John Sanphillippo is an amateur architecture buff with a passionate interest in where and how we all live and occupy the landscape. He blogs at Granola Shotgun, where this post originally appeared.
People who love living in vibrant, walkable, mixed-use urban neighborhoods sometimes look at suburban commercial corridors—and suggest they can be transformed with light rail, bicycles, fine-grained locally owned businesses, clean solar and wind power, and mom-and-pop small scale infill construction.
I’ve determined that neither of the above trajectories is wholly accurate. But neither is entirely wrong. It’s complicated. What we’re already heading toward is a weird mash-up of the two. Enter this little chunk of suburbia that stretches for 50 miles across central New Jersey roughly along the Route 70 corridor from Cherry Hill to Toms River.
Do you think the Quakers who settled this area and built their church in 1786 ever imagined a Buick dealership, a strip mall with Chinese food, and a Dunkin’ Donuts going up next door along an eight-lane arterial road? The distant future is unknowable. But the near future is easier to wrap your mind around. It’s going to look a lot like what’s already here, only more so.
For folks on either end of the land-use spectrum I offer Exhibit A. Here’s the density, but not the urbanism. Here’s the green grass and ample free parking, but not the privacy or independence. A 200-unit apartment complex fills a growing market demand for housing with the required features and amenities at a specific price point on the outer edge of mid-20th century tract homes and strip malls. These are designed to appeal to young professionals who work in suburban office parks. The location provides a manageable commute from one periphery to another. The distant city is irrelevant for this self-selecting demographic. Modest two-bedroom units rent for $2,100 a month.
Drive farther down the highway and new homes are being built out in the woods to absorb the people who graduate from apartment living.
The materials, construction methods, interior details, as well as the corporations that build these single-family homes are often exactly the same as the apartment complexes. And a homeowners association does pretty much the same things as rental property management. The primary difference is these units have patches of grass between them. If a down payment and the right financing package can be pulled together a mortgage will be quite similar to rent. “Drive till you qualify” is the persistent dynamic.
As an aside, notice the “gated community” aspect of the development. A three-year-old with a plastic spoon could break into any one of these homes. How hard would it be for a thief to walk through the bushes rather than drive through a designated entrance? The automated gate is security theater. It’s an expected amenity that makes people feel good, but doesn’t actually provide much in the way of enhanced safety.
Here’s a version of suburban infill development. The Greek Orthodox church in a 1950s neighborhood recognized a need in the community for senior housing. Too many older folks were rattling around in single-family homes that they could no longer manage independently. So funds were raised and the paperwork was processed to build senior apartments next to the church close to needed services.
Minimum off-street parking requirements create impervious surfaces. The impervious surfaces require on-site storm water management. The fact that so much land is used for parking and retention ponds requires the building itself to have a smaller footprint and go up rather than out. As soon as there’s a second story an elevator and multiple fire egress stairwells are required. Elevators are expensive so more apartments are required in order to amortize the cost over more units. In the end all such structures arrive at the same destination. It’s basically a Ramada Inn. Or a Khrushchyovka. Same same.
Here’s the adjacent highway. Is it walkable? Sort of. There are sidewalks. And people do walk here at times. Is it safe? Is it convenient? Is it pleasurable? Not so much. Is there transit here? Yes. A NJ Transit bus will roll by once in a blue moon. Will the bus get you to where you need to go? Eventually. Sometimes. But not really. I’ve used the buses here before. It’s not great. Could this landscape be transformed into a pedestrian paradise? Yes. Will it? No.
Across the highway is a collection of larger complexes. They’re constructed with funds from REITs (real estate investment trusts) that are similar to stocks and bonds. Lots of individual investors pool their money and receive a return on investment. Sometimes the same people who rent or buy these units also inadvertently own a tiny share of the parent organization via a 401K or other pension scheme. This is a capitalist creation that just happened to arrive at the same Soviet destination—although with nicer appliances and granite counter tops.
And here’s what holds it all together. Ever widening highways are critical to the continued functionality of our dispersed development pattern. The more density we add to the suburban chassis the more cars and trips are required. But the more we spread out horizontally the more cars and trips are also required. Transit won’t solve this problem because the culture and existing land use pattern won’t support it. Uber and Lyft could reduce congestion, but only if each vehicle carries many more passengers at the same time. And the real long term limitation is the cost of maintaining the road network. Existing gas taxes and road tolls have been falling short for years.
In the end neither the New Urbanists nor the fans of traditional post World War II suburbia are going to get exactly what they want. The density is coming based on pure market demand and institutional imperatives. And so is more far flung hopscotch development out in the sticks. Some of these places are going to thrive. And some are going to devolve into slums. If I have a concern it’s less about architecture and land-use patterns and more about the overlapping hyper-complex institutions (both public and private) that are required to keep it all working. If any one of the underlying interlocking prerequisites fails the inhabitants of this landscape have very few options to fall back on.
Here’s the ubiquitous American landscape with a dash of central New Jersey local color. It’s not the rain and dark skies that make it look so bleak. No amount of sunshine can brighten this much asphalt, synthetic stucco, and vinyl siding.
There’s no point in complaining about any of it. It exists and will continue to do so for the duration. Shrug.
But pass through these columns and you enter a little Victorian era town trapped in amber that reminds us that we used to build better places. Ocean Grove was established as a Methodist revival summer camp in 1869. In the aftermath of the Civil War, people were hungry for faith, fellowship, and order. The (then) remote seashore location offered fresh air, tranquility, and escape from the smokestacks, heat, congestion, and disease of industrial cities like New York and Philadelphia.
