Blog2020-03-02T16:28:51+00:00

How Cities Can Lead the Charge Against Climate Change

The encroaching issue of climate change is one that’s far too massive for one group to handle alone. It’s up to multiple corridors of power to enact the changes that will ensure a safe future for our planet–which is precisely why it’s become such a complicated state of affairs. With two-thirds of Earth’s population expected to be clustered into cities by 2050, it looks to be urban planners who hold the keys to our survival. It’s also a matter of accounting for the damage cities have done on their own: as it stands now, urban centers are responsible for two-thirds of greenhouse emissions.

As a citizen of New York City, I was proud when our mayor announced the city would divest money from fossil fuels. This move was part of a larger movement aimed at hitting the largest producers of greenhouse gases where it hurts and is certainly an important part of the prevention process. But failing to design sustainable lifestyles for all city-dwellers will result in certain ecological disaster, a situation which no amount of money can correct. Creating these lifestyles starts with tackling the two most ripe areas for change: our construction and transportation practices. With the right plans and initiatives, these will be the conduits through which our cities lead the country into a cleaner and more assured future.

Construction

The largest visible representation of urban life, our tall buildings must use energy sustainably and responsibly if we’re to address the climate crisis adequately. This can take several forms, including efficient design that maximizes sunlight, green roofs and outdoor spaces which support the oxygen cycle, reusing water and recycled construction materials. So-called “green buildings” are more than a trendy movement: they’re the frontlines of the fight against rising temperatures.

Efficiency can even work in supertall buildings: Taipei 101 in Taiwan, built in 2011, boasts LEED Platinum certification, the tallest structure in the world to be given this stamp of sustainability. In the midst of a skyscraper boom, cities like New York must take a leadership position in ensuring that while we build to the upper reaches of the atmosphere, we don’t forget about the ground we’re situated on. Earth-friendly building materials like recycled steel and precast concrete can eliminate much of the energy usage that goes into creating these massive structures in the first place, starting their lives off on a sustainable footing.

Transportation

While environmentally conscious building practices are pivotal, an even bigger aspect of taking on climate change is the necessary paradigm shift in the way we get around our cities. Even with a majority of us living in these population clusters, our dependence on pollution-causing automobiles has played a major part in bringing this climate crisis into being. Even electric cars won’t completely save us, as CO2 emissions will stay high regardless thanks to large-scale shipping and aviation transport that can’t run on electricity for the foreseeable future.

For maximum efficiency in sustainable travel, robust public transportation is an absolute necessity. Even zero-emissions cars only carry fewer than a half-dozen people at once, requiring more energy to be expended on transporting fewer people on a daily basis. By designing cities where public transport is a more attractive option, we create communities that aren’t only cleaner, but happier places to live.

It’s an unfortunate reality that many forward-thinking projects will require state and federal approval before cities can get them to the implementation stage. In these and many other areas, it’s our nation’s metropolitan centers where the front lines of the battle against climate change will be staged, but by taking control of the narrative, city planners, local leaders and advocates can spearhead the changes that need to happen. Yes, they’ll need political support in due time, but building and transportation plans in the works are the roadmap for a safe, continued existence.

By |February 15th, 2019|Technology, Urban Planning|

Getting Real About HQ2

The much-hyped HQ2 sweepstakes has finally come to a close, but many in the winning cities aren’t feeling so triumphant. Two major metros, New York and DC, will play host to the currently-Seattle-based tech behemoth’s newest nerve centers. Here at the upper end of the Northeast Corridor, Amazon’s announced Queens-based plans have come with a great deal of controversy, with local politicos and opinion makers alike voicing real concerns about effects-economic, social, and more-of this new development.  

As a New Yorker who follows the tech scene closely, I’ve heard a lot about HQ2 that doesn’t quite sit right with me. In the interest of lending a street-level perspective to the proceedings, here are 3 facts about the deal that are getting lost in the clamor.

