Posts by Author: Jared Brey

Researchers Are Mapping the Racist Foundations of Minneapolis Housing Patterns

Like many U.S. cities, Minneapolis is taking a hard look in the mirror and asking itself whether the past honored in public spaces is one that the city wants to celebrate.

In May, Minneapolis’ park board voted to recommend changing the name of Lake Calhoun, named for the former vice president and staunch defender of slavery, John C. Calhoun, who lacks any strong connections to the state of Minnesota, to Bde Maka Ska, the Dakota name for the body of water. In June, after a campaign by students, the school board voted to rechristen Alexander Ramsey Middle School — its namesake, a former Minnesota governor, had called for the extermination of the Sioux tribe — as Justice Page Middle School, after the first African-American on the Minnesota Supreme Court, Alan Page. And while prominent monuments have attracted headlines across the country, a group of researchers working out of Augsburg University in Minneapolis is taking on a less visible legacy: thousands of racially restrictive covenants in house deeds buried in the city’s property records.

Their project is called Mapping Prejudice. Their goal is to find every single racially restrictive covenant — a now-illegal type of deed restriction that prevented the sale of a home to a black person or, in some cases, anyone other than a white person — and plot them on a map of Minneapolis. The early results show, not too surprisingly, that the neighborhoods where racial covenants were clustered in the early part of the 20th century are still some of the city’s whitest.

“My mission with my work on this subject was really inspired by what seems to be a contradiction,” says Kirsten Delegard, a scholar-in-residence at Augsburg and creator of The Historyapolis Project, of which Mapping Prejudice is an offshoot.

Minneapolis has traditionally regarded itself as a “model metropolis,” Delegard says: a relatively affordable place with world-class parks, a strong economy and a tradition of volunteerism. But, as Delegard says and as Politico detailed last year, the city also has some of the worst racial disparities in the nation. The goal of Delegard’s project is to confront the grand narrative of the Twin Cities head on, and reveal the racist underpinnings of what many Minneapolitans believe to be a city that was never segregated in the way cities in the South were.

Although racially restrictive covenants have been outlawed since the Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968, and rendered null some years before that, other cities have attempted to uncover and in some cases expunge them from property records. Delegard says that her project was inspired by one in Seattle, which helped inspire a change in state law, making it easier for homeowners associations to formally get rid of the restrictions. They’ve been the subject of scrutiny in Charlotte and Los Angeles, and a group in Washington, D.C., has sought to map them too.

But the Minneapolis project claims to be the “first-ever comprehensive map of racial covenants for an American city.” Kevin Ehrman-Solberg, a GIS specialist and project manager for Mapping Prejudice, says it’s only possible because the city of Minneapolis has digitized all of its property records. Ehrman-Solberg says he is using optical character recognition software and his own script to comb the deeds for certain keywords, some of them stark red flags of racist covenants. The deeds in some cases are remarkably specific: for example, a property “shall not at any time be conveyed, mortgaged or leased to any person or persons of Chinese, Japanese, Moorish, Turkish, Negro, Mongolian or African blood or descent.” The work is only possible with the help of online volunteers, Ehrman-Solberg says.

According to Ehrman-Solberg, clusters of restrictive deeds correlate not only with white neighborhoods, but also with high property values. It stands to reason, considering that many neighborhoods have found ostensibly “race-blind” ways of locking demographics in place in the decades since explicit discrimination became illegal.

Becky Nicolaides, an independent scholar and research affiliate at the UCLA Center for the Study of Women who has studied suburbanization in Los Angeles, says that overt racial discrimination has been supplanted in many cases by “spatial politics.” A record like the one that the Mapping Prejudice team is working on is “intrinsically valuable,” Nicolaides says, but doesn’t necessarily get at the sometimes insidious policies — from land use restrictions to aesthetic and landscaping regulations — that serve to lock class-based segregation in place today.

“The contemporary metropolis is pretty complicated,” Nicolaides says. “And I think while it’s great to have this document of racially restrictive covenants, I feel like there’s more complex dynamics that are happening that are wielding way more power now than the residue of what those covenants did.”

Delegard says the most common criticism she receives about Mapping Prejudice is that her team is focused on the past, and digging up documents that have been legally null for decades. But she believes it’s important especially in a place like Minneapolis to illustrate that housing patterns that some might want to believe are natural, or the result of preference, are founded on racist policies.

“If you’re going to make policies that take aim at the racial disparities today, it’s very important to understand how they were created,” Delegard says. “If we are going to have the political will to put those remedies in place, people are going to really have to grapple with the past in a truthful way.”

 

Where Do Grand Auto Boulevards Belong in City Design?

A workman sweeps the top of the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art after Pope Francis celebrated mass along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in 2015. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Over Labor Day weekend, thousands of young people crowded onto the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia to enjoy dozens of musical acts, drink price-gouged Budweiser and dance in the rain at the Made in America Festival. For many of them, I’m sure, it was the time of their lives. Clicking through the photo galleries compiled by local news outlets, I was reminded of the summer of 2005, when I first moved to the city, and the Parkway played host to the Live 8 concert and, two days later, an Elton John concert on the Art Museum steps. I lived a few blocks from the museum at the time, and remember it as an unhinged party of a weekend.

And yet, I think, that while it has become Philadelphia’s go-to space for big events, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway can only be properly absorbed through a drive, preferably down the middle of the six-lane stretch of road between the Art Museum and Logan Circle, late at night, when there aren’t too many other cars around. Depending which direction you’re heading, you’re facing down either a grandly lit urban fountain or a masterpiece of neoclassical architecture set on top of a hill. Mature trees line the route at even intervals. If you catch all the green lights, the whole drive is over in a couple of minutes. Like all the best aesthetic experiences, it’s fleeting.

Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about improving and “urbanizing” the Parkway, which is celebrating its centennial starting this month. Bright green bike lanes now line most of the strip, and there are two new pedestrian bridges and additional public spaces, thanks to a state DOT bridge repair project. While most urbanists agree that the effort fell short of substantial — why couldn’t they have just capped the central expressway entirely? — the green space is a small step toward making the Parkway a place that Philadelphians can enthusiastically put to daily use, whether they’re in a car, on a bike or pushing a stroller.

In 2013, the city hired PennPraxis, a planning and research center at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, to create a new plan for the area. The result was called “More Park, Less Way,” a plan that envisioned more day-to-day vibrancy on the Parkway, with a greater variety of uses, roadways designed to calm traffic and encourage bicycling, and underused land dedicated for new urban parks.

“The space needs to be microdesigned a little bit more so that it can have some of these smaller moments,” says Julie Donofrio, managing director of PennPraxis. “If you could claim some of those bands along both sides, that are like access roads right now, that’s massive.”

To date, the primary result of the PennPraxis plan is what’s now called The Oval, the Fairmount Park Commission’s pop-up park and beer garden in a surface parking lot across from the Art Museum. The seasonal conversion has occurred each summer since 2013. This year, a team at PORT Urbanism designed the space in order to not only draw families to the Parkway, but to ask visitors what they envision for the space. The Fairmount Park Commission plans to use the feedback to inform designs for future pop-ups and, potentially, permanent changes.

It makes sense to try to claw some of the Parkway’s space back from automobile traffic. Currently, the roadway carries around 37,500 cars a day, and around 500 bicycles, according to data gathered by the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. Pedestrians trying to walk from neighborhoods north of the Parkway into Center City have to cross at least four wide lanes of traffic — six in some places — with slightly different patterns and signals at every intersection. Pedestrians are dwarfed by the scale of the Parkway, which can make it feel unsafe.

Still, the grand scale was always kind of the point. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Parkway was envisioned functionally as a straight-line pleasure drive that would transport people from the dense downtown to the open air of Fairmount Park. In his book “Building the City Beautiful: The Benjamin Franklin Parkway and the Philadelphia Museum of Art,” art historian David Brownlee writes that the Parisian boulevards that inspired the design of the Parkway “seemed to epitomize the urban environment of a great modern civilization.” In a generic way, Brownlee writes, such boulevards were symbolic of leisure, mobility and public life.

But what’s iconic about the Parkway is that it does not in any way epitomize the urban environment of Philadelphia. A largely flat city that hasn’t traditionally made great use of its rivers from a modern-day urbanist’s perspective, Philadelphia, with a few notable exceptions, is not known for its vistas. Its primary beauty is contained in the small-scale built environment of its historic neighborhoods. And so the Parkway, with its sweeping views, provides a tree-lined, fountain-studded counterpoint to the daily experience of the city.

I hesitate to profess any love for a piece of automobile infrastructure in 2017, when many cities are fighting a good fight to cut down on car ownership and redesign their streets for safe use by bikers and pedestrians. And it’s true that improvements on the Parkway’s edges will enliven the space, making it safer and more enjoyable for a greater number of people. But the scale of today’s urbanism, focused on the light touch and incremental improvements, is simply no match for that of our forebears. It’s hard to foresee the day when the Benjamin Franklin Parkway won’t be best enjoyed in an automobile, at full speed.

 

Wildfires Force U.S. Cities in the West to Reconsider Growth Plans

A DC-10 tanker drops fire retardant near Sisters, Oregon, in August. (U.S. Forest Service via AP)

On Saturday, 600 residents were told to evacuate the small city of Sisters, Oregon, as firefighters worked to slow the eastern crawl of the Milli fire, one of several dozen large fires burning across the west this summer. In addition to threatening lives and property, wildfires and their smoke have forced thousands to flee their homes, blotted out views of the solar eclipse, darkened the skies of Seattle, and set ominous records in British Columbia. As the global climate changes, wildfire seasons have become longer and more intense, forcing cities in the West to rethink the way they prevent and respond to fires, and even how they develop.

Smoke from the Milli fire has drifted down to Bend, one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States, 20 miles southeast of Sisters in Deschutes County, Oregon. In 2015, Bend joined a program called Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire (CPAW), which is meant to help large and small cities in the West create plans for wildfire prevention and manage their growth with an eye on the wildfire threat.

“We’re surrounded by mountains and forests on one side and sagebrush and juniper on the other,” says Doug Green, a wildfire mitigation manager with Bend Fire and Rescue who previously worked as a city planner. “We’ve had wildfires out here historically.”

What concerns Bend and other developed areas of the West is not so much that fires will rage downtown, but the threat they pose in what’s known as the Wildland-Urban Interface, the outskirts of metro areas where human habitations are sparse but increasingly desirable. In the WUI, structures are at greater risk of damage from wildfires, but they’re also at greater risk of becoming the fuel that spreads fires farther. That’s why many cities require outlying property owners to create a ring of “defensible space” around built structures, areas cleared of certain vegetation and other materials that can easily fuel fire. Defensible space (not to be confused with the controversial urban design theory) is also meant to provide access for firefighters to approach a blaze while reducing the chances of property damage.

“Our theory is that your home should be able to defend itself even when you’re on vacation,” Green says.

But development can compromise opportunities for defensible space and other mitigation practices. The CPAW program encourages cities to amend their land use codes to build wildfire mitigation into their growth plans. In Bend, for example, the CPAW recommendations include adopting new development standards and approval practices for projects within the city’s urban growth boundary, which was recently expanded to allow more acres for development. These standards address things like building setbacks, landscaping, ingress and egress, and permitted uses. The recommendations also include creating an inventory of critical community-serving public assets in the city and assessing their wildfire risk.

