Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Friday, March 24, 2023

Transit as a formula for local economic success and improvements in regional quality of life

There is an article at Building Salt Lake, "Why isn’t Utah Transit Authority supporting the Rio Grande Plan?," opining about why the Utah Transit Authority isn't all in on the concept of reviving Rio Grande Station as the "central station" for Downtown railroad and transit service.

In the late 1990s, they moved railroad service from the Rio Grande Station to a little building a few blocks behind it.  That's where the Trax light rail main station is too.  Later they built an Intermodal Center, providing at the time a bike shop and inter city bus connections too.  But it failed for a bunch of reasons, not just the homelessness issue, but mostly because it is located where people aren't.  Now the Intermodal Center just houses intercity bus services.

-- Rio Grande Plan

The plan proposes a tunnel to redirect the railroad passenger services back to the station, as well as a rerouting of the Trax Green Line, with railroad service in a tunnel  behind the station and light rail service in front of the station.

I think it's a visionary concept along the lines of "transformational projects action planning" especially in advance of Winter Olympics in Salt Lake in 2030 or 2034, would be a catalyst to further drive transit improvements across the region and state, ideally shifting the transportation paradigm more towards sustainable mobility (meanwhile the Utah DOT wants to widen the I-15 freeway through Salt Lake City).

For links on TPAS applied to transit service, just look at the discussion and links in "Florida's Brightline passenger rail as an opportunity to rearticulate and extend transit service in cities like Orlando."

In fact, light rail here in Salt Lake was spurred by the 2002 Olympics, it's a small system and doesn't go to all the places it should, but it's complemented by a developing commuter rail program, a dinky streetcar line on the south side of Salt Lake and South Salt Lake, and a decent enough bus system.  All in all, if it goes where you want to go, it works reasonably well.

I was thinking about it, that it's because transit agencies don't think much or focus on how what they do improves places, adds to economic development, reduces motor vehicle use, etc.  

Sure they talk about it, in fact all the time, but the reality is maybe if they own some land promote transit oriented development--more intensive use--around stations, which increases transit use.

I was watching Japan Railway Journal yesterday morning, and the program was about the Chōshi Electric Railway in Chiba prefecture--about 55 miles from Tokyo--and all that the railroad is doing to promote itself, pay for itself, and increase ridership, in the face of rising automobile use and population shrinkage.  It's only about 4 miles long, connecting to JR, with a few trains each day, but a lot of creative marketing.

-- "Choshi Electric Railway: Turning Creative Ideas into Profit," video

One of the things that the president of the railroad said is that "when the community economy does well, so does the railroad, and when the railroad does poorly, so does the community" [paraphrase].

Frankly, this is not a new argument.  When streetcar systems were first created, usually they were associated with real estate development, in fact they were often owned by the developers (and later by utilities, because electric streetcars were their biggest customers).

Railroads too were active in promoting economic development, especially the recruitment of manufacturing plants, the growing of crops, etc., in their region, to boost use of their freight and passenger system, but also to build up the communities they served.  They produced reports, advertisements, brochures, guides, and all kinds of materials promoting their business development functions. 


railroad postcards, distributed on passenger trains, promoted tourism and economic development too, 
printing specific messages on the back of the card

and of course, the tourism posters

I have mentioned how the VIA transit agency in San Antonio has an urban design unit ("VIA urban planner wants to build a better San Antonio," San Antonio Express-News) nd that city transportation departments should have a "chief thoroughfare architect" to focus on the design and placemaking qualities of streets.  

Admittedly, many transportation agencies are investing a lot in urban design, livable streets, sustainable mobility, etc.  But even in the best agencies, a lot of the time sustainable mobility and urban design elements are overlooked, or removed from plans because of the cost.

Probably the best expression of this idea is this piece, "Planning for place/urban design/neighborhoods versus planning for transportation modes: new 17th Street NW bike lanes | Walkable community planning versus "pedestrian" planning," where I make the point that in planning by mode, we often miss the point when it comes to place qualities, that instead of doing pedestrian planning, we should be planning for walkable communities.  From the entry:

A walkable community plan would incorporate other treatments or elements besides sidewalks such as intersections, plazas, pedestrian "malls," parklets, laneways and alleys, walking as an element of commercial districts, "safe routes to school," night time lighting issues,  wayfinding signage, the walking element of trails/shared use paths and transit, bus shelters and stops, street furniture, events and programming ("Events and programming in a systematic manner," 2017, "The layering effect: how the building blocks of an integrated public realm set the stage for community building and Silver Spring, Maryland as an example," 2012), etc.

Some communities like San Francisco and now Salt Lake City are moving to integrate urban design and multi-modal planning (like my Signature Streets concept) into their pedestrian-focused programs, sometimes called Livable Streets.  Parklet and other initiatives are related.

-- "Salt Lake wants its streets to evolve," Building Salt Lake

This presentation has been superseded, but when I first saw it eleven years ago, I was impressed.

-- Sustainable Mobility & Climate Action Strategy, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency
Walk (and Bike) to School initiatives can be a good way to bring walking focused improvements to neighborhoods in ways that improve the walk to school experience for children and the neighborhood more generally, and simultaneously.   

Advocacy groups like Feet First of Seattle and Starkville in Motion (Mississippi) have utilized walk to school initiatives as a way to drive pedestrian improvements more broadly across their respective  

Safety is a key element.  It's important that the plans also acknowledge the issue of safety, loitering, homelessness, camping in public spaces, noxious uses, etc. ("Los Angeles Goes to War With Itself Over Homelessness," New York Times).

