They’re coming for my favorite vacant lots

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I always loved the way that this vacant lot at Grant and Oak streets, in downtown Columbus, reflected the mural shown above. In many ways this quiet, forgotten corner of Columbus’ expansive downtown illustrates the beauty of neglect found in so many rust belt scenes and increasingly rarely elsewhere in Columbus itself. The perfect angle to get these lovers’ reflection in the ponding street requires the setback granted by the gated vacant parcel in the foreground.

Six-Story Mixed-Use Building Planned for Capital University Lot Downtown

Well not anymore. Columbus Underground is reporting that this lot will soon see a six-story, mixed-use building developed as a joint partnership between Capital Law School and Pizzuti. The latter being one of the nation’s most sophisticated developers, I have no doubt this project will be of the utmost quality, but gone will be the simplistic beauty of this corner on a lonely, dreary day.

So it goes in a “booming” city. That said, great site for such a development.

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The difference made by 13 votes in Hough

This post was originally just going to chronicle some shenanigans of Cleveland’s (now former) Ward 7 Councilman T.J. Dow. For those who do not follow Cleveland politics, Ward 7 is the near east side of Cleveland covering neighborhoods like St. Clair-Superior, Midtown, Asia Town, and Hough. This is a historically significant community that has been through a lot (such as the Hough Riots), and has always provided refuge to Cleveland’s emergent minority communities. I firmly believe that this is an important heartland relative to the City of Cleveland and representing these constituents is important work.

So with that said, I must congratulate Ward 7 on electing a new councilman – Basheer Jones – who is also the city’s first Muslim-American councilman. The latter is of note because while Cleveland does not have a significant Muslim community a la Detroit or Columbus, immigration has been proven as essential to the rust belt revival. Cleveland is putting its best foot forward in the world with the Global Cleveland Alliance which seeks to attract immigrants and refugees and invest in their personal and professional development. Ward 7 includes an important component of Cleveland’s strategy, which is the Asia Town district, where a significant Korean and Southeast Asian community has emerged.

I am not a political actor or organizer, and am not endorsing Mr. Jones nor condemning Mr. Dow, the latter of whom lost re-election to the former by exactly 13 votes. The only political message here – which is an important one – is to remember who you represent and for those being represented, to go vote! Your vote truly matters. Especially in Ohio. Especially in Cleveland. Especially in Hough.

Events precipitating Mr. Dow’s ouster are many and include an arrest warrant issued by Shaker Heights, improperly expensing the cost of his self-published book series “The Success Factor” to the City of Cleveland, not paying his own taxes for five years, opposed retail development at League Park, and blocking a high-profile redevelopment project with apartments, retail, and a dental center to be ran by the Cleveland Clinic. The latter being the real issue – large multi-block, multi-use, multi-tenant projects almost always require zoning variances and public finance, and would almost certainly provide not just jobs but also sorely needed services to the residents of Hough. Mr. Dow changed his objections to the development several times..

  • First claiming that the Cleveland Clinic doesn’t employ Ward 7 residents (they absolutely do)
  • Then claiming that the developer was keeping neighbors in the dark (plans were very public)
  • Then taking issue with a rear-facing parking lot (it was removed)
  • Then claiming the plan would encroach on community gardens (developer then deeded over a plot for a community garden, which was only ever intended as a temporary use following blight clearance)
  • And then finally acknowledging that he sought contributions from the developer for a “community resource center”

Eventually the developer contributed $477,000 to hard construction costs of a community resource center, which in the developers own words, he “hopes the resource center would help train residents interested in working at the new facilities.” But no guarantee, and no further news regarding the construction of this community resource center.

The aforementioned development project (occupying almost entirely vacant parcels, and preserving anything else including Newton Avenue in the middle of the project):

Following the will of the voters, Mr. Dow requested that the balance of his neighborhood development funds (more than $700,000) be earmarked to another Ward, on the other side of town, where the councilman is a friend of Mr. Dow’s. The newly-elected Mr. Jones had already been sworn into office when Mr. Dow filed his request with City Hall, which typically approves spending requests of outgoing councilpersons. The cross-town project that needed Ward 7’s neighborhood development funds – programming at a community recreation center named after that ward’s current sitting councilman, Kenneth L. Johnson of Kenneth L. Johnson Recreation Center fame. The request was denied. Ward 7 is immediately $731,496 richer, to be spent at the discretion of their new councilman.

Again, this is not a political post nor am I a political actor or organizer. I am just a professional planner, and presently a consultant, not remotely as involved or responsible as I would like to be in these kinds of neighborhoods. However, I have observed so much discussion and debate and fighting over the concentration of development in downtown and subsequent neglect of the east side’s distant reaches. I know first-hand the difficulty of building capacity and consensus to right the ship in a declining neighborhood. Neighborhood decline is difficult quicksand to escape.

