Tag Archives: housing

The Zenith City’s Blurred Red Lines

12 Apr

As someone known to paper walls with maps, I’m loath to recognize that these representations of world beyond us can cause serious problems. But some maps have had lasting, serious consequences, perhaps none more so over the past century of American life than the residential 1930s redlining maps preserved by the University of Richmond, a collection that includes the map of Duluth that inspired this piece. (I was routed here by one of the city’s annual Housing Indicator Reports, which often involve fun research digressions beyond the rote reporting of statistics for various planning areas.) The urban planning field has, for some time now, been on a noble quest to educate the world about what these maps have wrought.

These maps come from the Home Owners Loan Corporation, or HOLC. HOLC drew up these maps to designate the safety of making loans in certain neighborhoods in cities across the country. It was part of a New Deal push to create consistent, predictable, non-predatory lending practices for home sales, thereby avoiding the disastrous wave of foreclosures that came along with the Depression. Its maps were also one of the most effective non-coercive tools for racial and income-based segregation ever devised by any government anywhere.

These maps, which color-coded neighborhoods by their desirability, basically walled off certain areas for development (“redlining,” in planning parlance), all under the guise of a well-intentioned program to help homeowners. They also included brazen designations of neighborhood desirability based on the race or ethnicity of their inhabitants. The HOLC-enabled postwar suburban housing boom was one of the least free markets ever devised, and it had a fascinating jumble of consequences to both lift the wealth of a vast swath of the (white) working class and shut out a portion of the country from ever enjoying those benefits.

Some parts of Duluth’s urban history follow standard narratives on HOLC-age development. The ring around downtown, where significant early construction happened, remains one of the poorest areas of the city today. From there, the east side follows a fairly steady transition up the income ladder into Congdon, a change I can still see every day when I go for runs around my current home in Endion. (It’s amusing to see Endion get labeled “generally…declining, many of the old houses being transformed into small apartments and duplexes.” I’ve heard some people bemoan the neighborhood’s transitional status as if it were a trend brought on by college students in the past 20 years, when in fact it is a stable equilibrium dating back nearly a century.) But at the same time, as the little chart next to the map shows, Duluth’s urban form breaks down from the prescribed theory more than in many other cities. A substantial part of Duluth a certain distance from the core that is supposed to be “in transition” is not actually in transition, and the outlying “residential zone” saw basically no new development at this time, with its only housing being stuff in the lowest tier out in Gary-New Duluth and Fond du Lac.

Some parts of the city have also changed substantially since the New Deal era, and not always in predictable ways. I was fascinated to see that the bit of Lakeside where I grew up in a 1920s mini-foursquare, which now is one of the hottest real estate markets in the city, was “definitely declining” at this time. A chunk of Duluth Heights, which now also ranks fairly high on the income scale, was a total no-go zone for HOLC loans, as was Park Point. A number of other red zones on this map are basically non-residential now. The I-35 corridor follows a series of red zones, as interstate highways did in most urban areas; poor people are always the easiest to displace for massive infrastructure projects, and the U.S. became very good at that in the 50s and 60s. There is very little correlation between yellow districts and the current quality of the housing stock; yes, some remain, but just as many have flipped into comfortable middle-income areas, and not just those on the east side. It’s not unfair to conclude that the boundaries drawn on this map, while sometimes predictive, were in no way destiny for Duluth’s ultimate housing development.

As usual with Duluth, the simplest explanation for this is geography. Duluth grew outward along the ridge and lakeshore instead of in concentric rings, with development squeezing out here and there where terrain allowed. The city also absorbed a few older towns such as Fond du Lac and Lakeside, which may explain HOLC’s skepticism of their housing stocks even though those would normally be destinations for the next wave of development. The neighborhoods that had some room to grow outward from their 1930s limits, like Lakeside and Woodland and the Heights, had a chance to diversify their housing stock and evolve. The plodding pace of Duluth’s growth over the 20th century, oddly enough, kept some neighborhoods from filling out too quickly, and also invited updates to the existing stock to keep it viable for a sale. Those complex neighborhoods are a vital part of Duluth’s story, and a reason why this city has not gone down the road of a Flint or a Youngstown, where nearly all of the money fled the city proper.

Another explanation comes in the racial and country of origin stats tucked away to the right of the map. Despite the map text’s frequent concern about “negroes” occupying certain areas, this shows Duluth was over 99 percent white in the 30s and 40s. But in 1930, fully a quarter of Duluth’s residents were foreign-born, and while that figure had dropped to 20 percent by 1940, that is still far higher than it is today. Duluth was a city of immigrants. Idle speculation might lead one to suspect that steady decline in the immigrant population over the middle of the 20th century (which correlates with statewide and national trends, as driven by U.S. immigration policy and global economics and politics), coupled with a fairly negligible rise in the population of people of color, would have been an equalizing force in Duluth’s housing market. By the 1970s, there was nowhere in town where there was much of the immigrant stigma that comes out in a few of the HOLC descriptions of west side laborer neighborhoods. Duluth at that time was the perfect all-white control in a national experiment in urban housing markets. And yet, the 2016 Duluth HIR report lays it bare: every one of those neighborhoods that had a description about immigrants or African-Americans in the 1930s remains low-income, even if many others that were in the same class as them back then have now flipped. That legacy, somehow, endures.

