Homeless Crisis: How to solve a problem we can’t quantify?

Denver’s failed Issue 300 to overturn a ban on “urban camping” has galvanized non-profits, developers, investors, service providers, and advocates to find better ways to address the homeless problem in the Mile High City. I opposed Issue 300 because it didn’t address the issue of homelessness while ceding unlimited public space for the problem to grow, but frankly struggled to explain policy technicalities to friends or acquaintances whenever it came up. Within the broader umbrella of the planning field, I have specialized in housing and community development ever since my AmeriCorps service 7 years ago, but find the homelessness issue more vexing to explain than any other subject matter.

Housing as a Continuum


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Above all, housing is a continuum. This means that everything from homeless housing to market-rate housing are connected. We’re all humans with similar needs, and conceptually-speaking, home-based solutions for those need has always been proven cheaper, more efficient, with better outcomes. If you can keep a senior in her accessible apartment for 10 years longer than she would need a nursing/assisted living facility without that accessibility, you could save the Medicaid program a million dollars and give that senior a better life according to the Kaiser Foundation. Similarly, if you can house a homeless person, you give them a home in which to deal with their issues, which they would otherwise have to do on the streets, jail, or the hospital ER. If you think homeless housing is expensive, wait till you see the bill for the social service system. Housing this person costs 1/53rd the cost of the hospital ER, or 1/18th the cost of a mental healthcare facility. Life on the streets, in tent cities, or encampments often includes frequent hospital visits, re-incarceration, and other bad human outcomes.

Despite the headline-grabbing growth in the problem, there is much hope due to the innovation and dedication most cities put toward this issue as the growing economy has created a nationwide housing crisis. Wherever you’re from, your city is likely discussing its own housing crisis as I type. To be clear, Denver is deploying more tools to combat the scourge of homelessness than most cities, but there’s no doubt that many cities offer great case studies and innovations right now.

All eyes are on city hall(s) right now. After strong national leadership from HUD during the Obama administration, it seems plausible that municipalities themselves will have to fill the void of research, coordination and innovation in this space for a while. Even more confusing, HUD frankly uses its power of purview over Participating Jurisdictions (PJs, or cities that recent direct funding from HUD) to embarrass progressive leadership or inhibit cities’ ability to upgrade/improve/resolve projects or programs with historic HUD funding. Such was likely the case when HUD withheld $80 million in CDBG and HOME funds from LA, citing widespread monitoring and compliance issues that probably exist in every PJ. Ask yourself how that helps the city with the nation’s fastest-growing homeless crisis, reportedly growing at 16% last year, but likely much more than that. In fact, homeless counts have always been notoriously inaccurate, often due specifically to mandates from HUD.

Data is Power


One thing a strong, advocate-driven HUD can do is bring together academic and analytic capacities to tackle data gaps. Right now, homeless counts are done through HUD’s Continuum of Care (CoC) network, with a coordinating agency in charge of each regional CoC Point in Time count. While it’s great to have a system in place for Point in Time counts, there are many flaws with the present system of collecting data beginning with the date on which the count occurs, in January for almost all cities, every year. Furthermore, street canvassing is always difficult and imperfect.

In 4/5ths of the nation, the count of people living on the streets will be significantly impacted by the dead of winter. As obvious as it seems, I can’t fully explain how the count would be impacted, except that it is. I look forward to volunteering in the upcoming PIT count and learning more about this first-hand.

Theoretically, the majority of homeless counted on that night are going to be in dedicated homeless shelters, where occupancy rises during inhospitable weather. The urban camping ban in Denver and many other cities is driven by the fact that when able, many homeless actually prefer the streets over the shelter. As mind-blowing as that may seem to most people, the reasons for this include the following:

  • Some shelters (but certainly not all) are described as crime dens where criminals prey on weaker homeless people
  • Some faith-based organizations (also certainly not all) require folks to go through sermons/life classes/etc in order to receive shelter and food for the night; these sermons can seem extremely prejudiced against the mental health, social, and addiction challenges that many homeless face
  • Shelters do not allow dogs because they are not dog pounds; many homeless have dogs
  • Most shelters do not allow unmarried couples to stay together and separate homeless by sex
  • Many Continuum of Care regions lack dedicated shelter space for trans people or non-conforming genders, of which the homeless community is disproportionately comprised
  • Shelters usually kick people out during the day, forcing them to go somewhere during the day, and moving them around the city based on shelter capacity or the services someone needs
  • The shelters are heavily overcrowded, combined with building code issues, making them a “deathtrap”

Those are just the reasons I can conceptualize for someone preferring the streets over a shelter, which is important to understand because you then realize solving this is not just an issue of shelter capacity. Also important, is realizing that I can’t really, fully conceptualize being homeless, and try as we might none of us who’ve never had an experience of homelessness will be able to make these people whole. In forming an action plan, you have to be honest and realistic toward what you can promise. I think many non-establishment homeless advocates get adrift from solutions in focusing on intrinsic dignity, being valued, and made whole – possibly from reparations. While local government can never solve all of the problems these individuals face, just understanding how they feel about these “solutions” for their plight is even more important than it obviously sounds.

As any plan must start with the homeless population, all of these programs and projects start with the official Point in Time count of the homeless population they intend to serve. In Denver, planning a program or project first starts with the 3,445 homeless “households” you intend to serve. The obvious problem with that everyone knows there are more than 3,445 homeless on the streets of Denver during the day.

When accounting for the 1,000+ units of permanent supportive housing built in Denver in the last two decades, it is difficult for a homeless project to boast an attractive “capture rate” to get funded through tax credits, grants, and other funds. In order to get funded, projects typically need capture rates below 25% which means that the need/demand for your project exceeds your capacity by at least 4-to-1. This makes sense in solving affordable housing challenges where the demographic has other options, but doesn’t help homeless efforts for which the demographic has no other option for housing. If there were more accurate PIT counts, the numbers would make it easier to get these projects funded (albeit at the expense of other affordable housing initiatives like workforce housing).

