Posts by Author: Rachel Dovey

Austin Presses Pause on Zoning Update, Citing Divisive and Poisoned Process

Austin, Texas (Photo by Stuart Seeger) 

California and Texas may not have a lot in common culturally or ideologically, but they do have at least one striking similarity where city planning is concerned: Nothing flares tempers like the word “density.”

Now, following the death of SB 827 in California, the land-use lightning rod has claimed another victim: Austin’s CodeNext, which is now, as the Austin American-Statesman so eloquently puts it, Code Nixed.

CodeNext, as Next City covered last year, was an ambitious zoning overhaul that managed to make just about everyone mad.

“Neighborhood preservationists, like the Austin Neighborhoods Council, worry the new code will dramatically increase density in residential neighborhoods,” Jen Kinney wrote for Next City last June. “Urbanist groups like AURA think the plan doesn’t go far enough in addressing the city’s affordability crisis.”

And things apparently haven’t improved since then. Although he originally called on all parties concerned to “chill out,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler on Wednesday took to the City Council’s online message board to compose a 1,500-word post on why the zoning rewrite should be halted.

“The need to revise this land development code is greater than ever before,” he wrote. “Yet, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the CodeNext process, so divisive and poisoned, will not get us to a better place.”

The city has spent around $8 million paying a consultant and subcontractors to develop three drafts of rules and zoning maps, the Austin American-Statesman reports. The mayor is now calling for City Manager Spencer Cronk to lead the next round of rezoning efforts, but according to the paper, it’s unclear what form those might take.

“We need to assess where we are and task City Manager Cronk with evaluating all the good we have gotten from all the work done thus far, and then recommending a new process that builds on the lessons learned from what we’ve done, both good and bad,” Adler wrote.

As Kinney covered last year, Austin’s current code is complex and difficult to navigate, even for something as small as adding a porch on a single-family home. With an affordability crisis in the works and no strong public transportation backbone, the city is trying to move toward smart growth and multimodal transit. But urbanist groups worried that the plan miscategorized some areas, meaning they wouldn’t get the denser housing they needed.

For now, efforts will continue, however fruitlessly. A city spokeswoman told the Austin American-Statesman Wednesday that the city will continue work on CodeNext until ordered to stop.


Bay Area’s New Transit Station Reopens Parking Debate

(Credit: Flickr user miggslives)

It’s a classic indicator of success in California, a sign that when you built it they did indeed come (in cars). It’s the giant parking lot — whether football field-sized or rising in a multi-storied garage — and while it’s so often bestowed on retail centers, sports arenas and even churches, the question of whether it should accompany popular transit hubs is still a sticking point among many city planners.

In the East Bay city of Antioch, however, soaring ridership numbers may force consensus.

Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) in May opened a new $525 million extension to the suburb. Already, it’s surpassing projections with 3,800 weekday commuters (BART initially estimated 2,800). It’s so popular, in fact, that the 1,006-slot parking lot serving the station is usually filled before 6 a.m.

“There likely would be even more riders, but there’s no room in the parking lot,” BART Board Director Joel Keller recently said according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

The transit agency now plans to add 700 parking spaces on another lot it owns close to the station. But if the lots continue to be packed, and commuters’ parked cars continue to line neighborhood streets, BART may reopen what the Chronicle calls a “long-standing debate … over whether building more parking is the best way to promote the use of public transit.”

“Wouldn’t it be better to divert people off the roads and onto transit rather than have them continue driving to the urban core?” Keller said, according to the paper.

But BART’s multi-story parking garages have been criticized for their cost, and for eating up valuable land. In 2014, Livable City Executive Director Tom Radulovich, who sits on the BART board, said he was “appalled” at the tens of millions of dollars “wasted” building commuter garages at certain urban stations, Streetsblog reported at the time. He did note, however, that at some “further out” stations, “an argument could be made for parking lots as a land-banking strategy until the appetite for transit village development matures and sustainable access options increase.”

As Next City has covered, transit ridership projections are a notoriously tricky business. Often, numbers will surge during an initial “free” period (particularly on streetcars) and then fall when a line starts charging fares. Some projects that have been especially successful use voter-approved tax dollars, rather than fare-boxes, for operations and maintenance.

That’s not the case on the Antioch extension, however, where the closest destination comes at a fee of $2. But as Bay Area News Group has noted, driving Highway 4 between Antioch and Bay Point (the route followed by the new BART extension) can take 6 times as long as riding the train due to standstill traffic.

“It’s going to a big help,” Nererda Mosqueda of Concord told the news service. “A huge help. I’m so tired of Highway 4 traffic.”


