Detroit: 2016

Now a year removed from bankruptcy, Detroit is moving on and building the strongest momentum that the city has had since its precipitous decline began, more promising than any other flash of hope that came and went in the past. You can’t come to Detroit today and not see that this is the Comeback City; It’s happening.

Click here for the photo tour from my 2015 trip.

m-1-rail-route-mapSomehow, I seem to be making a personal tradition of making an annual Detroit trip during the winter. I also somehow always luck out and get a weekend that is “relatively” warm, so I’ve really lucked out (2015’s trip was in the 30s, but wedged between two Polar Vortex weeks; 2016’s trip had temps in the 50s). All of this said, and even in the “Comeback City,” there really isn’t all THAT much change in 1 year. A few new scaffolds covering some buildings, such as the Griswold Bldg on Michigan Ave that’s now pretty far along. The booming M1 Corridor isn’t all that unchanged – it’s mostly the same building projects still underway, and the light rail is still under construction, although the street is a little bit more passable.

The one area where there has been a lot of change is the new Redwings Arena. One of the grandiose old hotels are gone, yet the other (two twin hotel towers) still stands, and the arena totally dwarfs everything in the southern end of Midtown. Across Woodward, the western-most block of Brush Park is seeing a lot of new development. Huge projects going up between Woodward and John R.

As always, you gotta start at the Market, especially if it’s a Saturday and the weather is sublime. This area was previously artfully gang-tagged all over, which is now giving way to an actual public art initiative called Murals in the Market. There is a map of murals on their website, but several are new in just the last year, such as the really awesome googly eyes. There are more pics inside the market in my 2015 pics, as this time I mostly explored the surrounding market district, where several distilleries and breweries have given way to cold storage and meat market businesses. The Eastern Market is as old school as it gets.

Murals in the Market

The Eastern Market is just east, across I-75, from Brush Park and Midtown Detroit. The two areas, arguably Detroit’s most active on a nice weekend day, are still pretty disconnected. Of course, Brush Park still has a ways to go toward regaining its lost luster. The M1 Rail project is chugging along, making Woodward Avenue a little more passable than before, and it all looks great. The new Red Wings Arena is also topped out.

Midtown & M1 Rail

 

Confession time: I LOVE the Detroit People Mover. I wanted to hate it so badly. It’s everyone’s favorite kind of rail project to pick on. It’s a monorail, it doesn’t connect to the street level, you need quarters to ride it, and it only does a 3-mile loop around downtown. I always tried using it as an example of a bad rail project. But it isn’t. The Detroit People Mover somehow works. Every single time I’ve seen it, it’s packed full of people. You have to literally squeeze onto it. It could be sped up – it doesn’t need to stop at every station for a full minute or two – but the best thing about it is the headways. With 5 trains simultaneously making the 3-mile clockwise loop around downtown, a train comes every 3-4 minutes. It’s really awesome.

Downtown Detroit is also really awesome. Similarly, I really wanted to hate the Renaissance Center. It’s the most typical fortress city urban renewal project you’ve ever seen. Did I mention that it’s massing is ugly and intimidating? But it’s also really cool, and I finally made it to the Coach Insignia bar up on the 73rd Floor, which makes the Renaissance Center alright with me. Next time you’re in town, you’ve got to go. Go get a drink (not badly priced at all) and watch the sunset. If you hate fortress corporate towers like me, it will still make you fall in love with the Ren Cen.

People Mover & A View From the Top

Corktown is probably my favorite little pocket of Detroit. The main reason for this is probably Slow’s BarBQ. Easily the best BBQ joint I’ve ever been to outside of KC, and I would know bc I’m kind of a foodie tourist.

West is (was) Best

And lastly, I finally made it to the Heidelberg Project, which is truly the weirdest thing I have ever seen. In fact, that is all I have to say about it. Enjoy.

Departure From Reality

Until next time, Motor City!

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Twin Cities TOD photo tour

As I’ve been putting humpty dumpty (aka my phone situation) back together, I was able to recover a number of photos from my Twin Cities train tour. Here is a link to the original post, which I will edit to add these photos.

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Green Line route between Minneapolis and St. Paul

The Green Line primarily runs straight down University Avenue, except for a few turns around UMN and downtown SP. I made it to Saint Paul Union Depot, where the Green Line terminates, though my phone died at Dale Street (in Frogtown, west of the State Capitol). Downtown SP is less flashy than downtown Mpls, and mostly comprised of government and office buildings linked by a skyway system.

Immediately east of downtown, the Green Line crosses I-94 on a decorative bridge, and then goes through the State Capitol area – big historic quad, big open space, lots of surface parking. While both downtown and the Capitol area are attractive, historic areas – neither are very walkable or vibrant, except for a few bright spots. However, between the State Capitol and UMN campus, the entire corridor has been quickly transformed by TOD. The entire corridor is marked with new businesses and new mixed-income housing developments, alongside preexisting historic buildings (like the green Spruce Tree building at Snelling Ave) and retail strips. I have pictures at downtown Mpls’ Nicollet Mall, Downtown East, UMN’s East Bank and Stadium Village, grain mills at Westgate, revitalization at Fairview, Snelling, Hamline Midway, and Victoria and Dale (Frogtown in SP). These were taken after first taking photos of TOD along the Blue Line, along Hiawatha Avenue – with photos of stations between the MSP International Airport and Midtown Lake Street station, which have also seen substantial TOD though not as much as the Green Line.

Blue Line (Hiawatha Line) through Minneapolis:

Downtown Minneapolis (Downtown East and Nicollet Mall):

The UMN campus area:

The Frogtown area of SP, which encompasses Victoria, Dale, and Western avenues – is known as the Little Mekong District, and at Western Avenue is a public art installation called “River Dragon” comparing the Mekong River to the Mississippi River. While this area is known for its Vietnamese community, I also saw visible signs of Somali and Hispanic immigrant settlement. Since the completion of light rail through this area, the corridor has solidified with light rail, pedestrian amenities, and ethnic restaurants. It’s kinda cool.

