Mass transit agencies developing land to generate revenues

The actions of New York’s MTA – Metropolitan Transportation Authority – suggest a way American mass transit agencies can generate money: through partnering on transit-oriented development.

That is what inspired Harrison’s Halstead Avenue project, a $76.8 million mixed-use real estate development built in collaboration between the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which oversees the Metro-North, and developer AvalonBay Communities. It is the first time ever that the Metro-North will sell a parcel of its land for transit-oriented development (TOD); in this case: 143 apartments, 27,000 square feet of retail space, two pedestrian plazas, and a 598-space parking garage, most of which is reserved for the public and commuters…

The New York MTA, the largest transit agency in the U.S., is becoming more familiar with this type of construction. The Hudson Yards project—where the MTA decked over its train yards, and sold the rights to developers for $1 billion to build an entire Manhattan neighborhood on top, with a new subway line extension beneath—is perhaps the largest TOD project in American history. At One Vanderbilt Avenue, an office building being constructed across from Grand Central Terminal, developer fees to the MTA will pay for interior improvements throughout the huge hub.

But the Harrison project marks a new direction for the cash-strapped MTA, which is on the hunt for new revenue: Decades of underinvestment and recent ridership declines have left the MTA with a projected $433 million budget shortfall, a gap that a recession could worsen. Meanwhile, critics agree that Manhattan’s soon-to-come congestion pricing scheme cannot alone cover the cost of the subway system’s badly needed overhaul. Capturing revenues from transit-oriented development on MTA-owned lots could help. So the agency is eyeing projects in suburban communities outside of Manhattan, with the hopes that the prospect of economic development will prod smaller towns to plot their futures near its train stations…

Transit agencies in Europe and Asia are much more likely use development as a revenue tool much more commonly than their U.S. counterparts. David King, a professor at Arizona State University who has studied transit-oriented development, said that this is largely due to the fragmented (and car-centric) nature of land and transit planning, capital investment and operation in the United States. For example, as a state-regulated public authority, with a variety of funding pots for capital and operating costs, the MTA has to comply with home rule for a housing project.

Private transportation firms in the United States have promoted and/or participated in development for years. It was good business for transportation providers to promote travel and now more accessible properties. Railroad and streetcar lines made special trips to the end of their lines where they would then sell riders on new properties.

What could make this more complicated in the United States is that transit agencies could be drawing on public funds and the United States has a history of concern about how public funds are used for development. If public money helps support traditional suburban life – think the single-family homes and highways the federal government and others groups helped make possible before and after World War II – then there may be limited outcry. Try using such monies for affordable housing, particularly for poorer residents, and opposition will arise.

Thus, this project in suburban Harrison, New York fits existing patterns. Transit-oriented development along rail lines in suburban downtowns is very common and desired by many suburbs. The project is not too big. It sounds like the suburb wants some denser downtown development. It does not involve housing considered too cheap by the community. But, whether this tactic could expand across metropolitan regions remains to be seen.

Novel suggests McMansions gentrify small suburbs

A new novel suggests McMansions can upset small suburbs:

Novels about small houses in small towns can feel cramped. But in Julie Langsdorf’s White Elephant, the locals fight to keep things that way in their property battle with a builder who puts up McMansions. Set in the suburban Maryland town of Willard Park, the story depicts a married couple’s struggle with their defunct sex life, middle school kids and their awkward, back-stabbing drama, a pot-head attorney whose marriage is in trouble, and numerous sketches of other denizens. White Elephant has a long, slow start, but once it gets going, it bolts straight to the end...

White Elephant is a gentrification story which focuses on suburbs and small towns. This tale will feel familiar to anyone who has lived in an inner suburb and woken up one morning to the shock of McMansions going up nearby. Suddenly all the talk is of assessments, property values, equity, and second mortgages. The new houses tower over neighbors. Or, if a block of expensive townhouses has been installed, suddenly the local school is too small. It’s not as pernicious as urban gentrification, booting out locals to make way for wealthy hipsters and their $10 latte watering holes, but it’s a menacing cousin. Costly houses and townhouses open the door for luxury apartments, and once those appear, all the old affordable ones raise their rents. A person working full-time on minimum wage can hardly afford a one-bedroom apartment in any American city, and this is the next step, as the blight of gentrification seeps out into formerly cheap suburbs.

