You’ve probably noticed something of a trend in my recent essays. I’ve never had much patience for dogma. To me, flip-flopping, or in other words changing strategies when the old ones aren’t working, just makes sense. I’ve spent much of the last 40 years not just thinking about, but working towards improving what has become “my neighborhood”. I’ve planted trees, painted benches, picked up trash, participated in workshops, written letters, prepared reports, met with department heads, and today I serve on two city boards.
I know that my writing and the writings of others I’ve encouraged people to read about place making and building for people have influenced thought and made a difference in designs that were eventually executed, but I’ve also seen that local developers are the ones who hold the real power when it comes to small to medium sized developments. The problem with that is that the money over the last half a century has been made mostly in horizontal development, or what is commonly called “sprawl”, and the people who have become “successful local developers” see absolutely nothing wrong with what has become standard auto oriented design. For that reason, when called upon to do anything, even in a traditional downtown and despite the urging of planners and economic development officials, they demand excessive surface parking and pedestrian killing setbacks.
It is for that reason that the barrage of writing, especially at Strongtowns, of the one size fits all mentality that anything done at scale must be bad when my actual lived experience in this one medium sized rust belt (typologically if not geographically) city is that there are precisely two forms of economic development that preserve a walkable environment: historic rehabilitation, and mega-projects. Everything else turns Main Street into a stroad. Would that it were not so, but I have documented that fact here. Your community is much more enlightened and you have local developers building combination retail/commercial/residential structures built to the sidewalk with little to no surface parking? Bully for you, but I’m trying to preserve MY community under the terms of today’s power reality and I have a feeling that the same thing is true of a number of places.
You know what? The enormous MGM resort casino does pose a risk to what’s left of the fine grained urbanism of the downtown and the South End of Springfield, but that risk is really just that the decay and decline will proceed at an even faster pace than it has in the preceding 5 decades. On the other hand, how many orthodox incrementalists really would cast aside not only a project which in and of itself contained movie theaters, retail shops, and recreational activities long sought after in the core city, but which has also led to tens of millions of dollars in infrastructure maintenance both below ground and above including the complete restoration or rebuilding of three downtown parks?
And the repair of miles of downtown sidewalks including the addition, for the first time ever, of bicycle infrastructure?
And led to the further enhancement of yet another historic plaza and the rehabilitation of the grounds of a National Historic Site?
Of course, if you live in an already thriving urban oasis I can understand why you wouldn’t want all this in your back yard; turns out you’re a NIMBY after all! But if you live in any one of dozens of moldering traditional formerly industrial cities I bet you’d gladly embrace the whole idea; in private at least, all the while chiding the cheerleaders of the project as sell-outs! Honestly, Utica wouldn’t want this? Rochester wouldn’t take this deal if it were offered? Syracuse?
“All things in moderation”. Including moderation I’d say. Sometimes a little excess is what’s needed. In the long term the realities of energy, the environment, and demographics will determine if Springfield declines, thrives, or even survives. In the long term we’re all dead as well. 8 months from now my wife and I will be able to walk to a movie theater on a sidewalk that’s no longer crumbling into dust, or take LuLu ice skating on a brand new outdoor rink. A year from now the plaza connecting the Quadrangle museums to Main Street will be reopened for the first time in years with a new design that won’t promote public urination. Will this be the spark that ignites the fire of a long dormant city or will it be just another flash in the pan? I can’t say that I don’t care, but if the last 40 years have taught me anything it is that there are no guarantees.
Sometimes you just have to say: “What the hell!”