Thursday, November 11, 2010
Join us in celebrating the winners of the 2010 Ed Bacon Student Design Competition and the recipient of the 2010 Edmund N. Bacon Prize:
DENISE SCOTT BROWN, RIBA, Int. FRBIA
Principal, Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates; Author, Learning from Las Vegas + more
Tuesday, December 07, 2010
6:00 - 6:45 pm Opening Reception
6:45 - 8:15 pm Presentation of Awards & Lecture by Denise Scott Brown
8:15 - 9:00 pm Closing Reception
$75 General Public
$25 Student or AIA Associate
Monday, October 25, 2010
Sunday, October 10, 2010
For most people that first moment of liberation, of freedom, comes when they are handed their first car keys at sixteen. Mine came when I was twelve when I got my first trail pass. I still have the small yellow card with its bright red number 2. And to this day it's packed away in a box filled with the others just like it that I carried throughout middle school and high-school.
Suddenly the city was mine as I hopped on the train to go to school, the bus or subway to visit friends. I didn’t have to worry about learning how to parallel park or drive, all I did was jump on the next schedule bus and the city was mine.
Riding SEPTA was not just about a new freedom of movement I never had before. It was also about discovering new friends. I began to meet my neighbors, people I had grown up with but never knew lived right around the corner. Seeing these people day in and day out helped me gain a sense of community I never got when I was chauffeured around.
Later, when I took a year off of college to work at a local bakery, the Night Kitchen in Chestnut Hill, I was lucky that the very last train on the Chestnut Hill East line got me to work at 1 AM, the exact right time to start making muffins and cinnamon buns. If I missed it, the 23 took me through the heart of North Philly to the front door of the bakery.
I was raised in a neighborhood that grew up around the city’s first train lines. As an urban planner I can think of hundreds of reasons why transit is good for cities. But I don't need theory. Every day I see with my own two eyes how transit makes it easier to support thriving communities. Today I work in the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities because I have seen the impact transit has had on my city.
I believe that we as a region need to invest in our public transportation system, not simply because it is what economists call a “public good”; but because everybody should be so lucky to have transit lines to get them to work at 1 in the morning. And everybody should find new opportunities to make friends and meet their neighbors.
Tuesday, August 17, 2010
University of Pennsylvania professor and former Daily News Columnist Mark Allan Hughes once wrote critically of “a world that demands simple solutions for complex problems…” The need for understanding and addressing the subtle and complex realm of urban development and public policy is the unspoken premise of John Kromer’s new book, Fixing Broken Cities: The Implementation of Urban Development Strategies. Kromer, a veteran civil servant, professor, and policy consultant, presents extraordinarily complex problems through the lens of someone who has been there, fought the battles, and can now reflect on what works and what doesn’t. The book delves deep into policy issues, but is very readable and generally jargon-free. For anyone who is involved in urban development or ever wants to be, Fixing Broken Cities, is a must read.
Kromer, who now roosts at the Fels Institute of Government at Penn, spent a career deep in the trenches of urban housing and community development. But he is quick to point out, “I do not have a degree in city planning, economics, or public administration; I have no political credentials to speak of…” Kromer’s qualifications come from raw experience. He worked his way up through the bureaucracy of Philadelphia’s housing agencies to become the City’s housing director and briefly the head of the Philadelphia Housing Authority. Later he temporarily headed Camden, New Jersey’s redevelopment effort, and more recently served as a consultant to Allentown, Pennsylvania. The book provides a detailed tour through Kromer’s career, focusing on each city and transferring ideas from one case study to the next, while providing exposure to the challenges and political battles that arose along the way.
Kromer explains that he has “devoted most of my career to implementing downtown and neighborhood reinvestment strategies in cities that are disinvested, de-populated, and cash-starved.” He writes about his episodes experiencing tough political realities, infuriating bureaucratic logjams, and staggering problems that needed to be solved with next to no resources. Such a career would have driven many out of public service. However, Kromer not only slogged through, he seems to have drawn strength from the utter complexity of massive urban dilemmas, feeding an endless optimism and faith that the future can be better.
In some ways Fixing Broken Cities is a sequel to Kromer’s earlier book, Neighborhood Recovery: Reinvestment Policy for the New Hometown. The two books deal with similar problems and ideas, but now Kromer has more experience under his belt, and the concepts in Fixing Broken Cities are often more defined, evidence-based, and pragmatic. The new book’s title captures Kromer’s optimism, expressing the idea that some cities are broken, but they can be fixed, and as the title implies, the book will show us how it can be done.
Much of the book focuses on the city where Kromer spent the lion’s share of his career – Philadelphia. Since the low point of Philadelphia’s urban decline in the 1980s, the city has seen a stream of programs and initiatives focused on downtown and community reinvestment. Kromer provides a survey of these programs, connecting them and providing first-hand perspective on their intended results, strengths, weaknesses, and impacts. The reader comes away seeing that Philadelphia’s recent resurgence is surely not accidental.
