Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Tropic of Capricorn.

No, not a reference to the lesser-known Henry Miller sequel here.

As this blog goes to post, I am currently en route to Montevideo, Uruguay, where I will be living for a good part of the summer.  My blog posts, never frequent, will probably have to slide to just a few per month.  But I will still be checking regularly and will definitely try to respond to comments as promptly as possible.

I wish my readers in the Northern Hemisphere (which is practically ALL my readers) a wonderful summer; I'll try to make the most of my subtropic winter.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Nordstrom brainstorming.

My latest post is up at Urban Indy, focusing on what we can do with a huge vacant piece of real estate in the heart of Indianapolis' downtown: the Nordstrom space to CIrcle Centre Mall, which vacated in summer of 2011.

Still no plans for this space have materialized.  I recent post from the Indianapolis Busines Journal suggests that, in spite of one of the mall's two department stores remaining vacant, the sales per square foot have actually improved in recent years.  But the occupancy rate is lagging.

This blog post looks at both the positive and negative indicators for the long-term future of the mall, with lots of photos offering empirical indicators of its economic health, which in turn support or challenge the numbers.  Finally, I list a variety of the proposed options for filling the Nordstrom space, while encourage readers to come up with their own.  Even if you aren't from Indy or don't even know it, please feel free to contribute.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

REWIND: It may take a village, but what if the village is the taker?

My latest is now posted at New Geography.  Truth be told, it’s not exactly a brand new article; I originally featured it here last December, as an exploration of municipalities (mostly in Ohio) that use speed traps as a primary means of generating revenue. Since then, I have significantly revised the final analysis, including material that focuses on the broader implications of “speed trap towns”, along with a few additional photographs.  The article that features in New Geography is slightly abridged, so here at American Dirt I have attached the full-length version seen below, which includes all the text featured on New Geography plus a bit more vigorous analysis.  The second half of this article, in particular, differs considerably from the original version that I featured here last December.

With few exceptions, the typical Metropolitan Statistical Area over 100,000 people contains at least one additional incorporated municipality beyond the core city.  The larger ones—those over half million—typically include several municipalities, while the largest MSAs may contain hundreds.  Like the variegated colors in a mosaic, the incorporated communities in an MSA often differ greatly from one another, and not just because they comprise discrete, bounded territories.  Ideally, each municipality offers a distinct approach to self-governance that directly reflects the wills of its electorates. Thus, we recognize core differences in the appearance of infrastructure between two adjacent municipalities: street signs, lighting, or even paving surfaces, let alone their financing.  I observed this in a recent blog post focusing upon a road that formed the boundary between two Cleveland suburbs.

Meanwhile, most constituents will assess the aptitude of their officials through two basic means: the election process in the short term, and maintaining a residence in the municipality over the long term, which collectively provide the incentive for a mayoral administration to perform its duties capably.  If public servants want to keep their jobs, they will carry out the will of the electorate, while a well-managed city is far more likely to retain its tax base than one that is not.

But what happens when a town’s leadership chooses an ethically or legally dubious management practice?  The suburb of East Cleveland has acquired an infelicitous reputation over the years.

It abuts the core city to its west and the north, and in terms of the physical appearance, the boundary between the two is indistinct.  A century ago, the City of Cleveland unsuccessfully attempted to annex East Cleveland on two occasions.

These days, Cleveland is unlikely to perceive its eastern neighbor as much of a catch.  East Cleveland fell on hard times during the deindustrialization that took place throughout the Cuyahoga Valley: since 1970, it has lost more than half of its population.  What was once a predominantly white suburb is now almost exclusively African American, with nearly 40% of the 2010 population falling below the poverty level.

Not surprisingly, East Cleveland’s impecunious residents and depressed real estate do not contribute a tax base by which the City can provide fundamental services.  So what does it do?

It shifts the burden to motorists by saddling them with hefty speeding tickets.  While visiting Cleveland, friends had warned me that the 2.5-mile stretch of Euclid Avenue that passes through East Cleveland was a fierce speed trap—I shouldn’t go even a few miles per hour over the limit.  Now this sign on the sidewalk confirms it.  The City probably decided to install cameras to prevent law enforcement officers from squandering time on petty infractions, especially considering East Cleveland’s high rate of violent crime. A few blocks away, an unusually large sign announces the approaching school zone, which no doubt has even more onerous speeding restrictions—and steeper fines.

At least the City of East Cleveland is candid about its method of generating revenue.  The same couldn’t be said about New Rome, outside Columbus, Ohio.  This tiny village comprised only about nine city blocks (approximately twelve acres), and even at its peak, no more than 150 people called it home; the 2000 Census estimated its population at 60.  It would probably go completely ignored if it weren’t for a four-block stretch of U.S. 40 (West Broad Street in Columbus) that fell within the corporate limits.  This twilight photo captures the essence of New Rome’s claim to U.S. 40 well enough.

And this photo in the opposite direction (looking away from Broad Street) shows the commercial/residential heart of New Rome.

Considering how hard it is to imagine that the village ever claimed more than a few houses, apartments, and small businesses, one can only marvel under how New Rome could justify its incorporation back in 1947.  But it did, and that 1000-foot segment of US 40 clearly fell within its municipal boundaries, and it was there that the speed limit dropped from 45 mph to 35.  Another trap.

The New Rome Police Department had every right to issue $90 citations to motorists going 42 mph within this speed zone.  But, according to an April 2003 issue of Car and Driver magazine, speeding tickets only accounted for about 12% of New Rome’s citations.  The remainder?  Fines for cracked or excessively tinted windshields, dirt on the license plate, chipped taillights, faulty mufflers, tailgating, and driving too slowly, among others.  Officers asked stopped motorists where they work, and failure to pay in time could result in an arrest at the workplace.  This village of a dozen ramshackle houses, three apartment buildings, and a handful of small businesses earned nearly all its revenue (nearly $400,000) from traffic tickets.  Since the village had no other real public agencies, all of this money paid for the police force—an operation that existed to fund itself and the village council.

