Newgeography: The Luxury City vs. the Middle Class If you think you noticed this during the boom times, you were most likely not mistaken. In many cities in the US, the city is reserved as the exclusive province of the unattached - those with no children or grown children - who would merely consume the fabulous bounty of consumable goods and services the city would provide. As middle class families leave cities behind, only the poor and the affluent remain.
Newgeography.com: Euroburbia: A Personal View Europe has sprawling suburbs too, despite what romantic urbanists may wish to believe. Social stratification is alive and well for many of the same reasons it is alive and well in America.
After about a 5 year run, blogging about urban planning & development, public transportation and sustainability in Reno primarily but also occasionally Seattle and Las Vegas, it’s time to stop updating The Urban Blog. If you like this blog, you might like a new site I’m working on called Burncards. At Burncards we’ll be covering news, entertainment, technology and more focused around a Reno audience. Our coverage will include urban planning and development issues. Hope to see you there.
This blog has done a lot of data analysis on the transit system in Reno over the years, also plenty of wild speculation when no data was available.
It was good to see the RTC send out some great information as a staff report for their November 9 Public Transit Advisory Committee meeting. This staff report relies heavily on a draft Parsons-Brinkerhoff study of the RTC’s transit services and includes some comparisons to similar sized cities around the country which were contacted as part of the research. This is a great report and of vital interest to anyone who wants to understand the numbers involved in RTC’s transit operations.
If that were not enough, there is more good information available on the RTC Plan 2 Ride website, which is about a short-range transit plan. Seems the RTC is out to find out what kind of transit system the people of the Truckee Meadows really want. This “Transit 101” stuff is useful in helping make sure all the participants in the discussion have been exposed to the same common information.
There is an argument to be found in some internet comments about the gaming market in Reno right now which goes like this: Now is not a good time to build or open new hotels and/or casinos. The reason is that they steal business from existing properties. They make a smaller and shrinking pie divided into smaller pieces percentagewise for everyone.
It’s logical unless you consider something: the effect of competition. The way to grow the size of the pie is to invest. An argument could be made that a more appropriate pie to look at is the pie representing in the total size of investment going in to Reno right now.
One reason why this is a hard argument to make is because there’s another truism in Reno: “gaming is not the future for Reno.” What’s funny is that truism is usually followed up by another one: “we need to attract investment in new industries.”
A good environment for new investment is a good environment for investment – period. It’s an environment where things don’t sit and rot. Imagine that you are the CEO of a company looking to open operations in Reno or an entrepreneur looking to start a new, cutting-edge business there. A good environment for business is a place anybody would be proud to take a business visitor. How do you feel about taking your visitor downtown?
There are plenty of properties right along Virginia Street and within a two-block radius that need some investment. Reno needs to be able to compete not just as a visitor destination for those tourists who are still coming (a market that should still be nurtured) but also for those visitors who are in town with the intent to conduct any legitimate and desirable business. The time for that investment is now.
The RTC of Washoe County today held an Open House to get the public’s input on the future of the regular, fixed-route public transit service they operate. I was unable to make it, being out of town, but I still did some thinking on the subject that when all is said and done, makes for an interesting report.
The first thing I did was think through my “pet” service change regarding bus service in the route 13/19 area (Wells Ave neighborhood and old SE Reno). The second thing I did was build a spreadsheet of the bus routes in town and their usefulness by my measures. See the whole shebang after the jump.
So. The 13/19. Lately I have been of the mindset that the 19 is either the most useful bus in town or the least useful, depending on when you want to ride it. The 13 was much more useful when it ran more than once an hour. The 19 runs on Wells Ave and goes to the airport, the 13 runs for some mystifying reason on the Locust/Kirman couplet and goes, well, as far as I can tell, to Costco. The 19 runs from 6:45 am – 5:45 pm M-F, once an hour. So it is pretty useless, especially for a bus that goes right down a major city arterial. The 13 on the other hand runs from 6 am – midnight 7 days a week, albeit once an hour, though the route it runs seems quite inefficient.
If you pay attention to the happenings in Reno, you’d have to have been hiding under a rock lately to have missed the hubbub over Hot August Nights announcing that they would be kicking off the annual classic car festival in Long Beach, California, ending that kickoff event in a cruise from Southern California, to Tahoe, and finally to Reno; and that they had signed a six year “exclusive” agreement with Long Beach to hold the event there.
HAN’s executive director, Bruce Walter, has maintained all along in the Reno press that the event is not leaving Reno, just branching out to Long Beach to secure additional revenues from the event’s primary feeder market, to help absorb the continually escalating costs of doing business in Reno-Sparks – including paying three different police departments and private security for the privilege of hosting events in Reno, Sparks, and unincorporated Washoe County.
