Does Michael Jordan own McMansions?

One headline for a story about Michael Jordan’s most recent home purchase suggests it is a McMansion: “Michael Jordan buys lakefront McMansion on a North Carolina golf course.” More on the house:

Bobcats owner Michael Jordan has purchased a 12,310-square-foot lakefront home in Cornelius, N.C., for $2.8 million.

The home is about 22 miles north of uptown Charlotte where the Bobcats play their home games and where Jordan owns a spacious condo…

The home is located on Lake Norman and the seventh hole of The Peninsula Golf Club. The listing states it features six bedrooms and eight bathrooms and a “stunning panoramic lake views from almost every room.”…

Last year he purchased a 28,000-square foot home in Jupiter, Fla., for $12.8 million after selling his mansion in Chicago.

I’m leery of dubbing a $2.8 million, 12,000 square a McMansion and not just a straight up mansion. On one hand, the home is less than half the size of the Jupiter, Florida home and it is built on a golf course, a common site for a McMansion. On the other hand, this house is five times larger than the average new home in the United States and is quite expensive.

Also, I wonder how this idea of owning a McMansion fits with Jordan’s image. Jordan’s brand is worth hundreds of millions of dollars and his image doesn’t quite fit the mass produced, garish home that the term McMansion implies. This is far-fetched but what would happen if this home purchase started hurting his brand?

Key to promoting small houses: it needs to be cool

A columnist discusses small houses and how the houses need to be “cool”:

How the poor fit their families into these tiny spaces has become the stuff of wonder for the urban young seeking to do likewise in expensive cities — but with considerably fewer people and more polished style. This month’s Dwell magazine, the hipster bible, shows how these clever people can turn a two-room third-floor walkup into a stylish and low-maintenance place. The “Small World” issue features houses that are 235 square feet, 900 square feet and 2,000 square feet (that’s cheating, IMHO)…

What makes small living spaces cool — in addition to their historic environs — is the thinking that’s involved, the sort of thinking you need heavy black-rim glasses for. You have to “curate,” a favorite hipster word. That is, you pick the one or five things you really want to keep and get rid of the rest. This can be a brutal task.

Minimalism is an attractive ethic in moderation. (Bare concrete walls don’t do much for me.) But it remains my dream. The iPad, though I love it, hasn’t replaced my affection for books. Where do you put the books in 500 square feet? You don’t. You store them in your parents’ basement or a rented storage unit — a minimalist cop-out, but one I understand…

Once the thinking is done, though, you can ponder higher things, like writing a symphony, inventing a new app or what’s for supper. That’s because the stuff you got rid of doesn’t have to be moved around, polished or updated. And money is time. You save hours not shopping for more stuff. The smaller spaces cost less to buy, heat and electrify. Fixing one leaky toilet is cheaper than fixing four. All this adds up to less time spent in unpleasant day jobs trying to pay for consumption. Less of the material also creates less distraction. There’s a reason why holy men choose small, bare rooms for meditation.

The columnist puts the tradeoff this way: you can either choose to store all your stuff (perhaps left over from all of those trips to Costco) or live in a a more minimalist, sleek, and cool setting. This is getting at a larger issue: for people to move into smaller homes, there has to be a positive image associated with them. This image would be the opposite of the use of the term McMansion which is generally meant to be derisive and criticize people who chose size and impressiveness over quality and fit. Small and well-designed could indeed be considered cool if it is branded (associated with certain lifestyles, symbols, and values), marketed through the appropriate channels (like Design magazine), gets the right endorsements (what if a bunch of Hollywood celebrities moved this direction?), and other social forces, like a down housing industry and economy, push people in that direction.

When Aon leaves for London, is Chicago still a world class city?

With the news this week that Aon Corp. is moving its headquarters from Chicago to London, a familiar question arises: will Chicago take a hit to its image as a world class city?

“It is appropriate to ask that question, not as a general hand-wringing kind of thing, but in the classic 120-year or more tradition of Chicago,” said urban strategist Paul O’Connor, a former deputy director of the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Development who was founding executive director of the 13-year-old World Business Chicago.

