Category Archives: urban

Can urban planning suck the life out of your city?

It can if done poorly

London is gloriously un-plannable and horribly unplanned. From the Romans to the Romanians, the immigrant tribes who now call themselves English have been drawn to our uniquely cosmopolitan capital. This heterogeneous cultural mixture may help to explain the lack of appetite for plan-led “improvements” or urban reshaping. There is no common cultural foundation upon which to create a formal grand plan.

On my bedroom wall hangs an artist’s perspective of the plan Wren touted for the City after the Great Fire of 1666, fleshed out with buildings of classical design, looking like a beaux arts continental city. It is the first thing I see when I wake every morning and provides a constant reminder of the dangers of “master-planning”. If Wren, or any other planner, had had their way London would have ended up like Paris, Bath or Milton Keynes – architecturally inspired, but difficult to adapt to changing and unforeseeable future needs. Paris is formally planned, lacking in cultural diversity and inward-looking – no one can become a Parisian. London is unplanned, culturally diverse and a world business centre – anyone can become a Londoner.

Of course un-planning only takes you so far as the author continues.  Without planning (more specifically, land use restrictions), your entire city will suffer.

But while gloriously un-plannable the capital needs to be loved if we want to avoid the phenomenon of “lights-out London”, with homes just used as boxes for spare cash. It cannot survive without careful management and subtle control. Left to untrammelled market forces it will become an unstoppable nuclear reaction. George Osborne has claimed our dizzying house price inflation as his miracle of “economic growth”. Long gone are the days when planning was the bag of a politician of intellectual calibre, such as Michael Heseltine.

He goes on

Workers and residents want comfortable accommodation near the ground, with attractive spaces and facilities close at hand. Manhattan, the City and Canary Wharf can justify building office towers because their land area is constrained and demand for commercial space high. Office towers can be built in tight, sustainable clusters. This minimises their environmental impact and maximises their economic advantage – if they are serviced by a high-capacity public transport system.

The same does not hold true for housing. The highest density residential neighbourhood in London is Chelsea, which is gloriously free of towers. In the 1970s, the Greater London Council created some of the highest density housing estates. These six- to eight-floor redbrick developments were built around the edges of their site, leaving attractive central gardens. Lillington Gardens, in Vauxhall Bridge Road, is a fine example, beautifully maintained and highly popular with its residents.

A residential development in Central London is now likely to make four to six times more profit than an office scheme. Without planning control, much-needed offices have given way to piles of “safe-deposit boxes” rising across the capital. These towers, many of dubious architectural quality, are sold off-plan to the world’s “uber-rich”, as a repository for their spare and suspect capital. The purchasers are attracted by London’s rocketing residential prices, born of our unusual fixation on home-ownership. But many chose not to live here.

Rented housing is a much more efficient use of scarce urban land, because people only rent what they need. London’s house price inflation is also being fuelled by that “buy-to-let” property boom, which has aggravated the situation by reducing the security of tenants. We need an expanded, professionally managed, residential rental sector with dependable tenant security if we are to have any chance of addressing London’s housing crisis. This would provide equal scope for development investors and the construction industry but also provide Londoners with what they need – not just a global financial laundry cum bank vault.

The Treasury now controls the policies, delighting in the destruction of the last tools of planning. The Use Classes Order has been neutered to let offices, and soon shops, be turned into homes without planning permission. Rather than stimulating the reuse of empty buildings, this measure has seen the rapid disappearance of much-needed office accommodation in prime locations. Without land-use control, planners are powerless.

Lights-Out London

The foreign owners who have made London unaffordable for it’s citizens are leaving town

Racine had everything a west London restaurant could ask for: beaming reviews, great cooking and an enviable location opposite the V&A on the Brompton Road. For 12 years it served immaculate French standards to discerning diners and from the outside it looked like an institution to last a century.

But two weeks ago owner Henry Harris announced that Racine had moutarded its last lapin and would close. Qu’est-ce qui s’est passé?

“It was inevitable. The site had become unsustainable,” says Harris. “A rent renewal was the catalyst, but the main cause was the shrinking residential population in what should be a saturated area. My original clients, who were 50 or 60 when we opened, were that bit older. Some of them couldn’t afford to eat out as often after the recession, but others saw what their houses were worth and decided to realise that asset. They were replaced by non-doms who didn’t live there. In some apartment blocks 20% were unoccupied – one in five of my potential client base. It makes a big difference. In the block behind the restaurant it even became easier to park. You never expect to hear that in Knightsbridge.”

Racine is the latest victim of what some have called “lights-out London” where absentee owners push up property prices without contributing to the local economy. When Racine opened in 2002 the average price of a Knightsbridge home was £745,000; now it is £3.4m. There are an estimated 22,000 empty properties in London, partly a consequence of the city’s status as what the novelist William Gibson has called “the natural home of a sometimes slightly dodgy flight capital”. As Racine’s story shows, some businesses are feeling the effects.

Absenteeism as a problem is peculiar to the smudge of “super-prime” London around Harrods (although there are pockets elsewhere, such as Highgate). In a survey by the Empty Homes Agency last year, Kensington and Chelsea was found to have had a 40% annual increase in empty properties, the only area in southern England to show such an increase. Other boroughs on the list were mainly in poor parts of the north and north-west. The idea of the most expensive homes sitting empty is provocative in a city where any kind of property ownership is increasingly out of reach and politicians are moving to act.

