In Seattle, A Change of Heart on Harbor Highway

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Cary Moon, the founder of the People’s Waterfront Coalition in Seattle, and one of the country’s premier advocates for alternatives to wasteful highways, wrote me this week about the progress she and her colleagues are making to replaced the elevated Alaskan Way Viaduct with a less expensive, neighborhood conserving, energy efficient alternative.

“You might find this joint press release from the governor, the county, and the city interesting,” said Ms. Moon (see pix). “Quite a big shift in the governor’s intentions, eh?”

Eh, indeed. On Tuesday, December 11, Washington’s Governor Christine Gregoire, King County Executive Ron Sims, and Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, all Democrats, said they had directed their aides to toss out the super expensive “one size fits all” construction plan to replace the viaduct, and consider the “entire system of streets, transit service, and freeways from Lake Washington to Elliott Bay, and from Northeast 85th Street to South Spokane Street in evaluating solutions that keep people, goods and services moving.” alaskan-viaduct.jpg

Ms. Moon has been advocating just that. She is convinced that the best solution for moving people and goods north and south along Seattle’s waterfront is to replace the aging and earthquake-damaged viaduct with a waterfront park, a boulevard, and re-establishing the grid network of local streets. It’s certainly the least expensive alternative, likely to cost billions less than replacing the elevated six-lane highway with a new structure, or building an even more expensive tunnel.

When it was opened in 1953, the 2.2-mile-long viaduct (see pix above) represented the country’s economic development priorities, providing drivers efficient routes from the central city to growing suburbs. Similar shoreline freeways were built in New York, Boston, San Francisco, Portland, Cleveland and other cities.

But in the early years of the 21st century, Seattle’s old wall of concrete has come to be viewed as a barrier to the city’s quality of life. The viaduct has been accused of various civic offenses, including separating residents from easy access to natural resources, especially a spectacular shoreline.

Ms. Moon’s critique of the viaduct reflects new thinking at the grassroots about the sanest way to move people and goods. For all intents and purposes, the era of massive highway building is nearing its end in the United States as construction costs soar well beyond the ability of the federal and state governments to pay. Highways are not only seen as bad investments, they also are accused of impeding local economies and diminishing the urban experience. Why” Because they are so intrusive, ecologically damaging, energy inefficent, and generally do nothing to relieve congestion.

This is essentially the argument that Ms. Moon has been making for several years. Though Washington State’s Big Three lawmakers haven’t yet conceded she is right, the announcement this week indicates that they are moving in Ms. Moon’s direction. And why not? Seattle is setting new trends in public policy that promotes walking, biking, new transit options, mixed use development, curbing on street parking, progressive zoning that promotes a mix of housing types, and other steps that have turned it into one of the most prosperous urban landscapes in the world. An obsolete idea, like a $6 billion (or more) highway or tunnel just doesn’t fit into Seattle’s 21st century plans.

Fresh Food, Rapid Transit Meet In Grand Civic Space

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NEW YORK — The day after Thanksgiving it was as though no one had ever eaten a square meal, judging from the lines that formed at Zaro’s Bread Basket or the Little Pie Company or Two Boots Pizza. Like everyplace else in midtown Manhattan, the ground floor, the “dining concourse”  of Grand Central Station was mobbed.

Some of what New York City presents to the world these days is familiar to those of us raised there in the 1960s and 1970s. Men and women, wrapped in cardboard or blanketed in grimy carpeting, huddle against the cold and sleep in doorways. Street vendors, their tables heaped in knock off pocket books and designer watches and gloves and hats, line 34th street where Macy’s is located. The spire atop the Empire State Building is lit in the colors of Christmas.

But much about New York is new, like the dining concourse at Grand Central. Many of the roughly 700,000 people who visit Grand Central every day clock1.jpgspend at least a few minutes drinking coffee, or eating sushi, or salads, or fresh fruit in the company of hundreds of other New Yorkers. They sit without fear of the stranger.

In the 1970s, this airy and classic space beneath the main waiting room, defined by arched entrances and marbled walkways, was a place of gloom and loitering. Working people hurried through — collars up, eyes straight ahead– on their way to meet a commuter train to the suburbs.

The great terminal, like the city itself,  was a dying place full of decay and crime and fear.  Grand Central’s dire condition reflected what happens when a rich nation fueled by cheap energy and a national dream of cars and highways and picket fences, directs its people to seek refuge in its suburbs.

