Creating the “mobile-ghetto” in major cities

Affordable housing is scarce in many major global cities so one architect has a design for the “mobile-ghetto”:

So as Malka sees it, Parisians need a way to “reclaim” the city. His idea is a modular micro-city consisting of rooms that attach to scaffolding built around existing infrastructure, like barnacles clinging to a ship. He calls it the P9 Mobile-Ghetto, and has imagined them here hanging off the side of the Pont Neuf bridge in Paris.

“In a time when we are getting more and more mobile, not only regarding our phone and laptop devices, but also…the increasing number of freelancers or homeworkers, mobile-cities would totally change the uses and the morphology of the city,” Malka says. In practice, this means that the idea of a third space—in which city dwellers inhabit coffee shops and parks the way others gather in their living rooms, or regard shared bicycle programs as their own bikes—extends to include a smattering of rooms or event spaces created for the public, and run by the public. The bridge can become your meditation center; an out-of-use monument could become an art gallery.

Obvious complications with zoning and historical preservationists aside, Malka says the Voluntary Ghetto is technically plausible, and would just require using scaffolding to support shipping container-sized rooms. That said, this (conceptual) new layer of infrastructure says more about urban lifestyles than it does about feats of architecture. Would Parisians (or New Yorkers, or Londoners, or any city residents) delight in finding more intimate, indoor, spaces, or would it feel like a brash paint job on a historic city? “If there is an utopia in this project,” Malka says, “it’s more in its social dimension than its architectural aspect.”

Two quick thoughts:

1. Shipping container type structures are popular these days since they are relatively available and have a standard size. Yet, I wonder how communities would respond to the architecture that is often made with them. For lack of a better descriptor, it is boxy. It is one thing to supply affordable housing; it is another to put these sorts of designs on the Pont Neuf. Add that to the barnacle type image and it doesn’t necessarily look pretty.

2. A design like this or other recent innovations like tiny houses really can be limited by zoning laws. Major cities are often mazes of zoning regulations. While these zones exist for a reason, they can often make true innovation quite difficult. How much would cities be willing to revisit their zoning laws to allow spaces for these sorts of designs that are smaller and more flexible? I’m not imagine an overlay district – that is simply putting a temporary or permanent zoning change or exception over existing zones – but rather revisiting the whole thing to adapt to buildings and spaces in the 2010s.

Reminder: shopping malls are clearly not public spaces

An effort to hold a protest at the Mall of America this Saturday was met with a predictable response: the mall is not a public space and the protest is not welcome.

The organizers, who are calling for a protest as part of the national “Black Lives Matter” movement responding to recent police shootings of unarmed black men, vow they will carry on as planned in the mall’s rotunda.

The protest had drawn 2,000 confirmations on its Facebook page as of Wednesday afternoon. Saturday also is one of the busiest shopping days of the holiday season.

Mall representatives have said that a demonstration at the mall would violate policy, and protesters could be removed, arrested and banned…

“Mall of America is a commercial retail and entertainment center. We respect the right to free speech, but Mall of America is private property and not a forum for protests, demonstrations or public debates,” mall management said in a statement.

As an alternative, the mall and the city of Bloomington urged protesters to use the former Alpha Business Center lot, which is public property adjacent to the mall, according to a letter from the mall posted on the Black Lives Matter Minneapolis Facebook page.

The number one function of a shopping mall is to make money and protests can distract from that. Yet, shopping malls are one of the rare spaces in American suburban sprawl that you can find large numbers of people. One of the downsides of sprawl is that there are few public gathering places in centralized locations surrounded by population density. Sure, there are parks, public parking lots, and other public facilities but they tend to be spread out, often require driving, and don’t necessarily attract the attention of many other people.

Given the spread of protests along highways, I wonder if protestors could move instead to the public roads leading into the mall. There are likely restrictions on using these spaces as well but at least the protestors would be on public property.

$1 million plus homes continue to sell well

The top end of the real estate market is still going strong:

Across the map, the strongest growth in the residential real estate market lately is in high-end homes, according to the National Association of Realtors. In October, sales of homes at $1 million and above surged by 16.2 percent from the year before, while overall sales of homes were up by just 4.7 percent, the trade group said…

In the Chicago area, home sales in the million-and-up category were up 8 percent from January through September, with a median price (in that bracket) of $1.35 million, according to Re/Max Northern Illinois.

