Posts by Author: Rachel Dovey

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.”


Seattle Passes Domestic Worker Bill of Rights

(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

House cleaners, nannies and other domestic workers have been excluded from national labor laws since those laws were first created in the 1930s. In the last decade, however, eight states have guaranteed these workers protections around wages and rest breaks — and now Seattle wants to one-up them and provide those rights along with representation on a local board.

The emerald city is the nation’s first to guarantee all domestic workers a minimum wage, breaks, and political representation, according to the Seattle Times. The new legislation, passed unanimously by the City Council on Monday, will be enforced starting July 1, 2019, the paper reports. The law stipulates that domestic workers classified as independent contractors (as well as those who live in the homes where they work) must be paid at least the equivalent of Seattle’s minimum wage. Domestic workers classified as employees are already supposed to earn at least minimum wage. It also prohibits employers from retaining workers’ personal documents, such as their passports.

The legislation isn’t exactly what workers campaigned for, however. Its advocates originally asked the city to require written contracts between employers and employees and create a portable benefits system, the Times reports. The new law instead created the 13-member board to advise on future regulations.

Still, that board will no doubt provide valuable insight into a field dominated by women and people of color, whose rights are often muddied by the intimate nature of their work, a lack of independent oversight and a host of other systemic and language-based barriers.

As Slate reported several months ago (when the bill was still a work in progress):

Domestic workers are often invisible in the labor force and particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment due to the private and intimate nature of their work. Sexual harassment runs rampant in the domestic work industry, and often employees have nowhere to report a case of harassment without fear of losing their jobs, and in the cases of undocumented domestic workers, fear of deportation. Seattle’s domestic workers bill of rights will ensure that there is a definition and timeline for creating what is essentially a human resources department for workers employed by everyday families, so any domestic worker, regardless of how he or she was hired, has some where to go in case of sexual harassment or abuse.

The domestic workers’ bill joins a host of other laws around fair workweeks, secure schedules and paid sick leave coming before city councils in Philadelphia, Austin and other cities around the country. As is often the case with blue cities in red states, however, some of those bills have been preempted, despite broad municipal support.


Minneapolis Council Members Want to Tie Density to Affordability

(Photo by Michael Adams)

Minneapolis officials need to show more clearly how density equals affordability. That, at least, appears to be one takeaway of a spirited, at times ugly and, no doubt (as these things usually are) racially-charged debate about Minneapolis’ long-range housing development plan — for which the public comment period ended Sunday.

One of the main points of contention: Fourplexes. The city initially proposed allowing fourplexes in single-family neighborhoods in March, when the first draft of the plan was released, as Next City reported at the time. Backlash was swift, and aimed particularly at Mayor Jacob Frey — opponents of the idea dubbed the units “freyplexes.”

The Mayor put housing at the center of his 2017 election campaign and wants to drastically pump up city funding to address the affordability crisis — and he’s supported the plan’s efforts to increase density.

But residents aren’t convinced that density will make housing more affordable, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reports. (Or, perhaps more accurately, the residents making their voices heard are not convinced. According to the paper, the discourse so far “has been dominated by criticism from residents in neighborhoods dominated by single-family homes.”)

“Things are terrible,” Council Member Linea Palmisano said recently, according to the paper. Referencing her south Minneapolis ward, which is lined with hundreds of lawn signs demanding: “Don’t bulldoze my neighborhood,” she said: “I have never heard from so many of these people. They are angry and freaked out.”

Of course, as Next City has also covered, the Twin Cities’ housing market is still influenced by many of the intentionally segregationist, racist policies of the past. Zoning patterns are one way of furthering (or disrupting) those policies.

Still, even if this your classic tale of single-family home NIMBYism obstructing multi-family zoning, several council-members appear ready to take the criticism. And rather than backing away from density, they’re talking about tying it more directly to affordability.

From the Star-Tribune:

Much of the debate comes down to how — and whether — the plan will actually translate to more affordable housing, and not just give developers license to build expensive apartments.

[Council President Lisa] Bender said she would only support the final plan if it’s accompanied by an inclusionary zoning ordinance — a rule that would require large-scale developers to include affordable units in otherwise market-rate projects. [Member Jeremy Schroeder] also said he believes some type of mechanism to encourage below-market-rate housing will be a necessary companion for the plan to succeed.

A second draft of the plan is due in late September, according to the paper.


