Friday, December 29, 2006

More Reader Responses

There have been a number of great reader comments in the past week, so I'll take some time now to respond to y'all. Thanks, by the way!

  • Both "anonymous" and Tara wrote about providing tax incentives to hipsters who relocate to the downtown core. While it may sound like a crazy idea, the fundamental premise is reasonable. Government does its best to incentivize all kinds of demographic-specific relocation all the time. Ever since the Feds promised free farmland to encourage westward migration, as a matter of fact! While I can't imagine a government-sanctioned "hipster test", I can imagine special tax breaks targeted at the 25-35 year-old professional demographic. How does that sound?

  • Zak822 gets right to the point: Do Clevelanders want a walkable arts district? Well, to be honest I don't know. I know that I do. And I know that a number of my peers/friends/associates do. What I don't know is how many folks like us are in the Cleveland area. Furthermore, I don't know how many folks like us live outside the Cleveland area but might consider moving here if such a district existed. Call it latent residential demand. Hard to measure, but when revealed (think iPod!) it's hard to ignore.

  • Graciesdaddy posts a rather length and well-thought-out response. I'l be writing a more complete response in the coming weeks (along with a profile of the development he works on), but here are some quick points I'd like to bring up: (1) The creation of an arts district is, according to the poster, brought about by a vanguard of businesses. I agree, though we should look to Crocker Park as an interesting example of a total-planning effort that worked; (2) the vanguard can be brought in if a single developer has the vision and the capital. Again, I agree: the fact is that you need significant start-up capital to get things rolling, and generally speaking the only parties willing to pony up that kind of cash are private developers (HUD isn't quite that imaginative); (3) latent demand exists for this kind of district. Yes yes yes!

  • Raines correctly points out that I glossed over the significance of co-housing. For that, I apologize. I do intend to write a few more complete entries on the phenomenon. Raines also reminds us that renewable-energy gimmicks can work as lures for otherwise non-environmentally-oriented consumers. He's right: we eco-friendly urban planners need to recognize that the vast majority of consumers are not ideologically motivated in selecting eco- or non-eco-friendly homes.

  • Anonymous is generous with his compliments (thank you!), and brings two more elements into the conversation about sprawl and its effects: (1) Anonymous correctly identifies race, and race politics, as a driving force of white flight. In my post about the proposed Avon I-90 exit, I wrote mainly in class terms, not race. But Anonymous is right: middle-class whites are fleeing working-class and poor blacks bit by bit, from the city to the inner ring to the outer ring. (2) Anonymous suggests B-17's as urban development. Bomb it all down, and rebuild. Now, obviously we're not going to wage actual war on urban poverty. But destruction can indeed lead to rebirth. I intend to write more fully about this soon, but to whet your appetite, consider the Chicago fire...

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Our Sprawling County

"In my country there is problem,
And that problem is transport.
It take very very long,
Because Kazakhstan is big."


In Cuyahoga County, we have problem, and that problem is called transport. Getting around the County--and the region in general--is not a particularly easy venture. Let's face it: bus transit, while comprehensive, is fairly slow. Most travel between the East and West sides necessitate transfers downtown. "Rapid" transit could hardly be described as rapid. Bus rapid transit has yet to materialize. A car is pretty much a necessity.

At the same time the county is overwhelmingly car-dependent, (sub)urban sprawl continually threatens to worsen driving conditions for everyone. (In case this "sprawl" concept is new to you, here's my one paragraph primer: (1) Cities grow; (2) cities' economies decline; (3) middle-class people flee to safe suburbs where houses are cheap because you don't have to demolish existing structures; (4) businesses crop up along interstate and arterial commuting routes, often in undeveloped rural land because, again, land is cheap and you don't have to pay for demolition; (5) population continues to spread everywhere, eventually wreaking environmental havoc, overstressing water/sewer/electrical infrastructure, and eliminating any possibility of "public" life).

The latest example of suburban sprawl is Avon's attempt to win NOACA's support for a new I-90 exit. To hear Avon tell it, it makes perfect sense to stick another exit onto I-90. Avon's argument goes like this:

(1) Avon's a great place to live!

(2) A lot more people are moving into Avon these days.

(3) Oh crap! We have to pay for our schools somehow, but all these people moving in are over-stressing those municipal services.

(4) Hmmm... Industry & business taxes would cover it normally, but Avon doesn't have enough business to cover the costs.

(5) One impediment to growing business is quick access to I-90, the major thoroughfare for shipping goods and getting commuters to work. (Both for commuter from and to Avon).

(6) Naturally, Avon needs its own entrance/exit ramp to I-90! Voila! Unassailable logic!

