Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Gentrification: what do we know ?

How will development in New Bo affect Oakhill-Jackson?
A number of forces--economic, ecological, health and fashion trends--are driving middle-class Americans back to the central cities many of their own ancestors abandoned decades ago. If you're looking for affordable, walkable urbanism, you need to be looking in places built along those lines, and those tend to be places that were built a good while ago. Accordingly, central city populations have increased in recent years--in many respects, given the scope and durability of the economic and environmental forces, it's surprising the trend isn't stronger, although as the California city council member said to Dave Alden last week, "as long as they can afford a tank of gas for their new SUV" a lot of people are comfortable where they are.

Maybe climate change is just a data error, maybe we're now Saudi America with limitless supplies of cheap energy, maybe the economy will roll over and whimper in the face of the awesomeness of the next President. However, if not, it's likely this wave of gentrification is just the beginning.
Restaurant coming soon
Gentrification occurs where there is a "rent gap" between the actual and potential value of housing. (The corollary is that in the many places where there is not a "rent gap," gentrification is unlikely, but more on that later. So far gentrification has produced some considerable successes, along with some negative impacts. That sounds a lot like life in general, but let's not be too quick or too blithe in our dismissal of those impacts. Our common life can't promise good outcomes for everybody, but there need at least to be opportunities for all.

The argument for gentrification rests on data that show its positive effect on places, and the real absence of alternative paths for areas of concentrated poverty. Joe Cortright and colleagues at City Observatory have tracked urban neighborhoods from 1970 to 2010. A small percentage of urban high-poverty neighborhoods have seen dramatic improvement in economic conditions and increased population; the rest have stayed the same, or gotten worse, while losing population. Hence displacement occurs whether or not a poor neighborhood gentrifies, and gentrification doesn't automatically push out one poor resident for every middle-class interloper who moves in (p. 22). A study of Philadelphia neighborhoods found long-term residents of gentrifying neighborhoods were no more likely to move away than residents of neighborhoods that weren't gentrifying (Florida 2015b). Similar studies in the last decade of New York City by Lance Freeman and Boston by Jacob Vigdor turned up similar results (see Freeman 2005). Meanwhile:
Block by block, the neighborhood changes. The newcomers fix up old buildings. Galleries and cafes open, and mom 'n' pop groceries close. City services improve. Finally, the [initial waves of bohemians] are joined by lawyers, stockbrokers and dentists. Property values rise, followed by property taxes and rents.... To some urban planners, gentrification is a solution to racial segregation, a shrinking tax base and other problems. (Rick Hampson, "Studies: Gentrification a Boost for Everyone," USA Today, 19 April 2005; see also Hartley 2013 or the executive summary at Grant 2013)
New construction in Oakhill-Jackson
But if all were rosy there wouldn't be a debate, would there? Some opposition to gentrification is surely driven by fear of outsiders or resistance to change. But some of the negative effects of gentrification are materially real. The study of Philadelphia cited above showed the long-term residents who remained in gentrifying neighborhoods faced sharply higher housing costs. Residents who did move out went to places that were worse off, both in terms of socio-economic conditions and access to opportunity. Poverty became more concentrated, in parts of the city away from the educational, medical and transit facilities that attracted the gentrifying influx to those other neighborhoods (Florida 2015a). The price of housing is a widespread complaint, driven in some cases by speculation by outside investors (Chakrabortty 2014), and displacement has been noted since at least the 1960s, when the term "gentrification" was coined by London-based sociologist Ruth Glass (Slater 2014). And even in densely-populated, diverse cities, better-off newcomers don't integrate well with long-term residents (Lees 2008), while the most well-off are developing exclusive enclaves within the neighborhood (Badger 2015). New development impacts places as well, by removing historically-important landmarks; this "erasure of history" similarly occurs in formerly agricultural areas that have sold for suburban development (Rotenstein 2016).

