Wednesday, December 23, 2009
You don’t have to take Reconnecting America’s word for it, just ask your Realtor, housing that is closer to transit is worth more than housing that is farther away. This is the premise behind Transit Oriented Development (TOD) and it is a popular one among transportation policy wonks and developers. Cities and suburbs across the United States have changed their zoning codes to creating dense, walkable environments within a half mile from transit and counties, states and federal agencies are pouring money into affordable housing near transit stations. Recently the US DOT and HUD have banded together to create “Livable Communities” and target their funding to maximize the land-use / transportation connection. What excites me about this is not the seismic change in federal policy that this shift indicates, but the opportunities it means for Philadelphia, SEPTA and our metropolitan region.
To date, there are a few problems with TOD in the Philadelphia region. For one, TOD is often project based and project biased. Any new development within a quarter mile of transit is slapped with a TOD sticker of approval by developers hoping to cash in on available dollars and win good will. This means that when we look at TOD, we focus on the “D” and not the “T” which is a huge mistake. It’s a huge mistake because it assumes that all transit is good for development. As Econsult noted in their report on TOD for NeighborhoodsNow, the value of any development is contingent upon the value of the transit service provided. T’s value in “TOD” is only as strong as the frequency of service that it provides: i.e. fast frequent transit is good for development. However in Philadelphia our fastest, most frequent and reliable transit systems are in the core of the city, along the Market Frankford Line and Broad Street subway, both of which travel through our dense urban and underinvested core. Our oldest neighborhoods have been hardest hit by the late 20th century exodus into the suburbs. These potential TOD districts are marked by complicated land ownership patterns and markets developers don’t want to serve. Moreover, typically TOD’s are financed by bonds backed by rising real-estate values created by the transit service. However not only do those TIF (Tax Increment Financing) backed bonds work best when a new transit line is placed where none was before, but Philadelphia with its ten-year tax abatement and slow reassessment processes means that TIF around transit does not work in Philadelphia.
But this does not mean that there are no TOD opportunities for Philadelphia. If we ignore for a moment the D side of “TOD” in Philadelphia (three such projects are being built around Temple and Washington Lane regional rail train stations and one around the 46th and Market, elevated train line) and focus on the T potential, we find that there are regional opportunities for collaboration.
Focusing on the T in TOD means we need to think of two key measures of transit: the strength/ draw of the destination (another D in a popular transit policy acronym, O&D or origin and destination) and the frequency of service. While we have regional rail lines flowing into center city from the Main Line to Malvern, their TOD value remains relatively low: with only half hour peak headways (i.e. trains that come only once every half hour during rush hour) and hour long off-peak headways, they simply are not that attractive to Center City commuters or area residents. Increasing transit service frequency on regional rails that bring workers from the region’s wealthiest neighborhoods through its poorest and into the heart of the central business district and allows for easier access for casual day-trippers is critical and has been called for by area policy-wonks at both the Economy League and Econsult (and featured as part of a UPenn city planning studio vision plan).
There are major challenges to doing so. SEPTA can only accommodate so many cars in its tunnels during rush hour. However the bigger obstacle is how much such a project would cost, but the suburbs don’t have the tax abatements Philly does and TIF financing could potentially pay for this.
It would take a shift in mind-set; we are used to having TIF financing pay for buildings. However the very development of new buildings is actually one of the hugest impediments to TOD developers, neighbors are worried about having new buildings come in and with it new families (and more children which means more teachers) and more cars. Investing in transit itself can help build regional land values without raising taxes, building new buildings or bringing new children into the neighborhoods. This would be a win for both the counties and the city. The counties (and municipalities along the rail lines) become more competitive and more frequent service along transit lines that also pass through Philadelphia’s inner neighborhoods builds the value of the surrounding neighborhoods within the city. Most importantly it provides an opportunity for cooperation between counties and the City, who all too often clash over SEPTA and the allocation of resources within the system.
Sunday, December 20, 2009
Friday, December 4, 2009
Yesterday I had the opportunity to see an in-depth presentation by the Barnes Foundation about their new home on the Parkway at the Design Advocacy Group’s monthly meeting. There are those who argue that this public presentation was far too late in the offering; particularly because the building is so heavily subsidized by public funds. Even more so when such a presentation falls weeks after the project’s groundbreaking. I was pleasantly surprised by the Barnes Foundation’s responses to previous criticisms: they reduced the vehicular forecourt by half and increased the sidewalk entrance into their space and seem to have done all they could, within certain parameters, to address these issues.
The problem is these ‘certain parameters.’ They stem from the Barnes Foundation context of the decision-making that brought it to the Parkway in the first place. Proponents of the move praise the decision as one that brings the Parkway ever closer to the on-going dream of a Champs-Élysées, dense with cultural attractions. Opponents decry the flagrant breaking of Alfred Barnses’s will to bring a large tourist attraction to the Parkway. I myself am personally in favor of dense urban development of the Parkway and was initially hard-pressed to criticize something that I thought was for the ultimate good of the city. However as the design reveals, the Barnes Foundation, as an institution, is itself not amenable to being part of that dense urban development. One sees that first with the trees.
There is a grove of trees, four rows deep, on their site as it lining the Parkway. The trees are large and beautiful, and it would be a shame to cut them down. However if the dream of a Champs-Élysées-like boulevard is to be realized, new buildings along the Parkway actually need to come to the lot line and, I hate to say, the trees would need to be sacrificed to realize that dream. Instead what the architect prioritizes (largely, I am sure, at the behest of the Foundation and in an attempt to reflect the dream) is a sense of seclusion and quiet contemplation. That sense of seclusion and quiet contemplation is best served not on a busy urban boulevard, but in a suburban location. Oh wait, that is what they are moving away from.
