New Urbs

Where the Middle Class Is No Longer a Majority

Pung /
Pung /

“Words on the Street” highlights the best writing on cities we’ve encountered in the last week. Post tips at @NewUrbs.

The Geography of Middle Class Decline | Richard Florida, CityLab

The large metros where the middle class is smallest are a combination of superstar cities, tech hubs, resource economies and poorer places. L.A. has the smallest middle class overall, followed by San Francisco, New York, and San Jose. Houston, Miami, Boston, Sacramento, New Orleans, and Hartford round out the top ten. That said, the places with the smallest middle classes are mainly smaller metros such as Monroe, Louisiana; Midland, Brownsville, McAllen, Laredo, and El Paso, Texas; Bakersfield, Fresno, Visalia, and El Centro, California; as well as college towns such as Auburn, Alabama; Champaign, Illinois; and Morgantown West Virginia.

Federal Regulators Will Let U.S. Railroads Run Faster, More Efficient Trains | Angie Schmitt, StreetsBlog

Why are American trains so expensive and yet so slow? One factor that rail advocates often point to is the Federal Railroad Administration and its rail safety regulations — rules that are finally on the verge of changing.

Antiquated regulations that date all the way back to the late 1800s (they were updated in the 1930s) compel American passenger rail operators to use trains designed like “high-velocity bank vaults,” as former Amtrak CEO David Gunn once put it. While European and Asian railcars became lighter and sleeker in recent decades without compromising safety records, FRA rules continued to insist on heavy, slow, outdated, and expensive equipment.

That finally appears set to change with the FRA’s release of new draft safety rules for traincars.

Why America’s Roads Are So Much More Dangerous Than Europe’s | Norman Garrick, Carol Atkinson-Palombo, and Hamed Ahangari, Vox

Much of the disparity seems to arise from how we build communities and the types of roads we design and construct. In the US, we drive more than any other developed country in the world, which goes some way toward explaining the higher traffic fatality rates. But even when we correct for vehicle miles traveled, we still have higher fatality rates. What we are learning is that the countries with the best traffic fatality records are different from the US in the following ways:

a) they live more compactly,

b) their road design favors more vulnerable users such as bikers and pedestrians, and

c) they have enacted laws and regulations that also favor these vulnerable road users.

Where Small Is Possible | Hank Dittmar, Brian Falk, CNU Public Square

A Pink Zone — an area where the red tape is lightened — is the locus for implementation of Lean Urbanism strategies and improvements,. The Pink Zone identifies a specific area where new protocols are pre-negotiated and experiments are conducted, all with the goal of removing impediments to economic development and community-building. It will be developed and refined in a series of pilot projects, and then released to the public. Yesterday Public Square ran an article on the first Pink Zone pilot project in Detroit.

Bright Lights, Small Government | Max Holleran, New Republic

[T]he great, unaddressed subject in Jacobs’s best-known work is gentrification. Specifically: Did her work, in part, serve as an economic and philosophical rationale for the wave of bohemian gentrification that overtook the West Village? If so, it would give new meaning to her much-lauded appreciation of street life: We would have to read Death and Life as the document of a neighborhood going through extreme economic change, with results that inevitably pushed some residents out. The West Village is one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the United States today.

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How to Brew a Midwest Downtown Renaissance


JACKSON, Mich.—With a renewed interest in Middle America, it is a good time to examine both the plight of our Rust Belt urban centers and their untapped assets.

The Great Lakes region in particular is characterized by classic downtowns sporting Italianate-style buildings made from the venerable Chicago Common brick. Some even feature architectural works of art by famed designers like Detroit’s Albert Kahn. Today this once vibrant part of our country—filled with hard working, second-generation Americans and underutilized downtowns—is experiencing a quiet renaissance spurred by unlikely sources.

Despite going through one of the toughest economic downturns since the Great Depression, the Great Lakes region still has a fair amount of large businesses and corporate headquarters in hundreds of medium-sized urban centers. Yet these companies are fighting a revolving door: new hires cost them excessive amounts of money to train, and too soon they find themselves retraining replacements. Why? According to Governing magazine

…the millennial generation, adults 34 and younger, many of whom continue to express a preference for walkable neighborhoods with bike lanes, public transit and a mix of recreational amenities. Last year, millennials became the largest component of the American workforce. … In 2013, the Urban Land Institute found that 62 percent of millennials preferred a home close to shops, restaurants and offices.

Smaller urban areas suffer from vacant storefronts, lack of dining and entertainment options, and, most importantly, market-rate housing. Since the 1970s, businesses have fled to malls and highway interchanges as well-meaning but misguided planners turned much of the existing downtown residential inventory into federally-subsidized, low-income housing. Because of the lack of housing choices, new millennial hires often choose to live a long commute away—in bigger urban cores where they can find the lifestyle they prefer. But after driving through the snowy Great Lakes winter, many quit and instead find employment they can easily walk or bike to in larger cities. In short, this new workforce prioritizes their living environment over job loyalty.

