Posts by Author: Jared Brey

Documentary Project Will Literally Shed Light on the South Bronx

Ed Alvarez of the Bronx Photo League photographed this meeting at the Bronx Christian Charismatic Church for the Claremont Illuminated project. (Photo: Ed Alvarez courtesy Bronx Photo League)

This summer, empty spaces in the Claremont Village section of the South Bronx will be lit up at night with images of community life.

The images are already being captured by at least a dozen photographers, says Rhynna Santos, coordinator of the Bronx Photo League and a member of the Bronx Documentary Center, which is presenting the project, called Claremont Illuminated. Once the photographers are done shooting, the Center will work with the artist Ethan Vogt to create illuminations that will be projected on to empty spaces, like vacant lots or public stairwells. The illuminations may range from projected digital photos to lit-up prints to audio and video interviews—whatever technology will allow, Santos says.

Some of the artists are focusing on senior citizens living in the extensive public housing projects in the neighborhood. Others are zooming in on community health issues, or schools, or fatherhood, or, as Santos says, “the horrible issue of rats.”

“It’s functional art,” says Santos. “It’s not just going to be, hopefully, thought-provoking and beautiful, but also useful for the community.”

The combined public art and street lighting project is one of seven proposals to receive funding this month through the Mayor’s Grant for Cultural Impact, an outgrowth of New York’s first comprehensive cultural plan, called CreateNYC. Selected organizations get $50,000 from the Department of Cultural Affairs, plus $25,000 in either cash or in-kind support from a partner city agency, including the Departments of City Planning, the Department of Probation, and the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. In all, it adds up to $500,000 in city support for diverse cultural organizations in far-flung New York neighborhoods.

And that was always the goal of CreateNYC. Under the de Blasio administration, New York has been reexamining the way it funds cultural activity, which it has done since the 19th century. As part of that re-examination, the city has begun to collect data on the diversity of boards and workforces at the city’s major cultural institutions, and has plans to tie future funding to diversity goals. The senior staffs of the city’s biggest cultural organizations are much less diverse than the city as a whole, according to the plan. Creating partnerships between city government and smaller organizations is a way for the city to broaden its support for culture beyond the theaters and museums that have national reputations.

Other cultural impact grantees include a bilingual theater project for Spanish-speaking youth, literary programming for people on probation and their neighbors, a dance project focused on preventing teen violence, and a reading program that will connect the National Book Foundation with the city’s Department of Youth and Community Development. The city also recently announced four new public artists in residence focused on social issues from domestic violence to discrimination.

"Mother and Child," another image that will be part of the Claremont Illuminated project. (Photo: Adeline Lulo, courtesy of Bronx Photo League)

“The basic lens of the entire thing had to do with equity and inclusion,” says Tom Finkelpearl, commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs.

CreateNYC involved more than 400 public meetings and 188,000 online comments from New Yorkers. What the department learned in the process was that residents want arts and culture in every corner of the city, Finkelpearl says. And pairing city agencies that are working to achieve various social outcomes with cultural groups that are deeply involved in communities “puts theory together with practice.” Artists and cultural organizations have a way of “thinking around corners,” Finkelpearl says, and also sometimes have communication skills that government agencies don’t have.

For the Claremont Illuminated project, Bronx Documentary Center is partnered with the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. The project will improve community safety while highlighting community challenges. Santos says the project is intended to “give the community a voice” while also lighting up areas of Claremont Village that are simply too dark.

“It’s this thing that art can do,” says Finkelpearl. “It delivers important ideas in maybe a softer way than city government does sometimes.”

The artists documenting Claremont Village are using a wide range of media, from film and digital photography to audio and video interviews. They started shooting last summer, and are hoping to get illuminations up around the neighborhood in June.

“When you show people, respectfully, how they are seen, it really has an effect,” Santos says.


This Map of New Orleans Might Save a Life

(Photo: Daniel X. O'Neill)

Where do ambulance drivers park when they’re waiting for a call? And how close are they to the areas where calls are likeliest to originate?

The City of New Orleans wanted to know. Between 2014 and 2016, the city saw a 12 percent spike in emergency medical calls. During the same period, EMS teams struggled to keep up with demand, with the portion of calls being addressed in less than 12 minutes falling from 80 percent to 72 percent. But by adjusting where ambulances idle between calls—based on both traffic patterns and the volume of emergency calls—the city was able to reduce response times during the night shift and improve service to two of its worst-served neighborhoods.

That’s according to a new report from Results for America, a nonprofit that tries to help local governments create evidence-based solutions to urban problems. The group invites local government leaders to participate in fellowships that put them in contact with their peers in other cities, to exchange ideas for improving government work. The New Orleans case study was one of four that the group published in early January, highlighting the work of Results for America fellows in various cities. The group also reported on work in Atlanta, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, and plans to release a dozen more case studies this year.

“Our goal in writing these case studies is to focus on policymakers who are interested in using data and evidence but don’t necessarily know how to get started,” says Maia Jachimowicz, the vice president for evidence-based policy implementation at Results for America.

The group has 16 fellows from 16 cities. Both the current and former directors of New Orleans’ Office of Performance and Accountability have been in the program, Jachimowicz said. The idea for analyzing ambulance response times was solicited from city staff, she says.

“To improve response times and decrease geographic disparity, the Office of Performance and Accountability team focused on two variables: how EMS ambulances were selected to address a 911 call and where they were stationed after responding to this call to wait for the next one,” according to the report.

The Office mapped five years’ worth of 911 calls, and identified 100 locations from which ambulances could respond to them within 8 minutes, according to the report. Then it used another program to find places where ambulances could cover the most calls most quickly. But data alone didn’t suffice: Some of the top locations identified through the analysis were in residential areas, where ambulance drivers don’t park, and the initial recommendations for placement would have required drivers to constantly shuffle between locations after calls to optimize response times. After discussing the work with drivers, the office created two printable maps of parking locations that help serve the city equitably and efficiently. The result is improved response times on the night shift and substantially faster service to Algiers and New Orleans East, where responses have historically been the slowest.

The two maps, one for daytime (left) and one for nighttime (right), were based off of five years of 911 calls.

Jachimowicz says that the city has been on the forefront of data-based problem-solving under Mayor Mitch Landrieu, whose term is ending this year. Which is not to say that it has solved all of its problems, of course. In fact, the city—where locals joke that NOPD stands for Not Our Problem, Dude—has been struggling to improve its notoriously slow police response time for several years. But she says the city has done a good job of keeping data analysis at the front of its work.

“New Orleans has been a leader in the use of data analytics for a while,” Jachimowicz says. “They’ve really built a pretty sophisticated system in the way that they do this work.”

The report also highlights tips for replicating the work in other cities, including always leaning on direct knowledge of practitioners. It also says that the project shows that equity and efficiency don’t have to be at odds, and in fact “data and evidence can be used to enhance both simultaneously.”

Other cases studies highlight Baltimore’s turn to a budgeting system based on improving outcomes in the areas that the city identifies as top priorities, Atlanta’s staff-centered approach to performance management, and Philadelphia’s use of behavioral science to improve participation in city programs and services.

