Bitter on Twitter

IMG_4374Transit authorities rely on adept communication staff to relay vital information to those who rely on their services to get to work every day – this is the baseline upon which most RTAs have established their twitter following. The CTA (Chicago’s “L”) twitter feed is a great example of an RTA using social media primarily for rider alerts.

Transit is also undeniably cool, particularly the rail-based variety. Another common typology of social media activity around transit is hype-based, whether planned or organic. For instance, the Cincy Streetcar twitter is a great example of a hype-based twitter feed, promoting the intangible advantages of their mode of transit.

Then there’s advocacy, which comes in both positive and negative flavors. When I used to ride Cleveland’s Rapid to work every day, once a year was transit advocacy day, in which organizers canvassed trains and buses to raise awareness of the political and funding challenges that may be unbeknownst to rush hour commuters. That’s advocacy the old fashioned-way. Twitter is the new way to advocate.

When it comes to transit advocacy, CityLab’s preferred means of communicating is ye ole fashioned angry tweet. Nothing gets the anger out better than 140 characters or less, it seems. I myself have tried to refrain from Twitter drama, but they say that is for the weak of tweet!

When SF’s BART was down back on Trainmageddon Day, they stood in awe of BART’s twitter meltdown, which CNN also covered. When Cleveland RTA faced hours-long waits for the Cavs Championship Parade, CityLab once again stood in awe of the angry tweets (directed at the State of Ohio). Who will they egg on next?

Here are some choice tidbits:

You can follow Cleveland RTA @GCRTA for even more saltiness to come. Hopefully Cleveland wins another ‘ship so that person can finally celebrate!

CityLab shout-out for Linden

Great article on CityLab today, reporting on the potential synergies from several things Columbus is doing in the transportation space, both low-tech and high-tech… The obvious omission being any rail-based transit system whatsoever, which has long evaded Columbus.

smartcitychallengefinalistsmap_0Despite this, Columbus is moving forward with smaller-scale transportation programs, including an exciting application for US DOT’s $50 million Smart City Challenge Grant – for which Columbus is competing against Austin, SF, KCMO, Pittsburgh, Denver, and Portland – all cities with rail-based transit (although Austin is iffy). Columbus’ proposal for the Smart City Challenge is a universal transit card that would interface with COTA buses, ride/car-sharing apps, taxis, etc., with vending kiosks dispersed throughout the city.

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In addition to a universal transit card pilot, Columbus is investing in a BRT-lite system to serve the Linden neighborhood on the city’s northeast side, which was also the focus of my 2015 Community Design Studio at Ohio State. Selfish plug – very excited that the CityLab article mentioned and linked to my personal studio project, and rather than focusing on the specifics (which was not the point) instead discussed the broader hope that the C-MAX BRT project could serve as a catalyst for healthy neighborhood change, concentrating riders at stations that can incubate neighborhood retail and farmer’s markets.

All of this is to show that not all hope is lost if a city can not (or does not want to) do full-blown rail-based transit. It is also great, not to mention highly-appreciated, when CityLab gets it right and uses their muse to highlight actual innovation and hard work. I also appreciated that CityLab opens the article discussing the lives that this is all intended to improve.

CityLab Officially Channeling CAVE: Champions BAN on Historic Districts

Fight with Richard Florida. Check. It’s like a well-known rite of passage for any academic. I have always taken issue with some of the destructive reporting and advocacy at CityLab. One day they’re categorically against public housing authorities (which do a lot of good), the next they’re against all streetcar projects for some reason, and it so happened that over the weekend the new fashionable stance is against historic districts. Not just any one historic district, but you know, ALL of them. Richard Florida then indignantly defended throwing Rust Belt historic preservation under the bus, saying they “aren’t pro or anti city, [but rather just] objective and fact based.” Rather than wait for the other side to get an article, here are my own objective and fact-based responses. Whatever that means.