The street grid was measured out and small lots were leased with 99-year terms to members of the church. The town began with tents pitched on simple wooden platforms. There were 200 tents for every solid home in the early years. Religious services were held in larger tents and tabernacles. One hundred and fourteen tents still remain in use after a century and a half and are inhabited from May to September each year.
Over time, cabins were added to the back of each tent to provide sanitary facilities and kitchenettes. At the end of the season, the tents are folded away inside the cabins. Because the people who choose to live here are all self-selecting members of the same community with common sensibilities, the tent city is remarkably safe, clean, and well maintained. People come to Ocean Grove to be together. That’s the whole point of the town.
The first iteration of church building was the natural landscape itself along the beach. The current pavilion is inscribed with Psalm 24:1: “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.”
It’s important to recognize that the most valuable real estate in Ocean Grove is not built upon or commercialized—unlike nearly every other inch of privatized beachfront property up and down the Jersey shore. Nature was revered, celebrated, and preserved as part of God’s creation. The boardwalk is a gift to the public maintained at some expense by the Methodist community, but you’ll find no amusement rides, cotton candy, tourist trinkets, or pay-per-view beach passes. Only free musical events sponsored by the Methodist community are on offer. The lack of privatized commercial activity has a powerful effect on property values and desirability (as well as what might be called social equity or social justice) 10 blocks away from the water. Since everyone in town has physical access to the waterfront the value isn’t concentrated in a handful of expensive homes. It’s distributed throughout the entire community.
Open air pavilions were gradually supplemented with more substantial church buildings meant for seasonal use. In pre-air conditioning days, the buildings were self-ventilating with high ceilings, cupolas, and large doors and windows around the periphery as seen here at Bishop Jane’s Tabernacle.
With 6,250 seats, the granddaddy Methodist church in Ocean Grove is the Great Auditorium built in 1894. It was the fourth iteration of the same basic building as each successive version was larger and more substantial than its predecessor. Remember, this church began as a tent. Notice the high ceilings, upper windows, and cupolas for natural passive ventilation like Bishop Jane’s Tabernacle.
Also notice the huge barn-style doors along the side walls that keep the church open to sea breezes during services but secure the building when closed. The iron framework that made a building of this size practical and affordable—it was built in just 90 days—was a product of the same heavy industry that made a remote meeting camp site so desirable. That’s always the irony of new technology. It solves one set of problems while creating others.
Again, the generous use of public park space connects the Great Auditorium to the beach pavilion in a way that elevates the spirit, contributes to a better environment for everyone in town, and coincidentally makes properties more loved and valuable. As with many other places (Central Park in New York for example) the most prestigious buildings are clustered along the public parks. That land could have been carved up into private back gardens, but the sense of community would have been compromised. This development style intensionally prioritizes shared interaction rather than insularity.
The quiet side streets of town are a study in incremental urbanism. These modest lots originally held tents. The tents were upgraded to cabins. The cabins were replaced by proper homes. The dirt roads, shared water wells, and outhouses were incrementally replaced by paved roads, sidewalks, and town services. First many small private investments were made, then collective funds were pooled to install more complex infrastructure with cash on hand. This is in contrast to current practice when all infrastructure is supplied up front and paid for with enormous amounts of debt.
This one group of homes speaks to the organic nature of growth in Ocean Grove. A tiny cottage remains next to an unassuming two-story house on one side, with a significantly larger three-story building on the other side. This is a snapshot of how the town evolved over decades. We don’t see this type of development anymore. Instead, entire subdivisions and master planned communities are built instantaneously and then prevented from changing in any way.
Ocean Grove has plenty of commercial activity along its Main Street (Main Avenue actually) and demonstrates that if the surrounding town is compact and walkable the need for parking is greatly reduced. So is the need for super wide streets or special bicycle infrastructure. Most people can and do walk or bike to the hardware store, dentist, grocery store, ice cream parlor, restaurants, and post office. It’s not that people here don’t have cars or don’t buy things elsewhere. They simply have the choice of walking and participating in a more local economy. Notice how many buildings have a mix of commercial and residential uses. This flexibility allows the town to bend and adapt easily as the economy and culture shift over time. Yes, Ocean Grove has a tourist element, but it’s first and foremost a town for residents that happens to have a broad popular appeal that coincidentally attracts outside visitors.
Like nearly all older towns in America, Ocean Grove endured a period of decline from the early 1960s to the 1990s. The Methodist community preserved the town when most other places razed their historic buildings and urban fabric in a rush to install parking lots and Jiffy Lubes. In opposition to the overwhelming trends of the time, Ocean Grove made it illegal to drive or park within the town limits on Sundays, although that practice is no longer in effect. One of the reasons the town stayed intact and was able to be rediscovered and reinvested in by a new generation was the presence of a religious community that had a higher calling and a longer event horizon than the dominant secular culture. There are lessons to be learned here by people who may not identify with the church.
John Sanphillippo is an amateur architecture buff with a passionate interest in where and how we all live and occupy the landscape. He blogs at Granola Shotgun, where this post originally appeared.
Here’s a spot in Santa Ana, California—although it could be just about anywhere. Every town in North America has a string of used car lots along the side of its aging eight lane suburban arterials. In this location land values and market demand for housing are so incredibly high even the obscene regulatory constraints, up front impact fees, environmental remediation, and NIMBY opposition are being overcome to accommodate new development. But the stuff that’s getting built is a platypus hybrid of suburban and urban typologies.
