Friday, July 17, 2009

"The Big Sort" - concepts by Richard Florida

I just finished reading "Who’s Your City" (2008) – by Richard Florida

The important concepts are:
1) The world isn’t flat, it’s spikey
2) "The big sort" is happening now
3) The decision of where to live will increasingly impact your chances to connect to others at the top of these global spikes

This is Richard Florida’s idea, supported by several maps, that there is a scene for nearly every type of economic activity. As creatives increasingly rely on innovation with other like minded or similarly interested people, cities are serving to collect and aggregate specific types of thinkers and do-ers. Some of the more obvious examples are Nashville for Music, New York City for Fashion and Finance, Los Angeles for Entertainment, San Francisco Bay Area for Technology, etc. Interestingly, each of these scenes is becoming increasing concentrated and if you show the concentrations on a map the resulting visualization is spikes of varying intensity dotting the globe. Florida refutes Thomas Friedman’s famous thesis that information and communications technology is allowing us to work from anywhere and that the world has become more egalitarian or “flatter” thus opening up opportunities to people and areas that never had access before. Florida argues that the true professionals work at the top of their spikes and are connected in ways never before imaginable to the other large spikes across the globe. These connections serve to further consolidate spikey places making participation almost impossible for those located in alternative markets.

The Big Sort
This leads to the “big sort”, as peaks and valleys develop in the economic world there will be distinct winners and losers. Those willing and able to relocate are doing so now. People without the means or THE PERSONALITY to relocate are being left behind to increasingly marginal social positions. Florida spends a great deal of time discussing the personality characteristics of various urban areas based on the concentration of specific personality types. The idea that a city has its own personality based on the types of people it draws in is a compelling theory that I think many people will anecdotally agree with. The important point here is that as relocation get’s cheaper and easier, people are clustering in like minded groups. Diversity as we know it is being undone. When people are no longer tied to place, place becomes all the more important. Living in NYC gives me an interesting perspective here. In New York, there’s a neighborhood for virtually anyone. In a way, NYC is a small replica of Richard Florida’s world. Certain neighborhoods experience the extreme clustering he describes and it is easy to see how people have begun to self select neighborhood based on personality.

Where to Live?
The premise of the book is this; Where you decide to live will impact every moment of your life in ways that it never did before. Economic and social opportunities that used to be more diffuse are clustering and altering the geo-political landscape and it will be easy to be left behind if you aren’t paying attention.

My Thoughts
I spend a lot of time thinking about place. A friend of mine is currently working for a real estate development company that intends to begin revitalizing small to medium sized downtowns. Richard Florida’s book underscores my advice to him, which is: Find a scene to locate there and push for its growth. I’m not sure it’s entirely possible to construct a scene, but it may be possible to identify a burgeoning one and help it along. Rather than try to resist “the big sort” I would try to use economic jujitsu to redirect it towards a given place or try to tie nearby places into those pre-existing spikes.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Coco Lopez

For those of you who don't know; while I was starting Asgard Associates, I was also moonlighting throughout the summer working for the famous Julie Reiner at her new bar the Clover Club as a barback. If there's a better way to learn about spirits, mixology and the bartending as one of the culinary arts I don't know what it is. One of the things I love about Julie's bars is that they are completely open and accessible to the public. I enjoy the secluded, speak-easy feel of the popular NYC cocktail dens too, but I appreciate the fact that anyone can stumble in and learn about fine spirits and classic mixtures. The openness of her bars are just the tip of the iceberg for what is (in New York anyway) a massive underground cocktail scene.

If you've been to NYC in the last couple of weeks, don't let the rain fool you. It's supposed to be summer in the northeast right now! So what better way to rebel against the weather than to make some tiki drinks with my good friend Gerry Corcoran, currently behind the stick at Please Don't Tell, another wonderful, but considerably more exclusive joint.

The cocktail world is a funny place and like all scenes, this one suffers from fads too. Right now, it seems that everywhere I go there is a major push towards a dry palette. Dry and citrus-y mixes are fashionable and sweet drinks are frowned upon. When I went to see Gerry, I gave him a hint of my plans and I wasn't too surprised to discover that I'd have to bring my own Coco Lopez. Damn-it I was committed to the idea of making some piƱa colada variations that rawked, so I popped into my local Mexican bodega and found a couple of cans in the back corner. Gerry and I put some pretty good drinks together that night, but the fact that PDT and most other exceptional cocktail lounges don't keep some of the sweeter ingredients on hand is a sort of fashion related tradgedy. I suppose this phase will pass soon, then I'll be complaining that no one has any decent bitters or some other inane ingredient. But for now if you'd like a good tiki drink, just remember to bring your own coco lopez.

