Monthly Archive: August 2016

Londoners Say Taller Buildings Won’t Solve Their Housing Crisis

Skyscrapers in the Canary Wharf business district of London (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

More than 400 skyscrapers are slated for across London, but nearly half of inner London residents surveyed think this number is too high.

A 500-person poll released by UK research company Ipsos MORI Sunday found that 49 percent of inner London residents think too many skyscrapers are planned for the city, and 59 percent want to see height restrictions for skyscrapers. Only 6 percent of residents said there are too few buildings over 20 stories planned for the city.

Although London is still facing a housing shortage, few Londoners — only 11 percent — said they think going tall will help alleviate the crisis, and 60 percent say they believe skyscrapers mostly benefit wealthy foreigners. However, 59 percent of those surveyed say priority should be given to proposals that include affordable housing.

Londoners also want more say in new construction. Three quarters of residents surveyed say they should be consulted on proposals for new buildings, and more than half think tall buildings should be limited to business districts, such as Canary Warf.

Inner Londoners say other types of housing better suit the needs of Londoners, with 24 percent preferring terraced houses, 21 percent buildings five stories or less, and 17 percent buildings that are 6-20 stories tall.

Chicago Architects Team Up on Climate Change

The Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago was designed by Krueck + Sexton Architects, a firm leading a climate change awareness campaign. (Photo by Tony Webster via Flickr)

More than 70 Chicago-based architecture, design and engineering firms are teaming up to push for meaningful legislation on climate change.

Their industry-focused public outreach campaign, Architects Advocate Action on Climate Change, officially launches Thursday, and aims to raise awareness about climate change and prompt legislation “guided by scientific consensus and reason.”

The group is the brainchild of Krueck + Sexton Architects. Thomas Jacobs, a principal at the firm, told Curbed that they were considering the idea of an environmental awareness campaign for a while before the four partners decided unanimously to launch the initiative.

“I reached a level of amazement at the relative silence surrounding the issue,” Jacobs told Curbed. “I’m extremely worried at the potential effects of climate change, but I’m more afraid about not trying to change anything. I can’t imagine my grandchildren asking me, ‘why didn’t you do something about it when you could?’ It’s made me believe that we have to try. It’s as simple as that.”

The firm started reaching out to others, and now 68 Chicago-based architecture firms and six design and engineering firms are involved.

While architects can have a huge impact on the built environment by improving energy efficiency in buildings — in the U.S., buildings account for almost 40 percent of total U.S. energy use and associated CO2 emissions, according to the U.S. Department of Energy — a number of groups already encourage industry professionals to opt for more sustainable building practices. Architects Advocate, however, is primarily about raising awareness. Firms joining the group haven’t been asked to make any pledges about sustainability or emissions practices or building codes.

“At this point, we’re asking one thing: Don’t remain silent,” Jacobs said. “We believe we can build on that, raise momentum, and create a drumbeat of people working on this issue.”

Once the group officially launches September 1, members will be expected to use social media and other platforms to speak out about the issue. They’ll also add a red banner to their website with a message of support for the group.

Tampa Works on Supporting Minority-Owned Businesses One Day at a Time

During an upgrade of Tampa International Airport, half of the work is going to minority- or women-owned businesses in the area. (Photo by LoneStarMike)

One more month of delayed payments and Martha Wagenbrenner’s business would have been done for.

A big Tampa, Florida, contractor hired her company, Aqua Pro Irrigation and Outdoor Services, for a six-month job installing irrigation along parts of the city’s sidewalks. It seemed like every time she laid pipes in the ground, one of the contractor’s diggers would break soil nearby and shatter all the work she’d just completed.

“They kept threatening me, saying, ‘We’re not paying you unless you finish this job,’” she remembers. “Well I couldn’t finish the job because they kept damaging the system and changing the blueprints.” What should have been a half-year project grinded on for nearly a year and a half — a sinkhole she says she threw $100,000 worth of her time, workforce and material into.

Her fate took a 180 after she made a phone call to Tampa’s Minority and Small Business Development (MSBD) office. A public mitigator was assigned to her case and aggressively followed up with the contractor. Two meetings later, Wagenbrenner walked out of negotiations with a newly minted contractor agreement and the paycheck she was promised en route to her company account.