Federal Appeals Court Hands Limited Victory to Sanctuary Cities

A 2017 rally to support sanctuary policies in Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

A U.S. appeals court Wednesday handed a limited victory to sanctuary cities, ruling that President Donald Trump’s executive order threatening funding cuts to cities that limit their cooperation with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is unconstitutional.

The Associated Press reports:

In a 2-1 decision, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with a lower court that the order exceeded the president’s authority. Congress alone controls spending under the U.S. Constitution, and presidents do not have the power to withhold funding it approves to pursue their policy goals, the court majority said.

“By its plain terms, the executive order directs the agencies of the executive branch to withhold funds appropriated by Congress in order to further the administration’s policy objective of punishing cities and counties that adopt so-called ‘sanctuary’ policies,” Chief Judge Sidney Thomas wrote, according to the AP.

But the judges also ruled that a lower-court judge should not have blocked enforcement of Trump Administration’s order nationwide. They limited the injunction to California and sent the case back to the lower court to to discuss further whether a wider ban could be justified.

Devin O’Malley, a spokesman for the U.S. Justice Department, said the ruling was a win for “criminal aliens in California, who can continue to commit crimes knowing that the state’s leadership will protect them from federal immigration officers whose job it is to hold them accountable and remove them from the country.”

Overall, the decision is a win for supporters of sanctuary policies — but the Trump Administration could still try and enforce his executive order against jurisdictions outside the western states covered by the 9th Circuit, David Levine, an expert on federal court procedure at the University of California, told the AP.

“If they wanted to go after Chicago, if they wanted to go after Denver or Philadelphia, they would not be bound by an injunction,” he said. “Those places would have to bring their own lawsuits and whatever happens, happens in those cases.”

As Next City has covered, a federal appeals court largely upheld a Texas ban on sanctuary cities, which prompted Austin officials to get creative. One city council resolution approved in June directed the city manager and Austin police to end discretionary arrests — i.e., unnecessary arrests that could be handled by issuing a citation. In Wisconsin, meanwhile, several anti-sanctuary measures have been signed, including an amendment to the Immigration and Naturalization Act giving power to the federal government to deputize local law enforcement officials to act as immigration agents. (That amendment, 287g, has been the target of massive labour-backed protests across the state).

And increasingly, behind calls to #AbolishICE, activists are making tangible policy proposals that are gaining traction among local reformers.

As Jen Kinney recently wrote for Next City:

In Philadelphia, the encampment outside City Hall is plastered with the slogan “End PARS,” a reference to the Preliminary Arraignment Reporting System, the mechanism whereby the city shares arrest data in real time with ICE. In New York, the immigrant rights group Movimiento Cosecha organizes campaigns to pressure companies such as Amazon to end their connections with the agency. A group of researchers is training people around the country to find out if their politicians profit from family detention. And activists in cities such as Columbus, Ohio are pushing officials to make the city a true sanctuary in practice, not just in name only.

The movement can point to some wins. Contra Costa County, outside of San Francisco, announced they’re ending a contract that currently allows ICE to detain some immigrants in the county prison. Facilities in Springfield, Oregon; Williamson County, Texas; and Arlington, Virginia have done the same.

Four days after Kinney’s story, Mayor Jim Kenney announced the city was not renewing the data-sharing agreement with ICE.

In California, sanctuary advocates praised the appeals court decision Wednesday.

“When a president overreaches and tries to assert authority he doesn’t have under the Constitution, there needs to be a check on that power grab,” San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera said in a statement according to the AP. “The courts did that today, which is exactly what the framers of the Constitution had in mind.”


Chicago Gets One Ida B. Wells Monument, Soon to Get Another

Ida B. Wells (Mary Garrity, 1893)

A large swath of Chicago’s Congress Parkway has been renamed in honor of civil rights icon and journalist Ida B. Wells.

The change to Ida B. Wells Drive was lauded by supporters at City Hall, the Chicago Sun-Times reports.

“My great-grandmother will now be remembered for the woman she was and the contributions she made to our country,” Michelle Duster, Wells’ great-granddaughter, said, according to the paper.

Alderwoman Sophia King — one of the sponsors of the measure — cited the “historical significance of what it means to have a street, not only named after a woman, but a person of color,” the paper reports.

As Next City has covered, efforts to change street names in honor of people of color and remove confederate monuments were often challenged by alt-right protestors and even white nationalists (in the case of Charlottesville, Virginia) last year. In May of 2017, former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu gave a rousing speech decrying many of those monuments as celebrating “a fictional, sanitized Confederacy, ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement and the terror that [the confederacy] actually stood for.”