This gets me back to the data challenges that are going unsolved right now. This is no knock on the current system, which must be maintained to support the current level of action. Housing officials working on these challenges know all about the flawed data, the spiraling growth of the problem, and the inherent challenges in scaling up solutions to serve the human problems of every individual. We attack housing providers for providing too much focus and care to 40-50 people at a time and failing to serve the thousands; simultaneously, we attack housing policy makers for the utilitarianism of massive shelter and service facilities.

I say to all the advocates out there, instead of attacking city hall and developers and the system, work together to come up with a better count of the local homeless population. It’s not a silver bullet, and doesn’t come with resource assurances, but it is as good a starting point as any. City halls have been attacked to death over this issue from all sides, when they’re the only entities even trying to solve homelessness. Maybe the issue is that they can’t do it alone. Maybe LA is deplorable for allowing homelessness to spiral out of control, or maybe LA is actually a national model for supportive housing. Same goes for Seattle, San Francisco, Denver, Portland, and all big cities. HUD is the one big player in all of this that exists above the fray, shielded from public outrage. All of these cities are now bringing more dollars to the table than the federal department that exists to solve housing crises (plural), but still must conform to HUD’s prescriptive mandates that paralyze projects that get federal funding that no city can afford to decline.

HUD trusts academics any policy “thinktanks” more than it trusts practitioners such as city officials, program/providers, and developers. I know it may seem obtuse to focus on statistics when there are life-and-death needs not being met, but there is no other way to hold HUD accountable than through data and policy white papers. City halls, on the other hand, have always been hyper-reactive to conditions and experiences on the ground. 

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Beating climate change through local planning

Our ability to work on greater equity and access to Earth’s upside is directly proportional to how livable Earth is in the first place. As Earth becomes more hostile, people themselves become more hostile. This is the most terrifying prospect of climate change; not the weather, but how the weather affects human civilization as we know it. With inequality being what it is in this world, how will habitable land be shared for 6-7-8 billion people when there is less of it?

As Congress and talking heads are debating the Green New Deal, and wildly conflating what it actually is, now may be a perfect time for local communities to act through small local deals. The purpose of this post is to argue the localized impacts of climate change, which are far more actionable than saving the planet as a whole, despite that most localities are also mired in the same inaction. I believe the ideas I will share in this post are actionable enough to help any city or town strive toward being the cleanest and greenest version of themselves, establishing common ground at the local level toward mobilizing against climate change.

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With record droughts and floods a few hundred miles apart, wildfires across the entire Western US, and strong hurricanes as far north as NYC, we are beginning to see how this change will actually manifest across the US. Not only is this not the sudden apocalyptic event one may have expected when “global warming” first gained awareness, the most intense warming trend may occur across equatorial regions – far-away regions already beset with poverty, disease, and lack of resources. Bangladesh, Sub-Saharan Africa, India, and Southeast Asia are most at risk of sea level rise, heat waves, and stronger natural disasters, imperiling the huge populations of these regions. There will be human migration.

I see this as a two-pronged challenge. The bottom line is that climate change will be a slow-moving disaster, with worse conditions closer to the equator, requiring a world-wide humanitarian commitment to save these regions. This is the challenge to save our planet. This is not the same as the easier, more winnable challenge for local communities.

Due to lighter impacts across most of the U.S., we have a mostly winnable challenge of localized heating, waste control, pollution mitigation, and resilience.

The fatalistic climate change dialogue we have in the U.S., overwhelmed by the scale and severity of the worldwide problem, is needlessly paralyzed into inaction despite the very actionable options available at the local level. While actionable options at the local level may not address wicked problems of greenhouse gases across the planet, they do make a meaningful difference for localized heating, waste control, pollution mitigation, and resiliency.  If a random city, suburb, or town mobilized around these interventions, nobody benefits more than that community.

 

1. Urban greening strategies work. Every city should have a forester and a strategy to enhance green canopy and shade in contextually appropriate ways. Mexico City is covering concrete expressway viaducts with ivy and shrubs a la “hanging garden.” Most major cities in the US have free tree planting programs for low and mod-income neighborhoods. The urban planning thought circle should stop attacking these programs that do nothing but good, and instead further research into maximizing their impact and benefits.

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2. Recycling works, but we don’t do it enough. Most “recycling” bins ultimately go to the same place. Sham recycling is like an environmental placebo; cheaper, more effective, and unlikely to be caught without trash detectives on the case. The reality of recycling is that it’s expensive and labor-intensive to truly separate single-stream junk into the appropriate streams to actually reuse material. More on the labor needed to scale recycling up to the level needed for it to be meaningful.

3. Litter flows down stream just like water and any other run-off or waste generated in our cities. A city in Australia has been using innovative trash nets at key drainage pinch points like pipe outlets. This small Australian city collected 815 pounds of trash that was flowing through their sewers and ultimately destined for open waters and the surrounding habitat.

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4. Transit usage, rather than transit systems themselves, work wonders toward reducing pollution/congestion and increasing quality of life. As more and more cities find the means to invest in transit, they should do so with an eye toward ridership and nothing else. This requires serious investments and no shortcuts toward creating a system that everyone would actually use.

5. Tiny tax credits or added taxes to make the cost of recycled paper products more competitive with original manufacture. I often think about buying recycled paper plates, cups, towels, etc. – but it will be 10% more expensive. If 20 cents is the difference, then try a 5-year program to subsidize 15 cents through a scaled manufacturer tax credit, which you can partially recoup with a 5 cent tax on the alternative, assuming anyone still buys that. Then during the 5-year duration of such an initiative, it’s likely the private market will work to drive down recycled product costs and no longer need the gap subsidy.

6. Put laid-off factory workers across rural and urban America back to work recycling materials from the rest of America. We need several times more hands working in recycling operations, separating materials, running machinery, etc. We have a dire problem around the lack of good low-skill jobs through which someone can graduate high school or technical school and still raise a family. This may be where the public sector needs to step in, and may be the new role of civic sanitation services. They say there’s no Republican or Democratic way to pick up the trash, but civic sanitation services that take the lead on local recycling can partner with manufacturers to reuse the materials for new products, which can also be a valuable economic resource.

