Construction, ride-sharing doom Chicago parking lots

Parking lots are disappearing in Chicago:

Big increases in condominium sale prices and apartment rents have pushed up the value of well-located land, Lev said. At the same time, revenue has decreased as much as 30 percent in some parking lots his firm owns. “Many downtown garages are not doing the kind of business they used to, which is indicative of ride-sharing and not as many people owning cars,” Lev said.

The lowly surface lot will play a role in reshaping Chicago’s skyline, with plans for two of the city’s tallest buildings in the works on parcels now used for parking…

U.S. parking needs will be cut in half during the next three decades, the Newport Beach, Calif.-based real estate research firm projects. Widespread adoption of ride-hailing and self-driving cars will eliminate the need for swaths of parking spaces — enough that the square footage of the unneeded spaces will be more than the cumulative size of every currently existing apartment, office, shopping mall, retail strip center and warehouse property in the U.S., according to the Green Street report.

Dwindling car ownership could have a major impact on land use and urban planning in the coming decades. It’s already affecting the way new towers are designed. Towers built over parking lots often include spaces within the new structure.

Americans may like driving and owning cars but a decrease in the number of vehicles could influence many areas of American life. Parking lots may just be one domino in a chain of cultural phenomena that will slowly fall if driving patterns change significantly.

Or, perhaps this change in parking could be seen as a necessary correction to having too much parking supply in the past. Some have argued American parking has been too cheap for too long as it encourages driving. This reminds me of two past phenomena. First, communities had battles over free parking and parking meters as customers came to expect plentiful free parking at shopping malls. Second, you can find plenty of images of Chicago in the mid-twentieth century where parking is prominently displayed even as the city was booming. For example, Grant Park was an important area for parking (and still is – it is just better hidden underground).

Additionally, holding on to urban parking lots could be a lucrative investment strategy. In the short run, an owner and/or operator could collect parking fees. In the long run, they could wait until the price of land increased dramatically and then convert a humble parking lot or structure into an expensive development. These urban surface parking lots are rarely meant to be there forever.

Mixing walkability with other concerns like inequality and building community

The concept of walkability can be tied to a number of other important urban concerns as illustrated by this conversation with a member of Chicago Community Trust:

Q: What’s driving the desire to make neighborhoods more walkable?

A: There are a number of factors but I think there’s more interest in being able to be in the community. It’s not just about walking. It’s about basic, human interactions, the surprise of bumping into people.

As we look to 2050 and see the increased reliance on technology and the diminishing opportunities for basic face-to face-interactions, walkable communities are going to become increasingly important as an essential pathway to building community. Neighborhoods and walkable communities — and the community infrastructure that supports them — will become even more important to facilitate the kind of neighborly interactions, chance meetings, and civic and community building that are so vital to our lives today…

I’ve lived here since 2003 and came from outside of the region. What a surprise it was that many suburbs don’t look like strip malls and housing subdivisions. You have really well-established communities like Oak Park, Aurora, Arlington Heights and Evanston, cities with important bones of more walkable neighborhoods or communities. That’s what Chicago and the region has going for it.

The challenge here is that in neighborhoods and suburbs, the patterns of development and reinvestment have been very uneven. You have haves and have-nots. The south suburbs have struggled with reinvestment for many years and the south and west sides of Chicago have grappled with it. When the Metropolitan Planning Council and the Urban Institute did a study on Chicago segregation, compared to the 100 largest regions we’re the fifth-most economically and racially segregated region. That, to me, is the biggest challenge.

This is a lot to ask of walkable communities. Does a walkable setup necessarily lead to such positive outcomes? Indeed, the last paragraph quoted above hints at this: the real difficult may not be walkability but rather uneven patterns of development and persistent residential segregation.

 

A new MLS team will “lift a community and drive a civic renaissance”?

I’m a little skeptical of the claim that adding a Major League Soccer team will have a tremendous impact on a city:

Here’s what Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores and Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert said in their joint announcement that they had partnered up to bring an MLS franchise to Detroit:

“Detroit is rising and we know firsthand the power of sports to lift a community and drive a civic renaissance. We are very excited about the prospect of bringing Major League Soccer to Detroit and building an ownership group that represents a cross-section of investors.”

You could swap out “Detroit” in that paragraph for any number of cities and it wouldn’t seem out of place. Sacramento, St. Louis, and the other cities vying to get in on the next wave of MLS expansion have all used the language of revival and civic pride when announcing their MLS intentions. This tracks with MLS’ twin desires to get teams and downtown stadiums into midtier cities throughout the nation and attract a younger, hipper crowd to full those seats.

The article is more interested in whether having so many teams is good for MLS but I would want evidence for the other part of the claim: how do we know that sports “lift a community and drive a civic renaissance”? Do cities without major sports franchises have less civic pride because of it or miss out because have this kind of economic engine?

Remember: academics have consistently found that it is sports team owners who benefit the most from stadium deals as residents will spend their entertainment dollars elsewhere if there are not sports teams to support. Additionally, bigger thriving cities tend to lead to sports teams, not the other way around. Yet, this sort of language is common among sports owners as they try to demonstrate a broader value beyond entertainment. And recent plans for new stadiums – such as the proposed NFL stadium in Los Angeles – are partly about the sports venue and also about a package of commercial and residential space that will in use throughout the year.