New Rome’s speed trap earned it a far more insidious reputation than East Cleveland.  Motorists used alternate routes in order to avoid the gauntlet, traveling through residential neighborhoods unequipped to handle the traffic.  Businesses in the area acknowledged their struggles as people consciously circumvented New Rome.  A few neighbors eventually grew so frustrated that they launched the website New Rome Sucks in order to let more people voice their Tales of Woe.  Further research on the village’s operations revealed that the speed trap was just the tip of a corrupt iceberg.  Village leaders inappropriately used a 1996 federal grant intended to fight burglaries and vandalism to fund yet more traffic enforcement.  This police force at times employed as many as 14 people, almost one quarter of the 2000 population.  Furthermore, past audits revealed embezzlement by various council members, virtually all of whom were related to one another.  And the State Highway Department claimed that the Village’s sudden speed limit drop on U.S. 40 was unjustified.

At last, in 2002, a neighboring business owner, angered by New Rome’s influence, moved to an apartment building in town and successfully ran for mayor, winning with six votes against zero.  However, the council refused to recognize his victory; one member called him a carpetbagger.  This controversy attracted the attention of the Franklin County Prosecutor and Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro, who determined that, after decades of incompetent management, New Rome should be abolished.  By the end of the year, Petro convinced the Ohio General Assembly to pass a law allowing the State to seek dissolution of a village under 150 people if the State Auditor found that it provided few public services and demonstrated a pattern of wrongdoing.  When New Rome officials successfully challenged the statute as contrary to the home rule provisions in the Ohio Constitution, a judge ruled in July of 2004 that, since the electorate had allowed key offices such as village council to remain vacant since 1979, the village had effectively dissolved itself.  By September of that year, the Village of New Rome was irrevocably absorbed into Prairie Township of Franklin County, Ohio.

The suburb of East Cleveland is a “Community of Strict Enforcement” that may not have high road fatalities, but city’s socioeconomics give it few other options to generate the revenue it needs.  I have no doubt that the placard on the sidewalk owes its existence to the debacle that brought about the demise of New Rome.  In most municipalities, good governance is a selling point.  However, New Rome’s malfeasance was unequivocally a reflection of the will of its constituents: they got the racket that an apparent majority of them wanted.  And eventually the village forfeited its very existence.

While human vagaries organized into a collective force could realistically allow the emergence of New Rome anywhere in the country, it is worth questioning whether that municipal incorporation structure in Ohio—and, furthermore, other Midwestern/Northeastern states—particularly abets the process.  Tiny municipalities exist everywhere.  But they seem particularly prevalent in the industrial heartland.  Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County has 57 incorporated municipalities; Columbus’ Franklin County has 25; Cincinnati’s Hamilton County has 38.  Most states to Ohio’s northeast are almost completely incorporated: William Penn mandated this characteristic in his original charter for Pennsylvania; New Jersey is 99% incorporated. It is not uncommon to find boroughs as small as New Rome in these two states; the Philadelphia suburb of Millbourne measures only .07 square miles.  Conversely, southern states are more likely to opt for either expanses of unincorporated urbanized land (which characterizes the vast New Orleans suburb of Metairie) or mega-municipalities, such as the “town” of Gilbert outside Phoenix, with a population over 200,000.

This broad-brush distinction between North and South may not yield any further conclusions, but even laypersons know these days that majorities of shrinking cities—and towns, villages, boroughs, and townships—span the Northeast and Midwest.  The home rule provision, coupled with a small population, allows for a disproportionate amount of self-actualization through legislation…for better or worse.  Cleveland’s most prosperous microsuburbs can wield it effectively to stem the erosion of their tax base; I have also noted another tiny Cleveland suburb of Linndale that transforms its stretch of I-71 into a speed zone; so far the municipality has defended its right to police the interstate under the constitution’s Home Rule Provisions.  And the affluent Bratenahl (pop. 1150), hemmed in by Lake Erie on one side and the largely impoverished City of Cleveland on the other three.  Meanwhile, just a mile from Bratenahl sits East Cleveland, in perpetual struggle.  At the very least, the Rust Belt states must carefully weigh the benefits of entitling tiny population through geographically refined control, versus the sociological and fiduciary costs of excessive density of politicization.  Otherwise, the only way many communities in a metropolitan mosaic will ever paint themselves out of the red is through surreptitious speed traps.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Main Street geniuses and the chain of fools.

By now I’ve explored the visible evidence of main street reinvestment numerous times, through streetscape enhancements, creative infill development, improved access for wheelchairs, vintage iconography, or the preservation of the historic building façade at the expense of everything behind it (pejoratively called façadectomy).  Across the country, in towns both small and microscopic, palpable evidence reveals communities that are vigorously trying to address the decades-long economic malaise of their historic centers.  Predictably, the success of these initiatives has been spotty.  A particularly simplistic but not entirely inaccurate speculation for this inconsistency is that supply exceeds demand; we simply have too many municipalities with marginally surviving main streets to meet the demand for vibrant centers of commerce.  This supply-demand dichotomy extends temporally to contemporary popular retail typologies: more succinctly, we have too many strip malls and shopping centers to house retail just as comfortably, if not more so, and they offer enough amenities (mostly catering to cars) to the consumer that it remains hard for old main streets to compete.  The truly flourishing small downtowns have capitalized on “authenticity”, a word a deliberately framed in quotes because of its inherent artificiality.  Modern strip malls are no more or less authentic than historic main streets, but they tap into nostalgia that, through an inversion of taste cultures (coupled with the paucity of genuinely successful old main streets) makes them appear aesthetically superior to generic, ubiquitous, automobile-oriented strip malls in the eyes of many.  Maybe someday a new retail typology will replace strip malls—my suspicions is that it will be of the point-and-click variety—and the inevitable demolition of the most obsolete shopping centers will render the few flourishing survivors into a sort of vintage curiosity.  But we ain’t there yet.

In the meantime, main streets that achieve the rare combination of an attractive veneer and low vacancy rates still avert the eyes.  Maybe my standards aren’t so lofty, but Jefferson City’s East High Street appears to be one of them.