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7. White roofs or green roofs make a big difference locally. Toronto is often considered the largest city in North America making a substantial effort on climate change, in part for their green roof initiative. Toronto offers incentives that make green roof or “cool roofs” a no-brainer, by neutralizing the cost difference. Denver implemented a similar initiative, but changed course when research made clear that the Mile High City’s high-altitude desert climate would be better served by a “white roof” standard, effectively repelling solar radiation. This is a great example of cities inspiring each other and being flexible enough to find the best solution for a particular local context.

8. The majority of airline seats are actually taken by business travelers who fly dozens if not hundreds of time a year. Europe is exploring adding a carbon tax onto flights that incrementally increases with each additional flight one individual takes during a tax year. I don’t like the idea of taxing someone for just their second or third flight, but I think there is a better to accomplish this objective: Just require the purchase of carbon offsets on every business purpose and/or business expensable flight. This has more direct rational nexus to the carbon from air travel, and only affects a consumer that isn’t personally paying for any of their flights. Ideally, the added cost of $50-100 per flight may make some companies think differently about booking the next flight to the HQ city.

9. Declare a coal a natural resource, not for preservation, but for steel and other high value-added goods. This accomplishes much of the same objectives as Trump’s tariff wars, which is to protect a strategic national asset, the steel industry. Much of the argument behind the resurgence in coal is based around mercantilist viewpoints about the role of the U.S. steel industry toward winning WW1 and WW2, and the notion we will need such a steel industry in the event of a WW3. If domestic steel is so important – which is debatable – then who at all is served by just burning this resource for cheap energy? Especially in a day and age where wind and solar have legitimately become cheap energy.

10. Welcome immigrants and refugees to your community. Simply put, the world is getting crazier and more hostile all the time – people who are in peril should be not just welcomed, but recruited to bring their skills, culture, and work ethic to stable communities. Great example: Pittsburgh is probably a good location to try and survive climate change. Pittsburgh also has a non-profit residency program, City of Asylum, that recruits endangered poets worldwide to come to Pittsburgh and bring their culture, art, and values.

The problem of systemic corruption in some Cleveland’s fiefdoms

Background and Structural Observations

I love Cleveland, and above all, its people. There is something unique about people who are part of families with generations-long legacies of building a place into a symbol of hard work, middle class prosperity, and making it in America. At its best, Cleveland is a diverse city that proudly features its ethnic and immigrant communities, all of which come together every day. The city grew as one of the nation’s largest manufacturing hubs, with growing factories that didn’t discriminate for labor, extending opportunity to WASP Americans, waves of ethnic immigrants direct from southern and eastern Europe, and the Great Migration of African Americans from south to north. History doesn’t stop there, and for better or worse, that story continues on.

At its worst, Cleveland devolves into a broken tapestry with sections of prosperity, sections of emerging middle class mobility, and sections of widespread and systemic, multi-generational poverty. This broken tapestry tends not to act or think as “One Cleveland,” but rather as distinctively separate communities that deal with each other as weird neighbors. This multi-lateral Cleveland tends to elect leadership and enact policy through tokenism and strong-man relationships, and all three sections of this broken tapestry do it and enable the others as a three-legged stool. City Hall, the Greater Cleveland Partnership, middle class and affluent suburbs, and even lowly East Cleveland, are all complicit in the current status quo that has this region collectively circling the drain while surrounding regions are rebounding. Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and even Detroit, have all performed empirically better than Cleveland on balance; Columbus and Chicago are absolutely stealing Cleveland’s lunch money at this point, and it doesn’t have to be this way.

I have always had an affinity for Cleveland because it resembles America as a microcosm, it is an inherently urban city and surrounding region, and it has the resources and building blocks to tackle big challenges. Along with the rest of the Rust Belt, I have never liked picking on down-and-out communities, and beating a dead horse, while missing the opportunities that still remain.

That brings me to the point of this post: Cleveland can still right the ship, more effectively solve for its problems, and emerge as an urban model for its region. There is all of this opportunity, which isn’t new, and isn’t going anywhere. That said, I have been biting my tongue in calling out the cronyism and corruption holding back Cleveland. I have watched innumerable scandals, mini-scandals, and things that should be scandals, with direct consequences in missed opportunities. I kept my mouth shut, aspiring to professionally take a more direct role in helping Cleveland, and uncertain of how to use this website/blog to constructively talk urban issues while balancing my professional aspiration toward making a difference.

From my last four years of statewide involvement in development financing, I can say from the outside looking in that city politics are eyeroll-worthy. State-level policy and financial professionals are admittedly guilty of tunnel vision on deal volume and just getting deals done, but it has been my observation that the city politics that slows down these deals have less to do with which proposals are best for neighborhoods and people, and more to do with politics.

Every City Hall has favored developers who helped the mayor and council get elected. Most City Halls are also clumsily trying to manage some level of balanced favoritism between non-profit players, for-profit players, politically-active neighborhoods, gentrification, and displacement. The Cleveland variant of this system, however, involves a delicate balance between some good developers, overly-involved gadfly council members, some shady developers, some good non-profits, and woefully mismanaged non-profits.

Structurally, Cleveland’s political system is wide-open and allows for the direct involvement of its citizens through 17 different wards and also at the neighborhood-level with community development corporations (CDCs). These CDCs are a unique legacy of Cleveland’s de-centralized planning system which gives wards and CDCs a significant role in spending CDBG funds and other resources dedicated toward neighborhoods. Regionally, the key factor is the sheer volume of distinct suburbs, spanning several rings in all directions, all with maximum political autonomy for lack of any real regional structure (NO a regional chamber of commerce is NOT a regional structure).

