Archives for the month of: September, 2008

As a resident of Folsom, California, a city just east of Sacramento, I have often reflected on the potential impact of affordable housing in our area. Folsom is the quintessential “upper middle-class” suburb with great schools, low crime, and wonderful lifestyle amenities. It has experienced rapid housing and economic growth over the past 10 years and is widely regarded as one of prized places to live in the Sacramento Region.

Folsom also has a reputation for being anti affordable housing–so much so that the city was sued in 2001 by state affordable housing advocates. The city has since settled the lawsuit, agreeing to develop 128 acres of land for nearly 3,000 affordable units; a move that has infuriated many in the community. Personally I have mixed feelings about affordable housing. On the one hand I strongly support the socio-economic and racial diversity that affordable housing often brings to the table.This, in fact, is an aspect of Folsom that is sorely lacking, a sad reminder of the economic and race based housing segregation that continues to haunt our nation to this day.

At the same time, I sympathize with many of the concerns that my fellow Folsom residents have about the potential impact of low income residents in our community. By way of example, North Natomas, an unincorporated section of Sacramento, has seen a rapid rise in property and violent crime in recent months; a fact that many are attributing to the growth of affordable housing complexes in the area. An interesting connection here is that North Natomas has the distinction of being Sacramento’s first area of expansion under the city’s inclusionary housing ordinance, requiring 15 percent of new housing to be affordable to low and very low income residents. Needless to say, many residents of Natomas, an otherwise successful city in terms of its diverse makeup, are outraged.

Community activists on the other hand believe that the problems in Natomas largely stem from the affordable income apartments in the area being densely grouped in complexes of up to 200 units (versus the dispersal of housing throughout area neighborhoods).This issue of affordable housing density brought back memories for me of Cabrini-Green and the Robert Taylor Homes, low income, high-rise housing complexes in Chicago that became the model of crime, poverty and urban decay. Counter that view though with the highly successful low income housing efforts in South Bend, Indiana. In one such instance a vacant department store in the downtown district was converted into a low income residential high-rise called the Robertson Apartments. My experience as a resident in this building back in the late 90’s left me with enormous hope regarding the peaceful co-existence of people from all walks of life and income groups in a housing community.

In light of the housing reform legislation recently signed by President Bush, it appears that these sorts of debates regarding affordable housing are unlikely to abate in the near future. Among other provisions, this legislation creates a permanent housing trust fund to benefit low income housing financing. These funds would be allocated to states who would subsequently use the funds to produce and preserve affordable housing focused on the lowest income households.

In the end I think affordable housing will be among those concerns taking center stage among our nation’s domestic issues. In fact, with the current economic downturn and record numbers of foreclosures we are experiencing, those who have been such staunch advocates against affordable housing may find themselves unwittingly benefiting from the very same housing arrangements that they have passionately denounced.

In the heart of downtown Indianapolis lies a recently constructed monolith, the envy of other cities aspiring for new digs for their NFL football team. Lucas Oil Stadium is the name it has been bestowed with. It has 63,000 seats and features a retractable roof allowing for comfort control during Indiana’s fickle fall weather season. And for those urban enthusiasts in the crowd, the roof when open provides a captivating view of an Indy skyline that in years past was barely visible to the naked eye.
Many of the state’s residents though are asking why a new sports venue was built in Indianapolis. In fact, one only needs to take a drive along I-65, the main interstate bordering the downtown to get a taste as to why this issue keeps surfacing. Namely, if you look directly across the street from Lucas Oil Stadium, you’ll see a much larger structure that appears to be in relatively good condition. While many have confused it with a large spaceship, Indiana sports enthusiasts know it as the infamous RCA Dome.

Home of the Indianapolis Colts for over 15 years and the site of numerous NCAA basketball regional and national championships, the RCA Dome has in many ways come to symbolize Indianapolis’ distinction as the sports capital of the world. The “Dome” also reflects Indiana’s lore and history as the hotbed of high school basketball, having served as a venue for annual state tournaments, including the highest attended game in our nation’s high school basketball history.

So part of the argument among Indiana residents is that the RCA Dome was more than adequate (it actually has a larger seating capacity than Lucas Oil Stadium). The other gripe has been the cost; $720 million to be exact, financed by a nine-county food and beverage tax that passed in 2007. In other words, many of the state’s residents are footing the bill.

Advocates for low taxes would certainly argue that building the new stadium was a pompous act on the part of city leaders, interested in only the local economic and financial implications. The argument can also be made that the stadium only benefits a small segment of Hoosiers, as many state residents, struggling to make ends meet in today’s tepid economic times, can’t even afford to purchase a ticket to the game, let alone a hot dog and parking.

Indianapolis is not alone in terms of public outcry regarding new sports complex projects. The San Francisco 49ers are currently exploring a move to a yet-to-be built new stadium in Santa Clara, California, a city embedded in the ever prosperous environs of the “Silicon Valley” where money continues to flow like “milk and honey” despite the dot-com bust of several years ago. Recently the Santa Clara City Council put off a public vote on a whopping $916 million stadium initiative for at least a year in order to assess funding options as well as to allay environmental impact concerns raised by local residents.

