Sunday, October 28, 2012

Attack of the house clones!

In the spirit of Halloween, I’ll tell you what spooks me. It’s not ghosts, ghouls, goblins, the Frankenstorm, or the prospect of a Romney presidency. No, it’s the outsized neo-traditional house clones that are popping up en masse in many a Portland neighborhood. Like zombies, they rise from the graves of once-affordable properties. What are these strange, deformed creatures of the night, with names like Meriwether, Ainsworth and Montgomery? They are the Renaissance Homes Vintage Collection – new homes with “all the updated charm, built-ins and period details of the Portland homes you’ve come to love.”

Okay, in the scheme of things, a recovering housing market is nothing to be scared of, and I applaud the effort to design homes that attempt to blend into the milieu of older neighborhoods. But I take issue with these offerings from Renaissance for several reasons:

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Planner visits Vegas, isn't horrified

Bellagio fountains. Image: author

It’s Saturday night in Las Vegas, Nevada - 11:30pm in front of the Bellagio fountains, to be exact. It’s still a toasty 90 degrees after a daytime high in the mid-100s. My wife and I are standing near the intersection of two ten-lane roads packed with cars – Las Vegas and Flamingo boulevards, arguably the “100% intersection” of the entire region. We’re not alone. In fact, I can think of only one other place in America where I’ve seen this many people on a sidewalk without a special event taking place. That would be Times Square. Clearly my preconceptions about Vegas are a bit off.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Where should affordable housing go?

A family member of mine who works at a non-profit affordable housing consultancy in Portland was understandably irritated at The Oregonian’s Sunday feature story, “Subsidizing Segregation: Taxpayer money meant to create affordable and desirable housing for the poor and people of color instead pushes them into the metro area’s worst neighborhoods.”

Patton Park Apartments. Photo: Reach CDC
I agree that the article has a pejorative tone, and deemphasizes any success stories or positive sides of the issue. Hundreds of housing professionals work tirelessly to provide decent places to live for our region’s less well-off. Far beyond tilting up four walls and a roof, our region’s housing agencies have created remarkable communities with state-of-the-art design and amenities. I’ve seen the quality first-hand during tours of North/Northeast Portland’s Patton Park and Shaver Green Apartments.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Asking urban planners to be job counselors

All across America, urban planners are being reassigned (if they still have jobs at all.) Nowhere is this truer than at urban renewal and redevelopment agencies. Experts trained and experienced in things like land assembly, mixed-use development and streetscapes are now being asked to work on more nebulous pursuits like capacity building, workforce development and corporate recruiting. It’s a sign of the times – times of anemic job growth, timid real estate markets, cash-strapped city budgets and anti-government movements. There is public pressure to stop messing with property and start creating jobs. In an extreme example, California has disbanded and outlawed all redevelopment agencies – an unusual move for a blue state.

This great reassignment is not going entirely smoothly. At the very least, it has reduced job satisfaction and self-worth among many planning professionals. At the worst, it has cost people their jobs and eliminated an entire sector of urban planning. The tragic irony is that now would be an ideal time to think big and put people to work on major redevelopment and infrastructure projects. But that’s not where we find ourselves.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

What Portland could learn from L.A.

The image of Portland in urban planning and transportation circles is of a compact, walkable downtown, surrounded by leafy neighborhoods with vibrant commercial districts, all connected by light rail and innovative bikeways.

These things do, in fact, exist, and they are mostly wonderful. But Portland also has a dirty, not-so-little secret. There’s an entire district – representing about a quarter of the city’s land area and population – that is the exact opposite of that picture-perfect planning ideal. Think strip malls; cheap, poorly-designed multi-family housing; dangerous five-lane arterial roads with nowhere safe to walk; sparse transit service.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Seattle vs. Portland: Debate Club Edition

Seattle. Photo: Author
Seattle and Portland are in many ways two organic peas in a pod. Kindred spirits. We dwell in the upper left corner of the map, in mossy green landscapes surrounded by snowy mountains and tidal estuaries. We deal with nine months of rain and gray skies by drinking bottomless mugs of coffee and beer, then rejoice with hiking and biking when the sun comes out. We value freedom and individuality, but you can count on both of us to vote in the blue column and compost in the green bin.

But that’s where the similarities end. In addition to the most obvious difference – Seattle is bigger – there are nearly endless comparisons to be made. I think about them every time I make the 170-mile journey up I-5 (or on Amtrak Cascades) to the Emerald City. There are moments of jealousy, but also moments of “whew, glad I didn’t move here.” Each city excels at different things.

