Neighborhood change via highway construction and the resulting change in local character

Neighborhood or community change happens over time. Yet, as this look back at a Black Dallas neighborhood that was drastically altered by the construction of a highway in the late 1960s suggests, it was not just that the physical aspects of the neighborhood that changes: the intangible yet experienced character of a community matters.

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That is why these three forgotten old News stories about Deep Ellum are so important. Almost unintentionally, they document what was really lost when I-345 was built. Sure, the neighborhood lost shops, hotels, and historic buildings. But the most significant loss was something more intangible. Call it memory, or character, or spirit. Call it a continuity of shared experience, or sense of identity shaped by the ebbs and flows of prosperity and decline.

Whatever you call it, that intangible quality is the real ingredient that makes cities and neighborhoods great. You can’t plan it or build it. You can’t fund it through philanthropy or market it in a tourism brochure. It isn’t “walkability” or “urbanism.” It takes generations to take shape. If you’re lucky, you capture it by carefully preserving all the beautifully ugly conditions that feed it life.

But if you lose it, it’s gone forever.

This helps explain the anger and protests in the last sixty years or so about highways bulldozing their way through urban neighborhoods. The particular form of highways – wide, noisy, made to help people speed through the community rather than visit or stop – and consequences – often bisecting lively places, erecting a barrier, destroying important structures, and furthering connections for wealthier and suburban residents at the expense of others – could be very detrimental.

More broadly, this hints at the delicate nature of neighborhood or community character. Change will happen but it matters how quickly the change happens, what form it takes, and who drives the process. Highways do not do well in these three metrics: they tend to go from bulldozing to construction to use within a few years, it is difficult to rebuild street life around it, and it is pushed on a community by others. Could highways support neighborhood character in any form? Perhaps not. But, it is a question asked not just of highways: the issue of character comes up with structures and development of a different form including denser housing among single-family homes, a major height differential such as a 20 story tall building in a community with a current max of five story buildings, or a new kind of land use. It could be easy to write off the concerns of local residents and leaders as NIMBY concerns but they may have a point in that new construction could change the character.

And, as noted above, the character of a place is vitally important. The people who live and work there have a particular understanding of what it is. When it is threatened by something as characterless as a highway, this can be particularly painful.

Trying to add round-the-clock, year-round activity at a suburban football stadium

If the Chicago Bears are to move to the suburbs, the change would not just include a stadium: the land all around would be valuable and needed to generate the kind of revenues the team and community would hope for:

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SoFi Stadium was built on the former site of Hollywood Park racetrack, presenting a solid comparison to Arlington Park. According to Noll, the reason SoFi Stadium is in position to be financially successful is the mixed-use development also being built on the property.

Noll believes a stand-alone stadium is no longer a realistic option for NFL franchises because a $5 billion stadium can’t be financed by eight football games a year and the random big-name concert. Year-round revenue must be part of the package…

Glendale city officials, for example, added residential neighborhoods to the area so the entertainment establishments would be frequented at night and on weekends when no game is in town. They added office space so workers would patronize the restaurants in the daytime and not take up parking at night.

“If you’re not able to capture benefit in a meaningful way outside of the football games, it’ll be an expensive proposition,” Phelps said. “We’re seeing tremendous growth in and around the stadium, kind of creating this sports and entertainment hub. I think that’s the future where these kinds of venues are going.”

Creating this sort of suburban entertainment center is a dream of many larger suburbs. Not only would this boost the status of the community, it would add jobs and tax revenues. Metropolitan areas only have so many stadiums and major revenue generators and this could be viewed as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity (or gamble).

But, this would also be a major change. The article noted that this site in Arlington Heights is surrounded by residences; would a mixed-use area of denser housing, restaurants, and entertainment venues be welcomed? Can Arlington Heights go full[speed into such a project?

As the article notes, it could turn out poorly. There is a lot of money at play. Getting any taxpayer dollars involved could be a risk. It all could take time to develop fully into a true center for suburban football as opposed to a football stadium stuck in the middle of single-family homes near highways.

Given all the history of the Bears in the city, I would be more than 50% confident that they stay in Chicago. The allure of a new, large stadium that could serve other uses much of the years is incredibly appealing. There is money to be made in the suburbs. But, it would certainly be a change for all involved, including Chicago leaders who would have much to answer for if the Bears become the Chicagoland Bears.

Considering Jane Jacobs’ advice for parks when planning a major suburban park

Jane Jacobs is famous for her observations regarding sidewalks in the opening chapters of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Right after this is a chapter on parks. In summary, she suggests are not automatically good as they can easily become problem areas if there is not regular foot traffic in and through the park.

