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Lewyn Addresses America
Tuesday, 31 May 2011
switching sites

Some people who read this blog have suggested that it would be more well known with other providers.  Accordingly, I am moving this blog to:

http://mlewyn.wordpress.com 


Posted by lewyn at 9:50 PM EDT
Monday, 30 May 2011
Dense sprawl vs. New Urbanism

I spent my last couple of days (Friday afternoon through Sunday morning) in Edmonton's Westridge neighborhood, an inner-suburban area that hosts the city's Modern Orthodox synagogue, Beth Israel.  Westridge reminded me a bit of Stapleton in Denver: both have lots of bus service, an element of mixed use insofar as commercial and multifamily residential are within walking distance of single-family homes, are MUCH more compact than the sprawl neighborhood I now live in, and both have an enormous amount of public parkland.

But Westridge still seems to me like a nicer variant of conventional sprawl, while Stapleton is definitely a new urbanist neighborhood.  Why?

*Stapleton creates connectivity (that is, the ability to walk from one residential street to other residential streets without going through a major commercial street first) with an easy-to-decipher grid.  Westridge is dominated by cul-de-sacs, but compensates for it with walkways between the cul-de-sacs.  Once you know what you are doing, I suspect you can get from one house to another via the walkways, but I also suspect it takes some getting used to.

*Also, the commercial streets of these neighborhoods are quite different.  New urbanist commercial streets are oriented towards the pedestrian; parking is typically in back or off to the side so a pedestrian can walk to a store without crossing through a parking lot.  On Westridge's main commercial street, shops are surrounded by parking so a pedestrian still has to walk through a parking lot (though not so enormous a lot as many in Jacksonville!)

The dense sprawl of Westridge is certainly more appealing than where I live in Jacksonville; but it isn't New (or Old) Urbanism! 

 


Posted by lewyn at 7:45 PM EDT
Friday, 27 May 2011
blogging from PLPR conference

Have heard some interesting presentations- for example: 

*Doug Harris of UBC (University of British Columbia) spoke on takings law in Canada.  In one case, the city of Vancouver tried to prevent a railroad from breaking up a rail line by selling to users who might tear up the tracks.  The city zoned the land for transportation only, thus ensuring that the land would be useless if it was sold to nonrail users.   Is this a taking requiring compensation?  I suspect that in the USA it would be because it would make the land unsellable.   

But the Canadian Supreme Court held that a compensable taking occurred only if government regulation eliminated "all reasonable uses."  Since transportation was a reasonable use, the law stood.   Bottom line: in Canada government land use regulation is subject to much less constitutional scrutiny than in the USA.

*Judd Schechtman of Rutgers spoke about transit-oriented development in Westchester County.  After an empirical study of land near all 44 commuter rail stations in that county, he found that most land was zoned for low-density, single-use zoning, and that there was almost no land left near most stations that would be developable without a rezoning.   Only 12% of land near stations was zoned for multifamily use, 12% for commercial and only 3% for mixed use.   Bottom line: zoning encourages low-density, auto-oriented use even near NYC and even near transit stations.  


Posted by lewyn at 12:50 PM EDT
Updated: Sunday, 5 June 2011 12:07 AM EDT
Thursday, 26 May 2011
blogging from Edmonton

I am visiting Western Canada for the first time in my life, visiting Edmonton, Alberta to give a speech at a planning law conference.

I spent yesterday visiting a few neighborhoods: Old Strathcona (a student ghetto/historic area near the University of Alberta), downtown Edmonton, and Patricia Heights (an inner suburb with a big Jewish population, at least big by Edmonton's standards).

Some thoughts positive and negative:

*Great bus network- over 100 bus routes, many with just 15 minutes between buses- pretty good for a city the size of Jacksonville.  The city is also beginning a light rail system; right now it is just one line, about the size of Buffalo's system.

*Too many cul-de-sacs making it difficult to walk from one part of suburbia to another.  Edmonton's cul-de-sac dominated area begins only about four miles or so from downtown, which is a bit earlier than in many other cities.   And there is much less of a grid connecting the cul-de-sacs than in suburban Toronto.

*Streets are too wide.  In Old Stratchona the main street of the neighborhood is six lanes, which is a bit much for what is basically a pretty low-key, low-rise area.  