Jachimowicz says that Results for America plans to release 12 more case studies for the rest of its cities this year. In promoting the work, the group hopes to show cities that data can be used to address all sorts of local challenges.

“There are many different approaches that a city or county or even a governor can take to doing this work,” Jachimowicz says. “It shouldn’t be too scary. Our end goal is that policymakers across the country are adopting the practices that they’re seeing from these leaders.”


5 Transportation Projects to Watch in 2018

A rendering of the NE 145th station, one of the planned stations in the Lynwood Link light-rail extension in Seattle. (Credit: SoundTransit)

There was plenty of good, bad, and weird news on the transportation beat in 2017.

Driverless cars began taking to the roadways in numbers. New Orleans launched a bike share system. An Amtrak train making its first run on a new line derailed near Olympia, Washington, killing three people. Elon Musk called public transit advocate Jarrett Walker an “idiot.”

But transit is all about moving forward. American cities are preparing to launch projects that could change the way people get around town and chip away at their dependence on private cars. Here are a few transportation projects to watch for in 2018.

Seattle light-rail expansions

Nearly a decade after voters approved the Sound Transit 2 ballot measure, pouring more than $17 billion into road and transit upgrades in the Puget Sound region of Washington over 15 years, Seattle is almost ready to begin construction on the Lynnwood Link Extension. The proposed 8.5-mile light rail line will connect Lynnwood, a small northern suburb, to downtown Seattle with an estimated 28-minute ride, according to Sound Transit. The project got formal approval from the Federal Transit Authority in 2015, and construction is scheduled to begin this year.

Sound Transit has applied for a $1.17 billion federal grant to cover part of the estimated $3 billion cost, but it’s not a sure thing. Last spring, President Donald Trump’s preliminary budget proposal threatened funding for the light rail expansions. Sound Transit is still proceeding with the project, but the federal grant is key. The project is already $500 million over budget.

A big year for bikeshare

This spring, Memphis is getting its own bikeshare system. The B-Cycle Dash system will launch with 600 bikes, tricked out with “a color touch-screen display with onboard GPS, automatic lights and four methods of payment,” according to the Memphis Daily News. Explore Bikeshare, the organization that’s planning the system, is expected to roll out an additional 300 bikes next year.

Bikeshare systems are getting more sophisticated all over. Three cities in California are launching the biggest electric-bike network in the country this May. (Electric bikes are semi-self-propelled, so you don’t have to pedal as much.) In Washington, D.C., Social Bicycles Inc. launched a network of dockless electric bikes, branded as JUMP, in September. Dockless bike share is a growing trend in the U.S. and around the world, as highlighted by Slate.

Denver hoping for a new commuter rail line

In 2004, voters in and around Denver approved a plan to put $4.7 billion into new transit infrastructure, including 120 miles of new light rail and regional commuter rail and 18 miles of bus rapid transit. The program, called FasTracks, has opened a series of new railway lines in the last few years. It has put Denver in contention, as CityLab put it, to be the “most advanced transit city in the west.”

This year, regional commuters are hoping to see the opening of the G Line, running from Union Station in Denver to the western suburb of Wheat Ridge. Residents were hoping the G Line would be running in 2016, but the opening was delayed because of a software problem that left gates down too long at at-grade crossings, according to The Denver Post. The Regional Transportation District still has not announced an official opening date for the 11-mile line, but testing in the first days of the new year has been giving residents hope.

New ferry routes in New York

Last spring, New York got a handful of new public ferry routes, allowing passengers to float on the East River between Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, where previously ferry service was only privately run. The routes augment the longstanding Staten Island Ferry, and like the subway, cost $2.75 a ride. Currently, ferries run as far as the Rockaways and Astoria. This summer, the network will be complete when two new routes are launched, linking Long Island City in Queens and Clason Point in the Bronx to the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Already, the new routes are having an impact on waterfront development in Brooklyn and Queens. And NYC Ferry is planning to put bigger boats into service this year.

Bus rapid transit in Indianapolis

This year, Indianapolis will begin construction on a 13-mile electric bus rapid transit line that will run through downtown, from Broad Ripple in the north to the University of Indianapolis in the south. The project is expected to cost $96 million. The state has used eminent domain powers to obtain some portions of privately owned land for construction, and has collected some detractors in the process. When service starts in 2019, buses will be scheduled to arrive at stops every ten minutes throughout most of the day, and will stop within a quarter-mile of 150,000 jobs, according to IndyGo, the Indianapolis Public Transportation Corporation.


Chattanooga Aims for Lean Government With ‘Peak Academy’

Chattanooga Peak Academy, modeled on a similar program in Denver, has already saved $85,000, officials say. The program aims to teach city workers "lean" techniques, popular in the corporate world. Here, Maura Sullivan, Chattanooga's Chief Operating Officer, offers insights. (Credit: City of Chattanooga)

It was November of 2016 when Tim Moreland traveled to Denver for a week-long training in the city’s “Peak Academy,” a program that’s meant to empower city employees to create and implement their own improvements to the way their government works. Moreland, the director of performance management and open data for the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, was there as both a participant and observer. The experience convinced him that the program could work in Chattanooga, too. So three months later, with no budget and no staff, Moreland helped Chattanooga launch a Peak Academy of its own.

In the ten months since then, more than 100 city employees have gone through the training program. They’ve come up with dozens of micro-innovations to make government work more efficiently, from cutting down on the use of paper and ink to experimenting with new recruiting practices to help diversify the city’s police force. Because it’s run by volunteers who work on the program in addition to their “regular” jobs, Peak Academy doesn’t cost the city anything. In fact, it’s actually begun to generate a small amount of revenue, as outside organizations, including the United Way of Greater Chattanooga and the Tennessee Valley Authority, have paid the city to send their own employees to the program.

In concept, Peak Academy is aligned with ideas of “lean” processing and continuous improvement that are popular in the corporate world. The goal, says Michael Baskin, chief policy officer for Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, is to give city workers the tools they need to address issues that they’ve identified in their daily work. Instead of setting specific goals and expecting specific outcomes, the program is meant to help employees design and implement better practices on their own.

“Peak Academy is one strategy that my administration has used to help our staff realize their full potential as public servants,” said Berke, in a statement emailed to Next City. “Through their work in Peak, we can discover new efficiencies and entirely new approaches to existing challenges, both big and small. The return for the citizens of Chattanooga is more and better services at lower cost, which allows us to invest more resources in other ways.”

The Peak Academy has two levels: “Green belt,” which involves less than a day of training, and “black belt,” which lasts for a week. Baskin says that in the black belt trainings, the first two days are spent helping employees identify and understand problems. Workers often come in wanting to jump straight to solutions, Baskin says, but the structure of the training encourages them to think first about “what the customer wants.” They start talking about solutions on the third day. At the end of the week, trainees are expected to present to their managers and peers three improvements that they plan to make—again with no new budget, staff, or technology.