Granted the Barnes Foundation had unique needs that its Cret building was not serving. There was little room for back offices, conservations labs, etc. However as the Barnes Foundation’s new building program was being designed, the clients added all these extra amenities that seem, in their own internal logic to be all well and good, but make little sense in the specific context of where they are going. The architects have created a park and fountain as a gift to the city, in what they consider to be the real entrance to the site, at the corner of 20th and the Parkway. Forget for a moment that most visitors will be coming via car (because that is how a majority of museum-goers actually travel) and think about another fountain in the area, the Logan Circle fountain which has seen massive investment and massive use. While certainly the Logan Circle fountain is hard to get to and this new one is less so (one must cross two lanes of traffic instead of four) I suspect that both fountains will suffer due to what might also amount to an over-saturation of fountains in the area, if such a thing is possible. What I am relatively more sure of is the certain over-saturation of auditoriums along the Parkway. The Barnes will include a 150-seat auditorium in the building; The Foundation is hoping to host movies and public concerts with the orchestra in the auditorium and they are pitching this as a new public gathering place for the city. The problem is that both the Free Library and the Academy of Natural Sciences both have large auditoriums literally across the street and I wonder who and why one will be chosen over the other. My real complaint about the auditorium is that I fear that the project funders have overburdened the Barnes itself with a series of amenities and features that will cost significant money to maintain, and will provide little real return. I can only imagine a new bail-out for the Barnes ten years down the line.
Ultimately, I think the building itself is beautiful; I just think the overall decision-making context that wrought it is ugly.
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
A brief aside regarding tax policy, fiscal crisis and why taxing Wall Street to pay for infrastructure is not quite right...
I think it is fair to say that our current financial crisis was caused by the legalization and utilization of financial products whose risk was not properly appreciated. The failure of these products has cost the United States, and the world, dearly.
One might suppose that it is not surprising that Democratic representatives are looking to tax Wall Street to fund key initiatives. Recently Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) has argued that the US should levy a tax upon financial transactions to fund a jobs bill and Rep. Pete DeFazio (D-OR) would like to impose a small per-trade tax on the Wall Street oil futures market.
When James Surowiecki of the New Yorker writes about similar attempts to regulate the financial markets (as opposed to imposing the above mentioned taxes with very tenuous nexus) he characterizes the reaction against such initiatives as veritable chastisements of attempts to “stifle innovation.” Surowiecki argues that indeed, that is precisely the point: that we want only so much innovation, that such potential (and now actualized) risk is externalized to the public and not born only by the investors. I buy that argument. I’m not just indulging in a little populism when I say that I find it hard to argue that the any of these financial instrument portfolio managers (or whatever) who received six figure bonuses really suffered the effect of the damage they caused.
However, tax policy must be refined and not blatantly spread about taxes should be based upon some sort of nexus. I am highly ambivalent about the above-mentioned proposals, while they smell like bad policy I would love to get my hands on that tax revenue to build better transit service in Philadelphia.
An appropriate tax would integrate an assessment of the risk any given financial instrument has to our overall economy. HMO’s determine your monthly payments based upon your potential to cost them a lot of money. I would argue we need to tax financial products similarly. If you want to engage in risky home mortgage derivatives, you should pay for it with a transaction tax.
Not only does that discourage risky products (not risky for the investor, rather risky for the economy as a whole) from proliferating but we could use the generated revenue to either invest a hedge against such damage, or to invest in necessary reforms, etc.
This argument has its limits, I am uneasy with the parallels to the tobacco industry, and various states’ reliance on cigarette taxes to plug budget deficits and I am not sure how on earth you would even begin to measure such risk on the outset, none the less, I believe that is an avenue worth exploring.
Monday, November 30, 2009
A study recently released by Subsidyscope shows that highway funding relies less and less upon the Gas Tax and more and more upon a variety of other property taxes and bonds (which we as citizens are required to pay back through our taxes). Contrary to people who argue that highways pay for themselves, we have ended up paying for them more and more. I won't try and go into detail here, the study is very readable and I urge you to read it.
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Friday, November 13, 2009
On Monday October 26th over 70 people attended A Forum on the Future of Bus Shelters and Street Furniture sponsored by the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities. The forum began with a presentation on the City’s intentions to issue an RFP for bus shelters and street furniture by Deputy Mayor Rina Cutler. Joe Minott of the Clean Air Council and the Next Great City Coalition shared his perspective on how a well structured bus shelter and street furniture contract can increase transit usage and improve the visual appeal of the City. Mary Tracy, who leads SCRUB: The Public Voice of Public Space Spoke about limiting the role of advertising in public spaces. Representatives from the leading street furniture vendors: CBSOutdoor, Cemusa, JCDecaux and Clear Channel spoke about their work in cities around the world. All answered questions posed by the audience.
While various different types of street furniture have dotted city streets for centuries, the development of large scale “Street Furniture Programs,” (SFP) where cities install an array of bus shelters, benches and kiosks in a coordinated and strategic fashion is something relatively new. They are more important than they used to be too. Since the early 1990’s the City of Philadelphia has earned about $10 million from the advertising that is part of Philadelphia’s bus shelter contract. There are 260 shelters managed by CBS Outdoor on behalf of the city, 27 “Arts in Transit” shelters in Center City managed and maintained by the Center City District, 12 sculptural shelters along Chestnut Street in Center city and non-advertising shelters maintained by CDCs and private institutions.
The release of a Request For Proposals (RFP) for a bus shelter and street furniture program presents an opportunity to markedly expand the amenities offered and the revenue generated for the city. Boston, Chicago and Washington have made similar deals in the last decade. Boston (with Wall/Decaux) installed approximately 400 bus shelters and a variety of newsstands, information/advertising kiosks & automated public toilets (APTs) and is on track to receive an estimated $21.3 million dollars over a 20 year period (~$1 million per year). Chicago (with JCDecaux) has around 2,000 bus shelters, with assorted newsstands, information kiosks and the like and expects to bring in nearly $300 million over twenty years (~$15 million per year). Washington DC (with ClearChannel) is installing 700 bus shelters as part of a 20 year contract that is estimated to return to the district $150 million in revenue. Several factors influenced these SFPs and are important to keep in mind in Philadelphia.