An unusually small municipality for a fairly populous state (barely 43,000 people), the capital of Missouri seems to have checked off most of the requisite boxes one might associate with main street revitalization. 

It’s got abundant benches, vintage streetlights (complete with floral arrangements suspended from them), landscaping that undoubtedly doubles as stormwater management, and wheelchair-friendly pedestrian crossings.  It all looks impeccable; the design team conceived it with a great deal of diligence and care.  My research suggests that the key player is Downtown Jefferson City, a volunteer association with modest annual membership dues for all the businesses that line East High Street, assisting them in promotion of the downtown and the planning of key events.  Although not necessarily the wallet to implement the costliest of these initiatives, this agency certainly seems to be the thinking cap.

Since these photos comprised my one and only visit to Jefferson City, I have no basis of comparing the main street in the fall of 2012 with its condition at a prior point.  It’s hard for me to judge if the investment on aesthetic upgrades has yielded a return.  At any rate, it doesn’t seem to be making the conditions worse.  As far as I can tell, the 2.5 block commercial corridor was over 90% occupied. 

Not only are virtually all the retail spaces leased, but, in contrast to so many other American main streets, Jefferson City lacks many significant “gaps in the teeth”—spaces where one of the contiguous old commercial buildings faced a demolition team.  The pic below shows about the only one that I could find.

My conversations with one of the storefront entrepreneurs, a frozen yogurt business owner, revealed that nearly all the improvements have taken place within the past two or three years, which is exactly as it appeared.  East High Street’s revival is nascent and still very fragile.

One tenant in particular, however, gives the corridor a better-than-average prospect at long-term survival:

That’s right: it’s the rapidly-growing sandwich chain from Champaign, Illinois—one of the most franchise-dependent major brands in the business.  Such an establishment may seem unremarkable for a small-town main street, especially one so close to a state capital that houses hundreds of daytime workers who demand lunchtime options nearby.  But Jimmy John’s is not a common occupant of 19th century downtown commercial buildings in small cities.  Long a staple of the college scene (where it might occupy a traditional pedestrian oriented storefront), the meteoric growth of this chain in recent years depends heavily these days on suburban locations in strip malls or freestanding drive-thrus.  It tends to populate areas that are middle class or higher, in contrast with McDonald’s or Burger King, two chains that will select a location regardless of its income density—or, Church’s Chicken, which almost exclusively seeks locations with below-average median incomes.  I have my strong suspicion that this Jimmy John’s leased this storefront for two primary reasons: Downtown Jefferson City recruited the franchise owner heavily (perhaps even through incentives), and this same franchisee determined that foot traffic along the main street was good enough allow for profitability, even good enough to sacrifice any possibility of integrating a drive-thru window into the operation.

At any rate, Jimmy John’s is virtually alone among national brands on East High Street, and it’s the only chain restaurant that I could find.  But it’s a major boost for Jefferson City—an indication of the franchisee’s confidence that downtown denizens could sustain his or her business, which, as a national brand with particular operating costs and licensing fees, undoubtedly must contend with far greater expenses than the locally owned operations nearby.  To an extent, the celebrating of a Jimmy John’s means we must throw conventional main street revitalization out the window: while the ambition of many main street boosters is to attract an eclectic downtown mix of varied local entrepreneurs, such tenants rarely flourish exclusively without the presence of a familiar logo to serve as a relative anchor.  Mom-and-pops simply lack the equity to weather very many periods of slow business, and thus they come and go routinely.

I’m thrilled for Jefferson City that it seems to support an independent bookstore, even in an era of escalating e-reader encroachment.  But will the bookstore last through the implementation of a five-year business development plan?  It might not matter.  From what I could tell, downtown Jefferson City boasts the aforementioned sandwich chain and a Hallmark Gold Crown, which amounts to two more national brands than the average struggling small-town main street can claim.

So has East High Street reached its commercial apex?  Probably not.  As the pictures indicate, the on-street parking spaces appear mostly full—no doubt boosted by Downtown Jefferson City’s removal of the meters to allow 90 minutes free.  But the street wasn’t exactly teeming with shoppers.  I saw practically none on this weekday late afternoon.  The business association’s aspirations for the main street appear formidable, judging from the website’s use of phrases like “prominent destination”, “thriving”, and “the place to be”, which even the most optimistic person would confess comes across as hyperbole.  But virtually all evidence suggests this member-supported agency has nursed its vision incrementally, potentially meeting even some of the second-tier goals.  For example, numerous American main street associations concern themselves primarily with impeding demolition and activating the first-floor storefronts, while the upper levels continue to languish.  During my visit, Jefferson City’s main street not only boasted a near-perfect occupancy rate at the street level, the second and third floors seemed occupied as well.

If these upper floors are still vacant, Downtown Jefferson City has taken enough care to keep them looking occupied through well-maintained curtains and blinds.  The one obvious deficiency that stood out to me was the occasional surviving mid-century sheath, no doubt installed back in the day to conceal the fact that downtown’s buildings appeared old, obsolete, and increasingly in disrepair.  Sometimes these 1950s-era false façades are fantastic looking on their own terms, as I pointed out with some winsome examples in south Louisiana.  But it would be hard to fall in love with the ugly, uninspired cosmetic work performed on a few of Jefferson City’s buildings, like the ones below:

My suspicion is that at least a few of Jefferson City’s biggest downtown boosters envision a main street filled with al fresco cafés, specialty boutiques, lively upmarket bars, and enough crowds to attract street performers.  Maybe even mimes.  Certainly the incomes in this small city are high enough to support more than the two or three low-key bars/restaurants that I could spot along East High Street.  And maybe someday the activity downtown will escalate to the point that wine bars, art galleries and brasseries really do dominate the landscape.  But obviously this ambition seems a bit fanciful, and it’s not because Jefferson City is failing—by most metrics, it’s doing quite well.  However, the current conditions perfectly capture the timeworn phrase “never let perfect be the enemy of the good”.  I don’t want to tell the leadership of this handsome state capital to lower its aspirations, but it must recognize that the fact that virtually all of the historic buildings are in good condition, occupied, and adjacent to a perfectly manicured streetscape places Jefferson City among the top quintile of downtowns for American cities of its size.

