Thursday, August 28, 2014

Jazz Under the Stars Goes Downtown

KCCK-FM and a variety of corporate sponsors have hosted Jazz Under the Stars at Noelridge Park every August for as long as I can remember. This week, for the last concert of the year, they moved downtown to the new McGrath Amphitheatere on the west side of the river. Will this be a, or the, future venue? They're soliciting feedback.

The crowd seemed down a bit, maybe because school has started, or because of the unsettled weather. But they were a festive bunch nonetheless.
Across the river, the Great America Building was all aglow.
Looking downtown... the Veterans Memorial Building is at left, the Linn County Courthouse at right.
The evening's entertainment was provided by Uniphonics from Iowa City. This is their instrumental section.
The full ensemble including vocalists.
I liked the new venue, but I like the park setting too. Maybe they could alternate weeks?

Cedar Rapids comprehensive plan

Cedar Rapids City Manager Jeff Pomeranz talks with open house attendees
at the National Czech and Slovak Museum Wednesday
Citizen reaction to Wednesday's Envision CR open houses probably depended more on one's frame of mind going in. If you'd just received a letter from your ex-wife's attorney notifying you that they were reopening alimony negotiations, and the dog threw up your phone just as you were leaving, and someone cut you off in traffic as you drove to the meeting, the displays probably seemed intentionally obscure and the plans suspicious. If you'd just acquired a handsome new bicycle, and the Sun broke through the clouds just as you stepped out of your home, and a little bird landed on your shoulder and mellifluously chirped the song you danced to at your senior prom, the displays and plans were evidence that exciting things are afoot in our town and the future is awesome.

Given that I'm as human as the next person--well, nearly so--and have my own personal frame of mind, I'm really not sure what I've just seen. Poster boards addressed a broad set of topics, including neighborhoods, corridors (seven main streets), physical growth, transportation and the economy. There were a lot of cryptic phrases that could be interpreted various ways, and a tendency to want to be all things to all people. (Here the city could have learned a lot from the MedQuarter SSMID, whose displays depicted specific examples for each possible idea.) City staff were on hand to offer explanations and answer questions (though the displays were not so digestible as to produce good questions). Few hands were tipped, but some potentially important principles were enunciated.

To begin with, there were a number of concepts articulated that could guide growth in a good way:

1. Choices in housing and transportation. The city says "We will adopt policies that create choices in housing types and prices throughout the city," and promises choices for all transportation users as well. Like most cities that saw their major development after World War II, Cedar Rapids is very house- and car-oriented: roads are built to be driven on, not walked or biked on, the bus system is rudimentary, and most people can't live near where they work. If they carry through on these promises, future city residents will have a greater array of choices in their lives. Whether this bus map was meant to be suggestive or illustrative of some policy makers' thinking, it depicts what would be a revolutionary change in the transit system.

2. Connections were mentioned a couple of times: connecting growing areas to existing areas, and connecting all areas of the city. The specific nature of the connections was not specified, but the principle is an important one if all are to share in our future prosperity.

3. A couple maps depicted an extensive network of trails and complete streets. This is ambitious and admirable. There were also maps of the Greenway parks planned along the west side of the river.

Given that many of the displays were cryptic, most of my questions would have been on the order of "What is this about?" Upon reflection, here are some better-framed questions:

1. What is a neighborhood? The city intends, among other things, to improve their quality and identity, establish neighborhood groups, and work with those groups to develop plans. Currently recognized neighborhoods include the historic, somewhat organic Mound View and Wellington Heights as well as a swath called "Near NW." There was also a graphic depicting neighborhoods developed pre- and post-World War II, accurate but of obscure purpose.

2. Are the seven main street corridors (1st Av E, Center Point Rd NE, Mt Vernon Rd SE, 6th St SW, Williams Blvd SW, 16th Av SW and Ellis Rd NW) intended to present a pleasant face to visitors or to provide commercial anchors for adjacent neighborhoods? I suppose we could aim at both, but which has priority? If the first, we're stressing auto thoroughfares with nicer landscapes. If the second, we're stressing commercial development and pedestrian safety.

