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.


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:




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).


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.


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.


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.


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.


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:


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:


… 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).





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.

Then and Now

A few dramatic before-and-afters, courtesy of urban renewal. Charlotte obviously takes the cake. Minneapolis didn’t renew as much (thankfully) but it is interesting how unbalanced their skyline was when it first started to expand, much like how Devon Tower dominates OKC’s skyline today, as it has yet to grow around it. Dallas and OKC used to be two peas in a pod, maybe again some day.


Downtown Residential Population by City


As I’ve always enjoyed aggregating data and trends across major cities, I thought I would take a stab at creating a resource for every major city’s downtown residential population. First, I excluded cities where the extent of downtown is truly indistinguishable from the rest of the city, such as D.C., San Francisco, or even Charleston or Savannah. Secondly, this is totally apples to oranges. Indianapolis defines their downtown as 5-6 square miles, whereas Cleveland defines their downtown as merely 2-3 square miles, while still yet Austin may define it as just a few blocks in either direction of Congress Avenue.

To understand how the numbers were derived, I have hyperlinked the source for each city. The sources are usually the local downtown business improvement district (BID) or similar organization. I used the MSA population for the Metro in all except for a few instances in which there really is a concise urbanized area (for instance San Jose and San Francisco, or Cleveland and Akron, are more intertwined than Columbus and Zanesville, OH).

The Census bureau has begun tracking downtown residential populations, which will lead to higher-quality data in coming years on this topic. The Census bureau has noted that these areas exhibit some of the highest population increases in the nation, in an article from 2012. Another imperfect way of solving the same riddle involves comparing populations inside mile increments, assuming that the first mile is the downtown population, the first five miles are typically surrounding inner city neighborhoods, and so on. However, this is imperfect as many downtowns are legitimately larger in area.

So while it’s not perfect, hopefully it is still interesting and useful, and without further ado, here it is:

City (Source) Downtown Pop 2015 City Pop % of City Metro Pop % of Metro Fixed-Guideway Transit
Atlanta 25,376 463,878 5% 5,710,000 0.0045 MARTA
Austin 12,000 931,830 1% 2,000,000 0.0060 Capitol Metro
Birmingham 4,000 212,461 2% 1,145,000 0.0035 None
Buffalo 8,300 258,959 3% 1,135,000 0.0073 Metro Rail
Charlotte 15,000 827,097 2% 2,426,000 0.0062 LYNX
Chicago 136,000 2,720,546 5% 9,551,000 0.0142 The L
Cincinnati 16,000 298,550 5% 2,157,000 0.0074 Streetcar
Cleveland 15,000 388,072 4% 3,515,000 0.0043 RTA
Columbus 7,000 850,106 1% 2,021,000 0.0035 None
Dallas 13,041 1,300,092 1% 7,102,000 0.0018 DART, TRE, Streetcar
Denver 73,000 682,545 11% 2,814,000 0.0259 RTD
Detroit 35,000 677,116 5% 4,302,000 0.0081 PeopleMover, QLine
Ft. Worth 5,000 833,319 1% 7,102,000 0.0007 TRE
Hartford 1,800 124,893 1% 1,211,000 0.0015 None
Houston 3,600 2,296,224 0% 6,656,000 0.0005 Metro
Indianapolis 27,000 853,173 3% 1,988,000 0.0136 Monorail
Jacksonville 3,730 868,031 0% 1,449,000 0.0026 None
Kansas City 24,000 475,378 5% 2,087,000 0.0115 Streetcar
Little Rock 1,300 197,992 1% 724,000 0.0018 Streetcar
Los Angeles 58,702 3,971,883 1% 13,340,000 0.0044 LA Metro
Louisville 9,000 615,366 1% 1,278,000 0.0070 None
Memphis 24,000 655,770 4% 1,344,000 0.0179 Streetcar
Miami 80,750 441,003 18% 6,012,000 0.0134 Metrorail
Milwaukee 21,000 600,155 3% 1,575,000 0.0133 None
Minneapolis 40,000 410,939 10% 3,524,000 0.0114 Metro
Nashville 10,000 654,610 2% 1,830,000 0.0055 None
New Orleans 5,100 389,617 1% 1,262,000 0.0040 Streetcar
Oklahoma City 7,500 631,346 1% 1,459,000 0.0051 Streetcar
Omaha 2,500 443,885 1% 915,000 0.0027 None
Orlando 43,388 270,934 16% 2,387,000 0.0182 SunRail
Philadelphia 180,000 1,567,442 11% 6,089,000 0.0296 Subway
Phoenix 12,000 1,563,025 1% 4,574,000 0.0026 Valley Metro
Pittsburgh 12,500 304,391 4% 2,353,000 0.0053 The T
Portland 25,000 632,309 4% 2,389,000 0.0105 MAX
Raleigh 7,000 451,066 2% 1,273,000 0.0055 None
Richmond 10,000 220,289 5% 1,271,000 0.0079 None
Sacramento 19,650 490,712 4% 2,274,000 0.0086 SacRT
Salt Lake City 5,000 192,672 3% 1,170,000 0.0043 TRAX
San Antonio 21,274 1,469,845 1% 2,384,000 0.0089 None
San Diego 35,000 1,394,928 3% 3,299,900 0.0106 Streetcar
San Jose 15,000 1,026,908 1% 8,713,000 0.0017 VTA
Seattle 70,000 684,451 10% 3,733,000 0.0188 Link
St. Louis 14,000 315,685 4% 2,811,588 0.0050 MetroLink
Tampa 8,100 369,075 2% 2,975,000 0.0027 Streetcar
Tulsa 6,000 403,505 1% 1,151,000 0.0052 None

