Posts by Author: Rachel Dovey

Israel Considers Three Routes for West Bank Light Rail

Ariel, in the West Bank (Credit: Salonmor)

Plans for a new light rail to connect the Jewish settlement of Ariel in the West Bank with Israel’s more central towns within the Green Line, or 1967 borders, will move forward, Israeli Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz announced Wednesday. Because Israeli settlements in the West Bank are considered illegal under international law — and the Tapuah Junction east of Ariel, where the line would run, has become associated with stabbings and car attacks over the last 10 years — the line stands to become yet another flashpoint in the ongoing struggle between Israel and the surrounding occupied territories.

Katz, however, sees the project as a way to “significantly reduce traffic congestion in the area,” the Times of Israel reports.

“The majority of Ariel residents work along the route of the [planned] train, which passes through the Barkan industrial zone,” he said, according to the paper. “The new light rail will enable them to reach their workplaces, shopping centers, or entertainment venues quickly and safely.”

The project is expected to cost a minimum of $1.16 billion U.S., and Katz has instructed the National Transport Infrastructure Company Netivei Israel to test three options, all starting in Ariel, then stopping at the settlement’s university and running along Route 5 to the Green Line. From there, the train could either continue to northern Rosh Ha’ayin, run through central Rosh Ha’ayin to Kiryat Aryeh, or run through southern Rosh Ha’aayin to Petah Tikvah.

But finding contractors to work on Israeli infrastructure projects hasn’t always been easy.

“Other major transportation projects, like the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem high-speed train, have faced setbacks when international companies have refused to work on parts of the route that run through the West Bank,” the Times of Israel reports.

And it’s not just the international community speaking out against how infrastructure in the West Bank is often planned. From Citylab:

Today, some Israelis are frustrated that the government is only prioritizing roads and bus lines for Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, land which Palestinians also claim. ‘I think that definitely has had an impact on priorities,’ says [Geography Professor Yodan Rofeof] of the massive infrastructure works in the West Bank. He also cites projects like the separation barrier — which surrounds much of the Palestinian West Bank — and roads in the West Bank — some of which are reserved only for Jewish drivers — as part of shaping how, when, and where Israel prioritizes public works.

And as Next City has covered, the Palestinian West Bank has been increasingly crowded by the growth of Israeli settlements, like Ariel. In the 1990s, a treaty signed by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization gave Palestinians control (with various limitations) over a mere 18 percent of the West Bank’s 2,173 square miles. Since then, more than half of West Bank Palestinians have come to live on that 18 percent of land.

Suffice it to say, the line could be controversial, to put it mildly. Ariel officials, however, appear to the support Katz’ plan. Mayor Eli Shaviro told the Times of Israel that it sends a message “regarding the importance of the continued development of the city.”


D.C. Mayor Vows to Fund Campaign Finance Reform

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Call it a change of heart or a sudden dash of political savvy — either way, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser signed a bill Tuesday to create a public financing program for local campaigns. The mayor, who voiced opposition to such a program in January (and said she wouldn’t fund it), now says she will fund it in her upcoming budget.

Bowser tweeted an explanation when she signed the bill.

As Next City has covered, the program will allow candidates to receive a base sum varying by office — with a maximum of $160,000 for mayoral hopefuls and a 5-to-1 match on small donations. It will cost taxpayers an average of about $5 million per year and be up and running, at the earliest, in 2020.

In January, Bowser claimed the program would waste funds needed elsewhere. Her about-face may, indeed be inspired by residents’ passion. But as WAMU points out, it could also help Bowser in her campaign for a second term by addressing widely held concerns that “wealthy political donors hold more sway in the Wilson Building than regular voters.”

Regardless, Bower’s announcement will smooth the way for the program — which already had the full backing of the council. And it will allow D.C. to join Portland and Seattle, which both enacted finance reform programs in 2016. Portland’s initiative is similar to the one D.C. is proposing, promising to match residents’ small contributions 6-to-1. Seattle, meanwhile, has been experimenting (with mixed results) with a “democracy voucher” system, in which each adult resident receives four vouchers worth $25 that they can give to any local candidate of their choice.


Atlanta Releases First Cycling Report

(Credit: City of Atlanta)

In 2012, Atlanta’s then-Mayor Kasim Reed made a promise that raised many a skeptical eyebrow — in four years, he would double Atlanta’s bike lanes and make the freeway-loving city a top-10 cycling hub.