Maybe I'm a bit harsh on Avon planners' logic. To some extent, I understand their point of view. They, like any other suburb in the area, are in competition with other suburbs for residents. And I'm not using the word "competition" in some metaphorical sense. The real estate market is definitely a competitive one; cities can only maintain their standard of living by competing with each other for residents. So from Avon's perspective, they need to ensure that their industrial and office-based businesses have every advantage so Avon's coffers stay full.

Of course, if Avon gets its way that's one more nail in Cleveland's coffin, overall. Sprawl will continue unchecked, destroying our regional ecosystem, not to mention all the other problems of urban sprawl.

I don't have any radical new ideas to handle this problem. I will say, thankfully, that at least NOACA exists and has the power to deny Avon's request. At the very least, we have government agencies tasked with evaluating and overseeing these problems.

Is there a marker-oriented approach to solving the problem of sprawl? Instead of top-down government regulation, can we adjust the market for resident (the "relo market"?) to incentivize more densely clustered housing? How about charging builders of new homes for extending infrastructure to the newly-developed areas? That should slow things down!

Let me know what you think...

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Bring in the Hipsters Part Three: Give Them Magical Rotating Buildings!

Hipsters are a cagey demographic. You can't pin them down. As soon as they think something's cool, it goes mainstream and loses its coolness. If you, the Metropolitan Economic Development Director, are lucky, the mainstreamification of some quasi-"hip" activity settles in as a steady, revenue-generating activity. Go visit a lifestyle center, if you want to see an example of a crazy idea (public spaces? My god!) turned into an unbelievably successful business venture.

These days, it seems the potential urbanites are gaga over environmentally-friendly building techniques. Just toss the word "sustainability" into a conversation at your favorite coffee shop / martini bar and witness the feeding frenzy. There's solar energy, geothermal energy, bio-friendly bamboo flooring, non-petroleum-based insulation, and so on. Not to mention high-density housing, cluster housing, co-housing, and transit-oriented-development (TOD).

But how can we up the ante / raise the bar / challenge greater support ? I've got it! Let's blanket our new residential high-rises in solar panels. We can then use those panels not to heat the building, but rather to rotate it.

Er, what? Rotate the building?

That's right folks, you heard me. We're going to build a cylindrical skyscraper that rotates ever so slowly, using energy generated from solar panels. If you don't believe it's possible, go read up on Dubai's latest development plan. Nothing says "wasted renewable energy source" like a fleet of two dozen 30-story, spinning skyscrapers.

Don't get me wrong: I'm sure the ever-changing view is great. Plus, you'll never be jealous of your neighbors' view from the other side of the floor, since once a week you'll have that view and they'll be forced to gaze at the back alley with the stray cats.

With all my recent talk of repurposing spaces, I'm amazed to see what amounts to a self-converting building. It's indeed impressive that the Dubai planners will be able to use solar panels to power the whole damn thing. It's like an accidental marriage of two unrelated but important urban planning principles: multi-use spaces and environmentally-friendly technology. Throw in a bunch of yuppie hipsters with cash to burn on downtown condos and we might have something! Are there ways to combine these elements that we haven't considered?

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Welcome, CoolCleveland readers!

CoolCleveland has been kind enough (cool enough?) to link to The Gross Report both last week and this week. Given that you, Constant Reader, may in fact be reading this humble blog by way of Mr. Mulready's newsletter, I figure it's a good idea to give you a quick introduction to what-The-Gross-Report-is-all-about.

Basically, I write about cities. More specifically, I write about the practical realities of living in cities. Even more specifically, I write about how the built space of cities influences (impacts?) one's day-to-day experience of a place. "Built space" means pretty much anything that people can construct (or destroy, for that matter): roads, bridges, telephone poles, buildings, parks, swimming pools, iron-ore refinement facilities, office space, playgrounds, prisons, etc. Broadly speaking, this is the field of urban planning. Furthermore, I wrote about the intersection of urban planning and urban policy. Urban planing, in a rather simplistic way, addresses physical spaces. Urban policy, on the other hand, addresses human action (and, more specifically, government action).

To better understand the distinction between the two, it's helpful to think about the fields in terms of what questions they ask.

Urban planning asks questions like: Where should we build houses? Should they be big houses or small houses or maybe even apartment buildings? Do we need wider roads? Do we need fewer roads? Is light rail more efficient that busing? How can we get electrical infrastructure delivered to the whole city without tearing those this or that neighborhood?

Urban policy asks questions like: Why do so many people hang out at [insert place name here] ? Why are they drawn there? Can government change its zoning laws to better encourage some kind of development? Can we help poor people move up the economic ladder?