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I thought of this when seeing a plan of how the former Motorola Campus in Schaumburg might be turned into “a Millennium Park for suburbs”:

Schaumburg trustees Tuesday will consider approving a $1.1 million bid for construction of the first phase of a 12-acre, urban-style park ultimately envisioned as a sort of Millennium Park for the suburbs.

Planned for the former Motorola Solutions campus, the park when completed could house such amenities as a large outdoor performance venue, a sculpture garden, a dog park and a winter ice rink.

Phase one, however, will focus on the basic outline of the park and providing passive recreation opportunities to serve residents of the area, before the next set of upgrades are budgeted and built.

A suburban park, no matter how beautiful it is or how many amenities it has, could easily fall prey to the issues that Jane Jacobs describes. Do people live around the park? Will there be people regularly walking through the park? Will it have the same kind of lively pedestrian activity and interaction that she recommends for sidewalks?

A park built on a former office park campus might not have any of these. Located in a sprawling suburb, would the majority of users have to drive here? Would people be there just for the park and its particular amenities or are there nearby activities that would keep them in the area such as shops or restaurants? Are there enough residents within walking distance who can informally help keep an eye on the park and those who use it?

This could all be in the eventual plans. In the Chicago suburbs it is currently popular to suggest mixed-use developments to replace office parks, shopping malls, and other large properties. But, it takes time for such developments to happen and for community to arise. Parks do not automatically work like they do in Simcity where placing a park next to commercial or residential property boosts property values. Just because there is a pristine park in the plans does not mean that the park becomes the kind of asset Jacobs suggests they can be in the right conditions.

Where will the new work from home people in suburbs and other places want to settle and spend their money?

Now that we have more clarity on where remote workers have moved, another question arises: what do they want to do in their new communities?

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“People who are working from home still want to go out, either during the day or after work, and they still want to spend their money on interesting things and interesting places,” says Bill Fulton, who directs Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research. “If you move from San Francisco, you’re not going to want to spend all your money at Applebee’s, right?”

Tracy Hadden Loh, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies real estate development, puts it another way: “I think annoying people with laptops are going to be everywhere. They’re coming for your favorite spot.”

The changes have elected officials, city planners, and developers mulling how to plan for this still-hazy future—and asking plenty of questions. Who will live here? Who will work here? Who will drive or take transit here, and when? Most essentially: What kinds of housing should we be building and for what sorts of people?…

City planners and economic development officials recognize that there’s an opening here. But most say that the work so far has been the equivalent of building the plane while it’s in the air. Work has been quick, a little harried, and focused on helping businesses just make it to the next day. Longer-term economic development—planning for places that might host new stores, restaurants, and housing—is more time consuming. It also demands more information on post-pandemic life.

Another way to think about it: how much risk are these communities with new residents willing to take? The pandemic brought changes but it is less clear how long-lasting these changes will be. Will people move back to cities or are there in these new places to stay? Is work from home going to continue at higher rates or not? Is this part of longer trends – retrofitting, “surban” development, etc. – or a blip? Certain development decisions could require multiple sources of capital: financial commitments, political moves, and significant changes to the character of particular communities.

Unfortunately, there may be no guarantees on these choices. Some suburbs and cities could do well, others may not. There may not even be fairly consistent success or failure within the same region. There could be some benefits to moving quickly and showing momentum; or not if trends go another direction or hasty planning fails to take everything into account.

At the same time, this is unique opportunity for communities. As noted in the title of the post, it could lead to new revenues, an issue facing many communities during COVID-19. Population growth is also seen as good. This could be a turning point to a different future.

Cities that rise from the dead

With Easter today and Atlanta in the news, I was thinking of American cities that claim to have risen from the dead. The phoenix has been the symbol for Atlanta for over a century:

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Like the Phoenix, Atlanta had risen from its own ashes following its destruction in 1864. Many times during the city’s history, Atlanta has redefined and reinvented itself, rising again as the city slogan, Resurgens, suggests. The “Atlanta Spirit” is another oft-referenced slogan describing an entrepreneurial and ambitious attitude that has shaped the city’s historical identity.

After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, boosters and others were eager to rebuild:

On October 11, 1871, three days after the fire started that devastated the city, Bross’s Tribune proclaimed, “CHEER UP. In the midst of a calamity without parallel in the world’s history, looking upon the ashes of thirty years’ accumulations, the people of this once beautiful city have resolved that CHICAGO SHALL RISE AGAIN.”

Bross, who was an avid promoter of the city, predicted that Chicago would be rebuilt in five years and would reach a population of 1 million by the turn of the century, as Donald Miller reports in City of the Century.

