-- Urbanophile - joe the planner - the white elephant in the room 4-22-10


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-- Urbanophile - joe the planner - the white elephant in the room 4-22-10

  1. 1. 4/28/2010 Joe the Planner: The white elephant in t… Share Report Abuse Next Blog» Create Blog Sign In SU B SCRIBE TUE SD AY , F E BRUARY 1 0 , 2 0 0 9 Post s The white elephant in the room Com m en t s I’m certainly not the first pundit to comment on the recent economic meltdown, and I sure won’t be the last. But there is a side to this crisis that almost no one is talking about, AB OU T M E perhaps because it hits a little too close to home—literally . JOE THE PLA NNER The two primary assumptions embedded in our national dialog seem to be that (1 ) like BUFFA LO, NEW YORK, UNITED STA TES the dot-com bust of 2000, the problem is a fairly recent phenomenon caused by the VIEW MY COMPLETE PROFILE latest round of irrational exuberance on Wall Street, and that (2) worst-case, we’ll all be able to go back to the old borrow-and-spend way of life in a couple y ears. Both are sy mptoms of denial that make it impossible to address the larger problem. This crisis is not simply about AB OU T TH IS B L O G bad suburban housing debt. By I st a r t ed t h is blog m a in ly t o st op some estimates, more than one- t or t u r in g m y g ir lfr ien d. A lso, in m y eighth of the retail space in the h u m ble opin ion , t h er e a r e sca n t few g ood u r ba n pla n n in g blog s, so I U.S. will be sitting v acant within w a n t ed t o cr ea t e a n en lig h t en in g , a few months. The graph at right pr ov oca t iv e, a n d en t er t a in in g for u m illustrates that situation v ery for pla n n in g -focu sed issu es in m y clearly . I’m thinking y ou’ll be h om et ow n of Bu ffa lo, NY . shocked by it. Whether or not In a ddit ion t o u r ba n pla n n in g , Ill be that’s the case, kindly indulge me cov er in g econ om ics, polit ics, a n d pr oba bly a n y t h in g else I n eed t o g et and read on. off m y ch est . The prov erbial elephant in the So, w h et h er or n ot y ou a g r ee, post a room is the amount of sprawling, com m en t a n d let m e kn ow . Ma y be it ll redundant public and priv ate h elp r a ise t h e lev el of t h e loca l con v er sa t ion . infrastructure we’v e built since the end of World War II. This ex odus to the suburbs quickly resulted in the hollowing-out of major parts of older cities and towns. Furthermore, the ov erwhelming majority of this dev elopment is automobile-based. F OL L O W E RS Places to liv e, work, shop, and play are intentionally separated by v ast distances. Low- density , separated-use zoning has ensured that there is far more infrastructure to Follow maintain per-person than in older v illage, town, or city neighborhoods. w ith Google Friend Connect Followers (18) For this suburban sy stem to function, residents are required to own, operate, and maintain a car. Or two. Or three. Nobody knows this better than the ty pical suburban family . While car ownership is ex pensiv e enough, it is not simply a matter of gasoline and monthly pay ments. The automobile incurs another immense cost: cars can’t operate without lots of flat, smooth, publicly -funded road infrastructure (read: roads, highway s, and the accompany ing electric, gas, water, and sewer utilities). Already a member? Sign in A ll of this is stupefy ingly ex pensiv e. These indirect costs constitute the majority of the ex pense, y et remain inv isible to most people—spread-out in the form of local, state, and federal tax es, or camouflaged as municipal bond debt or v arious other forms of gov ernment debt. So in addition to being redundant, this means that suburbia is a doubly ex pensiv e liv ing arrangement. B L OG ARCH IV E…blogspot.com/…/white-elephant-in-ro… 1/9
