Tuesday, February 25th, 2014
[ Last week Jef Nickerson told us about a proposed strip mall development in inner city Providence. This week James Kennedy of the blog Transport Providence pans back the lens to look at the bigger picture around this kind of development - Aaron. ]
The McDonaldization of Society
McDonald’s is no stranger to the love and hatred of people all over the world. It’s most vocal opponents have faulted it for being the robotic extension of a hyper-efficient assembly line. An important urban planning model is getting more and more attention across the country, and its models show not that auto-centric businesses like McDonalds are hyper-efficient, but the opposite. Even successful sprawl is a sinkhole for huge government subsidies, and results are that municipalities seeking new tax revenue from them may be shooting themselves in the foot.
One of the most prominent critique of McDonald’s is George Ritzer’s “The McDonaldization of Society.” Ritzer’s central thesis is that McDonald’s has perfected what Max Weber called “bureaucratic rationalism” in the use of its resources to such an extreme as to have dehumanized the process of eating.
I talked to Ritzer on the phone and by email, finding some of what he has to say about McDonalds interesting. Overall, though, I am a critic of his perspective. A lot of his examples of creeping McDonaldization don’t seem all that troubling to me. Quoting from his book:
- “The department store obviously is a more efficient place in which to shop than a series of specialty shops dispersed through the city or suburbs. In addition, the shopping mall increases efficiency by bringing a wide range of department stores under one roof.” Certainly the disappearance of Main Street stores from many small towns and cities is something to be concerned about, and especially in its suburban form the shopping mall has meant lots of low-wage, high-turnover jobs that require huge amounts of wasteful driving and land use to produce endless streams of unremarkable places to shop. But what has to be understood is that Ritzer means to go beyond the big box store as an example of one-stop-shopping and criticize the idea of mixing different types of buying at all. In Providence, where we recently struggled over the addition of a new sprawled-out McDonalds and Family Dollar in Olneyville Square, Ritzer’s critique could not only apply to suburban places, but also to the newly-refurbished Arcade in Downtown, or even to the Winter Farmers’ Market in Pawtucket.
- “Supermarkets have sought to make shopping more efficient by institutionalizing ten-item limit, no-checks-accepted lines for consumers who might otherwise frequent the convenience stores.” To have a more humanized society, shoppers expecting to pick up just a few items should apparently wait in line with people buying hundreds of dollars of items. As someone who values transit and biking, this example particularly irks me, because the ten-items-or-less line is a good demonstration of exactly the advantages brought with transit or bike lanes. I see this example as a huge stretch.
- “Shopping also offers many examples of imposing work on the customer. The old-time grocery store, where the clerk retrieved the needed items, has been replaced by the supermarket, where a shopper may put in several hours a week ‘working’ as a grocery clerk, seeking out wanted (and unwanted) items during lengthy treks down seemingly interminable aisles. Having obtained the groceries, the shopper then unloads the food at the checkout counter, and in some cases, even bags the groceries.” Ritzer described the problem with imposing work on the customer as its effect on job creation. I personally can’t wrap my mind around why it would be bad for customers to be able to decide they want to order in a line or collect their own napkins and condiments in return for a lower price.
Certainly there are problems with fast food businesses, but I find Ritzer’s explanation of what those problems are to be lacking. I’m actually a very economically liberal person in many ways, but I also value consumer choice, and I feel like the McDonaldization thesis actually is a perfect combination of nanny-state patronization without any deeper analysis of how working class neighborhoods and businesses are fleeced by welfare-queen corporations.
Urban3 believe cities can increase their economic stability and community benefit by analyzing how architecture, planning and policy impact a community’s revenue base. (Image Credit: Urban3)
It’s Not About Fast Food
There’s another way of looking at McDonalds that sheds more light on its problems. The urban design and economics firm Urban3 in Asheville, N.C., uses math that’s receiving a lot of attention from national media. Urban3 asks, should cities be after any kind of economic growth or should they focus instead on how much growth they can squeeze out of an acre of land? The group produces some astounding visual models of what economic output per acre looks like, and its work has helped cities such as Memphis, Tenn., visualize what the balance between land use and economic growth actually looks like.