“We work with people who want to work with us,” says Moreland. “It’s done purposefully so we get people who are excited and engaged.”

Moreland says that Peak Academy participants have so far identified 206 potential innovations and carried out 22 of them. They’ve already saved the city $85,000, he says. One employee had been routinely printing out eleven copies of major government contracts, all for internal use in various departments. Most of the time the full contracts weren’t needed, she realized, so she started only printing them out on request. After a library worker and a coordinator of the police force’s gang unit went through Peak Academy together, they decided to create a collaborative reading club between the two departments, with the aim of increasing empathy among the police force.

“It gives people a common language that allows them to create change together,” says Baskin.

Another employee simply reoriented her desk space so that she was as easily accessible to members of the public as she was to her co-workers. If everyone in city government tried to make small improvements in their work systems every day, Baskin says, the cumulative effect would be powerful. In many instances, employees are finding ways to cut out superfluous tasks that aren’t key to their actual jobs.

In Denver, Peak Academy innovations have allowed the city to reduce its average recruitment and hiring time by 20 days, from a baseline of 84 days. Denver’s program inspired a similar academy in San Diego, called OpEx, for “operational excellence.” San Diego’s performance and analytics department studied employees’ processes and found ways to replace street lights more quickly and shorten the time it takes to answer 911 calls, according to The San Diego Union-Tribune.

According to Baskin, the academy has charged non-city employees between $500 and $2,000 to participate in the weeklong training sessions. It’s been so successful that one county government in bordering Georgia has come knocking, and is thinking about creating a Peak Academy of its own, Baskin says. Money aside, Baskin says, the program is helping city employees do their work in ways that make more sense to them, and that’s good for morale.

“Sure there’s some hard dollar savings,” Baskin says, “but it’s really about freeing someone up.”


Cities That Went Big on Infrastructure Investments in 2017

A woman using a BCycle bikeshare bike rides past the Alamo in San Antonio. Voters there approved the largest bond measure in the city's history, with streets, bridges, sidewalks and bike lanes receiving $445 million. (Photo by Derekmarc on Wikimedia Commons)

Despite President Donald Trump’s promises to “fix our inner cities” and invest in urban infrastructure, American cities have spent much of the first year of his administration worrying about how his policies might contribute instead to their unmaking.

Would proposed cuts to HUD and the Community Development Block Grant program send the affordable housing crisis into overdrive? Would sanctuary cities be hit with punishing cuts to federal funding? Would the elimination of the national Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit leave landmark buildings to languish?

The Republican-engineered tax overhaul signed by Trump just before Christmas is expected to make life more difficult in big cities, but so far, many of the gravest threats to specific urban development programs have failed to materialize. And in many places, voters turned out to support local bond initiatives that could help cities invest in streetscape improvements, transit infrastructure, affordable housing, bike lanes, and upgrades to parks and open spaces. The wave of support for these initiatives signaled that city dwellers see the value in making long-term improvements to urban infrastructure, and are willing to invest in it.


In May, San Antonio voters approved the biggest bond package in the city’s history. The $850 million package was split into six separate ballot questions, representing investments in streets, bridges, and sidewalks; drainage and flood control; parks and recreation centers; libraries and cultural facilities; public safety facilities; and “neighborhood improvements.” Each question was approved by at least two thirds of voters.

San Antonio has been selling bonds on a five year cycle, with a $550 million issue in 2007 and $596 million in 2012. Of the six investment categories targeted in the 2017 bond issue, streets, bridges, and sidewalks will get the most money by far, with $445 million. The funding covers 64 projects, from street repavings to pedestrian improvements to bike lanes.

Also included in the bond issue is a $20 million investment in affordable housing. The “neighborhood improvements” bonds will allow the city to acquire and clear property in certain neighborhoods and sell it to private developers, who will be required to include some reduced-rate housing as part of their projects. The city is facing an unmet demand for at least 150,000 affordable housing units, according to the San Antonio Express-News.


Voters in fast-growing Denver showed up for a ballot measure in November that would generate $937 million for infrastructure investments. Nearly half of the investment will be set aside for transportation and mobility projects, which also got the most support at the polls. Those projects include 33 miles of new sidewalks and $18 million for citywide bike infrastructure, including new protected bike lanes. The bond sale will also fund a renovation of the Denver Central Library and improvements to 47 parks, according to the Denver Post.


In Dallas, voters approved 10 ballot questions that together represent a $1.05 billion infrastructure investment. More than half the package is dedicated to 1,027 projects that will bring improvements to city streets, including repavings, bridge repairs, new sidewalks, and street lighting. Around $30 million is dedicated for “Complete Streets” makeovers. The city’s network of bike lanes and trails will also be bolstered by the bond issue, along with $50 million from other sources, according to a local NBC affiliate.

The portion of the bond effort dedicated to parks and trails grew after the city convened a citizens task force to sort through individual project proposals, as Next City reported in July. The projects were based on a “needs inventory” that the city maintains online. The package also includes $20 million set aside for “transitional and permanent supportive housing to target chronic homelessness, rapid rehousing for the elderly, disabled and families with children and day centers for seamless wrap-around services.”


In September, Oklahoma City voters approved 13 separate bond propositions representing a $967 million investment over the next ten years. The program, known as Better Streets, Safer City, also includes a permanent quarter-cent sales tax increase aimed at public-safety investments and the temporary extension of a one-cent sales tax to raise $240 million for street improvements over 27 months.

The investments—and the tax measures—were supported by Mayor Mick Cornett, a Republican who is reportedly planning to run for Oklahoma governor in 2018. Cornett, who is in his fourth term, was also mayor the last time the city carried out a major bond initiative, with a package worth $835 million approved by voters in 2007.


Earlier this year, a community survey of Raleigh, North Carolina, residents found that while nearly everyone thinks the city is a good place to live, almost half of respondents said that traffic flow on area roads was poor or below average. Then in October, voters approved transportation bond package worth more than $200 million. The investment, which includes road repaving and restriping projects, pedestrian improvements, and a project meant to create safer pathways for kids walking and biking to school, was supported by the Chamber of Commerce and a local planning advocacy group.

It passed despite opposition from the Wake County Republican Party and the county Taxpayers Association. The head of the Taxpayers Association announced the group’s outright opposition to bike lanes to the Raleigh News & Observer after the vote, calling them “suicide lanes.” The measure was approved by voters by a ratio of 72-28.


Philadelphia Hopes to Harmonize Historic Preservation

Even without the bright orange demolition notice pasted onto its double doors, Christian Street Baptist Church wouldn’t be the most striking building in South Philadelphia.

There’s more high drama in the arched doors and windows of St. Paul’s Catholic Church, one block east. There’s deeper history behind the stone walls of St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi, the first Italian national parish in the United States and the starting point for the procession of the saints during the Italian Market Festival every May. For a total vision of sacred architecture, Christian Street Baptist doesn’t compete with the National Shrine of St. Rita of Cascia, half a mile to the southwest.

