Who Are America’s Progressive Developers?

Miami, FL

1. I delved into finance this week for Forbes, writing articles about how Chicago’s junk-bond rating is already causing higher borrowing costs; and about how Dodd-Frank, 5 years after passage, is killing community banks.

2. Starting in a few weeks, and continuing for as long as I’m on the road, I will occasionally add to a new Market Urbanism series called “America’s Progressive Developers.” This will profile different developers who have either built, or are planning to build, interesting projects that enliven their city. The articles will include interviews, renderings, photos and perhaps video tours of each project, so that MU readers can get an inside look at the urban construction process.

One purpose of this series is to help change the negative perception towards developers. As readers know, anti-development sentiment within U.S. cities has for decades created numerous problems, including high housing prices, poor job growth, and environmental harm. These are problems that even liberal urban activists, who have driven the sentiment, are starting to recognize. For example, Gabriel Metcalf—president of the San Francisco-based planning think tank SPUR—wrote a CityLab essay yesterday about how NIMBYism has pushed out the city’s poor. But this does not mean that attitudes towards developers themselves have changed. Many are still seen as greedy and imposing, and their buildings as monuments to crass consumerism, by the very residents who benefit from proximity to such buildings.

It was not always this way; many large-scale developers were once seen as visionary city builders. For example, Coral Gables, the Miami suburb where I’ve stayed, is a master-planned community that was built in the 1920s by real estate mogul George Merrick. Its downtown became a tasteful mixed-use neighborhood that turned him into a local celebrity, and now one outside area has been named after him. Other developers during this period in America were lauded for building advanced skyscrapers, mansions, shopping centers and civic spaces. Many developers still build such things, but are nonetheless vilified because of the altered public sentiment, which is often rooted in class and racial conflict. This is something that I would like to change, by documenting how America’s developers have helped cities.

So what do I mean by developers who are “progressive”? This is a word that has become loaded, but I will use it to describe those who are forward-thinking, innovative, and whose work demonstrates an appreciation for cities. In this respect, almost anyone who develops in a city is somewhat progressive, by creating jobs and improving lots. But my column aims to profile those who are taking the extra step. This could include developers whose structures are architecturally interesting, integrate well with public space, emphasize historic preservation, present a new consumer option, or have advanced environmental technology. I could also cover projects that have had an outsized impact in revitalizing neighborhoods, even including large corporate ones. And I am not above profiling suburban developers, if they are doing something interesting. All of these development types can play important roles in any metro area.

Along with hopefully changing the perception about developers, I am also doing this series simply because I like meeting city builders. There have been countless times when, like other urbanists, I have walked through a city, seen an interesting project, and wondered—“how did this get here?” I aim to answer this by having the developers behind such projects explain how they did market research, attained financing, overcame political hurdles, and ultimately got something built.

This series will be interconnected with my cross-country trip, so I’ll seek out these progressive developers in every place I visit. If you are following my travels, and know of someone I should meet, drop me a line!

Philadelphia Has A Poor Land Use Record–Why Expand It?

1. My Forbes article this week is about Mamey, a delicious tropical fruit that is popular in Miami but unknown around the U.S.

2. This week I requested interviews with the executives of Philadelphia’s Redevelopment Authority and its Housing Authority—Brian Abernathy and Kelvin Jeremiah. I said that I was writing an article about both agencies’ recent eminent domain zeal. In case you’re unfamiliar, I’m referencing the PHA’s mass overhaul of the Sharswood neighborhood, and the PRA’s multiple recent attempted takings, all plans that have been documented on this site (here and here). Neither agency has responded—which means I’ll try again Monday. But in preparation, I’ve been reading literature about the land management history of Philadelphia’s government. Here are links:

a. It would be hard to understand Philly’s history without knowing of Edmund Bacon, the city’s chief planner for two decades. He was described by architectural critic Paul Goldberger as a more tasteful Robert Moses, mixing “the bulldoze-and-rebuild philosophy of urban renewal with the tentative beginnings of the historic preservation movement.” But in these articles, you’ll notice that he followed many of the past and present follies of the planning profession–by advocating for height limits; out-of-date transportation modes; and large, ugly, white elephant projects. Most telling were his attempts to lure the World’s Fair, a decade after it had proven disastrous in New York City.

