Still looking for innovative solutions to empty big box stores

As some South Side Chicago residents lament the closing of two Target stores, the Chicago Tribune calls for the city of Chicago to follow the lead of other communities and find productive uses:

In Waukegan, Cristo Rey St. Martin College Prep, a Catholic school that serves mostly middle-income and minority students, refurbished an old Kmart for a modest $10 million. Architects added windows and skylights, flooding the space with natural light while economically redeploying the building’s existing features.

In Cleveland’s Collinwood community, the city bought an empty Big Lots store and turned it into a recreation center with fitness classes and an indoor water park.

Milwaukee lured a light manufacturing company to an abandoned Lowe’s store. In another part of the city, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin opened a clinic inside a former Office Depot.

In Muncie, Ind., U-Haul opened an office and storage facility in a former Kmart.

Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., hosts a senior citizen resource center with adult day care in a former Walmart. You’d never know, looking at the creatively adapted space, that it once included a garden center and aisles of baby diapers and toys.

These are all good examples but it downplays the difficulty of the task at hand: everywhere from Manhattan to suburbs to small towns are dealing with empty retail and big box locations. Just a few of the issues at hand:

  1. Will the new use generate taxes in the same way as the retail use? Religious groups and community centers are not going to bring in similar monies even if they are helpful sites for the community.
  2. What will it cost to redevelop the property for other uses and who will pay that cost?
  3. Will neighbors always approve the new use? They moved next to what they thought was one thing and even the exit of a big box store may not automatically lead to a more desirable land use in their eyes.
  4. In the long run, how can a community overcome the loss of status and revenues from losing businesses? Again, community uses are good but many communities build their reputation on having businesses and certain revenues.

Perhaps one of the best answers to this issue is to not approve as many retail and big box uses in the first place or to require that the buildings be built or connected to surrounding neighborhoods in such ways that a new use would not be a major shift. The typical warehouse, strip mall, concrete box option surrounded by large parking lots is not easy to fix up.

The 1948 Chicago Railroad Fair helped lead to Disneyland

Disneyland and Disney World are notable to urbanists for their opening spaces. Main Street is meant to evoke an American small town like the one in Missouri in which Walt Disney lived as a child.

I recently read that Main Street had an additional inspiration: the 1948 Chicago Railroad Fair. From Wikipedia:

In addition to being the last great assembly of railroad equipment and technology by participating railroad companies, the 1948 Chicago Railroad Fair holds a lesser known honor and connection to Disneyland. In 1948 Walt Disney and animator Ward Kimball attended the fair. To their enjoyment they not only got to see all of the equipment, but they were also allowed to operate some of the steam locomotives that were at the Fair. Upon their return to Los Angeles, Disney used the Fair, the House of David Amusement Park, and Greenfield Village, as inspiration for a “Mickey Mouse Park” that eventually became Disneyland. Walt also went on to build his own backyard railroads, building the Carolwood Pacific Railroad. Kimball already had his own, named Grizzly Flats Railroad.

And this fair was quite a gathering of American railroad leaders and equipment:

The fair was rapidly planned during the winter and spring of 1948, and originally scheduled to run between July and August of that summer. Erected on 50 acres (200,000 m2) of Burnham Park in Chicago between 21st and 31st Streets, the fair opened after only six months of planning. A grand opening for the fair commenced on July 20 with a parade that featured such spectacles as a military marching band and a replica of a troop train, a contingent of cowboys and Native Americans, a replica of the Tom Thumb, the first American locomotive, and the spry, octogenarian widow of Casey Jones, who served as honorary Grand Master of the parade. One dollar was the price of admission, and, except food, all the attractions, displays, exhibits and shows were free. Besides the thirty-nine railroads who participated in the fair, there were more than twenty equipment manufacturers, including General Motors. The Santa Fe also sponsored an Indian Village where Native Americans sold handicrafts, staged dances, and explained the different types of lodging that were on display.