For the most part, this diffuse political system is a good thing. Regardless of municipality, the neighborhoods comprising Greater Cleveland all have direct political participation. However, I will delineate 10 distinct episodes – I won’t call them corruption scandals but rather just public disappointments – and you will see how this system of political diffusion has enabled the region’s lackluster leadership that has proven incapable of tackling any real issues like regional and racial disparities uniquely afflicting Greater Cleveland. Tangibly more than in other peer metros, Cleveland’s current leadership often uses political office for personal gain and to hold onto those offices by spreading benefits to their network of friends.

Public Disappointments

Cuyahoga County Scandal: For the sake of relevance, let’s just start at the beginning of the modern era of Cleveland leadership, which was the end of the last. That was an untimely (or timely for the public) and messy ending to the 90s and 2000s era of regional leadership that ignored the region’s problems and focused on personal gain, much like the current generation of leadership. In 2008, the FBI raided the offices of county commissioner Jimmy DiMora and County Auditor Frank Russo, who sat at the top of a corruption racket involving more than 100 named persons of interest, all benefiting from kickbacks. Those convicted of crimes include county judges, county officials, city officials, suburban officials, developers, non-profit leaders, construction company owners, hospital administrators, school administrators, the Housing Authority CEO, union chiefs, and more. The whole system was corrupt and inhibited from solving the region’s challenges because it was more focused on generating kickbacks for the family.

Ed Fitzgerald: In a bit of Shakespearian tragedy, Fitzgerald was a former FBI agent, tasked with investigating mafia influence and public corruption in the Chicago area, who was mayor of Lakewood at the time of the above Jimmy Dimora scandal, which positioned him to win election as the region’s first County Executive. The County actually made major steps forward toward consolidating political power and enacting ethics reforms with actual teeth, which Fitzgerald championed. However when he later ran for governor, it was revealed that Fitzgerald was abusing his influence and driving without a driver’s license for ten years, which is not a good look for someone casting themselves as an anti-corruption reformer.

Public Square: The reconstruction of Public Square became a costly and stupid Public Spectacle, which is still ongoing, when it became clear that public transit has no role in a Cleveland that has been revitalized by Mayor Frank Jackson. So to transit riders, congrats – your city has been revitalized by Mayor Jackson, according to Jackson – but you are no longer welcome downtown. Jackson used federal grants for the HealthLine, which triggered long-term use agreements with FTA preventing the city from making detrimental changes to the federally-funded project, and then backtracked on those usage agreements when he decided buses had no place in Public Square. Frank Jackson decided this unilaterally, while buses were still included in the plan, and RTA was still attempting to work around the project while still using its Public Square hub, resulting in millions in additional costs to RTA. Additionally, FTA said the city (vis a vis RTA) had to return $12 million and put future funding at risk. In order to save face, Jackson has insisted on safety concerns with buses in Public Square, resulting in hideous jersey barriers being added to the middle of the new public space, which will cost another $2 million to replace with bollards. I don’t believe Jackson benefited any cronies through this, but has abused his power to usurp control over a planning process and save face.

RTA creams: An internal RTA investigation found that 10 different employees had defrauded the transit authority out of $2 million through a prescription pain cream scheme. Essentially a bus operations instructor was approached with this scam opportunity, and recruited other employees, to fill these costly prescriptions that nobody needed, except for their reimbursement value. This scandal shows that corruption doesn’t just exist at the top, but that bus drivers can also get in on the action.

TJ Dow: I have written about the in-your-face corruption of TJ Dow, who was voted out of office, in the difference made by just 13 votes. I find it to be an inspiring story of how every vote matters and how more people should get involved in their community, and I hope it turns out well with new leadership. To recap, corrupt councilman gets booted, then before he has to clean out his office requests to transfer his neighborhood’s remaining resources to his crony councilman’s ward just to spite his neighborhood.

Ken Johnson: That crony councilman to whom TJ Dow tried donating his neighborhood’s funding was Ken Johnson, of Kenneth Johnson Recreation Center fame (seriously Cleveland stop naming your own projects after yourself, and your brother, your sister, your parents, and so on; are there any rec centers that don’t memorialize nepotism?). Ken Johnson is using his neighborhood’s funding, funneled through his useless community development corporation, to give his friends and family jobs mowing yards, and house his son rent-free. His shell corporation, I mean community development corporation, has now been barred from working with federal funds, which is unfortunate for his neighborhood and the constituents he doesn’t serve.

Joe Cimperman: Corruption and judgment lapses aren’t just for east side councilman. My own councilman when I lived in Cleveland, with whom I was always very impressed, plead guilty to 26 ethics charges for his vote to award a design contract to a firm with close ties to him and his wife. The state threw the book at Cimperman here. Cimperman was the most-involved councilman when it came to urbanism, planning, and design, and that contract went to the Land Studio, which is the city’s primary non-profit urban design entity. The Land Studio’s work is ubiquitous in Cleveland, and they are a key player for anyone who wants to bring urban design to a location. Nonetheless, when city contracts were at stake and council votes were being tallied, Cimperman needed to recuse himself. Whether he did so to seal a deal that needed his vote, or whether he was ignorant of the ethical implications, it is obvious that Cleveland City Council would benefit from ethical guidance.

East Cleveland Recall: East Cleveland, the rapidly declining inner ring suburb across the tracks from prosperous University Circle, has long been a public emergency and threatened with state emergency management. The city is dependent on federal funding and red light tickets, and incapable of digging itself out of the vicious cycle it finds itself in. Cleveland is generally supportive of a long-debated merger between the two cities, which would give East Cleveland new life as a part of Cleveland, with enhanced resources and opportunities. Former mayor Gary Norton, an urban planning graduate of Cleveland State, had a deep understanding of this situation and a deep commitment to the community he grew up in. Norton is bright enough to easily find more successful by moving on and elsewhere, but tried to make a difference in East Cleveland, where instead he was recalled for working toward the merger. This ruffled feathers with former and current councilpersons who were drawing comfortable pensions for their “service” in East Cleveland, all while doing nothing to benefit the community as a whole.

