Tag Archives: urban

New grant program aims to preserve State Street’s unique retail businesses

To prevent small, independent retailers in the State Street area from being squeezed out of existence by proliferating bars and restaurants, Madison is acting to preserve the quirky nature of its best-known retail district.

The Retail Improvement Grant Program, announced in early February, will offer retailers matching grants of up to $50,000 to assist with the costs of interior and exterior renovations. The program’s goal is to encourage property owners and independent retailers to reinvest in downtown.

“The strength of the downtown has always been in our mix of locally owned businesses,” says Susan Schmitz, president of Downtown Madison Inc., which works closely with the central Business Improvement District.

The face of downtown Madison has changed in recent years, as millennials have flocked to new condo and apartment towers near cultural centers. As a result, the funky flavor of the city’s most densely populated area is changing, too.

Downtown Madison Inc. regularly surveys its market. In 1998 there were 47 restaurants and specialty foods/drink establishments. Today there are 99.

In 1989, food and drink establishments accounted for 21 percent of all State Street’s business space. That  doubled to 42 percent by 2014. During the same period, food and drink businesses skyrocketed from 8 percent to 24 percent of  ground floor space in the Capitol Square area.

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Facade improvement at 1602 Gilson St. in Madison, made possible by a city program that’s now expanding to include interior improvements. (Photo: City of Madison)

Ruth Rohlich, the city’s business development specialist, witnesses the same trend in Austin, where her family lives. “(Austin’s) Sixth Street experienced a kind of turn like this,” she says. Shops gave way to restaurants and bars. There was a move there to revive retail, but “the difficult thing is that once that expense has occurred — in turning a retail space into space with restaurant/bar capability — it’s just so hard to turn those back.”

The Retail Improvement Grant program is designed to prevent such conversions from happening in the first place. Restaurants and bars are not eligible for the grants. Franchises are accepted if they can demonstrate a specified level of local control. Funding will come from the downtown Tax Incremental Financing district.

Madison is not alone in advancing such assistance. “Many major urban areas have some program like this,” says Rohlich. “The City of Milwaukee has a program like this. There are a number of cities where they call them ‘white box projects,’ where they’re more designed for business districts that maybe have some blight, and so it’s to help encourage retail to move in by helping to pay for some of the costs of initial improvement.

“Ours is a little bit different in that we do have a really successful, very hot market area, so ours is more geared toward preserving some of that independent retail flavor as more and more restaurants and bars begin to take up some of those spaces.”

The retail program uses the city’s Facade Grant Program as a model.

That program was launched in 2001 and deals only with exterior improvements in selected areas. “Since then we have done 84 grants totaling $1.1 million,” says Craig Wilson, housing rehabilitation specialist with the city’s community development division. “That investment has leveraged over $3.2 million in improvements to business facades in many of Madison’s oldest and most visible business districts.”

Another benefit, which is more difficult to measure, “is how the (façade) grants have facilitated businesses to make use of vacant, sometimes neglected buildings,” he says. “Transforming an eyesore into an integral part of the neighborhood adds not only to the tax base, but enhances overall health and desirability of those neighborhoods.”

Facade grant recipients include the Madison Children’s Museum and the oldest Alcoholics Anonymous clubhouse in the state. Another is State Street’s iconic Orpheum Theater, owned by the Paras family. The 1927 vaudeville and movie palace today is a venue for rock and other live concerts.

“The Facade Improvement Grant Program has been great,” says Mary Paras. The Orpheum received matching funds up $10,000 for each of its two entrances.

“On State Street we used the matching funds for installing a granite front, which more closely represents the original design,” she says. “On Johnson Street we used the matching funds to replace a large set of five doors. You could see the cars pass on Johnson Street through the cracks of the old doors, so the new doors are beautiful and help with energy costs.”

Rohlick is already helping several existing businesses with the new grant process. “We’re hoping as we market the program and work with the commercial brokers, we might get some new businesses as well,” she says.

