Friday, February 20, 2015

The "Wow" Factor vs. Small is Beautiful

Does sound economic development rest on big projects that deliver a "Wow" Factor?  Or are smaller, more incremental projects a better long-term solution for cities? These are questions being asked in Charlotte regarding the Bojangles Colesium and the former Eastland Mall site.  And as Charlotte City Council member John Autry noted, "I've had it up to here with 'Wow'!", noting an interest in more balanced approaches to growth and development.

As a citizen and a city planner in 2015, I'm partial to smaller, incremental initiatives, as three recent observations have echoed my thinking.

Make some 'small plans'

In a blog post titled, "The Burham backlash: Make some 'small plans" Mary Newsome, contrasts 20th century urban planner Daniel Burnham, who created the 1909 Plan of Chicago, with Jaime Lerner, a Brazilian urban planner and former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil.

Burnham advised, "Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work."  This was stated in the context of early 1900s Chicago, where machine politics and Boards of Trade made decision-making on this scale possible.

Decades later and a continent away, Jamie Lerner held three mayoral terms in Curitiba from the 1970s to the 1990s.  His popularity was driven by his incremental and practical approaches to urban issues. Problem: Got a city approaching 2 million people and no money for a subway? Solution: Build a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system for a fraction of the cost of subway construction.

Pro sports - an economic touchdown?

Planner and NFL fan Bill Adams in San Diego points out "Five reasons losing an NFL football team is good for a city".  My summary and Charlotte relevance of his points are as follows.

1) Keeping public assets and funds: Charlotte pays dearly for sports. The NFL's Carolina Panthers got $87.5 million for six years, with an option of $50 million more for four additional years (the $87.5 million is $75 million up-front for stadium renovations, $12.5 million for stadium maintenance and traffic control over 10 years). At 10 years, that's over $13.5 million per year. What if even a fraction of this funding (3% hotel tax, 1% prepared food and beverage tax) went toward public assets like crosswalks, sidewalks, parks, schools, and transit? Charlotte's 800,000 residents might find the alternatives more relevant to their everyday lives.

2) More support for college football programs: UNC-Charlotte's new $45 million football stadium, plus those of Davidson College, Johnson C. Smith University, and others surely have fan bases that could grow.  Bill Adams poses an interesting scenario: colleges in cities with no competing NFL team have higher sports attendance, and subsequently draw more students, tuition, jobs, and regional economic benefit than NFL teams.

3) Better use of the land: The sheer size of an NFL stadium, plus parking tends to lay down a monolithic development footprint.  This is less an issue in suburban edge locations (think the Patriots' Gillette Stadium (formerly Foxboro) or the Redskins FedEx Field) than in-town locations. Is Charlotte's northwest corner of Uptown a lively mix of uses, or a boring, empty part of town outside of game/event days?  These are things to consider with an NFL stadium.

4) Avoiding the blighting effect of stadiums: As noted above, NFL football stadiums have HUGE development footprints, and when located in downtowns, historic buildings are often demolished and city blocks fragmented/consolidated for a lowest/least land use: parking.  

5) Grab-bag of benefits: Bill Adams' last point brings up the basic issue of "opportunity cost".  Given all the time, money, and energy that goes into NFL stadiums and teams, how else could those resources be spent and directed?  What would 80,000 people doing a one-day street-litter cleanup and sweep of area streams look like? That's my own shameless plug for Keep America Beautiful's Great American Cleanup, of which I'm hoping a fraction of Charlotte's citizens will participate in.

Design Quick, Fail Fast

A recent CityLab article highlights how New Haven, Conn. is pursuing this philosophy in redesigning their streets and public places for Complete Streets - places that serve more than just automobiles.

What's really encouraging is that it's the GOVERNMENT, the Director of the city's Dept. of Transportation, Traffic, and Parking, who's spearheading this!  They're doing projects that cost $80,000, not $8 million, in an effort to quickly and affordably assess what works and what fails in retrofitting their streets for PEOPLE ("pedestrians", "walkability" - these words ultimately mean people, see Seattle (and below) for interesting take on language and definitions).

The work of Charles Marohn, a engineer, and Strong Towns ( also strongly echoes these ideas. Imagine an engineer who thinks about project costs (especially operations and maintenance costs) and people as end-users - he's that guy!

Shine vs. Substance

We don't always need "magpie infrastructure" (named for the bird that's often drawn to things that are more shine than substance).  It's okay to have big goals and aspirations, but sound economic development often involves finding many silver pellets/BBs (mixed-use, flex-space) rather than one silver bullet (a movie studio complex). And when we're low on or out of money, it's definitely time to think.