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Archive: Roberta Brandes Gratz

Organic Renewal: St. Joe’s Story

Roberta Brandes Gratz / Jul 05 2013

For Release Friday, July 5, 2013

Roberta Brandes GratzIn the mid- and late 1960s, while many cities and towns were still tearing their hearts out for the false promises of urban renewal, all sorts of people, young and old, saw the beauty, value and promise of gracious living in historic buildings in the places left behind by suburban development. From San Francisco to Louisville to Providence to Brooklyn to St. Louis and beyond, urban pioneers stripped, cleaned and restored the irreplaceable artifacts of bygone eras of quality and taste.

Those pioneers were the vanguard of the regeneration of neighborhoods and cities that, today, many people do not remember were considered a blighted lost cause.

Washington’s Georgetown. Park Slope in Brooklyn. King William in San Antonio. The Garden District in New Orleans. The Victorian Districts of San Francisco and Savannah. Who remembers that those neighborhoods were once considered “blighted,” over, finished?

Surely, this is the most compelling storyline of the second half of the last century. The rebirth of today’s thriving cities started with the rediscovery of yesterday’s discards. That, as they say, is history. But history has a funny way of repeating itself. Today, one finds examples of that organic renewal process re-emerging.

Many cities have lost more than what remains of the authentic architecture on which to build a new momentum. Miraculously, one that survives with an amazing rich legacy to work with is St. Joseph, Mo.

Set on a bend in the Missouri River and almost equidistant from Kansas City and Omaha, St. Joseph was a railroad, lumber and banking center and, most importantly, the last full provisioning point for the Westward Expansion in the mid-19th century. It’s the birthplace of the Pony Express, the site of Jesse James’ demise, home of Stetson Hat, Saltine crackers and Aunt Jemima.
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Grand Central

Roberta Brandes Gratz / Feb 07 2013

For Release Thursday, February 7, 2013

Roberta Brandes GratzNew York City has been in high celebratory mode these days, marking the 100th anniversary of that world-class landmark, Grand Central Terminal. And well the city and the country should be celebrating; the incomparable Beaux Arts structure was almost lost.

Save for a vigorous, citizen-led effort to preserve it (“no more bites out of the Big Apple”) – an effort joined and made nationally significant by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis – and save for a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court declaring it the landmark it is, the terminal was doomed.

A 1968 proposal from owner Penn Central Railroad to build a tower over the terminal was rejected by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. So the railroad sued to overturn the station’s landmark status and effectively kill the 1965 landmarks law. Ironically, the law was so weak at that time that it only functioned for six months every three years.

The railroad won the first round in New York’s lowest court, where the landmark designation was overturned and damages of $60 million were awarded. At that time the real estate community wanted even less to do with landmark preservation than it does now, which doesn’t say much. Mayor Abraham Beame, cheered on by that real estate community, was ready to throw in the towel, de-designate the building and let Penn Central do what it wanted.
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Two Storms, Two Cities: Not Many Parallels Between Sandy, Katrina

Roberta Brandes Gratz / Jan 17 2013

For Release Thursday, January 17, 2013

Roberta Brandes GratzHurricane Sandy was no Katrina. The differences are many, the similarities few.

Granted, some neighborhoods in Staten Island, Red Hook, Rockaways and the Jersey shore were similarly devastated. But the word here is “neighborhood,” not city.

Eighty percent of New Orleans was flooded, paralyzing the city for months. While flooding in lower Manhattan temporarily decommissioned a good piece of the city and the country’s economic heart, the city didn’t stop functioning.

Sandy was a genuine natural disaster, a hurricane made more severe by the convergence of high tide and full moon. What’s little understood outside New Orleans is that Katrina was man-made, an immense engineering failure: New Orleans’ vast federal flood protection system failed.

Katrina was effectively over and beginning to subside by early Monday, Aug. 29, 2005. The levees had already breached in 53 places before the storm reached maximum intensity. But the water rose slowly at first, eventually submerging whole neighborhoods and forcing hundreds into rooftops or makeshift boats. Almost 2,000 people died, about half just in New Orleans.

It has since been revealed that the levees were built, monitored and maintained improperly. Had they held – which the city had been assured they would – damage would have been quite limited.
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The Great Brooklyn Bait-and-Switch

Roberta Brandes Gratz / Oct 05 2012

For Release Friday, October 5, 2012

Roberta Brandes GratzIn the city that created the expression, “If you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you,” no one should be surprised that at Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards site, nothing is, or ever will be, as promised.

The Barclays Center piece of the project opened Sept. 28 with a celebrity-studded gala and extensive publicity. But the larger Atlantic Yards project has not only failed to deliver on its over-the-top promises, it exemplifies the worst in city-building.

