When it published my story on Atlantic City this week, The Atlantic Cities may have confused Google (according to one editor). The city’s newest casino, the Revel Resort is having its premiere this weekend and that presents an excellent opportunity to take a look at Atlantic City’s, um, interesting relationship with casino-based redevelopment.
When my wife and I bought our house, we didn’t have a lot of cash for the down payment. Or the closing costs, either, for that matter. And we especially didn’t have a lot of cash to fix up said house. And why would we? We planned to move within five years anyway. We’re typical of our generation.
Which is one of the reasons we don’t have solar panels. Depending on the size of your house, how much light it gets, and the tax credit situation when you decide to go solar, they can take anywhere from five to 15 years just to pay for themselves. Solar hot water systems are cheaper than electricity-producing photovoltaics, but who knows if you’ll be living in a given house that long?
The barrier to solar may not be how much it costs, but how we pay for it. One way to get solar power for your house is to make a solar power purchase agreement (SPPA). In a SPPA, a third-party developer owns, operates, and maintains a photovoltaic solar system for a host customer who agrees to site the system on his or her property and purchase the system’s electricity for a predetermined period. This gives the customer stable and sometimes cheaper electricity while the solar services provider gets income and, many times, tax credits. There are also lease-to-buy agreements in which the homeowner owns the solar array after purchasing power for a set amount of time. This seems like a pretty good way to get some solar panels installed around the country even if you can’t do this in every US state.
Still, there’s also the mobility issue. If you think you may not own your house for more than five or six years, solar panels are the last thing you’re going to buy. But what if we treated solar panels like a tank of heating oil? When you sell a house with an oil furnace, you don’t just give the buyer the leftover oil in the storage tank. Depending on how much oil is left, they cut you a check at the closing. Why not value a lease-to-own solar array in the same way, except pay for it in the mortgage instead of through the closing? When someone buys a house with, say, seven years paid into a ten-year solar lease, they could roll that price into their 30-year mortgage, pay for power for three more years on the lease, then get renewable energy for the foreseeable future.
There could be a lot of winners using this system. The original homeowner and solar investor would essentially have their power bills paid for them by a future buyer. The solar services developer would probably sell more solar systems. And homebuyers could finance solar systems as a part of their house (like their furnace, or central air conditioner) over a longer period of time. It’s likely there will be problems in valuing solar systems in the short term and we need to get solar purchasing agreements more widely accepted while we’re at it, but this could be an easy way to knock down another barrier to renewable energy.
- Special thanks to Chelsea Conover Barnes at the North Carolina Solar Center.
Tourists usually pick a place to visit that’s the best at something. New York and Chicago have their skyscrapers. Orlando has its amusement parks. Detroit has decay. My wife and I stayed there a few days last summer and, honestly it was just sad. Detroit was built for 2 million people but only 700,000 people live there now. It’s a city of 1.3 million missing people. Detroit has this endless supply of buildings–wonderful buildings–that nobody uses. That’s what really gets to me about this city. All the lost potential, wasted effort, abandoned beauty. The world’s biggest ghost town.
I just saw Detropia, a film that explains the problems of Detroit through a collage of lives, no narrator. It doesn’t get overly nostalgic and it’s not a movie of “ruin porn,” although you can’t tell Detroit’s story without ruins. Detroit’s strategy is to invest in its best places and try to build outward again. Some young people are moving downtown and that’s probably the best way for the city to start over. The problem is, the city can’t really afford to invest in itself anymore. It’s spread out over 140 square miles and it just can’t support its current population with this massive infrastructure footprint. When there’s block after block with one house where there used to be 20, how can you afford to maintain the streets, water and sewer lines, the police and fire departments, or even to plow the snow?
The thing that builds a city, millions of people making individual decisions, has been the undoing of Detroit. It’s become a repository for the state’s poor, and when they’re lucky enough to find more work, they leave. It’s a logical decision. The city is so far gone, so disappeared, that I’m afraid no matter how much the economy recovers, pretty soon it just won’t be a logical place for anyone to live.
Farmland has value, just not in small packages. As agricultural profit margins have gotten thinner and thinner, farm operations have had to become more productive and farms themselves larger and larger. So, as far as agriculture goes, small farms aren’t worth so much. And, all this cheap land on the edge of so many cities has helped fuel our suburban sprawl. It’s happened in every metro across America — cities are expanding faster than their population, taking up more acres for each person. Even cities that haven’t seen population growth have grown in overall area.
Cities lose when development moves outside their boundaries. They have to keep up with their infrastructure and maintenance costs — their roads, water and sewer lines, plowing snow — but they lose their tax base. It costs the same amount to resurface a road no matter who’s paying the property tax. Local governments around the country have tried to preserve rural areas and farmsteads, usually by purchasing land or development rights. All of this is, to say the least, expensive. But, we’re seeing a better way to help our rural areas. Instead of trying to catch up with the value suburban development pays for farmland, another tactic is to make farmland more valuable. Local food trends are already leading the way.