By this metric, it is worth pointing out a unique class of cities with over 10% of their city population in their downtown. Some cities get here by virtue of having a smallish city relative to the metro, while others get here by having truly maximized centrally-located dwelling space. These cities are Seattle, Philadelphia, Orlando, Minneapolis, Miami, and Denver. Philadelphia’s CBD is the nation’s second-most populous CBD, after Midtown Manhattan, and Center City Philly is truly in a class of its own when compared to any other 4-square mile area of almost any other city. This includes similarly-sized metros such as Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Phoenix, etc.

4% appears to the divide between the next tier of cities – most of these cities have surging downtown populations, and many could cross the 10% threshold with a few more years like the last ten or so. These cities are St. Louis, Sacramento, Richmond, Portland, Pittsburgh, Memphis, Kansas City, Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Chicago. Chicago’s CBD has the second-highest plurality on this list of cities (which drops when you add NYC submarkets), and while the broader Chicagoland region looks more like most Midwestern metros, the region still checks in at 5% which is noteworthy for a metro of 10 million (compared to LA).

Lastly, there are a tremendous number of cities that show 1%. These are often cities that think they have a uniquely fast-developing downtown living city, but really they need to take a look around them. I can attest that OKC and Ft. Worth in particular seem to think they are unique for having downtown revitalization, and many people in Ft. Worth (who clearly don’t make it past Tarrant County often) think it somehow differentiates them from Dallas, which now has 150,000 people living in the neighborhoods adjacent to Downtown Dallas. Ft. Worth and OKC both have great downtowns, but like many other cities in the 1-4% range, their downtown is not as developed as others – which is an opportunity!

All of this said, only two cities have a ratio that rounds down to 0%. Jacksonville and Houston, do better!

Relativity of congestion

Each year the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M comes out with their Urban Mobility Scorecard, which of course is auto-centric like all other traffic planning. The ranking criteria calculates number of hours spent each year in congestion, which then leads to other criteria such as productivity wasted, extra fuel spent, etc. From a highway planning perspective, the criteria makes sense.

The top cities for the worst traffic are as follows. I’ve always thought their top-congested cities seemed fishy. In all, fast-growing Sun Belt metros typically rank higher for congestion than they do population, while slow-growing Rust Belt metros typically rank much lower for congestion than for population or anything else.