According to Headwaters Economics, the Montana-based group that created the CPAW program, 60 percent of new homes built in the United States since 1990 have gone up in the Wildland-Urban Interface area. More homes are hit by fire annually, insurance losses are spiking, and the U.S. Forest Service spends more of its budget on firefighting, from 13 percent in 1995 up to 50 percent in 2015, according to the group. Headwaters estimates that 84 percent of the Wildland-Urban Interface is still undeveloped, and the amount of federal money spent on firefighting will continue to grow.

“The fundamental challenge with wildfire is there’s a real disconnect, because the land use decision is local but when things go bad, the consequence of that decision is borne by the federal taxpayer, and sometimes in terms of firefighter lives,” says Ray Rasker, the executive director of Headwaters Economics.

As Rasker outlined in an L.A. Times op-ed last summer, that disconnect creates the wrong incentives for cities to continue allowing high-risk development, knowing the federal government will handle the damage. Potential solutions include billing local governments for their share of firefighting costs, requiring risk mapping, and transferring development rights from high-risk areas to low-risk ones. Headwaters created the CPAW program to encourage cities to consider these things when thinking about growth.

Cities that do bear more of the cost for fire prevention and suppression tend to have the best land use plans, Rasker says. On the vanguard is San Diego, which inspects every property in the Wildland-Urban Interface on a rolling basis, and fines property owners who don’t comply with safety regulations. Eddie Villavicencio, San Diego’s assistant fire marshal, says that the city’s aggressive mitigation approach is a function of its geography. While San Diego is hugely fire prone, wildfires tend to start earlier in more northern areas of California, Villavicencio says. By the time San Diego is dealing with its own wildfires, many of the state’s resources are tied up elsewhere. And because it’s tucked into the far southwest corner of the country, it has no other neighbors to turn to for firefighting help.

The best opportunity to reduce fire damage risks is before a development is built. Doug Green says that in Bend, a new project called the Tree Farm has handled the growing wildfire risk well. It’s a super-high-end semirural development, but rather than subdividing the land into many-acre parcels, the developers — under encouragement from officials — clustered the homes on (still spacious) 2-acre plots in one section of the land. That has allowed them to simplify the system of access roads, which makes it easier on firefighters in the event of a blaze, while maximizing the amount of undeveloped space. That type of thinking may be an adjustment for homebuyers drawn to the wide-open spaces of the West, Green says, but it’s better than trying to fight wildfires around dozens of far-flung homes.

“Land use,” Green says. “That’s how we’re gonna solve this.”

 

Green Roofs Are Getting a Big Trial in Hoboken

A new plant growing on the Free Library of Philadelphia's green roof in 2008 (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The movement toward green building and sustainability-minded development is at an odd crossroads. On one hand, some progressive cities have made regulation strides toward more energy-efficient and less environmentally harmful building practices, while a viable industry has grown up around green construction and roofing materials. On the other hand, the mounting damage of climate change can make sustainability efforts look like window dressing, and the prospect of building green, especially when it comes to retrofitting existing buildings, remains costly.

Still, daunting as the climate threat may be, the environmental benefits of green building and stormwater management are clear. Green roofs in particular have been shown to reduce rainwater runoff, filter pollutants, reduce energy usage and cool cities overall, diminishing the “urban heat island effect.” They also benefit bird populations and have even contributed to an uptick in urban birdwatching. This fall, researchers at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, are launching a “living laboratory” on the roof of a new campus building, with hopes of learning what types of green roofing materials work best.

The lab consists of various green roof setups, rain gardens and planters designed for optimal stormwater management called “bioretention” planters. The four planters are tricked out with soil sensors to monitor how much water, flowing out of a downspout, is captured by the “medium,” the mix of sand or soil that the plants take root in.

On top of the roof are 19 different green roof setups — picture a small tabletop garden — each with a different engineered medium. Researchers hope that, by the end of the fall semester, they’ll be able to start analyzing data about which mixes work best for retaining water and filtering pollutants. Each setup is duplicated, for a total of 38 setups, so that the results can be verified.

“The hypothesis for our research is that the aggregate type matters,” says Elizabeth Fassman-Beck, an associate professor at Stevens and co-author of the book “Living Roofs in Integrated Urban Water Systems.” “In other words, not all sands or rocks are created equal when it comes to influencing water movement.”

Fassman-Beck, who has been working on getting the lab established over the summer with a small army of undergraduate students, says she has been looking for a place on campus to conduct this type of research since joining the Stevens faculty four years ago. (She’s done similar research in Auckland, New Zealand.) The university approached her about building a rain garden when developing another new facility recently. She was happy to oblige, but realized that in cities like Hoboken, rain gardens aren’t the best solution for stormwater management.

“In Hoboken, the number one issue is parking, and to build a rain garden you need ground-level space,” Fassman-Beck says.

Bioretention planters, which are mobile and capture water out of spouts similar to the way rain gardens do, are a more promising solution for high-density areas, she says. But perhaps the greatest opportunity for stormwater management in cities is on the rooftops. One concern about green rooftops, though, is that while they help with water retention, there’s some evidence that their runoff has higher levels of nitrogen and phosphorous than the rain that falls on them.

“The overall objective is to try to link chemical and physical composition of engineered media to nutrient leaching potential,” Fassman-Beck told the website Jersey Water Works last week. “Ideally, we’ll identify materials that prevent or minimize nutrient leaching, but maintain a lightweight growing media with high water-holding capacity.”

Fassman-Beck expects the lab to show results relatively quickly. But in order to put the findings to good use, more cities are going to have to adopt stronger green roof regulations, she says. Last year, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to require green roofs on some new development, according to National Geographic. Toronto adopted green roof requirements in 2010. But many cities’ policies are built on density bonuses — if they have green roof policies at all.