Across the street on what was once a nearly identical second hand auto dealership is a new housing subdivision. The market wants fully detached single family homes with two car garages and garden space in this location. What the underlying economic situation mandates is an intensity of land use that gets the price per unit down below the $700,000 level, which is what buyers in the region can manage. Most of that cost has little to do with the homes themselves. The dirt, infrastructure, and entitlement process chew up much of the budget. So developers are creating vertical row homes that don’t physically touch.
The few feet of air between these homes is largely symbolic, but it’s a cultural artifact that many people prefer. All these homes are tied together invisibly by a rigid homeowners association that dictates every aspect of what can and can’t be done here. But these feel like autonomous spaces.
While the floor plans don’t vary much, the aesthetic treatments do. Each home gives the impression of being unique with traditional domestic touches. The people who build these places know exactly how to appeal to specific demographics. In this case there’s a need for family homes suitable for children, yet close to employment and the larger ties of extended family and ethnic bonds. These buyers are predominantly Vietnamese.
Of course the entire subdivision is gated and walled. Residential communities like these are almost always fitted with reassuring security features. I tend to believe these gates and walls are more of a suggestion of safety rather than truly physically secure, but buyers are more confident when they see these amenities.
People may want a large front lawn and generous back garden, but to achieve that kind of property in Orange County they’d either have to pay an exorbitant price, or relocate to the far fringe of the metroplex and endure a soul crushing commute. The marketing department and interior designers set the stage for a comfortable life within the walls of these homes, which do in fact have everything on most wish lists. It’s all just a bit compressed. Each of these units sold before the complex was fully built out.
Ingeniously the units that face the arterial do, in fact, touch and form a visual and acoustic screen for the rest of the development. The trade off is that these townhome condos have the physical and legal distinction of being live/work spaces. It’s permitted and approved to conduct certain kinds of business in these units. So if you happen to be a professional photographer or tax accountant you could run your shop on the ground floor. That’s a rarity in suburbia and a trade off many people are willing to embrace.
Standing in the median between multiple lanes of high speed traffic I tried to imagine what the neighborhood would be like when the remaining used car lots and aging strip malls eventually give way to more of these complexes. It won’t be the nostalgic Ozzie and Harriet landscape many people still pine for. But I’m not sure that ever existed exactly as people like to remember. The discount auto malls put things into perspective pretty fast.
But this landscape won’t ever be Paris either. Everyone will continue to drive everywhere and traffic will metastasize as it always has. Walking, biking, and taking the bus will remain marginal and largely unrewarding activities. At best it will become a stucco Queens—an outer borough with drought tolerant plantings. Not terrible I suppose.
Then again, I remind myself that Paris isn’t building Paris anymore either from what I see littering the penumbra of that city. The hulking boxes of Carrefour, Bricorama, and Ikea that grace the French capital’s A4 Autoroute rival New Jersey at dusk. Time marches on. Is any of this better? Worse? I’ve made my peace with the process, warts and all. We don’t get perfection. We get what solves our problems and meets our needs right now. It’s all about compromise.
John Sanphillippo is an amateur architecture buff with a passionate interest in where and how we all live and occupy the landscape. He blogs at Granola Shotgun, where this post originally appeared.
When it comes to land use policy, we have a collection of rules, regulations, social expectations, and a cost structure that reinforces and mandates a very specific set of arrangements.
Here’s one example of how these things shape our lives. A family in a town I visited bought an old fire station a few years ago with the intention of turning it into a Portuguese bakery and brewpub. They thought they’d have to retrofit the interior of the building to meet health and safety standards for such an establishment. Turns out the cost of bringing the landscape around the outside of the building up to code was their primary impediment.
Mandatory parking requirements, sidewalks, curb cuts, fire lanes, on-site stormwater management, handicapped accessibility, drought-tolerant native plantings…it’s a very long list that totaled $340,000 worth of work. They only paid $245,000 for the entire property. And that’s before they even started bringing the building itself up to code for their intended use. Guess what? They decided not to open the bakery or brewery. Big surprise.
I’ve heard many officials and professionals get very derisive in their assessment of such efforts: “Oh, they were idiots. They didn’t do their homework before they started their project. What? They thought they could just do whatever they want with the place? There are rules you know.” These are precisely the same individuals who butter their bread each day with impact fees and billable hours. They have no skin in the game.
Meanwhile, the space has been pressed in to service as a printing shop for the family’s specialty advertising business. It’s a productive and profitable use of the existing space that doesn’t require structural changes or special regulatory approval. But it’s significantly lower down on the economic food chain, creates less taxable revenue, employs far fewer people, and does nothing to activate the town’s social or cultural life. And if anything were to happen to the building it wouldn’t be cost effective to rebuild so the lot would most likely remain vacant. There are plenty of empty parcels all around that attest to this reality.
Here’s an example of the kinds of things that are now required in order to open a new business. Each element of the design is based on an accumulation of amendments to the code over many decades. Individually it’s impossible to argue against each of the particulars. Do you really want to deprive people in wheelchairs of the basic civil right of public accommodation? Do you really want the place to catch fire and burn? Do you want a barren landscape that’s bereft of vegetation?
Consider the example of the gas station and an automated car wash pictured above.
And here’s the larger context. Can you spot the human? Look closely. She’s there. All our collective legislation to make individual establishments achieve specific goals are in direct conflict with the larger development pattern, which is also institutionally mandated. There is zero chance that any of these laws and procedures will be changed in my lifetime. However, it’s highly likely that before I die this gas station will close and the property will work its way down to a series of lesser uses until it remains vacant. After fifteen years the building will be fully amortized for tax purposes and the corporation that operates it will probably move on. That’s just good business. And before I shuffle off this mortal coil the cost of maintaining the road and associated sewer and water infrastructure will outstrip this town’s tax revenue—especially after the disposable chain businesses close down.
