Monday, September 29, 2008

An Investment in America's Future


America's 100 largest metropolitan areas
Image: Brookings Institution, MetroNation. Colors electronically modified.


When I heard that Congress was discussing a $700 billion bailout of the banking industry, my first impulse was to wonder why the federal government has not come up with a similar amount to support infrastructure and economic investments for cities and metropolitan areas.

I’m not the only one wondering this. Washington Post columnist Neal Peirce wrote an article yesterday asking: “With the Wall Street mortgage meltdown so massive its costs could reach toward $1 trillion, where’s the economic plan to rebuild America’s cities and infrastructure, to retool our businesses and people for a risky century?”

Peirce’s point is that an “economic plan” for our cities and metro regions would not be a bailout; it would be an investment in our nation’s future. Consider that our nation has been losing some of its core economic sectors, bleeding jobs, becoming more and more dependent on a carbon-heavy transportation structure, and has been proliferating an inefficient and unsustainable development pattern that places residents far from jobs and services.

In other words, after we have found a short-term solution to stem the tide of the financial crisis, we need to start thinking seriously about the future of our nation. If we want America to emerge from this financial crisis with the foundation to become competitive in a new, global economy, it is critical that we invest in our cities and metropolitan areas.

America’s urbanized areas provide the potential for reducing oil dependency; increasing energy efficiency; building sustainable, knowledge-based and/or high-tech economic sectors; and allowing more Americans to cost-effectively live within easy access of a variety of housing types, jobs, institutions, and services. This kind of physical, social, and economic climate will give more Americans a greater range of opportunities for where they work, a choice in how they travel, and much greater access to centers of housing, commerce, health care, culture, and education.

The need for substantially increasing federal investment in metropolitan areas has been argued consistently by the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. Brookings’ report MetroNation: How U.S. Metropolitan Areas Fuel American Prosperity, explains that the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. take up just 12% of the nation’s land, but account for 65% of the nation’s population. The report argues, “It is America’s Metropolitan areas…that aggregate and strengthen our key prosperity drivers: innovation, human capital, and infrastructure.”

Growing our cities and metropolitan areas could give the U.S. the opportunity to increase its fuel-efficient, sustainable infrastructure in ways that are nearly impossible under a sprawling growth pattern. In his article, Peirce cited Phil Angelides, chairman of the Apollo Alliance and former California state treasurer, in his hope of bolstering America’s competitiveness by committing “to double the federal R & D budget focused on a green economy, to equip factories, retrain workers, rebuild inefficient energy grids, develop wind and solar power at an accelerated rate, upgrade energy efficiency of buildings nationwide, and help cities build and expand transit systems for mobility in an oil-scarce, carbon-challenged era.”

Peirce points out that investing in our nation’s future will not come cheap. Still, when there is an immediate need, our leadership seems to be able to come up with massive amounts of capital, in a pinch. Well, we have a need. Many Americans feel it every day. It takes the form of unemployment topping six percent, nearly 40 million people in poverty, more and more Americans unable to afford transportation, health care and housing, floods of home foreclosures, and now a crisis that has rocked our financial sectors.

America’s leaders need to figure out how to make the U.S. competitive in a changing world, and provide an optimistic economic future for the people of our nation. Concluding his article, Neal Peirce’s writes, “no matter which [presidential] candidate wins, the overwhelming need to invest in a radically greener, energy efficient, globally competitive America won’t go away. Bailout of errant markets is just the prelude to the really hard work ahead.”

The time has come to recognize that many trends of the past half century are now uncompetitive and unsustainable. Staying the course will not cut it for America’s future. With the same vigor and sense of urgency that our leaders are addressing the financial crisis, so should they address the crisis of America’s future. Investing in our nation’s metropolitan areas provides the key. And the time to invest is now.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

New American Freedom


Image: Montage with train image from www.freefoto.com

The average American car owner has recently figured out that we have a transportation crisis in this country. However, the price of gasoline is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the challenges of transporting the people of our nation.

To begin with, 80% of our federal transportation dollars fund a single mode of transportation – roads and highways for automobiles. According to the Brookings Institution, “the overwhelming majority of system mileage built in this country in recent years came in the form of public roads.”

Not only are we putting all of our eggs in one multi-lane, concrete basket, but this infrastructure is in pretty bad shape. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, over 15% of major U.S. roads are in “unacceptable” condition, while an additional 41.5% are in “fair” condition. In Pennsylvania, according to IssuesPA, “more than 27% of the state’s roads still are considered to be in poor or mediocre condition. … Nearly one-quarter of the state-owned bridges are considered ‘structurally deficient,’ and another 18% are considered to be ‘functionally obsolete.’”