“Our Facade Improvement Program is already a great success, helping small business owners as they strive to maintain the vitality of our community,” says Mayor Paul Soglin, who’s made the health of State Street a priority. “I’m pleased that the city is able to extend this further opportunity. We look forward to working with them.”

Oregon approves nation’s highest minimum wage increase

Oregon lawmakers have approved landmark legislation that propels the state’s minimum wage for all workers to the highest rank in the U.S., and does so through an unparalleled tiered system based on geography.

On Feb. 18,  the state House of Representatives passed Senate Bill 1532, which now heads to Democratic Gov. Kate Brown, who said in a statement she will sign it into law.

“I started this conversation last fall, bringing stakeholders together to craft a workable proposal; one that gives working families the much-needed wage boost they need, and addresses challenges for businesses and rural economies presented by the two impending ballot measures,” Brown said.

The move makes Oregon a trailblazer in the broader debate about minimum wage unfolding nationwide as the federal threshold remains unchanged from Great Recession levels.

Oregon now joins 14 other states that have raised their rates over the past two years. Another dozen or so are considering taking up the issue this year, either through legislative action or ballot initiative, as issues of wage inequality and middle-class incomes have climbed to the forefront of presidential campaigns by Democratic candidates Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton.

Wisconsin’s Republican leadership does not believe in minimum wage laws.

The bill was crafted as a compromise for what unions, businesses and farmers want and as an attempt to thwart more aggressive proposals that could go before voters in November. Those two proposals call for a statewide minimum of $13.50 or $15, and would be phased in over half the time. Labor unions have not yet indicated whether they’ll follow through with ballot initiatives.

Oregon follows moves in states such as Massachusetts, California and Vermont that recently boosted statewide minimums above $10. That stands in stark contrast to more conservative states such as Idaho, which has blocked previous efforts to raise its minimum beyond the federal level, and Arizona, where lawmakers are considering a bill that would block state funding to municipalities that set a local minimum wage.

Oregon’s new plan imposes a series of gradual increases over six years. By 2022, the state’s current $9.25 an hour minimum – already one of the highest in the nation – would climb to $14.75 in metro Portland, $13.50 in smaller cities such as Salem and Eugene, and $12.50 in rural communities.

Those minimums dethrone Massachusetts — where the statewide rate will climb to $11 an hour next year — from the top spot, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a D.C.-based think tank that tracks wage laws across the nation.

While there are varying approaches to raising the minimum wage, the three-tiered regional system is uniquely Oregon’s.

Some states have targeted wage hikes for only government employees or certain industries, as seen recently in New York for fast-food workers, while others allow local jurisdictions to set their own rates above the state threshold, prompting recent hikes in cities such as Seattle and Los Angeles.

Oregon, however, has made the unprecedented move to be the first state without a one-size-fits-all statewide minimum.

“Oregon has always been at the forefront of new ideas in the country. We were the first to actually have a minimum wage,” said Rep. Paul Holvey, a Democrat from Eugene. “Trust me, we’re not solving all the problems, but we are making a substantial dent in it by pushing up from the bottom some wage equality … from the huge disparity we have in incomes.”

The state is deeply divided between west and east by economic, cultural and political differences. The goal of the tiered approach is to balance the needs of the more urban west, where living costs have soared in rapidly growing Portland-and struggling farming communities in the east.

Division over the minimum wage — currently at $7.25 in federal law — is also often split along party lines and pits low-wage workers against business groups, as has been seen in Oregon this year. Republicans, the minority party in the Oregon Statehouse, have opposed the increase.

The President of Oregon Farm Bureau said the vote shows Democrats don’t value family agriculture.

“This enormous increase will force many family farmers to try to find ways to mechanize or transition away from labor-intensive products Oregon is known for, like apples, pears, milk and berries. Unfortunately, some will give up and sell, while others will simply go out of business,” said Barry Bushue, President of Oregon Farm Bureau.

David Cooper, an economic analyst the Economic Policy Institute, said wage increases have never lead to widespread damaging effects, but he also expressed hesitation about Oregon’s regional approach.

