Thursday, May 13, 2010

On Gentrification, Supply, and Expansion

Living in the bay area can be particularly maddening. Even if you're working hard and making a good living, you are likely to still not be able to afford a house in the neighborhood of your choice. The reason being its so hard to build anywhere without coming up against NIMBYs and people that already have theirs. Take the BRT disaster where Berkeley rejected even doing the study for dedicated lanes in the city limits. It seems like progress is just a step away but defeat is often snatched from the jaws of victory.

I sometimes wonder why we can't just build more dense housing in employment districts or places where NIMBYs don't exist. There's a huge supply of land in these areas of San Jose with parking lots that could use serious transit infrastructure expansion. But the fact of the matter is that areas that are really desirable and dense are for the most part built out, and since they are built out their cost continues to increase dramatically because people really want to live there and there is a limited supply.

Take for example the Mission in San Francisco. For many years it was a lower income neighborhood known for its culture but over time transitioned. There are still vestiges of this in the compact and livable urban environment, but now the hipsters have come. I'm not sure that's a bad thing per say but we've seen this story before. Certain parties populate an urban neighborhood and then others follow until it becomes upper class, it gentrifies/yuppifies (a good read here on this subject). This end state of neighborhoods is seen as awful for the folks that were pushed out, but it is also seen as progress for the city as buildings get painted and the garden flowers are potted. This very end state of the process or "Starbucks Urbanism" is what becomes the mark of progress for those seeking it.

The problem however I see with this is not the end state per say, but the fact that the process has to happen at all. The biggest issue I have with the gentrification claim is that it can be rendered useless if we actually supplied housing for the actual market for housing. I know this is a claim long pushed by the planners and CNU set, but there's actually something behind the idea that we've overproduced single family housing and under produced urban types. What we've seen in urban neighborhoods with good bones over the last decade or so is a transformation based on lack of opportunity to improve without pushing out the middle.

But I do see a possible opportunity in the massive expansion plans that exist due to the transit space race to improve without pushing away. With multi-line expansion plans in places like Los Angeles, Denver, and Seattle, so many stations will be brought on line, the market won't be able to get to them all at once. One of the major benefits and worries of these new transit lines is that they will bring increased property values and push out existing communities. While this will provide better mobility to many of these areas, it's not likely to bring wholesale change to each of them. But it does start to provide opportunities for building housing that starts to change the urban vs. suburban market, without focusing it all on one close in neighborhood such as what has been happening in smaller regions that build transit over the last boom. We'll see what happens, but this is the theory I have.


Matt Fisher said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
BruceMcF said...

This is the concept I like to call the suburban village - a quarter mile radius of urban density mixed used development around a transit station, within a half mile of denser residential development, which also provides a local destination to cluster trips from the surrounding suburb.

We often use average urban or metro density as an indicator of sprawl, but that is not what sprawl really is. Sprawl is the system of locating different uses in different places at a low density per use, so increasingly each task requires its own separate trip.

And segregation of trips by task is a real killer for transit operating deficits, since mid-day and evening shopping and evening entertainment cannot fill in the spaces between morning and evening commute when many of the commuting destinations have no shopping or entertainment in walking distance.

Helen Bushnell said...

Density in and of itself does matter at the extremes because at very low density there are not enough people to support local businesses and life at very high densities is unpleasant for a lot of people.

But for everything in between, you are right. Places that have housing, shopping, businesses, schools and parks in the same area are pleasant places to be in. And it is cheap to run buses and trains to those places.

EngineerScotty said...

One thing that differentiates upscale neighborhoods from others isn't just a proximity to basic services--funding issues aside (bankers often prefer to finance residential-only sprawl), it's not hard to build a mixed use neighborhood, with housing, grocers, banks, cafes, restaurants, schools, doctor offices, and other basic services all in close proximity.

What is hard to replicate are those urban amenities which serve the entire city: Museums, concert halls, zoos, universities, etc. Historic nature or provenance of a neighborhood is also a factor; while it might be possible to replicate The Mission elsewhere, it wouldn't be The Mission, for those who care about such thing. (As an aside--the human fascination with provenance is an interesting thing itself--why is it that a Picasso original is worth millions, but a virtually identical replica of a Picasso painted by a talented art student is worth next to nothing? Why are diamonds so highly desired as jewelry, but many common materials with similar optical properties, not so much?)