The programs and initiatives span from city and state tax credits and abatements, to the advent of Center City District, investments by the University of Pennsylvania in West Philadelphia, and the City’s Neighborhood Transformation Initiative. Kromer never argues that these interventions were based on a single plan, ran smoothly, or were truly connected. However, he shows how collectively they built upon each other in a powerful and incremental way.
In the book, Kromer proceeds point by point to show how these programs played out. For example, he discusses the success of Philadelphia’s tax abatement program in attracting new development downtown and in promoting the rehabilitation of blighted and abandoned buildings. He uses this program to highlight challenges, namely that in a strong economy the abatement becomes a tax break for the rich. His solution: “Use post-abatement term tax revenue to support affordable housing.” Overall, he dubs this program, which continues to be controversial in Philadelphia, “a success in economic development terms and a failure in terms of human capital development.”
Kromer also goes into great detail about the implementation of Philadelphia’s massive Neighborhood Transformation Initiative (NTI) under Mayor John Street, which Kromer argues was flawed from beginning because “program decisions were being made in the absence of planning.” He explains, “If Mayor Street had identified community planning as the first step in redefining the working relationship between municipal government and neighborhoods, then every municipal agency would have been involved in the citywide dialogue.” Instead, Kromer swipes at the program, noting how it devolved into a “politically motivated” strategy that did little more than “improve the City’s ability to assemble land for development.”
The discussion of NTI is not entirely critical, but Kromer also notes, “Most of the development that occurred in Philadelphia during Street’s eight-year tenure was not NTI-financed.” The big point he leaves readers with is that “a transformation of neighborhoods could not be undertaken successfully unless preceded by a transformation of government.” One of the book’s great strengths is that Kromer never cites mistakes without proposing solutions. He always lays out a list of ideas, in this case including having the Mayor appoint a development policy chief, and giving the City’s Redevelopment Authority right of first refusal on foreclosure-eligible properties before they go to Sherriff sale or auction.
In his chapter about the revitalization of West Philadelphia, Kromer heaps praise on the series of interventions taken by the University of Pennsylvania, under its past President Judith Rodin, to invest in the communities surrounding the university. Kromer argues that this type of investment by place-based institutions is critical in today’s economy. He writes, “Many of these institutions cannot move to new sites; they have to succeed in place.” Penn developed a powerful approach, but encountered many naysayers about what could succeed in the marketplace. Kromer notes that Penn’s strategy also required a strong understanding of urban development, and “there was no opportunity for a suburban developer to play any constructive role.”
After discussing Philadelphia for over 200 pages, Kromer dedicates half as much ink to discussions of Camden and Allentown. This disproportionate focus on Philadelphia reflects the duration of the author’s own experiences. Yet the inclusion of other cities is valuable – broadening the book’s perspective. For example, during his stint directing Camden’s redevelopment program, Kromer had to deal with a small city under a state takeover, with different levels of government at odds as to who was in charge. It was a wholly different situation from the one he experienced in Philadelphia.
The account of the messy attempts in Camden to gain approval for redevelopment plans and attract developers is detailed and comprehensive. However, by the end of the Camden discussion, Kromer steps back to note a larger issue, sounding a less-than-subtle call to action: “The real barrier to Camden’s future success was the absence of a new generation of civic leadership... The places with the greatest potential to contribute to the growth of civic leadership in Camden are the city’s academic and health care institutions...”
In Allentown, the issues diverge even farther from those in Philadelphia. The Allentown City government brought on Kromer to advise on policies to address “the destabilization of neighborhood blocks, as a result of large-scale conversions of single-family homes to multi-family properties.” Kromer runs through an array of policy interventions to deal with the problems of a place that has seen significant real estate interest in purchasing investment properties – shifting a city of homes to one overrun with rental units, and the issues that arise from absentee landlords.
One of the intriguing elements of Fixing Broken Cities is that Kromer is clearly a participant in the narrative, not just an observer. For example, after the completion of new housing in North Philadelphia, Kromer received criticism for allowing “suburban-style” development, without a mix of uses or supportive services. Some of this criticism came from Mayor John Street’s wife in the middle of a meeting. Kromer writes, “So how do you respond to criticism from the Mayor’s wife? … Who did she think I was, Robert Moses, Jr.?” These types of entertaining episodes remind the reader that this is not a textbook or a sterile academic treatise. Rather it is a no-holds-barred, personal story and an honest assessment from someone who was there, and who still is.