“You do have a special case here in Chicago insofar as the business leadership has for at least 120 years been intimately involved in the strategic growth and development of the city as an international center,” O’Connor said. “This is a phenomenon you don’t find historically in any other big American city. So the capabilities of the leadership of Chicago business to affect long-term outcomes of global competitiveness and whether this remains an easy place to attract the top level of talent, that’s the core issue.”…

“There are underpinnings that matter,” O’Connor, now with architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, said from China, where he’s working on a project. “You look through the board of Aon. These people were like the college of cardinals of Chicago boosters. So if you’ve got a good explanation that you can pick up (more money) by doing this, great. But if those college of cardinals of Chicago boosters don’t stay on it and make sure that you are a competitive business environment, then things do erode. … You’ve got to stay hungry.”…

“The thing you have to look out for is that you don’t slip (as a city in the world’s eyes),” O’Connor said. “That’s why everybody should be saying the rosary to make sure everything goes nicely at the NATO/G-8 (meetings set to bring international leaders and protesters to Chicago in May), so you don’t send bad messages. On the one hand, you have reality, which really matters. On the other, you have perception, which also matters, but I’d rather have reality over perception.”

The issue here seems to be perceptions, not the reality that Chicago still contains a number of headquarters. The reality is that Chicago truly is a world-class city – one 2010 ranking had Chicago at #6 in the world. The moves of highly visible companies might be problematic for politicians who have to create and defend a record on jobs but Aon moving to London will not knock down Chicago a notch unless multiple companies follow suit.

At the same time, perceptions are important. Maybe the better question to ask here is why Chicago needs to keep reaffirming its status as an important city. Perhaps it goes back to that “Second City” nickname that put Chicago behind New York but is also a reminder that Los Angeles has zoomed ahead in population (and status?) as well. Perhaps it is because Chicago knows it is part of the Rust Belt and has been a rare city that has been successful despite the loss of many manufacturing jobs. In the end, why doesn’t have Chicago have more confidence in its standing? The nervousness might motivate Chicago to pursue greater things but it also looks silly at times.

My verdict: Chicago will be fine. That doesn’t mean the city shouldn’t continue to try to woo new corporations or help encourage new start-ups. At the same time, Chicago should operate from a position of strength, selling the better aspects of Chicago, rather than a posture of weakness where any move might topple Chicago from the circle of great cities.

Thinking about the “fastest growing small towns”

Forbes has put together a list of the “fastest growing small towns” in the United States. Here are the top five towns:

No. 1. Fairbanks, Alaska (Metro Area)

2009 Population: 98,660

2006 Population: 86,754

Growth: 13.8%

No. 2. The Villages, Fla. (Micro Area)

2009 Population: 77,681

2006 Population: 68,769

Growth: 13.0%

No. 3. Bozeman, Mont. (Micro Area)

2009 Population: 90,343

2006 Population: 81,763

Growth: 10.5%

No. 4. Palm Coast, Fla. (Metro Area)

2009 Population: 91,622

2006 Population: 83,084

Growth: 10.3%

No. 5. Ames, Iowa (Metro Area)

2009 Population: 87,214

2006 Population: 80,145

Growth: 8.8%

An interesting list based on data between 2006 and 2009. I have a few thoughts about this:

1. To be a “small town,” a community had to have less than 100,000 people. This does not sound like a small town to me. When I think of small town, I think less than 15,000 people. In my opinion, all of the top five fastest growing should really be labeled “small cities.”

1a. If the list were labeled the “fastest growing small cities,” would people still want to look at it? Using the term “small town” invokes certain images of a place where everybody knows everyone and a quaint downtown where people regularly gather. This image is something quite different from the actual population of the community; I’ve heard people in Naperville, a suburb with over 140,000 people, claim it is still like a small town.

2. Is this growth a good thing? I wonder if the people living in these communities would like to see this growth continue for a decade or so. Since they are already not small towns, they will really not be small towns if this sort of growth continues. The shift from smaller to larger community is often not easy as it involves more newcomers in the community who have a different understanding of the place, new businesses (such as big box stores and chains), and possibly a declining sense of community.

2a. Do a good number of people move to places that are the “hot places” because there is rapid population growth? The Yahoo! story on this has links that immediately go to real estate listing. How many people click on those?

3. It might be useful to know what is “average” growth for communities over this time period. While these communities might be the top 5, what is the distribution among places under 100,000? What is the average or median rate of growth?

