?," Miami Herald).

The same goes for the Olympics.  Other cities besides Washington ("USOC meets privately with Washington 2024 about Olympic bid," Washington Business Journal; "Washington's Olympic team: The A-list sports fans vying for the 2024 Games," Post) that are vying for the event in 2024 include San Francisco ("San Francisco puts in chips for 2024 Olympics" and "Bay Area’s Olympic dreams focused on landfill near Candlestick," SF Chronicle), Boston, and Los Angeles.

Aaron Renn of the Urbanophile also writes for Governing Magazine and his latest is an interesting story "(Lessons from Kokomo on How to Spend Responsibly") about this small town located north of Indianapolis known for large scale manufacturing that raised most of its revenue from property taxes on factories.  When Chrysler stopped paying property taxes when the company entered bankruptcy--eventually closing the plant entirely--the city was on the ropes.

According to Aaron, to recover, the city adopted innovative practices to save money, cut staff, and annexed adjoining lands from the county where there was significant development activity, making the city larger and increasing tax revenues.

He avers that this allowed the city to generate capital to do "pay as you go" capital investment (I am okay with debt financing myself...), including a parking garage + housing development, a new YMCA downtown, and two new fire stations.

He contrasts this with Los Angeles, which because of its high cost of personnel including escalating pensions, can't invest in much of anything.  Separately, the LA Times has an article, "Angelenos could tax themselves to fix roads under City Hall proposal," about the potential creation of neighborhood "beautification districts" that will allow neighborhoods to tax themselves additionally in order to fix damaged roads.  It's pretty incredible that cities are driven to such an action.  But that's what lack of funds will do.
Candlestick Park postcard
So on the perennial argument of is it better to "invest" in sports stadiums and arenas or other projects, I was struck by a brief article (Lennar, Macerich Team Up on Mall," Wall Street Journal) on the redevelopment of SF's Candlestick Park stadium and abutting parking lots.  The stadium, once used by the local baseball and football teams, so it had about 92 events/year, will be replaced by a mixed use development that will include:
  • 6,225 housing units
  • 500,000 s.f. shopping mall, done in conjunction with one of the nation's leading shopping center companies, Macerich
  • 100,000 s.f. of additional retail space
  • 220 room hotel.
Property taxes at the local level tend to be split between a city, county, and a school district, and sometimes other taxing entities--special services districts of various types--claim a portion as well.

(San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Baltimore are city-counties (technically, Baltimore County exists as a separate entity while the city is treated as a county for governance purposes).  Washington is a city-state, with even more taxing power compared to the typical city--although the city is forbidden from taxing nonresidents.)

In the lines of the economic impact studies of the revenue potential to localities from different types of development, I bet that the economic value of this development will be greater than from the stadium.  DC would benefit even more from a comparable development, because the city collects 100% of the "state" income tax, which no other city in America can do.Slide, Smart Growth: Making the Financial Case, County Tax Yield Per Acre, Sarasota presentation
Tax yield per acre, Sarasota County, Florida

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Another indicator of the decline of federal spending and its impact on the Metropolitan Washington economy

DC is not Las Vegas, where the massive national computing and consumer electronics exhibitions tend to be held.  Here, the big business in computing is the federal government.  So the "FOSE" (Federal Office Systems Exhibition) show was about the biggest, with 20,000+ attendees and major exhibitors.  (The Association of the US Army show--big on armaments--is probably just as big or bigger.)

The Washington Post reported the other day that FOSE is now kaput ("With the end of FOSE, government dependent trade shows take yet another hit"), so the 2014 show was the last, even if the website still lists show dates for 2015, as it hasn't been updated to reflect the decision.

FOSE trade show
FOSE in 2009.  Flickr photo by Joe Flood.

According to the article, attendance at trade shows relying on federal government workers as attendees are down about 30%.  I know training budgets have taken a big hit as well, which impacts various contractors.

As mentioned previously, Congress isn't into investing in federal buildings housing federal workers, especially if those agencies are regulators, and especially if those buildings are in DC, which lacks voting Congressmembers.

