Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Life lessons from the Skywalk

I've gone on previously about my love for Cedar Rapids Downtown Skywalk System, in spite of its lack of urbanism bona fides. When the section connecting the Doubletree Hotel across 1st Avenue to its parking garage was completed and opened to the public last year, it looked like restoration was complete... except that there was no connection from the garage to the U.S. Bank building mere feet away. So you cannot walk all the way across downtown through the skywalks, as you could have done for years before the 2008 flood.

Efforts to remedy this oversight hit a snag last week. The City of Cedar Rapids thought it had secured money for the patch through a federal transportation grant, but federal and state officials have ruled (after a complaint from Marion and Hiawatha officials) that the Skywalk is not really transportation. They are correct, I'm afraid.

The complexity of this ongoing dispute has revealed a number of problems with the way our governments make planning and design decisions.

(1) Federalism needs boundary lines. There is a role for the federal government in transportation, as there is in other areas of policy as well. The U.S. Department of Transportation, for example, recently awarded a $2.8 million grant to study options for replacing a 100-year-old rail bridge over the Potomac River between Washington, D.C. and suburban Virginia, that could better accommodate multiple users--that's good. However, there needs to be some limitation on the federal role, so that federal tax money is spent on matters of truly national concern, and localities retain decision power and responsibility for local matters. If the national government is perceived as a cash cow, we're inviting wasteful spending and irrational decisions. The Cedar Rapids skywalks aren't Washington's responsibility, they're ours.

(2) Regional agencies need to be structured for constructive cooperation, not rivalry or logrolling. Economies are regional, not local or national, so it makes sense for local economic policy to be made at the metropolitan regional level [see Peter Calthorpe and William Fulton, The Regional City (Island Press, 2001)]. The Corridor MPO is where that could happen, but not as it's currently constructed. Right now they seem to be designed to fight over the distribution of federal money, a fight which the City of Cedar Rapids--with a majority of members on the MPO--routinely wins, to the immense frustration of other stakeholders. As long as the economic development interests of the county and the various municipalities diverge, the fights will continue, with suburban areas wanting more roads and the city wanting more urban development and everyone fighting over federal grants and business tax base. The no-poaching agreement just signed by Cedar Rapids and Hiawatha is a start, but just a start. With revenue sharing and an urban growth limit, members of the MPO can concentrate on what's good for the whole metropolitan area instead of fighting over which town gets which goodies.

(3) There is no free lunch. I don't know how much it would have cost to connect the Skywalk when the Doubletree parking deck was under construction, but the price tag is now $1.4 million. And that's no small potatoes, even for an irrational fan of the Skywalk System like me. Once localities take responsibility for their own infrastructure needs, they realize they can no longer afford sloppy thinking along the lines of  "$1.4 mil is no problem, 'cause we've got a federal grant to cover it." And once regional governments take a unified approach to regional economic development, they ought to make more rational decisions based on comparing costs and benefits. It's hard even for me to believe that the Skywalk patch can stand up to that level of scrutiny.

Rick Smith, "Skywalk Comes Back to Haunt C.R.," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 17 September 2014, 1A, 13A

Rick Smith, "Fair-Play Deals Guide C.R. Metro Incentives," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 23 September 2014, 1A, 8A
Luz Lazo, "Long Bridge Project Gets $2.8 Million from Federal Government," Dr. Gridlock, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/dr-gridlock/wp/2014/09/18/long-bridge-project-gets-2-8-million-from-federal-government/

Downtown construction continues

CRST is constructing a new corporate headquarters on 1st St SE, in the 200 block, across from the Alliant Energy building (the former site of the 1st Street Parkade). Construction began last week:

Buildings on 3rd Avenue are, on the left, the Smulekoff's Furniture Store, currently holding a going-out-of-business sale after 125 years downtown; and, on the right, the Linn County Courthouse and jail on Mays' Island.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Homes, church homes, and hometowns

After Hours Denver at worship, from their website
I learned about After Hours Denver from the Rev. Jill Sanders, who mentioned their distinctive bar ministry in a sermon one week. They are a United Methodist ministry that meets in a different city bar each week. While they are involved in a variety of social outreach, the most immediately striking first impression for a lot of people is, "Hey, this church meets in a bar!"

For lifelong churchgoers, there is a preconception of what church looks like. James F. White (citations below) wrote 50 years ago that most people attending church seek an emotional experience there. Their experience may be affected by spectacular design...
Church of St Brigid-St. Emeric, New York City, from faithandform.com
...but most people respond to something that resonates with past associations. I can relate... When I visited my sister's church, First Presbyterian of La Grange, Illinois....
First Presbyterian, from their website
...I immediately felt at home, not only because of the familiar form of worship, but because the architecture was similar to the church in which I'd grown up. Even walking down a back hallway for the first time, I knew where I was.