I believe that McMansions can upset residents’ conceptions of their neighborhood or community. There are plenty of cases in the last 10-20 years that suggest some believe McMansions, whether in new subdivisions or as teardowns, ruin locations they like.

On the other hand, the description above of how all this works seems a bit odd to me. A few questions:

  1. How many inner suburbs become home to many teardown McMansions? Inner suburbs can be wealthy, working-class to poor, or somewhere in-between.
  2. My guess is that McMansions and more expensive housing do not just pop up in a community: there are precipitating qualities of the community that lead developers and local officials to think that the more expensive housing would take off. In other words, wealthier communities beget more housing for wealthier residents.
  3. Cheap suburbs, if just going by cost of housing, can be located throughout a metropolitan region. If gentrification is simply more expensive redevelopment, it could happen in many places throughout a region.
  4. Why is this gentrifiation not as pernicious if new development makes it harder for locals to stay? It may be happening in a suburban area but not all suburbs are that well-off.
  5. Is there a small-town suburban life worth defending? Decades of suburban critiques suggested suburbanites and their communities have all sorts of deficiencies. Are suburbs now to be saved from McMansions?

The McMansion is a monster to invoke in today’s fictional tales as its size and lack of good taste relegate it to at least shady, if not menacing, status.

Briefly considering the factors behind less successful social media platforms

Social media may seem all powerful and present at this particular moment but it may be helpful to remember that numerous social media platforms did not succeed and for a variety of reasons:

By the New York Times’s and Abrams’s own account, though, hubris killed Friendster. A group of venture capitalists persuaded Abrams to turn down a $30 million offer from Google and then ran it into the ground with novel features rather than keeping the creaky site functioning smoothly. Pages just didn’t load…

In 2008, two years after reportedly surpassing Google as the most-visited website in the United States, Facebook eclipsed Myspace’s monthly user count. In 2011, when Myspace announced it was laying off half its staff, the New York Times attributed its decline to “fickle consumers and changing tastes”; a corporate “culture clash”; litter of celebrity promotion and pop-up ads; and Facebook’s standardized utilitarian interface–meaning that prefab profiles with names stylings like John Doe versus jdoe1234 were appealing to people. Forbes attributes Facebook’s generic design and its slow expansion through universities (with school email address verifications) and 13+ age policy to a perception that Facebook was a “safe space,” which would have incidentally coincided with a technopanic created by news reports of pedophilia. Social media scholar danah boyd performed an extensive study finding that racism also played a part, with upper-middle class white users deciding to wall off into exclusive groups…

The app for college students that quickly turned into a Black Mirror episode. Yik Yak, the anonymous messaging app designed by frat brothers Tyler Droll and Brooks Buffington with campuses in mind, allowed users to broadcast posts within a five-mile radius without creating a username. It soon became a scourge on 1,600 schools, terrorized by Yik Yak-borne threats: bomb threats which led to multiple lockdowns and evacuations, a threat of a “Virginia Tech 2.0,” threats by white students to kill black students, threats to rape and “euthanize” feminist students, and general cruelty and mockery encouraging suicide. Several schools banned it, subpoenas and court orders were issued, federal complaints were filed against schools, and Yik Yak had to disable the app near high schools and middle schools altogether…

Over the next decade, Orkut never took off in the US but was huge in Brazil and India, at one point, claiming 27 million members to Facebook’s 4.2 million. Orkut ostensibly fulfilled the same basic needs, but observers/analysts/users attributed Facebook’s dominance to a number of factors: Facebook had more games, the feed, the like button or notifications, a more “professional” look, mutual friends , and cultivated a following of international students and “professionals” who brought Facebook back to India.

These explanations have a tinge of post-hoc analysis made easier by comparisons to which platforms did succeed. But, a full explanation of what leads to success for some platforms and not others likely gets complicated by a variety of factors:

  1. Timing. When is the platform introduced, how much of a user base does it attract and at what speed, and how does it compare at the time to other options?
  2. Particular features offered.
  3. The user experience/interface.
  4. Organizational skills. Could the company effectively move forward or did it keep making problems for itself?
  5. Financial backing.
  6. Appeal to a narrower or broader audience.

