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How the economic crash will impact cities and where we want to live…


Hey all you Green Cities-types. It’s not every day you encounter an article called “Green Cities, Brown Suburbs”, so I just had to pass it along. This interesting article builds off of a study economists Edward Glaeser from Harvard and Matthew Kahn from UCLA have done trying to quantify how to be good to the environment, or more specifically where to live if you want to limit your carbon dioxide emissions. And yes – it includes rankings! The article ranks metropolitan areas based on their carbon emissions, compares suburb-city carbon emissions and shows the relationship between carbon dioxide emissions and the Wharton Residential Land Use Regulation Index, which measures barriers against local building in metropolitan areas.

The big winners…coastal California and New York City. The five metropolitan areas with the lowest levels of carbon emissions are San Francisco, San Jose, San Diego, Los Angeles, and Sacramento, where there are low levels of both electricity and home heating use. New York City has the largest emissions gap between central city and suburbs, with the study estimating that that the average New Yorker emits 4,462 pounds less of transportation-related carbon dioxide than his suburbanite counterpart.

The article concludes: “Thoreau was wrong. Living in the country is not the right way to care for the Earth. The best thing that we can do for the planet is build more skyscrapers.” It’s like music to a city girl’s ears.

Stay tuned for an event this semester at the law school with Professor Glaeser to discuss this study.


Mayors Do the Darndest Things

February 16th, 2009

Mexico City Kiss-In (photo courtesy AP)

Mexico City Kiss-In (photo by AP)

Somehow Mexico City appears to be a big focus for me on the FLoG Blog this year, and so I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to highlight an article in Friday’s NY Times. With midterm elections coming up in July, Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard has starting focusing on some more, ahem, interesting tactics to generate support from his constituents. The newest – free government distributed free Viagra, Cialis and Levitra (erectile dysfunction drugs) to poor men over 60. In announcing the plan and noting that many elderly people do not qualify for employer heath plans, the mayor said “Everyone has the right to be happy…They don’t have medical services, and a society that doesn’t care for its senior citizens has no dignity.”

Adding to the amorous spirit, this weekend for Valentine’s Day the government sponsored a “kiss-in”, in which just under 40,000 people gathered in the Zocalo main square to set the world record for the world’s largest group kiss. The event was meant to celebrate the holiday and “to show that warmth and love are at the core of this capital”, according to the City’s tourism department.

Now in a city that has been plagued with crime, efforts to encourage people to love rather than hate seem a conceptually nice idea. This is true particularly when contrasted with statistics stemming from a recent crackdown against drug traffickers that has led to widespread violence across the country. At least 6,000 people died in drug-related conflicts in Mexico in 2008.

Though the long term benefits of free Viagra and giant group kissing-fests seem dubious and more like politically transparent pandering than anything else, it remains to be seen what the response will be among the voters of Mexico City. And who knows, if tactics like these end up having some positive effect, perhaps we in the US might take a lesson and focus on a whole new type of stimulus plan. (Sorry – terrible pun. I just couldn’t resist.)


A New Tower for Midtown

November 18th, 2008

Port Authority Bus Terminal Tower

Yesterday the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (a delightfully powerful and complex bi-state authority) announced the selection of the architecture firm Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners to design an office tower on top of the Port Authority Bus Terminal on Manhattan’s west side. The design team, formerly known as Richard Rogers Partnership (which has designed projects including Barajas airport in Madrid, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Millennium Dome in London and, for all you lawyers – the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg) will be working for 20 X Square Associates, a joint venture of Vornado Realty Trust and affiliates of Lawrence Ruben Company.

For any who have traveled through the Port Authority’s bus terminal, such a redevelopment – which is slated to upgrade bus gates, improve circulation in the terminal, create new retail spaces and give an overall more modern look to the terminal – is a welcome announcement. All the improvements to the terminal will be done beneath a brand new 1.3 million SF office tower, built with the terminal’s unused air rights. The developers will lease the air rights from the Port Authority for 99 years under rental terms that have already been established (a fixed rent to the Port Authority of $344.5 million or $265/SF for the 99 year period as well as a percentage of the net operating income). Such income will be much valued by the Port Authority, which is responsible for PATH train service, the region’s three airports, the cargo port of New York and New Jersey as well as the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site in Lower Manhattan.

