Friday, November 21, 2008

The Cost of Parking

There was an editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer today supporting Mayor Nutter's plan to increase parking meter rates, and to put in place a pilot program for cheap short-term parking in two downtown parking garages. The editorial explains the rationale behind this well-tested and time-proven strategy to encourage drivers to head straight for a garage, rather than circling the block, looking for a space.

There are plenty of models of this strategy around the nation, but my favorite is in the affluent town of Birmingham, Michigan (pictured above). In Birmingham there are numerous municipal garages, with clear signage showing visitors how to get to one from each block in the downtown. The garages are build with ground-floor retail wrapping them on major streets, so that they contribute to the lively urban atmosphere, rather than cutting up a shopping street with a blank garage wall.

The municipal garages are free for the first two hours, all the time. After that their hourly rate is still less than the hourly rate on street parking meters. Birmingham is truly jumping on a Friday night (think Main Street Manayunk), but many of the metered spaces are still empty, even when the main drag is jam packed with vehicles, and the sidewalks and restaurants are swarming with people.

It takes time for people to catch on to a new system, but Birmingham made it impossible (even for first-time visitors like me) to be confused about the system. On all of those lamp poles shown in the photo above you can see a white sign, sticking out over the sidewalk. The signs say "First 2 hrs free in all the parking docks." There are other signs that say "Parking docks are always cheaper than meters." At each block there are large, clear signs showing how to get to the parking garages.

This kind of signage and public education campaign will be important if Philadelphia hopes to implement this kind of forward-looking parking policy.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Institutions as Community Assets

“Every real-estate operator says ‘there’s no market here,’ and so we create a market from scratch.”

These were the words of Omar Blaik, the University of Pennsylvania ’s former Senior Vice President of Facilities and Real Estate Services, now working as a national consultant, delivered today during a talk at DVRPC. When Penn started its neighborhood investment strategy in the early 1990s, it was a controversial notion to focus heavily on community development and on real-estate development to improve the university’s attractiveness and competitiveness. It had many detractors. However, today, Penn’s redevelopment work is largely considered a success, studied and imitated by institutions across the U.S.

I bring up this topic because in Philadelphia’s new economy, much of the city’s employment base is focused on colleges, universities, and medical institutions – often known as Eds and Meds. These are institutions that Jane Jacobs argued made bad neighbors. However, Penn showed that with the right approach, institutions can tear down the barriers between town and gown, and invest in shared amenities for the institution and the neighborhood.

By studying the lessons of Penn, perhaps we can glean some insight for Philadelphia’s future. As institutions like St. Joe’s, Temple, LaSalle, the Fox Chase Cancer Center, University of Pennsylvania Hospital, and others look to expand, there are many questions as to whether these expansions will end up creating a rift between institution and community, or leverage investments to create true community assets. These types of questions also surround the urban design impacts of the city’s two proposed casinos.

The way that our institutions develop has stunning impacts on their surrounding neighborhoods, and on our city at-large. This lesson is clearly shown in Penn’s dismal past and promising current investments. Let’s take another look at the Penn story.

* * * * *

Omar Blaik began his talk today by giving his audience a flavor of the daunting circumstances under which he began. Since the 1950s the university had developed defensive structures, forming a door-less, windowless wall on Walnut Street. In the early 1990s, the university published a guide for students advising them not to venture west of 40th Street.

Blaik invited a reporter from the Daily Pennsylvanian, Penn’s student newspaper, to visit him in his West Philadelphia home to write a story about how it was actually safe and livable around campus. However, his secretary switched the meeting to Blaik’s office, last minute, telling her boss that she did not want the student journalist doing the interview off-campus at Blaik’s home, because it was not safe there.

One of the major keys to Penn’s revitalization strategy was to understand that it is not just about buildings. First it was about safety. Penn increased its police force, and installed pedestrian-scaled lamps in front of houses through the community. Next it was about living in the community. Penn created its famed mortgage program, incentivizing staff and faculty to live on campus. Then it was about education. Penn pumped money into the local public middle school, making it one of the best in the region, and attracting suburban families with young children to start looking at West Philadelphia.

