Historic buildings are more than just piles of sticks and bricks. Over time, buildings become a part of our community narrative: the stories we create through our daily lives all have place. The spaces that enclose memorable events become inseparable from the events that happen within them and the people that pass through their doors. This effect is all the more profound when the buildings themselves are inspirational.

Despite the proliferation of crappy buildings created in the past 50 years, I think most people actually recognize this phenomenon to some degree. We do continue to recognize beauty in fine craftsmanship, thoughtful design, and artful space.

Des Moines Rehabbers Club meeting at Trinity ChurchDes Moines Rehabbers Club meeting at Trinity ChurchA perfect example of this is Trinity United Methodist Church in Des Moines' River Bend neighborhood. Trinity Church has embarked on a fabulous and difficult journey to restore their sanctuary and update the rest of the building to serve the congregation and the community for another 100 years.

Trinity Church has become more than just a building to house a congregation, though that is certainly a contributing factor. Through the development of a variety of service programs, the organization has evolved into a true pillar of support to the Des Moines community: breakfast and dinner are provided to hundreds of people daily in the basement; fifty children take part in before- and after-school care programs; teens and community members can use the computer labs to study; the doors are open from early morning to evening for anyone who needs a place to be. The building itself represents stability in a neighborhood that needs more constants.

With not a whole lot of internal capacity for funding the restoration project, Trinity Church has initiated an ambitious capital drive (with a lot left to go). Some of the work is being done with volunteer labor.

Continue reading...

Sustainability has become a core component of modern-day historic preservation activism. Indeed, we now recognize that the two are integrally related: there is no building greener than the one not built. By finding ways to creatively reuse and adapt existing structures to modern-day activities, we not only “save” our history, but also reduce the need for new construction.

Green and Main Pilot Project: Green and Main Pilot Project building before renovation.Green and Main Pilot Project: Green and Main Pilot Project building before renovation.As a designer, I often lament that the loss of historic building craft has had a negative impact on both the character and longevity of the structures we build today. It also has a negative impact on communities in terms of employment and multi-generational tradition. Renovation in general, and preservation in particular, are labor-dependent. That is, a greater percentage of the project cost in a renovation project is paid as wages rather than materials. Since wages equal jobs, preservation can be a great economic development tool. The Green and Main Pilot Project promotes socioeconomic sustainability by utilizing a broad range of skilled labor and specialized technical expertise. Even deconstruction of the interior is being performed in an intensively conscientious manner.

On a broad scale, preservation and renovation of existing buildings (particularly in urban areas) allow us to better utilize existing infrastructure and provide services more effectively to more people. Green and Main Pilot Project is reutilizing a building in a connected and walkable urban neighborhood, that is accessible by a variety of transportation modes. Because many older neighborhoods were developed in a time before widespread automobile use, they tend to be more compact and connected. In addition, an already-developed site allows for reuse of existing roads, sewers, and utilities.

At the individual building level, extending the useful life of a structure through renovation allows us to improve energy efficiency while also minimizing use of new-source construction materials. Preservation encourages adaptive reuse of existing buildings even as our needs and technologies change over time. The Green and Main building will be retrofit to a high level of energy efficiency while respecting the historic character-defining elements. For example, the historic storefront windows will be painstakingly recreated, though insulated glass will be utilized in place of the original single panes.

It is critically important for us to regain an understanding of how sustainable communities operate at both the individual building level and the broader urban scale. As a pilot project, Green and Main will serve as a brilliant case study. However, most of the projects I work on do not overtly address “sustainability” as part of their stated goals. Most of the people I work with simply love their homes and want to invest in the continued success of their neighborhoods. Sustainability is inherent in and inseparable from the act of renovating!

Continue reading...

I-235 Revived

22 Dec 2010

Ed FallonEd FallonYesterday's topic on "The Fallon Forum" radio show was Interstate 235. Evidently, after spending close to a half billion dollars renovating a ten-mile stretch of the highway just a few years ago, Fallon discusses a report that traffic congestion is again a concern.

[Click here to listen to the program]

It is abundantly clear that we can't build our way out of congestion by expanding highways and that they do not "promote economic development" in the existing cities they slice through. Physical evidence of this litters our urban landscapes in the form of destroyed neighborhoods - yet the meme continues to exist. It will take instead a rethinking of our transportation network and the subsidies that encourage automobile-dependent growth.

I want to thank Ed Fallon for the discussion and for mentioning several times my proposal to convert a portion of I-235 back into a street-grid-connected boulevard. I wish he had also mentioned my blog address so people could read it themselves... most of the callers had misconceptions about the actual proposal.

I am most certainly opposed in principal to dumping many more millions into subsidizing westward suburban expansion by widening I235. I am also not convinced that there is actually a congestion problem on I235 in any commonly understood sense of the word. My analysis of MPO data released several months ago reveals that the actual measured average travel time over the I235 segment from downtown to the I35 interchange only exceeds the legal posted minimum travel time between 7:45 and 8:15 am in the eastbound lanes and between 5:00 and 5:45 pm in the westbound lanes. Confusing, yes, but it boils down to this: If you drive the speed limit, there are only two brief times it will take you any longer to commute from the western suburbs. More in-depth discussion of this here.

