Wednesday, February 28, 2007

New Ideas for Parking

If there is any single factor that works against urbanization in America, it is the automobile. Ever since cars became cheap and widely available in post-war America, automobile-centered development has encouraged suburbanization at the expense of central cities. Automobiles require significant space to move (travel lanes being at least eight feet), accelerate and decelerate (60-0 length being at least 150 feet), park (150 square feet). Automobiles also require refueling infrastructure (gas stations, that is). Not to mention the pollutants, safety hazards, and so on...

But let's back up a second and address a specific problem the cities face in dealing with cars: parking!

If a normal parking space requires about 150 square feet, and if a city wants to attract middle class residents into its downtown core, we can guess that there will need to be space for at least one car per two downtown residents. (The 1-car-per-2-people figure is a commonsense number that I believe is realistic for middle class residents). Ok, that means that the space requirements of every downtown resident just increased by 75 square feet. If an ordinary city-dweller needs at least 600 square feet to live, the need for parking increases the square footage demand by twelve percent.

That twelve percent is particularly problematic when you consider the difficulties involved in expanding parking across multiple levels. To the best of my knowledge, there are few parking garages greater than ten stories. The practical limitations involved in driving up and down ten floors are quite real.

All of which gets me to the latest miracle in parking: the automatic parking warehouse! According to the NYTimes, a company has just installed New York City's first. If you've ever seen a robot-controlled palette-based warehouse, this will come as no surprise to you. Basically, you have a giant warehouse with multiple levels on it. On every level, there are rows and rows of pallettes. On each pallette, you can store a car. A central computer controls the moving, insertion, and extraction of pallettes (cars, that is). So you pull up to the car elevator, get out, hand your keys to the attendant, and the system whisks away your vehicle to the subterranean depths.

The great thing about this system is that it reduces the total square footage needs for parking, and it makes it possible to store vehicles on many more levels than a traditional garage. I don't know if parking warehouses are going to save cities, but they do balance out the equation a bit in favor of urbanization...

Sunday, February 25, 2007

I Got My Hip Badge at The Loft

I had the good fortune to attend a spoken-word / poetry slam / performance art event last night at The Loft Literary Center just outside downtown Minneapolis. The event featured two artists (David Mura and Beau Sia), both of whom masterfully translated the depth of their experience as Asian-Americans to the stage. Overall, it was a fantastic evening, and I highly recommend you look into these two impressive performers.

But this is an urban planning blog! Enough about poetry slams! What's the urban planning angle?

(Drum roll please) Let's take a look at The Loft itself. It is a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting writing, reading, and all things literary. It is housed at Open Book, another nonprofit similarly dedicated to the books and the people who love them. Open Book owns and operates a 52,000 square foot building in the heart of St. Anthony Falls Historic District of Minneapolis. Open Book leases this space to a number of literary-related enterprises, including a publishing house, a center for the "art of the book" itself, a gallery, the aforementioned Loft, and a coffee shop (people have to have somewhere to read, after all!). It's quite an impressive success, housing all these related institutions in a single building. Last night's crowd is certainly proof of that--at least 50 people braved the snowstorm to see the performance!

Open Book's success got me wondering whether the one-building-housing-many-tenants arrangement can be successful in the long term. Open Book is itself a nonprofit, so it relies on donations and user fees to balance the books. Some (but not all!) of its tenants are also nonprofits, so they too depend on the vicissitudes of donors to survive. Based on last night's turnout, I'd say they're doing great. Open Book has been in operation since 2000; for better or worse they've been able to keep tenants for seven years.

Generally speaking, this warehouse-of-tenants system works because it provides a number of important benefits to its tenants:

(1) Cheap rent - Usually these warehouses-of-tenants are themselves converted former warehouses. Since old, unused warehouses usually come cheap and are in undesirable neighborhoods, nonprofits can buy them more easily. Those nonprofits can in turn rent out space more cheaply to their tenants.

(2) Very small space - For very small startups (say one or two people), it's often difficult to find a location that will rent out 150 square feet. In a nonprofit warehouse, however, it's much easier to find such space.

(3) Institutional support - Since these warehouses-of-tenants are often dedicated to housing like minded tenants (in Open Book's case, literary-minded tenants), new tenants immediately become part of their like minded community.

