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Friday News Digest

We actually got our first real snap of cold weather this winter in Minnesota as the wind shifted and started coming in from the north. Weeks ago I had stopped enforcing the "hat and gloves" rule with my kids as they trampled out the door in the morning, adopting instead the more laissez faire "hood and pockets" parenting approach. Still no snow, however, and so with the weather shift we're now stuck in the worst of all situations: cold with no snow. The reciprocal -- snow with no cold -- is my personal winter favorite, but I've come to accept snow with cold as a fair compromise. I'm sure when I head to Texas next month it will snow a foot like the last time I was there in February. Oh well, if nothing else my Samoyeds are now two happy dogs and the forecast says back into the 30's this weekend. What a strange winter.

Enjoy the week's news.

  • The most rewarding thing that can happen for me is to have someone read our work and then apply it to their own local situation. Enter Tim Evans at Future New Jersey who took the work on the difference between roads and streets and applied it to his local Route 1. And by "applied", he not only analyzed the route and diagnosed the siuation, but he offered a solid recommendation on how to fix the problem and create value in the corridor. I want to publicly thank Tim Evans for a fantastic job. This is great work. New Jersey needs to listen to him.

This distinction is an important aspect of the discussion about whether and how to institute a bus rapid transit (BRT) system along the Route 1 corridor in Mercer and southern Middlesex counties.  The municipalities that straddle Route 1 in central New Jersey have essentially been treating it as their Main Street, lining it with the land uses that formerly defined the traditional downtown: the innumerable strip malls offer local shopping and a multitude of low-rise office complexes act as employment centers.  The fact that none of these destinations connect to each other via a pedestrian-friendly local street network has resulted in exactly the mismatch that Marohn laments: Residents use Route 1 for local trips, and the resulting traffic interferes with the trucks and other regional through traffic that is trying to use Route 1 as the shortest route from the New Jersey Turnpike in New Brunswick to I-95 or the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

  • We've been scheduling a lot of Curbside Chats, particularly corresponding with trips I'm making to Florida, Texas and California in the coming months. If you're interested in seeing where we've been or where we are scheduled to go, we've put together this map. I'm also thinking of adding places that have made inquiries, so if you are interested in holding a Curbside Chat in your community, make sure and let us know. We can connect you with others near you and make it happen.

View Curbside Chats in a larger map

  • Our blog of the week: A Rebalanced Life. On the home page they quote Confucius. "Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated." And in addition to discussing how to reset one's life in a minimalist framework, the site links to Strong Towns in their blogroll. Thanks so much for the link -- we're really honored that you'd find value for your life in our message.
  • Thanks also to Tim McKuin at the blog MoveArkansas for saying we hit the nail on the head this past Wednesday with our piece Adding Insult to Injury. This is another great example of taking our work and applying it to a local project. Very nicely done, Tim.

First of all, replacing big wide roads and traffic lights with smaller roads and traffic circles to keep traffic moving often doesn't reduce capacity much, if at all. Secondly, our car-centric policies of the last half century have led to people making more trips by car than they used to. (surprise!) If we make University and Asher more people-centric and promote dense, safe, walkable development there, then a lot of people will choose to live there instead of out in the boonies. They'll be able to take care of more of their daily needs very close-by instead of having to drive back and forth all over creation. They'll still be able to drive anywhere they want, but they won't need to drive as much as they do now.

  • Nathaniel Hood was our first ever donor and, starting with that distinction, I have had the good fortune to get to know him a little. For a while I lobbied to try and find him a job (he recently moved back to Minnesota from working out of the country -- bad timing is the only reason he did not immediately get a job) but now I'm scrambling to try and make a place for him here before he gets locked up somewhere else. Nate intuitively gets what we're talking about at Strong Towns, sees the world in this same way and, to top it all off, is a great writer. Here's another example of that last trait as he talks about the financial craziness of Cape Coral, FL.

I was reading through alocal Cape Coral blog, and ran into a promotional flyer that appears to sum up the community and their aspirations [speaking of which, Cape Coral even makes this suburban-disaster slide show look tolerable]. It is a flyer for a “Family Fun Walk” to celebrate the “Grand Opening” of a road! I can’t imagine anything less fun than walking with children next to a 6+ lane road. I wonder how many people turned up to the event? I did find this chunk of information though: “The total cost for the right-of-way acquisition, design and construction of both the roadway and bridges came to $42 million.” [Source].

