Patrick Sisson - Writer, Journalist, Cultural Documentarian, Music Lover



January 2018

In 1969, William H. “Holly” Whyte decided to analyze, and eventually decode, New York City’s rambunctious street life. A famed author, Whyte, along with a handful of collaborators, was recruited by the city’s planning commission to set up cameras and surreptitiously track human activity.

Whyte and his team spent countless afternoons filming parks, plazas, and crosswalks, and even more time counting, crossing out, analyzing, and quantifying footage. Notations were made for how people met and shook hands. Pedestrian movement was mapped on pads of graph paper. To get accurate assessments of activity at a street corner, Whyte’s researchers manually screened people caught waiting for lights to change. Imagine how much time it took to figure out that at the garden of St. Bartholomew’s Church, the average density at lunch time is 12 to 14 people per 1,000 square feet.

Observe a city street corner, crosswalk, or plaza long enough, and eventually, energy and entropy give way to understanding. The public greeted Whyte’s work with curiosity and amusement. “One thing he has discovered is where people schmooze,” deadpanned a 1974 New York Times article. “The other thing he has discovered is that they like it.”

Whyte’s Street Life Project was a revelation. Whyte offered nuggets not of gold, but of actionable data, which helped shape city policy: peak versus off-peak activity, average densities, walking patterns. Called “one of America’s most influential observers of the city,” Whyte’s insights and hard-earned wisdom informed New York’s 1969 city plan, helped revise its zoning code, and turned once-squalid Bryant Park into a prized public space.

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February 2018

LOS ANGELES, CA – NOVEMBER 19: Rebecca Ruggles, Environments Interior Design Lead, Airbnb, speaks onstage during Interior Design Tips at The Theatre at Ace Hotel during Airbnb Open LA – Day 3 on November 19, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Todd Williamson/Getty Images for Airbnb)

Ask Harvey Hernandez about his upcoming real estate project in Kissimmee, Florida, and he’ll respond with the easy charm and outsized boasts endemic to his industry. The 324-unit complex near central Florida’s Disney World, the first of a string of tourism-related developments springing up across the U.S. under the Niido brand name, will merely “change the way people live.”

“It’s the reason we get up in the morning,” says Hernandez, who once used a Tesla X as the sweetener in a deal to sell his multimillion-dollar Brickell condo.

“People will imitate it, see the value we provide, and come up with their own iterations,” he says. “And guess what? Nobody else is doing this. That makes us very, very excited.”

Boutique hotels and glitzy apartment buildings come and go. What makes Hernandez so excited is the project’s advisor, Airbnb.

Set to open this spring, Niido represents the first of what many tourism analysts believe will be a popular real estate play: buildings customized for home-sharing sites. Each one-, two-, or three-bedroom unit, ranging from 750 to 1,200 square feet, will be located within a garden-style complex featuring keyless entry, run by master hosts who will take care of maintenance and cleaning. Tenants will be able to rent, and then share, their units in a “seamless, open, convenient, and safe way” for up to 180 nights a year.

Niido is also an example of the increased professionalization of Airbnb, which makes it easier for larger landlords and property owners to prosper. There may always be a market for cheap lodging in someone’s spare room, but increasingly, Airbnb and the services that have sprung up around it are set up to favor property owners with more real estate and greater resources.

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December 2017

Hyatt Regency Atlanta; 1989

It’s fair to say Andrew Young understands the South, and the city of Atlanta, better than most. A longtime politician, pastor, activist, author, and ambassador, Young successfully ran for mayor at the behest of Coretta Scott King in 1981, earning the right to boast that he led a city that had once put him in jail for civil disobedience. With such a deep background in politics and civil rights, he knows exactly how far Atlanta, especially the downtown, has come since the ‘60s. “When I moved to Atlanta in 1961, the tallest building was about 20 stories,” he said. “There was almost nothing downtown. It was as if the city still hadn’t quite recovered from Sherman burning it down.”

