Posts by Author: Rachel Dovey

Amazon Announces Investment in Prefab Homes

Amazon's Seattle campus (Credit: Amazon)

Amazon has announced an investment in Plant Prefab, a start-up that builds prefabricated single, and multifamily homes, Architectural Digest reports.

The investment comes from the company’s Alexa Fund, which provides millions in venture capital funding to promote “innovation in voice technology,” according to the magazine. Amazon’s interest in Plant Prefab has raised speculation that the company may be on the cusp of expanding its smart home sector — i.e., creating spaces that could be synched with its smart doorbell and voice control inventions.

“Voice has emerged as a delightful technology in the home, and there are now more than 20,000 Alexa-compatible smart home devices from 3,500 different brands,” Paul Bernard, director of the Alexa Fund, said in a statement on Tuesday, Architectural Digest reports. “We’re thrilled to support [Plant Prefab] as they make sustainable, connected homes more accessible to customers and developers.”

Plant Prefab’s latest $6.7 million Series A funding round also included investments from Obvious Ventures and other private investors, Curbed reports. The company claims that its approach reduces construction time by 50 percent and cost by 10-25 percent in major cities.

As Next City has covered, prefabricated units do stand to save cities time and money — but their unique installation needs can also pose a number of challenges. For example, in the case of one recent, New York-based project, the modules were ready to be “stacked” about four months before the site was ready to hold them. That left one entity with 84 modules ready to go, but nowhere to put them.

Regardless, movable micro design may very well be the way of the future. What it will mean for privacy to have one company’s smart tech “built” into actual walls remains to be seen.


Cracked Beams Discovered at San Francisco Transbay

Police tape blocks off Fremont Street outside the closed Salesforce Transit Center Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2018, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

San Francisco’s new $2.2 billion Transbay Transit Center — envisioned as the “Grand Central station of the West” — closed abruptly Tuesday after a fissure was discovered in a support beam, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. Upon inspection, officials found a second cracked beam, meaning that the terminal, which opened to the public just over a month ago, will stay closed at least through the end of the week.

The transit center sits next to Millennium Tower, a 58-story luxury residential development that has sunk 18 inches since opening in 2009. The high-rise has since been dubbed a “leaning tower of lawsuits” because taxpayers will be responsible for at least $15.7 million in lawyers’ fees; Developer Millennium Partners and homeowners claim that Transbay construction contributed to tower’s sinking and tilting.

Officials said the cracked beams were localized, however, with no impact to neighboring developments.

“We apologize for this inconvenience to the public and commuters,” Mark Zabaneh, Executive Director of the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, said in a statement. “I would like to assure the public, this is a localized issue within the transit center and there is no impact to any adjacent properties.”

The Transbay center will eventually be a hub for trains as well as buses, if plans go ahead as scheduled.

As Next City has covered, the center features a rooftop park designed by PWP Landscape Architecture that includes 12 gardens and more than 400 trees. Like so many spaces in San Francisco — and New York and London — it’s privately managed, a distinction that can raise thorny questions about who is allowed to linger there and what kinds of gatherings are allowed on its grounds.


New York Airport Workers On Track for $19 Minimum Wage

New York's JFK Airport. (Credit: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Workers at the airports serving New York City could soon be earning $19 an hour — the highest targeted minimum wage set by a public agency in the U.S.

The pay increase is expected to be approved this week by the commissioners of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the New York Times reports. The increase, which would take effect over the next five years, would “go well beyond the $15 minimum hourly wage that several cities around the country have enacted,” according to the paper.

“This is going to be the highest targeted minimum wage anywhere in the country,” Hector J. Figueroa, president of 32BJ Service Employees International Union, which represents many of the workers, told the paper. “That’s a significant breakthrough.”

The Port Authority resolution calls for the minimum to rise on Nov. 1 of this year to $13.60 an hour for workers at the La Guardia Airport and Kennedy International Airport in New York City and $12.45 an hour for workers at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey. Annual increases will follow until workers earn $19 an hour.

Other airports across the country are upping their employees wages as well, as Next City has covered. The public entities overseeing them hope that by increasing workers’ earnings, many of the headline-grabbing problems that have dominated the news cycle over the last year can be avoided.

From the Times:

A vote on the proposal to raise the minimum for airport workers was postponed for several months after airlines challenged the Port Authority’s power to mandate pay for private companies.

In response, the agency produced a comprehensive “analysis and justification” that argued that the airports were plagued by high turnover that threatened to make the airports less safe and degrade the services provided to travelers. It cited the benefits other airports had realized after raising their minimum wages.