It’s also worth noting that many of these Sun Belt metros (like Tucson) are typically getting freeway expansion projects, whereas the Rust Belt metros (like Cleveland and Detroit) frequently are.

1 Washington-Arlington, DC-VA-MD-WV

2 Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA

3 San Francisco-Oakland, CA

4 New York-Newark, NY-NJ-CT

5 San Jose, CA

6 Boston, MA-NH

7 Seattle-Tacoma, WA

8 Chicago, IL

8 Houston, TX

10 Riverside-San Bernadino, CA

11 Dallas-Ft. Worth-Arlington, TX

12 Atlanta, GA

12 Detroit-Ann Arbor, MI

12 Austin, tX

12 Miami, FL

12: Portland-Vancouver, OR-WA

17 Phoenix-Tempe, AZ

18 Honolulu, HI

19 Denver-Boulder, CO

19 Oklahoma City-Norman, OK


I have always appreciated Google’s real-time traffic feature, which not only shows real-time traffic in all major city, but also has a feature that simulates typical traffic. I set the simulation for 5:30 p.m., peak of rush hour, on a Friday. Below are a curated snapshot of Google’s traffic simulation for the same time on the same day, at the same zoom level (although wider regions like Dallas-Ft. Worth have been shrunk by WordPress).

Albuquerque, NM: 36 hours annual delay, #70



Atlanta, GA: 52 hours annual delay, #12 (tie)



Austin, TX: 52 hours annual delay, #12 (tie)



Bay Area –

San Francisco-Oakland, CA: 78 hours annual delay, #3; San Jose, CA: 67 hours, #5



Birmingham, AL: 34 hours annual delay, #77 (tie)



Boston, MA: 64 hours annual delay, #6



Baton Rouge, LA: 47 hours annual delay, #23



Columbus, OH: 41 hours annual delay, #45 (tie)



Charlotte, NC: 43 hours annual delay, #35 (tie)




Chicago, IL: 61 hours annual delay, #8



Cincinnati-Covington, OH-KY: 41 hours annual delay, #45 (tie)



Northeast Ohio –

Cleveland, OH: 38 hours annual delay, #55 (tie); Akron, OH: 27 hours, #89



Columbia, SC: 38 hours annual delay, #55 (tie)



Charleston, SC: 41 hours annual delay, #45 (tie)



Capital Region

Washington-Arlington, DC-VA-MD-WV: 82 hours annual delay, #1; Baltimore, MD: 47 hours, #23



Denver-Boulder, CO: 49 hours annual delay, #19 (tie)



Detroit-Ann Arbor, MI: 52 hours annual delay, #12 (tie)



Dallas-Ft. Worth-Arlington, TX: 53 hours annual delay, #11



Des Moines, IA: 12 hours annual delay, not ranked



Grand Rapids, MI: 39 hours annual delay, #51 (tie)



Hartford, CT: 45 hours annual delay, #29 (tie)



Houston, TX: 61 hours annual delay, #8 (tie)



Indianapolis, IN: 43 hours annual delay, #35 (tie)



Jacksonville, FL: 38 hours annual delay, #55 (tie)



Kansas City-Overland Park, MO-KS: 39 hours annual delay, #51 (tie)



Knoxville, TN: 35 hours annual delay, #72 (tie)



Southern Cal –

Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA: 80 hours annual delay, #2; Riverside-San Bernadino, CA: 59 hours, #10



Louisville, KY-IN: 43 hours annual delay, #35 (tie)



Little Rock, AR: 38 hours annual delay, #55 (tie)



Memphis, TN-AR-MS: 43 hours annual delay, #55 (tie)



Miami, FL: 52 hours annual delay, #12 (tie)



Milwaukee, WI: 38 hours annual delay, #55 (tie)



Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN-WI: 47 hours annual delay, #23 (tie)



Nashville-Murfreesboro, TN: 45 hours annual delay, #29 (tie)



New Orleans, LA: 45 hours annual delay, #29 (tie)



New York-Newark, NY-NJ-CT: 74 hours annual delay, #4



Oklahoma City-Norman, OK: 49 hours annual delay, #19 (tie)



