“The art of doing well with one dollar, which any bungler can do with two after a fashion”

A paragraph on what we might today call “good transit” in Railroaded:

What distinguished railroads from the natural geography through which they ran was their centrality to measures of value; they transformed everything around them. There is no such thing as a badly placed river on a mountain, although humans may wish they were located elsewhere. They are wehre they are, but engineers located railroads for human purposes. There were good locations and bad. To determine the line between “the utterly bad and the barely tolerable” in railway location, Wellington relied on a second abstract measure: the dollar. Wellington thought engineering should not be considered the art of construction but rather “the art of doing that well with one dollar, which any bungler can do with two after a fashion.” How to build a railroad was widely studied, but “the larger questions of where to build and when to buil, and whether to build them at all” had been neglected.

Hm, if only there were some process for building infrastructure that “relied on the dollar”…

New standards for ridiculousness in historic preservation

Because Arlington County, VA is not home to many properties over 100 years old, planning officials have turned their historic preservation efforts to those properties they do have to preserve. The Sun Gazette reports:

The first phase of the effort focused on only a very narrow slice of property types in Arlington: garden apartments, shopping centers and commercial properties more than 50 years old. Leventhal said those types of properties are most vulnerable to redevelopment.

It sounds like preservation efforts in Arlington will be much less restrictive that the often discussed Landmark Designation in New York. However, the new policy will certainly increase uncertainty and cost for redeveloping protected property. And of course the question here is, are strip malls from the 1960s really worth preserving?

Miles Grant at The Green Miles hits the nail on the head with this quote:

But saying properties more than 50 years old are most vulnerable to redevelopment is like saying cars more than 10 years old are most vulnerable to being traded in.

Sure, if classic cars were protected and not allowed to be traded in, we would see more on the road. The trade-off, though, would be that consumers would not be able to choose the cars that best meet their needs.

While Smart Growth supporters and historic preservation activists share the same propensity for top-down control of development, this issue gets to the core of their inherent conflict. The preservation of car-centric development prevents higher density, walkable communities, even when this is what the market demands. While individuals may attempt to embrace both ideologies, protecting mediocre mid-century suburban architecture necessarily comes at the expense of Smart Growth principles.


I’ve you have any interesting in Philadelphia or architectural history, you should be reading Philaphilia (scroll down past the weird drawing – I know). I think the Empty Lot of the Week feature (most recent one here) is my favorite. That is all.

Then and now, financial ruin edition

So I bought Richard White’s Railroaded based on the interview Emily blogged about earlier, and so far I’m enjoying it. It can be a bit polemical (“He was an eclectic hater who hated people who often hated one another”) and by page 34 I’ve already gotten lost a few times in railroad finance jargon, but hopefully that’ll ease as I get further in the book.

Anyway, in the beginning the author makes reference to commonalities between today’s financial mess(es) and the intercontinentals. Here’s the first one I saw:

The Central Pacific and other transcontinental railroads, their bankers, and the syndicates together lured investors, who had first ventured into the financial markets during the Civil War, along the financial gangplank one small step at a time. Investors proceeded from government bonds to government-secured railroad bonds, to convertible bonds, to mortgage bonds vouched for by the same people who sold the government bonds, to a whole array of financial instruments, and from there, potentially, into the drink.

A Tale of Two Densities

I was catching up on posts over at The Old Urbanist, and came across his astute analysis of setbacks that many of you probably saw a while back. Focusing on the requirement for large front lawns in many towns across the country, Charlie Gardner writes:

Old Urbanist's example of Murfreesboro, TN

Whether this reflects a continuing market preference is unclear, since nearly all municipal zoning codes in the United States require large setbacks (see, e.g.,Charlotte), depriving homeowners of any choice in the matter.  The pattern has been replicated so relentlessly across the North American continent that alternative single-family residential designs may simply have been scrubbed from the collective imagination.