I was in Hamtramck, Michigan a couple of years ago to participate in a seminar about reactivating neighborhoods through incremental small-scale development. A young woman had just bought a century-old bank building for $50,000. It was a Roman temple made of carved stone, elegant wood, stained glass windows, and beautiful tile work. The place was enormous. But it had worked its way down the value chain for decades as Detroit declined.
While the event was underway the fire marshal happened to drive by and noticed there were people—a few dozen actual humans—occupying a commercial building in broad daylight. In a town that has seen decades of depopulation and disinvestment, this was an odd sight. And he was worried. Do people have permission for this kind of activity? Had there been an inspection? Was a permit issued? Is everything insured? He called one of his superiors to see if he should shut things down in the name of public safety. Fortunately, the woman he called was in the meeting at the time and talked him down.
One of the side conversations included an exploration of how to activate the space without doing the kinds of things the building code required. There was already a kitchen in the back of the building from when the place had been a Chinese restaurant. But the current rules required a long list of upgrades, including a $20,000 fire-suppressing hood for the stove and new ADA-compliant bathrooms. It could all be done, but at a price point that would grossly exceed both the purchase price of the building and any conceivable cash flow the business might generate.
One workaround was to have a certified and inspected food truck park in the back alley and deliver food into the building for temporary events. ADA portable toilets could be rented as needed. The building—now called Bank Suey—has continued along these lines as a rental hall for pop-up events while the owner waits for the value of the neighborhood to increase enough to justify the required investment in physical upgrades. It’s not a bad plan, but it’s going to be awhile, folks.
I noticed an array of cell phone antennas on the roof of a nearby building. Rent on those things generates serious revenue—far more than what these empty buildings are likely to collect from commercial or residential tenants. Too bad Bank Suey isn’t taller.
On a walking tour of town officials and development consultants pointed to empty buildings and described all the things that could be done to bring them back to productive activity: open up the blank walls and re-install windows, incubate all kinds of new businesses, paint, outdoor seating. I rolled my eyes. None of those things make any economic sense given the regulatory hurdles involved and the likely negative return on the upfront investment. I’ve seen this scenario play out many times before.
The buildings that most appeal to me are the anonymous blank inscrutable structures that could quietly contain storage facilities or a non-retail live/work space under the radar without attracting the attention of officialdom. If the inhabitants were really discrete they might be able to carry on unmolested for a number of years. Meanwhile, the usual big-money developers might buy enough of the neighboring buildings and vacant land—with the accompanying subsidies and tax breaks—to rapidly transform Main Street at a much higher economic level. There’s no in-between. You either get permanent stagnation or massive redevelopment. Baby steps are essentially illegal. “Hold, wait, and do nothing” works for the little guy.
The same officials who decry this kind of obstructionist “land-banking” that gums up the works of their revitalization dreams do exactly nothing for small-scale operators who run straight into the buzz saw of multiple opaque unresponsive bureaucracies and inspectors hungry for violations. The only tool they have to offer is loans to bring things up to code. That’s a great plan if you want to go into a huge amount of debt and declare bankruptcy in a couple of years. No thanks.
There are all sorts of things individuals can and should do at a low price point without much debt to build up their personal household economies and contribute to a better community. But this ain’t it. Mind the gap.
This is the historic Main Street in Garden Grove, California. Back in 1874 land was platted in small twenty-five foot wide lots and sold off with minimal infrastructure. Individuals built modest pragmatic structures with funds pulled largely from the household budget, extended family, and short-term debt. This was long before the thirty-year mortgage, government loan guarantees, mortgage interest tax deductions, zoning regulations, subsidies, economic development grants, or the codes we have today.
Many of these simple one-story shops were specifically designed to be subdivided in to two smaller shops that were each about 12 feet wide and not terribly deep. These were ideal economic incubators with a low bar to entry for tenants, yet they generated a high yield per square foot for the landlord. Businesses could expand and contract as needs changed. Some things failed. Others succeeded. Time sorted it all out.
Families often lived above their own shops. In many cases, rooms or apartments were rented to tenants. Sometimes the upper floors served as professional offices or hotel rooms. This was an additional layer of flexibility that allowed properties to adapt over time while providing affordable yet profitable accommodations. Everything expanded gradually as money and market demand permitted. This was the process that produced our Main Street towns all across the country.
Here’s an aerial view of Main Street courtesy of Google. At one time it was the economic and cultural center of a thriving farm community. Notice the amount of private value relative to public infrastructure.
Let’s pull out a bit and see what the surroundings look like today.
Whatever may have existed around Main Street is now a vast ocean of surface parking lots. Next door and across the street are big box stores along high speed arterial roads. Times change. When transportation switched from shoe leather and horses to cars and trucks the scale of absolutely everything in society ramped up exponentially. Then the old Main Street became a relic.
Garden Grove’s civic leaders obviously thought its historic center was worth preserving, so planners did the best they could to keep it viable. Removing defunct buildings in favor of parking lots made the shops available to suburban motorists.
Decorative paving, ye olde lamp posts, hanging flower baskets, park benches, lots and lots of American flags, potted shrubbery, and piped in music created a respectable unified atmosphere for retail. The place is clean, safe, and orderly.
