Anyone familiar with anything I’ve written on this blog will most likely be familiar with Chuck Marohn and Strongtowns. A great deal of what is written on the Strongtowns blog centers on the fact that suburban development is a Ponzi scheme and depends on growth in order to perpetuate the myth that it is economically viable. The communities themselves which are dependent on sprawl behave as though they are completely unaware of that situation however, in spite of the fact that the numbers make it very clear that such a claim is undeniable.
In the other hand, the so called “investment ready” communities, cities where the infrastructure is already in place for development and where growth will create not only increases in efficiency, but increases in efficiency which will grow exponentially, there is no belief in even the possibility of growth. When a building is destroyed by fire on Main Street, for example, the only idea for reuse of the parcel is for parking: a non use. The most progressive idea in fact is for said parking lot to be for the use of the entire neighborhood instead of being exclusively for one or another building. As much as regions addicted to horizontal sprawl must be convinced that more of the same is not a remedy, stagnant urban areas need to open up to the possibility that real net growth is possible.
One tremendous problem right now is that there is very little benefit to doing it right. As I am fond of saying, no good deed goes unpunished. To illustrate the point I present two hotels in the process of development. Both plans were announced some time ago, years ago, and were stalled by the Great Recession. One of the plans, for a Hampton Inn, is to be located just off the interstate and replaces a former car dealership. Its design is 100% suburban. It will be all new construction with lagoon parking and will sprawl over an enormous parcel all the while turning its back to Springfield’s Main Street. The Best Western plan repurposes an early XX Century office building and for parking cobbles together smaller existing surface parking lots and a lot created by the removal of a small one story building where, strangely, there was already a curb cut. It’s located on State Street and will feature a main entrance near the corner of State and Willow streets.
I would prefer the second development be the more successful of course, but I have a hard time seeing that happening. Comparing the two it is obvious that the Hampton Inn will be easier for a visitor with a car to find and access. The Best Western is closer to regional bus and rail hubs and on numerous bus lines, but how many people today travel by bus and rail? The Best Western is walking distance to a handful of office towers, the Mass Mutual Center, Symphony Hall and all of the state and federal courthouses, but for anything and everything else in the city and the region including numerous hospitals, dozens more office parks and corporate headquarters, retail centers and the like, access would be quicker and less complicated via car.
If, as seems likely, these two hotels open for business at more or less the same time and there is no major change either in the downtown (i.e. MGM being granted a casino license for the city) or in the energy situation (i.e. gas prices forcing major changes in driving habits) doing it wrong will work much better than doing it right and, that being the case, why would anyone concern themselves with doing it right? I hate to think that it just might be the case that we might not be willing to do the right thing until we’re no longer able to do the right thing, but such perverse outcomes are sometimes the stuff of which tragic history is made.
The lesson here is that anticipating a future paradigm, even if one anticipates correctly, is only beneficial if you can last beyond the point when the paradigm shift occurs. And this, of course, is why the places where growth could actually benefit the economy in the long run can’t get the private sector to move ahead in any substantial way in the short run. Being prematurely anti-sprawl can be the road to financial ruin…a financial version of the expression “He died with the right of way”.