Theo Mackey Pollack practices law in New Jersey, and is a consultant on urban-planning projects, including Hurricane Sandy recovery. He blogs at legaltowns.com.
I live in one of the faster-growing cities in one of the fastest-growing states in America. A common joke here in Florida is that the state bird is the crane. (Get it?) Needless to say, growth is a contentious and emotional subject around here. And growth control is a hot topic.
And rightly so. Rapid growth can be disorienting and detrimental to the existing residents of a place—traffic jams where they didn’t used to occur, crowded schools and hospitals. It’s not at all clear, despite conventional wisdom, that growth itself should be viewed as any sort of measure of success or prosperity. Plenty of growing places aren’t thriving, and plenty of thriving places aren’t growing. (A particularly salient point in Florida, where our population growth is largely driven by low-wage jobs.)
And at Strong Towns, where I work, we have long pointed out that plenty of growth looks more like a Ponzi scheme than like real, resilient wealth. Think spread-out, low-value development that fails to pay for itself, leaving the next generation on the hook for this generation’s overbuilt infrastructure.
But there’s one particular line of argument when it comes to managing growth that I simply can’t get behind. It’s the notion that whether or not to grow, or precisely how much to grow—how many people to let in—is something that a community should naturally get to decide through the political process. That they maybe even have an inalienable right to decide.
It’s certainly not just a Florida preoccupation. “More than a million people in San Francisco? Did anyone ask you?” inquired a prominent Bay Area activist in a blog post a couple years ago. Growth-control advocates in Boulder, Colorado muse about “carrying capacity” and overpopulation. Here in Gulf-coast Florida, the preferred pejorative is “Browardization,” after Broward County on the state’s Atlantic coast—held up by growth-control partisans as a warning of our grim fate if we don’t slow our population growth.
The approval of locally unpopular development proposals, to hear many here tell it, constitutes a betrayal of the public interest by our own elected officials. Slow-growth appeals are usually accompanied by calls for development to be orderly, predictable, and always, always the favored buzzword: “compatible” with surrounding neighborhoods. None of this sounds objectionable on paper. Who would be against compatibility?
And yet, here’s why this doesn’t always sit right with me.
The actual outcomes on the ground of successful growth-control advocacy are often not very pretty. Whether in Boulder, Austin, San Francisco, Seattle, or Sarasota, those who claim we can keep existing neighborhoods under glass; restrain the pace of growth to only that which makes us comfortable; and preserve affordability, economic opportunity, and quality of life, and do these difficult things all at the same time—well, these people are indulging an illusion.
A city is a complex system. It’s made up of thousands or millions of people making billions or trillions of decisions, in endless, fractal feedback loops. The city is not a machine; it’s more like an ecosystem. You can tinker with an ecosystem—but when you do, you’re subject to the law of unintended consequences.
The Water Has To Go Somewhere
One such consequence, when it comes to growth-control policies, is that you may simply displace growth to another location—without actually lessening any of its disruptive effects. In the process, you may even prevent some people from living and/or working where they otherwise would have preferred to—and in doing so, prevent the market signals from functioning that would have otherwise told us what is a productive and desirable location.
Many growth critics seem to operate with a flawed mental model that, rather circularly, treats development itself as the cause of population growth. Let the builders build, and the city gets more crowded and the traffic gets worse. Don’t let them build so much, and growth will slow down and traffic will thin out. Easy, right?
Instead, think of demand to live and work in a place like the water in a river. Building a dam across the river, or channelizing it, doesn’t make the water go away. The water has to go somewhere. It might rush around the dam. It might overflow the dam, or pool behind it. But it’ll go somewhere.
Marin County, California, just north of San Francisco, is perhaps the most famous poster child for this. Thanks to powerful environmental advocacy, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, much of the western half of the county has been preserved as protected open space, while the eastern half was developed in a largely car-oriented pattern dominated by single-family houses. Resistance to denser development in those east-Marin communities remains fierce.
Marin County is stunningly beautiful. And it’s been stunningly successful at limiting the number of people who can live there. One result: as of this writing, Zillow reports that the median home value in Marin County is $1,159,400. Many of the children who grow up in Marin will never have the option of settling there as adults. Service workers with jobs in Marin often have excruciating commutes (the Census Bureau’s OnTheMap data tool indicates only a third of those employed in the county travel fewer than ten miles to work). And the county’s freeways end up clogged with these long-distance commuters.
These things are the fallout of not allowing more homes in Marin County. Worth it? I tend to think not—when discussing these issues with people in the also-picturesque, also-waterfront county where I live, Marin is usually my cautionary tale of choice. But I would listen respectfully to someone who made an honest case that it has been worth all the trade-offs and side effects. (Though, it must be said, the voices of Marin County residents shouldn’t be the only ones that matter in that question, any more than a dam that floods the countryside above it was a good idea if only the people living below it think it was.)
We need to at least acknowledge the connection between decisions which restrict growth and their indirect side effects.
The Fallacy of Control at the Neighborhood Level
The same applies at the neighborhood level, in miniature. Efforts to carefully orchestrate where and what kind of change occurs within a city can have unintended consequences, just as when we do so between cities.
One neighborhood becomes trendy and experiences skyrocketing rents and crippling traffic. Speculation, exacerbated by well-intended efforts to promote concentrations of dense development, fuels mini-construction booms, while other neighborhoods go without needed reinvestment. An older generation of homeowners ages out of their homes in a neighborhood where little has changed in decades, and the city finds that a younger generation isn’t clamoring to buy them.
I had a conversation a year or so ago with a friend working for the local government of a small Midwestern suburb whose city council was deeply concerned about the influx of renters into what had until recently been a homeowner-dominated community. The council’s proposed solution? A cap on the number of rental licenses. My friend and I both agreed this was a dumb idea, likely to have unintended consequences. It wasn’t going to be possible to manufacture demand for homeownership that didn’t exist simply by trying to exclude renters.
We can lay out a vision of the city we want through whatever political processes are available to us. But we simply don’t always get to script the city we want, at the size we want, with development in only the locations we want it. Not without severe side effects.
Good Planning is Like Conservation Biology
The collective, emergent wisdom of the crowd does a better job of making decisions like “How many people ought to live here?”, “Where should we have what sizes and types of buildings?” and “Who or what should occupy those buildings?” than any individual can. The consequences of those decisions echo through cascading feedback loops: that’s the nature of complex systems.
Planners should treat a city the way a conservation biologist treats a forest. We look for indications that something is out of balance. Where it is, we come in with a light touch and try to restore equilibrium. But we don’t decide how many wolves and how many elk should live in Yellowstone. We’re not qualified to make that decision.
How many people should live in my town in Florida? What’s the right number? We’re not qualified to make that decision.
We Are Qualified to Make Our Places Better Incrementally
Please understand that when I say we’re not qualified to decide how many people should live in our towns, I’m not saying we need to prostrate ourselves to the all-powerful hand of The Market—or that planning is futile, and we’re powerless to act collectively to make the places we live better. Not in the least.
No; we have immense power to alter the future of our neighborhoods, cities, and regions. That is why we need to wield that power with humility.
The word “overdevelopment,” a favorite of growth-control advocates, probably ought to be retired from our lexicon, for the same reason we’ve argued at Strong Towns that “sprawl” should be retired: it’s imprecise and lazy. It implies that we know what the correct amount of development is for our cities. Let’s have the humility to admit that we don’t—because we can’t know all the indirect consequences of not letting people live where they want to live, build where they want to build, open businesses where they want to open businesses.
