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, July 05, 2020

Regional/local income tax initiatives in Portland, Seattle are focused on high income households/businesses

The reason that Amazon was "all in" on last fall's local election in Seattle ("Today's local elections in Seattle: the clash between progressive and business interests") was because Socialist Kshama Sawant had pushed forward a head tax on employees. It was later rescinded because of threats by the business community, but Amazon still decided to move a big division to suburban Bellevue, and then put a lot of money into the local elections, with the aim of electing more business friendly candidates, but except for one seat, they lost in every instance.

But one of the criticisms of the tax was that certain kinds of businesses with lots of employees but low margins, like supermarkets or restaurant groups, would be stuck with big costs that would make doing business unaffordable.

In May, voters in Greater Portland, the Portland Metro government covers three counties--Multnomah, the location of Portland, Clackamas, and Washington--passed a regional tax to pay for the support services for the homeless ("Portland Region Voters Approve a Tax on Wealthy Households to Fund Homeless Services: The $250 million-a-year measure aims to end chronic homelessness," Willamette Week).  It's a companion measure to a previously passed bond issue to pay for the construction of housing.  From the article:
[Put on the ballot] Before the COVID-19 pandemic devastated the Portland economy,Measure 26-210 was projected to raise $2.5 billion with a 1 percent marginal tax on couples earning more than $200,000 and a 1 percent tax on profits for large businesses.
This is a step forward because the reality is that housing and homeless issues are regional, not just a matter for the center city to deal with on their own.

Of course, having a multi-county government, a step beyond the merged city-county form that I often advocate, and which is in place in cities such as Indianapolis, Lexington and Louisville, Kentucky, and Macon, Georgia, makes this achieveable.

Seattle hasn't given up on taxing high income corporations like Amazon, and now they've introduced a new kind of withholding tax, levied only against high income jobs, paying at least $150,000. From the Seattle Times article "Call it the ‘boss tax:’ Seattle finally finds a potent way to tax the rich":
It’s the work of Council member Teresa Mosqueda, and the premise is simple enough: Instead of tilting at windmills to try to tax wealth or high incomes, which is legally questionable in our backward state, this plan instead puts a levy on high employee salaries and compensation packages.

Call it a CEO tax — or more accurately, a management or boss tax. Oh and throw in the millionaire pro athletes, too. ...

Mosqueda’s plan, which passed a city committee this past week and is expected to pass a full council vote Monday, would place a 0.7% tax on pay in the city higher than $150,000, assessed on the company’s payroll. The rate goes up to 1.7% for pay above $400,000. Then it tiers even higher for the biggest businesses — in other words, Amazon would pay up to a 2.4% levy on compensation north of $400,000. All smaller businesses with payrolls below $7 million are excluded, and no business would pay anything for any worker making less than $150,000.
Washington State doesn't have an income tax and laws make adding straight up income tax levies virtually impossible.  The head tax proposal was a workaround.  A withholding tax on high incomes is a workaround.

Interestingly, I didn't realize that Washington State laws on income taxes prevented the city and state from levying taxes on visiting athletes.  Most states do this.  In part it helps pay for public funding of stadiums and arenas.

DC is unable to do this because Congress forbids the city to tax nonresidents ("Bryce Harper's move to Philly will generate at least $5 million in wage taxes for the city, more if he lives there, compared to zero for DC when he played for the Washington Nationals").  Most every athlete for the city's baseball, hockey, basketball, and soccer teams lives in the suburbs.

There was one soccer player who lived in Greater Capitol Hill, when the team played at RFK ("D.C. United's Clyde Simms has embraced city living," Washington Post) and a hockey player or two ("Former Caps defenseman Mike Green puts a renovated D.C. rowhouse on the market," Post), but they are outliers.

(In the 2018 Stanley Cup winning run by the Washington Capitals, player T.J. Oshie rode Metrorail to Games 3 and 4, "So, what would T.J. Oshie’s Metro card look like?," NBC Sports.)

Separately, Portland Metro has a mobility withholding tax on wages, to support transit.  Elsewhere in Oregon, Eugene has a similar tax.  So do the New York counties with MTA transit service, as do a couple of other places in the US.

The past entry "The real lesson from Flint Michigan is about municipal finance" (2014), outlines various types of city/county taxes.

But I was focusing on local government funding specifically and didn't include a section on transit taxes. This entry, "Metrolinx Toronto: 25 potential tools to fund transit-transportation infrastructure" (2013) covers transit funding mechanisms.

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Saturday, July 04, 2020

Independence Day as an opportunity to rebuild the social and economic compact

In some of my past writings about WMATA, Metrorail and transit in the DC area, I argued that the "regional consensus for what transit means" needed to be updated and reconstructed.

... because given that the original system was developed -- at that time 40 years before, now more than 50 years ago -- a long time ago and lessons needed to be codified and communicated and "the vows" to transit recommitted.

-- "WMATA 40th anniversary in 2016 as an opportunity for assessment," 2014
-- "St. Louis regional transit planning process as a model for what needs to be done in the DC Metropolitan region," 2009

Definitely the same goes with nationhood, community, the body politic, etc.


One of the things that has bugged me for quite some time is that Democrats having been too good at contrasting the Democratic Party with the Republican Party by re-articulating the value of collective action, emphasizing the fact that government derives the people, all of the people.

Patriotism is more than a flag or being parochial.

Like I say about world class cities "that the best cities give to the rest of the world in terms of ideas and examples, they don't just take," national pride should be about more than denigrating "the other."

There is a great article in the Weekend section of the Financial Times about inequality, "The everyone economy: how to make capitalism work for all," and how the current pandemic, like the Depression and the period of sacrifice during WWII followed by the post-war reconstruction led to the development of more wide ranging social support programs, such as Social Security in the US, and the National Health Service in the UK.

Obviously, the pandemic should have taught us in the US that having health insurance tied to employment is problematic...

