Posts by Author: Jared Brey

San Francisco Steps Up on Vision Zero With “Rapid Response Team”

(AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Nearly four years after San Francisco became a Vision Zero city — adopting the ambitious 10-year goal of eliminating traffic deaths completely by 2024 — Mayor Ed Lee is asking the San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Authority to create a “rapid response team” to enact immediate safety improvements on sites where traffic fatalities occur.

Street-safety advocates began pressuring the mayor to pick up the pace on Vision Zero improvements early in November, after a man named James Samiere was struck by a car and killed on busy Sloat Boulevard. The collision occurred near an intersection where pedestrian-safety improvements were already planned, and close to several areas identified on the city’s high-injury network for traffic incidents. In the wake of Samiere’s death, the pedestrian advocacy group Walk San Francisco and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition wrote an open letter calling on the mayor to demand improvements at the site of every traffic death and urging him to resolve delays in existing street-improvement projects.

“For years, the community, the city, and the state have been planning improvements to Sloat,” the groups wrote. “But as on many other dangerous streets in San Francisco, improvements have not come quickly enough, and a man has just paid the ultimate price as a result.”

Lee announced his directive to SFMTA in a letter dated Nov. 15, two weeks after the incident.

“One death on our streets is too many and the SFMTA needs to take swift action to improve safety at collision sites,” Lee wrote to the transportation authority. “… I recognize the good work that you and your staff have accomplished and continue to accomplish. But with 17 deaths on our streets so far this year, we need to do more.”

Representatives of Walk SF and the Bicycle Coalition say they’re glad that the mayor chose to act in response to their advocacy, but that more needs to change — and more quickly — if the city hopes to meet its goal of zero traffic deaths by 2024.

“I think that everyone we work with is really committed to Vision Zero,” says Cathy DeLuca, policy director for Walk SF. “They all believe in Vision Zero and they all believe in safe streets, but Vision Zero is an extremely bold goal. We really applauded the city when they took on that goal, but I think what might be missing is a realization that a goal that is that bold requires bold action.”

The number of traffic deaths has not decreased significantly since San Francisco adopted its Vision Zero framework. The city saw 31 people killed in traffic in both 2014 and 2015, and 30 traffic deaths in 2016, according to its own data.

Last summer, Lee was applauded for issuing an executive directive that called on every city department to undertake projects that would contribute to safer streets. But advocates have started to wonder about the efficacy of the city’s so-called “five-year rule,” a quality-of-life policy that requires city agencies to coordinate on street construction projects to keep streets from being torn up more than once in a five-year period. Some have questioned whether the rule could be contributing to delays in safety improvements, as the San Francisco Examiner reported. The rapid response team at SFMTA will be tasked with improving street conditions at fatality sites and working to resolve delays more quickly.

“The agency’s rapid response includes an analysis of what we know about the circumstances surrounding the crash, the crash history at the location, the existing conditions, and a recommendation of what engineering improvements can be made quickly,” says Paul Rose, a spokesman for SFMTA.

Advocates say the most important projects the city can embrace are those that get drivers to slow down and obey the speed limit. While only 10 percent of pedestrians die in collisions where a car is traveling 20 miles per hour, the percentage rises to 80 percent when that speed is doubled, according to the city’s Vision Zero report. DeLuca says her group and others are lobbying for state legislation that would allow them to install automated speed enforcement technology to deter drivers from speeding, similar to the red-light cameras that are already in place.

DeLuca and Brian Wiedenmeier, the executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, both say that they’d also like to see the city make better use of available data to inform street-safety improvements. Police data provides an incomplete picture of crashes, they say. Data provided by Zuckerberg Hospital has shown that collisions — and injuries — happen in many more cases than are reported to the police. The data would seem to allow for interventions that are more than reactive, Wiedenmeier says.

“We’ve amassed enough data to start being able to harness the predictive power of that data,” he says. “So yes, I think it’s appropriate to respond when a tragedy occurs on our streets, but it has to be done in concert with a serious commitment to addressing the predictive nature of this data. We know where people have been killed, and we know where they will be killed, unless something changes.”

Advocates say the city needs to make continuous improvements to both its commitment to Vision Zero and its efficiency in carrying out projects.

“I think that we can achieve Vision Zero by 2024, but only if the city and our community takes a much more aggressive stance toward the kinds of engineering fixes that we know are necessary to do that,” Wiedenmeier says. “It’s possible, yeah. But we’re not going to get there if the pace of change continues at what it has been for the last few years.”

The city’s two-year list of priority projects is a start, says Cathy DeLuca. But it’s not sufficient.

“They have two-year plans, and a two-year plan will not get you to a 10-year goal,” she says. “You know what I want to see next year? I want to see a six-year plan.”

 

Philly Business Corridor Seeks Right Mix of Growth, Preservation

Along Lancaster Avenue in West Philadelphia, James Wright is a minor celebrity. Certainly the business owners know him: He was corridor manager for the nonprofit People’s Emergency Center for nine years before becoming director of community, economic and real estate development for PEC’s community development corporation arm. But the police officers and the passersby know him, too.

“Is this man bothering you?” joked an officer about Wright, pulling his squad car to the curb and addressing Brad Vassallo, PEC’s new commercial corridor manager, and me, on a recent Friday afternoon. “How’s the family? You been behaving yourself?” said another man a few blocks up the street, throwing his arm around Wright’s neck. “This here is my adopted son,” he said, turning to me and Vassallo. “Anytime he gets out of line … .” He trailed off, and buried Wright in a playful headlock.

Wright knows the commercial corridor’s buildings, too. The property on the corner of Hamilton Street was a gas station before a developer leveled it for student housing, he says. At one time, there were plans to convert the New Angle Lounge on 39th Street into a jazz club. The old West Philadelphia Title and Trust building at the very busy intersection around 40th used to be covered in billboards and illegal signs.

Times change. Commercial corridors persist.

Today, what’s officially called the Lower Lancaster Avenue Commercial Corridor sits at the nexus of a unique cocktail of otherwise familiar urban pressures. At its southeast end is Drexel University, a growing institution whose development ambitions are as imperial as those of its West Philly neighbor, the University of Pennsylvania, in years past. Housing demand is pressing in from the West Powelton neighborhood on the northwest side. The adjacent Mantua neighborhood was declared one of five economic “Promise Zones” in the U.S. by President Barack Obama in 2014, marked as a priority for antipoverty measures and federal funding.

The corridor’s buildings are historic, and developers want to tear some of them down. At the west end, there are industrial properties and auto body shops and huge urban parks. There are signs of gentrification everywhere, but businesses on Lancaster Avenue still serve a longstanding neighborhood clientele — mainly college students and black female-headed households, according to the surveys PEC has conducted, Wright says.

Wright wants to keep it that way. And make it better. Over the last few decades, the People’s Emergency Center has managed to take ownership of a handful of key properties on the corridor, trying to stay a step ahead of the market and keep the corridor from being completely lost to the whims of developers who, at the moment, are particularly keen on student housing.

“Some landlords, when they purchase a property, they don’t really see the incentive of making the ground floor commercial,” Wright says. “And so you could end up with three stories of residential, with ground-floor residential, which kind of kills the vibrancy or the future vibrancy of the corridor. The whole goal is to preserve ground-floor commercial.”

James Wright was corridor manager for the nonprofit People’s Emergency Center for nine years before becoming director of community, economic and real estate development for PEC’s community development corporation arm.

The pressures are bound to grow, in one form or another.

A few blocks off the Lancaster Avenue corridor sits one of the biggest vacant properties near the commercial heart of Philadelphia. Drexel University, a co-owner, has plans to build a billion-dollar mixed-use science center and office hub called uCity Square on 14 acres. In a 2014 community benefits agreement, the owners agreed to add retail that serves longtime residents (including a community bank) on the Lancaster Avenue edge of the site. Construction has already started — but the site was included in Philadelphia’s bid for Amazon’s second headquarters.