A decade later, parts of downtown were beginning to buzz again, he says, thanks in part to the work of a maverick architect and developer named John Portman, Jr. In an era which saw Americans flee cities towards the endless sprawl of safe, ready-built suburban housing, Portman placed bold bets on urban revitalization. “Architecture is about life, and it all comes back to people,” he said. Decades before the urban exodus flipped into today’s mad rush for downtown real estate, the designer chose to redevelop in neighborhoods others had written off.

His urban projects were megastructures, massive developments, shopping centers and hotels such as the Peachtree Center, Merchandise Mart, Peachtree Plaza, and the revolutionary Hyatt Regency Atlanta. Opened in 1967, the stunning space blew apart (and blew open) previous notions of boxy, rectanlinear hotel design. The huge, open 22-story atrium was something very different, a blend of Italian piazza, neofuturist monumentality, and soaring balconies lined with ivy. Guests in the ‘60s lined up by the hundreds just to ride the glorious glass elevators—at $35,000 per cab, the custom systems were the most expensive in the world.

Portman Hyatt Regency Atlanta
Hyatt Regency Atlanta, interior, atrium, lobby, public spaces and Le Parasol Lounge, 1967
 © Alexandre Georges, 1967, courtesy The Portman Archives, LLC

Famous hotelier Conrad Hilton, who rejected an opportunity to partner on the project, said Portman’s idea was “a concrete monster that wouldn’t fly.” But for guests, the trip up the glass elevator was absolutely thrilling. According to a New York Times article about the hotel’s opening, the ride “gives one the feeling, at least the first time around, that he is an astronaut soaring up a gantry at Cape Canaveral, if not already in the first stage after blast off.”

John Portman
John C. Portman, Jr. on podium roof of Atlanta Marriott Marquis with Peachtree Center in background, 1988
 © Flip Chalfant, 1988 courtesy The Portman Archives, LLC

Before Portman, “we had no downtown Atlanta,” says Young. “There was very little street life, very few restaurants. Now the Polaris Restaurant, the blue dome that sits atop the Hyatt, has become a symbol of a new Atlanta.”

John Portman’s work from the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s can be found across the country, but the common denominator is how the mixed-use projects sought to bring energy back to cities at a time when many were turning their backs. Portman and his firm would go on to create a series of projects with massive atria, public art, and thrilling interiors, including the Renaissance Center in Detroit, a city-within-a-city on the riverfront (1977) and the Hyatt Regency San Francisco (1973) and the sprawling Embarcadero Center in the Bay Area.

Years later, Portman’s work often gets criticized for the way these grand interiors wall themselves off from the rest of the city, turning their back on the sidewalk. One critic called one of Portman’s project “a temple of hermetic urbanism” and “self-contained sci-fi,” a somewhat fitting comment, since so many of his buildings have provided futuristic backdrops for films.

Peachtree Plaza
Peachtree Center; 1967, with Gas Light (North) Tower construction almost complete
 © Clyde May, 1967, courtesy The Portman Archives, LLC

But Portman didn’t set out to shut people out. He spoke of decongesting the city, creating new town squares and meeting places, and bringing people together, all at a time when the stereotype of urban America could be summarized in the bombed out, Bronx-is-burning hyperbole played up in the press. He looked at his Marriott Marquis project in New York’s Times Square, developed when the area was still considered seedy, as a sort of “urban lung” in the midst of a crowded, hectic neighborhood.

“Sometimes, I’m not sure where the idea of his project having an inward focus comes from,” says Mack Scogin, a principal at Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects and teacher at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. “His ideas are all about enriching the urban environment, of contributing to and even re-inventing the urban fabric.”

Hyatt San Francisco
Hyatt Regency San Francisco, Embarcadero Center, interior, atrium, sculpture ‘Eclipse’ by Charles O. Perry, 1973
 © Alexandre Georges, 1973, courtesy The Portman Archives, LLC

Portman’s vision for the future may be singular, but it always looked at the city with optimism.  A.J. Robinson, a former President of Portman Holdings who currently works for Central Atlanta Progress, says his boss believed in revitalization.

