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Friday
Dec212012

Best of Blog: From the Mayor's Office

When I started the Taco John's series (see yesterday's entry), I knew I would ultimately need to propose my own solution to the problem. Sure enough, as the post was passed around my own community here and the outrage over our foolishness surfaced, defensiveness turned into a shoot-the-messenger campaign. If you're so smart, what would you have us do, Chuck?

Of course, this is a very fair question, one I'm not fully capable of answering (or am even confident there is a good answer). Nonetheless, my attempt here to focus on the systematic problems of neighborhood decline -- in contrast to our usual efforts to address the symptoms -- gives an outline for how a community can reorient their approach for greater gain with far fewer resources.

Not only has this three part series been published here, but it has run in multiple journals, newsletters and other publications and I've had reports of it being shared with elected officials across the country. It helped me make some recommendations to cities like Memphis, TN -- great stuff they are working to do -- and also led me to develop the concept for a Strong Towns Boot Camp (details to be released soon in 2013, but as a primer, imagine three days with Mike Lydon, Joe Minicozzi and myself focused on teaching others to do what is presented in this piece).

Strong Towns was also prompted to apply for a grant to actually initiate in this very neighborhood some of the things I propose in this post. It is a low risk but potentially high reward project that we are hoping to get the green light for next month. 

If you are interested, I delivered the entire three part post as a podcast as well, as close to being a politician as I will ever get. This final Best of Blog entry includes all three posts integrated together.

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Part 1

There is no simple approach to building a Strong Town. There are no one or two universal ideas that, if implemented, will change the trajectory of America's cities, towns and neighborhoods. This is hard work. For a city to get there, current priorities need to be realigned and everyone -- from the mayor, the city engineer, the maintenance worker and everyone in between -- needs to be working to get more value out of our existing investments.

As a finale to the series we've been running that began with a simple comparison of the tax base from two nearby blocks -- one developed in the traditional pattern and one in the suburban -- I am going to share what I would advise a city's mayor to say in response. This is written as an address from the mayor to the staff.

Team,

I don't need to tell you that we are going through difficult times. You've all had your budgets cut in each of the last four years. Many of the things we used to do as a city, we are no longer able to. The trajectory we are on gives us little confidence that things will be different anytime soon. If we're going to tell ourselves that it's halftime in America, then we need to have the courage to make some dramatic, mid-game course corrections.

I've read the report from Strong Towns that showed how the 26-year tax increment subsidy we gave to relocate Taco John's resulted in a tax base, even before we deduct the subsidy payments, that is 41% less than the old run down block up the street. It surprised me, as I'm sure it surprised you, and caused me to do a lot of soul searching. And, quite frankly, it made me angry.

I'm sick of being told that our failure is some type of statistical anomaly. That decline in our core neighborhoods is normal. That we are destined to be a second tier city that fortune somehow passed by.

The thing I'm upset about is not how the report exposed our incorrect assumptions about growth and prosperity -- I'm actually grateful for that. The thing I'm upset about is what we've been doing to our own town, our own residents, our own families for these many years. We've done this to ourselves.

It ends today.

As of this moment, we're all going to be working with the same core goals with respect to the NE Brainerd neighborhood. In the next ten years, we are collectively going to work to accomplish the following hard, measurable goals:

  1. Double the tax base of NE Brainerd (8% per year average increase).
  2. Increase the total number of jobs in NE Brainerd by 150% (10.5% per year average increase).
  3. Increase the population of NE Brainerd by 50% (4.5% per year average increase).
  4. Hold budget increases for the city to less than 3% annually, an increase of just 30% over the next decade.

This is our only path to solvency. We need to grow our tax base, population and total jobs using the resources we have while not adding to our long-term liabilities. This is the opposite of what we've been doing. In real terms, our tax base has been in decline. We've lost population and jobs to the surrounding communities. In the name of growth, we've taken on a stunning amount of long-term obligations for infrastructure maintenance; liabilities we have no hope of meeting.

It ends today, and here is how we're going to do it.

