If “everyone” were moving back to the city, would you?

“That would depend on what you mean by ‘everyone’ and ‘the city,’ of course.”

Liberties Walk, Philadelphia

Recently, Kaid Benfield linked over to my recent post about “peak sprawl”, tying that phenomenon to broader changes in the housing market. I always have more to say on this particular topic, but this particularly stood out for me: those Boomers who look down their noses and sniff “you’ll undoubtedly grow up and move away (because that’s what I did)” refuse to understand that it really is quantitatively different this time. In an RCLCO market survey, “31 percent of Millennials prefer a ‘core city’… it is twice the portion of the preceding generation when polled at the same age.” As quality of life — crime, traffic, pollution, etc. — has undoubtedly improved markedly in cities and declined in suburbs, the city grows comparatively more attractive.

What’s more, young people aren’t just saying this — they’re acting upon these tastes. Over at Planetizen, Michael Lewyn points to statistics showing that cities are doing a much better job today of attracting young people. Yes, young people have traditionally moved to cities — back in the 1970s, 20-somethings were the only age group with positive net migration into many central cities — but not at anywhere near the rates that we’re seeing today. As a proportion of population, youth in-migration into SF has doubled since the 1970s, into NYC has tripled, and into DC has increased twenty-fold.

A lot of national wags love to dismiss DC as a “ boomtown” overfed by a compliant (if not “tyrannical,” etc. etc. etc.) federal government, but that takes far too reductionist a view of the region’s economy. Population growth in this region was not appreciably different between the shrinking/reinventing-government ’90s and the metastasizing-security-state ’00s: 16.3% in the ’90s and 16.4% in the ’00s. More recently, another shift in government spending has similarly had no effect: in 2013, the city lost 6,000 federal jobs (the region has lost federal jobs every month since October 2011) but continued to see Texas-sized population growth.

The difference is not how much growth, but where that growth happens: DC’s suburbs saw their population growth rate drop by 10.6% from the ’90s to the ’00s, whereas DC’s population growth rate skyrocketed by 6700%. It’s the same number of people, but going to different destinations. The same pattern is true nationally, and in both fast- and slow-growing metros.

Cities are capturing not just a large proportion, but an increasing proportion, of the largest generation in American history (and, Lewyn also points out, limiting their out-migration losses among older generations as well). The result isn’t just a momentary fad, it’s a large-scale migration with far-reaching consequences. The 1970s “back to the city movement” of young urbanites, so familiar from Woody Allen and David Mamet narratives, were so few in number that they could all crowd into the Upper West Side, Lincoln Park, and North Beach — whereas today’s young urbanites now threaten to disrupt entire cities.

What’s more, two other interacting shifts in lifestyles have vastly expanded the market for urban housing catering to younger Americans. Even if one makes the (increasingly tenuous) assumption that urban rental housing is only for those brief years between college and childbirth, and that “everyone” needs to move to distant suburbs for child-rearing purposes:

1. Ever-later marriages: the average age at first marriage has risen 5.5 years since 1960. Whereas 80% of young adults aged 25-34 were married in 1960, today only 46% are. The inherent flexibility of urban areas’ smaller housing units means that they can do a better job of accommodating the growing number of non-family households.

2. The ever-expanding universe of single householders: from 15.1% of households in 1960 to 26.7% today (easily outnumbering married couples with children by about 4:3). Thanks to Eric Klinenberg, this phenomenon has been better documented lately — but discussions around housing still center around the needs of families rather than of all households. (More on that in upcoming posts.)

Those who discount the second point ignore, at their peril, the rise of pluralism within the worldview of the first generation raised after “the death of the meta-narrative.” The mass market, epitomized by giant corporations like Sears or the Big Three TV networks, has splintered into myriad fragments. Increased acceptance of diversity and globalization mean that there’s no longer one right way of doing something, or living one’s life; instead, multiple viewpoints are equally valid. Even in religious matters, young Americans are much more likely than older Americans to say that there are multiple valid perspectives. “It’s all good” carries a more profound meaning than “I’m alright;” it also means “I’m good, you’re good.”

Some of society’s fragments may find the good life in cities, others may prefer suburbs, but to posit that “everyone” eventually will choose the same suburban nuclear-family lifestyle is a dangerously simplistic (and, in my eyes, almost offensively heteronormative) characterization. And in the meantime, the physical form that can best adapt to fragmentation and change is walkable urbanism.

As often happens in these discussions, the definitional problem of where to draw “the city line” also rears its head. Yesterday’s delineation between “suburb and city” makes little difference in today’s metro-centric discussions, where the real distinction is between sprawl and urbane, or “drivable suburbia” and “walkable urban places.”

Pictured: Philadelphia is one of many central cities where young people are not just a large proportion, but also a growing proportion, of central city residents. Its increase in attractiveness to young people is incalculable, since it went from net outmigration in the 1970s to substantial net inmigration in the 2000s.

Could the great inversion also invert the Great School Question?

In “The End of the Suburbs,”* Leigh Gallagher notes that a negative feedback loop is starting to occur in many suburbs:

“The aging of the suburbs is changing the political conversation in many municipalities as well; as older voters become the most powerful base, tax revenue will increasingly get allocated away from schools and toward resources for seniors… The more taxpayer revenue gets allocated away from schools, the more the schools will suffer, and once schools and services for young families start to suffer, those young families will choose to live elsewhere.” (pg. 150)

In other contexts, I’ve called this the Schools Death Spiral or the Florida Conundrum (after a state where it’s a longtime fixture of local politics), but it turns out that it has a proper scholarly citation: James Poterba first described this intergenerational conflict over education spending like so:

“an increase in the fraction of elderly residents in a jurisdiction is associated with a significant reduction in per child educational spending. This reduction is particularly large when the elderly residents and the school-age population are from different racial groups.”

When combined with the thin, residence-heavy tax bases of many outer suburbs, rising demands for senior services, and for services for poor families, could quickly strain many towns — at the same time that urban school reform has started to pay off.

Very far from Florida, David Peterson in the STrib (via Jim Kumon at Strong Towns) notes that towns outside the Twin Cities have already seen a huge population shift: “In the suburbs, meanwhile, [research analyst Jane Tigan of St. Paul’s Wilder Research] reported, the number with seniors rose by nearly 15,000, as those with children flatlined — part of a massive demographic role reversal.”

* Gallagher made this point during this cogent discussion on KCRW’s “To the Point”. There was also a fascinating qualitative perspective about 21st century suburbia, from having Kathy Knapp (“ American Unexceptionalism“) on the panel: “recent suburban fiction overturns the values of individualism, private property ownership, and competition… [their suburban] setting no longer characterized by stasis, but by flux.”