The developer dangled some tasty bait to get public officials salivating: What was promised were 16 Frank Gehry-designed, mostly residential towers surrounding an arena and parks; 10,000 jobs; and 2,250 units of affordable housing in 10 years. With their eyes on that bait, public officials could be expected to ignore any reasonable alternative plans and stay committed, even when the switch emerged.

Developer Bruce Ratner, CEO of developer Forest City Ratner, and his supporters now say it was protracted lawsuits and the collapsed economy that have delayed the delayed promises. That’s disingenuous. Neither the lawsuits nor the economic climate can account for knowingly exaggerated job and housing promises – which were key to winning support from low-income groups.

Those 10,000 promised jobs? A job fair for the arena last spring drew 35,000 people for 19,000 part-time jobs and 1,000 permanent jobs, the New York Times reported. For an unpaid internship program, 36 were signed up to work for free, with a promise of construction jobs and union cards. Only two received a union card.

No urban renewal project of this over-the-top scale has EVER delivered on its promises.
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Charity Redux

Roberta Brandes Gratz / Sep 07 2012

For Release Friday, September 7, 2012

Roberta Brandes GratzNEW ORLEANS – A bad decision is rarely made better over time; more likely, it is made worse.

This is the case with Louisiana State University’s decision, within weeks of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, not to reopen Charity Hospital in New Orleans, although it could have been patient-ready within days. Instead, LSU – with the federal, state and city governments complicit – decided to develop a new, oversized medical facility separated from its former downtown location by an elevated highway. To build the new, sprawling, 424-bed medical center would require demolishing a renewing middle-income neighborhood and displacing hundreds of residents and businesses.

Since then, things have gone from bad to worse. The financial costs, legal complications and health care challenges continue to mount. At this date, not enough money is available even to build the new University Medical Center, one that some experts considered over-scaled from the start.

Now, financial woes are even more serious, with serious state budget cutbacks to the whole statewide system of 10 hospitals, of which Charity was a part, and with Gov. Bobby Jindal’s decision to decline federal money that would come from expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

Jindal has also announced a series of facility closures and cutbacks as well as plans to engage private providers to cover care for which the Charity system was once nationally famous. Jindal’s budget cuts are also causing a shake-up in the hospital system, with resignations by people who don’t agree with his strategy, which some consider overly drastic.

“He’s hell-bent on privatizing the formerly public system,” observed one critic.
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In Shrinking Cities, Preserving Existing Buildings Can Stem The Loss

Roberta Brandes Gratz / Jul 20 2012

For Release Friday, July 20, 2012

Roberta Brandes GratzThe concept of historic preservation has finally penetrated the national conversation over so-called “shrinking cities.” Sort of.

At last month’s Reclaiming Vacant Properties” conference in New Orleans, sponsored by the Center for Community Progress, a few stellar examples of conserving abandoned but quality structures were presented. But the real trumpeting of the strategy of preservation instead of demolition came from an unexpected voice.

Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory told the opening plenary panel: “I’m not a big tear-down fan.” He prefers working with community-based groups that renovate empty properties and put people back in homes, he said. “When you keep clearing land, it makes it difficult to get new investment and kill the chance to repopulate.”

After the session, Mallory noted that he lives in the same house he grew up in, an 1870s beer baron’s mansion on Cincinnati’s Millionaire’s Row. “I know the value of quality,” he said, adding, “I still think we tear down too much.”

Asked why so many mayors seem to prefer demolition, he said: “It’s easier for city leadership to decide to get $50,000 for demolition than use the same money and figure out how to incentivize developers to renovate in a concentrated way.”

“What I want to do is take the money from the foreclosure program and bundle a bunch of reclaimable homes to turn over to a developer to renovate,” he said. Community organizations could handle the small clusters of vacant properties that can’t be easily packaged.
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Hydrofracking and the Rural Future

Roberta Brandes Gratz / Feb 04 2012

For Release Saturday, February 4, 2012

Roberta Brandes GratzHydrofracking’s vast grid of pipelines is having an enormous impact on the rural Northeastern landscape — the topic of my prior two columns in this Citiwire series. But what’s the impact on local economies, jobs and real estate?

The experience of slow, bumper-to-bumper traffic entering the historic Bradford County (Pa.) seat of Towanda, could discourage any resident or visitor. One local businessman reported that his daily commute escalated from 20 to 45 minutes. From a window table at a Main Street café in Towanda, one observes the non-stop freight train quantity of huge, rumbling trucks. One wonders what the vibrations must be doing to structures along all routes, from 100-year-old Main Street buildings to older roadside churches.

