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Brainerd/Baxter Strong Town Series

Easy Choices

Easy Choices

Great leaders surround themselves with as many ideas as possible. They seek out conflicting views. They consider all sides of an issue, not superficially for appearances but because they fear not knowing more than they fear appearing to not know.

Debt fragilizes

We have been working on a project in my hometown called A Better Brainerd for most of this year. I've occasionally shared updates when they were relevant to this broader audience and today is example of that. 

Last night there was a city council meeting here in my home town and the budget was discussed extenively. I wasn't there so I'm reactig to the press reports, but you'll get a sense here how one small town (13,500) has allowed debt and the aspiration for quick and easy growth to put it in a real bind.

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Making Money

Today in the Brainerd Daily Dispatch there was report of a very interesting exchange at last night's council meeting. It started with a logical question about the city's debt, a topic we've written about here before.

Matthew Seymour of Brainerd wanted to know more details on the city’s debt and how the city planned to handle the increased debt.

“This is a huge part of the budget and I’m more worried about the debt (than the increase in 2014 taxes),” said Seymour.

Us too. Debt makes us very fragile and while the state seems flush with cash for the moment, that huge percentage of our budget that relies on St. Paul's ongoing generosity should make all Brainerd residents and business owners nervous.

Here was the response.

[Brainerd finance director Connie] Hillman said part of the reason why the debt is higher is because the city has not sold all of its industrial park properties. Once the properties start to sell the city will make money, she said.

City Administrator Theresa Goble said the city also hasn’t received all the money through its Beaver Dam Road and Riverside Drive improvement projects. Goble said once more people are hooked up to city services that the money will come in.

Let's first examine this notion that the city is going to ever "make money" once these properties sell. How does anyone know? Seriously, nobody has ever done the math to see if these properties will generate more revenue over the long term than they create in costs for the city. This math has never been done. There is no target number for sale price, land valuation or fee revenue that has been done. We have no clue if we will ever make money because nobody has ever figured out what that would take.

When the city finance director says "make money" that really means "cash flow," which is a far, far cry from being financially solvent over the long term. Is the tax base of these properties going to be sufficient to cover the cost of maintaining and servicing them over the long term? Nobody knows, but there is good reason to believe that, even if the lots sell, it won't even be close.

And that "if" is a BIG if. The city used borrowed money to gamble on new growth in the industrial park. There are currently 21 lots sitting empty with infrastructure in place just waiting. "Shovel ready," as they say in the business. City taxpayers are covering that gambling debt until there is some cash flow revenue from the sale of those lots.

Empty developments with full utilities off of Beaver Dam Road. Even if they build out, the tax base will never be there to maintain all of this.The same thing has happened with the Beaver Dam Road and Riverside Drive expansions. We have acres and acres of vacant property where the city, again with the use of public debt, is the gambling partner on speculative development. I think city officials would argue that these looked like sound investments until the housing market downturn but, unfortunately, even if these developments had built out as hoped, there was no wealth to be had for the city. We're not doing the math.

These are bad decisions we can't undo and so it does us little good to rehash them unless we can use the experience to draw some lessons. Here are two.

First, we shouldn't be considering another multi-million dollar expansion of the sewer and water systems out to the airport, even if the bulk of the cost for the initial installation is going to be covered by state debt, not local debt. We've shown that we are not very good at gambling on future growth (the reality is that no city is -- some are just luckier than others). If we've learned anything, it should be to shun these so-called "transformative" investments.

Second, there are other alternatives to the big gambling project and we should be pursuing those vigorously. In October, we released a report called Neighborhoods First that showed how we can implement the city council's stated priority of neighborhood investment by using an incremental approach. We outlined eight low risk, high return projects in the Northeast neighborhood that the city can do today. We also offered to train the staff and city officials (at no cost to the city) on how to incorporate this approach into their annual capital improvements and budgeting process.

We need to be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that our approach is not working, that we aren't ever going to "make money" in our current approach. We need a new mindset, one that plays to the city's strengths. We can improve the lives and fortunes of our residents and business owners and create real wealth and prosperity within this community, but only when we stop gambling and start investing incrementally in our core neighborhoods.

Best of Blog: The nature of productivity

We started this year with an examination of an intersection that had been eating at me for quite a while. In the summer of 2012, the Minnesota DOT did an obnoxious and very expensive widening of a dangerous stroad intersection in my hometown. The improvement was clearly a safety enhancement, yet this dangerous intersection was only 970 feet north of a full signalized intersection, clearly a much safer place to make a turn (and only 14 seconds away at 45 mph). Why would a cash-strapped agency spend so much money on a redundant access, especially when the investment would only marginally improve safety? Closing the intersection would not only be cheaper but vastly safer. Vastly.

The answer is easy: economic development. The accesses serve businesses and, along a stroad, that theoretically means growth, jobs and all the good stuff cities pursue.

Become an Advocate member of Strong Towns before the end of the year and be part of our exclusive Founder's Circle.

member button.jpg

This post is the second day of the examination. In it, I take the theoretical approach to task and demonstrate, with the actual math, how our pursuit of economic development through transportation improvements -- not to mention our acceptance of a certain level of injury and death on this stroad -- is made even more pathetic by the low financial returns of the so-called "economic development". In this auto-oriented approach, we sacrifice so much yet we get comparatively so little.

Months after I wrote this, Minnesota's new DOT Commissioner would tour the state in an effort to drum up support for more transportation spending. He has been joined on the road of late by the chair of the Met Council. There is a growing coalition of road and transit advocates that are ready to get in bed together if they can birth a transportation bill with a lot more spending. 

Where is the talk of reform? Any reform? Where is anyone talking about a transportation system where we evaluate things in a different way? One where we actually put safety first in practice, not just in talk, and not just by throwing money at it? Where is the push to create a system where projects like this one don't happen?

Nowhere. I don't see any serious, substantive conversation about changing our current approach. We're just desperate for more money to do more of the same...and then some more.

Over the weekend, a Strong Towns member from here in Minnesota, our friend Alex Cecchini, tweeted this:

Why is more gas tax the answer instead of disinvestment in over-built road system? http://t.co/xyWrgIzCSK@StrongTowns

— Alex Cecchini (@alexcecchini) December 7, 2013

We need more money for transportation, but I won't be supporting any revenue initiative until we have substantive policy changes. DOT's need to be working to build strong towns, not undermine them with an illusion of wealth and platitudes about safety.

Here's the first of our Best of Blog for 2013.

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The nature of productivity

If we are going to make transportation investments as a way to create jobs and economic development, we should be doing so in places with a high return. Spending scarce resources to make STROADs modestly safer is not helping, especially if it induces more people to drive. What our cities need right now is to invest in productive patterns of development.

Yesterday we examined a dangerous intersection along a STROAD, one where the frequency and severity of accidents prompted a severely cash-strapped DOT to spend good money making modest safety improvements. This, despite the fact that the dangerous intersection is less than 1,000 feet from an expensive, fully signalized intersection maintained by the DOT, with the full complement of expensive frontage roads feeding back into it.

While closing the dangerous intersection would improve traffic flow, improve safety and cost less than the extensive reconstruction recently done, it remains open. For all involved, the seconds saved in accessing the adjacent big box retail establishments outweigh in value any other considerations. This must be one valuable location.

Or perhaps not. 

The most valuable property in this section of STROAD is the Mills Fleet Farm site. The four parcels includes the Fleet Farm big box store, a Mills Motors auto dealership, a Mills gas station and related parking and storage. Of the four corners accessed off of the dangerous intersection, this is by far the most valuable (and the one with the highest traffic demand). The others are a collection of half-vacant strip malls, underutilized former big boxes, pole buildings with fake facades and other structures of much less value.

The Fleet Farm site is 22.8 acres. It has a total value of $14.4 million. The productivity of this site, in terms of value per acre, is $630,000.

Most cities would bend over backwards in order to have that kind of tax base. This is the kind of growth we get -- and celebrate -- when we make a nine figure investment in a major highway improvement. The Mills corporation pays a ton of taxes to the City of Baxter, Crow Wing County and the State of Minnesota. It is not difficult to imagine a world where the state, with all good intentions, would drop half a million dollars improving a pesky intersection that has proven frustratingly dangerous.

Productivity Mills site.jpg

In order to provide an apples to apples analysis, I went to the adjoining city of Brainerd to make a comparison of the Mills site -- the most productive site on this STROAD -- to the productivity found in the traditional development pattern. The nine blocks of downtown Brainerd shown below create a site of slightly less size -- 17.4 acres -- but far greater value. The total value of these nine blocks is $18.9 million, a per acre productivity of $1.08 million, a 72% premium over the Mills STROAD site.

There is an important thing to note about this part of downtown Brainerd. While it is financially the most productive part of the downtown, that is not saying much. There is a small area where the streetscape has been given a freshening up, but most of the development is of pretty low quality. I've brought some of my planning friends from out of town there to survey the damage and they are always shocked at how bad it is. The neglect and atrophy is depressing, even more so when you know what it used to look like.

Productivity DT Brainerd.jpg

You can also see from the photo just how much of the space has been given over to automobile storage. In a race to the bottom, Brainerd has destroyed its tax base in an effort to achieve the parking ratios found along the 371 STROAD. Yet that historic value endures.

There are some important takeaways from these observations.

First, and most obvious, is the productivity machine that is the traditional development pattern. There are good reasons that thousands of years of trial and error produced this style of development. Even after two generations of neglect and disinvestment, it remains financially superior -- by a large margin no less -- to the most productive similarly sized STROAD investment in the area. 

Second, the traditional development pattern is antifragile in so many ways while the STROAD development is anything but. In the downtown there are 132 different properties, many with multiple tenants. On the STROAD we have one corporate owner. With those 132 different properties, we have an entire ecosystem (albeit a starved one) of jobs, investments and micro opportunity. On the STROAD we have no such diversity; it is all in the hands of one business and their model. Downtown we have resilient building types where one storefront can be an office or retail or service or even residential, depending on the market demands and conditions. When the big box on the STROAD closes, there are few happy things that come next. 

Third, since the beginning of the Suburban Experiment, we have had infrastructure throughout the downtown. No new investments have been required to obtain this premium return. To get the far inferior returns from the STROAD, we have spent over a hundred million dollars on highways and frontage roads along with tens of millions on sewer and water systems, all long term obligations that local taxpayers must now sustain on a meager, diffused tax base.

Fourth, the original impetus for this conversation was the way we willingly sacrifice safety for low-return economic development along the STROAD. Well, the traditional development pattern has no such safety concerns (although in this instance, the city of Brainerd has insisted on a high speed, dangerous design through their traditional neighborhoods). We may have fender benders, but your grandmother is not going to get smashed by a semi trying to time a highway gap fleeing from the road rage driver on her tail.

And finally, when we come to grips with the reality that the problem of our cities is not lack of growth but lack of productivity, we will ask ourselves: how do we make our places more productive? Look at the STROAD site. Unless there is an heroic effort by a well financed and determined developer, there is no way the value of that property ever doubles (in real terms). There is no way the parking is converted to structures, a second story is added and other improvements are put in place to improve the value and return on that site. And even if this happened, it doesn't fit with anything around it. It would become an isolated point of productivity in a ring of decline. Today's low return condition is the financial high water mark.

The traditional development pattern of the downtown not only starts the productivity race 72% ahead of the STROAD, it has lots of opportunity to grow. All of the parking can easily be converted to more productive uses. When that low hanging fruit is consumed, all of the buildings can be improved. The second and third floors can be recaptured, renovated and remodeled. This doesn't require one sugar daddy but can be accomplished through the organic functioning of many different players. And when this happens, it won't suck the life out of the surrounding properties. To the contrary, this can only happen successfully in conjunction with the surrounding neighborhoods. Even though the current downtown is far more financially productive than the STROAD, the current atrophy and decline should be the low point. With a little different focus, it is easy to envision the value of these nine downtown blocks doubling, tripling or more.

