Monthly Archive: November 2016

Sidewalk Labs Spinoff Could Be Coming to Your City

Daniel Doctoroff

A year after Google-backed smart city tech company Sidewalk Labs launched, the company plans to expand its reach with a network of themed labs. The labs will work with cities to churn out products focused on issues such as citizen engagement, internet connectivity, transportation and access to public space.

Dan Doctoroff, CEO of Sidewalk Labs, explained the move in a blog post Wednesday, saying that the labs will be led by entrepreneurs and consist of “hyper-focused, cross-disciplinary teams of policy experts, engineers, product managers, and designers  —  a full range of urbanists and technologists.”

The first eight or nine could be up and running within six months to a year, with more to follow. The first four have already been named: Build Lab will tackle housing affordability by exploring ways to construct more affordable and flexible buildings; Care Lab will look at health challenges faced by low-income residents; Manage Lab will focus on how cities can use data to relieve budget pressures and improve efficiency; and Model Lab will explore tools to make transportation more affordable and sustainable.

“The aim is to keep these labs open: engaging the public, sharing what we’ve learned, and refining our ideas,” Doctoroff wrote.

The idea is also that these entities will spin off as separate companies, creating a network of tiny Sidewalk Labs across the U.S. They’ll also partner with other organizations or city agencies, similar to Sidewalk’s current partnerships with U.S. DOT and Transportation for America.

Doctoroff elaborated on the creation of a “living laboratory district” too. He wrote that there isn’t a “single city today that can stand as a model for our urban future,” and that such a district with “real-world conditions” could be the best way to try out solutions.

It could take the form of a similar “living laboratory” effort recently started in Spokane, Washington. Six partners, including the city and Washington State University, are using the 770-acre University District as a “blank canvas” to test out smart city tech. The effort is driven by the city’s new smart cities lab, and aims to answer “some of the thornier questions around smart cities collaborations,” such as who governs the partnership and who owns data gathered by a private company for the city.

There’s no word yet on where the new themed labs or the innovation district will be based, but Doctoroff did say he expects the new projects to be shaped by local feedback.

“Whatever we do, we know the world doesn’t need another plan that falls into the same trap as previous ones: treating the city as a high-tech island rather than a place that reflects the personality of its local population. … There are no magical fixes to tough urban problems. Anything we try will require lots of discussion, refinement, and adaptation”

Shop Houzz: Classic Holiday Decor (157 photos)

There’s a lot to love about classic holiday decor: the evergreen branches that bring nature inside, the twinkling lights full of warmth, the jolly Santa that brings a smile. But what many people love most about traditional Christmas trimmings is that they transport us back to a simpler, sweeter time….

L.A. Streetcar Takes Another Step Toward 2020 Comeback

A rendering of the L.A. streetcar (Credit: Los Angeles Streetcar)

Plan to resurrect Los Angeles’ downtown streetcar moved another step forward Tuesday. City Council signed off on a nearly 4-mile route for the streetcar and certified the project’s environmental impact report, Studio City Patch reports.

The 3.8-mile loop will pass through the Civic Center, the Convention Center, the Fashion District and the South Park area. The route will stop near hotels, theaters and shops along Broadway and near Grand Central Market.

(Credit: Los Angeles Streetcar)

During the early half the last century, L.A. had more than 1,000 miles of streetcar track and more transit riders per capita than San Francisco. According to the nonprofit Los Angeles Streetcar, which has been pushing for the project since 2009, the new line could reach more than 6,000 riders per day. Current plans call for the streetcar to run for 18 hours a day and have headways ranging from seven minutes to 15 minutes depending on the time of day.

“We’ve reached a very important milestone in what will be a transportation project that will link our regional transit system with destinations downtown,” Councilman Jose Huizar, who has long championed bringing back the streetcar, said prior to the vote.

A 2015 estimate put the cost of building the system at about $280 million, but city officials will finalize the cost estimate for the streetcar based on more recent engineering and utility relocation costs. The project is expected to receive about $200 million in sales tax revenue from Measure M, which was approved by voters earlier this month, and the rest will be funded through public-private partnerships and federal grants.

If the streetcar receives final approval, construction could begin in 2018 and be completed in 2020.

Small-Scale Manufacturers See New Markets Tax Credits as Future Hope

Detroit’s Fisher Body Plant 21 has been vacant since 1993. (Photo by Andrew Jameson)

On Nov. 17, the U.S. government’s Community Development Financial Institutions Fund announced it was awarding an unprecedented amount of tax credits to investors focused on job creation and other economy boosters in communities hit hard by poverty. The amount of the credits, known as New Markets Tax Credits, totaled $7 billion, with about 60 percent of that going to urban areas.

According to a 2015 New Markets Tax Credit Progress Report the last award round can be tied to 64 buildings housing manufacturing projects and the creation of 9,949 full-time and construction jobs, the highest economic contribution of any sector in 2014 thanks to the 15-year-old federal program. The tax credits generally go toward new equipment or sprucing up old facilities.

