Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The true harbinger of social meltdown in New Orleans.

Our original intention for taking this photo while in New Orleans was to vindicate ourselves in case we were ticketed for not paying for our off-street space in a private surface lot. But it also proves useful for another musing on the necessity of parking.

Yes, it’s a private, self-service parking meter. And the black slash is nothing more than a long strip of duct tape. The only other indicator of this meter’s functionality is in a post-it note:

No doubt this happens all the time, just as we routinely encounter on-street parking meters (serviced by their respective cities) in a state of disrepair. The CBD of New Orleans and its adjacent Warehouse District (philosophically an extension of the function of downtown but without the high-rise buildings) boast considerable nightlife and evening activity in the areas closer to the Mississippi River, while five blocks away from the river the activity dies completely. Not surprisingly, the lifeless area of downtown (centered around Rampart Street and O’Keefe Avenue) is rife with surface parking lots, frequently occupying an entire street block.

On a busy weekend night in New Orleans, on-street parking is extremely difficult to come by; it’s free, of course, when the city meters have stopped running. Parking garages typically rank a distant second in their appeal: aside from the inconvenience of ascending or declining several floors before finding a spot, the motorist is almost definitely going to have to pay. Meanwhile, off-street surface lots barely register on the radar is viable parking places at night. Why? Most of them are privately managed and reserved for daytime commuters, and quite a few simply aren’t available after hours. My guess is that the volume of parking on surface lots is not great enough to build the sort of revenue that would justify hiring a parking attendant for a night shift to manage the costs. Parking garages, which stack or sink so many extra layers of available spaces onto their patch of downtown land, can support a far better infrastructure for regulating and staffing the valuation of the property. In addition, they have far more limited means of ingress and egress, so it would be particularly difficult for a motorist to sneak out of a garage without paying. Unless surface lots have gates, it’s not so difficult for a motorist to cheat. So must owners of surface lots simply keep them off limits.

But there are the exceptions, and this lot, servicing the National World War II museum, is available at night. And in this instance, a poorly maintained automated attendant gives motorists a triple reward: a) off-street parking so it’s protected from errant drivers or pedestrian vandals; b) surface level so there’s no hassle of walking up our down a flight of stairs to get to one’s space; c) and in an area with high density of parking demand, it’s free! It’s as good as the suburbs! And my original three heuristics for seeking parking, mentioned in an earlier blog post, still applies: close parking is good but cheap parking is better; time and distance are less important than stalking that coveted cheap spot; time and distance cease to have any significance whatsoever if the spot you find is free.

In the case of the above photographs, we had exhausted all three heuristics. We weren’t even seeking free parking at the time we found this spot; it just happened to be our luck. And we were never questioned for violating the rules, so essentially the broken automated parking attendant was our get-out-of-jail-free card. If the machine hadn’t been shrouded in the darkness of night, I’m sure plenty of others would have caught on, though at the time that we parked there, only a select few other motorists had noticed this terrific opportunity.

Self-service parking meters, both the city-managed on-street variety and these private off-street variants, are not exactly a realm in which New Orleans seems to excel. This is to our auto-dependent population’s advantage, and does nothing to help the case for transit in this relatively dense, pedestrian oriented city (at least for the south) that also boasts an abundance of wide, multi-lane boulevards. Hurricanes notwithstanding, traffic generally flows comparatively freely in New Orleans, and if it weren’t for the fact that the city and state frequently have the worst condition of roads in the country, it would probably rank as the most relaxed city to drive despite the fact that the majority of the development patterns pre-date the automobile. They don’t call it the Big Easy for nothing.

But where does that leave the population seeking the nightlife of the Warehouse District or the nearby French Quarter but too lazy to take one of New Orleans’ classic streetcars to get downtown? They follow the classic pattern of looking for parking: first where it is on-street and typically free because the meters are no longer in effect, then where they have to pay (the cheaper the better). We as Americans—but probably we as humans—have an embedded ideation that unconsciously hones in on free parking. We crave it. And yet, because surface lots such as these so rarely accommodate evening parking, the average local New Orleanian will complain about how hard it is to find parking on a weekend night. (Translation: it’s hard to find free parking.) Such a claim is only ridiculous because the ocean of surface lots at Rampart and O’Keefe are both off limits and far from most of the nightlife. But what about a city that really does have a shortage of parking—where the aggregate number of lots is genuinely dwarfed by the number of drivers seeking parking downtown? Does such a city exist in America? Perhaps a case could be made for New York, and Manhattan most specifically. I wish I had followed-up on the New Orleans scenario to see how long this automated parking attendant stayed broken. If this situation occurred in Manhattan, where a broken machine created an opportunity for free spaces in one of the island’s few surface lots, it genuinely may precipitate a widespread social dissolution. But chances are it would be short-lived: such sought-after land would command far too high a price for the management to let their little machine stay broken for long. Then again, they probably would get enough revenue to afford a real, human parking attendant, even for the tiniest of lots.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Photo upgrades and references.