*Terrible airport transportation.  The only city bus serving the airport costs twice as much as other buses and runs only during rush hours.  The last morning bus leaves at 7:30 am and the airport bus does not start running again till the late afternoon.  Even Jacksonville does this better; a normal bus serves the airport, and it runs about the same hours as other city buses. 


Posted by lewyn at 11:26 AM EDT
Updated: Thursday, 26 May 2011 11:30 AM EDT
Sunday, 27 March 2011
on chain stores

A friend of mine recently told me that as he was driving through South Florida, he had the sense that all the restaurants were nationwide chains.

When I walked home from shul today, I counted eighteen restaurants.  To my knowledge, only seven* are chains (not counting local chains).  It might be that where I live (Mandarin) is atypical.

But since I live in sprawl, I doubt it.

Here's an alternative possible explanation: the restaurants with the biggest signage are Wendy's (a national chain) and Krystal (a large chain- not quite nationwide but pretty widespread in the South).  Could it be that my friend notices the chains because of their signage, but doesn't notice the local restaurants because they are wedged inconspiciously in the back of strip malls?

*Of course, I realize that some people think that seven chains (or even one chain perhaps) are too many.  But that's another discussion.


Posted by lewyn at 1:05 AM EDT
Updated: Sunday, 27 March 2011 9:44 PM EDT
Friday, 25 March 2011
one advantage of driving

A few months ago, I heard a colleague at work call Jacksonville "clean."  Since I think of Jacksonville as incredibly litter-filled, I was little surprised by this item of praise.  Friendly? Yes.  Clean?  Never.

What was he thinking?  It occurs to me that this is someone much more car-dependent than I am.  He lives in a single-family house that is within walking distance of approximately nothing, gets in his car every day and goes on the expressway, and doesn't get off it till he is almost at work.  So he doesn't see the commercial streets up close and thus doesn't have as much of a chance to see their grime and litter- he sees them from behind the window of a car moving 60 mph, and so he isn't looking at them as closely as I do when I walk.  No wonder he thinks of them as clean!


Posted by lewyn at 10:42 AM EDT
Monday, 21 March 2011
my new "Livable Cities" rankings

http://lewyn.tripod.com/livable09/

Surprise winner- Pittsburgh (though if you ignore cost of living NYC still the winner),  Syracuse an even more surprising second.

Surprise loser- LA (though again if you ignore cost of living mid-South in cellar as it was last time I created this site- Jackson MS last, then Baton Rouge, then Detroit- all high crime car oriented places but with very cheap housing).


Posted by lewyn at 9:35 AM EDT
Thursday, 17 March 2011
what really infuriates me

In my last post below, I discussed an article saying, among other things, that bike lanes "infuriate" drivers. 

I live in a neighborhood with bike lanes- and even though I don't use them, they hardly "infuriate" me when I live.  Indeed, the only emotion I feel when driving past them is wonderment that any biker would be brave enough to use them (since they are on a eight lane street with 50 mph traffic).

What does infuriate me (well, OK, mildly annoy) is this: even at 6:45 am when there is no traffic, my five mile commute takes 15 minutes to get to work (not counting time spent out of the car going through my office building).  Why?  Because in Sprawl Land where I live, traffic lights take as long as two or three minutes to change (as opposed to 30-60 minutes in more urban neighborhoods).  So what Sprawl gives through wider streets, Sprawl takes through annoying traffic lights.  

I can't pretend that I know how to improve the situation- but it does get on my nerves.


Posted by lewyn at 10:32 AM EDT
Monday, 14 March 2011
Responding to Fred Barnes' article in the Weekly Standard

A few weeks ago, Fred Barnes wrote an article in The Weekly Standard, which includes a wide variety of anti-transit arguments.  So I thought I would draft a line by line response.

 

For most Americans—make that most of mankind—the car is an instrument of mobility, flexibility, and speed. Yet officials in Washington, transportation experts, state and local functionaries, planners, and transit officials are puzzled why their efforts to lure people from their cars continue to fail.

The Obama administration is only the latest to be bewildered.

I realize that defending the often-indefensible Obama Administration isn't what I really want to do here.  But having said that, speculating about the mindset of the "Administration" (whoever that is) doesn't strike me as very good writing.  Even if there was a human being called the "Obama Administration", how would Fred Barnes know what it thinks?

It has proposed every alternative it can think of to the car: high-speed rail, light rail, mass transit in general, bikeways, bus lanes, walking paths, the return of streetcars.