Then it was about transforming the perception of the area surrounding campus. Penn replaced a large parking lot at 36th and Walnut Streets with a keystone building housing Penn’s new bookstore and street-level retail. Next it was about blurring the lines between campus and community. Penn had a major stake in developing the Fresh Grocer supermarket and the Bridge multiplex movie theater, with restaurants and retail attached.

Finally it was about attracting private investment. Dranoff renovated the West Bank building; the Hanover Company built Domus on land leased by Penn and purchased from the RDA; Terra Holdings built the HUB on Chestnut with Jose Garces’ celebrated new restaurant, Distrito; and the list goes on.

Blaik noted that this recent revitalization was intended to fix the mistakes of the 1950s-1970s. During that period, the Black Bottom neighborhood (memorialized on a wall at University City High School) was bulldozed by the RDA to build the University City Science Center. Then Penn built the aforementioned defensive architecture on the north side of its campus, cutting itself off from surrounding communities. Then the area declined, and blocks previously demolished for urban renewal sat vacant or became parking lots. The faculty all moved to the Main Line and the students all moved to Center City.

In reality, it is unclear how much the urban renewal era actually affected the socioeconomic shifts in the area around Penn. Had the Black Bottom remained, during the period when Philadelphia lost its industrial job base and a quarter of its population, it is possible (if not likely) that the decline around Penn would have been just as severe.

However, it is clear that the urban renewal era development did start a trend of poor urban design on campus, perpetuating a disconnect between campus and community. Blaik told the audience that he saw it has his job to “blur the lines between ‘us’ and ‘them’” and to fight the trend of “subsidizing a lifestyle of living in the suburbs and commuting into the city.”

One interesting point Blaik made was that many universities now seeking to revitalize their campus in a way similar to Penn’s, are having a much harder time because they do not own huge quantities of land. By a strange twist of fate, Penn’s recent real-estate boom was largely made possible through the eminent-domain condemnation of huge tracts of land back in the 1960s. This was condemnation at a scale that never would be palatable today.

Another important point is the one I started with – the idea of building an economic market from scratch. No supermarket chain wanted to locate on Penn’s campus, because they claimed that the customer base was not there (Indeed the Census data was deceiving – failing to reflect students’ families’ incomes). However, the Fresh Grocer is now earning over $800 per square foot. Why could the more mainstream supermarket chains not see beyond the numbers and identify this enormous potential?

This fact gets to one of the greatest challenges of the planning profession: How to convince developers, the business community, the City, and the public, that planning and urban development can profoundly alter the look and feel, the image and perception of a place. Indeed, through sound planning and development, we have the power to create a market that never existed. The key is getting a consumer base to change their perception of an area, and be willing (if not anxious) to go there to shop, work, or live. In other words, Penn’s challenge was how to transform the perception of 40th and Walnut Streets from the edge of the earth, to a safe, vibrant, and attractive urban crossroads.

Much of this image-changing power has to do with the way buildings are constructed. Had Penn allowed a supermarket to build a huge parking lot in front of its store, as in the suburbs, the Fresh Grocer might have attracted some of its current clientele, but it surely would not have had the same transformative power as its current, street-level, urbanized design (The Fresh Grocer’s suburbanized store at 56th and Chestnut has shoppers, but did not positively transform its surrounding area). Coupled with the equally urban movie theater across the street, the two structures utterly redefined this intersection. The success of urban development has as much to do with its use as it does with its urban design, and the image of the surrounding area.

Blaik remarked on the remarkable diversity of the Fresh Grocer’s clientele – elderly residents from the nearby senior housing, an array of students, West African immigrants, nearby families, university faculty and staff. Penn certainly has its share of community tension, but with the Fresh Grocer, the Bridge, farmers markets and some of the new retail, Penn arguably created a tremendously successful link between the campus and community, in a way that seems seamless within the urban landscape.

* * * * *

Penn proved that Eds and Meds don’t have to be bad neighbors, if they can plan outside their campus walls, and invest in a way that builds a true nexus between town and gown. Penn used its financial resources to create shared amenities (like supermarkets, movie theaters, housing, and farmers markets) for both students and neighbors.