Several weeks ago I posted an analysis of vacant residential lots as evidenced by the one surviving component: the cement stairways leading up to the former front porch. I included several photos of vacant lots in New Orleans post-Katrina which I remarked at the time were not accurately representing the city's Lakeview neighborhood. Since then, I have received some excellent photographs from New Orleanian Michael Duplantier, who has allowed me to replace the inaccurate images with some very contemporary ones, showing the smattering of vacant lots after the storm, including some claimed by next door neighbors who did decide to return. Michael Duplantier also runs his own new blog--very worthwhile musings on the health care affordability crisis from the perspective of a Masters in Public Health student.

In addition, a fellow blogger pointed me out to a post that very effectively parallels many of my own thoughts on Martin Luther King corridors posted yesterday: the Urbanophile's essay on a New Vision for Black Indianapolis. I'm pretty certain his essay pre-dates the condominiums I observed along the Indianapolis Martin Luther King Street, but his observations are thoughtful and relevant to understanding the role memorial streets after the civil rights leader have played--as well as the role they should play. A very worthwhile read.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Can a street name influence the local economy?

Recently as I stumbled across some largely unexplored corners around downtown Indianapolis, I noticed a handful of new townhome condominiums had recently been completed in an unlikely area. They comprise what is probably the first new construction in that city block in decades.

My suspicion is this development will have several formidable challenges to overcome. First, it markets itself as Canal Gardens, even though the Central Canal mentioned at length in an earlier blog post is completely cut off from this development by a series of interstate exit ramps. What remains of the canal in this part of town is little more than a grassy swale.
The aforementioned interstate exit ramp forms the back yard for these homes. Although the city skyline might poke out over it, providing a respectable view from the upper floors, residents in these condos will have a hard time opening the windows back there without being assaulted by the noise of cars rushing by.
Reasonably good sidewalks and crosswalks help mitigate the barrier this spaghetti junction might pose, but it still feels somewhat cut off from a downtown only a mile and a half away. However, the biggest problem penetrates into a deeper, tangled web of sociocultural and racial tensions:

Yes, these condos claim Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street as their address. Why does living on a street named after one of the most famous civil rights leaders and prominent national figures pose such a problem? Perhaps it shouldn’t, but a January 2008 article in Planning magazine titled “A Bumpy Road” acknowledged that, despite the fact that over 700 streets across have been named after Dr. King, spread across the vast majority of U.S. states, it still often elicits a political controversy, pitting African American activists against municipal officials and fostering divisiveness centered around honoring the legacy of a man who devoted his life to bringing the races together. According to the article by Alderman, Spina, and Mitchell, a significant number of cities rename only part of a major street that runs through a city, so that Martin Luther King Boulevard passes through the historically black part of town, while the other half of the street (in the white neighborhoods) retains its old name. In other cases, towns have tried to compromise by simply dedicating the entire street in King’s honor, keeping the original street’s name but superimposing an “Honorary Martin Luther King Drive” atop each street sign, essentially giving the street two names. Perhaps the most obvious compromise—one that smacks of cowardice—is the naming of a limited access highway to the “Martin Luther King Expressway”, so that no businesses will ever claim it as an address. None of these solutions typically satisfy African American leaders, who believe a whole man deserves a whole street, and a real street in a real neighborhood, since neighborhoods were the focus of King's initiatives. Sometimes the resistance against renaming has escalated to shouting matches at government meetings, boycotts of businesses, and even vandalism of street signs.

Why such opposition toward simply changing a street’s name? Many of the remonstrators are business owners, who claim that a road name change is an insurmountable financial inconvenience, although one before/after assessment in Eugene, Oregon revealed that the economic impact of a name change in 2004 was infinitesimal. In all likelihood, few partisans have a genuine aversion toward Dr. King and his work. The broader underlying concern is an unfortunate stigma attached to streets named after the man: in far too many instances, the street has become synonymous with parts of town that are crime-ridden and severely economically depressed. As comedian Chris Rock famously identified, if you're lost on a Martin Luther King Boulevard, the best thing to do is run! Thus, most business owners in all likelihood fear that a name change will deter clientele, fearful of perceived crime in the area, from patronizing their stores. Many of the renaming decisions deliberately avoided controversy by honoring exclusively the business corridors in African American parts of town, without frustrating white business owners by associating their enterprise with a lower income African American neighborhood.

Are these Martin Luther King Boulevards really that bad? The fact remains that many were still legitimate business corridors for African Americans at the time of their renaming, let alone during King’s lifetime. However, a number of them have lost their centrality within the African American community, generally due to a number of factors: 1) civil rights laws and anti-segregation ordinances opened up housing opportunities for blacks, removing the restrictions to only certain quadrants within town; 2) upward mobility among African Americans with greater educational opportunities enhanced their ability to seek more prestigious housing and better schools in middle class and affluent areas; 3) businesses were legally prohibited from discriminating by skin color, giving blacks the opportunity to shop at mainstream retailers and reducing the dependency on black owned and operated enterprises. The removal of these barriers to entry facilitated an African American flight that quietly echoed—and, unfortunately, in some cases helped to intensify—white flight. At its crudest simplification, neighborhoods that were once white became mostly black, and neighborhoods that were once black became mostly depopulated. The result is the perpetual location-based tension generated when a proposed Martin Luther King boulevard runs through both the white and black parts of town.