I would still, however, venture that the greatest reason for Duluth’s divergent neighborhood paths, one that captures both its old HOLC maps and its current east-west divide, is a structural economic change. Pre-war Duluth wasn’t some bastion of equality, but there were two distinct economies: an immigrant-heavy industrial working port on the west side, and a downtown and east side dominated by a white-collar class and its attendant lower-income service economy. One of these got absolutely decimated in the 1970s and 1980s. The other plugged along, certainly damaged by the trend on the other side, but had much more staying power and adaptability.

Now that it’s unrecognizable from what it was a couple of generations ago, I don’t think many of us moderns fully appreciate the complexity of Duluth’s old blue-collar economy. People with some sense of the history can tell you that Morgan Park (which doesn’t even register a color on the map) was a company town for U.S. Steel, but the map text describes Gary in much the same way. People actually used to live down in the port and industrial areas below the freeway near Denfeld, in a neighborhood known as Oneota. But I was most fascinated by the note in the area around Denfeld, which outranks places like Lakeside and Woodland and Hunter’s Park on the HOLC map. The residents of the Denfeld area, the text explains, are “salaried persons from nearby industrial plants, business and professional men of the west side of the city.”

That line about West Duluth reminded me of the extensive time I spent doing some interviews in Silver Bay, a company town built by what was then the Reserve Mining Company. We have this habit of thinking of blue-collar work as providing stable working-class jobs with modest incomes that allowed a family to get by, but to hear the Silver Bay old-timers tell it, company towns were some of the most rigidly segregated in America, at least in terms of income. Subtle features set apart seemingly identical homes, and management clustered in certain areas. There have been, and continue to be, many very lucrative jobs in industrial work; what set the pre-war era apart was that management was on the ground nearby, not out in relative suburbia (or in some other state or country at a hedge fund or holding company, though even in Duluth, there’s an old line about the city being Pittsburgh’s westernmost suburb). In industrial Duluth, that area for the blue-collar elite was the West Duluth neighborhood surrounding Denfeld High School.

Nowadays, the very notion of a blue-collar elite seems bizarre, and a perfect storm of conditions weighs on the west side housing market. If neighborhoods that age at different rates are far more likely to hold up over time, the more uniform ones—which company towns tend to be—have the misfortune of aging into obsolescence at the same rate. Those west side neighborhoods were also trapped between a river and a ridge, unable to find easy escape valves for steady outward development as in Lakeside or the Heights; instead, it had to leap up the hill to Piedmont (another neighborhood with well-diversified housing that doesn’t register on the HOLC map) or beyond the city limits. Most of those immigrant-heavy neighborhoods, where stigmas apparently lingered in ways they did not for areas occupied by native-born Americans in similar job classes, were toward the west side. It’s also just easier to commute from further away now. Throw in a two-decade crisis of mass layoffs and unemployment and plant closures, and it all starts to come together.

This isn’t all doom and gloom. The area around Denfeld is still comparatively wealthy for West Duluth, with some historic older homes. Eastern Lincoln Park, colored a respectable blue in the times of HOLC, has seen real estate values start to rise again after many decades of stagnation. Some growth along the river corridor has occurred, and room for more remains. As my friends at the Port Authority would ask me to remind the world, Duluth’s blue-collar economy is also far from dead: it may look very different, but the city still moves vast volumes of cargo and has a thriving industrial sector that usually pays a solid salary. The changing nature of industrial work, combined with the attractiveness of well-paying jobs that do not require vast loads of student debt, are starting to change some narratives about a once-stigmatized line of work.

But the ravages of deindustrialization tell a story that HOLC maps alone cannot, and join up with cultural clashes and geographic barriers to explain why cities come to be the way they are. Causes are rarely singular, and momentum did the rest. While real estate agents no longer use maps with explicit racial or immigrant-skeptic language, there’s no shortage of coded ways in which the real estate market designates the desirability of certain neighborhoods. These tools range from practical concerns about returns on investment to the asinine practice of grading everything that goes into public schools on a 1-10 scale, a tool now ubiquitous on any real estate aggregation site. We still live with the consequences of century-old maps, but the ways in which we build our economies and the stories we tell about our towns will decide their futures.

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Planning Duluth: Let’s Talk About Housing

20 Nov

As Things happen in national politics, Duluth marches along with…community engagement sessions for its comprehensive plan! I attended a meeting for my council district last week that allowed me to draw things on maps and be a good, engaged citizen. At this event, I received a list of planning-related research questions, which it shared at a community event I attended last week, divided by topics. Today, I’ll offer up my semi-solicited opinion on the housing-related questions.

