The Key Word In Conservative Urban Reform: “Openness”

1. I published two articles this week. The first was a Governing Magazine piece about how Miami’s pro-development policies have delayed downtown gentrification. The second was an update, published by Forbes, on Philadelphia’s mass eminent domain scheme for a blighted neighborhood. That issue first became public for this audience when reader Adam Lang posted in the Market Urbanism Facebook group that he was one of many residents whose property would be seized. Emily followed with a description of the plan on this site, and my Forbes piece provides an update following the June 18th approval by city council. Far as I can tell, my article was the first mainstream national press coverage of the issue, and we can only hope from here that the floodgates open…

2. For America’s urban conservatives, it has been frustrating to see the indifference shown towards cities by the Republican Party. Even as the nation continues urbanizing, and election results are increasingly tied to the city vote, the GOP continues to identify with suburban and rural constituencies. This causes them to take positions which offend city voters, like opposing immigration reform and gay rights, while flat ignoring other principally urban issues like public transit and homelessness. And while there have been some conservative urban reforms, like charter schools and data-driven policing, there has not been a unified agenda. So it was exciting to see a recent article—reposted, naturally, on the MU Facebook group—advocating for this.

National Affairs, a quarterly journal that is associated with “reform conservatism,” published “An Urban Agenda for the Right.” The article was written by Michael Hendrix of the Chamber of Commerce, in collaboration with NA editor Andrew Evans. While it did not list every possible reform, it mentioned many of the macro-level ones long discussed on this site. What I liked even more, though, was that it suggested a change in messaging, wherein the Democrat establishments that have long controlled cities are described as “closed,” while conservative reformers are portrayed as “open.” This, wrote the authors, would create a more accurate perception of modern U.S. cities.

As a result of decades of Democratic governance and misplaced priorities…American cities do not offer the opportunities for success and growth that they should, especially for those looking to climb the socio-economic ladder. In many cases, city governments are utterly dysfunctional. And the reason for this dysfunction is that our cities are too often closed—closed to businesses and closed to outsiders. For the middle class and those striving to make it up the ladder, the taxes, housing, and other costs leave cities simply too expensive to afford—especially with a family. Excessive regulation makes it difficult, if not downright impossible, to get the permits necessary to start a business. Cronyism and a lack of transparency make it difficult to know whether anyone is trying to fix the situation.

In response to this restrictiveness within cities, “conservatives should seek to make them open.”

What I found interesting about their wording was that it inverted how most Americans view the political parties. At the national level, Democrats are portrayed as the open and tolerant ones, and Republicans as the reactionary ones trying to uphold the status quo. These distinctions have been established largely because of the parties’ differing approach to social issues.

But this is hardly applicable to cities, where issues are rooted more in economics and quality-of-life. A large number of urbanites—whether they want to call themselves liberals, progressives, or Democrats—are in fact quite reactionary themselves, a point emphasized by the authors. Housing regulations have been used by the urban left to restrict new construction, as if city neighborhoods are gated country clubs that should never allow change or new people. The liberal business elite have fortified the business permitting process so much that, in many cities, it is nearly-impossible for competing entrepreneurs to enter basic professions like hair-styling. And to carve out a voting bloc, the left has defended unionized public monopolies that deliver services at far higher cost, and less efficiency, than is necessary.

To the authors, making cities more “open” would mean embracing economic and administrative liberalization. They call for housing deregulation, so that cities can accommodate growing populations; one-stop shops for business permitting; and civil service reform, so that bureaucracies are either held to better standards, or replaced through privatization. They also call for better online data, so that residents can easily view info on their cities’ spending and debt, and gain access to officials.

All these measures would, in fact, open up cities in the technical sense–by allowing in more people, and granting them more options once there. If such openness regarding cities was promoted more by Republicans, it might change the perception about which party best embodies this core urban value.

Havana, Cuba–Stagnation Doesn’t Preserve Cities, Nor Does Wealth Destroy Them

[My second in a two-part series on Havana, Cuba. Here’s the first article.]

Havana, Cuba

Before taking my trip to Havana, one thing that I was curious about was how a half-century of Communism had affected the built fabric. While there are obvious disadvantages to economic stagnation, I figured that it would have at least created a charming-looking city. There are, after all, a handful of U.S. cities, and numerous European ones, that have resisted growth, modernization, and the automobile, only to remain quaint and historic. But it didn’t take even a 10-minute cab ride from the airport to realize that my assumption about Havana had been naïve—even if it is still held by many of the city’s blissfully uncurious tourists.

