Friday, May 29, 2015

The Rise of the Parklet

A new and innovative urban design solution looking for a problem is underway in many cities from San Francisco to Philadelphia—the parklet. They have also found a place in Brazil and elsewhere. They are nothing more than taking back the street from the car, one parking stall at a time.

This all started (or so claimed) in 2005 when a San Francisco design company took over a parking stall (by feeding the meters all day) and installing a pop-up park with maybe 176 square feet of sod, benches, and boxed trees. From this radical event it grew nationally until 2010 when San Francisco completed its first permanent parklet (and accompanying manuals, guidelines, and nascent bureaucracy). A revolution began and cities nationwide began exploring opportunities in their downtowns and high traffic areas.

This was not without some concern by local businesses afraid to lose that one stall right in front of their door. But cities used an interesting tactic; if the business (usually a coffee shop or deli) was willing to “own” the parklet, they could use it to expand their customer seats and directly affect their bottom line. Some businesses have even offered to pay for the upgrades and improvements. Costs can run all over the place, from remedial projects that cost $15,000 to sophisticated parklets that can run two or three times that amount. Actually there is no limited to cost, only the imagination.

The visual impact on the street depends on the design, the more vertical the better. The most critical design control is the street itself. To be a legitimate parklet, the street paving and drainage remains intact. To start removing asphalt and realigning curbs changes the result to a sidewalk improvement not a parklet. The goal is to be cost effective while also dramatically changing the streets look and add to the pedestrian’s experience. Amenities have included planter boxes, pots filled with annual color, tables and chairs, benches, trellises, shade screens—the list is almost endless.

Some are sleek and modern, others funky and very, very temporary looking, some have used salvage bins with a bench crafted into the side, others have used shipping containers (cut-in windows and doors). One was offered as a mini-golf course. Their primary reason is to increase and expand the pedestrian use of the street.

During the last hundred years the automobile has increasingly demand more and more of the right of way. Wider lanes, bike lanes, on street delivery zones, higher and higher parking rates, it has been a constant war between motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians. And the car is winning—for now.

The climate on the West Coast and the South favors the permanent installations of parklets. In snowy regions greater concern is warranted and may require more temporary parklet solutions that get setup each spring and removed in the fall. One distracted snowplow operator can do a lot of damage.

The urban street a tough place. So much going on, so much to offer, so much to lose. The more we can enliven and “activate” the sidewalk and storefronts, the better the downtown.

Stay Tuned . . . . . . .

Saturday, May 16, 2015

City of Light, City of Magic

Terminal Tower - Cleveland
A week ago I was in the bleeding heart of the pejoratively named ‘Rust Belt’ of America, Cleveland. It had been many years since I spent any time in this once great industrial city. In fact the last time I was in Cleveland’s downtown was to pick up my marriage license at city hall (Nixon was president then). Much has sadly gone wrong for this city in the intervening forty plus years, and in most instances these wrongs also happened to Toledo, Youngstown, Detroit and the other manufacturing cities that border the Great Lakes.

Dozens of books and magazine articles have tried to figure out what went wrong. We need someone to blame—but right now the why is irrelevant. During the next decade it is how the future is imagined and then executed that it important. Cleveland has everything going for it: great interstate connections, affordable housing, reasonable climate (I am a climate wimp living in California), wonderful waterfront potential, spectacular cultural institutions and museums, high quality and respected colleges and universities. All it’s missing is a vital and strong downtown core.

Peripheral development is strong (especially on the suburban west side). In fact one of the most exciting new town developments Crocker Park (GO HERE) is expanding with new condominiums and apartments. But as happens, none of this outer ring development helps the traditional regional core, if anything is sucks the heart out of the urban center.

Much is changing in Cleveland’s downtown but much more needs to be done. A dramatic remodel to its four block Public Square is under construction next to the Terminal Tower rail, casino, and retail complex (don’t get me started on the casino that’s located in the old Higbee’s retail building directly across from this remodeled park). But it is the five block-sized open city parking lots smack in the center of the downtown that show the tougher side of the current urban condition. While a new city park would be delightful—twenty thousand new employees would be better.

The Arcade - Cleveland
While at Kent State in the late 1960s I purchased a used camera at a shop that was in the city’s landmark historical complex, The Arcade. This complex on Euclid is a jewel and for its more than 125 years been an important architectural part of the downtown. Built during the time of nineteenth century arcades and enclosed retail complexes it is a smaller reminder of Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II and Naples’ Galleria Umberto I. Today, it is still loved by the owners (in excellent condition) but not by many others. When the prime tenant on the ground floor is a fitness center, well, you get my point. It sits there waiting for the revolution.