In the state capital of Sacramento, where legislators have spent months grappling over an exploding state budget deficit, the talk of the town for months has the proposed arena for the NBA’s Sacramento Kings–a movement being championed by renegade owners Joe and Gavin Maloof with the support of opportunistic NBA commissioner David Stern. Caustic battles have ensued between supporters of the Kings who believe the sports franchise is vital for the city’s economic vitality and state voters who have been historically hostile to taxes for private sports facilities. The latter concern has been further fueled by the Maloof brothers who as millionnaire owners seem willing to cough up only a pitance of the new construction investment

Then there is Robert Kraft, owner of the NFL’s New England Patriots, who lead the construction of a new shopping complex next to Gillette Stadium that at $300 million ended up costing as much as the stadium itself. Decked out with a football museum, four-star hotel and spa, restaurants and cool stores, “Patriot Place”, as this complex is affectionately named, aspires to provide year round pedestrian foot traffic as a major dining and entertainment destination.

As the aforementioned examples highlight, there are certainly arguments that can be made against these sorts of expenditures, particularly during uncertain economic times for cities and counties. I would also argue that there may be strong reasons for constructing these sports complexes in terms of the boost they can provide to the economic and social prosperity of an area. Indianapolis is an excellent example of this in terms of branding itself as America’s premier sports city. It is clear that the city’s efforts to attract sports buffs from far and wide is vital to the sustainability of its local economic engine.

The Colts are not the only game in town here; Indianapolis hosts more Olympic trials and NCAA basketball finals than any other city in the nation. It is also the home of the Indiana Pacers, an NBA franchise that plays its games in yet another downtown sports venue–Conseco Fieldhouse. There are also the Indianapolis Indians who play in one of the finest minor league baseball parks anywhere. And not to be overlooked is arguably the largest sporting event in the world, the Indianapolis 500. Mark Rosentraub a Professor at Indiana University estimates that the speedway generates $36.5 million in state and local taxes annually. It should also be noted that the track is privately owned and races occur without public expenditures beyond local law enforcement.

So what’s the verdict? A study by Dennis Coates, Professor of Economics at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County sheds some light on the “economic prosperity versus pompousness” argument. First of all his research reveals that there is little evidence that large increases in economic impact, particularly in income or employment, ensue from the construction of new stadiums. He does say however that DOWNTOWN stadiums are likely to have larger benefits than suburban stadiums. As I see it, this latter point is is the magic behind Indianapolis’ efforts to promote sporting events as an economic catalyst– that outside of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, all of the sports facilities are located in the downtown, central district. The evidence is clear that sports venues in the “Circle City” continue to generate loads of foot traffic and activity in downtown Indianapolis, from the bustling Circle City Mall to burgeoning crowds in downtown restaurants and music venues. One could in fact argue that all of this economic and community vitality in the city’s urban core would have made America’s preiminent urban activist Jane Jacobs proud and maybe even a frequent visitor to the city for a hot dog and a game.

It has been over twenty years since my student days at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. Yet I have fond memories of this bustling campus community–one currently supporting a student population of 58,000 along with a faculty and staff contingent numbering around 27,000.

As an undergraduate Sociology major I found myself captivated by the urban vibe that resonated in the area at that time, particularly along High Street, the main thoroughfare bordering campus proper. In many ways High Street over the years came to epitomize what the sociologist Emile Durkheim referred to as “anomie” or a state of normlessness, which in my mind symbolized the area’s struggle for identity amid the disparate interests of area residents, students, homeless individuals, and petty criminals. My frequent strolls along this street, often late at night after “tying one on” at one of the local bars, elicits memories of drunken brawls between students and bystanders against the backdrop of urine smells pulsating the area. Many of the buildings were run down and decrepit, strangely symbolizing the rapid deterioration of the street infrastructure and community ethos.

Visit this area today and you will quickly realize that a major renaissance has taken place, adding new spark and vigor to arguably the nation’s largest university community. Known as the “South Campus Gateway” project, this re-gentrification effort which opened to great fanfare in 2005, boasts one of the most preeminent models of urban vibrancy anywhere. Featuring an eclectic blend of entertainment venues, restaurants, retail offices, and housing in a walkable setting, the university community now enjoys “new urbanist” style amenities that are a boon to the area economy.

Indicative of efforts to ensure effective collaboration and partnership between the area community and campus, the university bookstore and the independent Long’s Bookstore, which for many years vied for student business are now part of one flagship Barnes and Noble Booksellers, prominently located in the heart of this new district. Adding to the diverse economic mix of the area is a grocery store specializing in natural and organic foods, a cinema, as well as several new restaurants, including a highly popular eatery owned by former OSU football star and Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George.

The catalyst of this revitalization was $150 million in seed money from public and private investments. The campus district is also on the edge of a distressed neighborhood with a high concentration of poverty– a fact which allows it to benefit from a federal designation known as the Columbus Empowerment Zone.

With campus enrollments continuing their steady climb nationwide, many schools are likely to consider similar models for boosting the quality of life of their university communities. One such effort, albeit with a slightly different slant, appears to be occurring in the region where I live. Alexander Gonzalez, President of Sacramento State University and an advocate of partnerships between universities and the cities where they reside, has proposed initiatives addressing issues such as housing and transportation, two of a handful of critical factors for attracting and retaining top students and faculty. Plans are currently underway for a university village on 25 acres of land near campus to house faculty and staff struggling to afford Sacramento’s pricey real estate market. There are also efforts afoot to develop a transportation system linking campus to the light rail network of Sacramento County.

Most notably of late, the university and the City of Sacramento recently signed a partnership agreeing to collaborate on regional quality of life issues such as smart growth and economic and workforce development. This new accord rings consistent with Gonzalez’s vision of a truly “metropolitan university”, a trend that is likely to pick up momentum nationally as urban areas and university campuses explore new ways of coexisting as one.