Thursday, May 31, 2012

Home is Where the Heart Is

A Typical California Land Abuser
In last week’s newgeography (HERE) Wendell Cox pointed out that a survey taken by TD Bank (HERE) found that 84% of 18 to 34 year olds want to own their own home, and since that dream is impossible in most urban markets, that also means they want to move to and/or live in the suburbs. That crying you hear are the true-believers who honestly believe that the world will come to an end if we continue in our profligate suburban adventures. These crybabies currently run the California senate and assembly and have brought us all the fun laws such as SB 375 et all. This law is an attempt to push housing (i.e. Californians) into denser and denser neighborhoods, thus justifying fears about sprawl, inefficient mass transit, and air pollution. How any of these can be deflected by passing a law without forcing the costs of growth to rise is a head-scratcher.

Housing should not be an experiment. California cities and counties for almost a hundred years have been doing a reasonable job of managing growth and development. With very few exceptions they have dealt with the changes and the demands that success has forced on them by a growing population, delightful climate, energetic citizens and innovative companies. Now the state wants to have its say. And it’s scary.

While the current housing market is troubled, it is only temporary. The housing overhang is reducing and there is an obvious shift in choices by the residents, but you cannot allow the graph curve to drive long term policy. While apartments are currently in demand – that won’t be forever. Just like single family housing that was overbuilt for any number of real or imagined reasons, the curve will change. Markets are funny that way. But to pass laws based on a spot on a graph curve is just plain wrong. That means at some point later, on the same curve, another law will need to be passed to correct the earlier mistake. But then again that’s what politics is all about, I guess.

I have seen reports that the younger citizens want apartments and then they don’t, they want to live in the cities and then they don’t, they are staying single and they’re not. Mortgages scare them and they don’t. The Baby Boomers are moving out and no one can afford their homes, huge crises. Boomers are staying put and putting a strain on housing availability. Apartment prices are climbing and so are rents, then again fifty miles away they are not. The younger generation, in small towns, is leaving but then again when was that a new concept? To think you can lay a blanket of law over all this is not just foolish, but expensively foolish.

Growth is critical to small towns even when they fight it. A community cannot age in place like its residents; it must continue to reinvigorate itself. We all share in the benefits that our communities develop, theaters, libraries, farmers markets, street fairs, organized sports for kids and adults, senior facilities and the like. But the community must continue to evolve and accept changes in the marketplace. When the all-knowing state government comes in to make you change to their idea of Utopia, then we all have problems. Who does the community need to please – the state or the local resident? It also means that these state planners have too much time, staff, and money on their hands. A small step toward a more balanced budget?

Stay Tuned . . . .

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Noodling Basketball, Chinese, and Hitchcock

The New Warriors Area on the Embarcadero in San Francisco
The Warriors New San Francisco Arena
In the wild world of enclosed stadiums and event centers, San Francisco, with the help of the Golden State Warriors (perennial losers in the NBA) is in the beginning rounds of the ongoing war between franchised cities for sports teams. The Bay Area is rife with these battles. The 49ers are moving to Santa Clara, the A’s are trying to find a new home after messing with at least three small Bay Area cities, and now the Warriors. I have to admit the location is incredible and the interaction between the SF Giants spectacular and now 12 year old AT&T Park will be energizing. As an addition to the urban environment for more than just basketball it will be intense and I won’t have to go to San Jose to see Springsteen. Every Bay Area environmental group is mustering their troops. Here’s more to read (GO HERE)

Chinatown – Michigan Style
A Chinese group is planning a residential community near Ann Arbor, Michigan. It’s just 400 upscale homes for Chinese immigrants – key words upscale and immigrants. The rumors must be true that the upper crust of the new Chinese rich are planning to flee may be true. Here’s a great idea for many American cities, offer new communities for the Afgans, Persians, Iraqis, France when is collapses, and new Greektowns (Detroit already has one – with a casino). Like “New” England in the 1600s I can see New Spains, New Italys, and maybe even a New New England coming. I can just imagine the architectural styles. (GO HERE)

The Ongoing Housing Mashup
Here’s an article form Builder on the latest information on housing. 
 They say:
New-homes sales were up in April with a 3.3% gain over March’s figure and were 8.5% higher year-over-year for a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 343,000, according to data released today by the Department of Commerce. The improvement surpassed consensus expectations, which had pegged April’s number at 335,000.