When the online retail company announced in September that it was inviting proposals for another facility that could employ up to 50,000 people, Philadelphia, like other cities, seemed to drop everything else it was working on to prepare its pitch. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney has expressed his intention to make neighborhood commercial corridors like Lancaster Avenue the cornerstone of his economic development efforts, but what American mayor could pass up the opportunity to chase 50,000 new jobs?

Whatever the outcome of that ambitious reach, the People’s Emergency Center intends to keep plugging away at micro-improvements on Lancaster Avenue, Wright says, and so are dozens of other groups focused on neighborhood corridors throughout the city. Whether the development pressures they face carry an Amazon label or not, the local advocates have at least one ally at City Hall.

“If you look at Philadelphia and its very strong and vital Center City … that’s where all the jobs are. That’s where all the development is,” says Commerce Director Harold Epps, who has toured between 30 and 40 neighborhood corridors since joining the Commerce Department at the beginning of Kenney’s term in January 2016. “And as a person of color, I just wanted to make sure that we have as much visibility, opportunity, plans, strategy and initiatives to get our neighborhoods in less-household-income parts of the city as participating in the transformation of Philadelphia as possible. And in order to do that you have to have visibility, you’ve got to have engagement, and then you’ve got to have a plan and you’ve got to have strategy.”

Stitching Together a Disconnected Corridor

Last year, a nonprofit community “makerspace” called Tiny WPA opened a new storefront with PEC at 4017 Lancaster Avenue. Working out of the storefront and a studio in the basement, the group designs and builds small-scale public works for projects around the city, and runs a program called Building Hero to train neighborhood residents ages 16 and up in the fundamentals of design and fabrication. They’ve created “playable” street furniture to be placed around the avenue.

It’s the kind of organization — “I don’t know if you really want to call them a business or not,” Wright says — that Lancaster Avenue has seen more of lately. Mighty Writers, a free writing program for city kids, opened a location in the historic Hawthorne Hall building on the avenue in 2013. A 35-year-old film training project called Scribe Video Center is opening an outpost on Lancaster Avenue soon, according to Wright. EAT Cafe began experimenting with a pay-what-you-can restaurant model last year, hoping to serve low-income West Philly residents in the process. The performing arts-focused Community Education Center has anchored the east end of Lancaster Avenue since the 1970s.

PEC’s challenge is to help Lancaster Avenue double down on the qualities that make it unique while chipping away at the issues that make it like so many other struggling corridors. In some cases, that’s taken the form of vacant lot cleaning and streetscape interventions at key corners, like an Urban Thinkscape project that’s made a playground out of a vacant lot at 40th and Lancaster. There’s also a temporary installation that has artists digging in a triangular lot at 42nd.

Pearl Bailey-Anderson, who works as a trichologist, had already been operating a beauty salon on West Philadelphia’s Lancaster Avenue for eight years before she bought her current property, a slice of Hawthorne Hall, in 1996. PEC bought the then-vacant building in 2012 and is in the midst of efforts to fully restore the former performance hall and neighboring properties and make it a vital part of the commercial corridor.

When I stopped by La Pearl Beauty Emporium unannounced in October, a storm had just passed through, and Bailey-Anderson’s daughter, Knekeya, who works in the salon, was straightening a sidewalk sign out front. The shop draws both locals and those who don’t live in the neighborhood, Bailey-Anderson says, and sometimes people will come in and say they noticed the salon while passing by on the trolley. She says she’s always thinking about how to get pedestrians to notice the shop.

Sitting in a salon chair in the basement — there are two chairs on the ground level, and she lives on the second and third floors — Bailey-Anderson recounted to me the Parable of the Talents, from the Book of Matthew, in which a master leaves three servants with a portion of his wealth while going on a trip and, upon returning, rewards each for the investment he’s made. Two of the servants are rewarded for doubling their portion, but a third is punished for simply stashing the money away.

“I always wanted to grow,” Bailey-Anderson says. “When my Lord came back, I wanted to have something more to show him.”

La Pearl Beauty Emporium

At the time she purchased the building, Bailey-Anderson says, she had no idea that it was certified historic, and that she’d have to endure a tedious approval process if she wanted to make changes to the building. But it hasn’t stopped her. In the 20 years that she’s been operating at her current building, Bailey-Anderson has installed a new deck, restored the facade and made a host of improvements to the building’s interior. To do that work, she’s applied for and received multiple grants from the city and, she says, “PEC was shoulder to shoulder with me every step of the way.”

PEC is looking for stitches in what still feels like a disconnected corridor. Currently, various portions of Lower Lancaster Avenue serve different communities. According to Wright, the area east of 36th Street is primarily frequented by college kids, the strip from 36th to 38th serves a middle-class Powelton Village community, and 38th to 40th is home to some successful black entrepreneurs. There are higher-end salons, a gym and a consignment shop, for example. The area across 40th Street is “more convenience-based shopping, less destination,” Wright says, and the two blocks west of 43rd are “a little bit hodge-podgey.”

“Despite the perception being that the nicer of the businesses tend to be east of 40th Street, the foot traffic is west of 40th Street,” says Brad Vassallo, who only began as PEC’s commercial corridor manager in September. “So how are we bridging that gap?”

A product of a public input process led by the People’s Emergency Center and the Interface Studio, the Make Your Mark plan gathers a range of priorities for the future growth of the corridor and the surrounding neighborhoods, emphasizing things like cultivating civic leadership, creating safer streets, revitalizing the commercial strip and celebrating the area’s arts heritage. “We’re still working off of those goals,” Vassallo says, even if they aren’t branded “Make Your Mark” any longer.

Lately, PEC’s attention has been focused on a former bank property it owns at the corner of 38th and Lancaster. The property is adjacent to the uCity Square site, and PEC has been trying to convene residents to create a vision for what should be done with the building.

“We hope to attract a tenant to the building that will help steward the space, the outdoor space, by adding something cool to the inside,” Wright told me in September. “It could be some sort of food access. It could be a restaurant, a produce business, it could be a farmers market of some sort, it could be an art venue, something along the creative spectrum or the food spectrum that could look after the outdoor space.”

A few weeks later, Vassallo told me that he’d been approached by a real estate agent who works with Stephen Starr, one of the city’s most well-known restaurateurs, about the possibility of opening something on the bank site. An enticing offer, Vassallo said. But maybe not right for Lancaster Avenue.

“That would generate so much income for us,” Vassallo noted, somewhat wistfully. But a Stephen Starr restaurant is exactly the sort of establishment that would speed up the University City-fication of Lancaster Avenue — the very process that PEC is trying to temper.

Dedicating Resources to Neighborhood Businesses

Twenty-six percent of the commercial spaces on Lancaster Avenue between 38th and 44th streets are vacant, according to PEC’s Vassallo. Business owners complain a lot about trash. Problems with crime wax and wane, Wright says, and have gotten more complicated as opioid addiction has spiked in the last several years. Some tenants that the group wishes would set up shop on Lancaster Avenue are wary of taking a chance on a changing corridor. (PEC has been trying to attract small-scale food manufacturers that could use a portion of storefront space for retail, according to Wright, but the commercial rents are too high for many of them.) And growing development pressure threatens a legacy of black business and property ownership that PEC wants to preserve, Wright says.

Mayor Kenney, who campaigned behind the slogan that your ZIP code shouldn’t determine your destiny, has vowed to reinvest in neighborhood commercial corridors outside Center City. So far, Kenney’s big project has been a $500 million effort to renovate neighborhood parks, recreation centers and libraries. Commerce Director Epps’ corridor listening tour has brought some visibility to the issue, but in terms of the actual policies and programs aimed at supporting neighborhood commerce, not a whole lot has changed under the Kenney administration — at least not yet. What has changed is the customer service and the access, as there have been a number of efforts to make sure small neighborhood businesses, particularly in low-income areas, are able to access resources.