There is an accepted narrative that the fire created a blank slate upon which Chicago was quickly rebuilt. That blank slate allowed it to become a dynamic city of innovative architecture with a fresh skyline dotted with a brand-new building called the skyscraper.

“The great legend of Chicago is that it’s a ‘phoenix city’ – it almost instantly rebuilt itself bigger and better from the ashes. And to a certain and significant extent, that’s true,” said Carl Smith, professor emeritus of English at Northwestern University and author of Chicago’s Great Fire: The Destruction and Resurrection of an Iconic American City.

And the city of Phoenix draws on the presence of people hundreds of years before:

Those former residents were industrious, enterprising and imaginative. They built an irrigation system, consisting mostly of some 135 miles of canals, and the land became fertile. The ultimate fate of this ancient society, however, is a mystery. The accepted belief is that it was destroyed by a prolonged drought. Roving Indians, observing the Pueblo Grande ruins and the vast canal system these people left behind, gave them the name “Ho Ho Kam” — the people who have gone…

By 1868, a small colony had formed approximately four miles east of the present city. Swilling’s Mill became the new name of the area. It was then changed to Helling Mill, after which it became Mill City, and years later, East Phoenix. Swilling, having been a confederate soldier, wanted to name the new settlement Stonewall after Stonewall Jackson. Others suggested the name Salina, but neither name suited the inhabitants. It was Darrell Duppa who suggested the name Phoenix, inasmuch as the new town would spring from the ruins of a former civilization. That is the accepted derivation of our name.

Many cities have faced crises, disasters, or unusual starts. Local histories and narratives can also emphasize positive moments (and downplay negative moments). The rising from the ashes, overcoming great obstacles, coming back to life, these are all powerful narratives for big cities. They imply success, progress, and hopefully growth.

What these narratives mean now may be harder to ascertain. What does the aftermath of the Chicago Fire mean for Chicago today? Is Phoenix still rebuilding a great civilization? More than 150 years after the Civil War, is Atlanta continuing to reinvent itself? A city rising from the dead once is impressive but it may be harder to pull off over decades of change.

Looking at creepy abandoned McMansions on TikTok

Empty McMansions that were intended to be part of a resort in Missouri have caught the attention of TikTok users:

As @carriejernigan1 explains in her video, the Indian Ridge Resort was meant to be a $1.6 billion development, complete with a wild amount of luxurious amenities. According to Missouri’s KYTV-TV, developers wanted Indian Ridge Resort to feature a shopping mall, a marina, a golf course, a 390-room hotel, a museum and the world’s second-largest indoor water park.

Many of those projects never got off the ground, as @carriejernigan1’s video shows. TikTok users were naturally creeped out by her clip, which shows decaying McMansions amid a sea of overgrown plants. Some called the ghost town “scary” or “nightmare-inducing.”…

This is not the first time I have run across creepy McMansions in Missouri. I recall the presence of McMansions in Gone Girl. Perhaps McMansions make some sense here: it is a conservative state in the middle of the country where people might be more willing to purchase such homes.

At the same time, the connection to a resort near Branson is an interesting twist. This is not just a normal suburban neighborhood of McMansions occupied by crass suburbanites in the Midwest. These homes were part of a larger luxurious project. From the TikTok video, the homes themselves seem to be larger than a typical suburban McMansion. The McMansions themselves are not meant to on their own impress people visiting or driving by; the whole resort community would help do that.

This also offers intriguing possibilities for how these McMansions might be reused. It may not be worth it for another developer to come in and finish off these homes. Could the materials be repurposed? Could the homes be completed but subdivided to create smaller units? Could this be some sort of weird theme park involving these homes (think Halloween where abandoned McMansions become haunted houses)?

Bears stadium at Arlington Park? Just keep the taxpayers out of it

With the announcement that Arlington Park will be for sale, ideas are swirling about how the land could be used. I have heard a few times already the possibility of the Chicago Bears constructing a new stadium there. Here is one example:

The Loop from the North End of Soldier Field

Now it is urgently incumbent upon regional politicians and civic planners to begin a campaign to get a global-class Chicago Bears stadium built as a profitable symbol of the rebirth of the 326-acre site.

Fulfillment of such a bold and visioned plan would bring about a marriage of an NFL team and a suburb that was first discussed between “Papa Bear” George Halas and then-AP empress Marje Everett in 1968…

The question of “How?” can only be answered if there is an enormously creative and concerted joint effort put forth by such potential game changers as Bears chairman George McCaskey, Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes and Gov. J.B. Pritzker…

Said Mayor Butts: “From my experience — and I’m talking about my suburb, which is 52 percent Hispanic, 47 percent Black and 1 percent ‘other’ — if you have an inspired plan, proper financing that does not put the host municipality at risk and a resolute ‘will-get-done’ attitude, toss in hard work and you can make a great thing happen.”