In fact, very little about Havana has been “preserved.”  Instead, everything in the city is merely old, and because little gets produced, nothing is replaced. This applies to the automobiles, furniture, hand tools, manufacturing equipment—and most certainly the buildings. Collectively, this stagnation has destroyed the look of the city, with a physical blight that stretches nearly every block from downtown to the outer slums.

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If I could define in one statement what Havana looks like, after four days of extensively biking and walking through, I’d call it the Latin American Detroit. It was a once-great city that declined because of bad policies, and its pervasive ruination serves as a constant reminder of this. The houses themselves, while large and ornate, are almost uniformly inadequate by U.S. standards. If they have not crumbled to the ground altogether, many are caving in. The foundations are crooked, full of holes, and marred by broken windows and doors. Because of Havana’s European roots, stucco is a common material, but on most buildings is falling off, or in some cases has disappeared. Almost every building has dirt and grime, while some are covered in it.

And this is for Havana’s nice parts. Once I began biking out of the central neighborhoods and into the slums, I found that symbols of past wealth disappeared altogether, and were replaced with what in the U.S. would be considered shacks. These structures were usually patched up with knotted wood, metal scraps, and thatching. One gentlemen who lived in the poor neighborhood of Cerro, and who I spoke with at length, described his area as akin to a Brazilian favela—which I found believable. The two pictures I took below were from his front porch, and mirrored the aesthetic of such areas.

So what is it like to live and work in these buildings? As one might expect, the outside decay permeates to the inside. The best access I got was through a 24-year-old working-class woman named Indira. I met Indira on my first night in Havana when stopping to ask directions, and after noticing that she spoke good English, took her to dinner. We became friends, and she invited me into her downtown apartment, where she lived with her mother and father-in-law. The apartment was roughly 150 square feet—far smaller than a typical New York City micro-unit. Because it had a high ceiling, the family had built a horizontal wooden floorboard halfway up the wall that served as the second floor, and built a makeshift staircase leading up. This upstairs “room” was for the mother and father-in-law, while Indira lived in the main room below, sleeping crammed against the kitchen.

Even in such a small space, there were numerous malfunctions. There was no hot water, either for cooking or showering. In fact, the shower did not even work, meaning that the family instead took scrub baths. Because the toilet didn’t flush, they had to pour water into it each time after use to accelerate the draining. The built-in wooden floorboard was clearly sagging under the weight of the upstairs furniture, raising concerns that it would one day collapse. As for the actual roof—it had been crumbling for years, and was fixed recently by a neighborhood handyman. To pay for the work, the family had to spend over a year saving up $150.

 

The main story of Indira's apartment.

The main story of Indira’s apartment.

 

The second story, upheld by a wood board

The second story, upheld by a wooden board

 

Public Infrastructure

Just as peoples’ private houses were crumbling, so too was the public infrastructure—again, much like Detroit. The public spaces, while well-used, were typically full of trash, overgrown weeds, and broken objects. Many parks, for example, were defined more by concrete than grassland. Streets, if they were even completely paved, were filled with potholes and had such poor drainage that, after it rained, they would gather huge puddles.

A water-less pool

A water-less pool

 

I wasn’t able in my short time there to analyze the underground infrastructure. But if it is like everything else in Havana, I would assume that it, too, is crumbling. For example, contrary to what tourist brochures say, Havana’s tap water is considered undrinkable by locals, and I was routinely offered bottled water to avoid catching chlorida.

Indeed, the substandard nature of Havana’s built entities were so common that after awhile I stopped noticing. For example, when I attended a rainy futbol match at a renowned Havana stadium, I sat underneath a roof that leaked constantly, getting soaked alongside other fans. Can anyone imagine this being tolerated at a U.S. arena? When I used bathrooms even in nice establishments, I would find that there often weren’t toilet seats, door locks, or (you guessed it) toilet paper. Schoolyards had swimming pools without water and basketball hoops without rims. And on it went.

This is how life is in Havana. And I soon realized, given this, how buffoonish it would have been to go around looking for examples of “historic preservation.” Such preservation is an aesthetic notion from the First World, driven by those who are willing to pay more to retrofit attractive old housing. But in a city of extreme poverty, preservation is the pragmatic steps people take to prevent their roofs from caving in.

a public park...

and a public waterfront

So How Does Havana Compare To…San Francisco?

