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Thursday, January 9th, 2014

More Fun With Per Capita Incomes

After yesterday’s post, I thought I’d throw up some additional comparisons, this time at the metro level. County and metro per capita incomes only go back to 1969, not 1929, but there are still interesting things to see. I’ll post these without analysis for you to ponder on your own. Again, all data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, with charts via Telestrian.

The five boroughs of New York City (Manhattan=New York County, Brooklyn=Kings County, Staten Island=Richmond County). In the case of Manhattan, it’s worth noting that this is a mean not a median value.

New York vs. Los Angeles. Keep in mind, the exurbs of LA are technically considered a separate metro area (Riverside-San Bernardino) and so aren’t included in the LA metro figures:

Chicago vs. Indianapolis:

Denver vs. the Twin Cities vs. Seattle:

Atlanta vs. Dallas-Ft. Worth vs. Houston:

Memphis vs. Nashville:

Cincinnati vs. Cleveland vs. Columbus:

Sunday, September 15th, 2013

The Promise and the Peril of Rust Belt Chic

What do you do when you’re a post-industrial city fallen on hard times? There’s a sort of default answer in the marketplace that I’ll call for want of a better term the “Standard Model.” The Standard Model more or less tells cities to try to be more like Portland. That is, focus on things like local food, bicycles, public transit, the arts, New Urbanist type real estate development, upscale shopping, microbreweries, coffee shops, etc., etc. The idea seems to be that the Rust Belt city model is a failure and should be chucked in favor of something better. In this model the publicly subsidized real estate project is the preferred economic development strategy. We’ve seen city after city work to create downtown and near-downtown “Green Zones” resembling miniature Chicagos. While these have generated excitement and even attracted some residents (upwards of 4,000 in Cleveland and 3,000 in St. Louis, though these are the high end), they have not fundamentally changed the civic trajectory other than in the largest Tier One type cities. And they likely never will. People who want Standard Model urbanism can find superior versions in many cities that generally boast more robust economies to boot.

Enter Rust Belt Chic. This approach in theory solves two of the issues plaguing Standard Model urbanism, authenticity and uniqueness. I haven’t seen a crisp definition of what Rust Belt Chic actually is according to its boosters, but Pete Saunders summed up some of the salient points. The three key elements I see, which build upon each other:

1. Do the Fail. Giving up on the idea of the factories coming back or large scale re-population.

2. Reject Growth as a Success Marker. This actually aligns it somewhat with the standard model. Traditional signs of civic success such as population and job growth are rejected in favor of items like per capita income, brain gain, etc.

3. Brashly Embrace the “Rust” in Rust Belt. This extends Do the Fail to actually embrace the civic characteristics failure produced, as well as various quirky legacies of the industrial past such as Pittsburgh potties.

The best part of Rust Belt Chic is that it understands that you have to be who you are, not who you aren’t. Someone once described a brand as “a promise delivered.” When cities decide that what they are is of no worth or that it can’t succeed in the marketplace, the temptation can then be to try to pretend like they are Portland or some such. Almost invariably in such cases cities end up building towards a false promise they can never deliver. That’s not to say any of the elements of Standard Model urbanism are bad in an of themselves. The problem is that they are basically “best practices” types of things. Just as no company can succeed as nothing but an agglomeration of best practices, no city can either.

The tendency in Rust Belt cities has been to try to downplay their authentic characteristics in order to try to portray themselves as hip and with it. As I’ve noted before, the one thing most clearly associated with Indianapolis is the Indianapolis 500, yet auto racing plays a fairly small role in how the city tries to sell itself these days.

Rust Belt Chic is a first attempt at a region deciding no longer to be a passive importer of ideas about what cities should be, but instead trying to chart a path that is rooted in a unique, local history, culture, geography, etc. To the extent that it steers cities away from a purely “me too” strategy towards creating something that has a unique market positioning that’s real to the place and has at least some competitive advantage in the marketplace, Rust Belt Chic is a big win.

However, as currently constituted, Rust Belt Chic would appear to be limited. In effect, it is really a marketing and to some extent a talent attraction program. Looking at the ironically appropriated trappings of the working man that characterize so much of hipsterdom, Rust Belt Chic says “Hey, we’ve got the real thing.” So rather than drinking PBR ironically, you drink I.C. Light with a more subtle degree of irony (i.e., by pretending that you’re actually drinking it authentically). The term “chic” itself is suggestive of fashion, and thus of artifice.

What Rust Belt Chic does not do is address any of the core problems of the cities in question, ranging from fiscal crises to corruption to poor business climates to segregation, to say nothing of safe streets, better schools, etc. Maybe that isn’t its aim. But if not, then it would appear to be only one small component of an overall civic strategy, and not an alternative to the Standard Model in its own right. The theory of change it embodies would appear to be that authenticity of place and culture will attract people looking for the real, thus restarting the demographic engine through more population dynamism and ultimately that will percolate into the economy. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it’s insufficient.

The elevation of authenticity also poses the danger of imprisoning the community in a straitjacket from the past. With “do the fail” and the embrace of decline as part of the culture, Rust Belt Chic deftly side steps some of the worst dangers of the corrosive force of nostalgia. However, the problem with authenticity is that is has to be, well, authentic. And the way that’s normally accomplished is by encasing something in amber, stunting its evolution.

What Rust Belt Chic needs to be able to do is inform real, substantive change, and to not only unearth the authentic civic character, but updates it for 21st century realities.

A city I think has done this quite well is Nashville. It would have been tempting for them to see their country music legacy as déclassé, and try to basically pitch themselves as the Portland of the South or some such. Instead, while they have embraced a number of Standard Model approaches – as I said, there’s nothing per se wrong with them – they kept country music as core to their identity. But it isn’t yesterday’s country music or culture. People in Nashville today aren’t sitting around watching Hee Haw reruns. Country music today is as much Hollywood as Hank Williams.

That’s not to say Nashville disparages its past. Far from it. The old classic country performers are still honored, and their music still respected and listened to. And they see today’s country as linked across time to that of previous generations. So there’s evolution, but with continuity. They very much value their traditions. But they haven’t become imprisoned by them. Also, Nashville happens to have a stellar business climate, far less corruption than your average Rust Belt city, an openness to outsiders, an increasingly diverse population base, and an aggressiveness towards growth missing in most of the Rust Belt. That’s not to say Nashville’s perfect, but they’ve done a pretty good job of updating their authentic culture while backing it up with an actual product that’s functional demographically and economically.

If Rust Belt Chic wants to reach its potential, it has to be able to do more than unearth and embrace the authentic culture of a place – though that’s important – it needs to be able to inform cultural evolution and also the very real changes in the product (such as Atlanta’s striving to shuck itself of the stigma of racism in the South by becoming the “city too busy to hate” and in the process becoming America’s premier city for blacks) needed to make these cities competitive again.

Tuesday, June 11th, 2013

Nashville Symphony Near Bankruptcy, Concert Hall in Foreclosure

Update 6/24/2013: The Nashville Symphony reached a deal with Bank of America to avoid foreclosure. Full coverage of the Nashville Symphony financial saga is available on this special web page at the Nashville Tennessean.

Nashville has been on a roll in recent years, with a rapidly growing population (including a rapidly expanding immigrant base), robust job growth (#1 among large cities in 2012 on a percentage basis), and lots of positive national press. I’ve been visiting about once a year in recent years and have always had a good time and been very impressed with the ambition level and positive change and growth.

But one symbol of the coming of age of Nashville, the nearly new Schermerhorn Center, home to the Nashville Symphony, is now an emblem of trouble, though perhaps less for the city than for classical music in general.

In short, the building is in foreclosure. Bank of America, which received more government bailout money than any other bank, is threatening to seize and auction the building for cash on June 28th. The Symphony’s auditor has given it a going concern warning, and bankruptcy is looking likely.

This would appear to be a strange turn of events for a town and a symphony on the rise. The Nashville Symphony was nominated for a slew of Grammy awards, at least one of which they won. Just last year the symphony’s president was talking about “a golden age of classical music” in the city. The Schermerhorn Center was a symbol of both the orchestra’s and the city’s ambitions to be taken seriously.

But there were warning signs from the beginning. A planned major endowment never materialized. With only $9.2 million in the endowment, the Nashville Symphony is effectively a pay as you go organization. Other orchestras can get up to a third of their budget from large endowments. The symphony also apparently borrowed a significant sum of money to build the structure and did not pre-fund it with donations. As noted by the University of Chicago report “Set in Stone,” cities across America pumped vast sums into cultural facilities in the last decade. Many of these are struggling in a post-crash world.

Also, as I’ve noted before, classical music is troubled, and the symphony orchestra is the most difficult type of classical music organization to reinvent because of its lack of multimedia experience a la opera, and its high costs. If orchestras struggle even in boomtowns like Nashville, that augurs poorly for their success elsewhere.

