March 24, 2011

New SF Affordable Housing

SJ Mercury News: The Metropolitan Transportation Committee has committed $10 million to a $50 million revolving fund for affordable housing near transit stops. Morgan Stanley, Citi Community Capital, and several other financial and nonprofit groups to create the fund, called the Bay Area Transit Oriented Affordable Housing Fund.
Officials plan to make the first $4.8 million loan to buy a San Francisco parking lot where developers plan to construct a 14-story building with 150 apartments and a ground-floor grocery story at Eddy and Taylor streets.
It's great to see money being freed up for housing, post economic liquidity/loan contraction. Affordable housing is also chronically underfunded, as, you know, incentives skew more strongly toward non-affordable housing (read: luxury condos). Such is life, such is the market.


Street view:

Of course, the shortage of parking in SF is a bone of contention. But in the heart of downtown, I can think of better lot uses than car storage.

March 18, 2011

San Antonio Water Conservation

From the NYTimes: San Antonio is buying conservation easements from area land owners in order to preserve the long term viability of the Edwards Aquifer, the city's primary water source.

I'm not a legal expert, but my understanding is that land easements are legal obligations written into the land's deed. They have the virtue of being much cheaper than buying the land outright, which San Antonio learned the hard way, when an earlier initiative to purchase tracts of farmland fizzled out. And they are permanent restrictions on what said land can be used for--in this case, on subdivisions and other developments that intensify water use, or pollute ground water.
The conservation program has won support from San Antonio’s business community, which sees water security as vital to development.
“It sounds very touchy-feely, but at the end of the day, if we don’t have water, then it’s like a plant — our community withers and goes away,” said Richard Perez, the president and chief executive of the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce.
"It sounds very touchy feely"--indeed. The wisdom there is that conservation is not about altruism, which is how conservation has traditionally been painted. It's about the viability of our communities and the places where we live.

March 15, 2011

Transit Tensions: Development Enhancer, or Mobility Tool?

I hope my professors will let me submit light rail prospectus analysis in multimedia:

An excellent series of accompanying blog posts at Transport Michigan gets to the heart of the issue:

Over the past decade, developers and city officials across the U.S. have taken an interest in downtown streetcar systems as a development tool. The model was the Portland Streetcar, opened in 2001 as a 2.4-mile loop connecting downtown Portland to a former industrial area just to the north. Rechristened the "Pearl District," that area boomed with new luxury lofts drawing Portland's growing professional population. Ironically, just as housing developers extended streetcar lines out to posh new residential districts a century ago (Woodbridge in Detroit is one such "streetcar suburb"), streetcars now offer cities and developers a potentially lucrative tool for facilitating the return of well-heeled residents back into the inner city. Transit advocates have long sought transit-oriented development to increase ridership, but streetcar advocates flip the phrase, proudly calling streetcars "development-oriented transit," although some Portlanders complain the district has grown too "hoity-toity" for their taste.
On a more fundamental level, though, when we lack regional rapid transit, and tens of thousands of transit-dependent Detroiters have to rely on unreliable, infrequent buses to get around, is it really appropriate for us to put real estate development that primarily serves newly arrived professionals before meeting the transit needs of the entire region, and especially those of the less privileged? This author's status as a twenty-something white guy from an affluent, educated background makes him a strong candidate for being one of those professionals, and I'm all for more housing in Cass/Midtown (though I think it's vital for it to be mixed-income), but I still think regional transit has got to be first.  [bold mine]

Mobility is part of equity. Planning for streetcars with local stops designed to spur development and boost property values without a pre-existing regional transit network smacks of boutique transit. Transit can have positive externalities, but only when it helps people get from point A to point B.

The issues of privilege, gentrification, and which needs transit serves are certainly at issue here, but equity concerns are not the only ones. A streetcar with an overly local focus, in the absence of good regional services, runs counter to the forces that generate lively and diverse city blocks: letting people move freely about the city. Cities are great because they have a wealth of different activities housed cheek and jowl: opera, sports franchises, boutiques, professional services, offices, residences. Attempts to cluster these into zones usually leads to a breakdown of the very diversity that generated the foot traffic that generated the diversity, you dig?

Human Transit recently weighed in on the importance of mobility vs. local place-making. The two elements should balance each other in any self-respecting city: the former about passing through, the latter encouraging staying around.

