Links: A private cable car line for Hamburg, a private downtown for Quincy, Mass., and no adaptive reuse for Brooklyn

Maybe if the developer was allowed more than two stories, they'd spend more than 10 minutes designing the roof...

Maybe if the developer was allowed more than two stories, they'd spend more than 10 minutes designing the roof...

1. Hamburg’s newly-revitalized port could get a completely privately-funded cable car line, if the city allows it.

2. Quincy, Mass., a few T stops away from downtown Boston, is getting a new downtown from a private developer, replete with infrastructure and dense development. It’s unique, however, in that the city supposedly isn’t giving the developer huge tax breaks and infrastructure subsidies (more here). Here is an article about a previous project by the same developer, Street-Works. Environmentalists, predictably, are perturbed. In any case, the project sounds promising, though I guess the devil’s in the details. Anyone know anything more about it?

3. In Brooklyn, near a bridge, almost 150 years old, doesn’t have a roof!adaptive reuse opportunities like Dumbo’s Tobacco Warehouse don’t come along too often, even in New York, so it’s unfortunate that developers are only being allowed to build to two stories (if they’re allowed to build at all).

4. Other cities seem to have plenty of people willing to do it for free, but Berkeley’s City Council actually subsidizes its BRT-hating NIMBYs to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars under the guise of the “Community Environmental Advisory Committee.” It’s a shame that every metro area doesn’t have a transit critic like the Drunk Engineer, who I think is the best transit commentator in the blogosphere.

5. Randal O’Toole on TriMet, Portland’s transit agency, and its mismanagement.

6. “A Requiem for ‘High-Speed Rail’,” from New Geography.


1. Maps of sprawl and gentrification in Detroit, St. Louis, Chicago, and Boston. At first the picture looks bleak for cities, but Jesus – even downtown Detroit is growing! (More here.)

2. A real, live Texan (just kidding – he lives in Austin) replies to O’Toole on parking.

3. Why aren’t (more) urbanists cheering on Jerry Brown’s attempt to kill sprawl-inducing California redevelopment agencies? (Streetsblog SF/LA, I’m looking at you!)

4. NY lawsuit alleges that LEED standards are meaningless, and Charlie at Old Urbanist takes the opportunity to review the case against America’s most popular “greenness” metric.

5. This is awesome: The DC Office of Zoning makes the code and all the overlays accessible on Google Maps. Is there any other city with anything like it?

Duany bashes LEED standards

Andrés Duany, leader of the New Urbanism movement, comes out against LEED standards:

He said that high-density development in urban locations which entail less reliance on private cars should get a free pass on energy efficiency or energy generation standards.  “Don’t make apartment dwellers install solar power,” he said.  “They are doing their part just by living densely and driving less.” […]

Duany also had choice words for government land use and building officials.

In New Orleans, he said that government standards for rebuilding added costs that just about exactly offset the amount of assistance the government was going to provide, so “no one can rebuild.”


1. Systemic Failure praises Gov. (again) Jerry Brown’s efforts to do away with California’s redevelopment agencies and “enterprise zones” (there’s a euphemism if I’ve ever heard one), which the author claims promote autocentric development with public funds. He then cites a few examples of redevelopment agencies pushing such plans in San Jose. If he can come up with that many in one city, I can’t even imagine how much damage they’ve done throughout the whole state. So far I’m liking Jerry Brown’s second act.

2. A very interesting Wikipedia article about a controversial Brooklyn-based developer.

3. One Staten Island councilman wants to use the dreaded environmental review against bike lanes.

4. An article about the Toronto condo boom. I’d like to know more about this:

But perhaps the biggest demographic that will continue to drive sales this year is the investor market, both local and international. Mr. Lamb says there are few developers building rental towers any longer, in part due to the city’s rent control laws, so investors hold the key to rental accommodation. He says it’s not uncommon for 40% of a building to be owned by investors, with most rentals situated below the fifteenth floor because they are less expensive than those with a brighter view. Mr. Myers estimates 50% to 60% of downtown condo units are owned by investors who rent them out.