What three qualities make your neighborhood a great place to live?

I live in Endion. Its perks are its big, cool old houses; easy access to downtown and multiple east side business districts; and an eclectic mix of people, from college students to old money to lower-income people.

I will also answer for Lakeside, where I’ve spent a majority of my life. It’s a reasonably affordable yet very pleasant place to raise a family; it has great neighborhood schools; it has easy access to big parks.

What three aspects of your neighborhood would you like to see changed?

Endion: Better maintenance of some rental properties; lack of a defined neighborhood center, or real sense of neighborhood at all. The third thing isn’t necessarily something I’d like to see changed, but at least investigated: how necessary are these one-way numbered streets? I certainly appreciate them when I drive to work, but they slice through the neighborhood and make it less pedestrian- and child-friendly. I’m not convinced we need two one-way streets (First and Third) going the same direction.

Lakeside: Some renewal in the old business district; something happening with the old Rockridge property, so long as it preserves access to the Hawk Ridge trail; continued gradual, planned growth on the edges and redevelopment of vacant/declining properties to meet market demand in a desirable neighborhood.

What does a healthy neighborhood look like?

A variety in age of housing stock. Easily accessible local businesses that provide most basic necessities, and connections to jobs. Thriving schools, and children playing freely. Outdoor hockey rinks. (Okay, I guess we can allow other sports in the neighborhood parks, too.) In Duluth: access to a more wild park space. Few to no highways or high-speed roads carving through the neighborhood. All those pretty things.

What types of housing are missing from Duluth?

The same type that’s missing from a lot of places: a middle tier that rises above student or-low income housing, but isn’t on the top end like some of the (very welcome) new apartments coming on line on the east side. Mid-tier homes for new families. Homes that are accessible for aging people looking to scale down some.

Are you satisfied with the quality and quantity of housing that is affordable to you?

As someone who just went through an apartment search, I found myself a gem, and after living in larger cities, Duluth is remarkably affordable. That said, I was looking for a while before I landed the unit I got. There’s a lot of older housing here that just isn’t in great shape, but could be phenomenal if it were patched up. It’s all right there in front of us if we invest in it. The top end was also thin for a while, though that is changing.

What kind of housing should be planned for individuals and families moving here?

Housing that does not rely on the passive voice in its planning process. Also, I’m not sure why people moving here should have different types of housing than those who are here already. Am I missing something in this question?

How should people who need assistance with daily living tasks be provided with housing?

With housing that makes it easier to do the tasks they need assistance with, presumably. But, yes, it is important to keep this consideration on the table.

How should parking needs of residential uses be accommodated in neighborhoods?

Woo, heavy planner-speak in this one. If there was any question about it, I support alternate side parking; it’s just so much better for snow removal. I think this question is also getting at the city’s recent rediscovery of its limits on parking on lawns and “improvised” driveways, which is an issue in college areas. The city’s approach to date appears sensible: give people a year to adjust, but then, yes, enforce it to clean up those rental properties with yards that have become mini parking lots. Densifying the campuses so that not every student needs a car would be a win, too. As someone who went to an undergraduate university where practically no one drove, I can assure people that it’s actually a great arrangement for all involved. Also, if the city is ever in a position to develop new subdivisions with alleys, do it: this gets cars off the street and also opens up more street parking, since there isn’t a driveway every 20 feet.

Do neighborhoods need assistance in managing small conflicts like noise, trash, parking, and snow removal?

I will say this: for a city that has such pronounced and recognizable neighborhoods, Duluth has surprisingly little in the way of organized, visible neighborhood organizations. The neighborhood level could be a great place to achieve greater responsiveness on the issues listed above.

But, I urge caution here: it’s very easy to do this badly. I spent the past two years living in a Minneapolis neighborhood with a batshit crazy neighborhood board that should not have been allowed anywhere near the purse strings it had. Neighborhood boards also have a tendency to not be very representative; that is, they’re run by old people with free time. Renters and low-income people are often shut out. The well-attended council district session last week wasn’t a bad example; my council district includes both college campuses, but I was probably the youngest person there, and there were a lot of unpleasant things said about college students. I was offended before remembering that I’m not a student anymore.

I don’t mean to dismiss those concerns. Noise is an issue, and as I’ve written before, it would be great if more students could live near the college campuses instead of mixing in with neighbors who don’t like to have people puking on their lawns at 2 AM. Perhaps there is a role for city action on these fronts, but it must walk a fine line between making sure everyone is actually represented and overbearing big-city government.

Should there be more incentives to improve existing housing rather than new construction or vice versa?

Whatever the city’s stance is on new construction, yes, there should be more incentives to improve existing housing. This city has a large housing stock, and a lot of homes that could be very nice with a little loving. On the new construction front, there is plenty of room for infill in this city too, and demolition and reconstruction on lots with blighted properties. Duluth has done a good job this sort of redevelopment for tourism, so there’s no reason it can’t expand into housing, as long as there’s some money to help it along. (Big if, I know.)

