New Urbs

The Allure of the DC Streetcar

Ritu Manoj Jethani / Shutterstock.com

WASHINGTON—It’s late morning on a Saturday in March, and I’m at the corner of 3rd and H Streets NE, waiting for the streetcar. Behind me, on the ground floor of the new corner condo building, there’s a craft-beer store and a daycare center for dogs. Next to them is a big hole (formerly a vacant lot) where a 112-unit mixed-use building is about to go up. Across H Street is a new Giant supermarket, on top of which are more condos with prices in the high six figures. This is the west end of H Street’s 12-block stretch of recent—and if you’ve lived in the city for a while, it can seem like instant—gentrification. I don’t even notice the streetcar line’s slim overhead wires until I remember to look for them.

The first leg of the city’s new modern streetcar line—its six trains, 2.4 miles, and eight stops have cost over $200 million so far—runs from Union Station (where the subway stops) to Benning Road and Oklahoma Avenue NE. There’s no subway station there, just a golf course and a park. But if the city has its way, the line will soon connect to a subway station across the Anacostia River.

Most of the passengers heading east—and on the way to the terminus at Oklahoma Avenue, the two-car tram nearly fills up before emptying out again—appear to be shoppers who live on the eastern part of the route. With its level entry and open cabin, the streetcar is a lot easier to hump shopping bags around on than the bus.

The contrast between the two parts of the 2.4-mile route is stark. On the west, along H Street, it’s new condos and bistros and mostly white faces on the sidewalks. East of 15th, along Benning Road, it’s mostly black and aging buildings and low-rent garden apartments and fast-food joints and chain-discount stores. A few years ago, H Street (damaged during the riots of the late 1960s) looked like this.

On the ride back—and on the way the tram nearly fills up again—I ask Tony, a graphic artist who says he’s looking for work, how often he rides the streetcar.

“Seven days a week,” he says, before pointing out that there are no ads inside the cabin.

He wonders if the streetcar is, or might be, privatized. (It’s owned by the District but operated by a state-owned French firm, RATP Dev.)

Unlike the bus, it’s still free. It was supposed to cost a dollar a ride. But for the time being, the free teaser rate has become permanent.

Are streetcars relatively permanent? Like many American cities, DC has had streetcars before, between 1862 and 1962. A few pieces of that original system remain: tracks in two cobbled lanes in Georgetown, an abandoned station under Dupont Circle, a few power poles on the Klingle Valley Bridge. But apart from those relics and the borrowed (from the streetcars) numbers of a few bus routes, today there is little sign that the capital ever had a streetcar system. By the 1960s, cars, city buses, and suburban sprawl were killing off America’s streetcars. At the same time, under President Kennedy, a federal backlash against highways and sprawl had developed. Washington’s busy subway system (which was handed a gift in the form of the oil crises of the 1970s) was being hatched.

In the late 1990s, when a streetcar was being developed in Portland, Ore., former Mayor Marion Barry’s administration laid out a transport plan that included a streetcar. (Barry later became a critic of the streetcar.) In the 2000s the District began working on the system, importing cars from the Czech Republic and laying track. A second line through Anacostia, over the river, was constructed and then abandoned after right-of-way problems and homeowner resistance. Finally, in February 2016, after a Portland-esque seven years of delays, the line opened. By then the urban development the streetcar was supposed to help catalyze—a new theater, bars and restaurants, condos and apartments—was already largely in place. Proponents and critics continue to debate the degree to which this development, like that of other streetcar cities, had to do with the streetcar.

One year later, how is DC’s streetcar doing? At about 2,500, weekday ridership has been better than the city’s projected 1,500. Total ridership reached the half-million mark in late 2016. As U.S. streetcar systems go, DC’s ridership per mile is middle-of-the-pack. On Inauguration Day 2017 and the day after, the system saw its heaviest use so far. And the city says the streetcar hasn’t cut into local bus ridership. Of course, the rides are still free; Atlanta saw streetcar ridership fall by more than half when it began collecting fares.

Proponents say that streetcars, like other kinds of “premium transit,” add to the transit ecosystem and fuel urban development. Critics say they’re poor value for the money, beneficial mainly to the companies who design, build, and operate them. The District’s system has also been accused of bloat: according to the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, for example, the city spent nearly $175,000 on the streetcar website alone.

Several dozen other U.S. cities, including Atlanta, Dallas, and Kansas City, have built modern streetcar lines, and several dozen more are actively planning them. However, just across the Potomac River, a proposed streetcar line for suburban Arlington, Va., was recently cancelled after taxpayer backlash. And DC’s current mayor, Muriel Bowser, has scaled back next-step planning and budgeting of the envisioned $1 billion-plus, 40-mile network to a cheaper 7.5-mile crosstown line.

Back on the streetcar, Tony, headed to Starbucks, says he’s enthusiastic about expansion. But he’d prefer the route go farther west, into downtown, rather than across the Anacostia. (Bowser wants to do both.) He says the buses that run the route we’re on are often overcrowded and that sometimes the people on them “don’t want you to sit next to them.” And he says that even if they start charging a dollar to ride it, he’ll still use the streetcar.

Nathaniel Koch is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC.

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How Tourism Is Killing Venice

GTS Productions / Shutterstock.com

Words on the Street highlights the best writing on cities we’ve encountered recently at New Urbs. Post tips at @NewUrbs.

Will Venice Survive This Century?