Just from comparing Chicago and Boston we can see several of the factors affecting their respective SFPs. It is little wonder that with 4.2 times more bus shelters and back-lit information /advertising panels, Chicago makes far more ad revenue than Boston. However, there is no direct relationship between the number of shelters in a city and the amount of revenue made. Chicago makes around 14 times more money than Boston because its market is worth more. Research by PriceWaterhouse Coopers suggests that more money is made and consumed in the Chicago metropolitan region ($460 billion) than in the Boston region ($290 million). Philadelphia does slightly better than Boston, with a regional GDP of around $312 billion, but does not come close to Chicago. The market, however, does not determine everything. Cities may require different levels of maintenance or the distribution of shelters in neighborhoods that do not draw in as much advertising revenue. These demands come at a cost. Companies do not measure their profit in simply the amount of money they earn, but the percent return on the investment, and the more they invest in both the short and long term, the less the amount of their profits they are willing to share with the City.
Perspectives Heard at the Forum
Joe Minott and Mary Tracy (SCRUB) both emphasized that a new Street Furniture Program must, in fact, increase the number of bus shelters in low income neighborhoods, have a proactive maintenance schedule, be well integrated into SEPTA and be well designed. This approach met with little resistance from the attending vendors (CBS Outdoors, Cemusa, Clear Channel and JCDecaux). JCDecaux noted that 30% of their bus shelters earned 75% of the revenue, and it was clear that vendors have experience providing street furniture in all kinds of neighborhoods. More importantly almost all vendors noted that the cleanliness of their shelters was in their own best interest. Vendors, in the end, cared most about clarity in the RFP and making sure that all rights and responsibilities were clearly articulated.
The public who attended were concerned about three different issues, all of them specific to Philadelphia. Many who showed up cared deeply about supporting the arts through discounted advertising. The Deputy Mayor for Transportation and Utilities, Rina Cutler, noted that the City is committed to continue what is popularly known as the Arts-in-Transit program. There will be new guidelines and local non-profit arts organizations will be able to continue to promote their shows at
A representative of the Newsstand Association noted the concern of newsstand owners to keep the revenues from full-scale exterior ads on their stands. Newsstand owners frequently pay mortgages on their newsstand. The association requests that newsstands not be part of the RFP, but if they are to be included, the association wishes to work with the administration. The Deputy Mayor noted that she would be happy to meet with the association. The outcomes of such discussions will have real consequences on the value of other advertising in the city, and how much vendors are willing to pay. In fact, currently the City’s contract has a non-compete clause. If the City must compete with newsstand advertising, the value of the City’s advertising is likely to diminish and less revenue will come to the City.
Several noted that cities across the US have used SFP’s to fund bicycle amenities and bike sharing programs. These audience members hope that the upcoming Philadelphia SFP would provide an opportunity for the same in Philadelphia. Additional amenities such as bike racks and benches come at a cost and require additional revenue or a reduction in the revenue returned to the City. The addition of a bike-share system is even more complicated. In Montreal, each bike must generate over $1,000 of revenue per year to cover its costs. In Boston, each advertising panel brings in $888 dollars of revenue to the city per year. A bike share system in Philadelphia is not impossible, but the questions of how big must it be to work and how much less revenue the City is willing to accept, still looms large. The City has a study underway that outlines the market for a bike-share system in Philadelphia. It should be completed by the end of the year. It is not expected to be part of the street furniture RFP at this time.
So far the City has received over 1,000 responses to our online survey regarding street furniture and what respondents would like to see in the next contract.
• A majority of respondents suggested that real-time / next arrival schedule information should be an integral part of the next generation of bus shelters, followed by route maps and clear panels to be ale to see what is around the shelter. We will work with SEPTA in order to provide this information.
• Over 91% of Philadelphian’s think it is important to generate advertising revenue to support the City’s general fund and 66% are willing to add more advertising to generate additional revenue.
• Philadelphians are most excited to see Bus Shelters, Bike Shelters and Benches
As the integration of a Bike-Share system reveals, providing the amenities that citizens want within the context of a public-private partnership is complicated. The City sees an opportunity to inject non-tax revenue into the General Fund. All of the other issues such as low cost add space for arts and culture related non profits, a bike share system, and allowing advertising on privately owned newsstands has a cost to the city. Finding the right balance between revenue and amenities will largely dictate the amount of revenue the City will realize from this program.
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Friday, November 6, 2009
With hundreds of thousands of Philadelphians affected by the TWU 234 strike, it’s not hard to find good reasons to be angry. Traffic jams, expensive cab rides, and other delays are irritating; hourly workers struggling to make ends meet being kept from work is heartbreaking; and students from kindergarten through college being kept out of school is appalling.
The disruption to daily life is rightfully getting a lot of attention, but there’s a larger, though less personally urgent, issue raised by the SETPA workers’ surprise strike, and it deserves consideration by both ordinary citizens and our highest ranking elected officials: a crippling transit strike took the city by surprise four hours before the polls opened.
This is no small matter. How many fewer votes were cast because of the strike may never be known, but it’s hard to imagine the number was not substantial. Though some voters rely on SEPTA to get to their polling places, they’re not the only ones were prevented from voting because of the strike. Major disruptions to routines and plans certainly make citizens less likely to vote, and the lack of warning ensured that creating backup plans would be as difficult as possible. Any parents who rely on SEPTA to get the kids to school and themselves to work woke up to two enormous problems, and any intention to vote would have taken a back seat to the immediate concerns of daily life.
Thankfully for the integrity of the election, most of the races were won in landslides, and it seems likely the strike made little difference. Were any of the major races close, the city might have seen apoplectic candidates tossing accusations of election tampering at union leaders, even demanding criminal investigations (perhaps not without cause).