 

Over 12,000 non-tech jobs will be created

Fears of a new Amazon-bolstered NYC tech elite were fed by the reported 25,000 new jobs that the company expects to create with HQ2. In truth, only half of those jobs (still an admittedly large number) will be in tech-influenced positions where salaries can hit the higher six figures. The other half will be in the same support positions you’d find at any large organization: administrative, custodial, and other jobs that can better draw on the diverse talent pool of Queens and the rest of the city. Don’t forget, too, that the city’s minimum wage will be hitting $15/hour by the end of 2018. It seems likely that working New Yorkers of all ages and levels of experience will have a chance to find new professional fulfillment in HQ2.

 

In a city of 8 million, 25,000 is a drop in the bucket

25,000 open jobs is a big number to see on paper, but in a city as big as New York, 25,000 is a pittance. It’s likely that the vast majority of us who don’t normally pass through LIC will see no changes whatsoever. Even if every single job is taken by someone who currently doesn’t live here, that’s hardly an invasion. The announced number is about the equivalent of the enrollment of the city’s six biggest high schools (there are over 120 in Queens alone). Do we stress every year about new graduates flooding the city? This is New York, not Cedar Rapids. We’ve benefitted from a constant influx of talented and smart people since the 1600s, and HQ2’s changes will amount to just one more round of newcomers.

 

Long Island City will change, but that’s nothing new

Make no mistake, if the majority of Amazon-inspired arrivals choose to take up residence close to their new place of employment, Long Island City will see the brunt of the cultural changes. But for a neighborhood that was little more than a courthouse and a few commercial strips (and one lonely skyscraper) only a couple decades ago, Amazon’s move is the cherry on top of a long process of evolution. Few neighborhoods have exploded in popularity like LIC in the past decade-plus, and this was underway well before Bezos and company set their sights on the locale. A tech campus is perhaps befitting the scores of new bars, restaurants and other hotspots in this part of town.

Any worries about Amazon affecting culture ought to be assuaged by the fact that this city always has and always will be changing, tech companies or no tech companies. It’s the people, not the corporations, that make New York City what it is, and I know I’m not alone in saying that no company is big enough to change the Big Apple itself.

By |December 12th, 2018|Current Events, Technology|

The Tech That Predicted Hurricane Florence

This past September, as Hurricane Florence bore down on the Atlantic coastline, researchers and forecasters were more prepared than ever before to deal with the daunting effects of the upcoming storm. While these destructive forces of nature will never be truly neutralized, cutting-edge observation systems have made predicting their effects, and making people safer, easier than ever. That’s not to say it’s a simple task.

While today’s satellites can predict typical weather conditions fairly accurately, patterns of hurricanes making their way over the ocean are a bit more complicated. Predicting a hurricane’s path is tricky, which is why scientists work hard to gather as much data as possible from each major storm to better predict the next one.

Over the past few decades, however, weather forecasters have been able to rely on the combination of satellite technology, advanced radar systems, and well-designed hurricane aircraft to bring about a clearer picture of hurricane and tropical storm behavior than ever thought possible. Today’s technologies allow researchers and forecasters to track a hurricane’s path and predict its size and force with a remarkably high degree of accuracy.

Up Close and Personal Data Collection

Accurately predicting the path and potential damage of a storm requires some truly up close and personal data collection that’d be far too dangerous for a human to conduct in person. To get the most valuable information available, researchers have a secret weapon about the size of a paper towel roll: the dropsonde. Dropsondes are designed by Vaisala, a company based out of Louisville, Colorado. These appropriately named devices are dropped out of high-altitude planes, directly into the hurricane to gather and send data about the storm to pilots and research labs.

Originally developed by the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, these tools, formally the Airborne Vertical Atmospheric Profiling System (AVAPS™) debuted in 1997 for operational weather forecasting and atmospheric research efforts.

Dubbed by the National Science Foundation ‘workhorses in hurricane forecasting’ dropsondes can withstand extreme hurricane conditions to provide accurate, useful data. Each dropsonde is relatively lightweight and loaded with sensors. They’re small and efficiently designed, capable of capturing data twice per second in the harshest conditions imaginable.

