Babies in the city and the Harvard Business Review

My family recently spent an afternoon exploring the Chicago neighborhood of Roscoe Village. My wife and I are Chicago natives who moved to Madison in 1996. We remember Roscoe Village as a vaguely hip but mostly run down area where cheap rents could still be found. Although we’re aware of the transformation many neighborhoods experienced in the last decade or so, we were still surprised by the transformation of Roscoe Village and Roscoe Street in particular.

Roscoe has become a vibrant, pedestrian-friendly street. Many diverse shops line the street. Tall trees provide shade and greenery. Old and new buildings mix together. Many people out and about.

Another big change was all the bicyclists. They seemed so in congruent from our experience. Hardly anyone rode bikes when we lived in Chicago. Now there were cyclists everywhere! More power to the Alternative Transportation Alliance (formerly Chicagoland Bicycle Federation)! As my son was quick to point out, however, hardly anyone rode helmets (so why should he have to). The ATA still has some work to do I guess.

But the biggest surprise by far were all the babies! As we sat at a sidewalk cafe at least a dozen baby-filled strollers must have passed by. We thought, what in the world?! And judging by the strollers (which have come a long way since our teen age children rode in them) and other various indicators, these were middle to upper-middle class families with housing choice. Finally my wife, never the shy one, stopped a couple and asked what the deal was. As she guessed, the couple explained that the neighborhood school has an excellent reputation.

Good schools are critical to healthy neighborhoods but I suspected something more than good education accounted for the droves of babies rolling by our table. My suspicions were confirmed when I read Back to the City in the May 2010 issue of the Harvard Business Review, by Ania Wieckowski. Wieckowski describes how corporations are moving back to the city, citing United Airlines choice of central Chicago over the suburbs as one example among others. But it is not just businesses that see value in city environments.

As the article states,

To put it simply, the suburbs have lost their sheen: Both young workers and retiring Boomers are actively seeking to live in densely packed, mixed-use communities that don’t require cars—that is, cities or revitalized outskirts in which residences, shops, schools, parks, and other amenities exist close together. “In the 1950s, suburbs were the future,” says University of Michigan architecture and urban-planning professor Robert Fishman, commenting on the striking cultural shift. “The city was then seen as a dingy environment. But today it’s these urban neighborhoods that are exciting and diverse and exploding with growth.”

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Peter Katz presentation on Mobility & the Modern Metropolis

It was good to hear Peter Katz’s presentation, Mobility & the Modern Metropolis: Public Transit in an Era of Diminishing Resources, at Monona Terrace Monday night. Peter Katz wrote The New Urbanism: Toward an Architecture of Community in 1993 and is a leader in the Congress of New Urbanism. Not to be confused with the Katz, Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institute, also an urban advocate but with more of a policy emphasis.

Peter made some excellent points:

  • The U.S. had an earlier transit age from the early 1900s until sometime around the 1950s. There were extensive inter-urban rail lines throughout the country. Cities also had extensive streetcar rail lines. Los Angelos had over 3,000 miles of rail.
  • A few cities in the world kept their extensive streetcar lines and added transit over time. Toronto has an amazing network of streetcar, rapid transit bus, subway and regular bus. Another city in Australia whose name I can’t remember also kept and added to their network. They kicked the GM controlled company reps out of town when they came to propose buying up and tearing out their rail lines. These cities provide extensive mobility through their transit systems (you can get within 3 blocks of anywhere), their citizens spend less on transportation, they pollute less. One of the cities systems paid for itself through the fare box – which is more possible with a system used by almost everyone.
  • Making transit work today, in auto dominated U.S. cities, is challenging. To work, transit has to be integrated with land use. Specifically, it needs transit-oriented development with sufficient density, mix of uses, walkability, public spaces and sufficient but structured and well-design parking. All this should sound familiar by now
  • This was the most powerful point: well-designed urban density brings many times the net tax benefit PER ACRE than single-use, lower density suburban form of development. Peter showed bar graphs that displayed a net benefit of something like $3,000 per acre for a Wal-Mart and something like $80,000 per acre for high-density, central area development. The overwhelmingly greater tax advantage of higher density – and even 3- and 4-story mixed use far outperformed suburban forms – was instrumental in overcoming resistance in policy makers. The tax benefit becomes especially persuasive in this era of public budget crises.