That Facebook is viewed as a success does not necessarily mean that it had all the appealing features or a certain genius at its helm or simply arrived at the right time and in the right place. How fields develop like this is complex and littered with winners and losers, some more responsible for their own fate and others more influenced by the social forces around them. And developing the full story will likely take time as we assess how today’s winners fare and how social media itself as a form of technology evolves.

Win the lottery and build a home – but just not a McMansion

From the court of public opinion: imagine winning a big lottery payout, wanting to construct a new home, and then facing backlash for choosing a McMansion:

I’d rather buy an existing home, but some people want to put their own fingerprints on the place they call home.

I respect that, as long as they don’t build one of those gaudy McMansions that are a blight on our urban landscapes. The last thing we need is another generic McMansion with giant white columns erected in front of the entrance and marble lions at the front of the driveway.

This above is, of course, all just opinion but imagine some wacky scenarios where this could be a problem:

  1. Lottery winners are often publicly named so the smiling face and the floor plans of the new McMansion are splashed across local news websites and print media accompanied by negative headlines and insinuations.
  2. The proposal to build the new home is immediately met with angry neighbors and/or public officials who will drag their feet as long as possible before approving the home that is within local guidelines. (Going further, a community could immediately enact new building regulations.)
  3. A protestor shows up to silently mark the construction and presence of the McMansion lottery home.
  4. The home becomes ostracized in the community, known by some derogatory label, the target of egging, TPing, and random junk mailings, and held up as an example of what the community does not want in the future.

Any of these might be enough for a lottery winner to go construct a McMansion in a more McMansion-friendly community (and they do exist even if they likely do not advertise themselves as such).

SimCity, Jane Jacobs, and real estate values near the High Line

In a recent walk along New York’s High Line, I was reminded of two competing claims about how parks enhance nearby land uses.

In SimCity’s take on urban planning, building a park was a good way to help adjacent properties. If nearby residential and commercial properties suffered from low property values – perhaps due to higher crime rates or locations near industry – building a park could help enhance their values. This seems to make intuitive sense: people like being near greenery and this land use can distract or suppress less desirable land uses.

Jane Jacobs, in contrast, suggests parks are not the automatic panacea some planners suggest. More important than simply having green or recreational space is having a steady mix of people flowing through and around the park. It is human activity that makes the park, not just green space. Indeed, negative activity can thrive and recreational space can easily become part of a dull or blighted area.

HighLineAug19

In a simplistic take, the High Line seems to support both of these views. The conversion of an unused railroad line to a thriving park has enhanced nearby property values. The park is regularly filled with people – from tourists to local walkers to vendors – during much of the day. This is a success story for both the SimCity and Jane Jacobs school of urban planning.

Yet, how exactly such an urban space came about and has both positive (new development!) and negative (those same values limiting who can live nearby!) consequences is more than just plopping a park into an area that could use more development. If it worked this way, every city would have such a successful project.

HighLine2Aug19

In a complex environment like Manhattan where land is highly prized and regulated, putting together such a project takes collective efforts spanning activists, residents, local officials, developers, and others who have an interest in this land and who may have competing interests. Property values may indeed be high and the park full but the long-term effects of this on the neighborhood and the city are harder to assess.

Finding an incomplete (circular) basketball court in the suburban wild

Years ago, I wrote a piece about how communities build small, unusually-shaped, or incomplete basketball courts in an effort to limit basketball players from congregating. I recently drove by one such court in Naperville – see the unique shape of this basketball surface.

BasketballCourtCircle

The park has a circular court with three hoops. Each 120 degree segment barely has enough room before its three-point lines coincide with the lines of the other segments.

The setting of the park: surrounded on all four sides by nice houses; multiple baseball fields; a soccer field in the middle.

Why set it up this way when the park appears to have plenty of room for a larger court (I would guess there is room for at least one full-size court roughly parallel to the east-west road)? Such a court limits play largely to shooting around as any game with more than two people per side is likely going to infringe on other parts of the court. It is very difficult to use two hoops for a game.