So how does a town attract businesses to save their Midwestern Main Street? There are five key ingredients:

  1. Infrastructure. Local government must invest in downtown roads, streetscapes, placemaking, parks, and trails. If you have the vestiges of 1970s urban planning, such as roads turned into walking plazas or one-way bypasses speeding potential customers around and away from downtown businesses, you must remove these impediments to growth now. Many of these projects can take advantage of federal and state incentives that already exist.
  2. Entertainment. One of the fastest ways to rejuvenate a downtown is to encourage development of restaurants and pubs. Basic local tax incentives, a progressive Downtown Development Authority, and a destination venue such as a craft brewery or distillery can serve as a focal point to start the resurgence. Many states offer redevelopment-zone liquor licenses at reasonable rates to spur growth.
  3. Market-Rate Housing. Many downtowns have vacant lots that are available for new construction of market-rate apartments. Finding willing developers can be a challenge; even though available apartment inventory is low, the prevailing market rental rates are still depressed. Because banks appraise businesses based on the Income Method (which evaluates potential revenues versus operational costs), new construction in these inactive areas often appraises for less than construction costs, making conventional financing difficult. This gap between construction costs and appraised value needs to be narrowed by the use of local tax abatements and brownfield development grants and credits. Tools like these can be used to bolster the project’s internal rate of return and attract more investors without jeopardizing local tax dollars.
  4. Basic Necessities. Most urban cores, even in small Midwest towns, are what the USDA defines as Food Deserts (“…at least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the census tract’s population must reside more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store.”) To attract a new residential population the downtown core must have easily accessible, healthy, convenient food. Several chains are experimenting with small format (7,500 sq. ft.) hypermarkets to serve the urban cores.
  5. Retail. “Build it and they will come.” Retail is one of the last and most cautious pieces of the puzzle. Regional and national chains usually have very strict guidelines for population and demographics that determine where they will locate. Often developing urban cores do not meet the requirements of these chains, and they are not local enough to gauge the momentum first hand. The best bet for retail is to court local entrepreneurs that open destination stores like beauty parlors and candle stores. These will soon be joined by coffee shops, bakeries, and purveyors of other artisan goods. Once a critical mass is realized, regional chains will follow.

Creating the Perfect Storm

These tactics are beginning to be carried out here in Jackson, a Michigan city of 34,000. In this metropolitan area of 160,000, corporate leaders Consumers Energy and Henry Ford Allegiance Health helped form The Anchor Initiative. According to the Michigan Municipal League, “the program’s three-pronged approach stresses the value of living, investing and innovating locally. It also emphasizes the important role that private sector anchor institutions can play in developing the physical, social and economic conditions that can help the city thrive.” Some of the strategies used include rental incentives to encourage employees to live downtown.

Around the same time, the city appropriated matching funds to completely redo the streetscapes and add trees, bump outs, lighting, signage, and additional on-street parking. Part of Jackson city manager Patrick Burtch’s plan included purchasing property and razing non-historic buildings to offer developers attractive parcels for only $1. The city is also working with the Michigan Department of Transportation to return downtown bypass streets to their original two-way design, incorporating additional landscaping and bump outs to allow traditional on-street parking. A new downtown park is currently under construction with a multipurpose art gallery and amphitheater, and the urban core was just connected to over 14 miles of paved biking and running paths.

Grand River Brewery

Grand River Brewery

This all got a boost from an unlikely source. In 2013, I renovated a run-down, empty, graffitied building in the heart of downtown Jackson and opened Grand River Brewery. This risky new venture offered a 220 seat restaurant, 80 seat community event room, bakery, craft brewery, craft distillery, and winery. The complete renovation of this 12,000 sq. ft. former bus repair garage and 1980s mini mall earned us a “Brick Award” by the local Chamber of Commerce. My facility became the social hub of the downtown, hosting weddings, rehearsal dinners, baptisms, church services, retirements, wakes, corporate meetings, political rallies, special events, and even public radio shows.

Then a funny thing happened. Due in part to overwhelming local support, we started to grow at a 30 percent annual clip. I was able to prove that despite naysayers, one could launch a new business in downtown Jackson and be successful. That revelation had a profound effect on the community, and a new optimism about downtown was born. Businesses that had faithfully remained there felt confident improving their buildings and services, and entrepreneurial groups became interested in developing new projects.

Three and half years after I opened the brewery, my business partners and I are building a new mixed-use, luxury apartment building. (I am still looking for a grocery store for the first floor.) Our group is also restoring an 1868 Italianate building that was formerly an iconic city restaurant, with more market-rate apartments on the upper two floors and a steakhouse on the first floor. Since our brewery launch, the downtown has added five new restaurants and five new retail stores, signed a development agreement on an old vacant Albert Kahn-designed hotel and another mixed-use apartment complex. A major engineering firm is planning to build their headquarters downtown.

Jackson is proof that the best way to revitalize a downtown is with a progressive master plan, passionate local entrepreneurs, and a good brewery thrown in.

John Burtka III, who was formerly involved in the global automotive industry, now acts as a Lean-Six Sigma business consultant, winemaker, distiller, restaurateur, entrepreneur, and county commissioner.


Are the Lights Back On in Gary?

Knights of Columbus Building, Gary, Indiana (Wikimedia Commons)
Knights of Columbus Building, Gary, Indiana (Wikimedia Commons)

I knew my involvement in civic matters in northwest Indiana would eventually take me to Gary, about 25 miles from my town of Valparaiso. As I’ve driven along Interstate 90 heading to and from Chicago, I’ve often peered down from the expressway into the city’s empty streets and dilapidated neighborhoods. For many long-time residents of the area, the town’s very name is an epithet for a landscape of failure and fear where it’s thought that no one stays who can find a way to leave. I admit I have not been in a hurry to visit the place but in recent months I’ve come to see it quite differently.

Gary was created as a kind of company town (U.S. Steel basically built the city out of dirt in 1906) and reached a population of almost 180,000 in 1960. Today the city (with a geographical area about the same size as downtown Boston’s) has just under 80,000 inhabitants and is about 85 percent African-American. The Gary Works steel plant went from a peak of 25,000 employees to today’s 5,000. Approximately one-third of the city’s housing stock today stands empty and Gary’s public schools have slowly been closing for a number of years.

