CityLedes:  A New York Economystery

CityLedes:  A New York Economystery

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

The Lede: The health of New York City’s economy is anyone’s guess. Jobs are being added, but the unemployment rate is sticky. No matter, the rent is too damn high. Uber cries death-by-regulation and gets lots of good press. Food trucks are winning the battle against death-by-regulation. But not in Houston. The nation’s railroad loses the battle for subsidies to its bitter rival the nation’s highways. The gender gap in architecture and development is wide. San Francisco enacts an ambitious plan to allow city residents to buy all renewable energy. Houston’s got a new designer drug. D.C. sets educational achievement standards by race and income. Meanwhile, students cheat. The NYC MTA’s removal of trash cans from subway stations means dirtier trees. Philadelphia’s prison population soars, Scranton has lots of work to do, and the City College of San Francisco is nearly bankrupt. Change in Jakarta. IKEAville. Los Anchorage. An effort to synchronize flushing. Smoking all of the cigarettes all of the time.

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

Economy and Development

The economic conundrum is this: The city has been adding jobs all year—77,500 as of July. Yet, the job growth has not dented the unemployment rate, which dropped only slightly in August, to 9.9%, down from 10% in July.

The two metrics are calculated using different methods, and surveying different populations. That makes them hard to compare, even though they generally move together…

Another voice entered the mix on Thursday when the U.S. Census Bureau released its American Community Survey data on poverty. It showed the city’s poverty rate increased by 1 percentage point last year. The data reflects the state of the economy in 2011 and isn’t necessarily an accurate snapshot of today. Nearly 1.7 million city residents were classified as poor.

  • Community development funding is drying up:

Government funding for work to revitalize neighborhoods is plummeting nationwide amid pressure to cut budgets, increasing the odds of gaps that cannot be overcome. It’s a prospect that alarms practitioners in Baltimore, where the battle against vacant housing and blight has raged for decades.

The city got 30 percent less this year from the two major federal programs for revitalization — the Community Development Block Grant and HOME Investment Partnerships — than it received just before the recession. Compared with a decade ago, funding is down by nearly half. That’s not even accounting for the value-sapping effect of inflation.

A city of nearly 300,000 people, Alaska’s largest community is rarely lauded for its wild nature or frontier aesthetics. Many rural Alaskans consider Anchorage to be a northern incarnation of Lower 48 excesses. They derisively call the city Los Anchorage, a not-so-subtle comparison to Southern California’s smog-enshrouded, freeway infested, urban-sprawl megalopolis (this description perhaps revealing some of my own prejudices about L.A.). Other Alaskans, including some residents, ridicule Anchorage as Anywhere USA and claim its only saving grace to be its close proximity to “the real Alaska.”
  • D.C. suburbs are rich. Camden is poorest. Poverty increased in Philadelphia and its suburbs. Poverty and income both rise in Houston. Seattle’s median household income exceeds $60,000.
  • Hartford, CT’s anti-blight efforts suffer from administrative weaknesses. Developers are finally breaking ground on an urban village in Charlotte’s First Ward. A website will grade New York City blocks.
  • Springfield, MA slows its hyper-speed casino plan. Seattle’s arena plan moves to the City Council for approval. Walmart moves forward with efforts to obtain a permit for a Midtown Miami superstore. Atlanta approves public funding for the expansion of a movie studio. Chicago goes wireless.
  • A new stadium opens in Brooklyn…

Transportation and Infrastructure

My father, a lifelong New Yorker and confirmed L.A. hater whose screenwriting work has frequently taken him to the City of Angels, found the idea of a carless California day pretty amusing. But the city that’s defined in the public imagination as the great auto-centric counterpoint to the traditional cities of the Northeast has quietly emerged as a serious mass transit contender. It’s no New York and never will be—Los Angeles was constructed in the era of mass automobile ownership, and its landscape will always reflect that—but it’s turning into something more interesting, a 21st-century city that moves the idea of alternative transportation beyond nostalgia or Europhilia.
  • In the battle of highway subsidies and Amtrak subsidies, highway subsidies prevail:

Luckily, Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman was on hand to remind him. “In the past four years, the federal government has appropriated $53.3 billion from the general fund of the Treasury to bail out the Highway Trust Fund,” Boardman told the committee. “That’s almost 30 percent more than the total federal expenditure on Amtrak since 1971.”

Considering that about 20 percent of the Highway Trust Fund goes to transit, that’s still more for highways alone over the past four years than Amtrak has ever gotten.

Meanwhile, Amtrak affirmed this week that the rail line covers 85 percent of its operating costs with ticket sales and other revenues.

