Blog Archives

How to attract a Millennial

The Millennial Generation comprises those who were born from 1980 to the early 2000s and now represents America’s young professionals who are graduating from college, getting their first and second jobs and buying homes. We’re now seeing where they want to live: downtown.

For the first time in decades, the population of American cities has grown at a faster rate than the suburbs. There is some speculation that this is a result of the recession, with urban dwellers remaining in place instead of moving to the suburbs with low and unpredictable home prices. Alternatively, there is evidence to suggest that the migration to the cities is more intentional for this generation.

Young professionals are now seeking different communities than the suburbs that their parents and grandparents had coveted for generations. Walkable, mixed-use communities are on the rise. A developer in Cleveland seized this trend and built one of the most desirable blocks in the entire city. Ten years ago, the Maron family bought up an entire block of the city where restaurants had gone out of business, retailers had failed, crime rates were high and there was little hope for residential use.

Here’s what it looks like now:

If You Build It, They Will Come: How Cleveland Lured Young Professionals Downtown

The block is thriving with outdoor seating, apartment buildings at capacity and successful retail. The project wasn’t immediately accepted by other entrepreneurs though; the Maron’s opened their own restaurants when others weren’t willing to take another chance on the neighborhood. By the time they opened a 224 unit apartment building on the block, the area was so popular that the building filled almost immediately.

Perhaps they’ve read The Creative Community Builder’s Handbook (by Tom Borrup).

The term creative community building describes efforts to weave multiple endeavors and professions into the never-ending work of building and rebuilding the social, civic, physical, economic and spiritual fabrics of communities. Creative community building engages the cultural and creative energies inherent in every person and every place.

Looking at the above picture of the block, it certainly seems like they’ve done that. This vibrant community in downtown Cleveland captures what many Millennials are looking for as they begin to live on their own. The area is walkable, there are residential options, dining and retail. It’s high-density, efficient land use with a markedly decreased rate of crime and it’s actually pretty cool.


Parking’s Not a Big Deal, Right?

An interesting article in the Hartford Courant addresses the parking debacle faced by the city of Hartford. Although, I’m sure people in Hartford would say that the problem goes way beyond parking at this point. According to the article, a 300 percent increase in parking spaces has done nothing but deface the city.

Hartford looks more like the hundreds of other American cities that have hollowed out their core to accommodate automobiles.

Hartford is a beautiful city with great history, lots of parks, and great architecture. However, like many other cities, it is facing the problems of limited public transit options, sprawl, and automobile dependence. Hartford has over approximately 700 parking spaces for every 1,000 employees. Contrast that to Washington D.C. where there are approximately 250 parking spaces for every 1,000 employees.

The need for so much more parking for each job in Hartford compared with more competitive cities is a significant physical and financial drag, limiting the potential for growth in the city.

There is a widespread belief that more parking and wider roads is what you need to do to solve the problems of urban congestion. Explained in Road Diets, a report put out by Walkable Communities in 1999, the authors wrote:

This process of roadway widening can be thought of as fattening a patient. The belt is let out another notch, and the patient puts on a few more unhealthy pounds toward auto dependency.

The Hartford example is an interesting one because when you arrive in Hartford, you are not met with an impression of a ‘hollowed-out city.’ Perhaps that is because of the appealing cityscape, attractions like the Mark Twain House, the Wadsworth Atheneum and Bushnell Theatre. Whatever the reason, it does not change the fact that ‘hollowing-out’ is not always an overt process.

…the state ties up some of what is potentially the most valuable land in the city in parking, costing the city and the state millions of dollars in tax revenue… If Travelers [a Hartford Insurance company] adopted the same approach to parking as did the state, it would cost the company almost $10 million more each year to own and operate the additional parking that would be needed.

It seems as though there would be plenty of support and plenty of reason for a collaborative discussion around public transit options and a new approach to funding policies in Hartford.

Shortsightedness and planning do not mix. Planning decisions should not be made to address immediate concerns without also addressing the long term ramifications. The Hartford scenario is just one of many that should serve as a lesson to planners everywhere because after all, if it’s not smart growth… it’s foolish growth. Smart growth is about planning. It is about seeing the big picture. You can buy a bigger belt to deal with weight gain, but sooner or later, unless you address the actual problem, paying for bigger belts will be the least of your concerns. Hartford is learning this lesson. They spend millions each year on parking and lose millions a year on the potential tax revenue they could gain from the land under the parking lots. Not to mention the continued parking problem, devaluation of property and the destruction of some of the city’s most valuable resources. The problems are perpetuated by these trends and their impact grows exponentially.

Last week I spoke to my sister who went home to West Hartford for a visit. She was looking forward to going out in Hartford and spending some time enjoying the great night life scene that people from the area refer to as “the downtown.” After her trip home, she told me Hartford was changing. Specifically, she said it didn’t seem as alive or as comfortable as it had in the past. Reading this article makes me wonder if an issue that seems as straighforward as parking, could be the root of these changes.