The thousands of tourists trooping down into St. Mark’s Square from their dozens of levels of staterooms on a colossal cruise ship might be shocked to hear that they and the others of Venice’s eight million tourists a year are killing, not aiding, Venice. But in fact tourists spend little in Venice, and officials until recently allowed as many as thirteen such ships every day to sail into the lagoon, Venice’s main waterway, “staring the city down, polluting its waters.” All in the name of one reward: money for the cruise ship owners. Just along the Grand Canal, “the last fifteen years have seen the closure of state institutions, judicial offices, banks, the German consulate, medical practices, and stores to make way for sixteen new hotels.” The population of Venice’s historic center has fallen from 174,808 in 1951 to 56,072 in 2015. Tourists outnumber Venetians 140:1. Venetians must move away to find work outside tourism …. Settis’s book, as he rightly insists, is not just about Venice. It is a passionate call to nourish low-lying, walkable Venice as an alternative urban model to skyscraper-dominated, automobile-clogged Chongqing. Beyond Venice, it is an account that can inspire everyone, especially in historic cities all over the world, who loves traditional city life and who cares for homo sapiens as a political animal. [Read more…]

—Mary Campbell Gallagher, New Criterion

Record-Breaking Public Subsidy Lures Hated Football Team to America’s Gambling Capital

Maybe it flies. How else to explain the $1.9 billion that the Oakland Raiders and Clark County, home of Las Vegas, have committed to spend on the new stadium that lured the team to Nevada? … Stanford economist Roger Noll said it was the “worst deal for a city” he had ever seen. [Read more…]

—Henry Grabar, Slate

How Fire Chiefs and Traffic Engineers Make Places Less Safe

Of all the urbanism specialists with tunnel vision, fire chiefs, fire marshals, and traffic engineers are probably the most dangerous. And by “dangerous,” I don’t just mean that they’re a threat to good urbanism; they also get people killed, which is exactly the opposite of what they are commissioned to do. A classic example of their silo thinking is playing out right now in Celebration, Florida, where the proposed measures of eliminating on-street parking spaces and eliminating street trees will almost certainly leave Celebration a less safe place than it is today. [Read more…]

—Steve Mouzon, CNU Public Square

To Address Affordable Housing Shortage, Restoring 19th-Century Homes

[Some residents of a Florida town] are endorsing a local plan to train job-seeking residents in home construction through the rehabilitation of abandoned, working-class cottages known as shotgun homes. There are dozens of them in an Apalachicola district called the Hill, where black fishermen and mill workers have lived for more than a century. The shotguns are historically significant because they are among the first examples of African architecture in the United States.“The original affordable housing here was the shotgun,” said Creighton Brown, a recent transplant from New York who devised the plan. [Read more…]

—Christine Negroni, New York Times

Durham and the Art of Cool

Few could have foreseen the explosive growth in Raleigh-Durham over the past two decades, especially not in Durham’s downtown, which was mostly abandoned by the moneyed class until recently. In 2001 my nephew, then a high school senior from Pittsburgh, was picked up at Raleigh-Durham airport by Duke undergraduate admissions staff—he was visiting for an interview—and as they motored past Durham’s downtown on the freeway, he was told, “Don’t worry about what you see there, it’s a place you’ll never go.” People argue over how to describe what’s happened since then. Pick one—revitalization or reinvestment or gentrification or serial displacement—or all. Three new boutique hotels have opened in the past two years in downtown Durham. Hip restaurants and bars proliferate. Hipsters follow. I recently came across my first Portland-like twentysomething white couple presenting themselves as homeless in downtown Durham. Condos are sprouting up all over. Ground was broken in 2016 on a 27-story building, the city’s tallest by nine stories. [Read more…]

—Sam Stephenson & Ivan Weiss, Public Books

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Will Providence Regret Keeping a Divisive Urban Highway?

A compromise plan includes more pedestrian space, but still divides neighborhoods. (Rhode Island Department of Transportation)

PROVIDENCE, R.I.—On a cold weeknight last month, several dozen residents congregated inside a local school to review the latest plan for one of this city’s busiest local highways. The conversation lasted two hours and reflected a debate taking place in dozens of cities across the nation. As an increasing number of highways reach the end of their design life, city officials are confronted with an important decision: repair or replace? While some cities like Oakland, Calif. and Syracuse, N.Y. have embraced the option of replacement with enthusiasm, others like Providence are reluctant to rip out the infrastructure that has shaped their city for decades.

At the Providence meeting, city officials revealed the future of a highway known as the 6-10 Connector, pointing to several large poster boards arranged around the front of the room. Titled the “Compromise Plan,” it’s an effort to strike a balance between New Urbanist ideals of walkability and neighborhood cohesion—and what Rhode Island’s governor says is an essential emphasis on public safety. The highway will remain a highway, but with a few tweaks: 1.4 miles of new bike lanes, an improved connection between the 6 and the 10, and five new acres of land for development. Officials have estimated that it will cost $400 million to repair the highway over four years, but have not yet released a final budget or construction timeline.

The reception from the community seems mixed. At the meeting, some locals seemed excited about the additions, but raised doubts about budgeting, timeline, and community involvement. In an interview, Seth Zeren, one of the spokesmen for the group Fix the 6-10, raised other concerns. Why spend $400 to fix aged infrastructure that might later prove unsustainable and that encourages high-speed travel? Why were other options not fully vetted? If the highway is unsafe, why has it not been closed? More than anything, he questioned the assumption that the highway must remain a highway. “If you set project constraints that are only achievable by a highway, you’ll only get a highway,” he explained. “Some people think highways are like physics,” he added. “They’re more like sociology….[they’re] a political choice.”

Like many urban freeways, the 6-10 arrived in Providence in the 1950s. It enabled high-speed trips through the city, easier access for commuters, and access for trucks. But it also cut off various neighborhoods from other areas, disrupted the local street grid, and suppressed the economic potential of nearby communities. The conversation about its future has touched on all of these aspects, especially the underlying tension between suburban commuters and city locals. This tension is one that any city opting for replace over repair is prone to experience. In Dallas, for instance, tear-down advocates have met fierce resistance from critics who point out how heavily commuters rely on the highway to get to work.

Every day, there are nearly 100,000 one-way vehicle trips on the 6-10, causing many to claim the road is essential to the city’s economy. But transportation expert Ian Lockwood says cities should reexamine this assumption. “There comes a point, from a policy perspective, where it makes sense for the community to have regional commuters traveling on [the community’s] terms, and not on some kind of long-distance commute terms,” he told attendees at one of Providence’s public forums.

Focusing on fast commutes to and from the suburbs, he explained in a later interview with TAC, is problematic on three fronts. First, it holds cities back from activating the economic potential in their cores. “Suburbs don’t add value to the city’s core,” he said. “It’s the other way around. The value of the suburbs is created by exporting value from the city.” Second, from a safety perspective, building highways through cities encourages even more high-speed travel. “It’s in [commuters’] self-interest to want to go faster,” Lockwood said. “But…it’s bad public policy. If everyone were to drive fast everywhere, then the city would be dangerous and unpleasant; a classic tragedy-of-the-commons outcome.”

