Downtown turnaround? In these places, yes.

Downtown Minneapolis (Photo: Dan Anderson)

For decades, “going downtown” meant something special – probably from its very first use as a term to describe the lower tip of Manhattan, which was then New York City’s heart of business, commercial and residential life.

Downtown was literally “where it was at” – jobs, shopping, cultural attractions and all.

But then, beginning in post-World War II America, many downtowns lost their luster, as people were drawn to the suburbs thanks to cheap land and easy means to traveling to and fro.

In some places, downtowns and the areas immediately adjoining them became places of high crime, industrial decay, shopworn appearances and various socio-economic pathologies.

Things hit rock bottom in the late 1970s, as personified by the Times Square area of New York City. But since then, many downtowns have slowly come back from those near-death experiences, spurred by new types of residents with new and different priorities.

Dan Cort, author of the book Downtown Turnaround, describes it this way:  “People – young ones especially – love historical buildings that reintroduce them to the past.  They want to live where they can walk out of the house, work out, go to a café, and still walk to work.”

There are a number of cities where the downtown areas have come back in the big way over the past several decades. Everyone knows which ones they are:  New York, Seattle, San Francisco, Minneapolis …

But what about the latest success stories? Which downtowns are those?

Recently, Realtor.com analyzed the 200 largest cities in the United States to determine which ones have the made the biggest turnaround since 2012. To determine the biggest successes, it studied the following factors:

  • Downtown residential population growth
  • Growth in the number of restaurants, bars, grocery stores and food trucks per capita
  • Growth in the number of independent realtors per capita
  • Growth in the number of jobs per capita
  • Home price appreciation since 2012 (limited to cities where the 2012 median home price was $400,000 or lower)
  • Price premium of purchasing a home in the downtown district compared with the median home price of the whole city
  • Residential and commercial vacancy rates

Based on these criteria, Realtor.com’s list of the Top 10 cities where downtown is making a comeback are these:

  • #1 Pittsburgh, PA
  • #2 Indianapolis, IN
  • #3 Oakland, CA
  • #4 Detroit, MI
  • #5 Columbus, OH
  • #6 Austin, TX
  • #7 Los Angeles, CA
  • #8 Dallas, TX
  • #9 Chicago, IL
  • #10 Providence, RI

Some of these may surprise you. But it’s interesting to see some of the stats that are behind the rankings.  For instance, look at what’s happened to median home prices in some of these downtown districts since 2012:

  • Detroit: +150%
  • Oakland: +111%
  • Los Angeles: +63%
  • Pittsburgh: +31%

And residential population growth has been particularly strong here:

  • Pittsburgh: +32%
  • Austin: +25%
  • Dallas: +25%
  • Chicago: +21%

In the coming years, it will be interesting to see if the downtown revitalization trend continues – and spreads to more large cities.

And what about America’s medium-sized cities, where downtown zones continue to struggle. If you’ve been to Midwestern cities like Kokomo, IN, Flint, MI or Lima, OH, those downtowns look particularly bleak.  Can the sort of revitalization we see in the major urban centers be replicated there?

I have my doubts … but what is your opinion? Feel free to share your thoughts below.

Gallup Confirms It: Kids are Costly

childAnyone who has children – present company included – knows intuitively that raising them isn’t an inexpensive proposition.

The education expenses alone are enough to make some people blanch white at the prospects of child-rearing.

And now we have even more proof of the high cost of having kids. The Gallup organization has just completed a telephone survey of a large sample of American adults age 18 and over – more than 172,000 of them, in fact.

When Gallup asked these respondents how much they spent on purchases “yesterday” (excluding normal household bills and major purchases), it discovered that those without kids under age 18 reported average daily spending of ~$80.

For those with children under the age of 18? They spent ~$110 on average.

So it’s a pretty significant difference of 35%+ more.

Gallup found similar dynamics at work even when comparing adults within the same income groups.

In every income segment, average daily spending levels were lower for adults with no children … spiked for those with kids under 18 … and then dropped back again when children are over the age of 18.

The reasons for the added spending aren’t difficult to figure out, of course. In addition to basic necessities like food and clothing, there are entire categories of spending that come into play for families raising children: extracurricular activities, athletics and sports, entertainment, toys and so forth.

Gallup also discovered similar “bell curve dynamics“ at work when comparing adults within the same age groups. Whether you’re younger or older, your daily spending rises when you have kids under age 18, then drops back down again.

The bottom line: Having kids is costly.  But they sure do make life interesting, don’t they?

For more Gallup survey results, click here.

Social Media: The Newest Addiction?

Social media:  The latest addiction?With the burgeoning popularity of social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter, some observers are beginning to wonder if a new type of addiction is now in our midst.

So-called “Internet addiction disorder” came to the fore in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with social scientists contending that some people were neglecting their interpersonal relationships, and instead were spending hours of time online every day.

Of course, since social media is about interrelationships, perhaps likening it to the solitary pursuit of web surfing might not be an apt comparison. But a recent study demonstrates that social media, too, appears to have addictive aspects.

The online consumer electronics shopping and review site Retrevo commissioned an independent study of more than 1,000 U.S. consumers distributed across age, income, gender and geography. Guess what? The study revealed that many people appear to be obsessed with their social media circles all throughout the day … and also checking in throughout night.

About half of the respondents reported that they check Facebook or Twitter feeds just before going to bed, during the night, or as soon as they wake up. Nearly one in five admitted checking in with these sites “any time I wake up” during the night.

It’s not a huge surprise to learn that owners of iPhones are more involved with social media; they use Facebook and Twitter more often and in more places.

Moreover, nearly one in five respondents actually view these two social sites as their most important sources for the news they consume, rather than Internet news sites, TV/cable programming, the radio or the daily newspaper.