The warehouse-of-tenants model succeeds when there exists a strong and dedicated community of patrons to keep the warehouse vibrant. The West Side Market in Cleveland, for instance, overflows with shoppers when it's open, as does the North Market in Columbus.

On the other hand, there are also warehouses-of-tenants that have failed. Portland (Maine), for instance, is home to the Public Market, a large building housing all kinds of arts-related tenants. The last intel I got on the Public Market, however, was that it was losing business and might soon close. Market 25, in Cleveland (Ohio), also was a short-lived warehouse of small-scale restaurants. It shut down due to lack of customers.

The warehouse-of-tenants model can, I believe, be successful on occasion. I'd like to investigate further under what conditions the model can work. If you have any thoughts on this, please let me know...

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Pricing Strategies for Limited Resources

Limited rainfall in the past few months has sparked worries of a drought this Spring (at least here in Minnesota). While relo's like me are undoubtedly bouncing off the wall with joy that the weather has been so mild, farmers are of a different mind. With insufficient rainfall, planting and watering crops may be very difficult. This concern has, unsurprisingly, begged the question of whether and how to better conserve water in anticipation of a drought. Can Minnesotans be counted on to voluntarily reduce water usage, or does the government (or industry, for that matter), need to step in and tweak the market to discourage water use?

Water is a cheap commodity in most metropolitan regions of the United States. It is, in fact, so cheap that it is usually included as part of the rent (unlike other utilities, such as electricity, the usage and cost of which can often vary widely among individuals). If you're curious to hear about the excesses of water usage, check out this article on "Hydro Hogs", published a few months ago in Portland, OR. Between lawn care, dish- and clothes-washing, showers, and toilets, we Americans use a heck of a lot of water. For a simple breakdown of our average of 200 gallons/day, check out this summary. Can we really be counted on to altruistically reduce our water use just because farmers are worried?

I suspect not; we need to think about creative pricing strategies the government can impose to limit our water use. There are several approaches to this:

  • Pricing increase: The government can impose increases on the per-gallon cost. Currently, water costs between $0.04 and $0.07 per gallon. Why not ratchet it up? How about 10c/gallon? Or 15c/gallon? When gasoline prices spiked, SUV sales plummeted. Is there a breaking point for water cost?

  • Rationing: Let's all pretend it's WWII! The government can simply impose a per-person limit on water use per-day. If we are to believe the 200 gallon/person/day statistic cited above, how about lowering it to 175? or 150?

  • Bracketed price increases: This is my favorite idea. See, the problem with an across-the-board increase in the per-gallon price is that it hits poor people especially hard. How about charging 4c/gallon for the first 100 gallons, then 7c/gallon for the next 100 gallons, then 25c/gallon beyond that? That would discourage hydro-hogs (ideally). As far as I know, this pricing system is very rare. The only working example that springs to mind is China's pricing system for having children: the first one's free, and beyond that you have to start paying the government for the privilege of having more kids.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Beauty of the Skyline

Though living in the burbs, even temporarily, drives me nuts, but it does afford me many opportunities to relish in the beauty of the Minneapolis skyline as I drive in on southbound I-35W. With music pumping, I always gasp in wonder when, cresting a hill, the cluster of Minneapolis skyscrapers emerges before me:

Skylines are beautiful, dramatic experiences. My girlfriend and I have an ongoing debate about which is better: the Midwestern city skyline, visible from afar owing to the flat plains, or the East Cost city skyline which, surrounded by hills and mountains, reveals itself suddenly. We can't decide on one or the other.

Pittsburgh, for instance, is quite amazing. The skyscrapers are all tightly clustered, and for the most part each building is architecturally interesting. Moreover, the skyline is totally hidden when approaching city; hidden, that is, until the last minute when you come over the last hill on southbound I-579, or emerge from the Fort Pitt tunnel. The sudden, unexpected enormity and beauty of these downtowns is breathtaking. All of a sudden you are face to face with this:

On the other hand, there are cities like Minneapolis, Cleveland, and Chicago, all of which can be seen at a great distance. The emotional experience is more gradual, and gives one a sense of pilgrimmage as one approaches. Approaching a Midwestern city reminds me of approaching a great cathedral, visible from a great distance and signaling is significance from afar. Consider Chicago:

So, which do you prefer? Or did I forget an entire category?