Nine years ago, a few dozen inconvenienced voters here and there in Florida raised suspicions. A few hundred turned into court cases and questions of legitimacy. A transit strike on a busier election day could prevent thousands, even tens of thousands, of voters from getting to the polls. We shouldn’t wait for a transit strike on the eve of a closer election for a more visible office to realize this is a problem; public officials should eliminate that possibility immediately.
The citizenry wouldn’t stand for a strike designed to keep voters from the polls, but how is unintentional election tampering significantly better? And what’s to stop potentially immoral union leaders of the future, in Philadelphia or elsewhere, from orchestrating strikes for hidden political reasons? The current union leaders are already seen by some to be exercising too much power on their union’s behalf.
Police and firefighters aren’t allowed to strike because it would be a threat to public safety. Transit strikes on Election Day, especially surprise strikes, are a threat to democracy itself. Keeping voters from the polls undermines our entire political system, and doing so purposefully on a massive scale should be unconscionable to any American.
Transit strikes on Election Day should be made illegal, and the irresponsible union leaders who orchestrated such a strike this week owe the city a huge apology, if not their resignations.
Monday, November 2, 2009
Betz’s project falls under the purview of the property management department for the CRA/LA with support by the CRA/LA chief executive officer, Cecillia Estolano, because it coincided with goals of investing in sustainability and clean technology. It didn’t hurt that as Betz puts it, the “setting was a pretty spectacular view.” The project, which utilized a goat herder an hour-and-a half outside of Los Angeles, was a significant public relations win, with five channels covering the project, one even from Japan. The goat herder, Ranchite Tivo Boer Goats, came with recommendations from Caltrans who used them to manage hilly land around their tracks.
Ranchite Tivo brought in 100 goats for a contracted five nights, though the work was done in two days. In addition to the permanent fencing surrounding the CRA property, portable electric fences were added as a precaution to kept the goats safely penned up. To that end a guard spent the night, and the local area Business Improvement District patrol kept a special eye out for the goats. But nothing happened, and this year no one is even spending the night.
Generally, Betz spends approximately $7,500 on clearing the lot, a price that is a function of how many weeds and how many people it would take to clear those weeds. It usually “takes a crew about 2 to three days to clear the hillside,” but the goats did it in just under half the cost and had the added benefit of being a hit with the office crowd. Not only were the goats very easy to get along with, “they [just] eat and sleep... and follow the leader” but they left it (having trimmed 98%) looking like “someone has manicured the property.” All the CRLA had to do was sweep off their droppings from adjoining sidewalks and staircases. They were so popular that neighboring Angelus Plaza senior citizen center hired them shortly thereafter to clean up their community garden.
Friday, October 30, 2009
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Sunday, October 25, 2009
While food system planning tends to focus on the development of grocery stores, farmers markets and community gardens, it does not often make the link between transportation, shopping and food systems. In Europe, and across the world, where communities are more walkable and fresh local produce is more accessible, stopping by a Shouk or a Bazar after work to pick up a few vegetables is a way of life. In America our shopping habits are more concentrated and require more support: we shop for groceries once or twice a month, load up our cars and hope we finish our vegetables before we go shopping again. But when 36% percent of Philadelphians' don’t own cars and when car ownership imposes a significant burden on low income families, then you have a growing realization that there is a critical link between food systems and transit planning.
According to the latest American Community Survey, 26% of Philadelphians commute to work via transit. While they may use transit for work, far fewer use it for such things as shopping. According to a 2005 Econsult on commercial corridors, only 10% of trips to commercial corridors were taken via public transit. More over 52% of all trips to commercial corridors in areas where thirty percent of the population is below the poverty line were via car. However, only 37% of people in those areas actually own cars. Philadelphians with lower incomes have significantly less access to fresh and healthy food and everybody from The Reinvestment Fund, to the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition and State Representative Dwight Evans have been fighting to bridge that gap. Over 125,000 people shop at local farmers markets, and 167,695 Philadelphians live near commercial corridors without grocery stores. By partnering with supermarkets and the Food Trust (which oversees Philadelphia’s 27 farmers markets), by out-fitting buses with simple shelves, and targeted routing changes it is possible to “move the needle” and bring the number of people who shop via SEPTA closer to those who commute via SEPTA.
WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 28, 2009
Imagining Philadelphia: Edmund Bacon and the Future of the City - 1.25 AIA/CES LUs; CEU Eligible for PA Landscape Architects
Friday, October 23, 2009
Recently The Oregonian featured an article titled Residents of transit-oriented Orenco Station still driving cars to work. The author notes:
"About two out of three Orenco residents drive to work in cars, slightly less than some other suburbs but hardly the car-free utopia many idealists expect of the transit-oriented area. Even as the neighborhood has grown closer, block by block, to the MAX light rail station"At first glance this “post occupancy study” would suggest that transit oriented development does not work.
However, no matter how damning the headline or lead sentence may be generally one can find far more interesting data further along in a report. For one, it would appear that most people who live in Orenco tend to:
"...walk to shopping and use mass transit for nonwork trips – to the zoo or symphony, for example – at rates that beat other suburban communities… Orenco residents are five times as likely as [nearby neighborhood] residents to walk to shops and stores more than five times a week."As Jennifer Dill director of the Oregon Transportation Research and Education Consortium notes, only 20% of trips are journeys to work trips. The fact that their journey to work (JTW) still exhibit high car mode share is a function of where they are going. After all, every trip is determined by origin and destination, and if the origin is walkable but the destination isn’t, well, you will simply have to drive there. That is clearly evident when people in Orenco prefer to move around their neighborhood via foot and bike but still drive to work.
Ultimately this a reminder that any single TOD is only as effective as the entire region around it. TOD is not about specific projects here or there, but the rules by which we allow our entire region to be built.
Saturday, October 17, 2009
Monday, October 12, 2009
I finally got up to New York to see the High Line. As expected, it is pretty cool. It was packed with people sunning themselves, walking, eating at a café – all experienced at an elevation to which we are not quite accustomed.
