Friday News Digest


After the Memphis Boot Camp, Gracen Johnson flew home with me and got to spend five days living a life parallel with mine. This included a lot of time with two girls and two dogs, all of whom she fortunately seemed to truly enjoy (it was mutual). We’re always hardest on those we are closest to so it is always helpful to me to have an outsider I respect tell me that my hometown of Brainerd isn’t as bad as they assumed it would be. I’m headed home from Ontario now and can’t wait to get there, bad stroads and all.

Enjoy this week’s news.

  • There were a lot of exciting things happening in Memphis last week surrounding our Boot Camp. One was an editorial board meeting with the Daily News that Mike Lydon, Joe Minicozzi and I participated in. It was an engaging conversation that turned into a pretty good article.

“There’s a lot of small little things that need to be dealt with. There’s some momentum things that we need to shift around to give all those other things a better chance,” Marohn said. “We’ve got to stop spending billions of dollars fighting congestion out on the edge of the city while our sidewalks here and our streets here and our most productive neighborhoods rot away and go to waste.”

  • When we were in Memphis and hanging out in the Edge District, at one point we drove by a building with “Sun Studios” written on the side. “Is that THE Sun Studios?” I asked. Oh yes, it was. Some really smart people in the Edge working with limited resources are trying to capitalize on people like me who are drawn to the lore of such a place. Inspiring all the way around.

Under cover of the predawn darkness Friday, a neighborhood businessman bolted four artfully crafted steel signs onto sidewalks.

They are the first of 12 way-finding signs Mike Todd plans to erect in establishing what he calls the “Rockwalk.”

He’s acting without formal city permission to mount such obstructions on a public sidewalk. But Todd said he believes he has enough informal support from a City Hall seeking new ideas, private capital and activity for such underdeveloped neighborhoods.

“I said I think it would be a natural to have a series of signs that directed (tourists) up to Sun Studio and give them something to do while they are walking and hopefully give them more appreciation for the neighborhood,” said Todd, owner of Premier Contractors, 629 Monroe.

  • There were many reasons why we wanted to do the first Boot Camp in Memphis, but the most important is the spirit and energy of the people there. While they can see the Detroit-like abyss in front of them, they refuse to be drug there and, in a true profile of courage, are willing to collectively challenge their own assumptions and core beliefs. And just so we are clear: it isn’t consensus that inspires me about Memphis but the robust, thoughtful conversation. Emerging from that conversation is a recognition that people bike and walk and that supporting those efforts constitute the highest returning physical investment the city can make (not to mention a huge social investment as well).

Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns, Mike Lydon of Street Plans and Joe Minicozzi of Urban3 are each discussing the principle that has driven Mayor AC Wharton to steer the city away from annexation and suburbanization and toward proximity, quality of life and connectivity within the central city. Wharton's administration have embraced the strategy not just because protected bike lanes and other small-scale projects are cheaper in the short run (though they usually are) but because the human-oriented streetscapes they create are actually more valuable and better for everyone in the economy.

  • Kristen Jeffers nails it this week. Planners and urban advocates today look back on Urban Renewal with incredulity; what terrible people to have been so insensitive. Yet, what today’s advocates – the ones who want to remake the world in their new, enlightened image – fail to realize is that is wasn’t insensitivity but hubris that brought about Urban Renewal and all its related top/down destruction. When you replace the hubris of one top/down approach with the hubris of another top/down approach, you are just repeating the same mistakes without learning the core lesson (which is that you don’t actually know the answer).

Unchecked sprawl is the urban renewal of today. Instead of providing the services that are needed in the core of the city, there are many cities (mine included) that have chosen to build new facilities outside of the city core.  In addition, many cities have allowed subdivisions to be built and not considered the cost of providing schools, fire protection, streets and other elements that make a city a city, even on the basic suburban level. This is not to say that we should not allow people to go off the grid and be responsible for these services themselves. However, many people buy or rent homes with the expectation that basic services will be taken care of efficiently and competently by the municipality or jurisdiction of which they reside.

  • The essay I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the bike lane controversy at my church (Living in Communion – April 7, 2014) has continued to resonate with people in ways I didn’t anticipate. The latest came this week from Christopher Andrews writing with confirming observations from Houston. I think this country’s religious communities can be powerful advocates for building strong towns if we let them.

Church attendance continues to be in decline and many young people continue to define themselves as having no religionMany young people do not see religion, and church specifically, as a part of their lives. I can't help but think that this is partially due to a lack of neighborhood churches that have set out to seek to love and serve their surrounding neighborhoods. Declines may also be attributed to the burden that is placed on parishioners having to travel miles and miles to be a part of a congregation during people's already busy weeks. Unfortunately, many churches are taking congregations further and further away from the central city and into the suburbs, including here in Houston. Ordinary community cannot take place in this environment.

  • Strong Towns member Richard Bose had a really good post looking at tax data from his community. He shows pretty clearly how a sales tax approach creates a bubble of revenue during growth and craters hard during periods of stagnation. This is what Nassim Taleb would call a fragile system, one that is harmed asymmetrically from volatility. It is really difficult to have a financially strong local government where the state mandates that the bulk of revenue come from sales tax.

