Bankers’ conventions

Here in Everett, Wash., the finishing touches are being put on a brand new hotel, a Marriott, located along the main corridor. My wife and I during our daily strolls have followed the construction, from initial ground-breaking to the anticipated opening next month, about 90 days or so behind schedule. We wonder who the hell will be visiting this old mill town, with all the empty storefronts? We suspect that out-of-town lawyers with trials at the nearby courthouse will find the accommodations convenient, if not also comfortable. But who else?

Ah, one thing Everett has aplenty: banks. They sprout like weeds on a hot summer day. Banks, as a rule, employ very few people, and now that most of us conduct our finances on line or via ATMs, there is scant need for the Rest of Us to enter their lobbies.

It occurs to me that Everett and its brand new hotel may now host an endless string of bankers’ conventions, which will bring in corporate officials from near and far, representing Chase, Bank of America, Key Bank, Homestreet, and Banner, just to name a few of the many banks now populating downtown Everett.

Jane Jacobs would be amused.

“Wind tunnel”

That’s how Snohomish County council member Brian Sullivan described Everett, Wash., which will be assaulted tomorrow by one Donald J. Trump. Writing for Crosscut, Peter Jackson, scion of the famous native-son senator Henry M., suggests that this old mill town is Trump’s “kind of town.”

With Everett, local Trump troops wisely picked a community estranged from the Northwest’s Amazon-fueled gold rush. With surrounding Arlington, Sultan and Granite Falls, it’s a restive corner of Western Washington where Trump’s “tell it like it is”message, however freighted by scapegoating and code-word racism, finds a receptive audience.

“I compare Everett to a wind tunnel,” said Democratic Snohomish County Councilmember Brian Sullivan, who represents a district that includes the city. “Economic growth is going on all around it, just not in it.”

But Everett does have a lot of banks, however.

Housing the Rest of Us

The Puget Sound area entices many, given its natural amenities. But there are constraints, notably: Where will the people live? Michael Luis, writing for Crosscut, details the challenges, which are significant.

After 20 years of growth management we still don’t have a very good grip on this question. We know we do not want to sprawl forever, like the big, fast growing cities of the Sunbelt. But we have never come up with a plausible alternative.

Seattle is increasingly home to only the affluent, as housing prices outstrip median household incomes. Those further down the wage ladder must live farther out.

But there is a problem, a very big one. And that is transportation. Once removed from the city, suburbanites confront congestion horrors.

So, back to cities. How do we fit a growing population into urban centers confined by both geography and transportation? Luis suggests three immovable objects to doing so.

  1. Urban Growth Boundary, mandated by the Growth Management Act
  2. resistance to density
  3. lifestyles

Those who live in single-family homes strenuously object to multi-family units in their neighborhoods. Though inhabitants of other countries, as Luis points out, have lived in densely packed built environments for centuries, Americans, in the words of James Kunstler, desire their own “log cabins” in the cities. Luis:

The fact remains that preservation of existing low-density zoning is a primary expectation of local governments, and there is no constituency outside the housing industry pushing for higher densities. The political formula is simple: Most voters already own homes and have no stake in expanding the supply of them.

Young people may start their families in multi-family units, but then seek larger accommodations with yards and fences to raise their children. But unless they can afford to spend upwards of a million dollars or more, they’ll be forced into the cheaper suburbs, necessitating dreaded commutes along the always-congealed freeway corridors.

Luis does not seem optimistic about our collective ability to solve the problem. He concludes:

The problem of providing housing for the next wave of growth is not a planning or economic question, but a political one, and it is a question that the region’s leaders need to get a grip on. Growth management, as carried out at the local level, has had two big successes: preserving the Cascade foothills and creating vibrant urban centers. There is no technical barrier to city and county leaders doing the rest of the job, primarily finding creative ways to house families that don’t involve lengthy commutes.

