Qingdao, A Beautiful Pacific Coast City, Beckons To Be China’s Cleanest

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QINGDAO, China — The Pacific Ocean tugs at the rocky shoreline on this city’s eastern boundary. Rugged claw-peaked mountains are sentinels to the north and west. Qingdao lays out on a plain of flat ground and rolling hills between the natural barriers, a just-built urban center of high rise office and apartment towers, 10-lane boulevards, and a goal of achieving stature as a model Chinese “eco-city.”

I am spending a couple of days in this city of more than 8 million residents, the second largest in coastal Shandong Province, to conduct the initial research on urban environmental progress, energy efficiency, and water conservation that Circle of Blue and the Wilson Center are doing in collaboration with China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection. It’s a quick Qingdao hello (pronounced Ching-tow, the last rhymes with how) to meet contacts and get a feel for the more intensive research I’ll complete when I return in early August.

In the context of China’s smoggy cities, choked with traffic, hampered by a flood of chemical and biological emissions of every sort into the air and water, Qingdao is doing pretty well. Much of the household fuel switching from air-polluting coal to cleaner natural gas for cooking and heating was completed within the last decade. Qian Yi, a professor and dean of the Qingdao University of Science and Technology, told me that city officials shut down 100 to 120 old and polluting industrial plants from 2006 to 2010, including a number of really dirty metal plating factories.

Big investments in water treatment plants also are being made. A new subway network is under construction. And Qian, and two of his university colleagues that I met, insisted that the principles of environmental protection were steadily becoming cultural values in a seaside metropolis that is replacing heavy industry with travel and tourism as its primary economic sector (see pix second below.)

“Things are getting better,” he said.

But considering the gains in air and water quality, parks modernization, recreational infrastructure, energy efficiency, and quality of life in American cities, Qingdao has a long way to go. In America’s big cities, we have blue skies now and water clean enough to attract housing and parks back to shorelines that 35 years ago stunk to high heaven.

The same is possible here and in other Chinese cities. But it’s going to take a lot of work. Even on the air quality days that Qingdao authorities consider “good,” the sky is dirty grey and you see what you’re breathing. The surface freshwater resources — rivers and lakes — are all polluted well beyond the American standard of “fishable and swimmable.” This city, like others I’ve visited in China, has the unmistakable scent of raw sewage in the air.

Thousands of hectares of cropland around the city are contaminated with heavy metals because for decades rice and vegetable farmers irrigated with industrial waste water from the city’s chemical and metal fabricating plants. Qian Yi tells me he’s helping to lead a big project here to scrub the metals out of the dirt, but it’s slow work involving planting and harvesting non-food grasses and woody plants that suck up the contaminants.

Another big problem is aquaculture. Shandong’s coast is lined with big fin fish farms (see pix below). The aquaculture producers, he says, treat the dozens of species of farmed fish with growth hormones, antibiotics, and other compounds to speed their development and protect against some diseases.

Moreover, so many floating farms produce so much seafood that the seawater is contaminated with the wastes of tens of millions of finned creatures, though shellfish production is much cleaner, he says.  Even the tides are not sufficient to carry the filth away. Since 2008, coastal waters north of Qingdao in the Bohai Sea have been inundated with dangerous toxic algae blooms.

When I return I’ll try to determine the levels of heavy metals in the city’s food crops, and seek data on the contaminants in the aquaculture products. Qingdao has an office of food safety that Qian says is charged with making periodic assessments and issuing warnings.

“We’ve ignored the balance between the environment and the economy,” he says. “We need to do better.”

— Keith Schneider

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In New York Times, Cincinnati’s Riverfront Revival

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CINCINNATI – The shoreline of this Ohio River city, which thrived in the 19th century with 30 steamboat visits a day and then died in the 20th as pollution and industrial disinvestment pushed people and businesses inland, is emerging again as a new hub of civic and economic vitality.

The New York Times published my article on Cincinnati’s riverfront development, more evidence of the Ohio River Valley’s new upward economic vector. The Times piece is a shorter version of this draft.

