A Flea in the Fur of the Beast

“Death, fire, and burglary make all men equals.” —Dickens

Category: Urban Policy

Blowhard, Blowing Hard

by evanmcmurry

Martin Amis, who’s been talking about Brooklyn the way a guy like Martin Amis probably talks about a new twenty-year old girlfriend, is now bummed over the gulf between the actual and the ideal. Turns out Brooklyn is not a mecca of endlessly regenerating symbols for Martin Amis to expound upon, but a place where people live. He’s so frownypants that neighbors say he’s turned into a curmudgeon, which is totally not the other side of Amis’s blowhard persona, not at all.

Sarah Goodyear at the Atlantic Cities uses this to make a good point about cities in general:

The lazy clichés about Brooklyn, recycled ad infinitum, are symptomatic of a larger problem among boosters of cities around the country. Cities are not commodities to be consumed. If we think of them that way, we will always be disappointed. Far worse than that, we also risk shaping urban policy to promote a city’s “brand” rather than its genuine, organic well-being. You don’t get a great city by deciding on an identity and then reinforcing it through marketing campaigns and cute T-shirts – by “putting a bird on it,” so to speak.

Compare that graph to Amis’s statements about Brooklyn, and you’d be forgiven for mistaking which was by the famous writer.

Cities Start to Roll Back Dumb Parking Regs, Neighbors Freak Out

by drewnilsen

We’re starting to see a paradigm shift with parking policy, but that change – which isn’t really about parking, it’s about the entire fabric of our urban landscape – will face a lot of pushback from forces averse to change.

More cities are considering rolling back their minimum parking requirements (MPRs), and this bodes well for the future of public transit, walkability, affordable housing, and less sprawl.

Cities and suburbs alike regulate a minimum amount of parking required of a business or development. There’s usually a complicated calculus based on the type of business or residence, part of the city, etc. And that sounds reasonable, right?

Not necessarily. First of all, it can be prohibitive for rezoned or historic properties to meet MPRs, thereby resulting in the property not being utilized. A proposal by the Austin City Council aims to target this problem by doubling the minimum size a building must be before it has to offer parking, in part so that more historic buildings can be used.

Moreover, many MPRs are predicated on an antiquated notion of car ownership that exceeds current conditions. The increased popularity of Washington, DC as a place for young urbanists less likely to own a car – coupled with car- and bike-sharing services – means that fewer residents own cars.

“If you were to say, certainly ten years ago, but even five years ago that we would have in this city and 50 percent of folks go to work without a car and that 40 percent of the households do not have a car, they would have had you committed,” said a George Washington urban planning professor.

Yet, many residential developments – even ones in cities clearly targeted to an “urban” demographic – are still subject to MPRs that demand one parking space per bedroom. Many MPRs for businesses are calculated based on as much as 85% of peak capacity, resulting in an excess of parking that sits empty most of the time.

The implications of MPRs on architecture are spelled out well in this Atlantic Cities article about a novel new approach in Boston. The designer must reduce amenities to residents (common space, balconies, courtyards) or public greenspace, and replace it with parking. Or, s/he can bury the spots underground – at a much steeper cost that’s passed on to residents (whether they drive or not). Or, s/he can provide more land for parking, not only increasing costs, but also perpetuating sprawl and marring the landscape with another parking lot that could be better used as a business, more housing, a park.

The added cost is not negligible, either. DC planners noted that “the regulations have a real cost. A designated parking space can add as much as $50,000 to the price of a residential unit.” That added cost is folded into renters’ housing costs, as well, whether they drive or not.

MPRs have a ripple effect on everyone. They mean that development sprawls out farther, and the environment is covered by unsightly and impervious cover that absorbs heat and adds to polluted runoff.

It’s worth noting that the absence of MPRs doesn’t mean that developers won’t build parking; it just removes the regulation that requires them to. For many residences and businesses – especially in more car-dependent cities – the market will demand the provision of parking.

Unfortunately, developers who propose less parking often face pushback from neighbors who fear that their residential streets will be overrun by cars (this is especially curious in neighborhoods that have garages and driveways). A new mixed-use project in Tenleytown, a leafy enclave in far northwest DC, has faced opposition from neighbors – despite the fact that DC is an increasingly urban, non-car-dependent city and the likely residents of the new complex will own far fewer cars than they would have even a few years ago.