And that's the issue with transit agencies.  They need to be thinking about and planning for how transit strengthens and improves communities, rather than just thinking about transit in terms of modes or engineering or budgets.

There is an article on how the Dean of Engineering at the University of Michigan is becoming the Provost of Duke University and I like what he said about encouraging change and innovation:

Gallimore said as dean, he is most proud of the culture he was able to be a part of, which focused on being highly collaborative and collegial while maintaining a focus on education and research.

“We also have a, ‘how do we get to yes?’ attitude and a can do attitude,” Gallimore said. “We don’t have to make a huge amount of fanfare with what we do, we just get the work done, and do it with excellence and with grace. I saw that in my 10 or 12 years as academic leader here at the College of Engineering.”

To me, government is more about denying, saying no.  I joked that under the Trump Administration, Brand America became: Can't Do. Won't Do. You Do.  F*** You.

And I've written about what I call a "bias for inaction."  From "Revisiting Vision Zero in DC and NYC":

Government has a bias for inaction*.  A big issue is that transportation agencies (and government agencies more generally), even very good ones like NYCDOT, aren't always that proactive, and tend to not have "a sense of urgency" when it comes to action.  

It varies depending on the mayor.  It's fair to say that in NYC Mayor De Blasio cares a lot less about this than former Mayor Bloomberg ("A Playbook on the Politics of Better Streets," Bloomberg), and in DC, most elected officials are from "the outer city" where the automobile remains dominant ("DC as a suburban agenda dominated city," 2013).

That's why too often, improvements are implemented after someone dies rather than systematically addressing problems beforehand ("Salt Lake City paints crosswalk where children were struck on way to school," Salt Lake Tribune).

A key point in the iterative improvement of my writings on Vision Zero is focusing initiatives in terms of the "6 E's" of sustainable mobility planning ("Updating Vision Zero approaches," 2016). 

 One of the reasons for failures in improvement resulting from Vision Zero "initiatives" is the lack of a systematic approach.

* A bias for inaction is a riff on the "bias for action" element of forward-looking corporations as discussed in the book The Search For Excellence.("Putting a Bias for Action into Planning Agency Management: A Practitioner's Perspective," Public Administration Review, 1986).

The Rio Grande Plan should be seized upon by UTA and state officials, alongside local officials, as a way to strengthen, extend, expand, and improve transit, in a generationally transformational manner.

(I have been preparing on what Utah should do from a transformational projects action planning perspective vis a vis the Olympics, with this being one of the projects, and unfortunately Blogger "ate" the draft, so I have to re-create it.)

Mayors as systems integrators.  Years ago I had a conversation with Jeff Tumlin, a transportation planner, author of Sustainable Transportation Planning: Tools for Creating Vibrant, Healthy, and Resilient Communities, then a principal of Nelson Nygard, an innovative planning consulting firm, and now director of transportation for the City of San Francisco, and we were talking about cities as platforms for innovation.  

(This when I was trying to do bike sharing systems, and integrating other services into it, like parking management and electric vehicle charging.)

He thought that mayors are the would be systems integrators, the agent that has the ability to bring agencies together, to force them to do things, etc.

And while it is a more collaborative process, the Metropolitan Area Projects infrastructure development process in Oklahoma City, as discussed in the book The Next American City: The Big Promise of our Midsize Metros, has some of those elements.

But I wonder if the problems of the here and now, and the unplanned things that come up like earthquakes, pandemics, etc., make it almost impossible for mayors to play that role. 

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Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Whatever happened to planning when it comes to civic assets, public facilities, revitalization?

I am dealing with something in Salt Lake, and it's frustrating because my fellow board members don't have a reflexive inclination to plan, but to react and do.  It reminds me of my line for many years that "an RFP--request for proposals--isn't a plan."  I am trying to work out a problem that's been festering for going on 5 years, because of instead of doing a plan, they issued an RFP.

It's a request for proposals and while the RFP probably lists desires and preferred outcomes, it's still not a plan, and likely it'd be better to do a plan.

I'm writing this in reaction to an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun, "Harborplace reinvention: Baltimore needs a task force to get it right," about Harborplace. 

It was written by Ted Rouse, son of James, who created it. Harborplace was an early example of what are called Festival Marketplaces and for many years it was considered an international best practice.

But a failure to keep renewing the space, a fall off in tourism after the Freddie Gray riots in 2015, and the unfortunate occurrence of a lousy property manager buying the complex combined to drive it into ruin. It's creeping out of bankruptcy ("Court order finalizes sale of Harborplace to Baltimore investment management firm," WBAL-TV).

-- "Baltimore's Harborplace in bankruptcy and what that says about certain development trends in urban revitalization," 2019

There have been a bunch of reports and concept papers in the interim.

From the op-ed:

Baltimore has a wonderful opportunity to make lemonade out of lemons as my father, James Rouse, used to say. He also used to say, “Every problem is but a challenge, and a challenge is an opportunity in disguise. And when confronting a problem start by thinking first of what things would be like if they worked and let reality compromise you later.”

The current state of Harborplace is for sure a sad one. Tearing down the existing pavillion buildings and replacing them with Harbor East style high rises, with new first floor tenants (hopefully this is not being contemplated), might make the spreadsheets work, but it will not produce the lemonade that Baltimore needs. And the lemons that we need to confront are even larger than the decisions involved in how to revive Harborplace.