In perhaps the most personal chapter, Kromer steps back from high-level policy and focuses on his own West Philadelphia community, and the controversial plans to redevelop an abandoned fire house into a farmers market. Even here, so close to home, he does not shy away from tough issues, delving into the dangerous waters of race and community politics. He asserts, “The best plan for the fire house would be one that appealed to both whites and blacks and brought residents from both sides of the 50th Street divide together in an unforced, spontaneous way.” Using maps and data he convincingly shows how local perceptions of gentrification that created roadblocks for the project were not, in fact, the reality.
Kromer writes, “The controversy over the fire house was not a symptom of gentrification; it was a disagreement among a relatively small number of middle-class residents, most of whom had not grown up in the community… based on their perceptions – well-founded or unfounded – of what community should be.” He closes the chapter noting that the farmers market failed, but that the property’s current incarnation as a brewpub created “a valuable economic asset,” whose clientele is “primary white and under thirty.”
In a final chapter titled “The Future of Reinvestment,” Kromer argues that today’s landscape demands fresh thinking; the era of big government-supported urban renewal is over. Kromer writes, “the rules have changed; the money is spent; the show is ending.” In this chapter, he outlines “ten ways in which many city governments are unprepared to address the challenges and opportunities associated with twenty-first century reinvestment.” This section includes arguments like “Postindustrial cities and the states where they are located need a qualified twenty-first-century workforce more than anything else.”
He takes a biting swing at Habitat for Humanity arguing, “The last thing that highly distressed urban communities need is more low-income housing – and that is exactly what Habitat is producing in many urban areas.” He also criticizes the common strategy of cities requiring a certain percentage of business to go to certified minority-owned companies, arguing, “The reason why this approach fails is because the government mandate is not linked to a business services progress that is designed specifically to help small minority and neighborhood contractors develop the capability to bid competitively on city contracting and vending opportunities.”
However, he does not end on a pessimistic note. Kromer closes the chapter summarizing some of the major policy solutions that emerged from the book’s various chapters, connecting them to who should implement them (federal, state or local government, or institutions like universities and hospitals). For example, he encourages states to focus on both housing development and job training to a higher degree, and institutions to create incentives for employees to buy houses nearby their campuses and “to support one or more public schools.”
The book’s closing message is that cities require a focus on sustainability, but not in the environmental sense. Kromer explains, “Urban assets are unlike wetlands or wildlife areas; in order to preserve their intrinsic value they need to change; preservation and adaptation need to be linked.” This message is a powerful challenge. Do we understand our urban places well enough to value their preservation? Are we savvy and innovative enough to know how to adapt?
Fixing Broken Cities is fascinating and enlightening – surely one of the most important accounts of urban reinvestment policy that has come out in recent times. Kromer has a deep institutional memory and is a keen policy analyst. In the end, the book’s main lesson is that simple solutions will not cut it. Kromer argues “business leaders tend to like policies that are straightforward, clearly articulated, and easy to grasp.” Throughout the book, Kromer is clear that government, the private sector, and institutions need to think more long-term and comprehensively. Forget about the short-term, the easy-to-understand, the sexy initiative that can be communicated in a sound bite. They lack the power to be game changers.
Tuesday, August 3, 2010
What is most interesting about this debate is MYK's consistent attempt to attack the DRPA institution, and how often it missed the mark. I counted only three instances where I found her criticisms right on the money. More often they displayed a lack of understanding of how these institutions work and why they do what they do.
No wonder our government has such a hard time explaining itself to the public, when the media itself does not understand what the imperatives of our institutions are. What they react to is a press that insists on anthropomorphizing our institutions and insisting they act like people not agencies.
This was one of the most riveting debates I have heard in some time and urge you all to listen.
Monday, July 12, 2010
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
Miles Driven for Shopping Continues to Climb, But Pace Slows
Newly released data from the U.S. Department of Transportation show that the average American household is driving less than it did in 2001. But, while the number of miles logged going to work, social events, and other activities declined over the last decade, the number of miles families drive for shopping each year continued to climb — although at a much slower pace than in the 1990s. The figures come from the National Household Travel Survey, which is conducted every 6 to 8 years. The 2009 data were gathered during some of the worst months of the economic collapse, from late 2008 into early 2009, which may have skewed the results somewhat as people were driving less than normal. The findings show that, since the last survey in 2001, overall miles driven per household fell 4.4 percent, but shopping-related driving bucked the trend, expanding by 1.3 percent to 3,102 miles per year for the average household… While suburbanization accounts for much of the general growth in driving, it does not explain why the number of miles households drive for errands grew so much faster. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the probable culprit is the rise of big-box stores. Where once a gallon of milk, a prescription, or a piece of hardware was available at a neighborhood store only a few blocks or short drive away, many of those small, local businesses are now gone. They've been replaced by a much smaller number of giant superstores, each of which serves a much larger region. As a result, the average trip to a store is now about three miles longer than it was in 1990. That adds up to a lot of additional miles when multiplied across 113 million households that make an average of 470 trips to stores each year.
