Thursday, January 26, 2012

We Are All Getting Old

Is this our Future?
I have been personally involved in the senior housing industry since my days in the Urban Land Institute (ULI). I was there to help set up the Senior Housing Council and, for almost five years, was able to tour senior housing projects across the United States. I have designed and developed site plans for active adult communities (like the Del Webb Sun Cities), assisted living facilities, and even more complex CCRCs (Continuing Care Retirement Communities), memory care, and other attendant facilities.

But until you are faced with the real issue of a loved one who must be placed in one of these facilities I had no idea about how difficult and complex this process is. It usually begins with a traumatic event (stroke, heart issues, hip/leg breaks, etc.) and time in a hospital emergency room. Then you and your loved one go through a complex process of vetting the type of care they need, then where best to get that care, and then where will they live. Insurance issues, Medicare, medical needs, therapy, and on and on and on. These are steps none of us know or understand. Each step is one of trust. And through this ordeal I have met some truly dedicated people who testify to this trust and take us step by step through the process.

The Baby Boomer generation is over seventy million strong and bracket’s ages currently from about 45 to 65 (we can quibble but this is where the demographic is thickest). Every one of us will, at some time, require access to and need for these facilities. There is as much to learn as when you buy your first house, or get married, or have those kids (who you hope will be there to wipe your chin, if not, it’s $30 an hour). The learning is best done prior to having to wait in an emergency room at 2:00 in the morning on a Friday night.

And the cost for all this is incredible. I joked with someone about three days into this event, I’m turning into a socialist! It seems that Medicare (thanks G. Bush) will cover a substantial amount of this because of the age of the patient – but somebody still has to pay. And that somebody is us. I can sternly wave my libertarian three-cornered hat about, but when you might have to face a bill of over $40,000, even Dr. Ron Paul has to understand this can destroy families.

This blog is about urban issues, Cogito UrbanusThink Urban. And these facilities are integral to our urban future. There is no greater concern by every citizen approaching retirement age than: “How the hell can I afford this? Where will I spend my days when a wheelchair is my only way around? Where will I lay my head and how much help will I need to take a pee? Will I end up in a warehouse full of old people, like me?”

And most start at about $3,000 per month plus special needs, and if you are fortunate to live twenty or thirty years in one of these facilities that is a lot on money. The best way to keep costs under control is build more facilities, competition is paramount (aAnd they employ a lot of people).

These facilities come in all sizes from group/guest homes to multimillion dollar Palm Springs communities. They are wanted by communities and cities as an important part of their urban fabric and social support.

For our part, we were lucky and with excellent guidance we have successfully moved through each stage of care. But a permanent home is still ahead of us; therapy will determine many of the patient final needs. As much as she would love to dance on a table again those days are past, but we all deserve a comfortable place to grow old.

Stay Tuned . . . .

PS. We will Noodle next week.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Rules, Rules, Rules, and Frank Lloyd Wright

I have always wondered about the never ending growth of planning and development rules and regulations. There are so many of these death-by-a-thousand cuts ordinances, that it is hard today to point to one, wave a wand, and say, “Be gone with you!” At times you just want to throw the baby out with the bath water and start over.

In the development game (and it is a game, trust me), there are proposals, counter proposals, reviews, and plans. There are general plans, specific plans, regional plans, ordinances, zoning rules, and codes. There is CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act), EPA, Cal/EPA, Fish and Game, Fish and Wildlife, Army Corps of Engineers, and the California Water Resources Control Board (watch out for this one – it may become the most powerful), and hundreds more.

Every project in most states, from a room addition to the development of a new city, is required to wade through some approval system so that it is properly sanctioned for construction. This is understandable, everything bumps up against everything else, these agencies and their approvals help to reduce the friction and potential conflicts that may arise in the future. But, at the same time, it takes someone with the skills of magician to pull the proverbial rabbit from the approval hat. Often, I feel, it is more an effort of tribute (fees) than triumph (approval).

Today we clothe our projects in all forms of environmental garb to deflect and hide the real impacts of a project. “Look, we are going for LEEDs Gold, aren’t we special (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). We are more than willing to develop a project well in excess of reasonable costs, just so we can get our approvals. Look at our grass covered roof, our solar panels, our windmills, or quadruple thick glass windows, our electric plugs for vehicles in the garage. You just have to approve us. We play the game well!”

