Monday, May 20th, 2013
[ I continue to apologize for the hosting situation. It doesn't look like it will be resolved with this provider. Unfortunately, I'm traveling this week, but hopefully next week will be able to do an emergency cutover to another provider. In the meantime, I strongly encourage you to subscribe, either by email or by RSS.
Given that a major transit expansion in Indianapolis is dead for the moment thanks to the state legislature, I thought I'd dust off this list of no help needed recommendations to start improving transit immediately. It's nearly five years old and so some ideas may be dated, but the thinking of ways to start making change right now for cheap I think is still valid.
By the way, please don't interpret this post as criticizing the mode mix in the Indy Connect plan. That was released after quite a bit of detailed analysis long after I wrote this post - Aaron.> ]
This post originally ran on September 25, 2008.
I’m passionate about public transit. For those of you who know me primarily through my posting about rail transit being a bad idea for Indianapolis, you might not believe me. But I’ve long been a transit rider. In fact, in a previous life I published a transit newsletter for three years. I try to ride transit in every city I visit.
Where I differ from many transit advocates is that I believe that transit should be primarily about rider mobility, and I think we need to take a realistic approach that looks at the facts around development patterns, cost, likely ridership, etc. and not just rely on conventional wisdom from the transit hymnal and build it and they will come logic. As I said in my really, really cheap manifesto, it’s about results, not how much money one can spend.
In light of that, I will lay out a series of ideas about how to improve transit in Indianapolis today, not years from now, that won’t cost much money to implement. Some of them are conceivably even free and can be implemented with existing staff and budgets. I can’t say these are all the right things to do, but I believe all of them are worthy of serious consideration.
- Run bus service every ten minutes to Fountain Square. To have real bus service, that is to say, where you can just show up and wait for the next bus without consulting a schedule, you need ten minute headways or better all day, maybe 15, but that’s pushing it. Indygo currently operates on 30 to 60 minute headways, which is a non-starter. To really start proving the transit concept locally, Indy needs to start piloting with enhanced service at ten minute headways to see how to make it work or if in fact it can be made to work. The perfect place to start is Fountain Square. This is one of the city’s official cultural districts. Its downtown area is already “transit oriented development” and there is plenty of opportunity for further infill. A segment of the population there is tightly connected to downtown. However, the distance is a bit too far to walk comfortably in bad weather (about 1 ½ miles to the core of the Mile Square). Today, Indygo’s web site tells me there are three routes that go through Fountain Square: the #12-Beechcrest, the #14-Prospect and the #22-Shelby. These three bus routes run on 30 minute headways. Today, they all get to Fountain Square at the exact same time. For example, the #12 arrives at Virginia/South at 7:13am, the #14 gets there at 7:14am, and the #22 also gets there at 7:14am. It looks to me like three buses come in a row, then there isn’t another bus for half an hour. That’s insane. If Indygo simply staggered the routes, a bus could come through Fountain Square every ten minutes – right now, today – without spending an extra dime to add any new service. Now perhaps things are set up this way to facilitate downtown transfers, so perhaps this isn’t a slam dunk decision to make. But I think it goes to show that you could make dramatic transit improvements in an emerging neighborhood that primed to take advantage of it today without spending anything other than the cost of printing new schedules. And for people in Fountain Square, you wouldn’t even need a schedule, which is the whole point.
- Get a new domain name. indygo.net has to go. A .net domain name is completely bush league. If you can’t spring for a real domain name, no one will take you seriously. If indygo.com is too pricey, at least do indygo.gov or something. Dittos for cirta.us for the Central Indiana Regional Transit Authority.
- Implement mobile phone bus tracking. Chicago has a system called “Bus Tracker” that uses GPS in buses to feed an online service that tells you how long until the next bus arrives. Right now this is a mobile web app only, but soon they are rolling out a texting solution where you text your stop number to a special number and it texts you back the next buses arriving. This is hugely beneficial to riders on the go. What’s more, even large percentages of poor people have cell phones, so it isn’t just targeting the MacBook crowd. My idea: just contact with the CTA to ride their system. The cost is basically some GPS devices, route mapping, and setup. It’s a win-win. The CTA gets a revenue source to amortize their fixed investment over, and Indygo gets the advantages of economies of scale (i.e., lower unit cost) and speed to market. Imagine what a game changer this could be for Indy. With some buses running only once an hour, people have to get to the stop very early to avoid missing that bus. If you knew exactly when it was arriving, you could cut your wait time with confidence.
- Leverage texting for emergency messaging. The CTA is also rolling out texting for communicating to riders about service disruptions and other problems. Again, just see if the CTA will let Indygo pay them on an incremental cost basis to ride that infrastructure. (By the way, one source of potential funding for Chicago transit improvements is simply to spin off some of these things into a service bureau / hosted service for other transit providers. Be the “Google Transit” of this stuff before Google is. Eventually they could even float the thing – or just plain sell it to Google for Big Buck$ to pour into capital improvements. Just my free business advice).
- Start a “Friends of IndyGo” group if one doesn’t exist already. There are all these people who say we need better transit, why not give them the opportunity to see if their deeds match their words? Actually using transit, given the existing service levels, might be a bridge too far. But see if any transit advocates will actually step up to the plate and do something else tangible. A Friends of Indygo group could conceivably take on some of the items I have listed here as volunteer projects, with official sponsorship from the agency.
- Get integrated with Google Transit – right now. (Potential Friends of Indygo project)
- Create a better “How to Ride the Bus” guide. I suggested this one in my Pecha Kucha presentation. I’m a hardened transit guy, but even I don’t like to ride buses in cities I haven’t ridden in before because I’m afraid I won’t know how it works and will end up a mark for criminals, or, at a minimum, just plain look like an idiot. What’s needed is a very simple, explicit, step-by-step how to ride guide – both a brochure and a video – that shows exactly how it works, exactly how to put the money in the box, how to signal for a stop, etc. No question is too stupid or obvious to cover. (Potential Friends of Indygo project).
- Get serious about design. Indygo has a terrible image problem with the public. Transit is stigmatized in Indy in a way that it isn’t in NYC. Great design is something that is, in my opinion, absolutely necessary to create the customer experience and impressions to get people to even consider Indygo. This includes everything from the color scheme, the logos, the web site, signage and shelter design, everything. Consider Indygo’s colors. Who thought that color green looked good on anything? I get the “green” thing, but is that consistent with any other colors used in Indy? (Heck, it isn’t even consistent with the color palette used on the bus shelters downtown). The web site design is mediocre. Even things like good letterhead and a well-chosen font can make a difference. Some of the things are serviceable already (the “I” logo isn’t bad, for example), but could be better. (There’s no reason Indygo couldn’t create a logo that became as iconic as the Boston “T” for example). The large bus shelters are quite nice, but could be tweaked a bit. And the neighborhood shelters are not very nice. Good design frankly doesn’t cost much if anything more than merely serviceable design. It just takes an absolute commitment to creating something that is a) world class and b) both unique to and an expression of Indianapolis. JC Decaux, which usually gives cities bus shelters for free in return for advertising rights (or even pays for the privilege of putting them out there), has an entire subsidiary that designs these, including unique designs for many European cities. Indygo could work with them and insist on a totally world class design that is consistent with Indygo’s revised branding scheme (i.e., good colors). Also, it seems like every other person I stumble across on the internet in Indy these days is a graphic designer or artist. They could do a Friends of Indygo project to do this for free in return for an official credential or something. Similarly, why can’t Indy’s aspiring fashion community design a kick-ass bus driver’s uniform?