“Lifting airport-workers’ wages is now a tried and tested tool, widely used for responding to a recurring set of serious problems at airports around the United States — problems that now beset the Port Authority’s airports, too,” the document stated.

Workers at Denver International Airport may also see significant wage gains if a ballot measure passes next year. They face similar issues, however, because they aren’t all employed by one entity. Some are employees of the city, some work for the federal government and some are employed by specific airlines.

Still, airports appear to be a fertile group in what the movement formerly known as the battle for $15 — a movement that’s evolved to include fair workweek legislation and paid sick leave initiatives. As Next City has covered, 15 airports across the U.S. already have airport-specific minimum wages.


Nonprofits, Business Owners Step Up Their Voter Registration Game

A Philadelphia polling place during the 2008 general election (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma)

September 25 was National Voter Registration Day, and in 2018, voting is no small feat. As the Brennan Center highlighted in a report earlier this year, state and local officials are systemically purging voters from the rolls, claiming that they’re countering the (mythical) scourge of voter fraud. These actions disproportionately hurt minority voters.

As The Root recently reported:

Between 2014 and 2016, 16 million registered voters were removed from state rolls, 33 percent more than were moved between 2006 and 2008. For the election of 2012 and 2016, the Brennan Center estimates that two million fewer voters would have been purged if those states had to apply by the provisions of the Voting Rights Act.

Here, then, is a run-down of some local efforts to fight illegitimate purging and to fill those voter rolls back up.


After finding out that as of February 2018, only 375 18- or 19-year-olds were registered to vote in the city of Milwaukee, Kennita Hickman set out to sign up more of the newly legal voters. “Our City, Your Vote” is a music event happening this week that will feature hip-hop, spoken-word and R&B artists. During the concert, representatives from nonprofit organizations will register attendees to vote. It’s the first in a series of events that will continue through November 2018.

“I’ve had success and have been given opportunities [in the music industry]. That comes with the responsibility to build a better community [for urban artists],” Hickman said recently, according to the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service.

Read more about Hickman’s events scheduled through November here.


A celebration at the Civil Rights Heritage Center took place in South Bend, Indiana Tuesday, attended by civic and academic leaders. Volunteers were on hand to register voters.

“We know that young people are actually the majority of the electorate right now,” Elizabeth Bennion, American Democracy leader at Indiana University South Bend, told WBST 22 this week. “They make up more of the electorate than any other age group if we look at people under 30 years of age. But they are also the least likely to turn out.”

More info on registering to vote in Indiana is here.

Alabama features a handy run-down of the many ways eligible voters can register, including using the state website and signing up at public libraries or with the “Vote for Alabama” app. More information is available here.


Volunteers will fan out throughout the cities of Austin and San Antonio. Read more about their efforts — and local polling places — here and here.


According to CNN, this year voter registration campaigns are reaching farther and wider into classrooms, malls and concerts. CEOs from companies such as Walmart, Southwest, Kaiser Permanente and Tyson have committed to giving their employees time off to vote. As of last week, the nonprofit voter registration group HeadCount had registered more than 40,000 people for the midterms. Their goal is 75,000, triple their previous midterm record. You can find more info on nationwide registration efforts here.


Cincinnati Joins the List of Cities Saying ‘No’ to Parking Minimums

(AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

The Cincinnati City Council has scrapped mandatory parking minimums in several downtown neighborhoods, City Beat reports. Cincinnati now joins the ranks of Seattle, Buffalo and Cleveland, among others, in pursuing a tactic for densifying neighborhoods and lowering the cost of housing that’s beloved by urbanists — but not always appreciated by the public at large.

Last week, City Council removed requirements that developers build parking facilities or spaces when they develop in the downtown, Over the Rhine (OTR) and Pendleton neighborhoods, as well as parts of Mount Auburn and the West End, according to City Beat. They also passed a parking permit plan for OTR.

A city task force that helped create the plan to remove parking minimums cited similar moves in parts of Cleveland, Nashville and Kansas City, Mo. as examples the city could draw from, the paper reports.

“Parking minimums are well-intended, but they are an unnecessary regulation that violate their own stated goals of reducing traffic, threaten walkability, and lead to blight in our cherished urban fabric in Over-the-Rhine,” the task force report stated.

City Councilman David Mann disagreed that Cincinnati was ready to scrap those minimums, however. He voiced concern that the removal of the requirement will simply encourage developers to forego parking in all cases — even when it might be needed.

“I want to believe that the market will take care of all human needs,” he said, according to City Beat. “With all respect, I don’t believe that.”