This old New Urbanist hand was somewhat heartwarmed that Gallagher does understandably exempt streetcar suburbs from her book title’s prediction of doom, quoting Jonathan Rose on page 203: “The good news is, we have the model. We don’t need to reinvent it. We know it. The model is Shaker Heights, Ohio, and Garden City New York, and Stamford, Connecticut. The model is the streetcar.” Besides, Gallagher’s formative experience of urbanism was in the thriving streetcar suburb of Media, Pennsylvania.

Said prediction of doom, anyhow, is tempered pretty immediately (page 7): “when I talk about the ‘end of the suburbs,’ I do not mean to suggest that all suburban communities are going to vaporize… ‘The heyday of exurbs may well be behind us,’ [Robert Shiller] has said. ‘Suburban prices may not recover in our lifetime.’ “

How Vienna voted itself better, cheaper housing

Christopher Bonanos, in New York magazine’s recent “welcome, Mayor DeBlasio” package, highlights several housing production strategies that could both increase the desperately short supply of housing. Doing so isn’t just the only reliable way to break the price spiral, but several of the tactics provide the city with enough leverage to ensure that the units that it does build (not nearly as many as suspected) better address the city’s workforce housing needs. Building on city-owned parcels like the Javits Center or infilling NYCHA’s parking lots, and sharpening inclusionary incentives to push more workforce and fewer luxury units, might involve political hardball but offer rich rewards.

Anyhow, the idea that the city should take a more aggressive stance on housing production reminded me of the lasting legacy of Red Vienna:

Promised, delivered
[Wall poster by Victor Theodor Slama, 1927. In 1923, the SPD government promised Vienna 25,000 houses; it built 32,000 and many public facilities like kindergartens. Many of the future promises are results of additional housing construction.]

Last year, I wrote a report with classmate Priya Desai [full document] about the aggressive housing construction program implemented by the Social Democratic government of Vienna between the world wars. The Gemeinde Wien program was probably the most aggressive urban renewal program implemented by a democratically elected government during the 20th century — and a lasting success that still provides decent, walkable housing for hundreds of thousands.

Reumann-Hof
[Reumann-Hof along Margaretenguertel, the first large Gemeinde Wien building. See more photos...]

Vienna’s government had neither the developable land nor the patience to continue to address its housing crisis in such a piecemeal fashion (Blau 1999, 154). Further suburban expansion was impossible within a city-state covering just 150 square miles — about the size and population of the present-day City of Philadelphia, but also squeezing a greenbelt within its bounds — and hemmed in on all sides by a hostile province. Meanwhile, city leaders were under great pressure to rapidly expand the scope and speed of their housing development strategy. Doing so would simultaneously address the city’s housing crisis, improve living conditions and social services for vulnerable populations, and boost employment and industrial production from their depressed postwar levels. The city also sought to center its vast new housing estates around communal recreation, health, and education facilities, hoping to raise a new generation of socialist Viennese and freeing urban women from toiling on the land. These new facilities could uplift and unify what were poor and haphazardly built quarters at the edges of the city, reversing the imperial government’s long-time development focus on the splendid central city (167)…

Red Vienna’s success was a triumph of democracy. A city stripped of its empire, with a population on the brink of starvation, mustered its own strengths to accomplish a public works project of historic scope. The Gemeindebauten they built not only met Vienna’s pressing housing challenges; they have left a durable legacy in the city’s physical and social landscape. Today, the Gemeindebauten anchor stable, sanitary, service-rich urban neighborhoods that complement Vienna’s historic core, all of which are wrapped by an intact metropolitan greenbelt. In the course of rapidly building hundreds of Gemeindebauten, the city unerringly kept its focus on efficiently empowering the masses through sanitary housing rather than remaking the city in some idealized socialist image. The pragmatic adaptations to its housing construction program incorporated lessons learned along the way, from the early shift to high-density Gemeindebauten to the later expansion of apartment sizes.

Today, Vienna’s social housing programs house about 500,000 Viennese, about 30% of the entire city population in more than 2,000 housing developments around the city (Wohnservice Wien, 2012). The original vision of Red Vienna extended beyond simply re-housing and reshaping a city but into its everyday social life: “to enrich life through design, and achieve a sense of community through shared kitchens and nurseries, integrating the domestic and the social” (Fiel 2012). As the Social Democrats subtly intended, the Gemeindebauten have indeed socialized generations of Viennese with its ideology: the party has swept every single municipal election ever since.

It was Dan Solomon’s book, wherein he credits the Gemeindebauten with inspiring his intricate affordable housing blocks in California, which first piqued my curiosity about the history of humane housing projects in cities like Vienna and Hong Kong. If there’s one city in the United States which can leverage resources towards building mass housing, and where the term “public housing” isn’t irreparably tainted, it’s New York City. NYC wouldn’t be able to implement Vienna’s demand-side solution of a steeply tiered housing tax that breaks private landlords overnight, but it does have the power to implement various supply side solutions. Getting into the construction game might give the city an incentive to finally tackle unnecessarily high construction costs. Keeping control of land in the hands of public entities, land trusts or limited-equity coops, CDCs, or new L3Cs (low-profit corporations) can ensure that housing serves locals and remains permanently affordable — of all cities, surely NYC can structure financial innovations that can match yield-hungry, tax-shy investors to the steady rent checks (if limited capital appreciation) afforded by non-volatile, low-vacancy workforce housing.

There are plenty of tools, and plenty of examples throughout history, where cities acting alone have built their way out of a housing crisis. The question’s now how, it’s if our mayors have the same will.

* That depends on how democratic one views elections in cities like Singapore [photo], or some in the eastern bloc, which also underwent extensive urban renewal in the postwar years, but it’s a sharp contrast to the renewal of Paris, for instance.

Sprawl’s inflection point was 20 years ago

Sprawl is slowing

According to the USDA’s 2010 National Resources Inventory, which tracks land use with satellite imaging surveys, the inflection point for suburban sprawl peaked in the mid-1990s, just as “smart growth” emerged onto the national scene — and before the giant housing bubble showered suburbs with seemingly limitless sums of capital. It’s been slowing ever since then, even though metro population growth moderated only slightly (see graphs on page 3). (Interestingly, non-metro population growth [including distant exurbs] in the 2000s fell much faster than metro population growth.)

