How to Enable Social Housing in San Diego

San Diego, Urban Planning

The Trouble with California’s Constitution Article 34

We Californians added a state constitutional requirement in 1950 for voter approval before the building of any public housing. Article 34 was passed then because the real estate industry argued that public housing is publicly funded infrastructure similar to schools or roads, and that taxpayers should have a right to vote on low-income housing projects. At that time, the campaign also stoked racist fears about integrating neighborhoods along with the McCarthy-era rhetoric about the need to combat socialism (sounds terribly familiar to our health care and higher education dialog today).

The Supreme Court of the United States upheld Article 34 in the early 1970s. And today, State Senator Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica) has introduced legislation to repeal the Article on the 2020 statewide ballot. San Diego is experiencing an acute housing crisis. The State is instructing cities to lower regulatory barriers to building Affordable Housing (AH), and San Diego has complied with some parking reductions, an AH incentive program, and other tools to assist private and non-profit developers to build more AH housing. However, all are encumbered by high land and labor costs with the majority of the savings on the cost of newly constructed buildings found in permitting and processing, which is a low percentage of the cost of housing.

Public housing built on public land is provides the cheapest delivery mechanism to build cheaper housing for people who cannot afford market rate housing. Bottom line, the land is the cheapest, the labor is well-negotiated, the outcomes are more predictable than using subsidies, waivers, and other regulatory tools to subsidize new construction. The City of San Diego needs to build 12,000 new units annually to keep up with demand (we might build half that on a good year), and we’re trying to double our production with one hand tied behind our back by only relying on private development transactions. We’re in a crisis and it’s time to untie the other hand.

HousingProductionSanDiego

The following are my recommendations for how our region’s cities, and City and County of San Diego can begin to build public housing:

  • Build local state governance representative support for Senator Allen’s bill to repeal Article 34 via Honorable Toni Atkins and Hon. Lorena Gonzalez. Because this will need political will from the Democratic/Labor left, public housing offers the incentive of more construction and management jobs and housing opportunities for trade workers.
  • Take the lead in proposing a statewide ballot proposition to repeal Article 34 by obtaining signatures from 8% of the registered voters who voted (12,464,235 total votes) in the most recent election for governor. This is impossible as we’d need 997,139 of signatures @ $6.20 per signature = $6,182,260.00!
  • Lead a local ballot measure to ask for a majority public vote on allowing the county and cities to build Low-Income (Subsidized) housing on City, County, Agency, and State lands. Initiated by either a petition signed by registered voters or via State Legislature such as Ms Gonzalez or Ms. Atkins, which again needs political will from the Democratic/Labor left, offering more trade jobs and housing opportunities for trade workers is the incentive for their support.
  • Build Middle Income, non-subsidized “Essential Workers” housing that is above the subsidized state-defined Moderate-Income Affordable Housing program, which is >120% AMI. Average Median Income (AMI) for all counties established by HUD is $64,800 for 2019, which is $77,760. San Diego’s annual median income is $76,662. Start building Median Income Housing for rent on City and County lands today betting that Article 34 will be repealed and you’ll have future AH housing stock available – This could be done in conjunction with a non-profit education platform to help local citizens strengthen their neighborhoods through small-scale real estate projects. The Incremental Development Workshop trains small-scaled developers to build capacity and value for locals to be education on how to use San Diego’s inherent land values (as owner/developers or trades/labor) to invest in their own neighborhoods, retain their stake in a neighborhoods, and raise values lot-by-lot without displacement. Importantly, this could be financed by allowing local municipalities to borrow against their assets and rental income in the same way as registered providers and the private sector.

A common fear over this method of delivering AH is the possibility of skewing the housing construction market’s ability to fill any new market demands/needs. Our construction costs today are going through the roof (and has historically) as the ability to attract and retain construction workers in an expensive housing market makes workers scarce. So, the concern about the potential pressure on the existing skilled labor force is very real and illustrates the need for cheaper housing in our region.

In other places with skill shortages, such as the UK and middle-America, they are turning to establishing factories to create homes using modern modular methods of construction.
The rise and fall of our housing market influences the amount of Inclusionary Housing fees collected, which exacerbates the one-hand-tied-behind-our-back conundrum. And to build a significant amount of AH, we need new housing starts funded by developers’ contributions and any reduction in these contributions has a considerable effect on the  availability of AH. As a capitalist society there are always uncertainties in the market related to finance, labor force to construct housing, professional skills and shifts in the proportions of dwellings in each of the 10 housing market types.

Here are the ten (10) types of housing markets in San Diego (and who is responsible for building each type):

  1. Low/Mid-Rise New Construction Housing for Sale (National, Regional, Local developers/builders);
  2. Low/Mid-Rise New Construction Housing for Rent (National, Regional, Local developers/builders);
  3. High-Rise New Construction Housing for Sale (National, Regional, Local developers/builders, Trades);
  4. High-Rise New Construction Housing for Rent (National, Regional, Local developers/builders, Trades);
  5. New Affordable Housing for Rent (Housing Commissions + Non-Profit AH Developers, Trades);
  6. New Special Needs/Workforce Housing (Housing Commissions + AH Non-Profit developers, Trades)
  7. Existing Special Needs/Workforce housing (Housing Commissions + AH Non-Profit developers, Trades)
  8. Existing Housing Stock for Sale (Investors/Homeowners);
  9. Existing Housing Stock for Rent (Investors/Homeowners)
  10. New Custom and Self-Built Housing (Investors/Homeowners).