The firm first noticed the relationship between land use and real value in North Carolina, when staff worked to restore a JC Penney store that had been vacant in Asheville’s downtown for four decades. Made usable again, the property went from being worth $300,000 in 1991 to $11 million in 2012, according to a story about the firm’s work to restore the building, which takes up about a fifth of an acre.
The real insight of Urban3’s logic comes when one contrasts the value of the Walmart just outside of town, valued at almost twice the JC Penney building’s assessment. Emily Badger writes in The Atlantic article:
“Asheville has a Super Walmart about two-and-a-half miles east of downtown. Its tax value is a whopping $20 million. But it sits on 34 acres of land. This means that the Super Walmart yields about $6,500 an acre in property taxes, while that remodeled JCPenney downtown is worth $634,000 in tax revenue per acre. (Add sales tax revenue, and the downtown property is still worth more than six times as much as the Walmart per acre.)”
Urban3 contends that although businesses such as Walmart, which operate in similarly car-centric way to a McDonald’s with a drive-thru, appear to bring far more revenue than other businesses, that when looked at in a broader context are actually very inefficient at producing wealth.
I set out to apply his model to Providence, and found some interesting results.
For example, 235 Thayer St., home to a Chipoltle on the ground floor, carries exactly the kind of fast-food fare that Ritzer derides. Sitting on less than a tenth of an acre, the building is worth $636,100, according to the most recent tax assessment. The Whole Foods Market down the street at 261 Waterman has a small parking lot out front, and is valued at $2,222,300. But taken at a per-acre value, the Chipoltle wins hands down — $7 million an acre to the grocery store’s $1.5 million.
The lesson to draw from this isn’t that grocery stores are a bad investment. Though located in a less-valued neighborhood and worth just a bit more than $400,000, God Is Able African Market, in three-story building at 743 Cranston St., is worth $2 million an acre — half a million more than the Whole Foods. Fertile Underground, at 1577 Westminster St. on the West Side, came in at about $3 million per acre, trouncing a 6-acre Super Stop & Shop on Manton Street, worth more than $6 million, but only $1.1 million per acre.
In Olneyville Square itself, Recycle-A-Bike occupies the bottom floor of a building worth $200,500, but with a land footprint of just one-tenth of an acre, the building is worth 10 times that much on a per-acre basis compared to some other businesses in the area. The nearby Olneyville New York System has a parking lot in back that increases its footprint to a fifth of an acre, making the $272,600 building worth only $1.3 million an acre. The United Way at 50 Valley St. is assessed at nearly $600,000, but with a land footprint of 1.4 acres comes in at $423,000 value per acre.
I asked the city to provide tax information for a number of other businesses, many of which the city was surprisingly unable to locate in its tax records. These included a number of McDonalds restaurants built in suburban styles, a Home Depot which I had intended to contrast with a small neighborhood hardware store, several suburban and urban-style buildings that had Dunkin Donuts—which I figured is the ultimate in low-cost fast food—and a larger Whole Foods grocery store with even more parking which I was interested in contrasting with the smaller footprint one on Waterman Street. There were also several businesses in Olneyville that weren’t located.
Minicozzi emphasizes that it’s not just about how much value is created by an acre of land, but all the many extra costs that low-density development has.
“I think you have to ask yourself, what is the lifecycle cost of the road out front of the business? How much did it take to run sewer service across several acres of land for just one business, instead of connecting it ten feet from the next building over?” he asks. “If you’re in a nice three-story Victorian and someone just plops a gray box next to it, it’s not only about whether you dislike that box. Does that box pay its bills? I think the answer is no.”