One shopkeeper reported the loss of most local customers unwilling to face downtown traffic. She gained onetime customers from the families visiting gas workers.

Experienced engineers, technicians, geologists, surveyors and drill rig operators come from elsewhere. Training programs exist in upstate New York but it will be years before locals in either Pennsylvania or New York will be qualified. Passing the drug test for applicants is often a problem. The high local employment — Bradford has only a 6 percent unemployment rate — is mostly the ancillary businesses created by the gas companies, such as restaurants, hotels, supply companies and some truckers.
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Hydrofracking: The Impacts Continue

Roberta Brandes Gratz / Jan 28 2012

For Release Saturday, January 28, 2012

Roberta Brandes GratzThere’s much more to be said about hydrofracking, the topic of my Citiwire column last week which generated quite a bit of comment.

Consider, for example, the pipelines.

Hydrofracking involves injecting clean water, sand and an undisclosed combination of chemicals into the shale to free the gas from vast lateral reserves that are then brought to the surface. Each well site — known as as a pad — contains multiple wells on three to four acres of compacted gravel. The sites are spaced maybe 40 acres apart and connected by pipelines crisscrossing the land.

In recent years, local fights occurred in many farm areas when windmills started to fill the landscape, kill birds and emit noise heard at great distances. People worried about the impact on the land of the pipeline grid required to distribute the generated energy. In the case of gas, the grid connection is a more complex piping system, indeed one so vast that it is difficult at this point to fully comprehend how many pipelines and multiple compressors will be required as wells proliferate, or how many farms, wetlands, woodlands and mountain tops they will cross. Gas makes windmills look benign in the impact on the land.

“To connect to the larger, interstate pipelines” companies are moving forward “on what is expected to be thousands of miles of smaller pipelines,” Marc Levy of the Associated Press wrote in August. And that doesn’t include a possible network of water pipelines called for to avoid the current endless truck trips required to deliver water.
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Healing the Urban Heart: Chattanooga’s Next Great Challenge

Roberta Brandes Gratz / Jan 28 2012

For Release Saturday, January 28, 2012

Roberta Brandes GratzIn 1969, Walter Cronkite, in one of his nightly newscasts, called Chattanooga “the dirtiest city in America.” The pollution was so thick that drivers needed headlights to see through the fog, men took two white shirts to work for morning and afternoon, and respiratory deaths were 20 percent higher than national average. Today, Chattanooga is one of the cleanest cities; its success on a number of fronts has raised concern of being too successful.

The city is indeed blessed with the spectacular Tennessee River snaking through it, a setting surrounded by small mountains and woodlands filled with recreational attractions. The 1970 Clean Air Act forced the issue of pollution and by 1972 clean air standards were met. In the meantime, the city was working on big plans for change.

“We were the smart ones,” Mayor Ron Littlefield, a professional planner, told a meeting with the Citistates Group last week. “The city produced a detailed plan, colorful documents and maps, gathered lots of figures and then delivered them to the people. We figured they would recognize our genius and run with it.”

Well, it didn’t happen that way. The plans fell flat, met unanticipated resistance and went nowhere. With a complete reversal of strategy, Littlefield explains, “We discovered that if we brought all the factions to the table first and engaged them in drawing up the plans, they were more likely to support the implementation. It doesn’t stop criticism but it does build the support you need to get things done.”
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The Hydrofracking Impact

Roberta Brandes Gratz / Jan 21 2012

For Release Saturday, January 21, 2012

Roberta Brandes GratzIs natural gas the clean energy source it has been successfully marketed to be? My judgment? No. It may burn more cleanly than other fossil fuels. But the process to create the wells and then to transport the gas — even before and after the actual hydrofracking process — is so destructive of the natural and built environment that it is a wonder anyone can call it clean.

Just visit  Pennsylvania, relatively new to the gas exploration industry that really started ramping up operations two years ago. In this one state, 3,000 wells have been drilled. Thousands more are planned. And already, enormous change has occurred.

Pennsylvania is not the only state to experience intense gas exploration. But it is a popular target because of its location on top of the Marcellus Shale rock formation that also fans out under New York, West Virginia and Ohio. A map of existing and proposed drill sites makes Pennsylvania look like the victim of chicken pox. Add to that the requisite pipelines either in construction or yet to be and it is difficult to imagine any community large or small escaping the impact.

A recent visit to Bradford and Susquehanna Counties in northeastern Pennsylvania, currently a prime drilling target, revealed very troubling impacts that have received little attention so far. On scenic farm roads that never before bordered anything but farms — not even a gas station — industrial sites are sprouting left and right, representing the different segments of the gas production process — compressors, storage tanks, staging sites, maintenance operations and more.
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