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August 31, 2022  

Professional Engineers: Speak Up. The Stakes Are Life and Death.

More than 40,000 people walking and biking are killed on America’s roadway each year by system designs that value speed and throughput more than safety and cost.

Charles “Chuck” Marohn, Strong Towns founder and president, made the decision a decade ago to step outside the cloistered halls of the engineering profession to advocate for change in the way North American cities and infrastructure are designed.

For those following a recent decision by the Minnesota licensing board to censure Chuck, today’s Upzoned episode (hosted by Strong Towns Program Director Rachel Quednau, as Abby Kinney takes a well-deserved break) offers a reflection of how his decision to become an activist, as well as a professional engineer, has caused ripples and fissures throughout the industry.

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August 24, 2022  

New York’s New Experiment in Fighting Gridlock

America’s first experiment with charging a toll to enter a congested urban area is going to begin in New York City next year.

All next week, a public hearing battle over the details will rage between advocates for and against congestion pricing, which might cost as much as $23 per trip for a passenger vehicle and more than $100 per trip for a commercial vehicle.

New Yorkers enjoy the most well-used transit system in America, but it’s in need of billions of dollars’ worth of maintenance. Congestion pricing might raise $1 billion per year to start paying for it, but the impacts will be profound to almost 2 million people driving into Manhattan daily. 

Congestion isn’t all bad. The average travel speed for a car in Manhattan has dropped into the single digits—about the same speed as a recreational runner, but these slower speeds reduce the number of deaths and serious injuries. 

Can New York drivers commuting in from the outer boroughs afford to pay to get below 60th Street? How can New York City afford to keep allowing so much space for automobiles? Geometry, after all, is a key to this question. 

Upzoned host Abby Kinney, an urban planner with Multistudio in Kansas City, takes on these questions (and more) raised in the Guardian article, “No Car for Me: Will a $23 Toll Finally Rid Manhattan of Gridlock?” Abby is joined by podcast guest Jay Stange, Content Manager for Strong Towns, who drove a car four (4!) times during a five-year Manhattan residence beginning in 2010.

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August 10, 2022  

The ”Other Story” of Buffalo

Several months ago, a tragic shooting took place in Buffalo, New York, that drew the nation’s attention. In the wake of that tragedy, C.J. Hughes has written an article in The New York Times about the city’s identity and its history and where it’s moving, going forward.

Buffalo has experienced de-industrialization and suburbanization—both causing the city decades of decline. And now, for the first time in 70 years, Buffalo is seeing a population increase and signs of economic recovery after WWII. Hughes attributes much of this recovery to a years-long effort to improve the city through strategic public and private partnerships.

Here today on Upzoned to talk about this story of progress and revitalization is Bernice Radle, a small-scale developer who has written and spoken for Strong Towns before about Buffalo. Radle joins Upzoned host Abby Kinney as they discuss the city’s recent evolution and growth.

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July 13, 2022  

Water Wars in the Modern Wild West

In the mid-1990s, another oil boom was on in Calgary, Alberta, and it was literally possible to stand in the prairie and watch suburban development coming at you: bulldozers pushing out new roads, linemen installing power cable, and flatbeds full of stick lumber roiling the dust. 

There’s no oil boom in the outlying desert of the Phoenix, Arizona, metro region, but there is a continuous growth push onto the fringes there, fueled by attractive winter weather, favorable tax rates for business developments creating jobs, and transplants escaping high housing prices in California. Maricopa County has been at the top of the annual population growth charts for many years. 

At Strong Towns, we talk about financial challenges inherent in patterns of suburban development like those we’re seeing recently in Maricopa County. Developers take advantage of higher home sales prices supported by low interest rates to build out fringe development and leave future maintenance costs to local governments in an endless Growth Ponzi Scheme

We are most interested in understanding the intersection between local finance and land use. How does the design of our places impact their financial success or failure? We’ve found that 20–25 years out from development, many municipalities struggle to maintain the infrastructure created in this pattern. 