Are you concerned about the resiliency of your neighborhood to withstand a natural disaster?

Not especially; I’m no expert here, but I don’t see any immediately obvious things that Duluth can do to shore up its neighborhoods against disasters other than generally making sure infrastructure is protected from 2012-style flooding. However, this question does give me a chance express my annoyance at the use of the word “resiliency.” While technically a word, it is an obnoxious piece of planning jargon and adds an unnecessary syllable. Do not use it. Thank you. Grammar police out.

How and where should/could we densify the community, particularly if we want more convenient locations for mixed uses?

Well, I’ve already mentioned the UMD area, where we’ve seen considerable success in this already, and there’s plenty of room for more. But lots of the old neighborhood downtowns, from Woodland to Lincoln Park to Spirit Valley, have potential here. Near East Fourth Street, and downtown beyond the already-dense core, also seem like obvious targets. London Road, too; I’m also looking forward to the project at Arlington and Central Entrance in Duluth Heights. These efforts to fix up lousy strip malls that have been outstripped by development elsewhere are excellent developments. There are lots and lots of opportunities here.

Should we consider a “no build” (or urban growth) boundary to limit infrastructure extensions and preserve open space on the periphery of the city?

In principle, nice idea. In practice, it would be a disaster.

Urban growth boundaries are a sexy urban planning idea best known for their implementation in Portland. There, it basically does what it intends to do. It limits the outward growth of the city and forces more density, though there is evidence that such limits on growth inflate housing prices.

Leaving that debate aside, however, there is one huge difference: Portland has a governing body, Metro, that oversees the entire metropolitan area, not just the city proper. Its regulations work because a developer who’s limited in Portland can’t just pack up and move a project to Gresham or Clackamas. If Duluth imposed this, it would have no such luck unless the suburbs and townships (in two states!) played along, which would take some colossal legislative work. Not only would it deprive the city of potential development and subsequent tax base growth, it would actually make the environmental situation worse: market-rate developments would be even further out, leading to even longer commutes and infrastructure extensions. Let’s devote our attention elsewhere.

That’s it for now, but stay tuned…

Orfield v. Goetz

12 Apr

The University of Minnesota is the home to two high-profile housing scholars who are highly articulate, impassioned advocates, and hate each other’s guts. In one corner of the great housing debate is Ed Goetz, a professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and head of the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs. His sparring partner is Myron Orfield, a law professor who served in state congress for twelve years who heads the U of M’s Center on Race and Policy. I’m the sort of person who can be entertained by high academic drama, so I’ve spent a chunk of the past year exploring their dispute, from participating in an abortive effort to get them to debate in person to settling for taking both of their classes at once. Today, Goetz’s class finally fleshed out their debate in full, giving me a chance to be accused of being a “closet integrationist,” among other things. (We were assigned sides, and being myself, I was trolling pretty hard.)

In its simplest form, the Orfield-Goetz debate boils down to this: Orfield’s acolytes believe that the most effective way to create opportunity for low-income populations and people of color is to scatter more affordable housing throughout a metropolitan area.  An agenda of full-scale desegregation is the most effective way to improve educational and economic outcomes, and policies that further concentrate low-income people in center cities or declining suburbs only reinforce cycles of poverty. Goetz’s backers, while not opposed to scattered-site housing, believe it is overly paternalistic to speak of moving black people to white neighborhoods so that they can benefit from living around white people. Goetz claims there is an affordable housing crisis in all parts of cities, and that we can’t be too picky about the siting; abandoning work in currently distressed areas will only make them worse.

The main point of contention appears to be Orfield’s treatment of community development corporations and other affordable housing developers that do the bulk of their work in already distressed areas. He calls out these developers for perpetuating inequalities, marshaling social science data to show the clear improved outcomes for low-income individuals living in “neighborhoods of opportunity.” Goetz counters by noting the extreme political obstacles to desegregation, a lack of evidence demonstrating success when programs are implemented, and the troubles left behind when investment pulls out of areas that are already struggling. He also questions the data and methods Orfield uses to arrive at his conclusions.

I can posture easily on either side, and it’s easy to toss about charges of racism or segregationism here and there. In this blog post, however, you’re stuck with me, so you’re going to get an unsatisfying and complicated answer. In writing this, I’m making some gross over-simplifications to reflect general perspectives in a debate; both scholars are considerably more complicated than this. Goetz in particular seems to appreciate a good argument wherever it comes from, and just finds Orfield’s lacking.

Orfield is something of a persona non grata in the urban planning program, but I’m still glad I sought out his class this semester, and doubt my planner colleagues would be as dismissive of him if they heard his in-person pitch. His perspective is a unique one, and he brings in new dimensions, such as schools. Urban planning, for reasons I do not entirely understand, rarely discusses education policy, and yet it is perhaps the biggest driver of residential choice out there. Case in point: both Orfield and Goetz, along with a whole host of U of M academics, live in Southwest Minneapolis, the one corner of the city with strong public schools. As someone who spends a little too much time over-thinking how I’ll handle this sort of decision when I have kids of my own, I can’t fault them at all. One’s own children are often where ideals go to die.

