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.
Tuesday, November 6th, 2012
[ George Mattei is a long time reader and frequent commenter on the blog. I find his comments are very insightful. One in particular really caught my eye and I asked him to turn it into a full blog post. Thankfully he said Yes so here it is - Aaron. ]
How Physical, Cultural and Political Differences Shape Development and Economic Growth
I was recently asked to make a comparison living in New England versus the Midwest-specifically how cultural and political differences impact the economic and physical development framework of the two regions. This is something that I have at least a modest knowledge of, given that I have lived and worked in both areas (Born and raised in Hamden, CT near New Haven, attended college near Boston and now live near Columbus, OH). As a real estate developer and planner specifically I have paid quite a bit of attention to these differences.
I moved to Columbus from Connecticut nearly 15 years ago to attend grad school. I must admit the cultural differences between these two areas were a bit surprising at first. The basic differences were obvious-different land development patterns, different industries and even different landscapes. However, after living in Ohio for several years, I came to understand on a personal level the cultural and political differences and how they have -and continue to- shape and form these regions.
These differences show up in subtle ways that are also telling. In New England, my experience was that residents have a much more territorial, parochial view of their communities, and are more likely to resist change and development. In contrast, in many Midwest metro areas the residents have a more metro-focused view of their region, and better understand how the different communities interact. This does not mean that they always cooperate, but by nature some of the governmental functions are already done on a regional basis, making it easier to collaborate on certain tasks and be more open to change.
It’s perhaps deceptively simple, yet revealing, to pick a typical resident in a community in each area, ask them a simple question, and read into their response. Let’s pick two fairly standard metro area cities – Hilliard, OH and Attleboro, MA – and compare them on several levels. First some background information.
Hilliard is a suburb about 10 miles northeast of Columbus that was founded as its own small railroad community in the mid 1800’s. It had less than 1,000 people until the 1960’s, when it began to grow exponentially with the construction of the I-270 outerbelt around Columbus. Today it is a middle to upper-middle income community of about 28,000 residents sandwiched between Columbus, other suburban communities and the rural farm fields of western Franklin County.
Attleboro, MA is a city about 10 miles northeast of Providence, just over the border into Massachusetts, and 30 miles southwest of Boston. It was founded in the late 1600’s and steadily grew in population to the nearly 45,000 people it has today, but was a community of about 25,000 people in 1950 prior to the time when it would have been absorbed into the larger metroplex. It is now part of the Providence Metropolitan area, located right on I-95 between Boston and Providence, and is also linked to the two via the MBTA Boston-Providence commuter line. It was once known as the “Jewelry Capital of the World” due to the presence of several jewelry manufacturers in the city in the early 1900’s. Today Attleboro has transitioned from a manufacturing-dominant self-contained city into a quasi-suburban middle income community that has melded into the surrounding metropolis.
Now that we have a background on the two communities, let’s pose our simple question from someone unfamiliar with these areas-“Where are you from?” The answers each give would be subtly different, but telling in how they view their community and its relationship to the surrounding region. From my personal experience, here’s how each resident would answer this question:
Hilliard: “I’m from Columbus Ohio.”
Attleboro: “I’m from Attleboro, MA.” (Sometimes, they will abdicate this and say “I’m from Massachusetts”, but that’s just for convenience so they don’t need to go into a lengthy description of where Attleboro is).
The differing level of detail reveals not only how they view their community, but allows us to look at where these views come from. Clearly the Hilliard resident considers him/herself more a part of the metropolitan area. The Attleboro resident sees him/herself as a resident of the town first, and then the State, with no mention of the metro area.
Why would this be? There are several physical, cultural and political factors that play a role:
1. Municipal Borders. Municipal borders in New England were fixed long ago, well before metro areas became the main economic unit. In much of the rest of the country, including the Columbus area, communities continue to change their boundaries through annexation (more on the legal aspects of this in a moment). The borders of New England cities and towns were fixed hundreds of years ago and have rarely changed since.
2. Proximity of Metro Areas. New England has numerous small (except Boston) metros that bump up against one another. As a result, you get an agglomeration of established communities that sit between metro areas. In the Midwest, communities are spread farther apart. In Ohio, a state with several metro areas, many counties still have a modest sized county seat and a few villages. There is still quite a bit of country between many of the metro areas, and the spacing gets farther as you go west into other states.
