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In Philly, Housing in Walkable Places Held Up Better Than Suburban Housing

During the latest recession, housing prices were more resilient in Philadelphia's walkable neighborhoods. That is a reversal of the pattern that occurred in the previous housing downturn. Image: Congress for the New Urbanism

It’s been a bad few years for homeowners around the country, and those in greater Philadelphia are no different. But people who owned houses in Philadelphia’s center city or suburban areas near a walkable town center fared better than others.

According to a new report from the Congress for the New Urbanism, the homes in greater Philadelphia that suffered the steepest losses of the housing crisis were those in the most car-centric, sprawling neighborhoods. That was exactly the opposite of what occurred in the last housing downturn, when larger, single-family housing in disconnected, far-flung neighborhoods retained more of its value, researchers found:

During the first housing downturn of 1989-1995, housing prices declined the greatest in the urban core center (-33.7% in the center city), second-most in the central city of Philadelphia as a whole (-17.6%) and least in the lower-density areas of the suburban counties (-14.3%). But during the most-recent housing downturn of 2007-2012, home price declines have been the greatest in the low-density suburbs (-32.7%), second-most in Philadelphia County (-26.7%) and the smallest in the urban core of the center city (-20.2%).

The study evaluated the urban character of each zip code in the region, using criteria like housing density, transit accessibility, mix of land uses and other indicators. This method was employed to examine the relationship between urban form and the housing market, instead of using crude measurements like the political boundaries between suburbs and the city.

The authors attribute the new dynamic to rising energy prices, as well as the revitalization of central city Philadelphia and shifting housing preferences, especially among seniors and young people. The findings are consistent with other studies that have found walkable, transit-accessible places have bounced back stronger from this housing downturn than more car-centric areas.

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In Which Chuck Marohn and I Talk to Exurban Minnesotans on the Radio

Charles Marohn — our planner/engineer friend from Baxter, Minnesota and Strong Towns – and I appeared on a Minnesota Public Radio show on Friday about “the death of the exurbs.” The starting point of the conversation was the article I wrote last month about the new census numbers and what they tell us about the shifting patterns of housing development.

We entertained calls from people who feel the need for a two-acre buffer between them and their neighbors and from some whose own dalliance with exurban living ended in a bitter breakup. Later that day, I published the results of a Demand Institute study that found that the exurbs remain a “toxic” place that the housing recovery isn’t reaching.

Is the turn away from the exurbs really all about gas prices? And what is an exurb anyway? Are they getting too crowded? And what does it have to do with lobster?

Take a listen.

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Study Predicts “Resilient Walkable” Places Will Lead the Housing Recovery

This morning, a Minnesota Public Radio host asked me if the exurbs, whose growth rate flattened when the recession hit, are going to come back. Lots of people from far-distant suburbs like Blaine and Farmington called in, saying they like the way of life out there – they like having acres of trees buffering them from their nearest neighbor — and people won’t want to stop living in communities like that.

The data suggests otherwise, though. Earlier this week, the Demand Institute (a think tank created by the Conference Board — “a global, independent business membership and research association” — and Nielsen — yeah, the TV ratings people) released a report on the housing recovery. They say the worst of the housing crash is over and glimmers of recovery are on the horizon. But hope isn’t spread out uniformly across these United States. Those exurbs like Blaine and Farmington, Minnesota? They’re not coming back so fast.

Urban areas didn’t lose as much value during the recession. Home prices didn’t crash so hard. Not so many people found themselves under water, owing more on their mortgages than their homes are worth. And urban areas are bouncing back faster. The Demand Institute calls these places “Resilient Walkables.” Only 15 percent of the U.S. population lives there.

The report bases its prognosis for recovery on seven factors: population size, walkability, severity of the crash, current affordability, unemployment, foreclosure inventory, and foreclosure policy. The Institute found what Angie noted earlier: Walk Score is positively correlated with strong housing prices. The Institute’s analysis of almost 1,700 U.S. cities showed that walkable cities had more positive price growth.

And it found that these “Resilient Walkables” were resilient indeed, with house prices projected to rise three percent next year and five percent a year for the four years after that.

Compare that to the places the Institute calls “Slow and Steady” – where more than a third of Americans live and where double-digit housing declines destabilized the market. Economic indicators are gloomy for these areas, but the authors find the planning solid, so the future is relatively bright. These are places like Charlotte, NC, Dallas and semi-urban D.C. suburbs like Gaithersburg, MD, and the study forecasts three percent growth starting in two years.