Now go back to the cash-strapped DOT; if half a million dollars is going to be spent on transportation improvements, and if economic development considerations are going to trump safety, the numbers would suggest that retrofitting the STROAD through the downtown to be more neighborhood compatible is the investment with the highest return. 

That is what a state looking to build strong towns would do.

If you are interested, I did a post on the Strong Towns Network that explained my methodology and provided the math behind these numbers. It's still there for you to check out, along with a lot of interesting stuff.

A matter of priorities

The following is an excerpt from our upcoming Neighborhoods First report.

At a glance, it seems incoherent for the city of Brainerd to spend significant amounts of money to maintain flowers in the median of a road while city parks are overgrown with weeds. Do we really value the experience of the person driving through more than we care about the resident who lives here? Is there really more to be gained by beautifying our ditches instead of our parks? Of course not.

So does this reality actually reflect the priorities of the city government? In all likelihood it doesn’t, and so we have to ponder an even more important question: Why are the priorities of public officials not reflected in city action?

There are three main reasons. The first is the way in which big projects are funded. College Drive was paid for largely with “other people’s money,” which is to say federal and state sources. While some will point out that this is still our money (we all pay federal and state taxes), the proportion paid by local taxpayers was nominal and indirect. Given that, why not add flowers to the project? We’d surely put flowers in the park too if someone else would pay for it?

The second is the way in which the staff is organized and directed. Most local governments still work in silos. It is hard to blame a traffic engineer for seeing the city as a traffic network or a zoning official for seeing it as a zoning map. While it will not be as brutally efficient as the silo approach, the way to avoid this type of dissonance is to begin, develop and finalize all projects with a team of professionals, working on equal authority, directed to prioritize the community’s values and objectives above their own department’s.

The third is the disconnect that exists between city government and residents. This disconnect goes way beyond being listened to, which local governments generally do quite well. To really participate in a project, a resident is forced to engage within the ground rules of the city. Participating in public hearings or committees means giving up precious evening hours, standing in front of crowds and being quoted in the paper. Most residents stay away, even if they want their opinion heard.

To address these systematic shortcomings, cities should adhere to three guidelines. 

  1. Projects should be developed based on needs expressed within the city’s neighborhoods, not in pursuit of available funding or in gambling on the potential for a big payoff. If available funding supports a local need, all the better, but a city should never undertake something they would not consider doing just because someone else will pay for it.
  2. All projects should be the product of a team of professionals, not one individual department or silo. When hiring and retaining staff, cities should emphasize cross disciplinary knowledge. There can be no such thing as a one-dimensional project.
  3. All projects should be the result of neighborhood initiatives. This report presents a model for how to deeply engage and understand a neighborhood. With this approach, a city will find there are a multitude of low cost, high return things to be done. The way residents use the city will identify those projects more clearly than any study, staff member or expert.

Sandbox Brainerd

This is being cross posted on the website www.aBetterBrainerd.org.

It was reported in the local paper last week that my hometown of Brainerd, MN, is undertaking an initiative focusing on biking and walking. Here is how the newspaper article began.

Calling all walking and biking enthusiasts — the city of Brainerd wants you.

City officials voted unanimously at the Brainerd City Council meeting Tuesday to form an ad hoc Walkable and Bikable City Committee.

The move is part of one of the recently identified strategic focuses: invest in the city neighborhoods.

Okay. Sounds great, right? I'm not much for more committee meetings but, if that is how we're going to get something done, well it is better than nothing. I'm really excited about the city council's stated focus on investing in neighborhoods and, if this is the next step, I'm in.

Then I continued reading.

The ad hoc committee will be tasked with developing comprehensive city-wide sidewalk, trail and bike lane plans for inclusion in the city’s comprehensive plan, which it will later recommend to city council. The ad hoc committee will also explore a skateboard park development.

The goal is to present the plan to council in or by 2016.

My first thought is that this had to be a typo. Present a plan by 2016? That had to be the end of 2013. Or 2014 at the latest. There is no way this city council's top priority is going to a committee for the next three years, is there? I mean, that is one, possibly two, elections away. Some of these people won't even be there anymore.

Unfortunately, 2016 is not a typo. Three years and then we'll have a "comprehensive" approach. So what's going on? A clue lies later in the story.

The committee will be about 12-15 people, and will possibly be broken in two sub-committees, with one focusing on biking and the other on walking.

Death by committee. This is one of the ways in which local governments are their own worst enemies.

Let's assume that investing in neighborhoods really is the top priority of many in this city. And let's also assume that the elected officials, the staff and the residents would like to see some tangible progress on this before....say....the next election. How can everyone approach this more productively?

The very first thing we need to do is abandon the idea that there will ever be a "comprehensive" plan or that a plan that is deemed "comprehensive" is even desirable. This goes to the very core of what has gone wrong with planning profession and why we (I'm an AICP myself) are nearly irrelevant to the future of the cities we serve.

The term "comprehensive" is defined as:

Comprehensive: complete; including all or nearly all elements or aspects of something

Cities are incredibly complex places, even those that have been streamlined and dumbed down to a myriad of Euclidean zoning pods connected by a hierarchical road network. There is no way we'll be able to develop a complete or thorough understanding of biking and walking in the city over the next three years unless we are going to devote a ton of time and resources to the effort. And we're not. We're forming a committee. Two sub-committees to be exact. 

But let's pretend that we did devote the time and resources and that we did develop this deep knowledge and detailed plan for walking and biking infrastructure in the city. Since we have little to no biking and walking infrastructure today, how do we know what's going to happen when we start to introduce it?

I think there is enormous pent up demand, but how does a "comprehensive" approach attempt to measure that? What neighborhoods are the most ready and would provide the greatest bang for the buck, so to speak? Which improvements are going to be the most advantageous and which are going to be too expensive to bother with in the beginning?

None of this is knowable until we get out and start doing things, which ostensibly will be in 2017 at the earliest. But this is where the notion of a "comprehensive" plan is the most dangerous, because once a bureaucracy has a plan -- especially one that is seen as a comprehensive document based on the consensus of selected committee members -- it might as well be written in granite.

Now pause here, because there are a whole ton of planners and those sympathetic to the modern process of planning that are saying, "Chuck, my experience is the opposite. All the plans just sit on the shelf and never get done. There are not in granite."

Yes they are....for the bureaucracy. It is way different for the elected officials -- the ones who have to vote to implement -- because their priorities will govern. Elected officials move all over the place, rarely wanting to adhere to the last council's plan (they likely defeated them in the last election for getting nothing but the wrong things done anyway). The conflict between elected officials, the "comprehensive" direction laid out through prior work and the staff is ultimately reconciled through more strategic visioning, more committees and, yes, another "comprehensive" plan.

There is a deep tragedy here because, in the end, the only things that get done with this approach are the HUGE projects, the ones that gain enough momentum and take on a life of their own so they transcend election cycles. While the hundreds of tiny, inexpensive things that we could be doing to actually improve our neighborhoods are not even examined, let alone given serious consideration, we perversely are forced to devote enormous amounts of time and effort on projects that do not align with our stated core values.

For example, a couple years ago we invested millions of (other people's) money in a shortcut between one of our poorest neighborhoods and the Wal-Mart in the neighboring city. It was a project that happened because we were able to get stimulus funding and other outside support, the fruits of countless hours of staff time and effort. While it wouldn't have resulted in the big, splashy project, what if all that time and energy had instead been focused on solving the day-to-day problems in our neighborhoods?

We're having the same misdirection of focus and energy with a new utility extension project at the regional airport. The airport facility has recently been improved and, as part of that process, state fire officials indicated that more water was necessary. While the fire marshal's concerns could be addressed with a large holding tank at a cost seemingly nobody has bothered to determine (but which my experience tells me would be in the $200k - $400k range), instead there is a plan, and now a project, for spending $7.5 million to run the sewer and water from the city to the airport. The idea is that this investment would allow for industrial and airport-related development. This claim is made with apparent sincerity even as the existing industrial park -- which, granted, is not at the airport -- has had nearly two dozen empty lots for sale.

But this project is big and has taken on a life of its own. It has a champion in the airport manager and our local legislators have now signed on and have pledged state money. If you're a city council member who wants to focus on investments in existing neighborhoods, how many staff hours, and how many taxpayer dollars, are you going to allow to be diverted from your priorities to this project? The answer is: given the money and the importance of the people involved, as much as it takes.

And while that is the tragically wrong answer, it is certainly understandable. If you're a council member, you're thinking: the airport project is hot and moving forward -- we can't ignore that. It got started before I got here and I'm not jumping in front of that train. We've got our strategic vision done now and we're moving ahead with a comprehensive bike and walk plan, so it's not like we're standing still on my priorities. You want neighborhood investments? Yes, we'll get there.

In 2017.

That's not good enough for the people living in these neighborhoods, for the business owners trying to make a living there and for the future of the city.

As an alternative to this futile process and the standard "comprehensive" plan approach, we (along with our friends at Better Block and Street Plans Collaborative) floated the concept of the Sandbox City, where the scientific method is applied to make ongoing, incremental progress.  A city formulates a question, forms an hypothesis, predicts an outcome, tests and then analyzes the results. Then repeats.

A practical example as applied to bike facilities.

Question: Is there a demand for bike facilities in the city of Brainerd sufficient to justify their installation?

Hypothesis: Painted bike lanes along streets designated as arterial within existing neighborhoods would be the most widely used.

Prediction: Without bike lanes, less than 1% of trips along H Street NE are by bike. With bike lanes, bike traffic on H Street NE would rise to at least 5% of trips within 12 months.

Test: Measure the amount of bike traffic on H Street NE on a given day. Then, stripe 5-foot bike lanes on the outside of each 14-foot driving lane. Measure the amount of bike traffic in regular intervals after the striping, up through 12 months.

Analyze: TDB

We could run this test tomorrow for less than $5,000. The city of Brainerd is going to spend more than that in staff time just getting ready for the meeting with legislators later this month. They are going to spend many multiples of that in resources preparing their "comprehensive" bike and walk plan. That is time and money we're never going to get back that is being diverted from our urgent top priorities.

We don't need a committee, or two subcommittees, or three years to run this test. We can do it right now. If it doesn't work, then we're out $5,000 and we develop a new hypothesis. But if it does work, our Sandbox City principles tell us to build on it. How do we make this test permanent? Can we apply this approach to other similar places within the city? Can we expand this idea within the neighborhood? All of these questions we can ask and answer right now on our budget.

And we'll make progress now. Not in 2017. Not based on the consensus of a group of people who have the time or the vested interest to sit through three years of subcommittee meetings. Not in accordance with an approved "comprehensive" plan. NOW. Today. In this neighborhood, with these people, living real lives right now as you read this.

They will see that progress. They may even thank you for it.

This week, Strong Towns, as part of our A Better Brainerd pilot initiative, will be releasing details of eight projects for consideration by the Brainerd city council. These projects are the result of our ongoing engagement and experimentation within the Northeast Brainerd neighborhood. They are small and low cost but address very real and pressing needs within the neighborhood. In the spirit of the Sandbox City approach, these are the low cost, high return initiatives that every city should be looking to make. We're doing this for our city but also as an example that other resident-led initiatives around the country can copy.

You can follow the release of those projects, and the final report, this week at aBetterBrainerd.org. We will be engaging local leaders, business owners and other civic-minded people, as well as those living within the neighborhood, on these proposals. We also hope to present these ideas, and discuss the merits of this approach, with city officials. 

As we've said before, the city council's priorities of investing in existing neighborhoods is right on. Let's not wait three years to start making Brainerd a better place. A strong town.

 

We've started a contest over at the Strong Towns Network for those who like to write and have some thoughts to share. Even if that is not you, come and hang out with us there. There is a good conversation going on and we'd all benefit from your thoughts. 