Goetz won’t dispute education’s potential, though the two can wrangle over the details. Still, one of the most striking things about this argument is the amount of common ground that these two share. Both seem to have fairly similar politics, are well-versed in the major literature and court cases around the issue, and infuse plenty of nuance into their arguments. They know housing policy doesn’t operate in isolation. In their debates, they tend to agree on 95 percent of things. And yet somehow that other five percent has become deeply personal, to the point that they won’t appear on stage together.

Both make the argument that the other side wants to limit choice, with the Orfield vision forcing people out into suburbs they may not want to live in and the Goetz version preventing people from any access to the potential perks of higher-income communities. (Neither one will work alone; both acknowledge this.) Both views appear overly idealistic in their own way, as Orfield puts his faith in the glacial tide of Fair Housing Act enforcement to create meaningful anti-segregation measures, while Goetz’s side would like to think that investment in long-suffering neighborhoods will somehow flip trends that have seemed so intractable for so long. (Fair points on both sides.)

Goetz’s most powerful counterpoint to Orfield’s skepticism of focus on already distressed areas has its roots in history: the current situation in inner cities is the direct result of decades of disinvestment, both public and private, and pushing people to leave will only further the decline. These places aren’t going away, and people will continue to live there. The only response here is deeply cynical: how can anyone in the housing world, knowing what has happened over time, trust that politics won’t continue to reinforce these divides? Better to hedge one’s bets and build things where wealthy white people will continue to live, as these areas will continue to do well, say Orfield’s people. The courts, at least, can push through a pro-integration agenda while being somewhat shielded from public opinion. The dreams of serious investment in distressed areas won’t work barring a political revolution, and even then, it threatens to degenerate into an us-versus-them dynamic that ends poorly for everyone.

Orfield is perhaps at his most radical when he attacks self-segregation by people of color: in his view, an all-Somali school in Minneapolis that seeks to empower its students is an unacceptable obstacle to integration. The question, then, is whether the right to self-determination and the bonds built by such concentrated schools and neighborhoods trump the social science that shows questionable outcomes. What’s the real goal here, the freedom to choose one’s own way, or a cohesive and fully integrated nation-state? As Orfield would ask, can separate schools and neighborhoods truly be equal? Or are we content to measure “success” on each community’s own terms, with no relation to the other?

The trouble here is that the “black community” (or any other racial or ethnic group, including white people) is not a monolith. Some people want to live around people who look like them, some actively want to live in diverse places, and plenty of people outside of academia or in certain chambers that react directly to it (where racial issues are always lurking under the surface even when not explicit) don’t care a whole lot. We have results from racial preference surveys that show that, for example, blacks and whites have different ideal “racial mixes” for their neighborhoods, and these dynamics, barring outside forces, will trend toward re-segregation. Still, all of this seems a horribly crude way to think about public policy and the people involved. Goetz points out that we often blur the line between whether housing policy focuses on places or people, and how one deals with that has serious implications.

When a couple of students discussed the debate with Goetz at the start of the school year, he expressed discomfort with two white men in their respective ivory towers deciding the fate of residents of low-income housing. It’s a fair point, and one consistent with his broader argument: the people who live in these places should be driving these decisions. For Orfield, on the other hand, higher ideals overpower the choices of individuals, which may on the whole create collective action problems as everyone acts in their own sorry self-interests. It’s an ancient debate, one that hearkens back to Aristotle observing the world around him while Plato looked to the sky in search of the perfect vision.

I started planning school because I was pulled by the instincts that guide Goetz: to build communities from the ground up. I still tend in that direction, though I’ve rediscovered some sense of ambition and a few crosses worth dying on, to say nothing of disgust with the bureaucratic morass that has pulled out my inner Robert Moses at times. My decidedly unsatisfying conclusion is to preach patience: collect more data, run more studies on what works, let different places experiment with different approaches to see what they can achieve. And whichever direction we go, invest more, period.

I’m glad both Goetz and Orfield do what they do, because these questions don’t have easy answers, and this sort of honest debate is exactly what future planners need to wrestle with. As proud as we may be for seeing the light and coming to this program with our visions of how the world could be better, we still should be in awe of our own ignorance and inability to “solve” things with a few easy ideas. That ignorance should not inspire sadness at our smallness in the face of the world, but relish: we have a problem to attack here, and we need to get to the bottom of it. This is what graduate school is for, and these are the debates I hope we continue to have even after we head out into the world and become real people. This is the challenge to which we’ve devoted our careers, and it won’t get any easier beyond the halls of the academy. We’d better learn how to enjoy the ride.