Gentrification is a social force, and attempts to prevent it are likely to be as futile as attempts to roll back globalization. But it's not enough to say that change is inevitable; if there are consistent and permanent losers a society based on equal opportunity needs to respond. In fact, experiences with gentrification have not been uniformly bad or good (Grabinsky and Butler 2015). Preventing gentrification surely is doomed to fail, but can we make it "gentle" by tilting the process towards the good effects and away from the bad? Cities have a number of alternative responses to gentrification from which to choose:
  1. Richard Florida notes that gentrification has not occurred randomly, but occurs close to attractive transportation, park, education and health facilities brought about by public investment. This implies the capacity for cities to manage or at least mitigate the effects of gentrification. While successful cities have used investment in amenities to attract members of the vital creative class, "Building less divided and more inclusive cities will require a different and far more extensive set of public investments" aimed at less advantaged neighborhoods, "along with a renewed federal commitment to addressing the root causes of persistent poverty and concentrated disadvantage" (Richard Florida, "The Role of Public Investment in Gentrification," CityLab, 2 September 2015). In a light-hearted but seriously on point essay, Kristen Jeffers, Kansas City's "Black Urbanist," wonders why we're not doing this already.
  2. Some cities have tried inclusionary zoning to encourage mixed-income housing development. With this tactic, cities require developers to include below-market-rate housing, typically facilitated by public incentives, to get approval for a market-rate development (Stockton Williams et al., The Economics of Inclusionary Development, Urban Land Institute, 2016). New York City and San Francisco have been pioneers, others like Boston and Chicago have achieved some degree of success, and still other municipalities are considering inclusionary zoning measures. The study by the Urban Land Institute concludes inclusionary zoning "can be an effective tool for harnessing local real estate market dynamics to generate development of new workforce housing units under certain conditions" (p. 19, italics mine). The Benedict Park Place development in the Five Points neighborhood of Denver sounds like it resulted from inclusionary zoning arrangements, though I don't know for sure (Kaplan 2014). If requiring some housing be set aside at below-market-rate results in higher prices for other new construction, rent subsidies might achieve the same goal (Buntin 2015).
  3. I wrote about a year and a half ago about some cities that were trying to control increases in property taxes and rents. These have a certain face appeal, particularly in the case of long-term residents who are a particularly sympathetic group. (Boston requires 10 years' residence to be eligible for deferring payment of increased property taxes.) But a roomful of economists who might disagree on a lot of things are most likely to agree that price controls are awful--for a lot of reasons, but for our purposes the most compelling is that they are likely to discourage the very investment urban neighborhoods need. (Recall Cortright's evidence that areas of concentrated poverty over time either gentrify or get a lot worse.) I wonder if there's been time to evaluate some of these cities' experience with such programs?
  4. Charles Marohn of Strong Towns, noting the contribution of government policies to the housing problems faced by the less-well-off, argues for addressing housing shortages through deregulation. Building codes "don’t allow people to stake out their own spot with a modest investment in a small place that is only designed to last long enough to be torn down and replaced." Zoning policies prohibit living above or behind your shop, "the prototypical investment of the upstart." Mortgage and tax policies encourage the well-off to build big houses on large lots, while either requiring the poor to take on way too much debt or excluding them altogether. The problem with gentrification, from this perspective, is not that it displaces people, but that the displaced have such crappy choices of places to go (Charles Marohn, "The Gentrification Paradox," Strong Towns, 26 January 2015; see also Cortright 2016).
  5. Pete Saunders, who writes the Chicago-based Corner Side Yard blog, argues for managing gentrification through ongoing dialogue between long-term and new residents, facilitated by creating institutions that can serve as loci for such dialogue. He draws inspiration from the successful experience of Oak Park, Illinois, which in the 1950s and 1960s was able absorb a large number of black immigrants without spurring white flight, both through grass-roots efforts and the creation of a Community Relations Commission. While admitting that is not entirely parallel to contemporary gentrification, he notes complementary interests that could serve as the basis for negotiation: "Potential new residents focus on the value of moving into a new neighborhood.  Longtime residents of that neighborhood, particularly homeowners, might look at new residents as the means to bring the actual value back to their properties" (Saunders 2016; for the role of interests in negotiation see Roger Fisher and William Ury, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In [Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2nd ed, 1992]).
Like Saunders I believe in "all communities for all people." It's really the only way to have anything close to equality of opportunity in this country that values it so highly. Gentrification that shoves people farther to the margins is no better than hunkering down in enclaves and fighting any changes in the name of property values. We must look for ways to make things work for everybody.

[P.S.--As Kristen Capps of City Lab shows, issues of housing and neighborhoods have not been highlighted by either party so far this election year.]
Old store with building permit, Oakhill-Jackson
EARLIER POSTS ON GENTRIFICATION: 8/14/2013  12/4/2013  3/21/2014  6/23/2014  12/9/2014 ... or click on "Gentrification" in the conveniently-located list of labels along the right column!

John Buntin, "The Myth of Gentrification," Slate, 14 January 2015
Ben Kaplan, "This Week's #Urbanist Goodreads are All About Gentrification," We Create Here, 2 January 2015

VIDEO: "A Changing Mission," San Francisco Chronicle (2014), http://www.sfchronicle.com/the-mission/documentary/

Streetcar tracks exposed by construction on 7th St;
this has nothing to do with this post but it's a cool picture anyhow

Monday, July 18, 2016

The future of the suburbs

Suburban neighborhood in my childhood town of Wheaton, Illinois
Walk Score 24 (Screen capture from Google Earth)
The last 70 years of American history have featured the dramatic growth of suburbs in metropolitan areas. From the literal fringes of American society they have emerged as centers of political and economic power: suburban job creation far outpaced that of central cities until the mid-2000s, and suburban residents comprised a majority of voters in presidential election since 1992. Not always respected or admired, their importance is nonetheless unmistakable.

