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 . . . .

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Noodling People, Farm Land, Cool Videos and Thanksgiving

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 bloggers who are 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.
Why People Move – Not Answered
I came across this very cool interactive display from Forbes. The map shows, down to incredible detail, the in- and out-migration from every county in the United States, all based on the most recent census data. CLICK HERE. Click on a few counties, your choice, and try and figure out why anyone would want to move there or for that matter leave. Enjoy.

Recovering Farm Land
There is an old adage that says, “The last crop ever planted, is a house.” Well it seems that recently a lot of land that had been under option, or even outright ownership, by developers is going back to farmland. In an article in the Wall Street Journal (11-14-11), by Robbie Whalen. HERE  Sorry about the nasty subscriber thing but these guys do have to make a living. There is also another interactive series of maps about housing demand and land reversions also at the WSJ. HERE

All the News Ain’t Good
During a time of bad news occasionally it seems like piling on but there was the Chevy Volt catching fire (seems you have to drain the battery after a crash – it might catch fire later) HERE . Then there is the ongoing High Speed Rail debate. They can debate all they want, but like the Super Committee and the budget, the costs will only keep going up, and up, and up. Throwing your hands up and giving in won’t make it free or cheaper. HERE  and SF Gates Politics' Blog.

A Year In New York Video - Must See
Again Aaron Renn (see left column below) has found another great video. While I have not spent a great amount of time in New York City - HERE VIDEO (great story by Andrew Clancy), it’s nice to watch the work of a man that does love NY.

And Lastly if You Love Cities Video
Dominic posted this excellent video on cities (I picked out Chicago, Toronto, LA and a few others), Timelapse- The City Limits. I hope you have a very good screen, you just have to watch it full size. Very cool. 

And what is it about Vimeo and the extraordinary quality of their videos.

And Finally Thanksgiving - A Few Turkeys
Here are two very disturbing videos of that celebrate the holiday; the first reminds me of the old SNL video The Bass-A-Matic. Click HERE if the video doesn't work.

And without a doubt the greatest: “WKRP in Cincinnati: Turkey Drop.” Sadly Fox has decided to shut down any unauthorized version cut from the original and you have to watch the whole show but if you click on the bar to the 18 minute mark its starts – go HERE FOR HULU VIDEO.

Stay Tuned . . . . .

Friday, November 18, 2011

We Ain’t Moving Much and We're Worse For It

In an article posted earlier this week CLICK HERE, the Census Bureau reported that only 11.6% of Americans moved between March 2010 and March 2011. This is down almost one percentage point from previous year. In 1984-85 46 million people moved residences. Last year’s figure was 35 million people. People and their families move for hundreds of reasons: new jobs, divorce, marriage, transfers, moving from college, moving into your old bedroom at home. Each and every one is personal. That’s still a lot of rental trailers and moving vans, yet not nearly at the level of mid-eighties.

What was also noted in the report was that there has been a serious declined in the mobility of homeowners. Well that’s a huge surprise! It seems since no one will buy our current home, we just sit tight (until the market turns) and put off buying that dream house we have always wanted. You know the one: it doesn’t have a leaky roof that needs repair, it has an extra bedroom for the kids, and it can hold both cars in its garage. Yes, the collapse of the housing market has forced many of us to stay put.

We have been a mobile nation since the Pilgrims washed up on the proverbial rock in Massachusetts. Since that day we have packed up and moved every seven years according to some demographers. William H. Whyte in his 1956 book, the Organization Man set the basis for the modern family and its never ending pursuit of the American Dream. We Americans had to move to move up.

This amalgamation of Americans, this stirring of the pot, if you will, created both a nation of strong individuals but also a nation that grew more tolerant. If you and your neighbors just arrived in a brand new community, you had to get along and become more understanding to succeed. You joined arm and arm with your neighbors. This new trend of staying put and not moving seems like a form of agoraphobia. Much of this has been forced by the collapse of the banking industry (or most certainly the lending portion). This does not bode well for our future. We can easily become Balkanized, intolerant, and forgetful. The worse part of this may result in regionalizing this country into inflexible economic groups distrustful of other regions, jealous of their success, fearful of their demands (their debt among other things), and intolerant of their leaders.

The sooner we get out of this mess, burn through the foreclosed and empty homes, and push our kids out of the back bedroom, the better we will be. American’s must “Man UP” and take control. Not like the lackies camping out for free in every large city, but more like the partners down the street who are gambling everything they have on a new restaurant or the techies who wake up in the middle of the night with brilliant ideas and are going to find a way to make them work, and the young couple who won the immigrant lottery and are opening a new dry cleaners – these are the people I’d bet on.

Stay tuned . . . .

Friday, November 11, 2011

Not Enough Words

Sometimes in the blogosphere we get caught short for words. Today is no exception and I have to be short.

