Cost and time overruns on public projects do not matter once the task is done

In a look at the troubled construction of the Salesforce Transit Center in San Francisco, one civil engineer puts the problems in perspective:

Paul Gribbon, a civil engineer who brought Portland, Oregon’s $800 million Big Pipe sewer project in on schedule and within budget, points out that, along with cost and time overruns, there’s another general law regarding megaprojects. “Once it’s up and running, once there’s a shining new bridge or light-rail station, people tend to forget about how much it cost, in all senses of the word.”

If the project eventually gets done and it all works, life moves on and the delays, frustrations, and extra monies fade into the past.

But, such challenges seem to be common in at least a few major American infrastructure projects in recent decades. What could help reduce these odds? Or, are these projects so complex that even a small issue – such as cracked steel beams in San Francisco – can create significant ripple effects and headaches?

My guess is that the civil engineer is correct: after delays and blown budgets, people just want something to work. The frustration during the process will dissipate as the public takes it as normal. They will feel relieved when the troubles are over. Yet, the long-term goal across all these projects should be to continue to seek timeliness and on-budget performance as the size of these projects can influence numerous other civic and municipal priorities as well as create inefficiencies for many.

When local government meetings go past midnight

Suburbanites like smaller local government. But, local government meetings or hearings that go past midnight can be inconvenient. A recent example from an Illinois suburb discussing marijuana sales:

Angering residents who showed up in droves to oppose the sale of recreational marijuana in the village, Buffalo Grove trustees at about 1 a.m. Tuesday approved zoning regulations to allow it.

For 4½ hours, residents spoke passionately against recreational pot sales. But in the end, only one trustee, David Weidenfeld, voted against the regulations, which will allow recreational dispensaries as a special use in nonresidential areas — three business districts and the industrial district.

There are two issues at work here. The first is this: the article suggests there was a vocal set of residents opposed to marijuana sales who were not happy with the results. Local residents can become active if they perceive a change in the community will negatively affect their quality of life and/or property values (see recent suburban cases in Glen Ellyn, Wheaton, and Itasca). If the decision does not go their way – and there are plenty of cases where there are vocal residents and leaders on both sides – then resentment and long-term conflict can develop.

But, the second issue is what I want to focus on here: how late the meeting ran. How many residents, even if they are energized by a particular cause, can afford to stay out past midnight at a public meeting or hearing? Staying up that late can put a severe damper on the next day’s activities, particularly depending on jobs, family situations, and health. Residents may feel they need to stay to the end of a meeting to be heard but that comes at a cost.

Local officials may also be in a bind regarding time. Many municipalities already have rules in place so that individual speakers do not run too long and that plenty of people get a chance to speak. There is other business that needs to be conducted at many local meetings, including considering a variety of proposals, approving payments, and considering reports from other staff or committees. The meeting can only start so early as residents and leaders may be coming from jobs, dinner, and other responsibilities. Stretching meetings over multiple days may not be optimal though multiple meetings or hearings can happen if leaders want to provide more opportunities for people to voice their opinions.

In the particular case above, it looks like the public had a chance to speak – 4.5 hours – and therefore the approval could not come until later (and the approval was overwhelming). The late ending may have only rubbed salt in the wounds of those opposed to pot sales. But, as best practice, local officials should work to avoid concluding meetings in the wee hours in the morning.

From largest Midwest Methodist church to ruins to possible public garden

A prominent Methodist church in Gary, Indiana may not look promising now – no roof for the sanctuary, graffiti – but it could have a future as a unique public space:

Mario Longoni, an urban research manager for the Field Museum, took part in a workshop March 22 coordinated by the Gary Redevelopment Commission to get public suggestions on what should become of the building, which opened Oct. 3, 1926, and at its peak in 1952 was the largest Methodist congregation in the Midwestern U.S. with 3,185 parishioners, officials said.

It closed as a church on Oct. 5, 1975, with a congregation that had shrunk to 320 people.

A 1997 fire and vandals throughout the years have left the building in ruins. Yet Longoni suggested other industrial sites around the world that have been converted into public places, including one in Berlin where he said that redevelopers set aside a wall where graffiti is encouraged…

City officials have suggested the building could become an urban ruins garden, based off of the heavy layers of ivy that cover the outer walls during the summer months…

“It went from being the largest Methodist church in the Midwest to closing its doors within two decades,” he said. “It’s tied in with deindustrialization, urban decay and white flight, it’s the story of urban America.”