Finally, if a soccer team is considered the means by which to turnaround Detroit, it is likely going to take a lot more than that…

Replicating American style suburbs outside a growing Ugandan city

In the United States, wealthier and whiter residents tended to leave big cities and their problems for the safety of the suburbs. Is the same process underway in Africa?

In many ways, Akright City, 15 miles from the capital city Kampala, feels like the anti-African city, a polo-wearing, golf-playing suburban inversion of the continent’s teeming metropolises. And that is exactly the point. Akright, like other private cities sprouting up across the Africa in recent years, offers a tantalizing answer to the question of how to fix the continent’s creaking colonial cities: Give up. Start Over.

It’s a trend repeated across the continent, from Johannesburg’s Steyn City — a walled town twice the size of Monaco — to Lagos’ Eko Atlantic, a beachfront cluster of skyscrapers and condos that bills itself as Africa’s Dubai. Private cities are not unique to Africa, but they have special significance on a continent where most urban infrastructure was designed for a long-gone colonial elite, rather than the millions who now crowd in searching for economic opportunity. By some calculations, this is the world’s fastest urbanizing region, and from Dar es Salaam to Luanda, its overtaxed cities are ill-equipped to keep up. By grafting entirely new cities onto the edges of these metropolises, their builders say they can leap-frog the region’s development challenges and create outposts of first-world luxury on the world’s poorest continent…

But it hasn’t quite worked out that way. Today, neighborhoods with dreamy names like “California Village,” “New World Village,” and “European Village” stand less than half full. Soaring mansions sit beside gaping construction sites, many on roads that are little more than a gash of dirt cut into the hillside. A lush golf course stands completely empty on a recent afternoon. Midway through the project, the money dried up, and many of Akright’s more grandiose components were abandoned, including a massive call centre that once ambitiously promised to help Uganda displace India as the world’s outsourcing darling. Kamugisha promises the slowdown is only temporary…

“Life is more or less like Europe: it’s enclosed, we don’t see our neighbors, everyone goes away during the day,” says Grace Amoah, who has lived in Akright for a decade and runs a small convenience store here, one of the few businesses open on a recent afternoon. “They want more people to come here, but I think the distances are too far, it’s too expensive.”

I wonder if the lesson is this: it is difficult to develop and maintain American-style suburbs without an advanced economic system that can support lots of private housing away from employment and cultural centers. In other words, this represents an attempt to take a shortcut through the development process by which cities in the United States were successful and then gave rise to suburbs. The sorts of American suburbs we have today couldn’t have developed without the rapid growth of cities from the mid-1800s onward. (This leads to interesting questions for today such as whether suburbs can continue for long periods with a decaying or dead urban core – think the suburbs of Detroit where many are well-off even as the city has struggled for decades.)

Comic strip about development, architecture, and urban life

Check out this overview of Ben Katchor’s comic strips about urban design and life:

In a comic strip he’s authored for Metropolis magazine since the late 1990s and in several compilation books, Katchor looks at design and at the development of homes and neighborhoods. His strips are usually one page long and place characters at the helm of strange or unsettling experiences.

During a recent phone interview, Katchor, a winner of the MacArthur Genius Grant and professor at Parsons, described his work as a part of the “American, Yiddish, socialist” tradition and “a form of social activism. You could blow things up too,” he said, referring to the radical arms of environmental groups, “but I don’t really relish the thought of being in prison. I’d rather make comic strips.”…

Katchor leads his readers from simple to complex ideas in the space of one page. For example, in “A River View,” two contractors try to profit on a large set of glass windows that have been recently replaced in a high-rise: the removed windows have the imprint of the skyline that has been baked into the glass over time. By the time they find the recycling yard where the windows have been taken, they’re told that, “a European art dealer took the whole lot sight unseen.” The final frame of the strip shows a group of people overseas looking at one pane when it is displayed like a work of fine art. Everyone involved is looking to profit.

From Katchor’s perspective, profit motivates much of recent development. Though he doesn’t believe new design is worse compared to earlier periods, mentioning that there were dull buildings in the past, he thinks today’s wealth replicates itself, with a push to “maximize profits” in many fields. Like the panes in “A River View,” Katchor sees replication: “Rather than spinning off the money into other things, giving it to other people,” design suffers from the “failure of imagination of corporate interests.”

The sample strips here are pretty interesting. A few thoughts:

1. Providing commentary through comic strips has a good history. Yet, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it applied to urban development. Perhaps it is too abstract an idea (beyond the immediate experiences of characters) for most strips to address?

2. The argument that profits drive developments sounds like the political economy view in urban sociology which emphasizes the actions of powerful people, politicians or business leaders, to make money.

3. I wonder if such humor really has a market these days. These comic strips are relatively long, have lots of text, and address complex topics that go beyond one-liners.