But we can work to make great neighborhoods. We can work to make great streets. We can clean up parks; we can restore the urban tree canopy; we can take action to calm high-speed traffic in our cities.
Our civic leaders can insist that we grow in ways that are productive—by doing the math and making sure new development is of a type that generates the wealth to pay for itself in the long run, instead of leaving taxpayers on the hook.
Relinquishing the urge to control doesn’t mean caving to special interests. We can insist that growth occurs on a level playing field and that decisions about development be transparent. We don’t have to accept backroom deals that enrich a small group of insiders, or byzantine rules that are expensive to comply with and end up having much the same effect.
But we do have to relinquish our desire to fundamentally dictate how our neighborhoods and cities evolve.
A Strong Towns approach isn’t pro-growth or anti-growth or pro- or anti- any specific size or shape of development. A Strong Towns approach does say that every neighborhood should allow at least the next increment of development—that is, allow the gradual evolution and iterative growth of successful places.
A Strong Towns approach starts with humbling ourselves, acknowledging that we can’t know what the right future is for the cities we live in. We don’t get to choose an end state and then work toward it methodically. We go out and we see what problems people are facing today. And then we try to address them, in small steps. Then tomorrow we do the same thing. And the day after, and the day after.
If that’s your town’s approach to planning, then relinquishing control over the future doesn’t have to be all that scary.
This article originally appeared at Strong Towns and is republished with permission.
Suburban architecture, and the commercial highway strips that endlessly feature it, are rarely the subjects of praise. “Ticky-tacky,” “junkitecture,” and, of course, “geography of nowhere,” come to mind. The buildings that make up suburban sprawl are widely viewed as disposable, too cheaply and specifically built to lend themselves to adaptive reuse or to meld into an urban fabric.
This is broadly true, at least compared to the great organism-like cities with cohesive, tightly-knit, fine-grained built environments. But urbanism is not binary—it is reductive to categorize places as cities and “not cities,” urban and non-urban, “real places” and “placeless places.” This kind of thinking only obscures the continuum of urban features that exists everywhere. In this case, in particular, early commercial strips reveal far more dynamic activity and creative reuse than many might expect. (Whether the results are cohesive or aesthetically pleasing is a different question.) Case in point, what might be considered “bad” (and sometimes quite good) storefront conversion: the reuse of a very specific building, like a fast food outlet, for something else.
On any commercial strip older than about 20 years, most of the buildings have probably been something else, or were originally designed to be something else. A look through retail architecture Flickr accounts, historical Google Street View imagery, aerial photography archives, local internet message boards—and, of course, sites cataloging those storefront conversions—will reveal a surfeit of activity and change taking place even as the drab, generic appearance of these places remains.
Sometimes you will discover that demolition has gradually updated the appearance of these corridors. But in many cases, buildings that appear modern have been divided, added to, and renovated over the years. And in other cases, they have been reused with few alterations, their trademark features slowly melding into the broader built environment, transforming from brand identifiers to raw materials in the commercial churn. Consider that when a once-mighty chain shutters or slowly shrinks, its physical footprint almost always remains.
A former Hollywood Video, with a portion of the sign reused
Once you begin to think of highway sprawl in terms of dynamic, layered commercial activity, you begin to notice clues and hints everywhere that point to a place’s past life. Uncovering the history of a building or commercial strip is like a mix of archaeology and detective work. The remnants of these old buildings are like fossils, revealing the geographic reach of shuttered chains, and the history of the buildings themselves. Sometimes, that history is preserved rather tackily, and is therefore easy to identify.
Does anyone else remember the cricket wireless store that turned into a chicken spot in Indiana a few years ago? RIP Chicken 2015-2015 pic.twitter.com/Snvk0uIE3a
— vin (@vinmromero) September 27, 2018
The iconic and once ubiquitous trapezoidal Pizza Hut is perhaps the most widely known example of this phenomenon; there is a whole blog dedicated just to buildings that “used to be a Pizza Hut.” But there are plenty of others, just in the realm of fast food: the Roy Rogers stone pillars; the Dairy Queen barn; the Arby’s 10-gallon hat sign; the occasional remnant of McDonald’s arches. If you know where and how to look, they are absolutely all over the place.Chinese restaurant in a former Howard Johnson’s, complete with repurposed cupola
Sometimes, you have to go inside. Near my parents’ house in New Jersey is a building split between a large liquor store and a discount produce market. A real retail architecture nerd might identify the facade as being from an old supermarket, but the main evidence is the retro A&P wood-paneled department signs inside the market. (They were even slightly updated by the owners.) Not far from my home in Virginia, along a commercial corridor in Herndon, a Korean supermarket took over an old Giant location, and left the signature Giant purple clock and some of the department signs.
Of course, a Dairy Queen barn or Pizza Hut trapezoid repurposed into a loan office or Peruvian chicken joint isn’t quite of the same historical significance as, say, the use of Roman ruins to build Renaissance churches. But the same principle of human activity is at work. As people come and go, and fortunes rise and fall, iconic and privatized or trademarked features—once Coliseum marble, today a Pizza Hut roof—lapse into a sort of architectural commons, a highway vernacular.
Why get a new sign when you have a perfectly good Arby’s cowboy hat out front? pic.twitter.com/IrX4gQ5ALF
— Paysoninho (@paysoninho) July 28, 2018
It is almost like the borrowing and tweaking of literary themes and characters before copyright. It produces a kind of architectural public domain, an overall style in which “types” are endlessly borrowed and repurposed. The dominance of national chains has not fundamentally altered this process, and in fact has energized it. When they close, most cannot be bothered to treat their distinctive architecture as though it were intellectual property, destroying it or rendering it unrecognizable; though McDonald’s, infamously defensive of its name and logo, does apparently tend to remove the most distinctive features on shuttered stores (but not every time).
As many of the conversions reveal, this tends to predominate in poorer areas and among more downmarket businesses. Most chains purchasing an existing building can afford to demolish it or revamp it to at least resemble their own trademark decor and architecture. Most small businesses in depressed neighborhoods cannot.A vintage Roy Rogers restaurant building, with trademark stone pillars
This is probably one of the reasons why older commercial strips develop their distinctive tattered, slightly sketchy vibe. One can sense, even if not spotting every converted building, that there is something incongruous here; the secondhand use of mass-produced chain architecture wasn’t quite meant to be. That building wasn’t designed to be a loan and title office; this one wasn’t designed to be a pupuseria. Aging commercial strips are the architectural equivalent of thrift stores. Yet thriftiness and creative reuse were once universally understood to be virtues. We should value this, not sideline it.A former Roy Rogers building heavily renovated by McDonalds
As I wrote previously, in a piece on Google Maps and the built environment, “This all brings to mind an amusing formulation of Plutarch’s famous ‘Ship of Theseus’ thought experiment: if none of the original stores or landmarks remain along a highway, is it the same highway?” The answer, of course, is yes. Not only is it the same highway, this sort of ordered chaos is the very definition of a vibrant urbanized space.
Seriously studying the making and remaking of suburban places is in some ways like analyzing comic books or video games as art forms—suburbia is often viewed as being beneath such consideration. But the actual granular history of these places underscores that whatever its faults as a mode of development and way of life, suburbia is not all disposable ticky-tacky. It has its own culture, its own patterns, its own history.
In some ways, a repurposed McDonald’s or leftover supermarket signage is about as boring, mundane, and ultimately meaningless a thing as one can ponder. Yet it is also an immediate and highly visible example of vibrant, churning culture-making taking place right under our noses.
