Deadmalls.com

The site has not been updated for a year or so but there is a lot of interesting retail information at Deadmalls.com. You can even purchase your own memorabilia (though I was hoping for something more ghastly)!

Four quick thoughts:

  1. The shopping mall was a marvel of the post-World War II suburban era. Today, there are still thriving malls – even in urban locations as they figured out that they needed to play in this game – but plenty of dead ones (27 listed in Illinois alone). The wonder of having all of those stores in one location that is easy to reach by car.
  2. Have the shopping malls been replaced by anything? Shopping online is not the same visceral experience. Perhaps it is big box stores: occasionally when I wander into a Home Depot or Costco or Walmart, I am astounded by the vast size, the number of products, and the relatively low prices.
  3. There are a lot of efforts to renovate or revitalize shopping malls including turning them into lifestyle centers, adding housing, and incorporating new features like skating rinks. Such efforts will probably succeed in a number of malls..
  4. I’m reminded of the portrayal of a dead mall in the book Gone Girl which portrayed it as a suburban wasteland (along with the McMansions). It would be worthwhile to go back to these dead malls sites in a decade or two to see what has become of them. Urban/suburban ruins? New uses?
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2016 State of Housing report: not so good

The State of the Nation’s Housing 2016 was released last week and there are a number of unfortunate historic points highlighted in the executive summary:

But at 1.1. million units, new home construction was still running near historic lows last year. A key factor holding back housing starts is the sustained falloff in household growth…

The US homeownership rate has tumbled to its lowest level in nearly a half-century. The decade-long declines are especially large among the age groups in the prime first-time homebuying years…

Just as exits from homeownership have been high, transitions to owning have been low. Tight mortgage credit is one explanation…And given that the homeownership rate tends to move in tandem with incomes, the 18 percent drop in real incomes among 25-34 year olds and the 9 percent decline among 35-44 year olds between 2000 and 2014 no doubt played a part as well…

On the renter side, the number of cost-burdened households rose by 3.6 million from 2008 to 2014, to 21.3 million. Even more troubling, the number with severe burdens (paying more than 50 percent of income for housing) jumped by 2.1 million to a record 11.4 million…While nearly universal among lowest-income households, cost burdens are rapidly spreading among moderate-income households as well, especially in higher cost coastal markets.

The conclusion suggests stability – homeownership should stabilize with increased household formation – as the effects of the housing bubble continue to fade. However, the glory years of housing seem to be far off as housing costs plague many Americans and the housing industry concentrates on higher end units.

As the economic crisis slowly fades into history, the question remains: is American housing transformed for decades (lower rates of homeownership, more high-cost renting, fewer housing starts)?

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Decrease in families living in middle-income neighborhoods

A new study shows widening residential segregation by social class:

More than one-third of families in large metropolitan areas now live in neighborhoods of concentrated affluence or concentrated poverty, and middle-class neighborhoods have become less common, according to new research by a Cornell sociologist and her colleague. The effect on children could be critical, they say.

Kendra Bischoff, Cornell assistant professor of sociology, and Sean Reardon of Stanford University found that the percentage of families living in very rich neighborhoods more than doubled, from 6.6 percent to 15.7 percent, between 1970 and 2012. At the same time, the percentage of families in traditional middle-income neighborhoods fell from 65 percent to 41 percent…

Moreover, the rate of income segregation has accelerated in recent years, Bischoff said. From 2007 to 2012 – the period that spanned the Great Recession and the early years of recovery – income segregation grew by 3.2 percentage points in just five years, compared to growth of approximately 4.5 percentage points in each decade since 1970.

Creating and sustaining mixed-income neighborhoods is difficult. If neighborhoods are desirable, they can attract more buyers which can drive up prices. Once neighborhoods have a certain level of wealth, they are often reluctant to allow cheaper housing. On the other end, poor neighborhoods don’t tend to attract middle-class or upper-class residents – unless there is major redevelopment and poorer residents are moved out (ranging from urban renewal projects after World War II to gentrification today).

