Which way do we go?

25 01 2010

Christopher Hawthorne: “This movement in the direction of emptiness is profoundly difficult for contemporary culture — and particularly American culture — to grapple with. Occasional recessions and other setbacks aside, we assume that our national trajectory always moves toward fullness, that our cultural progress can be measured by how much new square footage we’ve created and occupied. But that process has completely reversed itself in many of cities hardest hit by economic crisis…The combination of overbuilding during the boom years, thanks to easy credit, and the sudden paralysis of the financial markets in the fall of 2008 has created an unprecedented supply of unwanted or under-occupied real estate around the world. At the same time, rising cultural worry about environmental disaster or some other end-of-days scenario has produced a recent stream of books, movies and photography imagining cities and pieces of architecture emptied of nearly all signs of human presence.”

Ken Belson: “Years after a wave of construction brought publicly financed stadiums costing billions of dollars to cities across the country, taxpayers are once again being asked to reach into their pockets. From New Jersey to Ohio to Arizona, the stadiums were sold as a key to redevelopment and as the only way to retain sports franchises. But the deals that were used to persuade taxpayers to finance their construction have in many cases backfired, the result of overly optimistic revenue assumptions and the recession… Nowhere is the problem more acute than in Cincinnati. In 1996, voters in Hamilton County approved an increase of half of one percent in the sales tax that promised to build and maintain stadiums for the Bengals and the Reds, pay Cincinnati’s public schools and give homeowners an annual property tax rebate. The stadiums were supposed to spur development of the city’s dilapidated riverfront. But sales tax receipts have fallen so fast in the last year that the county is now scrambling to bridge a $14 million deficit in its sales tax fund. The public schools, which deferred taking their share for years, want their money. The teams have not volunteered to rewrite their leases. So in the coming weeks, the county plans to cut basic services, lower its legal bills and drain a bond reserve fund with no plan for paying it back.”

Alec MacGillis: “In April 2006, the Richard Florida show arrived in the Southern Tier of Upstate New York. It was only one of the scores of appearances this decade by the economic-development guru, whose speaking fee soared to $35,000 not long after his 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class made him a star on the lecture circuit. Cleveland, Toledo, Baltimore, Greensboro, Green Bay, Des Moines, Hartford, Roanoke, and Rochester were among the many cities that had already shelled out to hear from the good-looking urban-studies professor about how to get young professionals to move in. Of course, none of these burgs has yet completed the transformation from post-manufacturing ugly duckling to gay-friendly, hipster swan. But middling results elsewhere did not keep people in the greater Elmira area from getting excited about Florida’s visit…As Elmira and other cities on Florida’s circuit dutifully carry out his instructions, though, the guru has grown less confident in their prospects…Florida has been arguing that the recession has so decimated many cities and regions that it’s time for the country to cut its losses and instead encourage growth in places that are prospering, like Silicon Valley, Boulder, Austin, and North Carolina’s Research Triangle. And the rest?(:)…He delivered the harsh news: ‘We need to be clear that ultimately, we can’t stop the decline of some places, and that we would be foolish to try. … Different eras favor different places, along with the industries and lifestyles those places embody. … We need to let demand for the key products and lifestyles of the old order fall, and begin building a new economy, based on a new geography’…Amy Liu of the Brookings Institution…says: ‘The problem is that he omits a whole group of cities and parts of the country that would never be magnets for talent. Most of the places that really need economic development are cities that must grow skills and talent from within.”‘

Anatomy of Ruins

P.J. Huffstutter: “Cottonwood trees grow through the collapsed roofs of homes stripped clean for scrap metal. Wild grasses carpet the rusty shells of empty factories, now home to pheasants and wild turkeys. This green veil is proof of how far this city has fallen from its industrial heyday and, to a small group of investors, a clear sign. Detroit, they say, needs to get back to what it was before Henry Ford moved to town: farmland. ‘There’s so much land available and it’s begging to be used,’ said Michael Score, president of the Hantz Farms, which is buying up abandoned sections of the city’s 139-square-mile landscape and plans to transform them into a large-scale commercial farm enterprise. ‘Farming is how Detroit started…and farming is how Detroit can be saved.'”