Omaha, NE: 32 hours annual delay, #83



Orlando-Kissimmee, FL: 46 hours annual delay, #27 (tie)



Philadelphia-Trenton-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE: 48 hours annual delay, #22



Phoenix-Tempe, AZ: 51 hours annual delay, #17



Pittsburgh, PA: 39 hours annual delay, #51



Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro, OR-WA: 52 hours annual delay, #12



Providence-Fall River, RI-MA: 43 hours annual delay, #35 (tie)



Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, NC: 34 hours annual delay, #77 (tie)rdu


Richmond-Petersburg, VA: 34 hours annual delay, #77 (tie)



San Antonio-New Braunfels, TX: 44 hours annual delay, #33



Sacramento, CA: 43 hours annual delay, #35 (tie)



San Diego, CA: 42 hours annual delay, #43



Seattle-Tacoma, WA: 63 hours annual delay, #7



Salt Lake City-Provo, UT: 37 hours annual delay, #66



St. Louis-Clayton, MO-IL: 43 hours annual delay, #35 (tie)



Tampa-St. Petersburg, FL: 41 hours annual delay, #45 (tie)



Toledo, OH-MI: 38 hours annual delay, #55 (tie)



Tucson, AZ: 47 hours annual delay, #23 (tie)



Tulsa-Broken Arrow, OK: 44 hours annual delay, #33 (tie)



Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News, VA: 45 hours annual delay, #29 (tie)



Surprised to see that the Urban Mobility Scorecard shows Tucson having the #23rd worst congestion, which is significant, while Google’s simulation shows virtually no traffic at all. Tucson also benefits from a well-planned downtown streetcar and year-round good weather for bicycling.

Looking around the nation at congestion scenarios also underscores the folly of Rust Belt metros’ investments in highway expansions at the expense of transit budgets. Cities from Indianapolis to Grand Rapids to Pittsburgh have very little congestion relative to the rest of the nation. Even Cincinnati, where traffic is regarded as the worst in Ohio, is much lower on congestion metrics than Oklahoma City, where sprawl and boom-bust growth, in addition to infrastructure disinvestment, have wreaked havoc on cross-metro commutes.

From ruins to riches

I have almost exclusively written about various forms of urban reuse, including adaptive reuse, urban infill, even suburban retrofitting. All of these forms of development, different from green field, obviously require commitment and at least some creativity.

That said, I’m really fascinated by how some historic building types lend themselves perfectly to specific adaptive reuse concepts. For instance, schools are great because old classroom sizes are perfect for a small studio/1br apartment. Combining two classrooms is an easy way to create a large 2br apartment. Developers seem to get this, judging by the sheer volume of school conversions, particularly amongst Ohio’s affordable housing development scene (i.e., what I’m most familiar with). Does it really require creativity and a deep commitment once a concept such as this is proven?


Historic landmarks are not immune to tragedies, whether they be fire, flood, and so on. I’ve seen many landmarks, particularly OKC’s flood-damaged Stage Center, lost to acts of god. Luckily though, I’ve seen some cities pull together to save ruined landmarks.

Omaha’s iconic Old Market was struck with such a travesty when its iconic M’s Pub Building caught fire after a natural gas explosion during a polar vortex event last year:


Property owner Mercer Management announced they would save the building and begin the restoration process immediately. That shows commitment. After worries that the Old Market would lose one of its more iconic buildings, 11 months later all three original tenants are building out these spaces once again:



Last year, Louisville made national news when its famed Whiskey Row caught fire while extensive rehabilitation work was underway.


