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Tuesday, June 29, 2010



By Steve Wright

If every gray cloud has a silver lining, then perhaps every brown chunk of dirt has a Green lining.

The Green movement -- gaining momentum each day as we learn to protect our forests, conserve our water sources and preserve healthy green space in urban, suburban and rural settings -- is reaping the benefits of lower land prices.

Developers, many who overpaid for properties during the peak of the housing boom and are faced with a shortage of both financing and buyers, are covering their losses by selling their land for conservation.

Keith Fountain, director of land acquisition for The Nature Conservancy's Florida office, said the marked drop in land prices means "opportunities for conservation are unprecedented."

"Back in the real estate boom, people were speculating on Central Florida ranch-type land -- buying to sell six months later at a 30 percent profit. But when the music stopped playing, they couldn’t find a chair. They don’t have the resources to carry the land, so now they need to sell."

Fountain said not only are prices more attractive, but the availability of sensitive land is at an all-time high.

The Nature Conservancy and others have worked for years on the Kissimmee Basin, a part of Central Florida that serves as the headwaters for Lake Okeechobee.

Okeechobee feeds the Everglades and also provides the drinking water for heavily populated South Florida.

"We've been working with farmers to get conservation easements," Fountain said. "In the boom, couldn’t get ranchers to talk to us. Now, they are talking. They are looking at straight easement sales."

Fountain said he's now pursuing lands that various agencies worked on years ago, but were rebuffed by unwilling sellers.

"The suite of top priority land coming to us is absolutely unprecedented," he said. "Our phone rings off the hook with people wanting to sell us tracts."

"This allows us to focus on some real jewels," Fountain continued. "The availability of large tracks that tie very important areas together is amazing. In some cases, the last piece of the puzzle needed to assemble hundreds of contiguous acres of conserved lands."

Tampa-based Bill Eshenbaugh, 2003's Land Realtor of America, said land conservation sales are good for the Green environment and -- as an option in time of stagnant sales -- can lead to a pot of gold.

"It pays as a broker to sell the preservation interests and they historically can be more active in a slow market, as they can buy without the price pressure from developers," said Eshenbaugh. "For developers, buyers will pay a premium for communities with conservation -- `Green’ sells and is sustainable."

Eshenbaugh, an avid outdoorsman who goes by the apropos moniker of The Dirt Dog, said lower land prices can also create opportunities for elected officials to make more political hay.

"For politicians, it creates good will with the public and it leaves a heritage. Think about the Teddy Roosevelt influence on western parks along with the Rockefellers and Yellowstone, Grand Teton National, etc. -- where the great open spaces have been preserved and the views of the Tetons maintained."

"Here, (former Florida Governor) Jeb Bush did a great job of acquiring a lot of land including a major part of Babcock Ranch," he said, referring to the state’s $350 million purchase of a 74,000 acres of 92,000-acre ranch in southwest Florida’s Lee County. The largest tract of contiguous conservation lands in the state’s history, it will protect endangered species, provide a water recharge area and ultimately, a wealth of outdoor recreational opportunities.

"Governor (Charlie) Crist could leave a tremendous heritage if he acquires the sugar lands as planned," Eshenbaugh said about the current Florida governor's proposal for the state to buy thousands of acres presently farmed for sugar cane -- to convert them into reservoirs and other uses needed to support the multibillion dollar Everglades restoration project.

Asked if rising food prices have increased the value of farmland enough to offset its drop in value as developable land, Eshenbaugh said "I don’t see any evidence here in Florida that that has happened."

"However, higher corn prices probably do impact the cost of fattening out Florida beef in the Midwest feedlots. The cost of fertilizer has gone up dramatically along with diesel fuel that impacts all agricultural production from tractors to trucks to deliver to markets to diesel-driven irrigation pumps," Eshenbaugh observed, suggesting that many farmers remain land rich but cash poor.

Several non-profit land conservancy trust executives also stressed that not every parcel of farmland is a plot prized for preservation. Rather than shopping for pure open space, many trusts are focusing in on coastal, forest, ravine, mountain and endangered species habitat land -- much of which may not be suitable for agriculture, meaning it is more affected by the drop in development value than any nationwide gain in farmland value.

"My Midwest farm broker friends tell me the price of corn and grain crop land is indeed up. It is a yield issue -- when corn prices are higher and farmers can make more money, the price of high-quality high-yield land has gone up," Eshenbaugh said. (But conservation) agencies tell me they are swamped with calls and submissions of land that the current owners feel would make good conservation deals as the market has dramatically slowed for development."

The Trust for Public Land (TPL), one of the nation's largest nonprofit land conservation organizations that protects parks, historic sites, rural lands and other natural areas, is reporting several lowered land price success stories.

Tim Ahern, TPL's director of media relations, said a flagging housing market has given rise to:

• TPL's deal to buy a 70-acre former Camp Fire Girls park northeast of St. Paul, Minn. for $3.8 million. The Minnesota Council of Camp Fire USA decided to sell the land two years ago and had it under contract with a developer for nearly $5 million. But when the real estate market softened, the Council decided to accept a little less than 80 cents on the dollar. The action will permanently preserve Camp Ojiketa, once slated for housing, as open space.

• The $4 million purchase of a 27-acre parcel in suburban Portland, Ore. to be added to an existing city park. A developer had panned to build 65 homes selling on the $300,000 to $375,000 price range on the property. But when the housing market fell, the developer decided to sell and TPL stepped in with a $1.6 million loan to help preserve the green space until several government agencies could pool funds to close on the deal.

• Ongoing negotiations to buy beachfront land on the Gulf Coast of Florida that once was destined to be a $120-million condo project. Atlantis West Development Company paid $28 million for four acres of prime land that stretches from the Gulf of Mexico to the Intracoastal Waterway in the small Town of Indian Shores in the Tampa Bay-St. Petersburg area. But the present day market value is less than half of what developers paid for it in 2005. TPL is working to buy the southern two acres of the parcel for a local park. With a fair market value shrunken to about $6 million, TPL is working with town, county and state officials to make the land preservation deal happen.

Rodney Bartgis, state director of The Nature Conservancy in West Virginia, said the price of protecting land is more complex than a simple downswing in real estate development.

“Those (good land deals for conservation) mostly apply to the many areas where real estate development, especially housing, is the principle driver of land values,” he said. “But at least here in the Central Appalachians, it often does not apply to tracts of large, raw land acreages -- the type that is often of most interest to The Nature Conservancy and similar groups.”

Bartgis said domestic and foreign investment in timberland is keeping prices up for large, forested tracts in prime timber production areas.

“We were attempting to acquire a 1,300-acre timber company holding this spring and were unsuccessful because we could not compete against an investment group willing to pay a price well above that previously established in the local market,” he said. “So even though timber prices are down -- because of less demand due to the housing downturn -- and local lumber mills are struggling, some investors can take a 20-plus-year view of timber and are still willing to pay fairly well for the land.”

Bartgis said land used for energy resources also is impacting conservation in ways that weren’t a factor until the huge upward spiral in energy costs.

“On mountain tops -- until recently of value primarily for recreation and maybe timber -- there is widespread leasing of land for industrial wind facilities, often at a fairly good price,” he said. “Throughout much of West Virginia, there is widespread leasing of natural gas as companies hope to tap into the Marcellus shale, a deep source of gas not previously exploited because of the costs and technical hurdles. But with energy prices up, the Marcellus is a hot item.”

This is land whose lease fee value otherwise would be $1,500 per acre, or even less, being (driven up) to maybe $4,000 per acre,” Bartgis continued. “So energy demand and inflation are keeping the values of much Central Appalachian land up. Even where the energy resources are speculative, these events are keeping land prices up because they have substantially raised landowner expectations.”

Tim Glidden, director of the state agency Land for Maine’s Future, said “it’s not yet clear how the credit crisis and massive slowdown in residential real estate” will affect land conservation opportunities.

“State conservation strategies are focused on conserving the `best of the best’ and high-end real estate on Maine’s spectacular coast and lakes continues to command premium prices,” he noted. “While inventory is growing in these categories, we are not seeing big price declines. On the other hand, local land trusts looking to conserve open space in and around urban centers are seeing opportunities as developers seek to reduce their exposure and inventory of subdivision land.”

Glidden said development slowdown gives state government a breather, so it can step back from the breakneck pace and better plan for conversation and development.

“The need to be strategic in taking advantage of any opportunities is imperative,” he said. “Some land that might be now available should be held as inventory for future housing and commercial development – these communities will still need to grow. The opportunity is to shape, not block, that needed growth.”

Wright frequently writes about Smart Growth and sustainable communities. He and his wife live in a restored historic home in the heart of Miami’s Little Havana. Contact him at:



By Steve Wright

The sluggish real estate market also is motivating more landowners to donate a large chunk of their land for conservation. When they donate land for a perpetual conservation easement, they can deduct the fair market value of their donated land from their federal taxes.

The IRS currently allows conservation easement donors to take a deduction up to 50 percent of their adjusted gross income each year, with a 16-year time period to deduct out the total value of the land. Some states also are offering tax breaks in return for donated perpetual conservation easements.