Have you ever read an article that was so hilariously wrong that you wanted to pick your laptop up and chuck it across the room? This was my reaction to one article I read several days after returning from Havana, with the city’s horrific conditions still on my mind. On June 8, MarketWatch.com published an article by columnist Therese Poletti called “New Tech Money Is Destroying The Streets Of San Francisco.” Poletti explained that a flood of wealthy executives were moving into San Francisco, buying old homes, and altering the interiors.

It is now hard to find a Victorian home for sale that has not been gutted, its architectural details stripped and tossed. And owners or developers — looking to sell at a premium in the frenzied real estate market to “techies with cash” — hope to appeal to the tastes (or lack thereof) of current buyers, by turning once-charming homes with detailed woodwork, built-ins and art glass, into clones of Apple’s minimalist retail stores.

This trend has been developing for several years, but it seems far more prevalent today, with construction sites sprouting across the Bay Area and especially in San Francisco. And in addition to the remodeling frenzy, older buildings appear to be disappearing at a scary pace.

Before even addressing Poletti’s point, let me just set the record straight: San Francisco is not being “destroyed.” I can testify from having lived there in 2012, and visiting several times more, that the city is an architectural gem that has largely stayed in character since being rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake. Much of the city—including almost the entire northeast portion—is an oasis of historic Italianate, Queen Anne, Craftsman, and Art Deco construction. These buildings roll along the hills flanked by clean, well-paved streets, and small, impeccably-landscaped yards. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, San Francisco surpasses any other major U.S. city, and perhaps any European one.

The reason for this is two-fold. San Francisco has expansive historic preservation laws that make it difficult or illegal to alter thousands of structures. Compelling arguments have been made that the city takes this preservationist impulse too far, to the detriment of adding new housing supply–although such laws help maintain its unique character. But the other factor—to which Poletti seems oblivious—is that the city has a large professional class with the financial wherewithal to maintain these homes.

I would argue that this second factor, more than the first, has preserved San Francisco. You could put a historic overlay designation across Detroit, and it wouldn’t change much. The Motor City suffers from decay because it has undergone six decades of depopulation, and this has left no one around to preserve its own large historic stock. But the Bay Area has been flooded with capital during this period, and this has strengthened its culture of preservation. Maintaining a historic home, after all, can be an expensive endeavor that requires ripping out floorboards, replacing pipes, and other structural changes. It is usually done by educated, well-off households who have either the money to fund repairs, or the time to dedicate sweat equity. Perhaps not every family preserves their homes precisely to Poletti’s specifications, and I don’t blame them, since it is difficult to live in a floor plan that was laid out a century ago. But she should not miss the broader point, which is that San Francisco has remained as it is because of the demographics it attracts.

Instead, she claims that these groups are “destroying” the city. She is thus spouting the same myth that is advanced about historic preservation by urban progressives, who seem to think that wealth and gentrification works against preservation. But a fair-minded look at U.S. cities demonstrates the opposite. If one looks at America’s most notable historic neighborhoods–the Back Bay in Boston; Capitol Hill in DC; the French Quarter in New Orleans; much of northern San Francisco; much of Manhattan and northern Brooklyn; downtown Savannah; and downtown Charleston–a unifying feature is that they have great residential wealth. Meanwhile, there are numerous cities—Baltimore, Philadelphia, Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland—that have a similar number of historic structures. But many of them sit hollowed-out because of decline.

The same could be said when comparing Havana with Poletti’s San Francisco. Both cities have similar architecture and planning, but their differing economic histories have led to opposite preservationist destinies. Wealthy and growing San Francisco is a city where thousands of structures remain in superb shape, and where people grieve over minor alterations. Havana’s system has produced a crumbling city where the desire for preservation gets lost in a sea of basic needs. If Poletti really wants to see a “destroyed” city, she should visit the latter.

a public housing complex from the outside...

a public housing complex from the outside…

 

and from the inside.

and from the inside.

 

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Urban Renewal in Philadelphia

A vacant building in Sharswood

The Philadelphia Housing Authority will seize  nearly 1,300 properties for a major urban renewal project in the city’s Sharswood neighborhood. The plan includes the demolition of two of the neighborhood’s three high-rise public housing buildings — the Blumberg towers — that will be replaced with a large mixed-income development. The new buildings will increase the neighborhood population tenfold with the majority of the new units to be affordable housing.

