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A Year of Driving

A year ago today I bought my first post-stroke tank of gas. The 9 months prior to my stroke I did not have a car — my motorized transportation was a 49cc Honda Metropolitan scooter that got around 90 miles per gallon.  A year ago I felt guilty about going back to driving a car. I’m over the guilt although I want to, someday, go back to not having a car.

So the day I buy gas for the first time in nearly six months just happens to have been the day gas prices peaked in St. Louis.  I paid $3.979/gallon for basic unleaded. By December 30th I paid a low of $1.339/gallon – a 66% drop. I tracked each fuel purchase and my mpg on an application on my iPhone:

Cold winters and recent a/c use took a toll on my average MPG.  My last fill-up was on a return trip from Chicago – 70mph with a/c.  Pretty good numbers.

During the year I drove 7,200 miles which included a trip to Oklahoma and the recent one to Chicago.  Take out those two road trips and I drove about 5,500 miles around town.  Admittedly I have a big advantage of working from home.  But I also have a compact life shopping locally as well as combining trips. Even as the price of gas dropped I continued to conserve.

The above chart shows the price per gallon that I paid over the last year.  Yes, I’m a nerd by charting this but I’m a visual person.  As we seen the price per gallon has steadily increased in 2009.  It is still a long way from where it was a year ago – the climb up is much slower than the drop off.  But the prices from last summer will return at some point.  There will be a point in a year or two where $4/gallon seems low.

By the end of 2010 I hope to have another scooter — perhaps a hybrid or all-electric scooter.  Like before, I’ll go a couple of years having a car and a scooter before going to scooter-only.  This time I will be able to join Enterprise’s WeCar car-sharing program for those times when I need/want a car.

– Steve Patterson

 

Headquarters Symbolic of Old GM

General Motors is expected to file for bankruptcy protection today.

The GM that helped move the world from horses to Chevys and Cadillacs is expected to file for bankruptcy protection Monday. The new GM that emerges sometime in the future will be leaner — unsaddled from much of its debt and labor cost disadvantages that contributed to tens of billions of dollars of losses. It will also be almost three-quarters owned by U.S. taxpayers.  Source: AP/USA Today

But GM’s headquarters can’t be made leaner as easily.

Above: GMs
Above: GM's Headquarters, July 2006

I saw GM’s Renaissance Center, now branded as Ren Cen, in 2006 while returning to the U.S. from a vacation in Canada  The iconic headquarters gleamed in the sunlight but failed  to impress me.  It symbolizes the old GM — bigger than life, too big in fact.  Disconnected.  It is like tail fins on a Cadillac in an era of Honda Accords.

The history is interesting, starting life with Ford, not GM:

On November 24, 1971, Henry Ford II, then chairman of the board of directors of Ford Motor Company, announced the Renaissance Center project to the Detroit Common Council.  One year later, site clearance for the Center began.  On July 1, 1976 the first office tower (Tower 100) was opened.  A formal dedication was held on April 15, 1977 for the four, 39-floor office towers and the 73-story hotel.Renaissance Center Phase II, Towers 500 and 600, was opened in 1981, as a separate venture developed by subsidiaries of Ford Motor Land Development Corporation and Rockefeller Center, Inc. and purchased by ANR Ren-Cen, Inc. in 1984.

On May 16, 1996, General Motors announced the purchase of the Renaissance Center for use as its global headquarters and later announced a $500 million renovation of the Center.  The GM Renaissance Center is now home to more than 6,000 GM workers and 4,000 Center tenant employees.

  • The total square footage of the GM Renaissance Center is 5.5 million.  The office towers include 2.2 million square feet of space; 230,000 square feet is dedicated to retail space. The Marriott Detroit at the Renaissance Center is one of the tallest hotels in the world with 1,298 guest rooms.
  • Construction on the Ren Cen began May 22, 1973 (Phase I).
  • Project architects were by John Portman & Associates.
  • The Ren Cen has its own zip code – 48243.
  • The GM Renaissance Center sits on 14 acres.
  • There are four 39-story towers (508’ high each).
  • The 73 story 1,298 room hotel (Marriott) is 726’ high and 188’ in diameter.
  • There is a 5-story glass enclosed atrium (GM Wintergarden).
  • There is a 12 ft. wide glass circulation walkway with access to all four towers (for exercise purposes, you need to walk around 8 times for one mile).  Source: gmrencen.com

Like so many projects of the era, the large site was cleaned and started over.  Shedding the past, like bankruptcy.  But in the urban renewal version the result is bloated  and detached.

