A middle-class urban planner sees a working-class neighborhood and says, “I wouldn’t want to live there. That neighborhood must be blighted.” So the planner convinces the city to spend hundreds of millions of dollars revitalizing the neighborhood: clearing older buildings and replacing them with new high-density, mixed-use developments that the middle-class urban planner wouldn’t want to live in but thinks others should enjoy, often tying such neighborhoods together with a billion-dollar rail line.
Lo and behold, the plan “works” in the sense that housing in the area is now more expensive and suddenly the working-class families are priced out of the market. So the middle-class planner says, “What a terrible shame. We need to spend more money subsidizing affordable housing.” This makes the planner feel less guilty even though someone else’s money is used to subsidize the housing and the people getting the subsidized housing are most likely friends of the developer who just graduated from college and are therefore “low income” at the moment even though they can expect to be high income soon.
Then comes along a middle-class journalist who doesn’t understand the problem. The problem is not, as this article suggests, that rail transit has boosted property values (which it hasn’t, really–see this post to understand what is going on). The problem is that government should have kept out of the development business in the first place.
Another day; another city getting scammed by the streetcar mafia. In this case, it is Sacramento, a city that has built 37 miles of light-rail lines and seen transit’s share of commuting fall from 4.1 percent in 1980, before light rail, to 3.2 percent in 2010.
In 2006, Sacramento’s metropolitan transportation plan admitted that, despite past plans focusing on “luring drivers out of their autos,” the share of transit riders was decreasing; and despite building no new roads and seeing huge increases in congestion, the amount of auto driving had doubled since 1980 (see page 3). So naturally, the plan recommended more of the same.
Apparently, that still didn’t work, because now they want to try something new. Since light rail wasn’t fixing any problems, they want to build 18 miles of streetcar lines costing $816 million, or $45 million a mile. The plan calls for a $125-$135 million “starter line” of 2.55 miles that will also share 0.75 miles of rails with light rail, reducing the light-rail line’s capacity to move people, which isn’t an issue because so few people ride the light rail.
Our cities are in trouble. Most have huge unfunded pension and health-care obligations. Their infrastructure is old and so poorly maintained that it can’t power a football stadium for the full length of a game. Their schools have significantly lower high-school graduation rates than the suburbs, even after accounting for differences in incomes. Housing in many cities is unaffordable, roads are congested, and jobs are fleeing, even in supposedly urban industries such as high tech and finance.
Urban planner Richard Florida has a solution: President Obama should create a new federal Department of Cities. That’s right up there with rearranging the benches at Battery Park before Superstorm Sandy hits.
Like many planners, Florida believes problems can be solved from the top down. He is famous for urging cities to adopt policies that make housing unaffordable, forcing poor and moderate-income people out, thus increasing average incomes and making it look like the cities have attracted high-income “creative” people.
Portland is proud of being a livable city. Sure, its streets are crumbling, city buildings are neglected, and its schools are crappy. But don’t worry; it’s a livable city.
A building so ugly that Willamette Week newspaper uses the “ugly” tag for any article that refers to it.
The Antiplanner noted last February that the city’s transportation bureau elected to give up on street paving and repair so that it could fund streetcars. The latest news is that the city isn’t even property maintaining its buildings, including the internationally famous (for being ugly) Portland building. The city has just over half the money it needs to keep this and other city buildings maintained.
A return to the cities and rejection of the suburbs is an article of faith among smart-growth planners, and their wishful thinking is often supported by breathless media reports. The latest news comes from 2011 Census estimates, which the Wall Street Journal reports as revealing that the “cities outpace suburbs in growth.” MSNBC reports that “cities grow more than suburbs [for the] first time in 100 years.”
What do the numbers actually say? Of the 51 largest metropolitan areas, the percentage growth of 26 center cities was higher than the percentage growth of their suburbs. Why 51? Maybe because if they only looked at the 50 largest areas, exactly half of their cities would have grown faster than the suburbs and then they couldn’t say “most.” The percentage growth of central cities in all 51 of the largest areas combined was also higher than of their suburbs, but not by much: 1.03 percent vs. 0.93 percent.
That’s percentage growth, and if that continued as a long-term trend, it might be meaningful. But in fact it was only one year, from 2010 to 2011 (and the 2011 numbers are only estimates). And since, in most cases, the central cities make up only a small portion of the metropolitan area, faster percentage growth doesn’t translate into a large numeric growth. For example, Atlanta grew by 2.4 percent while its suburbs grew by only 1.3 percent. But Atlanta’s 2.4-percent gain means 10,040 new residents, while the suburbs 1.3 percent gain means 62,869 new residents. In other words, Atlanta suburbs actually gained more than six times as many people as Atlanta itself.
Kansas City sold $295 million worth of TIF bonds to revitalize a part of the city known as the Power & Light District. The developer who benefitted from this money says “the development was successful as part of a broader effort to re-energize the city’s downtown.” Unfortunately, tax revenues are less than a third of what was projected, with the result that city taxpayers are having to make up the difference (as if city taxpayers wouldn’t be paying for it anyway).