A more urban, locals-centric option for the connector emerged in 2014 when Providence local and transit activist James Kennedy suggested replacing the connector with a multi-modal boulevard. Inspired by what he had seen in his hometown of Philadelphia, where infrastructure enables multi-modal transportation, he and other activists at Move Together Providence presented a vision of a walkable boulevard. As in many cities, the potential benefits of removing the connector were numerous. A boulevard would have unlocked up to 80 acres of land for development, reintegrated several neighborhoods currently divided by the highway, and improved local travel by connecting streets now truncated by the highway.

City residents and even some officials voiced enthusiastic support for the idea. But at a press conference last September, Governor Gina Raimondo steered the conversation back towards repairing the existing road, citing public safety and the need for swift action. “Like so many of the problems which I’ve inherited, if someone had taken action five, 10, 15, 20 years ago, we wouldn’t have such a big, urgent problem now,” she told local press. “I know this is the right thing to do with respect to public safety, and it’s time to make that decision and take action.” Raimondo and (a hesitant) Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza collaborated on a new design and released the current version in December.  

A spokeswoman at Tuesday’s meeting said the plan was designed to improve the lives of people who already live in the highway’s shadow, but tensions between the needs of locals, business interests, and commuters are already emerging.

Gregory Stevens, a local business owner whose shop is less than a mile from the connector, claims that part of the design will actually do more harm than good for the community. He told me that he supports most of the plan except for one part: the closing of an on-ramp not far from his shop. “It’s a huge mistake,” he said. Closing the ramp, he explained, would cut off an entire part of the neighborhood from the highway, disrupt travel patterns, force traffic into the heart of the business district, and possibly prevent future investment. Stevens told me he and other local business owners have hired an engineer to conduct an independent traffic count. He plans to present his protest to the mayor’s office and the city planning department and depending on their response, is prepared to take legal action. He argues the change will create “a catastrophic traffic nightmare.”

Ultimately, Lockwood hopes that all parties will realize that designing transportation around the desires of suburban commuters and drivers is antithetical to the purpose of a city: “Cities were invented to bring people together, to maximize social and economic exchange.” Transportation designers could support that, he said, by emphasizing close proximity over inefficient, high-speed, long-distance highway trips. “If we really want our cities to succeed, then we have to get our fundamentals right: proximity, transit, and most of all, walkability.”

Tiffany Owens, a journalist currently based in Providence, R.I, is a New Yorker at heart.

This article has been updated to correct highway statistics. The 6-10 sees nearly 100,000 one-way vehicle trips per day, not necessarily commuters.

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When Did We Stop Building Cities For People?

Words on the Street highlights the best writing on cities we’ve encountered this week at New Urbs. Post tips at @NewUrbs.

Calling for an Architecture That Connects Us to Our Bodies

Dr. Nikos A. Salingaros is a long time critic of the architectural establishment…. [He writes] On the disconnect between our bodies and our buildings: “It occurred at the beginning of the 20th Century, in a deliberate break with the past, breaking away from our own nature. Mechanization following violent social revolution required that we disown our biological nature, so the buildings of the future were meant for machines, not humans. Once the Second World War ended, the industries producing glass, steel, and cars threw their enormous weight behind this new vision of the world. Our society inherited and continues to abide by that worldview.” [Read more…]

—Nikos A. Salingaros, Common Edge

Can the C&O Canal Make Georgetown Hip Again? New York’s High Line Architects Will Try.

Georgetown Heritage, a nonprofit organization formed to rethink the one-mile, nine-acre portion of the canal in Georgetown, has hired the architect of Manhattan’s High Line in hopes of creating an equally buzzy, reimagined urban park along the now-staid industrial strip of land. It’s part of a broader plan to once again make the historic neighborhood a leading destination in the city amid competition from other booming neighborhoods….  “It is a little like the High Line in New York in that it’s an overlooked place,” said Corner, founder of James Corner Field Operations, which designed the High Line in the Chelsea neighborhood. “The whole idea of the High Line is to amplify what is already there.” [Read more…]

—Perry Stein, Washington Post

In Boston, It’s the End of Urban Planning As We Know It (and We Feel Fine)

Like Boston’s last citywide plan, released in 1965, Imagine Boston 2030 proclaims Boston a “City of Ideas.” But virtually everything else about the new plan is different, because so much has changed in Boston, in cities generally, and in the way planning addresses urban challenges. The last Boston plan was completed at the peak of urban renewal, an era of city-making and un-making fueled by federal programs for highway building and “slum clearance.” That muscular approach to city-making didn’t end well — and the rise and abrupt fall of Boston 2024 [Olympic bid] brought back awkward memories of this top-down style of planning…. Urban planning, as we once knew it, is over. The current urban revival happened with no master plan and no national urban policy framework, mostly through the “invisible hand” of market forces. An amalgam of development approvals, incentives, and exactions has arisen in the past several decades, largely in place of planning, to harness this private initiative to serve public policy goals. Imagine Boston and other recent urban plans acknowledge this change. These plans express an attitude toward growth, rather than fostering the illusion that cities can or should just decree what’s going to happen where. [Read more…]

—Matthew Kiefer, Boston Globe

The Train Line That Brought the Twin Cities Back Together

[T]he Green Line is the most popular of the Twin Cities’ two light-rail lines, carrying 40,000 people on weekdays, smashing ridership forecasts by almost 50 percent. It carries college students and immigrants, professional and retail workers, and links college campuses, hospitals and the Minnesota state Capitol (in St. Paul) to both of the downtowns. Less than three years since it opened, it has already helped to revitalize stretches of University Avenue, an aging, formerly car-dominated thoroughfare, as new businesses open near the stations and longtime businesses there attract new customers. Transit-dependent low-income and working-class people are commuting to jobs across the metro area, while new housing for professionals is springing up in an old industrial area. And the Twin Cities aren’t done. Planned expansions would more than double light rail’s reach, taking the Green Line and its counterpart, the 13-year-old Blue Line, straight through Minneapolis to the western suburbs and beyond. [Read more…]

