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.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

(Lotsa) Stuff/Reading around

1. I just read a two month old issue of the Northwest Current only to learn that Georgetown University invited the community to a planning meeting on the Campus Plan. Since this was Saturday Nov. 9th, I definitely missed it.

- this article, "Georgetown University: New Preparations Begin For Campus Master Plan" discusses the process and has some links
- 2000 Campus Plan

2. Similarly, I noticed an ad for the Office of the People's Counsel "13th Energy Efficiency Expo" on Nov. 1st. Last Saturday (11/22) I attended a window and door insulation workshop outside in Lamont Park in Mt. Pleasant, sponsored by the DC Dept. of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. It was very helpful and today we should be getting around to plastic wrapping some of our windows. Plus the Dept. of the Environment offers Home Energy Audits. And while at the DCRA workshop, I missed out on most of the Composting workshop conducted at the same time by Ed Bruske, author and one of the founders of the DC Urban Gardeners Group.

Why not all work together, and have one master "DC Green" conference every year sponsored by and organized in part by various DC government agencies, getting resources, ideas, options, and policies coordinated and focused on developing and extending best practices in DC. But including other groups, formal (i.e., Washington Parks and People) and informal (groups like Rooting DC and DC Urban Gardeners), not just government agencies.

Partly it could be like Arlington's "Car Free Diet" Expo, which works to move people away from single occupancy vehicle trips, and practical like the DCRA, composting, and OPC workshops, and broader, engaging in more topics, and working to organize people and increase their involvement in local civic affairs.

For example, the Department of Recreation and Parks in Baltimore does many things including organizing "Weed Warriors" where volunteers go to various Baltimore parks and pull weeds.

Speaking of a city being more citizen-focused, Baltimore has Greener Baltimore website and regular e-newsletter.

3. I am busier these days and have too many interests anyway to keep up on all things DC. Track Twenty-Nine is a blog by a UMD planning student who clearly is going to be a leading U.S. transportation planner after he graduates in May. He's writing more about WMATA specific things than I am, as is Greater Greater Washington.

He has two great posts, "Understanding the Blue Line Reroute" and "Streetcars, Version 2.0" on WMATA subway issues and DC streetcar issues respectively. (Even if I don't agree with all his particulars, everything he writes is thoroughly researched and very very good.)


4. Speaking of Greater Greater Washington there is decent writing there on the historic preservation presentation on modernism, ""Persuading" or "evaluating"? Part of the problem with the analysis though is mixing places, DC preservation law is specifically related to DC and therefore doesn't necessarily consider "all" of the works within a particular architectural style or the body of work by a particular architect. Therefore, the GSA example isn't fully relevant to how DC should or does weigh similar issues, but is still worth thinking about.

5. Awhile back, the District Extra section of the Post has a piece titled "Fenty Isn't Czar Of the Rent Czar" which has a section about how DC City Council said no to Allen Lew, currently in charge of school reconstruction (ex-responsible for the construction of the Nationals Stadium) taking over responsibility for construction of Parks and Recreation facilities.

Actually I think the city is right in believing that contracting for and construction of buildings and management of the process is generally beyond the skill set of most DC agencies other than the Office of Property Management and the Department of Transportation (which builds roads, not buildings, but is still experienced in construction management).

This function should be consolidated within an agency that is focused on having expertise, not hacks, at the helm and in the line positions. The Fire Department's management of building-renovating fire stations, especially historic buildings, shows that it is easy even with the best of intentions for an agency with limited experience in construction to get overwhelmed.

6. The Post has an article on U.S. transportation policy, "From Funding to Infrastructure, New Transportation Secretary Faces A Hard Road Ahead" and the president of Amtrak, Alexander Kummant, resigned. The New York Observer had an interesting interview with him in the summer focused on expanding railroad capacity in NYC and the Northeast Corridor, "Alex Kummant, National Stationmaster."

The idea of planning mobility nationally in a substantive way (i.e., railroads for redundancy, railroads to move passengers from plane to train in particular corridors, railroad transportation within states and region) needs to happen. (Baltimore has some of the same issues as NYC with capacity limits. So does service from DC to Richmond.)

See the AP stories "Top Amtrak Executive Resigns" and "New Leader for Amtrak."

7. I can't claim I find most of the blogwriting in the region on retail to be all that insightful. The real problem comes down to volume as you need about 30,000 people to support 50,000 s.f. of retail. A decent neighborhood commercial district might be about that size or larger. So basically we have far more extant space than can be supported by the city's residential population (also note that the top 30% of households in terms of income make 50% of total consumer purchases), even when we add M-F daytime workers + visitors to the mix.

We need to work with commercial districts to harvest and leverage the opportunities that exist or in a sense, write them off, and accept that certain commercial districts such as the changing Columbia Heights or Friendship Heights (or Silver Spring, etc.) are "regional" intra-city commercial districts that provide a greater deal of retail that support a number of "satellite" neighborhoods, i.e., Ward 1's Columbia Heights supports many Ward 1 and Ward 4 neighborhoods, and those neighborhoods in turn are able to support a more limited array of service retail.

This comes to mind in part because of the AP story on the development of a film studio in Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts, "Historic Plymouth OKs building $488M movie studio." (The story ran in the Express.) It's all about agglomeration economies and having the support networks necessary to support business development and maintenance. It's going to be hard as hell for this area of Massachusetts to develop as a film center (especially when considering that Hollywood also competes with Vancouver and Toronto and even the place in Baja California, Mexico where part of the Titanic was filmed). Go with your strengths, and leverage your strengths, and admit your weaknesses and don't spend too much money trying to hide weaknesses as strengths...

In short, not all neighborhooods will be able to have thriving retail unless the city doubles in population and that is never going to happen, with or without opposition to various residential intensification projects.

-- See the webpage coverage from the Quincy Patriot-Ledger.

(And with a lot of money and connects, Hollywood East may be able to be successful. But I won't hold my breath.)
Plymouth Hollywood East
Plymouth Rock Studios executive Joseph DiLorenzo talks about the proposed movie studio complex in their Plymouth, Mass., offices Oct. 31, 2008. When built, the 240-acre studio complex will be the first independent film and television studio on the East Coast, featuring 14 soundstages, a 10-acre backlot, and all pre-production and post-production services.(AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

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Friday, November 28, 2008

It's the Reilly Law of Retail Gravitation (stupid)

A man walks past a store advertising a sale, on 'Black Friday' ... - Yahoo! New
A woman walks past a store advertising a sale, on 'Black Friday' in Fairfax, Virginia November 28, 2008.(Larry Downing/Reuters)

I came downtown today to buy something at Macy's. Today is "Black Friday," the big post-Thanksgiving sale day that marks the start of the Christmas retail buying season. DC right now is a ghost town. The streets are empty. Going into places like Macy's or Urban Outfitters was pretty sedate. No big crowds. No near riots...

This is despite various buy local campaigns and even the gimmick of getting WMATA to open up the subway system at 4 am so that shoppers can get to shopping centers in time for insane deals.

All the gimmicks in the world don't matter much if you don't have things to sell.

The Reilly Law is mathematical but can be summarized pretty simply:

with transportation costs being roughly equal, people choose to shop at the place with more (choice) and better stores.

