Friday, November 27, 2015

Black Friday Parking

As part of Strong Towns's Black Friday Parking event, I roused myself out of my warm house this morning after Thanksgiving--traditionally the start of the holiday shopping season, and possibly the biggest shopping day of the year--to go study parking lots. [Memo to non-Iowans: It had to be morning, just to be fair. Afternoon would have been like shooting fish in a barrel, because the Iowa Hawkeyes were playing Nebraska, and when the Hawkeyes are on, all commerce in our town pretty much ceases.]

Strong Towns, of which I am proud to be a charter member, has a particular animus towards local ordinances that require a certain minimum number of parking spaces for stores and offices. Minimum parking requirements "create a barrier for new local businesses and fill up our cities with empty parking spaces that don’t add value to our places." They encourage members to cruise their towns, cameras at the ready, to show that even on the busiest shopping day of the year, we're wasting acres and acres of urban space on off-street surface parking.

If Strong Towns was a very large organization, and every member participated, I could see where all of us would descend on mall parking lots across America, filling them with our cars and ruining each others' pictures, thus defeating our purpose. Well, we can't take that chance, can we? So I took a city bus to one of our main shopping areas, the north side of Collins Road NE.

Coming through the Lindale Mall parking lot a little after 9. Shopping was definitely on, but the lot was about 50 percent full.

Once across Collins, I debarked near the new Hobby Lobby...

which anchors a strip mall, and was doing a brisk business, but the lot was about 30 percent full.

I walked from there up the service road to Blairs Ferry Road NE, every bit as stroad-y as Collins though with somewhat less traffic (20000+ daily traffic load as opposed to 30000+). A strip mall anchored by a Dollar General was at about 25 percent of parking capacity.

A nearby discount store had a fair number of cars parked, but in an enormous parking lot. Call it 20 percent full.

It was nearly 10 when I'd made it as far as the Super Target at Blairs Ferry and Rockwell. They were certainly busy, with an unusual number of vehicles turned out.

Even so there were plenty of spaces yet available.

Point made and (I hope) taken, I forded my way through this decidedly non-walkable area to Roasters Coffee House on Center Point Road in Hiawatha, where a chocolate-peanut butter scone and a delicious cup of coffee were the just rewards for my photographic-hiking efforts. What a delightful place!  One of the finest of Cedar Rapids's bevy of locally-owned coffee shops is on yet another soulless stroad. It felt and acted like a third place. I thought it should be downtown somewhere, but it seems to be doing quite all right despite my opinion of its environs.

On the way back, Lindale Mall was practically bursting by 11:00, with parking lot at least 90 percent full.

Nearby Town and Country Mall, however, a classic remnant of first-wave sprawl now bypassed and dowdy, was maybe 25 percent full.

As we approach the summing up, it's time for me to confess I don't know whether these parking lots have resulted from government mandates or the individual decisions of developers. (If the latter, we might well consider parking maxima in future developments.) Either way, parking capacity that meets or exceeds the biggest crowd you're ever going to see all year wastes space, which means:
  • places are less financially-productive;
  • walking is difficult (if you're a nut like me) to impossible (if you're a normal person); and, most critically...
  • places are dead boring.
What would I do about Collins and Blairs Ferry Roads, if I were Lord of the City? Almost nothing.  They are what they are, which is what they were created to be. Establishing urbanism at the Blairs Ferry Super Target would be energy- and cost-intensive. (See Scott Doyon, "Walkability: Good Money after Bad" from the Place Makers blog.) Better to work elsewhere in the city, where if successful, genuine urbanism could prosper, and draw off some of the traffic congestion to boot.

Collins and Blairs Ferry Roads, not to mention the pavement ghetto around Westdale Mall on the southwest side, should remain as object lessons. If you screw up urbanism, you get this.

"Black Thursday: Does It Matter?" 28 November 2014
"The Parking Dilemma," 31 July 2013

SEE ALSO: "Is 'Surge Pricing' Coming To Parking In D.C.?," The Kojo Nnamdi Show, WAMU 88.5, 25 November 2015, [interview with panel including Donald Shoup of UCLA... the AAA guy on the panel is so awful I'm ashamed to be a member]

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

I still believe in The City

At the Paix pour Paris vigil, Cedar Rapids
I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.