  • A key takeaway from our Curbside Chat is that local governments are going to be forced to absorb their cost of their own development pattern. When federal and state governments start to default on their obligations – something that is a mathematical certainty – local governments are going to be left financially to fend for themselves, a difficult proposition given their lack of financial productivity. It feels inevitable that part of the unwinding will involve states turning over large stretches of their highway (stroad) inventory to local governments, a process that is already underway. Cities that demanded that curb cut for the strip mall so they could have growth and jobs will now have the privilege of maintaining said curb cut. This will suddenly make most of our post World War II public investments look really stupid. Welcome to reality.

“The road system as it currently exists still reflects the organizational and political realities of the 1930s and 1940s rather than the 21st century,” said Pete Poore, a spokesman for the South Carolina Department of Transportation.

Now the roads are costly relics. But states have had limited success in giving them away, because cities such as Beaufort don’t want to pay for them either.

“Our council feels there should be some quid pro quo. If we take the roads, we should be able to do what we want with them in a reasonable and responsible manner,” said Scott Dadson, Beaufort’s city manager. “Secondly, we should have funds that come with it.”

  • Of course, while states try renege on their obligations by turning their highways over to local governments to maintain, they are still not desperate enough financially to actually stop building more. For example, the $1.7 billion zoo interchange in Milwaukee, a highway widening project that will cost $5.39 per American. All of you who think the little bit of federal money given to TIGER and Safe Routes to School justifies keeping our transportation funding primarily in Washington D.C. don’t fully understand the problem.

Total federal spending for biking and walking amounts to about $2.61 per capita. If the pricetag of the Zoo Interchange were divided by every man, woman, and child in the United States, the cost would be $5.39. It’s important to note that state and local funds will pay for most of this project. Still, our sources tell us that Zoo Interchange planners hope to get 20 percent of the cost from the federal government, or $344 million.

  • My apologies to everyone who emailed me their local example of the “walkable, bikeable, mixed-use” office park with adjacent parking lots and cul-de-sacs after I shared the “Main Street” development in Omaha this week. I can’t possibly share them all. We should maybe set up a website for people to share their examples because there are a ton of them. As one of our members, Ron Beltier, wrote me “Words have meanings.” Amen. Let’s not let our language be marketed into irrelevance.
  • Words have meanings, not just for people building unproductive places but for those advocating for strong towns as well. To that end, I have to call out the Pembina Institute for their recent infographic adopting the highway engineer’s ridiculous approach to calculating value to justify transit. Saved time does not equal cash. We should be exposing fraud, not coopting it.

  • The theory of sub-market interest rates (having interest rates artificially lowered by the Federal Reserve) is that it will prop up housing prices by allowing people to buy more house with the same payment. That theory goes out the window when 4 out of 5 houses in some major markets are cash only purchases. That is a bizarre number and it reflects the very real situation that a lot of wealthy people, and a lot of people managing huge sums of money, have cash they really don’t know what to do with. And it doesn’t hurt those investors when homes are foreclosed on, especially when the Fed has also bought up all the toxic mortgages from the banks. These quaint economic theories should be replaced with the theory that Fed manipulation of the economy benefits the wealthy at the expense of the poor and middle class, a theory with substantially more evidence to support it (and one with far less downside if it is wrong).

…making a rough estimate, "all cash" purchases in the hottest condo markets have soared roughly three-fold in the key investor markets since the last housing bubble!

Without repeating our conclusion from nearly a year ago, what this simply means is that there is absolutely nothing remotely resembling a housing recovery, and certainly not one where the end buyer has to use the house itself as loan collateral, which would be the vast majority of the population, but instead more than three-quarters of all condo purchases are purely by investors who have already piled up cash using other forms of collateral (and thus aren't traditional home purchasers but merely flipping-focused investors), and who will flee from this market the second the Fed starts tightening monetary conditions, which in turns will make the next housing crash far worse even than the 2008 housing and credit bubble collapse.

  • Clarence Eckerson of Streefilms not only gives great movie recommendations (but only in private – sorry) but has a passion for cities built for people. In as close to a rant as you will ever get from such a happy New Yorker, Clarence shared his frustration with Hollywood’s failure to accurately depict the iconic Times Square as anything other than a car sewer, which it may have been at one point but no longer is. Love you, Clarence.

I can't help that I'm a obsessive creature when it comes to anything to do with transportation and complete streets.

But what really gets me irked is the awful treatment the movie industry to continues to spew on our wonderful car-free spaces in Times Square.  I've seen the roads of the once-snarled bow-tie still choked with cars in at least a half-dozen recent films - including here from the most recent "Resident Evil" picture.

Summer 2014 trailers show there are a few films coming out with scenes in Times Square. In what looks like it could be an otherwise tremendous film, "Lucy" stars ScarJo as a woman who develops some sort of telekinetic crazy super powers. However, as you can see in the top and  below snapshots those powers do not seem to include "Livable Streets 101" of Times Square.

  • And finally, this week someone shared this collection of historic photos on Facebook which, despite being behind on accomplishing so many critical things, I just had to spend an hour staring at. Damn you, Facebook time suck.

Thanks for hanging out with us this week. Next week I’m headed to Kansas City and then the San Antonio area. Good times ahead. Through it all, I’ll do what I can to keep you updated and give you some things to think about. Have a great weekend. I’ll see you back on Monday.

 

Chuck Marohn’s new book, MoneyHall, is due out this month. You can get notices on the release date and any book launching events by going to MoneyHall.org.