By using the term "proposed" Barnes implies that these ideas were created by the Obama Administration, when most of them (other than high-speed rail) have existed and (in some cases) been federally funded for years.

And Barnes' use of the term "alternative" implies that the Administration is supporting these methods but is not supporting cars at all.  (And I'm sure some people wish this were so!)  But in fact, this is not what is actually going on.

In fact, the Obama Administration, like its predecessors, continues to propose spending far more on highways than on transit.  The FY 2010 budget favored highways by about a 4-1 ratio (see www.dot.gov/budget/2010/bib2010.htm ).  The FY 2012 budget favos highways by more than a 3-1 ratio (http://www.dot.gov/budget/2012/fy2012budgethighlights.pdf , p. 2 ). 

Even if high speed rail is combined with regular transit, the highway/transit ratio is about 70-30.  (And personally I wouldn't combine the two, since high speed rail might well involve stations out at some highway exit near nothing but other highways, thus forcing people to drive to the train).

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has embraced the “livability” movement, which is anti-car.

How so?  Does Barnes know what the livability movement is?  Since he doesn't say anything about it other than accusing it of being "anti-car" he certainly implies that he doesn't. 

To be fair, I would like to think that Barnes had a coherent argument here, but that an overzealous copy editor cut out a couple of sentences that would have made the whole thing make sense. But as it is, this sentence is just name calling.

Those are just the positive attractions. There are punitive policies, too, both active and passive. Urban growth boundaries have put a virtual wall around cities like Portland, Oregon, to prevent sprawl and the cars that come with it.

If you think urban growth boundaries are much of a "wall" you haven't been to Miami (which technically has one) or Nashville (ditto).  I think Portland's UGB has had some effect, but most such experiments are hardly "wall-like."  And even Portland certainly has plenty of drivers, and plenty of very car-dependent suburbs.

Limits in many locations on parking lots and on-street parking discourage the use of cars.

This sentence is a bit detached from reality.  In the America I live in, minimum parking requirements actually REQUIRE businesses to build parking lots.  This fact would not have been difficult to find out, since googling the term "minimum parking requirements" yields 247,000 hits (!) 

Refusal to ease traffic congestion by building more roads and inertia in the face of rising gasoline prices make driving a car less appealing, even if those policies are not pursued with that purpose in mind.

So let me get this straight: no matter HOW MUCH government spends on roads, if any driver, anywhere, is affected by even the tiniest bit of congestion, government is "anti-car" because it doesn't spend the maximum possible amount.  If this argument was applied to transit service, anyone who opposed subway cars running less than every 60 seconds would be anti-subway! ?

Restricted lanes for buses and bikes often infuriate urban drivers.

Is there any evidence for this statement?  Either this was sloppily writen or sloppily edited, since it should have been followed by some.  Besides, if restricted lanes for bikes and buses infuriate drivers, does this mean that restricted lanes for cars (aka limited-access highways) infuriate bus riders and bike riders?    Well, it could have been worse- at least Barnes didn't say that sidewalks infuritate drivers! 

President Obama and LaHood have also tried persuasion and hype. In his State of the Union, Obama touted high-speed trains accessible to 80 percent of Americans, as if the country should be clamoring for them. LaHood envisions soothingly “livable” neighborhoods with “affordable housing next to walking paths and biking paths.”

None of this has worked. Nor did President Bush’s warning about a nation “addicted to oil” or the Clinton administration’s support of technology-driven ideas like “smart highways,” which became a code for building fewer roads or lanes.

Worked at what?  If the goal was to prevent driving, government sure has a funny way of showing it.  Government spends hundreds of billions of dollars on building and improving roads ($144b in state and local expenditures alone as of 2007, see http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2011/tables/11s0434.pdf ), and builds streets that are so wide no sane person would cross them on foot, forces businesses to build equally gigantic parking lots, and uses zoning laws to force the creation of communities that are so thinly populated that many people can't walk to the nearest store.  Sounds pretty anti-anti-car to me! 

(NOTE: for a more detailed discussion of anti-pedestrian, anti-transit regulation see http://works.bepress.com/lewyn/39/ )

The simple fact is most people prefer to travel by car because it’s convenient, which mass transit rarely is.

Classic example of a self-fulfilling prophecy.  If public policies make walking, biking and transit use inconvenient, it becomes inconvenient. 