The situation reaches crisis proportions because, according to Brookings, “transportation is now the second largest expense for most American households, consuming on average 20 cents out of every dollar.” The bottom line is that we cannot afford our transportation infrastructure, and the problem is growing worse by the day.

Let’s stop for a moment and consider one root of this problem. When we as a nation allow vast housing development on empty land, far removed from our developed towns, cities, and older suburbs, we are also necessitating the construction of new roadways, and the widening and extension of nearby highways. Suburban sprawl is not just a problem for those who live in these communities and have to commute to far-away jobs. Sprawl has an impact on all of us, and most Americans help pay for this massive road network – this sprawling infrastructure that is already falling apart, that we already cannot afford.

Americans like to have choices – in where we live, where we shop, in what toothpaste we use. Why do we not demand the same choice in our transportation? A diverse transportation infrastructure – with provisions for cars, trains, buses, bikes, and walking – gives us multiple ways of getting from here to there, choice and flexibility. More to the point, walking, biking and mass transit infrastructure is significantly more cost-effective and fuel efficient than an auto-only infrastructure.

Not to mention, for the sub-sector of American households living in central cities, the percentage of income spent on transportation is significantly less than for the rest of the country. Needless to say, these are areas that have a diverse, less auto-oriented transportation infrastructure. The majority of Americans already live in metropolitan areas, within proximity to urban centers. However, many of these areas still lack the mass transit infrastructure to give people alternatives to automobile travel.

Within the Philadelphia region, SEPTA has reported over a 10% increase in ridership, recently. Nationally, transit ridership has increased by 5%. The private housing market has shown that more and more Americans already desire a lifestyle with transportation options. A report by Reconnecting America projects that over the next 25 years at least one quarter of new American households will desire to live in transit-accessible areas.

With 80% of our federal transportation dollars still funding roads and highways, in light of these statistics, we are clearly not responding to changing trends in our nation. We are not maximizing our tax dollars and responding to the needs of the American people. It is time for us to get away from the auto-only paradigm, and start diversifying America’s transportation network.

Neither the Obama nor McCain campaign websites include extending rail transit, and/or reducing auto dependency as part of their respective platforms. The entire dialogue about transportation in the U.S. focuses on the cost of gasoline, the necessity of reducing dependence on foreign oil, and developing alternative fuels. While these solutions focus on easing the burden of the car owner at the gasoline pump, they do not reduce that same car owner’s ever-increasing tax burden to support our sprawling transportation infrastructure. They do not address the real problem.

The solution to our nation’s transportation crisis will require shifting our federal funding priorities, along with a significant change in how we live, and how we get around. Of course, this is not a politically popular opinion in most of the U.S. More Americans will have to live within closer proximity to towns and cities, to the places where they shop, and the places where they work. For many, this scenario will appear to be an all-out assault on the American dream, and the freedom of the automobile.

However, with a crumbling infrastructure, rising tax-payer costs, rising cost of gas at the pump, increasing congestion on our roads, and zero transportation choice for much of the country, does the automobile still truly represent freedom?

Just imagine if we were to invest in an extensive mass transit network the way we currently invest in our highway network? What if more Americans could take transit or walk a few minutes to the grocery store, to school, to work, or to the park? What if the trains ran frequently enough, say every ten minutes, that mass transit was in fact faster and more convenient than driving and parking?

A mode of travel only represents freedom if it is cheap and convenient. Perhaps it is time to consider a new definition of American freedom. We and our government have the ability to shift our priorities and our tax dollars to build a transportation network that works for America, a network that we can afford, and a network that truly represents freedom for the future of our nation.

Sources:

Patricia L. Kirk, “Riding on the Future.” Urban Land. March 2008.

Brookings Institution, “A Bridge to Somewhere: Rethinking American Transportation for the 21st Century.” 2008.

IssuesPA, “Transportation Infrastructure: How do Pennsylvania's Roads and Bridges Compare?” 2006. http://www.issuespa.net/articles/17908

Reconnecting America’s Center for Transit-Oriented Development. “Hidden in Plain Sight: Capturing the Demand for Housing Near Transit.” Reprint With Technical Corrections. April 2005. 7.

Friday, September 5, 2008

"...A landscape that is as alive as you are"


The late Irish poet John O. Donahue said, "There is a big difference if you emerge into a dead landscape, in transit from one place to another, or if you emerge into a landscape that is as alive as you are."