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

I understand what you're saying ES but I don't quite agree. There are plenty of areas where you could get great neighborhoods with good access to those amenities that are new. while the Mission might be older and the buildings cooler because of that, there are plenty of places that are popping up all over the country that have a similar pull. This urbanism is replicable just like sprawl is. You can't say that just because of where something is means its in limited supply because there aren't other opportunities for closeness. There are opportunities everywhere, we just need to take advantage of them.

Cycloptichorn said...

You are wrong about BRT in Berkeley. I live in Berkeley, ON Telegraph avenue, and it would be a disaster to change the lanes from the current setup, for both businesses and bicyclists like myself.

I don't even understand why it is needed, either - the 1 and 1R run CONSTANTLY up and down the street. There doesn't seem to be a great demand for this service at this time at all - the 1R is FAST and I simply cannot understand what benefit is supposedly going to be reached.

I also find the argument that 'mitigation' will solve the parking issues to be completely ridiculous. Are you familiar with the actual street in question, and the lack of parking which already exists?

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

Jeff there wasn't great demand for highways at first either. Are you saying that demand should be based on current habits? Steve Jobs should have never invented the iPhone. No one was using it before.

Cycloptichorn said...

I'm sorry, but changing the way existing streets work isn't at all similar to inventing a new product. Instead, it's forcibly changing a product with relatively little benefit for those who currently use it.

Exactly who is BRT supposed to benefit? Who is currently not using the 1R system because it is too slow? I really would like to know. I cannot figure out what advantages that this is supposed to bring me or anyone else who lives in Berkeley, at all. Can you explain further?

It is plainly obvious, however, that BRT grants a gigantic amount of additional funding to AC Transit, whose track record of late is questionable at best. I would have a hard time supporting this decision even if there were underlying reasons to do so - which there don't seem to be - based on the poor performance of the group in question, alone.

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

Perhaps you should have been there when they forcibly changed telegraph to rip out the original streetcars. Many people used those to get to and from work. People adapted to additional lanes for cars. How would we ever change back!?

And who's fault is it that the group in question is performing poorly? Is AC Transit to blame that they don't have money to operate a system that works for everyone? Perhaps they should be blamed for schedule adherence because they have to run in the streets with car drivers that clog the road. As much as you or I would like to blame AC Transit, some things just are out of their control. The State is screwing everyone these days.

As to who benefits, plenty of people will benefit that don't use it now. Heck I would ride it to Temescal because I know that the schedule would be right and I could get there without traffic. But people generally respond to reliability. If you make something more reliable, more people will take it. For instance I'm sure you would take BART because you know the schedules. But you might not take the bus and instead ride your bike because it's more reliable. These are things people respond to.

In any event, I appreciate your comments and don't want to sound too snarky. I think we probably just have different opinions on this stuff.

Cycloptichorn said...

Is there compelling evidence showing that the 1 and 1R, which runs exactly in the areas that are under question, is in fact an unreliable route? I have taken this bus many times and have never once had it be significantly late. And, is the 1 and 1R schedule not easily available for people to look up? I believe it most certainly is.

I would also remind you that the BART system very rarely runs exactly on their posted schedules, yet receives very heavy use anyway. This is because BART offers me a public transportation option that doesn't really exist for me in any other fashion. BRT does nothing of the sort. Nobody who would like to use BRT is currently prevented from riding the bus which runs along the EXACT same route!

In short, I believe the benefits of this program are questionable and the amount of money is large. AC Transit is not a victim of budget shortfalls to the extent that this is the reason they are to blame for their problems; they instead have made very poor choices over the last decade, not the least of which was absolutely foolish decision to purchase VanHool busses.

David said...

not sure why transit is needed to gentrify

in DC, we have rapidly gentrifying areas around H Street NE and Logan Circle that are relatively far from Metro stations, key factor in their comebacks is their inventory of 1910 rowhouses that urban pioneers started rehabbing 10 years ago - with each new resident housing values crept upwards to the point that many places in these neighborhoods now sell for far more than they did in the bubble a few years ago

you can put as many Metro stops as you want next to housing projects, and they'll remain run down

building new areas that are real neighborhoods, not fake cities filled with mall retailers will require a break with the failed experiments of New Suburbanism and their atrocious Panera/Starbucks/Quizno's-filled transit-oriented developments, and instead focus on sustainable change that occurs one new resident or one new merchant at a time