Drill down to the sad fact that the projected growth is anemic by most standards; it will be a long time before housing becomes the engine that will drive us out of this current malaise. (GO HERE)

High Speed Rail to Nowhere
It doesn’t help your cause when you begin to call the opposition to your cause right-wingers. It’s sad when it reaches name calling (then again there’s been mud-slinging from both sides). The California High Speed Rail Blog (very, very, unofficial) starts out:
The right-wing initiative to kill the California high speed rail project was approved for circulation last week…..  (GO HERE)

Now is that any way to form a consensus, and when you review the comments, you’ll know why. Channel 4 NBC in LA has another take. (GO HERE).

And to make it work they will have to avoid many of those pesky environmental laws that we all have to suffer under. (GO HERE)

For the latest update in Wikipedia for the HSR (GO HERE)

Hitchcock Redux
I was reviewing my Vimeo site and noticed that they had posted three of their top videos listed for awards, I recommend this one – it’s very cool and is a different take on the great suspense movie Rear Window.
Click The Image
 Rear Window Timelapse (if you can download it)
Here’s the URL

Stay Tuned and Have a Great Memorial Day

Friday, May 18, 2012

A Gauntlet in the Shopkeeper’s Face

An Entrepreneur Preparing for the Approval Process

Graphic by LeiaMAC
The gauntlet has been thrown by Jerry Brown at the face of the California business community, he has fundamentally said, “Pay up or I will hole the ship of state and we will all go down together.” As a believer in the market forces of competition and growth I am embarrassed by all of this politicking and finger pointing. It’s like Gordon Gecko in the movie Wall Street, but in this case it’s the state government saying, “Greed is good.”

The only way the state of California can get out of this mess, and many other states as well, is to grow out of it, not kill the goose that lays the eggs (at whatever price gold is these days). Bureaucracies, by their inherent DNA, need to control and manage what is set before them, whether it’s fishing licenses or building permits, traffic flows or general plans. And each of these requires staffing, directors, and funds. And if the funds aren’t there, then fees. During my many years as a planner and urban designer I have seen a set of plans for a simple single family house, on an approved lot, go from being approved over the counter to a six month exercise in futility, frustration and fees. I have seen loved communities designed and built in the 1950s in just months; now just the planning and approvals take four and five years before the first grader hits the site. I have seen derelict quarries in desperate need of recycling into better uses, destroyed through votes of the people – people who have nothing vested in the outcome.

Call me Pollyanna. I know there are solutions out there, and they will come when we are desperate enough. The state needs to not just adjust regulations and ordinances, it needs to abolish them, and they will, just wait. Throw them in the political landfills they so adamantly protect.

Growth will only come from the entrepreneurial class, not the big publicly traded retailers and manufacturers. It is these dreamers that will pull the state out of the mess we are in. It is the pizza shop owners, the corner grocers, the nail salons and hairdressers, the trendy new shops for shoes and clothing, the burger joints and the other poster children seen on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. It’s the growth of small businesses that will make all the difference. It’s in the desire of almost every immigrant that came to this state, now free from the massive regulations and corruption of their native home, to start a business. Indian videos, Persian treats, Islamic religious art, sushi restaurants and taco trucks, most started by immigrants – everyone employs people, everyone pays taxes, everyone moves the state forward. 
Guy Fieri, the face that helped launch a thousand businesses
I’m reminded of a story I read years ago as applicable today as then. Four very rich men where asked how they would invest $50,000. The first said CDs, the second, more aggressive said the stock market – blue chips, the third said treasuries - you can’t go wrong. The fourth paused and thought for another few seconds and the said, “I would go to the Houston airport, stand outside the international terminal and lend it to the first Korean immigrant I met.” It has been this way for centuries; unfortunately this is being destroyed, especially in this state. We are being burned at the stake by the public unions and civic projects. Enough.