Six years on, that goal appears to be (partially) realized. Since 2012, Atlanta’s bikeway mileage has, in fact, doubled and now snakes 116 miles across the metro, according to the city’s first annual cycling report, released Tuesday. The jump in mileage was made possible with funds from the $250 million Renew Atlanta bond program approved in 2015, the Atlanta Business Chronicle reports. “Bikeways” include bike lanes, multi-use paths and cycletracks, among other infrastructure types.

“With the ever-growing number of people embracing cycling as a means to navigate our city, building miles of new bicycle lanes and providing safer infrastructure for cyclists preserves our reputation as a city that respects and supports alternative modes of transportation,” Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said in a statement. Bottoms added some plans of her own to continue Reed’s work — under her administration, the city will use TSPLOST funding to double Relay Bike Share stations, with a particular focus “communities that require access to affordable transportation options.”

The report provides an overview of the city’s accomplishments over the last half-decade — launching Relay Bike Share (which has contributed 86,370 two-wheeled trips since its 2016 inception); creating the “Bike Share Champions” program to help with the placement of Relay stations; and completing a study aimed at better synching up bikeways with MARTA.

Overall, though, it contains a lot of back-patting mixed in with the helpful numbers and maps — and those figures have come with their own growing pains. Peachtree Street, one of the routes now graced with a cycling counter according to the report, was the center of a heated debate involving the Georgia Department of Transportation, for one thing. And Atlanta’s history of race- and class-based disinvestment, particularly in its transit systems, hasn’t just gone away. The Beltline, which merits its own section in the city’s report, not only spurred some capital-G Gentrification, but has been hotly criticized for neglecting its own promises around affordable housing.

Still, the report’s very existence shows that things are changing in Atlanta with regards to cycling culture. The new annual document will, according to an intro by City Commissioner Tim Kaine, “highlight our residents’ enthusiasm about the optimization of Atlanta as a bicycle-friendly city, and ensure that we are held accountable in pursuing and achieving the goals set forth by the Department of City Planning.”


Salt Lake City Sensors Show Link Between Sprawl and Rising CO2 Levels

(Photo by Ashton Bingham)

It’s common sense — new suburban development creates more CO2 than dense, city-center development. But actual long-term research testing the emissions created by urban vs. suburban growth over time is scarce. A new study, published this month by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, sheds some light on the particles in question, revealing that, for the most part, common sense holds up.

The paper, co-authored by 14 scientists from the University of Utah, the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, and several other universities, found that CO2 emissions have increased as suburban areas southwest of Salt Lake City have developed over the last 10 years. But similar population growth in the city center over the same time period didn’t lead to higher emissions. Researchers took advantage of the Utah region’s network of carbon dioxide sensors — the longest-running network in existence, with the first sensor established in 2001 according to the Washington Post.

The uptick in suburban emissions is not all that surprising, Christopher Jones, a researcher at the University of California at Berkeley who was not involved in the study, recently told the Post.

“Of course, if you put more people where there weren’t people before, you’re going to have more emissions,” he said. “The question is putting them in one type of development, compared with somewhere else.”

But the findings aren’t quite as simple as “urban growth equals good for the planet, suburban growth equals bad.” For one thing, according to the paper, emissions were already much higher in the city than in the rural areas that suburbanized over time. So while CO2 did not rise in the dense downtown, it was already present in much larger quantities.

And as Jones pointed out to the Post, the population growth in the center of Salt Lake City would be much smaller than the growth in the suburban (previously rural) areas if you looked at it in percentage terms. So you might expect to see smaller CO2 changes.

Still, overall the research appears to confirm that SLC policies like prioritizing walkable development, funding light-rail expansions and offering free transit on high-pollution days are headed in the right direction. As Josh Cohen noted for Next City in January, automobile emissions account for more than half the pollution in Utah. So (barring an overnight EV/power plant revolution) building single-family homes that rely entirely on cars is, of course, going to tick up regional CO2. It’s common sense — this time with sensors to back it up.


L.A. Names First Chief Design Officer

Christopher Hawthorne accepts an Emmy for "Third L.A. With Architecture Critic Christopher Hawthorne" in 2017. (Photo by Danny Moloshok/Invision for The Television Academy/AP Images)

Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne is trading weekly columns for annual budgets.