But what about the next 70 years? Much as the rise of edge cities must have been unimaginable to people in the mid-1940s, and the resurgence of central cities was unimaginable to us in the 1970s, today's suburbs are likely to transform in the 21st century. A lot depends on how the 21st century progresses, but some suburbs are better positioned than others to face whatever it brings.

Suburbs were founded at different times and by different groups of people, so it's not news to anyone that there are several types of suburban areas. It's not always accurate, either, to define urban and suburban strictly according to the corporate boundaries of the central city. Cedar Rapids, for example, is not landlocked by surrounding municipalities, so it has continued to grow during the suburban decades, and many parts of the city look a lot like suburbs, particularly subdivisions like Bowman Woods and Granite Ridge, not to mention the development along the Highway 100 extension under construction. Nevertheless, following political boundaries is a convenient way to define things, so I will wind up doing that through this essay.

Suburban areas vary by age, density, wealth, diversity, walkability, local employment, presence of a traditional downtown or something that could become one, public transit, and distance from the central city. You could probably come up with 25 categories or even 55, but we must be getting on here, so I'll suggest six. Examples are from the Chicago area which is where I grew up and where I flatter myself I can still find my way around.
  1. First suburbs: Older towns from the early years of suburban development e.g. Evanston, Oak Park, Cicero. These are like extensions of the central city, and feature greater diversity, more density and more poverty than more recently-developed suburbs.
  2. First suburbs in pain: Same as above but with concentrated poverty e.g. Dixmoor, Ford Heights, Robbins. Each has a significantly higher poverty rate than Chicago itself (more than double, in the case of Ford Heights). These might be older towns--Robbins was incorporated in 1917--that were predominantly working class and have suffered mightily from deindustrialization.
  3. Wealthy enclaves: The very earliest wave of suburban development came from wealthy people who could afford to live away from the noise and stink of the city. Their financial resources and use of zoning laws (Rothwell) have preserved their physical as well as social character e.g. Hinsdale and Lake Forest, but also includes newer towns like Burr Ridge and Deer Park.
  4. Edge cities (boomburbs): Newer suburbs that are also major employment centers e.g. Naperville, Schaumburg.
  5. New traditional suburbs: Largely residential, mostly in outlying areas of the metro region, with recent development so lots and houses are larger than older suburbs e.g. Boulder Hill and Long Grove, but I'd also include older towns like Huntley and Wheaton that have grown quickly in recent years.
  6. Whatever the hell Bedford Park is. Founded in 1940 and located on the western edge of the city of Chicago south of Midway Airport, it has a population of 580, and is aggressively recruiting businesses. Its density is 98 per square mile, because most of the city space is industrial or commercial.
The acceleration of suburban development after World War II was facilitated by a broad set of conditions (see Stief): widespread economic prosperity, people's desires for more space and/or protective enclaves, affordability of private motor vehicles, U.S. national government incentives for new construction (interstate highways and the structure of Federal Housing Authority programs), abandonment of older cities by manufacturers and other businesses, and a willingness to tolerate costs such as environmental damage and traffic congestion. The next 75 years are likely to see substantial change in most or all of these conditions, with profound effects for the suburbs they produced (see Gallagher, esp. ch. 9).
  • The distribution of wealth and income in the United States has since the 1970s become sharply more unequal. The wealthy minority will be able to afford to live however and wherever they wish, but there is unlikely to be a sizable middle class around to buy and maintain suburban homes on a mass scale.
  • Millennials and empty-nest boomers have shown greater preferences for urban living in recent years (Gallagher, esp. ch. 3). This can be overstated, and could easily be reversed in another generation or less, but whether for reasons of economics or personal taste, demand for alternatives to the large-lot subdivisions predominant in the last two decades has implications for both central cities and suburban municipalities.
  • Families took multiple motor vehicle ownership for granted when the fuel to run them was cheap and plentiful, as it was for much of the 1980s and 1990s. The last 15 years have seen a roller coaster of gas prices, giving rise to several different versions of our energy future. If American energy reserves are not as high as the optimists say, or if the costs of extracting them drive prices up, or if global economic growth means more people all over the world are competing for those resources, or if the environmental impacts of fossil fuels become too great to be borne, suburbs of two- or three-SUV households in subdivisions far from schools, shopping and work are not going to survive.
  • The national government continues to fund new construction generously in the face of long-term budget uncertainty and alarms about the state of existing infrastructure. Politicians would still rather build and widen than fix, not to mention more environmentally- and financially-sustainable alternatives. So far conditions have not forced them to change much. How long can this possibly last? Charles Marohn of Strong Towns told author Leigh Gallagher: The fact that I can drive to work on paved roads where I can drive fifty-five miles an hour the minute I leave my driveway despite the fact that I won't see another car for five miles is living beyond our means on a grand, grand scale (p. 60).
  • Many businesses have decided the advantages of clustering outweigh the hassles of dealing with central city governments, and are relocating downtown.
  • Despite recent attention to mass shootings, violent crime has declined for a long time and is now much lower than it was during the heyday of suburban development, removing a major incentive people had had to flee the city.
How do all these changes affect the different types of suburban areas? Wealthy enclaves will be fine, thanks to the increasing wealth of the upper class. First suburbs and even first suburbs in pain often have "good bones," a tried-and-true design structure that can adapt to multiple realities. They frequently are close to the central city and public transportation between them is either already in place or likely to be viable. Some, like LaGrange, Illinois, have particularly excellent traditional downtowns and nearby residential districts. Gallagher (p. 202) points out their smaller houses are affordable to young families. On the other hand, the harder cases in particular are unlikely to flourish without substantial gentrification, which might be hard to attract when they're competing with other first suburbs in better shape as well as a better-positioned central city and, if successful, raises the inevitable issue of what happens to the people who live there now?