Progressives appear to be stuck celebrating the recent "bike sharing" coup while the planners and politicians work on getting the big money for the horrible north-south connector and probably inevitable widening of I235. There needs to be more people talking about this now. By the time the project "studies" hit the papers it will be too late.

Continue reading...

Compare for a moment the following two photos. These are two sections of the same street (Cedar) in Cleveland approaching Case Western Reserve from the west.

Cedar Road in ClevelandCedar Road in Cleveland

Cedar Road in ClevelandCedar Road in Cleveland

The posted speed limit on this section of street is 35 MPH, though over the course of 3 days, most cars appeared to be exceeding it. Particularly as I made my way back from the Reclaiming Vacant Properties conference each evening (walking up the hill against traffic) the section in the upper photo felt quite dangerous. For a brief moment at the apex of the curve, cars appeared to be heading straight for the sidewalk pedestrian, as if perhaps a in a moment of distraction one might end up as a hood ornament on a Ford Escape Hybrid...

Something as simple as the location of the sidewalk makes a huge difference in a pedestrian's feeling of safety - moving the sidewalk away from the street by five feet, on the other side of the streetlights, made the section in the lower photo feel safer by a factor of ten.

Continue reading...

My Wednesday afternoon session at the Reclaiming Vacant Properties conference today focused on selling homes in weak real estate market. Middle-market and distressed neighborhoods in particular face substantial difficulties in such an environment.

The general consensus among the panelists, aside from traditional "marketing plan" strategies, was to sell the neighborhood and the vision, not the individual house. That is, convince people about the benefits of living and investing in the specific neighborhood/project as a tool for selling the actual home.

Here are some take-away quotes:

  • There are two ways to sell a neighborhood to the "creative class": make it cool or pay them (subsidy). These two strategies don't always work together - that is, "cool" people may not respond to or qualify for specific available subsidies.
  • A strong neighborhood or "city" marketing campaign must have sustained deployment - the time horizon is years, not months.
  • Meet 1 on 1 with real estate professionals - they are the ones who you depend on to sell the neighborhood or development to prospective buyers.
  • 36 percent of buyers start the process by looking online. Have an effective online presence.
  • Understand your target market and make sure your product meets their needs. If the product doesn't meet the target buyer's needs, no amount of marketing will help.
  • Marketing strategies: Internet, paid advertisement, earned media, events, printed materials, partnerships, promotions.

Baltimore has created a multi-tiered marketing campaign with a collaboration between a non-profit citywide marketing organization, developers, real estate professionals, and community-based organizations. The sole goal of this extraordinarily successful organization is to grow the City's population by promoting Baltimore as a great place to live.

Continue reading...

Cleveland Rocks

13 Oct 2010

The Reclaiming Vacant Properties conference runs today through Friday in Cleveland, Ohio. As part of my scholarship responsibilities, I will be blogging about the conference - I hope to come away with some practical ideas for neighborhood revitalization in Des Moines.

My sessions don't start until this afternoon, so I am taking the morning to accomplish a little bit of work.

Pedestrian-Friendly Street in Cleveland HeightsPedestrian-Friendly Street in Cleveland HeightsI'm staying with some friends in the suburb of Cleveland Heights, adjacent to Case Western Reserve University. In some ways, this area is very much like my own Drake neighborhood in Des Moines. At the end of the street is a small commercial district with a variety of shops (including the Starbucks in which I sit).

Note the simple yet thoughtful pedestrian-friendly elements in this photo:

  • Street parking separates the sidewalk from the relatively busy street.
  • A regular row of trees helps define the dedicated pedestrian area.
  • Brick pavers create an area between the cars and the walking path for amenities like newspaper vending and business signage.
  • Buildings are built right up to the sidewalk creating a defined edge.
  • Each retail space has a large storefront window.

These are all simple and relatively inexpensive things to do - they don't require major infrastructure improvement, and relatively minimal ongoing maintenance.

And they work. Most of the people in the coffee shop right now appear to have walked here from the surrounding neighborhood. If we create nice places to be, close to the places we live, and comfortable paths to get there, people take advantage of the opportunity.

Continue reading...

Iowa Supreme Court Building: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Iowa_Supreme_Court.jpgIowa Supreme Court Building: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Iowa_Supreme_Court.jpgThe November general election ballot covers both sides of a legal-sized sheet. Elections range from Senator and Governor to the County Agricultural Extension Council. (Have you ever heard of the County Agricultural Extension Council? I haven't either.)