b. The paper “Urban Politics and the Vision of a Modern City: Philadelphia and Lancaster after World War II,” gives a more detailed look at Bacon’s vision. He had grown disturbed by the white middle-class exodus from Philly, and wanted pet projects that would draw them back, in defiance of the city’s fiscally-conservative Republican establishment. This vision included saving historic Center City neighborhoods, while severely altering the surrounding black ones:

Rehousing the thousands of families uprooted by renewal—many of them poor African Americans—posed a problem for Philadelphia’s redevelopment authority, as did the white, often violent opposition to any effort by the city to relocate uprooted black families into small public-housing complexes secreted amid white neighborhoods…But, in the glow of the 1950s modernist vision, Philadelphia’s progrowth business, civic, and planning coalition hoped that…high- and low-rise public housing, ideally scattered amid rehabilitating white neighborhoods, would soften the social impact of downtown rebuilding. Alas, as the North Philadelphia riots of August 1964 attested, this did not happen.

Both the PRA and the PHA, founded before Bacon, were instrumental in executing his plans.

c. Here’s a telling of that same history on the PRA website–without, of course, the tales of displacement.

d. Several decades later, the PHA housing where many were steered was found by HUD to be substandard.

e. Such findings–along with extreme corruption and mismanagement–have inspired HUD on two occasions to temporarily take over the PHA: in 1992 and 2011.

f. Before Jeremiah became the PHA executive, the two previous ones had been forced to leave because of improper sexual relations with staffers (Carl Greene and Michael Kelly).

g. The PHA has a habit of building affordable units for well over $300k per head, suggesting that an enormous level of waste is entering the construction process.

h. In 2006, an official with the Penn’s Landing Corporation—working in partnership with the PRA—was sentenced to 30 months in prison for receiving kickbacks during the bidding process for a proposed waterfront project.

i. Another PRA/PHA policy has been to seize abandoned, tax delinquent properties and then auction them off. But because they are slow bureaucracies, they have failed to quickly transfer these properties back onto the private market, while leaving them under-maintained.

j. Perhaps one of the stronger ideas to emerge from this dysfunction was the Philadelphia Land Bank. This was approved in 2014 to consolidate Philly’s 30,000 vacant lots–8,000 of which are government-owned (including by the PRA and PHA)–into a single database. This will mean that developers looking to buy several lots on the same block won’t have to negotiate with multiple agencies, like they do now. Will the Land Bank streamline things, or just become another archaic Philadelphia system? Here’s an article that suggests the latter.

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If there is a common thread behind Philadelphia’s land use approach–from Bacon to today–it is that when faced with capital flight, the answer has been for government agencies to control property instead. This has encouraged policies like mass eminent domain, subsidization of large public-private projects, widespread public housing construction, and seizure of tax delinquent lots. Yet this has hardly produced better outcomes, as the agencies have been mired in waste, bureaucracy, corruption, abuse and mismanagement. It should be noted that in the half-century since Philly expanded its land use footprint, the city has further declined, enjoying a slight population increase only last decade, for the first time since 1950.

These are points that I will bring up to Abernathy and Jeremiah when discussing their agencies’ recent takings. Of my two main questions, the first will be logistical—given that Philadelphia owns 8,000 abandoned lots, why does it need to seize already-functioning private ones? My second will be more general—if Philadelphia has such a porous land use record, what justifies the expanded role now? I’ll look forward to hearing the officials’ answers…assuming they agree to speak.

 

Philadelphia’s Eminent Domain Addiction

1. My Forbes article this week draws parallels between the world’s three most notable recent cases of economic collapse–Detroit, Greece, and Puerto Rico.

2. The subject of eminent domain in Philly has been hot recently on this blog, with both Emily and I discussing plans by the city’s housing authority to seize 1,330 properties for a redevelopment plan in the blighted Sharswood neighborhood. We both–along with reader Adam Lang–noted the irony of a government authority wanting to expand its footprint in a neighborhood that it had already destroyed with public housing and property neglect. Yet during research, I found out that the Sharswood plan was just the start of Philadelphia’s eminent domain policies. There have, in fact, been several other recent takings by the city, and it’s possible that I don’t even know of them all. If any of you who are familiar with local politics can add to this below list, please inform me in the comments section:

a. in December of 2012–just four days before the Pennsylvania state legislatures’ legal protections against eminent domain abuse would go into effect–the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority tried to seize an artist’s studio in the struggling Mantua neighborhood. The city ultimately lost, but not before dragging owner James Dupree through two years of litigation. The rationale was to build a grocery store.

