On Big Cities and Small Towns: Cultural Relevance and the 2016 Election

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tale

One of my favorite relatives took to Facebook recently to post this New York Times analysis of “The Two America’s of 2016,” displaying the stark divide between big city America and small town America in their opposed political sentiments as evidenced by the voting trends in this past presidential election. In his post, he made this claim: 

What a surprise that all culturally relevant cities (where there is great economic, religious, and racial diversity) voted against Trump.”

That led me to reflect on big cities, small towns, and the history of cultural relevance…

I recall spending some time in San Francisco a couple years ago and pondering the difference between small town and big city mentality. It occurred to me that they are both alike in one crucial sense: their inhabitants have it all figured out.

They understand the world, have a pretty dogmatic opinion of how things are or should be, and there are generally no longer any open questions about reality. All wondering is gone. And whether that comes from a dogmatic conviction to the religion of one’s youth or from the dogmatic conviction that the values of The New Yorker are unassailable, both have it pretty damn well figured out. They are both insulated in a world where everyone shares their opinions and values and can’t for the life of them figure out why in the hell anyone would think any differently.

The really culturally relevant cities throughout the history of Western civilization have been those who experienced a drastic and profound collision of competing world views – Rome when confronting Christendom and its ancient past, Middle Age Europe upon the discovery and confrontation with Ancient Philosophy, Early Modern Europe upon the radical threats and new ideas that early modern science brought to the late middle aged world, and on and on. It was precisely the conflict between faith and reason, religion and science, ancient and new that brought about the most productivity in the arts, literature, music, philosophy, science, inventions, new political systems, and everything we’ve come to understand as “culturally relevant.”

It’s in this space of conflict where new questions arise – all sides are challenged to awake from their dogmatism and the world suddenly becomes big once again.

The world is very small in today’s small towns, I agree. I also submit that the world is very small for most people in today’s big cities. They both have it figured out.

The cities that were split 50-50 on an election like this, where religion is as vibrant as academic thought, where the guy from the small town is forced to engage with the gal from the big city and both are made uncomfortable – those are the cities to watch. And I suggest that those will be the culturally relevant cities of the future.

Denton voted just about 50-50, by the way.

We Should Continue Investing in Downtown Denton

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downtown-train

The revitalization of Downtown Denton didn’t happen by accident. Connecting Denton to the greater DFW area with a commuter rail that terminates in Downtown Denton didn’t happen by accident. Overturning city codes that outlawed downtown residences and encouraging a bustling Downtown Denton neighborhood with thousands of residents didn’t happen by accident. Seeing private investors spend millions of dollars to revitalize historic buildings in Downtown Denton that they don’t own didn’t happen by accident. A year ago, Denton didn’t allow breweries in the downtown area – the change didn’t happen by accident. Three years ago, Denton didn’t allow food trucks downtown – the new ordinance didn’t happen by accident. The current trend of high tech jobs converging on Downtown Denton didn’t happen by accident. Creating Downtown Denton into one of the most vibrant, walkable urban centers in Texas didn’t just happen.

All of this came about with vision.

Of all the investments the city has committed in the downtown area over the last two decades, perhaps the cheapest has been the commitment to invest $100,000 a year in local mixed beverage taxes for capital improvement projects aimed at making Downtown Denton more attractive, more walkable, and our historic buildings more preserved.

Considering that in just one month – August of this year – the downtown establishments single handedly contributed over 87% of this annual investment, there are certainly no good fiscal arguments to discontinue this program. Assuming those numbers track throughout the year, that means that the Downtown Reinvestment Grant draws annually from a mere 10% of the mixed beverage taxes contributed solely by downtown businesses.

But on this Tuesday’s agenda is another discussion aimed at “expanding” this program to other areas of the city. Now to be sure, I have for years been an advocate of thinking beyond the square and finding new areas of our city with the potential to be other great cultural centers of vibrancy in our town. Finding new areas to invest in based on the successful model of Downtown Denton is a great idea.