On that note, the following are my observations from 17 years visiting and 6 years living in the great Pacific Northwest. Let's do this debate club style, with 15 topics. (Deal with it - we like to read here in the Northwest). Representing my dual opinions will be Chief Seattle and the Portlandia statue. We'll be "Portland polite" and let Chief Seattle state his arguments first (respect your elders), followed by a nice passive-aggressive rebuttal from our lady in copper, Portlandia. We used to settle our scores with NBA games, but now the only sport we have in common is Major League Soccer. And that can end in a 0-0 draw.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Apartments go boom!

I think we can officially say we’re in the midst of an apartment boom.

Daily Journal of Commerce
Of course, any free market boom should be approached with caution, especially ones involving real estate development (understatement of the decade!) Developers are often like gold-hungry 49ers, all rushing to the same place to do the same thing and make the same fortune, then overdoing it and leaving a wasteland. The 1990s/2000s real estate bubble - based largely on suburban sprawl - left us with not just an economic catastrophe, but also empty subdivisions filled with big houses that require lots of $4 gas to drive to.

Fortunately this time, instead of a sprawl and mortgage boom, we’re talking about a boom of infill rental apartments in dense, urban neighborhoods. While there’s still a risk of overbuilding, shoddy construction and rash bulldozing (old buildings instead of cornfields this time), we are at least experiencing a “smart growth” boom. It’s a boom that meets many urban and regional planning goals: infill development, efficient use of urban land, neighborhood revitalization, transit-oriented development, housing choice, and (hopefully) equity. And for the most part, the free market is providing this boom, without the help of public subsidies. How did we get to this unlikely stage?

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Portland Rain Conspiracy

For years I've been boasting to out-of-towners, "Portland seems damp, but we only get 37 inches of annual precipitation on average, which is less than most East Coast and Southern cities." For example, Philadelphia gets 42 inches, and most of Florida gets more than 50 inches. In Portland, the rain (and rare snow) is simply spread out over more days. This has been my story. But after a recent conversation and some digital digging, I am concerned that our rain data is suspect - or, at the very least, not representative of the Portland region, or even the city proper.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A whack at democracy in land use

Suburban and rural Troutdale, Oregon. Photo: author
Here's a problem that could use fixing, but is prompting legislative overreach. Apparently there are some places inside the Portland region's urban growth boundary that developers are having a hard time developing. These are usually unincorporated areas adjacent to, but outside, city limits. When a developer asks a local city to annex his/her land, it must go to a public vote. To succeed, the annexation must receive a "yes" vote from a double majority - a majority of residents in the affected unincorporated area, and a majority of residents in the city doing the annexing. Even after this hurdle, the developer must figure out how to extend (and pay for) infrastructure like roads, water, sewer and electricity, while also paying numerous system development charges (SDCs) for services like emergency services, schools and recreation. It's a tough, expensive process, and sometimes developers ask cities for financial help in extending infrastructure or reducing fees.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Transit-to-Parking Price Ratio

TriMet, the Portland region's primary transit provider, has been struggling to overcome budget shortfalls for several consecutive years. Just like at almost every other public agency in this nation, the Great Recession blew a hole in TriMet's revenue stream - in this case, the regional payroll tax. Among the agency's proposed solutions is raising fares from $2.10 to $2.50 for a two-zone trip. The proposal would also eliminate fare zones (including Portland's free rail zone), and institute a one-way-only rule (no more quick out-and-back trips). Meanwhile, Portland will continue to have among the cheapest downtown parking meter rates on the West Coast: $1.60/hour.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

My (Threatened) Car-Free Day Trip

Last week, to celebrate one year of getting around fine without a car, I took a day trip. It was an unusual day trip for the United States of America - it involved trains, bike paths and hiking trails instead of cars and interstates. It featured transportation modes that more and more people are using in our urbanizing nation, but that are threatened by Congress. This week, the Republican-led House of Representatives nearly voted on a transportation bill that cut off Highway Trust Fund allocations for transit and bike/ped projects. This would have eliminated a critical funding stream for active transportation projects originally authorized by President Reagan. Fortunately, the bill was so bad, and had so many people from both parties against it, that it never left committee. But Congress may try again in a few weeks.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Living in Portland

There have been a number of these going around the interweb lately. So I made one about Portland...

