January 25, 2011

State to Audit Redevelopment Agencies

CA announced today that it will audit redevelopment agencies as part of the information gathering process leading to their elimination or preservation.

Regardless of the fate of these agencies, audits and greater accountability are good. End of story.

January 24, 2011

Should Redevelopment Agencies Get the Axe?

Gabriel Metcalf, of SPUR fame, has a good op-ed defending Redevelopment Agencies.
... it's worth pointing out that we are talking about eliminating the tool central cities use to attract growth that would otherwise go to the suburban periphery.
For me, best outcome of this attn to Redevelopment Agencies will be better oversight. A clipping of wings, not elimination.

Two commenters on this op-ed nicely articulated the pro and con argument for RAs:


Dive in deeper to some of San Francisco's large redevelopment projects and you will see that the trade-off Brown is creating between redevelopment and public services is a false one. As part of the Mission Bay deal, private land is being donated to the San Francisco Unified School District for a new public school; funding and construction of a playground accompanying the new school is a required deal point; land and funding is being provided to the City to build a new local fire and police station; space was built to house the first new public library in San Francisco in 30 years. The Treasure Island deal has many of the same public services being supported in its redevelopment program. These are examples of how redevelopment can and should work, resulting in economic development AND needed public services.


"Used wisely..."

That's the problem Gabriel - they aren't used wisely. The LA Times documented the waste by redevelopment agencies. We've seen redevelopment here in Alameda fund boondogle parking garage projects.
The LAT did run an excellent two-part series about redevelopment abuses, and it had an awesome title: Arrested Redevelopment (Links: one and two). LAT also published financial records from city redevelopment agencies to toss some daylight on whether they were meeting their minimum requirements for affordable housing. Great stuff.

But as the first commenter showed, when done right, a redevelopment project will do more than hoard affordable housing monies or build skyscrapers on razed neighborhoods that formerly belonged to low-income people of color.

January 23, 2011

Proposition 26: Negative Fallout

Last fall, CA voters approved Proposition 26, an initiative that requires all new state taxes and fees be approved by a two-thirds majority by each house of the state legislature.

The November passage of Proposition 26 threatens a complicated 2010 gas-tax swap that reinstated California’s transit assistance program.
Since that deal involved an increase to the state’s excise tax, it must be re-enacted with a two-thirds majority of the Legislature, according to Jessica Digiambattista of the Legislative Analyst’s Office.
If the reauthorization is not approved, transit agencies will suffer. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency could lose about $31.5 million and BART about $23 million. Caltrain could miss out on about $4.5 million and SamTrans some $4.6 million.

"[A] complicated gas-tax swap" is right. From what I can gather, it seems like the gas-tax swap reduced the overall funds available to public transit by replacing an out-and-out gas sales tax with an excise tax. Because of Proposition 26, that increase in excise tax must be retroactively approved by a 2/3s majority--irregardless of the fact that it was paid for by eliminating the sales tax. (To keep the gas-tax swap palatable, the overall package is revenue neutral, i.e., no net change in state $$ intake or outflow.)


Here's a quick selection of explanatory bits from the Bay Area Metropolitan Planning Commission website. Hard to nushell this one, other than that it seems enabled by imaginative accounting, and is probably motivated by a desire to free up monies in the General Fund. (I also want to guard against the strong possibility that any summary by a non-expert will misrepresent the facts at hand, so I'll let them speak for themselves.)

Mechanics of the Tax Swap

The bills (AB 6 and AB 9) provide the General Fund with approximately $1.1 billion by shifting the cost of debt service on outstanding transportation bonds from the General Fund to various transportation funds. Relieving the General Fund of these interest obligations results in approximately $11 billion in General Fund savings over the next 10 years. 
The tax swap, contained in AB 6, affects four different taxes — the state portion of the sales tax on gasoline, the excise tax on gasoline, the state portion of the sales tax on diesel fuel, and the excise tax on diesel. Local sales taxes remain unchanged and will continue to include gasoline and diesel fuel. AB 6 contains the following key changes:
  • Beginning July 1, 2010, eliminates the 6 percent statewide sales tax on gasoline, and with it, the funding source for Proposition 42 (the 2003 constitutional amendment that required most gasoline sales taxes to go to transportation) and “the spillover,” a funding formula dedicated to public transit.
  • Raises the excise tax on gasoline by 17.3-cents on July 1, 2010, for a total excise tax of 35.3 cents per gallon. Starting March 1, 2011, and each March 1st thereafter, authorizes the State Board of Equalization (BOE) to estimate how much revenue would have been raised by the sales tax on gasoline and adjust the gasoline excise tax to raise an equivalent amount.
  • Retains the existing sales tax on diesel fuel and raises it by another 1.75 percent on July 1, 2011 to generate about $120 million in additional funds for public transit, for a total of approximately $436 million in FY 2011-12.
  • Offsets the diesel sales tax rate increase by lowering the diesel excise tax from 18 cents per gallon to 13.6 cents, effective July 1, 2011. Similar to the gasoline excise tax, the excise tax would be adjusted by the BOE on March 1st of each year to maintain revenue neutrality.