As Next City has covered, parking minimums tend to inflate housing costs, especially in places where real estate is already pricey (San Francisco, for example). In April of this year, Seattle passed a bundle of parking reforms aimed at decoupling the price of housing from parking, and lower the city’s greenhouse gas emissions, as Next City covered at the time.

The Seattle bill required commercial and residential buildings to charge residents for parking only if they actually had a car.

“Unbundling makes parking more transparent,” a researcher from Sightline told Next City at the time. “When people realize they’re paying $200 a month for parking they might opt out or get by with one car instead of two, then the market builds less of it which is what we want.”

In Cincinnati’s OTR neighborhood, the construction of just one parking space costs about $15,000, as WCPO recently reported. In Cincinnati, as elsewhere, developers often mix those costs into the monthly rental price tag.


Dallas Cash Bail System Must Change, Judge Rules

(AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

A federal judge has banned Dallas County from using a predetermined schedule to set bail, the Dallas Morning News reports.

U.S. District Judge David Godbey wrote Thursday that the policy of setting bail without regard for a defendant’s ability to pay violated those defendants’ constitutional rights, according to the paper. His order is temporary, but the ruling indicates that the groups that sued the county earlier in 2018 are likely to prevail in any future lawsuits.

Those groups include nonprofits and recent arrestees in custody at the Dallas County Jail, who allege that the sheriffs, county, and magistrate judges, among others, employ a system of “wealth-based detention by imposing and enforcing secured money bail without an inquiry into and findings concerning the arrestees’ ability to pay,” the ruling states.

According to the paper, Dallas County officials had pledged to reform the system after The Dallas Morning News ran an article on a woman jailed with a $150,000 bond for a $105 shoplifting charge. The nonprofits that filed the suit claim that despite that promise, not much has changed.

From the paper:

Under Godbey’s order, pretrial staff at the courthouse must verify an arrestee’s ability to pay bail and must explain the process to them, and deliver a completed affidavit to the Dallas County Sheriff’s Office before a defendant’s probable cause hearing.

The affidavit will allow defendants to explain the maximum amount they could reasonably afford within 24 hours of the arrest, from any source, including family and friends. It will ask about income, debts and other expenses.

It won’t apply to defendants who are ineligible for pretrial release due to a hold by another agency, a pending mental health evaluation or pretrial detention orders that deem them too dangerous to be released.

The court order is similar to another in Houston, which Next City reported on earlier this year. In 2017, a federal judge ordered Harris County to stop keeping people arrested on misdemeanor charges in jail because they couldn’t pay bail.

“Harris County’s policy is to detain indigent misdemeanor defendants before trial, violating equal protection rights against wealth-based discrimination and violating due process protections against pretrial detention,” Judge Lee H. Rosenthal wrote in her ruling at the time.

However, a 2018 investigation by the Houston Chronicle found that the county’s bail reform efforts still had a long way to go. The paper alleged that the county’s pretrial system provided little supervision for the defendants most at risk of failing to appear in court.

“The result is a criminal justice system clogged with a growing number of failures to appear, months after a federal judge ordered the release of indigent defendants who can’t afford to post bail,” the Chronicle reported.

In California, too, bail reform efforts have been met with skepticism by some criminal justice advocates. As Next City covered earlier this month, California Governor Jerry Brown signed SB 10 on August 28. The bill orders that county cash bail systems be replaced with a “risk assessment” tool. Going forward, counties will use computer algorithms to determine the likelihood that a person facing trial will flee before their court date or commit a crime if not held in jail.

Critics of the bill, however, worry about many of the racial and class-based biases that are baked in to so many police-based algorithms (more on that here). For example, a ProPublica study from 2016 found that software designed for pretrial risk assessment was often inaccurate and biased against African-Americans.

Still, cash bail at the county level is increasingly considered the low-hanging fruit of criminal justice reform.

“Money bail inherently discriminates against the poor and removes the decision about actual release from custody from the court to profit-motivated entities,” Penny Stinson, president of the National Association of Pretrial Services Agencies (NAPSA), told Next City several years ago. “Most troubling is the lack of relationship between a defendant’s ability to post a monetary bond and their reliability to return to court or threat to community safety.”


Architect Robert Venturi Leaves a Complex, Contradictory Legacy

(Credit: Todd Sheridan)

Robert Venturi, the reluctant father of post-modern architecture and author of “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture,” died Tuesday at the age of 93.