The western side of St Paul, including the Hamline-Midway neighborhood, and eclectic Frogtown, has been perhaps the main focus of TOD throughout the Central Corridor.

And with that, this completely the photo tour of the Twin Cities light rail TOD, up to this point. I imagine that the Blue Line will continue to develop steadily, while the Green Line continues its frenetic pace of development.

Design Ingenuity: Vikings’ new MetroDome

maxresdefault1When stuff turns 50 years old, a switch is flipped. Nobody wants that junk anymore. And if it wasn’t junk, it is now. This happened in the 70s-80s with Art Deco mid-rise buildings in Oklahoma. Once the grandiose old urban core became 50 years old, it was time to bring in I.M. Pei and tear down 2,000 great old buildings. But this post isn’t about OKC and its troubles and rubbles. This is about what’s rising out of the rubble of the MetroDome in Minneapolis. (Or maybe not rubble as much as tattered pieces of inflatable roof.) It’s about an NFL stadium, which is an odd thing to celebrate in a new feature I’d like to call Design Ingenuity. I’ll do these posts for anything I see that really inspires me as an urban designer. Just perusing through Minneapolis projects, an all-around inspirational city honestly, I was really blown away by the new US Bank Stadium.

Important Note: This inspiration is also in part underscored by the fact that NFL stadiums are among the worst thing our society is building right now. It’s a beacon of corporate excess and waste, public finance and corporate welfare, and all of these evils. Yes, I get it – we have people starving, even a small proportion living in poverty in Minneapolis I’m sure, and yet the Twin Cities are subsidizing a $1 billion stadium. IT is what it is. For some perspective however, they’re getting a lot more for it. “JerryWorld” AKA AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX was $1.3 billion in 2009, $1.45 billion in 2016 dollars. They got nothing. A super huge dysfunctional venue that can only host sporting events, surrounded by not a sea but an ocean of parking, across the street from a Wal-mart and an interstate freeway. North Texas for ya.

By comparison, the Vikings stadium is $1.06 billion which is a lot, but nearly 50% less, for a more impressive football stadium. Beyond that, they got the Vikings organization to financially contribute significantly. $551 million from the Vikings, $348 million from the state, and just $150 million from the city. Also compare to Cleveland, where the Browns organization LEFT TOWN in order to force Clevelanders to pony up most of $300 million for their new stadium, and just last year broke the bank again for $120 million in renovations, with $30 million coming from the City of Cleveland just to pay for a new scoreboard. Since $30 million is nothing, most of it actually comes from Cuyahoga County’s sin tax. Ugh. Did I mention that Minneapolis is getting a true architectural gem and a real catalyst for economic and community development? It isn’t a difficult argument to make that neither Arlington nor Cleveland will see similar outcomes from their stadium boondoggles.

I saw this stadium (nearly complete even) when I was in town. You ride right past it on the Hiawatha Line LRT, and switch over to the Green Line LRT at the transit mall right in front of it. Still yet, I didn’t realize how cool it was. My impression from seeing it still under construction was that it was cool, but not necessarily inspirational. Actually, when I came around the bend approaching it, I didn’t realize it was an NFL stadium. It doesn’t look like a stadium. It looks like.. I don’t know, you tell me:

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US Bank Stadium construction aerial from mgoblog.com

From the other side and inside:

It’s a Viking ship!… “setting sail toward downtown Mpls.” How cool is that? The entire stadium’s design has been inspired by a Viking ship, and not just its exterior. The internal structural supports, holding the roof up, are designed to look like sails. Outside, on a corner where you can see the tapered “ship-shape” angles of the stadium, is a public art statue called the “Legacy Ship,” where local die-hards can buy “legacy bricks,” which they will do because you can coherently envision a great legacy coming from this design. My family are primarily Vikings fans, especially my aunt and uncle who have season tickets in Minneapolis, and even though I never got into it I am thrilled that they can be a part of something that is very cool.

But it gets better. The stadium is located right downtown, on the site of the old MetroDome, and totally surrounded by rapid redevelopment. Minneapolis is booming. They have 40,000 downtown residents and are trending toward 75,000 by 2025, which they will probably reach. Minneapolis, indeed, is booming. One of the main reasons for this would be the extent to which they invested in transit, and this project is no different. While most of the $1 billion is for a football stadium, just as the public art was not cheap either, they have also integrated a not-cheap light rail transit mall into the project. Local Tea Party folks are balking at the “ballooning expense” of the $8.7 million pedestrian bridge that carries fans over the tracks and onto the platform, where a train takes people to and from the game. Right now you can just walk on top of the tracks because they aren’t grade separated. There are numerous at-grade crossings that work just fine. So why the bridge?

The explanation lies in this Finance & Commerce article. Once the still-incomplete Twin Cities light rail network is complete, at least as envisioned up to this point, this stretch of tracks will serve as the central hub and transfer point for the entire system. Trains will come through on average every 2 minutes. Let me say that again: Every two minutes, a light rail train rolls through this transit mall. Since trains take a minute (especially at an important transfer point with other LRT lines) to allow for on- and off-boarding, there won’t be many opportunities to cross these tracks on foot. Especially when 65,000 fans get out of a game, along with countless thousands more that fill downtown bars and restaurants during game days. So in this instance, the light rail bridge is a core piece of this stadium project, which has led the city and Vikings organization (which contractually captured ad revenues from the station to pay off its roughly $2 million contribution) partnering on this.

So there you have it. Rather than just building a stadium, Minneapolis is building a legacy. Not just a Legacy Ship, but a project that has been inspired by this legacy in every way, including when it comes to structural supports, the roof of the stadium, its shape, it’s orientation on the site, and so on. Most importantly, they are building a legacy of equitable access not just to and from games, but the surrounding area as well. They didn’t just think of transit, too; they made the light rail access point a core piece of this project, recognizing that by doing so they can legitimately expect Vikings fans to take the train to the game.