The environmental review strikes again: Lake Oswego edition

Lake Oswego, a suburb of Portland where development began over a hundred years ago, has learned the hard way about the strings that come with taking federal money:

In the dim light of recent news and numbers, you’ve probably forgotten that the Lake Oswego streetcar was, once upon a time, a project worth celebrating as a wise and timely investment. […]

But the value of that astute move has been all but lost in the recent traffic of misleading budget numbers and the self-defeating “environmental impact” process mandated by the leaden, one-size-fits-all feds. […]

But the streetcar is the environmental alternative when a community is wrestling with carbon footprints, traffic congestion and our addiction to OPEC, and the draft environmental impact study — draft, mind you — placed an 18-month hammerlock on the project.

“Interminable and ridiculous sums up the federal process,” says Judie Hammerstad, the former Lake Oswego mayor. “Portland circumvented it with its first streetcar by not asking for federal funds. We don’t have that luxury.”

“To get federal funding, you have to do an environmental impact statement,” notes Doug Obletz, who heads the project team. “The federal government dictates the process.”

That does no one any favors, save the Dunthorpe residents who will move heaven and rail-line to ensure a streetcar never intrudes upon the sanctuary of their river estates.

In exchange for this needlessly complex review, the feds pick up 60 percent of the project cost, which has been mischievously pegged in the vicinity of $458 million.

And here’s how the money was spent:

Another is the cost of the draft EIS, a 543-page report that cost — thanks to the feds — $4.3 million to produce.

Let’s put that price tag in perspective. If you paid a reasonably bright engineer $75 an hour and gave her 3,000 hours to work through traffic patterns, noise issues, job creation and design options, the tab would be $225,000.

The draft EIS cost 19 times that amount, and no one even blinks. “It does seem like a lot of money,” said Bridget Wieghart, a project manager at Metro, “but it’s fairly typical for this kind of process.”

Obletz breaks it down for us: $470,000 for the conceptual engineering, which TriMet couldn’t handle on its own; $440,000 for the traffic analysis, performed by David Evans and Associates; $1.37 million for additional consulting fees and the writing assignment; another $1 million for Metro’s input; $150,000 for “public outreach” …

And, yes, that $330,000 to Shiels Obletz Johnsen, which bills at a rate between $60 and $200 an hour.

Once upon a time, the streetcar was low tech, low overhead, low design and construction costs, and worth celebrating. “A beautiful, streamlined process,” Obletz says.

Then the feds showed up. And the train wreck began.

Systemic Failure talks a lot about the private consultant scourge, but I’m still not exactly sure why this is more of a problem in American than it is elsewhere. Is it pure rent-seeking on the part of the consultants? Does the federal government mandate such an expensive and intrusive process (I’m talking here about the aforementioned protests from Dunthorpe)? What’s stopping the agency from paying a couple of hundred grand and not letting vested suburban interests interfere?

Environmentalism vs. density, Clean Water Act edition

I know I’ve kind of beaten this horse dead, but this environmentalism vs. density stuff just enrages me too much to relegate it to a link list. Here are some excerpts from an article about how the EPA’s proposed new rules for cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay could impede dense, environmentally-friendly development:

For decades, the federal Clean Water Act has tried to get communities to reduce the effects of stormwater runoff. Heavy rains often carry fertilizers and soil into streams and rivers — ultimately killing aquatic life in vulnerable bodies like Chesapeake Bay.

In response to tightening federal requirements, the state of Maryland is putting together a regulatory system that aims to cut the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment flowing into the degraded Bay. But opinion is sharply divided over whether the plan will have a good or bad effect on the character and location of future development. […]

In the letter, Potter warned, however, that there are “potential conflicts between the TMDL mandate and Smart Growth” — conflicts that neither the state of Maryland nor the Environmental Protection Agency has adequately addressed.

“I believe the WIP will definitely make it harder to do low-density greenfield sprawl,” says a forum organizer, Stuart Sirota, principal of the New Urbanism-oriented TND Planning Group. “But I am concerned that the [state plan] may have the unintended consequence of making it more difficult to do higher-density infill within redevelopment areas and growth areas.”

Another forum organizer, Jim Noonan, who in the 1990s helped implement Governor Parris Glendening’s original smart growth program, agrees with Sirota that the Maryland plan may hinder dense, walkable, transit-served development — the kind of development that meets smart growth objectives. Noonan, practice leader for comprehensive planning at KCI Technologies, also predicts that unless the watershed plan is altered, it may also spread more household growth across low-density outlying areas, actually adding to pollution problems.