3. Speaking of priorities, what do we think is most important for a healthy local economy? The city pledges, "We will grow a sustainable, diverse economy by supporting existing businesses, fostering entrepreneurship and targeting industry-specific growth," as well as attracting young professionals, providing cutting-edge training, and reinvesting in business corridors and districts. Does that leave anything we're not for? This umbrella is broad enough to include some time-tested cost-effective techniques as well as continuing to throw huge piles of cash at anyone with connections and a promise to create some random number of jobs.

Finally, what I didn't hear:

1. In choosing and implementing policies, will the city consider cost-effectiveness? As we grow will we consider the costs of building and maintaining sprawl, or will we just do it and give it away free because that's what some people and developers want? Some pro-business measures are cost-effective, some are giveaways.

2. How will the poor be connected and included? This won't happen automatically. There is far more profit margin in marketing to the rich than to the poor, and housing deemed "affordable" is also deemed a threat to property values. Is the city prepared to intentionally address these situations and resolve these conflicts?

3. How much would the metro area population need to grow in order to support the physical expansions we contemplate (areas shaded yellow in the map below)? Is this realistic, or just the dream of developers?

Ah, but it's fun to live in a city that is actively pondering its future. Probably the best attitude is that of veteran reporter Dale Kueter, who told Rick Smith (cited below) that he's seen plenty of comprehensive plans end up in the trash but wrote a bunch of comments anyway.


"EnvisionCR: A Comprehensive Plan for the City of Cedar Rapids,"

Rick Smith, "Cedar Rapids Officials Unveil Envision CR," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 28 August 2014,

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Are we all Ferguson?

Photo by Devon Sayers for CNN; swiped from
So much insight has already been offered on the recent shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the lengthy confrontation that followed between protestors and police, that it is redundant to add more words to the pile. I nonetheless presume to add some thoughts on a relatively uncommented aspect of the situation, that being the looting of area stores during the protest. I have spent relatively little time in St. Louis, and have never been to Ferguson, so I'm nobody's expert on this specific series of incidents. (Neither, of course, are a lot of others who have offered opinions.) But I think there may be a broader, or at least potentially broader, phenomenon at work.

I will allow three things by way of disclaimer: [a] By most accounts, Ferguson's city government and particularly its police department have handled all this exceptionally badly from the start (so in all probability your police department would not have so energetically contributed to the unfolding disaster); [b] Much of the looting likely was done by a few bad apples, the sorts of thugs who prey on disorder wherever they happen to be (including Cedar Rapids after the flood); and [c] it is the habit of commentators to interpret situations through their own lens, however tenuous the actual connection.

I began this blog 16 months ago to discuss how places throughout (mostly) America were addressing three core challenges: economic opportunity, accommodation of diversity, and environmental sustainability. Environmental issues don't come into play here, and while the diversity connection is obvious, there are also effects of  the evolving economy, which for decades has been leaving a lot of people behind. Their discouragement is palpable. There has been little overt unrest, and most of what there has been was the genteel sort of "Occupy" stuff. Yet there is, understandably, discouragement, despair, and fraying nerves. Imagine a pile of brush, soaked in gasoline. The pile is just a wet and ugly nuisance, unless a spark occurs.

The shooting of Michael Brown was such a spark. So was the striking of a black child by a white motorist in a poor neighborhood some months ago. You may remember that when the driver got out to check on the child, he was assaulted by several onlookers, and might have been killed but for other people in the area who ran them off. Different cities, different situations, common element of race, but also the common element of widespread latent frustration that needed one spark to explode, in all its destructiveness and irrationality.