“He thinks of the central core as being the heart of the city, and if the heart functions well, and circulates its energy out to the rest of the city, it’s doing its job,” he says. “They older city centers didn’t quite need a transfusion, but needed to be enhanced.”

Portman changed the look of Atlanta, and other cities around the world, by doing things a little differently. After serving in the Navy and graduating from Georgia Tech in 1950, Portman was drawn towards architecture, and started his own firm in 1953, John Portman and Associates (it’s now part of the Portman Family of Companies, which also includes Portman Holdings). He quickly came to the conclusion that that the best way to make an impact was to be both an architect and developer, as well as a self-starter.

Beginning with his Merchandise Mart (now AmericasMart) in 1961 and Peachtree Center in 1965, he began reshaping a vast swath of downtown Atlanta; Peachtree Center now encompasses 10 buildings and 19.6 million square feet, including skyways. Architects at the time were displeased that he was operating as both developer and designer, creator and client, and the AIA and other organizations gave him a cold shoulder.

Portman SketchWestin Peachtree Plaza rendering 1972. © Dan Harmon The Portman Archives, LLC

But Portman, an “artist and architect,” felt the unique arrangement allowed him to pursue a progressive view of Atlanta and take risks, building projects that others couldn’t. Decades later, architecture critic Paul Goldberger agrees with Portman’s assessment, noting in the film John Portman: A Life of Building that his work and success encouraged developers to be more risky, and champion more unique buildings.

“He pulled himself into the development business,” says Young. “Nobody gave him $100 million to get started. He scrambled his way up the ladder.”

As Portman began creating some of the big developments and megastructures that would define his career, a side project for the local public housing authority provided a template for some of his most revolutionary work. Commissioned to build the Antoine Graves senior center for the city of Atlanta in 1965, Portman developed a people-centric approach to design. Residents expressed interest in adding a porch, which they treasured as a space for socialization. Portman took the outside in and added a massive atrium to the core of the structure, preserving a space for interaction, with the added benefit of increasing shade and air circulation. This project became a model for the Hyatt Hotel.

“The front porch was the lifeblood of seniors in that area,” says Young. “I liked the sensitivity he showed with that project.”

This concept would be central to Portman’s expanding body of work, including the Hyatt Regency San Francisco, an inverted pyramid that still stands as the world’s largest hotel lobby, The Westin Bonaventure in Los Angeles, and the Renaissance Center in Detroit, filled with vast, cylindrical common spaces more futurist than anything coming off the assembly line of the city’s carmakers.

Portman, an architect as well as an artist, whose sculptures occasionally decorated his buildings, had a unique vision of cinematic interiors. Blending the monumentality of Louis Kahn, the organic shapes of Frank Lloyd Wright, as well as a healthy appreciation for the European model of a town square, he created interiors that still stand as some of the best physical examples of what could be called a retro-futurist aesthetic (this forward-thinking vision explains why, beginning in the ‘80s, the Portman firm has had such great success in budding metropolises in China and Asia).

Portman SketchAtlanta Marriott Marquis rendering © Dan Harmon, 1979, Portman Archives, LLC

What sets his projects apart is a focus on movement. When he was asked by the New York Times to define his early influences, he named Tivoli Gardens, the Champs-Élysées, and Alhambra, public spaces and palaces built with flow and progression in mind.

“Buildings serve the human being, not the other way around,” he told The Atlantic. “I don’t think architects have spent enough time thinking holistically about how architecture affects people.”

In 1976, Portman wrote “The Architect as Developer,” discussing how modern city planning had failed, and how the architect needs to re-engage the public. Many have said his buildings don’t quite living up to this vision, and create distinct, privately controlled space. The Renaissance Center stands apart and separate from the surroundings. The Bonaventure in Los Angeles and its series of skyways can be a maze to navigate. In New York City, his Marriott Marquis in Times Square, which was completed in 1985, towers above the square without truly connecting, with a lobby and bar suspended on the 8th floor. However, some critics, including Goldberger, who severely criticized it when it opened, have noted that the momentum for redevelopment that has now led to increased investment in the pedestrian experience around the neighborhood only happened after the Marquis opened.