Their stable of writers remind me of that crazy uncle (in my case, my very own Dad is our family’s crazy uncle) who can’t have nice things, and sees an ulterior motive behind every corner. In other words, Citizens Against Virtually Everything. You just can’t win for trying.

throwing-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater1In fact, CityLab would like to unite with Republicans in Michigan and Wisconsin who according to a twitter exchange I had with the author Kriston Capps, have the “right idea for the wrong reasons.” So there you have it, when Tea Party Republicans aren’t busy regulating water quality in Flint, they’ve got a lazer focus on the housing affordability crisis caused by historic districts. Right. And the splash photo accompanying the article was that of a baby literally being thrown out with the bathwater. (I wish)

In case you doubt that the reputable (supposedly?) people over at CityLab would actually write and subsequently publish this:

Houses, on the other hand, are often poor candidates for historic preservation. This may be a bitter pill to swallow for people who love residential architecture (as I do). Historic homes and neighborhoods can be immensely significant, culturally and architecturally. But houses belong to owners, and in the U.S., the tried-and-true way to build wealth is to acquire real estate. Historic homes, typically gorgeous single-family homes, are often powerful assets.

So when local- and state-government bodies grant preservation status to historic districts—sometimes entire neighborhoods—they do not always simply protect culture, architecture, and history. Sometimes they also shore up wealth, status, and power.

So the charge, so far as I read it, is that insisting on single family zoning of historic homes not only squeezes low income families into a housing problem, but is actually just a conspiracy to “shore up wealth, status, and power.” Also, the author could have pointed to some research on this. That would have lent an understanding of how HP districts work in the Midwest (Michigan, Wisconsin), which is where this article is premised.

Read on…

“How would you feel if you woke up one day and found your house subject to 40 pages of rules and regulations?” said Wisconsin Republican State Senator Frank Lasee in a statement. “Burdensome regulations that require you to get permission from a government committee to improve your house, get approval for paint color, or the style and brand of windows you buy.”

I’m a little shocked by the credence CityLab is lending to this essentially anti-intellectual argument. There aren’t 40 pages of rules telling you what you can and can’t do with your historic home. There is a helpful guide that may or may not be that long, but I assure you that the rules can fit on one sheet. This goes to Richard Florida: I’ve been a long-time supporter, but come on man. If you take yourself seriously, you can’t be the publisher of ignorant CAVE talk. What is this FOX News? Here are the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards, which are mostly just good practice for us all.

Behre reports that Charleston is changing its architectural-review process, which could ease the way for more ambitious growth. Charleston residents aren’t all against the idea. And as his longtime readers know, the people of Charleston bear an authentic interest in architecture; it’s not a front. Still, the same class of argument being levied against cutting-edge campus design is being used to thwart more affordable housing, and that’s a problem. The result is a Charleston elite of increasingly wealthy downtown residents, and an affordable housing crisis for everybody else.

This giant paragraph-long sentence fragment literally blew up my WordPress, but it’s important to get it in here because of how wrong it is. It’s the crucible closing argument in a whole vignette Capps wrote decying Charleston as “a model for how not to do preservation.” Charleston is actually not a model as much as it is a grandfather of the historic preservation movement. I erroneously wrote in this paragraph that the National Trust conference was in Charleston, when it was actually in Savannah – two cities I frequently combine, to be honest. Thanks to Jennifer Bailey for pointing this out, as well as this fun fact of the day: Charleston was actually the first city (1931) to designate its own local historic districts.

I can not actually speak to everything that has ever transpired in Charleston, and if it’s anything like my own hometown or the cities I’ve grown to call home, I certainly can’t defend everything they have ever done. I share Capps’ passion for equitable urban development. Here’s the bottom line: How many low-income accessible jobs are supported by the tourism industry in South Carolina? How many cities, not beaches, in South Carolina have a tourism industry?

I’ll do the research on that, just because it’s not difficult. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that of Charleston’s 331,000 non-farm jobs, Leisure and Hospitality account for 46,000. You can look this stuff up. 46,000, and that’s not even counting all of the services supported by that Leisure and Hospitality industry. Altogether it’s a HUGE opportunity for low-income families where the bread winner may not have a college degree. And it’s made possible by something as annoying as Charleston’s unique historic charm and its resistance to modernity.

