Tuesday, March 4th, 2014
[ It's frequently alleged that Wal-Mart is a destroyer of small towns. Today Eric McAfee of American Dirt takes a look at Wal-Mart's home town of Bentonville, Arkansas to see what its effect has been there - Aaron.]
It is a truth universally acknowledged that, from the perspective of urban sociologists and planners at least, major discount retailers such as Walmart have thrived on the destruction of commercial activity in traditional town centers. No doubt my assertion borders on exaggeration, but it would have to, considering I’ve cribbed Jane Austen’s famous (and equally ironically hyperbolic) first seven words to Pride and Prejudice, in which a man’s search of a wife sets a blithe tone for much of what follows. By contrast, the unceasing diatribes against Walmart from urban advocates are rarely whimsical. And while not every high-profile writer/blogger on urban affairs excoriates Walmart, the general tenor of the discussion ascribes much of the decline of downtown retail to the much-maligned megachain. After all, virtually every freestanding small city in America over 20,000 people that is not part of a larger metropolitan agglomeration can claim a Walmart, perched at the edge of the municipal limits. And yes, the burgeoning of Walmarts does more or less coincide with the near abandonment of historic, pedestrian-scaled main streets in favor of car-oriented commercialization consolidated into big-box department stores.
But did a corporation—or the corporation—really cause all this?
If the average American consumers genuinely cared enough about Main Street or the courthouse square, wouldn’t they have shunned this commercial cataclysm before it radically altered the entire landscape? Wasn’t it the consumer that ultimately fueled Walmart’s meteoric growth, by opting for the convenience of everything under one roof, abundant free parking, and (perhaps the most objective factor) those famously low prices? Some might argue that I’m unreasonably throwing Walmart a bone, since the folks at the boardroom table clearly knew what would happen to Main Street, as department-store big-box shopping encroached on communities that commercial developers had previously perceived as too modest in size to support this retail typology. And, yes, I recognize the firm’s historic opposition toward unionization, its eventual reneging on a long-standing “Made in America” pledge, and even the management of logistics/merchandising favoring the automatization of functions that once provided communities with stable jobs. Maybe I am cutting Walmart some undeserved slack. But I also think the corporation’s biggest critics fail to recognize that Walmart didn’t become a leviathan overnight, any more than these towns devolved from flourishing to failures with the flick of a light switch.
My own articles on main street America have explored the topic routinely. But it took a visit to Bentonville, Arkansas to develop a more nuanced understanding of Walmart’s approach to community engagement right at the belly of the beast.
My suspicion is that, until probably around the year 2001, 98% of Americans hadn’t heard of this well-scrubbed little municipality in the northwest corner of the state, just a stone’s throw from the rugged topography of the Ozarks. Even today, if people are familiar with the town, it is only because it hosts the corporate headquarters for the world’s largest retailer. And there’s nothing wrong with this seemingly simplified association: after all, one would be hard-pressed to find anyone in Bentonville who would argue that the city is better known for something else. But what sort of impact has Walmart’s presence exerted on what otherwise would likely be a nondescript, mid-southern county seat?
Not surprisingly, the influence has been formidable. I mention the year 2001 because, upon publishing the results of Census 2000, the nation learned that the Northwest Arkansas Metropolitan Statistical Area (consisting of the primary cities of Fayetteville, Springdale, Rogers and Bentonville) had become the sixth-fastest growing region in the nation. While a Census update isn’t the sort of news item that necessarily grabs the public by its lapels, it can flirt salaciously with the unconscious and, eventually, through mimetic repetition, penetrate to the conscious. With each passing year, Bentonville has grabbed the headlines more often, as decisions from the Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. Home Office exert a greater impact on the global economy. I would hesitate to assert that the name “Bentonville, Arkansas” is common knowledge to the same level that a similarly-sized city such as “Beverly Hills, California” might be, partly because the similarities between these two places basically stop there. But its star is rising on both the national and international horizon, since many of Walmart’s foreign retail ventures have proven just as successful as their domestic efforts. And Bentonville, predictably, has enjoyed its share of the region’s growth: at over 35,000 people in 2010, it more tripled its population since the 1990 census, and, as recently as 1960, it was a quiet village of barely 3,500 people.
The impact on this growth is obvious, particularly when viewing the street configuration.
The shift from a conventional grid to a more hierarchical arrangement is conspicuous and unsurprising.The oldest part of the city adopted the grid, which was customary for shaping virtually all communities in the 19th and early 20th century. Yet 80% of Bentonville’s city limits (which extend in all directions beyond the boundaries in the image above) fits the more expansive, automobile-oriented configuration, in which streets curve and wend, sometimes into hairpins, sometimes into full loops. Often they terminate as culs-de-sac. For a municipality that remained a modest village until the 1950s, this growth pattern is normal and broadly characteristic of numerous Sunbelt communities.Thus, the city of Bentonville has decentralized considerably in the last fifty years, in addition to hosting the global headquarters to the retail behemoth most regularly flagged as the culprit in expediting the demise of downtowns. Given these two factors, one prevailing question remains: what on earth does its beleaguered town center look like?
Chances are, you’d be as surprised as I was.
It looks terrific.Nearly 100% occupancy, clean sidewalks, a well-manicured streetscape. And virtually of all the retail mix—from bike shops to brasseries, yoga studios to yogurt cafes, tea rooms to trattorias—caters to an upmarket clientele, suggesting that the leasing rates are fairly high.
The culminating attraction, however, is the humble storefront that spawned it all:
Sam Walton’s original five-and-dime now serves as the Walmart Visitors’ Center and a mini-museum, with interactive exhibits and the recreation of a soda fountain.
These pictures date from a summer festival on the central square, taken a few years ago, in 2010. Though they are obviously a bit faded by now—not all of the visitor attractions were open yet during my visit—I can say with a fair amount of confidence that downtown Bentonville is even stronger today. After all, most estimates show the city has continued to grow another 10% since the 2010 Census results, and, considering that it was demonstrating considerable resilience during the peak of the Great Recession, the downtown is likely only to build on a momentum it had established long before the bubble burst. A detractor might challenge my assertion by arguing that I captured the city during an atypically vibrant time, when out-of-towners had flocked to the city for the summer celebration on the courthouse square. But how could the downtown support a high concentration of restaurants, cafés and boutiques if it weren’t lively during the other times of the week as well?