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Help! I'm Trapped in an Ethan Allen Catalog!

There are many reasons underlying my decision to relocate to the Twin Cities. As I've said earlier, the economy is in way better shape out here, and there are many aspects of the quality of life (eg: access to the arts, sensible road systems, leftist politics) that have brought me out here. Chief among them (as should be no surprise to readers of this blog), is the desire for a more urban lifestyle. By urban, of course, I mean living in a neighborhood with (1) greater population density, (2) more pedestrian-friendly layout, (3) a more diverse population, and (4) a more cosmopolitan focus. Summing up the term "urban lifestyle" is a huge endeavor, but hopefully the preceding list gives you a decent sense of what I have in mind.

All of which is to say that it's especially maddening that, having arrived in Minneapolis, I find myself living in corporate temp housing in St Anthony (a suburb of the Twin Cities) ! As I survey my immediate living area, I discover that I am surrounded in large part by exactly the kind of life I'm trying to avoid. I have become (temporarily) a suburbanite (gasp) !

But let me get past the complaining--I'm only here for a few weeks, so it's really no big deal. My personal experience of this environment does, however, teach us lessons about the suburban life. As I contemplate my fake plant (pictured below) and the perfectly inoffensive Ethan Allen-style furniture, interior (fake) columns, and in-unit washer/dryer that bejewel my temporary apartment, it occurs to me that suburban life is designed to provide the life's material luxuries in the most efficient way for the private enjoyment of people.

Let's parse that previous statement a little bit. First of all, consider material luxuries and how the suburbs provide them:

  • Housing: Housing is the obvious culprit to begin our analysis: by maximizing space available to individuals, suburbs ensure that palatial houses (McMansions) are easy to build. As long as costs to extend infrastructure to those suburbs is borne by the population as a whole (rather than individuals homeowners), it is cost-effective to build large homes outside of city centers.

  • Greenspace: By giving so much space to individuals, suburbs also ensure that individuals can have their own private greenspace (lawns, that is) for their enjoyment. The main drawback, of course, is that unmolested greenspace (untouched by human hands, that is) is not an option in suburban homes' lawns.

  • Security: By isolating individuals from each other, suburbs provide a significant measure of personal security. Since a car is required to move through a suburb, it is difficult for any criminal to come on foot. A criminal would need a vehicle, which makes him more noticeable and, consequently, less likely to commit a crime.

Ok, that's just a short list of the amenities that suburbs do indeed provide to the people who live in them. (I should point out that there are a number of very good counter-arguments to the items I've listed above; most important to note is that fact the security is often provided better where the population density is greater, not lower!).

As I look out my window at the parking lot, however, I find that the easy access to the suburb's amenities doesn't make me any happier. Every amenity seems designed to keep me away from the company of my fellow humans. My in-unit washer/dryer, for instance, is extremely convenient (I can do my laundry at home!), but since I won't be making any trips to the communal laundry room I won't be meeting any of my fellow tenants there. My garage parking spot is conveniently close to my unit--I won't get snowed on in the winter, but I also won't have to walk across the parking lot and through common areas where (again) I might meet my fellow tenants). My commute is conveniently close to the highway: I may be able to get to work quickly, but my route is entirely by car and so I'll never pass anyone on foot on a sidewalk. The suburban life isolates us from each other, even in this 150+ unit apartment building. It's like living in a furniture catalog: the rooms are beautifully decorated, but devoid of inhabitants.

Friday, February 16, 2007

An Accessible State Capitol?

I recently had the pleasure of visitng Madison, WI. Besides being a really cool city all-around, it has the particularly interesting feature of housing the Wisconsin State Capitol Building (pictured above). Although it's certainly a great piece of architecture, I'm writing about it today for a different reason. Would you believe that this single building--arguably the most important government building in the entire state--is actually situated in the middle of a pedestrian-friendly square?

That's right, folks: the Capitol building itself is flanked on all sides by (gasp!) residences and businesses right across the street! You can actually walk from the Capitol to, say, a bookstore in about two minutes.

Ok, let's back up a second. Why is this significant? Why does the location and orientation of the Capitol building matter?

