Friday, December 30, 2011

Noddling eBuses, HSR, California, and Housing

Nood-ling (nōōd’lĭng) n. 1. Fishing for catfish using only bare hands, practiced primarily by crazy people who cannot afford proper fishing gear. 2. The intentional annoyance by this blogger who is skeptical of the news as it’s reported, as in “Noodling bureaucrats is more fun than fishing bare hand for catfish and a lot more surprising.” This is now an end of the month feature.

Electric Buses
In the latest foolery regarding the electric car, or should I say, electric school bus the Wall Street Journal exposed a fascinating debate over the viability of an electric bus over a diesel powered bus (HERE). While there is much to try and understand about the bus, such as its recharge schedule (easy during the day when not in use) and its “green” footprint, the fundamental issue is cost. They cost at least 60% more (for the hybrid gas-electric), the all electric is more. The premium is at least $30,000 or more for the vehicle. The fuel economy is between 30% and 65% better. To make it work, the schools need grants or fed money; ah … there’s the rub.

High Speed Rail
The costs for the HSR in California just keeping climbing. First $33 billion, then $45 billion, now $99 billion (I think they intentionally kept the published number below $100 billion). My early estimate was at least $100 billion (HERE), now the sky is the limit. It is a project that is now doomed in this financial cycle and should be put on a siding for at least twenty years. There will be finger pointing and foot stomping but at a cost of at least $5,000 for every man, woman, and child in the state it is completely unacceptable – just shut it down.

State Population
I am a believer in demographics: population growth equals economic growth. For the last fifty years California has exploded from legal and illegal population growth, and with it its economy expanded exponentially. Immigration has added significant bodies and brains to the economic mix, just look at the number of Silicon Valley firms run by immigrants. But now it’s growth is slowing to less than 1% growth per year, much of this is due to folks leaving the state (HERE). They are fleeing due to lack of jobs, high taxes, housing costs, and the collapse of the education system. California is not alone; New York and Florida are seeing the same exodus. Texas is smiling.

And Now From the U.S. Census Bureau
The U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development jointly announced the following new residential construction statistics for November 2011:

Privately-owned housing units authorized by building permits in November were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 681,000. This is 5.7 percent (±1.6%) above the revised October rate of 644,000 and is 20.7 percent (±1.8%) above the November 2010 estimate of 564,000.
Single-family authorizations in November were at a rate of 435,000; this is 1.6 percent (±1.6%) above the revised October figure of 428,000. Authorizations of units in buildings with five units or more were at a rate of 224,000 in November.

Privately-owned housing starts in November were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 685,000. This is 9.3 percent (±13.1%)* above the revised October estimate of 627,000 and is 24.3 percent (±20.1%) above the November 2010 rate of 551,000.
Single-family housing starts in November were at a rate of 447,000; this is 2.3 percent (±8.0%)* above the revised October figure of 437,000. The November rate for units in buildings with five units or more was 230,000.

Privately-owned housing completions in November were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 542,000. This is 5.6 percent (±11.5%)* below the revised October estimate of 574,000 and is 1.6 percent (±15.8%)* below the November 2010 rate of 551,000.
Single-family housing completions in November were at a rate of 440,000; this is 0.7 percent (±8.9%)* below the revised October rate of 443,000. The November rate for units in buildings with five units or more was 99,000.

While all this looks promising remember that during normal times (not the bubble period) we were averaging almost twice these numbers. And existing home re-sales are not doing much better. It is these fundamental issues of new home and existing home sales that drive the economy, growth is required along with access to affordable loans. We have a long way to go.

Book Recommendation 
I have just finished John Mauldin’s book  Endgame: The End of the Debt Supercycle and How it Changes Everything (HERE). This is one of the best books to describe what just happened, why it happened, and how we can get of this mess. Well written and easy to understand (for most parts), this should be required reading for every graduating senior in high school. It will prepare them for the rough road ahead until we reach 2020. I also recommend John’s web site, he is the best economic analyst writing today (HERE it’s FREE) .

Have a happy and safe New Year, I look forward to 2012 with excitement and trepidation, may we all be here a year from now wealthier and wiser with great stories to tell (assuming that Mayan Calendar thing doesn’t, like, happen).

Stay tuned . . . .

Friday, December 23, 2011

Merry Christmas

All of us here at
Windsor Hill Publishing
and Randall Planning & Design
wish you and yours a
Very Merry Christmas
and want to share this with

Greg and Bonnie Randall

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Getting From Here to There

There are a hundred ways to move about the urban frontier. I did a little surfing to find some of the more interesting ways to go from here to there (or in some cases – ‘hopefully’ comes to mind).

So, this is a mid-month vacation, sit back and relax. 

Ballon Races:


For some reason these wouldn't load but click on them and stand back.

High Speed Trams in Hiroshima:

High Speed Air Travel:

High Speed Parking (for the insomniacs - you provide the soundtrack):

And of course San Francisco:

And thank you for the Dibbers (whoever they are?) for sharing Christmas

Stay tuned . . . .

Friday, December 9, 2011

Returning to the Scene of the Crime

Later next week we are heading to Chicago. We have spent a long weekend just before Christmas every year, for the past six or seven, in Chicago. The excuse is to go Christmas shopping, while it’s actually to taste winter, wine, and food in one of the best cities in the world. Most of our California friends believe we are mad.

There is a tangible taste and feel to Chicago, it’s like one of the Manhattan neighborhoods, but just one or two, not the whole island. It has the greatest waterfront of any American city and rivals Miami for beachfront. Its lineal parks and harbors along Lake Michigan can be compared to Vancouver BC. Its buildings are, well, just cool. Just stand at the stainless bean in Millennium Park and watch the reflections and you will know what I mean.