This project has been in the works for more than ten years, with many stops and starts along the way. Though selection of an architect means the project is still months and likely years away from really getting underway, it is hard not to wonder whether there is any market for more Class A office space in midtown today. Across the street from the bus terminal, SJP properties has just topped out its 1.1 million SF commercial and retail tower at 11 Times Square. That project, built on spec, is expected to be completed by January 2010, but there are still no reported tenants. Will the Port Authority tower face a similar fate? Or is it far enough off in the future that we can expect better things for New York’s real estate market?

Join Mayor Cory Booker tomorrow evening at 8:00 p.m. on CNN’s Campbell Brown as they discuss the election and the future of America’s cities.

Blight in Buffalo

November 12th, 2008

Buffalo, NY has a lot bigger challenges than finding a way to keep the Bills (or for that matter finding a way for the Bills to win a game against a divisional rival). An estimated 30% of Buffalonians live in poverty, and a huge chunk of the housing stock is vacant while there is also a dearth of affordable housing for the poorest city residents. There is a fantastic organization run by a recent HLS alum, Aaron Bartley, called PUSH Buffalo ( which, among other things, is working to convert abandoned and blighted real estate into affordable housing. PUSH seems to have an interesting model, which includes some advocacy and lobbying and other direct services like the provision of co-op housing arrangements to encourage housing ownership among the poor, and the FLoG Blog hopes to bring Aaron in for a guest post sometime soon. 

There is also a proposal on the table for the city of Buffalo to become a “living laboratory” to solve the vacant housing crises. The proposal includes many different initiatives all to be centrally coordinated at the University of Buffalo, these initiatives include the creation of regional development authorities and incentives for businesses that build green buildings and create green jobs. (You can read more about the living laboratory project here: The proposal seems to want to draw in the talent and the money (from federal and state government) that would be needed to tackle the problem. The remaining question is whether the city (or more accurately, the region) will have the legal authority and the political will to implement these proposals. It is unclear whether the state economic development statutes will allow the local Industrial Development Agencies to merge into a regional authority, and even if this merge can happen, it is unclear whether the political willpower will exist to seek regional cooperation. Aaron Bartley may have put it best:  “The question remains whether our leaders in the public and private sector, who have failed so miserably to address the problem thus far, will recognize the need for regional cooperation and a less parochial outlook on development matters”

Back with more on Buffalo in the coming weeks. . . 

Muni Bonds

November 5th, 2008

There’s obviously been some huge news today on the federal government front. Over here at the FLOG blog we’re still pretty interested in seeing what sort of urban policy President-Elect Obama will push in his administration. (see post below on Obama as a “metropolitan president”).

An indirect influence that Obama’s election may have on cities is that it may make municipal bonds more desirable to investors. There has been some indication that local governments were concerned about their ability to find buyers for their bonds (, this problem may be mitigated by the fact that many taxpayers in the highest bracket are likely to see their taxes go up under the new administration. This may provide an increased incentive for these taxpayers to invest in state and local bonds. Not only will these taxpayers be able to receive interest off of these bonds tax free, but, according to the Wall Street Journal, buyers should not fear that local governments will default because this possibility has already been priced into the bonds.

It is unlikely that there are enough wealthy muni buyers for the interest rates on local bonds to go down dramatically any time soon, but this seems like it could mean a slightly more stable financial situation for some local governments. 

Two interesting articles on public school options and parental choice vis a vis zoning and charter schools in New York City:

Happy Election Day, everyone. 