On Bad Architecture

10 Jun

A wise professor once told me to never trust architects. He was only half-joking. Architects do good work, of course; they’re visionaries who manage to translate vague ideas into the solid, real buildings that we use every day. I’ve met, and even studied under, some brilliant ones. (“Some of my best friends are architects!”) That said, the downsides of the profession are all too obvious. Studying architecture gives some people a certain sense of power and superiority, an inflated belief in the ability of buildings to change the world of people. They become religious crusaders for principles of design or exemplify some of the worst traits of those solipsistic modern artists for whom self-expression is the only thing on earth that matters. Seven attempts to defend awful architecture in a recent New York Times magazine piece show just how obnoxious they can be.

Alright, alright, they’re not all bad. The most compelling of the seven is the response to the Tour Montparnasse: yes, it is a bad design, but it was also the only hope for keeping central Paris from becoming anything but a living museum. Haussmann’s city, all uniformly dated and with little variety in the housing stock, does not have the density necessary to make it affordable. The middle classes and poor have been priced out of the city center, leaving it as a playground for the rich and a realm for tourists to wander, but otherwise dead. The reviewer of the Empire State Plaza also has some decent ideas for doing something with an otherwise awful space. Beyond that, sadly, no one really takes a human element into account beyond a facile ideological treatment. It also shows the importance of getting the design right, or else the hope of the affordable city will be dead upon arrival. Washington D.C., take note.

But then we come to things like the defense of the Centre Pompidou, which more or less boils down to saying that, for something to be “democratic,” it must be “shocking”, which is a code word for “ugly.” We’ve had a stable democracy for a few centuries now, so why on earth should a “democratic” building be shocking? Democracy implies public participation, not some conceited architect marching in and imposing a design on the unsuspecting populace. The result is incoherent: it’s democratic but imposed, shocking in the name of a form of government that aims to make politics boring by channeling it through institutions and equal rights. If this is the sort of architecture we must suffer if we want to be democratic, then long live the aristocracy. At least they have standards.

Wedging humans into soulless concrete silos or shocking them repeatedly, it turns out, does not make them very happy. Most people have little appreciation for the vagaries of modern design unless they have practical implications, but unlike modern art, which can be consigned to forgotten corners of museums when it is bad, bad architecture gets imposed on everyone. And yet architects continue to spew vomit about the importance of ‘liberation’ in their creations, as if this were the highest ideal. I don’t want a building I am in to liberate me; in fact, I’d rather it keep me safe from liberation. And when buildings are designed to “reject” neighborhoods, no one should be surprised when the neighborhoods reject them in turn. People and places all must weave their way into an urban fabric, and this requires subtlety and creativity, not tiresome double-speak employing a bevy of buzzwords to make an idea sound like it’s on some cutting edge.

This is where architects will claim to be misunderstood, and nod toward the ideals they aim to uphold. See the defense of the Vele di Scampia and the utopian socialist-modernist thinking behind it, in which Ada Tolla informs us that the architecture is actually brilliant, but it was everything that came afterward that turned it into the setting for the Neapolitan version of “The Wire.” This is all rather fitting, since it sounds like the argument made by many socialists after their project went all wrong: the idea was perfect, but all those stupid humans being human got in the way. Realities of human nature have never been a very important point for idealists of any stripe. If we’re sympathetic, we might be able to view Le Vele as a cute experiment and lament the poor implementation, but it was all in vain if no one bothered to learn anything from its categorical failure.

Tolla at least recognizes this, and is right to note that simple demolition isn’t necessarily the answer. My old professor learned this first hand, as he once played a role in a Minneapolis scheme to demolish crowded, drab public housing units. The architects came in touting the transformative power of New Urbanism and built a bunch of pretty houses that improved no one’s lives and left the city with far fewer housing units than they had to begin with. The designs have changed, but the rhetoric remains the same, as does the end result. Witness a map of how poverty has bloomed outward in Chicago since the destruction of its hellish projects, or how the misery of St. Louis’s Pruitt-Igoe has been replaced by the sad drama of Ferguson. The buildings may have exacerbated problems, but they were never the root cause, and anyone who treats them as such is in for a rude surprise.

Throwing aside the ideology, there is one other claim that appears several times in the Times piece: hey, at least it’s big and impressive! (One wonders if architects need a certain blue pill in their lives.) This isn’t to say monumentality and austerity can’t be impressive in a modern building. Consider the austerity of the Vietnam Memorial, or perhaps the empty room overlooking Boston Harbor at the end of the John F. Kennedy presidential library; the massive new Freedom Tower, a symbol of defiance, also comes to mind. What all those spaces share, however, is a sense of history; the monumentality and austerity conveys something specific to that particular space, and it is usually a sense of loss. Something haunts these spaces, and fills the emptiness with meaning. Without that meaning, monumental architecture is bleak and sterile. The defense of the Berlin Airport makes some sense in this context, whereas the Empire State Plaza recognizes no great part of history other than Nelson Rockefeller’s ego.

