I’m Going to Stop Stressing Out About Climate Change Now

I keep waiting to read about innovative energy technologies with potential to handle the worlds demand, however all I ever hear about are existing technology options that will clearly be too little too late or miss hitting the true problem targets.  I have mentioned this before and I will likely keep saying this, but change is almost always based on financial motivation.  Public infrastructure entities lack the financial motivation to be the source of change.  The economics of change point to private entrepreneurs with the financial motivation of investors being the source of change that the world desperately needs to mitigate climate change.  I would like to share a few examples of ground breaking innovations that may change the game and the extent of the climate change problem completely.

The power grids in the US cannot store power, they can only convey power.  An unacceptable amount of energy is also lost during conveyance, meaning that it is essentially wasted.  Elon Musk of Tesla and SpaceX is addressing the lack of energy storage problem with innovations in battery technology associated with residential solar collection. teslapwrwall I could go on and on about how cool and obvious it is that energy storage will reduce the demand of energy production, but please check it out directly from the source.  http://www.teslamotors.com/powerwall

The biggest innovations that the world will potentially see in the next 10 years are based on harnessing the power of fusion. Fusion has the potential the meet the world’s current and future energy demand as well as to mitigate climate change on a colossal scale. Nuclear power that has been around for the last century uses fission, which is simply stated as the pulling apart of atoms.  Fusion is putting atoms together.  The fusion process creates large quantities of energy and produced zero harmful waste.  Currently there are a few fronts in the effort to bring fusion to the world.

Bill Gates is heavily invested in a company that uses nuclear waste for the fusion process they call Traveling Wave Reactor – which would serve the added benefit of reducing the worlds quantities of stored nuclear waste. terrapower scrnshotThey are currently in progress of building the prototype plant which is expected to be completed by the the early 2020’s. The company is called Terra Power and it is based out of Bellevue, WA.  It is amazing and truly exiting, please check it out for yourself.  http://terrapower.com/ 

On the other front of fusion is a truly global effort that is being constructed in France currently by the ITER Organization.  ITER has received $13 billion dollars of funding from China, European Union, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the United States. The ITER fusion process is very different than the process used by Terra Power. Similar to what happens in the sun, fusing hydrogen atoms together to create helium as well as massive jet_tokamak_plasma_overlay_1amounts of heat energy.  What is intended to be a fully functional fusion power plant is on track to begin producing energy in the 2020’s.  Each fusion power plant would be the same size as current power plants such as coal or nuclear and produce as much energy as a currently operating nuclear power plant – minus the nuclear waste.  But don’t take my word for it. http://www.iter.org/ 

It starts to get really depressing reading about problem after problem in regards to climate change. I am so happy that there are real and viable solution in the works. I can’t believe we do not hear more or anything at all about these endeavors in the news.  What could possibly be more important or interesting? Luckily there is more than just one team and method underway to hedge our bets in this crisis situation. Let’s cross our fingers that they both meet their milestone goals of initial testing within the next 10 years.

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Give the People What They Want; TOTCHOS!

While standing on a very crowded lightrail train headed home (yes ridership is undeniably strong for the starter set length of track) I was happy to see that next to me was a seated post-work commuter cracking open a new issue of the The Stranger (a free weekly alternative editiorial publication seemingly without an corporate oversight or constraint, which is widely read by Seattlites).  It was so crowded on the train that was pressed against the vertical grab bar and essentially hanging over the shoulder of the ponytailed Amazon programming engineer (definitely a stereotyping assumption of employment) so that I could read every word on the pages of The Stranger.  I hadn’t read the issue yet and if I were to have held a paper it would have been in the faces of other passagers.  It was unspoken but I thought that my ponytailed friend knew that we would be reading together.  As the train left the University stop in the tunnel we started with the first pages of tattoo parlor, strip club and bar ads, then after a brief visual scan of the vice offerings we began flipping through the pages at a very regular pace.  Scan all of the pictures and article titles giving interesting pictures a second look then on to the next page.  “Wait that article about the meth pipe alternative to needle exchange would be worth reading at least a few paragraphs,or, oh, now we have to give the article about the changes to how Seattle will vote for city council members a stop and at least skim.” was franticly saying to the ponytail guy, in my head, as he flipped through the meat of the issue. Just as I was about to give up on this reading partnership, he found something worth taking the time to investigate further.  “The Mereoric Rise of Totchos; The Tater Tot-Nachos Hybrid Is Showing Up on Menus All Over Town-Here’s What You Need to Know” was the title over a very large picture of an off-white thick diner plate covered with a Mt. Rainier of golden tater tots, melted cheddar cheese, greasy bacon pieces, diced green onions and an ice cream scoop size summit of sour cream.  I’m not sure if it looks like something you should eat. “Wait are you folding the paper from two page scan to one page serious read?”, I mentally sarcastically exclaimed.  “That’s it, this is just not going to work”, I pouted, my final mental words, to Ponytail Guy. I decided to avert my eyes from his paper and reflect on my thoughts, right after finding out which fine establishments were serving Totchos, just in case I need to get some.