Go Vikings. – Sincerely, city planners.

Cleveland: RTA “Rapid” Photo Tour

Cleveland, once the fifth largest city in the United States before its suburbs took over, is one of those cities that inherited an old-school transit system. In a way, it’s Rapid Transit system is manifesting new-school trends as well, diversifying its modal split in recent years. The old school still prevails though. While best-known for its award-winning Healthline BRT (which was supposed to be light rail, but switched to BRT in order to get FTA funding), the older rail network still carries the bulk of ridership.

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Overview of TOD across the entire city

Its 19-mile, heavy rail (think MARTA or WMATA) Red Line dates back to the 1950s, and carries 19,500 daily riders in retro “silver bullet” trains, which is higher ridership than the Blue and Green lines combined. Utilizing a historic railroad trench, most stations are grade-separated – TOD designs are just now emerging that facilitate a seamless integration with that grade separation. Every single Red Line station has recently been rebuilt. Red Line station redevelopment has been a decades-long initiative, primarily moving from west to east. The Red Line connects the Airport to Tower City through westside neighborhoods such as Westpark, Lakewood, West Blvd, Detroit-Shoreway, and Ohio City. After Tower City, the eastbound Red Line connects to University Circle and East Cleveland through some of the east side’s hardest-hit communities, such as North Broadway, Fairfax, and Kinsman.

For the photo tour, I will start with the westside Red Line – but it is worth noting that all of these photos are from 2013-2014. Where possible I will contrast these outdated photos with renderings and newer photos from myself or the media. I need to take newer pics one of these days, but I’ve just gotten out of the habit of doing this in my adopted hometown:

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Large TOD planned for a current strip mall site that separates the Red Line from the iconic West Side Market

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The half-completed Eco Village surrounding the W. 65th Red Line Station

Tower City offers connections to the Blue and Green lines to Shaker Heights, the Waterfront Line to the Flats and lakefront, as well as the Euclid Avenue Healthline BRT. Tower City is one of the nation’s largest and oldest TOD’s, originally built by railroad moguls O.P. and M.J. Van Sweringen. The Van Swearingen brothers actually founded the Cleveland Interurban Railway to connect their master planned suburban development, Shaker Heights, to Downtown Cleveland. Tower City, then the Union Terminal Complex, was the western terminus for that transit network, which anchored downtown’s Public Square.

Public Square is a large, 4-block commons area in the dead center of the city, typical of communities founded in the Connecticut Western Reserve. Just as Cleveland’s open space legacy harkens back to its New England roots, so do its liberal politics and extensive transit legacy. Before Tower City was finished, there was Shaker Square – the entrance to Shaker Heights, and where Van Aken Blvd (Blue Line) and Shaker Blvd (Green Line) split. To this day Shaker Square is one of the city’s hottest and most-integrated neighborhoods, a testament to the enduring value of transit-oriented real estate. On the other end of the line, transit is being totally revolutionized in Downtown Cleveland – particularly with the new Public Square. Below are some photos inside the Terminal Tower complex and the adjacent Public Square. Renderings of the new Public Square follow.

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$32 million makeover of Public Square, designed by James Corner Field Operations (designer of NY’s High Line)

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It doesn’t get more real than this

Fare thee well old Public Square, hello new Public Square.

The new Public Square and corresponding improvements to Tower City, including the $400 million Horseshoe Casino, aren’t the only transit-oriented development change in downtown. In fact, it is downtown’s western periphery – the Flats East Bank, Warehouse District, and the lakefront – that show the most promise for TOD. While much has recently been finished, more is underway currently – the largest impact will be plans that the city will get to after the RNC Convention. The Waterfront Line is the $70 million extension of the Blue/Green lines past Tower City, to wrap around downtown. While it was “finished” in 1996, it has always been considered incomplete – original plans included a complete loop back into the Rapid system, around Cleveland State University.

Ridership was so low when the Browns left town until a new stadium was built that service was discontinued shortly after its completion. Service was resumed in 2013, but ridership remained low until the Flats East Bank development opened. This line will be further rejuvenated by a Cumberland Development and Trammel Crow project at North Coast Harbor, in between the Browns stadium and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. This area will also be bridged to Voinovich Park by a $25 million modern drawbridge, that may also connect to a new intermodal transit hub that will replace an embarrassing Amtrak station.

I find it incredible that this bridge costs almost as much as the entire Public Square redesign, which underscores two things: in the public works realm, $32 million for a high-quality project like Public Square is an incredible bargain; and secondly, the city is all in on this pedestrian bridge to the lakefront. I hope there is a good way to match its design up with the intermodal rail hub, but it may be too late. The drawbridge is already funded, but has been delayed by a promised “downtown construction freeze” for the RNC Convention. After that date, the city will also start discussing (ie., look for funding, hire designers, start planning, etc) the lakefront rail station. As a final note, redevelopment in this area will be complicated by a 70-foot grade separation (downtown sits on top of a bluff, above the lakefront), as well as parking lots that are known as Browns tailgating ground-zero (this is a big deal).

As I mentioned above, this line is heavily in flux with several projects currently in various stages. The Flats East Bank project is nearly finished, the new drawbridge is funded and about to break ground, the North Coast Harbor is similarly financed but still on the boards, and then the new Amtrak/intermodal hub is still in discussions.

Of course, this blog article would not be complete without mention of the Healthline. Not unlike other transit authorities that volunteer themselves to FTA to be BRT guinea pigs, the transit authority’s own focus has shifted to the surprising success of the Healthline project. It helps that Euclid Avenue is the historic “Millionaire’s Row,” built-out all the way to Wickliffe (suburban Lake County) by the Rockefellers and their ilk.