Taxes must be paid and collected, they are critical to the operation of every road and port. And some regional facilities must be subsidized (hold one moment while I slap myself), like transit, safety, and fire. But when taxes are used to slow or even stop growth they are wrong. A businessman would as soon move his new company out of state than pay a tax that is unfair. And Mr. Brown is being very unfair, he using extortion to please the bureaucracy.

Our urban areas are under very dire threats from shifting demographics, age issues, and changes in buying patterns and habits. Yet communities throw barricades up and then these capitalists shrug and go somewhere where they are wanted. Marin County’s loss of a Lucas Film soundstage may be Vallejo’s gain. What retailers and manufacturers decided that Texas was a better business climate than California? We will never know, they don’t write back.

As an example I’m trying to get a number of apartment complexes built in the Bay Area. One is being sued by the carpenters union over environmental impacts (yeah, like that’s the reason), another is faced with approval fees that make each apartment cost almost $40K more – with no benefit. And the utility hookup fees to these units are running over $15K each - for the privilege of paying your monthly water bill forever. And the stories about building code inspectors and delays are legendary. We can’t build our way out of this mess without the removal of obstacles. But each obstacle has its political champion, its director, its staff, its fees and its holy ground. It will be a long and difficult road.

Stay tuned . . . .

Friday, May 11, 2012

Venice - You are on My Mind

Rialto Bridge - Inspired theaters around the world!
The magical city of Venice has been on my mind recently – a lot in fact. First of all it is a central focus of my new Sharon O’Mara Chronicle (see books left and right) where she confronts evil doers at the Guggenheim Museum (Where does she hide that gun?), to the America’s Cup races that will be held next week just off the quay at Piazza San Marco (GO HERE) (the Naples races were just fascinating), to a wonderful video that my friend Aaron Renn found and posted on his Urbanophile blog. It is posted last in this week’s column - just so you won't get distracted.

Venice has no other urban equal in the world. It is a city that has inspired plays, books, art, music, casinos, wars, copycat development, and tourists.

Wikipedia says:
The name is derived from the ancient Veneti people who inhabited the region by the 10th century B.C. The city historically was the capital of the Venetian Republic. Venice has been known as the "La Dominante", "Serenissima", "Queen of the Adriatic", "City of Water", "City of Masks", "City of Bridges", "The Floating City", and "City of Canals". Luigi Barzini described it in The New York Times as "undoubtedly the most beautiful city built by man". Venice has also been described by the Times Online as being one of Europe's most romantic cities.

Well, duh! You can always count on the NY Times.

Venice is unique. There is no other city compares to its location, drama, history, and charm. It’s also a business and glass manufacturing center, it has a commute, albeit by ferry making its rush hour a bit different. It is a rabbit warren of narrow alleys, canals, piazzas (piccolo e grande), and magnificent plazas like Piazza San Marco.

Antonio Vivaldi was born there, Igor Stravinsky is buried in its cemetery Isola di San Michele (along with poets Pound and Brodsky whose ghosts argue about Fascists and Communists).

Unlike other European towns, Venice has not radically altered it appearance to meet the demands of the modern world like London (Old City/Canary Wharf) and Paris (La Defense - see below). While a small town with only 270,000 souls on its 118 islands (60,000 permanent residents in its Centro storico) it swells daily during the tourist season by 50,000 or more. Residential prices have climbed to such heights that many are moving out – it's too expensive to live there. Historic preservation makes fixing peeling plaster a building permit issue. Studies on its inevitable sinking into the Adriatic are stacked twenty feet or more (they might make excellent pilings at some point). Everyone who comes to this village leaves refreshed and amazed – it will change your perception on urban issues and design.

 Separated at birth!

Venice, California (1905) was one idea – run canals through a real estate project – sell lots – make millions – it did. In the 1920 the great urban designer John Nolan was hired to plan Venice, Florida, which also sold lots but with a decided lack of canals. Writers have written about Venice and made it a character in their own books (moi aussi), this website is an excellent list of just how many books (hundreds) have included it (CLICK HERE). I have been told there are interesting canal cities in China and elsewhere but please, can you name them? Just try and find Suzhow on your map.)

