Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Burnham backlash: Make some 'small plans'

You can barely attend any conference of architects, planners or even local town planning boards without seeing, at some spot in the PowerPoint presentation, the famous quote from Chicago architect and town planner, Daniel: “Make no little plans,” he said. “They have no magic to stir men’s blood.”

But, as Alan Ehrenhalt points out in an essay in Governing magazine, “Urban Acupuncture Is Coming to America,” that view of city building helped promote a lot of what went terribly wrong in U.S. cities in the 20th century. Urban renewal is just Exhibit No. 1. So here’s Ehrenhalt’s suggestion:

“For the next century, it might be helpful if someone came along who could offer urban practitioners a dose of Burnham in reverse. Something akin to, 'Be careful about making huge plans, because they take forever, cost too much and generate myriad unintended consequences. Make small changes that improve everyday life for ordinary people; make them right away and build on small successes to try something a little more ambitious.’ ”

Ehrenhalt recounts the work of Jaime Lerner, a Brazilian architect who became mayor of Curitiba, a city of 1.7 million, and later governor of the state of Parana. It’s pegged to the fall 2014 release of an English translation of Lerner's book, Urban Acupuncture: Celebrating Pinpricks of Change That Enrich City Life.  (Disclosure: I’m a board member of the nonprofit Center for the Living City, which found funding for the publication of the English translation.)

The overall point, of Lerner’s book and Ehrenhalt's essay, is simple but too often overlooked by urban planners, city administrators and elected officials: Sometimes a small change is better than a huge project. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

The mayor's view: Transit funding (the dilemma), a more diverse city, and more

Local dignitaries at a 2012 ceremony for the Blue Line Extension. Then-Mayor Anthony Foxx, now U.S. Transportation Secretary, is at right. (Photo: Mary Newsom)
Charlotte Magazine's Greg Lacour has posted a meaty Q-and-A interview with Charlotte Mayor Dan Clodfelter, in which the mayor discusses the city's dilemma on transit funding, what's different about being mayor vs. being in the N.C. Senate (where Clodfelter served 1998-2014) and what's different about Charlotte compared to when he was on City Council (1987-93).

The questions hit heavily on the problem the city and county face in funding any expansion of the Charlotte Area Transit System. (For more background, see this article about remarks Clodfelter made in  September, "Mayor: Transit sales tax funding may be at risk.")

Among his other remarks to Lacour, Clodfelter had an interesting analysis of state transit funding -- or the lack thereof. He suggested that the state would be disinclined to pay any more for mass transit projects (for the first two legs of Charlotte's light rail, the state paid 25 percent of the cost) regardless of which party is controlling state government. Why? Because statewide transportation needs are great, and gas tax revenue is lagging. Add that up and it's difficult to fund anything, he said.

On a more political note, although Clodfelter isn't saying for sure he's running for mayor, he also recently gave an interview to Here's that interview

(At-large Charlotte City Council member Michael Barnes this week hopped into the mayor's race, joining Democrats Jennifer Watson Roberts and fellow at-large City Council member David Howard. To date, no Republican has emerged as a likely candidate. But filing isn't until this summer, with the primary in September.)

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Why slow-growing light rail ridership should not surprise anyone

A bus in uptown Charlotte, where most bus routes begin and end. Photo: Claire Apaliski
Today's Charlotte Observer brings an article from Steve Harrison noting that ridership on Charlotte's light rail line, the LYNX Blue Line, has finally rebounded to its pre-recession levels but has not increased dramatically despite rapid growth in apartments along part of its route. See "Lynx light rail ridership back to 2008 levels."

Some background: Charlotte's first and only light rail line opened in late 2007, just in time for the massive 2008-09 recession that had Charlotte unemployment lingering in double-digits or near it for months. The northern couple of miles of the 9-mile route, closest to uptown, have seen massive apartment development in the past several years. The southern part of the route? Nada.