Also, it appears that outside of truly top tier cities like New York and Chicago, the symphony is no longer considered a must-have civic marker. At least not to the extent that local elites are willing to part with their own money to fund them. As we’ve gone to an ultra-casual world, and theories on urban success like creative class move explicitly away from traditional high culture, orchestras seem increasingly expendable. Cities want to keep one around to avoid looking bad, but they aren’t willing to ante up for true excellence.

In any case, this is one to watch, especially considering how great Nashville as been doing otherwise.

Here is more complete coverage from the Nashville Tennessean:

Nashville Symphony at risk of being silenced
It’s time to start freaking out about the symphony situation
Nashville Symphony faces a future of unknowns

More on Nashville from the Urbanophile:
Is Nashville the Next Boomtown of the New South?
Nashville Rolls On
Impressions of Nashville
Pedestrian Deaths, Nashville Style

Sunday, April 15th, 2012

Nashville Rolls On

I have a friend in Nashville and try to get there about once a year for a visit. He knows my insatiable desire for urban exploration, so tries to take me around to new places each time, which is awesome. A couple of my previous trips were documented in the posts “Impressions of Nashville” (from 2007) and “Nashville: Next Boomtown of the New South” (from 2008). As with previous visits, I want to highlight a few observations I had.

The first is, “What Great Recession?” Yes, Nashville surely suffered from this, and there’s a notable absence of private sector construction visible that testifies to that, especially in marked contrast to my first visit in 2007. Yet what you feel in Nashville is a sense of vitality and a sense of optimism. This is a place that hasn’t lost faith in its destiny.

I think that can’t be overstated in a city. It feels good to have the wind at your back. It feels good to be in a place where the people believe they are headed towards better days and towards a better future. Just like bandwagon sports fans, people want to sign up to be with the winning team and while the future can’t be predicted, Nashville looks like a winner and its people believe they are winners. I can feel the difference in the air versus say even the best performing Midwest metros like Columbus or Indianapolis.

Nashville was the 12th fastest growth large metro in America in the 2000s, growing at 21.2% and adding 278,000 people during the course of the decade. Last year, like most regions, growth slowed, but remained healthy at 1.4%. During America’s “lost decade” of job creation, Nashville added 36,000 jobs. Nashville’s job growth last year ranked 5th among large cities at 2.4% or 17,400 new jobs. The sense of optimism is fully backed up by the numbers. Lots of places would kill to be performing like this.

Beyond simple internal growth, Nashville is an attractor city. People from outside want to move there and I’ve met many people originally from someplace else. While this is changing or diluting the culture – southern accents are in decline in various precincts, for example – in ways some might not like, as I’ve noted before, having a critical mass of outsiders is very important to urban success.

The driver of this seems to be the music industry. I’ve gotten in the habit of asking people why they moved to Nashville. Music is by far the most common answer. (In fairness, perhaps this is something that’s de rigueur to say, and people don’t want to admit to having moved for more prosaic reasons). That industry is clearly key to the city. Not only is it economically important in its own right, but it draws media attention and even draws celebrities (not all of them country stars) to live there. Music is like a lot of other industries. It’s easier than ever to get into the game and I suspect most cities have a vastly better music scene than they did a decade or two ago, yet the peaks of the industry are also higher than ever, and Nashville is one of the peakiest of all.

The other thing music drives is tourism. Nashville is a big (but thankfully not too big) tourist draw. Again, this creates brand awareness and drives economic growth, but also exposes people to the city. I’d say that increases the likelihood of attracting people. My point of view on Nashville before visiting it would have been to assume it was a sort of hillbilly heaven, but I learned it was more cosmopolitan by visiting it. It’s a city I could actually live in. Drawing visitors gives Nashville the opportunity to tell its story and make a pitch for the place.

Nashville also is implementing some very forward looking urbanist policies. I noted before their form based code, high quality basic urbanism of the new development in the central city, and legitimate infill densification. They continue to up their game here, with a major rezoning that effectively eliminates traditional zoning in the downtown apart from banning heavy industrial use, and eliminates minimum parking requirements. That’s huge and we’ll see what dividends it pays over time.

Everything isn’t perfect in Nashville. My friend worries that if he ever lost his job, there would be few corporate opportunities available to someone with this skill profile. Nashville doesn’t yet have the large and diverse employer set of major cities, making planting your flag there somewhat risky outside of industries like music and health care. Assuming the city continues its growth, this will be addressed over time. But it’s something that should inform the city’s recruitment efforts. The city is very focused on trying to lure corporate HQ relocations. But trying to lure an HQ where there’s little overlap with the existing industry base might not be the best idea.

Also, Nashville suffers from a notable lack of quality in some areas. I previously mentioned their second class infrastructure standards. This place too often suffers from a southern “bare bones” feel, even in new development. Also, the architecture is extremely conservative. This seems not to have harmed their growth and perhaps really isn’t that important in the short term, no matter how much I might want it to be. Where I believe it makes a difference is over time as things age. If things are super-cheaply done and notablw mostly for being new and to contemporary style, they may lose their appeal over time and end up as struggling redevelopment zones 20-30 years down the road as so many other places have.

But that’s a problem for another day. For now Nashville continues to rock and roll, as it were.

Friday, February 11th, 2011

Replay: Is Nashville the Next Boomtown of the New South?

I traveled to Nashville for the first time in 2007, spending most of my time in the downtown area. I posted my impressions here, noting the high growth and high ambition level as well as the fantastic freeways, but also the generally unimpressive development and built environment.

I did another fly-by in April 2008. I made a conscious effort to try to get out and see different areas this time around. My tour guide was an Indy native who had spent the last decade or so in the northeast. He’d moved to the city about a year previously, so was seeing some of this for the first time himself. But it worked well, I thought.

I believe Nashville is an extremely important case study for metros in the Midwest to examine. Here is a city that was a sleepy state capital for many years while other southern towns such as Atlanta and Charlotte took off. Then it began heading on an upwards trajectory. It is not yet at such a high growth rate that it appears to be a completely different sort of place than the Midwest. Its population growth is only 1.9% per year, for example, not much higher than Midwest growth champion Indianapolis at 1.5%. But all the trend lines are accelerating. Corporate headquarters are flocking, in city development is booming, transplants from the north are arriving. It would not surprise me to see this city pop into a higher gear when the economy turns upwards again.

Nashville is a great case study because we can observe the inflection point in growth more or less as it happens. And also try to make sense of what is driving it. And to understand why Midwestern cities aren’t seeing it. I look at Nashville and ask myself: what does this place have on the Midwest? Compare it to Columbus, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Louisville, Kansas City, and Milwaukee and see if anything jumps out that would explain it. Some unique factor of Nashville. Consider:

  • Nashville is smaller than most of those places today, so it isn’t size
  • It can’t be just because Nashville is in the south or a no income tax right to work state. Memphis in the exact same state and is hurting. Birmingham and Montgomery haven’t done much in right to work Alabama.
  • Its college degree attainment of 31% is below many comparable Midwest cities, though it should be noted that Nashville is moving up the league tables fast. It was recently ranked the 4th biggest “brain magnet” in the United States.
  • It has no particular unique industry or assets. It can cite its Music City USA image, which certainly drives tourism and money. But Midwestern cities have other equivalent things they can counter with. Plus, it was Music City USA all the time it was a sleepy state capital as well.
  • Just being the state capital doesn’t explain it. Indy and Columbus are both in that role and are getting out paced by Nashville.
  • Having a consolidated city-county government is not unique. Indy and Louisville are both consolidated, and Columbus is quasi-consolidated because of the ability of that city to annex most of Franklin County and even parts of several adjacent counties.
  • There are mountains, but the geography does not appear to be particularly compelling.
  • There are not fabulous historic districts in every region. In fact, while there are some nicer neighborhoods, much of the city is built out exactly like most Midwestern burgs of equivalent size. A lot of it is outright dumpy.
  • Its cultural institutions are not as advanced as Midwestern ones. The Nashville Symphony isn’t going to take on the Cincinnati Symphony any time soon, that’s for sure.
  • It doesn’t have some fortress home grown companies that are driving it.
  • It has Vanderbilt University, but most Midwestern cities have a good school in them too.

I compare Nashville to the top performing Midwest metros and just scratch my head. Nashville’s arguably got nothing on the Midwest and in many ways is playing from an inferior position. So what is going on?