The 14-year Times vet announced this week that he will be moving across the street to City Hall to become the city’s first chief design officer. He wrote in his announcement that he’ll be “working in the mayor’s office to raise the quality of public architecture and urban design across the city — and the level of civic conversation about those subjects.” His duties will include helping city engineering and transportation officials infuse design qualities into infrastructure, and forming design competitions to recruit emerging architects for civic projects and be “something of an experiment, an effort to produce better architecture, urban design and what we once called ‘public works’ for Los Angeles.”

During his tenure with the Times, Hawthorne proposed retiring whole sections of the city’s freeways and sung the praises of pre-fab buildings, particularly where multi-family residential is concerned. But his ideals will, no doubt, be tested by L.A.’s many growing pains, including the city’s housing crisis and surge in homelessness. From his Times post announcing his departure:

It’s a caricature to say that Los Angeles has never valued the design of its public spaces (or even worse, that it has none). It is true, however, that in the decades after World War II, Los Angeles — like many American cities — pursued a new and largely privatized kind of urbanism, dependent on both the freeway and the single-family house, while increasingly neglecting its public side.

That has changed in marked fashion over the last decade. Thanks not only to ballot and bond measures but also to shifts in how people live and get around the region, Los Angeles is re-embracing and reinvesting in its public spaces and arguably its very public-ness. Several of the major initiatives we’ve taxed ourselves to pay for over the last decade — to build transit lines, parks and housing for the formerly homeless — touch on or even promise to reshape the public realm.

Hawthrone added a post-script about the paper’s recent tumult, which Curbed LA elaborated on. The newsroom recently unionized, then watched scandal rock its parent company, and was finally sold. “With no replacement announced, some critics are wondering if Hawthorne’s position will be filled at all,” according to Curbed.


A New Calif. Housing Law Is Being Put to the Test in Berkeley

(Credit: Blake Griggs) 

California’s newest housing law is about to be tested.

Last week, developer West Berkeley Investments (a subsidiary of Blake Griggs) cited SB 35 when filing its application for a controversial project that’s been tied up in zoning and environmental review for the last half-decade. The law allows the developer to bypass local oversight in exchange for making 50 percent of the units affordable, Berkeleyside reports. It’s the first to cite the law since it was enacted in January, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

SB 35 is, in part, a reaction to California cities’ notorious noncompliance with state housing law. Much like laws in New Jersey and Washington, housing element law requires cities to plan for their “fair share” of housing in line with regional growth estimates. But many municipalities (around half, according to an Orange County Register story from 2013) just don’t update their housing elements, as Next City has covered, and the law doesn’t have any teeth. SB 35 says that any municipality not meeting its regional housing requirements needs to allow “over-the-counter approval” for a project that meets certain zoning requirements, according to Berkeleyside.

State senator Scott Weiner, who proposed the law, immediately sent out a congratulatory tweet.

But the local opposition to this particular developer — and this particular parcel — is complicated, and doesn’t fit the mold of wealthy, single-family neighborhood groups rallying against low-income units. The SF Chronicle reports:

Opponents to the project say the property is part of the West Berkeley Shellmound, a city landmark since 2000. Representatives of three autonomous Ohlone family bands — Confederated Villages of Lisjan, Himre-n-Ohlone, and Medina Family — spent years negotiating with the developer over the size and configuration of the development. Most recently Blake Griggs offered to give the American Indian family bands a quarter of the property in exchange for the Ohlone’s endorsement.

The Ohlone bands rejected the offer, stating that the bands “unanimously stand together to oppose the development of the West Berkeley Shellmound located at 1900 Fourth Street in Berkeley.”

“Our sacred sites were never given up by our families — not legally, nor in theory,” Vincent Medina, a spokesperson for the groups, told the paper. “They are not properties or parcel numbers that can be bought and sold. We did not stand in opposition when you developed other parts of our land. We do not get in the way when you put up apartment buildings or shopping malls. But where we draw the line is when you propose to dig up and desecrate the most sacred places where our ancestors are buried.”

The developer originally submitted a draft EIR in 2016, but it hadn’t yet been approved, in part due to the Ohlone controversy. The newly submitted project proposal doesn’t contain any acknowledgment of that issue, according to Berkeleyside.