Elsewhere I have argued that the idea of more choice and better stores is expansive and includes issues concerning security, cleanliness, and comfort. (See "The "soft side" of commercial district competition".)

But in any case, the best thing to do is to focus on creating a great, interesting retail environment, with interesting stores. If you try to offer up a few big boxes (Home Depot, Target, Best Buy) spread around the city (Brentwood, Columbia Heights, Tenleytown respectively, although Best Buy is in both of the latter places), strip big box centers like Potomac Yards in Alexandria will win most times, except for those of us reliant on public transportation.

Let's put our resources into developing an unparalleled retail environment of independent shops, complemented selectively with certain types of retail chain stores.
Loading up at Toys R Us
Shoppers load their items purchased at Toys R Us during "Black Friday" in Garden City, New York November 28, 2008. Stores across the United States hope to ring in billions of dollars in holiday sales beginning on Friday, but shoppers concerned about a shrinking economy have vowed to rein in their spending. Most U.S. stores start major sales on "Black Friday", the day after Thanksgiving.REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton (UNITED STATES)


Another way to think of this is in terms of competitive advantages. It's very difficult for traditional urban commercial districts to be able to compete on price (discount). So the stores need to focus on specialty items and advantages based on unique product lines, customer service, and other benefits. Cf this AP story about NYC, "Unique stores, Christmas markets in NYC."

And don't forget the Downtown Holiday Market, which starts next week.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Lanier Sign

Lanier Sign
Originally uploaded by DC Metrocentric
For about 4 or 5 years, I have been arguing that to create a historic district, you have to use the processes and structure of a campaign, and can't fall back on sentiment that the buildings are beautiful. (It still hasn't sunk in, or at the least, people are militantly--for the most part--ignoring my suggestions-advice.)

The sign here flips around the argument that I use, it's our neighborhood "and therefore how individuals do things contributes to or diminishes from the neighborhood, and that's a strong justification for preservation protections via regulation.

Instead their argument is "it's our neighborhood" and we should be allowed to f*** it up however we want. Really they should be saying "It's my property, f*** you, I can do whatever I want."

I didn't write a response to Mike Silverman's recent op-ed in the Current because I had already submitted an op-ed to them that they didn't run.

But one of the points he made was so misleading. He said it was tradition to have people opt-in to the creation of historic districts.

This is not true. It is true that in the past decade or so, the National Register of Historic Places has changed their procedures so that property owners can opt out of being listed. (This means that they aren't eligible for historic preservation tax credits if a commercial building, and I suppose untrammeled threat of demolition by the federal government for a public use.)

But whatever the National Register does is irrelevant to how a municipality structures its own regulations about historic preservation.

Something that seems to be forgotten is that preservation regulations usually result from demolitions of important properties by people who don't care. Creating preservation protections that require at a minimum, review procedures before demolition can occur, generally happen as a result of demolition.

We all have stories and experiences of our own about bad landlords and property owners. Why give them a pass and allow them to avoid being concerned about how their decisions impact the whole?

Because I had a project report due that day (which took me all day to finish) I was not able to attend the hearing that was supposed to happen on 11/21 to institute dragonian requirements on historic preservation regulations, initiated by Councilmember Mary Cheh.

The ironic thing, especially because of separate legislation pending to give religious institutions an exemption from local preservation laws, is that these efforts really seem to me to evince little knowledge about why the local law was passed.

Federal laws on preservation only impact how the federal government may impact local preservation resources. It provides for no protections against local efforts, s***** property owners, etc.

In the early 1970s, a number of "National Register" historic districts were created in DC, including Capitol Hill.
Mary's Blue Room, Capitol Hill
Mary's Blue Room, 500 E. Capitol Street NE, demolished by the Capitol Hill Baptist Church in the mid-1970s.

After the creation of the historic district on Capitol Hill, Capitol Hill Baptist Church, which has expanded to take up most of the block between 5th, 6th, A, and East Capitol Streets NE, bought the buildings on the corner of 5th and East Capitol. (HABS photo.)

They said it cost too much to maintain the buildings and they wanted a parking lot for their parishioners. So they tore the buildings down.

Neighborhood preservationists were shocked that they had no tools, no means of input into this decision involving the city's building regulations. That being a federally-designated historic district had no impact when it came to local matters.

From this loss came the development and passage of the local DC historic preservation law in 1978. (It became effective in 1979.)

There is a reason that the law provides for the ability for historic preservation and planning citizen and neighborhood organizations to submit landmark nominations for buildings they don't own. There is a reason that it doesn't provide for opt-out provisions.

Because there was plenty of evidence that many building owners, left to their own devices, will make decisions that diminish the whole, that negatively impact others.

Cleveland has a commercial district zoning overlay called a "business revitalization district" that provides for design and demolition review in areas where the city is investing money and other resources into improvement.

The point of the overlay is that if some building owners make bad decisions, it puts the private and public investments by other actors at risk.

The idea of historic preservation regulations in a center city is to manage the risk presented to property owners by ill-considered decisionmaking by others. In fact, this is the basis of the creation of zoning regulations in the United States.

And eliminating inclusion of churches in terms of the local law takes us back to the 1970s, ignoring a goodly part of the reason the local law was created in the first place.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Barack Obama: America’s First Urban President

is the title of a blog post in the Wall Street Journal's Opinion Journal.

Also see this 2007 article from the Chicago Sun-Times, "Mr. Obama's neighborhood: Michelle Obama's field guide to can't-miss places in Hyde Park" and this from the Los Angeles Times, "In Obama's Chicago footsteps."

Of course, being urban is more than having a thriving neighborhood commercial district...

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Dancing with the one that brung ya and challenging the dominant narrative

Last week, I was at the Hirshorn Museum, and a book in the gift shop, Grasping the World: The Idea of the Museum, caught my attention. Since being introduced to the idea of the cultural landscape as an organizing methodology for explaining and interpreting places (the "cultural landscape" is how one organizes the development and presentation of "heritage areas") I have become a lot more willing to think about places and ideas and concepts in terms of cultural studies, something I had been a bit derisive of in the past.

(I happened to attend two trainings at the National Trust for Historic Preservation conference in 2004, one on "Great Tours" which is about historic house and small museums and how to rethink presentation and narrative and the other by the Alliance of National Heritage Areas. Both were excellent. I have written about this in the past... and this entry from a year ago about Brookland covers similar kinds of issues, "Thinking about local history (revised).")
Grashping the World: The Idea of the Museum
To get a taste of some of the literature on the latest thinking in museums check out this set of reviews from this 2007 back issue of reCollections, the Journal of the National Museum of Australia. As well as this paper, also from that journal, "Meeting the challenges of the future: Museums and the public good."

The book is about the changing role of the museum with a European focus, and this review of the book isn't too laudatory, saying:

Instead, [it's] aimed at the increasingly large army of students and cultural critics who wander round museums regarding them as vaguely distasteful manifestations of elite culture and deplore the ostensibly innocent pleasure that they bring to their many millions of visitors. Of the two, my vote goes to the one edited by Donald Preziosi and Claire Farago. This has the great virtue of being clearly and systematically structured and of being part of a larger historical enterprise on the part of both authors to think carefully about the nature of museums as historical and cultural phenomena.