The majority of the 1,300 lots slated for eminent domain are currently vacant. At a City Council hearing on Tuesday, Philadelphia Housing Authority CEO Kelvin Jeremiah testified that the redevelopment plan furthers the agency’s efforts to replace high-rise housing projects with lower-density units. However, PHA’s plan misses the forest for the trees. The benefits  of demolishing the two towers are immediately undone by creating an entire neighborhood of public housing, effectively increasing the concentration of poverty in Sharswood.

Adam Lang has lived in Sharswood for 10 years, and he posted about the plan in the Market Urbanism Facebook group. Adam has raised concerns that the PHA does not have an accurate number of how many of the 1,300 properties in the redevelopment territory are currently occupied. Adam’s primary residence is not under threat of eminent domain, however he owns four lots that are. He uses two lots adjacent to his home as his yard. The other two are a shell and a vacant lot. He purchased them, ironically, from the city with the plan to turn them into rentals.

Adam’s concern about the inaccuracy of PHA’s vacancy statistics stem from the method that PHA employees used to create their estimate: driving by homes to see if they look occupied or not. Adam’s own property was on the list of vacants, and he said that he’s aware of other properties in the neighborhood that PHA identified as vacant but are actually lived in. Nichole Tillman, Executive Vice President of Communications for PHA disagreed:

PHA entered into an interagency agreement with the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (PRA) in March 2014 to perform eminent domain services on behalf of PHA. They are very skilled in these matters.

 

[…]

 

The overwhelming majority of parcels are vacant land or structures.  The PRA projects that approximately 70 structures, or 6% are occupied, and the occupants include homeowners, renters, and businesses.

Sharswood is adjacent to the neighborhood of Brewerytown, a rapidly gentrifying area. Sharswood, however, retains many blighted properties and as of 2008 its median income was about 20-percent lower than Brewerytown’s. Adam posits that Sharswood’s prevalence of abandoned properties relative to Brewerytown is driven by the presence of run-down PHA properties and their attendant crime and poverty. “Sharswood hasn’t gentrified so much because of PHA and other subsidized housing, much of it blighted,” he said. The PHA’s redevelopment plan, if realized, will result in a large population increase in the neighborhood, with 83-percent of the new housing designated as affordable units, according the Jeremiah’s testimony.

Adam supports the PHA plan to demolish the high-rise housing projects. Based on his experience visiting residents of the towers, he said, “it’s amazing that the government would house human beings in there.” However, he’s also against the drastic increase in public-housing in the neighborhood that would further concentrate low-income housing in Sharswood. “It will look like it’s done a lot of good,” he said “because new buildings always look better, but the issue will be over time because PHA has an atrocious maintenance record.”

Tillman countered:

In recent years, PHA has demonstrated a proven track record of success in developing and maintaining, low density, cost effective, and energy efficient units that are consistent with the respective neighborhoods.  PHA has a large and effective maintenance program. Challenges that face PHA in regards to maintenance are largely due to funding and considerable large aging housing stock.

Sharswood’s redevelopment will be financed with a combination of local money and funds from HUD’s Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grants. The first Choice Neighborhood grants were awarded in 2011 for city agencies to undertake redevelopment studies. Now HUD is giving much larger implementation grants to cities across the country, including $30 million for redevelopment in North Philadelphia where Sharswood is located. In the first phase of the project, the Inquirer reports that construction will begin on 57 affordable rental units at a cost of $21 million, or nearly $370,000 per unit in construction costs alone.

Jane Jacobs would have called this arrangement “cataclysmic money” because a large influx of cash from the local and federal governments will finance rapid redevelopment. If redevelopment happened from the bottom up, with residents gradually purchasing homes and businesses and fixing them up, the neighborhood would house greater diversity, which, Jacobs argued, was crucial for a healthy neighborhood. The plan will result in many new housing units, all built in quick succession, and many for a specific income level. This is not the diversity that will allow for the neighborhood to age successfully, nor will it facilitate a diversity of uses. This type of cataclysmic public housing development has a long, failed history in the United States.

Tillman said that PHA’s plan are a departure from disastrous slum clearance efforts of the past:

Many of the failures that are chronicled revolve around the federal model of public housing high-rises constructed during the 50’s and 60’s that isolated neighborhoods and residents, making it hard for them to get to work and to receive services, and also make them vulnerable to criminal activity. Post World War Two, there was a housing shortage that affected everybody. High-rises were an efficient way to build modern apartments for families in need, very often on relatively small footprints, but other times over superblocks.