I’ll take a shot at explaining a few things I’ve noticed. I’m not saying these are necessarily the answers. But they are things to consider. If I were head of strategy for a Midwestern metro, I’d be conducting an extensive peer city comparison of Nashville to try to figure it out in more detail. But here are some thoughts:

  • First, as I previously noted, is the extremely high ambition level. These guys are clearly looking at places like Atlanta, Dallas, Charlotte, etc. and saying “Why not us?” Their mission is to become one of America’s great cities. There’s no “era of limits” in Nashville. You see this come through, for example, in their convention center plans, which call for 1.2 million square feet. It comes through in their highways, which are being built 8-10 lanes with HOV lanes, as if getting ready to become the much bigger city they plan to be. It shows in the numerous residential high rise and midrise projects. It shows in how Nashville, unlike every comparable Midwest metro, already has a commuter rail line in service. Midwesterners recoil from change, and would view becoming the next Charlotte or Atlanta with horror. But Nashville is eager to move up to the premier league, so to speak.
  • Second is the unabashedly pro-growth and pro-business stance. Every development in the Midwest is opposed by some group of NIMBY’s. Densification, even in downtown areas, is often anathema to influential neighbors. Not in Nashville. Huge tracts of inner city are being rebuilt from vacant lots or single family homes into multi-story town houses or condos. There are midrises all over the place. It does not appear that development has any problem getting approved there.
  • Third is low taxes and costs. Tennessee does not have a state income tax. Electricity from the TVA is dirt cheap. Property taxes cannot be increased without a public vote. It remains to be seen if this environment can be sustained, but for right now, cost appears to be an advantage.
  • Fourth is that they’ve embraced instead of rejecting their heritage. Rather than saying that country music is for hillbillies and an embarrassment to their new ambitions as a big league city, they’ve proudly embraced it. They updated the image with a glitzy, “Nashvegas” spin and made it the core of what Nashville is all about. Most Midwestern elites seem to view their existing heritage negatively. But great cities have to spring from the native soil in which they are born. Their character has to be organic. Import all the fancy stores, restaurants, sports teams, transit lines, etc. you want, but it won’t distinguish your city. Nashville learned this lesson well, probably from Atlanta. The southern boomtowns took their existing Southern heritage, dropped the negative items that needed to be changed, updated the core positive elements, and created the vision of the “New South”. This is something that can be embraced by the masses, unlike the elitist transformations that are often promulgated.
  • Fifth is that, again, they appear to have studied the lessons of places like Dallas, Atlanta, Charlotte, etc. They’ve seen the need for freeways. They’ve looked at the style of development and the neo-traditional urban form. I was very impressed to see that there while most condo developments and such were fairly undistinctive, I did not note any that exhibited poor urban design form. When I consider the poorly designed projects that are frequently implemented in, say, downtown Indianapolis, it is easy to see who gets out more. Nashville has done its homework.
  • Sixth, Nashville is realistic and open to self-criticism without being self-flagellating. I posted my previous take on the city on a discussion forum dedicated to that city. Given the modestly negative tone contained in much of it, I expected to get crucified. Surprisingly, most of them basically agreed with it. Too many cities in the Midwest either engage in naive boosterism or wallow in woe-is-us. Perhaps because of the large number of newcomers, there’s a more realistic assessment of where Nashville stands. And this enables rational decisions about where it needs to go.

If anyone else has observations to share, I would love to hear them.

Here are some photographs I took while there. First, a view of the Tennessee capitol building across a green space I believe is called the Bicentennial Mall.

A street scape in Hillsboro Village, a small commercial district near Vanderbilt University.

The Pancake Pantry in Hillsboro Village, a breakfast place of high local repute. I was initially skeptical but the food was actually pretty darn good. This place is huge and there was still a line out the door at 10am on a Friday morning. Pretty crazy.


The storefronts are a nice urban touch, but if you look behind this building you see a gigantic parking lot. This is perhaps an example of faux-urbanism. Putting the parking lot in the back doesn’t make it any less a strip mall. It is a difference in form, not function.

One of the many vacant lots with a “condos coming soon” sign.

The main road heading west of out downtown, West End Avenue, is developed at very high densities. I haven’t seen much in the way of this in most Midwestern cities. Midrises line both sides of the road basically from downtown to the interstate loop. It’s a six lane mega-street that moves tons of cars, but appears to have great bus service as well.

Here is another one under construction.

A proposed, but I believe not yet funded, high rise development. Indianapolis readers will no doubt recognize one of the towers as a clone of the proposed Intercontinental hotel for Pan Am Plaza that lost out as the convention center anchor hotel.

If you continue out to the west from here, you run into neighborhoods like Green Hills, which is where the most premier shopping in the area is found, and the suburb of Belle Meade, which serves as Nashville’s mansion district. Unlike traditional Midwestern mansion districts, this one is more rural in nature, with large estates that wouldn’t be out of place in a plantation. I did not take pictures of these areas, however.

Back closer to downtown is a nearby area known as the “Gulch”. It is not too far from Nashville’s Union Station.

This appears to be some seedy industrial district that is being transformed all at once by a series of large developments. It also has several clubs and restaurants. I ate at a seafood place called Watermark that was surprisingly good. I believe most of the places are upscale chains, though I’m not sure if Watermark is or not. Here’s a picture of some of the development.

More development

North of downtown is a small historic district called Germantown. This was rather unimpressive if you ask me. I didn’t see much that was German about it. It sure isn’t Columbus’ German Village, that’s for sure. There were some restaurants there. I had lunch at one of them which, fortunately for them, I can’t remember the name of because it was terrible. This area is mostly older single family homes.

The amazing thing about this area is that almost every vacant or industrial parcel was being redeveloped as condos. This really brought home to me the difference between Nashville and the Midwest. Were this, say, the Cottage Home area in Indianapolis, the local neighborhood association would use their historic district status to keep developments like these out. In Nashville, they are seen as a positive. Here are some examples.

More condos

More condos with retail space. Sorry for the very blurry pic but it was raining as you can see.

More condos being built, and still more proposed.

You get the picture. Also, note from all these photos the lack of design disasters. These are all workmanlike structures. The challenge for Nashville is that while there is a ton of new development, all of it is in a relatively generic, undistinguished style that could be in the downtown of almost any city. I did not get a strong sense of any type of vernacular style emerging. That is something I’d be looking for if I were them.

Lastly, here’s one suburban example that shows something I pointed out last time. Namely that even in brand new, upscale subdivisions they aren’t putting in sidewalks on both sides of the street. I find this very odd. While I noticed some bike lanes this time around, Nashville’s definitely got a long ways to go when it comes to pedestrian and bicycle friendliness.

Nashville is definitely a city that is on an upward trajectory. The volume of urban development and the business attraction success are impressive. It is exceeding even the best performing Midwest metros in that regard. However, it still lags the top southern and western metros. The current rate is very healthy, but probably isn’t sufficient to realize the civic ambitions. It remains to be seen whether Nashville can put it in another gear and take its place among the boomtowns, or whether it will merely stay on its current growth path. Either path is possible or a valid civic choice. While always possible, the likelihood that Nashville is going to take a major downtown does not appear high in the short term.

This is an updated version of a post originally appeared on June 22, 2008.

Friday, February 19th, 2010

Replay: An Examination of City-County Consolidation

[ This piece will serve as a warm-up to a forthcoming series on the downsides of the consolidation of US city and county governments. I updated it from the original with a bit of information about the current mayoral election in Louisville. ]

H. V. Savitch and Ronald K. Vogel of the University of Louisville authored the paper “Suburbs Without a City“, analyzing the merger of Louisville and Jefferson County, and in the process making many good observations about or relevant to other consolidated cities like Indianapolis and Nashville.

Savitch and Vogel make the argument that the primary goal and pratical effect of merger was to re-align power relationships to put the levers of power in the hands of the business, political, and media elite. Among the changes leading to this were:

  • A strong mayor, weak council system.
  • Dissolution of the city of Louisville while retaining smaller suburb cities
  • Dilution of the voting power of minorities
  • A transfer of the locus of political power from the old central city to suburban Jefferson County

In their words, “Reformers frequently support consolidation because they assume rather than make an effort to prove its benefit…changes in local governance are often about power not bureaucratic efficiency or effectiveness. More often than not, power shapes the reception of ideas and determines who has voice in community debates. Bringing this to public attention is difficult, and elites often respond with hostility to attempts to distinguish between power and better government.” Rather than a Ruskian city without suburbs, they believe Lousville has become suburbs without a city.

They also make the argument that merger has not and will not improve efficiency or result in cost or tax savings. It is also explicitly non-redistributionist in that wealthier areas are firewalled off from having to support the less well off areas, and in fact if anything the reverse is true.

All of these features are, in so many words, said to have been imported from Indianapolis’ Unigov. I believe there is some degree of parallel between these mergers, so the experience of Indianapolis under merger is something that bears examining.