... So in thinking about how to make the Harborplace renovation work, we can’t just think about building for rich people who want to live or work in high rises. We need to think big and capture and captivate those visitors to our Convention Center and our stadiums with a good reason and an easy way to come visit the Inner Harbor. As American Visionary Arts Musuem founder Rebecca Hoffberger has suggested, we should celebrate Baltimore heroes along Conway and Pratt streets with sculptures and imaginatively written quotes from Frank Robinson, Cal Ripken, Edgar Allan Poe, Billie Holiday, Frederick Douglass, Elijah Cummings and others.

...  Both pavillion buildings should be saved, and green and/or solar roofs should be added. Take every opportunity to educate about global warming mitigation. Tearing down buildings is not green!

Baltimore’s mayor and Maryland’s governor need to appoint a task force that looks at both the ideas that work in other great cities around the world — such as the Guggenheim in Bilbao, the Sydney Opera House, The Charles Bridge in Prague, the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen and Pikes Place Market in Seattle — and ideas that have been proposed for Baltimore’s reinvention, such as the Baltimore Lift, which would use gondolas for mass transit and also offer a fun ride and way of seeing the city. An Inner Harbor Bridge between Fells Point and Federal Hill has been proposed in various forms by several people and groups. The Baltimore Museum of Art once proposed opening a branch in the Power Plant.

The task force should include David Cordish of the Cordish Companies, which has created great urban entertainment in many American cities, including Baltimore’s Power Plant Live!; and Mike Hankin and Laurie Schwartz, who have done a terrific job with The Waterfront Partnership in reinventing Rash Field. Perhaps the task force could ask Janet Marie Smith, who saved the warehouse at Camden Yards and put Baltimore on the map for inner city stadiums, to recommend urban planners for the job of sorting through and presenting the best possibilities for a reinvented Inner Harbor.

We need a new vision for our Inner Harbor, not just new buildings for Harborplace. Let’s start by thinking about what things would be like if they worked for all Baltimore’s residents and visitors. Where there are problems, there is opportunity. Getting the Inner Harbor right is an opportunity that will not come again in our lifetimes; it offers the chance to create an economic and perceptual transformation.

Instead of a task force.  Do a plan.  Have an advisory committee with developers and key organizations.  Have a public process.  Include transportation, arts and culture, and tourism planning elements.

Don't dumb it down.  And yes, reference the great projects around the world, which ironically often referenced Harborplace to justify their efforts.

This journal article in particularly highlights Harborplace as a model for waterfront revitalization efforts in Europe.

--  "On the Revitalized Waterfront: Creative Milieu for Creative Tourism," Sustainability Journal, 2013

Baltimore used to have a pretty robust planning arm, although it was somewhat beleaguered in the face of all of Baltimore's other needs.  This might be a way to amp up the planning function.

And combine it with other initiatives around transit and other ways to re-attract residents and business to the city.

-- "Transit agenda for Greater Baltimore," 2021

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Monday, March 20, 2023

Great article on urban design qualities of Kimmel Center in Philadelphia | extendable to civic assets more generally

Proposal for a new Downtown baseball stadium in Kansas City that is tightly integrated into the urban fabric.

My writings on stadiums and arenas have a framework of elements to consider when dealing with a project.  It was developed out of the sense that activists oppose such projects, especially public funding, but most of the time they happen regardless, so why not expend our energies on mitigating the problems and yielding the most benefits.

-- "Framework of characteristics that support successful community development in association with the development of professional sports facilities ," 2021

The current stadium complex in Kansas City is surrounded by parking lots, disconnecting it from the city.

It hasn't focused so much on interior design as much as broader place characteristics and exterior features, but the comments include a number of articles such as on Milwaukee's Fiserv Arena ("Fiserv Forum's architecture wonderful inside, flawed outside," "The Killers, Violent Femmes rock first Fiserv Forum show, cover 'Laverne & Shirley' song," Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel) with more discussion of the interior architecture, which needs to be included in an update to the framework.

The writings on "transformational projects action planning" discuss both interior and exterior elements.  From "A wrinkle in thinking about the Transformational Projects Action Planning approach: Great public buildings aren't just about design, but what they do" (2022):

TPAPs should be implemented at multiple scales:

(1) neighborhood/district/city/county wide as part of a master plan;
(2) within functional elements of a master plan such as transportation, housing, or economic development; and
(3) within a specific project (e.g., how do we make this particular library or transit station or park or neighborhood "great"?); in terms of both
(4) architecture and design; and
(5) program/plan for what the functions within the building accomplish.

Lately, I have been mulling the issue of civic buildings as elements of the creation of neighborhood centers and community centers because of some examples in Salt Lake City and County where the final results are paltry compared to the investment, because a good framework wasn't employed (along with a failure to have a focused plan for the creation of neighborhood centers).

That's why a Philadelphia Inquirer article, "A new cafe at Kimmel is the first step to a better arts center," by Peter Dobrin, the paper's classical music critic is so great.  

Writing about the Kimmel Center for Performing Arts, which styles itself as an arts campus, the review addresses the power or failure of civic assets to push urban design, placemaking, and revitalization forward as part of the program for the building and site.

Note that the Inquirer is one of the only newspapers in North America that has an urban design writer, Inga Saffron, who is fabulous.  Like the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's music critic's review of the Arena, Dobrin is particularly insightful.  From the article:

The Kimmel Center was trumpeted as Philadelphia’s fifth public square — an 18-hour-per-day, seven-day-a-week arts center where you could show up anytime and find a concert or see a film.