The fact remains that downtown Bentonville boasts a number of civic associations that have worked tirelessly to boost its cachet, including Downtown Bentonville, Inc, a nonprofit association that promotes, attracts investment, and plans activities for Bentonville’s historic downtown, as well as the Bentonville Merchant District, which seeks to attract upscale traveling merchants through the provision of Class A office space and furnished loft-style apartments close to the city center. The city also has a Convention and Visitors Bureau and a Chamber of Commerce. These organizations have no doubt worked tirelessly to re-centralize investment in Bentonville’s small downtown, even as the vast majority of the population growth over the last two decades has taken place in the purlieus. By most metrics, their efforts have paid off. But plenty of other similarly sized cities can claim the same business associations without these results; I blogged about Jefferson City, Missouri earlier this year, a small city whose civic leaders have collaborated to promote the downtown. However, the results in Jefferson City, while palpable, have been much more modest than Bentonville—and it is nothing less than the state capital.
Bentonville is simply part of a region that is enjoying a persistent economic boom. The other primary cities in this unusual metropolitan area—Rogers, Springdale and Fayetteville—are also growing like mad. It doesn’t hurt that the region is home to two other nationally prominent companies: Springdale’s Tyson Foods, the world’s largest meat producer, and trucking giant J.B. Hunt Transport Services, Inc., based in the town of Lowell, which abuts Rogers. But the real cog in the wheel remains the world’s largest retailer, headquartered in Bentonville, and I still suspect the corporation and its numerous investments has more to do with downtown’s vibrancy than the tourist bureau. Walmart undoubtedly prefers to associate its name with a municipality that enjoys a profile of prosperity and high quality of life; the company will do what it takes to maintain that image within Bentonville.
So what is the visual evidence that this isn’t just a run-of-the-mill boomtown? Beyond from the picture-perfect courthouse square, the air of plentitude permeates the city.
However, it isn’t just the park spaces that distinguish the more recently developed outer reaches of Bentonville; all the spaces in between have received above average treatment as well.
So a city street has sidewalks. Big deal, some might say. But it is out of character for low density, hierarchical, auto-oriented development in the South to make any concession for pedestrians, let alone a full network of sidewalks along all of the major streets. Compare Bentonville to just about any other city in Arkansas (outside of the Northwest) and you’d be hard pressed to find sidewalks on any arterial or collector roads beyond the historic original
street grid. Both the Department of Parks and Recreation and the Department of Planning in Bentonville have determined that core pedestrian access remains critical, even when the development pattern is sparse, in keeping with the preferences of the majority of people who settle in this part of the country. The former of the two aforementioned departments reveals that it has conceived network of parks, greenways and biking trails rivals that of a community three times its size.
Meanwhile, the latter-mentioned planning department has several aces up its sleeve as well. While it isn’t unheard of that a city might support a 76-page Bicycleand Pedestrian Master Plan, a Smart Growth Guidebook, or a Traffic Calming Guidebook, it certainly places the city well outside the bell curve when juxtaposed with its peers. After all, even the neighboring city of Rogers (pop. 55,000) shows no evidence that its planning department has the resources even to conceive of such initiatives.
The aforementioned features are hardly likely to elevate anyone’s pulse; they aren’t exactly competing with Manhattan’s High Line for infrastructural innovation. And it’s unreasonable to surmise that Walmart had any real influence on what remain purely publicly owned assets. But one structure in Bentonville is likely to turn the head of even the most skeptical coastal snob: the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
The structure was not complete when I visited Bentonville in 2010, but it opened to the public in late 2011, and made international headlines for both its novelty (first major American art museum to open in 50 years, and the only one in an over 100-mile radius) as well as its magnitude (over 200,000 square feet of space on 120-acre grounds and a collection valued in the hundreds of millions). The striking edifice reaches Bentonville courtesy of internationally recognized Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie. Perhaps most importantly though, it is resolutely the vision of Alice Walton, daughter to founder Sam Walton and heiress to his fortune. In one of many interviews she offered at the time of the museum’s opening, Walton, who has been an art collector most of her life, acknowledged that she wanted to make a difference in this part of the world by bringing “something we desperately need”. She contributed over $300 million to the project, built on family land. Admission to the museum is free, but because of its destination status, visitors will typically linger, travel the grounds, shop, buy a meal. A Huffington Post article from the museum’s infancy concluded that the museum would skyrocket past its estimated 250,000 first-year visitors, based on the success after just three months open to the public.
If Crystal Bridges Museum lives up to its promise as an attraction of national or even international caliber, Bentonville clearly needs the tourist infrastructure to support those visitors. But it would appear it already has it. Just down the road, in neighboring Rogers, an Embassy Suites Spa and Convention Center flanks one side of the interstate; the Pinnacle Hills lifestyle center sits on the other. And, earlier this year, the sleek 21c Museum Hotel, famous for the prominent positioning of contemporary art, opened right off of Bentonville’s courthouse square – only the third of its kind in the country. (Louisville and Cincinnati claim the other two.) Many of the amenities that have sprouted across Northwest Arkansas over the last twenty years are in keeping with a metropolitan area of nearly a half million people; of course it has a mall, convention center, and a seasonal symphony orchestra. But while growth trajectory of the metro might resemble that of Phoenix or Las Vegas, no single municipality has spawned everything here in Arkansas. As of 1950, only college town Fayetteville had even 10,000 people. The other towns—Lowell, Rogers, Bella Vista, Johnson, Springdale, and of course Bentonville—were isolated villages that boomed simultaneously, swelling their incorporated boundaries until they touched one another. As a result, Northwest Arkansas may be the country’s youngest conurbation: a 35-mile string of small cities—a microlopolis. (The only comparable phenomenon I can think of domestically would be the Texas border towns along the Rio Grande, but even Brownsville and McAllen were more than villages fifty years ago, and they’re big cities over 100,000 people now.)
The rapid ascension of these communities into a regional economic powerhouse—with the amenities one might from a single, medium-sized city—may very well neatly manifest the multiplier effect. But it still doesn’t explain how Bentonville, the epicenter of Walmartlandia, has managed to hold its own with a lively downtown, when plenty of other fast-growing big cities struggle to keep it all centralized (Houston, for example). After all, in one of the most famous journalistic explorations of Northwest Arkansas, Financial Times’ “The Town that Wal-Mart Built”, Jonathan Birchall observed in 2009 that he always found it “hard not to be hit by the irony in this Bentonville Renaissance. Wal-Mart’s football-stadium-sized supercentres are, after all, the epitome of the chain store culture that has destroyed small town centres and homogenised communities all over America in the past three decades.” But it sounds like he took the bait.
The town that Walmart built has either proven itself immune to the main-street-murdering forces that afflicted most American cities, or it has recovered from that ailment magnificently. Bentonville also boasts a regional airport that offers year-round, nonstop daily service to New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago; Alice Walton’s money helped build the terminal, which serves a population that had no regular airfare until 1998. Bentonville Public Schools have offered the prestigious International Baccalaureate program since 2007. And yes, Bentonville has a Walmart not so far away, in what probably was the edge of town not too long ago.