  2. 2. 4/28/2010 Joe the Planner: The white elephant in t… The other point that I’m try ing to make is that the migration of wealth to the suburbs has ► 2 0 1 0 (2 ) not been a free-market phenomenon. Customer choice is only a small part of the ▼ 2 0 0 9 (2 ) equation, or this wouldn’t hav e happened in v irtually ev ery American city at the ex act ▼ Febr u a r y (1 ) same time in the ex act same way . Which, of course, is ex actly how it did happen. T h e w h it e eleph a n t in t h e r oom ► Ja n u a r y (1 ) I assert that much of the economic crisis we’re seeing today is simply the end result of decades of bad decisions driv en by bad economic, transportation, housing, and land-use policy . L IN KS A m ercifu lly short history of sprawl T h e New Millen n iu m Gr ou p Bu ffa lo Sm a r t Code To understand the sudden suburban migration of the post-WWII period, and what it means for us today , some historical perspectiv e is required. Happily , I’v e done my best to keep it short. JO E L IKE S TH E SE B L O GS: Bu ffa l o Risin g On l in e Powerful enablers are required for such a sweeping thing to happen. Post-WWII Com m on Cou n cil Item s of In terest suburbanization was caused not simply by the av ailability of the automobile, or postwar 33 minute s ago housing demand, but by a conv erging set of public policies that resulted in blighted t h e t r a n spor t pol it ic cities, towns, and v illages, as well as an uglified, ov erdev eloped country side. Without U.S. PIRG Sl am s A m eri can Tr an spor tation Prioriti es as Roads getting into gory detail, the major enablers included the national highway sy stem, Fal l A part subsidized gov ernment loans for new suburban housing, the often intentional 2 hours ago withholding of needed capital to renew older neighborhoods, and notoriously St r eet sbl og Today ’s Headl in es destructiv e urban renewal projects. These policies, and others too, amounted to the 2 hours ago most massiv e outlay of tax pay er subsidies and incentiv es the world has ev er seen. The T h e Ur ba n oph i l e ’burbs were not built by chance. Or merely by customer choice. Ch u ck Ban as: Th i s Is Spr awl 20 hours ago This is not to say that these policies weren’t well intentioned. For the most part they V er it a s et V en u st a s were. But they were also largely naiv e and shortsighted. Howev er, at the time, they were CN U N ew Y ork Con feren ce: Sprawl seen as necessary to address some of the largest concerns of the day . Foremost, this Retrofit 22 hours ago inv olv ed the v ery real possibility of lapsing back into a depression as A merican industry demobilized. These fears were inflated by the v ast problem of re-employ ing the nine- A m er i ca n Col ossu s: T h e Gr a in El ev a t or , 1843-1943 million-or-so men and women formerly in uniform who suddenly found themselv es out Th e Su peri or El ev ator in Bu ffal o, N ew of a job. Y ork 1 day ago Keep in mind also that after an almost 1 5-y ear period of depression and/or war, fix bu ffa l o t oda y A merican cities were not in great shape. During that time, there had been little public or Cen tral Park Pl aza - Part I 2 days ago priv ate inv estment, and cities still contained all of the nox ious, unpleasant activ ities of the industrial age, accompanied by v irtually none of the env ironmental protections we Bu ffa l o Ca r Sh a r e Press Con feren ce tom orrow 4/1 take for granted today . A lso, during the war, hundreds of thousands of southern blacks 3 we e ks ago had migrated to northern cities hungry for defense labor, adding a racial component to im n ot sa y in , i m ju st sa y in the issue. Finally , the steadily increasing population of cities had created a housing Rou n du p of A ppl e Tabl et Detai l s from A l l eged Beta Tester Jason Cal can is, demand, especially among the middle class and the millions of y oung war v eterans newly Oth er s empowered by the GI Bill. 3 months ago Ped Sh ed To av oid the obv ious potential mess, the federal gov ernment decided to create a large set Robert Ch ar l es Lesser & Co. Market of subsidies and incentiv es for new construction and new land dev elopment. All at once, Stu di es 3 months ago this would help allev iate housing demand and instantly create thousands of jobs in the construction trades. T h e Hy dr a u l ics (Bu ffa l o s La r k in Di st r ict ) A t the same time, cities, Register ed! Kam m an Bu il din g, Hy dr au l ics h i story set for n ati on al perceiv ed as ov ercrowded, spotl i gh t dirty , and dangerous, became 4 months ago the v ictims of the so-called ‘urban renewal’ programs of the 1 950s and 60s, a process by which many otherwise v iable neighborhoods (most often minority ) were demolished…blogspot.com/…/white-elephant-in-ro… 2/9
