Friday, October 26, 2012

What Really Matters?

First and foremost: GO GIANTS

The state of California is in a terrible state. According to the last count only three people in the whole state completely understand the new budget, one is the Governor and he is having a difficult time explaining it to his constituents, the other two live alone and nobody knows who they are. For the past thirty years school initiatives passed as well as those for fast trains, highway expansions and save the universe bonds. Californians have grown weary of the state’s perpetual begging and badgering and no longer believe the politicians, teachers unions, environmentalists, and the news. This may be an electorate who says no to everything this year. “Governor, go pound sand.”

More than once I have pointed to the incredible number of associations, departments, commissions, and agencies that seem to proliferate at the state level. No department is immune. Many are at cross purposes, all cost money. And the streets still fall apart, kids can’t read, and more and more people are out of work.

This is not the blog to find answers; if I knew the answers I would bottle it and sell it on street corners (with a license of course, I’ve applied but still waiting). Besides no one listens anymore – it’s all shouting and finger-pointing, then when they lose, they go away and sulk. But they will return, bet on it.

Let’s just look at one example, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA for short). Forty years ago its goal was simple; analyze a proposed project so that all the major issues are set before a city council or county supervisors for a more educated approval or denial. If has morphed into a huge industry that fundamentally says to most developers “No way, no how.” Due to the volume of paperwork generated for even the smallest project, no one reads the reports, no one understands them, and what is more important, nothing gets done due to the potential for lawsuits. Even now litigation is built into the planning process. Not on the document itself but on “how” the document was produced, and its scope, and its facts. CEQA on CEQA.

Huge developments and projects (from residential to industrial) take years to evolve and get built, many go through economic shifts (like the last four years), they never turn out as they are planned. These projects become instantly out of sync with the approved Environmental Impact Report (EIR). Thus, is there any value in the document itself? What is its purpose then? Is it worth the costs? I can assure you that every nickel spent on an EIR is passed on to the consumer through higher and higher pricing.

It’s all about consultants and experts, in fact a whole industry - with little or no culpability - has grown serving these interests. To my point, just have the governor announce that CEQA should be thrown out and a newer and more streamlined process will instituted that quickly looks at a project and then allows it to move forward. Stand back, the screams from state agencies (water quality, traffic, etc.), Sierra Club and other environmental groups, as well as NIMBYs, NONONOs, and other special interests will cause deafness. The system is broken and BandAids won’t do the job.

The legal world just loves CEQA and EIRs. This process and these documents become so convoluted that only $500 an hour attorneys understand them, just get six in a room and listen to their opinions – none will agree. It is supposed to be a factual document, based on real science and real calculations, phooey. Much is opinion and speculation based on extrapolations the greatest computers couldn’t calculate. And if it is a “pet” project, they try circumvent the process, such as the High Speed Rail’s attempt to avoid CEQA and “speed” things up. Welcome to our side of the street.

It is now a process that is fundamentally structured to hobble or squash concepts and projects. Whether a new town, affordable housing, gas extraction, high speed rail, highways, and even solar projects – go figure. The defenders say that the courts have continually been fair and just when reviewing these claims. Now that is the problem in and of itself - if the process were fair and just, these documents should not have to be decided in court. Years of lost time and money are wasted in the courts.

A new process must be developed to assess projects. Do I believe that this can happen? No. Do I think that the various special interests will give up their assumed importance? No. Do I believe that the state will find a way to make allow things to happen again? No. Do I believe we are a long way from building and growing ourselves out of our problems? Yes.

Why do you think in this state “shovel ready projects” didn’t happen? The EIR wasn’t and it still isn’t finished.

Stay Tuned . . . . .

Friday, October 19, 2012

New York, New York

Grand Central Station

There is much in this world we don’t understand. Things like: Why does gasoline go up fifty cents overnight? Why with full airplanes, they don’t add more flights? Why newspapers get thinner and thinner when there is obviously more and more news? Why my stocks go down when the market goes up and conversely why they go up when the market goes down? And lastly, why do so many people like New York City?

