For Downtown Revival, We’re Going to Need to Leave Our Cars at Home

Streetcars, Downtown Rochester, NY, ca 1910

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.

Failing Schools? Don’t Blame the Teachers

Racially Integrated Classroom, Berlin Township, NJ, 1952

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.

Expand the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Credit To Stimulate Jobs

Michigan Central Station, Detroit, 2011

Thursday night, President Obama is giving his big jobs speech. I doubt we’ll get any new programs or policy changes with the current state of Congress, but I want to float the idea of expanding the federal historic preservation tax credit program as a job creator. I outlined in an earlier post how this type of program helps local economies. This is an idea I’ve been working on since 2009, when I tried to get North Carolina’s historic preservation commissions to work on their representatives and senators to consider this strategy. Senator Richard Burr, a Republican who happens to live in my city of Winston-Salem, was the only one that seemed interested, but nothing got off the ground.

Here’s some background on how the program works: As it stands now,  the Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit gives a 20% federal tax credit for rehabilitation work on income-producing properties within National Register Historic Districts and landmark properties.  While this sounds like a limited group of buildings and neighborhoods, it is actually quite broad — there are more than 13,600 of these districts in the nation.  My state of North Carolina has 400 national register districts which include thousands of individual buildings.

The tax credit program could be changed in several ways that could stimulate the economy. Here’s a start:

1. Easily the most far-reaching change would be to expand the tax credit from exclusively income-producing properties to also include all residential properties. The vast majority of historic buildings are houses and this could encourage investment in older neighborhoods, particularly the rehabilitation of foreclosed properties. This idea is part of H.R. 2555, which is in committee, but here are some more ideas:

2. The amount of the tax credit could be raised. North Carolina has a state tax credit in addition to the federal program and is very successful. A 40% tax credit on income producing properties and 30% credit for non-income-producing properties, like residences, might inspire a great deal of investment in the rest of the country as it has in North Carolina.

3. The floor for the minimum spent on a project could be lowered. Right now, a person must spend at least $25,000 on a rehabilitation project in order to qualify for the tax credit. Lowering that amount would encourage some smaller renovations by people that can’t afford a wholesale renovation.

4. There is another element of the program that allows a 10% credit to rehabilitation of “older buildings,” currently defined as those built before 1936. If this definition was changed to allow buildings “fifty years old or older,” a number of properties would be included in the program that would not be otherwise.

5. Lastly, it’s difficult for non-profit organizations to take advantage of the tax credit program since they don’t technically have an income. There are a number of non-profit organizations involved in housing issues that would benefit by being included in this program.

Dear Missouri, Please Don’t Cut Your Historic Preservation Tax Credits

Anheuser-Busch Brewery, Saint Louis

Missouri, I know you’ve been walloped by decades of deindustrialization and now the Great Recession. You’re being forced to make some terrible choices when it comes to your state budget. On the chopping block is your historic preservation tax credit. It may seem trite to cry for the potential loss of this program. I mean, shouldn’t you be spending taxpayer money on schools and roads and bridges? Yes, but hold on a second. You need to think this through. Where are your historic structures? In the middle of your cities! For the last 50 years, people have been abandoning your cities for the suburbs. In the meantime, you’ve had to build new roads, install new water and sewer lines, build new schools, and take care of this more spread-out infrastructure. Those buildings in the middle of your cities are worth keeping around. Worth investing in. They’re your history. They don’t make ’em like that anymore and it’s not going to be cheap to fix them. But it’s worth it. Here’s why:

1. Your state tax credit helps bring federal tax credits into Missouri. That’s 20% of the money spent rehabilitating National-Register-listed income-producing buildings and 10% for pre-1936 commercial buildings. That’s a lot of free money for your local economy. And, again, where are those old commercial buildings? Oh, right. In the middle of every city and town in your state. Besides that, your state tax credit can be used for residential buildings, too (federal tax credits are only for commercial buildings).

2. This is the only thing that’s going to put building contractors back to work. How many new subdivisions have you seen going up? Shiny new strip malls? Me, neither. That’s because nobody’s buying. You know what some people are doing, though? They’re picking up old historic houses and commercial buildings for a song and fixing them up. You want to keep that going?

3. Jobs in historic preservation are local. When your average developer rehabs a building (if he doesn’t tear it down to begin with), he uses contemporary products. Let’s take the windows, for example. Do you want the contractor to buy 25 vinyl windows for this historic building? Let’s not even take into consideration how bad that would look, since the windows won’t be the right size for the building and you can never paint them and they’ll only last 10 years. Would you rather have a man in China making those windows, or would you rather hire a craftsman from Missouri to rehang the windows, fix a few broken pains and reglaze them? I’m going with the guy that pays taxes in Missouri.