“There’s been sort of a new emphasis,” says Karen Fegely, the deputy commerce director for neighborhood business services, in her Center City office. “We’ve always been here. We’ve always been doing this work. But it was sort of a renewed commitment and emphasis.”

The Commerce Department administers a humble regimen of support programs for small businesses in neighborhoods that advocates say make a big difference in corridor management. Among the most visible is the Storefront Improvement Program (SIP), which reimburses business owners for half the cost of facade improvements up to $10,000, or $15,000 for properties with multiple addresses. Between 2011 and 2016, the Commerce Department gave out more than 500 SIP grants at an average cost of around $8,000, according to data provided by the department. When the program was imperiled a few years ago by a change in federal rules about community development block grant spending, advocates rallied to the cause and convinced the city, under then Mayor Michael Nutter, to pay for the program out of the general fund.

The department also runs a forgivable loan program called InStore, which helps retailers and food businesses upgrade equipment, improve their stores and open new locations. (Tiny WPA received an InStore grant when it signed a five-year lease, says Alex Gilliam, a co-founder.) It funds streetscape improvements and cleaning and beautification efforts on various commercial corridors. It partially reimburses businesses that install security cameras in public areas. It supports community development corporations — which can also get funding through a targeted business tax credit — and helps neighborhoods that want to create business improvement districts with planning and technical assistance.

One of Kenney’s key efforts, Fegely says, has been to expand the reach of all these programs. The department has created an immigrant business strategy and has hired bilingual staff members who speak Korean, Mandarin and Spanish.

“Our programs are trying to meet a business owner halfway, and with some business owners the halfway point is different,” she says.

Epps says that his tours have exposed him to unique issues in every neighborhood corridor. But what he hears consistently is a desire for a corridor that is clean, safe and well-lighted.

“And the other common denominator is that the neighborhood or corridor will be no stronger than the involvement of the shop owners on the corridor, and then their level of structure and organization,” Epps says. “To have somebody be focused on the strategy for the corridor. That can be in the form of a CDC or a business association, but the stronger neighborhoods and corridors are those that are organized and structured and that have dedicated resources.”

Weighing the Benefits of a Business Improvement District

Lancaster Avenue is fairly well-resourced, as far as neighborhood corridors go. According to the most recent tax form available, in 2014, PEC’s community development arm had $16.7 million in assets and had revenue of $1.1 million. In addition to the purchase of properties on the avenue, PEC has staff dedicated to helping business owners take advantage of government programs. It gets cleaning grants from the city. A smaller organization, the Lancaster Avenue 21st Century Business Owners Association (LA21), recently became a CDC as well.

But there’s not many neighborhood structures that can provide stable support and funding the way a business improvement district (BID) does. BIDs — and their cousins, neighborhood improvement districts — are quasi-public organizations that pay for streetscape improvements and other services through a special assessment on property owners in a defined area.

Philadelphia began creating BIDs in the early 1990s when the Center City District was formed. That organization is credited with reviving the downtown shopping district by focusing on cleaning, lighting, safety and marketing, but BIDs have helped transform other neighborhood corridors in the city as well, like East Passyunk in South Philly and Germantown Avenue in Chestnut Hill.

In 2012, the Commerce Department released a guide for neighborhoods that are considering establishing BIDs, and provides staff assistance in the process as well. But lately, new BIDs have had a tough go. Last fall, property owners on 9th Street in the Italian Market narrowly voted down a business improvement district that had been in the works for months. The Mayfair neighborhood in Northeast Philadelphia had the most recent success, with a new BID on a portion of the Frankford Avenue commercial corridor. Today, Philadelphia has a total of 15 BIDs.

Rachel Meltzer, an assistant professor of urban policy at the Milano School of International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy at The New School, says that BIDs tend to form in neighborhoods that are on some sort of “upward trajectory” — growing in population or experiencing an influx of more affluent residents — to supplement basic municipal services. They usually coalesce around a shared sense that the government is not keeping up with the needs of a commercial area, she says. They’re an easier sell on corridors with a lot of businesses that engage in similar activity and might demand similar services from the BID, and especially when there’s a strong anchor business or a small corps of owners who make it their mission to get a BID established.

“There’s definitely a threshold or a moment when BIDs tend to form, and I think it’s a moment when the benefits are perceived to outweigh the costs,” Meltzer says. “A lot of it is a political exercise.”

According to Wright, the LA21 business association is hoping to eventually create a BID for Lancaster Avenue. Wright says it would be a huge benefit in terms of managing the streetscape, but worries that an extra assessment could be a real challenge for some of the existing businesses. He says PEC has suggested that any potential BID be partially subsidized by a nonprofit foundation or another kind of entity, to keep it from displacing struggling business owners. (Representatives of LA21 did not respond to an interview request.) At any rate, establishing a business improvement district takes time and commitment, and planning for one on Lancaster Avenue is in the very earliest stages.

Protecting Longtime Businesses in Changing Neighborhoods

When the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations released its Commercial Corridor Policy Agenda in May, it included a suggestion that the city “should investigate creating assistance programs for longtime businesses to help them manage changes and stay in their communities.” In some neighborhoods, commercial tax assessments have risen sharply from the prior year. It was a sign of economic health, but for some business owners, it was a cause for worry.

A few years prior, after Mayor Nutter had initiated a citywide overhaul of residential property tax assessments, City Council created a policy that freezes the tax bills of certain longtime owner-occupants whose assessments had tripled or more. PACDC suggests a similar program could be created for business owners, something to ease the pressures of commercial gentrification. Such an effort has already been launched in San Francisco, and the approach is being considered in Seattle.

PACDC would also like to see an increase in the funding for the corridor cleaning program, from $695,000 to $1 million a year, an expansion of the CDC tax credit, more street safety improvements on neighborhood corridors, a step-up in code enforcement on negligent property owners, improvement of the business permitting process, and more. It advocates for an increase of the Storefront Improvement Program’s reimbursement to up to 75 percent for businesses on “significantly distressed corridors.”

“When we developed this commercial corridor policy agenda, we did sit down with [city] commerce staff, and they generally agreed that these recommendations made sense,” says Rick Sauer, PACDC’s executive director. “They agree with sort of what we’re recommending here and proposing.”

Progress on the agenda has been modest so far. But Beth McConnell, PACDC’s policy director, says that’s at least partially because the group is devoting intense attention to an inclusionary housing proposal that was introduced in City Council last spring.

One other suggestion in PACDC’s policy agenda is for the Commerce Department to “build on” the Capital Consortium it has convened to help small businesses get access to loans.

This could make a difference for Lancaster Avenue where, Wright says, there’s a need for money that is patient and flexible — not the primary characteristics of the private market. Why would a property owner on Lancaster Avenue hold out for a retail tenant that contributes something vital to the corridor when she could just rent the space to students at $600 a head?

Most corridor organizations don’t own a significant number of properties or have funding to dish out to preferred tenants. But if they can help businesses find capital easily through a stable pool of lenders, they can have some sway over the commercial mix. Commerce’s Fegely says that helping businesses tap the Capital Consortium can create good outcomes for corridors even without any city money being spent.

“It gets down to the nitty-gritty [and] is really where you make a difference,” says Fegely. “That’s the nature of our work. We’re making really small market corrections, you know? How do we make money work in some neighborhoods? And we don’t need to do everything, we just need to do little things to move things along.”

It sounds a little like alchemy. But it’s completely in line with what corridor organizations across the U.S. are doing, and in fact with what Main Street America, a program of the National Main Street Center that focuses on revitalizing downtowns, recommends. It’s a mixture of design improvements, marketing, organizing stakeholders and planned economic investments.

Whatever the Kenney administration does explicitly for commercial corridors will be outmatched by its Rebuild parks and rec initiative. Officials — and corridor managers — say that investment will have spillover effects that benefit corridors. But advocates are hoping for a more focused mayoral effort as well.