They can go from place to place directly, choosing their own route and schedule. They can do so day and night. They can stop as frequently as they wish for any reason (do errands, drop off kids, etc.). This phenomenon has a name: freedom.

Wrong for a variety of reasons:

 1.  If "freedom" means an absence of government regulation, you are hardly "Free" in a car. The government builds roads for you, and you have to go where the road is.  Moreover, you are governed by a web of government regulation (e.g. car insurance mandates, licensing laws, lights, speed limits) designed to protect you from other drivers and vice versa.

2.  The kind of policies Barnes seems to favor (more highways, and no accommodations for nondrivers) help to create a society where people can't do anything without driving.  This hardly seems like "freedom"- indeed, it seems to me to restrict consumer choice, thus making us less free.

Then again, if we are more free driving, maybe Barnes thinks we should be forced to be free! 

Subways made sense decades ago—in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago—when jobs were concentrated downtown. Now 90 percent of jobs are outside the downtown in the top 50 urban areas, where mass transit can’t compete with cars. Now the average commute by car takes half the time of mass transit. And the supposed cost benefits of mass transit, based on the old center city model, aren’t applicable to decentralized metropolitan areas. 

Again, the old self-fulfilling prophecy: build highways to develop the suburbs, and then if someone complains about the negative side effects of that, you will be told it is too late because society is too suburbanized to change anything!

 

Since 1982, when the Highway Trust Fund began to pay for non-highway projects, more than $200 billion in federal dollars has been spent on urban mass transit. Total spending at all levels of government has reached $1 trillion (in inflation-adjusted 2009 dollars). The result: Transit’s market share of urban passenger miles has fallen from 2.5 percent to 1.6 percent. In Los Angeles—where two subway lines, three light rail lines, and one busway have been built—the ridership on mass transit is lower than it was in 1985.

In other words, we've tried to help transit and it hasn't worked. This argument is a bit misleading for two reasons.  First, for the reasons stated above, government has actually sabotaged public transit.    (For a more detailed discussion see http://works.bepress.com/lewyn/10/ ).  

Second, in fact transit ridership has risen over the past two decades, from 8.7 billion trips in 1990 to over 10 billion more recently. (See http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2011/tables/11s1114.pdf )

(NOTE: I have deleted the rest of Barnes' article, which is about Washington, DC; since I have only lived in the DC area for about 5 of the past 25 years, I don't really know enough to judge his arguments).

Posted by lewyn at 10:34 PM EDT
Updated: Thursday, 17 March 2011 10:27 AM EDT
Friday, 11 March 2011
learning a little about municipal finance

Last night I attended a budget workshop run by the Jacksonville Community Council (www.jcci.org).  We were given a list of budget items and their cost, and asked to rank them after visiting various agency heads at different tables.  (There will be more workshops, see http://www3.coj.net/my-jax-budget.aspx for dates and places).

The most interesting part was a speech by Mayor John Peyton.  He said that, despite public focus on tax increases and wasteful spending, that Jacksonville actually taxes and spends much less per capita than other Florida cities.  Our millage rates are lower than those of other Florida big cities, and our spending per capita is lower in a variety of areas.* (He didn't explain whether this was because the city provides less than its Florida peers, or whether city-county consolidation has given the city a bigger tax base, thus enabling it to be more efficient).

He also explained why the city is nevertheless in fiscal trouble.  Two-thirds of city spending goes to (1) public safety and (2) obligations such as complying with various contracts and paying pensions.  In particular, pension costs have soared from $24 milion in 2000 to $263m today- an increase more than twice the city's $60 million budget hole.  Pensions have become more expensive partially because of bad political decisions (increasing pensions to gain union support) but also because the city planned to fund the pensions through investments that have not been tremendously successful. 

*Statistics available at http://www3.coj.net/My-Jax-Budget/How-We-Compare/Millage-Rate.aspx

and other links on the same website.


Posted by lewyn at 4:18 PM EST
Updated: Friday, 11 March 2011 4:20 PM EST
Saturday, 5 March 2011
New planetizen blog post (on Census '10)
http://www.planetizen.com/node/48372 

Posted by lewyn at 10:18 PM EST
new book reviews on amazon.com
I just finished two books on urbanism (Foreclosing the Dream by William Lucy and Sprawl Repair Manual by Galina Talicheva and numerous contributors).  Reviews are at Amazon.com.  