My sad suspicion is that, even as the occasional well-preserved main street does live up to flowery phrases the website embraces, most are not and never will again be “thriving” or a real “destination”.  Those thriving main streets aren’t exactly places for run-of-the-mill, mundane shopping; they are destinations that eloquently trigger nostalgia by evoking a time when our city centers really were the center of commerce, recalling the blatantly artificial references to “authenticity” that I noted earlier.  It’s all veneer.  Nostalgia denotes ambiance, and ambiances fuels the leisure consumption patterns of an emergent class that uses its disposable income for artisan pottery, craft beers, and expensive pommes frites.  It is unrealistic to expect that many, or even most, of our main streets will ever propel themselves into upper-tier commodification.  The supply outpaces the demand.

Jefferson City’s challenges are multifaceted: it remains one of only five state capitals that receive no direct access from the Interstate Highway System.  Meanwhile, the toddlin’ town of Columbia, Missouri—home of the University of Missouri (“Mizzou”)—sits just 30 miles to the north of Jefferson City.  Not only can it boast a huge captive student population of 35,000—fostering lively downtown activity because such colleges typically concentrate a large population who generally do not own cars—but Columbia’s city limits stretch directly into the path of I-70.  It’s also nearly three times as populous as Jefferson City.  I suspect many government workers at the state capital commute from Columbia.  Can the mostly rural purlieus of central Missouri support two eclectic downtowns within a 25-minute drive?

Let the presence of the Jimmy John’s serve as the answer to this question.  Like tiny Frankfort, capital of Kentucky, Jefferson City’s primary reason for being is to foster the administration and operation of state government services.  Beyond this function, the city’s ability to assert its distinctiveness—or for its downtown to compete with Columbia’s—will prove a colossal challenge.  While this task isn’t insurmountable, it exposes the need for Downtown Jefferson City and other civic boosters to take pride in the minor victories.

If East High Street never attracts another chain restaurant, that’s okay—in fact, it might be good for building a profile of a place that really can support the “unique discovery of old shops intermixed with new finds” it proclaims on the website.  And if it gets a few more chains, that’s fine too—it reaffirms the ability for these historic buildings to attract tenants with greater capital.  And, even though I have never been to Columbia, I’d be willing to bet the farm it has more tawdry bars and chain restaurants in its downtown—perhaps even two Jimmy John’s.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A room with twice the view.

Downtown hotels seem can’t seem to get a break.  No matter how valiant the effort of local economic development directors in attracting that major chain (Hilton, Marriott, Intercontinental) and no matter how unorthodox the architects’ designs, the closeted coterie of urban advocates never hesitate to lob their Molotov cocktails at the final proposal.   Perhaps it’s the transformative effect a successful hotel can exert on a downtown’s pedestrian activity; perhaps it’s the ex post facto realization that everyone ultimately overhyped that transformative effect.  (Hotels rarely seem to stimulate further activity, nor do they necessary help to fill vacant storefronts of neighboring buildings.) Maybe it’s realization that biggest and most influential hotels nearly always arrive in the form of a multinational chain; maybe it’s resentment that the bland chains most reliable survive the occasional economic downturn.  Maybe the love-hate relationship simply parallels the conflicting emotions that the locals feel toward the typical hotel’s biggest users: the tourists.

Regardless of the final outcome, hotels in urban settings generate simultaneous excitement and derision, often with little consideration for both the complexity of the deal and the hotels’ extreme sensitivity to occasional lapses in tourism, conventions, or optimal climatic conditions. The most common metric in the hospitality industry to gauge overall hotel performance is RevPAR (Revenue Per Available Room), which equates to the hotel’s average daily room rate (ADR) multiplied by its occupancy rate.  Because hotels are widely variable, the analysis of RevPAR is highly sensitive to both seasonal and weekly fluctuations.  Ideally, any RevPAR study for a single hotel will evaluate using a certain benchmark, such as consecutive Fridays over several years.  RevPAR could also determine regional performances, by taking the median RevPAR for all hotels of a certain size within a city across a single year-long duration, then comparing it to peer cities and their respective year-long RevPARs.  Smith Travel Research is the leading agency responsible for assessing general economic trends within the hotel and hospitality industry. 

Most hotels expect to operate at a median occupancy rate of 60%.  Dipping more than 2% below that suggests either a hotel’s poor performance (if it’s an outlier within the region), an oversupply of rooms (if other hotels are suffering the same rates), or a generally struggling local market.  This low elasticity manifests itself for positive hotel performance as well: persistent occupancy rates above 65% will encourage other industry leaders to test their luck in that region.  But, aside from seasonal vicissitudes in tourism, fickle convention business, or over-representation from particular demographics among visitors, most hotels also struggle to keep those RevPARs high because of continually shifting consumer tastes.  Few hotels better demonstrate this struggle to remain viable than Detroit’s Westin Book Cadillac Hotel.

Overlooking the photo’s smudge, even a person completely unfamiliar with this famous hotel can infer that the building stretches far upward beyond the boundaries of the photo.  Constructed during Detroit’s 1920s automotive heyday at $14 million, the Book-Cadillac was the tallest hotel in the world and the city’s biggest skyscraper (32 stories) when completed in 1924.  Through the city’s ups and (particularly after 1960) downs, the 1136-room hotel changed hands multiple times, mostly under other national hotel chains: Sheraton in 1951, then Radisson by 1976.  By 1980, the Book-Cadillac depended upon city subsidies to survive, and a 1983 proposal to convert it to a mixed-use property stalled.  By 1986, the first-floor tenants vacated a building whose hotel function had already ceased two years prior, and it remained shuttered for two decades.