But since it opened in 2001, the Kimmel has sent mixed signals about just how welcoming it really wants to be. Some of this has to do with the architecture — fortresslike from the outside, visually chilly on the inside — but also with the way the Kimmel has policed its spaces, which has sometimes been heavy-handed. On balance, though, this ostensibly public space has never lived up to its promise.

With the recent opening of a cafe in its lobby, Philadelphia’s major arts center is taking another run at inviting the city in.

Yes, I know: In one sense, a few dozen seats and a place to have a macchiato and a country-ham-on-baguette is a modest gesture. But quietly and convincingly, the cafe is already easing one of the arts center’s long-standing deficits. It has made the institution less opaque — metaphorically and physically.

 One of the missed opportunities of the original design was failing to recognize the arts center’s most prominent spot, the corner of the structure at Broad and Spruce Streets, as an invitation for transparency. One part of the structure, the enormous pile of masonry at Broad and Spruce, was extended west with a ticketing booth that blocked the view into the plaza. At its front door, the Kimmel had little to signal what goes on inside.

 ... It’s no accident that arts centers everywhere are becoming more sensitive to atmosphere and user experience. Competition for leisure time is stiff, and getting people to leave their houses, a challenge. The New York Philharmonic has renovated and renamed its home in Lincoln Center, and now the lobby of David Geffen Hall features a 50-foot-long digital screen showing video art during the day and streamed performances of Philharmonic concerts live.

The New York auditorium’s acoustics also got a makeover. The sound was crisper and more present than before in two concerts I heard there in January, and aficionados seem generally impressed.

But then there are those patrons who want to experience music more passively, sitting in the lobby sipping and chatting or scrolling social media as Beethoven streams digitally in the background.

... It’s worth noting that New York has a great deal more public space than Philadelphia — in Lincoln Center plaza, for starters. The Kimmel, with its huge glass dome, functions as a kind of roomy indoor-outdoor gathering space that’s rare here, heightening the importance of making it succeed.

... The symbolic value of the cafe as a space of access to all is important, especially now. The arts are still perceived by some as elitist, and arts attendance took a hit during the pandemic [.]

... The Kimmel has pursued a series of renovations to both its public and private spaces on a rolling basis since opening, both as part of routine maintenance and in response to financial pressures and other factors.

... The tale of the rooftop garden is a good metaphor for the push and pull of operating an arts center. It is a public space, but the institution is also expected to produce enough revenue to offset rental costs for its resident companies (a subject for another day).

The open-air garden atop the Perelman Theater once offered anyone who wanted it a great city view, an escape from the busy city. But the Kimmel, strapped for income, took down the trees and renovated the rooftop perch years ago so it could reap revenue from weddings and other events.  Gone was one of the city’s truly fun and surprising public spaces.

The Kimmel needs to evolve further to become the social hub the arts community urgently needs to reintroduce pandemic-weary patrons to the value of live, in-person performances. The New York Philharmonic renovation introduced fun to the place through the architecture, fabrics, and amenities.

Some lessons.

  • the building should be permeable (I am a big fan not just of large windows, but garage doors tht open up
  • the space should be active, open and "fun"
  • there should be connection between the interior and exterior of the building(s)
  • there should be connection between the exterior and the area beyond the site
  • arts buildings should promote art, not look like just another office building
  • outside public spaces should be open and active, not grim and closed off.

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Florida's Brightline passenger rail as an opportunity to rearticulate and extend transit service in cities like Orlando

I have zero personal experience with transit in South Florida.  

I know that Miami is served by bus, a heavy rail system that was burdened by a poor system design that didn't focus on stoking ridership, an intra-district downtown transit service called Metromover ("Making the case for intra-city vs. inter-city transit planning," 2011, "Brief follow up to intra-district transit proposal for Tysons: Toyama City Compact City initiative (Japan)," 2020) and a regional commuter railroad that apparently doesn't serve a lot of places--it's only with the creation of Brightline that it will extend from Palm Beach County to Miami--it doesn't currently serve Dade County (Tri-Rail Miami Link).  

Also see "Two of a kind: Miami's Metrorail and Metromover."  There are a couple of Metrorail stations--a polycentric system--that link with the Metromover.  Miami Metrorail is one of the "next generation" new heavy rail systems in the US along with BART in the SF Bay, MARTA in Atlanta, Metrorail in DC, and the one line subway in Baltimore (it was at the tail end, so funding for expansion disappeared).

Cool train branding designs though for Tri-Rail.

I have five foundational pieces on organizing transit at the regional and multi-state scales.

The first proposes a "transport association" based on the German VV model, where all the local transit providers commit to integrated service, and a common schedule and fare system.  Although it has a problem of not necessarily including for profit actors.

-- "The answer is: Create a single multi-state/regional multi-modal transit planning, management, and operations authority association," 2017
--"Verkehrsverbund: The evolution and spread of fully integrated regional public transport in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland," Ralph Buehler, John Pucher & Oliver Dümmler, International Journal of Sustainable Transportation (2018)
-- Transport Alliances - – Promoting Cooperation and Integration to offer a more attractive and efficient Public Transport, VDV, the trade association for German transport associations.   

The second uses my "transformational projects action plan" approach to transit planning, with the idea that new additions to service should be used to simultaneously drive other improvements across the transit system.