Posted by lewyn at 10:16 PM EST
Wednesday, 2 March 2011
The Weekly Standard's failed defense of roadbuilding

An article in this week's Weekly Standard tries to argue that yes, highways really do reduce congestion.  (story at 

http://www.weeklystandard.com/articles/more-highways-less-congestion_552548.html?page=3 )

The article states:  "Between 1982 and 2007, Phoenix decided to build the highways it should have had in the first place. They added so much asphalt that, according to the research firm Demographia, the city’s highway-lane-miles per capita grew by 205 percent. During that period, highway-vehicle-miles-traveled per capita increased by only 12 percent. And, like magic, traffic congestion plummeted." (emphasis mine)

I was curious, so I looked at the Texas Transportation Institute's Urban Mobility Survey.  TTI gets criticized quite a bit by smart growth supporters,* so it is a middle-of-the-road, if not downright pro-road, source.  TTI's data for Phoenix is here:

 http://mobility.tamu.edu/ums/congestion_data/tables/phoen.pdf

 In 1982, the average Phoenix peak-hour commuter lost 16 gallons and 24 hours yearly to congestion.  In 2007, he/she lost 33 gallons and 41 hours.  This is not "plummeting" congestion- it is increased congestion. **

Its just simple arithmetic- 41 is more than 24.  33 is more than 16. 

 

*http://www.ceosforcities.org/news/entry/2958

**Though one could argue that congestion increased faster in other regions.  This claim, if true, would support the article's argument but it definitely would be quite a bit less sexy.


Posted by lewyn at 8:24 PM EST
Tuesday, 1 March 2011
Back to the City, Part II: Chicago

Of course, there's been a lot of chatter in the blogosphere about Chicago losing population- but what you won't read as much about is where Chicago gained and lost population.

Charts are at

http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/ct-met-census-new-map-20110225,0,7106678.story

If you don't feel like clicking the link, here's the summary:

Downtown Chicago gained lots of population.

Neighborhoods far from downtown lost population.

Again, the evidence suggests: even in population-losing cities, people want more urban living, the more urban the better.


Posted by lewyn at 9:12 AM EST
Monday, 28 February 2011
cities are back (sort of)

Lots of publicity in urban planning blogs about the fact that some older cities are still losing population even in the 2000s.  For example, the post below discusses St. Louis:

 http://nextstl.com/urban-living/the-exodus-continues-city-of-st-louis-loses-29k-residents-2000-2010 

But in the blog there's a chart showing which census tracts in the city gained and lost population.

Big winners: the most urban parts of St. Louis.  St. Louis's once-desolate downtown gained population in huge numbers, and near-downtown areas like Soulard, Lafayette Square and the Central West End gained population.

The losers?  The bad neighborhoods on the North Side and the more pseudo-suburban areas in the South Side.  

So what does this tell me?  That even in St. Louis, a city that has lost population faster than Detroit over the past few decades, the MOST urban areas are gaining. 

Even in St. Louis, people want to live in the city in greater numbers each year, as long as the environment is fairly city-like (i.e. downtown or close to it).  The only thing that hasn't happened is that gentrification hasn't trickled down to the less urban neighborhoods further out. 


Posted by lewyn at 2:15 PM EST
Monday, 20 September 2010
The Good Old Days

From a 12th-c. Egyptian Jewish prayer book found in the Cairo Geniza:

 "We also pray for all Muslims, males and females, who dwell in their country, their sons and daughters, male and female believers. May God hasten the healing of their sick, gather in their dispersed ones and let loose and liberate those who have been taken captive. May He spread over them the tabernacle of His peace."

 


Posted by lewyn at 9:56 AM EDT
Tuesday, 14 September 2010
updates

My Car-Free in Jacksonville webpage has been updated to reflect numerous blog posts, at

www.carfreeinjax.com

Also I have some new urban planning blog posts at the Planetizen web site, at

http://www.planetizen.com/blog/63

Posted by lewyn at 10:41 PM EDT
Tuesday, 24 August 2010
well done JTA

Now that I'm back in Jax I have been riding the buses, and I have been noticing that they are more crowded than usual.  When I lived in Jacksonville from 2006-09, buses were frequently almost empty, and I never had to sit next to anyone (as opposed to being able to gobble up two seats).

Now, mostly-empty buses are less frequent, and one or two times I have actually had to sit next to someone (which I don't particularly like). 

I started to wonder, is it my imagination or has ridership gone up? 