It was also nice to hear about Peter’s childhood experiences in Madison exploring State Street and the Capitol. And he had really nice slides and photos!

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Hopeful signs for better Madison-area transit

Some hopeful signs for better transit in Madison.

First, as reported by Grist, St. Louis voters vote overwhelmingly for more transit despite concerted efforts by Tea Party activists. St. Louis County voters approved a half-cent sales tax increase to stabilize and eventually expand the region’s ailing transit network. The measure passed by a 24-point margin.

The Dane County Regional Transit Authority is considering options to improve transit options in this region. Any option will require a funding mechanism, likely through the sales tax. At their first meeting, RTA officials voted not to raise sales tax without voter approval, even though they have that authority. Like in St. Louis, local anti-transit activists see regional transit as a rallying cry against big government (although big government highway projects are always good in their view).

If residents of St. Louis County can support sales tax funding for transit, despite organized opposition, Dane County voters should be similarly supportive.

The second development that offers hope for local transit is recent changes in federal policies. Last June, FTA announced that it would evaluate New Starts and Small Starts applications on the basis not only of cost-effectiveness (as judged by how much travel time is saved) but also the land uses that the transit project would support and the economic development the transit project would bring about. Approximately equal weight would be given to each of those three factors. These broader evaluation criteria can increase the chance of funding for new projects like Madison’s.

Interestingly, other federal policy changes support streetcars, a form of transit relegated in Madison to the political dustbin following Mayor Dave’s failed advocacy early in his term. Now streetcars are seen locally as a somewhat goofy idea with no chance of serious consideration.

Too bad, because in December, DOT announced that it would make grants of up to $25 million each for “urban circulator systems such as streetcars and rubber-tire trolleys.” It noted that these systems foster “the redevelopment of urban spaces into walkable mixed use, high density environments.” Also, in January, DOT rescinded a Bush policy that had required New Starts projects to achieve at least a “medium” rating on cost-effectiveness. That rating relied on criteria that tended to favor longer-distance modes of transit, such as bus rapid transit. No streetcars were able to qualify for funds under the Bush measure of cost-effectiveness.

Maybe Mayor Dave was on to something after all. And maybe it’s time to resurrect that downtown trolley idea – connecting downtown, the campus and perhaps (my vote) the near east side – keeps popping up. Something better than the free bus circulator is needed. Is the free bus still even operating? How many people even know about it?

A chance to learn more about public transit from a renowned urban policy expert Bruce Katz is coming up on Monday, April 26 at Monona Terrace.

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Local clean energy = sustainability

A local (Sun Prairie) wind energy company, Wave Wind LLC, wants to put up 6 wind turbines in northwest Dane County, Wisconsin, a $20 million project. Based on earlier energy costs, and previous statements of Madison Gas & Electric (MG&E), Wind Waves based their project on 8.3 cents a kilowatt hour. Since then, however, energy prices dropped and wind power is now available from Iowa for under 3 cents/kWh. In addition, MG&E already exceeds its target for renewable energy and thus feels they don’t need to pay premiums. They argue that their obligations to their customers and shareholders require them to put cost before local purchase. The Wisconsin State Journal story can be found here.

I get where they are coming from. In fact, I appreciate their attention to keep my rates low. Who likes paying higher utility bills?

However, there are real economic and sustainability benefits to supporting local businesses and growing the local clean energy sector. Money spent on local businesses creates local jobs and spending that stimulates more job growth and income. Supporting clean energy companies can help attract more local green business growth and investment. According to reports by the Pew Charitable Trust and Global Insights, the green business sector is growing and will continue to grow considerably faster than average. As regions compete for this growth sector, we should not pass up opportunities to build the Madison region’s competitive advantage. Ultimately, stronger local economic growth will be better for MG&E as well, as their customer base also grows.

