April 7, 2006
New Orleans: trailers and NIMBY
The aftermath of hurricane Katrina in New Orleans poses a myriad of crucial land use and community development issues, of course. Bickering among state and local officials and an apparent waning of interest in Washington have exacerbated the problems. Here’s one of the latest in the seemingly endless wave of depressing news: Some neighborhoods in New Orleans are opposing the siting of FEMA trailer communities to house those whose homes were destroyed. This week, Mayor Ray Nagin sided with the residents of Algiers, a section of the city south of the river with many affluent families. According to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, FEMA was supposed to get “approval” from the neighborhood’s city council member before siting a trailer. They say it’s “not an issue of NIMBY.”
It is unfortunate that, in the aftermath of Katrina, neither the federal government nor Louisiana officials recognized the emergency need to put someone in charge, who would have authority to in effect decree certain land use decisions. Perhaps, alas, this would have been impossible.
Some residents fear that the trailers will bring crime. Residents can only be alarmed by reports that areas of Houston occupied largely by Katrina evacuees have experienced spikes in crime. The fact that crime may move with residents, and does not depend whether they live in rundown shotgun shacks, suburban Houston apartments, or shiny new FEMA trailers, is of course another reason to look back at naïve policies of the past that seemed to expect that removal of slum buildings themselves would significantly ameliorate the social problems of the city.
April 6, 2006
Privately sponsored public parks
Should corporate funding help pay for our public parks? In an interesting segment yesterday on the radio show Marketplace, corporate officials defended the practice of having “sponsored” public spaces, such as Manhattan’s Bryant Park and the Central Park ice rink, as a way of bringing money and efficient maintenance to beleaguered municipal areas. (Does anyone remember the hideous Bryant Park of the ‘70s?) On the other side, public advocates complained about slapping corporate logos and giving partial corporate control over spaces that are supposed to be for everyone. One critic was annoyed that corporate sponsors are sometimes given the power to close a park for private events.
I think that governments should avoid specters such as a “Flush-O-Matic Co. Geyser at Yellowstone National Park” (I avoid a Viagra joke …) or “Westinghouse Gettysburg Battlefield,” both because of the potential for conflicts of interest and because some places truly should be sacrosanct. And the immersion in advertising of many of our public transportation systems – ad-wrapped buses and moving commercials in the subway – is an unfair assault on the senses of those who are trying to enjoy (or at least survive) a rare “public” experience. In an ideal world, of course, parks would be fully funded and supported by the taxpayers. But when this fails, however, more subtle and hands-off forms of sponsorship seem relatively innocuous to me, especially in a culture in which few Americans experience life in any form of public space on a day-to-day basis (except roads, of course).
Here’s a final thought. The radio segment reported that surrounding businesses help pay for the upkeep of Bryant Park. Could such payments be coerced as a form of “tax” to make up for the benefits, both financial and psychic, provided by the city’s attractive greenspace, to the office buildings looming over it? Could such a tax be justified as a form of “impact fee” to compensate for the government’s “giving” (the opposite of a “taking”) the park’s benefits? On a more pedestrian (literally) level, shouldn’t nearby convenience stores and fast-food shops be taxed for the inevitable cleanup of litter on sidewalks and streets (akin to CERCLA), or even have to do the cleanups themselves, as a form of impact payment?
April 5, 2006
Los Angeles County takes responsibility for homeless people
A current TV commercial tells us that “Life takes” a lot of things: “Life takes exploration,” “risk,” “joy,” and “spontaneity,” among others. Conspicuously absent is an assertion that life takes “responsibility.” Responsibility is, of course, less fun.
Los Angeles County, California, yesterday approved a plan to introduce a bit of responsibility into urban policy toward homeless people; the homeless will be encouraged to disperse from the downtown skid rows and to go to one of a handful of scattered shelters and social service centers.
Policies concerning the homeless have been schizophrenic with regard to responsibility. For a while, a popular idea was that assistance for homeless people should have to come to them. Because of an assumption that most of the homeless were simply those who had “lost out” in our competitive society, it was considered inappropriate to demand anything of them. The fact that homeless people tend to concentrate in public parks and in skid rows was something that society would simply have to accept. Results of such a policy included Zurich’s infamous “needle park,” which attracted drug addicts from across Europe, and the congregation of homeless people outside San Francisco’s City Hall in the 1980s.
