Saturday, July 31, 2010

Brick roads don't always lead to Oz.

While this blog post won’t win any awards for brevity (would my blog ever win such a prize?), it surely surpasses all others for the simplicity of the concept. The photo below details the sidewalk upgrade component of a traffic improvement initiative in the Southdowns neighborhood of Baton Rouge.

The area represents a banner opportunity for a developer with the right serendipity, due to a succession of previous events.

A Wal-Mart at the northwest corner (in the purple box) relocated a few years ago, and Commercial Properties Realty Trust proposed a mixed-use retail/residential node in 2008, which would most likely have percolated by now if the lending climate were better. And then, on the first of this year, a major fire burned a huge wing of the Acadian-Perkins Plaza across the street, particularly the portion encapsulated by the red box in the above map. This fire has impelled the owners of the plaza to rebuild in a way that might harmonize with whatever lucrative redevelopment ultimately takes place on the old Wal-Mart site. The area will most certainly elicit something exciting before too long; the intersection sits near the commercial heart of Southdowns, which hosts some of the metro’s most prominent nightlife just a few blocks away on Perkins Road. In addition, the development will be widely visible to thousands of motorists each day passing on I-10 just to the north of this intersection. This is hardly the place for a run-of-the-mill strip mall that might have worked in 1968—the new retail node will undoubtedly offer more than a standalone big box.

It should come as no surprise that the city’s Green Light Plan includes brick paving surfaces for the sidewalk element of the traffic improvements at this intersection. After all, the Southdowns is a confidently middle- to upper-middle class neighborhood hosting some of the most desirable real estate in the city. And, as paving surfaces go, brick surfaces nearly always appeal to American public far more than concrete. (The American aversion to concrete extends to housing: while concrete is a strong, resilient material used for housing across the globe as an alternative to expensive masonry, it obstinately refuses to catch on in the US. We often prefer brick or the much flimsier wood as the fundamental material. Perhaps the pathological hatred we seem to have for Brutalist edifices has stymied our capacity ever to embrace concrete?) At any rate, brick surfaces are all the rage for streetscape improvements, especially in areas that hope to convey affluence or fashion, which the Southdowns no doubt hopes to achieve. The pattern here isn’t particularly audacious, but it consists of a modified 90-degree herringbone pattern that alternates both rectangular and square bricks, all with slightly rounded edges.

The header (perimeter) of the pattern achieves a mild contrast by relying solely on the rectangular bricks.
I have no doubt the proposed material achieved a favorable response among residents of the Southdowns neighborhood. But is it the best idea in terms of universal design? Not so long ago, I worked for a pedestrian advocacy organization, which released a special design review encouraging the abolition of brick pavers in the city. In this litigious society, safety is critical, and bricks are unambiguously more dangerous than many other paving materials.

Reflecting upon the sidewalk design, the reasoning is quite simple: bricks have far more interstices than concrete slabs, and a high interstitial density invites more chances for protrusions, as pavement expands and contracts with the vacillating temperature. Protrusions become obvious tripping hazards. A contrast is the aging brick pattern on a stretch of sidewalk in New Orleans, along Rampart Street at the edge of the French Quarter:

The design employs 45-degree herringbone pattern with 90-degree contrasting header, but many of the bricks and the mortar are fragmenting or have eroded in comparison to the adjacent concrete. The surface is uneven:
Not terribly bad right now, but it will continue to deteriorate, and the number of repairs increases in direct proportion to the number of interstices. More gaps equals more opportunities for failure, which equals more issues to address and a higher aggregate replacement cost.

Unsurprisingly, what proves treacherous for pedestrians is equally problematic for wheelchairs. Bricks can cause a very bumpy ride. While most of the Perkins Road improvements at the Southdowns are carefully ramped or sloped at the curb cuts to allow wheelchair access, not all of them are:
It amazes me that, at the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, such a design escapes the scrutiny of the public works department. My suspicion is that it will be replaced before long, and at a far greater cost than it would take if it were mere concrete. But then, concrete is ugly and prosaic—just look at the sidewalk 50 feet away on Perkins Road, where it has not received the upgrade.

For all its blandness (and this is clearly not a well-maintained sidewalk), the opportunities for uneven paving surface to emerge are much lower here than the bricks. Cement undoubtedly degrades over time, but which portion of the sidewalk here is likely to require greater investment for maintenance over the long term? Which material is likely to suffer the most from any deferred maintenance? I hate to be critical of something so seemingly petty, so I will conclude this post on a more positive note, with examples of pedestrian paving that can still achieve a desirable aesthetic effect without eliciting the same investment cost or potential for injury.

This sidewalk upgrade over a significant stretch of U.S. Highway 59 in Grove, Oklahoma, provides an excellent contrast.
Though purely middle class, the area undoubtedly hopes to attract those seeking vacation homes, since the community rests between various inlets of the vast Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees—a favored locale for sailboating and bass fishing. The color of the concrete here—as well as the unweathered metal of the streetlights—suggests that suggests these pedestrian improvements for the five-lane highway are recent. The brick headers immediately abutting the curb on an otherwise cement sidewalk achieve much the same effect as an all-brick sidewalk, but with far reduced risk of creating a tripping hazard. The red provides a contrast to the neutral grays of both the asphalt road and the cement sidewalk, resulting in a sort of “accent” that makes the sidewalks seem less utilitarian and more decorative. The fact that the bricks line only a small sliver of the sidewalk closest to the street—the portion least likely to be walked upon—helps to minimize the potential for a tripping hazard.