Ponytail Guy is a Pemco insurance ad type guy; just like us a little different, but for the time left on the train I decided to classify him as the average person.  He doesn’t want to spend his free time thinking or worrying about issues like voting or drug addicts along 3rd Ave. He just wants to find out more about Totcho history and where he can go for cheddar or queso options. He doesn’t feel like he can do anything about any issues and he’s not angry about anything.  Amazon pays pretty well and he can get Totchos anytime he wants at several nearby locations. He can watch anything he wants tonight on Netflix and tomorrow morning Starbucks will be waiting for him with a nice warm cup of He Don’t Give a @#$%. Why should he care about stuff that doesn’t have to concern him, work is boring and life is short. How can issues like Carbon Efficiency be metaphorically covered in melted cheese, bacon, green onions and sour cream?  Tater tots alone are boring and would not have gotten Ponytail Guy’s attention.  It is clearly all the “Fixins” that are giving the tater tots the spot light. “Fixins” add time and expense to the equation but they add exponential value to the tater tots.  The “Fixins” for Carbon Efficiency could be cool architecture, high speed trains, clean breathable air in the future and Teslas.  We could put all the “Fixins” on the Carbon Efficiency story and bring a Totchos type awareness to the people.  A Taco Bell strength marketing campaign will need to follow to make sure they know where to get it and what their options are.

Maybe Ponytail Guy was riding the lightrail with me because he got rid of his car. He could work for Greenpeace, is on his way home to a very well insulated urban infill micro-apartment, helps homeless drug addicts on the weekend and already decided to vote for Mike O’brien as well as two other non-incumbants.  In that case he deserves to just think about Totchos and Netflix for an evening.  In fact I feel like I now owe him a plate of Totchos.

Protect the Herd

I just reread chapters 1-5 of Nudge.  It took me several hours to read it because I would stop and think for a while about each concept during and after reading it.  In fact I actually read it multiple times over because my thoughts about the concepts would take me away from actually reading the words on the pages and I would have to go back and reread the sentences before my mind started to wander.  It is so interesting and valuable to understand social psychology pertaining to instincts, motivations and triggers of individuals as well as herds.  It even seems to help me better understand myself.  I tend to think of myself as a bit of a maverick that does not follow the herd without questioning direction or purpose, however I am aware that when I am not paying attention, lack the energy to resist, or just plain don’t realize it, I too move with the herd.  Ideally I want to stay just outside the herd so that I can have a clear view of the surroundings and state of the herd. (I would like to envision myself as a sheep dog vs. a sheep, or at least a barking sheep) I care about the herd and I want what is best for the herd, for both selfless and selfish reasons.  I feel that my own happiness is reliant on the overall happiness of the herd. I actually reread Nudge, and finished the Carbon Efficient City with a specific problem in mind.

I, or more likely someone even smarter and more motivated than me, could come up with a beautiful series of plans and systems to improve the life quality and sustainability of the herd, but I have not figure out how to defend against those who definitely do not want what is best for the herd.  Unfortunately there are and always have been, throughout history, individuals who without guilt want to destroy beautiful plans and see sustainability as problems for other generations. Or worst of all they find and operate leverage points solely for their own personal gain or desire.