On one hand, this is a unique opportunity. It is rare for parcels of land this large to open up in suburbs developed decades ago. Filling a large parcel can be difficult; what can add to the existing community without threatening the current character? This particular location provides easy access to highways, easing travel for thousands of fans. The surrounding area is already used to sporting events on the sites. A suburb could become home to a major sports stadium.

On the other hand, the “creative and concerted joint effort” required to pull this off could become an albatross to taxpayers who often fund large stadiums for wealthy team owners. This is a tax break of massive proportions for a feature economists argue does not necessarily bring added economic benefits to a community. The stadium may provide status to a suburb but this does not always translate into financial gains. And Illinois has a history of this already: just see the state deal where taxes are still funding the White Sox stadium.

How to balance these competing perspectives? Many suburbs would jump at the opportunity as growth is good, having a pro sports teams is an important status symbol, and hearing the Bears are playing in Arlington Heights could be part of a branding strategy. But, I would recommend leaving the taxpayers out of this: they will likely not benefit economically from a new stadium.

The lost opportunity to transform a city for the better, Christchurch edition

The 2011 earthquake that hit Christchurch, New Zealand offered an opportunity for a new approach to city life. What ended up changing? One writer suggests not much.

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The Feb. 22, 2011, earthquake killed 185 people and had an unprecedented impact on the built environment of Christchurch, a city built by white settlers on drained swampland. More than 1,200 buildings inside the central four avenues were destroyed by the quake or by demolition crews in the years after. In the suburbs, a process called liquefaction was just as devastating. As the ground shook, water and sand squeezed up through the soil to the surface, leaving the soil to subside into the space the water had vacated. Houses slumped, and roads folded inward like the icing on a failing chocolate cake. In the hardest-hit eastern suburbs, the government eventually bought out and demolished about 6,500 houses, upending countless families.

One of the champions for this area of the city, which is demographically poorer and browner than the rest of Christchurch, was then-opposition MP Lianne Dalziel. She left Parliament in 2013 to contest the mayoralty, won, and is now in her third term. When I asked her about lessons to come from the rebuild, she immediately mentioned “Share an Idea,” an inclusive project run by the City Council in the months following the quake. “It was an opportunity for people to submit ideas about how they might reimagine their city,” she said. More than 10,000 people contributed over 100,000 ideas, which the council used to influence its draft central city plan. Share an Idea empowered the community, produced concrete recommendations for the future, and won international accolades.

In late 2011, the national government rejected that community-generated plan. Sidelining local politicians, the government came up with its own version, formulated behind closed doors in about 100 days. With much fanfare, the government announced a “Blueprint” for Christchurch that promised a brand-new city peppered with big-ticket items: a stadium, a library, a convention center, a giant indoor sports facility. The CEO of the government agency set up to oversee the rebuild said that “this new city will absolutely set an international benchmark for urban design, innovation, and livability.” The minister in charge, Gerry Brownlee, noted that “the plan and its implementation are being watched by the rest of the world.”…

A 2019 survey of 30,000 Christchurch residents found that just 29 percent of them thought that the city was better than it was before the quake. I lived in central Christchurch for about a decade, both before and after the quake, and I have to agree with the majority. Rebuilding this city was an opportunity to make something great; instead, 10 years on, we’re still talking about Christchurch’s potential. What lessons can other cities, rebuilding from disaster or redesigning in anticipation of change, learn from Christchurch?

Given how major cities operate today, this might not be a big surprise. Do city and civic leaders tend to listen to the people or do they go with decisions that enrich the interests of elites?

Sociologists have written about this. More broadly, the growth regimes/machines literature suggests that city decisions are made by a pro-growth coalition that can make money off development. The broader public has limited influence in big decisions.

More narrowly, studies like Crisis Cities show how communities react to large-scale crises. In the case of New York City after 9/11, much of the money and redevelopment effort went back into expensive property. In New Orleans, relatively little was done to help poorer residents and neighborhoods while more effort went into rebuilding the tourism industry.

This does not mean such change could not happen. But, it would be unusual. Without sustained effort from the larger community or unusual efforts from leaders to incorporate the community, redevelopment and cleanup will be aimed in a particular direction.

Asking in San Francisco why a McMansion is allowed but a fourplex is not

McMansions may not just be undesirable on their own. If a McMansion is built, another kind of dwelling is not. One proposal in San Francisco aims to address this:

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He will introduce an ordinance making it much harder to build giant homes — the ones increasingly dotting the hillsides above Glen Park that many San Franciscans deride as monster homes or McMansions, but which are perfectly legal to build.