The Healthline has been described by proponents as light rail with tired, and by detractors as a “federally-funded streetscape,” yet from my point of view those are both good things. I have covered the Healthline TOD phenomena ad nauseum, including a lengthy expose at CEOs for Cities that showed both sides of the coin. Given that the Healthline’s center-lane alignment and platform stations were designed to allow for easy future conversion to light rail, I’m a fan.

The project also branded the Euclid Corridor, the city’s iconic main street, and got the east side of Cleveland moving. The distinctive corridor project has been an undeniable magnet for TOD, nearly $6 billion according to this heavily BRT-slanted ITDP study. While most of it has been market-rate development with minimal affordable development to date, making it feel perhaps more like Dallas than Minneapolis. Despite that, this is all the more incredible given the weak market conditions along the corridor, and the fact that most all development has just been infill with no displacement potential. As crazy as it sounds, this bus project really was the impetus for Downtown Cleveland’s remarkable resurgence.

It’s worth mentioning that a lot of the $5.6 billion in TOD was mostly institutional expansion that may have been negligibly spurred by the Healthline. While these institutional actors (such as Cleveland State University, the Cleveland Clinic, Case Western Reserve University and University Hospitals, etc) may have still needed a green light from the public sector before reinvesting in their physical presence along Euclid Avenue, you can’t seriously attribute the expansion of the Cleveland Clinic to a BRT system. There are Saudi sheikhs who maintain private wards at the Clinic just for when their family needs check-ups. The magnitude of the Clinic is not even in the same ether as Euclid Avenue and its bus rapid transit, and for better or mostly worse, the planning of the Clinic (and its cornucopia of parking garages going up every year) reflects this. In my opinion, TOD should have to be underparked in order to qualify.

The Healthline is also not perfect. Signal prioritization absolutely does not seem to be working. I say that because I was a frequent Healthline rider who sat at many a traffic light in my day, which is the whole point of signal prioritization, especially when the BRT has its own lane. In fact I’m pretty sure the only purpose of the traffic signals along Euclid is to first infuriate everyone, then put cars second, and transit last. The route is also longer than BRT can be expected to remain on schedule. Also, due to congestion in University Circle, the ideal center-lane alignment gives way to curbside-alignment and mixed traffic operation.

It is that eastern end of the Healthline corridor that is perhaps the strongest. That is also where the Healthline is least Healthline-like (just described above), which also casts aspersions onto the catalytic extent of the BRT itself.

While the long-term civic vision of Downtown, Midtown, and University Circle being continuously bridged is slowly coming to fruition, the pace of infill is rampant in the last two miles of that 5-mile trek. University Circle is the hottest square mile of real estate in Ohio, and to get there, you have to first traverse the mile-long Cleveland Clinic campus. You don’t necessarily have to go through Midtown, though. Motorists often prefer the scenic route on MLK Blvd and Rockefeller Park’s cultural gardens, while transit riders may prefer the tried-and-true Red Line which has 1/4th the number of stops along the way. The eastern Red Line is just now getting its new stations, except for some that may realistically just be closed. Below are two year-old photos, with photos of the new stations at Cedar and Mayfield roads. Major TOD is transpiring at these gateways.

And now for the transformative new stations, and resultant TOD:

Lastly, the oldest transit asset in all of Cleveland – the Shaker Heights Blue and Green Lines. These two combine for around 15,000-17,000 daily riders, not bad – but certainly brought down by lower density in affluent Shaker Heights. This is another case where what is old is being made new again. The Shaker area, beginning at the St. Luke’s redevelopment area at MLK, connecting into historic Shaker Square, and then splitting up through Shaker Heights – is seeing renewed development interest along the Rapid. Some of this is legacy real estate, including Shaker Square and Van Aken Blvd’s linear mid-rises. Some of this is recently completed, particularly at Lee Road, between Van Aken and Chagrin.

As with many things in Cleveland, the best is yet to come, with the Van Aken District now under development. Van Aken is the redevelopment of a huge strip mall that used to sit on a complicated 6-way interchange. Roads are being reconfigured, the Blue Line is being extended across the interchange (where it used to terminate), and new urbanist infill is taking over on all corners.

First, the Cleveland-proper parts of the Shaker area (St. Luke’s Hospital area and Shaker Square):

Lastly, the Shaker Heights-proper part of the Shaker area, where higher-end TOD is beginning to transpire.

All of the above (for the Shaker part of this post) is about to soon by overshadowed by Northeast Ohio’s largest TOD in nearly a century: The Van Aken District.

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Rendering looking NW to SE through proposed Van Aken District

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Site plan diagram

That, from these ashes:

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Existing conditions at Warrensville Center Road / Van Aken Blvd / Chagrin Blvd intersection

While all of these rails may have lost some of their luster, they still work well. They are traversed by around 40,000 passengers daily. They are the formative first experience of many newcomers, when they first land at the airport. They may not always comprise the scenic route, but there is a good chance they can get you where you need to go. They are Cleveland’s most underutilized practical development asset, which it is just now beginning to realize.

The future of transit in Cleveland is in flux. The city is currently debating a contentious fare hike that will undoubtedly hit the poor the hardest. Transit in Cleveland, and the breadth of access it provides compared to other Tier 2 metros, is still a bargain. Even the Healthline’s naysayers will admit that the Cleveland RTA is very well-ran, which goes a long ways. RTA has identified 10 “transit-propensity” corridors, which is a way of saying that they have a priority list of Cleveland’s primary corridors.

The agency just completed a $20 million BRT-lite project on Clifton Avenue, which serves high-density pockets like West Blvd, Edgewater, and all of Lakewood. The agency is currently beginning a project to extend either the Red Line or Healthline eastward, all the way to Euclid (population 55,000). It will hopefully be Red Line extension that is chosen in the end, but that will be dictated by the planning process that is currently underway. Lorain Avenue and West 25th are likely next-up, and activists are already duking it out in the media. Me thinks West 25th would be a phenomenal streetcar corridor, and so do many others, including Ohio City Inc. RTA may go path of least resistance with just another BRT-lite.