And yet. The city has an energetic and popular mayor, Karen Freeman-Wilson(Harvard Law grad, former attorney general of Indiana). It has an artsy neighborhood called Miller with the obligatory brewpub, a gallery and some nice restaurants. And it has—if it can find more ways to leverage the asset—Lake Michigan.

The friends of a revitalized Gary include the PlaceLab at the University of Chicago, where social practice artist Theaster Gates is deploying a substantial Bloomberg Philanthropies grant to create ArtHouse, “a social kitchen” in downtown Gary. The grand opening was last weekend and an artsy, mostly African-American crowd of 200 listened to Gates, Mayor Karen (as everyone calls her) and the architects talking about why social practice art (you need to know what this is if you don’t already) can achieve placemaking—even in Gary.

I hope that’s so, as I’m bought in. I want our civic incubator, the C-Lab, to host community microfunding dinners (called SOUPs) at ArtHouse. And I’ve met several great Gary people just networking around this project.

But there’s more. The Diocese of Gary got a new leader, Bishop Don Hying, about a year ago. He has a very genial manner and spent his first two or three months personally visiting every one of his 70-plus parishes. I gradually figured out he was a radical in a Boy Scout uniform, so to speak.

Now he’s leading a discussion group (held at the rectory of the cathedral in Gary, where he lives) on Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement with the aim of collaborating on a Catholic Worker house somewhere in town. Note the term “collaborating”: the Diocese of Gary will not be officially sponsoring the house—such an arrangement would probably not be feasible for various reasons—but Bishop Hying does want to help make this happen for Gary. And we’ve got supporters chiming in from Chicago, South Bend, and elsewhere.

Some of our Catholic Worker team think we should publish a blog about the process of creating a Catholic Worker house, as we consider all the different dimensions to this kind of project.

Elias Crim is a civic entrepreneur in Valparaiso, Indiana.

This post originally appeared at Solidarity Hall.

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Where Millennials Live

Joseph Sohm /
Joseph Sohm /

“Words on the Street” highlights the best writing on urbanism we’ve encountered this week. Post tips at @NewUrbs.

Where Millennials Live | Robert Steuteville, CNU Public Square

The often quoted cliche that millennials are moving downtown is not quite accurate. The greatest share of young adults is choosing urban neighborhoods outside of downtown. Just over a third of millennials identified in this 2014 nationwide survey live in such neighborhoods—preferably the walkable kind where they can get around without a car. Only 13 percent live downtown, which tends to be more expensive.

In total, 48 percent live in cities—with another 13 percent living in dense, older, inner-ring suburbs. These older suburbs also enable reduced automobile dependence, which cuts expenses for folks who are still paying for higher education. Older suburbs are relatively convenient to jobs and activities—a quality in demand with this cohort. So 61 percent of this group are living in compact neighborhoods or downtowns—a higher number than previous generations.


Helping Struggling Places | Adam Ozimek,

The level of nihilism espoused by economists about what we can do to help struggling places in the U.S. is, quite frankly, strange. Whenever the issue of helping places is raised, critics jump straight to the most extreme examples, such as former mining towns. But the fact that some places need to shrink, and the costs of helping some places sometimes outweighs the benefits, is a far less powerful point than these critics imagine. Other places have survived the loss of major industries and gone on to thrive. Understanding why this happens sometimes and doesn’t happen other times, and what policymakers can do to help replicate the successes, are crucial policy issues that cannot be pushed aside by pointing out the impossibility or desirability of saving every place.


Elite Cities Are Pushing Out the Working Class | Nicole Gelinas, New York Post

In a study highlighted last week by the Wall Street Journal, Trulia analyzed who moves away from the country’s 10 most expensive cities, all on the East Coast or in California.

Answer: disproportionately, the poorest — those making $30,000 or less. But they weren’t exclusively poor: People earning $30,000 to $60,000 also left in numbers that exceed their share of the population.

People making more money left, too. But they left in smaller numbers, far less than their share of the population. (The cities continued to grow because of immigration, including high-earning immigrants.)


Jane Jacobs Predicted a Dark Age Ahead | Richard Florida, CityLab

Back in 2004, before the economic crisis, urbanists were celebrating the resurgence of the city. We didn’t think much about the rise of conservative populists like Trump or the late Rob Ford. But there was Jane Jacobs, arguing “caution” against a new dark age lurking right around the corner.

In Dark Age, Jacobs focused on the erosion of the key pillars of stable, democratic societies—the decline of the family, the rise of consumerism and hyper-materialism, the transformation of education into credentialism, the undermining of scientific norms, and the take-over of politics by powerful special interest groups, among others. Persistent racism, worsening crime and violence, the growing gap between the rich and poor, and increasing divides between the winners and losers of globalization provided growing evidence of the decay of society, she argued.


Why Planting More Trees Is One of the Best Things a City Can Do | Brad Plumer, Vox

Trees can make a city sidewalk prettier, sure. But that’s not even their best trick. A growing pile of research suggests that planting more urban trees, if done right, could save tens of thousands of lives around the world each year — by soaking up pollution and cooling down deadly heat waves. In fact, as a fascinating new report from the Nature Conservancy details, a well-targeted tree campaign could be of the smartest investments a hot, polluted city can make.


This post was supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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The Age of Aquarius: An Urbanist Battle in Brazil

Victor Jucá/CinemaScópio
Victor Jucá/CinemaScópio

Aquarius, the new film from Brazilian critic-turned-director Kleber Mendonça Filho, sells the battle for redevelopment of an apartment complex in Recife, Brazil as nothing less than a battle for the soul of a nation. To the film’s great credit, even the least interested in urbanism among us will buy it; bravura filmmaking is bravura filmmaking any way you slice it.