As people across the country head to the polls, we know what will be on their minds: proposed revisions to municipal charters.  Will Baltimore create a Department of General Services?  Will the Commissioners of Miami-Dade County get an $85,000 raise?  Will Philadelphia combine its Parks and Recreation departments into one?  Esoteric though the questions may be, their answers will have a substantial impact on the how these local governments function for years to come. 

In Philly, the separation between the Fairmount Park Commission and the Department of Recreation has long been a source of frustration and inefficiency.  A 2004 strategic plan tried to redefine their roles, but in 2008 the lines of authority remained blurred.  Today, it’s up to the citizens of Philadelphia to fix the problem — because their elected representatives don’t have the power to do so.

In the midst of New York City’s term limit saga, it’s easy to get the wrong idea about municipal power.  Though the Mayor and Council of New York City can give each other another crack at their offices (over the repeatedly expressed will of the voters, no less) the same actors in Philadelphia can’t even merge two related agencies.  They can only put the question on the ballot.  I suspect that the average Philadelphian would be as surprised to learn what his government couldn’t do as New Yorkers were taken aback to learn what their government could.  And there are many more cities in Philadelphia’s position than there are in New York’s.

Direct democracy may once have looked like a bulwark against urban political machines, but today it’s a curiosity and a hindrance more often than not.  When voters are not invested in the ballot questions before them, their votes are necessarily arbitrary.  And they can produce some strange results.

Just ask California.

— JB

El Gridlock?

October 30th, 2008

Traffic in Mexico City

For a little international perspective, last week I was traveling in Mexico City and got to experience firsthand the joys and challenges of navigating that city’s roadways. Having done some thinking about how cities can regulate their traffic problems in my home town of New York, I was interested to see the effects of “Hoy No Circula” a program implemented by the government in Mexico City in late 1989 to limit the number of cars on the road. The goal of the program was both to address traffic issues but also primarily an effort to improve the city’s air quality. Though there are a handful of exemptions, the basic idea of the program is that one day each week from Monday-Friday there is a prohibition on driving in the city depending on the last digit of each car’s license plate. For example, if the last digit of your license plate is 5 or 6, you are not allowed to drive on Mondays.

Though an interesting concept, and one that has been replicated in Sao Paolo, Bogota and Santiago, I must say that experientially it was hard for me to believe that there were 20% fewer cars on the road as I sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the way from the airport. And as it turns out, my experience may not have been all that far off from the truth. According to an article published in the February Journal of Political Economy by University of Michigan Asst. Professor of Economics Lucas W. Davis, air quality tests have shown no improvement in the city as a result of the driving restriction program. The study shows that there has been no demonstrated increase in ridership of the public transit system on either subways or buses. Additionally, evidence from vehicle registrations and automobile sales have shown that the program has actually lead to an increase in the total number of cars in circulation as residents buy additional cars so they may continue to drive everyday without concern of their license plate number. For more on the study, see

This article raises interesting questions about a local government’s ability to change drivers’ behaviors and preferences in selecting their methods of transportation. Would such a driving restriction program see the same effects if implemented here? Would drivers just find a way around the regulations to continue driving in much the same way? And could perhaps the fight against congestion pricing in New York last year be seen as the same type of rejection of a local government imposition of restrictions on the free movement of its citizen drivers? This study, and the seemingly unresolved fate of congestion pricing in New York, remind us of the uphill barrier that cities face in trying to get their citizens to move away from a life built around “el coche” (the car).

Metropolitan President?

October 27th, 2008

There’s a great article in the Washington Post today about Brarack Obama as a “metropolitan candidate.”


Surely  Obama does have more of a connection to cities than any other presidential candidate in a long time. What’s interesting though is how the Post paints him as more interested in the appealing to metropolitan regions broadly as opposed to the urban core, both because swing voters live in suburbs and because the distinction between suburbs and cities is quickly evaporating, as evident by the dramatic increase in suburban poverty. Obama’s regional policies involve an emphasis on infrastructure development a white house office of urban policy that will “goad cities within a metropolitan region into working together,” and the creation of more public-private partnerships. 