“We haven’t yet seen that turn into any major new initiatives that are particularly relevant or related to corridors,” says McConnell. “What we’d hope to see is, in future budget years, a turn to a big initiative to see how we can boost corridors.”

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

 

Denver Transportation Gets a $430 Million Funding Boost

A healthy majority of Denver voters elected last week to approve $937 million in bond sales to support infrastructure projects across the city, with nearly half of the investment dedicated to transportation and mobility. The vote capped off a process that began in the spring with a series of community meetings meant to solicit input on which projects to fund. The bond initiative — the first general obligation bond since the Better Denver bond sale that passed a decade ago — was announced by Mayor Michael Hancock last fall.

In the interim, Hancock says, no issue generated more discussion at community meetings than transportation — from traffic congestion to bicycle and pedestrian upgrades. Denver’s population has been growing by around 2 percent a year, and added nearly 100,000 residents since the 2010 Census. That growth has made a big infrastructure investment both possible — rising property valuations give the city some additional resources without raising the property-tax rate — and necessary.

“As cities are looking at their future, as Denver has routinely done, we’re recognizing that we have a transportation system that is very automobile-centric,” Hancock says, adding that many of the millennials and baby boomers who have accounted for much of the city’s growth have been demanding better options for transportation and mobility. “The growth has kind of exposed for us the lack of infrastructure investment,” Hancock says.

The ballot initiative was broken out into eight questions, representing investments in libraries, parks, recreation centers, cultural facilities, and public safety improvements, among other things — 460 projects in all. They include $37.5 million for a new rec center in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, $38 million for renovations at the Central Library, $20 million for improvements to the Denver Zoo, and $75 million for the Denver Health and Hospital Authority to establish an ambulatory care center.

At $431 million, the Transportation and Mobility category of investments was the largest by far. It also earned the most support at the polls, with more than 75 percent of voters pulling the lever in its favor. While a substantial portion is earmarked for deferred maintenance and road re-pavings, it will also fund the construction of 33 miles of new sidewalks and a handful of new bike and pedestrian bridges. The city’s network of protected bike lanes will grow as well, with $18 million dedicated to citywide bike infrastructure.

“This is going to really bring alive the protected bike-lane network downtown,” says Piep van Heuven, the Denver director for Bicycle Colorado. “And that is really going to be noticeable and change the culture on the street, which is really exciting.”

Van Heuven served on the Transportation and Mobility Committee for the bond process, and says that while the city ended up choosing some of the best projects to fund, there were many more that were worthy of support as well. After the executive committee received all the recommendations, it went through and cut 30 percent from everything.

“It was what I would call an equitable bloodletting,” van Heuven says.

And even with the dedicated investment from the bond issue, it will still take decades to establish the Denver Moves bike network at current levels of funding, van Heuven says. Mayor Hancock says the city needs to spend $2 billion on transportation infrastructure alone over the next 12 years, and he plans to dedicate more money from the general fund to transit and mobility projects as well.

Bicycle infrastructure projects enjoy wide public support in Denver. In a poll it conducted last fall, Bicycle Colorado found that more than 60 percent of respondents favored the city spending more on bike lanes, even if that meant reducing lanes dedicated to car traffic or parking. About as many respondents said they would ride a bike rather than drive if there were more bike lanes, according to a Bicycle Colorado press release. Another poll conducted earlier this year found that 66 percent of respondents would support paying an increased sales tax to get the bike network built, according to Streetsblog Denver. But even in a relatively bike-friendly city like Denver, van Heuven says bike-lane proposals can be controversial, and the process of getting them approved is slow. She says she’d like to see a greater commitment from the mayor to expediting that process.

Denver isn’t the only city looking to make investments in transportation infrastructure. Last fall, Los Angeles voters approved a half-cent sales-tax increase to fund a new rail network and establish more bike infrastructure. Seattle voters backed a $54 billion investment in regional light rail. The Renew Atlanta infrastructure program was kickstarted by a voter-approved bond in 2015.

Hancock says he wasn’t surprised that the transportation and mobility question got the biggest share of votes among the bond questions. But the need for infrastructure spending still outstrips the city’s capacity.

“There’s still placeholders in this funding stream for the state and federal governments,” Hancock says. “Traditionally, there’s been a partnership on these issues, and just because they’re in flux doesn’t mean we let them off the hook. … The federal government has a tremendous role to play here and we certainly hope they get their act together so they can join cities like Denver who have made a commitment.”

 

Portland, Maine, Debates and Rejects Rent Control

(Photo by Jeffrey B. Ferland)

Voters in Portland, Maine, rejected a ballot measure last week that would have established a rent stabilization program in the small coastal city, capping off months of debate over how to address rising housing costs.

The seeds of the effort were planted in 2014, after several years of steady rent increases, when a small group of renters formed a tenants union to advocate for greater tenant protections. But the rent-control initiative kicked off in earnest this past summer, when the group Fair Rent Portland registered as a political action committee. In August, the group announced that it had more than enough signatures to put an ordinance on the November ballot. In the ensuing months, Fair Rent Portland was out-fundraised by an opposing coalition of developers and landlords called Say No to Rent Control. On Election Day, the measure was soundly defeated.

If it had been approved, the referendum would have enacted a 16-page ordinance drafted by members of the Fair Rent Portland coalition. The law would have capped year-over-year rent increases, implemented a version of “just cause” eviction rules that are increasingly popular among tenant advocates, and established a seven-member Rent Board to review applications from landlords for rent increases, mediate in landlord-tenant disputes, and impose fines for violations of the ordinance.

Fair Rent Portland formed amid a sharp increase in housing demand in the city accompanied by a steady rise of rental costs. In 2015, a report from real estate website Zillow found that rents in the city had risen by more than 17 percent in one year. Rents have stabilized since 2015, according to an analysis by the Portland Press Herald (which has had exemplary coverage of housing issues in the city.) But reports of mass evictions convinced Jack O’Brien, a co-founder of Fair Rent Portland and a professor of statistics at Bowdoin College, that the city was facing a housing crisis.

In O’Brien’s view, the work of a housing committee established to deal with the crisis by City Council was unsatisfying, and leaned too heavily on the approval of landlords and developers. So he decided an independent effort was necessary. Maine’s referendum process allows citizens to create their own laws, bypassing the legislative process altogether. Fair Rent Portland convened a nine-member steering committee to write the ordinance, with assistance from a local law firm that specializes in land use. For inspiration, O’Brien studied rent control laws in West Hollywood, California, and Takoma Park, Maryland. The group decided early on to make the measure temporary, with a sunset clause kicking in after seven years, O’Brien says — something to slow the pace of cost hikes while the city figured out how to address the issue more holistically. He felt that the ordinance itself was “fairly moderate.”

But, he says, “The landlords didn’t see it that way.”

Brit Vitalius, a real estate agent, president of the Southern Maine Landlord Association and spokesman for the Say No to Rent Control group, says the opposition mobilized in response to the rent control portion of the ordinance. But the other aspects of the policy were even more concerning, especially knowing that it couldn’t be overturned or even amended legislatively under Maine law. Under the terms of the proposal, the rental rates wouldn’t reset when a tenant left, meaning rent control would apply to the unit itself; that could prevent owners from making renovations to units that needed them the most, Vitalius says. The opposition worried about the prospects of a civilian board setting fines in landlord-tenant disputes. And they argued that the ordinance could actually make the affordable housing crunch worse: Thinking they would have a hard time getting rid of “problem tenants,” landlords would simply avoid leasing apartments to people with low incomes or bad credit in the first place.

“Rent control seems to protect the people who have rent today, which by definition means they can afford rent today,” Vitalius says. “The supporters were — and I’ll get a little pejorative here —were kind of the young hipsters who came to Portland, and now Portland is a cool city, and they want to live in the cool parts of the city, and those parts are getting expensive.”

