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, May 13, 2022

May should be National Train Month: Rethinking promoting more comprehensively travel by train in the US

 I started this post in 2019, and then I had to move west and I never finished it.  

1.  A Los Angeles Times article ("At 80, Union Station tries to reinvent itself for a rail future") about the upgrading of Union Station in Los Angeles reiterates  that train stations should be thought of as key "marketing touchpoints" for transit, based on how stations are key city and community hubs in cities like London, Hamburg, Paris, Tokyo, etc.

I wrote about this general idea in my comments in 2015 on the DC State Rail Plan with regard to DC's Union Station.  

The basic point in those comments was how to "Fully leverage Washington Union Station's potential as a portal and visitor center and as a focus point for marketing transit, specifically rail service."

A long time before, I made the point that bus shelters are "marketing touchpoints" for the transit system in multiple ways: (1) for the user; (2) for people walking or driving by and wanting information; and (3) more generally in terms of aesthetics and maintenance and how it communicates whether or not the community values transit, with poor condition shelters and stops with few if any amenities making clear that transit isn't valued.

This goes double for transit stations: subway; bus; railroads; and their combinations.

(Interestingly, only this year has the Federal Railroad Administration devolved to incorporate the kinds of ideas and not the best ones, that I suggested then.  But none on marketing. "Union Station overhaul removes parking spaces, adds underground facility," Washington Post.)

2.  Make May National Train Month.

The National Train Day that Amtrak did in the mid-2000s then dropped for budgetary reasons should be revived, involving the entire rail industry, but redeveloped into: 

(a.) Train Month.  One day out of 365 puts too much pressure, and people can only do one thing.  Train Month allows for more activities, spread out over an entire month, more attention, etc.; 

(c.) involving all types of train service, not just Amtrak, but all passenger train service, including regional commuter rail services

(d.) including freight railroad service; (e.) which could help with funding and visibility

(f.) also involving train and transit museums and tourist railroads.

Working with the American Public Transportation Association, the National Railway Historical Society and its local chapters, regional and state transportation museums, transit media such as Railway Age, Trains Magazine, Mass Transit, Classic Trains, Progressive Railroading, and Metro, and possibly with freight railroads and the Association of American Railroads, as well as excursion (tourist) railways, railroad passenger transportation agencies should revive the concept and create Train Month as a way to promote travel and transportation by rail, for commuting and leisure travel..

Ogden, Utah is home to the location of the Golden Spike National Monument, the place where the transcontinental railroad joined up.  The Ogden Standard-Examiner published a special book for the 150th anniversary.

-- "Golden Spike Centennial Edition," Ogden Standard-Examiner, 1969

But rather than one day, it should be done for the entire month of May designated  as National Train Month, spreading out activities over the course of the month by creating a calendar of events, coordinated at multiple scales (regional, state, national).

This would be timely especially given Amtrak's refocusing on expansion through their Amtrak Connects US program, calling for significant expansion of passenger rail service across the United States.

3. Other good models are various promotions especially tourism efforts by railroads in Japan, as featured on the NHK World television program, "Japan Railway Journal."  

In the late 1980s, Japan began privatizing the national rail system.  It broke it up into seven companies.  Some are capable of being independent, some are still government owned.  The regional JR services, usually with the foundation of high speed rail, are complemented by private railways operating on lines where the ridership is strong enough to maintain profitability, and by what are called third sector lines, which are a mix of privately run, privately owned, community owned or community subsidized.

Because the country is shrinking in population, especially in rural areas, railroads have focused on special tourism ventures to build ridership and revenues in the face of decline.  Some train stations have museum, there are efforts engaging children.  Using regional foods and special meals on trains.  Revitalization efforts.  Etc.

Although there are plenty of exemplary efforts outside of Japan.  Places that do special services for sports events or concerts.  Virginia Railway Express and its support of Clifton Days, a community heritage festival with a big dose of trains.  Souvenir tickets for children on the LIRR.  Various tourist railroads in the US.  Tourism promotion efforts by rail lines in England, and by AMT in Greater Montreal.  Etc.

4.  Train stations can be living "transportation and tourism museums."

Developing spaces and opportunities to present railroad history should be considered within the  program for the station's expansion.

Hertz rental car ad, 1955, featuring Washington DC's Union StationThis 1955 Hertz rental car ad features Washington's Union Station.  Because Union Station is multi-modal (railroad, subway, local bus, inter-city bus, streetcar, tourist services, taxi, bicycle, walking) it's a good location for a transportation museum.

I see this as being done as a kind of joint venture with existing museums in a region, especially those museums already presenting aspects of railroad-related history with a local angle.

A "transportation" museum at a train station like Union Station  in DC wouldn't have to develop a large permanent collection.  

It could more be a place for existing museums to display items that would otherwise remain in vaults, complemented by changing exhibits curated both locally and developed by and with other transportation museums around the country.

Partners could include the National Museum of American History, the National Postal Museum, the National Railroad Historical Society Washington chapter, the B&O Museum in Baltimore, and the National Capital Trolley Museum.

Because of Washington's place as a leading tourist destination and the multimodality represented by Union Station, exhibits on other elements of transportation and visitation history would also be appropriate.

Private railcars on display at a railfan expo in Barstow, California.

Private railcar storage could be "displayed" to the public as part of the exhibit program also. [Note: when this was first written, Amtrak had an active program of renting space to privately owned passenger railcars, including at Union Station.  This has since been de-emphasized.]