Celebration, Florida, built by Disney, has first murder

Many suburbs rarely experience a murder. In fact, many suburban residents might give this as a reason for moving into these communities: the crime, particularly serious crimes, is limited. So when a murder is committed in a model community, particularly one built by Disney, it will receive attention.

Here is a quick summary of what happened in Celebration, Florida:

Residents of the town five miles south of Walt Disney World woke up Tuesday to the sight of yellow crime-scene tape wrapped around a condo near the Christmas-decorated downtown, where Bing Crosby croons from speakers hidden in the foliage. A 58-year-old neighbor who lived alone with his Chihuahua had been slain over the long Thanksgiving weekend, Osceola County sheriff’s deputies said.

What is interesting to note is how the rest of the story describes Celebration. Some of the commentary is what you would expect from any wealthy suburb: this was an isolated incident, this sort of stuff doesn’t happen in the community, and the residents shouldn’t worry. But here a few pieces of the description about the uniqueness of Celebration:

The killing sullies the type of perfection envisioned in 1989 when Peter Rummell, then-president of the Disney Development Corp., wrote to then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner about building a new town on vacant, Disney-owned land in Osceola County.

The community would be a “wonderful residential town east of I-4 that has a human scale with sidewalks and bicycles and parks and the kind of architecture that is sophisticated and timeless. It will have fiber optics and smart houses, but the feel will in many cases be closer to Main Street than to Future World,” Rummell wrote in the letter.

Houses incorporated “New Urbanism” ideas such as placing the garage out of sight in the back and a front porch close to the sidewalk to encourage neighbor interaction. Restrictions on home color and architectural details also were in the community’s rulebook. Colonial, Victorian, and Arts and Crafts-style homes grace the streets; the downtown is a mix of postmodern buildings and stucco condos.

Residents arrived in 1996. Critics viewed it as something out of “The Truman Show,” or “The Stepford Wives.”

Fans saw other things. A return to small-town values. A walkable community. Safety.

So this is the media story: the murder that took place in the “perfect Disney town” (as the link on the Chicago Tribune’s front page suggests). A few thoughts of mine about this:

1. Celebration receives a lot of attention due to who created it and how it was created. Is there a point where this will become just another community?

2. No community is “perfect,” even one created by a company like Disney which sells its products based on this idea of joy and magic. The same AP story lists some of the problems from recent years including graffiti and a recent day when the local school was on lockdown.

3. Suburbs or small towns are not immune to crime, even of this magnitude.

4. It will be interesting to see how this story affects the marketing of the community.

5. This seems like an illustration for all suburbia: crimes like this can upset people’s feelings and attitudes toward places that they once considered perfect and safe.

A more upbeat assessment of the state of Detroit

In recent years, numerous media outlets have focused on the troubles of Detroit. Photo essays of now abandoned but once glorious buildings have become normal.

There is one grassroots news organization that is now pushing back against these more bleak images. VICE/VBS.TV explains their approach:

In August 2009, Vice published a story called “Something, something, something, Detroit: Lazy journalists love pictures of abandoned stuff,” about the roving gangs of photojournalists prowling the empty city and feasting on its highly photogenic carcass. Since then, some of the worst offenders have abashedly changed their approach to covering Michigan’s largest city. But most outlets are still fixated on the all-you-can-click pageview buffet that is “misery porn” of the decaying Motor City…

The fact of the matter is that the situation in Detroit is daunting. The city that so successfully realized the 1950s American dream is now a visual testament to its grandiose demise. But is that really news?

We like to think that the story is better told by identifying those who remain in Detroit and those who are moving back precisely because it is challenging. We set out to give the people of Detroit a platform to tell their story. The city has become a place where enterprising classes can find the space and time to do whatever they want, cheaply and hassle-free. It’s a raw space where they can create community and start rebuilding their city from the inside out.

I’ll be curious to see how much attention their coverage generates. And the possible transformation/regeneration of Detroit will continue to be a fascinating story.

Kennedy/Nixon debate fanfare overblown?

Fifty years ago yesterday, John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon faced off in the first televised presidential debate. The debate supposedly “changed the world” and the narrative of the Kennedy win has long been part of history:

It’s now common knowledge that without the nation’s first televised debate – fifty years ago Sunday – Kennedy would never have been president. But beyond securing his presidential career, the 60-minute duel between the handsome Irish-American senator and Vice President Richard Nixon fundamentally altered political campaigns, television media and America’s political history. “It’s one of those unusual points on the timeline of history where you can say things changed very dramatically – in this case, in a single night,” says Alan Schroeder, a media historian and associate professor at Northeastern University, who authored the book, Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High-Risk TV.

