Voting on Public Art in St. Petersburg Florida

Public art may soon get a boost in St. Petersburg, Florida when citizens cast ballots for a new design proposal to redevelop the 1971 St. Pete Pier.  After a 4-year process involving two design competitions (citizens roundly rejected the first competition results), this Florida coastal city will, in 2015, implement a design.

This time around, city officials are taking no chances and building consensus with the public step by step, keeping this $33 million public project at the top of voters’ awareness.  Seven design proposals are being considered, and after presentations in mid February, it appears that the field is narrowed.

While several schemes radically erase or change the city’s infrastructure, one scheme nicknamed “Discover Bay Life ” by Orlando-based VOA Associates seems to stand out.   All things being equal, this scheme’s monumental-scale transformable art by cutting-edge artist Chuck Hoberman can be had for the least capital investment by the city.  The team chose to keep the modernistic “Inverted Pyramid” at the end of the pier, shoo cars off of the over-water deck, and move restaurants and retail – which always struggled in such a remote location – from the end of the 1,400 foot pier back onto land.

Hoberman, who designed U2’s “Claw” for their 2011 album tour, is no stranger to moveable structures.  “It’s really very simple,” he stated during the presentation.  “There are a couple of motors, pulleys, and bearings.  We have structures like this in place that have lasted for decades.”  St. Petersburg, home to the world’s largest collection of 20th century surrealist Salvador Dali’s work, seems to have an affinity for cutting edge art, and this commitment could result in a grand, lasting civic space.

A popular vote will decide the scheme by March 20.  City leaders, anxious to proceed, have stayed neutral about the results and will ratify their decision afterward.  The lesson in urban studies is to proceed with caution when you are considering changes to civic space.  Far from being a lost cause, the public realm is very much alive and emotionally connected to its citizens, at least in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Governments’ Oil Windfall

We are reading a lot about the windfall coming to consumers due to falling gas prices now that oil is under $50/barrel. But cheap energy also represents a windfall for governments, including governments who are hard pressed for cash.

The US uses nearly 20% of the world’s energy consumption every year. That spending includes households, businesses, industries and governments. Households in the US spend nearly $450 billion on gasoline alone to fuel their 2.28 vehicles. Energy for transportation represents about 50% of US consumer spending on average and climbs to nearly 70% in the summer when there is more driving. Governments spend money on gasoline, too.

Not just the federal government, but government at every level – federal, state, county, city – all of which have fleets of cars and trucks that use gasoline.  We could not locate data on fuel spending by state governments for either gasoline or heating/cooling. The Bureau of Economic Analysis tables lump spending at gas stations in with “Other retail” which includes furniture and appliance stores and places like home depot. We did locate the numbers of cars owned by governments and police. Governments in the United States own about 1.5% of all vehicles on the road. That includes military vehicles, cars and trucks owned by the federal, state, county and local government plus police vehicles.

Data is from, sourced as as of Nov 26, 2013.

Whether we extrapolate from the number of vehicles and use the “per car” savings estimates or estimate the savings based on the governments’ share of vehicle ownership, we guess that governments across the US will be sharing in at least $1 billion this year. And that is just on gasoline alone.

They could also be saving on heating bills for real property. The Federal government alone owns almost 400,000 buildings located throughout the country. According to the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University, the US Federal government spends up to $610 billion annually on energy consumption. Every 1% drop in the prices could mean a $6 billion windfall for Uncle Sam.

Don’t be surprised if he expands spending instead of using the savings to reduce the national debt or to balance a budget.

Sources for Our "Southern California Stuck in Drive" Story

Joel Kotkin and I wrote in the Orange County Register that transit work trip market shares in the Los Angeles area had changed little, from 5.9 percent in 1980 to 5.8 percent in 2013. In a response, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LACTMTA) noted that we did not cite sources. Fair enough. Our source was the 1980 US Census and the 2013 American Community Survey, a product of the United States Census Bureau. This data shows Los Angeles to rank 10th in transit market share among the 52 major metropolitan areas (over 1,000,000 population), well below its population rank of 2nd.

Then LACMTA goes on to note "the percentage of daily transit commuters in the Los Angeles region ... has stayed steady over the last several decades." That is exactly our point --- that transit is not growing as a percentage of travel in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. This, despite expenditures of $15 billion to build rail over the period in constant 2013 dollars (estimated from data on the Thoreau Institute website).

Childish Things: So Many San Franciscans Don't Wanna Grow Up. But Who Can Afford To?

Earlier this year, an extremely clever married couple named Catherine Herdlick and Gabe Smedresman celebrated the latter's 30th birthday by throwing a citywide Logan's Run-themed chase game. What a perfect motif for a night out in San Francisco: A pastime for beautiful young adults in this city of beautiful young adults re-creating a movie about beautiful young adults enjoying a lavish, indulgent — and extremely temporary — existence.

