Smart growth and your Sierra Club local

Taking refuge

In California, trees hug you

I was recently updating the DC Sierra Club chapter’s web page on smart growth, on which I’ve added a few links to resources about the Club and Chapter’s heritage of smart growth advocacy. Even I was surprised at how thoroughly the Club’s key policies embrace smart growth.

The overarching “Sierra Club Strategic Plan Overarching Visionary Goals” document lists as two of its 21 strategies:

Maximize energy efficiency across all sectors, including transportation, urban design, and land use. […]

Protect our air, water, land, and communities from pollution. Promote environmentally sensitive land use and urban design to minimize sprawl, provide a healthy environment for all, and minimize resource use.

Interestingly, the strategy that calls to “Protect and restore wildlands and waterways” continues that those wildlands serve a specific, objective, quantifiable purpose: “to provide large and connected habitats.” Not to protect the favorite views of favored humans, or to protect property values for landowners, but to rescue non-human species from the threat of habitat fragmentation.

The Policy on Urban Environment, adopted by the board in 1986, states (emphasis added):

…the Sierra Club urges planning and policies which stimulate…
Infill” residential and commercial development on unused or under-used land within city boundaries…
Preservation and revitalization of urban neighborhoods, with residents protected from unreasonable economic and physical disruption…
Attractive, compact and efficient urban areas; with densities and mixtures of uses that encourage walking and transit use, and encourage more efficient use of private autos in balance with other transportation modes…
These development patterns and transit improvements would conserve energy, water, land and building materials while enhancing the pleasure and safety of urban life and reducing travel distances.

The Transportation Policy, adopted in 1994, supports policy and systems that “encourage land uses that minimize travel requirements; strengthen local communities, towns and urban centers.”

The broad Energy Resources Policy (PDF) directly refers to smart growth and transit. In section VII.A.3:

Reduce the need to drive passenger vehicles by shortening the distance between workplace, home, shopping and school, using “smart growth” planning and improved transportation options. Provide safe and appealing options for walking, bicycling and mass transit, including light rail passenger trains, which will reduce vehicle trips, emissions, fuel consumption, and the demand for new roads and pavement. Well-designed mixed-use communities create long-term reductions in energy usage. Appropriately designed public transportation systems are an essential component of a sustainable energy society… Congestion pricing should be applied, when feasible. Parking costs should be efficiently and conveniently unbundled to give consumers and employees more control over how they choose to spend their money.

If your local Sierra Club entity is proving unnecessarily obtuse in not living up to these policies, I’d suggest engaging by appealing to the Club’s strong sense of tradition, deference to higher authorities (encoded in the “One Club” policy), broader principles, and yes, policies. One specific idea: ask them to review the “Guidelines Governing Decisions on Schools, Hospitals or Other Projects Serving Economically Disadvantaged Communities.” (Tell them “it’s on Club House, under Public Facilities.”) Those require specific steps before Club entities decide to oppose or endorse a public facility, with a specific mention of “low-income housing project” (and thus many large-scale infill developments subject to inclusionary requirements). Those steps require the Club to have a face-to-face listening session with those who will benefit, and a written assessment of the proposal and “any feasible environmentally superior alternatives” — which cannot include displacing housing to sprawling locations. Even where opposition by the Club may very well be warranted, the policy requires that it be thoughtful and considered, rather than knee-jerk.

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Education and location confound attempts to compare Asian economic status

Jeff Guo at the Post has written recently questioning one “model minority” story — that the gap in income and wealth between Asian Americans and whites appears to be closing. This apparent progress would seem to contradict the power of centuries of white privilege — but only if one neglects several confounding factors.

The largest confounding factor that Guo points out is education vs. income: “But Asian Americans have to work harder just to keep up with whites. If you compare whites and Asian Americans with the same amount of schooling, Asian Americans actually make less money.” Asian Americans have, on average, more education than other Americans, and the correlation between education and income turns out to be stronger than that between race and income.

Another confounding factor is location (and urbanization) vs. wealth. For historical reasons, Asian Americans are much more likely than other Americans to live in “gateway cities,” i.e., expensive coastal metro areas. This means that Asian American homeowners are on the prosperous side of the wide-and-growing gap between gateway-city property values and property values in the rest of America. But since not all Asian American households are homeowners (especially among more recent arrivals, for whom forbiddingly high housing prices have inhibited wealth building), these benign-looking averages hide tremendous wealth inequality among Asian Americans.

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Income by ethnicity and origin in metropolitan Washington; data from the Urban Institute

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Wealth by ethnicity and origin in metropolitan Washington; data from the Urban Institute.