In 1969 a unique political alignment put Indianapolis and Indiana under the unified control of Republicans. Then Mayor Richard Lugar was able to push through a legislative city-county consolidation called Unigov. Key features of Unigov:

  • A county-wide mayor, with a combined 29 member city-county council.
  • Administration, planning and zoning, parks, and infrastructure development were consolidated.
  • School districts, police departments, and fire departments were not consolidated. Subsequently, police departments were merged.
  • Cities and large towns (four total) were excluded from merger, but still allowed to vote for mayor. Smaller towns were semi-included in merger, but remained legal entities and retained some powers.
  • Townships were unaffected, as were all special purpose districts.

As you can see, this was in a sense a merger in name only. Many of the most important government services were not merged.

Louisville’s merger followed a similar script, with some updating.

  • A county-wide mayor with 26 council members
  • Administration, planning and zoning, parks, and infrastructure merged
  • Police and fire departments of city and county merged
  • All other incorporated municipalities excluded, including 83 incorporated towns and 19 suburban fire departments.
  • Schools were previously consolidated in the 1970′s and so were unaffected
  • Special districts unaffected
  • An “urban service district” established to provide for higher taxes in the old city limits to pay for services only delivered there.

As you can see, this is broadly similar, with a lower degree of consolidation of municipalities, but a higher degree of departmental consolidation.

As in Indianapolis, the population of the outlying county had grown to be larger than that of the old city. Thus, merger transferred the balance of political power from the “city” to the “suburbs”. In Indianapolis, this led to nearly three decades of Republican dominance, and the political marginalization of minorities. The old city of Indianapolis effectively ceased to exist as a political force, outside of downtown interests. The authors suggest a similar fate awaits Louisville, saying “the city’s autonomy, its power, and its unique qualities have been homogenized into a larger entity.”

In the case of Lousville, there was a strong desire to consolidate power into a strong-mayor. Jerry Abramson went to work for a law firm after leaving office the first go-round. It was his law firm that was the primary backer of merger. A partner in this firm actually drafted the enabling legislation. In a sense, he wrote his own job description for his comeback. This reinforces elite control over the government because of the large amounts of money needed to effectively campaign for office in the consolidated city.

This was acknowledged in a recent article in the Louisville Courier-Journal:

“When he’d campaign for mayor in the old city, Abramson said he would often find himself going door-to-door and talking about issues in living rooms. After merger, those discussions happened in public meeting rooms, because the campaign had to reach more people more quickly.” and “None enjoys the name recognition of Abramson, and there is a wider range of voters and concerns to consider.“This is a completely different animal,” Shea said of running a campaign for mayor of a merged government. “There is distance and defined constituencies all over the city and county. It has to be a personal campaign. Because the city and county have grown so much, if you don’t have a pre-eminent candidate like Abramson, you have to deal that in a much more intimate way.”

Also, a large city government is so complex and difficult to manage that even an outsider would be dependent on the entrenched power structures to do anything, and so would end up co-opted. We see this happening right before our eyes in Indianapolis. Outsider Greg Ballard was elected mayor in a stunning upset. Now we hear the shrieks of outrage as he turns to establishment Republicans on his transition team. But fundamentally, he has no other option. There are literally hundreds of appointments that the mayor has to make, and as a lone outsider without a posse to bring along with him that has the experience necessary to do the jobs, he has to turn to establishment players. The large size of the city council also makes it difficult for individual reformers to make a difference. This sort of thing is exactly why no one has ever reformed Washington and no one ever will.

I won’t go into the details of the case for saying merger was to entrench the power of the elites. Read the article for yourself. While they don’t actually say so, it is clear that authors do not much care for merger and especially this aspect of it. Indeed, the term “elites” itself is pejorative and indicates their point of view. They dismiss merger as not the driver of above trend growth in Indianapolis and Nashville, and also suggest that the City-County Compact could have served indefinitely in place of merger.

I agree that merger in both Indy and Louisville was primarily designed to rewrite the power map. I tend to agree that merger in both Indy and Louisville had a tendency to reinforce the power of the elites. But that is a sort of secondary impact. Rather, I believe the most important thing merger did in both places was to make sure that all the elites were together in the same boat. This aligned their personal interests and makes it much less likely that there would be infighting in the upper classes. It is this lack of infighting itself as much as anything that leads to the dramatic increase in the elite’s power.

What is the practical effect of this? Is it good or bad? As with anything, there are pluses and minuses. On the positive front, it has really enabled the leadership of Indianapolis to rally around key decisions and ambitions. This cannot be underestimated as a source of strength in that community. When dreams of downtown retail appeared dead, and several blocks just empty holes in the ground, Indy was able to rally behind completion of the Circle Centre Mall. Look at the comparative ease with which Indianapolis built first Conseco Fieldhouse and next Lucas Oil Stadium. You can pretty much bet that any major civic project in Indy is going to get done, and at a minimum will not be torpedoed squabbles amongst civic leaders.

The downside is just the flip side. There is less serious scrutiny of any proposal in Indianapolis than in many other cities. Once a decision is made, community leaders close ranks behind it. The result has been a generally lower quality of project than in places with a more robust tradition of civic debate.

The contrast with Louisville could not be more telling. Louisville has long been a city characterized by high levels of mistrust and bickering. In many ways, they were the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. I have always said that in Indianapolis almost nothing gets criticized by the establishment, no matter how bad it is, whereas in Louisville everything is subject to intense bickering, no matter how good.

The situation there now seems to have reversed itself and is more closely following the Indianapolis model. After seemingly decades of debate over building a new downtown basketball arena, one is finally breaking ground. There has been a veritable flurry of new downtown development, much of it receiving significant of tax subsidies. I don’t think it is any accident that the use of TIF districts skyrocketed after merger. This has really jump started downtown development. I do not believe most of these projects would have happened without merger.

Thus far, quality has only suffered at the margins. The arena has a poor design and an inflated price tag, for example. But projects like Museum Plaza [now apparently dead] are first class. When elites dominate a political structure, as with an aristocracy, the focus of civic virtue is on the character of the rulers. In that regard, Jerry Abramson is more in tune with quality of development than Bart Peterson, who is stronger as a deal marker with his real estate background. When Abramson finally moves on, we’ll see what happens in Louisville.

On the matter of governmental efficiency, I have long been a skeptic that consolidation brings the cost savings touted by proponents. If that were the case, federal government services would be a paragon of efficiency. The larger the bureaucracy, the less efficient it usually is in my experience. This is true not only from a cost perspective, but a speed one. How often do we observe in a corporation or other entity that good decision making is very difficult, and that even good, motivated people are ineffective at making things happen. Smaller, more entrepreneurial companies are famously more nimble and responsive.

This is something that should be kept in mind as Indiana looks to reorganize local government in an attempt to rein in property taxes. While I am a big supporter of abolishing townships, I don’t believe that this will, by itself, result in material cost savings to the taxpayer.

The last point, regarding the anti-redistributionist nature of merger, is one worth noting. While political power is redistributed away from central city residents, especially minorities, in a merger, redistribution of resources from well-off suburban areas to less well-off inner city areas is not done. In fact, there are explicit steps generally taken to make sure this doesn’t happen, and if anything the flow goes the other direction.

Unigov retained the township structure where services such as poor relief that benefit largely inner city residents are not contributed to by suburbanites. Similarly, the inner city school district was left intact. People inside the pre-Unigov city limits paid for the Indianapolis Police Department, but people outside did not. However, everyone in the city paid for the Sheriff’s Department, which only patrolled suburban areas. The consolidated services are those like infrastructure, where the balance of spending will be to the suburbanized areas. If anything, Unigov forced poorer, inner city residents to subsidize the suburbanites in the outlying townships.

Nashville included a similar two-tier structure with an “urban service district” paid for only by central city residents. And Louisville has taken a page from the same playbook. The old city of Louisville is to be designated an urban service district where only taxes raised from that district will provide certain city services. Well-off suburban enclaves such as Prospect were excluded from merger, and can vote to provide premium services for themselves without regard as to equity elsewhere in the county.

To me the most interesting case is downtown development. Major civic attractions such as sports teams, etc. that benefit the entire county or region are located there. Yet much of the freight for paying for these community wide assets falls on the residents of the old inner city only. How is that?

One of the main vehicles for doing this is through Tax Increment Financing or TIF. Those who read my blog know I am generally skeptical of TIF’s, though think they can be useful in certain circumstances. When a certain area is declared a TIF, the current tax revenue is frozen for a long time, often 20+ years. All new taxes from new development in the district goes into special TIF fund. The money in this TIF fund is spent for the benefit of the district. Usually it is pledged for debt repayment on bonds that are issued up front to subsidize a big project in the TIF.