In that film, the beautiful young adults of a dystopian future earth lived it up before aging out in the most extreme manner possible: They were vaporized to make way for more beautiful young adults.

Here in San Francisco, that would violate the city charter.

Read the entire piece at SF Weekly.

Joe Eskenazi is a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly.


1099 Economy on the Rise

Here at ZenPayroll, we care a lot about how compensation is done, and the effect compensation can have on the relationship between employers and employees. Using the employment data we have as a payroll provider, we decided to look at whether the 1099 economy, which has garnered quite a bit of media attention recently, is really growing as fast as people think.

The short answer is that over the past year, the ratio of independent contractors to full-time employees has meaningfully risen among small and medium-sized businesses in states and major metropolitan areas across the country.

The nature of work is changing given the decline of lifetime employment. Today, very few people plan to work for the same company their whole life, and people often have several jobs at one time. As a result, and as shown by ZenPayroll's data, more small business owners are employing contractors as a part of running their business. There are a number of other reasons for this general trend toward a more flexible work structure.

Click the image to enlarge.

First, employees want to have more choices when it comes to where and when they work, but also who they work for. Millennials in particular are frequently asking themselves whether they're fulfilled by what they're doing. Jess Ostroff, founder of a full-service virtual assistance agency called Don't Panic Management, said that some of her contractors in New York City are aspiring actors, and they do contract work to support themselves as they pursue longer-term passions and ambitions. 

Others do contract work purely for the flexibility -- one of the first contractors to work for the Don't Panic Management team is a mother of three who has her own cooking show and also runs a photography business. She supplements those jobs by contracting so she can earn money while spending time with her family.

For some entrepreneurs, hiring independent contractors is key to their business. Lina Pakrosnyte is the founder and owner of UrbanLeash, a professional pet care company based in Chicago. There are four full-time employees on her team, but she works with over 30 contractors for tech and marketing help, as well as dog walking and cat sitting. With the high turnover in pet care professionals, Lina needs to keep finding contractors to serve her UrbanLeash clients.

I've also talked to many small business owners who prefer having a remote or distributed workforce. Adam McLane, founder of a youth ministry resources company called The Youth Cartel, is one example. Because his business requires expert writers and public speakers, he works with over a hundred contractors from all over the country to produce content and events.

After the economic downturn several years ago, many people who lost their full-time jobs found contract and part-time work as a way to fill that gap. When times are uncertain, employers also tend to prefer contractors. With the government promising to crack down on employers who misclassify their workers as contractors rather than employees, it's important for business owners to know the distinction between the two. We published a post recently on the ZenPayroll blog to help small business owners avoid misclassifying their workers

The future isn't set in stone, and there will be ongoing debate about the responsibility employers have towards their workers, whether they are employees or contractors. It is important to care of your people if you want to attract and retain great talent.


Building the Responsive City

The Responsive City: Engaging Communities Through Data Smart Governance

by Stephen Goldsmith and Susan Crawford

Technology, and especially the use of data and analytics, has been transforming the way cities manage service delivery. Former Indianapolis mayor New York City deputy mayor Steve Goldsmith, and his colleague at Harvard Susan Crawford, recently wrote a book called “The Responsive City” looking at this technology revolution. I recently read the book and posted some thoughts in a review posted at City Journal. Here’s an excerpt:

The book chronicles more than just technology’s potential; it also highlights what some local governments have already achieved with innovative approaches. After several fires resulted in the deaths of five people, New York City built a system to identify buildings at high fire risk, using predictive models and integrating data from multiple sources. City inspectors are now aggressively targeting those buildings for upgrades. To fight its rat problem, Chicago is using data analytics to predict where rats will gather, instead of waiting for resident complaints. Boston has developed a civic customer-relationship management system, with mobile-device apps, to link residents more easily with city services. Mimicking the way that Yelp collects restaurant reviews, Washington, D.C. uses a website to solicit ratings of city services. Cities around the country are adopting open-data portals.

Goldsmith and Crawford are candid about the challenges facing their responsive-city vision. Progressive-era reforms designed to eliminate corruption also curtailed government employees’ discretion, leaving them with narrowly defined roles and limited ability to respond effectively to real-world problems. Rigid job descriptions, such as “temporary full-time permanent intermittent police officer,” are common in cities like New York, which has more than 2,000 such classifications. Procurement rules require that detailed specifications be prepared in advance, unlike in the private sector, where technology and other solutions are often developed iteratively. Government’s rigid contracting processes make it tough to respond to findings during development.

You can click over to City Journal to read the entire thing

I also sat down with Steve Goldsmith recently to talk about the book, and some of the challenges and pitfalls of this technology-drive approach. If the audio embed doesn’t display for you, click over to listen on Soundcloud.

This piece originally appeared at The Urbanophile.

