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Incoherent Advice

One of the primary obstacles many public officials need to overcome if they are to build a Strong Town is the advice of their professionals. The planning, engineering and economic development professions have found all kinds of coping mechanisms that allow them to continue the suburban experiment. If one has a mind to look, the incoherence in their advice is usually not hard to identify.

Last week we contrasted the fortunes of two blocks in my hometown of Brainerd, MN. One block had retained its traditional development pattern and -- at least financially -- was outperforming the other block, which contained a drive-through, fast food restaurant. While the fast food joint was responding to the city's plans and codes as well as Mn/DOT's highway design, the traditional neighborhood block was hanging on despite them.

This situation -- which is ubiquitous with the post-World War II American development pattern -- creates a myriad of questions.

  • Why are we spending so much money building highways through town when it degrades the existing tax base?
  • Why is their no coordination between the highway design and the adjacent land use?
  • Why is the adjacent land use expected to transform to the highway design and not the other way around (especially when the former is so expensive and takes decades and the latter could be done cheaper and quicker than current designs)?
  • How do we expect neighborhoods to remain desirable and valuable when we spend so much of our wealth catering to the commuting habits of people who live outside of the community?
  • What do we think will happen to local businesses when we widen streets and remove sidewalks throughout our neighborhoods?
  • Why do we accept the decline of our traditional neighborhoods as natural?
  • How do we think we are going to pay to maintain all the infrastructure we have that now serves declining neighborhoods?
  • Why do we never put pen to paper and actually analyze the level of financial return on the suburban experiment thus far in our communities?

It is interesting to watch how the professionals that advise communities deal with these questions. Or quite often, fail to deal with them. One of the premiere planning firms in the state of Minnesota was brought in to prepare a market analysis for the city of Brainerd as part of the comprehensive plan process. (I'm not going to mention the firm or link to the report -- it really doesn't matter and embarrassing them is not the point here. What they've done is no different than any other planner in the state is doing, or than I did back in my pre-Strong Towns days.) The market analysis looked at commercial opportunities throughout town and gave recommendations to city officials. The section of highway corridor we examined last week was given two paragraphs of mention in this study. The first paragraph was a description. The second paragraph discussed "opportunities" for the area and read as follows:

Encourage aesthetic, parking and access improvements to commercial area between 5th and 13th/Gillis. This area has many smaller businesses in older buildings, which over time, may turn into redevelopment opportunities.  Auto-oriented retail uses, such as the fast food uses in this area, would continue to be appropriate in this area.  However, traffic speeds can be high in this stretch of Highway 210, creating potential traffic hazards for uses that generate higher levels of traffic.  As well, a center median limits access to many of these sites from eastbound 210. 

I'm going to break down this paragraph and add some coherence to each of these statements in an attempt to demonstrate how absurd and incoherent this professional analysis actually is.

Encourage aesthetic, parking and access improvements to commercial area between 5th and 13th/Gillis.

This sentence is communicating two things. First is that aesthetic improvements are needed. The second is that parking and access improvements -- transportation improvements -- are needed. By aesthetic improvements what they are noting is that these blocks are ugly to drive by. This is, unfortunately, very true.

The four lane highway and its speeding traffic have devalued the traditional development pattern, making the storefronts less desirable and forcing each of the businesses -- which used to have pedestrian connections to the adjacent neighborhood -- to compete in an auto-dominated environment for which they are not designed. The result is predictable.

In the short-term the owners and tenants of the traditional block invest their money in all kinds of obnoxious signs and banners, which makes the block look terrible as you drive by. In the medium-term, there is little reason to invest in maintaining these properties to a high standard since they are so incompatible with the adjacent public investments and so they inevitably fall into decline. Finally, in the long-term the value is degraded to the point where the properties can be purchased (or condemned) and then redeveloped in the auto-oriented style (as happened up the street). 

So the block needs "aesthetic" improvements -- stop being so ugly -- but it also needs transportation improvements (better access and more parking). What is incoherent here is that the creation of additional access (which means turning traffic and increased pedestrian conflict) and the conversion of buildings to parking lots is what is causing the overall specter of decay and decline.

