Friday, June 29, 2012

Noodling Florida, Moses, and Housing

The Designer Class Just Went “Poof”
Richard Florida is the darling of the urbannistas. He declared through a couple of his books (The Rise of the Creative Class) and hundreds of speaking engagements (nice gig there), an important contributor to the revival of urban neighborhoods is the in-migration of artists, LGBTs, designers and professionals. This group, The Creative Class, would save these urban areas and change how we live in cities. In an interesting and thought provoking  article by Frank Bures of the Twin Cities’ new magazine Thirty Two, he challenges this whole concept GO HERE. While a fan of the concept, I wonder if there really is enough of these ‘successful’ creatives to really make a difference and why they would even go to some towns on the cool list?

Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal (6-26-12)
Two interesting articles are posted there. Back when I was a young planner I fell into The Power Broker  by Robert Caro (he is the author of the ongoing multi-volume saga of Lyndon Johnson). In this book I met Robert Moses, a man who more than any other individual in New York City’s history physically changed it. For better or worse his goal was a city for the people and the people be damned. This interesting take on the man, in an article by Thomas J. Campanella, is how Moses was also a bike guy – “a keen advocate” of the two wheeled device. Go here for an interesting take and New York’s attempt to become a Paris-like “free bike” paradise. GO HERE 

Housing Made in China
The world of housing and politics got larger, much larger. In this article and video by Dinny McMahon and Robbie Whelan, GO HERE  they alert us to the fact that Lennar Corp (3rd largest American home builder) and China Development Bank (large bank in large country) are in talks for a large loan of $1.7 billion to help jump start two San Francisco based projects, Hunters Point Shipyard and Treasure Island. Both these projects are in difficult straits and Lennar needs all the financial help it can find to push these projects through and, with the assistance of a mayor with Chinese ancestry, they may have it. They have already invested too much to walk away. They are also into partnerships with other San Francisco based development companies (retail and commercial) to help get these projects ramped up. As all things development in San Francisco, I would keep a hand on my wallet and plan for how your grandchildren will benefit.

Housing Roller Coaster
Housing is up in value, housing prices drop, who really knows? People are fleeing cities and moving to the suburbs and small cities according to our keen demographer and essayist, Joel Kotkin and alternatively cities are outpacing suburbs in growth GO HERE.  What is it, and does it make a real difference? As always I am in the Kotkin Camp, demographics are the drivers of growth and change. More people equals more growth, growth begets demand, demand expands business, business expansion means jobs, and jobs means stability and stronger economies, both personally and publicly.

Never Been to Russia (with Love)
Found this time-lapse of Moscow, it is intriguing and makes you wonder what it would be like to visit:

Stay Tuned . . . .

Thursday, June 21, 2012

State and Rush – More than a State of Mind

Chicago Steaks - The Best
As an urbanist and someone who loves great street scenes and activity my vote for the best in America is the triangle formed by Rush and State Street and East Bellevue Place in Chicago. This historic Chicago district has been famous for almost a hundred years. Everything revolves Mariano Park. During the week it’s a great place to lounge, read, and watch people. At night it is the center of some of the greatest foot traffic in Chicago and now you know why it’s been recently tagged the Viagra triangle. It’s what you get when you mix older rich men and younger women – don’t blame me I didn’t name it. But thinking back, its true - as the clip to the back of my head from my wife proved.
Mariano Park
Rush Street is named after Benjamin Rush a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Mariano Park was named after Louis Mariano in 1970.
From the Chicago Park District information page:
In 1970, the park district renamed (the park) yet again, this time in honor of another local resident, Louis Mariano (1906-1970). Mariano was a reporter and editor for the Chicago Daily News, and also served as associate editor of the World Book Science Year Book. He organized the annual science fair at nearby Ogden School, the library of which also bears his name. For years Mariano spent his evenings at a restaurant across from the park, holding court and seeking out stories for his North Loop News column. In addition to trees and benches, Mariano Park contains a small fountain and a Prairie-style pavilion designed by Birch Burdette Long in 1900.