Location matters even on a sub-national level. The Urban Institute’s recent report on the racial wealth gap in metro DC, “The Color of Wealth in the Nation’s Capital,” finds that the homeowning Latino and Asian households surveyed have houses that are worth more than the White and Black households surveyed, but lower total net worth. (Note that due to small sample sizes, many correlations lack statistical significance.) The higher housing values may be related to residential segregation; much of the region’s Latino and Asian American households live in the favored western half of the region, where property values are substantially higher. This effect may even be a factor nationwide, since in most metro areas Asian Americans have settled primarily in favored quarters — indeed, Asian Americans are more likely to live in areas with high property values and high-quality local public schools.

Deck chairs on a sinking beach

I was pondering the testimony I delivered last May to the HPRB:

Where it all began

The original boundary stone at Jones Point.

Global warming poses a grave and imminent threat to not only humanity’s future, but to our shared past as well. In a recent issue of Preservation magazine, National Trust for Historic Preservation president Stephanie Meeks wrote that “as preservationists, it is incumbent on us to reckon with climate change bravely.” If left unchecked, the higher sea levels caused by global warming threaten the very existence of countless historic structures within the District of Columbia, including a great many of the surviving structures from its earliest days. For example, the original cornerstone of the District of Columbia (at Jones Point in Alexandria) was originally constructed on dry ground — but now sits below today’s sea level, hidden by an obtrusive concrete seawall and visible only through a protective cover. From the Jefferson Memorial to Randall School, Mayfair Mansions to Tingey House, global warming could very well obliterate scores of DC landmarks.

(The HPRB approved the application that day, and the building is moving towards construction this year.)

The sad thing about my statement today? Global warming will go pretty much unchecked under the present policy regime. Points-of-no-return are rapidly approaching for the terrestrial ice sheets of Greenland and West Antarctica; even with the boom in clean energy technology, there’s no stopping sea level from rising several meters or even many meters. Ten feet, twenty feet seem matter of course now; hundreds of feet is within the realm of possibility.

Is everything that we’re fight about within our low-lying cities about to go for naught — are we just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic?

As Ian Urbina noted in the Times in November, property sales in flood-prone coastal areas are already slowing suspiciously. It’s impossible to know exactly why, but the rising incidence and cost of even “nuisance” flooding (as extensively reported by Ryan McNeill, Deborah J. Nelson and Duff Wilson from Reuters last year might well be causing people to think twice about purchasing in flood-prone areas.

What happens when the defenses start to run out? Will land suddenly, or gradually, become worthless? One fascinating “natural” experiment to watch is in Palm Springs, where the Desert Sun’s Rosalie Murphy wrote about the consequences of the expiring land leases that underlie half of that city. Condos are going begging for buyers, since expiring land leases can’t be encumbered with fresh mortgages — but commercial development often continues apace, since the mortgage terms are shorter.

I appreciate that the Trust is thinking more intersectionally, to the point of reframing its work as “reurbanism.” But given the forecasts, it’s tough for me not to see a lot of local skirmishes over waterfront sites as pretty pointless.

Globalization and the truthiness sweatshops

A few years ago, American authors like Winnie Wong and Peter Hessler stumbled across a curious phenomenon: Chinese towns that applied the mindless logic of mass production, backed by China’s unparalleled ability to conjure up entire industrial-scale supply chains from thin air, to an improbable export — schlocky oil paintings, often stroke-for-stroke knock-offs of museum treasures. These towns aren’t the colorful and carefree artists’ colonies of our imaginations (such places have largely been gentrified or touristed into oblivion); instead, they’re still dreary factory towns, complete with migrant peasants being worked to the hilt. Wong profiled the village of Dafen, one of the chengzhongcun (urban villages) embedded within the sprawl of metro Shenzhen. There are certainly fascinating original artists working within China, and zero-talent hacks passing off “art” in the West, but frankly I’m not sure what to make of mass-produced creativity.

It’s a through-the-looking-glass version of the idea that cities can structure their growth around cool “creative class” agglomeration economies that turn out stylish, disruptive innovations. Of course, that assumes that customers want tasteful products — a point Barnum disproved.

Now comes word that painting isn’t the only labor-intensive “creative” industry that’s ripe for export, provided the aesthetic qualities get dumbed down along the way. It turns out that the clickbait that passes for social-media “news” has also been dumbed down to the point where it can also thrive inside a sweatshop, rather than a fancy newsroom. For instance, Macedonian child-labor sweatshops churn out truthy clickbait, according to a report from Craig Silverman and Lawrence Alexander in Buzzfeed. A few countries to the east in Russia, a cottage industry of basement-dwelling trolls (backed by an army of bot brethren) intentionally lobs multilingual insults around the globe to sow discord and upset democratic consensus.

Globalization didn’t just flood the world’s markets with cheap (and poorly made) toys, clothes, and electronics. Now it’s flooding the world’s markets with cheap (and poorly made) content, as well.

Idle speculation: Where could Uniqlo fit downtown?

Since the earlier edition of Idle Speculation was so popular, here’s another.