For something on the drier, simple side, try a

Coconut Kallalo

2 oz Mount Gay Rum
1 oz Coco Lopez
1 oz Fresh Lime Juice

shaken w/ cubed ice and served up in a coupe glass

or our unnamed variation - please feel free to improve on this recipe and post it as a comment
*Flaming Pina Colada (for lack of a better name)
2 oz Appleton Estates Rum
1 oz Pineapple Juice
1 oz Coco Lopez
1/2 oz Fresh Lime Juice
2-3 dashes Angostura Bitters
(1/2 oz Wray & Nephew Overproof Jamaican Rum - en fuego)

shaken with crushed ice and poured directly into a highball
garnish with a half lime turned inside out, fill with the 1/2 oz Wray & Nephew Overproof Jamaican Rum and ignite with a match. Serve flaming.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Soul of a Courtyard

In March, before I left Los Angeles, my good friend Jim Kumon gave a presentation and took me on a tour of courtyard housing in the Pasadena, CA area. Courtyard housing is a type of multi-family dwelling centered around a courtyard and is a popular historic style in the Los Angeles area. As a typology it was effectively made illegal with the advent of Euclidian zoning in the 1970’s. It has only been in the last decade or so that sophisticated developers have been able to begin building these types of housing complexes again, and as with all art forms that die, reviving them can be a bit of a trick. Things that were once taken for granted have to be laboriously rediscovered and institutional knowledge is often lost for long periods of time.

One of the best modern architecture and planning firms capable of this work is Jim’s former employer Moule & Polyzoides. In fact, the principal, Stephanos Ployzoides wrote a book on the subject well worth reading if you’re interested in understanding more about the design concepts he’s rediscovered. The most recent courtyard housing project we know of is Mission Meridian Village, located at Mission station on the Gold Line. From what Jim describes there are several critical factors to consider when designing these buildings. There are some strict rules regarding proportions based on human scale, and several compelling things to consider concerning architectural details and style. However once you get past these ideas, the final product should create a shared public space for the residents that can act as an urban oasis in the middle of a busy city.

The courtyard should be defined as unsuccessful if it is not used and enjoyed by the residents. This is the prevailing problem behind Mission Meridian, pictured above on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. It is all but impossible to find someone using the outdoor space for reading, talking, grilling or any other form of play. How can this be! How can we be so successful at creating the form of the historic courtyard complexes without the soul? I believe it has to do with creating a sense of belonging or ownership and the ability to participate in the space while still expressing you’re right to be there. If you’ll notice from the photos, the planters nearly fill the entire courtyard. While attractive, they essentially render the space useless. Also, and perhaps more importantly, at many of the units there is no way to sit with your back to your apartment. That simple tweak would allow a resident to effectively claim his unit as his own making his presence in the space acceptable to his neighbors. Notice the benches in front of each ground floor unit in the below example, located at 410 N Euclid in Pasadena, CA.

In the example below, located at 611-17 E California Ave (Pasadena, CA), notice the inviting, shaded space. It’s easy to imagine children playing on this surface under the watchful eye of their parents and neighbors. Values for these units are well into the $600/sf range while the surrounding neighborhood is valued closer to $380/sf.

In summary, without fully considering how residents can comfortably use a space (both socially and physically) even the most beautiful spaces will fall short.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Legal Structure & Sprawl

The Crisis of Credit Visualized from Jonathan Jarvis on Vimeo.

Now that the bottom seems to have fallen out of the debt markets (for the moment) it seems like you can't get away from obfuscating financial commentary in every newpaper and network news station, but perhaps the best summary of what happened in the past year was done by Jonathan Jarvis above. All of this talk has lead me to start thinking about where our pro-ownership policies have and will be taking us.

Obviously, there's been a lot of discussion about government intervention in the housing market contributing to the real estate bubble. When most people talk about this, they're referring to the last five to ten years at most. As a result, I've started to re-address some old thoughts on how policy affects real estate development.

We all know transportation policy has a lot to do with it. The transition from land-grant, semi-private railroad companies to government funded, federal highways in the 1940's helped to spur a huge shift in the way people move around the country and of course caused massive changes in land value. Farmland that was once remote suddenly became accessible to the masses. Sub-urban land that would have taken years for a traditional urban grid to grow to, now seemed close by comparison. But I've also begun to consider the ownership structure supporting all of this growth.

