Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Tax Break for Affordability

In Philadelphia, City Council is debating the fate of the city's ten-year property tax abatement on new and rehabbed construction. Other cities, most notably New York, have already dealt with this issue: what happens when a tax break program becomes successful?

Philly's City Council is considering a bill that would require LEED platinum certification for developments to receive the full abatement, with fewer years of abatement with lower levels of LEED certification. While Council's focus on energy efficiency is admirable, this is the wrong approach.

Check out my op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer today where I argue for turning the abatement into an incentive for affordable housing development, instead. As I argue in the paper, the problem of a successful tax abatement program is that it ends up benefiting wealthier homebuyers most. Requiring LEED certification will only exacerbate the problem. Using the abatement to encourage affordable development, however, allows the abatement to benefit a wider spectrum of the city's population.

Please read my more complete argument in the op-ed, and as always, I would love to hear your comments.

Monday, April 20, 2009


Last week President Obama and the Federal Railroad Administration unveiled the “Vision for High-Speed Rail in America.” This plan to build 100-600 miles of high-speed lines finally gives hope that our nation may develop a sustainable alternative for intercity travel. The funding for these high-speed rail investments will be the $8 billion in the Recovery Act, and a proposed $1 billion per-year high-speed rail grant program.

However, the Recovery Act money has the stipulation that it can only fund “shovel ready” projects. For rail that means preliminary engineering and environmental work must be completed. That is a pretty big stipulation. Since major federal funding for rail transit was a pipe dream under the Bush administration, few regions had the resources or took the time to carry out engineering and environmental review for these ambitious projects.

This stipulation has created a challenge. In Georgia, for example, despite several rail lines crossing through the state on the Federal Railroad Administration’s proposed route map, there are no projects eligible for construction funding. One Atlanta news source reports, “The only thing the state leaders can do with any money they may get from Washington is to begin to study the possibility of the administration's proposal.”

In Pennsylvania, however, the story is different. The upgrading of the Keystone line, connecting Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and Pittsburgh, to high-speed rail seems to meet the criteria, and could be the first high-speed rail line to start construction with the Recovery Act funding. According to the Philadelphia Daily News, “Contracts could be awarded by the end of this summer.” That is good news since the trip from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh that takes five hours by car, currently takes a minimum of seven-and-a-half hours on Amtrak.

In the long-term I hope this Vision is only the beginning of a shift in priorities to make rail (rather than highways) become the focus and growth engine for our nation. The Recovery Act is a one-time funding source. However, every six years Congress re-authorizes the federal transportation funding bill, and it is up for re-authorization this year. The real test will be how the re-authorization reflects a change in priorities, putting more emphasis on rail expansion, while reducing funds for new highway construction. We will have to wait and see how this issue evolves.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Welcome Troy!

Please welcome Urban Direction's newest blogger, Troy Madres! Troy was a long-time Philadelphian, now a proud resident of Austin, Texas. Stay tuned for his commentary on the urban scene from his vantage point in the Lone Star State.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

It's the little things that count

I live in Austin, Texas, and since moving here three years ago from Philly, I have truly been impressed by the effort the City has made to make downtown a vibrant pedestrian friendly residential neighborhood, with great retail, restaurants, and some remarkably interesting design. Granted, real estate/rental prices, the type of retail (Design Within Reach my ass), and expensive restaurants generally limit this cosmopolitan community to the affluent. Nevertheless, it's a start, and that's commendable.

But every now and then, the City and the developer community are a few paces behind the curve when it comes to good design and aesthetics, and it's the little things that count. For example, check out the development at 5th and Lamar, just north of Townlake. This development is on downtown's western fringe, catercorner to Whole Foods Market's world headquarters and flagship supermarket, in the middle of several large condo projects, on a very busy intersection. Bottom line, it's a great location, and the drawings for the development are sharp.

Designed by Nelsen Partners (best known for their Master Plan for the Domain, a 7.5 million SF mixed use development in North Austin), this development, called "5th and Baylor," has ground floor retail, office space, and a 300 car garage. Overall, it's a nice looking modern design, full of glass and exposed metal. There is nothing dramatic, but it is honest in the approach — each section has been designed differently to reflect its character. The ground floor retail is full of glass and open with few visible columns, easy for pedestrians and drivers to look inside. The office section has a corporate look with glass interspersed with blue colored glass panels and an ornamental metal grill wrapping around a portion of the second floor — one can imagine the VC fund opening shop there. Last, the garage does not try to hide itself — it's dressed up with gridded metalwork that relates to the office section and nicely locates the parking entrance to the rear. The building does an excellent job of occupying the corner, which is better than Whole Foods, which has a large surface parking lot in front of the store and office building. I like this building, and I'm glad it's going up.