Two generations later Grand Central remains a potent symbol for a way of life that is fast changing again. In an era marked by high energy prices, high land values, growing population density, and remarkable constraints on time, the American Dream looks a lot different than it once did. The old train station as a result is a rare study in how and why people gather in public places in the 21st century, as well as an example of energy and time efficiency, two of the new operating principles of the era.

First and foremost, the station is about moving people. Nearly 600 trains depart daily and carry over 500,000 commuters to communities in two states. About a third of that number also find their way into the subway system.

Secondly, it is a grand building that fascinates and satisfies. In 1998, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority completed a $259 million renovation that turned Grand Central into a glittering market. Fresh food is a big draw. There’s a market full of good stuff, almost half a dozen fine dining restaurants and bars, nearly a dozen specialty food shops and bakeries, and more than 20 restaurants on the dining concourse.  The station has become a destination, even for the commuters who once did nothing more at Grand Central than hurry through. 

Third, people feel safe because they are. New York City is safer today than almost any big city in the world. According to the New York Times, the city will likely record fewer than 500 murders in 2007, the fewest since record-keeping began in 1963. To date, just 35 of those killings involved assailant and victim who were strangers to each other. The rest were perpetrated by murderers who knew their target. 

The crowds of people eating lunch at Grand Central are players in a story of a city that cultivates diversity and has found strength in community. That, too, is a new idea.

$100 Barrel Oil Nears; Streetcars in Portland

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Two items caught my eye today. World oil prices reached $93 a barrel this week, which is why gasoline at the Wesco down the road is $3.07-a- gallon tonight. The other news is the announcement on Monday that city leaders in Oregon want to dramatically expand the number of neighborhoods served by Portland’s spectacularly successful streetcar.

The two developments are related, of course, because as fuel prices rise the sanity and fuel-efficiency of streetcar lines makes ever more sense. 

Dallas opened a 2.8-mile streetcar line in 1989, and since then eight cities have built new streetcar lines, including Memphis, Little Rock, San Francisco and Tampa, all serving growing numbers of riders using restored cars or replicas.

Portland, which opened the first section of what is now an eight-mile loop in 2001, was the first to use modern streetcars, designed and built in the Czech Republic.

A new 2.6-mile streetcar line is scheduled to open in Seattle in December; a new line is to open in Washington in 2009; and a four-mile line is to begin operating in Tucson in December 2010. Miami, Columbus, Cincinnati, Phoenix, Missoula, Grand Rapids and some 70 other American cities are studying the feasibility of opening lines, according to Reconnecting America, a national nonprofit transit research group in Oakland, Calif.

Not since the turn of the 20th century, when metropolitan regions built elegant urban-rail networks, which were later dismantled, have streetcars generated such intense interest, according to the American Public Transportation Association, a Washington trade group.

Much of the reason lies in what happened after Portland decided that a streetcar, operating on fixed tracks and sharing the right of way with cars, was not only a new option for getting from one end of town to the other, but also a boon to developers as a new rail corridor for building homes and offices downtown. The Portland region also has a 44-mile network of light-rail lines, using faster and larger cars, that runs through the center of the city to the eastern and western suburbs. An 8.3-mile, $575.7 million extension is under way, scheduled to open in 2009.

John Carroll, a local home builder who is on a committee that oversees the streetcars, told me earlier this month, “All I can say is that the stars lined up the right way for Portland. The Portland streetcar demonstrated that the city was serious about developing downtown at a time when the core was much quieter than it is now. Our last seven or eight projects have been within a block, block and half of the streetcar line.”

The city-owned streetcar line, which cost $100 million to build, has helped sweep in $2.4 billion in new commercial and housing development, with 7,248 new housing units, according to city statistics. A former vacant railway yard and grimy light-industrial sector on the line’s northern end was transformed into a hip area called the Pearl District. On the other end, industrial ground along the Williamette River has become the South Waterfront, a neighborhood of high-rise condominiums, town houses, offices, parks and a tram with spectacular views.

Although riding the Portland streetcars now seems like a logical step to urban prosperity, getting the line built took 11 years of promoting the idea.

A major task included convincing residents that pedestrians, bicyclists, drivers and streetcars could co-exist in the same right of way. Miami, which plans to open a line in 2012, put the problem to rest by producing videos of Portland streetcars as they operate without a hitch, and posting them on a Web site, miamigov.com/MiamiStreetcar/pages/Videos.asp.

