Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Zombies: The First Sign of Gentrification

Working-class homeowners (and renters) beware! Your 2,000 square foot double with detached 2-car garage is squarely in the sights of salivating condo developers. "Only 2,000 square feet?" they exclaim. "That half-acre lot could easily hold 5,000 square feet or, better yet, stacked townhouses with marble countertops, heated garages, and elaborate wrought-iron railing!"

That's right: gentrification nips at your heels, driving up land values (and hence property taxes), driving out the working class, and ushering in the fabulously rich (see below).

Though you may be well aware of the warning signs of gentrification (such as invading hordes of artists), I'm here to tell you that artists are not the only warning sign. You must also be on the lookout for zombies (also pictured below). Minneapolis is facing them down as we speak! Locals television news reports an incident in which seven (!) zombies were sighted (go ahead and click on the Zombies link and you'll see).

Once zombies start moving in to a neighborhood, it's curtains for ordinary, working-class, non-undead residents. Besides eating the poor residents' brains and turning them into flesh-eating monsters, zombies also drive up real-estate prices with their insatiable lust for 900-thread count Egyptian Cotton sheets, crown moulding, wainscoting, and Pottery Barns. It's even worse in neighborhoods home to buried celebrities. Ordinary zombies may settle for one bathroom per bedroom and only one jacuzzi per home, but can you imagine Frank Sinatra or Marilyn Monroe settling for anything less than terra-cotta roofs and 24-hour elevator operators?

I'm thinking it's a good time to stock up on chainsaws and flamethrowers.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Enclosed vs. Open-Air: Controlling Public Spaces

Having recently visited The Mill Street Grille (great lamb shanks, by the way!) in New Castle's (PA) new Riverwalk complex, I got to thinking about how cities try to create, manipulate, and control public spaces. New Castle presents urban planners with a significant challenge: how to take a city decimated by decline in the steel industry and revitalize its depressed urban areas. Like most Rust Belt cities, New Castle's downtown is largely a ghost town when the business day ends. Also, like most Rust Belt cities, New Castle's downtown is blessed with a prime central location, excellent pre-war architecture, a (potentially) scenic river, wide sidewalks, and decent greenspace. The businesses that still operate downtown include local government (no surprise there), scattered down market services (pawn shops, check cashing services), some middle-range offices (AT&T among them), and of course a lot of vacant space.

Of course, New Castle's downtown also suffers from the regular problems of all Rust Belt downtowns: little to no residential population, high (or perceived high) rates of property crime and drug crime, ailing business, inadequate infrastructure, overwhelming retail competition from outer-ring malls (Wal-Mart, anyone?). New Castle's downtown--designed for a thriving pre-war urban economy--is, shall we say, out of step with current economic trends. It is, like all places designed for high-density urban living patterns, dependent on people for its survival: people in businesses, people on the sidewalks, people driving, people visiting, people leaving. But, as we all know, employment and demographic shifts in the past fifty years have made these downtowns anachronistic.

All of which gets us back to Riverwalk and how one can craft and control a public space. Urban planners, when trying to revitalize urban spaces, generally try to find ways to encourage people to take up urban living patterns in the spaces in question. That is, they look at the living patterns (high density downtown housing, independent retail, etc.) for which urban spaces were designed and try to convince people to adopt some of those patterns. In some cases, it is sufficient to encourage new downtown residential construction, float bonds for infrastructure improvement, and create a BID to police the neighborhood. In New Castle, however, the perceived threat to safety is so great that drastic measures are necessary to get people to come downtown.

What drastic measure do I have in mind? (Drum roll please) Enclosing space altogether!

Riverwalk is a single two story building fronting the river. It has been rehabbed to create a small indoor mall. Security guards are posted at the main entrances. Since the space is entirely controlled--via gated entry--security can be ensured. Consequently, people are happy and eager to visit Riverwalk. On a recent Saturday night, the restaurant was packed with diners. This is a truly remarkable feat, given how hard it is to operate a business in downtown New Castle.

Is this the urban planning answer for depressed downtowns? I don't know. In the long run, I'm not sure if focusing on improving enclosed spaces actually helps the "outdoor" portion of the city. Maybe it just creates microcosms of safe spaces in a still-declining economy. It does, at the very least, help urban planners and policy-makers better understand the psychological underpinnings of the urban experience. Perhaps we can use it as a gateway measure, a way to draw the non-urban community back into the urban fold in a safe, approachable way.

On the other hand, I find that enclosed spaces are simply not as great as open-air spaces. Ventilation is always problematic, as is ambient noise (indoor spaces develop overwhelming echo-effects). The recent shift away from enclosed suburban malls and instead towards open-air "lifestyle centers" proves my point. But, then again, lifestyle centers are generally built in suburban locations and have significant safety patrols.

Maybe we should just put a roof over the whole planet and it'll all be good...

Monday, November 13, 2006

The Cost of Parking

A recent article in the Plain Dealer about the Cleveland Clinic got me thinking: what does parking really cost? The Clinic is prepared to spend $170 million to build a 4000-space garage on its campus. That strikes me as a heck of a lot of money just so people can park their cars.

But is it? What does parking really cost?

Let's start with the Clinic's example. A $170 million garage with 4000 spaces costs $42,500 per space (that's 170,000,000 / 4,000 for everyone out there without a calculator). Furthermore, let's say the Clinic borrows the construction cost over 10 years at 4% interest (not compounded, though). That's $198,875,955 altogether. Furthermore, let's say the Clinic wants to recoup its construction expenses within those same ten years. That means they need to take in $19,885,595 per year. They can distribute that cost through a mixture of monthly and per-hour rates. If half the garage (2000 spaces) has monthly folks, and the other half (2000 spaces) are 100% occupied during 8 business hours 250 days a year, how does that add up? If they charge $100 per month for the monthlies, they'll pull in $2.4 million. They'll have to cover the remaining $17,485,595 with per-hour fees. Given 4,000,000 occupied parking-hours, they can charge $4.31 an hour. Not bad, actually! Of course, I didn't figure in operating expenses (someone has to man the little booths!).

Of course, Steven Litt's article also points out that the Clinic's potential for expansion is limited in the long run. Although they have plans for plenty of new buildings, the Clinic, much like Case Western Reserve University, may eventually find itself out of space. What is the opportunity cost of the new parking garage? For that matter, what happens when the new 4000-spot garage is maxed out? Do we keep expanding automobile infrastructure to meet demand, or do we reconsider passenger vehicles as the preferred method of transportation? While ODOT busily adds lanes to I-77, I wonder if in the long term we are setting ourselves up for more problems...