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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

A fight over potential Hasidic residents in a proposed new suburban subdivision outside New York City

Residents and local officials in the New York City suburb of Chester have concerns about who might move into a proposed development:

In a peaceful corner of the Hudson Valley, a broad expanse of land sits at the ready for hundreds of homes ranging between 2,500 and 3,400 square feet, with views of the surrounding hills. There will be a recreation center and tennis courts, and nearly half of the development’s 117 acres will be kept as open space.

But if it were up to town officials, the houses would never be built. They openly fret about the size and density of the 431-unit development, the Greens at Chester, and even confess wariness about the likely intended home buyers: Hasidic Jews…

Angry residents at the meeting talked of how school taxes could rise, and public resources could be stretched in the town, about 60 miles north of New York City. They spoke of fears that the development would one day resemble Kiryas Joel, a Hasidic village about nine miles away that is overcrowded and has ranked among the poorest communities in the nation.

The developers, Greens at Chester, L.L.C., cite these statements and others in a federal lawsuit that accuses the town, Orange County and individual local officials of discrimination, contending that they assume that the home buyers will be Hasidic because some of the developers are.

The concerns expressed by residents and public officials are common ones levied at sizable new subdivisions: more strain on public services (though developed property could bring in more money through property taxes and money could be spent in the community) and a change in the community’s character. Even though growth is generally good in American communities, many places want to restrict what kind of growth is possible (and who new residents are).

What makes this more unique is the expressed concern about who exactly might move into these new suburban homes. Concern about suburban residents about the movement of Hasidic Jews in the New York City region is an ongoing one. Because they tend to move in sizable numbers together to particular locations, suburban residents feel they can be overwhelmed by a local change in population and lifestyle. This is not a new issue in suburbs in the New York City region. As Hasidic Jews have looked for housing and communities in which they can live, they have encountered opposition from at least a few suburbs concerning where they wish to worship.

Because local officials and residents have been so open about their opposition to a particular group moving in, I imagine this will not end well for the community. If the lawsuit does not side in favor of the plantiffs, this suburb will join others in having a reputation of not wanting certain kinds of residents. Many suburbs do this through a variety of methods but do so without explicitly naming who they are referring to (think of efforts to limit the number of poorer residents or minority residents). The residents and leaders of Chester may want to preserve some type of character of the community but doing so at the cost of naming and excluding specific residents is a dubious strategy.

I have always lived within roughly 15 minutes of a major highway: easy access, no noise

In the homes in which I have lived, I have always had relatively easy access to highways. A short ten to fifteen minute drive is all it would take to get to a major highway and, barring traffic, an additional thirty minutes could take us to a major airport, downtown, or out of the metropolitan area.

On one hand, this is a major convenience. Metropolitan regions have areas that are closer or further away to transportation options. In the Chicago region which features a hub and spoke model of transportation (particularly the railroads but also the highways past I-355), living further out from the city means residents could be located further away from major roads. Trips get longer when it takes more time to get on the faster roads.

Additionally, we get the benefit of living near the highway without the negative externalities of being too close. We do not hear the highway. We do not live near the businesses that tend to collect at a highway exist (gas stations, fast food restaurants, etc.). The lights along the highways and exits are beyond our sight.

One way to see these advantages at play is in real estate listings. In the Chicago region, locations near major highways (and rail lines), tend to have this listed in the property description. Of course, some properties may be too close and this can detract from the home and property. These properties can still sell – they may still be in desirable locations and be nice residences – but that road noise can detract from the private experience many suburbanites desire. In our last housing search, we saw a number of homes within hearing distance of highways and this is not something we wanted.

Best sociological finding I heard at ASA 2019

Not surprisingly, the most interesting sociological finding I heard at the annual ASA meetings this past weekend involved research into suburban life. More specifically, Weininger and Lareau looked at how middle-class parents choose where to live:

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As they explained in their presentation, we might imagine these relatively educated and well-off families would look at all sorts of data regarding neighborhoods, compare their relative merits, and then choose one. Instead, they found these families would rely on limited vouching for particular locations from ties in their social networks – sometimes fairly weak ties – and then make decisions based on that. This could even occasionally lead to mistakes.

I look forward to hearing more about how this all works and what this leads to. There is interesting material to consider here including:

-What if there are conflicting network recommendations (either different preferred locations or different opinions on the same location)?

-How does the process change when the respondents do or do not have much local knowledge of the communities they are considering?

-Does this effect hold for middle-class residents of different racial and ethnic groups?

-Can networks help people move into more hetereogeneous locations or do they primarily help reinforce homogeneity?

Baseball teams going with smaller stadiums, more mixed-use development

As fewer fans may be willing to go to baseball games, teams are moving toward focusing on development around the stadium:

The Atlanta Braves and Texas Rangers, leaning significantly on public funding that came without taxpayer referendums, ditched parks built in the 1990s for smaller digs framed by the game’s new revenue engine – mixed-use developments at least partially controlled by the team. The Braves are in their third season at SunTrust Park (capacity, 41,000, replacing Turner Field’s 53,000) while the Rangers in 2020 will open Globe Life Field, a retractable-roof facility that will seat 40,000 compared to its predecessor’s 49,000-seat capacity…

For the Diamondbacks, A’s and perhaps a significant number of clubs that may replace – or revamp – their Camden Yards-era parks, finding the sweet spot of atmosphere, accessibility and inclusion will be paramount in a sport with an aging and occasionally alienated fan base.

The primary focus of the article is on how teams are trying to attract more fans to altered ballparks that offer a more exciting in-game experience. But, I find the passage above more interesting: as fans become fickle regarding attendance, the big long-term money may just be in the real estate surrounding the park. Even at high levels of attendance, a sports stadium only generates revenue a certain number of dates a year. Baseball has a lot more dates than football but the stadium still sits empty for more than 75% of the year.

Many teams and park owners have already shifted toward stadiums as concert venues as well as homes to other sports in the off-season. But, imagine the sports stadium more like an exciting shopping mall where people come to hang out in an exciting and safe space and they consume. Just like the shopping mall that features food, entertainment, and retail, the stadium could become a year-round home for entertainment, food, and shopping that has a great draw at the center: a professional sports team that happens to play there for part of the year.

One piece that may be missing from a number of ballparks as well as shopping malls: adding residential units near the facility could help boost the customer base and create a neighborhood feel. A number of stadiums are surrounded by parking lots. At least a few are located right next to other stadiums of professional teams so the stadiums can share parking lots. Instead, imagine apartments and condos right near stadiums: some residents would be excited to live right near the energy of a stadium and these residents also would partake of local businesses. This does not have to look like the neighborhood around Wrigley Field but there is certainly a lot of room for more neighborhoods to generate revenues for tams long after the games are over.

And then there can be conversations about whether public money should be used to finance real estate development in addition to sports stadiums. Do communities benefit from mixed-use developments around stadiums or does the money line the pockets of owners?