This isn’t a rejection of grand or monumental things. Grandness inspires and serves as a rallying point for cities and nations. But it should be worthy of the name: if everything aspires to grandeur, does anything at all manage to be grand? Aspiring to grandeur creates a natural hierarchy of places, and the ones that claim the top spot must truly be special. Make no mistake, we need these places to orient ourselves, and they can and should inspire. Of late, some revisionist historians have started to look back on Robert Moses with some sympathy: sure, he steamrolled over a ton of people as he ran the show in mid-century New York City, but at least big things actually got done. Certain problems require big thinking, particularly in third-world countries where population growth is so explosive that a lot of people need housing very quickly.

Grandeur and monumentalism don’t imply a lack of interest in detail and intricacy. Consider the precision of the beauty of European cathedrals or Islamic mosques, full of niches or corners where every little detail is ornamented in some way. Contemporary architects such as César Pelli usually mind the details and make sure their buildings’ nods to the past aren’t stupid artistic abstractions. Their work shows genuine care and attention, and they go beyond simply slapping up blank walls that try to speak for themselves. Walls need to have seen things to be able to speak, and no architect can manufacture history or community.

Those must emerge themselves, often slowly, and over time. Frustrating, perhaps, to those whose egos compel them to go forth and shock the world. And we urban planners probably shouldn’t throw stones, considering our own checkered past. No one has all the answers. This calls for debate, not ideology, and a careful understanding: who are we building this for, and why are we building it anyway? Anyone who aspires to build things for other people ought to have an answer.

Let’s Argue About Downtown Housing: Duluth City Council Notes, 5/12/14

13 May

City Hall was, apparently, the place to be in Duluth on Monday night. Most of the residents of Park Point relocated themselves to the Council Chamber, with a number wearing red “danger” tape armbands in protest of the proposed small area plan for the spit of land; it looked to be the most raucous crowd in years. President Krug, however, decided to deprive us of all the drama by announcing the plan would be tabled before the meeting even started. The Park Pointers moved their powwow out into the hallway, though a sizeable crowd remained in the chamber. The tabling of the measure meant we only had to deal with a 2-hour, 45-minute meeting instead of going past midnight.

As has been the case recently, there was a substantial, eclectic group of citizen speakers. Two came to talk up a “meet on the street” sort of block party planned for 3rd St. in Lincoln Park on July 13, where they hoped to build community; another highlighted a few events related to Bus, Bike, and Walk Month. A familiar visitor also came up to demand further information on the direction of the conversation on street repair, repeating his opposition to any tax increases to pay for it.

There was a whole heap of resolutions related to the new maurices Tower in Downtown Duluth. (Useless grammatical fact for the day: maurices is not capitalized.) They all passed unanimously, though President Krug abstained due to personal connections, and there was much celebration of the project and all of its ancillary benefits. Two Councilors, despite noting their general leeriness of excessing Tax Increment Finance (TIF) Districts, said this was very good use of TIF Districts.

The highlights of the night were three requests to endorse housing projects seeking state low-income housing credits for downtown developments. Planning Director Keith Hamre explained that they amounted to ten-year tax credits, and Councilor Larson added that this was an application process that did not cost the city, but instead asked the Council to endorse project readiness.

The first plan on the docket was the redevelopment of the existing Gateway Tower, and it was the least controversial of the three. Councilor Julsrud noted that maintaining the Gateway was much cheaper than building things from scratch, while Councilor Filipovich pointed out its “sheer mass size,” with 150 units in the building, including 50 for low-income housing. Councilor Gardner expressed tepid support due to some concerns about the management, while Councilor Folse foresaw nothing but debt. Councilor Hanson claimed he was unable to “do due diligence” on the project based on the information presented, and said the plan was “not firm in foundation.” Carla Schneider, the deputy director of the Housing and Redevelopment Authority, tried to explain how the ownership consortium would work, but failed to convince Councilor Hanson it was “shovel ready,” and he joined Councilor Fosle in opposition. The plan passed, 7-2.

Next up was a proposal to redevelop the historic Burnham Apartments, better known as the old county jail located behind Government Plaza, into low-income housing. On this project, the Councilors were almost all of one mind: the design required a lot more work before it would earn Council support. Councilor Larson said she hadn’t seen much of anything on it before tonight, while Councilor Gardner voiced concerns about the location. Still, the Councilors had kind words for the developer, a Mr. Grant Carlson, and invited him to work with them to produce a better future plan for his property. Councilor Fosle added that he’d been a “big meanie” who’d voted to have the building torn down some years before, but was pleasantly surprised there was interest in using it now; Councilor Hanson thought enough of Mr. Carlson that he ventured to be the lone vote in favor of the plan, which failed, 8-1.

The final and most controversial project involved the burned-out Pastoret Terrace, better known as the old Kozy Bar. A plan by the same developer (led by former city planner Mike Conlan) failed the previous year; this modified plan had considerably more “workforce housing” than last year’s, which was primarily low-income units. Given the building’s history and place in its neighborhood, there were plenty of strong opinions; as Councilor Gardner noted, the corner of First Street and Second Avenue East has been a “problem since 1918.” Councilor Sipress reminded everyone of the building’s architectural value, while Councilor Fosle again insisted that he would never support anything owned by Eric Ringsred, as Mr. Ringsred had once suggested the City was culpable for his business partner’s suicide. Councilor Julsrud echoed the worries about Mr. Ringsred, saying the past did not predict a happy future; as much as she wanted to be hopeful and see something “literally rise from the ashes” on that site, she said that “we can hope all we want, but we’re the City Council, not a church.”