The trick is the dialog: keeping that pendulum balanced between transit that encourages people to, say, take the streetcar for all their local errands, and transit encouraging mobility. These are not mutually exclusive functions, but recognizing the different motives behind transit projects helps avoid imbalances. Too far to the local, and isolation/stagnation can ensue. Too far to the mobile, and you have a land of no-places (see auto-dependent freeway suburbs with replicated chain stores surrounding parking lots off 6 lane median-less arterials for what maximum mobility looks like).
The late 20th Century car-centered model led to the massive conversion of land area from placehood functions to mobility functions.  Transit's great virtue is that it provides a lot of mobility using relatively little space, so that more area can be devoted to places, both public and private.  ...
There is a strong current in New Urbanism, not without detractors, that does seem interested in abolishing mobility.  Patrick Condon's idea for Vancouver, for example, would cancel a single proposed subway line and instead replace all of the city's electric trolleybuses with streetcars that go the same speed as the buses do.  He would cancel a mobility-improving project and instead spend money in way that that may do great urban things but doesn't increase mobility at all.  Once his network was complete, nobody could get anywhere any faster than they can now. 
This makes sense only in a context where going places (even under renewable elecric power) is an objective evil.  Streetcars, in this vision, supposedly cause greater urban density to be built at livable neighborhood scales, so that people meet more of their needs close to home.  People spend most of their time in their own "villages" and others nearby.  They simply do not travel far across the city, and had better not be in a hurry when they do.
It's understandable that "urban village" is a winning concept right now.  We do need to increase the self-reliance of each part of a city, so that travel demand for many of life's needs can met closer to home.  The pendulum swung far the other way in the late 20th century, toward surrendering placehood to movement.  I support and eagerly participate in efforts to help it swing back.
But I think we can see what it might look like to swing too far in the new direction.  We stay close to home, and thus evolve transport systems that are useful for going short distances and useless for going long ones.  And the obvious retort to this is:  In that case, why live in a city?  Why not just live in a country village, or in a small city?

March 11, 2011

Caltrain Saved, For Now

Chronicle reports: Caltrain has found a way to stay afloat for the next two years. The Metropolitan Planning Organization, the closest thing the balkanized Bay Area transit/transpo landscape has to a arbiter, stepped in and pledged to divert monies slated for maintenance projects (!) and capital projects like electrifying the Caltrain tracks (who knew?) and building a "Dumbarton Bridge line." Again: who knew.

And raise fares. Natch.

And to think people thought Caltrain would stay solvent by closing stations or limiting hours.

It's hard to tell from either the Chronicle or the Examiner account whether the diverted funds are the MTO telling Caltrain what to do with its (Caltrain's) money, or whether it's the MTO throwing its own money at Caltrain. I lean toward the latter. The plan is for Caltrain to locate a dedicated funding source in the next two years--it is unique among all Bay Area transit agencies in lacking some kind of local tax revenue source. Because the current arrangement is hardly appealing, for anyone. And one of the craziest things is that Caltrain has one of the highest farebox recovery rates in the area; they get more of their budget from fares sold than BART or Muni do. Through the looking glass.

At least the new Transbay Terminal has some sweet public art commissions lined up: Tim Hawkinson plans to use rubble from the old Transbay Terminal to make a new sculpture. Previous work:

A bear!
And a "300-foot long sculpture was comprised largely of 13 bus-sized inflated bags", AKA a giant bagpipe.

March 9, 2011

Dept. of Fun Things to Do at a Bus Stop

Earlier this year, Clear Channel ponied up to install digital screens at 20 different bus stops across San Francisco. Like, big digital screens.

Clear Channel's incentive: advertising revenue. Clear Channel shoulders the implementing costs, pays Muni for the bus stop space, and then rents out the screens to companies like Yahoo, which sponsored a month-long Bus Stop Derby. While waiting at bus stops, patrons could tap-activate the touch screen, sign in as a representative for x neighborhood, and play live games against people at other bus stops. The winner accrued points for his/her neighborhood, and ... one month later, North Beach has been crowned victorious (tourists?), followed by the Tenderloin. I have this image of legions of bums (with, you know, lots of free time), gradually ascending the digital learning curve and accumulating points by virtue of sheer hours played.

Anyway, something worked, because Clear Channel is expanding the digi-screens to DC.

Big screens, yo. And I'm stuck with County Connection, where you're lucky to have a bench.

Locations of the different interactive bus stops. Even though most sites are concentrated in the Financial District, players anywhere can sign in for any neighborhood.

Eye-Catching Bike Racks, Pt 2

More excellent snaps of rad bike racks, courtesy of our far-flung Northwest Correspondent, M.E. A feast for the eyes, for the collective imagination of bikers looking to stable their steed, and for businesses looking for conspicuously positive sidewalk branding. Triple win!