The Aquarius, the building that lends its name to the film’s title, is unassuming both inside and out—luxury Northern-Virginia tower block it ain’t—though it isn’t lacking for personality. Since walls can only talk in the figurative sense, we learn about the building’s history from Clara (Sonia Braga), a resident of the Aquarius of more than 30 years. At 65 Clara has experienced the broad sweep of life’s joys and sorrows under the the Aquarius’s roof: she’s celebrated with family both close and far, survived breast cancer, lost her husband to an early death, watched her children grow old and leave the nest, renovated the space into a home for the record collection she’s amassed through the years as a music critic and lover of culture.

Cosmetic changes notwithstanding, Clara’s apartment has held onto a certain character through the years. We see this no more beautifully or succinctly than in an early scene that transitions seamlessly from a 1980s flashback to the present day. With the camera fixed in one all-seeing corner of the room, an elongated cross fade slowly transforms a scene of a jubilant and crowded birthday party into one of Clara enjoying the fruits of solitude in her modestly refurbished 2016 pad, the same record playing on the turntable in one decade as in the next. People and furniture arrangements come and go, but the soulfulness Clara has striven to cultivate in her home persists across time.

All that Clara has labored for over the years is threatened by the arrival at her doorstep of a construction company seeking to demolish the Aquarius. The company, represented by its president and his obsequious grandson Diego (Humberto Carrão), say they’ll keep the memory of the old building alive by naming the new one, blandly, “The New Aquarius” in its honor. Clara makes short work of their insincerity by pointing out that until very recently the new development was to be christened, even more blandly, “The Atlantic Plaza Residence.” The developers sulk back into their corner of the ring for regrouping, and it’s at this point that we realize we’ve been dropped into this boxing match in medias res. Clara has been stubbornly opposing the developers for at least six years, the building’s other tenants having long ago sold their apartments to the company and moved out.

Thus what could have been a treacly paean to preservationism is anything but. Our sympathy for Clara can only extend so far: every year Clara refuses to move out is another year her less-financially-stable former neighbors are kept from the money they’ve been promised for selling their homes. If Clara’s stubbornness were just a product of elderly nostalgia, it would be easier to dismiss her position. Instead, it’s the result of a deep-seated memory of history. The Aquarius is a receptacle for ugly memories as well as beautiful ones, and the former can be just as meaningful to Clara as the latter.

This could have been a point easily and glibly made in on-the-nose dialogue; instead it’s an occasion for Aquarius’s skilled director to play with genre to achieve the same ends. While the film starts, in 1980, as as a dreamily nostalgic period piece, it metamorphoses into a family melodrama, a raunchy bad-neighbor comedy, and, finally and most memorably, a haunted house film. This might leave some viewers reeling with narrative whiplash, but these changes in register nevertheless help us experience, both viscerally and in a condensed timeframe, what Clara has spent her whole life living.

Clara defends her home through thick and thin, not in spite of all the hurt that has transpired there, but because of it. It’s no surprise to find that same sense of commitment missing from all the younger people around her. In one heated debate with her daughter, Clara incisively calls an entire generation out for its dishonest reverence for the past. “When you love something, it’s vintage,” she snipes, “and when you don’t, it’s old.”

Clara’s not just speaking for the Aquarius here. It will escape precisely no one who sees this film that characters like Clara—strong, sexy, complicated, and well over the eligibility age for AARP membership—never get to be the stars of movies anymore. Cinema’s loss is likewise a loss for an entire generation of younger moviegoers. Sonia Braga hasn’t been called upon for a major film role in several decades, and Aquarius is as grand a rebirth from the ashes of cinema’s dustbin as any older actress could hope for. Braga positively lights the screen on fire, at times with the warmth of a candle yet at others with the violence of an erupting volcano. This is what it means to be a movie star, the type we like to sullenly say they don’t make like they used to anymore.

Clara’s conflict with the developers naturally comes to a head with Diego in a classic clash between the old guard and the new. While Clara is fully a product of Brazil, its buildings, and its institutions, Diego’s character formation has been outsourced to the world of elite, coastal business schools in the United States. Diego speaks that perversely charming language of ruthless appeasement and bottom lines. When Diego accuses Clara of lacking manners and asks her to show some respect for her former neighbors, she viciously turns the tables on him. “You have no character,” she erupts at him, “or, you do, but your character is money. It’s the rich, elite people like you who lack manners; you have no human decency.” Her polemic escalates until it threatens to melt right through the screen. When she eventually backs off just enough to let her opponent get a word in edgewise, that word is “meritocracy”. Cue the groaning and eye-rolling.

Diego’s limp appeal to his hard work and dubious life of hardships doesn’t win any converts to his side. Certainly not Clara, who’s ready to go down fighting in this battle-in-microcosm for the soul of Brazil against the forces of corporate greed and government corruption. In its final twenty minutes Aquarius pulls out all the stops, culminating in one of the most riveting conclusions you could hope to see at the movies this or any year. The very final scene, which sees Clara launching a metaphorical grenade right into enemy territory, doesn’t offer the kind of closure we’ve been conditioned to expect from other movies. Then again, most other movies aren’t as aware of the high stakes of their real-life antecedents as this one is.

Tim Markatos is an editorial fellow at The American Conservative.

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Why Ballparks Can’t Save Cities

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Baseball is a game of inches, but it is also a game of nostalgia. When Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore opened in the 1992 season it set off a wave of retro ballpark construction in the Major Leagues. The multipurpose “cookie-cutter” parks with their huge outfields and artificial turf (so they could be used for football in the offseason), with names like Veterans Stadium and Memorial Stadium, were obsolete and out of fashion overnight. As a result, after Fenway Park (1912) and Wrigley Field (1914), the oldest ballpark in the Major Leagues is Dodger Stadium, which opened in 1962.