While I think that Tenleytown residents’ NIMBYism is unwarranted and anachronistic, that response is pretty standard across the country. The Boston developer cited above has proposed a creative solution. He’s trying to assuage Allston neighbors’ concerns and get zoning approval to build a parking-free complex – provide that residents sign away their rights to own a car. It’s an interesting idea, and if it works, it could circumvent NIMBY opposition and clear the path to more dense, smart development nationwide.

Living in the Shadows

by drewnilsen

Back in 2006, I finished a job in the Chicago area. Before returning home to Texas, I planned a solo trip to check out Milwaukee, a mere hour and a half away. A few years prior, I had read an article that pegged Milwaukee as the #1 most underrated city in America, but I had never visited (generally because, on roadtrips, I would stay with friends in Chicago and Madison or Minneapolis).

My colleagues – all from Chicagoland – seemed bemused but intrigued by my excursion. One, who grew up in Chicago, had never even been to Milwaukee. Within a few hours, we had wrangled a posse of Chicagoans to make the arduous trek up I-94, and we all had a blast consuming brats and spectacular coffee, checking out some fun tourist traps, and hitting the colorful bars on Brady Street. The night ended with the entire bar singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” with us (don’t ask).

This is not to suggest that Milwaukee is better than Chicago. (I despise hierarchical comparisons of cities being “better” than others. They’re just different.) But the Chicagoans’ dismissal of plucky little Milwaukee as a place not worth visiting is a phenomenon that exists elsewhere.

Last month, residents of Baltimore were perturbed by a condescending Travel piece published in the Washington Post that culminated in a superfluous, snarky “I wouldn’t want to live there, but what a place to explore.”

I’ve only lived in D.C. for a little over a year, but I suspect a lot of Washingtonians share that attitude towards Bawlmer – maybe not outright condescension, but at least dismissal or oblivion. I’ve visited Baltimore a few times in the last month (though I’ve been there previously), and I’ve found it to be a vibrant, fun place full of more characters and self-expression than I usually find on the street in DC (even in hip neighborhoods like Columbia Heights). So, whether that dismissal is bad for Baltimore (or Milwaukee), a lot of people in DC (or Chicago) are missing out.

A similar phenomenon can occur with a medium-sized city subsumed by a larger metro area. Oakland has been “discovered” within the last decade or so, but I recall its reputation among residents of San Francisco and the Bay Area prior to that was of violence and poverty – despite the fact that it always was a big city that, in addition to gangs and slums, also had wealthy homes in the hills, a downtown business district, stadiums, and a cultural diversity and range of income levels that most cities have.
While Oakland has “Brooklynized,” a more current example is Long Beach. I grew up in Los Angeles County (in a beach suburb not too far from Long Beach), but Long Beach always seemed to suffer from the same negative connotations Oakland used to have. I’ve always found it to be a more affordable, lively part of L.A. that has a laid-back vibe and incredible ethnic diversity, as well as some cool shopping districts, bars, and coffeeshops. But, even last year, when I was asking Angelenos about good neighborhoods for a friend of mine to live in, Long Beach still suffered from a “hood” sort of reputation.

Maybe this isn’t a bad thing. The very dismissal from the big city allows the forlorn city to flourish. I just stayed with a friend in Baltimore; she’s a District native who recently moved from the DC suburbs to a beautiful house in Hampden, Baltimore that she bought for a price that would be unattainable in Washington.

“I think it’s also important to note that being the smaller, dismissed city is part of Baltimore’s psyche. … People here are proud of where they live, and no small part of that pride is based in constantly having to defend the city’s merits. People here have strong feelings about the city, and a loyalty towards it, that I think is at least in part a reaction to those dismissive attitudes. So I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing,” my friend said. “If those dismissive attitudes didn’t exist, and more people were moving from DC to Baltimore, the character of the city would change greatly. … We get a lot of creative weirdos and nerds and entrepreneurs and people who want to make a difference in a local community, and that population makes the city what it is. Plus the dismissive attitude [from DC] keeps down traffic and costs and makes it possible to get into pretty much any event without lots of advance planning — it keeps things more casual and spontaneous and affordable. It would be a very different city if folks in DC and NYC didn’t dismiss it. I don’t think the dismissive attitude is really such a negative thing for Baltimore — as much as I love to speak up on behalf of my city in the face of dismissiveness, it’s really just filling me with more pride, not detracting from my experience of living here. It’s the people in DC who dismiss it who are losing out.”