I've just finished Vivian Gornick's short, elegant The Odd Woman and the City (cited below). A cross between memoir and segmented essay, it describes her life in and relationship to New York City--Bronx in her youth, Manhattan as an adult. Her most soaring passages celebrate life in the city:

It's an evening in June and I am taking a turn through Washington Square. As I stroll, I see in the air before me, like an image behind a scrim, the square as it looked when I was young, standing right behind the square that I'm actually looking at.... With the street at my back and everything I know etched on my face, I look through the scrim directly into those old memories and I see that they no longer have authority over me. I see the square as it is--black, brown, young; swarming with drifters and junkies and lousy guitar players--and I feel myself as I am, the city as it is. I have lived out my conflicts not my fantasies, and so has New York. We are at one. (pp. 169-170)

Each day when I leave the house, I tell myself I'm going to walk up the East Side of town because the East Side is calmer, cleaner, more spacious. Yet I seem always to find myself on the crowded, filthy, volatile West Side. On the West Side life feels positively thematic. All that intelligence trapped inside all those smarts. It reminds me of why I walk. Why everyone walks. (pp. 94-95)

It's her life, of course, and it's her city, but at a general level it's the Life in the City that is the fondest promise of the urbanists. Not that she is by any means Pollyannish or sanguine about it--there appear frequently in her stories the jostling of crowds, the noise of construction equipment and amplified music, the danger of crime, and the frequent encounters with fragile people that can make city life less than pleasant. But the energy and promise of the city and its people--all of its people--more than make up for the annoyances. She identifies across three centuries with the British writer Samuel Johnson:

For Johnson the city was always the means of coming up from down under, the place that received his profound discomfort, his monumental unease. The street pulled him out of morose isolation, reunited him with humanity, revived in him his native generosity, gave him back the warmth of his own intellect. On the street Johnson made his enduring observations; here he found his wisdom. Late at night, when he went prowling for tavern conversation, he experienced the relief of seeing his own need mirrored in the company he found: those who drank and talked of Man and God till the light broke because none of them wanted to go home either. (p. 10)

It's a good thing, too, that cities have attractive qualities, because for innumerable environmental and financial reasons urban areas are going to need to contract and get denser in the coming century. We're going to have to get closer to each other. Urbanism can help with that, by promoting the design features that undo a lot of the damage we've done in the post-WW2 boom.

But design will get you only so far. There has to be a readiness of a large part of the American people to live with a large and diverse population close by, and to accept that the threat of crime that comes with concentrated population is not worse than the threats that come with dispersed population. We simply cannot build enough roads and infrastructure to get everyone as far away from everyone else as they might wish to be. The only viable path is to learn to live together.

I thought about this after a spate of gun violence in our town last summer. Then, suddenly, the past few days have seen a series of terror attacks around the world: in Beirut, Paris, Baghdad and just now Lagos. All are attributed to ISIS, the rogue band of Islamists that seems intent on provoking a worldwide religious war. The West has responded with a mix of fear, anger and courage. At our best we are the Parisians of the 11th arrondissement, sitting proudly and defiantly at outdoor cafes (Alderman). At our worst we are the Republican governors and presidential candidates--including Iowa governor Terry Branstad, after an early cautious response--who have opted to stoke the public fear by declaring their states off limits to refugees from the Syrian implosion (Healy and Bosman; compare to Inskeep). Or make overtly anti-Muslim statements (LoBianco). It must be hellishly awkward to be or look Arabic in France right now (Nossiter and Alderman).

Fear and anger are direct threats to our ability to live together. They are certainly understandable responses, natural under the circumstances. But they cannot be our only responses. Putting up walls and bellicose threats can't get us to the good life, or even a particularly secure life. The truly good life can only come collectively, which requires constructive solutions to the problems of our society--and even then, security can never be complete in this world. To try and live otherwise wastes money and corrupts our souls, and we miss out on all the fun different people can be. We can only live together, together.