There were concerns about the project’s role in a broader vision for downtown Duluth as well. CAO Montgomery said the Administration would prefer market-rate housing on the site, and posed a broader question on the concentration of housing downtown. Councilor Hanson picked up on this theme, saying low-income housing was far too heavily concentrated in that area; “is that all we have going for us?” he asked, and wondered about the impact on the police. He also shared a “personal antidote” [sic] about what he saw as inconsistent standards in the city’s evaluation of blighted properties.

The project’s chief defender was Councilor Gardner, who commended the developers for having their “ducks in a row” this time around. She said the Pastoret building was in jeopardy after several harsh winters in its burned-out state, and that its developers ought to be held to the same standards as the others. She noted that the immediate neighborhood was “practically dead,” and bemoaned some of the unsavory activities taking place at the Clayton-Jackson-McGhie Memorial across the street. Councilor Filipovich joined her in exhorting the Council to pass the plan, noting it was their big chance to revitalize the corner, and that the LLC in charge of the project had a “proven track record.” Councilor Sipress noted that there was plenty of focus on low-income and more upscale housing in Duluth, but that the working class was largely being left out, and the majority of the Pastoret units, aimed at single individuals making 25 to 30 thousand dollars a year, would help fill that need.

There was an amendment to give this particular a top priority tag; this was mostly forgotten as the Councilors rushed to debate the merits of the project, and in the end it ultimately failed 6-3, with Councilor Larson explaining that it might be “confusing,” and that the state should do its due diligence to vet the projects. The project itself passed by a 6-3 margin, with Councilors Fosle, Julsrud, and Hanson in opposition.

There was also a pair of items on the agenda that were not immediate City Council business, per se: a resolution supporting the Women’s Economic Security Act (WESA) moving through the state legislature, and another taking a stand against a proposed Canadian nuclear waste facility near Lake Huron (thus potentially polluting the Great Lakes). Both issues brought out several passionate speakers who all asked the Council to move the initiatives forward. The resolutions prompted the expected grumblings from Councilor Fosle, who said they were out of the Council’s jurisdiction, and would be better advocated by direct personal letter; while he’d play along tonight, he said, he’d never support such a measure again. The WESA was made somewhat more confusing by the fact that it had already been signed into law the day before by Governor Dayton; for her part, Councilor Gardner claimed it did not go far enough in expanding things such as child care and sick leave. Still, it brought out some impassioned defenses by several Councilors, including a personal antidote (sorry) from Councilor Julsrud, who told of her father’s refusal to allow her to work in the family construction business when she was 18. Councilor Sipress told of the process behind the nuclear waste resolution, saying Duluth would be one of many Great Lakes cities and organizations to join the protest, and that it would be passed along to numerous Canadian governmental and regulatory bodies during a required comment period, not “tossed in a wastebasket,” as Councilor Fosle said it would. The WESA resolution passed unanimously, and only President Krug voted against the nuclear waste resolution, labeling it “too broad.”

By the end of the meeting President Krug was trying to hustle things through to end the long night, and even Councilor Gardner was “running out of words.” A grant related to something called “tactical urbanism” was deemed “cool” and passed unanimously, as did a couple of land transfers and a thrilling sprinkler ordinance. Councilor Larson took a brief moment to talk up many things happening at the library, including a functioning elevator (hooray!), a new digital microfilm machine, and a novel seed library idea.

Despite everyone’s exhaustion, there was a lengthy and rather contentious comment period at the end that involved much muttering. Councilor Larson updated everyone on the city’s street repair plan, explaining that it was an $8.50 per month fee that will sunset, and that the unpopular street light fee will also be phased out. This had CAO Montgomery wondering how exactly the Council planned to replace these funds if they seriously wanted to focus on road repair, leading Councilor Gardner to scoff at the notion that the city couldn’t come up with those $2.1 million over three years. In response, CAO Montgomery warned that this was turning into the casino issue all over again.

This also led to a spat between President Krug and Councilor Hanson, who was frustrated by what he believed to be a lack of information and transparency in the whole street planning process. He said the council was “not inclusive,” with people leading certain projects while others were left out, and wanted to know where he could get his questions answered. President Krug, tired of it all, gave a halfhearted lecture before finally pushing everyone to the exits. (It was, frankly, a difficult meeting for Councilor Hanson, who gave the impression that he was in over his head on several issues. To his credit, he is aware of this, and seems to want to do something about it.)

To wrap things up, I apologize for any typos, as I wrote most of this while also watching the Wild game and intermittently yelling things and hyperventilating. Damn you, Patrick Kane.