Addison Del Mastro is assistant editor of The American Conservative. He tweets at @ad_mastro.
As everyone knows now, Amazon is pulling out of New York City after facing increasing backlash from local politicians, unions, and progressive activists. It had intended to build half of its second headquarters, HQ2, in Queens, adding 25,000 new jobs over the next 10 years. The news was certainly an disconcerting Valentine for the New Yorkers who lamented the loss of economic growth that Amazon could have brought.
The abrupt withdrawal, however, has emboldened opponents of the other half of HQ2 in Arlington County, Virginia. While not all are dead-set against HQ2 coming to Arlington, most opponents agree that the $1.1 billion in subsidies offered to Amazon make a bad deal worse.
First, Amazon has already pulled out of New York City. At this point, Virginia could renegotiate the deal it’s already made because of its stronger bargaining position as the last selected HQ2 candidate.That’s doubtful at the state level, since the legislature and Governor Northam have already approved the state’s $1.05 billion subsidy, but there’s no reason to throw good money after bad. It’s unlikely that Amazon will change its mind if Arlington refuses to hand over $51 million. After all, Amazon said its exit from New York was based on the increasingly hostile local reception, never mentioning the potential loss of subsidies.
Second, Virginia never needed to offer subsidies because Amazon, by its own admission, made its HQ2 selection based on the availability of local tech talent, not government handouts. In fact, if Amazon was chasing subsidies it should have located in Montgomery County, Maryland (barely 10 miles from Arlington) whose subsidies were over eight times larger than what Virginia offered. And if Amazon had instead chosen Raleigh, North Carolina, existing economic development programs made Amazon eligible for more than $12 billion in subsidies!
Our research illustrates that this is the rule rather than the exception for economic development subsidies—they only exist so that politicians can claim credit for the jobs that would have been created anyway.
Lastly, Arlington could put that $51 million in tax money to better use. For example, it could increase the Arlington police department’s budget by 4 percent—enough to add 15 new police officers—or fund the education of 140 public school students for the next 15 years.
Arlington County is a patchwork of wealthy neighborhoods interspersed with lower-income areas. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has said that Amazon’s urban offices cater to employees that want commuting options other than car, such as public transit or bicycle. The National Landing site of HQ2, a combination of the neighborhoods of Pentagon City, Crystal City, and Potomac Yard, already offer good access via bus and rail systems. The multiple nearby residential neighborhoods will offer Amazon employees the option to walk or bike to work.
The primary complaint against HQ2—other than the subsidies—focuses on the expected increase in housing prices caused by adding 25,000-plus high-paying jobs in a concentrated area. Housing costs are a perennial problem in the D.C. region, which is among the nation’s most expensive places to live (2.5 times the national average). Many advocates for the working poor are concerned that existing low-income neighborhoods near the HQ2 office parks will gentrify as rising rents push out the existing population.
They have a good point—real estate development happens unevenly and tends to occur in areas with lower real-estate values. Also, wealthier neighborhoods often are more successful in preserving their current character by limiting real estate development by influencing local planning policy. Lower income neighborhoods see more change, partially because the value of real estate is less of an obstacle to new investors, but also because local residents’ voices don’t have the same political influence as their more well-heeled neighbors.
This could become the case for Amazon HQ2. The nearby affluent communities of Arlington Ridge and Aurora Highlands are very close—less than a mile—from the planned HQ2 office parks. But these neighborhoods are mostly zoned for single-family homes. Local activists are particularly worried that the lower-income, immigrant community living in Arlandria, just beyond Arlington Ridge and Aurora Highlands will be displaced by redevelopment that takes advantage of Arlandria’s high-density residential zoning.
Arlington County (and the D.C. region in general) is notorious for its restrictive zoning policies aimed at preserving its residential character. Those policies are the reason why urban density abruptly changes from single-family residential homes to twenty-story apartment and office buildings across the street. These zoning policies, if continued, will ensure that low-income communities in neighborhoods like Arlandria bear the brunt of HQ2’s economic growing pains.
Luckily, there’s a recent example of better policy. Last December Minneapolis became one of the most liberally zoned cities in the country when the city council up-zoned most of the city’s single-family areas to allow duplexes and triplexes throughout the city. Doing so reversed previous generations’ policies that institutionalized segregation by making housing more expensive.
While the change is not the same as allowing real estate development full freedom to respond to localized needs—which limits the spillover of new development into other neighborhoods—it’s a major step in the right direction. Importantly, it strikes a balance between those who would want to preserve their neighborhood’s character and the need for housing growth.
Because Amazon will now shift its intended Queens HQ2 expansion elsewhere, many local policymakers will have to confront the same issues facing New York City and Arlington County. Their best way forward—to ensure that Amazon’s expansion is beneficial for everyone in their community—is to avoid playing favorites.
Amazon has already shown that its head won’t be turned by subsidies, which our research suggests should go instead to public services and reduced taxes for all businesses. And the way to ensure that the growing pains aren’t concentrated on those who are least able to bear them is to reform zoning policies to allow the greatest flexibility in real-estate development. Doing so will allow open, affordable, and innovative communities to emerge. The best way to encourage economic growth is to evolve into a place where people want to live.
Michael Farren is a research fellow and Anne Philpot is a research assistant with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.
TOLEDO, Ohio—About a month ago on a snowy afternoon, driving over the spindly 90-year-old Anthony Wayne Bridge, I couldn’t help but notice how this city seemed stuck in neutral. Behind me was the huge Toledo Refinery, a 280-acre gasoline processing plant, but set in a neighborhood where the houses appeared older and less functional than the industrial site.
On the west side of the Maumee River were neighborhoods with wide boulevards with little traffic just south of downtown, filled with vacant lots, inner-city convenience stores, and grandiose churches from a bygone era. One of those churches was St. Anthony’s, a Catholic church that was once home to Polish immigrants, a gothic structure of brick topped by a 250-foot steeple and built in 1894, but closed since 2005.
Then the radio reminded me why I was in Toledo. I was reporting on the environmental movement in this city that was trying to save the Great Lake it sits upon. “The Lake Erie Bill of Rights” was a charter amendment that would be put on the ballot and could bestow upon this body of water the legal designation of “personhood.” That’s right, Toledo wanted to radically change the legality of the natural environment, basically making this 10,000 square-mile lake it sits upon its child, with the citizens of the Glass City the lake’s legal guardian. In essence, the parents then could sue on behalf of its child if the lake was bullied with polluters.
Obviously, there was pushback on this crazy idea from the agricultural and business community. “What did these groups put in their bill of rights?” the radio ad asked me. “The right to hurt local farmers, the right to hurt small businesses, the right to drive up our food costs.”
Despite the notion that their grocery bill could go up if they voted for Lake Erie becoming a person, the city ordinance passed this week easily, by a 61 percent majority vote. And as predicted by many, the first court case has already been filed stating this measure is unconstitutional, unenforceable, and hurtful to farmers. But in talking to the organizers of this movement in Toledo, you realize quickly that the bill’s passing was more about changing the local political process than succumbing to some liberal environmental ideology that some opponents portrayed them as.
“What we were being told is that we as the citizens of this city had no real say in what was happening in our community,” says Markie Miller, a theater production manager in Toledo and one of the organizers of the ballot initiative. “That way of thinking is inadequate. The federal and state government were defining the environmental rules we lived under, but nothing was changing.”