P.S. For some extra reading, here is the text of the CEOs for Cities article. While they cleared their website, it made it up onto some blog or forum. The article is one of my better pieces, offering a fair and balanced look at the Rail v. BRT debate in Cleveland.

P.P.S. Please ask for permission before reusing pics. Almost all are mine, but some are from Cleveland.com. Renderings are obviously the intellectual property of the architect and/or developer.

CityLab Officially Channeling CAVE: Champions BAN on Historic Districts

Fight with Richard Florida. Check. It’s like a well-known rite of passage for any academic. I have always taken issue with some of the destructive reporting and advocacy at CityLab. One day they’re categorically against public housing authorities (which do a lot of good), the next they’re against all streetcar projects for some reason, and it so happened that over the weekend the new fashionable stance is against historic districts. Not just any one historic district, but you know, ALL of them. Richard Florida then indignantly defended throwing Rust Belt historic preservation under the bus, saying they “aren’t pro or anti city, [but rather just] objective and fact based.” Rather than wait for the other side to get an article, here are my own objective and fact-based responses. Whatever that means.

Their stable of writers remind me of that crazy uncle (in my case, my very own Dad is our family’s crazy uncle) who can’t have nice things, and sees an ulterior motive behind every corner. In other words, Citizens Against Virtually Everything. You just can’t win for trying.

throwing-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater1In fact, CityLab would like to unite with Republicans in Michigan and Wisconsin who according to a twitter exchange I had with the author Kriston Capps, have the “right idea for the wrong reasons.” So there you have it, when Tea Party Republicans aren’t busy regulating water quality in Flint, they’ve got a lazer focus on the housing affordability crisis caused by historic districts. Right. And the splash photo accompanying the article was that of a baby literally being thrown out with the bathwater. (I wish)

In case you doubt that the reputable (supposedly?) people over at CityLab would actually write and subsequently publish this:

Houses, on the other hand, are often poor candidates for historic preservation. This may be a bitter pill to swallow for people who love residential architecture (as I do). Historic homes and neighborhoods can be immensely significant, culturally and architecturally. But houses belong to owners, and in the U.S., the tried-and-true way to build wealth is to acquire real estate. Historic homes, typically gorgeous single-family homes, are often powerful assets.

So when local- and state-government bodies grant preservation status to historic districts—sometimes entire neighborhoods—they do not always simply protect culture, architecture, and history. Sometimes they also shore up wealth, status, and power.

So the charge, so far as I read it, is that insisting on single family zoning of historic homes not only squeezes low income families into a housing problem, but is actually just a conspiracy to “shore up wealth, status, and power.” Also, the author could have pointed to some research on this. That would have lent an understanding of how HP districts work in the Midwest (Michigan, Wisconsin), which is where this article is premised.

Read on…

“How would you feel if you woke up one day and found your house subject to 40 pages of rules and regulations?” said Wisconsin Republican State Senator Frank Lasee in a statement. “Burdensome regulations that require you to get permission from a government committee to improve your house, get approval for paint color, or the style and brand of windows you buy.”

I’m a little shocked by the credence CityLab is lending to this essentially anti-intellectual argument. There aren’t 40 pages of rules telling you what you can and can’t do with your historic home. There is a helpful guide that may or may not be that long, but I assure you that the rules can fit on one sheet. This goes to Richard Florida: I’ve been a long-time supporter, but come on man. If you take yourself seriously, you can’t be the publisher of ignorant CAVE talk. What is this FOX News? Here are the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards, which are mostly just good practice for us all.

Behre reports that Charleston is changing its architectural-review process, which could ease the way for more ambitious growth. Charleston residents aren’t all against the idea. And as his longtime readers know, the people of Charleston bear an authentic interest in architecture; it’s not a front. Still, the same class of argument being levied against cutting-edge campus design is being used to thwart more affordable housing, and that’s a problem. The result is a Charleston elite of increasingly wealthy downtown residents, and an affordable housing crisis for everybody else.

This giant paragraph-long sentence fragment literally blew up my WordPress, but it’s important to get it in here because of how wrong it is. It’s the crucible closing argument in a whole vignette Capps wrote decying Charleston as “a model for how not to do preservation.” Charleston is actually not a model as much as it is a grandfather of the historic preservation movement. I erroneously wrote in this paragraph that the National Trust conference was in Charleston, when it was actually in Savannah – two cities I frequently combine, to be honest. Thanks to Jennifer Bailey for pointing this out, as well as this fun fact of the day: Charleston was actually the first city (1931) to designate its own local historic districts.

I can not actually speak to everything that has ever transpired in Charleston, and if it’s anything like my own hometown or the cities I’ve grown to call home, I certainly can’t defend everything they have ever done. I share Capps’ passion for equitable urban development. Here’s the bottom line: How many low-income accessible jobs are supported by the tourism industry in South Carolina? How many cities, not beaches, in South Carolina have a tourism industry?

I’ll do the research on that, just because it’s not difficult. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that of Charleston’s 331,000 non-farm jobs, Leisure and Hospitality account for 46,000. You can look this stuff up. 46,000, and that’s not even counting all of the services supported by that Leisure and Hospitality industry. Altogether it’s a HUGE opportunity for low-income families where the bread winner may not have a college degree. And it’s made possible by something as annoying as Charleston’s unique historic charm and its resistance to modernity.

I would argue that Charleston IS a model for how TO do preservation: Focus on critical mass, preserving the larger context, and doing something significant enough. Preservation shouldn’t be about saving one landmark here, an old school there, etc. It’s value is in the whole, not the pieces. Few communities have been more successful at turning historic districts with heritage tourism into an economic engine, but something like this exists at a smaller scale in many of our communities, wherever we call home. This type of grassroots economic development is the essence of the patented Main Street Approach.