The author, Martin Sandbu, the economics columnist for the paper, chalks up a lot of the precariousness in the economy not to globalization, but technologization and automation of manufacturing and other jobs that once paid well.

I have mentioned this issue a lot, such as how the Dodge Main car manufacturing plant now has 1/4 of the workers it did in its heyday, or that the number of GM jobs in Flint is now 1/10 of what it was at its peak.

He calls for a post pandemic economic and social program, that is likely based on his new book, The Economics of Belonging: A Radical Plan to Win Back the Left Behind and Achieve Prosperity for All (review):

1. "jettison business models based on using low-productivity (and therefore low-paid) labour, and harness automation rather than resisting it."

2. "the programme would aim to shift more labour-market risk from employees to employers and the welfare system."

I make this point a lot, that neoliberalism (Thatcher, Reagan) eliminated social welfare protections at the same time that the workforce became much more precarious.
Together, these two principles point in the direction of higher minimum wages, a universal basic income (or its less budget-heavy equivalent, a negative income tax), generous government funding for education and labour-market mobility, and strict enforcement of labour standards.
3. "we can reform taxes to counteract economic divergence instead of intensifying it. That means lowering taxes that penalise hiring. To pay for this, as well as for a negative income tax and policies supporting a well-working labour market, other taxes have to go up."

4. "macroeconomic and financial sector policy can be reformed in favour of the left behind."

5. "most challenging, we can work to reverse the divergence between the centre and the periphery."

A new definition of Independence Day: a diminishment of any sense of collective responsibility

Uncle Sam, July 4th parade, Takoma Park, Maryland
Takoma Park July 4th Parade.

It's a disappointment that today there aren't community parades and such, because of the coronavirus. 

Some DC neighborhoods are known for having parades, especially the Palisades neighborhood.  We lived in Takoma DC, next to Takoma Park, Maryland, and they are known for a great parade.

I had intended to write anothe piece about the "Declaration of Independence/Independence Day" as a way to reflect once again on Confederate monuments to racism.  I was going to reference at least four pieces, including:

-- "Not all slopes are slippery: How to decide which statues can remain and which need to go," Julian Baggini, Times Literary Supplement
-- "You Say You Want A Revolution?," Andrew Sullivan, New York Magazine
-- "Trump's incendiary speech followed American policing's logic of fear," Professor Issac Bailey, CNN
-- "What we can do now about Stone Mountain's 150ft Confederate carving?," Ryan Gravel and Scott Morris, Guardian (Ryan Gravel originated the concept of the Atlanta Beltline in a masters thesis).

But I got involved in another writing project this week, and I didn't get to it.

Reading an article in today's Washington Post about the rise of the coronavirus in Joplin, Missouri ("A small Missouri city thought it had dodged the coronavirus") is pretty disturbing as somehow independence is about being able to flout collective action to promote public health and safety -- not wearing a mask.

The Joplin City Council, after a five hour debate, voted to not require masks, with the deciding vote against by the Mayor, who believes people should wear masks!  That's leadership...

From the article:
Meanwhile, the one measure that medical experts say could turn the coronavirus tide — widespread use of masks — has become mired in politics. Joplin’s city council spent nearly five hours debating whether to require them last week, only to reject the proposal by a single vote.

In a deeply conservative region where Donald Trump won nearly 80 percent of 2016’s presidential ballots, any attempt to force people to mask up was likely to backfire, Stanley concluded. Most residents who had spoken at the meeting argued against the measure, citing infringement of their personal freedom.
“I’m surprised it’s as divisive as it is,” said the mayor, who personally wears masks and advocates that others do the same, but who cast the deciding vote against mandating them. “If we’re having this crazy spike in the area, don’t you think we’d want to err on the side of caution?” ...

But they are also reckoning with a population that long ago grew weary of making sacrifices to confront an enemy that seemed to exist only in theory.

“There’s a little bit of the boy who cried wolf,” said Toby Teeter, president of the Joplin Chamber of Commerce. “This town shut down where there were 18 cases total. Now, there are 100 a day [in the region]. People are almost numb to it.”

With many of the new national outbreaks concentrated in relatively rural and conservative areas, many people are also less trusting of medical advice.

“Eighty percent of people here are watching one channel and it’s downplaying the epidemic,” Teeter said, referring to Fox News. “So there’s a lot of confusion.”
I used to constantly admonish the little girl next door--now 12 years old--about the need to practice "deferred gratification." She would always ask me to explain it.

But it was never a matter of life or death.

People "choosing" to not wear masks put themselves and others at significant risk, to the point where it can lead to death. That hardly seems to be an "allowable" "choice."

It's a serious bastardization of the Declaration of Independence.

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Friday, July 03, 2020

DC, parks planning, and golf

Parenthetically in past entries I've mentioned golf as a parks planning issue.

Golf participation is down significantly, so such uses are less in demand and less economically viable.  (Another comparable issue is the decline in baseball participation and the increase in soccer participation.  So lots of park spaces have too many ballfields and not enough soccer fields.)

Of course, nearby residents would prefer they be converted into other park uses, rather than redeveloped (e.g., Reston, "After Ownership Change, Future of Reston National Golf Course in Question," Reston Now).

Or they will get a different entity to take it over, such as switching agencies if publicly owned (e.g., in Montgomery County a golf course was shifted from the revenue authority to the parks department, Sligo Creek Golf Course Reuse Plan).

Or getting a public agency to buy a privately owned golf course ("Mission Viejo Council Approves Acquisition Of Golf Course," Patch) which either keeps it operating as a golf course or converts it to a park like use ("The grass is greener: City planning to buy 100 acres of Pine Grove Golf Course for conservation," Daily Hampshire Gazette).

Although the libertarian Reason Foundation doesn't think public agencies should be involved with golf courses at all ("City-Owned Golf Courses Should Be Sold or Privatized").