Still, the church, originally built as a Protestant Episcopal mission for Italian immigrants, has been a landmark in the Bella Vista neighborhood since the 1890s. African-American Baptist congregations mainly have been the occupants since the early part of the 20th century. An open belfry tops the eastern tower of its asymmetrical facade. The doorway is capped by a stained-glass transom, surrounded by ornamental terracotta. The brickwork is more intricate on the church than on the similarly scaled rowhouses that surround it on both sides. There’s nothing else exactly like it in the entire city, and if it’s torn down, there will never be anything like it again.

“You could just look at it from an architectural perspective and say that it is a unique building — the scale of it, the style of it,” says Oscar Beisert, a professional architectural historian who’s active in local preservation advocacy. He frequently engages the Philadelphia Historical Commission, which ultimately decides which buildings get placed on the city’s Register of Historic Places, by filing nominations. “You could make a case for the architecture. But I think what’s particularly special about this building is that it relates to the history of immigrant populations in Philadelphia. The Protestant Episcopal Church was the most fashionable religion in 19th-century America, and so because of that, they had a lot of money, and they started a lot of these mission congregations to not only try to convert people, but to provide social services that the government didn’t provide at the time.”

Today, Bella Vista, south of Center City, is among the most competitive real estate markets in Philadelphia. Newcomers are mostly white; longstanding black communities have dwindled. The current congregation at Christian Street Baptist Church has contracted as well — it’s now only about a dozen strong — and has struggled to maintain the property. This year, the congregation decided to sell the church, which has structural issues and a mold problem; they were also eyeing the prospect of securing cash to move to another facility.

In a matter of hours, a Philadelphia developer who planned to tear down the church and build townhomes offered just below the asking price of around $1.5 million, and the congregation accepted. Then Beisert stepped in. He nominated the church for historic protection at the city level.

Christian Street Baptist Church may be unique, but its dilemma is not. In a similar case in 2015, Beisert and other preservationists stepped in to designate First African Baptist Church, the oldest of its kind in Pennsylvania, six blocks west of Christian Street Baptist, after the pastor sought to sell it to a developer who proposed demolition. In that case, the demolition was opposed by a group of congregants as well, and while the church was eventually sold, it was also listed on the historic register, and is being repurposed as a daycare center and condominiums. A Pew report released in October concluded that many of Philadelphia’s historic religious properties are facing maintenance problems, and that more and more congregations will face tough choices about what to do with their properties as time goes by.

“It really comes down to a question,” says Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, which supported the nomination of Christian Street Baptist Church. “Does a congregation, like any other property owner, have the right to extract full value from their property? Or does the community have the right to retain these ornaments to the cityscape in some way? Is it a desired goal of city government to facilitate the transitioning of religious properties away from sacred use? We would argue that it is. Churches are one of the most important parts of the built environment in terms of imparting character and a sense of permanence to a neighborhood, and religious properties in particular should receive special consideration in terms of incentives and regulations to encourage their preservation and adaptive reuse.”

It’s not just churches that are under threat. The rejuvenation of Philadelphia’s real estate market has been accompanied by the destruction of iconic theaters, beloved diners, public schools, landmark hospitals and hundreds of run-of-the-mill rowhomes that, taken together, make up the essential urban fabric of the city.

Last-minute applications filed for preservation as a wrecking ball swings toward a building, however, aren’t a sustainable long-term plan. Neither are methods that end up pitting advocates like Beisert against a church congregation struggling to maintain a property. So Philadelphia is now trying to move past the perceived crisis of demolition. With an increase in the Historical Commission’s budget and the appointment, in the spring, of a Historic Preservation Task Force, the city is hoping to develop a more proactive approach to preservation. Over the course of the next year, the task force will be developing recommendations for how to balance development and preservation in a city that for decades has been desperate for development of any kind. And it’s doing all of this with an eye on making preservation a more inclusive practice, and chipping away at the notion that preservation is the sole province of elite professionals working purely in service of aesthetics and buildings designed by prominent architects.

A Wake-Up Call for Historic Preservation

If there was one case that focused the city’s attention on its vulnerable historic architecture, it was the proposal last year to demolish six buildings on Jewelers’ Row, a block of 18th- and 19th-century buildings, six blocks east of City Hall, that make up the oldest diamond district in the United States.

Residential developer Toll Brothers took the city by surprise when it pulled a permit to build a 16-story housing complex on the small-scale row. As two leading members of the local Design Advocacy Group wrote in an op-ed, virtually everyone had assumed that the iconic district was already protected. But not only were the buildings not listed on the historic register, they were also sitting in the most permissive commercial zoning category in the whole city and — from a developer’s point of view — on an underbuilt stretch of high-value real estate. Toll Brothers’ proposal sharpened advocates’ sense that the city’s approach to preservation was failing.

Mayor Jim Kenney, who had talked up his commitment to preservation during his campaign but hadn’t made much concrete progress on the issue six months into his term, was forced to react. Acknowledging that Toll had a legal right to demolish the buildings, he called on the developers to incorporate the facades into whatever they ended up building. Last December, when Toll’s proposal grew to 29 stories and still included no clear commitment to preserving any of the buildings, Kenney said the plan was “deeply disturbing.” Four months later, he announced the appointment of the Historic Preservation Task Force.

Jewelers' Row is a block of 18th- and 19th-century buildings, six blocks east of City Hall in Philadelphia. It's the oldest diamond district in the United States.

Harris Steinberg, director of the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation at Drexel University, is chair of the new task force. He says that they want to align all the municipal agencies that deal with land use behind a common vision that includes both preservation and development.

In its early meetings, the group has engaged in some wide-angle soul searching about the purposes of historic preservation and the strengths and weaknesses of Philadelphia’s regulations. At one session, commissioners openly wordsmithed a vision statement:

Philadelphia in 2030 has preserved the unique identity of its historic buildings, blocks and neighborhoods while embracing new investment.

Philadelphians are active protectors of their neighborhood history and cultural identity. In partnership with foundations, developers, civic leaders and government, residents identified the buildings, sites and places that are important to protect for future generations in order to tell the story of Philadelphia and its people.

The city uses regulations and incentives to protect these important places that reflects the values of its residents and results in the extraordinary layering of history that makes Philadelphia unique.

It’s an aspirational vision, and one that will require negotiating many competing interests. Even setting aside longtime conflict between preservation and development, historic preservation itself is undergoing a transformational redefinition.

For a long time, historic preservation was seen primarily as an important end in itself, a recognition that iconic works of architecture are keys to understanding the past. But in recent years, advocates have sought to defend preservation as a practice that serves a broader array of public interests. In 2010, Econsult released a report showing that over 10 years, preservation projects in Pennsylvania had accounted for more than $1 billion of investment, 9,800 jobs, and $24 million in state tax revenue. In the same period, preservation work had generated $660 million in investment, 2,800 jobs, and $6.6 million in tax revenue in Philadelphia alone, the report concluded.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation created an “Atlas of ReUrbanism” showing that areas with older and smaller buildings tend to have more minority- and women-owned small businesses, more affordable homes and more jobs generally. It promotes the idea that preservation serves sustainability goals, with the maxim that “the greenest building is the one that’s already built.”