Armond Budish’s Chief of Staff: Naturally, the county executive who came in to clean-up after the last disgraced county executive, who came in to clean-up after the county commissioners scandal, has his own scandal. Armond Budish authorized his Chief of Staff, Sharon Sobol Jordan, to pursue an MBA at Ohio State (including travel to Columbus) on the county’s own time and dime. Jordan accepted the Chief of Staff position contingent on being able to pursue this MBA, a $170,000 salary, and education and travel-expenses paid by the county. As the MBA program met 3 days a month, required 20 hours per week of additional study, and two week-long immersion studies (all of which Budish told HR is to be considered time worked), I am not sure exactly when Jordan had time to earn her $170,000 salary.

Amazon and Unify Project: Cleveland’s bungled Amazon bid, which was symbolic of the city’s leadership style, prominently featured an amazing local start-up that will revolutionize the tech world. Unfortunately, this amazing local start-up actually does nothing, except provide employment for Sharon Sobol Jordan, the aforementioned County Chief of Staff who is now in need of another job befitting her new MBA credentials. Despite being implored by anyone and everyone to leverage the useless lakefront airport that chokes the city off from the lake, Cleveland’s lame bid offered up Terminal Tower for Amazon’s real estate needs and focused more of its time fighting open records requests and finding ways to benefit friends of City Hall. Not sure why Amazon wasn’t enticed by that.

Why This Matters

Cleveland has real, tangible issues that stand in the way of regional prosperity, cohesion, and inclusiveness. The region’s transit authority, once the pride of transit planning in the Midwest, is legitimately in danger after being cut to the bone by budget cuts and funding woes, and further denied replacement funding while the county and city instead prioritize stadiums and kickbacks. When Clevelanders complain that recently-repaved roads quickly become impassable with new potholes, it’s not uncommon that the work involved a contractor with City Hall connections.

With one of the nation’s highest rates of minority and family poverty, Cleveland and Greater Cleveland are doing nothing as a regional public sector for those in need. Funding for these neighborhoods/wards and CDCs is usually very well-managed, but in those neighborhoods with the greatest need, instead gets funneled into kickbacks and benefits for cronies. The city doesn’t dare investigate or demand accountability of these CDCs until the media is already on it. Other CDCs respectfully decline to become involved in other communities. The churn continues, and these neighborhoods fall further and further into disrepair, poverty, and violent criminal activity. Well-managed and well-led neighborhoods and wards want nothing to do with the bad leadership across the street, which is understandable, but further perpetuates Cleveland’s inequities.

All of this is everyone’s fault. Solving it will take everyone.

The only real solution to the pitfalls of all these fiefdoms is building bridges and regional partnerships. Cleveland, more than any other region, desperately needs regionalism. That isn’t just a regional non-poaching agreement, although it should include that too. This requires regional funding mechanisms, equitable provision of services, and regional oversight. No neighborhood should be an island, deprived of resources, and left to squander whatever pittance it may receive from City Hall. No neighborhood is a lost cause, lest we will be stuck with these islands of despair and mismanagement.

United Cleveland will rise, but divided Cleveland will continue to circle the drain. On the bright side, Cleveland comes together every day and at numerous occasions, but on the flip side, Clevelanders go home to their own insular fiefdoms every night.

Inner Beauty – Lessons from decladding buildings

Sometimes true beauty is what lies underneath the skin, and this is especially the case for otherwise handsome buildings that were reclad in the 60s and 70s with facade systems more fashionable at the time. There is truly a pandemic of historic building stock, with “good bones” and Victorian details, that have been covered up in aluminum or EIFS over the ages. Oftentimes building owners were told this was “the fashion” at the time, as well as easier to maintain. My friends at Heritage Ohio call these cases “Mr. Muddle buildings,” and have a fun little display for presentations where they do awful 70s-era things to buildings.

This is has been especially the case in the cities I’ve lived in, Oklahoma City, Cleveland, and Columbus. Currently in Columbus, the oldest-standing building in downtown was previously pitched for demo until it was realized that the historic facade was entirely in-tact under its awful gray aluminum facade. Being redeveloped by a historic-minded developer, the project shifted to preservation and I was able to snap some great photos of the facade removal:

Proposed for renovation with 40 residential units, I am sure this will be a great project. Perfect example of someone turning an eyesore into a great asset by realizing what existed in the first place and not throwing the baby out with the bath water.

This is similar to the Schofield Building in Cleveland, anchoring the key intersection of 9th and Euclid, which is a gorgeous neo-classical building that someone thought needed to be aluminum instead. This building become a high-end Kimpton Hotel that opened just before the Republican convention.

These don’t always go so swimmingly. In Oklahoma City, when the horribly over-leveraged SandRidge Energy Corporation wanted to expand its corporate campus, the city violated its own downtown plan and city code and granted demolition permits for SandRidge to demolish 6-7 structures, only one of which was historic, to create a park-like campus setting in addition to one new build. The end result was SandRidge tore the buildings down, completed the proposed scope (but not additional buildings that were vaguely promised by the Rogers Marvel firm), and then instead of growing laid off thousands of workers and had to sell off the new building.

The historic building they demolished was the India Temple, a former hotel that was at the time downtown’s oldest-standing building, and briefly served as the State Capital after the state seal was moved from Guthrie to OKC while the new capital was under construction. This building was reclad in the 70s as well, and demolished on the merits of the ugly 70s facade, with no interest in preserving or even further discovery of what laid beneath. The local newspaper reportedly interviewed the contractor who installed the 70s facade, who stated the historic facade was entirely preserved underneath.

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This plays out in nearly every city I am sure. While I don’t at all mind when cities tear down legitimate eyesores that lack options, I think all could benefit from looking more closely before they issue demo permits. Sometimes that ugly duckling is hiding a really cool building underneath, and once torn down, that can never be recreated. Preserving a cool older building lends itself to finish products with a vastly longer shelf life than new-builds, and all cities need to be reminded of this, with no one particular city standing out as a unique offender. In particular, Chicago might be a surprising culprit for a historic preservation crisis in its current building spree.