Last week I contacted Mn/DOT and our representatives at the Minnesota Legislature to demand changes to the highway the runs through this neighborhood. It is the most destructive infrastructure we have for our overall tax base. I've laid out a proposal that would have our city be a laboratory for an experiment in shared space design. I've also formally offered to guarantee control of access rights and elimination of access points on the periphery of town -- something we've long fought against in the pursuit of strip highway development -- so highway speeds can be increased outside of town in compensation for slower speeds within. I'm optimistic this dialog will bear fruit as Mn/DOT is more desperate to reduce their long-term obligations than even we are.

As for our staff, here is what I expect of each of you.

City Engineer

I know this is going to be tough because you have the greatest course correction of them all. Listen closely. I'm not joking on any of this.

Tomorrow morning you are going to get all the paint you need and you are going to stripe every street in NE Brainerd. These streets are bizarrely wide; completely out of proportion for a neighborhood such as this. I want to see on-street parking areas defined, narrow (10 feet or less) driving lanes identified and the remainder of the space dedicated to bike lanes.

Yes, bike lanes. I want them everywhere and I want no ambiguity over what they are. I realize people are going to look at you funny as I'm sure very few residents in this area even own bikes anymore. Nonetheless, this is going to cost very little and it needs to be done. It is neighborhood triage. The first step of creating value is providing people with options. Today they have one. Tomorrow they will have one more.

Stripe these streets. They are too wide and communicate car domination. Paint is cheap. Striping for bike lanes will add immediate value where little exists today.Next, I want to see a list of all the projects we have planned for this neighborhood for the next ten years. In each and every one, we are going to do three things. First, we're going to reduce costs dramatically by narrowing the pavement width. Our streets will be better looking and cheaper too. Second, we're going to redirect the savings into building quality sidewalks. Remember what I said about creating value by giving people options? Now they will have three (four after I get to the transit coordinator).

This isn't saving us money. It is wasting the hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in sidewalks elsewhere which are now cut off. This is how you kill a neighborhood. It needs to end.

And just so I'm clear about creating value through choice; if we're going to meet our goals, we need to work within a private market that is just as financially strapped as we are. Perhaps even more so. The more alternatives we give people -- for biking, walking or taking transit to get to where they need to go -- the more competitive we will be. If a family can move to NE Brainerd and only have to own one car, they save $8,000 each year by not having to have that second car. For $8,000 per year, they can spend $118,000 more on a house (which is more than most houses in NE Brainerd are worth). That's where we are going to get the private sector investments to turn this neighborhood around.

The third thing we are going to do with each project is to install urban vegetation. Not the quasi-nature stuff you're apparently fond of and not a bunch of weeds in a stormwater pond. We need vegetation that will be stately. We're building an urban neighborhood which is distinctly different from the suburban neighborhoods on the edge of town. It is subtle, but we need to get this right.

And as a final note, just so we're clear: your primary objective is no longer about moving cars. In fact, if we had to list your departmental priorities, that would be just about the last one on the list. Your top priority -- with no close second -- is to create value throughout the existing neighborhoods of this city. Not new neighborhoods on the edge of town. Not new growth out along the highway. Not to help people get to the WalMart in the next city more quickly. Throw away that hierarchical road system map that you have -- it represents an antiquated, 1950's mentality.

We're not about moving cars anymore; we're about building a strong town. 

Planner

Your task is going to involve an equally dramatic shift in priorities and approach. I hope you are up to the challenge because right now, not only is the Planning and Zoning Department not creating value for this city, you are simply a bureaucratic obstacle to be overcome by anyone wanting to do something positive. I don't want to lose you -- I want you to be part of the team -- but the approach needs to change 180 degrees.

Let's start with a mental exercise. I want you to envision what a healthy, successful NE Brainerd would look like. What would be there? I know this is difficult because you and your predecessors have been focused on battling the symptoms of decline: a high percentage of rentals, poorly maintained properties, petty violations for trash and lawn maintenance, building code violations. What would success look like?

Let me help. Success would be a mix of housing options. There would be some rental, some owner-occupied. There would be a mix of types too. Some single-family and some multi-family. I'd also expect that a successful neighborhood would have both high earners and families on the low end of the wage spectrum. One should also expect to see a smattering of neighborhood commercial uses. All of these components would be intermingled and and designed to be completely compatible with each other.

