gmapPedometer - oh so nifty!

I've always regretted not being able to make mapquest tell me how long a specific route was - I could ask for a route, but not feed it one. maps.google started out the same way, but, oh, the glory of hackable map servers: somebody (who wanted to track her/his marathon training runs) made a version that allows you to double-click waypoints across googlemaps and get a route distance. For example, my route from Jorvik to Leopold Bros., which involves a shortcut along the Annie, is mapped to be about 1.2 miles.

Lj turn on?

So, I've finally gotten around to http-rewriting my 2.0 blog's rss feed to my 3.0 blog (this one), if only so that LiveJournal will follow. (Since non-LJ readers seem to have caught up to the new feed over the 4 months since I switched versions.)

In general, I've long since given up on putting much effort into getting my feed into LJ reliably, so if this doesn't work, oh well; LJ seems to be the least error-tolerant feedreader I've ever encountered, and breaks every time I cut-paste something containing an apostrophe or quotation mark, while my self-subscription in BlogLines will gracefully load the feed anyways. Lj's problem, not mine.

Read: Jared Diamond (2005) "Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed"

The 18 hours each way of my not being allowed to drive Andra's car to Maine and back, plus Cara's family's vacation style were amenable to reading. First on the stack, Jared Diamond's Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed.

Bleak title, bleak cover, good read. JD continues to be one of the few authors whose work enters my brain as default-good, rather than somebody I have to search for the good bits of. (Guns, Germs, and Steel I stopped reading 2/3 of the way through, so well were the arguments presented in that span that I didn't feel the need to read further into the case studies.) Additionally, any book that begins with a comparison of the challenges facing a cattle ranch in modern Montana and a cattle ranch in ancient Viking Greenland finds me a receptive reader.

Diamond lays out five sets of factors that determine whether a civilization will survive, briefly, self-inflicted environmental damage, climate change (whether man-made or otherwise), withdrawal of support of traditional allies/trading partners, new enemies, and societal reactions to change. That last one is the most important one - it's the question of, "What was going on in the mind of the guy who cut down the very last tree on Easter Island?" It's the question of, "Will Montanans give some ground on their traditional distrust of all things government to set up some systems of land use planning and sound environmental resource use that they need in order for their economy to survive?"

A series of mostly-depressing case studies are used to illustrate examples of combinations of these factors: Easter Island (extinct), the Anasazi (extinct), the Classical Mayans (extinct), Viking Greenland (extinct), Inuit Greenland (success, after two earlier societal extinctions), pre-Bounty Pitcairn Island (extinct), modern Rwanda (ouch), Iceland (nearly extinct, but saved by a major societal course change), modern Australia (facing a total collapse of agriculture), and so on. He often touches, in the course of these, on globalization, in a very dire but understated way - all of the extinct societies were localized, and could die off without major problems of survival for humanity. If Easter Island cut down all of their trees and then died through massive self-inflicted environmental damage, there were more people elsewhere to carry on. If one society (or two, or three) on Greenland died off from the climate change of the Little Ice Age, more were able to step in - the Inuit to replace their extinct North American predecessors, and the Danish to replace (several centuries later) their exctinct predecessors. In the modern version, though, we're rapidly converging on a world resource economy, and if we on a global scale cut down all of our trees, or use up all of our oil, there's not another society on some other part of the world (with more trees and oil) that can repopulate in a few hundred years; we're all in it together at this point.

He makes clear, from these examples, that "societal response" is the key to survival. Despite a natural inclination to cling harder to core values in times of hardship ("This is what has seen us through in the past - it's what will get us through this!"), there are times when those values need to be examined and possibly shed for new, more appropriate values. The Greenland Vikings doomed themselves by trying to survive on a European-style of agriculture and animal husbandry, which was a subsistance survival in good times; when the Little Ice Age shortened the growing season, the Vikings stuck to their guns, rather than learning from the Inuit, who were getting plenty of food from kayak whaling and seal hunting. Vikings dead, Inuit alive. The Icelandic Vikings are the counter-example, a society that washed half its topsoil into the ocean before realizing the problem, but managed to turn themselves around and, a millenium later, have one of the highest standards of living in the world, along with the strictest environmental protections. Examples are presented to show why some societies are inclined to change and others aren't - key feature: recognition that everybody's in it together.

Finally, Diamond presents a section of refutations of the "in my opinion not well informed" one-liner objections that will face anybody who agrees with him, the old standbys like "The environment has to be balanced against the economy [because, of course, the economy is not in the least bit dependant on natural resources or food production]," "Technology [read: hydrogen economy] will solve our problems [just like CFCs solved the problem of having an ozone layer, and thalidomide solved the problem of not having enough birth defects]," "Environmental concerns are the luxury of First World yuppies, who have no business telling desperate Third World citizens what to do [despite impoverished Third World residents being the ones most immediately affected by environmental problems]." Diamond manages to be totally viscious while remaining completely polite - very nice.

If you don't already think radical environmentalism is justified, you may have more problems with this book than I had. If you do already think radical environmentalism is justified, you'll find it scary: Diamond has a much better grasp of problems than I do, and thinks we're doomed if we, societally, don't get a clue. He's more radical than most of the self-proclaimed radical environmentalists I know, including myself.

How could I not?

Dear blogland,

Cara and I are engaged.

The end.

(It was actually Monday, but I was maintaining radio silence until my brother got home from his honeymoon and I could tell all of my family before any of them found out about it online.)

And now, off to Maine for a week of Cara's-family-vacation.

[AffA2] You can't raze your way to affordability

Here's a good piece (snagged from PLANetizen) on (against) affordability-through-density, Density doesn't make housing affordable. While I think the title is a little over-generalized, the main point is correct in a very Jane Jacobs way - you need not just a mixture of uses, but a mixture of ages and conditions of building stock. Or, the Brandon corrollary, if you tear down the cheap 1-story building that Encore is in and built a stunning, six-story mixed-use masterpiece, Encore won't be able to afford the rents on new construction. New development is always expensive, and if something has to be demolished to build it, it'll be the cheapest demo-job the developer can find, which is probably the most affordable existing housing or commercial space around. New construction ought to focus on in-fill, whether redevelopment of surface parking (the most underused land around), or in a scattered fashion through ADUs and other such measures.

There are things we can do to allow for the kind of growth we desire, while preserving the neighborhood qualities and economic diversity we value, such as:

  • Preserve and protect our existing supply of affordable housing. As we do with conservation in our energy policies, we should make the best use of what we already have.

  • Prevent the speculative sale of existing rental buildings. Give tenants the right to link up with non-profit organizations to purchase their buildings and preserve them for long-term affordability.
  • Promote in-fill development over demolition and redevelopment. Even under existing zoning, we still have substantial capacity to accommodate new development that does not require tearing down existing housing.

That middle one seems like it would work well with Dale's conception of non-profit developers, though I'm not sure how the mechanics would work. Would it be legal to give tenants right-of-first-refusal on all sales of income properties via city ordinance? Or to give non-profit housing co-operatives right-of-first-refusal?

It also has to be said that "never destroy housing" is a bad rule. Yes, for example, Glen-Ann Place involves demolishing two (affordable, rental) houses, but I think that the benefits (100 units close to downtown, central campus, and the medical campus, redevelopment of two small surface lots, addition of several new uses to a dead zone, $1m+ contribution to the City's affordable housing fund) are worth it. The affordable housing contribution alone could buy up two houses (or a large house in the same neighborhood) and turn it over to a non-profit housing corporation.

Hooray for snowball sampling.

[AffA2] Don't require parking

(Part of the Affordable Ann Arbor series of posts.)

Since I'm six chapters into the DDA's office copy of The High Cost of Free Parking (ah, a little light recreational reading - 700 pages on planning and parking economics!), it seems like a reasonable time to address the question of parking requirements in housing, and their affect on affordability. Put simply: negative.

Parking requirements drive up the cost of housing. The numbers I've heard in the past put the price of surface parking in the range or $5-10k / space, structured parking at $20-25, and underground at $30-40k+. Every one of these is, of course, a very vague estimate; it depends on your site, geometry, etc. These costs, of course, have to be paid for somehow, and if the development that includes them is a housing development, then the costs are included in the price of housing, increasing the price by that amount. If you require parking for a development, you require the cost to be higher, in an extremely direct relation.

Not only are there land costs and construction costs to be considered, though, which were the ones that I was thinking about beforehand, but High Cost points out that parking requirements limit the amount of density that can be provided. If you want to add units (driving down the land cost per unit), you also need to add parking, which will either drive the land cost back up for surface parking, or drive the construction cost up for structured or underground parking. Shoup cites examples of parking requirements causing developers to not build to the full floor-area or height allowed by zoning, because the extra parking required by the extra usable area would be cost-prohibitive. As a local example, consider LoFT 322. The 1st floor of this development is planned as a parking garage, with a curb cut onto Liberty Street. This is ridiculous - the first floor of a development here ought to be commercial space, in order to help strengthen the connectivity of the area. Unfortunately, due to the geometry of the site, the only way to provide parking is within the footprint of the structure and aboveground. The proposal is not using the full allowed FAR - they could add several more stories under zoning - because they already have approval for the given building envelope, and adding stories would require adding parking, and the first floor is already completely parking, so extra would require ramping up or down, which would reduce the parkable space on each level and cut into the usable height by requiring more for parking.

Glen-Ann PUD is up for Council approval on Monday, and I think I'll have to go speak in favor of it, since I expect the Old Fourth Ward to speak against it (again) based on parking requirements. There's a conveniently-timed discussion over on AU about the role of parking requirements in development plans around Ann Arbor, which hits on the point that, not only does each parking space drive up the cost of that development by $30-40k, since it's all underground, and that cost will then be passed along to the housing units in the price, but may have also been influential in the developer's decision to provide fewer, larger (and hence more expensive) units.

The complaint that would arise if the City were to eliminate parking requirements is that developers would "abuse the commons" of on-street parking, provide nothing on-site, and impose a negative externality on all of the neighbors. In general, this is true. On-street parking is free in most of Ann Arbor, and so, given a choice between paying for off-street parking or just using on-street, everybody would just want to use on-street (or, at least, the developer would) and would therefore swamp the streets. The solution to this is to not allow free street parking.

There are times when the market really is a planner's best friend. Consider the options available to a downtown Ann Arbor resident who is not forced to buy an on-site parking space:

  • Buy an on-site parking space for $30-40k.

  • Get a permit in a DDA structure for $105 / month.
  • Get an evening-only (commute to outside of Ann Arbor) DDA permit for $50 / month.
  • Find street parking in the neighborhoods, or keep the car at a friend or relative's house for close to free, but with the inconvenience of not having the car close at hand.
  • Not own a car and not pay for parking at all.

Note that last option. In a development where the developer is required to provide on-site parking, the resident has exactly one choice: pay for parking. If the resident owns no car, s/he may be able to recoup the cost by renting out the parking space, but this is still less preferable than just not paying in the first place. If parking is not required, then the resident has a wide range of choices, including just not owning a car, and the market will dictate how much parking the developer builds on-site, based on how many of the residents demand (read, are willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars extra) for on-site parking. Allowing the choice of not paying for parking will not only reduce the cost of housing, but also reduce the incentive to drive, providing a positive externality.

Currently, of course, this optionset only exists in downtown Ann Arbor. In most of the neighborhoods, on-street parking is free, and not requiring on-site parking really will encourage on-street parking congestion. This suggests that selling on-street parking and removing off-street parking requirements is desirable for a built form that is designed for people rather than for cars, in order to reflect more of the true cost of automobile ownership and use. Of course, so far the only program available in Ann Arbor outside of downtown is designed for protectionism rather than public benefit, and is a massive money-loser. The proper answer would be to sell permits on a per-zone basis to any comer, based on a price set by the market, in order to properly disincentivize parking, and also properly disincentivize car ownership.

Soy milks and baby tomatoes

Last week, I noted Silk Plain aseptic bricks on sale at the Food Co-op: $1.49/ea. I thought, "huh." I lifted the tag to check the normal price. $2.49/ea. Yow! I picked up a case. Easier to carry home, and it got me 10% of the price! So I'm now at 44% of the normal price - and, checking the direct-order catalog when I get home, notably cheaper than ordering from the warehouse. So today I picked up another case. I might have gone for two (they're good for about a year without refrigeration), but I can only carry one when I'm traveling by foot and bus in hot/humid++ weather. So I'm good on soymilk for a while.

Meanwhile, the garden is taking off. Everything got settled in, nicely mulched, and it started raining a few weeks ago, and now everything is nuts. In a good way. The tomatoes are all waist high or so, exploding with blossoms, and some have blueberry-sized baby tomatoes already. The zucchini are still pretty compact, and haven't sprawled too far, but are blossoming and the first little zucchini are forming. (Richard has dibs for frying the first squash; some weird Texan thing.) The hops have swarmed up their tomato cage, and, after some probing around, made the leap to the fire escape railing and are creeping up towards our bedroom window.

The herbs are having variable success. The cilantro bolted immediately to bloom, producing no useful foliage. The basil seems to be getting munched on by something; one of two lime basils is still seedling-like; the thai basil is getting shaded by the tomatoes because I was too pessimistic about how big the tomatoes would get. Parsley is doing well. Chives haven't gotten over significant root trauma after transplanting from my parents' house - but they're a weed; they'll get over it. Jalepenos (not an herb, but in that sector) are small, but fairly nicely filled out and starting to bloom.

In further domestic news, the City of Ann Arbor, in their infinite wisdom, has decided to bestow FOUR (4) garbage carts to the household that can't even fill up a single, smaller trash can every week. I could see two, as a duplex, but not four.

"Kelo v. New London" and the Michigan Escape Clause.

From the Opinion of the Court in Kelo v. New London, 545 US ____ (2005), page 19:

We emphasize that nothing in our opinion precludes any State from placing further restrictions on its exercise of the takings power. Indeed, many States already impose "public use" requirements that are stricter than the federal baseline. Some of these requirements have been established as a matter of state constitutional law (See, e.g., County of Wayne v. Hathcock, 471 Mich. 445 (2004).), while others are expressed in state eminent domain statutes that carefully limit the grounds upon which takings may be exercised (Under Califonia law, for instance, a city may only take land for economic development purposes in blighted areas...).

So, fear not, Michiganders. IKEA can't bribe your city into eminent domaining your home. In previous discussion, I had thought that the line between the Michigan Hathcock decision, based on the Michigan State Constitution, and the Federal Kelo decision, based on the United States Constitution, was pretty fuzzy, and where exactly it lay would have to be hashed out in future court cases - that we would hopefully be safe because no Michigan city would be desperate enough to try to use Kelo against Hathcock. It looks like we're much safer than even that, though, as the US Supreme Court specifically names Hathcock as an example of States that have much stricter restrictions on eminent domain. In order to change this, therefore, it would seem to require the Michigan Supreme Court to reverse itself (which rarely happens - it took 24 years for Michigan's Poletown precedent to be reversed by Hathcock, and I think that's remarkably short as takings law goes), or for the Michigan State Constitution to be changed to allow private economic development as a public use.

Clan on landlord competition

Since Clan's bloglines feed has a grand total of 2 subscribers (me and Ed, I presume), his latest is well worth a link in its direction just to bring a few more eyes. His post, Improving the Maintenance of Rental Housing, suggests,

But there is still a lot of rental housing that is poorly maintained. There is something else that might be tried; competition. We might try taking advantage of the tendency of a capitalist society to overbuild. When the supply of available housing exceeds the demand, landlords must compete for tenants. When this happens, landlords suddenly get a lot more interested in keeping their places clean and in good repair.

And finishes by sounding like one of those brash, demanding grad students who just don't know how things work around here,

Our city fathers have been making noises about curbing sprawl by increasing the residential density of the city. If this noise were replaced by action it might be a good thing.

So, maybe it's not just the pesky students who think so? Weird.