“So we figured those rules would be better handled by the city government instead of the powers that be elsewhere. It is a trend that I see growing and getting momentum all over the country.”
Some are calling this trend a return to the notion of the “city-state,” like Thebes in ancient Greece or Switzerland’s Geneva in the Middle Ages or Hong Kong and Singapore now. It is a rebranding of “home rule,” knocking down the notion that nothing can happen in the United States unless the federal government and the state legislatures say it can.
To put it more clearly, cities are fighting against the inept largesse of the feds and the states-rights power grab by rural and exurb constituencies in recent decades. It is a movement of urban areas not fully independent of their nation-states, but not beggars or also-rans in the political process with them either.
In their book, Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros and Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy, Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley of the Brookings Institute write about this restructured form of federalism taking place.
In traditional political science textbooks, the United States is portrayed neatly as a hierarchical structure – the federal government and the states on top, the cities and metropolitan areas at the bottom. The feds and the states are the adults in the system, setting direction; the cities and metropolitan areas are the children, waiting for their allowance. The metropolitan revolution is exploding this tired construct. Cities and metropolitan areas are becoming the leaders in the nation: experimenting, taking risk, making hard choices, and asking for forgiveness, not permission.
The movement to make Lake Erie a person (in Toledo) fits with this new thinking. In August of 2014, an algae bloom of unprecedented seriousness caused Toledo the city to ban drinking water for 500,000 residents for about a week—and even elderly, children, and pregnant women were not permitted to shower. These blooms in the west basin of Lake Erie are caused by blue-green bacteria or cyanobacteria, single-celled organisms that naturally exist in fresh or salt waters, but grow to dangerous health levels when fed by nutrients from the watershed, often phosphorous and manure runoff from agricultural crop feeding.
After the water was restored, Toledo residents looked around and found that federal and state government had done little to alleviate the ongoing situation. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had declared the Maumee River in Toledo an “Area of Concern” in 1987 from the agricultural runoff problem (and it still is). Ohio had tried repeatedly to designate the Maumee River’s watershed and Lake Erie itself as “distressed” numerous times. But business and agricultural interests always fought those designations, along with any solutions that might alleviate the problem more efficiently, and the Toledo citizens found they had few options in dealing with the issue.
“I think what we did was a natural reaction to the idea that things had continued to be worse by following the plan our federal and state leaders had laid out for us,” says Bryan Twitchell, a school teacher in Toledo. “They stood up for interests outside our community in dealing with a problem that was happening within our community. That makes no sense to anyone. We had to change that.”
Are American urban areas becoming more independent city-states than second-fiddle step children under the national umbrella?
Some cities are deciding to get rid of interstate highways (or capping them as parks) when they run through central-city neighborhoods. Some are excising their own gasoline taxes so they can better control road fixing and building. Other cities are seeing that some federal programs actually make affordable housing plans harder to implement and are trying to deal with the issue on their own. Some urban areas are also looking at consolidating power by merging the inner-ring suburbs with the central city.
They are also dealing with mass transit funding, water conservation, and renewable energy more locally. Whether all of this means that America is fast becoming a collection of city-states or clusters of megacities remains to be seen. But today’s political frameworks are changing, as both the right and left find some common interests.
In some ways, what is evolving is that liberal entitlement programs and libertarian free-market independence can not only coexist, but can promote each other in big cities. “We understand that the Lake Erie as a legal entity will be challenged in court cases for some time, and we are prepared to fight those,” Miller says. “But what we found in this election is that we heard from other groups in this country and around the world that are experiencing the same problems. That big government is making it harder to take care of themselves, and not easier.”
“That’s what we experienced and we decided to deal with it ourselves.”
Daniel McGraw is a freelance journalist and author living in Lakewood, Ohio.
The name Edward Hopper is likely to evoke the famous 1942 painting “Nighthawks,” depicting a couple of together-alone coffee drinkers in a diner. That particular architectural relic no longer lines every American highway, but when it does appear, it is more or less unchanged coming up on a century after its introduction.
The diner — joined by glowing neon signs, direct-entry motels, and ice cream, root beer, and hot dog and hamburger stands — is an iconic symbol of the open road and its consumeristic anonymity, which is in many ways a uniquely American cultural phenomenon.
I have rarely felt more “American,” in that gauzy 4th-of-July sense, than when driving down an open, empty highway at night. Trapped, alone in a steel skeleton, seeing the road by the light of the signs as much as by the street lamps, it is almost as if I am performing a ritual.
When I was attending graduate school at University of Maryland in College Park, I would often go for an evening drive to break up long nights of studying. My usual trips were along Maryland Routes 201 (Kenilworth Avenue), 410 (East-West Highway), and 450 (Annapolis Road), and of course U.S. Route 1, which transforms from midcentury suburban commercial strip into D.C.’s Rhode Island Avenue. All of these highways are still heavily lined with post-war commercial clutter, the area’s relative poverty functioning throughout the years as an instrument of preservation. During the day, the dreary and aging appearance of these corridors is readily apparent, but at night the signs steal the show, and only the angles and shapes of the buildings are visible.
More often than not, I would end these drives by sitting down, still alone, in a cavernous Chinese buffet, either watching the television tuned to CNN—most of my grad school enrollment was during the 2016 presidential cycle—or scribbling at my notebook, melting into a bustling, eating crowd. You could have painted the scene and called it “Nighthawks.”
At a very foundational level, this all inhabits the American psyche. The American motorist is, or fancies himself to be, the spiritual descendant of the restless immigrant, the gold rusher, the Oregon Trail pioneer. Jack Kerouac’s Dean, who felt the highway’s call in his very bones, was described in On The Road as “a wild yeasaying overburst of American joy.” Driving, like voting and buying a house, is a fundamental and symbolic exercise of American liberty. It is almost as if the average American is born imprinted with some car-loving instinct.
This is not all benign. Consider that talk radio, with all of the ugly and polarized politics it has helped to spawn, is in many ways an epiphenomenon of American driving culture. But that culture itself is, to some extent, an outgrowth of our vast size and pioneer spirit, which are irreducible and intertwined American characteristics. Is a large country like ours doomed, by some law of psychogeography, to produce Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin?
These sorts of questions, which may sound absurd and overwrought, are really the kinds of questions we should be pondering, and are far more important and revolutionary than debating whether Russia “hacked” an election or whether Republicans should be allowed to go out to eat. Pondering how our built environments and daily surroundings impact our politics, economics, and social attitudes might be more fundamental than anything else.
Americans’ love of the car may be rooted in something real, but it has nonetheless evolved into something absurd. The basic utility of the car — not unlike the utility of the gun — is overlaid with much ancillary nastiness and aggressiveness (such as SUV marketing that trades on feelings of power or invincibility), not to mention silliness. It is possible to have cars without “car songs.” And peruse the car names. Some are almost too meta: there is the perfectly apt Chevy Suburban, and the Hyundai Tucson and Santa Fe, named after cities that were substantially the product of post-war suburban expansion. But many evoke the mythos of the frontier and open road: the Chevy Traverse, the Subaru Outback, the Honda Odyssey. If the names don’t communicate the myth, the commercials certainly do, to the point that the trope of a suburban commuter vehicle lumbering over jagged rocks and fording raging streams has become something of a punchline.
The automobile may not actually be an instrument of liberty, based on either the history of auto-based development or its effects on our communities and quality of life. But the car as a symbol of a unique American-ness is up there with the bald eagle and even the flag. Just as any talk of even the most moderate gun controls immediately evokes images of tyranny, any proposal to curtail the malign effects of sprawl and car dependence conjures visions of forced suburban depopulation and Manhattanized slums.