-- "Nishi Kyushu Shinkansen, Japan, as an example of Transformational Projects Action Planning | Planning and executing complementary improvements across the transit network + advances in transit marketing," 2022

The fourth, based on how rail passenger services are organized and delivered in Japan, proposes passenger rail as a foundation to regional and multi-state transit, with regional railroads (like my RACER proposal for the DC area, "A new backbone for the regional transit system: merging the MARC Penn and VRE Fredericksburg Lines," 2017) organized through six districts covering multiple states, with wide scale passenger services across and within districts provided by Amtrak.

-- "Two train/regional transit ideas: Part 1 | Amtrak should acquire Greyhound," 2021

The fifth is writing on bus transit.

-- "Making bus transit service sexy and more equitable," 2012
--"Will buses ever be cool? Boston versus the Raleigh-Durham's GoTransit Model," 2017
-- "What Richmond can't teach DC about bus services," 2019

Brightline is a new railroad passenger service that started in South Florida, is expanding to Orlando and intends to expand to Tampa.  They are building modern train stations with the aim of their serving as business and community hubs.

 A Brightline train travels southbound on the Florida East Coast Railway bridge across Fort Lauderdale's New River.  Photo: Erik Bojnansky.

Note that separately, Brightline is building a similar service between Las Vegas and Exurban Los Angeles. Brightline West will start at the Rancho Cucamonga Station in San Bernardino County, which is served by the regional Metrolink passenger rail system. People will ride out to Rancho Cucamonga and transfer to Brightline.

The station at the Orlando International Airport will have a fancy bar and other amenities.  

The train stations aren't necessarily world class, but a step forward for the US (outside of Grand Central Station in New York City).

To ride is expensive compared to the regional commuter rail in South Florida and Brightline has had serious problems with crashes with vehicles and pedestrians.  Lots of deaths.

But it's quite impressive in two ways 

It's being built relatively quickly.  They started planning in 2012, construction in 2014, and opened the first stations in South Florida in 2018.  The extension to Orlando is opening later this year.  

Granted they've been able to do it because Brightline is a division of Florida East Coast Railroad and uses its right of way.  But still.  To get from Miami to Orlando in 11 years is an incredible accomplishment.  

By contrast, It's taking 40 years from the concept of the Purple Line transit line in Suburban DC to realize maybe 20% of the proposed line, 18 miles, with zero planning for extensions currently underway.

It's over 200 miles between Miami and Orlando.

 And their first mile/last mile transit connections might actually be the best in the world.  Brightline is a true innovator in creating transit service zones around their stations, some services are free, others cost money or are built into premium services.  They have branded special event transit service, provide service to certain airports, and the Port of Miami Cruise Terminal, etc.

Also see:

-- "To and from origin stations can be difficult: More on the Silver Line and intra-neighborhood transit (tertiary network)," 2022

Brightline as an opportunity to improve transit in Florida cities, using the Transformational Projects Action Planning Approach.  

I hate to admit that despite all my writings on TPAS and transit, it hadn't occurred to me to explore the concept with the Brightline passenger rail system.

The planning approach needs to be applied  at multiple scales.  Within cities and metropolitan areas.  Across metropolitan areas.  And across the state.  And note Brightline made some commitments to put in a station or two between West Palm Beach and Orlando ("Where will Brightline have train stations between Orlando and Tampa?,"Tampa Bay Business Journal).  

With local subsidy, they've already opened additional stations in Aventura and Boca Raton, which weren't planned as part of the original service footprint ("27% of Brightline riders come from new stations," Miami Today).

Brightline is a great opportunity to drive improvements across local transit networks in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach, Orlando, and eventually Tampa.

A friend is in Orlando right now and he says that public transit isn't great.  They do have bus service, which in the past has been heralded as a great example of marketing and branding, and a poorly used commuter rail (it costs them more to collect fares than they make in fare revenue).  

They are looking to improve transit but haven't had a lot of success--failed tax referenda in 2020 and 2022 with another possible attempt for 2024, and there is back-biting ("Mayor Demings wary of Universal’s SunRail expansion plan, cites ‘lack of transparency’," Mass Transit Magazine).

Again, Brightline provides a perfect opportunity to build a new consensus for how to handle public transit in Greater Orlando, along the lines I've recommended for DC Metrorail for a long time.  

-- "What it will take to get WMATA out of crisis continued and 2016's 40th anniversary of WMATA as an opportunity to rebuild," 2015
-- "WMATA and two types of public relations programs," 2015
-- "St. Louis regional transit planning process as a model for what needs to be done in the DC Metropolitan region," 2009

And some of that seems to be happening, at least with the local commuter line ("Brightline, Orlando and Orange County collaborate on potential convention center rail route," Orlando Business Journal).  From the article:

The vision of the "Sunshine Corridor Program" would include a shared corridor between Brightline and SunRail which would allow SunRail to connect with Orlando International Airport, the Orange County Convention Center and Walt Disney World.

 Photo: Ryan Lynch, Orlando Business Journal. 

My friend says there is no good public transportation from the airport to the city's major hotels.  From the OBJ:

The growing Iinternational Drive resort area currently has about 75,000 employees, a number projected to reach 100,000 in the next few years, which increases the need for a connected transportation system.

Again, airport to city transportation is a great opportunity for rearticulating transit. Especially with the opening of Brightline service there.  That would be a big deal in any big city.

Sadly, Disney dumped their Disney Express service which provided high quality transit service to Disney World, bundled into hotel reservations, although the private sector has stepped in. 