While Portman’s architecture has been influential—he basically invented the atrium hotel, and his firm currently works on projects around the globe—his impact on city planning and urbanism can perhaps best be understood as an optimistic vision for its time. When others were walking away from downtowns, Portman said that we don’t have to ditch them, we can rebuild them.

“His buildings were designed to make people secure and comfortable, but they were also inspirational,” says Young.

The lobbies, atria, and megaprojects Portman created were cities within cities, stunning versions of a new type of town square. In some ways, his work can be appreciated for delivering an early preview of the urban future, though all too often in self-contained episodes.

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January 2018

For cities starved of new housing, staring down an affordability crisis, and desperate for density, the opportunity to inexpensively add housing units seems to good to be true. But that’s the promise made by proponents of accessory dwelling units, or ADUs: small structures, typically totaling under 1,000 square feet, built on the property of existing homeowners.

“There’s lots of free land out there,” says Ira Belgrade, who has become an advocate and consultant for ADU construction in Los Angeles and runs the site YimbyLA. “And it’s in people’s backyards. But people have this mindset of ‘not in my backyard, or my neighbor’s backyard, or even my block.’”

One of the few housing types that’s primarily completed and developed by amateurs—and, until recently, often constructed off the books—ADUs, small backyard housing units also known as granny flats, have seen a recent boom. The affordable housing shortage has spurred increased advocacy for ADUs, especially in California, where detached single-family homes make up 56.4 percent of the overall housing stock. Recent legislation in the state created a sharp rise in their construction. In Los Angeles, the number of applications for ADU construction rose from 80 in 2016 to 1,980 through November 1, 2017.

“The affordable housing crisis across the U.S. is going to propel the movement forward,” says Kol Peterson, a Portland-based ADU expert and author of a new book, Backdoor Revolutiona guide to ADU development.

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January 2018

In the run-up to the Super Bowl, Minneapolis’s new billion-dollar stadium, a glass-fronted warship docked in a developing part of downtown, will be the subject of broadcast profiles and b-roll. But move the cameras a few blocks in any direction, and viewers would see why boosters believe the stadium’s benefits go well beyond the big game.

U.S. Bank Stadium is just one feature of the city’s ongoing Big Build initiative, a public-private project bringing $2 billion in investment to a 120-square-block area called East Town. By anchoring the stadium downtown as opposed to in a sea of suburban parking lots, the pitch goes, it’s not just another sports arena: It’s a catalyst for infill, affordable housing, riverfront development, and new transit hubs.

It’s the newest twist on the debate over sports stadiums and economic development. Can a new stadium not just generate development, but actually be a good deal for the city? The best case study may be on the West Coast. In Sacramento, where the NBA’s Kings and their tech-savvy owner Vivek Ranadivé just constructed the league’s most advanced arena, the solar-powered Golden 1 Center, new economic-impact reports suggest the stadium has been a boon to California’s capital.

Ever since breaking ground in 2014, the Kings’s new home and the world’s first LEED-Platinum indoor sports stadium has attracted development, dollars, and economic activity to what’s now being branded as DoCo, or Downtown Commons. According to a recent analysis by the Downtown Sacramento Partnership (DSP), in just its first year the arena hosted 1.6 million guests, who spent more than $71 million. Employment downtown has grown 38 percent since arena construction began. It’s also at the center of a constellation of new construction, surrounded by 32 new projects, part of nearly “$2 billion in urban investments in the region’s core since 2015,” reads the DSP report.

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February 2018

Are economic development megadeals worth the price—and the risk? With cities trying to outbid each other for Amazon’s new headquarters, it’s worth examining potential cautionary tales.

Analysts say the recent Foxconn deal in Wisconsin, a blockbuster, multibillion-dollar investment in bringing more manufacturing to the state, is indicative of the sad state of big-ticket economic development deals, and even more tragic in light of the cheaper, more effective options available.