Last year, Great American Insurance Corp. opened a $322 million, 800,000-square-foot office tower close to the river that now rules the city’s skyline. Two blocks in front of the 41-story building, the city and Hamilton County are constructing a $120 million riverfront park. It steps up from the shoreline in successive tiers of grass and stone to meet The Banks, a $600 million, 18-acre mixed-use retail, residential, and entertainment development.

In addition, Rock Gaming is building a $400 million, 354,000-square-foot casino downtown that is scheduled to open in early 2013. And in February this year the city started construction on a $112 million, 2.6-mile streetcar line that will link Cincinnati’s business center, and historic Over-the-Rhine residential and entertainment district, to the new riverside park and The Banks.

“We’re seeing a new Cincinnati coming from all of this,” said Mayor Mark Mallory, a two-term Democrat elected in 2005.  “We have a new set of activities, new places to live, new places to work. We are investing in things that grow a city.”

Market Trends
Cincinnati’s economy and its capacity to attract new residents and jobs reflects several converging market trends. The University of Cincinnati, the city’s big public university, has significantly rebuilt its campus in recent years, attracting more students and national attention, and serving as the foundation of an expanding medical research and health services industry. A growing number of independent and innovative marketing and branding companies, many focused on online markets, are developing with the help and through various collaborations and partnerships with Procter and Gamble, the city’s consumer products mainstay. And upriver from Cincinnati, billions are being invested by the energy industry to develop deep shale gas and shale oil reserves, reviving the state’s steel industry, generating a new petrochemical sector, producing thousands of new jobs, and strengthening urban economies from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati.

Digging out from decades of disinvestment is no small goal for a river city that from its founding as a western frontier outpost in 1788 grew by 1950 into an industrial powerhouse of nearly 504,000 residents. But since 1960, as the metropolitan region expanded to more than 2 million people, and globalization drained manufacturing jobs, Cincinnati, which endured three days of riots in 2001, has been losing an average of 4,000 residents annually and median household incomes are well below the state and national averages.

Still, with 80,000 downtown jobs, Cincinnati’s business core is thriving. And with nearly 300,000 residents, 10,000 of them living downtown and now on the waterfront, Cincinnati remains the third largest city along the six-state, 981-mile Ohio River, behind Louisville and Pittsburgh. Like its bigger neighbors, and several smaller Ohio River cities including Marietta, Ohio, Owensboro, Ky., and Evansville, Ind., Cincinnati is experiencing a strong revival in urban core business and residential growth, much of it prompted by development along a scenic river that state and federal water quality data shows is cleaner and more ecologically vital.

On a bright blue afternoon, just the sort of day that prompted Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831 to describe this part of the Ohio River as “one of the most magnificent valleys in which man has made his stay, ” the full sweep of Cincinnati’s new development, clearly designed as the city’s gateway, comes into full view.

Construction workers laid stone walkways and new sod in the shoreline park. Alongside, on the upriver end of an 18-acre expanse of grass, walkways, new streets, and pocket parks are the first two buildings of The Banks that opened last year. They are sleek six-story brick and glass buildings, built at a cost of $82 million, that encompass 80,000 square feet of ground floor restaurant and retail space below 300 rental apartments.

The $78 million second phase of The Banks, which is being built by Carter, an Atlanta-based real estate investment firm, is set to begin construction next year. It consists of one more mixed-use building of similar size, a $25 million expansion of an underground parking garage, and the announcement this month that Yard House, a Los Angeles company, will construct a separate 11,000-square-foot restaurant.

Piece by piece, a new neighborhood is taking shape. It combines an old riverfront economic concept based on housing, entertainment, travel, and tourism with a new 21st century focus on the value of professional sports.

Located between the two phases of The Banks is the $110 million, 158,000-square-foot National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which opened in 2004 and was visited in February by First Lady Michelle Obama. Flanking the entire development, to the east and west, are Cincinnati’s professional sports stadiums – the Cincinnati Bengal’s $455 million Paul Brown football stadium that opened in 2000, and the $337 million Great American Ballpark for the Cincinnati Reds that opened in 2003.