As the article by Kneebone cited below points out, areas of concentrated poverty are becoming more widespread (yes, counter-intuitive) in many metropolitan areas in the US. Gasoline-soaked piles of brush are everywhere around us. We need to design our metropolises in ways that connect people, not separate them (see the Capps article, cited below, on blatant efforts by Grosse Point Park, Michigan, to keep poor residents of Detroit out). Along with that, it is crucial to come to grips with the future of economic opportunity. That will require concerted effort by both government and the private sector, but the private sector is cutting positions and is sure it will die if the minimum wage is increased. Government's best ideas seem to involve shoveling public money into the hands of well-connected developers and peripatetic businesses. Can we do better? We simply must.


Kriston Capps, "There Are Echoes of Ferguson in Detroit," CityLab, 22 August 2014,

Rachel Kaufman, "Do Militarized Police Forces Actually Make Us Safer?," Urbanful, 14 August 2014,

Elizabeth Kneebone, "Ferguson, Mo. Emblematic of Growing Suburban Poverty," The Avenue: Rethinking Metropolitan America, 15 August 2014,

Jeff Smith, ""In Ferguson, Black Town, White Power," New York Times, 18 August 2014, A19,

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

What is a complete street?

One appealing goal in our region's transportation plan, "Connections 2040," is to create "complete streets." The Corridor Metropolitan Planning Organization devotes two pages to complete streets in "Connections 2040." The goal will be repeated in the city's comprehensive plan, Envision CR, which is still in the works (and which will be the subject of two open houses Wednesday 8/27, 11;30-1:30 at the library and 4:30-6:30 at the National Czech and Slovak Museum). But what makes streets "complete?"

The term "complete streets" has been popularized by the nonprofit Smart Growth America, which also sponsors the National Complete Streets Coalition. They begin by noting the widely-acknowledged fact that street development in America since World War II has focused on moving cars, and moving them as quickly as possible. In contrast, the defining principle of a "complete street" is one that is designed "with all users in mind – including bicyclists, public transportation vehicles and riders, and pedestrians of all ages and abilities [emphasis in original]." The corollary, then, is to allow individuals to choose their mode of getting around, rather than feel forced to travel by car because it's not safe to go by any other means of transit.

As such it is more of a principle than a cookie-cutter pattern. Much of new urbanism is directed at re-designing our communities so the places people want to go are within walkable/bikable distance and that public transportation is viable. Smart Growth America points out that, even with communities designed as they are now, the National Household Traffic Survey finds that nearly half of trips of less than a mile are taken by auto. The relatively modest step of reconfiguring streets could make walking or biking short trips a viable option. Reconfiguration could include crosswalks, sidewalks, provision for cyclists, bus stops, wheelchair accessibility, traffic roundabouts, and greenways. In rural areas they would probably focus on paving shoulders. Besides choices for individuals, Smart Growth America promises complete streets will "improve safety, better health, stronger economies, [and] reduce costs," as well as reduce traffic congestion.

Smart Growth America takes pains to point out that complete streets is an approach, or really part of an approach, to development. It is not "a design prescription," nor is it "a silver bullet" that will eliminate the need to address broader design issues. "Connections 2040" makes much the same point (see ch. 6, pp. 6-7). So each community, and indeed each neighborhood and street within that community, invites tactics that are appropriate to it as well as to the complete streets strategy. Any specific tactics also need to consider budgetary constraints, as well as reasonable expectations of future growth.

So, here are some streets of Cedar Rapids, currently suited only to those physically fit and bold-of-spirit, with some ideas how they might be made "complete:"

(1) A Avenue NE.

A Avenue, taken across Coe Rd (12th St), facing St. Luke's Hospital
A Avenue goes from Coe College, past St. Luke's Hospital and through the MedQuarter office district, behind the arena, and ending downtown by the Quaker Oats plant. There is an interstate highway access at 8th St, with exit from the interstate onto 7th St. Except for the block in the picture, there are four traffic lanes. There are sidewalks, but crossing multi-lane streets is awkward pedestrians. Biking is do-able, but scary, particularly near the interstate.

