Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Tell me something new

So the AJC has an article about the lack of nightlife in Atlanta, and particularly downtown.  Atlanta used to have quite a party reputation, but since the party died in Buckhead, Backstreet closed, and the Gold Club got raided, our reputation has taken a hit.  I think there is still plenty to do in the city at-large, but there isn't any centralized party area anymore.  The city tried to make Underground that area, and we all know how that worked out.  What to do?
Both ACVB and GWCC board members agreed that getting nightlife downtown is easier said than done. To attract after-hours hotspots, more residents will have to move downtown and suburbanites, many of whom view the area as unsafe, will have to visit more frequently than an occasional sporting event.
Can't say that I have any great ideas to magically revitalize downtown overnight.  I do think getting more undergraduate student housing in downtown would be good, though.  Pecanne Log made the point a while back that there is more to do on downtown Athens, and I think this is because students actually live there.  

GSU currently has 2,450 beds downtown - 2,000 in University Commons, and 450 at University Lofts.  They have a total enrollment of 27,137, which means that 9% of students live on campus.  If you can get enough students in on-campus housing to create a real community, you can then create a demand for private student housing downtown.  There are a few options right now, but not many.  All of this, of course, helps fuel nightlife - again, see Downtown Athens or any number of college towns.  I'm not saying that GSU has enough students to totally revitalize downtown nightlife, but I think they can seed it and get things going.  

I really see these students as the seed for a vibrant downtown generally speaking, not just for nightlife.  Getting young people downtown increases life on the street, since they will be walking more often than not to class and to places to eat and drink in the evening. Additionally, they can act as a draw for other non-students of similar age.  Finally, if a vibrant student culture can be established then you start having a generation of GSU students who enjoy living a truly urban lifestyle, and maybe stick around after they graduate.  You sort of start grooming your young professionals to want to be downtown.  

The best thing about why this can work is because students are a captive population.  You don't really have to entice them much - they need to be close to school, and there are massive benefits for them to be living near each other.  Freshman and sophomores especially don't know the city well enough for the most part to seek out better deals, so they naturally gravitate to the dorms.  If you build it, they will come.

And we have a public entity, GSU, in a position to tell them exactly where to live by virtue of where they build the dorms.  The next dorm's connectivity to classroom buildings and to University Commons will create natural arteries of foot traffic for retail development or apartments.  It is a rare chance to really shape how downtown will grow.

GSU has stated that they want to get more students on campus, and have plans for more dorms and even for a Greek row.  It just can't happen fast enough, in my opinion.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Sembler thinking outside the big box

Sembler, the developer everyone loves to hate, wants to build a new stadium for the Falcons as part of their bid for the Doraville GM plant.  The Falcons have talked with Sembler about the idea, but all the public statements are pretty lukewarm:
Falcons President Rich McKay said, “Sembler and a number of developers contacted us many months back when GM put the site up for sale. I guess one of the concepts being floated by Sembler was a stadium development. We have had preliminary discussions with them.”...

“The site in Doraville is a special location,” McKay said. “So we felt like it was something that we had to at least look at and see what’s being proposed. But right now it’s pretty preliminary.”
McKay obviously recognizes the investment the City of Atlanta has in keeping the Falcons downtown.  Part of having the Falcons at the Georgia Dome is the other events the go on there - the Peach Bowl, the SEC Championship, SEC tournament, Final Fours, state football championships, etc.  A new state-of-the-art stadium in Doraville would likely try and get all those events, too, and downtown would be missing a huge piece of convention-type business for hotels and businesses.  Expect serious political opposition to this idea.

From a development perspective, this feels to me like Sembler is scrambling to find something that works for this Doraville site.  All the other development groups have dropped out because now is a crappy time to be building anything, and you can't get anything financed anyway.  Sembler is trying to think outside the box a bit, I guess to just keep things going.  Sember certainly likes to dream big, but quite a few of their proposals have been politically tone deaf.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Collateral damage

One of the most frustrating things about the real estate bust is the condition is has left so many in-town neighborhoods that had been up-and-coming areas.  For a little while earlier in the year, I was over in Capital View pretty regularly.  I would walk around the neighborhood and every street would have multiple "for sale" signs and boarded up windows indicative of foreclosures.  The AJC surveys the carnage:
Empty new homes can be found across southwest Atlanta, which has seen values fall through the floor because of foreclosure, mortgage fraud and abandonment.

Southwest Atlanta includes ZIP code 30310, the top in Georgia for foreclosure filings.

Current listings show a house on Wech Street — a 3-bedroom, 2-bath ranch home advertised as in “move in condition” — available for $24,900.
My agent friends who have money saved up are buying houses for this much.  I have friends who bought in southwest Atlanta two years ago who want to know what this all means, and I don't have any good ideas.  An absolute best case scenario would be for the revitalization of these areas to simply get put on hold, but I think things are getting worse.  The AJC article makes note of the fact that these vacant homes attract vandalism and squatters, which is what I'm hearing annecdotally from my friends in Reynoldstown.

The combination of factors hitting these areas is brutal.  First, all the subprime mortgages that got people into these homes in the first place reset and foreclosures follow.  Housing prices plummet, and you might think there would be a wave of people who could get into some infill homes for a great price.  However, tighter credit standards are going to prevent people from getting loans, and the cratering economy will further depress things.  So these homes will just sit empty for who knows how long.

The city has received $12 million to buy foreclosures, but it will barely make a dent in the problem.  I don't really know what sort of policy solutions are available.  There needs to be an infusion of capital somewhere to buy these houses and get them occupied.  I know some folks who are buying up cheap houses (~$30k), renovating them, and renting them to people with Section 8 vouchers.  The problem is that this is not a recipe for revitalization.  Instead, it can become a recipe for concentrated poverty and can prevent new residents from wanting to move in.  I'm not enthusiastic about an infusion of capital of this sort, but it is probably the only sort of private capital available.  

Anyway, none of it is good news for Atlanta neighborhoods.  I noticed in the city's infrastructure wish list* a line item for hiring 200 police officers at a cost of $20 million.  We have been trying to hire those officers for about a decade, but that is at least a starting place for getting a handle on the situation.  

*(Interestingly, the wish list linked above differs from the one left in the comments section the other day.  It includes streetcar funds, among other things.  h/t to Thomas Wheatley and commenter Juliea for the links.)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

More info on Task Force shelter

Following up Friday's post, we have an AJC article detailing just how awful the Task Force for the Homeless's finances are:
All total, the shelter owes more than $4.65 million beyond what it costs to operate. Last year, it brought in a little more than $1.1 million, half from contributions and half through grants, but its expenses topped $1.4 million.

“We aren’t current on anything right now,” Beatty said.
They owe the city for water, have federal tax liens, and are behind on two loans.  Yet I am continually perplexed by the Task Force's cavalier attitude about everything:
“The issue is not about our finances. It’s about the political reality and the attacks on us and the homeless people,” Beatty said....

Board Chairman and businessman Bob Cramer shares Beatty’s suspicions.

“A lot of this results from the relentless pursuit by the city to cut off our funding,” he said. “But we’ve hung on for 20 years; we believe we will hang for another 20 years. I don’t care what they do to us, we will find a way [to get funds to operate].”
How, exactly?  It is really hard to read this stuff and not see Beatty as delusional.  Maybe the media is out to get her, too.  

Friday, December 19, 2008

Task Force shelter in peril?

There is a great article in Creative Loafing detailing the history of the Peachtree and Pine shelter, as well as the array of powers against it.  

The entire article is great, and a must-read if you are interested in the problem of homelessness in Atlanta.  I will admit to being biased, so I won't elaborate much on the basic issue.  You can read through the Panhandlers tag if you want my take on Atlanta's homeless situation.

Regarding current events, I have avoided posting on the shelter's issues paying their water bill.  I am not quite sure what to think about all this stuff.  I certainly don't like the shelter, and I want it to close.  I am not going to cackle with glee if they get shut down, though, and feel uncomfortable rooting for things like shutting the water off.  

Ideally, I would like to see the people that run it realize they aren't helping, and close on their own.  Given the reputation of the leadership there, that won't happen.  The CL article tries to give a fair picture of Anita Beatty, but she has burned a lot of bridges over the years and alienated a lot of people.  It would be easy to pick quotes from folks like Debi Starnes, the city's homeless czar, to paint the Task Force poorly.  What hurts more are the quotes from people who are or were ostensibly allies.

