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The '24 hour' city


BE CAREFUL ABOUT investing in "9 to 5" urban centers that roll up their sidewalks at the end of the working day. For resilience and a bright economic future, look instead to "24-hour cities" -- whether they're city or suburban.

That's the counsel from Equitable Real Estate Investment Management, adviser to mega-pension funds which decide billions in real estate investments. Equitable, with the Chicago-based Real Estate Research Corp., last week held forums in New York and Chicago to release its 17th yearly report, the country's oldest, most prestigious forecast of commercial real estate.

And the report minces few words. Real estate investment is no longer as certain as "location, location, location." Inflation no longer masks investors' mistakes. Obsolescence threatens to ravage even new buildings if they're poorly conceived. The dominance of regional malls will wane -- why? The rise of electronic shopping.

Yet if an investor backs a well-planned "24-hour city," suggests Equitable, the odds on success are high. The idea is simple -- people want convenience but also vitality. That means quality, close-by neighborhoods that offer varieties of housing, for executive to rank-and-file employee income levels. It means convenient shopping -- upscale retailing and basic neighborhood services. It means at least a relative feeling of safety and security, the byproduct of a lively street life.

The successful 24-hour city will also have cultural attractions, such as museums, restaurants, galleries, sports arenas, even fine architecture. And it will have established mass transit -- commuting alternatives to the car such as subways, buses and suburban railroads.

Downtown areas in Chicago, New York, Boston, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., all provide what's required, says Equitable, even if their host cities must struggle with urban decay.

Well-conceived suburban cities should succeed, too, says Peter Katz, author of "The New Urbanism," acting director of the Congress of the New Urbanism and a speaker at Equitable's briefings last week. Katz sites Walnut Creek, Calif, located on the Bay Area BART rapid rail system. Walnut Creek has built a regional arts center, located its Broadway Plaza mall downtown with buildings that come right up, city-style, to the street line, and is replacing open-air parking lots with multistory garages that have shops on their ground floors.

The formula is just common sense: Urban places need a pulse beat of human activity through our working and leisure hours. Human beings draw other human beings. Working, shopping, socializing, entertaining all need to go together. Equitable's experts could have gone back to famed urbanologist Jane Jacobs' writings of the '50s to find many of the same principles.

The corollary: A suburban center can't avoid these imperatives either. Equitable warns: "While a split-level home with yard and gas grill still beats a cramped one-bedroom with back-alley views, the suburban lifestyle shows signs of fraying. Maturing suburbs are contracting big-city ills -- aging housing stock, crime and most notably congestion."

Costly mistakes

The price tag of decades without regional planning, says Equitable, is a mishmash of disconnected residential subdivisions, ugly gasoline alleys and retail strips, office parks and shopping malls. Eventually, the firm warns, "the suburban dream could become a virtual nightmare; suburban degeneration could become a major investment issue."

The bottom line, if we could only see it, is that the entire nation has a stake in seeing good metropolitan region planning, smart urban policies, to undergird the billions upon billions invested in our existing great cities and suburban centers. To call urban policy a concern for mayors and inner-city people alone is total delusion.

But is national policy responding -- to encourage more compact future development, less urban sprawl, for example?

No way. Instead, Congress seems poised to impose draconian cuts on mass transit, throttle back on housing assistance for the working poor and provide mostly affluent people with a big tax cut.

If the Congress would only listen to the folks who deal with the real billions of the private economy, trying to invest for a sounder future America, they'd be on a radically different course.

Neal Peirce writes on urban affairs.

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