The City from the Bean
Michigan Avenue, State Street, the Chicago River, the John Hancock Building, the Sears Willis Tower are all woven into the fabric of this town. Da Bears, Hog butcher for the World, City of the Big Shoulders, the Second City, White City, Chi-town, the Queen of the West (stole that one from San Francisco maybe), and of course the Windy City. A new one thanks to the Simpsons “The Miami of Canada.” You might even see a man dance with his wife.

It has led the world in architecture and indicted politicians. Its museums rank with the greatest in the world, the Art Institute, Science and Industry, Field Museum, Contemporary Art, Adler Planetarium, Shedd Aquarium, and even the Polish Museum of America (this city had, at one time, the second largest Polish population behind Warsaw). How many of its aldermen and politicians have been indicted is open to debate, but at the state level five past governors have spent time in prison (or soon will). And then there is the president who makes Chicago his hometown.

Our biggest problem is where to eat. Too many places, not enough time. Even Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, lists numerous Chicago stops – dogs, burgers, go HERE, for some idea of what the locals really think. But there are great places, but Joe’s Seafood, Gibsons, Tavern On Rush, the Original Pancake House, Carmine’s (you could easily spend a week at this corner of Rush and Bellevue and never leave a restaurant or bar – I’ve done it). 

Ditka's Steak House - Just great!
For me, my affair with the Near North Side began back with the Old Town days on Wells Street, the Chicago era of the flower children. These four to five blocks back in the 1960s were lined with head shops, record stores and all sorts of other gigs. Good jazz to the south, good grass to the north. The best pizza ever was in Piper Alley and the best cigar store, Up Down Cigar, is still there today (the current owner grew up in the shop, her parents ran it, they made water pipes in the late 60s to meet the demand). Much of the street is unrecognizable today; there is a very large Jewish senior housing project smack in the middle of where we baby boomers grew up prior to the invention of the Walkman.

I will report more when we return from our fact finding trip. Remember dear readers, I am doing this research for you!

Stay tuned . . . .

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Getting out of Dodge

I have always believed that the American citizen wants the following: “The biggest house on the biggest lot that they can afford.” Simple isn’t it. And this is in complete sympathy with the fundamental law of good economics: “The market is supreme.”

Why then are we continually bombarded and chastised by do-gooders and New Urbanists who firmly believe that we are on the road to perdition and our just end by living in single family homes in the suburbs? In Joel Kotkin’s rebuke of two op-ed pieces in the New York Times touting the decline of the suburb HERE, he chastises their tenets as “more a matter of wishful thinking than fact.” Yes it is more than wishful thinking on both Chris Leinberger HERE and Louise Mozingo’s HERE part to believe (almost over-passionately), that they will be proved right and the “fringe suburb” and the suburb itself will go the way of the dinosaur.

In both of their arguments they blame the architecture not the economics. The blame the suburbs and the unenlightened, not the marketplace. And to use the excuse of climate change is just plain lazy thinking. And Ms. Mozingo, what the hell is pastoral capitalism? I must have missed that economics lecture. After reading both Leinberger’s and Mozingo’s diatribes I swear I have been pushed back to planning classes of 1970 when Denise Scott Brown, Robert Venturi and Vincent Scully’s musings on Le Corbusier’s fascistic views on urban redevelopment and Las Vegas chic were the rage, Edmund Bacon was required reading on Philadelphia, and Paolo Soleri’s dreams of human anthills were at museums of modern art. Save the world – go vertical.

The average American (and I’m sure far more than 50%) distrusts cities. They see criminals and civil discourse. They see danger and are fearful. They see uncontrolled costs, poor management and excessive tax burdens. Sure they go into the city centers during the day to the museums and to shop but they get out of Dodge before the sun sets. That’s one part of the problem with the current foreclosure issue, fear. Many took advantage of this opportunity to escape and then, combined with stupid lending practices and the collapse of the economy; these otherwise sane people were put in jeopardy.

Urban areas have higher concentrations of voters (obviously) and where there are voters there’s politicians handing out money. Billions of dollars flow into the cities - much without reason or control. So we now have Lexus cities that can’t afford to put gas in the tank. The most current gross excess is the high speed rail that is planned between dense urban areas while ignoring the suburbs it will fly through. Transit only functions both economically and operationally in higher density urban areas, thus to believe that density is good is to justify the outrageous cost per user that will saddle the general public - who live in the suburbs. The market thumbs their nose at these ideas.

EVERY land use is temporary. Every castle, hovel, office tower, office complex, stadium, single family housing tract is temporary, it is only a matter of time. Even the billion dollar cyclotron office building proposed by Apple will be knocked down some day. Every ring of urban growth “fringe” eventually becomes an inner ring of decayed housing ripe for redevelopment Cool Example.  I have planned residential communities on lands that were once insane asylums and office complexes (don’t read anything into that statement). Well planned money goes to where there is the best return; a new freeway interchange may affect thousands of acres and foster growth. A new sewer plant allows for more effective suburban planning, while also clearing up environmental problems.

And what is urban anyway? Every planner and politician has one idea and every home buyer and family has another. The debate is not an architectural one it’s a social issue. It is a debate on the automobile and its attendant demons; it’s an attack on the politics of these suburban residents, and it’s a reaction of their collective “thumbing of the nose” toward the academics.

Yes Virginia, believe in the market and the demographics.

Stay tuned . . . .