Metropolitan Populations from 1900 Posted (Current Geographies)

We have posted population data for the nation's major metropolitan areas for censuses from 1900 to 2010 and as estimated in 2013. These data are use the current (2013) boundaries to define metropolitan areas. There is no consistent list historical listing of metropolitan area populations using the commuting criteria that define the 2010 and 2013 metropolitan areas. Thus, in using the data in this new report, caution should be employed.

Taiwan High Speed Rail Near Bankruptcy

Efforts are underway by the Taiwan government for a government led restructuring to avoid bankruptcy (Plan to stop Taiwan's high-speed rail going bust set for review). Since opening in 2007, this privately financed and operated system has been plagued with ridership well below projections. The Taiwan experience is consistent with the research showing that ridership on high-speed rail lines has been frequently over-projected.

Minister of Transportation and Communications (MOTC) Yeh Kuang-shih offered this sobering assessment:

“This is not the best time to address the financial problems, but it is the last window of opportunity. The Taiwan High Speed Rail Corp will definitely go bankrupt if the problems are not addressed by the end of the year. The only other solution would be a government takeover. If the company files for bankruptcy and the government is forced to take over operation of the system, the banks will probably collect on their loans, but neither large nor small investors will get anything back.”

Kuomintang Party legislator Lin Kuo-cheng said that the "debt" and "accumulated losses" mean that the Taiwan high speed rail line is "broke."

New Climate Report Misses Point on US Cities

The doubtful claim that low density US cities impose a cost to the economy of $400 billion is countered by their being the most affluent in the world. Nine of the top 10 cities in GDP per capita are in the US and more than 70% of the top 50. The highest GDP per capita city in the world is one of the least compact, Hartford, with an urban population density among the bottom 10 out of more the than 900 urban areas larger than 500,000 (See here and here).

Mobility is an important driver of economic performance. US cities have less traffic congestion, and shorter work trip travel times than their international peers (Los Angeles has the shortest work trip travel times of any megacity for which there is data). The key to this productivity is more dispersed residential and employment locations (less than 10% of jobs are downtown) and the less intense traffic congestion that is associated with such development. In the US, just as in Western Europe, commuting by car is much faster than by transit. The coming fuel efficiency improvements will narrow or eliminate the gap between personal vehicle and transit GHG emissions per passenger kilometer. US fuel efficiency standards are projected to reduce gross car GHG emissions by more than a quarter by 2040, according to the US Department of Energy. That's before any de-carbonization.

The US has some of the best housing affordability in the world (excluding cities like San Francisco and Portland, where politically correct policies raise prices, lowering the standard of living and increasing poverty). The miniscule reductions from favored urban policies are exceedingly expensive per tonne and incapable of making a serious contribution to GHG emission reduction.

Maintaining the standard of living and reducing poverty requires cities that are mobile and affordable. It is important that GHG emissions reductions be chosen for their cost effectiveness, rather than consistency with expensive academic theories that long predate GHG emissions reduction concerns.

This piece was posted to comments at The Economist.

Michigan’s State Legislature Needs to Cut Detroit Down to Size

What’s often forgotten in politics and governance is municipalities are the creation of state legislatures.  A good deal of the population growth in major cities in the second half of the nineteenth century was due to annexation. One of the best examples is New York‘s amazing growth due to annexing Brooklyn. Few people are talking about it but it’s time to consider smaller political units. As Detroit struggles with failure of bankruptcy, the geographical size of the Motor city is becoming a major issue.

Detroit’s long decline eventually put it a federal bankruptcy court. The reasons are numerous but the reality is here.  How Detroit exists from bankruptcy court is now an issue. Putting Detroit on a sound economic footing is essential to preventing another bankruptcy. The Detroit Free Press reports:

The investment banker representing the City of Detroit had talks with billionaire real estate investor Sam Zell and investment firm the Blackstone Group about selling them the city’s vacant property — but the investors weren’t interested, the Free Press has learned.

The revelation comes as the value of Detroit’s abandoned and blighted property — which the city considers assets in its Chapter 9 bankruptcy — is in dispute.

Creditors argue that city-owned property is a source of significant value that is being ignored in the city’s bankruptcy restructuring blueprint, called a “plan of adjustment.” The creditors argue the approximately 22 square miles of vacant or blighted property the city owns could be sold — with the proceeds distributed to creditors and even reinvested in the city.

But Ken Buckfire, president of the city’s investment banking adviser Miller Buckfire, testified that city-owned land “to some extent has negative value,” according to a deposition transcript obtained by the Free Press.

One way to interpret the comment about “negative value” is where the land is located. If Michigan’s state legislature re-drew Detroit‘s geographical boundaries, investors would be more interested in the land. A new municipality, without Detroit’s corrupt and expensive politics would be a major reform. Detroit as it exists today isn’t viable for job growth and a stable population. Detroit’s local politicians and special interest groups would obviously fight any changes in geographical boundaries in Michigan’s state legislature because a declining Detroit was a way to plunder taxpayers. But Michigan taxpayers need to start asking themselves: is Detroit’s 143 square miles a viable long term enterprise?