Discover more from The Curbivore
The Medium is the Message
On Culdesac's media savvy appeal
Culdesac, the car-light apartment complex under construction in Arizona, got another round of breathless media coverage this week: a huge profile in Bloomberg, a much more bullet-pointy summation in Axios, and a commensurate amount of celebration on social media. At first, cynic that I am, my response was frustration — another round of laudatory media for an apartment building that’s received more press write-ups than the number of apartment units it contains?
And yet, in the course of digesting how I wanted to discuss the subject, I realized there’s perhaps some merit to the hype cycle after all. So, follow along as we tear down Culdesac, so we can in-turn build it back up again!
I come to bury Culdesac, not to praise it (because that comes later)
Much of the press coverage, stretching back to 2018 or so, calls it a “car-free neighborhood,” mirroring language used by the development team (and I do want to caveat that regardless of any criticisms, Ryan Johnson and his partners should receive praise for raising capital for a real estate product that’s by all means non-traditional for its location, given how conservative banks generally are in this category.)
Let’s split that claim into two. Is it “car-free”? No. The western edge of the property contains an at-grade parking lot, to serve visitors and the complex’s commercial spaces. Residents also get discounted access to carsharing and Lyft rides, which I might say is a dissuasion of car-ownership more than car-use (although in general making people pay per use, as opposed to one fixed cost, dissuages car trips.) And to convince Tempe’s development review commission to grant an exemption to off-street parking requirements, Culdesac said it would adjust its parking plan in later phases if the initial low-car vision failed to lease up.
Second, is it a neighborhood? I’m not one to deny a marketer the full dictionary, but we’re talking about 761 units across 17 acres (about 1/40th of a square mile.) The design adds some permeability to the complex that does add a bit of a sense of internal walkways (kudos to Opticos Design) but you’ll find that in plenty of non “Texas-donut” style wood-frame construction. With the commercial uses pushed towards the parking-adjacent northwestern side, it’s unlikely you’re going to see tons of foot traffic on the opposing ends. A freight rail line and a freeway to the south and east also reduce walkability.
Much of the national coverage has also focused on the seemingly wild contradiction that anyone could live a green lifestyle in a metro area that continues to break heat records. (Strangely ignored are the Hohokam or even the 250,000 or so folks that lived in Maricopa County before the Post-War era brought in mass motoring and cheap air conditioning.)
While the Southwest’s eye-popping and egg-frying temps are scary enough, the whole “Arizona is going to be uninhabitable!!!” narrative is off-base. If we’re trying to write off a region purely on Fahrenheit, Miami and the greater Southeastern United States are a far bigger concern. Factoring in heat-index and wet-bulb temperatures, folks are experiencing much higher temperatures on that side of the country, and it lasts a longer part of the year. Phoenix could certainly do itself a lot of favors by building more shade, but no amount of sun blockage will solve the Gulf Coast’s humidity.
How I learned to stop worrying and love Culdesac
Back to Culdesac (French for “bottom of a sack,”) now that we’ve established that yes Dear Reader, you’re allowed to live in Arizona. The team, and the press, trumpets that building a residential-parking-free apartment complex is unique in the contemporary United States. Ignoring that there are hundreds of such buildings always under construction in NYC, DC, Chicago, SF and such, there are even other such buildings recently completed in other locales that aren’t often thought of as car-light cities. Here’s a 69-unit building that just opened in Hollywood, with no parking for residents nor for its retail space. The folks at Space Craft have been opening parking-free buildings all over Charlotte, a city that by many measures is even more car-dependent than Phoenix.
Again, the natural instinct might be, if these buildings aren’t getting glowing writeups in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, why should we bring out the confetti for Culdesac?
But, what if the real story isn’t so much about the apartment building, but it’s the story about the story? Not to imagine a snake eating its own tail while wearing a press cap, but perhaps the media machinations are actually worth celebrating. Because this thing has been in the press for half a decade, people are moving across the country *just to live in this building.* The more this one project becomes a press sensation, whatever its merits, the more other developers can point to it when building their own car-light projects, should their conservative lenders again balk at financing something not usually baked into their construction comps.
And while car-light isn’t car-free, let’s be honest… no one truly lives car-free, some just offset more of their driving to others, either the taxis and Ubers they might occasionally take, or the UPS trucks, Amazon deliveries and DoorDash meals that are part and parcel of contemporary civilization. Maybe we don’t need to think of Culdesac, and its kin, as “car-free neighborhoods” but rather as islands of experimentation, where Phoenicians can be exposed to an array of outdoor markets, streateries, pickup-dropoff zones, micromobility hubs and their ilk. That sounds worth celebrating to me.
Thanks for reading The Curbivore! Subscribe for free to receive new posts & support our work.