Monday, June 7, 2010
In this month's Atlantic, Chris Leinberger suggests that private developers should fund the development of street car lines because of the higher values that proximity to transit brings.
Over at the Next American City, Yonah Freemark has some pretty scathing criticism of Leinberger's enthusiasm. He writes that "Leinberger’s solution — that developers could benefit by spending their own money to build transit — is problematic. For one, it fails to account for the fact that most land speculators move on to new work once they’ve sold off their projects to home buyers. Who would continue to subsidize the operations costs of the new transit systems once the land has been sold? Is it fair to expect municipal transit operators to take over the servicing of privately developed systems? Second, Leinberger’s argument assumes that developers would be either wealthy enough or powerful enough to assemble the necessary right-of-way for said transit and then build it. Noting Detroit’s recent public-private streetcar deal, he posits that the federal government should be more willing to fund private-initiated public transportation, and it’s true that involvement from Washington would make such investments far more feasible."
Yonah's criticisms are pretty spot on, but they miss even bigger problems that would actually squash any of Leinberger's lovely dreams. When you actually look at the costs of building a light rail line, and you look at the scope of profits, and even the marginal growth in value induced by TOD, you still don't cover the costs of building a light rail line.
Even more importantly? The lead time to build a light rail line is HUGE, and long, probably much longer than the time a developer wants to spend building. Developers want no more than five years of pre-development commitment. Assuming that the costs justified the TOD, which I doubt, the amount of time required to build a light rail, is so long that it’s just not worth it for developers.
Finally, Leinberger who uses the early developers of regional rail and light rail as his model, forgets that they had a few different things going for them that made their 19th century projects a success:
- low labor costs
- control of LOTS of land. (Now its scattered sites, and even if you could control all the land, the market for people to move into these new neighborhoods would be a HUGE risk that no developer would take on, at least not in a city, maybe for greenfield development, and definitely not in this economy)
- fair grounds: Lots of these developers had fairgrounds at the end of their lines, transit use was actually much higher on the weekends when people went to the fairs. That won’t work these days with much more competition for our entertainment dollars.
Friday, May 21, 2010
This post is from our sometime contributor Matt C.
Small businesses create jobs, and everyone knows it, right? Mainstream media outlets and wonkish blogs alike have referred to small businesses as the "engine of job creation" for the United States. Talking heads sing their praises as local leaders woo them. Even Presidents extol the virtues of these diminutive economic saviors.
But even as leaders, reporters and conventional wisdom tell us that small businesses create jobs, new research is calling that assumption into question. This oft-repeated snippet of common knowledge may not actually carry the policy-driving implications we assign it. In one way, it's true that small businesses create a lot of jobs. The implied causality, however--that being small is what makes a business better able to create jobs--might be a complete illusion.
By analogy, consider this statistic: A lot of drownings occur on days during which a lot of ice cream is sold. It's 100% true. Drownings and ice cream sales are highly correlated. But while ice cream sales is a good predictor for drownings, there's a better one: temperature. When it's hot outside, people buy ice cream and go swimming (dramatically increasing drowning chances). Not every day with a lot of ice cream consumption leads to high drownings, but it's close enough to be useful if you don't have any weather information.
Likewise, economists and policy makers have been using the size of a business as a proxy for a much more important variable in predicting job creation potential: recency of entry to a labor market. To state the driving causal relationship, we shouldn't say that small businesses create jobs, but rather, that NEW businesses create jobs. And it just so happens that most new businesses are fairly small (just as most days with a lot of ice cream sold are reasonably warm).
Many small businesses are extremely weak engines of job creation, and most of them have been around for a while. Most sole proprietorships will never employ anyone for very long, and small, stable local businesses and stores don't expand their payrolls with much effectiveness. The small businesses which are best at creating jobs are the ones on their way to become large businesses; they don't stay small for decades. It's time to admit that the fifty year old corner store is not the engine of job creation for the country. It's Sergey and Larry, not Mom and Pop.
The age of the business is a better metric than size, but an even better indicator of hiring potential is the time a business has been in a particular labor market. A multinational conglomerate entering a new market can be an extremely powerful force for job creation. It's not discussed as widely and the impact of small businesses, but a one hundred year old company opening up a new plant or a new market is likely to create more jobs than entire towns full of small businesses.
Fine-tuning the metrics we use as predictors of job creation potential can help fine tune the "engine of job creation" so lauded in the press. Policy makers focusing incentives on new businesses instead of small businesses will be able to spend more wisely. Targeting small businesses in a major city can give hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks to some of the organizations least likely to create new jobs. But targeting new businesses only would be a more precise scalpel.