Simply diluting the current investment in Downtown Denton, however, in order to invest in other areas without any specific vision on what precisely we are hoping to accomplish in those areas is not good policy. For one thing, the entire thrust of the Downtown Reinvestment Grant is to improve the downtown streetscape, encourage historic preservation and character, and incentivize projects that enhance the walkable character of the greater downtown area. If we divert funds to other areas of town, what vision are we trying to fulfill? What criteria will we use to judge the appropriateness of the request and project? What advisory body will advise us on the goals of that area so as help us make sound financial investments?

There appears to be an interest in taking money from downtown and investing it in other areas of town without any thought or vision as to what we are trying to accomplish.

Here are my suggestions:

First, let’s not take away a good thing. Something that has been a simple, low-cost tool in a limited tool box to help bring about the obvious revitalization of Downtown Denton shouldn’t be cast aside. Instead, we ought to be considering upping that financial commitment.

Let’s consider revisiting the goals of the Downtown Reinvestment Grant to better align them and the criteria for the grant to current circumstances. While the immediate square area and the East Hickory area have taken off, there are still many off-street areas that have yet to realize significant investment in the same way. What are the barriers to redevelopment and investment in these areas? How do we get the areas South and North of the square to pop in the same way? Are their certain types of business that we would be better off incentivizing over others in order to keep a healthy mix of businesses downtown? How can we continue the obvious momentum happening around the Downtown Transit Center and encourage underutilized industrial property to flip? Let’s have a robust discussion on these matters with the Downtown Task Force, Main Street Association, and Economic Development Partnership Board to explore further.

Let’s continue the very healthy conversation of finding another area (or two or three) for investment. But let’s separate that conversation from the Downtown Reinvestment Grant. As was mentioned earlier, that grant is connected to a clear vision and clear goals for the specific circumstances of our downtown area. It is fostered and administered by the Downtown Task Force, a volunteer city advisory board created to do just that. Both the vision and mechanics involved in pursuing investment in another area require an entirely different conversation.

Downtown Denton is the jewel crown of our city. It deserves our continued focus and investment.

 

“The Report was Biased!” – a claim we predicted several months ago

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The Denton City Council voted to move forward with the Renewable Denton Plan – a plan that puts Denton on the trajectory to power our city by 70% renewables by 2019.

No doubt, the secret, invite-only, block-if-they-disagree local Facebook groups are having a field day with the latest release of emails and documents and the supporting narrative by a city council member alleging corruption and collusion by city staff members, our third party consultant (that was chosen unanimously by the city council), and would be companies bidding for an opportunity to put into place the Renewable Denton Plan.

In fact, such allegations were part of the playbook from the very beginning. The call for a third party review of RDP – for most asking for it – was simply another way to stall a decision on the project in hopes of delaying it enough to build more support to kill the project. I pointed that out way back in January:

“There also continues to be calls from some people to stall the project until the city spends additional dollars seeking a third party consultant, “to objectively verify whether or not DME’s recommendation is the best way forward.” In most (not all) cases, calls for a third party consultant come from the same people who have stated explicitly on several occasions that they will oppose any efforts that involve the investment in gas generation in Denton. In other words, for these folks, their interest in a third party consultant does not stem from a desire for genuine objectivity – they have a stated interest in mind: shut down the Renewable Denton Plan if it involves the investment in gas generation. That’s fine if that is your perspective. But let’s not confuse things by calling for consultants when there are already possible results from such a consultant’s report that you reject before you ever read it.”

Just a few weeks later, Council Member Dalton Gregory made this prediction:

“I’m convinced, if we have a consultant that says anything to the extent that they think that the Renewable Denton Plan is a good plan, that we are going to have cries that it was a biased consultant, it was a flawed work, the consultant was not independent enough, and the consultant didn’t have enough renewable expertise…. If it came back with anything that confirms what DME did, that the same response would be, ‘it’s flawed, it’s biased – you need to hire another consultant!’ So how many consultants would we need to hire before we were satisfied?”

See Mr. Gregory’s comments in their entirety below:

 

To have political disagreements on controversial issues is expected – and healthy. Argue your case. Make a better pitch for your perspective. Involve yourself in rigorous debate. These are the glorious foundations of democracy!