Landowners do not have to donate their entire property and they can continue to live on and farm their land. Basically, they are donating a portion -- say 80 percent of 200 acres -- that will have restrictions that run with the land preventing it from being subdivided and developed.

In some areas, developers are awarded density bonuses for building on only a fraction of their property if they donate the rest for an easement that preserves it permanently for agriculture, recreation, hunting, wetlands, nature preservation, etc. The family, or an heir, can sell the entire parcel, but the next owner knows that the lion’s share of the acreage is forever preserved from development.

Lakeland, Florida Realtor Dean Saunders, an expert in representing land for both agriculture and conservation, helped create conservation legislation when he served in the Florida House of Representatives.

Very recently, he helped a client to sell more than 1,600 acres to the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission for $11.6 million. The vast acreage, located in rural Osceola County, Florida, sits next to the Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area in the Kissimmee Prairie, one of the largest remaining expanses of dry prairie in the United States.

Saunders is proud of his record of conserving land in Florida and he also is a staunch advocate for private property owner’s rights.

“If the public likes looking at it, then the public should pay for it,” That way you protect the public’s desire to look at the rural land while protecting the private property rights of the land owner. Conservation easements are a great way to go. A lot of farmers don’t want to sell, so they can keep the land, but appreciate some of the increased value.”

Failed developments may be creating some good opportunities to buy land for conservation in populated areas, but Saunders said “I have not seen panicked, fire sale prices on land.

Saunders said in times of economic slowdowns, when state revenue collections can drop by billions, conservation easements help stretch the public dollar.

“Government can afford to buy a whole ranch outright every time. But it can afford to pay for an easement,’’ he observed. “Another good thing with easements is that government doesn’t pay to maintain it, the private property owner does. And private land owners always manage property better than the government.”

Wright frequently writes about Smart Growth and sustainable communities. He and his wife live in a restored historic home in the heart of Miami’s Little Havana. Contact him at:

Sunday, June 27, 2010



By Steve Wright and Heidi Johnson-Wright

The Andy Warhol Museum shines its funky light on Steeltown.

The museum is in a rehabbed building that sits among a gritty, rundown row of buildings on the Allegheny River. A gentle, retrofitted ramp at the entrance provides easy access.

Exhibition spaces are spread out and open, making for easy maneuvering of a wheelchair. The centrally-located elevators make those who need them feel like part of the action instead of second-class citizens relegated to some isolated freight elevator.

Museum guide sheets suggest touring the barrier-free building from the top down.

Shadows is the main attraction on the seventh floor. Created in 1978, it's a captivating series of 55 photos from a 102-piece exhibit created by Warhol.

The sixth floor records Warhol's success in the '50s as a young graphic artist.

Framed are Warhol's illustrations for Glamour and Harper's Bazaar magazines, along with ad campaigns for women's designer shoes. The sketches are stylized and whimsical with soft colors and delicate lines, a surprising side to the often less-than-subtle pop wizard.

Warhol's studio, dubbed the Silver Factory because of its spray-painted silver interior, was the center of ultra-hip New York society in the late '60s and '70s.

Silver Clouds -- a room full of giant, metallic, pillow-like balloons that float, flip and fly from gusts of several oscillating fans -- recreates the feeling of the Factory.

As you exit the elevator on each floor, you're drawn toward a "looking glass" of sorts. These vitrines -- or glass display cases -- reveal a world of elbow-rubbing with royalty, backstage romps with rock stars, and parties 'til dawn.

A case on the seventh floor -- the floor themed, "Fame, Fortune, Fashion" -- contains invitations to film premieres and soirees, and photos of Warhol with Nancy Reagan, Mick Jagger and Pope John Paul II.

The fourth floor artworks reflect a changed Warhol, a man who had come close to death at the hands of actress/Factory wannabe Valerie Solanas.

Warhol took a four-year respite from painting following the shooting in 1968. When he began to paint again, he produced oddly disturbing works such as Skulls, Rorschach ink blots and Last Suppers.

Down another level, visitors see two strikingly different sides of the artist. We see the media manipulating, publishing genius Warhol in a display of over one hundred Interview magazine covers.

Nearby is a glass case filled with mementos of the private Warhol. Included are his commencement program from a local Pittsburgh high school and a photo of a shy youth hugging the family dog, Lucy.

Works from the last decade of Warhol's life, including his experiments with a mixture of diamond dust and paint, are featured on the second floor.

The tour comes full circle back on the first floor, with a gallery of commissioned portraits, including those of artist Keith Haring, Princess Caroline and dance music diva Grace Jones. Tucked away on the first floor is the only theater in town where the main attraction is always a Warhol movie or a film made by another avant garde artist. The nearby gift shop is crammed full of books, T-shirts and other Warhol memorabilia, but is spacious enough for wheelchair users to negotiate.

An understatedly chic coffee shop with silver chairs and cow hide couches serves seasonal light meals in the basement.

This Midwestern city -- built on steel and smoke, babushkas and piroshkis -- will never be mistaken for New York City.

But the tough, blue-collar town where Andrew Warhola grew up has done an admirable job of capturing the essence of a man who saw the world in hot pinks, dazzling silvers and oozing yellows.

The Andy Warhol Museum is at 117 Sandusky St., Pittsburgh, PA 15212-5890. For information, call (412) 237-8300.



By Heidi Johnson-Wright

In these days of unchecked political correctness, writing about people with disabilities can be a risky proposition. The inclination is to tread lightly, and not be too honest or too direct for fear of upsetting someone. Even worse, the author may lapse into sentimentality or depictions of inspirational “supercrip” characters.

In The Worldwide Church of the Handicapped, Marie Sheppard Williams deftly avoids these traps and stares reality square in the eye. She knows that people with disabilities are just like everyone else. They have jobs and marriages, they have hopes and dreams. Like everybody else, they also can be quirky, ill-mannered, or just not very nice. It’s these quirks and peculiarities that make them interesting people and intriguing characters.

The Worldwide Church is a collection of fictional short stories, most of which revolve around a rehabilitation center for the blind. Williams’ stories are based in fact, drawn from her two-plus decades as a social worker. Through Joan -- the narrator and likewise a social worker -- we get a first-person perspective of daily life in a place where laughter and an appreciation for the absurd are vital to maintaining one’s sanity.

The author expertly uses humor to make weighty subjects, such as euthanasia, palatable. In Poor Raymond, Joan deals with a cantankerous client who frequently, and matter-of-factly, asks her to kill him.

Williams blends just the right amount of pathos with the humor to avoid coming off as flippant or cavalier. Consequently, we’re not laughing at Raymond’s suffering but rather at Joan’s strange predicament.

Williams makes the eccentricities of the characters the focus of the story in “A Blight on Society.” Vickie and Grange, a couple with visual impairments, are strange birds indeed. Their case is referred to Joan, who learns they have multiple problems, not the least of which is bad taste. The high point of the story comes when Joan compassionately counsels Vickie surrounded by Grange’s terrifyingly tacky artwork. We identify with Joan’s attempts to stifle a belly laugh in the midst of a ridiculous and stressful situation.

Some of the stories have plots, others are more pastiches of comical events and witty observations. “Miracle” deals with Joan’s admitted uncomfortableness around dwarfs. She ponders her reaction, sharing her feelings with friends. In the sequel story, “The Dwarf Collector,” her friends respond with tales of dwarf sightings, which Joan relates to us with detached amusement.

Williams cleverly addresses how someone with heightened sensitivity can still be freaked out, as it were, by certain disabilities. Even laid back Joan has her limits.

At its best, Williams’ style is akin to that of author/monologuist Spalding Gray. Both are superb storytellers who bring us into their worlds while they regale us with hilarious tales of bizarre situations and loopy acquaintances.

Heidi Johnson-Wright is an author and nationally-recognized advocate for people with disabilities.

The Worldwide Church of the Handicapped is a collection of short stories by Marie Sheppard Williams (Coffee House Press, $12.95).

Friday, June 25, 2010



By Steve Wright

Pity poor Los Angeles: home of gridlocked highways, a car-addicted culture, traffic-choked main roads, smog-stifled sunshine and a near collapse of the notion of downtown being the center of a region’s civilization.

But if the city of Angels is sprawled beyond any hope of redemption, how could it have some of the highest property values outside of Manhattan – the urban cathedral at which all city planners worship?

And if nobody walks in LA, how could there be so many impossibly fit and trim gods and goddesses of the West Coast there?

Surely, among all those freeways that slice and dice the landscape and all those mall rats in the San Fernando Valley, there must be pockets of good urbanism.

And that’s exactly what the 13th Annual Congress for New Urbanism looked at in 2005, titling the annual conference “The Polycentric City -- designed to explore how a region with many centers, such as Southern California, can establish a framework of development based on principles of New Urbanism."

John Norquist, president and CEO of CNU, observes that many metropolitan areas in the US have sprawled beyond their core downtown, so the Los Angeles Congress will help many cities learn how to find the strengths in multiple urban centers.

Although the 2005 Congress was headquartered in Pasadena, events took place all over metropolitan Los Angeles during the four-day meeting.

While LA can represent the good, bad and ugly of a 21st century western city, Norquist believes the good is outweighing the bad. He sees marked improvement in the decade since CNU II was held in a then-wickedly decaying downtown Los Angeles.