Bruce Gunter is a non-profit developer who helped the Task Force obtain the Peachtree and Pine building:
Gunter agrees that, by running a loose ship, the Task Force’s isn’t helping most of its residents.  “One of the worst things you can do to someone’s dignity is to create dependency, to tell people you don’t expect them to get their lives together,” he says. “It’s been a terrible service to homeless people."
..

All the controversy is troubling to Bill Bolling, director of the Atlanta Food Bank and a co-founder of the Task Force.

“There’s no one who cares more for the homeless than Anita, but she’s burnt bridges with funders and other agencies,” he explains. “Trying to be a thorn in people’s side doesn’t work over the long haul and I don’t think the Task Force in recent years has been good for the movement because they’ve never progressed.”
Read the whole article.  To me, Beatty comes off as someone who wants to be a martyr, and who while not delusional (she is right, lots of people are trying to close the shelter) is unable or unwilling to see her own role in her woes.  A friend of mine likes to say that most of our problems are of our own making, and that seems to be the case with the Task Force.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Legislators: Quit making excuses

A few days ago MARTA officials pitched state legislators for funds. MARTA is facing a $60 million budget shortfall, and is contemplating "draconian" fare hikes and service cuts. What do state legislators have to say?

When MARTA first announced that they were seeking state funds, Rep. Jill Chambers said:
“I think what they’re asking for is the best short-term answer for them,” said Chambers, “but it doesn’t address the years and years of ignoring transit infrastructure [by the MARTA board].”

Chambers long has criticized the board for being “more interested in real estate development than in laying track and getting people where they want to go.”
Chambers also wants MARTA to get folded into GRTA. After the meeting Tuesday, Sen. John Wiles said:
“I appreciate that MARTA is feeling the pinch of the economy, but until they prove that taxpayer dollars are being spent wisely, I won’t support a change in funding,” said state Sen. John Wiles (R-Marietta), vice chairman of the committee, in a statement issued after the meeting. “Funds should be invested in capital rather than operating costs.”
Frankly, both of these statements sound like a bunch of worn out bogeymen. MARTA has cut services, raised fares, elimiminated staff positions, and the head of MARTA is so well respected that she was elected to chair the American Public Transportation Association. Ridership is up to near record levels.  

It simply isn't fair to keep blaming MARTA when they have taken significant steps to improve management and operations.  State legislators have said "we'll listen when you shape things up," for years.  MARTA has done a lot, and now legislators are saying the same thing.  Chamber and Wiles are just making excuses when they have an opportunity to lead.  

On to the fisking:

First, Rep. Chambers complains about past decisions. There are plenty of past mistakes to complain about, but it ignores the many recent changes I mentioned above.  She is rehashing old demands. It is really just political red meat for suburbanites.

Then, she says they are more interested in real estate development. I guess that is a dig at the TOD stuff at Lindbergh station, which should really be lauded as an example of kind of public/private initiatives that will increase use of public transportation and is generally a model for how Atlanta needs to direct housing.  TOD initiatives and transit operations should not be mutally exclusive, and we shouldn't criticize MARTA for pursuing both.  

Finally, she says MARTA hasn't been laying enough track. I would love it if we had more miles of MARTA rail, but I think the economic and political forces in the metro region have made that a pipe dream. Rep. Chambers, MARTA would love to lay track in Gwinnett County - would you like to help make that happen? Saying MARTA hasn't laid enough miles of track is a pretty lame excuse to let it basically wither away now without state funding.

Sen. John Wiles thinks funds should be invested in capital instead of operating expenses. Why, exactly? Improving service and operations is how you generate more ridership and revenue.  MARTA is a mature system that needs to be focusing on solid customer service and increasing its ridership - things that state legislators have been harping on for years.  Maybe there is a good case for using funds for capital expenses, but Wiles doens't make it and right now the more reasonable case can be made for using it for operation expenses.

Oh, and he isn't convinced MARTA can manage its funds well. Nevermind the list of changes I mentioned above. I'm sure that there is a lot more that MARTA can do to improve management and operation, and I'm not going to defend them carte blanche. However, I feel safe saying that they have stepped up to the plate the last few years.  Statements like these (and Rep. Chambers' statements) are dog whistles.  

It is time for the legislature to stop making excuses. Stop using the same old bogeymen of the past and actually try and accomplish something. I know the do-nothing governor hasn't set a great example, but now is your chance to do something that will positivly impact the state for once.

Also, a big hat tip to Decatur Metro for getting me going on this post.  It was something I had intended to write about, but kept putting off.  

Glad to see the Mayor on top of that

Thomas Wheately has a nice post on the competition for Obama's stimulus funds among state and local governments. What I really like was the little bit at the end:
According to some reports, the Georgia Department of Transportation is asking for $3.4 billion from the incoming Obama administration. In Atlanta, Mayor Shirley Franklin has requested assistance for sewer repairs and the Beltline, among other projects.
I can't tell you how much I would love to see the BeltLine get federal funds. The timeline for the BeltLine needs to get drastically sped up, and the transit portions should get priority. Part of what has slowed the BeltLine down is lack of funds. The TAD amendment passed the November referendum, and that will help, but it will really just put the BeltLine back on track. We need the kind of funds that would speed things up.

Most folks I talk to have gotten pretty pessimistic about the BeltLine. The timeline is just way too long, and people are losing confidence in the city's ability to pull it off. We need to be doing things to be more competitive now, not in 25 years. In 25 years when the first train goes down the BeltLine, we'll still be behind.

Ideally, I'd like to see the next mayor ramp things up. Getting federal funds would make this a more realistic possibility. Also, I hope streetcar funds were in the mayor's request. That is an entirely different post, of course.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Majestic responds

Mr. Tasso Costarides has responded to my hissy fit. First off, I do most certainly appreciate the response. I think that's all I was really after, in the end. He certainly responded in a more mature manner than I deserved, so my hats off to Mr. Costarides. His response, in full:

Normally, I wouldn't comment on stuff like this but I feel I owe it to my staff and customers to speak up for the restaurant. Every single one of your blog entries regarding the Majestic are misguided and present an inaccurate picture of the restaurant and your experiences there.

First of all, I'd like to address your first demand of your petition: bringing back the subway tile. That tile, which dates back to the late 80's, was starting to crumble and I made the decision to replace it. While, it is unfortunate that you dislike the mirror I installed-- So what? Those 20 year old tiles did not represent the essence of this restaurant, which is lost on you. The installment of a mirror does not make the Majestic resemble the Landmark or a City Cafe.

You note that the interior seems like it hasn't changed since your dad came in 50 years ago. This restaurant began its life as a small lunch counter. It has undergone many changes, expansions and remodels under previous management through the decades. The last major remodel was in the 80's. Plenty has been changed since then. The tables you note that are being replaced date back to 1999. They're not from the 1950's. A lot of people pass through this restaurant. Furniture breaks down, interior trim wears out, things are replaced. The same holds true for many other restaurants. This is a reality that restaurant owners accept. You should do the same.

I never responded to the little notes you've left on your table because they're whiney and demanding. You come across as petulant and immature. But let me respond to some of the trivial things you've brought up.

You mention that we bought new waffle irons that bake smaller and thinner waffles. Why would we do that? Our waffles are good. We've been using the same waffle bakers for years. If you weren't happy with the quality of your waffle on one of your visits--you should have told a server. Maybe the batter was too thin. Maybe the cook made a mistake. Maybe the thermostat for the waffle baker was broken--I don't know. I'm sure they would have remade it or brought you something else if you had asked.

You also bring up that we have new menus. New menus are printed several times a year. This time we chose to make them longer and we laminated them to resemble some old Majestic menus from the 50's.

We garnished plates with fruit for breakfast and lunch customers. As you noted, our prices had risen along with food prices everywhere else. I thought it would be nice to offer a slice of cantaloupe to go along with people's meals. Some customers appreciated it and some didn't. After several months, we stopped doing it. I think it is strange that it made you so angry.

As for someone bringing you a check on a "little red plastic plate". That item is called a tip tray and it comes in handy when settling tabs. When a customer pays cash, it neatly holds bills and change. When paying by credit card, this tray serves to hold the customer's check, credit card slip and pen to sign the slip. It also serves to keep the check dry from a wet table top. Why do you care if we use those? It's just a convenience for your server.

