Category Archives: City planning

Fake News from the New York Times

That well-known fake-news site, the New York Times, has once again published a report claiming that transit hubs are a “growing lure for developers.” The Times published a similar story eight years ago, and the Antiplanner quickly found that every single development mentioned in that story was subsidized with tax-increment financing (TIF) and other government support.

So has anything changed since then? Nope. The first development mentioned in the recent story by Times reporter Joe Gose is Assembly Row, in the Boston suburb of Somerville. Is it subsidized? Yes, with at least $25 million in TIF along with other state funds.

Then Gose mentions Chicago’s Fulton Market, downtown Kansas City, Austin, and Denver’s RiNo neighborhood. Fulton Market just happened to receive at least $42 million in support from the city of Chicago, much of which comes from TIF. Continue reading

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History vs. Density in Portland

Portland’s urban-growth boundary has made housing less affordable, which is “pushing minorities out of their traditional neighborhoods to the edges of the region.” It is also leading some people to leapfrog to the next city: the two fastest-growing cities in Oregon are small cities about 10 miles away from Portland’s growth boundary.

Portland’s solution has been to increase density and the city has adopted numerous plans to squeeze more people into the city. But this is only going to make housing even more expensive.

One reason for that is that some neighborhoods have the political muscle to opt out of the city’s plans to impose infill development everywhere. Residents of the upper-middle-class Eastmoreland neighborhood, for example, have asked the National Park Service to list the neighborhood on a National Register of Historic Places. This will limit the amount of density that can be added to the area.

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Portland Falls to Number 2

Portland housing prices have been rising faster than in any other major city in the nation, but the latest data show that the city has fallen to number 2 in that measure. Seattle housing prices rose by an annualized 11.0 percent in September, while Portland prices rose by “just” 10.9 percent. No other major city saw prices rise as fast as 10 percent.

Seattle prices are rising so fast that the city is selling every available vacant lot that it has, even though some would rather those lots be turned to parks. Seattle developers are renting studio apartments for $750 a month that are so small–just 130 square feet–that there is no room for a bathroom door.

Portland’s housing market is so tight that 17 acres is considered a large parcel. Naturally, the owners are planning to put multi-family housing on it at 70 units per acre. The largest available parcel in Portland suburb Lake Oswego is a mere 4.5 acres that will be developed at 48 units per acre.

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Is Congestion Deliberate?

According to the Texas Transportation Institute, the costs of congestion have quadrupled since 1982. The Antiplanner has often argued that cities have deliberately allowed congestion to increase in the erroneous belief that more congestion would lead people to stop driving and start riding transit or use other modes of travel. However, the evidence for this is merely anecdotal; it’s hard to imagine city officials admitting even in private memos that congestion was their goal.

An article in last Friday’s New York Post, however, makes the case that congestion is deliberate. “City officials have intentionally ground Midtown to a halt with the hidden purpose of making drivers so miserable that they leave their cars at home and turn to mass transit or bicycles,” reports the newspaper that was founded by Alexander Hamilton. The article specifically blames “today’s gridlock” on the “Bloomberg and de Blasio administrations.”

Sensational news, perhaps, but not necessarily persuasive. The article attributes this information to “high-level sources,” later saying it comes from “a former top NYPD official.” While the article offered specific examples of ways the city has increased congestion, including the conversion of auto lanes to bicycle lanes and restrictions on the ability of drivers to make turns at many intersections, it offers no documentation that these things were done specifically to make auto drivers miserable.

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Portland to Displaced Blacks:
Have We Got a Deal for You

By driving up land and housing prices, Portland’s urban-growth boundary has accelerated gentrification of low-income neighborhoods, displacing blacks, Latinos, and other families. As the Antiplanner has shown in a recent paper, the number of blacks in Portland actually declined between 2010 and 2014.

Portland promised to find affordable homes for displaced blacks, but for some reason those blacks aren’t too thrilled with the 387-square-foot condos the city has offered them. The city is making the condos available to families earning less than $47,000 a year, with priority given to people displaced by gentrification (which is often subsidized by the city’s urban-renewal agency).

Such people will be welcome to buy these condos for a mere $164,000, or nearly $425 a square foot. Such a deal, especially considering many of the displaced people were living in single-family homes several times the size of the condos, and that such homes in places without urban-growth boundaries would cost half of what the city wants for its “affordable” condos.