Look at what our city code says. It calls for predominantly one use: single family. We have other "pods" of uses -- essentially arbitrary lines where we separate different types of housing from each other -- where multi family is allowed. These are next to our commercial areas because, ostensibly, poor people live in multi-family and they won't object as loudly to the terrible looking way we do commercial development.

Take a look at what our use-based code has gotten us in this neighborhood.

A lot of low value uses, like garages. Notice how this one is adjacent to the alley yet the cars access from the street, making this space not only look run down by design but also degrading the street, parking and pedestrian spaces.

Use-based zoning doesn't care how the property interacts with the public realm. As a result, you get garages and cars framing the public space, even when an alley is readily available.We also have apartments being built. This is considered positive new growth, although it adds to the hostile feel of this "neighborhood". Many more of this type of building and we might as well just gate each property, put up watch towers and call in the national guard. This is a very anti-neighborhood design.

The use-based code only worries about how the building is being used -- apartment -- and whether it meets the setback, coverage and parking requirements. There is no concern about how this design detracts from the public realm and lowers the value all the neighboring properties.

Our current code also creates artificial buffers around properties, leaving unnecessary gaps throughout the neighborhood. I realize that many people believe we are "built out", but that is a ludicrous notion. We copied an ordinance from somewhere else, but we never stopped to measure our own neighborhoods and determine how it would mess them up. For us to reach our goals, the free market needs to be set loose to fill in gaps like these with productive structures.

When suburban development codes are applied to urban areas it creates artificial buffering -- gaps -- in the urban framework. Not only does this artificially limit what property owners can do productively with their property, but in doing so it severely limits the tax base along with other measures that would improve the productivity of the place (like an additional utility connection on the same pipe).

Then we have the way that commercial properties interact with the neighborhood. We've designed them to be all on the edge and to be accessed only by automobile. Since the defining feature our ordinance demands is parking, we get buildings that have huge parking lots and, thus, face the parking. Here is what our residents get to look at from their homes. Not exactly creating much value for them.

Can we expect our neighborhoods to thrive when we allow them to be treated like this? Why do we allow these commercial properties to not only not provide any access to the people living right across the street (they must drive like everyone else), but we allow them to point their unadorned rear, complete with dumpsters, right at them. To create a neighborhood with value, we need to show it respect.

In fact, we routinely sacrifice the quality of life for our residents, along with their property values, on the alter of new growth. That is a tradeoff that has not served us well and one I am no longer willing to make. Any new development needs to add to the overall value of what is existing, not detract from it.

Today I am going to propose an ordinance that will repeal our entire zoning code. Six months from today, it will cease to govern this city. I would rather have no code than the one we have now, but I do believe that a mixed-use, form-based code with a streamlined approval process would have great benefit for this neighborhood. You have six months to have it in place.

Here are the parameters I expect from a new code.

  • It must provide for a mixture of uses within neighborhoods. Limit commercial properties to the intersections if you must, but they must be allowed throughout.
  • It must provide for a mixture of housing styles. We have to allow the neighborhood to mature. We're not omniscient enough to say exactly where that will happen and when so we need to get out of the way and let it happen naturally.
  • We must regulate how structures address the public realm. Everything that is built from this point forward needs to improve the public space. No more bare walls. No more side entrances. No more garages out front. If we want people to invest in this neighborhood, they need to travel throughout it and know that their investment will be respected.
  • There will be a build-to line -- not a setback line -- to ensure that all structures properly frame the public realm. 
  • All garages and parking areas shall be to the rear of the lot, always behind the dwelling. They will be accessed from the alley where one is available. We're building a neighborhood for people to live in, not cars.
  • Approvals for construction under this code must be able to be done within two hours. People need to know clearly what they can do, they need to be able to walk into city hall and then walk out that day with a permit. No long public hearing process. No ambiguity. If the form of their building meets the code, I want it approved. We are going to be the least bureaucratic regulatory department in the state.