For the last few weeks I have been downsizing my office from 5500 square feet to 1200 square feet. And my goal today is to finish. A little paint here and a new graphic there and I’m done. Then we can put back up the demising wall I took down five years ago.

This has been cathartic. Boxes of old files from dead projects line the walls (all marked extremely heavy). More boxes are full of those expensive magazines we professionals feel compelled to subscribe to yet, after one reading, put on a shelf – they are boxed and ready to be gone.

This weekend we'll look at a new and larger storage facility for the boxes of files and records, that of course, will never be looked at again. I’ll leave them to some guy to find in some future episode of Storage Wars.

But this has been a chance to really shrink my carbon footprint. Everything is easily 60% smaller, even my own office – command central is half the size it was. Smaller conference room (took two leaves out of the table), sold a bunch of stuff, and only four computers are left from the original twenty-four. Cathartic, yes cathartic. Then back to work!

In addition I am also caught short for words that describe today’s holiday. Veterans Day was formerly Armistice Day that memorialized the end of World War I.

Veterans Day, formally Armistice Day, is an annual United States holiday honoring military veterans. It coincides with other holidays such as Armistice Day or Remembrance Day which are celebrated in other parts of the world and also mark the anniversary of the signing of the Armistice that ended World War I. The signing took place at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 with the German signing of the Armistice. (wikipedia)

We have much and many to thank for their sacrifice of both family and for some their lives. It has become sadly irrelevant and irritating to some Americans of the commitment of a few to our safety and the world’s peace. This is sad, very sad. The great wars of the last century are passed; we can hope that only smaller wars lay ahead. But one thing is certain, our soldiers will always be there to defend us and deter those who wish to do us harm.

Stay tuned . . . .

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Biggest Boondoggle – High Speed Rail

If you have been following my blogs (and thank you), you know that I am adamantly against the California High Speed Rail (HSR). Since my first HSR post HERE, I have tried to point out its irrelevancy in this day of independent transportation (the car and bus) and high speed transportation (the plane). The current state of heavy rail (Amtrak) is a joke outside of the dense urban areas of San Diego/Los Angeles and the Bay Area corridors from San Jose and Sacramento. There is a lot land between the two regions and to think that our transportation problems will be solved by building an incredibly expensive new system is a politician’s pipe dream. They even have the airport singing their song since the state and the environmental rabble won’t let them expand as they all need to do.

In reality the HSR system is a parallel to the airline system that has developed since World War II in California. The proposed HSR will do nothing for all the hundreds of thousands of residents up and down the state that will have to accommodate the new tracks and trains. It will have to bypass most of the cities in the Central Valley since they will only slow the train down and where they do pass through town they will inevitably cut them in two. But these HSR boosters will not be deterred!

Yesterday new numbers were announced that send shivers down the backs of the already heavily taxed citizens of the state. The LA Times has a great summary article HERE that highlights the growing resentment to HSR and its effect on hundreds of landowners down the state. It has grown from the initial $33-billion, to $48-billion, to now $98-billion, and it hasn’t even started construction. I guessed at least $100-billion last November and I now believe that it will cost twice that amount, that’s at least $6,000 dollars for every Californian. Insanity has found a home.

Don’t get me wrong, I love trains and the trip from London to Paris on their HSR is the highlight of a European junket. But look at the state of the economies of these countries that built these trains. They are even lumping France into the problem states of Spain, Italy, Portugal, and of course Greece. In 1932 Ballyhoo magazine printed a cartoon by Ralph Fuller that had the caption “Tch, tch! What a way to run a railroad!” HERE Since then the phrase has been twisted and revised to effectively say “They don’t know what they’re doing!” This applies, quite appropriately, to the California High Speed Rail Authority as well.

We do need regional trains. We need to expand the current rail infrastructure such as BART in the Bay Area, and Southern California’s anemic Metrolink (41,000 riders per day in a region of over 22 million). BART carries 341,000 per day in a population that is less than third of SOCAL. BART takes people where they want to go. It even goes (finally) to the San Francisco Airport and an extension to Oakland’s airport is coming.

It is estimated that BART costs about a $100-million per mile, but that’s because we nibble at it, five to ten miles at a time. With a greater expansion to the system in one long phase, costs would go down.

Imagine what extensions to Tracy in the east and Gilroy to the south would accomplish. How many thousands of cars would be moved off the highway? How much growth would be supported along these connections? Just look at the last thirty years along BART’s various lines and the impact that the stations had on these towns. It is impressive.

It’s my belief that Californians want a rail system that supports the region they live in. Not a system that they might, once or twice a year, use to go north or south. We do not need a tourist train. We need train systems that support economic growth, facilitate growth outside of the dense and congested urban cores, and add to the vitality of the surrounding communities. Period.

Stay tuned . . . .

BTW: For last Christmas I posted a simple story about a visit by Sally to Santa and his helpers, I offer it again since Christmas is only 50 shopping days away. Enjoy!  CLICK HERE