The authors emphasize the impact this can have on children:

These trends may be particularly damaging for children, Bischoff says. When the affluent live in isolation, it concentrates not only income and wealth in a small number of communities. It also concentrates social capital and political power, Bischoff said, such as the amount of time parents have to spend at the neighborhood school, the amount of green space or number of libraries in the neighborhood or the know-how and resources to organize political action.

Since the Coleman Report of the 1960s, we’ve known that having poorer kids in schools with wealthier kids is helpful for their development. However, increasing segregation by social class makes this even more difficult.

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Charlotte mayor: rural areas of states hold back big cities

Charlotte mayor Jennifer Roberts discusses the relationship between state legislators and big cities:

ROBERTS: Remember, this is Charlotte. There’s always a way out of the impasse. This is absolutely not something that just Charlotte is facing. I talk to mayors: In Seattle, they have rural areas that often don’t understand what they’re doing—Phoenix, Atlanta, so many other cities have this challenge. And this is a critical issue in America because we have many states that are still controlled largely by rural legislators. And there are different needs. We’re not a one-size-fits-all country. So if you are in a rural area, you’re thinking about things differently. If you’re in a densely developed, urban center that’s dynamic, where change happens every day, you’re looking at things differently than if you’re in a town or rural community where things haven’t changed in decades. And so, my worry for America is that we have states that are holding our cities back.

We have read that cities are the center of innovation. They are laboratories for how we face the 21st century, how we solve the energy crisis, how we work on climate change, how we make sure people are included, how we work on public safety in an increasingly diverse universe of people who are moving, are transient, are mingling, and are living close together. And how do we solve all those issues if we have a rural mentality where things are static? We don’t have the tools. This is a great challenge in America: How do we convey that it’s okay to be different? I love our rural areas. I spend time in the mountains, in small cities, and small towns. We have wonderful people in North Carolina. But, how do we show them that we’re not competing with them in our cities, that it’s not diminishing them? That we are actually providing sales tax for them? Just let Charlotte be Charlotte. Let Charlotte work.

On the one hand, this could be a very real issue: leaders in Charlotte likely want very different things from leaders in small towns and rural counties. This urban-rural dynamic happens in many states, including Illinois where it is Chicago vs. downstate.

On the other hand, I’m guessing states also provide some benefits for cities. Does Charlotte receive a lot of state funding? Are there certain programs or initiatives that it would be hard even for a large city to put together themselves? Think of things like entitlement programs or the DMV or state roads.

I imagine relationships between city and rural leaders could be more beneficial to both in numerous states if they sought to maximize each other’s advantages…but this is unlikely to happen. The urban-rural divide has a long history in the United States going back to an urban North and agrarian South as well as competing visions of idyllic small town life versus the bustling, innovative metropolis.

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No to NIMBY, Yes to YIMBY

The housing issues of the Bay Area and other major cities has led to a new YIMBY movement:

The stubbornness of the NIMBYs has sparked a counter-YIMBY movement (“yes in my backyard”) among activists who believe the way out of the housing crisis is to build.

Trauss, the founder of the San Francisco Bay Area Renters’ Federation (SF BARF), is one of the more visible members of the growing YIMBY movement in the city. She began her activism shortly after moving to the city from Philadelphia…

The severity of the housing crisis is swinging public policy in favor of the YIMBYs. In May, Trauss and housing activists from around the state went to Sacramento to walk the halls and meet with legislators in the capitol to lobby support of Governor Jerry Brown’s latest “as of right” proposal that would streamline the permitting process for new development that meets affordable housing requirements to prevent NIMBYs from stalling proposed residential projects…

The growing organization of the YIMBYs was evidenced at their first national conference in Boulder, Colorado last weekend. The gathering included representatives from Austin, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York, Oakland, San Francisco, Seattle, and several other cities, according to The Atlantic CityLab. An international conference is planned for August in Helsinki, Finland.