  • Just to go deeper into Nate's piece, that last source he refers to is an article on the "fun walk". While calling a 6-lane highway a "boulevard" is a bizarre use of the English language, ponder as you read this how pathetically little value is being created for such an incredible sum of money. This STROAD is being built at a stunning $3,500 per foot. Someone please tell me it's a typo. The Champ Elysees would not cost $3,500 per foot, and look at the platform for creating value that is. Utterly amazing how crazy we are!

As part of the city of Cape Coral’s Five-Year Roadway Improvement Program, Del Prado Boulevard was widened from four to six lanes, resurfaced and realigned at the S.R. 78/Pine Island intersection. Motorists and pedestrians along this 2.3-mile stretch of Del Prado Boulevard also now benefit from two wider bridges, three new off-site bridges, street lighting, new traffic signals, curb, storm drainage, landscaping and 10-foot-wide multi-use paths. The total cost for the right-of-way acquisition, design and construction of both the roadway and bridges came to $42 million.

Increasing borrowing signals a drop in unemployment (USURTOT) is giving households the courage to take advantage of holiday discounts, buy cars and finance higher education. At the same time, dependence on credit means the job market has yet to improve enough to provide the incomes needed to sustain consumer purchases, which account for about 70 percent of the economy.

“Consumers are feeling more confident and making more big- ticket purchases,” said Richard DeKaser, deputy chief economist at Parthenon Group Inc. in Boston, who projected credit would climb by $11.6 billion, the highest estimate in the Bloomberg survey. “The debt pay downs of previous years are now allowing consumers to borrow a bit more freely.”

  • In Minnesota we have a system of local government aid that funds large portions of the budget of many cities (and has little or no funding for others). LGA, as it is known, has been reduced and has faced elimination many times during our budget shortfalls. We prepared a report on the subject back in 2010 and I was part of an online debate on it as well. Understanding that LGA was created to simplify our tax system and provide a stable funding source, this recent article should remind us that the road to Hades is paved with good intentions (and that top down systems are, as Tom Friedman is fond of saying, orderly and dumb).

Two legislative staff members had just presented a long, complex explanation of how Local Government Aid is distributed to cities across Minnesota. The Dec. 7 meeting was just the second ever for a study group created three years ago to improve the LGA system that many city officials would decry as unfair — if they understood it well enough to be certain.

After the lengthy presentation, Roseau Mayor Jeff Pelowski sat back in his chair with a new appreciation for his staff members.

"I felt uncomfortable asking my staff why we lost [LGA funds] when they replied, 'I don't know,' " Pelowski said. "Now I know they weren't pulling my leg."

  • Any article that will quote Lewis Mumford is worth reading, so thank you to my many friends that forwarded me this piece in the NY Times about parking lots. It is worth a read, especially for this quote:

As the critic Lewis Mumford wrote half a century ago, “The right to have access to every building in the city by private motorcar in an age when everyone possesses such a vehicle is the right to destroy the city.” Yet we continue to produce parking lots, in cities as well as in suburbs, in the same way we consume all those billions of plastic bottles of water and disposable diapers.

  • Hey Fresno residents fed up with this type of insanity. The trick is not to argue that it will make the pedestrian experience "less pleasant" -- engineers don't have a metric for pedestrians or their pleasantness -- or that it is ugly (have you ever gone to an art museum with an engineer?) but that it costs a lot while at the same time diminishes the tax base. How you going to have prosperity -- or budget for more STRAODS -- when you are spending your money on projects that decrease your property values? Use the math, Luke. Search your feelings. You know it to be true.
  • I love how the school travel planning news took my photo from the No Car Left Behind article and used it in their newsletter (page 11). Our stuff here is all for public use under a Creative Commons license. Please use it whenever you can to make this county one full of Strong Towns.
  • This controversy is about more than Eisenhower. It is about how we think of our places. Washington D.C. was built with a monumental design. I don't have a problem if some crazy city wants to embrace Frank Gehry's designs (as the U of MN did -- I have particular distaste for this building as my dorm room overlooked its early morning, very noisy construction), but does it have to be our only city with this type of grand design? It is akin to a cell phone going off in the middle of a New York Philharmonic performance, which is just plain irritating.