“I think any time you create these sorts of somewhat arbitrary geographic districts, that’s when you can create opportunities for some sort of economic disruption,” he said. “I would prefer the whole state got to the same wage level but at a slower pace by region so that everyone is held to the same standard.”

Wisconsin elections board pushes voter ID information

Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board is pushing to inform people about new voter photo ID requirements with less than two weeks left before the spring primary.

The board held a news conference on Feb. 1 to re-launch its “Bring It to the Ballot” campaign, which it started in 2011 when the law passed.

The photo ID requirement was in effect for the first time during the 2012 spring primary election, but a court soon halted its implementation due to ongoing legal challenges. It will take full effect this year, starting with the Feb. 16 primary.

Republicans introduced the voter ID requirements as part of an effort to discourage voting among demagraphic groups that tradionally vote Democratic. The GOP has also scaled back on popular early voting programs and reduced the number of polling sites.

Government Accountability Board Director Kevin Kennedy says the board spent about $700,000 in 2011 and 2012 to develop videos, brochures and radio ads.

This year, however, legislators didn’t provide funding for the campaign, because the law was on hold.

Republicans have voted to get rid of the accountability board because it investigates political corruption.

Study: foreclosures fueled racial segregation in U.S.

The housing crisis in which some 9 million American families lost their homes fueled racial segregation in many of the nation’s communities, according to a new analysis from Cornell University.

“Neighborhood Foreclosures, Racial/Ethnic Transitions and Residential Segregation,” published in the American Sociological Review, noted the housing crisis spurred one of the largest migrations in U.S. history, leading to changes that could alter the complexion of American cities for a generation or more.

“Among its many impacts, the foreclosure crisis has partly derailed progress in achieving racial integration in American cities,” said demographer Matthew Hall, an assistant professor of policy analysis and management in Cornell’s College of Human Ecology and the lead researcher on the team.

Examining urban residential foreclosures from 2005 to 2009, Hall and the co-authors found that people in mostly black and mostly Latino neighborhoods lost homes at rates about three times higher than those in white areas, with ethnically mixed communities also deeply affected.

They estimated the typical neighborhood experienced 4.5 foreclosures per 100 homes during the crisis, but the figure rises to 8.1 and 6.2 homes in predominantly black and Latino areas, respectively, while white neighborhoods lost 2.3 homes on average.

As an avalanche of foreclosures buried minority and racially mixed communities, their white populations shrank and black and Latino populations swelled. Researchers found that white households were significantly more likely to leave areas with high foreclosure rates, while black and Latino families entered these neighborhoods out of necessity or to seek newly affordable housing options.

“Not only were white households less likely to be foreclosed on, but they also were among the first to leave neighborhoods where foreclosures were high, particularly those with racially diverse residents,” said Hall.

Co-authored by Kyle Crowder, professor at the University of Washington, and Amy Spring, assistant professor at Georgia State University, the paper notes racial integration slowed most sharply in Western and Southern cities, locations such as Atlanta, Las Vegas and Sacramento, California, where minority populations suffered a rash of foreclosures.

By contrast, segregation in northeastern and Rust Belt cities was less affected by the crisis.

“We did not look specifically at any cities, but our results did suggest that the foreclosure crisis probably had a much smaller effect on Rustbelt cities like Milwaukee due to the timing of the crisis in those areas and because of the deeply entrenched nature of residential segregation in places like Milwaukee,” Hall said.

Milwaukee, even before the housing bubble’s burst, was one of the country’s most racially segregated metro areas.

Earlier this month, the Obama administration announced an effort aimed at reducing the racial segregation of residential neighborhoods in cities such as Milwaukee. The administration said localities will be required to account for how they will use federal housing funds to reduce racial disparities or face penalties.

Housing Secretary Julian Castro, in a news conference in Chicago, said communities will be required to set goals based on the data for smarter investments in housing, schools and transportation that will be closely monitored.