More and more people are interested in getting their food from local organic farms instead of the “1,000-mile Caesar Salad,” shipped from across the country. Local organic food is a little less efficient and a bit more expensive. Better for smaller farms. (Cage-free eggs are really tasty; they cost $5 a dozen, too.) Cities and towns surrounded by rural areas should try to make farming more profitable — set up farmers markets, promote their city’s connection to its countryside, set up local food networks with restaurants. For those lucky enough to have joint city-county governments, give farmers more choices. Make it easier to add B&Bs or wedding reception halls. The more people that can make money farming near our cities, the less likely it is our cities will spill into our farms.
Evidently, New York City has a taxicab shortage. This fall, two medallions — the license to operate a cab there — sold for $1 million each. That’s because the Taxi and Limousine Commission restricts the number of cabs allowed in the city. Cab numbers were limited in 1937 to 16,900 and fell to 11,787 in the 1940s. Today, there are only 13,237 yellow cabs and those medallion owners are sitting on an investment that’s outpaced the price of gold and the stock market.
Economists hate this system. It has them going on about competition, the invisible hand, market inefficiencies, service shortages, windfall profits, etc. And all these arguments make sense, until you bring physical space into the story. Limiting the city’s taxi fleet is actually a good idea. For Manhattan, anyway. It’s just been limited for too long.
The goal of a taxi system is for any user to be able to always have a free cab at their disposal in all places. The thing is, taxis take up physical space. And when you get too many cabs in Manhattan, you get clogged streets and you may as well walk. So you have to limit the number of cabs. And when you limit the number of cabs, you have to protect consumers from the inflated prices that follow. Besides, if drivers all charged different rates, how much congestion would that cause? People would be perpetually waiting for cheaper cab to hail.
Yellow cabs should be thought of as part of the city’s larger transportation system (and their regulation brought under the city’s Department of Transportation). It’s a transportation system that needs to reduce congestion, expand mass transit, and keep fares affordable. The pent-up need for more taxis could even offer an opportunity. With cab companies signalling that million-dollar taxi medallions are a reasonable investment, the city government should print some money… err allow more taxis. Just figure out what the appropriate number of cabs is for its streets and have some medallion auctions. Then, for a city that’s famously congested, expand transit (perhaps even freeing up the streets for more taxis).
Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” might be the best soundtrack for our country right now. It’s about starting over. Getting out of Dodge. When I hit the genius mix button on my iPod, it gets put on the same playlist as U2′s rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.”
With the burst of the housing bubble, the American Dream stopped being about home-ownership and went back to being about the pursuit of happiness. But, as Richard Florida is writing this week, we’re stuck. Workers can’t move for jobs if they’re underwater on their mortgage. That is, unless they walk away from their mortgage. Which they still appear to be doing in droves. I suspect that’s not a good thing for the credit markets, but I’ll leave that to the economists.
So, what’s the solution? Easy. More jobs, everywhere.
A lot of people are upset about TransCanada’s Keystone XL — the 1,600 mile pipeline that would ship tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada to Gulf Coast refineries in Texas. They’re protesting outside the White House. They’re protesting in Canada. Hell, they’re even protesting in Nebraska.
There are plenty of good reasons to hate this project. It’s a complete disaster for the areas surrounding the mines, obviously. But lately, the arguments against the pipeline are piling up in two main areas: the possible mess this stuff will cause in a spill, and the guaranteed mess it will cause when it’s refined and burned. There’s no shortage of opportunities for this pipeline to cause major problems if there’s a spill. The proposed path would cross 70 streams and rivers along with the Ogallala Aquifer, a major supplier of ground-water for US agriculture. There are plenty of bad scenarios that can play out here, but the main issue is going to be the refining of this garbage. It takes two-and-a-half times as much energy to refine as conventional oil. That means your Prius is effectively going to get the same mileage as a Camry. And your Camry is going to get the same effective mileage as a Tacoma pickup truck. And your pickup truck? That will get you mileage closer to a U-Haul.
71% of the oil we use is for transportation. That is, cars and trucks. Driving to work. Driving to the store. If we don’t want this pipeline going across the center of our country, and we don’t want to burn the dirtiest fuel imaginable in our 254,000,000+ cars and trucks, we need to drive less. And while it’s true that higher CAFE standards for new cars will help, and electric cars will help, the energy used to refine tar sands or drill in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, or in the Arctic is going to make quick work of any efficiencies Toyota, GM and Honda squeeze out of their engineers. And alternative energy? Daniel Yergin, the Pulitzer Prize winning oil historian says in his latest book that our current renewable technologies aren’t likely to provide enough inexpensive, reliable energy to replace fossil fuels.
So what do we do? If tar sands are profitable, we’re going to get tar sands gasoline. And if we perpetuate this situation in which we have to drive everywhere, we’re going to buy tar sands gasoline, whether we protest or not. The alternative isn’t going to be what we drive, but where we live. We need to build real cities. Real towns. Walkable neighborhoods. Places where transit can work. Places where we can choose not to drive.