The way active trains are staged within the St. Pancras Station in London shows this can be done.   There the Eurostar platform is placed above the ground floor retail.  The train engines were quiet, unlike comparable locomotive engines in the US.
Fire closes Channel Tunnel!  Eurostar trains stranded @ St Pancras London

Renderings presented by Amtrak for a redo of DC's Union Station show something similar, the incorporation of the train shed into a kind of atrium, with active tracks.  I believe that this element has since been deemphasized in future planning for the station.

An example of the kinds of exhibits that could be presented is  the companion exhibit--shown here when staged at Chicago's Union Station--to the book Terminal Town, which covers all of the types of transportation terminals in Chicago.
Terminal Town Display at the James R. Thompson Center
“Terminal Town: Celebrating 75 Years of Travel to the Windy City,” exhibit on display at Thompson Center by the DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development. Photo by Jamie Moncrief/DePaul University.

The Market Street Railway--the F Line streetcar--is operated in part as a living transit museum.

5.  Add excursion rail programs to big city train stations.  Many states have scenic-excursion railroads that are tourist attractions.  There are a number of these systems in Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania, and the B&O Museum and the National Capital Trolley Museum have short tracks used for train riding.  NRHS chapters also organize excursion trips.

Most state rail plans do discuss, albeit briefly, excursion railroads and their place in the rail and tourism systems.  But they don't suggest integrating this into the passenger rail network as it currently exists.

For example, in the DC area, as a way to build interest and awareness of railroad service in the region, it could be worthwhile for the local commuter railroad agencies, MARC and Virginia Railway Express,  with the National Railway Historical Society and the proposed transportation museum in Union Station and the B&O Museum, to develop a special event railroad excursion program.

-- "Two train/regional transit ideas: Part 2 | Running tourist trains from Union Station," 2021

6.  Treating railroad stations within states and regions as a network.  I have been thinking about this for a number of months, after reading articles about railroad station efforts in Detroit ("MDOT wants to transform Detroit's 'cramped' Amtrak station into $57M hub with retail, more," Detroit Free Press) and Ann Arbor ("Ann Arbor tells feds it's willing to scale back $171M vision," Ann Arbor News), although I did make this point in a review of the Silver Spring Transit Center ("Multiple missed opportunities in the creation of the Silver Spring Transit Center," 2015; "Updating my review of the Silver Spring Transit Center: a few things I missed," 2018) and in "A well designed train station is a well designed train station: it's not about "luxury"," 2017.
and the Takoma Langley Crossroads Transit Center in Suburban Washington.

Of course the ultimate expressions of this idea are the station networks created by Southern Pacific in Southern California and the Boston & Albany Railroad's stations by H.H. Richardson, with landscaping by Olmstead.  

Santa Ana Train Station
Stations from San Diego to Santa Barbara express the California "Mediterranean" architectural style.

The efforts by Richardson and Olmstead, termed "railroad beautiful" influenced the development of the ideals of the "City Beautiful" Movement decades later.  (See "A Railroad Beautiful" and "The Treatment of City Squares--III; The Square Before the Railroad Station," House and Garden (2) 1902 and "Railroad Gardening," Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture.)  

7.  Train stations as vital urban hubs.  In "A well designed train station" I wrote:

I think more than "building a station to serve luxury markets," the issue is the design of the station as a way to maximize the quality of the trip and the experience, specifically: 

-- quality of accommodations for passenger throughput generally (entry and exit, connections to other transit services) 
-- quality of accommodations for passenger throughput specifically to/from and on platforms 
-- centrality of its location (for example the recently in the news Michigan Central Station was deliberately constructed in a location outside of the center "to avoid congestion" thinking it could attract patronage regardless) 
-- its place and position as the anchor of the area transit system and the mixed use district in which it is placed 
-- amenities, especially retail and food service 
-- architectural design and aesthetics.

We don't have to reinvent, the basic principles were set long ago.  For example, the book pictured at right was first published in 1916.  I can't find the cite but there's an equally great book on this, dating to the 1890s.

There is the new Penn Station in NYC, which I haven't yet had the chance to visit.  Grand Central and Penn Station in New York City, Union Station in DC, somewhat 30th Street Station in Philadelphia are much closer to the example of European train stations as major city hubs as well as transportation hubs--multiple stations in London, the main station in Hamburg, Gare de Lyon in Paris, etc. are all fabulous places, community and city centers, and mobility hubs.

Granted in the US, most major cities lack the kind of density needed to be able to create that kind of facility, as shown by the failure of new stations like the Anaheim Regional Transportation and Intermodal Center (poorly located, not served by a lot of transit, waiting for HSR).  

Still, it's the model to aim for.

8.  Finally, another element is interpreting transportation history not just as part of community cultural history interpretation programs, but as a part of transit systems.  Many years ago, Passaic County, New Jersey included this idea as a section of their county transportation plan, including railroads, transit, roads, canals, and rivers.  

DC's history trail interpretation program could be a model for the creation of community-wide railroad history "trails," with Union Station as the hub of the interpretation system.  

The sign below is in Chicago, and presents the history of a railroad bridge.  A handful of communities, the Ride Philadelphia program is one, information at the Queen Street Station in Lancaster, Pennsylvania is another, have transportation history interpretation programs that are good models.
Cherry Avenue bridge interpretation and facts
Cherry Avenue bridge interpretation sign, Chicago.  Flickr photo by Steven Vance.

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Takoma Park resident vows to vote against all local public officials this fall, because of the failure of the Purple Line light rail, but the failure is because of the Governor, who is termed out

Rick Scheer of Takoma Park writes in a letter to the editor of the Washington Post:

Those of us who live, work or shop in east Silver Spring have mostly concluded that the Purple Line project is something between a major disappointment and a total fiasco. Based on the interviews in the May 8 Metro article “Maryland Purple Line construction will resume in August, officials say,” I’m now leaning toward fiasco. 