Philadelphia amended its zoning code to allow for denser development in certain residential and commercial buildings that include green roofs in 2015. The city also has a tax credit for green roof construction. But neither policy has created a significant uptick in green roof construction, and some wealthy communities have found ways to carve themselves out of the incentives altogether, as a way of capping density.

The cost of green roof construction is steep enough to make many cities wary of mandating them for new buildings. But even if green roofs became standard on new construction, the existing built environment still accounts for the mass of impervious surface in cities, Fassman-Beck points out. The Stevens Institute of Technology and the city of Hoboken have been enthusiastic about both the possibilities of the research and the prospect of implementing more stormwater management infrastructure, Fassman-Beck says. But there’s a long way to go before green roofs can live up to their potential.

“Nobody would do any of this if it weren’t for regulation,” Fassman-Beck says.

 

These Urban Designers See a New York That Adapts to Watery Future

Rafi Segal Architecture and Urbanism and DLAND Studio envision a future in which a "densified urban development on higher ground creates a vibrant new city organized around the open space of Jamaica Bay."

Chatter about regional planning ebbs and flows in the urbanist world. But a group working that angle for nearly a century, the Regional Plan Association, has never stopped thinking in terms of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. A new exhibit from the research and advocacy organization offers a look at a future in which that region has successfully adapted to sea level rise — and Mark Zuckerberg’s in the White House.

This particular vision is from one of the winners of RPA’s design competition “4C: Four Corridors: Foreseeing the Region of the Future.” Competing teams were asked to address four corridors: the forested Highlands, the inner ring suburbs, the route of a 24-mile rail line the RPA conceived to connect Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens, and the stretch of coastline pinched between Long Island and the northeast tip of New Jersey known as the New York Bight. The winning team for the Bight is behind “President Zuckerberg.”

“I thought that the team that looked at the Bight came up with really interesting ideas,” says Rob Lane, a senior fellow for urban design at RPA, “about what the areas that are ultimately going to be under water might look like, how people can continue to feel some sense of ownership of them, even if they cannot literally occupy them.”

Teams working on each corridor had to think about how the region will grow in the coming years, along with challenges such as climate change. (See a full description of all winners here; the exhibit of their proposals runs in NYC through September 17.)

The Bight team, Rafi Segal Architecture and Urbanism and DLAND Studio, focused its work on three coastal areas: Jamaica Bay and Mastic Beach in New York and Sea Bright in New Jersey. In their vision, communities on the coast create conditions for denser development upland, so that residents forced to retreat from the water’s edge have a place to live in the same area. The coast itself is converted into a buffer zone, used for recreation, transit, aquaculture and energy production.

“One of the agendas of the RPA is to be kind of pro-development and pro-growth,” says Susannah Drake, founding principal of DLAND Studio. “So we were asked to look at strategies that imagined that the metropolitan area would continue to grow … and I think that’s an important jumping-off point, because it suggested that we had to be fairly aggressive with our strategies for making new buildings and new transportation and new opportunities.”

The coastal area of the city isn’t an ideal place to grow, says Rafi Segal, which made envisioning the future of the Bight doubly challenging. People think of retreat as being “cowardly,” Segal and Drake say; their goal was to focus on “receiving” residents on higher ground, turning the inevitable retreat into a positive.

“What we didn’t realize is that there were these really well-established corridors from the 1930s that existed that were underdeveloped and represented opportunity,” says Drake. “So we said, gosh, this is a place where we can actually build upon existing resources but also make brand-new development space that becomes an attractor for a population that’s living along the waterfront but also an attractor for, basically, new linear cities.”

The winning Bight team's plans for a "series of plazas, beaches, and public programs [that] form an intermodal station and recreational center built along the existing elevated rail of the Rockaways, Jamaica Bay 2050."

In their vision, Jamaica Bay “protects its edges while doubling as New York’s new sunken central park.” Mastic Beach, a struggling Long Island village that disincorporated last year, is partially submerged by 2050, with a thriving community on higher ground and energy farming, and a few off-the-grid holdouts living amphibiously in the buffer. In this future, Sea Bright, New Jersey, loses a barrier island after “Hurricane Hermine” in 2023.

The team incorporated clever storytelling to convey its design ideas. That’s where the speculative political futurism with President Mark Zuckerberg establishing a universal basic income and New Jersey Governor Jon Bon Jovi comes in. They made postcards from the future, and there are video interviews with “residents” of Bight City.

Is this a dystopia? Drake and Segal say that in thinking through various scenarios, they tried to be as realistic as possible, to anticipate what the residents of the cities they envision might be living through. In a country that elected the world’s least creative real estate developer as president, it’s certainly plausible that the office could be held by a billionaire whose wealth is built on the surveillance of 2 billion Facebook users’ online habits. And on a planet threatened with increasing environmental calamities, it’s a guarantee that the future will have some dystopian qualities, as the present already does.

Still, speculative politics aside, the larger themes of the RPA competition shine through. Challenges that transcend political boundaries — like climate change or regional planning — need solutions that transcend political boundaries.

The design competition’s focus on four corridors reflects the RPA’s evolving vision of the region. Whereas the group initially viewed the metro area as a bull’s-eye, with everything feeding the all-powerful urban economic engine at the center, it now acknowledges the region as polycentric, says Lane.

“In most of the region you can’t really just talk anymore about cities and suburbs and country,” Lane says. “We have a whole slew of hybrid conditions that are really not one or the other, and they’re not going away. And they call for a set of solutions that are more hybrid solutions that talk about development and open space working together, development and water working together, and trying to figure out how to make mobility possible in those places.”