-- "Manhattan Institute misses the point about the value of light rail transit connections to airports | Utility and the network effect: the transit network as a platform ," 2020
-- "Airport transportation demand management in flux," 2019
-- "Transportation demand management, transit: Los Angeles Airport (LAX) and Logan Airport, Boston," 2019
-- "London's Stansted Airport provides digital information on transit options," 2019
-- "Why not a bicycle hub at National Airport?, focused on capturing worker trips but open to all," 2017
-- "A brief comment on ground transportation at National Airport vis a vis VRE rail service," 2016
-- "Revisiting stories: ground transportation at airports (DCA/Logan)," 2017
-- "Airports and public transit access: O'Hare Airport and the proposed fast connection from Downtown Chicago," 2018
-- "More on airport-related transit/transit for visitors," 2013

The Tampa area has had many failures in trying to pass referendums to support transit expansion ("Tampa Bay Times investigative report on transit in the Tampa-St. Petersburg Metropolitan Area," 2017). 

But that could be reversed in association with Brightline service extension from Orlando, especially if they have examples of Brightline + local transit network improvement in Orlando and the South Florida cities now.  

In South Florida some of that is happening, maybe not with bus and heavy rail, but the commuter rail is expanding some.  And some of the cities un-served by Brightline are building stations in return for agreements for future service.

Kamome train at Nagasaki Station.

Kyushu Shinkansen as an example of how to do complementary transit improvements across the network.

What Kyushu Prefecture has done with the Nishi Kyushu Shinkansen is a perfect example.  Complementing the new high speed rail service, they've invested in new train stations, in tourism marketing, in better connections, such as to the Nagasaki International Airport, and transit marketin.  It may be the best "in real life" example of the point I make about linking new infrastructure with complementary improvements across the transit network. 

A way to do this would be to organize transport associations in South Florida, Orlando, and Tampa, to coordinate transit services.

Brightline as an opportunity to improve transit in Florida State.  Brightline serves South and Central Florida, focused on the east side of the state.  There aren't plans to extend north up to Jacksonville.  There aren't plans to extend north and south from Tampa on the west side of the state.

Amtrak train in Tampa.  Photo: Amtrak Guide.

Amtrak.  Perhaps some of the slack could be picked up by Amtrak.  Amtrak could expand and extend services within the state to complement Brightline.  

The Silver Meteor and Silver Star serve the Atlantic Coast with service to Jacksonville, Tampa, and Miami and intermediate points.  The Auto Train allows people to travel with their car from Virginia to Florida.  

The Sunset Limited served Florida at times, but for almost two decades initially because of hurricane effects on infrastructure, it has not.

Florida could step up like some states--California, Maine, Oregon, Virginia, and Washington State are premier examples--that have created joint programs with Amtrak to expand intra-state service. Amtrak Cascades actually joins Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia working together.

Perhaps Brightline could be expanded to be a true intra-state railroad passenger service, not unlike how I suggest Maryland (MARC), Massachusetts (MBTA), New York (Metro-North, LIRR), and Pennsylvania (SEPTA) could have true statewide rail systems by building out from existing rail services.

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Saturday, March 18, 2023

Washington Cherry Blossom Festival and event transit

In the past, I've suggested as part of Presidential Inauguration Weekend, that transit on the Metrorail system and in DC should be free, if only as a throughput-transportation demand management measure.

-- "Should transit on Inauguration Day be free?," 2013/2016

Note that DC will be launching free surface transit later this summer ("Free ride: DC unveils bold plan to boost public transit," Associated Press), something I'll get around to writing about ("Is making surface transit free the best transit investment DC can make?," 2016).  So that makes a chief element of that idea realizable.

Photo by alphanumeric.

Seeing the Washington Post article "3 maps for getting to the 2023 Washington, D.C., Cherry Blossom Festival," about getting to the Cherry Blossom Festival, I had a similar thought.  

1. Besides improving public transit services on the National Mall generally.

 --  "New DC Circulator route serving National Mall reminds us that we are neglecting connections from west to east and fail to adequately connect Georgetown to the National Mall," 2015
 -- "Revisiting: a proposal for heritage streetcar service on the National Mall | adding service to the DC waterfront"

2.  Why not improve transit on the National Mall specifically for the Cherry Blossom Festival, a highly important special event?  Note that back in the day Capital Transit provided weekend transit service to East Potomac Park.  And note that maybe the DC Circulator National Mall bus line is enough as it is (although it doesn't go to Georgetown).

3. Make it free.  Again, that's more out of simplicity than anything else.

--  "Transperth transit (Perth, Western Australia) provides free transit to certain events, like the Red Hot Chili Peppers concert on 2/12/2023," 2023

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Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Small college economic issues threaten their ability to function as a community asset

Many small towns have decent quality of life because of the presence of small colleges, their economic and social capital impact, the offering of special events that are attractors, etc. For example, Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, West Virginia has a summer theater festival.  Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland.  Etc.

But in the covid era, college enrollment has dropped significantly ("Public colleges and universities hit hard by declines in enrollment," NPR) and this has impacted many colleges, even big ones, but especially small colleges that already were facing economic difficulties.  

In Michigan, where I went to school, only the University of Michigan continues to gain students.  They are planning on building 5,000 rooms in new dorms.  Michigan State has stayed even, and all the other state colleges and universities have lost enrollment.  And like in other places, some small colleges have shuttered.

The New York Times has a story today, "Colleges Have Been a Small-Town Lifeline. What Happens as They Shrink?" (written by Lydia DePillis, who started out at the Washington City Paper, congratulations on landing at the Times!)