Baton Rouge offers an alternative in a portion of the well-used City Park. which seems to work much better than the new Perkins Road installation.
Interstices are minimal here, and yet the cement paving at the headers along the two narrow borders has a different texture. What causes all those strange speckles?
I’m only guessing here, but I think they are acorn droppings from the live oak trees that canopy much of the park. One can discern the vaguest outline of an acorn shape.
Did the Parks and Recreation Department deliberately time the laying of the concrete for these headers so that it would solidify at the peak of the acorn season, allowed the acorns to drop naturally and decorate the concrete with imprints? I think it was a bit more artificial of a tactic: the acorn imprints appear too evenly scattered across the headers. But it offers a creative solution that most likely cost virtually nothing extra. Though it may not evoke sophistication in the same way that bricks do, it endows the sidewalk with distinction and is much safer for pedestrians, particularly in an area that welcomes a fair number of joggers.In addition, the shallow root system of live oaks is notorious for shifting and destroying the evenness of paving surfaces. Bricks would be a disaster here within just a few years.

Have no doubt that I recognize this subject is small potatoes when placed in the context of other, more widespread urban concerns. But to dismiss sidewalk tripping hazards completely is unfair, when many have suffered injury from poor paving surfaces. The alternatives in Oklahoma and City Park prove that creative design can reconcile the age-old dichotomy between aesthetics and functionality. They also provide a fresh spin on the notion that necessity is the mother of invention: cutting budgets is particularly laudable in times of scarcity, and sometimes the cheaper, lower-maintenance alternatives can offer fresher designs and appearances, while the reduced elaborateness can improve safety. It’s a triple win, without a single skinned knee or sprained ankle in the process.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

MONTAGE: The Main Street of America goes Kansas.

"Thanks to the Interstate Highway System, it is now possible to travel from coast to coast without seeing anything." ~Charles Kuralt

The federal government might have decommissioned U.S. Route 66 twenty-five years ago, but you don’t have to be middle-aged to recognize the name, or even to appreciate it. In fact, the Mother Road seems to have only lodged itself more securely into the American consciousness with each passing year; I’d venture to guess that even most teenagers are at least familiar with its existence. Aside from the roadside businesses and concomitant folk architecture that this celebrated route spawned, it also helped to elicit a hit song by Bobby Troup, a successful TV series, a gas station chain (Phillips 66), heritage associations in each of the route’s eight states, and numerous books and museums. Disney’s hit movie Cars originally was going to be named after the iconic road. This original paved link between Chicago to Los Angeles/Santa Monica boasts contests to win tour packages in the UK, while the blogosphere is filled with chronicles from people of many nationalities who have taken the legendary road trip. Its mystique stretches across the globe, despite—and then because of—the fact that it is as Americana as Monopoly.

At this point, it’s amazing to think that, despite the tsunami of cultural references we confront each year, much of the built environment that this asphalt artery helped to sustain is decaying. And the decay began long before the official decommissioning; if anything, the slam of the hammer against the coffin’s nail only galvanized interest in saving what still survived. The historic neon-accented motels routinely fall into American and international preservationists’ most endangered historic places. They’ve lost their reason for being since so much of the classic two-lane highway has been upgraded into four-lane, limited access interstate, thereby choking the original businesses from the vast majority of transcontinental travelers. Its extreme popularity led to its upgrade to a limited access interstate under Eisenhower’s Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, but this upgrade resulted in the near demise of the stop-and-go roadside culture. Last year, President Obama signed the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Reauthorization Act, extending a National Park Service program the essentially recognizes the upkeep of Route 66 is less a transportation or public works route and more a multi-state historic preservation ambition.

How well is it working? Federal aid is no doubt most visible through the improved/restored signage, with the emblematic logo resting on a backdrop of brown, which is usually the color for historic and cultural sites.

Alas, I have not traveled the entire trajectory of the Mother Road, but I can at least boast that I’ve been through more or less the entirety of Route 66’s path through Kansas: all 12 miles of it. Among the eight states, Kansas claims the smallest portion of the route by a long shot: all of the others get at least 100 miles, and New Mexico boasts nearly 500 miles. However, the entirety of Kansas’ portion remains a two-lane highway, passing exclusively through Cherokee County (the southeastern-most county in the state) and through only two real communities: Galena and Baxter Springs. The map below outlines in purple the path of Route 66 through Kansas, providing a brief link between the historically much longer portions in Missouri and Oklahoma.

Galena is an aggressively depopulating old mining town, with very little remaining of what was probably once an extensive main street. It may earn a blog post of its own. Riverton is an unincorporated community so small I failed to notice anything significant about it during the twenty seconds it took to pass through it. (Apparently the Eisler Brothers Country Store in Riverton is a Mother Road institution.) Far more prominent is the most southerly town in Kansas on the route, Baxter Springs, just a mile or so away from the Oklahoma Border.

The town’s main street is hardly flourishing, but it is alive enough to suggest that the community is trying—and virtually every establishment has some reference to Route 66. The photo series that follows only includes what is contained in the green rectangle on the map below:

Baxter Springs’ downtown is a mere three blocks. But the iconography of Route 66 is everywhere. I would expand upon this montage with a more detailed analysis, but many others before me have done a far better job. Among them is Arthur Krim’s Route 66: Iconography of the American Highway (2006, Center for American Places). My copy of this book is stored far away from my access right now; hopefully someday I’ll recover it and use it to enhance the analytical component of this blog post. In the meantime, I present Military Avenue, the main street of Baxter Springs, laden with references to the Main Street of America.

These banners appear systematically at almost every one of the streetlights of “vintage” design along the primary commercial section of Military Avenue in Baxter Springs. In hindsight, I wish I had taken more care to capture everything about these streetlights in one snapshot, but I didn’t. At any rate, even the street signs have the vintage Route 66 logo—an unsurprising but winsome touch.

All and all, the streetscape is spartan but clearly not neglected. Here’s the east side of the street:

And the west side:

The Historic District in its entirety isn’t terribly active, but it is generally intact, and although many of the buildings are shuttered or vacant, most appear fundamentally maintained.

Café on the Route has smartly tied its name to the heritage corridor upon which it rests, regardless of whether or not it’s a true Route 66 institution. I’m impelled to believe it is not: most of the genuine surviving establishments make no reference to the road in their names, because they pre-date the point when the road became a cultural artifact. This Café’s self-awareness suggests that its owners located here to capitalize on the legacy, and who can blame them? The building itself appears diligently preserved and includes an attractive mural.

To the left of the mural is a placard, indicating that building is within the purview of the Hampton Inn Save-a-Landmark program, an outreach preservation campaign involving considerable time and money, and the first example of a major hotel chain (Hilton) earning recognition for its preservation efforts. Apparently the Café on the Route’s building predates the Mother Road by over fifty years and was originally a bank robbed by Jesse James in 1876.

On the other side of Military Avenue stands the structure in the photo above, which according to this site on Kansas’ Historic Route 66, housed a true highway institution, Murphey’s Restaurant, until recently. The vinyl cladding and vintage sign, visible on the website, have clearly since been removed. It appears to me that the edifice is undergoing a renovation, having received what appear to be brand-new windows—a big no-no among preservationists if not conscientiously implemented, but a positive for Baxter Springs if it augurs a real reinvestment in the building. Traces of the old Route 66 logo still linger.

Apparently local artists have attempted to enliven some of the other vacant storefronts with references to the route in the windows:

Antique stores and flea markets, which appear to be the dominant uses along Baxter Springs’ main street, are replete with decal logos in the windows, or other Route-related bric-a-brac.

This may be the Café on the Route’s biggest competition:

This old Philips 66 no doubt stopped providing an oil change and tire rotation decades ago.

But the building is in excellent shape, and today it hosts a visitors’ center, which, judging from the sign, is less about Baxter Springs and more about the Route—a wise decision.

The lackadaisically run auto shop across the street from the center still took care to reference the Route.

But most remarkable in all of Baxter Springs is an apparently recent incarnation on the east side of Military Avenue: a soda fountain.

According to a local, the Route 66 Soda Fountain was funded through the Abernathy Charitable Trust and a children’s foundation. The Bill Abernathy Memorial Lifetime Learning Center operates solely as a 501(c)(3) organization, providing entertainment and activities to keep Baxter Springs’ youth out of trouble, as well as GED programs and adult education classes. Each vintage booth has outlets for laptops, and the place features high-speed wireless Internet. And it does serve ice cream, though I could not determine for certain if the building ever serves non-local visitors. It was not scheduled to open until later that evening, but peering in the glass, I witnessed what appeared to be an impeccable duplication of the soda fountains from days passed:

The highway continues southward from the historic district, along what is now labeled Alternate U.S. Highway 69, passing through what constitutes the modern-day commercial hub of Baxter Springs: Pizza Hut, KFC, O’Reilly Auto Parts, McDonald’s, and, a bit further down the road, a strip mall with a Dollar General and Wal-Mart.

I’m sanguine about the future of Baxter Springs. The commercial building stock is excellent and in good repair. The town’s boosters clearly know what its strongest asset is, and they have done their utmost to highlight it to passers-by. And most motorists passing through the town will be traveling along Alternate U.S. Highway 69—the historic Route 66—for utilitarian or recreational purposes. The utilitarian travelers are most likely on their way to something else, or perhaps they work in Baxter Springs. The recreational drivers are the key, and for nearly all of them, the route itself is the primary attraction, because it serves as a conduit to any sundry eye-catching curiosities along the curbs.

Perhaps Route 66 will experience, or is currently experiencing, a renaissance all its own. Maybe the Disney movie stimulated interest among a new generation. Maybe federal preservation grants are helping, but something tells me they are less than critical—they certainly aren’t mandating tour buses filled with Norwegians to pass through towns like Baxter Springs. This town in the corner of Kansas will find its modern reason for being by connecting with its past, which is as clichéd an ambition as there ever was. But while Baxter Springs’ history may be unremarkable or simply uninteresting on its own, the prominence of the Mother Road in American/global mythology gives it a competitive edge over another Kansas town twenty miles away. Baxter Springs is a stop on the quintessential road trip.

Monday, July 26, 2010

These lumps are always benign.

This blog post may be the closest I ever get to a real-time narrative. It’s not purely real-time, of course, any more than this is an online journal. But everything that this blog features occurred within the past few days, and fortunately I was able to document it photographically as I was experiencing it, including the crucial revelation at the end. I was driving from Monroe, Louisiana toward Little Rock, and, as anyone from these two states could tell you, there is not a single limited access highway or interstate connecting Louisiana and Arkansas. But if part of the goal is absorbing Americana through a camera lens, who wants to take interstates anyway?

I was venturing northward toward Pine Bluff, Arkansas on U.S. Highway 425, across southern Arkansas’ flat and impenetrable pine belt, just south of the college town of Monticello. The photo above is hardly an anomaly for being devoid of cars: this was the norm, and ten minutes could easily pass before I confronted another vehicle. If my driving got a bit sloppy—as most of us are wont to do when the roads are this barren—I might skim over the yellow painted lane divider, when I would here the familiar pa-dump pa-dump pa-dump of those reflectors against my wheels.

At any rate, it’s a familiar sound in a good part of the country, and apparently a common enough phenomenon that it approaches highway vernacular status. Facebook even has multiple groups devoted to people who try to avoid hitting them when they change lanes. I had learned several years ago that the patented design commonly employed in American highways is called Botts’ dots, after Elbert Dysart Botts, the California transportation engineer credited with their invention. However, this whimsical name often suffers from over-application, because Botts’ dots are a particular design rather than a general term—usually round and non-reflective, like the example seen in this photo. They serve as a purely auditory warning—for alerting motorists when they are crossing a certain threshold, usually a lane. Attempting to avoid them is fine—as apparently a few thousand Facebook users do—but it should not be done out of fear of damaging them, since the ceramic or polymer used in their construction can support the weight of a car. The square reflectors along this Arkansas highway also are made of a sufficiently durable material, meaning they serve a double purpose of providing both a lighted path at night and an audible warning at all times of day.

Despite the fact that US Highways and interstates receive federal funds for their construction and continued maintenance, not all roads are created equally. A major American highway can bisect several states and morph considerably along its trajectory—quite often these shifts are obvious when crossing into a new jurisdiction, such as a state or county line. Differences in soil quality, topography, climate, and jurisdictional road safety laws add variety to any transcontinental thoroughfare, and these pavement markers are no different. Departments of Transportation can clearly decide which safety features are most critical in their jurisdiction. In south Arkansas, square reflectors and Botts’ dots can protrude from the pavement:

As suitable as these devices are in an arid climate like southern California, they don’t work so well in upstate New York, or any part of the US that ever receives heavy snowfall: the plows would scoop these critters up. If they can exist at all in the North, they must be recessed in the pavement and further reinforced. I cannot provide a firsthand auditory comparison right now between protruding and recessed reflectors, because I haven’t been in the Frost Belt in awhile. But I suspect the trademark skip-thump sound would have to be muted if the device cannot protrude as much.

Later that same day from which the above photos were taken, I had to head westward from Little Rock along Interstate 40. By this time, it was pitch dark, and I have never felt so nervous about driving on an interstate in my life. I couldn’t pin it down at first, but something about this stretch of highway winding through the Ozarks induced anxiety. Eventually I realized that a number of features were missing that I often had taken for granted. This portion of Arkansas interstate does not in general use street lights at exit ramps. It has relatively few billboards--or, at least, very few of are illuminated. Only a few communities between Little Rock and Fort Smith have more than 10,000 inhabitants, so no ambient light from a neighboring community. But perhaps most critical, the center lane lacked any square reflectors. No reflectors in general—not on posts, not embedded in the pavement, and relatively few green reflective signs. It was dark. Clearly a driver’s headlights should compensate, but they only provide illumination for 50 to 100 feet or so. Driving that night through western Arkansas, I often couldn’t tell if the car in front of me was just turning to negotiate a curve or getting off at an exit ramp. These reflective squares critically promote safety because they show the trajectory several hundred feet ahead of the driver, allow him or her to prepare for curves. They only way I could anticipate curves that night in Arkansas was by turning on the high beams, which is arely permissible because traffic is much higher here than US Highway 425. Thus, a rarely traveled fragment of highway in the rural southern part of the state offers a better reflective environment than the interstate connecting Arkansas’ largest and second largest cities.

But why would the state’s Department of Transportation choose to use federal funds for reflectors on one highway but not the other more traveled one. Why snub interstates in Arkansas? My return trip during broad daylight (I wasn’t going to try that route again at night) provided the most likely answer:

In the near exact middle of the above photo, before the white stripe marking two different lanes, is a small indentation. I got as close as I could with my camera, given the high speed and frequency of cars passing by.

It almost looked like a scar where the reflector should be. But why is that reflector missing? Is it possible that the DOT, assuming that central Arkansas’ climate is warm enough, allowed the reflectors to protrude just as they might in Arizona or southern California? And could this have been the critical mistake that seriously deteriorates the safety of this Arkansas highway at night? Central Arkansas most likely does not endure heavy snowfall very often at all. But at one point, it did, and the necessity for making the road remotely passable by employing snowplows superseded the preservation of protruding square reflectors, Botts’ dots, or whatever they had once used here. They’re all missing. Just looking the other direction reveals the same scar where something clearly should be; it was snatched by a snowplow.

I could be wrong of course, but I can think of no other reason why this heavily travelled transcontinental highway would lack them. (The small patch of I-40 that I traveled in Oklahoma lacked them as well, but at least Oklahoma’s exit ramps had streetlights. Maybe the two states suffered from the snow pattern.) It would be interesting to determine if there is a comparatively higher crash rate on Arkansas interstates due to unsafe night driving conditions—if that would justify the cost of re-installing these reflectors, which apparently need to be recessed into the pavement to handle the occasional heavy snowfall that Arkansas might receive. The current state of the road’s safety hints at the broader dilemma: if the federally funded highway network required complete uniformity of design, with every state using its funds for the highest caliber safety infrastructure, this might not have happened. But a one-size-fits-all federal standard could scarcely account for the climatic and topographic diversity of this vast country, so it would elicit new problems for regions that simply defy any criterion. It would be tough to deny that Interstate 40 in Arkansas needs better visibility at night, but the means of achieving this through the federal funds allotted—whether routine improvements, transportation enhancement grants, or some other untested improvement—rests upon each state’s decision making authorities. Botts’ dots originated through one state’s pursuit of new solutions to localized road safety concerns. Perhaps those bizarre indentations on I-40 are the installation mechanism for a solution unique to the Arkansas Department of Transportation.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

In an economic hell, a house is but a shell.

“Developers have to eat too.”

We have tacitly organized to demonize land developers for their perceived role in wrecking metropolitan America. Their greed often supersedes concern for the environment, they cut corners in construction quality, they cater to a lowbrow design culture—and these are just the criticisms chimed by many on the left. While the right may seem more sympathetic to role developers play in sustaining the construction sector, they often perceive the contemporary land development culture as relentlessly beholden to government hand-outs and tax abatements—that developers routinely eschew the free enterprise upon which they once thrived. Indianapolis’ Republican mayor Greg Ballard successfully ran a few years ago on a campaign of no tax hikes, and a goal to reduce or eliminate of the culture of tax breaks and assorted cookies handed out to the development community on the taxpayer dime. (Whether or not he has lived up to his no-new-tax campaign is open to dispute.)

The prevailing depiction of developers throughout popular culture is of unctuous hucksters whose venality destroys their scruples, manifested in their lack of empathy for the little guy. This of course is a generalization, but pop culture specializes in aestheticizing generalizations. Developers are the quintessential anti-populists, regardless of whether their average-joe victim fits the liberal or conservative paradigm.

So why not stick it back to them? Whether through impact fees, or the elimination of tax breaks, or even moratoria on development altogether, developers may be the easiest antagonist out of all the various players in housing delivery systems. Since they’re obviously loaded and care only about money, why force them to absorb all of the negative externalities that might accompany new construction?

It is no doubt this sentiment that impelled an instructor of mine to utter the quote at the top of this page. However much those in the real estate industry might view a project through the lens of the Internal Rate of Return, the “shoot the developer” attitude fails to take into consideration the tremendous number of players involved in something as simple as the birth of a small residential subdivision. From the equity partners to the banks that provide financing, from the general contractors to the architects and homebuilders, the aggregation of soft and hard costs foists a formidable weight onto developers to forge a variety of compromises, many of which chip away at their own revenue stream. Will they need a variance in order to pull off this project because of certain design idiosyncrasies that the public wants but zoning prohibits? Do local laws require the provision of a certain degree of affordable housing, and if so, how will they meet the funding gap? Are they required to meet certain standards in construction material or staffing? Are there potential environmental consequences to their project, or existing problems they must reconcile through the development process? Will any of these decisions affect the support they receive from equity partners or banks? And, once it all comes together, what if that poor, assiduous developer runs smack into the brick wall of an unfavorable market cycle?

Sure, I’ll confess that I’m providing a sympathetic counter-argument to defend developers. I know that a considerable number of them are very successful and extremely wealthy—but a poor mid-career decision could just as easily reduce them to bankruptcy. And while it often seems as though they are the true puppetmasters in most major alterations to the built environment, they are purely at the mercy of their clientele. If they fail to align with the will of the people—yes, even the little guy—they could be reduced to the change in their pocket.

One might think that the most recent real estate collapse would turn heads so that we could be a bit more sympathetic to developers. But I don’t think it has. The era of easy credit has elicited a lot of criticism toward banks, as well as a fair amount to federal regulators who fostered the sub-prime lending culture that saddled a huge number of Americans with mortgages they could not possibly afford. We’ve read about the biggest casualties: the homes in Detroit worth less than a car, the assembly line of empty, foreclosed homes in brand-new developments in metro Las Vegas. The aforementioned long-struggling motor city and its mega-booming sinful counterpart offer extreme examples, but what about the status quo? Charlotte, an archetypal sunbelt boomtown, was badly hit by the collapse of some its regional banks, and now faces insta-slums in some previously routine middle class developments on the purlieus. This article may offer a bit of hyperbole but Charlotte was a solid growth city that did not hedge its real estate fortunes and municipal budgets on a housing bubble the way Las Vegas did—it enjoyed a seemingly robust but diversified growth pattern that many other cities would have killed for.

The same might be said in recent years for Baton Rouge.

Long an economic underperformer, the capital city of Louisiana enjoyed a boost in the past decade or so due to its strong petrochemical presence, coupled with consistently higher gas prices. The educated workforce attracted to state government jobs—often after graduating from down the street at Louisiana State University, the state’s largest academic institution—helped stimulate other major employers such as The Shaw Group Inc, one of the state’s few Fortune 500 firms. The spike in population from the Hurricane Katrina/New Orleans diaspora put a strain on infrastructure, but it also impelled employers to relocate, and many haven’t turned back. The city currently sits on many Top 20 lists for the strongest economies facing this horrendous recession, with an unemployment rate nearly 2.5% below the national average. Yet the Red Stick is still facing its own economic malaise.

Houses in the condition seen above may be pointillistic in Baton Rouge, rather than broadly red smears. They aren’t ubiquitous like Detroit or Las Vegas, or perhaps parts of Charlotte. But the housing market here may be in as great of a cloud of uncertainty as its bigger, easier neighbor 70 miles to the southeast. New Orleans could still be reeling from a Hurricane Katrina recovery, but the homebuilding culture in Baton Rouge has not yet fully gauged how many of the new arrivals from 2005 are here to stay, or how many are only staying because the economic forecast is better in Louisiana’s capital than just about everywhere else. Take a closer look at that house below:

Without getting too distracted by the fantastic, completely unintentional sunburst in the background, several details on the house can help illuminate what went wrong, and when. Clearly the construction stalled, most likely due to a default on the mortgage, but you know it is a product of an acute economic crisis when the homebuyer reneges before a home is even complete, because it suggests that the buyer’s fortunes changed rapidly since the approval of the loan. But all of this didn’t happen recently. The color of the boarded-up windows is the dark gray of weathered wood; most likely it would be a lighter, tawnier shade if the loan provider has sealed the home in the past year. The lack of a paved driveway is also striking. Usually the laying of concrete is one of the last steps, but the absence of a drive in a neighborhood where all other homes have them suggests that whatever entity currently owns the house has made no attempt to finish the job or even make this nearly complete shell seem even remotely inviting to a potential buyer. It may very well be that the lender itself is having problems, or decided that the market in this relatively economically healthy city is still too weak to justify adding the finishing touches to this home. And how does this ill-fated dwelling fit within its residential context? Here’s a home across the street:

This suburban subdivision is nearly complete, and the homes clearly target a middle or upper-middle income buyer. It sits in the far northeast corner of Baton Rouge Parish, outside the city limits in an area recently incorporated under the name of Central, with its own school district that rates far higher than the schools of Baton Rouge proper. By most metrics, this area should be booming, and this home should be an easy sell. All the more unfortunate that it sits in a bizarre state of inchoate decay, and clearly of no benefit to the neighbors’ property values. Will it ever find new life? Each passing day, the home drifts farther away from the possibility of a resuscitation, since the requisite investment in returning it to livable status increases as it steadily deteriorates.

This is not an inner-city ghetto, nor a faded inner-ring suburb. It’s not in the middle of nowhere, like the ghost subdivision I featured a few weeks ago. It’s in the heart of sprawling American exurbia, a part of the metro that should be thriving, in a neighborhood which people presumably have the wherewithal not to live above it. But perhaps they don’t; maybe even here they live above their means. This eyesore demonstrates, more than anything, that it is still the consumer that drives development patterns. We castigate developers for cheap construction, but they would not attempt it if they could not find buyers. The vinyl villages of the late 1990s and 2000s may eventually stand as reminders of the area of ridiculously easy credit, where banks would blithely satisfy American’s relentless hunger for cheap but spacious housing. At this point, we hope we are out of the woods in terms of the worst of the foreclosure crisis, but the panoply of homes from a variety of sizes, typologies, and milieus demonstrates that the Americans who lived beyond their means did not fall into easily defined constituencies. Developers and policymakers are less proscriptive than they are reactive—the will of the consumer elicits a far greater impact on human settlement patterns. That collective aspiration short-circuited a few years ago and peppered our landscape with the detritus of failed domesticity. Developers are still frequently avaricious, but they make an easy scapegoat when they’re essentially participants on the same playing field as everyone else—and each one of us seeking a home is the real quarterback.

Friday, July 16, 2010

REWIND: From Silos to Steeples, Painting the Town Green.

Several months ago, I featured two examples of integrating sustainability and conservation into the built environment through civic participation in a blog post. The Greensburg, KS example that I featured has been relatively high profile. By most measurements, it remains the most ecologically friendly small town in America: since recovering from a catastrophic tornado, it has decided to rebuild using green building principles, and by this point it should have the highest concentration of LEED Platinum buildings of any municipality in the world. The other example in my blog article, First Mennonite Church on the north side of Indianapolis, hardly involves such grandiose gestures as Platinum Certification and is not widely known beyond the surrounding neighborhood, but the church’s efforts demonstrate a stewardship that is also financially savvy. Unfortunately, the timing I chose for my article was the dead of winter and much of which I hoped to feature on the grounds of the church was buried in snow. I recently returned to the site, which benefitted from July verdure and better demonstrates the points I was trying to make. Thus, I feature the article again, with minimal textual changes but a new series of photographs. Comments as always are appreciated.

In less than a decade, the color-adjective in this blog entry’s title has infiltrated common parlance so effectively that practically anyone who regularly tunes in to a national media source is well aware of the word’s ascension to a widespread lifestyle choice. Long the dominion of ideologically driven crusaders who often saw ecological insensitivity as a direct consequence of the moral laxity embedded in free market forces—a negative externality writ large—“going green” has become almost ubiquitous, because its strongest advocates have to an extent dexterously tiptoed around overt partisanship. Green might still be political, but it’s not just referring to a Party aligned with skeptics of capitalism that consistently captures less than three percent of the vote. It isn’t just for the tree-huggers. Though some will undoubtedly disagree with me, I believe the green movement has been tamed—perhaps even domesticated—by shifting its aims to attract the milquetoast moderates. Most reformist campaigns suffer some dilution in order to reach the mainstream, often sacrificing their most ardent supporters in the process. This is often the price that such a movement must pay in order for its ambitions to permeate society enough to effect measurable change. Whether its previous guises were too radical, too Rousseauan, or too removed from a supportive financial base, environmentalism shows increasing evidence of ecumenicalism that broadens its impact as it loses the bite of moral imperative.

Have I unfairly conflated the contemporary green revolution with other, more articulated, more potent ecological initiatives? Probably. But the non-discriminating public at large typically ingests transformative intellectual endeavors through broad gestures, and since I am trying to examine this phenomenon at an extreme macro level, it is only reasonable that I make similarly facile associations to support my examples. With those glittering generalities said, I will introduce one of the best case studies that suggested to me that the current green movement has staying power. The town of Greensburg, Kansas suffered a catastrophic tornado (measuring 5 on the Enhanced Fujita scale) on May 4, 2007. The photos below, taken by Kevin Snyder, demonstrate exactly what it looked like from a worm’s-eye-view just days after the storm.

Meanwhile, this Wikipedia photo provides an elevated view, showing the magnitude of the devastation. Outside of the street grid, anything resembling a town—just about everything protruding from the ground, with the exception of the courthouse and a few commercial structures —was annihilated. Many of the town’s 1,500 residents demonstrated their commitment to the region by immediately filing home insurance claims to begin repairs. However, a number of citizens recognized that the community, mired in a continued population decline, could not retain its young population, and that it should seize upon this disaster as an opportunity for reinvention. With the help of a design firm from Kansas City, Greensburg’s leaders devised a proposal for making the city as environmentally sustainable. The comprehensive plan, detailed through the site of the respective nonprofit Greensburg Green Town, culminated in the council’s resolution to make all new construction certified LEED Platinum, which is the highest standard of environmentally sustainable building technology as measured by the US Green Building Council .

Whether it involves a John Deere factory powered by wind turbines, or a courthouse that harvests and recycles rainwater, the goal that Greensburg’s leadership intends to achieve is to become the nation’s first fully ecologically sustainable town—an ambition that has earned the community attention in a Discovery Channel documentary and countless private and non-profit supporters who may have otherwise overlooked the community’s plight. A conversation with Mayor Bob Dixson revealed to me that while not every Greensburg inhabitant clearly bought on to the idea, a significant number in this conservative agrarian community realized that many green lifestyle choices are in themselves fundamentally conservative: frugality with natural resources; saving to purchase higher quality products that will have a greater longevity; encouraging self-sufficiency by working with materials close at hand. These are practices that the citizens of Greensburg widely embraced long before the storm. And thus Greensburg has prepared itself to re-emerge stronger, more attractive to investors, and greener than it was before.

Clearly the Greensburg story captures one particularly remarkable—and extreme—example of the proliferating visibility of the green movement. And LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) as a standard for judging green buildings is undeniably fashionable at the moment. But it doesn’t take much effort to find humbler examples that suggest that the green movement is to An Inconvenient Truth what Facebook is to MySpace: kindred outlets that have expanded the contingent that supports the original idea. You can guess which one of each pair has proven its resiliency by skirting controversy and divisiveness. The new wave of penury which Americans have confronted in this Great Recession only helps to reinforce the notion that mainstream ecological sensitivity is here for the foreseeable future, in the form of energy and resource conservation.

Of course it behooves the private sector to follow this trend—like most fads, it easily equates to a new source of revenue. For the public sector, it can equal more than simple cost savings: it could translate to a growing voter base. But what about when a non-profit or faith-based institution jumps on board?

The First Mennonite Church on the near-northwest side of Indianapolis has engaged in several initiatives that have dramatically altered the congregation’s stewardship of its large property, as well as its physical appearance. The ten-acre parcel rests in the almost exclusively residential Crooked Creek neighborhood, generally large-lot and suburban in appearance and character, yet conveniently only about four miles from the city’s downtown, as seen in the Google map below:

For decades, the church has endured the cost of maintaining its grounds through five hours a week of mowing labor, only to see the turf grass sit unused the vast majority of the time. In the summer, the lawn routinely floods, no doubt exacerbated by the impervious parking lot and rooflines nearby, as well as the fact that the Miami silt loam likely has hydric soil inclusions—in short, part of it was probably originally a wetland. A few years ago, the congregation at First Mennonite determined that the church’s grounds were offering little community or ecological benefit, while unnecessarily depleting operational funds through so much maintenance. With the help of a grant from the Indianapolis Center for Congregations, FMC teamed with local architecture firm Browning Day Mullins Dierdorf Inc to develop a multi-phase master landscape plan and site design, currently underway. The project began in the spring of 2008, with the planting of a combination of trees and shrubs which will serve as a riparian buffer to protect a bioswale partially underway, leading from an existing detention pond in the front of the property (near Knollton Road to the west) to the larger, planned retention pond for wetland mitigation purposes in the back of the property (to the east).

Here is the site of the eventual detention pond, currently enveloped on most sides by unmaintained prairie grasses and recently planted indigenous trees:

And another view with the church clearly in the background:

Tracing the perimeter of the property on the west and south sides (along the street) is a path made of crushed gravel:

The photo below provides a clearer example of the elevation change that sustains the bioswale, while also revealing the contrast between the manicured portion of the property with the unmaintained sections:

A soggy winter photo better reveals the obvious trajectory of the bioswale eventually connecting the two ponds:

While it would seem that First Mennonite’s property still includes a vast expanse of mowed turf, these pictures have only shown the front one-third or so of the parcel. The remaining majority (the eastern portion) includes a completely unlandscaped, unmaintained tall-grass prairie. In 2008, the church planted a variety of prairie grasses and wildflowers on the 3 or 4 acres between the retention pond and forested wetland on the east end of the property and the bioswale and detention pond on the west end. Here it is during this past winter:

And in the summer:

The untamed forest at the far eastern edge of the property can be seen in the photo below, first in the winter:
--then in the summer.

Meanwhile, the aerial photo below best illustrates the final stormwater management goal, with two large ponds connected by a bioswale, which carries the overflow through a dry planted ditch. The young trees and shrubs thus provide the riparian buffer.

And the aerial below shows the eventual plan for a complete one-half mile walking trail:

Future landscape design goals include extending the pervious, crushed gravel walking path according to the plans above, adding a shelter house, a memory garden, and community vegetable garden plots. Ideally, the entire site will serve as a demonstration project to encourage other communities to follow this example.

The First Mennonite Church articulated its goals through these improvements: 1) enhance the overall church mission through increased use of the grounds and by encouraging community participation in healthy activities; 2) limit the ecological footprint of the church by improving the natural habitat and reducing on-site consumption of energy; 3) minimizing maintenance by eliminating the need to mow much of the property and reducing likelihood of vandalism or littering by fostering a park-like setting of collective stewardship. Certain elements of these objectives may clash with other faith-based organizations, who find their religious teachings do not harmonize with green politics or the open invitation of the surrounding community to use their property for recreation. However, few churches would object to a new method of saving money.

Whether mowing the lawn regularly or unnecessarily watering the turf in the summertime (which of course necessitates more frequent mowing of the lawn), groundskeeping can prove inordinately expensive for an organization that relies upon donations and offerings to sustain its operations. The First Mennonite Church has embraced the idea that a manicured property is not necessarily more aesthetic, it certainly isn’t as ecologically sensitive, and all too often it costs more. The return on investment for an aggressively maintained lawn is always difficult to assess, but it may equate to whatever recreational opportunities it affords. This Mennonite Church in Indianapolis is gambling on the idea that an unspoiled wetland/forest may offer more to the congregation and neighboring community than mere grassy playing fields. Based on the numerous scattered examples across the country, their gamble may prove right. Going green is hardly a revolution (and how many revolutions have ever successfully met their initial goals?)—it’s the accrual of modest gestures over time that, with patience, offers a true impact. Conservation is the component of the green movement that is the quietest but also the most “sustainable”—another emerging buzzword. But why should it fall purely under the domain of liberal politics when the root of the word is “to conserve”? Like the citizens of Greensburg, the First Mennonite Church of Indianapolis is investing more now with the understanding that it will save money and offer quantifiable benefits in the long-term. It is an initiative that transcends political parties in this time of prolonged economic strain.