Archive for the ‘Architecture’ Category

I am enjoying the goings-on in Dubai tremendously.  It’s like the field mouse of an economics drug trial: take every extreme symptom, jam it into one place of absolutely no global consequence, and then try to figure out the cure.

Suppose you had a tiny country that decided it wanted to be important.  Playing on confusion with its oil-rich neighbors, it goes out and borrows a lot of money to build buildings.  Taking the Paris Hilton strategy that if you insist on your caricature long enough others will eventually believe it, the country makes a big show of people piling into the buildings.  Real estate developers, the ultimate momentum players, pile in.  The country goes the offshore tax haven route – no income taxes – and throws in absolutely no labor standards to ensure that construction can proceed on whatever blistering pace can be achieved by malnourished Thais and Pakistanis welding in 115F heat.  Eventually it hits the wall – for reasons completely beyond its control, at some point people look around and realize they have the world’s largest Potemkin village.  There is no market.  The locals are preposterously corrupt.  Islam is not compatible with the hedge fund lifestyle.  What then? (more…)

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Traffic. The ultimate local issue. Mayoral campaigns are supposed to hinge on it. We spend hundreds of billions of dollars building roads to deal with it. The stimulus bill is predicated on the idea that there is a near-infinite need for construction at ever-increasing prices, despite environmental and neighborhood concerns that make it more difficult than ever to get things done.

Are we sure we are using our existing roads wisely? (more…)

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World Cup

Amazingly, some smart people are treating the celebration of Chicago’s defeat for the Olympics in 2016 as a sign of childishness, as opposed to the maturity to know a Trojan Horse when you see one.  Just because all the other kids are licking light sockets doesn’t mean you should do it too.  Since I have some confidence I know more about international sports than Rachel Maddow, and thanks to Ben Casnocha have some readers who are not solely focused on insurance rescission, I’ll go ahead give the constructive advice of what international event we should be trying to host: the 2018 World Cup

In fact, I think the current American proposal is far too timid.  Let’s go with something only the US can offer: a 64-team tournament. (more…)

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I am not a big fan of mass transit.  It doesn’t bother me as much as, say, bicycles, but I don’t see European streetcars and think progress.  I tend to think they should get that stuff underground and out of the way.  Just as soccer’s foreign roots give it a certain hipster credibility despite the reality that is a boring game born of the necessity in much of the world to have incredibly simple rules, negligible equipment, and an ability to scale for various numbers of participants, so I suspect that much of the left’s support for rail in various forms stems from an assumption that other nations must have some moral superiority.


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I am struggling to make sense of the news that Westchester County was sued for lying on an affordable housing grant application and settled with the agreement to:

[S]pend more than $50 million of its own money, in addition to other funds, to build or acquire 750 homes or apartments, 630 of which must be provided in towns and villages where black residents constitute 3 percent or less of the population and Hispanic residents make up less than 7 percent. The 120 other spaces must meet different criteria for cost and ethnic concentration.

If anyone can figure this out, please let me know.


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Bait and Switch

Remember when Forest City Ratner was going to build a beautiful new arena in Brooklyn and move the Nets there?  Beautiful Frank Gehry structure on top of the Atlantic Yards, supposed to create a long-overdue downtown?  It would look like this:



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Urban Renewal

For the better part of six months we have been bombarded by arguments that we need to finance “shovel-ready projects.”  The New Deal is often cited as an example; let’s put people who were recently building tract houses in the Inland Empire to work on road crews.

There are two flaws with this logic.

  • It ties us to the same waste of resources that got us into this mess.  We had way too much of our economy tied to construction (and finance, which may or may not be a different story).  We need to transition to a new deployment of resources.  Basic infrastructure made some sense in the 1930s as we tried to digest the wave of unskilled immigration we experienced in the 1920s, but it is hardly the most promising avenue for the future.  Increasing the proportion of our economy in knowledge industries probably makes a bit more sense.
  • The emphasis on readiness gets in the way of creativity.  Whether projects begin today or a year from now is not a great concern, especially since the scale of government spending we are contemplating today is going to preclude us from doing it again in the near future.  Measure twice when you can only cut once.


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Surprising exactly no one, New York’s mass transit system is once again out of money.

The authority says its board must vote by March 25 on a budget. The Legislature is contemplating a rescue plan proposed by a state commission led by Richard Ravitch, a former authority chairman. A central plank of that plan includes a $2 toll on vehicles crossing the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg and Queensboro Bridges and the bridges over the Harlem River; a regional “payroll mobility tax” to support mass transit; and an 8 percent fare and toll increase.

In this case, however, the answer is fairly simple.  Sure, you could cut back on the expense side by dealing with the massive union payments and inflated maintenance/expansion contracts.  And for more revenue, well, why not just go back to congestion pricing?

There are always going to be the Tom Coburn folks who don’t understand – or, more likely, will not admit – that we massively subsidize private transport.  There is nothing wrong with private transport – I hate buses, for example – but surely it makes more sense for a congested area to dedicate its resources to more efficient modes of transport.

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Far, far less helpful than congestion pricing, but perhaps easier to accomplish in the Byzantine world of NY politics:


The Mayor’s office has a plan to change the layout of Times Square and Herald Square by eliminating traffic on Broadway (Broadway would remain open for emergency vehicle use, so the folks sitting under the umbrellas shouldn’t get too comfortable).  It is a good idea that shows some creative thinking; certainly traffic cannot get much worse through the area.

How about three others:

  • Move crosswalks to mid-block and put fences at the corners (already done at Fifth Avenue/50th), so turning vehicles do not run into crossing pedestrians.
  • Completely ban all stopping from the left side of the road during business hours (eg all cabs must pull to the right, regardless of where hailed).  Enforce it by extending the fence; except for the crosswalk, have the entire street fenced, which would discourage delivery trucks.  If that’s not enough, put up cameras.
  • Bury the West Side Highway from the financial district to Canal Street/Holland Tunnel.  This would obviously require Federal money, but it would give Manhattan real waterfront access.

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Urban Planning

I missed this article when it came out:

I was on the road that day, driving back from Palm Springs.  A fluke rainstorm closed I-5 from the Tejon Pass to the Kern county line, so I headed up through Barstow and Bakersfield.  It took eleven hours, covered 549 miles, two Double-Doubles, and a wait on a stopped road in Tehachapi, but it was a good survey of California.

I share Brooks’ suspicion that much of the push to get Americans to live a higher-density lifestyle is driven by a desire to make the country a bit more European, by some discomfort with the tackiness of the US.  And yes, the reason people buy McMansions is that people like them.  The great room may not have wonderful architectural roots, but it’s not a bad place to put the TV and hang out.

However, I wonder if the preferences wouldn’t be a bit more meaningful if we didn’t subsidize the suburban lifestyle so much.  I made it from Palm Springs to the Bay Bridge without paying a toll, and I tracked through plenty of one-horse towns that could not possibly afford the nice roads the people of the cities graciously built for them.  It is seen as the natural order of things.  But if a city wanted to build a mass transit system and operate it for no user fee, well, that sort of thing isn’t going to come from state or federal money.  I hate busses and like trains only marginally better, but would people stay away if they cost the same as the roads?

The government has decided, consciously and, more often, unconsciously, on a set of policies that make cities more expensive than the country.  That’s a bit odd; you would expect more of an economy of scale.  But cities have unionized labor and millions of restrictions big and small, so the costs of operating are high and the only people who can afford to live in them are comparatively wealthy.  Well, the wealthy and the poor, because the poor aren’t paying for anything anyway, so the cost of living anywhere is about the same to them.  We like our municipalities to pay for their poor – to school them, to treat them in their hospitals, to hold them in their jails – and then forget the policies that encourage the poor to migrate to the cities.

If national political power were a bit more one-man-one-vote and a bit less one-acre-one-vote, if the states were more seriously able to disperse the population on government aid, perhaps we would know what Americans really valued in terms of lifestyle.  I’m pretty sure I’d rather be in a sprawling city in the desert southwest than a dense northeastern city all the same, but far fewer people would agree with me.

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