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Thursday
Apr122012

CA Tour, Day 1: Redding

We’re on the road today, heading away from Redding where we had a fantastic event last night. The Curbside Chat was in a local auditorium and we had over one hundred people in attendance. The Q&A included a lot of really good questions. I enjoyed being here and appreciated the hospitality of everyone we met.

Curbside Chat in Redding, California - April 11, 2012

Redding is an interesting town. The furthest north I have been in California prior to this is San Francisco, so this was all new landscape for me. It is very beautiful, with the mountains north of Redding providing this gorgeous backdrop for a city that, at least I envision, used to be tucked in at the base of the hills. Not today. There were some parts of downtown Redding that looked like someone was making an effort to do something with, but so overwhelmingly much more that sits in a state of under use, neglect or decline. One can say, "lots of potential", and that would be true, but you have the impression that an entirely new mindset is needed if that potential is to be realized.

Most of the energy seems to be have been spent on the periphery of town, which is as non-descript and unmemorable as any standard American town. It is a little depressing because I get the impression that Redding fashions itself as something of a tourist destination, with the "natural" beauty as a primary feature. I suppose if one could be delivered to a mountainside villa without having to experience the hour of driving through the Costcos, strip malls and suburban subdivisions that repeat, repeat, repeat...then that experience could be realized. For most Americans, this will just look and feel a lot like home, albeit with some really nice mountains as a backdrop.

And even more depressingly, their current great initiative is a new shopping center. Located miles out of town on the edge of the periphery, it is the 1950's thinking of the Suburban Experiment continued, not from sound economics, but simple inertia. It is hard to understand why this is on the front burner, especially when so many other places across the U.S. are seeing their malls closed and, even where they are not, it is clear that we have overbuilt the amount of retail space an already over-consumerist economy can support. There are going to be many accidental monuments to the hubris and disconnect from reality brought about by the Suburban Experiment. This may be Redding's, although I hope not.

I realize I've not been very positive about Redding those past two paragraphs and I apologize for that because I don't want to give the impression that it is a bad place. It is not. I really liked it here, enjoyed the people I met and was pleased to learn how many people are working here locally to bring about positive change. Redding is not in a a situation any more difficult that other cities across the country, and it actually has a great deal of assets on which to build. They just need a different understanding of how a city creates growth and experiences prosperity. They need to break away from the Ponzi scheme of the Suburban Experiment.

There was some news coverage of the event that is worth reviewing for a local reaction. There was an editorial written in advance of our arrival. Here's an excerpt:

How does this "Ponzi scheme" work? As Strong Towns argues in its manifesto, great quantities of outside money — typically from state and federal governments, but also from developers — go toward building roads, water lines and sewer pipes that serve and foster new growth. In the meantime, cities skimp on maintenance of their existing infrastructure, and the slow pace of decay lets them get away with it — until all of a sudden things start falling apart in unmistakable and expensive ways.

Say, driven around Redding's older neighborhoods lately? Some roads are crumbling to the point where the city engineers have essentially written them off. The pipes underneath them probably wouldn't look much better. Yet all along the city is avidly promoting major new development on Oasis Road, the county supervisors hope to see the same on Knighton Road, and Caltrans is planning to widen Interstate 5 not least to help keep city cars moving to those outlying shopping centers. Funny how the pattern repeats itself.

I was also able to speak with a really bright reporter, Jenny Espino, who attended the Curbside Chat and wrote this report. She really captured the esence of what was going on and framed the debate perfectly with this quote from one of the local council member:

Redding Councilwoman Missy McArthur was one of a few local leaders who were in the audience Wednesday night.

She said the city continues to be responsible for how growth is happening. She recognized more could be done, but said there is more to the picture than Marohn paints in his presentation.

"The brick layer, contractors and construction workers need jobs to make a living. If you stop, then all these people (are without jobs). We're all about jobs right now. There's a symbiotic relationship here," she said.

And instead of responding myself, I'll let the intelligent person who was the first commenter eloquently do that for me.

Missy and other civic leaders exemplify the problem that Mr. Marohn was pointing out tonight.

When she says, ""The brick layer, contractors and construction workers need jobs to make a living. If you stop, then all these people (are without jobs). We're all about jobs right now. There's a symbiotic relationship here." It shows she didn't understand what he was saying.

While she has been party with most of the rest of the city and county leaders of destroying good paying city jobs and privatizing more government functions and throwing money away on projects like Stillwater and Oasis Road, she doesn't get the fact that extending infrastructure at public cost to help big box stores take more money out of the community is not good business and will not create lasting good paying jobs like the ones she has helped destroy.

Mr. Marohn did offer solutions, but it is unlikely that our local leaders can or will comprehend what they are. He suggested that we look to the local people for the answers, not the hierarchical "good ole boys" that never had the answer, but have become very good at capturing every penny of public funds from these projects as possible.