And in the comments, charlie mentions that Rosslyn, one of the Arlington county submarkets that has office buildings as tall or taller than those downtown, has a 30% vacancy rate right now, although that's partly due to the age of the buildings and the increased prominence and dominance of Tysons Corner and Reston as office districts and competitors for tenants.

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Boston arts-culture policy

One of the commitments made by Martin Walsh during his 2013 campaign for Mayor of Boston was the creation of a dedicated Commissioner for Arts and Cultural Affairs.  After a search, the Mayor chose Julie Barros, who was working for the City of Chicago and ran the Chicago Cultural Plan creation process in 2012 ("Walsh Names Chicagoan To Be Boston's Arts Czar," WBUR).

She starts this week.

In advance of her arrival, the Boston Globe ran a special section on Sunday, "Growing Boston’s arts scene," leading with an editorial ("Making arts policy a priority") and bolstered by 12 follow up articles authored by arts, creative, culture workers and advocates, about various elements of the culture scene in the city, providing advice on where Commissioner and the city should focus their efforts.

From the article:
... [arts are] an essential component of the state’s quality of life. The Massachusetts arts community encompasses roughly 6,000 arts and cultural organizations that support more than 45,000 jobs. A report last summer by ArtsBoston showed that nonprofit arts and cultural organizations boost the Boston economy alone by $1 billion every year. Arts education has been shown to improve student performance across the disciplines and to transform troubled schools. And it is impossible to imagine the turnarounds in economically distressed cities like Pittsfield, North Adams, and Lowell without investment in the arts.

As Boston welcomes its new arts czar, the creative community weighs in on Massachusetts’ potential.
Note that the above-cited WBUR article provides a good overview of the state of the city's involvement in arts and culture. And their follow up piece, "Who Should Be The Mayor's Arts Czar? Our Nominees," outlining particularly outstanding leaders of area arts organizations and initiatives is useful background too.

As mentioned in the editorial, arts-based revitalization has been key to the improvement of former industrial towns in Western Massachusetts that have been bypassed by the shift to the post-industrial economy and the offshoring of manufacturing jobs. Pittsfield and North Adams are best practice examples--the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art is in North Adams. MassMOCA has been in the news ("Mass MoCA Partners With Major Contemporary Artists," New York Times) based on an announcement of coming expansions of an already large facility that reuses an old factory complex ("Gov. Deval Patrick heralds final phase of Mass MoCA renovation," Berkshire Eagle).

This story has also been told in an now older documentary (Downside UP: How art can change the spirit of a place).

Pittsfield was an early innovator in creating a storefront revival program by engaging artists and displaying art--although the program shut down a few years ago after a 10 year run and many great successes, and the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts was one of the first colleges to open an off campus art gallery (Gallery 51) in a community downtown, which tightens the connection between the college and the town in terms of activation.

This 2007 blog entry linked to a couple important articles about Mass MOCA, how it came about and its impact (although the CNN article seems to be lost to the ether).

The Center for Creative Community Development in Williamstown, Mass. does research and publishing on the economic impact of the arts in smaller communities.  It looks like they have some interesting publications, including on the impact of clustering arts organizations and the impact of museums on their neighborhoods.

These are good examples for DC, in terms of the local paper covering important local matters, especially in arts and culture, having a high level "cabinet" position for arts and culture, and the need for a comprehensive city cultural plan, something that I raised yesterday in a meeting about the rehabilitation and redevelopment of the city's central library.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Cars vs. Transit: Cars are winning

Over the weekend I picked up a bunch of Saturday Evening Post and Life magazine issues from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. I eagerly buy such ephemera when I come across it for a couple reasons.

Many of the stories (on the decline of cities, road building, land use, crime, etc.) are interesting windows into the development of the mass economy, national attitudes, etc., Plus, the 1940s and 1950s were the golden years of illustrated ads (as opposed to photo-based ads) and image advertising by corporations and industry associations.  The ads provide great insights into foundations of transportation, land use, and urban planning practices that we deal with today.