Events are programmed to keep Main Street active and attract customers: an Elvis festival, a vintage car show, the annual celebration of the strawberry. Shops that might otherwise go empty are filled with civic organizations like the Chamber of Commerce and the offices of elected representatives. Garden Grove’s remaining historic center—all one block of it—is well maintained. But it stopped functioning as a town a long time ago. It’s now an embellished strip mall. The current regulatory environment and larger economic context have halted the iterative wealth building process that might have otherwise continued. Now it’s dependent on city planning efforts to keep up appearances with grants for fresh lipstick and rouge. It’s an exercise in sentimentality and kitsch. Nothing else is legal anymore.
Advocates for a return to the kind of development pattern that existed a century ago are up against hard limits of every kind. Reforming the current system of regulations and cultural attitudes is a waste of time. What they don’t recognize is that the small scale, fine grained, mom and pop process is alive and well in places like Garden Grove. It just doesn’t look like a Norman Rockwell village. That era is gone and isn’t coming back anytime soon. But a new version is already here. The mobile shop is the new version. I see more and more of these all across the country, because this is the new low resistance entry point for small businesses to form.
This is only the visible stuff. Inside many suburban homes are businesses that you can’t see. These aren’t traditional retail stores. Operating a physical shop makes no sense in most cases. Who can compete with Costco or Amazon? Who wants to try to extract permission from the zoning authorities? But household ventures generate income in ways that aren’t readily apparent from the curb. I can’t publish photos of the best examples because I’d get a lot of good people into trouble. But trust me. They’re out there in large numbers under the radar.
When it comes to housing it’s incredibly difficult to build anything simple and cost effective anymore. A combination of endless regulations and outraged neighbors means only production home builders are left in the game. They build whole subdivisions of single family homes, or they build two hundred unit apartment complexes. The middle range of modest accommodations is no longer a reasonable option. Under the circumstance the existing stock of suburban homes are pressed in to service as de facto multifamily buildings. On my way out of Orange County I asked a waitress at the airport about her living arrangements. She said she rented shared space in a five-bedroom house in Costa Mesa. The overall rent was $4,200 a month. Her share was $1,100. She had three room mates. She also had three kids. That’s why so many front lawns are parking lots.
I have a peculiar ability to wander around and get myself invited in to people’s lives. This place in Garden Grove was once a little 1950s tract home. It was added on to in a way that perfectly conformed to all the existing rules and procedures and is still a fully detached single family home.
But individual rooms are rented out and the tenants share a common kitchen and baths. It’s a small apartment building by other means. This is what we get when we forbid the Norman Rockwell Main Street model. Some people hate it. I see it as a perfectly natural response to the artificial constraints that have been placed on the old Main Street model.
We can’t go back. But we can adapt and move forward under the circumstances.
John Sanphillippo is an amateur architecture buff with a passionate interest in where and how we all live and occupy the landscape. He blogs at Granola Shotgun, where this post originally appeared. New Urbs is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.
I recently spent a week exploring the depopulated areas of Detroit on foot and by bicycle, including an excellent stay with some young homesteaders. At the end of the trip I had an exchange with noted civil engineer and city planner Chuck Marohn of the group Strong Towns, who had spent time in Detroit’s newly revitalized downtown attending the Congress for New Urbanism. Marohn and I had very different interpretations of what he called the “Doughnut of Despair” in the penumbra outside the urban core.
Detroit lost 60 percent of its population from its peak in 1950. Most of the residual empty buildings are single-family homes and the civic buildings that once served them. The city has far too much public infrastructure to maintain and entirely too little tax revenue with which to do it. Marohn proposed cherry picking the remaining viable buildings and transporting them to a single close-in neighborhood where municipal services could be more efficiently provided. I rolled my eyes. This is right up there with the suggestion made by others that the city should just cut off power and water to people in big chunks of the city to “encourage” them to migrate. Try that on rich white people living in far flung suburbs that also have negative tax-to-municipal-services ratios and see how that goes.
The goal of Marohn’s proposal—ostensibly to save scarce municipal resources through physical consolidation—sounds good on paper. But I see trouble. First, someone needs to be authorized to determine which buildings are worthy of being saved. While individual engineers and architects may be good at the technical aspects of this sort of work, they’ll almost certainly be working within the constraints of a committee’s check list. Politicized bureaucracies have a bad track record with such things since they’re rife with perverse incentives.
Then there’s the up front cost of jacking up whole buildings and transporting them to a new neighborhood. That’s not a trivial undertaking. I have to assume that to have any impact on the city’s budget, more than a token number of structures will need to be relocated. Dozens? Hundreds? Thousands? What might it cost per unit to lift a building off its foundation and truck it across town? Then, once the wide load flat beds start to arrive in the new location there will need to be new foundations and utility services to receive the recycled structures. That will be substantially more expensive than the move itself.
Let’s not forget the soft costs of insurance, as well as various professional certifications and studies. I have to ask if the ultimate value of the resulting properties will be high enough to justify the endeavor. Is this really a cost savings scheme for a cash strapped town? And then, who will own these properties once they’ve been resettled into their little refugee camp? It’s a giant can of worms and someone will have to eat each and every one of the wigglers. I doubt it will be an engineer, planner, or administrator.
But the real problem with the whole concept is that it fails to acknowledge one profound truth. Cities aren’t made of buildings—at least not successful durable ones. Productive, vibrant, lasting cities are formed by the dynamic and largely invisible interconnections of humans as they go about their daily lives. I strongly suspect that the best remaining buildings in Marohn’s “Doughnut of Despair” are in such relatively good condition because they’ve actually been cared for by the rare and special people who stuck it out in Detroit even as America turned its back and left the city for dead. These are the last people that anyone should poke at. In fact, these are the broadly distributed seeds of regeneration that need to be nurtured, not uprooted from the landscape.
