Building Urbanism and Transit in Small Cities

I’ve been following updates from the APTA conference in the Twin Cities this past week via Twitter and a friend who works in the area. A couple of the tweets I saw really caught my eye and helped to crystallize some thoughts I’ve been having for a while, since thinking about the role of transit in smaller cities during my time in Albany.

The state of transit in the US is, generally, pretty damn poor, and this is especially true of smaller cities and towns. I’ve written a lot about cities in the size class of Albany, New Haven, or Providence, say in the 100,000-500,000 range, but I’m talking here about somewhat smaller cities, places like–to use near-Albany examples–Utica or Kingston. Generally, transit in those places is, shall we say, not particularly useful; generally it’s conceived of as a last resort, welfare transit, the kind of thing that only people with no other options use. That’s a product of mentality, but also of lack of resources.

But here’s the thing I’ve learned from exploring Upstate New York, much of New England, and a few choice parts of the Midwest: a lot of the older cities, even (in some cases especially) the smaller ones, really do have “good bones.” They are potentially salvageable as places of good, safe, walkable mixed-use urbanism. But there’s a catch–often, in my experience and observation, this is true only in one or two choice corridors. A city like Albany or New Haven might have several or numerous corridors appropriate for high-frequency transit and dense urbanism, but smaller towns may only have one. In both cases, the most urban corridor is likely underserved, because of the general terribleness of American transit; but in the smaller cities, this likely means that the city has lost any chance at transit-based urbanism at all.

In transit-planning terms, small-city transit leans quite heavily toward the coverage side of the coverage vs. ridership debate. That’s not a criticism, per se; it’s how the incentives–including funding incentives–are biased, as well as how local leadership generally directs transit agencies to operate. This is, of course, in direct conflict with the first point that Erik Landfried made in the tweets presented above–that the best practice in the transit world is to get your best corridors right first. So this post is, in part, a thought exercise about how small-city transit might look if more funding–or different funding–were available, enough to let agencies focus on intensive service on the best corridors.

It’s also a musing on the future of smaller cities. It’s not news that many of these places are struggling, facing economic marginalization and brain drain. In part–though only in part–those struggles derive from a lack of good urbanism; with terrible transit and general unwalkability, those who want or need an urban lifestyle often literally cannot find it in smaller cities. As Cap’n Transit has pointed out, these “small city exiles”–people who would have been able to stay if the good bones of smaller cities had better flesh built upon them–make up one of the gentrifying flows to larger cities. Note that this isn’t just a Creative Class follow-the-talent kind of a thing; it seems clear that smaller, fully car-dependent cities are simply inaccessible to many.

Whether Small City Exiles follow the jobs, or the jobs follow them, is of course a little bit of a chicken/egg problem, but it seems unlikely that many will return without the option of urbanism. The implication is that to have a shot at revival struggling smaller cities would do well to try to build at least one corridor where life can be conducted in a car-free (or, more realistically, car-lite) manner. Typically, discussions of urbanism, revival and/or gentrification occur at the neighborhood level, but one of the things that I think this typology of city can teach us is that the relevant unit may in fact be corridors. Not all efforts at revival have to be focused in one area; but there should be an emphasis on creating the ability to live urban daily life–with all of the uses that entails–along at least one given corridor in any city. That means frequent transit service; it means reviving or allowing mixed-use development; it means locating hospitals and schools and shops along that corridor to the extent possible. It’s the preservation, revival, or creation of these corridors that will make a small-city revival through urbanism possible. And it means that the identification and intentional development of these one or two possible transit/urbanist corridors is extremely important to the future of these cities.

What I’m aiming for here, then, is somewhere between descriptive and prescriptive; I don’t have specific infrastructural, financial, or operational ideas in mind, but I have, to illustrate, picked out a number of cities and corridors that I think fit this paradigm.

Utica’s a big enough city to have multiple viable transit corridors at some minimal frequency, but it has one that’s absolutely perfect for frequent transit and good urbanism. Genesee Street is Utica’s main commercial drag, is lined by fairly dense housing already, and is anchored on one end by Union Station–offering transfers to Amtrak and intercity buses–and on the other by a major mall. Current service is decent by small-city standards but the schedule is–typically of Centro, the operator–nearly incomprehensible.

Like Utica, the Binghamton area is big enough to support more than one transit corridor, but there’s one that really ties everything together. Stretching from Binghamton through the downtowns of the area’s several other decaying industrial cities, this corridor could, potentially, link a wide variety of different uses–although a strong system would need a link to Binghamton University too.

Kingston’s a relatively small place, but it still offers a strong corridor for building out an urban revival. Broadway links the Rondout–the somewhat touristy old port area–with the Stockade District, one of Upstate’s best remaining examples of the colonial era (and its urbanism), running in between through the good-bones Midtown area. It’s a short corridor, under 3 miles, but hey, that just means it only takes a few buses to operate frequent transit service on it!

I’ve highlighted two potential corridors in the Glens Falls area: one running north-south from the village of South Glens Falls up through the city proper to a suburban commercial strip, and the other running east-west from Glens Falls through even-more-depressed Hudson Falls to the Amtrak station and Champlain Canal trail in Fort Edward. Neither is a slam-dunk corridor for decent urbanism, but the east-west corridor especially takes advantage of the historic clustering of good-bones development along the Hudson.

Montpelier is notorious for being the smallest state capital in the country, but the area has a proud tradition of Sewer Socialism and is located in a river valley, which has the natural effect of concentrating development. There is, in fact, a little-used rail line linking the towns of the Winooski River valley, and while it’s potentially usable for transit service, it doesn’t hit some of the newer, road-based commercial development. The choice of a hilltop outside the river corridor for the area’s hospital and a major commercial development also illustrates the danger of poor planning that removes key functions from an area’s one viable transit corridor.

Cheating a tad maybe by looping in two towns and a major university, but I’ve spent a lot of time in the Pioneer Valley and have a lot of…feelings about its transit potential. The Route 9 corridor connecting Amherst and Northampton is the key transportation corridor in the area; both towns have strong downtowns, there’s a lot of travel between them, and there’s been significant commercial development along Route 9 in Hadley. As it is, though, the area remains quite expensive to live in due to limited housing supply in the historic cores of Northampton and Amherst, and Route 9 between them remains a horrid stroad. A previous study called for development of a BRT service on the corridor; while PVTA has (understandably, in my opinion) prioritized development of BRT on State Street in Springfield instead, this corridor seems ripe for some kind of consistently high-end transit, and while we’re making the investment, why not try to fill in the empty/stroadish parts with dense development and relieve the housing crunch in the process?

Michigan City has one major corridor, stretching from the waterfront through the thoroughly urbanly renewed downtown to a big suburban commercial strip on the outskirts. What sets this corridor apart from the others highlighted here is that it would actually offer connections to not one but two somewhat frequent rail services, the South Shore running literally in 11th Street and Amtrak’s Michigan corridor on the waterfront.