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National Trust for Historic Preservation Conference Attendees

Read on for the grand hoorah:

That case against historic districting is similar to the case against protectionist single-family zoning anywhere. And the question isn’t just aesthetic, it’s constitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year on “disparate impact” means that wealthy communities cannot keep affordable housing out because wealthy residents feel that they’re better off without it. The federal government’s Affordable Furthering Fair Housing rule means that cities and neighborhoods cannot use single-family zoning to keep affordable housing at bay.

As cities confront the growing nationwide housing crisis, there will be both a need and a market for building more densely, even in the most precious neighborhoods. Historic preservation is a tool better used to protect community assets, not private assets. Historic preservation is a tool better used to safeguard the historical resources in which everyone can take pride—not the historical resources that were only ever allotted to winners by race-based housing policies.

It’s always nice when an author just comes right out and says what he/she really wants to say. While the author didn’t exactly do that, he came close by just spitting out whatever he thought might stick… Supreme Court! Disparate impact! Wealthy communities! Single-family zoning! Nationwide housing crisis! The end [mic drop].

There is indeed a nationwide housing crisis. My generation is saddled with debt, over-educated, and more often than not living at home in the ‘rents basement. I’d be doing that myself if the family basement wasn’t already snagged…by my little brother…so alas, I venture out into the cold in the Rust Belt, where Millennials actually can make it these days. Michigan and Wisconsin are in the Rust Belt, and Michigan is a place I go often. Have even worked on some projects pertaining to its communities and have networked with many of its housing/development/planning professionals. They do good work Up North, and withstand a lot of blows from the Snyder regime. HP has always been under fire with this regime, and generally if Rick Snyder doesn’t like you, you must be doing something right!

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Michigan history is on the downward slide, but don’t worry: “Right idea for the wrong reasons!” -CityLab

One of Snyder’s first actions was eliminating the historic tax credit (which was a blow to every community in the state, esp Detroit), which he then followed-up with a new rule that HUD’s Hardest Hit Funds need not undergo a Section 106 Review. Sec. 106 is a SHPO review process that all federally-funded projects undergo in order to ensure our taxpayer dollars aren’t irreparably leveling cities left and right. We try to keep the wanton destruction to a minimum, but what can ya do? Snyder’s 2nd move was to expedite the extent to which HUD money can be used to dynamite what’s left of Detroit, basically. Now the latest is the proposal to “ban” historic districts, which is really just the hat trick! For you southerners, that means a 3-fer. What-a-deal (if you hate history). I drew the above handy diagram in case the direction of this arc is lost on you.

Furthermore, the article shows zero understanding of how community development in the Midwest works. The assumption is that the wealthy are clinging to their historic homes or moving in en masse, pushing out the poor, and giving us the nationwide affordability crisis.

Actually what is happening is that cities are clinging for dear life, desperate for families to move back, regardless of socioeconomic background. Historic districts in the Midwest aren’t bucolic small towns inside the big cities. In reality they are full of life and diversity. They are the densest parts of Midwestern cities. They are a home for immigrant communities, creative class, young professionals, and minority families – all of whom call each other neighbors. They are what is working amidst a lot of dysfunction in our cities. According to this Fannie Mae report, historic rehabilitation accounts for 50-60% of all construction activity in Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and D.C. It is nearly 80% of what is happening in St. Louis.

As for Detroit, you better go see it now, because if the State of Michigan gets its way, there won’t be much left. In Detroit, historic districts are actually the only stable parts of the city. I would argue that anything that can provide stability in that city is a good thing. According to this article, historic designation has largely kept foreclosures out of historic districts. It has also injected these communities with federal historic tax credit equity, that they are desperately in need of. State tax credit equity was also brought forth by historic designations, before Snyder killed that. It’s not just Detroit, either. This is typical of every large Midwestern city with declining or stable growth. It’s called “asset-based revitalization,” which is the strategy where you work with the people and the building you already got.

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Cass Corridor Neighborhood Development Corporation and Midtown Detroit Inc. are teaming up to rehab several old decades-empty buildings into quality affordable housing, using both federal historic (not possible without historic designation) and low-income housing tax credits. Read about this project and see more photos on MLive.com.

Not only are these Rust Belt historic districts NOT pushing poor people out, they have actually been one of our best strategies to repopulate inner city neighborhoods. In almost every case, these neighborhoods are growing more income-diverse, which is exactly the goal of Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing. Before you cite policy, you might actually want to read the policy. Not only are these neighborhoods attractive for affordable housing projects (I believe in putting affordable housing in good communities, but that’s just me), but oftentimes historic tax credits and low-income housing tax credits work together. In Ohio, Round 15 of Historic Preservation Tax Credits (the most recent) alone made possible $32.5 million in rural affordable housing, where the need is greatest in our state.

During a twitter exchange with the author, I and Belt Magazine asked him where in Michigan have historic districts pushed out the poor? He offered Grand Rapids. Again, Reeeeeeesearch man. It turns out that in Grand Rapids, historic districts are gaining safe, decent, affordable housing in the 100s of units. This article alone cites several concrete examples that combine historic and affordable. I could go on ad nauseum, but instead Let ME Google This For You. In the Midwest we’re big on teaching people (pundits) to fish (research on their own). Wait no, he only meant that Grand Rapids spawned the Michigan GOP. Not sure what that has to do with the price of rice in China, but the more you know!

Many state historic tax credit programs actually have an inclusionary affordable requirement, which is as much as anyone can do to combat the nationwide affordable housing crisis. You can look that up on the Novoco website. In the end, fixing this problem won’t come from finding a panacea. The problems are multi-faceted, and so must be the solution. What is working, ie historic preservation, must be a part of that calculus. Killing historic districts isn’t just throwing the baby out with the bathwater; it’s throwing the bathwater out with the baby.

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Twin Cities Lesson: Transit can be “Nice!”

Edit: Since 20 additional photos were uncovered from the cloud, they were posted subsequently, at this link. I will also integrate the recovered photos into this post, while leaving as much of the original text.