However, in Hough, people voted – and due to the difference made by 13 votes – the Ward has its $731,496 back. Mr. Dow also did many good things, including crucial support of the Hub55 project, and I seriously hope to see the $477,000 community resource center come to fruition. However, Hough’s funds need to stay in Hough. I don’t expect Ward 7’s councilperson to represent my interests or fight for areas of Cleveland where I hang out. Ward 7 has to fight for Ward 7 and never forget who they represent, whether I agree or disagree with the outcome of that, and I hope every other challenged neighborhood takes note of this valuable lesson in democracy.

CMAX’s Maiden Voyage

I was in downtown Columbus the other day, where COTA’s new bus rapid transit system – the C-MAX – is enjoying its maiden run. CMAX is free for the first week, which was a nice gesture for riders who had to wait in sub-zero temperatures during the first week of 2018.

My initial observation is that the bus was honestly hard to photograph due to traversing past High and Broad much faster than usual COTA buses that slowly mosey through downtown. The CMAX is projected to cut travel times by 20%, but my observation based on rider experience is that could be cut much further by reducing boarding and waiting times at transfer points.

Cleveland puts its money where its mouth is: Active mobility

Cleveland has long produced all the right, actionable but unfunded, masterplans for everything on an urban planner’s wish list: planes and trains, active bike/pedestrian mobility, urban parks and greenways, lakefronts and riverfronts, boardwalks and beaches, skylines and ski chalets, and so on.

Just in my short window into Cleveland’s story the city has planned for the Red Line Greenway (a bike path following the light rail Red Line corridor), the Lorain Avenue Bikeway, the Midway (a system of protected bike highways in the middle of excessively-wide eastside avenues), the Towpath Trail (bike network following Cuyahoga River/Valley from Cleveland to Canton) and Ohio & Erie Trail (a state-wide trail system connecting the Ohio River to Lake Erie), Circle-Heights bike plan (with bike lanes on Edgehill and others to connect University Circle up to the Heights), the Detroit-Superior Bridge bikeway, the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge bikeway, the Shoreway redesign, and more. Lakewood also did a really nice job with Madison Avenue (I however lived near Madison when the street was a poorly marked, road rage-inducing crater field).

I have of course seen the bad, particularly the reverse-buffered painted bike lanes on Lorain Avenue in far-west Cleveland. This was one of the city’s first attempts at large-scale bicycle infrastructure – one that was poorly planned, with the buffer zone placed to protect the curb from bicyclists, and not the bicyclists from traffic. However, since then, the city has been on a tear executing solidly-planned and efficiently-implemented bike lanes – best example being the Detroit Superior Bridge buffered bike lane (pictured below), brought to fruition for only $81,000 (previous plans to do the same would have cost over $4 million).

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As shown above, these don’t have to be perfect. All it takes is paint, pylons or sticks, and one lane of traffic, and these bike lanes function as well as any. The additional cost between functional and perfect is typically not met by more users; more people would bike if the bike lanes reached farther than if they were nicer.

I like active transportation because there are some ways in which it is equitable or not equitable, and if planned and implemented the right way, can be more equitable and really bring communities together. While access to road-ready bicycles can be difficult for low-income communities, personal vehicle ownership really is lower in these neighborhoods than one may realize, and access to exercise and active lifestyle options are limited. I like bike lanes primarily because they really do bring fitness opportunities to communities and put more eyes on the street at the same time. I am a huge believer that Americans would be so much healthier if they just walked or biked a little bit in their daily routine.

Toward that end, and after some key early successes and lessons learned, Cleveland now appears ready to seriously invest in some of these plans. End of last year, NOACA (the Metropolitan Planning Org for Northeast Ohio) unveiled an unprecedented set of active transportation investments that will get virtually all of the aforementioned plans at least rolling if not complete. $33.5 out of $47 million awarded to regional transportation projects in their last funding round went to active mobility projects.

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This includes:

  • $8.3 million for the first leg of Superior Avenue’s Midway (pictured above, from Public Square to East 55)
  • $6.1 million to fund the rest of the Lorain Avenue Cycle Track
  • $13.4 million for 20 new CNG buses for RTA
  • $2.5 million for 14 new buses for Lake Tran
  • $4.8 million for the Thrive 105-93 corridor from Bratenahl to Garfield Heights
  • $3.1 million for a new bulk shipping terminal at the Port of Cleveland
  • $2 million for improvements to Lorain County’s Black River Trail
  • $560,000 for the West Creek Greenway in Parma.