The present Eisenhower Memorial design, by postmodernist Frank Gehry, has virtually nothing to do with the Dwight David Eisenhower of history. Plans call for Ike to be memorialized in sculpture as a barefoot farmboy on the Great Plains: not the great wartime leader; not the soldier-diplomat; not the chief executive of the United States who presided over eight years of peace and prosperity. The Gehry conceit seems both obvious and entirely in tune with the postmodern deconstruction of history: There are no great men; there are no great virtues; there is no great striving; nor is there great accomplishment or great service to others. No one, visiting the Eisenhower Memorial as designed by Frank Gehry, would have the slightest reason to grasp the truth of the man himself

  • I really want to respect this man, but why every time we talk about how we can't afford our highway system, we only talk about ways to find new revenue? Will anyone ever state the obvious: We have too many miles of unproductive highway to maintain. Is that somehow an attack on our American machismo?

New sources of revenue are being considered because the gasoline tax is expected to provide a declining share of transportation funding as vehicles become more efficient in their use of fossil fuels or switch to alternatives like electricity.

Dayton said the task force study was inspired by his travels around the state and "experiencing the deterioration of Minnesota's highway system."

He noted that forecasts have shown state transportation funding falling behind by as much as $50 billion over the next 20 years.

"Minnesota has chosen by default and without really much public debate a path of declining transportation investments and therefore declining ... quality," Dayton said.

  • And finally, if there had been a YouTube back when I was a civil engineering undergrad (Class of 1995), I'm sure we would have shared this video with a mixture of laughter and confusion. The next time your city engineer starts talking about Level of Service or Average Daily Traffic (the engineer will most likely say LOS and ADT, just to be confusing), show them this video.


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.


Adding insult to injury

It is difficult to imagine the story of the traditional commercial block versus the redeveloped, auto-centric commercial block getting any more insulting to our senses. Today I will stretch your imagination.

A timeline of decline.

Decades ago, the Department of Transportation, in the name of growth, builds a highway through a traditional neighborhood. The highway maintains its character -- high speeds, wide lanes, channeled traffic -- despite going through a developed urban neighborhood.

The city embraces the highway and the promise of prosperity it holds. Over the years and at tremendous expense, the city's traffic engineering department converts the local streets to auto-centric corridors, widening lanes, removing on-street parking and eliminating sidewalks.

The city's planning department promotes a "modern" land use code, complete with use-based zoning that reinforces a hierarchy of streets (local/collector/arterial), the need for off-street parking and makes much of the traditional development pattern non-conforming.

The state reinforces the horizontal growth pattern with subsidies for new infrastructure on the periphery and a property tax system that rewards dis-investment and decline with lower rates of taxation.

The federal government adds subsidies for single-family homes, energy and transportation to the mix, further reinforcing the horizontal nature of local growth.

In response, the city's traditional neighborhoods stagnate and decline. The growth that is a natural byproduct of successful is now directed to the periphery. This only reinforces the dependency on the automobile as, perversely, residents of once-walkable neighborhoods with a variety of commercial options are now forced to drive to the periphery.

Further dis-investment. It makes no sense to live in a traditional neighborhood, or own a business in one, if you must drive everywhere anyway. There is no spatial advantage. When a person of modest means can get a larger home, a larger lot and have the same conveniences -- if not more -- outside of town while paying lower taxes, it is rational that they will do so. Why stay? Further decline.

As the transformation from traditional to auto-centric continues, parking becomes more valuable for those establishments that remain. Commercial businesses that in another era would have been expanded or rebuilt at a grander scale as the community grew are now more valuable being demolished for parking. The same thing is happening to the homes throughout these neighborhoods. They are being taken down in favor of garages and "buffering". Neighborhoods originally designed to define space are now becoming space.