In our example, it’s pretty clear that Hilliard would still be a small village of less than 1,000 people if Columbus hadn’t sprawled out to meet it and envelop it within its metro footprint. Many residents probably work in Columbus, and the ones that don’t work in one of the other suburban communities that owe their growth to Columbus, just as Hilliard does. When residents want a night out on the town, Columbus is the only game in town without a long trip.
Attleboro is a different case. It was a small city in its own right before it ever became part of a larger metro area. It sits 10 miles from Providence and 30 from Boston, and probably has many residents that work in both cities, plus in several other suburbs in the area that have the same fractured allegiance to multiple metros. Cultural opportunities abound in both cities, which can result in many visits to both.
3. Small Box Government. Although both regions tend to have a “small-box” governmental structure, it is actually far stronger in New England than in the Midwest. This is codified in the governmental structure of the areas in numerous ways:
a. First, New England “towns” are essentially the equivalent of “townships” in other parts of the country. However, there are significant differences. In Ohio, townships are considered semi-autonomous extensions of the County government. They are not incorporated as their own municipalities. They are run by their own elected officials, but have only limited powers as delegated to them by the Ohio Constitution. In legal-speak, they are not full “home rule” governmental entities. For example, townships can have zoning (if they jump through certain hoops), but they cannot approve subdivisions-that’s a County function. Incorporated municipalities in Ohio are full home-rule entities.
New England towns are also not incorporated. However, this is a virtually meaningless designation. They do have home rule, and function in virtually every way just like an incorporated city. They cannot be annexed by a city. A friend of mine that’s heavily involved in my home town’s local government once said to me, “we looked into incorporating ourselves as a city, but it didn’t mean much and required us to pay higher fees to the State.”
b. Speaking of counties, New England has a fractured form of county government. Connecticut, Rhode Island and Vermont do not have any county governments, only lines on a map. Massachusetts has abolished some counties, while some having merged and other still function independently. Only New Hampshire and Maine have what appear to be fully operational county governments. In areas without counties, each town or city provides most of its own services. For example, in Connecticut, each town has its own elected clerk that just handles document recordation in that town. Only services that absolutely can’t be run on a local level are done regionally, such as the judicial system-however this is run by the State via districts that roughly correspond to the county boundaries.
In the Columbus area, each county has a robust governmental structure that provides a number of services that are more easily provided on a regional level, such as courts, auditor and recorder and Sherriff services. In Indiana, their Unigov system merged the City of Indianapolis and Marion County to even further expand the box.
c. In Ohio, Townships can also lose land to municipalities that swallow up territory through annexation. The City of Columbus essentially controlled development in Central Ohio for 50 years through buying up the water and sewer systems and only agreeing to provide service to developers if they annexed to the City or a suburb with which the City had an agreement in place. This was a “big box” approach that was put in place in the 1950’s, and has worked well for Columbus over the years. In New England, the borders were fixed a few hundred years ago, and they don’t change-only “small boxes” available.
4. Population Density. New England is more crowded already than many other parts of the country. This furthers resistance to new developments, resulting in higher real estate prices. This, along with the lack of economic activity that would draw many new residents to the area, means that-outside of Boston- many New Englanders were born and raised there. Not much fresh blood to re-think the way things are done.
5. Local Taxation. The manner in which local taxes were levied in Connecticut is very different than in Ohio. In Ohio, income tax (charged where you work, not live) funds much of the local revenue for cities and townships, with property taxes going to fund school districts which are operated as separate governmental subdivisions. In Connecticut, property taxes support most of the local level spending, so property value is king. In a majority (although not all) of the communities the school district is only semi-autonomous and is funded directly as a line item in the municipal budget.