By the time Detroit rung in the 21st century, the Book-Cadillac had suffered years of pillaging, vandalism, and exposure to the elements.  The exterior looked like this; locals have told me that you could through a football cleanly through the buildings many smashed windows.  The interior may have been an even bigger disaster.  Year after year of attempting to find a developer to resuscitate the building failed, and, naturally, over time, the condition of the building posed a greater challenge, amplifying its cost.  At last, in 2006, a Cleveland developer announced a partnership with Westin Hotel to begin a $200 million dollar renovation; the new hotel opened its doors in the fall of 2008.

One of the biggest considerations that had frustrated numerous prior attempts at redevelopment had been the hotel’s configuration; the rooms simply didn’t meet the size standards for today’s hotel patrons, by either a luxury or budget hotel classification.  This situation—coupled with the catastrophic economic decline of Detroit in the second half of the 20th century—killed the hotel’s profitability by the early 1980s and forced developers to question how it could ever return to viability.  Obviously Cleveland’s Kaczmar Architects found a solution, which manifests itself when one investigates the details to the typical room in the renovated Westin.

A double at the Westin Book Cadillac looks like the photo above.  Nothing terribly remarkable, featuring a cleanly spartan interior in keeping with modernist revival trends.  Is there anything abnormal, in fact, about the look or shape of the room?  Here’s another angle:
Doesn’t seem to be.  But check out the hallway on that floor of the Westin:
By today’s standards, it appears unusually narrow—almost claustrophobic.  Yet the continuing the unadorned motif almost helps to mitigate the narrowness: if the designer had filled the walls with decorative bric-a-brac, the space would feel cluttered and even constraining.

It doesn’t take any great powers of discernment to determine what has happened here.  The architects and developers decided to sacrifice hallway space in order to make the sleeping quarters larger.  But that still doesn’t explain the considerable decline in the number of rooms at the Book-Cadillac, from more than 1,100 at the time of the hotel’s founding, to a mere 455 rooms today.  Is it possible that rooms also expanded in width?  Reassessing the rooms’ configuration through one of those photos, I don’t see any other way.
The small pair of windows is atypical.  Though I didn’t include the photo, the bathroom lies directly through the wall to the right (behind the dresser and television) is.  But perhaps the Book-Cadillac of the past offered rooms that were essentially squares, with the wall bisecting at the space between the two windows.  Meanwhile the window on the left, sequestered from its neighboring window through a partition, would bring light into a second bedroom whose bathroom would rest to its left, leaving the two windows of the bedroom in the next room to host both a very small bedroom and its respective restroom.  If that sounds confusing, the best way to describe it is that the two rooms of today were big enough to squeeze in three rooms of the Roaring Twenties.  This would result in an essentially one-third decline in the number of rooms—significant, but nothing on par with the 60% actual loss of rooms.

So what accounts for all those other missing rooms in the hotel?  While it’s possible that the Book-Cadillac may have crammed more rooms in by simply offering a single restroom shared by a cluster of rooms (such configuration was still common at that time), my guess is the building lost another share of rooms through space devoted to amenities that most high-end hotel patrons have come to expect: swimming pools, fitness centers, a spa, a breakfast lounge—not to mention over 60 luxury condominiums on the top floors.   Only a handful of these features would contribute to the Westin’s overall revenue stream.  Thus, the real coup for the hotel chain is the comfier rooms accompanied by a smaller overall baseline—that is, denominator in the “available room” quotient used to devise RevPAR.  A smaller city than in 1920, Detroit simply doesn’t need a hotel that big, but Westin sure needs a confident bottom line established by desirable occupancy and RevPAR numbers—exactly the sort of variables that investors seek in Westin’s parent, the publicly traded Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, Inc.

Older downtown hotels in cities across America have languished due to the lack of marketability of their small rooms, regardless of how winsome or visionary they are.  Developers routinely hesitate to touch such a costly redevelopment, because most hotels have an inordinately high density of plumbing, much of which the construction team will need to reconfigure—or completely extirpate—to accommodate those bigger bedrooms.  The Westin Book Cadillac seems to have found a solution, but there’s nothing to say that cultural shifts in taste for hotel rooms won’t render the existing layout obsolete someday.  In fact, most evidence suggests that precisely this sort of thing could happen.  In contemporary US living, we take for granted the standard of a unique bathroom to every bedroom, but someday in the future, the notion that people at one point had to share ice machines, business centers, or even exercise rooms may seem unthinkable.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Contemporary infill gentrification.

My latest post is at Urban Indy.  It focuses on two small multi-family apartment developments in Fountain Square and Bates-Hendricks, neighborhoods on the near south side of Indianapolis' downtown that, while still very gritty, have become increasingly trendy in recent years.  Both neighborhoods still have their fair share of dilapidated housing and some vacant lots, but that is quickly changing, thanks in no small part to the initiatives of Southeast Neighborhood Development (SEND), the local CDC.

Here is Phase I of the Carburetor Lofts, in Fountain Square, fully leased:

And here is Phase I of the East Street Flats in Bates-Hendricks, nearing completion:

Most of these units are 120% of AMI, which, for an inexpensive city such as Indianapolis, is more or less a steal.  SEND's goal was to meet some untapped demand for sleek modern architecture in neighborhoods that would support them, but would still offer a much lower price point than northside neighborhoods like Herron-Morton (which is also welcoming its share of much, much pricier contemporary infill housing).  The article reviews each apartment building on its own terms, gauging the success of the urban design and likelihood that they will help sustain each neighborhood's growing viability within the demographic that actively seeks urban living.  Comments are welcome, either here or on the Urban Indy webpage; I will do my best to respond.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Salvaging St. Louis, Part III: Biodiversity in repopulation.

In the previous section of this three-part article, I began exploring some of the affordable housing initiatives of St. Louis that have helped it, to some extent, stem its precipitous decline, particularly in comparison to Detroit, its peer city in terms of population loss.  If this survey (you could almost call it “home tour”) seemed a bit facile, well, it is.  To some extent, that’s the point: St. Louis—in contrast with Detroit—has transcended much of its dire population freefall over the years by repopulating its vacant land with sensitively designed affordable and mixed-income housing.  The city is still losing population, but its 8.3% loss from 2000 to 2010 is a pittance compared to the staggering 25% that rocked Detroit during the same time frame.