 

Santa Monica Mayor Isn’t Afraid of Ambitious Affordable Housing Policy

Over the last several decades, officials in Santa Monica — a sunny, wealthy, liberal city in the southwest corner of Los Angeles County — have found pride in being at the forefront of progressive planning, environmental and transportation policy. The city has had a sustainability plan in place since 1994, and in 2011, officials launched an effort to improve transit options with a goal of “no net new trips” in automobiles. Last month, after six years of work and no shortage of disagreement between pro-growth and slow-growth Santa Monicans, the City Council adopted a new plan for the downtown that aims to keep the city on the vanguard.

The new Downtown Community Plan addresses the growing affordability crisis and an overreliance on cars — issues of concern to planning officials in more and more cities around the U.S. In a unanimous vote, the City Council voted to remove parking requirements altogether for new developments coming into the downtown area. And in a split 4-3 vote, the council opted to set some of the highest mandatory inclusionary housing targets in the country, requiring up to 30 percent of units in most new projects be set aside for low-income tenants.

“We went through an extended process and heard a lot from two sides of the political spectrum, those who don’t want us to really build anything more in Santa Monica and those who felt that, ‘No, you’re not being nearly ambitious enough,’” says Santa Monica Mayor Ted Winterer. “I think that we did a really good job of finding a balance between the two poles we hear from most frequently, in terms of the public discourse, which should satisfy the large majority, which is pretty content with the direction the city is going.”

Santa Monica has made strides recently in diversifying its transportation network, with its own bus line and bike-share network and an extension of the LA Metro Expo Line light-rail line that opened last year. The council’s decision to remove parking requirements for new development downtown is partly an effort to continue that trend. City Manager Rick Cole says that the council is made up of a group of dedicated “Shoupistas” — a reference to Donald Shoup, who argues in his book “The High Cost of Free Parking” that excessive parking supply in American cities subsidizes car ownership and creates an overdependence on automobiles.

The city already has maximum limits on new parking spaces, and because nearly every new parking space built downtown is underground, the cost of parking exceeds $50,000 a space, according to Cole. In many cases, apartment buildings and hotels have an excess of parking that was created under the old requirements, space that could be leased out to the public or new developments under the new plan, Cole says.

“Just saying that motorists can go pound sand is not a particularly winning argument, and it’s not the argument we’re making,” Cole says. “The amount of new spaces at hellish cost that aren’t developed will, we believe, in the long run, be more than offset by the many spaces that will be freed up for public use by this policy change. That said, we are not trying to make it easy to park in downtown. And while people do want to park, the easier we make it to park, the harder it will be to get there because there will be more cars, through the theory, or the phenomenon, of induced demand.”

The decision to remove parking requirements isn’t just about cutting down on car usage. It’s also meant as an incentive for developers to build more low-cost housing downtown in exchange for the plan’s rigorous 30 percent inclusionary housing mandate. (Other incentives in the plan include expedited review for new developments and some density bonuses.) Cities around the U.S. are considering robust inclusionary zoning policies — from Philadelphia to New Orleans — and the debate about how well mandatory models work is very much alive.

On the one hand, proponents say that with the public sector’s ability to build and maintain affordable housing diminished, cities have no choice but to look to the private sector to make sure low- and middle-income residents have a place to live. On the other hand, some say that inclusionary housing policies suppress development, and others question whether affordable housing mandates are capable of meaningfully addressing current and future needs.

Cole, a veteran city manager who once personally defaced a billboard he found vulgar while working for the city of Azusa, California, admits that inclusionary zoning alone won’t solve the housing crisis. Even if it doesn’t suppress development, Santa Monica’s new standard will only produce 50 to 100 more affordable units downtown than would have been produced under the current inclusionary targets with development agreements currently in place, projects in the pipeline, and new housing that’s projected in the city’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR), he says. That means a lot to those 50 to 100 families, he says, but not to the many thousands of other Angelenos looking for an affordable place to live.

“But how do you eat an elephant?” Cole says. “If you look for one silver bullet — if we adopted a universal tax that did this or we adopted inclusionary zoning requirements at 50 percent of new housing, there is no single way to solve this. So to hold any of the strategies up to the test of ‘Does this solve the huge problem?’ — the answer is no. But nothing will, so you have to do this in community after community and you have to do it across the board.”

In Santa Monica, some groups have suggested that the inclusionary policy is a backdoor giveaway to the anti-growth faction, that it will stop development altogether and serve as a cap on density. Some City Council members have the same concerns. But Cole and Winterer — whose town isn’t on the same shaky economic ground as many others across the country — are optimistic that the new policies will be effective.

“It’s been my experience on the council and the planning commission that anytime we impose one of these new quote-unquote burdens on development, whether it was a transportation impact fee or water neutrality, we heard, ‘You can’t do this, we won’t be able to make it work,’” says Mayor Winterer. “And the applications continued to come through the front door of City Hall. So I’d like to give these higher affordability requirements a chance. If I’m wrong, I’ll be the first to admit it, but I would hate to have not endeavored to do more. When we have such enormous pressures in our community that are changing the socioeconomic diversity of our town, why not get more affordable housing if we can?”

 

Are Philly Urbanists Jumping the Shark With Parking Fight?

Vehicles parked in the median of South Broad Street in Philadelphia (AP Photo/Jeff McMillan)

In 2015, shortly before Philadelphians elected a new mayor and five new city council members, a handful of citizens formed a political action committee called 5th Square to pursue an urbanist agenda. They made a round of endorsements in the election, throwing their support behind candidates who they said would support “a better quality of life and a stronger economy via better streets, parks, transit, and land use.”

It would be a stretch to say the PAC’s support was decisive in any of those races, but in the years since the election, 5th Square has become a leading voice on urban issues in Philly, staking out positions on everything from zoning maps to bike infrastructure to the transportation authority’s transfer fees.

During last summer’s Democratic National Convention, the PAC saw an opportunity to uproot a parking habit in South Philadelphia that’s beloved by some and scorned by others.