b. in the gentrifying Kensington neighborhood, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority seized 35 properties–including several from one owner–to build affordable housing. The project has broken ground, and was overseen by the Arab-American Community Development Corporation, a bureaucracy whose overt racial pandering appears remarkable even for a left-wing U.S. city.

c. in Point Breeze, a developing neighborhood just south of Center City, 17 private lots were condemned to build affordable housing, some of which were already slated for private development.

d. and then there’s the Sharswood plan, which far exceeds any of these in scope

One shared trait of these neighborhoods, as noted in the above links, was that they each had a litany of abandoned, government-owned property. This, in fact, is common throughout all of Philadelphia (as anyone who has visited knows). According to Grounded in Philly, a group that turns some of these lots into gardens, the city has over 40,000 abandoned lots, and owns over a quarter of these.

This means that there is plenty of room for new construction, without having to take private property. So why do Philadelphia’s agencies for housing and redevelopment continue doing this? Perhaps I’ll give the staffers for both a call this week, because I really am growing curious.

It’s Time To Reform Jaywalking Laws

1. I wrote three Forbes articles this week: about how black churches were burning across the South, perhaps in response to the Charleston shooting and Confederate flag takedown; about how new presidential candidate Chris Christie has handled his 5-year control of Atlantic City; and about a new app that aims to help people find bathrooms in New York City.

2. There are two layers in the ongoing debate about whether cities should cater to cars or pedestrians. The first concerns the design of roads themselves—should they be one-way, as to ease traffic flow, or two-way, as to slow it? Should they dedicate space for alternative, presumably less dangerous modes like bikes and transit, or be used mainly for private autos? Should they be entirely asphalt, to maximize road capacity, or have “calmers” like medians and parklets?

The other layer of the debate concerns the conduct of pedestrians–and central to this is jaywalking.

For decades, U.S. cities have taken a uniform approach to jaywalking. Most policies are rigid, allowing pedestrians to cross solely in designated crosswalks when given the walk sign. But because these laws contradict the way pedestrians actually move, they are routinely broken, with most people sneaking across when cars aren’t coming, and some taking this liberty anywhere along the street. In the worst cases, this has created tension between pedestrians and police, but mostly just ambiguity.

Some sustainability advocates have thus called for “legalizing jaywalking.” Here are the different arguments they’ve made.

a.   One is the historical argument. In January, Vox published an extensive history of jaywalking laws in the U.S. Author Joseph Stromberg explained that as recently as the 1920s, the notion of jaywalking scarcely existed, as urban streets were meant for pedestrians. But attitudes changed with the rise of the automobile, and so too eventually did the laws, urged on by the car industry. As attitudes have shifted back to favor pedestrians, however, it is worth reevaluating these laws.

b.   Jaywalking is an organic form of traffic calming that doesn’t require the government expenditures used for other calming measures.

c.   The social justice argument, which posits that jaywalking fines are disproportionately expensive—and enforced more—against poor blacks, often as an excuse to search them. This seems plausible, since jaywalking fines have been one part of the broken windows policing strategy.

d.   And there is the argument, made recently by Michel Lewyn in a 2-part series for Planetizen (here and here), that confining pedestrians to crosswalks isn’t even safer:

The basic assumption behind these policies is that pedestrians are safe if they don’t jaywalk, and unsafe if they do. But this claim is not necessarily correct.

Why not? Because traffic lights are not very accurate guides to safety. Suppose you are at an intersection, and the light across the street from you says “Walk.” That usually means that there is a red light above you, and that the traffic heading towards you cannot move…But that fact alone does not make me safe from cars, because a motorist turning left or right into Ninth Avenue might be governed by a green light which allows him or her to turn. So if I cross when the light says “Walk”, I can easily be crushed by a driver making a turn. In fact, turning motorists may be even more risky for pedestrians than a head-on attack, since they are harder to notice.