But the South End neighborhood – an area of old industrial buildings dating from the 1960s back to the late 1800s – is popping with hundreds of new apartments, and hopping with new microbreweries and trendy restaurants.

Car-free in Charlotte? It isn't easy by Carolyn Reid, published last June at the website I run, helps explain why ridership may not be growing as quickly as you'd think.

Even in South End there's little easy or walkable access to routine shopping needs like grocery and drug stores, no easily accessed, widely connected network of bike routes, nor robust bus service with headways under 10 minutes that spreads cross town. Because of lack of funding, the city's bus service – while much improved over 1990s levels – still focuses on  delivering workers to uptown rather than building a widely connected network.

South End remains a place with better transit, bike and pedestrian connections than almost any other Charlotte neighborhood. But it's still not a place where living without a car is going to be easy. Unless you're trying to go uptown, the light rail can't deliver you where you want to go.

My prediction: Ridership will zoom when the Blue Line Extension opens in 2017, taking riders to the 27,000-student UNC Charlotte campus about 10 miles northeast of uptown. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Tax code uber alles

A recent piece in Smithsonian magazine, The Death and Rebirth of the Mall, points to a 1996 article by Tom Hanchett, staff historian at the Levine Museum of the New South, that I read almost 20 years ago. As always, Hanchett's thinking and research were impressive. But this article opened my eyes to a reality: Our cities and our neighborhoods are shaped less by city planners or the wishes of the people than by intricacies in tax laws and financing strategies.

It's like the time I realized (because David Walters told me) that the reason suburban sprawl didn't happen in Britain and Europe the way it does in the U.S. is because the laws there don't allow developers to build outside of the urban growth boundary. Until then I thought it was because Europeans were somehow more in tune with the beauties of nature and the importance of farms. Nope. It's what their laws say.

Hanchett's 1996 article, "U.S. Tax Policy and the Shopping-Center Boom," in the American Historical Review, describes how a small change in the U.S. tax code in 1954 – creating something called accelerated depreciation – "fundamentally altered the economics of real-estate development in the United States."

If you read the whole article you'll get a clear explanation of things like 200 percent declining balance and sum-of-the-years'-digits accelerated depreciation. If you're a real estate finance expert, you already know that stuff.  But here's the key information: This tax incentive applied fully only to new construction, not to renovating existing buildings.

"Suddenly, all over the United States, shopping plazas sprouted like well-fertilized weeds," Hanchett wrote. The

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Exurban living can exacerbate joblessness, study finds

The general belief that people living in American suburbs are better off economically than those in cities has been shaken in recent years, as desirable downtown neighborhoods have risen in price and have pushed poverty out into first- and second-ring suburbs. Here's another crack in that once monolithic belief.

Writer F. Kaid Benfield reports in Huffington Post on a new U.S. Census study that found recently laid-off workers who live far from job centers take longer to find replacement employment than do residents of neighborhoods more convenient to jobs by public transit or car.

The study itself is from the US Census bureau. Read it here. 

Benfield, who writes for the Natural Resources Defense Council, explains how exurban living can hurt, not help, household and government financial health:

"More hidden [than the problems of auto emissions contributing to carbon emissions], though, are the economic consequences of sprawl, such as rising costs for the construction and maintenance of extended infrastructure and the burdens of increased transportation costs on household budgets.

"More hidden still are the economic consequences of households being located at long distances, inadequately served by public transit, from job centers. For the employed, it means longer and more inconvenient commutes. But, for the unemployed, in too many cases it means you can't get to the job you need at all because you can't afford the costs of car ownership and inadequate public transit simply doesn't connect you to where you need to go."

Fact many Americans are unaware of: For the average U.S. household, the second-biggest chunk of the household budget, after housing, is not health care or food. It's transportation.

Benfield links to an article in The Economist about the jobs-housing spatial mismatch, which notes: "The typical American city dweller can reach just 30 percent of jobs in their city within 90 minutes on public transport. That is a recipe for unemployment."