While I appreciate your patronage, I believe a lot of the issues you have raised in your blog entries regarding my restaurant are petty and your petition is misguided. You've noted that this restaurant is "supposed to be a dump." While some folks may agree with you, I don't. We have customers that eat here everyday. We have elderly regulars that have been eating here since they were kids and they don't want to see the place turn into a dump. A lot of our customers like it when we improve on our menus or make their visits more comfortable. I've worked here since I was a teenager and I have run this restaurant for more than 10 years. I understand that this place means different things to different people; it is 80 years old. I'm no stranger to customers airing their views on my restaurant and how it should be run, but your demands are absurd.

Sincerely,

Tasso Costarides

owner, Majestic Diner

For the record, he is totally right - my notes were whiny, petulant, and immature.  

I also never intended any insult to the staff. Over the years, I have counted a few friends among the staff. I think they do a great job, and have suffered my bitching without complaint (at least to my face). Always earnest, sincere, and the service is great. I mean, there is a reason I went the probably twice a week.

At the end of the day, I'll get over it. I'll eat somewhere else, not out of some vendetta or to make a point, but because it just doesn't feel the same. I find the mirror too jarring, and combined with all the other changes it just doesn't have the same character. There are plenty of breakfast joints in town, but I went to the Majestic because it was comfortable and unpretentious. There was an underdog air about things that I related to, which seems to be missing.  

Call this all an overreaction - oh noes! bitchy internet guy is no longer going to his favorite diner! stop the presses! - but the Majestic had a special place in my heart and I'll miss how things were.

I do, in all sincerity, wish Mr. Costarides the best of luck.

 

Friday, December 12, 2008

Our transit funding mechanism is broken

I should just give Thomas Wheatley a hat tip whenever I blog about local news - he always has the goods.  Today's item: when MARTA can have dramatically increased ridership and still be facing a $60 million budget shortfall, then something is wrong with the way that we fund transit.  
I think state funding, as Thomas suggests, would be a start.  I know there are some city planners who read this - any suggestions?  It seems like our public transit systems should be able to function when people need them most, such as economic times when people are trying to save money.  Do we need something that is countercyclical and/or more stable?  Is there anything more stable?

It looks like most other areas use a sales tax, although Portland uses a local payroll tax.  Other options seem to be general budget funds or a vehicle tax.  I think all those tax sources would run into the same problem as our sales tax is having right now.  

Thomas is right that state funding would certainly help things.  He doesn't actually say that, but he implies it.  I can't help but think, however, that if MARTA had state funding, they would budget for that amount of money, and they'd still be $60 million short of their sales tax forecast.  So I feel like we'd have the same problem with state funding.  It would probably be a smaller percentage of the budget that was short, but it'd still be $60 million.  

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Save the Majestic

The petition is now online at http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/savethemajestic/.

Join the facebook group here.  

Email me at terminalstation@gmail.com to get involved.  

Needing an expert opinion

An excellent post on Greater Greater Washington about architect Joshua Prince-Ramus and how he sees the role of the architect. I'm going to quote GGW quoting Joshua Prince-Ramus in Esquire magazine:
All the great architects—every one of them—says 'It represents...' I say to students, 'Don't you think it would be great if architecture started doing again? Why are we representing? Do—it's much more powerful. I've never seen a client give a s**t about my personal vision. I had to figure out how to piggyback what my vision was on their issues.
I like architect with language as bad as mine. What I like even more is an architect who understands the role of architecture in its proper proportion to the rest of the things a building has to accomplish.

I have to admit I'm pretty surprised that this architect sees himself as or is portrayed as standing against starchitects. Most of his buildings seem to me to have the sort of grandiose designs I rail against. I mean, I can certainly appreciate these buildings aesthetically, but I'm not sure what differentiates them from most 'starchitect' works:
I should be fair and point out that some buildings and some sites can get away with these sorts of designs. The original Guggenheim comes to mind. I guess I shouldn't pretend to know enough to pass judgment on which situations get a pass. All I really do is try to take some basic ideas about what seems to work for creating cities that people want to live in, and combine it with my own aesthetic filter. In the end, I write about how I feel.

I've been to some great cities - Paris, New York, Chicago, Dublin, London - and they all share some fundamental principles regarding urban design and building architecture. The same basic building blocks seem to hold true for the small towns that I like, such as Ann Arbor. I also have strong opinions on aesthetics, and truth be told I'm probably not always successful at differentiating the two when I pass judgment.

So are there any architects who read this blog who can illuminate me on why Prince-Ramus' designs don't qualify him as a starchitect?

Monday, December 8, 2008

My soul hurts

I am posting from the Majestic, where I am studying for several exams.  I am only here because my regular coffee shop closes at 10, and I will be studying until late.  They have this new mirror on the back wall that hurts my soul - the subway tile is gone.  

I just learned from the wait staff that they are getting new tables.  They should get a new sign, too.  It should no longer read "Majestic", but rather "Landmark Diner".  It just doesn't feel like home anymore.

I am reposting what I wrote this summer.  I am starting a petition soon to Save the Majestic.  Anyone who wants to help can contact me.  I am done with finals on Thursday, Operation Save the Majestic starts Friday.

------------------------------------------------------
This aggression will not stand, man

I love greasy spoon diners. In Ann Arbor, it was the Fleetwood Diner, although Yanks simply don't know how to make hash browns. And I'm long-time devotee of the Waffle House - being able to retreat to the WH almost daily (sometimes more) helped me survive high school. The all-time sentimental favorite, however, is the hometown hero -The Majestic. 

The appeal of the Majestic is pretty straight-forward. It's as close as Atlanta comes to a living embodiment of Nighthawks, and the glowing neon is a beacon for restless souls. A friend who recently moved to town drove past the Majestic for the first time and said to himself, "That is a place for people like me. I must go there." The neon facade defines Ponce de Leon Avenue.

The interior feels like it hasn't changed since my father would come in from Stone Mountain 50 years ago with his grandmother for a double-matinee at the Plaza Theater. They would cap off the trip to town with a meal at the Majestic. The sign proclaiming "FOOD THAT PLEASES" - SINCE 1929 is a promise - Atlanta changes, but we'll always be here. 24 hours a day. 

I have so many memories of this place. Countless breakfasts with friends, at all hours of the day. Chain smoking in the Majestic at 2 am, when one of the ceiling tiles fell square onto an unoccupied booth. (Like myself, the Majestic is now non-smoking.) Hours quietly studying in the booths. Before all the hipsters started working there, the Majestic easily had the most colorful staff in town. The customers used to be more colorful, too. I have been a loyal customer for a decade, and I'm not that old.

Lately, the place has begun to change. Some of the changes are for the better - the quality of the food has definitely increased, and I don't think the ceiling tiles will be dropping from the sky anytime soon. I'm pretty glad it's no longer cash only - the convenience offsets the nostalgia in this case. 

But I'm not really down with other changes. They are mostly small things. The food isn't cheap anymore - it'll cost at least $10 bucks to eat there. Yeah, food prices are up, I can deal with it, but it looses some cache. They got new waffle irons, that make smaller and thinner waffles, and kept the price the same. Fine, I don't order the waffles anymore. You have to pay at your booth. Whatever, not that big a deal. They got new menus. They look fine, but I liked that the old ones seemed like the they could be the same ones my dad held when he was 10. They started putting fruit on my plate for breakfast. WTF? They once tried to bring me the check on a little red plastic plate. Huh? 

After the little red plate I wrote a note to the owner - "stop changing everything. It's the Majestic - it's supposed to be a dump." A server last night told me they photocopied it and hung it up in the back room. Then he told me the owner was planning to renovate, aiming to be like some of the other Greek diners around town. Goddammit. If I wanted to go to the Landmark, I'd drive downtown. And the City Cafe fucking sucks. 

All this may come off as petty and silly. Maybe it is. But the Majestic is a special place, and I can't bear the thought of it changing any more than it has already. I do mind, the Dude minds. This will not stand, ya know, this aggression will not stand, man. (And for the record, the designated hitter is an abomination. And I haven't been to the Waffle House much since they moved away from the ugly faux wood interior.)

I'm thinking of starting a petition. Or maybe I can convince the Silver Skillet to start staying open later.