“I was so impressed by the way they stood up and said ‘It’s not going to work that way, this is how we’re going to do things,’” she says. “I really felt like they had my back.”

Tampa’s MSBD office has been offering mitigation and sheltered market contracts to companies like Wagenbrenner’s since 1991, but in 2012, Mayor Bob Buckhorn enacted a few structural changes to help raise the bar. He targeted $1.2 million more worth of city contracts at small and minority-owned businesses, added more checks and balances to make sure underutilized companies with non-white or women owners were getting access to more bids, and put in a new grading value system that automatically gives these companies a leg up when it comes to requests for project proposals.

In other words, he made it much easier for a Latina woman like Wagenbrenner to cultivate her business in what she says is a traditionally “male-oriented industry.” Around 940 small and minority- or women-owned businesses in Tampa are registered with the office and qualify for their support. (Wagenbrenner co-owns her business with her husband, but she owns the majority share.)

The mayor’s efforts appear to have been fruitful. In 2015, the city announced it had surpassed its minority and small business contracting goals by 20 percent. That’s leaps and bounds better than the year these new measures went live in 2012, when the city missed its contracting goals by 44 percent.

Minority- and women-owned businesses took in a greater dollar amount of city-involved contracts last year than race-neutral small businesses — the other cohort serviced by the office — at $16.6 million compared to $13.3 million.

Gregory Hart, MSBD manager, says their success thus far can be attributed to making sure they’re constantly self-monitoring.

“Some areas we’re able to do well,” he says. “And some we’re not able to do so well.”

Getting minority- and women-owned businesses access to lucrative city contracts depends largely on the type of project, and whether or not the local contractor population offers a valid labor pool for those jobs. For example, the city of Tampa doesn’t pursue as many vertical construction projects as its county government, Hillsborough, he says. That means the percentage of these businesses getting contracts in that sector might seem low even though there’s a significant amount of black-owned or Hispanic-owned companies offering services like drywall and heating, ventilation and air conditioning in Tampa.

“It all depends on what you procure and what your certified minority businesses are,” he says. In 2015, construction accounted for the smallest portion of overall MSBD-backed contracts at 5 percent, according to city data.

It also depends on whether or not these contractors decide to pounce on bids when they’re offered. Just a few weeks ago, a long-time black-owned business that the city had repeatedly gone to for field maintenance work decided not to renew $1 million worth of contracts because the owner is ready to retire.

“So there’s a million dollars in black-owned business participation we had, but then [at the end of the year] someone’s going to say ‘Hey, your numbers are going down,’ and we’ll say ‘Well, yeah,’” says Hart. “It’s not necessarily a problem per se. That’s just normal business happenings.”

The vast majority of contracts his department oversees go out to suppliers who can provide goods like water pipes and machinery. Second place goes to non-professional blue-collar jobs like painting, lawn mowing and janitorial work. But for other industries like engineering and architecture, the opportunities can be packed with profit.

The Tampa International Airport jump-started a $943 million renovation project in 2014, and half of that is expected to go to minority- or women-owned subcontractors. One black-owned engineering firm, VoltAir, was awarded a $4.6 million contract to expand the airport’s main terminal and build out a rental car facility. With that project, the company, owned by Julius Davis, hired eight new employees and grew its office space by 1,200 square feet.

VoltAir, which has since opened a headquarters in Houston, Texas, is one of the office’s shining examples of how women- and minority-owned enterprise programs can help even out racial disparities at the commerce level. With more of these businesses put in a position to grow, it “will bring in more taxpayers, increase the tax base and [help] to improve the economy,” says Hart. “That may sound like something patent off the shelf, but that’s kind of the crux of our success.”

The MSBD office was trying to get Wagenbrenner’s company on board with that airport terminal overhaul, but she couldn’t afford to invest in the necessary machinery because she’s still trying to recover the money she lost to that contractor.

“It put me back so far that I’m almost starting over,” she says. As long as the city keeps looking out for her, she’s confident that her business will thrive and prosper in no time.

“I’m building back up, and if I continue to get these jobs that they’re giving me, I know we can expand and be great, and get more jobs, and more people, and more personnel,” she says. “I know we will.”

