This was perhaps the most beautiful week of the year here in Central Minnesota. The leaves are in full color, the weather has been mild and we're all kind of reveling in those last wonderful moments before the onset of winter. That and my beloved Twins are headed to the playoffs. I actually have tickets for the first round but will be in Denver for the Community Matters '10 conference, a tremendous personal sacrifice for the advancement of the Strong Towns movement. Not that I am not looking forward to the conference - I expect it to be awesome - but Thome is my homey and I am going to suffer immense anguish if they lose in the first round again. Let's go Twins!

Enjoy this week's news:

  • This week two of the social commentators I enjoy - Gen X'r Dan Carlin and boomer Tom Friedman - produced dramatically different pieces about the need for a new political approach. Carlin spent the last half of his Common Sense podcast making a compelling argument that, before these large structural changes that need to happen (think health care, tax reform, financial reform, transportation funding, etc...) we need to change the system that creates incentives for politicians to retain the status quo. This is the systems approach. Friedman takes the "great man" approach - if we only had a real leader, we could find our way out of these messes. While I find Friedman's words compelling, especially the following quote, something tells me that Carlin is the guy who has the real answer. Maybe it will take a great leader to make the reform? We can hope that is what such a leader would choose to do with their power.

The important Tea Party movement, which stretches from centrist Republicans to independents right through to centrist Democrats, understands this at a gut level and is looking for a leader with three characteristics. First, a patriot: a leader who is more interested in fighting for his country than his party. Second, a leader who persuades Americans that he or she actually has a plan not just to cut taxes or pump stimulus, but to do something much larger — to make America successful, thriving and respected again. And third, someone with the ability to lead in the face of uncertainty and not simply whine about how tough things are — a leader who believes his job is not to read the polls but to change the polls.

  • An article in the Atlantic this week was stunning if only that it destroys the entire premise of literally generations of American housing policy: that we can achieve an "ownership society" through massive government subsidy of our living patterns. In fact, here is the list of countries that have a higher rate of home ownership than the United States (67%) despite not having policies that promote the "American Dream": Singapore (89%), Spain (85%), Iceland (83%), Belgium (78%), Norway (77%), Portugal (76%), Luxembourg (75%), Ireland (75%), Chile (73%), Italy (72%), Israel (71%), Australia (70%), England (68%), Canada (68%), Sweden (68%) and New Zealand (68%). On the flip side, I assume that each of these countries uses a freedom-hating approach that forces people to live in small houses and drive even smaller cars. Let's hear it: U - S - A....U - S - A.... 
  • Stephane Fitch of Forbes is one of the guys who raised doubts about the housing market way, way before being such a guy was cool. His recent column about using private capital to co-invest in housing and stabilize the housing market is innovative and provocative (the title of the article, Let the Rich Profit from Poor Homeowners, may turn off some STB readers, but it should not). This approach is similar to what Nassim Taleb has been arguing for: we need to find ways to avoid default by converting debt to equity. This is not the perfect solution for every situation, but we need people that think outside the box like this.

The FHA could then have Fannie write down the balance of its mortgage on their home by $48,000, to $162,000, or 90% of the current appraised value of the couple’s home. In exchange for the $48,000 write-down, the Chicago couple would agree to hand over a share of their equity—let’s say it’s no more than 49% so they retains majority ownership.

Sure, that means they’re giving up 49% of the profits from the eventual sale of their home. But remember, they get a huge boost from this deal. On paper, they’re suddenly $9,000 in the black. And they’ve got much lower mortgage payments.

Sound too sweet? Hold on. This deal comes with another major string attached. The couple will pay 100% of the closing costs on the sale of the home. So they can’t just turn around and sell the property for a quick gain, since those closing costs would wipe out their profits. They’d have to hang around for a while if they wanted to earn some equity. Of course, they retain the option to buy out their 49% partner at any time.

The government now holds a well-performing $162,000 mortgage on this home plus a 49% equity stake in the couple’s home is worth an additional $9,000. It has replaced one terribly shaky asset with two very solid ones.