An idea whose time has come

The AJC reports that transit ridership is up, not just around the country but in Atlanta, too. For me, the key item in the report is the increasing use of transit from areas that are not in the city of Atlanta:
MARTA ridership for the third quarter was 12.4 percent higher than in the same period in 2007, according to APTA spokeswoman Virginia Miller. Gwinnett County Transit drew 11.3 percent more riders, and in the Savannah area Chatham Area Transit Authority saw a 3.7 percent rise. Partial data for Hall Area Transit in Gainesville showed a 71.5 percent increase
Haven't we reached a point where we need state level funding? MARTA of course, is the largest transit system in the country without state funding, but the increased ridership across the board makes a stronger case for state-level funding. It isn't just MARTA that could use the support now. I'm sure a 71.5% increase in ridership is going to be hard for Hall Area Transit to manage. Set up a state funding mechanism, and fund all these local transit systems.

A respectable showing

Rusty's NCAA football pick 'em contest is over, and I finished a respectable third out of thirteen. I won the first week, but otherwise settled into a consistent pattern of just doing pretty well. I never really challenged for first, and finished nine picks from the top, and seven from 2nd place.

It should be noted that these picks are against the spread, which is a lot harder than you think. I remember one game where Boise State or some other western school I pay no attention to won a game by 20 points, and I was enraged because the spread was 22 points.

Hopefully I'll do better next year. I think I did about the same two years ago, and then I basically phoned in last year's contest after Michigan lost to App State. I think Rusty gives out a prize or something, but I pretty much play for pride. So I'm hoping next year goes better.

UPDATE: Rusty thankfully did a little bit of data work and came up with W-L scores for all the contestants. My record, against the spread: 124-114 (.521)

odd and ends

  • So, UF vs. OU in the national title game. To all the Alabama fans bitching that their one loss is better than OU, or Texas, or anyone else - the same thing happened to Michigan in 2006. We were of course proven wrong. The better team (UF) went to the title game, and embarassed the Big Ten. I'd say you'll get over it, but then I remember that you are Alabama fans and the most irrational fans on earth, and you'll probably hold on to this for quite some time. So let me know how that works out for you.

  • I really, really hope Penn State beats USC in the Rose Bowl. The Big Ten needs a game like that. However, I expect UGA to demolish Michigan State. It would just be typical Sparty.

  • I've entered a team for the ULI Urban Design competition with some Tech students - I'll be doing the financial parts. Should be fun, but also should ruin two weeks in January. I'm going to spend the break between semesters going over previous years' winners.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Let's get our piece of the pie

The current economic situation seems to be causing a resurrection of Keynesian economics. I don't intend to get into that particular argument, but I will say that if the federal government does adopt a Keynesian approach (and the upcoming stimulus plan sound like it will be), can I second Matthew Yglesias call for big, expensive transportation projects?
For example, it turns out that the total cost of “ready to go” infrastructure projects in this country is valued at tens of billions of dollars rather than the necessary hundreds of billions. That’s because planning was done in the old “how will we find the money” world. At the moment, we’re in a weird “how will we find things to spend money on” world. Under the circumstances, one thing I’d be doing if I were president is dedicating a small slice of the 2009 stimulus making sure that we get a big and absurdly expensive list of high speed rail projects “ready to go” in some sense by 2010.
When is the next time you could even remotely justify these kind of big, expensive public infrastructure projects? Let's get the feds to fund the BeltLine, the streetcar, and some high speed rail from Atlanta to DC, all in the name of economic stimulus. The feds subsidized the highways, so its not like federal expenditures on these sorts of projects is that far out of the realm - just the cost and the political will. Maybe we could get the BeltLine built this century.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

An evening downtown

I went to the Hawks game again Wednesday night. We had incredible seats. I took MARTA to Philips straight from a class presentation, so I looked exactly like the kind of arrogant a-hole who would have such great seats (tie, overcoat, etc.) even though I'm really a broke grad student. The game was great, and the guys sitting in front of us were a riot. Then there was the guy in the velvet pants waving dollar bills at the A-Town Dancers... he was too much.

I think the best part of the game was the kiss cam, where the jumbotron finds couples and make them kiss, and they always end it with two players on the opposing team. They zoomed in on one guy who was looking away from the screen. He promptly started picking his nose, ate what he found, and then his date noticed the kiss cam and they started seriously making out. I was dying. I laughed so hard I cried. These things annoy me during Braves games, why do they work so well at Philips?

What I really wanted to blog about, however, was the walk through downtown I had afterwards. I took the train up to Peachtree Center near where I was parked, and had a nice walk from the station to my car. I really wish there was more to do downtown at night, because the city is gorgeous at night. All the trees have lights, and most of the bums are gone because it is cold. Woodruff Park looked great, too.

There was something about was walking through downtown in a black overcoat on a crisp, clear night that just made me feel like I was in a real city. Taking MARTA helped, too. In a real city, one travels in a black overcoat on public transportation before walking down a grand boulevard from some exciting event or another. A guy can dream, can't he?

I also snapped a picture of the new street facade for 191 Peachtree which a commenter mentioned on another post, which looks great. You can see the old front here. My little camera phone isn't great, but I think the image is servicabe. I really hope that the folks at 180 Peachtree are successful, because that block can be great. The Macy's building is too awesome to sit empty, and Peachtree Street is too great to be so underutilized. I always get nostalgic for the time that this stretch of Peachtree was where all the great movie houses were, and where you could really have a night on the town. I also get pissed on what I missed out on.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Lease-Purchase update

An article in the AJC answers some of my questions regarding the county's lease-purchase program. Basically, the county gives tax breaks and acts as a bond issuer to help deals get financed. The mechanism for this is that the developer gives the county the land for a period of time and leases it back from them. My confusion earlier (and what prevented me from posting about this basic structure) was a comment that suggested that the Development Authority actually made money on these deals. The information I was able to find was incomplete, but this article makes it pretty clear to me that the Development Authority doesn't make any money:
Development authorities say their assistance produces numerous benefits that far outweigh the cost of the tax breaks: permanent and construction jobs, higher property values generating higher taxes, increased spending by workers and visitors, and the possibility that a big project will ignite more development.
So there are valid public policy reasons for the program, but the government isn't making any money.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Check me out on the Metblog

James got me blogging on the resurrected Atlanta Metblogs site, and I just filed my first post. Check it out. I'll probably be posting less esoteric stuff over there - less development stuff, less economics type stuff, less politics. It'll be my version of the last segment on the evening news - warm and fuzzies about the city. Lord knows I spend enough time here griping about the police and other city issues.

Of course, I reserve the right to blog about whatever I feel like. This means it will be about a week before I have a rant about Robb Pitts on the front page of the Metblog.

A matter of aesthetics?

A recent post by Matthew Yglesias got me thinking about streetcars and a reluctance of some to, ahem, get on board:
One impediment to streetcar construction in DC is that our local lords of historic preservation have decreed that there can be no overhead wires in the so-called “L’Enfant City” — the original planned City of Washington that includes the bulk of the offices and so forth. It’s worth pointing out that historic central cities in Europe seem to have no problem incorporating modern trams into their landscape.
What got me thinking is the overhead wire issue. For those unaware, Atlanta used to have a very active and popular streetcar system. You can see a map of the streetcar system from the 1940's here; it went pretty much everywhere in the inner ring of suburbs (Emory, Decatur, East Atlanta, Grant Park, Piedmont Park/Midtown, West End). I personally am a fan, and would love to see more streetcars; I'd even love to resurrect as many of the old routes as possible since they tend to run along the very commercial districts that are now popular (Virginia Highlands, EAV, Little Five Points, even along Memorial Avenue by the cemetery).

About a year ago I was talking to a family friend, a man about my parents' age. A great guy, a history of involvement with the public process, neighborhood development, and a man with a love for the city of Atlanta. He is one of the few people I know who actually got rid of the big house in Morningside where he'd lived since the 1970's and moved into a condo on Peachtree Street in Midtown. (Most folks I know simply talk about doing it and don't follow through.) So I consider the guy pretty enlightened when it comes to having a vision of how Atlanta needs to grow, what sort of city it is and can be.

We got to talking about streetcars, and I expressed how I thought we needed to resurrect the old system. He got very animated in opposition to this idea for a simple reason - overhead electric lines. He simply believed that a streetcar system which used overhead wires to power the cars was backward looking, ugly, and would ultimately fail. I of course found it hard to argue in favor of overhead wires - they are indeed ugly and obtrusive. I mostly felt that he was overstating their impact.