“Cities feel like there’s no alternative,” says Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First, a Washington, D.C., policy center that promotes accountability in economic development. “They’ve grown up in a corporate dominated site-selection system, where public officials are playing poker with a weak hand. Their role is to wait for companies to come and knock on the door, and put as much money on the table as possible. We think HQ2 is a teachable moment to crawl inside the beast and show people how it works.”

Part of farmland planned to be replaced with Foxconn Technology Group’s $10 billion facility is shown in the village of Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin, Wednesday, October 4, 2017.
 AP/Teresa Crawford

Wisconsin bets big on Foxconn

Gordon Hintz grew up around manufacturing. The six-term Democratic state representative for Oshkosh, Wisconsin, is a native of the city, and has spent his career advocating on behalf of an area with one of the highest concentrations of manufacturing jobs in the country (paper mills and factories form the backbone of the regional economy). So when Hintz questions a deal to bring thousands of manufacturing jobs to Wisconsin, it’s notable.

The state and local incentive Wisconsin politicians put together for Foxconn was billed by Gov. Scott Walker as a $3 billion investment in the future. The third-largest such deal in U.S. history, the package enticed the Taiwanese multinational to break ground on a $10 billion plant that will eventually employ 13,000 to assemble liquid crystal displays.

It turns out those figures are a little off, in Foxconn’s favor. Last month, Hintz helped publicize a memocompiled by the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau that found the real cost to state and local governments was $4.5 billion. As Hintz told Curbed last week, the new numbers underline the big risk of shelling out public funds for jobs, the opportunity costs. The growing tab the state faces will use money that could be going to education and public schools, infrastructure, and other benefits.

“People want to see more manufacturing jobs,” Hintz says, “but they’ve also had enough of giving taxpayer money to billionaires. Why are we giving billions to a foreign company instead of investing in our own paper mills?”

Promoted vigorously by Walker, as well as area Congressman Paul Ryan and President Donald Trump, the Foxconn deal, its backers argue, will provide a jolt to the state and southeast Wisconsin region. During a meeting with Trump earlier this month, Walker said the factory, expected to open its doors in 2020, would result in 13,000 direct jobs, 22,000 indirect jobs, and 10,000 construction jobs.

The resulting infrastructure investments needed to support the massive manufacturing facility—expected to cover 20 million square feet of office space over 1.56 square miles—will update roads, electrical systems, fiber-optic networks, and water distribution across the region. An upgrade of Interstate 94, connecting Milwaukee to Chicago, was fast-tracked due to Foxconn’s expected arrival.

Officials representing municipalities near the factory expect additional dividends. Madison, the state capital, may be the site of a Foxconn-funded “hospital of the future.” A spokesperson for the local project team says the deal is a safe, conservative investment for the city and county, structured in a way that’ll guarantee investment in local infrastructure doesn’t come from existing city funds. Over time, the build-out will attract an ecosystem of more than a hundred new businesses to the area.

“We will have to develop an entirely new supply chain,” Mount Pleasant Village President Dave DeGroot told the Wisconsin State Journal. “The impact on this community is unprecedented.”

Early infrastructure work near the future site of the Foxconn campus in Mount Pleasent

How local government helps pay for multinational companies

It’s a potentially transformative investment. But Hintz, LeRoy, and other analysts caution that local government is the one footing the bill in the long run.

Putting state resources into a single place to benefit a single employer is a risky deal, says LeRoy. In a state like Wisconsin, where austerity measures imposed by the governor and the legislature have already short-changed education and infrastructure spending, diverting resources to one employer means diverting money from already-thin budgets.

The infrastructure improvements for the Foxconn plant will come out of local budgets, specifically Mount Pleasant and Racine County. Foxconn will be part of what’s called a Tax-Increment Finance District, known as a TIF. This tax structure is meant to capture the additional value the company’s presence creates, then funnel that value to subsidize the promised infrastructure investments that attracted Foxconn in the first place.

The costs are substantial, including $160 million for water and wastewater and $116 million in public safety spending. This TIF has much more favorable terms than similar financing deals, and guarantees the city will be fully reimbursed for all infrastructure spending.