The retro parks are built only for baseball, on real grass, and use many of the materials and strange configurations of the old parks, such as exposed brick and jutting corners for weird bounces, like AT&T Park’s “Triples Alley”. The New York Mets’ new home, Citi Field, even recreated part of the facade of long vanished Ebbetts Field for its Jackie Robinson Rotunda.

A traditional ballpark has a personality of its own and, occasionally, its owner. When Bill Veeck owned the Cleveland Indians in the 1940s, he altered Municipal Stadium’s dimensions regularly to favor the Tribe. Braves Field in Boston was built with a huge outfield in order to increase the number of triples hit.

Baseball teams and their parks also end up reflecting their cities—after all, the reason old ballparks like Fenway have their quirks is because they were built to fit in city blocks and Boston has some strange streets. In a similar way, several writers believe that Babe Ruth was sold to the Yankees as much because he couldn’t stomach Boston’s puritanical culture as Red Sox owner Harry Frazee’s money troubles.

Baseball has also brought cities together in a way not often seen in other sports. The 1968 Detroit Tigers were credited with calming the city after the race riot in 1967 and the unrest following the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr and Robert F. Kennedy. The ’77 Yankees and 2013 Red Sox are similarly credited with bringing their cities together at difficult times. The strong emotional bond between a city and a team feed into a city’s sense of place.

Last year Rod Dreher visited Siena and wrote about how within the walls each contrade, or ward, competes with every other one in the annual Palio horse race. They all have their own hymns, yet all are set to the same tune, the same one for the whole city when competing with other cities. A similar thing happens with baseball teams—it becomes the city versus all comers instead of one faction among many. Things might be said to go from “my city” to “Our bleeping city”.

But all is not as it seems.

Baseball stadiums are expensive to build and urban property prices have always been high, especially considering the amount of parking needed to accommodate 40,000 people. As a result, teams want public financing, tax abatements, and all the other ills that crony capitalism promotes. Paid for with higher taxes, increased public indebtedness, and highway improvements, the retro ballparks were sold to city, county, and state governments as a form of economic development and urban regeneration.

None of that has happened. Not even with Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which started the whole thing and cost taxpayers $282 million, according to Field of Schemes. According to Bloomberg in 2013, sports stadiums don’t fulfill development goals because they’re empty much of the time, the jobs they create are low-wage, and they divert spending on food and beverages from other businesses. In Baltimore, says Field of Schemes, the number of employers in the area fell between 1998 and 2013, while crime and unemployment were up.

Tim Chapin, an urban planning professor at Florida State University, told Bloomberg that Camden Yards had not saved downtown Baltimore or improved the poorer neighborhoods near downtown. Former Maryland legislator Julian Lapides said that the whole area was vacant on game days. “It’s a big hole in the center of the City.”

In that respect, stadium deals are no better than ordinary economic development funds. Back in December of 2012, the New York Times found that states and cities spend up to $80 billion a year on economic development incentives with nothing much to show for it in the way of stronger economies or more and better paying jobs.

The area around Camden Yards, however, is still better than some retro parks, such as Citi Field or Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park, which are entirely surrounded by parking. The real appeal of old ballparks (like Fenway and Wrigley) and the nostalgia for lost ones (like Ebbetts Field, Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field, and others) comes from their history—many former ballparks have the location of home plate marked with a plaque, and Pirates fans still gather at the site of Forbes Field on the anniversary of Bill Mazerowski’s World Series-winning home run against the Yankees—and the way they were part of a neighborhood.

The area around Boston’s Fenway Park has seen a lot of changes come and go, but in addition to the new glass and steel luxury towers going up on Brookline Avenue, there are old warehouses (long-since converted into memorabilia stores and sports bars) and apartment buildings of similar age, their flaking brick facades and sagging wood floors belying their high rents. In Chicago, Wrigley Field gave its name to its neighborhood, Wrigleyville, which is still somewhat affordable and where people in neighboring houses can watch the game from their roofs.

Fenway and Wrigley prove two things: that neighborhoods can develop around ballparks, so long as the neighborhood isn’t torn down for parking and teams don’t need new ballparks every 30 years. But as long as team owners use threats to move a beloved team as emotional blackmail against an entire city—and public officials think can win votes on bad deals—sports franchises will continue to feast on public funds like a slugger on hanging sliders.

In life, like in baseball, sometimes the only thing to do is take the pitch because you can’t do anything useful with it.

Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston who writes about urbanism and history. This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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Does Small, Local Retail Matter?

Justin Snow / Flickr
Justin Snow / Flickr

Can communities support independent, local retailers while promoting economic development and downtown revitalization?

This was the key question at a panel on Death by Chains? in Providence, RI last week. The event was sponsored by the Congress for the New Urbanism New England Chapter, the R Street Institute, and The American Conservative.

One panelist suggested that ensuring a mix of businesses should take a backseat to general placemaking considerations. My relationship to retail is secondary, said Cliff Wood, the executive director of the Downtown Providence Parks Conservancy. Now that we’re experiencing some success the chains are starting to knock on the door. Retail is in service to a larger mission.According to its website, the DPPC promotes revitalizing downtown Providence with pedestrian-friendly public spaces.

Kip Bergstrom, who has held a variety of positions in economic development in Connecticut, said that the United States was overbuilt for retail, with roughly 10 times the square feet per person than in Europe. However, he said there is a mismatch, because much of the supply is in the form of suburban malls and shopping centers, but the demand is for more traditional venues.