In Manatee and Sarasota counties in Florida (one of the leaders of the Bubble Country pack during the boom), 485 homes in the $1 million-plus category sold from January to the end of November, according to the Bradenton Herald…

His theory, apparently, is that the surging Dow has inspired confidence in average investors and has made them comfortable about putting their (other) money in real estate again, given that their savings are growing only incrementally within traditional investments.

The wealthy are still doing well in the real estate market while the rest of the market is still sluggish. How long can this trend last? In other words, could the top end of the market do well for years or longer while the bottom and middle struggle along?

A picket line against McMansions

McMansions may be unpopular in Los Angeles but they rarely attract picket lines:

Residents in the Melrose District Sunday protested what they’re calling mega-mansions in Los Angeles.

A picket line was set-up outside of a new home in the 700 block of N. Vista Street which some claim towers over much smaller residences nearby and isn’t energy-efficient.

Demonstrators say they timed their protest to coincide with the realtor’s open-house of the residence…

The owner of the home being picketed was not available for comment.

I am guessing this doesn’t build goodwill among neighbors. Imagine you are trying to sell a home (or buy that same home) that attracts a picket line…I’m not sure there is a good outcome for that seller. I assume the people in the picket line hope this (1) draws attention to their cause and (2) tells other owners in the neighborhood that they will be unhappy with similar teardowns. Yet, I wonder if this truly acts as a deterrent and instead affects their own property values. Directly protesting the actions of one homeowner tends to violate neighborhood friendliness or at least the suburban moral minimalism (a term from The Moral Order of a Suburb by Baumgarner) of leaving each other alone that marks many sprawling communities.

Radio will be saved – by the lack of NSA monitoring, zombie apocalypse

Slate has an interesting set of articles about podcasts but one article notes the persistence of terrestrial radio. Among the reasons given for its ongoing influence includes operating outside of NSA control and zombie apocalypses:

  • Most of us don’t feel the cost of the data we’re using when we stream online content. But this could be changing. “Half the public still has no idea what data metering is,” says Smulyan, “but we find it changes consumption completely when people see what they’re paying for the data they use.”
  • Due to some complex legislation, it can be less onerous to pay artist royalties when you play music over the airwaves than when you send it over the Internet. For this reason, last year Pandora bought an FM station in South Dakota, in an effort to qualify as a terrestrial broadcaster.
  • When the revolution comes, radio will be vital for the propagation of seditious content. It leaves no digital footprints. And the NSA is unlikely to hack into your transistor boom box and track what you listen to.
  • When the zombie apocalypse arrives, radio will save your hide. Anyone with a generator and an antenna can broadcast radio, and everyone listening hears the same key information in real time.

The first two reasons have to do with finances: radio can be relatively cheap for operators and listeners. These are important considerations today: can media conglomerates and music artists still make money?

The last two have some different rationales. Radio can’t be controlled as easily, even with the complex rules regarding licenses and broadcasting though perhaps listeners have even more freedom as they can tune in to what they want (as long as they aren’t recording what they listened to for ratings purposes). In times of disasters – and there is a lower likelihood of facing zombies compared to being in a natural disaster – radio provides an easy way to broadcast and hear information. Does the Internet work well in those situations? The argument here is that the infrastructure for the Internet is more complicated than that for radio, thus, radio will win in times of trouble.

I suspect the second pair of reasons will prove less influential in the long run than the first pair regarding money. But, if money wins out and broadcasting moves to the Internet, might that completely wipe out the presence of radio for the last two purposes?


The New York Times is not so good at identifying gentrifying neighborhoods

A new study compares what neighborhoods were pegged as gentrifying by the New York Times and academics based on census data. There was a discrepancy:

The study, by sociologist Michael Barton of Louisiana State University, examines the differences between neighborhoods that the Times has identified as “gentrified” or “gentrifying” in the past three decades, and those identified by Census data and major academic studies. He finds a wide – and concerning – gap between the neighborhoods that social scientists call “gentrified” and those to which the Times affixes that label

To get at this, Barton’s study used a LexisNexis database search to discover which New York City neighborhoods the Times identified as “gentrified” between 1980 and 2009. He then compared these neighborhoods to those identified as “gentrified” according to measures used in two classic quantitative studies. The first study, published in 2003 by Raphael Bostic and Richard Martin, identified gentrified neighborhoods based on median incomes. Their method sees gentrified neighborhoods as those that saw their median incomes grow from less than 50 percent of the metro median to more than 50 percent of it. The second strategy, based on a 2005 study by Lance Freeman, identifies gentrifying neighborhoods based on a broader set of changes in income, education and housing. For Freeman, gentrified neighborhoods are those that started with median income levels below those for the city as a whole but then where educational levels and housing prices rose to be greater than the city’s. Barton’s study focuses on gentrification in New York City neighborhoods and is based on data for the 188 neighborhood areas identified by the Department of City Planning.