It’s interesting that the slowdown in sprawl, like the slowdown in mall construction, presaged “peak car.” The directionality might be backwards: the 1980s cessation of massive freeway construction may have pushed many metro areas into some version of Marchetti’s Wall, whose daily-travel-time maximum creates a geometric limit for autocentric growth at the edge. Edge Cities, by relocating commercial uses into the inner suburbs, could only extend the outward trend so far; with a few notable examples, attempts at building Edge Cities in outer-ring suburbs has largely failed, since there’s no meaningful centrality amidst the undifferentiated masses of one-acre lots. Second-generation Edge Cities rarely thrived, because without new beltways there just wasn’t the population base to feed them.

To this day,* 80% of the office market in metro DC is within three miles of the Beltway. Joel Garreau wrote that in the late 1980s, Til Hazel “had major projects at half the exits on Interstate 66 from the Beltway to… Manassas,” but ultimately, that future didn’t pan out (with Reston-Herndon as the notable exception that proves the rule). Even in metro Boston, which uniquely among its East Coast brethren actually built an outer beltway, 73% of the office market is within the urban core or inner ring, and the urban core commands per-foot prices more than twice as high.

If you consider that the area of a circle grows with the square of its radius, a slowdown in the areas developed for sprawl would imply a much steeper decrease in the radius of metro expansion. This could imply another overlooked factor in the slowdown in VMT growth: since metro areas are no longer getting geometrically wider, thus distances between metro-area destinations are no longer growing as fast. As growth recentralizes, VMT can be expected to decline further. (A majority of the VMT benefits from central locations come from the fact that car trips are shorter; a minority of the befits come from a switch to other modes.)

* Using Cassidy Turley‘s submarket definitions.

Can we definitively identify a trend yet?

even in Phoenix!

Even in many of the capitals of sprawl, the free market is clearly demonstrating that sprawl has fallen from favor. These regions may not be seeing a turning point, where suburban growth plateaus (not shrinks, since their overall regions continue to grow) and where urbanism begins to account for most growth, but they have reached their inflection point: when sprawl’s gallop slows down, and when cities stopped shrinking as quickly. This seems like a small point, but humans feel such changes. A roller coaster is always moving forward, but at vastly different speeds; the thrill comes from the G-forces applied when the acceleration increases or decreases.

What’s most interesting about these examples is that they’re not locations where transit accounts for a substantial share of local trips. Even in an era of flat energy prices and even in the absence of good alternatives, the market is choosing car-light locations (where people at least have the choice to drive less) over car-dependent locations.

  • Phoenix: “In this down cycle, we were really trying to find some unique opportunities,” [David Kitnick, Rosewood Homes president] said. “After the collapse, you had to have a compelling reason to buy a new home. It didn’t make sense for us to just build more homes in suburbia. Those weren’t selling.” – Catherine Reagor and Kara G. Morrison writing in the Arizona Republic
  • New Jersey: Suburban office space has been ailing for some time as companies downsize, more employees work from home and much of the Millennial generation opts to live and work in urban cores with access to public transportation. New Jersey, where Mack-Cali has a strong focus, has been especially hurt by corporate downsizing, particularly in pharmaceuticals and telecommunications. “Companies are doing more with less, putting more people in lesser amounts of space,” Mr. Hersh said. “There’s still a need for office space. It’s just not what it was.” Analysts are more blunt. “Suburban office is probably one of the worst real-estate businesses there is,” said Michael Knott, a managing director with Green Street Advisors, a real-estate research firm. “We think apartments are a better market.” – Dawn Wotapka writing in the Wall Street Journal. On the other end of New Jersey, suburban Philadelphia’s largest publicly traded landlord is now also Center City’s largest: Brandywine Realty Trust’s 2013 growth strategy (from the 2012 annual report) is to “Increase urban, multimodal town center exposure; reduce commodity, suburban product.” Not only does that mean building office towers downtown (and largely exiting New Jersey), it also means retrofitting retail to make its existing suburban office compound in Radnor slightly more walkable.
  • Houston: The [Rice University Kinder Institute for Urban Research]’s annual survey of Houston-area residents last year found that half the residents of Harris County, of which Houston is part, would prefer to live “in an area with a mix of development, including homes, shops and restaurants” as opposed to a “single-family residential area.” Even if you look at the farthest parts of the metro region—the nine counties surrounding Harris County—more than 40 percent of residents prefer the mixed-use option… “the challenge today is not in finding residents who want to live in more compact, urbanized communities, but in building places across the region that can accommodate them.” – Ryan Holeywell writing in Governing
  • Atlanta: Metropolitan Atlanta, long a symbol of car-dependent American sprawl, has recently passed a threshold where a majority of its new construction spending is now focused in high-density, “walkable” parts of town… “[I]t’s a pretty significant sea change in how we build the country. The country’s going to look fundamentally different over the next generation than it has over the past two generations,” [says Chris Leinberger] – Emily Badger in The Atlantic Cities; in contrast, under-investing in walkable places suppresses future economic growth by making the metro area less efficient and less productive. In Streetsblog, Angie Schmitt notes that the same study found that the workers with the most choices seek out walkability: 27% of knowledge workers live on 0.88% of the region’s land area.

One vision for a Southwest DC that could have been

Arthur Goodwillie’s proposal for retaining the rowhouse fabric and infilling block interiors with courtyard apartments was rejected, not really due to cost but primarily due to complexity. Instead, the federal government built garden apartments in places like Arlington (WAMU story; NR nomination [PDF])

Goodwillie Plan for SW: contrast existing and proposed

[More images: closer look at redevelopment scheme | closer look at existing conditions survey | existing structures for entire Southwest neighborhood | historical material about the Capitol Park redevelopment project subsequently built on the site in question, courtesy CP II Condominium Association]

The following excerpts are from “The rehabilitation of Southwest Washington as a war housing measure : a memorandum to the Federal Home Loan Bank Board,” by Arthur Goodwillie, January 2, 1942 [LOC catalog record], a never-implemented plan for selective demolition and infill in the area subsequently cleared and redeveloped as Capitol Park. For further background, I recommend Christian James’ website about the redevelopment and Studio 27′s presentation (& book).

(Pg. 7.) The war effort should be so organized as to avoid unnecessary damage to the important peace-time values which in part — it must be remembered — we are seeking to defend. If it can be carried forward so that subordinate but highly important economic and social values will also flow from it — as by-products — then failure so to develop it is both shortsighted and indefensible.

The production of standard war housing in areas where only obsolete structures and vacant city lots now exist, as recommended in this memorandum, will also (a) eliminate — without direct cost — large slum and blighted areas; (b) restore value to much substandard Class “B” residential real estate; (c) lessen the post-war impact of new war housing on Class “B” property value and mortgage security; (d) reduce the volume of uneconomic suburban development and the costly duplication of schools, streets, utilities, etc.; (e) help stabilize the declining municipal tax base and put to productive use much unproductive, municipally owned real estate, acquired through the enforcement of tax liens; (f) provide local housing authorities with many units to offer as “equivalent elimination”; and (g) set up a large reserve of standard but low cost housing, for post-war rental to low income families, at rent levels that will reflect little or no subsidy.