Before condominium laws existed nationally (circa 1969), it was virtually impossible to purchase individual units in a multi-family apartment building. The notable exception to this is the housing cooperative format popular on the east coast, where the buyer actually owns shares or a percentage of the building (usually as a limited stock company). This is a cumbersome financial vehicle that frequently makes real estate transactions too time consuming or difficult for the middle class. So for fourty years or more, from the creation of Fannie Mae in 1938 to the rise in popularity of the condo format in the 1980's, urban property was considerably more difficult to own for working families. In other words, we went from 45% to 65% homeownership in the same period of time that urban dwellings were nearly impossible to finance in a conventional way.

It's no wonder cities suffered from an exodus of residents in the 60's and 70's, the opportunity for ownership was literally 10 newly paved miles away. Now that the condo format is well known to the banking industry, you can have ownership in any type of building you like. Urban dwellings can be built and sold just like suburban sprawl. Is this what's driving re-investment in our cities?

Most new urbanists will assert that people are simply expressing a latent preference for urban living - I think it's more complicated than that and I'm betting the incentives placed on homeownership and transportation combined with our innate preference for social living contain a more accurate description of what's going on. Andres Duany once argued that the goal for New Urbanists is not to bring urban form to suburbs, but suburban policy to cities. Now I think I understand what he meant by that.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Car-less in California

What an interesting two weeks it's been. I returned from my trip to Dubai to land in Los Angeles. Considering my love for urbanism, it's definitely not the first place I would have expected to end up. But I landed here and I'm out of money, I have family and friends here, the weather is lovely and there are more employment options in this region than most others in the country. So I might as well stay put until I come up with a plan. What I didn't count on is the new appreciation I have for Los Angeles as a polycentric city. That is, a city with many beautiful and individually vibrant urban cores. Some of the towns here have fantastic centers!

Yes, I studied LA at the 2006 CNU, but I've never had the opportunity to experience it as a resident. And certainly never as a car-less resident! That's right folks... LA, no car. Give it a shot sometime, it's not what you'd expect. In a strange way it reminds me of living in Bogen, Germany (Bavaria) [which I did for nearly a month at the tender young age of 15]. At the moment, I'm splitting time between the two respectably urban neighborhoods of Pasadena and West Hollywood. My daily needs can be met by foot or bicycle but what's remarkable is that the transit system here (while slow) actually can get you to most places you'd want to go. The problem is that it stops running long before the bars close, making it completely impractical to leave your neighborhood to work late or socialize unless you plan on driving. In Bogen, I had a similar experience. Despite my age and inability to drive at the time, I was able to take day trips by train to Straubing or Munich, but at night was limited to the social scene exclusively within walking or bicycling distance.

As a corollary concept, and I may be wrong about this, my impression is that people here are more isolated than they are in NYC, or on the east coast in general. It's hard to put my finger on exactly why I say that, but there seem to be several imperceptible social differences that scream "I'M ISOLATED!" My theory for at least one cause is this; people are trapped inside a relatively small neighborhood social scene, and their only means of escape, aside from becoming friends with the locals, is to sit alone in a car for 30-45 minutes each direction. It's sort of like living in Lincoln, NE but instead of being surrounded by cornfields you're surrounded by similarly sized cities. Each one has everything necessary for life, but individually they lack the depth of larger cities.

But the symptoms are what I can't quite figure out. Is the built environment affecting people's behavior? If so how? My buddy Demetre suggested that the Hollywood culture has something to do with it too. I can feel a certain distance in interactions here compared with the Northeast, but I haven't figured out how to identify or name the elements yet. Any helpful comments or suggestions?

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Dubai: Final Thoughts

It's been a week since I returned to the US from the United Arab Emirates. The best way for me to describe Dubai to Americans is to say that it’s a strange combination of the three well known US cities; New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. It is a city, like Los Angeles, where every destination is linked by a freeway. There are virtually no functional avenues or boulevards. A city, like Vegas, where most large buildings are iconic in nature and intended to shock and amaze the average person with engineering feats and architectural marvels. And thirdly a city, a bit like New York, where everywhere you look, you see skyscrapers. Some of them are truly magnificent and capture everything I love about the form; but unlike NYC, Dubai lacks the urban fabric. The places in between. There are so few hole-in-the-wall places worth exploring, because there is no wall.