The city naturally blames the problems on the recession. But recessions happen. Here’s the difference between private developments and government-subsidized developments: If the private developer guesses wrong, only the investors lose. If the government planners guess wrong, every taxpayer in the city or region loses.
The Wall Street Journal article about this boondoggle doesn’t mention it, but Kansas City wants to spend another $100 million on a two-mile-long streetcar line connecting Power & Light with other parts of downtown Kansas City. No doubt that will fix the problem. While they are at it, how about an aerial tramway, maybe a new sports stadium or two? Just what the city taxpayers need: more places to sink their money.
Officials from Aurora, Colorado are in a tizzy because someone conducted some focus groups to see what taxpayers thought of a $300 million subsidy to a proposed hotel. Such focus groups “violate the ethics code for economic development organizations in the region,” said Tom Clark, the executive vice-president of Denver’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC).
Apparently, it is perfectly ethical to steal money that taxpayers had allocated to schools, fire, and police and give it to a private developer, but it is unethical to ask those taxpayers how they fell about such theft. Colorado’s “taxpayer bill of rights” prevents governments from raising taxes by more than a certain percentage each year–but tax-increment financing, the main source of subsidies for the proposed hotel, is exempt from this law.
“You can’t work against your neighbor, and you can’t run around them,” Clark said. “If you do, you’re subject to permanent expulsion from the Metro Denver EDC.” Of course, it is always possible that some people don’t want to be a part of Clark’s cozy little club of thieves.
What’s the most ridiculous zoning rule or decision you’ve ever heard of? Here’s a candidate: Alexandria, Virginia (which wants a Portland-like streetcar) has told property owners in one neighborhood that replacement of rusty chain-link fences violates the city’s historic preservation ordinance.
“While many feel that [chain-link] fences have negative connotations, this material has played an important role in the development of mid-century vernacular housing and their cultural landscape,” the city’s historic preservation staff noted. “By eradicating this â€˜simple fencing solution,â€™ the applicant would be removing an important contextual clue to the original occupants of this neighborhood.”
Last week, the Antiplanner noted in passing a study that found that making people live in “walkable neighborhood” won’t make them any healthier. Since then the Antiplanner has encountered another research paper that found that “the effects of density and block size on total walking and physical activity are modest to non-existent, if not contrapositive.” It seems that anyone who looks at the relationship between urban design and health, other than committed smart-growth advocates, finds that there is no relationship.
So it is disappointing, but not surprising, that President Obama’s recently released National Prevention Strategy–which resulted from the so-called Obamacare legislation–focuses on redesigning the built environment. The Active Living portion of the strategy calls for “community design and development that supports physical activity. Sidewalks, adequate lighting, and traffic slowing devices (e.g., modern roundabouts) improve the walkability of communities and promote physical activity. Increasing access to public transportation helps people maintain active lifestyles. People are also more likely to use active modes of transportation (e.g., walking, biking) for their daily activities when homes, workplaces, stores, schools, health care facilities, and other community services are located within close proximity and neighborhoods are perceived as safe.”
Although the Strategy includes footnotes for each of these claims, they only reference other publications recommending changes in the built environment–some of which were written by advocacy groups such as the Surface Transportation Policy Project–and not actual research showing that this is a worthwhile or cost-effective strategy. The Antiplanner is not an expert on health care, but if the rest of Obama’s health care package is as “scientific” as this, it appears we have turned our entire medical system to Lysenkoists. Next time you see a doctor, don’t be surprised if he or she gives you a prescription based on the latest fad (or campaign contribution) rather than the latest research.
Among the wacky ideas held by many urban planners is the notion that “food deserts”–that is, areas of cities without supermarkets–contribute to obesity. According to this theory, people who lack access to supermarkets eat many unhealthy meals at fast food restaurants. This reasoning is used to justify subsidies to supermarkets–often financed through TIF–in those areas.
However, the Los Angeles Times reports that a new study from the University of North Carolina Nutrition Transition program finds that merely putting a supermarket in the middle of a food desert won’t change people’s eating habits.
The Antiplanner checked the home page for Barry Popkin, the author of the UNC study. He’s found that the entire world is getting fat, not just those “auto-dependent” Americans. The average body-mass index (BMI for an American six-year-old is 22.2; the average for a six-year-old in China–which has one-sixth as many cars per capita as the United States–is 24.8. So much for the idea that rebuilding America to look more like Europe or Asia will cure us of our obesity.
In particular, Popkin’s research compares physical activity with the built environment and finds–whaddyaknow–that self-selection has a lot to do the the relationship between the two. In other words, people who live in walkable neighborhoods are more active because they choose to be, not because they live in walkable neighborhoods. So spending millions in subsidies and passing coercive rules mandating pedestrian-friendly design is not going to get people to stop driving and start cycling to work.
It would be nice to think that urban planners and elected officials who are eager to hand out subsidies and pass increasingly restrictive laws could learn from results like these. But they seem to easily ignore anything that doesn’t confirm their preconceived notions or the justification for subsidies to the interest groups who contribute to their political campaigns.