And if you'd like more of my work, check out my book, Thoughts on Building Strong Towns (Volume 1). It is a primer on the Strong Towns movement and an essential read for those wanting to get up to speed quickly.

Second Life Cycle Blues

The Suburban Experiment creates an illusion of wealth early on, which makes it very seductive. As the city enters the second life cycle and all of the dispersed systems that came with the growth now need costly maintenance, the seductive illusion is slowly destroyed. Debt and a good deal of wishful thinking can allow a local government to kick the can down the road a while, but the final destination is ordained. Better to start building a strong town today and save your community the second life cycle blues.

If you did not get a chance to see the Streetfilms video from last week, make sure and check it out. I am very honored we caught their attention and want to show them we're a growing, passionate group, so watch it multiple times and pass it along to all your friends. You'll also notice a new menu option: Strong Towns 101. It is a work in progress, but if you think something critical is missing, please let us now.

While, truly, no prophet is accepted in his hometown, it is with a (please forgive me) modest amount of smug amusement that I've watched Baxter, Minnesota, one of my twin hometowns, struggle with the second life cycle blues. My smugness (a personal failing, I know) is hopefully a forgivable reaction to decades of smugness from those associated with Baxter, they that believed their success was a result of their superior knowledge, intellect and skill. They did not realize they were taking credit for the light during their day in the sun.

A new road built six years ago in anticipation of growth that has yet to occur.Now a disclaimer: I was once one of them. I sneered at neighboring Brainerd -- the old, historic city built in the traditional style -- for their apparent ineptitude compared to our success. I helped to design STROADs, commercial developments and various residential subdivisions in the sincere belief that I was making Baxter a better place. We had the winning approach, the knowledge and standards for success all ready to be applied. When the highway through Brainerd was rerouted into Baxter and all of the national retail and restaurant chains came knocking, it vindicated our feeling of superiority.

I'll spare you my personal tale of how I came to question my own religion, but lets just say that, as with anyone who leaves a congregation, there is a certain feeling of resentment by those left behind. And distrust. I've given hundreds of speeches around the country explaining the illusion of wealth created during the first life cycle of auto-oriented growth, but only here in my hometown do people jeer, scoff and shake their heads when I speak. The Suburban Experiment is like a religion, with its own unassailable belief system and associated dogma. And, truly, you're never a prophet...

Last Friday I picked up the local paper and gave a little laugh at the headline: Baxter council ponders proposed pavement plan and price tag. I turned forty this year. While I remember the old gravel roads, empty fields and undeveloped forests, few younger than me will. And few of today's residents were even here back then. When I was born, the population was about 1,500 (I'd venture a large share were my relatives) while today it is over 7,600.

Most of that growth growth took place in the past twenty years, which means for my entire adult life, Baxter has enjoyed the Illusion of Wealth that comes with the first life cycle of new Suburban Experiment development. Developers pay for the infrastructure. Residents buy the homes and businesses buy the commercial properties. The costs get rolled into long term debt payments. The city spends little to nothing yet gets all of this tax revenue. All of a sudden they can upgrade parks, build trails, pave streets, construct a new city hall, add staff and provide a level of service (and a low rate of taxation) not to be found in old, neighboring Brainerd.

That is, until the second life cycle when all of that stuff gets old and needs to be fixed. Then things become a real bummer.

From the article:

“Based on the results of the street evaluation, the estimated current pavement improvement need is $14,463,000 to bring every street segment to either newly reconstructed or maintained to a rating of nine or better,” the Bolton & Menk report stated. The rating comes from a Pavement Surface Evaluation and Rating (PASER) system with 10 being pavement in excellent condition.

The city has 81.2 miles of streets with 34.8 miles or nearly 43 percent with a PASER rating of five and six and 38.8 miles or 47.8 percent rated between seven and eight. Streets in the seven and eight category typically need crack rout and seal coating or patching. A road in the five and six rating condition may need a pavement overlay. A road with a rating of one may be 25 years old and likely for a recommendation for a full reconstruction.

For context, the $14.5 million price tag should be compared to the $5.4 million the city recovered last year in property tax (page 7). While Baxter has other revenues, they are generally encumbered (their sales tax was approved by the legislature and dedicated to retiring wastewater treatment debt while their sizable fees are transaction costs meant to cover actual operating expenses). If they are going to meet this obligation, it is going to be on the back of their property tax base.

If this weren't problematic enough, there is the compounding problem that happens when the second life cycle obligations are put off. What goes up fast also tends to then come down fast. Again from the story:

The Bolton & Menk report stated the total annual budget amount for street maintenance should be increased dramatically. The report contended doing nothing would result in pavement deterioration estimated to result in a pavement need of about $26.7 million by 2018.

Spend $14.4 million today. Put that off and in five years the number balloons to $26.7. Do I still have to convince any of you that this is a fragile approach?

Those that have been with us a while may remember last summer when Baxter's engineers reported their anticipation of enormous increases in traffic. Some of you may even remember back to 2010 when Baxter officials suggested their population would increase from 8,200 to 16,000 by 2030. Overlooking the fact that they are 7% short of where they thought their own population was in 2010, we can start to see how delusional thinking can turn to wishful thinking in just a few short years.

Baxter's future growth, as with any purely auto-oriented community's future growth, is predicated on being able to attract new residents (along with their first life cycle revenue) by offering low taxes and a high quality of life. What happens when taxes go up? Or what happens when services are trimmed back? How fragile is this house of cards?

Last week Detroit filed bankruptcy (or tried to). One of the recurring laments about Detroit is that people have left leaving too little population to sustain infrastructure systems design for a lot more. Detroit has 620 miles of what they call "major streets," streets they are currently maintaining, albeit under duress. Detroit's population is 706,585. Some simple math tells us that the average Detroit resident is financially supporting the maintenance of 5.1 feet of street, a burden they are not able to meet.

As reported, Baxter has 81.2 miles of street to maintain. Now the average Baxter resident is more affluent than the average Detroiter (though they also spend many multiples on housing and transportation), but with only 7,642 people, the typical Baxter resident is expected to sustain 56.1 feet of street. That is eleven times more than in Detroit.

Oh, but Baxter doesn't have the pension problems that Detroit has. 

Oh really?

Services will be cut. Taxes will go up. That's the second life cycle blues. And in a self-reinforcing downward spiral, the things that once made Baxter officials look like geniuses will now make them look incompetent. Not only will those brand new strip malls that have been empty for six years not fill up but, as maintenance is deferred and things start to fall apart, the growth will continue to slow and move to the next hot place. They may try to reignite it with some aggressive subsidy scheme, but paying to lose money will only hasten the race to the bottom.

And, of course, without growth, this thing is over

It should be noted here that neighboring Brainerd has also bought into the notion that the sun shines in Baxter because of the genius of their approach. Brainerd has tried for years to imitate Baxter, retrofitting the community for auto-exclusive travel, spending millions on shortcuts to Baxter's commercial areas, extending utilities to the remote reaches of the periphery of town and even trying to annex some of the distant highway frontage. We're trying hard here at Strong Towns to help Brainerd see that the sun is shining on them now, that they can put away the umbrella and embrace their walkable, bikable -- and financially very productive -- nature. We'll keep trying, but truly, you're never a prophet...

The Suburban Experiment creates an illusion of wealth early on, which makes it very seductive. As the city enters the second life cycle and all of the dispersed systems that came with the growth now need costly maintenance, the seductive illusion is slowly destroyed. Debt and a good deal of wishful thinking can allow a local government to kick the can down the road a while, but the final destination is ordained. Better to start building a strong town today and save your community the second life cycle blues.

 


I'm going to be in the office this entire week -- such a rarity -- so you'll be sure and find me over at the Strong Towns Network. If you've been trying to email me without success (my apologies), I'm much easier to get a hold of over there, as are a lot of the people you see posting here. Please join us.

And if you'd like more, check out my book, Thoughts on Building Strong Towns (Volume 1). It is a primer on the Strong Towns movement and an essential read for those wanting to get up to speed quickly.

Orderly but Dumb

We have decades of "orderly but dumb" projects to deal with, a burden that is insurmountable even in an expanding economy. Our economy is contracting, however, and so we are going to be forced to deal with all these low productivity investments with very limited funding. We won't be successful unless our "orderly but dumb" approach transforms into one that is "chaotic but smart".

Today we start our tour of Idaho. I'm writing from Boise at the moment. If you are from Idaho, please make plans to come out and hear a Curbside Chat. If you have a friend or family here, please let them know. We plan to see most of the state over the course of this week so there is plenty of opportunity for people. So excited to be here.

In the State of the Union address, the president promoted a "fix it first" approach to infrastructure, the logical notion that our money would best be spent fixing existing infrastructure than building new. While this sounds good and I'm not going to question the president's sincerity, how is such a philosophy likely to manifest at the local level? Will we truly stop building more infrastructure or will "fix it first", when put through the bureaucracies and political processes of a large, continental-scale government, look a lot more like our current policy?

How many new overpasses, expansions of lane capacity and miles of frontage road will continue to be built under the guise of "fixing" our current system? After all, doesn't every project allegedly "fix" something?

Two weeks ago I brought up the Safe Routes to School program and, in the process, referred to this quote known as Carlson's law:

In a world where so many people now have access to education and cheap tools of innovation, innovation that happens from the bottom up tends to be chaotic but smart. Innovation that happens from the top down tends to be orderly but dumb.

Again, I'll reiterate that the Safe Routes to School program is well-intentioned, that it has done a lot of good and that -- despite my complaining -- many people deeply affiliated with the program are trying to address the root cause of school location, not just the symptoms. That being said, because of a Safe Routes to School project in my hometown, I have a specific opportunity here to explore the real world implications of Carlson's law.

The project in my hometown is a plan to build sidewalks in the vicinity of a neighborhood school. The cost is estimated to be $450,000 of which $300,000 is federal Safe Routes to School money and the remainder will be split evenly between the school district and the city. Today the neighborhood is fairly run down and, like most of the city, over the years the streets have been reconfigured with wide, highway-sized travel lanes that are now dominated by automobiles. It is clearly not a safe environment for adults to be walking, let alone children.

A sidewalk is not the only ingredient for making a place walkable. (Click on photo for Creative Commons attribution).The first gratuitous observation is that, but for a myriad of "orderly but dumb" federal policies, it is likely the Safe Routes to School money is not even necessary. Without programs that subsidize single family homes and penalize mixed-use neighborhoods, without federal transportation policies that tie roadway improvement money to the adoption of specific local (over-engineered) standards, without the federal subsidies of sewer and water systems, without artificially low interest rates the prompted the building of campus style schools outside of existing neighborhoods, and without a myriad of other programs too numerous to name, the transformation of this area from a walkable, mixed use, traditional neighborhood (1950's) to its current state of auto-centric decline would likely not have happened. 

The most logical response to the unintended consequences of "orderly but dumb" policies is to end said policies. The fact that those policies, over time, become sacrosanct to a new generation of voters (see home mortgage interest deduction as one easy example) is simply another dumb outcome. So instead of removing harmful policies, we layer new ones to address the unintended consequences of the old ones. Those new policies, of course, have a myriad of unintended, dumb consequences.

In the case of this particular project in my hometown, the goal of creating a walkable environment -- something critical to the economic health and well-being of the community -- manifests in some really dumb ways.

The first is that, because Safe Routes to Schools goes through official bureaucratic and professional channels, the project is (predictably) over-engineered and very expensive. It is also, therefore, limited in what it will accomplish; even the most aggressive option barely makes parts of the neighborhood more walkable. As a platform to facilitate walking -- the entire goal of the program and the project -- it is destined to fail. While it might make a physical connection and thus theoretically provide a place for people to walk, it fails on at least three of the four conditions that actually make a place walkable. (According to Jeff Speck, to be walkable, it must be useful, safe comfortable and interesting. For some, the sidewalks being proposed might be useful, but they will definitely not feel safe, comfortable or interesting, especially after the removal of so many trees.)