But after reading and reviewing the book Getting It Wrong, I’m a little more skeptical of these claims. So let me be the contrarian for a moment and suggest why this media moment from 1960 is overhyped:

1. It is part of the lore of JFK. It was in this moment that the country saw his youthful charm and in contrast, Nixon’s shadiness. JFK’s image fit television perfectly and the media has since played up the Kennedy family as American political royalty. Of course, JFK’s charm was likely evident elsewhere and Nixon was still elected president twice (after having served as vice-president under Eisenhower).

2. It suggests televised debates, in general, are critically important for elections. I’m not sure about this – I think the media thinks they are more important than they are. By always looking for a “winner” and “loser,” candidates are set up to succeed or fail. Television doesn’t lend itself to nuanced debates about critical issues; it is perfect for sound-bites and unflappable dispositions. If the voters care about debates, it is because they have been told that such debates matter.

3. Overall, it suggests TV can be an important contributor to democracy rather than just the source of junk television shows. This is debatable.

From corn syrup to corn sugar to boost image

The Corn Refiners Association is putting in a request to the Food and Drug Administration to change the name of “corn syrup” to “corn sugar.” This rebranding is being done to help shed the image that consuming corn syrup increases the likelihood of obesity.

Apparently, there is some precedent for changing a name like this. Ever heard of “low eurcic acid rapeseed oil”? Once renamed “canola oil,” sales apparently picked up.

If this name change goes through, how long before those opposed to corn syrup start a campaign against corn sugar? I wonder how much time the Corn Refiners Association thinks they can buy.

The real Trader Joe’s

An interesting story at goes behind the scenes at Trader Joe’s. This trendy grocery store certainly has its fans; I had one friend in graduate school who seemed willing at times to drive 2 or 3 hours to shop at one.

Some of the details about the company:

Few customers realize the chain is owned by Germany’s ultra-private Albrecht family, the people behind the Aldi Nord supermarket empire. (A different branch of the family controls Aldi Süd, parent of the U.S. Aldi grocery chain.) Famous in Germany for not talking to the press, the Albrechts have passed their tightlipped ways on to their U.S. business: Trader Joe’s and its CEO, Dan Bane, declined repeated requests to speak to Fortune, and the company has never participated in a major story about its business operations.

Some of that may be because Trader Joe’s business tactics are often very much at odds with its image as the funky shop around the corner that sources its wares from local farms and food artisans. Sometimes it does, but big, well-known companies also make many of Trader Joe’s products. Those Trader Joe’s pita chips? Made by Stacy’s, a division of PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay. On the East Coast much of its yogurt is supplied by Danone’s Stonyfield Farm. And finicky foodies probably don’t like to think about how Trader Joe’s scale enables the chain to sell a pound of organic lemons for $2.

Companies are often made or broken based on their image and it sounds like Trader Joe’s want to keep a low corporate profile while building upon its popular name.

A question: would the store’s loyal customers not shop there any longer if they knew where the food really came from? Or knew more about what happened behind the scenes?

The land of fake businessmen

Atlantic’s Mitch Moxley reports on a Chinese business practice: hiring fake businessmen to help craft an image. Part of the job:

As we waited for the ceremony to begin, a foreman standing beside me barked at workers still visible on the construction site. They scurried behind the scaffolding.

“Are you the boss?” I asked him.

He looked at me quizzically. “You’re the boss.”

Actually, Ernie was the boss. After a brief introduction, “Director” Ernie delivered his speech before the hundred or so people in attendance. He boasted about the company’s long list of international clients and emphasized how happy we were to be working on such an important project. When the speech was over, confetti blasted over the stage, fireworks popped above the dusty field beside us, and Ernie posed for a photo with the mayor.

If this is common practice, couldn’t some companies lose face (rather than build their image) when others point out or find out that their businessmen are really fakes?

An odd subtext: the requirements for the job included “a fair complexion and a suit.” The fake businessmen are there to indicate that the Chinese company has connections. A “darker complexion and a suit” doesn’t fit the bill for connections? Perhaps a “darker complexion, a suit, and an American accent”?