Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Rite-Aid Nazi: No Beer For You!

I recently spent a lovely weekend in Portland, Maine, a really cool city in New England. I've got tons of urban-planning-related issues to write about, but I'd like to start first with a point of contention.

I was shopping in a Portland Rite-Aid for various sundries, and noticed that Rite-Aid (at least in Maine) sells liquor. Mostly beer and wine, anyway. Directly in front of the liquor case was a sign (pictured above) that indicated in no uncertain terms that out-of-state drivers licenses were not acceptable identification for purchasing alcohol.

This strikes me as pretty bizarre. The last time I checked, the Full Faith and Credit clause of the US Constitution requires any individual state to recognize the validity of documents issued by other states. This is why, for instance, you can drive your car (with your Minnesota drivers license) across the border to Iowa. Incidentally, this is always why one state's legalization of gay marriage is problematic for other states that seek to ban it: the Constitution requires them to recognize the validity of the out-of-state gay marriage license.

But apparently not in Maine! In Maine, Rite-Aid is pleased to deny you your rights as a US citizen. I'll be following up with Rite-Aid on this note--surely I'm not the only one who has noticed this illegality.

The thing that's particularly bizarre about Rite-Aid's practice is this: Portland is a tourist town. A huge amount of Portland's revenue comes from seasonal tourists who flock to the area for its great shopping, excellent seafood, harbor cruises, hiking, skiing, and so on. These tourists come from (gasp!) places other than Maine! They come from Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and often Canada! What if they want to buy a bottle of wine while visiting Portland? Apparently, the city of Portland (or at least Rite-Aid) is not interested in making any money off of them.

When traveling to new cities, you have to take local customs into account. You can't just assume that you'll be able to do whatever you want in this or that new city, just because it was available to you in your hometown. I lived in France for a few months, and despite the presence of several million people in that metropolis I still couldn't get a decent pizza after 11pm. When in Rome, I guess...

Monday, July 30, 2007

Thy Urban Neighbor – the labors of love, push and shove for quiet enjoyment

(Generalissimo is posting an entry on the blog today--enjoy!)

After taking the morning train, working 9-to-5, and taking another one home again, what do I find waiting for me at home? Well, not someone lovely such as Dolly Parton or Sheena Easton at her respective peak. Nope. Instead my neighbor greets me everyday with his stereo system, replete with a subwoofer, which shakes my floor. I see red. I want to give him a knuckle sandwich and a karate-style whuppin’.

The angel of my better nature wins out, thankfully. I calmly, yet sternly, complained to the management-- who after receiving series of letters from me-- settled the matter to my satisfaction. Ah, the sounds of silence… The whole time, I was wondering, how can this guy not realize how rude he is? Maybe he feels entitled? Perhaps he needs an education about being a good neighbor?

Neighbors can make or break one’s quality of life, especially for urban apartment and condo dwellers. Neighbors are unknown territory – the X factor in the equation for happy urban dwelling. One can make calculations about rent, community, schools, night life but the persons next door, above and below are beyond the pale of one’s own control. A move-in is a leap of faith of sorts. Thankfully, most of my experiences have been positive and neighbors through action and restraint have made my quest for quiet enjoyment a reality.

So what do good neighbors do?

Good neighbors watch out for the safety and wellbeing of everyone by reporting criminal activity. Good neighbors play audio systems at unobtrusive levels. When having a party, they have the courtesy to tell you in advance. Good neighbors are often invisible. Better neighbors are friendly and may become friends. But hey, I’ll take a good neighbor any day over the negative alternative.

Bad neighbors can turn a good man bad with late night gatherings, loud music, untidy habits that bring vermin and insects, et cetera. Bad neighbors are in one’s face – via his/her inconsiderate actions. Bad neighbors have to go! They are bane and fill a person with anger that can ruin one's ability to have inner peace.

Are you a good neighbor? Do you take out the trash before it starts to reek? Do you run a fan when cooking heavily scented foods? Do you play audio systems at unobtrusive levels? Do you think it is all about you, because you pay rent? Or do you stop swinging your fist right before reaching the other guy’s nose? Remember between me and you is we, neighbor.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

By the Banks of the Mississippi

I snapped this photo from the bike path on the west bank of the Mississippi. Summer is pretty astoundingly beautiful out here, isn't it?

So what happens in the winter to all the bike lanes? Does the city plow the snow of them? Do people just store their bikes in their garages and wait till the snow melts?

Monday, July 23, 2007

Mmm... Burgers...

Well, I did it. I purchased 55 pounds of beef this week. That's one eighth of a cow, in case you're wondering. The beef is delivered to my home, butchered, wrapped, sealed, and all set to take up two cubic feet of space in my freezer. It comes courtesy of Thousand Hills Cattle Company, an organic, grass-fed cattle ranch here in Minnesota.