Tax To Support Investment
The construction of The Banks and the 45-acre shoreline park follows more than a decade of significant infrastructure investment along Cincinnati’s riverfront, much of it financed by a one-half cent sales tax approved by the city and Hamilton County voters in 1997. Revenue from the tax supported a $322 million highway modernization that narrowed the Fort Washington Way expressway between the river and the central business district. Engineers shortened the overpasses over the sunken freeway, making it much easier for pedestrians to reach the river from downtown.

The tax also supported the new football and baseball stadiums, and the construction of a $120 million, 5,500-space underground parking garage that is designed to withstand the river’s periodic flooding and serves as the out-of-the-floodplain dry pedestal on which all of the new construction is perched.

“There was some pretty sophisticated engineering, and a lot of new structural work that had to happen in a known floodplain before we could do anything with that part of the city,” said Michael Moore, Cincinnati’s director of transportation and engineering. “These are the sort of changes that take a city a generation to plan and complete.”

Laura Swadel, a vice president at Carter, explained in an interview that putting so many built assets together along an impressive river is proving to be very attractive to businesses and residents. She said the development’s retail space is 92 percent leased, and there is a 66-person waiting list for the one- and two-bedroom market rate apartments, which rent for $1,600 to $1,700 a month.

When it’s fully built out, which will take most of this decade, The Banks will consist of 1.5 million square feet and 1,200 residential units, 400,000 square feet of retail space, and 400 hotel rooms. The cost of construction, she said, was estimated at $600 million. “We’ve found that people want to live here and spend their time in this kind of environment,” she said.

This, of course, is not a new role for the Ohio River, a source of water, resources, and transport for the population growth, jobs, and industrialization that built 20th century America. It’s just that during most of the last two generations the Ohio River Valley was warped by deindustrialization, disinvestment, depopulation, and all manner of economic and environmental deterioration. By the early 1990s one of the rare new industrial facilities under construction along the entire river was a toxic waste incinerator next door to an elementary school that was built upriver in East Liverpool, Ohio.

Those decades of decay are steadily giving way to a new era of dynamism in the Ohio River’s big cities. Unemployment in March in Cincinnati was 7.6 percent, lower than the national average.

Indeed, on April 5, the Cincinnati Reds’ opening day, the city and The Banks held a block party that attracted a crowd estimated by city officials to number 140,000 fans, most of them clad in the team’s signature red and white jerseys, caps, and jackets. People crowded the new streets outside the Great American Ballpark and stood shoulder to shoulder in the district’s new bars and restaurants.

“We’d never seen anything like that in Cincinnati,” said Greg Hartmann, the president of the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners. “It was almost like we were in a different city.”

— Keith Schneider

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Cleaner Water, Cooler Ohio River Cities

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One of the interesting small towns I’ve visited in the United States in recent month is Marietta, Ohio, home of Marietta College, and basecamp for Jennifer Garrison, a lawyer helping working people negotiate lucrative mineral leases with big oil and natural gas production companies. I’m working on articles for The New York Times and Circle of Blue about potentially momentous oil and gas production joining improving trends in water quality that are pushing the Ohio River Valley’s economic prospects upwards.

Marietta is an apt place to find this story of American resurgence, following decades of economic dismemberment that engulfed almost all of the six-state, 1,000-mile, 72-county river valley, which starts in Pittsburgh and extends to the Mississippi River. Marietta was founded in 1788 by some of the pioneers and scholars that wrote the 1787 Northwest Territories Ordinance, which among other notable features banned slave holding in states north of the Ohio. The city erected monuments along one of its major boulevards that celebrate the influence of law and government to improve the life of the nation and its inhabitants. And while a noticeable number of its clerks and waitresses and shopkeepers are elderly and still working, the town is starting to hold more of its young adults, in part because the riverfront is cleaner and strolling there at dusk and dawn is a treat.