- Own the green agenda, live it internally. Don’t just talk about the sustainability of the bus as a transport mechanism. Look at every aspect of your operation and try to become the signature government agency in the state and a leader nationally in green operational practices. As a small government agency, Indy is positioned to more rapidly change. I sense another Friends of Indygo project coming on. Some local green enthusiasts could review operations, even things like office supplies, and look for areas to improve. Source that locally designed bus drivers uniform I mentioned from a small local producer and use sustainable materials (provided the economics are there, of course).
- Look for operational synergies with the rest of Marion County government. Is Indygo buying its own fuel, running its on HR policies, etc.? Some things are obviously unique to them, but as the Mayor’s 100 Day Report indicated, there are still duplicative services all over Marion County. Every dime that can be saved through economies of scale or reduction of duplication is a dime that can be invested into the on-field product.
- Evaluate outsourcing of all functions. Perhaps Indygo could eventually not operate any services directly at all. Privatization isn’t a slam dunk, but it works well for the management of the water utility, so why not here? Again, every dollar saved is a dollar that can go back into core services. London’s famed double-decker buses are contracted out to private companies. If they can do it, so can Indy.
- Run transit every ten minutes on College Ave. I figured I’d bookend this list with another service improvement. Unlike the Fountain Square idea, this one would require increasing service hours. However, College already has the best service out there, every 15 minutes at rush hour. All you need to do is to increase this to every ten minutes all day (maybe a bit more frequent at the 7am and 5pm hours). Indygo could have already done this with money they got earlier this year. On Feb 7th they issued a press release touting 20,000 new hours of transit service paid for by a $1.6 million state grant. Almost all of this went into point extensions of route at the existing awful service levels. It’s time to stop the “more of the same” approach and start changing the game. If Indy can’t make high quality bus service work on College Ave, it has no business trying to do anything else. Start this ASAP and you can start figuring out what it is going to take from a routing, service, and marketing perspective to get people on the bus. Also, the route should be adjusted to go from downtown to Broad Ripple to Glendale to Keystone Crossing. This links several destination districts with the residential in between. Combine the new service with the new design elements and rider notification systems and you have something to really start showing off.
Waiting around for three years to start a commuter oriented, peak period only rail service with limited stops on one corridor – and that’s in the best case – is a very limited and modest way for Indianapolis to start playing at a different level in the transit game. There is a whole lot that can be done in the mean time to make Indygo better and start delivering benefits to riders, starting right now. It doesn’t take a lot of money, it just takes creative thinking and the help of the community to pitch in and make it happen. Waiting around for some big regional taxing authority to make transit happen is the equivalent of saying transit is somebody else’s problems. If motivated citizens were willing to step up and actually pitch in to make things better, along with targeted improvements paid for by Indygo, the city could start down the transit path faster.
Friday, May 17th, 2013
First, my apologies for the severe technical difficulties this week. There has been some trouble with my hosting provider. RSS and email subscribers are unaffected, which is yet another reason to subscribe (click here for RSS and here for email).
As I don’t pay them nearly enough money for them to take any problems with this blog seriously, we’ve just got to wait for it to pass. If it isn’t cleared up soon, I’ll have to investigate other hosting options. That means I’d probably switch hosts sometime the week after next. Thanks for your patience and understanding – Aaron.
Now then, my latest post is online over at New Geography. It’s called “Why Gentrification?” and in it I look at why in pretty much every city in America, gentrification is not only welcomed, it is the urban core redevelopment strategy pretty much every place is pursuing. I argue people want gentrification both because it’s one of only two models that have been demonstrated to actually work (at least in some places), and because many other forces converge to make it the preferred pattern. Here’s an excerpt:
In a modern America where income equality and class divisions are a huge problem, it’s definitely mission critical for America to restart the middle class jobs engine and renew our metro regions as engines of upward mobility. But that’s easy to say and hard to do, at least from an inner city perspective.
The manufacturing jobs that previously supported a middle and comfortable working class lifestyle are gone and likely are not coming back. Public sector employment, traditionally another way to a middle class life in the city, is under extreme pressure due to fiscal mismanagement. Key services like the public schools remain intractably broken in most places. Segregation remains entrenched. What is the basis on which a middle or working class life will be re-established in the city? It isn’t clear. Untold billions pumped into various Great Society type programs accomplished little that was sustainable. Indeed, many programs like urban renewal, yesterday’s urban planning conventional wisdom, turned out to be disasters for cities. Community organizing may have launched the career of President Obama, but it’s not clear how it has helped Chicago’s marginalized communities. Given the paucity of models other than gentrification, it’s easy to see the attraction.
Thursday, May 16th, 2013
This week’s city video is called “Frenetic Zurich.” It’s a pretty cool time lapse of the city. Given Zurich’s reputation as a boring, corporate driven town, “frenetic” isn’t the word I would be expecting someone to use to describe it. But hey, the video’s cool, and that’s all the matters. If it doesn’t display for you, click here.
h/t Kaid Benfield
Wednesday, May 15th, 2013
Politics + Projects = Planning……And The Deal Beyond Daley
Chicago has trouble beating its rap portrayed in the popular media these days. So do the Daleys. Three books give a balanced description of what The Daley Years got done, focusing on the son’s service as Mayor from 1989 to 2011. By reviewing these books in context, this essay suggests that two key tasks in completing Chicago’s transformation — revitalized poorer neighborhoods and improved transit — requires sacrifice from taxpayers and a new deal.
Richard M. Daley was raised in a bungalow. Historians theorize his father intentionally choose this home to evoke Chicago’s Bungalow Belt, that all-encompassing crescent (in red above) stretching just outside the city’s early industrial neighborhoods; protecting contiguously from the city’s south shore through diverse western neighborhoods to the edge of the northern suburbs. Built in the teens and Roaring Twenties, the Bungalow Belt almost filled the city to its limits; as if to say how Chicago would be a city of separate neighborhoods. It serves as one of Chicago’s richer metaphors; ranging from a simple haven protecting families from the daily grind and reaching up to the Big Picture representing The American Dream.
This Belt reveals how most manufacturing-based cities built their second generation residential neighborhoods; segregating filthy factories from the homes that are the primary reward for working in those factories. The story of these cities’ neighborhoods span a century: from their rapid growth ending abruptly in the Great Depression and followed by decades of decline. Some of these neighborhoods participated sketchily in the recent urban resurgence that ended in today’s lingering real estate depression.