Our policies have sobered up. Many cities today realize that most homeless people suffer from drug addiction, mental illness, or other serious problems. To allow them the “choice” of living on the street is irresponsible – both to the public and to those who endure life on the skid rows.
The new Los Angeles County plan (enabled by a temporary rush of property taxes into county coffers) would establish five centers spread across the county of more than 10 million people, as well as programs to keep off the street those who are discharged from mental hospitals and prisons.
Needless to say, watchdogs for more affluent areas have mobilized to try to stop centers from being sited near their homes. But a proposal to give towns a veto power – which probably would have ensured that the city of Los Angeles (which has less than 40 percent of the county’s population) would be saddled with most if not all of the centers – wisely was defeated. This is where another form of responsibility comes into play: Suburbs have a social responsibility to assume their fair share, in some way, of a metropolitan area’s homeless problem. (Cf. New Jersey’s Mount Laurel law). Suburbs that wish to shrink from their responsibility should be gently but firmly pushed into line by a strong metropolitan authority, as is possible in L.A. County, which encompasses most of the metro area. Calling Orange County? ….
April 4, 2006
Wal-Mart, cities, and the poor
Think about Wal-Mart. It's been more than a century (perhaps since the Standard Oil monopoly?) since the public policy debate raged so fiercely around one company. Critics of the largest private employer in the United States complain of the retail giant’s labor practices, its arm-twisting of suppliers, and, perhaps most of all, its effect on land use and community. Not only does Wal-Mart’s dominance of the retail world make it difficult for smaller, locally-oriented stores to compete, but Wal-Mart’s enormous appetite for land in the exurbs (and woe to a community in which Wal-Mart departs, leaving a giant empty box) makes it a quintessential symbol of suburban sprawl. The mantra of WakeUpWalMart.com is “The High Cost of Low Price.”
These are familiar arguments, of course. What is not always recognized is the simple fact that low prices have a benefit – something with which any American family that happily shops and saves at Wal-Mart would agree. A recent study by the think tank Global Insight concluded that Wal-Mart is responsible for significant decreases in retail prices. In the two decades ending in 2004, Wal-Mart alone “saved” consumers about $263 billion, the report concluded, or about $1000 for person in the country (and a total which far exceeded Wal-Mart’s negative effect on national wages). In an era in which government assistance for the poor -– Temporary Aid for Needy Families, food stamps, and housing subsidies –- is harder to come by, Wal-Mart’s low prices may be serving as a leading source of financial help for poor Americans.
Wal-Mart announced today that it plans to open more than 50 stores in struggling urban centers. This appears to be a very welcome change in thinking for “big box” retailers, which historically have preferred the wide open spaces, with ample parking, of the suburbs. Poorer communities, especially African American neighborhoods, often complain that few big retailers will start a store there; stereotyping may be behind the lack of investment. I suspect that many struggling Americans in poor urban areas, such as the south side of Chicago, would be thrilled to see Wal-Mart open down the street. New urbanists should be joyful if Wal-Mart follows through with its announced plan to re-use some vacant urban stores and warehouses. Environmentalists should be happy with the idea to construct on brownfield sites that others have shunned. And advocates of local businesses might be assuaged to some extent by the plan to give subsidies to some small retailers near new Wal-Marts in a handful of blighted urban areas.
Yes, many of Wal-Mart’s practices are very troublesome. But let’s not demonize a corporation, especially one that holds -– by virtue of its size alone -– an outsized opportunity to help the poor in suburban, rural, and urban America.
April 3, 2006
Rethinking on-site parking rules
Many land use laws that were once seen as unquestioned public benefits are now coming under criticism for their adverse effects (sometimes unintended) on our communities. Consider, for example, the requirements for “on-site” parking for retail and commercial establishments. Such rules have made it nearly impossible, of course, to develop the pedestrian-friendly old Main Street streetscape of stores fronting directly on the sidewalk. The result is strip malls and isolated establishments spread out among acres of mostly unused parking lots – the ugly and sprawling streetscapes of suburban retail America. In the Planetizen website, Mott Smith, principal of a California planning and development firm, discusses some of the ways that localities can change their parking laws to encourage more pleasant and more efficient use of land, such as through parking garages, the facilitation of on-street parking, and allowing certain establishments to get variances. Such changes encourage denser construction and encourage stores to compete for foot business through building attractive storefronts.
