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

 

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