Many Great Plains cities and towns grew up around railroads and still cluster around their historic rights-of-way; such is the case in DeKalb and Sycamore, IL, west of Chicago. What’s added to the mix here is the presence of a midsize public university (Northern Illinois) and the fact that the commercial strip in the area has grown up along one road connecting the two downtowns. What it adds up to is quite a reasonable transit corridor, in an area that’s otherwise very auto-oriented.

There are lessons here, then, on both the transit level and the “regional priorities” level. Regions centered on a small city should seek to ensure that living an urban lifestyle is at least an option somewhere, ideally centered on a functional transit-centric corridor. And small-city operational and funding patterns should adapt to facilitate this. Perhaps it’s time to split rural and small-city transit funding into two pots: one with a coverage/welfare goal, where routes are expected to reach all those who need, but not to return huge ridership or hit specific financial goals; and another with a goal of maximizing ridership, connections to jobs, and economic benefit to the region. That would require a paradigm shift at multiple levels of government–never easy–but it’s worth thinking about. Rural and small-city transit agencies rely heavily on federal funding, but I imagine states have a role here too; would not, say, New York State have an interest in developing corridors like this in its decaying Upstate cities? With a need for both up-front capital and ongoing operational investment, there are numerous options on the table. As numerous, one might say, as the cities that could benefit from building out their transit corridors.

 

The Bible and Neighborhood Memory

Earlier today Lisa Schweitzer posted a short piece pointing out what she labels as the anti-NIMBY politics of a particular Biblical verse, Isaiah 5:8. You can go over to her place for a range of translations, but for my purposes I like the Hebrew text and translation offered by the essential Sefaria:

ה֗וֹי מַגִּיעֵ֥י בַ֙יִת֙ בְּבַ֔יִת שָׂדֶ֥ה בְשָׂדֶ֖ה יַקְרִ֑יבוּ עַ֚ד אֶ֣פֶס מָק֔וֹם וְהֽוּשַׁבְתֶּ֥ם לְבַדְּכֶ֖ם בְּקֶ֥רֶב הָאָֽרֶץ׃

Ah, Those who add house to house And join field to field, Till there is room for

none but you to dwell in the land

The verse is part of an extended analogy involving a vineyard and the iniquity of the people Israel (both, of course, common themes in Biblical literature, and unsurprisingly often found in close juxtaposition), but its point comes quite close to some contemporary concerns. Isaiah’s critique might easily be read as a criticism of the ancient equivalent of large-lot exclusionary zoning. His concern is essentially that the rich will enlarge their own estates–both urban and rural–at the expense of the poor. Or at least that is the understanding of Rashi:

מגיעי בית בבית. מקרבים בתיהם זה אצל זה ומתוך כך גוזלים קרקע העניים החלשים שבין ב’ הבתים וכן שדה בשדה:

Those who add house to house: They bring their houses one next to the other and in the process steal the land of the weak poor who are between the two houses; and thus also field by field. (translation mine)

The prophet’s concern is not idle; see for example the process of enclosure by which  British elites consolidated their control over the countryside. But one senses in the Isaiah passage, even as it is probably most accurately read to reflect pro-housing policies, also the roots of some of today’s most tenacious anti-housing themes: concerns of “overdevelopment” and even, absurd as it might be to retroject this idea 2,600 years into history, gentrification. So, I think, it’s worth looking a little further afield for some other Biblical texts on the topic.

Before we proceed, it is worth a caution that the Biblical corpus (and I refer to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, which is my area of familiarity; I claim no expertise in the New Testament) is of course composed of a huge variety of different voices, all with their own perspectives. One of my longer-term projects is a more comprehensive look at planning and development in Genesis in particular, and maybe someday the Bible generally. But, as it happens, in the Jewish calendar we just this past Shabbat read one of the many passages that has something to say  about housing policy and politics, Deuteronomy 6:8-11:

וְהָיָ֞ה כִּ֥י יְבִיאֲךָ֣ ׀ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֗יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֜רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר נִשְׁבַּ֧ע לַאֲבֹתֶ֛יךָ לְאַבְרָהָ֛ם לְיִצְחָ֥ק וּֽלְיַעֲקֹ֖ב לָ֣תֶת לָ֑ךְ עָרִ֛ים גְּדֹלֹ֥ת וְטֹבֹ֖ת אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹא־בָנִֽיתָ׃ וּבָ֨תִּ֜ים מְלֵאִ֣ים כָּל־טוּב֮ אֲשֶׁ֣ר לֹא־מִלֵּאתָ֒ וּבֹרֹ֤ת חֲצוּבִים֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר לֹא־חָצַ֔בְתָּ כְּרָמִ֥ים וְזֵיתִ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר לֹא־נָטָ֑עְתָּ וְאָכַלְתָּ֖ וְשָׂבָֽעְתָּ׃ הִשָּׁ֣מֶר לְךָ֔ פֶּן־תִּשְׁכַּ֖ח אֶת־יְהוָ֑ה אֲשֶׁ֧ר הוֹצִֽיאֲךָ֛ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם מִבֵּ֥ית עֲבָדִֽים׃

When the LORD your God brings you into the land that He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to assign to you—great and flourishing cities that you did not build, houses full of all good things that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant—and you eat your fill, take heed that you do not forget the LORD who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.

On the one hand, this is the admonishment of a conquering people, about to take possession of the cities and infrastructure built by their vanquished enemies. On the other hand, this passage offers, like President Obama, a reminder that you didn’t build that, that structural forces of time, history, and economics exist. And it’s a reminder that the housing policy debate sorely needs.

To a certain extent, Moses’ admonishment to “remember where you and your neighborhood came from!” is a warning against the development of what Daniel Hertz has called the “immaculate conception theory of neighborhood origins,” the idea that homes and neighborhoods just magically appear and it’s only new development that’s greedy and not community-oriented. I’ve labeled a related, but somewhat different phenomenon by which neighborhood activists claim all credit for a neighborhood’s success, therefore ignoring structural factors and spatial economics, the “Bootstrap theory of urban development”; fundamentally the two concepts share roots in a deep denial of history.  

As Daniel says:

The problem with the immaculate conception theory is that, like parents swearing that they would never have behaved the way their kids do, it is conveniently forgetful about what actually happened in the past. Taking, just as an example, the kind of housing that Berger romanticizes—the early 20th century bungalow boom—a closer look reveals that it was defined not by mass affordability, efficiency, and respect for traditional communities, but something very nearly the opposite.