My home show takes on an even more subjective angle because it has exclusively focused on the portfolio of the St. Louis-based developer, McCormack Baron Salazar, Inc (MBS).  I confess that I received an information packet guiding through different developments within the city limits through MBS’s public relations coordinator.  But this analysis should rise above the level of a promotional campaign for one of the nation’s largest affordable housing developers.  Looking at a particularly successful developer serves as a bellwether for what might prevent other attempts to restore the city’s housing stock from yielding transformative results.

The previous section looked primarily at MBS’s portfolio in the northern half of St. Louis, which has long been the most impoverished part of the city, with some neighborhoods losing over 80% of their population over the years.  The near north side was home to the notorious Pruitt Igoe, 32 high-rise public housing structures whose near immediate failure to accommodate its population safely resulted in its ultimate demolition, a mere 16 years after its completion.  Most of the former site of Pruitt-Igoe remains a vacant, weed-strewn lot.  However, some of McCormack Baron Salazar’s most effective low-income housing efforts sit directly across the street from the old monstrosity, such as the Murphy Park development to the north featured in Part II.

For this section, the housing survey will travel southward, into some of the near- Westside neighborhoods of St. Louis—an area framed by downtown to the east, Forest Park to the west, Delmar Boulevard to the north, and I-44 to the south.  Most of the neighborhoods around here are transitional: some are still in decline, but many have stemmed the population loss and are recovering to form a reasonably racially and economically integrated district, with much of the original building stock still intact.  MBS has contributed several creative projects to this area, and, due to the broader array of incomes represented in the neighborhood, these new developments tend to cater to tenants in multiple economic strata.

The northernmost of the developments featured in Part III, Renaissance Place at Grand Apartments straddles what most would consider the line between the north side of St. Louis and the west side.  Although just barely north of the common divider Delmar Boulevard, the expansive project still sits directly west of the northern edge of downtown.  My apologies once again for some of the lower quality photos—dusk was setting in, and I often did not have the time to get out of the vehicle to take pictures.
After completion in 1968, the Arthur Blumeyer public housing development housed over 1,100 families across four high-rise and 42 low-rise apartment buildings, with an emphasis on support for the elderly.  Though the development lasted considerably longer than Pruitt-Igoe, it fell under the same scrutiny as most other public housing thanks to the Federal Omnibus Consolidated Reconciliation Act of 1996, which mandates that public housing of 300 or more units with a vacancy rate of 10% or higher must undergo routine viability assessments.  According to these housing audits, if the maintenance of the buildings exceeds the cost of vouchers and a revitalization plan will not confidently return them to long-term viability, local housing authorities must remove the structures from the housing supply within five years.

By 1999, most of the housing in Arthur Blumeyer did not pass the test, so St. Louis Housing Authority partnered with MBS to replace the development with Renaissance Place at Grand.  Using $35 million of HUD’s HOPE VI grant funds, the developer created a 512-unit community, which under HOPE VI stipulations must accommodate a mix of income levels while adhering to architectural standards that respect the surroundings.
I’ll confess that I’ve seen HOPE VI developments in other cities that come closer to imitating the existing vernacular; it would be hard for anyone with above-average vision to mistake this for historic St. Louis housing.  (And it doesn’t help that 80% of the trees are barely more than saplings.) Still, the individual buildings orient themselves to the street and recall the brick duplexes still commonplace in other St. Louis neighborhoods.
We’d be hard-pressed to find apartment buildings that look like these in the newer suburbs.  Also noteworthy is the high density of solar panels that line the roofs of many buildings at Renaissance.  The sustainable features and pedestrian scaled design helped the entire project earn a certification from US Green Building Council as a LEED Neighborhood Development (ND) community.
Though only about a mile away from the North St. Louis developments featured in Part II, Renaissance enjoys intrinsic advantages for stretching within walking distance of the Grand Boulevard theater district, a still impoverished but steadily gentrifying area.  Unlike Murphy Park and Brewery Apartments (but comparable to Westminster Place), Renaissance’s proximity to desirable land near Grand Boulevard results in broader appeal for a mixture of incomes and races.  Thus, this development most likely had to dilute some of the distinguishing architecture features to attract a bigger market.

Just a few blocks to the south stands the headquarters of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri, in the heart of Grand Center, part of the art and theater district that boasts the Fox Theatre and Powell Hall (home of the St. Louis Symphony) as its hub.  Formerly a Woolworth Building, it sat vacant for many years after the store closed in 1993.
Today, it hosts the well-known nonprofits regional headquarters, with additional space for art studios, offices, and other foundations.  The restored 46,000 square foot Art Deco building (Big Brothers Big Sisters uses half the leasable space) was a milestone for McCormack Baron Salazar, Inc: the firm’s first non-residential development, completed in June 2008, taking advantage of a mixture of new market and historic tax credits.  The area itself, thanks to the abundance of surviving pre-World War II architecture, is re-emerging as an arts and restaurant district, thanks in part to its close proximity to St. Louis University (SLU) to the south.  The photo below shows a pocket park (Strauss Park) at the intersection of Washington Boulevard and North Grand Boulevard, just a block away from the Big Brothers Big Sisters building:
Viewing the park from another angle, the majestic Fox Theatre is patently visible.
Here it is, through a streetscape view standing in front of the old Woolworth.
The cluster of older skyscrapers at this prominent point two miles west of downtown St. Louis asserts its importance as a sub-node, a reviving office and entertainment district comparable to many cities’ Midtowns.