—Erick Trickey, Politico Magazine

Found While Cycling Boston’s Streets: A New Spirituality

Bicycling through Boston’s twisting, traffic-clogged streets may seem more about self-preservation than spiritual enlightenment. For the Rev. Laura Everett, her daily 6-mile commute is a way of connecting to her adopted city, its residents, and her sense of community and vulnerability. Instead of hopping on the subway and popping up in another part of town, Everett said, bicycling has exposed her to the warp and weft of Boston’s neighborhoods and the people who animate them. It’s also led her to a new sense of spirituality and inspired her to turn her experiences into a new book, “Holy Spokes: The Search for Urban Spirituality on Two Wheels.” [Read more…]

—Steve LeBlanc, Associated Press

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Why 19th-Century Design Makes People Happy

Golden Square in Aberdeen, Scotland (Bill Harrison / geograph.org.uk)

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

Classical Architecture Makes Us Happy. So Why Not Build More of It?

There is a fair amount of research suggesting that traditional architecture, such as Georgian and Victorian terraces and mansion blocks, contributes to our wellbeing. Beauty makes people happy. This can be measured through house prices, which consistently show bigger increases for more traditional buildings. A study from the Netherlands showed that ‘even controlling for a wide range of features, fully neo-traditional houses sell for 15 per cent more than fully non-traditional houses. Houses with references to tradition sell for 5 per cent more.’ London terraced houses built before the First World war went up in value by 465 per cent between 1983 and 2013, compared to 255 per cent for post-war property of the same type. Beauty sells, but because it’s rare, it’s exclusive. [Read more…]

—Ed West, The Spectator

The Limits of Café Urbanism

Picture yourself on a bustling commercial street in a hip neighborhood of a newly revived city. You cruise the sidewalk, checking out the businesses that line the glitziest block or two. Here’s what you’re likely to see: a high-end restaurant with pricey small plates and an ambitious chef; a gourmet pizzeria with locally sourced toppings; an artisanal yogurt shop; a microbrewery; and a coffeehouse. And maybe another coffeehouse. A thought pops into your head: This isn’t a business district, at least not in the old-fashioned sense. This is a food corridor. Scarcely any commerce other than restaurants exists here. What we’re talking about is café urbanism. …. [I]n the end, the secret ingredient of a sustainable neighborhood comeback is commercial diversity. Cafés are wonderful; in some places, they may not prove to be enough. [Read more…]

—Alan Ehrenhalt, Governing

So You Want to Build a Trolley…

American cities today are seriously enamored of trolleys—modern streetcars have popped up in 16 cities, with more soon to open in Los Angeles, New York City, Detroit, Fort Lauderdale and Milwaukee. …. But will this fascination with streetcars end in heartbreak? When it works—as with Portland, which got a head start on second-generation streetcars in 2001—streetcars can unify cities, boost real estate and draw investment. When it doesn’t, though, cities can end up with millions of dollars dumped into a glorified theme park ride. Recent projects in places like Cincinnati and Tucson, Arizona, have been budget-busters that have cost about $50 million per mile of track, says Jeffrey Brown, a transportation expert at Florida State University. The earlier wave of second-generation streetcars ran about $10 million to $30 million a mile. [Read more…]

—Debra Bruno, Politico Magazine

Is Newark the New Brooklyn?

The city, which has long struggled with a declining economy and a violent reputation, is in the spotlight. This past December, the Newark Police Department presented statistics showing crime in the city was at its lowest rate since 1967. New investors have poured around $1.7 billion into residential, commercial and industrial projects, according to the city’s Department of Economic and Housing Development, and bougie businesses like Whole Foods are opening their doors. Add to this a burgeoning arts scene, iconic architecture, surrounding universities and proximity to both Manhattan (it’s about a 30-minute train ride from Newark Penn Station to downtown Manhattan, with trains leaving from both stations frequently) and Newark Liberty International Airport. [Read more…]

—Emily Nonko, New York Post

The World’s Best Urban Gondola Ride

The L is the best mass transit system in the United States. Not the fastest, nor the most reliable. Not the newest, nor the longest. The best. Yes, it has its drawbacks. It’s undeniably loud, and a quarter of the year, you freeze your ass off waiting on cement platforms 30 to 40 feet above the street, where the wind is cruelly pronounced. Even so, the L is the best because of where you are when you ride much of it. Elevated. So much can be seen. The L reveals a Chicago of a thousand unconsidered angles, offers a view without filter or comparison. So this winter I rode the L—the whole thing, in one day—to see what I could see. To take the measure of a city in full. [Read more…]

—Tom Chiarella, Chicago Magazine

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How Cellular Dead Zones Hurt Rural Towns

Lane V. Erickson / Shutterstock.com

Janie Corley can’t keep customers away from the cashier at her gift shop. From the outside, this looks like a good thing—any small business would want customers flocking to the checkout line in droves. But for Corley, the line’s a sign of a bigger problem: poor cell phone reception. This lack of infrastructure hinders economic development in small communities in many rural areas, and without adequate cellular coverage they remain invisible to the larger marketplace.

“[Customers] get to the end of the counter, suddenly their phone gets a signal, and they get a text message, and they’re like ‘Oh!’ so they all stand right there because they don’t wanna leave the sweet spot.”

Together with her husband, Corley owns Christian Way Farm and Mini Golf, a tourism and heritage farm in Christian County, Kentucky. Between the mini-golf, the pumpkin patch, and Christian Way’s other activities, the small business hosts 18,000 guests a year. But Corley knows there could be more. “I know the benefit of, ‘Oh, you’re someplace, let’s Snapchat about where we are, let’s post it on Instagram, let’s post it on Facebook immediately so that other people are looking’ and, ‘Oh, look where they are. We should go there.’”

Drive 30 miles southwest, and you won’t find better reception. That’s where my parents live. They get a signal if they stand over the heating vent in my old bedroom. There’s also reception on the left side of their couch. But shift to the right side of the sofa, and you get disconnected.