The creation of a new community is difficult at best, many need to marinate and have time smooth the rough edges, fix the flaws, fill in the holes. Two millennium will help. Try to build a new city is just crazy – ask China about their new and ultra-modern empty cities.

Venice is about details and images, it is a village with flaws (graffiti on roll-up shop doors invisible during the day, not so much at night) and pollution (a lot of diesel fumes in the air), but it’s also pots of flowers from balconies, a rare tree here and there, wonderful food, and a singular sublime texture not found elsewhere. Maybe it’s the lack of the ubiquitous Vespa roaming in gangs in every other Italian city, or the traffic, or the tour buses. Maybe it’s also the silence, a great urban environment that is quiet – amazing.

Here is the video from Joerg Niggli - let it load first before you start!
If it doesn't load CLICK HERE

Stay Tuned . . . . .

Friday, May 4, 2012

Alert: "Benjamin Franklin Awards"

Just wanted my readers to be the first to hear that my novel ELK RIVER (see right) was selected by the IBPA (Independent Book Publishers Association) and its Benjamin Franklin Awards as one of the three best books in its category, LGBT,  for 2012 (there is an important part of the book that focused on one of the character's gay relationship). The Benjamin Franklin Awards will be in New York City on June 4th and my publishing team and I will be there with fingers crossed.

I will also be in Traverse City, Michigan for a book event at Horizon Books on June 15th in the afternoon for a reading and book signing.

It is these little and very big things that keep us writing.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

La Defense and the Future of Grand Urban Plazas

On Wednesday, May 2, the Wall Street Journal posted an article about the business center of Paris, yes there is one for those visitors who have not gone over the hill and down from the Arc de Triomphe (GO HERE). This business complex called La Defense, sits on the city’s western edge and includes a collection of glass enclosed uber-buildings that flank its grand plaza. As stated in Wikipedia, it is where “statements of corporate ambition can be made,” hyperbole intended. It might sound better in French.
Central Plaza
This complex is now faced with three new towers that will dramatically affect the view, as well as the perception, of Paris; even the proposers are worried about how their clients and customers will see their attempts at make a signature statement about who they are in this historic city. And the residents of Paris are taking to the battlements to ensure that they will be heard. It’s all so Parisian.

I was never a fan of this urban complex. It is over blown and has none of the charm of the rest of the city just over the hill. It is about 400 acres with 3.5 million SF of office space, more than 150,000 employees and 20,000 permanent residents. There is retail (of some kind), hotels, and smatterings of monuments and sculpture. What really takes the visitor’s breath away is the central plaza, all 3.3 million square feet of flagstone and sidewalks. These huge plates of stone laid in an undulating grid pattern, when I was there, rocked and tilted as you walked the plaza, quite unsettling I assure you.

La Grande Arche (finished in 1989 and a homage to the original Arc de Triomphe), is the central structure and in line with the Champs-Elysees. The arch has a grand stair under its arch that at most times, has hundreds of people sitting about, many, I’m sure, trying to understand the space. Under this massive structure are rail links and metro stations; just remember that the Louvre is just a few Metro stops away. It contains government offices.

I’ve used some images from Wikipedia and other sources, my photos are slides (shows you my tech at the time I was there, lost the images from the second visit – apologies). The contrasts are spectacularly unreal, walk through Tuileries, grab a seat on the Metro, and then rise into La Defense, you would think you not only changed centuries but planets as well.

The New Towers are on the 'Photoshopped' Right
Successful urban plazas are difficult at best, time may heal them or perspectives and scales change as buildings grow and tastes alter. The biggest challenge is economics and approvals. Either can kill the effort. These new buildings, the Phare Tower with 70 floors and the Hermitage Plaza Towers (2 and Russian backed) at 86 floors (and a tad shorter than the Eiffel Tower), will be some of the tallest buildings in Europe. The need to build taller is worldwide, so just get on the band wagon and go for it.

Stay Tuned . . . .