In the Rio Verde foothills outside Phoenix, unincorporated developments on the fringes are running up against another, more immediate, issue in their development pattern, one which isn’t taking 25 years to become obvious: They are out of water as the Colorado River continues to dry out in a generational drought.

A recent New Yorker piece by Rachel Morse called “The Water Wars Come to the Suburbs” points out the almost insurmountable issue facing families who are buying $600,000, 2,000-square-foot plus homes in the Rio Verde foothills and then finding it impossible to drill wells or have water delivered in trucks. 

Those with water are worried those without will ruin it all by bringing county-level interventions or regulations, or even (gasp!) Home Owner Associations, into the mix. It’s currently a Wild West rural lifestyle full of stars, dirt roads, gorgeous desert landscapes, and quiet nights. But neighbors fighting neighbors over a diminishing water supply isn’t stopping suburban-style development, which continues unabated. 

“Despite the ruptures within the community, the one thing that everyone seemed to agree on was that there was way too much development in the Rio Verde Foothills,” Morse writes in her New Yorker piece. Karen Nabity, a Rio Verde resident featured in the article, is well aware that last year Maricopa County added more residents than any other county in the country. “Well, yeah, it’s because they’re issuing building permits with no water,” Nabity tells Morse. “We are building way beyond our means.’”

This week on Upzoned, host Abby Kinney of Multistudio in Kansas City is joined by Strong Towns Content Manager Jay Stange to discuss the water wars in Arizona. Both agree that rural lifestyles are attractive for many reasons, as long as people are truly independent. But what happens when the bill comes due for all that independence? Is it fair to ask county-level governments to step in to stop a water war? 

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July 6, 2022  

TxDOT Proposes to Dig a $1 Billion Infrastructure Grave in Downtown Dallas

This week on Upzoned with Abby Kinney, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) makes her co-host, Strong Towns President Charles Marohn, almost want to start swearing.

For many years now, TxDOT has studied the feasibility of removing Interstate 345, which is a 1.7-mile segment of elevated highway that dissects downtown Dallas in Deep Ellum. Proposals to make the downtown stronger and more productive by creating a boulevard have been in the works for almost a decade, supported by prominent urban planners such as Patrick Kennedy. 

Then last month, the agency released their official conclusion that removing the highway is unfeasible.

Instead, TxDOT now recommends tearing down the elevated freeway and rebuilding it in a 65-foot-deep trench that will contain 10 travel lanes and cost more than a billion dollars. An article by Matt Goodman in D Magazine outlines the agency’s proposal to bridge local streets over that trench to reconnect the neighborhoods, instead of creating a boulevard to distribute traffic and create neighborhood streets that build wealth in a people-centered design.

If this hybrid approach moves forward, it seems to send a pretty clear message that highway capacity and maintaining commute times are the central priority of the Dallas Metro, not reconnecting neighborhoods or improving the downtown neighborhood quality of life. 

Urban planners Kennedy and Brandon Hancock first pitched the idea of tearing I-345 out, which would free up land the city could re-zone to create a mix of housing, office, and retail. The D Magazine article says TxDOT estimated in 2016 that removal would generate about $2.5 billion in new net value, a “significant increase in employment totals,” and an additional $67.4 million in property tax revenue over 30 years.

“This is the quintessential situation where a Strong Towns approach … says this is a corridor for building wealth and capacity in the community (with an) investment that would be lower cost, the payoff would be way higher,” Marohn says. “And that whole mindset is trumped by this delusion that we are going to try to move vehicles quickly. And that somehow the city of Dallas itself is going to benefit more from a marginal, theoretical increase in traffic counts, than it will from billions of dollars of private sector investments.”

So what happened? That’s where we almost lose our tempers here at Strong Towns. Find out more on this episode of Upzoned.

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June 29, 2022  

State Preemption: A Means To Reform Zoning, or a Threat to Localism?

