Cities ready to offer tax monies for new soccer stadiums

Cities continue to see sports stadiums as good uses for tax dollars. This time, it involves soccer stadiums:

Officials from Cincinnati, Detroit, Nashville, and Sacramento appeared in New York on Wednesday to place their bids with Major League Soccer for an expansion team. Slots for two teams are now up for grabs in the league’s plans to expand, so cities are lining up to lob promises of tax incentives for stadium construction at the MLS. Picture the mayors of each of these cities lined up for a free kick on goal.

Cincinnati, for example, has secured $200 million in private funds to build a stadium for FC Cincinnati, and the city has pledged up to $75 million in public money to pay for the infrastructure associated with a stadium. Nashville promises $25 million in tax dollars toward build-out costs for a $275 million Nashville Soccer Club stadium, which would be paid for through a public-private financing deal. Representatives for Sacramento Republic FC argued for a plan that would cost the city $46 million to realize a privately financed $226 million stadium.

Meanwhile, the Detroit Express would play on Ford Field, the home of the National Football League’s Detroit Lions, meaning that the proposed soccer team’s owners—who also own the Lions, the Detroit Pistons, and the Cleveland Cavaliers—would merely have to pony up the $150 million franchise fee plus some smaller costs in adjusting the existing stadium.

Perhaps in their favor, the cities and taxpayers would not be investing so much as is required for a top-four sport stadium.

At the same time, this approach is likely a bad idea. The research is pretty clear: the winners of taxpayer funded stadiums are the team owners who tend to already be wealthy people. Cities desperately want to boost their status and look trendy and acquiring a new sports team, particularly one in a sport that is thriving and looks like it is on the rise (just see the number of new teams in MLS in recent years). But, research shows that if do not build these stadiums and acquire teams, residents and visitors will just spend their money elsewhere.

Another interesting piece of the MLS expansion is that it is involving some medium-size big cities. Think Sacramento: they have a NBA franchise and nothing else. Orlando had a NBA franchise, nothing else. Cincinnati has the NFL and MLB. Austin has no major team. MLS expansion offers some new places a chance to get in the sports game and signal that they are major players.

Wealthy San Francisco residents may have their private street back but this may not bode well for the city

Remember that private street with wealthy residents in San Francisco that fell behind on its taxes and was sold at auction to some other California residents? The street is now back in the hands of the well-off residents:

For now, Presidio Terrace belongs to its residents again. Their victory isn’t cause for celebration, either. The city’s first-ever tax sale reversal smacks of preferential treatment. It’s hard to imagine elected leaders going to bat for, say, each homeless individual who has had property seized by the city. Farrell, the city council member quoted above, is also the author of Prop. Q, a controversial measure approved by San Francisco voters in 2016 that allows the city to clear homeless camps given 24 hours notice.

But the saga of Presidio Terrace may not be over yet. Although the city promised they’ll get their $90,000 purchase price back, Cheng and Lam have said they plan to sue. For progressive politics, San Francisco was once a city upon a hill. Now it’s rich people squabbling over one.

While New York City rightfully gets a lot of attention for its mix of world-leading buildings, residents, activities, and expensive housing, San Francisco may be a more fascinating case. A limited amount of land (both due to local policies and different topography) plus rapidly increasing wealth in recent decades (with the tech industry leading the way) plus consistently liberal politics yet sharp divides between the rich and poor makes for big housing problems. Kind of like how President Trump regularly uses Chicago as a case of how crime is not being addressed, San Francisco has become a common conservative rallying cry for how not to address housing and growth.

At the same time, many of the housing issues facing San Francisco also are issues for many other American cities: how to construct more affordable housing when few want to live near it? How to encourage jobs for many residents that provide good standards of living (which then gives people access to more housing)? How to encourage economic growth and development across the city rather than within particular trendy or desirable neighborhoods?

Douglass: humans may not be able to adapt to cities but suburbs could work

Church researcher Harlan Paul Douglass concludes his 1925 work The Suburban Trend with his ideas about human nature and cities:

Human nature, all agree, is capable of a certain measure of adaptive elasticity. Village life, which was its typical form of civilization up to the beginning of the era of steam-driven machinery, little more than a century ago, was not, so far as determined, an undue strain upon it. The city does overstrain human nature, and relief must be looked for in the direction of the village. JUst how far back, then, is it necessary to go? Perhaps no further than the suburbs, and to a different balance between the urban and rural elements in civilization. One cannot prove just where the broken ranks of civilization will hold even if it is possible to rally them again. But it is worth trying along this line. (p.311)

Four quick thoughts:

  1. Here in the second decade of the twenty-first century in the United States, it is hard to remember how big of a social change the move to large cities is. It changes everything for social relationships. It is still happening in numerous parts of the world as rural life is disrupted by huge flows of people to large cities. And even in the United States and the Western world, in the limited time of recorded human history, this urbanization happened not long ago.
  2. Given #1, it serves as a reminder of how quickly we have adapted to big city and surrounding suburbs life. This is all relatively new yet we take it for granted.
  3. Douglass hints at the work of others like Simmel who were also concerned about whether humans could survive in big cities. Few urbanists would raise such concerns now; instead, cities are often held up as the solution to numerous social problems. Humans are indeed adaptable.
  4. At the same time, Douglass does presciently hint at the appeal of suburbs for many Americans. It may not be cities themselves that are the problem – many Americans left cities for issues such as race, social class, and immigration – but in the decades after this book was published, the suburbs became the home for a plurality of Americans.

 

Emergencies due to homelessness in major cities on the West Coast

The rising real estate prices on the West Coast have not helped those on the economic edges find places to live:

—Official counts taken earlier this year in California, Oregon and Washington show 168,000 homeless people in the three states, according to an AP tally of every jurisdiction in those states that reports homeless numbers to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That is 19,000 more than were counted in 2015, although the numbers may not be directly comparable because of factors ranging from the weather to new counting methods.

—During the same period, the number of unsheltered people in the three states climbed 18 percent to 105,000.

—Rising rents are the main culprit. The median one-bedroom apartment in the San Francisco Bay Area is more expensive than it is in the New York City metro area, for instance.

—Since 2015, at least 10 cities or municipal regions in California, Oregon and Washington have declared emergencies due to the rise of homelessness, a designation usually reserved for natural disasters.

This is not an easy social problem to address in places that are already expensive. Still, what would it take to mobilize a good portion of the population in these cities and regions to do something about providing affordable housing? The article mentions a recent vote in Los Angeles to provide money for 10,000 affordable housing units but it will be interesting to see how long it takes to build these, where they will be located, and what the long-term effects of such housing will be.

The potential problems with a city “built from the Internet up”

Sidewalk Labs, a part of Alphabet/Google, wants to develop 12 acres on Toronto’s waterfront and they have a unique vision:

Sidewalk describes its vision for Quayside in terms worthy of Blade Runner, as a city “built from the internet up … merging the physical and digital realms.” In reality, the company’s ambition lies first in the synthesis of established techniques like modular construction, timber-frame building, underground garbage disposal, and deep-water cooling. Not low-tech, but not rocket science either. Sidewalk’s success will depend on deploying those concepts at scale, beginning with a preliminary tract at Quayside but expanding—if all goes well—to Toronto’s Port Lands, a vast, underused peninsula of reclaimed land the size of downtown Toronto.

Sure, there will robots delivering packages, sensors for air quality and noise, and the deployment of a range of electronics that will help the infrastructure enable autonomous vehicles. But, says Rohit Aggarwala, Sidewalk’s head of urban systems, “I expect very little of the value we create is about information.” Indeed, a number of Sidewalk’s ideas are rather old-school: retractable, durable canopies to shelter sidewalks (hello, 11th-century Damascus); pedestrian pathways that melt snow (familiar from any ski town); composting, which is as old as human settlement itself. The company projects that managing wind, sun, and rain can “double the number of [year-round] daylight hours when it is comfortable to be outside.” The development, Doctoroff said, “is primarily a real estate play.”…

That’s part of the pitch for Sidewalk’s Toronto neighborhood. The company calculates the cost of living in Quayside will be 14 percent lower than the surrounding metro area. It believes timber-frame construction, modular units that can be assembled on site, microunits, and cohousing can significantly lower housing costs. Other ideas, like mixing office, production, institutional, and residential spaces together in buildings, do not draw on technology at all.

Many have tried to master-plan the vibrancy of an organic city; most have failed. You better believe a company named after Jane Jacobs has the lingo down: “The most exciting ways to activate the public realm are often a mix of traditional uses in flexible spaces,” the company’s proposal says. “The cafe that puts tables on the sidewalk, the teacher who uses a park for nature lessons, the artist who turns a street corner into a stage.” But is it really the case that that kind of street life can be built, as Sidewalk promises, on “a robust system of asset monitoring” that creates a reservation system for sidewalk space? No.

It sounds like this development could be an interesting mix of Jane Jacobs, New Urbanism, and Google. Or, it could be another splashy redevelopment project that Google eventually sells at a sizable profit.