Released from airplanes straight into the storm, dropsondes fall to the ground quickly, making every second of data collection extremely precious. Developers attach a small parachute to each unit — slowing down the drop rate so the devices can accurately measure temperature, humidity, wind speeds, and other important data points. Back at the research center, scientists can extrapolate all the data to formulate detailed projections, adding to a body of knowledge that will one day predict hurricanes the way we can today forecast a sunny afternoon.

Tracking the Hurricane in real time

During Hurricane Florence, research scientists at NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory were even able to launch high-tech weather balloons into the middle of the hurricane to capture data. Sensors inside the balloon helped scientists monitor Hurricane Florence as it made its way to the shore and transitioned from a hurricane to a tropical depression. This type of technology helps data scientists analyze various conditions before, during, and after the hurricane, track the hurricane’s path, and make accurate estimates and assumptions when building models.

The National Hurricane Center has a formal process in place for forecasting all types of tropical cyclone activity in the Atlantic and Pacific around North America and are responsible for communicating their forecasts every six hours. They use everything from satellites, aircraft, ships, buoys, radar devices, and land-based tools to track hurricanes and predict their paths as accurately as possible. Once a hurricane looks like it will make landfall and is identified as a real threat, it’s closely monitored by the U.S. Air Force and NOAA hurricane craft.

While the storms themselves can’t be stopped, high-tech data collection and analysis can greatly reduce the risk presented by each new storm, and influence building and city planning practices to further protect residents from these incredibly powerful weather systems. This high-tech development, perfected over time, will one day make hurricanes like Florence a much less daunting event. That’s an evolution worth applauding.

By |October 4th, 2018|Technology|

How Do New York City’s Bookstores Stay in Business in the 21st Century?

With Amazon eating up a growing share of book sales, and the worlds of music and movies going digital, it seemed like it was only a matter of time until local booksellers went the way of the Automat. The convenience and unmatchable selection of online shopping, at Bezos’ store, in particular, was thought to be a death knell for the traditional bookselling model. While it’s true that many bookstores, both corporate chains, and local favorites, have fallen by the wayside, the independent bookseller is far from disappeared.

For devotees of brick-and-mortar bookshops, the current scene is highly encouraging. There’s reason to be optimistic for the next generation of readers in the five boroughs. For a variety of reasons, new and old independent bookstores have been surviving and thriving in this new economy. These are three of them, each with their own qualities to stand out in a crowded marketplace.

 

Know Your Audience – Printed Matter

Funded by a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting contemporary art, Printed Matter has existed in New York since 1977, moving from TriBeCa to SoHo to their current home on 11th Avenue in Chelsea. Managed by an artist’s foundation, Printed Matter is credited with popularizing art books as a whole, making the printed page a viable medium for unique artistic expression and not just pictures of paintings.

A new planned location in the East Village is just one of several art bookstores planned for the neighborhood, proof that this niche is one that inspires visits from devotees in enough numbers to support multiple locations. A retail outlet that knows its audience and even shapes it through thoughtful curation of their offerings can see long life, no matter how much the market churns. Printed Matter proves that customer identity matters.

 

Community Roots – Lit Bar

While this one has yet to open, the story of its origin is emblematic of the new bookstore trend. Barnes and Noble, the nation’s sole remaining major bookstore chain, announced in 2014 that their final Bronx outpost would be closing, leaving the borough of 1.4 million people without one solitary bookstore. Petitions were filed, protests held, but by the end of 2016, the Bronx was bookless.

Enter Noelle Santos. One of the passionate protesters went entrepreneurial to fight the tides, and her store, Lit Bar, a combination wine bar and family-friendly bookstore is slated to open this fall. Modeled on Denver, Colorado’s BookBar with a uniquely NYC twist, Santos’ bookstore will hopefully serve as proof that the Bronx is ready for a new resurgence of bookshops in this century.