We’ve been suffering from torn-up streets, unfinished tunnels and bridges, and other public eyesores for more than two years, and ongoing work to move utility lines for the project routinely causes local traffic snarls. 

Officials said that with the new contract, work would commence this spring. I learned from the article that they really meant late summer. Even that work is focused on the Purple Line’s end points in Bethesda and Prince George’s County. The road-widening efforts affecting east Silver Spring are not scheduled until spring 2023, a full year from now, assuming the effort ixxxs on schedule (ha!). And this construction will be wildly disruptive, so say the new project managers. 

In all local elections this November, for me the Purple Line will be the primary ballot consideration. I plan to hold all local officials accountable for this fiasco, and not a single incumbent will get my vote.

But the Purple Line fiasco is all a result of the Executive Branch of the State Government, specifically the Republican Governor, Larry Hogan, and his directives to the State Department of Transportation.  

Scheer will be punishing the wrong people. It's all Hogan's fault. 

No local officials at the city and county level, and even the State Senators and Representatives have anything to do with it.

First Hogan delayed the Purple Line with another review when he first got elected.  This led to delays with the Federal Transit Administration approving funding. 

Then the Republican emphasis on pushing the selection of a public private partnership to do the project, including providing some financing:

-- "Purple Line moves forward," 2017
-- "A Purple Line update: the downside of "Public Private Partnerships" -- they are contracts, not partnerships," 2017
-- "Public-private "partnerships" aren't partnerships but contractual relationships," 2017 

The partnership picking a less suitable construction group. 

The state being unwilling to renegotiate certain elements of the contract when costs rose and then the construction company quitting as a result.  And needing to find a new construction group.

-- "Sometimes you have to wonder if transit/transit projects are being deliberately screwed up to make transit expansion almost impossible," 2022

The various lawsuits etc. 

But Republican Governor Hogan is termed out.  He can't be punished at the ballot box.  He's the one who needs to be held accountable, but there is no accountability.

I understand Scheer's frustration.  I first read about the concept of the Purple Line in a cover story in the Washington City Paper in December 1987.  It will be almost 40 years before the first segment, from Bethesda to New Carrollton, comes to fruition.

No planning is underway for any of the other segments.  At this rate it will take more than 100 years to bring it to fruition.

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Thursday, May 12, 2022

Millcreek City, Utah to incorporate public climbing wall into its City Hall

Millcreek was an unincorporated part of Salt Lake County.  Fearing annexation from Salt Lake City, it incorporated part of the township into a city.  Comprised of residential areas and car centric commercial areas, it is in the process of creating a "center" along 3300 South, building a new city hall and related facilities.

Millcreek was awarded a $200,000 grant to build an 81-foot tall climbing wall on the northeast corner of City Hall. The tallest outdoor climbing wall in the state, it will be operated by a private contractor.

They just announced that their under construction City Hall will incorporate a public climbing wall (Millcreek City newsletter).  

Given my support for co-location of public facilities ("Prototyping and municipal capital improvement programs," 2008; "Five examples of the failure to do parks and public space master planning in DC," 2021; "Update: Neighborhood libraries as nodes in a neighborhood and city-wide network of cultural assets," 2019), I think this is really interesting.

I like the way that the concept of a network of civic or public assets was illustrated by parks planner David Barth.

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Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Bureau of Engraving and Printing to move to Greenbelt, disconnected pretty much from transit

Very early on into my urban revitalization involvement in DC, I met a guy who lives in Capitol Hill, is a lifelong Washingtonian, his family being multi-generational, who at the time lived in an alley dwelling (one of the reasons I'm interested in alley dwellings and accessory dwelling units).  

We even led some alley tours together as part of Cultural Tourism DC events, and have interacted ever since.

He worked at BEP, which he reminded me, is one of the city's top tourist attractions--people go there to see currency being printed ("Bureau of Engraving and Printing: Making our money since 1862," Kidspost, Washington Post).

United States one dollar bills get rotated before being cut into individual pieces during production at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington November 14, 2014. (Gary Cameron/Reuters)

BEP is unusual in that it is an industrial facility, printing money, and over the years, city locations tend to be seen as not particularly good for industrial functions.  

The BEP space is multi-story and firms like to manufacture on one floor, and it's a constrained location, it doesn't have any opportunity to grow out and reconfigure.

My friend says one of the reasons BEP has agitated for a suburban location is most of the people who work there live in the suburbs and drive rather than take transit to work ("New $1.4 billion Washington ‘money factory’ gets green light," Roll Call).

They've finally announced where they plan to relocate, to a site on the Beltsville Agricultural Station campus, which is north of the Greenbelt Metrorail Station ("Soon your money will be made in Maryland — literally," WTOP radio).  From the article:

The bureau is relocating from its historic building overlooking the Tidal Basin on 14th Street Southwest to unused 104-acre site at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center that sits along Powder Mill Road — about halfway between the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and Maryland Route 201. 

“The facility in Washington is more than 100 years old, very inefficient for 21st century manufacturing,” said Len Olijar, the bureau’s director. 

A building that was state of the art when it opened in 1914 now “is a very challenging facility for us to produce in,” he said. “It’s hard to maintain temperature and humidity, and both temperature and humidity affect paper significantly when you’re printing.” 