The impact of this is actually quite dramatic. In Ohio it pays to cram as many jobs as you can into your community. Many communities welcome every office, strip mall and warehouse they can get. In Connecticut, many people tend to react the opposite way-they don’t want these uses. They bring traffic and pollution, which can bring property values down (at least that’s the fear), thereby weakening the municipal coffers. Exclusivity pays when keeping out more intense uses to preserve the bucolic countryside atmosphere leads to wealthy residents building large estates that pay lots of taxes. There is likewise much less of an incentive for local leaders to welcome the newest strip mall into their community, especially when they need to provide more police services and bigger roads. In Ohio, almost every highway exit, even the ones in high-end communities, has several commercial establishments near them. In Connecticut, many exit onto leafy drives that run to quiet residential areas.
6. Terrain. Physical landscape plays a role-if you get 20 feet off the ground in Hilliard, the Columbus skyline is in full view, due to the flat terrain. I guess that it would take a much higher point to be able to see Providence from Attleboro, given the rolling terrain. Out of sight-out of mind.
7. History New England has a very rich history. Pilgrims, founding fathers, settlement in the 1600’s, historic town centers, fishing villages, former industrial powerhouses, Ivy League universities – all of these things contribute to a culture where the past is revered. Here in Columbus, people’s self-worth is in the future. It’s a young, relatively anonymous, but up-and-coming city. It has a history, but most people don’t hang their self-identity hat on it (in fact, I would argue that there is an unhealthy self-angst about Columbus’ past by its residents). Many other Midwest metros also have a slightly older history characterized by the manufacturing boom in the early 20th century-which is still within the memory of many of its residents, and so doesn’t hold the gravitas of New England’s founding fathers.
We can now go back and look at why our two residents answered our question the way they did in the context of the above differences. The Attleboro resident answer Attleboro for two overarching reasons-1) they have more than one metro area with which to identify and 2) the historic, political and physical geography of the area fosters an overreliance on the city/town as the dominant cultural, political and social institution in the region. The Hilliard resident answered Columbus for exactly the opposite reasons-1) Hilliard clearly falls within only the Columbus metro area and 2) there is no dominant physical and cultural reason, and much weaker political reasons, to answer Hilliard to someone else.
Cumulative Effect on Regional Culture
The cumulative result of these cultural, physical and political structures is a significantly different approach to development, both physical and economic. New England has a much stronger resistance to change. Why would a community that prides itself on its historic past want to demolish some of it to build new, modern facilities? They don’t. Even in Boston, the economic powerhouse of the region, many people still deride the skyline as “turning Boston into New York”. Their true pride is placed in the Back Bay, North End, the Commons, Southie, etc.
This also extends to greenfield development. While many areas have residents that resist change, New Englanders have a particularly powerful argument-the history of place. After all, the heritage of the area is small, dense nodes with pastoral, rolling hills in between. A colonial-style home on a 10-acre exurban lot preserves much of that look. A relatively dense subdivision of 4 units an acre does not. Local officials tend to listen to this argument more in New England than in other parts of the country, because their self-worth is strongly tied to their history and their tax base to property values.
Even in a loss, the impact on the local psyche is not as significant. When UPS moved their offices out of southwest Connecticut in the early 90’s, no one felt like the true character of the region was threatened. Sure, jobs were lost, and that was hard, but it didn’t make the region any less proud of itself. Contrast that to many Midwest metros, who keep a scorecard of Fortune 500 companies in their pocket to show outsiders, and who feel real reputational angst whenever a company leaves.
Furthermore, the “small box” view tends to stifle larger economic development goals that would be beneficial to the region as a whole. Today it’s virtually impossible to get an even modest expansion of the obsolete Tweed-New Haven airport, for example, even though it sits in the middle of one of the largest underserved air markets in the nation. It straddles the border of two municipalities that fight over it incessantly (to be fair it is near a number of single-family neighborhoods). Meanwhile many Midwest cities have actively expanded their airports to nurture these crucial links to the external economy.
Without new greenfield development and modern buildings, airports and other facilities, it can be difficult to attract new companies to the area. The communities in New England that do have a number of these newer facilities (such as those off of the fabled Route 128 near Boston) often have them because their sense of history was ripped apart by the momentary fervor for building interstate highways in the area-one which has faded in New England but which still runs strong in the Midwest. Midwestern cities still develop scads of suburban office buildings and shopping centers-often too many- while the relative dearth of development in New England results in some markets being highly overpriced relative to other areas of the country. Surprisingly, although Boston has a very dense core, the area around the I-495 outerbelt (one of the largest outerbelts in the nation) is only very thinly developed in many areas.
