Infrastructure

CityLedes: T-SPLOSTed

CityLedes is a weekly roundup of urban-related news happening across the country and globe, as compiled by Harry Moroz, Mark Bergen and David Sparks.

The Lede: Atlanta voters turn down a 10-year, $7.2 billion regional transportation plan, leaving the car-choked city with few avenues out. Miami and Houston approve new transit proposals while cuts threaten Pittsburgh. San Francisco voters may wield unusual democratic powers to block a relaxation of building height restrictions. A judge throws out Michigan’s emergency managers, throwing Detroit into a tizzy. Walmart hits dead ends in a Queens neighborhood and in a Philadelphia race. An ambitious urban plan unfolds in Spain, shaved down to Euro-crisis size. Urbanization hiccups in Turkey and Israel. Dangleboris on the rise. Amtrak on the gastronomical decline. Auditing a city’s art. How thin is fiscal urgency? In Miami, it’s see-through. In Detroit, it’s as thick as lemonade.

Click to jump to a topic:
Transportation and Infrastructure
Economy and Development
Budget
Labor
Housing
Energy, Environment, and Health
Public Safety
Immigration
Education
Mayors and City Councils
International
Culture and Other Curiosities

Transportation and Infrastructure

Deal faces an immense problem. There’s widespread agreement that the region needs to fix its transportation problems to remain competitive for economic development, but there’s little agreement on how to do that. At the same time, the tools the governor will have at his disposal will be minimal, thanks to cuts in federal funding for transportation and the state’s own shrinking budget.
  • Yonah Freemark assesses Miami’s transit downgrade:
They were promised an enormous expansion of rail transit service, with dozens of miles of new lines shooting out of the existing Metrorail system in virtually every direction. What they got in reality, however, was one project: The 2.4-mile, one-stop Orange Line extension to the Airport, which opened last weekend at a cost of $506 million. No other rail service is expected to be funded before 2035. Nonetheless, the Airport extension, which will bring downtown Miami within a 15-minute trip of the airport, is an impressive addition to the city’s transit network.
  • Houston’s Metro board approves a ballot referendum that would give the city tens of millions of dollars for road projects. The University of Houston and Metro officials come to an agreement over the construction of a light-rail line that would cross the university’s property. Charlotte’s airport and light rail prepare for a deluge of DNC visitors.

Typically 6 feet deep and about two parking spaces wide, the parklets have been a hit in other cities, especially San Francisco, which has built more than 30 of them. They’re part of a global urban planning trend that treats streets as places for cyclists and pedestrians, not just conduits for cars. Emanuel is touting them as a way to draw more foot traffic to neighborhood shopping strips. But some Chicagoans are greeting them with a mix of optimism and skepticism, worried that they could actually hurt business by cutting the supply of parking.
Economy and Development

In a sense, Oakland is the last place you would expect to find the most stubbornly active outpost of the Occupy movement. It’s a city almost entirely devoid of financial or corporate institutions, a city that “capital” fled decades ago. The shimmering skyscrapers of downtown San Francisco, packed with Pacific Heights investment bankers and venture capitalists, are all of 12 minutes away. Silicon Valley, bursting at the seams with dot-com millionaires, isn’t much farther. Why not take the fight there, to a more plausible surrogate for Wall Street?

Maybe because Occupy Oakland, whether its leaders have articulated it or not, isn’t a protest against what Oakland is, but rather what it’s in danger of becoming. Oakland may be broke, but all of the wealth being generated in its immediate vicinity needs someplace to go, and some of that wealth is already beginning to find its way to Oakland, to a place that has long been the catch basin of America’s radical energies and personalities.

  • San Francisco cuts backs on plans for waterfront redevelopment as the America’s Cup sailing race shrinks. Developers of a proposed waterfront Oakland A’s stadium/housing/retail complex meet with local politicos, stealthily. In Kansas City, tax money earmarked for stadium improvements are not going there. Before its casino arrives, Columbus ensures that any winnings there are taxable. And the city’s buses are betting that gamblers will ditch their cars. Lone Star cities lead the pack in income segregation.
The new career center aims to ease veterans’ transition to civilian life by training and locating employment opportunities for the city’s estimated 8,600 unemployed veterans. Last year, Workforce1 worked with 3,700 veterans and found jobs for more than 800 of them. That yearly rate could increase to 1,250 with the new career center, officials said in a statement. In addition, Workforce1 has pledged to prioritize veterans at its existing 15 career centers throughout the city.