This is where opponents and supporters diverge. One one hand, it’s a better, safer bet; the city is guaranteed not to lose out on infrastructure spending. But it’s still a bet that this is theopportunity worth pursuing, and it still creates additional costs down the line.

“In terms of structuring a deal where the local community has some pretty solid protection that the investment will be repaid, this deal goes a long way,” says Rob Henken, president of the Wisconsin Policy Forum, a nonpartisan research group. “Where you could never hope to have appropriate protection is what happens after that.”

But Foxconn’s presence means property tax in the region will go up, and add more to the city’s coffers, correct? Not immediately: The estimated $31 million in additional annual tax revenue generated by Foxconn’s presence will be used to pay for $764 million in infrastructure investments needed to support the plant and surrounding campus.

“It’s like the company taking money out of its front pocket and putting it in its back pocket,” says LeRoy. “All or most of the money will be spent on public infrastructure, but most of it will benefit Foxconn.”

What about all those jobs? According to Tim Bartik, an economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research who specializes in the impact of subsidies, most of the employment figures thrown around for these types of deals don’t take into account the people migrating to town for work. Not only do new arrivals, attracted to the opportunities, often take most of the jobs, says Bartik, but their presence means more expenses for local governments.

New residents mean more education costs, health care spending, and infrastructure improvements, all potentially coming from the same budget line items that have been diverted for Foxconn-related expenses. The Foxconn TIF covers police and fire costs, but that’s just a part of expected increases in city spending. Bartik found that for many of these incentive deals, 20 percent of the jobs go to unemployed locals, and the other 80 percent go to people who lived elsewhere.

“I don’t think the state of Wisconsin will ever make money on this deal,” he says. “Once you account for public spending needs due to an increased population, [the state will] never break even.”

How TIF funds from the Foxconn development will be distributed.

Even if you discount local expense, the state is grossly overpaying for jobs, according to Bartik’s research. He’s created a subsidy database, and found that Wisconsin is paying $230,000 per job, 10 times more per job than the national average. LeRoy says at that rate, the deal can only be described as “a transfer of wealth from Wisconsin taxpayers to Foxconn shareholders.”

It also means the state will be playing a weaker hand when bidding for future economic development opportunities.

“If some company comes and says they want to create a factory and hire people in Milwaukee, and asks for the same per-job subsidy Foxconn received,” says Bartik, “how does the state say no to that?”

Development deals favor big companies, not local startups

Local economic development subsidies have come a long way since they were pioneered in Mississippi in the 1930s, according to LeRoy. Then, the Balance Agriculture With Industry program would guarantee factory construction fees for northern firms willing to relocate. It was a modest affair. At the program’s outset, the small town of Columbia, Mississippi, held a public meeting where locals signed promissory notes to pay for the cost of relocation. These were then used to guarantee a larger bank loan.

Even in the ’50s and ’60s, when a roaring economy meant new corporate headquarters and expanded manufacturing across the country, subsidies weren’t anything like the state versus state race to the bottom they’ve become today. LeRoy’s research has shown that this “great game” to land new headquarters and shiny manufacturing plants costs states and cities $70 billion a year.

What may seem extra puzzling, considering the huge investment and undersized return, is that many signs point to the most cost-effective solutions to catalyze Wisconsin’s economy. Slow, incremental small-business growth doesn’t capture public attention the way a big corporate opening does—Bartik joked that he’s talked about Amazon and Foxconn to numerous reporters, but no journalists ever ask him about manufacturing extension programs or small-business development centers—but it works. In addition to funding infrastructure and education to create a region of highly skilled, mobile employees, simply giving existing entrepreneurs more support can make a crucial difference.

“Investing in a 4-year-old’s preschool is the best you can do for future job development, but I don’t know if it resonates with the public as much as seeing a factory,” says Hintz.

Hintz emphasizes the importance of supporting small businesses, especially since the state is lagging behind in many measures of new business formation. There’s no reason this can’t include manufacturing, which has seen an upswing in the U.S. in recent years. It’s just an issue of giving smaller, more nimble companies some of the attention lavished on the big conglomerates.