I'm torn between two options. One would push traffic to 1st Ave, narrow A to two lanes and add bike lanes. For pedestrians we'd add more street trees and give them a head start at the scarier intersections. The other option would be to narrow 1st Avenue to two lanes through the commercial district envisioned in the MedQuarter Plan, encourage bikes and pedestrians to choose that, while routing auto traffic at maybe 10th St around downtown and/or onto the interstate via A. (More radically, and at considerable expense, we could ditch the interstate access altogether. Traffic frequently gets backed up there during the day, with ripple effects onto surrounding streets. Might there be a better place to do this?)

(2) 10th Street SE.

This four lane street runs from A to 8th Avenue, from St. Luke's to Mercy Hospital. (After that it becomes a residential street, really a different street with the same name.) Once past the Physicians Clinic of Iowa complex it forms the border between the MedQuarter and the Wellington Heights neighborhood. It has a lot of the same issues as A Avenue. Walking--to medical offices, churches, and McKinley Middle School--would improve with fewer curb cuts, and moving new construction from behind parking lots up to the street. Biking, as well as getting across 10th Street, would improve by narrowing traffic to two lanes and adding bike lanes. The intersection at 8th Avenue currently has turn lanes with no stops, which move cars but deter everything else, so I'd get rid of those and make it a traditional intersection. Past 8th the residential street is one-way south for one block, for some reason. From 5th to A there are six traffic lights in six blocks. The lights at 4th and 5th are really long, which is problematic for cross traffic between Wellington Heights and MedQuarter. Shortening the lights would make the drive down 10th take longer; could roundabouts ease this?

(3) 32nd Street NE.

This long street runs from the other side of 1st Avenue to the interstate, where it becomes Glass Road and runs another 2 1/2 miles to Edgewood Road. While it is only two lanes wide, it has a remarkable run of 1.3 miles (from 1st Av to Oakland Rd) without any traffic controls. This means two bad things: Cars attempting to cross or turn onto 32nd have a difficult time, and drivers on 32nd feel comfortable driving a lot faster than the posted speed limit of 30 mph. Tailgating is routine, and biking to grocery store or trail problematic. There are no sidewalks between Oakland and Eastern, and the ones across Oakland by Hy-Vee Food Store and Family Video don't go anywhere. (My friend Niles Ross informs me that the sidewalks that do exist between Eastern and 1st aren't in very good condition.) I'm thinking of: more and smoother sidewalks; calming car traffic with 4-way stops at C Av, Eastern Av, and Prairie Dr; sharrow signs, since I don't think the street is wide enough for bike lanes; relaxed zoning in order to allow small commercial development along the street; and a bus line that runs back and forth along 32nd from 1st to Edgewood.

(4) Collins Rd.

This is Cedar Rapids's quintessential stroad, 2 miles o' classic sprawl from 1st Av to the interstate. There are five lanes of usually congested traffic, with lots of turning traffic and curb cuts. At each end it connects with a highway bypass that will eventually encircle the city. I actually rode my bike on Collins Road from C to Edgewood. My excuses are (a) it was early enough on Sunday morning that there wasn't much traffic, and (b) it was 25 years ago, and I was young and moronic. I'm thinking we leave this alone. Here I follow the logic of city planner Jeff Speck, in chapter 10 of Walkable City (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012). There are so many streets in Cedar Rapids that could be "completed" with relatively little effort and expense, to expend the energy needed to fix Collins Road is just nuts. I mean, you can grow citrus fruit commercially in Cedar Rapids, too, if people were able and willing to spend about $75 an orange. There are, nonetheless, sidewalks, complete with crosswalks, recently installed near the intersection of Collins and 1st. They don't go anywhere, and can't possibly be used much. Ditto the new sidewalk that runs all along 16th Av SW. Doing things wrong is usually worse than not doing them at all, because it comes with opportunity costs, and tars good efforts with its bad reputation. Who is spending our money on this... baloney? Please stop!!