Beyond the development aspect, New England has a regional mindset that is from my experiences fairly unique. In some ways the Northeast, with New England as a part of that area, is worldly-a gateway to America, home to several large world-class cities, a history of immigration and a density that make this region feel busy, prosperous and cosmopolitan. It often sets trends that the rest of the world follows.
On the other hand, it is also a region of small boxes, one that lives in the past as much as the future and one that resists change fairly aggressively. The view is not forward-looking in many cases. It’s somewhat inward-looking. The identities are fragmented and parochial. The bottom line is that outside of a few business cluster locations like Cambridge or Wall Street, or a few high-society locations like the Hamptons or Greenwich, the Northeast doesn’t want to necessarily be a trend-setter, even though it often is. It’s not that interested in climbing the ladder to “world class” or the “big time”- partly because it thinks it’s already there, but partly because it would have to sacrifice part of its identity. It’s just fine with its leaf-strewn rolling hills, historic downtowns, fairly moribund economic performance and proximity to world-class New York and Boston.
As a final note-it may sound that I am bashing this mindset. I don’t necessarily think it’s all bad. I do believe that New England could do more to promote more job growth and think regionally about its future. Some forward, big box thinking here would be welcome. On the other hand, not many places in America have the rich history and scenic beauty that New England has, and this is exactly the kind of “authentic brand” of which Aaron Renn has spoken so often of late. Indeed, tourism has become a big part of the New England economy over time as many people recognize this brand and want to experience it for themselves. Artists, authors and creative types, at least the highly successful ones that can afford it, tend to flock to the area to live and work in relative seclusion and anonymity. This lifestyle, in my opinion, should be preserved and nurtured in a nation where so many places do seem like every other place.
Wednesday, September 19th, 2012
Here’s an interesting 1969 video from French TV on Los Angeles. Not only does it contain some great footage of the city from that era, but a number of interesting observations. In French with subtitles. The subtitles are in closed captioning, so hit the “CC” button on the bottom control bar to turn them on. If the video doesn’t display, click here.
h/t Kaid Benfield/NRDC. Check out his commentary.
Report from Rhode Island
I’ve posted a number of historic “newsreel” type city documentaries in the past. Here’s another one, this time of Rhode Island. This video was made sometime during World War II. If it doesn’t display for you, click here.
Tuesday, July 24th, 2012
[ I'm pleased to be able to run today this guest piece from professor and writer Robert Bruegmann. It originally appeared at New Geography - Aaron ]
I’ve been spending a lot of time in Ravenna recently. No, not the town in Italy with its early Christian buildings and glittering mosaics. I mean Ravenna, Ohio, a small industrial city of some 12,000 people near Akron.
Along with Akron and Cleveland, Ravenna flourished as an industrial center in the early 20th century. In recent decades, however, its economy, like most of northeastern Ohio’s, has been sluggish at best, and the town hasn’t changed much physically for many years except for occasional demolitions at the center and new subdivisions at the periphery. News from Ravenna rarely makes it http://www.newgeography.com/even into the Cleveland papers. It is certainly not known for its architecture. It has some perfectly good late 19th and early 20th century houses and commercial buildings, but none of these is likely to draw tourists.
One of the very few really remarkable things about Ravenna is a 150-foot high flagpole erected in 1893. Almost absurdly high for the scale of the city, it is a fascinating product of late 19th century American engineering ingenuity and vernacular design as well as a reflection of patriotism and civic pride. Standing right in the center of the city, it is arguably the most notable monument not just of Ravenna but for miles around.
Unfortunately, township trustees now plan to demolish it.
Image: Ravenna flagpole viewed from East Main Street, Ravenna Ohio. Photo by Tom Riddle, 2012
The battle over the Ravenna flagpole says a good deal about the fate of the great manufacturing belt that stretches along the southern edge of the Great Lakes. Once one of the greatest manufacturing regions of the world, it has struggled mightily since World War II as aging infrastructure, obsolete industrial facilities, a gap in educational attainment, and non-competitive wages have left it fighting to find its place in the late 20th, not to mention the 21st century economy.