1.  One of the things that I have been thinking about lately, not just in response to the recent report, Subsidizing Congestion: The Multibillion-Dollar Tax Subsidy That’s Making Your Commute Worse, by the TransitCenter and Frontier Group, which makes the point that the US provides more tax benefits for car use than transit use, is an article from Businessweek ("The Petro States of America,) making the point that the US is a major oil producer and that needs to be considered when trying to understand general government and economic policymaking in the United States. It's so true.
Anti Keystone pipeline demonstration outside of the DC house of Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, 11/17/2014
Anti Keystone pipeline demonstration outside of the DC house of Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, 11/17/2014.

(Note that the report also makes the point that transit benefits disproportionately help the better off.  The transportation demand management benefits of transit especially to central business districts in cities like DC or Manhattan, which couldn't function if there wasn't a transit alternative to cars, justify policy promoting transit.

That being said, I believe in special transit discounts for lower income households, along the lines of what the San Francisco MUNI system does, and general subsidy of transit allowing for low fares and comparatively lower monthly pass rates, e.g., DC's monthly subway pass costs double that of the NYC Subway system.)

2.  As the first section of streetcar line is getting ready to open to the public, yesterday the Washington Post editorialized ("Trolley troubles") that the Washington DC streetcar program should be put on hiatus, and re-assessed.  From the article:

While for a variety of reasons I agree that the program has been poorly planned and has taken way longer than necessary to start operating, and maybe it isn't the best transit mode to be investing into  to get the best return on investment, I can't help but wonder if the editorial board isn't captured by automobile-centric thinking--certainly all the poorly argued pro-automobility letters hat get published make you wonder--and is doing a bait and switch, arguing for "analysis" but really more concerned about promoting automobility.

... which is what all the other opponents are doing too!  ("streetcars are old technology; streetcars are less flexible than buses because they are on tracks, sure lots of people willingly ride buses" etc.)

For one thing, the arguments against streetcar system planning are somewhat overstated because DC has always planned for incremental additions to the system, and forward movement has been hampered by many missteps along the way (contrast this to Seattle. Of course those plans will be assessed anyway as the streetcar finally opens to riders..

On the other hand, over time, as the system is expanded and more people use it, the various complaints about streetcar service will likely fade away.

(And even if streetcars aren't widely used in the US, they are in Europe and Australia, and those experiences are relevant to planning here.)

3.  But the DC streetcar program has been buffeted by opposition, from seeming progressives, especially from the "older people" who tend to populate the membership of legacy community improvement organizations in the city such as the Capitol Hill Restoration Society and the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, which have expressed opposition.  (C100 is particularly proud of their report on the topic, which I didn't think was particularly impressive.)

Although they couch their opposition as something that has to do with the planning, and how the system uses "old technology" (actually the technology is as modern as any technology behind automobiles) and that buses are better and more mobile, even though those criticizing the system, like the Post editorial writers, mostly don't use transit at all, mostly driving.
Buick ad, 1956 model, Saturday Evening Post, 7/7/1956, p. 44
Buick ad, Saturday Evening Post, 7/7/1956

This is a real problem, especially because most of Washington, DC's elected officials--10 of the incoming 13 representatives--represent and/or live in "the outer city" where automobile use is more prevalent, residents are older, and residents are more organized and active in promoting their car-centric views (see "DC as a suburban agenda dominated city").

4.  This has come to a head in Arlington County, until today a national best practice example in linking transit and land use planning, where the Arlington County Board voted to abandon its commitment to streetcar development on Columbia Pike and in Potomac Yard/Crystal City ("Arlington officials halt efforts on streetcars for Columbia Pike, Crystal City," Washington Post).

This occurred in the face of vociferous opposition (very similar to opposition in DC) in some quarters, as represented by the election to two members to the Board who ran on an anti-streetcar platform--the resignation from the Board by Chris Zimmerman, who was the region's most prominent pro-transit elected official, set up the opportunity for a replacement by an anti-transit politico, arguing in favor of "financial prudence."

5.  Meanwhile, the incoming Maryland Governor, Larry Hogan, ran on an anti-spending platform which included defunding light rail programs in the Washington suburbs and Baltimore, which worries the proponents of the Purple Line in the DC suburbs and the Red Line in Baltimore City and County.

