Friday, November 21, 2008

What Types of Urban Development Pay? Part II

This is Part II of a breakdown on recent findings studying Downtown Roanoke, Virginia and the recommendations that resulted.

Last time, we found that surface parking was a good money maker for urban land owners, while development didn't make sense without a government subsidy. Now let's look at how these development choices add up for local government. We compared annual property tax revenues with city spending per acre to find the public return on investment.

1. Surface Parking. This popular downtown land use puts local government in the red, effectively moving money from other uses to land owners, though not as much as other options.

2. Historic Rehabilitation. In urban areas, state and federal income tax credits are not enough for developers to invest. Local tax breaks make the difference, and caused a (re)building boom in the study area. The costs are steep though, with the city's return on investment at -50%, moving tax money to support preservation. 
3. Subsidized Development. When local government holds the entire bag for subsidizing development enough to see results, the costs are staggering. In the case study, land was given for free to a developer. The public return on investment was around -3000%. These projects are few and far between, because they can bankrupt local government.

4. For Profit Development. Of all of the examples identified in this section of the study, this was the only one that produced a favorable rate of return for the city, a handsome 1,240%. No example could be found during the twenty year study period.

Note: These numbers assume an identical development with the same land area (except the surface parking, which lacks a building) and the same 20 year financing.

Next time we'll compare the public and private returns on investment and see if their relationships square with the findings of the study.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

What Types of Urban Development Pay?

I recently completed a research project on what rate of return different types of land development will produce as part of a greater project. I looked at the four main types of development observed in an urban study area over a twenty year span: surface parking, historic rehabilitation, subsidized development, and walkable private for-profit development. My interest in profitability stems from conversations with developers last year who reported that they had to make a 30% return on their investment in order to consider a project.

1. Surface Parking. It's cheap, it's profitable, it's the most common type of development in the study area. The return on investment is well beyond 100%, assuming appreciation in land value over twenty years.

2. Historic Rehabilitation. It's expensive, it gets federal, state, and local tax breaks, and there are many examples in the study area. The return on investment ranges between 30% and 40%. Some of the largest empty historic buildings haven't been restored, but it may only be a matter of time, or a problem related to the scale of the costs.

3. Subsidized Development. It's not as expensive as a rehab project and the financing is much simpler. There's only one catch: the government has to foot a major portion of the bill, if not the whole thing. The return on investment is similar to historic rehab, between 30 and 40%. A handful of these were found.

4. For Profit Development. It's expensive, it gets no handouts of any kind, and the return is only about 20%. No surprise, you don't see a lot of this, and none at an urban scale. The only recent for profit development has been low density and auto-oriented.

Note: These numbers assume an identical development with the same land area (except the surface parking, which lacks a building) and the same 20 year financing.

Next up I'll talk about how these development choices work out for local government.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Charlottesville News Through Google News Local

I like reading the news, but dead trees don't do it for me. Not searchable, for one thing. This is why I was excited to figure out how to get local news from my Google Home Page. I found out I could use Google News for local news from the Google News Blog, but hey, I'm lazy, why couldn't it come to me on my home page? So after generating the local news feed by putting my zip code in, I copied the web address of my local news feed. Then I went back to my Google Home Page, clicked "Add stuff", then "Add feed or gadget" and pasted the local news feed web address. And now I enjoy local news automagically delivered to me in real time. Very nice, I think. Sadly, it doesn't appear to have, but perhaps some day it will.

Monday, August 18, 2008


Local physicist Bob Hirosky documented some visitors to his screened in porch: a mother bear and two baby bears. With the help of local law enforcement, the bears were safely let out.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Kerberized Printing in Leopard

I'm currently working on getting Kerberos to work with our windows printers on our Mac Leopard machines at my job. No success so far, but I did discover one thing. In the CUPS FAQ, this is written: 

"Note: In order to use Kerberos-authenticated shared printers, you must be running a version of MIT Kerberos with the  krb5_cc_new_unique ( ) function or Heimdal Kerberos."

I wondered what that meant. It means it needs MIT Kerberos 1.6 or higher or Heimdal Kerberos, a different program entirely. Mac Leopard ships with MIT Kerberos 1.6 so something else is creating problems.

Thanks to meantheory for making this a little easier.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

It isn't as elegant a solution as Wordpress has, but you should be able to get to the Picasa Web Album that stores this blog's images here:

Lyle Solla-Yates

Then hover your mouse pointer over an image and click the little blue play button that appears. That is of course, if you have already added the PicLens extension, which is amazing, and is available in other browsers.

Virtual Gallery Experiment

I am posting some images of my graduate work to see how well Blogger works with the Firefox PicLens plugin, which is amazing.This was a quick Andy Warhol homage I put together from an existing color photo of the Lawn at the University of Virginia. I removed the color information, then added translucent layers of color and cut them to fit the images. Used in the U.Va. School of Architecture photoshop tutorial.
This is an image from the Green Streets plan I worked on for the Ix site with Keyur Shah. This is the northern end facing Monticello Avenue. The concept for this section was to create a strong pedestrian connection to the Charlottesville Downtown Mall, increase tree cover, and store and treat water runoff. This includes a pedestrian island, curb extensions with cuts to allow water inside and plants to treat the water. The tree graphics were recycled from one of Keyur's previous projects. You should be hearing more about Green Streets in the near future.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Today in Future Shock

Here's where four-legged robots are at now. They can handle ice, and I think you'll agree that you feel bad for them when they are kicked. A little bit disturbing.