Lewyn continues that “crossing midblock may actually be safer when traffic is light, because a pedestrian need only look in two directions (or only one, where each side of the street is separated by a median) at a time to be sure that there are no cars coming.” It’s also possible that pedestrians, in hand, are more visible to drivers when crossing mid-block, than when in a driver’s turn radius at intersections.

e.   But there’s one argument that I haven’t yet heard: legalizing jaywalking on behalf of economic development. Nowadays, the stated goal of every city is to increase downtown livability. Improving the pedestrian experience has been one part of such revitalization efforts, and wouldn’t reforming jaywalking laws advance this goal? Specifically, it would decrease the wait times required to get from place to place, thus increasing productivity. After all, many of the highly-skilled professionals who locate in downtown areas do so because they desire proximity to other industry professionals, a concept advanced by Richard Florida. For many, walking from function to function is imperative to daily business, and being able to do so quickly is key to mobility, just like good roads and transit. Growing the residential population is also vital to downtown development, and the same concept applies–people who walk to get morning coffee, nightly dinners, or any array of errands must be able to do so quickly, if living downtown is to become worthwhile.

It is thus bizarre to read about the ongoing efforts to ticket jaywalkers, for example, in downtown Los Angeles, where minor violators are being charged $197. Here is a city that is spending billions to repurpose its downtown into a 24/7 urban destination filled with bars, pro sports, entertainment, artists, and rich young professionals. Do officials not understand that targeting jaywalkers contradicts these goals, by making it difficult to walk quickly in the very areas that are being sold as “walkable”?

In places like Los Angeles, these laws either shouldn’t be enforced, or, more to activists’ point, should be diminished. How might this happen? I’m not in favor, like others, of abolishing jaywalking laws altogether, as this might create yet more ambiguity in a nation so accustomed to automobile use. But I do favor using common sense–by allowing pedestrians to cross the street as long as they are not endangering themselves nor obstructing automobiles. This would mean crossing at any part of the road when cars aren’t coming, and walking in-between cars when they are backed up at lights. Many people already do this, and legalizing it would erase the grey area, while opening up streets to people who were previously intimidated by law enforcement. Cities might even install more crosswalks halfway down certain blocks, as to create the safer and more visible experience described by Lewyn. I’ve already seen such crosswalks—often equipped with flashing lights–installed in many cities, and building more would further help legalization.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What is wrong with “How to Make an Attractive City”

critica

How to Make an Attractive City”, a video by The School of Life, recently gained attention in social media. Well presented and pretty much aligned with today’s mainstream urbanism, the video earned plenty of shares and few critiques. This is probably the first critique you may read.

The video is divided into six parts, each with ideas the author suggests are important to make an attractive city. I will cover each one of them separately and analyze the author’s conclusion in a final section.

1 – Not too chaotic, not too ordered

The author argues that a city must establish simple rules to to give aesthetic order to a city without producing excessive uniformity. From Alain Bertaud’s and Paul Romer’s ideas, it can make sense to maintain a certain order of basic infrastructure planning in to enable more freedom to build in private lots. However, this is not the order to which the video refers, suggesting rules on the architectural form of buildings.

The main premise behind this is that it “is what humans love”. But though the producers of the video certainly do love this kind of result, it is impossible to affirm that all humans love a certain type of urban aesthetics generated by an urbanist. It is even less convincing when this rule will impact density by restricting built area of a certain lot of land or even raising building costs, two probable consequences of this kind of policy: a specific kind of beauty does not come for free.

Jane Jacobs, one of the most celebrated and influential urbanists of the modern era, clearly argued that

“To approach a city, or even a city neighborhood, as if it were a larger architectural problem, capable of being given order by converting it into a disciplined work of art, is to make the mistake of attempting to substitute art for life. The results of such profound confusion between art and life are neither art nor life. They are taxidermy.”

The video also makes a factual mistake when it states that London skyscrapers are carefully planned. Their location, in fact, is based on preserving specific viewing corridors established almost 200 years ago. As The Economist reported last year, views of these landmarks have completely lost its relevance in contemporary London.

2 – Visible Life

The video argues that cities full of street life are more desirable. That is observably apparent, as people’s preference is observable in their chose to be drawn to these spaces. Nevertheless, the video makes a contradiction: first saying that Hong Kong is an example of a city with street life, then claiming cities full of skyscrapers aren’t conducive to street life.  Cities with “anonymous commercial towers” do not necessarily lacks street life: New York, Hong Kong, Tokyo and City of London are examples of cities full of skyscrapers that have active street life.