A recent Governing article, “The Bad Things That Happen When States Tell Cities What to Do,” features an interview with University of Virginia law professor Richard Schragger on his book, City Power: Urban Governance in a Global Age.

One of the major things Schragger’s book argues against is state preemption—ad in general, Schragger is interested in re-articulating the appropriate constitutional relationship between cities and states. He’s also expressed skepticism about regionalism as a viable strategy for equalizing the resources between cities and suburbs.

So, Schragger’s view is that state and federal land use interventions are typically disastrous—citing urban renewal and the Mount Laurel doctrine as examples. His concern is that state preemption will be used to override local opposition in a way that promotes market-rate developers at the expense of low-income urban neighborhoods, and that local reform to zoning needs to be driven by affordable housing coalitions and activists at the local level.

State preemption is a controversial issue in the planning world, and one can’t make a blanket statement on whether it’s good or bad. Nevertheless, on today’s episode of Upzoned, host Abby Kinney and co-host Chuck Marohn talk about whether or not there is a Strong Towns stance on the subject of state preemption.

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June 22, 2022  

Looking for an Affordable Starter Home? HUD Suggests Trying a Manufactured Home.

More than 75,000 kit homes in 400 different styles were ordered from Sears Roebuck and Co. and put together by the people who bought them a century ago. A new White House proposal aims to fill a need for affordable starter homes with a new generation of manufactured homes. 

The Sears kit home has many examples still standing in good shape in Kansas City, where Upzoned Host Abby Kinney lives and works. Those homes arrived on railroad cars and were assembled by the homeowners, for the most part. They were somewhat more complex than the modern manufactured home, but the concept is similar. 

Kinney and her guest, Strong Towns Senior Editor Daniel Herriges, talk over the possibility that manufactured homes might be a realistic approach to the problems encountered by people seeking affordable housing in 2022 and beyond. 

The question is brought to the podcast this week by an article in Bloomberg’s CityLab called, “Factory-Built Homes Could Make a Comeback as Affordable Housing.” 

“We just can’t continue to build the houses we grew up in,” says U.S. Housing Secretary Marcia L. Fudge in the CityLab piece. “These houses are more efficient, more resilient. But the other thing is, we need so much new housing. These can be built quickly, installed quickly. They are at a great cost point. And so it is a big part of the solution.”

A 450-square-foot manufactured home model can be purchased and assembled for $100,000, resulting in a mortgage payment below $1,000 per month, Kinney notes. But stigma surrounding whether they fit into a neighborhood, issues with financing, and zoning hurdles remain unaddressed. 

But the potential to provide affordable, safe options in many overheated housing markets—perhaps even as accessory dwelling units—is undeniable, says Herriges. “How does this reshape the American landscape if it catches on big?”

Find out on this week’s episode of Upzoned.

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June 15, 2022  

NIMBY: Hero, Villain, or None of the Above?

A quote from Batman, “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to become a villain,” echoes through a great discussion on this week’s Upzoned

Host Abby Kinney brings “Twilight of the NIMBY,” a New York Times article by California-based housing and economics writer Connor Dougherty, to the table. Dougherty profiles retired teacher Susan Kirsch’s two-decade battle to stop 20 condos from being developed in her neighborhood in the Bay Area community of Mill Valley.

Kinney, a senior planner with Multistudio in Kansas City, was fascinated by this profile of Kirsch as a NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) American archetype, a suburban homeowner who runs a nonprofit that “pushes back against statewide housing policy measures intended to subvert local anti-development activism.”

In the profile, Kirsch is cast as a crusader for local control of development, working to protect her single-family home neighborhood from a condo development on an empty lot at the end of her street. 

“She believes in slow growth as a perspective and it’s partly reinforced by a distrust in large institutions…(a) ‘small C’ conservatism that local government is better and more responsive to citizens than a bigger one that is further away,” Kinney says in her introduction. “So she represents one person in this longer movement, fighting development and campaigning for the right for local cities and suburban cities to have control over the built environment.”