... It’s a result of Prince George’s County luring federal buildings and the jobs they bring in. “It’s an enormously important project for the county,” said David Iannucci, the president and CEO of the Prince George’s County Economic Development Corporation. 

“We’ll take great pride in the idea that one of the two places in the United States [where] currency is going to be printed is going to be in Prince George’s County,” said Iannucci. 

He noted that it’s located not far from one of the county’s major employment corridors. “The [nearby U.S.] Route 1 corridor right now around College Park is probably the most dynamic area in Prince George’s County in terms of job growth; the construction of new facilities, both apartments and offices; and building around the strengths of the University of Maryland,” he said. 

The location will also appeal to many people who already make the trek to Southwest D.C. every day. “Many of these employees already live in Prince George’s County,” said Iannucci. “So we’re going to offer many of them a lot simpler commute.”

Some residents aren't happy about this ("The Beltsville Agricultural Research Center is not ripe for development," Washington Post).  

It appears that the actual site is about 3.5 miles from the Metrorail station, making it pretty unlikely that people will use transit to get there, even with shuttle bus services.  Instead they'll drive.

While the National Capital Planning Commission, the entity responsible for planning the area's federal sites and locations (see the Federal Elements in the DC Comprehensive Land Use Plan), not limited to DC proper, has serious transportation demand management requirements for siting federal facilities, increasingly it appears that they are being ignored, and agencies are moving to sites that are poorly reached by transit.

-- The Federal Employee Transportation Coordinator's Transportation Management Plan Handbook

From the webpage for the NCPC Transportation Element Update:

The Transportation Element provides policy guidance to support a regional multimodal transportation system that promotes responsible land use and development and contributes to a high quality of life for residents, workers, and visitors, while improving regional mobility, transportation access, and environmental quality. The updated Element includes a supporting Addendum which details Transportation Demand Management and Transportation Management Plans.

I understand the manufacturing requirements for BEP and why the location in DC proper is no longer suitable.  Even if it comes at the cost of DC's tourism offer ("Popular tourist stop Bureau of Engraving and Printing may move to Maryland," WTOP) and transit efficiency.

Streetcar entering Bureau of Engraving + Printing tunnel 1960.

When the area population was more concentrated, most federal workers got to work by streetcar and bus.

Negative impact on the area transit system.  But at the same time, every agency that leaves DC usually does so at the expense of transit by locating in poorly connected places with limited transit service.

This will lead to a drop in ridership and revenue for Metrorail, which needs every rider and dollar it can get, and a significantly increased number of motor vehicle trips and more road congestion.

At the very least, agencies should be required to be close to transit, ideally accessible via multiple lines, and to facilitate this, the federal government should re-commit to helping fund transit extensions for both Metrorail and the "soon to be built" Purple Line light rail which will serve Montgomery and Prince George's Counties, but was also conceptualized to include Alexandria and Arlington and Fairfax Counties.

The section of the Purple Line under construction is from Bethesda to New Carrollton. 

Note that I made the point that the military base consolidation process also affected the DC area negatively on this dimension, in that the process specifically disavowed responsibility for transportation and transit on the part of the federal government, despite changes that made the system less efficient ("BRAC and transit efficiency," 2009).

This photo shows the results of a local business tracking how its employees get to work.

It should be required that agencies that move out of the city do before and after data collection on how people get to work.

Federal agency leakage as a DC economic development issue.  This may or may not be a DC "economic development" issue.  Are there opportunity costs in having federal agencies?  

On the other hand losing any agency can be seen as a negative act for DC, given that DC isn't particularly successful in broadening its business sector ("Boeing to move "headquarters" to Northern Virginia," "Why Mayor Bowser is right to be leery of systematic lowering of taxes," 2015) and that central business districts because of covid are hurting big time ("To recover from COVID-19, downtowns must adapt," Brookings) and DC is no exception ("As offices stay empty, downtown D.C. looks for post-pandemic identity," Washington Post)

Because of security requirements, federal buildings tend to be anti-city because they require big setbacks and militate against mixed use, and federal employees don't spend a whole lot of money on food and sundries--consumer surveys for the Southwest DC Ecodistrict planning initiative found that about 65% of federal employees don't eat out.

I go back and forth depending on the agency.  There are opportunities for larger spaces but they are not in the central business district.  And actually, BEP's move could result in more space for different agencies.  Similarly, the Government Printing Office wants to move too and it has a large space.  

And the FBI, although they should do a "reengineering" of its staffing functions, keep headquarters personnel in the core, while perhaps other functions could move ("Maryland hopes revived for landing FBI headquarters," Maryland Daily Record).

Although it diminishes the primacy of DC as the home of the federal government, even if the Capitol, White House, and Supreme Court, agencies do, especially when anti-government types hold elective office.  

For example, during the Trump Administration the USDA Economic Research Service moved to Kansas City ("After the relocation gutted their workforces, USDA research agencies struggle to rebuild," Federal News Network) and the Bureau of Land Management to Grand Junction, Colorado although under President Biden its moving back ("Interior will move BLM headquarters, senior officials back to DC," Federal News Network).

For a long time, Republicans haven't been interested in investing in agencies that are located in DC ("Consumer bureau headquarters renovation plan gets GOP flak," Los Angeles Times, "Congressional dysfunction isn't battering the Washington area economy, it's the anti-government perspective of the Republicans," 2018, "Implications of a Trump/McConnell/Ryan Administration on DC's commercial real estate market," 2016).

And as the quotes in the WTOP article indicate, suburban jurisdictions are constantly recruiting agencies that are based in DC. And they have way more Representatives and Senators than DC.