There are two (2) additional types of housing missing in San Diego that are available to other human beings in other parts of the world:

  1. Social Housing for Sale (Agencies, Housing Commissions + Trades);
  2. Social Housing for Rent (Agencies, Housing Commissions + Trades).

A hard truth is that our well-trained construction trades limit worker availability capacity (scarcity) that drives up construction costs. Another hard truth is that cheaper labor doesn’t offer the same level of quality . Affordable Housing built in private low to mid-rise development mostly excludes Trades Labor. And, Trades are used for all high-rise development, for rent or for sale, because of the expert skills needed to construction tall buildings. And, the trades-only construction scenario for AH/Special needs housing is detrimental to the cost of construction but imperative to the political will to build it. In my opinion, this illustrated clearly the failure of capitalism.

The need for more construction workers is real. The need for housing to house new construction workers to live in is a chicken/egg conundrum San Diego has had to deal with for a century. And, it is a common insistence from the development industry that the nation is suffering from a labor shortage.

So, the best solution is to cultivate a local construction trade industry, rather than hope to poach workers from other cities. San Diego City College has a trade apprenticeship program that a national developer is working with to building their own General Contracting company to build a new project in San Diego. This is the future of construction.

These are my recommendations to deal with the labor market via private corporate leadership (Chamber, Trades, Economic Development Corporation’s role):

  • Build up skills to support housing delivery including labor trades, capital program accountants, legal and structural engineers as well planners and surveyors;
  • Assume that some housing will need to be provided with direct involvement of local municipality;
  • Recognize that corporate leadership is central to success in housing delivery;
  • Recognize the role of local industrial strategies in supporting local housing needs for a full range of dwelling types that can house people who can support the local and regional economy.

These are my recommendations to enable social housing in local municipalities:

  • Understand the Cities, County, and Agencies have different buckets of money to access and land taxation rules than neighboring cities;
  • Recognize in housing finance policy that the number and mix of homes required in San Diego over the next forty years cannot be provided entirely by private sector funding;
  • Consider the role of the municipality as a patient investor in its area;
  • Consider providing all 12 types of housing that might be required for local needs if this is not being met by other providers;
  • Establish a housing and planning delivery team to manage the implementation of all housing plans regardless of public or private proponent;
  • Establish a housing delivery board to monitor progress and delivery;
  • Establish a housing delivery forum of all providers in the area to meet regularly to discuss progress and problems;
  • Establish a housing intervention fund to help overcome issues on individual sites (funding can be made as a grant, a loan or in return for development equity);
  • Promote how housing supports the local economic objectives (e.g. retention of younger professionals and graduates living in and moving to the area);
  • Assess all sites in municipality ownership for housing suitability;
  • Include more detailed housing delivery outcomes in SANDAG’s annual monitoring report;
  • Consider purchasing land for housing as an investment for the longer term;
  • Work in conjunction with non-profit education platforms, such as local Labor/Trades Unions, LISC, and NeighborWorks, to trains locals construction trades and how to be small-scaled developers to build capacity and value for locals to be education on how to use San Diego’s inherent land values (as owner/developers or trades/labor) to invest in their own neighborhood through small-scale real estate projects. The Incremental Development Workshops encourages locals to retain their stake in a neighborhoods, and raise values lot-by-lot without displacement or outside forced gentrification, and;
  • Establish a funding subsidy program through grants for local authority direct delivery of housing and other mechanisms such as by bonding or the general fund.

I have in my hand a list of 135 known socialized housing projects throughout Vienna that prove this is a viable tool to addressing San Diego’s housing crisis. Thanks to Voice of San Diego and Unsplash for the graphics, and political consultant Andy Kopp for the inspiration.

Innovation Districts… in San Diego?

Innovation Districts, San Diego, Urban Design, Urban Planning

Innovation Districts are a contemporary economic development model focused on geographic areas where medical institutions (Med), research universities (Ed), and technology industry companies (Ted) are purposely clustered and connected with entrepreneurs, start-ups, accelerators, and incubators. These new era economic generators are a market shift from previously isolated suburban research parks towards mixed-use, walkable, amenity-rich places. These Med-Ed-Ted hubs, innovation districts, are useful tools to provide a competitive advantage for large swaths of a city over a single, isolated, private development project.

A question is when is an Innovation Districts more of a big picture policy/vision organizing and fundraising tool or a more refined geographical place defined by its regulatory structure?

THE IDEA DISTRICT – East Village, San Diego

In downtown San Diego, California, Local developers, David Malmuth and Peter Garcia of IDEA1, have identified and marketed their project in East Village as an Innovation District as an ‘education corridor’ from Balboa Park to Petco Park. These types of districts are well documented by urban scholar Bruce Katz here in 2016 and 2019. And a great model of success is found in San Francisco’s Mission Bay, one of the 20 or so of successful innovation districts across the nation.