But when you find yourself divulging into the depths of discourse by disparaging honest, hard-working, and first-class city employees in order to win the day, perhaps your case is thin.

The latest “news” was predicted long ago.

 

Faces of District 1 – Betty Kimble

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betty-kimbleAs I finish out my final year as the Denton City Council representative for District 1, I wanted to begin featuring some of the many leaders, movers, and shakers who work daily to create Denton into the city we all  love.

You may not know it, but Denton has two Senior Centers and the one housed in the American Legion building in the middle of Southeast Denton is the direct result of the efforts of Betty Kimble, a remarkable woman who now serves as the center’s Director.

Betty is one of many women who quite literally transformed the landscape of Denton in the 1960s and 1970s through her involvement in the Denton Christian Women’s Inter-Racial Fellowship. Black and white mothers across the city came together to integrate the public schools, fight for paved roads in Southeast Denton, work toward greater voter access, and build relationships between families of different backgrounds. Check out more about Betty and these efforts in her Oral History in the UNT Digital Library.

Betty works daily to provide seniors in her community with fellowship, learning opportunities, and warm meals at the American Legion Senior Center. But she is always thinking about the next generation. “I always set aside some cookies or donuts for neighborhood kids who stop by every day after they get off the bus from school,” Betty told me recently.

Healing the racial divides of the city, integrating public schools, paving roads “on the other side of the tracks,” serving seniors and kids each and every day – it’s hard to think of a better example of someone creating a better city.

 

The Supposed Gentrification of Denton

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Is Denton experiencing gentrification? Citing rising property values, changes in the downtown business make-up, new development in our urban core, and several anecdotes about people not being able to buy a house or afford rents, many in town are taking to social media to claim that we are. Even our local newspaper is chiming in, forwarding the narrative that downtown is in trouble and the Denton Creative Class is being forced out.

Let’s bring some data to the discussion.

But first, let’s define the question. According to a dictionary, gentrification is “the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents.”

This definition shows why the phenomena is generally found in certain areas of our nation’s urban centers, usually following a renewed interest in downtown areas that have been neglected for decades thanks to the growth of suburban America post-World War II. You don’t refer to a city, as a whole, undergoing gentrification, rather you point to a particular neighborhood that experiences significant change over time.

There’s also significant back-and-forth among urban planners and urban researchers as to the problems gentrification brings and whether managed gentrification can be good for underserved areas.

It is important to understand what gentrification is not (according to all definitions):

  • a general rise in property values that track across a city and track with trends state and nation-wide
  • a housing market that makes it difficult for most homebuyers to purchase a home anywhere in a given city due to supply and demand
  • the closing of a particular business
  • the opening of a particular business
  • Walmart coming into town
  • Chain businesses setting up (in fact, many point to the emergence of distinctively local, trendy, and unique/boutique businesses as a sign of gentrification)

For the purposes of this analysis, let’s look at how property values, rent, income, and ethnic make-up track over time in Denton by zip code. If Denton was experiencing gentrification in one or more of its neighborhoods, we would expect to see this played out in one or more of these categories. And you’d see it happening in neighborhoods connected to our downtown core.

Daniel Hartley, research economist at the Cleveland Federal Reserve, defines the metrics of gentrification as follows: a neighborhood (census tract) that has “moved from the bottom half of the distribution of home prices in the metropolitan area to the top half” between a given set of years. As we look at the data, let’s look for neighborhoods in Denton that follow a trend similar to this.

Here’s a zip code map of Denton. Pay attention to 76201 – that’s where downtown, our two universities, and their surrounding neighborhoods reside. There have been massive changes and investment in this area over the last ten years with renewed interest in our downtown, so if gentrification is happening in Denton, this is where you would expect to find it:

Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 6.29.57 AM

PROPERTY VALUES
The following chart shows the trend of property values in Denton since 2007 and compares those trend lines with the average values in the US, in Texas, and for purposes of comparison, a city to the North of us (Sanger), and a city to the South of us (Lewisville).

Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 6.25.44 AM

Denton is the yellow line. This shows that the rise in property values that we are experiencing in Denton are all part of a trend nationally and Texas specifically. Notice the parallel trend lines of Texas, Denton, Sanger, and Lewisville.  The slope of property values in Denton is not anomalous and therefore not indicative of something particularly problematic for our city.