There could be multiple answers to this. The park district wanted to make sure multiple sports were available in the park and a larger basketball court would infringe on this. Other parks provide larger basketball courts. One request for public comment from the Naperville Park DistrictOne request for public comment from the Naperville Park District suggests 13 neighborhood parks have basketball facilities (including the one depicted above). Perhaps more basketball players prefer indoor facilities (understandable given the Chicago region’s climate).

It still is an unusual court. Could a community build an irregular shaped baseball field or tennis court and get away with it?

 

 

Connecting residential segregation, highways, mass transit, and congestion

Historian Kevin Kruse suggests the traffic congestion in today’s big cities is connected to segregation:

This intertwined history of infrastructure and racial inequality extended into the 1950s and 1960s with the creation of the Interstate highway system. The federal government shouldered nine-tenths of the cost of the new Interstate highways, but local officials often had a say in selecting the path. As in most American cities in the decades after the Second World War, the new highways in Atlanta — local expressways at first, then Interstates — were steered along routes that bulldozed “blighted” neighborhoods that housed its poorest residents, almost always racial minorities. This was a common practice not just in Southern cities like Jacksonville, Miami, Nashville, New Orleans, Richmond and Tampa, but in countless metropolises across the country, including Chicago, Cincinnati, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Syracuse and Washington.

While Interstates were regularly used to destroy black neighborhoods, they were also used to keep black and white neighborhoods apart. Today, major roads and highways serve as stark dividing lines between black and white sections in cities like Buffalo, Hartford, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and St. Louis. In Atlanta, the intent to segregate was crystal clear. Interstate 20, the east-west corridor that connects with I-75 and I-85 in Atlanta’s center, was deliberately plotted along a winding route in the late 1950s to serve, in the words of Mayor Bill Hartsfield, as “the boundary between the white and Negro communities” on the west side of town. Black neighborhoods, he hoped, would be hemmed in on one side of the new expressway, while white neighborhoods on the other side of it would be protected. Racial residential patterns have long since changed, of course, but the awkward path of I-20 remains in place…

[S]uburbanites waged a sustained campaign against the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) from its inception. Residents of the nearly all-white Cobb County resoundingly rejected the system in a 1965 vote. In 1971, Gwinnett and Clayton Counties, which were then also overwhelmingly white, followed suit, voting down a proposal to join MARTA by nearly 4-1 margins, and keeping MARTA out became the default position of many local politicians. (Emmett Burton, a Cobb County commissioner, won praise for promising to “stock the Chattahoochee with piranha” if that were needed to keep MARTA away.) David Chesnut, the white chairman of MARTA, insisted in 1987 that suburban opposition to mass transit had been “90 percent a racial issue.” Because of that resistance, MARTA became a city-only service that did little to relieve commuter traffic. By the mid-1980s, white racists were joking that MARTA, with its heavily black ridership, stood for “Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta.”…

Earlier this year, Gwinnett County voted MARTA down for a third time. Proponents had hoped that changes in the county’s racial composition, which was becoming less white, might make a difference. But the March initiative still failed by an eight-point margin. Officials discovered that some nonwhite suburbanites shared the isolationist instincts of earlier white suburbanites. One white property manager in her late 50s told a reporter that she voted against mass transit because it was used by poorer residents and immigrants, whom she called “illegals.” “Why should we pay for it?” she asked. “Why subsidize people who can’t manage their money and save up a dime to buy a car?”

Translation: decisions about transportation were both a consequence of a national inclination toward racial and ethnic segregation and an ongoing contributor toward racial and ethnic segregation. In a country that is relatively sprawling and prefers cars, determining who has access to transportation and what kind of transportation is available can be part of who can get ahead.

While the root cause of all of this may be racial issues, it is interesting to consider this as a congestion issue. Would the public be convinced to change transportation infrastructure because they dislike sitting in traffic? The evidence from Atlanta as well as numerous other American cities (such as developing a regional transportation effort in the Chicago region) suggests this is not a strong argument. Wealthier residents are hesitant to ride buses, trains may be tolerable, but driving is still preferred even when so many hours per year are devoted to it. Suburban Americans like cars and they like the ability to exclude and I would argue the second is the master priority when push comes to shove.