Innovation District success is found, as Mr. Katz has written, “… in their complexity and integration of what was previously separated and ‘siloed’— people, quality of place, and innovation.” One of San Francisco’s Mission Bay accomplishments is found in its governance, which is evolving from the alignment of strategies and tenants to more sophisticated interventions around place-making. Another of its successes is found in attracting anchor companies, such as Dropbox in Mission Bay, as well as Quicken Loans in Detroit, Comcast in Philadelphia, and Amazon in Seattle’s South Lake Union.

Important urban design elements listed by Mr. Katz include providing a platform for various activities. This means its jobs and work, R&D and education, the arts and transportation. This variety provides the necessary critical mass to support each other. Scientist and creatives, teachers and residents, artists and employees, entrepreneurs and students. The scale and intensity cultivate an ‘eco-system’ that grows innovation and creativity that competes from the local to national scales. These plug into the existing economic infrastructure and governance, which infuse it with civic champions, business entrepreneurs, and leadership. And, finally, Mr. Katz says these big moves led to many small wonders that creates interest and complexity to what is replacing the conventional Class A Business Park model.

While the education anchors (City College and UCSD International Studies) are found in San Diego’s East Village today, it lacks a few of the key ingredients listed above to form a successful Innovation District. Importantly, an important portion of downtown’s governance is transitioning from Civic San Diego to the City of San Diego Development Services Department (DSD) with Civic San Diego still retaining some its economic development functions, such as Tax Credits, but losing its planning, permitting, and parking district oversight.

While a very real shift with intended and unintended consequences, this change appears to be an opportunity to better align the city’s planning/permitting of private property with its traffic, transportation and parks duties. Historically, these services have been ‘siloed’ and this shift might be an opportunity to better align the implementation of the Downtown Mobility Plan with new projects being entitled in East Village to craft a distinctive Innovation District to strategically attract anchor company tenants.

The City of San Diego’s Economic Development Department, and local Non-Government Organizations, the Economic Development Corporation (EDC) and Downtown Partnership, provide incentive programs for new businesses to locate downtown. And, this may be an opportune time to advocate for a dedicated Innovative District with additional incentives and municipal services available to private development, possibly via a Joint Power Authority consisting of a combination of City of San Diego Economic Development Department (Christina Bibler), EDC (Mark Cafferty), Civic San Diego (Andrew Phillips), SD City College (Ricky Shabazz), UC San Diego (Mary Walshok), and California State University (Adam Day) agencies, or some other enabling tool post-redevelopment to purposely provide a competitive advantage for East Village over San Diego’s rival innovation hubs across the US West and beyond.

Why Design (still) Matters!

San Diego, Urban Design

I have running dialog (troll) with a pessimistic friend about the value of our jobs and which of us is cumbersome to this world (yes, I’m listening to Rock Hits ’96 on iTunes… it’s Friday afternoon). And, I had been on the losing end of the troll on the value of urban design in the midst of our coastal cities long-standing housing crisis. His contemporary point is that designing for highest and best use raises existing land values and because everything is already too expensive good design is framed today as an agent of gentrification, and something to avoid.

Times have changed. My past assumptions are regularly challenged in this early 21-century new socio-political context. And, in my circle (social class) of friends and colleagues, I see increasing anxiety as we feel left behind economically and ‘good design’ is only valued by the wealthy to create investor opportunities. See, I was losing!

Searching, I found this terrific article on What makes a beautiful place, by Tristan Cleveland, a researcher at Happy City. And his point on the value of beauty beautifully translated to my points on the value of urban design, which I’ve restated from Mr. Cleveland’s brilliant prose with the following turn:

At the human scale: Design makes a difference in our lives by helping us feel safe and comfortable while walking and socializing in our neighborhoods, which helps us feel happier and experience a deeper sense of belonging to places and people.

And,

At the city scale: Design makes a difference in enabling cities to more easily attract and retain residents and businesses with inviting public streets, civic spaces, and interesting places. Well-designed places are a practical and essential way to bring vitality and dignity to city living.

I think I’m winning… what do you think?

A Better Transit Network in San Diego

Climate Action Plan, San Diego, Transit, Urban Design

(Original Post: https://sandiego.urbdezine.com/2019/01/26/walkable-transit-san-diego/)

At last week’s State of the City address, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer enthusiastically stated, “I want to radically overhaul the system itself. The bureaucracy has been set up to empower anti-housing forces that delay or deny projects at every tum… We need to build more housing near employment centers and transit.”

This is a rejection of our long-standing, auto-oriented, one-size-fits-all approach to city making. Fortunately, in 2008, our City of Villages plan began to shift the standards of new construction of private development from single-family, single-use land use outcomes towards more mixed-use buildings and blocks filled with offices, shops, affordable housing, and market-rate homes. This proclamation officially transitions San Diego from focusing on suburban outcomes, as we have for the past 60+ years, to building within our urban neighborhoods.

Now it’s time to do the same for our transit services.