Golfers walk the course at East Potomac Park Golf Course. (Matt McClain/ The Washington Post)

While DC's Federal City Council (the city's Growth Machine coordinating organization) is right to be interested in reviving the city's golf courses run by the National Park Service --"The Langston Initiative: A new for DC's public golf courses") was first proposed in their magazine a few years ago.

After agitating about it for a few years is now about to take them over ("Federal City Council to negotiate lease for federally owned golf courses in D.C.," Washington Post)

After awhile, the Park Service put out a new tender, and the FCC's newly created affiliate, the National Links Trust, was awarded the tender.

While a Washington Post  sports columnist thinks it's a good idea ("Golf courses that are public, affordable and good? Sounds like a major victory"), and obviously, it's better to invest in the golf course than let them languish, there wasn't a public planning process.

Which illustrates my general points in DC about:

(1) lack of a public parks plan

(2) that a "DC city" parks plan should provide guidance on federal parks ("Defining National Park Service installations in DC as locally or nationally serving," 2019)

(3) and how ideally, the locally serving parks that are run by the NPS or other agencies should be transferred to local government control -- except that DC doesn't want the authority or financial responsibility and is content with a sub-average parks and recreation system (which gets highly rated regardless, because of the amount of space).

The "Defining" entry didn't mention golf courses.  It should have.

I'd say East Potomac is yes, federal, because of its location.  But why does the federal park system have a golf course?  Is it really a priority in the context of the system's overal mission and goals?

Langston Golf Course is important historically as the city's original federal course for African-Americans.  The Rock Creek course is part of the federal Rock Creek Park, which for the most part is a locally serving park.

But in any case, I just don't see enough demand for all three.

There's also a golf course, not really open to the public, at the Armed Forces Retirement Home.  Why not deal with that one too?

DC's parks "system" is comprised of both local and federal facilities, but the federal facilities provide the bulk of the larger park spaces, what in other jurisdictions would be called "regional parks."

But because they are federally controlled, even when there are friends groups organized for specific parks, it's difficult for residents to weigh in, and the federal parks planning processes, because they are subject to the National Environmental Policy Act and other federal laws, are very involved, and it can be very difficult to develop policies and practices that make the parks usable for local residents.

So I argue that despite the fact that DC "doesn't control that space, so why should it bother to weigh in?," if DC DPR doesn't weigh in, than for the most part resident interests are ignored.

This is the case with the golf courses.  The Federal City Council's first question was "these golf course are undermanaged and need investment, what can we do?"

But they never asked the question, "Does DC need three public golf courses, especially given trends in golf participation and the potential for serving other needs with at least one of the courses?"

And, "What about the AFRH course, could that be roped in too, and at least one of the facilities converted to other uses?"

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Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Revisiting pedestrianizing the 1500 block of 19th Street NW in Dupont Circle

Recently, the entry "" discusses how to make pedestrian and bicycling right of way expansions in the wake of the coronavirus a more permanent condition.

In 2019, the entry "Planning urban design improvements at the neighborhood scale: Dupont Circle, DC," discusses a systematic program for urban design improvements in and around Dupont Circle.  It was an outgrowth of my Purple Line series-thinking, although it took me a couple years to get around to writing about it.

One of the recommendations, Item #5, was pedestrianizing the 1500 block of 19th Street NW, which is the block with the Dupont Plaza Hotel on the east and the block of businesses on Connecticut--many have rear entrances, anchored by Kramerbooks and Afterwords Cafe, the combined bookstore-cafe that is open 24 hours on weekends (in normal times) and a very busy Starbucks.

5. Make 19th St. between the Circle and Q Street a permanent pedestrian street
(but with access for deliveries.)

Joe Flood, via Flickr, shares with us his photo of this block, set up for expanded restaurant patio service.

I made a similar recommendation, starting with weekends, for 17th Street:

6. Make 17th Street between P and R Streets a pedestrian district on weekends.

17th Street NW, Dupont Circle

And from an update standpoint, instead DDOT and the Washington Area Bicyclists Association, is pushing the addition of a cycletrack to 17th Street, which would get in the way of pedestrianizing it.

Given the pedestrian volume in the area, and the need for this commercial street section to have a positioning that is more distinct vis a vis neighboring 14th Street and Dupont Circle as a way for its establishments to be more competitive, emphasizing and strengthening its pedestrian character should be prioritized over cycling--especially given nearby parallel routes, and let's face it, relatively low volumes of bicyclists.

In the past I've suggested that WABA reposition from a cyclist-exclusive orientation to a more expansive "sustainable mobility" agenda like Transportation Alternatives in NYC and Active Transportation Alliance in Chicago (formerly the Chicago Bicyclists Federation), they haven't done so.

So there isn't a good pedestrian advocacy group in the city--robust examples elsewhere include Feet First in Seattle, Starkville in Motion in Mississippi (although they do biking too), Walk Boston and Walk Denver--and therefore in DC the pedestrian agenda can too often be neglected.

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Bench inset in a decorative brick wall, with projected capping

Bench inset in a decorative brick wall, with projected capping, Millcreek Community Center, Salt Lake County
Millcreek Community Center, Salt Lake County

I have been thinking about how benches can be incorporated into walls for a long time, especially as an opportunity to create sitting spaces at bus stops.

But walls/fences topped with decorative capping can get in the way of comfort if the capping projects into the sitting side of the bench, rather than being laid flush on the top of the wall.

While not an example of places with stone or brick walls on properties abutting bus stops (a typical condition in DC), this is an example of an informally provided bench next to a bus stop.
Informal bench at a Utah Transit Authority bus stop, 2100 East, Salt Lake City
Informal bench at a Utah Transit Authority bus stop, 2100 East, Salt Lake City.  

(I haven't taken it, but a bus serving this stop goes to Park City.)

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Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Oklahoma City, Aubrey McClendon and Chesapeake Energy (now in bankruptcy)

Reuters photo.

