A significant number of people are exited about the possibility of urban living, but the truth is that most Americans really have no idea what it is that makes a place vibrant and invigorating, and therefore can’t see the contradictions that exist between what they know they want as an outcome, and what they assume will need to be done to create it. I have expressed this in podcasts and blog posts as cargo-cultism, but it is simply the cum hoc propter hoc fallacy. The suburban modality of development having been, in spite of its disastrous long term consequences, the development pattern most Americans associate with wealth and prosperity, most Americans assume that the paradigms connected to that form of development will transfer and function in the same ways for urban development.
It isn’t just that these basic assumptions don’t hold in precisely the same way for urban areas, it is that they are diametrically opposite. The standard attitudes toward traffic are representative in this case. As I have mentioned on many occasions I live in a neighborhood which straddles the line between “Heaven” and “Hell”. For all of the beautiful architecture, magnificent museums, and exhilarating events which take place here, there are huge gaps which exist here in terms of the things that one would hope to have access to in a healthy walkable neighborhood. There are no quality full service grocery stores, it’s almost impossible to do my gift shopping for the Holidays or birthdays here (although the museum gift shops are pretty good), I can’t see a movie without getting in a car, beyond the symphony concerts are few and far between…
At a small get together with coworkers I was mentioning the MGM proposal for the downtown and describing what the proposal entails. I would have welcomed a number of different thoughtful responses to the presence of a casino in the region although, as I wrote in my very first blog post, given that a casino IS coming, I don’t see debating whether their regional presence is a good idea as particularly helpful. But putting that aside I would have expected that the general response to the possibly impending presence of a nearly one billion dollar entertainment, retail, residential, and resort complex one block from my house would be positive. I mean, there is the potential for all of the gaps mentioned previously in terms of the livability and walkability of my neighborhood to be filled by this development.
What astounded me was that the sentiment expressed by these people mostly surrounded the issue of traffic. Didn’t they understand that this would all be within walking distance of my front door? I wouldn’t need to drive to it, “it” would already be here, where I already am. Their concern for me was that I wouldn’t be able to get through “it” to get to the other places I need to go. The idea that this might complete “the places I need to go”, and therefore reduce, perhaps almost eliminate, my need to “go” anywhere via motor vehicle never entered their minds. Beyond that, physical proximity to an amenity in a suburban world is almost inconsequential. I can live “across the street” from the grocery store, but if that street is filled with cars and traffic is backed up for blocks, and it is inaccessible on foot, the most significant impact of the proximity of the grocery store is that it impedes my mobility.
I explained that the traffic issue is not actually a big concern. The estimates for the increase in the number of visitors to the downtown of the MGM project hover between 5,000-10,000 people a day. That is about what the downtown sees on an average Saturday if there is a hockey game at the MassMutual Center and a concert at Symphony Hall, only people wouldn’t generally be arriving at “exactly 7:15” in order to get to the game or the concert on time, they would be arriving in a staggered fashion, mostly between 6 p.m. and midnight.
More importantly, two colleagues expressed immediate interest in relocating to the downtown if the proposed plan were to be carried out. There are people who are interested in walkable urban environments, and there are dozens of underutilized and undervalued apartments, condominiums, and homes mere blocks from this potential development. Some people may be fearing the impact increases in traffic will have on the neighborhood. The economic opportunity is there for people who see that, in an urban paradigm, more means more, and there is the potential for this relatively tiny, compact, historic place to go from deficient to magnificent in the blink of an eye.