The future is murkier for edge cities, new traditional suburbs and whatever the hell Bedford Park is, because their development has been closely tied to the hegemony of the automobile. It's been awhile since I've spent time in my former stomping grounds of Naperville, Illinois, but I think that particular "boomburb" has several advantages for changing times over, say, Tysons Corner, Virginia: it's an older municipality (incorporated in 1857) with a traditional downtown and a lot of resources. On the other hand, most of its 39 square mile territory has been developed in a purely auto-oriented way with large lots well spread-out and rudimentary public transit. Naperville will doubtless need to make adjustments as the century goes forward, but it has the resources with which to make them.

America invested heavily beginning in the 1940s in development that assumed infinite cheap energy, available credit, and the dispensability of the urban poor. And fecundity (Gallagher, ch. 5). And ever-increasing home values (see Cortright). The prudent municipality will take steps to ensure its survival in the face of inevitable alteration to those conditions. The prudent superpower-facing-long-term-budget-deficits should doubtless do the same.


 Peter Calthorpe and William Fulton, The Regional City: Planning for the End of Sprawl (Island, 2001), ch 9
 Leigh Gallagher, The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving (Portfolio/Penguin, 2013)
 Nathan Lewis, "Letting Go of Suburbia," Strong Towns, 20 July 2016, http://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2016/7/18/suburbia-retrofit
 David L. Rigby, "Urban and Regional Restructuring in the Second Half of the 20th Century," in John A. Agnew and Jonathan M. Smith eds, American Space/American Place: Geographies of the Contemporary United States (Routledge, 2002), 150-183
 Strong Towns, "America's Suburban Experiment," Strong Towns, 10 December 2015, http://www.strongtowns.org/curbside-chat-1/2015/12/14/americas-suburban-experiment
 Steven V. Ward, Selling Places: The Marketing and Promotion of Towns and Cities, 1850-2000 (Routledge, 1998), chs 5-6

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

My letter to the first-years

Source: nydailynews.com
This fall I'm teaching a course in Coe's first-year program called The Future of the City. I don't know the students' backgrounds, of course, so we'll start with the basics: Suburban Nation and a very good reader on "Urban Society" compiled by Annual Editions. If I can get them into some of the excellent urbanist blogs out there over the course of the semester, I'll consider it a success. If they join Strong Towns, I'll consider it a triumph.

The program jump-starts with some summer reading. This year, for the first time, faculty were given a list of four books from which to choose; I chose Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehesi Coates as the most relevant to the topic of urbanism. Little did I know how timely it would prove to be.

Last week we faculty got our provisional class rosters. I have 14 students so far, with one or two last-minute types expected later. Now I know their names and home states (6 IA-2 IL-AZ-CA-FL-MO-TX-WI), but not much else. We were asked to write a letter to the class. Given last week's tragedies, my letter was less chatty than usual. This is what I wrote:

July 11, 2016

Welcome to Coe! And welcome to the first-year seminar class, The Future of the City. Thank you for making it one of your top four choices. I came to the study of cities out of my study of American politics, as well as an interest in places, which was the subject of my previous FYS. Cities of all sizes are some of the most interesting and challenging places on Earth!