For decades, drivers in the neighborhood have parked cars in the median along a stretch of Broad Street, the central north-south corridor in the city. The city generally tolerates the activity despite its illegality, but it did enforce no-parking rules for the convention. With the cars cleared, 5th Square launched a petition asking the city to keep up enforcement year-round, saying the parking practice was “dangerous and ugly.” The petition garnered a decent amount of support, as well as some high-pitched invective from South Philly drivers who argue there’s nowhere else to park.

The petition didn’t elicit any action from the city. So now, a year later, 5th Square is doubling down. In early July, Jake Liefer, one of the co-founders, filed a lawsuit to try to compel the city and the Philadelphia Parking Authority to enforce the law.

“We tried to work with the city on this but saw that there was no headway being made, so after a year of effort we decided to give the legal route a go,” says Liefer.

Last year, after 5th Square’s first push on the issue, Liefer says he received death threats, with someone posting his home address online and calling for his house to be firebombed. South Philadelphians have a history of lashing out at people who challenge their Wild West parking habits. Liefer expected a fresh round of attacks over the lawsuit, and indeed the controversy has reignited in predictable fashion.

“It’s about effing time. Other cities don’t tolerate this kind of lawlessness,” one commenter wrote on a story about the lawsuit.

“Then let Jake and the Neverland Hipsters move to other cities,” someone responded.

Those are tame examples. In article comments and online forums, Liefer has been called all types of names and threatened with bodily harm. But there’s also been another strain of commentary, coming from fellow urbanists who seem wary of this particular controversy.

“While I’m totally supportive of 5th Square’s agenda, I’m not sure I would have chosen this particular issue as the hill I want to die on,” wrote Jay Farrell in a Facebook chat room about urban issues.

“The problem I have with bringing this up as an issue right now is that the divide between entitled grizzled old-timers and entitled do-gooder new-comers gets exacerbated in a time when we should really be working on building bridges between them,” wrote a user who goes by the name GroJLart and authors a local architecture blog called Philaphilia.

(Both GroJLart and Farrell gave Next City permission to publish their comments.)

Philadelphia is a poor city, with struggling public schools and a strong tradition of knee-jerk opposition to change of any kind. The local urbanist agenda — focused as it is on street sharing, land use, walkability and transit improvements — is under perpetual attack from people who find it easy to caricature urbanists as privileged carpetbaggers with mixed-up priorities. Isn’t preventing gun violence more important than building bike lanes, they ask. Why don’t “they” spend their energy on improving schools?

Now, even some would-be allies are starting to back off. But of course, this is exactly how the status quo perpetuates, argues Liefer. Opposition to a longstanding practice meets intense blowback from its practitioners; political leaders don’t see any advantage in addressing it; opposition fizzles; nothing happens.

“There’s these things that are controversial that I think we can’t just dismiss,” says Liefer, who laid out his argument for why the median parking practice should end in a Philly.com op-ed. “We still need to kind of press up against those issues. We’ve tried to work with others on this and they haven’t been willing to make any headway.”

It’s true that the city hasn’t started cracking down on median parking, except to step up ticketing on cars parked in some of the crosswalks, according to officials.

“After the 5th Square petition drive last year, we told the group that if the community organizations around S. Broad supported their petition, we could work with 5th Square to address their concerns,” says Mike Dunn, a spokesman for Mayor Jim Kenney. “You’d have to ask them if they did any community outreach. We also tried to engage in a productive dialogue and asked them to suggest practical solutions for parking on Broad Street. We didn’t get a response.”

Liefer says that 5th Square reached out to seven different community groups and got mixed support. He doesn’t recall the city asking for ideas about solutions. But even that request is evidence of the city’s hands-off approach, he says.

“The Broad Street median is a microcosm for how the city has dealt with parking management,” Liefer says. “And the way that they’ve dealt with parking management has been this ad hoc, laissez-faire sort of policy which just says, ‘We’re not going to address it. You figure out a solution.’”

According to Liefer’s analysis of Pennsylvania Department of Transportation crash data, all pedestrian fatalities on South Broad Street since 2008 have occurred below Washington Avenue, where the median parking begins. One intersection on the stretch was ranked third-most-dangerous for pedestrians in a Next City analysis from 2014. Advocates argue that the line of parked cars in the middle of the street degrades visibility for drivers and pedestrians and makes turning at intersections and crossing on foot more dangerous. While the city waits for residents’ attitudes to change, the activists are absorbing all the abuse for trying to force safety improvements.

“From a tactics perspective, I think we’re trying to grasp the levers of working with others, but then recognizing as well that there’s other ways that we need to engage the city and make sure things are moving forward,” Liefer says. “The status quo is kind of the easy way to go, but we recognize that we’ve got to move forward, and to get to that is really hard.”

 

Baltimore May Join Cities Supporting Low-Income Tenants in Eviction Cases

This week, on the heels of a Baltimore Sun series in the spring that detailed an eviction crisis for low-income renters, Baltimore City Councilman Robert Stokes introduced a bill that would establish a public fund to provide legal aid to tenants facing eviction.

The fund, which would need to be approved by voters as well as city council, is intended to give tenants a better chance of prevailing in eviction proceedings, Stokes says. As detailed in a 2016 Next City report, Baltimoreans often appear in rent court without a lawyer, which gives landlords a distinct advantage. While Stokes’ proposal wouldn’t necessarily create a right to counsel for all low-income tenants — a policy being pioneered in New York City, after that council approved the legislation this week — it would give more people a leg up in court and potentially prevent more evictions from occurring.

Last year, according to the Sun, Baltimore spent twice as much money on the sheriff’s office to oversee evictions as it did on services to prevent them. Around 6,500 evictions took place out of nearly 70,000 notices filed.