I think this statement rings true for our age. We seem to be living in a time when Americans have become disconnected from the visual quality of their outdoor environment. We put on blinders as we travel, ignoring ugly highways, cheaply-built shopping centers, expansive parking lots, seas of billboards, blank building walls, trash-strewn lots, treeless streets.

Certainly automobile travel is a major culprit, allowing people to leave the beauty of their homes, enter the beauty of their cars, and emerge into the beauty of a place like a mall, convention center, casino, or restaurant, only tolerating the short span of ugliness walking from the parking lot. However, even automobile travelers have to look out the window.

How have we devolved as a society to accept travel through a "dead landscape"?

There is precedent for these issues taking on national priority. In 1966 President Lyndon Johnson attempted to focus on these problems through his President’s Council on Recreation and Natural Beauty. Though overshadowed by Vietnam, that effort marked a period when the beauty of our visual environment was a priority for the White House. Perhaps it is again time for our nation to focus on what kind of environment we are building for ourselves and for our children.

One may argue that we have more pressing issues, such as the economy, poverty, and education. Of course this is true, but what kind of life are we giving our children if we are raising and educating them to live in a "dead landscape"?

Nowhere is this fact more significant than in an urban context.

We should strive to transform our schools into great palaces of learning, but even then, is it really enough if children leave those palaces, emerging into trash-strewn, depressed neighborhoods?

Can we build up the economy of disinvested areas without focusing on the aesthetic quality of our commercial streets?

Can we truly bring safety to our toughest neighborhoods while they visually convey an image that nobody cares about their appearance or their quality of life?

Philadelphia and other cities need a much more committed approach to dealing with urban design, education, crime, and business development in a comprehensive context. Indeed, they are integrally related.

In urban downtowns, many projects ignore the idea that they are part of a larger context – that the quality of the journey is as important as the arrival. Philadelphia's proposed convention center expansion, for example, calls for a blank wall along several key blocks of the Center City business core.

Naturally the convention center will bring in revenue, but is that revenue worth the lost opportunity to raise the value of those blocks, energizing them as shopping and entertainment streets, building the foundation for new economic development, residential and commercial growth? Must these goals be mutually exclusive?

Nowhere in America should we tolerate an ugly environment, but especially not in our cities. Our cities should be beautiful, iconic, thriving, and eminently livable. It is time for our society to refocus its energy to create landscapes that are worthy of the future of our nation.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Lots of Lots



Phillyskyline.com today highlights the demolition of Philadelphia's St. George's Hall for another surface parking lot. Let me repeat that: Replacing the old structure will not be condos or offices, but a surface parking lot – right in the heart of the city's downtown business district.

This is the most recent opportunity to highlight a problem that is hurting the competitiveness of Philadelphia's downtown: there are a lot of surface parking lots on prime real estate.

I have been to other cities that also have this problem, but none with as competitive a downtown as Philadelphia. Marcus & Millichap shows Philadelphia as the city with the 9th lowest office vacancy rate in its 2008 National Office Report, just beating out Boston. Between 2007 and 2008 Philadelphia jumped from #32 to #28 in that report's National Office Property Index, just two ranks away from Chicago.

In light of these facts, it would seem illogical that parking lots would be the most profitable use for key downtown parcels. I am not the first to suggest solutions to this particular problem, but I hope to be one of many voices echoing them until the City addresses this issue.

1) Surface parking should not be an allowable, as-of-right use in CBD zoning districts. Parking lots reduce property values and create eyesores next to viable office towers, residences, shops and restaurants.

2) Philadelphia should adjust its tax assessment to value land more highly, in order to make surface parking lots less economically enticing. Parking lots occupy parcels of the same size as high-rise office towers; their owners should be paying taxes that are comparable to those paid on other downtown developments. Developers should be economically encouraged to build something of greater public and civic value.

Looking out my office window, I can see eight separate surface parking lots, right downtown. This is an issue that needs some serious attention.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Lessons of Unisys


Images: phillyskyline.com

Prior to Philadelphia’s current mayoral administration, the City’s Commerce Department attracted Unisys to locate its offices downtown. While the company would leave most of its staff in its suburban offices, it would call the downtown offices in the city’s landmark Two Liberty Place its headquarters, and would lease about 7% of the building.

Part of the City’s benefits package to induce Unisys to move downtown included permission to erect a permanent sign on the tower that could be seen on the skyline. Just last week, however, the City’s Zoning Board of Adjustment rejected Unisys’s application for a zoning variance for the sign, leaving the company threatening to break its lease or sublet the space, and the City rushing to find a way to keep Unisys happy.