Urban beekeeping can be a sweet hobby

In the back corner of her yard, hidden behind a new fence, Susan Kennedy Spain recently extracted proof that her latest experiment in sustainable living is working: honey and honeycomb.

Both came from one of two beehives she installed earlier this year, her first attempt at raising bees.

“(My husband) John and I wanted to create an edible landscape,” she said. “We’ve had a vegetable garden. This seemed like a natural next step.”

The Spains, who live in Richmond, Virginia, are part of a growing but hard-to-define national movement to keep bees in urban areas, and they’re also participating in a honeybee revival movement so important to the nation’s food supply, President Barack Obama seated a task force to find ways to spur it on.

The White House installed hives in 2009, bringing national attention to the idea of being intentional in providing man-made homes for some of nature’s best, if occasionally misunderstood, pollinators. The hives there went in near first lady Michelle Obama’s vegetable garden.

The federal government’s Pollinator Health Task Force in May released its National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators. It focuses on improving the health of honeybees and Monarch butterflies and includes a pledge to restore or enhance 7 million acres of habitat across the country.

“The strategy also advances ambitious federal commitments to increase and improve habitat for pollinators, both directly through the large variety of facilities and acreages of land managed by the federal government, and indirectly through the leadership role that federal agencies can play in interactions with states, localities, the private sector and citizens,” it said in a statement signed by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Gina McCarthy, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

“These actions range from planting pollinator gardens and improving land management practices at federal facilities, to advancing the availability and use of pollinator-friendly seed mixes in land management, restoration and rehabilitation actions nationwide.”

Locally, there are half a dozen or more beekeeping clubs and associations. But figuring out how many people participate is difficult, especially since keeping hives is prohibited in many areas.

“The current ordinance is restrictive,” said Tammy Hawley, press secretary for Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones.

The most recent wording on the ordinance, she said, labels bees as a nuisance and has them lumped in with rats, mice and roaches.

But that could change, she said. Jones has advocated for other environmentally friendly ideas, such as community gardens, green building and bicycle lanes, and Hawley said it might be time to add beekeeping to the list.

“This could be a good example of how usage should be redefined,” she said.

Jones would find plenty of support in the local beekeeping community.

David Stover, a commercial photographer, has become one of the leading local experts in the nine years since he started his first hive and, like many experienced beekeepers, he loves talking about it.

“I’ve always thought it important to share what I know,” he said. “I don’t try to talk anyone into doing this. Beekeeping is a real commitment. It’s like having a pet.”

He keeps 20 or so hives at 10 or more locations in the area.

“I have changed so much in how I view the world,” he said. “I love to garden but, since I started keeping bees, that has changed.”

It used to be, he said, he’d coat his garden with whatever chemicals were necessary to make everything look pretty.

Once the bees came in, the chemicals went out.

“I learned how bad that was,” he said. “I also learned that I didn’t need that to make my yard look good.”

The popularity of beekeeping has been on an upward swing in the past decade, said RD Radford, a 40-year veteran of beekeeping and the president of the Richmond Beekeepers Association.

He credited the growth to attention that came after news reports of colony collapse disorder, which struck particularly hard in 2006-07.

At the time, beekeepers nationwide reported losses of their hives as high as 90 percent from CCD, a phenomena in which worker bees abandon their queens. The hives survive temporarily, because they have honey and baby bees, but they ultimately fail because there’s no one left to do the work.

The EPA reported 60 percent hive loss as recently as 2008, but that dropped to about 31 percent in 2013, the most recent year for which national data are available.

With the new national strategy, the EPA wants to reduce loss to about 15 percent within 10 years.

More bees is a good thing, Radford said.

“They’re just fun to watch,” he said. “I just like playing with them. I can go out there all day.”

But more bees is nothing to fear, he said.

“Unless you mess with their hive, they won’t mess with you,” he said. “When you see them on flowers, they’re just working.”

Even a swarm, he said, was harmless, at least from a distance.