4. People are buying the neighborhood, not just the house. They want to be able to walk to a corner store, ride their bike, sit on a front porch. They want sidewalks and interesting architecture. They want places where people feel invested in the future. Places they can be proud of. Your historic neighborhoods are all those things. Developers don’t build neighborhoods like this anymore, so you’d better preserve the ones you have.

5. Your cities and town governments like these neighborhoods because they’re cheaper to serve. They don’t have cul de sacs; they have grid street patterns that are cheaper to plow in the winter, they don’t get traffic backups, and they’re close to existing fire houses, police precincts, and schools. Their water and sewer systems are under-capacity since neighborhood population is way off its peak. And since people have been investing in your downtowns for the last decade or so, hopefully these neighborhoods are closer to work for a lot of people, too.

6. Historic buildings are energy efficient. Well, they are when you take into account where they are. Historic buildings, like I said, are in the middle of your towns and cities. They require less driving for the people that live there because they’re closer to downtown and, well, each other. Transit systems serve them easier and people can walk to their destinations easier. And have you ever considered the energy it takes to tear down a building and construct a new one? Stuff them with insulation and fix the windows and they’re as good as anything you can build today.

7. These buildings are your icons. Did I mention these building are in the center of all your cities and towns? They’re what people think of when they talk about Missouri. They’re your past. They’re the reason people send postcards. They’re the reason people come to visit and decide they’ll stay. Don’t mess this up!

Our Pollution Footprint and Job Creation

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Apple, an American Company, made my iPhone in China (mostly). I find it disappointing, though, that Apple’s suppliers were just accused for a second time of polluting several communities there. Then, a couple days ago, I was disappointed again when President Obama abandoned a more restrictive air pollution rule that was recommended by the EPA. The reason for doing this was, of course, jobs.

The argument usually goes that environmental protections are job killers. Where I live, in the Piedmont of North Carolina, air quality has gotten much better over the last 15 years. It’s not because of pollution controls, though. It has more to do with the tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs that disappeared from the region. Until recently, this area used to be the American center of textile and furniture manufacturing. People here wax poetic about how the local rivers would run whatever color the mills happened to be dyeing that day. It’s not that way anymore. The mills are largely closed, the rivers are mostly clear, and the air is more breathable. And a lot of people are out of work. So, if it wasn’t pollution controls that put these people out of work, what was it? NAFTA. I’m sure it’s cheaper to dump pollutants into the nearest river, but what’s driving manufacturing jobs oversees has more to do with wages, currency markets and trade agreements than pollution regulations.

Still, some people think we should open ourselves up to a bit more pollution to provide a kind of lesser-evil alternative to the uber-pollution status quo in China. It’s a decent argument, and I’m open to the possibility that some regulations may go too far, but I doubt a significant number of jobs would come back to the US if we start down this path. It begs the question though — what’s our responsibility for pollution in other countries? The world?

Pollution rules are built into many international treaties and regulations; maybe we need to concentrate our attention there instead. After all, if trade agreements are driving pollution, maybe trade agreements can tamp it down. Of course, the elephant in the room is carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Should we start there? A cap and trade system has the potential to stop manufacturing firms from chasing the lowest wage and start chasing the cleanest facility. That sounds like a situation that could create jobs here.

Borscht Belt Meets Rust Belt

Tamarack Lodge Hotel, photo courtesy Bearings

It’s almost Labor Day, when the last summer vacationers will be leaving the Catskills. It’s pretty safe to say that most of them left a long time ago, though. The area known as the Borscht Belt is where countless middle-class Jewish families streamed up from New York City and spent their summers in the countless hotels and bungalow colonies. It’s where young comedians like Don Rickles, Joan Rivers and Mel Brooks plied their trade. Where nobody puts Baby in a corner. Today, it looks more like the Rust Belt.

I spent about half my childhood here as the son of school teachers but never got to see the area in its heyday. Never got to take advantage of the vast entertainment infrastructure that existed from the ’40s to the ’60s. The interstate highway system and cheap airfare brought everyplace in the country that much closer to New York City, and everyone apparently decided to vacation someplace else. Today, a lot of the old hotels are just sitting empty, waiting to burn down. Or waiting to be turned into a casino.

Ever since I could read I remember seeing a billboard practically begging, “Casinos mean jobs.” Atlantic City had just legalized gambling, trying to bring back their own lost summer crowds and it was another nail in the coffin of the Borscht Belt. They’re still pushing for gambling in the Catskills, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo is considering ending the state’s gambling ban. It’s too late, though.