Still, that didn’t do much to calm the furor that erupted when the Los Angeles Business Journal attributed a statement to Walter that the event had signed a six year exclusive agreement to move the event to Long Beach. Walter insists that what he actually said was that Hot August Nights’ exclusive California home would be Long Beach, not that the event would be moving outright.
And that’s all without even touching on the public reaction of many of Reno’s elected and appointed officials, which culminated in Walter being called up before the Reno City Council to explain what’s really going on.
Newspaper and blog comments on the subject range in sentiment from “Screw Hot August Nights!” to “Boy, our incompetent ‘leaders’ really screwed this one up!” but the hyperbole and plain emotional reaction of the commenters is very real and understandable given the tough economic times.
The presence of the hyperbole is the reason this blog decided not to jump to snap conclusions, but rather to let the story play out a little bit, before opining on the subject.
The assessment? HAN should have handled this better from a PR perspective from the start. Making the announcement in Reno that they were looking to expand the event to include another location to secure additional revenues, prior to having a deal signed with Long Beach, would have been a good start.
At the same time, there’s plenty of owning up to go around. RSCVA not having a contract with HAN on the books just as they would with any large conference or the bowling tournaments. Reno, Sparks and Washoe County governments for not working better together to provide a one stop shop for security services for any special event looking to hold functions throughout Reno-Tahoe. (This could be on RSCVA’s head as well, frankly.) Public officials for publicly lashing out in the absence of strong behind-the-scenes relationships with the people in charge of HAN.
At the end of the day, aside from all the shoulda-coulda-woulda and finger pointing, what is to be made of the situation?
First, it remains to be seen and proven whether the additional venue will have a positive or negative impact on the event. In the absence of solid market research, one person’s supposition that it will cause the Reno event to go down in flames is just as flimsy as another’s supposition that it will engender growth for the event and put the event on a more solid financial footing.
But for many of the event’s attendees coming from Southern California, the plan does create quite an opportunity. The proposed group cruise up to Reno from LA promises to be something that the attendees will look forward to all year. The Long Beach event also may well bring in additional participants, revenue and brand equity for the event for those people who have always wanted to, but can never seem to make the trek up to Reno with their cars.
And it’s worth noting at any rate, that Reno’s location is perfect for serving the entire West Coast – not just the people who come from Southern California. Northwest car buffs are closer to Reno than to LA by far, and there is untapped potential in those feeder markets. Same goes for people coming from the east from such places as the Wasatch Front. Bay Area visitors like to make the trek up to Reno-Tahoe as well. RSCVA, and Hot August Nights need to do a better job growing these feeder markets to strengthen the Reno event.
Finally, the public dialogue that was opened up by this sudden and unexpected news can only be a positive for the community. In the face of the nation’s highest unemployment and many consecutive quarters of declining tourism-based revenue, it will not do well to take these important economic drivers for granted. Indeed, taking the strategic partnership with HAN more seriously and getting the long-term commitment to the region in writing will go a long way toward calming everyone’s nerves. And the opportunity for changing the way business is done with special event organizers across the multiple jurisdictions in Reno-Tahoe – moving beyond a direct subsidization model and more in the direction of making it easier, and more affordable to proffer services such as police protection – will have an impact beyond just the one event.
It’s understandable that emotions have run high on the heels of this news. HAN is already controversial and somewhat unpopular with many Renoites, with the additional noise, traffic and exhaust fumes that it brings – and the people of Reno do love them some complainin’. But for all the reasons outlined here, it will be best for cooler heads to prevail. Let’s hope HAN stays – and grows - in Reno for a long time to come.
A few months back, this blog groused after Reno put itself on the hook for more subsidies to the owner of the Reno Aces baseball team, to help get the second phase of the ballpark district project built:
One thing that’s been missing all along – a methodical, programmatic approach, is just one thing. Another thing is the lack of foresight with the allocation of funding resources to projects. Projects sit in the imagination of some plan or official for 25 years or more, and it’s frequently an emergency, or some stroke of luck which allows them to proceed. […] This is one reason to celebrate that Reno is now committed to truly subsidizing the baseball project, the second phase of which is due to begin construction, the developers tell us, any day now.