Nearly a decade after Minneapolis outsourced its IT services to Unisys Corp., no other company has had a chance to bid for what has become the city’s largest contract — worth $143 million over its lifetime.

Now some top city officials are casting doubt on whether the 10-year Unisys relationship, which dates back to the era of dialup modems, remains the best deal for taxpayers. What’s more, a recent audit found the company wasn’t following some of the requirements in its contract.

Budget

The imminent suspension of Michigan’s controversial emergency manager law touched off a flurry of bold and contradictory claims Friday about the status of cities and schools already operating under financial emergencies, including the state’s two largest, the City of Detroit and its public school system.

Some opponents of the law — victorious in court Friday when the Supreme Court ordered a referendum on the law be placed on the November ballot — said state-appointed emergency managers should pack their bags and leave.

Detroit school board President LaMar Lemmons II said he expects the Detroit board, virtually powerless under the emergency manager law, to cancel emergency manager Roy Roberts’ plan to downsize the district as soon as a state elections panel meets to certify the referendum on Public Act 4.

  • Nearly a quarter of New Orleans’ parcels will see property tax increases next year. Austin’s proposed budget would entail an increase in fees and taxes. The Houston City Council approves a $395,000 audit of public employee pension plans. State overseers are skeptical of Philadelphia’s budgetary assumption that its firefighters would receive no raises, despite an arbitration panel’s award. Belle Island still sits in limbo between Detroit and the state. Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard faces his first ever budget deficit, with the axe swinging toward public safety.

Financial urgency has been a nightmare for labor unions, which have little control once a municipality invokes the statute. Unions see the provision as a way for local governments to sidestep negotiations — and balance their budgets by slashing employee pay and benefits.

In the case of Miami, union leaders point out that city administrators have declared financial urgency three years in a row, and that the city’s financial outlook is actually improving. Revenues from property taxes are up over last year, and the city commission has given a tentative nod to lowering the overall tax rate.

Labor

  • A pension ruling in Milwaukee puts the county’s budget plans on the defense:

A judge’s ruling disallowing a 2010 reduction in pension benefits for Milwaukee County nurses could spell trouble for several county benefit cost-saving moves, including a proposed limit on the controversial backdrop lump-sum benefit sought by County Executive Chris Abele, county and union officials said.

Millions of dollars potentially could be at stake – money the county had been counting on as savings through lower pension costs — if the ruling by Circuit Judge William Pocan stands. Though Pocan’s ruling applies to only about 275 county employees who work as nurses and other medical staff, other employee groups are considering legal action to be included.

  • A Charlotte city worker union plans to protest the City Council ahead of the DNC. The Seattle garbage strike ends.

Housing

Housing advocates have long said that there is not enough affordable housing in the state. A recent study by the Center for Housing Policy found that one in four households in Connecticut are struggling to pay housing costs and 137,000 families are spending at least half their income on their mortgage or rent. In the East Hartford-Hartford-West Hartford area, 19 percent of households spent at least 50 percent of their income on housing in 2010, the study found.
  • The gap between families in need of rental assistance and those receiving it continues to grow. Median home prices increase closer to sports facilities. Condo sales and prices are up in downtown Miami. The Austin City Council approves short-term rental regulations. Houston’s homeless population declines.
  • Buy, rather than rent, if you plan on living in metro D.C. longer than 3.5 years.
  • For the first time in 20 years, San Francisco voters will get a chance to overturn their board of supervisors — by shooting down relaxed height restrictions on new waterfront condos.

Energy, Environment, and Health

  • L.A. schools wins a suit with AIG over insurance against extraordinary environmental cleanup costs associated with school construction:
The district paid about $7.5 million up front for the 20-year policy and also agreed to pay the first $100,000 on any claim. Even so, the claims quickly absorbed what the district put in, and AIG resisted paying more. L.A. Unified filed suit in 2006, beginning a protracted legal battle that consumed millions of dollars, according to people inside the district who were not authorized to disclose the information.
  • Texas attempts to use the Supreme Court’s health care reform ruling against the EPA. D.C. expands its anti-littering program. Canton, Ohio considers opening its public grounds for oil and gas.
  • A dearth of mental health funding is keeping Cincinnatti from being a “great city,” says one of its development chiefs.