By this point in such a lengthy analysis, it’s obvious what has happened: Bentonville has responded to the fact that it hosts a multinational corporation by offering the sort of amenities needed to attract talent to the region—talent that, its current leadership presumes, will propel Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. to another fifty years of unprecedented growth.
Most MBA grads trained at Harvard, Wharton or Kellogg are going to need enticement to move to an area not recognized for its urban offerings. On top of all the talent in multinational retail, Bentonville and its neighbors most also graciously host the satellite offices of 1,300 suppliers whom Walmart has lured due to its vast trade network—ranging in size from one sales exec to something as large as Procter and Gamble, for whom a few hundred employees call Northwest Arkansas home. The elite business class that routinely visits the Walmart headquarters expects top-tier hotels and shopping, while many of the executives who make it
their permanent home will inevitably seek sophisticated eateries in an attractive, walkable setting. How much of all this was funded directly by Walmart is anyone’s guess (though I’m sure at least someone out there has the numbers). The fact remains that the corporate culture in Bentonville fueled a demand for a Parks Department that builds a network out of its green space, or a Planning Department that performs traffic calming studies.
The hardened cynics can read about this serendipity in the Ozarks and offer an acerbic rebuttal: of course Walmart is going to prop up its hometown, but does that absolve it from the devastation that has taken place virtually everywhere else? This assertion would be valid if every town with a Walmart suffered an equally moribund Main Street. But they clearly haven’t. And there remain villages too small or too remote for a Walmart, which have confronted the exact same decline of entrepreneurism in their historic centers. Arguing from that same angle, the City of Bentonville did not enjoin Walmart to revitalize downtown—or force Alice Walton to build Crystal Bridges—any more than existing laws compelled Cornelius Vanderbilt to endow a university in Nashville, the capital of a state he never even visited. No doubt some of Walmart’s boosterism in Bentonville is self-serving, since a desirable community only helps to improve Walmart’s reputation as both an employer and corporate citizen, which in turn can attract further investment. However, viewing all corporate altruism as suspicious requires a labyrinthine recontextualization that is just as distorted as saying “Walmart killed our downtowns”. Or its equally hyperbolic counterpart: “Walmart has had no impact on the way we shop on main street”. Clearly it has, but the forces compelling consumer behavior remain complicated—baffling even. For while most of us can understand that we abandoned our old downtowns out of convenience and lack of foresight,
no one will ever truly be able to explain want prompted many American consumers
to give up their cars so they could return to bicycles. And if you don’t think I’m concluding ironically, I’ve got a Jane Austen novel to sell you.
This post originally appeared in American Dirt on October 16, 2013.
Sunday, March 2nd, 2014
Ed Glaeser’s plan for more skyscrapers in California?
[You may recall that when I posted Daniel Hertz's take on Chicago's zoning insanity I promised a somewhat different take. Well here it is. Daniel has already posted a reply. Your reasoned thoughts pro and con are of course always welcome - Aaron. ]
As housing prices and rents soar out of control in tightly regulated cities like San Francisco and New York, many people have called for a significant loosening of zoning rules to permit greater densification. Many policies contribute to unaffordable housing, including rent control, historic districts, eminent domain abuse, and building codes, but zoning puts an absolute cap on dwelling units per acre thus is generally part of any solution to the supply problem. What’s more, as recent commentators have started to notice, even many of America’s most dense cities are predominantly zoned for single family homes, calling into question the need to dedicate so much space to a single housing typology.
For example, a web site called Better Institutions posted this map of Seattle, in which all of the yellow districts are zoned exclusively for single family homes:
The poster lets his feelings be known by using scare quotes to denote single family “character” and blaming the zoning for Seattle’s high rents.
And Daniel Hertz posted a similar map of Chicago in which the red is single family homes only and yellow is industrial space unavailable for any residential use:
Some go beyond affordability, saying that we also need to significantly increase densities in central cities in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Harvard professor Ed Glaeser wrote an article advocating this subtitled, “To save the planet, build more skyscrapers—especially in California.” He says, “A better path would be to ease restrictions in the urban cores of San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, and San Diego. More building there would reduce average commute lengths and improve per-capita emissions” and “Similarly, limiting the height or growth of New York City skyscrapers incurs environmental costs. Building more apartments in Gotham will not only make the city more affordable; it will also reduce global warming.” He claims that, “The best thing that we can do for the planet is build more skyscrapers.”
These complaints and the proposed solution of more dense multi-family development may be true in a technical sense, but what would carrying that out mean for people who actually live in our cities?
Some critics may disdain the character of single family districts but few of these pundits ask the question of what eliminating lower-density housing actually means to the survival of the urban middle class. Districts, like the Portage Park example Daniel Hertz gave in Chicago, are some of the last bastions of middle class family life in the city. It’s clear that some densification can be implemented without radically changing the appearance or functioning of the built environment. Allowing 2-flats and coach houses, or even the corner apartment building or townhouse development, wouldn’t ruin Portage Park. There’s no reason such things should not be allowed. But nor would they make a major dent in affordability in places where a tidal wave of global demand is washing over the city such as in San Francisco.
To materially boost the number of units in an era in a manner that moderates prices in a highly desirable place like San Francisco would require massive changes in the built environment of its neighborhoods. This would radically transform the character and nature of the city in question. If San Francisco were really covered in skyscrapers, it would cease to be San Francisco— a city of low-rise buildings framed by hills that would be obscured by high rises. There may well be the same geography on the map labeled as such, but it would be a completely different place. We would have to destroy the city in order to save it.
One person who gets that is Alex Steffan. He’s angry about prices, saying that the “criminal lack of housing is a global scandal.” He’s also honest enough to forthrightly acknowledge that a sufficient scale of new homes to bend the cost curve would fundamentally change many of our cities:
We can build some housing incrementally, without changing the skyline or cityscape, but not anything like enough. To produce enough homes to matter, fast enough, we’re going to have to fundamentally alter parts of our cities. That, of course, demands a local government willing and able to plan and permit such widespread change. It also takes an array of homebuilders doing the actual work, often in more innovative and low-cost ways, like more collaborative housing, manufactured buildings and flexible living spaces. Most of all, it takes broader public insight into how large-scale development can improve our cities.