I chose to write about this because so many of our government buildings are surrounded by quasi-moats these days. Between concrete (Jersey) barriers, six-lane roads, armed security patrols, gigantic unpassable lawns, vehicle checkpoints, and poor signage, I've started to wonder whether our government actually wants us to stop by and say "Hi!" once in awhile.

In our secular democracy, government buildings are the most important, and to a large extent the most publicly revered structures. I believe that it is right and proper to build beautiful statehouses atop hills, flank them with beautiful greenery, and otherwise make them pretty to look at. Democracy, however, also requires the participation of the citizenry. To that end, government must be accessible--not just remotely (via the Internet or Snail mail), but tangibly! We need to be able to see where our elected representatives work. The functioning of our own self-created government must be visible above all else (I'll go watch some C-SPAN now!). The Wisconsin State Capitol is a great step in that direction.

Also, now I'm in the Twin Cities, where the State Capitol (in St. Paul) is apart from the city's downtown and difficult to walk to...

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Industrial Conversion? Think again!

Wow, it's already Valentine's Day and I haven't posted since the 5th. Time to get back in the saddle...

So here I am in the Twin Cities. First order of business: find an apartment. Being the yuppie urbanite that I am, I naturally gravitate towards apartments fashioned from converted warehouses. You know, the kind to be found all over Cleveland (check out The Knitting Mills or the Payne Ave lofts if you want to see some examples). Nothing says "Embrace the City Center!" like turning an unused Rust Belt factory or warehouse into an overpriced labyrinth of lofts with exposed brick, high ceilings, and fabulous downtown views.

It was with great pleasure, then, that I pulled up to Stone Arch Apartments, a beautiful converted industrial building on the north bank of the Mississippi river across from downtown Minneapolis. It has all the hallmarks of a warehouse conversion: it is a huge rectangular buildings, has wide hallways, industrial chic exposed HVAC in the units, and is immediately adjacent to a steam plant, a metal refinery, and a set of train tracks. Clearly an excellent example of how you can convert former industrial buildings to residential use!

Except, apparently I was completely wrong. I mentioned to the leasing agent: "This is an impressive industrial conversion!" and was told: "Nope, this building was built very recently" (!!!).

Reeling from this blow to my otherwise brilliant urban planning wisdom, I struggled to understand. Fortunately the girlfriend is a bit more resourceful and, thanks to Google, showed me that there was instead a very interesting story behind the construction of Stone Arch. Read on...

Turns out the site itself was until recently an occupied brownfield. A developer bought up the parcels and got to work. There were a number of hurdles to get past: the site was zoned for industrial use; rezoning would have required majority support from the surrounding tenants (an unlikely prospect); the adjacent metalworks operation actually sued the developers to stop the project (a weird reversal of the more traditional residents-sue-noisy-factory story we all know); and the neighborhood association also opposed the project. Stone Arch developers were able to placate the various parties by making important concessions: (1) the building has a significant affordable housing component; (2) the building has a lot of noise reduction materials to silence outside noise from the factory; (3) the building is actually two buildings, a design that breaks up the facade; and (4) the building is built according to environmentally-friendly principles. Apparently those concessions were enough to win the political support of the various opposition groups.

What does the successful emergence of Stone Arch apartments teach us as urban planners and thinkers? I think there are a few keys lessons:

(1) Industrial and warehouse-style residential buildings are not limited to conversions. Instead, this style may indeed be popular and profitable even when built from scratch.

(2) Developers who are willing to make concessions can eventually win public support.

(3) Vacant brownfields can be adapted for residential, assuming the brownfield cleanup funds are available. In the case of Stone Arch, it cost $750k to rehabilitate the site.

(4) Given the low vacancy rate at Stone Arch, there is indeed a market for warehouse-style housing.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Is Crocker Park a Public Space?

In my earlier post on my impending relocation, I talked a little bit about Cleveland's lack of public spaces. In particular, I cited Crocker Park as an example of a quasi-public space. This assertion has, unsurprisingly, led to a lot of debate: is Crocker Park really a public space? If it is, then what does that tell us about public spaces?

First of all, I should mention that if you really want to do some research on public spaces, you should visit the The Project for Public Space. It's one heck of an organization, and a great research tool.