As the weakest link, Chicago’s Bungalow Belt is a focus of future challenges and we will return to it at key points in this essay.
While interpreting the importance of these three books and drawing analogies to your city, I suggest a city’s size is less important than the patterns of how politics guide projects and how they come to resemble long-range plans…if we do things right. Since Chicago partially completed some long-range plans, other cities also get take-aways from these books.
“First Son: The Biography of Richard M. Daley”
by Keith Koeneman
University of Chicago Press, April 2013
The first biography on Chicago’s recently retired mayor of 22 years, “First Son” is an important book for two related reasons. First, Daley’s positive impact on American cities will become clearer as historians such as Koeneman assess his legacy in balance. Chicago’s media trivialized Daley’s reign; neglecting to explain sufficiently how the city improved and the tough choices a mayor must make. Also beyond mass media, historians will sort out how much of Chicago’s progress resulted from the market redeveloping undervalued land and how much came from Daley’s strong will.
Chicago’s storyline changes starting with this book. Now, historians will build upon “First Son” and explain how Richard M. Daley surpassed even what boosters hoped for when he became mayor in 1989. He was the central force in reversing rapid decline in the nation’s largest manufacturing center and converting it into a global city. He started by righting government in the wake of bitter racial battles and attacked policy failures in housing and education. After cleaning those stables, other feats prepared Chicago for the new century; showing there was life after post-industrial calamity.
When someone such as Daley exceeds where many other mayors have fallen short, urbanists should understand why. This first biography helps give us perspective that other histories will develop further: Daley’s impact on other cities and national politics. My top example lists Daley as one of the most notable Democratic politicians to grapple with what I call a “taxpayers’ silent rebellion.” Daley repeatedly stated that taxpayers wouldn’t pay more and his goal almost daily sought to improve efficiencies so taxpayers got better value. Also sketching the Big Picture of the nation’s evolution, historians will notate how Daley’s advisors became the President’s and started a federal urban policy more suited to what I call the “sustainable century.”
The second and corollary importance of this book is its impressive details that break down the superficial image that Daley was all-powerful and replaces it with the chaotic crazy-quilt of uncooperative demands that are driving Chicago — and most cities — into insolvency. While reading through this book’s array of political intrigue, I am amazed that Daley achieved what he did.
This book confirms for me that local government does not have the integrity or tools to lead a broad-based revitalization that includes cities’ bungalow-like belts. Given the complexities and institutional intransigence that we allow to infect our local governments, cities currently cannot evolve to their potential.
Hence… urbanism’s potential also is undercut if it does not help reform and simplify governments for sustainability.
Beyond the scope of this book (but hopefully not beyond the next history written), broken governments best explains why Daley did not get some things done. Having spent his authority on politics’ myriad conflicts without achieving reform, Daley could not cure the City’s fiscal condition.
My take-away from “First Son” reinforces what I’ve said in other pieces for “The Urbanophile”: Rahm’s campaign promise for fiscal sustainability only overcomes intractable insolvency if we return to the populist truth: “everyone does better when everyone does better.” Only when citizens believe they have a chance to more forward, will they pay higher taxes and, then, the City can pay its bills and meet obligations. While Daley’s service is an overall triumph, the inability to reform antiquated politics left Chicago peering at a potentially tragic precipice.
“Chicago From The Sky”
by Lawrence Okrent
Chicago’s Books Press, 2012
If you want to see Chicago just before Richard M. Daley came to office and compare it to when he left… if you need to jog your memory about how land use evolves… if you want to see better how Chicago’s transformation has lessons elsewhere… or if the seemingly endless tedium and timeframes for redeveloping real estate needs the visual inspiration that the end result is really worth the headaches… then, you have found your book. And all that, at 49 bucks, is a deal.
As a planner and real estate consultant, the author took 200+ photo flights over Chicago between 1985 to 2010. Sorting through some 25,000 of his photos and evaluating some 3,000 postcards and the photos of others, the author organizes an excellent exhibition. Selecting before-and-after photos usually with the same angle, this urban evolution is easier to track. Blending his planner’s training and his interest in architecture, the author’s informative captions complete the significance of the selected photos. Best yet, the author maintains objectivity; not letting his love for Chicago interfere with showing redevelopment’s rocky road.
Because the most dramatic changes were in Chicago’s downtown, this book is thorough and devotes 100 pages to the transformation of the nation’s manufacturing HQ center into a global center. An additional 78 pages show the less dramatic changes — though still substantial — in several Chicago neighborhoods. However, most photos portray projects of government, universities, museums, hospitals or cultural institutions. Some 15 of these 78 pages show neighborhoods of mostly new construction; most of which are repurposed from old warehouse districts or freight yards or the horrible mistakes of mid-Century public housing. Note that these areas are pre-Roaring Twenties and are inside the Bungalow Belt.
Several reasons suggest why this book is weighted toward large corporations and institutions that do large projects: they are easily photographed from an airplane; many are clients of the author; and, most important, it was easier for the Daley Administration to do big deals because that is how government is tooled; unlike when small entrepreneurs built the Bungalow Belt.
Tellingly of its 242 pages of photos, “Above Chicago” offers only a baker’s dozen photos of the Bungalow Belt. In direct contrast to the new construction in repurposed inner city areas, photos of the Belt show small scatterings of new construction that are mostly limited to thoroughfares on Chicago’s predominantly white north side. Of course, no book can take us from the bird’s eye view to traveling the streets of Chicago’s long-suffering neighborhoods on the west and south sides. But, those streets tell us that Chicago’s dramatic transformation is not complete. Our next book helps us understand why this matters and, partly, why these neighborhoods got left behind.
by D. Bradford Hunt and Jon DeVries
Planners Press, 2013
Here is what this book helped me synthesize: Richard J. Daley was a master planner; and 45 years after Chicago’s last Comprehensive Plan in 1966, his son had done enough deals that the old man’s plans, roughly, got done. I consider this one of the great team efforts in the constant struggle to remake cities for the new era.
“Planning Chicago” details the evolution of planning in Chicago from the creation of the Department of City Planning in 1957 and describes several decades of key decisions. All types of planning activities are reviewed including central area plans, neighborhood initiatives, city industrial policies, and transportation. The narrative is accompanied by over 100 graphics including maps, plans, and photos.
For these and other reasons, this book deserves a review by itself. It is so rich in its detail and so broad in its critique of Chicago’s planning and the implications of its prescriptions run so deep, I regret only having space to summarize three key points that feed this essay’s bottom lines.
1. Incomplete Redevelopment Has Consequences: A Weak Tax Base. Reinforcing my conclusions from the previous two books, this third book rounds-out the analysis that the Daley-led redevelopment of Chicago is not complete. This book distinguishes clearly between how Daley made the downtown look good (Millennium Park, streets with more planters and trees) and that the consequences of superficiality show up elsewhere… and often.
Look at the chapter on “The Lost Decade” and its analysis of Chicago’s weak 21st Century economic statistics; of which population and job losses are prominent. While downtown deals make great photos, many neighborhoods and the city’s mass tax base often were neglected. Illustrating this growing weakness, page 270 shows income change during that first decade.