Only $5 million went to roadway projects – $4 million for traffic signal studies across Cuyahoga County, and $1 million for a new roundabout at Landerbrook.

While NOACA is really to be commended for such an unprecedented investment in regional active mobility, this would not be possible if regional planning and transportation entities weren’t putting forward funding-worthy initiatives. This will likely not become the new norm for transportation funding rounds, nor be repeated across Ohio, but for the time being mobility planning wins big in Cleveland.

Cleveland may really be awakening to the amazing potential of its dense albeit patchy cityscape and interesting topography. In particular, the topography with its level coastal plain, wide river valley, lakefront bluffs, and Allegheny Plateau rising on the east side, is a strong hand of cards to be dealt towards the goal of getting people out of their cars and outside in the sunshine. At least half of the year.

Detroit is a construction mess

That’s a good thing, though. Some photos taken this week. Qline surprisingly seemed to be half-full and had passengers waiting at stations during day – in sub-zero/single-digit cold and snow. If Detroit is going to leverage transit for broader, inclusive neighborhood revitalization, there’s going to have to be an understanding that Michigan winters are going to impact ridership numbers.

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A house flip just sold for $289K in South Columbus

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This is mind-blowing. Apparently the confirmed sale price was $10,000 below the list price of $299,000, but still, impressive. For context, the South End is still one of the roughest neighborhoods in Columbus, but is now undeniably experiencing revitalization. This home sale may represent the highest price per SF to date ($167 / SF).

This property before the flip:

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These flips are happening all over the South End presently. Most are hitting the market at price points between $150,000 and $200,000. This is a big jump.

Trulia housing value maps by metro (Eastern U.S.)

Trulia.com is pretty cool. Zillow aint bad either. There’s also cool stuff on REIS and CoStar especially if you’re with an outfit that will pay for access, but as far as free goes, Trulia is one of the best. So that makes it doubly awesome if you’re a real estate nerd on a budget.

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One thing Trulia is really good at tracking is listing prices and real-time trends across neighborhoods. As data is power, the more data an entity has, the more cool stuff it can do. The result of putting every neighborhood on the same map is pretty awesome; as rendered, the majority of the nation is some shade of green (~$300,000). However, every city has its obvious pockets of concentrated wealth.

The funny thing about this is the picture it paints about the neighborhoods in which we typically argue about gentrification. In the grand scheme of things, and on the same map as everywhere else, these neighborhoods don’t even register. When a market starts to see median for-sale home values rise from $150,000 to $200,000, while that may be the difference that cripples the middle class’ access to home ownership, it doesn’t really change the map. However, regarding the goal of safe and decent housing, cheap can be your enemy – as housing gets older, maintenance is really a function of housing values. In areas where the market isn’t supporting the cost of good maintenance, it really isn’t helping anyone to fight gentrification.

Pockets of concentrated wealth have obviously escaped the discussion about creating mixed-income communities. These communities are typically not even included in the scope or amongst stakeholders for regional planning. A lot of these pockets of wealth are actually unincorporated or separate enclave suburbs that just operate on a different public-sector platform.

There is an obvious correlation between density and income-diversity. While most pockets of serious wealth are also low-density regions, more dense areas are typically closer to the median, while some of the poorest areas (darkest green) are typically not as dense but still dense. You’ll find most cities’ densest pockets in the mint green ($200-300,000).

I’ll just run through a few examples, with the map at the same zoom level and focused on the pockets of income disparity. This is by no means all, but pretty close to it in the EST and CST.

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Atlanta is a surprisingly high-value market. Most everything inside the Perimeter has appreciated, with exception to areas due west of downtown. South and East Atlanta actually appear healthy and marketable. The north burbs, from Smyrna up to Alpharetta and Johns Creek, also feature a vast expanse of $500,000 to $1,000,000 homes, on both sides of Georgia 400.

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Austin actually has a lot of income diversity relatively close-in. However, with fewer and fewer pockets of low-income, there are no observable entire ZIPs below $100,000. This also illustrates the extent to which gentrification in Austin is ancient history, with this being the new reality.

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Boston’s real estate values are well-known. The southie hoods aren’t all that bad on the whole – with a few pockets in Dorchester and Roxbury that are that bad – but on the whole this may be the highest-value market in the Eastern U.S., as Boston lacks a South Bronx or East NY. To their credit, Boston is one of the most innovative communities when it comes to leveraging value for the greater good; however, the map illustrates the extent to which this is not relevant to nearly all other metros. For instance these land values can easily absorb the development cost of inclusionary zoning. And so they must.