The most important election is on the back side of the ballot: Iowa Supreme Court judge retention. More important than Governor? Yes, and I'll tell you why:

  1. This election deals with fundamental legal rights. The court found that the Iowa Constitution did not permit discrimination by the State in the issuing of civil marriages. The push to recall the three justices up for retention is organized as part of a larger effort to circumscribe Iowan's civil rights. This should be of concern to everyone - not citizens who are gay or lesbian.
  2. This election will determine whether we are people want to be governed by religious doctrine or the civil rights granted by the Iowa Constitution. The arguments put forth by people opposed to the Varnum decision are fundamentally (so to speak) religious in nature rather than civil/logical. The court found no substantial logical basis in restricting civil marriage to heterosexual couples. They are correct. I discuss the actual arguments here.
  3. This election will affect the balance of power between the three branches of State government. Independent judicial review is critical to balance the law-making and administrative powers of the other two branches. Particularly when it comes to civil rights, the job of the Supreme Court is to protect citizens against incursions by the legislature and governor. This is a place where political conservatives, libertarians, and liberals should all align - except for the injection of religious doctrine.

The importance of this particular question is perhaps the only thing that Bob Vander Plaats and I will ever agree on.

It is critically important all people who are committed to equality and the rule of civil law be vocal about their opinions - before the election, in the voting booth, and as we sort through the post-election rubble. It is a mistake to view this issue through the narrow lens of gay marriage. The impact of enshrining specific civil rights discrimination in the State constitution should scare everyone.

Please vote to RETAIN ALL THREE SUPREME COURT JUDGES.

In a related ballot question, it is also important to VOTE NO on CONSTITUTIONAL QUESTION 2 (Shall there be a convention to revise the Constitution, and propose amendment or amendments to same?) - This is a related effort to address the Varnum decision through a constitutional amendment.

Continue reading...

During the 2010 Legislative session, the Iowa Smart Planning Task Force (Task Force) was created. Since then, the Task Force has been researching, developing, and evaluating policy options to support and enhance integrated smart planning in Iowa. On September 15, the Task Force released draft recommendations that will be part of a report submitted to the Governor and the Iowa Legislature in November.

Continue reading...

Ballot boxWhat if you held an election and nobody showed up? Well, yesterday my vote counted more than it usually does. You see, there happened to be an election, and I was one of just 5,077 Des Moines Independent School District voters who voted on a property tax ballot question. This small group of voters decided whether to continue collecting a $.63 per $1000 property tax for school facilities improvement.

Let's say the average house in the Des Moines Independent Community School District is assessed at $100,000. I just spent $63 of your money! That's a fabulous dinner for two at Cafe di Scala, two oil changes, or 60 cups of coffee at Mars Cafe (with Foursquare check-in). Dear people who didn't show up to cast your vote: Thanks for letting me decide!

In all fairness, I can't place the blame solely on the voter. Publicity for this election was woefully, well, nonexistent. I must acknowledge my friend Kelli Griffis, who sent out a Twitter message alerting us that the election was underway. Had I not received that notification, I too would have missed my chance to cast a ballot.

Here was the question put before us:

Shall the Board of Directors of the Des Moines Independent Community
School District, in the Counties of Polk and Warren, State of Iowa, for the
purpose of repairing, remodeling, reconstructing, improving, or expanding
the schoolhouses or buildings and additions to existing schoolhouses;
expenditures for energy conservation; purchasing and improving grounds;
rental of facilities under Chapter 28E; purchasing buildings; procuring or
acquisition of libraries; or purchasing equipment authorized by law, be
authorized to continue, for a period of ten (10) years, to levy annually, as
determined by the Board, a voter-approved physical plant and equipment
property tax not to exceed Sixty-Three Cents (.63) per One Thousand Dollars
($1,000) of the assessed valuation of the taxable property within the School
District, commencing with the levy for collection in the fiscal year ending
June 30, 2012?

What the heck does all that mean? Well, it basically asks whether we should continue the way things are for the next 10 years, or get rid of the $.63 per $1000 property tax that is paying for school infrastructure improvements.

Whatever the question, turnout was embarrassingly low.

How might turnout be improved?

  1. Social Media - The Polk County Auditor should have a Twitter account for updates. I would appreciate them capturing email addresses for critical announcements as well. Both of these could serve double duty for communicating with residents during disasters. Polk County Health Department has a Twitter account that I have found very useful (@polkcohealth).
  2. Traditional Media - Whenever a decision meets the threshold for a public vote, it becomes important enough for the media to cover... it's their money, too! I didn't see any media coverage of the election (except, perhaps for some post election returns).
  3. Better Ballots - The graphic design of our ballots and the wording are both horrific! Not only are they visually confusing, but the text is difficult to decipher. I'm sure that any of our local creative talent could design a better ballot...
  4. Election Days - Holding an entire election in order to decide this particular question alone was costly and unnecessary. Election laws should be changed to encourage timing school board elections to align with other elections.

Here's hoping that more people care enough to vote in future elections.

If you didn't vote, why not? Feel free to respond in the comments.

Continue reading...

So I find myself in Clive waiting at Holmes Auto for my passenger-side axle to be replaced (yes, a twenty-minute oil change turned into a four hour repair). Of course, I should have expected it when I said "...and would you also check out the clunking noise coming from the passenger front tire?"

Not my favorite way to spend a beautiful Summer day - I'd much rather be working on my front porch! For lunch I declined the offer of a ride from the friendly repair manager and decided instead to venture out and take the one-mile stroll up NW 114th to University.

This post addresses the pedestrian experience on my walk.


View Larger Map

Continue reading...