With the Mayor’s emphasis on using transit to connect our employment centers to new housing construction, it is time to shift our transit modes from its one-size-fits-all, over-reliance on Light Rail Transit (LRT – The Trolley) to a mix of transit modes. The problem today is that our Trolley acts like Commuter Rail by linking downtown to Santee and the border, as well as acting like a Streetcar by linking downtown’s Little Italy to Gaslamp. No matter where it is in the city, the trolley stops every 15 minutes at over 56 stations. Plus, it is limited in its ability to climb hillsides to access and serve the neighborhoods and districts located on our mesas.

With its one-size-fits-all use, our Trolley does not really perform to its fullest LRT function, nor is it capable of being a true Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) or Streetcar. LRT is a fixed-rail system intended to serve city-to-city, such as connecting Chula Vista to La Mesa to Santee. BRT is intended to serve community-to-community, such as North Park to City Heights to Rolando. And, Streetcars are intended to serve neighborhood center to neighborhood center within each community, such as from North Park’s 30th street from Adams Avenue to Upas.

Our city’s new Rapid Bus service is essentially an Express Bus, or BRT-Lite, that flows with traffic, stopping at streetlights, and merging with all traffic on the freeways with 15-minute waits between buses. We do have a short segment of BRT, but it is located on a half-mile stretch on Park Boulevard in Hillcrest. And, we have one historic Streetcar circling a downtown loop on our LRT tracks. These limited modes are our best opportunity to quickly expand access to our city with cheaper and lighter forms of transit.

We need a mixed-modal, walkable to/from transit network to compete with the auto-oriented infrastructure we’ve built over the past 60+ years. It is easier to drive a car around than to take transit because we purposely designed and invested to do. San Diego needs to add BRT on major corridors and local neighborhood Streetcars to connect our mix of surface street buses and fixed rail trolley network.

Since 2013, San Diego has been a member city of the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), who state in their Transit Street Design Guide (Island Press, 2016, page 178)  “Cities with both buses and a dedicated right-of-way rail system (LRT) have historically structured the former (bus) as a feeder service to the latter (LRT). Bus Rapid Transit can be used to upgrade new parts of the network into trunklines… Streetcars and Buses can also form a multi-hub network.” Just last month the City of San Diego’s Development Services Department stated that it, “is allowing the incorporation of NACTO design concepts as presented in the Urban Street Design Guide (Island Press, 2013),” to plan and design projects. These new rules will permit more dedicated BRT and Streetcar lines throughout the city.

The hierarchy of San Diego’s full-range of public transit service modes are as follows:

  • Heavy Rail (Amtrak) – Connects San Diego to Los Angeles and the nation a few times a day;
  • Commuter Rail (Coaster) – Connects three coastal cities at peak hour times;
  • Light Rail (Trolley + Sprinter) – Connects Santee, San Ysidro to San Diego (with a new line up to University City next year) and Oceanside, San Marcos to Escondido with frequent stops every half-mile or more. Our bus networks feeds into our main LRT lines;
  • Bus Rapid Transit – Easily retrofitted into our wide streets with dedicated bus lanes, separated from traffic, and given priority at intersections to be competitive timewise with local car trips. These connect our canyons (Mission Valley) to our mesas (Clairemont Mesa and Rolando);
  • Express Bus (Rapid & Breeze) – These run faster schedule by not making as many stops as than normal bus services between the same two commuter or destination points on quicker routes;
  • Local Bus – The bulk of our transit service with stops every quarter-mile throughout the city;
  • Streetcars – Modern and historic cars that run on rails that usually flows with traffic on main streets and connects neighborhood to neighborhood;
  • Shuttles (Paratransit, Flex & Lift) – Connects people with daily service and those of us with physical, cognitive, and visual disabilities throughout the city.

The hierarchy of San Diego’s full-range of private mobility modes are as follows:

  • Shuttles (Airport Shuttles, Van Share) – Connects people with daily service and those of us with physical, cognitive, and visual disabilities throughout the city.
  • Bicycles & Jitney facilities – Connects people up to three to five miles comfortably at a slower speed;
  • Pedestrians & scooter facilities – Connect us up to a quarter to half mile distance at a walkable pace.

To support our Mayor’s vision for San Diego, we need to build a more sustainable transit network that focuses on connecting job centers to neighborhood centers with BRT and interconnecting Streetcar lines. Our zoning requires our new housing to be constructed as mixed-use and accessible by pedestrians. The new BRT study investment our City Councilmembers, Georgette Gomez and Chris Ward, announced this week is the right start to building the right mix of transit types to connect new housing with job centers.

 

Love vs Hope

Leon Krier, Public Space, San Diego, Urban Design, Urban Planning

In the middle of reading Dan Solomon’s new book, Love versus Hope, and think he’s beautifully addressing the issues of how to build a more socially inclusive city.

He posits that cities based on Love are a ‘continuous city’ that is manifested in terms of timeless traditions as well as buildings conjoined to form streets/squares. This traditional city has a far better track record at building cities than those based on Hope, which he calls the ‘ruptured city’ that is designed for revolution derived from naive modernist optimism that has destroyed urbanism/cities to implement their hopeful vision of the future that is greener, safer, accessible, whatever.