Medium-sized Cities Are Top for Post-grads

MAPThe AP reported today that new data suggests that more people are looking at medium-sized cities as desirable places to live after college, which indicates a change in popular opinion over the past decade. In 2000, small cities (which includes townships and suburban communities) were ranked as the most popular places to live by those individuals who held a college diploma – but this view has changed, as medium-sized cities were voted more desirable by 31% of the polled individuals (compared to small cities, which 30% of polled considered as better places to live).

Does this news fare well for the cities of Allentown and Bethlehem? Post you thoughts below.

The Borrowed Park

A friend recently forwarded Allison Arieff’s latest post to me from her New York Times blog, By Design.  The entry touched upon private, for-profit land banking, a practice that involves a developer acquiring land in an underdeveloped region, usually for the purpose of gaining profit through reselling at a much higher value. The rise in value of the land is mostly attributed to an increase in population growth within the surrounding region, resulting in the demand for development. In its public form, land banking has been an effective tool in fighting blight, preserving open space, and implementing many other smart growth ideals. But in the case of private land banking, it has often led to the creation of uninviting, empty lots and blank pavement – hardly the type of scene that people like to frequent.

But a new approach to dealing with these vacant lots is spreading throughout the country, partly thanks to an initiative that began in San Francisco called “Pavement to Parks.” The general idea is that new, low-cost features are added to the empty pavement, as a means of transforming the space into a welcoming, recreational environment. On each project, community residents come together to beautify the landscape in different ways – sometimes adding large potted plants, other times painting the asphalt.

Arieff highlights a few reasons for why these projects are so successful. First, they are swift and require little cost; volunteers come together for an afternoon and provide small transformations to the area. Second, the projects create a sense of community by not only creating a gathering space, but also by bringing local residents together for a common cause. Finally, the private developer does not lose out, as the space is leased out to the municipality for an alloted period of time. The newly-created park is, in a sense, borrowed.

Post your thoughts about this concept below or send us your comments through e-mail.

Showcasing Easton’s Urban Revitalization Agenda

Easton City Center

The Lehigh Valley’s cities have made significant strides in the urban revitalization effort. To highlight Easton’s achievements on this front, the Philadelphia Chapter of the Urban Land Institute has scheduled a half-day conference and walking tour of Easton for Thursday, October 8th. The event, titled The Ultimate Green Choice: Urban Revitalization, will focus on traditional urban development and the investment incentives in establishing business within the city. Easton officials have advocated strongly for brownfield redevelopment within the city center, and the ULI conference will bring greater attention to this effort, while also highlighting the sustainability features that come with building and rehabilitating buildings within the urban core.

Urban Revitalization – City of Easton Case Study will begin with a panel of speakers at 2:00 p.m on Thursday, October 8th, at the Grand Eastonian Hotel and Condos at 40 Northampton St in Easton. Registration for the event is encouraged before October 2nd (registration cost covers program, tour, reception and food). For more information (including schedule and list of panel speakers) or to register for the event, visit the Philadelphia ULI Events page.

Workforce Revitalization

The historically manufacturing and industrial centers of the Northeast have experienced a decline in the past decade due to major shifts in workforce. Declining populations, a decrease in job opportunities, and decaying infrastructure have stacked the odds against the cities. Because the availability of jobs is a major factor in attracting new residents to an area, job creation has been identified as a key initiative of the Revitalizing Older Cities campaign launched by the Northeast Midwest Institute (NMWI).

How can the federal government play a role in this revitalization effort? NMWI points out that many of these formerly-industrial communities are home to academically-strong colleges and universities. Federal policy can be instated that links the graduates of these schools to job and business opportunities in the community through a variety of incentives and programs. Not only would such policy provide economic vitality to the region, but it would also help combat the dreaded “brain drain” that often plagues older communities.

And while federal incentives are important in the revitalization process, it is also important to affect change locally. A variety of workforce development programs are already in place here in the Lehigh Valley. These programs include specialized training programs, and workforce investment organizations – such at the Lehigh Valley Workforce Investment Board. The organization works tirelessly to ensure that the Lehigh Valley remains competative in the future, providing educational and training opportunities for the residents of the Valley. It provides yet another piece to the revitalization puzzle.

To learn more about the effort to redevelop older communities, visit the Northeast Midwest Institute’s website.

The Benefits of Transit Oriented Development

Over the past few weeks, I have posted various insights on the connections between transportation and development (specifically, housing and land-use planning). The link is inextricable, and any comprehensive transit plan will need to address the dynamic connection between the two. Just as development guides transportation planning, transit choices have a significant impact on where and how development occurs. Under the umbrella of smarter planning, transit-oriented development (or Transit Oriented Design, TOD) is often cited as an efficient means of reducing traffic congestion and increasing accessibility and mobility. Such design creates walkable communities around public transportation, specifically high-speed rail. The benefits of TOD are numerous:

  1. Overall better public health, due to an increase in pedestrian activity and a decrease in individual stress levels (multiple studies on commuter stress have suggested that individuals who commute by car, especially over long distances, are more likely to experience higher stress levels than those who use public transit)
  2. Increased savings for governments and taxpayers, due to decrease in car transit costs (the American Society of Civil Engineers reports that congestion alone costs the U.S. $78.2 billion)
  3. Economic prosperity for local businesses, due to increase in foot traffic (which often creates an influx of consumers)

But how effective is transit oriented development in producing the desired effects? BeyondDC, a smart growth and transportation blog that (as you might have guessed) focuses on the greater Washington, DC region, posted an interesting report about some research findings coming out of the Arlington County Department of Transportation (Virginia). Arlington County has been dedicated to transit oriented development for over two decades, and it seems that this dedication will not stop anytime soon. The latest traffic reports for the county state that congestion levels have stayed the same since 1975, and – this is shocking – that “1,000 units of urban-format TOD housing generates fewer auto trips per day than a single suburban-format McDonalds or 7-11.”