Bird Drops Scooters Without Warning in Three New England Cities

Dockless scooters appeared without advance notice recently in Providence. (AP Photo/Jennifer McDermott)

It’s been said that the scooter wars will be a bloodbath, and that Uber will win. Over the weekend, though, one of the ride-hailing companies’ rivals (in the two-wheeled market, at least) showed that it’s not afraid to steal a trick or two from Uber’s Kalanick Era of yesteryear — and launched a series of stealth attacks on unsuspecting cities.

That Rival: Bird, which has made some noble pledges to municipal regulators about picking up its scooters and sharing revenue with public entities. But regulators in Providence, Rhode Island and Cambridge and Somerville, both in Massachusetts, were surprised when the company dropped off fleets without warning on Friday, WCVB reports.

Officials in Providence, at least, are in contact with the California-based company, according to NBC 10 News.

“We are also in the early stages of developing a policy for dockless scooters,” a spokesperson for the city told the channel. “The city does not have a contract with them.”

“Ask forgiveness, not permission” has begun to define Bird, which is headquartered in Santa Monica, California and was founded by a former Uber exec. Its vehicles were also left without warning on the streets of St. Paul and Salt Lake City recently.

St. Paul’s mayor told reporters last week that officials would begin collecting the company’s scooters (that is, if they were still in the public right-of-way as of 12 p.m. on July 20). In Salt Lake City, meanwhile, Bird took the scooters out of circulation once the city told the company that the vehicles were out of compliance, the Salt Lake Tribune reports.

In Salt Lake, officials have since worked on creating rules to accommodate the scooters.

“The city has scrambled to draft an operating agreement that would create licensing requirements, safety regulations, and limits on how many dockless scooters and bikes can be scattered around,” according to the paper.

St. Paul is also reportedly working on a program to oversee several companies, including Bird.

The company wasn’t so lucky in Nashville, as Next City reported at the time. Just two weeks after Bird launched, the city shooed it away.

“Bird scooters have been observed by employees of the Metropolitan Government obstructing the public sidewalk,” Metro attorney Theresa Costonis wrote in a letter in May. The relationship seems to have smoothed over a bit, though — a pilot program has since been announced, and the city anticipates scooters rolling out with its official blessing in August.

Bird, of course, is only one side of the scooter wars — its competitors include Lime and Spin, among others. Uber has partnered with Lime, and purchased Jump Bikes in April, which offers scooter rentals as well.


Chicago Suburb Hopes to Create a Docked-Dockless Hybrid

Oak Park gave Chicago's Divvy the boot in January. (Photo by Steven Vance)

Taking a page from Seattle’s playbook, Oak Park, Illinois is planning to go dockless after dropping the local docked operator earlier this year.

Cameron Davis, the village’s new assistant director of the Development Customer Services Department, is currently researching dockless best practices employed by other municipalities, reports. Five start-ups are interested in rolling out locally, but Davis wants to let “at least two” operate in Oak Park to encourage competition, according to the site. Regulatory framework will likely be in place in late 2018.

There’s a twist to Oak Park’s proposed model, however, as StreetsBlog Chicago points out. The village’s trustees Monday endorsed a concept involving “ponds” or “hubs” to serve as semi-official pick-up and drop-off points. The model would essentially make Oak Park’s system a docked-dockless hybrid.

“Having these ponds or areas where people could take or return bikes I think is crucial to the success of any program we implement,” Trustee Deno Andrews said Monday, according to StreetsBlog.

The trustees want to see the hubs located at parks, libraries and schools, and view them as a solution to the much-hyped problem of bikes left strewn haphazardly around sidewalks and other throughways.

Whether the start-ups will push back against those rules remains to be seen. As Next City has covered, operators haven’t been too thrilled about Chicago’s “lock-onto” policy, in which bikes must be left attached to something, rather than standing solitary with their wheels locked.

Small municipalities and suburbs like Oak Park are increasingly turning to bike-share start-ups such as LimeBike and Spin (Beijing-based Ofo, however, has essentially taken itself out of the small-city running). The start-ups, which are investor-funded, offer a system that is essentially free to get up-and-running. And then municipalities can more quickly form multi-jurisdictional partnerships, which make sense in rural and suburban regions where town borders overlap and bleed together.


In D.C. Region, Resistance Grows to HQ2

Amazon's Seattle campus (Credit: Amazon)

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has called Amazon’s HQ2 “the greatest economic development opportunity in a generation.” Increasingly, though, Washington, D.C.-area residents don’t agree. Since D.C., along with nearby Montgomery County and Northern Virginia, made the list of finalists for the retail giant’s second headquarters, a bipartisan group of citizens is organizing to resist the deal, WAMU reports.

