This is the first in a short series of posts on the downsides of city-county consolidation. Actually, it might better be described as a discussion of some of the pros and cons of “big box” vs. “small box” municipal government. It is similar to business. It seems like every large business is either doing one of two things: centralizing or decentralizing. There’s a sort of cycle of reincarnation about this. Every model has its flaws, and people tend to gravitate towards the other side of the spectrum from time to time when the problems of the current mode manifest themselves in a particularly severe form. As a prologue to this, you might want to read my previous examination of city-county consolidation post, if you haven’t already.
I haven’t read all the academic literature on city-county consolidations, so won’t make any strong claims about the benefits its promoters have touted. But I will make two observations. One, I’m not aware of any city that has gone through a city-county consolidation that has become a civic failure, or which has a severely under-performing region. Most of the ones I’m familiar with seem to be doing ok or better. Two, if you look at the Midwest region, the metros that are doing well almost all feature a core city that either underwent a consolidation or has managed to maintain its ability to annex new territory. Minneapolis-St. Paul is an exception, but it has regional revenue sharing. (Landlocked and unconsolidated Chicago has a thriving core, but the regional numbers are lagging). So my gut tells me that big box solutions at a minimum don’t hurt and probably have some benefit to a region.
But they do come with downsides, and one of them is that it can make neighborhood redevelopment more difficult. The root of the problem is that with a single city covering a large area, there is only one mayor, one city council, etc. These have a large area to concern themselves with and cannot physically devote significant time and attention to each neighborhood. They inevitably spend most of their time dealing with the biggest and most visible challenges, which often means downtown development issues.
Redevelopment in Indianapolis
Indianapolis is a good example of this principle in action. It underwent a city-county consolidation in 1970. Four smaller municipalities were excluded from merger and so are known as “excluded cities”. So we get here both consolidated neighborhoods and some unconsolidated ones we can compare.
Since 1970, downtown Indianapolis has experienced a major resurgence. And Indy has emerged as what is in many ways the strongest performing Midwest metro area. I happen to believe its consolidation was instrumental in setting the stage for that. Many of its urban neighborhood have seen challenges, however. This includes many reasonably upscale areas, and I’d like to highlight two of them.
The first is an area centered around 71st and Binford Blvd on the northeast side. It was an established suburban area annexed under consolidation that started experiencing problems recently, notably with decay in its commercial developments, a common concern in aging suburbs. The population was also aging and not being renewed. This prompted a local woman to found a new neighborhood group called Binford Redevelopment and Growth (BRAG) to try to change the situation. BRAG wants more urban, mixed use development anchored by a transit stop on a future rail line, infrastructure upgrades to add basics like sidewalks that are missing in the area, and help redeveloping the commercial districts. They’ve had some successes, notably attracting investment in local strip centers, with a new Starbucks, CVS, and Kroger. But there has been little city investment.
The other is Midtown, an area encompassing the historically most desirable urban neighborhoods in the city. It includes the Meridian St. mansion district, Butler University, and Broad Ripple, the city’s main bar district. This area is loaded with gorgeous 1920’s era architecture and many independent shops and restaurants. But this area too started to experience problems, with vacant houses, some struggling commercial nodes, increasing crime, a property tax spike, and deteriorating infrastructure.
A group of neighbors here also formed a group called HARMONI designed to change this. They are also promoting neighborhood infrastructure investment, more urban development, etc. As part of this they purchased copies of Suburban Nation and distributed it to all regional elected officials. They even secured pledges of private funding for some infrastructure improvements. However, there has been little city investment in Midtown either.
But turn to the excluded cities and see a different pattern. Lawrence, the largest, inherited part of a closed military base. They created a commission to repurpose this into a new town center area. This included a multi-million dollar extension of 56th St, which involved building a bridge over a double-tracked rail line. That project also featured high quality streetscape treatments along its length. Former officers quarters on the base were renovated, and many other townhomes and other residences built. And there has been significant new commercial development as well, such that this area appears as nice and thriving as any edge suburb in the region.