This, then, is Deuteronomy’s critique (although, admittedly, it is glorifying as much as remembering with regret a violent, colonialist history): to forget the history, the predominant factors, that got your built environment to where it is today is to become deeply corrupted. Indeed, a couple of chapters later Deuteronomy sharpens this point to include an explicit critique of the idea that כֹּחִי֙ וְעֹ֣צֶם יָדִ֔י עָ֥שָׂה לִ֖י אֶת־הַחַ֥יִל הַזֶּֽה׃,  “My power and the strength of my hand have made this glory for me” (Deut. 8:17, my translation). It would not, I think, be out of line to suggest that somewhere in the ancient tangle of texts and morals interacting with each other Isaiah’s admonishment of the wealthy who use housing and fields to squeeze out the vulnerable is explicitly directed at those who had, indeed, forgotten this exact point.  An ancient lesson, perhaps, but what is the Bible if not a timeless text? Neighborhoods: remember where they came from, always.

Illustration source: http://biblicalwatersystem.weebly.com/cisterns.html. Picked because it’s an example of a cistern in a famous Israelite site that, most likely, the Israelites did not build.

Ironies of Highest and Best Use

I went to the Roslindale Square/Village RMV to convert my NY license to a MA one yesterday. While I successfully converted the license, the trip was a pain because a) I was available to do it because I was home sick from work and b) the RMV has clearly not learned the lesson I keep tweeting at transit agencies, that inaccurate real-time estimates are worse than none at all (I was given an estimate of zero wait and ended up being there for 45 minutes, standing the whole time in a room that was incredibly hot and smelled strongly of pot and people). It did, however, give me a chance to check out the area some, and in particular (the exterior of) a building I had wanted to see, the former Boston Elevated Railway Company substation at the corner of Washington Street and Cummins Highway.

A substation, you might think, would be a boring and utilitarian building. Not so! Remnants of traction systems past–and there are many, since the power systems (as opposed to the tracks) tended to be heavily built–were in fact often elaborate in design and construction.

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The Roslindale Substation, from Adams Park across the street.

The Roslindale substation features beautiful brick construction and high, arching windows; while it’s clearly a building with an industrial history, it’s the furthest thing from today’s functional but ugly boxes. Most interestingly, perhaps, the substation occupies a place of honor and importance in Roslindale, at the intersection of two busy streets (and transit corridors) and in the absolute center of the neighborhood.

rozzie

On the one hand, this makes sense, since several trolley routes historically converged at this corner, as seen in a 1936 map:

ros square substation 36

On the other hand, it seems like placing a substation–as opposed to, say, storefronts–on such an important corner would have been a terrible violation of the zoning/real estate principle of highest and best use, although it should be said that the substation was built in 1911, before zoning swept America. To a certain extent, surely, the substation’s location was the product of a disconnect between transportation and land use; from their own perspective, it made perfect sense for BERy to place it there in 1911. And for much of the building’s history, demand for land in Roslindale Square was relatively low; it was, after all, vacant for 45 years, until just this year. But–and here’s the irony the title of this piece refers to–the area is now somewhat up-and-coming, and the substation is now in the process of being converted to commercial use (an already-open craft beer store and a restaurant to be called the Third Rail), with the remainder of the lot taken up by new apartments. As the planner’s proverb that I just made up goes, every lot finds its highest and best use, sometimes it just takes 106 years.

Interestingly, much the same story unfolds just a few miles down Washington Street toward downtown Boston, with BERy’s former Egleston Square substation.

Egleston substation walgreens

Like Roslindale Square, Egleston Square historically represented the convergence of several transit lines, and was thus a logical place to put a substation. Unlike the Roslindale substation, this one served both streetcars and the Elevated, and thus remained in service until the closure of the latter in 1987. Like its more southerly counterpart, though, it fell into abandonment and ruin thereafter, until being resuscitated in 2008 to serve as the studios of Boston Neighborhood Network Television. As you can see from the Streetview capture above, the building is a remarkable contrast to the low-slung, suburban-style Walgreens next door–the high-quality architecture of a century ago continuing to pay dividends. While Egleston Square as a whole is not the world’s most urban-feeling built environment, the substation should–after nearly a century of life as an industrial building–be able to help anchor its rebirth in its new role.

If there’s a point to this post, other than that people do interesting things with old trolley substations, it’s that good architecture endures and tends to lend itself to a positive use in the long run. Like life, land-use dynamics are unpredictable and changeable, which is (part of) why locking uses and styles forever, as American zoning slanted toward single-family uses typically does, is a bad idea. Did the architects who designed the Egleston and Roslindale substations in 1909 and 1911 ever imagine the buildings being adaptively reused for another purposes? Unlikely, although they were clearly built to last. This is not to say that every abandoned building can or should be reused, but it’s a useful reminder of the way demand for land can change over the course of a century. And who knows? The Go Boston 2030 transportation plan, released just today, calls for rapid bus lines to pass both substations. Though they’ll most likely never power trolleys again, both substations could again serve an important transit-oriented use (as they do relative to local bus service today), as attractions drawing people to their neighborhoods along the transit corridors of the 21st century.

 

Notes on Central Florida

I spent last week on vacation in the exurbs of Orlando (well, really Kissimmee) with my partner’s extended family. Since theme parks are, well, really not my thing, I spent a decent amount of time thinking about the planning and urbanist implications of an area that I found frankly fairly miserable from a built environment perspective. I don’t so much have an overarching argument here as a series of notes on a few things I found interesting.

Pod-based building

We were based at a resort called the Vacation Village at Parkway, off the arterial Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway (US 192) west of downtown Kissimmee. In many ways, the sprawling urban form along that road is typical of suburban land use across the country, though perhaps in an exaggerated form. Developments occur in pods, completely disconnected from one another along property lines. Take, for example, this pathetic excuse for a pedestrian crossing from “our” resort to the strip mall and resort next door:

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Mind you, one has to traverse this after crossing four lanes and a median of road without a crosswalk of any sort.

The area in which our resort was located is also cut off from its surroundings in a more profound way. It shares a triangle of land with several other developments; the sides of the triangle are defined by I-4 on the west, Bonnet Creek on the east, and 192 on the south. But grid connections–and ways to exit–exist ONLY on the southern side, to 192.

vacation-villages

That turns what could be an easy stroll over to the as-the-crow-flies-neighboring Gaylord Palms into a 1.8-mile odyssey along high-speed arterials:

vacation-villages-gaylord-palms

such that Google Maps literally cannot calculate walking directions between the two. This area of Kissimmee is to the south of most of the major Orlando-area attractions, so this kind of thing also lengthens the (many) car trips taken between resorts and said attractions, resulting in even more congestion in an already congested region. It’s just thoughtless–and the result of a zoning regime that emphasizes massive parking lots and setback at the expense of all else, including common sense.

Latent demand for car-free vacations

Despite a built environment that seems to invite, or even mandate, car use at every opportunity, it’s clear to me that there is a latent demand for car-free travel from tourists that could be better met. Transit service in this part of Kissimmee is not completely hopeless, but it’s far from perfect. You can catch a bus to Lynx’s Kissimmee hub four times an hour from the corner of Irlo Bronson and Celebration Boulevard, and they’re even nicely spaced much of the time.  The bus stops are nice too:

bonnet-creek-station

But service on one of the lines stops by 10 PM.