In the long run, developing 12 acres or a sizable corporate campus – recently undertaken by Apple or Facebook – is very different than creating a city. There are numerous differences including these:

  1. Building and maintaining essential infrastructure including water, power, gas, and telecommunications. A smaller development has the advantage of plugging into existing systems.
  2. American communities tend to be built in pieces rather than all at once. There is the issue whether people can build a development or city in a certain way and just expect community to happen – there is enough evidence from New Urbanist projects that it does not exactly work this way. One way around this is to build in stages and give the community time to develop, grow, and have its own history and identity.
  3. A development project often is working within existing political structures. Google can’t do whatever it wants in Toronto; it has to answer to local government. This could be quite a hindrance and could lead some tech companies to practice their city-building in environments where they have more local control.
  4. A city run by a private company versus one operating in a democratic system could be very different. Graber hints at this at the end of the piece: what happens if residents do not like Google’s ideas? The company town idea has issues. At the same time, a private firm could develop the property or community and then hand it over to local residents and government – this happens everywhere from developers and HOAs to Disney building Celebration.

All that said, it could be worthwhile to let some private firms do large-scale development like this to see if they can offer new features or solve common problems facing municipalities.

The suburban life is so great because of…the big city

A piece extolling the virtues of living in the suburbs of the Chicago region emphasizes that the suburbs provide easy access to the city of Chicago. There are 16 reasons provided for the greatness of the Chicago suburbs but only 1.5 of them actually highlight suburban institutions: Portillo’s began in Villa Park and Brookfield Zoo (1 of 2 zoos mentioned) opened in 1934. (I’m not sure what to do with the inclusion of Lake Michigan on the list: suburbanites can go to the lake in the suburbs – in three states even – or in the city.)

Since Americans prefer to live in small towns (see two recent posts on the topic here and here), a piece like this reinforces this definition of suburbs: geographic and cultural spaces where Americans can feel some qualities of small town life while still accessing the best of the big city.

We almost need a companion piece to this one titled something like: “The Reasons I Live in the Chicago Suburbs Even Though I Think Chicago Is So Great.” Are the suburbs only subordinate to the big city or do they have their own noteworthy amenities, attractions, and sights?

(Side note: if we are extolling the virtues of Chicago as suburbanites, I would add more to this list: access to two busy airports that offer reasonable prices to many destinations; great restaurants in Chicago (beyond pizza); all sorts of interesting neighborhoods whose atmospheres are difficult to duplicate in the suburbs; the roots of modern urban architecture; boating opportunities – river and lake – in an urban setting.)

(Second side note: this might serve as a great argument for increased metropolitan revenue sharing and metropolitan governance. If suburbanites love the city so much as use both its amenities and infrastructure, perhaps they should help pay for it more.)

A strong majority of Americans want to grow old in their cities

Two surveys, one from 2014 and one more recent, suggest many older Americans want to stay put:

But the vast majority of older Americans—more than 70 percent of those over 50, according to a 2014 AARP survey—plan to “age in place,” or stay in their homes or communities. And the desire to stay put persists across urban, suburban, and rural residents—even in Snow Belt cities and among those with the financial resources to buy that condo in Boca or Scottsdale…

Welltower, a company that owns health-care real estate, from retirement communities to outpatient medical office buildings, recently surveyed 3,000 people to find out more about this desire among urbanites to age in place. Respondents were of various ages—Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials—and lived in 10 cities across the country, from Seattle to Houston to Boston. One Canadian city—Toronto—was also included.

The survey showed that 7 out of 10 urbanites still want to live in their city after the age of 80. For Boomers, the share was higher, at 8 out of 10. The result was fairly uniform across the cities. Though some residents ranked their metropolises higher for livability for older residents—Washington, D.C., Miami, and Chicago got the highest marks, while Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York City received the lowest—all respondents were still largely interested in staying and complimentary of their respective cities…

As CityLab reported earlier this year, this presents numerous challenges, especially for those who want to age in place. Only 1 percent of our housing stock is currently equipped with “universal design” elements that aid older residents, like no-step entrances, single-floor living, and wide halls and doorways. And more older adults also means more lower-income adults, who will struggle to afford the rent or mortgage, let alone modify their living space or employ in-home nursing care.

Three quick thoughts in response:

  1. While we know a lot about residential segregation due to race and class, could we be headed to scenarios where the elderly and younger adults live in very different environments? The two groups could be interested in very different urban features and differ on what amenities they should pay for through taxes. Some of these issues pop up from time to time when proposals are made for senior living facilities or there are requests for more school funding.
  2. What would happen if communities did not respond much to changes that would help the elderly? Would they revolt?
  3. Even though the elderly say they do not want to move, perhaps some cities and suburbs could gain a competitive edge by catering to this group. A neighborhood within a particular city could make changes so that while people would have to move, they would not necessarily have to go far. Or, certain communities could become regional centers for the elderly.

As this article notes, this demographic change is coming within the next few decades and it will be interesting to see how communities react.