Chesapeake Energy, the natural gas fracking behemoth based in Oklahoma City, just declared bankruptcy ("Chesapeake Energy, once a power in natural gas, files for bankruptcy: Company that led the fracking business succumbs to prices too low and debt too high," Washington Post).

Only in 2018, did I start writing an annual piece around the end of the year, an annual obituaries article with short vignettes of people who died during the year who were significant in some way to urbanism.

Had I written such an entry in 2016, I doubt I would have thought to mention Aubrey McClendon, the founder of the natural gas fracking giant Chesapeake Energy. He likely died in a suicide--a car crash--after he had been indicted for various improprieties.

McClendon and Chesapeake Energy led the natural gas fracking revolution which has contributed significantly to the expansion of supply and significant drop in price, leading to the conversion of many electricity generation plants from coal to natural gas.

And in 2014, I interviewed Rand Elliott, principal of the eponymous architecture firm Rand Elliott Architects, because among the many projects he designed for the Chesapeake Energy campus--done in Georgian style, I guess to reference the Chesapeake region in the Mid-Atlantic--he designed some high quality parking garages, including Car Park 3.

Car-Park-3, Chesapeake Energy Corporation, Oklahoma City, by Rand Elliott and Associates, architects
Car-Park-3, Chesapeake Energy Corporation, Oklahoma City, by Rand Elliott and Associates, architects. Each floor is color coded, created by special polycarbonate panels engineered and manufactured by Duo-Gard Inc. Photo: SCOTT MCDONALD/HEDRICH BLESSING.

Most parking garages are crap.  And given my focus on sustainable mobility, I suppose I should be happy about that.

But high quality parking garages contribute positively to urban form, when so much of the spaces and structures dedicated to supporting the car generally are negative contributions and the Chesapeake Energy garage was one of the influences wrt my general point that transportation infrastructure should be treated as an element of civic architecture so that urban design, placemaking, and aesthetic qualities are prioritized.

And while I mentioned it in a couple pieces, I never did write a full piece about it.

I am finally reading the book, published in 2018, The Next American City: The Big Promise of Our Midsize Metros by Mick Cornett, the Republican former mayor of Oklahoma City.  It's a phenomenal bthe cook which I'll write about later.

But McClendon features in the book in a few places, not just because of his company and its place in the city, but because of his role as a civic leader, and the many investments he and his firm made in the city.

These investments included being one of the founding investors in the Oklahoma City Thunder basketball team, the company's naming sponsorship of the arena in which the team plays, paying for the boathouse which helped to center the city and the renamed Oklahoma River as an international center for rowing, canoeing and kayaking ("River Attraction: Oklahoma River is becoming a big draw for Oklahoma City," Daily Oklahoman, 2013).

In 2017, the OKC Boathouse, which was the initial investment in a new riverfront, which in turn grew into the Riversports Rapids complex, was renamed in honor of Aubrey McClendon ("Boathouse building renamed in honor of Aubrey McClendon," Daily Oklahoman).

Many people leave complex legacies and Aubrey McClendon was one such person.

Monday, June 29, 2020

From more space to socially distance to a systematic program for pedestrian districts (Park City (Utah) Main Street Car Free on Sundays)

Staff at Fish Market in Old Town Alexandria set up socially distanced tables on the sidewalk and King Street in late May. (Pete Marovich/for The Washington Post)

There's been lots of reportage of initiatives in cities across the country to shift roadway space to pedestrian and bicyclists ("(More) People on streets and the coronavirus").

The next stage of this push is focused on accommodating social distancing and commerce by allowing restaurants to expand into the public space outside of their restaurants ("To expand dining options, restaurants take to the streets," Washington Post)..

What is new about this isn't using sidewalk right of way, but street right of way.

colorful sidewalk extensions into the street right of way, Trueform Group
Colorful sidewalk extensions into the street right of way even with the curb, Trueform Group

Sidewalk extensions, Halifax, Nova Scotia
Halifax, Nova Scotia.

I noticed a pop up ad in an article on a Washington Post article that Park City, Utah is doing this as well, on Sundays, for the core of its "downtown" (it's pretty small) Main Street commercial district. (The ad below is from the Historic Park City website and is different from what I saw online.)

-- "Shop, Dine & Stroll || Sundays on Main Street are Car-Free!Historic Park City commercial district revitalization initiative

The reason that I mention this is that traditional commercial districts should have been doing this all along, long before the coronavirus, as a way to strengthen and call attention to traditional commercial districts as pedestrian and people focused as opposed to car focused.

-- "Town-City branding or "We are all destination managers now"," 2005
-- "Now I know why Boulder's Pearl Street Mall is the exception that proves the rule about the failures of pedestrian malls," 2005

One of the only regularized initiatives like this that I had been aware of before the coronavirus--outside of very special events--is how Denver's Historic Larimer Square has a "Dining Al Fresco" promotion in the summers, where one night each month they close off one of the streets for dining, which is served by the abutting restaurants.
Larimer Square, Downtown Denver, dining in the street/Dining Al Fresco

Larimer Square, Denver, Dining Al Fresco

In the face of the coronavirus, Montgomery County, Maryland has developed a similar initiative for its main town centers, Bethesda, Rockville, and Silver Spring ("Bethesda streets close to make space for outdoor dining," WUSA-TV; "Silver Spring, Rockville, Takoma Park close streets to allow for expanded outdoor seating," Bethesda Magazine).

The difference between Park City is that in some of the Montgomery County communities, in particular Bethesda--a leading restaurant destination for Western Montgomery County--this is every day, not just on Sundays or on weekends.
Streets in Bethesda, Maryland closed to accommodate outdoor restaurant patios and social distancing

Separately, going on a couple years, Takoma Park also in Montgomery County but a separately incorporated city of its own, is the only community in the area -- pre-coronavirus -- to have legalized the ability for restaurants to take over abutting parking spaces as restaurant patio spaces.
An in-street restaurant patio for Takoma Beverage Co. using parking spaces, Carroll Avenue, Takoma Park, Maryland
Parking space patio outside of the Takoma Beverage Co.

