The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Amazon abandons its HQ2 site in New York

The company announced today that it has given up on building out its new headquarters in Queens:

[T]he agreement to lure Amazon stirred an intense debate about the use of government incentives to entice wealthy companies, the rising cost of living in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods, and the city’s very identity.

Amazon’s decision is a major blow for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, who had set aside their differences to bring the company to New York.

But it was a remarkable win for insurgent progressive politicians led by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose upset victory last year happened to occur in the district where Amazon had planned its site. Her win galvanized the party’s left flank, which mobilized against the deal.

State Sen. Michael Gianaris, a vocal critic who was chosen for a state board with the power to veto the deal, said the decision revealed Amazon’s unwillingness to work with the Queens community it had wanted to join.

“Like a petulant child, Amazon insists on getting its way or takes its ball and leaves,” said Mr. Gianaris, a Democrat, whose district includes Long Island City. “The only thing that happened here is that a community that was going to be profoundly affected by their presence started asking questions.”

In its statement, Amazon said it has no plans to re-open the search for a second campus.

I'm actually glad they pulled out, as I expect so are many people in New York. The concessions Amazon secretly extracted from the state and city were worth more than $3 billion, with only the company's promises guaranteeing 25,000 new jobs in Queens. (Ask Wisconsin what a company's promises are worth.)

Boring branding, boring cities

Writing for CityLab, Manhattan Institute for Policy Research fellow Aaron Renn warns cities against falling into the "branding trap:"

Here’s a transit-focused video Atlanta made as part of its Amazon HQ2 bid, meant to convey that the city is home to “innovation” and is “business friendly.” It likewise showcases buses and subways as its means of ground transportation, even though only about 10 percent of the city’s commuters use public transportation, and ridership has been fading in recent years. Atlanta is a quintessential car city. There’s not much in here that links to what most people would think of when “Atlanta” comes to mind, except its airport. It’s curious that they tapped more into stereotypes of Seattle and its frequent rains than they did those of their own town.

Atlanta and Houston are major cities with strong identities. They are much more than a collection of generic urban elements. Why cities with great identities and heritages of their own so seldom lead with them is something of a mystery. If you want to see great marketing videos of cities, you almost are forced to look at what private companies are doing. Look, for example, at the famous “Imported from Detroit” Chrysler Super Bowl ad with Eminem from 2011, which managed to honestly portray the decay and struggles of the city, while playing up the resolve of its residents and the city’s history as a key music center. Indeed, the ad did a much better job of selling Detroit than Chryslers.

The problem with the typical approach extends beyond just marketing. It has tangible consequences. A brand is really a city’s conception of itself. By selling itself as a facsimile of something its not, a city ends up turning that into reality. Thus, so many urban places today seem vaguely the same—a blur of Edison-bulbed eateries and mid-rise “one plus five” apartment buildings (in which up to five stories of wood frame construction are built atop a concrete first floor). These buildings, which all look vaguely the same with their multi-shaded exterior panels that seem destined to date quickly, are now obligatory elements in densifying urban neighborhoods, as critics have observed,

In a much-discussed New York magazine essay, Oriana Schwindt dubbed this “the unbearable sameness of cities.” Traveling to the city nearest the geographic center of each state, she described how she constantly kept seeing the same Ikea lights in coffee shops she’d visit. “And it wasn’t just the coffee shops—bars, restaurants, even the architecture of all the new housing going up in these cities looked and felt eerily familiar."

It's possible that Atlanta and Houston are simply as boring as their branding suggests. I've been to both; that's my hypothesis. So maybe this is less a dire affliction of some city branding efforts and more truth-in-advertising?

Home sick and tired

I'm under the weather today, which has helped me catch up on all these stories that I haven't gotten to yet:

And now, I will nap.

We're #1 again!