Let’s look at how previous plans to “save” Detroit worked out:
Option 1: The Great Society
Bulldoze entire blocks of historic urban fabric. Concentrate the poorest people into giant high rise towers managed by unresponsive and underfunded bureaucracies. Intentionally cut them off from jobs, good schools, and the wider culture. Then blame the residents for failing to thrive after everything that was done for them.
Option 2: The Ownership Society
Create an imitation of the suburbs complete with cul-de-sacs and gated communities. Give subprime mortgages and multiple auto loans to low income families. Then blame the residents for failing to thrive in spite of all the opportunities that were offered to them.
Option 3: Back to the Future
These homes and families are the survivors of decades of white flight, the collapse of the auto industry, benign neglect, the criminalization of poverty, and a dozen plans to reform the city and “rescue” the poor unfortunates left behind. All these photos were taken within walking distance of each other in the same general part of the city. The ruined husks, the high-rise projects, and the plastic subdivisions are all cheek by jowl with little islands of normal life, charming old homes, and neatly tended gardens. These are the people the next wave of self-appointed do-gooders are looking to “help.”
The Return to a Rural Landscape
But there’s that lingering problem. Detroit can’t maintain all of its infrastructure, so something has to change. But what? If we were to go back to the Detroit of 1880 the population would have been smaller and concentrated near downtown—just as the engineers/planners propose. But all around the nascent industrial metropolis were farms and small rural hamlets. Cities need large scale municipal facilities for water, sewer, and transportation. They also need abundant regulations and multiple bureaucracies to oversee them. Country villages don’t.
Significant portions of Detroit are now essentially rural again. On any given block there may only be two or three occupied homes. The official options are to fill the space with new construction of a dubious nature or scrape the landscape clean. But there’s a third option. What would it take to allow these rural properties to revert to rural utilities? Homes in the country have private wells or rainwater catchment with cisterns instead of city water mains, septic systems instead of city sewerage treatment plants, and propane tanks instead of piped natural gas. Rural houses are on narrow paved roads or gravel lanes. Converting the remaining viable homes to these smaller independent systems would be significantly less expensive than trying to maintain the endless miles of municipal infrastructure across the entire city. Rural cooperatives could be established to serve such homes and businesses rather than the existing utilities.
There are also emerging clusters of viable urbanism. These are nascent small towns out in the dregs of what used to be big swaths of Detroit. They’re emerging in unlikely spots that wouldn’t necessarily occur to an engineer or city planner. Grand old homes are being renovated in close proximity to each other and shops are reopening to serve the boomeranging population. These areas may still benefit from cost-effective city services, particularly if the momentum continues with small-scale incremental infill development that thickens over time.
That slow, organic, iterative process is the real revitalization of Detroit—not the highway improvement projects, new streetcar lines, casinos, stadiums, or anything else dreamed up by folks in City Hall. In fact, the one “amenity” that Detroit currently offers that most other cities of its size and stature don’t is a conspicuous absence of public funds, a situation that has seriously relaxed the usual obstructionist regulatory environment. For the self-selecting population that is willing to overcome Detroit’s drawbacks, that’s a huge draw.
This slow, dispersed, incremental approach is asking a great deal from city regulators. This isn’t a broad sweeping program with a lot of flash and ribbon cutting ceremonies. These individual block-by-block solutions are unique rather than easily standardized and mass produced. But this is the most economical and civilized policy moving forward for the citizenry—if not the bureaucrats.
So do we want to make life easy on the experts with huge sums of state and federal grant money, or do we want to make the city a better place that can also pay its bills on its own?
John Sanphillippo is an amateur architecture buff with a passionate interest in where and how we all live and occupy the landscape. He blogs at Granola Shotgun. New Urbs is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.
I’m a long time member of the Strong Towns organization which advocates for financially solvent municipal governance. I’m also a member of the Congress for New Urbanism which strives to build walkable mixed-use neighborhoods of the kind our great grandparents would have taken for granted, but are rare indeed these days. I often ask myself what good a financially stable town is if most of the people living there are heavily leveraged and living pay check to pay check. So I have a particular fascination with people who embody the Strong Towns ethos within their own households. My assumption is that if most individual families are strong and economically resilient then collectively the town will likely be too. Here are four examples of strong households from my travels.
Todd is a twenty something who lives in the Days Park neighborhood of Buffalo, New York. He purchased an affordable historic fixer upper duplex with the intension of renovating the property with sweat equity. He and his girlfriend live downstairs. He quickly got the upper floor apartment in great shape and began renting it for income. That covered his modest mortgage freeing up his salary for savings and investments in other projects. One of those projects involved the purchase of an adjoining vacant lot which Todd is in the process of developing into a new building in an historical style that will serve as his office as well as an additional rental apartment.
Unlike previous generations who placed themselves in great personal debt in order to acquire a large prestigious home to demonstrate wealth and status, Todd sees his home as a productive object to generate revenue. It’s precisely the opposite philosophy from the McMansion in a gated community. The value isn’t loaded on to the eventual speculative value of the home come sale time, but in the month-to-month productive capacity of the property. Status for him doesn’t come from a two story entry foyer or an extravagant master bedroom suite. Instead, he rejoices in the economic freedom of having a home that pays him each month rather than the other way around.
In the same way he’s an ardent bicycle advocate. Owning multiple cars to enable you to live in an isolated location and endure a long miserable commute isn’t considered “moving up”. For Todd a bike represents financial freedom which trumps the illusion of physical mobility promised by car culture. This is particularly true since a big chunk of your paycheck is dedicated to maintaining those vehicles. Why not live and work in a place where you can skip the car altogether and pocket the extra funds?