It’s great that MG&E exceeded their renewable target. They are definitely a leader in green energy. But why let such targets be limiting factors? The need to reduce carbon emissions is critical and any viable opportunity to replace coal with renewables merits strong consideration. In addition, temporary low energy prices should not drive long-term investment decisions.

The clean energy advocate, RENEW Wisconsin, estimates the Wind Wave deal would cost average MG&E ratepayers less than 1 percent extra. As a MG&E ratepayer, I am willing to pay this extra 15 cents a month or so to help grow our local clean energy economy. I shop at locally-owned stored in part because it benefits the local economy (also because of the service and the chance to see neighbors) even if it costs a little extra. I know the added benefit to my neighborhood and city exceed the small cost to me. For the same reason, I support the Wind Wave project.  Below is the text of an email I sent to MG&E executives:

“I am writing, as a MG&E ratepayer, to request that MG&E agree to the cost per kWh for the Wind Wave wind generation project planned for NW Dane County.

“I understand that the cost is higher than what is available from out-of-state wind sources. I also appreciate that MG&E works to ensure cost-competitive energy rates. There is, however, an economic benefit to the Madison region for fostering local energy businesses and generating capacity. Investments in local renewable energy will generate jobs and investments that create additional value as employees and businesses purchase local materials. Support for growing clean energy businesses support the local green economy sector and help attract additional green businesses, a growth sector for the future. Fostering such local business growth will help increase demand for MG&E energy in the long-term. Although MG&E has exceeded its renewable energy goals, we should work to achieve the maximum viable green power and not be bound by external targets.

“As a ratepayer, it is worth it to me to incur the 1% increase that the Wind Wave purchases would generate for the average MG&E customer. Please support this important local green development project.”

Some may argue that jobs in Iowa are just as important as Dane County, perhaps more so because the Madison region is pretty strong economically. I don’t begrudge Iowans economic growth. But I live in Dane County and want to support my local economy.

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City-building in Madison: Is it broken? 2

My previous post started to address the question raised as part of the Edgewater debate: is the development review process in Madison broken? With an attempt at starting a conversation, I featured the Park Central development in the Marquette neighborhood as one success story of the process.

David Waugh commented on the experience in the Tenney-Lapham neighborhood with recent development projects. David cited the Colony Condominiums at 627 E. Mifflin, being developed by Great Dane Development, as a success story. The neighborhood endorses the 66-unit project, designed to comply with the proposed East Washington Avenue BUILD Plan and ranges in height from 3 stories along E. Mifflin to seven stories at the rear lot line. The three story elevation consists of a series of rowhouses with individual entries enhancing the streetscape.

627 E. Mifflin Street existing

In their endorsement of the project, the Tenney-Lapham Neighborhood Assocation cited the following positive elements:

• Owner occupancy
• Townhouses with private entryways on East Mifflin
• Diversity of floor plans
• Lower building massing on East Mifflin graduating toward higher massing on the block interior.
• Distinctive, quality architecture with interesting details

Details of the project provided by the neighborhood can be found here.

Another Tenney-Lapham project, on the 700 block of East Johnson Street, involved more controversy because it removed 11 homes. David states that the developer, Stone House Development (also the developer of Park Central Apartments) “worked with the neighborhood and it sailed through all city processes.”

Planning for the large-scale, full-block redevelopment of the Don Miller Subaru site on the 800 block of East Washington involved extensive neighborhood input. Although the project failed due to a financing dispute between the City and the developer, Gorman and Company, the neighborhood process was positive (perhaps the developer is relieved not to have all those condo units on the market right now–now we have a chance to focus more on employment needs).

So far, we have 4 examples of recent medium- to high-density development projects that successfully worked through the city process. Common elements between these projects are:

  • existence of and adherence to a neighborhood plan that includes design guidance and standards
  • early involvement with all stakeholders, including the neighborhood
  • willingness on all parties to be flexible and work together towards a project that meets multiple objectives (quality of life, financial, environmental)

I would love to hear from others about their experiences with the process, whether positive or negative, so we can expand the list of what works and doesn’t work.

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City-building Madison style: is it “broken?”