Public Safety

The Goldman money will be used to pay MDRC, a social services provider, to design and oversee the program. If the program reduces recidivism by 10 percent, Goldman would be repaid the full $9.6 million; if recidivism drops more, Goldman could make as much as $2.1 million in profit; if recidivism does not drop by at least 10 percent, Goldman would lose as much as $2.4 million.
  • Tensions still flare in Anaheim, where police killed an unarmed man last month:

There have always been divides in this city south of Los Angeles, where Disneyland and professional hockey and baseball teams bring in millions of visitors each year. The money generated by the resort area makes up roughly a third of the city’s annual income. But few visitors ever see the poor neighborhoods just beyond Disneyland Drive. As the protests exploded last week, the park’s nightly fireworks continued just a few miles away.
Immigration

Locking up illegal immigrants has grown profoundly lucrative for the private prisons industry, a reliable pot of revenue that helped keep some of the biggest companies in business. And while nearly half of the 400,000 immigrants held annually are housed in private facilities, the federal government — which spends $2 billion a year on keeping those people in custody — says it isn’t necessarily cheaper to outsource the work, a central argument used for privatization in the first place.
Education

  • Metro Atlanta schools ring in the new year with cuts. Washington State’s urban school districts are teaching an increasing number of homeless students. The graduation rates for Texas’ Hispanic and black students reach a new high. Houston ISD Superintendent Grier’s revised bond plan fails to secure unanimous support from the board.
  • Invisible hand comes to Chicago preschools:

Emanuel unveiled the long-awaited process, and announced the city will add at least 2,000 new preschool slots next year and more in future years. Another 4,000 children will receive increased access to wraparound services through existing early childhood programs.

…Charter schools will be competing against the host of entities that now provide preschool, including for-profit agencies, community groups, Head Start programs and state pre-kindergarten. Though the money comes from the federal or state government, the city administers and doles out contracts to most Head Start and state pre-kindergarten programs.

Mayors and City Councils

  • Philly Mayor Michael Nutter does not like Pennsylvania’s new voter ID law. L.A. mayoral contenders Councilman Garcetti and Controller Greuel are raising lots of money, but none of it from Walmart. The race for L.A. City Council has attracted the ambitions of four state lawmakers:
Blumenfield’s move is the latest sign that Sacramento has become a steppingstone for would-be council members, not the other way around. Council members earn about $179,000, or nearly twice as much as those in the Assembly, and their years in Sacramento can be applied to the city’s pension system.
  • An arrest sheds light on the shady world of absentee-ballot fraud by “boleteros“ in Miami-Dade.
  • San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro will give the keynote at the Democratic National Convention.

International

The Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Corruption became aware of the colorful activities of the mayor and his girlfriend after Maite Zaldívar, the jealous wife, had gossiped about them on a TV show. The jilted wife said that garbage bags filled with money had frequently been dropped off at the family estate.
  • Hotels in London cut prices because the city is a ghost town. Local labor markets shouldn’t have expected any benefit from the Olympics, anyway.
An article in the Telegraph on Tuesday claimed that Johnson has “snatched the spotlight away from the prime minister and used the Games as a launch pad for his leadership ambitions.” The Cameron-friendly newspaper also noted how there has been a “sudden outbreak of Boris-mania” among Conservative donors.
  • Crediting intergovernmental cooperation, the Mexican government says homicides are down 50 percent in Ciudad Juárez.

Ismail Abu Saad, a Bedouin academic and professor at Ben-Gurion University, who lives in the recognised town of Lakiya, says Israel’s policy of Bedouin urbanisation has created “third-world enclaves in the middle of an affluent society. The government planned this urbanisation process to fail. It is interested in controlling the people and keeping people poor, with a lot of social problems so that you’re busy all the time for survival; you don’t have time to think about anything else.”
Culture and Other Curiosities

In New York or Buenos Aires, all walks are beside screeching cars, all lines are straight and all turns are sharp. The only curves are cut out of square parks carved from uniform blocks. In Las Vegas or Detroit, commercial strips are interspersed with abandoned or under-used space, and pedestrians shortcut across parking lots or empty grass to get from place to place. In Boston, I could walk for hours on pathways made with the pedestrian in mind. There were paths along waterways, pedestrian-only alleys, wide boulevards with wide sidewalks, footbridges over roads and rail lines, and everywhere benches, stairs and green spaces where I could sit.
“Your average cultured reader, reading the L.A. Times, thinks that I’ve destroyed the museum, that I’ve dismantled all intelligence from the program, that we’re doing nothing serious, that we’re showing, like, celebrity portraits or something, that nobody on the staff gets along with me,” he says. “And that is not what’s happening here.”

Tags: infrastructure, economic development, transportation, chicago, transit, houston, atlanta, cityledes