A highlight of the fair was the presence of the Freedom Train.The Freedom Train travelled the country from September 17, 1947, through Jan 22, 1949, and was at the Railroad Fair from July 5 – 9. It held many documents and artifacts from the National Archives. Available for public viewing were the original United States Constitution, Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. Security of the documents was the responsibility of the Marine Corps…

38 railroads and more than 20 railroad equipment manufacturers participated in the Chicago Railroad Fair exhibiting equipment and interpretive displays around the fair’s theme of 100 years of railroad history. The majority of the participating railroads maintained a direct rail connection to Chicago…

The highlight of the Chicago Railroad Fair was the “Wheels A-Rolling” pageant. This was a dramatic and musical presentation intended to showcase the development of transportation and the railroads across the country beginning with trails and waterways. The pageant included a recreation of the Golden Spike ceremony at Promontory, Utah, and various historic rolling stock and replicas of equipment in operation.

I wonder what Disneyland might begin with if Disney had been a child in the age of the automobile. Instead of Main Street, imagine a typical commercial stretch viewed at 35 mph with signs for fast food joints, strip malls, and gas stations. Would it induce the same sort of nostalgia for later generations? Or, as suburban critic James Howard Kunstler suggests, those suburban arterials are not worth places worth caring about.

Furthermore, this celebration of the railroad would be interesting to contrast with celebrations of the automobile. The largest auto show in the world, the Chicago Auto Show, starts this weekend. The displays are largely divorced from history or urban surroundings. While the automobile has been important for the development of the Chicago region (and all American metropolitan regions), it cannot claim the same influence in helping to kickstart the Chicago region in the mid-1800s. Yet, it is hard to imagine Chicago holding a massive celebration for railroads today, even as they continue to bring much freight to and through the Chicago region.

Showing a McMansion while saying, “I love all the brick. I love all the character.”

In a recent HGTV episode intro, the host is driving through a Chicago suburb. He says, “I love all the brick. I love all the character.” And this is the home we see as he says this:

HGTVMcMansionMidwestCharacter.jpg

This is a McMansion due to at least four features:

1. The two story entryway.

2. The multi-dimensional roofline.

3. The three car garage and large driveway.

4. The lighter brick and other style choices that date the home as roughly a 1990s build.

(For aesthetic purposes, the dangling power lines in the front do not help.)

This home may have plenty of brick but critics of McMansions might argue the brick is deployed poorly. This home may have character – but of the negative kind rather than the charming variety.

A call for the Green New Deal to address sprawl and where people live

Want to pass a Green New Deal to benefit the United States? One commentator suggests it must reckon with the legacy and persistence of sprawl:

The Green New Deal is ostensibly a jobs program, an environmental program, and a redistributive program. If it’s a jobs program, it must wrangle with spatial mismatch. If it’s an environmental program, it must tackle the fact that an all-electric fleet of cars is functionally, at this time, a pipe dream. And if it’s a redistributive program, it must grapple with how roads paved into suburban and exurban greenfield developments deepen, expand, and exacerbate segregation.

A Green New Deal must insist on a new, and better, land-use regime, countering decades of federal sprawl subsidy. The plan already recognizes the need to retrofit and upgrade buildings. Why not address their locations while we’re at it? Suggestions of specific policies that would enable a Green New Deal to address land use have already emerged: We could, simply, measure greenhouse gases from our transportation system or build more housing closer to jobs centers. Reallocating what we spend on building new roads to paying for public transit instead would go a long way toward limiting sprawl.

Where we live is no coincidence of preference. Federal policy has enforced inequities and disparities for both the environment and vulnerable people at a national scale. It’s never too late to address the most fundamental aspect of our carbon footprint: where we live. And building housing near jobs, transit, and other housing—rather than ultra-LEED-certified parking garages—is merely a political choice. No innovation required.

This makes sense: how much can the United States truly address environmental matters if it does not reckon for the actions of roughly the last century that encouraged decentralization?

Here is what I wonder: would it be harder to address sprawl or environmental issues? On one hand, climate change is contentious and partisan. On the other hand, going after sprawl would require taking on deeply ingrained American values. When Americans value single-family homes, driving, and all that the suburban life offers, shifting priorities and funds to denser housing, mass transit, and cities may prove difficult.