The High Line has some interesting features that attempt to retain the site’s historical memory as a an abandoned railroad bed, like overgrown vegetation and railroad tracks emerging out of the ground in some spots. I found these elements particularly important to the experience. No matter how expensive the park’s finishes (it cost $150 million so far) or the luxury buildings that abut the High Line, its designers want us to remember a period when this viaduct was abandoned and overgrown – a ghost of a vibrant industrial past.
Looking out over the edge of the High Line, it was clear that this linear park was the most recent addition to the living urban museum that is Chelsea. The surrounding neighborhood has similar features of industrial infrastructure captured in a semi-blighted state, adorned and modernized with expensive materials, made relevant through modern uses. Former industrial warehouses hold high-end restaurants, couture shops, and art galleries. Places like Chelsea Market relish the trendy aesthetic of crumbling brick contrasted with expensive lighting and modern art.
Later, from the ground looking up at the High Line I realized something; when there are gaps in the people walking upon it, there is no indication from the street that this modern floating park even exists. From below it still looks like an overgrown and blighted railroad viaduct. And that’s the point. Reusing historic infrastructure is trendy, but surely for the High Line’s designers the viaduct’s reuse was about retaining the historical memory of a less vibrant past.
Like many postindustrial urban areas, there was a time not too long ago when Chelsea’s fate was considerably more uncertain. In a story of urban revitalization that has become well known, Chelsea was rediscovered by artists in the 1980s and 1990s, then by main-stream New Yorkers. Today it is hypergentrified as the High Line floats above a Vera Wang boutique, and runs beside a new Frank Gehry building. Modern-day Chelsea has the privilege of recalling its darker days, while celebrating its affluent success. Many urban areas are not so lucky.
Staring up at the High Line, while eating lunch at an outdoor restaurant where beers cost $7, I thought about my hometown of Philadelphia and our own Reading Viaduct that some hope to turn into the next High Line-esque park. However, unlike in Chelsea, there is no Vera Wang or Barneys in Philadelphia’s Callowhill and Chinatown North neighborhoods. Instead Philadelphia still has postindustrial areas suffering from physical blight and urban decay.
No matter how neat a floating park could be in Philadelphia, the Reading Viaduct’s context makes this reuse inappropriate just now. Its surrounding neighborhoods are not in a position to memorialize the history of a blighted past; that blighted past has not yet become history. Those who feel that the Reading Viaduct is ready to become the next High Line are missing the underlying symbolic meaning of the High Line and its context.
I don’t mean to say that the Reading Viaduct should not be preserved and at some point transformed. However, if this happens, it must be part of a larger strategy that focuses on true neighborhood revitalization, rather than a standalone project.
As I mentioned in a previous post, a few years ago a group of community organizations came to the table and cooperated in developing the Chinatown Neighborhood Plan. The plan charts a course for a comprehensive approach to building physical connectivity, attracting new residential and commercial growth, addressing issues of affordable housing and local economic development, as well as adding new recreational sites (including restoring a major portion of the Reading Viaduct as a floating park). It’s a good plan that was developed through a consensus building process. The City and neighborhood groups should agree to put their weight behind it and make the plan a reality.
Sunday, October 4, 2009
public school students, displayed at the 1947 Better Philadelphia Exhibition.
I was recently invited to participate in a Philadelphia public high school class where students engage in planning a community-based project (in this case a community garden, seating area, and food stand just a few blocks from the school). Each time I go to class, it strikes me how engaging this project is for building commitment to community, while using a physical neighborhood space as the means of teaching academic subjects and life skills. As part of the class, students are learning about planning, urban design, market analysis, business planning, and community involvement.
Teaching planning in schools is not a new concept for Philadelphia. During the fall of 1946, an experimental city planning course was introduced into the curriculum at sixteen public schools across the city. Staff of the City Planning Commission and the independent Citizens’ Council on City Planning spent months in the classroom working directly with the students, helping them learn about planning concepts, and ultimately guiding them to create their own plans, models, and drawings of the future of their communities.
The first round of student models, drawings, and plans were put on display at the Better Philadelphia Exhibition – a massive showcase of Philadelphia’s city planning work that attracted 385,000 visitors in 1947. Reports on the show praised Philadelphia’s foresight in preparing the next generation of citizens to plan a bright future for their communities. The program was a huge success and was subsequently permanently added to the Philadelphia schools curriculum. I don’t know when or why this planning course was dropped. However, the class I’m involved with today is not a standard feature for Philadelphia’s public school students.
If planning is such a great framework for teaching basic skills and building community values, why don’t we bring it back as a permanent element of the public school curriculum? A few years ago, I suggested this idea to some of my colleagues in education policy. The feedback was resoundingly negative. Their argument was that most public school students in Philadelphia lack adequate reading and math skills. Who has time for something superfluous like planning?
In a recent article Michael A. Rodriguez, a Bethesda, Maryland-based transportation planner, argued for the importance of teaching planning in school. In his article, Rodriguez notes, “To the nay-sayers who do not think schools have time to teach planning concepts, or worry more about 'core' curricula in math, science, and reading, I say that teaching planning concepts is fun and complimentary to teaching other subjects. They are not mutually exclusive.” He notes that teaching planning involves math, geography, and writing. I have seen this overlap with core subjects in the class I am involved with. The community planning element is a way to teach core subjects through an interesting and engaging subject that directly affects that place where the students live.
Rodriguez also adds another argument to the mix: “Planners often encounter ineffective public participation because of the fact that citizens often are not taught planning skills in school.” In other words, if kids aren’t taught the need for planning their communities, how can they become active community participants down the line when it really matters?
Going back to my previous post, it is clear that in order to build stable and thriving communities, we need to focus on developing engaged, concerned, and committed citizens. By teaching planning in schools, we are giving children the opportunity to understand that they can become engaged in their community, and that this engagement can be truly rewarding.