 

More than material – Books Are Magic

Author Emma Straub’s Cobble Hill, Brooklyn store has been the toast of the area in the year since it’s opened, serving as the spiritual replacement for long-beloved neighborhood institution Book Court, which closed in 2016 when its owners decided to call it a career.

Straub’s new store wasted no time in making their name known, thanks in large part to a robust social media presence featuring the store’s highly Instagrammable outer mural and a pristinely manicured interior. But it’s not all style and no substance: frequent in-store author appearances and signings as well as sponsorship of larger events (a recent reading featuring Stephen King at St. Ann’s Church downtown drew a capacity crowd) combine with an ever-updated selection allowing Books are Magic to comprehensively serve “New York’s book borough” thoughtfully, pleasing both eyes and minds.

 

These stories may not necessarily be a detailed blueprint for booksellers to navigate today’s market, but they illustrate the fact that unique, independent retailers still have a place in New York City. For any retail outlet, offering the same experience as the place next door isn’t going to cut it in a world where nearly anything can be bought from the comforts of home, and the bookstore scene has adjusted accordingly.

Interestingly, even Amazon runs two brick-and-mortar bookstores in the city, proof that the physical space still has viability for corporate retailers, even if they exist partially to promote online offerings. It seems now that the death of the bookstore was greatly exaggerated. For book lovers of the five boroughs, these and other locations are providing a good reason to get off the couch and head out to get their fix.

By |September 17th, 2018|Culture|

Taking a Byte Out of Real Estate with Cryptocurrency

Whether it’s a bubble or bona fide, anyone who pays even cursory attention to the financial world can’t deny that bitcoin is a force to be reckoned with. The decentralized digital cryptocurrency, a form of payment comprised of lines of code, entered the mainstream consciousness late in 2017 and has remained a controversial topic.

The currency that’s purely digital whose value rises and falls quite unpredictably has understandably earned many antagonists. But for true believers, bitcoin represents a revolution in money, where power has been wrested from big bankers and into the hands of the people who use it. So what does that mean for real estate, where major, life-changing transactions happen every day?

There’s been a number of quick adapters all over the industry. From the East coast to the west and even across the globe, Bitcoin has come into enthusiastic use for purchasing real estate. To say that these sellers are simply hopping on the newest craze sells a bit short the advantages that bitcoin carries for the property business.

Average people joining the bitcoin revolution enjoy the freedom from financial institutions that cryptocurrency offers. Rather than a credit card where you’re entrusting your money to a network of institutions, crypto is a one-stop shop without third party interests or issuers taking their cut.

This simplicity in moving funds around is a special advantage when purchasing real estate. The ease of movement eliminates the long waiting periods necessary for looping in the banks, lenders, and fee payments that have been part and parcel of real estate transactions for generations. Today’s cutting-edge homebuyer, armed with bitcoin, can close as soon as they find a property they like, as long as they have a seller willing to play ball. Such expediency is an undeniable advantage.

Buyers hoping for privacy will find exactly what they’re looking for with bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies as well. In an industry where secrecy is often a must for major private transactions, the untraceable, encrypted payment enabled by blockchain technology can give anonymous buyers the complete discretion they desire. Blockchain can also cut down on fraud, so even faceless buyers can be held to the same standard of financial transparency as the rest of us when it comes to spending funds.

Some influential names in real estate proclaim to be intrigued by the Bitcoin craze, but when pressed admit they don’t want to tie their own money into crypto. The risk factor in using a currency that’s more like a commodity is simply too volatile for many, and the potential that bitcoin amounts to another risky bubble has left major financial giants steering clear. So where does that leave the average homebuyer?

For many everyday people, buying a home is enough of a major undertaking without adding in the risk of dealing with such a volatile payment method. In a real estate world prone to bubbles in its own right, mixing bitcoin into the equation may well pile on risk to a situation where buyers and sellers would rather minimize, not multiply, potential hazards.