It will be fascinating to see if this group gets anywhere. How do you convince wealthier residents to voluntarily give up their locational privileges? It will take a lot of sustained political pressure to go against people who have resources and close connections to local officials and people involved in real estate.

If I had to guess, I would think the YIMBY groups are led by middle class people who say that cities should be affordable to college graduates and young families who are trying to start in life. It is a different conversation to push for truly affordable housing; when the average rent in San Francisco for a 1 bedroom is over $3,000, where is there actually room for lower income residents (let alone middle class residents)?

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The geography of minority majority counties

New data on demographic change in the United States highlights counties with minority-majority populations:

In 370 counties across 36 states and the District of Columbia, non-Hispanic whites accounted for less than half the population as of July 2015. That includes 31 additional counties since 2010, such as those encompassing Fort Worth and Austin in Texas; Charlotte, N.C.; Savannah, Ga.; and parts of suburban Atlanta and Sacramento, Calif.

Of the nation’s 3,142 counties, the so-called minority majority ones—12% of the total—represent an outsize chunk of the U.S. population since they are home to almost one-third of Americans…

In Texas, Latinos are the main group driving the shift, primarily because they are younger and have more children than whites, said Texas State Demographer Lloyd Potter. Whites are also moving out of the urban cores of Fort Worth and Austin.

A notable uptick in Asian immigrants is also diversifying these cities, Mr. Potter said. Immigration from Mexico has slowed so much that the percentage of immigrants coming to Texas from Asia is almost as high as the share coming from Latin America. “That’s a very dramatic shift in a relatively short period of time,” he said.

In other words, there are two processes going on:

  1. The spread of minorities – particularly new groups since the 1965 Immigration Act – throughout all parts of the United States, including rural areas.
  2. Continued concentration of non-whites in large urban centers.

There is enough demographic change taking place across the country that many communities have new populations even as minority majority counties are still limited. All of this probably contributes to some of the geographic divides of today such as competing interests between urban, suburban, and rural groups as well as Democrats having city votes, Republicans having rural votes, and the parties fighting over suburban votes.

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Claim: liberals love cities due to “snobbery, graft, and politics”

Glenn Reynolds argues liberals like cities for self-serving reasons:

The snobbery comes from the fact that most media are headquartered in big cities and the people who work there are the kind of people who like big cities — often people who, as one of Taylor Swift’s songs has it, move to a “big ole city” in part as revenge on the places they come from. As Kotkin notes, the writers, pundits and academic types who write on the subject of cities tend to live in big cities; suburban and rural people are treated as losers, or just ignored, despite the fact that most people don’t live in big cities. And there’s a class thing going on, too. As Robert Bruegmann noted in his book, Sprawl: A Compact History, nobody minds when rich people build houses in the country. It’s when the middle class does it that we get complaints.

The graft is probably more important still: Big developments mean lots of permissions, many regulatory interactions and, of course, big budgets — all of which lend themselves to facilitating the transfer of money from developers to politicians. Frequently they’re government subsidized, which allows that money to come, ultimately but almost invisibly, from the pockets of taxpayers…

Finally, there’s politics. Politicians like to pursue policies that encourage their political enemies to leave, while encouraging those who remain to vote for them. (This is known as “the Curley effect” after James Michael Curley, a former mayor of Boston.)  People who have children, or plan to, tend to be more conservative, or at least more bourgeois, than those who do not. By encouraging high density and mass transit, urban politicians (who are almost always on the left) encourage people who might oppose them to “vote with their feet” and move to the suburbs.

This isn’t necessarily good for the cities they rule. Curley’s approach, which involved “wasteful redistribution to his poor Irish constituents and incendiary rhetoric to encourage richer citizens to emigrate from Boston,” as David Henderson wrote on the EconLog, shaped the electorate to his benefit. Result: “Boston as a consequence stagnated, but Curley kept winning elections.”