Today's Post includes a critical column by Marc Fisher about the reopened National Museum of American History not being very challenging about interpreting American history. See "Museum's Star-Spangled Makeover Neglects Nitty-Gritty of U.S. History."

I don't disagree with him, but I think it reflects an overly facile understanding of the tightrope that the various units of the Smithsonian Institution walk between being "national" museums financially supported by the Federal Government (in particular Congress) and places of education, scholarship, collection, research, interpretation, and challenge. Those of us interested in social psychology call this a problem of "boundary spanning," having to reconcile often oppositional forces.

The U.S. isn't a country that values criticism or being challenged*. (* Neither do blog writers or journalists.) It doesn't even value intelligence and education very much, if the kind of campaign mounted by presidential hopeful John McCain and especially Sarah Palin, is an indicator. (Also see the very old book--28 years--by Frances FitzGerald America Revised about the telling of American history.)

Right now the Smithsonian faces a great deal of criticism for its financial management and direction (it would take a full blown essay to cover that). The Post has covered that quite a bit, including this recent article, "The Smithsonian Fields The People's Questions" and editorial, "Openings at the Smithsonian: Public meetings -- and a remodeled museum -- are welcome." And Congress has been at the forefront of that. So the Smithsonian Institution and its units are even more scared than usual about challenging the status quo of historiography and interpretation.

Even so, Federal funding of arts and culture has always been difficult when it comes to challenging discourse and "pushing the envelope." I am hardly an expert at the ins and outs of the National Endowment of the Arts and the National Endowment of the Humanities, but I still remember the public outcry over photos by Robert Mapplethorpe being exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in the 1990s. Or Lynne Cheney, who was the chair of the NEH during the Reagan-Bush years and who criticized a college instructor for teaching a course with content that challenged the traditional ways of presenting America as an always great country. But all you need is one Congressman to make it an issue, and then things get even worse. (Remember that many federal and municipal employees work from the perspective of "I don't want to do anything that can end up written about in the A or Metro sections of the Post" thinking that such coverage is usually negative.)
Saluting the flag during the Pledge of Allegiance
Saluting the flag during the Pledge of Allegiance. Original source unknown.

But the Smithsonian has yet another problem. It's a federal agency and it gets focused as a result on bureaucratization and stasis rather than change and intellectual excitement and fervor.(Ironically, "tenure" in academia is supposed to support professors in continuing to take on challenging issues, but at the same time reduction of movement in staff limits an organization's ability to continue to extend itself intellectually.) Granted, you need some distance as trendy trends don't always have staying power, but...

This is interesting because there are other articles out now about some of these same kinds of issues, but in terms of politics, such as "Republicans Seek to Fix Short-Sitedness " from today's Post about a youngster-led challenge to help the Republican party reposition and rethink and other discussions about tribulations faced by the National Review as an intellectual-based organ of conservative thinking.

When you're in power, you aren't likely favorable to being challenged intellectually or programmatically. When you are out of power you can be more willing to listen and rethink (I call this, in the context of urban revitalization, "a desperate willingness to experiment" in communities that have no other choices when I compare cities like Pittsburgh and Baltimore to DC in terms of arts and culture as a revitalization strategy) But you still don't like it.
McCain-Sarah Palin rally at Franklin & Marshall College
CHRIS A. COUROGEN, The Patriot-News. The line for this afternoon's John McCain-Sarah Palin rally at Franklin & Marshall College's Alumni Sports and Fitness Center Field House stretches around the building. See "Thousands greet McCain, Palin in Lancaster" from the Harrisburg Patriot-News.

But in any case, those "Real Americans" as outlined by Sarah Palin or the "Real Virginians" that George Allen laments aren't up for hearing about or looking at an exhibit at a museum about how the U.S. Constitution sanctioned slavery, how the post-Civil War South was virulently racist and the Federal Government let it slide, about the CIA operating in and overthrowing nations such as Iran or in Central America or Chile and how it has impacted how other countries and peoples consider the role of the U.S. in the world, even Cuba.

Especially at one of the "National" Museums of the United States, at the Smithsonian.

Imagine if the National Museum of American History used "Empire as a Way of Life" (the title of a book by William Appleman Williams) as the interpretive framework for exhibits on U.S. foreign policy and the creation of a continental United States. Can you say "fire the curator"?

Remember the hullaballoo about a slightly critical interpretive label for the Enola Gay at the National Air and Space Museum?

Or even the critical reviews of the National Museum of the American Indian when it first opened, because people had a hard time grappling with a Native American-centric interpretation framework. I too was critical before I went to the Museum for the first time, but seeing the displays and exhibits, I understood--from a cultural studies standpoint--what they are trying to do.

DC is a tough city to do criticism in. If you want critical discourse in museums and exhibits, for the most part, you have to go elsewhere.

Another place that has a hard time with modernizing cultural interpretational frameworks is the South. For example the issue of the Confederate flag as a "cultural artifact." The Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond is failing, for obvious reasons. It was founded with a framework of reverence about the Confederate cause. Now it's 140 years later and times have (and continue to) changed. So does or so should how cultural institutions interpret history and present exhibits.

Similarly, earlier in the year we went for a weekend to Petersburg, Virginia, which has probably never really recovered from its siege by Union forces in 1864 and 1865. The city has a Department of Museums which manages a number of landmarks (for the most part they are underfunded) but I was really struck by the lack of modernization of the interpretational framework at least in terms of how the docents presented (not necessarily the set of new interpretational signs downtown). In short, not too much criticism of the Confederates, and a failure to interpret the Civil War in terms of the creation of a national industrially based economy, Eli Whitney's cotton gin notwithstanding.
section of the Petersburg's Old Towne panel adjacent to the Tourism-History Narrative Kiosk, Downtown Petersburg, VA
A section of the Petersburg's Old Towne panel adjacent to the Tourism-History Narrative Kiosk, Downtown Petersburg, VA.

I just can't imagine a conference in DC on boundary spanning, cultural studies, and modernizing our historical interpretative frameworks anytime soon.

But a good example of how this has been done is in the updating of the interpretation of the Founding of Jamestown in terms of reinterpreting the narrative by telling the story of three different peoples separately and simultaneously: the English colonists; the Native Americans; and African-Americans brought to Virginia as slaves. This is done at the Jamestown Museum, which is run by the State of Virginia (and isn't located at the Jamestown Settlement site, which is run by the National Park Service. The same framework was employed by the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 2007, by having Kent, England, Native American, and Ghanian cultures presented at the Festival. (Similarly, the region has updated its narrative as well--Jamestown as the founding of the United States, Williamsburg as the place for developing a state and nation, and Yorktown as the location of the decisive battle of the Revolutionary War, leading to the founding of the United States as a nation separate from England.)

But while I think there needs to be a true "Vision Plan" for the Smithsonian Institution, not merely an updated "strategic plan" I don't see this happening. The various museums are pretty hidebound (Marc Fisher's point in a nutshell) and resistant to change.

They already believe that they are world class institutions--maybe they are maybe they aren't--but they aren't too interested in having to reflect and challenge themselves internally, judging by the negative reaction of the Smithsonian art museums to external review a couple years ago(reported in great depth within the Post), which led, ultimately, to the dissolution of the Office of the Undersecretary of Art, overseeing and coordinating the Smithsonian art museums, and the merging of that responsibility into the Undersecretary overseeing the history mueums.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

About "iconic" architecture and connecting (a/k/a placemaking)

If you build something and it is closed off from the area around it, or it's an object of art-building as scultpture, but not context sensitive, it's more about creating enclaves (think something like a gated communicated disconnected and afraid of the world beyond its walls) and not about revitalization.