George Will once declared that “the real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.” What’s good for General Motors is good for America, indeed.
So it is that for some Americans, any discussion of the ills wrought by the car or by the automobile-dependent mode of development that defines most of the American landscape is merely a verbose substitute for “communism.” A smart, young conservative friend of mine once listened patiently while I explained New Urbanism to her: that it was a design philosophy focused on building walkable, dense, mixed-use communities in place of suburban sprawl. “That sounds communist,” she replied. She is not alone in her general estimation. Never mind that it is also the default manner of building human habitats before circa 1950.
We forget, or perhaps more accurately never learn, that almost the entire set of characteristics that constitute suburbia—from the population densities to the lawn sizes and setbacks of houses to the features of those houses to the commercial strips that replaced Main Streets and their accompanying oversized parking lots—was a project, more or less, of Keynesian economic policy and social engineering. An old professor of mine, quite correctly, called the Interstate Highway System the largest subsidy ever given to the automobile industry. One need only look at American propaganda from the World War II and Cold War eras to see how little all of this should appeal to the free-marketers who liken urban density to medievalism or “smart appliances” to Big Brother. The reality is that calling New Urbanism and car-skepticism “communist” is more like calling Soviet dissidents communists.
This is not to say that, in the absence of certain government policies between roughly 1930 and 1960, suburbia would not exist. But the history of suburbia, as it actually unfolded, is bound up with such policies. Suburbia was, at least in part, something resembling a crony capitalist public works project. The notion that it embodies the pinnacle of freedom and free enterprise is not much in evidence.
The challenge to urbanists is that the myth of the open road is not a myth only. Yes, the idea that the American Dream consists of driving two hours down the Interstate, spending the day behind a desk in a suburban office park, and driving two hours back to a McMansion is a sham. But there is such a thing as the American way of life, partly rooted in a kind of excited and restless mobility made possible by the country’s vast geography and vibrant churning economy.
Ideas like the “road trip,” of hopping in the car on an early morning with nothing but an atlas, or renting a car and driving to a new city to start over, are uniquely American cultural phenomena, and as such are a part of what makes America home. The city, the Main Street, and the tight-knit small town are quintessentially American, but so are those endless stretches of suburbia and lonely highways, and the cultural attitudes that allow us to endure or even celebrate them. America contains multitudes—as one of its greatest poets once said of himself.
And so while the “communist” slur may be hyperbolic, it is sometimes not without an element of insight. Some of the more technocratic urbanist approaches, like “smart growth,” do indeed have a whiff of central planning about them. There is occasionally a hint of Marxian analysis present in urbanist thinking, with pedestrians and motorists, for example, sometimes substituted for workers and capitalists. Add SUV hate, concern over climate change, and the notion that single-family houses were designed to introduce homophobia and white supremacy into the fabric of the American built environment, and you can understand why Fox News-types see red.
The reality is that even if suburbia is a byproduct of white supremacy, and even if it is a suboptimal and unsustainable mode of development and way of life, it will remain, if only due to sheer inertia and path dependency. Ending all suburban sprawl construction or upzoning every single-family neighborhood is a fantasy. Those Fox News-types don’t have much to worry about.
But upzoning core urban areas, as Minneapolis recently did, is clearly not a fantasy (as John Lennon once put it, there’s nothing you can do that can’t be done). Incrementally improving the Amtrak lines and service along the Eastern Seaboard, and gradually supplanting I-95 as the primary means of traversing it, might not be either. The idea behind Maryland’s Purple Line light rail project, which aims to stitch together places within the inner-ring suburbs rather than simply funnel people between suburb and city, is criminally underutilized. One can imagine these kinds of ideas taking hold across American cities and metro areas, with no cost to “liberty” and with much improvement to quality of life and to the vibrancy and sustainability of the places we call home.
There will always be costs to such projects. A resident will lose a business or a home in eminent domain proceedings; a bureaucrat or contractor will embezzle funds; someone who rode in on a new transit line will commit a crime in a “safe” neighborhood. We must consider and debate the trade-offs, but we cannot afford to encase the housing and transportation trends of midcentury America in amber, and to pretend that the costs they inflict are merely the inevitable costs of doing business. We can invest in cities and towns again, and build better and more functional environments in which to fruitfully adapt to a leaner future. The result won’t always be a Norman Rockwell painting. But the drive and grit this will all require is deeply American, too.
The first decade of the 20th century was a sparkling time in American construction. Nowhere was its spirit more intense than in downtown New York, an aging colonial seaport that was fast becoming a center of industrial capitalism. Here, among winding narrow blocks, a Whitmanesque neighborhood of brick row houses and Protestant steeples was rapidly evolving into a concrete labyrinth of elegant white towers and steam-damp canyons. New York, with each new spire, signaled that America would no longer defer to Europe. Now, the future was being charted on this side of the Atlantic.
The Singer Building was an icon of this moment. Rising 612 feet above Broadway (at the corner of Liberty Street) its sheer ambition was proved by a fleeting reign as the world’s tallest building. Its artfulness was established by use of neoclassical and Renaissance design elements at a novel scale. And its authenticity was grounded in local industry: Manhattan then was a maze of textiles. Its industrial fabric comprised cloth workshops and showrooms, its tenements housed armies of piece workers and seamstresses, and its labor unions were dominated by needle-trades employees. For the city’s skyline to be topped off by a maker of industrial sewing machines was a perfect fit.
The Singer Building was an icon that came about quickly. In the fall of 1905, Frederick Gilbert Bourne, fourth president of the Singer Manufacturing Company, hired the Beaux-Arts-trained architect Ernest Flagg to draw plans that would expand upon Singer’s existing low-rise campus at the northwest corner of Broadway and Liberty Street—just east of where the World Trade Center complex stands today. The company was growing, and time was of the essence. With dizzying speed, blueprints were drawn, permits pulled, contracts signed, and a team assembled. Construction itself began in September 1906.
A historic record of the entire project is now available in public domain in a carefully illustrated guidebook, A History of the Singer Building Construction: Its Progress from Foundation to Flagpole. Written by Otto Francis Semsch, the project’s chief engineer, it was published contemporaneously with the building’s opening (as was tradition in those days). Following a 20-month whirlwind, the Singer Building was completed in May 1908. From the engineer’s narrative, we learn that the project encompassed a host of state-of-the-art ideas, from large-scale building techniques to bathroom faucets, from new methods of climate control to innovations in urban planning.
Keeping with the patterns of traditional urbanism, the lower floors formed street walls that extended along the sidewalks of Broadway and Liberty Street. This preserved the enclosure of adjacent streets. By day, the tower allowed sunlight to reach the streets below. Clad with neoclassical details and finished in stone and red brick, it rose much higher than the 14-story base to a height of 612 feet. The rounded spire was topped off with a bright lantern that pierced the night sky, signaling the city’s center, like a tall candle, to the surrounding harbor and hills.
In a 1907 New York Times oped, the Singer’s architect, Ernest Flagg, described how he had reconciled the continuation of old site-planning patterns (the product of traditional, low-rise European urbanism) with the challenges posed by the sudden advent of tall buildings:
The high part of the building occupies only about one-sixth of the area of the plot on which it stands. It depends on its own land for its light. It casts a shadow, to be sure, but it seriously interferes with the light of no surrounding property. It presents a finished façade to all points of view. It adds to the picturesqueness of the skyline of the city, and its bulk rises from a line well back of the street façade.