Taxes in Providence are based on property values rather than land use, so some of the very small but very efficient businesses we studied pay very high taxes in relationship to the amount of infrastructure they consume.
I spoke with Nina Maxwell and Mike Giroux of Fertile Underground to get a sense of what one high-value-per-acre business pays in taxes. Fertile Underground pays $500 a month in taxes. But the costs to this small business go much further. “We pretty much have a permit for everything. I mean everything. There’s one for selling ice cream, and one for having chairs inside, and yet another for having chairs outside,” Maxwell says. “We had to pay the state a couple thousand dollars to put in bike racks on the sidewalk.”
When the zoning board in Providence approved the development of the McDonalds, alongside a Family Dollar of similarly sprawly style, it put forth the argument that while the businesses weren’t ideal, they were a step forward for a neighborhood with high unemployment. But the pattern of taxation and business-unfriendliness for small startups alongside bad land use and high consumption by sprawl businesses asks questions about whether that small-step-forward approach is exactly backwards. This isn’t helped when many of the officials in charge of directing policy admit to having no understanding of how these things work. Jim Bennett of the city’s economic development office testified at the meeting as follows:
You would think I would be supportive of this project because of the jobs, and there are jobs. I’ve checked it out, they’re accurate. The jobs particularly that are attuned to the minority community where we’re getting crushed.· We have probably the highest minority unemployment in the country; this addresses that issue. That’s not why I’m supporting the project.
You would think I’m supporting it because the property taxes are going to be raised between 5 percent and 10 percent. Several hundred thousand dollars, which could be used for infrastructure, schools. That’s a reason to be supportive of these jobs.
I went by and I got a picture of every building in Olneyville, every one. I looked at them and there’s not one business there that wouldn’t benefit by the increase in traffic. So that’s another reason to support it. However, my reason for being here … is that I do support the councilwoman who works with me at Providence Economic Development Partnership, who helped me get our loan program out of trouble with HUD, who I like to kiddingly call my assistant economic development director, who knows her constituency better than anybody. That’s who I support.
And lastly, and this is very important. Bob Azar, for 13 years he’s been involved with every major project in the city of Providence. The reason why this city is a jewel is because, part and parcel, of Bob and his staff. I have to tell you, I’m the director of economic development. I don’t know the first thing about zoning and planning and all this stuff, nor do I want to, but I’m a business person. I rely on the experts, that’s what I do. A lot of the work that Bob has done for 13 years here is seen around the city.
So Bennett’s points seem to be 1. I don’t know anything about this, but listen to me. 2. Things that expensive and harmful, like highway traffic through a low-car-ownership neighborhood, have only an upside without any counterbalance, and 3. I’m supporting this because my buddy in local government does. Very convincing.
Bennett initially agreed to set up an in-person meeting with me on behalf of ecoRI News to discuss the new development, but the morning of the scheduled meeting his secretary wrote to cancel, citing snow. I offered to do an interview by phone, and sent an e-mail with questions pertaining to the lifecycle costs of things such as Routes 6 and 10, the sewage overflow system that was just installed in Olneyville, the underground water pipes to the site and RIPTA efficiency. Bennett didn’t reply to requests for an e-mail or phone exchange.
At least one Rhode Island city has a different approach. Central Falls, located north of Providence, and itself quite a struggling rust-belt town, but the director of economic development for CF, who is also an Olneyville resident, spoke at the zoning meeting to recommend that the businesses themselves be approved, but only with the zoned urbanism intact. He said that Central Falls had been approached by a Family Dollar for its historic Broad Street and had insisted on no set backs from the sidewalk, and that Family Dollar had complied.
The Central Falls example gives one hope. In a state the size of Rhode Island—a state that also has the highest unemployment in the country, a shrinking population, and lots of unmet road infrastructure obligations around its neck—we should be able to get our heads wrapped around the idea that land is limited and has value that should be protected.
A version of this post originally appeared in a ecoRI on February 21, 2014.