Public Transit Bears the Brunt of General Fund Savings

While the overall tax swap is revenue neutral by design (in order to allow for passage by a simple majority vote), public transit loses over $1 billion annually due to the elimination of the sales tax on gasoline, as discussed in greater detail below. AB 9 also appropriates $142 million in Public Transportation Account (PTA) funds to the General Fund to offset the cost of public transit bond debt service in FY 2009-10 and another $254 million for FY 2010-11.
AB 9 stipulates how the excise taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel — and the sales tax on diesel — will be distributed, and appropriates $400 million to the State Transit Assistance (STA) program, the only source of state support for public transit operations.

Raw. Deal. Why the gas-tax swap needs reauthorization when it was signed in March of 2010, and Prop 26 was passed in November of 2010, is beyond me.

January 20, 2011

Things You Don't (always) Think About

From a SJ Mercury op-ed about Caltrain's importance to Stanford. Caltrain is facing a $30 million budget shortfall next year.

Losing Caltrain service would cripple our regional transportation system and economy, limit mobility and employment options and require 2.5 additional highway lanes between the South Bay and San Francisco to keep the commute flowing at current levels, according to UC Berkeley professor of city and regional planning Elizabeth Deakin.

I think we can all agree that adding a minimum of 24 feet to several hundred miles of freeway (hundred: there are multiple freeways serving the 50 mile stretch between SF and SJ, 280 and 101 being foremost) would cost substantially more than $30 million. Just sayin.

Glad to see that Stanford is getting ink for leading the charge to find Caltrain funding.

Ascertainable Fact: Sprawl Neither Demanded nor Profitable

Not demanded:

(From the WSJ. Italics mine. Bolding mine. Underline mine.)
Much of this week’s National Association of Home Builders conference has dwelled on the housing needs of an aging baby boomer population. But their children actually represent an even larger demographic. An estimated 80 million people comprise the category known as “Gen Y,” youth born roughly between 1980 and the early 2000s. The boomers, meanwhile, boast 76 million. (And, uh, we're gonna outlive them.)
Gen Y housing preferences are the subject of at least two panels at this week’s convention. A key finding: They want to walk everywhere. Surveys show that 13% carpool to work, while 7% walk, said Melina Duggal, a principal with Orlando-based real estate adviser RCLCO. A whopping 88% want to be in an urban setting, but since cities themselves can be so expensive, places with shopping, dining and transit such as Bethesda and Arlington in the Washington suburbs will do just fine.

Count me in that 88%, obvi. I'm wracking my brain for a peer to (anonymously) trot out as a counterexample, but I can't.

Not Profitable:

Transportation for America breaks down a report indicating that these Gen-Y preferences (density, infill, transit-links, walkability) have big economic bonuses:

In Dallas, Texas, for instance, downtown retail sales rose 33 percent the year after the new light rail system began operation. Portland, Oregon attracted $3.5 billion in private investment after just $100 million in streetcar funding. In Sarasota, Florida, downtown development costs clocked in at just half the cost of new development in the suburbs and generated four times the revenue in tax receipts.
Denver, Colorado perhaps best exemplifies the market for new approaches to growth and transit. Home values for Denver residents within a half-mile radius of the Southeast light rail line increased by 18 percent just as home values in the remainder of Denver declined by 18 percent, between 2006 and 2008. Nationwide, one study found that every one-point increase in a home’s “walk score” — a measure of how accessible the area is by foot — corresponded with a $700 to $3,000 increase in property value.

January 18, 2011

Bike Advocacy in LA

The Los Angeles County Bike Coalition City of Lights program is spearheading bike education, safety, and advocacy projects on behalf of immigrants in Los Angeles--a largely car-free population. De-gentrifying the bike with outreach

Allison Mannos nails it--halfway thru the vid:

Toward More Reliable Financing for Mixed-Use Development?

Not out of the woods yet, but it appears momentum is growing to create a more reliable source of funding for mixed-use developments. An alphabet soup coalition of National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), and the National Town Builders Association (NTBA) is pushing for Fannie, Freddie, and HUD to guarantee mortgages for a more diverse, incl. mixed-use, portfolio of real estate. 

A Big Urban Victory – Mixed-Use and Fannie, Freddie and the FHA
The board of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) has approved a resolution that could have a dramatic impact on urban mixed-use, Main Streets and good development overall. In a partnership with the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) and the National Town Builders Association (NTBA), the resolution by NAHB supports reform of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Housing Administration’s guidelines for mixed-use development.