Anyone in Madison, Wisconsin who isn’t aware of the Edgewater Hotel development controversy is trying hard not to pay attention. The proposal calls for an 8-story (most recently) addition separated from the old section by a plaza overlooking the lake and stairs leading down to the lakefront (although the Department of Natural Resources says the proposed pier is not allowed).

The controversy generates strong feelings pro and con. Proponents cite jobs and tax revenue needed in the recession,  improved lake access, and additional needed hotel rooms. Opponents decry the building size and height out of scale with the historic residential district, and unprecedented large amounts of tax-increment financing for a project with relatively few permanent jobs, lake access that already (technically speaking) belongs to the citizens, and insufficient revenues to pay back the TIF.

Both sides, however, share a dismay over the development review process. Some claim that the process is “broken” and needs to be fixed. Others feel the process works but is being corrupted by this project. To shed light on whether city-building in Madison is “broken,” I thought it would be useful to look at recent completed developments in Madison. What do they tell us about the ability of the city, developers and citizens to grow a healthy, livable city?

The first project featured is the Park Central Apartments on Ingersoll and East Wilson Street. Developed by Stone House Development, Park Central includes 76 affordable units in the state’s first
“certified multi-unit Green Built home.” Built on the former site of Badger Cab, with its above-ground propane tanks, the apartments overlook a “bicycle boulevard” and what, dare I say it, may actually become Madison’s new central park.

Although I did not participate in the neighborhood review process, I heard that it went smoothly and the neighborhood and Stone House worked cooperatively.

This case seems like a win for the process. Certainly the outcome is positive for the neighborhood and the city. I hope that people who participated in this process will chime in with comments about how they felt it worked.

I also hope people will suggest other developments to review as examples of how the process works or doesn’t work (the voice of my poly sci professor is asking, for whom?) and why or why not.

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Visions for downtown Madison 2: full-block redevelopment

I recently wrote about the work of a group of design professionals to create visions for making downtown Madison more vibrant and sustainable. Their work was recognized by the Wisconsin Chapter of the American Planning Association (WAPA). WAPA presented the design group a special award (meaning they don’t conveniently fit the prescribed categories) for their design service. Congratulations design professionals!

The pdf (8mb) of their report, Design Visions for City of Madison Downtown Plan, can be downloaded here.

This post highlights the full block development concept for Mifflin Street. The design professionals observed that Mifflin Street, from the Library to North Shore Drive is a “hole in the donut.” Meaning the areas all around it are transitioning to a built environment more like the central urban core: greater density, mix of uses, infill and renovations. But Mifflin Street remains largely student housing in converted frame buildings, many in poor shape.

This hole in the donut observation prompted the designers to create visions for full-block redevelopments: “a densely built mixed-use neighborhood that preserves and enhances the social fabric of ‘Miffland’.”

One full block redevelopment calls for adding four- and three-story mixed-use buildings at the ends of the block, retaining traditional 2-story houses in the center portion of the blocks and creating shared public space in the center of the block. Quoting from the report:

“The premise for this Mifflin block design is that there are many existing structures that contribute to the historical context and human scale of the street that should be preserved to create a core at the center of the block. Th ese existing vernacular structures form a “nucleus for social interaction” identified as the Miffland Forum Park.

“New housing is part of new infi ll buildings that gradually gain in size as they progress towards the perimeter streets, Bedford and Bassett. This organization avoids hemming in the smaller residential structures. Th e rooftops of these large buildings can include green plateaus, plazas and gardens to create architectural diversity and avoid the “flat-topping” eff ect that is prevalent today. Varying building setbacks can also create nodes and pocket parks for social interaction.

“The block is served by two main auto access points, leading to lower level parking (with a plaza cover) and enclosed parking as part of the larger buildings. In this way, service access and driveways can be consolidated for collective effi ciency and to create connective green space.

“Sustainable design is a core value of the neighborhood and is manifested in a mix of carbon-neutral, single-family and
multifamily buildings and landscaping that is part of individual buildings and public streetscaping. Green space, green roofs, rain gardens, solar access, and shared services all enhance the community, respect for our resources and spring from the progressive Miffl in neighborhood tradition.”

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