Then there are the “Damaged But Hopeful” areas – a category that encompasses big but depressed cities like Chicago and smaller ones like Stamford, CT. Thirty percent of Americans live in these places, too many of them fighting foreclosure. It will take them a little longer to get to three percent growth but from 2017 onward, the Demand Institute predicts that they’ll beat the national average.

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Mixed-Use Development Delivers Huge Public Returns Compared to Sprawl

Graphic: Planetizen

Walkable development pays — that’s the conclusion of a study recently outlined in Planetizen. For cities and towns facing tight budgets — just about everywhere in the United States right now — the smart way to boost tax revenue is to encourage mixed-use, walkable development, as the above graphic amply illustrates.

The for-profit development company Public Interest Projects (PIP) reports that urbanism produces much more tax revenue for localities than sprawl. Analyzing tax data around Asheville, North Carolina, the research team found that downtowns — places with the most places to shop per acre — often subsidize the more suburban parts of the community. In places like Asheville, mixed-use developments offered up to eight times (or more) the tax revenue per acre of a Super Walmart.

Former PIP employee Joseph Minicozzi, now a principal with for-profit development firm Urban3, tells Planetizen readers that many cities are approaching development from the wrong frame of mind (emphasis added):

Our mistake has been looking at the overall value of a development project rather than its per unit productivity. Especially relevant in these times of limited public means, every city should be thinking long and hard about encouraging, and not accidentally discouraging, the property tax bonus that comes with mixed-use urbanism. Put simply, density gets far more bang for its buck.

He concludes that public policies that encourage low-density development urgently need to be reformed:

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Conservative Pols Hate Government Subsidies, Unless They Subsidize Sprawl

UPDATE 1/5/12: Corrects the Congressional district outline.

At a recent meeting of the city council in Celina, Ohio, members considered a request to extend sewer lines to six homes that are currently outside the city’s boundaries. Extending the sewer line 800 feet to the houses would cost the city $40,000. A new water line was under discussion as well, doubling the cost.

Should the residents of Celina, Ohio have to subsidize the sprawling habits of outlying residents? Photo: City of Celina

The homeowners would supposedly pay back the amount in five years. That would amount to a monthly payment of more than $220 per household, without interest. But in cases like these, the beneficiaries of new utilities rarely pay the full cost.

For a place that’s on the forefront of a heavily-subsidized brand of taxpayer-funded suburban sprawl, Celina is steeped in the kind of conservative politics that generally eschews government subsidies.

Celina sits on the boundary between two of the most conservative Congressional districts in the state of Ohio. Downtown Celina is represented by none other than House Speaker John Boehner, who has been the face of the movement to cut government spending. He’s made it clear that he thinks transportation means highways (not bike lanes) and has been only too happy to slash transportation spending (unless he can get the green light for oil drilling by raising it.)

He’s not as conservative, though, as Rep. Bob Latta, who represents the area just north of Celina, including the six homes that want sewer and water service. Latta is the son of Delbert Latta, who represented the area for 30 years and pushed for Amtrak service in his district. But his son has voted to cut public support for Amtrak, while pushing for oil drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge in order to lower gas prices. He was late to support the 3-C passenger rail service in Ohio, though he eventually did.

And Latta is probably not as conservative as Rep. Jim Jordan, whose district starts slightly east of Celina. Jordan, the head of the far-right Republican Study Committee, proposed a spending-cut bill last year that would have cut $6.5 billion from transportation subsidies, mostly for transit. And he wants to eliminate subsidies for Amtrak altogether.

How do conservative voters and politicians square their hatred for government subsidies with their city-shunning sprawl patterns that suck the lifeblood out of local governments – and taxpayers? Outward sprawl forces jurisdictions to keep building new roads and schools and to extend emergency services farther and farther afield. Sprawl induces driving and leads to more public pressure to expand roads — a vicious circle of new development and new roads. Even in rural areas, one lane mile of new road can cost up to $9 million [PDF].

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Transforming Tysons Corner: A High-Stakes Suburban Retrofit

This is the old Tysons Corner. Photo: Restonian

“That strip mall just got rezoned for high rise buildings.” “These auto dealerships are going to disappear.”

Those aren’t words you hear very often in suburbia, but if you’re hanging out in Tysons Corner, Virginia, you’d better get used to it. This office enclave, which sits dead center between Washington, DC and Dulles International Airport, is experiencing a rare and dramatic transformation – from traffic-choked “edge city” to walkable urban center.

Fifty years ago this area was dairy farms. But fueled by employment at the headquarters of several major defense contractors, Tysons is now the 12th biggest business district in the country, and the single biggest outside a major city. Even during the recession, office vacancy has stayed comparatively low at 14 percent.