So, a very bad thing happened, amidst how long it has already taken me to get these pics up. On Thursday I clumsily obliterated my iPhone, which was really a long time in the making. Four days removed from the tragedy, I have finally stopped trying to retrieve my 5,000+ planning/design/travel photos, and have a replacement phone in the mail.

Just minutes before the incident, I luckily posted all of my Denton pics, which are arguably more valuable as a rarely-documented rail fail. I also instagrammed four pics of Minneapolis’ light rail system, plus one aerial from flying in (Captions visible if you click on the photo):

Moving Everyone Forward

These trains are just incredibly nice. I occasionally butt heads with the most well-intended fellow planners, over whether or not transit has to be nice. Many of them deliberately believe it should be not nice. If there’s one unique thing I ever say, it’s the importance of providing dignity to disenfranchised citizens. The assumption that transit users are disenfranchised citizens almost seems like a baseline acceptance just in order to open the door and have a discussion with self-titled equity planners.

The problem with this whole assumption is that it disregards two very important things that successful cities do: 1, attract choice riders; and 2, offer a desirable experience that drives ridership. A frequent objection to urban rail projects is that light rail is “too nice” and that the money would be better spent providing more basic service to low-income communities exclusively. Vox’s Matthew Yglesias is one of these screeds who oppose nice transit in the name of equity, and it’s actually a POV that’s becoming typical of urbanist writers who make inroads into the national punditry. Locally, whenever I talk to COTA, this is the refrain. I think it’s awesome that an agency has gradually adopted a holistic activist mentality toward its customer base, at the exclusion of anyone else.

Another thing I often bring up, but have also heard others use as well, is that social service and transit service are two different things. Columbus provides transit as a social service. Minneapolis isn’t shirking its social duties, but is providing transit in the form of a real transit system. This is shockingly revolutionary. The Twin Cities’ most-utilized assets can not be picked up and moved by anyone, and while they were planned to respond to density and transit dependency where it exists, that density is also being proactively generated by the transit agency itself. It wasn’t “If you build it, they will come.” They built it, and then they committed to a long-term program to drive transit-oriented development along the LRT lines.

Central Corridor

250px-metrotransitmncurrentmetromapMinneapolis is just a nice city. In fact, Minnesotans are nice people, and they say “Nice!” a lot. I saw a few hoodies with a cute little outline of the state alongside such a caption, so it must be official. It befits this nice city that their transit is also very nice. It should be very nice because their most recent expansion, the 11-mile Green Line (which traverses University Avenue, through the UMN campus, between modern Downtown Mpls and historic Downtown St. Paul) cost $957 million, or roughly $87 million per mile. This project cost includes everything from rolling stock (47 new train vehicles), new sidewalk treatments, bike lanes, and even new car travel lanes. The Metro Council, the Twin Cities-area MPO, has found a 50% cost savings by doing all of this at once. Adding all of this work to the LRT project inflates the cost by which LRT is evaluated, but reduces costs across the board in the long-term. It’s a smart thing to do if you can get away with it, which requires public leaders who aren’t scared by a billion-dollar price tag.

The following are photos I took of the Green Line through Downtown Minneapolis (where it shares a transit mall with the Green Line) and the UMN campus (gateway to the Central Corridor):

 

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Wikipedia photo on the Metro Green Line article (Green Line shown traveling past UMN)

The Green Line is projected to have 40,000 riders by 2030. In its first year of operation it averaged 34,500 daily riders, 25% above projections. It will grow employment concentrated in the area by 90,000 jobs by this time, bringing the total (Downtown Mpls + UMN + Downtown St. Paul) to 375,000. It is also responsible for $2.5 billion in private development, which according to this Metro Council fact sheet accounts for 100 projects. According to this 2010 report from the Funders Collaborative, a non-profit group tasked with funding the Central Corridor Vision, the entire build-out potential of what is possible along the new Green Line totals $6 billion, just focusing on private investment potential. This more recent NPR article, calling it the Money Train, actually cites $3 billion in TOD, including 12,000 housing units.

To supplement my abridged photo tour, here is a 2014 run-down of projects along the Central Corridor from The Line. (Tip: You have to wait for the photo slideshow to start at the top of the page) CNN has a remarkably sophisticated photo tour, titled How the Twin Cities Got Transit Right. The annoying drop-down at the top actually tracks your progress along the route, as you progress through the photo tour. The article shows a surprising depth of subject understanding, for a national media piece. A few highlights:

Map overview of Central Corridor TOD, with Downtown Mpls on the left, and Downtown St. Paul on the right:

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Stantec’s master plan of Central Corridor TOD

To achieve this, the Metro Council and its non-profit partners, including the Funders Collaborative and affordable housing consortiums, hired the transit engineering firm Stantec to identify every possible investment opportunity. They identified 500 potential investment opportunities in total, shown above.

As these sites are heavily concentrated in the area between UMN’s campus and the State Capitol, encompassing the entire Central Corridor through the west side of St. Paul, here are the photos that I took through this area:

 

Blue Line

Minneapolis is not new to light rail. Its Blue Eine, formerly known as the Hiawatha Line, has ran from downtown Mpls to the Mall of America since 2004. The line was expanded from the Mall of America southward through suburban Bloomington, MN – where the market has driven a lot of TOD. The original line opened amidst construction, offering a non-stop connection from the Warehouse District around Target Field and Fort Snelling, which is just before you get the airport. The total price tag of this project was $715 million. The line has already far-exceeded its 2020 goal of 24,000 avg daily riders, which is now around 28,000. According to this METRO fact sheet, 50% of its daily riders were new to transit before trying the light rail.

