Friday, April 24, 2015

Post No. 150: NO! NO! Not a SIXPENCE!!

Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (1746-1825) knew a bad deal when he met one
Those readers concerned about the supply of America's chutzpah resources may take comfort. John Frew, who is leading the redevelopment of Cedar Rapids's dying Westdale Mall, has determined that the $10.5 million city taxpayers have contributed to this project is not going to be enough, not by a long shot. If this commercial property and its sprawling parking area, completely inaccessible by anything but motor vehicles, is going to live again, it's going to take another $11.5 million. A very white elephant--by comparison, the current phase of downtown redevelopment, which has some actual civic significance, will cost about $3 million--just got whiter.

The city hasn't immediately responded to this ask, instead forming a Special Westdale Review Committee of the City Council to review and make recommendation. City Manager Jeff Pomeranz made a most guarded public statement: The amount and terms and conditions of assistance are fluid, depending on negotiations.

Given that it hasn't yet been agreed to, it is premature to become outraged at the wanton expenditure of public money on a project that has no civic benefit. So I'll have to settle for being irked that Mr. Frew apparently felt very comfortable asking for the extra dough. What does this say about the relationship of developers to city government? About the relative weight in policy decisions of the public interest versus personal connections? And if anyone thinks that, in the end, they won't get whatever they ask for, I would welcome a reassuring communication.

Thankfully, the ask is "sufficiently significant" (in the words of reporter Rick Smith) that Pomeranz recommended City Council consideration, and that the Gazette reported it on the front page. How much goes on that doesn't trip these triggers?

If Westdale Mall can once again be the site of successful businesses, that would be great. But it should be up to businesses to make those decisions, without government subsidies. Even in its heyday, Westdale was probably not supplying the revenue-per-acre that you would find in a well-designed downtown. And, surrounded by "stroads" as it is, it will never be integrated into a walkable community. (See this TED Talk by architect Ellen Dunham Jones featuring some ways mall projects have achieved real connection.) Westdale could crumble into rubble without impacting the City of Cedar Rapids.

Reading this news, I immediately flashed on a quotation attributed to Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, a South Carolinian who participated in the U.S. Constitutional Convention of 1787, and was later appointed ambassador to France by President George Washington. While there, he and two other American representatives were approached by men purporting to speak for the French government who demanded substantial bribes in order to settle the issues that existed between the two countries. (The incident became known as the "XYZ Affair.") Pinckney's response, later prettied up into "Millions for defense, not a cent for tribute," actually was something like "NO! NO! Not a sixpence!"

In this budget-conscious era, we need to demand greater caution and accountability in public spending. Transparency should be easiest at the close-by local level. We need to learn to say "NO! NO! Not a sixpence!" to dubious investments of our money, whether they be malls on the edge of town, baseball palaces in cornfields, or water parks that require their own interstate exits. At the very least we ought to rid ourselves of the illusions that these projects are somehow going to pay for themselves in the long run, or that these sorts of deals are the only way to get the town we "deserve."

All this budgetary stuff comes as I reflect on two years of this blog. Reading and writing, listening and watching have taught me a lot, and I continue to feel that within all of us are the seeds of a community that nurtures, strengthens and values each of its members. New urbanism, to which I attach, is one movement that is trying to build a brighter-yet-workable future. The Westdale stuff reminds me that while we work for this vision we also need to cry out against public actions that work against community-building. "First do no harm," said Hippocrates.

Second, the city should not be paying for projects that waste public money and harm the city's capacity. NO! NO! Not a sixpence!

SOURCE: Rick Smith, "Westdale Mall Developer Asks for More Upfront Money to keep Construction Going," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 13 April 2015,

EARLIER POST ON WESTDALE: "A Big Ho-Hum," 12 May 2013

Monday, April 6, 2015

Envision CR III: Improve public transportation

The #3 heads downtown on 2nd Av SE
One of the most encouraging sections of Envision CR, the city's recently approved master plan, is undertaking a new approach to the city's bus system. The section on transportation begins by promoting the idea of multi-modal transportation, which includes:
  • Public infrastructure that connects neighborhoods and destinations;
  • Elimination of barriers that discourage or obstruct pedestrians, cyclists and transit users;
  • Project designs that provide safe and pleasant passage from the public to the private realm.
The plan then lists four criteria for evaluating pedestrian and bicycle systems: (1) directness, (2) integrity [connect to places and provide continuity], (3) safety and (4) comfort. Surely these apply to bus transit, too!