In seemingly unrelated news, I also just ran across a great article
in the New York Times in which a woman tells all about adjusting to life in Shanghai. She describes life along one of Shanghai's alleys, a delightful and bizarre communal existence. One detail caught my eye: she reports that vendors regularly pass through these alleys, hawking all sorts of common household necessities.

What do these two things have to do with each other?

It's all about urban supply chains. If we can agree that we live in a world in which too much energy is expended transporting things all over the planet (think fresh asparagus from Chile in December flown overnight via 747), then these two examples may show us how it's possible to reduce energy costs and still transport goods.

In the first case, by stocking a hell of a lot of beef at home, I'm saving a fair amount of gas that would be otherwise expended in countless runs to the grocery store. In the second case, residents of the Shanghai alley don't have to travel to various stores for all sorts of stuff, because roving vendors stop by their neighborhoods. In both cases, residents travel less altogether, spend more time at home, and consequently have more opportunity to build community (theoretically, anyway).

There is significant possibility in this different supply chain model. Bring the goods--the store, that is--to neighborhoods rather than the other way around. I just heard recently that there's a traveling farmers market--kind of like a bookmobile--that travels to poor neighborhoods that otherwise wouldn't have access to fresh vegetables. Is this a positive direction?

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Unemployment Numbers

A recent discussion on the Plain Dealer's website got me thinking about metropolitan unemployment levels. The big concern in the Cleveland area (and it's been a big concern ever since the PD started its "Quiet Crisis" series something like 5 years ago) is what's called "brain drain". The phenomenon of brain drain is, roughly put, that smart, well-educated recent college grads move out of their home territory for better jobs abroad. This has been a big issue in the Cleveland area; a lot of kids get their educations and take off for better jobs elsewhere. Many of them don't return, so it ends up as a net loss for the region.

On that note, is unemployment really that bad in the Cleveland area? According to these statistics from the BLS, it may be. It's particularly interesting to compare actual metropolitan unemployment rates to the regions' respective reputations:

Cleveland clocks in at 5.6% (up from 5.0% a year ago), which is not so hot. Out here in the Twin Cities, we're at a very strong 4.0%, although last year we had a stunning 3.2% rate. At 3.2%, it's one hell of a competitive market for workers: wages are driven up fast (then again, that's how you get inflation!). Portland (Oregon) surprises me at 4.5%. This is a surprise because Portland has a reputation for a really difficult job market. I suspect that the 4.5% unemployment rate there reflects the regional, rather than urban, job market.

Many of the cities on the list show an uptick of around 0.5% in unemployment over the past year. Are we heading for a recession?

If you've looked for work recently, how has the process been for you? Are jobs plentiful or scarce?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Wealth in the City

The picture above is a house right next to Lake Calhoun. As you can plainly see, it's a beautiful, gigantic wonder of a residence. I imagine its market value is, to the least, beyond the means of mere mortals such as myself. Moreover, the street on which it's located (Zenith Ave. South) is rife with similarly opulent and beautiful homes.

These homes, of course, are located within the city limits of Minneapolis. While this fact may seem ordinary to some readers, I assure you that as a recent resident of Cleveland, Ohio I am stunned that such wealth exists so prominently in the actual center city of a metropolitan region.

In cities like Cleveland, people who can afford mansions tend to locate outside the city itself. With the notable exception of the far west side along Lake Erie, you just don't find a lot of mansions in Cleveland. Here in Minneapolis, however, there are quite a number of them. This tells me that Minneapolis has done something right; or, at the least, economic catastrophes have not befallen Minneapolis the way they have in Rust Belt cities.

Minneapolitans, Take Heed: Do not take for granted your Rich Folk, for their Mighty Presence signals your Economic Health! Remember to always vigorously pursue Quality of Life crimes, for if left Unchecked they are the Harbingers of Neighborhood Degradation! Let us bask in the glory of great, expensive architecture and remain thankful that the waterfront of lakes such as Calhoun are fully Publicly Accessible.

(Small note on that front: Guess how much of the Lake Erie coastline is publicly accessible within Cuyahoga County. If you guessed more than 10%, go to Jail and do not collect $200).