(Pg. 16-19.) The population is relatively stable. A study made some years ago among white residents of Southwest Washington developed the fact that of the 10,658 persons interviewed, 9981 wanted to continue living there. The recently completed nine block Bank Board survey, on which the following report is based, showed that about 80% of the negro population has lived in the district for 5 or more years.

Present construction within the Area consists largely of two story, brick, row houses, two and three rooms deep, among which is interspersed a smaller number of frame structures of the same general type.

HOUSING PROBLEM
Although it extends to within three blocks of the Capitol of the United States, structural, economic and social conditions in the Area are shameful. Though basically sound, the brick structures of the post Civil War period are almost uniformly substandard… Interspersed among these brick dwellings is a considerable number of older frame houses. The latter are in a lamentable state of repair, dangerous, unhealthful, vermin and rat infested. They constitute a serious fire, safety and health hazard and should be demolished, as a slum clearance measure, at an early date.

Block interiors contain over 300 substandard alley dwellings, or are used as storage spaces for the miscellaneous accumulations of an indigent population. Moral and health conditions in many of these insanitary, unheated houses are deplorable. Fortunately, their use for residential purposes after 1944 is prohibited by law.

The Area, however, has many valuable assets. Were modern housing available, it would be an ideal residential location for the tens of thousands of persons who are employed in adjacent governmental Establishments, Departments and Agencies.

Streets are wide and well shaded. Water, light and sewer mains, sidewalks and pavements are in place, paid for and well maintained. Side by side with decrepit frame structures are some 2900 substandard but basically sound brick buildings, usually in rows, virtually all of which can be saved and are well worth saving. Vacant perimeter lots, vacant block interiors and land on which now stand decrepit frame structures, which should be demolished as a slum clearance measure, provide sites for an additional 5000 dwelling units. This is a total of about 8000 units for the Area, without over-crowding.*

Block interiors are unusually large and offer a unique opportunity for development as open green commons and play spaces, abutting on the new construction referred to above. Along the entire western margin of Southwest Washington is the recently developed Washington Channel waterfront. [Adequate schools, settlement houses, and churches.]

An exceedingly difficult questions which now confronts most established residential communities — whether they are depressed or not — is how to supply necessary large additions to available neighborhood recreation spaces. Adequate park provisions is not a problem in Southwest Washington, since the “Canal Reservation,” a public park which will provide ample playground facilities for the adjacent residential section, lies along the entire eastern border of the Area. Because it occupies a wedge-shaped tract between the Pennsylvania Railroad and Washington Channel, through traffic problems are also virtually non-existent.

The statement that there is a dangerously increasing housing shortage in Washington will be accepted without debate…

Pg. 53. The considerable saving in site cost [due to the low cost of land in Project block interiors] has all been allocated to new construction. If, as seems equitable, it were prorated between (a) the cost of projected new dwelling units and (b) the cost of rehabilitated units — the the over-all cost for reconditioned structures would be reduced to $725 per room** or to about 54% of that for new construction in similar areas elsewhere.

* In 2000, the Census counted 7,487 dwelling units in a comparable area, post-redevelopment, although with more office employment areas.
** emphasis in original

N & Union Streets

Mud becomes concrete: Washington Channel’s history, told through maps

This semester, I’m taking a Natural Resources class through Virginia Tech about understanding local watersheds, wherein I’ll be researching and posting knowledge about the Washington Channel. You can explore the other watersheds that my classmates are investigating over at the class blog’s page.

In this installment, I’ll take a closer look at how the channel came to be a (sort of) discrete watercourse, to provide some context for later posts about today’s land and water quality. Other posts can be found using the tag watershed.

From Montreal to Providence to Trenton to Richmond, many of the East Coast’s great cities arose astride the “fall line,” an imaginary line along which its many rivers tumble from shallow rapids in the hills to slow, wide, sometimes brackish coastal estuaries. In an ocean-going era, such a location ensured easy access for oceangoing commercial boats, fresh river water, produce from farms upriver and fisheries downriver, and later to water power from the rapids or waterfalls alongside — all without the considerable downside of a coastal location’s vulnerability to frequent Atlantic storms.

Spillway
[Minneapolis, built astride the falls of the Mississippi, could be considered the most interior of the East Coast's fall line cities.]

Washington, D.C. is among these fall line cities, and its constant attempts to reshape the Potomac River’s banks also show the vulnerabilities that fall line geology also brings. Above Washington, the Potomac speeds through a narrow gorge, tumbling over its majestic Great Falls and past the high bluffs of wealthy towns like McLean, Potomac, and Georgetown. At Washington, three flows of water conjoin: the slower and broader Potomac, Atlantic seawater that tides pull all the way up the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac estuary (with tides rising to 3.5′), and several surface flows. The comparatively flat topography of the L’Enfant City results from it resting upon a “shelf” of sediment brought there by the Potomac over time. This 1861 bird’s-eye view map by John Bachmann (from the Boston Public Library collection) plays up the topography, dramatically showing how the character of the Potomac valley changes at Washington:

Bird's eye view of part of Maryland, Distr of Columbia and part of Virginia

Several surface flows join the Potomac at Washington, notably the Anacostia River, Rock Creek, and Four Mile Run, but also several streams that have since been buried like Tiber Creek and James Creek. (David Ramos has compiled an impressive map of these buried streams.) From the very beginning of the city in 1790, plans were made to tame these streams for human uses like shipping. A map from the 1790s, drawn by John Russell, shows how city fathers, Pierre L’Enfant among them, conceived a system of drainage improvements. These canals were straightened channels based upon the east-west Tiber Creek and the north-south James Creek, both arising roughly where Garfield Park is today at the foot of the Capitol. The map also shows the outlines of the deeper, more easily navigable channels within the mostly shallow Potomac:

Plan of the city of Washington[...]

