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April 24, 2014

Ironic Macro Gentrification: Et Tu, August Wilson?

So, gentrification: the bringing in of gentry, the displacing of others, the increasing of the economic value of a district. Gentrification may be pernicious and unavoidable. It may bring mixed feelings and benefits (Pgh-based!).

By way of introduction, let me mention two mini-stories of gentrification, one rhetorical and the other quite real. Rhetorically: your family is big in your neighborhood; your parents, aunts and uncles, cousins and friends - yinz are all over the place. You're ready to get a place of your own, and you've got your eye on Old Man Rutherford's house down the street. You've talking to Rutherford and his kids and you've got dibs on it. The place goes up for sale, and wow it's listed for $285K, you expected maybe a $115K listing and an $85K price. Rutherford says, Hey my realtor told me they know what they're doing. Two weeks later, A Boston software geek pays $285K and thinks he got a bargain.

True Fact Two weeks ago I went to photograph a mural in Lawrenceville. At the house next door, a couple of people my age are carrying boxes in and I got to talking with them. They grew up in Brookline, found success and moved to Maryland, raised kids. Now their daughter (the doctor) is moving to Pittsburgh, bought this house in L-Ville, and the parents are kind of amused and stumped.

The house listed at $315K went for about $300K. You and I look at that, and we think: crazy. It's a nice house but it's not that nice and there's some real rough houses very close by. But the trick is: that $300K price isn't supposed to be attractive to anybody from here; that $300K price is a bargain to a Baltimore physician that's amazed she can live close to downtown for so little.

It's gentrification and it's arbitrage, playing the difference between what people are used to paying for East Coast or West Coast real estate against the very low prices in Pittsburgh. So this new house owner is the Gentry, a very nice person who's going to contribute to the community, and this transaction is another accretion of Gentrification. Huzzah n'at.

In general, complaints about Gentrification happen at the micro level, and they come from the people who get priced out, the kids who can't buy in their parent's neighborhood; the little people. The power players - the makers and the institutions - say that gentrification is a good thing, it's a positive force, and those complaints are only anecdotes rather than datapoints. Rising tides, future's so bright, etc.. People in Suits usually benefit from gentrification.

And here's why I mention all that. Pittsburgh's power players, all the institutions, thought they had a pretty good strategy for changing the leadership of the August Wilson Center. They allowed the AWC to flounder and fail, and figured they'd resurrect the AWC via bankruptcy. It's not a bad strategy until the AWC real estate went onto the open market.

But an out of town player said - wait a minute, downtown property for $4M or $5M? That's crazy low, I'll pay $9M and still make money on it. This development confounds the Institutions and the Establishment, who have (perhaps for the first time) seen their pet plans thwarted by outside money, different perceptions of real estate value, and the fact that in bankruptcy court it's about the money.

Downtown just got gentrified, and the Pittsburgh players can't afford that house down the street they kind of had plans on. The peon in me loves that all the Suits have had their plan thwarted by the same forces they maintain are no-harm and virtuous when it happens in a poor neighborhood. The Pittsburgher in me sees that once again, the respect and needs of the A-A community are ignored in a power play of white money.

And here's a wrinkle: money guys are smart. Do you think the people who bid $9M knew what they were doing, and are now going to accept $1.5M to just go away? Completely possible. It's the real estate version of patent trolling. Maybe that $9M investor is a rentier, a bungee-speculator.

And so, ACE-Bill are trying to derail and interrupt this bankruptcy process that was (until now) completely acceptable, and the Foundations have taken their money off the table (after they lost the bidding war), and they're all scurrying to either {derail and re-define} or to {condemn and save face}.

To me, the economic story is - the Pittsburgh Players just got gentrified, hoisted on their own petard, and now all of a sudden it's a tragedy when their plans get priced out of the market. In a way, it's August Wilson, meet Adam Smith.

And good people who are caught by surprise say: it's too soon, it's too fast, we need checks and balances; we have a stake in the outcome, this is not just about money, can't we get a veto? - which in a way is a funny echo of the land bank negotiation.