Further down the road, people would say half of a couch is great. That’s because my parents live at the beginning of a roughly three-mile wide cell phone dead zone.

The problem is, no one knows why. Christian County is in western Kentucky—not eastern—so there are no mountains to block the signal or valleys for it to drop off in. Hopkinsville, the county seat, is around an hour’s drive from Nashville, Tennessee, so the area’s not even that remote. Even more baffling is the coverage map on AT&T’s website. According to it, 100 percent of Christian County has full “domestic wireless voice coverage.”

Whatever the reason, if service seems bad now, it’s about to get worse. On August 21, 25,000 to 50,000 more cell phones will suddenly be held to the sky, searching for a signal. Turns out, that three-mile dead zone is at the epicenter of the most historic total solar eclipse the United States has ever seen. 80 percent of Americans live within 600 miles of its path, and they’re bringing their phones.

At this point, the need for better reception is no longer about growing local business. It’s a public liability.

Brooke Jung is Hopkinsville/Christian County’s solar eclipse marketing and events consultant. Last September, she asked AT&T and Verizon to bring in cell-towers on wheels known as COWs. “Both cellular providers have been very receptive,” she says, although it did take some persuasion for them to understand how large the need truly was. Initially, the cell providers were considering using CROWs, which actually sit on top of existing cell towers and enhance the signal. But after learning more about the magnitude of this event, they began discussing COWs. “In fact,” Jung says, “AT&T is providing what is called a Mega COW.” (As of this writing, Jung was waiting for confirmation from Verizon.)

The typical COW provides reception for a two-mile radius. So the one Christian County is getting won’t cover Corley’s company or other small businesses—in fact, it won’t even reach the right side of my parents’ couch. AT&T is putting its Mega COW on Orchardale, a farm centrally located near the point of greatest eclipse. What this means in practical terms is the COW should provide a signal for the eclipse’s best viewing site, but not for any of the roads, hotels, restaurants, or other places tourists make calls from.

“The number of COWs is evaluated by the cellular companies,” Jung says, mentioning that geographically, Orchardale is the same size as where Bonnaroo, a Tennessee music festival, is held. Bonnaroo, she says, “require[s] about 7-8 COWs from both AT&T and Verizon.”

So will one COW with a two-mile radius be enough to cover a whole county plus 25,000-50,000 extra people? “[AT&T and Verizon] feel confident we will be able to operate successfully with just one from each provider,” Jung says.

Personally, perched on the left arm of my parents’ couch, I feel less confident. The area needs better reception period and, while AT&T’s Mega COW is much appreciated, it simply brings reception up to the base level people who live there need already. But I don’t work for AT&T: Maybe a Mega COW can work miracles. So I called Cathy Lewandowski, AT&T’s Senior Public Relations Manager for Tennessee and Kentucky to get more information. She refused to confirm that AT&T was even sending a COW and refused my request for an interview.

Meanwhile, Janie Corley is still trying to grow a business. After reaching out to AT&T for help, she says “a gentleman that is an executive with AT&T and works out of Memphis drove up here and sat at a picnic table with me to discuss what the options were.” At the end of meeting, though, he told her there was nothing AT&T could do.

Before AT&T’s move from 4G to LTE technology in 2015, Corley and her company did have reception. So Corley asked him, “How come suddenly I don’t have the cell phone signal that I used to have?” The answer? According to Corley, the change from 4G to LTE meant AT&T “had to switch [the cell phone towers] to a different angle and since they’re pushing the LTE signal, I couldn’t get anything. And there’s not any appealing, oh, could you send some my way. It just doesn’t work that way.”

Terena Bell is a freelance journalist writing most often on tech, entertainment, public affairs, and the Great American Total Solar Eclipse. A Kentucky native, she is based in New York.

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Will Eisenhower Ever Have a Fitting Memorial?

National Capital Planning Commission

Few seem to really like it, but for now it seems to be limping along to somewhere. That sentiment describes the latest chapter in the saga of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial. It was commissioned by Congress in 1999, and eventually given a site on a public square in Washington a few blocks from the Capitol. But almost two decades later, the project has yet to even break ground—or even finalize a design.

In February, the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) allowed three proposed changes to the Eisenhower Memorial design, giving the oft-stalled project permission to proceed a step toward an uncertain future. The 16-year-old memorial project is carried forward not so much by momentum as it is by resignation.

The Eisenhower family, the commissioners, and the general public all appear resigned to an increasingly muddled and expensive collection of elements piled and hung beneath the stern gaze of the Department of Education building. Some still fight to do “Right by Ike,” advocating scrapping starchitect Frank Gehry’s design entirely for a less-deconstructed memorial design found through open competition, and more appropriate to the classicism of the great presidential monuments. But even these traditionalists find previous incarnations preferable to the latest design alterations. They hope that reluctance may turn into opposition—and eventually the chance may come to go back to the drawing board.

“It’s not like one of these classic memorial controversies where there are two actual sides competing,” said Justin Shubow, president of the National Civic Art Society (NCAS). “Here it’s everybody against the Eisenhower Memorial Commission.”

But even members of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission find the current design proposal objectionable. Bruce Cole, a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities appointed to the Eisenhower commission in 2013 by President Obama, commented in an email to TAC:

It’s hard to believe, but the new design makes the Eisenhower Memorial even more incomprehensible. The boy Ike has almost disappeared from sight, leaving the Memorial without a focal point and a free standing statue of the president. The enormous metal screen now features a sort of photographic scene of present day Omaha beach. How this empty image tells the story of the heroism and sacrifice that occurred there is unclear.

National Capital Planning Commission

Cole’s objection summarizes the changes to the memorial proposal. Under the Gehry design as approved in July 2015, the memorial consists of three statues and an 80- by 447-foot steel mesh tapestry suspended from pillars (with a few more elements thrown in), all set in an embowered four-acre site boxed in by Independence Avenue, Fourth and Sixth Streets SW, and the U.S. Department of Education building, a site approved in 2006. The statues depict President Eisenhower as a young man, as a general, and as commander-in-chief. The original design sought to set up a narrative of Ike’s journey from midwestern boyhood to global greatness, placing him as a young man before the tapestry, which then was to depict a composite of Ike’s Abilene, Kansas, while gesturing to the future. No longer.