He will also ask the city attorney to draft legislation making it legal for any corner lot in the city that’s currently slated for one home to allow up to four units. And, most significantly, the legislation will allow any parcel within a half mile of a major transit stop like the Glen Park BART Station to be converted into a fourplex — corner property or not. The extra units could be rented or sold.

Yes, in large swaths of San Francisco — this supposedly progressive bastion — it’s currently legal to build an enormous, over-the-top house for one family, but illegal to build a small apartment building of the same size for four families.

This question plagues many desirable neighborhoods in big cities and suburbs: should anything that disturbs the existing character and/or property values be allowed? If this is the driving question, a McMansion might be a threat because it is a different kind of home – derided by critics as too big, architecturally incoherent – compared to what is already there. At the same time, the McMansion is still a single-family home. If that single-family home was replaced by a multi-family unit, residents then express concerns about increasing densities. They might also have concerns about renters moving into what was a neighborhood of homeowners as many Americans assume renters are less committed to their community.

And, as the article notes, making changes like this often means neighborhood by neighborhood conversations to consider the implications. Will a change have different impacts in different communities? What might be some of the unintended consequences? What will neighborhoods look like in a few decades with changes?

San Francisco may have a particular need for solutions but so do many other locations. The answers might come slowly on a case-by-case basis.

Finding housing in former strip malls and big box stores in California

In a state with a need for cheaper housing, some in California are looking to commercial properties along main roads:

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Joe DiStefano sees boulevards like El Camino Real as more than just spots for takeout or an oil change. He sees a “perfect storm of opportunity.” Cofounder and CEO of UrbanFootprint, a software company that builds urban planning tools, DiStefano has done numerous studies on the housing potential hiding in California’s commercial strips. According to UrbanFootprint’s analysis of El Camino Real, this lone corridor could theoretically accommodate more than 300,000 new units if the road was upzoned to allow residential development and its parking lots and big-box stores became low-rise apartment complexes…

Converting underutilized retail and office space into apartments is not a novel idea, but it’s gaining fresh attention from California lawmakers, especially as pandemic-fueled e-commerce and remote work trends continue to empty brick-and-mortar stores and business parks across the state. In December, California State Senator Anna Caballero, who represents the Central and Salinas valleys and cities such as Merced, helped introduce Senate Bill 6, which would fast-track the creation of walkable infill development and make it easier to turn land zoned for commercial uses into housing. Another member of the state’s legislature, Assemblymember Richard Bloom, has a similar proposal to encourage commercial-to-residential conversions, Assembly Bill 115. (California has a bicameral legislature.) And Senator Anthony Portantino introduced AB15, which would incentivize turning vacant big box sites into workforce housing…

But more than 40% of commercial zones in California’s 50 largest metros prohibit residential development, according to a recent report from the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at Berkeley. “Residential Redevelopment of Commercially Zoned Land in California” highlights the growing potential of such rezoning proposals. “It’s a perfect infill option,” says David Garcia, a co-author and policy director at the Terner Center. While legislation like these proposed bills hasn’t been passed in other states, he believes they address a universal problem. “You’re really plugging in gaps left by shifts in the commercial marketplace, by Covid and the shift to e-commerce.”

There are three main types of projects ripe for this kind of reuse, Garcia says: commercial strips in more urban areas, often along existing transit lines; former big box retailers in more suburban areas; and vacant land in the exurban landscape that’s been reserved for future development. Researchers found there was actually more acreage of available commercial space per person in more suburban/outlier areas, an opportunity that, if paired with increased investment in transit, could quickly bring more density and valuable walkable development to fast-growing and diversifying suburban centers, some of which have already done a relatively good job of building new housing. “Instead of thinking about a bill like this as another state mandate cities need to adhere to, it should be looked at as a tool for doing the good planning they need to do anyways,” Garcia says. 

This might be hard sell before COVID-19 but the severe issues for retailers and businesses may make a lot of properties available.

Even with these issues, I wonder how many communities would quickly give up commercial properties to be rezoned for residential use. Many communities rely on commercial properties along major roads for sales tax revenue. If commercial property disappears from the local zoning map, how would a community make up those revenues?

Of course, providing possibly cheaper housing could be desirable to residents, even if it comes at the expense of commercial properties. And new residential units might even revive some local commercial activity.

If this is enabled at the state level, it would be interesting to see how quickly communities and developers would move. Vacant property is not desirable for any municipality. Would this move more quickly in certain kinds of communities compared to others?