TIF’s hurt the central city urban services area because they take valuable property off the general tax rolls there. Let’s take a hypothetical example. An urban service district provides garbage collection paid for solely by central city taxpayers, funded by property taxes. TIF’s freeze the level of taxes collected in part of that taxing district for years and years. This means residents outside the TIF’s have to pay more to cover increased costs of services over time. TIF proponents argue that no development would have occured without the TIF bond, and while that might be true in certain blighted areas, it most certainly is not true in major downtowns. Since downtown is the major tax base in the urban core, this impoverishes unconsolidated services districts.

Indianapolis is a heavy user of TIF’s downtown. Louisville had typically avoided them, and TIF laws are stricter in Kentucky than in Indiana. But since merger, Louisville has gone on a TIF orgy. It has TIF’d much if not most of downtown to support the arena, the Haymarket District, the City Center project, and Museum Plaza. I don’t think it is any accident that Louisville’s appetite for downtown TIF’s has only manifested recently in the wake of merger. The city used to have to worry about the overall health of its inner city tax base. Now it only worries about the county-wide tax base, where downtown TIF’s have less of an impact. Because former suburbanites dominate the city now, the fiscal health of the urban services district is not the principal concern.

There is one aspect of Louisville’s merger that is very different from Indianapolis and very troubling to boot. Not only did every municipality other than Louisville remain intact during the merger, after a 12 year moratorium, they will be free to annex. Conceivably they could even annex territory inside the old city of Louisville itself. As the authors note, “In theory and in practice, small cities can annex parts of the former city of Lousiville. This raises some disturbing questions. First, if the former city of Louisville is supposedly protected by ‘local consolidated government’, how can parts of it be annexed? Second, what is to prevent smaller municipalities from combining with more affluent neighborhoods of the city and cutting it up? Last, would not annexation result in cherry picking parts of the city and shedding its least desirable neighborhoods to a much larger and impersonal megastructure?”

In effect, merger in Louisville meant the dissolution of the city of Louisville combined with a reoganization of county government. This is in marked contrast to Indianapolis, where most small cities were, for practical purposes, subsumed into the new consolidated city, and where all future annexations in Marion County are forbidden because the entire county outside of the excluded cities is considered part of the incorporated city of Indianapolis.

I don’t agree with everything the authors write. Nevertheless, this is a great paper with a lot of points to ponder and I would consider it required reading for anyone interested in the rationale for and consequences of merger.

This post originally ran on December 15, 2007.

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

Randomly Quotable

Corine Mauch on Manufacturing in Cities

Corine Mauch, mayor of Zurich, Switzerland, had this to say in Monocle Issue 25 when asked, “Do we need to bring back craft and manufacturing to our cities?”

Cities are expensive locations, and so firms must be innovative instead of producing at the lowest costs. Besides the service sector, research and development as well as custom-built products are examples of industries that could remain within city borders. Nevertheless, diversity is important for a city and this includes craft and manufacturing. There must be affordable space for niche producers and experiments

I am a big believer that we need to strive to maintain manufacturing capabilities in our cities and that craft and specialty manufacturing is the way to go. See my post, “The New Industrial City” for more on this.

Emmylou Harris on Nashville

There is an interview with Emmlyou Harris in issue nine of Lula magazine. She had an interesting take on living in Nashville that think is very relevant to many cities of similar size. This is in response to the question, “How would you describe Nashville to someone that’s never been there before?”

You know I really love it. I don’t know if it’s a place you immediately love though. Nashville’s a little funky, the downtown area is in a period of transition, it’s got a lot of touristy stuff with the country music thing, a lot of really junky tourist shops, but then there’s Vanderbilt University, there’s Centennial Park which is really quite beautiful….but for me I think you really have to live there. When you live in a place for a long time and you know how to get from one place to another, and you have really great friends that you can actually bike to their house and you have funky little neighborhoods, you kind of fall in love with it. It’s not like you get a crush on somebody, it’s like an old friend that you gradually realize that this is the person you want to spend your life with.

When you visit New York City, its coolness smacks you in the face immediately. Dittos for lots of other cities. But for smaller cities, like Nashville and the places I often talk about in the Midwest, it’s not like that. It’s like the buildings you see in Mexican towns. The outside is rather blank and sparse, but open the doors and find a beautiful, lush courtyard. The beauty is on the inside. Instead of surface flash, there are more discreet charms only accessible to those in the know.

For any Nashvillians out there, it is worth picking up this Lula. The guest editor is Karen Elson, who I believe lives in Nashville now. It is sprinkled with Nashville references and connections, rather tastefully and well integrated into a publication where London, New York, and Los Angeles are more commonly heard. But it is done without excessive boosterism or self-consciousness. Definitely worth checking out.

Pitchfork on Indianapolis

IU grad student Eric Harvey, writing an album review at Pitchfork, had this to say about Indianapolis:

It aired back in 2007, but I still vividly remember the end of VH1′s documentary “NY77: The Coolest Year in Hell”, when the talking heads were mulling over what had become of the formerly dangerous and tawdry Times Square, placed in contrast to that historically accursed year. “They turned it into Indianapolis,” Jimmy Breslin succinctly said. And more or less, here you go: Aside from David Letterman and the Colts, Indy gets a bad rap, when it gets a rap at all….My uncle used to jokingly tell out-of-towners he was from “India-no-place,” as a way of acknowledging the sort of cultural invisibility that guys like Breslin attribute to Indy.

I’m not surprised Harvey remembered that quote from two years ago. Hoosiers are a modest, self-effacing people by nature, but quick to take offense at and remember slights. Clearly, the national reputation of Indianapolis – apart from the Colts and Letterman – is either non-existent or negative. That’s a fact. But while I think it is always good to get your message out in a positive way, you can’t let people in the likes of New York or Chicago get under your skin. Those cities define their own coolness in part by how un-cool they like to think of everyone else. So it is impossible to ever measure up. Rather than plan that sucker’s game, a better course is to put that famous ornery, contrarian Hoosier nature to work and chart a path to your own success. You won’t please everybody, but if you’ve got a message that appeals to some, you’ll find your own niche and your own place.

Thanks to longtime reader Ablerock for sending me this link.

Richard Rodriguez on the City and the Newspaper

Writing in the November 2009 issue of Harper’s, in a lengthy piece on the death of the newspaper as told though the lens of the San Francisco Chronicle, Richard Rodriguez (not the one who is CTA President) had this to say:

We no longer imagine the newspaper as a city or the city as a newspaper. Whatever I may say in the rant that follows, I do not believe the decline of newspapers has been the result solely of computer technology or the Internet. The forces working against newspapers are probably as varied and foregone as the Model-T Ford and the birth-control pill. We like to say that the invention of the internal-combustion engine changed us, changed the way we live. In truth, we built the Model-T Ford because we had changed; we wanted to remake the world to accommodate our restlessness. We might now say: Newspapers will be lost because technology will force us to acquire information in new ways. In that case, who will tell us what it means to live as citizens of Seattle or Denver or Ann Arbor? The truth is we no longer want to live in Seattle or Denver or Ann Arbor. Our inclination has led us to invent a digital cosmopolitanism that begins and ends with “I”. Careening down Geary Boulevard on the 38 bus, I can talk to my dear Auntie in Delhi or I can view snapshots of my cousin’s wedding in Recife or I can listen to girl punk from Glasgow. The cost of my cyber-urban experience is disconnectedness from body, from presence, from city.
….
Something funny I have noticed, perhaps you have noticed it, too. You know what futurists and online-ists and cut-out-the-middle-man-ists and Davos-ists and deconstructionists of every stripe want for themselves? They want exactly what they tell you you no longer need, you pathetic, overweight, disembodied Kindle reader. They want white linen tablecloths on trestle tables in the middle of vineyards on soft blowy afternoons. (You can click your bottle of wine online. Cheaper.) They want to go shopping on Saturday afternoons on the Avenue Victor Hugo; they want the pages of their New York Times all kind of greasy from croissant crumbs and butter at a cafe table in Aspen; they want to see their names in hardcopy in the “New Establishment” issue of Vanity Fair; they want a nineteenth-century bookshop; they want to see the plays in London; they want to float down the Nile in a felucca; they want five-star bricks and mortar and DO NOT DISTURB signs and views of the park. And in order to reserve these things for themselves they will plug up your eyes and your ears and your mouth, and if they can figure a way to pump episodes of The Simpsons through the darkening corridors of your brain as you expire (ADD TO SHOPPING CART), they will do it.
….
We are a nation dismantling the structures of intellectual property and all critical apparatus. We are without professional book reviewers and art critics and essays about what it might mean that our local newspaper has died. We are a nation of Amazon reader responses. (Moby Dick is “not a really good piece of fiction” – Feb. 14, 2009 by Donald J. Bingle, Saint Charles, Ill. – two stars out of five). We are without obituaries…

This article is not online unless you are a subscriber. If you are one, click here to read. If not, it is worth grabbing the hard copy to get it at the news stand. It is the least we can do.