In other words, it’s a major change in communities that requires selling the public on the idea. He believes that young people will be the agents of change here. This shows perhaps one of the signature affects such changes would have. They would displace families by eliminating their preferred housing typologies in favor of forms more amenable to predominantly younger singles or the childless for whom living in an apartment with no backyard is more likely a relief than an imposition. But it’s hard to imagine cities as places for solving the problem of climate change if they are, like San Francisco, increasingly places devoid of families with children.
Steffan also says affordable housing is a social justice issue. Yet is it really social justice to require everyone to have equal access to San Francisco, population 825,000? I think not. Especially not when America is replete with urban centers whose biggest problems are depopulation and worthless houses that you can’t give away. There are plenty of options of places for people to live; we should look at making our now failing cities more attractive to people who may like the housing and neighborhood, if not for issues such as crime and poor schools. There’s no guarantee in America that you can afford to live in the place you might most want to choose. That’s long been true of suburbanites and city dwellers alike.
Also, the willingness to fundamentally reshape cities is odd in light of the fact that such previous attempts are uniformly viewed in the urbanist community as disasters. The idea of Manhattanizing San Francisco brings to mind nothing so much as Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin for Paris, in which the historical cityscape is replaced with towers in the park.
Fundamentally altering Paris
Of course no one is actually saying to take it this far, although Glaeser’s vision gets close it. But once we enshrine the rule that a certain threshold of unaffordability means more density and building regardless of neighborhood character, it’s hard to see what the limiting principle would be. Also, high rises or even buildings above 4-5 stories in height usually require expensive construction techniques, and thus are inherently costly.
It’s true, however, that cities are not static entities. Every downtown skyscraper in America is built on a site that was once used for something else. Yet we see this densification overall as a good thing. Had Manhattan been preserved as of its pre-skyscraper era, it’s not clear the city would have benefitted.
Clearly the zoning and building regulations in our cities are often too strict. Yet the disasters of previous generations’ radical change suggests that incrementalism is a better course. By all means allow two-unit houses, corner stores with upper story apartments, etc. into currently all-single family zones. Add areas where high rises are allowed the peripheries of districts currently zoned for such; warehouse districts as well as office buildings that are not well occupied. But don’t bring out the bulldozer wholesale. Additionally, a healthy city should make sure to embrace the entire palette of housing types – including single family homes. There’s more to making cities attractive to middle class families than just cost, and things like the prospect of a backyard for the kids to play in are among them.
And given the relatively few intact and attractive urban cores in America, prices are going to continue to go up. That’s true even with radical new building. As mentioned, San Francisco only has a bit over 800,000 people. Boston and DC have only about 600,000 each. How many people can you plausibly put into these places? Realistically, not all of us who would like to live in San Francisco or lower Manhattan are going to be able to do so. That’s true no matter how many skyscrapers we build.
This post originally appeared at New Geography on February 26, 2014.
Wednesday, February 26th, 2014
PBS ran a documentary last week on the American Experience called “The Rise and Fall of Penn Station.” Here’s the video if you missed it. I suggest watching it on your TV since it’s long (it’s available through the PBS Roku channel if you don’t have a computer hookup). If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
This covers much more of the rise than the decline, and leaves many questions unanswered. But the look at the personalities, the technical challenges, and the daring that went into this was very good. On the whole I really liked it except for one of the talking heads who kept going on about how rare it was to have a private investment like this that actually benefits the public. He was the walking embodiment of why conservatives want to defund PBS, and his claims were both unsupported and dubious.
I also think they could have done a better job of explaining the financial decline of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Yes, the rise of autos and planes played a role. But the feds continued to regulate railroads as if they were still the only game in town. And if you wanted to make the case for government intervention, this was a great one. Long before the demolition of Penn Station, governments had acquired most urban transit systems if not commuter railroads. So there was already a precedent in place for the government buying out Penn Station, which is what should have happened. Merely landmarking a structure and leaving it in the hands of a bankrupt railroad might have equally have led to its destruction through neglect. Grand Central Terminal shows that this facility could have been reborn under government stewardship.
Yet it’s clear that a shift in the values not just of railroad barons, but also of society had occurred from 1910 to 1963. Much of this was for the worse, but let us also not forget much of it was for the better. We don’t just accept dozens of workers dying on job sites anymore, for example. Yet it’s undeniable that the type of American ambition which built Penn Station, that of a rising power wanting to send a message that this would be the American century, no longer exists. Today the very idea of an “American Century” is outright hateful even to many Americans.
A friend of mine watching this wrote me to say, “My Deep Thought was ‘where have the great minds who produced this kind of magnificence’ gone? Answer: Weapons design… military industrial complex. There’s a reason huge swaths of the country look like crap but drones look so cool.”
There’s clearly a lot that goes into this question. Some of it is as my friend said; this creative daring has been channeled into other fields than the civic. We’ve suffered no decline in our ability to blow stuff up, that’s for sure. And as I’ve said before, in the Great War and the Great Depression, something in the human spirit was grievously wounded. I’m sure there’s more.
But in part it’s simply a deficiency of love, or at least the right kind of love, for our cities. If Penn Station was inspired by the greatness of Rome, then as G.K. Chesterton put it:
Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing–say Pimlico. If we think what is really best for Pimlico we shall find the thread of thought leads to the throne or the mystic and the arbitrary. It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico: in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico: for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico: to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles; Pimlico would attire herself as a woman does when she is loved. For decoration is not given to hide horrible things: but to decorate things already adorable. A mother does not give her child a blue bow because he is so ugly without it. A lover does not give a girl a necklace to hide her neck. If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is THEIRS, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that this is a mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great. Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.
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.
Tuesday, February 18th, 2014
[ Providence, Rhode Island was spared some of the worst of the urban renewal disasters and has a lot of intact neighborhoods. But there have still been some not entirely positive changes in the urban fabric in others. One such neighborhood is Olneyville. As you can see in this aerial, there's an old mostly intact neighborhood commercial center at the core, though with areas of demolition. The area is also cut off by a freeway.
In the piece below Jef Nickerson discusses a proposal for a strip mall in the area that would further degrade the urban fabric. (It's near the bottom left of the photo above). This is sadly what happens in many struggling areas where a desperate city approves suburban style "redevelopment" that's actually destructive to the only things giving the neighborhood appeal in the first place.
As an aside, I believe this development is across the street from the legendary Olneyville New York System Wieners. Somewhat oddly, the term "New York System" actually means "Rhode Island style." Here's a picture of the classic, complete with cheese fries and coffee milk (like chocolate milk, but made with coffee flavored syrup - another Rhode Island classic).
Rendering of proposed McDonald’s and Family Dollar store on Plainfield Street in Olneyville.
After learning of plans for a drive-thru McDonald’s proposed on Plainfield Street in Olneyville, I requested plans for the proposal from the Planning Department.