I know that it is a never-ending struggle to defend and continue to pursue the betterment of society, however over the last year I have been having to deal with someone who I believe to be a “High Functioning Sociopath”. This is my first encounter with someone of this nature and caliber. It bothers me to think of how many others are out there.  It seems that HFS’s are drawn to leverage points and are very capable of getting to them, maybe even more capable in fact.  Stepping over and on people is one way to get where you are going.

Traffic: It’s Not a Problem

I started to think that traffic should be added to the list of the unavoidable and un-enjoyable along with death and taxes.  Based upon my recent discovery that there is nothing that can ever be done to win the war on traffic. The discovery for me started with the denial phase after reading “More Roads = More Traffic” from daily.sightline.org.  The article was short and basically said that if you build more roads or lanes they will return to an equal level of congested after a brief period of relief, which seemed reasonable to me.  However the statement that “public transportation has virtually no effect on traffic volumes” is what I did not want to believe to be true.  Because if this were true then that would mean that we are doomed to ever increasing gridlock and durations listening to talk radio.  There were no facts presented in the Sightline Daily post because it was just a synopsis of the study “The Fundamental Law of Road Congestion: Evidence from US cities” by Duranton and Turner from the University of Toronto Department of Economics, so of course I had to read the study to make sure that it was wrong.

I found the study to be like most pure academic papers unbiased, opinion free and mostly a presentation of the methodology.  The information was presented for the reader to do what they choose with the results.  Before reaching the end of the study I picked up and held on to the note “these data do not allow us to investigate other forms of public transportation, such as light rail, independently of buses”, because this way I would not have to give up the hope that public transportation could fix traffic.  I could concede pretty easily that buses would not fix traffic, because in my mind if buses can get stuck in traffic of course they cannot fix traffic. But light rail, the great traffic proof frequent stopping train, could still potentially fix traffic if we add more of it.

Then I suddenly realized that fixing traffic should not be the point or the goal.  For example even if light rail does not fix traffic it does not mean that light rail would not be serving a successful purpose.  Trying to directly fix traffic is a futile endeavor, which the study makes quite clear. Traffic is just a result or consequence of other societal choices and behaviors. The still currently predominant societal choices and behaviors that fuel the demand for highway car and truck travel are what need to be fixed.  I am not going to go on further about the choices or behaviors, which fall into broad categories like sprawl, cheap fixes and lazy shortsighted convenience. Most people reading this will already be aware of these type of statements and maybe even agree that societal choices and behaviors need to be changed because we are not currently setup for sustainability across many fronts.  The thing that bothers me is that I already knew or believed this stuff, but for some reason I still had a disconnect in thinking of traffic as a problem that needed to be directly addressed.  Perhaps it was a lingering bit of wishful self-centered ignorance that I could one day drive a car through Seattle at any time of day going the speed limit.  I hope I don’t have too much more lingering ignorance, but the more I learn the more I find.

Diamonds in the Disposable Built Environment

I am personally a huge fan of retrofitting existing structures to preserve architectural character and the textures of building materials such as heavy timbers and old brick.  I also think that it is common sense that you should not tear down a perfectly good old building to build a new one the exact same size, that would just be wasteful.

However in most cities throughout the United States there are not really that many historic structures.  We are a very young country and built environment.  The west coast cities for example have only grown up over the last century with most of the growth was within the last 50 years.  Unfortunately most of the growth over the last 50 years was based on land intensive car culture and disposable use culture.  Anything built before these American cultural phases were the established, and still maintains it’s original integrity should be considered for historic preservation.  Most everything else was not built to last and has very little architectural appeal, as they were just boxes built as cheaply and quickly as possible.

In context of Seattle, of course Capital Hill, etc have buildings that need to be preserved, but these buildings are in thriving neighborhoods with pre-WWII history. Liz Dunn probably doesn’t spend much time along Aurora or Rainier Ave.  I do, not because I work on the street corner, but because I want to figure out how to repair the damage done over the last 50 years by irresponsible American cultural phases, also I couldn’t afford to buy a house on Capital Hill. I don’t see small infill or retrofit projects as a solution with the strength to fix a bigger picture problem, however they work in small scale areas like Columbia City.  But Aurora and Rainier are big mistakes that will need a considerable amount of erasing.  I just hope that the “correct” answers fill in the space of the previous mistakes.