Using TIF to rebuild crumbling infrastructure in Stillwater

There are all kinds of planning tools with which cities have physically and strategically linked their downtowns to neighboring institutions or landmarks; whether they be a greenway axis, physical bridges, transit corridors. A TIF would be a new one in my experience, but not outside the realm of rational nexus due to the obvious necessity of financing more physical linkages.

The development scenario playing out in Stillwater, Oklahoma – home of Oklahoma State University’s flagship campus – is that of a large land grant university growing in spite of its college town, where development has generally not taken full advantage of the campus or other core opportunities. Stillwater has sprawled to the southwest, blanketing the hills of the Crosstimbers with residential neighborhoods, and to the northeast where strip malls and apartment complexes have spilled into the flat plains north of town. Downtown’s iconic Main Street corridor has benefited from revitalization a la preservation-minded developers and a retail-focused BID, while the surrounding blocks have visibly languished.

The entire core of Stillwater has languished with disinvestment and high renter-share due to typical college town housing dynamics. Landlords can rent out a minimally-maintained house for a premium, with no incentive to upgrade or invest for longer-term due to the transience of college tenancy. Stillwater has spent the last decade discussing options and ideas for revitalizing the core between campus and downtown, illustrated in the below aerial:

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While the downtown, shaded in blue, shows good density in the aerial and appears anchored along Main Street, activity and investment drops off sharply off of Main Street and even north of 6th Avenue along Main Street. The picture on the ground, illustrated below along 4th Avenue equidistant between campus and downtown, is even more stark:

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Further along Main Street itself, north of 6th Ave:

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Which we can compare to the healthier core of Main Street between 6th and 12th streets:

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Furthermore, where development is occurring, it can make surrounding deteriorated conditions and public infrastructure disinvestment all the more obvious:

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What’s happening in the above photos are classic examples development in spite of planning. REITs behind student housing developments have gotten religion on housing consumers wanting walkable, urban-styled housing; they are building this, despite the obvious lack of a walkable, urban-styled environment and supporting infrastructure.

As it stands today, the core between downtown and campus resembles both physical challenges and intrinsic challenges, the latter stemming from a lack of pride in a community that should do better as the state’s premier college town. The physical challenges involve housing conditions, lack of density, lack of sidewalks and those few that exist being in disrepair, general street conditions, and land that is likely unsuitable for development even if there were investment, which is instead occurring in new development areas on the edge of town. None of this is the fault of the city or any planners, who have for decades talked about walkability and trails/paths/streetscapes in this area, but lacked a funding mechanism to bring them to fruition. Now the private sector has given up waiting and is just moving in on the area without planning or coordination, and it remains to be seen how all of these mid-rise development will come together in the end. All of this forms the backdrop for Stillwater’s major proposed TIF.

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A few key facts about this TIF, according to two Stillwater Newspress articles (article one, article two):

  • Covers a concise area generally representing the Main Street commercial corridor, surrounding downtown blocks, and everything between 6th Avenue and campus excluding the 6th Avenue commercial core
  • Runs until 2026 or 2027 according to Stillwater Newspress
  • Generates $32.5 million over lifetime, earmarked for physical improvements
  • Proposed Project Plan to be approved after TIF mechanism is approved, with already stated purpose of enhancing walkability and beautification
  • Stillwater Public Schools has City agreement for $5.6 million guarantee on top of state’s equalization funding formula, thus increasing net school revenue
  • County is proposed to forego $700,000 in theoretical property tax, and VoTech district $5 million, none of which is currently on tax rolls today
  • Projects must be consistent with Comprehensive Plan, Core Commercial Districts Plan (2005), and Corridor Redevelopment Plan (2012) all of which previously lacked funding mechanisms

While I believe that generally, the city should find mutually beneficial ways to achieve common goals like county-provided services and workforce development with the Meridian Technology Center, I look forward to seeing Stillwater bring some of its decades-long planning to fruition now with the assistance of a funding mechanism. I think generally, as a premier college town, Stillwater is a somewhat unique beast when it comes to property development, land use, community investment, provision of public services, and economic development – I think that the town-and-gown divide has prevented unity toward achieving all of these goals and getting them to work in tandem. While making everyone whole in the end, I look forward to seeing my college town find ways to finance long-term community investment.

This is not to say that I support TIFs in general, nor do I support or oppose the details here, but do believe this to be a worthwhile case study and a development scenario I intend to watch closely, while rooting for its success.

Conversely, I was in Denver last month, and had some time during a flight layover en route to Seattle to take the train downtown and explore. Denver has extended its iconic 16th Street corridor with bridges and tails that connect across the Platte Valley to the neighborhood across the Platte River and I-25. In doing so, they have created deliberate linkages that are visually and intuitively obvious, and seamlessly connected their downtown to areas of west Denver that previously felt disconnected. Doing this has not only improved west Denver, provided pedestrian access to economic opportunity in downtown, but also created billions of dollars of development opportunities in the Central Platte Valley, all anchored by these incredibly textbook connections.

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Compare to the above development photos from Stillwater, and consider the long-term importance of infrastructure and human environment toward bringing planning goals to fruition. There are a lot of means to an end, and a TIF can accomplish a lot of means, but what is really the end goal, and how can a TIF truly elevate that?

In economic development, an often-missed point is that nothing is advanced in the long run by development for the sake of development.

Travelogue: Mummified town planning circa 1500s New Spain

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A novice to Mexican travel, I recently had my first ever opportunity to explore Mexico – a Mexitrip a la Eurotrip of sorts, comprised of Puerto Vallarta, Tequila, Guadalajara, Guanajuato, and San Luis Potosi. Of the five, Guanajuato will stand out in my memory as one of the most incredible places I have ever seen. All of Mexico was great, and while Guadalajara was somewhere I could see myself doing the expat thing, Guanajuato is inspiring in a different, less selfish way. While I know I will never call Guanajuato home, despite my possessive tendencies with places I love, I want the entire world to lay claim to Guanajuato and reap its wonders.