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Boeing to move "headquarters" to Northern Virginia

According to the Post ("Boeing's move to Virginia will mean few new jobs in DC"), it's not as big as a deal as it seems, because it will add relatively few people to Boeing's existing operations in the area, which are focused on military procurement.  

When I first saw the news I thought five things: 

(1) it demonstrates that Boeing thinks that the military business will be even more significant going forward ("Boeing is losing the plane race. So it packed up and moved to Washington," CNN);

(2) I wondered if this was because Boeing wanted to communicate it was more concerned about fixing its relationship with its regulator, the Federal Aviation Administration, given all the various failures over the 737MAX program ("How ‘Boeing’s Fatal Flaw’ Grounded the 737 Max and Exposed Failed Oversight," New York Times, "Q&A: What led to Boeing's 737 MAX crisis," Seattle Times, "A Tale of Two Boeing Boards — The Disparate Conclusions of the Justice Department and the Delaware Chancery Court," JDSupra, "The Long-Forgotten Flight That Sent Boeing Off Course," Atlantic Magazine).  

... just like the old MCI long distance phone company located in DC because its formative years were spent suing AT&T and lobbying the Federal Communications Commission on opening up of the telephony market. But then again, there is the issue of "regulatory capture."

But if that mattered wouldn't they have chosen an in DC location?

(3) why isn't DC proper particularly successful in landing high profile business headquarters? There is lots of coverage in planning circles about companies moving back to cities, after having decamped for the suburbs.  But this movement seems to bypass DC:

-- "Could bringing premier regionally headquartered business enterprises to the Pennsylvania Avenue Corridor be key to its renewal and revitalization?," 2014
-- "A lesson that seeing is believing: Panasonic's new building in Newark, NJ as an example, positive and negative, in businesses coming back to the city center," 2015
-- "Businesses moving back to the center: not a universal trend," 2015
-- "DC, Transformational Projects Action Planning, and the Baltimore-Washington Maglev project," 2021
-- "Do tax incentives pay off? : Illinois; Tennessee; Rosslyn + "The Airport Access Factor"," 2017

I can think of four instances now: Hilton; Nestle; Amazon HQ2 (but there, DC's response didn't meet the stated criteria for a large amount of contiguous office space); and Boeing for which it appears DC proper was never considered.

The Post article said that Northern Virginia leaders lobbying Boeing for this to increase the area's visibility and to get a win, even though it doesn't appear to be that significant:

The jet and weapons manufacturer’s decision to relocate was the result of a lengthy lobbying campaign by leaders in the region, reflecting the Washington area’s growing appeal to global corporations. Yet the shift appears unlikely to accompany a major economic boost in the short term. 

Amy Liu, a vice president at the Brookings Institution and director of its Metropolitan Policy Program, said the company’s Northern Virginia move is a win for the region — at least in terms of perception. 

 “It’s a big vote of confidence that this is a community that can hold a global brand,” she said. “Even if there are not major job changes that are attached to the move, the fact that the corporate headquarters is in Northern Virginia means that the company wants to be known and branded in this region.” 

She predicted Boeing would eventually add or shift other services to Arlington, eventually adding more jobs. Other companies will see Boeing’s shift as a sign that Northern Virginia is leaving behind its identity as a home only for government contractors, she said, while establishing itself as a high-tech hub.

To the person who asked me about this, and sent me an article about it, I did suggest that DC's economic planners and development officials aren't particularly good.  C. 2003 when I knew a lot less about urban planning and economic development than I do today, I thought they were much better.  Mostly, they are followers.

The city is decently successful around law and lobbying firms, and trade associations, plus multiunit housing, entertainment districts, and to some extant, retail, but not in keeping federal agencies nor in landing large businesses that desire proximity to the federal government.  WRT Northern Virginia and to some extent, Montgomery County, lap the city significantly ("The East-West Divide | DC area regional economic development: anchors and where they are placed matter + airports | But military spending matters the most." 2021).

(4) At the same time, I wonder if the "animus" about "Washington" directed by much of the general public wrt national politics based here--although they forget that that Washington is produced by their voting choices back home, and they create the cesspool by making bad voting choices--makes it harder for DC to recruit corporate businesses to the city proper, because they don't want the association? ("Basically Everybody Under 40 Hates Washington," Time Magazine).

(5) and finally, will crony capitalism send more business headquarters to the DC area?  Given that Republicans are inclined to "get all up in the business of business" given the actions by Florida Governor DeSantis to punish Disney Corporation after it spoke out against State-passed culture war laws ("Disney government dissolution bill signed by DeSantis," AP, "Sen. Josh Hawley's Move to Strip Disney's Copyrights Called 'Blatantly Unconstitutional'," Variety), will businesses relocate to be around the national center of power, the way that it happens in other countries.  

For example, Thessaloniki lost its preeminence as Greece's center for business and industry as more companies felt they were better served by relocating to Athens, to be closer to the politicians.  (Turkey and Istanbul is another example.)


DC has a branding problem.  WRT DC proper, it needs to refocus on branding and identity development, and how to create a brand for the city that isn't tainted by national politics ("City Branding (Place Branding) | Meaning, Stages & Examples," PlanningTank, "Strengthening the city’s reputation in the age of cities: an insight in the city branding theory," City, Territory, and Architecture).

-- THE BRANDING OF CITIES: Exploring City Branding and the Importance of Brand Image, masters thesis

The city has "leaned in" on being the national capital and leader of the free world.  (I joke that because the US is still the strongest nation, even after Trump's destruction of so many elements of the nation's leadership, that people in DC define anything they do as "world class" whether or not it is.)