Vitalius says that, while it wasn’t a key plank in Say No to Rent Control’s public arguments, it’s a fact that not everyone is going to be able to live in a city like Portland, which has limited land area and is increasingly attractive to people with more money to spend. Portland is about as small as a lot of larger cities’ neighborhoods. Concerns about affordable housing should be addressed on a more regional scale, Vitalius believes, with upzoning in nearby suburbs and investments in transportation infrastructure.

O’Brien acknowledges that the city is gentrifying, but says that Fair Rent Portland’s proposal was meant to make the city’s rising housing costs easier to handle for residents.

“Rent stabilization doesn’t prevent gentrification in the long run,” O’Brien says. “It just slows the rate at which it occurs so that it’s happening on the tenant’s time scale rather than on the landlord’s time scale.”

If they were starting over, O’Brien says, Fair Rent Portland might think about separating out the various aspects of the policy so they could be debated separately. And he wishes there had been more time for the campaign, to bring in people from other cities and talk through all the possibilities.

“We were a small volunteer organization,” O’Brien says. “And we should have thought much more carefully about how entrenched and well-funded the opposition was.”

 

Philly’s Sidewalks to Get Public WiFi (and Digital Ads)

(Credit: Intersection)

The sidewalks of Philadelphia will soon be studded with tall, slender digital kiosks, emitting public WiFi signals, inviting passersby to make free phone calls and blanketing the streetscape in ever more digital advertising.

On Nov. 1, the city’s Office of Transportation and Infrastructure Systems (OTIS) announced that the Philadelphia Art Commission, the city’s design review board, had voted to approve the LinkPHL program, which will bring 100 kiosks to streets in Center City and University City. The program — pronounced, improbably, “Link Philly” — is the third of its kind from tech company Intersection, a firm that runs similar programs in London and New York. In addition to WiFi and phone calls, the kiosks provide device charging, wayfinding information, access to emergency services and “contextual advertising,” according to an Intersection press release.

Depending on your perspective, LinkPHL and its sister programs represent either an innovative way to address issues of unequal access to digital tools, or a sophisticated new front in the battle to bring commercial advertising into the public realm. Probably it’s a bit of both.

“LinkPHL will be an investment in Philadelphia’s future, creating 21st-century infrastructure in the heart of the city,” Mayor Jim Kenney said in a press release. “But more importantly, the kiosks will provide the sorts of modern services that our residents and visitors need as they work and play in the city — at no cost to taxpayers.”

It’s true that the kiosks will be free to taxpayers, and in fact the city stands to reap a revenue benefit from them as well. Under the agreement with Intersection, the city will get half of the ad revenue generated by the kiosks, after the company recoups installation costs, with a minimum yearly payment of $450,000.

And it’s also true that internet access hasn’t been extended to all Philadelphians equally. Twenty-seven percent of low-income residents had no broadband access in their homes, according to a 2013 analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Each Link sends a WiFi signal that reaches a radius of 150 to 300 feet, according to an Intersection spokeswoman.

Hannah Sassaman, policy director for the Media Mobilizing Project, which fought for greater public benefits when the Philadelphia-headquartered internet service provider Comcast was renegotiating its franchise in the city, says the kiosks will be useful to tourists but also to people struggling with homelessness. But they won’t resolve the most important issues of the digital divide, which is access to high-speed internet at home.

“It is important for us to fight the digital divide with a variety of tactics in our streets and in our common spaces, but also in our homes and our communities, and we have to remember that access to the internet every day becomes more and more of a human right,” Sassaman says. “We have to ensure that we focus on the corporate infrastructure that divides us from that right, that puts the profit of themselves and their shareholders above our human right to communicate, and that we do not settle for second-, third-, or fourth-class internet based solely on our ability to pay or access to political influence or power.”

But at least at first, the LinkPHL kiosks will be placed mostly downtown, and not in the neighborhoods where the majority of low-income residents live.

Chris Puchalsky, director of policy and strategic planning at OTIS, acknowledges that the Links are meant primarily to serve tourists, and to give local nonprofit arts organizations discounted advertising space. LinkPHL is taking a lesson from the early stumbles of LinkNYC, when residents complained about users setting up shop at the Links for hours at a time, and sometimes using the web browsers to watch pornography. The Philly kiosks will have no web browsers and no flat surfaces to rest items on, according to Puchalsky.

The LinkNYC program is now widespread, with around 1,200 active kiosks around the city. Around 2.8 million people have registered for the public WiFi through the Links, according to Stephanie Raphael, of NYC’s Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications. Every week, 75,000 phone calls are made through the kiosks, she says, and around 1,500 emergency calls. The kiosk program seems poised to spread to other cities.

In Philadelphia, one group that has been fighting the proliferation of billboards in the city for decades tried to argue a case against the kiosks before the Art Commission and in a letter-writing campaign to the mayor. The opposition, organized by Scenic Philadelphia, argued that the kiosks amount to visual pollution of the sidewalks and a potentially dangerous distraction to drivers. In an emailed response, Mayor Kenney said that there have been no complaints about safety with other Link programs, and that the city is committed to decluttering sidewalks in other ways.

The point-by-point argument went back and forth, but eventually the Art Commission voted to approve the proposal 7-1. At any rate, anti-billboard advocates are used to losing, even when they’re right.

“No matter what public benefits this proposal is touting,” the advocates for public space at Scenic Philadelphia wrote in a letter it asked its supporters to send to the mayor, “the bottom line is that this is an attempt by a private company to profit from access to Philadelphia’s public spaces.”

The mayor’s response didn’t address that point.

 

These Cleveland Stories Will Change How You Think About the Rust Belt

Two rowers on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

As a postindustrial city in a politically important swing state, Cleveland is used to the “Rust Belt” question: Is the city “coming back,” or continuing on a slow decline?

When the Republican National Convention descended on the city last summer, a writer for Columbia Journalism Review noted that some locals feared that political violence would play into a simplistic narrative of decline, but instead, “the protests outside of the convention have been remarkably quiet. And national media’s laser-like focus on political pageantry has instead fit into the city’s simplistic narrative of renewal.”

As residents of struggling cities across the U.S. know, and as Cleveland State University history professor J. Mark Souther argues in his new book, “Believing in Cleveland: Managing Decline in ‘The Best Location in the Nation,’” revitalization and decay are two sides of a coin, especially when seen from the wide angle of a metropolitan area. In the middle of the 20th century, inner cities began to suffer as suburbs flourished; in the last decade, downtowns have bloomed while many urban neighborhoods have continued to languish. “Believing in Cleveland” is aimed at “undoing the notion of decline and comeback as a sequential, unidirectional phenomenon,” Souther writes in the introduction.

That notion has been punctuated by various urban successes and failures. And it’s been fed by city boosters who were, in some cases, “too quick to declare victory,” Souther says. In other cases, business and civic leaders expressed private doubts about the gung-ho proclamations they made in public. Concerned about real problems facing the city — a loss of industrial jobs, the dimming of downtown commerce, racial tensions and riots — leaders in Cleveland gradually became more preoccupied by the city’s image locally and in the wider world. Those concerns grew to the point that the image of the city “took on a life of its own,” Souther says. Managing the city’s image eventually became its own exercise, connected to but distinct from more concrete measures of urban vitality.

The narrative of mid- to late-20th-century Cleveland, in Souther’s re-examination, was studded with a few key events that have, for better or worse, come to be seen as turning points in the city’s story.

Subway Defeated Twice
In the mid-1950s, efforts to build a subway system serving downtown Cleveland had public traction. In 1953, 65 percent of voters approved a $35 million bond issue to fund the project. But the project was defeated by a 2-1 vote by the County Commission in 1957, and again after a last-ditch attempt to revive it in 1959.

In the interim, the narrative had changed. In the early going, the subway system was pitched as a way of relieving automobile congestion in a growing downtown. By 1959, Clevelanders had begun to believe that the downtown was declining, and subway advocates pitched the project as a way of reversing that trend. Neither pitch was successful, but the differing rationales illuminated the city’s changing image.