But Chicago’s switch from “Congress” apparently caused very little stir.

“I think we would all argue that nobody is looking to protect the word Congress these days. Ida B. Wells is certainly more popular than the members of Congress,” Alderman Brendan Reilly said last week, according to the Sun-Times.

In Bronzeville, the historic Chicago neighborhood where Wells’ lived, a monument is also in the works. A fundraising committee led by Duster netted $40,000 in a campaign earlier this month, totaling $300,000 raised over the past decade, and hopes to erect a 12-foot tribute complete with quotes and biographical information, according to Book Club Chicago.


New York City Takes Aim at Racism and Maternal Mortality

SUNY Downstate Medical Center. (Photo by Jim Henderson)

In New York City, black mothers are 12 times more likely than white mothers to die from childbirth-related causes. Nationally their risk is still sky-high — about four times that of white women (one of the reasons the U.S. has such a high maternal mortality rate compared to other developed nations) — but New York’s even steeper disparity stood out in an investigative series from NPR and ProPublica last year.

In response, city officials announced a $12.8 million initiative last week to reduce maternal deaths and complications among women of color, particularly black women.

“We are losing far too many mothers — especially women of color — to pregnancy-related complications,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a release. “That is unacceptable.”

Funding will go towards four pilot initiatives based at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn. They include:

  • Engaging health care providers in implicit bias training
  • Supporting hospitals to enhance data tracking and analysis of severe maternal mortality and maternal morbidity events
  • Enhancing maternal care at facilities of NYC Health + Hospitals (the city’s public health system)
  • Expanding public education

Overall, the city’s goal is a complete elimination of the black-white racial disparity in deaths related to pregnancy and childbirth. Officials have also stated that they plan to cut the number of complications in half within five years.

“We recognize these are ambitious goals, but they are not unrealistic,” Dr. Herminia Palacio, New York City’s Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services, told ProPublica recently. “It’s an explicit recognition of the urgency of this issue and puts the goal posts in front of us.”

As NPR and ProPublica reported, New York’s racial disparity in maternal outcomes is among the largest in U.S. — and it’s growing.

From ProPublica:

Regardless of their education, obesity or poverty level, black mothers in New York City are at a higher risk of harm than their white counterparts. Black mothers with a college education fare worse than women of all other races who dropped out of high school. Black women of normal weight have higher rates of harm than obese women of all other races. And black women who reside in the wealthiest neighborhoods have worse outcomes than white, Asian and Hispanic mothers in the poorest ones.

“If you are a poor black woman, you don’t have access to quality OBGYN care, and if you are a wealthy black women, like Serena Williams, you get providers who don’t listen to you when you say you can’t breathe,” Patricia Loftman, a member of the American College of Nurse Midwives Board of Directors, told ProPublica recently. “The components of this initiative are very aggressive and laudable to the extent that they are forcing hospital departments to talk about implicit bias.”


Los Angeles Architects Suggest Designs for Better Shelters

A rendering from EPT Design and DLR. 

The first shelter in a $20-million project to address Los Angeles’ homelessness crisis opens in August — and it’s had what the LA Times calls “a rocky start.” The collection of trailers situated between busy streets and a freeway is anything but inviting, and to compensate for its lackluster surroundings, designers added a $700,000 interior deck, pushing the shelter beyond its budget.

A group of architects working pro bono wants the city to get the next shelter right (15 total are planned). Three teams, recruited by the Urban Land Institute, have released designs to help the project overcome its two greatest obstacles, the Times reports. First, there’s “the reputed aversion homeless people have for the dreary conditions in shelters.” Second, the “almost inevitable community opposition that shelter proposals encounter.”

From the paper:

All three teams came up with similar ideas to blend personal and public space, [Clare De Briere, chairwoman of the Urban Land Institute’s Los Angeles District] said.

The plans all have courtyards that invite community interaction, with semi-secluded areas where residents can engage one another, and more private living spaces inside the tents.

“It was a really interesting way to look at the organization of that space and really making these newly housed people feel that they are a part of the community they are in,” De Briere told the paper, “as opposed to this big foreign tent that’s been blocked off and segregated from the community.”

A rendering from RELM/JFAK Architects. 

As Next City has covered, designers and landscape architects are increasingly turning their attention to cities’ thorniest problems, from inmate recidivism and prison conditions to transitional housing.

Of course, not everyone is designing for good. Hostile design — walls covered in spikes, benches sliced down the middle so no-one can recline, boulders dumped beneath overpasses — is also being used by city governments to deter “loitering,” a.k.a. being destitute in public.