At the same time, the neighborhood of 11,000 poses formidable challenges.  The defining characteristic of the average household is an unmarried woman with children, and barely 20% of adults have at least a high school diploma.  With a population nearly three-quarters African-American, over one-third of these households make less than $10,000 annually.  The remaining 27% of the population consists of a diverse array of relative newcomers: young professionals, college students, some immigrants, artists—virtually all of which have higher incomes than the median and which inevitably have driven the neighborhood’s escalating reputation as a destination for fashionable (and not necessarily low-cost) urban entertainment.  Keeping in mind the polarizing demographic forces operating in Grand Center, the old Woolworth Building seems like a shrewd location for this type of redevelopment: the tenant mix can directly engage with the neighborhood’s neediest residents while fostering a blend of the (clichéd label) “eclectic” that helps sustain the often fragile balance in areas those host a widely mixed array of incomes.  Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri, an office/administrative hub for the St. Louis metro and beyond, tries to emphasize inclusivity through partnerships with other neighborhood businesses.  The near-future prospects for Grand Center suggest further gentrification, but this also expedites the end of the segregation and concentration of poverty that characterized the area for decades prior.

Less than a mile from the Big Brothers Big Sisters, and just to the west of SLU’s main campus, sits 6North, a fashionable loft-style building featuring 80 units, with approximately 55% at market rates.
Although the surrounding neighborhood shows clear evidence of gentrification after decades of economic decline over the years, the majority of the building stock remains intact.  At this same intersection of Laclede Avenue and North Sarah Street, only one other corner is vacant.  Here are the structures at the other two corners:

Situated on the site of a former farmer’s market (whose original shell remains), the new construction (completed in 2006) demonstrates a conscious effort to blend with the surrounding vernacular as urban infill.   6 North’s proudest accomplishment (earning it multiple development and design awards) is its incorporation into every unit the fundamentals of universal design, which organizes the space so that virtually any individual can maximize his or her usage of the space, including those with any variety of physical challenges (wheelchairs, blindness, severe arthritis).  With the help of disability advocates at the Starkloff Institute , MBS’ development team devised wider hallways, more accessible light switches, changing floor textures to serve as tactile cues, full-length mirrors, and open space under sinks.  The building includes several work-live units on the ground floor, giving clients the option of a home office.  It also features a community room and fitness center (again applying universal design principles), and ground-floor retail. 
The demand for developments such as 6 North is only like to increase over the next two decades, as throngs of Baby Boomers become septa- and octogenarians.  No doubt many of them will prefer a home environment that allows “aging in place”—reducing the need to move into assisted living facilities later in life.

The final development sits yet further south than its predecessors—the first one south of Interstate 64.  McCormack House at Forest Park Southeast apartments place affordable assisted living all under one roof. 
For those who have read Part II, this development might bear more than a passing resemblance to the McCormack House at Westminster Place.  It should.  To the best of my knowledge, it’s more or less identical, thus explaining the shared namesake.  I see no reason to fault standardization—quite naturally it reduces aggregate soft costs in terms of architect’s fees, and it probably cuts on some of the needed civil, mechanical and electrical engineering.  One notable difference between this McCormack House and the one at Westminster is the surrounding environment.  With Westminster Place, the assisted living sat on a primarily residential street, with other McCormack Baron Salazar developments abutting it.  Here, it sits in relative isolation:
The above photo offers a view across the street from Forest Park Southeast.  At the junction of Manchester Avenue and Kingshighway Boulevard, the purlieus are hardly peaceful, and the street widths make them undesirable for pedestrian crossings.  Fortunately a neighborhood of mostly intact housing and improving safety record stretches to the east of this facility.

While this concludes the housing tour, it barely scratches the surface of MBS projects in the St. Louis city limits.  Their website reveals dozens more, ranging from adaptive reuse of historic structures, residential neighborhood construction, schools, shopping plazas, and solar retrofitting.  And, of course, McCormack Baron Salazar, Inc. is just one of many developers aiming to repopulate some of the city’s most devastated neighborhoods through amenity-laden developments that cater to a wide variety of socioeconomic levels.  Some are clearly more successful than others, but compare most of the St. Louis projects with these affordable apartments I encountered in a recent trip to Detroit:
Taken through a raindrop-flecked windshield from a speeding bus, the pictures probably don’t do it justice.  At the same time, they get the point across adequately: the buildings are oriented toward an interior parking lot or surrounded by off-street parking, with a perimeter fence.  They intend to sequester the residents from their surroundings rather than integrate them.  And they look completely indistinguishable from what one would expect to see in the suburbs.

I’m on the verge of creating a strawman here.  It’s completely unfair for me to compare some of the most carefully thought-out housing in St. Louis with some obviously perfunctory developments in Detroit, when I’m sure Detroit has some superior replacement housing, and St. Louis certainly has other sub-par projects.  But the numbers cannot lie: despite six decades of over 60% losses in either city, the decline shows some indication of flatlining in St. Louis, whereas the last 10 years for Detroit were worse than ever.  No doubt a combination of exogenous and endogenous forces have come to shape why it appears Detroit has suffered so much more than St. Louis, and to delve into those would be worthy of yet another blog post that at this point I’m not well-informed enough to generate.

Simply put: empirical evidence supports the numbers.  St. Louis has more effectively fended off the long accumulating stigma of living in the city limits. Even though, as I indicated in my first post in this series, St. Louis had to contend with a housing stock that had fallen more greatly out of favor than Detroit (particularly at the peak of the decline, from 1960 to 1980), it has enjoyed both a greater degree of renovated old housing as well as a replenishment of the supply in nearly depopulated neighborhoods.  More than most major American cities, and certainly more than St. Louis, single-family owner-occupied detached housing dominates Detroit’s supply.  Much of Detroit housing, especially in the northern neighborhoods close to the border at Eight Mile Road, looks like conventional “white picket fence” housing, yet people still abandoned it in droves, more rapidly in the last decade than even the previous lows of the 1970s. Though it may not have reversed the stigma, St. Louis holds greater promise, manifested in part by revitalized neighborhoods on the near south side, as well as the broad array of new construction across much of the previously deserted near north side.

I’ve deliberately suppressed the fundamental claim of this lengthy essay up to this point, though I have clearly hinted at it.  This exploration of St. Louis’ evolving housing stock over the years (with tangential comparative references to Detroit) intends to call into question how much—if at all—shifting consumer tastes for housing have influenced the departure from American cities.  While most older, industrialized cities in the country did begin to lose population in the middle of the 20th century, some obviously suffered more than others: I have explored two that have endured among the steepest declines.  But not every city has been able to align its housing construction with consumer tastes—tastes that time has proven to be quite persnickety, not just in regards to design/style of housing or the particular neighborhood/district, but the ultra-sensitive interplay between the two.

