Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Random Thoughts on Caffeine and Sustainability

Location, Location, and Starbucks
At the end of last month a news report floated across the multiple levels of the news industry, “When a Starbucks Moves Into a Neighborhood, Values Rise.” Fascinating to say the least, scary to say the most. Simply put the further away from a Starbucks coffee shop the lower your home’s value (Click Here)

Back in my urban planning days designing retail centers and neighborhood strip malls for my developer clients, the mantra was: “Get me a Starbucks!” Without a doubt the most important (and busy) person in retail was and is the regional forward planner for Starbucks. Having a Starbucks in your retail center was like a super sized magnet attractive all manner of retailers and businesses. It could and would literally make your deal. I wonder how many developers took their tentative lease agreement to the bank; it was probably as good as a negotiable bond.

This also led to a number of books on the effects of the appearance of coffee shops in the urban fabric. Called “third places,” they have become social centers, meeting places, Craigslist drops, offices, writer’s nooks, and places to safely escape. The other two places were home and work.

So now Starbucks is helping to drive the housing industry, which of course validates all that wonky urban design theory flashed about fifteen years ago about needing to put mini-retail centers in residential neighborhoods. Many tried and many failed due primarily to the lack of decent business plans, cheap rents, and of course customers. I guess all they really needed was a Starbucks.
(Full disclosure: I do own Starbucks stock, I have visited a Starbucks in the last 24 hours, and I am writing this with a cup of Keurig pod coffee, Starbucks ‘House Blend’ in a very nice cup to my right).

Words, Words, Words
During the last few years so many new words have been dropped on society one begins to wonder about their real meaning. The current list includes (but not limited to): sustainability (corollary ‘Green Growth’), organic, green (‘Green Chic’), carbon footprint (and its corollaries ‘cookprint’ and Carbon Neutral), locavore, green roofs, and of course Greenhouse Effect.

And to my way of thinking much of this is environmental self aggrandizing marketing and baloney. The all-encompassing term is sustainability. The simple practice of insuring what we humans do is not terminal for us and/or the planet. All the other terms seems to graduate from this basic term, a term  that will have a hundred definitions if you ask a hundred people. A lack of definition allows for the mongrelization of the word and complete loss of meaning, and that is where we are now with all these terms. One can grow quite paranoid and itchy if they try to live up to the requirements of being a locavore (eating food produced locally – of course determined by someone else), and worrying about their carbon footprint while driving to a Whole Foods in a Prius imported from Japan. But they can be comforted knowing that the plastic in the Prius is:
In constructing the Prius, Toyota used a new range of plant-derived ecological bioplastics, made out of cellulose derived from wood or grass instead of petroleum. The two principal crops used are kenaf and ramie. Kenaf is a member of the hibiscus family, a relative to cotton and okra; ramie, commonly known as China grass, is a member of the nettle family and one of the strongest natural fibres, with a density and absorbency comparable to flax. Toyota says this is a particularly timely breakthrough for plant-based eco-plastics because 2009 is the United Nations’ International Year of Natural Fibres, which spotlights kenaf and ramie among others. (Wikipedia)

Now doesn’t that just make you all warm and fuzzy? And how is this sustainable when the products are shipped thousands of miles to the end user, who still puts gasoline in the damn thing. As with most elements in this social/political discussion it is about appearances - not reality. There is a term used by the environmental industry (make no mistake it is an industry) that defines those using these buzzwords for their own evil capitalistic ends as “greenwashing.” One can quite easily use the term define the federal grant needy environmental movement as greenwashed itself.

And by the way most of the fuel (coffee and tea) that runs modern civilization comes from Brazil, Vietnam (2nd largest grower), Columbia and Central America, and Indonesia. Now how sustainable is that?

One more bit of silliness. It was reported that some environmentalists were concerned that Boston would willfully pollute the harbor and Charles River by dumping its snow directly into the surrounding ocean. Maybe it can barged to California where we need it and besides what’s going to happen when it melts anyway. Just saying.

Stay tuned . . . . . . . .

Friday, January 30, 2015

Housing, Are You Confused Too?

If there is one thing that is not lacking these days are stats on housing. Yesterday it was reported that pending home sales dropped in December – which of course in the middle of winter says that the market is softening. GO HERE 

Words like moribund, decline, and hope are thrown about. And even though there was an slight uptick in new single-family homes, the overall growth for the year was just 1.2%. Hardly a turn around in an industry that is faced with monumental problems. Many of which are started in Washington D.C.

Housing sales, new and existing, face a number of serious obstacles. The largest may be the student debt load carried by many of those under thirty. Tens of thousands of dollars of debt will make qualifying almost impossible. And then there is the issue of the down payment, and even with parents helping, banks are hesitant to loan out money to single people (an increasing demographic stat), young couples with little or no money in the bank, and debt. Even though the average interest rate on a 30-year fixed is 3.66% it means nothing if the bank tells you, “You are not qualified.” Any surges in home loans at the moment seems to be a result of refinancing – not outright home purchasing.