The fact is, the Zoning Board did what it is supposed to do. Its role is to decide whether there is undue hardship that would warrant a variance from the Zoning Code. In this case Unisys and its lawyers could not make a compelling case for hardship. It was, admittedly, a practically impossible case to make.

Critics of the decision have argued that plenty of other companies already have signs just like the one Unisys is proposing. However, this is far from true. The proposed Unisys sign would have differed dramatically from any existing, permanent sign in Philadelphia. All existing corporate signage is either on the very top or on the bottom of the structure. The Unisys sign would have perched about three-quarters-of-the-way up the tower.

Additionally, All of the existing, top-of-building signs represent companies that either own the building or are its major tenant. Unisys, in contrast, leased less than 10% of the space in Two Liberty Place. Cigna leases many more floors of the same building, and does not have an exterior sign.

If every company that leases less than 10% of an office tower were permitted to hang a sign part-way up the building’s tower… well, just close your eyes and imagine.

I have never seen anything like this proposed Unisys sign, and for good reason. Other cities recognize that it is an inappropriate type of sign that compromises the integrity of its skyline, and opens the floodgates for other corporate tenants to demand a similar sign. Even in sign-cluttered areas like The Strip in Las Vegas and Times Square in New York, the signage is all oriented toward the street level. All of the top-of-building signs in these cities are at the very top, not perched in the middle of a skyscraper.

The bottom line is that the Unisys sign would have set a dangerous precedent – not just for Philadelphia, but for urban America.

This brings us to another point: The City’s Commerce Department does not have the authority to give companies a variance from the Zoning Code; only the Zoning Board of Adjustment can do that. In essence, the Commerce Department wooed a company by promising something it could not deliver. By so-doing it pitted itself against other public bodies, such as the Zoning Board, the Planning Commission, and the Art Commission, creating conflict and tension within City Hall.

Businesses like nothing more than consistency – clear rules that are sure to be followed. By the Commerce Department promising something it could not deliver, it subjected Unisys to a lengthy and uncertain fate of lobbying the other City agencies necessary to give it the green light. This is not consistency. This is the kind of uncertain, frustrating, and expensive deal-making that scares businesses away.

If Philadelphia is serious about wanting to attract corporations, then this sign is a distraction from the real issue. The City needs to establish clear rules, and every City agency and department needs to agree to stick to those rules. City Hall should act with one, harmonious voice when dealing with businesses and developers.

An editorial in The Philadelphia Inquirer added to this point, “hopefully, [Mayor] Nutter and other city leaders will realize from this episode that Philadelphia needs to do much more to attract and retain businesses beyond engaging them in sign squabbles. That includes reducing taxes, streamlining bureaucratic red tape, improving the quality of the work force, and developing enhanced marketing.”

I am a great supporter of Philadelphia’s Mayor Nutter and his Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Andy Altman. Admittedly, Altman came into a difficult position, trying to bring coordination and reform to a city mired deep in an attitude that the rules were meant to be broken. I hope that this situation brings a happy resolution, with Unisys staying in town, and the City continuing to shift the way it does business – in time becoming more consistent and competitive.

In light of the circumstances, if Unisys seeks innovative ways to connect its image with our great city, I second a suggestion from Inga Saffron’s blog: “If they can't put their logo on a prestigious Philadelphia landmark, put the prestigious Philadelphia landmark on their logo. Redesign the Unisys signature to incorporate the outline of Liberty Two. Everyone wins!”

Monday, September 1, 2008

The New Face of Urban Mixed-Use


I recently went up to the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, and helped to build a skateboard park (for the record, I don’t skateboard).

Philadelphia-based nonprofit Franklin's Paine Skatepark Fund and community developer New Kensington CDC teamed up to transform a long-abandoned asphalt area at Pop's Playground, in this working-class neighborhood, into a multi-use space with trees, benches, and natural obstacles that are good for skateboarding. This is a low-cost project ($15k max), with funds raised from an investment banking firm, a skateboard shop, and charitable donations. It is being built with all volunteer labor and got the official OK from the City Recreation Department.

Community support, City support, donated funds and labor. Sounds like a slam dunk.

I went up to Kensington to help out for a day. I joined Nick Orso of Franklin's Paine, a trained engineer and avid skateboarder, and his team, to mix concrete and lay cinder-block foundations. Throughout the day, a barrage of youngsters pressed their faces up against the playground fence, anxiously awaiting the new community amenity. Locals drove by, asked what was going on, and gave their thanks and approval. Next to the mixed-use park is a well-used playground (picture young parents with strollers, a basketball court, and children playing in a sprinkler). The future skate park was a vacant piece of asphalt that had marred the playground for almost a decade, according to locals.