Worse yet, the approach is framing the entire conversation of walkable neighborhoods in terms of federal dollars, not in terms of community design, providing options for people, increasing the economic viability of the city and a myriad of other topics essential to the community' future. Without federal dollars there is no support for the project and, worse yet, the desire to secure federal money is the central reason to actually do the project, to the exclusion of other options that may not involve myriads of professionals and federal greasing of the skids.

Council President Bonnie Cumberland said she still has a hard time understanding the money argument as federal dollars are there to help sidewalks or other safety projects.

“You’ve been telling us your money in that pot should go to a different community, that befuddles me a little bit,” Cumberland said. “It’s just an unusual thought process for me.”

Council member Dave Pritschet said it wasn’t like taxpayers were going to be refunded, adding the sidewalks instead will be built in another community and the jobs to build it will go there as well.

“To just say no to the money doesn’t make sense to me,” said council member Chip Borkenhagen said.

So this is orderly, but dumb. Many national advocates would be satisfied with this outcome, despite the low return on our dollars. There is an incremental improvement here, something that can subsequently be built upon. Maybe it doesn't solve the problem, but it moves us in the right direction. Perhaps in the future another round of grant funding could be made to expand the sidewalks.

This overlooks the fact that we are totally broke and there is no chance we can continue, let alone expand, this approach. It is painful to listen to a conversation about installing $450,000 worth of sidewalks in a city that, financially, has no chance of being able to maintain them. There is no recognition of this cognitive dissonance -- it is federal money and so, if we don't get it now, we just lose it -- and no understanding that the same mentality decades ago has given us millions of dollars of infrastructure we can't maintain today. Worse, there is not even a hint of a strategy -- from the cadre of professionals through the corps of elected and appointed officials -- on how to grow the tax base commensurate with the liability the city is assuming. We just keep repeating the same mistakes over and over and over. Orderly, but dumb.

So what would a "chaotic but smart" approach look like?

Here is what I would do (and I've said it before -- way before this current project became part of the local conversation): I would take paint and I would redo the surface striping thoughout the entire neighborhood. To facilitate a safe walking environment, I would stripe a nice walking lane on one side, then a strip for cars parked in parallel that would "protect" that lane from traffic, then two narrow driving lanes. For some of the streets that are really obnoxiously wide, two parking lanes could actually be striped. 

This approach has a number of advantages. First, we can immediately do the entire neighborhood -- something that will make a difference -- not just a few blocks right next to the school. In fact, if the city is willing to spend $75,000, it can probably do every neighborhood in the city. While it won't be a nice as a sidewalk (even if it were not over-engineered to create a despotic, hostile environment), it will probably be 80% there. Certainly as functional. Getting 80% there for 100% of the city is better than getting 100% there for a few blocks and then nothing everywhere else.

Second, what you have with paint is a low cost experiment with high upside and limited downside. The downside is that nobody walks or bikes and that the entire $75,000 is wasted. The upside is that some places in the city start to flourish as another mobility option is presented. Now those places are key target areas for other improvements -- even sidewalks, which could now be justified if additional growth and development could be induced. This is an incremental approach that we can build on over time.

Third, it allows the city to do a lot now to establish a productive local economy without needing to wait for federal money to proceed. Why would we wait until 2014 when the school district and the Safe Routes to School program have their money? Why don't we take what we have and make our city better today? Right now?

Of course there is so much more that needs to be done -- all of it at no additional cost and without the need for state and federal guidance or support. I wrote an entire series last year titled From the Mayor's Office that detailed exactly how to change a local economy and bring back a neighborhood like this. 

So this "chaotic but smart" approach makes so much sense, why is it not likely to happen? One of the unintended consequences of our decades of "orderly but dumb" policies is that we've completely changed the relationship between people, the public realm in front of their homes and the value they perceive in it.

“A sidewalk is a burden,” [Council member Mary] Koep said. “As you get older that burden gets heavier.”

We have decades of "orderly but dumb" projects to deal with, a burden that is insurmountable even in an expanding economy. Our economy is contracting, however, and so we are going to be forced to deal with all these low productivity investments with very limited funding. We won't be successful unless our "orderly but dumb" approach transforms into one that is "chaotic but smart".

That is the way we will build a nation of strong towns.

If you'd like more from Chuck Marohn, you should really get a copy of his recent book, Thoughts on Building Strong Towns (Volume 1). It is a primer on thr Strong Towns movement and an essential read for those wanting to get up to speed quickly.

You can also chat with Chuck, Nate Hood, Andrew Burleson, Justin Burslie and many others over at the Strong Towns Network. Join the conversation on how to make yours a strong town.

How about Schools on Safe Routes?

Safe Routes to School is a very popular federal program designed to make is easier for students to walk and bike to school. The amount spent on it, however, is a tiny fraction of what we spend each year building brand new schools. A approach to build Schools on Safe Routes would not only be more intelligent, it would be more effective and far cheaper.

Last month we set a record for unique readers here at the Strong Towns Blog. Thank you to everyone that has just recently found us. Our efforts here are largely supported by your contributions. If you are in a position to make a tax-deductible donation, please consider supporting our work and the Strong Towns movement. We have a lot of momentum and your support will help us continue that.

The last time I included a reference to Safe Routes to Schools in a blog post I was inundated with email and comments extolling the virtues of this federal program. Even my own cousin -- a nice guy who is a teacher here in Minnesota -- sent me a Facebook message telling me all the good the program accomplishes. So I know already before I venture out into this topic I am inviting the scorn of many. Please be patient with me.

According to the the National Center on Safe Routes to School, the purpose of the program is:

...to improve safety on walking and bicycling routes to school and to encourage children and families to travel between home and school using these modes.

This is a laudable goal. I'm not an expert in child health by any means, but I don't think I'm going out on a limb by stating that we have a child obesity problem in this country. Kids are getting diabetes in record numbers and having other health issues that a sedentary lifestyle perpetuates. That walking and biking are not part of the daily routine as it was growing up for many reading this does not feel like a coincidence. Even with other complicating factors, more options for biking and walking can only be a good thing. Through a Strong Towns prism, the added resiliency of alternatives gives the city / neighborhood / district added security in a volatile world.

Where my concern lies is not in the goal but in our approach to meeting it. Today we spend money to study and then, in some cases, to retrofit existing school zones to accommodate bikers and walkers. There is an entire pyramid of bureaucracy set up around implementing the program, from actual government employees down through a chain of consultants and local implementation managers. I've interacted with all layers of this system in all manner of community and one thing has struck me as notable:

I've never seen one of these people involved when a new school location is being determined.

This post is going to rhyme a little bit with one of my prior posts on car seats. There is no end to the advocates, working directly with money from Washington or with incentives from car seat manufacturers, reminding parents of the need to properly use a car seat. You can get a free car seat here in my area just by going to a class (we didn't go that route, but I know others that did). Nowhere -- and I mean NOWHERE -- do any of these advocates recommend driving less. This is all despite the fact that government car seat standards only require testing at crashes up to 30 mph! Auto accidents are the leading cause of death among children, yet the message from child advocates is clear: drive all you want, just use a car seat.

We spend tens of millions each year (a ridiculously small sum given the size of the task) in an attempt to retrofit schools to be walkable. Would it not be far more effective to simply locate new schools in areas that are already "safe"? Of course it would be, so why is nobody advocating for this?

According to the American Clearinghouse on Educational Facilities, there was $8.7 billion spent constructing new schools in 2010. That does not include renovations ($2.8 billion) or additions ($3.1 billion). That's an enormous number of new schools. The amount that will someday be spent retrofitting them to be "safe" is paltry in comparison.

And I don't believe I'm going out on a limb to suggest that nearly all of these new schools were of a flavor consistent with our two newest local schools, Forestview and Eagleview. Note in the following photos how these schools are located, adjacent to high speed roadways and remote from any students. Whatever the criteria used to make these decisions, there is no way it included an evaluation of making the facility safe for children to access.

Forestview in Baxter, MN. Photo from Google Earth.

Eagleview in Breezy Point, MN. Photo from Google Earth.

In the case of Forestview, the School District recently had a report prepared by a consultant giving them advice and recommendations consistent with the Safe Routes to School approach. Note that, because of the District's policy favoring families who have chosen to live more remotely from town (they get picked up and bused in while children whose families live within a mile must walk), children are expected to cross a County State Aid Highway to reach the school. The report notes -- without apparently making the connection -- that parent pick-up and drop-off is creating problem and additional improvements are needed to handle the congestion.

And I don't care how many flashing lights they make at the signalized intersection, there is no way the average parent is ever going to let their child cross this highway, let alone walk the trail in this ditch on a chilly January morning.

CSAH 48 in Baxter, MN. Image from Google Earth.

I'm continuously reminded of Carlson's Law:

In a world where so many people now have access to education and cheap tools of innovation, innovation that happens from the bottom up tends to be chaotic but smart. Innovation that happens from the top down tends to be orderly but dumb.

What prevents us from building schools on safe routes? Nothing.

Does it make far more sense that the billions spent annually on new schools be spent in neighborhoods that are already safe for children, neighborhoods where children are actually located? Of course it does.

Will anyone currently in the pipeline of funding, getting paid to advocate on behalf of Safe Routes to School, stand up and address this apparent low hanging fruit? Will any of them demand recommend suggest that, instead of making this problem dramatically worse each year, the billions spent on new schools be redirected consistent with the Safe Routes to Schools values?

I can't help but think that if we weren't subsidizing both the left hand and the right hand in this equation that our outcome, while perhaps more chaotic, would be a lot smarter than what we are now doing.

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I'm going to continue this conversation a little later this morning with some bonus material over at the Strong Towns Network.

 

 

If you'd like more from Chuck Marohn, you should really get a copy of his recent book, Thoughts on Building Strong Towns (Volume 1). It is a primer on thr Strong Towns movement and an essential read for those wanting to get up to speed quickly.

You can also chat with Chuck, Nate Hood, Andrew Burleson, Justin Burslie and many others over at the Strong Towns Network. Join the conversation on how to make yours a strong town.

The nature of productivity

If we are going to make transportation investments as a way to create jobs and economic development, we should be doing so in places with a high return. Spending scarce resources to make STROADs modestly safer is not helping, especially if it induces more people to drive. What our cities need right now is to invest in productive patterns of development.

We're making final preparations here for our big trip to Pennsylvania next week. Justin Burslie and I will be flying to Philadelphia this Sunday and then, starting early Monday morning, will be making more than a dozen stops as we make our way from town to town to share the Strong Towns message. If you live in or near Pennsylvania or have friends, relatives or acquaintances that do, check out the schedule and try and make one of the Chats. We'd love to meet you.

Yesterday we examined a dangerous intersection along a STROAD, one where the frequency and severity of accidents prompted a severely cash-strapped DOT to spend good money making modest safety improvements. This, despite the fact that the dangerous intersection is less than 1,000 feet from an expensive, fully signalized intersection maintained by the DOT, with the full complement of expensive frontage roads feeding back into it.

While closing the dangerous intersection would improve traffic flow, improve safety and cost less than the extensive reconstruction recently done, it remains open. For all involved, the seconds saved in accessing the adjacent big box retail establishments outweigh in value any other considerations. This must be one valuable location.

Or perhaps not. 

The most valuable property in this section of STROAD is the Mills Fleet Farm site. The four parcels includes the Fleet Farm big box store, a Mills Motors auto dealership, a Mills gas station and related parking and storage. Of the four corners accessed off of the dangerous intersection, this is by far the most valuable (and the one with the highest traffic demand). The others are a collection of half-vacant strip malls, underutilized former big boxes, pole buildings with fake facades and other structures of much less value.

The Fleet Farm site is 22.8 acres. It has a total value of $14.4 million. The productivity of this site, in terms of value per acre, is $630,000.