Source: gmrencen.com  (click image to view)
Source: gmrencen.com (click image to view)

The headquarters isn’t fully to blame for the disconnected from Detroit.  I-375, also known as the Chrysler Expressway, does a good job of separating Detroit from it’s waterfront.

The U. S. auto industry is getting a long overdue overhaul.  New emissions standards will alter the automobiles we see in the future.  Cities too are slowly undoing past urban renewal mistakes.  The scale of GM’s Renaissance Center means it will likely be with us long after the new GM emerges from bankruptcy.  How unfortunate.

 

Controversial “Blairmont” Project to be Revealed Tonight

Tonight we expect politically connected developer Paul McKee, of McEagle Development, to publicly unveil the controversial development project nicknamed “Blairmont.”

The project got this name after one of the early holding companies used to acquire properties, Blairmont Associates LLC.

Here is a video that explains Blairmont:

Another source of info on Blairmont is a January 2007 RFT article.

Out of the controversy came an August 2007 bus tour of McKee’s properties.  Here is 5th Ward Alderman April Ford Griffin:

The next month the meetings continued.  Here is 19th Ward Alderman Marlene Davis:

I got involved by asking a question of Alderman April Ford Griffin.  Griffin is the chair of the Neighborhood Development committee at the Board of Aldermen.  She has a warped view of zoning.  Rather than have excellent zoning that codifies the community vision, she likes outdated zoning so developers must come to her.  The video starts out rough but gets better:

Congressman Clay talks about a hearing held at city hall with a reference to the 1970s Team Four plan that called for reducing services in parts of the city:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jsx_Ph8vEj41976

Here is a summary of the infamous Team Four plan:

This document contains the technical memorandum that was submitted to the Plan Commission by Team Four, Inc. in 1975. This memorandum proposed public policy guidelines and strategies for implementing the Draft Comprehensive Plan that was prepared by others. It offered a series of considerations concerning the process of adopting, staging, budgeting and ultimately implementing the Draft Comprehensive Plan. In addition, this document contains a preface dated 1976 that attempts to clean up any inconsistencies and or controversies surrounding the proposed implementation strategies and a bibliography or annotated listing of Technical Memoranda and Appendixes. Part I of this document focused on strategies for three generic area types: conservation, redevelopment, and depletion areas; and Part II of this document discussed major urban issues and their solutions.

Today “shrinking cities” are studied and various techniques are debated.  In the 70s in St. Louis the Team Four plan was seen as a racist plot to deny services to a minority population.  We know more today about how to adjust to shrinking populations.

Tonight we will see another, a huge heavily subsidized redevelopment plan.  Many are opposed simply based on the history of the project to date.  I for one plan to go with an open mind. I have reservations about both the developer and the political leadership.  Griffin’s view on the role of zoning doesn’t give me a lot of hope for what may be presented in pretty artist renderings actually being completed as promised.  A good framework of a zoning code can help ensure the promised vision develops into reality.

Tonight’s meeting starts at  7pm at Central Baptist Church Education Building 2843 Washington Ave (Google Map).  I’ll be there and will report on the presentation next week.

 

Poll, Where Was Your Car Assembled?

The world auto industry has taken a beating in the last 12 months.  Chrysler just entered bankruptcy.  Auto dealerships, auto suppliers and many others are hurting.  The “Buy American” sentiment can be heard from local dealer ads on the radio to the President. But what defines an American car these days?  Place of assembly?  Not entirely.

Cars.com each year publishes a list to help out car shoppers.  From their most recent 2008 report last July:

Ford and GM continue their reign in this summer’s American-Made Index, but two new automakers — Chrysler and Honda — have joined the list, raising the number of manufacturers on it to five. That’s the most carmakers the AMI has featured in the two years we’ve been compiling it.