“[Clevelanders] start to lament that downtown is losing its hold on suburbanites,” Souther says. “Suddenly the subway converts from being a tool for keeping downtown strong to reversing what people are starting to talk about as a decline. And that happens pretty sharply.”

The Glenville Shootout
In 1968, Cleveland’s Carl Stokes became the first elected black mayor of a major U.S. city. His election was a “beacon of hope” in the city and the country, Souther says, and civic leaders expected him to somehow bring an end to riots that had ravaged the neighborhood of Hough in the summer of 1966.

But in July 1968, a four-hour shootout in the Glenville neighborhood between police and a black militant group resulted in the deaths of seven people, including three police officers and three suspects. The shootout was followed by incidents of arson and property damage. Stokes had wrapped his early mayoral efforts under the heading of “Cleveland: Now!,” an initiative to raise funds for community development projects. But it soon came to light that some of those funds had been granted to a member of the group involved in the shootout.

“There was already this sense that, ‘Well, Stokes hasn’t done what we thought he could do,’” Souther says. “‘He hasn’t stopped another outbreak of racial violence. And then when it became known a little later that the Cleveland Now! funds had been misused in this way, that was just further support to this idea that we need to move in another direction.”

Cuyahoga River Fire
Perhaps no single event tarnished Cleveland’s image as much as a fire that broke out on the polluted Cuyahoga River in 1969. But while the event served as an easy symbol of urban crisis, it also became a rallying point for the environmental movement, culminating in landmark environmental legislation in the early 1970s.

The symbolic significance of the 1969 fire distorts the reality too: The river had ignited many times before that event. Time magazine ran a picture from a different fire on the river in the 1950s, because it couldn’t find any dramatic photography of the event in question. On the day of the event, Souther says, “Most Clevelanders weren’t even aware there was a fire.”

“If you look back at the 2016 Republican National Convention, if you read anything about Cleveland, they used that familiar refrain about the burning river and how Cleveland had bounced back since that time,” Souther says. “And they really reduced the city’s narrative to one of growth and then decline, down to the point of 1969, and then this impressive comeback.”

In fact, Cleveland’s struggles deepened throughout the 1970s — they continue into the present — but the Cuyahoga River fire serves as a symbolic lowpoint in a linear narrative of decline and revitalization.

Throughout the 20th century, Cleveland’s “growth coalition” — a loose affiliation of civic and business leaders — adopted a variety of slogans to brand the city’s image. An early slogan, which provides the subtitle for Souther’s book, was “Best Location in the Nation,” an invitation to industry to make headquarters in the city. Later the city adopted a different slogan, “The Best Things in Life Are Here,” emphasizing an emerging consumer society. But the superlatives began to seem like a joke, countered by unofficial monikers for the city like “Mistake on the Lake.”

“By the late 1970s,” Souther writes, “any Cleveland image campaign that promised the best of anything was untenable, so boosters began to craft the image of a ‘New Generation’ of public-private cooperation to propel the city forward.”

By 2015, the Downtown Cleveland Alliance was promoting a more prosaic slogan: “You Are Here.” What Souther’s book argues is that Cleveland’s considerable attempts to promote and manage its image are as much a reaction to fears of decline as they are efforts to define the city.

“In a place where people are perceiving decline, they’re always looking for the turning point,” Souther says. “Where’s the pivot? Where’s the fulcrum? You’ve got to find the fulcrum, and that tends to lead to these constructions of narratives that obscure as much as they reveal.”

 

These Cleveland Stories Will Change How You Think About the Rust Belt

Two rowers on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

As a postindustrial city in a politically important swing state, Cleveland is used to the “Rust Belt” question: Is the city “coming back,” or continuing on a slow decline?

When the Republican National Convention descended on the city last summer, a writer for Columbia Journalism Review noted that some locals feared that political violence would play into a simplistic narrative of decline, but instead, “the protests outside of the convention have been remarkably quiet. And national media’s laser-like focus on political pageantry has instead fit into the city’s simplistic narrative of renewal.”

As residents of struggling cities across the U.S. know, and as Cleveland State University history professor J. Mark Souther argues in his new book, “Believing in Cleveland: Managing Decline in ‘The Best Location in the Nation,’” revitalization and decay are two sides of a coin, especially when seen from the wide angle of a metropolitan area. In the middle of the 20th century, inner cities began to suffer as suburbs flourished; in the last decade, downtowns have bloomed while many urban neighborhoods have continued to languish. “Believing in Cleveland” is aimed at “undoing the notion of decline and comeback as a sequential, unidirectional phenomenon,” Souther writes in the introduction.

That notion has been punctuated by various urban successes and failures. And it’s been fed by city boosters who were, in some cases, “too quick to declare victory,” Souther says. In other cases, business and civic leaders expressed private doubts about the gung-ho proclamations they made in public. Concerned about real problems facing the city — a loss of industrial jobs, the dimming of downtown commerce, racial tensions and riots — leaders in Cleveland gradually became more preoccupied by the city’s image locally and in the wider world. Those concerns grew to the point that the image of the city “took on a life of its own,” Souther says. Managing the city’s image eventually became its own exercise, connected to but distinct from more concrete measures of urban vitality.

The narrative of mid- to late-20th-century Cleveland, in Souther’s re-examination, was studded with a few key events that have, for better or worse, come to be seen as turning points in the city’s story.

Subway Defeated Twice
In the mid-1950s, efforts to build a subway system serving downtown Cleveland had public traction. In 1953, 65 percent of voters approved a $35 million bond issue to fund the project. But the project was defeated by a 2-1 vote by the County Commission in 1957, and again after a last-ditch attempt to revive it in 1959.

In the interim, the narrative had changed. In the early going, the subway system was pitched as a way of relieving automobile congestion in a growing downtown. By 1959, Clevelanders had begun to believe that the downtown was declining, and subway advocates pitched the project as a way of reversing that trend. Neither pitch was successful, but the differing rationales illuminated the city’s changing image.

“[Clevelanders] start to lament that downtown is losing its hold on suburbanites,” Souther says. “Suddenly the subway converts from being a tool for keeping downtown strong to reversing what people are starting to talk about as a decline. And that happens pretty sharply.”

The Glenville Shootout
In 1968, Cleveland’s Carl Stokes became the first elected black mayor of a major U.S. city. His election was a “beacon of hope” in the city and the country, Souther says, and civic leaders expected him to somehow bring an end to riots that had ravaged the neighborhood of Hough in the summer of 1966.

But in July 1968, a four-hour shootout in the Glenville neighborhood between police and a black militant group resulted in the deaths of seven people, including three police officers and three suspects. The shootout was followed by incidents of arson and property damage. Stokes had wrapped his early mayoral efforts under the heading of “Cleveland: Now!,” an initiative to raise funds for community development projects. But it soon came to light that some of those funds had been granted to a member of the group involved in the shootout.

“There was already this sense that, ‘Well, Stokes hasn’t done what we thought he could do,’” Souther says. “‘He hasn’t stopped another outbreak of racial violence. And then when it became known a little later that the Cleveland Now! funds had been misused in this way, that was just further support to this idea that we need to move in another direction.”

Cuyahoga River Fire
Perhaps no single event tarnished Cleveland’s image as much as a fire that broke out on the polluted Cuyahoga River in 1969. But while the event served as an easy symbol of urban crisis, it also became a rallying point for the environmental movement, culminating in landmark environmental legislation in the early 1970s.

The symbolic significance of the 1969 fire distorts the reality too: The river had ignited many times before that event. Time magazine ran a picture from a different fire on the river in the 1950s, because it couldn’t find any dramatic photography of the event in question. On the day of the event, Souther says, “Most Clevelanders weren’t even aware there was a fire.”