This central Mexican city, first founded by the Spanish in 1548 with the discovery of silver in the New World, is unspoiled by modernity, which it has fiercely resisted. While the rest of Guanajuato state (Leon and esp Silao) have attracted modern manufacturing, Guanajuato has remained concentrated around its historic university and growing tourism base, the latter of which is probably its economic life blood. As such, it is profitable to resist change. The Guanajuato of today is not unlike that of 1548 – a non-motorist city where the laws of engineering and planning succumb to the laws of gravity and nature, resulting in a colorful ecosystem of sandstone dwellings arranged along cliffsides and interrupted only by monumental gathering places and cathedrals.

The city was built around three key “innovations” in urban planning history: Vernacular mixed-use, functioning ecosystems of gathering places, and congestion detouring.

Categorically speaking, Guanajuato has three types of real estate I observed (compare to zoning classifications in most of the US): Hilltop/cliffside mansions (~5% of properties), main street/square frontage properties (~15% of properties), and vernacular mixed-use dwellings that line streets with steep inclines, the latter of which probably comprising over 80% of the city’s real estate. This is just simply historic mixed-use on a grander scale than we can produce in the US in today’s regulatory environment. Guanajuato is one of the few places on the planet where most residents in a city of 200,000 can live in a mixed-use dwelling, with shops (potentially their own) on the street level, which is afforded by having vernacular mixed-use. The result of this scale and practicality is that Guanajuato has gotten many generations of use out of these hundreds-of-years-old structures, while other cities across the U.S. and Mexico have repeated cycles of short-sighted development, subsequent slum clearance, and redevelopment. U.S. and Mexican cities are really not different in that regard.

As an aside, buildings are either vernacular (everyday) or intentionally designed for landmark functions, the latter of which is how and why mixed-use happens in today’s development climate. For instance in Ohio, when true mixed-use happens, it usually involves high-end condos, a flagship restaurant/retail tenant (think HQ Kroger in Cincy, or Whole Foods in many cities), and specialized/finite financing – this is moving the needle toward mixed-use, but not extending the opportunity to most housing consumers.

I believe that cultural context plays a role in Guanajuato’s ecosystem of gathering places, which can best be described as a connected string of pearls formed by intensively-used public squares, cathedrals, markets, and transitscapes, all connected by arteries large and small, main streets, alleys, and even singing choruses. The strangest thing I saw every day and night in Guanajuato was the estudiantinas – dozens and dozens of troupes of pied pipers, donning Medieval attire and customs, who lead public life in the main square around the theater and largest church. At nightfall, these troupes perform on the theater steps and then lead their audiences on a long walk around the town singing traditional songs, playing mariachi, and wise cracking at each turn. If you’ve ever been to Mexico, you know that mariachi can go on and on. I also later learned that the region’s anchor institution, Universidad de Guanajuato, is primarily known for arts/music, and this is what its students do. That said, I still found it paranormal that these troupes have been doing this – activating and programming their town’s public spaces – every single night, of every year, since 1962 (I could have been fooled and convinced it dates back to 1548).

Of note relative to Guanajuato’s public spaces are the way that one space or square (such as the Jardin Union, or central plaza) taper into others like the Cathedral Square. Also of note, squares have public display foci, deliberate views created and maintained, and often actual stages or steps used as stage. Additionally non-performance squares, such as a mercado plaza, still put vendors “on stage” and put the approaching pedestrians up in risers a la steps. These Mexican squares also make use of vertical separation by thoughtfully sinking activity spaces and raising the approach. I think a bad recreation of these spaces, as attempted by the indoor shopping mall of the 1970s and 1980s, often replicated this order in designing food courts and other gathering places.

Lastly, as pretty much all of Guanajuato City is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city’s urban fabric is sensitive and vulnerable. Furthermore, growing tourism activity has increased traffic volume beyond what the city’s cobblestone pavers can carry. The solution to this imbalance has been an underground network of major streets that carry most of the city’s motorized traffic to a point where transportation users can switch to human means above ground. The tunnels of Guanajuato were originally built in 1883 to save the over-built hillside city from increased flooding risk; the tunnels have been expanded and converted to roadways with the added capacity for flood runoff. This reminds me of the way Houston’s freeways are designed to serve as drainage corridors (some even with advanced permeable cisterns below pavement) when the city’s frequent floods overwhelm the reservoir network. While in Houston the result has been over-built capacity for traffic and under-built capacity for flooding, in Guanajuato the opposite is true, and the practical outcome is probably Mexico’s top urban tourism destination.

Brookings exercise with air traffic data

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Toward the goal of sharing something kind of cool that I’ve been sitting on for two years now, I suppose there is no shame in uploading an infrastructure research brief exercise for a Brookings Institution position that I did not get. Full disclosure, Brookings was great and no hard feelings after not ultimately winning the position (truly an honor to do a final round with them), but even after 4 interviews (one in DC), 90% of the time spent toward this was working with this massive data set from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics that included two separate data sets containing records of every flight movement in the nation; whether it was commercial or cargo, passenger/cargo counts, departure/destination city, etc. My task with Brookings was to analyze all of the data, combine the data sets to represent traffic between MSAs and not individual airports, and then analyze which MSAs have lost the most flights and flight seats between each other and the policy implications of this.

I have enough self awareness in retrospect to see how clunky and conservative my document branding was. I think I was onto something toward sticking with a clean classic look, with red/blue color scheme, but was still attempting to do way too much in the infographic with a graph, map, and not enough context.

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Report/graphic design aside, I think the data is still incredibly interesting. This represents all the largest losses in seats and passenger counts between MSAs, which appear to follow a few trends of hub-to-hub and easily drive-able trips; the latter of which has been more impacted by security/TSA hassles that add a greater percentage of additional time. In practical terms, air traffic between Chicago and Indy has plummeted (and several other short routes) as it now takes one about as long to get through TSA regular security as it does from the Chicago Loop to Gary by car. When you subtract those trips, what you’re left with is simply hub consolidation; hubs are getting fewer (Cincinnati lost its Delta hub during this time frame), and hubs are handling more traffic between non-hub cities and flying less to each other (DC – Atlanta – NYC all with less seats in between).