Whose Task Force? Whose Preservation?

The values that the 33-member Historic Preservation Task Force end up promoting could have profound impacts on which preservation projects are prioritized in the city and, in turn, the very shape of the built environment in neighborhoods across the city.

In developing their recommendations — and making the case for them — members will likely have difficult conversations. This is the main defense the task force has offered for the decision to do the work of its four subcommittees away from the public eye. There’s also a plan to hold open meetings in neighborhoods around the city to solicit public input.

“So far it’s been a very collegial process and the subcommittees have organized and started to work diligently from the get-go,” says Steinberg. “It all seems to be working right now without any tension that is forcing me into having to adjudicate one way or the other. Will that be likely nine months from now? I’m hoping. But it will get more difficult, more challenging, as we start to come up with: What is the story we’re telling? What are the recommendations we’re making?”

The task force includes not only preservationists, historians and architects, but also archeologists, developers, attorneys, economists, planners and community representatives. In a draft of a report on the state of preservation in Philadelphia (expected to be finalized in January), the task force acknowledged that the “constituency for historic preservation is geographically but not demographically diverse.” In its effort to broaden that constituency, the task force hopes to make recommendations for how the Historical Commission can improve education and outreach — an official plank of the Commission’s mission that it has rarely pursued.

But with respect to diversity, the task force itself stumbled out of the gate. In a July column, local journalist and radio host Charles D. Ellison noted that 24 of the 29 original members of the task force were white. “The theme of the Task Force, given its very specialized subject matter, is to let the architects, preservationists and real estate developers handle it,” Ellison wrote. How could the group broaden the definition of preservation if it was composed of the usual suspects?

Ellison wasn’t the only one who noted the lack of diversity, and at its second meeting, the task force responded by adding several people of color, some of whom were listed as “community representatives.” One of the new additions, Trapeta Mayson, the executive director of Historic Germantown, says she initially assumed that the invitation was simply a reaction to the criticism, but she was excited to represent Germantown and add her voice to the discussion.

“I wanted to know: Do you want real input or was this sort of like an exercise?” Mayson says. “And so we had that conversation.”

Mayson says her conversation with Steinberg made her believe her perspective and experience would be valued on the task force. She was named a co-chair of the education and outreach committee, and she says she has faith that the task force will develop good recommendations.

But Faye Anderson, a preservation activist and director of All That Philly Jazz, a public history project that is telling the story of Philadelphia’s golden age of jazz, says she feels like she was “uninvited” from the task force. Over the summer, she says, task force staff reached out to her to see if she would be interested in joining. She says she took a few days to make sure she’d be able to attend the meetings, and then said she would join. To this day, she says she has not heard back from them.

“They never expected me to say, ‘Yes,’” Anderson says. “I don’t think they wanted me, they just wanted to say they asked.”

In Anderson’s opinion, the task force is just a delay tactic. If the city really wanted to address its preservation issues, she believes, it could do so simply, by making a survey of historic resources and committing more resources to protecting them; in the short term, she thinks Philadelphia needs a citywide survey and a demolition moratorium. The problem is that the city doesn’t have the political will to do so, she says. And she’s critical of the task force for trying to stay above the fray.

“We’re in the middle of a demolition crisis and [the task force] says nothing,” Anderson says. “What is it waiting for? Whenever the report comes out, what will be left?”

Steinberg has said that the task force’s job is “not to advocate.” But it has noted that preservation advocacy suffers from the belief that it is “elitist and focused on the protection of wealthy people’s homes and famous architects’ buildings,” as the draft report says, citing a presentation from the Preservation Alliance. That perception may be beginning to fracture around the country, as diverse communities have begun to take up the cause in more high-profile ways. But it’s still firmly rooted.

“For the most part, preservation up until now has been seen by many as an elitist, educated, largely Caucasian profession,” Steinberg says. “Whether that’s true or not or whether it’s valid or not doesn’t matter. I think that’s the perception. The hope is that with this process we can begin to change that, and that’s all part of this question about the broader definition of preservation.”

Anderson says that the presence of lawyers, developers and consultants who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo represents a built-in conflict of interest, one that will keep the effort from producing any meaningful outcomes.

Mayson says that participating in the task force has already informed her understanding of preservation.

“I find it really fascinating, because coming from a historic organization, often the thought is that preservationists are preservationists and developers are developers, and I’m finding that that’s not really the case,” Mayson says. “There are some very thoughtful developers who care about preserving communities.”

From Demolition to Development

“Demolition in general, whether it’s a beautiful church or a crappy, one-story, brutalist building — it’s a conversation,” says Ori Feibush, the Philadelphia developer who’s planning to buy Christian Street Baptist Church. “Demolition has inherent risks. It’s costly. It always pisses off neighbors, regardless of what the structure is. And then if you add something that people wish stayed up, it only adds to that stress and that consternation.”

Oscar Beisert’s push to have the church designated as a historic building threatened the sale because, for Feibush, adaptive reuse is a nonstarter. The layout is awkward, the windows don’t work for apartments, the rear facade is stuccoed over, the near-complete lot occupancy would make it difficult to brace the building to preserve the facade. The only part worth $1.5 million is the land underneath the church, he says. It would be worth a third as much if the building had to stay standing.

Feibush acknowledges the church’s argument that designating the building will deprive the congregation of the money they need to continue their ministry. At a Historical Commission designation committee meeting in October, Tahnee Hall, the treasurer of Christian Street Baptist Church, said that the congregation wouldn’t leave the building if they could avoid it, but that the bricks and mortar of the property were not the priority. The history of the church would be carried with the congregation and shared with their children, whatever happened to the building itself.

Some advocates think there could be a solution that would serve everyone.

“We would have liked to help the congregation explore alternatives to a hasty sale and demolition, but the congregation did not seem to be interested,” says Rachel Hildebrandt, a senior program manager at Partners for Sacred Places, a national nonprofit headquartered in Philadelphia that sees such congregations as vital anchor institutions. She adds that Feibush is setting the narrative about the building’s value, but the only way to find out what the property could fetch with the existing buildings is to put it back on the market with that condition.

“There are developers in Philadelphia, believe it or not, who are interested in redeveloping historic property,” Hildebrandt says.

Christian Street Baptist Church has been a landmark in Philadelphia's Bella Vista neighborhood since the 1890s.

Current regulations only apply to a small fraction of the buildings in the city. Just 2.2 percent of the city’s buildings are designated historic, according to the task force’s research, as opposed to an average of 4.3 percent in 50 cities in the country. Given the amount of eligible buildings that aren’t protected, it’s not surprising that preservationists have been forced to step in at the last minute to prevent demolitions, according to the task force.

In some cases, even assets that are widely acknowledged as historic go unprotected for years at a time. The Philadelphia Historical Commission has nominations for several historic districts that have been sitting on the shelf that it is only now hoping to move forward on after getting funding for two additional staff members in Mayor Kenney’s most recent budget. Christian Street Baptist Church itself was listed as a prominent landmark worthy of consideration for protection in a 2015 city plan.