But at the same time, "the nation and the world" define DC solely in terms of its place as the political headquarters of the US, diminishing the local brand and any sense of an independent, local identity.

I've written about this a lot, starting with, "Town-City branding or "We are all destination managers now"" (2005).  

-- "City branding versus identity | Branding versus Urban Strategy," 2019 (this entry has multiple links to previous entries on the topic)

But this is much more than about making a community great for residents ("placemaking") and attractive to tourists.  It's about a noxious reputation created by others over which "the city" has minimal levers to impact.


FWIW, the move of Boeing's HQ to Chicago from Seattle is seen as a bad move, in disconnecting the administration of the company from its core business, plane production, especially as the firm started in Seattle (although now it has significant operations in Wichita and Charleston, South Carolina, among others).  Part of this was to distance the company from the strong union presence at the Seattle area manufacturing facilities.

-- "Inside Boeing's Big Move," Harvard Business Review, 2001

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Thursday, May 05, 2022

Networks as a commodity or differentiator: EV charging networks

There's an article ("There's An EASY Fix For Our EV Charging Network," CarBuzz) about how one of the problems with electric vehicles is the different standards for charging networks, and specifically how Tesla's system is incompatible with others.

The article suggests that it's in Tesla's interest to make its network compatible, because that will reduce reticence on the part of potential EV buyers.

As mentioned recently, cities have a real issue in providing access in rowhouse neighborhoods ("Earth Day 2022").  

In Seattle, the City Light utility instead of constructing buildings on lots, wants to put in EV chargers ("Seattle City Light Plans More Surface EV Charging Lots in Dense Neighborhoods," The Urbanist).  And there are real problems with chargers now in terms of them actually working, people blocking them, etc.

ATMs.  The story reminded me of how in the beginning of ATMs, banks saw them as a key differentiator and a way to get more customers.  So they didn't share their networks with other banks in their market, but were focused on adding affiliates in other markets.  

The classic example is the MAC network that started in Philadelphia with Philadelphia National Bank.  

When I moved to Washington in the late 1980s, MAC was a big thing.  When I worked on television about telecommunications and IT in the early 1990s, I came across this article about it ("MAC—Philadelphia National Bank’s Strategic Venture in Shared ATM Networks," Journal of Management Information Systems, 1990)

Today, it mostly doesn't matter, people don't think of particular banks and ATM networks, except when they want to avoid fees when they take money out standalone, at machines in networks in which your bank is not a member (best way to avoid this is to buy something at a pharmacy or grocery and take money out).

Gasoline too was once differentiated.  Back in the day, gasoline companies like Texaco, Gulf, Standard, Conoco, Shell, Esso, etc., invested a lot of money in branding, advertising, and points of differentiation--from clean restrooms at Texaco to "touring services," maps, and special blends of gasoline, etc.  

Mobil redesigned its stations to be particularly design forward, etc.

-- Mobil logo design

-- "The gas stations that Eliot Noyes designed for Mobil Oil," Domus

Now, gas is gas.  Do people really go out of their way to buy Chevron or Speedway gasoline?  Well, they might, especially if they participate in loyalty programs that provide discounts on the cost of gas, but other than that, no.

Tesla supercharger network.  It truly is a differentiator now.  It charges cars so much faster than a typical charger.  And at least in the beginning, Tesla offered "free charging for life" or other charger network access incentives as part of the car marketing and buying process.  People are bummed that these incentive programs are being eliminated.  

OTOH, there are complaints that even Tesla's branded supercharger network isn't always well maintained.

New competitive advantages, even with "commodities."  But, this article ("More On Tesla Opening Up Its Supercharger Network To Other EVs," InsideEVs) makes a very good point about access still providing the capacity for differentiation or at least competitive advantage, in that cars of competitor marques using the network would have to provide trackable information that Tesla could use for better understanding the market, as well as having the names and contact information on non-Tesla EV car owners.

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Wednesday, May 04, 2022

It's hard to maintain a historic preservation ethic without constant promotion, in the face of forces that promote open concepts, stainless steel appliances, etc.

A May is Historic Preservation Month article. Also see:

-- "May is National Preservation Month"

Caption: Married physicians Ana Barac and Federico Asch bought a 99-year-old Sears kit house in Cleveland Park in Northwest Washington in 2021.

 They renovated it into a stunning and modern home, while keeping the exterior in line with demands from historic boards. (Mike Morgan/ for The Washington Post)

Reading this article in the Washington Post about the state of the housing market, I was struck by the caption of this photo, which is dismissive of historic preservation.

I don't know why, maybe because the rowhouse I had owned had been poorly renovated, but I hadn't been super interested in the preservation of house interiors.  Sure there were plenty of stunning rowhouses, but I mostly only visited them.

Then when we got our bungalow, which is nothing fancy, definitely not Craftsman full of gorgeous wood built ins etc., I became a lot more interested in house interiors and maintaining some fealty to original design and flow (no open concept for us).

It's definitely unassuming.  But it's about 1,000 square feet on the first floor with a walk out basement, and semi-finished attic and a huge (for a city) backyard.

Our house is simple, wood floors, some old fixtures and appliances, radiators, a fireplace.  No air conditioning.  Mostly intact wood windows.  Some hutches, etc.  But its simplicity and comfort made me appreciate those design values and want to preserve them.

Anyway, interior preservation isn't part of the regulatory regime of historic preservation when it comes to "average houses," only those that may rise to the significance level of individual landmarks.