That said, the ‘walled city’ is a continuous city in an exaggerated/extreme form that moves away from being socially inclusive and just and towards being based on fear to some extent. This leads to a vision of Yoda whispering about how fear leads to anger, and anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering.

This also leads us to Leon Krier’s Albert Speer conundrum… for it is possible to be insanely scared and criminal towards others while designing great cities/buildings and being very civil to your own tribe? These are questions about the ambiguity of humankind. And of our ethical responsibilities to build cities civilization (towards a less suffering society).
San Diego was mostly built in the ruptured city model. We are moving towards a more continuous city. And as a major border city, today I am proud of San Diego’s leadership because we  haven’t succumbed to the fear and loathing espoused by our immoral federal leadership intended to anger us this holiday weekend. Thank you San Diego Mayor, City Council, State Assemblyman Gloria, State Senator Atkins, Congressman Peters and Congresswoman Davis, for endeavoring to keep us from being an even more walled off city as we close 2018.

Same as it Ever Was… Same as it Ever Was.

San Diego, Urban Planning

We live in the south end of North Park, San Diego. The community has been experiencing an urban development renaissance over the past 25 years. Our city’s planning structure begins with city-wide General Plan policies, local Community-scaled planned policies, and then lot scaled Zoning Regulations. North Park’s Community Plans are supposed to guide decision-makers when making major changes to land use decisions and any updates to Zoning regulations. Know that because we are a Charter City, these regulations do not have to be in conformance with our policies (and they aren’t).

The recently updated North Park Community Plan forged a compromise to ensure that the increase in residential densities enabled mixed-use, walkable urbanism on our main Transit Corridors, El Cajon Boulevard, University Avenue, Adams Avenue (east/west), and our secondary corridors on 30th Street, Texas Street, and Park Avenue (north/south). This ‘upzone’ went along with the ‘preservation’ of older bungalow neighborhoods that need/want more discretionary review for any changes as local ‘preservationist’ agreed to this compromise. It is a win/win plan.

However, it is our zoning that does the heavy lifting in building San Diego. In updating our local North Park Community Plan the city changed the once customized local zoning rules to city-wide zoning regulations. This backwards, 60’s era, city-wide one-size-fits-all zoning approach (generic Land Uses first rules with a variety of development standards/rules overlays to make each use fit into its context) replaced locally customized zoning that was from the 1980s. Unfortunately, old and new zoning still enables new single-story strip commercial drive thru buildings (new Starbucks, Wendy’s, Sonic fast food stores for examples) on our transit corridors via by-right zoning applications. This 8-year and millions of dollars update still makes auto-oriented buildings easier to entitle and build than vertical mixed-use buildings.

So, how is North Park’s renaissance happening? There are two main drivers. First, the market demand for housing is driving new development in North Park as it’s an older neighborhood with great parks, streets, entertainment, and historic amenities. Over a decade ago, a local crew of architects-as-developers, led by Jonathan Segal, have figured out that best vertical mixed-use walkable buildings are a half-block off our Transit Corridors as the city planners knew that a transition from corridors to bungalow neighborhoods was needed, so they made very flexible zones to allow either commercial or residential or some of both… which put our best urban buildings closer to historic homes than ON the transit corridor! This creates unnecessary conflicts, leads to displacement of older apartments, but this zone is North Park’s new building area as demanded by the local housing market place.

Second, the market is driving our internationally recognized Craft Beer industry. This explosion of breweries, tasting rooms, restaurants, and beer halls has been formally enabled by a new ‘artisan’ zone applied throughout North Park’s transition zone mentioned above. New housing and new restaurant/entertainment appeals to the new age employee as the ‘experience’ of living in a real neighborhood refutes their parent’s suburban housing/office park lifestyle… as the next generation tends to do. However, this somewhat smelly “industries” are located deeper into the historic neighborhoods, causing unnecessary conflicts too as they should be located on our main corridors, and not a block or two off.

In short, our city’s zoning regulations are mostly in conflict with the intent of the updated North Park’s Community Plan. Fortunately, due to a lack of municipal planning expertise, a narrow seam of better new development has risen between the strictly regulated commercial corridors and community-activist guarded historic single-family housing areas. While this narrow seam is working, its not building enough to address our housing crisis and our inability to build high-intensity mixed-use along our corridor, leaving the value of our Bus Rapid Transit investments sitting on the table. This continued shift towards building high-intensity mixed-use development along our Transit Corridors is the North Park’s future opportunity to build value without displacement of existing residents

san diego apparel america s finest city

Photo by Stephen Niemeier on Pexels.com

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How do You See the City?

Urban Design, Urban Planning

I see every city for how it was built when it got rich. Economies move around, cities rise, fall, and some rise again, reinvent themselves, die off, or sit stagnate waiting for its revival. But, at some point every major city got really rich, and that’s when its public streets, parks, buildings, and private buildings set the bar/tone for the next century or so.

grayscale photo of high rise buildings

Photo by Ross Richardson on Pexels.com

For example, in San Diego, it got rich in the early 1950’s, when its population double as military R&D rose/located near its military installations. High wages, lots of jobs, and land for suburban growth with great state/fed spending on highways and our pending car culture. Spending its money during our mid-century modernist era has formed/shaped the context for the city of today and beyond.