Oh, and there will be an immediate ban on new surface parking. The entire neighborhood we are looking at is eight blocks square. Theoretically, if our streets were not so hostile to pedestrians, the entire place is within walking distance of itself. Despite that, people rarely park on any of the streets. Surface parking is a cancer on the tax base. There will not be another surface parking lot built until all those on-street spaces we pay so dearly for are filled.

Our obsession with rental properties is over. We do not have a problem with rental properties, or better put, rental properties are not the problem. They are the symptom. The problem is neighborhoods that lack value and reasons for people to invest in their future. Your job is no longer to fight over rental properties. It is no longer to administer red tape or checklists, to ensure that each use is in its proper place, that there is enough parking for each Black Friday rush of vehicles.

Your job, plain and simple, is to improve the value of the public realm. If you make our public spaces -- the space between structures spanning across the street -- more valuable, our neighborhood will grow and prosper and we will meet our goals.

Part 2

Economic Development Director

You've just heard me address the City Engineer and City Planner and redirect their efforts 180 degrees. I have the same challenge for you because we need a completely different approach.

Providing a 26-year Tax Increment Financing subsidy to move a fast food business four blocks up the street is an embarrassment. That type of project is not worthy of our efforts. But I understand why you do these things; you have to show results or you are criticized. Your job has always been a "what-have-you-done-for-me-lately" affair.

I want to redirect your efforts from economic hunting -- the idea of finding that business from outside the community and luring it to come here -- to economic gardening. I want to grow jobs locally, not import them. My inspiration is Littleton, Colorado, where the economic gardening approach has helped them create thousands of jobs without any tax subsidy. And these are not fragile jobs -- ones that are threatened once the subsidy goes away -- but jobs that will be deeply rooted in the community and, thus, have tremendous staying power.

I don't want to bring in another business that adds fifty new jobs. I want you to focus on creating one new job in fifty different businesses. This is much more than just business retention and expansion. Read their stuff. I'll even budget for you to go to their conference and training sessions.

The downside of this approach is that there will be no more ribbon cuttings. No more grand openings. No more big events where you and I can stand there with a hardhat and shovel while we celebrate a "successful" transaction where we gave away millions to bring some new jobs to town. Those things play well politically for both of us because they provide the illusion that we are actually doing something and making progress. I actually want to do something. I actually want to make progress.

So from this day forward, so long as you swear off the "hunting" approach and go about "gardening", you are getting a long, long leash from the city. When you garden, things don't grow overnight. We're going to measure your success over time with the same metrics I brought up earlier. The goal is to increase jobs in this neighborhood by 150% in ten years. I want to see actions, but I won't demand results for at least five years.

And by the way, we'll still be bringing jobs and new businesses in from outside the community. The only difference will be that we won't be paying them to come -- they will want to be here. If we are successful -- and we will be -- they will be paying us to come here.

To switch gears slightly, I also have a pet project that will benefit this neighborhood that I want you to put in motion. On the old railroad site, we have some old buildings that are currently zoned Industrial that are envisioned to be used for office or manufacturing sites. I don't think that is a viable use, and apparently the market doesn't either because very little has happened. I want to re-purpose this site as Central Minnesota's entertainment district.

A future entertainment district? Kill two birds with one stone by providing a unique entertainment experience within walking distance of the neighborhood while turning over the businesses in downtown that are crowding out substantial reinvestment.

Consider this: there is a general consensus that a major drag -- maybe the primary burden -- on our commercial downtown is the existence of a number of low-class drinking establishments. We're the center of a tourist mecca yet we are the lowest of the low in terms of entertainment options. When I look at the railroad site, I see a place that has the potential to be one part Bourbon Street, one part Downtown Disney. A row of clubs, each with entertainment where you can walk back and forth between them any time of year.

We strategically phase out liquor licenses in the downtown (or require 50% food service for renewal there) and phase them in at our new "entertainment district". Now Brainerd is a regional entertainment destination, as it should be. And with that amenity within walking distance of our neighborhood (and an easy transit stop to others), it will make living in Brainerd more valuable.