This is an example of implementing measures that have been developed from the parklet movement, which started out as a guerrilla and tactical urbanism initiative but is now a mix of guerrilla and officially-sanctioned projects.

But it's a limited takeover of parking spaces, not an expansion into the entire street (although now Takoma Park is doing that too).

Moving from temporarily closed streets to permanent pedestrian districts?  While in the past I have been pro-pedestrian, I had been skeptical of pedestrian-only zones in the U.S., having seen multiple examples of failure, including the US's first example of a downtown pedestrian mall, in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Kennedyplatz, Essen. 

But visiting Germany in 2014, I saw such districts of varying types and sizes in Essen, Dortmund, and Hamburg, and in 2018, in Liverpool--a very large district in the core--and smaller areas across London, and I came to understand that the issue wasn't pedestrianizing per se, but in starting small--as little as one block--or at least appropriately, in those places where there is enough activity, access and movement to make such places ("wildly") successful.

Exhibition Road urban design treatment, South Kensington, London
Exhibition Road in Kensington borough is a shared space, mixing cars and pedestrians.  It looks cool, but it doesn't work for either pedestrians or cars.

While shared spaces might work in the Netherlands, where they originated ("Hans Monderman obituary," Guardian, I don't think they work in car-dominated societies like the US or the UK.  Instead, it's an example of what I call "designing conflict in," which creates the opportunity for problems, rather than what planning is supposed to do, which is "designing conflict out."

-- "Exhibition Road -- review," Guardian
-- "MP calls for pedestrianisation of Exhibition Road amid dispute over accident figures," Dezeen

I wrote about one such opportunity for creating a pedestrian district in DC in more detail last year:

-- "More about making 17th Street between P and R a pedestrian space on weekends."

Unforunately, instead, DC Department of Transportation and Washington Area Bicyclists Association are fervently in favor of adding a cycle track to the street.

But there are multiple places where this could work, elsewhere in DC and the metropolitan area, and of course, across the country, starting with as little as one block, and working outward, expanding as success dictates and warrants.

-- "Making "Downtown Silver Spring" a true open air shopping district by adding department stores," 2018
-- "Revisiting the Purple Line (series) and a more complete program of complementary improvements to the transit network," 2019
-- "Sadly, DC won't show so well during the Baseball All-Star Game," 2018
-- "Urban design considerations for the area around Washington Nationals Baseball Stadium in advance of the 2018 All-Star Game, 2017

Earlier this year, Alexandria, Virginia began moving forward on expanding the pedestrian area at the foot of King Street ("Alexandria Virginia looks to pedestrianize the foot of King Street abutting the waterfront").

While Essen's district was super cool (inadvertently I was there during a weekend music festival and my hotel was across from a major plaza, Kennedyplatz), and Hamburg's very successful and including a transit mall, and Liverpool's was very large, and on a Friday night, it was booming, one that impressed me the most was Mare Street in Hackney Wick borough

It's a couple block long "pedestrian mall" for a shopping and civic district adjacent to the Hackney Central London Overground station.
Mare Street/Narrow Way pedestrian zone, Hackney, London
Mare Street/Narrow Way, Hackney borough.

It turned out the walking street, which looked like it had been there forever, was only a converted a few years before.  And it was controversial ("Concerns that pedestrian zone in Hackney Central will kill off trade," Hackney Gazette).  Although it looked plenty successful to me, 5 years later.

But my experience in the UK and Germany, and of course there are many other such places not only in various countries in Continental Europe, but across the UK, did in some respects reiterate my concerns about success.

While I think it's possible to have small pedestrian districts in the US, most places lack the concentration of population, strong activity centers, and complementary transit systems that make these districts not only work but thrive in Europe ("Walk the Lijnbaan: decline and rebirth on Europe’s first pedestrianised street," Guardian).

In the US, there are a few pedestrian malls that thrive--Boulder, Burlington, and to some extent, Charlottesville and Madison--but all are in college towns where there is a dense population of students, most without cars.
Charlottesville pedestrian mall

Santa Monica and Winchester, Virginia are among other places that have such pedestrianized spaces.  The one in SM is cool, but it's lost key anchors and peters out at the ends, even though one end now includes the terminus of the Expo Line light rail.  Winchester has the same problem, although it has none of SM's advantages--resort community, nearby beach, awesome weather, large population, and transit connectivity.

Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica
Santa Monica.

Winchester pedestrian mall

How to look at expanding pedestrian facilities systematically in the coronavirus era and beyondTransit.  I just came across a January Chicago Tribune article about how the Chicago area transportation planning organization, for the first time, released a study evaluating the pedestrian and bicycle access conditions at the region's railroad and heavy rail transit stations ("Where do I walk? Study finds several Metra, and some CTA stations, have a shortage of nearby sidewalks").

From the article:
A lack of sidewalks near several suburban Metra stations and a few CTA stations makes it harder for pedestrians to safely walk to transit, according to a new, first-of-its-kind report by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.

“If people don’t feel comfortable walking to the train, they’re not going to use the train,” said Stephanie Levine, associate policy analyst for CMAP.

The analysis found that within half a mile of stations, just 35 out of 242 Metra stations had “excellent” coverage with sidewalks on one or both sides of almost all roads. Eighteen Metra stations had no sidewalks on 50% of the roads within a half-mile of the station.
What's amazing to me is that this had never been done before--although note that the Active Transportation Alliance had received grants to do similar geographic-specific studies over the past decade.   And why isn't this a standard element of station area planning from the outset.

Note that Montgomery County just released a Purple Line Pedestrian Accessibility Report for their under construction light rail line ("Purple Line stations need safer access for pedestrians, planners say," Washington Post).