So maybe all is well. The ostensibly underrated places remain bastions of the weirdos and cheap rent and artists and all the things that foster a funky subculture, which they’d lose if discovered. This is not to say that bigger, expensive cities like New York can’t also be incubators of innovation and culture – they surely are. But like a neighborhood that hasn’t fully gentrified, the symbiosis between a bigger, more “important” city and its forlorn little brother an hour up the road or nestled in its metro area is perfect.

Still, if you’re a fan of great cities, hop on the train next weekend. There might be a great place you’re overlooking.

Happy Birthday, Baby! It’s a T-shirt of a Bus Map!*

by drewnilsen

Buses provide significantly more range, at a much more efficient cost, than rail. However, a seemingly trivial impediment to their adoption — particularly by those who aren’t dependent on public transit — is the indecipherability of bus maps (L.A. example in PDF)

Even here in DC, which only has five Metro subway lines (effectively three, as two lines significantly overlap within the city), people bemoan how difficult it is to get to popular, up-and-coming areas like H Street Northeast/Atlas District  — despite the fact that a bus (the ever-entertaining X2) goes directly from downtown to the burgeoning bar district.

I didn’t ride the bus for years in Austin because I didn’t know where the routes went (smart phones and Google Maps transit directions have somewhat ameliorated this problem). I’m not the only one, and it’s not only Austin.  If you’re new to a city, not knowing where your stop is can become a significant source of consternation and a major obstacle to adoption.

A few simple, affordable changes to how bus routes are presented on maps could go a long way towards making buses more accessible and understandable to the public.First, as much as I love to obsess about the minutiae of accurate maps, the detail of the real world is not helpful for cognitive digestion.

Stylized, graphically-simplified public transit maps — like London’s Tube  and DC’s Metro — make up what they lose in geographic accurancy with a more easily-memorized picture.More significantly, bus maps have suffered from a picture that treats all routes equally. This would be akin to a road map that depicted an unpaved alley the same way as an interstate highway.

There’s a movement afoot to remaster the way bus routes are misrepresented. A Cincinnati activist, Nathan Wessel, has done a fine job in reformatting the city’s bus maps to portray routes in a user-friendly way by frequency [closer map view], going so far as to explain frequent routes (“Hop on!”), secondary routes (“Be prepared to wait a little longer”) and tertiary routes (“Maybe look at a schedule”).

Spider Map graphic from Nathan Wessel, via UrbanCincy.com

Traditionally, all routes — regardless of intervals — have been drawn up identically. So, this change would be a big step forward if implemented by transit authorities. Seattle‘s King County Metro RapidRide is the first I know to do so.

Finally, spiders. Anyone who has ever walked up to a random bus stop — or even tried to decipher a stop online — has faced befuddlement when trying to discern where buses from that (or nearby) stops go.

Although DC’s Metro has attempted to highlight routes emanating from a particular stop, the result is still cluttered.
“Spider Maps” present a better solution — such as Greater Greater Washington’s H Street mockup [closer map view (PDF)]. By reducing the “noise” from other routes — and overlaying neighborhood names without the distraction of other map details — the spider map can convey some clarity for potential riders.

Are convoluted maps the reason that people fear the bus? No. But the accessibility of rail has a lot to do with its simplicity and understandability and, ultimately, the popularity of (expensive) rail over (affordable) buses. At a time when municipal revenues are down and budget cuts are in vogue, cleaning up map presentation is an efficient way to improve service and increase ridership.

*I’ve been asking for these NYC subway map socks for Christmas from my family — composed of Brooklyn natives and transplants alike — for years. To no avail. I want them this year!