It was a trip to Buffalo, and seeing its turn of the century opulence, that showed me how to ‘see’ a city.  Every great American architect of that time, Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, Frederick Law Olmsted, were building in Buffalo at that time and it generated two Presidents. This view translates to seeing our old European cities, such as Venice and its well-preserved mid-millennium opulence still valuable today, as well as in seeing our Asian cities, such as ShenZhen and its booming wealth (with every architect in the world, Steven Holl, BIG, and Gensler working there), and so on…

Vancouver got rich as Hong Kong shifted hands from English to Chinese rule 20+ years ago. That era’s neo-conservative ‘free market’ architectural expression of almost urban, but not quite, townhouse wrap of a small footprint, single-core tower was urbanism-lite at time when suburbia ruled our west coast north American landscape. And, it was the right architectural form for transitioning from suburbia back to urbanism… but, its already dated and in transition again, and towards a more urban pattern.

assorted labeled signage

Photo by Arnie Chou on Pexels.com

This new era is beholden to the ‘got really rich’ era in Vancouver and will still be subservient to that context, which wasn’t true 20+ years earlier when that great flush of wealth easily overwhelmed its past and context. Meaning, the wealth generated today in Vancouver is simply the by-product of yesterday’s economic boom. Same with Venice and its tourist value today for preserving its past opulence.

We’re watching the political anxiety in the face of this urban shift playing out across the world as the last throes of that 80/90s neocon intellectual culture are desperately holding on to the last of their structured power. Those  neocons who are voraciously holding onto power today also hold the counterculture of the 1960s in great disdain as their political radicalism and animus against authority, custom, and tradition is rising and an obvious threat to the old leaders. I believe this disdain is one of the reasons for the angry, resentful, punitive political furry expressed in Washington, DC and beyond… because the neo-counterculture is being repeated by today’s younger generation but this time with their own value system/context.

The millennials are choosing to spend their money in cities that are getting rich right now. These are San Jose, Oklahoma City, and in rebound cities, such as Austin, Seattle, and maybe Detroit (an anomaly in this group of relatively ‘new’ towns as it got very rich in the 1940s and may keep its Art-Deco patterns) will be reshaped with their values. I’m looking forward to ‘seeing’ how these cities express themselves as they grow rich over the next decade (with Vancouver’s ubiquitous point towers with a townhouse wrap in mind).

“Do the Math!” How to Deal with Hot Housing Markets

San Diego, Urban Design, Urban Planning

Transect-LA-nathan-dumlao-539610This innocuous quote from a recent Texas Monthly Magazine article (here) shows how easily it is to misunderstand the forces that shape a hot-hot housing market cities:

“”The problem, of course, is that this idealized urban lifestyle is out of reach for most. The culprits? “Student loan debt, wage stagnation, rising rents, insurance costs, and the lingering aftermath of the Great Recession, which many millennials ran right into at a key career stage,” – Jason Dorsey, President of the Center for Generational Kinetics, an Austin-based research and marketing strategy firm that tracks social trends among millennials and Generation Z.

Ok, so rents don’t rise when wages stagnate. This is because “the rent” is determined by:

Wages x Employment ÷ No. of Units Available = Market Rate Rents*

OK, so while this *equation is simple… the basic point is that the rents are rising in hot housing market cities because our growing upper class wages are booming while the number of units available are limited. Higher wages x higher employment in cities that constrain new development makes for hot markets and high rents.

With wages somewhat stagnating for the shrinking middle class, we understand that rich/middle/poor people want to live in nice /fun/safe places. And, everyone is willing pay more/compete for access to the ‘good life’ in a city that has great amenities, such as arts, parks, rivers (think Austin and Denver), nice weather, beaches, bays (think San Diego), and most importantly lots and lots of jobs with some or all of this stuff (think Bay Area, Seattle, and Los Angeles).

This competition is seen in San Diego, as our rent has historically been high for my entire life, with very little fluctuation in either good times or bad. A recent Federal Reserve paper stated the reason for this is attributed to rental rates being determined more by the level of amenities our neighborhood’s provide than merely by supply of housing.

This factor still fits with the simple equation above as those cities with the good life are too few and far between and those nice places are unwilling to build enough housing to meet market demand… as people continue to look for places to spend their valuable time and money. With that, one neighborhood will be expensive for a variety of reasons, and a similar neighborhood only a few miles away will be stagnant or declining, while still having the same physical access to beaches and bays… just not the economic access.

What Mr Dorsey fails to understand about Austin is that those few units available in the urban fun/nice hipster areas are being rented by those few Sci/Bio/IT-tech engineers who are in high demand and making significantly higher wages (+$200k/yr) than the regular blue and white collar workers ($60k/yr). This drives up the rent in those few high-demand neighborhoods. Austin, and all cities, needs more housing/jobs with nice stuff in more neighborhoods rather than having big money fight for those few amenity-filled neighborhoods scattered throughout most cities.

