Thursday, November 29, 2012

Noodling Housing, Detroit, and Where America is Moving

Return to “Normal” in Housing
Are we there yet? This seems to be the tag line for almost every optimistic article about the current national trends in new home sales (old homes sales, too). This article is a good snap-shot (remember those from the pre-pixel age).

And What is Normal?
In this article the authors point to a doubling of new home sales from their current level, “in the next several years.” And interesting prophecy, I throw a challenge here because there is a significant lack of planning going on to support the availability of new housing in the near future (three years or less, especially in California). It takes at least three years to plan and receive final approval for any project over one acre in size, especially if near any existing residential developments. I suggest the authors are dreaming and as a result prices will steadily climb.

The 10 Most Expensive Cities to Buy a Home
My guess this is not one of the most expensive cities.
This article, and I really love these, lists the 10 cities with the highest home prices, the author notes that only two cities are not in (close to bankrupt) California. Go figure. Now as a man who believes in the marketplace and the all things supply and demand, I’m not surprised. Yet, it is a head-scratcher and you wonder either how sustainable it is in the long term, or how depressive to business it is in the short term (housing costs vs. wages).

With everyone trying to tell Detroit what to do (and creating rancor and fear as a result), the residents are trying their best to confront the do-gooders and intellectuals using Detroit as an urban blank canvas. “Clear homes, make way for the future!” would scare any property owner hanging on by a thread. This brilliant article lays out many of the issues and planning teams involved with Detroit’s future, yet one thing is very apparent, change and rebirth will come from the bottom up, not like 20th Century planning, that forced change, hard and brutal change, from the top down.

Where Are We Going and Where Are We From? is one of my favorite urban blogs. With the talent of Joel Kotkin, Wendell Cox, and other guests it has become a touchstone on the current state of cities across the world. In this article by Kotkin, he challenges all the warm and fuzzy notions of the northeastern cities and lays out, in almost painful ways, the real changes to America that are underway. It is well worth the read and please continue to follow

Stay Tuned . . . . .

Friday, November 23, 2012

Let’s Talk Retail

Since it’s impossible to hide from the fact of this self-imposed follow-up holiday (and yes it is a holiday – since hardly anyone works today) BLACK FRIDAY, I am wondering why retail gets such a bad review these days.

Every politician and city father is desperate for a great retail-shopping season, which traditionally begins the day after Thanksgiving and runs until Christmas Eve. Now it’s anyone guess. Thanksgiving is now toast; it is like a pre-party dinner warm up and strategy session prior to the trip to 10:00 run to Wal-Mart with all the aunts and cousins. Sad.

The Occupy Best-Buy Movement
When the volume of retail dollars is shown on graphs and charts on the TV news (with hordes of shoppers queued holding small children over their heads) what they really are saying is, “See that number, multiply it by 8.5%, that’s the state’s piece of the action. More action, more pieces.” And lord knows we need more pieces.

Now that most large retailers (called big box retail for the obvious reason – 250,000 square feet of consumer bliss) have turned into strange reflections of the Occupy Movement with hundreds if not thousands camped out for a week before BLACK FRIDAY (now a week long holiday for them), all to buy stuff.

Shopping can be fun, adventuresome, enlightening, disturbing, revealing, satisfying, and confusing. Must be that hunter-gatherer thing. Bag a big-screen TV, stand with foot on the box, like Teddy Roosevelt, and show the world your prize. Take a snap with your new 8MP Android phone – send it to all your FB friends, go viral. Conquest can be fun.

But now, there is a blandness creeping in the retail scene. I used to travel to see new things, find cool and interesting stuff. Now you walk through the Macy’sBloomingdalesNorsdtrumPennySears store, much is all the same. The same stuff you will find in Marks & Spencer and Harrods in London, Bon Marche in Paris, and probably Beijing (where most of the stuff comes from anyway). So what is a retailer to do?