The developer is seeking master plan approval from the City Plan Commission for the construction of a McDonald’s and Family Dollar store in a separate building on a site which was cleared of existing structures last year.
Per the CPC agenda, the applicant seeks relief from front yard setbacks (they are requesting to set the building further from the street than allowed) and also for a special use permit for a drive thru for the McDonald’s. The applicant plans for a total of 56 parking spaces on the site (per the plans, 19 parking spaces in two rows between Plainfield Street and the Family Dollar Store). The McDonald’s is situated on a corner lot (Plainfield and Dike) with the drive thru lane wrapping around the building between it and the sidewalk. Pedestrian access to the McDonald’s is proposed to be via two crosswalks across the drive thru lanes and a third crosswalk from the Family Dollar store across the parking lot. Direct off-road pedestrian access to the Family Dollar store is only provided via crosswalks from the McDonald’s or via sidewalks crossing a driveway entrance on the Atwood side of the parcel.
According to ProvPlan, as of the 2000 census (the most recent data available) 59.5% of households in the Olneyville area have automobiles this compares to 52.5% Downcity. With such low car-ownership numbers, the residents of Olneyville are highly dependent on public transit, walking, and bicycles. Buildings separated from these forms of transit by parking lots with drive thru lanes are not the best way to serve this population. Olneyville is a major traffic artery to points west where car ownership rates are much higher (~80% in Hartford and Silver Lake). The residents of Olneyville should not be further burdened with automobile infrastructure catering to people outside their community.
The removal of the buildings at this site has widened a widened a gap in the street-wall along the south-side of Plainfield Street and Olneyville Square which only had small gaps between the Route 6 overpass and the eastern end of the square. For generations Olneyville has fallen victim to the automobile, first the highways, them the retail mindset that set in in the middle of the last century with places like the former Price Rite plaza, the car wash on Westminster, the Burger King with a drive thru and 60 parking spaces, and the gas station across from this site.
The Olneyville community has been working hard to bring street-life back to the square and Olneyville Housing are providing homes for residents who can walk to this area. Allowing auto-centric design at the southwest side of the square will make that area dead to walkability for generations more, just as we’re making progress on reversing prior generations of damage.
This isn’t about the proposed retailers (though I’m sure we could have a long discussion about the food choices we have in lower-income neighborhoods), this is about their physical manifestation in the neighborhood.
This post originally appeared in Greater City Providence on January 15, 2014.
Wednesday, October 16th, 2013
This week’s video is a short film promoting Buffalo. Called “Buffalo: America’s Best Designed City” after a quote from Frederick Law Olmsted, it features simply gorgeous visuals of the city. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
Thursday, August 29th, 2013
A couple weeks ago I posted a series of photos demonstrating the damage freeway construction did to Indianapolis. Since I’ve been covering Cincinnati this week, I thought I’d show the damage freeways did there too.
Over the Rhine is one of America’s most stunning historic districts. When I visited the city last year, one of the locals explained that there had been “miles” of neighborhoods just like it obliterated by freeway construction. I found this difficult to credit until I came across the photographic proof.
Here’s a picture of one such area, the West End. This photo dates to the late 1950′s:
West End Cincinnati in the late 1950s. Image via Cininnati Transit
Here’s a Google satellite view of the area today. Pretty much everything but Cincinnati Union Terminal appears to have been demolished and replaced with I-75 and an industrial park.
Lest you think Union Terminal survived unscathed, it appears in the 1950s photo that it had a sort of City Beautiful style formal plaza in front of it. Here’s a closer look:
Cincinnati Union Terminal, image via Flickr/whitehall buick
And here’s the Google satellite from today that shows it converted into – what else! – a parking lot:
Almost empty, of course.
Monday, July 29th, 2013
[ This post by Sam Hersh is on a topic that's always sure to get people's blood pumping - historic preservation. I hope you enjoy the perspective - Aaron. ]
In historic preservation battles, it seems we are often fed an oversimplified story-line of two, opposing interests. In conflict with any landmarks or preservation, business interests imagine a thriving city as a place of commerce unfettered by unnecessary red tape. On the other hand, cultural proponents see a thriving city as a place of humanity that preserves its history while providing outlets for creative pursuits. Importantly, both of these views hold at their core the belief that cities as dense nodes of human agglomeration can transform the opportunities of individuals by pooling interests and talents to create something greater than their individual parts.
It seems to me that, given the shared interests in the city as vibrant hub for human collaboration by all parties either opposing or supporting the preservation of a building or district that there should be a third, more dominant and more tempered voice in these debates – those who spend their lives thinking about cities should work to reform their mindset toward preservation. Such a mindset would look for a common ground between both the knee-jerk preservation that many interested in architecture and design have been led to support and the blind search for growth at all costs that many economic development professionals have espoused.
As quick background, I take for granted the belief that land use regulations tend to curb new construction or the amount of square footage offered by new construction, disturb the efficiency of a city’s economy, and slow growth. The true benefits of urbanity are in the economic opportunities that efficient living in compact density provides to its residents. When older buildings are torn down and replaced with more housing or commercial space in a denser pattern, this tends to be good for a city. I also believe that cities are not merely corporate entities to maximize profit and efficiency. That same human density that, since the earliest ancient cities of the Fertile Crescent, has facilitated trade of excess harvests and wares has also created some of the most culturally important artifacts in human history.
I often feel that we have been led to believe that there are only two possible views that a government can take towards preservation – business oriented and culturally oriented. I will approximate these views with the case of Chicago and New York, both of which have been instrumental in the creation and dissemination of built forms throughout the world and both of which have a bank of historically important buildings.
In New York, the Landmarks Preservation Commission recently voted to protect, en masse, over 300 buildings in a swath of land called the East Village Historic District. Though none of the buildings in the East Village are seminal historically or architecturally, they are attractive.
In Chicago, preservationists just came off of what should have been an easy win: The Prentice Women’s Hospital. Prentice has a shape unlike anything else in the world and is widely regarded by critics and historians as seminal in the development of modern techniques in computer-aided architecture, hospital design and central core skyscraper construction. Despite its importance and having met multiple criteria for landmark designation in Chicago, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks decided that the economic benefits of razing the building were too great to preserve what otherwise would have been a worthy candidate for protection. (Disclaimer: I worked for Econsult Solutions at the time that they provided an economic impact study on the benefits of preservation of Prentice for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, though I was not involved in that project).
