This week's member blog post comes from Ron Beltier's blog, Lower Mac News and Views. Ron's post is a reaction to Strong Towns President, Chuck Marohn's, recent talk in Allentown, PA. 

Incrementalism is a sure bet. It can’t fail. That’s the beauty of the Strong Towns message. Make lots of small bets with low risk. Last Friday, Chuck Marohn, President and Founder of Strong Towns, was at the Renew LV Summit for Smart Growth delivering that message.

Chaotic but smart / orderly but dumb

There was a healthy exchange between Marohn and the Mayor of Allentown. Marohn advocates for incrementalism and is generally against tax subsidies for catalytic “game changer” projects (big gambles as opposed to small bets). “Chaotic but smart” is always better than “orderly but dumb”.

In the suburban context the presentation is basically a blow by blow critique of “ponzi scheme” sprawl. That is use of subsidies - direct or indirect - to expand infrastructure to build financially low yielding but high liability development. And then counting on future growth to sustain the bad bets of the past. The talk is a warning bell relating to long term solvency. Suburban style development is expensive. How do we afford to pay for it? The suburban model is orderly but dumb.

Orderly but smart? Still a gamble.

Marohn made a passing mention of the Neighborhood Improvement Zone (NIZ) leading the Mayor to push back in defense.

The NIZ (funding mechanism) and the City Center Project (the land development) are together a big gamble. Though I argue one made on a classic and productive development pattern. One that humans built around for centuries.

Allow me to expand. City Center is more than an arena. And that’s critical. Design-wise, developers got a lot right that they normally don’t. It’s a well-thought out mixed use residential, commercial and office project (same thing with the waterfront). Both projects place heavy emphasis on good urbanism and place-making.  Orderly but smart. But still a gamble.

All this might make it smarter. Give it a better chance of succeeding. But it’s still a gamble. Still a rolling of dice.

Orderly but smart? I think so. Gives it a better chance of success. But still a gamble. 

Orderly but smart? I think so. Gives it a better chance of success. But still a gamble. 

Chucks response

I got to pick Chucks brain after the exchange. His response after I asserted a belief that City Center is orderly but smart (though still a gamble) was that most every example of a catalytic city-saving project is based on (at the time) seemingly good logic.  Take the Memphis Pyramid. A punch line in Chuck's presentation. In hindsight, somewhere in TN at some point in time, some smart people were around a table and made a logical argument in favor of it. So much so that the City bought in and rolled the dice. That gamble clearly was a failure

The Memphis punch line.

The Memphis punch line.

The Mayor’s Point

The Mayor’s rebuttal is that you wouldn’t have had a billion dollars of investment downtown without the NIZ funding mechanism. That’s 100% true. This is the ‘but for’ argument. In Lower Mac I voted against a TIF for a large shopping center primarily based on “but for”. Meaning, it was obvious to me that Lower Mac would continue to have very healthy economic development without the subsidy. “But for” the TIF, we’d still get the “desirable” development. In Allentown “but for” the NIZ there would be no City Center and no Waterfront. I think most would agree.

UPDATE: A friend put it this way. A very interesting way to look at it.

“Sometimes you get to a point where you’ve inflicted so much damage that you need a more drastic approach – where you feel a roll of the dice is worth it. Perhaps it is like if a person had not taken care of themselves for a long time and got to the point where cardio or diet was no longer going to be enough – they need open-heart surgery”

The NIZ was open heart surgery for the City.

 The question is.. when is the gamble appropriate? And is the gamble ever appropriate with taxpayer dollars?

A Strong Towns incremental approach could work in Allentown, but would take decades of trial and error, successes and failures. I struggle with this. I honestly do. ‘No vote’ on a Suburban TIF for a strip mall was an easy call. No brainer. The NIZ tax tool? I just don’t know. We will need the benefit of hindsight in 20 years. Right now in the short term the gamble paid off based on the eye test. The finances? Currently up for interpretation. Altogether way too early to call.

One valid concern from the start has been poaching. Had the NIZ included provisions limiting it to new jobs instead of poached jobs, I may have been even warmer to the idea. At the end of the day, is the gamble ever appropriate with tax dollars?

Conclusion

The principles of City Center and the Waterfront (the land developments) got the equations involving the physical built form, good urbanism and place-making correct. These very large scale projects are orderly but smart. This gives both of them a better chance of succeeding. Neither are magic bullets in a vacuum.  Mixed use design was necessary.

Today, City Center, in it’s admitted infancy, is succeeding. If these projects were built purely with private dollars I honestly think they would already universally be called successes. In the urban realm, orderly but dumb projects happen too often. More rarely do the orderly but smart. The problem remains--they're still gambles.

The Mayor would probably tell you there wasn’t another option in Allentown. If no one ever won in a casino, they would be empty. Years of decline after some really dumb urban renewal attempts over the years took the City to the brink. In this case, these are billion dollar questions.

Bookmark our Member Blogroll for more great local conversations by our members.