“If you look back at the 2016 Republican National Convention, if you read anything about Cleveland, they used that familiar refrain about the burning river and how Cleveland had bounced back since that time,” Souther says. “And they really reduced the city’s narrative to one of growth and then decline, down to the point of 1969, and then this impressive comeback.”

In fact, Cleveland’s struggles deepened throughout the 1970s — they continue into the present — but the Cuyahoga River fire serves as a symbolic lowpoint in a linear narrative of decline and revitalization.

Throughout the 20th century, Cleveland’s “growth coalition” — a loose affiliation of civic and business leaders — adopted a variety of slogans to brand the city’s image. An early slogan, which provides the subtitle for Souther’s book, was “Best Location in the Nation,” an invitation to industry to make headquarters in the city. Later the city adopted a different slogan, “The Best Things in Life Are Here,” emphasizing an emerging consumer society. But the superlatives began to seem like a joke, countered by unofficial monikers for the city like “Mistake on the Lake.”

“By the late 1970s,” Souther writes, “any Cleveland image campaign that promised the best of anything was untenable, so boosters began to craft the image of a ‘New Generation’ of public-private cooperation to propel the city forward.”

By 2015, the Downtown Cleveland Alliance was promoting a more prosaic slogan: “You Are Here.” What Souther’s book argues is that Cleveland’s considerable attempts to promote and manage its image are as much a reaction to fears of decline as they are efforts to define the city.

“In a place where people are perceiving decline, they’re always looking for the turning point,” Souther says. “Where’s the pivot? Where’s the fulcrum? You’ve got to find the fulcrum, and that tends to lead to these constructions of narratives that obscure as much as they reveal.”

 

New Online Service Guest-Rm Aims to Offer Cheap Alternative to Airbnb

Imagine you’ve got an out-of-town friend you haven’t seen in a while. You’d love to invite her to visit, but the hotels in your city are just a little too expensive, and so are the Airbnbs. Your own apartment is too small to host everybody comfortably. You know your neighbor is traveling on some upcoming weekend, and that he probably wouldn’t mind letting your friend crash in his apartment. But you probably wouldn’t feel comfortable making that request, right?

This month, Philadelphia-based Josh Angotti is launching an online service that he hopes will make that a normal transaction: Guest-Rm. Users can tap into a network of friends, family and neighbors to plan trips around lodging that should be far less expensive than either hotel bookings or short-term rental sites like Airbnb. In lieu of a nightly fee paid to the host, the service encourages users to leave a thank-you gift, like a gift card to the wine store. Eventually, Guest-Rm will be set up so hosts can charge a cleaning fee as well. Angotti hopes Guest-Rm will provide travelers with a legitimately affordable alternative to traditional lodging options.

“What got me started — it was a little bit out of frustration,” Angotti says.

Every year Angotti tries to have a reunion with his cousins, he says. Recently they were talking about hosting the get-together in Philly, but his apartment is only 450 square feet. But he’s also noticed that the city, to a sometimes eerie degree, empties out around holidays like Memorial Day and Labor Day, when many locals go to the Jersey Shore. Wouldn’t it make sense to bring guests to town then, and have them stay in apartments nearby?

“There’s not really [a precedent], at least in our culture, to make that request,” Angotti says.

In an online post about Guest-Rm — the site isn’t live yet, but the founders are hosting a launch party next week — Angotti explained that he hopes the site will “leverage excess capacity” for lodging in cities. The social network aspect of the service is meant to put both hosts and travelers at ease in the knowledge that they’re interacting with a friend or a friend of a friend.

It’s distinct from a service like Couchsurfing, Angotti maintains, because it’s not targeted at itinerant travelers hoping to meet new people. And it’s distinct from Airbnb and VRBO because, while the site will charge a reservation fee, it’s meant to be genuinely cheap, encouraging people who might otherwise be turned off by the rising costs of urban lodging.

And because the site doesn’t offer any real revenue or profit motive to hosts, the founders say, it’s not likely to contribute to issues of gentrification or housing affordability. There’s a growing body of research around the housing impacts of short-term rental services like Airbnb and VRBO. One forthcoming study of 100 U.S. cities finds that an increase in Airbnb listings in certain neighborhoods had a small but significant impact on increased housing prices, according to the Wall Street Journal. Property owners who find that they can make money on an apartment unit without leasing it out to a long-term tenant find they have an incentive to keep the unit off the market.

Angotti says his primary inspiration to create the service was wishing there was a truly affordable way to host friends and family in his city. But he can also see the service helping affordability, if it ever grows big enough to have impact.

“I don’t believe Guest-Rm will have direct impact on the supply side of home-sharing sites like Airbnb or VRBO. However, it could impact demand, which may lead to an indirect impact on supply,” Angotti says. “For example, if enough Guest-Rm users in a community share homes via their Guest-Rm connections, it may become a less profitable place for developers to hold large numbers of vacation rental properties.”

Jeffrey Goodman, an urban planner who studies short-term rental regulation, is skeptical of the ability of a service like Guest-Rm to scale up. The reason sites like Airbnb have gotten so big is that they’re based on people renting their homes to strangers — not to people they already know, Goodman says. Goodman also sees a fair number of obstacles in Guest-Rm’s future: Does the “thank you” gift count as compensation to the host? What legal category will these units fall into? How tenuous can the social connections be for someone to book a room, and will the definition get looser as Guest-Rm is pressured to grow?

And, says Goodman, “What do you do with the terrible cousin problem? How do you get people off it who have violated your trust?”

Still, Angotti is hopeful that people will respond to a service that sharply reduces the cost of lodging in another city. He acknowledges that the site would be most attractive to people whose friends and family are spread out in big cities around the U.S. But he expects it to grow most quickly in the Northeast initially, where a lot of social and familial circles overlap.

“The value increases as the circles grow, for sure,” Angotti says. “But I think there’s a certain amount of value as soon as you have a few friends that sign up.”

 

Amid Mass Eviction, Philadelphia Considers Stronger Renter Protections

Philadelphia’s City Hall (Photo by Max Binder)

Philadelphia is taking steps to protect renters from unfair evictions amid what Mayor Jim Kenney has described as a “housing crisis due to a shortage of safe and affordable housing.”

Earlier this month, City Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. introduced a bill that would require landlords to provide a “good cause” when seeking to evict tenants after a lease ends. It would also dictate that a landlord who wants to raise rent must first give an existing tenant the chance to accept the new rate. And it would give tenants the right to appeal a landlord’s “good cause” finding to the Fair Housing Commission. The proposal is modeled after other cities, like Seattle and Oakland, that have “just cause” eviction provisions on the books.

Jones says he began thinking about the proposal this year when a 239-unit apartment building in his council district changed hands, and the company that took it over notified the tenants that it would not be renewing their leases. Some of the tenants of the Penn Wynn Manor were on fixed incomes and didn’t have the time or the ability to collect enough money to pay the first and last months’ rent and a security deposit at another residence, he says. Rising rents in stable neighborhoods like the one in question made moving more challenging too.

“Some of these individuals had lived there 10, 20, 30 years and had been, in my opinion, model tenants,” Jones says.

But the tenants’ records didn’t matter; in January, everybody was told to leave. In June, occupants of the building staged a protest of the mass eviction plan in cooperation with the Philadelphia Tenants Union, which was formed by a local socialist group. The Tenants Union had already been pushing for the city to add a “just cause” provision to its books for some time before the protest was organized. They began working with Jones after the eviction case came to light.

Klyde Breitton, president of the Tenants Union, says that the bill Jones introduced fits the broad outline of what they were hoping to create. But Breitton says it would be better if it included more specific provisions, like enumerating what, specifically, constitutes a good cause for eviction. Laws in some other places do include more detail.