Why would a non-skateboarding urban planner, like myself, be so interested in skateboarding? Don’t ask me. Ask Jane Jacobs. In her landmark 1961 book,
The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs wrote:

“...city areas with flourishing diversity sprout strange and unpredictable uses and peculiar scenes. But this is not a drawback of diversity. This is the point ... of it.”

Today, urbanists have embraced the concept that thriving cities welcome and attract a wide variety of activities. Further, Jacobs' belief in mixed-use spaces has become one of the core tenets of urban design. A lively and diverse mix of different kinds of people and activities in the same space is the key to a safe, thriving, and exciting city.

Over time as "strange and unpredictable uses" evolve, it is the challenge of planners, architects, and landscape architects to figure out how to design our spaces to accommodate them. Since the 1980s we have seen skateboarding evolve as one of the most exciting and challenging urban mixed-use trends of our time.

People typically think of skateboard parks as self-contained areas with ramps, but that is not the prevalent form of the sport today. In my May 19, 2008 opinion piece in The Philadelphia Inquirer, I explained:

"Skateboarding is more than 60 years old, but over the last 30 years it has evolved from a suburban West Coast phenomenon to an urban, internationally popular sport. Instead of self-contained parks with ramps, today's 'street skateboarders' want natural urban obstacles, such as low benches and ledges."

Numerous towns and cities across the U.S., after learning the facts about skateboarding (American Sports Data Inc. ranks skateboarding less dangerous than soccer, basketball, baseball and volleyball), have permitted new skateboarding facilities (a quick Google search brings up thousands of skate parks in the U.S.). However, these facilities are almost always equipped with ramps and bowls, dedicated for skateboarding as a stand-alone use. Considering the new trend of skateboarders desiring not ramps but plaza benches and ledges, it becomes clear that these places are designing for an outmoded form of the sport.

They are also missing the key opportunity that the new “street skating” affords to integrate skateboarding with a mix of other uses, capturing the spirit of Jane Jacobs for our modern age. The skateboarding element in mixed-use parks and plazas is key, because it attracts younger participants, brands a city as progressive and friendly to youth, and ensures a steady flow of people in the park (I have seen plenty of pocket parks that nobody uses... except for skateboarders).

As far as I know, Vancouver is the only city that has legalized skateboarding on existing parks and plazas. While Philadelphia has yet to adopt such a policy, it is paving the way for permitting skateboarding in new multi-use parks. The City of Philadelphia and Fairmount Park have donated land along Schuylkill River Park for a major multi-use plaza that will incorporate skateboarding – called Paine's Park (after Thomas Paine). There won't be any ramps or bowls. To the untrained eye it will look just like a normal urban plaza. To the skateboarder's eye, the ledges, benches, and curves will be just right for the sport. This is, perhaps, the first major example of a new facility that incorporates skateboarding as one of a mix of uses.

Paine's is a $6 million project. I serve on its capital committee and I believe it will be a great asset for Philadelphia. However, it is a keynote, downtown project. As the more modest community park in Kensington shows, accommodating skateboarding does not have to boast a seven-figure price tag. I believe that the Kensington project can serve as a pilot project for other community parks, built through a grassroots effort, in Philadelphia and across the U.S.

The folks at New Kensington CDC understand that in its most prevalent form, skateboarding is a safe, low-impact sport that can be integrated into mixed-use parks, creating urban excitement, ala Jane Jacobs. Like Paine's, the Kensington park will have no ramps. It will not look like a traditional skateboard park. Its designer put it best, calling the Kensington project “a skate park in disguise.” Thankfully, New Kensington CDC is innovative enough to understand the potential of integrating skateboarding into a mixed-use facility, and the City is open to allowing more facilities for skateboarding.

I hope that this project in Kensington receives both local and national attention. It is truly a prime example of how a City and a community can cooperate, innovate, and (at modest cost) energize an abandoned piece of land with new and vital uses. Perhaps with the landmark Paine’s Park downtown and the Pop’s playground facility in Kensington as models, Philadelphia and other cities will begin following Vancouver, incorporating skateboarding in the most vibrant and cost-effective way of all – by legalizing it on existing parks and plazas, rather than (or in addition to) building new.

The key is not being afraid to embrace fresh urban concepts that Jane Jacobs might never have imagined, but that perfectly represent her spirit. “Flourishing diversity” and “strange and unpredictable uses” are exactly what we need in our cities. Just ask Jane.


Read Nick's blog about the Kensington project