I would argue that Charleston IS a model for how TO do preservation: Focus on critical mass, preserving the larger context, and doing something significant enough. Preservation shouldn’t be about saving one landmark here, an old school there, etc. It’s value is in the whole, not the pieces. Few communities have been more successful at turning historic districts with heritage tourism into an economic engine, but something like this exists at a smaller scale in many of our communities, wherever we call home. This type of grassroots economic development is the essence of the patented Main Street Approach.

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National Trust for Historic Preservation Conference Attendees

Read on for the grand hoorah:

That case against historic districting is similar to the case against protectionist single-family zoning anywhere. And the question isn’t just aesthetic, it’s constitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year on “disparate impact” means that wealthy communities cannot keep affordable housing out because wealthy residents feel that they’re better off without it. The federal government’s Affordable Furthering Fair Housing rule means that cities and neighborhoods cannot use single-family zoning to keep affordable housing at bay.

As cities confront the growing nationwide housing crisis, there will be both a need and a market for building more densely, even in the most precious neighborhoods. Historic preservation is a tool better used to protect community assets, not private assets. Historic preservation is a tool better used to safeguard the historical resources in which everyone can take pride—not the historical resources that were only ever allotted to winners by race-based housing policies.

It’s always nice when an author just comes right out and says what he/she really wants to say. While the author didn’t exactly do that, he came close by just spitting out whatever he thought might stick… Supreme Court! Disparate impact! Wealthy communities! Single-family zoning! Nationwide housing crisis! The end [mic drop].

There is indeed a nationwide housing crisis. My generation is saddled with debt, over-educated, and more often than not living at home in the ‘rents basement. I’d be doing that myself if the family basement wasn’t already snagged…by my little brother…so alas, I venture out into the cold in the Rust Belt, where Millennials actually can make it these days. Michigan and Wisconsin are in the Rust Belt, and Michigan is a place I go often. Have even worked on some projects pertaining to its communities and have networked with many of its housing/development/planning professionals. They do good work Up North, and withstand a lot of blows from the Snyder regime. HP has always been under fire with this regime, and generally if Rick Snyder doesn’t like you, you must be doing something right!

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Michigan history is on the downward slide, but don’t worry: “Right idea for the wrong reasons!” -CityLab

One of Snyder’s first actions was eliminating the historic tax credit (which was a blow to every community in the state, esp Detroit), which he then followed-up with a new rule that HUD’s Hardest Hit Funds need not undergo a Section 106 Review. Sec. 106 is a SHPO review process that all federally-funded projects undergo in order to ensure our taxpayer dollars aren’t irreparably leveling cities left and right. We try to keep the wanton destruction to a minimum, but what can ya do? Snyder’s 2nd move was to expedite the extent to which HUD money can be used to dynamite what’s left of Detroit, basically. Now the latest is the proposal to “ban” historic districts, which is really just the hat trick! For you southerners, that means a 3-fer. What-a-deal (if you hate history). I drew the above handy diagram in case the direction of this arc is lost on you.

Furthermore, the article shows zero understanding of how community development in the Midwest works. The assumption is that the wealthy are clinging to their historic homes or moving in en masse, pushing out the poor, and giving us the nationwide affordability crisis.

Actually what is happening is that cities are clinging for dear life, desperate for families to move back, regardless of socioeconomic background. Historic districts in the Midwest aren’t bucolic small towns inside the big cities. In reality they are full of life and diversity. They are the densest parts of Midwestern cities. They are a home for immigrant communities, creative class, young professionals, and minority families – all of whom call each other neighbors. They are what is working amidst a lot of dysfunction in our cities. According to this Fannie Mae report, historic rehabilitation accounts for 50-60% of all construction activity in Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and D.C. It is nearly 80% of what is happening in St. Louis.

As for Detroit, you better go see it now, because if the State of Michigan gets its way, there won’t be much left. In Detroit, historic districts are actually the only stable parts of the city. I would argue that anything that can provide stability in that city is a good thing. According to this article, historic designation has largely kept foreclosures out of historic districts. It has also injected these communities with federal historic tax credit equity, that they are desperately in need of. State tax credit equity was also brought forth by historic designations, before Snyder killed that. It’s not just Detroit, either. This is typical of every large Midwestern city with declining or stable growth. It’s called “asset-based revitalization,” which is the strategy where you work with the people and the building you already got.