But even if it had been designated then — even if it were to be designated now — that wouldn’t really resolve the dilemma, Feibush says. It’s one thing to legally prevent a historic building from being demolished. It’s another thing entirely to facilitate a viable reuse for the building’s future.

“There needs to be, for lack of a better word, basically a grant program available,” he says. “There has to be compensation. You have to level the playing field, because the easy argument is always that a creative developer can find a way. And I agree with you. But the problem is, that creative developer is always going to be in a position where he’s offering less money, or she’s offering less money, than the developer ready to tear it down.”

Preservation advocates readily concede the point. Beisert notes the incentive of the city’s 10-year tax abatement for renovation and new construction. The city should consider incentive programs, such as extending the abatement for historic buildings that are more challenging to restore or re-use or other community-serving institutions, to make the buildings more enticing to a wider range of developers, he suggests.

“If there’s going to be a tax abatement that leads to investment, why not at least have some component that is geared toward things that have architectural value?” Beisert says. “And then it would help offset some of these costs.”

For other ideas, the city could look to the work of a previous preservation task force from a dozen years ago. One suggestion from that group’s report, which was not pursued, was that the city could use tax increment financing, which lets owners keep some of the increased taxes they would otherwise pay on improved properties, to support preservation work in historic districts.

At the national level, the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives Program, started in 1976, allows developers to offset the cost of rehabilitation projects by up to 20 percent for properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s been used for more than 40,000 projects nationwide, leveraging more than $84 billion in private investment, according to the National Park Service. But the tax credit is only available for nationally recognized buildings.

Besides, as a Republican-controlled Congress debated a new tax plan this fall, the federal historic tax credit was in jeopardy. Initial bills in both the House and Senate completely eliminated the tax credit, though it was saved in the end. As the threat loomed, advocates noted that eliminating the program could be devastating not just to historic rehab projects but to economic development in cities more generally.

“There are times where money is just the answer,” says Paul Chrystie, a spokesman for Philadelphia’s Department of Planning and Development, which includes the Historical Commission. “Taking money away — you can’t overcome that. Taking money away from a program that pays for itself and generates neighborhood revitalization, generates jobs, is just silly.”

As the task force highlighted in its draft report on preservation in Philadelphia, the city currently has no financial incentives designed to encourage the maintenance or restoration of historic properties. The National Trust for Historic Preservation, which has a representative on Philly’s task force, is trying to help. In June, the National Trust named the historic neighborhoods of Philadelphia a “national treasure,” as it has done for parts of Miami, Louisville and Detroit. And as part of its work with the task force, the National Trust is researching incentives that other cities and states have used to support preservation, and will be offering some case studies for the city to consider.

“In many ways, it’s about values,” Steinberg says. “What’s important to us? How do we direct public monies to effectuate the kind of projects or change we’re looking for? It would not surprise me if the incentives subcommittee came up with creative and interesting new ways to incentivize this balance that we’re talking about.”

Meanwhile, Feibush maintains that he’ll sign the contract on Christian Street Baptist Church over, at cost, to any developer who has a viable plan to adaptively reuse the church. Paul Steinke says he has found a few developers and investors who might be interested.

Finding the True Value of Historic Preservation

The task force was planning to have its white paper on the state of preservation in Philly finalized by December. But members had so much feedback on the draft that the final report isn’t expected to be complete until later in January. The task force will then spend six months developing recommendations for how the city can update its regulations, or create incentives, for how to complete a survey of historic properties and improve education about historic properties. Steinberg says the goal is to create recommendations that are actionable, rather than lofty.

The success of its work will rest largely on whether it’s able to expand the scope of preservation in Philadelphia, to not only bring it into harmony with a broader vision of the city’s development, but to make questions of preservation more immediate to more people.

“Our preservation laws were designed originally to encompass the broad range of history and the broad range of cultural heritage that every American values,” says Will Cook, associate general counsel at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “When these laws were being applied in the very beginning, there tended to be an emphasis to focus on significant architectural heritage of national leaders of the colonial period. So because of that emphasis, I think it’s fair to say that there’s a lot of untold history that has not become known, based on the National Register of Historic Places, and that’s been changing over time.”

Mayson works as a poet and artist as well as the director of Historic Germantown, and says she’s spent a lot of time talking with Germantown residents and recording their stories. More people than not have a general interest in preserving old buildings, she says, but getting people to invest in preservation requires presenting historic assets as a foundation for the present and the future more than as relics of the past.

“If you’re able to do the work to make it relevant, and show people how they can find themselves in the history of that building or of that community culture,” she says, “then you don’t have to sell them on anything else.”

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.


When State Law Limits Affordable Housing Policy

Milwaukee has added over a thousand apartments in 2017 with about 1,500 more under construction. An additional 1,700 are planned for next year. With all that development, city leaders attempted to ensure that lower-income renters weren't being left out. (Photo by Mrlaugh on Flickr)

Milwaukee Alderman Robert Bauman has watched the real estate market in the greater downtown areas of his district bounce back since the Great Recession that began a decade ago. But in the poorer central city neighborhoods that he also represents, Bauman says, property values have continued to drop, and virtually nothing is built without some type of government subsidy or grant.

So in November, Bauman authored a bill that would establish a mandatory inclusionary housing policy downtown. Buildings with 20 or more apartments would have to keep 10 percent of units set aside for tenants earning up to 60 percent of the area median income. The goal was to let low-income Milwaukeeans get in on some of the development benefits. Almost a third of Milwaukee renters spend half or more of their income on rent; that’s significantly higher than the national average, according to Census figures.

“We looked at this disparity of what’s going on in the central city of Milwaukee versus what’s going in the greater downtown area,” Bauman says. “And we wanted to at least open up some opportunities for … people who are earning a wage but not a high wage.”

Bauman’s proposal didn’t get very far. Just a few days after the legislation was introduced, the office of the city attorney sent a letter saying that the proposal ran afoul of a Wisconsin state law that prevents cities from establishing rent control programs, as Urban Milwaukee reported. A Wisconsin Court of Appeals decision from 2006 had held that a similar proposal in the city of Madison was illegal and unenforceable under the state statute, the attorney said. At the same time, the part of Bauman’s legislation that would require affordable units in projects that receive public financing was likely OK, the attorney said, because it would amount to a condition on an agreement between the city and a developer, rather than a requirement for obtaining a zoning permit. (Madison operated with a modified version of the legislation that didn’t apply to rental housing for a few years, but the policy expired under a sunset provision in 2009.)

“The court decision seemed pretty on point,” Bauman says. “So we modified our proposal.”

The version of the bill that’s now making its way through the Common Council of Milwaukee would only apply to publicly financed projects. It could still help reduce housing disparities, Bauman says, but not nearly as much.