Anyhow, let's get back to Crocker Park itself. In case you're not familiar with the area, here's a quick summary: Crocker Park is a recently-constructed "lifestyle center". Lifestyle center is really just a handy term developers use to refer to open-air malls with non-traditional retail mixes. Crocker Park is oriented along one main road. The retail mix consists mostly of clothing boutiques, with a few big boxers thrown in for good measure (Dick's Sporting, Barnes & Noble, you know the tune!). At one end there is a Trader Joes, and at the other a cineplex and bookstore.

The first thing we need to note is that Crocker Park is a huge success. There are people there all the time. It is really unbelievable. Even in cold weather! People flock to this lifestyle center (whatever that term really means). Crocker Park's popularity cannot be ignored; urban planners must confront why people like it so much and what it can teach us about building (and encouraging) public spaces.

Crocker Park enters into the debate over public spaces because it is undeniably a popular gathering place for a huge variety of people. Teenagers, young couples, couples with kids, single folks, and middle-aged couples all flock there. (One major group that does not show up in large numbers is the elderly--a very important and often overlooked demographic). On a given Friday or Saturday night, the plaza in front of the theatre is filled with teenagers milling about. In between movies, the bookstore's cafe is filled with people. During prime evening retail hours (5-9pm), the main drag is filled with shoppers. The central plaza is home to an ice-skating rink in the winter, as well as a half-dozen chess tables. Both these features are well-used! Lastly, the 2nd and 3rd stories of all the buildings are residences (a mix of rental and for-sale).

Most importantly, to be on the main drag of Crocker Park is to feel that you are part of a larger public. There is a decent variety of people (agewise, though not economically), engaged in a decent variety of activities (mostly consumer, but not entirely). You can see and be seen. There is a real energy to the place!

Crocker Park, however, is entirely artificial! It was constructed out of an empty lot by a for-profit developer. It houses almost entirely national chain stores. There is almost no independent retail. In terms of retail taste, it belongs entirely to the realm of Corporate America. The economic mix of visitors is limited, too--the stores are quasi-upscale, so mostly middle- and upper-middle-class folks spend time there. It is located far away from the (ugh!) Central City, safely ensconced in the protective services of private security. Urban poverty does not nip at its heels (for now, anyway!). Crocker Park is a vision of public life far away from the difficult realities of organically developed urban public life. It is devoid of individual character. Being under the control of a single private developer, there is little chance that independent actors can contribute to its development. The housing is expensive, so it will tend to attract only upper-class residents. Basically, Crocker Park is a public space playground for the affluent.

Let us not forget, though, that Crocker Park is incredibly popular. Its main street is filled with people on summer evenings. This experience of a public place is indeed a powerful, and as much as we may bemoan its artficiality we cannot deny its appeal. Most importantly, we must look at Crocker Park's practical aspects to learn how to build better public spaces. Chief among these elements: a central, pedestrian-friendly road. Wide sidewalks. Bright street lighting. A variety of activities that encompass more than the 9-to-5 workday. A residential component (both rental and owned). Safety.

Ok, enough for now. I'll leave you with another image of a public place:

Friday, February 02, 2007

Riposting the Posts

I'd like to take a bit of time this morning to discuss some of the feedback I've received on Brewed Fresh Daily. Having seen various "I'm leaving Cleveland" articles over the past few years, I've been curious to see what kind of response I would get. I'm flattered that BFD noticed and linked to my post, and people have posted a lot of insightful comments to which I'm eager to respond.

(A bit of background, in case you missed my previous post: After 5 years in Cleveland, my fiancee and I are moving to Minneapolis in a few weeks. The decision is based, in part, on some of Cleveland's deficits and, in turn, Minneapolis' assets).

  • Jay-c reminds us all that it's important to focus on choosing a place that makes you happy. Hard to argue with that! He also points out that Cleveland, like any city, is an "unfinished product." That metaphor sums it up nicely: let's all remember that cities constantly evolve and change.

  • Phil Lane correctly points out that Minnesota is becoming a market leader in bio-fuel development. This is exactly the sort of progressive, smart growth perspective that attracts me to that state. Of course, I'm perfectly aware that there is definite progress in Ohio as well: fuel cell research in NE Ohio, as well as wind farm development looming ahead. I hope that both those projects move forward, since we'll all benefit from such developments.