Maybe it is because the young homebuyer is getting smarter. The markets on the coasts (New York Metro to Washington D.C. and Northern California) are just crazy with affordability the least important issue – these are sellers markets at the moment and the Millennials can afford to sit on the sidelines. Once they are locked into a decent apartment the need for a house lessens – for now. And in many markets the only housing under construction is apartments

There is the usual push by Washington to mess with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and take their profits and push them into funds that can be used to dole out favors to states and other bodies to build low-income housing and rehab existing. GO HERE  

All this completes in the overall housing market making it unprofitable for your average merchant builder to compete in the affordable home market – so they don’t. It is not worth the effort. If there is one area where there is little competition to keep pricing down or competitive it is the affordable home market and the non-profits that drive the market. Next time you see Jimmy Carter swinging a hammer tell him thanks.

Keep in mind that the mortgage market is controlled by the federal government and through their various agencies almost all housing development is controlled by Washington through grants, Freddie and Fannie, affordable housing trust funds, and housing finance laws and banking regulations. Makes you all warm and fuzzie about markets, capitalism, and the plight of the homebuilder.

And lastly housing affordability has hit a six year low. GO HERE 

This past June the average mortgage payment represented 16.3% of a household’s income (except on the Coasts where it has to be at least twice that). The dream of a your own home for many under 35 is becoming just that – a dream.

Stay Tuned . . . . . . .

Saturday, January 17, 2015


I came across these on Facebook posts and thought you might get a kick out Fibonacci, algorithms, and graphics. Seems that nature also has inherent algorithms in its genetic codes that also express themselves in flowers and who knows what else....

And again how Aaron Renn finds these I just don't know.......

Paris and New York
Paris and London

The new trend in urban videos is split screens - very cool. And for a reminder of the most exciting event last year in San Francisco . . . . .

Stay Tuned for a Great New Year . . . . . . .

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

The past year has brought many new and exciting events to the world of development. The opening of the Freedom Tower in New York, a significant change in housing markets, and a substantial increase in real estate valuations (naming just a few). Interest rates are low (fixed at 2.99%!) and the numbers of new homes is slowly growing (which is a good thing). Now if San Francisco could figure out a way to act responsibly when it comes to meeting the needs of its new residents, all the better.

I realize that I have slacked a bit from the weekly musings of the past few years, now they are every two or three weeks. It is both a measure of what interests me and time.  There is always much to comment on, but sometimes we come down to the realization that people/governments will do what they do, often without rhyme or reason. The continuing development of High Speed Rail in California for one. There are so many reasons and rationales to shut it down, yet here we go just pushing forward with 19th century technology. Makes you wonder if anyone is listening.

I have been very blessed with good friends and associates over the past few years that do get it and live accordingly. Dinner conversations are a delight with friends these days, what more could one ask for.

I am, as you might have guessed, a brilliant author of thrillers and novels (see left and right columns). During the next six months I will be publishing three new novels: a new Sharon O'Mara thriller Diamonds For Death, a new character and series staring Tony Alfano - Chicago detective in 1933 (called Chicago Swing), and a World War II novel that begins in Chicago and ends on the day of the liberation of Paris, This Face of Evil. I will keep you abreast of the schedules and availability.

But for now I have a Christmas present to all of you Kindle owners (and Kindle software Apps as well), for the next two weeks all the Sharon O'Mara books are available for $0.99, each. So for the price of a Starbucks moca-frapacino, you can own 280,000 words (four books) of the greatest facilitator the Bay Area has ever known. You will love her.

Many changes are coming this year: learning about social security, new ways too publish, discovering why the dry cleaner keeps shrinking my dress slacks, and who knows what else. Thank you for being loyal readers and friends.

So have a wonderful holiday, a special Christmas, most especially a prosperous New Year.

and . . . . . Stay Tuned

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

John A. and John M. Sobrato - Builders of Silicon Valley

The Sobratos
Years ago, in the ancient pre-tech and pre-Jobs era of the late 1970s and 1980s, I had the opportunity to work on a lot of projects in the early orchard-clearing days of the Silicon Valley. I was involved in the design of retail centers, the first high-density housing (2 story garden apartment walk-ups), the first high tech campuses, and later some of the first new high-rise commercial buildings.

A leader in this new form of development – the build-to-suit manufacturing/research/office complex was a gentleman from San Francisco, John A. Sobrato. For a kid working in one of the Bay Area’s premier landscape and planning offices it was a kick and a fantastic learning experience. The firm, Guzzardo and Associates, handled anything and everything – but large scale planning was the most exciting.

John Sobrato was a close friend of the owner and my boss Tony Guzzardo and over the years allowed me to peek into the early exotic and exciting world of high technology in the South Bay. These were the days of hundred of acre campuses, of one-story office/research buildings that sprawled across the region from Milpitas to Sunnyvale, and the growth that has pushed the region to the top of the world. And if there was a ground zero it was Cupertino - Sobrato's office was just blocks from Apple GHQ. In time (and for some with the Sobrato's help) the home to Apple, Sun Micro Systems, HP, and hundreds of other small companies.

This short video interviewing the Sobratos was produced by THE REGISTRY   

Click Video or URL Below

The model is changing, in fact has changed. And it is good to see that the Sobrato’s have changed with it.

Stay Tuned . . . . . . .