The truth is, the McCormack Baron Salazar developments featured in this article have, by and large, forged a shrewd compromise in capitalizing on a mostly urban housing typology in parts of the city where demand for housing diminished to virtually nothing.  In order to substantiate this, it’s necessary to briefly revisit a project like Murphy Park from Part II of this essay:
Obviously these buildings bear little relation to the turn-of-the-century brick architecture that survives resplendently throughout St. Louis neighborhoods south of Delmar Avenue.  But it also does not look like a conventional suburban apartment complex in terms of the urban form: buildings front the conventional gridded street with minimal setbacks.  Residents of these areas will still navigate their apartment complex in much the same way they would if this were a historic neighborhood: walking along sidewalks that parallel the streets while crossing at intersections, as opposed to walking through sidewalks in grassy yards to reach large parking lots.  It’s a pedestrian scaled typology in a city that flourished in an area before automobile.

Compare the Murphy Park housing above to the photo below:
With prominent driveways leading to two-car garages, it’s hard to imagine these houses (not by McCormack Baron Salazar) might sit along century-old streets in a St. Louis neighborhood just a mile from downtown.  They look like 1980s suburbia.  But they do sit squarely in St. Louis, just a few blocks away from MBS’s Murphy Park development.  The juxtaposition of these radically different attempts to redevelop housing in depopulated north St. Louis neighborhoods begs the question: which one do people want more?  Obviously any attempt to gauge demand empirically as I have is based purely on speculation, but it’s relatively easy to substantiate it within a larger context.  Truthfully, most of the low income African American families who left north St. Louis pursued the same American Dream as their white counterparts had thirty years prior: they sought larger, detached, flexible suburban housing with garages and bigger yards.  But when a developer tries to replicate that model in the city of St. Louis, replete with its failing schools, strained public services, and lamentably high crime rates, why should families with any wherewithal choose the exact same housing product in the city that they can find easily in the ‘burbs but with much greater piece of mind?  Much of this newish suburban housing in St. Louis seems to be unraveling already:
Meanwhile, Murphy Park remains in impeccable shape.

Again, the comparison here isn’t entirely fair, since I deliberately pinpointed the worst examples of the suburban-style housing (some of it looks fine).  And it is possible that the suburban housing is owner-occupied and heavily subsidized, while Murphy Park is renter-occupied and thus falls under strict property management.  But demand will still drive everything, and it is highly possible that an extremely low-income family may still seek affordable housing with a “traditional” urban form that MBS offers, as long as it provides amenities.  Meanwhile, the market-rate buyers who voluntarily move to the city despite its crime and failing schools will almost definitely seek housing that promotes urbanism and walkability.  Though I don’t see yuppies moving to this side of St. Louis any time soon, they are far more likely to show interest in the market rate portion of an MBS development such as Murphy Park or the meticulously renovated Brewery Apartments—
--than they would for a conventional suburban house like the ones near Murphy Park, which they could easily afford in a suburb with much better schools.

Thus, a savvy developer must know not only when it’s the right time to rebuild in the always-risky depopulating central city, but which neighborhoods/districts are right to build, and which architecture or urban design principles are suitable for that particular neighborhood.  St. Louis’s most promising investments for the short-term may sit in a semicircle shape two miles around the downtown to the north, west, and south.  In the north, the best option is new construction using moderately urban standards but with the contemporary amenities (walk-in closets, ample kitchen/cabinet space, single-tap faucets) that virtually everyone expects these days.  To the west and the south, developers can focus more on strategic infill or restoration, since a considerably greater portion of the original housing stock survives, with a newly invigorated demand for both brick and attached duplexes.

Elsewhere in the St. Louis city limits—outside of that two-mile “fertile crescent”—it may be hard to stimulate much more demand for housing restoration or replenishment, particularly in the north and west.  Many of those neighborhoods are still losing population.  And the demand for the conventional St. Louis brick house does not extend so broadly that new arrivals are willing to try their luck in neighborhoods that hold no prospect for turning trendy in the next decade.
The conventional St. Louis brick house is still a niche product.  The fate of housing in these outlier districts is cloudy: while the city seeks buyers to claim vacant homes at very low costs, quite a few others will face demolition.  Optimally, the City will forge contracts with developers to purchase and rehab a broad swathe of them, based on the instinct that revitalizing an entire district, while evidently costlier and difficult to implement, is far more likely to result in sustained revitalization than merely renovating a single structure in an area otherwise surrounded by blight.

Whatever the Missouri city’s recent successes, neither St. Louis nor Detroit has any room for complacency.  The figureheads behind St. Louis’ revitalization face an uphill battle in the less trendy neighborhoods: what often appear to be solidly built brick homes will nonetheless continue to deteriorate when mothballed, not just due to climatic changes but also negative human intervention.  Many abandoned properties, particularly in the most deserted areas (and, thus, the least supervised), face imminent collapse due to persistent brick theft from scavengers.  Though I have not seen it, the film Brick by Chance and Fortune apparently explores St. Louis’ distinctive brick legacy in greater detail.  Meanwhile, recent Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers incidentally suggest that the metro Detroit economy is faring better than St. Louis for the time being—though a single year’s reports on job growth don’t necessarily indicate much, St. Louis ranked dead last among major metros, according to a recent chart compiled by The Urbanophile.  Metro Detroit fell somewhere more in the middle of the pack.  The essence of urban depopulation (a process decades in the making) is a many-headed hydra, and our learning process is scarcely over, nor, for that matter is the depopulation era over for many, many cities.  Tackling repopulation has proven just as difficult.  The most talented market-rate and affordable developers understand niche sensitivity enough to generate a strong IRR, leaving on the less successful in the housing industry to trot the stale shibboleth “built it and they will come”.  In the wounded American city, it just ain’t that simple.

Again, I would like to thank Heather Milton for her support and input on St. Louis housing.