The Caribbean’s Three Greatest Pianists Celebrate The Music Of Ernesto Lecuona At SFJazz

Chucho Valdés, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, and Michel Camilo are three of the greatest Caribbean jazz pianists (Valdés and Rubalcaba are from Cuba, Camilo is from the Dominican Republic). Ernesto Lecuona was arguably Cuban’s greatest composer, considered the George Gershwin of that island nation.  He passed away in 1963 but not before leaving an incredible legacy of songs informed by his Cuban and Spanish heritage.

So it was a treat to hear all three pay tribute to Lecuona last night at SFJazz. They marveled at the composer’s technically challenging pieces, with Camilo and Rubacalba referencing Lecuona’s “big left hand” that required them to “split their brain in half” to play the Cuban rhythms on the left with the Spanish classical-infused melodies on the right. Indeed, Camilo in particular seemed tripped up at times on his solo pieces, although his rapid-fire chops dazzled the crowd at turns.

In terms of format, they alternated between solo and duo performances, with a finale as a trio.  Camilo began solo for two pieces (“San Francisco El Grande” and “La Negra Bailaba”), then invited Rubacalba on stage to join him for a few songs, including “Danza Lucumi.” Camilo then left for Rubacalba to solo for a few. Valdés then joined Rubacalba for a final song before intermission.

Valdés started the second half solo, with his virtuosity inspiring repeated standing ovations from the crowd.  He then invited Camilo back out for some joint performances. Rubacalba completed the trio for a roaring finale, punctuated by an encore with all three masters seated at a makeshift bench on one piano.

For those unable to attend the show, all three composers are featured in the documentary “Playing Lecuona” (trailer above), which gives you a flavor of what transpired last night and will continue through this weekend at SFJazz.

How To Persuade NIMBYs
One of the frustrating aspects of arguing with those who oppose new housing in their neighborhood is the typical dodge-and-weave around Econ 101 issues.  As any first-year econ student will tell you, more supply of housing will lower prices.  But many NIMBYs instead argue that more housing just drives up prices by gentrifying neighborhoods, when the exact opposite is true.
Noah Smith describes these typical arguments made by housing opponents and offers these suggestions on how to respond to them:
1. Econ 101 supply-and-demand theory is helpful in discussing these issues, but don’t rely on it exclusively. Instead, use a mix of data, simple theory, thought experiments, and references to more complex theories.
2. Always remind people that the price of an apartment is not fixed, and doesn’t come built into its walls and floors.
3. Remind NIMBYs to think about the effect of new housing on whole regions, states, and the country itself, instead of just on one city or one neighborhood. If NIMBYs say they only care about one city or neighborhood, ask them why.
4. Ask NIMBYs what they think would be the result of destroying rich people’s current residences.

5. Acknowledge that induced demand is a real thing, and think seriously about how new housing supply within a city changes the location decisions of people not currently living in that city.

6. NIMBYs care about the character of a city, so it’s good to be able to paint a positive, enticing picture of what a city would look and feel like with more development.

For a less politic take on how to advocate for housing, Seattle’s (aptly named) Dan Savage pulls no punches when it comes to what it will take to improve housing and rapid transit in our urban centers:
Housing scarcity—exacerbated by the ridiculous amount of this city zoned for single-family housing—deserves as much blame for the displacement crisis as gentrification. More. And unlike gentrification (“a once in a lifetime tectonic shift in consumer preferences”), scarcity and single-family zoning are two things we can actually do something about. Rezone huge swaths of the city. Build more units of affordable housing, borrow the social housing model discussed in the Rick Jacobus’ piece I quote from above (“Why We Must Build“), do away with parking requirements, and—yes—let developers develop. (This is the point where someone jumps into comments to point out that I live in a big house on Capitol Hill. It’s true! And my house is worth a lot of money—a lot more than what we paid for it a dozen years ago. But the value of my house is tied to its scarcity. Want to cut the value of my property in half? Great! Join me in calling for a radical rezone of all of Capitol Hill—every single block—for multi-family housing, apartment blocks and towers. That’ll show me!)

Both pieces are worth reading in full, especially for those concerned about the lack of new housing supply in our job- and transit-rich urban centers.

LA Metro Will Slowly Re-evaluate Its Entire Bus System In Light Of Declining Ridership

Falling transit ridership is a nationwide problem, but it’s particularly a setback in Los Angeles, which is investing like crazy in transit due to two recently passed transportation sales tax measures.  Laura Nelson covered the recent ridership decline in the Los Angeles Times and what L.A. Metro plans to do about:

Metro bus ridership fell 18% in April compared with April 2015. The number of trips taken on Metro buses annually fell by more than 59 million, or 16%, between 2013 and 2016.