But before they can do that effectively, the state, which created this political mess in the first place, needs to come back to the table. The GMA needs to be tweaked to acknowledge two important truths. First, planning for population growth and unit count is too abstract; we need a finer grain of planning that considers real people and households and their needs. Second, local governments are hardwired to respond to their current residents, not their future ones, and assuming they will take tough votes on density without strong guidance and incentives is unrealistic.

Ah, politics. Oh, and planning. We Americans are not very good at either.

Fools on foot

No U.S. city makes the list of the world’s most livable cities, which are generally found in Scandinavia, Canada, and Australia. In my humble opinion the absence has everything to do with transportation.

America was largely formed after the advent of the automobile. Cars are king. Pedestrians and bicyclists are second-class denizens, if not lower. The typical U.S. motorist treats the walkers and peddlers as annoyances, inconvenient obstacles. Fools on foot hope to merely survive steps on pavement, perhaps for the next day’s anxious adventure.

A couple of weeks ago an out-of-town visitor lost his contest with a couple of tons of metal. He was crossing an intersection in what is called “downtown Everett” (Wash.), whereupon he was struck by an SUV and killed instantly. It was a bright, sunny day just before noon.

Yesterday my wife and I nearly succumbed to the same outcome. A woman was making a left turn while talking on her cellphone (illegal in Washington state) and obviously didn’t notice the two of us as we were nearly halfway across the intersection with the walk sign. The driver saw us at the last moment, slamming on her brakes to just avoid the collision. She never missed a syllable of her conversation. As she resumed her turn, I slammed my open hand against her window, yelling, “Get off the damn phone!”

Over the years, transportation engineers and urban planners have fixed the built environment to accommodate the automobile, leaving pedestrians and bicyclists at the mercy of oblivious drivers. The motorist, so coddled, has a sense of righteous superiority in plying our nation’s streets. They drive as if in their living rooms while talking on their mobile phones as if in a coffee shop. Oh, there’s a pedestrian in the crosswalk. I suppose I should stop.

A livable city, it seems to me, would have a built environment in which cars were rare and benign. Pedestrians and bicyclists would be the rightful inhabitants and thus enabled to travel freely and safely amidst well-protected urban pathways.

Here’s a photo off the Internet of a Helsinki street. The city is judged one of the most livable.

 

helsinki_street

A car would be out of place. I say Amen to that.

Downtown living

The years take their toll on the body. In my case, it’s arthritis everywhere, though I feel it most acutely in the knees and spine. Navigating stairs has become a painful challenge rather than a trivial means to get up and down. So, my wife and I live in an apartment these days, abandoning the big two-story house on the hill.

We are not alone in our preference for horizontal living space. After all, the population is aging, with more and more of us old farts whining about this or that. Above all, we desire to live in close proximity to amenities and, of course, medical facilities.

Ironically, we baby boomers share some likes and dislikes with the younger crowd, many of whom disdain car-dependent suburban living. They, too, wish to be close to the action, though they are far more active than we codgers.

Such thoughts, while omnipresent in my brain, came to the fore upon reading this piece in the New York Times about a downtown Minneapolis project, which includes a new football stadium for the Vikings. The paper calls it “a blueprint for a bustling downtown.”

The five-block project, called Downtown East, includes plans for two 18-story office towers for Wells Fargo, a six-level parking ramp, about 24,000 square feet of retail space, 193 apartments and a four-acre urban park near the stadium’s northwest corner.

The blueprint for a bustling downtown stands in stark contrast to the status quo: crumbling asphalt parking lots, tired buildings and limited housing…

Well, you might say, nothing novel here. Lots of cities launch such plans, some more successful than others. For me, it was the accompanying comments that precipitated this post. Take this one, for example:

For Governor [Mark] Dayton, reviving the downtown means making good on a childhood lesson. “My father and his brothers were retailers, and they preached the downtown,” he said. “If left to its own, development goes to greenfield sites on the outlying areas and you end up with a doughnut hole. Once you get behind the eight ball with a downtown in decay, it’s very, very difficult to turn that around.”