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Buffalo exemplifies the complete opposite of the aforementioned metros. This is also one of those cases where overall affordability compress values across the entire market, including at the upper end. You can get a pretty stylish abode in Buffalo for ~$200,000. Which is to say they do exist! Buffalo has an excess of real estate relative to its current population, so as real estate gradually becomes right-sized, housing values will normalize as long as the metro population remains stable. Buffalo is a great investment with a lot of upside if you make well-positioned acquisitions.

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Charlotte may be one of the most income-diverse major metros. The strong local economy and productive urban development market have built-up a high-value pocket from downtown (“Uptown”) southward. Large areas of homes below $100,000 exist just on the other side of the tracks.

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Chicago is relatively affordable when compared to the other major metros. However, the scale and profile of Chicago – home to many of the nation’s celebrities and corporate elite – have resulted in some very unique pockets of wealth that hug the north lakeshore and pop up in certain enclaves elsewhere like Oak Park and Hinsdale. The balance of Chicago is really quite income diverse, with exception to the North Shore suburbs (Evanston and northward).

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Cincinnati is also quite income diverse, with no real trend when it comes to concentrations of wealth. It exists from Milford and Indian Hill to the east, westward to the Clifton neighborhood just north of UC. Wyoming, Blue Ash, some east side pockets like Dry Run, and inner-core hoods like Hyde Park, Mount Adams, and even southern OTR show up in the $500,000+ category. While wealth is scattered throughout the metro, poverty is heavily concentrated on the west side and in Covington.

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Cleveland is hot in the national media, but the data shows otherwise. You can almost make out the exact city limits based on dark green / light green, which is the market’s primary gradient (with ZIP medians probably ranging from ~$75,000 to upwards of just $400,000). That said, $400,000 can get you a LOT in Cleveland. The real money is heavily concentrated in the east suburbs. Also to the market’s credit, Cleveland used to be entirely retrograde, but now the central core and greater University Circle legitimately stand alone as bright spots. This is also a market where values have been suppressed by a glut of housing relative to the current population. Northeast Ohio’s sprawl, without population growth, has undercut the value of older vernacular housing.

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Columbus is a little bit of Cincy (income diverse with pockets scattered around) combined with a little bit of Cleveland (heavy concentrated wealth north of 270). Also, due to the absurdity of putting all real estate on the same unweighted scale, you can more easily make out differences across Upper Arlington than you can along the High Street corridor (where the light and dark colors meet in the middle). The pockets of wealth on the east side (Bexley) and south side (German Village) bode well for access to opportunity further out in those directions, where people would otherwise be disconnected.

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Dallas and Fort Worth are perhaps more interesting to compare to each other than as a whole region against other metros. Dallas is also a completely different animal from Fort Worth, which is more like the aforementioned Ohio metros. Dallas is probably a more developed version of Atlanta, with vast pockets where the median is not just over $1,000,000, but even $3,000,000. The only real concentration of extreme poverty left in Dallas is the Fair Park / “South Dallas” neighborhood which is actually eastern Dallas. Even the south side is showing some strong pockets, and overall a lot of income diversity. Where you don’t see that income diversity – the affluent northern suburbs from DFW up to Collin County. East Plano must really be getting rough if homes are only going for the $200,000s.

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Also the below regional map shows why I’m not panning further out for these screenshots, due to Trulia’s rendering glitches:

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Detroit thematic maps need not label Eight Mile Road (M 102) – it’s visible from outer space. Downtown, Midtown, and the east riverfront have joined Grosse Pointe as pockets of strength in the inner city. Low values have also now spread into the first few NE suburbs like Eastpointe. There are very distinct differences between Macomb County (NE) and Oakland County (NW). These differences also manifest themselves politically (Macomb County often being credited with electing Reagan and Trump).

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Houston has maintained broad affordability despite also having a major wealth bubble (its entire west side). The extreme wealth in Houston is concentrated well enough to leave the rest of the metro mostly unaffected. It’s also interesting how the south and east sides are starting to improve. There’s also very little middle-income on the west side; you’re either in an area that is $500,000 and above, or sub-$100,000 (SW corner of Beltway 8). Alief is the new dystopia, while those older south and east side neighborhoods have seen revitalization. It’s a real question what concentrated poverty will look like so far removed from walkable, transit-accessible economic opportunity.

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Kansas City’s wealthier inner-ring neighborhood are split down the middle between Kansas and Missouri. The same is not true for suburban communities, where wealth distinctly favors the Kansas side. You can also see Troost Avenue from outer space, much like Eight Mile Road in Detroit.

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Lexington is small, relatively high-income, with few pockets of distinct low-income north of downtown, and distinct pockets of concentrated wealth beyond the ring road in all directions. These are largely horse farms owned by the uber rich.