How did those two make it? The Alabama-built Odyssey minivan led Honda’s charge thanks to its high domestic-parts content rating, which indicates the percentage of U.S. and Canadian parts, by cost, in a given vehicle. The 2008 Odyssey’s domestic content rating went up to 75 percent, compared to 70 percent for the ’07 model, which comprised a sizeable chunk of last year’s sales.

Chrysler, meanwhile, has had a tough time making the index because a number of its strongest sellers — the Dodge Ram pickup and Grand Caravan minivan, for example — are either assembled mostly in Canada or have comparatively low domestic-parts content ratings. That’s not the case this time: The Chrysler Sebring sedan and convertible, both built in Michigan, pushed a number of others out of the way to make it to ninth place on the list.

In Chrysler’s wake? Among a few models to drop off the list this time around was the Ford Escape, long an AMI staple; it’s domestic-parts content rating fell 25 percentage points (from 90 percent to 65 percent) when it was redesigned for 2008. Last winter, Ford spokesman Wes Sherwood couldn’t give a reason for the domestic content drop, but said Ford is “proud of the domestically produced parts that go into our vehicles … but there are changes from year to year.”

GM has always been a strong player, but that’s true for different reasons this time. The Kansas-built Chevy Malibu moved from an unremarkable 33rd ranking in year-to-date sales in December to 15th overall today, and its 85 percent domestic-parts content rating is as high as any vehicle we surveyed. It jumped to third place in the AMI, up from ninth. Making the opposite trip was the Silverado, whose sagging sales and increased production in Mexico and Canada knocked it down to eighth.

Other GMs, from the Chevrolet Cobalt to the Pontiac G6, generally held steady. So did Toyota’s two entrants, the Sienna minivan and Tundra pickup. Stagnant sales, meanwhile, pushed the aging Chevy TrailBlazer off the list.

For this particular index, Cars.com surveyed the country’s 58 best-selling models through May 31 of this year. Of the 30 trucks, vans and SUVs in that group, 23 are assembled in the U.S. (though not always exclusively; some models are assembled both in plants here and in other countries), but just half of the cars on the list — 14 of 28 — are built here.

“I’m not sure this is likely to change much, although with the general downsizing of more cars and trucks here, that may lead to globalization of more production. Ultimately the objective of any manufacturer is to maximize utilization of all production assets — that is, operate at 100 percent of capacity or more.”

Globalized production, of course, also means that a number of popular models already aren’t as homegrown as you might think. Take cars like the Ford Mustang, Chevy ImpalaChrysler 300: The Michigan-built Mustang has a disappointing 65 percent domestic-parts content rating, while the 300 and Impala are built in Canada. What’s more, America’s beloved retro hatchbacks, the Chevy HHR and soon-to-be-discontinued Chrysler PT Cruiser, are built in Mexico. The pint-sized Chevy Aveo is built in South Korea. and

Not that import automakers fare any better: Hyundai’s Alabama-built 2009 Sonata has just 43 percent domestic content, while the Ohio-built Honda CR-V comes in at just 10 percent. That portrait of urban frugality, the Toyota Prius? It’s imported from Japan — and so are suburbanite favorites like the Nissan Murano and Toyota RAV4.

Editor’s note: In today’s global economy, there’s no easy way to determine just how American a car is. Many cars built in the U.S., for example, are assembled using parts that come from somewhere else. Some cars assembled in the U.S. from strictly American-made parts don’t sell very well, meaning that fewer Americans are building those models. Cars.com’s American-Made Index highlights the cars that are built here, have the highest percentage of domestic parts, and are bought in the largest numbers by Americans.

There are a few options for determining a car’s domestic-parts content. We went with the figure that appears alongside the window sticker of new cars as a result of the American Automobile Labeling Act, enacted in 1994. The AALA mandates that virtually every new car display the percentage, by cost, of its parts that originated in the U.S. and Canada. We deemed cars with a domestic-parts content rating of 75 percent or higher eligible for the index.

