Check out Johnny Sanphillippo’s most recent post at Granola Shotgun. His description of Mont Saint-Michel on the Prairie is mind blowing, thought provoking, and scary. I have to admit that I am jealous beyond belief of a place like Colorado which has such self confidence that it can build an entire city from nothing in the belief that soon tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people will flock to it. Of course, as certain as they are that this project will succeed and be succeeded by even more of the same ad infinitum, I am just as certain that it will molder and die, even if it is later rather than sooner.
Responding to this with respect to Springfield’s own “megaproject” is scary because I know that people (like me) can react to probatory evidence which contradicts previously held beliefs in ways which consist of a euphoria in rejecting that evidence. In other words, for me seeing the “evidence” that such horizontal development continues in the dry West despite the decades old cry of James Howard Kunstler that such things are, present tense, finished, perhaps I get just such a rush in doubling down in my belief in the traditional urban cores of the East!
But I don’t think so.
People with no dog in the fight when it comes to urban design, suburban sprawl, demographic shifts, and the future of the Rust Belt talk about the 2000’s becoming the century of water. This map of rainfall shows how blessed we are here in this particular place:
Very few locations can beat interior New England when it comes to precipitation. Sure we have fewer rainy days, but we get more rain than Seattle. Aurora, and nearly all of Colorado, is a desert. The trend is for an expanding “Southwest” to become hotter and dryer.
I’ll go one better though. Not only is the Northeast nearly exclusively endowed with a combination of abundant rainfall and mountainous topography, the best recipe for this country’s #1 renewable power: hydroelectric; but Springfield seems to have a uniquely resilient water system. During last year’s severe drought cities from Hartford to Worcester, and from Northampton to Westfield put in place restrictions on usage, watering bans, even water quality alerts. Meanwhile Cobble Mountain was never even forced to access its backup system, forget its back up system’s back up system, or the back up system to the back up system’s back up system…which is a thing that exists. For real. Nope. One of the most severe droughts in history (which has now been quite drowned out) and we were never even politely asked to maybe think about using a little less water.
The hydropower thing is curious. I highly recommend the most recent Kunstlercast. Jim’s guest is an entrepreneurial vermonter with an interest in rail. As an aside, this man needs to meet Eric Lesser, our local state Senator, and they need to discuss their ideas about the future of rail travel in New England. The key for little Vermont and insignificant Springfield is to get Montreal and Boston to become serious about their rail connections, and the crumbs from their banquet will become our feast. But I digress.
In the conversation Jim and David Blittersdorf fret about the obstacles being placed in front of small scale hydropower in both New York State and Vermont. It was fortuitous that just this week an article appeared reminding me that Massachusetts is going very intentionally in the exact opposite direction. Millions are being spent to maximize the Bay State’s existing small scale hydropower plants and opportunities for environmentally friendly run-of-the-river technologies are being explored.
But now, back to the apparent similarity between the enormous hotel and resort at the center of this new development in Colorado and Springfield’s roll of the dice with MGM. Beyond an initial resemblance, they could not be more different. The one is an ex nihilo creation of a full blown modern car dependent city, the other is filling a hole created by a natural disaster in a place which has survived and expanded for almost 400 years. One requires, and will depend wholly upon, the most modern technology and the most abundant energy, the other exists in a core whose infrastructure was laid out in the 19th century.
MGM’s IS an incremental development. Its hotel has fewer rooms than already existing hotels in the downtown. Its residential component promises to have fewer units than a handful of already existing complexes. The retail space is much less than that of Tower Square. The office space footprint is in a way negative as many offices which were located within the footprint were there because of the nearby courthouses and government offices and were pushed out to nearby buildings in order to make room for MGM’s back of the house activities. The restaurant and bar facilities, and of course the casino, will be game changers in those areas initially, but the increase in total commercial space is not.
Baystate West was downtown’s largest development prior to MGM. It included a comparably sized hotel, an enormous office tower, and a shopping mall many, many times the square footage of the retail space in the MGM resort. The primary difference there was that Baystate West was designed with a nearly 100% inward facing “three courtyard” model which sought to imitate the feel of a suburban mall; it completely sucked the life out of the neighboring streets. MGM’s design looks less like a box and more like a radiator. The mall at Baystate West, now Tower Square, mostly died decades ago. Some convenience retail (CVS and Dunkin’ Donuts) survives along with a small food court and Hot Table. Most of the remaining space is now Cambridge College and the UMass downtown campus.
By Springfield standards Baystate West was huge. It didn’t single handedly revitalize downtown…it probably did a little more harm than good in fact, but it hasn’t been an albatross around the city’s neck either. Mass Mutual has mostly successfully kept the street edge alive by removing blank walls and replacing them with glass over the last 30 years.
The most significant difference between the “build to completion” model discussed in the Granola Shotgun post and MGM is perhaps below ground. MGM sits at the very center of infrastructure in the region; from water to waste treatment and from communications to electricity the corner of State Street and Main Street in Springfield has been the core which utilities have been designed to service for as long as there have been utilities here. If anything, the investment by MGM has allowed the city to upgrade, on MGM’s dime, aging pipes et al which were in need of replacement anyway.
Regarding automobile traffic, even if the optimistic prognostications for visitors pan out, the interstate would see a 10% increase in traffic; no new roads are being proposed, no new traffic lanes, not even any new exit ramps or entrance ramps. Nearby streets are being beautified, but none save perhaps the removal of a median on the Memorial Bridge involves increasing capacity. On the other hand bike lanes and widened and beautified sidewalks are part of the infrastructure improvement plan the city and MGM have agreed upon as is the upgrading and renovation of 3 public parks: Riverfront Park, Pynchon Plaza, and Da’Vinci Park.
As I see it, it’s MGM which is taking the real flyer here in building a “resort” in the middle of downtown Springfield, not the city. As I’ve stated many times before, I get that casinos are vacuum cleaners for community cash, like every other corporate giant, but it IS true that over a billion dollars a year was already being spent by Massachusetts gamblers in Connecticut casinos; that was money which was returning nothing to the Baystate for decades. If casinos aren’t yet at the saturation point I agree that they soon will be. That will be MGM’s problem, but the city has enough going for it that it doesn’t need to be our problem. The city needs to use what could be a 5-10 year period of cash infusion from this project to remake its image, largely by just doing a better job of promoting what we already have, so that it can continue to pay for the services and infrastructure maintenance its citizens need.
Honestly though, I think it’s possible that marginal changes in energy costs and climate could shift the balance back in favor of walkable urbanity in places other than just a few elite coastal cities and a boutique college town here or there. This isn’t a bad place, and it doesn’t need 150,000 people from who-knows-where to move here for it to be successful, if just a solid percentage of the young people who grow up or attend college here would see it, it would be enough to make an enormous difference. If that does happen, MGM may find itself lucky to have gotten in on the ground floor in Springfield. If that doesn’t happen I don’t see MGM’s development as doing anything more than putting an exclamation point on our decline as it closes up shop however many years hence.
As for Mont Saint-Michel on the Prairie, I may have no choice, but I have no desire to live in a world where that makes sense!
As an aside, it strikes me that the car makes real estate development the search for land with as little value as possible, as far away from anything as possible, and therefore as difficult as possible in terms of logistics and infrastructure. Take the aforementioned development in Aurora: people have been populating Greater Denver for 150 years…and yet NO ONE ever wanted anything to do with this land…ergo billions in development. Just out my window there are still acres of empty lots; underground utilities of all sorts covering the entire area and immediate access to north-south and east-west interstate and rail, a formerly navigable river, and countless more amenities. No takers. Is it too valuable to be worth anything?