April 2, 2006
Paradise at the suburban mall
It was a typically beautiful spring Saturday in Florida yesterday: highs near 80, azure skies, light breezes swaying the palm trees. Oddly enough, I ended up briefly visiting the mall – the “upscale” International Plaza in Tampa. It is the kind of place that I, most intellectuals, and the new urbanists tend to hate. Isolated, surrounded by parking lots the size of small countries, full of cookie-cutter national clothing stores, in an ambience of vapid pop music. And what was going on this seemingly depressing pod of west Tampa?
Life was going on. Despite the lovely weather, the indoor mall was teeming with shoppers, walkers, fast-food-eaters and teenagers hanging out. Despite the fact that Tampa is not America’s most affluent city, this mall of expensive clothes and accessory shops seemed to be doing a bonanza business. Faces of all ethnicities appeared to be enjoying a Saturday afternoon at the mall.
Didn’t they know that they weren’t supposed to be enjoying this? Didn’t they know that cultural critics call such malls vapid and soulless? Didn’t they appreciate that the stores have no local flair and are owned by giant national and multinational conglomerates? Why weren’t they demanding to walk outside, along city streets, as the new urbanists tell us we prefer? (Well, the fact that there is almost no city-street shopping in Tampa may have something to do with it.) Why weren’t they revolting over the land use and transportation policies that supposedly have destroyed our downtowns and forced us to drive to rootless malls such as these?
It could be, of course, that the typical American enjoys the mall experience, and that its dominance in American social life reflects consumer demand more than unwise government policies.
Like hundreds of others across the nation, the suburban mall in Tampa has replaced Main Street (it was called Franklin Street in Tampa and it’s now mostly a ghost street). And it is not simply because people prefer not to walk; from some parking spaces to distant stores in the colossal Tampa mall, many shoppers were probably walking more than they had all week. The mall provides the citizen with most of the joys of the old Main-Street-on-Saturday experience: strolling along, looking in shop windows, occasionally stopping to buy, taking time out for a lunch or soda, and, most of all, of course, people-watching. I saw more young people in the mall than I usually see for weeks away from my college campus.
Why do so many people prefer the mall to Main Street? The answer comes in part from an unusual section of International Plaza called “Bay Street.” An uncovered appendage of the mall (giving it a humid, South-Beach ambience, albeit much more controlled), Bay Street is designed as a nightlife area – chic bars, elegant restaurants, and a handful of specialty shops, done up in typical Floridian-paradise architecture. And it seems that nearly every affluent young Floridian within 50 miles piles into Bay Street on Saturday night. While it is not as well-known as the party-all-night Ybor City section of Tampa (an old Cuban part of town that is now the top nightlife stretch for the 22-year-old drink-and-dancers), Bay Street attracts a somewhat more mature crowd – 32-year-olds with good jobs, dressed for show. One aspect of the experience at first puzzled me – despite the enormous parking lots just outside the entrance, the valet parking was doing a brisk business. Why? Watching a river of black Cadillac Escalades pull up and disgorge, I realized that the male drivers wanted to show off to their dates, and that both men and women didn’t relish the idea of walking more than about 300 feet in their soft loafers and stiletto heels. Bay Street is only about two blocks long.
Yes, it is packaged entertainment, and its patrons seem to love it. Unlike, say, an evening along the streets in Ybor City, patrons of Bay Street know that they will never have to step over someone’s empty beer cup (there is of course a fleet of cleaning people), they won’t encounter a lone drunk while turning a dark corner (Bay Street is small enough that there are people everywhere), and that everything they want has been packaged “just so” for them. Unlike a real street, the experience is controlled and predictable. Intellectuals may carp and complain, but real citizens aren’t listening; they know what like and they’re enjoying it.