To be fair, there are two older neighborhoods (Bur Dubai and Deira) where urban fabric is the norm, but they are both eyed with some level of contempt by city planners and are marked for destruction. These neighborhoods are where the action is and they are actually quite remarkable. As other neighborhoods like the Dubai Marina, The Greens, and Jumeriah struggle to maintain value, Bur Dubai and Deira will be affected the least.

This leads to my second key observation: Dubai seems to have the very real and common problem of value retention with age, much like most of the American suburbs. It would seem that most buildings over ten years old are slated for the wrecking ball if they haven't been demolished already. Fortunately this is a problem that will eventually go away as some buildings are spared and the age of the city diversifies. My biggest question is how will they patina. The Empire State building has become increasingly valuable over time, will these? At present, the design of most of these buildings and their neighborhoods makes them difficult to maintain and challenging to repurpose for adaptive re-use. It will be interesting to re-visit the city over time, to see how condo buildings have been converted to offices, or dead malls into living neighborhoods. Fortunately for the Emiratis the Americans will have to tackle this problem first.

My final thought is on velocity and market segment. In our new market reality of limited credit and less flexible lending, there are many building sitting vacant in what should be desirable neighborhoods. This leaves the neighborhood relatively lifeless and exposes it to the possibility of urban blight. Dubai has never seen a neighborhood devalue or become dangerous. What will happen if the target demographic never moves to a half built neighborhood? There are still newer ones on the books, waiting to be built as soon as the economy turns around. How will the built environment absorb an unexpected population of differing means and culture? I believe the best way to handle such a scenario is simply to accept it and open the door for the neighborhood to reinvent itself at the smaller scale. Poor neighborhoods need smaller, cheaper spaces in order to nurture new growth. Cheaper will happen with time, but the zoning code must also allow for storefronts to be modified, apartments to be split in two and offices to be resized. This is what NYC has done so well for so long, what Los Angeles is still learning and what Vegas will soon experience. I hope that Sheikh Mohammed recognizes the opportunity for appropriate infill when the time is right and allows it to happen naturally.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Life of an Expat?

This evening I went to a piano bar and I felt so connected with the movie Casablanca. There's essentially no swing scene in Dubai, and hardly any respectable live jazz music. It's a huge difference from NYC and a painful one for a guy who used to see live music a minimum of three times per week.

It helped me understand what Humphrey Bogart's character must have been going through living in some random city as a sort of lonely expat. I'm
not there yet, but I can see that sort of lifestyle creeping up on me. There must be amazing days and must be really hard ones too.

Going to a bar like that makes me miss home a bit; not that I've even been away that long, but it's more the idea of being away for a long time that makes me expect to miss it and makes one wonder what kind of new spots you'll find.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Dubai: First Impressions

On Wednesday 1/8/09 I took the London underground back to the airport and boarded a plane for Dubai at 9pm. I landed in Dubai 1/9/09 at 7:40am and spent the day touring the southern side of the city, went to the gym, napped and went to a handful of hotel bars/nightclubs.

Two of my most interesting observations are that the city is far more dense than I expected, but only about half occupied in places (at least near the Dubai Marina). Secondly, many very nice buildings/hotels have been "out-luxuried" in five years or less. In other words, what was a luxury product five years ago is now just an average to below average hotel due to the constant architectural one-ups-manship here. This begs the question, "what do you do to differentiate your luxury product in an environment like this?" Apparenly the answer here has been to just build taller, more fancy buildings with increasingly nicer finishes, but that only creates an exciting game of real estate hot potato. People keep trading properties back and forth until there's a collapse in perceived value, the last man holding title gets sunk.

When I asked my friends on twitter and facebook I got several responses. One idea to "create the illusion of higher quality by being the most expensive." sounds to me like the above solution. Someone else suggested that the investor "start targeting middle class and sell the product in a way that influences and supports them in feeling productive." in an effort to capture both the mid and high end markets.

In the Dubai market the one exception to this policy of participation in the iconic building arms race is a company called Limitless, which is focused on creating the next destination neighborhood instead of iconic buildings. The problem of course with iconic buildings is that they can be eclipsed, but if you create an iconic district, it retains it's charm despite the lavishness of the buildings. Think of your favorite urban neighborhoods, SoHo, Wicker Park, Rittenhouse Square, the French Quarter, the Pearl District, etc. If someone builds an iconic building in a different part of town does it affect the quality of the life or the property values in your favorite area? Not usually... because a neighborhood is about people. People who live and die, but en mass have the ability to be timeless.