P.S.: I'm going to write some nice, approving posts about Cleveland next week!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A Wall In Need of a Mural

There is a lot of great, vibrant, urban, pedestrian-friendly energy on St. Anthony Main (the stretch of Main St NE running from Hennepin Ave to 6th Ave NE). The half-mile portion of Main St. has excellent riverfront views, two parks (one grass-covered with trees & outdoor grills, the other cobblestone with close-up views of St. Anthony Falls), several restaurants and bars, tons of outdoor seating, a movie theater, and (drumroll please!) a Segway store. If you visit the area on a weekend evening, you'll find it is packed with people and live bands from early till late evening. There is also significant residential real estate planned for the site, including two towers (22- and 27-stories!) on an undeveloped portion of the street.

One problem, however, is that there is a stretch of nothingness along Main St, between Kikugawa (a sushi restaurant) on the western portion, and the rest of the businesses on the eastern portion. These two segments of the street are separated by roughly 300 feet of unadorned space (pictured above). There is a large concrete retaining wall, behind which nothing could be built, unfortunately.

I've been thinking lately that St. Anthony needs to address this problem. It's not just that it's an ugly portion of the road. It kills the pedestrian energy! Panhandlers set up shop right in the middle of the stretch, and believe you me DINK and baby-boomer couples are NOT happy dealing with that. If the street is going to continue to grow, planners need to address this weakness.

My suggestion, for the moment anyway, is that the city commission a mural for the concrete wall. It's at least 100 feet long, 8 feet tall, and totally undecorated. Given the successful decoration at the B-Girl summit last month, why can't we replicate it here on Main Street?

Monday, July 16, 2007

Freedom From Realty?

I noticed that Financial Freedom Realty's office in Uptown (corner of Hennepin & Lake) has been vacated recently. Interesting, isn't it, that the office hawking high-end Uptown listings has itself been unable to keep its space occupied? I suppose the office space could be renamed Freedom From Realty now (haha).

The housing market, if you haven't heard, is not exactly the strongest segment of the economy these days. Foreclosures have rippled through the housing sector, pulling down prices and keeping houses on the market for much longer than normal. Realtors and lenders are feeling the burn, it would seem.

So what's going to happen to Uptown's high-end homes? Will Mozaic keep selling? Or will financing fall through and the project get canceled? How about those open-floor plan units on the Northeast corner of Lake Calhoun that go for a cool million?

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Trends in Urban Architecture

A recent stroll through Minneapolis' downtown brought me face-to-face with the building pictured above. I think it's another condo building. Anyway, the concave wall caught my eye--a striking design!

Has anyone else noticed that condos--especially "luxury" condos--tend to follow certain design trends? Planners seem to have decided to equate modernist elements (clearly delineated rectangular forms, protruding triangles, non-functional overhangs, skewed lines) with high residential prices. Not that I'm complaining, per se, but it is a bit weird. Why not build a decent but otherwise plain building, and spend the leftover luxury funds on great cabinetry, flooring, and HVAC?

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Sidewalk Dining

Another thing I love about Minneapolis is the profusion of sidewalk & patio dining available at so many restaurants. As soon as the weather turned nice in May, every restaurant with a spare square foot outside found a way to squeeze in a table. All of a sudden, there are tons and tons of restaurants where you can eat outside! Woohoo!

I don't get it, though. Back in Cleveland, we had a beautiful summer, lots of restaurants, and lots of sidewalk space. And yet, it was always very difficult to find al fresco dining. Why? Was there restrictive zoning regulations? Did restaurants not realize to how great an extent people like to eat outside? Why is Minneapolis so different in this respect?

Monday, July 09, 2007

Urban Assumptions

It's amusing and revealing to take a look at suburbanites' casual observations regarding city life. I was chatting with a friend last week about the July 4th fireworks. I asked him if he was planning on coming into the city for the fireworks over the river. He said he wanted to, but parking downtown was really a hassle.

Parking downtown a hassle? Well, good point! Parking downtown for July 4th is indeed difficult. But isn't it interesting to think about the assumption that the automobile is the default method of transportation?

For that matter, why do we always assume that to get from point A to point B we need an automobile?

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Non-Grid Cities: When Roads Shut Down

What happens to a non-grid metropolitan transportation network when a section of a major highway shuts down? Is traffic efficiently re-routed around the closed-down portion of the artery? Are cars merely delayed, or does ordinary travel suddenly take ten times as long?

I had the opportunity to find out last month. In Pittsburgh, a major portion of I-376 eastbound was closed for repairs. This is the road the runs away from downtown towards the eastern suburbs. If you want to see a rather good map of the closed portion, you can see it at this site. Anyway, the big problem is that since Pittsburgh is a non-grid city, detoured traffic can't simply cut up, over, and back down to get past a closed portion of a highway. Instead, detoured traffic has to wander around, up, and down myriad hills in 25mph residential neighborhoods. A trip that normally would take about 15 minutes (getting to I-76 from downtown) took around 2.5 hours. Yikes!