111 Whiskey Row – the three buildings combined as one new asset with 87,000 square feet – is going forward after an insurance settlement covered a large portion (though undisclosed) of the $4 million in damage caused by the fire. The developers, Main Street Revitalization, are a consortium of local preservationists, who have shown a deep commitment to this project. They will be rewarded for their commitment once they open this unique piece of real estate for business. They reportedly expect apartments to lease quickly, and storefronts to fill. Old Forester Distillery is one of 5 new distilleries opening up nearby:



The Central Hotel in Galion, Ohio was a typical small town feel-good story. The historic hotel in the town center had been renovated in 2004 into affordable senior housing – both providing needed affordable housing in this community, and keeping the lights on in one of its better buildings. Then in 2015 it was discovered that shoddy construction work done by contractors had left the foundation and entire building unstable, prompting an immediate evacuation and relocation of residents. At this point, it would have been cheaper to demolish the building and build replacement units on the site.


Luckily for Galion, and despite the shoddy construction work, this property was managed and operated by deeply-committed non-profit partners who were willing to absorb losses to stand by this project. Beyond LEADS (a community action agency in Mid Ohio) and OCCH (a non-profit housing syndicator), the City of Galion also came in clutch by providing a small CDBG grant to help save the building. Every little bit helped, and through the power of leveraging, the building is back in service and residents are moved back in.


All of these properties, suffice it to say, an average developer would have walked away from. Or worse yet, postured as “committed” by proposing to wipe the slate clean. Rather than that, these properties will continue to shine in a new light, and hopefully serve as models for other urban landmarks that may be devastated by fire. Congrats to everyone involved in the above projects, and here’s to your success. Undoubtedly, the market will support and reward these groups for their commitment to finishing the job right.

Cincy streetcar “flounders” ?

I was struck by this headline on Cincinnati Ridership Falling as Service Flounders

Surprised by this, after readings accounts of the successful high ridership, I clicked on the article. When I read the article, I read this:

“Overall, ridership is 53 percent above expectations. But a closer look at the numbers day-by-day shows declining ridership since it opened Sept. 9.”

So this streetcar just opened three months ago. It saw huge crowds in its first month, when a lot of events are held in the late summer, and since then its ridership has fallen a little, but is still over 50% above expectations overall. That reminds me I need to change my Brita filter. This streetcar is already a “floundering” failure.

I was curious about this and what other headlines there might be regarding the streetcar. CityLab (whom I’ve called out for this several times already) is already saying “Cincinnati has a streetcar problem” (an actual headline).

They’ve been similarly spreading overwhelmingly negative media about other new streetcars in other cities, and not even calling for measures that would improve these transit systems and help them serve more riders. It appears that the Cincinnati streetcar has been hampered by high ridership, huge crowds, long waits, low frequencies, and particularly by traffic lights that disfavor favor the streetcar. The programmed traffic pattern through Cincinnati is east-to-west, for ease of getting on interstates, and not north-to-south which is how the city has been growing.

I think this is a case where planners and public officials need to get out of the way of economic development and RE development. Be a part of the solution, not part of the problem. I see city planners, their media, and their research organizations, spending way too much effort opposing economic development. They are fixated on the problem, not the solution.

In the case of Cincinnati, it appears that the project was badly planned, but is still achieving some success in spite of that. The connection to UC was canceled. The streetcar is operating at some of SORTA’s lowest frequencies, with several bus lines with more frequent service. It was planned to fail, which it just hasn’t. This can (should) still be a success.

Good suburbs further neighborhood diversity

To say that all pro-urban planners hate suburbs, or should fight suburban growth, is a common misconception in today’s polarized discourse. I think it’s rubbing off from our political discourse, as many of us are under the mis-impression that everything must be this polarized and charged.

Ultimately, the burbs and the urbs need each other; building an economically competitive city depends upon attracting diverse and diffuse people and skill-sets. When I was at CEOs for Cities, this was one of many metrics we used as units of comparison to isolate the variables that make cities successful.

At the macro level, countries that are more diverse are proven to adapt better to changing times, according to a 2011 Richard Florida article. That would be a pragmatic application of this premise. Beyond that, intrinsically, diversity is also an amenity that will attract a talented workforce that has options for where they go.

For instance, cities that can offer cheaply priced ethnic restaurants are going to have a draw. Cities where Wal-mart commands more than a third in general merchandising market share are conversely going to be undesirable relocation options.

It works the same way for neighborhoods.