Overview of the move of Toll Brothers into urban development in the last ten years

Commonly known as builders of McMansions, Toll Brothers has branched out into urban development in the last decade. Here is a description of their efforts in New York City, as told by the head of Toll Brothers City Living:

We did some projects early on in Williamsburg, which I didn’t think would have been ahead of the curve. But for a lot of people who came to our sales office from places like Manhattan felt the neighborhood hadn’t arrived yet.

Based on that experience, we’re really focusing on neighborhoods that are established. When your main focus is condo, the way ours is, it needs to be that way, because you get one chance to sell a project. If everything isn’t perfectly right, then you’re going to suffer for it…

We’re certainly busy, but we’ve been more selective, so we’re on Gramercy, we’re on Park at 89th, we’ve got a tower on Park Avenue South going up, we just did the Touraine at 65th and Lex. Further down the line, we’ve got something on First and 52nd and in Hudson Square, on King Street. The project we’re doing in Brooklyn is in Brooklyn Bridge Park, which is basically in Brooklyn Heights, which was basically the first suburb…

We were fortunate coming out of the real estate recession and having a lot of cash and not needing to borrow, when most lenders were very reluctant to do condo loans. Toll has about a billion in cash and a billion-dollar credit line nationwide. We bought the Touraine site with just cash; we bought the Gramercy site with just cash; we bought a site in Dumbo with just cash. This was in ’09 and ’10. Most of the condo guys were not yet back, and we were competing with the rental guys, and we can always pay more than them.

Three quick thoughts:

1. It is hard to tell whether the image of Toll Brothers is changing. This article is similar to a number of other ones in recent months (example here) discussing the company’s efforts in New York City. At the same time, Toll Brothers is consistently linked to the construction of large suburban houses. In the long run, I wonder if there are critics who will never be able to look past the company’s connections to McMansions and see whatever else they are doing.

2. Few of the articles that discuss the efforts of Toll Brothers in New York City give any numbers about how much of the company’s business is in cities versus suburban development. From the projects described above, I would guess the urban efforts are still just a small part of the total operations.

3. The last paragraph hints at the dynamics of the housing market in recent years. Toll Brothers had the resources to capitalize on the housing market bubble. They aren’t alone but while these flush buyers make more money at the upper-end of the market, the lower end languishes.

New developments tower over Mecca

Several new developments in Mecca threaten to dwarf the holy sites:

Shooting 26 searchlights 10km into the skies, and blaring its call to prayer 7km across the valley, the Abraj al-Bait is also the world’s second tallest building. Encrusted with mosaics and inlaid with gold, it is the most visible (and audible) sign of the frenzied building boom that has taken hold of Saudi Arabia’s holy city over the last 10 years. “It is truly indescribable,” says Sami Angawi, architect and founder of the Jeddah-based Hajj Research Centre, who has spent the last three decades researching and documenting the historic buildings of Mecca and Medina, few of which now remain. In particular, the house of the prophet’s wife, Khadijah, was razed to make way for public lavatories; the house of his companion, Abu Bakr, is now the site of a Hilton hotel; and his grandson’s house was flattened by the King’s palace. “They are turning the holy sanctuary into a machine, a city which has no identity, no heritage, no culture and no natural environment. They’ve even taken away the mountains,” says Angawi…

Along the western flank of the city are the first towers of the Jabal Omar development, a sprawling complex that will eventually accommodate 100,000 people in 26 luxury hotels – sitting on another gargantuan plinth of 4,000 shops and 500 restaurants, along with its own six-storey prayer hall. The line of blocks, which will climb to heights of up to 200 metres and terminate in a monumental gateway building, share the clocktower’s Islamic-lite language: a cliched dressing of pointed arches and filigree grillwork plastered over generic concrete shells…

Another development of repetitive slabs, echoing Jabal Omar’s toast-rack urbanism, is slated for the northern side of the Grand Mosque, at al-Shamiya, while a $10bn plan to provide an extra 400,000 sq metres of prayer halls there is almost complete. Standing like a gigantic triangular slice of wedding cake, this building will accommodate 1.2m more worshippers each year, but it has come at a price…

The Kaaba is the holy black cube in the centre of the Grand Mosque, around which pilgrims walk; proximity to it has become the ultimate currency, allowing hotel suites with the best views to charge $7,000 per night during peak seasons. This unique concentricity, with everything determined by its orientation towards the hallowed centre, has spawned a strangely diagrammatic radial urbanism. From above, like a sea of iron filings pulled by a magnet, the whole city appears to crowd round a core, the vortex of pilgrims giving way to an equally swirling current of tower blocks. It is the axis of prayer writ large in concrete.

The contrast seems stark: a holy site versus ultra-modern development. Is this growth machine development, meaning development primarily about generating profits from pilgrims, run amok? That this is emerging in Saudi Arabia shouldn’t be too surprising. Oil money has to be spent somewhere. Plus, cities like Dubai and Abu Dhabi have been getting a lot of attention in recent years for their massive developments and I imagine Saudi Arabia would like to match some of that. Yet, Dubai and Abu Dhabi aren’t also known for being major religious sites.

Also, whenever I see stories like this, I am reminded of the amazing pace of development in some cities (particularly in China and oil-rich Middle East nations) around the world: from populated, primarily low-rise cities to massive, tall, expensive developments.