A recent survey of more than 2,000 former riders underscores the challenge Metro faces. Many passengers said buses didn’t go where they were going — or, if they did, the bus didn’t come often enough, or stopped running too early, or the trip required multiple transfers. Of those surveyed, 79% now primarily drive alone.

In an attempt to stem the declines, Metro is embarking on a study to “re-imagine” the system’s 170 lines and 15,000 stops, officials said. Researchers will consider how to better serve current riders and how to attract new customers, and will examine factors including demographics, travel patterns and employment centers.

Meanwhile, as Metro explains in its outlet The Source:

Metro has not embarked on such a systemwide effort since the 1990s so it is timely given the significant expansion of the Metro Rail system this century, growth of municipal operator services and the popularity of other transportation options (i.e. ride hailing services such as Lyft and Uber).

As I blogged earlier, it was easy to dismiss prior reports of falling ridership, but now is definitely a good time to take it seriously.

But Metro won’t exactly be hurrying to get to the bottom of this.  The bus system review isn’t planned to be completed until April 2019, which will then require public hearings later that year.  So any actual changes won’t go into effect until December 2019 — at the earliest.

Two years seems like a really long time to study this issue, although Los Angeles does have an enormous system.  Still, a little urgency could be in order.  And in the meantime, the agency could focus on one immediate step that is guaranteed to boost ridership: require local governments with major transit stations to relax restrictions on adjacent development.

And Metro could start with the recalcitrant neighborhoods around the new Expo Line.

Otherwise, we’ll have to wait a while on any results from the bus study.

CEQA: With The Passing Of Its Legislative Author, What’s The Status?

Last month former California assemblyman John T. Knox passed away at 92. He was a progressive Democrat from Contra Costa County in the East Bay who was the driving force behind the 1970 California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The East Bay Times has more on his life.

His passing is an opportunity for reflection on the state of CEQA, California’s bedrock environmental law. It’s a perennially controversial topic. Big businesses hate it because they get sued under CEQA and have to build in the litigation uncertainty into their projects as a result. Labor unions love it because it gives them leverage to sue non-union project proponents unless they agree to hire unionized workers. And traditional environmentalists and NIMBYs love it because it gives them leverage over basically any proposed project in the state.

As someone who is motivated to address climate change and boost sustainable housing growth in the state, I’m personally mixed on CEQA. I don’t like its negative effects on infill housing, but I like the basic concept and how CEQA applies to environmentally destructive projects, from certain timber harvesting plans to oil and gas exploration.

On the housing front, here are some truths worth acknowledging:

  1. CEQA is overblown as a reason for the state’s housing shortage.  Developers and their advocates like to blame CEQA for the state’s significant undersupply of housing.  But the evidence simply isn’t there that it’s a major cause for suppressing production.  For example, the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research survey of planners around the state in 2012 indicated that CEQA was not the prime factor in stopping infill, compared to barriers like local zoning, lack of infrastructure, and public antipathy to new development.  And the 2016 survey showed that over 40% of cities and counties in California have successfully used CEQA streamlining for infill projects that might have been subject to the law.  Meanwhile, a recent report from the Rose Foundation (on which I served as an adviser) put CEQA litigation in context and found it to be rare.  Only 195 CEQA lawsuits on average are filed each year in the state, and fewer than 1 out of 100 projects that aren’t already exempt from CEQA are subject to litigation.
  2. CEQA does kill or maim a lot of important infill housing developments. Despite the overblown nature of the CEQA claims discussed above, there is still plenty of anecdotal evidence that CEQA has taken out some badly-needed infill projects.  The law certainly isn’t designed to help promote more infill housing, and one of the negative aspects not discussed in the Rose Foundation report is the defensive project siting and design that CEQA encourages.  And that’s why I’d favor far more limited CEQA review for housing in transit-oriented infill areas.
  3. CEQA is politically very hard to change at the state level right now.  The combination of labor union and traditional environmentalist support for CEQA means that wholesale change at the state level is unlikely to happen soon.  Rather, progress will be marked incrementally, such as through SB 743, which essentially removes transportation as a CEQA impact for infill projects near transit and simultaneously requires rigorous analysis for outlying sprawl projects.

Knox left this state an important legacy on environmental protection.  But just as courts have vastly expanded CEQA’s reach, a new era of housing shortage and climate change mitigation will require updates to the law to address these modern challenges.  As we think through policies needed to boost infill housing, policy makers will need to consider options to streamline CEQA further for these priority needs.

Why Japan Is Pushing Hydrogen Fuel Cells Over Battery Electric Vehicles

The more I learn about hydrogen fuel cells as a potential alternative (or competitor) to battery electric vehicles, the more confused I become.

Toyota Mirai fuel cell vehicle

Hydrogen as a fuel source (as opposed to electricity) is much more energy intensive to produce and much less efficient as a result, given the energy input to make the hydrogen that will power the vehicle.  It also requires building an entirely new fueling infrastructure to reach drivers, whereas electricity is ubiquitous (although does require a lot of new charging stations).