In many ways Ravenna is a microcosm of the larger region. In Ravenna, as throughout the region, economic stagnation has taken a toll on the city’s built environment. Main Street has vacant storefronts and empty lots where stores used to stand. Some of the housing stock has started to deteriorate.
The biggest change in Ravenna, as in most Rust Belt cities, though, has been the transformation in the industrial landscape. In city after city from Duluth, Minnesota, to Rochester, New York, icons of American industry have vanished. The Homestead Steel works outside Pittsburgh has been largely demolished, replaced by a shopping mall. The same fate has befallen the LTV Steel plant in Cleveland and the great Western Electric complex on the boundary between Chicago and Cicero.
Image: Hawthorne Works Shopping Center in front of remaining tower of the Western Electric Hawthorne Works in Cicero Illinois
Some of this demolition was necessary, even welcome, since many of these factories were located amidst densely populated neighborhoods and constituted a logistical and environmental nightmare. But much of the demolition has been motivated primarily by a desire to remove from sight embarrassing reminders of a previous era. Demolishing the factory, city fathers figure, better allows potential buyers of the site to appreciate a wonderful riverside location or proximity to downtown and the endless opportunities to build something new.
What has replaced those grand temples of industry, however, has usually been underwhelming, with late 19th century brick loft buildings reduced to rubble to make way for cheap one-story strip malls that neither employ a lot of workers nor generate a lot of tax revenue. The old urban identity has been destroyed, but there has been very little to take its place.
The process is akin to the efforts of men and women of a certain age who resort to plastic surgery, hair implants and clothes more appropriate for a younger generation. These cosmetic efforts rarely fool anyone. In fact, what they most clearly convey is a loss of confidence.
Fortunately there is a growing awareness that wholesale demolition of industrial fabric does not necessarily prepare cities for their post-industrial future. This movement to save industrial heritage came into its own first in Britain, not surprisingly, since Britain was the cradle of the Industrial Revolution. For decades now important eighteenth and early nineteenth century industrial sites have been preserved, often as historic sites and tourist destinations.
Image: Ironbridge in Coalbrookdale, Shropshire, England, named a World Heritage Site in 1986
A similar thing has happened in the United States.
Image: Pawtucket, Rhode Island, Slater Mill, started 1793, now a National Historic Landmark.
Old loft buildings have become residential condominiums, even in some rather unlikely places.
Image: River Mill Condominiums along the Fox River in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, opened in 1986 in a building constructed for the Paine Lumber Company
Image: Quaker Square, Akron, a hotel developed in 1980 in concrete silos built by the Quaker Oats Company in the 1930s and now owned by the University of Akron.
The preservation of the industrial landscape that cannot be easily reused has been more problematic. Even so, there has been a movement to preserve some of the most important examples both as testimony to the industrial heritage of their regions and as a way of showcasing the regions in which they are located, providing amenities for the citizens and attracting tourists.
Germany has been a leader in this movement. The Voelklinger Huette outside Saarbrucken preserves an entire complex intact as a monument to the industrial heritage of the area. Even more spectacular has been the transformation of large pieces of the Ruhrgebiet, the heart of Germany’s pre-World War II heavy industry, into a set of imaginative parks, museums and other institutions.
Voelklingen Huette (Voelklingen Iron Works) near Saarbrucken, Germany. A UNESCO World Heritage site and museum.
Duisburg Nord Landschaftspark (landscape park) in Duisburg, Germany, a coal and steel plant transformed into a public park according to designs done in 1991 by architect Peter Latz who retained as many of the old structures as possible.
Of course, the Ravenna flagpole lacks the grandeur or the historical significance of these places. But it is an important historic relic in its own right and arguably as important for Ravenna as the great industrial complex at Duisburg is to the Ruhrgebiet.
Erected in 1893 by the Van Dorn Iron Works of Cleveland, the flagpole was one of at least four similar or identical structures erected in the northeast of the United States. It appears that only the one at Palmyra, New York, still stands. Recently refurbished, the Palmyra pole seems to have been built as a mast for displaying banners of political candidates.