For example see "The breakdown of Boomtown" from the Baltimore Sun about the failure of a commercial district abutting Fort Meade--the district has declined as the military base has increased its level of security making it less convenient to go in and out, "Ensure UB building is part of city's life" a letter to the editor also from the Sun, about a new building at the University of Baltimore ("A bright new face for UB law school").

"When Buildings Try Too Hard" by Witold Rybczynski in the Wall Street Journal, also covers this broad issue. The article, subtitled "architects and developers are focused on erecting icons. Why most fall short" looks at how "iconic"buildings don't, for the most part, connect, and as a result they don't accomplish very much in the long term. The last two paragraphs of the story summarize the argument pretty well:

Another example of a building that responds to its setting is Toronto's new opera house, the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, designed by Diamond & Schmitt Architects. The traditional horseshoe-shaped auditorium is situated within an unprepossessing blue-black brick box whose chief feature is a glazed lobby facing one of the city's main streets, University Avenue; dramatic, but hardly iconic. "It's easy to do an iconic building," says Jack Diamond, "because it's only solving one issue." The Four Seasons Centre addresses several issues: On the exterior, the building responds to a busy downtown site with transparency and openness; on the interior, it creates a multi-use lobby that includes an informal performance space and a remarkable all-glass stair; and in the 2,000-seat hall, it provides intimacy, excellent sight lines and exemplary acoustics. At $150 million, the cost of the Four Seasons Centre is relatively modest as opera houses go, but more important is how the money was spent -- on the hall and the interiors rather than on exterior architectural effects. There is something very Canadian about this hard-headed reticence.

Buildings such as the Taft dormitory, the Williams College arts complex and the Toronto opera house seek to fit in rather than stand out, and to enhance rather than overwhelm their surroundings. While hardly shy, they don't stand there shouting, "Look at me!" Being in it for the long haul, they approach fashion gingerly, leaning to the conservative and well-tried rather than the experimental. They are handsome, beautiful even, but they don't strive to knock your socks off. Anti-icons, you might call them. Or just good architecture.

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Free bus passes for new homeowners

in Albany, according to the article from the Business Review. From the article:

Buy a home, get free rides on the bus. That’s the deal being offered by the Affordable Housing Partnership of the Capital Region in Albany, N.Y., and the Capital District Transportation Association.

Beginning this month, people who buy a home using any of AHP’s homeownership assistance programs will receive two free bus passes for up to two years, provided the house is within a half-mile of a CDTA bus route. Each household will be eligible to receive two free monthly CDTA bus passes good for every day of the week. The program is designed to reduce fuel consumption, air pollution and demand for parking by promoting mass transit options.

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Places can be compared, but there are always differences

Even so, as I say, all places are unique, but rarely are their circumstances so special that communities cannot be compared.
But I forgot to write while there are always differences, that doesn't make the comparisons invalid, nor does it mean that you can't make inferences.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune is running a series on what my friend Drew Ronneberg (chair of the ANC6A Economic Development and Zoning Committee) calls "planning for contraction." Such planning typifies what the rustbelt should be doing. Youngstown, Ohio pioneered this with the Youngstown 2010 project. For a time, although the Mayor who initiated it was not re-elected, so did Niagara Falls, New York, which is much less successful compared to Niagara Falls, Ontario, but more like most cities--declining--in upstate New York. (There is also the European Shrinking Cities project.)

See "It's time for New Orleans to admit it's a shrinking city, some say" and "Faded Midwestern cities offer ways New Orleans could slim down to match its smaller population"
It's time for New Orleans to admit it's a shrinking city, some say
DAVID GRUNFELD / THE TIMES-PICAYUNE. A rebuilt home sits like an island among empty lots on Warrington Drive in Gentilly. The city's gap-toothed recovery raises questions about where New Olreans should invest its increasingly limited resources.

The Dallas Morning News has an interesting article, "DeSoto, Duncanville become involved in 'new urbanism'," about how smaller places with "no there there" are building town centers. In our area, Rockville has done this recently and it is finally successful after a previous unsuccessful iteration and of course, you can argue the same for Silver Spring--there was there there, but it was tarnished, so they went about purposefully revitalizing the community. Maybe they didn't do it the way I would have, but they did it, and Downtown Silver Spring is fundamentally a different place today than it was 10 years ago--in a good way, basically.

I find this interesting because parts of DC are growing and have the potential to add population, but this faces what one might call "nimbyism"--not in my backyard attitudes. Some of this is at times justifiable, but at other times I would argue that it fails to recognize the temporal aspects of city-building and that DC cannot remain static while other communities within the region grow, change, innovate, improve... or decline.

DC is not necessarily a declining city anymore. But many neighborhoods are acting in ways that likely will make it a declining city in relative terms. As Marc Brookman says in an interview, "He zones in on 'smart growth'" in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Q: What are the usual areas of concern about these [mixed use, denser] developments?

A: Increasing density, allowing for the mixture of uses within the same site, and the perception that as a result of increased intensity of the use of the land that it will create adverse impacts.

Q: What does the alliance say in response? Why should municipalities consider this type of development?

A: Because it maximizes the investment in existing infrastructure, reduces the amount of environmental degradation that otherwise would occur if more land was disturbed to accommodate the same amount of people, and it creates a sense of place where individuals can live, work and shop without making long trips in automobiles. And it's a much more efficient use of the land than individual large-lot communities.
New Orleans Times-Picayune graphic.

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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Nuance in retail development

When I first started working in commercial district revitalization as a committed active resident, I have to admit, I was pretty green and in fact, I still learn every day. Back then, I was all about independently owned stores, now, I understand and appreciate the value of selective inclusion of specific types of nationally known chain stores into comprehensive plans for the revitalization of traditional (neighborhood and downtown) commercial districts.

My criticism of DC's focus on the attraction primarily of retail chain stores over the past 10 years or so was over the fact that it hasn't been all that nuanced and there hasn't been a lot of support simultaneously for independent stores, despite all the talk, even the creation of the Main Streets program, and all the blather from Councilmember Kwame Brown.

And in fact, this is the area where my own consulting activities are moving towards, the creation of specific and focused retail entrepreneurship development programs for traditional commercial districts.

But in doing the assessment reports for commercial districts, to set the stage for the entrepreneurship development programs, it's not uncommon for us to recommend the development of retail attraction programs for specific chain stores in specific niches, as part of the overall retail development strategy, to strengthen certain destination qualities.

Why chains?

1. National brands serve as anchors, have national advertising programs (which can include catalog, other direct mail, and Internet operations) which both drive customers to a commercial district and provide a kind of sanction/positive imprimatur for your commercial district.

2. People need choice and depth in retail to support their choosing one retail district over another.

The Reilly Law of Retail Gravitation is a mathematical formula about this, but it can be summarized pretty simply: transportation costs being equal, people choose to shop in the place with more and better stores.

