Affordability in Context: Part II

In the weeks before the Congress for the New Urbanism conference in Savannah, Georgia, May 15-19, we’re presenting interviews with experts contributing to a day-long exploration of “Affordability: The Intersection of Everything.” A three-hour morning forum on Thursday, May 17, kicks off the discussion, followed by two break-out sessions that afternoon. Below is Part II of a context-setting interview with Scott Bernstein, a founder of the Center for Neighborhood Technology and a former CNU board member. Part I is here.

Q: Lots of what we talked about in Part I of this interview was about the connection between community affordability and location efficiency. You make the point that to realize maximum social and economic benefits from policies designed to close the affordability gap, redeveloping in existing, close-in neighborhoods where infrastructure already exists, is essential. That’s also where the politics get complicated.

We saw this recently when African-American community leaders pushed back against President Barack Obama’s Presidential Center in your home town of Chicago. I think we can imagine developers elsewhere saying something like this: “If one of the most revered African-American leaders in the world runs into trouble with community activists because of a plan to bring new development into their neighborhoods, what hope is there for everyone else?”

Scott Bernstein, Center for Neighborhood Technology

Scott Bernstein, Center for Neighborhood Technology

A: Characterizing the pushback that way misses the context that developers, including the former president, should have been aware of and planned for. But the experience still provides some helpful lessons for the rest of us.

What Obama’s foundation is pushing is part and parcel of a development plan by the University of Chicago and the City of Chicago. Leaving aside the design of the campus itself, the proposal is to relocate a current highway through Jackson Park in exchange for permission to expand both Lake Shore drive to the east and Stony Island Avenue to the west. For many, including me, the evidence is weak that the surrounding neighborhoods will get the economic benefits from investing several hundred million dollars in highway widening along the lakefront and further channelizing a boulevard. Amplifying those suspicions are memories that stretch back to the last century when previous Stony Island “improvements” done to link the lakefront to the broader Interstate system built in the 1950s and 60s wiped out hundreds of locally owned stores and residential buildings.

A local coalition’s efforts to get President Obama’s foundation to sign a community benefits agreement have been re-buffed, with the foundation making the lawyerly argument that it doesn’t represent the other two partners and can’t unilaterally commit to such an agreement. While that may be somewhat true, the response seems tone-deaf and only escalated the anger. It’s the sort of thing that can happen when there’s a lack of transparency in planning and entitlement and a lack of institutional memory.

Q: In this case, what might institutional memory tell us?

A: Recently, I was looking at a copy of a 1947 Chicago Tribune headline, “City Plans Superhighway through Jackson Park,” and a 1956 Daily News headline, “Southeast Side Faces Big Traffic Problems.” warning that new interstate highways being completed would dump hordes of travelers into town unless we make better use of the public realm – that is, Jackson Park serving surrounding African-American neighborhoods — to accommodate traffic growth.

Both the 1909 Plan of Chicago and the follow-up Chicago Plan Commission studies were obsessed with being prepared for “motorization” and the need to interchange such traffic with, for example, Indiana and Wisconsin. The 1929 Outer Drive Plan was intended in part to meet this need. At the time, the concept of limited access highways was only a decade old, itself an outgrowth of plans to bridge disconnected parts of a “three-sided town” defined by the branches of the Chicago River. Eventually plans were drawn for a highway through Jackson Park. Needless to say, that vision evolved without a lot of concern for or input from neighborhoods likely to be most affected.  Despite national-news-generating protests, including residents chaining themselves to trees, the road was pushed through. What we know now from analogous efforts in almost 100 cities around the world is that these capacity additions induce traffic and reduce property values – but also that it’s all reversible.

Q: So the hordes of motorists didn’t materialize. Is there a better option?

A: Estimates of the daily traffic volume through the road in the park range from 20,000-30,000 vehicles per day, less than 10 percent of the average volume carried on Interstate 94 to the west. The additional volume of expected visitors to the Obama Center is 200 visitors per hour, or 2,000 in a 10 hour day. The location of the Center at 63d and Ashland was served by a branch of the CTA elevated rapid transit, torn down in 1998.

Two options that would have community support to removing the highway from the Park and adding capacity are: (a) building an overpass and underpass combo, the former for pedestrians (an idea invented by Olmstead, which made Manhattan’s Central Park feasible); and (b) simply removing the highway and focusing any capacity additions on human scale transportation alternatives such as pedestrian, transit, car-share, and bike-share alternatives.

Q: What’s next for the Presidential Center proposal?

A: The application to the Chicago Plan Commission will be reviewed on May 17, and their recommendation forwarded to the Chicago City Council this summer.  Various environmental impact and historic preservation reviews are being conducted. The Mayor has taken leadership among cities internationally to have Chicago meet the Paris climate accord; good, inclusive urbanism can contribute to that goal.

The question for this project and for others like it: Is it really unreasonable to ask for routine priority-setting for a multi-bottom-line community benefits plan? Without the disinvestment aided and abetted by the larger highway investments and the redlining practices of earlier decades, those south side neighborhoods could have turned out much better for everyone.

Q: The takeaway for engagement efforts?

A: Context counts. The history of a place and the power struggles to control it have to be taken into consideration in planning. You have to understand and anticipate what’s informing the perceptions of people affected by a plan. And you’d better be prepared to demonstrate the likelihood of the benefits you promise in ways that overcome the suspicions history imposes.

Q: Any good examples of how policy might be shaped to do that, especially where we’re talking about better serving those who’ve experienced histories of discrimination?