“The authors of Maryland’s Watershed Implementation Plan definitely do intend to discourage outlying low-density development and to encourage infill,” Noonan says. But, he says, “I don’t think they achieve that.”

The plan proposed by Maryland — one of six states in the 64,000-square-mile Chesapeake Bay watershed — adds “another layer of regulations and bureaucracy” onto the difficulties that already confront smart growth developers, Noonan told New Urban News. The plan would hinder attempts to establish higher-density living in urban areas, he said, and may also deter attempts to build up existing rural centers.

Noonan and Potter believe that although “compact, walkable communities can reduce pollutant loads,” the state plan does not make development of dense, mixed-use, transit-served communities any easier than development of houses on large lots in auto-dependent suburbs.

The state retorts and claims that it’s already made a number of concessions in favor of dense development, but the fact that they can make the changes listed and still have the plan provoke the ire of smart growth advocates only means that the people who drafted the plan must have had even less sense to begin with.

Environmental review vs. congestion pricing

One of the sickest paradoxes in American law has got to be the arduous environmental review that’s applied to transit and dense building projects, but I didn’t think it was this bad. From an article about San Mateo County residents bitching about being asked to pitch in for the roads they use:

The earliest the city could set up congestion pricing would be 2015, after a lengthy environmental review process.

Note that except for maybe a few toll booths or, more likely, cameras, a congestion charge doesn’t require any new construction. I’m really curious as to what statute makes such an absurd environmental review necessary – any readers care to take a guess?

Weekend link megalist

This is probably my favorite link list yet…enjoy!

1. The WSJ claims that delinquent homeowners can expect to stay in their homes after making their last mortgage payment – that is, they can live rent-free – for at least 16 months. The longer it takes for foreclosures to happen, the longer it will take for real estate markets to adjust to the new paradigm.

2. Fascinating article about food trucks in Houston. In it I found a second example of bad anti-terrorism policy trumping good urbanism:

Chimed in Joyce: “We all know that Houston is not a walking city, as much as we wish it was. But there are two areas that are walkable – downtown and the Medical Center. The use of propane trucks is prohibited downtown, however. The regulation was originally put in place as a part of Homeland Security after 9/11, but the Houston Fire Department continues to enforce it. That’s an example of something we’re looking to work with, to allow food trucks to operate in these higher foot traffic areas.”

The article also confirms my suspicion that food trucks may actually be safer than restaurants: “These are essentially open kitchens…you can look in there and see exactly what these guys are doing, where they’re grabbing the food from, how they’re cooking it.”

3. Hong Kong and Singapore are both instituting controls on their residential property markets to avoid bubbles, but they are also freeing government land for developers (in spite of Singapore’s free market reputation, most residents apparently live in public housing). Some speculate that Hong Kong’s controls might be a sign of increasing control from Beijing. Reuters says that “China, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and Malaysia have also unveiled more stringent regulations in recent months” – the bubble that led to the 1997 financial crisis had a large property component. The Beijing Communist Party mouthpiece, apparently fearing that investors have too much faith in the local government, blames the city’s high rents on prostitutes.

4. Cap’n Transit on road subsidies. These sorts of debates often frustrate me because I feel like people are not clear as to which roads they’re talking about (federal, state, local?).

5. Al Gore admits that first-generation ethanol was a mistake and he only supported it because of “a certain fondness for the farmers in the state of Iowa” (yes, he really said that). But talk is cheap – he’s still sticking by non-food biofuels, though I think those’re just as bad. On the bright side, though, DeMint and Tom Coburn are apparently ready to let some key ethanol subsidies lapse this year.

6. DC developer forced to offer below-market rents to an IHOP. You know what would really help “small, local, minority-owned businesses”? Eliminating mandates like this that lead to constrained property markets and sky-high rents.

7. Remember that god-awful North Jersey mall project Xanadu, whose demise prompted an item in the last link list?  Well apparently Chris Christie wants to throw more money down that hole. Speaking of which: Did they really not realize the negative associations people have with the name “Xanadu”? Or is that just evidence that not even the person who named it had any faith in it?

8. Real estate investors are bidding up prices for apartment buildings, says the NYT. Hopefully the increase in prices will convince local officials to zone for more multifamily development.