These policy proposals seem fairly broad at this point, but what’s interesting is that it seems like some mayors are finding hope in them. I found the most interesting part of the article to be this quote from the Minneapolis mayor:

“Mayors like this package partly because, aside from infrastructure spending, it doesn’t cost much in a time of low budgets. Cities need a president who understands that they “are no longer the basket case they are often described as from Washington,” said Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak (D). “The skills we need in a president aren’t the old skills of putting together a benevolent program for communities that will always be disempowered. We need someone who’s done what Obama has done, to go into communities that have been hard hit and understand their assets, mobilize people to help them solve their problems.”

It appears that big city mayors like Obama not only for his commitment to cities but also for his recognition of region-wide problems and his demonstrated commitment to community empowerment. If the election does turn out the way many our predicting it will, it will be interesting to see whether these two interests an be pursued from the White House, which has been in the habit of either ignoring cities or providing them with grants and subsidies that do not recognize their need for empowerment within a region-wide setting. 

More on Term Limits. . . .

October 7th, 2008

The FLoG Blog had some technical problems but is up and running again. I thought we’d take a closer look at the term limits issue in New York. Here is a little bit of research I did this morning (comments welcome!):

It seems like the claim that the City Council can override the voter-passed term limit referendums is more legally problematic than some have made it out to be. In most cases there is no reason that a City Council local law cannot override a voter-passed referendum (see Caruso v. City of New York), but the City Charter and the New York State Municipal Home Rule law provide an exception to this rule: Any law that seeks to “change the term of an elective officer” must be passed-by New York City voters (Chapter 2 § 38(4) of the NYC Charter). On its face, this would seem to preclude the possibility of passing the Bloomberg-law without a referendum, but it seems like the Mayor must be basing his judgment that a City Council-passed law would be sufficient on a 2003 New York State Appellate Division ruling that the City Council could pass a law allowing City Councilmembers who had served a four year term and a two year term (during the transition from four-year to two-year terms) to serve another two-year term even though it would be their third term, otherwise in violation of the city’s term limits (Golden v. New York City Council) (the Court of Appeals denied cert). The court in that case based its opinion on the fact that the local law “amended the term limit provisions” without “changing the term of office.”

The law at issue in this case is different from what the Mayor wants to pass because though it allows certain Councilmembers to serve an extra term, it does not necessarily enable them to serve more than eight years. If the purpose of term limits is to prevent politicians from spending too much time in office, then this difference would seem to be a hugely important one. Nonetheless, the language the court uses may apply equally to the mayor’s proposed law. By “term of office” the court seems to be referring to the length of a single term – something that the Mayor’s proposed law would not address – and it contrasts this with “amend[ing] the term limit provisions,” which is what the Bloomberg law would do. The language here is likely sufficient to allow the City Council to pass the Bloomberg-law, but it is important to note that the issue is much closer than the media seems to be presenting it.

First post!

October 2nd, 2008

Welcome to the Forum on Local Government Law Blog (or the FLoG Blog!). This will be a space where law students interested in local government issues can post thoughts. 

So, the big news in local government law today is Mayor Bloomberg’s announcement that he would run for a third term if the City Council changed term limits:

From the legal perspective, one interesting thing going on here is the City Council’s ability to amend its own charter with a majority vote even in the face contradictory voter-passed referendums. 

More interesting, I think, is the question about what this says about politics in New York City. New York City is a place that has been constantly torn between the sometimes competing norms of getting things done  and maintaining democratic accountability (see Robert Moses). Given this history, are voters more or less likely to elect Bloomberg again?

Some have seen this move as enhancing democratic choice ( Is this how voters will see it?


October 2nd, 2008

Welcome to the Forum on Local Government. We’re very excited to start sharing our ideas and thoughts with you. Question or comment? Let us know by leaving a comment below. Also, you can follow what’s happening on this blog by visiting our main site here. Thanks and come back soon!