So, as much as I find non-grid cities interesting, this is a serious weakness!

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Alternate Distribution Systems

If you're like me, you probably assume that the system that gets a consumer good from point of manufacture to point of sale is logical, understandable, and reliable. When it comes to the big national retailers (Wal-Mart, Target, K-Mart, many car companies, etc.), that assumption mostly holds true. Companies that are large enough to span the country (if not the world) have the resources necessary to construct unified supply chains. Using reliable database backends, these national supply chains ensure that trains, plains, and trucks (er, automobiles!) get shipments of goods from point A to point B.

When you change your focus to look at regional, and even local, supply chains, the notion that the physical transportation of goods is logical breaks down quickly. At this level, there is far less automation, and far more manual intervention. There are plenty of people whose jobs require them to monitor regional supply chains, fill out orders, and follow up with delivery systems to ensure that those orders make it to their respective destinations.

I've been amazed to discover that for very small business operations, there is actually a workable supply-chain / distribution model that is low-cost and can get goods shipped within a 200-mile radius. I recently signed up with a CSA (that's Community-Supported Agriculture), which is basically a membership with a local farm (well, Wisconsin isn't that far!). Every week I get a box of whatever has come into season at the moment.

So how do I get my box? Do I drive to Wisconsin? Nope! Does the farm ship boxes to every possible grocery store in the Twin Cities? Nope--it's not nearly big enough.

Instead, there are volunteer farm subscribers who agree to let the farm use their land (usually their garage, in fact) as a distribution node. Every Thursday, I drive to a residential location in St. Paul, pull into the back yard, and take a box of vegetables. That's it--quite a system. It's totally bizarre and runs against all your traditional notions of how you should pick up retail goods. There's no storekeeper to make sure you show up and that you only take your one allotted box. Instead, it's an honor system--you pays your money, you gets your veggies. It's great--a medium-sized farm can effectively distribute over a fairly large region without investing heavily in traditional supply-chain technology.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Getting Directions

In grid cities, addresses are effectively directions. If you know the numeric location of a site (say, the intersection of 1st and 1st--the nexus of the universe), then you necessarily know how to get there. In non-grid cities, you give directions in terms of landmarks. Where is Great Lakes Brewery? It's next to the West Side Market. Where is CWRU's library? It's near the Art Museum. Where is the FedexKinkos in Corapolis? It's in the shopping center with the Mens Wearhouse. You get the picture!

I've found it very interesting living in non-grid cities. Since directions are generally given in terms of landmarks, you find yourself conceiving of the city as an interconnected series of nexuses, rather than a system of criss-crossing lines along which buildings happen to be located. Minneapolis is somewhere in the middle of the grid / non-grid spectrum. I find that I often give, and get, directions in terms of major intersections (Grand & Snelling, Franklin & Hennepin, for instance). These aren't exactly landmarks, but it's not a number-street system either (with the exception of South Mpls, of course).

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Non-Grid Transportation Networks

A number of people have asked me recently to write about cities (and regions) that have non-grid highway networks. Having just spent a week in an excellent example of such a city (sunny Pittsburgh!
), it seems like an excellent time to address the issue.

If you've ever been to Manhattan, you have probably discovered one of the truly amazing urban planning phenomena on this planet: there is no need for driving directions. If you know the address of a location, then you know how to get there. Nobody ever asks "What is the address?" and then follows it up with "How do I get there?".

The second question is never posed because New York (at least Manhattan north of Houston) is grid network that follows strict naming conventions. Avenues run north-south, and increase in numerical name from east to west. Streets run east-west and increase in numerical name from south to north. If I know that a restaurant is located at 5th Ave and 85st Street, and I'm at 3rd Ave and 45th Street, I need to go 2 blocks east and 40 blocks north. Voila!

There are a number of cities in this country (and in the world, for that matter), that have predictable and logical grid networks. Central Washington DC, much of Cleveland, downtown Philadelphia, and Chicago (in the Loop, anyway). I would venture to guess that tourists get lost far less often in these cities than in non-grid cities.

Cities that have non-grid transportation networks are usually built that way because of topographical difficulty. As I mentioned above, Pittsburgh is a great example. The center of Pittsburgh was originally Fort Pitt (a military fort), located at the tip of land where the Allegheny and the Monongahela meet to form the Ohio river. These three rivers have, over a few million years, carved remarkably deep (and steep!) river beds. It is impossible to build roads along straight, grid-based lines. Elevations change wildly as one passes between mountain peak and valley. It's a common sight to be driving along one highway and go underneath an overpass 150 feet above your head. The elevation varies a lot!

Ok, I'll stop here for the moment. More to come.