Certainly in the competition with HGTV, fancy shelter magazines, and large incomes, interiors of simple houses don't fare well when it comes to big renovation projects like those of Ana Barac and Federico Asch ("An original Sears ‘kit house’ is reassembled into a modern knockout").

I mean, they have a Sears Kit House, the production of which has an amazing pedigree and history, and they destroyed the inside! ("DC’s hidden secret: Million-dollar homes built from DIY kits," WTOP-radio).

There were actually a number of kit house producers, back in the day.

-- "How to Research the History of Your House: Kit Houses," Ball State University


Revisiting Participatory "budgeting" and disposition of funds from legal settlements

In 2015 I wrote "Participatory "budgeting" and disposition of funds from legal settlements," because the DC Attorney General, Karl Racine, won some settlements, and he directed the proceeds to particular nonprofit organizations.

I found this troubling because (1) these are grants and (2) there was no "open and transparent public process" for making the grants.

Instead it was at the whim and interest of the Attorney General.

While it is likely he involved other people in the office in the process, citizens had no say. 

At the time, I suggested "participatory budgeting" processes could be used, where citizens set the agenda for how to use and direct such funds.

It happened again. (And has probably multiple other times as well.)

The Washington Post reports, "Trump organizations agree to pay $750,000 to settle lawsuit with D.C.," and that the funds will be directed to two nonprofit organizations.  From the article:

Racine’s office identified two D.C. nonprofit, youth-oriented organizations — Mikva Challenge DC and DC Action — that will each receive $375,000 via the settlement. 

Kimberly Perry, executive director of DC Action, said the 30-year-old child advocacy organization plans to use the funds to continue various initiatives for D.C. youths on education, health and economic security. ...

Mikva Challenge, which has been in the District since 2015 and part of a national organization, trains D.C. youths on civic leadership and democracy. It also provides summer jobs for school-age youths to work with D.C. political leaders such as the city council, attorney general’s office and the mayor’s office. On May 17, the organization will hold a mayoral debate regarding issues affecting D.C. youths.

They might be the best youth serving organizations in the city.  They might be the worst.  We don't know.  And we as citizens had no way to weigh in on the decision making process that led to the disbursement of these grants.

WRT the disbursement of legal settlements to "worthy organizations," the Attorney General's office should be required to have a strategic plan developed in a public process, setting consensus priorities for what to fund, and a process for organizations to apply for funds, and for the proposals to be evaluated, and funds awarded.

I know that Mr. Racine decided not to run for reelection ("D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine will not seek elective office in 2022," Post).  But still, this kind of grant making is a classic example of the potential for steering funds to supporters and incumbency.

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Tuesday, May 03, 2022

DCPS middle schools in black wards, "positive deviance" and the pull of the attractiveness of schools in the upper income wards west

For a longer term project and blog entry*, I have two books that I am trying to read, Marketing Schools, Marketing Cities and How to Walk to School: Blueprint for a Neighborhood School Renaissance.  

The first book is critical of efforts to create urban schools that are especially attractive to high income (read "white") households who are attracted to urban living, but repelled by poor quality schools.  It's a study of a school created with the support of the University of Pennsylvania and the Center City Business Improvement District.

The second describes the efforts of parents and principal to revive and make more attractive a Chicago elementary school located in a neighborhood that was attracting in-migration of high income households.

I happened to write a couple entries in the past couple months about middle schools: 

-- "A positive deviance failure in Boston: Timilty Middle School"
-- "DC schools capital planning: a legacy of waste"

The piece about the decline, rise, fall and dissolution of Timilty School in Boston made me realize that despite how attractive I find "positive deviance theory" ("Your Company's Secret Change Agents," Harvard Business Review, Positive Deviance Collaborative) the forces favoring inertia are supra powerful.  

Timilty could have been used as a fulcrum for transforming the city's schools, which today are facing state takeover ("Boston community members voice concern over possible state takeover of schools," Boston Globe).  Instead it was shunned, ignored, and avoided.

Cass Tech vacant and before demolition.

In the piece on capital planning, in the comments I realized that while charlie is right that the decision to expand Banneker High School by moving it to the former Shaw Junior High site was the right move, they could have built a taller, bigger building, with the middle school on the bottom, and Banneker on top.

After all, the original and renowned Cass Technical High School in Detroit was seven stories!

And made it a supra duper magnet school combination.  "Stronger together."  

But without robust planning processes, and the schools master planning hasn't been particularly exemplary, the likelihood of creative ideas bubbling to the surface and leading to visionary outcomes is pretty remote.

After I wrote those pieces, the Post ran another story, "Bowser’s vow of better middle schools falls short in poorest D.C. wards," about how despite the push to have middle schools in lower income areas of the city, comparable to the push to add middle schools in Ward 4, and to continue to invest in other middle schools, those schools suffer from minimal enrollment, and instead families prefer to have their children go to schools in what we might call "white wards."

That's very interesting.  

Is it out of the idea that "white schools" are better as a matter of course, that they get more resources despite claims of equity and the areas are safer, or that because of the under-enrollment, the local middle schools have limited offerings, combined with crime and other problems in the neighborhoods around the schools and sometimes within the school itself?

I was also thinking about positive deviance within the DC Public School system, which I've written about a lot, but I was wondering if other than demographics and donations by wealthier parents, is there something that can be learned from the operation of schools in the areas "west of Rock Creek Park" that can be codified and replicated and transferred to the operation of schools east of Rock Creek Park? 


* When we first moved to Salt Lake, I came across an article that said that demographic projections were such that the school system would be losing enrollment.  It turns out this is because households with large numbers of children (Mormons...) are leaving the city, and that the people attracted to urban living have fewer or no children.