Here are the photos I took of TOD along the Blue Line:

The Twin Cities have been so successful with transit by amenitizing stations, which I found to be in excess of what their own factsheet claims). The following is a list of bells and whistles you encounter as a METRO transit user, regardless of your socioeconomic background:

  • Sheltered platforms
  • Public art (integrated as you’d expect)
  • Push-button heaters (absolutely brilliant)
  • Ticketing kiosks (modern forms of payment)
  • Free on-board WiFi
  • Onboard restrooms
  • Work tables at stations and onboard
  • Prominent connection schedules
  • LED ticker for next train departure
  • LED screens with ads and community info
  • Electrical outlets (impossible to find on other systems)
  • Bike storage onboard and at stations
  • Great skyline views all around

These amenities go a long ways toward driving transit choice in the Twin Cities, which isn’t exactly Chicago. In fact, Minneapolis-St. Paul’s urban fabric is really more comparable to Cleveland or Columbus. A lot of old neighborhoods around a revitalized downtown or two, with a heavy emphasis on the “eds and meds.” It’s really not all that different from the Ohio cities. The difference is bold public investment and bolder progressive policies. The trains in and around Minneapolis are packed, and the faces truly represent the fabric of their community. It’s not all transit dependent users. You see diversity, including its upper bounds. You see a lot of choice riders. Most importantly, you see a lot of people whose lives have been bettered by the light rail: they are living visibly healthy, active lifestyles, which have been made attainable to anyone in the Twin Cities.

This is why the Twin Cities have been perhaps the nation’s strongest light rail success story. They could have cut corners, saved some pennies here and there, and saved themselves the political blowback that you’d expect with a $715 million and another $950 million light rail project. They didn’t do that because they were unfazed by the cost. Other states are unfazed by the cost of new freeways and prisons, so why should they be fazed by the cost of modern rail that they need? To the contrary, the Twin Cities looked for any additional connection they could create between communities and these rail corridors. No stone has been left unturned in the pursuit of developing quality mixed-income housing, adding active lifestyle amenities like adjacent bike trails, and optimizing the user experience regardless of why they’re catching a train on that particular day.

In my case, I caught the train at the airport’s Lindbergh Terminal, which is essentially a shiny-new subway station. It was $1.75 for a day pass. The route was truly optimized for my experience as a short-term tourist: Got to see Midtown, a quirky Riverside neighborhood, an iconic bridge and bike trail, the revitalized downtown area, had a latte near campus, saw the stadiums and associated redevelopment there, saw St. Paul’s Little Mekong neighborhood, and met lots of friendly Minnesotans. By the time I had to get back to MSP to catch my return flight to Columbus, I had more than enough resident recommendations to last a week in the Twin Cities, made some friends who held the door open while I jumped out at each station to take photos I would later lose, and had been told twice that seeing these “light rail tourists” had become a daily occurrence on the Central Corridor.

I am in awe of how Minneapolis exemplifies how a rail project can truly build community. I believe that is what we are all working toward, it’s just that sometimes we disagree about how to get there. I think Minneapolis (and St. Paul too!) have exemplified how investing in transit is one way to get there.

Cleveland ranks #8 for brain gain

Then there’s this, a new report from the Cleveland State University Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs’ Center for Population Dynamics. According to the report, Cleveland now ranks 8th nationally, in terms of attracting Millennials with college degrees. Roughly tied with Miami and Seattle.

In case anyone doubted that this whole sustainability-planning-preservation-urban design-whatnot thing works. It’s working for Cleveland. In fact, it’s working wonders for a formerly “dead city.”

But for Ohio State..

Getting out of bed today was a little tougher than usual. Wrapped in a warm cocoon of blankets with the space heater blasting, I was living the dream (literally) while it was 5 degrees outside.

The colder it is, the harder it is to get out of bed, and the likelier that I will be late to my first scheduled activity of the day (my office is flexible, and within walking distance, else this simply wouldn’t be possible).

morris1Cold weather often puts things into perspective. For instance, snow’s well-documented ability to frame the pavement that is actually needed. Behold, the sneckdown (a curb “neckdown,” where the curb tapers into the roadway, made by snow). It’s the most cost-effective, most comprehensive streetscape initiative ever implemented, and the forecast is for lots of them, in every neighborhood.

And it looks great – though its maintenance requires some good luck – what streetscape doesn’t?

Today as I trudged to a meeting on campus, I couldn’t help but realize why I love the northern United States. It’s cold, old, dark, and wet (allergies) – but the seasons are unmatched anywhere, except perhaps Central Europe. That we have seasons means our cities evolve by the month. Of course, fall is widely-regarded as the best season in these parts.

As I entered Ohio State’s campus, past the Neil Avenue Gates, it was just one of those iconic “But for Ohio State..” postcard scenes. Every Buckeye knows Mirror Lake. Ohio State is a city, perhaps even separate than Columbus. It succeeds as a city that leverages its aesthetic beauty into practical advantages. It would be interesting to track the enrollment rate of graduating high school kids who may have visited today (versus other days), and saw this:

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A winter wonderland, “but for Ohio State.”

On the road again…

More pan-Midwestern content coming soon because I am on the road, seeing friends, family, and conducting thesis research on more awesome cities!

In this instance…

Flew to Omaha. Just wrapped up a week in Omaha and Sioux City, Iowa. Got snowed in and had to cancel other plans, but I love the snow!

Drove to Kansas City. Spent a day there. KCMO is just about the coolest town around.

Drove to OKC. Spending a week here over the New Year’s holiday. Good to be back at the Homa.

Dallas? Maybe Dallas. Debating going down there for actual Midnight NYE 2016. Or before I fly out. We’ll see if I get to it.

I am trying to get interviews with policy makers and economic developers here in OKC, for my thesis; if that doesn’t pan out, I’ll just go down to Dallas and conduct more on-the-ground research.

6-hour layover in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Just long enough to ride all the rails, I hope. And get back down to MSP for my flight back to Columbus.

What is on-the-ground research, and what does one do on-the-ground in a city I already know, you ask? I am specifically taking photos that just don’t exist online. Since my thesis is on leveraging the value capture with TOD, photos augment that by illustrating exactly what that value looks like. On-the-ground.

Here’s the trail I’m blazing this time:

Winter 2016 Trip

Stay tuned for the photo analysis!