“These designs [legitimize] the point of view that homeless people are the enemy,” British artist Stuart Semple told the Art Newspaper earlier this year. “Instead they need support, often with addiction or mental health.”

The Los Angeles teams were comprised of architecture firms DLR Group, Studio One Eleven and JFAK Architects and landscape architecture firms EPT Design, RELM and SWA. See their designs here and here.


Los Angeles Utility Wants to Solve Energy Storage with the Hoover Dam

The Hoover Dam. (Photo by Marcin Klapczynski)

Clean energy storage is a billion-dollar problem — but Elon Musk aside, a number of technologists are eyeing existing infrastructure and wondering how it could, effectively, serve the function of a giant battery. Take the California utility proposal Next City reported on earlier this year. Because school buses operate on fixed schedules and sit idle during peak demand times, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. wants to study whether electric school buses can effectively store power from renewables, and then send that power back to the grid when necessary.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has a much grander, Hoover Dam-sized version of that idea. In fact, it is the Hoover Dam.

The New York Times reports:

The [LADWP] … wants to equip [the dam] with a $3 billion pipeline and a pump station powered by solar and wind energy. The pump station, downstream, would help regulate the water flow through the dam’s generators, sending water back to the top to help manage electricity at times of peak demand.

The net result would be a kind of energy storage — performing much the same function as the giant lithium-ion batteries being developed to absorb and release power.

The plan has enormous potential but is still in its early stages, according to Utility Dive.

“We are doing some initial assessments and engineering assessments,” Sam Mannan, a project manager at LADWP, recently told the news site.

Details including the location of the pumping station and the project’s potential impact on downstream communities still need to be worked out, Utility Dive reports. And any Southern California water issue is sure to meet with skepticism, if not outright resistance, from legislators in neighboring Nevada and Colorado, since all three rely on water from the Colorado River, as Next City has covered.

“Old wounds are still raw with some along the Colorado,” according to the Times. “A coal-fired power plant in Laughlin, [Nevada] that the Department of Water and Power and other utilities operated was shut down in 2006, costing 500 jobs and causing the local economies to buckle. And a decision long ago to allot Nevada a small fraction of the water that California and Arizona can draw remains a sore point.”

The project’s overall goal, however, would be to help California meet 50 percent of its electrical needs with renewables by 2030. Its target for completion is 2028.

“I think we have to look at this as a once-in-a-century moment,” Mayor Eric M. Garcetti of Los Angeles recently told the Times. “So far, it looks really possible. It looks sustainable, and it looks clean.”


San Francisco Legislators Want Tech Workers to Eat Out for Lunch

(Photo by Daniel Ramirez)

Officials offering public incentives to corporations like Amazon often justify those funds with trickle-down logic — if the business takes their deal, those dollars will be made up in increased flow from workers’ salaries to local neighborhoods, restaurants, and stores. But what if the business offered those incentives provides employees many of those goods in-house — like, say, a cafeteria so that workers don’t ever have to go outside?

It’s a problem that two San Francisco supervisors, Ahsha Safai and Aaron Peskin, have apparently thought a lot about. Tuesday, they proposed a measure that would adjust zoning laws to ban workplace cafeterias, according to the SF Examiner.

From the paper:

Peskin said the measure, was inspired by tech companies like Twitter and Airbnb, which are widely known to have access to dining in their own buildings, depriving nearby restaurants of the dollars usually spent by nearby workers. The measure has the support of Gwyneth Borden, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association and other local merchants.

If it passes the legislation, San Francisco would follow in the footsteps of Mountain View, which has prohibited Google from fully subsidizing employee meals at new office locations — hoping to encourage employees to get out and support local businesses on their breaks.

San Francisco officials have a famously uncomfortable symbiosis with the tech sector. The city offers the Central Market-Tenderloin tax exemption in exchange for “community benefits agreements,” but often fails to enforce those agreements. It’s fought to regulate AirBnB, but still allows the company a generous number of listing exemptions.

The measure would not be retroactive, but merely ban industrial kitchens in office buildings moving forward. It could help kickstart similar legislation in other cities, according to Peskin. It seeks to avoid the “Amazon effect that impacts retail and restaurants across the county,” he said recently, according to the Examiner.

“This is forward-thinking legislation,” he added.


NYCHA Failed to Meet Federal Requirements for Lead Inspections and More

(Photo by Oscar Perry Abello)

The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) said Wednesday that it’s failed to meet federal requirements to inspect for hazardous lead, as well as other areas of noncompliance.