There’s also a whole network of resort-contracted shuttles that ferry people to and from theme parks, shopping, and entertainment. The vaguely vintage-styled coaches of Disney’s Magical Express, connecting their resorts to the airport, were ubiquitous on the highways, for example. Vacation Village provides shuttles to theme parks, as well as more local destinations.

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At the same time, the entire built environment–from single-use zoning to massive setbacks to street and grid geometry–basically mandates car use for the vast majority of trips. I’ve spent more of my life in sprawly suburbia than I really would like, but I got a sense for a latent demand for less autocentricity here more than anywhere else.

Celebration is…Weird

Vacation Village is basically across the street from Disney’s much-debated attempt at New Urbanism. Celebration occupies a bizarre place on all kinds of spectra: more small town than suburb, more private than public, kind of an independent governmental entity but not entirely. I didn’t spend much time there (really just one lunch that was mostly spoiled by rain), but it’s…weird. The built environment blows most of the rest of Central Florida out of the water just by dint of having been thought through even a little bit, but the materials used in the construction of the buildings doesn’t really seem much better than your typical suburb; I saw a lot of sagging gutters and cheap-looking vinyl siding. The main street, such as it is, is touristy but reasonably nice; parking is tucked behind the buildings per standard New Urbanist practice, but it’s still abundant and free. Though not a grid, the street geometry makes more sense than most suburbs. A couple of things jumped out at me, though. This is the main drag carrying cars into Celebration, creatively named Celebration Avenue:

celebration-ave

The speed limit drops to 25 mph as soon as you enter the residential part of Celebration–which is nice–but it struck me that despite a nice, wide ROW Celebration Avenue still has very wide travel lanes (much wider than one would expect for a 25 mph speed limit), and no provision for bike lanes.

The other thing that struck me about Celebration? It has zero transit.

Oh, sure, Lynx’s #56 circles through the much more suburb-y single-use commercial section ever half an hour:

But that’s, like, really far from the commercial and residential parts of Celebration:

celebration-map

Celebration is better than other suburbs, sure, but it’s hard for me to accept the word “urbanist” anywhere in proximity to an area that entirely lacks transit service. I suspect the omission is intentional; simply because of the quality of design, Celebration is extremely expensive, and places like that tend not to welcome transit. Do better.

Toll Roads

I don’t want to comment on this too much without reading up more on the background of transportation planning in Central Florida, but the prevalence of toll roads was a common topic of discussion among the extended family. Certainly, it’s annoying that Florida’s extensive toll road network doesn’t accept the EZPass technology common in other parts of the country; outsiders get fleeced by paying higher tolls, in cash. The tolls didn’t seem especially high but the frequency of booths seems potentially counterproductive. I do wonder if a willingness to toll the roads has led to overbuilding of the network, since they may be less of a drag on gas tax revenues and the general fund.

The Great Sucking Sound

We had an enjoyable side trip to Lake Wales, FL, where my grandfather grew up and my great-grandparents and a great-aunt are buried. It’s a very pretty area made famous by the Bok Tower Gardens, but it’s also a struggling agricultural region whose citrus industry–Florida’s Natural is headquartered in Lake Wales–is not exactly at its peak of glory. Consequentially, downtown Lake Wales is struggling to a certain extent. As elsewhere in the country, that struggle is exacerbated by sprawl, particularly the sucking of retail out to low-rent districts on suburban arterials. 6-lane US 27 is the main north-south artery along the Lake Wales Ridge, and it’s characterized by on-and-off clusters of commercial development that become more consistent as one drives north, approaching the Orlando metro. Just outside of Lake Wales, however, the Eagle Ridge Mall stands virtually alone, isolated among cow pastures and citrus groves.

eagle-ridge-isolated

It’s precisely this kind of thing that kills the functional downtowns smaller towns like Lake Wales need to survive in 2016. And the mall’s 20-year history is full of sinkholes and bankruptcies, so it’s not like the competition is going anyone any favors. The mall’s struggles are likely due to its odd, middle-of-nowhere location (I suspect it was placed so as to draw from both Lake Wales and nearby Winter Haven, but it seems to be doing neither). It’s the kind of sloppy economic development and land use policy that has landed so many places like Lake Wales in trouble.

They Paved Paradise and Put Up a Parking Lot

More than anything else, this is the overwhelming experience of Central Florida:

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Just out the back door of our building at the resort. 

That’s a high-rise looming out of a wetlands, which is cynically preserved to be pretty at right. Just beyond the fence, there’s a short drop to very muddy and wet land; the entire building must be built on a slab of concrete or else it would sink into the muck. It’s hard to go anywhere in the area without thinking of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi.”  Florida’s selling point is, to a large extent, its spectacular natural environment; but its growth as a tourist and retirement destination has been largely premised on the destruction of that environment. I’m hardly the first to point out that paradox, and as someone with training in archaeology, I recognize that destruction is sometimes inevitable. But my overwhelming takeaway from this trip is that there’s a lot of opportunity to just correct things that are sloppy, should political and public will exist. Or, you know, maybe the whole state will just slide into the ocean. That’s always a possibility.

The Bootstrap Theory of Neighborhood Development

Readers of this blog and of my Twitter feed know that I am particularly confounded by one of the superficially odder phenomena of contemporary urban discussion—the wide prevalence of NIMBYism from people whose political views otherwise lean well to the left. Attention to this phenomenon has largely, and justifiably, focused on San Francisco and the Bay Area, where skyrocketing housing prices have been met with stiff resistance to the idea of actually trying to solve the problem in any realistic way. But having grown up in a college town with liberal politics—and living in a liberal state capital with a dominant Democratic bent—I suspect that middle-class lefty resistance to urban change is in fact more common than one might think, affecting smaller markets as well as the uber-hot coastal metropolises.

The prompt for thinking about this now and trying to put together a coherent theory of it was a truthfully extremely minor zoning issue originating in my childhood neighborhood of Westville in New Haven. I posted an article about it on Facebook and became embroiled in a discussion with a few people I grew up with—mostly folks my parents’ age with whom I was growing up and continue to be close—about whether opposition to this building modification was NIMBYism or reflected genuine concerns. I also contributed to and monitored the comments section on the New Haven Independent site. The discussion on Facebook, I think, broke down more or less along the lines one would expect, with me advocating for growth in New Haven’s tight rental market and others, homeowners in the area, expressing more or less typical homeowner concerns, although politely and reasonably (I grew up with good people). In some ways, it was a predictable discussion, one in which I may have overstated my anti-NIMBY position. But something else struck me about both the Facebook discussion and the comments section:  just how much my experience of the city as a Millennial differs from that of older middle class people.

