Tag Archives: James A. Bacon

Smart Growth for Custom-Minded Conservatives

main_streetby James A. Bacon

As I have endeavored to develop a conservative vision for Smart Growth, I have relied primarily upon conservative principles with a libertarian slant — limited government, fiscal conservatism, free markets and the like. But there is a vast realm of conservative thinking that I have neglected, which William S. Lind, director of the Arlington-based American Ideas Institute, has reminded me of in today’s post on the Center for Public Transportation blog.

In that post, Lind has kind words to say about Bacon’s Rebellion and our offshoot blog, Smart Growth for Conservatives. But he also expands the case for Smart Growth beyond the one that I have made: He appeals to the idea of conservatism that favors institutions that have grown up over time, as embodied in customs, traditions and habits. In the realm of land use planning, he invokes the golden age of American urbanism that reached its apex in the street car era before zoning codes mandated separation of where people lived from where they shopped or worked by distances too great to walk.

Traditional neighborhood development, Lind contends, fostered a sense of community — and community is a core conservative value. Community refers to informal arrangements in which citizens interact in the civic sphere, building bonds of trust, collaborating to achieve goals of mutual benefit and enforcing community norms without the need for government intervention. He writes:

Why do we desire community? Because traditional morals are better enforced by community pressure than by the clumsy and intrusive instrument of the law. But community pressure only works where there is community. If you do not know your neighbors, what do you care what they think? We want people to care what their neighbors think.

Lind then observes that a conservative view of Smart Growth differs from a liberal view in preferring free-market mechanisms and a level playing field (the arguments that I have articulated) and in rejecting the Left’s celebration of “diversity, or the mixing of races, ethnic groups, income levels, and cultures in ways where everyone must live cheek-by-jowl.” When “diversity” occurs as a result of social engineering, rather than the natural coming of people together, it undermines community. “Community, for us,” writes Lind, “is far more important than any putative benefits from ‘diversity,’ benefits that seem entirely ideological in nature.”

I would elaborate that the Left tends to worship diversity as an abstract concept with little heed for its actual consequences. In the real world, as I have blogged recently, some of the most segregated places in the United States are the most politically liberal. Liberal policies (such as giving government more power to control land use) are associated with the most illiberal results. Ironically, while a conservative version of smart growth would eschew “diversity” as a goal, by eliminating exclusionary zoning and building communities based on shared values and trust, Smart Growth conservatism could do more to erode racial and ethnic segregation than all the judicial decrees and government programs favored by liberals.

Lind, who co-authored a study with Paul Weyrich and New Urbanism guru Andres Duany that explored commonalities of conservative and the New Urbanism, has tapped a rich new vein of thought and commentary on why conservatives should embrace Smart Growth. Let’s hope he continues to develop this line of thinking.

Re-imagining Sunnyvale

SONY DSCby James A. Bacon

Silicon Valley appears to be moving in fits and starts toward more rational land use, creating denser, more mixed-use, better-connected communities appropriate to a region with extraordinarily high land values. As a casual visitor to the region, I don’t pretend to speak with any authority on the trend but I can provide a couple of case studies on how change is happening. The good news for businesses and residents of Silicon Valley is that change is occurring and that the new is better than the old. The bad news is that change isn’t coming fast enough, and the new stuff being built probably could work better.

Proposed design of Apple mothership

Proposed design of Apple mothership

Projects like the planned 2.8 million-square-foot Apple headquarters complex, one of the final legacies of Steve Jobs, tend to grab the lion’s share of attention. The proposed headquarters, snarkly dubbed the “mothership” for its futuristic design, will be an architectural masterpiece. Apple says the facility will produce as much energy as it consumes and its floor plan will foster creative collaboration. But the complex will be a self-contained campus. While it may encourage collaboration internally, its isolation will not promote interaction with entities outside the corporation. And while the facility itself may be  carbon neutral, plans include a vast underground parking lot to accommodate thousands of employees who will be commuting (and burning gasoline) by car.

Yes, the Caltrain station provides bike racks -- and people are using them. But look carefully at this picture. Beyond the bikes the valuable land adjacent to the train station is consumed by surface parking lot.

Yes, the Caltrain station provides bike racks — and people are using them. But look carefully at this picture. Beyond the bikes, the valuable land adjacent to the train station is consumed by surface parking lot.