They’re coming for my favorite vacant lots

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I always loved the way that this vacant lot at Grant and Oak streets, in downtown Columbus, reflected the mural shown above. In many ways this quiet, forgotten corner of Columbus’ expansive downtown illustrates the beauty of neglect found in so many rust belt scenes and increasingly rarely elsewhere in Columbus itself. The perfect angle to get these lovers’ reflection in the ponding street requires the setback granted by the gated vacant parcel in the foreground.

Six-Story Mixed-Use Building Planned for Capital University Lot Downtown

Well not anymore. Columbus Underground is reporting that this lot will soon see a six-story, mixed-use building developed as a joint partnership between Capital Law School and Pizzuti. The latter being one of the nation’s most sophisticated developers, I have no doubt this project will be of the utmost quality, but gone will be the simplistic beauty of this corner on a lonely, dreary day.

So it goes in a “booming” city. That said, great site for such a development.

The difference made by 13 votes in Hough

This post was originally just going to chronicle some shenanigans of Cleveland’s (now former) Ward 7 Councilman T.J. Dow. For those who do not follow Cleveland politics, Ward 7 is the near east side of Cleveland covering neighborhoods like St. Clair-Superior, Midtown, Asia Town, and Hough. This is a historically significant community that has been through a lot (such as the Hough Riots), and has always provided refuge to Cleveland’s emergent minority communities. I firmly believe that this is an important heartland relative to the City of Cleveland and representing these constituents is important work.

So with that said, I must congratulate Ward 7 on electing a new councilman – Basheer Jones – who is also the city’s first Muslim-American councilman. The latter is of note because while Cleveland does not have a significant Muslim community a la Detroit or Columbus, immigration has been proven as essential to the rust belt revival. Cleveland is putting its best foot forward in the world with the Global Cleveland Alliance which seeks to attract immigrants and refugees and invest in their personal and professional development. Ward 7 includes an important component of Cleveland’s strategy, which is the Asia Town district, where a significant Korean and Southeast Asian community has emerged.

I am not a political actor or organizer, and am not endorsing Mr. Jones nor condemning Mr. Dow, the latter of whom lost re-election to the former by exactly 13 votes. The only political message here – which is an important one – is to remember who you represent and for those being represented, to go vote! Your vote truly matters. Especially in Ohio. Especially in Cleveland. Especially in Hough.

Events precipitating Mr. Dow’s ouster are many and include an arrest warrant issued by Shaker Heights, improperly expensing the cost of his self-published book series “The Success Factor” to the City of Cleveland, not paying his own taxes for five years, opposed retail development at League Park, and blocking a high-profile redevelopment project with apartments, retail, and a dental center to be ran by the Cleveland Clinic. The latter being the real issue – large multi-block, multi-use, multi-tenant projects almost always require zoning variances and public finance, and would almost certainly provide not just jobs but also sorely needed services to the residents of Hough. Mr. Dow changed his objections to the development several times..

  • First claiming that the Cleveland Clinic doesn’t employ Ward 7 residents (they absolutely do)
  • Then claiming that the developer was keeping neighbors in the dark (plans were very public)
  • Then taking issue with a rear-facing parking lot (it was removed)
  • Then claiming the plan would encroach on community gardens (developer then deeded over a plot for a community garden, which was only ever intended as a temporary use following blight clearance)
  • And then finally acknowledging that he sought contributions from the developer for a “community resource center”

Eventually the developer contributed $477,000 to hard construction costs of a community resource center, which in the developers own words, he “hopes the resource center would help train residents interested in working at the new facilities.” But no guarantee, and no further news regarding the construction of this community resource center.

The aforementioned development project (occupying almost entirely vacant parcels, and preserving anything else including Newton Avenue in the middle of the project):

Following the will of the voters, Mr. Dow requested that the balance of his neighborhood development funds (more than $700,000) be earmarked to another Ward, on the other side of town, where the councilman is a friend of Mr. Dow’s. The newly-elected Mr. Jones had already been sworn into office when Mr. Dow filed his request with City Hall, which typically approves spending requests of outgoing councilpersons. The cross-town project that needed Ward 7’s neighborhood development funds – programming at a community recreation center named after that ward’s current sitting councilman, Kenneth L. Johnson of Kenneth L. Johnson Recreation Center fame. The request was denied. Ward 7 is immediately $731,496 richer, to be spent at the discretion of their new councilman.

Again, this is not a political post nor am I a political actor or organizer. I am just a professional planner, and presently a consultant, not remotely as involved or responsible as I would like to be in these kinds of neighborhoods. However, I have observed so much discussion and debate and fighting over the concentration of development in downtown and subsequent neglect of the east side’s distant reaches. I know first-hand the difficulty of building capacity and consensus to right the ship in a declining neighborhood. Neighborhood decline is difficult quicksand to escape.

However, in Hough, people voted – and due to the difference made by 13 votes – the Ward has its $731,496 back. Mr. Dow also did many good things, including crucial support of the Hub55 project, and I seriously hope to see the $477,000 community resource center come to fruition. However, Hough’s funds need to stay in Hough. I don’t expect Ward 7’s councilperson to represent my interests or fight for areas of Cleveland where I hang out. Ward 7 has to fight for Ward 7 and never forget who they represent, whether I agree or disagree with the outcome of that, and I hope every other challenged neighborhood takes note of this valuable lesson in democracy.

CMAX’s Maiden Voyage

I was in downtown Columbus the other day, where COTA’s new bus rapid transit system – the C-MAX – is enjoying its maiden run. CMAX is free for the first week, which was a nice gesture for riders who had to wait in sub-zero temperatures during the first week of 2018.

My initial observation is that the bus was honestly hard to photograph due to traversing past High and Broad much faster than usual COTA buses that slowly mosey through downtown. The CMAX is projected to cut travel times by 20%, but my observation based on rider experience is that could be cut much further by reducing boarding and waiting times at transfer points.