Most cities would bend over backwards in order to have that kind of tax base. This is the kind of growth we get -- and celebrate -- when we make a nine figure investment in a major highway improvement. The Mills corporation pays a ton of taxes to the City of Baxter, Crow Wing County and the State of Minnesota. It is not difficult to imagine a world where the state, with all good intentions, would drop half a million dollars improving a pesky intersection that has proven frustratingly dangerous.

In order to provide an apples to apples analysis, I went to the adjoining city of Brainerd to make a comparison of the Mills site -- the most productive site on this STROAD -- to the productivity found in the traditional development pattern. The nine blocks of downtown Brainerd shown below create a site of slightly less size -- 17.4 acres -- but far greater value. The total value of these nine blocks is $18.9 million, a per acre productivity of $1.08 million, a 72% premium over the Mills STROAD site.

There is an important thing to note about this part of downtown Brainerd. While it is financially the most productive part of the downtown, that is not saying much. There is a small area where the streetscape has been given a freshening up, but most of the development is of pretty low quality. I've brought some of my planning friends from out of town there to survey the damage and they are always shocked at how bad it is. The neglect and atrophy is depressing, even more so when you know what it used to look like.

You can also see from the photo just how much of the space has been given over to automobile storage. In a race to the bottom, Brainerd has destroyed its tax base in an effort to achieve the parking ratios found along the 371 STROAD. Yet that historic value endures.

There are some important takeaways from these observations.

First, and most obvious, is the productivity machine that is the traditional development pattern. There are good reasons that thousands of years of trial and error produced this style of development. Even after two generations of neglect and disinvestment, it remains financially superior -- by a large margin no less -- to the most productive similarly sized STROAD investment in the area. 

Second, the traditional development pattern is antifragile in so many ways while the STROAD development is anything but. In the downtown there are 132 different properties, many with multiple tenants. On the STROAD we have one corporate owner. With those 132 different properties, we have an entire ecosystem (albeit a starved one) of jobs, investments and micro opportunity. On the STROAD we have no such diversity; it is all in the hands of one business and their model. Downtown we have resilient building types where one storefront can be an office or retail or service or even residential, depending on the market demands and conditions. When the big box on the STROAD closes, there are few happy things that come next. 

Third, since the beginning of the Suburban Experiment, we have had infrastructure throughout the downtown. No new investments have been required to obtain this premium return. To get the far inferior returns from the STROAD, we have spent over a hundred million dollars on highways and frontage roads along with tens of millions on sewer and water systems, all long term obligations that local taxpayers must now sustain on a meager, diffused tax base.

Fourth, the original impetus for this conversation was the way we willingly sacrifice safety for low-return economic development along the STROAD. Well, the traditional development pattern has no such safety concerns (although in this instance, the city of Brainerd has insisted on a high speed, dangerous design through their traditional neighborhoods). We may have fender benders, but your grandmother is not going to get smashed by a semi trying to time a highway gap fleeing from the road rage driver on her tail.

And finally, when we come to grips with the reality that the problem of our cities is not lack of growth but lack of productivity, we will ask ourselves: how do we make our places more productive? Look at the STROAD site. Unless there is an heroic effort by a well financed and determined developer, there is no way the value of that property ever doubles (in real terms). There is no way the parking is converted to structures, a second story is added and other improvements are put in place to improve the value and return on that site. And even if this happened, it doesn't fit with anything around it. It would become an isolated point of productivity in a ring of decline. Today's low return condition is the financial high water mark.

The traditional development pattern of the downtown not only starts the productivity race 72% ahead of the STROAD, it has lots of opportunity to grow. All of the parking can easily be converted to more productive uses. When that low hanging fruit is consumed, all of the buildings can be improved. The second and third floors can be recaptured, renovated and remodeled. This doesn't require one sugar daddy but can be accomplished through the organic functioning of many different players. And when this happens, it won't suck the life out of the surrounding properties. To the contrary, this can only happen successfully in conjunction with the surrounding neighborhoods. Even though the current downtown is far more financially productive than the STROAD, the current atrophy and decline should be the low point. With a little different focus, it is easy to envision the value of these nine downtown blocks doubling, tripling or more.

Now go back to the cash-strapped DOT; if half a million dollars is going to be spent on transportation improvements, and if economic development considerations are going to trump safety, the numbers would suggest that retrofitting the STROAD through the downtown to be more neighborhood compatible is the investment with the highest return. 

That is what a state looking to build strong towns would do.

 

If you are interested in getting into some of the numbers behind this post, head on over to the Strong Towns Network where I've shared the data and methodology. If you want more of this type of analysis, check back here Monday, Wednesday and Friday each week or, for a quick primer, you can check out my book, Thoughts on Building Strong Towns (Volume 1)

Auto Pilot

Not only are we not serious about the financial situation we are in, major portions of our public institutions are simply oblivious. If our state transportation departments had truly come to grips with the enormity of their financial crisis, we would be having a completely different conversation right now. The fact is, we're on auto pilot, and our current trajectory is a long, slow decline.

Welcome back, everyone. I hope you had a peaceful and joyous respite. I certainly did. I'm very happy to be back and am looking forward to another year of Strong Towns. As always, we have a lot of new stuff planned; some experiments to push our boundaries and some building on past successes. Hope you hang with us and keep doing what you can to make yours a strong town.

In the summer of 1992, I was sitting at my desk at the Minnesota Department of Transportation's Baxter office when my supervisor walked by in obvious agony. This was the first weeks of a college internship for me -- and a plum one at that -- where I was putting in my time in the traffic department waiting for a opening in construction. I had been doing a few speed studies and a lot of time killing trying to find ways to be useful.

I watched my boss put a hand to his forehead and cover his eyes. He leaned forward and let his hair brush up against the wall. As he slouched there with his head hung low, a coworker -- looking equally dejected -- stepped up and put a hand on his back. The coworker's eyes were red and my boss was sobbing.

"What is going on here," I thought, quite uncomfortably. I didn't know any of these guys well enough to more than superficially share in a personal tragedy. And I was certainly not in a position to inquire. As more and more people gathered it was obvious that, whatever had happened, everyone in our section felt impacted. They were all deeply, outwardly dejected.

I found out shortly thereafter. An elderly woman trying to drive across Highway 371 in Baxter misjudged the gap between cars and was struck broadside. She was killed. And most tragically, this was simply another in a long line of similar accidents. The very real grief being expressed by my colleagues was a combination of compassion and professional frustration. Why were so many being killed on this highway?

When America began the Suburban Experiment after World War II, a brand new profession of highway and traffic engineering was created. Through trial and error (where error often meant that people died), they developed a set of standards for how highways are to be constructed. If you ask most highway and traffic engineers, and nearly all members of the public, what the primary motivation for these standards are and there will be one answer: safety.

Now to get into the weeds for a brief second, we need to acknowledge that there are many competing concerns that go into highway construction. Safety is the primary one, but safety is balanced with things like cost, economic development, travel speed, traffic volumes, political consideration and social factors. That being said, the general public's expectation is that safety would trump any of these secondary concerns. By a large margin, no less.

There is nothing special about Highway 371 as it passes through my twin hometown of Baxter, Minnesota. It is similar in construct and design to highways found ubiquitously across the country. I use it as an example solely because I drive it and am familiar with its history. Readers can undoubtedly identify their own local example.

Highway 371 is very dangerous. Sitting here writing this, I can immediately think of five fatal accidents in the past decade. The number is certainly more. The stretch of road that runs through Baxter combines high speeds with traffic entering and exiting at uncontrolled (no signal) intersections. In the vernacular we use here at Strong Towns, it is a STROAD (street/road hybrid).

The WalMart, Cub Foods, Fleet Farm intersection was changed from a full access to a 3/4 access for safety reasons.One intersection in particular has always been peculiar to me. It began as a completely uncontrolled intersection (no signal, no restriction on crossing movements) that provided access to WalMart and Cub Foods on the west and Fleet Farm and their auto dealership on the east. This has always been a problematic intersection from a safety standpoint. I've personally witnessed accidents here and remember a string of nasty ones (some fatalities, if I recall correctly) being the driving factor behind restricting the turning movements. 

The first restriction of the turning movement was to eliminate the cross over for those entering the highway. A driver entering the highway could turn right and merge with traffic but was prohibited from crossing traffic to turn left. Drivers on the highway could still exit both right and left.

This certainly didn't solve the STROAD's safety problems, although it did eliminate the most dangerous movement. As the photo shows, there is no stacking room here. Drivers entering the intersection on either side of the highway find themselves in a no-man's-land where traffic from potentially four directions is coming at you while you are trying to merge at highway speeds. It doesn't take a traffic engineer to see that this is less than optimal.

Last summer, Mn/DOT, which faces enormous funding shortfalls statewide and in the Brainerd/Baxter district, did a project to upgrade Highway 371 through Baxter. From my vantage point, the primary impetus for the improvements was safety. One of the problems with the 3/4 intersection as it was configured was that traffic turning left across traffic impaired the site lines of the traffic turning left across traffic from the other direction. This was particularly perilous with the high speeds this stretch is designed for.

None of the sources I have for aerial photography have updated their shot of this intersection since the project, but I do have a before and after from a similar project up the STROAD. What Mn/DOT did was quite genius. They realigned the turn lanes off of the highway so that they are far offset from each other. This means that any stacking vehicles will not impair the site lines from oncoming traffic.

The before image is a 3/4 turn intersection. The after image is a 3/4 turn intersection with the turn lane offset to improve vision.

I'm sure none of this is surprising to anyone. We see this kind of thing all of the time. The STROAD is built. Safety problems develop and are identified. Upgrades are made to address the problems. Wash. Rinse. Dry. Repeat.

I already mentioned how Mn/DOT is cash strapped. If we stick to the gas tax, we're literally talking $2-$3 per gallon increase in the state tax in order to maintain what we have. This aligns with the ridiculous numbers put forth by the national Infrastructure Cult. That is a revenue stream that is not going to materialize. If you think otherwise, you're either not paying attention or not grounded in reality. 

The transformation of this intersection cost $462,000. In the context of our national debate, that is not much money. Even in the context of the local Mn/DOT district, it is not a lot. It is not even crippling to envision ultimately doing this to the dozens of similar intersections along this stretch of STROAD (assuming people keep getting killed at current rates).

Here's why this fascinates me. This intersection, where people have been seriously injured and killed, where we just spent nearly half a million dollars to make an incremental improvement to reduce the rate of death, where old ladies are still asked to judge small gaps between speeding cars....this dangerous intersection is a mere 970 feet from a very safe, multi-million dollar signalized intersection.

There is only 970 feet between the dangerous intersection (recently upgraded at a cost of roughly $460,000) and a safe, signalized intersection.I'm going to assume you have the same question I do. Why is this dangerous intersection not closed? There is no traffic flow reason to keep it open. There is no safety reason to keep it open. In terms of travel time, yes, it saves a few seconds getting to the adjacent big box retailers, but is a few seconds worth even one more life lost?

Why are we spending scarce resources making an incremental improvement to this intersection? Closing the intersection would be far, far cheaper and would vastly improve safety in the process. Couldn't that money be better spent in a location where a cheap, viable alternative was not available?

Who is paying for this improvement and who is benefiting from it? Clearly the adjacent retailers are not being asked to contribute. Is there anyone but them who stands to benefit from an additional access a mere 1,000 feet from the full signalized intersection?

The answer to these questions is clear. Our highways STROADS are not about moving cars. They are not about cost. They are not even about safety. The primary objective of this intersection, and of this STROAD, is to create a platform for quick, cheap, economic development opportunities. Period.

Now I'm sure that someone is going to argue that Mn/DOT can't simply close the access, that the adjacent property owners (who Mn/DOT constructed a frontage road for) have a right to have the intersection remain untouched. Let's assume that is true (which it's not). What would the "compensation" be if Mn/DOT lost a takings case for closing the intersection? More than $462,000? More than $2.5 million, the cost generally assigned to each traffic fatality? Is the city of Baxter, corporate Fleet Farm, Cub Foods or Taco Bell going to fight this? 

