Cookie Cutter? What Cookie Cutter?

by James A. Bacon

McDonalds is one of those American companies that the fashionable set love to hate. Critics gripe about everything from the nutritional quality of its food to the way it sources its beef. One recurring source of scorn is how the restaurant chain undermines community character by building loud, garish stores, typically surrounded by asphalt on locations accessible only by automobile. It’s not clear to me whether McDonalds is imposing some atrocious architectural template upon its stores nationwide or whether the template is imposed upon McDonalds by the Euclidian zoning codes of jurisdictions across the United States. Regardless, there is nothing inevitable about the red roofs, golden arches and ticky-tack decor.

Ed McMahon, whose work on Virginia tourism and land use I highlighted in a recent blog post, responded to a comment in that post to the effect that “McDonalds didn’t make billions by letting locals operate different restaurants under a common banner.” Actually, he says, McDonalds is more flexible than most people realize.

“I just wanted to point out that McDonald’s does indeed allow locals to operate  restaurants that are totally different architecturally from what most Americans are used to seeing,” he says. By way of proof, he offers some of the photos he has collected of McDonalds restaurants around North America and Europe.



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Housing Affordability for Millennials


by James A. Bacon

As the global epicenter of technology innovation, Silicon Valley creates a massive amount of wealth — but the housing supply, hemmed in by geography and zoning regulations, is incredibly restricted. The resulting housing crunch is so severe that Millennials are hard pressed to live there. The median income for Millennials in the San Jose metropolitan area is the highest of any of the 50 largest metropolitan regions in the country — $53,000. But the median home value of $925,000 requires an income of $133,000 to pay a mortgage (not to mention a 20% down payment). The earnings gap, according to a new housing index published by Bloomberg, is $80,000!

If Millennials are the life-blood of creativity and innovation for metropolitan economies, the cost of housing could be Silicon Valley’s Achilles heel. The housing supply is so out of whack, as it is in neighboring San Francisco, that, as much as Millennials are drawn to the excitement and glamour of working at companies like Apple and Google, they simply can’t afford it unless they’re willing to live five or six to an apartment.

According to Bloomberg, housing is unaffordable for thirteen of the 50 largest U.S. metros. The biggest affordability gaps are on the West Coast, but Boston, Washington and New York are on the list as well. Young people are willing to tolerate sub-par living conditions for a while, especially while they are single. One of my daughters shared a tiny rental apartment with four roommates while living in Jackson,Wyoming, which, due to its awesomeness, has similar affordability issues. But she rented her own place when she moved back to Richmond. And now that she is getting married, she and her fiance have no trouble affording a comfortable starter home in a nice neighborhood near the University of Richmond. When educated Millennials are ready to get married and start families, the idea of sharing a house with four or five roommates is not a serious option. Continue reading

What Robert Moses Got Right (and Kansas City Gets Wrong)

by Michael Lewyn

Robert Moses is most famous (or perhaps infamous) for paving over large chunks of New York City with highways. But he also built and rehabilitated thousands of acres of parks and playgrounds; and in this area his contribution to the city was more unambiguously positive.

Moses believed parks should be used not just for leisurely contemplation but for active recreation; for example, he added eighteen playgrounds to Central Park alone. Moses also commonly added ballfields, tennis courts and other sports-oriented spaces to city parks.

By contrast, Kansas City has many chunks of lawn that include no active uses whatsoever; some of them don’t even include benches to sit on. These grasslands (see here for an example) waste lawn that could be used for housing or commerce, artificially reducing city density and value without creating any compensating value.

(Cross-posted at

Do Millenials Opt for Cities or Suburbs? Yes

by Michael Lewyn

Over the past year or so I’ve seen numerous articles and blog posts asserting that millennials are moving to cities in large numbers, while other articles and blog posts assert that millennials prefer suburbs to cities.

So do millenials prefer cities or suburbs? The right answer is “yes.” On the one hand, it appears to me that millennials are more likely to favor city life than 20- and 30-somethings of 30 years ago. Thus, in a sense it is true that millennials favor cities. On the other hand, it is equally true that most millennials live the same kind of commuting lives as their parents, living in suburbs (or suburb-like areas that are technically within city limits) and driving to work.

How can both propositions be true? Let’s imagine a simple hypothetical. Suppose that there are 1,750 recent college graduates in metropolitan Townsville. Two hundred and fifty of them live downtown, 600 of them live in the city outside downtown, and 900 of them live in suburbia. Let us further suppose that this small region has 500 downtown residents, 3,000 city residents, and 8,000 suburbanites (not counting the above-mentioned millennials).

The 250 new graduates who move downtown have caused downtown’s population to increase considerably, from 500 to 750. Thus, one plausible headline could be: Millennials Cause Downtown Population to Increase by 50 Percent. Even though only about 15 percent of the graduates favor downtown, downtown’s preexisting population is so small that just a few hundred new residents will make the downtown considerably more populated. Continue reading

Light Rail Doesn’t Always Mean Fewer Buses

by Michael Lewyn

One common argument against new rail service is that rail cannibalizes bus ridership. One version of this argument is that riders of new light rail systems are nearly always former bus riders, so that any increase in rail ridership comes at the expense of bus ridership. A second version is that the costs of rail make it impossible for a region to maintain a first-class bus system.