(And in the draft plan I did in Baltimore, I included a section of recommendations for transit-related improvements, including the then proposed Red Line light rail, which ended up not being approved.  And in early planning stages for the Purple Line, I was asked to share that section of the planning document.)

I guess that's pretty rare, although Seattle has done this around light rail planning too.  The MoCo methodology is worth being adopted more widely.

But the reality is that most transit agencies have failed to ensure that stations are accessible by modes other than cars. In their defense, they'd probably say that the local jurisdictions are responsible for this kind of planning and infrastructure, and they're right, but if they are to be "customer"/rider/service oriented, they need to step on this.
Bicycle gutter, Lutherville Light Rail, west platform
The platform for the west side of the light rail station in Lutherville, Baltimore County, Maryland, has a stairway but no sidewalk connecting it to the nearby street.
Trail to the Lutherville Light Rail stop, adjacent to Greenspring Drive, Baltimore County

Although some agencies are leaders in planning for station access including the Utah Transit Authority ("UTA Works to Overcome 'Toughest Mile' Challenges," Metro Magazine).  The report produced out of the UTA project, the First/Last Mile Strategies Study (lead consultants Fehr & Peers), is particularly good.

Catchment area of public transit stops for pedestrians and cyclists
Catchment area of public transit stops for pedestrians and cyclists.  Montreal,  p. 135, Planning and Design for Pedestrians and Cyclists: A Technical Guide, produced by VeloQuebec.

The DC area Metrorail agency did a similar study c. 2009, for walking and biking.  (Then again, the system had been operating for more than 30 years by then.)  There are still plenty of gaps in terms of pedestrian access, intersection treatments, sidewalks, bicycle parking, etc., even though all the city stations have been open for decades.

I remember coming across an article on the bus system in Greater Minneapolis, and a recognition that lack of sidewalks significantly impacted bus ridership in the suburbs especially ("Metro Transit says bus stops are improved with better signs, more shelters," Minneapolis Star Tribune; "Bus Stops as Community Assets," University of Minnesota graduate student project).

I recommend that as part of transit line and station planning, public improvement districts can be created to implement full vertical and horizontal "ground" access programs.

-- "Revisiting creating Public Improvement Districts in transit station catchment areas," 2020, original entry, 2016

Sidewalk and street networks.  In response to the coronavirus, Matt Elliott, a contributor to the Toronto Star, wrote a piece ("Where should lanes be closed for pedestrians and cyclists as the city comes back to life? We crunched the data") providing a systematic way to look at areas of high pedestrian use, hospitals, and supermarkets, to identify and prioritize areas where right of way dedicated to pedestrians should be increased.

Toronto's 100 busiest pedestrian intersections, by Matt Elliott

Toronto's 100 busiest pedestrian intersections, by Matt Elliott.

Toronto's 100 busiest pedestrian intersections + hospitals and supermarkets, by Matt Elliott
Blue dots are for high use pedestrian traffic at intersections, red dots are hospitals and major health clinics, orange dots are grocery stores.

In the Baltimore County study I did, I advocated similar approach, using bus stops and transit stations, elementary and junior high schools, and local commercial districts as the loci.
Baltimore County, One mile diameter from schools and transit stops

For a presentation I did in Montgomery County, the County planning department graciously produced a similar kind of map.
One mile radius from transit stops, Montgomery County, Maryland
One mile radius from transit stops, Montgomery County, Maryland.  Map by Matt Johnson.

Conclusion.  We have the ability to expand space devoted to sustainable mobility in systematic ways, in ways that promote high quality urban design and placemaking.

I think what we lack is the will to shift space from cars to pedestrians, especially in bold ways.

But too often, our desire may be ahead of where we are practically speaking.  At least here in Salt Lake City, the city responded, like lots of other places, and shifted many streets or street right right of way to shared space or bike/pedestrian exclusive zones -- but no one is using them (at least at the times when I check them out).

So we need to be conscious of where we focus such efforts, to ensure that they are successful and visible in positive ways, so that further and future initiatives aren't scuttled in response to failure or the perception of failure.

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Thursday, June 25, 2020

"Utility" infrastructure as an opportunity for co-locating urban design and placemaking improvements

Often utility corridors may be one of the only opportunities to create trails and pathways in places where private property rules.  It was frustrating when I worked a bike and pedestrian plan for Baltimore County, because there wasn't a good way to create a dedicated pathway between Baltimore City and the county center in Towson.

There was an electricity transmission corridor, but it had tough topography, and my boss rejected it out of hand.

Image: Friends of the Washington and Old Dominion Trail.

To me, given it was the only option, I didn't think we had that luxury.  Although I lost on that one, surprisingly the utility company was willing to consider it.  (Another similar missed opportunity was a utility and stormwater piping corridor along the Patapsco River.)

One of my arguments is that providing a regular use within the corridor could add to security, providing "more eyes on the street."

This was a few years before an attack on an electricity substation in California ("Sniper attack on California power grid may have been 'an insider,' DHS says," CNN).

The Perils for Pedestrians public access television program has an episode, "Gallery of Power Line Right of Way Trails," featuring 26 (!) different examples including in the DC area.

Transformational Projects Action Planning.  From the standpoint of what I call TPAP, harvesting opportunities for urban design and placemaking improvements simultaneously with the development of other infrastructure ought to be a no brainer.

-- "Why can't the "Bilbao Effect" be reproduced? | Bilbao as an example of Transformational Projects Action Planning"

This could also be a key element of "Green New Deal" planning.

Transportation Infrastructure as an Element of Civic Architecture.  Before TPAP, I wrote about "transportation infrastructure as an element of civic architecture."

-- "Transit, stations, and placemaking: stations as entrypoints into neighborhoods," 2013
-- "Transportation infrastructure as a key element of civic architecture/economic revitalization #1: the NoMA Metrorail Station," 2016

Partly I was inspired by learning about "Railroad Gardening" or "Railroad Beautiful," the late 1800s progenitor to "City Beautiful" ("The Railroad Beautiful: Landscape Architecture and the Railroad Gardening Movement, 1867-1930," Landscape Journal).

