Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Amtrak California ends 2011 with continued high ridership

It may almost be March, but Amtrak has just released their December report, meaning we can take a look at Amtrak California ridership for the end of the year. When I last wrote about Amtrak ridership the August and September reports had just been released. My lack of posting hasn't been because ridership has been poor. Quite the contrary, ridership continues to exceed previous highs, and the year ended quite well.


For the October-December period, ridership is up over 2010 on two of the lines.
Year on year ridership changes
San Joaquin : +8.6%
Capitol Corridor : +6.9%
Pacific Surfliner : -6.1%

While ridership is down on the PacSurf, ticket revenue is up by quite a bit. I'm guessing Amtrak hiked up fares, which lowered ridership, but more than made up for it in new revenue. That's just a guess though, perhaps construction or such hurt ridership.

For the October-December period, revenue is up over 2010 on all three lines.
Year on year revenue changes
San Joaquin : +12.2%
Capitol Corridor : +10.8%
Pacific Surfliner : +8.2%

Those aren't insignificant increases folks, especially for train lines that have been running as long as these. 


Revenue is an important metric because it means Amtrak isn't padding ridership numbers by discounting fares. Indeed, revenue is up higher than ridership is, meaning more people are paying into the higher bucket rates.


So how are the lines doing on other year-over-year metrics? Very well. Especially the San Joaquin which keeps growing. The Pacific Surfliner seems to be stuck at a certain ridership level for the time being.

Let's take a look at November ridership, from 2008 to 2011.

The San Joaquin and Capitol Corridor have shown increases every single year.
(Please note the y-axis)

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While this is just November, the SJ has added almost 10,000 each month compared to 2009. For a "nowhere" region where "nobody" rides trains, 10,000 new riders is a whole lot of somebodies. In fact, seven of Amtrak's lines carried less than 10,000 people total for the month of December, so to have the SJ increase ridership by so much is quite the amount. That's over 300 new riders a day.

The Capitol Corridor is also doing quite well.
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The Pacific Surfliner, as I mentioned, is sort of stuck. This graph is sort of deceiving (again, pay attention to the y-axis) but the next graph shows the drops aren't such a big deal
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And how they look all together. In this graph, the swings in PS ridership seem insignificant.
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And now October 2010 to December 2011, all three. This graph lets you see how October-December of last year compares to this year.
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Again, the highlight here is the San Joaquin, home to the first stage of construction for high-speed rail. There is a very positive trend in ridership increase since 2008, even though the recession hit the San Joaquin Valley especially hard. The trendline added by excel makes the increase clear.
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And how do Amtrak California lines compare in ridership to the rest of the country? Same as always actually. The numbers change, but the rankings don't really. Perhaps next summer we'll see some movement in the ranking.

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I stand by my prediction that all the high speed rail news has acted as a massive advertising campaign for the San Joaquin. It also shows that when offered the service, people will jump on trains, they just need to know the option exists. The continued increases show that riders aren't trying the train just once, but sticking around. Makes sense, train travel is affordable and comfortable.

That ranking also shows that the 2009-2011 high speed rail grants weren't random. Every corridor shown in the top 10 was selected for some kind of HSR funding. I hope that after the November election, HSR funding is restored so that the top 10 Amtrak corridors continue to see significant investment and increases in ridership.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Supermarket Blight

Many urban areas have to deal with a problem of not enough supermarkets, especially in poorer areas. I've heard, but don't know if it's true, that Detroit doesn't have a single national supermarket retailer. In Boston, the North End (not poor by any measure) has been searching for a major supermarket for years. In DC, large portions of the center have no access to large grocers. This phenomenon is called a "food desert" and a lot of time is put into trying to lure retailers into under-served areas.

Fresno is not like that. Oddly enough, Fresno is jam-packed with huge supermarkets, many in very close proximity. Here is a list of most (I may have forgotten a few!) grocery chains that serve Fresno. This doesn't include small, local stores. All of the following brands are major chains with multiple locations in the area.

Savemart
Vons (Safeway)
Fresh and Easy
Food Maxx
Foods Co
Food for Less
Winco
Costco
Vallarta
El Super
R-N Market
Target
Wal-Mart Super Center
Grocery Outlet
Big Lots
Smart and Final



Indeed, there are so many supermarkets, and so many competing brands that some areas of the city suffer what can only be described as "supermarket blight" in which one supermarket abandons their existing store to open a newer, and usually bigger location nearby.

The blight comes because that old location is doomed to sit empty for a very, very long time. An empty retail space, especially of the size of the supermarket kills vitality. And worse, neglect has a way of spreading, making the entire strip center and then stretch of road seem blighted.

The most unfortunate part is, in a lot cases, the location sitting empty is actually be design.