I am a provincial soul from California (actually Northern California). Here the weather and the politics are mild, pot in some form or another is legalish, restaurants open and close with regularity, and we believe in the tooth fairy, earthquakes that never happen, and that actors make great politicians. Ho-hum.

Take America’s number one or two vacation destination (depending on the poll), San Francisco. Wonderful weather, cool afternoon fogs, bright days, pleasant winds; when it rains it is soft with little insult. Streets are moderately clean as are the people. We are a melting pot (gruyere cheese please) of nationalities, refugees, languages, and apartment dwellers. It is never difficult to find some minority group in the Bay Area that represents a country that has had some sad unfortunate event occur in their home country, if there were refuges from Antarctica, there would be three families living together in an abandoned walk-in freezer south of Market Street. We take everyone.
A Little Bit of Heaven!

And now back to New York!
We non-New Yorkers are pummeled nightly by shows about New York. CSI New York, Person of Interest, 2 Broke Girls, Suits, Blue Bloods, White Collar, Mad Men, Law and Order (and the whole never ending series), and many others in all too never ending syndication. And don’t even start with movies and reality shows. As we walked the streets of New York, I thought I had been there before - like last night.

We were staying an elegant hotel near Central Park, good to great restaurants within blocks, but, good-God, meals were tough to keep below $125 for two – and we tried. Now I know, if you’re going to New York you expect this, everything is expensive. But it is made up for by the very, very, inexpensive baubles (designer handbags, scarves, Rolexes) on the street – so I guess everything balances out.

It is crowded, swanky, low-brow, high-brow, glittery, schmaltzy, stylish and plain, overrated and underrated. From the still under construction Ground Zero Memorial (which will take your breath away), to the top of the Empire State Building (millions and millions have gone before), it is a place of large scale thoughts and dreams. It is also tired and worn-out neighborhoods – East Village, Greenwich Village, SOHO, all showing empty store fronts, closed restaurants, and busted sidewalks.

Wall Street Bull with Admirers
It is a four story town with skyscrapers, like your mom looking over your shoulder, staring down on you while you do your homework or listening while you talk with your girlfriend. It is tourists with folded maps posing as targets for hippsters, hucksters, and hooligans. It queues waiting for the next hop-on/hop-off bus. It’s twenty-somethings (seems to be the dominant demographic) wandering about with the latest styles or the latest knock-offs in a bag. It’s hip-hop dancing on the street corners and horse drawn carriages. It’s the last place in America where men wear suits when they go to work. It is where retail comes and goes so fast the streets are perpetually covered in scaffolding. It’s a clean smelling city after a rain – not like San Francisco when it is ripe from a long rainless summer. It’s a thousand tourist’s rubbing the bull on Wall Street’s balls and having a Kodak moment. It is Chinatown where some haven’t left its twenty square blocks in years and play mahjong every day – rain or shine. It is the Hudson River side with parks, bikeways, and cruise ships. It is Bryant Park, Central Park, Washington Square, Battery Park, and Rockefeller Center, each saying much with just two words.

The Cascade at Ground Zero
And it is the Ground Zero Memorial with its twin central square cascade pools that seem bottomless and eternally deep.

New York City’s intensity is something, I guess, that you have to be born to, like an English Manor. It is hard, very hard, to walk in on. Too much information, too much noise, too much, much. I understand that it is a rite of passage: high school, college, degree, the West Village. Something for your resume, something to tell the grandkids. San Francisco is like that; I did that, for twenty years, and then decamped to the suburbs. Others are still doing it today (part of the reason for SF’s almost 10% increase in rents during the last year).

New York Checklist:

  • Did I enjoy the visit? Yes.
  • Did I eat and drink well? Yes.
  • Was it interesting? Yes.
  • Would I recommend it to my friends? Depends on the friend.
  • Will I go back? Yes, sometime.