  • Amazon offers $5.5 million to Seattle for streetcar and bicycling improvements in compensation for taking city-owned alleys for its planned high-rise campus. The Georgia Department of Transportation votes to install electronic speed limit signs along the northern half of I-285, which will vary the limit according to traffic congestion.
  • Work on the second tube of PortMiami’s tunnel will begin in October. Miami-Dade uses robocalls to harass posters of illegal signs until the signs are removed.
  • The Sewerage and Water Board scales back its proposed water and sewer rates again. The Portland City Council passes a resolution against coal trains running through town. Atlanta gets a 13-year court-ordered extension on its mandatory sewer upgrades.
The emotional intensity certainly has worked well for Uber thus far. A heated email about Mary Cheh’s proposed regulations stirred thousands of residents to write the Council, even if the actual facts still remain in dispute at best. Maybe this is indeed a good lobbying strategy for startups in regulated fields: Build a great service that might be in the gray area of the law, accumulate a lot of happy customers, object loudly when lawmakers or regulators take unfavorable action, and channel customer energy to get better regulations.
  • High-speed rail construction picks up speed in California. The D.C. Metro will stay open for Nationals playoff games, but no one knows who will pay.

Education

  • D.C. schools set new student achievement targets by race and income:
Officials say the new targets account for differences in current performance and demand the fastest progress from students who are furthest behind. The goals vary across much of the country by race, family income and disability, and in Washington, they also vary by school.

Meanwhile, school test cheating continues to thrive due to uneven investigation policies across districts:

In some cases, investigations uncovered wrongdoing and led to punishment for a handful of educators. In others, inquiries glossed over glaring irregularities. Nearly always, officials focused narrowly on a single classroom or, at most, a single school — the approach the Atlanta Public Schools used for years before a scandal over systemic cheating erupted three years ago.
  • An Atlanta attorney claims that the Georgia Superintendent and the superintendents in Fulton County and Atlanta are illegally campaigning against charters with taxpayer funds. Texas school districts begin to embrace cell phones.

City College of San Francisco is perilously close to bankruptcy, in part because it employs nearly twice as many faculty as similar colleges and pays them better – yet educates no more students on average, says a new financial analysis of the state’s largest public school.

The college got into trouble because, unlike other colleges, it failed to make the budget cuts necessary to keep up with reductions in state funding, never set aside money for its growing retirement obligations, and “has provided salary increases and generous benefits with no discernible means to pay for them,” says the review by the state’s Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team, authorized by state law to help public schools in financial trouble.

Energy, Environment, and Health

The program, CleanPowerSF, is designed to build a customer base and revenue stream to allow for future borrowing to build city-owned renewable power generation facilities while advancing San Francisco’s aggressive greenhouse-gas reduction goals.

Under the legislation, which still requires a second vote to land on Mayor Ed Lee’s desk, $19.5 million in public funds will be allocated to secure a contract with Shell to provide renewable power to San Franciscans. Some $6 million from that total will go to studying local power-generation options and funding solar and energy efficiency programs.

But the Daily News reports that Feibush went ahead with his plans anyway, reportedly spending more than $20,000 of his own money not only to remove the trash but also to level the soil; add cherry trees, fencing and park benches; and repave the sidewalk.

“This was a lot of garbage,” local resident Elaine McGrath told the paper. “Now it’s gorgeous. I’m excited.”

However, the city agency was less excited, demanding that Feibush return the vacant lot to its previous condition and saying it is considering legal action against him.

Needless to say, the City Controller was not happy with the Redevelopment Authority.

“You can’t write laws fast enough to keep up with the street culture,” says Choi, who as head chef and cofounder of Kogi BBQ is a pioneer of Southern California’s gourmet-truck business.

Then again, the effort to bring food trucks to Houston meets resistance from City Council members concerned with safety and restaurant competition.

  • From the department of totally foreseeable unintended consequences: the MTA’s decision to remove trash cans from stations means people dump garbage outside of them:
“They dump napkins and things in the trees,” said Teddy Kilabitis of Seventh Avenue Doughnuts.

Budget

Scranton has a lot of work to do:

For starters, the city has to secure nearly $20 million in borrowing in two separate “unfunded debt” financings to balance this year’s budget.

It has to gain court approval for a commuter tax to be able to start imposing the levy next year on nonresidents who work in the city.

It needs to line up commitments from nonprofits for significantly increased payment-in-lieu-of-tax donations that are just one of the various alternative revenues in the recovery plan.

As a result, autumn promises to be a very busy season at City Hall.

The proposal, unveiled the same day that the council backed a three-year business tax break worth roughly $50 million, would set the retirement age at 65 and establish new financial penalties for those who retire earlier. The plan, which could be voted on as early as next week, also would require new employees to pay more if the retirement fund suffers major investment losses.

None of the changes would apply to police officers or firefighters — or any civilian worker hired before July 1. Nevertheless, union leaders promised to fight the plan, saying city leaders lack the legal authority to impose the changes without going back to the bargaining table.