  3. 3. 4/28/2010 Joe the Planner: The white elephant in t… entirely and replaced with a smattering of low-quality publicly -subsidized housing projects. Families, businesses, and other community institutions were uprooted, neighborhood relationships were destroy ed, and most residents were forced to relocate to other neighborhoods—many of which were, shall we say , less than welcoming. It is dfficult to ov erstate the amount of social stress and psy chological trauma caused by this. Ev er wonder about some of the reasons behind the urban race riots of the 1 960s? A lso under these programs, downtowns, waterfronts, and other older neighborhoods were mangled or obliterated by ex pressway s and automobile-related transportation projects. It’s no surprise that urban renewal soon became sarcastically (and perhaps more accurately ) known as ‘urban remov al.’ A ll of this lowered the v alue of older cities, towns, and v illages, and intensified the suburbanization subsidies already in place. Primed and sustained by these subsidies, the suburban build-out has continued generally unimpeded in the decades since. It actually accelerated through the 1 990s, driv en by both cheap oil and a frenzied, any thing-goes lending market. The map abov e remarkably demonstrates this. The red/y ellow areas, amounting to at least half of the total colored area, represent the land dev eloped from 1 993–2001 . The purple/blue is the land dev eloped prior to 1 993. Think about that. At least as much land has been dev eloped in this country in the last 1 5 y ears as in the prev ious 400 y ears of our history . Not surprisingly , as people continue to mov e ev en further out, older suburbs hav e been ex periencing the same problems of pov erty , crime, and blight that city neighborhoods hav e seen. A nd so it goes. T he sprawl bubble Today , the resulting problems are v ast, intimidating, and painfully obv ious. Y et it’s hard for most Americans to discern the problem, let alone see a way out of the woods. This is not only because we’v e got so much of our collectiv e wealth tied-up in this sy stem, but because suburban sprawl has become so culturally identified with the postwar “A merican Dream.” Indicting the sy stem that produces sprawl is often seen an indictment of our v ery way of life. A nd dissing the A merican Way is blasphemy , brother. It’s therefore no wonder, though no less maddening, that we can’t seem to hav e an intelligent public discussion about this. It’s hard to broach the topic in public without really pissing someone off—often to the point of v iolent irrationality . Believ e me, this is not a subject y ou want to bring up with strangers. Or in-laws. I know. In any case, we’v e now got this glut of public infrastructure, most of which is obscenely ex pensiv e and redundant. Much of the older stuff has been in deferred maintenance for decades because we’v e been too busy try ing to pay for all the new stuff. A ccordingly , public debt is astronomical. In addition, the amount of priv ate debt has nev er been higher, with av erage personal sav ings essentially zero. This is due in part because so many people hav e taken adv antage of ex isiting housing subsidies to buy homes they can’t afford and liv e lifesty les bey ond their means. (Of course, there are other things that hav e contributed to this situation, but I won’t delv e into all of them here.) The bottom line is that there’s no financial slack left in the sy stem. State and federal gov ernments, municipalities, banks, businesses, and indiv iduals are all strung out on v arious forms of credit, because we’v e been collectiv ely attempting to finance a way of life that is…blogspot.com/…/white-elephant-in-ro… 3/9