So depending upon the model the foreign car might just be more American than the American car!  I looked at the window sticker on my 2004 Toyota Corolla but I didn’t see anything about the percentage of American or North American content.  It was assembled at a joint GM-Toyota assembly plant known as New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc or NUMMI for short  (official site, Wikipedia), located in Freemont California (map). My oldest brother’s office is less than a mile and a half from the plant.

Besides the Toyota Corolla, the plant makes the Toyota Tacoma pick-up and the Pontiac Vibe.  Is the Pontiac Vibe more American than the Toyota Corolla from the same plant?  Maybe, but that comes back to percentage of U.S. parts.  The Corolla is also made in Canada alongside Vibe’s twin, the Toyota Matrix.

So the poll this week about your car.  While it is hard to know the parts content it is easy to know in what country your car was assembled.  I want to know about your nameplate (American vs. foreign) and if your car was assembled in the U.S.  You may need to do some research.

For example, did you know the Pontiac G8 was assembled at a GM plant in Australia?  The Saturn Aura sedan is built in Kansas City while the Saturn Astra hatchback is built outside the U.S. and imported.  That American Buick LaCrosse was assembled in Canada.  That Ford Taurus is made in the Chicago area but the Crown Vic in Canada.  Dodge Challenger pony car?  Canada.  Chevy Camaro?  Canada.  Mitsubishi Eclipse?  Normal, Illinois.  Go figure.  M-class Mercedes-Benz SUV?  Germany?  Wrong,  Tuscaloosa, Alabama! The new Volvo XC60?  The Swedish company Volvo Cars is owned by American company Ford, but the XC60 is produced in Ghent Belgium.  Confused yet?

Numerous foreign nameplates operate manufacturing plants in the U.S., employing 55,000 workers (source)

If you are unsure about where your car was assembled look it up on Wikipedia.  The poll is located on the upper right corner of the main page.  Of course I’ve included an answer for those of you lucky enough to not own a car.

 

Five Easy Solutions to Help the City of St. Louis, Downtown – No Stimulus Funds Required

We here all the time about the need to assist multi-million dollar projects such as Ballpark Village.  St. Louis and cities nationwide have been helping fund big ticket projects for decades.  Some deliver on the initial promises while others do not.  But this post is not about the massive project costing hundreds of millions.  It is about little things.  Things not dependent upon federal stimulus money.

The following is my list, you may have others:

#5 – Reduce most six lane roads to four by striping outside lane for bikes and/or parked cars.

Yes stripes do take some money but not that much.  Jefferson, Market, and Natural Bridge quickly come to mind.  We have a fraction of the population we had in 1950 yet we have the lane capacity for a much larger population.  These streets all need expensive diets but paint on pavement can do wonders.

#4 – eliminate all minimum parking requirements throughout the city.

Our entire zoning code is 60+ years old.  Much has changed and the code needs to as well, but that takes time & money.  In the short term we should just 86 those sections in the zoning code that require parking.  Just delete them entirely.

#3 – allow on-street parking on all streets in CBD, reducing 4 lane one-way streets to just two travel lanes.

Downtown St. Louis is blessed by short city blocks that are both walkable and easily biked.  Unfortunately in many places what would be a pleasant two travel lane street has four travel lanes in a single direction.  These should all be reverted to 2-way traffic and reduced to two travel lanes.  But changing signals to go back to two-way streets takes money.  .

#2 – street performers

St. Louis has many talented residents that could help animate our staid streets while earning a buck or two.  Changing the ordinances to make it easier for performers to do their thing on St. Louis’ public sidewalks would do wonders for residents & visitors’ perceptions.  Again, no massive debt-laden project is necessary.

#1 – street vendors

Related to street performers, street vending is as old as cities.  For decades we’ve gone the wrong direction with respect to street vending, being too busy trying to emulate suburbia.  Time to lighten it up Francis.  The vendors are there and they are well aware of the obstacles.  It is sort of the chicken-egg debate.  The first step is to loosen the regulatory grip and in time the vendors and customers will find each other.

Follow UrbanReviewSTL on Twitter

 

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