More and more cities around the U.S. have begun to flirt with inclusionary zoning policies as housing in rebounding urban neighborhoods has gotten more expensive. There’s still no broad consensus around the degree to which the policies work. Research suggests that they aren’t a great solution for housing the lowest-income tenants, and many people, including some in Milwaukee, argue that the policies can suppress residential development overall. A mandatory inclusionary zoning bill was introduced in Philadelphia over the summer, but the proposal has generated a lot of disagreement, and is still being negotiated.

Meanwhile, cities are working under a “patchwork” of state laws that constrict their policy options in various ways, says Jim Lapides, a spokesman for the National Multifamily Housing Council. His organization, which is staunchly opposed to rent control, has mapped laws in every state, categorizing them by how they impact cities’ ability to develop their own policies. In addition to Wisconsin, four other states preempt both rent control and mandatory inclusionary zoning, according to NMHC’s research.

Lapides says that setting aside even a handful of a building’s units at lower rents can make the difference between the project being profitable or not. NMHC opposes mandatory inclusionary zoning policies, but Lapides says that voluntary policies, based on incentives, can work in some cities. The group, whose political donations have skewed Republican, advocates for local governments to adopt policies that it says would make housing development easier, like faster approval processes, by-right zoning, and density bonuses for certain types of development.

“It’s a really hard problem,” Lapides says. “Cities like Milwaukee are trying to find creative ways to add affordable housing, and the bad news is that they’re not alone, and the good news is that they’re not alone.”

Alderman Bauman says his goal was to get some lower-rent housing in neighborhoods that are otherwise prosperous and have good transit options. The proposal was tailored to a defined area within greater downtown Milwaukee. But once he got the city attorney’s opinion, he never considered petitioning the state to change the law.

“Our legislature is so anti-Milwaukee that it probably would have made it worse,” Bauman says.

Bauman admits that there’s less enthusiasm in progressive circles for the current version of the legislation, which would require a 20 percent set-aside for large housing projects that receive more than $1 million in city financing. The proposal was subject to a committee hearing last week, but won’t be up for final passage until the spring. Bauman hopes it could still make a difference.

“We’re making a very small dent in a very big problem,” he says. “But at least it’s something of a dent.”


There’s No Simple Formula for Rolling Out New Bike Lanes

(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Bicycle advocates lined up in the middle of a Center City Philadelphia street twice in the last month, forming a human-protected bike lane in the wake of high-profile collisions.

At the end of November, a 24-year-old pastry chef named Emily Fredricks was riding in a painted bike lane when she was struck by a turning garbage truck and killed. Three weeks later, a web designer named Becca Refford, also 24, was hit by another truck just a few blocks from where Fredricks was killed. Refford, who is recovering, has shattered hips and a fractured pelvis, according to news reports.

Both collisions occurred in long-established bike lanes in the heart of the city. According to the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, Fredricks was the third bicyclist to die in a traffic incident in the city in 2017. But the city is resisting calls to reorient its bike lane plans in reaction to those specific incidents.

Shortly after Fredricks’ death, the Coalition sent Mayor Jim Kenney a list of seven steps to speed up the pace of progress on Vision Zero, the city’s commitment to achieving zero traffic-related deaths by 2030. Among the demands was that the city present a plan to protect or buffer bike lanes on two streets in the next two months (Spruce and Pine, two east-west arterials that traverse all of Center City), redesign some intersections, and repaint 23 miles of faded bike lanes.

Kenney said in response that his administration is committed to Vision Zero, and to establishing more protected bike lanes throughout the city, but that it was going to keep its focus on the high-injury network, which the two streets are not a part of, despite the recent crashes.

“While Pine and Spruce streets will continue to receive our focus, arbitrary timeframes applied to these locations hold the risk of taking important attention away from other places in the city where the data indicates the safety concerns may be more acute,” Kenney wrote.

Protected bike lanes have been shown to increase ridership and safety in cities, but Ken McLeod, policy director for the League of American Bicyclists, says that while many cities have shown interest in developing better bike infrastructure, only a few are leading the way. Approaches vary, but some are relying on data — and the numbers and voices heard during community engagement may require considerate reckoning.

“If a city has an appropriate long-term data-driven plan, it’s really hard to say no to that,” McLeod says. “But it’s also hard to ignore the emotional appeal of reacting to incidents. I know some cities have had issues where their safety responses have been based on community feedback, and sometimes that’s meant that they’ve steered more resources to louder communities, which means that they’re ignoring lower-income communities or communities that don’t have political capital.”

McLeod says that some cities, like Austin and San Francisco, have been able to build support for specific bike infrastructure projects by including them in larger transportation funding campaigns. He also noted that unsanctioned pop-up infrastructure can sometimes convince leaders that permanent improvements are needed, as Next City has reported.

Bicycle advocacy has gained steam as data has become more readily available, McLeod says. According to an inventory of protected bike lanes collected by People for Bikes, the number of protected lanes in the U.S. has roughly doubled every two years since 2006. But some cities are still way out ahead.

“It’s still a type of facility that’s in a minority of communities,” McLeod says. “There’s a lot of work to do in the rest of the country.”

In Philadelphia, the city’s Office of Transportation and Infrastructure Systems (OTIS) last week announced plans to build flexible delineator posts to buffer a bike lane on several blocks of South Street. There was resistance in the neighborhood early on, but city officials say support from community organizations and business groups in the area helped.

Advocates have criticized the city for leaning too heavily on approval from City Council members and near neighbors when making decisions about street upgrades. But OTIS officials say that getting community buy-in is essential to making street upgrades permanent. In his response to the Bicycle Coalition, Kenney said the group should redouble its efforts at civic engagement and building the case for better bike lanes.

“We want to really build the momentum and the sustained acceptance and approval for bike infrastructure, rather than rolling out a lot and having a lot of backlash,” says Kelley Yemen, the city’s director of complete streets.

Yemen says that there are monthly meetings between OTIS, the Streets Department, and the police in which they discuss recent collisions and potential quick fixes at the intersections where they have occurred. But given the funding they have for permanent infrastructure upgrades, the city wants to keep its efforts focused on the high-injury network, which is why it’s resisting calls to immediately build protected lanes on Spruce and Pine in Center City. (The Bicycle Coalition also asked Kenney to add $1 million to Vision Zero efforts, to which the mayor responded noncommittally, citing the city’s “vulnerable” finances.)

During his mayoral campaign, Kenney promised to establish 30 miles of protected bike lanes in the city. But in his response to the Bicycle Coalition’s request to release a map showing where those projects will be built, Kenney said the city would announce them individually, after consulting with surrounding communities.

“That process takes longer,” says Jeannette Brugger, the bicycle and pedestrian coordinator at OTIS. “But it’s worth it with the buy-in and acceptance of the community.”


7 Layers of Racial Disparity in California Contradict the “Golden State” Myth

Though their economies tend to be high-performing, the counties in the San Francisco Bay Area have some of the worst racial disparities in the entire state of California.