Its not my imagination; while ridership nationally has gone down (I suspect due to reduced service arising out of local governments' fiscal problems) JTA ridership went up over the past year (see

http://www.apta.com/resources/statistics/Documents/Ridership/2010_q1_ridership_APTA.pdf )

In addition, JTA's strategy of consolidating routes probably made some routes more crowded (which I do not like so much, of course).


Posted by lewyn at 9:35 AM EDT
Tuesday, 17 August 2010
Book Review

Normally, my book reviews are limited to amazon.com (unless they are long enough for a scholarly publication).  But the publishers of a recent book asked me to spread the word about it, so below are my thoughts.

The book is What We See (published by New Village Press), a collection of essays based loosely on the work of Jane Jacobs (most known for her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, although she wrote numerous other books). 

Many of the essays are quite unimpressive, stringing together clichés or telling me what I already knew. However, a few are noteworthy.  I was engaged by: 

*Ray Suarez’s overview of suburban sprawl.  Suarez points out that parents often move to suburbia for the benefit of children, but in some ways this experiment has failed, as suburbs “required more adult oversight, not less … scrubbing the environment of outsiders heightened stranger anxiety rather than alleviating it.” 

*Robert Sirman’s essay is one of the better examples of how Jacobs’ views can be applied in unfamiliar contexts.  Sirman helped expand a ballet school in Toronto; rather than turning the school inward, away from the street, Sirman sought to revitalize the street- for example by supporting a nearby restaurant’s attempt to open an outdoor patio, on the grounds that it would provide “eyes on the street” and thus make it seem less deserted. 

*Hillary Brown’s discussion of how “mixed use” can be applied to unfamiliar contexts- not just putting apartments above shops, but also adding various types of infrastructure together (for example, a Dutch bridge that accommodates not only pedestrian and vehicle traffic, but tramlines and utilities). 

*Clare Cooper Marcus’s discussion of attempts to combine the advantages of cul-de-sacs with the advantages of grids.  (This essay was, however, far too pro-cul-de-sac for my taste, downplaying the reduced walkability of cul-de-sacs by seemingly taking it for granted that children would have no place to walk to outside their own block). 

*Saskia Sassen’s discussion of regional economic diversity, in which she suggests that cities’ economic specializations are deeply rooted in their early 20th-century history, and thus seeks to explain why (for example) New York is more dependent on finance than Chicago.  (This essay, I thought, could have benefited from more data).

 


Posted by lewyn at 3:02 PM EDT
Updated: Tuesday, 17 August 2010 3:03 PM EDT
Sunday, 2 May 2010
another long-ago adventure: NYC housing, summer 2004

In 2004, I taught a summer session at Cardozo Law School in NYC.  Below is an account I wrote of my housing adventures.