Now, especially as a result of covid, the system is looking at closing schools ("Here are the 14 Salt Lake City schools proposed for possible boundary changes or closures," Salt Lake Tribune).  

I am not super familiar with where all the schools are located, but basically the schools under the greatest threat of closure are in the center and western parts of the city. 

I'm a bit surprised so many west side schools are under threat of closure because that is higher minority population demographically with a tendency to larger families. 

The southeastern part of the city is the highest income and no schools are proposed to be closed there.  (Two schools are under threat in the high end Avenues neighborhood, which is northeast.)

The center city is more dense, but tends to have households with few or no children. (In an odd instance, where we live there are 18 kids within a few houses of us, but that is atypical, although we are on the east side.)

I find it interesting that the center city areas are children-light, but it isn't surprising.  Although as I have written before ("Rethinking community planning around maintaining neighborhood civic assets and anchors"), for neighborhood revitalization purposes, I argue that it can be important to keep some neighborhood schools open, despite low enrollments for reasons of place and community values.

Anyway, while the various schools will have to fight to stay open, either by repositioning their curriculum and offerings to attract more students (albeit at the expense of other schools) or by being chosen to stay open at the expense of other schools, it turns out that the school system invests very little in developing the capacity of schools to market and develop their program and "brand."  If they think about it at all, they expect the schools to do it on their own.

A friend teaches at one of the schools under threat and asked me to talk with them about repositioning, marketing, etc.

When I lived in the H Street NE neighborhood, by Wilson Elementary School, I argued that all schools should do the equivalent of the Project for Public Spaces "How to Turn A Place Around" workshop as a way to build stronger connections with the neighborhood around the school, which is increasingly important as fewer households have children.

When we first moved to Manor Park in Ward 4, a charter school had recently opened a couple blocks away, and for the first couple years, they were very outreach focused, inviting community members to events and presentations, building a playground in the front of the school open to the neighborhood, etc.

But over time, they stopped reaching out.  And frankly, maybe most people rebuffed their efforts.

In any case, like I wrote in this piece in 2006 ("Main Street and getting schooled in politics, constituency building, and building support for your program"), organizations have to be constantly outwardly focused and engaged in order to remain relevant and supported. 

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Public housing and property values: Alexandria, Virginia as a not generalizable case?

Urban Institute did a study of public housing in Alexandria, Virginia--a super high value housing market, marked by historic housing in the core that is in high demand, and proximate to the public housing there--and said that public housing doesn't reduce property values ("What Does Affordable Housing Do to Nearby Property Values?," Bloomberg).

The public housing is probably maintained better than the typical public housing agency. The properties are intermingled in super high value residential areas, which is atypical.  The article also acknowledges that the public housing in Alexandria doesn't have the poor design and construction values typical of public housing. 

I think the wrong lessons will be drawn from this--people across the country will tout that "public housing" doesn't reduce property values, and this will be used to justify public housing construction in the face of nimby opposition elsewhere.

The real lessons are:

(1) High quality public housing (and actually it's been rebuilt, it had been old and tired) 

(2) that is well managed

(3) built with quality architectural design and construction values

(4) is well located

(5) intermingled in high value residential areas (with access to high quality amenities)

(6) works better, is valued more highly and doesn't impinge on market rate housing values.

The fact is that most public housing authorities are financially strapped, poor property managers of ugly and poorly constructed buildings that are often not well located.

DC would be an interesting case study as well.  Most people don't know that Capitol Hill has the most amount of public housing of most any neighborhood in the city, and the neighborhood is extremely high valued despite the presence and proximity of public housing.

But the public housing that is there tends to be problematic in terms of design and construction value, and association with nuisance behavior and crime.  

For example, Kentucky Courts and Potomac Gardens are on the edge of Capitol Hill. Super problematic, ugly ("Police identify two men fatally shot near Potomac Gardens in Southeast Washington," Washington Post). 

Potomac Gardens

Regardless of their poor condition and crime problems, the demand for nearby high quality historic housing supersedes the nuisance value of the public housing. 

Although that is the case now that the demand for urban living has changed--20 years ago, that wasn't the case ("THE NEIGHBORHOOD SYMBOLIZED D.C. GENTRIFICATION -- THEN SOMETHING WENT VERY WRONG," Washington Post).   The neighborhood needed more residents in order to counter nuisance forces, and that came with the addition of various multiunit housing developments, as well as the continued rehabilitation of formerly vacant properties.  

Plus, once the demand for urban living switched to positive c. 2000, the city experienced greater numbers of higher income households moving into the city, including in Capitol Hill.

During the HOPE6 Clinton years another public housing project, Ellen Wilson Dwellings, was de-socialed, where only 25% of the units remained for low income after reconstruction ("Dream City," 1999, "'Hood winked," 2002, Washington City Paper). 

A different project, located on the other side of the Southeast-Southwest Freeway, the Arthur Capper Dwellings (now called Capper-Carrollsburg) was demolished and rebuilt as mostly as market rate rowhouses with some public housing organized as rowhouse apartments intermingled ("Old D.C. Housing Projects Give Way To New," 2012, WAMU/NPR). 

After.  Photos: JDLand


Those houses are plenty expensive.  I don't know the quality of the management of the public housing properties.  They seem to be well maintained.  

What's fascinating to me is there's an owners association for the development that precludes membership and participation by tenants in the public housing units--it's the equivalent of "poor doors" in New York City ("The “Poor Door” and the Glossy Reconfiguration of City Life," New Yorker).

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