Stay Tuned . . . . .

Friday, October 12, 2012

Housing is Boring – Trains are Not

Old Topic
I have a stack of reports on my desktop on the rosy outlook for housing. Even Las Vegas is showing signs of recovery. But please, stop already. I believe that every newspaper, trade magazine, and housing blogger (Et tu, Brute?) is looking for housing articles and lights at ends of tunnels. Sure housing will turn around, it HAS to. As I have written before it is just plain demographics and the current affordability of housing. Why wouldn’t housing sales go up with low prices and extremely low mortgage rates – some now as low as 3%.

So housing is boring. Is that shimmering glow on the horizon the nascent sun, giver of life? No, it’s the latest housing statistics from the feds. So please, just stop. It is worse than predicting the rise and fall of the stock market based on the fight plan of a flock of crows. So please just tell me once and while – like at the end of the quarter. I really don’t care what the affordability is in Kansas. Kansas of all places – home of rainbows, tornadoes, and munchkins. So please stop. I will try to follow my own ruminations and keep housing on the back burner for a while. No thanks needed.

Acela by Amtrak
New Topic
I have for the better part of two years beat the High-Speed Rail in California over the head with anything I could find: old railroad ties, lengths of steel rail, and stiff necked politicians all in an effort to find some reality in the notion of flying across California's Central Valley at 250 miles per hour. But your humble blogger here has had a small epiphany, but like a good politician I will not change my stance on the 100 billion dollar two-rail boondoggle underway in California.

We were traveling from New York to Boston just last week and took the Acela train. Now I know you Eastern-Seaboarders just role your eyes over us California provincials (with great justification), but I have to admit that the train is very cool and the most surprising thing is that it works. We left on time and arrived on time. It flew along the rails at what felt like speeds of almost a hundred miles an hour (it has gone to 150mph according to Wikipedia). It extends to Washington D.C. on the south and Boston on the north. It is one of the few Amtrak lines that make a profit. In fact (according to Wiki) the two lines (fast and local) through this corridor provides half of Amtrak’s total national revenue.

Trains are a heck of a lot more enjoyable than airplanes – especially today. United Airlines and other carrier’s economy seats were redesigned by a group sponsored by the Spanish Inquisition. After five hours in one of their seats you would confess to sleeping farm animals. Trains have wide aisles, you can actually watch your luggage from your seat, they serve free drinks (in First Class – which really isn’t worth it), and they actually deposit you in the heart of the city. Gee!

I know, I know, I have challenged the Cal HSR for years, and will continue to do so. We can’t afford it, period. No more than I can afford a Bentley GT Coupe (my favorite automobile), just because I want it doesn’t mean I will get one. Why doesn’t the governor try real hard to fix the current track alignment and equipment of the Coast Starlight that goes to LA along the coastal corridor. Make it work like the Acela (use the Four Season Hotel model of customer satisfaction) – everything is there – especially the most important element, people. It currently carries 1/10th the traffic of the Acela and makes less than 10% of the same revenue. Sadly the reviews tend to show the service and scheduling to be less than acceptable (actually awful) and this is biggest reason for its poor reception in California (GO HERE).

As any hotelier can tell you it is the service and the respect for your guests by the staff that is paramount and in the case of travel, adherence to schedules as well. But without competition or alternatives people will drive or fly. Governor don’t try and fix the problem with a new train – fix the old one.

I actually enjoyed the Acela experience (I’ll slap myself later).

Stay Tuned . . . .

Friday, October 5, 2012

Cool Urban Videos

The darker the room the better!

Vancouver, B.C.
New York, City
Guess the Cities

And the Whole Ball of Wax (especially the lightning)

Enlightened Architecture
And if you have the time some ramblings by one of America’s greatest architects and urban philosophers.

Stay Tuned . . . .