This week we’ve seen one version of the future of the city: police shootings on back-to-back days in Baton Rouge and suburban St. Paul, followed by a sniper attack on police in Dallas that left five dead and seven injured. That version sees each of us in more-or-less constant battle threatened by whoever we encounter particularly if they seem dangerously different. This version features a lot of conflict, leading inevitably to violence. People protect themselves as well as they can, and hope for the best.

There’s also been another version of the future of the city on display, albeit hasn’t gotten as much attention. This one also features a lot of conflict, but it’s conflict tempered by recognition of each other’s common humanity. That enables a conversation about seeking solutions, working towards common goals like peace and prosperity, and how we’re going to live together in the space we share. That too was on display in Dallas, at the protest rally that the sniper attacked, where blacks and whites, civilians and police talked across their differences and helped each other to safety.

I bring to the study of cities a few assumptions, all of which I freely admit are arguable: the nature of the global economy makes individual economic opportunity more challenging even as we need it to sustain our communities; environmental realities increasingly limit our ability to access and use resources (like any source of energy); government finances at all levels are so constrained that suburban development can’t continue to be built and maintained on the scale of the last two generations; but diversity in its many dimensions can be a source of strength if we as a species can learn to embrace it. The bottom line assumption is that Americans are probably going to live more compactly in the next 75 years than they have in the last 75, partly out of choice, but partly out of necessity.

So what do we do? I don’t have all the answers, or even very many of them, but am fascinated and perplexed by the questions, and I hope that they will intrigue you as well. I’ve chosen a couple of texts that cover a lot of the basic issues, and which should get some good conversations started, not to mention inspire your own explorations through paper-writing and giving presentations. [I don’t know what your high school experiences have been, but college in general relies more heavily on reading and discussion of text than on memorizing the truth. Back in the day I was very good at memorizing the truth, so I had some adjustments to make when I got to college… maybe you will, too. Anyway don’t expect me to do all the talking.]

Which leads me to the summer reading: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehesi Coates (Speigel & Grau, 2015). You should buy the book, or borrow it from your local public library, and read it before you get to campus. It’s short but tough and timely, an unflinching look at contemporary America written by a black father of a teenage son (who also happens to be a columnist for The Atlantic Monthly). For some of us, Coates’s arguments will be alien; for others they might be screamingly obvious. Read it—but don’t, in spite of its brevity, try to read it in one or two sittings--and see what you think. We’ll spend the first couple class sessions talking about some of the themes he raises. He doesn’t bear as directly on cities as what we’ll read later, but he raises some important issues. You don’t have to agree with everything he says, but it’s important to listen (visually?) and respond.

Another short-but-powerful book I read this summer is Tribe by Sebastian Junger (Twelve, 2016). Junger looks at the way we design, build and live in our places from the perspective of troops returning from a war zone. He notes that American veterans are diagnosed with PTSD at far higher rates than our allies, and wonders if our historic emphasis on individualism affects the design of our places such that it leads naturally to isolation rather than the close connection we might experience in a military unit in danger.

I’ve read other books, too… But you want to know about college!! So here’s some college stuff, starting with your other courses. We will choose those once you’re on campus, and by “we” I mean mostly you with some help from me. In addition to being the instructor for your FYS, I will also serve as your academic advisor during your first year at Coe. We will meet individually during orientation to make out a schedule for your other courses for the Fall term. The choices will be yours, but I will make sure that we put together a solid program for your first semester. 

We’re going to be spending a lot of time together this fall. In addition to having seminar four times a week, our class will participate in cultural activities throughout the semester, starting during orientation. To help first years acclimate to their college experience, every FYS is assigned a College Adjustment Peer (CAP) who will assist you as you make your way through the labyrinth of college life. Our CAP is Hanna Koster, a junior Physics major. She was a CAP leader for a different class last fall and is looking forward to meeting all of us. We also have the services of two consultants from the Coe Writing Center, Marissa Bouska and Allison Bryan.

Speaking of writing, you should have received a link to a questionnaire from the Writing Across the Curriculum program about your experience as a writer. Please respond! It will help them shape their programming for the coming year.

So, again, welcome to Coe and to the class on The Future of the City! Enjoy the rest of your summer, and I’ll see you in six short weeks. In the meantime, if you have any questions, I’ll be here all summer so send them my way!

Bruce F. Nesmith
Joan and Abbot Lipsky Professor of Political Science

Sunday, July 10, 2016

What can Cedar Rapids learn from Rochester?

The MedQuarter is an area in Cedar Rapids to the northeast of downtown, comprising about 40 square blocks including two large hospitals, some large medical practices, and numerous smaller offices. In 2011 a Medical Self-Supported Municipal Improvement District (SSMID) was formed to facilitate development of this area into what its 2014 Master Development Plan calls "a recognized destination for high quality healthcare that addresses the needs of both visitors and Cedar Rapidians" (p. 1). The large amount of underused space in the district makes it ripe for development; I've watched these discussions with great interest and a good deal of commentary, most recently here, with a bit of P.S. here.