This entry is in response to the Washington Business Journal story "On U Street, a national chain creates a firestorm," which discusses opposition to the opening of a Room & Board furniture store in the 14th and U Street area.

I think attracting such a brand to that area is a good thing, although there are some negative potential impacts on rents, etc., but it does help anchor a commercial district, and that area needs more anchors to generate more frequent shopper visits. (Disclosure: there is a commercial district where I specifically mentioned Room & Board as an ideal target for their retail attraction program, to complement a parallel program on developing independent businesses.)

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Saturday, November 22, 2008

New York City's Growth Machine... and term limits

There is a great piece in the Village Voice this week, "The Transformation of Mike Bloomberg: How the benevolent billionaire with no political debts ended up owning us all" about Michael Bloomberg's campaign to overturn term limits so he can run for a third term for Mayor. Granted he's quite good, but the web of ties he has, enabled by his huge fortune, his philanthropy, and as Mayor, his ability to reward unions and developers, demonstrates the Growth Machine thesis, or crony capitalism, at its most intricate levels.
Michael Bloomberg
Image from the Village Voice by Alvaro Diaz-Rubio.

Clearly, the campaign to replace John Dingell as the chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee shows us the limits of experience. Between Mr. Dingell and his father, they have held the same seat in Congress for 75 years. I think that we do need term limits for political office, especially in Congress, and in local elections, probably 12 years or so. I mean, other than someone like Mayor Joseph Riley of Charleston, South Carolina who is probably the exception that proves the rule (maybe Richard Daley, but he has some issues), doesn't the track record of these various politicians demonstrate the need for regular change?

Yes, yes, limited terms does make it easier for the lobbying cohort. At the same time, being less beholden to lobbyists by not needing big money to campaign election and election, and focusing on what ought to be done rather than what benefits the handlers could help to limit this likely problem.

Did you see the Post article yesterday, "Senior Moment"? From the article:

After his conviction last month, Stevens's electoral defeat became official on Tuesday, his 85th birthday. By the time he finished, even a few of the Democratic lawmakers and staffers were dabbing their eyes.

Few will shed tears for the irritable Stevens himself. Nor are they likely to lament the end of his politics of greedily funneling federal money to his home state. But the scene had poignancy for another reason: As the old men on both sides of the aisle rose to bid adieu to Stevens, they seemed also to be saying farewell to their era, a time when the Senate was, for better or worse, a gentlemen's club.

"We all make mistakes," Sen. Robert Byrd, celebrating his 91st birthday, said from his wheelchair. " ... In a soft voice, Sen. Daniel Inouye, 84, a Hawaii Democrat whom Stevens called "my brother" ...

I am not trying to sound agist but read the rest of the article. Considering where we are politically, clearly the multiple decades that many politicians spend in office isn't helping...

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Friday, November 21, 2008

They should sell SmartCards for transit at Post Offices

See "CVS May Soon Sell SmarTrip Cards" from the Post.
Streetcar stamps

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Thursday, November 20, 2008


There are lots of things I'd like to write about, but I have to finish a planning study second draft for a consulting job... Maybe I'll catch up over the weekend.


Disagreements within the Growth Machine...

The Growth Machine thesis from urban sociology posits that despite seeming differences, at the heart, the local political-economic elite is united around a growth (real estate development) agenda focused on intensification of land use and increases in property values. See "Neil Albert keeps the RFPs coming, but can he deliver" from the Washington Business Journal to understand the pro-development focus of the Fenty Administration.

In DC, the Federal City Council is the primary actor "governing coalition" (using the term not from Growth Machine theory but the political science theory of the Urban Regime, which I think is a bit better at explaining how the local political-economic elite functions and governs) along with the Greater Washington Board of Trade and the DC Chamber of Commerce. The FCC includes all the universities and other players, and the big developers. It was co-founded by the then publisher of the Washington Post (local media is absolutely dependent on local development for continued success).

John Hill is the current executive director of the Federal City Council. (He was the director of the Financial Control Board during that economic bad time of the city's bankruptcy in the 1990s.) Recently, he was removed by the current regime (Fenty Administration) from the board of the DC Children and Youth Investment Trust. See "Appointments Spark Hearings " from the Washington Post. I "wondered" what that was about, maybe just an element of "meet the new boss, same as the old boss" as Mayor Fenty opens up these kinds of slots to younger-new but still connected people.

The Tenley Library-Janney School redevelopment issue is a debacle. Recently, the Mayor announced a joint development agreement for the site. The community and certain Councilmembers did not agree as written in the DC Wire Washington Post blog, "Kwame Brown and Cheh Team Up For Tenley."

Now the Library System, where John Hill is still the chairman of the board, has announced plans to go ahead with a rebuilding of the library independent of the joint development agreement.

Granted, this is an instance where most every actor acting is wrong, especially the Library System where I think most of the board members should be removed, probably the director too, because they aren't interested in making libraries work better for communities and the 21st century as much as they think they are (even with the recent hiring of David Adjaye, architect of the paradigm breaking Idea Stores in the Tower Hamlet borough of London, see "An Architect For the Books" from the Washington Post).
Idea Store Whitechapel
Hip Idea Store library branch in Whitechapel.

I wonder what this says about the success of the governing coalition of the Growth Machine and its organizing agenda (another UR term).

From the DC Library Renaissance Project:

Library Board Ignores Mayor on Tenley Library, Directs Chief Librarian to Proceed with Construction

Washington DC -- November 19, 2008 – President of the Board of Library Trustees John Hill tonight revealed that his board has instructed Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper to proceed with construction documents for a standalone library at Tenley. This comes in spite of Mayor Adrian Fenty’s selection earlier this summer of developer LCOR to incorporate the library into a mixed use project there.

The Mayor’s project involves the joint development of a library, Janney Elementary School, 170 units of housing and retail, as well as underground parking. A preliminary plan ignited neighborhood opposition when it was first floated several years ago. Since then, opposition has grown.

Ward 3 Council member Mary Cheh, who had initially sought the mayor’s support for the public private partnership to build the library as part of the mixed use project, recently reversed her position. Last month Cheh made public a letter to the Mayor urging him to drop the partnership and support DCPL’s standalone library.

The surprise announcement to ignore the Mayor’s plan came at a bi-monthly meeting of the Trustees at the Lamond Riggs Library on South Dakota Avenue NE serving Wards Four and Five. When one disbelieving Tenley resident asked if Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Neil Albert had been told, Hill responded that it was “not necessary. We are an independent board and can move forward.”

Since hiring Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper two and a half years ago, the Trustees maintained that they would begin construction this fall on the Tenley library and three others. They laid out what they termed a “dual track” strategy, which included working with the neighborhood to plan a standalone library while remaining open to explore the possibilities of the public private partnership. Numerous meetings with development partner LCOR have not yielded a satisfactory plan for the library in the mixed use project.

Members of the Tenley community in attendance thanked the Trustees for keeping their promise to move quickly to rebuild the Tenley library. Trustee Bonnie Cohen deferred all credit for the decision to the leadership of John Hill.

Note that I am in favor of mixed use redevelopment of civic sites, although mixed use doesn't have to mean public and private, it can mean mixed agency use too.