Penn has certainly gotten its share of criticism for its recent revitalization program. Penntrification is the buzzword for the displacement of existing communities, caused by Penn’s recent investments. I have contributed to this criticism, citing the fact that supporting existing residents in the face of rising costs was not part of Penn’s program. However, that burden really should fall on the City. City Council has the ability to implement programs that tackle this issue. I have written more about that.

Despite this criticism, Penn did a spectacular job taking on an almost insurmountable problem and turning it into a great success. It took an understanding of the link between crime, education, local amenities, transportation, and urban design in transforming an area. It took well over a decade to really get off the ground, with lots of brushes with disaster, and a healthy dose of skepticism along the way. It took people who understood how the market functions, what the next steps needed to be in Penn’s comprehensive strategy, and had the know-how to look beyond the campus.

One of Blaik’s key points was that “institutions need people who know city planning, not just campus planning.” Surely this lesson will be key for Philadelphia’s institutions to become better neighbors, incubators of community development, bastions of good urbanism, and anchors in a vital city. As we move ahead with other institutional expansions, and as we plan for the placement of two casinos, I hope that we all keep the complex, but critical lessons of Penn fresh in our minds.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Making the Connection

On November 15th, the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management hosted “Making the Connection: Transit Oriented Development – A Blueprint for Success.” The conference brought together Douglas Foy, Robert Cervero and officials from NJTransit (among others) and essentially produced a conference that was the equivalent of a Transit Oriented Development (TOD) obsessive policy wonk’s dream team.

For those of you who aren’t quite there and are wondering what TOD is: Transit Oriented Development is a planning paradigm that suggests that development should exploit the intrinsic link between transportation modes and neighborhood shape and density to create walkable communities around transit hubs.
Douglas Foy is one of the rare public officials who gets it on both the macro, and the micro level. When he was Massachusetts’ “development czar” under Governor Mitt Romney, the Commonwealth produced some of the most far-sighted, intelligent smart growth policies that I have seen. Under a variety of acts (Acts S and R 40, to name a few) the Commonwealth chose to provide those municipalities that adopted “smart growth” (i.e. controlled suburban growth) zoning codes, would be eligible for a whole slew of money to help them invest in their traditional town cores.

What made these acts so well crafted is not only that they pegged the release of some funds to the project’s adoption, but they gave counties $2,000 for every housing unit whose permits for construction were released (i.e., they gave incentives for the townships to get things moving fast. However, what really shows a deft touch here, was the fact that the commonwealth promised to cover the gap created by the added burden of a new child on the existing school budget. This way towns would not complain that new development would bring in additional children — gradually eating away at the dollars-per-child ratio and it takes a smart administrator to speak not in terms of his or her own goals, but in that of the people arguing for or against a given project..
Before I call attention to a few of the smarter things Douglas Foy said (that I think students of the transportation-land-use link should pay special attention to) I have to include two jokes of his, one a little more germane to the planning profession than the other (I will let you figure out which is which):

“In a European Heaven, the British would be the Police, the German's the Engineers, the French would be the Chef's, the Swiss the Administrators, and the Italians would be the lovers. In a European Hell the British are the Chefs, the Germans are the Police, the French are the Engineers, the Swiss are the lovers and the Italians are the Administrators...”
"Power corrupts, Powerpoint corrupts absolutely..."

However the real meat of Foy’s talk centered around a few principles and key insights. Foy gives a lot of attention to the role and function of the State Governments. This should not come as a surprise considering where he comes from, and why he was asked to speak. However, that should not discount what he has to say. If anything he hits the nail on the head. While federal mandates shape funding policy in many ways, the real implementation of transportation, housing programs, and the real shapers of our regional environment are the state agencies.
Doug Foy noted that those states that were the most effective at managing smart growth, were those that brought the providers of housing, layers of road and sewers and services together around one table. He recollected how he had to fight with the agencies that controlled waters and sewers in Massachusetts to allow the growth of capacity in old towns (they regularly required in their funding guidelines that new sewers and water lines be built away from urbanized areas). It is this marriage of policy, service delivery, and capital programming (i.e. the $$$s) of different agencies around one table, that promotes smart growth.