“We’ve got to avoid [eviction] on the front end so we don’t have problems on the back end where people become homeless,” Stokes says.

Gregory Countess, the director of advocacy for housing and community economic development at Maryland Legal Aid, says many tenants facing eviction simply don’t know what their options are. Under Maryland law, for example, Countess says, the landlord has the burden to prove that there is a landlord-tenant relationship in the first place and that a certain amount of rent is due. Tenants without lawyers aren’t often prepared to force landlords to provide evidence of those things.

“What a lawyer is able to do that many laypeople are not able to do is to know what law is applicable,” says Countess. “They can discern what the facts are. They know how to shape and present evidence to the court, and object to what they think is any attempt to put evidence that’s not proper, or information that’s not proper, before the court.”

The legislation proposed in Baltimore — Countess stresses that he couldn’t talk specifically about the proposal because of restrictions on nonprofit advocacy — would create a fund for legal aid, but doesn’t specify where the money to fill it would come from. Robert Strupp, executive director of Baltimore Neighborhoods, Inc., says the city may need to move faster, and allocate money for legal aid in the next year’s budget.

“I think we’re in a crisis and a crisis usually requires some kind of emergency solution,” Strupp says.

The crisis, brought to life by Matthew Desmond in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” is one that more cities around the U.S. are starting to confront.

So far, New York has taken the boldest approach, with a right-to-counsel law to support universal access to lawyers for tenants in housing court who earn up to 200 percent of the poverty line, a program that advocates hope will be a model for other cities. The program is expected to cost $155 million to implement, but officials project that by reducing evictions, it will save twice that amount in costs related to homelessness, according to a press release from the New York City Council. Officials in Washington, D.C., have launched a $4.5 million pilot program to provide free legal aid to low-income tenants as well. Philadelphia established a $500,000 fund this summer. The small city of Santa Rosa in Northern California, also recently allocated $20,000 to a local legal aid society amid fears that a new rent-control law was creating a spike in evictions.

Stokes, the Baltimore City Councilman who introduced the proposal, says he often hears from constituents facing eviction at the last possible minute, when it’s hard to help them. Stokes says that all of his colleagues on council have lined up behind the proposal. And even before the question goes to voters, he says he hopes to talk to the mayor about reallocating some of the money that’s currently spent on processing evictions.

“We’re just trying to make it an even playing field,” he says.

 

Philly Streets Get Test of Jane Jacobs’ “Eyes on the Street” Effect

In the five-and-a-half decades since Jane Jacobs published “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” her core contention — that urban vitality and safety are a function of small-scale density, a mixture of uses and “eyes on the street” — has become conventional wisdom in urban theory. But the impact that that notion has enjoyed can be attributed, in large part, to the poetic force of Jacobs’ delivery: The idea that an active “sidewalk ballet” makes neighborhoods safe as well as vibrant seems to jibe with daily experience. Can data bear it out?

According to a new study, maybe.

In June, a team of researchers released a paper, titled “Analysis of Urban Vibrancy and Safety in Philadelphia,” that attempts to begin a quantitative analysis of Jacobsian theory by bringing together publicly available data sets related to crime, business activity and the built environment. The study is the first of a series they have planned.

In order to test the “eyes on the street” notion, the authors — three statisticians at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and an architect — investigated the correlations between public safety and population density, population count, zoning, business activity, and business hours. They also designed a model of “business vibrancy,” meant to serve as a proxy for Jacobs’ concept of eyes on the street, based on the density of businesses in certain areas and the amount of “excess business hours” on them — meaning blocks with businesses open longer than what the authors calculated to be the citywide average.

Ultimately, the study is an attempt to test built environment impacts on public safety, when controlling for other factors like income and poverty. Among the authors’ findings:

  • Population density is not as strongly associated with crime rates as population count.
  • More crimes occur on blocks with more businesses, but fewer in the direct vicinity of businesses that have longer-than-average operating hours.
  • Crime rates are higher in neighborhoods with high rates of vacancy, but within high-vacancy neighborhoods, fewer crimes are reported in the direct vicinity of vacant properties.

“Our long-term goal for this whole project is to explore how the built environment can kind of encourage or discourage vibrancy,” says co-author Shane Jensen, a statistics professor at Wharton. “How a city’s laid out or how it’s zoned, how that can encourage the amount of human activity in a particular area. And obviously, downstream of that is how that human activity leads to a safer or less safe neighborhood.”

According to Jensen, the study entailed nearly half a year of data collecting by the study’s lead author, Wharton Ph.D. student Colman Humphrey. Early on, they concluded that zoning and land use data itself didn’t provide a strong indication of commercial vitality at a granular level. So they set out to build their own database, using data culled from Google Places, Yelp and Foursquare. They then looked for correlations among vacancy, crime rates and “business vibrancy,” a measure of the concentration of businesses and whether they’re active during peak weekly crime periods.

Rachel Thurston, an architect with Stantec who collaborated on the project, says the business vibrancy data was a good start in building a metric of human activity in certain areas.

“If a business is open there, are people there,” Thurston says. “It was a way to counter this idea that businesses are actually bad for a neighborhood.”

Jensen and Thurston both say that the study’s takeaways, for policymakers, are tentative. At the very least, Thurston says, it shows that people should think carefully about what they’re building where, because the built environment does impact safety and vibrancy, even if it’s still not clear exactly how. Jensen says the study may lend some support to the idea that cities and businesses should experiment with allowing longer opening hours in some areas.

Still, Thurston says, the data is “not good enough.” In the future, the group may work with Internet companies that are collecting data on WiFi pings, which could provide a much more detailed picture of pedestrian activity in certain areas. They may also consider working with the city to measure foot traffic directly in some areas.