Note that most red/pink census tracts (where there were significant income losses) and the gray tracts (no significant change) dominate the Bungalow Belt. (Compare to the adjacent red rendition of the Bungalow Belt if you wish a tighter correlation.) While all the significant income increases (green) are achievements due Daley’s leadership, these neighborhoods are unlikely to pay the tax and fee increases required to close the huge holes in the City’s budget.
As its multi-benefit, redevelopment reduces both social costs to citizens and social service expenses in the City budget. This book understands practical value, transcending the intractable argument between downtown boosters and neighborhood equity advocates.
Bottom-line: redevelopment must build a broader tax base and reduce social costs.
2. TIFs Have Consequences: Weak Strategic Action. This book’s chief criticism is Chicago slipped into ad-hoc planning. The most obvious example is the proliferation of 151 TIF districts. While well-intentioned to solve needs of individual neighborhoods, aldermanic privilege for zoning changes has given 50 alderman leverage to demand TIF deals that often do not support citywide strategies.
TIFs are now the City’s primary source of capital spending. Untested during a period of depressed real estate values, TIFs are too many eggs in an unproven basket. And not only do TIFs have a limited future to help redevelopment, they undermine the public’s faith in government since these public dollars are invested with minimal public discussion to maximize public return. While the Emanuel Administration is working on this: decisions largely are still made between the Mayor’s Office, the Alderman and the developer… with half of the money going to the private sector…. with at least some of that going back to boost reelection campaigns.
Bottom-line: citizens and taxpayers need an alternative to TIFs.
3. Debt Has Consequences: Broke Until A New Deal. The book also illustrates that the average debt per Chicagoan grew from $600 in 1991 to $2600 in 2011, or an increase of 433% in actual dollars. Servicing that debt now eats up almost 25% of the city’s budget. Fiscally unsustainable; but worse, taxpayers have to pay this debt and they won’t because they are fed up.
Bottom-line: This debt won’t be paid and government will not give taxpayers good value unless leaders produce a justification for taxpayers to invest in the future.
As convincing as this book’s argument is for Chicago to update its planning practice significantly so it can allocate limited resources better for the 21st Century, the book leaves its technical vein and addresses the clogged artery by concluding that solutions ultimately are a question of political will. Since we are responsible for this democratic semblance of government, I only can agree.
Beyond The Daley Deals: A Conclusion And A Beginning
Speaking above citizen complaints, all three books indicate that Daley left Chicago in a substantially better space than where it was headed in 1989. Yet, clearly much remains before completing this transformation. Global centers have better transit. Nor can global centers be sustained successfully if 20% of the city’s neighborhoods are poverty traps and their social problems prevent the city from balancing its books and meeting other obligations.
So for answers, let’s review when neighborhoods were balanced and people believed government would help them and when poverty was treated as an opportunity instead of a trap. Let’s symbolically return to that bungalow the first Daley built (pictured on below.)
By Dick Daley living in the predominant housing type of middle and unionized working class neighborhoods, it signaled to Chicagoans that the aspirant-to-be-mayor was one of them, he would work for them and their new social contract called the New Deal. The above bungalow at 3536 S. Lowe served as the most famous residence in the city for two decades. Then, the mayor died and Chicago entered free fall and, not coincidentally, Reagan unraveled the New Deal.
For background, Dominic Pacyga (a leading historian of Chicago neighborhoods) co-edited a book along with Charles Shanabruch, the Executive Director of the Chicago Bungalow Foundation, that was a lead participant in Rich Daley’s multi-program quest to save and update this housing type. Mr. Pacyga contributed a chapter entitled “Movin’ on Up: Chicago’s Bungalow Belt and The American Dream.” It, too, is worth a read.
As a masterful politician in his own right, Rich Daley knew the symbolism in governing with a social contract. But, he also learned in his last term how hard it is to govern well once that contract is broken. Without a deal, Daley knew that taxpayers would not step up. As such, city efficiencies and user fees were his best chance to keep Chicago solvent.
When those tactics failed and the City’s finances deteriorated into indelible red ink, much has been blamed on Daley… fairly or not. But, all would be better if Daley instead broke his mold and started his last great initiative by admitting: “We’re broke. And before taxpayers bailout the city, I promise these political reforms so that fiscal failure does not repeat.” Then, popular opinion — and certainly history — could give the praise he deserves for starting Chicago’s transformation.
Robert Munson sharpened his interest in regional planning while serving on the Citizens Advisory Committee for the metropolitan plan released in 2010. Out of that experience, he started the website CCC or Chicagoland Citizens Central where you can find his profile. Readers can contact him directly at email@example.com.
Monday, May 13th, 2013
Last summer I was invited to speak at a conference called “Milwaukee’s Future in the Chicago Megacity” put on by the Marquette University School of Law and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. It was an interesting day of conversation about mega-regional integration between the two metros. In follow-up, Marquette Lawyer magazine asked me to write a piece for them about it. I’m including the full text of that article below. However, the current issue of the magazine has a couple of other major articles on the same topic. These are “Thinking and Acting (and Flourishing?) as a Region” by Alan J. Borsuk and “Rivalry, Resignation, and Regionalization” by John Gurda. I recommend both of these.
In the meantime, my article is below. The first part of it includes material and ideas from my “Don’t Fly Too Close to the Sun” post, but most of the article is original. Enjoy.
Milwaukee and Chicago sit a mere 90 miles apart on I-94. Growth in both metro regions has led to near-continuous development along that corridor, which is being expanded to handle the increasing traffic between the two regions. Amtrak links downtown Milwaukee with downtown Chicago in only 90 minutes, which is shorter than some Chicago commuter rail trips. The two cities share a lakefront heritage and similar industrial history.
With their closeness and parallels, the idea that there’s benefit for the two cities in mutual collaboration is almost obvious. This is particularly the case for Milwaukee as it looks to differentiate itself from peer cities. What does it have that those places don’t? Chicago. This idea was even the subject of an entire conference called “Milwaukee’s Future in the Chicago Megacity,” sponsored by Marquette University Law School and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. This essay further explores Milwaukee’s relationship to Chicago.
Is Proximity to Chicago a Positive?
In most discussions of the topic, the increasing integration of Chicago and Milwaukee is assumed to be a positive. But we should ask whether this is so. For other examples of close cities around the country suggest that perhaps a more cautious view should be adopted.
Indianapolis analyst Drew Klacik has suggested a reason to be skeptical about Chicago–Milwaukee. He promotes a model of the Midwest as a solar system with Chicago as the Sun. His idea is that Indianapolis is Earth—it’s the perfect distance from Chicago. A place like Cleveland is like Uranus—it’s too far away and doesn’t get enough heat and light. But in this model Milwaukee is like Mercury—it’s too close to the sun and gets burned up.