The troubled agency — which suffers from deep federal funding deficits, and not just city and state mismanagement, as Next City has covered at length — is currently in the midst of what the New York Times calls a “reckoning.”

In March, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that he would declare a state of emergency so that NYCHA could expedite work on its $32 billion maintenance backlog. The next month, he released a plan that set aside $250 million in emergency state resources and suspended a number of internal NYCHA laws around procurement. The plan also featured a directive for the mayor, city council speaker and president of the NYCHA Citywide Council of Presidents to select an independent manager to oversee repairs. Several months later, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio signed an agreement with federal prosecutors to provide upwards of $1 billion to the authority over the next four years.

Now the agency is in the midst of a top-to-bottom review, hoping to create a system for tracking both compliance and shortcomings, the Times reports. The revelations about lead will now be sent to the office of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), along with a series of other not-so-flattering findings, namely that the agency may be out of compliance in the areas of staff training, tenant protections and emergency management plans.

“Nycha expects additional areas will be added to this list as the review continues,” Anne-Marie Flatley, the vice president for performance management and analytics at NYCHA, said according to the Times.

The announcement that the agency is out of compliance around lead inspection follows a startling admission from the de Blasio administration — that officials found elevated levels of lead exposure in more than 800 children living in the city’s housing supply between 2012 and 2016, and failed to follow up.

Still, despite the many glaring examples of mismanagement around NYCHA units, the country’s largest supply of public housing is still a valuable asset, and needs to be treated as such — particularly by the media. As Samantha Maldonado reported for Next City in May:

Recent news coverage has focused on heat and hot water outages during the winter, rats, leaky roofs, mold and questionable lead inspections. In March and April alone, Governor Andrew Cuomo, gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon, and Mayor Bill de Blasio visited five NYCHA developments between them and all decried the conditions.

Although many residents and advocates don’t dispute the problems shown — and in fact, they appreciate the attention toward so many longstanding issues — they don’t necessarily think the general public is getting the full picture of what it’s like to live in public housing.

“There’s a fine line between highlighting deficiencies and not losing sight of the value,” Nicholas Dagen Bloom, a professor at New York Institute of Technology author of “Public Housing that Worked,” told Maldonado.


Court Rules in Favor of Philadelphia Soda Tax

Mayor Jim Kenney signing into law a tax on sugary and diet beverages (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Philadelphia’s soda tax is safe — for now. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court last week upheld the city’s controversial tax with a 4-2 majority, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports.

Opponents of the tax saw it as an example of “double taxation” — a violation of a Depression-era state law called the Sterling Act forbidding cities from taxing anything already taxed by the state.

The court disagreed.

“The legal incidences of the Philadelphia tax and the commonwealth’s sales and use tax are different and, accordingly, Sterling Act preemption does not apply,” Chief Justice Thomas G. Saylor wrote in the majority opinion, as reported by the Inquirer.

Philadelphia became the first big U.S. city to pass a soda tax in 2016, following in the footsteps of the smaller Berkeley, California, which passed a similar tax in 2014. At the time, Philadelphia’s tax — a key piece of legislation for Mayor Jim Kenney — was expected to raise $91 million a year to fund preschools, create community schools and improve recreation centers and libraries. (It’s raised less than initially projected, however, causing the city to lower its estimates by about 15 percent and downsize plans for those education-focused programs, according to the Inquirer).

With the case completed the city can spend some of the funds that have been raised — Kenney said last week that the city would give the go-ahead for an estimated $56 million that had been reserved, the paper reports.

The court decision likely won’t mean smooth sailing ahead for the tax, however. The American Beverage Association has spent millions of dollars fighting it — along with other taxes in cities like Santa Fe, New Mexico and Boulder, Colorado. Pepsi last year registered its displeasure with the tax by ceasing distribution of certain items within city limits. A bill that would preempt and eliminate the tax is pending in the Pennsylvania House (a similar bill was recently passed in Arizona). And Kenny’s role in passing the legislation will likely be amplified in the next mayoral election, according to the Inquirer.

The mayor has stood behind the tax, however, and has advised other cities to craft their messaging around the funds created by a beverage tax, rather than the health impacts of sugar, as Next City has covered.

His statement last week reflected that messaging.

“These programs, funded by the beverage tax, will fuel the aspirations and dreams of those who have waited too long for investments in their communities,” he said, according to the Inquirer. “The City of Philadelphia will now proceed expeditiously with our original plans — delayed in whole or part by nearly two years of litigation — to fully ramp up these programs, now that the legal challenge has been resolved.”


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