Indianapolis’s Martin Luther King Street, established in 1985, follows a fairly conventional trajectory. As is the case in most larger cities, it comprises part of a much longer street, and the portion that runs through one of the city’s oldest African American neighborhoods changed from an original name of Northwestern Avenue. The name shifts again from Martin Luther King Drive to Michigan Road at the point north of 38th Street, a major east-west arterial. The Michigan Road portion of the street services predominantly white neighborhoods and continues well into the affluent suburbs and countryside. Local advocates have gently pushed mild initiatives to rename the Michigan Road portion in honor of Dr. King as well. Unsurprisingly, responses have elicited internecine tension, but after several neighborhood leaders argued that the name "Michigan Road" in itself also recognized a historic arterial (and major route along the Underground Railroad) the dispute largely dissolved; the new mayor has not taken a stand and has no plans to rename part of the street.

One trend that further complicates these scattershot rename controversies is the fact that streets named after Dr. King are not uniformly poor and distressed across the country. The article in Planning magazine acknowledges that Milwaukee, Seattle, and Portland’s boulevards are enjoying renovation. The blog MLK BLVD provides photojournalistic explorations of various streets named after Dr. King across the country, and it observes that Madison’s boulevard boasts some of the highest property values in the city, while Milwaukee’s boulevard is rapidly gentrifying through the efforts of entrepreneurial black professionals. Though still at an early stage of redevelopment, Indianapolis’ Martin Luther King Drive is less blighted than it was in the past, particularly the far south portion where these new condos stand. The southernmost point of the Drive passes begins at Indiana Avenue, the original African American Main Street, and continues northward. To the west is Ransom Place, a historically black neighborhood that is now mixed-race and, while not prime real estate, is generally in good repair with century-old homes that have largely been restored. To the east of the Drive are the Central Canal and all the research buildings and labs associated with the Indiana University Medical School, as well both historic housing and fairly new condos. Neither Chris Rock nor the protesting business owners were being entirely fair: clearly naming a street after the civil rights leader isn’t an indisputable death knell to the corridor’s economy.

The condos that form the focal point of blog appear just north of where Martin Luther King Drive intersects the street below, part of which has been renamed from 11th Street to honor this famous black Indianapolis-born basketball player:

Across the street from the condos is the Crispus Attucks High School, a designated African American school dating from the emergence of segregation in the city in 1927. Now part of the National Register of Historic Places and a medical magnet school, it features a museum and is currently undergoing a significant renovation. Nearby is an older, stable African American neighborhood, north of Ransom Place, with bungalows dating from the 1940s. Vacancies around here appear to be low. I couldn’t fully determine the occupancy of these new condominiums, but judging from the current appearance (apologies for the blurred photo) at least three no longer have “for sale” signs:

CorrND offers some excellent photos from the later stages of development of this project from the summer of 2008, as well as the pricing scheme in his blog Dig-B. Pivoting 180 degrees from the above photo, I could tell from the recurrent lanterns and added signage that the developers have the full intent of replicating this townhome pattern directly to the north of the current site:

Despite the telltale evidence of redevelopment along this portion of the corridor, these developers have taken an unusual risk in a neighborhood that could easily have resisted it, both literally—in terms of long-standing African American residents arguing it ushers the gentrification that might price them out of their own homes—or figuratively, in terms of not finding sufficient demand among the targeted demographic. Whether or not these market-rate condos will flourish hinges upon finding a population willing to invest in property that rests on a street most frequently associated with a multitude of urban ills, even if that association no longer aligns with reality.

The evolution of this development—filled with homeowners and not renters, mind you—is definitely worth watching as a microcosmic glance at the progress of race relations in Indianapolis. Some may criticize me of applying the representativeness heuristic by making this bold claim. How can one use a tiny urban condo project to gauge larger racial integration trends? After all, aren’t monumental actions like the election of the first nonwhite president a stronger bellwether of racial reconciliation, while the emotionally charged reactions to health care reform might suggest we still have a way to go? Regardless of one’s political stance on those issues, I can’t help think that small mundane gestures (such as the sell-out of a condo building in a risky location) are far more indicative of sociocultural relations than a widespread, nationally visible social movement. It’s not how we react to revolutions, where the intensity of the emotions is high and our reaction is likely to be equally intensely negative or positive—its our individualized, often scarcely conscious response to banal, quotidian incidents like selling a home. If the buyers at Canal Gardens turn out to be a nothing but cluster of African American professionals, fostering a gentrification comparable to what appears to be happening in Milwaukee, it may arouse less neighborhood invidiousness but it is also scarcely indicative of progress in race relations. If white professionals buy into these townhomes—or, better yet, a variety of races buy them—it would support the notion that shared yuppiehood transcends both skin color and a neighborhood’s historically negative reputation, even when that reputation is purely based on a street’s name.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Answering the question posed by stairs to nowhere.