Writing in the Independent, Tessa Jowell, who hopes to be Labour’s candidate in the capital’s mayoral contest next year, called empty homes a “scandal” and promised punitive taxes for their owners if she is elected. “Today in London hundreds of thousands of people are stuck in temporary accommodation, on social housing waiting lists, or years of saving short of buying their first home. At the same time the global super-rich buy London homes like they are gold bars, as assets to appreciate rather than homes in which to live … Absentee owners should live in the house they own or sell up – or face uncapped charges until they do. No dodges or clever schemes to get round that.”

The run on real estate has had indirect consequences, too. Some long-term residents, finding themselves in quiet areas, have themselves left in a kind of self-reinforcing loop. Businesses have been priced out of their offices, taking the lucrative expenses-lunch crowd with them.

“We had customers who worked in investment or banking firms nearby who would come in once a week for the old-school, ‘let’s enjoy the afternoon’ kind of lunch,” says Harris. “But they have moved – a short distance down the King’s Road you can get good offices for a fraction of the price per square foot. I know one architect who moved to Holborn – you wouldn’t have thought it would be cheaper near the City. The lunch trade was probably half what it was five years ago. A friend says it’s like a ghost town.”

Mayor of Glendale, host of the Super Bowl, doesn’t get a ticket to attend Super Bowl

From the New York Times

Jerry Weiers lives less than two miles from University of Phoenix Stadium, where the New England Patriots will play the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl on Sunday. Weiers also happens to be the mayor of Glendale.

Yet as politicians, chief executives and tens of thousands of well-heeled fans rub shoulders that day in the stadium in Glendale, a western suburb of Phoenix, he plans to watch the game on television in his living room, because he has not been offered a ticket.

“It was on my bucket list, but it’s not going to happen,” Weiers said. “If I had my druthers, I’d rather be in the stadium. I’ve had people say that if I was a team player, I might have gone to the game. But I’m a team player for my city.”

Weiers is not shy about making that point, so he is not surprised that he was snubbed. Critics have called Weiers ungrateful because the Pro Bowl and the Super Bowl will draw thousands of visitors to his city, and some of them will visit restaurants and hotels there. Glendale will also receive lots of free advertising during game broadcasts, though a vast majority of people visiting Arizona for the Super Bowl will visit the city only on game day.

James Cassella, the mayor of East Rutherford, N.J., was also criticized after he complained last year that his borough had been overlooked even as the Super Bowl was played at MetLife Stadium there.

But the friction in Glendale is acute because the city has a reputation for betting big on sports — and paying a price for it. In the last decade, the city spent hundreds of millions of dollars to build a hockey arena for the Coyotes and a spring training complex for the Chicago White Sox and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The hope was that the facilities would prompt residential and commercial development. But when the recession hit in 2008, the Coyotes went bankrupt, the mall next to the arena foundered, and the city was overwhelmed by its debt payments and was forced to slash public services.

“The city of Glendale is the poster child for what can go wrong” when a city invests heavily in sports, said Kevin McCarthy, the president of the Arizona Tax Research Association. “You don’t want to be building stadiums and not be able to hire police officers.”

Glendale is by no means the first city to have sports facilities turn into albatrosses. Cincinnati and Miami, to name just two, built stadiums for wealthy owners in deals that backfired.

But the scale of spending in the city of 230,000 residents is unique. According to Moody’s Investors Service, Glendale’s debt is equal to 4.9 percent of its tax base, nearly four times the national median and twice the average rate for cities in Arizona. More than 40 percent of the city’s debt is dedicated to paying off sports complexes.

What the NFL does to Super Bowl host cities is a crime.  NFL owners want to host a big party and the taxpayers pay for it.  It is insane.

As for his Super Bowl ticket?

Whether that attitude gets Weiers invited is another question. Cassella, the East Rutherford mayor, said that after stories surfaced that he, too, had been unable to get a Super Bowl ticket, Jim Irsay, the owner of the Indianapolis Colts, invited him as his guest. John Mara, an owner of the Giants, sent him a parking pass.

Saskatoon’s 2nd City Hall

King Edward School

Saskatoon City Hall

Two great pictures (umm, one’s a postcard) of Saskatoon’s 2nd City Hall which is King Edward School.  The City bought King Edward School from the Saskatoon Public School board and used it as City Hall until the new one (designed by architect David Webster opened in 1956).

I post it here because I find it interesting and also as a point that it is awfully hard to find good information about the City of Saskatoon’s history without going downtown to the Local History Room at the Saskatoon Public Library.  It’s almost as if the internet doesn’t exist locally.  Some cities celebrate their past, Saskatoon locks into a tiny room across from City Hall.

Chicago in the 1940s

According to City Lab

At a recent estate sale on the south side of Chicago, Jeff Altman spotted a canister of film simply labeled “Chicago” and “Print 1.” That tidbit of information was intriguing enough for Altman to drop $40 on the print.

Altman, who works in film post-production, took two weeks to inspect and fix minor issues before scanning and turning it into a digital video.

The result is this short film, a marvelous and thorough overview of 1940s Chicago, when the Wrigley and Tribune Towers were still considered modern landmarks.