Mr. Kellys - Circa 1960s
Rush Street is famous for its night clubs and restaurants as well as jazz and music. As a kid I think I had my first illegal drink in a club called Mr. Kelly’s (1957-1975). Sara Vaughan and Her Trio used the spot for one of her album’s cover art. It’s now Gibsons Bar and Steakhouse and is the place to meet in Chicago. They pour a decent drink for the price $$$ and the food is just damn good. Everyone wants to eat on the street, most of the seven or eight restaurants that front Rush offer tables on the sidewalk – lots of tables. Well dress people and expensive cars are thick and everywhere, every night we were there a convertible Bentley parked next to the park with its flashers on. One of the local beat cops (who by the way are just too cool) told me that it’s a loaner for the guy; his other car, a Bugatti Veyron 16.4, is on loan for a photo shoot. So Chicago Northside.

Carmines is a part of the Rosebud Italian group of restaurants and Tavern on Rush has the classiest sports bar on the street. An Irish pub – Dublin Bar and Grill, the chain restaurant Morton’s Steakhouse, Hugo’s Frog Bar and Fish House, Whiskey Bar and Grill, Luxor Bar, and my favorite breakfast joint, The Original Pancake House, almost round out the fare. But within blocks there more, lots more.

What makes a great street? Often it is not the paving or the street furniture, but it’s the shops, stores, and restaurants. It’s the attraction of the venues and the people (Viagra not withstanding). For my part I get tired of an overdesigned streetscape full of fancy and expensive benches and trash bins. Streetlights that go for thousands of dollars and high tech traffic signals don’t necessarily add to the mix. They just make it more expensive. It is the people and the neighborhoods and the bars and the food. And yes a Bugatti Veyron parked at the curb does brighten the scene.

At $1M+ it ought to look good!
Stay Tuned . . . .

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Current State or District of Housng

It is no surprise, at least to those paying attention, that the one area that doesn’t seem to have (if ever) a housing crises is the Washington D.C. area. The growth of government requires bodies, bodies require housing and there you have it. Inventories are shrinking and prices are rising. In an article in Builder by Jim Caulfield titled Nation’s Capital Continues to Lead Housing’s Recovery he goes into some detail about the numbers and the comparisons to the past. I’m reminded of the old line from Casablanca, “I’m shocked, shocked, there’s gambling going on here!” You think? The massive growth in government, at all levels, is driving this non-surprising phenomenon. It’s too bad that those agencies couldn't shift to Florida or Las Vegas or the Central Valley of California. It’s summed up with this:
Perhaps the best news for this market is its current inventory of available for-sale homes. There were 10,510 active listings in May, the lowest number for that month since 2005. “As interest rates remain low and demand rises, the low supply will continue to put upward pressure on prices,” the report states. “This price growth could entice hesitant sellers to enter the market.” However, the report also cautions that the listings might also indicate that many people, worried about the economy’s future, are still comfortable remaining in their existing homes.

You wonder if the legs were kicked out from under this anomaly whether it could stand. But that is an argument for another day and topic. Smile if you are a Washington builder.

In the never ending discussion to make the bottom call, the Wall Street Journal posted an interesting note from a few experts and participants in the current housing market. S. Mitra Kalita posted the article (GO HERE). While most begged the question to some degree, they were all optimistic, the end will come soon – say 2015. That means this bear market will have lumbered across the housing wasteland for eight – yes eight - years, 2008-2015 (inclusive). This is longer than the 1930+ Depression period. Sure housing didn’t really turnaround until the 1947 plus era, but then again there was a war to deal with and the pent-up demand of almost eighteen years.

A friend of mine, Gregg Logan with Robert Charles Lesser & Co. (RCLCO), sent this company missive out a few weeks ago, posing the questions as to whether the housing market still wants the suburbs (GO HERE). It has very good graphics and interesting charts, take a look. The trend is to the suburbs as it has been for fifty years, but as said in the current young parlance of “Friends with Benefits” – it’s now “Suburbs with Benefits.” 

And taking advantage of this “suburbs first” concept is Waypoint Homes located in Oakland. Waypoint buys foreclosed homes, fixes them up, and then rents them. It makes many adaptable agreements with its tenants, but what it really does is protect these neighborhoods from blight due to abandonment and lack of care by the banks. They rent over 1,500 homes and hope to grow this by ten times in the next few years. It has been in the local news this past week with its $20 million partnership with Enterprise Community Partners to help expand its reach into marginal hosing markets. Doug Sovern is his article on KCBS quotes Colin Wiel, Waypoint’s founder:
“Basically what we do is single-family rental. So we’re buying homes, renovating them and renting them out, which is our core business model, but to do it in certain harder hit neighborhoods in Oakland than where we’re currently operating today.”