My contribution to this discussion focuses mostly on an ordinary citizen's quotidian experience of a city. I dwell on Cleveland a lot, since I live here. I travel here and there, and you'll see posts on other cities as well. There's a lot of compare-and-contrast work on that note. I've got a few (crazy?) ideas about things I'd like to change in Cleveland, as you'll also see. Most of all, I'm interested in hearing your feedback! What's your daily experience of Cleveland (and abroad) like? How does the physical space shape and craft that experience?

Ok, I've rambled enough. Thanks again, CoolCleveland. If you want to email directly, my address is Thanks!

Monday, December 18, 2006

Bring in the Hipsters Part Two: Reader Responses

Yesterday's post on forcibly relocating hundreds of businesses into Cleveland's downtown generated a lot of feedback. Basically, my idea is to take all those businesses frequented by the ever-elusive "hipster" demographic (and, more broadly speaking, the--ugh!--"creative class") and cluster them all downtown in a single neighborhood. We'll leverage angel funding (anybody got a spare billion bucks for a pet project?) to carry it out. When we're done, we'll have a downtown ready to compete with other major American cities. Admittedly, it's a crazy idea... crazy like a fox!

Anyway, you folks out in the blogosphere apparently have ideas of your own. Given the range of comments the post generated, I think it's worthwhile to respond to your ideas. Without further ado...

  • Anonymous points out that the relocated business may very well fail. I suppose they might. If the business is successful in its current location, that means that there are indeed sufficient numbers of people in sufficient proximity to the business to support it. If you relocate it (such as moving the Beck Center or Cedar-Lee to East 9th and Superior), what would happen to the patrons? I don't know. I drive all over the county these days to get to these institutions. I think that centralizing a lot of these businesses and institutions might strengthen them. It's possible.

  • Audient rightly points out that oftentimes places only qualify as "hip" because they are "off the beaten path." Maybe, but the institutions and businesses I have in mind appeal to the more broadly defined urban hipster demographic, rather than the avant-garde hipsters (think t-shirts with blazers, $9 martinis, and Volkswagens rather than Botswanan indie punk, raw foodists, and art students). But am I really suggesting we deplete the inner- and outer-ring of its viable businesses? No, I'm not. Here's my point: the Cleveland area already has the right mix of businesses and institutions to create a vibrant urban neighborhood. Unfortunately, those businesses and institutions are spread out across the entire county. The result is that there are pockets of coolness (to borrow the phrase), but no concentrations.

  • Tara hits the nail on the head. What would clustering all these awesome businesses accomplish (besides totally screwing over the suburbs?) It could create a truly walkable urban neighborhood in the of the region. Of course, this begs the question: do Clevelanders want a true urban neighborhood? And if they do, do they want it downtown?

  • Christine doubts she would want to go to a giant hipster complex in the center of the city. Well, fair enough. I focused on the hipster demographic in part because urban planners (or at least politicians who pretend to care about urban planning) love to talk about hipness. But she's right: you can't have only martini bars, dance clubs, and the like if you want to sustain a neighborhood. You need a full mix of essential services and discretionary entertainment (groceries, pharmacies, schools, post offices, etc.). Downtown Cleveland certainly lacks many essential services (they finally got a grocery store last year!). If I seem to focus too much on hipster stores, it's because I find myself driving all over the county these days to get to these places, and it's driving me (pun intended) nuts. Are my quasi-hipster consumer patterns unusual for the region? Or are there a few thousand other folks like me who would like to be able to shop for books, eat dinner, watch movies, hang out with friends, and stroll in a public space without having to drive to a unique location for each activity?

Sunday, December 17, 2006

My Solution: Relocate All "Hip" Businesses

Normally, I can't stand urban planners using the term "hip". The focus on hipness in policy-making (hipness, hipsters, hip places, the culture of hip, hip people, hip lifestyles, hiposity?) drives me totally nuts. Talking about hipness in this abstract way--as if hipness is somehow a quantifiable, and more importantly narrow delimited, quality--generally reveals the fact that the speaker himself (or herself) is not, in fact, hip. But discussions of hipness are not entirely off-base. Hipness is a proxy concept, a shorthand for planners to talk about qualities they wish their cities possessed but that they themselves do not comprehend. Hip people in hip cities (those perennial favorites: New York, Seattle, Boston, etc.) seem to be the engine of ecnomic development. What with everybody being head-over-heels infatuated with Richard Florida's brilliant observation that "creative" people appear to be responsible for creating economic value, why shouldn't urban planners try to make their cities hip? (More information desired? Google "michigan +cool cities").

