August 2009

3401001870_8d103e2328Already thinking about those brats and kielbasis on the weekend grill as summer winds down?  Well, before you get there, browse through this collection of succulent links:

1. Wattzon – Australian idea man and Macarthur Award recipient, Saul Griffith’s brain child, Wattzon, is an interactive web site that lets you track your own carbon footprint.  Whether you are a believer in global warming or not, you might be surprised at what you can do to simply live your life a little more responsibly.

2. Retrofitting Suburbia – this February, 2009 article from Popular Mechanics, explores adaptive re-use of blighted suburban retail space.

3. New Urban Habitat – this is a nice, well laid out blog that explores issues of urban sprawl and offers up some creative ways we can address the problems and the opportunities.  It also features a nice load of links for resources!

4. City Repair – This is a site dedicated to helping communities organize on a neighborhood level to improve their environment.

5. Foam Heads of Fury – a gallery of the most eccentric college mascots…both my undergraduate AND graduate school mascots made the list!  See if yours is on there.

Bon Apetit!  …pass the mustard, please.


14314985.JPGI read Barry Lepatner’s book, “Broken Buildings, Busted Budgets”  a little over a year ago.  I just finished skimming through it again in preparation for a meeting with a contractor on a possible development project.  It really is excellent!  The sub-title, “How to Fix America’s Trillion-Dollar Construction Industry”  (now down some 35%) is a little ambitious, but he offers up some concrete measures that should be taken to heed.

We developers tend to fall in  love with the image in our heads of what a building is going to look like and lose sight of the infinitesimal detail that is the difference between success or failure in a project.  Problem is, the critical information that we need to have is under the control of the contractor…and the owner is at his mercy.  The key to fixing this problem, according to Lepatner is to have truly fixed price contracts.  Overruns?  You don’t get to pass it on to the owner.  The contractor is incented to get the project done on time with this method, and there are no cost sharing arrangements if he comes in under.  The challenge, of course, for the developer is that he has to risk going to a full set of construction drawings before he REALLY knows if he has an economically viable development.  Nevertheless, on a large project, this may well be worth the cost…the alternative is a tall stack of change-orders.

It’s worth the read – if you’ve developed or are a contractor, you will find yourself doing as I did, muttering – “dang wish I had thought of that before!”

It’s available over at Amazon, click here.

There is more useful “stuff” on the internet than you could ever actually use.  Here’s a handy little site that compares crime rates between cities.  Here’s what it looks like comparing Atlanta and Nashville:


Pretty powerful display of the impact social media has on us.  There is no arguing its explosive growth, but what about the efficiency?  (He said, typing on a social media tool known as a “blog.”)

3401001870_8d103e2328This week’s collection of savory links offers up some helpful material and thought provoking and idea generating places to go:

1. Manyeyes – This site is in beta testing, but offers unique ways of visualizing data and even manuscripts.  Want a word tree for HR-3200, the Healthcare “Reform” act working it’s way through Congress?  Got it right here.

2. Weird Architecture – need some inspiration for that 2 acre parcel you are holding onto and thinking about developing when the time is right?  Take a look at this site for some ideas!

3. Green Building Elements – it’s hard to sort the wheat from the chaff in all the talk of “green building.”  This little site does a nice job of showcasing some good quality projects.  I hope it generates some good ideas for you.

4. Freedom Ship – who wouldn’t want to “work, live and travel,” all at the same time?  As a retired Surface Warfare Officer, this little gem speaks to me.

5. The New Industrial City – a thought provoking article from one of the writers in Joel Kotkin’s group over at New Geography.

Bon apetit!

The weekend version of the Wall Street Journal brought an excellent article titled “A New American Dream: Renting”  It covers the history of government incentives to encourage homeownership and the resulting troubles that these have caused in our economy.  I have long worried about the fact that often people buy houses that they cannot afford when they are in transient situations and really should rent.  Or, better still, how many of us know a young couple that bought a house that was slightly out of their reach on the expectation that their incomes would continue to go up…and, after all, they were getting a terrific break on their income tax!  Meanwhile their McMansion on the edge of town sits in a field with no furniture in the living room.  From the article:

But for millions of Americans at risk of foreclosure, the home has become something else altogether: the source of panic and despair. Those emotions were on full display last week, when an estimated 53,000 people packed the Save the Dream fair at Atlanta’s World Congress Center. Its planners, with the support of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, brought together struggling homeowners, housing counselors, and lenders, including industry giants Bank of America and Citigroup, to renegotiate at-risk mortgages. Georgia’s housing market has been devastated by the current economic crisis—338,411 homes in the Peachtree state went into foreclosure in May and June alone.

urbansprawl1In our older cities, in the Primurbial ring – the one that the streetcars could reach, there are beautiful apartment homes.  Three and four story walk-ups in the south; seven and eight stories furnished with mid 20th Century Otis’s in the mid Atlantic and further north.  These were places where families grew up, didn’t need cars and lived full, wonderful lives.  Perhaps it is a primordial urge that we are migrating back in these days.  Cars and the destruction of proven mass transit systems coupled with easy, Federally assisted credit and the mortgage income tax deduction were huge contributors to suburban sprawl.  Perhaps now in a more frugal time, we should soberly assess whether this strategy has been wise.  I for one would favor getting the incentives (disincentives?) out of the market.  It would take time, but cutting back on the mortgage income tax deduction coupled with the gradual elimination of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would start to put the rental option on a more even playing field with for-sale housing and better balance the housing needs of our nation.

Multifamily Executive is reporting that an increasing number of cities are offering incentives to spur development.  These include the reduction or elimination of impact fees, reduced property taxes or tax holidays.  It is an intriguing development, but I tend to agree with ULI’s Ed McMahon, who is cited in the article:

“I don’t think these rollbacks will produce much new development. The reason development is not taking place has little, if anything, to do with development impact fees,” McMahon says. “It has to do with the marketplace; it has to do with the lack of financing.”

I would further add that there is a danger in programs such as this if they are creating incentives for developers to come build.  Not that I don’t love a reduction in taxes and fees, but if it attracts development companies that are trying to survive on fees alone, it could easily translate to an overbuilding situation.  It is nice to see, however, some municipalities appreciating the impact of having multi-family housing in the mix!

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