In the city of San Francisco, life expectancy for Asian residents is 14 years longer than for black residents. The median income of white households is more than three times that of black households. When it comes to access to quality housing, the crisis is increasingly well documented. But what often goes unsaid is that racial disparities in housing are greater in San Francisco than in any other county in California, with white renters typically keeping around $57,000 in income after housing costs, as opposed to less than $30,000 for Asian and Latino renters.

These figures and thousands more are collected on a new interactive website called Race Counts, a wide-ranging data-gathering initiative from the civil rights organization Advancement Project California. Launched in November, Race Counts provides data on dozens of disparity indicators across seven categories: economic opportunity, healthcare access, education, housing, democracy, crime and justice, and a healthy built environment.

The data is broken down by county, and used to compare places on both their performance in key areas and the racial disparity in the same areas. (San Francisco, for instance, is a high performance/high disparity county.) The goal of the initiative is to equip organizers and advocacy groups with as much data as they need to win battles in the war against racial disparity in California.

“We constantly use proxies like income or ZIP code to get to that disparity question,” says Megan McClaire, director of health equity for Advancement Project California.

Research began for Race Counts in 2014, and the website pools information from dozens of partner organizations, specifically on racial disparities. Other projects have tackled questions of disparity in cities — like the effort to uncover racially restrictive deeds in Minneapolis — but Race Counts may be unique in the sheer quantity of information it’s gathered into a coherent picture.

“The beauty of the data is that it tells a way more nuanced picture,” McClaire says.

Advancement Project California is not shy about how it wants the data to be used. In the introduction to a report accompanying the data maps, the group lays out a starkly moral narrative about California’s development and the myths contained in its self-image as both a Golden State and a “blue paradise.” Known for its Democratic politics, the group says, California’s policies still leave too many poor communities of color behind.

“California still struggles with the undigested legacy of a long and unique history of racism,” the report reads. “Understanding that history requires, first, acknowledging the very roots of the settler colonialism upon which California was founded — the theft of Native tribes’ land and forced labor that was frequently justified with cultural and racial chauvinism.”

McClaire says the group has watched disparities in some areas even as the state has changed.

“As demographic populations were shifting there were areas where disparities were continuing to persist, like in South L.A., and areas where disparities were beginning to emerge for people of color, as we moved inland,” she says.

Disparities are greatest in the category of criminal justice, which includes indicators like truancy arrests, curfew arrests, fatalities from police encounters, diversity of police, incarceration rates, access to reentry services and perceptions of safety.

Los Angeles is ranked as both a low-disparity and low-performing county, but with a population of nearly 10 million, disparities there affect the greatest number of people in the state. In terms of the diversity of its elected officials, L.A. is among the least disparate counties in the state. But it ranks high on disparities in housing, crime and justice, and built environment indicators. Black Angelenos are 100 times more likely to be incarcerated than Asians, the report shows, while Asian residents have higher levels of contaminants in their drinking water than other racial groups in the county.

Even the areas with the highest performance and lowest disparity are qualified as places with “Gains at Risk” in the report, highlighting the organization’s focus on making equitable improvements in all parts of the state. McClaire says that as far as policy solutions are concerned, Advancement Project California hopes that diverse coalitions of local organizers will use the data to come up with their own ideas. The data doesn’t point to a one-size-fits-all approach to tackling disparity across the state, she says. But the need to address disparities exists across California.

“Just because you’re the best performing and the lowest disparity in housing,” McClaire says, “we’re still in a housing crisis in every area of our state.”


Street Planning in These Cities Rethinks the Curbside

Every Saturday for the rest of the year, it’s a free parking bonanza on the streets of Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Parking Authority has announced that drivers won’t have to pay the normal meter fees after 11 a.m. on Saturdays until 2018, in order to encourage people to do their holiday shopping downtown.

But the PPA might have it twisted. If commercial corridors in U.S. cities want to attract a more reliable customer base, they may want to rethink the amount of street space they dedicate to metered parking for private vehicles, as a new report highlights. In many cases, businesses are better served when cities focus on improving the reliability of bus transit. And while redesigning streets to prioritize transit over parking is an uphill battle politically, there are cities that have taken the plunge and have seen improvements in safety, travel times and business activity on shopping corridors.

The report, “Curb Appeal: Curbside Management Strategies for Improving Transit Reliability,” was released last week by the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO). Pulling case studies from a few of its member cities, the group highlights a variety of strategies that have helped cities redesign streets to keep transit moving smoothly and cut down on the number of stopped vehicles slowing down traffic.

In Seattle, for example, officials created a “road diet” on a busy stretch of Rainier Avenue that reduced driving lanes from four lanes to two. At one intersection, an approaching bus will trigger a green light to clear cars from a right-turn-only lane, allowing the bus to pull ahead of the main flow of traffic. The change has improved bus travel times in one direction by three minutes, while only slowing down car travel times by one minute, according to the report. Seattle has also begun to refer to its curbside street space as the “flex zone” rather than the “parking lane,” prioritizing passenger and freight loading over vehicle parking in commercial areas.

Curbside space in cities has been used almost exclusively for private vehicle storage for close to a century, says Craig Toocheck, a NACTO program analyst and co-author of the “Curb Appeal” report. The practice is so ingrained that it seems almost natural.

But, Toocheck says, “The status quo isn’t really working super well anymore.”

Many of the changes to curbside use tend to be driven by transit agencies or city governments, Toocheck says, but the implications for businesses are great, and can be surprising to business owners. The report cites a Los Angeles study showing that merchants on a stretch of Cesar Chavez Avenue estimated that 36 percent of their patrons had arrived by car and none by transit, when in fact 46 percent had arrived by transit and only 7 percent by car. The portion of patrons who parked on the same street where they were shopping was similarly low on a thoroughfare in Brooklyn and one in San Francisco, according to the report.

Traffic often gets slowed down or blocked on commercial corridors with narrow streets, where delivery trucks, cabs and on-demand ride service cars double-park to unload goods and passengers. In such places, Toocheck says, it makes sense to clear some of the space used for parking and dedicate it to short-term loading and deliveries. Choices like that improve the flow of traffic while providing better use of curbside space for businesses.

“It’s really important to dedicate some space on those places for deliveries,” he says. “Ride-sharing companies move a lot more people than these cars that have been sitting on the curbside for a couple of hours.”

The cities that have taken the most action to reorient the use of their curbsides — the ones featured in the report — are ones where the population is growing rapidly and putting increased demand on street space, Toocheck says. When rethinking the use of the curbside, cities should consider establishing “flex zones,” clearing blocked streets for transit, creating zones for loading and access, and looking at street space and parking availability in the wider area surrounding a corridor, rather than just the street itself, the report concludes.

The most important thing cities can do is try to break the longstanding assumption that the space next to the curb should always be put to use for the building that’s closest to it.

“As the rise of for-hire vehicles has demonstrated, regulating the curb is an indispensable component of a successful urban street management strategy,” the report concludes. “Cities that begin prioritizing transit in curbside regulation today will be one step closer to managing curbs in a way that incentivizes transit and shared autonomous vehicle use rather than single-occupancy or zero-occupancy vehicle travel.”


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