State governments don’t really want their own residents gambling. It’s always a losing proposition*, so it’s best to get out-of-state suckers to spend their paychecks at the craps table. You want your residents spending their money on the mortgage and sending their kids to college instead. That’s why  casinos are usually located near state borders. The problem for New York State is that it’s surrounded by legalized gambling, so most of the gamblers they get will be New Yorkers. I doubt that will stop legalization, though. The state’s coffers have too many holes right now. And the Catskills will finally get their wish.

Grossinger's Uniforms, photo courtesy Bearings

Parking Lots are Bad Neighbors

Parking Lot #33 by Jason Brockert

City planning was a reaction to industrialization: smokestacks make bad neighbors, so cities created zoning. Who would want to live near a smoke-belching factory? It was dangerous and unhealthy. And it smelled bad. London had “dark satanic mills.” Pittsburgh was “hell with the lid off.” But, zoning has since evolved to not only separate the industrial from the residential, but to separate commercial from residential, and residential (apartments) from residential (single-family). What in the world is zoning protecting me from there? The way I see it, it’s cars. Well, parking lots. And that’s creating a cycle of urban decline and reliance on oil (and deteriorated water quality, poor air quality, obesity, yada, yada).

We’ve had two themes running through planning for the last 75 years, and where they overlap is in the parking lot. The first theme is, make it easy for me to drive my car anywhere, whenever I want. Second, keep those cars away from my house! Here’s the problem: When you live in a city where everyone has a car, your stores need to have parking lots. But, who wants to live next to a parking lot? So zoning ends up separating your neighborhood grocery from your neighborhood. Then everyone has to drive there. Then it needs a bigger parking lot. Etc.

Right now, most cities have parking requirements built into their zoning codes. Want to put a yoga studio in your house? Good luck. You’ll probably have to supply enough parking spaces as if every person taking yoga with you drove by themselves. (And, be honest — they probably would.) But, big retailers, churches, and office buildings very often supply much more parking than is required. The retailers build their parking lots for the biggest shopping day of the year, churches want enough parking spaces for every seat in the sanctuary, and the owners of office buildings want flexibility for any possible tenant. And when you get a bunch of these buildings next to each other, you get parking lot after redundant parking lot. And you have to drive there.

So, how do we begin to solve this mess and pull our cities back together? It may fix itself, but not in a way that many of us would enjoy. If gas prices rise sharply, people won’t want to drive as much or as far as they do now. In the end, the market will react and we’ll probably see a trend back to neighborhood-scale retail and services. But what if we actually wanted our city policies to create a place where we could choose not to drive?

City policies could squeeze from two directions — do away with some minimum parking requirements and add parking maximums. It probably won’t destroy any neighborhoods to allow businesses up to a certain square footage to rely on on-street parking. And I’m sure we could come up with reasonable numbers for a maximum number of parking spaces for different land uses.

And what if we separated parking requirements from individual buildings? We do that in many downtowns. By virtue of locating in a walkable urban center, building owners are not required to provide parking, and it somehow works out. What if we did that in other places? Just said, we have enough parking here. No asphalt required. Or, no more asphalt, period. In growing suburban areas, it might actually inspire useful development of those empty spaces. And it could discourage tear-downs in more urban neighborhoods, too.

This is an incremental policy change, obviously. But building a city is incremental itself. Without changing the whole framework for city planning, this is how we make better places to live.

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What kind of city do you deserve?

Geography is everywhere, especially in our cities. It’s why the Rust Belt used to be shiny (the Erie Canal) and why my beautiful bungalow was so damn cheap (the schools suck). It’s also the reason you probably drive everywhere even though gas is so expensive (we’ve built our cities in a way that you don’t often have a choice).

Geography answers the question, why there? It’s a useful thing to know if your job is to steer an entity of hundreds of thousands (millions?) of people, making individual decisions. “Steer” is too strong a word, though. Educated and influence those who steer my city is more like it.

You see, city planning is ultimately a democratic process. Every decision is voted on by your city council, whose members want to keep their residents happy. If city residents, aka voters, don’t understand how a city works, they can’t be expected to support the difficult decisions their elected officials need to make.

And that’s what I want to do here, just on a bigger scale. I’m a city planner who wants his city to work for all the people who live here. A city should give its residents access — access to jobs, education, community, a safe place to live, good health, and a way to participate. But this blog isn’t so much about my city; it’s about our cities. When you add it all up, we’re talking about big-picture stuff — the environment, the economy, our futures. So, if more of us understand how our cities work, maybe we’ll get the cities we deserve.