The new law reportedly requires that the project be approved in 180 days, but it still has to be vetted by the city’s Zoning Adjustments Board. Meanwhile, according to the Chronicle, developers in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Daly City are preparing applications to be submitted under SB 35.


Eight Ideas for Upgrading NYC’s Subways

(Credit: MTA)

New York’s subway system of today may be in the midst of an officially declared state of emergency, but New York’s subway system of tomorrow could include shiny new carbon fiber train cars, sensors to help with signaling and a robotic system to install communications and control systems.

That, at least, is the hope of MTA’s Genius Transit Challenge, launched by Gov. Andrew Cuomo last summer, and awarded to eight winning teams this month. It’s aim: to attract innovative ideas for the city’s struggling system. Detractors, however, don’t quite see it that way.

“These largely redundant or silly ideas do not live up to the hype that this plan would fix the subway,” Doug Kellogg of NYC nonprofit Reclaim New York recently told AM New York. “This amounts to another publicity gimmick from the MTA to avoid being held responsible for their failure to run trains on time despite massive costs.”

Regardless, the winners will split three $1 million prizes, according to the Architect’s Newspaper, and fall into three categories: signaling, subway cars and communications. One winner, lawyer and transit aficionado Craig Avedisian, took away honors (and $330,000) for a plan combining longer trains with novel loading procedures to increase capacity, according to the paper. Another, Bechtel Innovation, won for “The Big B,” a robotic system that could “nimbly climb off railways, into stations, onto platforms, and into service bays,” to install control and communications devices, the paper reports. Fellow prize-winners include Metrom Rail, the Thales Group and CSiT, among others.

How, exactly, these ideas will (or could) be implemented is unclear, although the proposals stand to be “thoroughly vetted and further developed as quickly as possible with future procurements subject to any required MTA Board approval,” according to a statement from the contest.

Whether or not the contest will result in actual upgrades, the idea is certainly in vogue. As Next City has covered, infrastructure contests seem to be a dime (or a $1 million cash-prize) a dozen right now, particularly as federal funds evaporate and public agencies hunt for private and foundation-based goodwill. And while some design challenges, like what to do with NYC medians (hint: build an artificial mountain range) seem harmless enough, some have been criticized for their potential to institutionalize what Tracy S. Chaplin, a Ph.D. student at the University of Washington Jackson School of International Studies, called in 2016 Next City op-ed “dangerous mistakes.”

Take the HUD National Disaster Resilience Competition, which, Chaplin wrote, was deeply unjust, “requiring that communities suffering environmental destruction compete for resources.” That, she added was “tantamount to a competition for basic human rights.”


North Carolina Town Searches for Opiate Data in Its Sewers

(Photo by Jonathan Perez)

North Carolina has witnessed an 800 percent increase in fatal overdoses from opiates since 2008 — but the state’s small towns still lack hyper-localized data about their epidemics. To get at those more precise numbers, the town of Cary is turning to an unlikely place: city sewers. reports:

Officials with the Town of Cary said there will be roughly 10 sampling stations within the town’s wastewater collection system that will measure the concentration of opioids in human waste and wastewater. Each station will attempt to measure the level of opioid use in an area of about 3,000 to 5,000 homes. The data will be calculated to estimate the daily rate of opioid usage per every 1,000 people.

The data won’t be able to track usage to specific homes, officials told the station. Cary was given $100,000 to pilot the plan when it was selected as a Champion City in the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge.

“Through this unique collection system, we will be able to go into small areas, like 5,000 people as opposed to 40,000 or 50,000,” Mike Bajorek, deputy Cary town manager, told WRAL. “We hope that will change the way public health officials will do their work.”

The collection system isn’t the first of its kind. Sewers are perfect for gathering public health data on community-wide drug use, as Washington State researchers discovered in 2014. The method has its drawbacks (although shatterproof vials are, thankfully, available), but yields much more accurate numbers than self-reported surveys.

And accurate numbers are in high demand with regards to opiates. The epidemic killed nearly 64,000 U.S. citizens in 2016, and as of last month, more than 60 cities have filed lawsuits against the makers of prescription painkillers like OxyContin, Percocet and fentanyl.