Flagg had alluded to an idea found in the English common law known as the doctrine of Ancient Lights, which holds that people can have a reasonable expectation of sunlight; and that when they do, their neighbors ought not to take it away. Flagg’s proposal to codify a version of the Ancient Lights doctrine, requiring some of the elements used in the Singer Building, would later influence New York City’s original 1916 Zoning Resolution.
One entered the Singer Building’s main entrance from Broadway. Once inside, one found a fusion of the newest construction techniques and technical accessories with a rich embrace of classical and French Renaissance design elements, in the Beaux-Arts tradition. The Singer Company, apparently, had spared no expense. The main hall was a deep arcade of finely sculpted plaster, polished brass, and perfectly hued blocks of Italian marble. Heavily decorated, the space was reminiscent of traditionally sacred architecture in Europe: an early affirmation (to be repeated) of the almost religious place of commerce in the heyday of industrial America.
When the Singer Building opened, tourists could ride a modern Otis elevator (manned by a live operator, of course!) to a sleek, glass-enclosed observation room at the 40th floor, where a panorama awaited, encompassing the canyons of the Wall Street district (which Flagg so detested) along with the surrounding blue harbor, the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, the industries of the waterfront, and the green hills that ran off to rural America. In the time before air travel, the prospect was a novelty.
For pennies, tourists could get picture-postcards with color lithographs showing the slim, bulbous tower rising above a cluster of smaller buildings, horse carts still visible at street level. At flea markets around the city, it is still common to find vendors selling these old postcards, canceled before World War I, and inscribed with messages to loved ones, back home, mostly across the United States. In the small space afforded, visitors pen notes about their adventures in the city, comment on the weather, or promise to tell longer stories upon their return home.
Throughout the early- and mid-20th century, the Singer Building served as the headquarters of its namesake company and housed other tenants, like the Safe Deposit Company of New York and the Chatham and Phenix National Bank. Its reign as the world’s tallest building was short-lived, as the Metropolitan Life Insurance Building, bringing echoes of Venice to the edge of Midtown, exceeded the Singer’s height within a year. Next came the Woolworth, a World War, the Jazz Age … a Great Depression. In the decades after World War II, fewer people came to see the view, and the Singer faded in importance, until it eventually—almost—blended into the scrum of dingy, pre-war skyscrapers in downtown New York.
Alas, no commercial architecture, no matter its beauty, was sacred enough to defer the hunger of American business. By the late 1960s, the streets and alleys of Lower Manhattan had grown dusty and dismal. The textiles business was retreating from New York, and it was widely understood that the city’s center of gravity had long-since migrated north to Midtown. Companies soon began to envision new headquarters in the suburbs or the Sunbelt. A mindset took hold that the old Northeastern cities had to clear out their proverbial cobwebs if they hoped to survive. Everywhere, traditional urban neighborhoods were wrecked and bulldozed to make room for expressways, parking lots, Brutalism, and other emblems of progress.
And so, in this context, after just six decades, the Singer Building would be demolished and replaced, with little fanfare—when it was taken down in 1967, it was the tallest structure ever to be dismantled. Once envisioned as a durable monument to American commercial ingenuity, and still a landmark of architecture and urban planning, the Singer was unable to justify its continued existence amid the myopia of postwar America. The Singer Company had moved on. The marble and brass-work of the main hall were sold off to collectors and salvage dealers. The tower was dismantled piece by piece. And on the same site, a larger office building—providing more floor space and newer amenities, but far fewer design flourishes—would soon rise. Presumably, the city’s patriarchs were grateful that the new building’s developer and main tenant, U.S. Steel, hadn’t gone to Westchester or California.
The Singer’s fate represented a darker but no less historic moment in the life cycle of American cities—a harsh counterpoint to the rich, artful optimism that had glinted through the fading years of the Gilded Age in the works of men like Ernest Flagg. The loss of the Singer was but a single point in an unfolding narrative of urban destruction that also included (in New York, alone) the demolition of the neoclassical Pennsylvania Station in 1963, the unceremonious wrecking of the Metropolitan Opera House in 1967, and the years-long decline of the Art Deco masterpieces along the Grand Concourse in the Bronx.
Today, Americans have grown more cautious; when it comes to old buildings, we now have laws at our disposal that allow us to designate and preserve what we value. Yet the enactment of such laws, at such a late stage, illustrates how the Singer’s fate coincided with another milestone: an end to the idea that American industry might be trusted to build permanent things, without answering to the deeper values of law or community or tradition. Not only buildings, but individual lives, entire cities, had been built around American industries that projected permanence at one point in the 20th century—only to be gone in a fleeting instant. The fate of the Singer, and everything else, dashed what we now know to have been a naïve hope: a belief that the most audacious commercial efforts to produce something lasting would not, one day, fall prey to the intrinsic transience of commerce.
Though I spent my adolescent years living within an hour’s journey of New York City, such long-term close proximity exposed me to little more than glitzy entertainment, professional sports, glamour, fashion, and trendy-pseudo-art. I knew the city promised authentic high culture, but it was easy to overlook it in comparison to experiences in Rome, Vienna, Salzburg, and Paris. What I discovered more recently was that New York is not just a center of high culture in literature, music, theater, and opera. It also has a significant presence of first-rate architecture grounded in traditions from the Italian Renaissance to the English country house—architecture which represents uniquely American developments within a broadly defined classicism.
One useful introduction to the city’s glories is Judith Gura and Kate Wood’s Interior Landmarks: Treasures of New York. The book provides a chronological presentation of 44 (in most cases) excellent architectural works from the City Hall of 1811 to the Ford Foundation Building of 1967. All are selected from among the 120 officially-designated “interior landmarks” that give the book its title, and whose preservation is legally regulated.
Age is not a requirement for this status. Exemplification of a particular architectural style or some other aesthetic, cultural or historical significance is the key criteria which must be met, in addition to which the buildings (or segments of buildings that receive such status) must be regularly open to some form of public use. The standard for what constitutes preservation is not unbendingly strict, though the conditions under which alterations can be permitted by New York’s Interior Landmarks Commission are appropriately rigorous. In addition to essential repairs, alterations can be authorized to accommodate a change in the purpose for which a building is used on condition that they are minimized as much as feasible, sufficiently conform to the original style and, in some case, easily allow for reversal.
A central theme of Interior Landmarks is the near limitless potential for repurposing wherever the will for preservation exists. But its account of increasing efforts to preserve New York City’s architectural heritage also reveals an unfortunate shift in broader social attitudes, a shift to which architectural preservation and repurposing recorded in the book are linked. One finds in the book not only buildings originally constructed as museums, theaters, and aristocratic homes, but also as customs houses, armories, centers of transportation—and even a residence for indigent retired sailors. Photographs the reader might think depicts opera houses in reality show what were once movie theaters. Such a sheer multiplicity of purposes shows the extent to which beauty was once expected (or least desired) to permeate as much of life as possible, and for people of as many social classes as possible.
Repurposing these landmarks largely involves a transition from everyday usage to special occasion venues. Such transitions cannot be entirely explained by the legal prerequisites for interior landmark status. Customs houses and armories serve the most practical of purposes. But in the past, unlike today, buildings for such purposes were not designed in a purely utilitarian way. It is hard to avoid the impression that such transitions are part of the broader tendency to isolate beauty. One should not be surprised that a society in which men widely wore jackets and ties as a matter of routine was one in which charitable housing for retired sailors was more beautiful than that now sheltering the affluent.