Cedar Rapids has a way to go before it truly is a thriving, resilient community. Adoption of a complete streets strategy will go far to achieving that goal, particularly if combined with changes in land use.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: "Complete Streets: A to Z," Smart Growth America,

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Is a baseball complex a public good?

Baseball [picture from]
[ADDED 8/8/14: My Economics colleague Rick Eichhorn points out that a baseball complex cannot by definition be a public good, because it cannot be, in economist-speak, "non-rival and non-excludable." So to be precise, I am asking: Can a baseball complex provide a public good, that being economic vitality, from which all (baseball players or not) benefit, and which the market on its own cannot provide? As you will see from the following, I am dubious. Quite dubious, really.]

The Iowa Transportation Commission recently awarded a $1.266 million RISE (Revitalize Iowa's Sound Economy) grant to a baseball/softball complex planned northeast of Marion, on State Route 13 near County Home Road. The grant is in addition to a $750,000 grant from the City of Marion, and Linn County's effective donation of the (county-owned) land. The business owners hope to raise an additional $4.5 million in public funds, in all amounting to somewhat more than half the cost of the $11 million project. The rest of the funding would be raised from private sources.

PMBF president Jack Roeder, formerly general manager of the Cedar Rapids Kernels minor league baseball team, projects the 17 fields will host local leagues, travel tournaments for high school prospects, and (at the specially constructed Miracle Field) games for people with physical disabilities. They anticipate 120,000 visitors annually, half from out of the area, $25 million in direct spending, and creation of 200 full- and part-time jobs.

It is a good idea to take claims of future economic benefit with a grain or two of salt. There are unknowns beyond this:
  1. Is there a shortage of baseball/softball facilities in the area? The complex would add to an existing stock of area ball parks, including Diamonds Sports Complex in Cedar Rapids, which consists of four diamonds and is also located on Route 13, about eight miles south of the proposed Prospect Meadows Ball Fields location.
  2. Could the project have been done without public funds? The non-profit West Michigan Sports Commission just opened a similar, though smaller, facility in Grand Rapids, funded entirely with corporate, private and non-profit money.
  3. Will the development exacerbate sprawl, which Marion has already done to a fare-thee-well? The RISE grant is for road-building, at a time when the region (just like most of the country) is having a difficult time keeping up with maintenance of existing infrastructure.
  4. Is travel baseball a good idea, or does it put excessive strain on young arms as they chase the dream of professional contracts or college scholarships?
Besides not knowing the answers to any of those questions, I have to admit to rather blinkered vision. If you've spent any time on this blog you've detected a strong bias towards downtown and neighborhood development. (I like trails, too, but don't talk about them as much.) I don't spend much mental energy on either amateur baseball or on Farthest Marion. So take that into account when you read the following.

There is a role for government in economic development. But just because markets do fail from time to time doesn't mean everything we don't have is the result of a market failure. Iowa State University economist David Swenson, in a paper explaining the origins and use of tax increment financing (not yet a factor in the ball field case), lists five factors encouraging state and local governments to go beyond traditional regulation and service provision, beginning in the 1980s: (1) rural household dislocation and out-migration, (2) large losses in traditional manufacturing capacity, (3) absence of economic diversification, (4) statewide depopulation, and (5) erosion of small town commerce and social institutions (pp. 2-3). Not all of these pertain to metropolitan Cedar Rapids, of course, but enough do that we participate in the nationwide scramble for new enterprises. This scrambling is not always well-advised or fiscally efficient. Again Swenson:
[T]remendous increases in competition for capital development among the states and cities have led states and local governments to use more types and greater inducements to support growth.... It has now evolved that for any city or state to be competitive, there must be a substantial "standing offer" of incentives on the table or business will look elsewhere.... As the economic development process is informationally asymmetric, that is, the firm has all of the knowledge and the awarding governments only know what the firm tells them, one must assume that all governments, state and local, frequently make inefficient decisions regarding public subsidy of development, and that public resources are therefore not used for the best purposes (pp. 4-5).
How, then, should local governments approach economic development? Adam Smith, in his brilliant and authoritative though occasionally ponderous Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, recognized the existence of market failures. In Book V, he explains it is the duty of the sovereign to erect public works and institutions, which are unprofitable to private investors but needed by society. (For example, roads and bridges are needed to facilitate commerce, and schools are needed to promote the instruction of youth.) But even so, he is ambivalent about government activity in this area, fearing that officials will respond to political power rather than to genuine social need. Funding public works through user fees such as bridge tolls, for example, ensures bridges "can be made only where that commerce requires them, and consequently where it is proper to make them" (V.i.iii, Art. 1). The genuineness of social need is a matter of perception, of course, which gets us away from the mechanistic operations of the economic marketplace and puts us in danger of manipulation.