While just about any urban observer would support PHA’s plan to demolish the Blumberg towers, their tabula rasa plan to redevelop the neighborhood from the top down robs the neighborhood of the chance to develop sustainable market-rate affordable housing. Any city-led redevelopment spanning an entire neighborhood and relying on hundreds of millions in federal funding will fail to create the diverse, organic neighborhood that Jacobs espoused.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Market Fundamentalism in the Mission?

There’s a proposal to place a moratorium on all market rate construction in the Mission District, one of San Francisco’s most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods. Needless to say the proposal has sparked a debate. And Dan Ancona’s Putting Market Fundamentalism On Hold is another rock hurled into that particular fray. But in trying to take the anti-moratorium/pro-supply camp to task, it falls into the same unproductive bomb hurling we’ve been watching now for years. The following are a few thoughts on some of the points Mr. Ancona makes in his recent piece.

Talking Past Each Other

The first point is about a fundamental misunderstanding of the motivations behind the moratorium. Mr. Ancona makes this mistake, but so do the exasperated anti-moratorium/pro-supply advocates he quotes at the beginning of his piece.

Hint: The moratorium is not about lowering housing prices.

To be sure, the anti-moratorium camp wants lower aggregate housing prices throughout San Francisco and the entire region. The indisputable way to accomplish this goal is by building more housing. And as far as the anti-moratorium camp is concerned, this includes plenty of  below market rate (BMR) construction to mitigate some of the distributional effects of development.

For the pro-moratorium camp, however, this doesn’t cut it. Lower aggregate prices are not their goal. Their goal is keeping the existing population of the Mission intact and in place. Even a 70/30 ratio of market rate development to BMR construction wouldn’t do that. There would still be demographic churn and this is specifically what they want to avoid. For the pro-moratorium camp, lower housing prices are all well and good, but not if that means the dispersal of the existing community in the process.

The Mission District

Searching for the Endgame

The second issue is that there’s no endgame for the pro-moratorium camp. Mr. Ancona seems to think there is, but doesn’t go into detail. Here’s what I see.

Pressuring developers for a larger percentage of BMR housing is a no-go. 35% BMR is about where a project’s commercial viability dies and it’ll take way more than that to prevent demographic churn. And without the market rate development that the moratorium would stop, it’s not clear where funds to buy up the available properties and develop exclusively BMR housing would come from.

Now, if you were to put the moratorium into effect…and massively urbanize San Francisco’s western neighborhoods as well as all the peninsula cities…and skimmed the cream off of all that construction to massively develop the Mission with BMR infill…then maybe you have a shot.

But herein lies the problem. Not only do those two areas have no reason to go along with such a plan, they have every reason not to. The higher housing prices climb, the wealthier homeowners in either area become. And because of Prop 13, property owners don’t pay more in taxes even when their holdings appreciate. Why would homeowners accept unwanted change in their neighborhoods when they not only don’t have to but get wealthier by fighting for what they prefer anyway? If demand stays high and wealthier areas aren’t forced to build, relatively poorer areas get gentrified. And with the state’s peculiar tax laws and the region’s insane land use policies, we see this dynamic on steroids.

Addressing Inequality

There’s a third argument that Mr. Ancona makes which I thought warranted a response. Regarding inequality, he writes:

If California was some godforsaken European socialist hellscape (you know, where lots of people make roughly $70k a year and people take month long vacations and have time off to take care of their kids and are basically just happy), we wouldn’t be having this problem at the scale we are. Landlords are able to jack rents and developers are building luxury-everything because there’s a large-ish group of people who are willing to pay for it. If we were taxing marginal income above, say, $200k at 80% or something, there’d be a lot fewer people willing to throw this kind of rent around.

This, I must say, is a fascinating policy prescription. It’s essentially a call for active demand management via marginal income tax. It’s a terrible idea. But it’s still genuinely fascinating that someone would see a particular industry being too productive as the problem.

The issue here isn’t that tech people make too much money. It’s that as they create more wealth, real estate becomes infinitely more expensive because the supply of built space is so inelastic. The more wealth that the industry creates, the more it has to pay in rents for the privilege of being in the Bay Area. This puts everyone else in the unenviable position of being in a bidding war for housing with the most dynamic sector in the economy.

If we were serious about addressing material inequality–and we’re not–we would allow the housing supply to become more flexible. We’d focus taxation on land rents and away from productive labor and capital. And we’d directly subsidize individuals in need instead of trying to price fix away all of society’s ills.