As the name suggests, Speedway is the home of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It is also an older industrial suburb, with gridiron streets and its own Main St. The town really never leveraged the track outside of race days. The Main St. had businesses but was struggling, and the town was at best stagnant. However, the town council has taken on a major redevelopment program that will involve a major street reconfiguration and significant commercial oriented development designed to turn Speedway into a year round tourist destination and hub of motorsports themed businesses. It’s a $500 million plan, and while not much has happened yet, the town is getting ready to issue bonds to finance millions of dollars in road improvements.
A third of the four excluded cities, Beech Grove, is also improving its town center, and has already spent millions rebuilding its main gateway street, Emerson Ave.
So three of the four Indianapolis excluded cities have active town center renewal programs, while the two annexed neighborhoods, even though more upscale than the excluded cities in many ways, have seen little tangible city investment. Why is that?
The excluded cities have their own city governments. So they have elected officials whose sole focus is their own community. They’ve also got the legal powers, such a the ability to create their own tax increment financing districts, that let them control their own destiny without regards to a higher authority.
The annexed areas, by contrast, only have neighborhood groups. These groups have no power to do anything except lobby the main Indianapolis city government. This city government has to cover a huge area and is besieged with many groups wanting things. The mayor has an incredibly limited ability to deal with individual neighborhood issues. For example, he does a monthly “Mayor’s Night Out” in which he visits each township in turn, a different one each month, to answer citizen questions along with his senior staff. But there are nine townships, each one of which would rank among Indiana’s largest cities by itself. And that doesn’t even get to the neighborhood level.
It should come as no surprise that progress is slow. For example, there’s a proposal in the Midtown area at 49th and College Ave. called (interestingly) “The Uptown”. This would replace an old gas station, another vacant commercial structure, and a few single family homes with a three story, multi-use building featuring 75 apartments and storefront retail. It is exactly what the neighborhood needs. It’s a rare example of approved upzoning for density in Indianapolis. And from an urban design standpoint it is the best designed structure Indianapolis has seen in the modern era. Here’s the present view of the site:
The project needs tax assistance to ever get built, but it is looking like it won’t as the project has been on hold for well over a year. If the Uptown were in one of the excluded cities or in an actual suburb, it is almost inconceivable that it wouldn’t get built. The local government would find a way to make it happen. But Indianapolis has higher priorities. For example, a major civic focus is a project on the near East Side in conjunction with hosting the Superbowl. That’s the sort of major event that consumes management time and attention in a large city.
This is not to criticize the mayor. In fact, people from both BRAG and HARMONI have told me the city is very willing to engage with them and that the mayor has been supportive. The problem is structural. No mayor could physically deal with the demand. It’s inherent in the very nature of a large, big box government. It seems likely to occur in any consolidated government or very large city without sub-city level authorities with real powers.
It was before my time, but reportedly Bill Hudnut, a previous mayor, saw this problem and wanted to create more neighborhood level structures in a system he called Minigov (versus “Unigov”, as the consolidated government is known). But that never happened.
Midtown vs. Bexley
Another interesting comparison is the Midtown area of Indianapolis with the suburb of Bexley in Columbus, Ohio. Bexley is more or less exactly the same as Midtown with the exception that it is a separate municipality, though one that is completely surrounded by the city of Columbus. American Dirt ran very interesting profile of Bexley you might want to check out.
Bexley remains a thriving city, especially in contrast with the surrounding areas of Columbus. Its streets largely have up to date infrastructure, including full sidewalks, which Columbus often doesn’t. It has maintained thriving commercial districts, and has had more intense urban infill as well, as this picture will attest:
Why the difference vs. Midtown Indianapolis? Well, the fact that Bexley gets to have its own city school district while Midtown is part of the stigmatized Indianapolis Public Schools no doubt has something to do with it. This keeps land prices high, which preserves a largely affluent and exclusive resident base. This has pros and cons. Of course it means the city can be kept nicer. But it also denies the experience of that to those who can’t buy in. And the overall regional tax base misses out on one of its most affluent areas. This is the problem of all upscale suburbs. Midtown, Indianapolis, whatever its faults, has many well-off homeowners who pay significant money towards the broader community, including the city schools. And it is a much more mixed income area.
Bexley also has its own municipal authority, while Midtown does not, with the implications discussed above.