Monday, February 13, 2012

Christie proposes municipal sharing

We here at CityRegionNationWorld don't often see eye-to-eye with Republicans on matters of urban and regional planning. But here's a sensible idea from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie: sharing the cost of services across municipal boundaries.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Dead U.S. Routes


Rent a 1950s vintage Chrysler with tail fins and meet me at the corner of US 99 and US 66.

Can’t find it on Google Maps? That’s because both roads have been lost to history for nearly 50 years. But in case you’re wondering, that defunct crossroads is now the intersection of Figueroa Street and San Fernando Road just north of Downtown Los Angeles.

Monday, February 6, 2012

NYC Energy Use by Tax Lot

New Yorkers can now compare their building's energy use with other properties across the five boroughs using an interactive map. Bianca Howard, a PhD student in mechanical engineering at Columbia University, created the map using publicly available utility data. The interactive map shows data at the tax parcel level, as well as block level, depending on how far you zoom in. Data is provided for not just electricity, but also heating, cooling and hot water heating. Electricity use is reported in kilowatt hours; gas and fuel oil use, in therms. For most properties, occupants expend the most energy on heat.

This is a remarkable set of data, especially for a city that once gave up on metering water. A logical next step, and one recommended by several who commented on Howard's site, would be to normalize this data by building floor area. In theory, this would reveal which buildings are more efficient, either by massing, weatherproofing or a combination of both. As is, the data shows a strong correlation with building size and height - Midtown skyscrapers at the high end, outer borough townhomes at the low end.

It would be great to see this data for other cities. Thanks to Jessi for sharing via Gizmodo.



Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Is Indianapolis still lame?

Monument Circle. Photo: author

As the national media turns its attention to Indianapolis in the run-up to Superbowl XLVI, I thought it would be fun to re-examine a city that holds an important place in my life. A city where my Nana still lives, in a two-story suburban ranch that she bought with her husband in 1967. A city I visited before I learned to walk, then later frequented as a Hoosier for eight years in high school and college. A city where I attended my first concert without parents (Rush at Market Square Arena!), played a drum kit in front of thousands (IU basketball at the Fieldhouse!), and attempted to woo women (ice skating at Pan Am Plaza!)

Despite these fond memories, Indy is a city that, once I turned 17 or so, I found to be kind of lame. But many rationally-minded, fun-loving friends and family members continue to live in the Circle City. Perhaps things are less lame now. Or maybe urban lameness is of little concern when you can earn a steady paycheck and raise a family in one of the most affordable cities in America. Perhaps a little bit of both. And so I ask the good people of Indy: You may be hosting the Superbowl this weekend, but is Indianapolis still lame?

Friday, January 27, 2012

Got Alleys?

Alleys are underrated. Along with much of urbanity, alleys fell out of favor in the post-war era, becoming associated with phrases like, “I wouldn’t want to run into that guy in a dark alley.” But in the late 20th century, as we began returning to cities and urban design, we rediscovered why we built them in the first place. New Urbanist town planners have been particularly keen on reintroducing alleys into the development vernacular. Peter Calthorpe writes:
In areas where walking is to be encouraged, streets lined with garages are undesirable. Alleys provide an opportunity to put the garage in the rear, allowing the more “social” aspects of the home to front the street. Streets lined with porches, entries and living spaces are safer because of this visual surveillance.
But how did we get to this point, when alleys are still sort of taboo and must be defended? Why did alleys pop up in the first place? And why do some cities have alleys and others don’t? The answer is, of course, history.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Plant Hardiness Zones Updated

The USDA has released an updated plant hardiness zone map, based on climate data from the past 30 years. The map, based on average minimum winter temperatures, is used by gardeners and growers to determine which plants will thrive at a given location. It was last updated in 1990. In addition to better representing our current climate, the new zones are also more precise, accounting for subtle elevation changes, urban heat islands and effects from bodies of water. Not surprisingly, warmer zones are creeping northward.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Downtown Groceries

At roughly the turn of the millennium, people began returning in earnest to live in American city centers, after 50 years of urban flight (and urban blight). Young adults and baby boomers have been particularly attracted to the amenities, lifestyle and lower-maintenance dwellings that city centers have to offer. Living downtown means being steps from great restaurants, nightlife, public plazas, and cultural offerings like museums and concerts. Developers responded in the last real estate boom, augmenting downtown skylines with shiny condo towers. But one staple of modern living has been slow to join the downtown migration: the full-service grocery store.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

US Secessionist Movements

In grade school history class, we all learned about the Confederacy seceding from the US during the Civil War. But did you know about the Absaroka secessionist movement of 1939? How about Forgottonia, where western Illinoisans were upset about not getting an interstate highway? Or the latest movement, Baja Arizona?