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Cass Corridor Neighborhood Development Corporation and Midtown Detroit Inc. are teaming up to rehab several old decades-empty buildings into quality affordable housing, using both federal historic (not possible without historic designation) and low-income housing tax credits. Read about this project and see more photos on MLive.com.

Not only are these Rust Belt historic districts NOT pushing poor people out, they have actually been one of our best strategies to repopulate inner city neighborhoods. In almost every case, these neighborhoods are growing more income-diverse, which is exactly the goal of Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing. Before you cite policy, you might actually want to read the policy. Not only are these neighborhoods attractive for affordable housing projects (I believe in putting affordable housing in good communities, but that’s just me), but oftentimes historic tax credits and low-income housing tax credits work together. In Ohio, Round 15 of Historic Preservation Tax Credits (the most recent) alone made possible $32.5 million in rural affordable housing, where the need is greatest in our state.

During a twitter exchange with the author, I and Belt Magazine asked him where in Michigan have historic districts pushed out the poor? He offered Grand Rapids. Again, Reeeeeeesearch man. It turns out that in Grand Rapids, historic districts are gaining safe, decent, affordable housing in the 100s of units. This article alone cites several concrete examples that combine historic and affordable. I could go on ad nauseum, but instead Let ME Google This For You. In the Midwest we’re big on teaching people (pundits) to fish (research on their own). Wait no, he only meant that Grand Rapids spawned the Michigan GOP. Not sure what that has to do with the price of rice in China, but the more you know!

Many state historic tax credit programs actually have an inclusionary affordable requirement, which is as much as anyone can do to combat the nationwide affordable housing crisis. You can look that up on the Novoco website. In the end, fixing this problem won’t come from finding a panacea. The problems are multi-faceted, and so must be the solution. What is working, ie historic preservation, must be a part of that calculus. Killing historic districts isn’t just throwing the baby out with the bathwater; it’s throwing the bathwater out with the baby.

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Transit-Oriented Development: More about Orientation than Transit or Development

Cities and Solutions Under Assault

Transit Oriented Development, a term coined by Peter Calthorpe in the 1980s, has become a quintessential rallying cry for planners seeking to move American cities forward. Despite near-unanimous consensus on the need to maximize TOD in order to make cities successful, the buzz-wordiness of the notion now has critics claiming everything is TOD. Worse yet, this now has many cities rationalizing whatever it is that they have as “TOD.”

An example of rationalizing: At the OSU Knowlton School of Architecture, we recently had a “Planner’s Panel” on TOD in Columbus. It was a fabulous panel with city planners from Dublin, a remarkably progressive city, our fairly progressive MPO, our downtown SID, etc. For those of you that have been to Columbus and think you’re missing something, you’re not. We don’t have any TOD. But give us 5 minutes, and we will tell you all about how close we are.

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Damned if you do, damned if you don’t: The reality is that TOD has been elusive and “true TOD” still evades even the most progressive communities. (An example of this might be Cleveland’s proposed TOD at the West 25th Red Line station, complete with 555-575 parking spaces. So is it really “true TOD?”) As the concept becomes more shrouded in smoke, many of the more independent thinkers now avoid it altogether for fear of being cliche. Sidebar: I know we’re all looking for the “IT Factor” in how we plan with limited community resources. Usually in business, a good bet is the one everyone is sleeping on or can’t figure out (as long as you can figure it out).

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The iconic St. Charles Streetcar in Uptown NOLA.

One of the more cringeworthy revelations toward this end is Jarrett Walker’s recent assertion that “most urban redevelopment is bus TOD.” Uh yeah, a respected urbanist actually said that. Generally, equity-focused planners (a niche that is historically prone to self-defeatism, in this case perfecting the “deer in the headlights look” with the spread of gentrification along transit routes) have always used their advocacy outlets to dog streetcar projects on any basis that they can (see: CityLab, any articles tagged “streetcar”). They attack and smear struggling cities such as New Orleans that want to harness rail-based transit to turn their situation around (although it seems like unfairly attacking anything New Orleans does is all the rage these days). The worst, perhaps the most dangerous of the mavericktivistsMatthew Yglesias’ VOX screed proclaiming streetcar projects to be categorically “evil.” I am reminded of that time that Hugo Chavez insisted he smelled sulfur after taking the podium following George W. Bush. Pot. Kettle. Black.