But the project is still steel and glass, uses millions of gallons of water, throws off like amounts of sewage, consumes electricity, and requires employees (and their nasty cars). The impacts are no different (except by very small degrees) than a more realistic project across the street that is more practically built. But don’t we feel better and we just missed going Platinum LEEDs by not using bamboo flooring, damn.

The practical aspects of zoning and planning laws allow our cities to look to the future and shape how they see themselves adapting to changes in economics and population. They help to anticipate infrastructure needs and replacement. In some ways they also respond to the need to protect the value of properties and equity. This all important aspect of planning affects all of us to one degree or another. Lord knows we all don’t want to live next door to a gas station or McDonalds.

After this current economic mess sorts itself out (trust me, it will but it still won’t be pretty), I am concerned that we will try to increase the governmental oversight even more than we do now. Economies grow and shrink; this is the nature of the business cycles we face. In real estate the rules of supply and demand are rigorously enforced by the marketplace. These rules are not negotiable contrary to what government agencies think; just ask Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac how’s it going? Passing more control to these agencies is just plain wrong.

Do we have enough rules? Are our homes and businesses well protected by building codes? Do we need more layers of approvals, agencies, and codes? Just because we can, should we?

During my short tenure at Kent State in the architecture program in the 1960s we took a field trip to see Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece in Pennsylvania built for the Kaufmann family. It is also called Fallingwater and by most respected and unrepentant architects and designers, the most beautiful and delightful house in America. It is a monument to scale, site, design, imagination, and poor construction (it leaked, a lot). But class, there is also one very important element to remember:
Fallingwater - Frank Lloyd Wright
There is no way this building could be built today. Every local, state, and federal planning agency would give it a thumbs down. To our collective shame!

Stay Tuned . . . .

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Way It Was

We continually dream of the good old day days. When the sky was blue and the spare the air days were few (I do love the smell of wood smoke in the evening, it’s the smell of history), traffic jams, Twinkies, and no head rests and seat belts (yes Virginia, even no air bags). Our cities had lower profiles, but the politicians had bigger egos – think Mayor Daley (the first) and Robert Moses (New Yorker planner and builder). But in the 1960s things began to radically change. The Great Society was now in full throat, HUD was now a political force – not just a Paul Newman movie, redevelopment was crushing and grinding its way through cities, saving us from ourselves. Freeways were beginning to slice up the urban cores, trolley cars were disappearing and the streets turned over to the more flexible bus. And jet travel now allowed us to get to Paris from New York in less than six hours – a trip, not eighty years earlier, that might have taken six weeks. Change, don’t you love it.

A great friend, knowing my proclivity for all things urban, sent me a URL of a half-hour color newsreel he came upon. It is San Francisco in 1955 as it might be approached as both a tourist and resident. All the high points are here (and even more surprising they are all still here). This was the City before the 1960s, the Embarcadero Freeway was yet to be built (then knocked down by the 1989 earthquake), Playland at the Beach was still spinning (now housing and a Safeway), the cable cars were still climbing to the stars, and the same signs that today hang over Alitio’s at Fisherman’s Wharf were there then. Please click or post the URL in your browser (finish this piece first then pour a Irish coffee, sit back, and watch).
Alcatraz and Aquatic Park

Our cities are giant petri dishes where everything is thrown into the agar and heated up. We wait for the results, not sure what will really happen. High rises and skyscrapers, HUD (again), low income housing, transit, neo-traditional planning, vertical retail complexes, sustainability, LGBT issues, bicycle coalitions, the environment, the homeless, crime, poverty, immigration, marinas, high-speed rail, parks, the Occupy Movement, politicians and Donald Trump. Where to start, where to stop.

The history of cities is a story of piling on, like at the end of a football play (it is the playoffs, like the metaphor?) that continues long centuries on after the whistle blows. America is young; our piles are not that interesting . . . yet. But in Europe and China the piles are thick; in the Middle East they are legendary. James Michener’s The Source is a delightful and revealing saga of an Israeli tell, or pile of an urban football game. Layer after layer is peeled back revealing not just history but the character of a people, our ancestors, us.

In the left column I have posted a shot of Ephesus in the current country of Turkey. It was at one time Greek then Roman then forgotten. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, Mary the mother of Jesus had a home there (it is said), but during an earlier bout of global something, this seaport town was left high and dry some three miles inland. No port, no jobs, no way. For all intents it disappeared, it is now left to history and tourists (but I do have to say for an urbanist, as I walked those streets, I can still hear the sounds of the marketplace, the great theater, and I still see boats moored to the long stone quay).

