Cities Are Stronghold of Performance in Maelstrom of American Disarray

Ohio's capital city adopted a reconstruction plan for encouraging development 14 years ago that emphasized three unexpected ingredients: more grass, less water and targeted taxpayer spending. Photo/Keith Schneider
Ohio’s capital city adopted a reconstruction plan for encouraging development 14 years ago that emphasized three unexpected ingredients: more grass, less water and targeted taxpayer spending. Photo/Keith Schneider

COLUMBUS, OH — In the year of Trump it’s plain that the United States is entering a new and reckless age. Our federal lawmakers neglect their constitutional duties to legislate in the public interest. Ideology and inflexibility, the gravest threats to a democracy, are elevated as virtues on the political right and political left. Random massacres occur with weekly frequency. Fear and distrust and racism and hate have been unleashed as mainstream attitudes.

Where are the places that inspire order? Where are the places that effectively manage their affairs with a goal of adding to civility and the common good?

Perhaps it is surprising, but a good number of American cities answer those questions. As readers of ModeShift know, some of my time each year is taken up with reporting real estate articles for The New York Times. Generally the narrative that emerges from details about construction costs and square feet amounts to a profile of the cities that I visit.

What I find, from New York to Boston to San Francisco, Grand Rapids to Louisville, Buffalo to Cleveland to Toledo to Cincinnati, is that many of America’s big cities, and a good number of its mid-size cities, are thriving. Largely without the help of the federal government and state Legislatures, elected leaders are collaborating with business executives and civic organizations to invest in ways that respond intelligently to the market conditions of this century.

In each city the formula for progress differs in the specifics. Buffalo reorganized itself around a university medical center and a transit line. Toledo turned to Chinese investors. Cleveland spent $800 million on entertainment and transit infrastructure – two stadiums, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a bus rapid transit route, and moving a commuter rail station — to invite $5 billion in mostly private downtown redevelopment. Sacramento tore down a moribund downtown shopping mall and built a new arena for the NBA Sacramento Kings.

Taken collectively, though, the various development strategies pursued by American cities have some common traits. Excellent elected leadership and pragmatic business collaboration are essential to developing and executing redevelopment ideas that take at least a decade, and often a generation, to complete. Redevelopment plans incorporate one or more of the following ingredients — competent municipal agencies, park construction, improved transit, strengthened schools, public safety, adequate amounts of reasonably priced housing, recruiting innovators and entrepreneurial businesses.

Over the next month or so I’ll be reporting on cities in the South and Midwest – Columbus, Cleveland, and Chattanooga –all of which are doing well. They are following effective redevelopment strategies that are much bolder, and more effective, than anything pursued by most states and certainly by America’s imprudent Congress. The latest report from a city making strong progress in adding value to the lives of its citizens is from Columbus, which I visited early in May. Continue reading “Cities Are Stronghold of Performance in Maelstrom of American Disarray”

Newest New York Times Piece: University of Wisconsin’s East Campus Gateway


I’ve been writing for the New York Times since February 1981, covering all manner of people and places and events. Most recently, much of that work has focused on interesting real estate developments around the country. The latest article, featuring the University of Wisconsin’s work to construct a new entrance corridor on the east side of campus, was posted and published today:

MADISON, Wis. — A century after it was first proposed, a broad pedestrian corridor that will serve as a new gateway to the University of Wisconsin here is close to its final form.

A seven-block pedestrian corridor links the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison to rental apartments and businesses.

The corridor, called the East Campus Gateway, includes private developments, university buildings and two public gathering places, one owned by the university and the other by the city. A recent burst of construction has given students a new services center and a shopping mall geared to their needs called University Square.

And, in a city with a vacancy rate of less than 3 percent, hundreds of new rental apartments are filled with both students and town residents.

“The idea was to create a new front door to the university,” said Gary Brown, the director of campus planning and landscape architecture, and one of the two university staff members who played central roles in managing the recent construction.

Pieces of the seven-block stretch from Regent Street to Lake Mendota were installed episodically over the decades, including the Memorial student union (built in 1928) along the lakeshore that has long been one of this capital city’s favorite warm-weather gathering spots; a public square one block off the lake; and a collection of campus buildings dating to the 1950s and ’60s.

In the last decade, university architects and administrators, working with Madison’s planners, have been more purposeful. Prompted by trends in urban design that emphasize closer ties between retail stores and cultural institutions, open space, recreation and stronger neighborhoods, the university and the city developed a more definitive construction plan. When it is finished, the 2.45 million-square-foot project is expected to have cost nearly $500 million.