There are two initiatives listed that are specifically bus-related: one general promise (#37, "Continue to evaluate transit ridership and serviceability to identify opportunities for improvement") and one specific and praiseworthy idea (#38, which "explores the possibility of creating a BRT-like (Bus Rapid Transit) crossroads that connects users from Lindale Mall to Westdale, and from Hiawatha to Kirkwood Community College").

The second, scheduled for implementation in 4-5 years, would be the second major initiative in city transit since I moved to Cedar Rapids 26 years ago. The first, about 1997, took a motley collection of moderately usable neighborhood routes and converted them into wandering loops each of which takes exactly an hour to run. This has improved coordination of routes at a significant cost in utility, particularly for those with any available alternative to the bus. If the city truly wants to expand service beyond the transit-dependent, conceiving routes that are direct and connect to places is an excellent place to start. And we could run those routes at least until midnight, instead of putting the system to bed at 6.

There has been a lot written about transit. Two excellent blogs, Human Transit (Jarrett Walker of Portland, Oregon) and The Transport Politic (Yonah Freemark of Chicago), are devoted entirely to the issue, and Strong Towns has given it a lot of attention. Transit policy talk is mainly aimed at larger cities than Cedar Rapids, but here are just a few insights on which we could build:

Freemark: [B]us services in cities around the country are often simply too slow and too unreliable for many people to choose them over automobile alternatives. Rail, particularly in the form of frequent and relatively fast light and heavy rail, may be more effective in attracting riders, but so might, the article hypothesizes, BRT services, which provide many of the service improvements offered by rail ("Recent Trends in Bus and Rail Ridership," 3 March 2014). I don't know that Cedar Rapids is populous or dense enough to support light rail, but we could start by looking for places and ways BRT could compete with automobiles for speed.

Walker: In the transit world, for example, we know that ridership arises from a relationship between urban form (including density and walkability) and the quantity of service provided ("Basics: Conceptual Triangles," 23 January 2011). He describes a triangle, the points of which are Development (density and walkability), Service (frequency and span), and quantity of Ridership. Any of these can be treated as the outcome of the other two. This suggests that areas of dense activity (downtown, Kirkwood, the malls at one time but maybe not anymore) are potential objects of transit. It also suggests that the more Cedar Rapids sprawls--far more resources are being put into exurban development than downtown or the core neighborhoods--the harder it is going to be for anyone to get around in anything other than a private vehicle. Public transit in a sprawled city is fundamentally absurd.

Strong Towns: A Strong Town builds wealth by connecting financially productive places with transit. A Strong Town uses a transit approach scaled to the places being connected ("Strong Towns Knowledge Base: Transportation"). It could be that the next two steps--after our BRT-like routes are online--in improving bus transit in Cedar Rapids are (1) building financially productive places (right now the only one I can think of is downtown and maybe New Bohemia), and (2) cutting existing service that is unproductive. It may be that an efficient, usable bus transit system for Cedar Rapids is smaller than the one we have now.

Where could/should transit be going? Here, for starters, are the traffic counts of more than 10,000 cars per day in Cedar Rapids in 2013 (omitting I-380, US-30, and interstate access):

1st Av E-W (Twixt Town Rd NE to 18th St W)

6th St SW (US-30 to 16th Av)
7th Av Marion (w of downtown, including Marion Blvd)
8th Av Marion (w of downtown)
10th St SE (1st Av to 8th Av)

16th Av SW (West Post Rd to Rockford Rd)
19th St SE (1st Av to 2nd Av)
Blairs Ferry Rd NE (Milburn Rd to Marion Blvd)
Boyson Rd NE (Creekside Dr to Alburnett Rd)
C Av NE (74th St to Old Marion Rd)
Collins Rd NE (Edgewood Rd to 1st Av)
Edgewood Rd NE-SE (Blairs Ferry Rd to US-30)

Kirkwood Blvd SW (US 30 to 76th Av)
Northland Av NE (Collins Rd to Blairs Ferry Rd)

Wiley Blvd SE (16th Av to Williams Blvd)
Williams Blvd SW (18th W out)

Auto traffic patterns measure demand for transportation. Does that help us see where there are "financially productive places," in ways that can help plan transit that is more efficient and effective, and even popular?

Cedar Rapids transit official page:
"Connect CR" section of Envision CR,
Transitmix is a really fun and thought-provoking public transportation simulator

Envisioning CR I: A 24-hour downtown, 1 March 2015
Envisioning CR II: Including the poor, 17 March 2015

Next: Neighborhood stores.

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