A recent meeting in Naperville about redevelopment plans for 5th Avenue involved interested parties with two different perspectives. These two views are extremely common in debates about development and redevelopment. The Daily Herald encapsulates the issue in two sentences toward the end of the article:
Resident Sandee Whited said she thinks Ryan Companies is “ignoring what we want” in terms of building height.
McDonald said the company is listening to residents’ wishes but balancing them with market demand.
When opposing redevelopment, the argument of neighbors often revolves around this idea: the new structure or land use is out of tune with the surrounding properties. People bought single-family homes because they liked the residential character (single-family homes, lots, quieter, safer, etc.). Multi-family housing or a larger structure disrupts this character. In this Naperville case, concerns about the larger structure include changes to traffic and light.
When promoting redevelopment, developers and local leaders will argue – not always explicitly – that growth is good. Here, it is phrased in terms of “market demand.” In other words, there are possible businesses and residents who would be willing to pay good money to be located in the structure. Naperville is a desirable place to locate: certain businesses could generate a lot of money with a location near the train station and downtown while residents would enjoy the high quality of life, the status of the community, and the access to the train station. The new development will generate profits for the developers and perhaps more tax revenues and an increased status for the city.
Balancing these two perspectives is not easy. At times, neighbors might be able to rally the whole community with the implied threat that a single development could change what is possible in the community and more single-family homes will be under threat. This claim is a little harder to make in Naperville given its downtown and size but the city does have relatively few tall structures near single-family homes. The developers and the city may be able to convince the community that this redevelopment project is a good asset for everyone, even if a few neighbors are inconvenienced.
Few of the scores of Chicago area suburbs receive national attention. Even more rarely is the spotlight turned on West Chicago, a more working-class, diverse, and railroad-based suburb roughly 30 miles west of the city. The local suburban headlines tell the story:
And even the DrudgeReport took note (middle column, sixth headline down):
This is not what any suburb wants. Tales of suburban violence go against everything suburbs supposedly stand for: good places to own a home and raise a family. Such a horrific headline might be easier to accept if it came from the big city but not a suburb.
Additionally, West Chicago has other issues in its past to overcome. Its distance from the city and an interest in attracting firms prompted city leaders in the late 1800s to change the name of the community from Turner to West Chicago. (This gets at the DrudgeReport headline above: West Chicago may be in Chicagoland but it would be a huge stretch to link the suburban violence with criticism of the city of Chicago and mayor Rahm Emanuel’s efforts regarding violence.) A long-time industrial firm ended up creating a Superfund site spread throughout the suburb and hundreds of properties needed remediation from radioactive elements in the late twentieth century (see my published piece “Not All Suburbs Are the Same.”) Tension between white residents and Mexican immigrants occasionally flared with discussions of English-only ordinances and changes to bilingual education options in the local schools.
Put this all together with a negative reputation in DuPage County and the surrounding area as a community that is poorer and less attractive that others and it may be hard to find good news in the media about West Chicago. This has not stopped numerous civic leaders and residents from doing good things in the community. Yet, it can be hard for a suburb to develop a positive wider reputation.
Naperville’s Riverwalk and downtown features dozens of works of art. However, it takes resources to keep that art nice and to keep adding new pieces:
In 2016, the city started to set aside about $50,000 a year for maintenance of public art from its food and beverage tax revenue, which is pooled into a fund named for the activities it supports — Special Events and Cultural Amenities.
Since its founding in 1996, Century Walk has installed works at 48 locations, some of which involve several pieces by large numbers of artists, and others that involve intricate or large-scale works by individual talents…
Others on the council agree, but some say there should be a stronger focus on planning for the future of Naperville’s outdoor art, setting aside money for maintenance or requiring future projects to come with some sort of endowment for their long-term care. Century Walk Chairman Brand Bobosky, for his part, wants the city’s maintenance fund increased and coupled with money for new art creation, to the tune of $200,000 a year…
In the past three years, Mondero has repaired the broken tiles on the bench damaged by skateboards, rebuilt a wall called “Man’s Search for Knowledge Through the Ages” that was damaged by a vehicle, repainted two murals, bolted the arm of a sculpted man to hold it in place and cleaned several plaques.
Not all suburbs would be willing to (1) initiate public art in the first place and then (2) invest city resources into it. Yet, Naperville clearly sees it as part of the package it offers to residents and visitors: come to the Riverwalk, enjoy the vibrant suburban downtown, and take in the public art that often commemorates the suburb’s past. The art is not exactly edgy; Naperville is not going after street art or modern art (see the example of the Bart Simpson image that popped up a few years ago). The art that Naperville does have is intended to help tell the community’s story and present interesting visual displays for visitors.