Beyond that aesthetic consideration, four blocks of the gateway are completed, including the latest project, an 81,000-square-foot addition to the university’s Chazen Museum of Art that opened in October. Projects under construction on the remaining three blocks include a hockey center, to be called the LaBahn Arena, and a 104,000-square-foot meeting center and student dining facility. Both are scheduled to open next year.

“We wanted to link where people lived, and where they were coming from, to where they needed to go,” said Julie B. Grove, the university architect and project manager, who worked closely with Mr. Brown.

See more.

— Keith Schneider

About Those Suburbs and Cities


As the dimensions of the mortgage crisis both expand and get clearer, a new picture is emerging of a nation in pain that simultaneously is coming to new conclusions about what it means to be safe and secure in America. For the first time since post-war federal policy ganged up on cities to promote suburban expansion, cities are rebounding in remarkable ways and suburbs appear to have reached some kind of new limits to growth. The evidence of this profound shift is easy to find if you look.

First, here in Michigan and across much of the country, the towering growth in homeforeclosures is hitting the newest suburbs at least as hard, and in most cases harder than it is striking the state’s cities. Foreclosures in West Bloomfield and Birmingham are occurring at the same or higher rates than the rate of foreclosures in Detroit and its older suburbs.

The same is true, according to this article in the Atlantic Monthly, in Florida, California, Colorado, Georgia and other states.

Cities meanwhile are attracting new residents and new wealth, so much so that vast tracts of the urban landscape in cities as different as New York and Salt Lake City, Boston and Denver, Seattle and Knoxville, Chicago and Atlanta, and dozens of others, are being completely rebuilt.

This is a remarkable transformation. For most of my life cities were places to dismantle, not build. I was a kid in the 1960s when city officials and U.S. housing administrators teamed up to tear down much of White Plains, N.Y., my home town, as part of the federal urban renewal program. An elegant network of narrow streets and historic offices and walk-ups was replaced by Houston-like boulevards. A windowless mall was built near the center of town that became one of the most dangerous places to shop in the whole state. White Plains gradually came to its senses and slowly began to replace the urbanism that was removed, and the city is experiencing its own economic and cultural renaissance.

Chicago, too, is undergoing more than $1 billion in new housing, retail, and commercial investment along south Michigan Avenue, an area that encompasses hundreds of acres of old warehouses, storage buildings, and light industrial facilities. Boston is building a new city above the Big Dig. Los Angeles is rebuilding Grand Avenue. New York is planning 45 million square feet of homes and offices above a rail yard along the Hudson River.

A third bit of evidence is the popular clamor for modern transit. Grand Rapids recently won federal approval for a new rapid bus system, and as much as $29 million in US support to build the 10-mile line, which could be the first rapid transit line built in Michigan since early in the 20th century.

Northern Virginia is planning to build a new streetcar line, which would join a growing number of other streetcar systems, including operating lines in Portland and Kenosha, Wisc. And Atlanta is considering a new streetcar line along its famous Peachtree Street.

What appears to be occurring in the United States? Time-wasting, costly, energy-inefficient, land-consuming, and obsolete exurban patterns of development are taking new forms. The institutions that supported the old patterns are grievously injured. Citibank today announced a $23 billion write off connected to sour loans in its mortgage business. The American auto industry continues to shrink. Developers are going bankrupt, among them Levitt and Sons, which built the first auto-dependent cookie cutter suburb after World War Two, New York’s Levittown.

Coming up in their place are builders of new transit systems, designers of new green housing and LEED certified office buildings, and the entrepreneurial high tech businesses popping up downtown in small places like Traverse City, and big places like Charlotte.

Geoff Anderson Takes Helm at Smart Growth America

Don Chen, the very sharp founding executive director of Smart Growth America, announced late last year that he was taking a position with the Ford Foundation. Interesting move for a canny advocate and non-profit executive with the sort of keen entrepreneurial instincts to take an eight-year-old organization from a Washington-based start-up to a national leader in new designs for development. Smart Growth America has a $2 million annual budget and a 10-member staff that includes a former Democratic governor of Maryland, and a former editorial writer at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.sgawards2006_037.jpg

This week Smart Growth America announced that Geoffrey Anderson (see pix), who directed the smart growth program at the Environmental Protection Agency, succeeds Don as executive director.

The choices made by both men seem plainly apparent. How the organization and the movement it fosters will fare is less so.

The role of non-profit founder and executive director unfolds in evolutionary stages that generally occur in two-year time frames. The first two years is all youthful energy, rapid response, program building, strategic choice, and instinctive fundraising. The next two are generally consumed with hiring, training, coalition building, program expansion, and a more formalized program of donor and foundation development. The next two are consumed with the limits of growth, more intensive fundraising, the start of moderate staff turnover and replacement, and the installation of administrative procedures designed to make operations more efficient, but sometimes don’t. And then comes the really hard work of sustaining programs, budgets, board relations, coalition partner relations, formal development programs. By year eight, non-profit directors tend to get so immersed in the administrative and fund-raising programs, and so distanced from the principles and values that prompted them to start their organizations, that they begin to wonder what happened. Year eight, in short, is a long time in the life of a non-profit director and often the time of greatest peril in a non-profit’s development.

When an institution as stable, prestigious, and well-funded as the Ford Foundation comes knocking it’s easy to understand why a talented guy like Don Chen would respond.

Overseeing a government program is the other end of the spectrum. The working environment is stable to the point of being calcified. The sense of adventure and accomplishment comes from distributing grants to capable organizations that produce solid work that attracts some (but not too much) attention. Program directors like to hire good people. They are challenged by treading paths through the administrative and Congressional briars that don’t leave too many nicks. They build relationships in and out of government, in and out of Washington. They speak at the right conferences. They become expert in policy and national practice. If they stay long enough, as Geoff Anderson has, they get recognized as significant leaders in the field.

I’ve worked with Don and Geoff for years and know them well. Both are experienced, knowledgeable men who are capable managers, fair with their staff, and generous with their time. But here is the big challenge: Can the organization and the new director sell the goods?

There is no doubt that Smart Growth America and the other gold standard public interest organizations that focus their work on the consequences of growth have made an effective case for seeking changes in public and private investment that make places better. They’ve developed the ideas that have resulted in building communities and neighborhoods fit for the 21st century that are more economically competitive, use less energy, reduce congestion, invest in transit, curb pollution, establish open spaces, and provide housing opportunities for people of every income level. Smart growth is a set of policy and investment tools proven to work in more than 40 states.

The question is whether the Smart Growth movement can command these ideas and build the strong coalitions that translate them into policy and investment practice at the federal level, where the real money lies. With the exception of the transportation funding bills of the 1990s, which produced more rapid transit, the Smart Growth movement has been less successful in changing the old spending priorities for highways, housing, natural resource protection, and urban investment at the federal level. It will take a powerful alliance of untraditional allies at the grassroots — advocates for halting global climate change, improving housing, strengthening labor, transit advocates, and metropolitan business and neighborhood groups respected by both parties — to convince Congress and the White House to break with convention and alter how and where federal money is spent.

Geoff Anderson has the inside government experience to know where the pressure points lie, as well as the earnest temperament to build the coalitions to press for new policy. But it’s not clear whether he has the political instincts to step outside the safety zone he understood so well as a government manager, or the entrepreneurial energy to simultaneously lead a staff, develop new programs, and serve as the chief fundraiser. If he does, Smart Growth America will take its place among the nation’s truly influential public policy organizations. If he doesn’t, the young group will gradually decline. A lot of us out here in the provinces wish him the best in his important new venture.

Developing Trouble in Suburbs


Two reports from different suburbs across the country indicate new kinds of pain for homeowners and communities.

The first, from North Carolina, describes the outbreak of violence, fear, and break-ins mounting in new suburbs north of Charlotte. Home foreclosures prompted by the subprime mortgage mess prompted owners — local and out-of-state — to abandon properties in what the Charlotte Observer called “starter” subdivisions, where homes generally are priced for less than $150,000.

While downtown Charlotte neighborhoods improve, as they are in other big cities, new suburbs fade and at a speed much faster than city neighborhoods declined in the 1960s and 1970s.

The other report comes from Antioch, IL, a suburb of Chicago, where one of the region’s largest developers declared bankruptcy in early November and abandoned work at the Clublands subdivision. “Streetlights aren’t installed, roads aren’t paved and half-built homes stand as stark symbols of the builder’s financial woes,” reports the Chicago Tribune.

The subdivision was slated to contain 960 single-family homes with prices from around $240,000 to $410,000, said the newspaper. “An 8,000-square-foot clubhouse also was to be built, along with swimming pools, tennis courts and other amenities.” Only a third of Clublands’ homes have been completed.