Stillwater and the project at Knighton Rd. are not good investments for the people. They are not going to return any meaningful profit to the people, and will in the long run put the risk and cost of urban decay on us.

The speaker talked about growth needing to stop being horizontal, big projects that pass the burden onto the people. The most important slide in his presentation was the stop sign.

I guess the symbolism escaped Missy, who I am sure has good intentions, but lacks depth of knowledge and an ability to think outside the box.

Sorry, Redding!

A couple of other interesting things. In California you can get a prescription for medicinal marijuana. I was told that Redding has a population of around 90,000 and that doctors working locally have issued 23,000 prescriptions for the wacky weed. No official statistics to quote with that one, just local talk, but it makes for a funny cultural story.

I also had my first encounter with a person concerned with Agenda 21. I don't have time to get into that and the entire back and forth we had. I will later as it is worth additional reporting. The one amazing thing was how he kept trying to put words into my mouth to make his point, which was essentially that I was attacking his way of life. Dude, live however you want, just PAY FOR IT YOURSELF. What these people fail to grasp is that the big conspiracy taking place in this country is not trying to round people up and herd them into work camps of sustainable housing and trains. It is actually the exact opposite: to perpetuate the Suburban Growth Ponzi Scheme, to embed it into the American psyche as not just a normal way to build a nation but an American right, and then use that belief to siphon power and money back to those in position to benefit. If anyone is a pawn in this game it is them.

We've just arrived in Chico and I am looking forward to catching up briefly with some good friends. More from the road soon.

++

We're back on the road headed to Modesto. I took my turn driving and now Justin has the wheel, so I'll finish this post on yesterday's events. I promised on Facebook to explain the "airplane drama" that occurred yesterday and, since I know my wife wants to know (and I've not been able to call her when she is available to talk), here you go.

Tuesday night I worked really late and basically when we left for the airport I had gotten only a short hour or so of "sleep". I drove the entire way to the airport and so, by the time we got to the gate, I was pretty exhausted. I planned to sleep on the plane, which is something I can typically do just fine.

As I'm sitting in my seat trying to catch some sleep, I started to feel kind of flush. It was really cramped and tight and I couldn't get very comfortable. In short, I started to realize that I was going to faint if I didn't get up, so I stood up and walked to the back of the plane. I kind of crouched down and put my head between my knees, just getting my bearings.

Well, the Delta force of Delta flight attendants jumped into action. I was suddenly surrounded by five women, all asking me questions at the same time. (Are you sick? Are you a diabetic? Do you have a medical condition? Do you have the flu? Did you go out drinking last night? Did you eat breakfast?) I totally understand their reaction and appreciate their concern, but at that exact moment, it was a little overwhelming.

After getting me some water (which really helped), one of them got on the loudspeaker and asked if there was a doctor on the plane. Another grabbed an oxygen mask and started giving me straight O2. These two things combined to give my fellow passengers -- dozens of which were turning around to get a good look at me -- the impression that they were flying with Patient 1 of the next contagion.

I didn't fight the care they were giving me at that point, despite the fact that my light headedness had passed. I got a little bit larger seat to use in the back, a couple cookies to munch on, some more water and got to make a new friend of a very nice physical trainer (closest thing to a doctor on board) who told me all about her place in Massachusetts as she took my pulse (normal) and affirmed that my face had, indeed, regained its color.

All in all, the Delta crew was very nice and caring and showed a lot of compassion and competence in helping me out. I promised myself I would get more sleep before my next flight, although I'll be staying with Howard Blackson and his family in San Diego before I fly out next week. If past performance is indicative of future results, we may have trouble breaking off the conversation for something as trivial as sleep. After all, I should be able to sleep on the plane.

Wednesday
Apr112012

Kicking the can down the road

When a town can’t grow out, it must grow up.

To allow this to happen, cities can’t use the outdated suburban methods of financing for new growth. Doing so will be no more effective than running into a brick wall.

That’s exactly what is happening in the suburb of Roseville, a first-ring suburb north of St. Paul and home to the first Target big box store. The City of Roseville is looking to grow because, as the assumption goes, if you’re not growing you're dying. There is a large industrial parcel slated for redevelopment called Twin Lakes.

Ten years ago, the Twin Lakes comprehensive plan was developed (and the suburb even created a redevelopment project webpage). While the plan isn’t great, it isn’t all that bad either. It calls for commercial and mixed-use districts with walkable, connected places and frontages that include lively shop fronts, arcades, front porches and no blank walls.

There’s a problem. This plan will never see the light of day. The mixed-use redevelopment isn’t going to happen. Instead, the Planning Commission has approved a Wal-Mart.

Roseville is abandoning their decade old New Urbanism inspired plan, one that could help bring long-term resiliency to the community, for one that will bring a quick windfall of cash.

