What you could do with the land after purchasing a CT town

A recent email exchange about purchasing Johnsonville, Connecticut for $1.95 million prompted some thinking about what the new owner could do with their town. Here are some ideas:

-Create a wedding paradise complete with chapel/outside ceremony location, reception buildings, and accommodations for family and guests. The old-timey feel would appeal to many.

-Host a living history museum. This works better in some communities than others but Johnsonville seems suited for it with its older buildings and founding in 1802.

-This could be an ongoing set for films and TV shows. The buildings are already present, there are no residents to work around, and the property could be used for long periods of time.

-Be home to a haunted town. Haunted mansions and buildings are really popular around Halloween but imagine creating a year-round facility on 62 acres with older buildings.

-This could be an interesting paint ball course.

-Become a site for obstacle course type races. Imagine running a few miles while climbing through old buildings, swimming through the pond, hopping fences, and more.

-An artist’s colony or gallery or rotating exhibit space could be interesting. This could be a destination for those looking to create, visit, and/or purchase art.

-Have a retreat center with meeting places inside and outside and accommodations.

-Become a compound for a religious group.

I’m sure there are other possible uses for this property, including demolishing everything and building homes. When you are only a few hours away from both New York City and Boston, the possibilities could be endless (granted that local officials are willing to approve more unique options).

Equating problematic McMansions with problematic American suburbs

Amidst other problems with McMansions, one writer connects McMansions to failed suburban hopes for community:

No dream in America was ever been born innocent. Suburbia brought with it all the patriarchal problems one would expect in a glorification of the nuclear family—gestures broadly in the direction of Mad Men. It proved to be a kind of social hell for women. And like everything in American history, racism and class also played huge roles in its conception…

The nearly 200 year old suburban dream was uniquely American in its focus on the utopic vision of private homeownership. We didn’t want a great city, we didn’t want a close-knit township. We wanted tract housing and privacy. Unsurprisingly, communities built to honor these dreams ended up being awful, lonely places to grow up. Crushing ennui aside, kids fell prey to a brutal social Darwinism at home. Currie characterizes it as follows:

The rejection of the idea of mutual responsibility, a righteous distaste for offering help, the acceptance or encouragement of a view of life in which a competitive scramble for individual preeminence and comfort is central, the insistence that even the most vulnerable must learn to handle life’s difficulties by themselves and that if they cannot it is no one’s fault but their own—these were not the idiosyncratic views of a few parents but pervasive themes in American society and culture during the years in which the teens were growing up.

And to put it all together:

Of course, not every suburban community is a benighted hellscape full of cookie cutter McMansion monstrosities where kids OD in the living room beneath 60 ft. vaulted ceilings that take half an oil field to heat. But enough of it is. And it’s hard to imagine a more opulent, well-resourced version of suburbia than the run we had in the Bush Jr. era. When looking at all this, we need to ask ourselves, will the kids be alright? Is this the best choice for the next generation? Will we have to endure nu-metal again?

Several quick thoughts:

  1. I find this last paragraph confusing: what does it mean that “enough of [suburbia] is” McMansions mean? Is there a critical line to cross where there are too many McMansions to separate suburbs as a whole from McMansions? Or, is just having any McMansions at all a problem?
  2. I see McMansions more as a major symptom of the problems of American suburban life rather than large problems in their own right. In other words, if all McMansions could be eliminated, this doesn’t mean that the difficulties of a suburban society go away. Indeed, the critiques leveled here against suburbia existed for decades before McMansions entered the scene in the 1980s and 1990s.
  3. There are hints here of the idea that certain kinds of housing and urban planning leads to certain kinds of community: suburbia filled with large, single-family homes limits community and makes life difficult for teenagers. This may be an easier argument to make when comparing the United States to other countries but is trickier across the gradations of density and population size. Do teenagers in rural areas or cities necessarily do better? Did postwar suburbs full of smaller cookie-cutter homes placed closely together (a formation also roundly criticized) have more community because of the homes or different societal conventions (and the housing and societal norms could definitely influence each other in a feedback loop)?

On the whole, I find a good number of concerns about McMansions are really about suburbia as a whole with McMansions serving as an easy target.

Suburbs to respond to companies returning to cities

Another new issue facing suburbs – in addition to homelessness – is how to respond when companies move their headquarters back to cities:

In Chicago, McDonald’s will join a slew of other companies — among them food giant Kraft Heinz, farming supplier ADM and telecommunications firm Motorola Solutions — all looking to appeal to and be near young professionals versed in the world of e-commerce, software analytics, digital engineering, marketing and finance…

Aetna recently announced that it will relocate from Hartford, Conn., to Manhattan; General Electric is leaving Connecticut to build a global headquarters in Boston; and Marriott International is moving from an emptying Maryland office park into the center of Bethesda, Md…

The migration to urban centers threatens the prosperity outlying suburbs have long enjoyed, bringing a dose of pain felt by rural communities and exacerbating stark gaps in earnings and wealth that Donald Trump capitalized on in winning the presidency…

Long term, the corporate moves threaten an orbit of smaller enterprises that fed on their proximity to the big companies, from restaurants and janitorial operations to subcontractors who located nearby.