Image: Post card of Main Street Ravenna showing the flagpole in front of the courthouse.
Image: Palmyra, New York, flagpole, fabricated, like the Ravenna pole, by the Van Dorn Iron Works of Cleveland. It has been recently restored.
These flagpoles reflect late 19th century American engineering ingenuity. Earlier poles had usually been of wood. They frequently snapped in high winds and had to be replaced. When the Ravennans needed to replace their pole they used a new and improved technology available to them.
The technology, involving the use of latticed steel boxes, was developed for the railroad and construction industry. The individual elements were not new. Steel had been replacing wrought and cast iron for a number of years. Truss bridges and other constructions using similar structural technologies had been well developed earlier in the century. Inexpensive steel and the techniques of constructing large structures out of it using rivets rather than bolts, however, was new. The technology was ideally suited to the construction of large structures of all kinds, notably bridges.
The same qualities of strength and light weight that made it ideal for bridges also made it perfect for towers. All over Europe and America engineers used latticed towers not just for flagpoles, for but lighthouses, look-out stations, electric light towers and a host of other uses.
Image: Electric Light Tower, constructed in 1881 at the corner of Market and Santa Clara streets in San Jose, California to house arc lights intended to illuminate downtown. It collapsed in December 1915.
Image: A surviving “Moonlight Tower” in Austin, Texas. Manufactured by the Fort Wayne Electrical Company for use in Detroit, 31 of the towers were purchased from the city of Detroit and re-erected in Austin. In 1970 the remaining 17 towers were listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The city spent $1.3 million to dismantle and restore these towers in the early 1990s.
Image: Villingen, Germany, Aussichtsturm (Observation Tower) 1888. This 30 meter high tower, erected on a hill outside the village of Villingen, provided views over the surrounding countryside as far as the Alps.
The grandest example of this structural technique is, of course, the Eiffel Tower, built for the Paris exposition of 1889. Although larger in scale than any of the other examples, it used many of the same materials and construction methods as the Ravenna flagpole. Initially heavily criticized by much of the artistic elite of the day as being essentially useless and much too big, the Eiffel Tower soon came to symbolize Paris to the world. No one would imagine demolishing it today.
Image: Paris, Eiffel Tower built for the 1889 Exposition. It reaches a height of 1015 feet using latticed steel elements and rivets similar to those used on the Ravenna flagpole
The Ravenna pole, erected four years later was built as a monument to national pride and an affirmation of the place of the city of Ravenna in the larger American republic. The pole also had a more local significance. It would allow Ravennans for once to greatly outstrip their neighbors and rivals in Kent, 10 miles to the west. In fact, at the time of its completion, the pole must have been one of the taller flagpoles in America and one of the taller structures anywhere outside the largest cities. Of course, by now it has been dwarfed, particularly in the last couple of decades when a new battle for flagpole superlatives has broken out, curiously enough this time in some of the most out-of-the-way corners of the globe.
National Flagpole at Baku, Azerbaijan, at 545 ft. flagpole, briefly the world’s highest flagpole before being eclipsed by one in Tajikistan. Both were built by a company in San Diego.
Even if now dwarfed by flagpoles in Azerbaijan, North Korea, and Tajikistan, the Ravenna flagpole still reflects the pride of a struggling industrial city. It has required periodic maintenance and has gotten into the news occasionally when some inebriated citizen has tried to climb it. However, for most Ravennans it has come to be so much taken for granted that citizens were stunned when they heard that the Trustees of the Township of Ravenna, the body that has jurisdiction, decided that it was a legal liability, a drain on township resources and should be demolished. In response, a group of local citizens has stepped in and is fighting to maintain the pole, raising money toward its repair and trying to see if ownership can be transferred to a governmental entity or group of entities willing to maintain it.
In one way, this is a fight about intangibles like local pride, patriotism, a desire to maintain historic heritage and a sense of place. Some people write off these sentiments as mere nostalgia. But preservation of this kind can have tangible consequences. No one is claiming that preserving the pole will generate vast new tourist revenues or solve basic economic problems. But the movement to save the flagpole rests on the notion that stewardship of historic heritage can play an important role in reminding everyone of the specific qualities of a place that made it successful in the past – and perhaps can be built upon to craft a better future.