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Louisville, in contrast to Lexington, is more of a real city. Very income diverse on the whole, but with localized distinctions between east and west. Downtown and Old Louisville are also very healthy markets. The Indiana side has failed to attract much investment.

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Memphis is another city that is almost entirely low-income. Unlike the northern Rust Belt cities, it’s a real question whether Memphis will pursue smart growth or rightsizing strategies (probably not). Great city though – the downtown secretly has one of the better streetcars, and Mud Island (that $500,000 pocket on the river) is secretly one of America’s largest new-urbanist communities.

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In some ways Minneapolis and St. Paul are twins, and in some ways they are opposites. St. Paul has the largest collection of old money neighborhoods; on this map, SW St. Paul looks exactly like other such areas (North Buffalo, East Cincy, etc). Apart from the old money, the new money prefers Minneapolis. Conversely, most of St. Paul proper is depressed, whereas Minneapolis is divided between north and south. And water, of which there is a lot.

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Nashville and Memphis used to be flipped. There was a time when Memphis was seen as flashier and more urbane. It’s just plainly evident that Nashville is a different animal now, almost unrecognizable from the city it was before it got hot. The entire region is relatively high-income, which applies to nearly everything west of I-24. In terms of gentrification, forget about East Nashville, now it’s all about north and west Nashville. The relatively high cost of single-family housing and the rent-buy factor is also one ingredient that has fueled Nashville’s supply of new multifamily development, which would simply would not be absorbed in most other markets.

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New Orleans, an internationally-relevant historic landmark, is not a cheap city. I would be curious to learn more about quality of life for poor households in New Orleans, as this may be one of the better case studies on gentrification. You’ll remember that when Katrina happened, the subtext of urban poverty and racial disparity was the background for the botched short-term emergency management. While many of those families never moved back, for those that did, can they afford it now? Not a foregone conclusion either way – HANO has done amazing work rebuilding the city’s entire public housing portfolio and better-positioning it near opportunity.

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New York City is different from Boston in that it does still have distinct concentrations of low-income and low-values. Also, large portions of Brooklyn and the Bronx don’t even show up for lack of for-sale transactions. Areas like the South Bronx really are 100% multifamily for miles, whereas in gentrifying Brooklyn, for-sale product is gradually spreading from west to east. But not too far east.

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Oklahoma City is one of the more income-diverse metros, but it’s also one of the less-sophisticated markets where wealthy households don’t have that many options with where to locate. The answer is north. For everyone else, the answer is everywhere else. Urban core gentrification is also mostly complete between Lincoln and Classen boulevards, where it’s now spreading west toward I-44 and bridging the between downtown and Nichols Hills. Watch these neighborhoods.

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Omaha is another one of these markets that don’t have much concentrated poverty or much concentrated wealth. Supposedly Warren Buffet still lives in the same ranch house and drives the same old Lincoln Town Car that he always has. With exception to a few small pockets along the central-west Dodge Street corridor, anyone with serious money lives far out.

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Philadelphia may be the city with the largest pocket of poverty right next to the largest pocket of wealth. Interestingly, pretty much all of South Philly is looking good these days. Watch the neighborhoods just north of Spring Garden.

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Pittsburgh and Cleveland are kind of the same city, just with different topography and forms of waterfront. Pittsburgh’s poverty is indeed incredibly concentrated in the communities that surround Pittsburgh to the east and southeast. Also this map does not look exactly as you’d expect – the South Hills’ wealthier pockets don’t even register compared to the North Hills, much in the same way that Cleveland’s east burbs really are different than the west burbs.

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Providence stands in stark contrast to the Boston metro, less than an hour to the north. While Providence is clearly the most affordable urban market in New England, there is also a lot of value here for what you get. The physical housing stock is not much less sophisticated than in nearby Boston. New multifamily development here primarily takes the form of adaptive reuse of old mills, of which there are still many opportunities. That said, housing affordability is compressing renter households, and inhibiting the rent growth needed to pull off Boston-style adaptive reuse on a larger scale.

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Raleigh-Durham continues to resist urban density, which seems to get lost on the national planning establishment that sings its praises. They have UNC, NC State, Duke, and Wake Forest nearby. Yet somehow this hive of innovation, like Silicon Valley, just has opposed more innovative planning. While the markets in Charlotte and many other NC cities favor urban real estate, Raleigh continues to give a value premium to lower-density development.

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San Antonio is the most affordable of Texas’ major metros. The city also manifests the economic fate of an immigrant-majority community where people are still overcoming racial, ethnic, economic, and especially language barriers. That said, centrally-located real estate is beginning to build equity for families in those neighborhoods surround El Centro. In contrast, areas to the north are as wealthy as they always have been.