6.  But highway expansion continues apace.  High Occupancy Toll Lanes ("Lexus Lanes") in Virginia and north of Baltimore open next month.on I-95 and the full length of the tolled Inter County Connector in Maryland is now open too, as evidenced by ads running in the Washington Post. 
Ad I-95 Express Toll lanes, Washington Post, 11/17/2014

Ad for the Intercounty Connector Toll system, Maryland, from the Washington Post, November 2014

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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Back to the 'hood for the "National" Children's Museum

The former Capital Children's Museum was on H Street NE for decades and so it was a leading cultural asset back when we created the H Street Main Street program back in 2001/2002.

By then it was a pretty tired facility that needed a jump start.  And the consultants working on the H Street revitalization plan, released in 2003, felt that the museum did need to move, although they didn't recommend it in the plan because it wasn't politically palatable.

But they thought it would work better as part of a nascent museum complex including the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, on the west side of Union Station, in the old Main Post Office building, across from Union Station.  (Since then the Postal Museum has expanded, kicking out a restaurant, although it is still one of the least visited of the Smithsonian Museums.)

Shortly afterwards, the Children's Museum decided to sell their H St. property, which is now a condominium and apartment complex, for space in a redeveloped L'Enfant Plaza.

But soon after that, not being too successful in fundraising for a new space, with a great offer--likely free rent--from a developer wanting "activation", they agreed to move to the National Harbor development in Prince George's County, a location disconnected from transit.

The move pretty much made them a non-factor in the area's cultural offer generally, and for children specifically.  And they haven't been all that successful in their new location ("Children's museum plans stall; new space a 'downgrade,' official says" from the Gazette) although they did open a small space eventually, one that when reviewed, didn't receive favorable reactions when it finally opened in 2012 ("New National Children's Museum underwhelms the under-8," Post).

Hence the decision to move back to DC, reported today in the Washington Post ("National Children's Museum leaving Prince George's to return to DC").

Ideas for a great Children's Museum, circa 2002.  In late 2002, during the planning process for H Street improvement, I wrote a short memo including ideas for how to improve significantly the Children's Museum and leverage it as a destination for the H Street commercial district.

Museums that focus on children visiting via class trips don't make much money.  Partly it recognizes the biggest problems with museums and educational centers targeting kids--they don't make much money.  See for example ("Please Touch Museum may be forced to sell assets, exhibits" and "Sluggish economy, stifling debt imperil city’s cultural future," Philadelphia Business Journal; and "Good grief! Just look at Port Discovery - Baltimore Sun," Baltimore Sun).

Most of the attendees come via class trips. And they bring their lunch. SO most of the visits during the week don't generate much in the way of additional revenue or support for retailers on or off site.

ImaginOn, Charlotte, NC.

Note that I expanded these ideas after the Children's Museum left the city, in suggesting new children's museum in Poplar Point ("Thinking Really Really Really Big for Poplar Point") which frankly would work well with some of the other recommendations I've made concerning civic facilities in the context of the 11th Street Bridge Park and Poplar Point ("A world class water/environmental education center at Poplar Point as another opportunity for Anacostia River programming (+ move the Anacostia Community Museum next door)").

But the differences are slight, a ferris wheel and a specific mention of the ImaginOn, which is a combined library-children's theatre facility in Charlotte, NC and the children-serving elements of the then new Connecticut Science Center "Future shock made science play," Boston Globe).

Note that I am not holding my breath that any of these ideas are on the table for a revitalized children's museum in DC.

-------- From 2002 --------

-- A revitalized Children's Museum with attractions such as an IMAX theater and a Children's live theater, a carousel, a children's library--a museum really focused on "building creativity in children" would offer the opportunity to draw retail serving children to the immediate vicinity.

The kinds of stores I am thinking about would be a quality toy store, a store that serves teachers, a children's book store, a "Crayola" store (one was opened in Arundel Mills I believe), a "Lego" store, a gallery focused on children's art or perhaps Dr. Seuss.

[At the time there was a traveling Dr. Seuss art exhibit, which I had recently seen in Cleveland  Since then there has been the creation of the musical, Seussical, and I also wrote about a play about the US Presidents, "Rock the presidents (cultural planning and the national experience in DC)" in Arizona that would be a logical offering for DC.]

-- Doubling the attendance of the Children's Museum by revitalizing the programs they offer would bring great numbers of families into the neighborhood on weekends, presumably with a fair amount of disposable income.