I don't know enough about the parameters of the Tenley-Janney site to know which way I should come down. HOWEVER, just as I would likely get rid of Michelle Rhee and hire someone like Andres Alonso, superintendent in Baltimore, or Anthony Alvarado (see Making Schools Work with Hedrick Smith . District-Wide Reform) or Kathleen Cashin (see "Bucking School Reform, a Leader Gets Results," from the New York Times), I WOULD FIRE THE LIBRARY BOARD OF TRUSTEES AND THE DIRECTOR AND RESTART THE LIBRARY PLANNING PROCESS, WHICH BEFORE WAS NEVER ADEQUATELY VETTED.

Speaking of having a Planning Commission in the City. If a Planning Commission only has purview over the Office of Planning and not the planning activities of the other agencies, especially the Department of Transportation, the Public Libraries, the Schools, the Department of Parks and Recreation, the Fire and Emergency Services Department, and health and wellness planning, even Public Works, THEN IT IS ALMOST WORTHLESS.

The debacle within the Public Library system, not to mention the Public School system, is a case in point.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Same old, same old #2: whining over speeding tickets

Since when if you commit a crime and get charged, once you are charged you are empowered to immediately commit the same crime without penalty?

And why is it worth spending precious word space on such in the Washington Post, see "Two Tickets to Paradox: A Morning Ride Ends in Double Citations."

Yeah, yeah, the guy didn't know about the first ticket. So what, breaking the law is breaking the law. There is a lot more important stuff to write about.

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Same old, same old

Did you ever read "News of the Weird" when they would have a rolling mention of "stories for which coverage is being 'discontinued' because they occur with altogether too much frequency?

That's how I feel about the "annual" story that seems to run in the Post every year about area pedestrian-driving safety programs. The 2008 version ran today, "Heads Up for Drivers, Pedestrians: 'Street Smart' Program Includes Education, Enforcement," and I hate to say that I didn't even read the article. It's the same thing year after year, in fact after I saw the headline, I thought it would be interesting to go through the Post and find the same article from each of the previous 5 or 6 years and compare and contrast.

-- 4/2008, "A New Push for Pedestrian Safety"
-- MWCOG Street Smart program

Yes, bicyclists and walkers need to pay more attention.

But the problem I see is that drivers have such a sense of entitlement about the roads that it isn't about courtesy. Even if commentators try to turn it around on walkers and bicyclists (such as the radio commentary by Chris Core, covered by Washcycle here, "Chris Core on "The Growing Phenomenon of Bicycle Road Rage"" and "Chris Core's follow up").

And we need some roads rebuilt as demonstration projects to favor walkers and bicyclists, to show another way.

It's time to change the paradigm.

Road Witch (UK)
Road Witch project. UK.

It's like an example I give sometimes. If you have a five drawer clothes dresser and you move your underwear from the 2nd drawer to the top drawer, and your socks from the top drawer to the 2nd drawer, have you really changed anything?

• Let's rebuild 7th Street SE by Eastern Market with belgian block (Oh no we can't because that means that the roadbed would have to be reconstructed) and around Lincoln Park--take out the speed bumps and tables and put in Belgian block.
Monument Avenue, Richmond
Belgian block paved road, Monument Avenue, Richmond.

• Let's set up bicycling and walking programs at the schools.

• Let's set up bicycling stations in the key commercial districts (parking, showers, etc.) at the least Downtown (could do it at the YWCA), Georgetown and the Golden Triangle (could do it at the YMCA), and Silver Spring.

• Let's put in a cycle track in a highly visible location, where it will be used. Why not do this as a memorial to Alice Swanson and the other bicyclists, who have been killed in bicycle-automobile accidents?
Bicycle lane, Copenhagen
Bicycle track, Copenhagen. Photo from Streetsblog.

• Some painted bicycle boxes?
Bike box for bicyclists on the road in Portland
New York Times graphic.

• having WMATA (the public transit authority for the region) appoint a bicycling and pedestrian enhancement coordinator to point out areas where WMATA can better facilitate walking and bicycling as part of trip behavior?

The annual campaign by the MWCOG is just moving the socks around, when the automobility paradigm reigns unchanged.

This report from the UK, Living Spaces: Cleaner, Safer, Greener, had a lot of influence on my thinking about these issues when I first read it maybe 4-5 years ago.
Port-a-park: A temporary park was set up in a parking space on Mission Street by Rebar, an art collective.
2006. The group Rebar declared Sept. 21 "Park(ing) Day" and installed this temporary park in a parking space on Mission St. in downtown San Francisco, CA. The group moved the park to several different parking spaces throughout the day. Port-a-park: A temporary park was set up in a parking space on Mission Street by Rebar, an art collective. The park was moved several times that day. Chronicle photo by Laura Morton

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Revised: (Not) Chortling over the auto industry's troubles

Creeps & weirdos GM ad against transit
Anti-transit, pro-car cooperative automobile dealership ad from Canada.


The revision clarifies some points, and renames the North American operations of General Motors as Saturn Corporation, and gives the company to the UAW. Before I had suggested this was an option. Now I think that's what should happen.

I am not going to do that because I am from Michigan, and am a beneficiary of a once healthy auto industry and the monies it paid (in taxes) that supported the state universities in Michigan, one of which I was fortunate enough to attend on in-state tuition.

I wrote this on a new urban list, in response to a "what goes around, comes around post" focusing on GM and killing streetcars...

I am not a defender of the auto companies, even though I hail from Michigan. Still, I expect better argumentation from pro-urbanists/new urbanists. And university professors who suggest that a failing company like GM be responsible for rebuilding something very important like a mass public transit infrastructure.... as in "Have You Driven a Bus or a Train Lately?" from the New York Times.

1. GM contributed to the decline of streetcars
2. However, the systems had already been declining because of changes in mobility patterns, suburbanization and outmigration trends, and the Depression.
3. GM (and Ford and Chrysler's) failures have to do with not being able to change their business model to reflect new realities
4. Combined with legacy wage rates and labor agreements that were created at the time when the U.S. companies controlled much of the U.S. car market and a good portion of the worldwide market (except for Japan) and as a result are very high cost.
5. Plus the health care issue. The legacy companies pay pensions and health care costs (although this is changing) at much different rates compared to their competitors (because they have 100 years of business history in the U.S., and legacy employees).

As a business model, this worked when they had a significantly extranormal portion of the U.S. and global market for cars.

It doesn't work in a market which is vastly more competitive. Not to mention the gas guzzler issue, but that is a function of 3, 4 and 5 as well, because GM, Ford and Chrysler have a high cost production system, making smaller cars unprofitable. That's why they focused on selling big cars and trucks.

I would hope that any new urbanist would promote a more nuanced understanding of these issues.

Sadly, I was forever influenced by reading the book On A Clear Day You Can See General Motors by John DeLorean. I read it in 1980 or 1981. He forecasted all the problems as well as some solutions, back then. Although now it is 27 years later.
John Delorean
John Delorean, AP photo.

For a blog entry on DeLorean, read this: John DeLorean, R.I.P (Rocking Revitalization Part II)

Anyway, were I the czar of GM, I would slim down to three divisions: Chevy, Saturn (combining Pontiac and Buick), and Cadillac + trucks. I would go into bankruptcy to change the labor and pension agreements, slim down the dealership structure--the legacy companies have about 5x the number of dealerships compared to the foreign companies operating in the U.S.