  • Clyde Haberman blames Bloomberg’s impatience for blowing a hole in the city’s budget by not using the appropriate channels to push through a taxi reform. Hurricane Isaac will delay New Orleans’ 2013 budget. Everyone in San Francisco likes Prop. E, which would reform the city’s business tax.

Housing

Living two to a room, tenants also must follow a set of rules, including doing chores and attending counseling sessions.

A homeowner, meanwhile, agrees to pay utilities, provide furnishings, carry liability insurance and forgo background checks of prospective tenants. In return, monthly rent can total around $1,000 more than the going market price.

How the city government and nonprofits help low-income D.C. residents achieve home ownership. D.C. neighborhood rents are pricey. NYC’s are outrageous. NYCHA is selling space to private developers for mixed-use development.

Public Safety

  • The prison population soars in Philadelphia, and so do prison costs:

The inmate population is up because of two new crime-fighting measures that Mayor Nutter’s administration says are badly needed in a city where someone is killed almost daily. First, At Nutter’s behest, the courts cracked down on suspects found with illegal guns by imposing higher bail. Second, the First Judicial District created a Bench Warrant Court to get tough on people who skip trial.

But critics say the overpopulated prisons create additional, more costly problems. They argue that the city should use more alternatives to jail, especially because many inmates are awaiting trial and have not been convicted.

“Per capita, we lock up more people in our city jails than any other major city in the United States,” said civil-rights lawyer David Rudovsky. “And the more people you put in, the more we don’t have for parks, education and libraries.”

  • D.C. will replace its transferred police crime lab technicians with civilians. The appeals process for camera tickets may change in New Orleans. Activists call for police reform in Houston after the fatal shooting of a double amputee.
  • A new designer drug hits the streets in Houston, a city which is experiencing an “alarming” spike in bank robberies, according to the FBI.
  • The D.C. City Council unanimously votes to curb the DMV’s harsh punishments of D.C. residents for speeding on out-of-state highways.

Mayors and City Councils

Oakland has trouble controlling its council meetings:

“I’m going to have this council chamber cleared in a second,” warned council President Larry Reid, speaking over shouts, jeers and obscenities. “You watch. Watch me. Watch me.”

They did watch. They watched Reid adjourn the meeting and walk out. The protesters stayed.

So does Philadelphia. L.A. mayoral candidates debate. NYC mayoral candidates use lawsuits as a way to distance themselves from Mayor Bloomberg.

  • A vote on legislation to curb aggressive panhandling divides the Atlanta City Council.

Labor

  • Mario Batali settles with waiters at the swanky Del Posto “for allegedly misappropriating tips, race discrimination and not paying overtime wages, among other labor law violations.”

International

“Jakarta is one of the megacities of the world, and managing this is not as simple as ABC,” he said in an interview. “You need experience, you need to prove you’re capable, you need the heart for the city.”

That point was underlined by a popular Jakarta comedian known as Mandra, who is quoted as saying on Mr. Fauzi’s campaign Web site: “The mustache guy must continue with development,” a reference to the governor’s trademark facial hair.

Winning the government funds, which Portas describes as “a drop in the ocean”, was never the purpose of the scheme. The main thrust of the Portas Pilots is that each town forms a group, called “town teams”, made up of councillors, retailers, landlords and locals. The idea is not only that they take responsibility for their high street but that they are given enough power to lower rents, or cut parking charges, or insist that a landlord allows an empty shop to be used for a temporary local cheese maker, for example.

It’s a simple notion, but one that requires many different groups to start talking to each other and taking responsibility. As Portas explains: “Before, nobody said ‘I am in charge of the high street’.”

Following those guidelines, an IKEAville franchisee would be responsible for any and every IKEA-run town/city/neighborhood in any given country. They would determine where and how each city is built. Extrapolating a bit, IKEA franchisees would ideally have extensive development experience and a knowledge of local buildings and cities. They’d also have to demonstrate the capability to plan contextual developments that are sustainable, walkable, and affordable. Each IKEA neighborhood would be an idealized microcosm of a city’s fabric.The picturesque street layout and planned townhouses of Strand East, for example, will resemble a historic London neighborhood more than a modern Scandinavian affordable housing development.
  • City officials in Bulawayo tried to coordinate “synchronised flushing” for 7:30 on Saturday night to clear accumulated waste. It will now happen “twice a week.

Culture and Other Curiosities

  • Apartments in Glasgow:
    The last person to live in this flat was a studio engineer who smoked all of the cigarettes, all of the time. It reeked. The walls were stained from the nicotine. It was unfurnished except for a bed and a couch, which was probably a blessing, considering. We were both working from home at the time, and set up desks from stacked concrete blocks and cardboard boxes from Ikea. The second bedroom was essentially cordoned off, and I never, ever went in there.

Tags: infrastructurephiladelphiapublic transportationchicagourban designnew orleansenergybaltimoreportlandbrooklyn

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