Currently, Fannie, Freddie and the FHA will not guarantee a mortgage on a development or building that is more than 25% commercial space. The resolution would raise that limit to 45%. This is significant because historic Main Street districts and new infill development would be suddenly eligible for significant new investment opportunities.

Streetsblog Capitol Hill has more:

Urbanists have won an important victory in their campaign to reverse Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s bias against mixed-use development, enlisting the National Association of Home Builders to help push for a critical reform to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s lending standards. The mortgage giants currently require that projects they finance be no more than 25 percent commercial (20 percent for Fannie and for multifamily HUD projects.)

The Congress for the New Urbanism has waged a battle against these mandates. “Every Main Street in America violates Fannie Mae’s and Freddie Mac’s rigid standards,” CNU President John Norquist has said.

According to CNU, Fannie and Freddie’s commercial-space maximums have had “a distorting effect on building types and development patterns,” especially disadvantaging low- to mid-rise buildings with retail on the first floor and apartments or condominiums above. “Before these regulations, low-mid rise mixed use buildings were common.”

January 17, 2011

Salem Photo-Essay: Bike Racks

Our Chief Bike Infrastructure Photography Editor, Pacific Northwest Division, AKA MRE, has turned in an eagle-eyed debut.

Below please find some quite wonderful bike racks Our Correspondent noticed whilst perambulating scenic downtown Salem, OR.

Proof that bike racks can be an enlightening, amusing part of the small-town streetscape, though some will inevitably disagree and move to convene task forces debating the issue.

Statue of Liberty

I think that every coffee shop should have steaming-coffee-cup shaped bike racks.

Some cursory internet searching turned up some other interesting examples. Courtesy of David Byrne (of Talking Heads fame), the following were temporary additions to New York City sidewalks:

Seriously: bike racks could be a great way to accentuate a business's street/sidewalk presence. And provide bike parking, and public art.

January 15, 2011

Planners vs. Pre-Fab in the Olde Sod

In the waning months of World War II, England built hundreds of pre-fab homes that were intended as only as temporary housing. Many of these neighborhoods were replaced within 20 years by Le Corbu inspired concrete towers, which, of course, were about as pleasant to look at and live in as a bag of hammers.

One neighborhood, the Excalibur Estate, has persisted, but a local council has redevelopment in mind for the 20 acre site: something on the order of 400 homes. (I found this amount perplexing, given that there are 187 prefab home/garden units there currently.)

The article has a definite NIMBY bias, given the historical role the prefab homes played for WWII vets, and given the natural human indignation summoned when a bureaucracy declares it can and will buy your home, demolish it, and rebuild under the aegis of a "Sustainable Community Strategy."

Related: Human Transit had a great post about the semantic importance of reporting both sides of story. This article fails that test, and as a result makes vilifying the cruel bean-counting central planners a very tempting activity. Am trying to resist without knowing more.

January 13, 2011

Public Transit, Public Space, and the Ghost of Johnny Cash

This guy!

Deserves all the recognition he gets. Sounds even better in person. (h/t ZS).

And that moment at the end of the clip, when he recognizes the connection made when he creates a smile: amazing. And the reason why public space and public art are vital, and environments sans either are rather life-denying.

In a station of the metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

The woman who drives the route 21 southbound bus that arrives at Railroad and San Ramon Valley Blvd at 7:55, weeknights, has the nicest smile of any bus driver in the Bay Area. She doesn't say anything, but she always smiles. I only ride that route once, maybe twice a week--only when my tutoring sessions at the Library end at 7:40ish--so I have yet to ask her name. But I think we recognize each other now; I always board at the same stop.

My sister has just pronounced riding the bus in Danville, "weird." This from a young woman who rides the bus on a mostly weekly basis in Salem, Oregon, where she is a carless college student with an off-campus internship. And her mindset is common, perhaps endemic in car-dependent places like Danville, where children are raised in the backseat of automobiles. That's what I was used to; I had never set foot in a Danville bus before last August and the thought of waiting at the bus stop, or of actually being a bus rider (who are those people!) gave me the howling fantods. Especially the kids who used to take the bus to school. They were a tainted race. Habits! Habits die-hard.

The 21 driver picking up at BART at 6:00 asks his regulars: "did you leave a phone on the bus last night?" Dissenting answers. The time nears 6:00, one more man boards, and the answer is "yes!" An explosion of good cheer as giver and getter of good deed meet.

According to my dentist, I am truly my "father's son" because we are the only two patients who ever bike to appointments. I feel like a role player in an ensemble cast. "The bike guy." Better: "Biking son of biking dad." My students think of me that way too, as some kind of interesting local flavor: perplexed that I ride the bus, astonished that I bike so far! (3 miles) when it is so cold! (like 40). But then they soften it with, well, it probably saves money on gas. And I add, I like to read and doze on the bus. Hmm, they say. Yeah.