Dude, Where’s My Car?

I often wonder what the best strategy would be to incentivize people to part with their cars and completely embrace an urban transit lifestyle.  The parking requirements add significant up front costs to multifamily projects that have to build below grade parking structures.  Many developers advocate to do away with parking requirements, based on the evolving demographic of carless city dwellers.  However in neighborhoods like Capital Hill, Wallingford and Fremont infill projects providing the minimal parking required are often opposed by the existing residents. The existing residents feel that potential tenants of the infill projects will move into units that do no have available parking spaces and park their cars on the streets.  These neighborhoods are extremely difficult to park in on a daily basis and the existing residents who obviously have cars themselves and/or have friends/family that visit with cars. If multi-family developers could get variances from the parking requirements it would have a negative effect on the surrounding communities if their incoming tenants all park cars on the surrounding streets.

More and more people are making an active decision to not own a car. At the same time many people, even regular transit commuters who only drive infrequently, are hesitant to divorce their cars. In exchange for providing developers variances for parking requirements, the developers should guarantee that none of their tenants will have cars.  This guarantee would be enforced similarly to the MFTE tenant incomes.  That would currently be a big risk for an institutional size apartment developer to plan on filling their market rate apartment building with carless tenants.

Perhaps the upfront cost savings of not having construct underground parking would enable for a significantly lower carless market rate rent to still pencil out as a benefit on the proforma.  Developers could also use a portion of the cost savings to provide tenant incentive packages designed to excite people about breaking up with their cars.  Ideally everyone could realize that the relationship was actually more of a burden.

Tenant Incentive Ideas to Help People Become Car-free(a combination of these would be most effective, as well as the typical tenant incentive free stuff)

  1. $1,500 or more, credit at a local bike shop
  2. Car2Go or similar service credit to cover 1 year of infrequent use
  3. Uber credit
  4. 1 year unlimited use metro card
  5. Matching a percentage of a cars trade in value received.
  6. Free U-Haul use at move-in
  7. Free use of a bike share service and a rack rental station in front of the building
  8. Airline miles
  9. Ski bus access
  10. Free IKEA delivery
  11. Anything else that would further reinforce and drive home the idea in people’s minds that they would not be losing mobility or convenience by parting with their cars.

A dual purpose marketing campaign and survey inquiring about what it would take for people to go car-free would provide additional insight and leasing momentum.

Fairness and market equilibrium

This post was intended to be published on urbdp598 prior to the February 9th class.

It seems to me that the conversation about the need for affordable housing is amplified during a multi-family real estate development boom. Rents are rising and new apartments are being developed across the city. People often seem angered by the new apartments being built and they get even angrier when they find out how high the rents in these new apartments will be. There should be new apartments with lower rents being built as well, because it is not fair. However this is the worst time possible to build “affordable” housing. Land costs are rising along with the costs of construction. Unfortunately it costs nearly the same to build an apartment with high rents as it does to build one with lower rents. Most market rate apartments are built as cheaply as possible. The only real premium thing about new market rate apartments is the “new”. It seems to me that the ideal time to create new affordable housing is only when the market rate development is in a downturn. Land and construction prices will be significantly lower at this time.

However I wonder if the market equilibrium, that occurs after the market rate downturn, can also resemble a level of fairness in housing affordability. The equilibrium rental rates tend to come down until the desired vacancy rates return(based on a boom ending when vacancy rates rise and rents can no longer be increased). The highest rental rates will remain with the newest apartments. Theoretically the individuals with the highest incomes will have moved into the newest apartments, and many of them will have moved from an older apartment with a lower rental rate. What I am envisioning is that the new apartment stock creates the ability for rental income classes to be able to shift upward, freeing up more affordable units in the middle range that were occupied by individuals who could afford higher rents. The middle range units tend to have a demand that greatly exceeds supply. This middle range may not typically qualify as affordable housing however this is likely the rental range that a large percentage of the population who’s incomes are at or below area median income can afford. Perhaps the public outcry for “affordable” housing is quieted when a larger number of these middle range units become available. I can’t help but think that market equilibrium and fairness could be correlated.