There are now incredible public facilities downtown that have been built during the last twenty years, the Cavaliers play at the Quicken Loans Arena, the Indians at Progressive Field (The Jake), and the Browns have their new stadium where the old baseball and football field (Cleveland Stadium) stood for more than half a century (and it’s a lot nicer than the new 49’s stadium—just saying). And next door, on the meager waterfront, sits the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (worth visiting).

It is a city that has fought its reputation as an industrial dump celebrated by Randy Newman’s song Burn On.  

But times have changed, you can fish in that once cesspool of a river, Lake Erie is cleaner now than in a hundred years, and there is something finally beginning to happen downtown. But so much more has to be done and these changes must be dramatic and obvious in order to bring people back downtown. More housing, more businesses, more of just about everything. Time will help but this all begs the question about the future of big downtown core cities and whether there is a future for the urban model. That discussion is for later.

Stay Tuned . . . . . . . .

Friday, April 17, 2015

200 Blog Posts and Still Writing

This week’s blog is the 200th post I’ve cobbled together since starting this whole blogging thing on June 23, 2010. It is hard to believe that almost five years have elapsed. My father, a journalist in one of his many past lives, said (paraphrasing), “See, the work of a weekly columnist is hard—it’s almost impossible finding something pithy to say every week.” I can’t disagree, some weeks I get nothing. But, here we are another week and another post. A toast—to my post.

My little burg, Walnut Creek, California is exploding. On a per acre basis there is more development and construction happening in this town than most Bay Area communities can even dream of.

The "New" Broadway Plaza
Currently there are more than a 1000 apartments under construction within and around the city center. There are also numerous projects in the final stages of planning and approval within this same envelope. Soon a massive retail and housing complex at the regional BART transit station, after years of planning, “may” get underway. In the secondary ring, one to two miles out, even more is under construction – case in point a new Safeway retail complex. So much is under construction the city is considering taking a breath and slowing down the approval process.

One of the largest retail projects in the region is the rehabilitation and remodeling of the Macerich Broadway Plaza retail center. This is a $250 million dollar facelift with up to 300,000 square feet of new retail, restaurants, and commercial uses. This will also include new multi-level parking garages and more than 800 new parking stalls. When completed this overall retail mix will be one of the Bay Area’s finest (and toniest) retail destinations.

The city itself recently approved and funded almost a half million dollars worth of downtown improvements. These will include pedestrian upgrades, weekly food and social events, parklets (the new urban fad), and signage and supporting marketing banners.

Every city's, no matter how large or small, greatest concern should be its brand. We all know what happens when this is neglected and falls apart, look at the Detroit brand and the Oakland brand. In fact, look at the whole “rust belt.” It take years, if ever, to recover from a failed urban brand. It is critical that the politicals within a community support in every way they can the developers who are building the housing, the retail, and the commercial uses. Their job is to keep the public side looking good and provide a safe welcoming environment. It takes very few miscues in these days of instant communication to destroy years of hard work.

Here is to looking at 200 more blog posts. There is still much to write about considering the strange world of electric cars, the California train to nowhere, silly urban planning, and the always interesting housing market.

Stay Tuned . . . . . . . .

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

What a pickle we’re in here in California (and the western United States for that matter). The rest of the country overlooks their own various plagues, hurricanes, tornados, politicians, and ridiculous winters to chastise us for our drought. As if we caused it ourselves. Well, maybe there has been a small contribution. We have grown exponentially during the past fifty years from about twenty million people in the early 1970s to over 38.8 million today. Even though the rate of growth has slowed during the last few years it is projected to reach 50 million people by 2050. And more than half of these Californians will live in the lower quarter of the state from San Diego to Ventura, which is fundamentally desert. Even if this growth were reversed (see Oklahoma in the 1930s), the problem of water supply/use would not change.

In the thirty years since the publication of Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, the problems of the state have only worsened. This post isn’t about the past, there are more than enough books, articles, speeches, and failed policies to show that we have done little to prepare for something that we knew would happen. Droughts come and go, but people don’t. The state will continue to grow – now we must deal with it. Wishing otherwise is simplistic and foolish.

There is one problem – supply, there are three basic responses: conservation, increase supply, reclamation.

Conservation is usually the easiest politically to impose. The effects are almost immediate. Reduce the flow of water through the spigot (usually annoying the user who must wait to fill a pan or a sink – and still eventually use the same amount of water), reduce the flow in toilets (resulting in filthier toilet bowls), and reduce water used for the garden. We call it irrigation here in the west; in the east it’s sprinklers – same issue. If there is one serious change that is starting to become socially acceptable is the removal of lawns and replacing them with more drought tolerant landscapes. All of these will have a dramatic impact on use – while there still is water.