However, he stressed something that transportation advocates often forget. It’s not, in fact about the transit. It is about the pedestrian. Foy’s rule is that everybody should be within a short walk to buy a quart of milk. Richard Roberts (NJ Transit Chief Planner) pointed out later, in his derision of the planners’ sacred half mile circle, how quickly we tend to adopt to quick “rules” of thumbs that hide the thing we are really looking for.
Later on Robert Cervero made a very interesting point: Cervero, a rather famous land use and transportation planning researcher (yes, planners have crushes… one can have civic crushes, and planning crushes, and administrative ones as well) noted that his dream of TOD is a world with multiple chains of transit development (often compared to emerald necklaces, like Olmstead’s park systems) that enable a new form of heightened para-transit, jitneys to feather people between spokes of the system, etc. Again, it is not about the actual system itself, but about, ultimately, the mobility and accessibility of the people living in the neighborhoods and region.

This is important because by not planning for people, we will have a harder time communicating with the public. Steve Goldin a New Jersey Developer (CEO of InterCap Holdings) made salient reminders to planners of developers’ needs, and the importance of solid infrastructure developments that in essence provide surety to developers to take a risk there. However he stressed that the main barriers are those of people who fear changes in their property values or increase in local taxes.
By trying to talk about and communicate the merits of walkability and other jargon-filled idealistic dreams, we forget to engage in a meaningful conversation with, or address the needs of, our neighbors and our citizens. We should trust that if we don’t treat our neighbors like idiots we may even begin to emerge with more interesting ideas. 70% of all ballot initiatives related to transportation passed this election cycle, according to Foy.

Foy insisted, towards the end of his lecture, that the key to TOD reform was investment in a very specific technology: Mesh Networking. According to Foy, Mesh Networking enables broadband-like communication synchronization between devices that could revolutionize how we stay wired, allowing us to piggyback access to the internet off of other devices, not by invading their operating systems (I am not sure how it works, but that’s not the point). The point is, such Mesh Networking would enable us to provide cheap, on-time information to phones/PDMs etc. even across rural areas. Foy was essentially saying that in order to gain the support of rural areas, you need to show them that they too can benefit from investments and technologies that benefit transit; they too have vested interests.
What’s funny is that all this is less about planning, and more about negotiation. We need to figure out how to negotiate our way forward, addressing the core values of different constituencies, and finding avenues for investing for mutual benefit.


To all of my readers, please welcome UrbanDirection╩╝s second blogger, Ariel Ben Amos. Ariel is a friend of mine who brings experience and insight in land use, transportation planning, and urban development, as well as a keen mind and an inquisitive personality. Ariel has worked at Mt. Airy USA, Penn Praxis, Neighborhoods Now, and the Mayor╩╝s Office of Transportation and Utilities in Philadelphia. He also spent two years in the Peace Corps in Albania. Look for his first post, coming soon!

Letter in the Inquirer

I had a letter printed in the Inquirer today about affordable housing. The editor shortened it because my original was too long. Below is the full letter I submitted:

To the Editor:

I was glad to see the Inquirer’s editorial (“Affordable Housing,” 11/12/2008), reminding us of the City’s efforts to implement inclusionary housing – that would require affordable housing units integrated in new market-rate developments. As the editorial reflects, this is a policy that most major cities have already adopted, and that is widely used across the board in several states (including New Jersey).

Philadelphia has many low-priced homes and apartments; however, they are predominantly clustered in very poor areas. Inclusionary housing makes sure that where new market-rate homes are being built, that a portion of the new homes are affordable. The result is that every neighborhood, no matter how upscale, maintains a pool of affordable units. Most American cities have recognized this kind of income integration as a critical goal.

However, it is important to remember that even the most successful inclusionary housing programs are not a silver bullet, and are not a replacement for public housing. In Philadelphia’s tenuous housing market, this would be an added cost to developers. It is an important program, but we need to implement it in a way that is legal and financially viable.

With inclusionary housing, developers must take a loss on the below-market units. For this reason, the courts have only found inclusionary housing to be legal when the City provides substantial developer incentives. Because the burden falls on the private sector, the affordable units cannot be priced too far below market. Thus, inclusionary housing has been much more effective at providing units priced for people of moderate income, than providing housing for the poor.