The new Tysons Corner. Image: Fairfax County

Tysons is also a retail heavyweight, with the fifth biggest shopping mall in the U.S. And no wonder – it sits in Fairfax County, consistently ranked one of the wealthiest in the country.

But even with all these jobs and shopping opportunities, it lacks people. There are 105,000 jobs in Tysons but only 17,000 residents. Nobody lives there.

Almost four years ago, Time gave Tysons this back-handed compliment: “That it is also a strip-malled, traffic-clogged mess does not take away from the fact that it is one of the great economic success stories of our time.”

All of this presents a unique opportunity for planners. How do you take an existing business district — dysfunctional but also thriving in its own way — and re-fashion it into a real urban center? And how do you get community support for a project that’s going to mean decades of disruptive construction and the uprooting of much existing infrastructure?

Fairfax County planner Tracy Strunk admits that re-planning something this big is incredibly ambitious. While they looked to development along the much-lauded Rosslyn-Ballston metro corridor for inspiration, “You get a few blocks from Rosslyn station and you’re in single-family detached. This isn’t going to be single-family detached.”

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The Incredible Shrinking Megastore: Retailers Think Outside the Big Box

They lord over empty parking lots in Hazard, Kentucky; Twinsburg, Ohio; and Lewiston, Washington like the ruins of a lost civilization. Vacant Walmart stores are slowly decomposing in more and more American towns these days. More than 100 of them have been memorialized as part of the group Flickr pool known smugly as “They Sold for Less.”

Another one bites the dust. A vacant Walmart in Lewiston, Washington. Photo: Flickr/Happy Vampire

These empty husks — yet to be filled by any other retail tenant — are part of the detritus left behind by a paradigm shift in the real estate industry. Signs of the changing times, they tell us what kind of society we were before the bubble burst.

Now, as the commercial real estate industry regroups, evidence is mounting that Walmart and other mega-retailers will take a much different form than they have in the past. The new American shopping experience, according to many industry observers, will be less “suburban big-box” and more “urban destination.”

The demise of several mega-retail chains during the recession, including Circuit City and Linens ‘n Things, helped produce a vast oversupply of retail space, particularly that of the giant, boxy, just-off-the-interstate variety. Last summer, the research arm of giant commercial real estate firm Colliers International reported that there was nearly 300 million square feet of vacant big box retail space on the market — 34 percent of total retail vacancy left behind by a recession that walloped commercial real estate almost as hard as housing.

Since 2008 alone, 120 million square feet of big box retail space has become available. To put such numbers in perspective, that is the equivalent of the total shopping center space in Cincinnati, Kansas City and Baltimore combined, Colliers reported.

This period of retrenchment has humbled even the once-mightiest of retail forces. CNN reported last month that Walmart stores suffered their ninth-straight quarterly drop in sales. Another sign of the times: Walmart is no longer enough of a bargain for U.S. consumers, it appears. The mega-retailer has been losing market share to dollar stores.

The situation has apparently reached the point where the retail monolith is rethinking its whole carbon-gulping model. Walmart is joining other retailers in thinking smaller and more urban, says Ed McMahon, a fellow at the Urban Land Institute.

“What the recession has made completely clear is that we have way too much retail,” McMahon said. “We are going from the era of the big box to the era of the small box.”

Enter the “Walmart Express.”

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Civil Rights Group Demands End to Car-Centric Transportation Policies

“This is the civil rights dilemma: Our laws purport to level the playing field, but our transportation choices have effectively barred millions of people from accessing it.”

The civil rights fight for equitable transportation didn't end with Rosa Parks.

So says a report from the Leadership Conference Education Fund, a project of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. The coalition wasn’t involved in the transportation reauthorization debate in 2005, when SAFETEA-LU was passed, and they’re determined to be at the table this time.

In March, they quietly published their report, “Where We Need to Go: A Civil Rights Roadmap for Transportation Equity”, and since then they’ve put out three more reports, springboarding off of that first overview. The subsequent reports focus on access to health care [PDF], access to housing [PDF], and access to jobs [PDF].

They never really released these reports to the press, which is why we’re just letting you know about them now. Some media outlets caught wind of it in late July and a small flurry of stories came out in the week or two after the Leadership Conference hosted a “fly-in” lobby day, where nearly 40 constituents from nine target states came to Washington to meet with their representatives’ offices.

According to the Leadership Conference report, racial minorities are four times more likely than whites to lack access to a car and to rely on public transportation for their commute to work. African Americans make up 12 percent of the U.S. population but 20 percent of the pedestrian fatalities. And the problem is far worse for Native Americans on reservations. Pedestrians there have the highest per capita risk of injury and death of any ethnic group in the U.S. While vehicle fatalities are dropping around the country, they’re on the rise on reservations.