Consider that last sentence. My wife and I happen to live in downtown Everett, once designated by late 19th century U.S. plutocrats as the future commercial and political center of Washington state. The only legacy of their blink-of-an-eye romance are street names, which include Rockefeller, Hoyt, Rucker, Wetmore, and Colby. Yep, that Rockefeller. After leaving town and taking their money with them, Everett reverted to a marine-based industrial hub, dominated by wood, water, and rails. For good reason the place was dubbed ‘Mill Town.’

During the first few decades of the 20th century, Everett was bustling, with a vibrant downtown of stores and shops, replete with electric trolleys. Photographs of the period depict lots of people buzzing about.

But over time Everett became the doughnut hole. Boeing expanded its operations west of the city, and its tens of thousands of employees chose to live in rapidly growing suburbs like Marysville and Lake Stevens. Eventually, Everett officials declared that downtown would be the region’s financial district—with low employment numbers. Simultaneously, they established a retail zone miles from the city center, inducing stores to move operations into the new mall-cum-parking-lagoon. Bye-bye, downtown pedestrians.

Now that the last waterfront mill has closed, what does the future hold? Is it too late for the city to turn around? Can public officials and business leaders overcome the chicken-and-egg conundrum of amenities and people? If dwelling units are built, will consumers follow?

Several years ago Everett’s leaders determined that a sports facility would be built downtown. It would attract people and restaurants. It might even serve to revitalize a doughnut hole. The Times:

Many cities have tried to generate urban renewal around a big project like a new stadium with mixed success over the years. It is often hard to persuade those who left for the suburbs to return.

Comcast Arena, the name of the Everett complex, has failed “to persuade.” Now what?

A couple of developers are responsible for adding hundreds of apartment units to the downtown housing stock. However, one building remains virtually empty. Yet, the developer of that property is constructing a massive new project a block away. It will host a hotel, a several-stories-high apartment complex, and a promised year-round farmers’ market. Can you say “huge”? A half-block to the east, another local developer is busy pouring concrete for yet another apartment building.

The latter developer seems concerned about re-creating a vibrant downtown, judging by his quotes in the Herald. He’s recently offered a “downtown card” to his renters. The holder will enjoy discounts at local establishments. In the promotional literature, he writes:

Living in Downtown Everett means it’s all right there. Whether you’re running errands or looking for experiences with the arts, dining or shopping, in downtown Everett you’re in the center of Everett’s urban experience.

At the moment, that may be just wishful thinking. As a downtown resident, I hope it becomes more. But what will it take?

One problem confronting the city is lack of money. Aside from the current municipal budget woes and a bow wave of unmet obligations, those who now live here don’t have nearly as much income as their suburban counterparts. The image below is taken from a slide presentation (pdf) by Everett’s planning head.

Screen Shot 2014-05-28 at 10.41.38 AM

Seattle, just 30 miles to the south, truly is bustling, with a dozen or so cranes helping build new apartments and office towers galore. It is now the fastest growing city in the country. And its residents have much higher incomes than Everett’s. After paying for their housing needs, Seattleites have money left over to support a myriad of restaurants. (They do seem to avoid Safeco Field, however.)

Unfortunately, rents in Seattle are about double what they are in Everett. Being the aforementioned old farts, my wife and I live on fixed incomes, as they say. We could pay the Seattle rents, but would then be forced to eat beans and bread at every meal. The Emerald City has essentially told us to stay away.

And so we remain in the doughnut hole, hoping with the developers that something will eventually click to recapture the hustle and bustle of yesteryear.

Stupidity

I’ve checked a lot of categories for this post, which could suggest that I will have a lot to say about a wide variety of topics. Nope. I’ve done so because there is a common cause for our collective failure to remedy the significant and plentiful problems found within each category, from education and transportation to climate change, poverty, and urban renewal.

Notice that I said “collective.” Each of the myriad challenges requires societal solutions, the efforts and resources of we rather than individual I’s.