The bottom line: Barton found considerable differences between the neighborhoods the Times identified as gentrified and those identified by the quantitative studies…

What jumps out here are the large swathes of the city in which significant neighborhood change goes ignored by the Times. The Grey Lady was much more likely to peg gentrification in “hip” neighborhoods in Manhattan and adjacent parts of Brooklyn (like Williamsburg) than in the Bronx and Queens, particularly in the 1990s and 2000s. Generally speaking, the gentrifying neighborhoods discussed in the Times lined up more neatly with the more restrictive method used by Bostic and Martin than it did with Freeman.  Still, as Barton writes, “the association of both census-based strategies with the New York Times were moderate at best.”

I was recently looking at some classic “growth machine” literature (Urban Fortunes by Logan and Molotch) and here is an explanation they might suggest: newspapers generally are interested in promoting urban growth. This is because they are interested in building their subscriber base which puts more eyeballs on advertisements which means they can charge more. So, if “hip” neighborhoods are identified by the Times and more people in these young, educated places buy the newspaper that claims they are participating in something hip, the Times comes out ahead. Yet, chasing these younger demographics and the latest monied scene may not match up with accurate reporting on neighborhood change.

This finding may also highlight some significant differences in gentrification patterns. A quick influx of young, creative class whites may mark one neighborhood but income growth (and other positive factors) may be related to a slower process and/or featuring non-whites, non creative class types in other neighborhoods. It is not as if all neighborhoods in major cities with less-than-average incomes have an equal probability of gentrifying as there are numerous factors at work.


Waze app ruins tranquil Los Angeles streets near major highways

Drivers have flooded a number of residential streets near major LA highways thanks to apps that reroute drivers around congestion:

When the people whose houses hug the narrow warren of streets paralleling the busiest urban freeway in America began to see bumper-to-bumper traffic crawling by their homes a year or so ago, they were baffled.

When word spread that the explosively popular new smartphone app Waze was sending many of those cars through their neighborhood in a quest to shave five minutes off a daily rush-hour commute, they were angry and ready to fight back.

They would outsmart the app, some said, by using it to report phony car crashes and traffic jams on their streets that would keep the shortcut-seekers away…

There are some things that can be done to mitigate the situation, said Los Angeles Department of Transportation spokesman Bruce Gillman, like placing speed bumps and four-way stop signs on streets. Lanes could even be taken out to discourage shortcut seekers, but a neighborhood traffic study would have to be done first.

A fascinating confluence of driving culture and new technology. Now, no street near the major highways are safe from traffic!

It will be fascinating to see how the city responds to complaints from local residents. Having rush hour congestion on your residential road can make for quite a different experience. It is a quality of life issue – who wants to have bumper to bumper cars in front – and I suspect the residents are also worried about their property values. Yet, what about the concerns of drivers on highways like the 405 that handle over 375,000 cars a day? This is a classic stand-off between individual drivers and individual property owners – who should win between the prized American driver and property-owner?

The real solution here is to keep looking for ways to reduce the number of vehicles on the highways in the first place. However, such plans at this point in LA’s development require a long-term perspective and lots of money.

Can a home be unassuming on the outside but a McMansion on the inside?

One Detroit house for sale looks unassuming on the outside but has a remodeled interior that Curbed claims is a “McMansion on the inside”:

House hunting in Indian Village is usually an adventure. Covering a wide range of architectural styles, every house in the neighborhood has its own personality. Plus, it’s Detroit, so there’s always the chance of finding a hot mess of a mansion.

Perhaps that’s why 2741 Seminole is kind of a bummer. The four-bedroom house dates back to 1915, but a recent remod swiped its personality for that of the local Marriott. Beige tile, beige backsplash, beige granite, and beige carpeting a sad interior do make. There is hope in the living room, where you’ll find original wood floors and what looks like an old bar. Ask: $264K.