Of course, Klacik comes from Indianapolis. But is there something to this notion of being “too close to the sun”? Taking a look at other similarly situated cities suggests some indications that it isn’t always healthy to be located next to a megacity. Providence, R.I., about the same size as Milwaukee, sits just 50 miles from Boston, but shows little signs of life. Neither does New Haven, Conn., 80 miles from New York, or Springfield, Mass., 90 miles from Boston. But these post-industrial cities have struggled for reasons completely independent of megacity proximity.
A more positive example might be Philadelphia, which is 90 miles from New York and seems to be seeing a resurgence due to what we might dub the “Acela effect,” as runaway gentrification chases people from New York. Yet Philadelphia is also a near megacity in its own right. Various post-industrial cities such as Aurora, Elgin, and Joliet have seen new growth as Chicago enveloped them, but they are much closer and much smaller than Milwaukee, and in the same state as Chicago. To the extent that they’ve benefited from being close to Chicago, it’s because Chicago has turned them into suburbs.
The key takeaway might be that Milwaukee’s proximity to Chicago is potentially either a pro or con. It is something that must be studied, and managed as well as possible, to both regions’ benefit. There is no choice to grow together or not grow together. The two regions are growing together as we speak, driven purely by market forces. It is happening on its own. The real question is what, if anything, should Milwaukee’s leaders do about it.
To show the double-edged sword of proximity, consider the case of General Mitchell International Airport. How is service at this airport, and thus for Milwaukee generally, affected by Chicago’s proximity? There are many ways. For example, to the extent that it is more convenient or has lower fares, Mitchell Airport can draw from the Northern Chicagoland region, becoming a de facto third airport for Chicago. This is a positive for Mitchell Airport and Milwaukee. However, to the extent that Chicago has better nonstop flight options, especially internationally, people may choose to drive from the Milwaukee region to O’Hare for a nonstop flight rather than connect. This potentially suppresses Milwaukee air traffic, particularly for international flights. Among metro areas with more than a million people, Milwaukee ranks only 41st in the United States in originating international air passengers per capita, according to Brookings Institution research. This is a negative for Milwaukee. But the flip side is that Milwaukeeans, by driving to O’Hare, have access to many nonstop flights that aren’t options for people in other small cities.
In short, the dynamics are complex and cut both ways. That’s why simple surface thinking will not suffice to manage this problem. It requires a lot of careful analysis and new types of thinking.
Milwaukee Must Go It Alone
Additionally, in its attempts to manage the increasing integration of Chicagoland with Milwaukee, Milwaukee should expect largely to have to go it alone. People from Chicago may come to the occasional conference, but it’s unlikely that Milwaukee will capture much time and attention from Chicago’s leadership. Milwaukee is much smaller. Chicago already has all the scale it needs to compete in its chosen global-city strategy. And Chicago and Illinois both have serious near-term problems that must urgently be addressed. The leadership of the Chicagoland region is mostly Chicago-focused. It can even be difficult to get Chicago and its suburbs to pay attention to each other or get on the same page—how much more so Chicago and Milwaukee. Thus the next key question to ask is this: What can Milwaukee do by itself for itself, without much help from its larger neighbor? What should Milwaukee do to try to shape its future in the Chicago megacity?
A Plan of Attack
Here are some potential ideas to explore.
1. Think “Different.” Milwaukee is similar to Chicago but smaller; hence it can at times view itself as a little brother or “Mini-Me” version of the Windy City. But the approach of being like Chicago is not a positive for integration. Economic gains come from specialization and the division of labor. You can only take advantage of this to the extent that you are different. On a football team, not everybody can be a quarterback or a linebacker. Everybody has to know his role on the team. Milwaukee would be much better served to be a starting wide receiver to Chicago’s quarterback than to settle for second-string QB.
Mike Doyle illustrated the downsides of thinking too much like Chicago in his critique of a local tourism campaign aimed at Chicagoans. One tagline from an outdoor ad was “Beer. Brats. If you had another hand, we’d go on.” But, as Doyle notes, Chicago is arguably already as good a beer and brat town as Milwaukee. Why would people make the trip for something they can already get at home?
Milwaukeeans instantly understand that you go to Chicago to get what you can’t get at home. The city needs to invert that thinking to figure out what it is that you can get only in Milwaukee and not in Chicago. That is where you market your city.
Similarly, in thinking about the best way to relate to Chicago economically, Milwaukee should sort out how the two cities can have complementary specialties.
2. Promote an Expanded Labor Market. Another area of integration is to better market the two cities as an extended labor market. This could take place in various ways. Naturally, making the sale to talent you are trying to attract to Milwaukee that Chicago is a piece of Milwaukee’s value proposition is a given. There may also be people who want to live in Chicago but could potentially be attracted as employees in downtown Milwaukee. This is particularly true if a person needs to be on site only part-time, such as a software developer. Many people reverse commute from the city to the suburbs of Chicago on Metra. There’s no reason they can’t do it on Amtrak as well. Figuring out the addressable market and how to sell it on Milwaukee is the “to do” here.
3. Market Nearshore Outsourcing. The move from Chicago to Milwaukee provides a steep cost gradient while maintaining good physical proximity in a way that provides opportunities for periodic face-to-face interactions. The globalized economy appears to be currently rewarding two models. The first is the “flat world” model of Tom Friedman in which work travels to wherever in the globe it can be produced most cheaply. The second is the “spikey world” model of Richard Florida in which intensive face-to-face collaboration is so valuable that it forces clustering of people and businesses in locations such as downtown Chicago.
Is there an intermediate model where reducing costs is important for certain activities, but face-to-face meetings are still valuable? If so, this is where Milwaukee–Chicago would have a very strong play. Examples may be various types of legal work or business-process outsourcing. For example, Walgreens maintains an operations center in Danville, Illinois, some 135 miles to the south of Chicago along the Indiana border. This is not only lower-cost than Chicago, but it allows executives from Deerfield to make day trips, enabling much better oversight and collaboration than an overseas location would, particularly with the time zone commonality. These types of applications would be something that could be highly beneficial for economic development in Milwaukee.
4. Eschew the Amenity Arms Race. Many cities of the same general size as metro Milwaukee spend much of their time trying to produce amenities that prove they are a “big-league city.” For many of these—stadiums, hotels, convention centers, department stores, high-end restaurants—there is a sort of “nuclear arms race” between cities in which one city after another pumps large subsidies into bolstering these high-end sectors in order to try to distinguish itself from the pack.
For Milwaukee, proximity to Chicago reduces the ability of the city to attract and support these types of amenities. Consider one example: high-end department stores. An analysis by David Holmes discovered that Milwaukee had fewer high-end department stores than regional peer cities. He also noted that when plans for a Nordstrom in Milwaukee were announced, it was reported that the city was the largest in America without one.
This is unsurprising. The incredible wealth of high-end amenities in Chicago siphons off money from high-end consumers by shifting it south. This reduces the effective capacity of the Milwaukee region to support amenities. This might be seen as a negative. However, the situation holds two key positives that also should be mentioned. The first is that, again, Milwaukee can take advantage of everything Chicago has to offer, which is something other places can’t. This is vastly more than Milwaukee could ever support by itself. And, secondly, many other cities give a lot of subsidies in attempts to lure these types of amenities. That’s money Milwaukee can keep in its pocket.