Parks and Recreation Director

I would love to have your job because you're going to have a ton of fun in your new role. Let's quit chasing grants -- you spend too much time on that right now -- and we don't need any more auto-based parks, so stop trying to build or expand them. What we need to do, to create value, is to embed recreation into the fabric of the neighborhood.

I want you to brainstorm and come up with ten ideas by next week. We'll chat about them and see what we can do to make them happen. Here are a handful to get you started.

  • We need to have a Ciclovia -- or better yet, a monthly or weekly event where the streets are closed to auto traffic and turned over to people and cyclists. Let's turn the public realm into a recreational asset for the people of this neighborhood.
  • To build on that, I want to use the streets for low-cost recreation. There is no city park anywhere near this neighborhood, but there is a lot of public space. Let's close off a block, get some nets and make a street hockey space. Or soccer. Or we set up a hopscotch block for an afternoon -- some chalk won't cost much and we have a lot of cones. I'm just talking about one block for a few hours a couple times a week. Move it around. Get volunteers to staff it. Now this neighborhood has some new life and purpose.
  • What about a block party? Let's have a contest for whatever house can improve their front yard most dramatically over the summer. Have people sign up at the beginning of the summer. Let the neighborhood residents be the judge in August. Whoever wins we buy 20 pizzas and a cooler of pop for, close down their block, bring in some tables and chairs (and maybe some music) and have a nice little party. I'm sure one of the local pizza places would give us a deal as a "sponsor" and we could promote it all with public service announcements. Even if we can't get a sponsor, this isn't going to cost us more than a few hundred dollars. That's a lot of mileage for just a little bit of money.
  • I think you should consider holding a scavenger hunt throughout the neighborhood, something digital along the lines of Snap Shot City. Again, this is not going to cost much but it will get people out in their neighborhood, looking at it critically, taking photos to share and then interacting with their neighbors. Find a restaurant in the neighborhood that wants to host the party at the end and it is a win:win for everyone.

See what I mean? This job should be an absolute blast. And don't let anyone tell you that this is trivial stuff. Making this neighborhood a fantastic place to live is a critical strategy for meeting our goals of doubling the tax base and increasing the population by 50% in a decade.

Let me give you one other project to work on. I said that there is not a public park anywhere near this neighborhood, and that is true, but it doesn't have to be. Running along the west side is an area that -- by lucky chance -- creates a potential greenway that runs the entire length of the town. At each end is a park with ball fields and hockey rinks and in the middle is the former Franklin school athletic grounds. Right now we're hardly using this space and, where we do, we use it to store salt and sand or stockpile snow.

With a little bit of effort and imagination, this unused space can be transformed into an amazing recreational amenity that will serve not just this neighborhood but the entire city. Now I'm not pretending this will be simple and/or that there are not things to be worked out, but as a medium-term project, this is a low-cost, high-return endeavor. I want you to look into it and get things going. 

Housing Rehabilitation Agency Director

Why is it that everyone believes you simply deal with housing for poor people? We have a city of nothing but housing for poor people -- that's part of our fundamental problem. The approach of the HRA -- whether it is investing in new growth on the periphery of town or doing work to create more "affordable" housing within town -- is completely missing the mark.  

Now to be fair, you are not just worried about "affordable" but are also tasked with the quality of the housing stock. A tar paper shack may be affordable, but it is not a very high quality place to be. Unfortunately the tools and guidance we've given you creates a huge incentive for you to simply buy the cheapest house on the block, tear it down, and build something that adds little value in return. That's not progress; that's institutionalizing decline.

These units may be "affordable", but they detract from the overall value of the neighborhood while not holding their own value over time. Add to that the fact that this is not a great place to live and investments like this are preventing this neighborhood from making progress.What I want you to do from now on is simple. On each block, I want you to identify the house one cheaper than the median value. I want you to find a private sector partner to help you buy it, tear it down and redevelop it. When you do this, I want the project to retain at least one "affordable" unit; whether that is an accessory apartment, a granny flat or a room for rent over the garage, it does not matter.

Now what will this accomplish? By focusing away from the cheapest house on the block, you're probably going to do fewer projects -- although I wouldn't count on that if you lever your funds right -- but each project is going to matter more. When we improve the value of the neighborhood by taking the medium value property and making it a high value property, we can then sit back and watch the market take care of transforming all those low value properties without us having to spend a dime.