A quick response to each of these claims:

  1. I think there is indeed some urban snobbery among academics. Comparatively, there is little attention paid to suburbs even though a majority of Americans live there. Yes, it is convenient to study cities as many research schools are in large cities but to look down on other areas – usually viewed as conservative, backward, and less cosmopolitan – is not good.
  2. Cities do indeed have a lot of regulations. This is almost inevitable given their complexity. Think of cities with power laws rather than linear relationships; doubling the population doesn’t simply create twice the complexity but rather four times. As conservatives have pointed out recently, pretty much all major American cities are run by Democrats and there corruption scandals keep emerging. Yet, conservatives are not immune to such city scandals – see the example of Big Bill Thompson in Chicago. How about a different explanation: big government invites opportunities for malfeasance for all (and Democrats happen to be in charge of most big cities today)?
  3. This is an interesting argument as much as has been made in recent decades about the negative effects of white flight as well as efforts by many cities to attract younger, wealthier residents. Did big city mayors really try to keep conservatives out of cities? Take Chicago again as an example. The mayors and residents did as much as they could to stem the movement of non-whites into certain parts of the city and were fairly successful for decades. But, when their tools disappeared and demographics changed, many left. Did Mayor Richard J. Daley want this? At the same time, Daley made deals with black South Side politicians to have a reliable voting bloc. Perhaps this isn’t exactly the argument; cities really don’t want suburbanites or suburban living. Yet, David Rusk has argued for years that elastic cities – those that have been able to capture suburban growth (mostly in the South and West) – are more successful ones. So, are cities spiting themselves simply to keep a party in power?

Of course, these three reasons ignore other reasons for liking cities: economic opportunities (which both cities and suburbs can benefit from), diverse neighborhoods and public spaces, people watching, and physical and social features not found elsewhere (from skyscrapers to symphony orchestras). Even though suburbia may be more self-sustaining that many give it credit for, imagining a world of suburbs where Americans can live free without having any major cities is very difficult to imagine.

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The first control center Cold War bunker opened in 1958 in Wheaton

If the Soviet Union had unleashed nuclear weapons on the United States, perhaps the country would have gotten up and running again from a bunker in Wheaton, Illinois:

A Cold War bunker in Wheaton — hailed as America’s first Nuclear Age Civil Defense control center — is scheduled to be razed in the coming months, taking with it some of the last pieces of evidence of the tense geopolitical standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The $500,000 bomb shelter, built inconspicuously underneath a one-story highway office on DuPage County’s government campus, was constructed to house up to 60 civil defense workers to keep operations running for weeks post-atomic blast.

Its ribbon-cutting was held almost exactly a year after the USSR launched Sputnik, the man-made satellite that orbited the earth in October 1957 and heightened fears of a Soviet attack on U.S. soil. It was also a time when schoolchildren practiced “duck and cover” drills to protect themselves from nuclear explosions and women’s home magazines included tips for furnishing bomb shelters…

An entrance can be sealed off in the event of a blast and the bunker features a ceiling of 36-inch-thick reinforced concrete and 18-inch cinder block walls. Moving from room to room, I found decontamination showers, a “war room” of sorts designed for tracking Soviet attacks and a secure landline, which at one point could have connected workers to the White House.

It would be interesting to consider how the leaders of DuPage County – quite conservative politically in the decades after World War II and open to suburban growth – might have responded uniquely to the use of nuclear weapons. If the major centers of the United States were knocked out, could the county officials from suburban Chicago be counted on to get the country on the right track?

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Should Baltimore provide $535 million in TIF funds for a new private development?