Let’s look at some of what people who I would characterize as more sympathetic to “community concerns” (which I acknowledge is an extremely problematic term) had to say:

Two comments from TheMadcap on the Independent comment section:

Unlike some of the comments here, I bought my house in reliance on the protection of zoning laws.  I certainly wouldn’t want my next door neighbor to build a 40’ wall next to my house and look to mine the house like it’s gold.

it could easily end up with renters, not her family, at some point.  That will change the character of that corner for sure.  My sympathies lie on Burton St…

I have a right, when I buy my single family home, to know generally what’s allowed by zoning, by my neighbors.  Without that, there’s chaos.  If my next door neighbor converts his single family into a 4 family and moves out, I’ll be gone before the 1st renter moves in. It’s not what I bargained and paid for.

Westville is a good blend of families in single family homes and students, young prof, and retirees in multis. But it’s a delicate balance.  Start removing the single families and you will see less families with children there. And they are what helps makes Westville special.

I don’t know to what extent TheMadcap represents the sentiments of other people opposed to this renovation. But their comments reflect a belief in the essential fragility of the Westville neighborhood that—while it seems bizarre to me—I have come to understand is extremely common among middle-class residents of what we might call “middle cityscape” neighborhoods (we’ll get there in a moment). For TheMadcap, the only thing keeping the neighborhood from tipping into chaos is the protection of dip-it-in-amber zoning laws, without which, this commenter says with absolute confidence, the neighborhood WILL decline. Having too many renters in the neighborhood is to be feared, and interference from government—even to the extent of issuing one zoning variance—is a constant threat. I have a lot of confidence in the neighborhood I grew up in, and I doubt most people are quite that paranoid. But there’s no doubt that this kind of attitude is prevalent among urban middle class residents in many areas.

The Awl recently wrote about Washington Park in Troy, a kind of less notorious Upstate equivalent to Manhattan’s privately owned, closed-to-the-public Gramercy Park, and elicited some rather telling quotes from the homeowners who control access to the park. Troy isn’t Manhattan—right now, it’s not even Westville—and the Washington Park owners are not especially wealthy, coming mainly from Troy’s professional class (doctors, lawyers, and professors) rather than some landed gentry. Their attitude toward the possibility of opening their park, though, is telling:

“The city does such a shitty job [of maintaining] its own properties”…

A former W.P.A. official and her husband, park residents for thirteen years, told me they’d like to see the square opened to the public—in theory—but had no faith in the city to maintain it…

One park-property tenant cited the fate of Barker Park—a much smaller, plaza-like park downtown—as a kind of testament to why Washington Park could not be opened to the public. The Times Union reported in 2012 that the city “removed four benches” from the park “due to complaints about fights and lewd behavior by those who loiter[ed] in the area.” I asked if such a fate were unlikely to befall Washington Park, given all the eyes on it.

“It would totally happen here,” the tenant replied, “because these people are too shy to come out and kick junkies out of here. They’re not gonna do that.” He spoke of a “population of people here who are in halfway homes, or rehabbing, or [who] just got out of the mental hospital. [Troy is] kind of a processing zone for people who are in transition, and [there are] a lot of people who have mental health issues and people who have substance-abuse issues.” Troy is the Rensselaer County seat, and there are a number of social-service agencies downtown. Two of the Washington Park residents I met in person expressed disdain for people who use such programs.

The concerns of the Washington Park homeowners reflect two major fears of the urban experience: of Troy’s Other residents, who cannot be trusted not to wreck the peace and quiet of Washington Park, and thereby ruin the stabilized middle-class enclave around it, and of meddling government that cannot even manage its own affairs, much less take on the task of competently coping with social integration of an exclusive space.

If Troy is the new Brooklyn, it’s worth turning to that borough for a little clarification. One of my other influences in thinking about gentrification and policy recently has been Suleiman Osman’s terrific The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn, which I read partially in preparation for a trip to said borough a couple of months ago. To be totally honest, I expected a book about gentrification in the 1950s and ‘60s to be totally insufferable, but Osman’s work is quite readable and a terrific guide to the yuppie-gentrifier mindset and the ways it can flip quite readily into NIMBYism. Here’s Osman on Brownstone Brooklyn’s early gentrifiers:

What united this new middle class was a collective urban identity. Bounded by overdeveloped Manhattan to one side and the undeveloped slums to the other, all agreed that they had discovered a historically diverse “real neighborhood” on the cusp of extinction and in need of rescue. Brooklyn Heights was a fragile middle cityscape that reconciled two competing visions of urban verisimilitude. For some it was a historic neighborhood that rooted residents in aristocratic past. For others the neighborhood was a gritty, diverse frontier that exposed middle-class residents to the authentic folkways of the urban poor. (pp. 115-116)

And later:

In the history of the American city, the neighborhood has often coalesced when mobilizing against a perceived outside threat…for Brooklyn Heights—as well as the West Side of Manhattan, Greenwich Village, and other postwar middle landscapes throughout the city—the catalyst for neighborhood formation was the intrusion of the machine. The machine, although a metaphor, represented real political, architectural, and social forces. In fact, two machines threatened Brooklyn Heights in the eyes of new residents, each version encroaching from opposite sides. From the slum of South Brooklyn lurked the old machine: the industrial cityscape of polluted factories, corrupt ward politicians, violent youth gangs, and frightening crime syndicates. From Manhattan threatened a modern and more potent new machine—a matrix of centralized public authorities, city planning agencies, and private development groups spearheading a program of modernist redevelopment in Brooklyn. (pp. 119-120)

For Osman—and I think he’s right—it was this perceived defense of the “middle cityscape” that produced “a new type of anti-statist politics that was hostile to liberal centralized planning and bureaucracy, instead celebrating grassroots government, organic landscapes, existential liberation, creative expression, historicity and diversity, and do-it-yourself neighborhood liberation.” (p. 163) That style of politics—definitely on the left end of the spectrum in theory, but existing in abject terror of both other residents of the city and government that might try to pursue the broad public interest, either of which might cause a solid middle cityscape neighborhood to tip over into decline and chaos at any time—ought to sound awfully familiar from the quotes I’ve presented from Troy and New Haven.

I’ve presented examples from three states and three different, though somewhat similar, kinds of neighborhoods. There are some clear commonalities, so let’s try to tease them out.

  • First, it’s crystal-clear that the dominant factor in the middle class/gentrifier narrative of neighborhood development and preservation has been fear. Fear of other city residents, fear of overbearing government, fear of neighborhood decline—it’s all there. And frankly, a lot of it was, historically, justified.
  • Second, middle-class residents of stable or improving urban neighborhoods see themselves—again, historically with significant justification—as saviors. Without their investment, their energy, their civic leadership, and their sweat equity, these neighborhoods would tip over into decline or chaos.
  • Third, the status of a “good urban neighborhood”—often, but not always, the same as a “middle cityscape” between downtown and the ghetto with elements of pastoralism—is fragile and must be preserved. It’s fragile because of Point 1, and because of Point 2 that preservation must be done by the existing residents of the neighborhood, which brings us to Point 4…
  • Fourth, government cannot be trusted to meet the needs of a “good” urban neighborhood. Like the other points here, this one made a lot of sense from the 1950s up through probably the 1990s—and still does in many areas. This is perhaps the biggest challenge people seeking more equitable neighborhood outcomes have to overcome.