In other words, you're no longer a bottom feeder. You are a catalyst for big change. And while bringing about big change, you're embedding affordable housing within each block in a way that will be socially-viable over the long-term. No more concentrations of poverty -- our neighborhoods will be fantastic places for people of all incomes to live side by side.

I want you to start an avalanche of redevelopment. You don't do that by throwing snowballs. You start an avalanche by poking the mound of snow strategically in the place that will start the pile moving. Your job is to find that spot and get the pile moving.

Transit Coordinator

I appreciate what you are trying to do and the effort you put in. The limited mandate you have matches the tools we've provided you. Unfortunately, I can't put a lot more resources into your efforts, but I can change your mandate and focus your limited resources on an approach that would be far more productive.

Today you run Dial-a-Ride, which is essentially a very expensive taxi service. I realize this service fills a need -- and I'm not sure how to address that need as it relates to those outside of the city limits -- but we can meet that need within the city and do so much more if we change to a fixed route service.

I've sketched out a very rough 3-1/2 mile route that provides service within easy walking distance of the neighborhood we are focusing on. It connects that neighborhood with the downtown, the mall and grocery store, government offices, churches and parks. If we designed a similar system on the south side of town, we could also connect the clinic, many other parks, schools and pretty much the rest of the core neighborhoods.

I'll leave it to you to redeploy your units based on what destinations people most frequently use, but the bottom line is that we need the people of North Brainerd to have another option. They need to be able to walk up to three or four blocks and get on a bus that will get them to the key destinations in town (and note that doesn't include the WalMart, Target and new Costco in the neighboring town). If we can improve the convenience by putting these units on a GPS tracker that people can monitor from the phone, all the better.

Part 3

Public Safety Coordinator

Your department has suffered immensely under the recent budget cuts. We have fewer police and fewer fire fighters than we did two years ago. We can all see where this is headed, and it is not good. Something needs to change dramatically.

I'll make you a promise right here and now: No more personnel cuts.

Now I need you to make me a promise: You'll work with me to change our approach.

We need to acknowledge that the way we provide public safety today is amazingly expensive. Each one of those cars costs more to buy, outfit and fuel than we pay for the officer inside it. And when it comes to fire protection, we ask our residents to pay twice. First, they pay millions for a fire protection system of underground pipes and towers and then they pay again for trucks and stations that, if we look at them objectively, are oriented more for service for surrounding communities than our own.

We need to start changing this equation. Serving the surrounding communities may be the good neighbor approach, and it may bring us some extra revenue year to year, but it is far from making financial sense. I want to focus on our town first. What is it going to take to do that well? Than any service we provide to others has to be at cost+ some incentive to make it worthwhile. We'll help them, but not subsidize their lifestyle.

And if that costs us some "clients" then so be it. If we are about building the biggest department, then our chiefs will be proud until budget shortfalls force us to lay everyone off. Our approach has to make financial sense.

There are three things I want to do that are going to incrementally start to change the cost equation, allowing us to put more money into people and effective public safety and less into gadgets, gear and infrastructure.

First, I want to start getting our staff out of their cars. As we retire vehicles, I don't want to replace them all. We still need a mobile police force, but I want to get some on bikes and some out walking. If I'm going to keep my promise, and you keep yours, our budget needs to start shifting from stuff to people.

Second, we're going to start downsizing our gear. Those big fire trucks are great for responding to that fire ten miles away, but unless that community ten miles away wants to pay for it, we're not going to replace it. I want a smaller, lighter and more nimble fleet of vehicles. We're a community of neighborhoods. We need to retool our approach to be at a neighborhood scale.

And that gets me to the third item: As you heard me tell then engineer earlier, we're abandoning the wide streets approach. You're going to have to work with me on this one. I know you believe that these wide streets allow you to get places more quickly. Maybe they do, but they cost a fortune, destroy the tax base that we need to sustain your department, and are themselves a huge safety hazard.

How many times a year do we need those Jaws of Life because two fast moving cars have collided? Too many, I know. We fix this hazardous street situation and you'll be able to put those extraction tools on the shelf for good. Imagine that!