It is difficult for any community – whether big city or suburb – to adjust to the move of a large firm out of the community. A number of things are lost: prestige, jobs, philanthropic contributions, and tax revenue. Arguably, suburbs lose more compared to big cities that have broader and more diverse economies: the headquarters in the suburb might be a sizable community anchor.

This may be similar to when suburbs with once-thriving shopping malls try to figure out what to do with that space. It can be difficult to fill the property all at once so suburbs might have to take their time and move one small step at a time.

I’ve argued before that this whole city-suburb competition for headquarters could harm both in the long run as it takes the focus away from a metropolitan effort to encourage business growth. On the whole, it matters less if a company moves from the Chicago suburbs to downtown than if the company decides to leave the entire region for another location. If more businesses move back to major cities, could suburbs find some way to work together to prevent moves? Or, or is the sometimes cutthroat competition between suburbs impossible to stop?

The most frequent homeowner regret about their home is not purchasing a bigger one

A good number of Americans regret features of the homes they purchase:

More than half of all buyers have regrets about their purchase of a home, Trulia reports, and the No. 1 mistake buyers feel like they made is choosing the wrong size. Forty-two percent of those polled by the real estate site say that they picked a place to live that was either too large (9 percent) or too small (33 percent).

Almost the exact same number of renters, 41 percent, “wish they had bought instead.”

Twenty-six percent of buyers also wish they had done either less or more remodeling.

What might explain these regrets?

Buying a house is often the biggest purchase a person will ever make, so it’s natural that many experience some buyer’s remorse…

Home size has been a common gripe over the years, especially as housing gets more expensive and people have to settle for smaller spaces, said David Weidner, managing editor for Trulia’s housing economics research team.

Or are Americans so embedded within consumerism that they are always wishing for more? At the same time, expressing regrets about a major purchase doesn’t necessarily mean that people would have done it differently. If I like my home but wish the yard had more space, am I dissatisfied with owning my home? Not necessarily.

It is too bad we don’t get more information about how much bigger homeowners wish their home would be. Perhaps the average homeowner just wants another room to two to handle all their stuff as opposed to all Americans wishing to live in giant McMansions.

 

Addressing homelessness in wealthy Orange County

Suburbs in Orange County, California are working to address homelessness:

The vanishing benches were Anaheim’s response to complaints about the homeless population around Disneyland. Public work crews removed 20 benches from bus shelters after callers alerted City Hall to reports of vagrants drinking, defecating or smoking pot in the neighborhood near the amusement park’s entrance, officials said…

At the county’s civic center in Santa Ana, homeless encampments — complete with tents and furniture and flooring made from cardboard boxes — block walkways and unnerve some visitors. Along the Santa Ana River near Angel Stadium, whole communities marked by blue tarp have sprung up. In Laguna Beach, a shelter this summer is testing an outreach program in which volunteers walk the streets offering support and housing assistance to homeless people.

Cities across California — notably Los Angeles and San Francisco — are dealing with swelling ranks of the homeless. But officials in Orange County said most suburban communities simply don’t have the resources and experience to keep up.

Susan Price, Orange County’s director of care coordination, said officials are trying to build a coordinated approach involving all of the more than 30 disparate cities that takes into account the different causes of homelessness, including economic woes, a lack of healthcare and recent reforms in the criminal justice system.

With a location like this, the headline just writes itself: “While homelessness surges in Disneyland’s shadow…” Juxtaposition! Yet, this shouldn’t be a surprise in this suburban era. Fewer suburban communities and residents are far removed from what they may have once considered to be “urban problems.” The changes across suburbs in recent decades – more diverse populations, continued job opportunities though there is an increase in the service sector, higher housing prices (particularly in places like California) – have pushed many suburbs to consider new issues.

If Orange County does indeed enact a regional approach to homelessness, it could be a worthwhile study to compare the outcomes with those in the city of Los Angeles. Can wealthier suburban communities successfully address homelessness compared to cities who have addressed the issue for longer periods of time? (Success would not be allowed to be defined as moving the homeless elsewhere.)

Flooding as a major suburban problem

Suburbs are often derided for their sprawling development that chew up acres of land and significantly alters more rural settings. Within that sprawl, one problem that consistently shows up but receives less attention than it should is flooding. For example, the significant rain received in parts of the Chicago region this past Wednesday (July 12) has impacted a number of suburbs:

While some suburban communities Saturday saw water levels begin to recede in the wake of Wednesday’s downpour, others still are bracing for the worst of the fallout from flood-ravaged rivers experts expect will crest later today into next week.

In Algonquin, the Fox River reached 11.79 feet by noon Saturday, with the National Weather Service predicting it will crest nearly a foot higher, at 12.9 feet, sometime Tuesday.