Taken together, these narratives form what I’m proposing to call the bootstrap theory of neighborhood development. It’s a narrative in which the primary or even only reason an urban neighborhood can be “good” is through the efforts and expenditures of a very particular urban middle class, working against interference from competitors and government. In its stress on individual (well, communal, but individual relative to the rest of the city) effort and stress on self-preservation, this narrative has obvious parallels to American conservatism’s narrative of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.” My labeling of this theory owes a lot to Daniel Kay Hertz’s framing of the narrative of immaculate conception of neighborhood origins; one might say that they are two parts of the same overarching narrative, occupying different time spans.

So what’s the problem? I’ve said multiple times that I think much of the bootstrap theory is valid in historic context. Well…let’s look at outcomes. Middle-class protectionism has certainly preserved a few “good” urban neighborhoods in a time of need. But it has also resulted in some outcomes that would seem to betray the theoretically liberal values of most middle-class urban residents.

  • Osman documents that as early as 1973, only 14% of Brooklyn Heights Association parents were sending their children to public schools. (p. 155) The progressive value of integration vs. the sometimes depressing realities of urban school districts is something that many middle-class parents struggle with, generally in my experience in good faith.
  • Historical validity of a plan of political action is just that, historical; and the bootstrap theory has had a notably difficult time adjusting to the reality that in the 21st century many cities are again approaching or exceeding normalcy in the housing market after decades of disinvestment and suppression. Coupled with policies still intended to protect the “good” neighborhoods, this renewed demand has seen housing prices skyrocket, resulting in an exclusive city.
  • The bootstrap narrative frames homeownership in a “middle cityscape” as almost public-spirited, and homeowners as bulwarks against chaos. Again, that may have been true in many areas until recently—but the restoration of relative normalcy to urban housing markets has once again revealed what was true before suburbanization: that ownership of a single-family home in a close-in urban neighborhood is inherently a luxury good. Homeownership does lend more stability to a neighborhood—but it is also entrepreneurial and a profit-making enterprise. The bootstrap narrative tends to elide that dual reality.

I began this piece by saying that my own experience of the city is very, very different from the middle-aged, middle-class homeowners who seem to be the most common proponents of the bootstrap theory. Like many of these people, I hold more or less liberal social and economic views. But my experience and indeed terror of urban space is very, very different. I am terrified that I won’t be able to afford to live in many cities in the US—largely because of the same policies pushed by many neighborhood bootstrappers in light of their own terrors. Where many neighborhood bootstrappers look at the city and feel fear, I see confidence, growth, and opportunity.

I don’t know how to convince neighborhood bootstrappers that their conception of neighborhood development is outdated. I could point out that the bootstrap theory is much more closely related to suburban narratives of urbanization and really de-urbanization than to 21st-century urbanism and creates a self-congratulatory framework that substitutes for structural thinking. I could talk about how it adopts some of the less savory aspects of Jane Jacobs’ work—her “eyes on the street” stress on constant surveillance–but not others, such as her quasi-libertarian willingness to experiment with urban economies and land use (which, granted, Jacobs herself was inconsistent about). But those are attacks—and I’m not sure they’d work well with people who feel they’ve spent their entire adult lives defending a fragile neighborhood from attack by both other urban residents and government.

So will we just have to wait for people with new experiences to take over? The stereotype that people grow less flexible as they get older seems mostly born out on this measure. And the urban middle class exerts a disproportionate political pull in cities, so it’s unlikely that government could be the best change agent. If the bootstrap narrative validates self-preservation, perhaps we could leverage that; after all, the homeowning middle class is now freezing its own children out of cities, so perhaps they’d be persuaded by arguments about future affordability for their own offspring. Is there a way to induce the people who gave cities life during the anti-urban century, but are now unintentionally squeezing that same life out of them, to play a more constructive role in planning and policy? In many of our cities, that’s the challenge of the 21st century.

 

 

 

Productivity and Route Structure in a Chicago Neighborhood

WBEZ’s terrific Curious City series is out with a piece  and accompanying visualization about cost recovery  on the CTA bus system. CTA’s buses are a hot topic (so to speak) in the transit/urbanist online community; Daniel Hertz has covered the system’s woes extensively, and Yonah Freemark lent his voice to the Curious City piece. Though perhaps less than sexy, the question of how to build a better bus system for Chicago is an important one. Despite ridership declines and a trend of convergence, CTA buses still carry an overall majority of CTA ridership, and they provide crucial transit coverage to huge swaths of the city that lack rapid transit service.

For the graphic accompanying the story, Curious City pulled out CTA’s five “most productive” and five “least productive” (by average number of riders on an individual bus in an hour, with the ideal ranging from 35 to 55 riders) routes and mapped them. Much to my surprise (really), two of the top five most productive routes are the lines I consider my “home routes” in Chicago, the 155 Devon and the 49B North Western.

devon and western

Devon and Western–epicenter of bus productivity in Chicago?

I spent my high school years living two blocks (well, three, but one of them is really short) from the corner of Devon and Western, where the 49B and 155 meet. West Rogers Park (alternatively, West Ridge) is one of Chicago’s well-kept secrets, a wonderfully diverse (economically and ethnically), reasonably walkable and dense, green, and mostly quiet neighborhood. Though the density and vibrancy of the South Asian community along Devon fades into pretty boring single-family blocks the further north and west one progresses, Devon itself, especially the section between Western and California, is a riot of color, smell, and taste the likes of which almost sound cliched. (I’m going to stop before I get more homesick, I promise) All that being said, one of the reasons the area isn’t better known is what it lacks–namely, direct access to a rapid transit line.

Thus, while the neighborhood itself is moderately transit-supportive (much more so along Devon than along Western, which here as in most of its 24-mile existence is a wide asphalt auto sewer with terrible land use), the 49B and 155 play a role that wouldn’t seem to lend itself exceptionally well to high productivity, collecting riders and shuttling them to the L. The 155 drops riders off at Loyola and Morse on the Red Line, and the 49B connects to the Brown Line at its Western stop. Both loop on the opposite end on the very edge of the city, the 155 at Devon and Kedzie–it’s actually a very short route, geographically–and the 49B at Western and Birchwood (half a block short of an easy transfer to several lines running on Howard…but more on that later). Lacking significant anchors on the outer end, both lines are relatively sparsely used for the first section of their route–seemingly not a recipe for “productive” status.