A: Back in the 1990s, our CNU members played a significant role through HUD in ensuring that the conversion of high rise public housing to something else happened at effective human scale.  That something else, through the HOPE VI initiative, was higher quality, spatially distributed affordable housing. Because of the Fair Housing Act, rules were issued during the Obama Administration, known as Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, requiring a more fine-grained approach to desegregation, including the quality and affordability of transportation and of energy — not just of housing.

CNT prepared a version of the H+T Index, The Location Affordability Index, to help with the associated new planning commitments. HUD continues to make the raw data available to all Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) entitlement communities who need to use this information to address their commitment of fair housing in five-year plans. The public-facing web tool we created was taken down by HUD, citing their own “budget affordability concerns” at the end of last year. Officially, the Trump Administration has put a hold on this until 2020; but that hasn’t stopped individual municipalities from moving forward, much like with the Paris climate agreements. This all suggests that new urbanists can and should partner with those cities and fair housing advocates prepared to move forward, whether or not there’s federal involvement.

The Congress for the New Urbanism has within its membership innovators who recognize the realities, including the political and economic realities, of getting projects out of the design phase and into implementation. John Anderson’s efforts with the Incremental Development Allicance is a good example. And Lean Urbanism, in general, seems a good platform for emphasizing appropriately scaled and immediately doable models over complex megaprojects that require countless variable and competing interests to perfectly align.

Utilizing such common sense has a rich history—our recent research, in a forthcoming book by the late Hank Dittmar, shows that the bulk of rapid population growth in Washington DC during World War II — 50 percent in just 2 years — was mostly accommodated by legalizing rooming houses and accessory dwellings in targeted zones. Right-sizing and calibrating our response to the affordability crisis is essential. And we can’t make the headway we want without partners.

Q: So talk about a path forward. What shows promise of working, what doesn’t?

A: I wouldn’t expect too much from the feds soon, but Metropolitan Planning Organizations and certain states continue to build a planning-driven culture. CNU can join the crowd that’s pushing those “infrastructure agencies” to become “community building” agencies.

In general the national push for “doing something about crumbling infrastructure” is important but framed wrongly. If we did spend the suggested $4 trillion rebuilding our existing networks we’d have state of the art 1930’s transportation, energy, water and drainage systems. Initiatives such as CNU’s Rainwater in Context group are promoting strategies, for example, that catch raindrops where they fall and put them to work in urban settings, as opposed to treat rain as a waste product to be shipped away. It saves money, substituting urban landscape for buried sewers and produces other benefits that sewers alone cannot.

Integrating “utility” systems at a neighborhood or community scale, sometimes called Ecodistricts, something that CNT, PlaceMakers and DPZ successfully built in to Reinvent PHX, is a coming and transformative proposition and one that makes new urbanist designs of value to the engineering and utility industries.

Keep in mind that land + infrastructure usually amounts to half of the cost to bring a building to market at most scales, so any savings associated with a better, smarter approach to meeting public realm and infrastructure needs are on top of savings associated with residential construction.

In Albuquerque, a plan for converting Central Avenue, aka Old Route 66, to a corridor of transit oriented nodes could lower the cost of living, increase tax base yields, improve neighborhood quality, reduce environmental impacts, and reduce the number of people in poverty by an estimated 20 percent or more. There’s powerful magic and synergy in partnership.

Q: If we prioritize some efforts over others, where do we put energy in the short term?

A: First priority: recognition that this is going to take both proactive effort and patience. We have to remember that in the market as a whole, change comes slowly. In a good year (and we haven’t had one in a while) the increase in the number of households, jobs, and homes might each be as much as three percent. But the numbers have been lower recently.

That means much of the effort at making community improvement work for everyone who needs its benefits needs to be focused on preservation and enhancement of what’s already built — the 97+%, not the 1-3 percent we can hit from new development. “Fixing it first,” is essential. Perhaps we need a caucus or council or initiative on this one. We wouldn’t have a current buzz about filling in the “missing middle” if we’d been maintaining the middle all along.

Next, let’s redouble our efforts to reframe affordability. It’s not new urbanists’ fault that the most used (and least useful) definition of affordability relates only to the cost of housing, but it’s our responsibility to redefine it in the context of location so that we have more ways to address the gap between incomes and costs of living. The Housing + Transportation Affordability Index does that in terms of outcomes. Walkscore sort of provides a yardstick for walkable urbanism potential – though it doesn’t measure whether people are actually walking.

I’d also argue for new urbanists to get over what I see as an allergy to putting numbers on their work. Perhaps because of their design orientation, many seem reluctant to using metrics to set goals or to calibrate plans. Let me assure you that there’s no pathway to scale without the ability to take financing to scale, and that can’t happen without a way of knowing that our designs will help reach intended affordability goals.

Making it work for everyone is not just a bumper sticker. The default position of affordable housing advocates targeting the poorest of the poor for subsidies turns out to be expensive. But we could do a whole lot better if we applied principles of leaner, right-sized, performance-scored, community-enhancing approaches. Alternatively, the future for new urbanism could be bleak if we treat affordability issues as “outside our wheelhouse” or “above our pay grade.”

I’m not sure the Charter for the New Urbanism, good as it is, provides guidance on how to conform tandem goals — say livability, market attraction, design quality, affordability and climate protection, meaningfully. Applying the ambitions of the Charter to refine and tackle the tasks ahead to get to community affordability is going to be the work of our lifetimes.

Partnership with other movements dedicated to better places is unequivocally necessary to success. The challenge we face is learning to do it together.

Ben Brown

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