Ok, blah blah blah preamble. What is Steve talking about today, anyway? Here's my radical new idea for Cleveland: identify all the businesses in Cuyahoga County frequented by the coveted "hipster" demographic, and provide funding to relocate ALL of them into Downtown. And I'm not talking "downtown" as defined by the broad definition (West 25th to East 30th, Lake Erie to I-90). I'm talking about downtown as practically experiencable (not quite a real world?) by a downtown dweller: East bank of the Flats to East 12th, Lake Erie to Euclid.

"Wait a minute!" you say. "Relocate all these businesses? Which businesses? How many? How are you going to pay for it all? Do these businesses even want to move?"

Good questions! One at a time, please:

(1) Which businesses? Restaurants, clubs, retail outlets, and institutions that hipster like. Taking myself as a pre-eminent example (of course): Most of Coventry (Cleveland Heights), much of West 25th (Biermarkt, Great Lakes, West Side Market), Cedar-Lee (especially the theatre), the scattered (but great!) restaurants all over the East and Far-East side (India excepted). Beck Center. Crocker Park. The list goes on. Oh yeah, and University Circle.

(2) How many? I'm thinking probably between 100 and 150. We're talking maybe two millions square feet of businesses, institutions, and so on.

(3) How am I going to pay for it? Two words: angel capital. "Angels", if I've understood it right, are those crazy investors who pony up the advance capital to get projects moving. (Remember asking your mom for $500 to shoot your student-run short film for the festival? It's just like that, only increased by a factor of a few thousand).

(4) Do these businesses want to move? Probably not, but just think about it! If all the coolest places in the county were located in a single, concentrated place, Cleveland would be one of the premiere cities in this country. Cleveland does not lack great services and amenities. It DOES lack accessible concentration of those services. If only we could move all the cool things in town into a tightly clustered area, people would be beating down the door to live here!

Crazy idea? Probably. Totally impractical? Maybe. Exciting? Definitely!

Friday, December 08, 2006

Repurposing Space

There is a strong temptation in urban planning to focus on projects that are built from scratch. With a solid background in how to manufacture functional, usable public spaces, planners concoct beautiful diagrams and artist renderings of their proposed office towers / townhouses / parking garages / iron-ore refinement facilities. Since the plan is created out of an unoccupied space, it is easy to put together all the desired elements.

In reality, however, planning (and particularly urban planning) is done within the context of an already-existing city. Planning is not, in this sense, creation where there was nothing before. Planning is better understood as adjustment of an existing system.

In a built-out environment (such as my hometown of Lakewood, OH), urban planning is particularly difficult. The fact is, there is very little open land on which to build. That means that new buildings or infrastructure must replace (or amend) the existing buildings and infrstructure. The practical consequence of this built-out situation is that demolition costs (a subset of site preparation costs) must be factored in to any construction budget. Simply put: it costs more to build in Lakewood then elsewhere. Someone has to pay for the rental fees on all those bulldozers!

Planners, then, have a strong incentive to find ways to repurpose buildings if at all possible. For instance, let's say you've got an auto-parts warehouse, but industry declines and the company vacates the building. Now you've got a seemingly useless building! What should you do? Should you tear it down and build something new? Or should you try to find a new use for the existing building? The former option will definitely cost more than the latter (most of the time, anyway). To see this in action, click here.

With all this in mind, I thought it might be instructive to look at the successful repurposings (is that a word?) that have taken place in the Cleveland area. (If you'd like to read about Pennsylvania, for instance, you can consult my earlier post). Without further ado...

  • Randall Park (Randall, OH) Originally built as a traditional enclosed mall (based on anchor stores, movie theatres, etc.), Randall Park eventually declined and became one of America's notorious "dead malls". The Plain Dealer reports, however, that there is new life at the mall, including a church, a charter school, and a gym.

  • The Shoppes of Olde Avon Village (Avon, OH). Rather than just build another strip mall, Ron Larson actually relocated entire buildings to piece together a retail district with distinctive architecture. He actually moved an entire barn and turned it into a restaurant! It goes to show that just because you don't have cows or chickens, you can still put a barn to good use.

  • Federal Knitting Mills Building (Cleveland, OH). Conveniently located in Ohio City, the Knitting Mills building is only a few minutes from downtown Cleveland. The former factory was successfully convered in apartments.

  • Believe it or not, even churches can be converted into living spaces. When a congregation declines, the churches that were built to house them often go unused. The churches, however, are often protected as historic landmarks, which further complicates the situation for urban planners. The solution? Convert the churches to living space! Although insulation is difficult (drafty Sunday morning service, anyone?), the buildings themselves are often quite beautiful and can command significant retail prices on the open market.