Cities need a healthy split between urban and suburban neighborhoods, and the reason that it feels like real estate is all about the inner city right now is in many ways a natural market correction. After decades of sprawl induced more by public policy than by public demand, the market is finally taking over and resolving matters.

Until our cities offer enough urban product; A, the urban product will be over-priced; B, the suburban product will be devalued which undercuts building equity in those neighborhoods; and C, consumers wanting urban product will continue to be biased toward those cities that offer it easily.

Researchers almost always make the mistake of analyzing entire metropolitan markets as a monolith when it comes to affordability. For instance – the Rust Belt was hit pretty hard by the 2008 real estate crash, however inner city real estate actually grew in value while everything else plummeted. A tale repeated across almost all Rust Belt metros and many others, highlighting the value of market differentiation.

Good urban real estate is so valuable because we just don’t have enough of it. While people do keep on living and working in the suburbs, they are often doing so just because they can’t afford to do so in the inner city. Surveys show that there are more potential consumers for good urban real estate than there is product. Ben Adler of Grist takes the point further to argue that a majority of young families that have “fled to the suburbs” actually haven’t; they’ve just been priced out. Adler goes on to argue that if one takes ALL recession-era economic outcomes as indicators of consumer preference, then clearly North Dakota is the most coveted place in the nation.

bainbridge_squareWhile North Dakota probably isn’t actually the most coveted place, many suburbs continue to compete as great places to live. In 2016, they can do this by promoting cultural and economic diversity, and indeed many suburbs successfully cast themselves as the “anti-suburb” and create a great suburb as a result. Areas like Prince Georges County, Maryland and DeKalb County, Georgia (pictured) have been at the forefront of housing civil rights – both are the #1 and #2 highest-income majority-African American counties in the U.S.

In Northeast Ohio, walkable Shaker Heights pioneered housing civil rights in the Midwest with the straw buy scheme. As an elite community, Shaker Heights made a tremendous impact in moving housing desegregation forward by finding ways to welcome non-white elites. More on this can be read on a history series I helped Cleveland Restoration Society with. To this day, Shaker Heights is known for being a well-integrated, high-income, walkable, and community-oriented suburb. It will thus retain its value as distinguished real estate for a long time.

Furthermore, Cleveland is better off for having Shaker Heights as a connected piece of Cleveland’s urban fabric. Good suburbs are doing this for their anchor city all across the nation, and deserve to be cast aside from the disdain that is widely held for bad suburbs, of which we have way too many.

Thesis published!

After waiting months for my finished baby to go through publication, the online version is now publicly available for all to see. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in the role of public incentives and planning processes for TOD, and particularly for any practitioners in non-coastal cities attempting to chart this course; recognizing the lack of quality research and case studies that relate to average cities, this one is for you.


View/download on OhioLINK.


Year and Degree

2016, Master of City and Regional Planning, Ohio State University, City and Regional Planning.


The purpose of this study is to explore emerging research and planning concepts in conjunction with practical case studies to yield specific insights into promoting transit-oriented development (TOD). As it relates to TOD, this thesis focuses on public sector strategies, including public-private partnerships. Each of the case study cities exhibit unique contexts, including varying degrees of market strength, existing transit ridership, and funding capacity. The TOD solutions that these case study cities implement, the focus of this thesis, are shaped by and for those unique contexts.

A review of literature will examine a broad array of sources that shed light on transit-oriented development practices in similar contexts. This discussion draws from specific examples of innovation in finance, policy, design, and planning; as well as a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages. Following the literature review, this study will analyze the historical evolution of transportation and transit policy, including federal and state-level programs. The crux of this study is ten (10) case study cities that transcend several fixed-guideway types (heavy rail, light rail, bus rapid transit, streetcar) and markets of varying size and strength. Findings on significant strategies that yield results within these case studies will be organized into benchmarks and best practices, intended as a uniquely contextual resource for emerging cities aspiring to incorporate transit-oriented development into planning for sustainable development.


Kimberly Burton (Advisor)
Rachel Kleit, PhD (Committee Chair)


242 p.