“LA was the most maligned city, thought of as a bad place getting worse,” Norquist said from CNU’s Chicago office. “They say `Chicago is the city that works,’ and they used to say `LA is the city where nothing works.’ Now that’s changed. You are seeing increasingly better urbanism, more sophisticated real estate agents and developers creating good design rather than cutting corners.”

In some respects, the original core of downtown Los Angeles is blessed because people abandoned it so rapidly for the tony towns to the west. That exodus left many great early 20th century theaters and buildings intact, albeit underutilized and in great need of an adaptive reuse.

“Downtown is transforming itself. Broadway and Spring are perfect original streetcar streets and the area is full of loft conversions,” Norquist said. “Downtown is really becoming a neighborhood with lots of people living in it.”

As for the $6 billion-plus, 59-mile LA subway system, Norquist said ridership might be low on some of the four lines, but “it works a lot better than the Century Freeway,” he said of the famously congested Southern California highways.

“Look at ridership on the Red Line, and you know that the San Fernando Valley will regret not extending it into that area,” he added. “The Metro Rail Line has been a very positive thing for Hollywood Boulevard. A decade ago, much of Hollywood Boulevard was downright scary. Now, the streets are full of people, the property values are way up and classics like the old Roosevelt Hotel have been completely restored.”

Nathan Landau, a land use/transportation planner for AC Transit in San Francisco’s East Bay areas, said people forget two very urban facts about LA: There are several walkable areas and the city of Los Angeles is one of the highest density cities in the United States, especially when the low-density areas of the hillside developments are subtracted.

As for walkability, Landau cited downtown Santa Monica for Palisades Park, the famed Pier, the mom and pop shops of Arizona Street and the chain-dominated but pedestrian-heavy Third Street Promenade.

He also praised West Hollywood for its high density population that supports walkable commercial streets such as Santa Monica Boulevard with its unique restaurants, bars, cleaners, grocery stores, boutiques and even some racy shops for grown ups.

“Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena has Paseo Colorado, one of the best of the mixed use shopping centers that I've seen,” Landau said. “It relates to the street as well as to itself and it reopens the Garfield Avenue civic center axis. Pasadena City Hall up Garfield is a beautiful Beaux Arts building and the whole civic center complex is striking though it's got a few `uglifications.’ If you keep walking east you'll see lots of new housing, Vroman's bookstore -- one of the best in Southern California, a two-story Target (rehab) with a front door and a back door.”

Norquist agrees that Pasadena is the perfect base of operations for CNUXIII.

“Besides being a very beautiful garden city, Pasadena is a great example of a city that has gone through several cycles,” he said. “It was fabulously wealthy in the `20s, then `50s, then Colorado Boulevard declined in the early `60s. Then they built a suburban style mall, then tore it down. Now, Colorado is urban, one of greatest shopping streets in Los Angeles County.”

“All the beautiful streets in great metropolitan areas are coming back. Los Angeles is no different,’ Norquist continued. “The Westwood Village area has been stressed, but it is coming back. Melrose has gotten so popular, the little rag tag shops and artsy spots are being replaced with upscale retail and restaurant. Rodeo Drive, although hardly typical of a normal main street, has wide sidewalks like a Midwestern town.”

While Norquist praises LA for being “a metropolitan region on the mend with a wonderful blend of culture and ethnicity,” he said there still are problems.

“The lower class, the working class can’t (afford to) live in LA,” he said. “If you are working poor, you need to be in the middle of the economy. In New York, you may live in the Bronx, but you’re a subway ride away from the greatest pile of dollars in the world in Manhattan. In LA, if you want an affordable little house, you live way out in the desert.”

Still, Norquist said CNU attendees couldn’t have landed in a better urban lab than Los Angeles.

“I’m really excited about LA,” he said. “It has gone from urban hell to being on the road to becoming one of the great international cities of the world.”

Wright is an award-winning journalist who has written about growth, development, architecture, town planning and urban issues for more than a decade. He lives and works in a traditional, walkable, sustainable community in a restored historic home in the heart of Miami’s Little Havana.

Thursday, June 24, 2010



By Steve Wright

Enclosed malls -- those places where dad bought a mower at Sears, mom purchased a dress at JCPenney and sis got some toys at Montgomery Ward – aren’t dead. But they sure are getting a run for their money from the New Urbanism-flavored town centers that offer more of a mixed use, grid patterned sense of place than those plastic-feeling, climate-controlled bastions of the food court, Spencer Gifts shop and Orange Julius stand.

Victor Dover knows this well, because his Coral Gables, Florida-based Dover, Kohl & Partners firm has developed a sub-specialty of reprogramming dead or dying regional malls.

In the Orlando suburb of Winter Park, a team including Dover Kohl worked in the late 1990s to restructure the Winter Park Mall, a 1960s era enclosed shopping mall that steadily declined through the `80s and `90s.

“(Enclosed) shopping centers are the kind of investments that are never worth more than their value the day they open,” Dover observed. “With a town center, you add to the value each year it evolves because you’re building community, not a mall.”

Working with the City of Winter Park, a team of experts and a seasoned developer – Columbus, Ohio-based Don M. Casto Organization – converted a flat lining enclosed mall into Winter Park Village: a street-oriented, multi-phased redevelopment that includes housing.

“We didn’t expect housing to come immediately. The response was, `who wants to live in a parking lot at the dead Winter Park Mall,’” Dover recounted. “But as soon as they opened the movie theatre, an outdoor café, an ice cream shop, a hamburger joint, people wanted to come in to a setting where they could walk to fun things.”

Charles C. Bohl, Director of the Knight Program in Community Building at the University of Miami’s School of Architecture and author of Place Making: Town Centers, Main Streets and Urban Villages, is bullish on the long-range future of town centers.

“Look at the decline in enclosed shopping mall construction -- only three built in 2003, a significant number of mall failures/closures, plus a net loss in the number of shopping malls over the past few years,” Bohl states. “Compare that to the past few years when roughly 100 town centers were planned, under construction or built.”

Bohl said good urban design, civic character, community-orientation a public realm and residential – “people actually LIVING in these places” are the essential differences between town centers and conventional development. He said all retail depends on good site location, sound market analysis, and carefully designed tenant mix and leasing strategies.

“But town centers have an additional dimension that boils down to `Walt Disney World 101.’ After decades of painstaking surveys and analysis, Disney's management team discovered that it was not the `attractions’ that were fueling the repeat business that is absolutely essential to the economic success of the company’s theme parks --- it was the overall quality of the built environment and the pleasure people receive from strolling, sitting and enjoying the place itself,” Bohl explained. “The same is true for town centers and main streets.”

“Town Centers in Mashpee Commons (Mashpee, Massachusetts) and Mizner Park (Boca Raton, Florida) have now outlived the shopping center/mall they replaced, showing the potential for town centers to create enduring places within communities rather than disposable `machines for shopping,’" he added.

In mall-crazed Los Angeles, where the car is king and pedestrian activity is oft viewed as aberrant behavior, Santa Monica-based developer Caruso Affiliated is making a mint producing open air town centers.

Rest assured, the mallrats are still pumping their money into enclosed retail pleasure domes such as Beverly Center. But mega-successful Rick Caruso takes his inspiration not from sterile enclosures, but from frequent visits to Italian piazzas.

“People enjoy being outside, even in areas that don’t have year round good weather like Los Angeles. In a mixed use, outdoor plaza, you have the ability to make the place your own, to hang out with family and friends. It’s a total shopping and dining experience, so everybody has a good time.” said Caruso, noting that by comparison, enclosed malls offer a “flat,” shopping-only experience.

Caruso said the key to town centers isn’t the absence of a continuous roof overhead; it’s having the right mix of merchants blended into a place with a strong streetscape, beautiful art, water features and matured landscaping. Caruso Affiliated’s The Grove has a full-scale electronic trolley that transports people from its 575,000 square-foot destination to the neighboring Farmers Market.

When The Grove opened in 2002, many thought it would be the death knell for the beloved Farmers Market that dated back to 1934, but had been on the decline for nearly a decade.

“There were significant concerns that the charm and history of the then-ailing Farmers Market would be impacted negatively by the Grove,” Caruso said. “The fact is, many Farmers Market merchants say the Grove has created a 200 percent increase in business.”

While enclosed malls and power centers tend to kill off main street businesses, Caruso said The Grove proves that pedestrian-oriented town centers can revive neighboring mom and pop shops.

Columbus, Ohio-based Yaromir Steiner is so wedded to developing pedestrian-friendly, grid-patterned mixed use, that his company logo states “Steiner: Developer of New Town Centers.”

Steiner + Associates produced the award-winning, frequently-studied Easton Town Center in Columbus, a city that had grown in sprawled suburban patterns for decades. The 1.5 million square foot Easton created a new center of retail, dining, housing and hotel uses in a main street setting about eight miles north of downtown Columbus.

“We will never build a three-anchored enclosed mall. We may convert a failed mall into a town center, but we are not building isolated retail centers,” Steiner said.

Steiner’s latest street-friendly, urban-patterned, town center with open air plazas is Zona Rosa, a 1.2-million square foot blend of specialty retail, restaurants, office, hotel and residential in Kansas City, Missouri’s Northland Area.