Another challenge was raising money. Portland financed its line almost entirely with local taxes.

Two years ago, Earl Blumenauer, Democrat of Portland, convinced his colleagues in the House of Representatives to approve a new funding provision called Small Starts in the federal transportation bill to help pay for the line. This year the program is providing $100 million for building streetcar lines and bus rapid transit systems. Portland wants to use $75 million in Small Starts money to partly finance a 6.7-mile, $146 million extension of its streetcar line.

Portland’s streetcars carry nearly 10,000 passengers a day, almost four times the number it anticipated when the line opened, said Rick Gustafson, executive director of Portland Streetcar, the nonprofit corporation that operates the line. “There’s no question that we are part of the combined investment over the last 20 years that produced the infrastructure that made it possible for people to park their cars and turn Portland into a walking environment,” Mr. Gustafson said. “When you create that, amazingly enough the market responds.”

According to the Portland Oregonian, about 140 miles of the city’s busiest streets show potential for new streetcar routes. Streetcars could make more neighborhoods resemble the popular retail corridor along Southeast Belmont, built originally along a streetcar line in the early 20th century.

At Notre Dame, Coming of Age For Young New Urbanists

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I visited South Bend earlier this month to join a group of students from Notre Dame and several more of the nation’s best universities who held the first Congress of the Students for New Urbanism. The University of Notre Dame School of Architecture, it turns out, was an apt choice for the gathering. Notre Dame reframed its architectural curriculum several decades ago to concentrate on traditional neighborhood and urban design, one of the few architectural schools to do so. When a group of nationally-renowned architects stepped away from the land-consuming, oil-soaked, dispiriting strip mall and subdivision design juggernaut to form the Congress for New Urbanism in 1993, Notre Dame was waiting for them. The weekend conference  not only featured the ideas and energy of young architectural students fully aware of the need for their skills in a coming age of transformational change, it also focused on several presentations that made clear how central the practice of New Urbanist design and planning has become across the United States.

One important measure of the New Urbanist influence is the market, which increasingly looks to traditional neighborhood and town designs to meet buyer expectations and solve some of the long-standing economic, environmental, and cultural challenges faced by communities. New Urbanist town centers, housing developments, and commercial districts are under construction in at least 40 states now. The South Lake Union neighborhood in Seattle, once an underutilized light industrial sector, is redeveloping along a traditional urban street grid with homes and shops and offices mixed together, and served by a new streetcar line scheduled to open in December. Harbor Town in Memphis, a city that has attracted nearly 10,000 new downtown residents in recent years, and which also boasts a baseball district featuring hip streetlife and mixed residential and business uses, is another of the formative projects gradually changing how American cities redevelop.

Both Seattle and Memphis, and so many others — Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Boston, Charleston, Atlanta, Grand Rapids, — benefit from what James Kunstler, the movement’s chronicler, said was the “the most valuable things that the New Urbanists recovered along the way: the knowledge required to create a human dwelling place with a future.”

Another measure of New Urbanist influence is that two national architecture and planning firms, Torti Gallas and Partners (based in Silver Spring, MD, and Los Angeles) and Looney Ricks Kiss (offices in 7 cities nationally) embraced New Urbanism as central to their business strategies. Both have emerged as very large multi-dimensional players in American design and development practices.  

J. Carson Looney designed much of Harbor Town, which started in 1989 and was one of the first large mixed-used new urban developments in the United States. Torti Gallas has amassed a similar collection of important projects. It just won a $250,000 contract from Ocean City, Miss., to develop a master plan for an area hammered by Hurricane Katrina along Biloxi Bay. The firm’s designs have collected a showcase full of awards from the Congress For the New Urbanism, the EPA, and other organizations. One of their most recent honors is the Governors’ Smart Communities Award for a mixed-use affordable housing project in Tacoma, Wash. A principal, John Torti, spoke at the weekend conference and is a graduate of Notre Dame’s architectural school.

As the new narrative of the 21st century unfolds, there is so much for architectural students to worry about — peak oil price shocks, global climate change, soaring population, flat personal incomes, financial market turmoil, diminishing government wealth, scarce natural resources. But the skills they are developing also offer some measure of hope. The walkable, beautiful, energy-efficient, land and resource-conserving, culture-enhancing places they are poised to design and build offer so many of the solutions.