The CEO of Under Armour wants to develop roughly 260 acres of land in Baltimore but is asking for public funds. A large debate has ensued:

The problem is that Plank, despite being a self-made billionaire, wants a lot of help to make his vision for Port Covington a reality. To that end, his real estate firm, Sagamore, has asked the city of Baltimore for a record-breaking $535 million in so-called tax increment financing. TIFs, as these types of loans are known, are used to fund infrastructure by selling municipal bonds to private investors, and then property taxes generated by the new development are used to pay them back. Though beloved by titans of commercial real estate, TIFs tend to draw scrutiny because they divert so much money away from a city’s general fund. MuniCap, a consulting firm that Sagamore hired to analyze its TIF application, projects that Plank’s development would not yield property tax revenue for Baltimore’s coffers until about 2040, even as the site would require substantial city resources in the interim…

“[We are] outraged that, one year after the world bore witness to the decades of disinvestment in poor neighborhoods and communities of color, city leaders would respond by bending over backwards to back a $535 million playground for the rich,” Charly Carter, the executive director of Maryland Working Families, a progressive political advocacy group, says. “This is the new Jim Crow—black and brown families subsidizing wealthy developers while our own neighborhoods crumble.”…

The campaign to remake Port Covington has been aggressive and well-funded. Sagamore has already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on marketing the development to the public, and its forceful slogan—“#WeWill build it”—suggests that the project is a fait accompli.

Which isn’t far off the mark. The Baltimore Development Corp., a public-private agency, approved Plank’s $535 million TIF request in March, and the city’s Board of Finance backed it in April. Now all it needs is the Baltimore City Council’s final approval, which could come as early as August. Activists have urged the council to postpone its vote to give the public more time to comb through the 545-page proposal. But according to Councilman Carl Stokes, who heads the body’s economic development committee, Sagamore wants the deal approved by the end of the summer.

This is often how such things are done: a wealthy business leader wants to make more money in real estate development and asks for a tax break from the city or state to help make it more profitable. (There’s nothing in this article to indicate that the Plank has threatened to move to another city.) The big city, often desperate for large projects that supposedly bring lots of jobs but also spruce up areas that few developers would be interested in, doesn’t want to hinder business. The approval is made, the money is diverted, the big development occurs, and the business leaders behind the scenes are the ones who profit the most. This is the essence of the growth machines model in urban sociology and it often involves tax breaks for developers.

What will be interesting to see is if such a project would be voted down or the money significantly cut. Again, most cities are not in the business of angering leaders of big business. But, it isn’t unheard of to negotiate for some changes to the development that might benefit more people or reduce the dependence on public funds.

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Quick Review: A Burglar’s Guide to the City

Joining the subjects of crime and architecture, A Burglar’s Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh is an interesting if not repetitive read. Some thoughts about a book that would intrigue many general readers:

  1. Manaugh’s main argument is that criminals – burglars in particular – see buildings and cities in very different ways compared to architects. While architects assume people will use the correct entrances and the rest of the building as it is intended, burglars are always looking for unique ways in and out of buildings which leads to going through walls, roofs, and floors. Additionally, the locations of buildings can significantly affect burglary – such as the banks right next to highway on and off ramps in the Los Angeles area. In other words, these criminals are hackers of the built landscape.
  2. Manaugh talks to a number of law enforcement people and records some interesting insights. The best people he talks to are from Los Angeles as he travels with the helicopter crews and tries to see the city from above as well as spot criminal activity from this vantage points.
  3. Oddly, Manaugh doesn’t spend much time talking to architects. Do they think they should pay more attention to possible criminal behavior? Do they need to change how they think about buildings? He does talk to one creator of safe rooms.
  4. Overall, Manaugh seems a bit in awe of the burglars who can see the landscape in the ways that no one else can. He basically admits this at the beginning of the last chapter – he likes heist films – and admits at a few points that the vast majority of burglaries are connected to drugs.

This is an interesting read and those who like examples of daring criminals – such as those bank robbers who build tunnels under bank vaults, emerge from the floor, and escape through water tunnels on 4x4s – will find plenty to like. Yet, Manaugh doesn’t go far enough to connecting of how architects and city planners should respond or even if they should – perhaps this is just collateral damage of living in American cities today.

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