From the station:

In Seattle, an attempt by that city’s council to tax large employers in order to fund affordable housing was met with swift and ruthless opposition from Amazon, stoking concern that the company, if it came to the Washington area, could crush similar efforts here. Activists have also raised concerns about the company’s potential impact on already-high rents, its cutthroat corporate culture and its penchant for legally avoiding taxes — a strategy that has been baked into its business model since Bezos started the company in 1994.

Now, those doubts have begun to coagulate into a movement against local bids for Amazon.

That movement is mostly a series of conversations at this point, according to WAMU, hosted by Our Revolution Arlington (which grew out of Senator Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign). But its members are looking at community wealth-building strategies with real-world examples, for example, Richmond, Virginia’s Office of Community Wealth Building, which connects residents with smaller enterprises such as Stone Brewing. (Next City has covered similar wealth-building efforts here and here.) Ultimately, Our Revolution Arlington wants to be in a position to push back against blanket corporate giveaways if Amazon does choose their area — and get a better, more equitable deal.

“Whatever jurisdiction ultimately is the landing spot for HQ2 will be in a much better position than Seattle,” Arlington County Board member Christian Dorsey recently told the station. “When Amazon started and began growing there, no one was thinking about these issues.”

As Next City has covered, the competition to land Amazon is creating something of an artificial race to the bottom — funded with public dollars that the company doesn’t necessarily need.

“Taxpayers should watch their wallets as the trophy deal of the decade attracts politicians to a hyper-sophisticated tax-break auction,” Good Jobs First Executive Director Greg LeRoy said in a statement when the HQ2 race was announced. “We fear that many states and localities will offer to grossly overspend to attract Amazon, even though the business basics — especially a metro area’s executive talent pool — will surely control the company’s decision.”

The state of Maryland, according to WAMU, has approved $5 billion in tax breaks for the company. But many of the finalists won’t disclose what they’ve offered the company, even though their promises are technically made with public money. As Next City has reported, there’s no national law ordering cities to make their bids public. Problematically, though, those figures haven’t just been kept from citizens and reporters. Last year, the Nashville Scene reported that members of Nashville’s Metro Council — the very people who would have to approve the incentive package — hadn’t even seen the city’s proposal.

“I would be very curious to see what we are giving away,” Nashville District 31 Councilmember Fabian Bedne told the paper at the time. “We never learn about these things until it’s too late.”


World’s Largest Dockless Bike-Sharing Company Retreats from U.S.

(Photo by Nick-D)

Mere months after it entered the U.S. market, Chinese bike-sharing giant Ofo is shuttering most of its state-side operations.

The Beijing-based company — still the world’s largest bike-sharing entity — told U.S. employees that it would be downsizing its workforce to outposts in a handful of cities, the Washington Post reports. The company has been operating in about 30 U.S. cities, and while it’s still determining final details, it plans to continue only in select metros like San Diego and Seattle, which have created fewer regulations, according to CNN Tech.

“As we continue to bring bikeshare to communities across the globe, Ofo has begun to reevaluate markets that present obstacles,” Andrew Daley, head of Ofo North America, said in a statement today, as reported by CNN.

The company, he added, will continue to “prioritize growth in viable markets.”

Ofo was one of three dockless bike-share companies that set up shop in Seattle shortly after the metro’s docked bike-share system, Pronto, ceased operations. The city set up a regulatory pilot to test the model, as Next City covered at the time, and officials were impressed by ridership numbers that dwarfed those seen while Pronto was in existence.

Over the course of 2018, however, some cities have become increasingly wary of the dockless model — and the venture-funded start-ups helming it — even as others have jumped at its relative affordability. In January, spooked by reports of bikes left strewn about other cities’ sidewalks and streets, Sacramento devised a system of particularly stringent regulations mandating that operators pick up their stray bikes or have their fines and permits revoked (and bicycles impounded).

“Without regulation, bicycle-share businesses pose a threat to the public health, safety, and welfare,” the ordinance stated. “[D]erelict self-locking bicycles can become a major cause of blight in both residential and nonresidential neighborhoods.”

Still, dockless bikes (and then scooters) have had no trouble spreading to cities like Milwaukie, Dallas, New Orleans and a handful of smaller cities and suburbs. (Chicago’s ‘lock-to’ ordinance, requiring that the bikes be left attached to something, did ruffle the start-ups’ feathers a bit). But with Uber’s April acquisition of Jump, it’s possible that Ofo’s retreat is as much about U.S. competition as city-based regulation.


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