5. Avoid Other Sectors Where Proximity to Chicago Is a Disadvantage. Consider where Milwaukee’s proximity to Chicago is a disadvantage, and avoid those sectors. This is particularly true when solutions targeting these sectors are popular and thus tempting for Milwaukee to try. For example, both Indianapolis and Columbus have focused on building tons of bulk distribution space. But because of Chicago’s terrible traffic and Lake Michigan as a barrier to the east of Milwaukee, Milwaukee may not be as good a fit for that type of business, which is a low-wage industry in any case.
6. Improve Rail Connectivity Between the Cities. The highway linkages between Chicago and Milwaukee are already being upgraded, but the rail system requires improvement. The cities are currently linked via Amtrak’s Hiawatha service, which is subsidized by the state of Wisconsin. As noted, it provides a 90-minute journey time with seven trips per day. This route has received little investment compared to similar types of corridors, such as the Keystone route linking Harrisburg, Pa., to Philadelphia and on to New York.
Unfortunately, the state and federal political climates are not favorable to significant rail upgrades at this time. Ideally, the route would have hourly frequencies and shorter journey times (though true high-speed rail along the lines of that found in Europe is not needed). In the meantime, Milwaukee leaders should look to explore ways to better manage the existing service. Ideas include Metra-style boarding in Chicago instead of making passengers queue in a waiting room, variable pricing to better utilize and allocate capacity, and amenities such as Wi-Fi.
Milwaukee should also establish policies favorable to curbside bus operators such as Megabus that might provide additional connectivity to Chicago.
Milwaukee Is Blazing the Trail
There has been a lot written about so-called mega-regions, from people such as Richard Florida to the Regional Plan Association of New York. The concept is that cross-regional collaboration such as between Milwaukee and Chicago is the next level of regional economy that will become a basic competitive unit in the global economy.
There’s just one problem: other than building high-speed rail in these mega-regions, there’s a paucity of ideas about what one would actually do to make these mega-regions work. The public policy ideas for this are few.
Milwaukee and Chicago provide an excellent test bed for the mega-region concept. They are close enough together to be nearly an economic unit in formation already, but far enough apart to truly be two metro areas with two centers of gravity. If Chicago and Milwaukee can’t figure out how to generate value from the mega-region concept, it’s unlikely many other people will, apart from pure market forces.
This means Milwaukee has the exciting opportunity to be a trailblazer. Given that the regions continue to grow together day by day with no intervention from the outside, this is a challenge that is coming Milwaukee’s way whether Milwaukee wants it or not. Chicago may be able to ignore it, but Milwaukee has no such luxury.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of Marquette Lawyer magazine.
Saturday, May 11th, 2013
[ Yesterday's article on casinos was inspired by a Richard Florida piece bashing a proposal for a new casino in Toronto. Since it was published in a Canadian web site, many American and global readers may not have seen it, so I'm grateful he gave me permission to repost it here - Aaron. ]
The debate over a casino in downtown Toronto is coming to a head. Mayor Rob Ford’s executive committee of Toronto City Council voted 9-4 in favour of a downtown casino, putting the ultimate fate of the casino before a vote of the full City Council.
Ford said he was “optimistic” Toronto will ultimately get a downtown casino, according to the Globe and Mail. “Nine votes, I think that’s a good beginning.”
Fortunately, a majority or near majority of Toronto’s councillors are on record as being opposed to a downtown casino, according to recent reports.
If Council votes no, the mayor said he will take the issue directly to the voters. “It’s either no or yes. If it’s a yes, thank you very much, appreciate your support for creating 10,000 good-paying jobs,” Ford said on Monday. “And if it’s a no, then I guess that becomes an election issue.” But he backtracked on this on Tuesday, saying that: “It’s not an election issue. They are just going have to explain to the voters why they didn’t create 10,000 good-paying jobs. I want to deal with it this year. I’m optimistic. People are seeing the light.”
Ford and the nine committee members who voted yes are not the only ones people pushing for a downtown casino. Key elements of Toronto’s business leadership have either been active cheerleaders for it, quietly supportive, or eerily mum.
You have to ask yourself, why?
Toronto’s business leaders like to think that they are helping to build a great global city, but casino building is city-ruining of the highest order. Virtually every serious study that has ever been done of the economic impacts of casinos shows that their costs far exceed their benefits and that they are a poor use of precious downtown land. A downtown casino will tear holes in Toronto’s urban fabric, create more costs than benefits, and as surely as if it’s holding up a giant sign, will send the message that Toronto is on the wrong track. As the architecture critic Christopher Hume put it a while back: “Torontonians have made it clear they’re not interested.” He added, “the beauty of this city now is that it doesn’t need a casino, let alone want one. In fact the casino needs Toronto more than the city needs it.”
I had my chance to vent about casino gambling in Toronto in the Star last spring. “About one thing,” I wrote, “urbanists across the ideological spectrum are unanimous. And that is that building casinos, especially in an already thriving downtown, is a truly terrible idea.” My colleague Kevin Stolarick put it best: “Adding a casino to Toronto will not make it a ‘world-class’ city. It will make it second class.”
David Olive, the business columnist of the Toronto Star, recently wrote that in the “Toronto casino debate, it’s time to walk away from the table.” Citing a March study by my research team at the University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute, he writes that:
“The turning point in the interminable debate over a new casino resort in downtown Toronto will be, one hopes, the astonishing report released March 12 by the Martin Prosperity Institute (MPI) at the University of Toronto.
“The MPI found that a casino makes little — if any — sense for the GTA. And it implies that the slick lobbyists employed by casino advocates Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. (OLG) and its private partners are betting on what they hope is widespread gullibility among Torontonians.
“The MPI report knocks the stuffing out of the casino advocates’ bloated claims of renewed economic vitality in a GTA that, in fact, is already thriving — a rare metropolis to boast the status of North America’s fastest-growing city twice in the past half century (currently and in the 1960s and 1970s).
“The Martin Prosperity Institute is an extension of the business school at U of T. As such, it is pro-business and has a vested interest, for the sake of attracting the best and brightest students worldwide, in the GTA’s economic stardom.
If a new downtown casino, as proposed, could help advance MPI’s interests, the think tank would be a cheerleader for it. Instead, in remarkably blunt language, the business and urban-economy experts at MPI conclude that the casino champions have simply generated a blizzard of numbers, ‘all of them meaningless’ and conveyed in a ‘remarkably skewed’ and ‘misleading manner.’”
The Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente dubbed Toronto’s casino push, a “dead man’s hand,” pointing out: “Casinos aren’t for cities on their way up. They’re for cities out of options.”