I found this paragraph in am environmental report about the futre Clovis Wal-Mart Supercenter.

Also, both the former Save Mart and Von’s spaces have long-term leases in place and it is unlikely that these retailers would allow a grocer-oriented tenant to reoccupy the space, which is currently best suited for grocery tenants.
PDF page 44

This was hugely eye opening to me. All this time, I thought all those empty supermarkets were just a casualty of a weak retail market. I assumed the space sat empty because no one wanted to fill it.

But apparently, for many locations, that's not the case. The owner of the property is in some cases the retailer who has moved down the street to a new location. By holding onto the existing (empty) store, they block competitors from entering the market, because the most suitable spaces are not available.

So the blight is be design. Huge national retailers are spending money to block competitors, and they're hurting the neighborhood in doing so.

It even goes beyond that. We've all seen what happens when a strip mall (or even a traditional mall) loses its anchor. The rest of the mall struggles to attract customers, and many locations close. So when Vons decided to move 1 mile down the road, and they decide that their old location shall sit empty, to ensure competition can't come in, the rest of the strip malls declines. I wonder if this is also by design, because the chain will have more control over tenants in their new strip center.

Here is a real-story about this in action.

A month or so ago, I attended a planning meeting in Clovis about revitalizing commerce on Shaw. A business owner at the meeting complained that the abandoned Vons was hurting her business because the corporation was not providing any upkeep. The air of neglect, garbage and such, scared away customers, and it was hurting her business. I had assumed that Vons was holding the property because they couldn't get rid of it or find a tenant. After I read the above, I became skeptical of their intentions, but then last week I learned of something which confirmed that the owner of the former Vons was actually blocking any development in that center.

A call-center opened in that same strip-mall in 2010, taking over (what I'm told) was an abandoned Sears Outlet store. The call center used the wide open space for their setup, and quickly hired over 400 people. Those 400 people are great patrons to the many lunch spots in the immediate area.

Two years later, the company is looking to expand, and possibly grow to 800 people. The best solution for them would be to take over the old Vons, as that would allow them to keep their existing facilities (no moving costs) but add more agents as needed.

But the owners of the property said no. They don't want to lease out the property.

And so it shall sit empty, possibly forever. And now this company is looking to move to a suitable space they found in Fresno, taking 800 jobs with them, and abandoning their current location. All the surrounding retailers will be hurt greatly as many of their customers are forced into offices across town.

You can't script blight creation as perfectly as this scenario, but this is a true story. And apparently, there's nothing Clovis can do about it. They're about to lose 800 jobs because the owners of empty commercial space wish to keep it empty, depressing the entire section of town in the process.


Here is the center.
--A is the call-center. The red box includes the parking lot because I want to show that the majority of people in this center are employees of this location. The retail location south of the call-center is an empty fashion store, that was used by the call center to conduct interviews.
--B is the $3 theater. Always popular, but not something Regal will hold onto forever (judging by the complete lack of maintenance, the chain has no real plans for this spot).
--C is Ross.
--D is the old Vons, large and ready for a tenant. I highlighted the parking area in front and even behind the store. For whatever reason, this center was designed with a massive rear parking-lot - poor for retail, perfect for a call-center because employees could park in the back, and leave the front for Ross and Dollar Store patrons



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Now imagine it's 2013, the Vons is still empty, the call center has moved to Fresno, many of the retail spots (not shown) remain empty, or close because their customers leave, and Regal shuts their theater. That kind of blight is very, very hard to fix.





That's not the only way supermarkets can cause blight. I am a fan of the Fresh and Easy chain, but their expansion troubles have had negative effects on some commercial areas. Back in 2007, F&E bought up many parcels of land to build new stores. In many cases, those stores were never built. The result is an ugly vacant lot, some of which have been sitting there for 4+ years. As F&E owns the lots, and hopes to one day use them, no other retailer can come in. Like Vons, they are simply sitting on commercial property and no one else can use it.

Here are examples of Fresh and Easy parcels that have sat empty since 2007. For whatever reason, they're all by Walgreens.

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The final way in which supermarket blight emerges is when chains go out of business or pull out of the market, and their space sits unused. When Albertsons left the Fresno market, they left behind many old, less desirable stores. Half a decade later, those locations remain empty, and have a slim chance of ever being taken over. Supermarkets have very specific design requirements and so the unique structure makes it harder for other retailers to come in and adapt the building to their needs. A call center requiring a huge amount of space is a rare-occurrence, and most chains prefer to build their own boxes from scratch on vacant land.

This is an example I've used before, of an old Albertsons.


After the supermarket left, the rest of the strip center failed, leaving most of it empty.



Fresno is littered with at least a dozen old and empty spots like this.