It’s not as if Silicon Valley lacks mass transit. As one would expect of a California locale, the region has made significant investments in rail and bus. A Caltrain track runs from San Francisco to San Jose with several stops along the way. The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority runs bus lines throughout. There even appears to be some mixed-use clustering occurring around the transit stations. If the region is to address its long-term challenge of providing more affordable housing and reducing traffic congestion, it will need fewer Apple motherships and more of the uncelebrated development like that which is occurring around the Sunnyvale Caltrain station.

The Caltrain stop is served by an attractive bus station. Too bad nobody was using it when I happened by.

The Caltrain stop is served by an attractive bus station. Too bad nobody was using it when I happened by.

However, local planners and developers in the region also will have to work on their execution. Last week I had spent some time touring the district around the Sunnyvale station. Local planners have done some things right. But my quick and superficial impression is that the district will fall short of potential.

Planners appear to be checking off the smart growth list — light rail. Check. Covered bus stops. Check. Mixed-use buildings, grid streets, bicycle racks, parks, underground parking… Check, check, check.

Sunnyvale open space -- attractive but empty.

Sunnyvale open space — attractive but empty.

But the key players appeared to have paid less attention to how all the pieces fit together. The biggest problem is that the train station is surrounded by parking lots and an empty park-like space. The mixed-use, multi-story buildings are all pushed back from the station. Given the reluctance of people to walk more than a quarter mile to transit (roughly 1,500 feet), the most valuable space is located right next to the station. That’s where the greatest density should be. But in Sunnyvale that’s where the lowest-value land uses are located.

The streets and public spaces of this transit-oriented district were empty. The problem wasn’t just the time of day — late morning and lunch-time on a Wednesday. One street was really hopping: South Murphy Avenue. The design was classic New Urbanism with wide sidewalks, on-street parking, narrow lanes, street furniture, ornamental trees and sidewalk dining. The place was packed. I don’t know how people got there, whether they walked or they drove, but the restaurants were jammed. Continue reading

The Demon in the Machine

Chris Spencer

Chris Spencer

By James A. Bacon

On Oct. 25, 2013, Chris Urmson, a leader of Google’s autonomous car project, proclaimed that legal and regulatory problems posed no major barrier to the commercialization of Self-Driving Cars (SDCs). When accidents did occur, he told attendees of the RoboBusiness conference in Santa Clara, Calif., data collected by the cars would provide an accurate picture of exactly who was responsible. He shared data from a Google car that had been rear-ended by another driver. The annotated map of the car’s surroundings clearly indicated that it had halted smoothly before being struck by the other vehicle.

“We don’t have to rely on eyewitnesses that can’t act be trusted as to what happened—we actually have the data,” Urmson said. “The guy around us wasn’t paying enough attention. The data will set you free.”

The very same day, Toyota settled a case in which an Oklahoma City jury had awarded $3 million for a 2005 incident in which a Camry driven by 76-year-old Jean Bookout had accelerated out of control. Bookout had said she tried to use the foot brake and emergency brake to no avail. Toyota lawyers had argued that she must have hit the gas instead. At issue was the performance of an electronic throttle control system that replaced mechanical links between the accelerator pedal and the throttle in older models. Siding with Bookout, the jury bought the story that the electronic throttle was flawed.

Google may have data on its side but accident victims sometimes have judges and juries on their side. Toyota had won all previous unintended-acceleration cases and an exhaustive study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration could find no flaw in the brake’s computer code, but the judge instructed the Oklahoma City jury that it could find a product defective even if no defect could be identified.

“It opened the floodgates,” says Chris Spencer, a Richmond, Va., attorney who has represented automobile manufacturers in hundreds of cases, including dozens that have gone to trial and reached a jury verdict. “All a lawyer has to do is get his client to say, ‘I did nothing wrong but something went wrong – it must have been the vehicle’s fault.’”

(Cross posted from the Datamorphosis blog.)

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Silicon Valley Knows Technology, Not Land Use

Apple headquarters, Cupertino, Calif.