I'd split into two companies and give the North American operations, renamed the Saturn Corporation, to the UAW for free in return for the UAW assuming pension and health obligations, and I'd slink off to Stuttgart and China and run the rest of the company--everything but the U.S. and Canada--from there. It would be an interesting business challenge for the UAW. I don't see how you can lay people off and pay them 95% of their salary to do nothing...

I would rename the North American corporation to Saturn Motors Corporation or Saturn Corporation (you know, like when International Harvester renamed itself Navistar Corporation). The international company could still be called GM.
Saturn Rethink ad
(The Wall Street Journal had a big feature on this issue too, in the Saturday paper, but I didn't read anything in it that made me want to clip the piece.)

Chrysler to save jobs, could merge with Nissan-Renault...

And this is interesting, speaking of rust belt revitalization, see "Technology belt plans grow" from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.


Walkable-urbanism license plates as an idea

"Share the Road" license plate, Colorado
The State of Colorado has issued a "share the road" message license plate, according to this piece from the national Examiner website, "Great gift idea - “Share the Road” license plate for your favorite cyclist." Of course, if you don't own a car, it's not a good gift. But communicating the sentiment is important nonetheless.

-- Bicycle Colorado Share the Road license plate FAQ

The additional fee for the "vanity message" is $25. 100% of the fees go to bicycle education programs.

Georgia has this too.
Georgia Share the Road license plate

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A rough urban design report card based on Jane Jacobs

Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, book cover
was produced by Noticing New York, in this blog entry "JANE JACOBS ATLANTIC YARDS REPORT CARD ." It has 47 points, based upon JJ's four foundations of successful cities:

1. Mixed use;
2. Density;
3. Small and connected blocks;
4. Mixed stock of buildings (especially old, paid off, buildings) able to support a variety of uses and innovation.

Another tool for the evaluation of development proposals comes from the Design Advocacy Group of Philadelphia and their Urban Design Evaluation guidelines.

Needless to say, the superproject of Atlantic Yards doesn't come out well in NNY's evaluation...


Idiotic liberal thinking: why would you want GM to build transit systems?

Saturn Rethink ad
Harry Wasserman, writing in Common Dreams, in "GM Must Re-Make the Mass Transit System it Murdered," states that as a kind of reparations for the pro-bus streetcar wrecking agenda that GM executed in the 1920s and 1930s that GM should have to rebuild that system.

My response:

dumb. The people who run GM aren't the ones you want to have rebuild intra-regional transit. GM made buses. They never constructed streetcars or other light rail vehicles, although they did make locomotives for trains. They need to slink off to Stuttgart and China and run GM International... be happy with that.

Also see for example, The Innovator's Dilemma, which isn't completely relevant. And even Ted Levitt's discussion of "GM isn't a car company, it's a transportation company" in the book Marketing Imagination.

GM was a transportation company focused on cars, which was its most profitable division. They aren't transit people. They aren't train people. They are mass production manufacturing people who aren't good at transformation.

If you think of GM in transit, think instead of the Acela train (too big, not fast enough) not French TGV style trains, German maglev, or Alstom futuristic light rail. (Although the old EMD streamlined locomotive engines, paired with Budd streamlined passenger railroad cars were quite beautiful.)
A bullet train pulls in at a railway station in Shanghai
A bullet train pulls in at a railway station in Shanghai January 28, 2007. The new CRH (China Railway High-speed) bullet train, which has a top speed of 250 kph (155 mph), would cut the journey time on the key Beijing-Shanghai route from nine hours to five, Xinhua News Agency said. REUTERS/Aly Song (CHINA)

Paris light rail
A car of the new Paris tramway is seen at Porte de Versailles, South of Paris, shortly after its inauguration in Paris, Saturday Dec. 16, 2006. The tram will transport some 100,000 travelers a day to and from the southwest area of Paris. (AP Photo/Remy de la Mauviniere)

Think bigger.

Hell, bring back General Electric's streetcar manufacturing division... I'm sure the people in upstate New York (like Schenectady) would be happy with that.
General Electric Streetcar ad


Sunday, November 16, 2008

Tysons tunnel supporters keep up hope

according to the story in the Washington Business Journal.

Mobility and travel

From the AP travel story, "Live large on small sums in Frankfurt."

A world financial center packed with investment bankers sounds like a tough place to do on a budget, but even the Manhattan of continental Europe has secrets aplenty for the thrifty.
From beautiful outside gardens to sizzling sausages, many of the city's pleasures are actually the cheapest.

GETTING AROUND: Frankfurt is so compact that walking is the best way to see it, but for 1.90 euros ($2.40) you can use the U-Bahn in the city center (4.60 euros or $5.90 for a day pass). For 6 euros ($7.65), tour the city on the "Ebbelwei Express," an old streetcar named after the drink served free on board, apple wine. If that's not to your liking, there is juice and of course pretzels.
Travel Trip Frankfurt on a Budget
The so called "Ebbelwei-Express," an old street car named after the drink served on board, apple wine, drives along in Frankfurt, central Germany, on Friday, Oct. 31, 2008. A world financial center packed with investment bankers sounds like a tough place to do on a budget, but even the Manhattan of continental Europe has secret aplenty for the thrifty. From beautiful outside gardens to sizzling sausages, many of the city's pleasures are actually the cheapest. (AP Photo/Daniel Roland)

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Walling a parking lot at a 7-11 in Orlando

The next best thing to buildings at the lot line with zero setback from the street... Photo via Rick Bernhardt, Director of the Nashville/Davidson County Planning Department.

Is a bicycle a means to mobility or a fashion statement?

Yes. You can buy a bicycle from the Gap this year.

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Speaking of Jane Jacobs (a four story building in Petworth)

The biggest reason that rents in traditional commercial districts in the city are so high is that the buildings are so small. This is rare building (on 9th Street NW near Kansas Ave.) that is four stories. The highest building on H Street (other than the Self Storage building) was three stories, although most of those buildings were destroyed during the riots. Georgetown has larger buildings, because it was an industrial-warehouse district. But most of the neighborhood commercial districts have minute building stock. Even the old Columbia Heights only had two story buildings for the most part...

That's why I am always shocked to go to middling commercial districts in other cities and see, at least when thinking about DC, comparatively large buildings (and a lot more buildings generally).
East Ohio Street, Pittsburgh
East Ohio Street, Northside Pittsburgh.

Louis the Rogue Show Bar gets fixed up

For years, this bar was a big feature on K Street when there was nothing around, other than transvestite prostitution at night. (I used to work at night in Dupont Circle and I would ride home down K Street afterwards).

I was at the new Safeway at 5th and L NW the other day and I was struck by the impact that the new CityVista mixed use retail and condo/apartment building has had, at least on this place which is across the street, which for the first time in many years is freshly painted.

Plus they uncovered the upper story windows and put in attractive (for beer signage) neon signs. (Disclosure: I was involved in writing some of the architectural descriptions for what became the "Mount Vernon Triangle Historic District" which includes this building.)

Wow, soon enough they might have tables and chairs outside. Although I guess that's doubtful since I believe this place is a topless bar. Still, the "transformation" shows the value of maintenance and continued investment.