  4. 4. 4/28/2010 Joe the Planner: The white elephant in t… unaffordable and ultimately unsustainable. This brings us back to the chart at the beginning of the article. If y ou didn’t see the significance the first time, y ou may want to look at it again. A simple measure of the current financial crisis is ev ident here: In 1 960 the United States had about four square feet of retail per person. As of 2005, that number had risen to 38 square feet. Y ep, that’s right. This number includes not only the underutilized retail square-footage in older neighborhoods, but also the speculativ e, ov erv alued glut of strip malls and big-box stores of suburbia. The ‘dead mall’ has been a familiar sight across the country for a while now. Dead subdiv isions are now common in suburban areas hardest hit by the housing crisis. For a current comparison to other industrialized nations, see the second chart at right. While the U.S. number reported by this research is lower than the first chart (20.2 square feet v s. 38), it’s the relativ e difference between the U.S. and other nations that’s pertinent here. Note that other countries are still down where we were 50 y ears ago. Y ou must then ask y ourself these rhetorical questions: Do the Germans, French, or English liv e in some third-world consumer backwater? Are there ov erseas shortages of bread or iPods? In any case, back to U.S. retail: As retail dev elopment follows residential, and both follow public infrastructure inv estment, one can infer that we’v e been sitting on a massiv e real- estate bubble for decades, propped-up by massiv e public subsidies. This is what I call the ‘sprawl bubble.’ In large part, this is the bubble that is currently bursting. This has implications for all Americans, not simply those of us liv ing in far-flung suburbia. Ov erdev eloped suburbs aren’t the only areas in bad shape. As we’v e seen, American cities, depopulated, disinv ested, and impov erished, are not the mighty manufacturing centers they used to be. We’v e ex ported most of that activ ity to places like China, Mex ico, Korea, and India. We’v e essentially become a country that doesn’t make things, simply ex isting as a market for other countries’ products. That’s why China holds a staggering—and ev er increasing—amount of our debt. The Chinese must guarantee a market for all of their manufactured goods by propping up the v alue of our currency . Setting aside for a moment the irony that we’re now economically beholden to the world’s largest communist country , at least for now the relationship is a sort-of mutually - assured economic destruction. Internally , much of our domestic economy is now tied to the construction and real estate finance industry which, using the capital prov ided by a runaway lending market, has been going gangbusters producing new suburban McMansions and strip malls—until quite recently , that is. It’s all come to a screeching halt, with the financial hucksters no longer able to hide the fact that much of this stuff has little or no v alue. I’v e often wondered how long we’d be able to keep up this shell game. More and more, it’s obv ious that this is a pattern of liv ing guaranteed to bankrupt our country . I may be wrong, but I’m thinking the piper finally needs to be paid. The scary thing is, for the most part, A mericans won’t ev en admit the problem. I’m not an alarmist, but my fear…blogspot.com/…/white-elephant-in-ro… 4/9
  5. 5. 4/28/2010 Joe the Planner: The white elephant in t… is that we’re so pathologically attached to our sy stem and its hallowed cultural my ths that we’ll fight to the bitter end to sustain the unsustainable. The next segment w ill take a more local viewpoint, exploring the phenomenon of spraw l here in the Buffalo-Niagara region. P O S T ED B Y J O E T HE P LA NNER A T 12: 01 P M LA B ELS : CR I S I S , EC O NO M Y, R ET A I L, S P R A W L, S UB UR B S , UR B A N R ENEW A L 14 C O M M E N T S: mehta said... This post has been removed by a blog administrator. 1 :2 1 A M EST dgoshilla said... Fascinating article. I grew up in the suburbs of Buffalo and now liv e in Los A ngeles. Here in LA Im seeing retail shut down ev ery where. Its scary to driv e down urban shopping areas like Melrose, Robertson, Bev erly , Colorado and ev en Rodeo to see ev ery other storefront "for lease". Were seeing a cultural shift towards sav ing propped up by a shrinking credit market which will lead to a serious decrease in spending and the need for as much retail as wev e had here in the US for the past 8 y ears. My concern is what to do with the open retail space occupy ing LA. These storefronts are usually one story and no bigger that 1 500-3000 square