Apple headquarters, Cupertino, Calif. Impressive facade but poor public spaces.

by James A. Bacon

Apple, Google and other collosi of Silicon Valley are re-shaping the world with their technology but you could never imagine them as masters of innovation by viewing their corporate campuses. While the office interiors may be arrayed with java bars and collaborative workplaces to stimulate creativity, the building exteriors are for the most part bland steel-and-glass boxes of a type that can be found anywhere in the United States. Moreover, surrounded by parking lots and landscaping, the buildings are isolated — islands in a sea of mulch and asphalt. Creativity and interaction end at the front door. The streets, sidewalks and other pieces of the public realm are innovation dead zones.

That was the impression I gained from the Bacon family’s whirlwind tour of Silicon Valley earlier this week that took in the corporate headquarters not only of Apple and Google but Hewlett-Packard, Yahoo! and LinkedIn. Perhaps we arrived at the wrong time of year, the wrong time of the week or the wrong hour of the day but we saw almost nothing going on. Most of the street-level activity at Apple was generated by tourist traffic to the Apple store. The environs of the famed Googleplex were even more desolate.

google_bikes

Vaughn and Wilson in “The Internship.”

I was expecting bustling outdoor scenes like those shown in the movie, “The Internship,” in which Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn finagled their way into summer jobs at Google and into movie goers’ hearts. We didn’t see bupkis. I sneaked around the back of one of the buildings in the Googleplex and did discover an inviting patio with bright umbrellas but didn’t see anyone except a couple of maintenance guys standing around and shooting the breeze. As we drove around the Google corporate campus with its dozens of buildings, we did espy one multi-colored Google bike leaning against a wall and we did spot one fellow riding down the road, but we saw hardly anyone walking outside. Undoubtedly, billions of neurons were burning brightly inside Google’s buildings — but there was no sign of the company’s massive brainpower on display outside. It turns out that, according to CNN, much of the movie wasn’t filmed at Google at all — but the Georgia Institute of Technology campus in Atlanta!

The Google H.Q. is so low-key in appearance, we wondered if we had the right place. According to the Google corporate address listed in Google maps, we did.

The Google H.Q. is so low-key in appearance, we wondered if we had the right place. This is where Google Maps led us.

Who cares whether the innovation occurs inside or outside? Why mess with a proven formula? More to the point, what does a techno-tard like me have useful to say to the likes of Apple and Google, two of the greatest wealth creation machines in human history?

I didn’t visit Silicon Valley with the idea of lecturing the region’s political, business and civic leaders how to improve, which would be incredibly presumptuous on my part. I visited to learn what lessons other communities might learn. Scores of regions around the United States yearn to re-create some of the valley’s technology magic, and I worry they could draw the wrong conclusions. The one dimension of Silicon Valley that others can most readily replicate is its “suburban sprawl” pattern of development — and that would be the worst possible lesson to take away.

Apple parking lot

The parking lots outside Apple’s headquarters are beautifully landscaped but they wall off pedestrian access to the world outside.

I would humbly suggest that Silicon Valley has been insanely successful in spite of its dysfunctional human settlement patterns. Combine world-class research universities, the largest venture capital community in the world and an unparalleled workforce, then shake and stir. You’ll get technological innovation. Silicon Valley’s corporations can create a built environment that discourages interaction outside the firm and it doesn’t matter — the advantages of a Silicon Valley location far outweigh the drawbacks. But no one else has Silicon Valley’s potent mix of research universities, venture capitalists and the smartest engineers drawn from around the world. Other communities need every competitive advantage they can muster — and smarter land use patterns is one of them.

As Hans Johannson has argued in his book, “The Medici Effect,” innovation comes at the intersection — the intersection of different industries, disciplines, cultures or ways of thinking — that allow people to make unlikely combinations of ideas. Some places lend themselves to that kind of interaction, others don’t. Based on her experience living in Greenwich Village a generation ago, renowned urbanist Jane Jacobs brilliantly argued that sidewalks, small parks and mixed uses lent themselves to the kind of meetings and encounters, often serendipitous, where different perspectives and ideas can collide. To spawn entrepreneurship from the ground up, those are the kinds of neighborhoods and communities that aspiring tech centers should be creating.