  • It is a little sad and somewhat ironic to now watch suburban legislators and officials throw a tantrum because the public is not able to come to the table with the same "sweetheart" deal they provided to their neighbors closer to the urban center. You know, that neighbor they look down upon and believe that nobody wants to live in anymore. It is also sad to watch the delusion of these leaders as they hope for the magical "windfall" that will save them from despair. Change is difficult.

MnDOT and Met Council officials say the money just isn't there for major freeway expansions -- not when existing roads need maintenance and not since the I- 35W bridge collapse attracted intense attention to decrepit river crossings.

The $40 billion in identified transportation needs towers over the $900 million to pay for them, they argue.

"Clearly, the level of funding that we have today could never cover these projects," said Amy Vennewitz, deputy director of Met Council's transportation planning staff.

But in a letter this summer to Bell, the six suburban commissioners say no one knows what future funds will be. To erase projects from the plan, they say, is to risk being left out in the event of a windfall, such as stimulus money. Recent cases in point -- the planned removal of stoplights at I-494 and Hwy. 169, hastened by stimulus funds, and the completion of a stretch of Hwy. 610.

  • At some point we are going to do a blog post on the Complete Streets movement, which has some redeeming attributes but has one significant flaw (hint: it has to do with the Strong Towns mantra of connecting the financial implications of growth to our land use patterns). In the meantime, here is some information from a local community that is considering a Complete Streets approach.

"For the past 50 years, the focus of road construction has been on moving cars and moving them fast," the memo said. "Complete Streets aims to create roads that continue to effectively move cars, trucks and emergency vehicles, but also safely serve pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users."

What's needed to do that are wide sidewalks, bike lanes and trails, accessible curb ramps, clear separation of vehicular and pedestrian and bike spaces, transit stops and smaller vehicle lanes, the memo said.

  • The concept of using one-way streets is a dead idea and we applaud the people of Vancouver for thinking so.

One way streets are a relatively recent addition to cities in North America, most coming in the post-WWII era. Since the vast majority of streets here are wide enough to accommodate two vehicles side-by-side, the sole reason for originally putting in one way streets was to increase vehicle speeds.

  • The group "Potholes for Poverty" will fill the pothole on your local street in the Portland area if you will make a donation to a local charity. Sounds great. The local government is overburdened and having a tough time keeping up. Here is an innovation in the private sector that solves a problem and has an additional social benefit. All is good, right? Not so fast.

There’s only one big problem: The city frowns on someone else filling potholes on public streets. In fact, the city’s transportation bureau says it might take action against the company if it’s caught filling potholes.

“On public streets, only permitted contractors and city of Portland crews can do that work,” said Cheryl Kuck, transportation bureau spokeswoman.

  • Jim Kunstler is on a book tour promoting The Witch of Hebron. He gave a couple of talks in Michigan that were recorded. They are well worth listening to and can be found here and here. (And, for the record, Jim and I are still not Facebook friends, despite my offering of "friendship".)
  • I am probably 95% a baseball fan, which leaves only 5% for football, basketball, cycling and a myriad of other sports. It was therefore very easy for me to become angry with the Minnesota Timberwolves for despoiling the ambiance around the beloved sanctuary known as Target Field with an obnoxiously placed advertisement. Then I read the statement from the team and got even angrier. Here is how it was reported in the local newspaper:

Twins President Dave St. Peter said he always knew the ballpark "would be ambushed by a sign of this nature, either on Target Center or somewhere else." He said, "What we were most surprised by is the sheer size of the sign ... how the sign dominates the civic gathering place known as Target Plaza."

The Wolves were hardly apologetic.

Chris Wright, the Wolves' president, said the Twins and the city have underscored the business opportunities the new baseball park are generating, and the Wolves, like others, want to reap the benefits.

"This is a business," Wright said. "We are a business that is taking advantage of the increased traffic and commerce around the Warehouse District today."

And all of this for a "non-profit" health insurance company. Seriously? Are they trying to woo patrons or simply prove to sports fans that a health care system requiring millions of dollars in ill-placed advertising is completely messed up?

  • Dreams are made in April through September. They sometimes come true in October.


Thank you to all of our Facebook friends. We crossed the 300 threshold this week thanks to everyone spreading the word. Keep growing the Strong Towns movement by inviting your friends to join us on Facebook and Twitter.