After looking at the pictures, it seems that McMansion is used here as shorthand for bland. As noted, the colors are not that exciting though it looks like much of the trim is still dark wood and at least one stained-glass window and built-in drawers feature was saved. The bland charge hints at a kind of mass production that one wouldn’t expect looking at the exterior of the home or the year it was built. If a buyer was looking for character in this interior, it has been glazed over with neutral colors and updated features. Perhaps there is a market for this kind of house: people who want the exterior to exude true gravitas (as opposed to the garishness of newer McMansions) but want the updated and neutral interior.

Another connotation of McMansion is of poor design or quality; it is hard to know from these pictures whether that is the case with the interior changes.

But, would critics of McMansions really be willing to brand this home a McMansion? Many such determinations are based on the exterior and the image the owner projects to the neighborhood. But, if the owner doesn’t offend the sensibilities of those who see it, is it really that bad?

When the underground borer Bertha gets stuck under Seattle – for a year

The construction of massive infrastructure underground can be impressive but it doesn’t always go as planned:

A year ago this month, North America’s largest tunnel-boring machine got stuck just 10 percent of the way through a 1.7-mile-long dig under downtown Seattle. Throughout 2014, engineers have been plugging away on an ambitious plan, outlined in a Popular Mechanics feature, to free the mechanical marvel and get the project going again.

But today, Bertha remains stuck under the city. And according to an update from The New York Times, crews monitoring the project to free the machine have noticed something alarming: one inch worth of settling in the downtown district under which Bertha now sits…

Instead, investigators eventually concluded that Bertha was overheating—that grime and gunk had gotten past bearing seals, entered the machine, and muddied the operation. Engineers still aren’t sure why all this happened to the 326-foot-long machine, but they decided they had replace not only the seals but also the $5 million main bearing.

But just getting to Bertha, which sat more than 60 feet below downtown Seattle near the stadium district and the waterfront, posed a serious problem. Crews could go through the painstaking, time-sucking process of disassembling the machine from behind to make the fixes, but instead chose to dig a 120-foot-deep access pit in front of Bertha.

It shouldn’t be too surprising that such a big project could lead to a problem that doesn’t have a quick fix. Putting together a machine this size is notable in itself and getting it back on track likely requires a lot of careful planning and long hours. Yet, these sorts of projects tend to go on without much attention until they are done and people experience the benefits. Unless something goes wrong. It would be interesting to see how Seattle responds to the delay and if someone is blamed for the problems, what kind of negative consequences they suffer.

Some Chicago suburbs welcome luxury apartments

A number of Chicago suburbs have new or recently approved luxury apartment complexes:

Suburbs that have long thought of themselves as bucolic communities filled with houses and families are warmly embracing the very type of residence that used to make them leery: the apartment.

Just don’t call them rentals, a word that conjures up an image different from the projects that municipal governments are selling to their constituents. Almost 4,000 apartments in well-appointed, amenity-filled buildings with rents to match are under construction or proposed in suburbs throughout the Chicago area. They are designed to attract young professionals and empty nesters with roots in the suburbs…

Some, but certainly not all the projects are transit-oriented, constructed near suburban downtowns and train stations or they are being used to create a downtown where there never was one before. But as they move forward, communities are grappling with concerns about density and traffic congestion, and affordable housing advocates worry that low and moderate-income residents who rely more heavily on public transportation don’t have the option of living near it…

“Many of them equated rental housing with low-income property,” Strosberg said. “It’s more recent that they’ve appreciated that rental comes in all different forms. There’s market-rate housing that appeals to a significant portion of their residents who don’t want to make a commitment to buying a place today.”

In wealthier suburbs, apartments often prompt images of transient residents who don’t care much about the community, lower-income residents, traffic, and large properties in communities proud of nice single-family homes. But, luxury apartments help reduce the perceived issues of social class and can bring money into the city (perhaps they can even help boost property values, residents spend money at nearby businesses, etc.). In other words, luxury apartments don’t create the same kind of issues, particularly if seen as part of reviving an area like a downtown. These communities may not go crazy approving such developments all over the place but I suspect many mature Chicago suburbs will continue to approve apartments that do contribute to higher densities but project a higher-end image.