I have written about this issue of how communities can better leverage colleges and universities.  Mostly about urban universities, but the principles still apply to smaller towns. 

-- "University President Freeman Hrabowski and an agenda for urban universities," 2021 
-- "President of Washington State University dies: fostered development of the "University District" adjacent to Downtown Spokane," 2015
-- "Universities as elements of urban/downtown revitalization: the Portland State story and more," 2014
-- "Better2016 leveraging higher education institutions in cities and counties: Greensboro; Spokane; Mesa; Phoenix; Montgomery County, Maryland; Washington, DC," 2016
-- "College town follow up: alumni as residents and contributions to community capital," 2015
-- "More Prince George's County: College Park's militant refusal to become a college town makes it impossible for the city(and maybe the County) to become a great place," 2015
-- "Revisiting past blog entries: College Park as a college town and economic development | PG County and Amazon," 2018
-- "DC, Universities and "making versus taking" or universities that add to a community's capital and those that don't ," 2019

-- "John Fry, president of Drexel University, and universities and cities ," 2022

-- "Robert Lang, who helped reshape Southern Nevada’s economy, dies at 62," (Las Vegas Review-Journal)

more specific articles on colleges and economic development:

-- "How the closure of a Pfizer research center in Ann Arbor, Michigan led to the development of a biotech sector there," 2021
-- "Naturally occurring innovation districts | Technology districts and the tech sector," 2014 
-- "The other George Miller idea: creating multi-college innovation centers in (cities) Philadelphia | Creating public library-college education centers as revitalization initiatives," 2021 

but not so much about small colleges, but I have

-- "Master planning and scenario planning in the face of economic problems in higher education," 2019

and definitely in relation to art and design colleges and how cultural planning initiatives for communities should have a higher education element and a monitoring process to ensure the colleges are in good health economically.

-- "Should community culture master plans include elements on higher education arts programs?," 2016
-- "Revisiting stories: community culture master plans should include an element on higher education institutions," 2017

Holy Names University, Oakland, California.  Besides the New York Times discussion, there is area reporting in the SF Bay about the economic failure of the Holy Names University ("Bay Area university faces default on loan for its huge property," San Jose Mercury News) and now how city officials and the lender have sent a letter to the university asking to help work things out ("Oakland and lender seek “win-win” rescue for Holy Names University").  

The school has already announced it's shutting down at the end of this academic year.

That process should have been initiated a long time ago.

HBCUs.  There's been some interesting reporting about some black colleges gaining students ("How these HBCU presidents fixed their colleges’ financial futures," Christian Science Monitor) and I was really impressed that Morgan State University in Baltimore is adding a medical school ("Morgan State University's new medical school president seeks to graduate more Black doctors," WYPR-FM/NPR), so there is still hope.  The key is to constantly be focused and planning and forward looking.

-- "Howard University announces wide ranging building program," 2022  (Note, not saying HU is forward thinking.  They've had a lot of problems)

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Tuesday, March 14, 2023

And restaurants co-locating in big box stores

Space for rent at the entrance to the Walmart on 300 West in Salt Lake City.

I don't think this is a good idea or at least, particularly lucrative, either.  When the Walmart came to Georgia Avenue in DC, they touted that were supporting local business by having two edge retail spaces, one for a soul food restaurant, the other for a credit union.

But the reality is that (1) people going to big box stores like Home Depot, Lowe's, Walmart, Target, Best Buy, etc., aren't looking to also buy a quality meal, they want to get in and out.

Sure Targets often have food counters, some Home Depots used to allow hot dog carts, and Costco is known for its cheap eats at its food counter ("Costco Customers Weigh In on the Value of Costco’s New $9.99 Roast Beef Sandwich," Newsbreak).

Ikea is the big exception.  But they use their food offering as a draw to keep the people in the stores much longer, spending all the while ("How IKEA Uses Food to Get You to Spend More," Takeout).  Their food isn't cheap, but it's not too expensive, and it's high quality.

But overall people aren't looking to spend a whole lot.

(2) the demographics of Walmart customers aren't congruent with spending a lot of money on prepared food either.

(3) Not to mention that WRT Walmart specifically, their business model is to capture as much as 100% of the retail spend of the customer, which leaves nothing but scraps for other retailers and restaurants.

So I am not thinking that this new independent restaurant in a Walmart in Charlotte, North Carolina will do particularly well ("‘Who would have ever imagined a locally-owned, soul food restaurant inside a Walmart?’," Charlotte Observer). 

Skyline started as a food truck so this is a step forward.  I hope their rents are minimal.  From the article:

After a year or two, the business moved into a food truck. “It was a success — we were everywhere with the food truck,” she said. Five years later, a potential rental space became available inside the Walmart. “And boy oh boy, it took us a year, but we built it out ourselves.”

“I’m kind of in awe about it, being inside a Walmart,” she said. “It’s nothing but blessings from God and my angel.”

The Oohs and Aahs at the Georgia Avenue DC store is still open, so that's saying something, but it has a pretty low profile.

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Downtown retail doesn't work the way people think

Given the prevalence of the development of shopping malls over the past 70 years, central business districts (downtowns) have long since been supplanted as major retail centers, with the exception of a few major cities like Manhattan (New York City), Chicago, and San Francisco (Union Square), where the retail stores remained high profile destinations, especially for visitors--not residents.