The area’s first Uniqlo will open today at Tysons Corner Center. Even though it’s throttled back its expansion plans in the USA, the Japanese apparel retailer says “it will continue to shutter unprofitable stores located in suburban malls and focus on opening more flagship stores in urban centres.” So now that they’re in this market, where could an urban flagship land?

Uniqlo Army

SF Union Square, by Todd Lappin via Flickr

First, how large would the store be? The flagship on Chestnut Street in Center City Philadelphia has 29,000 square feet, mostly on the lower level. By comparison, the Denver Pavilions store (also opening this week) is only 17,000 square feet on two levels. Finding a space that large within downtown DC is tough, especially given that many of the office buildings there were built with office tenants, not retailers, in mind.

However, two storefront museums have or soon will vacate their spaces in tourist-rich area around Gallery Place. How do these stack up?

The more prominent location is the Spy Museum site at 800 F St NW, owned by Douglas Properties. 27,231 square feet will be available, directly opposite the Portrait Gallery and with a prime F Street address (down the street from J. Crew, Anthropologie, Zara, Ann Taylor, H&M, Banana Republic, and others), once the new spy museum opens in late 2018. However, the Spy Museum space has several strikes against it. Not only is it not possible to open a store until 2019, given construction timelines, but the interior was assembled from several rowhouses and thus has many partitions and level changes. While these are easily hid with a museum buildout, they’d result in a costly and complex renovation for a larger-format retailer who wants to keep sight lines more open. The leasing flyer seems to indicate that Douglas agrees, and would rather lease the space as four spaces ranging from 1,871 to 11,401 square feet.

Slightly less prominent, but perhaps more likely, is Terrell Place, the former Hecht’s department store at 7th and F (with Rosa Mexicano at the corner). The space vacated by the Crime Museum is now available, with up to 8,762 square feet available at street level on 7th St. What’s more important is that there’s at least 11,482 square feet available in the basement — potentially expandable to 52,751 square feet by shifting other stuff around the basement.

Which raises another possibility: there might be other office buildings in the area where vacant or underutilized basements or second floors could be added to small ground-floor spaces to yield 20,000 square feet. It used to be that landlords made all the money on offices, and only retailers selling steaks, sandwiches, sundries, or savings accounts were brought in to serve the worker bees. Now, downtown finally has the foot traffic to support real retail, and the supply is beginning to catch up.

Friday photo: The old new towns


Excerpted from Letitia Langord and Gwen Bell, “Federally Sponsored New Towns of the Seventies,” Growth and Change 10/1975.

Earlier this week, startup incubator Y Combinator made a bit of a splash by hiring a lolcat entrepreneur to work on its “New Cities” program. The entire endeavor appears to be completely ahistorical. So, in an effort to help them out, here’s a reminder of the last time someone (the federal government) splashed out a lot of money to build cities from the ground up in America.

It’s worth noting that, 40-some years later, only The Woodlands has evolved into something resembling a city, with its own economic base — but probably due to its location in metro Houston, which sustained population growth of 20%+ per decade from 1970 through 2010. Several of the others remain half-built, pleasant-enough bedroom communities, and a few of them hardly ever got off the ground.

It turns out that city-building, and especially economic development, is an iterative, incremental process that’s highly resistant to shortcuts. Yes, economic booms do happen in unexpected places, but almost all of those are associated with large institutions and relatively unskilled labor. Re-creating the intricate economic interdependence of a 21st century metropolis will prove a monumental challenge, especially in an era of subdued labor mobility.

WMATA night service testimony

Sent to the WMATA board via CSG’s template:

I am Payton Chung, a regular Metrorail rider and chair of the DC Sierra Club’s smart growth committee (although I speak for myself). I use Metro both late at night as well as on weekend mornings (when the Sierra Club begins day hikes), and I oppose a permanent cut in Metrorail’s hours.

If the service-hour cuts become permanent, Metro will have more limited operating hours than any large US rail transit system, and at lower evening frequencies. Metro should learn from how other major US rail systems perform inspections and maintenance without shutting down the entire system. I lived along the Blue Line in Chicago, which is a two-track line (parts of which were built 100 years ago) that operates 24/7. When track maintenance is done (and a major renewal is underway presently), it is done by suspending service on part of the line and providing shuttle buses.

In that spirit, I understand that temporary service suspensions may be necessary from time to time. However, these suspensions must be of limited duration, must be outlined clearly in advance, must achieve specific maintenance and repair goals, and absolutely MUST be paired with adequate alternative service. The Coalition for Smarter Growth has outlined several principles along these lines.

Metro already suspended late-night service months ago without providing replacement bus service. As a result, Metro has been wasting money running nighttime buses that begin/end their routes at shuttered Metro stations like Pentagon, King Street, and Rhode Island Avenue. Regardless of WMATA’s ultimate decision regarding service hours, this farcical and inexcusable situation must end.

Thank you for the opportunity to address the region’s critical mobility needs.