A few weeks ago I blogged about paved stairs in an old Indianapolis neighborhood, leading to vacant lots that serve as a reminder of the house that once stood there. Apparently Indianapolis isn’t the only city whose demolition crew decided its not worth the expense of ripping out the sidewalk when demolishing long-vacant housing.

Here is the evidence of a demolished home in the Logan Square neighborhood in Chicago, an area northwest of the Chicago Loop that has long been a working class Latino enclave. In the last decade, it has gentrified handily, due to its proximity to expensive, trendy neighborhoods such as Lakeview and Lincoln Park. And while never as devastated economically as neighborhoods further to the south, Logan Square certainly suffered a slump during Chicago’s economic nadir in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Compared to Indianapolis, this stairway to nowhere is relatively subtle. Chicago has even less topographic variety than Indianapolis (which at least enjoys a few hilly vantage points), so the elevation difference between the street and the properties that abut it only requires a single stair step. However, Chicago is far less subtle about proclaiming the lot’s vacant status.

Instead of the manicured lawns or unkempt verdure seen in Indianapolis vacant lots, this Chicago vacancy consists primarily of combed dirt with scrappy weeds growing patchily on barren soil and a tiny plot of an informal garden, collectively adorned by an ugly sign identifying the lot’s availability on the market. Perhaps this home was demolished only recently, though I see that as unlikely: a blighted home in this neighborhood would usually equate to a coveted fixer-upper to Chicago’s many urban professionals. What seems guaranteed is that it won’t be bought by a neighbor to turn into a side lot (as has happened in Indianapolis, New Orleans, and many other cities)—aside from a regulatory environment that supports continued high levels of housing density, the market would command too high of a price to let a parcel such as this simply lie fallow. Expect that, when favorable lending conditions return, this modest stairway will again lead to a house befitting the existing character of Logan Square.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Pounding what little there is of the pavement.

My fascination with pedestrianism and the perspective of the walker along city streets extends to what most would consider tedious, minute details. But I have tried to follow every gesture in favor or against the pedestrian landscape that has transpired, both legislatively and from the private sector, over the past few years in Indianapolis. The city thankfully upgraded its sidewalk ordinance last year to something far more intensive, requiring sidewalks along all public and private rights of way for any new development, be it residential (multi and single family), commercial, industrial, or special and exceptional uses, as well as any renovations, alterations, or expansions to existing structures. An effective summary of the document can be found here, while the actual amendment, overwriting portions of Sections 731, 732, 733, and 735 of the Revised Code of the Consolidated City and County, is available at the Metropolitan Development Commission’s website.

While the ordinance is a welcomed and long-overdue improvement to the previous standards, it doesn’t take long for the scrutinizing motorists or walker to spot one of the new developments and its blatant failure to observe the standards. The south side of Indianapolis, long the most rural and least pedestrian friendly part of town in the city, still enjoys the occasional new development (at least in good economic times), so first I’ll point out a success: Brookhaven, on Shelby Street near the intersection of County Line Road.

This surprisingly high-density multi-family development near the southern border of the city observes the enforced width (5 feet), ADA compliant ramps, Tactile Walking Surface Indicators, and a buffer of at least five feet separating the sidewalk from the verge of the road. The only thing I’m apprehensive about are the slightly slopped margins of the sidewalk as it approaches the curb, possibly causing some impedance for wheelchairs, though it should still allow the four-foot “minimum clear width” enforced in the ordinance. Looking at the other side of the access road in which I’m standing, one can see that the sidewalk terminates flush with the property line, as it should:

These developers have met their responsibility with the new amendment. Unfortunately, most of the other evidence of new construction on this side of town shows a frustratingly cavalier application of the sidewalk ordinance. For example, Stonebridge, a multifamily development closer to downtown, has a well-laid curved path covering about 80% of the property line along Banta Road that salvages the trees nearby:

However, the path it carves ceases to parallel the collector street as it heads toward the entry of the apartment complex, allowing only for one direction of travel:

Why didn’t the site planners provide a curb cut for people hoping to cross the entry to the complex and continue walking along Banta Road? If I pivot 180 degrees, you can see that the design does not bother to include a sidewalk on this side:

Looking into the distance along the left side of Banta Road, one can actually see where a bit of paved sidewalk picks up on its way to the busy highway, U.S. 31, where the stop light is. By why doesn’t the sidewalk for the Stonehaven development link up with this existing piece of pavement? And needless to say, the busy highway has no sidewalk, though I’ll withhold my criticism of the developer here because I’m not sure the parcel directly abuts this right-of-way.

A recent commercial redevelopment shows a similarly sloppy oversight. This one takes place farther north on the aforementioned Highway 31, closer to the downtown in an area that could easily be described as “inner ring”, showing serious signs of retail decline that may foreshadow an eventual economic decline of the entire area. The fact that a blighted structure was razed and an attractive if uninspired looking new strip mall was built is actually a boon to this neighborhood, regardless of the opinion one might have of strip malls. Here’s part of the shopping center itself:

The site planner at least included the sidewalk along the Highway 31 right-of-way:

But this strip mall stretches across a full block, wedged in between two perpendicular intersecting streets, and the development does not include a sidewalk on either of these two sides. Here’s the intersection of U.S. 31 and Mills Avenue:

And here’s the intersection of U.S. 31 and Edwards Avenue:

So this is the angle one sees of the strip mall standing in the cartway of Edwards Avenue:

The site plan completely neglected perimeter sidewalks on two of three sides. A 33% usually qualifies as a failing grade.