The environmental movement in the United States has roots in suburbia. Rachel Carson was inspired by her suburban settings to write Silent Spring. But, truly reforming land use as opposed to making suburbs greener is a tall task. Of course, important decisions made today could address the issue of subsidized sprawl. American suburbs are neither natural or have to last forever. It would likely take decades to see the consequences on the ground.

Of course Tidying Up with Marie Kondo starts in Lakewood, CA

In watching one of the popular new TV shows, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, I was not surprised to see the first episode take place in Lakewood, California. Here are several reasons this makes sense:

  1. Lakewood is a paradigmatic suburb. It does not quite receive the amount of attention as Levittown but it is known as an important post-World War II suburb of Los Angeles. Read more about the suburb’s unique history on the city’s website.
  2. The home depicted is relatively small compared to many of the suburban homes constructed today. This is part of the tidying issues the family faces: the American pattern is to accumulate more stuff over a lifetime (partly to express a certain status) and one solution for adjusting to this stuff is simply to purchase a larger home.
  3. The family is depicted as living an ideal family lifestyle: they have been married five years (if I remember correctly), have two small kids, and live in a suburban single-family home. This family/single-family home connection is strong in the suburban psyche.
  4. The emphasis of the episode is on the private life of the family inside the home. Even with the show focused on the belongings inside the home, there is very little connection to the outside world, whether neighbors, or the larger suburb, metropolitan region, or nation. All these privately-held goods and familial relationships look like they are in a small bubble that the participants prefer to stay in.

Given the suburban emphases on single-family homes and consumption, perhaps it makes all the sense in the world to start such a show in a well-known suburb.

The urban theory behind SimCity

In constructing the game SimCity, Will Wright worked with the ideas of James Forrester:

Looking to understand how real cities worked, Wright came across a 1969 book by Jay Forrester called Urban Dynamics. Forrester was an electrical engineer who had launched a second career as an expert on computer simulation; Urban Dynamics deployed his simulation methodology to offer a controversial theory of how cities grew and declined. Wright used Forrester’s theories to transform the cities he was designing in his level editor from static maps of buildings and roads into vibrant models of a growing metropolis. Eventually, Wright became convinced that his “guinea-pig city” was an entertaining, open-ended video game. Released in 1989, the game became wildly popular, selling millions of copies, winning dozens of awards, and spawning an entire franchise of successors and dozens of imitators. It was called SimCity

Largely forgotten now, Jay Forrester’s Urban Dynamics put forth the controversial claim that the overwhelming majority of American urban policy was not only misguided but that these policies aggravated the very problems that they were intended to solve. In place of Great Society-style welfare programs, Forrester argued that cities should take a less interventionist approach to the problems of urban poverty and blight, and instead encourage revitalization indirectly through incentives for businesses and for the professional class. Forrester’s message proved popular among conservative and libertarian writers, Nixon Administration officials, and other critics of the Great Society for its hands-off approach to urban policy. This outlook, supposedly backed up by computer models, remains highly influential among establishment pundits and policymakers today…

Forrester spent months tinkering with this model, tested and corrected it for errors, and ran a “hundred or more system experiments to explore the effects of various policies on the revival of a city that has aged into economic decline.” Six months after beginning the project, and over 2000 pages of teletype printouts later, Forrester declared that he had reduced the problems of the city to a series of 150 equations and 200 parameters…

Forrester thought that the basic problem of urban planning—and making social policy in general—was that “the human mind is not adapted to interpreting how social systems behave.” In a paper serialized in two early issues of Reason, the libertarian magazine founded in 1968, Forrester argued that for most of human history, people have only needed to understand basic cause-and-effect relationships, but that our social systems are governed by complex processes that unfold over long periods of time. He claimed that our “mental models,” the cognitive maps we have of the world, are ill-suited to help us navigate the web of  interrelationships that make up the structure of our society.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. How many people dream that cities could be reduced to equations and parameters? Cities are both fascinating and frustrating because they are so complex. And the quest to find overarching rules governing urban life continues – see the work of Geoffrey West as an example.
  2. Figuring out when more government intervention is helpful or not is a difficult task, particularly when it comes to complex cities. Housing is an area I have written about before: free markets do not bring about fair results and the federal government has promoted one kind of housing, single-family homes, over others for decades.
  3. This is a reminder that game users can learn about how the world works – they are not just mindless entertainment – but they also do so under the conditions or terms set up by the designer. Cities are indeed complex and SimCity presents them in one particular way. All games have a logic to them and this may or may not match reality. How much theory do we imbibe on a daily basis through different activities? At the least, we are forming our own individual theoretical explanations of how we think society operates.