The Odd Woman and the City

Liz Alderman, "French Crowd Cafes to Defy Terror With a Sip of Wine," New York Times, 18 November 2015, A12
Vivian Gornick, The Odd Woman and the City: A Memoir (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015)
Patrick Healy and Julie Bosman, "G.O.P. Governors Vow to Close Doors To Syrian Refugees," New York Times, 17 November 2015, A1, A10
Steve Inskeep, "Washington State Governor Says He Welcomes Syrian Refugees," The Two-Way: Breaking News from NPR, 18 November 2015,
Tom LoBianco, "Kasich: Create Agency to Promote Judeo-Christian Values," CNN, 17 November 2015,
Adam Nossiter and Liz Alderman, "Distrust, Even Fear, As Secular France Dims on Muslims," New York Times, 17 November 2015, A1, A8

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Explaining the library vote

Downtown library's grand opening, August 2013
The Cedar Rapids Public Library's quest for a property tax increase met a decisive defeat on Election Day. The final margin was 45 percent to 55 percent, out of about 14,000 votes cast (16.2 percent of registered voters, which in Iowa means about 12-13 percent of those eligible). The measure would have increased the library's property tax bite from the current 4 cents per $1000 assessed valuation to 27 cents per $1000. The anticipated additional revenue of $1.6 million per year would have replaced one-time funding which ends through June 2016. The library's baseline annual budget is $6.3 million.

Without public opinion survey data, the reason(s) for the defeat will have to remain mysterious. News coverage included quotes from a couple voters, but they don't necessarily speak for everyone. Certainly it was not for lack of political resources: There were many "Yes=Smart" yard signs, no "No" signs at all that I saw, and the Gazette endorsed it.

So what follows is mostly speculative, although there is reason to consider each of these potential rationales to be experience plausible. I've ranked them in order of idiosyncrasy.
  1. The tax increase seemed like too much. We're used to voting on one-cent sales tax increases, so 27 cents per $1,000 valuation sounds large from the get-go. And while in reality that amounts to an additional $23.00 per year for a family in a $100,000 house--a lot less than the cost of an incremental increase in the sales tax--maybe it still seemed like a lot, particularly in this economy when so many people feel so vulnterable.
  2. Libraries seem like luxuries for the elite. Cedar Rapids unveiled a new library building in 2013, after the previous building had been heavily damaged by the June 2008 flood. The building is a few blocks farther from the river, features modern efficient utilities that make it much less expensive to maintain, and is altogether brighter and more pleasant to be in (not to mention some quirky features like the rooftop balcony and children's play area). According to a Pew survey (cited below), 24 percent of American adults read no books in 2013; half of all men read four or less. People who don't read books might well think the CRPL is already a palace, so why does it need more money?
  3. Anti-tax sentiment applies even to local, targeted taxes. Conventional wisdom maybe thirty years ago was that people resented federal taxes, but supported local taxes, particularly if it was clear where the tax was going. Since then I've heard "City Hall" or "downtown" spoken with as much venom as "Washington." Assuredly it doesn't help that the city has a thing for large projects of dubious productivity. Would a referendum to fund the rebuilding of Westdale Mall have passed? It's fashionable in some quarters to be against government anyhow.
  4. The value of community assets in general is not as widely appreciated as it should be. In an age where people entertain themselves in their private homes, and travel in private vehicles, and where the most prestigious sections of cities are designed to maximize privacy and space, having civic spaces and resources that are shared among all citizens is more keenly important than ever. But many of us may not be socialized to recognize it.
My hunch is that the vote reflected concerns that were broader than this specific tax or this specific library. The map of outcomes by precinct in Friday's Gazette showed a pattern typical of past referenda on street repairs and parks: strongest support from a band of precincts north of Mount Vernon Road, and strongest opposition on the edges of the city. If I'm right, it wasn't so much a referendum on the library as it was on taxes and our concept of community. In that case, those of us who believe in the city--any city--as a common project in which we all have a stake need to work harder to spread the word.

So what's next for the library? Library board president Joe Lock spoke of "shifting course." The first suggestions were they might close earlier on weeknights, close the downtown library on Sunday and the west side branch on Friday, and cut staff positions. My hope is that the library continues to be the best it can be, both as civic function and civic space, within the constraints of the current budget. Supporters, like me, need to be unstinting in proclaiming its value to the community, not to mention the value of community itself. In time, demand for library services may grow, along with willingness to pay for them.

Rick Smith, "C.R. Library Levy Fails, Board to 'Shift Course,'" Cedar Rapids Gazette, 4 November 2015, 1A, 2A

Rick Smith, "Cedar Rapids Library Board Hears First Suggestion on Budget Cuts," Cedar Rapids Gazette,  6 November 2015, 1A, 9A

Katherine Zickhur and Lee Rainie, "A Snapshot of Reading in America in 2013," Pew Research Center, 16 January 2014,

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