Todd explained that his father was scandalized at the thought of moving back to Buffalo. In the 1980’s when Todd’s father was a young man Days Park was a derelict and unsavory place known more for drugs and prostitution than charming vernacular architecture. Many people of that generation left the city for suburbia and never returned to notice how the city is changing. A new generation is hungry for community, walkable neighborhoods, vitality, and reinvention. They’re also loaded down with student loan debt, facing an anemic job market, and making do with a paralyzed and ineffectual government. The crash of 2008 exposed suburban real estate as a not-so-reliable investment along with the stock market. Millennials like Todd are looking for a bargain that’s pragmatic and livable over the long haul. Undervalued inner city neighborhoods and century old streetcar suburbs are the perfect sweet spots for this generation.
Like so many Rust Belt towns Buffalo endured fifty years of unrelenting decline. But it bottomed out a few years ago and is coming back. If you’re young (or not so young) and you’re looking for the kind of environment you might find in Brooklyn, Wicker Park in Chicago, or Queen Street in Toronto, but at one tenth the price… that’s Buffalo. And you get to have great people like Todd live next door.
Jeremy and Kelsey live in Dallas, Texas. Like Todd in Buffalo they’re in their 20’s and also purchased a duplex in an inner ring suburb. You can ride a bicycle from their house to the skyscrapers in downtown Dallas in twenty minutes. Jeremy and Kelsey each grew up in prosperous north Dallas suburbs in big homes that announced that their parents had “arrived”. They wanted none of that for themselves. They live comfortably in the upstairs portion of their home and rent the downstairs. That income more than covers their expenses and actually provides them with extra money each month. They aren’t sacrificing anything. They live very well and have the luxury of being able to work less, save more, and enjoy raising their two small children rather than scrambling to maintain dual incomes to pay all the bills. For them this is a truly family friendly high quality living arrangement.
Dallas is a younger city than Buffalo and even the older neighborhoods are more car oriented than what you typically find in cities back east. While Jeremy and Kelsey’s part of town is suburban in nature it’s an older suburb that’s far more walkable than newer suburbs. It’s also maturing and offering better quality restaurants, grocery options, and more nuanced retail than the standard national chains found everywhere. Dallas may not always look like Norman Rockwell small town America, but increasingly the reinvented strip malls and muffler palaces are functioning like Main Street – and you can walk to them in five minutes.
So it’s possible to live well in a home that doesn’t bleed you dry, particularly if it’s in a neighborhood that let’s you live car light if not entirely car free. But what about earning a living? Most people work a nine-to-five job because it’s the only thing that makes sense given their obligations and expectations for how life should be. Starting your own business is a big scary endeavor and most people fail when they try. Partly that’s because running a business requires genuine skill and perseverance. It doesn’t help that most small business activities are heavily regulated and require a great deal of start up funding to even get off the ground. Try opening a restaurant and see how far you get before the paperwork alone drives you to madness. But there are people out there who have not only conjured up a business out of thin air, but who have managed to thrive under the most unlikely circumstances.
Gretchen and Devon are a young couple who started making soap in their home in rural Hawaii and experimented with selling it at a local farmers market. The farmers market provided a low cost venue to see which products sold and which didn’t without much risk. Over time they gradually refined their line of soaps as well as their production techniques. They hired employees, created a wholesale distribution system, built a small manufacturing facility on their rural property, and now sell their Filthy Farmgirl soap to retailers nationwide. That home, by the way, is now mortgage free. While they almost certainly would have been successful at whatever they turned their hands to in life, they probably wouldn’t have achieved these goals as early in life if they had remained in the rat race on the mainland. Devon and Gretchen’s experience may not be typical, largely because their talent and skill is exceptional. But it does demonstrate that such things are actually possible.
Courtney, Tyler, and Jordan live in my neighborhood here in San Francisco and manage to support themselves and several employees (at a living wage) providing walking tours of the Mission, Chinatown, and the Castro to tourists. I’ve taken their tours myself and they’re amazing.
The thing about running a tour guide company is that the entire business is composed of talented people, a few funny hats, and a ukulele. They have an excellent website that I’m sure took time and skill to put together, but there isn’t much physical stuff involved and it’s mercifully unregulated other than the usual tax procedures that any business must comply with.
But here’s the crazy part. Even as they pay insanely high San Francisco rents along with all the other necessities of life, they’ve been able to squirrel away $30,000 in cash over the last couple of years. That’s seed money they plan to use to buy property and establish a home base for themselves and their business. That property won’t be in San Francisco, prices being what they are around here.
But I’m here to tell you that whichever town they finally choose is going to be amazingly lucky to have them. They’ve already demonstrated an ability to create real value out of thin air in a highly competitive and cost prohibitive environment. The thing is… not every town deserves to have citizens like these. Do you think they’re going to zero in on some cookie cutter subdivision with a 7 Eleven and Walmart on the side of the interstate? I’m just sayin’.
John Sanphillippo is an amateur architecture buff with a passionate interest in where and how we all live and occupy the landscape. This post was originally published at his blog, Granola Shotgun. New Urbs is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.
All the talk about urbanism these days is dominated by places like Brooklyn, Portland, Vancouver, and San Francisco because they’re prosperous and fashionable. It’s so easy to dismiss them as anomalies. Defenders of suburbia are quick to say (with some justification) that, “Most ordinary people don’t live in places like that.” So let’s look at a supremely middle-of-the-road small town in Kentucky.
