The notion that real cities have big downtowns is firmly ingrained in the minds of many urban planners and city officials. As Joel Garreau points out in Edge City, this ignores the fact that such downtowns were only built for about a century, from roughly 1820 to 1920.
Modern cities, which planners deride by calling them “sprawl,” have job centers spread out all over the place. San Jose, Phoenix, and Los Angeles are all typical examples. Planners and officials try to re-create obsolete downtowns by building pork-barrel projects such as convention centers and giving developers huge subsidies for hotels and office buildings. This enriches developers and contractors, but it never really creates a “real” downtown.
Downtown Los Angeles, for example, has less than 4 percent of the jobs in the region and does not even have as many jobs as Long Beach. Downtown San Jose is pathetic as a downtown: it has a few restaurants and a heavily subsidized hotel or two, but most of the real jobs are scattered around other parts of Santa Clara County. If you want a real “lively streets” experience, go to Santana Row.
Now Phoenix has succumbed to the downtown mania. As the Arizona Republic reports, this year the city will open a $1.4 billion light-rail line, an expanded convention center (because the existing one wasn’t losing enough money) costing $600 million, at least $350 million in subsidies to a new Sheraton Hotel, and hundreds of millions in subsidies for a downtown campus of Arizona State University.
Of course, Phoenix doesn’t limit its subsidies to downtown. The city is providing $100 milion in subsidies to a new, mixed-use development (another utopian planning scheme) on the edge of the city. This is part of a “border war between adjacent cities over who could give away the most to attract the best retailers.” The Goldwater Institute is suing the city to stop this subsidy.
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. These giveaways are nothing more than a way to satisfy political egos, transfer tax dollars to favored developers, and give urban planners a chance to try their insane theories.