“If a fraction of what was made available to Foxconn went to nurturing small-business opportunities, especially with the capabilities of our research university, you’d have much better outcomes,” Hintz says. “Foxconn amounts to trying to buy economic development, and that’s not how it works.”

It’s one of the tricky narrative needles to thread in American politics, Hintz says. Politicians chase things people can identify with, such as old-school manufacturing jobs, even though a return to robust small-business formation would be just as much in line with the U.S. economy of yesteryear.

“So much of what drives political rhetoric is identifying job development that people can identify with and understand,” says Hintz. “The future always loses to the past, especially if you’re someone who’s been negatively impacted by the transforming economy.”

Business formation has been a problem across the country, but cities like Pittsburgh, which have invested in education to spur innovative research and entrepreneurship, have seen big returns. In Madison,Wisconsin’s capital, a burgeoning tech scene has become a huge economic catalyst; funding incubators and educational initiatives could pay great dividends across a range of industries.

According to LeRoy’s research, in an analysis of economic development incentives, 70 percent of the deals and 90 percent of the funding went to large businesses.

“There’s been a long-term academic consensus that entrepreneurship is in trouble in the United States,” LeRoy says. “The numbers of startups that thrive is down. The two trends [rise in economic-development megadeals and declining startup survival rates] are parallel.”

Wisconsin’s Foxconn deal ends up looking more like a poker player going all in. Instead of placing many small, nimble bets on local companies, it’s backing one big deal. In today’s economy, that makes even less sense, says Hintz.

“In 2005, would we have been excited by a Blackberry factory?” Hintz asks. “And more importantly, would we have gotten our money back in 25 years?”


February 2018

The South Merrill Community Garden on Chicago’s South Side fills a literal hole in its community. Slipped between between two brick apartment buildings, the small plot was established in the 1980s by neighborhood residents in the predominantly black part of town, who created a small flower garden using bricks from a demolished building. In 2010, area students took over, using the garden to memorialize Troy Law, a local child killed as a result of domestic abuse.

The garden fell into disuse a few years later, weeds overrunning the soil. In 2012, shots rang out as someone was chased through the overgrowth. No one was hurt, but the errant fire galvanized a group of residents to get rid of the eyesore.

Frustrated by the violence in the surrounding South Shore neighborhood, and in the city at large, neighbors reclaimed the land, laying down stone paths and sowing flower and vegetable seeds.

Last summer, this small garden also became a testing ground for an experiment in crime prevention. Thanks to the Chicago Safe and Peaceful Communities Fund, a “rapid-response” charitable initiative giving seed money to communities suffering disproportionately from crime, the garden received a small stipend to run a Saturday program for kids, Planting and Playing Summer Garden Arts. One of 121 small grants, the funds provided an entire summer of Saturday activities for neighborhood kids.

“We’re helping to establish a bit of well-being,” says Natalie Perkins, the gardening group’s education coordinator. “It doesn’t mean that everything stopped, or people won’t be shot.”

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March 2018

In the midst of the #MeToo movement, consider the following scenario: sexual harassment accusations against a powerful man, reinforced by an investigation and internal deliberation at his place of employment, leading to a widespread petition from his colleagues demanding action. But instead of resignation or prompt disciplinary action, the accused remains employed, salaried, and facing an unknown fate, as the proceedings taking place against him are conducted out of the public eye.

And while sexual harassment in the workplace has come to the forefront—following a reinvigorated discussion around reporting sexual misconduct on college campuses—that this particular scenario has been unfolding at a college known as a liberal, progressive bastion may come as a surprise. But here we are, in the architecture department at the University of California at Berkeley.

In March of 2016, Ph.D. student Eva Hagberg Fisher accused Nezar AlSayyad, a tenured architecture professor in the UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design—and her former faculty advisor—of sexual harassment and misconduct.

university-funded investigation of AlSayyad, released in November 2016, found numerous incidents of inappropriate behavior between 2012 to 2014 that echo Hagberg Fisher’s claims. A settlement reached between Berkeley and Hagberg Fisher in December 2017 led to the school paying her a settlement of $80,000.