Some of my education policy friends may disagree with me. But ultimately I hope that these students – the parents of the future – will stay in their Philadelphia community (for some I hope this means returning after college). I hope they will become strongly involved in their community, and provide a better environment for living and learning than existed for them during their formative school years.
Education cannot be viewed as simply a process to get kids to a certain level of preparation in math and reading. It must be viewed as our major avenue for preparing the next generation of committed citizens. Otherwise we are missing a critical element of what school is intended to do. Without this element we may help a handful of students to escape and move on to better lives, but we do nothing to solve the underlying issues that afflict their under-served schools and communities in the long-term.
Thursday, September 24, 2009
In his latest post Greg briefly notes that both Camden and Chester are cities on former industrial waterfronts. Greg is correct in his prioritization of investments needed to ensure that Chester’s Stadium and Casino actually act as agents of revitalization, however (by nature of his focus) he glosses over an important feature of urban redevelopment, the agencies doing the redevelopment. These public authorities have their own internal dynamics, that combined with the unique circumstances of every city provide a distinct local flavor to urban redevelopment.
On Monday September 21st, Peter Hendee Brown spoke at a lecture arranged by the Penn Institute for Urban Redevelopment about his new book titled America’s Waterfront.
The lecture provided an excellent analysis of the changing nature of Port Authorities and how their response to transportation trends and changing municipal landscapes has changed waterfront development for cities from San Francisco to Tampa.
Brown notes that the development of the shipping container (those large metal boxes that now float stack atop boats many times the size of football fields) spelled the end of the traditional dock: no longer were scores of laborers need to unload boats, cranes could just lift them onto trucks. Oakland invested heavily in these cranes, while San Francisco did not. It was that decision, and the resulting dilapidation which lead to the redevelopment of the waterfront into the retail district it is today: the development potential of many such waterfronts is related to the failure of those ports to keep up with the times, eventually letting their land go “fallow.” Other places, such as Tampa and Miami became the home of cruise lines. There both the shipping boat owners and the ports, realized the need to change with the times: the boat operators changing their ships to cruise lines while the Port Authorities invested in destination redevelopment to make their ports more attractive to the tourists getting on and off the boats. As federal and naval bases closed and opened even more land became available for redevelopment and San Diego built their convention center along the waterfront. These changes required a serious change in the Port Authorities’ staff, they suddenly had to become savvy developers, not just transportation operations officers.
Philadelphia’s waterfront has faced a few key obstacles, detailed by Brown, that inform the current state of unrealized potential. And no its not simply the fact that is cut off by I-95. For one, while the Delaware River Port Authority has been around for years, funded and built bridges spanning the Delaware between PA and NJ, it has never had joint control of the two ports. It wasn’t simply the railroads which blocked the periodic attempts to unite the port, the separate ports themselves did so. The latest attempt to “bridge” the ports was in 1992, and while that was defeated, one small sentence gave the DRPA was given the ability to fund economic development.
By the time they finally got around to it (it being economic development) the presence and the design of the impacts severely limited what could be done on the Philadelphia side of the river. 676 ventures further into New Jersey, leaving over ten blocks between the highway and the river, while Philadelphia is lucky to have two between I-95 and the waterfront. (676 was also built long after I-95 and by the time it was built the DOT required the highway to be connected to the bridge where it touched down on the shore, in Philadelphia people exit the Ben Franklin Bridge around fifth street). All of which is to say, by the time there was a mechanism to develop the waterfront, in Philadelphia there was little waterfront controlled by the DRPA (or by organizations particularly friendly to the DRPA) for its economic development money to go towards. It’s one of the reasons that the DRPA funded Chester’s stadium, there was simply little land, and even less vision, as to what to do on the waterfront.
If anything, this story reiterates the importance of the Praxis Plan / Civic Vision. The Philadelphia waterfront is divided among numerous (far too numerous) entities, few of whom under the leadership of a single entity. The Plan / Civic Vision provides a coherent goal around which partners gather (sometimes, whether they want to or not). In the absence of the institutional building blocks for waterfront development, civic visions have ever more importance.
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Camden, NJ's recent urban reinvestments
The Philadelphia Daily News ran an article last week about the changing tides of Chester, the long-beleaguered Pennsylvania city near the Delaware border. The article noted Chester’s former industrial golden age, its recent reputation for drugs and crime, and a number of recent investments in the city that give hope for Chester’s future. These investments include the new Harrah’s casino, the soon-to-be-built Major League Soccer stadium, the University Crossing project (including a hotel, apartments, and a bank), a new recreation center, and the city’s planned river walk.
The article argues that in the midst of a recession, all of this construction is not just welcome, but highly encouraging for “Pennsylvania’s dark horse city.” Of course that progress is relative considering the above-mentioned bank will be the city’s first in 15 years, and Chester still lacks a supermarket. Much of the new construction is and will be highly subsidized by taxpayers. The question: Is Chester truly turning around or is this just the latest futile attempt to shock life back into an abandoned and dying city?
As I was reading the article I felt pangs of déjà vu. The language of the article and the types of investments seemed remarkably similar to another struggling small city near Philadelphia – Camden, NJ. Certainly Camden and Chester are very different cities, but they also have many things in common:
- They are both small cities (Camden is 8.8 square miles with 79,000 residents, while Chester is 4.8 square miles with 37,000 residents).
- They are both waterfront cities along the Delaware River.
- Both are home to a university (Rutgers Camden and Widener University).
- They were both old industrial cities that sunk so low that they were taken over by the state.
- In both cases highways speed travelers past their borders, giving just a glimpse of the city’s face.
- In both cities local police have been recently lobbying to remove residency requirements for the force.
And now they share the commonality that state and local officials are favoring the same general strategy for their revitalization. Camden built a baseball stadium, aquarium, and a major outdoor music venue, lined with a river walk – much of it built with major public subsidy. Nearby some private developers built a modest amount of new housing and retail. All of it was surrounded by a sea of parking lots so that out-of-towners could easily find a space and would not have to see the real Camden.