And with that I feel myself sliding into the displacement/social justice trap. As displacement is the nasty common side effect of gentrification (value increases). So, I’ll put this out there again for your consideration:

The most appropriate urban design response to social justice is to build towards social/enviro/economic (jobs/housing) stability. To be clear, I am not advocating for displacement, but I am advocating for some gentrification in economically static neighborhoods (such as more schools, parks, and market-rate development opportunities) and some economic stagnation (such as subsidized housing and rent control) in hot markets.

This brilliant study shows that all of San Francisco is an expensive because it is affluent with a growing population and no land easily available for development. And, building more housing would reduce rents as it adds supply to the inherent demand. But, if they built enough new housing to reduce prices it would significantly change the character of the city and its quality-of-life… so, urban design will make a huge difference in how San Francisco builds its future! Go Sonja Truss!

Ultimately, our big west coast cities currently flourishing on the tech industry (ironically born in San Jose suburban garages) will continue to be successful into the future as our nation’s constricting economy pushes well-educated, financed people into these nice cities. And, they’ll continue to spill out excess jobs into neighboring cities, towns, and transform conventional suburban tracks (which are still being built, btw) into more urban places (despite their fighting this urban shift). Again, urban design is necessary to move our cities into the future.

By the way… Seattle and Denver have stabilized rents by building more housing. And, a few years ago Denver changed their conventional zoning to a form-based code in anticipation of their 21st century development needs. Need I mention the value of urban design again?

Whose City? Podcasting the San Diego urban experience.

San Diego, Urban Planning

A great group of people and organizations are sponsoring a new podcast on San Diego Urbanism. Me and SDSU Professor Larry Herzog are co-hosting with the intent to bring an academic and practitioner perspective to urban issues.

Enjoy it on iTunes Podcasts here and listened to online here: http://whosecity.libsyn.com/temporary-paradise

This first episode is on Temporary Paradise? A great vision plan for San Diego put forth in 1974 by Donald Appleyard and Kevin Lynch. And, honestly, the 2nd half is much better than the 1st as we learned a lot with this first recording. Thank you for listening and we intend to produce one episode a month

Congress for the New Urbanism 26 – Savannah (and Magical Mystery Tour)

Urban Design, Urban Planning

From May 11 – 19th, I had the opportunity to speak at the 26th annual Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) in Savannah, Georgia. My 18th CNU (in a row), these are always valuable to me on a professional and personal level. This was a memorable experience spending time walking around Savannah’s squares and waterfront as well as touring mid-America before arriving on the eastern seaboard. The most memorable part of the week was actually a blur. My trip began with a frantic four-day bus tour from Memphis to Savannah. We visited and compared the ‘new towns’ Harbortown (MS), Providence (AL), Gorhams Bluff (AL), Serenbe (GA), Glenwood Park (GA), Nexton (SC), I’on (SC), and Habersham(SC), with the downtowns and Innovation Districts of Memphis, Chattanooga, Huntsville, Atlanta, Greenville, Charleston, Savannah.

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Gorham’s Bluff, Alabama

The most instructional places were in cities that imported the ‘new town’ housing types into its existing/older neighborhood pattern, which made for some real hits and misses. One of the biggest hits was the Southside neighborhood in Chattanooga.  An old grid of vacant buildings and a tight network of street with mature street trees had been revitalizing over the past 5-years using traditional ‘new town’ housing’s front porch, stoops, and forecourts, which fit comfortably. Vacant manufacturing buildings were expertly adapted into mixed-use and live-work units all sparked with the building of new school, Battle Academy.  The neighborhood is anchored by the now revitalized Chattanooga Choo-Choo historic rail station with a market hall that has great restaurants, bars, shops, and hotel.

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Southside Neighborhood, Chattanooga, TN

The second half the week spent at the Congress speaking on how-to design for a specific community character in neighborhoods and small towns, and my vertical ‘transect’ idea for big city downtowns.  Thanks to Kevin Klinkenberg and Eric Brown‘s hard work on the local host committee, more than 1,600 advocates for urbanism gathered to hear Jan Gehl, Andres Duany, and Peter Calthorpe speak on their latest work and perspectives. Based out of Washington, DC, CNU is an international nonprofit organization with over 3,000 members from major urban centers to historic small towns. And through 27 years of advocacy, CNU has changed the national conversation from a debate over sprawl to a discussion on how to reinvest in our cities and towns as Americans both young and old are demanding walkable lifestyles, the market for unique and green places is growing in every region.

Savannah is always an illuminating experience for a west coast urban designer. The city was originally designed to be a utopian community with its ubiquitous squares the by-product of lofty thinking. Places like this inspire me to aspire towards designing towards utopia for my local projects… if just to get one really nice park or plaza.

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Savannah, GA

As for the tour, in greater detail, I have to express my heartfelt gratitude to Nathan Norris, Laura Clemens, and Kate Duro (City Building Exchange Express) for hosting a memorable road trip. Jack Kerouac would of been burned out by this adventure. Plus, having the people we had to explain and tour us through each place was invaluable. Absolutely worth every dime as the tremendous effort to coordinate was obvious in the results, which is that I am still learning from it this week.

Below is my roman a’ clef notes version of the tour is as follows:

On our first night, Elvis and I walked through downtown Memphis with our feet 10-feet off of Beale under WC Handy’s watchful, all-knowing gaze. We knew that he knew that we knew. So, we went on tour the next morning.

