This is a follow-up on yesterday's third edition to our Brainerd/Baxter Strong Town series, where we look at practical, real-life approaches to building Strong Towns using my hometowns as an example. In yesterday's entry, we examined one of the major streets in Brainerd - South 6th Street - and discussed ways to re-engineer it to: 

  1. Lower the long-term cost of maintaining the street.
  2. Improve the property values along the entire corridor and thus generate a return on the community's investment.
  3. Improve safety for cars and pedestrians throughout the entire corridor.
  4. Decrease the auto-dependency of residents that live along this corridor thereby allowing them a choice as to whether or not to walk to the downtown (mere blocks away) or take an auto trip to Baxter or some other place in the area. Today residents currently have no reasonable choice but to use their cars, which puts Brainerd at a near-term competitive disadvantage to neighboring Baxter in capturing both the resident's spending dollars and the capital investment chasing those dollars.

The promise for today was to step back and examine the development pattern induced by the current design of South 6th. I recommend you go back and read yesterday's post first, if you have not already.

Look back to the 1950's and 1960's when, like almost all small towns of this era, Brainerd was just beginning to transition to an auto oriented development approach. The roads into town - including South 6th Street - were "improved" to accommodate the now widely used automobile. These improvements, in turn, drove significant investment on the periphery of town, investments that were high-quality and - more than anything else - new. They used unique techniques for the time such as drive-up windows, they had more green space between buildings and generally gave an overall impression of growth and success.

In other words - for the time in which they were built, these places rocked.

Unfortunately, the technology (the automobile) that allowed this new development to take place, also allowed people to drive past it when the next best thing sprung up on the "periphery of the periphery". Some call this competition, and it would be if a few things were not going on concurrently: 

  1. The roads to access both the "periphery" and the "periphery of the periphery" (and on and on) are all paid for by the government. In other words, there is a massive subsidy taking place.
  2. As the roads through the "periphery" are expanded to provide access to the "newer" and "more competitive" things going on at the "periphery of the periphery", the expanded roads devalue the development they pass through. See yesterday's posting.
  3. As the initial periphery development is being passed by and devalued, those property owners are frequently having their taxes increased at the same time to both provide the subsidy for the new development and maintenance of the existing infrastructure.

So while we may call this competition, what actually is happening is that the government - at every level - is choosing to subsidize greenfield development on the periphery at the expense of existing development closer in. In terms of macro public policy, it is anything but competitive.

While we could write endlessly about how massively expensive and wasteful of public resources this approach is, that is not what I want to focus on. What I want to focus on is one, very specific feature unique to this approach to development: building reuse. Or more correctly, the lack thereof.

Ponder for a second the decline we all know and understand that has taken place in the first ring suburbs surrounding the country's major metropolitan areas. We can all visualize that, on a large scale, immediately following WW II the suburbs were the place to be. As development expanded beyond the first ring, second ring suburbs became the "place to be" and the first ring declined and stagnated. Same effect the third ring had on the second, and on and on. This same thing happens in our small towns, just on a more limited scale.

Take a minute and look at the following pictures of unoccupied or underused space along South 6th Street. 

While the current market is depressed and that is certainly making these warts more visible, this is a pattern we see in every small town, regardless of market conditions. On the periphery there is, as Jane Jacobs described, a cycle of growth, stagnation and decline. Once-new buildings now sit empty or are used in a low-value manner while new buildings go up in the next-best-place. This happens for three easy to understand reasons.

First, each building in this style of development is its own monument to the original use. They were designed on an undeveloped site for a single, original use. The buildings are very difficult to transform into something new. Look at those pictures again. What is the reuse along this corridor for a drive-thru bank with 8,000 square feet of space? It doesn't exist, so the building sits empty even though it is of good, quality construction. This is in sharp contrast to the historic development pattern that exists just a few blocks away, which facilitates widespread reuse of existing structures, even those of low quality.

Second, each building stands independent of one another. When the medical center goes in, there is no coffee shop or bookstore located next door that caters to people who have to wait for their loved ones. If you have to drop someone off and wait at the chiropractor, you either bring a book and go in or you are forced to drive somewhere to kill time. No building in this corridor benefits any other building in a positive way - they all stand alone. That is, until they are blighted. Then they negatively impact all their neighbors.

Third and finally, the buildings are not robustly reused because doing so is more expensive, and generates less return, than building your own monument in the subsidized greenfield on the new periphery. For the local government, this feeds the Small Town Ponzi Scheme and drives "less competitive" businesses to the wayside, which is why the approach is broadly supported as a win:win.

But could anything be more ridiculous? In small towns across America we spend vast sums of money and shackle ourselves with an impossible amount of future maintenance commitments building unsafe roads that depress property values, cause economic stagnation in areas where we have sizable public investments, create places void of any socially beneficial qualities and, ultimately, induce the "solution" of big government regulation and over-taxation. 

A Strong Town solution is the competitive approach for small cities that want to survive and thrive in the post-automobile era.

 

Notes

(I am aware that we have some new readers from the Brainerd city government. You are very welcome here. Please understand that the critiques we make and the strategies we outline use your city - which is also my city - as an example of what is going on in nearly every small town in the country. You'll notice that we never personally malign anyone but deal with general policies and philosophies of growth in the current era. These are not Brainerd's policies, but the policies of every level of government and nearly every small town we have visited in the United States. For better or for worse, it is easier for me to snap pictures of my home town while I drive around than for me to drive to another town where I would be more anonymous.

Our goal here is not to change policy in Brainerd, but to change the approach of small towns all across the United States. We know there are many difficult personal, political and financial considerations that make an ideal world impossible to achieve and your jobs extremely difficult. We hope you will take this blog and this series for what it is - a thoughtful look at small town growth policy in the United States - and not as a personal criticism of any public official in Brainerd.

Either way, your comments and feedback, along with those of any of our readers, are always welcome.)