Finding the “Heart and Soul” of Planning

With support from the Vermont-headquartered Orton Family Foundation, Biddeford, Maine, residents engaged in a two-year participatory planning process. (Photop by Tomasso)

In Biddeford, Maine, a centrally located trash processor was a major employer for over two decades. It was also a major blight, leaving residents hesitant to gather downtown and unhappy with the noise, smell and disruption. Business owners were reluctant to move into the area, but local government was also reluctant to close down the incinerator, due to the already limited economic opportunities in the town.

Today, that incinerator is gone. The removal’s due partly to a new downtown master plan created in 2011 with community input through an engagement model that could be coming to a city near you.

Biddeford used a participatory two-year process called Heart & Soul, part of a package of town planning support from Vermont-headquartered Orton Family Foundation. The model has been taken up across the U.S. in small towns that receive two years of financial assistance as well as training and technical support in participatory planning.

Established in 1995, the philanthropy was forged around Lyman Orton’s interest in civic planning. Key to Heart & Soul is connecting a community’s shared values to tangible outcomes.

In Biddeford, residents expressed a desire for a family-friendly downtown. This value was linked to a goal of developing compatible businesses in the downtown area. (This is what led to the city purchasing and closing down the incinerator; operations have moved to the industrial area of a nearby town.) Residents voted on all outcomes listed in the master plan, and 80 percent of those have now been completed or are in progress.

The Orton family made its fortune through the Vermont Country Store, a mail-order business whose brand is built on ideals like neighborliness. Its catalogs abound with American flags; its communications are dotted with words like “yesteryear” and “community.” But despite that throwback feel — and while community engagement around planning itself isn’t brand-new territory — Orton Family Foundation’s methods are very forward looking. This is a charitable organization that’s developed GIS-based planning software CommunityViz.

Several Maine towns were involved in the pilot stages of the Heart & Soul model, which Orton has trademarked. Successful applicants included Biddeford and Gardiner, both hit hard by the closure of mills along Maine’s waterfronts starting in the 1970s.

Thom Harnett, mayor of Gardiner, says the 2012-2014 program brought both tangible and intangible benefits. One of the values identified in the community consultation stage, when the Heart & Soul partner organizations were collecting stories from as many people as possible, was the importance of agriculture to the town. People talked about making Gardiner a food hub, with locally sourced food a key element of a more diversified economy. Officials kept this in mind when evaluating proposals for new businesses, and a food co-op opened in 2015.

Town leaders also took action with regard to another finding from the engagement process: Residents wanted to see empty buildings put to new use. The town developed an adaptive reuse ordinance to guide the repurposing of old buildings. The first project: a hard cider tasting room in a disused church. Given that there was public debate over the idea of alcohol being served in what had been a church, Harnett acknowledges that integrating varied interests isn’t always easy.

“Local government is the hardest form of government because it’s your friends, it’s your neighbors,” he says. “It’s people you see in the supermarket. It’s very personal.”

The mayor says one advantage of the Heart & Soul program — even beyond the funding, the planning tools and the leveraging of community development block grants for the food hub businesses — has been increased involvement in local government. Where previously it was a struggle to find volunteers for town events, willing volunteers are now abundant. And where previously the town was consistently losing residents, people have started moving to Gardiner from larger Maine cities.

Following refinement of its tools based on lessons learned from places like Gardiner and Biddeford, the Orton Family Foundation is starting to work with larger towns (up to a population of 50,000). It’s also phasing out direct funding, looking instead to major partnerships to provide financial support. Whether that shift will dampen enthusiasm from small cities remains to be seen, as does how much engagement a scaled-up approach will generate. (A foundation rep couldn’t provide hard numbers on resident participation in the pilot towns, but maintains breadth and diversity of the groups reached is more important than the percentages.)

A two-year process to determine the values that should undergird community planning may sound like an expensive commitment. It may also be harder to realize in larger and more diverse cities.

But David Leckey, the foundation’s executive director, isn’t deterred. The two-year process is needed, he says, because “change happens at the speed of trust.” In his view, building relationships between different community groups is essential for town planning.

He’s convinced of the improvements that follow this type of process. “If you follow this with robust intent,” he says, “I can guarantee that your small town would benefit.”