This is also made clear by the median home sales price per square foot. Consider the following chart comparing Denton to the rest of the country:

Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 8.15.24 AMBut what do the trend lines look like within Denton? Do we see significant property value changes in certain neighborhoods in Denton signaling gentrification? Do we see what Hartley says to look for – a particular neighborhood going from the bottom of the pack toward the top rapidly? Below are the property value trend lines by zip code in Denton since 1996:

Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 8.23.06 AM

This chart demonstrates a remarkable stability across Denton’s neighborhoods. While some neighborhoods are more expensive, property values are rising at a consistent rate across the city. The revitalization around the downtown square, train station, and universities (all within 76201 – the bottom line) has not impacted the property values of the surrounding single family neighborhoods in a way that is different from the property value increases across the city. In fact, 76201 continues to be the cheapest place to by a home across the entire city. A fact I find remarkable.

Compare this with a case of actual gentrification in Austin – the ascent of 78702 in East Austin. Look for the dotted line representing that zip code. Notice how it is rapidly ascending from the bottom of the pack toward the middle. That sort of trend-bucking change is a great indicator of gentrification:

Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 8.38.58 AM

IS THE RENT TOO DAMN HIGH?
Not everyone can or desires to purchase their own home, so rents across our city are another important indicator that might point to gentrification. Let’s first consider how Denton compares nationally, in the state, and with the same cities we used above in the area of single family home rental cost per month:

Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 8.59.41 AM

Here you see that Denton is above the state and national average, but that it has been that way for a while and the trends lines are roughly parallel to the national, state, and averages found in other cities.

Let’s see how single family home rental rates track across zip codes within Denton since 2010:

Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 9.05.45 AM

Once again, as we saw with home values, the trend lines are consistent across the city and 76201 – where our downtown neighborhoods reside – continues to be the cheapest place to rent a home in the entire city.

And here’s a chart showing the trend lines for multi-family rental units across zip codes in Denton:

Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 9.24.40 AM

While 76201 is not the cheapest place to rent an apartment in Denton (it’s the second cheapest), it also isn’t trending abnormally as compared with other parts of town. And this is particularly remarkable given several hundred high end units that have gone in around the square in recent years.

CHANGING ETHNIC DEMOGRAPHICS?
Something else to pay attention to as it relates to gentrification is the changing percentages of ethnicity within key neighborhoods. According to the census, neighborhoods in 76201 continue to become more diverse between 2000 and 2014:


2000 2010 2014
White 74.70% 74% 69.80%
Black 8.80% 12.50% 13.10%
Hispanic 18% 15.70% 18.30%

 

INCOME DATA
Gentrification typically occurs when something triggers a surge of higher income residents into a particular area. Denton, generally speaking, does not have the type of jobs or income characteristics to force rapid gentrification anywhere in the city. Denton’s median household income consistently lags behind the state. And as you see from the below chart, 76201 is well behind that:

2000 2010 2014
Median household Income in 76201 30,231 23,328 23,252
Median household Income in Denton 35,422 NA 43,976
Median household Income in Texas NA NA 51,704

CONCLUSION
A look at every metric associated with gentrification, Denton – and in particular our downtown neighborhoods – show absolutely no sign of such a trend. In fact, when I came on council in 2011 – just after the approval of the Downtown Implementation Plan and at the dawn of the downtown apartment boom – I remarked often how the plan left the downtown single family neighborhoods out of the equation. I argued then (and continue to argue) that the first couple of rings of single family homes around downtown have the most potential to realize a renaissance. But not a renaissance associated with the displacement of poor families and minorities, rather a renaissance of families moving back to neighborhoods that have historically been seen as places for real estate investors to have rental homes for college students. The conversion of downtown neighborhoods from college rentals to owner-occupied homes would be a welcome change.

So much more could be said on this topic and the unique impact of having two growing universities within our downtown core and how that impacts these neighborhoods and what sort of college apartment policy we should have to guide this… But I’ll stop here.

Thoughts?

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