Inclusionary housing must be just one component of a larger strategy to provide affordable housing options in every neighborhood, at a variety of price points. Other tools at the City’s disposal include new tax credits for rental housing, and tax freezes or deferments for low-income homeowners.

The most significant tool, however, is increased funding for subsidized housing. The City’s resources are very limited here. We need more attention from Washington D.C. Unfortunately, the current presidential administration has been devastating for the Department of Housing and Urban Development and programs like Hope VI, that were effectively starting to make headway with new approaches for mixed-income housing development.

In this struggling economy we cannot put too much of the public burden on the private sector without true incentives to make affordable housing programs legal and viable. Philadelphia’s foray into inclusionary housing is a strong step that most major cities have already taken to ensure a range of housing price options in every neighborhood – creating a truly mixed-income and diverse urban landscape.

Gregory Heller

Monday, November 10, 2008

Leadership and Policy: The Keys to Solving a Global Crisis


I attended a fascinating conference last week at the University of Pennsylvania, entitled “Re-imagining Cities: Urban Design After the Age of Oil.” Sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, the conference marks the 50th anniversary of the 1958 “Conference on Urban Design Criticism,” also sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation and Penn.

In 1958, now-renowned figures like Jane Jacobs, Louis Kahn, Kevin Lynch, Ian McHarg, Lewis Mumford and I.M. Pei pondered the problems of their time, and forged a vision for the future. At this 2008 conference, contemporary American urbanists partook in the same exercise, but this time focusing on energy and climate issues as central to our global future. This conference also featured some bigwigs like Judith Rodin, Robert Yaro, and Neal Peirce, as well as many of Penn’s renowned faculty and local government officials.

Perhaps the best part of the conference was how international it was. So many of these types of programs typically include an array of American speakers all focusing on the insular issues of a wealthy, auto-centric nation, with struggling post-industrial cities, and booming suburbs overrun by strip malls and McMansions. It was refreshing to hear about a much broader and more complex range of urban issues from across the globe. For example:

  • Dinesh Mohan of the Indian Institute of Technology talked about the competitive advantage of allowing squatters to live in urban downtowns, because these residents would rely on far less in government services than if they lived in the poverty-stricken countryside. This note reflected the extreme efficiency of urban areas to provide services cost-effectively to a large number of people.
  • Samuel Babatunde Agbola, a professor at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria talked about the problem of convincing a host of provincial leaders to work together on regional transportation issues in Nigeria. This was an concept that struck a chord for the session moderator, Robert Yaro, who citied the over 900 municipal governments in the New York region that need to cooperate.
  • Jiang Wu, Deputy Director General of the Shanghai Urban Planning Administration Bureau laid out Shanghai’s vision of surrounding its city of 18 million people with nine new satellite cities of up to one million people each, while preserving 30% of the land surrounding Shanghai as permanent open space. This would be a top-down solution for centralizing land use and transportation while promoting land preservation.
  • Jonas Rabinovitch, now at the United Nations, but who formerly worked for Jaime Lerner, the renowned former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil, explained Curitiba’s famous mass transit system that uses bus rapid transit to emulate the efficiency of a subway, but at much lower costs.
  • One of the most fascinating perspectives came from Adij Najam, of Boston University, who argued that if we viewed the planet Earth in the way that we view countries (GDP, levels of poverty, pollution, education rates, employment, etc.) that Earth would be a very poor country, indeed.

Several of the speakers brought up the fact that America’s new concern about energy is almost exclusively the result of rising gasoline prices. We have been here before. In the 1970s during the last major spike in gas prices there was a significant increase in awareness about energy issues. However, prices sank again, and when Philadelphia’s renowned city planner, Edmund Bacon, tried to host a “Post-Petroleum City Conference” in 1993, it fizzled due to lack of interest, and never got off the ground.

Certainly those present at Penn understood the profound crisis that our world faces. It is not just about energy, but about global warming and rising population – to name some of the largest threats to life as we know it. The conference raised some profound questions: How do we achieve the 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions that many scientists feel will be necessary in the coming decades to avoid massive melting in the polar regions? How will we feed the estimated nine billion people who will be here, according to many estimates, less than fifty years from now?