National Review Writer Totally Onto Obama’s Plot To Destroy Suburbs, Which Would Totally Suck

by evanmcmurry

This is what The Vetting and Agenda 21-ism and all the rest read like when they get a haircut and put on a tie:

President Obama is not a fan of America’s suburbs. Indeed, he intends to abolish them.  With suburban voters set to be the swing constituency of the 2012 election, the administration’s plans for this segment of the electorate deserve scrutiny. Obama is a longtime supporter of “regionalism,” the idea that the suburbs should be folded into the cities, merging schools, housing, transportation, and above all taxation. To this end, the president has already put programs in place designed to push the country toward a sweeping social transformation in a possible second term. The goal: income equalization via a massive redistribution of suburban tax money to the cities.

The community organizers who trained him in the mid-1980s blamed the plight of cities on taxpayer “flight” to suburbia. Beginning in the mid-1990s, Obama’s mentors at the Gamaliel Foundation (a community-organizing network Obama helped found) formally dedicated their efforts to the budding fight against suburban “sprawl.” From his positions on the boards of a couple of left-leaning Chicago foundations, Obama channeled substantial financial support to these efforts. On entering politics, he served as a dedicated ally of his mentors’ anti-suburban activism.

Obama’s plans to undercut the political and economic independence of America’s suburbs reach back decades…Kruglik and his close allies, David Rusk and Myron Orfield, intellectual leaders of the “anti-sprawl” movement, have been quietly working with the Obama administration for years on an ambitious program of social reform…The Obama administration, stocked with “regionalist” appointees, has been advancing this ambitious plan quietly for the past four years. [all emphasis mine]

Notice scare quotes around “sprawl,” as if it’s some term liberals invented, like “artisanal” or “African American.” But more to the point, it’s not enough for Kurtz to disagree with Obama’s policies; every single thing’s gotta be plot with these guys. Obama’s “regionalism” goes back decades! (Breitbart is no doubt hard at work searching YouTube for a clip of Obama hugging an urban planner in 1989.) Everybody is “quietly” working—the word is used twice—as if these wonks were toiling at night with the lights off in a room in Washington, D.C., behind a storefront reading “Nothing To See Here, Inc.”

Thank God Kurtz is tracking their every step, or they might get away with…mixed use development? I’m not entirely sure what Kurtz’s problem is, except that he thinks environmentalism is a cover for socialism, which I guess works sort of like hiding a thin endorsement of upper-class self-segregation behind a loose bag of insinuation. But the National Review and cohorts can only get away with using Obama-fear as a bright light for so long; at this point I’m having trouble understanding how Obama found time to conceive and nurture every conspiracy that he’s now supposedly realizing as president.

Apropos of nothing, that’s Kurtz up above. That’s not a photo I dug up to make him look ridiculous, that’s the one he voluntarily supplied the National Review. That’s the EXACT FACE customers at my old restaurant used to make when they asked for ketchup for their steak.

At Long Last, A Finance Magazine Tells Me Where The Cool Kids Are Chillin’

by drewnilsen

Once you’re explaining a joke, it’s no longer funny. Once you’re quantifying coolness, it’s not cool.

That arbiter of what’s hip, Forbes Magazine, is out with a list of the 20 coolest cities in America.

As I’ve discussed recently (here and here), online surveys purporting to tell me “Where I should move to” or what the next hot cities are have an inherent inability to capture the intangibles what what makes a place great.

I’ll reveal the findings below so you can pack your bags on the train to Bitchin’ville (unless Fortune Magazine drops its own dopeness bomb first). But first, the methodology.

Forbes used seven equally-weighted metrics. Multiple criteria were based on sports and recreation (number of sports teams, green space, outdoor recreational activities … like golf. Tré cool, Forbes). I like that they used number of non-chain restaurants, as TGI Friday’s hasn’t been a proxy for coolness in 40 years. Also factored in were cultural diversity, unemployment, and net migration. Notably absent — any mention of walkability (curious, since quantifiable Walk Scores are readily available for every neighborhood) or access to public transit.

No list of this sort is perfect, but it’s missing a human element. God help me for invoking the much-maligned Bowl Championship Series in support of my argument, but the original intent recognized that computers might not realize that 9-1 Oklahoma is actually way better than 10-0 Central Michigan. Thus, they balanced the computer rankings with the human element (coaches’ and media polls).