It might be easy to ignore the discrepancies in these two cases with the simple explanation that the fight for hundred year old low rises in Manhattan was a fight for the aesthetically pleasing while Bertrand’s Brutalist Prentice is “hard to love.” But the differences in landmarking procedures between New York and Chicago are for more pervasive than these two cases. In 2012, the Commission of Chicago Landmarks added ten landmarks to its rolls according to its annual report. In the same year, New York’s Landmarks Commission added at least 965 buildings to its protection, according to press releases I could find on the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission website. (The bulk of these protections were in the East Village Historic District, with about 330 landmarks, and an expansion to the Park Slope Historic District, with about 600 properties added).
More than the staggering disparity in number of buildings that receive landmark status, historic buildings are treated differently in Chicago and New York. In Chicago, buildings that are deemed historic are often stripped of their facades and reconstructed over new innards in a so-called facadectomy. These facadectomies are common throughout the city from the slightly pleasant Legacy to the horrific 10 South LaSalle. In 2007 in Chicago, a landmarked building was given a facadectomy and (to add insult to injury) filled with a parking garage for a postmodern tower next door meant to ape the subtle beauty of the original. In New York, also in 2007, the landmarks commission refused to allow Norman Foster, a world-renowned architect, to build a tower above a building in a landmark district that would have kept much of the original structure intact.
While it might seem that New York’s housing shortage would have pushed city leaders to rethink landmarks and the restrictions that they place on new construction, there has been little movement in this direction. Meanwhile Chicago, with a vacancy crisis on its hands in many of its neighborhoods, fears the impact of landmarking one building (though, to be fair, in Prentice’s Streeterville neighborhood, land is increasingly scarce).
Despite Chicago’s unwillingness to put some muscles behind its landmark regulations, the city continues to boast an edge over New York in architectural heritage. Chicago arguably has more architecturally significant buildings than any city in America with a diverse collection of LeBaron Jenney and Burnham skyscrapers, Miesian blocks, Frank Lloyd Wright houses, Goldberg quirk, and S.O.M. engineering feats like the Willis (Sears) Tower and the Hancock Center. Chicago is a living museum for anyone interested in the physical evolution of America’s cities over the past 150 or so years. Despite the fact that architectural tourism is one of the few categories in which Chicago presents a competitive advantage over New York, Chicago continues to sell off it’s heritage in the name of business and economic growth.
It’s easy to understand why Chicago is so landmark-averse and New York so quick to landmark. These policies are rooted in the attitudes of city elites toward business investment. It’s not necessarily New York leaders’ particular interest in preservation that leads to the disparities in preservation policy between the two cities. New York can afford to lose a bit of economic efficiency, even if that means pushing the poor ever further from their service jobs in Manhattan, because the city is in no real threat of losing its standing as a global economic center. City Elites believe that businesses will not leave the gravity of New York and thus don’t see any harm in impeding some development. Moreover, for the elites benefitting from New York’s economic gravity and the quaint neighborhoods they help landmark, the inflationary affects of landmarking are less salient than to the lower class who see their commutes lengthen, rents rise, and poverty rates grow as wage increases fail to match the rising costs of living in New York.
Chicago, meanwhile, has been fighting stagnant population growth, has massive, disconnected and crime ridden ghettos, and will always play second fiddle as an American financial center to New York. While promoting architectural tourism may be profitable in the short term, no city can survive on the tourist dollars of a few architectural patrons. Chicago city leaders know that at times they must sacrifice their past if the city is to remain competitive as a global (or Midwest) financial hub.
But some buildings are more than buildings and make a city worth visiting or living in. How do we preserve the artifacts that tell the story of a city, a nation and the world while allowing a modern city to act as more than a stagnant museum glorifying the urban achievements of the past at the cost of today’s inhabitants?
To start, if preservationists can only present one justification for the preservation of a building – that it is pretty – then the building is probably not worth saving unless private owners value the prettiness enough to save it themselves. There are plenty of pretty buildings in the world and not all of them can be saved. One way to allow for input on which buildings are worth saving might be to set a number of ‘pretty’ buildings to save and let the people of a city vote whether to remove landmark status of a given ‘pretty’ building in favor of the one in question.
In cases for which the preservation can be justified by more than a building’s aesthetic beauty, but also by historic significance, we should question whether the building is integral to the legacy preservationists wish to protect and, ostensibly, the story they hope to tell. In many cases, it seems that the building itself is saved only because it is a convenient place to tell a story. The stories of Muhammad Ali or Bill Clinton for instance do not need to be told at their childhood homes, both of which are landmarks.
Buildings that are worthy of being landmarked are those in which the story preservations wish to tell could only be told through the building. The importance of the building could be in a particular design, like Prentice. But the building’s importance can also originate in a historical event directly tied to the building. As an example, I believe that the landmarking of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York is justified because the history of that building, not a person who happened to live or work in that building, changed the course of this country.
Even if we have established that a building is important in its own right, the question of how important is important enough still remains. All interactions and lives in cities are important, contributing in small parts to the vibrant and sui generis story of each place. But, to retain some level of economy to preservation measures, a good rule of thumb would be to ask whether the building has either had a large international impact that is understood at least by an educated elite in a certain field or an impact on the city that is understood by all its citizens. In this way, buildings that are important to a given field, like Prentice to engineering, or to a particular strand of history, like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory to labor rights activists, should be preserved. Buildings that are salient in the public imagination of a city are also worth saving. In Chicago, the Water Tower may not be known by many non-natives, but it is an important piece of pre-fire engineering and a landmark to all Chicagoans and is therefore probably worthy of its landmark designation. The low-rises of the East Village of New York, however, are not worth saving. Activists at the Greenwich Village Historical Society spent years researching the buildings, saying on their website that, “research was key in our advocacy for expanding and securing today’s East Village Historic District, and the research was used by the Landmarks Preservation Commission itself in their documentation of the area.” In cases such as this, we should keep in mind why we want to save buildings: to reflect the history of our cities. If the history is not important enough to be relatively widely understood without extensive research, then it is most likely not worth of preservation.
Some people might say that I am calling for our cities to be gutted of their history and culture. But quite the opposite, really. I am calling for cities like Chicago to understand that some heritage is important, especially when that heritage provides an integral piece of history to help us understand a city, a country or the world. At the same time, I am calling on cities like New York to more carefully sift through the rich and multifarious physical legacy left by previous generations. For a city to remain culturally rich (not to mention affordable and economically diverse), some of the history must be moved aside to make way for new, more effective (and often higher density) uses.
Reforming our mindset towards preservation is about understanding that economic development and preservation do not have to be in opposition, but that through compromise we can have cities that are both growth oriented and respective of their history. Through such measures, we can hopefully make our cities more fair, efficient, and culturally exciting.