Amy Hsuan: “In the past few years, a change has taken over the woods, unsettling residents and their relationship with the land. Here and throughout the Pacific Northwest, investors have been buying millions of acres of forestland, betting on big payouts for their clients — pension funds, university endowments and foundations. Today, timber investment management organizations and real estate investment trusts represent the largest private landowners in Oregon and across the country. Over the past decade, investor-owners have used one big advantage as they’ve quietly replaced traditional forest products companies: They don’t pay corporate taxes…With timber prices flatlining and real estate values rising, many private forestland owners are shifting their gaze to building homes rather than growing trees. Landowners elsewhere in the country, under pressure to maximize returns, have looked to convert forests into subdivisions and resorts as trees become less valuable than the land they occupy.”

Daniel Weintraub: “California’s battle against greenhouse gases is likely to come to the Bay Area soon — with rules designed to reduce the carbon footprint of new housing and commercial development. That is a concept you might expect to be welcome in a region known for its environmental advocacy and hostility to growth. But some environmentalists and city planners fear that the new set of guidelines being considered by the region’s air quality regulators could have an unintended consequence, making it more difficult and more expensive for developers to construct buildings within already urbanized areas. That would run counter to the notion that builders should be given incentives to shift future population growth from the car-dependent outer suburbs to places where public services are already available and public transit is a more viable option to get people out of their cars.”

Martin Mittelstaedt: “Americans’ infatuation with their cars has endured through booms and busts, but last year something rare happened in the United States: The size of the U.S. car fleet dropped by a hefty four million vehicles to 246 million, the only large decline since the U.S. Department of Transportation began modern recordkeeping in 1960…And the overall drop in car ownership has prompted speculation that the long American love affair with the car is fading. Analysts cite such diverse factors as high gas prices, the expansion of many municipal transit systems, and the popularity of networking websites among teenagers replacing cars as a way of socializing…The institute is issuing an analysis Wednesday that contends the drop in 2009 isn’t a one-time fluke caused by the recession, and that U.S. car ownership is likely to be entering a longer-term decline that will see the fleet drop by another 25 million by 2020.”

Jenn Abelson: “For many young Americans, the automobile is less a love affair than a way to get there. Even before the recession, the younger generation of motorists had lost their lust for the latest and greatest cars on the market. Some analysts say automakers dropped the ball years ago on designing affordable and swanky cars for young motorists to flash their style. Between 2005 and 2008, sales of new vehicles declined consistently, and consumers between the ages of 20 and 34 accounted for the largest drop, about 30 percent, according to Maritz, a market research firm.”

Dennis DesRosiers: “The drop in ownership is arguably one of the absolute most serious downside threats to the North American auto industry. I call it the nightmare scenario for the industry.”

Sustained Long-Term US Gasoline Demand Growth Unlikely

Deron Lovaas: “Since U.S. gasoline demand may have already peaked…we come back to the elephant in the room for many of our discussions: With declining gasoline tax revenues, how will we pay for all of this?”

Peggy Fikac: “The Texas Transportation Commission has directed a fresh study of the (Vehicle Miles Traveled Tax) idea, and it is not alone. There are pilot projects in other states and nationally to gauge how such a tax would work. Texas transportation officials say the study is meant to help give lawmakers information on options ahead of their next regular session in 2011, when they confront a funding squeeze that is expected to drain the highway fund of money for new construction contracts by 2012. “We need to think differently about how we fund transportation,” Texas Transportation Commission Chairwoman Deirdre Delisi said at a Texas Taxpayers and Research Association forum in November. Delisi said the vehicle-miles-traveled tax idea is controversial, but should be discussed because revenue from the state’s main source of transportation funding, the motor fuels tax, is declining. The gasoline tax has not been raised since 1991.”




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