We are going to have to think more strategically about where we place our stations, what vehicles we purchase, how we deploy our staff, etc... Public safety is more than big vehicles driving fast down wide streets. I'm trusting you to see that and to work to transition to an approach that would be more holistic and, ultimately, more effective.

Public Utilities Supervisor

I'm embarrassed every time we dig up a street that we just put down three years ago so we can replace an old water line. Deeply embarassed. You have to be too. On projects so enormous, this type of coordination is the minimum acceptable amount. 

What I need from you is a full capital improvements plan for replacement of the entire system. How old are our water and sewer lines, our towers, pumps and treatment facilities? When do they need to be replaced? How much is that going to cost? These seem like the most basic questions that any properly run utility should be able to ask.

Once we answer those questions, I want to know the rate structure we need to pay for everything. Will that double our present utility bills? Triple? Increase by ten times? We need to know becuase we need to have a very sober discussion with your customers about what we can realisticly do.

And get your mind around this: ultimately we are going to abandon large parts of the current system. Abandon as in, when it goes bad, it is not going to be replaced. It is simply not going to be cost effective to do it. This analysis is going to help us identify those areas and start that transition today. 

Maintenance Supervisor

I had a very interesting conversation the other day with an old timer from the area. He was lamenting the condition of the town but, in doing so, passed along to me a great story. He said that, when he was young, early every morning the inmates from the local jail would be roused, handed brooms and brought out to sweep the streets. Every day. He said the downtown had music – “In the Good Old Summertime” was the standard back then, he said – and that by 8 AM the entire place was bustling with activity. It is a pleasant mental image.

Now I don’t know as we’re going to be able to use inmates from the local jail – although we should look into it -- but the idea of sweeping the streets as a routine matter of business is intriguing to me. It is an emphasis on making the place more pleasant for the people that actually live there. So much of our effort today is on making our places easy to drive through. If we’re going to change the value equation in this neighborhood, we have to change our maintenance priorities.

Here’s our new priority list for maintenance:

  • Issues of immediate public safety
  • Plowing snow (seasonal priority, obviously)
  • Maintaining and repairing sidewalks
  • Tending to parks
  • Tending to boulevard vegetation
  • Downtown streets
  • Neighborhood streets
  • Roads on the periphery of town

In meeting these priorities, I want you to start thinking of neighborhood residents as assets to be deployed instead of customers that may complain about the service. You stick to this priority list, and I got your back on complaints.

To make residents into maintenance assets, they need to be part of the troubleshooting framework as well as the solution process. I suggest you adopt the program See. Click. Fix. as a first step to engaging residents. From their phone, they will be able to identify problems in their neighborhoods, take a photo and submit an electronic trouble ticket.

This may sound scary, but you need to embrace it. Don’t worry -- you’re not going to have hundreds of people whining about potholes in front of their house as much as you are going to be educating the public on the realistic cost – in terms of time and effort – to maintain our places. They’ll be able to see all of the requests, help you prioritize and, in the process, take ownership of their neighborhoods.

Then you need to tap into volunteers. We have hoards of people that want to take ownership in their neighborhood. We will create many more with this shift in focus. Let them water the plants, weed the gardens and paint the fences. Give them an opportunity to love their places and they will.

As a final thought, I want you to look at this photo of the back of a stop sign. Look what they’ve done; they painted it green. And why would they maintain their signs like this? Because the metallic back of a stop sign is ugly and detracts from the pleasantness of the public realm. Your job is to make the public realm pleasant. I need you to have this degree of passion, commitment and the attention to small details.

School District Superintendent

Madam Superintendent, I invited you here because I wanted you to hear all of this and understand how critically important you are to the success of this neighborhood and the future well being of our city. We need you as part of this solution.

The school district has already walked away from four neighborhood schools in our city, decimating the value of those neighborhoods in the process. We need families here. We need professionals. With great schools these neighborhoods draw both. Without the schools, we are at a serious disadvantage. We can't afford to lose any more.