In addition to isolating beauty, this narrowing runs the risk of reducing beautiful architecture to what are almost like museum pieces. Such a reduction completely violates the spirit in which the works shown in Interior Landmarks were first created. Most of the interiors included in the book represent both stylistic and technological evolution within broadly traditional aesthetics. Most were a blend of such historical influences as the baroque, federal, Greek Revival, Gothic, Renaissance, Italianate, Romanesque, and Rococo traditions. Beaux-arts was more of a unified architectural movement rather than the odd mixture found in many building in Interior Landmarks but itself added Gothic and Renaissance elements onto a foundation of French neoclassicism. Art nouveau was largely an evolution out of aesthetic medievalism. Only a few strictly adhered to one or another older style. Only a few others embraced such unfortunate fashions as art deco and architectural modernism.
The materials used in construction that depict the book show similar creativity. The interior of the Tweed Courthouse conforms closely to the Italianate aesthetic but its use of cast iron (the only such interior surviving in New York City) was hardly a decision based on excessively rigorous traditionalism. Indiana limestone and Maine granite are among the materials that were able to give a North American “twist” to aesthetics grounded in the old world, and can be found in the same rooms as Greek marble and English oak.
Despite the skyscrapers and outer-borough kitsch popularly associated with New York, the city is filled with much fine architecture. Gura and Wood admittedly show that classic architecture must be searched for in New York as much as they show that it is present there. But they do demonstrate that architectural beauty is possible in the most modern of cities, that it can be created using the most modern materials and methods, and that only minor alterations can transition from outmoded uses to more contemporary ones.
James Baresel is a freelance writer.
For years, urban public policy has promoted the elimination of highway fatalities known as “Vision Zero.” And in the midst of growing concern around climate change, transportation policy in American cities is curiously schizophrenic. For nine months of the year, when temperatures are decent and precipitation is limited to rain, most cities encourage people to use alternatives to cars and reduce carbon footprints.
But come winter in many parts of the country, it all goes out the window.
Winter often reveals a preference for cars over other forms of transportation on the part of policymakers, or at least an assumption that everyone will have access to a vehicle when the weather gets cold. One interesting phenomenon is called a “sneckdown,” which appears where roads have been overbuilt; some snow remains after some roads are plowed and driven on. Transportation activists record the storms, and they are remarkably consistent from storm to storm and year to year.
Many cities informally allow residents to claim parking spots they dig out after snow storms. The main result of this seems to be escalating violence as people argue over who dug out which spot, or slash each other’s tires for parking in one. Many cities promote cycling with protected bike lanes in the warmer months, but during winter they use bike lanes to store plowed snow.
Another way is revealed by what types of pathways are cleared. Where snow is common, American cities clear the roadways for cars, but often rely on property owners to clear sidewalks, crossings, and, as mentioned, bus stops. The result is that, in heavy or frequent snow, pedestrian and transit infrastructure can become completely unusable since property owners spend all their effort digging out their cars and shoveling their driveways. It is especially common for ramps installed under the Americans With Disabilities Act to be unusable into spring because the snow plows keep piling snow and slush in them, creating great troughs of icy water no one in a wheelchair or walker can travel through.
According to Grist, enforcement of fines for failing to clear sidewalks in New York City is “between spotty and non-existent.”
That seems to be the case in other American cities, as well. In Boston and Cambridge, enforcement is left to the pedestrians themselves by taking pictures of problem areas and sending them to the city. This is, of course, problematic because it assumes that people will be able to walk to the problem areas, but it also doesn’t take into account the scale of the problem—a walking trip of a mile could involve crossing the street multiple times and passing in front of hundreds of properties. A body camera to video it all would be more useful.
Even better is the radical idea that, as Grist says, cities started thinking that “Sidewalks are as much of a public good as roads and pedestrians should be as entitled to safe, ice free surfaces as cars.”
Another factor is that the average age of homeowners, especially in large cities, is rising. Boston’s West Roxbury neighborhood, for example, is an example of a naturally occurring retirement community because an increasing percentage residents are older people aging in place. The elderly are less able to safely shovel large amounts of snow. According to the BBC, around 100 people die every winter in the United States as a result of heart attacks sustained while shoveling. One doctor interviewed even said that no one over the age of 55 should shovel snow.
With a better approach to snow removal, cities could substantially change their approaches to the winter season. Instead of seeing snow as an inconvenience, with parking and slush, walking, biking, and transit could become much easier than dealing with private vehicles—and cities should offer similarly attractive activities in the summer. For example, some European cities are famous for the Christmas markets that are temporarily erected in major squares, while Canadian Quebec City has had a winter carnival since 1894. Until the early 19th century, London had “frost fairs” whenever the River Thames was frozen enough.
There is no excuse for why we can’t enjoy cities in winter as much as we do in more temperate seasons—and many good reasons for not prioritizing cars when it’s cold out.
Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston.
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.
Others who really enjoy their spacious suburban homes, front lawns, big back yards, and collection of private vehicles tend to project a near future in which self-driving cars, telecommuting, endless supplies of easy credit and inexpensive conventional energy will distribute the entire population to the far ends of the rural penumbra as God intended.
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.
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.
This post was updated to reflect an editing error, which has restored a missing second paragraph.
AKRON, Ohio—The national media often reports about housing prices in red-hot real estate markets. There are stories aplenty about affluent newcomers displacing existing lower-income residents, and driving up housing prices, rents, and property taxes to stratospheric heights.
This is not the case where I live in Akron, and in many other cities around the Great Lakes. We have the opposite challenge: large numbers of lower-income, working-class urban homeowners, living in deteriorating homes, with no foreseeable prospects for property appreciation.
In San Francisco, ordinary working-class people don’t own houses. In a city like Akron, they do—and many of them simply do not have the money to properly maintain them.
The median sales price of a house in Akron is about $64,000. Many houses routinely sell for less than $40,000.
Sometimes people hear about these low prices, and they talk about what a bargain they are. Most people who say this have never owned an older house, and have unrealistic expectations about what it actually takes (in terms of time, money, and effort) to properly maintain it.
People have proposed many well-intended, but unrealistic, solutions to the problem of low-property values in urban neighborhoods with older houses that are falling apart.
It has been suggested to me, on more than one occasion, that indebted, college-educated Millennials could be lured back to the city by selling them these old, poorly-maintained houses for $1.00, and having them “fix up the house.”
People who say this do not have a realistic idea of what “fixing up” an old house entails—neither in terms of the scope of the rehabilitation work that would be required, nor in terms of the level of skill, time, and/or money needed to do the work.
Even in a low cost-of-living market like ours, $40,000 houses are generally not a “good deal.” They are almost always a liability. They are a ticking time bomb of deferred maintenance. They are an albatross.
The median housing unit in Akron was built in 1952. Over 36 percent of all of the housing units in the city were built before 1940. In a high-demand metropolitan area with a lot of in-migration, these older residences would command a higher price. But in our low-demand metropolitan area, with net out-migration, and negative growth sprawl, the overabundance of older housing can present a real challenge.
When a neighborhood gets to be around 50 years old, it reaches a crossroads. The patina of newness has completely worn off. The houses are now well into their second life-cycle of exterior maintenance, and many are in need of significant and costly interior updates. Will existing homeowners be willing to shell out the money for needed upgrades, or will they sell cheap, and move on to greener pastures? The answer to that question depends a lot on anticipated resale value, and can determine the fate of the neighborhood.