They’re looking for good urbanism, Bergstrom said. It’s not death by chain, it’s the death of the suburban shopping center.

But retail is part of placemaking.

Retail is the thing that makes a place interesting, Bergstrom said. Without retail you don’t have a place.

He said that the big challenge in retail was affordability. Not only are there currently not enough good urban spaces, but if all the development suddenly switched to good urbanism, it would still be expensive to build initially. He suggested that new retail developments should use well-paying chain retail to keep rents low for independent, local retail.

Arts consultant Margaret Bodell said that local businesses can, in a way create their own demand.

One of the things I see is that people want to be part of a community, she said. Supporting local businesses is what people want to do.

Anne Haynes of MassDevelopment, an economic development agency, agreed with this idea. Each store is a hub of community, she said. Most retail provides that.Haynes works with Massachusetts’ “gateway cities,” places that were once fairly prosperous industrial hubs, but have experienced disinvestment and increases in poverty, unemployment, and crime.

Bodell’s community-building efforts focus on using the arts to enhance business districts with nice store fronts and pop-up stores. The biggest obstacle she faces, she said, is getting landlords to allow experimental approaches.


Jonathan Coppage of the R Street Institute said that Washington has created barriers to the good urbanism Bergstrom spoke about.

There are significant obstacles for small developers trying to get off the ground because of the mixed-use nature, he said. When you have the organic mixture of uses—the federal government is not set up for that.

Coppage said that there were no federal loans or loan guarantees for mixed-use urban buildings unless they were around six or more stories or the developer could get a customized loan from a local bank—which is not likely. He said that there needed to be more adaptive institutions.

Bergstrom said that R. John Anderson, an architect and urbanist who promotes small-scale, incremental development, had developed a template for a one-story retail building with two 900 square foot stores that’s designed to be affordable from the beginning.

Why does small retail matter? asked Coppage.

I think that the most important thing about retail is the sense of creating your own destiny, Haynes said. When you see a chain store, you know that the decisions are not being made locally.

Bergstrom said that he did a lot of traveling and observed that non-chain stores make neighborhoods more unique. Upscale neighborhoods all look the same with the same high end chain stores, he said. It’s chic, but it’s generic chic.

People go to places when they want to be in those places, said Wood. There’s a ‘hereness’—people like where they are.

But the problem is that as neighborhoods get more popular and local retailers are successful, the rents start going up until only the chains can afford them.

Bergstrom described the problem as one of creating control rods for the nuclear reaction of neighborhood space.

Part of our agreements with cities to figure out how to be sustainable and support activity for the long term, Haynes said. It requires a person. We call it community engagement for economic development.

One of the things the panelists agreed on was the importance of ownership. Bergstrom said that one of the important things about the retail building template was that it was designed to be rent-to-own.

Wood said that there was an artists’ squat in Providence called AS 220 that managed to gain control of their building through sweat equity.

The clever thing they did was figure out how to be owners, he said.

John DiGiovanni, a member of the Harvard Square Business Association in Cambridge, Mass., said he wasn’t concerned with chains at all.

It’s all about place, he said. The successful spaces are about place and the businesses behind the door come and go.

If you can create you can participate in your community, Bodell said.

Another issue mentioned was the problem of vacancies. In some cities, businesses will move around but keep an empty location leased. Bergstrom called that practice restraint of trade and said that Rhode Island had created a kind of land value tax to punish landlords who keep properties vacant.

Peter Friedrichs, director of the Central Falls, RI Office of Planning and Economic Development, said that it was called the non-utilization tax and was about three times the typical property tax.

It’s an absolutely crucial tool, he said.

You can’t predict the market, Haynes said. The only thing you can depend on is a need for a diverse range of spaces.

Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston who writes about urbanism and history. This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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Is Bad City Planning Making Us Lonely?


“Words on the Street” highlights the best writing on urbanism we’ve encountered this week. Post tips at @NewUrbs.

Loneliness, Urban Design, and Form-Based Codes | Steve Price, CNU Public Square

Humans are social, yet this primary fact of life is oddly absent as a core consideration in modern urban development regulations. To ignore the social needs of our species is to lose sight of one of the most positive drivers for shaping sustainable urban form. Providing for the satisfactions of community counters sprawl. Yet conventional land-use zoning disperses people and strips social life from the landscape. This is where form-based codes come in. They are the tool par excellence for guiding development in a socially sensitive way, configuring buildings and streets to enliven social life.

A remarkable and growing body of literature in contemporary social research is telling us that healthy, well functioning communities need face-to-face meeting, interaction, and communication among their members, something that electronic “social media” cannot replace. And it requires high quality physical space.


America’s Hunger for Luxury Housing May Finally Be Satiated | Jeff Spross, The Week

Around 5,100 new apartments will be listed for rent in San Francisco in 2016, which is the biggest annual number in 26 years; Manhattan will feature 5,675 new units. And 2017 will probably blow 2016 out of the water, with projections showing San Francisco gaining around 7,000 more units, and New York getting 14,000 new units. In fact, back in July, 2016 already looked set to meet or break apartment construction records in the major markets across the country. …

Much of this booming construction is in the super high-end market — it’s telling that the “low-end” market in Manhattan is considered to be all housing under $2 million. And it looks like the population that could afford to buy or rent those sorts of luxury units is dwindling: The number of highly paid tech jobs in San Francisco is down from a peak earlier this year, and it’s mid-pay jobs in hospitality and health care that are seeing the biggest gains in New York City.