The research results have not been posted yet, but I will attempt to track them down once they become available. In the meantime, post your thoughts on this data, and make sure to subscribe to our RSS feed.

Revitalizing Older Communities in the Lehigh Valley

Allentown City Center

The Northeast-Midwest Congressional Coalition, formed in 1976 to unite legislators on the complex issues particular to the states within the Northeast and Midwest region of the United States, established the Revitalizing Older Cities (ROC) Congressional Task Force in the last year. Spawned from an initiative that focuses on older declining communities, the task force shares a strong interest in revitalizing the centers that were affiliated historically with manufacturing and transportation. Several legislators realized that the campaign to renew older cities hinged on the incorporation of several key policy areas. Cross-sector collaboration, among a broad range of fields, was the appropriate catalyst for significant change. Thus, the ROC Task Force was born, with bi-partisan membership composed of legislators with different concerns and different specialities.

Recently, the ROC Task Force drafted a letter to the House Financial Services Committe, requesting a hearing for the Community Regeneration, Sustainability, and Innovation Act of 2009, which would create a new grant program to assist metropolitan areas experiencing property vacancy due to population losses. The bill will address the problems of cities such as Allentown and Bethlehem – communities that have seen a major change in their workforce over the last ten years and are now struggling to retain residents.

Over the next few weeks, I will focus on the specific policy areas of the Revitalizing Older Cities Initative and relate each policy to the Lehigh Valley’ s cities. The six areas are:

  • Transportation and Infrastructure
  • Housing
  • Energy and Environment
  • Brownfields
  • Economic and Workforce Development
  • Healthy Livable Communities

My hope with this ROC series is to highlight some of the pertinent issues affecting our local communities and connect these issues to the broader national discussion. More importantly, it will draw attention to our region’s valuable assets, and the preservation of these assets as crucial to the Lehigh Valley. The first part of this series will focus on transportation and infrastructure within the Valley’s cities. Stay tuned.

Re-centralization and the Decline of Sprawl

While some impacts of the economic crisis have been salient, it remains to be seen how development patterns and land-use planning will be affected in the long-term. Nonetheless, predictions are emerging. On the heels of the recent discussions about the impact of the stimulus on transportation, various agents have offered comments about the sustainability of the sprawl trend of the past decades.

The Architectural Record published an article that explores the recession’s impact on sprawling developments, citing a June report published by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. In the annual State of the Nation’s Housing Report, the data for foreclosure rates was very high in the suburbs, especially when compared to the numbers for urban neighborhoods. While this statistic suggests that sprawl is on the decline, Kermit Baker, chief economist at the Harvard Center, is quick to warn that the verdict is still out over whether this trend is merely a short-term recurrence or a long-term pattern.

Municipalities have not committed much funding for new developments lately, but brownfield redevelopment still seems like a viable area for infrastructure investment, given the current economic climate. These project opportunities usually lie within urban cores, and the centrally based locations have much potential for attracting new businesses and residents to cities. But public policy must encourage such development, a point highlighted by President Obama in his recent speech at a summit planned by the White House Office of Urban Affairs. Obama stressed that his urban policy will focus, in part, on transit and high-speed rail, as a means to combat the pattern of “sprawl, congestion, and pollution.” Indeed, if the administration keeps the broad goal of smart growth at the forefront of urban policy-making, it is likely that sprawl will continue its decline.

Check out StreetsBlog for updates on infrastructure projects and sustainable development initiatives, and as always, keep checking this blog.

“Resilient cities” concept espoused in new book

A recent Architectural Record blog post talks about the concept of “resilient cities,” an ambitious concept presented by Professor of Sustainability Peter Newman of Curtin University, and Professor Tim Beatley of the University of Virginia. According to the blog, they claim:

(the) urban structure has reworked itself around every major wave of technological innovation that society has encountered, beginning with the 1st wave of wielding iron, textiles, waterpower. Tracing this taxonomy, they claim the 6th wave of technological innovation is arriving, born on the backs of sustainability, biomimicry, industrial ecology, and renewable energy among other things. The problem, they argue, is an entrenched system trying to unnaturally extend 4th wave petrochemical forms of consumption and urban design. A resilient city will be carbon neutral, integrated with nature, rely on local ecologies, and allow its residents to use public transportation exclusively.

Heady stuff. But a good read nonetheless.