That being said, I can attest from personal experience that both lines do get very crowded at times. The 155 in particular can be a very uncomfortable experience, to the point where I regularly receive texts from my father complaining about it when he winds up on the Red Line rather than the Brown Line on his way home. Neither runs especially frequently by major city standards, with both running usually around every 8-12 minutes during the day and 15-20 minutes at night. Ridership is moderate by Chicago standards, with the 49B fluctuating between 5,000 and 6,000 daily riders since 2001 (as far back as CTA data goes), and the 155 more consistently around 7,000. Still, that’s enough ridership to consistently fill–or overfill–the buses on at least the half of the routes closer to their L transfers. And while I joked about it in the caption above, the corner of Devon and Western is the key point for ridership demand on both routes.

49b southbound boardings

Southbound boardings on the 49B by stop, October 2012 (from CTA open data)

The 49B, in particular, experiences a huge ridership spike at Devon; the stop pulls in three times as many riders as the second most popular stop, the Birchwood terminus. Ridership on the 155 is more spread out, though reliable data isn’t available–Devon was under construction and closed to buses between Western and Ridge when the 2012 CTA counts happened, as a result of which a huge chunk of the route is missing–so I won’t present a chart here. Still, Devon/Western is a key stop; in my experience it’s typically the single largest on/off point, and on rush hour eastbound trips the buses typically run standing room only from Devon or a couple of stops east of there.

So: despite the unbalanced route structure, we have a pair of routes running through a somewhat transit-deprived neighborhood that pair moderately high demand with relatively limited frequency. Additionally, both routes use standard 40-foot buses almost exclusively, although the 155 would clearly benefit from having articulateds on rush-hour runs. That combination leads to extremely high productivity results–an indication of the imperfection of the metric, since a simple increase in frequency would presumably result in a sharp decrease in “productivity.” Productivity, remember, is to some extent just a nicer word for “crowding.”

But let’s look beyond a simple increase in frequency–clearly, there is significant demand for transit in the West Rogers Park area, both expressed and latent. How can CTA build on the perhaps unlikely success of these routes and strengthen West Rogers Park’s connection to the transit system while maintaining a highly productive route structure?

The CTA system in the greater West Rogers Park area

The CTA system in the greater West Rogers Park area

It’s worth noting that the gap in ridership between the two routes, which is generally in the vicinity of 1,000-2,000 riders per day, is almost certainly attributable to the differences in land use along their respective arterials. Compare Devon, here looking west at Rockwell:

to Western, here looking south midblock between Rosemont and Granville, just a block and a half south of Devon:

Encouraging dense, transit-oriented development along the Western car sewer is a no-brainer, particularly north of Peterson, where both sides of the street are lined with dead and dying (literally) car-related businesses–dealerships, body shops, etc. Unfortunately, what new development has occurred has often been very much suburban-style:

In the shorter term, though, there are ways to make the existing bus network function better. The returning X49 Western Express (well, for peak hours) should be extended at least to Devon, if not all the way to Howard; its current terminal at Western and Berwyn is nowhere of significance, and an extension would turn numerous trips that are currently three-seat rides into much more tolerable two-seat rides. Even just at peak, an X49 stop at Devon would take significant pressure off the crowded 49B.

The 49B itself would benefit from a stronger anchor on the northern end. And there are useful things to do with it! Currently trips from Western to downtown Evanston, a significant employment and cultural draw, are three-seaters, requiring a transfer to an east-west bus on Howard, then to the Purple Line or an Evanston bus at Howard terminal. Turning the 49b right on Howard and running to Howard Terminal might provide unnecessary extra capacity on that particular stretch of Howard, but would provide a one-transfer ride to Evanston. Alternatively, continuing the route north to downtown Evanston–the route taken by its much less frequent (doesn’t run on Sundays!) counterpart on California, the 93, would make that a one-seat ride and provide regular service to a relatively dense part of southern Evanston that currently has only infrequent “circulator” service. I suspect that whatever losses in efficiency were to happen because of these extensions would be easily made up or even exceeded by increased, better balanced ridership.

Taking advantage of the demand for transit on Devon and taking pressure off the 155 is, if anything, even easier. There are two long North Side local routes, the 36 Broadway and 151 Sheridan, that use Devon for part of the 155 route, between Sheridan and Clark. Both, however, loop at Clark and Devon for reasons that, as best I can tell, are simply historical; that loop was long ago the location of the Chicago Surface Lines’ enormous Devon Carbarn, and it made sense to loop the routes outside where the equipment was maintained. The carbarn, however, has been gone since 1957, and the area west of it has become much denser as South Asian immigrants moved in. Neither route is especially frequent, but if looped at Kedzie–just two miles west–instead of Clark, their combined 6 or 7 extra trips per hour could significantly reduce crowding on the 155 and strengthen Devon’s character as a transit-oriented arterial. Both the 151 and 36 are long, slow routes–both run to the Loop, though not every 151 makes the whole trip–so while Devon can be painfully congested, neither should feel the pain too much. Neither offers as direct a transfer to the Red Line as does the 155, but both encounter it multiple times along their routes, and the 36 runs just a block away from the L from Devon to Wilson, offering numerous opportunities for a relatively east transfer.

In some ways, West Rogers Park is an ordinary Chicago neighborhood. What has become clear in this analysis, however, is that it–like so many Chicago neighborhoods–has excellent fundamentals for transit, and a very strong basis to build on. When thinking about transit in Chicago, the public eye focuses largely on the L, but this is an excellent example of a bus-reliant transit-oriented area. Unfortunately, it seems that some of the public mentality of L prioritization has taken hold in the CTA planning process as well, with the area’s routes largely reduced to glorified–but productive!–shuttles to the nearest L stops.  But here’s the thing: taking the area’s transit from “OK” to “excellent” may not need the kind of glorious capital investment an L or rapid transit extension at all (though, assuming some TOD, BRT on Western would be great). Re-thinking the local buses within a framework of making them useful as more than shuttles, a few strategic extensions and route modifications, and incremental improvements that prioritize buses within the traffic flow could provide high impact for little investment. It’s clear that the fundamentals are there. Let’s build.

 

Note 1: Notice haven’t talked about Metra at all here. Metra’s UP-North line runs on the Rogers Park-West Rogers Park boundary, with a “Rogers Park” station at Lunt; there used to be a stop at Kenmore, just south of Devon. The line really should be turned into a rapid transit operation, and should that happen, a stop at Devon is essential.

Note 2: One of the other top 5 most productive routes is the 54 Cicero, which gives me some hope that the proposed Lime Line could be successful.

 

 

Albany has a Choice to Make

Last week I wrote that Upstate New York needs to fundamentally change it development paradigm before it can demand more infrastructure funding. But choices about how to plan and develop aren’t just (or even primarily) a regional choice; they are, at their core, local. And at a local level, the choices are if anything even more stark.