Everyone hopes that next winter will be the one that changes everything – a winter of decent rainfall. The past four years have progressively gotten worse, less water each year. And the type of water (rain/snow) is even more to the problem. Agriculture uses more than 80% of the water in the state and much of this comes from reservoirs that store the snowmelt of the Sierras. This is the fundamental problem, warmer winters mean more rain than snow and less spring melt. This leads to deeper water wells in the Central Valley as the well water is drawn down. Some stories say that in some aquifers they are pumping prehistoric water that is hundreds of thousands years old – talk about draining your bank account.
We can increase the supply of water by:
Towing icebergs from the Arctic,
Buying water from Canada and shipping it in pipelines (kind of like Keystone?),
Building desalination plants on the coast and convert an endless supply of ocean water into potable water (expensive – see Coleridge header above),
Converting idle supertankers to carry water and fill them in Siberia or some other place with a surplus water supply (the environmentalists will go bonkers over many of these, I’m sure),

Most probably the better fix is appropriate water use. I am now required in some of my development projects (especially in the San Jose/Santa Clara County region) to use grey water to irrigate the landscape. This is because the people of that region put up the bonds to build the new infrastructure to take their processed and cleaned effluent and reuse it within the county. Normally this processed water is discharged into the environment through spray fields, creeks, deep-water outfalls (San Francisco), and other non-productive systems. When they discovered they could sell this processed water, a lot changed. This is a very expensive no-brainer. To distribute water back into the residential market requires millions if not billions of dollars in pipes, pumps, and new residential plumbing systems. Will people support this type of cost remains to be seen and how desperate we become?

Unquestionably the most controversial will be the direct injection of this treated water into the potable water supply, we are a long way from this eventuality but two or three years more of profound drought will force many changes in our water use.

Stay Tuned . . . . . . .

Friday, March 27, 2015

Why Is It Always Texas – Part 2

Prime Real Estate
An article in The Atlantic got me thinking (again) about why Texas is such a draw.  Both Houston and Dallas added more than 100,000 people during the 2013-2014 timeframe and not far behind in growth was Austin. After this past winter in the eastern Midwest and the Eastern seaboard it is a very good bet that this trend will continue. Throw in the insane politics of many of these areas and the best investment during the next few years may be in moving companies.

There was a time when California held this honor of being the prime destination of Easterners (as a kid in the sixties I remember the Beach Boys, Little Duce Coups, Haight-Ashbury, Jefferson Airplane, California Dreaming, all that stuff). Now they are fleeing. No water, a democratic political machine everything political, no smoking yet marijuana yes campaigns, did I say no water, 100 billion dollar trains to nowhere, taxes through the roof, rents the highest in the world, home prices along the sacred 50 mile Pacific edge totally unaffordable (can’t wait to sell and get that equity – which is a whole other market strategy), and did I mention no water. Yes, California may have absolutely fantastic weather but it hardly makes up for the idiots that now run this state. It was remarkably different when we moved here in the early seventies – very different.

But, back to Texas. Americans, as we get older like warmer weather, just ask my back. I assume that there are many in Boston that are glad the aerobic exercise of snow shoveling has lost its allure and fondly think of warmer climes – at least with a January temperatures over “frost-bite.” Time magazine published an article by Tyler Cowen in late 2013 that sums up many of the reasons why Texas is the thing and America’s future (for good or bad).

While there are a lot of issues such as automation and the impacts on the middle-class that are driving people to Texas, it is jobs and inexpensive housing that are the greatest draws. Housing is less expensive in Texas and not by a small amount of money. On average you can buy a lot more house for a lot less money than in California, New York and almost anywhere in the Northeast. A home in the San Francisco Bay area is impossible for under $600,000 and the same in New York. The same house on a larger lot in a nice community in the Houston area is $200,000. That leaves a lot of money for other things. And it’s not due to lower incomes, in all stats after living expenses, the average middle-class Texan is wealthier than their social equals in New York and Coastal California. Did I mention Texas also has no income tax.

Texas is the complete opposite of California. From economics, politics, governmental expectations, income taxes, and a much smaller government, they are dramatically different.

One reason I suspect that people are heading to Texas is because it is NOT like where they live now. Americans (at one time) wanted independence and freedom more than anything. They were told to head west, they fled the confines of the cities and all the ills found there, they wanted safety and they wanted to be fundamentally left alone. Nanny laws were anathemas, but we sucked it up. We rationalized everything, accepted everything—after all we are flexible and optimistic. But, there are still some who want to be left alone and many of them are heading to Texas.

Stay Tuned . . . . . . .