April 15, 2014

Pittsburgh in Four Panels: Eagles, Google, Envelopes, Penguins

Sometimes the stories align and the Russian Roulette of the Post-Gazette content-management system manages to perfectly capture the Pittsburgh zeitgest. This afternoon's four stories, in close sequence, describe the curses and blessings of Pittsburgh.

  • wild eagles, nesting by the bike trail, above the bird watchers, where the factories used to belch smoke, flames, and soot, streaming over teh webcams.
  • CMU hiring a Google VP to lead their Computer Science department.
  • UPMC can make copies of Mayor Luke's hard drive, but then has to put it in a manila envelope for safekeeping, duh, the 1970's called and they want Perry Mason back.
  • Passive-voice boosterism about one node of the local entertainment trinity.

There you go. Everything Pittsburgh in four panels.

April 09, 2014

Paradox of Vehicle Cocoon and Other-Danger

Inspired by a post at Invisible Visible Man which I recommend to you, Dear Reader - he's an excellent writer (for the Financial Times, no less) and observer, and quite thought-provoking. His invocation of Bob Dylan in this post is poetic and poignant.

But it was this note that grabbed me:

I'm struck, however, that it’s often the people least cut off from the reality of the city around them – cyclists out on the streets, intensely aware of all that’s going on – that are disproportionately involved in campaigns to make the streets safer. It’s a serious safety issue that so many vehicles allow their users to cut themselves off so thoroughly from events outside. It’s hard not to imagine that people with clearer views of pedestrians and cyclists and fewer barriers to hearing street sounds might be less likely to run them over.

which prompts this, glomming onto Jessica Hagy's style of Indexed:

April 04, 2014

Beyond the Scales of Measure

An open reply to Vannevar Bush and Bram Reichbaum that was way too long to fit in the comment section
By Helen Gerhardt
There's been some very understandable confusion regarding my role as co-blogger at Buses Are Bridges (which is about all things Transition to the Next Pittsburgh) and my role as past Community Organizer for Pittsburghers for Public Transit. For all who read my work here, I'm writing as Helen the individual writer, not to represent the views or missions of PPT, although of course my continued volunteer work for that organization continues to inform and motivate my own thinking and purposes.

In the comment responses to "Goofus and Gallant: The Trojan Bike Lane," Bram Reichbaum addresses what he terms Vannevar's "...baseless assertion that reconnoitering bus stops elsewhere within Downtown can only be about 'business owners disliking the type of people queuing for buses outside their properties on the public sidewalks.'"

Bram and Van, of course it's very hard to gather convincing evidence of collective motivations. Generally, in a generally progressive community, people are often going to be very hesitant to admit racist or classist feelings, even to themselves, so it takes some masterful long-range polling, interviewing, and observation to gather convincing measures of such subjective feelings.

Yet I think we might agree that such feelings often do carry immeasurable but heavy weight to influence public policy and planning - because of the very fact that they are often so inchoate, half-seen, half-felt: shameful, powerful prejudices denied and disguised by polished professionalism, rationalization, euphemism - and so tangled with other valid issues and rational motivations.

In the case of downtown Pittsburgh specifically, I spoke with many business owners along Smithfield and Liberty, the vast majority of whom signed petitions to support keeping the buses and stops along their streets. To my surprise, that included most of the owners and managers of fancy fur and jewelry stores that I spoke to. Based on my own unscientific anecdotal conversations, I'd therefore venture to guess that racist/classist motivations are certainly present, but that they may not reflect the majority biz-owner zeitgeist downtown. However, the strong wish to clear clogging the sidewalks of all queuing right in front of their doors was a far more common, reasonable feeling expressed even by business owners that were also transit champions.

It seems likely that much of the history of redlining wasn't motivated by personal racism, but by profit motive based on prospective buyers' perceived racism - and so many developers are often a far more prognostically generalizing bunch than the small biz and boutique owners I spoke with. Developers are more often long-range, big-picture planners bent on creating overall market conditions that will circulate the money and attract residential and business tenants that can pay higher rents for what they build/own. And, with the mess our transit system is still in after years of major funding cuts, more affluent customers generally skip the inconveniences to get where they want to shop. So, at this point it is car-owners that are far more likely to have disposable income to come and spend downtown, which is what those prospective business tenants want/need pretty much above all else.