You can't change the DNA of a block and expect the transformation process to be anything but ugly. That's what is happening here. We've taken a traditional neighborhood and injected -- in some type of national mad experiment -- the DNA of auto domination. The result: an ugly transformation process.

Suggesting that these blocks should clean up and incrementally accommodate auto-design is incoherent.

This area has many smaller businesses in older buildings, which over time, may turn into redevelopment opportunities.

This reinforces the point from the prior sentence; these traditional neighborhood places are not doing well here. We expect that they will continue to decline in value to the point where someone will buy them, tear them down and build something new on the site.

It should be noted that an interim use for these properties is a parking lot, a use that contains no improvements and thus pays very little in taxes, despite being in what otherwise should be a valuable location. This paradox is explained brilliantly in a piece written by James Kunstler on the property tax system.

In short, we're planning for decline. Not planning in a financial sense -- no, we have not worked out the calculations on whether or not this is a wise investment, whether we can afford two or three decades of declining tax base to get to a point where we can grant some type of multi-decade tax subsidy to revive the area. We've just accepted decline as a natural course of events.

Auto-oriented retail uses, such as the fast food uses in this area, would continue to be appropriate in this area.

What is being said here is that, as things get so bad that they are redeveloped, what is built should be designed around the automobile. Note that they've not done the financial calculations on this either, as evidenced in last Monday's piece contrasting the return on investment of the different approaches.

However, traffic speeds can be high in this stretch of Highway 210, creating potential traffic hazards for uses that generate higher levels of traffic.

This is where we reach the apex of incoherence. Go back and read that sentence one more time and then continue.

Here's what is being said: This area is ugly and we want it to decline so that new, auto-oriented businesses can be built along this corridor. However, we can't build more auto-oriented businesses because, in order to make the place decline and redevelop, we had to design it for fast-moving cars. Adding more cars to this stretch would just be plain dangerous.

And there it slaps us right in the face: our development pattern is so about the cars that we don't even care if there is anyplace to drive to. As long as the cars can go fast, all other concerns are secondary.

This reminds me of the Lyle and Erik Menendez case -- two brothers who were found guilty of killing their rich parents only to ask for leniency in their sentencing because they no longer had parents to care for them. We destroy our traditional neighborhoods in favor of the auto-oriented development strategy while acknowledging that we can't really have the auto-oriented development strategy here anyway. Just automobiles.

The truly sad thing is that the sentence will somehow sound logical to about 95% of the planning, engineering and economic development professionals in this country.

As well, a center median limits access to many of these sites from eastbound 210. 

This sentence is almost comical as an afterthought. Hey, you know that auto-oriented thing we were discussing two sentences ago? That's really not going to work because half the autos that travel through here can't cross over to reach you anyway. Sorry.

It is a little like adding insult to injury and it leaves me wondering: just what is the plan for this neighborhood and thousands just like it all over the country? I think the sad fact is that there is no plan. These neighborhoods are the unwanted, orphaned child of the suburban development model. As planning professionals, we want credit for acknowledging them -- we try to be nice and call them "eclectic" and "cozy" -- but we really just wish they would go away.

There is a reason why our nation is bankrupt, why nearly every city in the country is struggling financially just to do the basics. It's not too much government or too little. It's not a lack of investment or opportunity. It is because we are collectively -- as a society -- incoherent. About who we are. About what we want. About what we expect to occur in the very places we inhabit.

If we're going to get out of this mess, our professionals need to wake up and start speaking clearly. To themselves and to those they purport to serve. We all need to start working to build Strong Towns.


Additional Reading


If you find this material interesting and would like to know more about how to apply this thinking to your community, join us at the Strong Towns Network, a social enterprise for those working to implement a Strong Towns approach.

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Reader Comments (7)

One of the clear themes from the last few posts, and many others here on Strongtowns, is our fascination with the shiny, new and fast. This is true for all of us. We tend to ignore the ugly and unsightly things as we get to where we want, even in our own homes. For example here in my office, there are some small boxes behind the door that I just need to clear out to the trash and recycling. I've been walking by those boxes for months, and hardly notice them now as I have to type that email, or leave and deal with a child. So they just sit there. I think we can see extremes of this behavior in the Hoarder TV show.