This is the historic Main Street in Bellevue, Kentucky. The buildings are close together, they tend to have a mix of uses with shops downstairs and apartments upstairs. The business district is walkable and bikeable. It’s easy and safe for older people as well as children to navigate. The majority of the shops are locally owned. And notice that not a single building is more than three stories tall. Downtown Bellevue is… charming.
It also happens to embody all the tenets promoted by the Smart Growth “coastal elite”. Except Bellevue was founded in 1870 by some profoundly conservative market oriented families. Bellevue isn’t New Urbanism. It’s just plain old fashioned regular urbanism like every other town built before World War II. Its form was dictated by practical considerations based on what worked well on a tight budget. From the beginning there was a good balance of taxable private property relative to the public cost of providing quality municipal services.
The majority of the homes in Bellevue are fully detached single family houses with front and back yards. Bellevue happens to have de facto “affordable housing” in the form of those apartments above the shops downtown and modest single family homes mixed in with the grander places in the same neighborhood. Landlords are likely to live in the same building or very nearby and to attend the same church and shop in the same stores as tenants. There’s simply no need for subsidized housing or government “projects”.
And Bellevue is a NORC – a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community. People just automatically like living in town in their later years. Why move to a segregated village for the elderly in Florida or Arizona with a shuttle bus to the mall on Tuesdays when you could live close to family and friends in your home town?
Yet Bellevue is also an excellent place for young families with children. In short, Bellevue is a complete place and an excellent example of really good urbanism that’s every bit as solid as the trendy places that get all the lime light these days. Not coincidentally, its a highly sought after place to live.
Here’s something else you see in a lot of older places. Some of the best land in town along the river has been set aside as a public park. In part this is a response to the fact that the Ohio River floods periodically. Having a park take the brunt of the damage is more cost effective than building and maintaining a massive levee. But the riverside park does something else. The public park raises the collective value of all private property in town, not just expensive homes right on the water. This isn’t some communist redistribution of income. It’s a pragmatic capitalist technique to take a little strip of public land and passively leverage it to create much larger private value.
These photos are also from Bellevue, Kentucky. These were taken in the modern, post World War II suburban section of town next to the Highway. The needs of motorists are paramount here. The streets are extra wide and there’s plenty of free off street parking. The shops cater to people who drive. The gas stations, auto parts store, car wash, supermarket, and drive-thru restaurants are all exceptionally welcoming and useful to folks in cars.
Some people like living in a walkable neighborhood. Other people prefer a driveable suburban living arrangement. It’s a big country so there’s room for everyone to find a place they really love and want to call home. But there are inherent benefits and drawbacks to each kind of development. Notice that everything that makes the old part of Bellevue pleasant for people on foot makes it less conducive to people in cars. The opposite is true in the newer part of town. The more a place is made effortlessly driveable the less it works for pedestrians or cyclists.
Bellevue has a grand total of 576 acres and serves a population of 5,900 people. It’s contained on all sides by other municipalities as well as the river. Horizontal expansion isn’t an option. Bellevue has a fixed amount of capital stock in the form of land. That’s all there is to work with.
Here’s how the suburban auto-oriented development pattern uses that scarce resource. A handful of one story, single use, semi disposable buildings are scattered across a vast landscape of mostly empty parking lots. And nearly every one of these businesses is an out-of-town corporate chain that sucks money directly out of the local economy in exchange for a tiny sliver of sales and property tax. No one in Bellevue will ever see the owner of Kroger or McDonald’s at church on Sunday or at the local PTA.
In contrast, here’s a section of Bellevue’s historic business district. The traditional development pattern delivers far more value per acre while requiring infinitely less public infrastructure. These small mixed use buildings from the late 1800’s are as solid as ever. Because they’re small and lack giant parking lagoons they tend to repel national chains that need more space and have very specific design parameters. That’s actually a good thing since it creates a niche for local merchants who are far better at recirculating money within town.
Let’s go back to the riverfront again. Here’s a stretch of Bellevue that uses the post war land use pattern. A good deal of the land right up against the water has been turned in to a Burger King parking lot. People living directly across the street just one block from the river actually have lower property values because of this form of development. That translates to less tax revenue for the town with more ongoing maintenance expenses for the oversized car oriented infrastructure.
Here’s another modern approach to riverfront development. This cluster of mid-rise condos is built on a giant fortified plinth in the floodplain in order to sell water views at a premium. In exchange, all the neighbors get a view of the parking garage and trash dumpsters. I’m pretty sure no one pays extra to live next door to this place even though it’s only a block from the river. This is a winner-takes-all approach. The more locals try and access the river near this private complex the more the condo residents will complain to the authorities about trespassing. Bellevue gained some taxable revenue from the condos by devaluing all the surrounding property. That’s not a great economic plan over the long haul.
Most municipalities and states (and the federal government for that matter) are consistently spending more than they collect in revenue. A majority of towns are already deep in debt and servicing that debt is becoming a larger and larger portion of the budget. The usual conversation of, “Teachers are paid way too much” and, “We just need to entice a big employer to our town” or, “If we widened the highway the new Target and Walmart will arrive to provide tax revenue” has entered an era of diminishing returns. This approach isn’t going to fix what’s broken. In fact, this set of policies is what’s slowly destroying our towns.
The idea that compact, mixed use, pedestrian friendly development is somehow alien to American families or productive capitalism is so strange. It’s exactly this type of building that made America financially and culturally strong from the very beginning. It’s actually all the low grade scattershot construction smeared across the landscape that’s concentrating wealth into fewer and fewer distant hands and impoverishing ordinary towns and families.
John Sanphillippo is an amateur architecture buff with a passionate interest in where and how we all live and occupy the landscape. This post was originally published at his blog, Granola Shotgun.