The Likely Future

Last night, the San Francisco board of Supervisors voted down the moratorium. That means the pro-moratorium camp will try to put it on a city wide ballot for an up or down vote in November. If they succeed, it’ll be that much less development in San Francisco, but more significantly, other neighborhoods may follow suit in establishing similar bans.

To the extent that these measures slow down construction, prices will continue to climb. The only hope for a real reprieve would be a general slowdown in the tech industry. And with the Fed talking about hiking interest rates, that’s a possibility. But if that happens, it’ll be like giving a drug addict one more hit. Insane prices are the only thing that’s changing land use policy. If that impetus goes away, we’ll slide right back into blissful complacency. And it’ll just be a matter of time till the economy heats up again and we’re right back where we started.

Travel Update: I’m Going To Cuba

Miami, FL

1. My two Forbes articles this week included one about how inclusionary zoning has replaced rent control as urban America’s preferred housing price control; and one about how San Francisco’s housing prices are causing creative class exile.

2. There was another interesting recent housing story in San Francisco, when city supervisor David Campos–who represents the Mission District–proposed putting a 2-year moratorium on market-rate housing in the gentrifying neighborhood. While activists support the measure, even San Francisco’s establishment liberals have deemed it counterproductive. Here are formal oppositions published by the San Francisco Chronicle; from the local Democratic Party; and by supervisor Scott Wiener, a renowned affordability champion. Wiener includes in his Medium op-ed a statement that will hopefully one day be read, contemplated, and internalized by every anti-gentrification activist in America:

New residents aren’t moving to the Mission because of new development; rather, they’re moving to the Mission because of the Mission, amazing as it is. People who want to move to the Mission will move there with or without new development. And, without additional housing, they will put more and more pressure on the existing housing stock. Evictions and displacement are the inevitable result of that pressure.

To counter, here’s an editorial by Campos criticizing Wiener for “channeling the ghost of Ronald Reagan.”

3. And yes, you read that headline right–I’m going to Cuba! I’d been flirting with the idea ever since President Obama normalized relations with the nation (just earlier today he removed it from the state sponsors of terrorism list), and being in Miami seemed like an excuse to go. I’m slated to leave early Sunday and return Thursday, June 4.

Traveling to Cuba is still not easy, much less available to the broader U.S. A person must fit one of 12 categories, and they are rather narrow (I qualified as a journalist, and am expected to keep a record of my activities). Few U.S. airlines offer Cuba flights, and the ones that do leave only from select cities. While numerous Cuba travel agencies exist here in Miami, some don’t have a single staffer who speaks English, suggesting that they cater more to Cuban-Americans connecting with their families than gringos. But I wanted to see a country in the final throes of its half-century stagnation, before it inevitably changes from increased tourism and new-found access to U.S. banks. I plan to visit las ciudades de Havana, Trinidad y Santiago de Cuba, while exploring much of the countryside in-between.

I realize that much has been written about the effects of Cuba’s Communist system on its living standards. Two particularly illuminating articles I found were by New York Times columnist Roger Cohen and global traveler Michael Totten, who described what life is like for the many citizens who live on their allotted $20/month. Other journalists have taken a more positive tone by noting that Cuba has full literacy, minimal homelessness, and a relatively efficient health care system. But I’ll suspend judgement until arriving, and don’t know how much I’ll add to the conversation anyway, since I’m only there for 4 days.

One under-represented thing, though, that I’d like to explore is the nation’s reportedly vibrant street culture–and the causes for it. As PlacesJournal noted in an extended essay, Cuba’s urban neighborhoods have not been disrupted in the last half-century by excessive urban renewal, automobile through-traffic, or change in general. This has prevented modernization, but helped preserve their historic character and walkability. Such neighborhoods may be poor, but, as I’ve read and heard from Miami locals, are clean, safe, and full of people, music, and well-defined civic spaces. One doesn’t have to embrace Cuba’s overall political structure to acknowledge that there are probably still design lessons to be learned from its cities, and I’m looking forward to seeing what those are. Hopefully I can report back next week with plenty of photos.

 

Has The Urban Planning Profession Declined? (Like Planners Claim)

As readers know, Market Urbanism has for several years had a strong homepage and Twitter presence. And thanks to Adam, it is getting a stronger Facebook one, both on MU’s official Facebook page, and its chat group. If you enjoy reading substantive things, I recommend following both, but especially the chat group, which is available for anyone to join.