Resist the social engineering of mass transit but ignore the social engineering of suburbia

Mass transit in the suburbs is hard to accomplish but one of the biggest advantages of establishing mass transit now is that it can help shape future suburbia. Yet, a number of commentators mass transit efforts are folly even as they ignore how the suburban decentralized landscape came about. Example #1:

That was my first up-close encounter with the Cult of Transit. There is nothing wrong with expanding bus service and building new rail lines—provided they actually enable people to get where they are going. However, urban planners’ fixation on transit stems more from social engineering than transportation engineering. The latter develops projects that enable people to get from Point A to Point B. The former builds projects designed to change the public’s behavior—prodding them into getting around in ways the planners believe is best…

I think of my attempts to take transit to go from my exurb to downtown Sacramento. It would involve driving to a station 20 minutes away, paying for parking, buying a ticket and waiting for a train. It would take longer and cost almost as much as just driving downtown directly and parking. That train might make sense in the urban core, but not in the outlying areas, yet officials love to lecture us about our supposedly unsustainable reliance on driving.

This highlights the real problem with transit. Planners, not consumers, drive it. Real private enterprises—as opposed to firms receiving taxpayer-funded subsidies to build government-directed projects—would never build a rail system based on an “if we build it, they will come” model. They would build systems that meet customer needs rather than fulfill wishful fantasies.

Example #2:

Some propose to redesign American cities to serve obsolete transit systems: forcing more jobs downtown, building high-density transit-oriented developments in transit corridors, and turning highway and street lanes into dedicated bus lanes. Yet huge changes in urban form are needed to get a small change in transit usage, and the benefits are trivial. Transit isn’t particularly green, using more energy and producing more greenhouse gases, per passenger mile, than the average car.

Seattle has done the most to reshape itself into an early twentieth-century city. Draconian land-use policies and tax subsidies increased the city’s population density by 25 percent since 2000 and increased the number of downtown jobs from 215,000 in 2010 to 281,000 in 2017. These policies came at a terrible price: housing is no longer affordable and traffic is practically gridlocked. The urban area gained 58,000 transit commuters since 2000, but it also gained 190,000 auto commuters.

It is time to stop thinking that transit is somehow morally superior to driving and that it deserves the $50 billion in subsidies that it receives each year. Ending the subsidies would lead to a variety of private transit alternatives where people will use them and allow cities to concentrate on relieving congestion and making roads safer and cleaner for everyone else.

The suburban landscape based on driving and single-family homes did not come about organically or naturally; it was the result of government support (presidential statements, highway construction, socialized mortgages) and American ideologies. And it developed in nearly a century and a half from railroad suburbs to streetcar suburbs to mass-produced suburbs accessible by car.

Thus, I find the arguments against mass transit spending a bit strange. The suburbs occurred at least in part through direct intervention (what could be called social engineering) and over a long period of time. If planners and others wanted to change suburbia for the future, the elements of time and intervention would also be necessary. Mass transit construction in suburbs today may be much less about current results and instead about setting up an infrastructure that enables more suburban density and mass transit possibilities in the future.

All of this does not necessarily mean that planners and others want to destroy everything about suburbs. Higher densities in suburbs do seem attractive to a number of communities and residents as it allows for more housing options, more street life, and using less land. Suburban mass transit will likely not replace driving but it could enable some households to go from two to one car or provide new options and possibilities.

Trying to predict future suburban patterns is always difficult. My own research suggests planners, officials, and residents in the postwar decades had a difficult time envisioning significant growth. But, if we are looking toward the suburbs of fifty or one hundred years from now, is it so unreasonable to think some suburban areas will be denser and certain mass transit decisions made today helped guide some of those patterns? Wouldn’t we want to try to act with the future in mind rather than simply saying Americans prefer driving and sprawl now so that is the way it will always be?