But this last redevelopment proves the most baffling. Further south again along U.S. 31 and Stop 11 Road, an aging, long vacant Waffle House, if I recall, was demolished to make way for a tiny new strip mall, housing just three tenants.

Stop 11 Road at this location already had a sidewalk along the adjacent parcel, so all the developer had to do here was preserve it or extend it flush with the existing right-of-way, yes? Apparently that’s too much to ask. Here’s the existing sidewalk to the west of the parcel, where it meets up with the curb cut and entrance to the strip mall:

And here’s how that same sidewalk continues along Stop 11 Road:

Instead of tracing the right-of-way all the way to the intersection in the distance, it makes a bizarre turn to the right, cutting a path into the parking lot that leads right to one of the tenants.

Here’s looking at that sidewalk from within the parking lot, in front of the Grand Traverse Pie Company:

That’s nice and all, but why no sidewalk directly to the intersection of Stop 11 and U.S. 31? And what about the sidewalk along the U.S. 31 right-of-way? Yet again, a major oversight.

Presumably the Department of Metropolitan Development must grant permit approval by viewing a site plan before any new project breaks ground, and any redevelopment, major addition, or alteration should also come under its scrutiny. I grant that it is possible that some of the project might have been approved while the passage of the sidewalk ordinance was still pending. But this is highly unlikely, because the developers would have had no real incentive to build sidewalks prior to this amendment, and the sidewalk portions that they did create, however incomplete, do seem to abide by the standards of the code.

Of course most people would consider this to be splitting hairs; these are trivial concerns when the city’s unemployment rate hovers around eight percent and crime is nowhere near as low as it should be! After all, these are mere slivers of sidewalks that, because they generally fail to link to a broader network, will hardly ever be used. But these oversights to me are far more the fault of a City demonstrating that its regulations promoting pedestrianism have no teeth. According to the website linked above, the Metropolitan Development Commission wanted a balance between making the City more walkable, “while also taking into consideration the needs of developers for added flexibility in implementing the new requirements into their developments.” How does this translate specifically into the language of the ordinance? In nearly all amended sections of the city’s Revised Code, affecting nearly all zoning designations, the developer can choose between either i) constructing sidewalks; or ii) “Pursuant to a written agreement, a contribution in lieu of sidewalks shall be made to the City for the provision of sidewalks in Marion County. The amount shall be [$18 to $25] per linear foot of required sidewalk. The rate per linear foot shall be increased by [$.45 to $.60] annually beginning January 1, 2009.”

There’s the weasel wording. No doubt some developers did the math and realized the “contribution in lieu of sidewalks” costs less per linear foot than actually installing them. In other sections of the sidewalk amendment, this contribution is only intended to apply in circumstances where site conditions cause extreme difficulty in construction of sidewalks, such as “waterway crossings, significant elevation change, existing deep drainage swales in the right-of-way, side slope grades steeper than 3:1, and linear grade changes along the right-of-way line in excess of 7%.” None of these conditions visibly apply in the aforementioned examples. Does that mean that these developers were able to forge a “written agreement” in order to cut corners? If so, why did each of them find reason for at least a portion of a sidewalk but never bothered to fulfill the entire requirement? As I investigate this further, hopefully I will be able to provide a blog post to update. In the meantime, the pedestrian advocates of the city are stuck with another example of a weak regulatory environment which can only be based on fears that excessive regulation will scare development away because of onerous costs. But would these projects really move to the suburbs? The suburbs all have sidewalk ordinances as well, and most of them don’t hesitate to enforce them. Like the majority of my design criticisms, this isn’t a matter of aesthetics; basic functionality should be a prerequisite and this case, much more than the Canal Walk, is an egregious example where it is lacking.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Faded paint can be a badge worn proudly.

In the past I’ve mused obliquely about how signage can influence the overall character of a retail district. Lo and behold, the character of a retail district can, in turn, influence the type of signage as well. And what better place to demonstrate this than in some of the most heavily trafficked retail locations in the country, where demand for limited space is so high that the competition becomes cutthroat and leases are outrageous? Places like Chicago’s Michigan Avenue/Magnificent Mile, Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles (Beverly Hills to be exact), Walnut Street in Philadelphia, Newbury Street in Boston come to mind. Or, just a few miles away from that last corridor in the series, Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

This square coincides with a major stop on the Boston’s subway system, the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (best known as the “T”) and the edge of Harvard University. It also serves as the densest concentration of retail and commerce and some multi-family residential in Cambridge, thus serving as the de facto central business district of the city. Aside from the huge concentration of students and shoppers, it attracts a considerable number of tourists, no doubt enticed to visit one of the most famous higher learning institutions in the world. Immediately upon exiting the Harvard T stop, one encounters this kiosk. (Can you spot the grammatical/mechanics error?)