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Portland, Thy Name Is Density

Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability is following the White House’s advice by proposing to increase the densities of nearly two-thirds of the city’s single-family neighborhoods. Under the proposal, duplexes, triplexes, and accessory dwelling units would be allowed in single-family areas.

The plan also proposes to limit the size of a home to about half the square footage of the lot it is on, while at the same time allowing buildings to cover a larger area of the lot. That’s supposedly to prevent McMansions, but it also just happens to encourage people to build two separate homes on one lot (one of which would be called an “accessory” unit).

Portland’s current mayor, Charlie Hales, is a strong advocate of densification–so long as it isn’t in his backyard. When the city proposed to increase densities in Eastmoreland, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods on the city’s east side, residents strongly protested. Hales, who just happens to live there, backed them up. Judging from the map on page 14 of the proposal, neither Eastmoreland nor the wealthy Tualatin Hills neighborhoods are among those that would be rezoned. Continue reading

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HDR Seeks TIF Subsidies

HDR, an engineering consulting firm that has been behind many of the nation’s streetcar plans, wants to build a new headquarters in Omaha. The firm is very familiar with tax-increment financing (TIF), since TIF played a role in funding many streetcar projects and developments around those projects. So, naturally, it asked the city of Omaha for nearly $21 million in TIF subsidies to support its new building.

Omaha’s city council eagerly agreed to give HDR the subsidy, but for some reason that plan fell through. Now it has a new headquarters proposal for which it is seeking $15 million in TIF subsidies.

The amount isn’t smaller because HDR had a pang in conscience. The original proposal was to build the headquarters in downtown Omaha, while the latest plan is to put it more than five miles away from downtown, where it would probably pay less property taxes. Since TIF effectively returns the property taxes back to the developer, lower taxes mean less TIF.

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The Ponderous Pace of Planning

Buffalo’s Main Street is coming back to life thanks to one simple change: the city has opened it up to cars after three decades of being a pedestrian mall. As a pedestrian mall, “it was like a ghost town,” says one business owner. Now that it is open to cars, “the difference on the street is like night and day.”

The surprise is not that opening the street to cars has revitalized the downtown area. The real surprise is that it took the city so long to learn its lesson. Businesses started closing almost as soon as the street was closed. By 2002, everyone knew the street closure, which was supposed to renew the area, was a failure. Yet it took more than a decade after that to open it up again.

The Antiplanner gets into the background of this story in Best-Laid Plans. In 1959, Kalamazoo, Michigan became the first city to try to create a downtown pedestrian mall by closing streets to cars. Over the next three decades, cities across the United States and Canada emulated this example by creating more than 200 pedestrian malls. But far from revitalizing downtowns, nearly all of them hastened their demise.

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Happy Birthday, Jane Jacobs

As noted in today’s Google doodle, today is Jane Jacob’s 100th birthday. No doubt many people will write positive things about her. However, as the Antiplanner has noted before, her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is overrated.

Jacobs made two points, one of them right, and one of them wrong. Her correct point, which is celebrated by many libertarians, is in recognizing that urban planners don’t understand the cities they claim to be designing. The hubris of planners writing 50 year plans when they don’t even know what’s going to happen five years from now would be amusing if the consequences weren’t so expensive.

Jacobs wrong point, which is celebrated by many urban planners today, was in thinking that she did understand cities. She thought she understood her neighborhood, Greenwich Village, New York, but she didn’t understand it very well. She reduced her understanding to four simple “conditions” that she said all cities needed: mixed uses, short blocks, a mixture of old and new buildings, and density of residents and jobs. Her application of these oversimplified conditions to all “great cities” made her just as guilty of hubris as the planners she criticized.

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Sofia Housing and Transport

The capital of Bulgaria and the nation’s largest city, Sofia has 1.2 million people packed at a density of 6,900 people per square mile, which is nearly as dense as the densest urban area in the United States. The actual density is probably much higher as the developed area of the city is surrounded by a wide greenbelt of undeveloped land within the city limits. Whatever the density, it is achieved through lots of mid-rise (four to six stories) and high-rise (more than six stories) housing, most of which was built during the soviet era. Before that time, the city was nearly all low-rise (one to three stories) with a few mid-rise buildings in the city center.


This former single-family home is cute enough that someone built a Lego model of it. But the land it is on is too valuable to use it as a house today.

Many pre-war single-family homes are scattered throughout the city, but most of the ones near the city center have been turned into businesses. According to former Sofia resident Sonia Hirt, 47 percent of Bulgarians live in single-family detached homes. But too many in Sofia live in soviet-era high rises.

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