I visited 18 places, made 6 offers, and spent about two months on and off looking. My original plan was to find a doorman building for under $1000. Needless to say I got neither (though since I am staying for only a month I can afford more than I thought anyhow, and besides it is pretty close to 1000- basically 1000 plus utilities). Here's the chronology:
Mid May: Make first visit; initially was planning to stay from June 1 to mid August.
Visited one place on Wall St (45 Wall) that I really liked, and a few hours later emailed my first offer. (I had been told that they were not sure whether they actually needed a roommate yet, as one roommate's summer plans were unclear). That night my offer was rejected because the roommate in question decided to come to NYC in June instead of September, so they really did not need another one after all. The other places (in Ft Greene, Astoria and Weehawken) I was underwhelmed by- all lacked a/c (or there was a/c in a living room that was not close enough to cool the bedroom). Lesson learned (lesson #1): ask about a/c before you visit a place if you insist on that.
After that weekend, it occurs to me that I may not need a place in June after all because I would only be in NYC for 8 or 10 days in June (could stay with friends for most of it). So what I decide to do is limit myself to day trips or places that looked real good.
A bit later in May- Visit a place in West New York (near Weehawken, a inner ring suburb with low crime rate and beautiful view of Manhattan skyline) which turned out to be awful. I didn't realize that going a few blocks inland is the difference between good and not so good areas. Lesson #2 learned: In Jersey stay near the water, because just as in NYC a few blocks can make a huge difference
A bit later still in May- Visit another place in Weehawken (doorman loft bldg, on south side of city towards Hoboken) that I adore. Unfortunately the roommate who is showing the place is not the roommate who is making the business arrangements; the latter is off in Alabama doing summer theatre. A couple of hours after my visit, I begin negotiations with an email, stating that I want the place but need to know whether it was available till the 15th (since the roommate showing the place did not know of this fact). I go home to wait
for a reply, and call the Ala. roommate telling him to read my email. Two days later, I get an email from the latter saying he rented the apartment to someone who had looked at the place earlier (and who presumably had emailed him roughly simultaneously). (PS I do not criticize Ala. roommate; it sounds like he did exactly what I would have done in his place).
So I count this as rejected offer #2.
first couple of days in June- Now semester is seriously beginning. I visit a couple of places - one in Ditmas Park (a part of Brooklyn with beautiful single family Victorian homes and seriously decrepit apt bldgs) and one in Upper West Side. Ditmas Park place is tempting on paper- apt all to myself w/security guard in front, all for only 750 or something like that. Downsides: lessor wants it rented all the way till end of August (which reduces my fiscal benefit) and no a/c in apt. I walk through the neighborhood at night, get VERY mixed vibes especially as I approach nearest subway stop (Newkirk on B line I think). I decide to get up VERY early next morning, visit second nearest subway line (Foster on F line) and walk through. Foster area seems much nicer than Newkirk and as I approach apt am seriously thinking of taking it. Then I talk to someone walking her dog outside building, and pepper her with questions. She has almost nothing positive to say about the building or its management or the neighborhood- drug deals go on near Newkirk, some of the apartment houses near the one I was interested in are full of scuzzy people, and worst of all, the management is hostile to sublessees. I realize that this woman has saved me from a terrible fate and thank her. That night I visit a place on the Upper West Side- doorman building but not in great shape, and I would have to have a/c-less room and limited kitchen privileges, because a 1 BR has been cut up into one room with the kitchen and dining room (where my seventysomething Russian roomie would live) and I get the bedroom. I am glad to leave. Lesson learned: even in doorman buildings you cannot count on air conditioned. Lesson learned #2: roommates are better situations in some ways than pure sublease. Why? (1) landlord might hate sublessees, and use as excuse to throw out everyone and charge higher rent; (2) (and this isn't really related to Ditmas Park thing) it generally occurred to me that if a pipe bursts you want someone who can fight for you with the landlord, since the landlord is not going to be all that interested in doing much for a sublessee who will only be there for a month.
June 8-9: My original plan is to visit a place on the 8th (Tue.) in Riverdale that looks wonderful on paper, then take it if I see no negatives. But I learn at last minute that roommate has to work from 8 AM to 10 PM that day; she says let's talk Wed. So I make other arrangements- see places in Soho (nice but only till 8-1, and sublessor's attitude towards pets seemed quite grudging), Union City (nasty nasty nasty), and finally a place in Jersey City (the Newport complex) that I really like. Everything seemed wonderful- roommate very nice, Newport very nice. But Riverdale seemed so tempting - major Jewish area with at least one very interesting and unusual congregation I have read about, while Jersey City very non Jewish by NYC standards (though it still has a couple of congregations- probably fairly Jewish by Atlanta standards!) Plus, would be Newport roommate was going away for next couple of days so I figured if I waited 24 hours no one else would get Newport place.
So what happens on Wed June 9? I spend all day waiting for a phone or email from the Riverdale lady. I never hear anything. I leave phone messages and still never hear anything. (I gather she doesn't have phone or email access where she works, or maybe she suffered some unfortunate accident, Heaven forbid).
By Wed 9 PM I give up on Riverdale, call Newport person. But her cell is off, so I hear nothing.