Whether the public art can come first and help create a vibrant suburban area is debatable. Plenty of suburban communities want mixed-use areas that bring in visitors and generate revenue and art is often viewed as part of that package. But, it is unlikely that public art alone could create such a setting. The suburb would already need a confluence of enough residents, resources to apply to such an area, and a good plan for development or redevelopment.
One of the unique features of the government of the United States is a federal system that distributes power between the federal government and more local bodies. Even if the federal government has grown dramatically in the last century, the suburbs offer residents a relatively small and responsive local government. Americans claim to prefer small town life and in such communities the distance between average resident and local leaders is reduced.
If the suburbs at their heart are about single-family homes and family life, a small local government can help protect the quality of life in the community. Local governments can exclude certain kinds of development. This then affects what kinds of residents can live in suburbs. See exclusionary zoning cases in DuPage County and Westchester County, two notoriously wealthy suburban counties, or more recent cases of religious groups facing opposition such as Muslims and Orthodox Jews in New Jersey. Homeowners can directly see and respond to how their tax dollars are spent. They may not like high property taxes (whether in the 1970s in southern California or more recently in northern Virginia) or decisions about TIF funds or but at least that money is spent in the community rather than shipped off to other centers of power. They may fight with each other about whether to raise local taxes for schools or fund regional transit initiatives or support affordable housing but at least they may know those they are arguing with and everyone does want their community to be attractive. Suburbanites are resistant to outsiders telling them what they should be doing, whether they are concerned about the federal government pushing denser housing (and perhaps even the UN) or state or court mandates about affordable housing (such as requirements passed in 2004 in Illinois or requirements in New Jersey due to the Mt. Laurel decisions).
While suburbanites may believe they have more access to suburban governments, these elected and appointed officials can have a significant impact on suburban development. The growth machine theory suggests local officials and business people push and pursue development because there is money to be made. Suburban growth is good because it can generate profits and it adds prestige. The growth has to end at some point (see cases like Naperville and Aurora) but officials, with some input from residents, can push suburbs in certain directions. Not all suburbs will make the same decisions about what to do with open land or with their downtowns but local leaders get to make these decisions that then influence residents decades later.
Local control then means that suburban communities can have distinct characters. While critics may suggest suburbia is an endless sprawling mass with very porous boundaries, local governments and development decisions alongside public involvement and civic projects can lead to long-standing and fiercely defended local understandings. The most typical image of an American suburb – bedroom community with postwar subdivisions filled with similar-looking homes – may not actually fit many suburbs in terms of appearance or perceived experience.
How exactly local decision-makers and suburban officials come into office can differ across locales. Voter turnout is low in many local elections so it may not take much effort to become a local official. On the other hand, local politics can sometimes turn very contentious because of particular significant issues or long-standing political factions. Americans tend to be more optimistic about their local conditions than about the country as a whole so suburban officials who do a decent job can retain their positions for a long time. Furthermore, suburbanites may be less interested in efficiencies across local governments, such as combining small police departments, compared to having their own local bodies.
Another aspect of this local control involves less democracy: the rise of homeowner’s associations. A good number of suburbanites are willing to turn over some decisions about their property and neighborhood to a board or management company that will ensure certain standards are upheld. Again, the distance between the average HOA homeowner and board is small; boards often need more people to volunteer to serve and neighborhood meetings allow homeowners to express concerns.
Of course, there are problems among suburban local government. They may not have the resources or expertise to deal with complicated issues (such as providing social services to address suburban poverty). There can be too many smaller units that have their own bureaucracies and abilities to tax residents (see Illinois as an example with numerous taxing bodies and debates about eliminating townships). Local officials can be corrupt (Cicero), incompetent (Harvey), or follow their own paths while remaining impervious to other opinions (Rosemont). Yet, many Americans might argue that even these problematic aspects of suburban governments are relatively easy to deal with compared to the behemoth in Washington.
Based on Nextdoor, one writer sums up what bothers Americans about their local surroundings:
Steve Wymer, Nextdoor’s vice president of policy, told me that the same topics arise again and again, modulated by region and neighborhood type. Service requests and recommendations constitute 30 percent of chatter, and discussions of real estate make up another 20 percent. About 10 percent of Nextdoor conversations relate to crime and safety, Wymer said. (Suspicious persons come up a lot, often amounting to sightings of people of color in predominantly white areas. Nextdoor has attempted to discourage posts that use appearance as a proxy for criminality by prompting users to add more detail and blocking some posts that mention race.) Public agencies such as police and emergency-management departments also post updates to their constituencies. Noise complaints are another popular subject, according to Wymer—fireworks seem to raise particular ire—as are classifieds, missing pets, and gardening tips.
Judging by the conversations on Nextdoor, it would seem that Americans are concerned first about the safety and security of their property, family, and pets, and then with their property’s, family’s, and pets’ upkeep and improvement. Though the platform breeds its share of conflict, it is notable—in contrast to other social networks—for the commonality it reveals, even in these times of unprecedented political division. No one, Democrat or Republican, wants a neighborhood strewed with dog poop.
