Haussmannization Continues, or, Protesting TOD

This weekend, a mile and a half of the Odakyu system went underground.

The old line had level crossings every few hundred feet, as seen in Google. The undergrounding is part of a long-range plan by Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward to redevelop the area around Shimokitazawa Station, a major interchange point between two railway lines that connect to two of Tokyo’s commercial districts. Think Secaucus Junction, but with a low-rise neighborhood in place of the Meadowlands.

Phase II of the plan is to construct a Transit Center on the right-of-way vacated by the Odakyu Line. This gets translated to English as “rotary plaza,” but the concept is the same – a big concrete apron with pullouts, shelters, and enough space for a full-sized bus to turn around. The transit center will be accessed by a new street cut through the neighborhood’s Tokyo-standard warren of alleyways. It’ll have 2-3 lanes (one each way, plus turn bays), wide sidewalks, and landscaping. In cross section it is almost identical to Preston Street near Dean’s Credit Clothing.

Near the rail station, and along the new street, building height limits will be increased to 200 feet. Put together, the plan looks like so:

Not exactly a bad redevelopment plan, eh? Take a major railway station, make it a focal point for bus service, allow higher-density development. Great.

But you wouldn’t know this from reading the English-language media. For instance, a Global Voices article states: “the plan will split Shimokitazawa apart with a 26-meter wide expressway.” This brings to mind an elevated four-lane highway, not a two-lane surface street with a 26m total right-of-way. A New York Times piece also sticks to the divided highways theme, stating: “A shadow has fallen straight across the heart of this pulsing neighborhood. In four years, city officials plan to start building an 81-foot-wide thoroughfare that will slice Shimokitazawa in two.”

So why the misrepresentation? A closer read of the NY Times article suggests an answer. “I couldn’t believe it,” said Kenzo Kaneko, 41, an architect who lives here. “They just announced the death of the neighborhood, without asking us what we thought.”

Longtime readers will recall I’ve previously outlined a four-step process by which neighborhoods are gentrified.

1.) Poor creatives (e.g., artists)
2.) Affluent creatives (e.g., architects and marketers)
3.) Affluent people who like to think of themselves as creative (e.g., MBAs)
4.) Civil Engineers

Shimokitazawa, it appears, is on the tipping point between phase II and phase III. 17-story apartment blocks, with all of the latest amenities, will further open up the neighborhood to mundanes. They must therefore be stopped.

Were this article being written about San Francisco or Berlin, I might start talking about zoning. But Japan largely does not practice Euclidean zoning. In practice it’s very similar to Houston; subdivisions and master-planned communities restricted by private agreement, special districts in cities have separate restrictions, and in between you can pretty much have any land use you want. What Tokyo and other cities do have is density, FAR, and height limits. That’s what comes into play here.

It’s therefore useful to note that the same basic dynamic – neighborhood sees restricted development, people become used to restricted development, huge outcry results when restrictions are proposed to be lifted – occurs in non-Euclidean systems as well. Whenever architectural students from Rice or wherever get together to brainstorm what sort of exciting “form based codes” or other land use restrictions they might lay down on Houston, they should keep in mind the story of Shimokitazawa. Any restrictions on land development at all will inevitably lead to a citizenry that feels entitled to preserve their neighborhood in amber. Densification will be that much harder, with associated increases in sprawl and reductions in housing affordability.

Just don’t do it.

As an aside, here’s the page of the official protest group, where they list their alternative proposals for redevelopment.

Simcity Sucks, don’t buy it.

One of the odd quirks of this blog is that by far the most popular post since I restarted is a qualified defense of SimCity Social. It got posted on reddit, and from there to the Simtropolis forums which in turn drove a lot of traffic here.

It should be noted that I eventually stopped playing the “Social” game. The first straw was a “mission” which required players to spam their facebook wall. It was specifically written so you couldn’t ask a “friend” who you knew also played the game; you had to make a post that would show in everyone’s feed. The second straw was a series of server issues that prevented players from logging in and caused progress on time-sensitive tasks to be lost. I swore off the game and picked up a copy of Tropico 4 for Xbox to satisfy my city-building urges.

Now SimCity 5 has been out for a couple of weeks. I didn’t pick it up, because I was wary of the requirement of a constant internet connection, or always-on DRM. This has turned out to be a wise choice. If you pay attention to tech news at all, you’ve read about SimCity’s massive server failures. It’s been in Forbes, it’s been in Wired and TechCrunch and everywhere else. But even assuming they get all the servers running smoothly, as it turns out, the game itself is shit. For instance, drivers are incapable of weighing alternate routes.

Imagine if everyone who was driving to Galveston jumped off 45 at Monroe and took SH-3 the rest of the way. It is 0.2 miles shorter. Or imagine if everyone from Fort Bend County jumped off 59 at Bissonnet, leading to massive tailbacks at every light while the freeway through Sharpstown was empty. That’s the traffic world SimCity posits.

But it’s not just cars that are screwed up. Zones don’t interface at all, so it’s possible to have a city of say, entirely residential:

I’ve long lamented that the Sim games didn’t provide an option for “anything” zone, i.e. something that approximates our Unrestricted Reserve. But at least the previous games forced players to adopt a zoning regime which balanced availability with market demand. Try to zone a city entirely commercial/industrial and you’ll get a whole lot of vacant or abandoned commercial/industrial. Try to make things entirely residential and you’d likewise fail.

With SimCity 4’s region setup, it was possible to make bedroom communities, provided you set up sufficiently high-capacity railway or freeway links to adjacent employment centers. But even that has disappeared. In the new SimCity you just plop some R’s down in the middle of nowhere, and an instant metropolis arises. Traffic may or may not show up from other cities, but it’s liable to be a huge mass of buses or taxis that refuse to leave. And since traffic doesn’t respond to bypasses or reliever routes, and since development doesn’t respond to traffic, well, space maximization suggests not building a street grid at all, but rather a single snaking roadway. Some have done exactly this.

The thing is, if you want a “Sim” game in which traffic doesn’t matter and zoning doesn’t matter, in which there’s no point beyond plopping down whatever you’d like to see – well, they already have that. It’s called SimCity Social. And it’s free. I am, as mentioned earlier, not a huge fan of that game either. But if you want something to play, that’s the one to go for. Don’t shell out any of your hard-earned money on an online-only game that was delivered broken from the start.

Tesla comes to Tejas

Was supposed to meet a friend for dinner in the Heights. Cellphone rings. “I’m not in the Heights, I’m at the Galleria. Wanna meet up in an hour?” “I’m on the ramp to 610, it’ll take me 10 minutes to park.” Exit, U-turn, Southbound Feeder to Hidalgo. There is a mountable curb and plastic bollards which are supposed to prevent this movement. However, a large number of drivers have taken a vote of no confidence in this channelization, leaving a nice 20-yard gap in the bollards at exactly the point where you’d most like to change lanes. Democracy in action.

On the way back from the food court, I see a Tesla store. Guy explains that Texas actually had the second-higher number of pre-orders for the Model S. I ask if there’ll be Superchargers in Brenham and Corsicana. Sales guy looks at me with a blank face, then says it’ll be the “Houston Austin Dallas triangle.” So, Brenham and Corsicana. He explains that due to Texas franchise law, he can’t quote a price in-store, and I should check out their website.

Maybe next year.

The magic of high speed rail.

With the success of Abenomics making orders from Tokyo a bit more affordable, and with yours truly having successfully escaped the snowbelt for a bit of a pay raise and an inexpensive Sharpstown crash pad, I thought I might pick up the recently re-released 383 series in N gauge. (Some people start fights, some people smoke rocks, I collect Japanese trains.)

So I punch in Osaka to Nagano (the 383’s home turf) in Google, and it sends me through… Tokyo.

What in blazes?

Sure, Shinkansen is fast. But the 383 is no slouch – it cruises at a hare above 80, and tilts into curves. The closest US analogue is Amtrak Cascades between Portland and Seattle. Surely there must be something up. Especially since Google’s second choice routes us over… Kintetsu?

Right. Not all Shinano services operate the Osaka-Nagoya segment. So let’s stack the deck in favor of the 383. What can we get? A perusal of multiple departure times and settings suggests there’s no way to get Google to route you over the Osaka-Nagoya segment via the 383. You’re on Kintetsu or you’re on the Nozomi, period.

With a 6:00pm departure, you can swing a 7-minute transfer at Nagoya, which is in the realm of “shit you’d be an idiot to try in the US, but since it’s Japan you’re probably okay.” That gets you some decent Shinano seat time:

Except, glance at the itinerary, and right there below the 383 is… via Tokyo.

That routing nearly doubles your distance, from 280 miles to 470. And all it costs is… a half hour. Even with the best-possible timing, the most you can hope to gain riding state of the art trains on a direct route over the conventional rail network is… a half hour.

How indirect is the Tokyo routing? Put it this way. It’s like going from Houston to Dallas… via Seguin.

That’s what we’re talking about. That’s what you can do with a high speed rail network. You can route Austin to Houston via Temple and BCS. You can route Dallas to Houston via Fort Worth and Temple. You can do all sorts of crazy. And you’ll still end up with times that are faster than driving, or 80mph trains on Union Pacific trackage that you’ve upgraded at great expense.

Near, Far, Wherever you are?

Open question to Houston readers. You’re on the road. You need to make a left or U-turn. Do you pull to the near side of the median opening? (blue car) Or the far side? (red car)

On the one hand, the near side movement is common to almost all our signalized intersections. On the other hand, the far side movement is common to rural divided highways, urban divided highways in many other states, and Houston arterials of yore. H-town thoroughfares were divided going back to the 50’s, but the bullet-nose median opening – which enables the nearside movement – didn’t really become omnipresent until the 80’s.

What do you do?

A Supacheap Muni Capacity Expansion

One of my Portland friends recently posted an article entitled 25 things I wish I knew before moving to San Francisco. Astronomical rent is #3, illustrated by a map of rents by neighborhood. The blogger correctly fingers housing restrictions, linking to a Pando article which in turn links to this SF Public Press piece which is basically a bunch of people concern-trolling about whether SF can add 30% more people in 30 more years – an annualized growth rate of less than 1% per year.

I’d called this the “captain, I’m givin’ it all she’s got!” argument against future growth. And frankly, it gets old. You can build new sewer lines. Portland did. But it got me thinking.

Previously on this blog, I’ve argued for concentrating upzoning in the Sunset district. But if SF were to do this, there’d need to be a massive improvement in transit capacity through Twin Peaks. Here’s a cheap option.

Upgrade Twin Peaks Tunnel to allow 2-minute headways

Set up the signaling to allow solid 2-minute headways between West Portal and Embarcadero. (Realistically, this means a capacity for 90-second headways, to allow for recovery from delays).

Run six-car trains

If Seattle can do it, so can SF. LA runs six-car trains everywhere, and LA’s rolling stock is 22% longer than SF’s.

Switch to high platforms everywhere

This is the “low hanging fruit” as far as dwell times are concerned. When combined with 6-car trains, this would require converting a fair number of cross intersections to right-in, right-out. But platforms and intersection realignments are nothing compared to, say, a new subway.

Cannibalize Market

Currently all of the Muni Metro lines go into the Market Street subway, and then heritage trolleys operate at the surface. The heritage trolleys could be kicked off Market (relegated to the F line), freeing the surface tracks for additional LRT capacity. Routing the J-Church to the surface would free up some space in the subway. But that might not be enough. So…

Consider ending the J-Church by the naked guys

There’s an existing “Y” at 17th and Church and there’s a U-Turn at Castro and Market. This would allow the “J” to be recast as a shuttle. Which gets you a very nice…

Operating Pattern

All N-Judah trains run via the surface tracks on Market. All J-Church trains terminate at Castro. L-Taraval trains alternate with either M or K trains in the subway and Twin Peaks Tunnel. This yields:

3-minute service on the N-Judah
4-minute service on the L-Taraval
8-minute service K-Ingleside and M-Ocean View

Compared to current service, this is:

A 135% frequency increase for the N-Judah (8-9tph to 20tph)
A 90% frequency increase for the L-Taraval (8tph to 15tph)
No frequency increase for the K-Ingleside and M-Ocean View (7-8tph to 7.5tph)

Present service operates with 2-car trains on the N and L and single-car trains on the K and M, which are coupled/decoupled at West Portal. When frequency increases are combined with 3-car trains throughout the system, this yields:

A 250% capacity increase for the N-Judah
A 180% capacity increase for the L-Taraval
A 300% capacity increase for the K-Ingleside and M-Ocean View

And that’s with some platforms, some partial street closings, and some signaling upgrades. I think SF City could accommodate another half-million rather easily.

A simple model for vertical mixed-use vacancy.

Matt Yglesias is all “gee, why do storefronts below new condos go unused?

Well, let’s see. There’s two things to understand here. The first is that at many businesses are not viable even at zero rent. Let’s say my uncle dies and wills me his panel van. I could sell donuts out of this van! Have my own business! So I read up and I see that Houston and Dallas are both large markets for donuts and I decide to park my van in a field halfway in between. Is this a viable business strategy?

No, it’s not. For one thing, it’s very likely I’m going to lose money on the donuts. Presuming that I purchase wholesale donuts from the baker at $X and sell retail donuts to the public at $Y, then every day I need to sell at least Z donuts, where Z is Y * (number of donuts purchased / X). Then there is the opportunity cost of spending all day in a relatively unprofitable donut truck. I could sit around at home and answer questions for kgb, or perhaps do what every other unemployed 20-something does and go work for teleNetwork. Basically even given free rent there needs to be a certain amount of patronage/demand for a given business to be a viable entity.

The second thing to understand is that Urban Planners really, really, really like vertical mixed-use. It provides clear visual rebellion against the earlier generation of planners who really, really, really liked single uses, preferably as well-separated as possible. In many places planners will give you a “bonus” for providing retail spaces under residential. Maybe extra height, extra FAR. In other places planners require that you add mixed-use. Dallas did this, and as a result they have some very pretty streets that provide actual, built examples of the sketches you see in planning documents about the “transformation” that will happen to a certain street after bike lanes are added.

Sometimes it works.

The problem is, if you provide a bunch of financial incentives for the construction of retail space, you’re going to get a lot of retail space. And if you get enough of that, eventually you’re going to drive prices so low that it’s only rentable to unsavory businesses. There is a reason why “low rent” and “unsavory” are often synonyms. Say you’re looking to open a new Banana Republic store. Certainly, you’d like to pay next-to-nothing for a lease. But the places where you can find a next-to-nothing lease aren’t generally the places where it would be profitable to operate a Banana Republic. Conversely, given the obscene markups in porn it would be quite possible for a store in the Galleria to be profitable, and indeed there’s one next door. But in general there’s no benefit to locating a porn store in a major mall, you’d just as soon pick some place cheap like Sharpstown or Tidwell and 45.

Now if you own a stripmall, this is not a problem. You lease to whoever’ll pay. Five years ago in the Montrose you had a leather shop on Westheimer at Stanford and then you had a porn store three blocks east at Mason. With rising rents those tenants left and have been replaced with yet another tattoo parlor and a booshy wine bar. In theory, the glut of commercial space in San Diego could follow the same trajectory. Except SD’s glut of commercial space isn’t in stripmalls, it’s in residential blocks. Any commercial use poses a nonzero externality to people who live on top of it. And if the Slate comments section is to be believed, the HOAs for the condo buildings largely control those spaces.

What you get is a curve that looks like this.

As the “market price” for the rental space declines, so too does the opportunity cost. A retail space which could go for a couple grand a month not leased is a couple grand a month out of your pocket; one that only goes for 500 is only 500 lost. Conversely, as demand for the space goes down, the externalities of potential tenants increase. The clothing store doesn’t impose many externalities, but bars do, and there’s only room for so many clothing stores in a given yuppie neighborhood. The intersection of the two curves is the point at which it’s “not worth it” to lease the space. For a condo board this would basically be the point at which a given commercial use causes sufficient distress to the residents to negate the rent it brings in.

How do you move these curves? Well, in this relatively simplistic model, you don’t. Rather, what you do is stop requiring developers to build vertical mixed-use. If I walk downstairs in my “single use” apartment block and round the corner to a “single use” commercial storefront, I have not gone any farther than if my apartment was on top of that storefront. But placing the uses on separate parcels simplifies building codes, insurance, ownership, and leasing.

Removing the financial incentives for ground-floor retail can raise “market rents” (the theoretical rent at which all the spaces could be filled) by causing less retail space to be built in the first place. And as market rents increase the quality of the tenants will naturally also increase so that the externality cost goes down. At some point supply will be reduced to the point that rents exceed externalities at which point all the space is leased.

In a city like Houston you have no financial incentive for mixed-use and in fact the relatively inflexible parking requirements tend to militate against mixed-use, and even then you have Post Midtown which is some very nicely developed VMU. But it is important to note that only a part of the Post Midtown street frontage is actually VMU; much if it is quite residential. And Post Midtown, in turn, is only a small portion of the total neighborhood housing stock. Camden has developed more units and is institutionally skeptical of vertical mixed-use. That can still yield some nice buildings, but it’s not the sort of “activated streetscape” that’s hot in urban planning right now.

So this is, at root, a failure of regulation. Except rather than planning and zoning regs that favor low-density suburban districts, it’s a reg that in theory favors walkable urban districts. And who knows, perhaps foot traffic in that part of San Diego will eventually rise to the point where those spaces become leasable to the type of tenants the residents want. However, in order for that to happen, more people will need to move to the neighborhood, and newer buildings will need to not include retail space. As long as more condos = more retail, the balance will never change, and that neighborhood will have a permanent glut of retail. Cities with this problem have no choice but to stop incentivizing it. Which is to say, they need to do it the way Houston does.