The human element is the missing link here. A panel of “experts” — everyone from urbanists and realtors to cultural mavens and sociologists — could have rendered their own coolest city picks, or weighted the rankings based on the data.

So, what’s the #1 coolest city in America? Brace yourself.

Houston. Just the other day, I noted that Houston gets a bad rap, and is underrated. In my years living in Texas, I came to admire Houston’s cultural diversity, arts, food, and fun, walkable neighborhoods inside the 610 Loop. Its affordability is an asset, as is its progressivism (I get more raised eyebrows — especially outside of Texas — by mentioning Houston’s second-term lesbian mayor, than I do from anything else I say about the place). All that said, it’s hard to believe that Houston would even get on the “Family Feud” board in a survey of average Americans asked to name the coolest cities.

And #2? Washington, DC. [Comments redacted since I live here now.]

There are a few good choices on this list — though whoever put Betheda, Maryland on there should be fired — but it demonstrates the limitations of trying to decipher what’s cool based exclusively on numbers. Math, in this case, isn’t cool.

The next Brooklyn/Boulder/Austin/Portland …

by drewnilsen

“I’m not from here/
but people tell me/
it’s not like it used to be.
They say I should have been here/
back about ten years/
before it got ruined by folks like me”

— “I’m Not From Here,” Austin, Texas musician James McMurtry

By the time everyone knows a place is cool, it’s already well on its way to yuppification and losing the spirit that made it cool in the first place. Asking “What’s the next Austin?” (or Portland, or Prague, or wherever) has become a cliche — one I’m happy to perpetuate.

Pondering The Next Big Place is certainly a fun exercise, but beyond that, it has practical applications. It can be helpful in figuring out where to move if you’re a recent college graduate or planning a life change. It can identify what cities are thriving and reviving, in contrast to those withering and dying. It can identify fun, off-the-radar places to visit. (Yesterday, the New York Times had a nice profile of a local benefactor single-handedly revitalizing downtown in the small Appalachian city of Roanoke, Virginia. It’s nice to see these things happening in places that aren’t preciously hip. I’ll have to add this to my East Coast road trip list, maybe on my 39th trip to Asheville.)

Obviously, merely considering job growth and overall pay ignores a multitude of factors. Matt Yglesias — an insightful urbanist as well as political commentator — recently posted a chart of Bureau of Labor Statistics figures showing the metro areas with the highest-paying jobs. On its own, though, these figures are pretty meaningless, as the entire graph consists of some of America’s highest-cost-of-living counties (NY, Boston, DC, SF, etc.). This information would be more useful if translated into a “best bang for your buck” metric.

Joel Kotkin did just that, and Houston comes out tops. [Side note: Although “Houston” is almost a pejorative to most coastal/Yankee city dwellers, it’s a surprisingly diverse and fun city, with great arts and walkable inner-core neighborhoods. Yeah, the metro is a sprawly mess, but Houston — with its re-elected lesbian mayor — is a fairly progressive, nice city with good museums, great food and drinking establishments ranging from nouveau cocktails (The Anvil) to old school, outdoor walk-up bars (Alabama Ice House).] Other good value cities: Austin, Cincinnati, New Orleans, Nashville, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Dallas-Fort Worth.*

Moreover, the Web has no shortage of slideshows with the top 10 places where people are moving. Many of these, however, are often the product of the growth of a particular industry, not the character of the town.

As I discussed last week regarding the personality traits of cities, we’re all looking not for raw data, but rather the je ne sais quoi of what makes a place great. Kotkin extrapolates his “bang for your buck” data into predicting the next big cities, but its too objective and not subjective enough. San Antonio is a lovely place with a thriving economy (and seriously great tacos), but its too undereducated and unintellectual to comport of to Richard Florida’s idea of a “creative class” city any time soon. It may boom, but SAT will not be a PDX or an AUS or even an MSY anytime soon.

Earlier this year, an Austinite postulated on what the next Austins might be.  I was surprised to hear Chattanooga, though a friend of mine has played up Richmond to me (both: road trip list). I’ve been a decade-long champion of Pittsburgh, Detroit is a perennial favorite of journalists to lament or, simultaneously, exalt. I adore Asheville, but I’m not sure it can ever grow enough economically to be The Place (though it might have the best weather in the South). Burlington has been a hippie haven since Phish was playing Nectar’s, but I doubt it will ever blow up.