All of that explains why the a group focused on civil and human rights would be interested in transportation – it’s an issue of racial justice. It’s also an economic issue, they say: with job sprawl pushing more and more jobs far outside the urban core, access to those jobs can be exclusively by private car. Even three out of five jobs “suitable for welfare-to-work participants” are not accessible by public transit, the report says.

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Meet the Obscure Unelected Agencies Strangling Many U.S. Cities

Transit investment lagged in regions where MPO boards did not give equal representation to city populations, Detroit (SE Michigan) being an especially bad example. In more democratic metros, investment was much more balanced. Image: Nelson, 2003

Do you know the name of your local Metropolitan Planning Organization or Council of Government? Most Americans don’t. In fact, most people probably have no idea these agencies even exist, let alone what they do. Yet they are surprisingly powerful and play a substantial role in shaping the places where we live and work.

Led by unelected boards, MPOs and COGs, as they’re known, are a special breed among government agencies. They lack the authority to issue taxes or impose laws. As such, they go largely unmentioned in the media and are mostly unknown to local residents, outside of the most wonkish circles. But the low profile of MPOs and COGs belies their considerable power.

Despite their limitations, they represent the strongest form of regional governance we’ve got in the United States, crossing city and county lines. More importantly, they disperse hundreds of millions of federal transportation dollars annually. While these agencies often distribute transportation funds more fairly than state DOTs, many of them are structured in a way that favors sprawl and undermines cities.

MPOs and COGs can be profoundly undemocratic. They are governed by boards of public officeholders, but there is no requirement that they be in any way representative of the region’s population. In fact, the general rule that governs the composition of MPO boards is “one place, one vote,” rather than the more traditional “one person, one vote.” This often produces decisions dramatically skewed toward suburban and rural interests.

For example, greater Milwaukee’s MPO, known by the unwieldy acronym SEWRPC, is governed by a board of 21 members, three from each of the counties that make up the planning region. That means that the city of Milwaukee — population nearly 600,000 — has zero representatives on the commission that distributes millions of dollars for transportation throughout the region. It is not guaranteed any votes. The city’s only voting power comes from the three seats given to Milwaukee County — and those must be spread between the central city and many suburbs. Meanwhile, rural Walworth County — population 100,000 — is guaranteed three votes.

Milwaukee is an especially egregious case. But unfortunately, this general pattern is more the norm than the exception. A 1999 Brookings Institution study [PDF] found that central cities were under-represented in as many as 92 percent of MPOs and COGs.

That bias can have a strong impact on policy, further research has shown. A 2003 study by researchers at Virginia Tech found that for each additional suburban member on an MPO board, there was a 1 to 9 percent decrease in funding for transit — with highways being the favored alternative.

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T4A Responds: Yes, Bring Transit to Suburban Seniors (Within Reason)

Cross-posted at T4America’s blog. Sean Barry is a communications associate at Transportation for America.

In a Streetsblog post last Thursday, Tanya tackled a question that has been marinating since Transportation for America released “Aging in Place, Stuck without Options,” addressing seniors’ mobility challenges:

More transportation options can help Baby Boomers as they age -- wherever they live. Photo: TransLink

Is it the job of overextended transit agencies – and the responsibility of taxpayers – to expand transit to all the inefficient places people have moved to, when they knowingly were moving away from urban amenities like transit in favor of the automobile? When that arrangement no longer works for people, do we encourage them to relocate in places that can better serve their needs, or do we aim to serve everyone’s needs exactly where they are, no matter where they are?

These are good questions, but there are some underlying assumptions that deserve a closer look. First, lets be fair: Automobile-dependent development has been the default setting for at least 60 years, so many people live in such places whether or not they “knowingly” rejected urban amenities and transit. And while it might make sense for some share of seniors to relocate, there simply isn’t enough adequate housing in close proximity to transit to accommodate the surging elder population — even if we could pry them away from support networks in their existing communities.

We don’t pretend for a minute that every cul-de-sac subdivision is entitled to its own transit route. But there are myriad ways that we could help to make the situation better, whether by broadening existing transit networks, expanding the supply of appropriate housing with access to transit or supporting educational programs that help to prepare seniors for getting around without driving.

In many inner suburbs, we have a ripe opportunity to change the dynamic. Many suburban communities are getting denser and more city-like in character, with dynamic job growth and greater proximity between employment and residential areas — Northern Virginia fits this description, for example. Under these circumstances, it not only makes sense to provide increased transportation options, but would be foolish not to. Both seniors and non-seniors deserve the chance to live in places with convenient and affordable access to transit if they choose.

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