One of my favorite planning-related books of recent years, for its challenging argument if not for my agreement with every aspect–is Chris Leinberger’s The Option of UrbanismHis argument is that given market and demographic trends, urbanism–a pro-urban agenda favoring urban growth, urban amenities, and new paradigms of transportation–is not only again viable in America, but the way of the future. While Leinberger’s case may be overstated–and his emphasis on market forces will certainly turn some off–the framing about cities and stakeholders again having the ability to make an active choice for urbanism, after 60 years of pro-suburban policy, is a useful one. And Albany is facing a critical moment where it must choose whether to make that choice.

Consider these recent cases:

Bus Stop NIMBYism

CDTA, the local transit authority, wants to consolidate several bus stops in the vicinity of the intersection of Lark and Washington in Albany, one of the system’s major hubs. The particulars of the plan are somewhat complicated and I can’t find CDTA’s graphics about it, but the gist is that it would consolidate the four stops on the corner of Lark and Washington into one mid-block stop on Washington between Lark and Dove, and pull in the current local stop at Dove as well. This would alleviate several complex situations that are dangerous to pedestrians and drivers alike. It would also allow CDTA’s #12 bus–one of the system’s busiest, running from downtown to SUNY and Crossgates Mall–to straighten out a kink in its route caused by the fact that buses can’t make a stop at the corner of Lark and Washington and then get back into the left lane to continue straight on Washington as it splits from Central Avenue. The stop can’t be moved any further west because it would create crazy congestion in the intersection, or east because buses would back up at the existing express and local stop at Hawk, just one block down.

The plan has sparked vicious NIMBY opposition–organized around a Change.org petition–led by the owners of the Iron Gate Cafe, outside of whose front door the new stop would be located. The opposition has also been given a boost by usually responsible Times Union columnist Chris Churchill, who I do think would typically recoil at the classist and racist rhetoric to which the opposition has predictably devolved (see below). To their credit, the Iron Gate Cafe owners have used relatively responsible rhetoric, affirming their belief in CDTA as a system, and limiting their complaints to the stop’s location right outside their door. Others, however, have predictably not been as responsible, as Martin Daley documented at a meeting last night that was publicly promoted by the NIMBY coalition, but not by anyone else (or believe me, I would have been there):

Of course, this kind of NIMBYish reaction happens everywhere. What’s particularly galling about this situation is that the owners of Iron Gate Cafe–who claim to value CDTA service–and their supporters haven’t even considered the possibility that government suddenly putting hundreds of riders per day on their doorstep might lead to increased business. It’s the kind of knee-jerk anti-urban attitude typically adopted by suburban NIMBYs, right there in the heart of the densest, most urban part of Albany. It’s a paradigm in which only parking and easy accessibility by car can lead to business–and the only people who ride the bus are the ones who can’t afford to eat at the moderately nice Iron Gate. It is, to say the least, a profoundly anti-urban attitude that doesn’t even attempt to understand a mode of being aside from that of the suburban paradigm. Aside from the issue at hand–to which a compromise solution may be possible–this anti-urban attitude is completely at odds with Albany’s ability to be, to understand itself as, a real city. 

Protected Bike Lanes? 

For the past several years Albany has been planning a road diet on Madison Avenue, one of the city’s primary east-west arterials. A grassroots group, the Albany Protected Bike Lane Coalition, has been vocally advocating for the inclusion of protected lanes in the final configuration of the road diet, which is to be decided upon in the coming weeks or months. Despite a thorough report, including a parking census, but the PBL Coalition, all indications are that the city is not going to include protected lanes in the final plan, primarily over parking concerns (advocates suspect stated concerns about the cost of plowing in the winter are largely a smokescreen).

Parking Galore

Albany has a lot of parking. It has so much, in fact, that even where perceived shortages exist, it’s largely because parking hasn’t been regulated well and no central organizing system exists. When Albany Med wanted to rip out two whole blocks of homes and replace them (in part) with a massive parking garage, the city commissioned a report on parking in the area from Nelson/Nygaard–and then meekly scrubbed the report from the city website when it found that the garage was unnecessary and Albany Med made it clear they were going to go ahead anyhow.

And yet–and yet! Albany continues down a path of not only not recognizing the existing oversupply of parking, but allowing even more. Capitalize Albany, the city’s downtown business development group, recently commissioned a parking study–not an access study by all modes as is best planning practice, but a parking study–that, when read honestly, basically confirmed the existence of oversupply in the downtown area at almost all times, yet called for more.

SUNY Polytechnic, the newest in Governor Cuomo’s long list of throw-gum-at-the-economic-development-wall-and-hope-it-sticks public-private partnerships, is planning three stories of student housing in downtown Albany–and three stories of parking to go with. The kicker? The downtown SUNY Poly campus is to be centered on the city’s old Union Station.

Union Station, 1948  Albany NY 1940s

Albany Union Station then, from the Albany Flickr group

albany union station 1

And now, with structured parking out back, on Bing Maps.

Aside from the absurdity of providing structured parking intended (at least partially) for students in the city’s downtown, which has literally acres of unused parking at night, Albany’s obsession with parking has serious costs. Prioritizing parking over bus stops, or housing, or other potential land uses, devalues urban land, treating it as nothing more than a place for suburban drivers to park their private property. And it sends the message that the city has nothing more valuable to do with itself than provide a convenient (“user-friendly,” as one suburban troll once told me it should be on Twitter) experience for those who don’t live there.

Albany at the tipping point

There are a lot of good things going on in Albany. Construction of residential units is accelerating in the long-depopulated downtown. The local MPO is finally studying removing the eyesore that is the waterfront I-787 freeway. I kvetch a lot, but there are a lot of really lovely things about living here.

At the same time, in over two years of living here, it’s become increasingly clear that Albany is facing a tipping point in terms of its ability to be a city. The city is facing a serious budget crisis, precipitated in no small part by the vast amount of city land taken entirely or mostly off the tax rolls because of institutional use (colleges, hospitals, state offices) or because it’s culturally believed to be valueless (all that parking). All Over Albany recently asked why people in this region are so determinedly pessimistic about everything.  For the city itself, I think, a lot of that has to do with the city’s inability to believe in itself as such. Decades of thinking about Albany’s most urban areas as little more than a destination for car-bound commuters have left the city without a self-image as an urban place–and without that self-image, Albany is left adrift in policy and purpose, unable to plow a clear path forward.

The Choice, or Not

I began this piece by framing Albany as facing the choice to adopt what Chris Leinberger calls the “option” of urbanism. But perhaps that’s not quite the right framework. The way I see it–and, admittedly, I’m an outsider, but one with the valuable perspective of having lived in numerous different places–Albany doesn’t really have that much of a choice. 60 years of being squashed by the suburban attitude, some of it self-adopted, has left the city constantly facing financial crisis, with its downtown just now recovering from being wiped out,  and with an entrenched classist, racist mentality that prevents urbanist improvements from getting done. Like many American cities, Albany’s tried suburbanism, and like most other places, it has failed. The option, such as it ever was, is no longer extant. It’s time for urbanism.