The stores would also serve as destinations, whether or not people are visiting the Museum. I understand the Museum wants to leave the neighborhood, but I think it's important to maximize the benefit of its presence while it is here. We should also work to convince them that this neighborhood remains the best location for their facility.

Rock the Presidents children's play promotion, Tempe Center for the Arts.

Attachments mentioned stores like Build-a-Bear Workshop ("Build-A-Bear to open 50th store," St. Louis Business Journal) and a children's hair salon ("Hair salon aimed at kids opens," Denver Business Journal--although there is a newer concept, Snip-Its, as well [story]) as additional complementary retail and service options.

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Monday, November 17, 2014

Saturday's Vancouver BC election

Vancouver is one of North America's leading examples of high density urbanism.  (Image from Destination BC.)

Starting in the late 1950s, the city began encouraging high rise multiunit apartments, while also focusing resources on creating and maintaining parks, access to the waterfront, and recreational and civic facilities ("The Vancouver Model," Places Magazine; "High density living in Vancouver, British Columbia").

In transportation planning circles, the city is "famous" for not allowing freeways to be constructed within the city.  The Translink transit system operates at the metropolitan scale, and is highly respected.

The city began gaining population with the handover in 1997 of Hong Kong to the Chinese. Residents were able to move to other British Commonwealth countries and many chose Vancouver. The city continues to add population and to build more housing towers.
The metropolitan area is constrained by mountains and seas and like other similarly constrained cities (Seattle, Salt Lake, etc.) perhaps this is a factor in an enhanced sense about the environment.  That being said, residents aren't happy with the "Growth Machine" and what they see as the complicity of elected officials in stoking it.

On the other hand, Vancouver interestingly shows the difference between being a city-state, like DC, and being a typical municipality with "ordinary" financial capacity.  Last year, Vancouver's government budget surplus was $5 million while DC's was in the hundreds of millions--because DC collects income taxes as well as property taxes, and has a stronger commercial real estate market, not because it's better managed or a better place to live.

Vancouver elections.  Canada doesn't allow the national political parties to organize and run affiliates at the municipal level.  Ontario doesn't allow the creation of local parties, while British Columbia and Quebec do.  Yesterday was election day for provincial and local offices in British Columbia.

Unique characteristics for voting and governance.  Saturday elections make British Columbia unique across North America.  Provincial elections are held on a schedule different from local elections.

But Vancouver has other unique electoral qualities.  The city has four active political parties, three of which won offices yesterday.  All of the Council positions are elected at-large, which makes it easier for the Council to act for the city as a whole.  The City also has an elected park board, unique in Canada, which has been in place since the late 1890s.

Saturday's election had three strong mayoral candidates from 3 of the 4 major parties (10 parties ran candidates for City Council), the incumbent, Gregor Robertson, of Vision Vancouver, the center-left party, Kirk LaPointe, former editor of the Vancouver Sun, for the Non-Partisan Association, the conservative party, and Miriam Wong of COPE (Coalition of Progressive Electors), the left party.  (One of Wong's platform positions was a suggestion that transit be practically free "Universal transit in Vancouver for $1 a day, pitches mayoral candidate," Vancouver Sun).

The continued densification in Vancouver, along with the hollowing out of the middle class, put the majority party at risk, and Kirk LaPointe ran a better campaign.

Results.  Despite that Gregor Robertson was re-elected and Vision maintained a Council majority, but NPA has 4 of the 11 seats, one of which went to the Green Party--candidate Adriane Carr got more votes than any of the candidates, and Vision lost control of both the Parks and School Boards--the Green Party picked up seats on both.

Note that Vancouver's population is a little smaller than DC's (603,000+ to 630,000+) but they had a slightly larger turnout, 44% and 181,000 voters, compared to DC's recent results of about 164,000 and 35.5%).

So in Vancouver, while two parties (Vision, NPA) dominate local politics, a third, the Greens, is a viable third party, with seats on the City Council, Parks Board, and School Board, while the fourth (COPE) is still viable (COPE was the majority party on Council before Robertson's first victory).   Vision controls the City Council, NPA controls the Parks Board, and the School Board is split between Vision and NPA, with the Greens having the deciding vote.