A man sitting behind me on the bus ride home (woman with the smile at the wheel) answered his phone. "Hello. I'm on my way. I'm doing the best I can so don't bitch at me thank you bye bye."

January 9, 2011

Transforming a City

If you have 25 minutes, this PBS documentary about the work and legacy of Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogatá, is well worth a watch.

Transportation investments under his watch have improved the quality of life and reduced the crime rate for a city that used to be synonymous with danger and drug cartels.

Watch the full episode. See more e2.

Before the video starts there are 2 short ads ... do not lose heart! Plus, Brad Pitt narrates.

January 7, 2011

Streetscape Designs

I love streetscape design. The constraints are concrete (pun?): a travelway of x ft across, including sidewalks ... and a question: how to use it? I've been wanting to write a post titled something like "Anatomy of a Streetscape" for a while, and while this is not that post, it is as useful an introduction as any.
Cesar Chavez Street, six lanes of asphalt that's the dividing line between the Mission District and Bernal Heights, is about as close as it comes to a freeway while still being a city street.
But unlike a freeway, it's surrounded by housing, schools, a church and a smattering of businesses. Now it's the latest city street in line for a major transformation to make it more inviting to pedestrians and bikes.

The plan calls for narrowing the street from six lanes to four, with left turn lanes at major intersections, adding bike lanes in both directions, widening and landscaping the median, planting more than 300 trees along the corridor and installing energy-efficient lighting.
The design calls for two pedestrian plazas, at Mission Street near Capp Street, and at Precita and Bryant streets; widening the sidewalks at the corners; shoring up and adding curb ramps; and putting in planters to capture storm water.
In addition, the sewers will be upgraded and the stretch between Hampshire Street on the east to Guerrero Street on the west will be repaved.

I've written before about how grade school parents make an excellent constituency for pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure enhancement (Safe Routes to School, etc), and a few of the proponents quoted in the article were parents and grandmothers. Indeed, the movement for redesign started with a neighborhood petition in 2006.

In addition to organizing parent of gradeschool children, another tactic for creating more sustainable, complete streets is to run traffic counts. Engineering standards are prescriptive in the way they seek to create streets for specific capacities of automobile throughput. If streets see less traffic, there is a quantitative argument to be made that a travel lane for cars might be better used for median expansion/beautification, wider sidewalks, or a bike lane.

Given the amount of traffic on Cesar Chavez--50,000 cars/day, and its connection to 101--underuse was probably not a very useful argument. More info about Cesar Chavez redesign,

Starting a redesign as a pilot/temporary change is another way to get opponents to test run an idea. See the success of the re-timed traffic lights on Valencia Avenue. The green wave may not technically be streetscape/infrastructure, but it nonetheless directly affects the street environment.

Here's an article about similar plans for the Masonic Streetscape. Love looking at aerial diagrams like this one:

January 4, 2011

Effort vs. Inequity in New Orleans

Exhibit A: Selection from an excellent profile of New Orleans community organizer/pillar of strength, Jenga Mwendo (via Grist).

Capsule summary:
The Lower Ninth Ward was the hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina, with floodwaters surging over the nearby Industrial Canal. Jenga Mwendo calls the Lower Ninth a "community of survivors." Only an estimated 25 percent of residents have returned. As a result, a sort of stand-off has occurred: businesses won't come until the population increases, but the population won't increase without even basic amenities. There is currently only one school and not a single produce-stocked grocery store there.
Mwendo, 32, was living in New York City and working in computer animation when Katrina struck in 2005. She moved back to rebuild her house, and then started on the neighborhood. In the past few years, she's revitalized and built two community gardens, launched the Backyard Gardeners Network, and facilitated the planting of 175 fruit trees for homeowners throughout the Holy Cross historic district in the Lower Ninth. She's also launched a vegan catering business.
Exhibit B: Selected entries from Harper's Index.

From the 12/2010 issue:

Value of economic-recovery bonds the State of Louisiana has sold since Hurricane Katrina: $5,900,000,000
Percentage of the revenue that has been spent on projects in New Orleans: 1
Percentage spent on the Lower Ninth Ward: 0

To paraphrase Huck Finn, it's enough to make a body feel real mean low-down and ornery. The raging inequity! On the one hand, the story of an individual meeting a challenge and filling a void that might not otherwise be filled is inspiring. A real be-the-change-you-want-to-see-in-the-world moment. On the other hand, the glaring absence of state (and federal, for that matter) support is unacceptable. What gets me is that sinking impression of "if she weren't doing something, would anyone?" (Yes, but ...) Because elected officials aren't picking up any slack, or spearheading any (re)investment.

In an ideal world, Ms. Mwendo would be doing her outstanding work amid a crowd of other state-funded initiatives, and would hopefully receive a portion of that funding to scale up her work.

NB Harper's Index archives are (practically) infinite and searchable.