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

Pedestrian Deaths, Nashville Style

The Nashville Tennesseean reports stark numbers on auto crashes involving pedestrians:

Pedestrian accidents are on the rise in Metro Nashville, where hundreds are hit, hurt or killed by vehicles each year. The number of pedestrian accidents has gone up nearly every year since 2004 — a grim statistic in a city already known as one of the least-pedestrian-friendly places in the country. Seventy-three people died trying to cross or walk along Nashville streets from January 2004 to August 2009, according to Metro police records. More than 1,600 pedestrians have been hit.

I previously said that Nashville is potentially the next boomtown of the New South. It has been growing its population at a clip not even the best performing Midwest peer metro can match. Its music industry is booming. Corporate headquarters such as Nissan USA are coming. A brand new symphony hall downtown houses an orchestra working its way up the league tables. Nashville is setting a new aspiration level for itself.

A lot of what is driving growth in Nashville is the same as what is driving growth elsewhere in the South. Tennessee is an aggressively pro-business, right to work state with low costs and low taxes (and cheap electricity thanks to the TVA). Tennessee does not have an income tax and the city of Nashville can’t raise property taxes without a vote.

Yet a lot of this low cost environment has been purchased with bare bones public infrastructure. Nashville is the least pedestrian friendly major city I’ve visited – worse than any Midwest city. I keep coming back to this picture I took in my buddy’s subdivision there. (This location is just inside the Nashville city limits abutting Williamson County).

How is it that a brand new subdivision with all brick homes doesn’t have sidewalks on both sides of the street? The cheapest vinyl village in the Indianapolis area is required to have that these days. This says something extremely powerful about the values of Nashville, the values that created the stats above. It’s not just that there aren’t safe pedestrian facilities. This type of infrastructure inculcates a mindset about pedestrians in the psyche of the people. You see this plain as day, for example, when, among the “causes” of pedestrian accidents, the paper lists “walking in dark clothes on a dark night”. That was not, last I checked, a valid reason to run someone over. While it can certainly contribute to a lack of visibility, this type of rationale comes straight from the mode of thinking that suggests women who wear slutty outfits are asking to be raped. It’s “blame the victim first”.

In a real sense, Nashville has decided to shift costs from development and taxes to its citizens via another route. Rather than pay to create a safer pedestrian environment, it has decided to expose its citizens to increased risk of injury or death, resulting in the very real costs – personal and financial – coming from all those crashes.

On the other hand, we have more or less unlimited risks that we are exposed to every day. Many of us willingly take a chance by, for example, dashing across the street mid-block in front of a cab just save a couple of seconds. It isn’t feasible to eliminate all risk and many of us would not want to live in a society that did so as it might be excessively stifling.

Also, should Nashville retrofit all of its streets and change the culture, it might find that its economic growth declines as companies and people seek out cheaper locations elsewhere. This would cut off the supply of taxes, making further investment prohibitive. We see this in the Midwest where many cities that once had great infrastructures are seeing them crumble into dust as they can’t afford to maintain them. I believe it is critical to sustain the economic growth engines of our communities. That expansion of jobs, residents, and tax base is what provides the resources to make more investments. The richer we get, the more we can afford. You can’t kill the golden goose, so there’s a tricky balance to maintain.

There are choices and tradeoffs to be made. And a lot of it comes down to values. But from what I’ve seen as we go through time, things that were viewed as ordinary and acceptable risks years ago are no longer considered so today as we’ve gotten more prosperous and thus more demanding as a society. Once workers dying on a job site was routine. Eleven people died building the Golden Gate Bridge in the 1930′s. That was probably considered quite safe for its day. If even one person dies on a job site today, it’s treated as a major incident. It used to be that horribly polluted air and water were simply the price of progress. No longer – at least not in America. This has been recognized and supported even by free market advocates like Friedrich Hayek, who said, “There is no reason why the volume of these pure [government] service activities should not increase with the general growth of wealth.”

It strikes me that the “Nashville Way” is on the wrong side of history. Efficient low cost government and taxes are likely to be permanent advantages. Purchasing those low costs by exposing pedestrians to above average risk of injury or death rather than through genuine efficiency does not seem like a long term winning strategy, however.

More on Pedestrian Safety

I Almost Got Killed

More Nashville

Impressions of Nashville
Nashville: Next Boomtown of the New South?

Sunday, June 22nd, 2008

Nashville: The Next Boomtown of the New South?

I traveled to Nashville for the first time in 2007, spending most of my time in the downtown area. I posted my impressions here, noting the high growth and high ambition level as well as the fantastic freeways, but also the generally unimpressive development and built environment.

I did another fly-by in April of this year. I made a conscious effort to try to get out and see different areas this time around. My tour guide was an Indy native who had spent the last decade or so in the northeast. He’d moved to the city about a year previously, so was seeing some of this for the first time himself. But it worked well, I thought.

I believe Nashville is an extremely important case study for metros in the Midwest to examine. Here is a city that was a sleepy state capital for many years while other southern towns such as Atlanta and Charlotte took off. Then it began heading on an upwards trajectory. It is not yet at such a high growth rate that it appears to be a completely different sort of place than the Midwest. It’s population growth is only 1.9% per year, for example, not much higher than Midwest growth champion Indianapolis at 1.5%. But all the trend lines are accelerating. Corporate headquarters are flocking, in city development is booming, transplants from the north are arriving. It would not surprise me to see this city pop into a higher gear when the economy turns upwards again.

Nashville is a great case study because we can observe the inflection point in growth more or less as it happens. And also try to make sense of what is driving it. And to understand why Midwestern cities aren’t seeing it. I look at Nashville and ask myself: what does this place have on the Midwest? Compare it to Columbus, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Louisville, Kansas City, and Milwaukee and see if anything jumps out that would explain it. Some unique factor of Nashville. Consider:

  • Nashville is smaller than most of those places today, so it isn’t size
  • It can’t be just because Nashville is in the south. Memphis in the same state and is hurting. Birmingham remains a sleepy place.
  • It’s college degree attainment of 28.3% is below many comparable Midwest cities
  • It has no particular unique industry or assets. It can cite its Music City USA image, which certainly drives tourism and money. But Midwestern cities have other equivalent things they can counter with. Plus, it was Music City USA all the time it was a sleepy state capital as well.
  • Just being the state capital doesn’t explain it. Indy and Columbus are both in that role and are getting out paced by Nashville.
  • Having a consolidated city-county government is not unique. Indy and Louisville are both consolidated, and Columbus is quasi-consolidated because of the ability of that city to annex most of Franklin County and even parts of several adjacent counties.
  • There are mountains, but the geography does not appear to be particularly compelling.
  • There are not fabulous historic districts in every region. In fact, while there are some nicer neighborhoods, much of the city is built out exactly like most Midwestern burgs of equivalent size. A lot of it is outright dumpy.
  • There’s additional “culture shock” for northerners to get used to when the transition, the southern drawl, smoking in restaurants, etc.
  • It’s cultural institutions are not as advanced as Midwestern ones. The Nashville Symphony isn’t going to take on the Cincinnati Symphony any time soon, that’s for sure.
  • It doesn’t have some fortress home growth companies that are driving it.
  • It has Vanderbilt University, but most Midwestern cities have a good school in them too.

I compare Nashville to the top performing Midwest metros and just scratch my head. Nashville’s arguably got nothing on the Midwest and in many ways is playing from an inferior position. So what is going on?