feet. Because of their location they are certainly ex pensiv e aka ov erpriced and if there are no retail/restaurant/galleries to fill the spaces they will lay dormant for y ears to come. My hope is that people will begin coming in from the suburbs to the city . With more density will come retail and soon enough these for Lease signs will fall. A n ev en greater concern is what if this actually happens? What if we witness a suburban diaspora? While tens of large and stalled housing complex es certainly ex ists to accommodate these "ex pats" the infrastructure does not. Where will we park our cars? Where will people attend school? How will people receiv e healthcare? A sk y ourself what problems would arise from an influx of population from the suburbs to the city and y ou will bear witness to the issues facing our country as a whole. Public Transit, Education and Health Care all saw major cuts from the stimulus bill because of the need to bring 3 Republicans on board. The US needs a comprehensiv e city by city , state by state solution to public transportation.…blogspot.com/…/white-elephant-in-ro… 5/9
  6. 6. 4/28/2010 Joe the Planner: The white elephant in t… The US needs to fix our healthcare sy stem so that were not spending 3x the amount of other countries per person while receiv ing worse care. The US needs a national strategy to rev amp our middle, junior high and public schools. If we cant solv e the abov e issues well nev er dig ourselv es out of this ditch and the web between our cities, suburbs and ex urbs will be full of the carcasses of once occupied space. 1 2 :3 9 PM EST Meghan said... Y ouv e got it ex actly right. I hav e a paper y ou might like to see re: Buffalo in this contex t. E-mail me if y oure interested: mcope@uv m.edu (formerly faculty at UB). 1 2 :3 2 PM EST A nony mous said... This post has been removed by a blog administrator. 3 :3 7 PM EST A nony mous said... Can y ou say Benderson? 4 :1 4 PM EST A nony mous said... How about we take some of Barry Os spending, er stimulus plan and DO something with it: Hundreds of acres of neglected city scape lies in ruin...block upon block with mid 20th century homes shuttered...infested...one occupant per ev ery 1 0 properties.... Take these few residents and respectfully relocate them.. Sure it will be tough...but make it worth their while....under those streets, y ou upgrade power and plumbing and create shov el ready plots...sprinkle in new berms, trees, put things on bus routes, build a library and fire hall...sprinkle in some small retail pockets....make the nex t Clarence suburban dev elopment (for ex ample) happen within minutes of downtown...reduce reliance on 30 minute commutes, traffic, gasoline... Life in the city is great. No more burbs. Charge more to rebuild infrastructure in suburban farmland....turn the lemon we suffer from (abandoned properties, suburban ring sprawling into ev er distant suburban rings) into newness...all the adv antages of a suburban pre-planned community with the conv enience of downtown, the lake, the theatre. Take those free gov t dollars to clear and make shov el ready tomorrows neighborhoods a reality ....big lots, v aried hoe sty les, 1 0 minute commutes, new life where now there is only decay .…blogspot.com/…/white-elephant-in-ro… 6/9
  7. 7. 4/28/2010 Joe the Planner: The white elephant in t… Then get these communists, er, bureaucrats out of the way so entrepreneurs can build a business model to make it happen I bet 30 percent of the city could EA SILY be cleared and people would welcome access to Elmwood, Hertel, the medical campus, etc. Long term, we rebuild the city from within...giv e people a reson to do it.... 7 :3 6 PM EST A nony mous said... Sprawl - is a word heard thousands of times ov er the y ears in Lancaster New Y ork. Infra structure (sewers,water and roads) is ignored - build, build, build has been the local gov ernments mantra. They can do this because like all other large corporations lately hav e learned - in the end the tax pay ers will be forced to pay . Whether its local, state or federal tax es - we will pay . We will pay to upgrade and ex tend roads,bridges,waterlines,sewerlines and whatev er it takes to keep the tax and spend sy stem running. Without this