Many of its updates feature links from around the web posted by MU readers, informing us about the world’s biggest urban issues, with everything from mainstream news clips, to esoteric working papers and book chapter pdf’s. We would love to have more of you join and begin posting! This doesn’t mean the group is open to trolls; we don’t want to hear your grammatically-tortured vitriol. But we do like potential skeptics who ask questions and start debates, as they have received strong responses in the past.

All that said, here are some of my recent favorite links shared by the group, and let’s raise a Friday night glass for the many more to come.

1. Robert Moses’ 23-page response to The Power Broker. Like the man himself, the letter was angry, rambling, irrational, and condescending, yet had moments of rhetorical flash:

The current fiction is that any overnight ersatz bagel and lox boardwalk merchant, any down to earth commentator or barfly, any busy housewife who gets her expertise from newspapers, television, radio and telephone, is ipso facto endowed to plan in detail a huge metropolitan arterial complex good for a century.

I wonder which “busy housewife” he could have been referring to…

2. Richard Sennett comes from a school of sociological thinking–alongside academics like Saskia Sassen and Mike Davis–who criticize global capitalism and urbanization. But here is his rather balanced review in 1970 of Jane Jacobs’ The Economy Of Cities (you can access the review through a Facebook post via Anthony Ling).

3. This is an old Economist article that aims to define “rule of law.” It cites a study arguing that “a country’s income per head rises by roughly 300% if it improves its governance by one standard deviation,” with the efficiency and reasoning ability of its legal system playing a huge factor.

4. Here’s yet another article, this time from PlacesJournal, claiming that the growth of conservative economic theory in the 1940s, followed by the failures of 1950s urban renewal, led to the death of central planning and rise of “market urbanism” (his usage) in America. “By the ’70s and ’80s,” writes architect Anthony Fontenot, “the discipline of planning had come under such sustained attack that in many design schools the planning programs were jettisoned altogether and relocated — banished — to schools of policy and administration.”

I read this charge about the decline of American city planning frequently from architecture/planning writers. But can anyone please tell me what the hell they are talking about? The fact is that land use regulations–the most essential planning tool– have grown substantially in America in the last century, and even more so in recent decades. Zoning has transformed from merely separating incompatible uses to policing the design, coloration, placement, shape, density and “form” of buildings. Lots that years ago would have been subdivided in suburbia, or built upwards in cities, are now, respectively, preserved. Practically every city of minor significance has a planning department (not to mention an urban development corporation and design review board). Whereas America’s great legacy cities–New York, San Francisco, DC, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia–adopted their built pattern during the relatively laissez faire industrial era, and thus in a manner that was dense, walkable, and attractive, land use controls often prevent them from furthering these goals today–and prevent newer cities from mirroring the old ones.

I thus can’t agree with Fontenot and similar-thinking architects and planners. Their profession has not declined in the U.S.; it has metastasized, only to inhibit many of the outcomes that they seem to want. Market Urbanism, meanwhile, is still an ideology confined to the internet, and not even close to being practiced today in any major U.S. city.

Happy Birthday Jane Jacobs! (Now Let’s Have A Debate)

Jane Jacobs

1. This week I wrote three articles: one for Governing Magazine about how to make pedestrian malls successful; and two for Forbes—about how Syracuse is squelching a driveway-sharing app, and the latest attempts from San Francisco NIMBYs to stop a Warriors arena.

2. Today would have been Jane Jacobs’ 99th birthday, and I know many of you celebrated by attending (or hosting) Jane’s Walks in your cities. Because of other obligations, I wasn’t able to attend the Miami one, which was hosted in Little Havana by local realtor Carlos Fausto Miranda. If any of you did, tell me how it went.

3. I hate to use Jacob’s birthday as an excuse to seem divisive, but there’s something about her writings—and the way they’re interpreted—that I want to explore:

The thing that’s always made Jane Jacobs’s work so refreshing is that it has ideological crossover appeal. But this has also caused different schools of thought to emerge about her.

The left-leaning among Jacobs’ fans emphasize her work on urban form. Jacobs’ favorite neighborhood was her home base of Greenwich Village, and living there inspired her vision for other neighborhoods. As she brilliantly explained throughout The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the ones that functioned best had traditional street grids, human-scale buildings and parks, a mix of old and new architecture, and pedestrian accessibility. These elements of her teaching have been embraced by New Urbanists like Andres Duany, who have built entire neighborhoods on her principles; and by “smart growth” planners, who take the next step by imposing historic overlays and “form-based codes” on urban areas. These latter moves are done to stave off modernization, which they see as threatening Jacobs’ aesthetic vision for cities.