“You might see one on a bridge, but it’s usually gone in an hour,” he said. “They send out scouts to find a new home.”

Spain discovered that.

She was called in to her son’s school about a swarm.

“They were going to call an exterminator, but I said no, no,” she said. “But by the time I got there, it was gone.”

She’s plenty busy anyway with the hives she has.

One has nearly tripled in size and is still growing. It’s the one with the early yield of honey.

She’s expecting more.

A friend in her neighborhood got 250 pounds of honey from his six hives last year.

Spain’s not sure how much she’ll get, but she knows what’s going to happen if the output exceeds what her family can consume.

“My friends and family are going to be very happy,” she said.

Published via the AP Member Exchange.

Artists take aim at gun violence

The wall of a downtown New Orleans art gallery has been riddled with bullet holes.

It’s not another act of brazen gun violence but rather a thought-provoking work of art. In each hole is a bullet casing, its back painted with the tiny portrait of a child under the age of 6 killed in New Orleans gunfire.

The persistence of urban gun violence has inspired more than 30 artists from across the country to contribute to the exhibit, “Guns in the Hands of Artists.”

The artists took the stocks, barrels, cylinders and other parts of dismantled guns slated to be destroyed through a city buyback program and transformed them into art.

The exhibit is opening Oct. 4 at the Jonathan Ferrara Gallery in New Orleans, for decades one of America’s deadliest cities.

Although murder rates are down from recent years, shootings persist.

A pizza delivery driver was recently shot to death during a delivery. Over the summer, a drive-by shooting left two people dead and several others injured, including a woman and her two young children. Another shooting killed a woman on the city’s famous Bourbon Street.

New Orleans artist Sidonie Villere said she feels a mix of fear and anger for her hometown. She soaked five gun cylinders in hydrogen peroxide, salt and vinegar, to make them corrode — a representation of what she calls an “emotional corrosion” surrounding guns.

“I’m hoping when people see the piece, they see that there’s some kind of breakdown,” she said.

Artist John Barnes built a wooden sculpture in the shape of a historic New Orleans shotgun-style house with a real shotgun, sawed in half, running through its center. It includes signs “Get Off My Property,” “Turn Down the Music” and “We Are Here Now” — taking a shot at gentrification, vigilante-ism and “Stand Your Ground” laws.

“This piece is sort of playing off that energy of a response based on a perception with very little actual factual basis for the action,” he said.

Ferrara said the exhibit is not anti-gun. It is meant to foster dialogue surrounding guns. The first “Guns in the Hands of Artists” was held in 1996, around the time the city’s murder rate was on the rise. The exhibit was organized by Ferrara and New Orleans native artist Brian Borrello, who now lives in Portland, Oregon.

Borrello is contributing two pieces to the new exhibit, including a 9 mm pistol with a clip that arcs 7 feet in a circular shape that Borrello said shows “endless war.”

“It’s very scorpion-like,” he said. “Deadly beauty.”

Nearly two decades after the first exhibit, gun conversations now include the names Ferguson, Columbine, Sandy Hook and Aurora.

“We’re in the same place if not worse,” Ferrara said. “It’s an issue that affects all of us in New Orleans, but unfortunately, it’s an American epidemic.”

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New York rolls with largest bike-share program

The nation’s biggest bicycle-sharing program got rolling on May 27, as thousands of New Yorkers got their first chance to ride a network billed as a new form of public transit in a city known for it.

Suraf Asgedom pedaled along a lower Manhattan street on one of the royal-blue, quick-rental bikes, headed for a gourmet supermarket that’s usually a 25-minute walk from his apartment. The medical executive doesn’t own a bicycle because it’s a hassle to haul one downstairs, find a place to lock it up on the street and worry about it, he said.

“This just makes it much more convenient,” said Asgedom, 39, who plans to use the bike system to get to work at a downtown hospital.

The privately financed program – called Citi Bike, after lead sponsor Citigroup Inc. – kicked off with 6,000 bikes at more than 300 stations. Plans call for expanding it to 10,000 bikes docked at 600 places in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. Riders now can unlock the three-gear, cruising-style bikes from any station, take them for 45-minute rides and return them to any rack.