Most of the neighborhoods built in the 1910s, when Akron gained 140,000 residents in one decade (and was America’s fastest-growing city), reached this crossroads back in the 1960s. Some of these neighborhoods, like Highland Square, remained attractive and in high demand. Many others did not, and began a long period of protracted decline. This is exactly the point at which the city hit its peak of 290,000 residents, and then began to inexorably lose population.
The houses built during our next big wave of residential construction, in the immediate aftermath of World War II, later reached this half-century crossroads right before the Great Recession began in the early 2000s. These neighborhoods, which generally commanded higher property values, were hit hard by the collapse of the housing market. Some have rebounded. Many have not.
Approximately 25 percent of Akron’s neighborhoods are comprised primarily of homes that are valued at $100,000 or more. In these neighborhoods, where older houses have weathered the recession, and generally held their value, there are still strong market incentives to rehabilitate the structures.
For example, there is a house right around the corner from me, here in Wallhaven, that sold for $12,025 in 2015. It was a foreclosure, and the entire foundation needed to be replaced.
Someone bought it, replaced the basement, put on a new roof, new siding, new windows, built a front porch, and sold it for $135,000 in 2018.
Why? Because houses in this neighborhood typically sell in the $125,000 to $150,000 range. If property values were less than that, that house would have been demolished. Instead of a nice-looking, renovated Cape Cod, we’d have an overgrown vacant lot.
In 75 percent of Akron’s neighborhoods, that rehabilitation scenario would never have happened. The house would have moldered away, probably in the hands of an absentee owner, until it was condemned and demolished at public expense.
In 2017, Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan created a 15-year, 100 percent, citywide property tax abatement program. I am proud to say that it is attracting new residents, investors, and home builders to Akron. In 2015, only 10 houses were built in our entire city. Today, there are over 1,000 housing units in some stage of development.
Many of the proposed new houses are in the $180,000 to $250,000 range. The median sales price of a house in Akron is around $64,000. Some people hear about the price of the new houses, and instead of seeing it as a good thing, they see it as a bad thing. They compare a brand-new $200,000 house to a 100-year-old house that costs one-third of that, and say “This is Akron…that’s way too much!”
People who say that don’t understand real-estate market economics. They are comparing apples to oranges. When you factor in what it costs to properly maintain an old house, with its unforeseen headaches down the road, and compare that to an initially maintenance-free new house, with a property tax abatement, the price differential disappears. A $200,000 house built in 2019 suddenly doesn’t sound so expensive, and a $60,000 house built in 1919, with a huge backlog of deferred-maintenance doesn’t sound so cheap.
In many ways, people here in Akron live in a bubble, when it comes to housing costs. In most places in this country, and in our neighboring suburbs, it is completely normal to see new houses and apartments built. It happens all of the time. It is completely unremarkable. It is how communities revitalize themselves. It is how populations grow, and old housing is replaced.
A Personal Testimony
Example: My house, built in 1947, is 72 years old. I bought it back in 2003, and have owned it for nearly 16 years. It is currently valued by the county fiscal office at around $100,000.
I’ve tallied-up what I’ve spent on renovating it over the past 15 years. For the purpose of this calculation, I’ve stuck to core systems, exterior features, and structural elements, and eliminated expenditures on things like new appliances, interior cosmetic improvements (painting, flooring, wallpaper, etc.), and routine plumbing and electrical work.
I’ve divided the remaining expenditures into three categories: absolutely necessary, and could not wait; optional for the near-term, but could not have waited much longer; and completely discretionary/nice thing to have.
These are the expenditures that were absolutely necessary and could not wait:
· Replacement of the sewer line under the basement floor
· Replacement of the structural columns holding up the beam
· Replacement of the hot water tank
· New roof (complete tear-off and replacement of shingles)
· Masonry work on the chimney to stop water leakage
Total cost: $19,200
These are the expenditures that were optional at the time, but could not have waited much longer:
· New high-efficiency furnace
· New 200-amp electrical box
· Bathroom renovations
· New windows
· New siding
· Reconstruction of the front entryway
Total cost: $36,700
These are the expenditures that were nice things to have*:
· Sunroom addition
· New concrete patio
Total cost: $37,500
(*The sunroom and patio replaced a wooden deck that was 20 years old and beginning to rot. While the sunroom addition was optional, I would have needed to tear out the deck and replace it with something – new landscaping at a minimum, or another deck, so not all of this cost was entirely optional.)
All told, I have spent $93,400 on improvements to this house over the past 15 years. This works out to an additional $502 per month, above what I was paying in mortgage, taxes, and insurance. When you add all of that together, the total monthly cost works out to $1,439.
My house is attractive and in extremely good shape, but keeping it that way has come at a significant price.
I mentioned that my house is valued at just about $100,000 by the county fiscal office. Now, let’s compare that to a newly-constructed house in the City of Akron, valued by the county fiscal office at $200,000.
The brand-new house will have a much higher mortgage payment, but it will have no initial maintenance costs, and it will also receive a 100-percent property-tax abatement, meaning that the owner will pay no taxes on the value of the dwelling for the next 15 years.
The total monthly cost for the brand-new house? $1,444. Which comes out to exactly $5.00 per month more than my 72-year-old house.
So, really a lot of this comes down to what a person is looking for. The older house will cost you less money up front, but it is also going to cost you a lot more money in maintenance and home improvements. The older house will have more “character” (hardwood floors, wood-burning fireplace, crown molding, plaster walls, etc.), but it will also be a lot more hassle to maintain, in terms of time (if you’re handy, and if you have it), or in terms of money (if like me, you’re not handy, and don’t have the time).
The thing with home maintenance is that ultimately, none of it is optional. You can let it slide for a while—until you can’t. At that point, you either figure out how to pay for it, or if you can’t, or won’t, you walk away, and it becomes your community’s problem.
The other thing that people forget about routine home maintenance is that it doesn’t scale with the value of your home. Putting a new roof on a $1,000,000 house in San Francisco is not going to cost you that much more than it would cost you to put a new roof on a $40,000 house in Akron. The difference is that the roof in San Francisco might represent 1 percent of the value of that property, while the roof in Akron might represent 25 percent of the value. It doesn’t take many repairs in a market like Akron before you’ve eclipsed what the house is even worth.
Like many of my fellow Akronites, I have a passion to see older houses rehabilitated in this city. But the most effective way for that to happen is for housing to become more valuable in this city. And that starts with new construction that gradually raises comparable prices and makes rehabs of older houses more cost effective.
For what it’s worth, I love my older house, and personally prefer owning an older house to owning a newer one.
But what I happen to personally prefer is irrelevant. And, as I hope I have demonstrated, keeping my house in good shape has come at a steep price—a price that many people may not be prepared for.
My house is around the 80th percentile in terms of home values in Akron. What about the houses at the 20th percentile? The return-on-investment for making these types of improvements just isn’t there. That’s why thousands of houses in this city are sitting vacant and abandoned, and are on their way to the landfill.
The median sales price of our housing needs to increase. I’m not talking about it going into the stratosphere. I’m talking about it going from $64,000 to something like $90,000. A $90,000 house is still extremely affordable, even for a working-class household with a modest, but reliable source of household income.
The first step to revitalizing a city like Akron is to understand supply and demand, and how it drives the real estate market. Without that understanding, the decline will continue.
Jason Segedy is director of planning and urban development for the city of Akron, Ohio. Segedy has worked in the urban-planning field for the past 23 years, and is an avid writer on urban development issues, blogging at Notes from the Underground.