Hydrogen also isn’t cheap (per paywalled Greenwire):

Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles could offer advantages over the electric cars on the road now, including higher travel distances between refuelings. Filling up the tank is basically the same as filling a car with gasoline, and in California, most hydrogen pumps are at existing gas stations. While the hydrogen fuel is significantly more expensive — filling a tank costs about $75 — Toyota and Honda give their customers credit for $15,000 worth of fuel over three years of ownership.

So why the big push for hydrogen in places like California, when battery electric vehicles have taken hold with billions of investment from companies around the world?

The answer appears to be Japan, and the automakers in that country, specifically Toyota and Honda.  States like California have had to include hydrogen incentives in packages with battery electric vehicles in order to get the political buy-in from these Japanese automakers.

So with all the hurdles associated with hydrogen fuel cells, why is Japan so invested in the technology?  Per ClimateWire (also pay-walled):

A big part of the answer is that the shift toward hydrogen plays to Japan’s strengths as a technology developer and exporter, and the country makes an ideal laboratory to test the hydrogen economy.

The country spends more than $100 billion on foreign oil every year, and fuel prices tend to be high, so hydrogen fuel doesn’t have to be as cheap as it does in other countries to compete. More than 93 percent of Japan’s population is concentrated in urban areas, so fewer fueling stations are needed to sustain a hydrogen fleet than among populations that are more spread out.

For drivers, a fuel cell fill-up takes only a few minutes, compared with hours of charging for a battery-electric vehicle.

Another factor is that much of the supply chain for the hydrogen economy is domestic, and Japanese companies like Toyota have a track record of bringing fuel-efficient cars to the masses.

In particular, Toyota has built the Prius, a mass-market hybrid gasoline-electric car that has dominated the segment for more than 20 years. It took 10 years to sell the first million units, then two years to sell the second million.

With patience and know-how, Toyota hopes to replicate some of that success in fuel cells in Japan and in other parts of the world where energy prices, environmental concerns and driving styles align to make fuel-cell-powered cars a preferable option.

I suppose it’s fine to have another “clean” vehicle technology in the mix, in case breakthroughs help it leapfrog battery electric vehicles. But I would prefer that policy makers don’t share too much of the limited available incentive dollars with this technology and instead focus on the more optimal solution.

Is The Tesla Solar Roof Viable?

Tesla solar roof tiles

Tesla’s tiled solar panel roof made a big splash when Elon Musk unveiled it last year (photo to the right).  But the roof comes at a pretty steep price, as Bloomberg reports:

A Tesla solar roof will also lose some of the energy-generating density of a traditional panel, because the cells must be spaced farther apart to account for the edges of the tiles, BNEF’s Bromley said. Therefore, the percentage of the roof that will be covered by active solar cells will be higher, as will the total cost of the roof. All told, a traditional solar setup might be 30 percent cheaper than a Tesla roof, he said, but Tesla’s will look better and come with a lifetime warranty. “A 30 percent premium could well be acceptable.”

“It is the most affordable roof you can buy, all things considered,” said Peter Rive, co-founder of Tesla’s recently acquired SolarCity division.

Perhaps the extra cost is worth it in terms of getting a new roof and possibly not having the visual impacts of a traditional solar array (I personally don’t mind the look of traditional solar panels, but some people do, which could decrease home values I suppose).  But only so many homes need a new roof at a given time, so right away the market seems limited.

There also may be technical issues with this new type of technology.  I talked to a solar engineer recently who thought the tiles would have problems without having the cooling air space underneath, like with traditional mounted panels.  The extra heat would supposedly hinder the lifespan and energy production value.  I don’t know how to evaluate that claim or whether or not Tesla has addressed it, but it points to concerns people may have with adopting a new form of the technology.

I like the idea of Tesla combining with SolarCity to package clean energy and energy storage together with the vehicles, but the solar roof concept may have a rocky start.

RIP Chris Cornell

The former Soundgarden lead singer and guitarist was found dead last night after a show in Detroit.  He had a beautiful voice and an interesting approach to songwriting, using unexpected chord and key changes that gave some of his more traditional-sounding rock tunes a left-brained, almost mathematical feel.

Here he is singing a cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” in tribute when that artist passed away last year:

My favorite tune of his though is probably Black Hole Sun.  Rest in peace.

If The U.S. Stops Encouraging Electric Vehicles, China & India May Fill The Leadership Void

The Trump Administration has not given positive indications about the U.S. commitment to electric vehicles.  Encouraging a transition from vehicles powered by petroleum fuels to locally generated electricity makes sense for air pollution, national security, and economic reasons, but the administration seems firmly committed to advancing the interests of the oil and gas industry instead.