The built environment of Silicon Valley is Northern Virginia with palm trees — predominantly single-family houses, strip malls and office parks. Thanks to municipal codes and NIMBYs, the region can increase density only sparingly, so it cannot grow “up” by building taller buildings. But wedged between the bay to the north and mountains to the south, it cannot grow “out” through additional sprawl. As a consequence, real estate prices are incredibly high. The cost of housing across the Valley and throughout the entire Bay area is consistently cited as one of the greatest hindrances to living there. The number of homeless in the San Jose metro region, according to the Wall Street Journal, numbers roughly 7,600. To adopt similar land use policies would suicidal for any other region.

Municipal leaders recognize these shortcomings and are attempting belatedly and with mixed results to deal with them. I will discuss two such initiatives in Sunnyvale, as time permits.

In Praise of Small Spaces

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Stairway across from the Ritz Carlton on Nob Hill.

by James A. Bacon

I am fascinated by small urban spaces that normally elude the attention of city planners,  star architects and travel magazines. In low-density settings where low value is placed on land, inhabitants pay little heed to the small spaces. But in densely settled cities, residents apply loving creativity to making the most of the nooks, the crannies, the alleyways and the odd bits of land around them. The accumulation of detail in these small spaces is part of what makes a city like San Francisco great.

Some of the most interesting sights I saw here were tucked away in alleyways and in-between spaces. Many of them were stairways.  The photo above shows a particularly beautiful stairway that led between two houses to a destination up the hill. (I was too tired trudging up and down hills to see where it led.)  With manicured trees and flowers along the edge, this stairway was a significant enhancement to the neighborhood.

The stairway below is all the more interesting because it is all the more ordinary, part of an alleyway on a steep hillside that provides access to several nondescript apartment dwellings. It shows few signs of anyone having lavished money upon expensive materials or landscaping upon it, yet it is visually interesting nonetheless.

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Over Budget, Seven Months Late… and Counting

Phase 1 of the Rail-to-Dulles project was supposed to be the good phase. For quite a while, it appeared to be running on budget and on time, providing reason to be optimistic that the highly controversial Phase 2 of the project might do so as well. But it hasn’t worked out that way. The story has been chronicled in the Northern Virginia press but has gotten little attention downstate, even though Virginia taxpayers are helping to foot the bill for the mega-project.

The track and stations all have been built but a critical piece of the infrastructure – the installation of radios that don’t meet code — as well as leaky roofs at rail stations and various technical problems have delayed the opening seven months so far. Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority officials say they do not know when the rail line will open. Now, in the latest wrinkle, project manager Pat Nowakowski has announced his resignation, purportedly for reasons unrelated to the delays, according to the Washington Post, making resolution of the issues even more difficult.

When a project of this magnitude runs this late, and property owners in the Tysons area have invested millions of dollars in expectation of a Metro-led surge in demand, this cannot end well. Meanwhile, we have this piece of news: The office vacancy rate in Fairfax County crept another half percentage point higher in 2013 to 14.9%, the highest since the Savings & Loan crisis of 1991. So reports Inside Nova.  And, as I blogged yesterday, population growth in Northern Virginia has slowed markedly.

– JAB

The World’s Easiest-to-Predict Slowdown Is Now, In Fact, Occurring

dc_slowdownHere it is from the Washington Post, so I guess that makes it official: “The Washington region is in the midst of a striking slowdown in its growth rate as it draws far fewer residents from elsewhere in the country than in previous years.”

Although the metropolitan region of 6.7-million continued to grow between July 2012 and July 2013 due to an excess of births over deaths, only 4,500 people moved there from elsewhere in the United States — a marked slowdown. Job growth has slowed as well, and the jobs that have been created have tended to be in low- to moderate-wage sectors. Lucrative federal jobs actually have shrunk in number.

Gee, who could have foreseen the wind-down of the war on terror and the effects of budget sequestration? Actually, everybody foresaw the inevitable but the process of adjusting growth expectations, as measured by population and economic growth forecasts, took a remarkably long time.

Now crank in the general slowdown with a shift in the center of gravity of where the development is occurring — more than forecast in the urban core, less on the metropolitan periphery. Here in Virginia, bond financing for a lot of infrastructure construction hinges on of lot of business and housing development that may not get built.

Keep your seat belts fastened. It could be a bumpy ride.

– JAB

Why San Franciscans Are Thinner than Other Americans

SONY DSCNo, it’s not the bean sprouts and tofu. It’s not even the great year-round climate that encourages people to do stuff outdoors. It’s the hills. The Bacon family has hiked and biked a lot of hills over the past three days and we’ve eaten a lot of food, but the hills won. I swear I have cinched in my belt buckle by a notch.