“In Easton, the apartments are nearby, but not directly mixed with the retail and entertainment,” he said. “In Zona Rosa, we built a few units over shops in the first phase and the response has been so positive that we are planning 100 some units in the second phase.”

Steiner said he finds it both hopeful and ironic that city planners are now asking for town center- and main street-style development.
“Years ago, I tried to master plan a development with dwellings above the shops,” he recalled. “The town planner said it couldn’t be done – that there had to be at least a minimum 50 feet between retail and residential. I said, `what am I supposed to do, hang the loft from a 50-foot pole above the shop?’”

Steiner, who has developed or planned more than a half dozen major urban destinations in the past few yeas, doesn’t believe urbanism is a flash in the pan.

“Town centers are not a new trend. They simply are a full circle back to the way urban places should be – with all uses integrated. The idea of segregating everything into different zones was a failed experiment.”

Wright is an award-winning journalist who has written about growth, development, architecture, town planning and urban issues for more than a decade. He lives and works in a traditional, walkable, sustainable community in a restored historic home in the heart of Miami’s Little Havana.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


Heidi Johnson-Wright meets Prince Felipe of Spain


By Steve Wright

Travel is my passion.

My wife, who uses a wheelchair and occasionally crutches for her mobility, shares that passion.

Traveling without my wonderful spouse of more than two decades can darn near feel like cheating.

Travel for work is different. Running off without Heidi for a writing assignment that puts food on our table is an exemption. She deals with an extra dose of regular personal care attendants, agency substitutes and parents so that I may fly off to further my journalism career.

But leisure travel, we do together – just like sharing bylines on essays, features and columns.

I know that as a practical matter, disability will deny Heidi some experiences. Her fragile joints, damaged by a three decades' worth of severe rheumatoid arthritis and dozens of surgeries, will not allow her to ride roller coaster, go white water rafting, swim against ocean currents or hike over rough terrain.

We have what I consider to be one of the healthiest care-giver/care-receiver relationships going, but I never feel quite right about dashing off to experience something that she will only encounter through my words and photographs.

Over the years, I have gotten more comfortable in taking respites on the road. Heidi is super supportive; always has been.

We plan ahead and coordinate my side trips with times, places and activities.

A late day flight out west will leave Heidi pretty exhausted and ready for an early bedtime. I am a notorious insomniac during my first night in a strange place, even if it’s a luxury suite.

It makes for a perfect fit – I help Heidi shower and dress for bed. I leave her with beverages, snacks, telephone, reacher, crutches, flashlight and television remote nearby.

While I’m out roaming the Las Vegas Strip, or exploring the depths of Manhattan, she’s tucked in bed and recharging the batteries for a fresh start.

Or, as my lawyer and author wife says, “when fatigue comes to call, I take a powder and Steve goes on a mini-adventure.”

“I recall a trip to Chicago when I needed an afternoon snooze. I got some “Zs” while Steve rode the El. It was a three-way blessing. I got some badly-needed rest, Steve got to ride Chicago’s signature train system -- which has few wheelchair-accessible stops anyway -- and my husband returned with a colorful tale of his urban safari during which he scouted several neat neighborhoods for us to explore together later,” Heidi said.

Other times, we find a fun place for Heidi to hang out while I do something that wouldn’t be appropriate for her physically. Ocean swimming is such an activity. Crashing waves and a rip current don’t blend well with arthritic joints.

When we hit Miami Beach, Heidi seeks out a favorite shaded porch on a restored Art Deco gem, while I subject other beachgoers to my untanned body in a bathing suit. When I return from thrashing about in the Atlantic, all saltwater crusted and sunburned, Heidi is curled in ceiling-fanned comfort, a nice drink in one hand and a copy of Ocean Drive in the other.\

Sometimes, an impromptu opportunity presents itself and we improvise. Death Valley comes to mind. We were driving through the Nevada Desert and decided to swing through the awesome national park.

A few spots – the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, Salt Creek, Harmony Borax Works and Zibriskie Point – are accessible. The first three are readily accessible; the path to Zibriskie is paved, but it’s steep. Trust me, I pushed Heidi in her manual chair in 100-degree-plus heat that day.

For some fool reason, I wanted to hike more in the midday sun. Not a lot, but maybe I could cover a mile or two in a half hour, then amble back to the rental car to down one of the four gallons of water we’d packed.

The sun was too intense for my fair-skinned bride and the trail was far from being barrier-free. We did some brainstorming and decided if we parked in the little bit of existing shade and rolled down the windows, it really wasn’t so bad in the car.

Heidi scoured the map and guidebooks for our after park plans, then wrote postcards for friends back home. While I was out wandering like a desert donkey, Heidi was safe in the parking lot and near enough to honk the horn if she needed me.

Heidi, like many people with disabilities, has exercise and other routines to keep herself healthy on the road. She does a few daily exercises and has a quite precise, more lengthy routine which she must complete once a week.

On longer road trips, we try to match up her stretching routine with a time for me to explore. When we were on the Big Island of Hawaii, I used her exercise time to go sea kayaking at Kona Village Resort.

I took to the Pacific so much, that I was out nearly an hour longer than I expected. It wasn’t a problem, Heidi said. When she finished her stretching, she simply took a nap, after being lulled to sleep by the same ocean breezes I felt on my back as I paddled through the waves not far from our waterfront hale.

Wright is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist, author, consultant and recipient of the Bronze Medal in the 14th Annual Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Competition by the Society of American Travel Writers.

Heidi Johnson-Wright meets Princess Letizia of Spain



By Steve Wright

The University of Notre Dame School of Architecture, the first Catholic university in America to offer architecture degree beginning in 1898, has been a bastion of traditional and classical architecture for more than a century.

Its dean, Michael Lykoudis, is the son of two high-achieving parents who exposed him to Athens, Greece and the great cities of the world before he was old enough to drive.

For a man who grew up spending summers in ancient Athens, who roams the golden-domed grounds of such a fabled American university, it might be hard to picture Lykoudis associating himself with anything with the word “new” in the title.

But Lykoudis indeed is unblushing New Urbanist; has been for years.

And his town building philosophy is not one of stodgy academia, but rather one with the energy and spirit of a student activist.

“I don’t think you could be a traditional architect today and not be connecting to the surrounding community,” Lykoudis said. “You can’t separate buildings from towns, that is the principle of New Urbanism. I am a part of that camp and have been so a very long time.”

Lykoudis, who has a Master of Architecture from the University of Illinois and a Bachelor of Architecture from Cornell University, has been on the faculty of Notre Dame since 1991. He worked as a project designer and architect for firms in Florida, Greece, New York and Connecticut where he worked for one of his great influences, Allan Greenberg. He also has conducted his own practice in South Bend, Athens and Stamford.

When he entered college, Lykoudis intended to become an advocacy lawyer. In high school, he and a friend founded an environmental advocacy organization called SAFE: Students Against a Fatal Environment.

Just a few decades later, sustainability became the core issue for everyone on the planet.

“People are telling us if we just get rid of our incandescent bulbs, we’ll be fine. Those are illusions,” he said. “We must build denser, more durable cities. Peak oil production is going to force us into a different way of building.”

Lykoudis said from the beginning of time, great cities thrived because their focus was on community. In the past half century plus, consumerism has obliterated community and we have suffered because of it.

“My grandparents lived in Greece in a small house passed on from generation to generation. Today, the sense is to always have the latest, the newest,” he said. The endless consumerism feeds our animal core. The creative process it corrodes could be used to change the way we build and live. But a lot of people are still in denial of what the future of the world is coming to.”

Acting locally, Lykoudis worked with the South Bend Downtown Partnership to create the South Bend Downtown Design Center. The program immerses Notre Dame students in urban and architectural design projects in the Midwestern community surrounding their campus.

Globally, Lykoudis said urbanists and educators cannot simply focus on the doom and gloom of eroding energy and other resources. They must also sell consumers on a vision of how much greater communities can be when they are built better.

“While most people are thinking about how to keep cars part of our culture, New Urbanists have to speak about cultural paradigm shifts,” he said. “The internet will solve some problems as far as allowing people to work without having to travel by car to their jobs. But we still need face-to-face contact, we still need communities and they need to be place based.”

Lykoudis is hopeful that positive change can be made.

“People’s perceptions have changed very quickly. Richard Nixon was a conservative when he was in office. Today he comes off like a bleeding heart liberal,” Lykoudis observed. “When gas hits 10 bucks a gallon, people’s perception of what makes a desirable community it going to change quickly.”

Lykoudis said the people will need to elect leaders who are not afraid and who can understand that the built environment is linked to business, culture, to every element of our lives.

“When Jack Kennedy spoke, we were all riveted. It was the same with Martin Luther King and Jane Jacobs. We don’t allow people to lead us anymore,” observed the university dean who said his becoming an architect and an academic brought together a social activist and a craftsman.

“This is not about gloom and doom; it is about civic responsibility,” he continued “To deal with these problems ahead, we might actually find our soul again.”

