Tech Companies are Bad Urbanists, Can Learn more from Planning!

Allison Arieff, an editor of SPUR in San Francisco, writes about the challenges of tech companies’ increasing interest in city locations.  Looking particularly at the San Francisco Bay Area, she discusses how many tech companies are locating in cities, but as far too insular of entities.  Many, including Twitter, aren’t promoting street traffic because they offer so many urban amenities and shops inside their buildings while restricting access to only employees.

She sees the same phenomenon in suburban tech companies too.  Facebook has created a small faux urban area in Menlo Park with cafes, dry cleaners, and doctors offices in a sea of parking.  The area is only open to Facebook employees.

Smaller companies and start ups are being a bit more deliberate (partly out of necessity) to locate in areas that are part of neighborhoods and don’t disrupt the urban fabric.  Arieff notes the 5M Project as a good example of an integrated tech-neighborhood mixed use development.

Counterpoint to Friedman’s Assessment of PISA

Thomas Friedman, in the New York Times, has noted that the United States continues to trail other countries on the PISA assessment of student learning in primary and secondary school.

One important note on the PISA tests, and other international benchmarks of student learning, is that the United States has  never led the globe in student achievement — it has always been about where it is today, sitting around 15th place internationally, yet we have the largest GDP and most productive workforce. This suggests that educational achievement is the only factor in productivity and employment.  As Friedman notes, this is partly due to the fact that we once had an economy rich in manufacturing — which required less skill in the workforce. Some believe the preference toward education and skill is overstated though.   Harry Holzer and labor economists have shown that there is still, and will continue to be, a significant middle skill job sector in America.  What they find is that these middle jobs will require some postsecondary training — in programs that may only be a few weeks or months at venues like community colleges.

Most American workers (about 70 percent currently) do not work in jobs that require a college degree (nor does 70 percent of the population hold the degree).  Even as the country becomes more “high tech” and more “new economy” only 40 percent of workers (in the highest of estimates) will need a college degree.  The major gap in learning is for workers who will need “some” postsecondary training, but not a degree.  Our educational system doesn’t address the educational needs for future non-degree holding workers as well as it does for those continuing to a four year college.

Friedman is also correct that students who do best on PISA tests feel some ownership over their education.  America could build more student “ownership” over education by providing more than one track of learning.  This could happen by building out a significant career and technical training program in America’s schools.  The Harvard Graduate School of Education makes a similar argument in its important Pathways to Prosperity report.

 

Encouraging Jobs Report

The recent jobs report shows that unemployment is down to 7.0 percent and that the economy grew by 203K jobs.  The most encouraging part of the report is that unemployment was down because of increased hiring, not because the labor force shrunk.  More people who wanted work had it rather than people giving up on finding work.  455K people joined the workforce in November.

203K jobs is steady (if not grand) improvement in hiring.  The Washington Post suggests that this report shows that the government shut down had little effect on the economy and that the Federal Reserve could consider pulling back its bond buying program to support economic recovery.  They also suggest that holiday sales will be 3 percent higher than last year – another sign of recovery.

Check out the next Across Generations Article @PlannersWeb

Check out the latest article in the Across Generations: Young and Old Series on PlannersWeb.   The article is by my co-columnist Jennifer Wallace-Brodeur and titled, “Housing for Older Adults — Location, Location, Location.”  As the title suggests, the article is on housing for older adults.  My reaction after the article discusses the issues that Jennifer raises from the perspective of younger adults.

HUD and DOT Launch Location Affordability Index

The Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Transportation have launched the Location Affordability Index!  It builds on the efforts of the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s Housing and Transportation Index.  The new Location Affordability Index has downloadable data, and a number of different “resident profiles” that estimate housing and transportation costs for different types of people (beyond just average residents).

The tool is going to be an important policy tool when making decisions about housing development and how to deploy transportation funds.  It also gives people a better estimate of what housing and transportation cost in their neighborhood.  Check it out!

Change Afoot in West Philly!

The Philadelphia Business Journal reports on a new mixed use development by Drexel University and American Campus Communities going up in Powelton Village at the corner of 34th and Lancaster.

The development will have over 20,000 square feet of retail space and will house over 1,300 students.  The land was formerly part of the Drexel campus, but used for shop and warehouse space.  The development will be a $170+ million dollar investment – the largest individual development project (in dollars) for Drexel or American Campus Communities.  The investment is significant – the Lancaster Avenue commercial corridor has lots of potential, historic buildings, and great local businesses and some galleries that serve locals and the student market.

This type of development shows that the area may be prime for an uptick in commercial activity, student interest, and (probably) increasing residential rents.  American Campus Communities is a real estate investment trust (REIT) that trades on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol ACC.

The investment could help stabilize the corridor and provide a boost to businesses, but with any major investment like this, the community needs to be careful to ensure that the growth doesn’t force out longer term businesses who can’t afford new rents.  This type of development can also lead to the loss of historic buildings as investors may demolish in order to assemble larger parcels for other big developments.

The positives are that Drexel and ACC are committed to the community by investing in something that they can’t simply move and having an “anchor” institution often means a stable community.  (To the university’s credit, Drexel already invests over $500,000 annually in the University City District, which supplements security and cleaning services in the neighborhood – evidence of the benefit of anchor partners!).  The development will also help stitch the fabric of the Lancaster Avenue businesses closer into the Drexel campus by filling an underutilized gap in the streetscape.

A few years ago I was at a presentation by the former president of the American Planning Association, Mitchell Silver, who said that gentrification is revitalization with tradeoffs.  Being aware and careful to avoid tradeoffs between existing businesses and new development can mean that Drexel’s new development revitalizes the neighborhood instead of gentrifying it.

Progress on the DC Metro Silver Line

Dr. Gridlock at the Washington Post has pictures of new stations on the Silver Line – a significant expansion of the DC Metro.

The line adds new stations in Fairfax County in Virginia (including connections to Tysons Corner), runs through DC (matching the existing Orange Line) and then travels to Largo in Prince George’s County.  This phase of the expansion is anticipated to be opening in a few months.  Ultimately (maybe in 2018) it will connect to Dulles Airport.

The article has a picture of a large, covered, and secure bike parking facility that was built for the station.  Planners for the project are working to integrate multimodal alternatives and anticipate that the line will serve suburb-to-suburb commuters, increase train frequency in downtown, and improve some train congestion problems.  Silverlinemetro.com – by WMATA – has many more details.