Cedar Rapids is not unique in seeking to leverage its health care cluster to promote prosperity for the city. A quick Internet search finds Baltimore, Birmingham, Boston, Buffalo, Camden, Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Poughkeepsie pursuing some version of the "eds and meds" strategy. The closest role model for us is Rochester, Minnesota, a town slightly smaller than Cedar Rapids (112k vs. 129k) but world renowned for the Mayo Clinic, a mega-hospital employing about six times the combined work force of St. Luke's and Mercy Hospitals in Cedar Rapids.

(Strange to say, Rochester, too, only considers itself an aspiring healthcare destination: Its 2010 Downtown Master Plan stated one of its goals was to "[s]upport the Destination Medical Community goal to provide an ideal experience for patients and visitors" (p. 29) and a state law passed in 2013 aims at facilitating its becoming a Destination Medical Center. Ummm... with a million patients a year coming from 150 countries it isn't already one?)
Well, there's your problem. You call these banners?
Semantic issues aside, the established fame of the Mayo Clinic and the proximity of Rochester led me to investigate what a medical destination looks like. Specifically, aside from the size and medical mission of the facility itself, how does it impact the area around it? This is by no means a systematic survey but rather a quick impression from walking the immediate vicinity of the main hospital building, eating lunch in the "subway," and walking a few blocks in a randomly-chosen direction which happened to be south.

The Mayo Clinic is thoroughly integrated into the downtown area. Some might say it pretty much is the downtown area.
Rochester Methodist Hospital used to be separate but merged with Mayo some time ago.
Another large Mayo facility, St. Mary's, is a few blocks west.
There are some government buildings, some big hotels, and quite a lot of restaurants and small shops. Parking is mostly in garages, with some short-term on-street parking.

There are stores facing the street, as in the picture above, as well as in a "subway" accessible through the Kahler and Marriot hotels. Some of what's there:

By the way, directional signage, one of the goals of the MedQuarter, could be a lot better in Mayoland. When a confused, tentative out-of-towner wanders across the path of a doctor on a 20-minute lunch break, danger lurks.

The existence of both the subway and a skywalk system did not preclude pretty vigorous activity on the street, at least at mid-day with weather that was mostly good:

The Peace Plaza is a block of 2nd Street SW, east of the main clinic building, that has been closed to traffic:

Besides the Peace Plaza, though, Rochester hasn't pursued the sort of recreational amenities envisioned by the MedQuarter plan. There are trails along the nearby Zumbro River, and an intended Riverfront and Arts District (pp. 79-83), and some substantial city parks nearby, but nothing the immediate vicinity of the clinic itself.

What is the impact of the medical complex on its surroundings? One block south of Mayo on 1st Street SW, we are still in the world of small restaurants and shops. This is the old City Hall, by the way; the current facility is across the river.

Another block away, and it's emptying out...

Beyond 4th Avenue, it's really empty, just like the edges of Cedar Rapids's MedQuarter are. Rochester's medical/downtown area is intense and urban, but quite contained. The Downtown Master Plan notes, "the fringe areas between Downtown and [nearby] residential zones often exhibit a pattern of development, including many blocks of surface parking lots, which does not provide either a gentle transition from Downtown or a strong edge" (p. 31).

So what have we learned from our investigative race through Rochester? Maybe nothing. If Cedar Rapids does achieve its goal of becoming a medical destination, it neither means we get what Rochester has, nor that what Rochester now has somehow limits what Cedar Rapids could build.

Most importantly, the contrast of urban and suburban patterns of development surely results from design choices made long ago. Rochester's medical complex is clustered in a high-density way; Cedar Rapids's medical buildings stand alone surrounded by many acres of surface parking.

If the SSMID's plans for the MedQuarter go forward, it will reproduce suburban design albeit will be way more attractive than what's there now. I believe this has less to do with the Mayo Clinic's greater size than with design choices long in place. I do not have a business brain, and can only speculate that it's because of these contrasting legacies that, with 1/6 the medical employment of Rochester, downtown Cedar Rapids has much less than 1/6 the ancillary businesses. In the MedQuarter itself, it might be 1/600.

Another thing critical mass allows is some imaginative thinking about public transportation. Rochester's comprehensive plan, adopted this year, envisions the need for serious investment in buses in order to meet anticipated growth. Mayo anticipates it will continue to grow: "It is expected that this expansion will happen both within and outside downtown, with non-essential functions relocating out of downtown [to] key growth areas to the south and west. In tandem with this change, Mayo is focused on critical transportation solutions for staff and patients" (p. 28). This is one important way in which contributing to the strength of the community as a while contributes to the strength of the medical enterprises.