I think I was wrong, however. His reaction has not been rare, in my experience. When I was working for a senator in the state legislature, we worked on legislation to create a state-level funding mechanism to channel federal streetcar funds to local pilot programs if/when they were ever available. We had a lot of pushback from other legislators because they didn't like the idea of clanging trolleys and overhead wires. (Nevermind that a representative from Vidalia doesn't need to be concerned with overhead wires in Atlanta... methinks there was some other politiking involved.) Anyway, I was surprised at how a single floor speech decrying clanging and overhead wires could muck up legislation.

I believe that San Fransisco's cable car system does not have overhead wires. It seems pretty clear to me in this picture. You can see that the power comes through a third channel between he two guide rails. Obviously there are lots of considerations, such as cost and speed, but I think that any streetcar proposal should start out talking about cable car system (or any modern equivalent that exists) to just take the overhead wire talking point off the table.

This is all pretty pointless, of course, since the Atlanta Streetcar initiative has been pretty dead lately. It got wrapped up in the mayor's Peachtree Street Taskforce, but I haven't heard peep about that in maybe a year. I'm pretty sure streetcars are a pipe dream for Atlanta, with or without overhead lines.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Sometimes it's the little things

It is a week old, but Richard Green has a great post on the need in this country for public works spending, both to stimulate the economy and to keep us competitive. He also makes a great point about how often elected officials still manage to muck things up:
Government officials also often prefer grand, ineffective projects to more pedestrian, effective projects (transit officials here in LA prefer extended light rail to synchronizing the traffic lights). So if we are about to spend a lot on public works, I think we need some sort of non-partisan entity, such as the CBO, that develops a rigorous capital budget process for determining spending priorities. In the absence of such a process, we will spend money on negative NPV bridges to nowhere.
Atlanta obviously has an impressive list of big deal public works-type projects: the sewers, and the ongoing nightmare they have made driving around town; the BeltLine, of course, includes transit and trails; we just repaved the connector; plans for new HOT tolls on I-85; the new Old Fourth Ward Park (is this part of the BeltLine, really?); streetcars (perhaps); and other I am of course forgetting. I can come up with lots more big-ticket items that I think should get added to this list, too. But what are your suggestings for the smaller infrastructure-related things you think the city needs to work on?

One of mine is something that Richard Green mentions: un-synchronized traffic lights have to be one of the biggest annoyances in town. How many areas can you think of where you will wait at one red light while the light one block down is green and no one can get through because they are all stuck at the first light? Then, your light turns green, two cars get through the next one, and it turns red, backing up both lights.

Every night I leave class and turn down John Wesley Dobbs, and get stuck at two lights in a row. The most annoying part is that this happens where there are no other cars at all - the lights are timed so horribly that I get stuck no matter what. I just sit and wait at two red lights before I can turn onto Piedmont, with no cars passing in front of me.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Props

I have to call attention to my friend James and his stellar blogging on his experiences with MARTA. The basic gist of it is that he has been taking the MARTA from North Ormewood to work in Alpharetta for a year, and he has been keeping track on his personal blog and on the Atlanta Metblog. His posts are a must read for anyone interested in MARTA, and are really a testament to James's character, as well. If there were awards for excellence in personal blogging, I'd nominate James's MARTA series (I'm sure there are, I'm just too lazy to look 'em up).

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Taking on "starchitects"

A friend at CAP sent me a great article in the WSJ that I hope someone shows Robb Pitts. The gist of the article is that attempts to use "iconic" buildings for economic development rarely work. The article focuses on the "Bilbao effect", named after Gehry's Guggenheim Museum there. I personally don't care for Gehry's style (although I can appreciate it), and I agree with the article that a focus on "iconic" architecture often means that the rest of the project gets overlooked.
But for every Bird's Nest, there are scores of costly iconic failures, buildings that fail to spark the public's imagination. Of course, failed icons don't go away, which is a problem. Since the Bilbao effect teaches -- I believe mistakenly -- that unconventional architecture is a prerequisite for iconic status, clients have encouraged their architects to go to greater and greater lengths to design buildings that are unusual, surprising, even shocking. But the shock will inevitably wear off, and 100 years from now, all those iconic wannabes will resemble a cross between a theme park and the Las Vegas strip.
The existing Central Library can be seen in this light. We hired a "starchitect", and in about 30 years the style has gotten dated and is so "ugly" that Robb Pitts thinks we need to repeat the experiment. I feel the same way about casinos and halls of fame. They haven't worked for Cleveland or Detroit. I think a casino downtown could be good for the city, but there are so many details that could get screwed up that I can't get on board without knowing specifics. We don't need another bomb shelter like AmericasMart, for all the commerce it brings.

Another reason why we don't need to focus Downtown development on just big deal projects like a new central library or a health museum: residents are the real goal. In my mind, the single best thing that could happen to Downtown and to Five Points in particular would be for GSU to build the dorms at Underground that they have in their long-term plans.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

I'm glad that's over

So Michigan got its ass handed to it by Ohio State yesterday, and the worst season in recent memory is mercifully over. It is not the worst Michigan team ever - Gerald Ford, yes Gerald Ford, captained a 1-7 team the year after winning the national title (actually, after losing one game in four years, four straight conference championships, and two consecutive national titles, the Wolverines went 1-7, 4-4, 1-7, and 4-4). Still, probably in the top 5 worst teams in Michigan history.

So what happened? Who knows. Anyone following Lloyd Carr's career can't claim to be terribly surprised - the team was on a slow decline despite a stellar 2006 season. The team's last four year-end rankings were 12, unranked, 9, and 19, and the multiple Rose Bowl losses to USC were pretty embarrassing.* While Lloyd was a good recruiter, the talent that left after last year was impossible to replace and the current roster has some considerable holes (especially on the present offensive line and defensive line in the near future). Given Lloyd's recent results, an 8-4 year would have been a best-case scenario, and a 7-5 or 6-6 year very realistic. So, in my estimation, the coaching change and attrition as a result probably cost Michigan three to four wins.

I think Rich Rodriguez will turn out to be a good hire for Michigan. I also hope that he takes a serious look in the mirror and does some real soul searching this off season to figure out how he needs to adjust. You can't take a program like Michigan's, with the talent that exists there even in a bad year, and pull of a 3-8 season. The rumors of team chemistry problems and coming attrition are concerning because of what they say about Rodriguez's leadership and the general atmosphere around Schembechler Hall. I guess a 3-8 season will strain anyone's patience and some blow-ups are bound to happen. But the honeymoon is over for Rodriguez - realistic expectations for me are a winning season next year (or at least 6-6), and maybe 8-4 the next year. A Charlie-Weis-style three-year campaign of excuses and arrogance will not be accepted.

So. What an awful, awful year to be a Michigan sports fan. Hey, I'm used to it - I grew up when the Georgia Bulldogs sucked during the Goff-Donnan years (although I always thought Donnan got a bit of a bum rap). The Braves were horrendous during my formative years, and then when they got good they kept losing in the playoffs. The Falcons, well, they've always been pretty awful (if you disagree, please wait until we have consecutive winning seasons before you complain). The Hawks were tantalizingly close to being good, but could never get over the hump. Being an Atlanta sports fan in the late 80's and throughout the 90's meant getting used to disappointment. So a 3-8 football team isn't that foreign to me. But man, it sure is to most Michigan fans.

* Obviously, getting to the Rose Bowl three out of four years is great - and Lloyd was a great coach, don't get me wrong. I think he was very underrated, and he held some teams together that could have fallen apart. Everything I have read leaves me with the impression that he cared deeply about his players, and that he knew how to motivate them without being a giant a-hole (contrary to what I read about Rich Rodriguez). My experience with sports coaches in middle and high school tell me that this is a rare talent. Still, the on-the-field results mean that this year shouldn't be a total surprise.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Taxes are an investment

All those low taxes over the years are staring to take a toll on our infrastructure and competitiveness. Our lack of investment in transportation will cost us jobs over the next 20 years:
Transportation woes could cost Georgia 320,000 potential jobs and $515 billion in economic benefits over the next 20 years if the state sticks to “business as usual,” according to a new state report released Thursday.

Traffic jams and the lack of access to reliable transportation in metro Atlanta will increasingly limit the number of jobs people can commute to, and the number of potential workers an employer can expect to attract, according to the study presented to the state Transportation Board...