More later.

— Keith Schneider

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New York City’s New Era of Reckoning

One World Trade Center, at the foot of Manhattan, is steadily reaching higher in New York's skyline on April 5, 2012. Photo/Keith Schneider

New Yorkers, if you want to know, think pretty highly about their city these days. And why not? From Battery Park, at the foot of Manhattan, to the far reaches of Queens, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Staten Island new residents are arriving at the rate of 5,000 people a month. New jobs are being generated at the same clip. Unemployment is going down, as is violent crime, which has dropped nearly 80 percent in the last two decades, according to the Police Commissioner’s office.

Meanwhile the subways are clean and on-time. Central Park is beautiful. Incomes are going up along with the 104-story, 1,776-foot One World Trade Center. Seen from the air on a cloudless blue sky day this month, the rising tower is simultaneously a reminder of New York’s darkest day and an illustration of engineering and cultural moxie fitting a city that once more is laying claim to being the greatest in the world.

Jo-Anne and Martin Schneider with me in New York, April 2012.

The idea that New York merits more attention than other U.S. cities involves more than its size — now 8.2 million residents and growing — its magnificent skyline, or its streets crowded during the daylight hours and a good many of the evening hours, too. It has to do with what it takes to lead a life of value in a place that can be tough and tender, self-absorbed and confrontational, but always interested in what’s next. That intense willingness to know more, to be ahead, to set trends, to thrive, to be relevant, saturates New York’s landscape, setting up what The New Yorker writer John Lahr called “a struggle against the omnipresent tug of the ideal.”

New York is no stranger to me. I was born and raised in White Plains, a close-in suburb, and have been in and out of the city all my life. I was there when it was dirty and dangerous in the 1970s and mid-1980s, when companies fled, the population fell, when visitors were murdered on subway platforms, when the Yankees and the Mets and the Knicks went on long bouts of mediocrity bordering on terrible.

New York is not that city, and hasn’t been for years. It’s distinction as a great place with a very bright future in the 21st century has become ever more apparent during recent visits, like the one I just made. That recognition is largely the result of comparing a place that is aggressively reckoning with the new market trends of the 21st century with one that is having such trouble leaving the 20th.

One World Trade Center, at night, April 2012. Photo/Keith Schneider
I live in Michigan, the state where Rick Santorum, the Republican presidential candidate who today dropped out of the race, campaigned on a message that advised voters that a college education was a waste because learning was for snobs.

More is spent to house prisoners in Michigan than to educate students. Michigan’s public transportation system is such a disgrace that it is a long, long bus ride from any northern state city to any southern state city. And the largest metropolitan region has Amtrak service, but a lousy bus system and no commuter rail network.  Michigan’s limited vision of what is possible, both in deficit-strained state government and in frustrated and fearful communities, including my own here in northern Michigan, has formed the double helix of a new cultural DNA – do nothing anywhere.

New York, of course, has plenty of its own problems. But a deficit of inventiveness is not one of them. On Friday evening I had dinner at a Chinatown restaurant that put strangers at the same table. Ours included a young law school student, a young software engineer, and two writers for The Verge, an online site that reviews gadgets and technology. None of these people were native New Yorkers. All had come, as had generations before them, to immerse themselves in the hard work of creating their futures, testing themselves, discovering how nimble they really were navigating the smartphone, text message, digitized connections of a new century.

The restaurants and bars of Manhattan are jammed with the energy and optimism — and the strong drinking habits —  of young people. They’re a generation that wants to do well and do good in a world that constantly challenges them to weigh the efficient and practical implications of how they communicate with how personally distant and protective their culture can be. New York is a scene as a result, a talent pool rich with heaps of self-conscious awareness and civic irony. When the history of the 21st century is written, the networked and ambitious young vibe of New York in this era will be remembered for its capacity for producing a good number of the operating principles that guided successful lives and healthy places. Be vigilant. Don’t fear. Stay in touch. Have fun.

I’m soooooo jealous.

— Keith Schneider

 

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

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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