Friday, October 28, 2011

Out Migration and California, The Naysayers May Bite Their Tongue

Due to a book event at the Oakland Convention Center today, where I will be shamelessly shilling my books at the Windsor Hill Publishing booth, I will defer the next Noodlings blog to next Friday. There is much to noodle.

So today a short post and a reprise of one of my past blogs.

California bashing is always in vogue and with the current high profile antics of the mayor of Oakland and her dithering with the Occupy crowd (my convention today is two blocks away), the silliness with the Dodgers and the ongoing divorce (from the fans as well), and Governor Browns attempts at changing the pension system for state employees – no wonder we Californians are scratching our collective heads this week.

But due to the economic realities of the day less California citizens are packing up and fleeing. Even the usual bash source, the New York Times, has to admit that out migration has slowed to a trickle (HERE). In the article California is shown to have reduced its outward migration 201,000 in 2005 to 71,000 in 2009. My guess it’s even lower today. But remember that the state has averaged a net growth per year since 2000 of 400,000 people, even with the outflow. We are not getting smaller.

My first blog this year posted a broader picture of the current state of the state. It’s reposted for your enjoyment, such as it is.

January 7, 2011

A Tale of Two States Separated at Birth
The population of California in 2010 reached 37,254,000 souls. This is a 10% increase over its population in 2000 or about 4 million people. We are ranked 13th in national density with 239 citizens per square mile (it’s a big state and there's lots space between us – except of course where you live). The state is projected to have 42.2 million people in 2020 and 46.4 million in 2030 (government projections - take them as you will). If these new 9 million people were to form their own state it would rank as the tenth most populous in the nation.

Today the majority of Californians, in fact the far majority, live within 50 miles of the Pacific Ocean and in fact, more like 30 miles. This coastal population is almost 25.7 million people with the split at 8.1 million north and 17.6 million south, a two to one split. The state has 163.7 thousand square miles. The 30 mile band of coastal paradise may not total 11,000 square miles, less than 2% of the state’s area. California will grow over the next twenty years by almost ten million people and is projected to grow to fifty million by 2050, this growth equals the current population of Los Angeles and Orange Counties combined.

This missive isn’t about the differences between the north and the south, culturally they are so similar (outside of some snooty northern Californian’s opinions about LA), that the discussions about their potential separation are moot and in fact, humorous. The real and most tragic difference is the cultural, economic, and educational extremes between the coast and the rest of the state. Sure there are pockets of charm and financial strength in the rest of the state, but these are extremely small and survive on the largess of the coast. It’s now a story of east and west, the haves and have-nots, the self-appointed elites and the desperate, the disconnected illegal and the prosperous patrician.

This coastal band of counties and cities have built bulwarks around their communities and pulled legal shrouds over their collective heads and, as a result, forced development needed to supply the basics for this incoming generation of residents into the rest of the state. This has been the natural course of American growth in the latter part of the twentieth century, like it or not. Remember cities, with few exceptions, only plan for the future, they do not build. Their exposure is to paper and maps, not to wood and steel and the marketplace.

As I have noted before in other blogs, the coastal communities must, in fact, welcome more people into their communities – period. This must be through changes in underlying zoning and density, increased height limits (the maximum four story structure must be put to rest), expansion of roads and infrastructure while at the same time increasing efficiency and standardization. The marketplace and the strength of the economy will determine whether residential development is rental or ownership, this buy/rent relationship will always be in a state of flux. The real issue is the unit itself and where it is built.

I came across Victor Davis Hanson’s blog called Two Californias the other day that brought this home in a new and frightening way. I have planned and designed communities throughout California for the last thirty years and Mr. Hanson’s observations about the Central Valley and the coast strike close to the heart. I have worked in these Central Valley communities, planned their neighborhoods, and listened to many city councils - all desperate to improve their small bit of California. But now within the state the strength in the soul seems to be slipping, an acquiescence to fate, a palpable bitchiness, and an almost tribal fear resulting in paralysis is growing. Gangs are now moving into suburban areas, meth labs are found throughout the countryside, and a real dumbing down of the population during a time of a manic need for education. There is a need to grab on and hold tight – the Golden State needs a new sunrise.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Zuccotti Park and the OWS Crowd

An interesting challenge faces city planners and urban designers: At what point do you have to say that a plaza or square is too big or for that matter too small. With the occupation of Zuccotti Park in New York by the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators, I’m sure there are park designers going out their minds while being seriously disappointed. Now is this any way to treat a park?