Robert Bruegmann is professor emeritus of Art History, Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
This post originally appeared in New Geography on June 19, 2012.
Wednesday, April 11th, 2012
The New York Times turned its attention this week to the debate over the preservation of brutalist buildings. In particular, they look at the debate over demolishing a government center on Goshen, NY.
As part of this, they published a Room for Debate segment called “Are Some Buildings Too Ugly to Survive?” I was delighted to be one of the people asked to weigh in on this matter so I hope you’ll check it out.
Wednesday, March 28th, 2012
That great site How to Be a Retronaut pointed me at this great 1921 silent film of New York City by Paul Strand. It’s called “Manhatta” and provides a unique look at NYC at the early part of the 20th century. If the video doesn’t display, click here.
Also on the Retronaut recently was this 1925 “infographic” from Popular Science Monthly about how we may live and travel in 1950, and how this new world might solve congestion problems…..
Thursday, December 1st, 2011
I was down in Indianapolis the last two days speaking at a couple of events. One of them was a lunch discussion sponsored by the Indiana Humanities Council on how to revitalize the urban core of Indianapolis.
The audio of this discussion is available as a podcast and I highly recommend listening to it. I generally don’t ask people to listen to an hour of anything, much less me, but I think this encapsulates a lot of the work I’ve tried to bring out in the blog over the last few years. This includes things like finding market segments of people to attract to your city, working with your essential city character, public policy around zoning and business climate, historic preservation, urban culture and social networks, inner ring suburbs, immigration, making the sale to talent and more. A lot of the info is very applicable to any tier 2/tier 3 type city, so please feel free to take any of the ideas for yourself.
The embedded audio won’t display in Google Reader or email so click here to pull it up in a web page. You can skip the intro by clicking ahead directly to 5:00 in the discussion.
This was by design a no-prep session, so I’m not at my most polished, and I’ll admit throwing some red meat the crowd by taking a few pot shots at other cities, but hopefully you can forgive me that. In case you wonder, Michael Huber is the deputy mayor of Indianapolis. Indy Star metro columnist Erika Smith (a Cleveland native) was the moderator, and she wrote a follow-up column on the event you can read.
Wednesday, April 20th, 2011
Metropolis currently features an article on the impending demolition of Marcel Breuer’s Ameritrust Tower in Cleveland. The article reads like a sort of half-hearted defense of the tower and Breuer’s body of work, but the sentiment here seems to be pro-preservation, not so much pro-Breuer. It’s sort of like the ACLU defending a KKK member’s free speech for the sake of protecting free speech itself.
It is a commonly-held belief, understandably so after the devastating social and artistic destruction wrought by the so-called Urban Renewal movement, that the destruction of a building purely on the basis of its being “ugly” or out of fashion is a very dangerous thing. I don’t disagree. But I do wonder what can be said for Brutalism, a style of architecture frequently criticized for its indifference to context and its tendancy to be overly conceptual — to the point of being dehumanizing — in terms of its value in contemporary society.
It seems futile to debate the merits of one architectural style over another, but there are functional components to style that do, I think, make buildings from some architectural movements of lesser worth to society based on the fact that they do not produce an environment that is conducive to human activity. Brutalism is a style of design that focused on materials and structural honesty (what Wikipedia cutely refers to as “the celebration of concrete.”) It is part of a failed utopian vision centered on a kind of rigid equality. It is a style that, as a movement on the whole, failed to acknowledge the messy, blurry lines of human nature. It’s no wonder that people can’t relate to Brutalist buildings, then, because they are based on a stark idealism that most human beings either don’t understand, or flat out reject.
So what can be said for buildings that were designed without people — the real, unidealized kind — in mind. Are these buildings worth saving for some sort of artistic merit? Are they worth saving in order to make a point? And if the cost of preserving them is a less human environment, does what we gain by preserving Brutalist structures, in terms of ideals and ideas, offset that cost?
This article originally appeared in Where on April 6, 2007. Reprinted with permission.
Friday, February 11th, 2011
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.
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 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.