Not only are we not serious about the financial situation we are in, major portions of our public institutions are simply oblivious. If Mn/DOT -- or the DOT of any state, really -- had truly come to grips with the enormity of their financial crisis, we would be having a completely different conversation when it came to situations like this. The fact is, we're on auto pilot, and our current trajectory is a long, slow decline.

Let's all resolve this year to start building strong towns.

 

There's more to this conversation and you can follow it -- or better, join in -- over at the Strong Towns Network. There I'll be sharing some follow up notes to this post, taking your questions and continuing this dialog. It's free. Please join us. We'd love to have you there.

And a special thank you to those of you that gave my book, Thoughts on Building Strong Towns (Volume 1), as a gift last year. Volume 2 is currently being edited and I hope to have it out soon. I spent much of my break unplugged from email/social media, but I did devote some good blocks of time to an original book project. More on that hopefully very soon.

Best of Blog: From the Mayor's Office

Best of Blog: From the Mayor's Office

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.

The College Drive Challenge

In anticipation of the discussion we are going to have tomorrow night here in my hometown of Brainerd, MN, I wrote this piece on our latest major construction project.

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As fall enters the scene and school begins again, the Brainerd Lakes Area waits for completion of our last great Old Economy project, College Drive. While the new four lane thoroughfare will open soon, Brainerd residents will need to wait a lot longer for the new growth that was supposed to accompany the project. That is, if there is any new growth at all.

The $9 million College Drive improvement is a classic Old Economy project. It is based on the outdated assumption that the key to local prosperity is increasing the flow of traffic. If ever there was a city where the folly of this approach is fully on display, it is Brainerd. For sixty years, the downtown has been gutted and the surrounding neighborhoods degraded to make way for wider traffic lanes and more parking. The approach has stagnated the population along with the tax base, encouraging those with the means to do so to locate outside of town.

Brainerd’s population grew by 68% in the first half of the 20th century, from 7,500 residents in 1900 to 12,600 in 1950. Since then, as Brainerd policy shifted to dismantling the city in anticipation of the prosperity that was supposed to come with automobile mobility, the population has grown by only 4%. The stagnation was isolated to Brainerd; surrounding communities grew robustly during this time and Crow Wing County itself has grown by over 80% since World War II. The State Demographer’s office does not expect Brainerd’s population to change appreciably over the next twenty five years.

This should prompt an uncomfortable question: If the population is not growing, why is traffic projected to double on College Drive?

Project advocates will argue that it is from all of the anticipated growth and the influx of people that this investment will provide. That is a testable theory and it prompts me to issue this challenge to those that would advocate for more projects of this sort.

Show us the growth.

Before the city of Brainerd spends another dime on adding traffic capacity, someone identify just one new business that was constructed in Brainerd due to the public’s $9 million investment in College Drive. Before we go any further down this path, someone identify where the investment of $662 per Brainerd resident has increased the city’s tax base even a dollar.

Of course, to justify this project financially, many new businesses will need to be constructed and the tax base will need to increase significantly. Assume for a moment that, in twenty five years, the city has to pay just $3 million to maintain this enhanced corridor, a third of the current construction cost. At the current rate of taxation, the city would need over $65 million in new tax base to cover that additional maintenance expense. Where is that growth going to come from?

When I’ve asked this question of city officials, they point to property outside of the current city limits where they anticipate development pressure. What is not being recognized is that more horizontal expansion comes with its own costs beyond the $9 million already spent on College Drive. Anything done on the periphery of the city will have roads, sewer, water and all the other costs associated with it. If the trends of recent decades are an indicator, the liabilities the city assumes in further horizontal expansion will far exceed the value of any new tax base.

So let’s be clear; to make the current College Drive project a financially viable undertaking, the city needs $65 million in new tax base on its existing infrastructure.

That’s not going to happen without a radically different vision for the future of Brainerd. Instead of an obsession with moving cars and the false dream of growth through horizontal expansion, Brainerd needs to instead focus on improving the real financial value of its existing neighborhoods. That means strategies for improving the quality of life for residents and locally owned businesses beyond simply giving them a shortcut to get to Baxter’s big box strip. We need to give people a reason to want to move to Brainerd, not simply drive through it.

Before Brainerd spends millions on another Old Economy project, public officials need to show us the success from the $9 million spent on College Drive. Until then, let’s devote our limited resources to projects that actually have a positive return on investment. 

 

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.

I love a parade

Independence Day celebrations are at their best when they combine reverence for the country with good humor, lots of smiles and a nostalgic embrace of place. Throw in some candy, a hot dog or two and some politicians to boot, and it's a celebration not to be missed. Why would a city, especially one that has billed itself for decades as the Fourth of July Capital, ever decide to pass on their parade?

We would like to thank Amy Brendmoen of St. Paul and Diane Wartnick of Edina, MN, for their generous donations to Strong Towns and for everything they do to help spread the Strong Towns message. We rely on donations to fund a large percentage of our efforts. If you value this blog, our podcast, our TV channel, the Curbside Chat or any of our other efforts, please consider making a donation today. 

I'm not sure where this post is going to go today and so I'm going to apologize in advance for taking you on a detour through my convoluted nostalgia. You see, I love the Independence Day parade in my hometown of Brainerd, MN. I turned 39 this year and, as far back as I can recall, there are only a couple of years when I wasn't watching the parade or actually being part of it. This will be the first in a long time because I won't be at the parade this year.

You see, come Wednesday, there isn't going to be a Brainerd Independence Day parade.

I want to start in 1989. That was the summer between my sophomore and junior year of high school. I was in the parade that year playing snare drum in the Brainerd High School Marching Band. We were forbidden to wear sunglass so, of course, we wore them. I had always wanted to be in the marching band and so this was a very triumphant day for me.

After the parade, I met my girlfriend and we hung out enjoying the festivities. There was a band and, while I can't remember their name, they played the best live version of the song You make me wanna shout I have ever heard. I remember that because, at the time, I was obsessed with this version by The Beatles. The two of us sat on a blanket under the stars and watched the fireworks together, a happy memory that is forever seared into my mind.

The next two summers I was away in the United States Army. Knowing I would need a way to pay for my college and also being rather patriotic and inclined to military service, I joined the National Guard. Between my junior and senior year, I was at basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey. The following summer, just after graduation, I went to Missouri to be trained as a truck driver (88M was a rather risk free military occupation at the time -- not so today). 

These 4th of July celebrations were not fun. At basic, there was no "celebration". My memory of July 4, 1990, was loneliness and extreme homesickness. I remember writing to my girlfriend (same one) swearing that we'd never spend a 4th of July apart again. As a 17 year old in a stressful situation, I might have been prone to a little melodrama, but I recall it being a very painful date. The next year was little better. Sitting in the barracks with my pen and paper, there was no parade. No fireworks. No celebration.

Of course, July 4, 1992, was a glorious day for me. I had no military commitment that summer so I got to watch the parade (my girlfriend, who was a year behind me in school, played saxophone in the marching band) and, that evening, the fireworks. The promises we made each other as kids -- to always spend that day together -- lasted through our final years of college, through our year of engagement and now for sixteen years of marriage. I'm sure if she read this she would say I am being sappy and overly dramatic about it all. Guilty, but I've already apologized for that.

Last year I wrote the following about our 4th of July celebration.

I absolutely love the 4th of July. My hometown of Brainerd bills itself as the 4th of July capital of somewhere....I can't remember if it is "the world" or just "Minnesota". Either way, I grew up with an annual dose of the full spectacle of American pomp. The only parades I ever remember missing were the two when I was off in the Army, and those were very lonely affairs. The pomp and parade of basic training may be more dignified, but just isn't the same. There's no place like home.

For one day each year, humanity descends on an otherwise inhumane landscape, pedestrians boldly take back the public realm and Brainerd feels like a community again. We brush up against each other walking down the street. We run into old friends and meet new ones. We look disapprovingly on the overly-tattooed kids puffing on cigarettes, who crave our disapproval. We stand in reverence of the flag, veterans of past conflict and current warriors. We laugh at the zany and the bizarre.

These are all the things that I would imagine our ancestors doing too.

So why isn't Brainerd having an Independence Day parade and fireworks this year? Once I tell you it will be clear why this is a double kick to the gut.

Road construction.

And not just any road construction. The parade was canceled due to the construction of College Drive, a project I have written about many times and which we call My Hometown's Last Great Old Economy Project. Let me sum it up for you as follows.

Old shortcut past the college. Neighboring city of Baxter (pure suburban model) creates a car sewer concentrating large amount of traffic on this shortcut. Bring in consulting engineer. Traffic projections suggest monstrous growth and extension of the car sewer is recommended. $9 million. City officials rightly balk on cost estimate. Borrowing three years of state aid funds for a shortcut to the neighboring city's WalMart is not economic development, especially at that price. Ultimately, some chicanery provides a way for fewer votes than normal to approve the project and it proceeds. Car sewer extension is currently being constructed.

As a side note, I did try to intervene in all this mess. I'm going to include those conversations in my upcoming book and don't have room for it all here, but let's just say two things. First, a project with a much higher return on investment could have been built for less than a million dollars (in other words, spend 1/9th the current cost and get many multiples additional return). It was presented to staff and rejected. Second, although few know it, this project is simply the next step in a larger (unwritten) plan by the staff and their consultants to build a couple more bridges and many more miles of car sewer. This is all being done (insanely) in the name of fighting congestion and inducing economic growth. An approach more ignorant of the world we live in there could not possibly be.

Back to the problem. The parade used to stage along College Drive and then go through the heart of town. Without the ability to stage there, no parade. Here is what Brainerd Community Action, parade coordinator for the past 25 years, indicated:

With the construction of West College Drive and after reconsidering other parade route options, the board has determined that there is no safe way to have a 4th of July Parade in 2012.

I've seen a lot of parades in my life. You probably have too. They routinely happen in cities big and small. Brainerd takes up an area of eight square miles. Are we really so unimaginative that we can't find room in this city for a parade celebrating the birth of our country?

No place for a parade here? (Image from Google Earth)Actually, we're not as unimaginative as we are constrained by our own obsession with moving cars. The idea of there being congestion freaks people out. The notion that highways through town may be asked to do anything except move cars quickly to neighboring Baxter seems foreign to us. I'm not exaggerating here. In the debate over this parade the welfare of the traveling automobile was front and center in every conversation. How will 35,000 people get out of town if one of the three options heading west is reduced to two lanes (which actually was its capacity for the past four decades -- only its future capacity will be four lanes)? Our thinking is so backward.

Well, not all of us. The local chapter of the Jaycees stepped in quickly with a logical solution.

The Jaycees reported they contacted the Minnesota Department of Transportation, Crow Wing County and Brainerd city officials about downtown parade routes and secured tentative permission, if the city approves, to temporarily detour South Sixth Street traffic during a parade down 13th Street. The county provided permission to use their parking lot for parade staging, the Jaycees reported.

The proposal calls for a parade route that starts on Laurel Street at South Second Street, goes east to South Fifth Street and then south to Norwood Street, east to South Eighth Street, north to Front Street and west to South Sixth Street.

According to the plan, traffic on South Sixth Street would be detoured down Oak Street onto Southeast 13th Street.

“Although all the details are not finalized, this parade route would be safe, showcase Downtown Brainerd and would be an overall benefit to the community,” the Jaycees wrote.

The Jaycees submitted requests to the city for road closures and a parade permit.