Wright has written for a living for 25 years, with nearly 5,000 published articles. He lives in historic Little Havana and is very active in Miami’s urban issues. He and his wife of 20 years also are involved in making new and old towns more accessible for people with disabilities.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


La Boqueria Mercat de Sant Josep


• Gaudi’s Casa Batllo. It has a tiny elevator, but the staff has a loaner wheelchair small enough to fit in it so disabled visitors can enjoy all the floors in the highly ornamented masterpiece of the master architect.

• People watching on the Ramblas. The wide, pedestrian-only walkways are a wheelchair user’s dream. Enjoy the architecture, news stands and artisanal chocolate shops, but avoid the tourist trap cafes and beware of the pickpockets in the Sant Josep section of the lower Rambla.

• Barcelona Bus Turistic. These tourist buses have guides who describe the surroundings in many languages. But the real bonus is the buses are completely barrier-free via ramps and they stop at virtually every major attraction – from colorful Parc Guell on Mont Pelat to the Joan Miro museum on Montjuic.

• La Boqueria Mercat de Sant Josep. Barcelona is filled with fabulous fresh markets and the Boqueria -- with stall after stall of meat, cheese, produce, seafood, wine and more – is the granddaddy of them all.

• Lunch at Garduna. The downstairs bar area is accessible and dishes are prepared from ingredients selected from the adjacent Boqueria. Dinner at Quo Vadis, The classic Catalan restaurant serves sumptuous dishes such as quail and suckling pig in a grand, formal and barrier-free setting.

• Tapas at Lonja de Tapas. The barrier-free cafe offers small plates inside or out on picturesque Pla del Palau. Dessert at Xocoa. Everything is decadent and delicious at this totally accessible gourmet chocolate shop in La Ribera.

• Placa de Sant Jaume. This Roman-era plaza is mostly cobblestone, but there are smooth-paved walkways that allow wheelchair users to watch the parade of people past the Ajuntament, the 1300s Neo Classical and Gothic city hall.

• Museu d’Historia de la Ciutat. The city history museum, features the largest underground excavation of any ancient city in Europe. A recent renovation created outstanding wheelchair access via an elevator down to accessible boardwalks that meander among the ruins of Roman laundry and dyeing workshops as well as wine and fish sauce fermentation vats.

• Walking and rolling wheelchair accessible routes through neighborhoods such as Eixample, with early 20th century modern architecture; El Ravel, with dark and exotic cafes and bars in a rebounding but still rough around the edges district; and Gracia, with the narrow streets and small village charm of an eclectic place that was a stand alone town until annexed to Barcelona in the late 1900s.

• Sagrada Familia. Antoni Gaudi’s sacred masterpiece and surely the most famous unfinished building site in the world. Architect Gaudi started this church -- noted for its gothic towers, parabolic arches and high ornamentation – in 1882 and work will go on for decades before it is completed. Many areas are wheelchair-accessible.

--Steve Wright

Casa Batllo



By Steve Wright

When your spouse uses a wheelchair, your travel options aren’t so much limited as creativity and flexibility dependent.

Long transatlantic flights, for example, are not out of the question. But a wheelchair user with stiff joints, constant pain and prevalent fatigue due to severe rheumatoid arthritis will cope much better with eight-plus hours in a flying tin can if she can be accommodated with the roominess of a business class seat.

The same goes for a place to sleep far from home. It’s not like there are no barrier-free hotels, hostals, palladores or apartments in Spain – it’s just that roughly one in 50 is wheelchair-accessible and about one in 10 of those think to advertise the fact that they can accommodate a disabled traveler.

On top of that, some places somehow come to the conclusion that they are wheelchair-accessible even though the only route to the front door is via eight steep, slippery steps.

Ask any wheeler who has booked a room purely on the inclusion of the little universal wheelchair symbol on a property’s brochure or website, and you will hear a near-horror story of arriving weary from an all-night flight only to find they’ve been assigned to a third floor room in a property without an elevator.

So rather than relying on a vague check mark in the “property is wheelchair-accessible column,” the person planning a trip with a disabled family member is strongly advised to pick several options via websites. That list of allegedly accessible properties is the starting point of a round of phone calls made directly to the property, so the hotelier, landlord, etc. can be grilled through a round of questioning aimed at confirming exactly what kind of barrier-free accommodations are offered.

The intrepid accessibility researcher gets ready to dial, remembering to call early in the morning to reach the manager near the end of his day shift – which is six or more hours ahead of the caller’s time zone. Ring, ring, answer – oops!...just remembered, the answering party is a Spanish speaker. He may have a decent command of English, but very specific and technical questions about wheelchair access may stretch his second language ability.

Again, this doesn’t mean a dead end, it just means the intrepid access researcher must be more creative. Preparing for such a call is an excellent, real world opportunity to practice speaking espaňol before arriving in Espaňa.

If that task is too daunting, use a phrase book to prepare a couple questions and ask the person more than 4,000 miles away for his or her direct email address or fax number. An accessibility needs checklist can be prepared and emailed or faxed.

If all else fails, use one of those free, automatic translators on-line – AltaVista’s Babel Fish will get your words into Spanish, albeit in halting constructions that will make the recipient think he is conversing with a subject-verb agreement challenged kindergartener. Nevertheless, the device works and it can result in some terrific lodging finds.

Armed with information, the next accessibility question is whether to take the ”If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium,” different hotel in a different city every night route, or the stay in one place and make it a base of operations route.

When one of the travelers has a disability, the answer is easy. Find one outstanding accommodation and stick with it for the week. Attempting to see the entire Iberian Peninsula in seven days is maddening for any person at any age with even the best of mobility.

The essence of one major city, let alone the attractions within driving distance outside it, cannot be fully experienced in one week. So pick a place that will feel like home and bed down there for the whole semana (week).

The advantage of hotels is the 24-hour availability of the front desk, housekeeping, maintenance and other services. Hostals are cheaper, but accessible ones seem to be rare as hen’s teeth. Spain’s paradores (luxury hotels in converted castles, convents, monasteries and other historic buildings are spectacular, but most are in the country, not the city, and only a fraction are wheelchair-accessible.

To live like a local, nothing beats an apartment. Apartments have character, they offer double or triple the space of the cramped standard room of typical European hotels and they have kitchens for refrigerating, then cooking the bounty found in local markets.

Finding a short-term apartment rental got a whole lot easier once landlords started using internet booking services that make the search so much simpler with location maps, detailed descriptions and multiple angle photographs of the exact unit up for grabs.

Oh Barcelona isn’t the only apartment rental clearinghouse on the Web, but it scores very high points for having lots of vivid pictures, specific information down to the dimensions of a unit and booking agent fluent in English and Spanish, so questions can be volleyed back and forth between landlord and prospective short-term tenant. It also features reviews of the properties in the words of previous tenants. To its credit, the website doesn’t shy away from posting negative reviews along with the positive ones.

Oh Barcelona has listings in virtually every part of the great port city, including the Barri Gotic (Gothic Quarter) with its amazing history and intact structures dating back to the Middle Ages and even Roman period. This dogged detective of disability access found an elevator-equipped apartment just a couple blocks from the heart of the famed Rambla de Sant Josep in the Barri Gotic.

While the unit is perfectly accessible -- the smallish shower is not a modern roll-in model, but it is easier for a disabled person to access than a high-sided tub – it offers better barrier-free surroundings than 95 percent of the lodging options in Barcelona.

The landlord is a very friendly man, but a proud Catalunyan who speaks zero English and actually prefers the local Catalan language to the invading Spanish tongue from the west. Since there’s no front desk, arranging a meeting time to exchange a full cash payment for a set of keys is a little tricky, but not an insurmountable task.

Dealing directly with the landlord was no problem, seeing as how the wheelchair user on this trip is a super brain who speaks Spanish fluently enough to use it as the perfect middle ground language. Signing a brief contract was less worrisome because the apartment owner had used an automatic translator to print out a halting, humorous, but clear enough to comprehend version in English.

The minute the temporary tenants took hold of the keys – and instructions for operating the whacky air conditioner that demands twice-daily emptying of a bucket it drains into – they entered a wonderful world of living like a local. Even that pesky water bucket is on a wonderful balcony that looks over an interior courtyard filled with music, life and the essence of Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter.

Granted, there was no front desk, room service or maid on-call round the clock, but a sterile hotel room wouldn’t have the charm of a long, winding hallway that made the barrier-free apartment feel twice as spacious as it was. And no hotel lined with cookie-cutter rooms would feature the pungent smells of Barcelonans cooking their evening meal when the visitors stepped off the modern, wheelchair-accessible elevator retrofitted into an ancient building.

And thankfully, the long, plenty wide enough for a wheelchair, hallway that passed by two large bedrooms, the bathroom, the full kitchen and living room, put distance between the boisterous taverns of narrow Carrer de la Boqueria and the visitor’s sleeping quarters established in the sunny, air conditioned confines of the generously large and modernly decorated living room.

Certainly, no compact chain hotel room would offer a full-size refrigerator, oven, range top, coffee maker and cupboards, plus draws full of dishes and flatware.

Not even a standard hotel suite would have such an array of kitchen equipment used to store and prepare local delicacies such as chocolate, café, jamon iberica (thin shaved ham), pan (bread), mermelada de la frambuesa (red raspberry preserves), chorizo (Spanish sausage) and vino rioja crianza (red wine from the Rioja region aged one year in the barrel and one year in the bottle) purchased at nearby markets and shops.