AlSayyad has consistently denied all allegations, recently saying that those involved are “inadvertently supporting a smear campaign,” and a coalition students recently published a letter in the student newspaper defending him (five co-signed the letter, and the rest chose to remain anonymous). Via his lawyer, Dan Siegel, AlSayyad has denied to Curbed the claims that he manipulated or made inappropriate advances towards any students, including Hagberg Fisher, or that he violated the Berkeley Code of Conduct.

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December 2017

Tourist visit the headquarter of Google in Mountain View, California (Photo by Yichuan Cao/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Few building types have become as mythologized, meaningful, and, occasionally, mocked by the general public as corporate headquarters. Whether they’re anodyne rows of identical offices, glistening corporate campuses, or high-tech hubs for startups, the most famous become not just architecture, but narratives conveying corporate values.

That’s why many were disappointed to learn Apple’s new office in Cupertino, California, has more parking space than office space: It’s a disconnect from the company’s sleek, progressive (and curated) persona.

In Silicon Valley, it’s tempting to treat these physical representations of economic might as symbols of innovation and character (does the Amazon HQ2 race, pitting cities against each other, showcase the retail giant’s cold, calculating efficiency?). These headquarters are supposed to be glimpses of the future.

This hunger for something new explains why a collection of land and former industrial lots in downtown San Jose, just 10 miles east of Apple’s glittering new campus, has attracted so much attention. Google, the new owner, has plans for something transformative.

The tech giant’s desire to continue its aggressive expansion in the area and build a new corporate village adjacent to Diridon Station, a decades-old rail station, isn’t important because of cutting-edge design: groundbreaking for the project won’t happen for years, and there are no renderings of futuristic, spaceship-like structures. Nor is it necessarily about size, though it may end up stretching over 50 acres and being twice as large as Apple’s new HQ, accommodating 15,000 to 20,000 employees.

Rather, its location is what’s important: the developing urban core of the largest city in Silicon Valley, a region stuck in a mostly suburban mindset, adjacent to what will be the confluence of seven different rail and bus lines.

Google’s plans may turn Diridon Station—an expanding transit hub with a high-speed rail stop in the works—into the Grand Central of the west. The move could catalyze an even more urbanized San Jose, and signal that density transit-oriented development is part of the Valley’s future.

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December 2017

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO – SEPTEMBER 26: Noelia Torres and Orlando Liam Bear,1, on her way to Orlando, Fl and others wait in line to clear through security to catch a flight out of the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport as they try to return home after Hurricane Maria on September 26, 2017 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Some of the people have waited days at the airport in hopes of getting onto a plane after Hurricane Maria, a category 4 hurricane, devastated the island. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Months later, the new arrivals keep coming.

At Orlando International Airport’s Terminal A, the steady stream of flights from San Juan, Puerto Rico, has tapered, but hundreds of Puerto Ricans still arrive daily, in search of stability, safety, and economic opportunity in the wake of Hurricane Maria’s devastation in September.

It’s a “roller coaster of emotion,” says Marytza Sanz, who has spent weeks greeting, calming, and assisting her fellow citizens. Sanz is the president of Latino Leadership, a local group that’s part of the web of nonprofits and government agencies manning the welcome center, offering housing assistance, social services, and leads on employment. She has spent long days counseling families—sometimes dozens a day—some clutching photos of the houses and neighborhoods they left behind. She doesn’t see an end in sight.

More than 239,000 Puerto Ricans have arrived in the state since October 3, according to figures from Florida’s State Emergency Response Team​, mostly in Orlando and surrounding cities. It’s the largest evacuation on this scale in the history of the state.

In the storm’s aftermath, government and nonprofits have mobilized to address the immediate needs. But amid the rush to quickly respond, Sanz believes a tipping point has been reached.

“This isn’t an emergency that’s finished, like the hurricane that passed by Puerto Rico,” she says. “This is a hurricane that’s starting here, in Florida.”

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