The Architect’s Newspaper first reported his passing with a statement from Venturi’s family. The news has since launched tributes from the likes of the New York Times and the Guardian, as well as lower-brow mediums such as Twitter. Judging by his work — and egalitarian sensibilities — Venturi would have appreciated them all.

From PlanPhilly:

In [Venturi’s] passing, Philadelphia loses a native son whose work changed the course of architecture, and left an indelible imprint on his hometown – from the campuses of University of Pennsylvania and Drexel to residential architecture in Chestnut Hill and public spaces in Old City. His buildings and ideas live on, however, continuing to seriously challenge us with architecture that doesn’t take itself so seriously.

Beyond Philadelphia, the legacy of Venturi and his partner and wife Denise Scott Brown has been called a “radical punch” to architecture’s “solar plexus.” Writing for De Zeen, architect Charles Holland recently praised the duo’s book “Learning from Las Vegas” as a challenge for others in his profession to “take popular culture, popular taste and ordinary architecture seriously.”

“It was also a highly divisive book that many saw as uncritical and overly accommodating to the more extreme forms of capitalism,” Holland wrote. “It set the tone for Venturi’s status as a highly respected and hugely influential architect who was also a professional irritant and, somehow, an outsider. Given his love of difficult reconciliations and perverse contradictions, this status was entirely appropriate.”

From the Guardian:

Venturi is often referred to as the father of postmodernism, but he was so much more than that. As the historian Robert Miller wrote, it is “a charge comparable to calling Thomas Edison the father of disco”. Like Edison, Venturi shone a bright light into the often gloomy world of architectural discourse, illuminating a colourful spectrum of possibility, embracing the messy vitality of the “ugly ordinary”, and expanding the very idea of what architecture could be.

Scott Brown, whose legacy is less well-known due to the kind of industry sexism that Next City has covered at length, was often the force behind that love for the ordinary, both in the duo’s architecture and their broader urban and social mission.

From De Zeen:

Scott Brown’s input and influence on the practice has been immense. Ingrained industry sexism has undoubtedly downplayed her part, most evident in her exclusion from the Pritzker Prize, which was awarded to Venturi alone in 1991. But it was Scott Brown who introduced Las Vegas to the mix, and who brought an engagement with popular culture, sociology and urbanism. Her pioneering interest in advocacy planning and community engagement also gave a political and social dimension to the work.

Writers and architects have sent out tributes on social media.


Gubernatorial Hopeful Wants to Tax Massachusetts’ Private Colleges

Jay Gonzalez, winner of the Massachusetts Democratic gubernatorial primary, speaks at a Massachusetts Democratic Party unity event in Boston, Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018. (AP Photo/Bill Sikes)

Massachusetts’ big-name private colleges, including Harvard, MIT and Boston University, could fund the state’s public schools under a contentious proposal by Democratic candidate for governor Jay Gonzalez.

Gonzalez said Wednesday that he hopes to impose a 1.6 percent tax on nonprofit college and university endowments over $1 billion, WBUR reports. Gonzalez’s campaign contends that the tax could generate an estimated $1 billion a year, with more than half coming from Harvard. The funds would be earmarked for transportation and public school initiatives.

“I think it’s fair to ask the wealthiest among us — including major institutions that have accumulated enormous wealth in part thanks to their exemption from taxation — to contribute to our greater community,” Gonzalez told reporters this week, according to the AP.

Higher education leaders don’t see it that way.

“We’re surprised, disappointed and thought it was a terrible idea,” Richard Doherty, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts, said recently, WBUR reports. He said that endowments are used to fund things like financial aid and research and added that if funding is cut, those programs suffer.

Incumbent Republican Gov. Charlie Baker agreed that the plan was a bad idea, and compared it to a similar proposal made by President Donald Trump earlier this year.

Others, like Zac Bears of the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, believe the tax would be even the balance between the elite schools and their public counterparts.

“UMass Amherst alone educates more Massachusetts residents than these nine large private colleges combined,” Bears told WBUR. “We need to invest in our public higher ed system, and these institutions have more than enough money to help us do it.”

Massachusetts isn’t the only region considering how to pump money into its higher education system this voting season. In Denver, residents will ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ a college scholarship tax. A previous version of the tax went before voters in 2015 — as Next City covered at the time — and was narrowly defeated. Its aim was similar to the tax Gonzalez is proposing, but on a citywide, rather than statewide scale.

“I think that if we’re successful, there will be a lot of interest across the country looking at this model,” Stephen Jordan, president of Metropolitan State University of Denver, told Next City at the time. “There are a lot of large communities like Denver out there, within states that are constrained to provide for higher ed institutions and where there’s a significant population of first-generation college students who are priced out of four-year colleges.”