Cambridge, by American standards, is a very densely populated city: 2007 Census estimates put it at over 15,000 persons per square mile . It is also in close proximity to some of the wealthiest areas in metro Boston. Though Cambridge itself only shows average reporting for median household income, the figure of approximately $50,000 (depending on Census year taken from between 2000 readings and 2008 estimates) is skewed downward by the huge student presence, as well as the city’s commitment to income diversification through affordable housing for the working class. Nevertheless, portions of west Cambridge are quite affluent, the abutting suburbs are considerably wealthy, and directly to the east are some of Boston’s premier neighborhoods such as the Back Bay and Beacon Hill. So it is not surprising that Harvard Square/downtown Cambridge should be the epicenter of some expensive retail.

What’s surprising when one walks the streets of Harvard Square is how exclusive it is. I could also apply the word “eclectic”, but it seems like an overtly subjective—not to mention highly clich├ęd—judgment call. “Exclusive” seems a bit more balanced in this context because very little of the mundane survives: hardware stores, dry cleaning, barber shops, delicatessens, a local watering hole, and many of the other conventional tenants that occupied Main Streets of the past (as well as other Main Streets in metro Boston in the present) are hard, if not impossible, to find here. Instead, one sees a plethora of restaurants (both high-end and fast food), boutiques, spas, travel agencies, and upmarket national chains, as evidenced below:

Ann Taylor on the left, Crate and Barrel on the right.

This observation is not intended as a criticism of Cambridge’s downtown: by the metrics of pedestrian counts and per-square-foot leasing prices, Harvard Square is performing better than most central business districts in the country, and might rank among the more prestigious commercial centers in the world. Yet I have heard locals gripe about how Harvard Square is nowhere near is great as it used to be: it’s a whitewashed version of its grittier, humbler, more bohemian past. It’s obvious that it draws upmarket tenants; less conspicuous to the mere visitor is how quickly most of these tenants come and go. With such high lease rates, retailers need a high sales volume to stay profitable, and this can become onerous to local entrepreneurs who don’t have the working capital to guarantee survival during the life of a lease, which can last up to five years. Thus, with each passing year, Harvard Square’s local flavor succumbs to more reliable tenants: banks and major chains.

The best evidence of this? The signage, of course. The few older establishments stick out like a Chevy Malibu parked on a Cambridge street among all the Volvos and Audis.

Planet Records claims to date from 1983, making it among the older vendors in Harvard Square, though the signage of these other two establishments would suggest that they’re considerably older:

Cardullo’s (since 1950) is a specialty grocer, featuring a significant variety of imports.

Charlie’s Kitchen, a greasy-spoon diner with a full bar, dates from about the same time as Cardullo’s; among its competitors (at least for food) is Mr. Bartley’s Burger Cottage , also preparing for its 50th birthday.

In a retail environment where the long-term survival rate is low, it behooves these proprietors not to update or improve their signage because they provide such a sharp visual contrast to the ephemera around them. The continued intrusion of national chains only intensifies the contrast, since it has become standard corporate procedure to “freshen up” the logo after a decade or two; witness the recent transformation of WalMart. Thus, Cardullo’s and Charlie’s Kitchen proudly proclaim their non-corporate status through unchanged logo design—whether it is stale and tired or hip and retro depends on individual tastes.

Perhaps I can save a later post for the financing of signage; all I will say here is that the ever-reliable wisdom gleaned from hearsay is that customized storefront signs are expensive. Wooden signs, currently the implicit signal for local chic, are particularly onerous to small business owners, while neon or backlit plastic sheathes are much cheaper. Harvard Square is rife with wooden signs, reinforcing the exclusivity of the shopping here—very little meshes with workaday, routine needs. Contrast that with some of the other commercial nodes in the area, such as Union Square in neighboring Somerville, which still predominantly consists of mom-and-pop eateries (many lower market ethnic), dry cleaning, nail salons, et cetera. Even Central Square in Cambridge, just a mile away from Harvard Square, has enough perceived grit to attract a completely different cadre of retailers. And the signage at Central and Union Square reflects these two nodes’ humbler aspirations.

My suspicion—reinforced from conversation by people who have lived in the area an know if far better than I do—is that Harvard Square’s retail didn’t enjoy this cachet thirty or even just twenty years ago. It had a functional purpose beyond leisure consumption, meeting mundane shopping needs just as much as Union Square and Central Square did (and by and large continue to do). Much of the transformation comes with the emergence of college campuses as tourist attractions in and of themselves, partly induced by the following phenomena:

1) Universities and college campuses have the capacity (often underutilized) to exert an indelible impact on the economic development and even the retail content of the community that surrounds them, sometimes divorced from the university’s own efforts.

2) The demystification of higher learning, partly through superior financial aid and also shifts in the focus of curricula in primary schools, has oriented institutions toward a broader array of the population, rather than catering simply to the “country club contingent” as it may have a century ago. Thus, all institutions—even elite ones such as Harvard—have essentially opened their gates to a broader constituency.

3) Piggybacking on phenomenon number 2, globalization of higher learning has enhanced the appeal of universities across political boundaries, transforming the schools and their adjacent communities into epicenters of cosmopolitan culture reflective of their affiliated student and faculty demographic. (Mike Featherstone, among many others, has reflected upon cosmopolitanism with far greater sophistication—and well beyond the university context—than this blog entry does.)

4) Higher learning has galvanized its association with upward mobility, to the extent that most of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the US (and across the world) are those that benefit from a high percentage of the workforce possessing a college education. University towns have an embedded appeal for their dependence on a highly educated work force for basic operation, giving them significant advantages at further enhancing their economies over towns that lack them due in part to the fact that well-educated people are more likely to gravitate toward other well-educated people. And these people reflect their own tastes—and their superior capacity for leisure spending—in the retail of places such as Harvard Square.

5) All of these features operate in aggregate to enhance the tourist appeal of these communities, and the precise demographics who seek university environments as tourist destinations are generally as affluent and educated as the university environments whose academic cultures they are consuming.

These highly generalizable stabs only skim the surface of what has transpired at Harvard Square over the years. But many of the same patterns are visible along M Street in Washington DC’s Georgetown (feeding into Georgetown University) or in downtown Evanston, Illinois (feeding into Northwestern University). And these are just two other retail nodes with which I’m highly familiar; many others exist across the country, and it comes as no surprise that many of the exact same upscale national chains are squeezing out the local entrepreneurs.

What does the future hold for Harvard Square? Unless Harvard University engages in the unconscionable act of relocation, I see only a further intensification of the exclusivity of the retail here: it fits with the character of an elite school in a densely populated neighborhood that comprises a sizable component of the Boston tourist experience. The few successful locally run boutiques that manage to survive would be prudent not to update their signs, for anything over twenty years of age becomes an institution by default. And as for the locals? Without seeming too cavalier, what does it mean to be a local in a city where over one quarter of the population is foreign-born and many others are simply investing in an expensive education? It is as much a part of the character of Harvard Square’s retail to be upmarket and elite as it is for the local population (at least that segment that is in any way affiliated with Harvard or its equally prestigious neighbor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology) to complain about how Harvard’s Square has gone downhill since it's gotten so fancy and “corporate”. No doubt part of the frustration toward the homogenized affluence of Harvard Square is attributable to the tourist presence, but for the locals who vent their spleen at these out-of-towners, all they need is a closer examination of their backgrounds, aspirations, education levels, and spending habits to see that it is much the same as holding up a mirror.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Berlin Wall of housing tenure.

The title to this posting is an obvious exaggeration, because what you see below is hardly a wall; it is not impervious, and people who pass it do not risk being shot. But it is a barricade to a right-of-way on a road in the suburbs of Indianapolis that was formerly completely accessible but has not been for a few years now.

On one side of the roadblock—the side visible beyond the gate in the picture—sits Casa de Prado, a series of low-rise, attached condominiums using a heavily diluted variant of the Spanish colonial style, though about the only features it preserves are the clay tile roofs and flattened walls intended to look like stucco. The appearance is irresolutely suburban, from the residential space built above two-car garages to the small fenced-in patios that overlook green arteries of shrubs, trees and turf.

On the other side of the roadblock sit Berkley Commons, another series of low-rise buildings, this time in a simplified Federalist style with front entries allowing access to a cluster of units, typically four per doorway. It is a suburban typology from the late 1970s and early 1980s that is ubiquitous across the Midwest. Unlike Casa de Prado, however, these are apartments, and they feature no covered parking.

The road with the wrought iron gate and large planting strip is Siear Terrace, which originally existed as a thru street connecting the two developments while also providing a link between two other arterials, Madison Avenue and Stop 11 Road, which intersect more or less perpendicularly, at a spot with restaurants, gas stations, and a few relatively busy strip malls. Here’s a view from afar:

Looking at the roadblock a bit more closely, one can draw a few better conclusions as to why it was built. Here’s the view from the other side, standing at the Casa de Prado and looking onto Berkley Commons.

I know from memory that it didn’t always exist there, but, having lived away from Indianapolis for more than a decade, I do not know exactly when it was installed. If the plantings are any evidence, the roadblock is not likely more than a few years old: the tree in the median is only slightly older than a sapling. Of course, if it’s a recent planting, it provides no reliable indicator of the age. All I know is I used to be able to drive across the entirety of Siear Terrace, and that is now forbidden.

This memory offers a hint of an explanation for the roadblock. Looking at the map below, one can see exactly how Siear Terrace could be used to bypass the aforementioned busy intersection of Madison Avenue and Stop 11 Road, skipping traffic, lots of curb cuts, and a stop light. Siear Terrace is highlighted in a transparent red.

Clearly a roadblock would work wonders to stop motorists from using Siear Terrace as a bypass, which could have become sufficiently popular to attract uncharacteristically high traffic volumes (and high speeds) for a residential area. But speed bumps tend to be a far more popular palliative to high speed traffic, and they are already commonplace in most suburban multifamily developments, including the two shown here. If they slow traffic enough that it no longer saves motorists time to cut through, these drivers will abandon Siear Terrace in no time. Why did the powers that be decide instead to block the right-of-way altogether?

My suspicion is it has more to do with deteriorating relations between the two communities. Casa de Prado, as condominiums, are owner-occupied, with a generally middle class population seeking something smaller than the single family house and quarter-acre yard that seem de rigueur in this part of the city. My impression is that these condominium units tend to house one to two persons and are typically white middle class.

Empirical observations may a weak basis for a rationalization, but if that were always the case, someone should have shot down this blog a long time ago. The fact is that demographics for Casa de Prado differ greatly from Berkley Commons, which comprises renters, of which about half or more are non-white. And it doesn’t take more than a pair of eyes to realize this. I could use the 2000 U.S. Census at the block level to get more precise assessments, but my suspicion is that they would not do a great deal of good: most of the changes to Berkeley Commons are recent. For example, Berkley Commons follows a trend I have observed in the past of suburban apartment complexes changing names—more than a decade ago this complex was called Charleston South. The name change of this and many other apartment complexes echoes an overall shift in population of renters in this area of the city, much of which developed in the 1970s.

Most casual observers would surmise that Berkley Commons is in perfectly good shape. But standard depreciation schedules place apartments at 27.5 years for taxation purposes, which pretty closely aligns with the age for these structures. Thus, by apartment standards, they are old and no longer top-tier or Class A rentals. Apartments depreciate quickly partly because of the nature of tenure—renters do not own and have no real incentive to promote the upkeep of the property. This is hardly rocket science. So while it is possible the units have deteriorated from repeated shuffling of new tenants, particularly if property managers did not make full use of the deposits for maintenance or upgrades at the termination of a lease, it is more likely that the facility in totality is old: aging washing machines, cabinetry, sinks, vanities, and so forth. Customers’ tastes for the way residential space is organized have also evolved: most people prefer a domicile with large, capacious rooms, often where the kitchen, dining room, and living room have no partitions. Such was not the case in the 1970s, when rooms tended to be smaller and served more discrete purposes. Most property managers of non-luxury units are not likely to invest only occasionally in capital improvements that involve major appliances (i.e., fix the stove and dishwashers when they break), and will invest practically never in structural changes such as the removal of walls.

Thus, Berkley Commons is now a second-rate apartment complex, commanding lower rents and attracting a less affluent clientele. In a fast-growing metro area with a burgeoning immigrant population such as Indianapolis, that means the majority of population seeking leases at these complexes are either African Americans, or recent immigrants, which on the south side of Indianapolis typically means Latinos, Punjabi, or Burmese.

And the roadblock is a physical manifestation for age-old demonstrations of racism or, more profoundly and intractably, classism. Casa de Prado houses established, comfortable, mostly white homeowners; Berkley Commons houses less affluent, transient persons of color. Twenty years ago, the two developments attracted similar customers, with the one difference being tenure, but those demographics have diverged greatly in the past decade or so, with the rental units absorbing all the change. Perceptions of crime may or may not be inflated by knee-jerk, prejudicial associations with ethnic otherness; regardless of whether or not crime has increased in the area, the gate and planted median in the middle of the road serve the dual purpose of preventing motorists from using Siear Terrace to cut through while discouraging pedestrian movement between the two. It’s clearly more polite than constructing perimeter gates around the two communities, not to mention cheaper. In this capacity, the residents of Casa de Prado could have couched the need for a roadblock in terms of speeding cars, thereby shifting the burden of keeping unwanted neighbors out away from their own homeowners’ association costs to that of the Department of Public Works, who clearly manages this shared right-of-way. Thus, all taxpayers of the city helped fund this roadblock. And it only serves as a tame warning banner to the lower-income residents of Berkley Commons rather than an outright barricade, since pedestrians still have complete freedom to walk around it.

It would require an inappropriate level of investigation on my part to determine the real reason for the installation of the roadblock, and I’ve already waded through hearsay about how the area is filled with drug deals and whatnot. I don’t want to castigate the residents of Casa de Prado: as homeowners, it is natural that they want to protect the vested interests they have in the area, whether that involves speeding cars taking unfair advantage of a shortcut street, or keeping the always-shifting demographic at Berkley Commons—and potential crime—at bay. It is understandable in this case that taxpayers would be funding public safety, and all the better that the monies invested may serve a dual function. But I don’t know what the future holds for Siear Terrace and the two multifamily developments it serves: right now Berkeley Commons shows no visible signs of deterioration and it feeds into a satisfactory if not exceptional school system. Should the demand for housing in this area decline, the apartment may fall another tier lower in desirability, regardless of any improvements the property managers attempt to make. It will be difficult to salvage such an area if only the extreme poor choose to live there (for lack of other choses), and Casa de Prado may then rely on more draconian means of keeping out strangers. The barrier currently bears no resemblance to a Berlin Wall—if it intensifies in the future, it reveals nothing about motorists cutting through (that’s essentially already impossible now) and everything about perceived criminality from socioeconomic difference.