Very early in my involvement in such matters, I saw a presentation by a person from an urban economics consulting firm, where he said that the average office worker supported 1.5 s.f. of (convenience retail) and 5.5 s.f. of (quick service) restaurant.

In short you needed many thousands of workers to support a small amount of retail, and what the office workers were interested in was pretty limited, pharmacy, dry cleaners, shoe repair, etc.

Similarly, with restaurants, the support was for quick service places like Quiznos, Corner Bakery, Potbelly, Au Bon Pain, etc., not high quality sit down restaurants.  Although again, larger commercial districts were capable of supporting some.

Then there was a study of Southwest DC's business district, which found that 65% of the time, government workers brought their lunch, making it that much harder to support retail and food in districts dominated by federal buildings.

And that was before the impact of e-commerce.

And it turns out office workers aren't particularly intrepid.  They just aren't that interested in exploring the area around where they work.  And shopping in the area where they work, or coming home from work in the work city, as opposed to the residential city, doesn't seem to be of interest either.

And that was before covid, which has accelerated work from home.  Most commercial districts have half the number of employees coming to work that they did before.

So it's difficult for other retail categories like apparel, home furnishings, etc., to survive in downtown centers.  Frankly, they do better in areas with residential-supported commercial districts.

So to me, that Target is closing a downtown Philadelphia store after seven is years no suprise ("Target to Close Center City Store. Here's Why," ).  Fewer office workers.  Office workers aren't that interested.  E-commerce.  Not enough residents nearby to act as frequent customers.

Similar to the announcement of Walmart closing a store on the outskirts of Downtown DC, my reaction was it just wasn't located close to lots of potential and frequent customers ("Walmart to close one of its three DC stores").

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Thursday, March 09, 2023

DC's crime bill overturned by Congress

 -- "Senate votes to block controversial DC crime bill," CNN

I haven't written a blog entry on this, just comments, and comments on Washington Post article.  While the revision of DC's criminal code, in some quarters the changes were perceived to be more lenient, in the face of a significant rise in the city's murder rate, crime involving guns, car jackings, and continued escalation of youth-involved crime.

I write that for the most part, DC's legislators have it pretty good.  They are a city-state, with control over the tax revenues generated within the city, and for the most part, not having the kind of oversight that is typically performed by State Legislatures, which may be quick to preempt local control in favor of corporate and cultural warfare goals.

But the fact is that Congress does have the final authority on approving local legislation, even though the DC Home Rule Act of 1973 pretty much created local control of local governance.

The city's legislators, many of whom lack substantive experience of cities in the period of the 1970s through the 1990s when many were in serious decline, and had problematic public safety, didn't realize that at times they need to manage the narrative and "manage up.'  In this case, how the law would be perceived in the world of public opinion, and the competition between Republicans and Democrats.

This letter to the editor ("The D.C. Council’s crime bill put statehood further out of reach") expresses it pretty well:

I have supported home rule since moving to D.C. in 1974. I proudly wear my “51” hat. But after a 2020 election when perceptions of being soft on crime hurt many Democratic candidates, the D.C. Council’s tone-deaf response was to enact a law that forces its allies to make a choice between supporting home rule or increasing their own electoral vulnerability. Not surprisingly, they are opting for their own survival.

So, rather than attacking President Biden and Congress for likely blocking the D.C. criminal code reform, the D.C. Council should own this fiasco. It might well happen again with the bill allowing illegal immigrants and other noncitizens to vote in local elections. It’s doubtful the council could have come up with any other bill that is more likely to provoke GOP reaction.

Democrats, who lost control of the House of Representatives in the 2022 election because of crime demonization being particularly effective in Greater New York City, didn't want to be on the wrong side of this issue.  Although there is criticism in some quarters about doing the wrong thing because of politics ("Biden puts reelection over principles with D.C. decision," Washington Post).

When President Biden announced last week that he wouldn't veto a disapproval resolution, the new DC crime bill was toast.


FWIW, I find it hard to believe that anyone who lived in DC during the period of great disorder, would ever want a return to those times.  It was terrible, and for me, personally very costly.

My lesson is that the forces of disorder are always pushing, and you cannot yield.

Few people seem to fully grasp that urban revival in the 2000s was sparked by significant public safety improvements.

At the same time, I recognize the problems of police brutality, the carceral state and overpolicing of people of color, warrior policing, etc.

Sadly, the "defund the police" messaging was another lost opportunity to control and shape the narrative, which should have been redefining what public safety means, looks like, and how it is delivered, because criminalization of social problems and having police officers be first responders when they are often not the right choice is not serving American society very well.

-- "The fine line between urban/center city chaos and order," 2020
-- "The opportunity to rearticulate public safety delivery keeps being presented," 2021
-- "Is it too late to change the messaging on "Defund the Police"? How about "Reconstruct Policing"?," 2020
-- "Towards a public safety model that is broader than policing," 2020

Note that my writings on equity and social urbanism come out of a desire to try to break the cycle of urban poverty. Sadly, DC has definitely failed on this dimension.

-- "Social urbanism and equity planning as a way to address crime, violence, and persistent poverty: (not in) DC," 2021

Which came out of my experience on grand jury duty in 2013:

In 2013 I was on grand jury duty.  Each jury had a specialization--ours was drugs and guns mostly, but we still dealt with murders, assaults, and other violent crimes.  

The lesson after three months was that DC spends billions of dollars each year--police, emergency services, health and social services, criminal justice, education, etc., in the communities where crime is persistent--just to keep the neighborhoods and people within them at equilibrium/the same--not to improve.

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