Some troubling signs:

  • The administration wants to roll back some of the Obama-era fuel economy standards for vehicles, which help boost electric vehicle production.
  • The administration may challenge in court past federal waivers granted to California under the Clean Air Act, which allow the state to pursue more stringent standards than those set at the federal level.  That waiver authority is central to California’s sovereignty to issue rules like the ZEV (zero-emission vehicle) mandate, which requires automakers to produce a certain number of electric vehicles (or buy credits from those companies that do) per year.
  • At the agency level, the administration has discontinued relatively low-lift but big impact programs that boost electric vehicles, like the “Workplace Charging Challenge” at the U.S. Department of Energy.  I happened to be on that program’s mailing list, and I got an email on March 27, 2017 that noted the highlights of the program but then said the following:

I am pleased to share with you that DOE is celebrating the success of the Challenge and concluding the formal initiative this month.

But if the federal government continues to pull back support for these efforts and undercut EV-friendly states like California, all may not be lost.  And the reason is that the U.S. is not the only game in town.  India and China may quickly fill the void, as Reuters reported:

In its “road map”, released in April, China said it wants alternative fuel vehicles to account for at least one-fifth of the 35 million annual vehicle sales projected by 2025.

India is considering even more radical action, with an influential government think-tank drafting plans in support of electrifying all vehicles in the country by 2032, according to government and industry sources interviewed by Reuters late last week.

So has the electric vehicle market already left the garage, so to speak?  With prices falling and big automakers committing billions of dollars on new EV models, the continued demand from developing countries like India and China could keep that investment going if the U.S. hits the pause button.

It’s a reassuring development, but also an indication of how the U.S. is at risk of abdicating its leadership — and market share — in this growing industry.

Expo Line Station Neighborhoods Have Weak Plans For Development

New apartments by the downtown Santa Monica station, which ain’t happening hear other stations along the Expo Line.

The Expo Line from Downtown L.A. to Downtown Santa Monica travels a highly congested corridor in the job-rich but housing-poor Westside of L.A.  While the multibillion rail line has been successful so far in exceeding ridership projections, it could still fail to live up to its full potential unless the station neighborhoods allow more compact, rail-oriented development to generate enough riders for the line and minimize the taxpayer costs.  Not to mention this part of town badly needs housing in areas that don’t require car commuting.

So it was a big deal last month when the City of Los Angeles released the draft Exposition Corridor Transit Neighborhood Plan, which governs the land use for the neighborhoods around the line within the City of Los Angeles.

Steven Sharp over at Urbanize LA took a deep dive into document.  His verdict?  The plans are tepid at best with no strong vision for the kind of density required to make good use of the multi-billion rail line:

While a small but significant step towards a more transit-oriented future for communities surrounding the Expo Line, the Expo TNP [transit neighborhood plan] falls short in terms of scale and scope when compared to planning around rail lines in other major cities.

On the opposite side of the country, Washington Metro stations are surrounded by dozens of walkable town centers in southern Maryland and northern Virginia.  Other existing commercial hubs, such as Tyson’s Corner, are being gradually retrofitted for pedestrians following the introduction of passenger rail service.

In contrast, the proposed Expo TNP walks a fine line between maintaining the status quo and creating the transit-oriented communities implied by the project’s name.  The station subareas which would be rezoned for higher density development represent less than 13 percent of the total land area encompassed by the Expo TNP, as the vast majority of properties are excluded from land use changes on account of their R1 and R2 zoning.

The properties that would be upzoned under the plan are almost exclusively commercial and industrial sites, where current occupants are less likely to oppose new construction.  Although a change in land use may be appropriate for these properties due to the arrival of the Expo Line, the fact that wealthier residential blocks nearby were left untouched speaks to the continued political clout of Los Angeles’ homeowners.  This is perhaps best highlighted by the Westwood/Rancho Park Station, which is surrounded on all sides by million-dollar houses, and was more-or-less ignored by the Expo TNP.

All of which makes me want to renew my call to shut down or otherwise reduce service to under-performing stations along the line. If the locals are not going to allow appropriate development in these choice areas, then these stations shouldn’t slow riders traveling from the dense downtowns on either end.

City Visions Tonight: Interview With Photographer And Former MTV Reporter Tabitha Soren

Image result for tabitha sorenTabitha Soren made her mark as a political reporter in the early days of MTV. But these days she has turned her interest in photography into a successful second career. Her new book Fantasy Life tracks the baseball players drafted by the Oakland A’s in the 2002 “Moneyball” draft, made famous by her husband, author Michael Lewis. It’s a photographic series that captures that wide range of outcomes for these young players, from fame to destitution.

I’ll be discussing this book and more about her photography and career tonight on City Visions, 91.7 FM KALW. Tune in or stream it to ask your questions!

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