Now, boy Ike is to be set behind the screen, facing its rear, atop a wall of quotes with his back to the DoE building. And the tapestry is to depict a “contemporary peacetime image” of Normandy, France, focusing on Omaha and Utah Beaches with Pointe du Hoc at the center. Approximately four planned trees will not be planted in the new design. In a February meeting, many NCPC members expressed concern about the altered memorial’s coherence, readability, and even whether the landscape on the tapestry would be identifiable. They approved the changes on the grounds that they were primarily aesthetic ones, not altering the fundamental memorial plan, and outside their purview.

Others disagree. At the NCPC meeting and subsequent interview, Shubow said the movement of the young Eisenhower and the change of tapestry subject represents “a radically changed concept for the memorial” and removes the narrative element of Gehry’s original, what Shubow considers the best part of a bad concept. “What we’ve ended up with is a classic example of design by committee,” Shubow said.

How? And what’s next?

The commission to give President Eisenhower a memorial was written into existence in 1999, with the first official meeting of its commissioners assembling in early 2001. Rather than holding an open design contest, they rapidly settled on Frank Gehry, reportedly a longtime associate of commission Chairman Rocco Siciliano. With site and design guidelines finalized in 2006, already far too late for the originally planned 2007 completion, the proposed groundbreaking moved to 2012.

But in 2011, Shubow’s National Civic Art Society published a report criticizing the design and process, arguing it was inappropriate and too expensive. Unable to get funding and approvals, and despite the report and criticisms from the Eisenhower family, veterans, and many others, the commission continued to put together preliminary site and building plans through 2014. While the proposed design received approval from the NCPC and the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts in 2015, it failed to gain the approval of the Eisenhower family, without which the EMC could not (and still cannot) secure sufficient financial support.

Former Secretary of State James Baker III, who serves on the memorial advisory board, led negotiations with the Eisenhowers. In 2012, Eisenhower’s son, John S.D. Eisenhower wrote, “Taxpayers and donors alike will be better served with an Eisenhower Square that is a green open space with a simple statue in the middle, and quotations from his most important sayings,” But in 2016, Ike’s granddaughter Susan wrote that “While some of us may have had other preferences in the past, all of us support your proposal,” meaning the modified design. Now the commission will put together mock-ups and presentations for the Commission on Fine Arts, who unlike the NCPC will have no reason to hesitate in rejecting the design on aesthetic grounds.

When asked about the timeframe for giving their approval, CFA secretary Thomas Luebke described the process as a little bit like the judiciary, with the CFA waiting for the Eisenhower commission to approach them: “In terms of timing and the process, the ball is really in their court.”

The commission will also seek to secure funding, and a waiver from Congress allowing them to begin building prior to the project being fully funded. In an email, commission spokesperson Chris Kelley Cimko of Cimko Strategies said:

The commission’s budget request will be submitted to Congress in the near future and is currently not public. We’ve had a great first quarter of fundraising thanks to the hard work of our Finance Chairman, Senator Bob Dole and EMC Chairman, Pat Roberts. The Eisenhower grandchildren have joined the EMC Advisory Committee and are actively engaged in commission activities.

Past budgets have been almost $150 million, which Shubow said is more than the cost of the Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, and Washington Monument combined.

A counter-proposal for the memorial by C.J. Howard, prepared for a competition sponsored by the National Civic Art Society.

Meanwhile critics, including NCAS and the “Right By Ike” movement, hope that the CFA will kill the proposed amendments—or the commission will fail to secure sufficient funding. Either setback could be enough to restart the process.

Referencing a congressional study of the memorial’s cost increases, delays, and design failures, “A Five-Star Folly,” Right by Ike’s Sam Roche said:

The design for the Eisenhower Memorial remains controversial because the commission in charge circumvented the usual public process for the memorial’s design. A Congressional report found the process was full of irregularities and led to big overruns in cost, compensation, and schedule. Right by Ike has advocated for a return to the standard public process to design and complete Ike’s memorial, through a competition open to everyone.

Shubow thinks a changed political climate might help too, explaining that the National Civic Art Society is “optimistic that Congress and the new president will recognize just how bad the design is and just how much a waste of money it is.”

“In our opinion it’s better to get it right than to rush it. Veterans don’t want a bad memorial.”

Micah Meadowcroft, a former editorial assistant at The American Conservative, is a writer based in Washington.

This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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Why a Solar Eclipse Has the Heartland Rethinking Alcohol Laws

Changes in alcohol laws are the second thing Carbondale, Illinois and Hopkinsville, Kentucky have in common. The first? Each town is the tourism hotbed for an upcoming solar eclipse.

On August 21, a total solar eclipse will begin in Oregon and end in South Carolina. It’s the first since 1776 to only be visible in the U.S. At its point of greatest duration—where the eclipse will last the longest—you’ll find Carbondale. And the point of greatest eclipse—where more of the sun will be covered—centers on Hopkinsville.

Evidently, a total solar eclipse is something to travel for. Because 80 percent of Americans live within 600 miles of the eclipse path, Carbondale expects 100,000 visitors and Hopkinsville 50,000.

Some of those people may want a drink. In anticipation of the eclipse—and the tourism dollars it can bring—both areas have reassessed their liquor laws.

In January, Carbondale’s city council “passed a resolution that temporarily suspended the public possession of alcohol,” says City Manager Gary Williams, explaining people can buy alcohol in a plastic cup and carry it around downtown from 11:00 am to 11:00 pm. But before you grab your Tupperware stein and pack your bags, be aware that the new resolution only covers eclipse weekend—and you have to buy your beer from a downtown merchant.

In Christian County, Kentucky—of which Hopkinsville’s the seat—County Judge/Executive Steve Tribble also looked into an eclipse-weekend-only change. “The [Christian County] Chamber of Commerce is putting a full-court press on,” he says, explaining that local business leaders want souvenir bottle sales permitted at craft distilleries on Sundays. With the eclipse on a Monday, the chamber hopes Sunday sales will increase tourist spend.