The MedQuarter plan, too, expresses the intent to "contribute to the growth of Cedar Rapids," in three specific ways (p. 3):
  1. Respectfully integrate MedQuarter development with adjacent neighborhoods and districts 
  2. Clearly define the role of public and private sector interests and continue to strengthen private-sector control and accountability to carry out enhanced public services
  3. Elevate the MedQuarter and the City as a whole by establishing a unique district character and environment attractive in the recruitment and retention of medical business and ancillary uses
The underlying premise is that in contributing to the strength of the medical enterprises the effort will inherently benefit the community as a whole. But in practice, whether MedQuarter development will improve commercial opportunities or transit depends on choices: the inclusiveness of vision of those with "control," and to whom they're willing to have "accountability."

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Big Amenity and the problem of uncertainty

Source: bigboldbeautifulfood.BlogSpot.com
Cleveland, a town which has taken its lumps in the post-industrial era, is making a big statement about getting back in the game this week, reopening its downtown Public Square after a $50 million renovation (Schneider). The new centerpiece of the old city blocks off the streets that formerly ran through it, and adds green space, trees, walking paths and a central fountain that will be a skating rink in the winter. Public Square 2.0 is the result of a public-private partnership, spearheaded by the Downtown Cleveland Alliance. Nearby to Public Square, development includes four new hotels, new and renovated office buildings, and apartments for a downtown population that has more than doubled in the last 15 years and which the city expects to grow further. They can all shop at a gigantic new Heinen's supermarket.

Cleveland's downtown make-over is very much in tune with what a lot of North American cities are doing: Instead of using subsidies to lure large firms away from other places (or to outbid other cities and keep them at home) cities are investing in improving their quality of life, human capital and commercial climate. Smart Growth America's new publication, Amazing Place, rolled out this week, tells the stories of six cities of various ages, sizes and hipness: Boise, Denver, Greenville, Minneapolis, Nashville and Pittsburgh. Businesses, they reason, instead of following purely financial incentives, but want to be where the best people are. The best people, in turn, want to be in places that have, in the words of Downtown Denver Partnership director of downtown environment Aylene McCallum, "high quality cultural, sporting and entertainment amenities."

Boise is building housing downtown, adding workforce housing in the historically poor West End, preserving open space in the Boise Foothills, following best practices in landscaping along public streets, and has built Boise River Park, "a fully-automated dam that doubles as a dazzling whitewater kayaking park" (p. 5). The 5-Year Capital Improvement Plan "outlines specific projects the City plans to accomplish between 2016 and 2020, including things like protected bike lanes, new civic plazas, public art, park improvements, parking garages, streetscaping, and wayfinding signs" (p. 7). Denver started a Regional Transit-Oriented Development Fund, providing loans to developers to purchase land while it's still inexpensive (p. 10). Greenville, South Carolina has built a minor league baseball stadium, while leveraging federal grants to build "a large-scale community center; the only elementary school in the state with an engineering-based curriculum; a residential complex for mentally disabled individuals who were chronically homeless; and a network of trails and parks that connects the [West End] to the rest of the city" (p. 15). Amenities are where it's at.

A question nags, in spite of my enjoyment of most of the amenities that my own city has bought in the last few years: How much we know about the recent attraction of individuals and businesses to urban life? Do people really know why they do things, or do they just rationalize their impulses by repeating cues they have somehow picked up? Even if they can accurately assess their own set of motivations, can they get the proportions between the different motivations right? Otherwise, when we design cities, or make any kind of policy or run election campaigns, are we really just chasing shadows? And who if anyone is wielding those shadows?