The hunt for a wheelchair-accessible apartment, be it in old Barcelona or any place far from home, can produce an end result filled with unique sights, scents and spaces that simply cannot be found in a soulless hotel room.

With an arsenal filled with planning, perseverance, creativity and a sense of adventure and adaptation, a wheelchair user can win the hunt and savor the flavorful fruit of the pursuit.

Wright frequently writes about wheelchair-accessible travel and has won many awards for covering the subject. He and his wife moved from the Midwest to their favorite vacation place -- Miami’s Little Havana. Contact him at:

Saturday, June 19, 2010



By Steve Wright

That I earn my living as a writer is entirely because of my father, yet completely against his good counsel.

Since before I was born in 1964, dad worked at the newspaper. The paper was the Akron Beacon Journal, which he retired from after a 38-year career.

Ken Wright never earned so much as a single byline in the Beacon. Dad was a printer.
I used to think it a bit corny when his colleagues on the newsroom side of the Beacon talked about ink getting in their blood.

However, after writing my first story for pay 30 years ago and staying in this oft-troubling, always-trying business ever since, I think those old ink-stained wretches must have been on to something.

Dad is a child of Akron through and through -- pragmatic and practical, honest and hard-working as they come. Dad’s dad built tires in a big factory. At the time of my father’s birth in Akron --1935, it probably seemed like at least two out of three dads earned rent money at the rubber factories.

Dad entered high school at a time when rich kids and dandies dreamed of college and the rest focused on learning a trade that would pay the bills.

At Akron’s vocational high school, my father learned how to be a printer.

Even primitive mainframe computers weren’t in the printing trade picture back then. Instead, type was set line by line in hot lead on a Linotype. Today, Linotypes are in museums.

Dad took up with a number of mom and pop print shops in Akron in the fifties.

Mom, equally true to her Akron roots, worked in a tire factory. I think they intended on me being about 51 now instead of 45, but the Korean War got in the way of things, delaying family and career for a while.

Finally, in 1960, dad hired on full-time with the Akron Beacon Journal. It was a union job in a union town -- good pay, good benefits and a shot at working through retirement with one company.

Of course, most of dad’s graduating class bought into the same dream hiring on with the rubber factories. While many of them lost their work while the big tire companies scaled back or moved out of Akron, dad had a four-decade run at the Beacon.
He had quite a life for a tire builder’s son, for an Akron guy with a high school education.

While he worked his way through the composing room, dad learned about a new era dawning in the newspaper industry. It was called cold type -- the days of hot lead slugs off the Linotype were numbered.

Dad worked nights, took training classes and did everything but stand on his head to become computer literate in wild west days of high tech, the era long before personal computers and Internet.

Soon, he was traveling to exotic locations, like Detroit. Well, for a family living in a small town suburb outside of Akron, the Motor City was a pretty exotic location. Besides, dad and a bunch of the big bosses went to some strange restaurant up in Detroit where bear, rattlesnake and other wild creatures were on the menu.

Over time, dad’s success at the Beacon meant trips to Miami, where the Knight family chain’s headquarters sat on Biscayne Bay in a building dad likened to a waterfront luxury hotel.

Sometimes dad was lucky enough to escape parts of the blizzardly northeast Ohio winters for training sessions in sunny Florida or California.

Dad came to master computers so well that he took time off to computerize several big papers in Australia. I still remember feeling so proud when my father was halfway around the globe, bringing his Ohio printer’s work ethic to the land of barrier reefs, kangaroos and that beautiful landmark Sydney Opera House.

For as long as I can remember, I wanted to work for a newspaper. I used to steal my mom’s grocery pad, hop on my bike and ride around the neighborhood looking for stories. I’d write headlines, lay out a piece of notebook paper, write the stories in my already horrible and declining penmanship and sell them to my folks for a nickel.

By the time I was a high school freshman in the fall of 1979, I had my heart set on a career in journalism. I was already writing a roundup of school news for the local weekly and I counted the days until I was old enough to drive -- mobility being a means to tracking down bigger and better stories.

My father, with all the seriousness of a birds and the bees lecture, told me he loved me and supported me, but wondered why in the heck I wanted to be a newspaper reporter.

To be fair, I’m not sure what dad thought of reporters. His primary contact with them was when they were either dumb or rude or both.

When the Beacon replaced typewriters and pastepots with computers and modems, dad trained many of the crusty old writers how to do their hunting and pecking for a video screen instead of their beloved typewriter paper.

He had to wonder how a reporter capable of forgetting his computer log-on a dozen times in a day was competent at explaining the complexities of local government in his stories.

Dad’s other contact with the newsroom was when the system crashed. Seeing hard-chosen words disappear forever into a cruel, hard copy-less chasm turned the most patient of professionals into whining babies at best, bellowing bullies at worst.

Coupling those experiences with his knowledge that reporters don’t get rich, but do work strange hours under constant deadline pressure, it’s no wonder why dad never went out of his way to steer his first born into journalism.

He was always fiercely supportive of my writing, but dad also never failed to mention that there’s more money in TV, more perks in PR and better hours in just about any profession a bright, communicative kid could choose outside of print journalism.

Nevertheless, dad watched as I joined the Beacon as a sports department part-timer while I was still in high school. During college, I struggled to find my way at the Beacon and in other endeavors, all the while marveling at the shadow cast by my father.

From the retired cops who manned the security desk to the back shop wiseacres to the top-level editors whose advice I sought while in journalism school at Kent State University, everyone loved and admired Kenny Wright.

I graduated, caught on with the Columbus Dispatch and dad stayed at the Beacon, rock-solid as ever. I kind of assumed he’d work till he was 100.

Picturing the Akron Beacon Journal without dad was like picturing the Cleveland without the Browns. Well, we know what happened to the football team for three long-absent seasons. Under much more amicable conditions, my dad decided to clear out his locker at the Beacon, in his words, “while your mother and I are still healthy enough to travel.”

His retirement party was amazing. People from every department of the Beacon crammed into the usually spacious John S. Knight Room. The room honors the late, longtime leader of the Beacon. It seemed so apropos that years ago, my dad had slaved to get the blown-up type just right to decorate the room with reprints of Knight-written editorials and landmark pages from Knight’s newspapers.

Walking through the newsroom I worked in as a snot-nosed kid part-timer, I cleared my voice and straightened my tie, mindful that I’d be called on to talk at my dad’s retirement party.
At that moment, I ran into a newsroom friend who’d been there as long as my father and who had been a dear friend during my part-timer stint in the mid-‘80s.

The man lavished me with praise about all sorts of articles I’d written. I routinely send my clips to my folks, but not since my college/joblessness after graduation days had I asked him to shove my stuff into the hands of fellow journalists.

But here this man was, talking up my stuff, and making me realize that dad passed out my clips to anyone who would pause to read them.

On the day I drove up to Akron for Ken Wright’s retirement party -- with a heart so full of pride for my father -- I realized more than ever that I don’t have to win a Pulitzer for him to be proud of me.

Steve Wright was a reporter at the Columbus Dispatch from 1987-2000, then the Senior Policy Advisor to Miami City Commission Chairman Joe Sanchez till 2010, when he left to write a book, create this blog and grow his communications firm.

The photo at the top is of my folks, Ken and June Wright, mugging it up Cleveland's Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for their oddball photographer son. My dad was bravely brightening the day before entering a year worth of horrific cancer treatments, surgeries, pain and recovery.

Friday, June 18, 2010



Pound for pound: 5 stars. Sleep like a baby for under $100 in a perfect Manhattan location.

The Seafarers & International House is 100 percent of what I wanted and needed -- a quiet, safe, well-located place to sleep while enjoying Manhattan.

I usually stay at 4 and 5 star places or exclusive apartments, so the idea of shared bath and shower frightened me back to the days of college dorms and dirty facilities.

Not the case here.

The single-seater shared toilet was cleaner than my bathroom at home.

The single shower (much better than a locker room set up with multiple showers) had endless warm water and again, was cleaner than my own one at home.

The room was tiny, but quiet.

The location is perfect -- a block from Union Square, with its subway link to the rest of NYC and its great shopping, restaurants, etc.

The staff is super low key, but helpful.

On a super tight budget, I wanted to stay one night, then stow my bag the next 18 hours to catch an early morning, partake of Gotham for a day without paying for a room.

I had much trepidation about leaving my stuff there.

But the folks locked it up in a room -- better service and more secure than I've had at full service corporate hotels that toss your bags on a pile where anyone could steal them.

After 10 p.m., you show your room key to get buzzed in -- making it safer than a chain hotel where anybody could sneak into the elevator and roam the hallways.

The staff even let me get my boarding pass faxed to their office (when the printer wasn't working from the free internet computer in the lobby).

I could go on and on about the Seafarer's simple and superlative service.

Of course there's no pool, restaurant, concierge , etc...

You are paying only for a clean place to rest, sleep, shower and secure your stuff... while you play in Manhattan and pay a room rate equal or below the price of a roundtrip cab ride from/to LaGuardia. Amazing.

If I hit the lotto, I'm going to donate some money to these folks to help their core cause of aiding Seafarers -- which is supported by nightly stays from tourists.

