Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Please, Not Centralized Planning....

David Brooks arguesthat there's a popular trend toward community,
If you asked people in that age of go-go suburbia what they wanted in their new housing developments, they often said they wanted a golf course. But the culture has changed. If you ask people today what they want, they’re more likely to say coffee shops, hiking trails and community centers.
Brooks declares,
To take advantage of the growing desire for community, the Obama plan would have to do two things. First, it would have to create new transportation patterns. The old metro design was based on a hub-and-spoke system — a series of highways that converged on an urban core. But in an age of multiple downtown nodes and complicated travel routes, it’s better to have a complex web of roads and rail systems.

Second, the Obama stimulus plan could help localities create suburban town squares. Many communities are trying to build focal points. The stimulus plan could build charter schools, pre-K centers, national service centers and other such programs around new civic hubs.
In other words, Brooks would have us spend tens or hundreds of billions of dollars on new roads, and would favor public transportation that can move small numbers of people, slowly, over short distances as opposed those that would quickly move large numbers of people over longer distances. Brooks would also encourage muncipalities to "build on today’s emerging patterns", then stick their hands out for billions from Obama to pay for their plans. Does Brooks think this is likely? No.
But alas, there’s no evidence so far that the Obama infrastructure plan is attached to any larger social vision. In fact, there is a real danger that the plan will retard innovation and entrench the past.
What "past" is Brooks talking about? The "golf course community" past of, say, five years ago? The "big cities, few suburbs" past of a century ago? The past that, five years ago, Brooks would have been writing while lamenting that the President's vision didn't focus on building the golf courses that people wanted as part of their new social landscape?

To put it mildly, Brooks' idea is bad. Here's an anecdote I previously related,
Later today I will be driving past a large, unattractive cement building, owned by a national newspaper chain. That location of that building will seem peculiar - it is, after all, a relatively new building, but its location will be on the main road to downtown, where it is apparent that many shops and homes once stood. It also is the sort of building that one would expect to be in an industrial park, or at the outskirts of a town, not right at the edge of downtown.

It seems that this town had a brilliant idea some decades back that it would "renew" its downtown area. It set about acquiring a large tract of property, with the goal of clearing off the old homes and businesses and building a large shopping mall. After the land was acquired and cleared, somebody finally asked the important question - "If we build it, will they come?" Okay, so that wasn't the actual question - "Private projects of this type and magnitude don't break ground until they have their anchor tenants signed to leases. Do we even have any potential anchor tenants who have expressed interest, let alone any who have signed leases?" Perhaps you have anticipated the answer to that question.

So the city was left with an empty stretch of land, once occupied by homes and buildings, and a revitalization plan which was not commercially viable. The best offer they got from a private enterprise for the land was from the newspaper company, hence the cement behemoth.
Meanwhile, in the city where I live, after an initial purchase price in the millions, hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars are being expended in relation to what is now a vacant lot because the city's desire for low-income housing on that land have failed to come to fruition. Almost next door in Ypsilanti, the city has struggled for a decade to reinvent an area near downtown into the very type of community Brooks claims everybody wants.

I don't particularly trust municipalities to plan the specifics of redevelopment of a community redevelopment - or even in relation to single lots. I have no problem with a municipality zoning or rezoning areas to encourage the development of more vibrant downtown areas. I have no problem with the federal government joining with cities to clear abandoned buildings and clean up environmental problems, creating brownfields where development will not otherwise occur. But do I want cities to try to impose a David Brooks vision of downtown centers including "restaurant and entertainment zones, mixed-use streetscape malls, suburban theater districts, farmers’ markets and concert halls" on the public? No, I don't.

I can walk downtown and enjoy several such zones - e.g., a Main Street area zone that is dominated by restaurants and upscale and specialty retail with a popular live music venue, the Kerrytown area with its farmer's market and upscale food and specialty shops, or the State Street/Liberty/South University area with its abundance of restaurants, coffee shops, boutiques, movie theaters, and live theater. I appreciate that the city's zoning allowed for that development to occur, and that the University of Michigan's budget allows for a lot of theater and cultural options that would otherwise be missing from this city. But had the city tried to dictate how those areas developed instead of leting them evolve, just as with its troubled effort to turn a single vacant lot into low-income housing, it would likely have impeded or prevented the successful development of those areas.

As for pretending that having "a complex web of roads and rail systems" helps prepare us for a future in which people are not dependent upon cars? While I respect the idea that public transportation should make it quick and easy to get from "point a" to "point b", and that hub and spoke systems can create delays and inconvenience that force people who would happily take a bus to instead drive a car, Brooks seems to be paying no heed to the cost of developing, operating and maintaining the "complex web" he desires. It's almost as if he's demanding, "Build a public transportation system I would use," without considering either the needs of others, or how in fact such a system could be created and operated in a cost-effective manner. (Or maybe that's exactly what he's demanding.)

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