But the right-leaning side of Jacob’s followers focus less on design, than on her economic teachings, many of which came in later works. They adore the woman who loathed central planning and land use controls, and who thought that the “organized complexity” of city life was best tackled through organic growth. Rather than advocating for new layers of regulation, then, conservatives view Jacobs as an early advocate of market-based solutions. This side is led by people like Edward Glaeser, a proponent of more skyscrapers. Although skyscrapers might be taller than Jacobs’ ideal neighborhood, he argues, they would be a Jacobian response to many cities’ housing shortages, and if designed properly, would generate the street life she described.

I’m not here to say that one side is right or the other wrong. Both Jacobs’ economic and design teachings—and the way they’ve been interpreted—have been mostly beneficial for cities. But I will say that the New Urbanist side has gotten more representation. If you think today of what someone means when referring to a “Jane Jacobs-style neighborhood,” you picture a medium-density area with historic character, pocket parks, and niche coffee shops—places like Greenwich Village, The Haight in San Francisco, Capitol Hill in Seattle, Wicker Park in Chicago, or Boston’s Back Bay. Meantime, large-scale neighborhoods—such as a typical downtown business district—are considered antithetical to Jacobian urbanism, and are frowned upon by planners.

I wish this perception would change, though, because high-rise neighborhoods play a role in cities that Jacobs would have appreciated. As I wrote on this site several weeks ago, the Miami neighborhood of Brickell—which is an overnight skyscraper zone that would have Glaeser beaming—is essential to the city’s economy, providing housing, offices, and recreation for the ever-important banking industry. It has also helped preserve surrounding downtown neighborhoods, by containing the city’s banking wealth to a small area, rather than having it inflict gentrification elsewhere. While Brickell doesn’t yet have great pedestrian infrastructure, the neighborhood’s sheer density has made it (as Glaeser would have predicted, and Jacobs would have liked) one of the city’s most active around the clock.

Yet I can’t imagine Brickell ever being the subject of a Jane’s Walk. There is something about the neighborhood’s sensibility—corporate, wealthy, glossy, neo-liberal—that doesn’t gel with Jacobs’ left-wing faction. However, Brickell and other skyscraper neighborhoods are essential in helping cities grow and stay competitive in a global economy. True fans of Jacobs should see the value of encouraging (or at least allowing) such neighborhoods, as a compliment to the more traditional-style ones.

 

Why Money for Schools Means No Permits For Housing

Housing has a lot going against it in the California. But amidst all the legal, political, and regulatory roadblocks, there’s one law that sneaks by largely unnoticed: Prop 98.

Prop 98 guarantees a minimum level of state spending on education each year. Sacramento pools most city, county, and special district property taxes into special education funds to meet this commitment. The localities only get to keep a small part of the property tax revenues for their own general budgets.

This system creates a disincentive for cities to permit housing. New housing brings in new residents who need city services. But it doesn’t bring in a commensurate increase in property taxes since most of that revenue gets scooped up by Sacramento.

Commercial development, though, brings in taxes a city gets to keep. Sales and hotel taxes are significant revenue streams. And they don’t cause the kinds of strain on city services that new residential does.

Reforming Prop 98 might be low hanging fruit. Changing the formula to appropriate a broader stream of city revenues might help ease the bias against housing. And it might even be possible to amend the law without having to fight the California Teachers Association. As long as there’s no net decrease in education funding, of course.

stack_of_books

For those not acquainted with California politics, the California Teacher’s Association (CTA) is the most potent lobby in Sacramento. If the CTA doesn’t like a bill, it doesn’t become a law.

 

It’s tough to say exactly how much new housing Prop 98 actually prevents. Different cities get to keep different amounts of their property taxes, so the disincentive differs case to case. And there are plenty of other things like CEQA and Prop 13 which put a drag on new construction as well. But where CEQA and Prop 13 make it easier for residents who are already NIMBYs to gum up the works, Prop 98 is a reason in itself for a city to avoid residential development. So while we can’t do much to change the aesthetic preferences of our neighbors, we can do something to change the law. And if tweaking one law makes cities see new housing as a financial boon instead of a burden, it might be worth the effort.