Zuccotti Park was initially created in 1968 by United States Steel and called Liberty Plaza Park. It was built to gain a height bonus to the steel company’s headquarters and led a quiet and reasonably uneventful life until the morning of September 11, 2001. The park was heavily damaged in the 9-11 attacks and the sad clean up after. It was restored and renovated by the current owners Brookfield Office Properties, the park was named after its current chairman John Zuccotti.

The park was reopened on June 1, 2006 after an $8 million redesign by Cooper, Robertson and Partners. Mr. Zuccotti was also a former City Planning Commissioner and a deputy mayor under Abe Beame. It was and still is, obviously, a popular tourist location and its location near Ground Zero makes it a comfortable destination. But there is the rub.
Zuccotti Park, New York
Being a private park in New York it is not necessarily subject to the usual city public park curfews and regulations. The NYPD cannot expressly prevent protestors from the park, it is a private matter, except for its very public impact. In fact it is required to be open 24 hours a day. There are no public services and the current sanitation problems are, well, interesting. A good rain would probably help. The trees, only a few years old, I’m sure, are having great difficulty dealing with the press of people, tents, urine and whatever. A crush of people has impacts, whether for fun or protest.
Occupied Zuccotti Park

The Hotel at Zuccotti Park
When the park was reopened in 2006, it was a diagonally designed pedestrian park with hard granite surfaces, a dramatic floor of lit glass panels, and the urban scene's most ubiquitous tree, an orchard of honey locusts. But this is New York and the plaza sits to the north of tall buildings, light will always be at a premium, stiff breezes will not be. To be honest, I have not visited the redesigned plaza, my last visit to lower Manhattan and Ground Zero was in the fall of 2004. Much has changed in this part of New York, much.

I have great respect for Cooper, Robertson and Partners and their take on urban design and planning. Go HERE to get a sense of the park before its takeover. It was the 2008 AIA Honor Award winner for regional and urban design.
Zuccotti at Night - the light floor is just great!
Our public plazas and parks, especially those in dense urban areas, are subject to politics and abuse. They recall history by their names, Berkeley’s People Park, Boston Commons, the National Mall with its numerous demonstrations and celebrations, Central Park, Golden Gate Park, Embarcadero Plaza, Jackson Park, Grant Park (1968), and so many others figure in the national rhetoric and conversation.

So now that I have put a face on Zuccotti Park, it’s my hope that the damage will be slight, that repairs can be made (on so many levels), and we can then move forward.

Stay tuned . . . .

Saturday, October 15, 2011

On the Waterfront

I am doing research for my next fiction work that primarily takes place along San Francisco’s waterfront. I am spending a fair amount of time there: walking, eating, and of course drinking. Waterfronts intrigue us - beaches, marshes, the littoral edge between the land and the sea. Biologists tell us this is where life may have begun and it’s still the source of much of the life in the sea. But we humans can certainly change it for our own use. Piers, wharves, docks, harbors, jetties, breakwaters are just a few of the words we use to describe our efforts to access the lakes and oceans. We probably have as many words for our waterfronts as Eskimos have to describe snow. But words are just that, words. It is how we physically treat this edge that concerns me and this week’s missive.

Now, after a year and a half kind reader, you know I am a lover of cities and things built. But is pains me when politics trump good design and progress. San Francisco’s simplistic belief (eventually codified in law) that only waterfront-oriented things should be allowed along San Francisco’s edge (especially within the urban areas) shut down waterfront development for a good chunk of the past forty years. No shipping container industry (see Oakland), no hotels (see Boston and Miami), no cruise terminal (see Vancouver and Miami), only the endless wall of empty warehouses from a bygone era now used as parking lots and storage. San Francisco Bay is seen in flashes as you drive down the Embarcadero. Chain link seems to be the favorite decorator item. There is embarrassing kitsch, some of the worst and best, in the “Fisherman’s Wharf” area, that suck a few dollars out of tourist’s pockets – but then again it does parallel some of the reality TV shows we American’s watch.

But then, like a mugger, the 1989 Earthquake struck. There used to be, like Seattle and Boston, a freeway between the City’s urban core and the water. For years the City fathers and mothers argued over taking it down, their excuses were legend and now humorous. God, acting as the ultimate city redevelopment administrator, fixed the problem and changed the debate. It became the catalyst of a wonderful waterfront north of the base of the Bay Bridge.