Today in Camden, the riverfront is bustling with activity (when there is a game or concert), but there are few promenaders on the river walk, and almost none of the visitors venture into the city. The downtown streets, just blocks away, are as depressed as ever, separated from the development by a moat of parking lots. Last I checked, Habitat for Humanity was still Camden’s biggest housing developer.
Chester’s reinvestment seems suspiciously similar. In place of the aquarium and music venue is a casino. In place of the baseball stadium is a soccer stadium. Granted, the casino and MLS stadium are going to attract more dollars from patrons than their counterparts in Camden; however, the basic equation is the same: stand-alone projects, plenty of parking, no connection to the heart of the city.
In a city like Camden or Chester that seems to be bleeding to death, some may argue that there is little room for pushing the envelope on urban reinvestment. To many it probably seems that any means justifies the end of attracting outside visitors and their economic development dollars. However, I would argue that this investment strategy of attracting visitors to auto-centric destinations, cut off from the city, is a shortsighted approach that will end up bringing in some revenue, but very little in the way of true urban revitalization.
With all of the money thrown in by the public sector and local charities in Camden, the city has seen too little improvement outside of the tourist-laden waterfront. I fear Chester’s foray into the spotlight will similarly stall in a few years unless the city takes a different track. Some could blame Camden’s unimpressive comeback on the current housing market. However, that is a relatively small piece of the puzzle. The main reason that Camden is not doing better is because the new developments did not follow the basic equation for reviving a city and its neighborhoods.
Presumably the ultimate goal is to restore the city and its neighborhoods so that Chester is no longer reliant on major state support. If this is the case, then projects that attract tourists to come for the day and leave will not cut it. Investments need to be targeted at restoring neighborhoods and supporting local business. This is a much tougher equation than building a stadium on vacant land, but it is necessary.
Rather than building stand-alone projects surrounded by parking, Chester should build linkages to connect these new projects to existing commercial streets. Stadiums in cities like Pittsburgh and Denver abut neighborhoods with new businesses serving as gateways, rather than parking lots. Even if there are few businesses now, these physical connections will allow entrepreneurs the chance to capitalize on the new projects, allowing the revitalization to eventually spread.
On-site parking must be consolidated and reduced as much as possible. If tourists can walk from their car right into the stadium or casino then there is absolutely no hope for spillover economic development. We cannot plan for how the city looks now – rather how it can look years down the line. Physical connectivity between the investments of today and the thriving neighborhoods and corridors of tomorrow is key.
Community investments can start in areas around assets like Widener University or the new waterfront developments, and work their way inward. These investments should focus on building new economic opportunities while restoring the physical plant of neighborhoods so that they can ultimately attract outside development and individual homeowners. Public investments must be made in ways that trigger a larger private reaction.
From the public side, investments can include elements like special services districts to clean and green; targeted, high-visibility projects like neighborhood parks; grants or low-interest loans for business owners; incentives for developers and for individual homeowners. To make an impact, all of these investments must be focused on a shared geographical area, rather than spread out across the city. That geographical area cannot be a tourist-only zone, rather neighborhoods targeted for revitalization.
Chester has two SEPTA rails stops and a transportation center. The City should utilize these assets to build new commercial corridors through transit-oriented development. Patrons will be arriving to the soccer stadium by train as well as by car. Their journey from the train station to the stadium should be lined with shops and restaurants. Once this corridor starts to transform, it is a key location for new housing near the station. The City is currently working with the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission and SEPTA to look at the possibilities in this regard.
As the state and city invest, it is critical that local residents guide the revitalization, and do not feel like their elected officials are trying to attract newcomers to push them out. The public sector should empower and work with local community groups to plan for their communities and to implement these plans. Programs should be put in place to protect existing homeowners and make them feel comfortable that they will be able to enjoy their neighborhood’s future. The public sector should invest in programs to build entrepreneurship, and provide residents with access to capital and resources to benefit through new business opportunities.
Investing in planning and development is not enough. Public safety, education, and recreation are critical pieces of the urban revitalization puzzle. Major investments in these areas can payoff only if the other investments are coming as well. The idea is that over time crime will reduce and the schools will improve as the city’s neighborhoods rebound. Again, it is important to invest in these areas focused geographically. A comprehensive set of investments in a shared physical area has the best chance for making meaningful impact.
This complex mix of strategies and programs is certainly more difficult to implement than a few new single developments on the riverfront. Their impact takes much longer to be realized. However, if Chester does not want to share Camden’s fate of a half-baked revitalization that barely touches the city’s residents, then it should do things differently. Both of these cities have tremendous assets and potential to tap into a new national interest in downtown living. It’s up to Chester’s leadership to get it right. Urban reinvestment is expensive, and second chances can be decades in between.
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Since Ariel brought up the topic of schools, I would like to expand on this discussion. There are few policy areas that influence each other as profoundly as education and community development. Yet, rarely do policy makers in these areas really sit down together to craft comprehensive solutions. Too often community development folks ignore schools as islands in our neighborhoods, and too often education folks only focus within the school walls.
A recent report by the Urban Institute looked promising in this regard. Its title is “Vibrant Neighborhoods, Successful Schools: What the Federal Government Can Do to Foster Both.” Unfortunately, the content of the paper hardly addresses the promise of the cover. The basis of the paper is the concept that “low-income children do better when they attend schools with middle- and upper-income children than when they attend schools where most of their classmates are poor.”
Thus the paper is predominantly dedicated to strategies for economic integration. Much of the paper discusses strategies for building affordable housing in wealthier areas, and for transporting poor children to better performing school districts. While improving the opportunities for some lucky students, neither of these approaches fixes the underlying problems of high-poverty neighborhoods with underperforming schools.