It was evident at the conference that many of the experts dealing with these issues across the globe agree that cities offer our best – perhaps only – hope for addressing these problems. Cities are the most energy and resource efficient environments. They have the ability to house and transport large numbers of people; connect them cheaply with resources, jobs, transportation, and food; and leave much of our natural landscape for agricultural and natural uses.

In China, the government can engineer land-use policy to ensure that people live in compact cities and the natural lands stay open, as Jiang Wu discussed for Shanghai. However, most of the world does not have this kind of government-controlled land-use authority, certainly not here in the U.S. In our individualistic society, how do we take on these profound challenges?

In a panel moderated by Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron, Andrew Revkin, New York Times’ Dot Earth blogger, talked about the difficulty of convincing newspaper editors to print news of environmental issues, because they are not matters of immediate concern. Newspapers report on the here-and-now, not the been-brewing-for-half-a-century and will-start-to-impact-us-in-the-next-couple-of-decades.

Of course, Americans have cared about environmental issues. One of the conference speakers remarked that many people are “tired of green.” He was referring to the current fad (?) of every product, company, and commercial having some kind of tie-in to environmental issues. Some experts feel that “green” has become the most profitable advertising tool of all time.

However, as Revkin noted, we are not going to solve the energy crisis through small-scale, individual action. It is great for Americans to be aware of environmental issues; however, turning off the lights, buying a certain product, and recycling are not even going to touch the tip of the iceberg. The kinds of solutions that America and other countries across the globe need are large-scale shifts in our lifestyles. That is a hard (perhaps impossible) sell for America.

The kinds of shifts we need in the U.S. will require a significant number of Americans to give up their cars or use them considerably less. Millions more people need to move to concentrated metropolitan areas. We need to invest in mass transit solutions to cut down on the carbon footprint of our transportation infrastructure. We need intercity rail to reduce our reliance on air travel. We need energy efficient homes and offices.

If it is going to be possible for America to achieve true strides in reducing our energy consumption and our carbon footprint, change will have to start at both the top and the bottom. This was a constant theme throughout the conference at Penn. In the Greater Philadelphia Region we have over 350 municipal governments, each with its own leadership, its own zoning, its own police, fire departments, and schools, and its own policies. However, the these local governments make some of the most significant policy in our nation – affecting land use and transportation decisions. As long as each of our local, county, and state governments only look out for their own geographic boundaries, we will get nowhere.

The first step to the kind of change we need is clearly leadership. American spoke last week electing a president who ran on a platform of change, and who has advocated for energy and climate issues as main priorities. It has been generations since America has seen true leadership, setting an example from the top for profound change.

However, leadership is not enough. Our nation’s leaders need a popular political mandate to shift policies in a significant way. This means that average Americans need to feel that issues of energy and sustainability are significant enough to win their vote, their letter or phone call to their congressman or senator. The issues that most effectively bring collective awareness and a call for crisis-level action are those that hit the pocketbook or strike close to home. Hurricane Katrina got us thinking about global sea rise. Increasing gas prices got us thinking about fuel shortage.

The bottom line is that in America, while we do not govern collectively, we do develop a collective ideology of what is important. We know that issues that impact us financially or socially at a local level, will gain our attention and our support. Andrew Revkin is right that environmental issues do not seem to be immediate to many Americans, right now. However, with the right leadership, and with the right policies Americans will both see the daily local impact of environmental issues, and be inspired to take action.

The question is, how to frame the issue so that it shows its immediacy to a wide spectrum of the American public? How do we create financial incentives to make these issues hit home on a day-to-day basis? How do we seize on local awareness of environmental repercussions (like Katrina), and tell the story on a national level, in a way that captures the hearts and minds of average Americans?

Which tools will work, will resonate, will be palatable to the American public are the questions that confront our lawmakers today. They are the challenges for the next presidential administration. However, what is clear is that only if our policy makers can provide true leadership, and answer these tough questions will we, in America, be able to start on the track of tackling our share of this global crisis.