Gardner and others attribute this bland landscape in large part to Frederick Law Olmsted, and he certainly did support increased greenery in urban areas and lawns that run seamlessly across property lines. However, I think it’s important to distinguish between Olmsted’s vision and the land use regulations that have imposed some version his ideal on American suburbs. Olmsted did promote planned communities, but only local governments have had the authority to make his vision law.

In thinking of Olmsted’s planned communities of communities built in Olmsted’s style, Baltimore’s Roland Park immediately comes to my mind. This turn-of-the-century neighborhood was one of the country’s first suburbs. Of course Roland Park is far from an urbanist neighborhood, and it’s easy to fault Olmsted for overlooking the crucial civic aspect of drawing neighbors to the sidewalks and streets for spontaneous interaction. However, (and I realize this may be a minority opinion), I think that it is a lovely neighborhood, and it’s even relatively pedestrian friendly. Clearly, it has little in common with the “snout house” suburbs that Gardner discusses in relation to setback requirements.

Roland Park, Baltimore, MD

Part of Roland Park’s charm is that it achieves the feeling of being a green enclave because it lies among denser neighborhoods of row houses. It’s directly north of Hampden, the epitome of Baltimore row house developments. Both of these neighborhoods were built before the city adopted a zoning code, reflecting the diversity that is possible when cities are allowed to develop organically without the rigidity of a master plan that dictates neighborhoods’ characters. The two neighborhoods benefit one another because the diversity in housing leads to a diversity in customers to support healthy commercial strips in each.

Urbanists can certainly criticize Olmsted for his blindness to the vitality on the streets and sidewalks of urban neighborhoods, free from isolating expanses of green grass. However, blaming him for the banality of modern suburbs is unfair. Olmsted did not enforce his vision on suburbs all across the country; rather students of his work zoned their cities in failed attempts to codify his ideal. Olmsted may have brought front lawns to the market, but without government coercion, wide grassy setbacks would be one of many styles available to residents of suburban housing, freeing developers to cater to market demand for variety. The current level of uniformity has been achieved only with the threat of jail for dissenters.

When does local industrial policy succeed?

Here’s something to keep in mind when you hear mayors making plans for things like designated green energy zones or tech clusters:

Q: Has anything surprised you about downtown’s recovery?

A: This was always a financial center. Now we have a lease for a million square feet from Condé Nast. That is a change. The diversity has been a surprise to me.

That’s from a Crain‘s interview with Larry Silverstein, whose firm is building the 1 World Trade Center. It’s going to be a big building, no doubt, but it’s not a neighborhood. If Larry Silverstein couldn’t predict what kind of company would be the anchor tenant in this one tower, how can we trust cities to pick the futures of entire neighborhoods? Some of the plans – call them neighborhood industrial policies – can be quite elaborate. Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson’s Greenest City 2020 Action Plan, for example, calls for a “technology centre” with a “food processing enterprise incubator.”

But how often does this sort of government urban-industrial planning work out? Silicon Valley (computer technology) and Singapore (biotech) both had their genesis in state-funded universities, though Singapore’s biotech sector was much more intentional than Silicon Valley’s tech industry. Financial hubs like London and Delaware and trade hubs like Hong Kong also required a certain amount of government foresight, in the form of good – i.e., laissez-faire – financial regulations and trade policies.

But Vancouver isn’t a city-state, and Mayor Robertson can’t found a university or opt out of Canada’s federal patent laws. Most of these sorts of zones are implemented solely on the local level, which generally means targeted tax breaks, subsidies, and zoning set-asides. But while these might make great ribbon-cuttings and talking points, they are tepid policy tools at best, and I don’t believe any major agglomeration has ever been borne out of these methods. Can any readers think of any examples?