The numbers are a foil to the long-touted story of U.S. manufacturing’s decline. As big factories shuttered operations, they pulled out the rug from beneath dependent city and regional economies in the Rust Belt. But small-scale manufacturers may be the ones that can help bring the industry back — albeit in a new form that’s leaner, smaller and pays better than many of the monolithic operators from pre-Recession times.

Traditionally, state- and city-level initiatives have given the most support to these manufacturers, which can easily pop up in abandoned retail spaces downtown because they leave a small noise and environmental footprint. They’re also appealing to federal programs like NMTC because they can pull workers from impoverished communities into good-paying jobs that don’t always require college degrees.

More and more community development enterprises (CDEs), or local financing institutions that back small-scale manufacturing projects and can qualify for NMTCs, appear to be interested in linking small-scale manufacturing operations into their building rehab projects because of that thread, says Ilana Pruitt, founder of small-scale manufacturing resource center Recast City.

She says it’s a process of getting the CDEs that hold the financing keys for small operations to realize they can kill two birds with one stone when they, for example, want to prop up a commercial project in a vacant lot. Vendors and the local manufacturers that supply them may fit beneath the same roof, in a way that “really pulls up the businesses they’re supporting and also invests in hubs that can act as neighborhood centers as well,” says Pruitt.

OpenWorks in Baltimore, Maryland, is one example. That project was managed by the Baltimore Arts Realty Corporation with $3.5 million in NMTCs. The multipurpose center gives local creators a place to build and test out new products, while also acting as a youth programming center, workforce development center, and small business administrator.

“It makes me almost hopeful that [CDEs] understand there’s a connection between placemaking and the location of these small-scale manufacturing businesses,” says Pruitt.

In 2014, an estimated three-quarters of the 251,901 manufacturing firms up and running in the U.S. were small-scale manufacturers employing less than 20 people. That means most of manufacturing’s $2.1 trillion contribution to the U.S. economy came from the types of operations Pruitt is talking about.

Taken as a whole, the manufacturing industry in the U.S. pays its workers $81,289 on average — benefits included.

As the National Association of Manufacturers puts it, that $2.1 trillion would rank U.S. manufacturing as the ninth-largest economy in the world, if stacked side by side with nation states. But there are more small-scale players looking to get in, and going forward, the CDFI Fund’s New Markets Tax Credits program could be one way that the federal government can start having a bigger impact at the neighborhood level. Pruitt says small makers often stumble in their initial hunt for capital, and between 90 and 97 percent of NMTC-backed investments offer entrepreneurs lower loan interest rates that mature over a longer period of time, among other benefits.

Billion-dollar enterprises that can up and leave on a whim, slashing years of history with their base city and the payroll of thousands of employees in pursuit of non-U.S. labor rates, are also less and less enticing to city workforce programs than smaller enterprises, says Pruitt.

“I think economic development leadership in many communities were taught to chase the smokestacks,” she says. “You know, find one big company, give them lots of subsidies to stay and keep them as long as you can, where lots of research shows that that doesn’t really price out in the end for neighborhoods.”

“They’re starting to realize that there are a lot of benefits to homegrown businesses,” she says. She’s currently collaborating with Fremont, California’s economic development agency to help get more support mechanisms up and running to back small-scale manufacturers.

That city is the home of Tesla’s 4.5-million-square-foot manufacturing plant. But city leaders want to start looking right now to find out which local manufacturer will be the next big employer — instead of placing all their eggs in the Tesla basket.

“Why is this important to the real estate community and the city of Fremont?” said Kelly Kline, economic development director and chief innovation officer, during an Economic Development Advisory Commission meeting on Sept. 8. “These tenants add new options for ground-floor use. These businesses can activate an area. These are local jobs.”

Putting a small-scale manufacturer on the ground level of a retail building also brings a visual component to the neighborhood. “People love seeing stuff being made, so there’s a great vibrancy that often comes with these types of businesses,” says Pruitt.

But the connect between what happens in that long-abandoned ground level retail space and the tax credits doled out to progressive projects by the CDFI Fund needs to be emboldened to see more success stories around the U.S. like OpenWorks — and more paradigm shifts away from depending on major operators like what we’re seeing in Fremont.

“It’s a role that more CDCs and land banks are starting to get involved in,” says Pruitt, noting that giving small-scale manufacturers a place to run shop is on financial institutions’ radars. “There are a ton of homegrown skills — these are people that have worked in industry and are entrepreneurs by nature. So now the question is how we support those people either to become businesses or to scale the ones that have been really small for a long time.”

8 Ways to Enhance a Compact Entry (10 photos)

Your entryway sets the tone for the rest of your home. Even in the tightest of spaces, it’s a good opportunity to add function and express yourself with flooring and rugs, wallpaper, artwork, mirrors, light fixtures, coat racks, benches, hooks, and well-placed small-scale furniture. Have a look at these…