  • Adam Harvey doesn't like my negative attitude. Ah well, what can I say? I'm focused on potentials: what Cleveland can become. In order to carry out that analysis, you have to be willing to take a hard look at reality. Also, if you want to see some "positive" posts, check out Repurposing Space and Cleveland Booster Edition.

  • Ben has some good points that we should recognize: He notes that both Target and Best Buy, though headquartered in the Twin Cities region, are not actually located in either of the cities themselves. This is indeed a problem facing many metropolitan areas: suburban corporate campuses (think Progressive). Suburbs offer competitive tax incentives and face few legacy costs (think demolition) when pitching offers to potential corporate tenants. We need a long-term solution to this! He also notes that the medical device field is actually pretty strong in our region. He's right--but I should point out that there are several strong regional markets for medical devices, including Minneapolis (also California and MIT). Lastly, Ben talks a bit about public spaces and why he think Little Italy qualifies. I'll address this issue in more detail in tomorrow's post--there's a lot to be said on the subject and I'd like to devote a full post to it.

  • Gloria Ferris doesn't like my negativity. Like I said, I don't see it as negativity--I see it as honest criticism that should be debated. I'm happy to hear your counter-arguments and listen to them.

  • Phil Lane brings up the under-reported problem of a lack of skilled labor in the region. I've only heard rumblings on the issue, so maybe Phil could fill (pun intended) us in on the details...?

  • Christine very thoughtfully reflects on her goals in leaving Cleveland and, I imagine, why she might return some day. She talks about "creative projects", and though I don't actually know what they are it's clear she has a lot going on in her life to which she's dedicated. She wants stable work, but not necessarily demanding, wake-you-up-at-2am work. It would appear, then, that Cleveland is well-equipped to provide her with that. As the earlier poster noted, being happy is the most important concern when selecting a place to live.

  • The OC thinks I'm myopic and misinformed, especially on Crocker Park. I'll try to discuss Crocker Park more thoroughly in my next post.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Planes, Cranes, and Hotels

Has anyone noticed an uptick in air traffic at Cleveland's airport in the past year or so? Looking out my east-facing lakefront window at night, I see planes lined up for at least three miles on the approach path to Hopkins. I see the same thing driving northeast on I-71 at night: tons of planes inbound to Cleveland. There certainly seem to be a lot of people flying in to Cleveland these days!

It struck me that the volume of air traffic is an interesting way to measure the economic vitality of a city (and region, for that matter). If we accept the premise that we operate in a global economy, then one indicator of economic activity is the physical inflow and outflow of people and goods. Otherwise put, if a city brings in a lot of stuff, then maybe it's because the city is a hub of commerce and therefore economically successful.

Air traffic is a good place to start. Hopkins certainly seems to be fairly busy these days. Many first tier cities, however, have two major airports. Generally speaking, one is for domestic flights and the other is for international flights. Consider D.C., New York, London, Paris, Berlin, and so on. Second- and third-tier cities generally only have one airport. What is considered ordinary air traffic? Can a runway handle a takeoff / landing every minute? If so, how many flights (and people) can an airport handle?

Besides air traffic, what about cargo cranes? I'm talking about those gigantic cranes at ports that lift shipping containers off of boats and plunk them down on rail lines (and trucking distribution centers). Cleveland had a few ore loaders once upon a time. Boston and Seattle have a whole fleet of such cranes. San Diego, I'm told, is festooned with them. More cranes = more economic activity.

Lastly, I'll mention hotels. Remember how Cleveland tried to win the 2008 GOP convention by claiming there were enough hotels to house 44,000 attendees? Remember how everyone thought that was a ridiculous claim, given that some of the hotels in the proposed package were out in Sandusky? Well, in my last visit to Minneapolis (the city that won the convention, by the way) I was amazed to see row upon row of hotels flanking I-494, the beltway that connects directly to the airport. Clearly, Minneapolis is equipped to handle a heavy load of business travelers. It was really amazing! The lesson to be learned, here, is that cities with lots of hotels are cities with lots of visitors. And visitors come, more often than not, for business activity (and yes, tourism counts as business--as long as you're spending money in a city, I consider that business).

Obviously there are tons of visible (and invisible) economic indicators. I do find it an interesting intellectual exercise to visit a city and keep on the lookout for planes, cranes, and hotels. It tells you a lot about the city's economy.