Others, with a different background from mine, may feel a sense of home in a small plain church, a storefront, or even one of these:
Shrine in air pocket, Japan, swiped from faithandform.com
This is a micro-shrine which, along with the New York City church pictured above, received an award from Faith and Form magazine in 2013.

Drawing upon humanistic geographers, particularly Yi-Fu Tuan and David Seamon, Tim Cresswell (2004: 29) calls home "a center of meaning and a field of care... an intimate place of rest where a person can withdraw from the hustle of the world outside and have some degree of control over what happens within a limited space." Each of these places is, or could be, someone's "church home."

The challenge for contemporary religions in America is that many people no longer ask which church to attend, but whether they should attend worship at all. Some have already answered that question, in the negative. So religious groups face the challenge of providing the church home and sense of the sacred their current members sought while also being accessible to outsiders. In the case of the Denver Methodists, that means going outside of the church and meeting their flock in bars. More broadly, for religion to thrive, people more than ever need to leave the comfort of their church homes, yield some of that control for a time, and re-engage with the hustle outside.

While religious groups--particularly from the mainline Protestant tradition in which I worship--have long been aware of declining membership, other institutions may not find outreach quite such an urgent matter. They are making a mistake.

I'm thinking particularly of neighborhoods and towns. The population of Cedar Rapids is growing, and now exceeds 110,000, but how many of those people are connected to anything resembling community? The poor need to be connected to job opportunities, culture and education, and people who can serve as resources and role models. The middle class need connections just as much. As Aristotle argued, to be fully human requires participating in social affairs.

In the last 70 years, resources have been available in America (and, to a lesser extent, elsewhere in the West) that allowed people to create homes for themselves that are headquarters for entirely private lives, or to live in suburban towns and subdivisions that are enclaves for the well-off.  The result has been impressively accessorized homes and cars that would make our grandparents gawk, but weaker communities.
Ranch walkout, swiped from lifewithpoppy.com

Comfort, privacy and security are not bad things. Neither is individuality. They are human needs, maybe even basic human needs. But raising them to absolute values is ultimately futile: abandoning the public realm leaves an unappealing, dangerous town, and anyhow we can't afford all the infrastructure (and barriers) we'd need. Suburban sprawl is fiscally unsustainable.
Barrier built this summer between Grosse Pointe and Detroit, Michigan (swiped from mlive.com)
If our towns are going to thrive, they need sustainable economies that create jobs with living wages and provide sufficient tax revenue to maintain public spaces. That will take more than bike lanes, farmers' markets and urban growth limits, though heaven knows I fervently support all of those. It means reaching out of our comfort zones to encounter those who feel there is no place for them in the community. We need to bring them back in, and find them something to do, some way in which they can meaningfully contribute.

And the rest of us would benefit from encountering neighbors and even strangers on a daily basis. Richard Florida cites a 2004 study finding 25 percent of Americans "feel socially isolated in their communities (defined by having no one to talk to about personal matters)," up from 10 percent two decades earlier. The authors cite declining ties between neighbors and longer commutes, both related to our collective pursuit of the suburban dream, as two key factors in this development (Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin and Matthew E. Brashears, "Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades," American Sociological Review 71:3 (June 2006), 353-375). Just as our towns and our religious institutions do, we individuals need to reach out to others in order to survive and thrive. Better city design makes this measurably easier.

 After Hours Denver website: http://afterhoursdenver.org 
 "Bar Church Serves All," promotional video about After Hours Denver, http://youtu.be/BMG-KL2PXMI
 Tim Cresswell, Place: A Short Introduction (Blackwell, 2004)
 Richard Florida, Who's Your City?: How the Creative Economy is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life (Perseus, 2008), esp. chs. 9-10
 Eric O. Jacobsen, The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment (Baker Academic, 2012)... interviewed by Charles Marohn on Strong Towns Podcast #190 [http://shoutengine.com/StrongTownsPodcast/eric-jacobson-3663]
 James F. White, Protestant Worship and Church Architecture: Theological and Historical Considerations (Oxford, 1964)

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Indulging in urban fantasy

Last weekend was Labor Day, which is the occasion for the annual Mayors' Bike Ride through Cedar Rapids. I wrote about that last year. Registration for the ride was down, from 456 in 2013 to 359 in 2014, and from five mayors to three, maybe due to somewhat unsettled weather.

Again this year, I volunteered for the Linn County Trails Association, and for the second year in a row was stationed at the intersection of 3rd Av and 10th St SE. I got there in plenty of time, and so while I waited for riders to guide I took the measure of my surroundings (and, of course, chatted up the talking traffic light).