“Over the last 10 to 20 years, Georgia has under-managed and under-invested in its assets,” according to the report.
Increasingly, I am wondering if the City of Atlanta can just keep doing its own thing. Will the greater metro region's inactivity mean that business and residents will keep moving in-town where there is enough infrastructure and transportation options, or will the entire region suffer? As much as I hope the former, I suspect it is the latter. The city would also have to speed up the timeline for its infrastructure projects to really take advantage of the mess going on in the suburbs. This is a polite way of saying build the transit on the damn BeltLine already!

The biggest problem with our infrastructure needs, of course, relate to funding:
...the state would have to invest up to $250.7 billion over 20 years in transportation. That’s $49.2 billion to $161.9 billion short of money government officials currently expect to have to spend.
Good luck with that. We'll need to tax someone, I guess, although I'm beginning to get a bit more interested in those public-private infrastructure deals the GOP keeps floating.

How to piss off your constituents

I usually take neighborhoods projections of how a development will impact their area with a grain of salt, since it typically worst-case scenario situations and a fair dose of NIMBYism. I am not unsympathetic, and usually feel like compromise scenarios should be reached in most cases. I just wanted to highlight a situation that is a perfect example of why people hate development and government. Gwinnett is building a new school in Lawrenceville. In the process of doing so, they have managed to piss off the neighbors:
“We consider GCPS projects to be exempt from the zoning resolution,” said Bryan Lackey, Gwinnett County’s deputy director of planning and development. “If the school board owns a piece of property they can build really whatever they want to.”

That means the Gwinnett Board of Education does not have to adhere to RA-200 zoning requirements prohibiting tall buildings in residential areas. Neither is it obligated to notify neighbors that school construction could impact traffic and trees.
Then there were construction related problems:
On June 11, crews hit a gas line, causing a leak.

“We did have to evacuate the townhomes that were right across from the school,” said Capt. Thomas Rutledge, spokesman for Gwinnett County Fire Department. “No injuries were reported.”

The next day there were more emergency calls. One was a gas leak at 8:32 a.m. prompting an encore performance by the fire department. “It was under control in less than an hour,” Rutledge said. Later that afternoon, after 2 p.m. a fire ignited. “A power line had been pulled down by the construction crew. It sparked a fire in the grassy area,” he said.
Compare this to Atlanta Public Schools, where a new elementary school in northeast Atlanta has a derth of public information available. Not that APS is any model of school behavior, but Atlanta is actually pretty good about involving neighborhood groups in these sorts of decisions (which was learned the hard way after the I-415 and Stone Mtn. Freeway experiences, fwiw).

The new APS school has to go through rezoning, btw. I don't see the point of having zoning rules if the government doesn't have to follow them. Part of the point of zoning and planning is to establish areas for civic space early on and plan for growth. Giving a government department carte blanche to do what they want with land seems like a great way to lose re-election.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Assorted tidbits


I am still super busy with school, and I no longer have an ABC account, so I'm copping out on posting real news again: another picture of the puppydog. This is maybe a week or two old. He's about 11 lbs. now, maybe 12. He's about 3.5 months old.

Okay, well, one item that is sort of related to the purpose of this blog. I posted some stuff that I did with SketchUp for a class project the other day. This is an exterior rendering of sorts that I did for the same class. Mostly I was concerned with whether I could get enough rentable square footage on the site, and from there it wasn't that hard to go ahead and turn the building 3D and create an animation. Learning to do the roof was interesting, but totally worth it since with such a sketchy design it is the only thing that really conveys any sense of the architectural style of the Emory/N. Druid Hills area.

Again, I'm not an architect - this is just me messing around with SketchUp over the course of a week or two.



And, finally, I am trying to get more information about the Lease-Purchase deal with Fulton County that I mentioned Wednesday. If you read the comments, you'll see that there isn't really anything extraordinary with the deal, it is simply a development incentive that I was unaware of. I'm still trying to sort out how exactly it works, and I'll have a post on that when I can sort it out.

Much thanks to commenter Downtown for filling me in! One of the things I have discovered about blogging is that it is pretty hard to avoid showing your ass on occasion, and I like to think I have the decency to admit when I am either wrong or uninformed. This, obviously, is one of those occasions.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

I'm a broken record

I can't tell you how much I love seeing this sort of thing in the news:
A knife-wielding homeless man was shot in Woodruff Park Tuesday morning by MARTA police officers who had pursued him out of the nearby Five Points station, police said.
I was actually walking past the park not long after this happened, and all of Peachtree Street in front of the park was closed off and there were little orange cones on the sidewalk where I presume the guy was shot.

Whenever I see an article like this, I'm tempted not to post it because I don't want to perpetuate the stereotype that downtown is super dangerous or something. I rarely feel threatened or unsafe downtown, and I'm there regularly past 10pm. But ignoring this sort of stuff doesn't help anyone.

Otherwise, I think this event pretty much speaks for itself. It's not like everyone isn't aware there is an issue. Regardless of how you feel about homeless, I think we can all agree that it is a problem downtown and that we need more services to help get them off the street. I also happen to believe that enforcement is part of the solution, albeit only part.

When you add this to the guy in Midtown a while back, you have to get the feeling that the situation is boiling over. I'll repeat my call for mayoral candidates to offer solutions.

Is anyone really surprised by this?

The most recent ULI report on market conditions says that Atlanta, particularly Buckhead, is overbuilt. Um, you think? The key stat from the article:
Buckhead absorbs less than 500,000 square feet of office space annually, but more than 2 million square feet is under construction, the report points out.
So, that is talking about office development specifically, but the general conditions pretty much apply across the board. So what is Tivoli thinking by going ahead with more condos in Midtown?
[Scott Leventhal, Tivoli’s CEO and president] said construction could begin next year and finish in late 2011 if condo presales and financing fall into place. Soaring more than 700 feet, the tower would be built on just under an acre. Tivoli bought the land then conveyed it to the Fulton County Development Authority to offset future property taxes.
Those are some pretty big "ifs". Also, how did they manage to convery the land to Fulton County Development Authority? It's not like that is typical. I can think of plenty of developers who'd love to be able to unload land to the government while in pre-development. Paging Thomas Wheatley - this calls for real reporting! What sort of deal does Tivoli have with Fulton County? Is this some program I am unaware of?

Friday, November 7, 2008

Like pulling off a band-aid

I'm no economic expert, and I don't really know much about the auto industry.  But shouldn't we just let GM and Ford collapse?  I mean, haven't they been messes for years?  SUVs propped up sales for a while, but fundamentally these companies are broken.  Really, they aren't that different from the airline industry, but that is a different post.

And really, its not like we would be protecting the economy in Detroit by keeping these guys afloat - Michigan has been getting devastated by these companies for years.  There is a reason that the economy sucks in Ohio and Michigan - the American auto industry has been giving them the short end of the stick every time they have to restructure and cut costs.  

Get it over with and let the free market sort it out.  Besides, most of the "foreign" cars we buy in the country are being made in the USA, anyway.  Remember that Kia plant Sonny Perdue was so proud of getting near Columbus?

A belated announcement - BeltLine Clean up

About a week ago, my friend David at the Morsberger Group asked me to share some information that my readers might be interestsed in, and I promptly forgot about it.  However, I think the few folks who do read this might be interested.

There is a BeltLine clean up even set for tomorrow morning.  It is sponsored by a ton of local groups - all the local neighborhoods and businesses, the Ponce Park development team, Trees Atlanta, and PATH, among others.  

This isn't the first time that David and other BeltLine supporters have done a clean up.  Last time they started blazing a trail through the kudzu:


Click the image below for a larger image of the flyer and for event info:


Thursday, November 6, 2008

Where I sort of eat my words

So I have to main issues (at least) where I need to eat my words a bit. First, I said Jim Martin didn't have a shot. What I actually said was sort of accurate. On Aug 5 I said:
I think 44%-45% is realistic, and anything over 46% will be incredible. Cleland got 46% of the vote against Chambliss as an incumbent in a very bad year for Dems.
Then, later on when polls showed the race close, I said:
I, for one, am a huge skeptic. I still expect Martin and Obama to lose by about 6 points.
In the end, Obama lost by about 5 points, and Martin is only 3 down. Martin pulled about 46.7% of the vote, which is pretty close to what I predicted. I didn't count on the Libertarian, of course, and a three point margin is fantastic. So while I may have gotten a few specifics about the race close, I didn't give Martin enough credit. Also, I didn't predict an economic collapse that would further erode the GOP brand even in a red state like GA.