But alas, the Jaycees proposal was rejected. Want to know why? It is not enough that Brainerd is spending three years of their state aid funds to build a STROAD so their residents can more easily shop in neighboring Baxter. It is not enough that Brainerd has spent literally millions, and given over the entire character of the town, reconfiguring all of the public spaces for fast automobile traffic so that its residents can more quickly drive to Baxter. The fact that Brainerd did not oppose the school district when it closed schools in Brainerd and built a new, area-wide campus in Baxter, facilitated the destruction of its two historic theaters (now parking lots) when Baxter got its new theater.... I can't even begin to count the ways that Brainerd has slit its own throat in favor of Baxter.

So here's another. The Jaycees proposal was rejected so that the parade and fireworks could go forward in Baxter. Area residents will gather on the back side of the Mills Fleet Farm and among the weeds that have grown up over the abandoned golf course (which was to be Baxter's downtown, in another economy) to watch the parade that was supposed to be in Brainerd. It is a cruel irony that the much fought for Cypress Drive extension -- a STROAD that had to be built in anticipation of growth but has sat empty for years, as I described two years ago) - now has a purpose as parade route.

Do I have a right to be upset? I don't know. I just know that all those years ago when my wife and I would lay on the grass at the Brainerd athletic fields and watch the fireworks, I imagined someday sharing it all with our own family. It's just one year, I know, and it probably shouldn't bother me as much as it does, but in seven years my oldest is going to be the age my wife was all those years ago when we first watched the fireworks together. I've watched how fast she has grown and just don't want to give up any of it.

Especially for a stupid STROAD.

 

Charles Marohn is the Executive Director of Strong Towns. He has a wife and two daughters that seem to tolerate him, despite the moodiness. You can chat directly with Chuck and learn more about implementing a Strong Towns approach in your city by joining the Strong Towns Network, a social space for those actively working to build strong towns.

Shared Space

The concept of building shared space within the public realm is a radical one here in the United States, where automobiles are not only given priority, but completely dominate most public spaces. With the financial insolvency inherent in our current approach becoming more and more apparent each day, there is a need to study alternatives. The shared space model -- while a dramatic departure from the status quo -- can help us build Strong Towns while making our urban neighborhoods safer in the process.

Strong Towns is proud to support a new transportation-focused blog here in Minnesota called Streets.MN. The site is a collaboration among a number of local transportation enthusiasts. Content is updated frequently and can be access on the Streets.MN site as well as on Facebook and Twitter. Today's Strong Towns post is being run concurrently on the Streets.MN site. I intend to be a regular contributor in support of the effort.

This year at Strong Towns we have focused on a comparison between the financial productivity of the traditional neighborhood pattern and the post-WW II development pattern of the Suburban Experiment. Our case study has been a three block area in my hometown of Brainerd, MN, where the city has provided a 26-year Tax Increment Financing (TIF) package to a fast food restaurant that, despite being brand new and built in full conformance with the local suburban codes, has a total value 41% less than an adjacent block of the same size that has retained -- in a much deteriorated state -- the traditional development pattern.

The traditional development pattern is more financially productive and more resilient. So how do we, at this point in the process, embrace the historic DNA of our urban centers and start to reverse the decline? The next posts in this series will seek to answer that question starting today with perhaps the most difficult change we need to make; the orientation of our highways as they pass through urban neighborhoods.

The single piece of public infrastructure doing the most damage to the value of the neighborhood we are studying is the state highway. Its design is sucking the value out of the entire place. Like most highways, the design through this urban neighborhood is indistinguishable from the design used on the open road outside of town. This helps the engineers at the DOT to theoretically meet their mandate -- move as many cars as possible as quickly as possible -- but does little to create a platform for creating, let alone retaining, real financial value.

The STROAD design -- a street/road hybrid -- is the futon of transportation alternatives. Where a futon is a piece of furniture that serves both as an uncomfortable couch and an uncomfortable bed, a STROAD moves cars at speeds too slow to get around efficiently but too fast to support productive private sector investment. The result is an expensive highway and a declining tax base.

When a highway enters an urban area, it needs to adopt an urban geometry. That means narrower lanes, slower speeds and more awareness of the need to share space. The concept of "sharing space" is so foreign to Americans that it is worth deeper explanation. We're not talking about having a place for everything -- aka, Complete Streets -- or even having everything in its place -- aka, Complete Roads -- but that the concept of "priority" needs to be abolished in favor of an approach where all space is shared amongst transportation options.

Priority is what keeps you waiting at a traffic signal. It is what makes pedestrians run across the street when the light is about to change, even when they are in the crosswalk. Priority is what keeps drivers from being prosecuted when they run into a cyclist. It is one of the physical mechanisms that foments the mental reaction of road rage.

The concept of priority is the opposite of shared space. With priority, traffic devices, controls and regulations are used to designate who has domination of the public realm at any particular time. Generally, automobile through traffic is given the priority. When a car is forced to stop at a signal, pedestrians and traffic moving in a perpendicular direction can be given priority while the through traffic waits. Bikes are sometimes given priority in designated lanes. Sometimes cyclists ride within the traffic stream and theoretically have the same priority as an automobile, although too frequently that right is not recognized by the driver.

The connection to road rage is simple; when the system gives you priority, the public realm belongs to you. This gives drivers a feeling of entitlement and of domination -- they waited their turn and now the road is theirs. Add the relative anonymity of being in an automobile to the equation, and it is not difficult to see why we have road rage problems in the United States. In a priority system such as ours, anyone that fails to properly signal their turn, drives a little too slow or cuts into traffic is taking away the right of the driver with priority to access and fully utilize the public realm.

And priority is dangerous too. When we give a driver priority, we tell them that it is okay to go. The system of priority is supposed to make the public realm safe for the driver who has been given control over it. While we talk about defensive driving, we are conditioned to expect normal, routine conditions. In a system of priority, we are not automatically looking out for the accident-causing exception to the rule.

Most Americans that read what is going to come next in this post will find it bizarre. That is not because it is crazy but because we are so conditioned to believe that a system that gives priority for using the public realm is both efficient and fair. It is neither.

In an urban area -- and don't confuse what I am going to write here with a suburban road situation -- in an urban area, remove the traffic signals, the excessive (and generally ignored) signage, the stops signs, the hard elevated curb that separates pedestrians space from automobile space and the crosswalks. Reconfigure the public realm to give it an intuitive sense of complexity. What happens? Chaos? We may be inclined to believe so, but no.

What happens is shared space. I'll give you an American example where this works so you can picture the mechanism. Say you are attending a concert or a sporting event where the overflow parking is in a field or some type of area where the stalls and driving lanes are not well defined. When the event is over, people (some of whom may be under the influence of adult beverages) are walking around this undefined space at the same time that cars (sometimes driven by those also under the influence of adult beverages) are trying to navigate the same space. Despite the chaos, nobody is run over and people don't die in this environment. Why? Because it is a shared space.

In a shared space, drivers expect pedestrians and look out for them. Pedestrians expect cars to be there and do likewise. Instead of the aggressive stop and go of a priority system, you have flow. Everything flows naturally and the public realm is shared amongst all traffic options. Cars, bikes, pedestrians, people with baby strollers, people in wheelchairs, etc... They all are equally accommodated.

Counterintuitive as it may sound to the American used to the priority system, share space works because the perception of risk makes people more alert, more accommodating and more cautious.

A shared space approach may mean that cars will need to be driven at 10 or 15 mph, but before you think that the result is tremendous delay, understand that they are not stopping at lights or other places where priority would make someone wait. The continuous flow combined with the ability to intelligently access the entire neighborhood grid system (as opposed to the hierarchical system that funnels all traffic to collectors and then to arterials) not only increases the total capacity of the system but provide drivers with multiple, viable options for each trip.

Getting back to our three block case study, once we slow the cars and convert the STROAD to a street, we will provide for a more complex environment that will favor the traditional development pattern. People will be able to park on the street without worrying about getting their door sheared off. People will be able to walk without a car traveling 45+ mph mere feet away. Bikers from the surrounding neighborhoods can return. Some shade trees can be provided in the recaptured area to add even more value.

Now here's the punch line to this entire concept: to do everything I've described here and convert this STROAD to a productive, shared-space environment would cost a fraction of what our current priority-based system costs to build and maintain.

Back in 2004, this quote appeared in an article in Wired magazine appropriately called Roads Gone Wild:

The old ways of traffic engineering - build it bigger, wider, faster - aren't going to disappear overnight. But one look at West Palm Beach suggests an evolution is under way. When the city of 82,000 went ahead with its plan to convert several wide thoroughfares into narrow two-way streets, traffic slowed so much that people felt it was safe to walk there. The increase in pedestrian traffic attracted new shops and apartment buildings. Property values along Clematis Street, one of the town's main drags, have more than doubled since it was reconfigured. "In West Palm, people were just fed up with the way things were, and sometimes, that's what it takes," says Lockwood, the town's former transportation manager. "What we really need is a complete paradigm shift in traffic engineering and city planning to break away from the conventional ideas that have got us in this mess."

An urban street that costs less to build and maintain, attracts more private sector investment, creates a greater, more resilient tax base than the standard approach, and is safer too. Those are the type of advantages that come from building a Strong Town.

 

Strong Towns - We're a lot like James Howard Kunstler except you can share us with your mom. Check out our podcast on iTunes and, while you're there, give us a rating. If you listen to our podcast, have already given us a rating and would like to do us another favor, go to our donations page and become a supporter of the podcast. If you've done that, then sync up, put in your ear buds, tune in and zone out to our latest podcast; an interview with Duncan Crary of the Kunstlercast.

Residential maturing

One thing I did not clearly state on Monday (Why decline is not normal) was how the "maturing" process is capable of happening in the traditional development pattern, but not in the suburban pattern. The traditional grid and all its variations is an amazing platform for different intensities of development. In comparison, when you build a strip mall on a frontage road, there is no natural progression for that building other than decline. When you build a traditional neighborhood, an entire palette of possibilities is available.

Before I go any further, I need to let you know that the images in today's post are from the library of Steve Mouzon, one of the people I most admire in CNU. If asked to sit down and write out a list of people I'd like to have over for dinner, Steve would be high on that list. But you should know that his amazing library of photos is not something reserved for his pals and acquaintances (and those that pester him, like me). All of these photos and more are available online for purchase at a ridiculously low price. I sometimes just go there to browse when looking to complete a thought visually. Check it out.

So how does a residential neighborhood mature? It is simple. Over time, as value is added to a neighborhood, natural market forces put pressure on properties to expand, redevelop and intensify. This is not coercion and it is not something that needs to be subsidized. When done in a healthy neighborhood, the progression is incremental, smooth and welcome. This stands in stark contrast to our current approach, which is often a random effort, completely out of scale and resisted by the neighborhood.

So a traditional neighborhood is established. The first natural iteration would be the single family home. Now being from Steve's library, this is a very nice home. It doesn't have to be this big or this nice. A small single family would be just fine in most infant neighborhoods.

Copyright Steve Mouzon

As value is added to the neighborhood, the underlying land value will increase. Once so much value is amassed (let's say, for example, because it is within a couple of blocks of a great downtown or a block from a transit stop), there will be a natural demand for redevelopment. From a mathematical  standpoint, when the improvements on the lot are less than 3x the value of the land, there should naturally be redevelopment pressure.

As an example, if you have a lot worth $50,000, a stable investment is a home worth at least $150,000 for a total lot value of not less than $200,000. Let's say that the house remains static but the land becomes worth $100,000. There will be natural market pressure to improve the structure -- either through an addition or some type of redevelopment -- to be worth at least $300,000. This would give a stable value of $400,000.

Now understand that the pressure is not on the homeowner, per se. Your property doesn't go up $10,000 and you suddenly feel the pressure to spend $30,000 on granite counters and new flooring. But as properties change hands and the market turns over -- which is an incremental process that happens slowly over time -- the people buying the lot will take this into account. The further the property is below that 3:1 ratio, the higher percentage of developers that will be interested in it (assuming it is a healthy neighborhood with appreciating property values).