This idealized 1852 view, published by E. Sachse, illustrates the canals in an improbable shade of blue:

Shortly after Washington was founded, the Potomac’s plentiful sediment became a problem for the growing city. Land clearance for forestry and farming upriver combined with increasing levels of urban pollution dumped into local surface waters, making the water noxiously polluted — particularly during low tide, when pollution festered in exposed tidal marshes. The insalubrious tidal marshes at the mouth of Tiber Creek, beginning at the foot of the White House, appear to have given rise to the widespread myth that “Washington was built on a swamp.” The marshes are visible in these digital reconstructions of the 1791 shoreline:

Then and now: Washington Channel

Original and present shorelines of Potomac Park

The sediment buildup also threatened the city’s access to maritime trade. Given the marshes along the Tiber, the new city’s only shoreline adjacent to a deepwater channel within the Potomac was along its southwest waterfront. Wharves sprang up along Maine Ave. SW, landing fish and ferries that went to Alexandria and points beyond. In this process, this shore gradually urbanized and gained a “coat of armor” as buildings crept up to the water’s edge, as shown in this 1883 drawing by A. Sachse:

Private property owners’ interventions to shape the shoreline would soon be dwarfed by Congressional plans, particularly as the sediment threatened the relatively deep channel fronting Southwest’s wharves. Engineers (notably Peter Conover Hains) from what would become the Army Corps saw an opportunity to tame the city’s shoreline, preventing severe floods like that of 1881 from reaching the city’s core. Meanwhile, planners saw the potential for new parks — simultaneously adding land to the capital of a fast-industrializing country, meeting a post-Civil War national zeal for commemorative monuments, and providing Washington with a vast expanse of parks at its doorstep (as the fin-de-siecle era’s vogue the City Beautiful demanded).

This 1888 map by E. Kurtz Johnson depicts an early “cloverleaf” plan by Hains for filling in much of the Tidal Basin area, leaving a series of small pools that would be used to flush a new Washington Channel downstream:

In 1901, the City Beautiful reached its apogee here in Washington with the McMillan Plan. Shortly thereafter, the canonical birds-eye view of Washington had shifted 270 degrees; instead of placing the Capitol dome front and center with the filthy Potomac River in the distance, now bird’s-eye views proudly showed off the carefully sculpted shoreline, with its large and scenic Tidal Basin, an urban shoreline for the Washington Channel, and probably many more trees in Potomac Park than existed at the time (1916, drawn by H. H. Green):

Many of these maps courtesy of the Historic Print & Map Company, via DC Vote’s archive of Washington, DC, Historical Maps; high-res PDF versions can be downloaded there. Others were drawn from a Washington Post Magazine feature by Scott W. Berg, featuring mapping work done by architect Don Hawkins and Dan Bailey/UMBC Imaging Research Center.

Shorts: getting to the office, and its implications for developers

1. Jonathan O’Connell asks, “With no office tenants and no financing, is the Southwest Waterfront redevelopment in trouble?”

The trouble they’ve had in raising capital underscores the importance of a good phasing strategy. The Wharf needs to start with a big bang for both top line and bottom line reasons:
- the retail won’t pay out without a critical mass of activity on the site; indeed, the 140K sq. ft. proposed for Phase 1 is at the low end for a viable lifestyle center
- the large amount of underground infrastructure (two levels of parking, new seawall, parks) that must be built before the first building pays out would be cost-prohibitive for a smaller project.

2. Earlier from O’Connell, a sign of how much the local market has embraced urbanism (with almost none of this space receiving local subsidies):

Of the 5.5 million square feet of office space under construction in the region, about 4.6 million of it, or 84 percent isn’t just near a Metro station but within a quarter mile of one, according to data from Jones Lang LaSalle, CoStar Group and Delta Associates.

The trouble is that each one of these buildings feeds off of Metro’s positive externality of greater access, but any one building can only make a relatively small contribution towards that transit infrastructure. Even the BIDs and special taxing authorities set up around most of these WUPs focus primarily on low-cost, high-return placemaking projects rather than the much more expensive, long-term work of buliding value with transit. Meanwhile, buildings that attempt a greater level of infrastructure investment, like those at the Wharf, can’t get the running start that they need. Areas with that transit infrastructure in place thus have an edge over those where it remains (and, given scarce funds, will likely still remain) to be built.

Some have taken this to mean that retrofitting suburbia will be necessarily be too expensive a proposition to be economically feasible. On that point, I only half-agree: there are a few cities, primarily in the Rust Belt, where intact and high-quality urbanism is cheap enough to feasibly redevelop. Yet with a growing population — America’s population will grow by about 140 million between 2000-2050, nearly matching the entire 1950 population of 150 million — that’s now concentrated in an entirely different set of cities, retrofitting may well prove to be the cheaper alternative.

3. Michael Andersen in the Green Lane Project notes that it isn’t just Metro access that moves office space:

Kathy Card, the general manager of two office buildings in DC’s fast-changing Chinatown, said last week that she doesn’t ride a bike herself. But watching traffic at the bikeshare station at 8th and H, she said, has convinced her that some of H Street’s four auto travel lanes and two parking lanes should be repurposed for protected bike lanes. Dedicated bike infrastructure is what’s needed, Card said, to help her buildings appeal to the private-sector firms she’s marketing to. “There’s plenty of ability to put bike lanes in,” Card said last week. “Obviously the demand is there.”

4. So perhaps it’s only appropriate that the latest MoveDC plans, leaked via DCBAC, floats the idea of cycletracks on just about every arterial in the city: Independence, Constitution, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Florida, Bladensburg, Minnesota, Alabama, N Capitol, S Capitol, U, 9th, 14th, etc. — oh, and a bike bridge to Alexandria, too.

5. A generation ago, Joel Garreau wrote in “Edge City” about how one axiom shaped everything about suburban office parks: four car parking spaces per thousand feet of office. Yet today, both numerator and denominator have changed beyond all recognition: the cars are gone and the offices are smaller. As reported by Laura Kusisto, the conversion of Brooklyn’s vast Watchtower printing plant into loft offices proposes a bike parking ratio of 8.3 bikes per 1000′ of office. The resulting indoor garage will house 5,000 bikes — 15-16X larger than dedicated bike stations in Chicago or Santa Monica, and undoubtedly as a result requiring special accommodations like ramps. It would be interesting to know whether bike parking is a way to soak up the dark space in the middle of the floors (that would be convenient) or if they’re warehoused in a basement.

6. Besides, who ever uses that much car parking at their suburban offices? Even the car lobby (!) would rather have cute farmers markets than parking lots:

Think where, not what, for best results with TOD (BRT or otherwise)

Transit oriented, but...
North America’s largest BRT system somehow isn’t a poster child for TOD.

1. Transit belongs on streets, with the people.

A recent ITDP report made a big splash about transit oriented development, some of which has happened along busways. Some media outlets, e.g., Eric Jaffe in The Atlantic Cities correctly reported the report’s amply demonstrated finding, explained over 56 pages, that good TOD outcomes depend on a lot of “necessary but, in and of themselves, insufficient” pro-development policy factors: comprehensive plans, small area plans, capital investment plans, housing investment, institutional support, a favorable regional economy, and a favorable sub-regional economy.