So why alcohol? Carbondale and Hopkinsville aren’t in cahoots. In fact, neither Williams nor Tribble knew the other’s government was considering changes until contacted by your correspondent. When given the same opportunity, why did two similarly-sized towns in two different states independently reconsider their liquor laws? “I don’t know” is the initial answer of both.

The deeper answer is about identity: What do Hopkinsville and Carbondale want to be?

In the past, says Mayor Carter Hendricks, Hopkinsville’s nickname was “Little Chicago.” When asked what that means, he answers, “Not positive…That we were poor…that our diversity was an issue, not a strength.” The eclipse, though, is Hopkinsville’s chance to rebrand. “If I said ‘Little Chicago’ was the old brand, I’m saying we wanna be ‘Little Nashville’ as the new brand.”

Nashville, Tennessee, the home of country music, is slightly more than an hour’s drive from Hopkinsville and the smaller city hopes to emulate its neighbor by becoming an arts and music hub. Christian County Fiscal Court recently passed a transient room tax that benefits—among other things—The Alhambra, a performing arts theatre. And the city’s Little River Days festival has been reengineered as Summer Salute, which Carter hopes will become “a signature, regional music festival.”

Carbondale’s holding its own eclipse music festival as well, and music is the identity trait Williams focuses on. He hopes the city’s open container change will become a permanent one. “What we want to do is get back to where we are more of an entertainment destination for the region,” he says, sharing that decades ago Carbondale was known for drawing national acts. Elvis and Bob Dylan played there, “and a lot of people within the region talk about that and they wonder what happened and why doesn’t Carbondale have these types of events anymore, so the current council is focused on getting back to that.”

Beer and concerts are synonymous, Williams says, just as bourbon and Kentucky are, according to Tribble.

According to Williams, Carbondale’s change has been embraced by the community. When asked if any residents had religious or health objections, he answers no, explaining how loosening the open-carry law actually makes eclipse weekend easier for Carbondale police. Now officers “don’t have to worry about bar checks as much” and can focus on more important matters.

Carbondale used to have a Halloween festival where open container was the norm, so its change brings the city back to that. But Sunday distillery sales would be brand new for Christian County. Hopkinsville has Sunday liquor-by-the-drink, a loophole common in the South that allows restaurants to sell alcohol in proportion with the amount of food served and how many seats they have. Before this passed, Tribble says, “Those that were opposed to it said, ‘Oh, we’re gonna have so many wrecks and we’re gonna have so many DUIs’…Not one thing happened. There hasn’t been a single arrest because of it…All of that negative just didn’t happen.”

Despite prior success, passing the new law still isn’t easy. “We’re in the Bible Belt,” says Tribble, “That’s just the way it’s been,” highlighting how civic and individual identity can be at odds. Towns want progress, but people hate change.

With six months between now and the eclipse, the fiscal court’s voting window is open-ended. “[The Chamber] certainly would like to be able to do it by the time the eclipse gets here because we’ll have such a huge crowd and influx of people.”

Alcohol or no alcohol, neither music city expects tourists to get too crazy. “They’re scientists,” Williams says. Ask him if alcohol will make a difference in their decision to come to Carbondale or Hopkinsville, and he says no. And Tribble? “For some people it does.”

Terena Bell is a freelance journalist writing most often on tech, entertainment, public affairs, and the Great American Total Solar Eclipse. A Kentucky native, she is based in New York.

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How Employers Impose Their Own Growth Boundaries

Downtown Santa Monica (Jon Bilous / Shutterstock.com)

There has been a lot of publicity about how the imposition of “growth boundaries” on metropolitan areas often succeeds mainly in driving up the price of land within the boundaries. But companies and employers often impose their own “growth boundaries” by where they choose to locate, or not locate.

A person with a car will be unlikely, for example, to drive to a job more than two hours away—and many will avoid driving more than one hour! A person without a car either depends on the punctuality and reliability of their transit system, or if that is not an option, is perhaps limited in her job choices to a six-mile radius, if that. (That’s rather arbitrary. I don’t think we need to have affordable housing absolutely everywhere, but I think we need to have it within six miles of everywhere. There are a few locations, like coastlines and view lots, that will never get that affordable no matter how much we build.) And in today’s economy, people other than very young adults probably change jobs more often than they do residences.

In the 1970s and ’80s, “edge cities,” which were usually not urbanist or only minimally so, sprouted outside many of our cities. The granddaddy of them all was, of course, the Irvine Ranch. The central and eastern half of Los Angeles, that is downtown and the San Gabriel Valley, was half drained of much of its business and its higher-end workforce as they relocated to “edge cities” of Costa Mesa, Newport Beach, and Irvine.

In 1977, Los Angeles Magazine did a feature story on “The Ripening of Orange County: How It’s Stealing the LA Dream.” East Side Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley did recover, to become something different from what they had been before, thanks to mass immigration, the installation of a Metro system, and the changing tastes of young hipsters toward a more urban style of life—at least before they have kids! (What they will do after they have kids is up to debate, but there is always another younger generation coming up.)

I have called this vast movement to the Irvine Ranch and nearby areas the Secessio Patriciorum, or the Secession of the Patricians. It also had the effect of giving Hollywood and the entertainment industries greater political and cultural dominance in Los Angeles than they had had before. Before the Secessio, finance, insurance, and real estate dominated downtown and San Gabriel Valley life and were a serious political and financial rival to Hollywood.

But then growth and affordability issues caused the urban frontier to advance into the Inland Empire and the Antelope Valley. There are some innovative malls and urban centers in the Inland Empire’s northern portion, most specifically Victoria Gardens. There is a lot of industrial and warehouse space around Ontario Airport, but we have not seen the kind of higher-end employers that cluster around John Wayne Airport in Orange County. Temecula has secured some jobs, but still large numbers of its people have to drive in both directions, north and south, to find work. And Lancaster-Palmdale had its aerospace plants, but I think they have not added jobs, to say the least. Nor are there that many good jobs in the Victorville-Apple Valley-Hesperia urban cluster; many of the working people must cross Cajon Pass to work, and often another range of hills.