“We now have an entirely new transportation network without spending any taxpayer money,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at a news conference.

One of more than 500 bike-sharing systems around the world, New York’s is the biggest in the United States. Fifteen thousand people already have signed up for New York’s program, city Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Kahn said.

While many New Yorkers already do without cars, Bloomberg’s administration has added hundreds of miles of bike lanes and promoted cycling as a healthy and environmentally friendly alternative to driving. Officials see bike-sharing as a big next step.

So do Mick and Victoria Patterson, who took a look at a lower Manhattan Citi Bike station Monday and plan to sign up. They split their time between New York and Los Angeles.

“We really need to be rethinking the use of the automobile, and this is part of it,” Mick Patterson said.

The bike-sharing rollout has hit some bumps. The launch was delayed because of problems including damage from Superstorm Sandy, and a woman made off with one of the bicycles Sunday evening as workers unloaded them at a Manhattan station, police said. Bloomberg said the bike was recovered. Police were looking for a suspect.

Some residents are incensed about the bike stations, saying the racks block entrances to their buildings or take up park space for a profit-making program. The city intends to split any proceeds with NYC Bike Share LLC, a company running the program. Citigroup is paying $41 million to sponsor it. MasterCard is paying an additional $6.5 million.

“We’re not against the bikes – we’re against them in our park,” said Lora Tenenbaum, one of the sign-carrying critics who came to Bloomberg’s news conference. They want a bike station in Petrosino Square, a small park, to be shifted to a sidewalk across the street.

Some racks have been shortened or moved, including one in front of a Greenwich Village apartment house where owners sued the city over it. Some of the rack was removed last week to create a gap in front of the main door.

Still, resident Deborah Stone worries that the remaining bike rack could make it difficult for emergency vehicles to pull over near the building.

“It doesn’t belong there,” she said by phone.

Officials say they held 400 community meetings to decide where to put the racks. And Bloomberg noted that New Yorkers have long had to work around parked cars and other curbside obstacles.

“We have a busy city,” he said, and “we like that. That’s good.”

Citi Bike subscribers pay a $95 annual fee for unlimited rides of 45 minutes. Starting June 2, riders also will be able to buy a 24-hour pass for about $10 and a seven-day pass for $25; both allow for an unlimited number of 30-minute trips. The usage time is logged when a bicycle is returned to a dock, with additional charges if the bikes have been out past the allotted time.

Survey: LGBT travel on rise. NYC destination No. 1

A newly released survey shows that LGBT people increased their travel last year, a departure from two years of decline due to the economic recession.

The survey from Community Marketing Inc. found:

• Most destinations surveyed increased LGBT travel by 1-3 percent in the past year after two years of decrease.

• New York City has always been the No. 1 LGBT destination in the United States and the city has slightly increased its lead. New Orleans continues to gain visitors and is approaching pre-Katrina rankings. Miami continues to trend upwards and has jumped back into the top 10.

• New York City scored No. 1 in all three key indicators – actual visits to the destination in past 12 months, most gay-friendly destination in the world and personal favorite destination. Las Vegas, San Francisco and London also scored well.

• Considering their size and number of hotel rooms, Provincetown, Mass., Key West, Fla., and Palm Springs, Calif., scored well in all three indicators.

• LGBT travelers, and especially gay men, are more likely to describe themselves as “urban core travelers” than “eco travelers” or “outdoor adventure travelers.”

• Survey results suggest the mid-range market is the biggest group among LGBT travelers, followed by economy/budget and then luxury.

• For LGBTs with children, family-friendly travel preferences is more important than LGBT-friendly travel preferences by a 2-1 margin.

• Before booking a trip, gay men and lesbians compare on average three to four websites before making a purchase.

• Results indicate that gay men and lesbians are more likely to avoid a destination because of recent anti-LGBT violence than anti-LGBT laws.