That last factor is presented curiously absent any discussion of the micro-level geography of the land immediately adjacent to the transit line. Together, though, these factors essentially boils down to the old real-estate adage of “location, location, location” — and seem to explain much of the difference between the different case studies’ different TOD outcomes. In fact, just the urban pattern along the route appears to perfectly* correlate** with the observed TOD outcome via their odd metric of “dollars of development per dollar of transit investment” (see this spreadsheet for details).

The best mass transit alignments go where the mass of people are: connecting a downtown to a strong and promising midtown, along an established mixed-use urban street level corridor. Transit ROWs in highways, freight RR corridors, etc., almost universally perform poorly at generating TOD.

* The one exception is Phoenix, which has weathered an economic depression since its light-rail opened.

** This thesis could be empirically tested through GIS analysis, as well (looking at block sizes, parcel sizes, or land use mix adjacent to the transit lines), but I’ll leave that to someone else. Aggregating data from that many cities takes more time and computing power than I can spare now.

2. The report’s fundamental flaw, and what it didn’t say (regardless of what you’ve heard).

Okay, now a pointed criticism of the report and subsequent reporting. Sadly, many other media outlets fell for a much more simplistic reading of the report, zeroing in solely on the report’s unsubstantiated, and actually never clearly stated, claim that buses are a superior value to trains in spurring TOD. The “dollars of development per dollar of transit investment” metric relies entirely on hearsay for both its numerator and denominator, rendering it useless. The footnotes mention an attempt to standardize the cost figure (denominator), but not the numerator, and ultimately local transit agencies got to define both figures as they pleased.

Euclid at PlayHouse Square
Besides hospitals, much of the purported TOD along the HealthLine consists of major investments in downtown, where rail transit is also available, and substantial capital improvements at Cleveland State University just outside downtown.

This results in a table that compares the incomparable. Many headlines have focused on how the Cleveland HealthLine handily bests all contenders on that particular chart. I haven’t found an updated breakdown of the “$5.8 billion in TOD” since the initial 2009 Plain Dealer tabulation (yet the figure keeps growing), but half of what the PD counted consisted of hospital, university, and museum buildings that were completed or planned before the HealthLine opened. In the PD’s reckoning, over $1B of the purported TOD benefit of the HealthLine stems from major expansion projects just at the Cleveland Clinic, which certainly would have happened regardless of transit. Correlation is not causation, and transit advocates of any stripe don’t do themselves any favors by ignoring this most basic rule of social science.

parking deck
Pretty uninspiring to call this BRT-OD. The BRT runs in a trench just to the left.

East Liberty is an equally puzzling case study to profile: much of the development “credited” to the BRT happened decades after the BRT opened, some is auto-oriented to traffic sewers running through the neighborhood, and much of it exists just because the old streetcar hub of East Liberty was the only reasonably flat site for big-box retail in the middle of Pittsburgh’s hilly East End. And Pittsburgh was careful to build equally isolated rapid transit lines to the west (BRT) and south (LRT) sides, neither of which spurred any TOD because they didn’t reach promising “midtown” nodes. (Neither did the East Busway, really, until the Oakland-Shadyside midtown spread north to touch said busway.)

The same chart also most definitely does not deem BRT a better investment than rail, as the Portland & Seattle streetcars do very well on the same chart. The report also clearly states that transit service quality, as judged by their “BRT Standard,” seems to have little to do with the quantity of TOD spurred. And yes, I consider myself relatively mode-agnostic, and curious enough about BRT to specifically travel to Ottawa, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh to take the BRT photos above.

3. Counting hospital spending is particularly disingenuous

Cleveland doesn’t even lay claim to the largest transit-adjacent medical investment in the country. New Orleans has $2B in new replacement hospitals under construction vaguely near a streetcar line, and Dallas also has $2B in new hospitals under construction next to a circa-2000 commuter rail station. I certainly applaud efforts to ensure that hospitals — which are major job centers in almost all metros — are not just accessible by, but oriented to, transit. However, hospitals have spent a lot on development just about everywhere: hospital spending almost doubled over the 2000s.

(Speaking of midtowns, IDA’s new Defining Downtowns report does a nice job of showing how midtown areas, often surrounding medical facilities, are often almost adjacent to their respective downtowns.)

4. But if you’re really gung-ho on BRT, I’ve got a Magic Road to sell you…

It turns out that there’s an even bigger champion in the BRT TOD sweepstakes that didn’t get mentioned in the ITDP report. A major U.S. city built a magical BRT Bronze busway that subsequently spurred the adjacent development of:

  • 5,000 new market-rate apartments
  • 4.5 million square feet of new office
  • 1.2 million square feet of new retail
  • 2,000 new hotel rooms
  • $575 million in new cultural facilities for museums and performing arts
  • $1.3 billion in new public parks & recreational facilities
  • …plus a giant $4 billion new mixed-use development right outside one terminus
  • …and other new infrastructure improvements that I’m not including here, including a monstrous convention center annex (with another one just proposed! Obviously another fruit of BRT TOD) and new lakefront enhancements
  • All of which total $226.74 in corridor “TOD investment per dollar of transit investment,” or twice the amount that the “champion” Cleveland HealthLine supposedly generated

This magical $43 million busway is so magical, in fact, that the city’s leaders slyly smile and guffaw whenever they call it The Magic Road. There’s one minor detail: the McCormick Place Busway is not even open to the public. Only buses for visiting conventioneers, not buses for transit, can travel upon it. Never fear, for evidently the BRT-TOD magic is so powerful that even a closed busway can still manage to single-handedly spawn a resurgence in Chicago’s Loop.* After all, that’s exactly what the HealthLine did, right?

McCormick Place Busway Northern Entrance at Lower Randolph Street Under Millenium Park

* The Loop’s recent growth was quantified by the local BID, with areas multiplied by average sales prices found in the report to quantify total investment. I took care to not double-count Lakeshore East, and to not count investment in the West Loop or River North. And yes, I did do a cursory evaluation of the ITDP BRT Standard with regard to the MPEA busway, which does have one very nice station and lots of scheduled service during conventions.

Crowdfunded commerce can spark conversation about community change

fundrise

Crowdfunding holds the potential to improve accountability and shine light on the currently ill-understood development process, better aligning the interests of developers and communities. No, for-profit equity issuance may not be as democratic as other means of ownership, and doesn’t guarantee community control. Yet in a conversation we had after my previous blog post, Ben Miller mentioned a few aspects about Fundrise’s plans offer a way for developers to work with, rather than against, neighborhood wishes:

1. Besides relatively cheap capital, crowdfunding allows the owners (the crowd) to learn about, openly discuss, and perhaps make the trade-offs necessary to keep an urban commercial district balanced.