Boston Teases 385 Square Feet of Help for Affordable Housing Crisis

(Photo by Luciof)

Boston expects to see a 20 percent growth in households over the next 15 years. To meet housing demand, Mayor Marty Walsh is aiming to create 53,000 new units by 2030.

Uhu — a 385-square-foot modular house — might just be part of that equation. A model is making the rounds in the city, across eight sites in three months, testing residents’ reactions to the tiny living concept. (Uhu is pronounced “yoohoo,” and is an acronym for Urban Housing Unit.)

According to the Uhu website (which either puts an umlaut over the logo’s second u, or presents as a smiley face, take your pick), most of Boston would need to make zoning variances in order to legally accommodate the unit, which is 65 square feet smaller than the minimum currently allowable for studios in Boston.

The Uhu consists of a living room, a kitchen and a bedroom, as well as a bathroom with full bath. They can be stacked up to four units high, or combined. So for owners who want more than 385 square feet, there’s a 770-square-foot dual-Uhu option. Ideally Uhus could be put on vacant lots.

The prototype was designed in a collaborative effort by the Mayor’s Housing and Innovation Lab, Boston Society of Architects and housing developer Live Light, which specializes in environmentally friendly residences.

Like most modular designs, because it’s small and pre-built the Uhu’s cheaper to produce than traditional residential units. The one now on display cost about $75,000, including furniture, but “at full-scale production, designers said they could push costs down to somewhere between $40,000 and $70,000 a pop,” according to the Boston Globe, which also says that the Uhu is “seven times cheaper than the average condo in Boston.”

Check out an Urban Housing Unit (aka uhu) now @cityhallplaza @universalhub @BSAAIA @newurbanmechs @theurbanologist

— Adam Castiglioni (@ConciergeBoston) August 11, 2016

@BSAAIA @newurbanmechs sneak peek of the uhu Boston City Hall @SeeWhatsIN, opening tomorrow.

— Aeron Hodges (@Aeron_H) August 9, 2016

According to, the median home value in Boston is $500,500, the median price of homes currently listed in Boston is $629,000, and the median list price per square foot in Boston is $577.

The Uhu is intended “to develop a model of housing for the workforce,” says Addison Godine of Live Light. “Developers are good at building luxury and subsidized affordable housing, but we have been neglecting the ‘missing middle.’ If Boston is going to be an inclusive city, we need to innovate ways to build housing that working people can afford without subsidies.”

The most likely Uhu residents would be “millennial young professionals, couples without kids, empty nesters, [the] elderly, [and] single parents,” says Godine, who describes the Uhu as “fully functional and semi-off-grid, like a tiny house.” But he adds that the Uhu “isn’t really a tiny house – it’s more of a showcase compact living space on wheels.” He adds that tiny houses are typically a much smaller 100 to 200 square feet.

“The amount of units in a residential complex would depend on the size of the lot, but for many lots in and around Boston, probably between six and eight Uhus would be a good number,” says Godine.

The Uhu can function in the very wide range of weather that affects Boston and many other U.S. cities. “It is extremely well-insulated and features a heat-pump capable of heating in the coldest temps and cooling in the hottest temps,” says Godine.

As for the Uhu’s potential effect on overall housing affordability in Boston and beyond, “it really depends on how many units are added to the inventory,” says Robert M. Silverman, an urban planning professor at the University at Buffalo. “If enough studio Uhu units were added to the inventory, it may free up larger units and take some pressure off of rents. But, it would have to happen at a large enough scale to produce that result.”

Modular urban housing like the Uhu “may chip away at the problem, but there is still a need to add more inventory across the board [small and larger apartments] and increase rent assistance to have a noticeable impact on the problem of rent inflation,” says Silverman.

He adds that, “To really get at the equity issue, there would need to be a concerted effort to provide affordable housing options to a broader spectrum of renters by adding more units to the inventory and subsidizing more households. There is also a need to either bring existing units up to code or replace them with decent, safe and affordable housing.”

At this juncture, Boston is seeking “to start a conversation about living smaller in a city where everyone is feeling the housing crunch,” says Godine, who admits Uhu isn’t a silver bullet. Rather it’s “one more option that can be added to the mix,” he says.

The Uhu model will be displayed in various neighborhoods through December. Find a schedule here.