This is a curious list that has added some new spots for me to check out. I’m curious to hear feedback about the list (tell me more about Chattanooga!), but also readers’ own picks. What off-the-cultural-radar places are fixing to bust out big?

My picks: Milwaukee, Portland (Maine), Missoula or Bozeman, and Orlando.

*You can do your own cost-of-living conversions between metros using this calculator http://www.bestplaces.net/col/; $1,600 per week in DC is the equivalent of only $1,100 in Kansas City, for example.

Extroverted, Sensing, Feeling, Judging People Belong in Birmingham

by drewnilsen

I think about what cities I’d like to live in the way college-age women do Cosmo quizzes to determine what kind of man they should be with. Frankly, I have no idea who reads Cosmo, and maybe I should also be asking if Denver or Minneapolis are as into me as I’m into them.

The problem with some Web-based “where should I live?” quizzes is that they place a trumping premium on weather, or too much on objective criteria like proximity to the opera and property tax rates.

Certainly, the economy is important, but any of us who’ve ever chosen a city to which to move know that it’s not that housing starts are five percent higher in Kansas City than Chicago, it’s that Chicago is cooler than Kansas City. Sorry, Kansas City.

What appeals about different places is a je ne sais quoi one feels when they’re there. New York, Washington, and San Francisco are all creative class-type coastal cities that draw highly-educated and have insanely-expensive housing (“$1700 for a basement studio? Sold!”). We all know, though, that they have different temperaments, and no one moves to one over the other because one has three percent more park space than the other. (I’m not an anti-parkist, it’s just an example.)

Attempting instead to categorize places by personality type poses an intriguing alternative. Admittedly, it’s completely unscientific, as well as unfair to try to box in the rich tapestry of any city. Nonetheless, it provides an interesting layer to overlay on the more objective (e.g. economic) and tangible (e.g. “I have friends there”) data.

Richard Florida, the influential urban theorist who popularized the “creative class” concept, provides a bunch of snazzy tools to find your spot on his website, “Who’s Your City?” Bonus: there’s an entire Canadian section! (Who knew Ottawa was so gay-friendly?)

One of Florida’s studies interestingly characterized cities and regions (in ‘Murca) by personality traits: where agreeable, open to experience, neurotic (read: the Northeast), and conscientious people reside. Note to extroverts in West Texas: what are you doing out there?!?

A travel blog extrapolated those figures into a fun rundown matching personality types to cities. Cynics should head to New York (shocking) or the Rust Belt; Artists to Los Angeles (where you’ll end up being one of 750 massage therapists advertising in the classifieds of L.A. Weekly); Model Citizens to boring places; and Party-Animal Types to a bunch of places where Kenny Chesney is in regular rotation at the bar.

“Taken By The Wind” also runs down a book, Where in the World Do I Belong?, in which the author applies Myers-Briggs (you know, that INTJ and ESFP stuff you took in a staff retreat and subsequently forgot which one you are) to countries, and comes up with some interesting collections of countries for each type. (If you need me, I’ll be in Kyrgystan.)

While I doubt this would ever pass peer review muster, it’s a cool way to think about places. I’d love to see this applied to cities. What’s the Myers-Briggs for passive-aggressive Scandinavian-immigrant Upper Midwestern cities?