HOT INDUSTRY NEWS & GOSSIP
Big Q2 News: It’s earning season, and a number of curb-centric companies have updates worth rehashing. Uber posted its first ever profitable quarter and the market responded by… dropping its stock like a TNC driver avoiding a short ride during rush hour. Mobility rose 25% YoY, while delivery was up a pokier 12%. DoorDash had a strong quarter of its own as its net loss narrowed to $172M on revenue of $2.1 billion; the delivery giant does about a billion more dollars worth of food and retail movement than Uber. On the “non-startup” side of things, Ford also had a big Q2, as its commercial segment (trucks, vans) printed money, more than offsetting sizable losses at its EV arm.
In street dining news: Some spoilsport in the City of Brotherly Love has been calling 311 to close down illegal sidewalk cafes. Imagine being bothered by this but shrugging at the nightly ATV street-takeovers that are basically Philly’s customary way of greeting one’s neighbor? In New Orleans, streateries look to be in jeopardy too, as sclerotic governance has forced a number to close, despite intentions to do the opposite. In NYC, the Mayor signed a law that keeps some street dining permanent; a few months back we covered the rule’s shortcomings.
In equally exciting curb management news: Dallas looks to bring smarter pricing, more PUDU zones to its popular Deep Ellum neighborhood. NYC launches pay-by-app for curbside parking on 7 blocks of Sixth Ave. (How many of the city’s 86,000 metered spaces does that cover - maybe 100?)
The juice is worth the squeeze: Grocer-to-the-stars Erewhon launched a 30 min or less delivery service, showing the merits of relying on existing infrastructure and offering non-commodity items like high-end juice and smoothies. You may remember company Chief Growth Officer Kabir Jain sharing some insights at Curbivore ‘23. Over at TechCrunch, Misfits Market CEO Abhi Ramesh has some thoughts of his own on making grocery delivery work.
Virtual dining, real world lawsuit: The battle between Virtual Dining Concepts and its one-time star brand MrBeast has moved from Tweetsuite to Lawsuit. MrBeast (aka Jimmy Donaldson) is suing to back out of the partnership, alleging the burger chain’s food quality is hurting his larger reputation. Now VDC has fired back with claims of its own; looks like we may have dueling lawsuits, as the larger virtual restaurant space looks for a less celeb-focused path to profits.
Federal nudges to local problems: The Biden Administration announced new actions aimed to lower housing prices nationwide, as cities from coast to coast (and even those not on a coast) deal with strained housing markets due to years of underbuilding. The Housing Supply Action Plan looks to reduce zoning and land use restrictions, expand affordable housing financing, and promote commercial to residential building conversions. Fingers crossed!
Is it the housing supply, or the insane politics? Apropos of nothing, new data confirms that despite what you might have heard from the tech bros on X.com, everybody did not move to Miami during the pandemic. In fact, the Miami-Dade region lost 79,535 people between 2020 and 2022. Evidently those crypto jobs didn’t offset the fact that Miami is the 3rd poorest major city in the country. Bloomberg also has a nice little piece highlighting the city’s problems as it tries to get people off of septic systems and onto sewers, and the fact that its trash incinerator burnt down in March. But hey, you don’t have to shovel your sidewalk!
Primed! Get ready for more Amazon trucks… Bezos and Co are further regionalizing their delivery network, as they look to put a whopping 300 million items close enough for same-day delivery in 90 metro areas.
Not a great name… In Southeast Asia, most ridehail is done on scooters and tuk-tuks. This can unfortunately leave female drivers exposed to the predation of male harassers. While one big TNC launched a program that was meant to protect workers, women say it’s actually left them even more vulnerable, both economically and literally. What did the geniuses at this app think to name their ill-devised non-safety program? LadyGrab - yeesh.
Can we get some of that on this side of the border? Montreal opened the first segment of its new REM automated suburban metro system. While it makes use of a bit of existing infrastructure, it’s largely new construction, with the 42 mile network set to cost a reasonable $6.9 billion CAD ($5.17B USD.) Construction started in 2018, but was delayed by the pandemic and by century-old dynamite discovered in the aforementioned existing infrastructure. Trains will run every 2.5 minutes at peak on the core segment. Need we remind you that Honolulu is spending about $13 billion on a ~19 mile, fully-elevated system that uses more or less the same technology, and construction isn’t supposed to finish until 2031?
Webinar recap: Replay last week’s conversation on sustainable delivery, with bright insights from leaders at Uber, SF Environment Department, WXY and Perch. And for the very curious — read the Uber + WXY reports on electric micromobility, or on the future of cities & shared mobility.
A few good links: Thrown under the self-driving bus? ATG driver pleads guilty after five year legal drama. Cruise AV heads to Nashville. And back in SF, it reaches a union agreement with IBEW. Nice chart - bike subscriptions for couriers growing fast at Whizz. Walmart doubles down on Flipkart. Fast food restaurants look to serve EV chargers. Scott Shepard and Alex Mitchell chat LA mobility on Cities First Podcast. Car subscription startup Carvolution raises €25M in Switzerland. Micromobility provider Beam hopes to become corporate perk to get workers back to ANZAC offices. Traffic cams come to NYC school busses. Red light cams cut deaths by 50% in Seattle.
Until next week!
- Jonah Bliss & The Curbivore Crew
Thanks for reading The Curbivore! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.