When Philadelphia looks to encourage economic growth, leaders should pay attention to all the research available on job creation. By eliminating business size as a criterion, we avoid repeating mistakes which have taken money out of public coffers in favor of independent consultants and small law firms whose personnel tend to be well off and stable in number. Alternative strategies haven't worked either; efforts to give job creation incentives by targeting new real estate developments usually accomplishes more job movement than creation (while leaving a lot of empty office space). New entrants to the job market are much more likely to respond to incentives, and policy makers should target them accordingly.
It's time to rethink our approach to economic incentives, and restructure our notions of the engine behind American job creation. We have to disassociate our yearning for the idyllic quiet American main street lined with shops and businesses from our economic policy. Recovery isn't going to found in small town storefronts, but rather in garages, basements, and yes, the board rooms of expanding multinational conglomerates. It's time to reform the refrain. Let's get used to saying, "New businesses are the engine of job creation in the United States."
Thursday, May 13, 2010
"Parkway has been in the field of real estate development for close to 70 years. We own, operate, and manage over 100 properties in the United States and Canada including surface and multi-level parking facilities. We have office space and retail space for lease as well as properties available for sale, and co-development."Cities across the US are only now beginning to realize that parking is not about just parking but it is about asset and land management. It's just a shame that they are far behind the curve of the parking lot companies themselves.
Tuesday, May 11, 2010
Cities have souls. If humans, themselves collections of sinews, organs and tissues can have souls, surely so can cities with their streets, parks and electric grids. While different religions ascribe different properties to the soul of a man or woman, there are a few more standard proxies for measuring the soul of a city. They amount largely to two things, the strength of the neurosis that its citizens have about their city, and the percentage of people currently living in the city who are from said city.
Neurosis: There used to be a billboard (or so I am told) along I-95 that read "Philadelphia: it's not as bad as Philadelphians say it is." Residents with cities with souls have a neurotic obsession with their cities, an obsession with the identity of the city and how things get done there. It does not have to all be neurotic, New Orleans felt like a city suffering from collective post traumatic stress disorder when I was there, and San Franciscans seem to have an enormous amount of near narcissistic love for their city, seeing the city as the reflection of their own potential and ethos. While I may use psychological terms fast and loose, I do believe that these cities all actively acknowledge or wrestle with a sense of identity and what it means to be from that city.
Percentage of Natives: When someone asks you in Philadelphia or New Orleans, what school did you go to, they mean, what High School did you go to (not, like in Manhattan or DC, what college). This is not just evidence of a sort of parochialism, it is also a sign that natives have deep roots in these cities. Having a high percentage of people from the city, distributed across income brackets, means that people across the city have memories of the city. A friend of mine living in Albania, had an address that said "Mike, above where Disco-My-Heart used to be, Behind where the rice factory used to stand." While cities need immigrants and churn, new people moving in and out, for a city to have a soul, it needs people who remember what used to be on that corner a decade a go.
I often flippantly say that DC has no soul, so many people move in and move out so quickly in that City that its neighborhoods are forgotten and without identity. My friends who are from DC argue with me, noting that such a characterization is only applicable for NW DC, a white capital-hill-centric DC. I would be willing to concede some of that, but if half the city does not pay attention to itself, well I still think its souless. Manhattan too, it could be argued, is loosing its soul as it becomes more and more expensive and more and more out-of-towners live their and have lost the memory of a grimier and livelier past.
Some of this may sound like simple urban romanticism, but in the end successful cities are those that encourage people to live in them and raise their children in them. Not all these cities are functional, but they do have people passionately fighting for, well, their souls.
Wednesday, May 5, 2010
Recently the Planning Collective partnered with the East Passyunk Avenue Business Improvement District to compete for $50,000 from Pepsi to transform a chaotic 6-way intersection into a community asset. They will, in essence, be bringing Broadway to South Philly: the very same reclamation of auto-dominated right of way and transformation into pedestrian node like was done in the heart of NYC and San Francisco could now emerge in Sou' Philly. I urge you to go here ,vote, and make this project a reality.
After you vote (early and often, in the truest of Philadelphia traditions) poke around the website, you will may see the future of planning in America.
As citizen's appetites for taxes diminishes even more rapidly, the federal, state and local governments have access to fewer and fewer funds to invest in their communities. This means not only that there is less money to play around with, but that it is harder to get. No wonder the US DOT made TIGER a competitive grant, it’s just disheartening that they received approximately $56 billion worth of proposed projects, for only $1.5 billion worth of funding. With less access to capital, planning and public investment will only get more competitive.
With foundations only able to pick up so much of the remaining tab (due to trust funds reduced by economic nose dives and their many different internal missions) it’s no wonder that the private sector is jumping in. I don’t know how many people have clicked on Pepsi’s website and registered their information to vote for their friends’ projects, but surely it’s worth the $1.3 million worth in grant funding they are distributing.
That being said, please do click here and help bring a little bit of green to South Philly.
Thursday, April 15, 2010
The article "Neighbors to be heard on school building sales" is great news and a great opportunity to do some innovative public outreach. One of the biggest problems with public outreach is that when it's most thorough (i.e. when it's most extensive and has the most meetings), there is usually little opportunity to actually substantively change the project or include community feedback. By timing the public outreach with the actual transfer of title, the community gets in at the right point. Let's hope that the School District develops a process that does more than just listen to the community but also educates them (like a school district should) about development, and work collaboratively as the partners in the community they are.
Saturday, April 3, 2010
Near the end of the column she writes, “Bookstores are not likely to survive when the world is fully Kindle-ized, except perhaps for specialty shops. Ditto for music stores.” This passing remark begs a much larger question: What is the future of urban retail in the Internet age? My father recently pointed out in conversation that the easiest way to find the answer is probably to analyze what we buy online, and what we are less likely to seek on the web. At the moment, the top candidates for the latter seem to be food, clothing and furniture, services (hair/nail salons, medical offices), personal banking, experiences (dining out, theater, clubs, bowling), and items we need right away (toilet paper, toothbrushes, medicine). In other words, the Internet has not only redefined retail, it continues to offer a guide to what retail businesses are good bets for the future.
This is not just an urban phenomenon. The Internet has also changed the retail landscape in the suburbs substantially. I grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs near the Plymouth Meeting Mall. On a recent business trip to a Plymouth Meeting office building, I was shocked to see that the mall’s exterior – once a blank wall, fronting the massive parking lots – was now activated, surrounded by dozens of new chain restaurants and a Whole Foods supermarket. In short, its management determined that the future of the mall was not rooted exclusively (or even primarily) in reviving the interior stores, but in bedecking its exterior with these Internet-resistant business categories.
Before the Internet, suburban-style big-box stores were the biggest threat to urban retail vitality. While some big-box chains that focus on the most Internet-vulnerable categories (like Borders) are threatened, it still seems like a number of national, big-box stores are fairly resilient today. Thus these major retailers are also necessarily part of the equation of figuring out urban retail in the Internet age.
Previously, almost none of these stores would locate in an urban-style context, insisting on building boxes in massive parking lots as their exclusive business model. Some big-box stores still do not have an urban design and won’t go beyond their familiar suburban-style look. But these days, many have wised up and now have urban design templates. Savvier cities have found ways to woo these stores downtown (I was recently in an urban-style Best Buy in Manhattan; Manhattan's Home Depot is shown above).
In today’s economy it becomes more important than ever for cities to figure out how to utilize these stores as anchors for urban commercial corridors. In Philadelphia we have many of these big-box stores, but located far away from the downtown and major commercial corridors. It is well known that big box stores have relatively short life spans in suburban-style locations, often staying open only ten or fifteen years before seeking a new spot, leaving vacant “grayfields” behind. Philadelphia should make it a focus to ensure that when its South Philly big boxes close down that the City provides the carrots and sticks to bring these retail anchors to dense, urban-style commercial corridors. This is something the City should be thinking about proactively, rather than waiting for the not-so-distant day that one of the South Philly mega-retailers is ready to shut its doors and move to the next shopping center down the block.
I would argue that cities still have the strongest chance to keep small, diverse, and privately-owned retailers open, but it depends on their ability to understand the new market forces brought on by online shopping, and the necessity of centralizing their major retailers so as to create the critical mass of shoppers needed to provide the kind of retail we have traditionally come to expect from urban shopping. Small commercial corridors can certainly stay relevant based on the perpetual need for place-based, Internet-resilient businesses. However, downtowns and larger urban commercial corridors continue to need anchors.
Thursday, March 25, 2010
Full disclosure, I work for Philadelphia's Mayor's Office of Transportation and Utilities. The following does NOT reflect any official policy of the City and only my own personal analysis.
Last month, the Philadelphia Bikeshare Concept Study was released. The study was commissioned for the City, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia and the William Penn Foundation. On its release it was met with great fanfare, the advocacy group Bikeshare Philadelphia proclaimed “YES to bike share! The study verifies the viability of a Public Use Bicycle Program for the City of Philadelphia.” It is worth it to take a much closer look at this excellently researched study for yourself; not only because the study actually answers a slightly different question than the advocates claim it does, but because viability means something different for institutions than it does for advocates.
The study answers two interrelated questions, is there a market for bikesharing in Philadelphia, and if someone were to build a Bikeshare system, what would it look like? It starts by building a map of where bikesharing could work in Philadelphia based upon the density of people, jobs and retail activity as well as the presence of tourist attractions, parks and transit stops. It is no surprise that the Central Business District (i.e. Center City and parts North and South) and University City constitute this core market.
While this mapping exercise describes what parts of the city would best support bikesharing it does not tell you how big such a program should be. To do that the study reviews three surveys done in Paris, Lyon and Barcelona, big dense cities with significant Bikeshare programs. In each of these cities surveys were conducted that essentially asked, “Without a shared bicycle how would you have completed your trip?” In Lyon 1.4% of the people surveyed would have taken a bus or a subway, while 4.6% of Parisians surveyed gave up transit to use bikeshare (far fewer people gave up their car to use Bikeshare, only .06% surveyed in Lyon and .18% in Barcelona). The study then applied these percentages to kinds of trips people take in Philadelphia within the aforementioned market area. They found that within the core market area, anywhere from 5,900 to 18,200 people might ride Bikeshare on any given day.
This means that for Philadelphia to build a Bikeshare system it would need to have 50 to 160 bike stations with anywhere from 770 to 2,370 bicycles, costing anywhere from $2 to $6 million to set up (the final recommendation is for a $4.4 million dollar initial program that would deploy 1,750 bicycles in only the initial phase).
The issue of money is a big one. Advocates point to the success of the Parisian system, suggesting that bikesharing systems must be built into street furniture contracts with the advertising companies that build bus shelters, etc. But they miss a very important fact: J.C. Decaux only offered to build a Bikeshare system so as to win the contract and Paris must now pay $1 million a year to subsidize the program. With ad revenues as an unpredictable source of funding, and with the city scraping every penny, bikesharing looks less and less attractive from a municipal standpoint. While in Barcelona they pay for bikesharing through a parking fee and looking at the Parking Authority as a “home” for a bikesharing system may be initially attractive, there are serious ramifications for it. The PPA contributes money not just to the City but the School District. Moreover, raising the cost of parking in the City is not an attractive option, just look at the pushback over the soda tax.
The study also notes other issues that must be addressed for a bikeshare program to work in Philadelphia. The City would of course need to “upgrade… the bike-lane/path network throughout the core area to provide safe circulation options for both expert and novice riders. [The City would also need to provide] aggressive levels of education and enforcement to minimize conflict among bikes, cars, and pedestrians on the city’s constrained streets and sidewalks.” It is here where a difference in perspective, between that of the advocate and that of a municipality further diverge.
So far all the easy bike lanes in Philadelphia have been set, more bike lanes, which would make it easier and more attractive for people to ride in Philadelphia, require taking away parking. If anything that would make drivers angrier at bicyclists, and we don’t need more of that. The number of people who park is far larger than those who bike, walk or take transit. And they vote.
In other words, the implementation issue is not simply a financial one, it is a political one. Are we as the City willing to make the trade-offs necessary, and even some of the sacrifices necessary to make bikesharing work? Are we willing to reduce the amount of money that goes to different programs to fund bikeshare? Unfortunately that is not a decision that just the advocates can make. In the end, the most significant challenge is the education one, not simply because the tension between bicyclists, pedestrians and drivers in Philadelphia is untenable, but because all Philadelphians need to see the benefit of bikesharing, not just the bicyclists.
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
Ted Weerts, Ph.D. Executive Director, Travelers Aid Family Services of Philadelphia
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Income Opportunities in Urban Agriculture Workshops
Penn State Extension and The Enterprise Center will present two workshops on March 17, 2010: How to Write a Farm Business Plan (5:30-6:30PM) and How to Price Products for Market (7:00-9:00 PM). The workshops will be held at The Enterprise Center (4548 Market St., Philadelphia, PA 19139). Each workshop costs $10. For more information, please contact Nicole Sugerman.
This is a far more important recommendation than one might initially presuppose because it hints at a new way the city, communities and developers can interact when it comes to negotiating the impact on the community. Before I explain what I mean, a short digression is necessary to explain some of the problems with the process of community participation in planning and development. Be it a private developer who needs the community support to appear before a zoning commission, or a Streets/Highway/Transit Department that must complete an environmental review process before building a road or transit system, the builders of our cities must sit down with the communities who will feel the brunt of the impact of their project. The fact that developers and project builders must sit down with their community is not the problem, in fact it is rightly part of the whole development process. The benefit of such a process is two-fold, it is an opportunity to educate the public about a project, and it provides the developer (private or public) the political cover for some of their decisions. Problems arise can arise however when a community makes unfeasible demands or impractical demands and expectations are created for project aspects that are simply unable to be acted upon. It is one thing to ask for a place to sit, or a set-back in the highest portion of a tower, and it is another to expect a developer either not to go as tall as financially feasible or that they will fund the ongoing maintenance of a youth center. Out of such meetings, delays, costs and acrimony arise.
This is where public art comes in. At the crux of many communities’ complaints and demands is the sense that their community, where they have grown up and raised their children, is changing and that they have no voice or place in the future of their community. However Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program has created a tried and true method of transferring the collective aspirations and values of a community and expressing it visibly on the vacant walls of the city’s many neighborhoods. By using the public art process as the main venue for public outreach during the building process developers (again, public or private) not only make the public a meaningful part of the development process, but they can act as partners to bring new identify, beauty and sense of identity to a place and project. The community sees themselves as a partner and the developer sees an added layer of investment in their project. Bringing in the OACCEE to the development process, to help encourage and steer the development of public art “tangible commitment to the public environment.” Ultimately a commitment to public art is an expression of our collective values, both for art in general and more importantly for its contributions to the city we live in.
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
Monday, February 1, 2010
Saturday, January 30, 2010
Tuesday, January 26, 2010
Sunday, January 24, 2010
Monday, January 11, 2010
Our sometime guest Matt Crespi brings us a thoughtful look at the importance of transit: namely that transit means jobs and more jobs than highways. Crespi does a great job of outlining the issue, and implicitly raises some more questions
- What does the investment in transit jobs mean for job growth and a tax base... How many more jobs would we need to create in transit for their to be a noticeable increase in the tax rolls for a city? Which leads to another question, what kind of transit service would we get out of that?
- More importantly, what kind of jobs are needed to maintain ongoing transit operations. Transit systems across the US are facing a critical staffing gap. As more and more engineering minded students go for hi paying jobs developing computer programs, there are fewer highly trained people able to maintain and fix the increasingly complex transit cars and subways.
What Crespi ultimately points to is that Philadelphia faces a challenge: how do we invest in people and transit for the betterment of both.
For decades we’ve known that investment in public transportation is often money well spent. In addition to encouraging more environmentally friendly behavior and serving as a keystone to any urban plan for sustainable development, it comes with numerous economic benefits. From attracting businesses to making a local labor market more efficient, good public transportation is a boon to residents in all socioeconomic strata. Now, thanks to a study by Smart Growth America, we can add one more fantastic claim to the list of benefits provided by that magic civic elixir: investment in public transportation creates almost twice as many jobs as other transportation projects.
Studying data from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, SGA found that a billion dollars devoted to public transportation produced 16,419 job months, where the same amount of money spent on a highway project produced a comparatively meager 8,781 job months. (What's a job month? A "job month" is a unit equal to one month of work for one person. The ARRA is less than a year old, so determining the exact retention rate, or creation of full-time jobs that are here to stay, is not yet possible. Estimates and experience, however, suggest that public transit creates at least as many jobs as investment in roads.)
Why the big difference? Building roads and highways requires significant amounts of land, while public transportation is more compact, complex and labor-intensive. Public transportation often requires a greater variety of skills to implement, which not only leads to more job creation, but also faster job creation (especially in areas with existing systems). Pennsylvania has been especially effective in turning stimulus money into jobs, and in less than a year has 100% of its Recovery Act funds under contract.
For Philadelphia, this affirms one of Mayor Nutter's key messages: improving sustainability doesn't have to be at odds with fighting a recession. Public transportation investment bring more jobs faster, and the jobs themselves are also greener. While a new highway and new public transportation can both reduce congestion, buses, trains and subways have a smaller environmental footprint, and the behavior they incentivize is far more sustainable.
Even ignoring superior job creation and environmental compatibility, the infrastructure itself would provide our region with a great return on investment. With SEPTA ridership increasing dramatically, more Philadelphians are prepared to embrace public transportation as a way of life than ever before (a trend holding true across the nation--the study points out that since 1995, transit use has grown at almost triple the rate of population growth). And now that we know the investment isn't just good for commuters and businesses, but also for the tax base and the city as a whole, the only thing stopping us is limited resources.
With this revelation, it is my hope that funding for public transportation will come in even more rapidly, as the rate of job creation currently seems capped only by limited government commitments. It would be nice if legislators in Harrisburg would wake up to the fact that allowing state transportation money to fund SEPTA projects is not a waste, but a way to raise state revenues and employ Pennsylvanians. That may be a pipe dream, but I think there is real hope that Washington will take notice. As the White House tries to get Americans back to work, future transportation funding initiatives might just include more funding for public transit than ever before.
The public opinion war is being won, and it's time for the supply to catch up with the demand. Public transportation too often seems to fall in the category of important but not urgent. But now, as we discover that these green investments create almost twice as many jobs as their land- and carbon-consuming counterparts, expanding public transit seems an ideal way to meet an urgent policy need while getting ready for a future which Philadelphians--and increasingly all Americans--are optimistically seeking.