First they are adding living rooms and comfortable seating, “Come, stay, enjoy. Coffee? Much to choose from. Food? Around the corner. Bathroom? The finest.” Someday you may want to live here. There was a time, when I was a young designer of retail centers, the client said, “No seating! If they sit, they’re not shopping.” Now, move in, stay, bring the family, the game will be on at 1:00.

Next, concierge services. The Grove in LA (amongst others) has a drive-up valet and they park your car and will even wash it while you browse the stores. More of this will be coming. They even sell cars in the malls – Santana Row in San Jose, California has a Tesla dealership.

The big malls (Mall of America, et al) have motels and hotels connected to them. Sleep, Love, Shop, Cool.

Wi-FI, schmi-fi. You MUST have WiFi, work-tables, power outlets, and couches. Period.

Casinos are now more than just places to add to the coffers of the state, they are expanded their retail where they are now competitive with local retail centers. There will be more of this, in fact at one large Indian casino, I was told, they are investigating major retail stores inside the casino. Imagine a Macy’s entry right next to the craps table, what more could you want?

Restaurants are the next big things in retail; the food court has gone nuclear. Todd English seems to won this round for now, he’s more ubiquitous than Tommy Bahama. Ethnic foods are huge, fast food huger, all-you-can-eat buffets – category killers. Where restaurants used to be stuck in the corners (i.e. foodcourts) they will now be moved into pricier locations, they will become attractions instead of just necessaries. Watch for more big names to jump in, Guy Fieri and many more from the Food channel. Not necessarily because they are good, but because they are known. In fact, now people actually arrange their vacations around Food channel restaurants. How many Triple D restaurants have you been to?

Retail itself will continue on its sad course, same-old, same-old. We shop for price not product, and I’m no different. Went looking for a slow-cooker the other evening, went to Crate and Barrel, Sur La Table, Williams Sonoma – all too pricey. Macys, perfect and at half the price. That’s what’s happening in retail. Is there a chance for the bespoke clothier? In a mall – not a chance, yet.

For the last forty years, since the first wave of enclosed malls swept the country, there has been a revision to the retail model every ten to fifteen years. We are now seeing the latest in the village square concept: outside, walkable streets, shop after shop doors, street front windows, big boxes set in the corners, restaurants and entertainment built into the fabric, just like the town where your grandparents lived. There is something warm and fuzzy about the place – hard to do, but works. Good example is Victoria Gardens in Rancho Cucamonga.

Is the mall dead? Hardly. But as the economy changes so will these retail dreadnaughts. Denser retail, more leisurely, richer interiors, more natural light, more elegant parking garages, and better treatment of customers (now guests). This is the most competitive business model in America: wringing a buck out of the consumer, if you can make them happy, they will do it gladly.

Stay tuned . . . . .

Friday, November 16, 2012

Skyfall – An Urbanist’s Review

Let’s get the easy stuff done with first: Daniel Craig is back as Ian Fleming’s James Bond 007 in Skyfall, the 23rd adventure in the longest-running film franchise of all time. There that’s done.

Excellent, probably the best of the franchise, the cast exceptional, the film's texture involving, and the action – well it is a Bond film. So I give it a 8.7 out of 10.

What I really liked was the urban travelogue and the outstanding photography that engaged the viewer, if the director was looking for extremes, he found it. The depth of the night filming was extraordinary and the stage settings left you wondering how real they really were.

The movie opens here and involves the whole city and a rail line. When I visited Istanbul a few years ago I was struck by the crowds and hurried chaotic bustle of the city. This came across in the movie, the roof top chase gave dramatic glimpses of this incredibly dense Asian city. The “Blue Mosque” and the Grand Bazaar and the chaotic feel of the highways and traffic brought it all back in a far too real way. Every city has its beautiful neighborhoods as well as its, let’s say, less than desirable blocks. Skyfall did a good job with Istanbul.