Before there were stimulus projects

In his new book, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, Richard White explores the financing of railroads in the American West and the political process behind it. In history books, this accomplishment is often looked on as a heroic feat of engineering and perseverance, but White offers a contrasting perspective of the abuse of tax dollars and manipulation of public opinion. I have not had a chance to read his book yet, but White offered a very interesting interview on Morning Edition. He explained:

Western railroads, particularly the transcontinental railroads, would not have been built without public subsidies, without the granting of land, and more important than that, loans from the federal government … because there is no business [in the West at that time], there is absolutely no reason to build [railroads] except for political reasons and the hope that business will come.

Unlike the railroads of the Northeast where Vanderbilt made his fortune, private financiers were uninterested in the West, where rails would not be making a foreseeable profit. If the expected benefits of an infrastructure project outweigh the expected costs, private financing will be available in the absence of public funding. Only when costs are expected to exceed benefits do infrastructure projects require subsidies. Historically, the argument that infrastructure is a public good that must be paid for by taxpayers has been proven false by private infrastructure projects ranging from highways to lighthouses, canals, and city streets.

The transcontinental railroad, the largest public works project of its time, marked a shift toward American policy of relying principally on federally funded infrastructure rather than on entrepreneurs to supply these goods. In the 20th century, the Federal Highway Act of course dwarfed the scale of the transcontinental railroad, and today publicly provided infrastructure is claimed to do everything from creating jobs to allowing for long run economic growth. Without a market mechanism to guide infrastructure construction, we are left with the clumsy political process to determine the amount and distribution of money spent on transportation.

Death and life in a changing neighborhood

controversy in DC’s Columbia Heights neighborhood exemplifies the common clash between NIMBYism and the achievement of Jane Jacob’s ideals. Some residents are opposed to a new proposed diner, Margot’s Chair, that would be open 24 hours a day. The owners already have three well-loved restaurants in DC, but passionate protestors wrote an inflammatory letter disparaging the change the diner will have on the neighborhood:

While 11th Street has a host of small, unique, charming and creative business’s that give our neighborhood its own unique mystique – scaling up to a 24 hour business and a capacity of 1/4 of one thousand inside (not including outside – that permit will be applied for later) is pushing the envelope of the small Hip Strip we as residents have come to enjoy [sic].

As a former resident of this “Hip Strip,” I agree that the diner would continue the pattern of change that gentrification has brought to the neighborhood, a change which is of course subjective. However, a 24-hour restaurant would bring improvements to public safety that are about as objectively positive as changes to urban development can be, in line with the development that Jacobs advocates in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Her work clearly refutes three of the protestors’ criticisms of the project.

1) While this area already has several restaurants and bars, a 24-hour diner would fill a different market niche and attract a different crowd, particularly in the mornings. Jacobs explains that one of the most important safety features a neighborhood can have is a mix of homes and businesses that lead people to be on the sidewalks at different times of the day. This diner would provide “eyes on the street” in exactly the hours when they are most needed in a neighborhood that struggles with crime (Chapter 1).

2) The protestors claim that this project needs dedicated parking to avoid putting increased parking pressure on locals. Jacob’s explains, however, that the only way to reduce traffic and parking congestion is not to cater to cars in new development. This area is very well-served by buses, Metro, and bike lanes, and is in a densely populated neighborhood where many could walk to the diner. By not making it easy to park at Margot’s Chair, the owners would be inherently encouraging their customers travel to the diner in ways other than driving (Chapter 18).

3) Finally, if Margot’s Chair is anything like its proprietors three other restaurants, it will serve as a primary use in Columbia Heights, perhaps more so than any other restaurant on 11th Street. While the protestors seem against drawing more outsiders to the neighborhood, Jacobs demonstrates that attracting non-residents to a neighborhood is crucial for its vitality (Chapter 8).

Entrepreneurs who are free to cater to market demands can create the type of neighborhood that Jacobs advocates, so long as the political process does not prevent them from doing so. At this point, it looks as if the protestors’ motion to prevent Margot’s Chair from receiving a liquor license has failed, so the project is likely no longer in jeopardy. The issues that theses residents raised are common complaints though, and NIMBYists too often prevent the fruition of such projects.