Urban Mapping has assembled an interactive map of 29 American secessionist movements that have bubbled up since colonial times.

In addition to the Confederacy and Forgottonia, I had only heard of the Jefferson and South Jersey secessionist movements. My father was a card-carrying member of the latter movement in the early 1980's. I think he still has the t-shirt.

Cool map, except for one glaring omission...Where's Cascadia?!

Check it out: 

Monday, January 16, 2012

World Subways at Scale

Here's a great link referred by friend and planning compatriot Emily Picha: Simple line maps of 44 of the world's rapid transit systems, all shown at the same scale. It's interesting to see both the area covered, and the geo-spatial strategy employed. Some have hub-and-spoke arrangements (Chicago), others add circular routes (Berlin, Moscow), and yet others are veritable spaghetti bowls (London, Paris).

The scale of the Paris network looks a little off (too small), but I have no supporting evidence. Either way, one thing's for sure: North American rapid transit networks pale in comparison to many in Europe and Asia.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Urban Form of Mining Towns

Jim Thorpe, PA. Photo: author

19th century mining was rough. The earth was split apart with pick axes and dynamite with little regard to the aftereffects. Workers died daily, or died later from toxins lodged in their lungs. Immigrant groups were treated poorly, especially Chinese.
But somehow, 19th century mining left a legacy of beautiful towns with some of the best urban form and architecture in America, from the Appalachians to the Sierras. How did this come about? My theory: It was the convergence of three things: money, necessary compactness, and architectural trends of the time.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Carbon In, Carbon Out: A Tale of Two Maps

Two different federal agencies released fascinating and consequential maps this week. Together, they tell the story of how we spew greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, then get the help of trees to soak them up. Unfortunately, this process is not a closed loop, and carbon emissions continue to outpace our planet’s ability to compensate for them. It’s one of the most troubling, complex and controversial issues we face. But for now, let’s just look at the maps!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A Tall Place to Call Home

Trivia question: In what US city will you find the tallest residential building west of the Mississippi River? (And this can include mixed-use buildings that are mostly residential.)
Is it in Los Angeles, our nation’s second largest city, and home of the tallest building of any kind west of the Mississippi?
Is it in San Francisco, courtesy of the fairly new One Rincon Hill South Tower that juts 641 feet above the Bay Bridge approach?
Is it in Seattle, located on the isthmus that squeezes available land for new homes?
Is it in Portland, where regional land use policies encourage dense infill development, and naysayers fret about all of us living in condo towers?
Is it in mile-high Denver?
In Dallas or Houston, where Texans like it big?

Kafoury and Rall on the Federal Transportation Bill

Multnomah County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury and Transportation for America organizer Chris Rall teamed up for a thoughtful editorial in The Oregonian about the upcoming federal transportation bill reauthorization. While lawmakers will likely just kick the can down the road a year, it will be interesting to see how an eventual new transportation bill shapes up. Some in Congress want to get rid of bike/ped and transit funding, or even do away with federal transportation funding entirely. Can you guess which party they belong to?

An Ode to the Townhouse

town house  1 a city residence, esp. as distinguished from a country residence of the same owner  2 a dwelling, typically two-story or three-story, that is one of a planned complex of such, often contiguous, dwellings: also town’house or town’home’  n.
While my usually-trusty Webster’s New World College Dictionary offers woefully inept definitions of the townhouse (#1 harks back to 17th century England; #2 reminds one of suburban Maryland), you get the picture. Or if you don't, here's an actual picture:

Townhouses in Old City Philadelphia. Photo: author

Friday, January 6, 2012

Pictures of parking lots

Here's an interesting photo series from the New York Times. Thanks to Terra!

At some point, I will expound upon parking on this blog.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

New Seasons coming to N Williams Ave

KGW reports that a New Seasons grocery store is coming to the vacant, three-acre lot bounded by North Vancouver Avenue, Williams Avenue, Fremont Street and Cook Street in Portland's Eliot neighborhood. This is big news. The site has been a gash in the fabric of this historic neighborhood for years, especially after the early-20th-century Wonder Bread bakery was demolished in 2007. Mayor Sam Adams says the store will be part of a larger redevelopment that includes affordable housing. I haven't been able to track down any site plans or other related information.