Another maddening bunch of uncertainties is more directly pertinent. Presumably amenities are not all prima facie wonderful, nor are the wonderful ones all equivalently wonderful. How do we assess future costs and benefits of public spending? Advocates' claims for specific numbers of jobs created, or the dollar value of spillover effects, should be viewed with suspicion. Mankato writer Matthias Leyrer mocked his city's claims for the benefits from funding (another) new sports arena, while his city is still paying off debt incurred from a civic center 25 years ago:
Mankato has a Sports Commission, which is business owners that got together and kind of oversee Mankato sports, which is fine... I have no problem with it, by any means. But they were the ones who were like, "Well, according to our GAAP analysis, which was performed by us... according to our research, which was all internal, there's definitely a need for this right now.... [They say] "It's a quality-of-life issue, and if we build a new sports complex we'll attract new talent." To which I'm thinking, so why don't the businesses just pay for it, if they know it's such an ace in the hole? Why don't they pull all their money together and build their own sports complex? ("Sportscenter with Matthias Leyrer")
Don't get me wrong... it's great if we're not chasing smokestacks, or biotech firms for that matter, but isn't at some point the subsidy of new construction or the infrastructure that facilitates it the same thing? Amazing Place profiles its six cities with a relentlessly upbeat tone, but is vague about the public costs of the local improvements those cities made. I can see bike lanes and one-way-to-two-way conversions, libraries and parks, but those are relatively small potatoes. (Schools aren't, though.) But millions to convert a mall, and to help build an office tower, with all that CR was willing to do to make the casino happen, all seems like socialism for the rich. Some cities, like Baltimore, claim all manner of development from stadium deals, while in St. Louis the football stadium was a costly flop. (See the Field of Schemes site for a running commentary on what cities will do for major sports franchises.) Cleveland--actually Cuyahoga County--like Cedar Rapids built and now owns a downtown hotel/convention center, but Heywood Sanders has been flaying these projects for years. Even allowing there are sometimes successful huge gambles, they are gambles nonetheless. With public money I think there is a fiduciary responsibility to be prudent.
Source: English.al-akhbar.com
Don't get me wrong on this, either: I'm not criticizing Cleveland or the new Public Square. I don't know enough about either the city or the financial provisions, and the results look nice. I'm wishing for a (probably impossible) definition of when public provision of amenities becomes excessive.

And Cleveland's motivation to up their game is understandable. Though population has been nearly stable since 2010,the city has lost 14.2 percent of its population in the last decade, continuing a long slide through the post-industrial era. The infusion of public money for downtown "has also helped unleash a strong surge in residential and commercial construction in central city Cleveland"  (Schneider). But once all in on funding this, should they find out they're off on the amount of future benefits... then what?? That's an awfully large bolt to have shot, what with funds already committed to pension obligations and infrastructure and suchlike. The right amenities will maintain our quality of life through the next recession; but the amenity industry (call it "Big Amenity") wants to make sales and is not going to help us make those decisions. So, if we want to be intelligent about it, how do the decisions get made?

Public-private partnerships sound good--this blog is all about connections and conversations--but as Tom Waits says, "The large print giveth and the small print taketh away." There are expensive things we need that the market won't provide, like affordable housing and schools. But in the absence of a price signal, how does the public make intelligent decisions? Maybe start by stipulating: Keep it small and simple. If the market won't provide us expensive fun, like baseball complexes and intercity high-speed rail, maybe we're not economically ready for them.

Alexander Dukes, "The Emerging Democratized Economy," Strong Towns, 29 June 2016, http://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2016/6/27/the-emerging-democratized-economy
Andrew Keatts, "Cities Are Infected With Mega-Event Syndrome. One Geographer Says He Has the Cure," The Urban Edge, 27 June 2016, http://urbanedge.blogs.rice.edu/2016/06/27/cities-are-infected-with-mega-event-syndrome-one-geographer-says-he-has-the-cure/
Jacques Leslie, "The Trouble with Megaprojects," New Yorker, 11 April 2015, http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/bertha-seattle-infrastructure-trouble-megaprojects
Andrew Price, "Small Bets," Strong Towns, 15 June 2016, http://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2016/6/14/making-small-bets
Jonathan Wynn, "Why Cities Should Stop Building Museums and Focus on Festivals," Des Moines Register, 9 July 2016, http://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/opinion/columnists/2016/07/09/why-cities-should-stop-building-museums-and-focus-festivals/86812972/

Amazing Place has amazing end notes to go with its amazing benefits. The first five (p. 35) deal with the futility of chasing firms, and should be tacked to the bulletin board of every city development office:
  1.  Badger, E. (2014, September 15). “Should we ban states and cities from offering big tax breaks for jobs?” Washington Post. Available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2014/09/15/should-we-ban-states-and-cities-from-offering-bigtax-breaks-for-jobs/.
  2. Dukes, T. (2014, October 14). “Despite big job promises, incentives often fail to deliver.” WRAL. Available at http://www.wral.com/job-incentives-often-fail/14052627/.
  3. Sherman, E. (2013, June 21). “Are corporate subsidies worth the money?” CBS MoneyWatch. Available at http://www.cbsnews.com/news/are-corporate-subsidies-worth-the-money/.
  4. Castro, A. (2011, February 10). “Amazon closing Texas distribution center amid sales-tax dispute.” The Seattle Times. Available at http://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/amazon-closing-texas-distribution-center-amid-sales-tax-dispute/
  5. Funkhouser, M. (2013, November 25). “How to Stop the Economic Development Wars.” Governing. Available at http://www.governing.com/gov-institute/funkhouser/col-economic-development-incentives-federal-law-washington-state-seattle-boeing.html.

Opportunity Zones in CR

Construction on 12th Ave in New Bohemia; does this look under-invested? Three census tracts in the center of Cedar Rapids have been des...