Sam Hersh is currently a student of urban studies at Haverford College in Pennsylvania hoping to use the worlds’ cities to more effectively catalyze human opportunity when he graduates. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Tuesday, May 7th, 2013
Worcester v. Providence: Is Downtown Revitalization the Sum of Urban Revitalization? by Stephen Eide
Worcester, MA and Providence, RI invite comparison for at least four reasons. They’re the same size (pop. ~180,000), they share the same history of deindustrialization and urban decline, they’re only 40 miles apart, and they’re different, which makes comparison stimulating and worthwhile. By most any fiscal or economic measure, Worcester outperforms Providence. But because of the so-called Renaissance, the revitalization of downtown Providence throughout the 1980s and 90s, Providence has attracted far more attention among urbanists and the national media than Worcester. There has never been a Worcester Renaissance.
So which city is the true urban success story? That depends on the extent to which one believes that downtown revitalization is the same as urban revitalization.
Providence is a destination city able to boast of its tourism, arts, culture and “18-hour day.” Rare for an old, cold, mid-sized former milltown, the New York Times travel section has done two features on Providence in the last five years. Providence played a starring role in an eponymous television show (NBC, 1999-2002) somewhat similar to the role that the revitalized New York City played in Sex and the City. This all would have been unimaginable in the 70s, at the peak of the deindustrialization era, but, throughout the 1980s and 90s, Providence underwent a renaissance. The most notable elements of the Providence Renaissance include uncovering and moving two rivers, relocating a railyard, the construction and rehabilitation of several major retail and commercial facilities, historic preservation, and WaterFire, a public festival that attracts thousands to the city on summer evenings. (For the full account of Providence’s revitalization, including a series of terrific “before and after” pictures, see Francis Leazes and Mark Motte’s 2004 book Providence, the Renaissance City.) No one could claim that the success has been total; both the local economy and city budget remain under strain. But there are many other former milltowns which would do anything (indeed, have done everything) to imitate Providence’s success.
|Financing of Select Major Providence Renaissance Projects, 1980-2000|
|Project||Completed||Approximate cost||Primary financing|
|Capital Center (Railroad and river relocation, Providence Station, highway interchange, and Waterplace Park)||1981-1987||$169 million||Federal|
|Union Station (parcel 1)||1989||$80 million||Mixed private-public|
|Convention Center/Westin/ garages||1994||$290 million||State|
|Providence Place/garage||1999||$465 million||Mixed private-public (land; sales tax rebates/abatements)|
|Courtyard by Marriott||2000||$16 million||Private-public (abatements)|
|Source: Leazes and Motte, Providence: The Renaissance City|
Like Worcester. Worcester’s efforts at downtown revitalization have been unrelenting, and not totally unsuccessful, which has enabled local boosters to believe, at any given moment during the last 30 years, that the Worcester Renaissance was at hand. The most notable project now underway is “City Square,” which involves the demolition of a dead mall in the center of downtown. This is an event of tremendous symbolic significance, as many locals attribute downtown Worcester’s decline to the construction of the mall in 1971. In place of the mall will emerge a new medical center, seven-story office building, and other projects still in the planning stages. City government is thrilled. But, if anything, City Square demonstrates the limits of the Worcester development model, which relies almost exclusively on local investment. The project began under the direction of a Boston developer, but stalled after the developer encountered financing difficulties in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. To the rescue came a local insurance company and its public-spirited CEO. Predictably, local officials hailed the benefits of local ownership, but they all missed the point. Worcester is simply not wealthy enough to rely on local capital to bring back downtown. Had a Boston developer scored on a project in Worcester, it would have set a powerful precedent for others to follow. At this point, even if City Square succeeds, many outside developers will likely view the local CEO’s “white knight” intervention as at least partly philanthropic.
By contrast, throughout its renaissance years, Providence had access to a key source of outside investment: state and federal grants. This access was in turn due to the city’s enviable position as a “city state.”
The City State
Providence enjoys a statewide profile unlike that of any other American city. In addition to being the capital, it’s the only large (100,000+) city in the nation’s smallest state. Only three other cities in Rhode Island have over 50,000 residents. 17% of Rhode Island’s population lies within Providence’s borders. (Worcester composes less than 3% of Massachusetts’ population.) The Rhode Island statehouse overlooks downtown Providence. Throughout Rhode Island’s modern history, the vast majority of statewide officeholders were either from Providence, went to school there, and/or got their first break in Providence city government. Providence’s comeback would never have occurred were it not for the massive state and federal aid that backed the projects that formed the core of the Renaissance.
Worcester has always lacked statewide clout. Most of the Massachusetts public, even the most politically-engaged among them, cannot name one Worcester politician. True, that could be said of all Massachusetts cities, which dwell in the shadow of Boston, the state’s capital and commercial center. (Everyone in Massachusetts knows who Tom Menino is.) But even when measured against its peers, Worcester underperforms in state politics. Despite being the state’s second-largest city, the only statewide officeholders Worcester has produced since 1900 have been two lieutenant governors. No governors, no Senators, not even a state treasurer or auditor.
When the Joint Center for Urban Studies at MIT and Harvard issued a report on Worcester’s politics in 1960, it described Worcester as a large city with a small-town feel. Still true. Worcester is well-managed. The local government is competent and honest. There have been no noteworthy political scandals in recent times. But there’s no denying that the city has long suffered from a deficit of political talent, and that this has hindered revitalization.
Benchmarking Worcester and Providence
On the other hand, because it’s in Massachusetts, not Rhode Island, Worcester possesses and enormous economic advantage over Providence. Massachusetts’ economic record of late has been respectable. Rhode Island is the only New England state whose economy has not adapted to post-industrial times. It resembles Michigan or upstate New York more than Connecticut or Massachusetts.
Within Massachusetts itself, Worcester is no pace-setter, but a “Gateway Municipality,” a legal term designating a remedial class of cities that lag behind the rest of the state in measures of income and education. (Gateway municipalities are eligible for special economic development assistance.) But when Worcester’s economic advantages are combined with its superior record of fiscal management, it becomes very unclear why Providence, and not Worcester, should be considered the comeback city.
|Table: Benchmarking Worcester and Providence|
|Peak monthly unemployment, 2008-present||10.5%||15.4%|
|Median monthly unemployment 2008-present||8.6%||13.1%|
|Median household income||$45,846||$38,922|
|Zillow home value index||$161,800||$131,100|
|Median total annual crimes, 2005-2010 (property and violent)||7,914||9,557|
|Median annual murders, 2005-2010||6||15|
|Credit rating (Moodys, S&P, Fitch’s)||A1,A-,AA-||Baa1,BBB,BBB|
|Pension system funding ratio||68%||32%|
|FY12 General fund balance||+ $25.5 million||- $11.4 million|
|Considered Ch. 9 municipal bankruptcy recently?||No||Yes|
|Source: BLS, American Community Survey, Zillow, FBI, Providence and Worcester’s annual financial reports|
Urban Revitalization and Downtown Revitalization
To what extent is urban revitalization downtown revitalization? Downtowns play an outsized role in shaping cities’ reputations to outsiders and natives alike. Regardless of how much of a city’s downtown is taxable private property, downtowns are best-understood as parks, public property. Downtown serves as the geographic equivalent of 4th of July and Memorial Day rituals. You can’t compel people to participate in these rituals and find them meaningful, but their complete absence would signal the complete absence of national pride. Similarly, cities whose downtowns languish usually lack civic pride.