Another House across the street from me

The point about blogging this photo is to show what could have happened with the house two doors down had it been taken care of. It would have been a fine, sellable house. And at the end of the day, is the supersizing of the other house worth it in this market, when they could have sold an improved house but have taken 1/4 of the time necessary required by rebuilding.

Gables Takoma Park apartments promotion at the Green Festival

Talk about selling the value of proximity to the subway! They had an open house the other night (great food) and even though the building backs onto the train tracks, I didn't think it was loud at alll. Barely perceptible, unless you had the windows open.

Moving from treating all forms of transportation as equal to "clean commuting"

which is being promoted by "transportation management associations" in the City of Toronto has introduced such a plan according to the article "A cleaner way to work: City launches clean commute plan" from the Toronto Star. This is an extension of the point of reducing single occupancy vehicle trips that is the heart of the Arlington County Master Transportation Plan.

(TMAs are what I call "transportation management districts" in various writings. Arlington is basically a big TMA. There is one for the Potomac Yards development in Alexandria. And Montgomery County has TMDs in four places in the County including Silver Spring and Friendship Heights--the latter has a little bit of cross-border [DC and Maryland] cooperation.)

The Toronto Star has three maps of commuter behavior statistics for the City of Toronto. If you click on the various districts, you can get pie chart statistics on the travel behavior for that particular area.

Map 1: Drivers

Map 2: Transit

Map 3: Walking and cycling

Mobility statistics, Toronto

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About paying students in DC middle schools

Gina writes (from the concerned4dcps elist):

My 7th grade son attends Stuart Hobson MS, which is participating in the Capital Gains program. Even though we had serious concerns about this program, we decided to let him participate. All of his money will go into a savings account for college and he can also donate a portion of the money to a charity of his choosing. We've now received a few checks (each between $70 and $90), and it's pretty unorganized.

I actually don't know how this can actually be used as a legitimate research study. For example, even though we do not have a uniform, the kids are still graded on uniform. For the last check no 7th grade kids were given money for grades, only uniform, attendance and behavior were counted.

Then the other night we got a robo call informing us that since the Stuart Hobson kids are getting the highest checks in the city, the "Capital Gains team" decided that they had set the standards too low for Stuart kids and starting with this next check, they would have a different, higher, standard to meet.

We weren't told what the new rubric would be, and actually, we've never known what the old one was, beyond the general, As get more points that Bs and Cs. My son told me that they were told in class that Stuart doesn't have as many discipline issues and the kids are "too smart" and that they were getting too much in their checks and so they had to change it.

What this is teaching my child is that you can work hard, dress nicely, and behave well and it's not enough-and if you are too good or too smart, you will be penalized. It's pretty unbelieveable, prompting my husband (who conducted his own quantitative research study for his Ed D) to gather the info in his own file to conduct his own research study on this ill-advised and poorly executed project!

In addition, if you don't open a Suntrust account, you will not get a check. It is all direct deposit-no paper checks anymore, although at the beginning of the year, we were told you could have a paper check or direct deposit to a Suntrust account only. In addition, if you make more than two transactions a month, your child will be charged $4 for every subsequent transaction, which is pretty high, it seems to me.

Anybody else have any stories to share on what their child is going through as a participant in the Capital Gains?


Thursday, November 13, 2008

I didn't even know that today is World Usability Day

which is related to the idea of robust systems....

Sara Snyder, a webdesigner for a Smithsonian unit, writes:

Wishing you all a very happy World Usability Day today!

This year’s theme is transportation, which highlights the fact that usability is not just about the web. Usability is about making all sorts of everyday designs more user friendly, from trains and city signage to cellphones, cameras, voting machines, coffee pots, seatbelts, and yes, web sites.

In honor of
World Usability Day, I’d like to share the “Top 5” on my own personal usability greatest hits reading list:

Don't Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability, by Steve Krug (book)
The Design of Everyday Things, by Donald A. Norman (book)
Alertbox: Current Issues in Web Usability, by Jakob Nielsen (online newsletter)
--, a primary government source for information on web usability and user-centered design (web site)
-- A tie between 2 online magazines:
UX and A List Apart: User Science

Let me know if any of you have questions or thoughts about usability. It’s all about making people’s lives just a little bit easier…

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More thinking about robust systems

(these days I am thinking I should be a organizational-systems analyst, not a planner)...

One of the things that sucks in dealing with municipal issues is the level of discourse. If you look at how various agencies work from a systems standpoint, when negative events occur on a regular basis, or generate additional work for other agencies, then you can argue soundly that the system-result is flawed.

1. One such example is the sales of singles, and the resultant problems with loitering, littering, petty crime etc. Rampant sales of such products creates more work for police officers. But the cost of providing this service isn't borne by the licensee nor paid by the agency that oversees alcoholic beverage licensing. Doing something that generates the need for police enforcement is the mark of a flawed system.

2. Similarly, the "take it outside" approach to crowd control and security in nightclubs. When problems arise. The perpetrators should be detained, and the police called to cart them off. Putting them outside merely displaces and doesn't interdict (stop) the problem. That's why people get kicked out and then shoot guns and kill people. This is an example of another flawed system.

3. Another example is road engineering. I wrote this on a list today, in response to this article, "Shocker: Speed Limits Are Useless Without Enforcement" from New York's incredible Streetsblog.

A number of us have made this point for some time, that roads typically are "over"engineered to allow high speeds, as are cars. Therefore, for areas where you don't want to encourage people to drive fast (on a road on the edge of Greater Capitol Hill in DC--still urban--a car was clocked by a speed camera going over 90mph late at night, in a zone with a posted 25mph speed limit), change the materials of the road. I myself am fond of stone Belgian Block. With it, you get physical, visual, and aural cues that you should drive more slowly. And it's not likely to be supportive of 90-100mph speeds.
Monument Avenue, Richmond
Monument Avenue, Richmond.

Using Belgian block/appropriately engineering roads based on the desired speed in many cases would eliminate the "need" for speed bumps, speed tables, and other road pimples.

So yeah, a truly "robustly" engineered road system wouldn't require secondary enforcement (police writing tickets) to optimize the system, it would engineer the system of pavements to generate the optimal result from the outset.

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Stuff to do

1. Tonight, tomorrow, and Saturday is the Washington Historical Studies conference. Some (but not many) of the sessions look interesting (to me).

2. On Saturday there is the Anacostia Waterfront Fair, which is supposed to discuss all the various projects going on along the river there.

Representatives from District government agencies, community-based organizations, and developers will share information about waterfront construction projects, plans for new parks, green jobs and many other improvements.

Nationals Baseball Park
1500 South Capitol Street, SE
Navy Yard Metro Station
1:00 pm – 5:00 pm

(Relatedly is John Wennersten's new book, Anacostia: Death and Life of An American River. Read this excerpt.)

3. I intend to go to a neighborhood organization training institute in Baltimore on Saturday (because I want the Citizens Planning Coalition to start doing this in DC starting next year) or something else on the Eastern Shore...

4. Next Wednesday is the last DC Department of Transportation presentation on the Transportation Plan (although written comments can be submitted until 11/20/2008).

November 19th
6 pm - 8 pm.

Franklin D. Reeves Center

2000 14th Street, NW
(Intersection of 14th and U Streets, NW)
Second Floor

For additional information, see the DRAFT FY 2009–2014 Transportation Improvement Program.

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