I still agree with my line of reason there, as draconian as it sounds. (This is not a particularly sunny subject, it turns out.) Which makes all the more dispiriting the news from the RGJ yesterday that Reno is broke and won’t be able to make its million dollar payment to the owners of the Reno Aces due to declining property values downtown. (Reno Comes Up Short In Payments To Reno Aces Owners, Susan Voyles, January 25, 2010)
When this project has hit on hard times before, this blog has often suggested renegotiating in good faith with the baseball developers. The only renegotiations which have occurred have been the kind of renegotiations that result in more money out of the public coffers for the baseball owners, thus far. Which makes this quote from the article galling:
“We cannot renegotiate,” Jerry Katzoff, a partner in the SK Baseball and Nevada Lands LLC companies that bought the baseball team and built the stadium, said of the property tax share, because that was the basis for a bank loan for the project.
According to another RGJ article, (3 Things That Will Change Reno Entertainment in 2010, Jason Kellner, January 22, 2010), the Aces sold 466,000 tickets last year in the inaugural season. Let’s do the math: $1 million / 466,000 = $2.15. Even if attendance were off by over a quarter this year, the average price per ticket to make the payment would be $3. But let’s go back to the original quoted RGJ article: the city does have $290,000 toward its commitment. $710,000 divided by 400,000 = $1.78.
For a price increase of about 2 bucks per ticket, the ballpark developers can pay the bank, the city can keep its team, and everyone, residents and visitors alike, can enjoy the new attractions currently under construction at the ballpark. Problem solved.
Cautionary note to Carson City: former Reno Redevelopment Director Mark Lewis, architect of most of this deal, is the lead consultant on the Nugget Foundation plan to revitalize downtown Carson City to the tune of a public contribution of $40,000,000 dollars, out of – wait for it – that city’s declining tax revenues. The CC Board of Supervisors would be well advised to take a step back and look north 30 miles and see what is happening with deals like this.
And finally, local man Andy Willer, after carrying on about light rail for the past two decades, was given his own commuter train, and told to shut the fuck up today by City Council. Willer was reportedly overwhelmed by the gift, but soon became disenchanted upon learning he had to assemble the whole thing himself.
Today on The Stranger’s blog SLOG, Dominic Holden proposed a course of action to resolve something that’s been afflicting Seattle in the past decade. There, developers and real estate investors will buy old buildings downtown prior to those buildings being listed as historic. The developer or investor at that point will order some changes to the building – usually to the building’s historic facade. After these changes, the building will have no chance of being listed as historic, and the developer or investor can then build a skyscraper full of condos for the affluent urbanite. Holden is ready to throw down the gauntlet and say, “Enough!”
My love for The Stranger, Seattle’s Only Newspaper(tm), is well known to the one or two people who actually read this blog regularly. The reason I like The Stranger so much is that not only do they aggressively cover events, but they also advocate for their own opinion. More people should be out there advocating for their opinions. But, sometimes The Stranger is wrong. This is one of those times.
I can’t fault Holden. What developers have been doing is a pretty lousy trick to pull on people who want to see history preserved. Which makes this case – this particular instance – seem absolutely absurd to use as a gauntlet case. Let’s get into the details of the case:
In August of this year, Holden reported that a building at Eighth Avenue and Lenora Street downtown was having its “very striking terra-cotta cladding skin [which] is surprisingly intact” removed by a workman. In August, at the time of the report, nobody from the owner of the building would claim knowledge of any plans to replace the building with a new development.
First – modifying the facade of a building – especially those in cities – is not something you do just willy nilly. You need a permit. In his original piece Holden contacted the Seattle Department of Planning and Development and found that while distasteful, the actions of the owner were perfectly legal.
Second – Holden would like to see some of downtown’s surface parking lots turned into skyscrapers first. Wouldn’t we all! But in our system of private property and free enterprise, a willing buyer and a willing seller are required parties to any transaction. A few years back, I happened to catch a forum of green/infill/density builders (including Peter Steinbrueck) on TV and one of the participants joked about wishing they could turn those parking lots into something – but no dice, the little old lady in Spokane who owns this parking lot isn’t selling. The audience laughed, but some jokes are a little too close to home.
So… even though it’s unsavory, what the developers are doing to their buildings is perfectly legal. The proposed solution to the problem – use parking lots for this kind of stuff instead – would require powers of eminent domain no American city can hope to have. Maybe it would benefit us to take a step back and ask a few questions.
One – if a building is in candidate status for historic preservation – can the DPD issue permits for changes to its facade? And if so, why?
Two – what makes a building historic? The Stranger doesn’t like cars – they have made no secret of that. So what makes an old car dealership so historic that no more historic buildings like it may be torn down in Seattle from this point forward? Should actual history had to have occurred in a building for it to be deemed historic?