But for those untimid about riding the ups and downs of this craze wherever it may end up, there are worse things you can do with your money than acquire some valuable real estate. With a growing number of agents and sellers using bitcoin to gain an edge on the competition, you may well end up financing the house of your dreams with money that exists only in computer servers. If the unpredictability of cryptocurrency can be held in check in the future, expect this to truly be the beginning of a transformation in real estate.

By |September 5th, 2018|Technology|

The Major Problem with New York’s Cyberbullying Bill

The Major Problem With New York’s Cyberbullying Bill

What would you do if you found out your child might face time in juvenile detention for a few mean comments posted online? The question itself seems shocking; parents and non-parents alike would agree that the punishment seems a little extreme. And yet, in early June, the New York State Senate officially put just that into law. Here excerpted, it reads:

“Any person who knowingly engages in a repeated course of cyberbullying of a minor shall be guilty of an unclassified misdemeanor punishable by a fine of not more than one thousand dollars, or by a period of imprisonment not to exceed one year, or by both such fine and imprisonment.”

Despite outlining startling consequences for cyberbullies, the legislation doesn’t specify what offenders would need to do to become criminally liable. Most people get the gist: cyberbullying occurs when one or more people harass or abuse another person using electronic means. But what does that mean from a prosecutor’s standpoint? Is a “repeated course of cyberbullying” two mean texts, four malicious Facebook posts, or an all-out campaign across multiple social platforms? Where do we draw the line — and how do we determine when someone crosses it?

Moreover, the sole point the legislation makes clear — the protection of minors — only raises more questions. It’s simple enough to make a swift and severe judgment call when an adult bullies a minor online, but the situation is less cut-and-dried when both parties are young. Does an accused minor’s age make a difference? Would we prosecute a twelve-year-old with the same severity we would a seventeen-year-old? The answers to these questions remain unanswered.

My aim here isn’t to undermine the legislature’s noble intentions, but simply to point out that this bill’s pervasive vagueness renders it ineffective as a legal deterrent.

In 2014, a similarly unclear anti-cyberbullying law in Albany County fell under scrutiny from the New York State Supreme Court. The published rationale behind limiting the 2014 language argued that the wording was undefined to the point of making it difficult to enforce; a child’s prank call to an adult could constitute — and legally face severe punishment for — cyberbullying. As a result of this case, the current definition for the term includes “only three types of electronic communications sent with the intent to inflict emotional harm on a child: (1) sexually explicit photographs; (2) private or personal sexual information; and (3) false sexual information with no legitimate public, personal or private purpose.” Given that the 2018 bill does not define cyberbullying beyond the referenced text here, it’s unlikely to hold up any more sustainably or effectively than its predecessor.

Now, this definition works well enough in cases where sexually explicit content is a factor — but what if it isn’t? How do we protect the children who have to handle endless texted cruelty, social media hate, and online harassment?

These questions are what make the vagueness of Senate Bill S2318A so frustrating. Bullying, both online and in-person, is an epidemic in our schools. A 2016 study conducted by the Cyberbullying Research Center found that a full 34% of students in a nationally-representative sample reported experiencing repeated and intentional harassment and mistreatment via cell phones or other electronic devices. That’s a horrifying number, especially once you consider that kids who experience cyberbullying often struggle with depression, anxiety, and loneliness as a result — typically for long after they leave school. Kids who bully don’t get away scot-free either; many carry the abusive behaviors they develop during school into their adult relationships and fall into substance abuse patterns.

Cyberbullying is a destructive force in today’s schools, and our kids deserve more than a vague half-measure that, despite providing severe consequences, falls short of defining what “cyberbullying” is in the eyes of the law. The intention behind this recent legislation was good-hearted and well-meant, but we can do better.

By |July 9th, 2018|Current Events|
bennat-berger-headshot

Bennat Berger is an NYC-based tech writer, investor, and entrepreneur. He is the founder of Novel Property Ventures, a company that specializes in finding, acquiring, and managing high-potential multifamily residential units in New York City. Berger is also the founder of Novel Private Equity, a private equity firm that gives tech startups the support they need to thrive in an increasingly competitive business market.

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