City housing should be family, roommate, and polygamist-friendly

by drewnilsen

Having recently relocated to Washington, DC, I’ve been grappling not only with the stratopheric rents here, but also with the difficulty of renting a place. I actually wanted to live in one of DC’s larger, beautiful rowhouses — I’m 33, but I still enjoy living in a big house with roommates. However, as the process unfolded, I discovered how aggravating it was — I was competing for every 3-4 bedroom house — even those off the Metro in “transitional” neighborhoods — with 20+ other groups. The fact that I lack an income (I’m still job-hunting! Anyone? Bueller?) — though I have a great credit score and enough savings to pony up an extra-big deposit — and one of my roommates is tromping around the West African nation of Guinea, while my other is from Italy and lacks a social security number, made us untouchables to every individual landlord in town.In desperation, we went to a newer, modern condo, where we figured a larger entity might be more flexible on the financial angle. And, pending my criminal background check (DON’T LOOK IN SOUTH DAKOTA!), they were. Yet, I initially inquired about three bedrooms apartments, and I was surprised that they only had one 3 BR unit in a complex of, perhaps, 100 units.I found this odd, because plenty of 20- and 30-somethings want to live in groups — out of financial necessity or because they want to (I’m sure there’s some theory of Millennials in here somewhere). Or, if you’re doing well, you might want an extra room (or two), and still live in the city. The fierce competition for every large house in DC backs me up on that.

I hadn’t even considered the impact on families, though. Atlantic Cities — my catnip — wrote about the Toronto* Deputy Mayor opposing a requirement that at least ten percent of a new, large development be at least three bedrooms, to accommodate families.

My former colleague and neighbor in DC helpfully pointed out that it’s all about profit; you can command more per square foot from a studio or one bedroom than a 3 BR. His 60s-era urban renewal building, which I can see from my window in SW DC, is in the process of ripping out its 3 BRs to convert to smaller units.

Families and children — like all forms of diversity — are vital to the thriving energy of cities. Plenty of parents still want to live in the suburbs, but many parents my age want to raise their kids in an urban environment. Schools are usually the biggest hurdle (besides expense and space), but city policy and developer short-sightedness shouldn’t also be conspiring against them.

Yet, my own anecdotal house-hunting experience in the last month underscores that there is demand for larger housing units (not to mention the architectural tragedy of chopping up rowhouses and brownstones).

Hopefully, developers will realize this is find a way to not force everyone who wants to live in cities to live in the most little boxes, little boxes. But, cities have the leverage to force developers to build family (and group house) friendly accommodations, to ensure that cities retain a true diversity of residents and options.

*As I’ve learned from the Toronto-native boyfriend of my cousin (both of whom are moving to the thrilling urban environment of Ottawa next month), it’s pronounced “Toronno,” not “ToronTO.” Impress the next Canadian you meet!

Parking Lots, Coffee and Taco Bell: When Big Business Opposed Less Regulation

by drewnilsen

Despite the gutting and eventual pulldown of my native California’s Minimum Parking Requirement reform bill, the fact that this issue has become a legitimate part of the policy discussion is encouraging. Minimum Parking Requirements (MPRs) are a long-standing zoning requirement for new development and businesses that exist in cities and suburbs. While the genesis of them aren’t insidious — sure, people do need to park, sometimes — they often suffer from sloppy or outmoded calculations, or they inadvertently deter users of the development from walking or using public transit. Or, MPRs end up creating unnecessary expanses of hot, ugly asphalt that adds to environmentally-damaging impervious cover and sprawl, makes it harder for non-drivers to access, and adds unnecessary costs that get passed on to the consumer, whether they use the parking lot or not.

Reducing or eliminating MPRs in urban areas near transit nodes wouldn’t prohibit developers from building as much parking as they want, it would just relax the regulations they generally face. Many MPRs in America still mandate one car per bedroom, even in residences that are attractive because they are in walkable, transit-friendly areas. In cities and suburbs, parking lot sizes are determined by a metric of 85% of peak capacity — meaning that the vast majority of the time, a parking lot will be mostly empty. Or there are situations like this “green” library in Austin with a huge, underutilized parking lot that ignores its location in a residential neighborhood with ample free street parking during the daytime.

Old habits die hard, and many developers will continue to build more parking spaces than are necessary. But relaxing MPRs, especially in urban areas where other transportation options exist, is a good way to free up more progressive developers to create more efficient, urban places.

In the meantime, it would be nice to see neighboring businesses voluntarily enter into mutually-beneficial parking-sharing arrangements like this, whereby a coffee shop (peak hour: morning) uses a Taco Bell parking lot, and the home of the Doritos Loco Taco (peak hour: whenever teenagers are awake and stoned, e.g. not morning) can use the coffeehouse lot the rest of the day (and late night. Fourth Meal, bro!). Cities could spur such arrangements by offering to waive MPRs when contiguous parking options are available.