What will a developer then do with it? In a healthy neighborhood, that developer might be the person next door. Or it could be someone from out of town. Either way, the lot is not going to have increased in value enough to support a high rise apartment (which wouldn't fit in the neighborhood anyway). But a duplex would be just fine. It is a small incremental change, allows the property owner to get more value out of it (could perhaps be half owner occupied and half rented) and is compatible with the adjacent neighborhood.

Copyright Steve Mouzon

Nobody reasonable is going to be offended by that house popping up amongst a bunch of single family residences. And if it is simply an expansion of an existing home to create a duplex, nobody is going to mind that either. This is a great neighborhood and everything is working well. 

But let's say that even more value is added. Not only do you have a great downtown and a transit stop, but you now have a great park and a lot of cultural activities going on in and around this spot. Not only that, but the downtown is growing too, some really chic retail has crept in to some formerly-residential spots up the block and the transit line has been connected to a major hub. Wow, we've built some value here! Time for more intensity.

Copyright Steve MouzonAgain, you can see how a couple of neighboring duplexes could be purchased and, instead of some ridiculous apartment or condo complex with a big parking lot, the traditional pattern calls for something that would fit right in. If you're living in the duplex across the street, are you going to object to the eight unit row house going in? Probably not because it fits right in. If you want to see some great pictures of a neighborhood at this maturity level, check out the piece I wrote on Frederick, Maryland.

I am going to pause now before going on to the next step and reiterate something important. I know there are those of you reading this right now, sitting at the kitchen table of your nice single family home, saying, "There is no way on God's green earth that I'm going to allow a set of row houses across the street from me. Who does this Strong Towns guy think he is?" Fair point, and the reality is that most neighborhoods will not grow beyond the single family stage. That's okay too, at least as long as the public infrastructure and services stay scaled to that investment level.

But some neighborhoods will. And even if you object today, what's to say that your kids will object two decades from now. When they inherit the house, they're going to have lives of their own. Their own homes with their own memories. Yes, your house will have personal value to them, but it will also have real financial value. In a healthy redevelopment scenario, it will have lots of value. Again, we're not talking about coercion like we use today in eminent domain. We're talking about a natural cycle that would compensate you and your family very well for voluntarily selling your property at an opportune time. 

And this is not a subprime-induced bubble. This type of value creation is the hard work and vision of a community. It is resilient. (Note to planners: Doing this is actually your job, not all that zoning baloney).

So now we have a bunch of row houses, but up the block is 5th Avenue and the other way is Central Park. So what happens next?

Copyright Steve MouzonThere is one last thing I need to address here, because there are housing advocates that are rushing to click on "comments" so that they can curse me for being pro-gentrification. I plead guilty. Improving the value of a broad swath of properties is part of what a well-functioning local government does, at least one that wants to be around for a while. And while I acknowledge that, in today's system, this tends to drive poor people out of neighborhoods as wealthier people move in, that is not the way it has to work. And I don't think that is the way it would naturally work if we didn't have the zoning and transportation policies we have. 

You'll notice in every iteration of building I've presented here -- from single family to duplex to row house to apartment -- we are building things that would generally be called more "affordable". Now it wouldn't necessarily have to be that way -- an apartment in Manhattan is not likely to be affordable, for example -- but it could be. In reality, the palette of home designs I've presented here defy price range. Literally any of these could be internally configured for any price point. In other words, building valuable places will solve affordable housing problems, not make them worse.

There is no simple short cut to building a truly Strong Town. Understanding the power of the traditional development pattern and how it allows a community to create value and mature over time is a critical first step.

 

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.

Tuesday follow up

We usually publish here on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, but there was one short item that I couldn't justify squeezing into yesterday's post but wanted to pass on.

The following photo and caption come from a booklet called the Brainerd History Walk. In a single paragraph, they do more to explain how the suburban experiment has changed our values than anything I could write.

The $50,000 spent in 1910 is equivalent to spending $1.2 million today. There was no asebestos requiring expensive removal -- it wasn't invented yet -- and it is hard to believe that the building itself had fallen into ruin. No, it was just determined that the highest and best use for this property was for storing cars.

A belief that, unfortunately, persists to this day.

Why decline is not normal

Why decline is not normal

We have come to see the stagnation and decline of our blocks and neighborhoods as a normal part of the development process. It is not. The normal course of human development is for successful cities to mature incrementally over time. When that occurs, they become financially resilient. To build Strong Towns, a community's emphasis needs to shift from creating growth quickly and easily to building value in a broad and incremental way.

In May of 2000, I took my first trip out of the country. Having grown up in a small town in Central Minnesota, I had seen quite a bit of the United States (excluding major cities, which my parents avoided) but had no idea what a country like Italy was going to be like. In fact, in my naivete, I probably assumed it would look at lot like the United States with a few more churches and some Roman ruins here and there. The truth is, while I had pondered a different culture, it had not occurred to me that the very place would be so different.

As we flew into Milan, someone said we could see the city outside the window. Milan is one of the major cities of Europe -- a cosmopolitan capital -- but when I looked out my window, I didn't see it. Where were the skyscrapers? Where were the highways? The stadium? None of the landmarks I had grown accustomed to seeing in major U.S. cities were visible. Everything just seemed so short.

I'll spare you the story of my awakening, from engineer to planner to Strong Towns advocate, but simply note that this flight into Milan was a major turning point in that story. It took me years of reflection and many trips to the neighborhoods of Milan, Rome, Paris, Amsterdam, Dublin and London, not to mention dozens of small towns throughout Italy, France, England and Ireland, to piece it all together. What I was seeing for the first time in Milan was a city that had progressed through centuries of development. I was looking at a place that had matured.

Last week I polarized our pleasant conversation here by writing the following:

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.

And later in the same piece I wrote:

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.

Why don't we have a Milan here in the United States? Easier still, why don't we have a Stresa (Italy, population 5,000) or an Avignon (France, population 95,000), two cities of immense beauty, character and, I am quite certain, financially able to maintain their basic infrastructure? Years ago, I would have believed it was because our cities were younger and had not had the time these great towns of Europe had. Then I came across this picture of my hometown of Brainerd and realized what had happened.

Everything you see in that picture from 1894 is now gone. In its place are a bunch of parking lots, abandoned buildings and very low rent, marginal establishments. As James Howard Kunstler wrote me once in an email, my hometown -- like so many other American cities -- simply committed suicide.

It was self-inflicted damage, but injury was not the intention. The goal was growth. At Strong Towns we've discussed fairly thoroughly the illusion of wealth our development pattern creates and the workings of the Growth Ponzi Scheme. Today I want to describe what a normal, healthy pattern of development looks like. We'll focus on commercial districts and look at residential neighborhoods later in the week.

Start with the earliest settlement. In the case of my hometown of Brainerd, this photo was taken in 1870. For those with local knowledge, this is Front Street. The sign on the clearest building reads, "Billiard Hall." This is a place in its infancy.

Front Street 1870.jpg

Brainerd, MN. Front Street. 1870In terms of a country making many little bets, a lot of cities at this stage did not mature beyond infancy. That wasn't a problem as there was little wealth wagered at this point (it would be another century before we reached the beginning of the too-big-to-fail approach). Brainerd was one of the cities that did mature further, however. This is how this same street looked a mere 24 years later.

Brainerd 1894.jpg

Brainerd, MN. Front Street. 1894

There are two critical things to note about the changes. First, "maturing" meant horizontal expansion, but it also meant vertical expansion and enhancement. Growth meant that the core of this city increased in value, which prompted both a simultaneous investment in improving the core as well as lesser investments in adjacent properties.

It should be noted that, while the architecture has a distinctive frontier look and feel to it, the layout and intensity of development is very similar to that of the small towns I mentioned above, Stresa and Avignon. In Stresa you will find distinctive Italian architecture and Avignon is the city of the papacy and also has its own distinct character. That being said, someone could be dropped on Brainerd's Front Street in 1894 or in Stresa/Avignon today and get meal, have a drink, find a room, buy some supplies, get a haircut, hire a lawyer, etc... In short, what you see here in 1894 is a perfectly viable place.

At this point then, the maturing process is simply a matter of enhancing the value of the existing properties. In the case of Brainerd, what that meant was that many of the wooden buildings were replaced with buildings made of rock, brick and concrete. Again, the maturing process added to existing investments, simultaneously adding value to existing developed sites as well as new growth on the periphery.

Brainerd Laurel Street.jpg

Brainerd, MN. 6th Street. Believed to be taken in the 1930's.It is important to understand that the maturing didn't simply take place automatically. There were so many things being done to build value in this community. Open spaces that had been reserved near town were now developed as parks. Neighborhoods around these parks were also filling in with residences of all styles and neighborhood businesses. Schools were being built along with other civic infrastructure imbedded in the surrounding neighborhoods. A new county courthouse was constructed in a prominent location using a distinctive architectural style. Incrementally and across a broad spectrum, things were maturing.

It is here that I need to depart from photos of Brainerd for quite obvious reasons. America began its suburban experiment and the maturing process ended. It was no longer the community's objective to incrementally add to the store of value within the community but instead to grow quickly and easily, leveraging the automobile, government transfer payments/incentives and abundant private sector capital to invest in the periphery of town. The traditional parts of Brainerd -- like most American cities large, medium and small -- reflects our change in approach.

Had we continued on the same path, it is hard to say what a city like Brainerd would look like today, but it would be much closer to Stresa and Avigonon than it currently is (and a place like Minneapolis/St. Paul, closer to Milan in its layout). That is what literally thousands of years of human history tells us is the "normal" pattern for cities; an incremental maturing process where prior investments are built on, expanded and enhanced over time. And to understand what a Strong Towns approach means, it is important to realize that an incremental maturing process over a broad community (a) increases the value of the community without (b) significantly increasing the cost of infrastructure or of neighborhood facilities like parks, schools and fire stations.

In the suburban experiment  we've gone the other way with our public balance sheet. Our historic tax base has not matured but has stagnated or declined. We've made up for that with new growth through horizontal expansion, but the increase in value with that approach has been accompanied by huge increases in long-term public expenses. It is not financially sustainable.

It was my original plan to discuss how we reverse this trend, but last week's interlude (and subsequent discussion) on Tax Increment Financing (TIF) got in the way. I'm going to get to "solutions" soon, but first let me try to build the bridge from what we've been talking about so far this year (a comparison of the traditional commercial block and the auto-oriented commercial block) to where we need to go to fix this.

We have to stop looking at the stagnation and decline of our blocks and neighborhoods as a normal part of the development process. It is not. Yes, there are certainly parts of Milan, Stresa and Avignon -- as well as historic Brainerd -- that experience periods of stagnation and decline, but these are isolated areas and the decline is not persistent. The normal course of human development is for successful cities to continue to mature incrementally over time. When that occurs, they become financially resilient and are able to withstand periods of macro-stagnation without falling apart.

Now here's the mental bridge: To build Strong Towns, a community's emphasis needs to shift from creating growth quickly and easily to building value in a broad and incremental way. 

That's my core problem with TIF, and I acknowledge that it's more intellectual than it is substantive. TIF is a short cut. Yes it builds value, but as a short cut, it doesn't do it in a broad, incremental and ultimately sustainable way. It doesn't require us to think through and come to grips with the reasons for the decline that makes the tax increment transaction possible. It allows us to continue the suburban experiment believing -- or at least not disbelieving -- that the failure of properties, and subsequent "rescue" through a tax subsidy, is a natural course of action. Failure is prerequisite for a successful TIF project. Today it may be a necessary evil, but it is an evil nonetheless.

Now I will grant that this is an intellectual argument I'm having with the choir. We're all going to be singing from the same page when we're talking about using TIF to revitalize an historic downtown or cleaning up a contaminated site. But for the sake of what is coming next, I really need people to understand what I wrote last Wednesday.

Use TIF if you must, but we should be shaking our heads in shame when we have to, not congratulating ourselves on our resourcefulness and innovation.

Additional Reading

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.