Thurston says she and most of her colleagues in architecture accept the notion of eyes on the street as a matter of faith — anecdotally, she says, she’s comforted by the “little old ladies” who watch the streets all day in her South Philadelphia neighborhood. The first study lends some support to the notion, but much more work, with better data, needs to be done. Jensen, her co-author, agrees.

“What it says is measuring human activity is subtle and difficult,” Jensen says. “Yes, it does seem like there is something to this concept of eyes on the street, but I don’t think it’s just as simple as making sure that there’s businesses on every street corner and stuff like that. If anything, the more high-resolution you break this down, the more insight you can glean.”

 

Philly Proposal Looks Ahead to Less Affordable Future

Philadelphia celebrated its 10th straight year of population gains in 2016, according to census data. But compared to other big U.S. cities, Philly’s 21st-century rebound has been modest, and taken as a whole, the city has a long way to go before it confronts the affordability crises plaguing places like San Francisco and New York.

Still, downtown Philadelphia has been transformed over the last decade or so. New hotels and apartment towers dot the skyline, and real estate prices have skyrocketed in the rowhouse neighborhoods that surround Center City. Some local officials now feel like the time is right to start locking in a measure of affordability before housing gets completely out of reach for average earners.

In June, City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez introduced a bill that would put a mandatory inclusionary zoning policy on the books. Under the policy, developers building residential projects of 10 units or more would be required to set aside 10 percent of units at rents or purchase prices below market rate. In the urban core, where the overwhelming majority of development has occurred in recent years, the set-aside units would be for renters earning up to 50 percent of area median income (AMI) or buyers earning up to 80 percent of AMI. (Philadelphia metro’s household AMI is currently $83,200.) Outside Center City, where most of the neighborhoods in Quiñones-Sánchez’s district lie, the income thresholds would be even lower: up to 30 percent of AMI for renters or 50 percent for buyers.

The proposal also includes an option to pay into a separate housing fund in lieu of building and offering below-market-rate units.

“We sit in council every day and incentivize development every which way we can,” Quiñones-Sánchez says. “Given the development that’s going on, this is the time to have this conversation.”

In fact, Philadelphia has had this conversation before. Sort of.

In 2007, another City Council member introduced a similar bill that would have mandated reduced-rate units in new developments with more than 20 units. In that proposal, the income restrictions were looser, setting aside units for renters earning between 80 percent and 125 percent of AMI. Opposed by the local Building Industry Association, the bill was never passed.

A few years later, when Philadelphia undertook a top-to-bottom overhaul of its zoning code, officials approved a voluntary, incentive-based inclusionary zoning program. In the few years that that policy has been in place, very few developers have made use of it. In one notable example, a waterfront developer claimed the density bonus, built the building, then backed out of including reduced-rate units, eventually agreeing instead to pay $3.75 million into the local housing trust fund.

Quiñones-Sánchez says that with 100,000 people on the waitlist for public housing, and the Philadelphia Housing Authority spending nearly $400,000 per unit on its latest developments, the city needs to extract more affordable housing out of the private market. And that it needs to be reserved for people who really need it. According to Paul Levy, president of the Center City District, greater Center City saw the development of 1,631 new residential units in buildings with 10 or more units in 2016, meaning that if Quiñones-Sánchez’s policy were in place, there would have been 163 new affordable units downtown last year.

But that’s assuming the policy itself has no impact on the market — an open question, and one that’s often seized on by inclusionary zoning opponents. While the mandates in the new proposal are also accompanied by additional height and density bonuses, the local BIA is reupping its opposition. And its argument echoes the standard reluctance about inclusionary zoning whenever it’s proposed in other cities — that rather than producing new affordable units, the policy will slow development altogether, and potentially cause cost increases for existing housing.

“Even with the zoning bonuses provided in the bill,” the group said in a press release, “the achievable market rate rents and sale prices in Philadelphia make the inclusion of affordable units as proposed unworkable, when taking into consideration the current price of land and that Philadelphia has the fifth highest construction costs in the United States.”

A 2008 policy briefing from the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy found that inclusionary housing policies in and around San Francisco had no notable impact on either housing production or housing costs, but that policies in and around Boston had created small decreases in production and small increases in costs. More recently, a report from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy that surveyed policies throughout the country concluded that inclusionary zoning is a “proven strategy” for bringing affordable housing to desirable neighborhoods. In May, even the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness published a short primer on inclusionary zoning policies, encouraging cities to consider all the variables — mandatory versus voluntary, income thresholds, length of affordability and so on — when crafting legislation.

In New Orleans, developers are starting to make use of a voluntary inclusionary policy adopted a few years ago. In a July article in Planetizen, Washington, D.C., planning director Eric Shaw said that his city’s inclusionary policy is showing results as well, despite doubts about how effective it would be when it was adopted during a period of slow growth. (Shaw is a Next City board member.) At the end of last year, Portland, Oregon, adopted a mandatory policy requiring 20 percent of new units to be set aside for tenants earning up to 80 percent of AMI. By this point, inclusionary zoning policies are fairly widespread in cities, though their particulars vary.

If Quiñones-Sánchez’s proposal is adopted, Philadelphia’s policy will be on the more robust side of the inclusionary zoning scale, at least in terms of income thresholds and the duration of affordability (99 years in the proposal). And she says that’s appropriate, given the variety of ways that Philly legislators work to make development easier, including a by-right 10-year property tax abatement for new construction that officials seem perpetually reluctant to touch. Still, she’s expecting some opposition and a lot of negotiation ahead. She’s hoping to convene a working group in August, and have a final version of the legislation to put to a vote by the end of the year.

“We’re under a lot of heightened pressure by communities around affordability,” Quiñones-Sánchez says. “The need is just there. There are opportunities for us to leverage the private sector’s work … . We all need to be able to stand together and say, ‘No, this is the time.’”

 



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Architect Mahmood Fallahian

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