Category Archives: urban

Why Are Developers Still Building Sprawl?

Boomers and Millennials say they want to live in compact, walkable developments, but builders are putting their money into suburban McMansions

There are communities that have successfully made the shift to building more compact, walkable developments, even in the most unlikely places. Some of the most excessive sprawl during the housing boom, for instance, occurred in the inland areas of Northern California, places like Brentwood, Antioch, Vacaville. But those areas are now rethinking what kind of building they want to allow, and what kind they don’t.

“There was, up until 2008, a profound overbuilding of single-family homes,” Jeremy Madsen, with the Greenbelt Alliance, a Bay Area smart-growth group, told me. “The ‘drive ’til you qualify’ syndrome ran rampant in the Bay Area.”

Now, many of these developments are half empty or unfinished, waiting for demand to come back—if it ever will. But cities in the Bay Area are starting to put in urban-growth boundaries, which prevent building from happening outside of that area. Voters handily defeated a proposal to allow developers to build on Doolan Canyon, an open space outside of the city of Dublin’s urban-growth boundary. In the city of Windsor, in Sonoma County, a new-urbanist developer decided to create a downtown and built a mixed-use combination of offices, retail, and homes near a transit station. And a planning commission in Stockton, another epicenter of the housing boom and bust, recently said no to developers who wanted approval to build 2,000 homes on what is currently farmland, the first-time observers could remember the commission doing so.

Even San Jose, once considered just a giant suburb of San Francisco, has shifted its mentality, Madsen said. The city’s newest general plan, adopted in 2011, emphasizes ‘smart growth’ and called for the growth of ‘urban villages’ located along current and future transit lines. It promotes infill development rather than sprawling out to open lands, aims to reduce the number of trips that have to be made by car, and rethinks street design to encourage walking and biking.

“I think we’ve moved into a different era in the Bay Area in term of how we’re going to grow in the future,” Madsen told me. “The consumer preference side of things appears to be changing.”

But, he said, even though leaders and consumers might be on the same page, it isn’t going to be easy, since a lot of the zoning and building layouts are from the old era.
“There’s going to be a major challenge when it comes to implementing this shift, but there’s a critical mass of opinion and market direction to get it going,” he said.
It’s easy to dismiss the Bay Area’s plans as another California anomaly. But California often leads the rest of the country when it comes to adopting environmentally-friendly policies that are sustainable for the long term.

Other areas may continue to eschew ‘smart growth,’ and just as America is divided politically, it could become a more divided country in the way its residents live. People in cities such as Washington D.C., Boston, and Seattle, will want more walkable developments, while consumers in what Leinberger calls “the laggards,” including Phoenix, Dallas, and Las Vegas, will continue to live in sprawling suburbs.

But it’s also possible that Boomers and Millennials in the laggard cities will come around. After all, even in Las Vegas and Atlanta, some builders are starting to shift their mentality. Zappos founder Tony Hsieh has poured $350 million into downtown Las Vegas, creating a shopping center built from shipping containers, mixed-use residential development, and a host of walkable amenities like a donut shop and a bookstore. And in Atlanta, a developer is in the midst of converting a former Sears building near downtown to a mixed-use community of apartments, restaurants, and retail.

Not everyone will want to live in downtown environments like these. But if they’re appealing to consumers, they could motivate a whole new segment of buying, even in cities such as Las Vegas and Atlanta. If consumers come around to “smart growth” in those areas, perhaps builders will too.

Brian Bowman’s political career comes to an end…

You might not be able to build Rome in one day, but you sure can destroy Camelot in a matter of hours.

At the start of this week, Mayor Brian Bowman marked his first 100 days in office by highlighting all his good deeds since he moved into Sam Katz’s old digs.

A mere two days later, Winnipeg’s rookie mayor was effectively called out as a liar by the most popular man in the city, True North Sports & Entertainment chairman Mark Chipman.

The owner of the Winnipeg Jets, who appears to enjoy publicity as much as a Siamese cat revels in an ice bath, stood up in front of reporters on Wednesday afternoon and declared he’s disappointed with Bowman, regretted publicly endorsing the privacy lawyer during the 2014 mayoral race and then delivered a political gut punch to the rookie mayor.

You know that massive True North development proposal for a pair of downtown properties south of Graham Avenue? You know, the one Bowman has been demanding to hear details about since the middle of January? The one that has caused a vicious public airing of accusations and counter-accusations between the mayor and CentreVenture, the city’s downtown development agency?

Well, according to Mark Chipman, Brian Bowman has known about the $400-million proposal to build three towers and a public square since November, when the new mayor attended a Jets game with provincial cabinet minister Kevin Chief.

Not only did Bowman know, but he and Chief were shown a promotional video about the project in the True North chairman’s office, which offers a view of the land in question.