It will be interesting to see if gentrification concerns arise as they often do in this historically African-American neighborhood. Feelings are still a little raw over the traffic safety project that unintentionally pitted mostly-white, mostly-younger cyclists against mostly-black, mostly-older residents that lived through decades of urban renewal demolition. I'm hoping that, in this case, everyone in the neighborhood, regardless of their background, can agree that New Seasons will be a tremendous improvement over the existing hole in the ground. Even if they sell soy, coconut, rice, almond and hemp milk to vegan hipsters. (For the record, New Seasons is my store of choice - there's one a block from my house - and as a lactose intolerant, I am a consumer of said milks. I am a walking Portlandia episode.)

Does anybody have more details on the project?

Google should move some city centers

Google’s advances in online mapping are virtually unmatched, from being the first to provide easily accessible color aerial photography, to the amazing utility of StreetView. As Google continues to fine-tune its maps, here’s an idea that planner geeks would love: Google should make sure that their city center locations - the pushpin symbol that shows up when you type in a location like “New York, NY” - are truly at the hearts of those cities.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A Bolder Vision for the Tacoma Light Rail Station Area

Preface for non-Portlanders: The 7.3-mile Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail will connect Downtown Portland with the southern suburb of Milwaukie. Construction began last summer, with an opening slated for 2015. It is the region’s sixth light rail project in the modern era. The line will have two stations in Portland’s Sellwood neighborhood, home of Yours Truly. A station at SE Tacoma Street will be the southernmost in the neighborhood, and also the southernmost in the City of Portland. Portland’s light rail lines are also called MAX, for Metropolitan Area eXpress.

The coming of the Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail to Sellwood brings the opportunity to revitalize, and perhaps completely redefine, an underutilized portion of the neighborhood: the McLoughlin Boulevard (Highway 99E) corridor between Westmoreland Park and the Springwater Trail. The current prescription - a park-and-ride lot and continued commercial zoning - does not do justice to the possibilities for this favorable location in close-in Portland. Worse, it will force MAX riders to walk a quarter mile through a no-man’s land to access the station. I think we can do better, in the form of transit-oriented development that (a) revitalizes and adds value to an underperforming section of Sellwood, (b) supports the billion-dollar investment of the PMLR, (c) fits our regional goals of saving farmland and open space while promoting infill development, and (d) creates a safer, more comfortable experience when accessing the station.

MAX is slow. And other findings from a comparison of 15 rail transit lines.

One of my major takeaways from Public Transportation class in grad school was this: A successful transit system provides a careful balance of accessibility, speed, frequency, reliability and quality. Which factors are most important depends on who you ask. For someone with mobility challenges, having a short distance to a transit stop is obviously critical. For a harried downtown worker, super-quick travel times might be just the thing. For a free-wheeling teenager allergic to planning ahead, it may be the ability to hop on frequent transit without checking a schedule.

Welcome to CityRegionNationWorld!

Hello, friends, family and other residents of cities, regions, nations and worlds. Welcome to the first blog post of CityRegionNationWorld, a forum dedicated to thoughts on urban and regional planning, transportation, land use, economic development, architecture, urban design, the environment, and other tangentially related topics, including, occasionally, politics. And if I'm hungry, maybe food.

Prior to this post, I've enjoyed sharing my thoughts and fostering discussions about these issues through Facebook "notes", and by commenting on other blogs. I will continue to do both, while using this blog to reach a potentially wider audience.

I chose the name CityRegionNationWorld not just because cool words like Planosaurus and Urbivore were already taken, but also because we are all residents of each of these four geographic constructs. Even if you live on a distant, pastoral farm, you still have a town listed on your mailing address (even if the USPS shuts down your post office). You most definitely live in a region. The Corn Belt, perhaps. Or maybe the Pine Barrens. Or the Willamette Valley. We reside in, are originally from, or identify ourselves by a nation (sometimes multiple nations for more interesting folks). And until we build Biosphere 3 on the Moon or Mars, all 7 billion of us are stuck on this beautiful blue planet with all its wonders and problems. The cities, regions and nations of our world are increasingly interconnected through technology and trade. I hope that we can learn from one another, especially in how we accommodate, feed and provide economic opportunity for an ever-ballooning population.

You may have already read my next post, on transit travel times. But I spent a darned lot of time on it, so I'm sharing it again! Beyond that, I look forward to sharing more thoughts and observations, and more importantly, getting yours. Enjoy!