Read Benfield's full article here.


Yet another way the feds promote sprawl

Another new subdivision for Union County, N.C., just south of Charlotte. Photo: Nancy Pierce

Feds promoting sprawl? That might surprise people who believe (wrongly, let me state) that the government is trying to push everyone, kicking and screaming, into high-rise apartments. But this article from Governing magazine last month shows that, in fact, the feds incentivize single-family housing at the expense of more dense development. The result is that some multifamily and mixed-use developments are pricier than they should be to buyers.

"Since its 1934 inception," writes Scott Beyer, "the FHA [Federal Housing Administration] has insured mortgages for more than 34 million properties, facilitating mass homeownership over several generations. But only 47,205 of these plans have been for multifamily projects. This is due to longtime provisions that make it harder for condos to get FHA certification. As late as 2012, 90 percent of a condo’s units had to be owner-occupied and only 25 percent of its space could be for businesses."

The FHA has eased that rule a bit in the past two years, Beyer reports, but even so: "These policies mean that, although practically every single-family home can be FHA-insured, only 10 percent of condo projects nationwide qualify. This makes condos less affordable, since prospective buyers seeking private financing without FHA backing face higher borrowing costs and typically must make 20 percent down payments rather than the 3.5 percent typically required of FHA-backed mortgages."

Click here to read his full report, "FHA Policies Discourage Density."

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Transit chief: P3s help but won't solve transit funding woes

Sharon Road West station on Charlotte's light rail line. Photo: Nancy Pierce
The idea of using public-private partnerships to help fund transportation systems, including mass transit, is one of today's hottest topics in transportation policy circles. But the head of Atlanta's MARTA cautions that P3s, as they're known, aren't a silver bullet for transit systems.

Keith Parker, who headed Charlotte's transit system 2007-2009 and since 2012 has been MARTA CEO, was in town Tuesday, as a rail conference was kicking off. Parker spoke at a small event organized by the Transit Funding Working Group, a Metropolitan Transit Commission committee that's been pondering how CATS can move forward despite huge gaps between the 2030 plan and available money to built it out.

The working group has studied P3s, and a P3 conference was held here in March. In transportation, public-private partnerships are being used for bridges, tunnels, toll roads and High-Occupancy-Toll lanes such as the new HOT lane planned for Interstate 77 north of Charlotte. A private company, Cintra, has contracted with the N.C. Department of Transportation to build the lane and use the toll revenue to operate it. In Vancouver, a P3 built one of the region's rail lines.

P3s are touted as a way to get around a growing national problem of too many transportation needs and too little tax revenue to pay for them. With cars' gas mileage increasing, a decrease in driving among young people, and a national gas tax that's not been raised since 1993 and isn't indexed for inflation, trend lines for transportation funding are heading down.

In Atlanta, Parker has won praise for helping improve MARTA's relationships with the Georgia legislature and for bringing efficiencies to MARTA operations. And next week may see the first expansion of the system since it was launched 42 years ago in Fulton and DeKalb counties. A referendum is set for Nov. 4 in Clayton County, Ga., asking voters there whether to approve a 1-cent sales tax to expand MARTA into their county.

Parker, who described how MARTA is partnering with developers for transit-oriented developments on MARTA-owned land, cautioned the audience about the limitations of P3s, especially for transit programs. "They don't solve your revenue issues," he pointed out. And continuing revenues are needed, as well as capital expenses for building the transit lines and stations.

He quoted a popular misconception: "If you just go to the private sector they'll build all your trains for you."  That thinking? "It's just a myth," he said.

The Atlanta system is funded with a 1-cent sales tax in two counties. It receives no funding from the state of Georgia.  Mecklenburg County's system is funded with a half-cent sales tax in only one county.

For more on the recent transit funding challenges facing Charlotte, see "Mayor: Transit sales tax funding may be at risk" from