This creates a massive credibility problem for Winnipeg’s new mayor, who told reporters in January he did not meet with Mark Chipman and did not know much about the proposal beyond “rumours and rumblings.”

The proposal in question involves the construction of residential housing, office space, retail stores, a public square, a new hotel and two if not three skywalks on a Manitoba Public Insurance-owned surface-parking lot at 225 Carlton St. – optioned to True North partners since 2012 – and the former Carlton Inn site at 220 Carlton St., owned by CentreVenture. If all goes well for True North, it will also involve a new headquarters for Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries.

For three weeks, Bowman has blasted CentreVenture for signing an option on the Carlton Inn site while another corporation, construction company Stuart Olson, was obligated to build a hotel on that land.

Bowman denounced this option as a secret deal. He excoriated CentreVenture staff and board members. He declared city hall would no longer tolerate backroom conversations about real estate, especially in the wake of the Winnipeg fire-paramedic station construction scandal, police headquarters scandal and other Katz-era real-estate scandals involving lands swaps, unappraised property purchases and suppressed land valuations.

After nearly three weeks of silence, the usually reserved Chipman gathered reporters into the bowels of MTS Centre – the Excalibur-like source of his power and popularity – and called out Bowman for failing to disclose what he knew about the “True North Square” proposal and when.

So no one looks that good in this and I suspect this has just ended Brian Bowman’s political career.  The corpse will serve to the end of the term but few survive these kind of shots he is taking because no one believes him anymore.

Nobody comes out of this sorry mess looking good. Chipman faces a conflict allegation, even if he did recuse himself from the CentreVenture board and quit shortly afterward. Bowman appears to be a disingenuous liar, doing whatever it takes to appear to be righteous in the face of previous city malfeasance. Stuart Olson looks like a bad-faith actor in its commitment to build a hotel for RBC Convention Centre. The convention centre board looks like a bunch of amateurs for failing to sign a construction contract with Stuart Olson.

A friend of mine calls municipal politics the “minor leagues”.  Another one calls it the ECHL of politics.  It feels that way at times.  There is so much bumbling and incompetence whether in Saskatoon or in Winnipeg that you just have to appreciate it for what it is.  A mess.

It’s just nice to read about it somewhere else and not here.

The Top 10 Secrets of Grand Central Station

From Untapped Cities

Like the rest of Grand Central, the Campbell Apartment serves as a testament to the grandiosity of another era. But this testament is one that can be imbibed. If appropriately attired, enter a room resplendent from paraphernalia of the past and sip on cocktails from the fin de siècle in this virtual museum to the opulence of New York’s high society of the past.

Though it did have a kitchen and butler, this was once the office, not apartment, of tycoon John C. Campbell. President of the Credit Clearing House, Campbell rented the space to be closer to the hub of the New York Central Railroad (Cornelius Vanderbilt’s train empire), of which he was a major stockholder. Rumor has it that he used to sit behind the massive desk (that to this day takes up much of one side of the gorgeous 25 by 60 foot room) half nude, as he detested wrinkles in his trousers. The Campbell Apartment deteriorated drastically after its namesake vacated it in the ‘50s, and like everything else in the terminal, it fell on hard times. Metro North claimed the space as first a signalmen’s headquarters and later a police station, temporarily detaining criminals in what was once Campell’s wine cellar and storing their firearms in his curio cabinet. It was restored to its original glory in the late ‘90s, and is an excellent place to get a real taste of the decadence of Grand Central’s past.

Grand Central Station also holds a tennis court, a top secret room, and a secret railway line that is only used when the President is in town. 

7 Cities that Are Going Increasingly Car Free

Like Helsinki (which is also a winter city)

Helsinki expects a flood of new residents over the next few decades, but the more people come, the fewer cars will be allowed on city streets. In a new plan, the city lays out a design that will transform car-dependent suburbs into dense, walkable communities linked to the city center by fast-moving public transit. The city is also building new mobility-on-demand services to streamline life without a car. A new app in testing now lets citizens instantly call up a shared bike, car, or taxi, or find the nearest bus or train. In a decade, the city hopes to make it completely unnecessary to own a car.

Have they always been this way?

Forty years ago, traffic was as bad in Copenhagen as any other large city. Now, over half of the city’s population bikes to work every day—nine times more bike commuters than in Portland, Oregon, the city with the most bike commuters in the U.S.

Copenhagen started introducing pedestrian zones in the 1960s in the city center, and car-free zones slowly spread over the next few decades. The city now has over 200 miles of bike lanes, with new bike superhighways under development to reach surrounding suburbs. The city has one of the lowest rates of car ownership in Europe.

Yet in Saskatoon the rumours are that our Better Bike Lanes demonstration project is being pushed back for a year because of the lane closures on University Bridge.  We seem to be going backwards instead of forward (which could very well become our new slogan)