Downtowns need two things to be successful — buildings and customers. Sounds simple.
What makes a downtown great is variety. Lots of storefronts. Restaurants, cafes, coffee shops, bars, shops, galleries, theaters. But how do you get the customers there? Well, some of them live downtown, but the rest are going to drive. And when your customers drive, they need to park. And when they park, you get restaurant, parking lot, cafe, parking lot, bar, parking lot, shop, parking lot, gallery, parking lot, theater, parking lot. And a few parking decks for good measure. Your downtown just lost its potential.
And the people that live downtown? Above the shops and restaurants? Well, we may be seeing a bit of a revival, but unless you’re offering more than bars and restaurants (think grocery store), every one of those downtown residents is going to want a car, too. And they’re going to need to park it in a convenient spot, because they’re going to drive it almost as much as everyone in the suburbs.
And now that everyone’s parked, your downtown has two tiers of street — the handful that are crammed with businesses, apartments and condos; and the surrounding areas with the parking decks, parking lots and the neglected rundown buildings between them. How do we get beyond this?
A streetcar system may be the answer. Connect your inner-ring neighborhoods, job centers and shopping districts to downtown and vice versa. It kills two birds with one stone. You get this potential market for downtown that can get there easily and leave their cars at home. And your downtown residents get connected to a wider range of services. And maybe some of them cut down on the number of cars they need because of it. Couples might need only one car between them. And, with more customers and fewer parking lots, you get the potential for more downtown businesses and more residents. The gaps fill in. It’s a virtuous circle.
I know. Streetcars aren’t cheap. But neither is suburban development. When you build your city on existing infrastructure, you’re not building new water, sewer and stormwater systems. And you don’t have to maintain what you don’t build. You have fewer miles of roads. Fewer water main breaks, snow plows, potholes and sinkholes. And come to think of it, hollowed-out downtowns aren’t cheap either. Your cities will lose their youth and ability to attract new residents without a vibrant downtown. Ultimately, it’s a choice between paying now or paying later.
Education reformers rarely talk about the real issues. It’s not necessarily the schools themselves that are the problem — it’s the geography. We know the good schools are in the expensive neighborhoods. Of course, this is a barrier to low-income families to attend those schools. But it’s not necessarily the teachers, administrators, class sizes, or even the budget that makes those schools better. It’s the students. Well, sort of.
We know that concentrated poverty leads to bad outcomes in city neighborhoods. Well, it’s the same for schools. Family socioeconomic background influences a student’s academic achievement by providing more resources at home, but peer groups are often more influential to learning than socioeconomic background alone. Predictably enough, family income plays a role in whether a student applies for college, too. This isn’t to say that a student’s socioeconomic background is his or her destiny. There are programs that get disadvantaged students the education they need. But when you’re looking at a school with 1,000 students, you can make some pretty solid predictions of the average test score if you know the student body’s average family income. You can see this trend where the entire school district is impoverished of course, but you can see it within school districts, too. Schools with the same funding levels, same class sizes, and same policies, can have vastly different grades. And they’re absolutely tied to the student body’s socioeconomic background. So what’s the solution? Socioeconomic integration.
Not so long ago, school districts used to try to integrate students through busing policies. It was mostly because they were being forced to integrate racially, but because so many black families were (and are) living in poverty, these policies integrated students economically as well. Busing was rarely popular, especially in affluent schools, and it’s not used much anymore. Instead, schools now are trying to integrate through more of a market approach. School districts created magnet schools by concentrating resources, adding special programs (Mandarin Immersion, anyone?) in schools located in racially- or economically-isolated neighborhoods. Now the affluent white students bus themselves and the school district is more integrated than if attendance zones were based solely on neighborhood boundaries. There’s promise for charter schools to act this way, but they’re often more segregated than neighborhood schools.
The problem is, purposefully integrating schools is a giant shell game. While low-income students are stuck in the same neighborhoods, high-income families can avoid integration relatively easily. They want to send my kid to what school!? Not a chance. She’s going to (take your pick) private school, Catholic School, Montessori School. Or, we’re moving to the ‘burbs. And, the larger the city, the larger role geography plays. Low-income students often need to overcome great distances and travel time to attend integrated schools. And where district lines are drawn between rich and poor, you’re stuck.
Some people are looking for solutions in housing policy. Integrate the schools by integrating the neighborhoods. Gentrification can be a bad word, but I’m of the opinion that there’s more harm in the urban sprawl caused by school chasing than by high-income families moving into cities. Besides, there are many successful urban housing developments that make provisions for low-income families and create mixed-income communities. Limiting the amount of subsidized housing and thus lowering the poverty density of a given area can also influence who attends what school. It seems that the ultimate solution is to look beyond the free market. The widening gap between rich and poor is going to exacerbate this issue. And failing our students isn’t the best long-term plan.