Thanks to Gizmodo for the link.
Majora Carter was in Charlottesville recently. My apologies for not mentioning it sooner. She's doing some amazing work in South Bronx working to transform one of the least green places in urban America to a model of sustainability and environmental justice. Here is a moving presentation she gave a few years ago on Sustainable South Bronx, much of which she gave in Cville:

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

What It Will Take
For We the People to Vote for and Value the Environment

We cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together,” Barack Obama stated this morning. I was stunned by what he had to say about our country and its disastrous divides that make We the People a difficult idea to grasp, holding too many disparate parts with contradictory and antagonistic beliefs and desires.

When the colonists sought independence, the Union nearly failed in its conception because the practice of slavery was so divisive, making it difficult for Northerners and Southerners to see a common cause and identity. An ugly compromise was made then that Thomas Jefferson described as having "…the wolf by the ears; and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other."

Our disastrous reliance on a way of life that our best science shows will make it difficult for our species and many others to survive is another wolf, what appears to be another ugly compromise between justice and self-preservation. Yet really, justice and self-preservation both call for change when we pause to examine the situation with a clear head. Yet clear heads are a luxury many cannot afford in America, as we are menaced by wolves more immediately pressing.

We all want to move in the same direction – towards a better future for our children and our grandchildren,” stated Mr. Obama. This better future must be a bright green future where everyone contributes to the health and vitality of the human and greater biological community. Our science tells us this and our hearts tell us this. And yet no one on the national stage, including Barack Obama, will talk about climate disruption and the challenge of peak oil in anything more than half-steps and empty gestures.

I agree with Obama that we all want fundamentally the same thing, as Americans, as humans, and as living things on Earth: we want to live well and we want that better future for the next generations. This certainly includes dealing with threats like global warming, food scarcity, and other ills, but most individuals I know seem especially focused on taking care of themselves, managing their debt, getting or keeping a job, health care, making sure their children are safe, healthy, and educated. This is a lot of work, especially in a flattened world where the middle class are disappearing, pay is dropping, and costs are going up. And climate change is not the only large-scale threat we face. Obama again:

We need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems – two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic health care crisis and potentially devastating climate change; problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all.”

The placement of climate change at the end and the complete omission of other pressing issues like peak oil are no accident. Real change towards a sustainable future requires much more than greater agreement and support between environmental stakeholders, or even between environmental stakeholders and industry or labor. What is required is a true effort towards unity and fairness, a recognizable We the People to act together in our own interest rather than the interest of one faction over another. I use this word faction in the sense that James Madison used it, as “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” The factionalization of America is so taken for granted now that environmentalism and labor are considered interest groups, factions that must act in their own interest against the interest of We the People.

Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven’t fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education,” stated Mr. Obama. The divide in quality between schools and opportunities for Americans is staggering. Americans who didn’t go to the right school and didn’t have access to opportunities do not become involved in moving towards a bright green future. They try to survive. They live low on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. People like Majora Carter from Sustainable South Bronx are rare and amazing. Ms. Carter has achieved in South Bronx in a comparable way to how Mr. Obama has achieved. She is from a disadvantaged environmental justice challenged community where opportunities were and are few. She still managed to grab some however, receiving her MFA from New York University in 1997. In addition to her education and civic ties, Ms. Carter benefited from a neighborhood where the connections between social justice and environmental justice were transparent. Ms. Carter and her community connected the dots and started working for a bright green future. We need a world of people who can do that. It only works if we all play.

Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience – as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away,” noted Barack Obama this morning. This hit me especially hard as the descendent of immigrants. I take enormous pride in the stories of my family’s struggle to come to America and succeed there, facing prejudice against Jews, Hispanics, and women in general, and finally achieving a measure of security in the middle class. I certainly feel that anxiety as I search for the job that will pay for my rent and other expenses. And though I understand as well as anyone the need for a bright green future, I will take a job that doesn’t help me work towards it if I can’t find one that will. Times may well get tougher and I feel like I should be paying off my debt as soon as I can.

Barack Obama argued that becoming We the People once more can be done “by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations. It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.” Moving to a bright green future together means starting with what we need to succeed together. Personal and environmental health, welfare, education, and safety are all the same agenda, not that of any one faction, but that of We the People. And we have already started.

See and read Barack Obama's speech I reference here. It is inspiring.

Friday, March 14, 2008

I'm excited to report that my blogging students are teaching other people how to blog. Welcome to the web Lisa Parker Hyatt Ehrlich! Lisa is an amazing artist in Maryland. She has some interesting things up now and there's more to come.

Monday, February 11, 2008

A Sustainability Gap

This semester, I'm taking two courses with Australian sustainability guru Peter Newman, who famously coined the phrase "automobile dependency." I've found out about a number of exciting developments internationally that show how much progress toward real sustainability has been made. It's wonderful, but it's also distressing to me that the U.S. has given up the lead on these issues. We invented solar and wind power, and yet we lag far behind in those industries now. The integration of Japan's transit and mobile phone technology is astonishing. Australia's innovations are equally amazing. The national political dialogue has moved far past the conflict between the environment and jobs, where the U.S. dwelled for years, and even past the opportunities of environmental economics which are only just now percolating into the American political consciousness, and into a serious exploration of how a nation can achieve true lasting sustainability, with all the social responsibilities that implies.
America has been left far behind.
We have far more nuclear weapons than any other nation, along with numerous other military gadgets, and we are still on the cutting edge in some technologies, but in the critical area of how we are to continue to thrive together on this planet, America is coming up short.
I'm not worried about Japan, Australia, Denmark, Switzerland, Brazil, the UK, Canada, or even China. They get it, they're making huge progress. I'm worried about us.