Gentrification along a retail corridor usually results in a familiar tale of woe,, repeated in city after city:
- a few businesses pioneer the area
- they draw more customers in
- sales and values rise, more shops open
- land owners cash in, raise rents
- better-capitalized, less interesting shops move in
- the pioneer businesses get priced out.
The end result is a tragedy of the commons, where nobody is accountable for maintaining the “unique, authentic, cool vibe” that initially drew people to the area, which is subsequently lost as each owner maximizes her own value.

Non-profit or public ownership of anchor institutions (i.e., public markets, performing arts centers) can sometimes prevent the cycle from reaching its zenith, but much of the cool factor often stems from local, for-profit businesses ineligible for non-profit status. But as it currently stands, few owners are willing to take the financial penalty that comes with cross-subsidizing interesting retail — aside from a few examples of particularly generous landlords (whose heirs may not be so generous) or with moguls who own a significant chunk of land.

Those moguls can act like shopping mall landlords: one of the big breakthroughs for the mall was the realization that the right mix of retailers could offer something for everyone in the family, all under one roof. Unified ownership and management can afford to pick and choose tenants to perfect that mix: Jonathan O’Connell at the Post unearthed a Morningstar report about Tysons Galleria finding that some mall tenants pay almost three times as much per foot as others within the same mall.

Community ownership of retail space creates a similar opportunity: the crowd can choose to forego the higher cash rents that a chain retailer or formulaic restaurant might offer, and instead opt to derive non-monetary value from something less lucrative but more interesting. The crowd has an advantage over a mogul or mall owner: no one individual or company has all the answers, and unlike a corporate owner, the crowd isn’t obliged to answer to a financier who would probably say no.

The public policy tools available to tame the cycle of commercial gentrification are so blunt as to be useless, or even counter-productive: “formula retail” ordinances, inanely specific use regulations, liquor license moratoriums, retail rent control, or the good old-fashioned BANANA techniques of downzoning and historic-designation overreach. Even CDC control hasn’t always proved durable, since non-profit CDCs have limited access to capital markets.

2. At 906 H St., Fundrise is crowdsourcing tenant ideas; this was one of the plans from the start (and a separate platform called Popularise). The Maketto market at 1351 H St. had earlier won in a similar vote. Requests for for-profit retail amenities (rather than non-profit public facilities) also dominate other crowdsourced public involvement platforms, like Neighborland.

Pairing crowdfunding with crowdsourcing allows potential patrons to “put their money where their mouth is.” Since businesses answer only to customers with cash, directly involving only the investor pool doesn’t quite pose the same that’s-not-real-democracy quandary. Unlike with a cooperative business, the crowd has little say over the inside workings of the business — which bypasses the micro-managing tendency of co-ops, and allows individual entrepreneurs to bring their singular visions to fruition.

In instances where promised for-profit retail amenities are an important element of a community benefits package, crowdsourcing those amenities and backing them with crowdfunded capital could ensure the longevity of those businesses.

Crowdsourcing tenant ideas also reduces costs for the developers (and thus investors) for brokerage and for carrying costs. And if the crowd has an idea that doesn’t exist yet — Ben and I both wondered why there aren’t proper dive bars around* — it also has a built-in vehicle for raising capital.

3. My earlier post riffed off a Post article highlighting how wealth managers didn’t look kindly upon Fundrise as an investment. From their standpoint, it’s not a product that they understand: it’s illiquid, it’s highly speculative, and poorly diversified. A good portfolio allocation strategy should include only a small slice for crowdfunding investments for these reasons — but the same rules apply for any high-net-worth “qualified investor” who, up until now, has always had the option of making a private-placement investment of a small (or even large) slice of their portfolio into illiquid real estate equity.

It’s also funny how the same wealth managers rarely comment on the value of homeownership, a similarly large, illiquid, and leveraged investment that most Americans have over-weighted their portfolios with. Yes, diversification is a good thing, but so is community ownership, and so is education. Crowdfunding real estate investors are likely to be within their home market — one of the few markets in which their superior on-the-ground market knowledge gives them an edge over outside investors. In gateway cities like Washington, D.C., regional property values are inflated by the presence of so much outside capital chasing returns and liquidity, and crowdfunding — along with even more democratic investment vehicles like investment co-ops, credit unions, community bonds, and the like — offers a venue for urban communities to leverage their own investment dollars and assert some (limited) level of economic control over their own fates.

A correction about equity classes: Ben Miller from Fundrise (whose latest public offering sold out) noted via Twitter that my recent post about Fundrise makes “A few small errors about the equity” — which I’ve corrected, and for which I apologize. Indeed, Fundrise equity is pari passu: all classes receive equal economic rights. In the event of a liquidation, debt holders will be paid first, but if there’s a haircut for equity holders it would be equal — you get back proportionately what you paid in.

Ben explained that shareholder dilution would be more likely to occur through a recapitalization or subsequent rights offering. If the corporation needs more capital, Class A shareholders would have the opportunity to make member loans, but Class C shareholders would not — that would get complicated and probably wouldn’t be worth the paperwork. Those member loans would then be senior to equity, but junior to the mortgage.

* Yeah, I know that besides high rent, the city’s lack of a working-class heritage in the pre-TV halcyon days of Third Places, probably has a lot to do with that void.

Help, the station ate my walk shed (1)

Part 1. How 400 meters becomes 100 meters

Armitage

When I lived on West North Avenue (the namesake of this blog), I could walk out my front door, hear an “L” train approaching from behind the apartment, dash across the street and around the block, and catch said train at the station a block away. When I recently asked Chicago friends about how much time it took for them to travel through their “L” stations, the responses were quizzical: “Uh, seconds?” “Less than a minute on either end. Perhaps you should be measuring in seconds.”

Wheaton Metro escalator

The Washington Metro might have record-smashing escalators and awe-inspiring cathedral ceilings in place of the L’s humdrum wooden platforms, but the sheer size of its stations hurts its usability for short trips, writes Ian Rasmussen:

“You’ll almost never hear about how long it takes to get from the street to the platform when people are telling you how long a transit trip is going to take… [I]n the context of systems designed to attract longer trips (30, 40 minutes), it hardly matters. But in the case of shorter trips, such as those in the urban core where the system is intended to act as a circulator, the issue cripples the system… just think of how you feel waiting to get off an airplane when you are about to miss your connecting flight.”