It results in a much more vibrant polity than is typical of US cities.

-- "Gregor Robertson re-elected mayor of Vancouver," CBC-TV
-- "Re-elected Mayor Robertson Vows 'We Can Do Better'," The Tyee
-- "Vancouver Election: The Tyee's Four Big Questions," The Tyee (the questions are affordable housing, balancing density with neighborhood character, campaign finance reform, and the city's role in oil pipeline issues)
-- "Vision's Angry Voter Double Whammy," The Tyee (the prime funder of the NPA is a railroad executive)
-- "Why Vision Deserves Vote of Progressives in Vancouver," The Tyee
-- "Kirk LaPointe and Gregor Robertson — the politician and the ideologue," Vancouver Sun

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Sunday, November 16, 2014

The impact of rising sea levels: Poquoson, Virginia

The Norfolk Virginian-Pilot has an article ("Poquoson takes action to outpace rising sea levels") about what one seaside community in the Norfolk region is doing to address rising sea levels.  Thus far, about 1/10 of the community's housing stock has added concrete block foundations to put the main house out-of-reach from flooding.  Even so, in the long run, the community might have to be abandoned, as it is only 4 to 7 feet above sea level.
House raised up on cinder blocks as flood protection, Pouoson, VA
Photo: Stephen Katz, Norfolk Virginian-Pilot.

More communities will have to address the reality of climate change (e.g., "Flooding from storm surge would threaten D.C. infrastructure" and "Daily flooding might get Congress to act against climate change," Washington Post; "NC Considers Making Sea Level Rise Illegal," Scientific American) going forward.

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Friday, November 14, 2014

Livability, global cities and Jan Gehl

I've mentioned Jan Gehl over the years.  He is one of the world's foremost proponents of livability planning  While he's an architect, much of what he and his firm do is master planning, focusing on realizing a city's potential for walking and biking.

Apparently, he spoke earlier in the week in Toronto, so Toronto Star urban design columnist Christopher Hume wrote a piece, "Jan Gehl on making Toronto liveable."

From the article:
Imagine living in a city where pedestrians and cyclists were a priority, where quality of life mattered as much as transit, taxes or economic performance.

In some cities — including many where Jan Gehl has wrought his transformational magic — that’s simply the way it is.

The celebrated Danish architect and public space guru returned to Toronto this week for a series of talks about how to remake cities, including this one, so they can be enjoyed, not just endured.

Turns out — little surprise here — it’s all about data and political will. During the course of his 50-year career, Gehl has made cities from Copenhagen (where he lives) to Melbourne, New York and Christchurch the envy of urban dwellers everywhere.
I have suggested that city livability rankings and working to achieve a listing can be a good way for cities to refocus some of their energies on metrics that make a difference in the quality of life for residents.  I believe that the Economist Intelligence Unit even has a program that it offers that explains their ranking criteria and how cities are measured.

I think of cities like Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and Portland a lot in terms of sustainable transportation achievement, how its done--starting with a "big" vision and followed by a multi-decade commitment and constant assessment and improvement.

When people say to a planner "why can't we be like Portland?" it can be paralyzing, because the person asking the question doesn't realize that Portland of today is the result of more than 40 years of decision-making, policy, and practice, that started off with a contrary vision of tearing down a freeway along the city's waterfront.

(Lots of people) Cycling in Copenhagen.  Wikipedia photo.

Jan Gehl's efforts in Copenhagen started in 1962 and are ongoing even today, and now the city has 55% of its residents biking daily.  From the article:
According to Gehl, the city saves 25 cents for every kilometre a cyclist rides, and loses 17 cents for every kilometre travelled by car.

“When Copenhagen started to pedestrianize its main street in 1962, everyone was exceedingly nervous,” Gehl recalls. “I remember the acidic debate about getting rid of cars. But it worked out beautifully. We narrowed the streets from four lanes to two, added bike lanes and planted trees. Today the city is more beautiful and much safer.”
I think that cost/kilometre number for different types of mobility is an interesting metric that needs to be more widely communicated and understood. Imagine including such information in a city's transportation plan!

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