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St. Louis, like Cleveland and Cincinnati, is a lot bigger than people realize. I think a lot of the planning establishment became familiar with the disparity between south and north STL in the wake of Ferguson. One difference between STL and other major Midwestern metros is the lack of for-sale transactions in the downtown, which is more heavily multifamily than even a typical downtown (most still have enough for-sale transactions for this map to populate). The central west corridor is very distinct.

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Tulsa stands in contrast to OKC, with real concentrations in both wealth and poverty, and a downtown that really hasn’t generated much high-value residential product. Tulsa’s old money – largely households with oil era ties – prefers Midtown, where they have always resided. These neighborhoods are an interesting hodge podge of walkable pockets and large-lot, old-money estates. Since Tulsa’s economy has not grown since the 1980s, the map lacks the housing preferences of more new money consumers. In that way Tulsa is probably more like Louisville than Oklahoma City or Kansas City.

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College Town Madness

This is a post I meant for last month, before creating the bracket on my work computer and then getting incredibly busy at work as well as several travel assignments. Naturally I wasn’t reminded of this intended post until I was cleaning up some old files.

Inspired by Angie Schmitt’s annual Parking Madness contest, to crown the most egregious surface parking locale, I wanted to just use the exact same bracket as this year’s tourney and compare the communities surrounding these schools.

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I think this is incredibly subjective and open for interpretation. For instance, I didn’t just go with the most quintessential college towns, or else you’d see my undergrad college town of Stillwater making it a lot farther than it did (or at least a tougher decision against Ann Arbor, tough draw). For less subjective and more empirical rankings, check out WalletHub’s rankings based on health and fitness, social environment (huh?), and academic/economic opportunity.

However, and as passionate as I am about Oklahoma State, it did not prepare me for my career in the same way that graduate school at Ohio State did. It’s not because the academic quality at OK State isn’t as good as any major public university, but the simple fact that you’re not going to become an urban development guru in Stillwater, America. Columbus, Ohio – much better. In fact I owe the fact that I have grown to specialize in low-income community development to starting my career in Ohio.

The Crux: I graded these college towns on the opportunities they provide and planning innovations that they implement, and not which are the most bucolic settings to go sip a latte under a tree. The collegiate communities below resemble where I would send my kid to go and get the most out of his or her college years:

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In the top left quadrant of the bracket (I refuse to use their erroneous geographic regions) we have a number of great urban centers, a few classic college towns, and a few unfamiliar communites. By the way don’t knock Emmitsburg, MD (home of Mount St. Mary), which is cute as a bug. Quintessential Maryland small town with great Queen Anne building stock that dwarfs the rather narrow main street. However, with Philadelphia, Madison, Dallas, Milwaukee, and Durham – the campus communities in this bracket are no joke. Gainesville, FL – a surprisingly new-urbanist college town – also made it pretty far, until running into Philadelphia, which may be one of the greatest college communities in the nation (UPenn, Temple, Drexel, Villanova, Swarthmore, La Salle, Bryn Mawr, Haverford, et al).

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In the top right quadrant of the bracket we have some of the greatest college towns in the country, including Lawrence, KS. East Lansing, Ames, West Lafayette, Burlington, Eugene, Ann Arbor, and Stillwater – all great college towns. Of the bunch it would come down to Lawrence and Ann Arbor, if it weren’t for Providence, which has garnered acclaim as a great place to go to college. Providence quietly has one of America’s strongest arts communities, fueled largely by the presence of Brown, Rhode Island School of Design, and Providence College. It also offers a great combination of affordability, opportunity, and New England charm – which sounds like marketing baloney until you actually check it out as I did recently.

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In the bottom right quadrant of the bracket we honestly have some more average communities, and some that I would just throw away completely. Rock Hill is a suburb of Charlotte, Murfreesboro is a suburb of Nashville, Orange is a suburb of Newark, and Newport is a suburb of Cincinnati. We also have a ton of Ohio Valley cities – Indy, Cincy, Dayton, Lexington, and Newport. Lexington and Newport/Covington have just about the same downtown area, whereas the latter also has a riverfront with Cincinnati directly across. I do think Cincinnati is an excellent place to attend college – earning the nod over Manhattan, KS due to cultural/academic/career opportunities, earning the nod over LA due to affordability, and earning the nod over Dayton due to anything and everything. But not Minneapolis. Hard to beat the opportunity to attend college in the Twin Cities, with direct light rail access at the U, especially if you qualify for very affordable in-state tuition that makes up for housing costs in Minneapolis.