I ask what will San Francisco and Chicago and Des Moines leave to our ancestors in two thousand years? What will grow in their dish of urban agar?

Stay Tuned . . . .

Friday, January 6, 2012

The California Shell Game – Where’s the Money

Last week the California Supreme Court effectively killed redevelopment agencies in the state of California. I won’t bore you with the legal niceties and the hand wringing. For a good summary go HERE. But what it definitely is is a tax and finance grab by the state (with court support), as if these agencies have bags of money stuffed in mattresses across the state. The future development activities and partnerships of over 400 cities and counties, through their use of these agencies, is now effectively dead. Billions of dollars and thousands of projects are up in the air, some well along toward approval and some even completion. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

The insatiable maw of the state government needs feeding, no New Year’s diet resolution here, no cutting back now. Let’s just pull up to the Redevelopment table and feast well on the beast. Empty their bags of money on the table, push the dollars here (schools) and there (pet projects). But this largess will run out; then what?

The liberals point to the new dollars going to schools, but at the same time are concerned over the loss of money for affordable housing (and if the agency is dead – what money then?). The few Republicans in Sacramento may even be delighted that this evil tool of rapacious government is gone, no more taking homes for private development with the wink of the Redevelopment agency. Quite a quandary: Damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Seems everyone is happy, I guess.

But one function of these agencies was the ability, like the traditional shadchan (Jewish marriage broker); to put land and builders together. Sometimes these marriages failed other times they were wildly successful. How else could you assemble tens if not hundreds of disparate private properties into a whole that is developable? How else could you find lost land owners and, with a strong vision, assemble these properties into a project that the city would greatly benefit from? Sure the developer could spend millions doing it but there was no promise of a successful outcome. One or two properties could kill the opportunity.

Remember that these agencies paid market rate prices for the land through appraisals. I know there were excesses and frauds, but for the great majority these projects were successes. I remember working in Stockton, on its immediate south side, where hundreds of properties and buildings were derelicts, each was a separate purchase. The Stockton Redevelopment Agency helped to assemble and evaluate these buildings. It was a monumental task, ultimately nothing happened; the assemblage would cost more than it would be worth, especially in Stockton. But the agency was there to help.

All sorts of fictions are created to support one’s own viewpoint. In this morning’s Wall Street Journal there was such an editorial (HERE).  After a cute beginning they jump and down with excitement that there is “a rare note of economic sanity in this overtaxed, overregulated state.” That’s easy to say from their perch in New York City. Which pot is calling which pot what? They swing for the political fences with the old canard of eminent domain takings for such developments as stadiums and shopping centers. A search of reality is in order, there were thousands of successful projects across the state, I can only think of a few stadiums and other projects that fit their examples. I worked on a blighted and toxic site (extremely toxic) in Union City that, through the efforts of a great many people, turned into a wonderful, market driven, housing project that won the Award for Excellence for Community Revitalization. Without the Union City Redevelopment Agency it would still be a toxic hole in the ground. There wasn’t a shopping center or stadium in sight. And remember that many of these sites generated little or no taxes before their redevelopment.

How cities move forward with redevelopment and replacing aging infrastructure, outmoded buildings, and land uses remains to be seen. No statewide alternatives were put in place before the hand grenade was pitched into the room. Every city, county, and agency is holding meetings trying to figure out what to do. Most if not all redevelopment personnel will be out of a job. How's that for job creation? and I'm a damn believer in Austrian economics.

These are some of the worse times in real estate and development. The collapse of the capital markets and the failure of businesses (and the loss of employees) has decimated many downtowns and counties. We will work through this but the loss of an experienced urban agency leaves much in the air. And instability at this time does not help the marketplace either.

This destruction may have impacts on the funding for affordable housing and the creation of jobs. But these arguments are touchy-feelies and hand wringing. For my part, governments should stay out of housing, it’s their policies that created the problem. It’s the cost of government that now is fouling the bond market creating a lack of development capital. Sadly, for better or worse, the Redevelopment Agencies helped to build California’s great cities, large and small. Now we will have to leave it to the politicians. Politicians and money, what a wondrous vision! Don’t you feel all cozy about that?

Stay tuned . . . .