‘Uncomfortable Art Tours’ Question Colonialist Biases in London-Area Museum

Pieces from the Benin Bronzes collection, originally taken from what is now modern-day Nigeria and housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum. (Credit: Warofdreams)

As European museums face increased pressure to return African art — much of it taken during the so-called “Scramble for Africa” — one London-based curator is trying to tell a side of art history not documented in most school books.

Alice Procter’s “Uncomfortable Art Tours” at the Queen’s House, a maritime museum in Greenwich, explores the racist narratives and ideologies underpinning many objects displayed in Europe from the region’s colonial period, Al Jazeera reports.

From the news site:

On the Queen’s House tour, portraits, botanical records, curios and engravings commemorating various European expeditions are analysed and put into context, sometimes to the discomfort of some of her tour group, who are mainly young white women — like Procter herself….

Admiral Nelson’s lifelong opposition to the abolition movement, the English Crown’s financial involvement with slavery and the lack of evidence to support lurid tales of cannibalism all come as a bit of a shock.

“While museums continue to argue that they are neutral spaces, the fact is that they are not,” Procter told Al Jazeera. “There is always one side of the story that has been privileged over the other in these spaces, and we need to be more honest and open about that.”

Her tours come at a time when many European and American museums are reckoning (or refusing to reckon) with how they came to possess some of their most valuable pieces. From works that were mysteriously acquired during the Cambodian genocide to artifacts seized by British forces during military offensives in present-day Nigeria, the art presented in so-called “universal” museums is often the rightful property of countries that were colonized.

In recent years, according to the Guardian, many have called for the “repatriation” of antiquities to their countries of origin. But while some curators support a system of long-term loans — in which the country requesting the objects would gain access to them for a period, but would first have to recognize the museum as the legal owner — others believe that could set a bad legal precedent when it comes to looted art.

Long-term loans represent institutional Europe’s perceived “God-given right and obligation to supervise Africans and their activities, including what obviously is African property and resource,” former UN legal adviser Kwame Opoku wrote recently in the Modern Ghana journal, according to Al Jazeera.

As Next City has covered, whitewashing history is a problem in American museums as well — particularly when it comes to Native American art. And representation remains an issue as well. In 2015, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation found that only 16 percent of art museum leadership positions were held by people of color, even though 38 percent of Americans identify as black, Hispanic, Asian or multiracial. Several museums, including the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and the Oakland Museum of California are working to more closely align their exhibits with their surrounding communities.


Portland Leaders Endorse Bigger Buildings, Smaller Homes

(Photo by Steve Morgan)

As with officials in Toronto and Minneapolis, Portland planning commissioners appear poised to embrace gentle density.

In a series of straw votes last week, the planning commission endorsed a number of policy changes designed to cap the size of new single units, re-legalize structures that include more than one unit inside and allow buildings to get slightly bigger to include multiple units, Sightline reports.

The commission also recommended increasing the maximum number of allowable homes on a (previously single-family) lot to three or four.

The commission is an advisory body, so the changes still must go before the City Council. But its recommendations carry some weight, especially because the Portland City Council has been leaning pro-density in recent years, according to the website.

“The goal is to reduce demolitions of one small house for one big house, and incentivize things the public has an interest in having more of: homes, especially less expensive homes, especially ones that rehab old structures instead of demolishing them,” Sightline reports. The changes reflect a vision for the city “where more expensive detached homes and more affordable small plexes are all mixed together,” according to the website.

Minneapolis officials have been debating a similar long-range vision, As Next City has covered. Mayor Jacob Frey has voiced strong support for so-called “fourplexes” in single-family neighborhoods, with the goal of increasing density without massive new developments.

The concept is an example of gentle density — i.e., increased density from duplexes or garage apartments in areas zoned mostly for single-family homes. In Toronto, officials have also been eyeing the city’s network of alleys — or laneways — as a source of second units in neighborhoods that generally keep to one home per lot.

In Portland, planning officials see the smaller homes as a win not just for increased supply, but for sustainability as well.

“For all the talk about, ‘We can’t fit into this 2,500 square foot house,’ I kind of think, well, we did for most of human history, in houses half that size,” commissioner Eli Spevak said last week, according to Sightline. “I also think about the carbon issues. Oregon has studied this more than any state. The biggest carbon impact of new construction, over the lifespan of a house, is how big it is. Seventy, 80 percent of the carbon impact of a house is heating and cooling the space. … Attached housing is great for that also, and this code supports both those things: attached housing and small homes.”


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