Now What? CNU 17 Addresses the New Era Economy

The irony is unavoidable. Interest in Smart Growth and New Urbanist topics has never been higher. Check out this May 2 column in the Washington Post; or David Brooks’ opinion piece in the New York Times from May 4. Yet the economic downturn has sucked the energy out of innovative projects in both private and public sectors. Lots of will, less way. At least for the moment.

image002And this is the moment in which the 17th national gathering of the Congress for the New Urbanism takes place. CNU 17 begins June 10 in Denver. Early registration ends today.

Before the bottom dropped out of the economy, CNU attendees were expected to be talking a lot about greening the movement. Now, the hot topics will be about adapting to new realities.

While the downturn may seem like a reason to skip this year’s gathering, it may be the best reason for scraping together the resources to get to Denver. If ever there was a time to share great ideas, this is that time.

Already the energy is producing cool stuff, particularly the award-winning video that makes the convincing argument that cul de sacs spell the end of civilization as we know it. Here it is:

We’ll see you there. If you have time, check out the discussion I’m moderating at 4:00 p.m. on Saturday, June 13. It’s an invitation to  “Embrace the Convergence” between the goals of creating compact, walkable comunnities and strategies for addressing public health, environmental, and demographic challenges. On the panel: EPA’s Tim Torma, the CDC’s Dee Merriam, and former AARP staffer Michael O’Neal.

- Ben Brown

“Best Practices Guide” Debuts to Glowing Reviews

4th Edition of New Urban News Book Just Issued

Here’s what got our attention: Miami architect/author/New Urbanist provocateur Steve Mouzon says the 2009 “Best Practices Guide“ from the New Urban News “just might be the most useful single book on the New Urbanism I have ever seen.” (Read Steve’s complete review here). That’s hefty praise coming from Mouzon, who is famously cranky about architectural details and planning practices.

The latest edition of the "New Urbanism Best Practices Guide" reflects the movement's ever increasing, and ever-improving, body of knowledge.

The latest edition of the "New Urbanism Best Practices Guide" reflects the movement's ever increasing, and ever-improving, body of knowledge.

The book, by NUN editors Robert Steuteville and Philip Langdon and “special contributors,” runs more than 400 pages and utilizes some 800 illustrations and tables. Which bolsters the claim that this is indeed “the definitive reference on new urban ideas, practices, and projects.”

Among the new chapters are ones on architectural styles and building types, land development, parking, and health and aging. And the editors have revised and updated chapters that have to do with revitalizing cities and towns, retail, the workplace, civic spaces, marketing, finance, transit, and affordability.

The price: $129, plus shipping and handling; $99, plus shipping and handling for New Urban New subscribers and members of CNU. Student price is $79, plus shipping and handling. Download the order form from the NUN website.

- Ben Brown 

Gluttony and Glut: Finding the New Normal

An evening cross section of Atlanta's Atlantic Station.

An evening cross section of Atlanta's Atlantic Station.

How serious is the implosion of the once-booming urban condo market? And what does the downturn say about the prospects for housing in urban centers?

A piece in the business section of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution seems to say it all. Desperate to unload some units in “a stagnant market,” says the sub-headline, an Atlantic Station  developer will auction off some 40 units, with bids starting at 56 percent off list price. A similar story about the stalled condo market in Chicago appeared in a Feb. 3 New York Times story.

Well, welcome to the New, New Normal. Just don’t read too much into implications for the future of multi-family housing in these places.

To be sure, fire sales aren’t great news for developers caught in the current pinch, or for investors, including condo owners who bought into a project at the old list price. But it seems to us that the only environment in which this sort of mark down is seen as a disaster is one in which folks deny the realities of the real estate marketplace. It’s not a marketplace unless prices go up and down depending upon what buyers are willing to pay, right?

For what we now recognize as an unsustainable period of speculator insanity, prices of detached single-family homes and condos soared, particularly in desirable cities and desirable climates. The period lasted long enough for a lot of folks – buyers, builders, developers, and real estate brokers, to name just a few – to believe the aberration was the New Normal. For a look at how a misguided sense of entitlement played out in the lives of real people on Florida’s southwest coast, check out George Packer’s story in the Feb. 9/16 New Yorker – it’s called “Ponzi State,” and for good reason – and then take a look at his video. And for a west coast take, watch this video from the Associated Press.

The remnants of that sense of entitlement persist in many of the conversations about “stabilizing” home values by artificially propping up prices in a market still seeking a bottom. New Urbanist developer Vince Graham explained how it’s time for a get-real approach to home values in one of our previous posts.

But it’s just as dangerous to assume an opposite marketplace trend, that advocates for downtown mixed-use development got it all wrong.  The current shakeout is not about whether or not there’s a market for condos and rental apartment options in downtowns; it’s about the nature of that market, particularly about how diverse the housing choices have to be and how well integrated is the planning for truly mixed use opportunities.

One of the best overviews of demographic and marketplace trends is the 2008 report from Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. And for a glimpse at how Americans rank places they’d like to move to – including places like Atlanta and Tampa that have experienced the greatest housing market downturns – see this recent survey from Pew Research. 

- Ben Brown

Report from the Real Estate Front Lines

Vince Graham, the New Urbanist developer of the award-winning I’On TND in the Charleston metro area, has a “get real” message for home owners and realtors. Like other established New Urbanist properties, I’On has weathered the current housing slowdown better than conventional suburban projects nearby. Yet owners determined to sell their homes in I’On have had to face the reality that the era of double-digit annual appreciation is over. In fact, recent sales even in I’On have been at prices closer to those of four years ago, as opposed to the record levels of 2006. “Let’s face it,” says Vince, “2006 was an anomaly. Forget about it. A good pricing rule of thumb this year is to consider what homes were selling for at the end of 2004.”

Other experts have echoed Vince’s analysis. Measured over decades, home values nationally have appreciated at annual averages close to the average inflation rate — roughly three percent per year. Which suggests that average home prices nationally, after teasing investors for years at unsustainable appreciation levels, still have room to fall.

- Ben Brown