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In the bottom left quadrant of the bracket we see the re-appearance of Cincinnati, which goes on a tear until running into a slightly more innovative major city. This quadrant has some really great cities for young people – Chicago, Nashville, Cincinnati, Richmond, and Tucson. College Park, MD is essentially DC area, and Princeton – just on the other side of Trenton – is essentially Philly area. Of course Princeton is going to be hard to beat, but just how accessible is Princeton, and what kind of value-add does the community offer the college that also bears its name? Meanwhile, don’t knock Morgantown, which really is an epically great college town; to the point about Princeton, I think Morgantown actually elevates WVU and enriches opportunities at that school. I think Chicago and Tucson are roughly equal in terms of college settings. However, I think Tucson is vastly underrated for the innovative urban planning that the city has implemented. Not to mention it is a very attractive and fit community, which you kind of do want in a college town. All in all, with one of the nation’s best-planned streetcars, a decent tech sector, incredibly diverse population, unbeatable weather, and a good school to boot, I gotta hand it to Tucson:

Given the things that I advocate, and the solutions that I know work for medium-sized cities, I think Tucson is really on the forefront of placemaking and revitalization strategies. An actual graduate setting off into the world from UA will be more beneficially affected by their time in Tucson than most people are by their college town. The local hoops aren’t too shabby, either.

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Trump on Housing: Outer Boroughs, Out of Mind

I have been deliberately silent on the rollout of the Trump Administration’s various policies relating to urban communities. In part out of dismay, in part out of confusion, and in part out of deference to others who seem to understand it better than myself. I will freely admit that while I did foresee Trump’s election as a disenfranchised Rust Belt Bernie supporter myself, all bets are off now that he’s in office: I have no idea what he will do, or even can.

Trump’s Section 8 Amnesia

The assumption was that a real estate developer with significant Section 8 portfolio experience would not necessarily be a disaster for urban programs. After all, Trump himself made $600 million from the sale of rent-assisted properties in NYC’s Outer Boroughs. Furthermore, even Trump’s marquee properties were frequently developed with sophisticated financing and hefty public assistance (excellent piece in the Village Voice which has covered his business practices for 40 years), which although unsurprising, should ground him in the reality of how projects actually get done.

That turned out to be untrue as it is clear as mud that the traditional neocons surrounding Trump are driving the bus on most policy decisions. I think the rollout and rollback of Trumpcare also shows that Trump may have even less interest in actual policy than previously believed during the campaign. That said, there has to be policy, and policy has to come from somewhere.

Surprise, it’s the same hardline neocons proposing to eliminate HUD, shift LIHTC to the states’ discretion (charity?), eliminate public transit, eliminate subsidies for Amtrak and the Washington Metro, and other old ideas.

The hardest hit will be absorbed by the Section 8 program, it appears, with 13% cuts across the board to PHAs and HCVs. In my personal experience writing housing studies across the nation, I have only encountered 1 out of 10 PHAs that have an open wait list for vouchers, and usually the wait list is years long. People typically die on these wait lists, in substandard or unaffordable housing, waiting to receive housing assistance that often never comes. PHAs have a common practice of purging these wait lists, typically thousands of households long, to remove all of the deceased or otherwise no longer eligible households. Local policy initiatives such as priority for homeless veterans on the wait list further lengthen the wait list time for all others.

Furthermore, Section 811 (disability/HOPWA housing) is proposed to be cut by 20%, Section 202 (elderly housing) by 10%, and Tribal housing programs by 20%.

Making Section 8 Great Again

Trump probably knows full-well the extent to which Section 8 owners can absorb 10-20% cuts. The problem is that that’s not how these cuts are going to be appropriated. When Trump was responsible for his Outer Boroughs portfolio, he would frequently play the contract rent game with HUD.

In NYC, operating safe and decent housing with long-term, loyal tenants is undesirable due to the city’s rent control, which controls rent growth as long as a tenant stays in a unit. Even LIHTC/LIHC properties in NYC can’t achieve maximum allowable tax credit rents unless a unit has X number of move-outs within a 10-year period, resulting in a credit boost that calculates how much a landlord can raise rents. No fun, right? What is fun: Converting a unit over to a voucher-holder, which is excluded from the city’s rent controls because nobody (besides the government) is actually paying that rent. The rent paid by a voucher can be insanely high, as the vouchers are good for HUD’s established Fair Market Rent (FMR) for each market.