There are many churches in the United States, particularly those in Mainline denominations that have lost millions of members in recent decades, that could be utilized for similar functions. If religious congregations disappear or religious groups can no longer maintain the building (such as with some Catholic churches in Chicago), what will become of these structures that were once vibrant? One option is to let them be used for private development, particularly residences. See earlier posts here and here. But, this does not work as well in poorer neighborhoods where there is little demand for property.

Using an older church for public space could fulfill two important purposes. First, it can become a place for the community to gather. Well-maintained public spaces are in short supply in many communities. Of course, this requires money and/or effort from the municipality and neighbors. But, a more vibrant street life and community is a good payoff for putting some resources into a building that already exists. Second, while the church building would become a public space, it can help acknowledge the presence of the religious group in the neighborhood. Many older churches have a particular architecture that is hard to mistake with a commercial or civic structure. The church lives on in a way if the building is repurposed and can provide less-obvious spiritual meaning for future generations. Perhaps the ongoing presence and influence of the church building can be part of the larger cultural victory of mainline Protestants (an argument made by sociologist Jay Demerath) even if the congregation is no longer there.

Apple stores are not new town squares

American communities often lack vibrant public spaces but Apple stores may not be the answer:

The stores have good vibes. Everything is clean. There are no sounds of commerce. No clanging till. No specials on an aisle. No mechanical belt sliding products toward a beeping scanner. People will tell you they like your new shoes. I love Apple Stores.

But there is one problem with calling an Apple Store an Apple “Town Square”—which the company announced it’s now doing at Tuesday’s iPhone event. Namely, the Apple Store is a store and not a town square…

And most surreally, a dominant problem for democracy at this moment is that truly public space doesn’t exist on the internet you access through your phone.

Internet platforms, as John Herrman has argued, merely masquerade as democratic spaces. But they are not. They are private, as private as an Apple Store.

This is a regular issue that pops up: private retail or office space that often functions as public space is not truly public space. If you conduct activities that are not conducive to business, whether in an Apple store, a McDonald’s, the cavernous lobby of a hotel, a shopping mall, or even a landscaped area outside a business but that it is on private land, you can be removed from that space. These private spaces that allow people of different backgrounds to gather and interact can still be very valuable – see the concept of “third places,” an idea that Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has discussed. Granted, there are restrictions on what you can do in public spaces as well but your activities are much more limited in private spaces.

Sociologists and others have asked for decades how American communities might develop more public spaces. The Internet was one space that offered new opportunities for democracy and public interaction. Alas, much of that early fervor has decreased as the Internet is dominated by major corporations and online discourse is often not very enlightening or civil.

Avoid public wi-fi

Here is a helpful reminder:

And finally, don’t forget for one minute that public Wi-Fi is dangerous.

This one illustration is humorous:

Evan, now 11, programmed fake Wi-Fi portals and took them to food courts shopping centers across the Austin, Texas, area and waited to see how many agreed to some pretty outrageous conditions. For the love of free internet access, they’d have to give their OK for the Wi-Fi owner to do things like “reading and responding to your emails, monitoring of input and/or output, and ‘bricking’ of your device.”

More than half of the shoppers shown these terms accepted them.

I like that this the article ties this issue to shopping malls. This might primarily be due to this time of year when plenty of people are out purchasing gifts. However, it also works because shopping malls are about as close as we get as Americans to public spaces. Where else can you regularly go for a safe environment to be around other people to do one of the ultimate American activities (consume)? While this article reminds us that the mall may not be so safe, is it odd that Americans tend to think of it as a safe place? And if malls want to keep attracting people (who then spend money), shouldn’t they do something about protecting their wi-fi?

I see an opportunity for either malls or security firms: ensuring that your public wi-fi experience is a good one.

Google Maps has now added areas of interest

Check out the redesigned Google Maps and you’ll see areas of interest:

Instead of promoting a handful of dots representing restaurants or shops at the city-view level, the new interface displays orange-colored “areas of interest,” which the company describes simply as “places where there’s a lot of activities and things to do.” In Los Angeles, for example, there’s a big T of orange blocks around Wilshire Boulevard and Vermont Avenue in Koreatown, and again on Wilshire’s Miracle Mile, stretching up La Brea Avenue*. In L.A., areas of interest tend to cling to the big boulevards and avenues like the bunching sheath of an old shoelace. In Boston, on the other hand, they tend to be more like blocks than strips. In Paris, whole neighborhoods are blotted orange.