I also see this in North Minneapolis. I taught music in a very trouble school and neighborhood for a couple years. There were some fantastic kids and families there, but there are lots of issues of drugs and gangs too. My girlfriend at the time (wife now) worked in downtown Minneapolis, and I would go down to have lunch with her, and the contrast is stark. Many of those people who worked downtown just drove or bused by neighborhoods like North Minneapolis like it was a lake to go around on Hwy 94 or 394. North Minneapolis is an obstacle so many don't even see anymore, just a stack of boxes that will be dealt eventually, but to be ignored until that time.

Thanks for this post and discussion Chuck. I gotta go deal with some boxes... right after I take care of the kid.

January 9, 2012 | Unregistered Commentergml4

The absurdity of the development paradigm in this country is that it is all based on short-term profit extraction. Nothing is built to last, or create long-term value, because we live in a culture that no longer understands how to produce long-term value.

Where I live in Central Florida, this can be seen in plans for a new Olive Garden where a shiny new Macaroni Grille was built just five years ago. The Macaroni Grille has apparently underperformed, but the location is still quite desirable, so Darden Restaurants, the parent corporation of Olive Garden, decided to purchase it in order to duplicate their franchise holdings on the south side of town. However, Instead of remodeling and reusing the existing the building, Darden submitted plans to demolish the existing structure and build a new restaurant, in their signature corporate style, only 10% larger than what is currently there.


I imagine, under accelerated depreciation, the existing building is probably worth "nothing", so Darden will likely get a big fat tax write off for their efforts to boot. Yes, through our tax code, we incentivize this kind of foolish, wasteful behavior. The New Yorker discussed this phenomenon several years back in their 2004 profile of Victor Gruen, the father of the modern shopping mall.

You can read the New Yorker piece here: http://tinyurl.com/5poyfh

January 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMontag

@gml4 - That's a great way to describe the wider population's feelings regarding North Minneapolis: it's an island, lake, or whatever - you just drive past it. People, more or less, pretend it doesn't exist. Our culture has valued the new and shiny to such a degree that instead of trying to improve what we have, our collective seems to just reward moving away and forgetting about the problem. I find this particularly true with the movement to the suburbs and the all out abandoning of our historic cores.

@Montag - The "tear down / rebuild to suit by exact required sq.ft" seems to be a common practice amongst the big chain pharmacies. There was a local (Minneapolis/St.Paul) where a Walgreen's Pharmacy bought out a smaller, local chain pharmacy, tore down their building and built their new building on their parking lot. I want to say this again: they tore down a perfectly good building to create a parking lot while building a generic new building on what was the old parking lot. I'm sure they "needed" to do this because the old store was 800 sq.ft too small.

@Chuck - Great article. This has been a great series! Best.

January 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel

Thanks everyone. Nate my friend, I've been holding back - the craziest might be yet to come. We'll see after I write it. :)


January 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCharles Marohn


Do you have any historic photos of what that stretch in Brainerd looked like at its peak? I would love to see the contrast.

This is my favorite series that you have written. I cannot wait to see what is coming. Common sense is completely missing in this country. When @Nathaniel describes that they "tore down a perfectly good building" it sounds absurd, and would to most people, but unfortunately that has become so common in our society that no one thinks twice about it anymore.

Looking forward to the rest.

January 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJeremy

@Jeremy - Unfortunately I don't have an historic photo. I know a place that has a lot and I've gone through them but don't remember one of this area.

In reality, I'm guessing it probably looked a lot like it does today in terms of the buildings, their dimensions, lack of height, etc... What is really wrong with this block is not only that it is in decline but that, before it started to go backward, it stopped going forward. The suburban experiment and the auto-oriented development pattern has destroyed a lot of traditional neighborhoods but it has stunted the growth and development of even more. I suspect that what you are looking at with this street is an early snapshot of a commercial block in its adolescence that has just not matured beyond that point.


January 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCharles Marohn

After reading the market analysis paragraph, the only sensible conclusion you could draw from it was that the area would be much more pleasing if it was a vacant stretch of highway with nothing to cause anyone to have to reduce their speed. Comical.

January 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterjohnR
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