The Giants, San Francisco’s World Champion baseball team, argued and fought to build a downtown stadium, political futures were won and lost in this debate, as well as millions of dollars. Now this incredible waterfront stadium (sixty homeruns have landed in the Bay) host’s football games, operas, motocross, as well as 81 National League baseball games. The growth along King Street is short of miraculous. I remember thinking about buying a warehouse in this area back in the mid-80s, was something like $150 K; what is it worth now? Again, it is this vision thing.

Mission Bay is turning the lands south of China Basin and King Street into a modern wonderland of bio high tech and housing straddling Third Street, a new waterfront park is proposed, plazas and urban development stretch for a mile and a half south of AT&T Ballpark. The wars fought were legend, books will be written.

Now with the upcoming America’s Cup, more changes are going to be forced on San Francisco’s waterfront. Deadlines are a wonderful thing. For better or worse, grand redevelopments that need to meet an unchangeable deadline push the envelope and the politicians. The Olympics and World Trade Fairs fall into this category. And now, again for better or worse, so does the America’s Cup. For Pete’s sake it’s just a silly sailboat race between very, very, very rich people sailing waterborne suicide machines. Seventy-two foot catamarans built of high tech carbon fiber, with bulletproof sails, and pushed by software. They fly (literally) thirty miles per hour or more, and crash in the most spectacular ways. And they will change the waterfront even more.

And I am in favor of it. Just like the collapse of the Embarcadero Freeway in 1989 and the opening of AT&T Park (PacBell Park then) in 2000, the impacts of grand plans (or disasters), change the perspective of a city and its view of itself. And maybe, just maybe, we will see more of the Bay when this is all done.

Stay tuned . . . .

Friday, October 7, 2011

Where are the Buyers?

A curious, perplexing, and ongoing development in housing is the absolute dearth of buyers. The chattering class tries to figure out where they have gone, commentators expound on the merits of home buying (as if shills for the industry), and the never ending commercials on cheap interest (for qualified buyers) for home buyers rakes ones nerves at 6:30 AM. And interest rates are at 3.85%. But if there is one thing certain, those interested in buying a home, especially a new one, are hiding.

Everyone knows why you buy a house. Or do you? Think about why you live in the house you live in now. You bought it for which of the following reasons:

  • No more landlord
  • No more people walking on your ceiling
  • You are no longer single and can afford it
  • Your family has grown and four people in one bedroom just doesn’t work
  • You need the tax deduction (such as it is)
  • You want to have greater control over your lifestyle
  • No more parking costs
  • The American dream
  • You want a garden
  • You want your own castle
  • and
  • You know that this can be an positive investment and for a small down payment (assume 20%) you can leverage the that into a significant profit at some point in the future (fingers crossed). 

What we are going through is not new. There have been ups and downs in the world of housing for years and this too will pass, even with all the pain. There will be this  ongoing period of confusion and distrust, followed by tentative buying, then followed by a short period of normalization, whatever that is.

But there is one thing that I am sure of; there will be serious inflation in home prices within four years. Due to the lack of new homes serving the marketplace (and that market continues to grow at the rate of over one million buyers a year), we are running a serious deficit. The demand continues to grow and that demand is not being met, some estimates put the shortfall it at over 750,000 per year – in three years, with the current growing backlog, that’s 4.5 million buyers. Not unlike post war America in 1948.

Yes, the apartment market is growing now, good for the marketplace and builders, but these apartments are not where most of the homebuyers are. Most apartments are in urban and dense suburban markets. They are also intentionally being built to one and two bedroom standards – very few are family oriented, especially for three children families.

One of my favorite movies is Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. Released in 1948 (see above) Cary Grant (Mr. Jim Blandings) finds their New York post war apartment too small for his family of four. Myrna Loy (Mrs. Muriel Blandings) goes along with his dream of a home in the country. It gets out of hand, becomes too expensive, but in the end they are successful – everyone should watch it. (Click HERE on how to pick colors) My point is that we have been here before and will be here again.

There will be a time when builder stocks will be climbing like 1998 tech stocks. The push will into areas never faced with inflating prices, such as the newly discovered gas and oil rich areas in North Dakota and Pennsylvania. They will be where the jobs will be: Texas, the Southeast, major cities, and even (against what some pundits are calling– stick a fork in it - dead) California. Be patient, stay with your folks just a few years more, then get in early. It will be a bumpy ride.

Stay tuned . . . .