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 . . . . . . . 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Little Boxes Stacked Neatly in Piles

Mission Rock, San Francisco
If there is one thing the world is not short of these days is shipping containers. I even wrote a thriller about them a few years back. They are the most ubiquitous “thing” of the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Originally it was an idea of Malcom McLean to use standardized boxes to carry goods from one port to another (first ship was his Ideal X) 

The idea wasn’t exactly new but it was McLean and his personal drive that made it change the world. Everything that has to deal with international cargo changed that day—April 26, 1956—when the Ideal X sailed from New York to Houston, everything. Ship designs grew to incredible sizes and demands. Whole railroad systems were redesigned to handle the containers (they would be stacked higher if existing railroad tunnels were taller). Los Angeles built a below grade railroad “river” from Long Beach out of the LA basin. Freeways are now being widened to handle the influx at ports and at gateways around port cities (Altamont Pass in eastern SF/Oakland Bay Area). Shipping channels are dug deeper every ten years to accommodate these massive ships. Even the Panama Canal is being widened to allow for better east-west trade by the bigger ships (with very significant changes to international trade as a result). There are 5-6 millions of these boxes moving around the world at any one time (probably more). As many as 10,000 fall in to the oceans every year (yes, the rumors of running shoes on the beaches of Oregon are true).

So, what about architecture? These boxes are designed to be stacked up to 12 high on board a container ship (with appropriate rail supports), on land they are usually maxed out a 7 boxes high. These boxes normally come in three basic sizes, but the variations seem to be endless. The basic unit is 8-foot wide by 8’-6” high and 20 feet long. They can also be 40 feet long and 56 feet long (and a world of other sizes as well). They are steel frames with corrugated panel sides. They are dry, refrigerated, some air tight and sealed, others barely hold themselves together after few years of use. Guesses are there are maybe 17 million plus around the world on ships, rails, stacked in piles, and in backyards. Who would have thought of all this in 1956?

Now back to architecture. Wikipedia lists at least 40 things you can do with these structures, everything from housing foundations to Starbucks stores.   Their use is only limited by imagination—even cost of rehab is not an issue. Remember, we are saving the planet. Back in the 1960s Moshe Safdie designed his famous Habitat 67 in Montreal; while that was all precast bocks of concrete, one can easily see the transition to shipping containers. 
Habitat 67 - Montreal
The latest idea is what the San Francisco Giants are doing in the Mission Rock area of the city – a pop-up shipping container village with restaurants, bars, and shops in one of the city’s most exciting revitalized neighborhoods. And it is also directly across McCovy Cove from AT&T Ballpark (the home to our World Series champs). It is also an opportunity to tune up the city for the Giants long-term development project on this same piece of land.

Last week I wrote about shopping malls, here is an example of a temporary mall built after the tragic Christchurch, New Zealand earthquake in 2011.
Christchurch, New Zealand
Temporary Mall, Christchurch, New Zealand
This is not the first nor will it be the last container town. I imagine in some third world cities there are whole villages of these boxes. Even refugee camps (this one in Turkey for Syrians). 
Konteynir Refugee Camp, Turkey
They are trying to survive; we are just trying to be chic.

Stay tuned . . . . . . . .