3 – Compact cities

Suburbanization and sprawl has been vigorously incentivized by public policy, most massively in the United States. United States policy featured an Interstate Highway System with massive investment in large road projects; education funding that favored good public schools in the suburbs; subsidies that favored owning larger-and-larger homes such as Mortgage Interest Deduction; zoning restrictions such as minimum lot areas and setbacks, as well as state support for the auto and oil industry. These programs fueled a form of urbanization we’ve come to know as suburban sprawl. Compact cities, which the videos celebrate have typically grown spontaneously without significant interventions.

The historic European and Brazilian downtowns typically have shorter commute distances, an intensive street life and a smaller dependency on the automobile.

4 – Orientation and mystery

It is true that people have diverse preferences for urban form, and that an attractive city can supply a greater variety of forms. However, it is dangerous for a city to dictate a certain kind of urban form for the city as a whole, even if it is a mix between different models. Although we can control form within a neighborhood or a large-scale development, municipal norms with these goals in mind can generate distortions exactly because of the infinitely varying  preferences of the citizens. Incapable of catering to all the subjective preferences of everyone that participates in the city environment, planners inherently lack the capability to determine ideal quantities of orientation and mystery the video suggests. In a truly organic and complex city, orientation emerges in a truly spontaneous and decentralized way that brings more “mystery” than any planner can fathom.

5 – Scale

Here the author quotes Joseph Campbell: “If you want to see what a society really believes in, look at what the biggest buildings on the horizon are dedicated to”, and deduces that we don’t actually collectively value sports shoe corporations, tax specialists, the oil industry and pharmaceuticals, as a few examples. But is that in fact true? A certain citizen may even say that he does not value these corporations and services, but he is a daily consumer of shoes, he pays his taxes, burns fuel and uses plastic products. And when he gets sick, he relies on pharmaceutical drugs. In the behaviors of each person, a preference for these goods and services is in fact revealed.  The video misunderstands how the complexity of the economy actually works and how preferences in society are be manifested.

What happens within tall commercial buildings is never as simple as their appearance. They often house the companies that produce or support the computers we use, the planes we fly in or the milk we have with our everyday breakfast. Such a city reflects the social valuation of a complex network of voluntary action that generates the products and services that make our lives better.

Soon the author argues for preserving views and limiting building heights to five stories. The rule itself is a paradox, as a four story building will have its view blocked by a five story building. Going even further with this reasoning, we can infer that a single-story house can block the view of another single-story house. Arguing for the preservation of views is, in fact, a direct contradiction with what it means to live in a city.

In any case, it is not reasonable to limit buildings within a city to five stories. The height of the old cities the video refers to was not defined by planning norms, but by practical necessity of walking up and down stairs in an era before the elevators we now take for granted. In contrast to today, top floors in pre-elevator buildings were always the cheapest as they were the hardest floors to reach. Limiting building heights to five stories suggests an artificial and arbitrary limit to real estate supply, a tangible side effect of the “sense of insignificance” the producers of the video talk about.

6 – A local city

The video says that buildings must not look alike everywhere in the world, as his trips get boring and because each city has a specific climate, needs and different positive and negative attributes. It argues for a strong local character and for the use of local forms and materials.

This is very true with commercial real estate in Latin America, where developers have built several glass towers which are totally inadequate for a tropical climate. These designs are intended to copy temperate climate buildings in developed countries, where the “greenhouse effect” within glass-enclosed buildings is conducive to indoor working environments. Smart builders will certainly learn from these mistakes and develop more adequate local solutions instead of imitating inefficient and inadequate forms.

The use of local forms and materials, however, is a major problem. Aesthetic and architectural form – trying to separate it from building technology – were always globalized, being influenced by different cultures and ideas. The same argument goes for materials: locally available materials will hardly be the best for every specific building.  This principle can be applied to any object. It is impossible to imagine a pencil, a single and relatively simple object, to be produced only with local materials, much less an entire city. The historical examples given in the video were built that way mainly by lack of options, not by an aesthetic or functional preference. The only contemporary example given, architect Glenn Murcutt, does not use local materials and whether he designs are distinctly “Australian architecture” is a very subjective interpretation.

Conclusion

In the last section, the author asserts that the greatest challenges to implementation of these ideas are a lack of political will and intellectual confusion about aesthetics. This was one of the most dangerous ideas the video communicates. In saying that it is possible to affirm what is inherently beautiful or ugly, is realistically impossible as these are not universal truths. I personally know people who find the glass towers the author hates beautiful. Others think the Brazilian favelas or the shantytowns in Bangkok are the most amazing and spontaneous expression of humanity. Some even think Paris is not the romantic city travel guides tell us, but instead a repetitive and boring vision of the past. The stand the video takes is worrying, as it argues for a correct and universal aesthetic enforced by increasing political power.