An ordinance in Oakland, approved by voters in a 2002 ballot measure, includes 11 specific scenarios that would qualify as just cause for eviction, including a tenant’s failure to pay rent, violation of the terms of the lease, or causing excess damage to the property, or a landlord’s wish to occupy the unit as his own primary residence or remove it from the rental market. Seattle’s ordinance includes 18 approved reasons. Seventeen are enumerated in a rule that applies across New Jersey. Los Angeles has considered expanding its just cause rule to apply beyond rent-controlled units. Some cities in California have been working to reform these exemptions to give tenants even greater protections.

There have been reports in some cities of landlords evicting tenants on the grounds that they want to move into the units themselves, but then re-listing them at higher rates. Jones’ legislation so far doesn’t contain any specific enforcement measures. (His office didn’t immediately respond to a question about whether enforcement would be considered in later drafts of the bill.)

Shamus Roller, executive director of the National Housing Law Project in San Francisco, says that cities around the U.S. are paying more attention to rental practices as a whole, and that his group has been fielding more inquiries from cities considering just cause provisions. Many places that have the rule also have some form of rent control, Roller says. And while just cause provisions are beneficial in providing some basic protections against frivolous evictions, they don’t prevent landlords from pushing tenants out by raising rents to “ridiculous levels,” Roller says. Beyond that, according to Roller, the best “just cause” laws are the ones that are most specific.

Philly’s proposal has yet to be subject to a committee hearing, where it could evolve. The proposal comes as Philadelphia is taking a wide look at rental practices and housing problems in the city. Over the summer, at the urging of City Council, the city earmarked $500,000 in additional funds to help tenants facing evictions get legal counsel. In September, Mayor Jim Kenney signed an executive order establishing an Eviction Task Force, noting that one in 14 of the city’s renters had faced an eviction filing between 2010 and 2015. The task force is charged with determining best practices in cities, helping to create a comprehensive plan for the issue, and identifying funding streams to support it. Its final recommendations are due to the mayor next June.

Jones, who represents neighborhoods in West and Northwest Philadelphia, relatively far away from Center City, says he didn’t always think of gentrification being a major problem in his district. The Penn Wynn case got him thinking about the vulnerability of some of his constituents — whether they rent or own their homes. He says he was recently walking around the district with a developer, and he asked how investors know which homeowners are likeliest to sell at low prices. The developer looked up and said that air-conditioning units in the second-floor windows signal that a home is not modernized, and the owner may be willing to sell for less than the house is worth.

“You have a right to be a capitalist,” Jones says. “But when you wholesale exploit people’s ignorance and poverty, then it is government’s responsibility to step up to the plate and provide protections, and that’s what I intend to do.”

 

Philly Takes Safer Streets Plan Beyond the Usual Urbanists

(Photo by Gwen Weustink on Unsplash)

It would be hard to find a big U.S. city today without a small clique of hyperengaged urbanists and transit advocates who dominate local policy discussions, both in online forums and in-person meetups.

They’re either a blessing or a curse, depending on where you sit. On one hand, these networks form the backbone of a lot of advocacy efforts that end up leading to real, positive changes in the cityscape. On the other, they’re unintentionally good at annoying the piss out of a lot of layfolk, who find it easier to disengage completely than go head to head with the “know-it-alls” — which ends up strengthening the clique’s own grip on the debate of the day.

In Philadelphia, the officials who were charged with taking the city’s nascent Vision Zero plan to the public tried to thread the needle. They wanted input from the most passionate, plugged-in constituents, but they knew they wouldn’t have to try too hard to get it. So rather than convene a series of single-issue Vision Zero meetings, which might attract a self-selected group of advocates and not many others, they opened online comments to everyone and brought the discussion to community meetings, festivals, police district meetings and other events that were already in the works around the city.

“We wanted to go to places where people are naturally congregating … to get voices we wouldn’t normally hear from,” says Kelley Yemen, director of complete streets in the city’s Office of Transportation and Infrastructure Systems (OTIS).

Vision Zero is the name for a loosely affiliated set of policies and plans aimed at treating traffic deaths as preventable rather than inevitable, with the ultimate goal of eliminating them completely. Vision Zero strategies have been adopted in U.S. cities from Seattle and Fort Lauderdale to Boston and San Diego. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney issued an executive order creating a Vision Zero Task Force in November 2016. A draft action plan was released in March, and the final plan was issued last week.

Between March and July, city officials visited 44 community meetings and collected more than 23,000 responses on an online safety map, where residents could report dangerous behaviors they observed in the streets. In all, 85 percent of respondents said they don’t believe Philadelphia is a safe place for pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists to share the roads, according to the task force. And the data suggest Philadelphians know what they’re talking about: 100 Philadelphians die in traffic incidents each year, 250 more are injured, and the rate of traffic deaths is 6 per 100,000, among the highest in the nation, according to the task force. Moreover, while pedestrians only account for 18 percent of the individuals involved in traffic incidents, they make up 41 percent of the deaths.

The task force’s engagement efforts were meant to solicit input from community members on how the city should approach safety improvements. But they were also designed to show people that Vision Zero is a mayoral priority, and to start drawing a sharper focus on the seriousness of street safety.

“People really see the importance of this when you frame it as saving human life or preserving human life,” says Charlotte Castle, Vision Zero and neighborhood programs coordinator for OTIS.

The city has tried to bake community outreach into the Vision Zero effort from the get-go, enlisting neighborhood groups like the People’s Emergency Center in West Philadelphia and the North Philadelphia-based Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha (APM) to serve on the task force. Throughout the summer, the task force found that many residents related to street safety issues on a personal level: Seventy-two percent of safety map respondents said they knew someone whose life was impacted by a traffic collision, and 53 percent said they felt it was unsafe for children to walk to schools or parks in their neighborhoods.

Bridget Palombo, the director of community and economic development at APM, says the city’s Vision Zero outreach dovetailed with some efforts the nonprofit already had in place related to improving walkability and other quality-of-life measures. Residents seemed particularly affected by information the task force presented about higher auto speeds increasing the risk of fatal injury, Palombo says. They talked about slowing down traffic, improving street lighting, and enforcing traffic rules for bikers and pedestrians as well as motorists.

“It was kind of enlightening to see that people are not just thinking for themselves,” Palombo says. “People are starting to think more holistically about, how can we hit this at all the different angles so that we as a city are being safer on the streets?”

Residents — and politicians — tended to warm up to Vision Zero strategies when they learned that the initiative isn’t simply about letting bicyclists take over the streets, Yemen says. People have an easier time getting on board with safety improvements when they’re presented as improving safety for everyone rather than just one mode.

In Philly, “bikelash” has been fairly pitched, and led, at times, by people in powerful positions. A council member recently questioned the permanence of a new buffered bike lane that the city said was indeed permanent. In another instance, a council member rejected a pilot bike lane in Center City under pressure from some residents. Sarah Clark Stuart, executive director of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, says that she thinks the level of outreach the city did behind Vision Zero is evidence that it’s serious about the effort, and that the only way the streets will become safer is to have a big, open debate about how they’re designed.

“I think what also is really important is that engaging in this level of community outreach demonstrates to council members that an authentic effort was put in, but it also puts the council members on notice that their communities have been consulted, and their offices themselves have been reached out to,” Clark Stuart says. “In that sense there’s no hiding.”

In any case, the hard work is ahead. Philly’s Vision Zero calls for zero traffic deaths by 2030, and so far it has developed an action plan for incremental improvements over the next three years. Those improvements are going to require buy-in from all the various agencies that regulate transportation and streets, and they’re also going to require support from residents in every neighborhood. The action plan includes forward-looking engagement efforts like public awareness campaigns about crash data, creating a Vision Zero elective in the city-supported Citizens Planning Institute, and enlisting owners of major fleets in safety efforts.

OTIS’ Yemen says that it’s always easier to build consensus at the abstract level, but concrete changes will require engaged support at the neighborhood level.

“We’re going to try to lead with as much data as possible,” Yemen says. “I think we view it as an ongoing conversation about what’s working and what’s not working and how we tweak things and make things better.”

 



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