Unfortunately, what is staying up, and not going underground, are all the utility poles and wires that dot the intersection and run along both street sides of the building. Check out the photos below to see what I am talking about.

In my mind, the entire development is killed by the urban noise of the poles and the wires. They line the side of the building, cross the intersection in three directions, and completely jumble the clean look of the building. Worst of all, nothing is going to be done about it. I called the development company, Schlosser Development Co., with my question, and they provided a resigned response: it's too expensive and Austin Energy (who owns most of the wires and poles) won't help foot the bill. The cost would be over $1 million just to remove the Austin Energy infrastructure, and that does not even include all the other utilities (AT&T, Time Warner, etc.) that have space on the poles. Apparently they were many discussions about this, but in the end, neither side budged, and this is what we get. Like a cute girl with permanent head-gear on, you'll never be able to fully appreciate the building.

I don't know if there is one particular culprit here. It's a big cost in any economic environment, especially this one, and I bet this game of chicken between developers and utilities takes place all the time. In the end, the City needs to determine its strategy for utility relocation. Right now, there is a spotty record. Most of downtown within blocks of Congress has no utility poles. When you venture outwards, some blocks have it, and some block don't. For example, on 5th street, about two blocks from 5th and Lamar, the Monarch apartment building drove their utilities underground for the section of the block right in front of the building, then went back to utility poles on either side.

While the cost to put all utilities underground would be prohibitively expensive, there are steps the City can take to alleviate the cost. It can provide a form of low cost financing or grants to utilities and private developers to bring the cost down, lower permitting costs if utility relocation is taking place, and bring utilities and developers to the table so they jointly plan together. It's possible that all this already occurs, but if it doesn't, it should.

Time will tell how this development actually looks in the end. Once it's built and open, I'll make another post describing the finished building. In the meantime, I'd love your comments on this, and your thoughts on design in Austin and elsewhere.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Learning from Our Mistakes

Image source

Last Sunday, the New York Times ran an article by its architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff called “Reinventing America’s Cities: The Time Is Now.” The article argues that half a century of policies favoring suburban sprawl have left our cities struggling. It is time for a “bold urban vision” for America's future.

The article’s focus is right. We cannot afford our suburban growth pattern, and our cities represent the most livable, efficient, and sustainable places we have in the U.S. But there is also something disturbing about Ouroussoff’s article and the solutions he promotes. He argues: “The problem in America is not a lack of ideas. It is a tendency to equate any large-scale government construction project, no matter how thoughtful, with the most brutal urban renewal tactics of the 1950s.”

It is true that big planning today must be vastly different from the efforts of 1950s urban renewal that led to whole swaths of our cities being wiped away. However, in Ouroussoff’s article, he seems to promote another failed aspect of the 1950s – a focus on physical solutions to solve a range of social and economic urban problems. This notion that better communities and housing would solve a whole range of social problems proved to be misguided. Have we truly gotten away from that view? In his article, Ouroussoff profiles four cities’ approaches to address urban issues, but in all cases the solutions are physical interventions. Yet, clearly places like the Bronx, New Orleans, Los Angeles, and Buffalo have more than physical problems.

In the 1960s, with President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, federal programs for urban America began taking on social issues in a markedly different way. However, those programs were short-lived and implemented at a time of unprecedented racial tension, when the nation was focused on Vietnam, making it difficult to gauge whether they were truly effective. Since then we’ve shied away from big planning, and taken a hands-off approach, investing in suburban infrastructure and highways, letting our cities decline and fend for themselves. At the same time, we swung from using physical development to solve urban social issues, to totally separating planning and development from the fields that deal with social issues today (e.g., education, public health, safety, economic development).

Our contemporary approach is just as misguided as the one taken in the 1950s. Many urban issues are related in complex ways. The solution is not to invest in physical planning and separately invest in fields like public health, education, crime prevention, and job creation. That is short-sighted. We need approaches that acknowledge the strong link between these issues. For generations now, we have treated urban issues separately, and the folks developing policy to deal with them have been isolated in their silos. It’s time for that to change, and the federal government has the ability to use its funding programs to incentivize or compel local policymakers in different policy areas to start working together.

As Ouroussoff argues, we can plan and build in a way that avoids the physical mistakes of urban renewal. However, we need to avoid the other mistake of the 1950s as well, that physical planning and development cannot be done in isolation of other policy areas. We need to develop federal and local programs that promote interdisciplinary policies to link connected problems with equally connected solutions. This is the course we must take if we truly want to learn from the mistakes of the 1950s and chart a 21st century solution.