I wonder how much this online behavior is driven by two fundamental factors underlying American neighborhoods:
- Residents want to be able to control their own property.
- They also want to control some of their immediate surroundings, often in the name of property values or the character of the neighborhood.
These values can often come into conflict when one resident’s actions with their own property clashes with the desires of another property owner. Property rights are very important in the United States but property values often rely on neighbors and the surrounding community.
In the long run, it would be interesting to know whether Nextdoor provides a better platform for resolving neighborhood conflicts compared to face-to-face conversations or mediated conversations through other actors (such as calling the police or contacting local government about a concern). For example, many suburbanites are averse to open conflict and moving the conversation online might diffuse some of the tension. At the same time, an online platform could reinforce issues if things are said there that wouldn’t be said face-to-face or conversations take significantly more time.
Nashville is growing and reactions are mixed:
The Nashville region population grew 45% from 2000 to 2017, reaching about 1.9 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Ms. Ervin represents both sides of the city’s extraordinary growth: a transplant who was attracted to a booming urban hub, and a resident increasingly concerned that unbridled development may threaten the Tennessee capital’s charm…
Nashville’s thriving health-care, financial and tourism sectors have drawn national attention. In April, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the city had an unemployment rate of 2.7%—lower than any other major metro area in the U.S. From 2010 to 2016, Tennessee’s large urban areas, led by Nashville, accounted for 57% of all employment growth in the state, according to the Brookings Institution…
With urbanization comes pressure on local government to improve housing affordability, workforce education and public transit, Mr. Briley said…
The government has been working to manage growth, such as preserving green space and establishing a special fund to build low-income housing in the city, which spent $10 million last year, Mr. Briley said.
Generally, population growth is good in the United States. It is seen as a positive sign for business and the status of the city. It means that the city will be taken more seriously by outsiders, whether that includes businesses considering moving, sports teams wondering where to locate, or where government money should be spent. Nashville is now the 24th largest city in the United States and moving up that list – with established cities like Detroit and Boston in sight – means something.
At the same time, significant growth does inevitable change cities and communities. At the least, it pits longer-term residents versus newer residents who can be perceived as jumping on the bandwagon. Growth can transform a lot of neighborhoods and open space as demand for housing and other land uses increases. It can lead to questions about how to bridge the gap between being a smaller big city and a big city. Some will perceive that they are being left behind as the city now tries to chase bigger dreams.
Two final thoughts:
- Even with concerns expressed by some, very few leaders will ever try to limit growth. Whatever problems arise with changes due to growth will be seen as secondary to the goal of growing in population, business, popularity, and capital.
- It is too bad this story does not include more about the suburbs and the whole region. The city of Nashville is growing but what about the suburbs? As noted above, a recent vote over mass transit in the region pitted city and suburban voters against each other.
Naperville has “high hopes” for the Naperville Crossings commercial and entertainment development on the southwest side of the large suburb. These plans do not include a “high-end” auto repair shop:
But nearby homeowners associations weren’t in favor of it, and city council members didn’t go for it, either. By a 6-3 tally, they voted down the shop’s request for a conditional use, saying the business isn’t what they envisioned for the area and they’re willing to wait for something that is…
Jonathan Wakefield, development director for Houston-based Christian Brothers, said the shop would play well with its neighbors because people need somewhere to go or something to do while waiting on car repairs. The shop would have run shuttles to work, school or Metra stations, but he predicted some customers would stay and shop or grab a bite to eat.
Council member Kevin Coyne still was hesitant, saying a car repair business doesn’t blend well next to a day care, a fire station and a frozen custard shop.
“What of any cachet will want to move in next door to an awkward mix of business uses,” Coyne said.
Mike Reilly, president of the nearby White Eagle homeowners association, predicted “the start of a downward trend for Naperville Crossings” if council members were to abandon the original goal and allow the repair shop.
This is a common issue in many suburbs: a retail development has long-standing vacancies. See earlier posts involving grocery stores (here and here) and shopping malls (here and here). But, how many of these suburbs turn down possible occupants in order to wait for better ones? I would guess Naperville is in a minority of suburbs that can afford to do this.
Additionally, I would be interested to dig more into what is so bad about a higher-end car repair place. More noise? Most of the activity would take place during business hours. A lower-class clientele? Maybe; everyone needs a car in Naperville and there are plenty of wealthy residents nearby who need their cars serviced? The lower status activity of car repair? Perhaps this is similar to homeowner’s associations restricting car repairs in driveways and limiting the parking of RVs and work trucks and vans. This seems like an issue of social class and Naperville as a wealthier suburb with a certain reputation will wait for a more appealing use.