As I’ve written previously, I grew up in California when government, the necessary we, seemed to work. The education system was second to none. New roads proliferated to accommodate a growing population. Social services were sufficient to meet needs, or at least to a greater extent than at present.

That all began to change with the passage of Proposition 13 and Ronald Reagan’s displacement of Pat Brown. Government became the problem rather than the solution, and Reagan spread that message throughout the land as a two-term president. In England, Margaret Thatcher also took the message to heart when she declared that there is “no society,” only individuals.

So, from the 1980s to the present, support for government at all levels has eroded. To ensure that government can’t work to solve problems, taxes were cut, cut, and cut some more.

Meanwhile, of course, those problems grew in number and significance, so that now the costs to tackle just one seem overwhelming. As a result, when confronted with a ballot initiative to fund schools, parks, roads, and other public services we say no, deeming the request exorbitant. Besides, government is the problem, right?

Here’s one problem—transportation.

My wife and I travel to Seattle each Friday to spend time with our new grandson. We travel along I-5 from Everett, a distance of about 30 miles. If traveled at 3 a.m., the trip takes but a half hour. Yet, despite leaving after the “rush hour,” and despite using the HOV lane, we may spend upwards of an hour and a half to get there in the morning. The return trip takes that long more often than not, regardless of when we depart for home. The great majority of the vehicles have but one occupant, which is the problem, since there are so many of them traveling at the same time.

This seems stupid, that so many people buy so many cars to ride alone each morning and night. It would be far less expensive and a hell of a lot more convenient if all those people spent a fraction of the amount they devote to solitary transportation on a collective solution. And I’m talking about trains. Yet, when given a choice, a rare event to be sure, people eschew the social remedy in favor of buying that new car and joining the freeway goo. As I said, stupid. And my wife and I are caught in it each Friday. (Though the rewards of spending time with our grandson outweigh the inconvenience.)

But given our aversion to government and our unwillingness to convert personal expenditures into taxes, the stupidity steadily increases with absolutely no viable solution in sight. The fix available 30 years ago has long since disappeared under mountains of slow-moving cars.

As for climate change, ditto. We’ll take the oil and the coal any day over a collective solution.

Education. Ditto.

Urban renewal. Ditto.

Ending poverty and inequality. Ditto.

Forget about us.

 

 

We can generalize on this

The New York Times reports that Los Angeles is hurting, though the fractures to its social and physical networks may seem invisible to many. A commission finds that the city suffers from pervasive poverty, urban blight (in poor areas, of course), widespread unemployment, huge public pension obligations, and concentrated crime (again, in poor areas).

None of this should surprise even casual observers of our cities. From decrepit sidewalks and potholed streets to stubborn and increasingly visible homelessness, along with a sharp decline in public services to aid them. And there are no jobs, even of the welding kind.

But a litany of unmet obligations marks the whole of society. Worse, as the problems worsen, the costs to remedy continue to climb. Indeed, they have grown so high as to create sticker shock among the electorate, those of us who decide the outcomes of school levies, municipal bonds, and, indirectly, the taxes we pay. Let’s take a hypothetical example.

Say that thirty years ago it would have cost the people of Puget Sound a billion dollars to repair existing roads. Voters, as we know, are a fickle sort who generally loathe taxes of any kind. Let’s assume that they nixed the idea of increasing their “tax burden.” So the roads didn’t get fixed. Ten years later more roads need attention and the costs double. Again, voters refuse to tax themselves further. A decade later the problems that were identified twenty years before have grown more acute while the costs have doubled again. We’re now at four billion dollars. If voters thought that one billion was too high, a quadrupling of that total marks ballot initiatives dead on arrival.

In retrospect we can see that it would have been far better to have addressed problems as soon as they arose. The costs would have been relatively manageable. Kicking the can down the road again and again increased the costs of repair while eroding support for the public institutions charged with the responsibility to fix collective problems.

I am not at all hopeful that we can turn this around. Oh, and watch out for the bow wave.