If the first claim was correct, regions that introduced new light rail would be the most likely regions to have reduced bus ridership. A new post at City Observatory suggests that the correlation between new rail and reduced ridership is pretty modest. Daniel Hertz, one of our nation’s most interesting urban planning bloggers, has assembled data on bus ridership and service trends since 2000, including information from 39 urbanized areas with over 1 million people. His data shows that nine regions have experienced bus ridership losses of over 20 percent (Baltimore, Atlanta, Dallas, Cincinnati, Houston, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, San Jose). Four of these cities (Baltimore, Dallas, Houston, San Jose) have built significant new rail in the past couple of decades.  But five other cities in America’s Bus Ridership Dishonor Roll either lack significant rail service or (in the case of Cleveland) have primarily pre-2000 rail systems. By contrast, 30 other regions have experienced either ridership gains or more modest ridership losses: 13 of these regions have added new rail service, and 16 have not.* In other words, about one-fourth of the new rail cities (4 of 17) have suffered major ridership losses, and also about one-fourth of the other cities (5 of 22). Thus, the association between rail and reduced ridership is either nonexistent or fairly modest.

The association between new rail and bus service cuts is even weaker. Since 2000, six urbanized areas (Cleveland, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Detroit, San Jose, Houston) have reduced bus service, measured by route-miles, by over 20 percent. Only two of these regions (San Jose and Houston) have significant new light rail systems. (Two more, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, are “legacy rail” cities with significant but older rail systems). Continue reading

In Praise of Organic Tourism

Which would you rather have in your community.... massive crowds of drunken, puking college kids like Fort Lauderdale....

Which would you rather have in your community…. massive crowds of drunken, puking college kids like Fort Lauderdale….

by James A. Bacon

Promoting tourism is a major part of Virginia’s economic development strategy for good reason. Tourism supports jobs, expands the tax base and helps pay for amenities — restaurants, arts, cultural institutions — that can be enjoyed by the whole community. But it can create problems, too, such as crowding, traffic congestion, noise and tacky, haphazard development. Handled poorly, tourism actually can degrade a community’s quality of life.

It is critical to differentiate between mass-market tourism and what Edward T. McMahon, writing in the May issue of Virginia Town & City, calls “responsible” tourism. Mass market-tourism is all about putting “heads in beds.” It is high volume, high impact but low yield. Think Fort Lauderdale, the “spring break capital” of the United States, which attracted millions of college kids who slept six to a room and spent money on little but beer and t-shirts.

... or a recreational amenity like the beautiful Virginia Creeper Trail?

… or a recreational amenity like the beautiful Virginia Creeper Trail?

“Mass market tourism is … about environments that are artificial, homogenized, generic and formulaic,” writes McMahon. By contrast, “responsible tourism is about quality. Its focus is places that are authentic, specialized, unique and homegrown. … Think about unspoiled scenery, locally owned businesses, historic small towns and walkable urban neighborhoods.”

The challenge for Virginians, suggests McMahon,  a senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute, is to promote tourism without losing our soul. There is more to building a tourism industry than spending marketing dollars to lure visitors. It involves making destinations more appealing. “This means identifying, preserving and enhancing a community’s natural and cultural assets, in other words protecting its heritage and environment.” Continue reading

Reinventing the Suburban Office Park

Sidney Gunst built Innsbrook as a state-of-the-art suburban office park in the 1980s but says he would do it very differently today.

Sidney Gunst built Innsbrook as a state-of-the-art suburban office park in the 1980s but says he would do it very differently today.

Article published in June issue of Henrico Monthly magazine:

By James A. Bacon Jr.

In September 2010, the Henrico County Board of Supervisors put its stamp of approval on a plan to transform the county’s largest office park, the Innsbrook Corporate Center. The idea behind the plan, called Innsbrook Next, was to convert a smattering of office buildings surrounded by parking lots and connected by winding, unwalkable roads into Henrico’s de facto downtown. Planners envisioned millions of square feet of mixed-use development: office towers, parking garages and apartment buildings with stores and restaurants on the ground floors.

Not only would Innsbrook Next breathe new life into Henrico’s largest employment center – between 15,000 to 25,000 people work there, depending on whom you talk to – it represented a sea change in planning policy for the county. Having filled up with traditional, low-density suburban development, the affluent, western half of the county had nowhere to grow but up. To accommodate more growth and more jobs, Henrico had to begin urbanizing. Innsbrook Next would concentrate much of the expected growth into a district that would cause minimal disruption to established neighborhoods.

Nearly five years later, little has happened. A partnership of Markel Corp. and Highwoods Properties submitted a plan to develop the first phase of Innsbrook Next with 2.2 million square feet of mixed-use buildings. The county granted the needed zoning approvals, but the developers backed off. Dominion Virginia Power, a major property owner, submitted plans to convert overflow parking into a townhouse complex. But when county staff balked at aspects of the proposal, Dominion withdrew the project.

Then, earlier this year, the Dixon Hughes Goodman CPA firm announced the relocation of its headquarters office from Innsbrook to downtown Richmond. A prominent reason given was to make it easier to recruit talented young employees looking for urban amenities. Soon after, insurance firm Rutherfoord said it would consolidate offices, including its Innsbrook headquarters, in the new Libbie Mill-Midtown project at West Broad Street and Staples Mill Road, which had gotten the jump on Innsbrook in building what urban planners call “walkable urbanism.”

Across the country, suburban office parks are having a tough time. Built mainly in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, their age is showing. The buildings have lost the sheen of newness. Mechanical systems are wearing out, and maintenance costs are rising. And most challenging of all, young people prefer to work in urban settings where they can walk to restaurants, galleries, music and entertainment. For decades, downtown areas hemorrhaged tenants as companies decamped for the suburbs. Now the reverse is happening: Some businesses are moving back to the city. Continue reading.