The tourism statistics used in this argument is simply false. Dubai, Singapore, New York and Hong Kong are part of the top ten most visited cities in the world and represent urban aesthetics and form opposite to the one argued in the video. For example, my personal experience of Frankfurt does not align with what the video says: I had the opportunity to spend a few days there on vacation and thought the city was amazing.

The final conclusion is an attack on real estate developers, who apparently greedily fight to make the city an ugly unattractive place. Unfortunately not everything is easy in this world. Some developers invest in renowned architects to serve niche clients and citizens that are willing to pay a premium for aesthetic extravagance. However, those who build for the masses cannot budget for extravagance, as real estate is usually the largest expenditure in someone’s life – and the burden of housing costs ever growing in most part because of very regulations the video is promoting. The given example of New Town, Edinburgh is actually perfect, as it is one of the most expensive neighborhoods in town.  Ironically it’s probably the neighborhood with the least amount of street life because of it’s strict residential zoning.

Another contradiction is when the video argues a city cannot be shaped by a free real estate market.  However, most of the cities the video uses as good examples were, in fact, built by within extremely deregulated real estate market compared to today’s standards. This is true for almost all medieval cities, old London neighborhoods, the Marais in Paris (what was untouched by Haussmann’s renovation) with the additional examples of Hong Kong, New York and even the historical centers of Brazilian cities.

By understanding the city as a complex, emergent environment, we should let go of the urge to impose our personal interests in urban form. The video’s final conclusions, calling for an increase in government control and a rigid regulation of the urban environment is as dangerous and has the same mindset as the failed plans of Brasilia.  And as dangerous as modern urbanism theory in general, which sees the city as built physical space that can be modeled by what planners want to achieve. Cities must be the result of spontaneous and voluntary action by all its citizens, not of a committee that decides what is right, wrong, beautiful or ugly.  Restraint from imposition by those who arrogantly proclaim they know what’s best for the extremely complex organisms we call cities will eventually lead to what I like to call planned chaos.

Seamless Transit: Thoughts on the new report from SPUR

SPUR_Seamless_Transit

Seamless Transit is the new transportation policy report from SPUR. Main author Ratna Amin proposes integrating the Bay Area’s balkanized transit systems to improve lackluster ridership. Given that the region has 23 separate transit providers–more than any other metropolitan area in the country–she may have a point.

The report proposes standardizing service maps, fare structures, and payment systems; eliminating inter-system coverage gaps as well as redundant coverage; and reforming transit governance so that the different agencies actually make plans together instead of working at cross-purposes or not at all.

The recommendations are sound and the report includes historical footnotes for context. These are helpful for understanding region’s complicated institutional arrangements. Seamless Transit is a fine piece of work and well worth the read for anyone interested in Bay Area transportation.

But while organizational efficiency is important, it’s not the only thing to discuss. If we want to improve the region’s mass transit systems, we have to consider the physical environment in which those systems are embedded. To get transit right, the region needs to embrace density.

Denser development around transit nodes would increase ridership substantially. When people live, work, and play in smaller geographic areas, more people travel between a fewer number of points. Mass transit, especially fixed rail transit, becomes more effective the denser development becomes.

Hong Kong’s Metro Transit Railway (MTR) might be the quintessential example of urban density begetting mass transit success. The city is home to over 7 million inhabitants. It has a population density of over 18,000 residents per square mile. And of this population, 41% live within a half mile of an MTR station. The result? The MTR has a farebox recovery ratio of 186%–the highest in the world.

Because of legal as well as political differences between Hong Kong and the Bay Area, copy/pasting the MTR’s Integrated Rail-Property Development approach probably isn’t  feasible. But the general lesson remains the same. Increasing ridership means accepting density. And accepting density means reforming the region’s anti-growth, anti-urban land use policies.

None of this is a critique of Ms. Amin or her co-authors. They set out to address a specific set of issues and they did it well. But in the wider conversation about regional transportation, we’d do well to remember the importance of land use. And we’d do well to recognize the necessity of reform. Ultimately, getting mass transit right may have as much to do with embracing urban levels of density as it does with making sure the trains show up on time.