The politically feasible solution would seem to be to make it much harder to get building permits to modify the historically significant details of any building which is a candidate for listing on the historic register. The historic preservation people would actually have to go inside the buildings they are surveying and might be prodded to consider history as something bigger than simply the presence of some terra-cotta facadework from the 1920s. (Though I happen to love terra-cotta facadework from history.) And the developers would be required to prove from an engineering standpoint – if we don’t tear this facade off this building right now it’s going to fall over in the next windstorm! – that the modifications they seek to make are indeed required.
The people who are planning to put up this condo skyscraper for future Yuppies (today we’re calling them… I believe… Generation Y people), are not actually doing anything wrong, and as such don’t deserve to be punished. If permission is denied to build their tower to “punish” them, they might decide to get religious about holding a grudge – and keep their building just up to code enough, keep the taxes current, and let the thing sit vacant and boarded up for how many unforeseen decades.
But more importantly, if we punish people who are not breaking the law then we’re setting a worse precedent yet. We will have taken the funhouse mirror that is the US justice system – where we prosecute people for breaking laws that exist to criminalize activity that harms no one – and bent it around to where we’re also punishing people who are not breaking any laws.
It’s hard to imagine something more absurd. Let this incident serve as the impetus for bringing about a correct and defensible solution to the problem. Things are not nearly out of hand enough for the solution to this problem to emerge from a line drawn arbitrarily in the sand.
The growth in Seattle’s downtown areas over the past few years, even during the worst of the financial crisis, has been remarkable. Two large cities, Seattle and Bellevue, are both forests of cranes and have been for years.
Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood, which was created in an early 20th century hill-flattening, has been given over from a mix of low-slung warehouses and old residences to apartments, condominiums, and corporate headquarters. As Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood prepares for the coming of underground light rail, increased height limits on main street Broadway Ave look to create a new urban canyon.
And yet there is one neighborhood in Seattle that simply can’t catch a break. Pioneer Square, the original Seattle neighborhood, has been well preserved over the years but largely stagnant.
Pioneer Square features a mix of boutiques and art galleries, a subway stop, and plenty of restaurants. At night it is home to a considerable number of nightclubs catering almost exclusively to people from outside the neighborhood – in part because not a lot of people live in Pioneer Square. This lack of regular residents and basic services for the residents who do live in the neighborhood creates a vacuum of the kind of workaday street life that makes a good urban neighborhood feel safe and vibrant.
One of the most famous bookstores on the west coast today, Pioneer Square’s Elliott Bay Book Company, will be moving to Capitol Hill in spring of 2010. This, more than anything else, represents the decline of the neighborhood. Such a close, well-connected neighborhood should not be suffering as Pioneer Square does. Physically, Pioneer Square is in fine shape and is home to many well-maintained, beautiful buildings.
Problems frequently cited with the neighborhood center around a large homeless presence, open drug dealing, rambunctious behavior by partiers, and not enough parking.
Some more law and order certainly would help, but Pioneer Square is an old neighborhood. It has a high concentration of homeless services. It is adjacent to sports stadiums, and features a lot bars and nightclubs. It already possesses a bawdy reputation going back to the turn of the century. In short, perception can be a blessing as well as a curse. With more of its own residents, and more visitors from in-city, Pioneer Square would be able to live beyond its reputation.
Which brings us to the main point – Pioneer Square is inconveniently located. It is at the bottom of a hill, in a part of town without plentiful parking. While it has a subway stop, for years before the light rail opened the tunnel closed at 7 pm and wasn’t even open on Sundays. It would be interesting to see if more people have visited from South Seattle neighborhoods conveniently located to light rail since the line opened. When access opens to Capitol Hill and the U-District in 2016, Pioneer Square may hit a sweet spot of being very convenient both to live and to visit for people who don’t want or need a car.
What should happen between now and then? Probably the best thing that could happen, is for people in Seattle who care about the neighborhood to find ways to visit and patronize the businesses in daytime and early evening hours. These are the hours when a lack of legitimate users will kill any hope a neighborhood has of feeling “normal”. The city should get serious about putting more cops on the street with a focus on after dark hours.
Pioneer Square may also want to try non-sports related special events on summer days and evenings when no sporting events are scheduled. Occidental Ave is a natural to be given over to street fairs, and some side streets could be narrowed, with wider sidewalks encouraging cafes and restaurants with outdoor seating.
Finding ways to bring Seattleites in regularly is what it will take to build the kind of critical mass that will keep Pioneer Square viable. Seattle’s founding neighborhood deserves no less.