One short section deals with strategies for attracting families with means to impoverished areas with underperforming schools. This is the only piece of the paper that actually addresses strategies for re-investing in disadvantaged areas – thereby rebuilding neighborhood vitality. However, the paper never addresses the negative impacts of gentrification or other elements outside of housing, and after citing examples of this phenomenon by Georgia Tech, the University of Pennsylvania, Atlanta, and St. Louis, the paper concludes, “there is no single strategy for success.”
In all, the greatest failing of this paper is that it confuses vibrant neighborhoods with affluent neighborhoods. Additionally, it seems to imply that housing is the sole factor in determining neighborhood quality. There is no discussion of the many other factors that contribute to neighborhood vitality, like jobs and economic development, cleanliness and safety, recreation and open space, arts and culture, diversity and quality of retail, access to goods and services, the strength of local institutions, or transportation.
Needless to say, focusing only on building income diversity through housing policies is a short-sighted approach. Certainly, income diversity is important, but there are many other equally, if not more, critical neighborhood-based goals for impacting successful schools. Neighborhoods present the support structures that students experience daily. Tight-knit, livable and nurturing neighborhoods create an environment that is necessary for learning.
In some communities where I have worked, I have seen students go to school daily in neighborhoods littered with trash, with abandoned storefronts, and dilapidated homes. It is challenging to expect students to learn in a place where they see little hope in their own community for advancement and fulfillment. As such, many of the brightest students aspire to leave their old community behind – if they are lucky enough to be able to get out. The problem is, each child who makes it out of the community and never returns is one fewer parent of the future who could help transform the community into a vibrant and supportive environment for the next generation.
As the Urban Institute paper reminds us, “it is possible to provide quality education even when many students are poor and the surrounding neighborhood is distressed.” This has been one of the main arguments of the education policy folks, focusing on teacher performance, school administration, learning models, and merit pay. In many ways this argument is correct. However, with a strategy that uplifts communities while investing in schools, the struggle would be much easier, and the progress much accelerated.
The struggle to improve schools will be much aided by a focus on investing time and resources both inside and outside the school walls. However, communities will also be aided by investing in our schools. This issue is truly a two-way street. Just as vibrant communities are important for building strong schools, strong schools are also critical for creating vibrant communities. Neighborhoods serve as assets that attract homebuyers (as Ariel discussed in his last post, and as the Urban Institute article notes). However, more importantly, schools can provide the basis for building stronger communities.
Teachers are some of our most important community role models. School programs and after-school activities are critical community assets. School buildings can and should serve as physical centers for their surrounding neighborhoods. By reconnecting our school buildings and programs to communities we can provide greater opportunities for students, parents, and for neighborhood growth. Schools can become centers of community learning, not just student learning. At the same time, vibrant communities can offer the supportive environment, resources, contacts, life skills, internships and service opportunities that students will need.
We need a new paradigm where urban neighborhoods and schools are seen as a single unit – where they succeed or fail together. We need innovative federal, state, and local programs to invest in communities and schools at the same time – not just in terms of housing. This new paradigm should view the school not as an island, but as a critical part of the community life, with programs and opportunities flowing both ways between school and community. At its core, this is an issue of education folks and community development folks sitting down together and realizing that ultimately they need each other to succeed.
Sunday, September 13, 2009
Saturday, September 12, 2009
A community (real estate) development professional in Philadelphia notes, that the steadiest indicator of whether a family will move out of her stable and popular neighborhood, is the year their child must enter fifth grade.
In the 1990's the (in)famous School District Superintendent David Hornbeck tried to get the Philadelphia School district to shut down the city's magnet schools: he thought the schools segregated the brightest children from the peers which meant that students in neglected schools never had bright peers to learn from and with. He was unable to do this because it is popularly believed that doing so would have driven the last of the middle-class out of the city. I myself went to a magnet school and I am not sure what my parents would have done, not being able to afford a private school, had they not had one (Masterman) to send me to, other than move out of the city. The link between housing values and school districts is one that is well established in the literature. Of course you probably know that, if you yourself (or your parents)have not moved into a suburban school district because of the better schools, you know plenty of people who have.
While it is well known that we are willing to "vote with our feet" and buy more expensive houses and pay more expensive taxes to make sure our kids have access to better schools, a new report published by the Wharton School suggests that we are underfunding our schools, not only in terms of what it takes to make sure they have adequate funding, but in terms of what we are actually willing to pay for them.
The study examined the general obligation bonds that California voters agreed to float to finance school facility investment. These bonds meant that tax payers were required to pay higher real estate taxes in order to build more and better schools. As the authors note
"We find that passage of a bond measure causes house prices in the district to rise by about six percent. This effect appears gradually over the two or three years following the election and persists for at least a decade. Our preferred estimates indicate that marginal homebuyers are willing to pay, via higher purchase prices and expected future property taxes, $1.50 or more for an additional dollar of school facility spending, and even our most conservative estimates indicate a willingness to pay of $1.13."
This investment in schools is critical. Nearly 100,000 of our public schools are in need of renovation, expansion and repair. As the study notes "A third of public schools rely on portable or temporary classrooms and a quarter report that environmental factors, such as air conditioning and lighting, are “moderate” or “major” obstacles to instruction." One can only imagine what the statistics are for large urban school districts such as Philadelphia. According to the historian George Thomas, quite a few of Philadelphia's schools, designed during the 1920's were built by architects known more for designing prisons than schools.
However, as education policy analyst Claire Robertson-Kraft, editor of A Grand Bargain for Education Reform notes, the educational increases measured in the study "are pretty marginal compared to other academic interventions, like teacher quality." Which naturally leads to the question, could the Alhambra Unified School District spend the $85,000,000 in its bond issue on teachers instead. However not only does that amount to only $1,000 per student, but there are significant legal and policy constraints on spending bond revenues on operations.
What this points to is a mismatch in how we fund our education, Californians (and by extension probably most of us) are willing to pay more, and we have to finally fess up and start paying more for our education. It certainly pays us back, not only in housing values, but in our own future.