As of noon Saturday, The National Weather Service reported the Des Plaines River near Gurnee had reached a record-setting 11.96 feet and was expected to crest at about 12 feet sometime in the next 24 hours. In Lincolnshire, the level had dropped to 15.5 feet, but official predictions indicate the river may rise again to crest at 16.3 feet sometime Sunday.

While Wednesday’s rain was unusual (and we could argue about how frequently such big storms do and should occur), the results highlight a common issue across suburban landscapes: what happens to all that water? Suburbs don’t just change rural or farm land into developments; they change how water flows and is absorbed into the soil.

A variety of techniques are available to deal with the water. Common in this area are retention ponds, sunken areas within developments that are often dry but serve as places where water can pool when excessive rainfall occurs. In the Chicago area, the need to deal with flooding led to one of the largest civil engineering projects in the world: Deep Tunnel. Floodplains are fairly visible during heavy rains as homes and other structures near large bodies of water, particularly rivers, are affected. Less easy to see are  formerly swampy or marshy land which have been filled in, the channeling of creeks and rivers (or even covering them up completely), and covering the ground with less permeable surfaces such as roads and driveways (this can be combated by using different kinds of surfaces).

Instead of viewing flooding within major metropolitan regions as the unfortunate result of large storms, we should see it as a regular issue within suburban settings. And if we do so, that might prompt better plans to avoid the flooding that comes when so much land is altered.

Could the success of Columbia, Maryland be replicated elsewhere?

Columbia, Maryland is often held up as an unusually successful suburb:

But as Columbia marks the 50th anniversary since the first residents moved in, it has become clear that Rouse got some important things right. As progressive urban planners have turned their attention to the suburbs, they’ve striven to achieve a lot of the same things Columbia already has. The unincorporated town of 100,000 is prosperous and more varied racially and economically than many revitalized urban neighborhoods in cities like New York, Washington and San Francisco, which have become islands of extreme wealth. It turns out that stable, diverse, flourishing communities can exist without short city blocks, warehouses-turned-lofts and beer gardens — and Columbia is the proof…

The “Columbia concept” was innovative in a number of other ways. Instead of having churches or temples, religious denominations shared interfaith centers. (Rouse thought each denomination getting its own plot was a waste of land.) There was even a community health plan that was an early version of an HMO. To maintain open spaces and public facilities, Rouse established the Columbia Association, a nonprofit whose board is elected by residents. The association acts as a quasi-government for the unincorporated town, with hundreds of employees paid through resident dues.

The town was organized but diffuse. Six loosely formed villages, each with a small shopping center and high school, were arranged around the Town Center, whose nucleus was the mall. The village centers catered to residents’ everyday needs, with grocery stores, barber shops, dry cleaners and recreation facilities. Tall signs were forbidden, and power lines were buried to preserve the land’s bucolic appearance. Apartments and townhouses, which were uncommon in suburbs at the time, drew singles, young couples and people with lower incomes than their neighbors in the split-levels and ramblers, a conscious attempt to foster what Rouse and his team called “social mix.” And Columbia was not simply a bedroom community: Rouse Co. executives wooed employers such as General Electric to open offices there.

Not everything worked out perfectly: At one point, Rouse thought he could get corporate executives to move to Columbia alongside their workers, but they largely didn’t. And some of the experiments, such as a minibus system, pilot day-care centers and a women’s center, didn’t pan out. Rouse also fell short of his goal of 10 percent subsidized housing. Still, by 2011, Columbia, flaws and all, had managed to surge past another target of his: a population of 100,000.

Aside from the things cited above, two things stand out to me from this article:

  1. Few developers or builders get an opportunity to plan an entire community. This requires a lot of effort: acquiring land, obtaining permission from local governments, and then seeing a long process through. Instead, much of suburbia is constructed in patches with a developer building a subdivision here while another builds an office park there.
  2. Much of the story of Columbia rests on the shoulders of the developer: James Rouse. Here, he is credited with forward-thinking ideas. He anticipated what might help suburban communities thrive rather than just focusing on profits. (However, I’m guessing he still made a good deal of money.) As noted above, not all of his ideas worked out but many of the key features were his.

On the whole, would it be worthwhile to take these two lessons and apply them to future suburbs? What might happen if developers were given (1) thousands of acres to work with in order to create a full community and (2) the developer had the ability to craft and put into practice a particular vision?

I would venture that some of these master-planned communities would be successful while others might not. Indeed, some of the success might be out of control of the developer and local residents. For example, if the template for Columbia was transported to the Houston region in the 1960s, would it be so successful? Or, if it was plopped into the Bay Area today? Not necessarily given changing regional forces, different demographics, and varied reactions from local officials.

It is interesting to think about how the public narratives regarding urban planning in the last century or so often involve powerful people: Robert Moses, Jane Jacobs, the Levitt family, James Rouse. These narratives are either triumphs or disasters depending on how much influence the person wielded (and how they used it) and how their projects operate decades later. Would a structural view of these individuals as well as urban planning as a whole help us better understand how to contribute to thriving communities?