At least by one metric, O'Hare has pipped Atlanta and gotten back to the top of the league table for total annual aviation operations:

O’Hare saw 903,747 flights in 2018, up 4.2 percent compared with the previous year, while Atlanta hosted 895,502 flights, up 1.8 percent, the FAA said. Los Angeles, Dallas/Fort Worth and Denver were in third, fourth and fifth place, respectively.

O’Hare also handled more than 83.4 million passengers last year, a 4.5 percent increase over 2017, according to the Chicago Department of Aviation. Both O’Hare and Midway Airport together saw more than 105 million passengers, a new record, the city said.

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is still No. 1 in terms of passenger volume, and has held the crown of world’s busiest airport by that measure for 20 years. But a travel industry analyst said the new numbers are “excellent news” for Chicago, which is embarking on an $8.5 billion O’Hare modernization.

The article implies to big factors in the statistic: first, O'Hare now has six parallel runways instead of six intersecting ones, meaning traffic can flow much more easily. But second, American and United rely more on smaller, sub-50-seat airplanes than Delta does, which means more operations but fewer enplanements. So, it's a mixed bag, good for Chicago in some ways but not great for travelers at O'Hare.

Oh, goody: from freeze to flood

The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, the entity responsible for our sewers and rivers in Chicago, warns that the record-breaking warm-up currently underway could overwhelm the system:

As the warmer temperatures melt existing snow, the potential for flooding increases because the frozen ground is unable to absorb water and snow, causing runoff to flow immediately into sewers.

Sewer systems, therefore, can become overwhelmed from the combination of normal sewage flow, rain and snow melt, a scenario that often leads to flooding, according to the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.

MWRD said Friday that it’s preparing for potential flooding by lowering water levels in Chicago-area waterways to make room for runoff. The agency will also rely on its network of tunnels and reservoirs, which it said are ready to hold more than 11 billion gallons of water.

The agency is also asking Chicago-area municipalities and the public to help prevent flooding by reducing water use, such as by postponing high-water consumption activities like bathing, showering, running the dishwasher and washing clothes.

Well, that stinks. Or rather, we will stink. And let's not even think about what a Δ42.8°C warm-up will do to our roads.

There has always been local government capture

I wanted to post this when it came out but life intervened. A couple weeks ago, New Republic reported on the sad tale of exurban town Elwood, Ill., and the "opportunity" they seized on with a giant intermodal freight terminal in 2002:

Fifteen years before Amazon’s HQ2 horserace, Elwood had won the retail lottery. “Nobody envisioned what we have out here,” said Jerry Heinrich, who sat on the board of the planning commission that first apportioned the land for development in the mid-1990s. “It was never anticipated that every major business entity would end up in the area.”

But this corporate valhalla turned out to be hell for the community, which suffered a concentrated dose of the indignities and disappointments of late capitalism in the 21st century. Instead of abundant full-time work, a regime of partial, precarious employment set in. Temp agencies flourished, but no restaurants, hotels, or grocery stores ever came, save for the recent addition of a dollar store. Tens of thousands of semis rumbled through Will County every day, wreaking havoc on the infrastructure. And as the town of Elwood scrambled to pave its potholes, its inability to collect taxes from the facilities plunged it into more than $30 million in debt.

And that was before Big Tech rolled in. Just four years ago Amazon didn’t even have one facility in the region; now, with five fulfillment centers, it’s the county’s largest employer. Growth, once arithmetic, became exponential. Plans were made to build a new facility, this one bigger than the original Intermodal, with room for some 35 million additional square feet of industrial space.

It's astounding, but not surprising, that this would happen. And more than just a cautionary story about getting more than you bargained for, it should remind people that voting in local elections matters a lot.