As I recall, one of the largest concentrations of superannuated (really old) people is in the Caucasus Mountains. The Georgians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis get lots of exercise walking up and down mountains. Living around hills is healthy! I don’t recall seeing a single fat person in San Francisco. (OK, maybe a couple of hefty people but no obese people). I’ve seen more little old Chinese ladies on walkers chugging up the hills in Chinatown than I’ve seen fat people.

Oh, maybe I should add that it’s not just the hills. It’s the hills in combination with the sidewalks. San Francisco is a walking town. The city has great streetscapes and no matter where you are there is an abundance of destinations within walking distance. People walk places, and when they walk, they walk on hills. It’s that simple.

– JAB

Bicycling in Paradise

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One of California’s greatest assets is its climate, and San Francisco, though foggier than nearby locales, is no exception. Climatically speaking, the city is as close to paradise as any location on the planet, which makes it a great place to spend outdoors and a great place to bicycle. As one would expect, San Francisco has an advanced bicycle infrastructure, with some dedicated bike lanes and lots of sharrows. Also bicycling is embedded deeply enough in the transportation system that you don’t feel like you’re taking your life into your hands when you share the roads with cars.

Quite possibly the bike lane with the most awesome views in the world.

Quite possibly the bike lane with the most awesome views in the world.

Having spent only a couple of days here, I cannot profess any expertise on the biking scene, but it seems pretty clear that with all the mass transit — between buses, light rail, trolley cars and cable cars, San Francisco may have more different types of mass transit than any other city in the world — not to mention ZipCar and Uber, anyone can get around perfectly well owning a bicycle instead of a car. The main drawback to establishing a strong bicycling culture here is the hills — they’re not for the weak.

One of the things I like about San Francisco is that, although it is very dense (the second densest city after New York City, as I recall), it is as not automobile-hostile as Manhattan. Owning your own car is not an act of folly, as it would be for most Gothamites. Thus, the city offers the widest possible array of transportation choices. (The way the city handles parking is particularly interesting. I’ll have more to say about that in a later post.)

Clearly, the end product is something that people value highly. Between the superior economic opportunities afforded by the technology- and innovation-economy in the San Francisco Bay region, the divine climate and the quality of human settlement patterns, people have bid up the price of real estate to astronomical levels.

– JAB

The City of Great Places

Belden Street

Belden Street

So, here we are in San Francisco, in the heart of the land of fruits and nuts. We’re  planning to do a lot of the usual tourista things — take the boat to Alcatraz, bike to Sausalito, visit the Exploratorium — but your roving correspondent also will be applying a keen eye to the human settlements patterns of one of the United States’ most remarkable urban experiments.

San Francisco and nearby Silicon Valley comprise the most economically productive region in the U.S. (with the possible exception of Manhattan, although I regard the New York financial industry as a monstrous parasite that, due to Quantitative Easing, prospers at the expense of the rest of the country). San Francisco and San Jose (and environs in between) also happen to have the most expensive real estate prices (outside, perhaps, Manhattan) and the greatest income inequality in the country. Yet there is a remarkable divergence between Frisco and Silicon Valley. San Francisco hews to the Smart Growth ideals of higher density, mixed-use, walkable and transit-oriented human settlement patterns while Silicon Valley epitomizes sprawl. San Francisco is a tourist destination; Silicon Valley is not. I don’t know what all that adds up to but it is my framework for writing whatever I write about.

First observations: Arriving Saturday evening fatigued from a long trip, the Bacon farrow (farrow? Look it up.) checked into its hotel and set out to grab a meal before hitting the sack. There is a delightful little street near our hotel — Belden Street on the edge of Chinatown (see photo above). It really isn’t even a street, it’s more of an alleyway, too narrow for cars, that is lined with seven or eight restaurants. There is nothing exceptional about the street; it’s just one small example of the place-making that inspires love of this city. The alleyway is a visual surprise in that is represents a departure from the dominant street grid. Cozy and intimate in its human scale, it is a delight to stroll through.

Multiply Belden Street hundreds of times across the region and you get a place where people love to live and are fiercely loyal to.

– JAB