But another thing occurs to me. Because Midtown is part of a much larger city, it suffers from the problem of a diffusion of responsibility. That is, it can assume the rest of the city will carry the load in some respects. This manifests itself in a strong anti-development NIMBY contingent that is opposed to urbanization. Any proposed development of any kind is greeted by wailing and teeth-gnashing by opponents, who’ve been known to do things like pull their kids out of school to serve as props at mid-day zoning hearings where commissioners are told neighborhood kids will literally die if new apartments are approved.
I don’t know what the sentiment is in Bexley, but they’ve certainly implemented more actual urbanization than Midtown. I suspect one reason is that Bexley knows it has only its own tax base to rely on. If its residents want to keep quality schools, they can either approve more commercial and intense development, or watch their residential property taxes go up significantly over time. That focuses the mind wonderfully.
So I also hypothesize that in addition to making redevelopment more difficult for reasons of the structure of government, big box government also inculcates an anti-development mindset to a greater degree than small box government.
The Chicago Ward System
So how do you deal with this? Chicago is a big box government that has solved the governance problem with a ward system. There are 50 city council members, who more or less are the gods of their ward as a result of a system called aldermanic privilege. This is where the alderman basically agree they will let each other do whatever they want as long as it is in their own ward. Various city agencies also more or less defer to the alderman on almost any decision to do anything. This results in a system where the mayor deals with the big issues of the city and major developments, while the aldermen deal with neighborhood issues.
The Chicago system has maintained many strong neighborhoods in the city, but it has its downsides. Aldermen have virtually unlimited authority in their wards, making it a sort of elected dictatorship. So it should come as no surprise that corruption has been rampant. In excess of 40 alderman have gone to jail for corruption in the last three decades, an astonishing rate. This also makes things like planning difficult, and creates a climate of great political uncertainty around development.
The Chicago system is a de facto one, not based on a city charter or anything like that. It would be interesting to see how it developed. But it does show that you don’t necessarily need constitutional change to effect small box government inside of a big one.
Jane Jacobs and District Governance
Jane Jacobs saw this problem of big box government very clearly and dedicated an entire chapter of The Death and Life of Great American Cities to it. (Chapter 21, Governing and Planning Districts). This is not one of the chapters that generally gets a lot of attention these days, and that’s a shame. She says:
The historical changes relevant in this case are not only an immense increase in the size of great cities, but also the immensely increased responsibilities….which have been taken on by the governments of great municipalities. New York is not unique in failing to match such profound changes in circumstances with appropriate functional changes in administrative and planning structure.
I can’t do this chapter justice here, but it is a must read. Her basic solution is that all city agencies – police, fire, planning, parks, etc) would be organized around districts (neighborhood groupings), with contiguous borders, with service delivery coordinated between them and with the input of the neighborhood. Chicago’s ward system is similar to this, with the notable exception of having a district dictator. That might be a cautionary tale about what this sort of thing can turn into.
Implication for Small Box Cities
To me this implies that cities which retain a relatively small and governable core along with a plethora of unconsolidated suburbs might be in an advantageous position from a redevelopment perspective. Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh come to mind. Their many separate towns in the core county have the independent power they need to take matters into their own hands if they so desire. And the core city itself should be small enough to enable more fine grained governance from city hall.
On the downside, it seems almost inevitable that many of these unconsolidated suburbs will turn into complete failed cities, often left ignored and forgotten. There are plenty of beyond dysfunctional suburbs in Chicago just like this. I presume it is similar in places like Pittsburgh. I think it is notable that consolidated cities like Indianapolis and Nashville don’t have any truly failed suburbs. Another benefit of the big box city.
Summing it Up
I think the lesson here is that there are always, always trade offs to be made in governance. The trick is to understand the trade-offs you are making and take steps to try to mitigate the inherent problems with the model your city and region operate in.
Based on this and the previous post, we might say at high level that for big box government, the pros are stronger civic consensus and cohesion, generally stronger regional and downtown growth, a fairer tax base, and a general lack of totally failed central cities and suburbs. The cons are a weaker city neighborhoods, redevelopment challenges outside of downtown, weaker urban identity, and lower quality development.
For small box government is is basically the inverse of this. The pros are a strong central city & urban identity, higher quality development, more redevelopment opportunities. The downsides are civic fragmentation and lack of consensus, the potential for a failed central city, some failed suburbs, and possibly weaker downtown growth.