Thursday, May 27, 2010

Single Use is Better for Revitalization than Mixed Use

The AIA, Congress for New Urbanism, industry circle jerk consensus these days is that the best way to bring back a fading urban or suburban area is with some TIF financed mixed-use development that rips the roof of the enclosed shopping center, and places condos and offices nearby. The idea is to create an instant city, as long you consider a place filled with mall cops, teenage skateboarders, and Panera/Starbucks/Quizno's chains a city. Yet Rome was not built in a day, and Reston Town Center looks like it was built to last ten minutes.

Fair Oaks Mall Parking Lot or Reston Town Center?
What mixed-use really creates is a "mix" of activities that can be found in many shopping center parking lots, right down to the mall cops harassing the skateboarders. Single use, on the other hand, allows a place to have a specific purpose, without being forced into some bad, Duany Plater-Zyberk plan to hype a development and win another AIA award. Single use also allows financing to come locally, from friends, community banks, or credit unions, not a distant bondholder or BofA loan officer.

In the DC area, we have a number of expanding pedestrian areas that have grown over the last 15 years due to single use developments. Two that stand out are Logan Circle, and Falls Church, Virginia, an incorporated city that sits about 7 miles from the White House.

I Wanted to Title this Section "Step By Step", but was reminded of that Horrible Early 90s Sitcom
Logan Circle and the adjacent 14th Street corridor used to be hooker heaven. I worked not to far away from there 15 years ago, and while the rowhouses looked like they had potential, the neighborhood was completely bombed out, and was very sketchy at night. Today it's a yuppie paradise with restored townhouses, ethnic restaurants, and rapidly rising real estate values. The picture on the top right corner of this blog is a photo of one of those rowhouses, taken with my very technically advanced iPhone camera.

Logan's redevelopment did not occur based on any grand architectural vision, but a one-by-one improvement in each store and home. It's got retail and homes near each other like many places do, but has little office space, so it's not "mixed-use" like the outdoor mall/condo/office developments that the Congress for New Urbanism typically fawns over.

Logan did get a big boost when a Whole Foods opened up in 2000, but it has not had much of the big bang development New Urbanists typically push along transit stops. And it's not "transit-oriented", because in spite of its urban location, it's a good 15 minute walk to the nearest Metro stop.

Outside of the Whole Foods and a Caribou Coffee, most of Logan's retail/restaurants are locally-owned. It's renewal, now 15 years old, is still a work in progress, but is sustainable and real. But you don't hear much about it because it wasn't redeveloped as part of a grand city plan, or designed by a publicity-seeking architect.

Single Use Success
Much like Logan Circle, Falls Church is in the midst of a decades-long, property-by-property revitalization. It has benefited from rising rents in neighboring Arlington, which has sent the local merchants to its single-use retail properties, and has a locally-owned coffee shop, ice cream store, and bars that are becoming regional favorites, and have created pedestrian traffic on its real, not manufactured, main street. In between these spots are a few ugly strip malls, but slowly these are being redeveloped or improved, but by a mix of architects, not for a mix of uses. Virtually all of the redevelopment in Falls Church has centered on one use - retail. Like Logan Circle, it sits between major office submarkets, but is not one in its own right. And while it might have looked a little worn out in the mid-90s, Falls Church never had crackwhores parading up and down its streets like Logan Circle did.

Unlike Falls Church, Reston Town Center, 15 miles away, has been hyped in architecture and urban planning books, and is filled with chains and cheesy bars. Financed with distant capital, RTC followed the New Urbanist big bang theory, and is an attempt to create a mixed-use city where a field existed not too long ago. Its "sidewalks" are actually the developers' private property, where walkie-talkie carrying mall cops will scold you if you try to take pictures, in between their attempts to keep fake ID-less teeny boppers from crowding the entrance to Pizzeria Uno.

Reston Town Center is as walkable as any shopping mall, though it has really impressed academic architects, the kind who often rail against capitalist profits, because it has a couple of 15 and 20 story office buildings on site. While some minivan moms think it's neat to get an ice cream outdoors, instead of at the food court, locals increasingly realize it's a weak substitute for a real town.

Two recessions in ten years, and distant bankers' nuts have gotten tight, so they are more hesitant to build more fake cities with "multiple uses". But the local capital sources financing local shop owners are far more shielded from overall conditions in the credit markets, and putting together $50,000 for a new bar or ice cream shop is far easier than underwriting a $150 million series of TIF bonds. It's also more likely to lead to someplace where you can walk outside to shops and restaurants, without feeling like Goofy is going to reach out and try to shake your hand.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Vagina Economy

Many economic development incentives are a waste of taxpayer money. They often involve a lot of handouts so one city, county, or state can make the same "leadership in biotech, greentech, whatevertech" claim as 47 other places. And while there are all kinds of clever studies talking about multiplier effects, the fact remains that far more people, even in regions like Boston and the SF Bay Area, work as nurses, teachers, or retail clerks, than as biomedical engineers. And most of the people doing these jobs spend more money on tampons than on jock straps.

Girls Gone Wild
One of the consequences of the rising costs of education and health care is that money is being directed out of the techie-finance economy that existed in the late 90s to professions like teaching, nursing, social work - all of which are needed everywhere, and are done mostly by women.

According to Bureau of Labor Stats and Nat'l Education Association Data, 80% of teachers, 81% of social workers and 94% of nurses are women. Women comprise nearly a third of all doctors, up from 7% in 1970. These professions that involve caring for people continue to grow while banking, computer programming, and other predominantly male professions continue to get squeezed by productivity gains and outsourcing.

3rd Grade Teachers Don't Have to Double their Productivity every Four Years
While states and counties are falling all over themselves to attract new greentech manufacturing plants, greentech manufacturing is heading out of the country to find cheaper labor, while increasing the productivity of the workers remaining in the U.S. Four years ago, First Solar generated about $300,000 in revenue per manufacturing employee, today it produces over $600,000. Hiring is never going to come anywhere close to the increase in product shipments. Yet this hasn't stopped econ development officials from competing against one another for a plant that might employ 200 people if market conditions remain strong, all while the company building it feels a strong pull to head out to a cheap labor market like the Phillipines or Malaysia, where SunPower and First Solar are building new plants.

Teachers, nurses, and social workers don't get outsourced to the Phillipines, nor do they work for companies under intense financial pressure to increase productivity. 30 years ago teachers didn't have 80% fewer kids in the classroom. And even though social workers and nurses can be pressured to handle a lot of cases, they aren't about to get automated out of existence like many manufacturing workers. As a result, their numbers are poised to keep growing, regardless of how technology advances.

By my estimate, at least 30 states think they are in the top 10 for biotech or greentech. But can anyone name a place that's leading innovation in social work practice? nursing? teaching?

The reality is that many jobs of the future will be in fields dominated by women, and they'll provide a lot more stability and growth than a solar manufacturing facility. Moreover, no one has staked the claim as a leader in recruiting these professions, providing plenty of opportunity for one place to be known as the leading region in these personal services professions. Econ dev authorities would also do themselves a favor if they ditched all their traditional stock photos of science workers, and replaced them with MILFs and recent female grads - that would do a lot more to attract men than pictures of lab coat people staring at test tubes.