The other issue where I need to eat my words concerns James and the Hawks. We went to the Hawks game last week, and I had a great time. While I haven't posted anything here regarding the Hawks, suffice it to say that I was quite surprised to have a great time. I generally loathe basketball, mostly because I'm not very good at it and whenever we played in middle and high school I invariably blew my top over some foul that I took personally. By the end of high school, basketball was the one sport that I simply refused to play a pick up game of.

You can add on top of my personal distaste for basketball the general lackluster recent history of the Hawks, and the tantalizing runs in the 90s where they couldn't get through the playoffs. I actually followed the Hawks a bit then, but when they kept losing in the playoffs I simply lost interest, and took the position that the Hawks were not much more than a tease.

So my first Hawks game at Philips Arena far exceeded expectations. I don't plan on watching them on TV or anything, but I'll definitely go back for more live games.

Sketch Up dorkdom

Sorry for the lack of posts the last few weeks. Four group projects, a new puppy, other school work, as well as a few social commitments all took precedent to blogging. No real apologies for that, actually - actual life is far preferable to commenting about other people's lives!

Anyway, I thought I'd share some fun stuff I've been working on. I'm taking the Real Estate Development class at GSU this semester, and a big part of our grade is a development project case study - find a plot of land, draw up a plan, do the financials, etc. Part of my work for this project has been doing some (very) basic site plans and floor plans. I have found that Google's SketchUp is invaluable for doing this work as a layman. Also, there are tons of neat filters that you can mess with to make your work look neat. So I'm posting a few images of some unit plans I've been working on. It's nothing special, and I'm not an architect, but I just had a lot of fun doing it and playing with the filters.



Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A disappointing decision, and my angry screed

So, my neighborhood voted for neighborhood commercial zoning.
The “Neighborhood Commercial” designation residents approved focuses on three “nodes” along North Highland Avenue and limits new buildings to three stories, requires sidewalks, permits open-air dining, and encourages shared parking. It would also prohibit in-front commercial parking and require developers to provide project information to the group prior to seeking permits from the city.
I think most of the zoning is good, but the three-story thing is short sighted. I think there are plenty of problems with The Mix - starting with it's name, and followed shortly thereafter with it's architecture - but how can you purport to be advocates of smart growth, pedestrian friendly neighborhoods, increased viability of transit, and then limit the density to three stories?

I don't think it is economically viable to develop anything on the numerous parking lots in the neighborhood without going higher than three stories. I could be wrong, but whatever you put there would have to be very expensive. Basically, I think the neighborhood is doing everything possible to keep N. Highland exactly the way it is. It is a bunch of NIMBYism dressed up as concern about historic preservation.

Which is a shame, because there are some great locations that could be developed/redeveloped to make the neighborhood more intimate, more pedestrian. Off the top of my head, I can think of the parking lot where The Mix is slated to go, redeveloping the CVS, those lame brick apartments/condos next to it, redeveloping the Hand in Hand lot that has parking in the front, or the lot on Amsterdam...

It's probably easy to discount my opinion - I'm an MBA student, worked for developers, want to continue in that line of work, etc. I'm the bad guy whose motives are easy to question. But I grew up in this neighborhood. It's been my home for 26 years. I probably know it better than most of the people around. I care about it as much or more than all the NIMBYs. I got into real estate because I saw how the urban environment affects our lives, and how smart growth and pedestrian friendly neighborhoods really can be a great positive force in our culture. Instead of trying to use public policy to shape growth, I decided to learn how to do it myself.

I realize that the only way for Atlanta to grow the way that we all want it to grow is to see greater density in areas like Virginia-Highlands. Why would five stories, tiered back (like The Mix is), with appropriate architecture, be so bad? I guess because I wasn't involved with this whole NC zoning thing, I don't have that much room to complain. The neighborhood voted 178-15 for this thing, I'm pretty sure my voice wouldn't have made a difference. Part of me wishes I had time in my life for this sort of thing - I just can't make it a priority right now. But hey, I'm a blogger, so basically the gig is to complain about stuff all day instead of doing anything, right?

Monday, October 20, 2008

I can't really defend this

I get annoyed often with how some folks like to just complain about the GA Democratic Party having no spine, etc. They'll complain about how bad the GOP is, and then complain about how lame the Dems are, and just lament the whole system.

I think I get annoyed because its like shooting fish in a barrel - yeah, everyone knows the GA Dems are a mess right now. You aren't original if you say it in a particularly spiteful or condescending fashion. In fact, it kind of makes you look like a hack. "Can't come up with a column this week, guess I'll bitch about how spineless the Dems are." Sure, it's valid, but it's boring to read about.

I also know a few folks at the party (not terribly well, of course), and have been involved with Dem politics, so I'm pretty forgiving of what it takes to be successful. It's not as easy as everyone likes to think it is.

Having said that, Charles Bullock is dead right:
Charles Bullock, a UGA political scientist, said Democrats blew a big opportunity by not fielding candidates against dozens of House Republicans in a year that should be very good for Democrats.

Only 23 incumbent Republican House members face Democratic or independent opposition.

“It doesn’t look like there is going to be much [change] because there aren’t a lot of Democratic candidates,” Bullock said.
Honestly, it is really hard to defend the GA Democratic Party for the most part. They are disorganized, underfunded, and lack spine. Like, I said, we know all this. But man, it sure does suck when you can't even field enough candidates to have a real chance at winning the House. I think the answer is fielding operatives and candidates from outside the traditional circles.

Anyway, I'm not sure I have a real point, other than bitching about the Dems like I just complained about other people doing. I guess I'm a hypocrite. I don't think its because everyone involved is stupid, I just think that there is no leadership. There is no standard bearer for GA Dems to rally around and identify with.

It is the same problem national Dems had until Obama. Obama's field organization is directly related to his ability to inspire and lead party faithful. We need someone like that on the state level to reorganize the party. I don't think the party ever really reorganized after Barnes lost, and the old model was premised on having a Governor in charge of things.

Without that political clout, we need a strong party organization to create cohesion and unity. Organization is the key to electoral victory - competing in every race no matter what, recruiting quality candidates, and giving them the resources (voter and donor lists, financial aid, volunteers, etc.) to be competitive.

I don't think the Dem party can reorganize without a strong leader.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Apologies

Wow. I didn't expect my blogging to fall of quite like it did last week. Puppies are exhausting, even a fairly well behaved one like mine (so far...). Since I don't have anything to post related to the actual purpose of this blog, I'll cheat and put up puppy pictures. Enjoy, and hopefully I'll get to some real blogging later this week. But hey, the puppy is keeping my mind off the election, so that's good!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Blogging may be sporadic

For some crazy reason, I decided to adopt a puppydog on Monday. This means that blogging may get very sporadic, as my free time will be spent with the puppydog and not looking for "interesting" news items to comment on. Thanks for keeping up with the blog, of course! I'm not going anywhere, we may just be experiencing some brownouts occasionally.

Eliminating the federal gas tax?

My first reaction to this idea was "what a horrible idea", mostly because I am immediately suspicious of plans to eliminate taxes. Obviously it depends on the replacement plan, but there are definitely enough problems with the gas tax as-is:
The gas tax doesn’t rise with inflation and gets weaker every year...

The gas tax is charged as cents-per-gallon instead of cents-per-dollar, so the same size tank always reaps the same amount of money in taxes, no matter how much the price of gas goes up.

In addition, as people get more fuel-efficient cars, they use less gas, and so pay less gas tax.
The article is about the federal gas tax, but the criticisms above apply equally to the state gas tax. I would add that the state gas tax does not pay for transit, only roads (the federal gas tax spends about 15% of the gas tax on transit). This is one reason the Metro Chamber has been so vocal about a local option tax that could be spent on transit as well as roads.

The ARC is "studying" this, and looking for a more "sustainable" funding mechanism. I would certainly be open to alternatives, especially if it meant that MARTA started seeing some state gas tax dollars. I know this article is about the federal tax, but a change in federal policy presents a natural opening for a change in state policy. Not that it'd ever happen, thanks to the DOT and rural legislators missing the bigger picture while they try to protect their fiefdoms.

BTW, how long until the word "sustainable" has no meaning whatsoever? Are we already there?