I would make the case to you that the school district really can't afford it either. I saw the financial evaluation your building people did to justify the new campus built four miles out of town. They compared the ongoing maintenance and repair of the existing neighborhood schools to the construction and maintenance of the new. This limited analysis completely overlooked the key cost factor you are now starting to struggle with: the cost of busing.

Nobody needs to be bused to the neighborhood schools. Literally nobody. If the cost of transportation had been factored in, the neighborhood schools would have looked much better. And stop to consider the volatility with energy fluctuations that the district has opened itself up to by committing to a long term debt on an enormous remote campus, one that requires every kid to be bused to. The district already has to take money out of the classrooms to subsidize busing. Is this really good policy?

I also want to ask you to change your current busing policy. You keep widening the radius of where kids are excluded from riding the bus. Why do you want to financially reward the parent that lives ten miles out of town on the hobby farm by picking their kid up at the door for no charge while the poor kid living in the poor neighborhood a mile from school has to walk in the middle of winter? We should be doing the opposite; provide great service to those kids that cost so little in town and then, if you want to provide service, charge those outside of town that are disproportionately expensive (by their own choice of where to live) for the service.

We're mobilizing the entire city around building neighborhoods of value. We're going to be drawing people, businesses and value from the outside back in. We desperately need you to be part of that move.

Religious Leader

I've asked you to be here for the same reason as the school district. We need you, and your colleagues in the other faiths, as part of our neighborhoods. You provide social stability and a degree of community cohesion that can't easily be replicated. Getting people together, having them share meals and help each other out -- this is what being part of a neighborhood is. We need you and your peers to get back involved in our places.

And we need you to stop destroying them. I realize that most of your flock drives to weekend services. I'm trying to change that by getting more people living in your neighborhood, but I need you to meet me halfway. Please stop buying up buildings and tearing them down for parking. If people have to walk two blocks to get to the service, it is a modest price to pay for what they get. And as you've heard, I promise to work to make that walk easier and more enjoyable.

And wouldn't it be great if a large percentage of your parishioners eventually lived in this neighborhood and walked by the church each day? How many more would stop for a moment's reflection? How many would volunteer to help out more often? How many more could you reach in their moment of need? How many would walk past the church and experience that gentle reminder to "love thy neighbor"?

I want to do a project together to redevelop those parking lots you've created into buildings for people. You have a lot of power to make this city great.

Council of Local Non-Profits

You've heard me challenge our staff. Now I'm going to challenge you. Let's leverage the talent and efforts of your organizations for a common purpose. Let's focus on improving this neighborhood, and the other neighborhoods of the city. Let me give you an example.

Our parents are afraid to let their kids walk to school. You have elderly people that take the Dial-a-Ride to the mall everyday simply to do a morning walk for exercise. Let's get them out here together in the morning. Let the elderly walk the kids to school. Imagine the wisdom and insights that would be mutually shared -- not to mention the admiration and affection -- by a seven year old and a seventy year old spending fifteen minutes each day on a walk through the neighborhood. 

There are so many people wanting to do good things. I want to give them a platform right here in this neighborhood to do it.

State Legislator

I've saved you for last, and I really only have one, simple thing to request: Set us free.

I don't want more money. I don't want subsidies. I don't want grants and low interest loans. I don't want more programs or incentives or "enterprise zones". I don't want you to cap property tax rates -- or ever require that we have a property tax. I don't want you to solve our problems for us. I want you to set us free to innovate.

Hold us accountable -- I'm fine with that and, in fact, I demand it -- but reserve your paternal instincts for those places that don't meet up with expectations. Better yet, watch us succeed in this neighborhood and then tap into our knowledge and skills to assist those places still mired in stagnation and decline. That's a modern operating system for local government.

If you want innovation, you have to let us innovate.

+++

Thanks everyone. We have a lot of work to do, but we can turn this neighborhood around. Get out there and make our town a strong town.

 

If you would like more from Chuck Marohn, check out his new book, Thoughts on Building Strong Towns (Volume 1)

 You can also chat with Chuck and many others about implementing a Strong Towns approach in your community by joining the Strong Towns Network. The Strong Towns Network is a social platform for those working to make their community a strong town.

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