I’ll take a shot at explaining a few things I’ve noticed. I’m not saying these are necessarily the answers. But they are things to consider. If I were head of strategy for a Midwestern metro, I’d be conducting an extensive peer city comparison of Nashville to try to figure it out in more detail. But here are some thoughts:

  • First, as I previously noted, is the extremely high ambition level. These guys are clearly looking at places like Atlanta, Dallas, Charlotte, etc. and saying “Why not us?” Their mission is to become one of America’s great cities. There’s no “era of limits” in Nashville. You see this come through, for example, in their convention center plans, which call for 1.2 million square feet. It comes through in their highways, which are being built 8-10 lanes with HOV lanes, as if getting ready to become the much bigger city they plan to be. It shows in the numerous residential high rise and midrise projects. It shows in how Nashville, unlike every comparable Midwest metro, already has a commuter rail line in service. Midwesterners recoil from change, and would view becoming the next Charlotte or Atlanta with horror. But Nashville is eager to move up to the premier league, so to speak.
  • Second is the unabashedly pro-growth and pro-business stance. Every development in the Midwest is opposed by some group of NIMBY’s. Densification, even in downtown areas, is often anathema to influential neighbors. Not in Nashville. Huge tracts of inner city are being rebuilt from vacant lots or single family homes into multi-story town houses or condos. There are midrises all over the place. It does not appear that development has any problem getting approved there.
  • Third is low taxes and costs. Tennessee does not have a state income tax. Electricity from the TVA is dirt cheap. Property taxes cannot be increased without a public vote. It remains to be seen if this environment can be sustained, but for right now, cost appears to be an advantage.
  • Fourth is that they’ve embraced instead of rejecting their heritage. Rather than saying that country music is for hillbillies and an embarrassment to their new ambitions as a big league city, they’ve proudly embraced it. They updated the image with a glitzy, “Nashvegas” spin and made it the core of what Nashville is all about. Most Midwestern elites seem to view their existing heritage negatively. But great cities have to spring from the native soil in which they are born. Their character has to be organic. Import all the fancy stores, restaurants, sports teams, transit lines, etc. you want, but it won’t distinguish your city. Nashville learned this lesson well, probably from Atlanta. The southern boomtowns took their existing Southern heritage, dropped the negative items that needed to be changed, updated the core positive elements, and created the vision of the “New South”. This is something that can be embraced by the masses, unlike the elitist transformations that are often promulgated.
  • Fifth is that, again, they appear to have studied the lessons of places like Dallas, Atlanta, Charlotte, etc. They’ve seen the need for freeways. They’ve looked at the style of development and the neo-traditional urban form. I was very impressed to see that there while most condo developments and such were fairly undistinctive, I did not note any that exhibited poor urban design form. When I consider the poorly designed projects that are frequently implemented in, say, downtown Indianapolis, it is easy to see who gets out more. Nashville has done its homework.
  • Sixth, Nashville is realistic and open to self-criticism without being self-flagellating. I posted my previous take on the city on a discussion forum dedicated to that city. Given the modestly negative tone contained in much of it, I expected to get crucified. Surprisingly, most of them basically agreed with it. Too many cities in the Midwest either engage in naive boosterism or wallow in woe-is-us. Perhaps because of the large number of newcomers, there’s a more realistic assessment of where Nashville stands. And this enables rational decisions about where it needs to go.

If anyone else has observations to share, I would love to hear them.

Here are some photographs I took while there. First, a view of the Tennessee capitol building across a green space I believe is called the Bicentennial Mall.

A street scape in Hillsboro Village, a small commercial district near Vanderbilt University.

The Pancake Pantry in Hillsboro Village, a breakfast place of high local repute. I was initially skeptical but the food was actually pretty darn good. This place is huge and there was still a line out the door at 10am on a Friday morning. Pretty crazy.


The storefronts are a nice urban touch, but if you look behind this building you see a gigantic parking lot. This is perhaps an example of faux-urbanism. Putting the parking lot in the back doesn’t make it any less a strip mall. It is a difference in form, not function.

One of the many vacant lots with a “condos coming soon” sign.

The main road heading west of out downtown, West End Avenue, is developed at very high densities. I haven’t seen much in the way of this in most Midwestern cities. Midrises line both sides of the road basically from downtown to the interstate loop. It’s a six lane mega-street that moves tons of cars, but appears to have great bus service as well.

Here is another one under construction.

A proposed, but I believe not yet funded, high rise development. Indianapolis readers will no doubt recognize one of the towers as a clone of the proposed Intercontinental hotel for Pan Am Plaza that lost out as the convention center anchor hotel.

If you continue out to the west from here, you run into neighborhoods like Green Hills, which is where the most premier shopping in the area is found, and the suburb of Belle Meade, which serves as Nashville’s mansion district. Unlike traditional Midwestern mansion districts, this one is more rural in nature, with large estates that wouldn’t be out of place in a plantation. I did not take pictures of these areas, however.

Back closer to downtown is a nearby area known as the “Gulch”. It is not too far from Nashville’s Union Station.

This appears to be some seedy industrial district that is being transformed all at once by a series of large developments. It also has several clubs and restaurants. I ate at a seafood place called Watermark that was surprisingly good. I believe most of the places are upscale chains, though I’m not sure if Watermark is or not. Here’s a picture of some of the development.

More development

North of downtown is a small historic district called Germantown. This was rather unimpressive if you ask me. I didn’t see much that was German about it. It sure isn’t Columbus’ German Village, that’s for sure. There were some restaurants there. I had lunch at one of them which, fortunately for them, I can’t remember the name of because it was terrible. This area is mostly older single family homes.

The amazing thing about this area is that almost every vacant or industrial parcel was being redeveloped as condos. This really brought home to me the difference between Nashville and the Midwest. Were this, say, the Cottage Home area in Indianapolis, the local neighborhood association would use their historic district status to keep developments like these out. In Nashville, they are seen as a positive. Here are some examples.

More condos

More condos with retail space. Sorry for the very blurry pic but it was raining as you can see.

More condos being built, and still more proposed.

You get the picture. Also, note from all these photos the lack of design disasters. These are all workmanlike structures. The challenge for Nashville is that while there is a ton of new development, all of it is in a relatively generic, undistinguished style that could be in the downtown of almost any city. I did not get a strong sense of any type of vernacular style emerging. That is something I’d be looking for if I were them.

Lastly, here’s one suburban example that shows something I pointed out last time. Namely that even in brand new, upscale subdivisions they aren’t putting in sidewalks on both sides of the street. I find this very odd. While I noticed some bike lanes this time around, Nashville’s definitely got a long ways to go when it comes to pedestrian and bicycle friendliness.

Nashville is definitely a city that is on an upward trajectory. The volume of urban development and the business attraction success are impressive. It is exceeding even the best performing Midwest metros in that regard. However, it still lags the top southern and western metros. The current rate is very healthy, but probably isn’t sufficient to realize the civic ambitions. It remains to be seen whether Nashville can put it in another gear and take its place among the boomtowns, or whether it will merely stay on its current growth path. Either path is possible or a valid civic choice. While always possible, the likelihood that Nashville is going to take a major downtown does not appear high in the short term.

Saturday, December 15th, 2007

An Examination of City-County Consolidation

H. V. Savitch and Ronald K. Vogel of the University of Louisville wrote an article called “Suburbs Without a City“, analyzing the merger of Louisville and Jefferson County, and in the process making many good observations about or relevant to other consolidated cities like Indianapolis and Nashville.

Savitch and Vogel make the argument that the primary goal and pratical effect of merger was to re-align power relationships to put the levers of power in the hands of the business, political, and media elite. Among the changes leading to this were:

  • A strong mayor, weak council system.
  • Dissolution of the city of Louisville while retaining smaller suburb cities
  • Dilution of the voting power of minorities
  • A transfer of the locus of political power from the old central city to suburban Jefferson County

In their words, “Reformers frequently support consolidation because they assume rather than make an effort to prove its benefit…changes in local governance are often about power not bureaucratic efficiency or effectiveness. More often than not, power shapes the reception of ideas and determines who has voice in community debates. Bringing this to public attention is difficult, and elites often respond with hostility to attempts to distinguish between power and better government.” Rather than a Ruskian city without suburbs, they believe Lousville has become suburbs without a city.

They also make the argument that merger has not and will not improve efficiency or result in cost or tax savings. It is also explicitly non-redistributionist in that wealthier areas are firewalled off from having to support the less well off areas, and in fact if anything the reverse is true.

All of these features are, in so many words, said to have been imported from Indianapolis’ Unigov. I believe there is some degree of parallel between these mergers, so the experience of Indianapolis under merger is something that bears examining. You can view the structure of the Louisville Metro government online.

In 1969 a unique political alignment put Indianapolis and Indiana under the unified control of Republicans. The Mayor Richard Lugar was able to push through a legislative city-county consolidation called Unigov. Key features of Unigov:

  • A county-wide mayor, with a combined 29 member city-county council
  • Administration, planning and zoning, parks, and infrastructure development were consolidated
  • School districts, police departments, and fire departments were not consolidated. Subsequently, police departments were merged.
  • Cities and large towns (four total) were excluded from merger, but still allowed to vote for mayor. Smaller towns were semi-included in merger, but remained legal entities and retained some powers.
  • Townships were unaffected, as were all special purpose districts.

As you can see, this was in a sense a merger in name only. Many of the most important government services were not merged.

Louisville’s merger followed a similar script, with some updating.

  • A county-wide mayor with 26 council members
  • Administration, planning and zoning, parks, and infrastructure merged
  • Police and fire departments of city and county merged
  • All other incorporated municipalities excluded, including 83 incorporated towns and 19 suburban fire departments.
  • Schools were previously consolidated in the 1970′s and so were unaffected
  • Special districts unaffected
  • An “urban service district” established to provide for higher taxes in the old city limits to pay for services only delivered there.

As you can see, this is broadly similar, with a lower degree of consolidation of municipalities, but a higher degree of departmental consolidation.