Memphis, TN – HarborTown – Expertly assembled as a rough diamond found in the middle of the Mississippi. A great way to start a tour that would alternated between many older ‘new’ towns and several downtown infill projects. It set the tone perfectly as a stable, understandable, competently delivered new town in a place that was genuinely new. Drove away fearing what Jesus said about building on sand.

Memphis, TN – Uptown Infill – Tried to take a picture of Elvis’ high school but my thumb got in the way. Seeing Harbortown housing placed in a mindless grid showed how mindless the grid can be.

Memphis, TN – CrossTown/Midtown – Had never seen such a thing. Cutting the atriums was brilliant and I still cannot fully conceptualize what a Vertical T6 Village in the midst of historic T4/T3 General sub-urban housing means… Amazing adaptive reuse and couldn’t conceive of seeing another on in my life (only to march across Atlanta later on the tour and be completely dumbfounded again).

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The Memphis Surprise…

Memphis, TN – The Edge / Medical District – All I could think of was how to bottle up and sell Tommy Pacello’s can-do spirit. Inspiring, and a dynamo that any city would be fortunate to have. Speaking of big personalities, Elvis appreciated being back in Sun Studios again after a long layoff.

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Huntsville, AL – Downtown Huntsville – Its downtown director, Carl Perkins, is having fun, you can really see it. However, that spring at the foot of the downtown hillside thoroughly impressed this SoCal desert tortoise most. Again, never seen anything like that before.

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Downtown Huntsville, AL

Huntsville, AL – Village of Providence – Expertly executed. A lot of housing taming a former arterial. Solid. And, I appreciated Laura’s passionate perspective on its harm to downtown, but see these old New Towns as successful Trojan Horses as what happened out in the woods wouldn’t of been allowed to happen in broad daylight at that time. We were decidedly a Suburban Nation with everyone defining themselves by their own Pink Cadillac.

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The Village of Providence, AL

Pisgah, AL – Gorham’s Bluff – A great lunch with a tremendous view!
Chattanooga, TN – Waterfront – Put on my blue suede shoes and took a long, hot walk.
Chattanooga, TN – Innovation District – Great mix of new mid-rise, missing-middle infill housing and shops.

Chattanooga, TN –  Southside – Again, TND quality housing + missing middle townhouses and live work quarters, set in a mindless grid. But, with the compactness lacking in Uptown Memphis it felt more livable. Appreciated listening to Bob McNutt, Director of Real Estate, describe this place and the Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise nonprofit housing organization dedicated to Building a Better Chattanooga. 
Chattahoochee Hills, GA – Serenbe – The Smartest Sprawl I’ve ever seen… Stunning details, smartly promoting compact growth in one spot in the city, but have no idea what this will be in 100 years.

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Serenbe, GA

Atlanta, GA – Glenwood Park – Expert infill. Also stunning details but accessible to anyone wanting to live in a great neighborhood is a big city. 
Atlanta, GA – Krog City Market*/Inman Park/Beltline***/Ponce City Market – The Sears monolith as a retail/parking catalyst was amazing too. Great deal to learn from in this urban context. The rails-to-trails parkway works amazing well to provide amenity to high density. The parks, market halls, different housing types, adaptive reuse, it was all so beautiful… until I started to sweat. Back on the bus, quick!

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Ponces Market, Atlanta, GA

Greenville, SC – Downtown Greenville – Surprise as a form of delight… A nice Main Street, with Americana confederate forces giving off bad vibes on one end and a river park on the other end mindful of the Beltline… Amazing! Again, great density with great amenity. The last leg of Main Street over the riverpark was more worth the drive through Columbia, SC. 

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The Greenville Surprize

Summerville, SC – Nexton – I completely agree with Rick Hall that the production builders are getting it! I liked it. Yes, parks and streets were oversized, but that’s the… Next Urbanism.
Mt Pleasant, SC – I’On – Honestly, looking forward to what Jason King of Dover Kohl has planned for its remodeled downtown plaza (no curbs, no lawn). The canals/quarry lakes were marvelous.
Charleston SC – Downtown Charleston – The real deal banana peel historical American city. Touring that very old family house with Cary Grant’s friend was a real highlight. Drinking a scotch, sitting in a smoking room, looking at firearms from every major American conflict while staring at oil paintings of beautiful family matriarchs with Elvis was a sublime American moment. Would love to have spent several days there. Then, Elvis left the building (bus). And I was wore out at this point.

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Charleston, SC

Beaufort, SC – Habersham – The attached buildings were immaculate. The town center kept my attention and I appreciated spending time sitting with iced drinks at this point too. 

Afterward: The place that has continued to resonate with me is Memphis. I feel like our American soul lives in there. I wanted to see the MLK Jr. Civil Rights Museum, Graceland, and Tupelo. The old, new, historic, future, and that wild Crosstown Commons still swirl in my mind. Savannah too. Beyond that, comparing infill with new towns directly, back-to-back was marvelous and illuminating (Ok, don’t tell, but Elvis was Trent Claughton, Carl Perkins was Chad Emerson, and I am the SoCal desert tortoise).