As a truer measure of “addiction,” the study’s respondents were asked to estimate how long they could go without checking in on Facebook and Twitter. While about four in ten reported they could avoid checking in over “a long time,” a similar percentage indicated they could not make it any longer than five or six hours at a stretch without checking in on these sites. (The balance felt they would need to check in at least once a day.)

And how about tolerating electronic messages that interrupt their activities? Half of respondents under the age of 25 in the Retrevo study didn’t mind being interrupted during a meal. One-fourth don’t mind the interruption happening on the job or during a meeting. And a die-hard 10% don’t even mind an interruption during – you guessed it – lovemaking.

As for how respondents over age 25 answered these same questions, they’re only about half as tolerant, so it’s easy to see how the propensity for social media addiction might manifest itself more with the younger set.

Since the online social media revolution is a relatively new phenomenon, one might wonder if the attraction of social media bordering on addiction is just a passing fad in part because of its novelty.

That might be true. But it’s difficult to see exactly how behaviors and attitudes will change dramatically over time. After all, television viewing was extremely high when TVs first came out … and those numbers stayed high for decades thereafter. Social scientists started making rumbles about the phenomenon of TV addiction early on … leading some people to refer to television sets as the “idiot box” or “boob tube.”

And actually, with social media the temptation for “total immersion” is even stronger. After all, the TV viewing public was forced to watch whatever programming went out over the airwaves. But in social media, the content is whatever the participants choose it to be – and it’s interactive to boot.

A mobile society? We’re not there again yet.

U.S. Population MigrationLast year, I blogged about a startling development in the mobility of Americans: fewer of us moved in 2008 than in any year going back decades.

If there was any proof of the recession’s toll on the lives of many Americans, this is surely it. Not only that, it reflects the lost allure of many of the “magnet” states of recent decades, particularly Nevada, Arizona, California and Florida.

Now, new data covering 2009 have just been released by the U.S. Census Bureau. The latest information reveals that more Americans moved in 2009 than in 2008 … but it was just a small uptick.

Moreover, the increase in mobility was almost entirely the result of people moving within their home counties – nearly eight times more prevalent than migrating from state to state.

What does this mean? In many instances, intra-county mobility may be the result of people who have moved in with family or to nearby rental properties after having lost their homes to foreclosure.

And the low rates of mobility in general may reflect the unwillingness or inability of people to move because they owe more on their mortgage than their home’s current value, thanks to the collapse of the housing market.

William Frey, a demographer and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, sums it up this way:

“These data show that the great migration slowdown, which began three years ago, shows no signs of revising to normal U.S. patterns. Since labor migration is often seen as the grease that spurs the flow of goods, capital and job creation, these new numbers are not encouraging.”

Mobility almost always declines during periods of economic hardship. But it’s now clearer than ever that this particular recession has caused the biggest drop in mobility rates America has seen since the days of the Great Depression.

Joel Kotkin: America’s Best Years Are Still Ahead

The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050 by Joel KotkinIn the study of demographics – a field that has had its share of doomsayers over the years – the irrepressible Joel Kotkin has been a continuing voice of optimism. The Distinguished Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and an authority on economic, political and social trends as well as demographics, Kotkin has also been one to defend suburbia as one of the key ingredients of successful urban development.

It’s been interesting to watch how these views have played out in relation to the predilection of many in the American elite to denigrate anything pertaining to the suburban lifestyle. In their characterization, “suburbia” is synonymous with faceless neighborhoods punctuated by numbingly similar commercial strip developments featuring cookie-cutter national chain stores and restaurants. The only difference between suburban Los Angeles and suburban Chicago is the palm trees.

The suburban mindset has also been maligned by many as being obsessed with material pursuits and economic upward mobility … and possessing little if any thinking that’s “progressive.”

As an example of this side of the debate, the publication of Richard Florida’s book The Rise of the Creative Class – with its claims that metropolitan areas with high concentrations of high-tech employees, artists, musicians and gay people correlate to a higher level of economic development – articulates a theory that has been far better received by the news media and other members of the American intelligentsia.

Now, along comes Kotkin’s newest book … and with it his latest intriguing predictions. In The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, Kotkin argues that the coming 40 years will witness a resurgent America, even as the population swells by another 100 million souls. Comparing the birth rates of America to all other developed nations, along with the continued in-migration of people from other countries – particular Asian and Latin American – Kotkin contends that no other country anywhere will enjoy such ethnic diversity. And to Kotkin, youth and diversity equate with strength.

By contrast, Kotkin maintains that “most of the developed countries in both Europe and Asia will become veritable old-age homes.” Many of these nations, with their generous social safety nets, will face huge pension obligations without having younger workers to help shoulder the costs.

Kotkin’s bottom-line prediction is that Europe and Asia will decline even as America thrives. And not just economically but also culturally: “The most affluent, culturally rich and successful nation in human history.”

Kotkin also believes that the large new numbers of Americans will flock to – where else – the suburbs, which he characterizes as “the best, most practical choice for raising their families and enjoying the benefits of community.”

No doubt, there will be those who question Mr. Kotkin’s conclusions and predictions. What about the rise of China? How will illegal versus legal immigration affect social and economic trends? How about the widening gulf between the earning power of “technocrats” and the rest of the population? Not to mention the collapse of the family unit which has rendered so much of the fabric of “inner-urban” America dysfunctional at best … hopeless at worst?

Either way, this book is very interesting and helps us reappraise some of the “big trends” in social demography. The theories of Richard Florida’s “creative class” ring decidedly less compelling today, barely six or seven years on. It’s time now to consider Joel Kotkin’s interesting theories — with the same critical eye, of course.