123 East 15th Street
New York, NY 10003-3594
(212) 677-4800

Thursday, June 17, 2010


It will give you the power to turn nightmares into dreams.

Road construction can be the death of Main Street merchants, but it doesn’t have to be...

Make contacts in government and influence the major road reconstruction project before it is designed.

Turn disruption into holistic urban revitalization.

Rebuild the road with bike lanes, wider sidewalks and safer pedestrian crossings.

Make sure the community has a strong voice in planning human-scale improvements such as shade trees, public art and beautification.

Work with a university architecture class to get free designs for streetscapes, facades, pocket parks and community gardens.

Leverage non-profit and grant dollars to fund storefront improvements, street furniture and landscaping.

Push government agencies to provide expedited plan review and permitting to speed up these holistic upgrades.

Blocks of urban beauty can be built when everyone is on the same page.

Editor's Note: Thanks again to the great artist and thinker Richard Medlock for inspiring us the think of everything from Christopher Alexander's Pattern Language to Krome Avenue (Homestead FLA's Main Street USA) in forming our urban values.

MAIN STREET USA & Sustainability

Sprawl cannot compete with the history, architecture, human scale and authenticity of Main Street.

But how do we break our addiction to enormous ugly parking lots, congested traffic, mediocre chain restaurants and impersonal service at giant retailers?

How can Main Street Compete?

Main Street must brand itself as the healthy, convenient, sociable, artsy and soul-soothing alternative to corporate malls and big box stores.
Main Street can learn a lot about its growth potential by studying sustainability.

Going green grew from an oft-ignored niche concept to an essential element in America’s building, buying and advertising.
Sustainability’s Lessons
Not that long ago, wind power was for fairy tales and green was a color choice.

Fossil fuels still reign, but ecological disasters, soaring prices and dependency on dwindling supplies has our nation thinking green.

Sustainability’s Lessons
Clean, green energy clearly is a growing market with limitless potential.

Main Street’s compact sustainability also has a huge potential to provide green living.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

MAIN STREET USA IS DEAD: Long Live Main Street! (part 2)

EDITOR'S NOTE: Today, we are honored to be making a full urban main streets presentation to Homestead Main Street, a nonprofit aimed at revitalizing historic Krome Avenue

But it was nearly killed by a half century of bad urban policy that...

• Made walking impossible and driving essential

• Subsidized highways while starving street cars to death

• Encouraged sprawl and discouraged compact urban villages

• Turned healthy farmland into seas of asphalt with soulless shopping centers

• Made it impossible to walk to: Work, shops, parks, doctors, libraries and the arts.

MAIN STREET USA IS DEAD: Long Live Main Street!

EDITOR'S NOTE: Today, we are honored to be making a brief urban main streets presentation to Homestead Main Street, a nonprofit aimed at revitalizing historic Krome Avenue.

The Time is Right for Main Street’s Return to Relevance, because Main Street Appeals To…

• Baby Boomers tired of far-flung suburban isolation are moving back into urban corridors.

• Creative young people -- educated and ready to build a new economy – are drawn to the wealth of culture in cities.

• Families rejecting cartoonish apartment complexes with silly names meant to conjure the image of fabled Italian Villages.

• A sustainable future when we might not be able to afford a car, gasoline and 30-mile commute.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010



By Steve Wright and Heidi Johnson-Wright

After dark on a warm summer evening, the lights twinkle and music drifts from the amusement park and laughter swells from vacationers wandering in and out of arcades and smells of fresh popcorn and pizza are as seductive as a siren’s song.

Visiting Geneva-on-the-Lake, Ohio means stepping back in time to a younger, more innocent, optimistic America. It’s a wonderful, relaxing, inexpensive place for a summer weekend.

Although this quaint resort town on the shores of Lake Erie harkens back to a by-gone era, plenty of shops, restaurants and arcades provide wheelchair access.

Walking the mile-long strip is entertainment in itself. There are decent curbcuts and crosswalks, but no stoplights, so crossing with others is advisable.

Lots of motels -- the types of places families with kids would stop at after a long day on the road cooped up in the station wagon with faux-wood paneling on the sides.

Motels whose signs say, “color TV by RCA” and “heated pool” and “direct-dial phones.” the rooms are likely to be decorated in shocking shades of orange and aqua and green.

There are no snooty restaurants that serve tiny portions and require reservations. It’s hot dogs and cotton candy and fresh donuts from the local bakeries and stores with eye-popping selections of candy you thought had stopped being made circa 1978.

Try a hot dog with mild, sweet chili sauce at Eddie’s Grill. Little has changed at Eddie's since the open-air institution opened its doors more than a half century ago.

Follow it up with a jelly-filled from Madsen Donuts, serving tasty, warm-from-the-oven treasures since 1938. A chocolate-iced donut from Madsen's could tempt an avowed dieter into submission.

While enjoying Geneva-on-the-Lake's brief summer season, you forget about calories and fat and cholesterol.

Instead you want to see for yourself if the dogs at the drive-in really are a foot long and if they serve the biggest ice cream cones and the creamiest root beer.

The arcades – who needs X-Box and Play Station when there’s skee ball and spider stomp and games that require the finesse to roll balls and score so that the mechanical duck inside the machine will give a friendly quack and reward the player’s skill with a steady spitting of a stream of tickets.

The access of the games is hit or miss, but in the larger arcades there’s enough variety so wheelchair users can find something to play. Some are more crowded with machines and people than others. Most are accessible at the main entrances.

The tickets – like cigarettes in prison, they’re as valuable as gold, especially to the adults who’ve temporarily regressed back to childhood and certain life as we know it will end if they don’t have enough points to buy that wildly colored jester’s hat or the practical joke garlic gum or some of the Cleveland Indians’ gear.

The park near our motel – peaceful, quiet, clean. The sunset over Lake Erie may be the cheapest spectacle around. It’s a place that makes visitors want to sit and talk and forget about jobs and mortgage payments.

The accessible ramped boardwalk – starts at the top of a hill. Vacationers can stay near the top for a good view of the freighters on the horizon or take the gently graded ramps that allow access near to the edge of the surf. Get closer to the lake and the waves lull and hypnotize.

If you go

• Geneva-on-the-Lake, located halfway between Cleveland and Erie, Pa., is focused toward a season that runs roughly from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Its Visitors’ Bureau/Chamber of Commerce is at: 5536 Lake Rd., Geneva-on-the-Lake, OH 44041, or phone: (800) 862-9948, or on-line:

• Eddie's Grill, 5377 Lake Road E., (440) 466-8720.

• Madsen Donuts, 5425 Lake Road E., (440) 466-5884.

Monday, June 14, 2010



By Steve Wright

Growing up in Ohio, a medium-sized town of 50,000 didn’t automatically equal dullsville. But it virtually guaranteed a care-worn city of decaying factories, a struggling downtown, second- or third-rate cultural institutions and a dearth of fine dining.

There was nothing wrong with those mini metropolises – I enjoyed living in one while breaking into the newspaper business – but what they boasted in terms of small town charm, they lacked in urban activity.

Living in a “B’ or “C” city almost always means a long drive to an “A” city to: see professional live theater, browse unique shops, stay in a luxury hotel suite, marvel at a fine art collection, visit famed attractions or reserve a table at one of many highly-rated restaurants.

Sarasota is one of those rare gems that truly fulfills the expectations of the over-used “best of both worlds” label. The Florida Gulf Coast city has a population just above 50,000, but it has the urban flavor and offerings of a town 10 to 20 times that size.

Reno has staked its claim as the Biggest Little City in the World, but the fading Nevada casino burg has nothing on Sarasota. Blessed with a spectacular subtropical climate and a forever-blue bay, Sarasota has bolstered its natural gifts with manmade art, culture, architecture and other refinements.

Sophisticated Sarasota is a mature city that draws lots of mature residents and visitors. Perhaps that is why it also is one of the most wheelchair-accessible cities in the Sunshine State.

When I travel, wheelchair access is crucial. My wife -- an executive, attorney and author – has used a wheelchair for her mobility for nearly three decades, as a result of rheumatoid arthritis.

When we book a hotel, we want more than simple access to the lobby and room. We want roll-in shower or a tub shower outfitted with a bath bench, grab bars and shower wand. If the room has a balcony, we want to make sure it’s accessible. If the resort has a spa, we want to make sure the treatment tables can lower and raise to accommodate Heidi’s mobility needs when transferring from her wheelchair.

The Ritz-Carlton Sarasota is the perfect blend of upscale luxury and practical accessibility. The property is virtually barrier-free.
There are wheelchair-accessible rooms available in every class. Some have roll-in showers, while others have tub showers with safe and easy to use transfer/bath benches. Restrooms are well equipped to accommodate guests with mobility impairments.

The common areas have plenty of room for wheelchair maneuverability. The pool, workout area and spa are completely accessible, with the spa boasting massage tables that lower and raise to accommodate disabled guests.

The well-trained staff is very good at accommodating a disabled traveler’s every need. When we asked for a particular room for its bay views, the engineering team greeted us upon check-in and quickly built a custom-fitted ramp to provide safe and easy wheelchair access to the balcony. They had completed their task by the time we returned from dinner.