The situation, as usual, is even starker in the Bay Area. There is a cluster of commuter suburbs around Stockton, Manteca, Tracy, and Modesto. Some have raised concern about “destruction of agricultural land,” but even if there is a shortage of good agricultural land, there is to the east of the agriculture territory a long stretch of rolling grassland that has never been of much use for crops. But I don’t see the good burghers of Silicon Valley jumping over the hill with their job sites to follow many of their workers who live there. If anything, the up-and-coming place for employment in the tech industry is now the city of San Francisco.

Back south, there is a huge stretch of flat and developable land stretching from Palmdale past California City and as far as Barstow. There is plenty of room there (though water may be an issue). But unless a lot of good jobs head out that way, it will be too far to commute. So employers, by no longer following their workers to the more affordable suburbs, are actually imposing their own “growth boundaries” by the limits of a sane commute.

Christopher Leinberger may have originated the theory of the Favored Quarter, which has to be taken into account. This idea says that high-end employers and the affluent do not disperse from the central city in all directions, but rather in one specific direction; suburban expansion in other directions is geared to the less affluent, and there are not likely to be Edge Cities or a lot of good jobs outside the Favored Quarter. The theory of the Favored Quarter needs to be taken into account by anyone dealing with urban issues.

Los Angeles has shifted its Favored Quarter between the two world wars. In the early 20th century the Favored Quarter clearly ran northeast from downtown through Pasadena and along the foothills. A mark of this is the line of colleges that still remain; starting with Occidental, then Cal Tech, Azusa Pacific, La Verne, the Claremont College complex, and on to Redlands University at the far end. But by mid-century the Favored Quarter had shifted westward, through Beverly Hills and toward Santa Monica. (Despite the high-end nature of Brentwood and Pacific Palisades, Santa Monica was considered quite uncool as late as my youth.) Now the spillover of the high-tech industry (by Bay Area standards, Los Angeles is a little bit “affordable”) in the form of Snapchat and others, has formed Silicon Beach, in precisely that part of the city that is harder to reach from most of Southern California than downtown is. Silicon Joshua Tree, anyone?

As far as I know, Los Angeles is unique historically for having shifted the direction of its Favored Quarter, but I am willing to be corrected on this. Perhaps some other American city has had the same experience.

Howard Ahmanson lives in Orange County, California, and has a passion for urbanism and housing issues.

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Why Cities Are Demolishing Freeways

LOVE_CHOTE / Shutterstock.com

Once the urban freeway was unmistakably part of a vision of the future, one in which personal automobiles zipped through neighborhoods without having to stop or interact with the streets above or below. But over the past two decades, many cities have found that running highways through dense areas has done more harm than good—and they’re increasingly opting to tear them down.

Late last month, the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) released its latest edition of “Freeways Without Futures,” a report on efforts to remove parts of underused highways in ten American cities. The study underscores the role locals are playing in the replacement movement and also outlines the many benefits of having fewer highways running through dense urban areas.

The report contends that the cores of American cities have seen a massive hollowing out since the passing of the Federal-Aid Highway Act in 1956. “As highways were built through existing communities,” the report begins, “residents were cut off from social and economic centers, key resources and services, and the nearby destinations of their daily lives.”

Today, many of those highways are reaching the end of their design life and cities are facing what CNU calls a “watershed moment.” Instead of rebuilding and repairing old highways, the report suggests cities should replace them with infrastructure that is pedestrian friendly, density prone, and extremely profitable. “Cities are waking up to a simple solution: remove instead of replace.”  

CNU highlights the replace movements in ten cities across the country, many of them driven by everyday citizens who don’t want to see certain highways expanded or repaired. Suggesting alternatives to expansion isn’t easy. In many cases, activists must conduct their own research, design a replacement plan, and recruit local officials. Then begins the lengthy process of securing funding and ironing out implementation logistics.

Each city included in the report is at a different stage of removal. While activists in Oakland and Dallas are pushing steadily through the research phase, efforts in Detroit are stuck for a lack of funding. Meanwhile, fill-in construction on the Inner Loop in Rochester started last 2014 and should be completed by the end of this year.  

Each city included also faces a unique set of challenges. In Denver, citizens are battling their state Department of Transportation to prevent an expansion of I-70. They’ve proposed an alternative that—unlike the city’s plan—would not involve expanding the derelict highway (at a cost of $1.8 billion) or destroying dozens of houses and businesses in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. But the city is fighting back, arguing that the highway is essential for commuters. In Buffalo, efforts have been more successful. The citizen-led initiative to redesign parts of the Scajaquada Expressway earned the attention and financial support of Governor Andrew Cuomo, who directed $30 million towards the effort last March, telling local press it was time to “undo a mistake.”

Tearing out a highway is costly on many levels. Coordinating various agencies requires political flexibility. Fiscally, replacement proposals cost millions of dollars and require an ability to focus on long-term over short-term gains. Culturally, they require a shift in design priorities: fewer cars on the street, more people. The report explores these struggles, yet also emphasizes the many benefits of replacement.

First, there’s the potential of significant economic gain. In Dallas, researchers found that replacing parts of I-345 would generate $4 billion for the city over fifteen years and bring 22,550 jobs to the area. In Trenton, if efforts to replace Route 29 with a riverwalk are successful, the city’s downtown could attract up to $2.25 billion of investment. Replacing highways could also make possible more mixed-use development and affordable housing, desperately needed in places like San Francisco. It could also improve neighborhood safety and decrease pollution.

CNU also suggests that replacing underused highways could be a chance to undo the damage they have wrought upon “the physical and economic health of low-income and minority residents.” But while reconciliation is indeed a possibility, so also is displacement. Sam Warlick, the communications director at CNU, acknowledged this possibility. “Any kind of positive change in a neighborhood (also) runs the risk of cultural and economic displacement,” he said. Communities that embrace replacement, he explained, could prevent drastic displacement by pairing their infrastructure investment with community investment. “We would hope that anti-displacement efforts and initiatives to share the prosperity would be baked into the process from the beginning.”

Tiffany Owens, a journalist currently based in Providence, R.I, is a New Yorker at heart.

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