        

Mitt Romney Has A Smart Growth Record; But He Keeps It Hidden

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There’s never been a time in my life, which now spans 51 years, when the conversation in communities is so distanced from what state lawmakers choose to talk about. And the gulf only gets wider between the concerns knocking around state capitols and what Congress and the White House think is important. This isn’t a partisan problem. It’s a national disgrace.

Our state government here in Michigan, for example, is led by a two-term Democratic governor, Jennifer M. Granholm, who began her administration with a very solid and popular economic development program. It called for investing in the state’s cities, protecting natural resources, securing open spaces, fixing roads instead of building new ones, promoting public transit, improving public education, and strengthening the state’s terrific public universities. Ms. Granholm also talked about leveraging public and private funds to encourage entrepreneurism and recruit new knowledge-based companies. The idea was to overcome the state’s hierarchical economic principles, forged in the factory floor/front office clashes of the 20th century’s auto culture, and produce clean, green, prosperous cities and inner ring suburbs that could attract the highly educated young people who rule the 21st century economy.

The three most prosperous regions in Michigan — Ann Arbor, Traverse City, and Grand Rapids — actually thought highly of Ms. Granholm’s new strategy, embraced its basic principles, and have emerged late in the 21st century’s first decade as among the best places to live and do business in the country. Lesson: it worked.

Ms. Granholm, meanwhile, was buffeted by her conservative opponents, a state economy that faltered, the nation’s largest fiscal deficit, and abandoned the strategy almost entirely. The new core of her economic plan is expressed by a scary sounding slogan to “go anywhere and do anything” to generate new jobs.

This tendency of political leaders to govern as though they were at a buffet, picking and choosing almost indiscriminately from a myriad of interesting dishes, is emblematic of our drift as a nation. Great organizations develop core strategies and stick to them over time. Those that are most successful anticipate and adjust to new market signals, incorporate new ideas, and update their vision and goals in a careful and logical process. The same goes for successful businesses and productive lives. The idea is to write a strong narrative for yourself, your company, your state or nation that makes sense. Having a strong story, effectively and courageously executed over time, generally gets people close to what they’re after. Sharp changes in goals without consideration and anticipation is a story that has departed its narrative track and generally leads to failure in business and disappointment in governing.

I’ve had the chance to apply these lessons to the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney, the Republican who was born in Detroit 60 years ago, raised in a political family, and governed for one term in Massachusetts. What’s interesting is that Mr. Romney’s first gubernatorial year, 2003, was distinguished by several acts which might otherwise be called progressive. Two are of particular note. Mr. Romney hired Doug Foy, the head of the Conservation Law Foundation and arguably New England’s most important environmentalist, to head a new Office For Commonwealth Development. And second, Mr. Romney charged Mr. Foy with developing and enacting a new economic development strategy for Massachusetts based on Smart Growth principles very similar to those that Governor Granholm talked about at the start of her administration the same year in Michigan.

Though critics and supporters argue about the success of Mr. Romney’s initiative, one of its important achievements was embedding the idea that where state government decides to spend money for transportation, water, housing, offices, education, and the environment has a lot to do with where people choose to live, and where businesses choose to locate.

The Environmental League of Massachusetts counts among the achievements in the last year that it made in collaboration with the state a $30 million investment in a state brownfield redevelopment fund, a major help for developers seeking to build on land in the Commonwealth’s older industrial cities and core suburbs. The state agreed to consider carefully the consequences to communities and land use for extending new water lines. The state also raised its Historic RehabilitationTax Credit to $50 million annually from $10 million, helping developers build in existing neighborhoods rather than promote sprawl.

These and a host of other Smart Growth policies and investments helped to stabilize the state’s economy and contributed to the growing number of highly educated young people who’ve settled in Boston and Cambridge, both of which are experiencing moderate population growth, according to the Boston-based Metropolitan Area Planning Council. It’s a strong record of sound governance that produced real results. You’d think a former governor running for president might want to take note of what he’d done.

But Mr. Romney doesn’t mention a word of it in his campaigns, on his Web site, in his speeches.
His campaign is a dullard’s banquet of the same old — lower taxes, oppose abortion, support the surge, defend the family. His energy policy is about more nukes, liquifying coal as a fuel, and drilling for oil in Alaska. I travel in moderate liberal and conservative circles. There isn’t anybody I know who thinks that this governing formula will make America better.