"Why not move the cars off Smithfield Street?" I asked Ace Fitzgerald and host Paul Guggenheimer on Essential Pittsburgh. "You think we're hearing from people now?" Ace replied, glancing over at Paul. "If we took cars off the streets of downtown I have a feeling your phones would be lighting up like crazy." Moving the buses would affect way more people, yes, but our County Executive must have meant all those suburban car-commuting voters that he knew would be far more likely to call in to give him hell. His answer may have reflected the fact that the majority of transit users are not the truly enfranchised, not being as vocal, influentially connected, articulate, or deep-pocketed - or as registered to vote.

So, generally those of us most likely to queue are those that most need the buses, we who can't afford to do otherwise, especially in extreme weather conditions, yes, also just when businesses are most worried about getting people into their doors. Lots of the sidewalk-cloggers are poor. In Pittsburgh, lots of the poor are black. And most of these cloggers can least afford to make political waves, less for fear of repercussions than because they are working such long and exhausting hours that they don't have the time or energy to give Bill or Ace hell when their lives are made more difficult - or to mobilize their fellow transit riders. They don't have campaign cash to promise or withhold. Many of them are simply going to walk any extra blocks and wait any extra time for any extra transfers for a circulator system here in the connective hub of the entire County. Takes less time than the patient collective pressure required to get their voices and concerns heard and respected enough to make substantive changes in the planning process.

You both know that I think that McKnight Realty has capitalized clout on this downtown transit planning process for what has been conceived as a Les Grandes Boulevard Sans Burgh Buses. With so many properties along Smithfield and adjacent streets they certainly have motive to tip the scales of consideration toward moving buses to the edges of downtown rather than cars - especially with that fairly new parking garage hungry for car-owner cash. And as long as our rightfully Act 47-ed City remains so dependent on parking revenue, our electeds will have that extra weight on their planning scales as well.

No, I myself don't think that overt racism or class prejudice has pushed this planning forward, but institutionalized patterns of profit, privilege and power that are very hard to disentangle from what are clearly overwhelmingly disproportionate impacts on the black and the poor.

What's a few more blocks, or another half-hour of waiting to transfer for men and women who already spend hours on the buses and at bus stops?

Beyond the scales of measure, drop by drop, the tonnage accumulates.

April 03, 2014

A Tale of Two Bike Lanes: Quick & Dirty, Slow & Wise

It was the quickest of choices,
   it was the wisest of choices.
It was the most short-lived of lanes,
   it was the most successful of lanes.
People say, and newspapers report, that the Mayor has announced plans to build a protected bike lane on a downtown street by Sept. 8th. Actually, the Mayor told a private meeting of downtown business folks about his plans, but there's been no public disclosure, so: Gosh I wish I was a downtown business folk; Access n'at.

If you accept the public story at face value, there's going to be a lot of public discussion, all input will be valued, and in five months a lane will be blocked off. No mention of: bus stops, or bus lanes. You can't have a good process or a good result in the time available, unless you really want to achieve a pre-ordained result.

But in the spirit of making lemonade, here's a way to meet an actual public need, meet the deadline, and get a great long-term result, because this is not the type of blog that whines; this is a solution providing type of blog. We're value-adding™.

Last year, there was a great Huzzah as the Great Allegheny Passage, a non-motorized connection between Cumberland MD and Point State Park was completed with the Sandcastle Trail. Just one problem: you still can't get to Point State Park without riding in traffic along the GAP route, because the Smithfield Street Bridge switchback connector to the Mon Whorf Trail won't be open until 2015.

So, a malformed syllogism:

  • In 2013 the public announcement was that the GAP was complete, and people can plan on a car-free trip from Cumberland to Point State Park.
  • The 2014 GAP puts itinerant cyclists out in traffic from the Smithfield Bridge to Point State Park.
  • Hashtag-Nobody-Wins when our Pittsburgh drivers meet an out of town cyclist and we unlock our first GAP cyclist fatalities dahntahn. #YODO.

