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


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.