The ever bullish on sprawl Professor Wendell Cox likes to write articles that call out those urban areas which have enacted policies to encourage density and reduce sprawl. A recent example is his piece The Infrastructure Canard where he unpacks the popular notion that private developers never really pay their way in terms of infrastructure costs. The cost of providing infrastructure for far-flung developments is in fact often held up as a reason why infill development would be more cost effective. And Cox makes a few good points.
The fact is, suburban developers frequently put in all the infrastructure of their subdivisions during the initial construction phase. Today they are also often required to pay impact fees on top of that, and they are required to set aside land for parks, open spaces, and schools. Debunking myths like these is a great service and I for one am thankful that Cox bothers to do it. Which makes it all the more infuriating when he trots out his own canards, usually invoking the word “Portland” or sometimes “Seattle” or “California” to do it, that slag on dense, urban development as driving up housing costs in those areas that try it – while at the same time creating greater traffic problems and worse air pollution.
Given my 13 years of up close and personal experience with Seattle, whenever I read this kind of boneheaded nonsense, it’s always galling. So I’d like to rebut Cox’s claim that:
Destroying Housing Affordability in the United States: In the United States, compact development polices have also increased house prices. For example, even after hitting bottom earlier this year, house prices in compact development markets such as California, Seattle and Portland remained as much as twice as expensive related to income than in less strongly regulated markets. The annual US infrastructure savings suggested in the Costs of Sprawl – 2000 are so small that they would pay less than one-third of the excess higher annual mortgage payments in California attributable to compact development (Note).
In Seattle, within city limits and within the central Puget Sound region including Seattle’s immediate suburbs, the problem that is causing higher prices is not the policies having to do with reducing sprawl. The Seattle-Tacoma-Everett metropolitan area, home to some 4 million souls, sprawls for over 60 miles along the I-5 corridor – and sprawls for up to 20 miles eastward along various east-west highway corridors such as I-90 and SR-520.
Within this 1200 square mile metropolitan area, a variety of housing at a variety of price points can be found, suitable to just about any income. Location, however, is a different matter entirely.
In a market, price is determined by the two competing factors, supply and demand. The City of Seattle is about as landlocked as any city, being surrounded on nearly all sides by water. Seattle is expensive because it is desirable. For every expensive charming old house in a charming old neighborhood in Seattle, there are 5 houses 30 to 40 miles out of town selling for way less. In an affluent area that makes its money on education, medical research, software development, and aircraft manufacture, it can be fairly easily shown that people who can choose based on factors other than price will choose what they desire – and old houses in old neighborhoods are desirable.
All things being equal, this would be an acceptable solution. However, the only way in and out of most of the affordable places is via the private automobile. Far from being an anti-automobile missive, this piece serves to remind that the history of auto-oriented development makes a pretty compelling case that as more lanes are added, more traffic congestion will emerge to fill those additional lanes. There is a physical limit to the number of vehicles which can be moved per hour per mile of a highway lane. Most people who drive are not driving with the intent of optimizing traffic flow, they are in a hurry and want others to get out of their way. Gridlock is the natural result.
The reward awaiting those who shop based on price and square footage, is a legendarily long commute of hours a day wasted fuming inside an individual climate controlled box on wheels. Were the level of subsidy for effective high capacity mass transit anywhere near equal that of highways in the Seattle area, these long commutes would be made via transit. People would still own cars. They would use the right tool for the job, as far as their transportation choices are concerned. It is the regional infrastructure that suffers from suburban development, not the infrastructure of an individual development. As people drive 30 and 40 miles one way, twice a day, 5 days a week, they impact the infrastructure of the areas they drive through – infrastructure they are not paying for.
While no fan of sprawl as a phenomenon, I have accepted that population growth and constraints on supply of more desirable in-city housing will always lead to sprawl, no matter what efforts are undertaken by governments to control it. As the owner of a detached single family residence, I can attest to the fact that people like houses. But house prices in old city neighborhoods are higher relative to their suburban counterparts due to desirability. That hardly any developer is making new grid system towns which have the characteristics that will evolve into desirable old city neighborhoods over time is what is driving up prices in many metro areas.
Are urban growth boundaries the answer to the problem of sprawl? The jury is still out on that one, but probably not. By the same token, neither is limitless sprawl the solution to expensive housing in more desirable neighborhoods. Sprawl that genuinely mimics the character and form of the desirable neighborhoods, and is connected to major destinations by effective transit, would seem to be the solution.
Cox is using red herrings to convince us that people actually want what is on offer from suburban developments. A closer analysis will reveal that when people can choose based on factors that are important to them, the situation is not so cut and dried. The reality of the situation is that people are taking what they can get – not necessarily what they want.