Two corners of the intersection are occupied by historic church buildings:
Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, which dates from 1914 (the parish building next door is even older, says Cedar Rapids megahistorian Mark Stouffer-Hunter)...
...and First Lutheran Church (ELCA), which dates from 1910. This might have been a dangerous intersection at which to hang out during the Reformation, but that was 500 years ago and everyone seems to have moved on.

The other corners are more typical of this part of the city: parking lots. Granted this was Labor Day, so their emptiness was explainable, but the area known as the MedQuarter has a decided surplus of parking, much of it of the surface variety. This amateur photograph is intended to show the medley of parking lots that is 10th Street, where hardly anything exists between Immaculate Conception and Mercy Hospital several blocks away.

3rd Avenue is similar, broken up only slightly by some older rental housing:
I turned first to the smaller parking lot in the 1000 block of 3rd. To the right in the picture is a medical building on 4th Av., to the left Margaret Bock Housing, a low income housing unit associated with the Ecumenical Community Center.
This looked to me like a location for a neighborhood general store. There is a snacks-and-gas convenience store a couple blocks away, but the nearest place to get basic necessities like groceries is about a mile farther up. This would be handy not only for residents of this side of the Wellington Heights neighborhood, but for any new development closer to downtown.

Speaking of which...
Photo taken on Labor Day
The same space, on an actual work day (next Monday shortly after 9 a.m.)
I was eying the surface parking lot across 3rd Av from Immaculate Conception for small houses. I measured it off at 120 of my paces (at least I think it was 120... my puckish traffic light friend kept trying to mess me up by counting backward from 13). If that makes 360 feet, you could put 6-8 modest houses along here. You'd have the makings of a little neighborhood, whose residents would have easy access to jobs at the medical complexes, downtown businesses, and any other small establishments that this growth might inspire. We're a ways from schools, except for McKinley Middle School (and Coe College), and from Redmond Park, although plans are afoot to develop Greene Square Park into a place to play.

Why fantasize about mixed-use, dense development in this area? A residential presence around downtown will add to its commercial and psychic vitality, particularly in the long run when the current newness wears off. Building small houses and stores will add to the diversity of available residences--the emerging stock is tilting to condos--and thus the diversity of people who can live there. People who live close to work and basic shopping are less car-dependent, so that they (and the city) are more resilient in the face of future uncertainties about energy and municipal fiscal health. Developing the area between downtown and Wellington Heights will do a better job of connecting current residents of this historic core neighborhood to the economic and cultural opportunities developing in downtown.

How does this fantasy come to reality? Certainly not just by wishing and hoping. Most of the initiative has to come from the private sector. The city government can lay the groundwork by creating the infrastructure necessary for this to happen. 3rd Avenue currently is a one-way street designed to funnel cars out of town. It should be made two-way, and as wide as it is could accommodate buffers between bike lanes and parking. I'd like to see 10th Street narrowed, too, to one lane each way. (The MedQuarter plan calls for it to remain a two-lane truck route, and I suppose the trucks have to go somewhere, but that makes the street a boundary rather than a connection.) Any zoning laws--the area is currently zoned C-3 and O/S--that prevent walkable urban-style development should be relaxed or repealed.

Everything else depends on the emergence in the marketplace of willing buyers and suppliers. If downtown continues to develop successfully, that success would bubble outward. If the planned improvements to MedQuarter develop in a way that is friendly to outsiders--Physicians Clinic of Iowa would need to give up some of its surplus of parking, for instance--that would provide space where urban development could occur. The combination would provide "impelling form" to draw others who want to live and/or open businesses in the area. Development might present an obstacle: infill is by definition piecemeal, and surely doesn't offer the profit margins that large-lot suburban development or big-box buildings do. Can the public sector facilitate these decisions? Subsidies would get expensive, and can be abused... maybe a mix of recruitment and information provision?


Cindy Hadish, "Greene Square Park Moving Into the Future in Downtown Cedar Rapids with New Design," Homegrown Iowan, 28 August 2014, http://homegrowniowan.com/greene-square-park-moving-into-the-future-in-downtown-cedar-rapids-with-new-design-plan-retains-some-historical-elements/

Brad Mullin, "Thumbs Up for the 2014 Mayors' Bike Ride," Linn County Trails Association, 1 September 2014

MedQuarter Master Development Plan: http://www.themedquarter.com/Handler.ashx?Item_ID=57BF8E7B-50EA-4663-914A-F83FCEB0AA0A

Steve Schultis, "You Lying Cherry Picker... Part Two," Rational Urbanism, 1 September 2014, http://rationalurbanism.com/you-lying-cherry-picker-part-two/ [on the lack of readily-available alternatives to suburban housing]

What is the future of Iowa's small towns?

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