Smith's argument remains valid today, even as the scope of government necessarily has expanded greatly since 1776 in order to keep pace with economic and technological change. Faced with this reality, we can either deny any governmental efficacy and reject its role entirely, or tolerate its great inefficiencies and hope that occasionally the interests of the powerful will coincide with ours, or figure out some way of making government work efficiently in the general interest. That's a tall order, but here are a couple of suggestions by way of procedures that I think will improve governmental responsiveness:
  1. Empower metropolitan regional governments (see Calthorpe and Fulton, ch. 4). Political arrangements should be scaled to reflect the realities of people's lives and our economies. Regional planning and revenue-sharing will reduce the ability of private interests like Physicians Clinic of Iowa to play municipalities off against each other, so that a win for Cedar Rapids (or Hiawatha) is a win for the whole region. It thus eliminates one of the main drivers of sprawl.
  2. Economic gardening (see Hamilton-Pennell; Marohn, pt. 2). Rather than having other taxpayers subsidize the creation of new businesses, what can we do to enhance the success of existing businesses? By providing technical and information assistance to small businesses, Littleton, Colorado (which pioneered this approach 25 years ago) has grown its economy without special subsidies or breaks. As Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns points out, this involves an accumulation of small efforts and results, none of which is individually photogenic. But where tried it has brought results at a much lower cost than falling for the big promises of those who happen to be politically well-placed. Marohn concludes: [B]y the way, we'll still be bringing jobs and new businesses in from outside the community. The only difference will be that we won't be paying them to come -- they will want to be here. If we are successful -- and we will be -- they will be paying us to come here.
I oppose public funding for Prospect Meadows Ball Fields, for the same reason that I opposed the $10 million local governments are sinking into redoing Westdale Mall. They are substantial public investments without a public goods rationale, responding to the political influence of private power rather than to genuine social need. I'm ambivalent about the $250 million extension of Route 100, but find the public goods arguments I've heard so far to be weak.

Our common life in the next century requires a role for government, but only if it's done right. We simply must find a better way.


Peter Calthorpe and William Fulton, The Regional City: Planning for the End of Sprawl (Washington: Island Press, 2001).

"City of Marion Pledges Support for Prospect Meadows Ball Fields," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 22 February 2013,

Pat Evans, "Sports Complex Forecasts $20M Economic Impact," Grand Rapids Business Journal, 1 August 2014,

Christine Hamilton-Pennell, Strengthen Your Local Economy Through Economic Gardening (ICMA Press, 2010). An excerpt is here; more information on the "Growing Local Economies" website [].

Chuck Marohn, "From the Mayor's Office," Strong Towns, 22 March 2012,

Rick Smith, "Cedar Rapids' Prospect Meadows Project Receives $1.3 Million," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 10 June 2014,

David Swenson, "Tax Increment Financing in Iowa: Background, Research and Recommendations," presentation to the House Ways and Means subcommittee, 27 February 2012,

Do bicycle boulevards need a purpose?

I was surprised last weekend to find the place where we were staying was on a bicycle boulevard. A bicycle boulevard is "a street ...