Top-Down, Bottom-Up Urban Design | Elizabeth Greenspan, New Yorker

“[W]hat we need to do is think of the city as a more open system, which accumulates complexity, and in which those complexities have to be worked with, rather than simplified.” Take school buildings. In many cities, schools might be “built into factories, or into back rooms of housing settlements. And rather than see that there’s something wrong about that—this is what I mean about the break with the spirit of Corbusier—we should be working with making that kind of school better,” he said. [Richard] Sennett and his colleagues argue for city plans defined by flexibility, rather than by right and wrong answers.


An Uncredentialed Woman: The Unlikely Life of Jane Jacobs | Howard Husock, City Journal

Robert Kanigel’s Eyes on the Street is the first full-length biography of Jacobs, a woman without a college degree who became one of the most influential urban thinkers of the twentieth century. Kanigel deftly links Jacobs’s life experiences to the development of her original ideas. Born Jane Butzner in 1916 in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Jacobs wrote for a living, and not always for glamorous New York publications. She began her journalism career as an intern at the Scranton Republican and then contributed to Iron Age, a trade publication at which she learned the nuts and bolts of the metals industry. She learned, for instance, that non-ferrous metals were vital to modern life and how the markets for them worked.  She worked briefly as a financial writer for Hearst and wrote an extended feature about Manhattan’s fur district for Vogue and another for Harper’s Bazaar about the crabbing culture on Maryland’s Tangier Island. She was, in other words, soaking up the details of how business, culture, and the urban environment worked together when done right—the very combinations she’d go on to celebrate in her breakthrough masterpiece, 1961’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities.


New York, San Francisco, and the Real Rental Crisis | Jordan Fraade, Washington Post

Economists have traditionally defined “rent-burdened” households as those that pay more than 30 percent of their income in rent. The “severely rent-burdened” pay more than half. In all but two of the 11 largest metro areas in the United States, the share of low-income households that suffer from severe rent burden increased from 2006 to 2014, according to a March report by New York University’s Furman Center. Since 2008, rent burden has also become far more common among middle-class households, the combined result of stagnant incomes and declining rental vacancy. Pundits and demographers often hold up cities like Atlanta, Philadelphia and Chicago as reasonably priced alternatives to pricey coastal hubs. But these “second-tier” cities are hardly immune from their own affordability problems. By 2014, a majority of all renter households in eight of the 11 largest U.S. cities, including all three listed above, qualified as rent-burdened.


This post was supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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What the Rust Belt Can Learn from Rio

Samuel A. Love / Flickr
Samuel A. Love / Flickr

The hilariously mordant James Howard Kunstler once wrote a blog post about driving through northwest Indiana, noting the “ghostly remnants of factories” and neighborhoods “foreclosed and shuttered,” “places of such stunning, relentless dreariness that you felt depressed just imagining how depressed the remaining denizens of the endless blocks of run-down shoebox houses must feel…There was a Chernobyl-like grandeur to it, as of the longed-for end of something enormous that hadn’t worked out well.”

My own leafy town of Valparaiso is part of this region of over 700,000 that includes no major urban centers, only small cities and towns, none of them over 80,000. They include such locales as Gary, East Chicago, Hammond, Michigan City, La Porte, Crown Point, Portage and Chesterton. Thinking of the map of Lake Michigan, I sometimes describe our post-industrial landscape as “the bottom of the lake.”

Earlier this month, nearby this gritty spectacle at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Front Porch Republic held its annual meeting. (The name of the group sounds like a breakaway comic-opera kingdom, perhaps a cousin of Groucho Marx’s Fredonia. In fact, FPR is a collection of writers, academics and genial cranks who all emphasize the local over the remote.) In comments at Notre Dame, I wondered what exactly is supposed to be our collective fate here in “the region,” as locals like to call it. Is Creative Class guru Richard Florida correct that our lack of information-economy resources means we’re doomed to just fade away? Should we take Harvard economist Ed Glaeser’s advice and work to become more integrated into the neoliberal Chicago megaregion?

Perhaps what places like northern Indiana need is not innovation, but unnovation—to use a term coined by Boston-based journalist Ben Schreckinger. The idea is to resist the magical thinking that our little towns can ensure meteoric growth by trying to launch tech companies with virtually no resident tech talent. Forget Silicon Valley and Route 128 and the endless glorification of knowledge work (you might think of proto-Porcher Wendell Berry here): in the rustbelt, we need a return to economic roots. Schreckinger argues that non-urban Massachusetts—he might have said most of Indiana as well—should return to its traditional industries of farming and manufacturing, both of which have deep cultural roots (outside the big cities) as well as new technological tools.

Also worth considering is Catherine Tumber’s contrarian vision of the resilient post-industrial cities and towns of the future. She argues that pace the wiseguys like Florida or Glaeser, it is we rust-belters who are well-positioned for the future economy. That’s because our places will be “small, gritty and green” (from her book of the same name).

Here’s what she means. First, smaller cities and towns (under a half million in population) are built on a more sustainable scale and can often achieve consensus more easily. Second, their “grittiness” is their cultural memory of manufacturing and heavier industry, one example of which is Muncie, Indiana’s current national prominence in the wind energy sector, drawing on its history with corporations such as GM and Westinghouse. Finally, the greenness advantage derives from the way smaller cities and towns can benefit from and contribute to a clean energy economy based on land, manufacturing skills, waterways, and concentrated urban energy markets of their own.

Just for fun, I asked the audience at Notre Dame to guess the location of a real place which had the characteristics of low-rise, high density development; a pedestrian orientation; mixed use (homes above shops); organic architecture (evolves according to need); use of collective action; intricate solidarity networks; and vibrant cultural production. Sounds like Tolkien’s Shire, I know.