These changes are devastating to the tax base. Where the public has made the greatest investments in infrastructure (and has the greatest obligations for maintenance) the neighborhoods stagnate. But nobody has the job of worrying about the tax base throughout the existing neighborhoods. The traffic engineer worries about moving cars. The public works director runs the utilities and is primarily concerned with new connections. The planner administers the zoning code and is particularly zealous about parking ratios.

This all devolves into a farcical feedback loop. More people driving means that more transportation improvements are needed. There is a greater need to channel cars, to control the flow, to improve the capacity of the transportation system. The more the public realm is given over to cars, the more people must drive. The more people that drive, the more cars on the road. Etc. Etc. Etc. Nobody realizes that we're not actually adding cars. We're all just making more trips.

To keep things moving, more automobile capacity is needed. As a society, we've come to believe now that somehow more space dedicated to cars means more growth, even though one can essentially go anywhere at high speeds and reach any location in minutes at any time of day parking just outside the destination. The only way to create more capacity is literally to tear down more of the city.

We'll get it all, eventually. Or die trying.

As the decay accelerates, in a move reminiscent of James Taggert in the book Atlas Shrugged, the local officials look at the owners of the remaining buildings with disgust. They brand them "slum lords", somehow believing that it is they that are causing the decline. (Note that this is a reverse of the way they believe that Walmart is creating the growth -- both are simply reacting to what is given them.) The city goes so far as to create an ordinance limiting the number of rental properties, as if there is some alternative, viable use that the market will magically bring to bear.

So what do we do when we find ourselves in this desperate situation, surrounded by stagnation and decline, a budget stretched to the max and completely at the mercy of aid from outside the community

Do we examine the commercial blocks of our traditional neighborhoods -- the last remnants of the hard work and ingenuity of our ancestors -- and notice that they have actually retained their value -- actually have value greater than their planned replacement -- despite our efforts to destroy them?

Do we examine these same blocks and see that they provide a myriad of opportunities for the many hard-working, entrepreneurial residents of the city?

Do we get professional assistance from people expert in creating value in our community to give us coherent advice on how to start leveraging our remaining resources?

Unfortunately, no.

What we do is turn to our economic development official and ask them to salvage the situation. And we give them a blunt instrument to do it.

Tax. Increment. Financing.

Tax Increment Financing (TIF) is the devil's tool of decline. There are two things necessary to make it "work" (and by "work" I mean as a way to corrupt your community's soul). First, the city must reconfigure as much of the community as possible in an auto centric manner so as to make it very advantageous to develop on bare ground on the edge of town. Then -- and these work together -- the city needs to continue policies that devalue neighborhoods to the point where decent commercial or residential activity is no longer viable.

Once these two conditions exist, TIF can be awarded. Simply demonstrate that it would be cheaper (for the developer at the moment -- not for the taxpayer over multiple life cycles) to build outside of town than to redevelop the blighted property in town and -- bam -- a tax subsidy can be awarded for the difference, if not substantially more, as an enticement to redevelop the blighted property.

Bring in the planner and the engineer to ensure that the new property conforms to the auto-centric design and you have successful redevelopment. Overlook the fact that it took decades of painful decline, millions of dollars of public malinvestment and that the final product creates less value than what would otherwise be there. This is something the politicians can crow about, the public can see improve in short order and the economic development team can put in their annual report.

As we call it in America: progress.

In the case of Brainerd and the two blocks -- one traditional and one auto-centric -- that we have been comparing and contrasting these past two weeks, you can probably guess by now that Taco John's received Tax Increment Financing for their new building. 

So not only is the block with the national chain restaurant valued less than the traditional block of local businesses, it is receiving a tax subsidy for the next 26 years. In the year 2033 the city of Brainerd will begin collecting taxes above and beyond what it collected in 2007 from this property.

All that for drive through tacos.

As a final note, readers should know that to grant TIF an application must pass a "but for" test. "But for" the TIF subsidy, this redevelopment wouldn't happen. When you get beyond the immediate transaction and understand the full picture of what is going on, you realize that this is a little like an alcoholic hitting the bottle and saying, "but for...." TIF is the co-dependent enabler of the suburban experiment.

And our lifestyle clearly makes us the drunk.

I want more than anything for us to sober up and start building value again in our places. We can do it if we want. We have the resources and the capacity. Let's work to make our places into Strong Towns.


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.


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.