Urbanists grasp the basic civic importance of a commonly-accepted physical center, but they sometimes oversell the economic benefits of downtown revitalization. There can be backlash. Downtown revitalization sometimes fuels downtown vs. neighborhood tension. Was it all for the tourists, or to satisfy some mayor’s “edifice complex”? Did residents benefit at all? Small businesses such as restaurants, boutiques and art galleries are crucial for downtown revitalization. But businesses that small (50 or fewer employees) with no ambition to grow will do little to strengthen the broader metro economy. The holy grail of urban economic development policy is an abundance of good jobs for workers of all levels of skill and education. Heavy manufacturing used to provide such jobs; boutiques and coffee shops do not. Nor, for that matter, do hotels and convention centers.
Maybe downtown revitalization has nothing to do with economic development. The standard justification for the use of taxpayer money to support private development in downtown is that these funds stimulate private investment. Officially, government is making a bet on taxpayers’ behalf, whose success may be judged through tangible fiscal and economic benefits such as a net increase in tax revenues, lower taxes for homeowners, and more jobs for area residents. But perhaps taxpayers are willing to spend this money because they are ashamed of the decrepit state of downtown, and they want it to come back. If downtown is a de facto public park, public expenditures on downtown revitalization may be justified simply for the sake of itself, even we are talking about tax breaks for Starbucks and luxury condo developers. It’s still a bet—all development is a bet—it’s just that the definition of success is different. Free market advocates denounce all forms of public subsidy for economic development, but the public should be allowed to speak for itself. To many citizens, sprucing up downtown is at least as justifiable as improving parks that they haven’t heard of and never visit.
But this argument that public money should be spent on downtown revitalization to boost civic pride would be easier to swallow were it not for the sneakiness of public subsidies for redevelopment. Most subsidies are tax expenditures, which are inherently less transparent than direct appropriations, even though the budgetary impact is the same. Communities want curb appeal, but seem unwilling to pay for it, or, more precisely, accept the fact that they are paying for it.
What do the people want? What’s possible? Everyone wants jobs, growth and good schools, but also a pleasant downtown. The second goal seems to be more realistic than the first set of goals. How many former industrial cities’ unemployment rates or SAT scores exceed statewide averages? Worcester may outperform Providence, but that’s not setting a very high standard. Perhaps the possible, not the ideal should define standards for urban success. If so, then the conventional wisdom is accurate, and Providence does deserve to be more closely studied and more highly regarded than Worcester.
Stephen Eide is a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and editor of the blog Publicsectorinc.org, where this article originally appeared.
Sunday, April 28th, 2013
I had an interesting conversation about Washington, DC with Richard Layman a few months back. One of his observations, rooted in Charles Landry’s, was that great global cities don’t just take, they give. To the extent that Washington wants to be a truly great city, it needs to contribute things to the world, not just rake in prosperity from it.
Affecting the world, often for good but unfortunately sometimes for bad, is a unique capability that global cities have because they are the culture shaping hubs of nations and world. When an ordinary city does something, it can have an effect to be sure. But things that happen in the global city are much more likely to launch movements.
For example, Chicago did not invent the idea of doing a public art exhibit out of painted cow statues. I believe they copied it from a town in Switzerland. But when Chicago did it, it inspired other cities in a way that Swiss town did not. In effect, ordinary cities influence the world usually by influencing a global city, which then influences the world. Often it is the global city that gets the credit although the actual idea originated elsewhere. Thus the role of the global city is critical. But we shouldn’t assume that all ideas originate there or that other cities can’t profoundly influence the world.
We might also think of bicycle sharing, which was around in various forms for quite a while. But it was the launch of the massive Paris Vélib’ system in 2007 (which according to Wikipedia was inspired by a system in Lyon) that made bicycle sharing a must have urban item the world over.
Similarly it was the High Line in New York that has every city wanting to convert elevated rail lines into showcase trails. New York is really the city that made protected bike lanes the new standard in the United States as well.
Beyond simple urban amenity type items, global cities can also launch profound cultural and social transformations. A few examples.
The first is from Seattle, a sort of semi-global city. It was in such a depressed state in the 1970s that someone put up a billboard that’s still pretty famous: “Will the last one leaving Seattle please turn out the lights?” Yet in Seattle there was a coffeehouse culture that spawned a movement out of which came Starbucks which literally revolutionized coffee drinking in America and event pioneered the entirely new concept of the “third place.”
A lot of people like to attribute the emergence of Seattle as a player to Microsoft moving there from Albuquerque in the late 1970s. However, I think the coffee example shows that there were interesting things already happening in Seattle long before that. It was a proto-global city waiting for a catalyst.
Another example would be the emergence of rap music out of New York City. Or house music from Chicago.
Or consider the 1963 demolition of Penn Station in New York in 1963. The wanton destruction of this signature structure horrified the city and led to the adoption of its historic preservation ordinance. This was not the birthplace of historic preservation in the United States, but this demolition played a key role in bringing historic preservation to the fore, not just locally but nationally.
Lastly, the Stonewall Riots in 1969 clearly played a signature role in the gay rights movement in America. Many pride parades today are scheduled to fall on the anniversary of the event.
Who knows what might have happened with coffee in America without Seattle. But I think it’s clear that both the historic preservation and gay rights movements would have emerged at some point anyway regardless of what happened in New York. However, the events in New York clearly provided a sort of ignition and acceleration.
How many historic buildings in America were saved because Penn Station was lost? (Think about how many might have been destroyed had the historic preservation movement emerged later).
Think about a state like Iowa where gay marriage is legal. How many people in Iowa 40+ years ago had any idea that an obscure incident in New York City would ultimately transform the social conventions of the rural heartland?
I think this shows the power of the global city. I’m sure that there are things happening underground in New York and elsewhere that right now that we don’t know anything about yet that will ultimately transform our world 10, 20, or 30 years down the road. It’s crazy to think about.