Roads and highways, meanwhile, take on a new, muted color in the interface. This marks a departure from Google’s old design, which often literally showed roads over places—especially in contrast to Apple Maps, as the cartographer Justin O’Beirne hasshown. The new map is less about how to get around than about where to go.

“Areas of interest,” the company’s statement explains, are derived with an algorithm to show the “highest concentration of restaurants, bars, and shops.” In high-density areas, Google candidly explains that it is using humans to develop these zones. Algorithms, of course, are tuned by human engineers. But like Facebook with its News Feed, Google has decided that some attributes of the digital world need a human touch firsthand…

Even with its sliding scales, Google Maps can’t fit every shop in Tokyo in a two-dimensional map. So who gets a spot? It’s not an obvious choice: Analyzing Apple and Google’s maps of New York and London, O’Beirne found that the two companies’ maps had just 10 and 12 percent of their place labels in common. (Likewise, different people will have different businesses pop at them—try it with a friend.)

The title of the article is “All Maps Are Biased. Google Maps’ Redesign Doesn’t Hide It.” This bias could be toward certain businesses or certain areas of the city. When certain businesses or areas are displayed, others are not. But, we could also ask about the commercial imperatives of this mapping: what happens when areas of interest are primarily commercial areas and businesses? Are these always the most interesting spots in cities? When sociologists and others discuss thriving public spaces – whether the mixed use areas of Jane Jacobs or the spots of Cosmopolitan Canopies as noted by Elijah Anderson – they often do include businesses including stores and restaurants. Yet, at the same time, aren’t these spots interesting not only because they offer consumable goods and experiences but because they have a mix of people? Do the people make the spaces or do the businesses?

Particularly if Google Maps is used while driving, people can swoop in and out of these areas of interest. Or, it might alert them to specific areas and encourage a vibrant social scene. We’ll see if areas of interest lead to changing social patterns.

Exploring underground cities

Curbed takes a quick look at a number of underground cities around the world. I’ve highlighted a few – the ones that were not constructed for defense purposes:

SubTropolis (Kansas City, Missouri)

Hardly hidden—the development has its own logo—this huge warren of business parks carved into ancient bluffs that line the Missouri River claims to be the world’s largest underground storage facility and business park. Since opening in 1964, this constantly expanding operation, carved into former limestone mines and expanding at roughly 3.2 acres a year, has become a massive commercial success, attracting tenants such as Postal Service, the EPA, a cloud computing company, a food processing plant, and even a special firm that stores old film reels. Turns out giving up sunlight has plenty of business advantages; underground living means a constant temperature, virtually eliminating heating and cooling bills...

Underground City (Montreal, Canada)

Recently renamed RÉSO, a play off the French word reseau (network), this huge tunnel complex spread out underneath Quebec’s biggest city is a lot more utopian than many of the other entries on the list. The city, which now counts 20 miles of tunnels and more than 120 surface entry points, began in 1962 as passageways around and through the Place Ville-Marie, a shopping mall designed by I.M. Pei that helped hide an unsightly former rail depot. Decades later, it has expanded into a massive shopping a recreation district, including a hotel and hockey rink, and stands as one of the city’s busiest neighborhoods, most popular tourist attractions, and an escape from winter weather...

Helsinki Underground City (Helsinki, Finland)

In a bid to develop within its limited footprint, this Finnish city decided to build underground a few years ago, linking shopping centers and a metro station. Currently, a swimming pool, hockey rink, and church can all be found below the surface. Construction stretches nearly 100 feet below the surface, and the city has a master plan for roughly 200 new underground projects in the works, hoping to connect the region and expand space for industrial facilities, leaving the surface free for more aesthetically pleasing development.

These are quite different from abandoned facilities; these are locations that intentionally have sought out underground space for social activity. At the least, these take advantage of space that otherwise would not be used. Land is expensive in many cities so finding new space – same location, just underground rather than building up – can be quite advantageous. Additionally, such spaces can block out weather and utilize natural cooling and heating. I also imagine the underground status gives them some extra measure of cool. Contrast “do you want to go to the mall” with “do you want to go to the underground mall,” particularly for tourists or teenagers. However, if every city has some underground area (just like if every one has an elevated park like the High Line), they all may become less interesting.