When combined with shameful 20-minute headways, the two or three minutes* it takes to descend to, or emerge from, a Metrorail platform add up to a substantial fixed time penalty on short trips within the core. It isn’t just the flowing mezzanines and interminable escalators, either: even in dense residential neighborhoods, stations often empty into meaningless plazas rather than seamlessly meeting the neighborhood. Over time, buildings will grow towards the station (as at Columbia Heights), but this process takes decades and has often been stymied by poor planning decisions.

Potomac Ave

This is not to absolve Chicago: it arguably invented the expressway median transit line and thus spawned places like Rosemont — which Yonah Freemark called “the Land of Missed Opportunity” for its uniquely awful transit-adjacent development pattern. The town of Rosemont** obviously understands that its “L” access gives it a valuable advantage over more distant suburbs. However, its station area pedestrian experience is just monumentally bad, with an uncharacteristically lengthy “L” station emptying out into a bus parking lot in the middle of an interchange. The net result: absolutely nothing, besides said bus terminal, is within the five-minute walk shed (below). Rosemont has attempted to compensate by subsidizing all-day circulator shuttles to feed its new retail/entertainment hub, but no shuttle can match the spontaneity of a quick lunchtime walk.

Rosemont "L" walk shed

Expressway median stations suffer from a triple whammy of poor geometry:
1. The geometries of the surrounding environment are often defined by the 70 MPH cars swirling around them (particularly since the busy streets that make sense for station entrances also make sense for land-gobbling interchanges), rather than the 3 MPH pedestrians within;
2. Much of the walk shed is wasted crossing the freeway itself, much less interchanges;
3. The adjacent land uses either want to shy away from the freeway’s noise and smoke, or surround themselves with moats of parking and limited access routes, or both.

The same geometric problem is hardly intrinsic to rail. Bus rapid transit, which essentially is the interface between a highway for heavy buses and pedestrians, faces exactly the same problem. Here’s the award-winning system in Guangzhou:

Guangzhou

The service had better be really fast, and really frequent, to be worth braving all that just to get to the bus stop. This sort of grade separation (also seen in Ottawa) is unusual; cost containment usually leaves pedestrians running in front of buses at grade, as in Cleveland:

Euclid at PlayHouse Square

Many of the inexpensive freight-rail alignments used for recent light-rail projects suffer from a similar (although less extreme) distance from the urban fabric. The north end of Baltimore’s light rail line runs in the former Baltimore & Susquehanna (B&S) Railroad ROW north to Timonium, alongside a stream valley, separated from adjacent development by buffers, grade changes, woods, and (to the east) the Jones Falls Expressway.

P1080461

The LRT corridor passes many major activity centers on the north side of Baltimore, including two campuses of Johns Hopkins University, parks encompassing the stream valleys and adjacent hills, the Woodberry area of redeveloped mills, prosperous neighborhoods like Hampden and Roland Park, and at the northern end the backs of retail and business complexes facing York Road in the northern suburbs. However, historically development of residential and retail uses focused on the hills above the stream valley and freight railroad; the only uses directly fronting onto the railroad today are station access uses and some renovated mills. Jeff Wood notes that Minneapolis is about to embark on a similar mistake with its Southwest LRT project.

In short, to genuinely intertwine transit with city life, it has to be as close & convenient as physically possible. Don’t cheap out on an inexpensive but inconvenient alignment, don’t over-engineer stations, and seek the smallest possible station footprints that will do the job. These principles should seem obvious, but too many new transit projects still don’t get this interface right. I’ll explore some more examples in two future posts.

* Times measured at Rosslyn and Court House.

** For those unfamiliar with Chicago, Rosemont has leveraged its unique location surrounded by the city’s transport links (airport, freeway, beltway, transit) to suck “profitable” airport-adjacent offices & hotels from a city that warehouses its low-wage workforce. Therefore, it’s the quintessential parasiticaffluent job center.” [OK, slightly strange link, but I couldn't find any other summary of Myron Orfield's Metropolitics suburban-town typology that was in HTML rather than PDF.]

Towards a unified theory of midtowns

Midtown Atlanta

 

 

Downtowns, or central business districts, have been well-studied in the economic literature, but The Metropolitan Revolution is one of the few texts I’ve seen that not only mentions midtowns but posits that they hold the key to future regional economic growth. A midtown typically was a secondary business district that arose to serve the wealthy, uptown residential precincts, and eventually attracted some of the “nice” amenities that wealthy residents wanted to have close to home and away from the congestion of downtown. Yet, as eds & meds employment in particular have boomed, these tranquil bastions have become employment centers in their own right, and perhaps regional economic strategies should zero in on linkages between these areas and other regional economic nodes — and to the likely-interesting neighborhoods around them.

Pages 138-139:

What Detroit Teaches Us

Detroit is drawing a new geography of innovation, tearing down the traditional, artificial borders that have long divided downtowns and midtowns in the United States. Virtually every major city in this country has a strong central business district (mostly for the congregation of government, corporate headquarters, entertainment venues, and some cultural functions), a strong midtown area (where eds and meds and historic museums tend to concentrate), and a state-of-the-art transit corridor, mostly built within the past twenty years, connecting the two. Each of these discrete building blocks brings particular assets that, in turn, provide a platform for a key element of innovation district growth.

They point to Detroit, Houston, Cleveland, and Buffalo as prime examples, and mention Atlanta, Denver, Indianapolis, Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Syracuse, and “even Las Vegas” in passing.

At first, I was a bit taken aback by the certainty of saying that “virtually every major city” fits this pattern, but I can’t think of many that don’t, particularly if one applies a geographically expansive definition to “midtown.” Strong examples include Westwood in LA, Longwood-Fenway or Cambridge in Boston, OSU in Columbus, or West End-Delmar in St. Louis. Sometimes downtown and midtown seamlessly blend with the CBD, as with Foggy Bottom & Georgetown in DC, McGill in Montreal, or Streeterville in Chicago.

It’s also intriguing to think that, with policies and investments directed towards creating a cohesive neighborhood, anchor institutions could be aggregated into a midtown which either never existed or deteriorated due to regional growth dynamics. UIC-Medical Center in Chicago is an obvious candidate; Howard-Washington Hospital Center in DC is another. In that instance, development of the McMillan site creates that missing physical link between the two.

Oh, and this call garners a subtle eye-roll from this generalist, who’s had a tough time monetizing that interdisciplinary knowledge:

[T]he people who deliver innovation districts would constitute a new network of metro builders who cut across disciplines, programs, practices, and professions. Modern society has deified specialists and technicians who diagnose and strive to fix discrete problems–say, traffic congestion or slum housing. Metro builders, by contrast, would be fluent in multiple city “languages”–architecture, demographics, engineering, economics, and sociology–and be cognizant of theory and practice. They would see the connections between challenges and work to devise and implement policies that advance multiple objectives simultaneously.