Solution Step One: Quick & Dirty in 2014. Install a concrete Jersey-Barrier protected bike lane along Ft. Pitt Blvd from Smithfield Street to Commonwealth Avenue, close the turn from Ft.Pitt to Commonwealth for the bike lane, and continue the bike lane along Commonwealth to Point State Park.

  • All the bus stops along Ft. Pitt Blvd remain. Passengers will queue on the sidewalk for their bus. The bus will stop in the car lane (just like they do now, just one lane over). Passengers will cross the bike lane, using a marked crosswalk. Signs will tell cyclists to give way to pedestrians (a national standard). Benefit: No impact to transit.
  • This is a short-term bike lane. When the Smithfield Street switchback ramp opens in 2015, Ft.Pitt Blvd, the turn to Commonwealth, and Commonwealth Ave return to previous conditions. No Damage.

Solution Step Two: Slow & Wise for 2015 Conduct a comprehensive, integrated process to determine where to place the (real, finalized) crosstown bike lane. If there is any impact to transit (as seems very likely), expand the process to include the transit plan.

  • You can't build NextPgh by pitting Cyclists and NewUrbanists against Transit Users.
  • The process has to be transparent, or else there's the appearance that this is a predetermined process to improve the value of developer's real estate.

(apologies to Dickens).

April 02, 2014

Goofus or Gallant: The Trojan Bike Lane

You've probably read or heard of this article about Mayor Peduto's announcement that he intends to have at least one divider-protected, dedicated bike lane in downtown (and another outside of downtown) prior to the 2014 Pro Bike, Pro Walk, Pro Place conference here in Pittsburgh on Sept. 8. If you haven't read it, you should.

I do love me some bike lanes, but let's review this bit of Kabuki theater from a Goofus and Gallant perspective.

Winners only, or Winners and Losers?

  • Goofus presents change in terms of benefits only: hey cyclists, you're going to get a bike lane!
  • Gallant presents change in terms of costs, benefits, and overall results: to add a bike lane we have to give up either a bus lane or a normal traffic lane, and also we lose the bus stops along that side of the street. I'm suggesting we give up a bus lane, and all those bus stops along one side of that street. We'll be ahead overall.

Choice of Timeframe

  • Goofus sets a hurried timeframe and creates artificial urgency to rush through his pre-intended plan: we have to get this done - gosh, in five months before the big Sept.8th conference!
  • Gallant suggests, lets build a timeline to get all the stakeholder's input and do this right!

Choice of Forum

  • Goofus announces his official business in a private meeting of business people, summaries of his remarks are provided, and no questions can be posed.
  • Gallant makes public announcements in a public forum, and takes questions on the record.

So far, the Mayor's approach is more Goofus than Gallant. He should publicly disclose his Administration's plan, and if there is no plan - he should make the process transparent. Otherwise there's the appearance of special interests having undue influence. The disclosure should identify the costs (transit impact, bus stop loss, etc) associated with the bike lane.

Back in January, the County Executive announced a plan to remove bus service from the downtown core because business owners didn't like the type of people queuing for buses outside their properties on the public sidewalks. ACE Fitzgerald wasn't very smooth and the plan was lambasted.

With this announcement, the Mayor has smoothly moved the same plan back onto the table. He's promised a desirable thing (protected bike lane) to a key constituency (cyclists, hipsters, urbanists, creative class) with a very short deadline (5 months), so there can't be a lot of discussion. The choice of street is curiously unannounced. Do you think the Mayor made this announcement without knowing what street it's going to be? But now some key groups are favorably invested in the change, the timeframe won't permit much discussion, and when it comes to removing bus stops there will be supporters for it. In case anybody doubted: the Mayor just showed he's smoother than the ACE.

Also in today's news, Lyft announced they're expanding service to the County's Airport, which I guess means that ACE Fitzgerald's County Police won't be ticketing them. Great that everybody's working together.

I love the bike lane. I just think I'm being sold more than a bike lane in the name of real estate development and business interests.