Dinner at the signature restaurant, Vernona, is worth the trip to Sarasota. Very fresh ingredients are used in simply elegant seafood and Mediterranean dishes served in a serene setting inside – or outside on a veranda kissed by gulf breezes, overlooking a marina.

The bayfront hotel is located on the mainland, in Sarasota’s small, but urban downtown. The back-to-the-city movement has taken place here, where it seems like a new fine restaurant and upscale shop opens up every month on nearby Main Street. Several outstanding vintage, rare and discount bookstores are within walking (and rolling) distance of the Ritz.

The Ritz-Carlton’s driveway spills out right onto John Ringling Boulevard, which quickly connects to the barrier island of Lido Key. Lido is home to St. Armand’s Circle, a pedestrian friendly collection of fine shops and gourmet restaurants set among lush tropical plantings, courtyards and patios.

Most of the shops and restaurants on the circle are wheelchair-accessible, but a few have barriers such as one or two steps at the entrance. There are several handicapped parking spaces spread among this high-end retail and restaurant district.

St. Armand’s has several examples of the contemporary design known as the Sarasota School of Architecture. In the middle of the 20th century, a group of creative architects surveyed the land, water and climate and fused them with innovative buildings that used modern materials designed to take advantage of the sand, sea and sun.

Paul Rudolph, his mentor Ralph Twitchell and a half dozen of their protégées and contemporaries blessed the coastal bayous, sandy keys and mainland of Sarasota with a brilliant collection of architecture. The architects had a magnificent 25-year run, producing more than 100 modernist homes, schools and commercial buildings from 1941-1966.

The Sarasota School style captured the casual lifestyle of Lido and nearby Siesta and Casey Keys. Rudolph’s Umbrella House on Lido Key gets its name from a sheltering parasol that spanned the main body of the house and beyond to create grand entries to the house’s front on its west side and its pool deck to the east. The fragile lattice umbrella-like sunroof was destroyed by a hurricane and never replaced.

Still, the sleek two-story looks spectacular from the street. The private home is not open for tours, but it is worth a visit to Westway Drive to sneak a peek at its spectacular rectangular pool that kisses right against the home’s stunning two-story glass wall. Westway is a quiet street, which makes it easy for wheelers to park on the berm, drop the lift van ramp and conduct a self-guided architecture viewing from the streetside.

Hiss Studio, another classic example of the Sarasota School, is located right next to Umbrella House. Phillip Hiss’s Studio’s habitable space floats above a gravel drive and parking spaces on its first floor. A staircase leads to the über-chic studio space above. Large panes of glass clearly reveal a collection of mod furniture, tear drop lamps, giant glass coffee table and floating bookshelf perfectly preserved from the studio’s 1952 vintage.

Back in mainland Sarasota, there’s a magnificent piece of Venetian Gothic architecture that has little to do with the Sarasota School movement. Ca'd'Zan, the
John Ringling mansion, however, was overseen by a young Twitchell who came to town in the 1920s to work on the development of the circus magnate’s estate.

Wheelchair access is limited inside the historic mansion, because some doorways are too narrow for power chairs. But most wheelchair users will be able to fit through doorways and there is an elevator for upper floor touring.

Completed in 1926, Ca'd'Zan is 200 feet long with 32 rooms and 15 baths. Bricks, terra cotta "T" blocks and poured concrete were the primary construction materials. Terra cotta was the principal decorative material used because the glazed finishes withstood Florida's brilliant sun.

The 66-acre Ringling cultural campus also includes a pair of important museums that are fully wheelchair-accessible.

John Ringling created the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in 1927 for the people of Florida. Collecting for the museum from 1924 to 1931, the Ringlings gathered important works by Rubens, Van Dyck and other major artists who worked primarily from 1500 to about 1750. The Old Master collection, now including about 750 paintings, is considered the most important area of the museum's holdings.

The museum's art collection -- which now consists of more than 10,000 paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, photographs and decorative arts – is fully wheelchair accessible, albeit via some rather circuitous routes that promise to be remedied soon with the addition of lifts. Its Italian paintings are among the rarest and most celebrated in the country, but my favorite spot is the courtyard. Beautifully arcaded on three sides by loggias, its open-air ceiling is painted bright blue by the brilliant Florida sky.

Established in 1948, the Ringling Museum of the American Circus was the first museum of its kind to document the rich history of the circus in the United States. It has a colorful collection of: rare handbills, art prints, circus paper, business records and wardrobes.

The single story museum has a level entrance and wide passageways, making access a breeze. Displays are well arranged for viewing from the height of a wheelchair. The compact museum building is packed with all types of circus equipment, including: intricately carved parade wagons, sturdy utility wagons, tent poles and massive bail rings. Circus fans are treated to 19th- and early 20th-century posters and props used by famous performers.

The Ringling compound isn’t the only Sarasota waterfront cultural institution that cities tenfold its size would envy. The Marie Selby Botanical Gardens are 8.5 acres of verdant bayfront property containing lush outdoor displays plus world renown for orchid and bromeliad collections.

The entire gardens are wheelchair-accessible. The outdoor pathways are wide and gently sloped. The indoor areas, including historic structures and the famed Tropical Display House, feature level or gently ramped access and plenty of room to maneuver between displays.

The Tropical Display House’s humid climate is perfect for its thousands of brilliantly colored, exotic tropical plants such as torch ginger from Indonesia, bromeliads from the Amazon, carnivorous pitcher plants from Borneo, palms from the Seychelles, vanilla orchids from Mexico and dozens of other spectacular orchids from around the world.

Selby also has one of the first wheelchair-accessible canopy walks in the world. The ramped walkway climbs up into coastal trees, where disabled visitors can see the view from above as well as an up close and personal look at the treetops.

Out on City Island, off Lido Key, families love to get up close and personal with local sea creatures at Mote Aquarium. The barrier-free complex is home to more than 200 varieties of fish and invertebrates. Hugh and Buffett, two West Indian manatees, are big favorites at the Marine Mammal Center – a part of the Mote complex connected by a smooth, accessible pathway.

Families also flock to Siesta Key Beach, which is 99 percent quartz and recognized in an international survey as a having the “whitest and finest sand in the world.” Siesta Key Beach also offers free beach wheelchairs, which are located near the main guard tower.

Sarasota and its barrier islands offer sophisticated fine dining that goes far beyond the seaside fish shacks of most coastal areas. Vernona at the Ritz-Carlton is emblematic of the refined cuisine found all over town.

But since man cannot live by Mediterranean Bouillabaisse, Yukon gold mashed potatoes, fine chocolate tortes and champagne alone, I offer a trio of casual joints – all with excellent wheelchair access -- to refuel oneself while exploring Florida’s cultural coast.

The Blue Dolphin, on St. Armand’s Circle, specializes in gourmet breakfast items such as pancakes with fresh berries. The Hob Knob Drive In, on a busy mainland main drag, is an open-air shrine to juicy burgers, smothered chili cheese dogs, greasy fries and ice-cold soft drinks. Turtles Restaurant, on Siesta Key, is a casual seafood spot with outstanding grilled grouper sandwiches.

No sophisticated city would be without its independent bookstores and Sarasota has at least a half dozen. Main Bookshop is the most wheelchair accessible of several downtown indies. It has hundreds of thousands of discount books covering every category. I especially love the art, architecture, design and Florida-related books.

A freight elevator provides access to the upper two floors of its historic structure.

My Sarasota weekend getaway didn’t even provide time to attend the city’s professional symphony, ballet, or opera. Nor did I fit in time for its more than 10 theaters and 30 art galleries, or the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall -- renown for its architecture and great acoustics. To drink in more of the big city amenities in a small town setting, I’ll have to keep coming back to sophisticated Sarasota.

Wright is an award-winning journalist based in Miami. Contact him at:

RESOURCES (all phone numbers within 941 area code):
• The Ritz-Carlton Sarasota, 1111 Ritz-Carlton Drive, is the best property in the city. All 266 luxuriously appointed guest rooms have private balconies – with sweeping views of Sarasota Bay, a marina or the city skyline. The 11-acre downtown property has a spa, heated pool and gourmet restaurant. The plush hotel has outstanding wheelchair access in its guest rooms and common areas. Phone: 309-2000. Website:

• The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Museum of the Circus and Ca'd'Zan, 5401 Bay Shore Road, 359-5700, Mary Selby Botanical Gardens, 811 South Palm Avenue, 366-5731, Mote Marine Aquarium, 1600 Ken Thompson Parkway, 388-4441, Siesta Key Beach, 948 Beach Rd., 941-861-2150. Web: Main Bookshop, 1962 Main Street, 366-7653.

• Hob Nob Drive In, 1701 North Washington, 955-5001; Turtles Restaurant, 8875 Midnight Pass Road, 346-2207; Blue Dolphin Café, 470 John Ringling Blvd., 388-3566.

• The Sarasota County Government’s website has a fabulous Sarasota School of Architecture page, with links to architect bios, photographs of buildings, addresses and more information at:

• For the standard visitor propaganda and helpful information, contact the Sarasota Convention and Visitor’s Bureau at: 941-957-1877 or toll-free at: 800-522-9799. Visit them online at: