In Heart of Rand Paul Territory, Public Investment For Public Purposes

Bowling Green, Kentucky applied taxpayer funds to redevelop its downtown despite objections from its most famous resident -- Senator Rand Paul.
Bowling Green, Kentucky applied taxpayer funds to redevelop its downtown despite objections from its most famous resident — Senator Rand Paul.

BOWLING GREEN, KY. – When Gary Ransdell, the president of Western Kentucky University, invites alumni to view this city’s redeveloping downtown from his hilltop campus, the response is almost always exclamations of surprise.

Just below domed Cherry Hall, one of the 108-year-old university’s grandest buildings, are nearly 200,000 square feet of new student housing, built at a cost of $24 million. There’s also a 30,000 square foot, $10 million alumni center, and a 72,500 square-foot $14.5 million Hyatt Place hotel due to open in 2015.

Next door to the Hyatt site is a $28 million mixed use development that is under construction and will house 240 more students on one side of College Street, and a separate building on the other for small businesses, restaurants, and a rooftop pool.

There’s also four new fraternity houses built at a cost of $3 million, and a 450-space parking deck flanked by 30,000 square feet of retail businesses and restaurants that are expected to open next year.

Mr. Ransdell described the projects closest to the 108-year-old university as the latest additions to the $262 million in downtown construction since 2008 that is rehabilitating Bowling Green’s central business district. All of the new structures replace deteriorated homes and ragged retail businesses that for decades formed a barrier between the university and city center.

Bowling Green's new SKyPac theater is a new downtown institution.
Bowling Green’s new SKyPac theater is a new downtown institution.

“There’s been a shift in student density at the north end of our campus. With each new project that density increases,” said Mr. Ransdell, Western Kentucky’s president since 1997. “We’re all a bunch of bulldogs in this community. We haven’t seen a deal that we didn’t like. We want to close them all.”

Judging from the scope and progress made over the last six years, it clearly appears that deal making has evolved into a choice skill in this city of 61,000 residents, Kentucky’s third largest. Arguably the most important was the pact that the city and Warren County reached with the state to establish a 383-acre, 52-block, special development and tax district in 2007.

The district pays local governments 80 percent of the increases in payroll, property, sales and other tax revenue generated by new development within the district boundaries. Revenue is devoted to retiring construction bonds, building infrastructure, and assisting developers, including the university.

In August, while on assignment for The New York Times, I reported on Bowling Green’s successful downtown development project, which was made possible its allegiance to the time-honored American principle of devoting public funds for public purposes. It’s that principle of economic development which is under attack from the Tea Party and its adherents in municipal, state, and the federal government. One of the leaders of that anti-tax, anti-spend sentiment is Rand Paul, the Republican junior senator from Kentucky, who has lived in Bowling Green since 1993, where he opened a medical practice in opthamology.

I asked Doug Gorman, a downtown business owner and chairman of the Warren County Downtown Economic Development Authority, what Senator Paul thought about Bowling Green’s progress and how it was achieved. Mr. Gorman told me he was a close friend of the Senator and one evening, at a party the two attended, Mr. Paul pulled him aside to voice his objections to how taxpayer funds were applied to downtown development. “He wasn’t happy about it,” said Mr. Gorman. “I asked him whether he had a better way to do what we were doing? Because this is the best way we know.”

And for good reason. As I reported in The New York Times in August, this year the city’s development district, formally called the WKU Gateway to Downtown Bowling Green, will return to the city and county over $2 million in revenue. Over its 30-year life, ending in 2037, the tax district will deliver $200 million to the two governments, said Doug Gorman, a downtown business owner and chairman of the Warren County Downtown Economic Development Authority, which oversees the gateway project. “The whole point of what we’re trying to do is to get more people to enjoy our downtown, to live here and work here,” said Mr. Gorman. “If you look around now, it’s pretty clear that people get the point.”

Until the Gateway project began to unfold, Bowling Green was largely known for its university, the third largest in Kentucky, and for the General Motors assembly plant not far away, where Corvettes have been built since 1981. Earlier this year a sinkhole opened in a wing of the privately-managed National Corvette Museum near the plant, swallowing eight sports cars that were on display, and prompting significant increases in attendance.
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Where Cars Don’t Dominate, Rapid Transit and Strong Economies Do

With 350,000 passengers daily, Berlin's Hauptbahnhof central rail station is among Europe's busiest. Photo/Keith Schnj
With 350,000 passengers daily, Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof central rail station is among Europe’s busiest. Photo/Keith Schneider

BERLIN — There are few more impressive places to arrive by intercity train anywhere in the world than this city’s central rail station, the Berlin Hauptbahnhof.

A colossal steel and glass building opened in 2006, the Hauptbahnhof (pronounced hote-bonn-off) soars up four levels, from east-west high-speed platforms to high-speed trains running north-south. Stainless steel and glass elevators, and stainless steel escalators tie together the platforms and the various levels of the station, which is stocked with the inviting 21st-century necessities of travel — brightly lit stores selling smart phones and designer clothing, bakery items and office supplies, coffee and cold drinks, and lots of ATMs flanking the nation’s banking outlets.

Some 350,000 passengers use the Hauptbahnhof terminal daily to board and depart 1,800 intercity and metropolitan commuter trains, according to city statistics. Yet just as spellbinding to an American journalist raised in train-friendly New York, but living in transit-averse Michigan, is how easy and inexpensive it is to reach virtually every sector of this city of 3.5 million, and its neighboring suburbs, on a train. The city’s commuter trains, subway system, and streetcar network collectively operate on 50 separate lines, 648 kilometers (403 miles) of track, reach 734 station stops, and transport 1 billion passengers annually.

Prague's excellent streetcar system transports 325 million passengers annually. Photo/Keith Schneider
Prague’s excellent streetcar system transports 325 million passengers annually. Photo/Keith Schneider

If that’s not sufficient, Berliners can ride the bus, which has 147 lines, follows 1,627 kilometers of routes, reaches 2,627 stops, and carries 407 million passengers a year.

Yo buddy. That’s a powerful and effective transit system, actively used by city residents and duplicated in every other big city in this country of 80 million people. The benefits to family budgets and the country’s economy are evident. Traffic, for one, is surprisingly light in a metropolitan region that is comparable in size to Detroit and its suburbs, which have no rapid transit network, a poor bus system, high joblessness, a declining population, and where suburban highway traffic is a chronic mess.

Berlin’s families, meanwhile, save considerable sums by being able to operate one vehicle, instead of fleets. Land use patterns are influenced by rapid transit station stops, keeping fuel- and time-consuming sprawl in check and enhancing property values. And excellent transit service, energy-efficient and non-polluting, keeps Germany’s young and talented people involved in their home urban economies.

Continue reading “Where Cars Don’t Dominate, Rapid Transit and Strong Economies Do”

9/11 Twelve Years Later – Cities Transformed

New York was a beautiful city on 9/11/01. It’s a better city now. The Freedom Tower under construction in the fall of 2012. Photo/Keith Schneider

The day of the 9/11 attack I was in Manistee, Michigan, a 45-year-old journalist and non-profit executive focused on the usefulness of a new and greener development strategy called “Smart Growth.” My brother watched the attack from his office window in lower Manhattan. My cousin was inside the South Tower and escaped unharmed before it was hit. At the end of the month I toured the still-smouldering piles of rubble at Ground Zero with my father, a lifelong New Yorker. I never before or since witnessed such anguish in his eyes.

A lot has changed in 12 years, a good deal of it for the better in my view. One of those good changes is how the energy-efficient, resource-aware, city-building, transit-constructing, locally-focused principles of Smart Growth have become the standards by which cities and suburbs are developing all over the world. In large part because of Smart Growth the U.S. consumes less energy, produces lower levels of air pollution, invests in transit, draws young people to its compact urban centers, provides more space for parks and clean shorelines, and now boasts some of the most beautiful cities in the world.

In the weeks after 9/11, critics of Smart Growth — many of them from the mostly white outer suburban and rural communities that produced the Tea Party treachery of the last half-decade — used the 9/11 attack to lay seige to America’s cities. As I wrote in an article for the Michigan Land Use Institute in 2001, “One of the odd and troubling ideas that crossed the nation in the weeks after September 11 was the notion that as a safeguard against terror, urban sprawl might be a good thing after all.”

On this anniversary of 9/11, I dug out the article from the Institute’s archive. It continued:

On the right, for example, the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal called for cities to spread out further. The op-ed page of the Detroit News noted that “in the wake of Sept. 11, the constituency for density has probably thinned out.”

On the left, editors of Newcolonist.com, a Web site that pays attention to urban and suburban design, interviewed national experts to “get an early feel for how the attacks may affect perceptions of density, transportation, and city life.”

With the murderous collapse of New York City’s tallest buildings, both proponents and critics of the useful work to contain sprawl can be excused for wondering whether skyscrapers have outlived their usefulness and spreadout suburbs are a safer bet. But viewing dense city neighborhoods as somehow an easy target and the suburbs as a haven from terrorism overlooks some of the underlying causes of the Sept. 11 attack. Continuing to spread out across the landscape will only aggravate the situation.

It takes only the first raw scent of the smoldering piles of debris at Ground Zero in New York, and a quick glance at the guts of blasted, black-charred buildings fluttering in a smoky wind, to immediately agree with President George W. Bush that the attacks were a direct strike at what he called “the American way of life.” That way of life is not only tied to our freedom and mobility. It’s also expressed in the wasteful design of our sprawling communities and the need to sustain them by reaching ever deeper into the far corners of the globe to satisfy American demand for oil, minerals, timber, labor and capital.

To the extent the horrendous attacks laid bare America’s oil dependence, or our unwelcome presence in the Middle East, the Smart Growth vision of more energy-efficient, environmentally sensitive, livable communities is certainly one of the most cogent long-term responses yet put forward about how to truly strengthen national security.

To see the entire article click here.

— Keith Schneider

Chicago is one of the greenest cities in the world now because of Smart Growth. Photo/Keith Schneider
Cincinnati is considering a streetcar line and is building homes and businesses along the cleaner Ohio River, where it once dumped its chemicals and sewage. Photo/Keith Schneider

Buffalo’s Comeback in the New York Times

“Every time a building is completed and occupied here it helps change how people see Buffalo, and how they feel about our downtown,” said Matt Enstice, born and raised in Buffalo, New York, and chief executive of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

BUFFALO – In 2002, when he was recruited to help turn 120 acres of this city’s underperforming downtown into a jobs-producing, world-class campus for medical research, education, and clinical care, Matt Enstice was among a select few of the city’s young professionals who was convinced the idea wasn’t a joke.

Mr Enstice knows jokes. Prior to returning home and becoming the president and chief executive of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, Inc., the non-profit group overseeing the development, Mr. Enstice spent five years in New York in the late 1990s helping Lorne Michaels produce Saturday Night Live.

Mr. Enstice, who turns 40 next month, also knows this recovering Great Lakes city, which peaked in population and prosperity 60 years ago. “When I came back, it felt different than when I left,” said Mr. Enstice, who was born and raised in Buffalo. “I’m an optimist by nature. People my age were returning to the city. I could see the potential for what’s happened.”

On a bright summer morning, Mr. Enstice bounds across a medical campus that has huffed and growled with construction for a decade, and never more intently than this year. Work just started on a $100 million, 287,000-square-foot medical office building. Two blocks away excavators prepare the site of the $243 million, 410,000-square-foot Women and Children’s Hospital.

In the fall, construction starts on two more buildings: the $375 million, 500,000-square-foot State University of New York at Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences; and the $40 million, 142,000-square foot Roswell Park Cancer Institute. The four buildings, which total 1.34 million square feet and a $758 million investment, are scheduled to be completed over the next three years.

By any measure, the numbers are impressive. They also match the goals initially envisioned by former Mayor Anthony Masiello, who is credited with coming up with the concept of leveraging a medical research and education campus as an economic development strategy.

After Mr. Masiello left office in late December 2005, his successor, Mayor Byron W. Brown, who’s completing his second term, directed his economic development aides to support the project with city funds, fast-track permitting, and strategic business and professional recruitment.

Brendan R. Mehaffy, the executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Strategic Planning, said the Buffalo Niagara campus is building the city’s credibility as a center of innovation, and influencing the construction of new hotels, luxury residential development, and retail construction. Home prices in the neighborhoods closest to the medical campus have climbed 15 percent in the last two years, according to the city’s latest real estate figures.

“There’s been a decade of focused work here to redevelop the city,” said Mr. Mehaffy, who is 39 years old.  “You can see the results now really coming out of the ground. We have $1.7 billion in projects either announced this year or under construction in Buffalo. We haven’t experienced anything like this kind of interest and investment in generations. I grew up in one of our suburbs. I can tell you, it’s amazing to see this transition in downtown.”

The New York Times today published my article on Buffalo, the latest in a series of dispatches I’ve reported in the Times on recovering Rust Belt cities. Other cities reported in the series include Cleveland, Toledo, Grand Rapids, Akron, Cincinnati, Louisville, and Owensboro and are available in the Rustbelt Revives section of ModeShift. This article on ModeShift is a longer version of the Times article. Continue reading “Buffalo’s Comeback in the New York Times”

Boston Marathon Bombing

Two bombs. Three dead. Almost 180 wounded. Patriots Day in Boston, the day that everybody who lives there celebrates as a time to run and share, turns to mayhem. Photo/Ninian Reid

The week leading up to April 19 is turning out to be a gruesome one for the United States. On April 19, 1995 Timothy McVeigh blew up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people, and injuring 680. That attack, McVeigh said, was justified by the FBI assault two years earlier, April 19, 1993, on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. Seventy-six people died.

Waco and Oklahoma City crystalized menace in several new dimensions in the United States. The scale of the deaths in Texas, and the mortal focus on the calendar and commemoration in Oklahoma, illustrated a joining of wickedness and fanaticism rarely encountered in the country.

Yesterday’s Boston Marathon bombing unveiled another facet of evil. The idea that someone planned to maim and kill the innocent, perhaps even purposely aiming to blow off bystanders’ legs on a day focused on a long run, displays a vicious cunning designed to formalize the “at any moment” nature of big public gatherings in the United States that have steadily become more nervous.

You have to wonder whether the April 15 date was a factor. Over the last generation the third week of April has become a stage for escalating mayhem in the United States.

On April 20, 1999 two students at Columbine High School in Colorado murdered 12 classmates, a teacher, and killed themselves. Twenty-four people were injured.

On April 16, 2007 a student at Virginia Tech killed 32 people, wounded 17, and killed himself.

The Boston Marathon bombing occurred on the day race organizers honored and remembered the 20 children and six adults who were killed in an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. That day the shooter also killed his mother and himself. And no accounting of the recent list of horribles should omit the 12 people killed and 58 injured last July in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting. Or, for that matter, 9/11.

The pathology of violence, the determination to disrupt, the focus on turning the public space into a gallery of blood; that all seems plainly evident. But why have these killings occurred over the last generation, a period when other statistics show America is getting safer? Deaths from traffic accidents are way down. Rates of violent crime have declined dramatically since the peak years of the 1970s and early 1980s. Rates of murder are the lowest they’ve been since the 1960s. See the charts below, which are based on FBI Uniform Crime Statistics.

The gunners and bombers are testing America’s mettle. Our purpose is to be strong, and not let this kind of random bloodletting succeed in convincing Americans that big public gatherings are dangerous, especially during an era of improved personal safety.

— Keith Schneider