The place I had in mind, one I visited several years ago, was in fact the Rocinha favela in Rio de Janeiro. The economy of a Brazilian favela, in many instances, can be an example of a kind of anarchist, self-organizing system, still somewhat free from much governmental involvement—one among several ways in which it typically differs from, say, Chicago’s West Side. These are exuberant, street-lively places built with much more social than economic capital, leading to neighborhood sayings such as “there are no beggars in the favela.” Importantly, they have managed to develop and even prosper outside the usual financial and civic systems.

Given the presence of Rod Dreher at the conference, it was natural to ask: does the Benedict Option have an economic dimension? I suggested that it necessarily had one, citing the Economy of Communion network as a kind of model. The EoC was born within the Focolare organization—a Catholic “ecclesial movement” founded just after World War II—and now has some 700 member businesses worldwide. In its grounding in personalist Christian witness and Catholic social teachings, the group is no quaint collection of handicraft vendors but a sophisticated coalition of triple-bottom line companies. I think their vision offers an important way forward.

Elias Crim is a civic entrepreneur in Valparaiso, Indiana. He blogs at The Dorothy Option and Solidarity Hall.

This post was supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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Will We Always Have Paris?

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

“Words on the Street” highlights the best writing on urbanism we’ve encountered this week. Post tips at @NewUrbs.

“We’ll Always Have Paris”? | Mary Campbell Gallagher, Architecture Here and There

When the masked thugs of ISIS swing their sledgehammers through Iraq’s museums and dynamite Palmyra, the world gasps and screams. But what if the vandal is a chic Parisian woman wearing high-heeled boots and talking like a visionary? What if her target is the world’s most beloved and most-visited city? Does the world gasp, or does it not even hear what she is saying? “We’ll always have Paris,” Rick tells Elsa in “Casablanca.” Yet now, Mayor Anne Hidalgo says she will “reinvent” Paris. Without putting it to a vote, she will replace the uniquely harmonious city we know with something “modern” and “contemporary.” She will pierce the low horizon with a dozen skyscrapers, replace classic stone facades with rivers of glass, and bury the famous zinc and slate rooftops under new construction. Mon Dieu! Doesn’t anyone get what Paris is doing to itself?


Why Cathedrals Are Soaring | Simon Jenkins, The Spectator

Something strange is happening in the long decline of Christian Britain. We know that church attendance has plummeted two thirds since the 1960s. Barely half of Britons call themselves Christian and only a tiny group of these go near a church. Just 1.4 per cent regularly worship as Anglicans, and many of those do so for a privileged place in a church school.

Yet one corner of the garden is blooming: the 42 cathedrals. At the end of the last century, cathedrals were faring no better than churches, with attendances falling sometimes by 5 per cent a year. With the new century, everything changed. Worship in almost all 42 Anglican cathedrals began to rise, and it is now up by a third in a decade. This was in addition to visits by tourists, who number more than eight million. There are more visits to cathedrals than to English Heritage properties.


Hartford’s Big Dig | Matthew Hennessey, City Journal

Every large city in Connecticut has at least one arterial highway slashing through its heart. Some have multiple elevated highways meeting in massive steel-and-concrete interchanges. The drive along I-95 from New York to Boston affords commanding views of Stamford, Bridgeport, and New Haven. Spend a little time on the surface streets of these cities, however, and the civic devastation wrought by their highways is hard to miss.

In Connecticut as in the rest of the country, massive interstate construction projects followed President Dwight Eisenhower’s signing of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. Cities like Hartford were then suffering massive traffic congestion problems, as rising postwar incomes spurred a boom in individual car ownership. In 1949, several major insurance companies asked the engineering firm Andrews and Clark to compile an “Arterial Plan for Hartford” under the direction of New Haven native Robert Moses. “Doctors, we are told, bury their mistakes, planners by the same token embalm theirs, and engineers inflict them on their children’s children,” wrote Moses in a cover letter. It was an oddly prophetic warning from a man blamed by many for ruining New York City with his car-dependent infrastructure projects.


The Disposable Post-War Suburb | Johnny Sanphillippo, Granola Shotgun

Back in the 1950’s Colerain Township was the recipient of a wave of respectable prosperous families who were crossing the municipal line out of Cincinnati. They drove through Mount Airy Forest and left behind high taxes, high crime, lower quality public services, old unfashionable buildings, and poor black people. If you couldn’t afford a brand new home and a car… you clearly didn’t belong.

The schools were new. The shopping centers and office parks were new. Tax revenue poured in. Police, teachers, and administrators were hired. Parks were created. Libraries opened. Life was very good.

Fast forward sixty five years. Everything that used to be shiny and new is now aging – not all of it well. There are now decades of accumulated salaries, pensions, and health care obligations for municipal workers, past and present. The roads, water pipes, lift stations, sewerage treatment plant, and public buildings are all in need of expensive maintenance. Tax revenue is in decline. This town like nearly every other town of its vintage is functionally insolvent.


Art Deco Los Angeles | John L. Dorman, New York Times

Several of them have been razed, and a few of the surviving ones are underused or vacant. Tourists gravitate toward the Bank Tower, which has an observation deck, or Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall. But before being literally overshadowed, these Art Deco treasures were once icons of downtown Los Angeles. And they still should be.

Most of the Art Deco buildings are smaller than the modern skyscrapers rising in the area, but they still soar. To explore them is to witness a grandeur that inspires you, unlike many skyscrapers, which merely surprise you. Because they arrived at a moment of economic expansion, they suggest the sense of endless possibility that permeated the city. I set off to get a glimpse of what those architectural dreamers were able to accomplish.


This post was supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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