cy cle, the "Political Machine in America" will shurely be ex sposed for what it is - one giant tax fed, tax funded retirement sy stem for those who liv e within the choosen ranks. The workers - tax pay ers are the cows that feed the sy stem - as long as they are fed - they are happy - gladly unaware that if they dont produce the perscribed amount of milk(tax s) they then will be replaced and swallowed up by the same sy stem they supported. Why should we stop the sprawl - it creates jobs for some - temporarily - wealth for a small handful of the well connected and tax dollars to hide the ov er stuffed sy stem we enjoy . Who cares that some water lines are made of rotting wood, who cares bridges are failing, who cares that the newer subdiv isions are pumping sewage into an already battered and ov erly burdened treatment sy stem? Our childrens generation and the ones that follow will surely thank us for their chance at the American dream - may be they too will some day enjoy a tax funded bailout and liv e better than we hav e - isnt that what its all about, looking out for our futures ! ? 7 :5 4 PM EST A nony mous said... Joe, great article. Looking for side conv ersation to share some insights. Drop me an email at jasontheplanner@hotmail.com 8:4 9 PM EST Joe the Planner said... @ dgoshilla: y ou raise some good points. Both our cities and inner-ring suburbs are trashed. In a future of diminishing returns, wev e certainly got our work cut out for us. But if our future does mean fewer resources and higher costs (particularly for energy ), then the lay out of the burbs is particularly badly suited. The subsidies and incentiv es that hav e artificially propped-up ex urban dev elopment will, by and large, disappear. The least-v aluable parts of suburbia may be good for nothing more than salv age. (In fact, ov er the last few decades, blight has…blogspot.com/…/white-elephant-in-ro… 7/9
  8. 8. 4/28/2010 Joe the Planner: The white elephant in t… ov ertaken many older, less-ex trav agant inner-ring suburbs surprisingly fast.) In this future scenario, itll be much easier to rebuild our older, traditional communities. Our land-use and dev elopment practices may begin to resemble something like common sense. 9 :0 4 PM EST dgoshilla said... A comprehensiv e website that looks at open retail, parks, commercial and real estate dev elopment projects, foreclosure spaces and unsold property combined with information on current dev elopments would be an incredible resource. Perhaps we should start an open source Google Map for Urban Planning. Iv e put something together with a few ex amples to show y ou what Im talking about. This could be a great resource for planners, business owners, inv estors and city officials. e-mail me at dgoshin@y ahoo.com http://maps.google.com/maps/user? uid=1 1 1 0985361 90091 663226&hl=en&gl=us&ptab=2 2 :3 4 PM EST Patrick said... Joe, this was a v ery good article. Write more, please. 6 :0 8 PM EDT Betty Barcode said... If y ou like Joe the Planner (as I do), y oull lov e James Howard Kunstler: www.kunstler.com. 9 :3 1 PM EDT Peter A sher said... Joe: Y our article is making the rounds. A while before and co-incident with, the collapse of the retail economy , we are ex periencing the A mazon.com phenomena! In our household, 90 % of our ex penditures are now online purchases. Most of our, get by automobile, stuff is perishables, hardware and business supplies. We may be the ex treme, liv ing 23 miles from Safeway and 40 mile from Lowes and Office Depot, but online purchasing has become v ery user friendly and blogs hav e become the ideal way to check product workability and reliability . We are in a “Paradigm Shift” of retailing and we may find that we are at “Peak” quantity of highway infrastructure other than upgrade. 8:0 7 PM EDT Ty ler Brown said... Ex cellent! Thanks so much for this. 1 2 :4 6 PM EST…blogspot.com/…/white-elephant-in-ro… 8/9
  9. 9. 4/28/2010 Joe the Planner: The white elephant in t… PO ST A C O M M E N T Com m ent as: Select profile... Post Comment Preview L I N KS T O T H I S P O ST unsustainable way of life...., The Shape of the City Create a Link Newer Post Home Older Post Subscribe to: Post Comments (A tom)…blogspot.com/…/white-elephant-in-ro… 9/9