Judge Forces Wealthy N.J. Towns to Build More Affordable Housing

The West Windsor Township in Mercer County, New Jersey, is one of two towns given numbers in the recent ruling. (Credit: Famartin)

Last year, a New Jersey Superior Court judge told the state’s cities in no uncertain terms that they’d failed in to build enough affordable housing. Now, a county judge has begun handing out some long-anticipated numbers — and two wealthy towns will be forced to build more units than they’d like.

In a decision released Thursday, Mercer County judge Mary Jacobson concluded that the state should add 155,000 affordable units by 2025, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports. For the two Mercer County towns in question — Princeton and West Windsor — that figure will boil down to 753 new units and 1,500 new units respectively. Both numbers are higher than the towns’ calculations of what they should provide, according to the Inquirer.

Under New Jersey’s now famous Mount Laurel Doctrine, the state has declared that “municipal land use relations that prevent affordable housing opportunities for the poor” are unconstitutional. But — as in California, Illinois and Washington — many towns utilize local zoning codes that encourage the construction of large, single-family homes rather than denser, multi-unit dwellings.

Last year, the state Supreme Court ruled that towns and cities don’t just need to build housing for today’s needs, but actually owe a debt reaching back 16 years, as Next City reported at the time.

“For the last 16 years, while the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) failed to promulgate viable rules creating a realistic opportunity for the construction of low- and moderate-income housing in municipalities, the Mount Laurel constitutional affordable housing obligation did not go away,” Justice Jaynee LaVecchia wrote in her decision last year, referring to the state’s (now defunct) government agency responsible for overseeing construction of affordable units.

The Mercer County decision applies only to the two towns, but it could have a ripple effect across the state, the Inquirer reports. It followed a 40-day trial in which experts provided conflicting testimony on New Jersey’s future population data and housing needs, and could spur other towns to settle according to Kevin Walsh, executive director of the Fair Share Housing Center.

“Lower-income households are not going to be excluded in the way that lots of wealthy towns hope to,” he told the paper.


One Effect of Climate Change We Aren’t Talking About

(Photo by Josh Wilburne)

The San Francisco Bay Area’s flood risk maps, produced by FEMA, use satellite radar to calculate city-by-city threats. One thing they don’t take into account, however: Bay-side cities aren’t just vulnerable to melting ice caps. They’re also sinking — sometimes at a rate of about a half-inch per year.

That’s the alarming conclusion from researchers at UC Berkeley and Arizona State University. Their paper, “Global Climate Change and Local Land Subsidence Exacerbate Inundation Risk to the San Francisco Bay Area” was published in the journal Science Advances this week. The Mercury News reports:

Much of the bay’s shoreline, because it is built on mud that compacts over time, is sinking at about 2 millimeters a year, roughly the thickness of a nickel … .

But prominent areas that were built on fill that was not densely compacted, including sand, gravel, garbage and other debris — such as San Francisco International Airport, Treasure Island and Foster City — are sinking at a much faster rate, about 10 millimeters, or nearly half an inch a year. They face a far more serious risk of being underwater not generations from now but much sooner.

The researchers also took advantage of satellite data, but paired it with “synthetic aperture radar interferometric measurements,” a technique used to measure tectonic deformation, ground subsistence and landslides. They conclude that while most widely available data states that an area between 51 and 413 square kilometers (or 19 and 159 square miles) is vulnerable to flooding, the at-risk area is actually bigger — ranging between 125 and 429 square kilometers (48 and 165 square miles).

FEMA’s flood-risk inaccuracies are hardly news at this point. New York’s maps are in the process of being redrawn with climate change in mind, but the tweaks are coming a bit late. And last year, roughly 40 percent of Hurricane Harvey’s flood victims in Houston didn’t have insurance because their homes weren’t located in the city’s supposed flood plain. Still, the idea that waters aren’t just rising — but cities like S.F. are also sinking — further complicates the already fraught flood insurance process.

Thankfully, in the Bay Area at least, governments have several choices to protect their homes and infrastructure, as the Mercury News points out. They can go the way of their East Coast cousins, and build up their supply of sea-walls and levees. Or, in a uniquely Northern California move, they can beef up their wetlands and hay fields to buffer waves and storms and reduce the impacts of flooding. (One proposal from the Bay Area Resilient by Design Challenge, which Next City has covered, outlined a way forward with those natural barriers). And local voters approved $500 million in new funding over the next 20 years for wetlands restoration and flood control in 2016.


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