Without a doubt the most dazzling images were the aerials shot of Shanghai at night. I have not been to Shanghai but if it is anything like what’s shown, it has moved up my list of places to visit. The sparkling architectural shots have already been added to the world’s premier architectural firms’ (who designed many of the buildings) web sites and resumes by now. This has been a city that over the last fifteen years has changed its downtown more than any city in the world. Others, more easily, have developed from almost nothing, like Dubai. It is difficult, even in a city like Shanghai; to build within the existing urban structure, after all it is the largest city in China and most probably the largest city, by population, in the world. And Shanghai is old (born circa AD 960), even under European ideas of old cities. Wait for the aerial shots (not CGI enhanced I understand) – they are worth it. By the way many of the sets were filmed in London even though supposedly in China, well that’s the way it is with budgets.

Is my favorite city in the world. The contrasts to Istanbul and Shanghai are intentional according to the PR on the movie – dazzling new to staid old. The comparisons of the rooftop shots at the film’s conclusion to the rooftops of the Topkapi Palace are intentional. The glassy skyline of Shanghai in contrast to carved and detailed stone of London – intentional. There is a solid feel to London: empire, law, parliament, governed civility. It all comes through in direct contrast to the dead city of Raoul Silva, the Bond villain.

Silva’s Dead City
The Real Dead City - Hashima, Japan
The evil characters in Bond movies all have to have homes. Dr. No, Le Chiffre, Goldfinger, Blofeld, and 18 others, all had some place to call home. But not many spook an entire city out its homes and apartments and move in, such is the power of a Bond villain. The imagery is outstanding, the villain's derelict city seems to sit on an island, worn and abandoned. The sets are littered with crushed bikes and debris. Broken statues litter the plazas, there is a feel of a Eastern European cold war city, crushed and broken, abandoned out of fear (maybe radiation?), and our bad guy moves in. Not exactly the best way to make a real estate investment. But surprisingly the exterior shots are real; it is an abandoned city on Hashima Island in Japan. The story is bizarre and so is the city (GO HERE), scroll down a bit for the info.

And speaking of real estate,
Think of Scotland, think of The Highlander and Braveheart. Then think of owning a chunk of that real estate and a baronial home that is a hundred miles from the nearest Safeway. Yes, this is the anti-urban set for the final dramatic scenes of the movie – in great contrast to China, and Turkey and London. Having been there I can attest to the simple fact that no computer graphic can make it as shockingly barren as Sam Mendes (movie director) achieved filming the real landscape. Well done.

HERE is a great site with some discussion of the sets and shots of locations for the film.

While the movie has its flaws (what Bond movie hasn’t), it is always a magnificent travel guide to the great cities of the world. Sit back and enjoy.

And by the way, my latest book in the Sharon O’Mara Chronicles, 12th Man For Death, is now available at Amazon Kindle. Just click on the book cover and you will travel to San Francisco, Baghdad, Venice, and Paris in a Bond-like adventure of international espionage, murder, and high fashion.

Stay Tuned . . .

Friday, November 9, 2012

Urban Videos for the November

Here are some very cool videos about some very cool cities. While I have never been to Kuala Lumpur (and sadly it’s not even on my short list), it does give you the flavor of this Asian city.

Chicago, always one of my favorites, is well shot here, and Barcelona, which I put on a par with London and Paris is also interesting (plus it has a miles of great beaches).

The last is an award winning experimental film with a distinct “urban” feel and texture. The original video was from a few years ago and can be found in Vimeo und "Urban Extract>" The one I've posted is from YouTube with a different sound track by The Floe.

There is a strong trend today by amateur and professional video makers to explore urban environments, and if you go to Vimeo and YouTube you can scan hundreds of these shorts to get an armchair vacation. Throw out a city name, and urban concept, or even something as simple as Paris videos and have fun. Some are just spectacular.

Kuala Lumpur

Places in Time, Chicago

This one you will have to punch in the URL. But it's about Barcelona and is worth it.

And lastly, Urban Extract: the original is at 

Stay Tuned . . . . . .