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When I presented my proposal for Connectus in the ULI Hines competition, I played the same game that Trump and every smart developer is doing: subsidy layering. One side of the street in Connectus is in a Qualified Census Tract (QCT), which we fully took advantage of in terms of what went on which side of Spring Street. Putting the LIHTC tower over there resulted in a 120% basis boost for credits, and then adding a theoretical HAP contract resulted in achieving HUD’s FMR for Atlanta ($820 for a 1BR, $949 for a 2BR, $1253 for a 3BR) on top of the excess equity flowing through the project as a result of the QCT basis boost. The ULI Hines guidelines pushed for 20% affordable units minimum, but probably was not intended to be manipulated with fully-blown low-income components. The local judges, Columbus developers and City Development Chief (all truly brilliant guys), did not believe our IRR of around 25% when all other teams were around 12-15%, and told us that our numbers were wrong. Kind of hard to rebut with a lecture on manipulative affordable housing finance on a judging stage, so I just took that one on the chin. Lesson learned: Hard to go wrong with less complicated.

So, this is all to say in my own limited professional and academic experience, that savvy Section 8 developers can take a hit in their cash flow. These projects don’t need to be the cash cows that they tend to be. However, that’s not going to change. These 13% voucher program cuts aren’t going to be absorbed by renegotiating contract rents or re-setting HUD FMR, but rather just by reducing the number of fellow human beings actually benefiting from these programs.

I am actually in favor of the common practice of concluding to fairly high contract rents on Section 8 units. I wish HUD, long Republicans’ favorite punching bag, had the resources it actually needs to address the nation’s housing situation. I don’t think affordable housing has to mean cheap, substandard housing. Efficient, yes; cheap, no. The above comments are just to point out who is actually going to be hurt by these proposed cuts.

Oh, and we know that federal support for transit is going away. Is that a tough blow though? We already knew it was coming, it’s been well-underway for some years now, and on the bright side fewer cities are offering premium transit service, putting transit users in a position without much to lose at this point. Angie Schmitt has the rundown on where transit is going.

I think that regardless of how short-lived the Trump Era may be, this period of history will be defined by those who can find a way to form partnerships with non-traditional partners. PHAs and RTAs that can find a way to delay major strategic decisions until post-Trump will be better off. Cleveland’s RTA, for instance, is in dire straits making it unable to delay such strategic decisions for much longer, meaning that they will have to re-evaluate the service they can provide during this era of austerity. For now, it may behoove us all to just get along to go along, fly under the radar, and put off major decisions until the stars realign over our great nation, or else take on the lasting impact and footprint of the policy flavor of the day.

Stillwater’s new $40,000 roundabout

Stillwater, Oklahoma – the home of Oklahoma State University – has always had a quaint, albeit fledgling downtown area. When I was there for my undergrad, the five-block stretch of Main Street, along with surrounding blocks like 7th Street and Lewis Street, was really the best thing the town had going for it independent of OSU.

Back in 2012, as my time in Stillwater was coming to a close, I also served as an editor of the campus daily newspaper. One of my last columns advocated for a roundabout in downtown Stillwater. While at the time I did not fully understand the conditions and requirements for implementing a roundabout, the column printed, I got calls from several community leaders, and the seed was planted:

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This is one of those things that reminds me of the difference between what someone says they want, and what they really want. What I said I wanted was a very specific type of roadway design that would in fact not be an ideal solution for the conditions at the location I had in mind. However, what I really wanted was for something, anything to be done to improve this awful intersection, which really is the classic weak gateway. Many small towns, even those with great downtowns, suffer from the classically underwhelming gateway from the local highway to said downtown. These spaces have proven over time too tempting for cities to cram unappealing, visually abhorrent, auto-oriented uses such as what you’ll find at Sixth and Main in Stillwater:

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… which still looks just the way it always has. The reality is that the weak gateway here will probably endure, as the city lost a key development opportunity when they allowed a parking lot-oriented Walgreens, and the owner of the service station on the right corner used to be on City Council.

However, while progress is often more stubborn at more visible locations, always watch out for the sleeper candidate. 10th and Main, four blocks to the south of here, ended up being a perfect candidate for a roundabout. The wide ROW width on Main Street provided enough space without requiring additional land, and the lower traffic counts on both Main and 10th more evenly disperse through a small roundabout.

I think even though it’s not the exact roundabout I had called for, Stillwater still pulled off a nice project here. Even better, the entire project only cost $40,000, according to this Stillwater Newspress article, in which the fiscally-conservative local paper proffered a ringing endorsement (while still insisting that new-fangled things sure are scary).

Before:

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After:

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I still think that Stillwater really needs to address beautification and traffic flow at its most important intersection, Sixth and Main. That said, major kudos to Stillwater for not just finding the right opportunity for the roundabout idea, but also for pulling off an incredibly cost-effective project, hopefully paving the way for other communities.