 One of the pioneers was the Boston & Albany Railroad, which invested in railroad stations--designed by H.H. Richardson and plantings--by Frederick Law Olmsted--as an element of marketing.

Rails and trails.  While converting abandoned rail lines for trails has been going on for decades, the idea was that this was to be a form of railbanking, preserving the right of way for potential rail use in the future.

-- Rails to Trails Conservancy

The problem with this is that use as a trail builds a constituency to keep it as a trail and not as a transit corridor.

This has been an issue wrt the Purple Line light rail project in Suburban Maryland, and the organization Friends of The Capital Crescent Trail | Save the Trail!, although partly many of the members, homeowners along the line with their backyards abutting the trail, were more more interested in not having a frequent transit line there.

This also comes up with "temporary" park uses for lots not ready to be developed. See "Predictable outcome: people want to make a temporary park permanent."

 It's why developers prefer to keep the space vacant. (It's a similar phenomenon when people reside in industrial-manufacturing areas, like the "Meatpacking" District in NYC, or in farm-adjacent lands in suburbanizing rural areas.)

rail-and-trail paved path seattle longtail cargo bike familyBut there is a rise of incorporating trails as part of existing or new rail transit projects, including the SMART rail project in Sonoma and Marin Counties in California, trails alongside the Expo Line in Los Angeles, and the Purple Line.

Elliott Bay Trail.  Photo: Green Lane Project credit Adam Coppola Photography. 

In Seattle, part of the Elliott Bay Trail in the city is alongside a working freight rail line, and very close at that.  DC's Metropolitan Branch Trail follows part of the rail line that is its namesake.

High Line in New York City. The adaptation of an abandoned elevated freight railway line in Manhattan for a park is well known.

High Line, NYC

High Line, NYC, freight line

 But this isn't "co-locating" a placemaking use with an existing utility use. What I am more interested in is using utility spaces that can support "mixed use" and are otherwise eyesores.

-- "The inside track on the High Line," NPR
-- "The High Line has been sidelined. When it reopens, New Yorkers may get the park they always wanted," Washington Post
-- "New York's High Line: Why the floating promenade is so popular"
-- "Why New York’s High Line is the perfect source of gardening inspiration"

Note that the first example of this kind of adaptation is in Paris, the Promenade Plantée/Coulée Verte ("Paris' Elevated Park Predates NYC's High Line by Nearly 20 Years (and It's Prettier, Too), TreeHugger) although it gets little the US.

Bentway in Toronto. The Bentway uses space under a freeway for park uses.

-- Bentway Conservancy

 It's not the first example of reusing space under freeway ramps and pylons, but as a premier example of doing this well, it's an example for others ("Under freeway ice skating track opens in Toronto").

Bentway ice skating track under construction, Toronto
Bentway ice skating track under construction, Toronto.  Photo: Eduardo Lima, Metro News

Under freeway spaces.  Many places do put parking under freeway ramps.  It's an acceptable use too. Or at the very least, treating the pylons as opportunities for murals.
Corktown freeway underpass pylon murals, Toronto
Corktown freeway underpass pylon murals, Toronto.  David Cooper / Toronto Star.  This pillar, called The Worker, recalls the neighbourhood’s working-class roots 

Proposals for electricity transmission corridors in Montreal.  There are two different projects.  The first is the Green Corridor project by Hydro Quebec, the province's electricity provider.

While the primary impetus is to upgrading the utility facilities, including substations, at the ground level there will be urban design-related improvements serving the community, including include separate bicycle and walking paths, other recreational amenities and landscaping.

Although at least one group has called for undergrounding of the transmission lines altogether ("Hydro-Québec begins groundwork for controversial substation pylons in D.D.O.," Montreal Gazette).

Another project is to reposition electricity transmission corridors as "Biodiversity Corridors."

The Biodiversity Master Plan was created by the winners of an international design competition, the team was composed of four firms: civiliti; LAND Italia; Table Architecture; and Biodiversité Conseil.

Rendering, Poirier Boulevard.

They proposed a re-do of three electricity transmission corridors, re-introducing plantings, adding trails and other amenities, and support to fauna, along three major city arterials in St. Laurent borough, which as a more suburban part of the city, is car-dominated,

Water infrastructure in Medellin.  I write about Medellin from time to time because of how it has used investments in social and transportation infrastructure -- transit including bicycle sharing, gondolas, and escalators -- and libraries, parks and other facilities in association with infrastructure projects.

The program is funded in large part by revenues from the municipally owned utility, which runs both electricity and water systems.

Their approach is now called "social urbanism" by planning theorists, and it has contributed to a 90% drop in the murder rate in that city.  (The rate is still high, over 600 deaths each year, but that's 5,400 fewer than the peak rate!)

-- "Medellin: from narco terrorism to a hub of innovation & social urbanism," RSA
-- "'Social urbanism' experiment breathes new life into Colombia's Medellin," Toronto Globe & Mail
-- "Medellín's 'social urbanism' a model for city transformation," Mail & Guardian
-- "Medellín slum gets giant outdoor escalator," Telegraph

Medellin, Northeastern Urban Integration project, converted typical arterial into a multi-modal, pedestrian focused street
In association with the construction of a gondola-based transit system in Medellin, the Northeastern Urban Integration project, converted typical arterial into a multi-modal, pedestrian focused street. 

One project I wasn't familiar with adapted water reservoir infrastructure to add public spaces and facilities to neighborhoods that had little such space before ("The Story of How Medellin Turned Its Water Reservoirs into Public Parks," ArchDaily). From the article:
While developing a master plan for Medellin's urban lighting system, EPM, Medellin's public utility company, analyzed the Colombian city's infrastructure and nocturnal lighting system by superimposing a map of the system over a map of the city. What they found was an urban landscape blotted by "islands" of darkness.