Kinney’s guest, Strong Towns Senior Editor Daniel Herriges, recognizes the archetype Kirsch represents. Herriges is sympathetic to the idea that “neighbors who know the place best, who care about the place most…get the ultimate say in what happens around them.” 

The problem, however, is that Kirsch and many in her generation who seek local control of housing policy are eating from two plates. 

They are sitting atop a mountain of equity in their homes buoyed by a system of market supports in the form of government-backed mortgages and other state and federal development policies. Kirsch’s home, a modest, single-family residence she bought for $100,000 in 1979, is now valued at almost $2 million. A state law intended to give homeowners protection from property taxes rising alongside astronomical home values, Proposition 13, keeps the taxable value of Kirch’s home at $250,000. 

Herriges says, “The reality is that this whole cohort of people have been incredible beneficiaries of large institutional forces…massive subsidies for suburban homebuilding in the post-WWII era of billions and billions of dollars of investment in the interstate highway system, in freeways that opened up huge swaths of suburban land to development.” 

“We see it is unable to be replicated generation after generation, and so there's a whole bunch of younger people who would love to live Susan Kirsch's American dream, who can't dream of it. Middle-class, white-collar people in California who have given up on ever owning a home. That's the dissonance you have to reckon with.” 

Kinney agrees, but points out it’s too easy to turn homeowners like Kirsch into villains, reducing people who are, in the end, our neighbors, into cartoon characters. Should we see NIMBYs as heroes or villains? Dig into this episode of Upzoned to hear how name-calling won’t win any arguments, and the nuances of housing policy don’t lend themselves to broad stereotypes.

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June 8, 2022  

Inflation or Lower Housing Values: Pick Your Cleanest Dirty Shirt?

During the height of the pandemic, the nation’s central bank, the Federal Reserve (aka The Fed), started a new round of bond purchases that swelled its portfolio of mortgage-backed securities to $2.7 trillion from $1.4 trillion it held in February 2020.

That created ultra-low mortgage rates which heavily stimulated home buying and refinancing activity in America. 

To combat inflation, the Fed is now planning to let its holdings shrink as securities get paid off, writes Neil Irwin in his recent Axios post called “The Fed's $2.7 trillion mortgage problem.” The problem is that “[e]xtracting itself from this market risks crashing the housing industry and creating intense political blowback for incurring financial losses.”

Irwin writes that the Fed’s pandemic actions to loosen up capital unseized a market and fueled a housing boom, but the opposite reaction could lose U.S. taxpayers billions and be bad for housing. 

Since housing is 15% of the U.S. economy, these decisions will have major implications. 

Upzoned Host Abby Kinney asks her podcast guests, Strong Towns President Charles Marohn and Andrew Ganahl, an infill developer in Kansas City who used to work for the U.S. Treasury, to put it into perspective on this edition of the podcast.

Additional Show Notes

June 1, 2022  

Uber’s Bull Run Is Over, Says CEO

Uber has been providing cheap and convenient rides for the last decade, and has been knocking out transportation alternatives like Zipcar, taxis, and even public transit.

As noted in a recent article from Slate, though, Uber is notorious for burning through cash. The company has lost more than $30 billion since it became public in 2019, amounting to an enormous investor-fueled subsidy of America’s ride-hailing habit. In a memo released earlier this month, Uber’s CEO called the past decade an “unprecedented bull run,” and that this next period will be different and will require a different approach.

And consequentially, ridesharing will get much more expensive. In fact, both Uber and Lyft prices have already risen between 45 and 92%—and more recently, surcharges have been added to account for high gas prices.

So, does this mark the beginning of the end for Uber? Join Upzoned host Abby Kinney and her regular co-host Chuck Marohn as they “upzone” this topic—and talk about how it relates to the economy, as a whole.

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