The city will immediately net over $410,000 in “park dedication fees” alone. All this “growth” and windfall tax revenue comes at a price – of which, has been detailed at great length on the Strong Towns blog comparing a traditional block versus a Taco John’s drive-through taco restaurant [see: The cost of auto orientation]. Eventually the bill will be due, and we’ll face the realization that the tax revenue collected will not cover the basic costs of maintaining the infrastructure. This is where we’re at today.

In all fairness, Roseville’s Twin Lakes project has been on the books for nearly a decade with little to show for itself despite receiving upwards of $1.8 million in state and local infrastructure grants (all of which the Wal-Mart will benefit from by the way).

The road block was that Roseville ran out of typical suburban mechanisms for growth; it has no greenfield sites and transfer payments between governments have dried up. Transportation spending didn’t help; including the construction of a Metro Transit Park and Ride Station north of the site. Even tax increment financing couldn’t grease the wheels. These factors were exacerbated by the fact that prior to 2007, suburban development was happening on the fringe. After 2007, suburban development just wasn’t happening.

Part of the problem is that the Roseville was unwilling to spend its own money, and it is this very reason that Roseville was recently sent to Court (and ruled against). In a ruling that flew under the radar, a judge ruled that Roseville’s proposed impact fee (or “voluntary development agreement”) was technically illegal. The City was attempting to levy fees for infrastructure on those looking to redevelop their property based on trip generation, as determined by the Institute of Transportation Engineer’s Trip Generation Handbook. The more traffic a development was to demand, the more the developer would have to pay.

This is backwards thinking, especially if you’re looking to create a medium density mixed-use community with retail next to a Park and Ride station. These developments generate lots of traffic (and that’s a good thing). Roseville was single-handily disincentivizing the exact type of development it actually wanted.The problem is that the suburb wanted growth, but didn’t want growing pains. It wasn’t confident that it could confront the general taxpayer and make a case for this redevelopment. The suburb’s unwillingness to make tough decisions that may have been temporarily painful have resulted in kicking the can down the road – the continuing of the suburban experiment.

To enable real growth, cities can’t use old methods. Cities need to be willing to throw their hats into the ring, create comphrensive plans with real teeth, and, to quote Chuck Marohn, “they can’t make the last person to the party pay a disproportionate amount of the freight.” He’s right. We can’t continue to use “local extortion schemes to make up for the lack of financial solvency the Suburban Experiment has wrought. We need to actually face up and address the issue.”

Current economic conditions have the American collective starting to question the idea of endless suburban growth – the false notion that we can simply build ourselves out of a problem. This is a dead idea. You can’t have real, sustainable growth without a few growing pains.

We have existing infrastructure that needs maintenance, and we can’t rely on new development (or park dedication fees) to cover the burden. We can’t keep kicking the can down the road and abandoning thoughtful plans in lieu of a quick cash payouts. Soon enough, there will be a generation that won’t be able to kick the can, and they’ll be mad.

Tuesday
Apr102012

Support Strong Towns

This went out yesterday in our newsletter -- sign up to get it about monthly (or so) -- and I thought it was worth running here on our off day (we generally publish M, W and F).

We're at that time of year where we are preparing our tax returns. This is a first for us as 2011 was our first year as a 501(c)3, our first year where we had any revenue. 

Let me repeat that: 2011 was our first year with any financial support. 

Look at what we did in 2011 with a total budget of just $30,785.

  • We did Curbside Chats across the county. Maryland, Missouri, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
  • We wrote the Curbside Chat booklet, a powerful communication tool explaining the relationship between our post-WW II development pattern and our tough economic times.
  • We reached tens of thousands with our blog (published three times a week) and our weekly podcast to deliver this powerful message.

In short, with pocket change we've started a national movement based around solid land use and economic principles communicated in a language accessible to everyone.

We're not asking for a donation because of what we've done. We're asking for your support because of what we want to do.

  • We have dozens of Curbside Chat requests from across the county, people that want to hear the Strong Towns message and share it with their community.
  • We're working on a Curbside Chat video to get this message to even more people.
  • Our next publication, Misunderstanding Mobility, is due out soon. It is designed to help local officials (and those that influence them) challenge the status quo and make difficult transportation decisions at the local level.
  • We are working on 4D Road and Street Standards, a practical and implementable approach to merging land use and transportation in a Strong Towns framework.
  • Ongoing outreach on the blog, podcast and -- coming very, very soon -- See It Differently TV, a chance to see the good, bad and the ugly in our everyday places through the eyes of Strong Towns.
  • And much, much more....

If you are in a position to help us out, please visit our website where we can accept credit card donations, Pay Pal and checks by mail.

If you are in a position to make a larger, supporting donation to help us reach the next level, email Chuck Marohn directly with your contact information. We're ready for that step.

Thanks for all you are doing to make your community a Strong Town.