The proximity to dense apartments hasn't helped this old Albertsons find a tenant. The non-standard placement (far back in the center) means it will probably always sit empty.

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Here's an example of a parcel in Selma that has sat empty for a very, very long time. Based on the interior design, this store was built in the 1950's. The city says the building is not stable, and so no one can lease it without putting significant money into it. Odds are, it will sit there empty for another decade or so. A bank was recently built in its parking lot. Because we know how "important" parking minimums are here, the elimination of parking is a clear message that the supermarket will never be used again.

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There's one other way in which supermarkets can hurt the liveliness of retail, and that's in the way their design involved blank walls with no windows. That's a whole other conversation.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Photos from Downtown Open House

I said I would attend the "downtown open house" event, and so I did. I didn't have enough time to hit all 5 locations, but I did visit what I thought would be the two coolest. Sorry Granville, but while I like your work, old tops new when it comes to things like this.

And so, here are my pictures.

The Bee also has a small write-up of the event, and ABC 30 has its own report.

We start with the building that is frequently used to highlight Fresno. The Pacific Southwest Building is sort of the tallest in the land (depends if you count the antenna, which I do). It's quite prominent, and it looks good to boot. Built in 1923, it has defined Fresno for almost 90 years.

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Sadly, being big and iconic doesn't mean the building is much used. In fact, it's almost completely empty, save for a few features. The open house was meant to highlight the conversion of the 11th floor to lofts, but I took the opportunity to visit the entire building.

Sub-basement - Parking
Basement - Bank Vault, fixed up to be used for events.

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Ground floor - Ballroom, rented out for events (I didn't take pictures of it)

2nd floor (and what a second floor it is, take the elevator!) - Beauty Salon and gym for tenants.

The salon was pretty cool. Didn't even know it was there, we were poking around and BOOM, the automated doors opened.

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8th floor - Lawyers offices. Sort of creepy, because it seemed mostly abandoned, but still in use. Was sort of confused.

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11th floor- Loft project. The lofts looked nice, and quite upscale. However, the asking price is steep for what it is. You could get a bigger place elsewhere for half as much. That being said, it's the one and only place in Fresno you can live on the 11th floor, so if that's a big deal to you, then jump on it. There are only two lofts, so they don't need to find too many willing people to get a lease signed and presumably make money off the conversion.One question I would be sure to ask is how the heating/cooling works and expected bills.

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As for floors 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 12, 13, 14, 15* and 15.5*? Empty. Sadly empty. I took the "open house" thing literally and did some exploring so here are some pictures of that.

*Elevator goes up 14 floors, 15 and 15.5 reachable by sketchy stairs.

Floor 14
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Access to floor 15

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The top level

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Stopped by a couple of random floors. Floor 5 has been converted to modern (1980's?) offices but sits abandoned. A calendar indicated it was last occupied April 2009. Not much to see, but shouldn't take too much work to get ready for leasing.

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Floor 3 was an odd graveyard place. Old computers. Toilets, lots of toilets. Vending machine from 60's. Satellite dishes. A refrigerator that looks to be no more than a year old. Papers, boxes, etc.

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Actually, now that I think about it, I may be mixing up which one was 3 and which one was 5. Doesn't matter really.


Oh right, one last thing. The views. As if I'd forget that.

Views from the lofts.

This is going to be an interesting view come next year. Straight ahead, is the Greyhound bus depot. Behind that, is the old UP passenger rail station. Next to, above and around that is the future home of Fresno's high speed rail depot. Looking west.

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Looking south down the Fulton Mall

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Looking east, Holiday Inn is in front, then the courthouse, and behind it to the left, the big hospital.

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Looking north up Fulton Mall. Note the tree cover.

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And now similar views from a little higher up, at the top level.

Again, compare the tree cover on the mall, with the tree cover north of the mall on Fulton Street. Also, can anyone tell me what the spinning G means?

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There was an event in the stadium

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From here, it was time to walk to the Mayflower Lofts.

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Outside the Fresno Brewing Company coffee shop was a stand asking questions about a proposed project on Van Ness street. In return for answering a very brief (and honestly, probably not very helpful) survey, you got a free drink from the coffee shop.

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Before we could tour the Mayflower conversion project, the farmers market lured us with produce that was way too cheap.

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Lofts visible in the back
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Onto the lofts then. Again, nice looking stuff, although I didn't get a price point here. The downside to these lofts is that they're not exactly surrounded by sunshine and butterflies. Ugly neighbor to north, and empty lots (parking lots) on each side.

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Nice views...but not a nice view.

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That building in the middle is a proposed future indoor market

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Morning neighbor

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And then it was time to leave. Hope you enjoyed the tour. If you stopped by and also took pictures, I'd love to see them.