Chicago's hidden depths

Slate explains how Chicago's Deep Tunnel project has relieved the city of the worst effects of rainstorms—but just isn't adequate for the new, wetter climate:

The history of Chicago can be told as a series of escapes from wastewater, each more ingenious than the last. Before the Civil War, entire city blocks were lifted on hydraulic jacks to allow for better drainage, and the first tunnel to bring in potable water from the middle of Lake Michigan was completed in 1867. In 1900, engineers reversed the flow of the Chicago River to protect the city’s drinking water, shifting its fetid contents from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi, enraging the city of St. Louis (which sued, and lost) and, years later, making Chicago the single-largest contributor to the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. In 1955, the American Society of Civil Engineers declared the river reversal one of the seven engineering wonders of the United States, alongside such better-known undertakings as the Hoover Dam, the Empire State Building, and the Panama Canal.

“The [Metropolitan Water Reclamation District] designed a system of sewers, tunnels, and reservoirs for a city that doesn’t exist anymore,” says Karen Hobbs, a former deputy environmental commissioner in Chicago who oversaw the creation of the city’s climate plan and now works as a policy analyst at the National Resources Defense Council. Metropolitan Chicago is no longer the place it was in 1960. The weather isn’t what it was then either. It’s a cautionary tale for a time when climate change has the nation’s planners, scientists, and engineers contemplating enormous endeavors like storm surge barriers or more radical, long-term geoengineering schemes. It’s also a reminder that any project that spans six decades from commencement to completion will be finished in a different world than the one in which it was conceived.

“It’s a marvel,” Hobbs adds. “But we have this tendency in this country to think we can build our way out of stuff. And we can’t always build our way out.”

Belatedly, the city has started using porous pavement in alleys and encouraging other ways of keeping water out of the sewers.

My density has brought me to you...

The Chicago Tribune's architecture critic does not like the current proposal for the new Lincoln Yards development and its nine 120 m–plus buildings:

It would be dramatically out of scale with its surroundings, piercing the delicate urban fabric of the city’s North Side with a swath of downtown height and bulk. It also would be out of character with its environs, more Anytown than Our Town.

And that’s what the debate over Lincoln Yards is really about — not just the zoning change the developers seek, which would reclassify their land from a manufacturing district to a mixed-use waterfront zone, but urban character.

What kind of city are we building? Who is it for? Does it have room for the small and the granular as well as the muscular and the monumental?

The 180 m towers that line South Wacker Drive barely make an impression because they exist in the shadow of the 442 m Willis Tower. Alongside Armitage and the rest of west Lincoln Park, a tower of that size is a monster.

Cities need to grow and change, but this is the sort of incongruous Dodge City growth you expect in Houston, a city infamous for its lack of zoning.

And it could have lasting consequences, likely worsening the traffic congestion that already plagues streets like Clybourn and North avenues.

I just read The Battle for Lincoln Park while in London this week. That book talked about the period from around 1930 to around 1970, when affluent white rehabbers east of Larrabee battled the less-affluent, mixed-ethnicity residents west of Larrabee for control over the character of the neighborhood. Both lost; large commercial developers won. Note to Blair Kamin: History does not repeat, but it does rhyme. 

Stuff to read on the plane

Just a quick post of articles I want to load up on my Surface at O'Hare:

Off to take Parker to boarding. Thence the Land of UK.

Fifteen names in urban history

Citylab has a list:

Georges-Eugène, Baron Haussmann, 1809-1891

It’s hard to overstate the urban legacy of Baron Haussmann, prefect of the Seine during the reign of France’s Emperor Napoleon III. Between 1853 and 1870, Haussmann used his authoritarian mandate to transform the medieval Paris into the paragon of a modern city.

He ran broad new boulevards through maze-like old neighborhoods to slow the spread of disease and improve transportation (and, some historians have said, make it easier for troops to put down the armed rebellions that erupted in the French capital). The buildings that replaced the medieval quarters—with five or six stories and mansard roofs—have since become symbols of Paris and his remaking of it. Haussmann placed grand, secular monuments strategically along the sight lines of the new boulevards, and created parks and squares. New sewer and gas lines improved sanitation and, virtually overnight, transformed Paris into the City of Light.

There are 14 others, including Jane Jacobs and her arch-nemesis Robert Moses.