So on Thursday morning (June 9) I email . . .
offer #3 to Newport person right before I go to airport for nephew's bar mitzvah. I figure she hasn't been in Jersey City since I visited her so how could anyone else have snapped up apt? She emails me back saying that though I am still her first choice she has made other appointments. And on Friday the 10th she emails me saying that a coworker wanted the room, and that (presumably as a matter of office politics) she could not say no to him. (PS Again, I would have done the same in her place). Lesson learned: If you see a place you like, MAKE AN OFFER IMMEDIATELY (or at least within several hours). DO NOT WAIT A DAY. EVEN FOR ROOMMATE SITUATIONS, EVEN ON THE JERSEY SIDE, COMPETITION IS STIFF.
So then I spend five days in Atlanta (bar mitzvah etc.), come back the night of the 15th. I only have a couple of days to look because I come the weekend I am going to Carbondale, Ill. to look for apts THERE for the fall. (Of course, I have no memorable stories about that experience- in a town of 20,000 there are simply not that many choices, especially for people with pets who don't want ten times as much space as they need).
So all I really have to play with are June 16 (Wed) and 17 (Thurs.) Wed. night I visit a place in Battery Park City which I like. Brimming with confidence, I wave my checkbook at the roommates and make . . .
offer #4. The roommates respond that they have other people to talk to and will make no decisions till the weekend; they are in the proverbial catbird seat because it is such a desirable place. Lesson: Even if you make an offer it might not be accepted, because roommates may feel free to take some time to pick the person they like best.
On Thurs. I visit a place on the Upper West Side (OK but doesn't go all the way through 8-15; also visiting was a waste of time because even though roommate who showed me apt thought pets were OK, he learns otherwise after talking with other roommate). (Also visit place in Long Island City, but they only wanted long term roommates; we had a slight communications breakdown) Then I visit a very nice place (the Pennmark in Midtown) and make
... offer #5. Next morning they accept. So as of June 18, I think all is well - starting around July 4 I have a place.
But it isn't. The departing Pennmark roommate was closing on a condo, said it would be done by early July so I would move in long before my Philly lease expired July 20. On June 30 I get email from Pennmark roommate saying there has been a snag; a document needed for closing was not available and the seller needs a couple of weeks to find it. But at this time he still had some hope of closing before the 20th. On July 4 I get email saying whole situation is kaplooey and that I should find other arrangements.
So by this time I am desperate- I only have 16 days before Phila. lease goes poof, and by going through craigslist.org (key source of potential deals) I notice most people not only don't want a roommate ENDING August 15, many of them want someone STARTING August 15. So between July 4 and July 11 I sent out 125 emails (only 4 of which led to appointments, though 2 or 3 others would have had I not settled on a place). By contrast in May my email to appointment ratio was one out of ten, because a lot more people are willing to rent to someone for two and a half months than for one month. And I am looking at different places: while in May I wanted either doorman buildings or buildings in one or two super safe suburbs, now I just want anything in a relatively nice area. So on July 7-8 I see four places (one in Upper East Side, one in Upper West Side, one in Harlem, one in Stuyvestant Town in far East Village - first two are walkups, only Harlem is doorman building). Instead of making an offer, I ask whether they have additional appointments (subtle code for "are you ready to make a commitment if I am?". Everyone has additional appointments.
On Friday the 9th I email UES roommate saying essentially "You are my first choice" ...
which of course is offer #6. Since she has option of picking someone long term, I make point of saying that in mid August zillions of people will be graduating from law and business schools, so it is not like she has sacrificed her chances of finding long term roommate. I expect to get a rejection email on Sunday or Monday but instead first thing Monday morning she says yes by email, and suggests we speak about an appointment on Tuesday to pay rent checks etc.
We don't get to speak on phone till Monday at 1, and she says she has to fly out of town at 8:30 (which means at airport at 6) (We had originally thought she would go out of town later in the week). I realize it is now or never for both of us. I run to the train station, take NJ Transit train to NYC (Amtrak would have been faster but it is SO expensive and I think I have plenty of time), do not get into NYC till 5:10. Cabs no good for me because it is rush hour, raining and I don't have the cash anyhow. So I take subway, planning to go up west side subway line from railroad station (at 33rd and 8, very far west) then crosstown to apartment. But disaster strikes- my subway train turns out to be an express train and at 5:40 I am at 125 st and STILL on the west side. I take train back down to 86 st, take crosstown bus, and get off it exactly at 6. Am terrified that I have missed roommate, especially since I call her as soon as I get off bus and don't get a response. I walk to apartment, thinking terribly gloomy thoughts. At 6:05 or so I get to apartment on 83rd st.
At this point, the story SHOULD say: she was at the door packing luggage in her cab to the airport, and I gave her the check (and she gave me the keys) right as she was about to climb into the cab to the airport. That would be a great story and a fittingly suspenseful end to the whole apartment drama.
But the real story is more boring: her flight was delayed till 11 PM or something, so we had a leisurely visit. I gave her a check, dropped off some clothes, and went home to Philadelphia to do some more packing.

I wound up living in the UES with this woman for the grand total of a month (from mid July to mid August). 

 


Posted by lewyn at 11:26 PM EDT

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