Monday, October 13, 2008

J-U-R-Y, Jury Duty!!

I have jury duty today, unfortunately.  Last time I was on standby, called in the day before, and my group was excused.  This time, no such luck.  So I will be at the lovely Fulton County Courthouse at 8 AM.  

The silver lining - I should be able to hop across the street for some early voting for Obama.  

A few notes and links from over the weekend that I bookmarked:
  • Jacoby Development is no longer in the running for the GM Doraville redevelopment.  That leaves New Broad Street Cos., the Sembler Co., and Hines.  I am rooting for "not Sembler".

  • AJC article on the Atlanta police:
    More than one-third of recent Atlanta Police Academy graduates have been arrested or cited for a crime, according to a review of their job applications. The arrests ranged from minor offenses such as shoplifting to violent charges including assault. More than one-third of the officers had been rejected by other law enforcement agencies, and more than half of the recruits admitted using marijuana.
    I don't really know what else to say.  That war on drugs is really working well though!  Seriously, we need some mayoral candidates who come out with specific plans on reforming the APD.  

  • Michigan lost to Toledo.  Toledo.  I spent most of Saturday afternoon randomly shouting that word out in disbelief.  Toledo.  

    Oh, and UGA didn't cover by 1 point.  Thanks a lot, 'Dawgs.  Other "fun" moments in my college football weekend - rooting for Colorodo to score late against Kansas to beat a 14 point spread, but losing by 16; Ohio State scoring only 3 points in the second half against Purdue, when another touchdown would have covered the spread.  I hate you more every day, Tresselvest.  

    Rusty's NCAA picks have me caring about this silly stuff.  Seriously, why else would I care about Colorodo vs. Kansas?  I'd say it make things more fun, but it really just makes things more aggravating.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Unending library blogging

The AJC editorializes against the new Central Library, calling it "of questionable need". Library Director John Szabo defends the referendum. He starts out with, "Think of the children!":
The Fulton County library bond referendum is about 60 preschoolers packed into a tiny one-room library at Bankhead Courts listening to the story of Peter and the Wolf. ...

It’s about a library located in a rented former funeral home that is one of our most heavily used in the system. Don’t our children deserve better?
This is what pisses me off so much about the way the County handled the Central Library issue. The existing referendum was a good idea with compelling reasons to support it. So why would you play politics with it by injecting this stupid Central Library issue at the last minute? If it was soooo important to think about the children, why would you show such disrespect for the existing bond by jeopardizing it with these shenanigans?

Further, Szabo doesn't make the case for a new Central Library. All he says is:
Seattle, Nashville, Minneapolis and others all understand this —- they’ve built many new branches and, yes, a new central library as well. A new central library in Atlanta would follow the path of these other great cities, but it is only a piece of the plan.
That's not a compelling case for $84 million of taxpayer money!! It's not even a case at all! I still can't believe something so half-baked is going before the public.

Please tell your friends to vote NO on this ballot item. You can find more of my rants on the Library situation here.

A thought on all those new voters

I typically avoid the local Dem blogs and have been pretty out of touch with the state legislative races. So I'm sure that some of the various Democratic groups in town have considered this idea. However, it just occurred to me that all these new voters, combined with record African American turnout, could lead to some interesting results in contested state House and state Senate seats.

For example, Chris Huttman is running against Jill Chambers for the Chamblee/Doraville House seat. In a normal year, I'd think Chambers had a pretty safe seat. She won with 59% of the vote in 2006, although 2004 was closer (55%-44%).

Given that this is an in-town-ish area ripe for targeting by the Obama campaign, I actually expect that Huttman has a very good shot at beating Chambers. I don't think that GA Dems recruited enough folks to have a shot at taking either chamber, but they'll win a few seats that folks weren't expecting them to win.

The thought occurred to me reading this Political Insider column about Chambers over-reacting to an ethics complaint. Way to ensure the complaint gets media coverage! Perhaps she is feeling the pressure?

60 minutes on credit default swaps

A professor showed this video in class last night, and I thought I should share it. I wasn't quite aware of how involved credit default swaps were with the whole economic mess right now. I knew that it was a big part of what took down AIG, but according to this report it was also a big part of Bear Stearns and Lehman. This is a $50-$60 trillion dollar industry, that is totally unregulated.

The video probably goes too far and basically lays the entire crisis on credit default swaps. I'm certainly no expert, and I'm still trying to get my head around everything going on. I do feel okay saying that the involvement of credit default swaps was a bigger factor than Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, or the CRA.

You are free to consider and discard this as the liberal position, of course, but I found the report very informative. Remember, I first saw this in business school, not exactly a bastion of liberalism.

Viva urbanism

Interesting article in the AJC yesterday about how my generation is changing how we live.  Basically, we all agree that the suburbs suck, and we also want to have everything possible wired into the interwebs.  Lots of good marketing info, with this being the most encouraging for the city's future:
The Robert Charles Lesser study states that “70 percent do not believe they have to move to the suburbs once they have kids.” And “only half are confident they will need a single-family home once they have kids.”
This is perhaps one reason that APS is building a new school on the east side.  I really need to spend more attention on our schools... any readers want to write a guest post or two?  Any young parents?

I enjoyed the article a lot, but this nugget struck me as odd:
Gen Y’s favorite neighborhood amenity is a library, followed by restaurant or cafe, a main street village, a recycling center and a fitness center, the Robert Charles Lesser study says.
A library first?  Seriously?  You are talking about a generation that gets everything online, and all the rest of your marketing information tells you that this:
“This is a generation that has always known a computer,” said Uri Vaknin, vice president of business development at the Marketing Directors, a condo sales company. “They want these programmed lives.”
A library is an important feature?  Who knew.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

more homeless stuff

The AJC highlights the folks who try to help homeless folks get off the streets.  These are the sorts of services provided by the Gateway Center that I whole-heartedly support.  
Within three to four months of intense case management and support services, Biswas said, more than 30 percent move on to permanent housing.

“That’s the real success for us,” he said.

It used to be the homeless had to get rid of their addiction or stabilize their mental illness before they could earn an apartment.

“Now we take them from the street and move them into an apartment, no questions asked,” said Biswas. “In the old model, the majority dropped out of the program. In this model, 80 percent stay in housing.”

Across the park, Hunter jars another man stretched across the cold ground from his sleep. The man curses, gets up, slings on his backpack and stumbles off into the distance.

“Until folk are ready to make a change,” Hunter says, “all we can do is keep trying.”
There is also an unrelated photo gallery of one homeless woman's daily struggle here.  Some interesting items - she has a bed under the CNN Center viaduct, like three feet from an active railroad track; she takes a shower daily at the Gateway Center; she is a self-described addict.  

When I was working for a company trying to redevelop a vacant building downtown, I constantly had to ask people to stop using the building as a bathroom or a bedroom.  I'm etertnally grateful to our maintenance staff that I never had to clean anything up.  People sold drugs in other vacant properties nearby.  Other folks broke in to the building and stole copper from active water pipes, flooding the basement.  

When I first started dealing with the situation, I thought, "surely there is some win-win situation where they can get help and I can get them off the property."  I called the Task Force, tried to get in touch with the Police's HOPE unit.  I'm not sure what I expected, but no one was really helpful.  The Task Force told me to get them arrested, that they knew better.  

I'd call the cops to get people arrested for trespassing, and then have to sit there and argue with the cops that yes, I'd told this guy to leave every day for the last week and he was fully aware my building was not a place for him to sleep.  Then he'd be on the street again the next day.  

It is hard not to get all bleeding heart-liberal reading these articles.  My sympathy for the homeless seems to be inversely proportional to my daily interaction with them.  Going to GSU, just walking through Woodruff Park, I don't get riled a whole lot anymore.  I realized yesterday that I don't really have a huge problem with Woodruff Park.  I mean, I wish there weren't so many homeless folks there, but they largely don't bother anyone, and the CAP Chess court and Reading Room bring some sense of order to it all.  So far, the public bathroom doesn't seem to be a mistake.  My issue is with the folks smoking crack, trespassing, soiling property, breaking and entering, sleeping on sidewalks, and harrassing pedestrians.

At the end of the day I end up about where the case worker in the article above does.  Of course we have a duty to help those who are mentallly ill.  But at least half the folks in the article above are self-described addicts or alcoholics.  Until folks are ready to make a change, there isn't a lot that you can do.