Much to the surprise of the utilities company, the dark spots were actually 144 water tanks that were initially built on the city's outskirts; however, thanks to the progressive expansion of Medellin's city limits, the tanks now found themselves completely surrounded by the informal settlements of the Aburra Valley. Even worse, they had become focal points for violence and insecurity in neighborhoods devoid of public spaces and basic infrastructure.
UVA La Alegría.

Through their Sustainable Urban Interventions Department (DIUS), EPM analyzed the 144 water tanks "based on aspects like usable land, population density, the neighboring community's needs, geological restrictions, the expansion of the aqueduct, and the surrounding area." They later chose 32 tanks and, from there, narrowed their list down to the 14 tanks most in need of intervention, giving birth the to ambitious project of creating quality public spaces in Medellin's poorest neighborhoods, dubbed the UVA or Articulated Life Units.
Water reservoirs in the US.  Sometimes in the US, water reservoir areas are treated as parks, but over the past decade this has been seen as controversial because of the potential for water contamination as a spillover from the use, or fears of terrorism.  Although now, the EPA is requiring that treated water no longer be stored in open reservoirs.

The Baltimore City Department of Public Works is in the middle of a $134 million project to bury a pair of water tanks and turn a portion of the existing Druid Hill reservoir into parkland. (Jerry Jackson, Baltimore Sun)

Ironically, what that will mean in some reservoirs is the ability for more park and recreation uses ("Remaking Baltimore's Druid Lake: $140 million water project has some residents hopeful, others concerned," Baltimore Sun).
Although this comes at the expense of water views and water-based recreation opportunities.

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Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Obituary: Joseph Corcoran, housing developer, Boston

Over the past few years, at the end of each year, I try to run a piece featuring obituaries of people who in my opinion are notable to urbanism. I can't claim it's a definitive article. It's just obituaries I've come across in my reading, on listservs, etc. And a good number of the people I wasn't aware of.

Some people deserve to be noted away, and I think that Boston real estate developer Joseph Corcoran is one such person. Even though most of his projects were typical market rate projects, he was committed to providing high quality housing for everyone, and has pushed various initiatives in Massachusetts.

His first major project was pathbreaking, the rebuild of the then unsuccessful Columbia Point public housing development in Boston.

Community pool open to all residents regardless of income, overlooking Boston Harbor.  Photo: Brad Vest.

Now called Harbor Point, it may be the first example of adaptively rebuilding a public housing project to incorporate market rate housing as a way to change the social and economic trajectory of the community.

It was helped by a great location on Boston Harbor--now also home to the JFK Presidential Library.  Goody Clancy, an architecture and planning firm that always impresses me, were the designers of the rebuild.

This is what I wrote for the general obituary entry:

Boston Globe photo.

Joseph Corcoran, Boston real estate developer ("Columbia Point gives way to upscale Harbor Point," Boston Globe, 2015). According to the website of the Boston College Center for Real Estate and Urban Action, which he founded, he:
earned a national reputation by transforming a Boston neighborhood now known as Harbor Point from a crime-ridden housing project into a safe, vibrant mixed-income community that the residents are proud to call home. Joe blazed the trail for mixed-income developments by helping to enact state legislation, chairing the real estate registration board, and founding a nonprofit to revitalize distressed urban neighborhoods. "People don't grow up in poverty," he says, "they grow up in neighborhoods."
This was probably the first example of the rebuild of a "squalid public housing project"--this one was originally called Columbia Point, into a mixed use development that included market rate housing ("Joseph Corcoran Rescued a Squalid Boston Housing Project," Wall Street Journal): "Looking Back at the Success of Harbor Point ," Architect Magazine.

And it was Corcoran who approached HUD about taking on the rebuild, not the other way around.  According to the WSJ:
Completed in 1990 at a cost of more than $250 million, Harbor Point created a neighborhood where lawyers and graduate students lived alongside people qualifying for subsidized rent. They shared swimming pools, a gym and views of Boston’s harbor and skyline.
-- Video interview, Boston Foundation
-- Privately-Funded Public Housing Redevelopment: A Study of the Transformation of Columbia Point (Boston, MA), Institute for International Urban Development

Although some argue that the redevelopment of the site came at a great cost in terms of reduced numbers of housing units available to low income tenants.  The split was about 1/3 low income; 2/3 market rate ("REVITALIZATION OR REPLACEMENT? TWO CASES OF REDEVELOPMENT IN BOSTON: COLUMBIA POINT AND COMMONWEALTH," Joint Center for Housing Studies).

This is the criticism I make generally of the HOPE VI public housing redevelopment initiative launched by the Clinton Administration. Communities were "improved" but a significant amount of low income housing was lost.

And the negative impacts of displacement of the formerly housed residents could be far reaching, such as for Prince George's County, which became the destination for many of DC's families displaced by public housing redevelopment ("Shouldering the Burden," Gazette, 2003).

Recently, I came across an(other) exemplary urban planning initiative by the City of Toronto, Growing Up: Planning for Children in New Vertical Communities. One of the sections of the webpages for the planning documents include case studies.

One is of the St. Lawrence neighborhood. Which is a medium-rise community, built new in the 1970s and reflecting the architecture of the time. It's considered very successful.

One of the things they got right that was totally bobbled by HUD in the US, was the the development of complete communities, with schools, social and community facilities, and retail as part of each building. The ground floors were devoted to non-housing functions -- mixed use -- with housing above.

How cool would it be to have your elementary school on the ground floor of your apartment building?

Schematic/program for the Crombie Park Apartments in St. Lawrence.

For the most part, HUD rules require that public housing be homogeneous developments without retail or other service functions.

They built housing, but not neighborhoods-communities.  Likely this contributed to the "failure" of many public housing projects.

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