264100_2056634249073_2486104_nAnd then, sometimes equity planning’s defense of bus-only transit is downright hilarious. Meet the “Coolest Bus Around.” Why would anyone want a clean, modern, efficient, well-designed LIGHT RAIL when you can have a bus with a hot driver? No? Well you must not get all hormonal when you step onto the typically squalid city bus. You’re just not getting the right contact high when you ride the buses in your town.

Battleground Backyard

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Simply put, modern transit and TOD has become a battleground. Just about everything in urban planning tends to become a battleground, as it’s sometimes hardest to marshal a consensus on projects in our own backyard. We all need to take a deep breath and find ways to move forward on transit. Collectively, holistically, and comprehensively. As a rail advocate, I’m willing to extend the olive branch in agreeing that we must leverage rail corridors to make bus networks more effective. There has to be a place for both. That said, I would rather err on the side of modernity than that of antiquity. ‘Nuff said.

It shouldn’t be bus or rail, zero sum, winner takes all. I understand that’s easy to say when my end goal is just moving the needle a little on rail, however, this isn’t an incremental ploy I’m proposing. I genuinely think with a few small additions of rail, the whole picture for transit can come into focus. With the addition of rail that serves as a “high-frequency spine” that bus routes feed into, with multi-hub corridors that syncs the two transit modes together, American cities can very easily offer premier transit service. It will be those cities – with the ability to make sense of the bigger picture and the combined roles of rail, bus, and cars (maybe even “driverless cars”) – that have the biggest upside in the 21st Century.

If we all take a deep breath on this issue, I’d like to make a new point (I promise not to go all mavericktivist): Transit Oriented Development requires Development Oriented Transit. It goes both ways. Re: “everything is bus TOD.” No, not everything is bus TOD. In fact, bus TOD is almost negligible. It just doesn’t pass the scrutiny of essential nexus. How much development is deliberately oriented toward and not away from a bus stop? There has to be a mutual relationship between the TOD and the transit. When you run public transit as a social service, you limit your TOD to facilities that provide social services. That’s the unfortunate reality, and that’s coming from someone who rides the bus every single day.

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High Street in downtown Columbus is clogged with slow-moving, view-blocking, often-stalled, and smog-billowing buses.

Here in Columbus, efforts to stymie rail planning and transit have been remarkably successful over the last 20 years. Despite countless plans and proposals, Columbus can now lay its claim as the largest city in the nation without passenger rail. Many transit activists attribute some of the city’s development boom to the city’s hyper-concentrated bus service along High Street (served by 6-7 bus lines, with almost all bus routes funneled down High Street through downtown), where development has also been concentrated. Correlation is not causation. The reality is that the occupants of new spaces built along High Street exist in spite of the buses that plague the corridor. Developers are finding creative ways to detach their projects from the surrounding streetscape due to this, and unfortunately, there are no shortage of ways to do this: No street retail, parking podiums, tinted first floor windows, landscape band-aids, plaza/moats, and more.

Here’s a quote from a Columbus Dispatch article three days ago:

Local retail consultant Chris Boring said it is difficult to make retail work on High Street because of bus traffic and the lack of parking.

“The focus needs to shift away from High Street,” he said, even as new multi-use projects on High Street include first-floor storefronts, such as the Day Cos. plans to refurbish three buildings along N. High north of Long Street.

What pains me is the obvious disconnect that I am seeing. We don’t need more transit-resistant development. We don’t need more anti-transit, anti-development, and anti-equity. We need all three of these things to work together and move each other forward. There’s an assumption that retail needs people with fat wallets, whom we all know only show up in cars (I hope not). There’s also an assumption that rail transit is a ploy to create transit just for the rich (because they don’t need transit). Underpinning all of this is an assumption that the two sides can not work together.

That’s the problem we face today. We need to come together, not come apart. That’s where we need to seriously reevaluate how our development AND our transit is oriented.