This is an exciting company that saw an opportunity and built an aggressive business model that provides housing, protects these valuable assets in the market, and also gives hope and home to people who often desperately need it. This is not a “Government” program, it is an honest to God for-profit venture, and they are showing everyone how it can be done. I wish them continued success.

Stay Tuned . . . . .

Friday, June 8, 2012

The Blogger’s Dilemma

 It’s every blogger’s dilemma, all week you’re full of ideas and, for that matter, yourself, throwing off brilliant comments about this and that. Smart, crisp, erudite, pithy remarks about the state of the dark urban world and how you are the only one with a flashlight. Then comes blog day and you haven’t a clue what to write. I don’t want this to come off as an early Noodling but let’s see what I can scrape up. Most are softballs.

California High Speed Rail: NO even to stage one. But this does remind me of the story of when Teddy Roosevelt was trying to get an increase to his defense budget when he sent the fleet to the Philippines. There was only enough fuel for a one way-trip. He demanded and then got the appropriation and a little more so the fleet could return. Is this what’s happening with HSR in California, build the core infrastructure (Central Valley maintenance, and switching and a few miles of track) in the heart of California, hundreds of miles from a large urban area and then demand the rest of the money to connect the system? I’m just asking.

The Electric Car: Reality is sinking in. “Hon, time to replace the battery in the Volt, do we have enough left on the equity line?”  Replacement costs for batteries will kill the used car side of the market. Nothing is free, just ask all the people sucking up electricity at Starbucks. I’m waiting for recharge stations at Starbucks drive-through’s. And again, why is it that a government entity (state, county, city) be the ones required to install recharge stations? I would only support them if, like parking meters, they charge an-arm-a-leg for the service and make serious $$$ for the municipality. And I ask you, if you have a dealer’s lot full of Nissan Leafs, is it proper to call them Leafs or Leaves.

The rise in urban bikers: If there is one lobby that wants something for nothing it’s bicyclists. There more bike coalitions (Why that term? Biker gang has more panache.) demanding this and that than any other urban group, Demands such as new bike lanes, bike storage, parking, etc. all at the expense of other transit needs. I call for a license fee for ALL bikes in the state of California. Say $20 to start. This would be used for trails, bike lanes, and storage. It would also create a state database that would help track down your $4,000 Schwinn when it’s stolen. We license dogs, hairdressers, and landscape architects why not a fee for bikes, and that includes that cute pink one in the garage for your daughter. I had to buy a license for my bike back in the fifties in Illinois - this ain't a new concept. There will be no escape from this odious fee (I’ll be the first to call it that). Then maybe they’ll start to act more civilized as they scare the hell out of car drivers on popular bike circuits as they course through town in those hideous outfits – again the term Biker Gangs comes to mind.

After? Brown and Olive my two favorite colors!
Urban Art: Why is it that most urban art is as interesting as mud on a fence? My little town (Walnut Creek, Ca.) went through a long process of trying to find an artist or artists to redo some fountains on our Main Street. These were built years ago and did need a face lift. The results are without a doubt just lame. To me urban art is about raising ideas, honoring an ideal, or just plain fun. It should stir the soul or cause you to pause, maybe to laugh, or even think. I suggest it’s not there to make you wonder WHY? For the Main Street of a town I go for fun and interesting. The before was old and tired, the new is just, well, just lame. And it certainly, unlike the old, doesn’t welcome you to sit. Another missed opportunity, and what were they thinking?

Omaha Beach, Normandy, France
 And lastly, Wednesday this week was the 6th of June, the 70th anniversary of D-Day. Day’s like December 7th and September 9th will remain in our history as long as there are memories. This invasion of France on the beaches of Normandy changed the war and changed the course of history. To stand in the cemetery at Omaha Beach is transformative, to look over that huge width of beach from the bluffs, you wonder how anyone survived. Take a moment and thank those who gave up everything for us. For them failure was not an option.

Stay Tuned . . . .