As in Indianapolis, the population of the outlying county had grown to be larger than that of the old city. Thus, merger transferred the balance of political power from the “city” to the “suburbs”. In Indianapolis, this led to nearly three decades of Republican dominance, and the political marginalization of minorities. The old city of Indianapolis effectively ceased to exist as a political force, outside of downtown interests. The authors suggest a similar fate awaits Louisville, saying “the city’s autonomy, its power, and its unique qualities have been homogenized into a larger entity.”

In the case of Lousville, there was a strong desire to consolidate power into a strong-mayor. Jerry Abramson went to work for a law firm after leaving office the first go-round. It was his law firm that was the primary backer of merger. A partner in this firm actually drafted the enabling legislation. In a sense, he wrote his own job description for his comeback. This reinforces elite control over the government because of the large amounts of money needed to effectively campaign for office in the consolidated city.

Also, a large city government is so complex and difficult to manage that even an outsider would be dependent on the entrenched power structures to do anything, and so would end up co-opted. We see this happening right before our eyes in Indianapolis. Outsider Greg Ballard was elected mayor in a stunning upset. Now we hear the shrieks of outrage as he turns to establishment Republicans on his transition team. But fundamentally, he has no other option. There are literally hundreds of appointments that the mayor has to make, and as a lone outsider without a posse to bring along with him that has the experience necessary to do the jobs, he has to turn to establishment players. The large size of the city council also makes it difficult for individual reformers to make a difference. This sort of thing is exactly why no one has ever reformed Washington and no one ever will.

I won’t go into the details of the case for saying merger was to entrench the power of the elites. Read the article for yourself. While they don’t actually say so, it is clear that authors do not much care for merger and especially this aspect of it. Indeed, the term “elites” itself is pejorative and indicates their point of view. They dismiss merger as not the driver of above trend growth in Indianapolis and Nashville, and also suggest that the City-County Compact could have served indefinitely in place of merger.

I agree that merger in both Indy and Louisville was primarily designed to rewrite the power map. I tend to agree that merger in both Indy and Louisville had a tendency to reinforce the power of the elites. But that is a sort of secondary impact. Rather, I believe the most important thing merger did in both places was to make sure that all the elites were together in the same boat. This aligns their personal interests and makes it much less likely that there would be infighting in the upper classes. It is this lack of infighting itself as much as anything that leads to the dramatic increase in the elite’s power.

What is the practical effect of this? Is it good or bad? As with anything, there are pluses and minuses. On the positive front, it has really enabled the leadership of Indianapolis to rally around key decisions and ambitions. This cannot be underestimated as a source of strength in that community. When dreams of downtown retail appeared dead, and several blocks just empty holes in the ground, Indy was able to rally behind completion of the Circle Centre Mall. Look at the comparative ease with which Indianapolis built first Conseco Fieldhouse and next Lucas Oil Stadium. You can pretty much bet that any major civic project in Indy is going to get done, and at a minimum will not be torpedoed squabbles amongst civic leaders.

The downside is just the flip side. There is little serious scrutiny of any proposal as once a decision is made, community leaders close ranks behind it. The result has been a generally lower quality of project than in places with a more robust tradition of civic debate.

The contrast with Louisville could not be more telling. Louisville has long been a city characterized by high levels of mistrust and bickering. In many ways, they were the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. I have always said that in Indianapolis nothing gets criticized by the establishment, no matter how bad it is, whereas in Louisville everything is subject to intense bickering, no matter how good.

The situation there now seems to have reversed itself and is more closely following the Indianapolis model. After seemingly decades of debate over building a new downtown basketball arena, one is finally breaking ground. There has been a veritable flurry of new downtown development, much of it by the connected and receiving huge amount of tax subsidies. I don’t think it is any accident that the use of TIF districts skyrocketed after merger. This has really jump started downtown development. I do not believe most of these projects would have happened without merger.

Thus far, quality has only suffered at the margins. The arena has a poor design and an inflated price tag, for example. But projects like Museum Plaza [now apparently dead] are first class. When elites dominate a political structure, as with an aristocracy, the focus of civic virtue is on the character of the rulers. In that regard, Jerry Abramson is more in tune with quality of development than Bart Peterson, to whom doing the deal seems his passion. When Abramson finally moves on, we’ll see what happens in Louisville.

On the matter of governmental efficiency, I have long been a skeptic that consolidation brings the cost savings touted by proponents. If that were the case, federal government services would be a paragon of efficiency. The larger the bureaucracy, the less efficient it usually is in my experience. This is true not only from a cost perspective, but a speed one. How often do we observe in a corporation or other entity that good decision making is very difficult, and that even good, motivated people are ineffective at making things happen. Smaller, more entrepreneurial companies are famously more nimble and responsive.

This is something that should be kept in mind as Indiana looks to reorganize local government in an attempt to rein in property taxes. While I am a big supporter of abolishing townships, I don’t believe that this will, by itself, result in material cost savings to the taxpayer.

The last point, regarding the anti-redistributionist nature of merger, is one worth noting. While political power is redistributed away from central city residents, especially minorities, in a merger, redistribution of resources from well-off suburban areas to less well-off inner city areas is not done. In fact, there are explicit steps generally taken to make sure this doesn’t happen, and if anything the flow goes the other direction.

Unigov retained the township structure where services such as poor relief that benefit largely inner city residents are not contributed to by suburbanites. Similarly, the inner city school district was left intact. People inside the pre-Unigov city limits paid for the Indianapolis Police Department, but people outside did not. However, everyone in the city paid for the Sheriff’s Department, which only patrolled suburban areas. The consolidated services are those like infrastructure, where the balance of spending will be to the suburbanized areas. If anything, Unigov forced poorer, inner city residents to subsidize the suburbanites in the outlying townships.

Nashville included a similar two-tier structure with an “urban service district” paid for only by central city residents. And Louisville has taken a page from the same playbook. The old city of Louisville is to be designated an urban service district where only taxes raised from that district will provide certain city services. Well-off suburban enclaves such as Prospect were excluded from merger, and can vote to provide premium services for themselves without regard as to equity elsewhere in the county.

To me the most interesting case is downtown development. Major civic attractions such as sports teams, etc. that benefit the entire county or region are located there. Yet much of the freight for paying for these community wide assets falls on the residents of the old inner city only. How is that?

One of the main vehicles for doing this is through Tax Increment Financing or TIF. Those who read my blog know I am generally skeptical of TIF’s, though think they can be useful in certain circumstances. When a certain area is declared a TIF, the current tax revenue is frozen for a long time, often 20+ years. All new taxes from new development in the district goes into special TIF fund. The money in this TIF fund is spent for the benefit of the district. Usually it is pledged for debt repayment on bonds that are issued up front to subsidize a big project in the TIF.

TIF’s hurt the central city because they take valueable property off the general tax rolls there. Let’s take a hypothetical example. An urban service district provides garbage collection paid for solely by central city taxpayers, funded by property taxes. TIF’s freeze the level of taxes collected in part of that taxing district for years and years. This means residents outside the TIF’s have to pay more to cover increased costs of services over time. TIF proponents argue that no development would have occured without the TIF bond, and while that might be true in certain blighted areas, it most certainly is not true in major downtowns.

Indianapolis is a heavy user of TIF’s downtown. Louisville had typically avoided them, and TIF laws are stricter in Kentucky than in Indiana. But since merger, Louisville has gone on a TIF orgy. It has TIF’d much if not most of downtown to support the arena, the Haymarket District, the City Center project, and Museum Plaza. I don’t think it is any accident that Louisville’s appetite for downtown TIF’s has only manifested recently in the wake of merger.

There is one aspect of Louisville’s merger that is very different from Indianapolis and very troubling to boot. Not only did every municipality other than Louisville remain intact during the merger, after a 12 year moratorium, they will be free to annex. Conceivably they could even annex territory inside the old city of Louisville itself. As the authors note, “In theory and in practice, small cities can annex parts of the former city of Lousiville. This raises some disturbing questions. First, if the former city of Louisville is supposedly protected by ‘local consolidated government’, how can parts of it be annexed? Second, what is to prevent smaller municipalities from combining with more affluent neighborhoods of the city and cutting it up? Last, would not annexation result in cherry picking parts of the city and shedding its least desirable neighborhoods to a much larger and impersonal megastructure?”

In effect, merger in Louisville meant the dissolution of the city of Louisville combined with a reoganization of county government. This is in marked contrast to Indianapolis, where most small cities were, for practical purposes, subsumed into the new consolidated city, and where all future annexations in Marion County are forbidden because the entire county outside of the excluded cities is considered part of the incorporated city of Indianapolis.

I don’t agree with everything the authors write. Nevertheless, this is a great paper with a lot of points to ponder and I would consider it required reading for anyone interested in the rationale for and consequences of merger.

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