Toronto is hardly unique in the push for casinos. Mega-casino moguls and developers like Sheldon Adelson and Malaysia’s Genting Group are proposing lavish billion-dollar casino complexes in cities across the globe. I called it “the casinoization of everywhere” in an oped in the New York Daily News — the latest manifestation of what the late Susan Strange aptly dubbed “casino capitalism.”
In the U.S. alone, gambling generates roughly $90-billion in annual revenues, a figure that is projected to expand to $115-billion by 2015. Faced with the prospect of laying off teachers, firemen, and policemen, it looks like manna to cash-starved cities and metros. But if there’s one truth we know about casinos, it’s that the house always wins. Casinos generate mega-profits for their developer-owners, who don’t have to deal with the myriads of problems they cause for the cities in which they are located.
Gamblers might fool themselves into thinking that they can get something for nothing, but cities and governments should know better. For all the ostensible billions in tax revenue, spillovers from increased tourism, and higher property values casinos supposedly generate, when all the social, moral, and monetary costs that they levy on cities are added up, they have almost always proven themselves to be financial and economic disasters.
Most of the outspoken opposition to Toronto’s casino has come from academics like me, journalists, religious groups, and civic activists. Toronto’s business leaders have been conspicuously mum on the subject — and on Mayor Rob Ford’s small-minded, anti-urban agenda. In addition to holding the mayor, pro-casino councillors, and the OLG accountable, civically-minded Torontonians should be asking where the city’s business and political leadership stands. Especially when you consider how many of the most outspoken opponents of casinos in other cities have turned out to be prominent business leaders.
A case in point is Warren Buffet, the über-successful investor. “I’m not a prude about it,” he said in 2007, “but to a large extent gambling is a tax on ignorance. I find it socially revolting when a government preys on the weakness of its citizenry rather than serving them. When a government makes it easy to take their Social Security and start pulling handles or playing lotto, it’s a pretty cynical act…. It receives taxes on the backs of those dreaming of a car or colour TV….it’s not government at its best.” When casino gambling was proposed in his home state of Nebraska, he took to the airwaves to oppose it, as seen in the above Fireside Chat.
The same is true of the Florida billionaire Norman Braman, the former owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, who vehemently opposes destination mega-casinos in South Florida. “If you open the door to casinos,” he told the journalist Eliott Rodriguez in the television interview posted above, “you are opening the door to crime and creating more unemployment. No proponent of casino gambling can name any place in the United States where casinos have revitalized a community. Actually, it’s had the opposite effect.” To Dylan Ratigan (the video is posted below) he said, “If you look at all the statistics concerning casinos throughout the United States, whether they’re riverboat or permanent, after three to five years, almost two jobs are lost for every one that’s created.” He makes an important point. As in Singapore, most places that introduce gambling see a quick upward spike, followed by a steep decline. Casino lobbyists prefer to talk about their early successes.
When all is said and done, gambling is one of the most regressive ways to generate public revenue and one of the least productive uses of money imaginable — it takes the most from the people who can afford it the least.
A glitzy mega-casino in the heart of downtown would be a direct affront to Toronto’s brand as a well-managed city of builders and investors. Taken together with Mayor Ford’s bizarre statements on gay rights, his move to abolish bike lanes, and the numerous scandals that surround him, it couldn’t but have a seriously deleterious effect on the city’s ability to attract people and thus on its long-run economic prosperity. As I told the Globe and Mail recently: “Casinos are brand killers. People in the outside world would say, ‘Toronto is a great city, so why are they putting a casino there?’ “
For everyone who’s concerned about Toronto’s future, it’s time to take score. Not just of who’s been in favour of such a city-ruining monstrosity and who’s been opposed to it, but who among the city’s so-called leaders have sat quietly on the sidelines.
This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post Canada on April 17, 2013.
Friday, May 10th, 2013
My latest post is online as part of Christianity Today’s This Is Our City project. It is called “Casinos Ruin Cities.” In it I take a look and the trend of putting casinos into major city downtowns and am appalled. As anyone with half a clue knows, casinos are practically the definitional antithesis of quality urbanity, and I feel sorry for the communities that have had them shoved down their throats. Here’s an excerpt. NB: This is not a religious article.
The pro-casino argument is this: Few tools in the government toolbox will generate the jobs, tourism, and revenue that casinos would. Also, given the relentless expansion of gambling, building a local casino can be seen as an almost required defensive measure to keep money local so that residents don’t drive to the next town and spend all their money there. Clearly there’s some legitimacy to these arguments. And no one can deny the major fiscal problems our state and local governments face.
Urban environments thrive on mixed uses, pedestrian traffic, street life, and attractions that feed off one another in an integrated urban fabric. The casino is the antithesis of this. Casinos are focused inward. They want to keep gamblers inside as long as possible. Gambling floors are large, relatively dark, windowless rooms with lots of bling and sound and no clocks. They are designed to suspend a sense of time and place. The casino may have some mixed use in terms of restaurants, shopping, and entertainment, but it is all inside the facility. The last thing any casino owner wants is a patron who leaves to go do something else.
Other features of casinos raise eyebrows. In Detroit, for example, the Motor City Casino is owned by Marian Ilitch, of the billionaire family who owns Little Caesar’s Pizza and the Detroit Tigers. The Greektown Casino is being acquired by billionaire Dan Gilbert, who owns Quicken Loans.
Gilbert is a particular advocate of urban casinos. His Rock Gaming LLC owns casinos in Cleveland and Cincinnati. He spearheaded the effort to amend Ohio’s constitution to permit gambling, leading a group that spent $47 million to get it passed. Gilbert’s constitutional-amendment initiative did much more than allow casinos, however. It permitted casinos on only four specific properties — properties controlled by the referendum backers — and thus granted them exclusive rights to open casinos. It exempted their casinos from zoning or most other types of local control, authorized them to operate 24 hours a day, and specified a very low license fee of only $50 million per casino to the state. It also permitted them not only to run any game currently allowed by any surrounding state, but also any game those states might approve in the future. It’s undoubtedly one of the most incredible constitutional amendments in United States history.
Thursday, May 9th, 2013
My latest blog post is up over at GoLocalProv and is called “ Who’s Coming + Going—Surprising RI Migration Data“. In it I take a look at migration to and from Rhode Island based on my IRS data sets. Here’s a sample:
If it’s true that Rhode Island is a basket case but Massachusetts is so great, why are more people moving from Mass to RI than vice versa?…Massachusetts is actually the #2 source of net imports to Rhode Island. In a sense it is unsurprising. Contrary to popular belief, sprawl is alive and well in America, and people continue to move out further from the centers of metro regions.
What I find most curious is that Rhode Island’s migration problems have been all over the map. Looking back as far as 1995, Rhode Island was losing people and income, but it was recovering, even becoming a net gainer of people in the early 2000s, then the bottom fell out in 2003.
Here’s the image showing the net income flow to/from Rhode Island over time.
Understanding migration flows is critical for any metro area or state, but few people take the time to do any analysis of it.
Wednesday, May 8th, 2013
This week’s city video is from Nathan Kaso and is called “Miniature Melbourne.” If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
Tuesday, May 7th, 2013
Worcester v. Providence: Is Downtown Revitalization the Sum of Urban Revitalization? by Stephen Eide
Worcester, MA and Providence, RI invite comparison for at least four reasons. They’re the same size (pop. ~180,000), they share the same history of deindustrialization and urban decline, they’re only 40 miles apart, and they’re different, which makes comparison stimulating and worthwhile. By most any fiscal or economic measure, Worcester outperforms Providence. But because of the so-called Renaissance, the revitalization of downtown Providence throughout the 1980s and 90s, Providence has attracted far more attention among urbanists and the national media than Worcester. There has never been a Worcester Renaissance.
So which city is the true urban success story? That depends on the extent to which one believes that downtown revitalization is the same as urban revitalization.
Providence is a destination city able to boast of its tourism, arts, culture and “18-hour day.” Rare for an old, cold, mid-sized former milltown, the New York Times travel section has done two features on Providence in the last five years. Providence played a starring role in an eponymous television show (NBC, 1999-2002) somewhat similar to the role that the revitalized New York City played in Sex and the City. This all would have been unimaginable in the 70s, at the peak of the deindustrialization era, but, throughout the 1980s and 90s, Providence underwent a renaissance. The most notable elements of the Providence Renaissance include uncovering and moving two rivers, relocating a railyard, the construction and rehabilitation of several major retail and commercial facilities, historic preservation, and WaterFire, a public festival that attracts thousands to the city on summer evenings. (For the full account of Providence’s revitalization, including a series of terrific “before and after” pictures, see Francis Leazes and Mark Motte’s 2004 book Providence, the Renaissance City.) No one could claim that the success has been total; both the local economy and city budget remain under strain. But there are many other former milltowns which would do anything (indeed, have done everything) to imitate Providence’s success.
|Financing of Select Major Providence Renaissance Projects, 1980-2000|
|Project||Completed||Approximate cost||Primary financing|
|Capital Center (Railroad and river relocation, Providence Station, highway interchange, and Waterplace Park)||1981-1987||$169 million||Federal|
|Union Station (parcel 1)||1989||$80 million||Mixed private-public|
|Convention Center/Westin/ garages||1994||$290 million||State|
|Providence Place/garage||1999||$465 million||Mixed private-public (land; sales tax rebates/abatements)|
|Courtyard by Marriott||2000||$16 million||Private-public (abatements)|
|Source: Leazes and Motte, Providence: The Renaissance City|
Like Worcester. Worcester’s efforts at downtown revitalization have been unrelenting, and not totally unsuccessful, which has enabled local boosters to believe, at any given moment during the last 30 years, that the Worcester Renaissance was at hand. The most notable project now underway is “City Square,” which involves the demolition of a dead mall in the center of downtown. This is an event of tremendous symbolic significance, as many locals attribute downtown Worcester’s decline to the construction of the mall in 1971. In place of the mall will emerge a new medical center, seven-story office building, and other projects still in the planning stages. City government is thrilled. But, if anything, City Square demonstrates the limits of the Worcester development model, which relies almost exclusively on local investment. The project began under the direction of a Boston developer, but stalled after the developer encountered financing difficulties in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. To the rescue came a local insurance company and its public-spirited CEO. Predictably, local officials hailed the benefits of local ownership, but they all missed the point. Worcester is simply not wealthy enough to rely on local capital to bring back downtown. Had a Boston developer scored on a project in Worcester, it would have set a powerful precedent for others to follow. At this point, even if City Square succeeds, many outside developers will likely view the local CEO’s “white knight” intervention as at least partly philanthropic.
By contrast, throughout its renaissance years, Providence had access to a key source of outside investment: state and federal grants. This access was in turn due to the city’s enviable position as a “city state.”
The City State
Providence enjoys a statewide profile unlike that of any other American city. In addition to being the capital, it’s the only large (100,000+) city in the nation’s smallest state. Only three other cities in Rhode Island have over 50,000 residents. 17% of Rhode Island’s population lies within Providence’s borders. (Worcester composes less than 3% of Massachusetts’ population.) The Rhode Island statehouse overlooks downtown Providence. Throughout Rhode Island’s modern history, the vast majority of statewide officeholders were either from Providence, went to school there, and/or got their first break in Providence city government. Providence’s comeback would never have occurred were it not for the massive state and federal aid that backed the projects that formed the core of the Renaissance.
Worcester has always lacked statewide clout. Most of the Massachusetts public, even the most politically-engaged among them, cannot name one Worcester politician. True, that could be said of all Massachusetts cities, which dwell in the shadow of Boston, the state’s capital and commercial center. (Everyone in Massachusetts knows who Tom Menino is.) But even when measured against its peers, Worcester underperforms in state politics. Despite being the state’s second-largest city, the only statewide officeholders Worcester has produced since 1900 have been two lieutenant governors. No governors, no Senators, not even a state treasurer or auditor.
When the Joint Center for Urban Studies at MIT and Harvard issued a report on Worcester’s politics in 1960, it described Worcester as a large city with a small-town feel. Still true. Worcester is well-managed. The local government is competent and honest. There have been no noteworthy political scandals in recent times. But there’s no denying that the city has long suffered from a deficit of political talent, and that this has hindered revitalization.
Benchmarking Worcester and Providence
On the other hand, because it’s in Massachusetts, not Rhode Island, Worcester possesses and enormous economic advantage over Providence. Massachusetts’ economic record of late has been respectable. Rhode Island is the only New England state whose economy has not adapted to post-industrial times. It resembles Michigan or upstate New York more than Connecticut or Massachusetts.
Within Massachusetts itself, Worcester is no pace-setter, but a “Gateway Municipality,” a legal term designating a remedial class of cities that lag behind the rest of the state in measures of income and education. (Gateway municipalities are eligible for special economic development assistance.) But when Worcester’s economic advantages are combined with its superior record of fiscal management, it becomes very unclear why Providence, and not Worcester, should be considered the comeback city.
|Table: Benchmarking Worcester and Providence|
|Peak monthly unemployment, 2008-present||10.5%||15.4%|
|Median monthly unemployment 2008-present||8.6%||13.1%|
|Median household income||$45,846||$38,922|
|Zillow home value index||$161,800||$131,100|
|Median total annual crimes, 2005-2010 (property and violent)||7,914||9,557|
|Median annual murders, 2005-2010||6||15|
|Credit rating (Moodys, S&P, Fitch’s)||A1,A-,AA-||Baa1,BBB,BBB|
|Pension system funding ratio||68%||32%|
|FY12 General fund balance||+ $25.5 million||- $11.4 million|
|Considered Ch. 9 municipal bankruptcy recently?||No||Yes|
|Source: BLS, American Community Survey, Zillow, FBI, Providence and Worcester’s annual financial reports|
Urban Revitalization and Downtown Revitalization
To what extent is urban revitalization downtown revitalization? Downtowns play an outsized role in shaping cities’ reputations to outsiders and natives alike. Regardless of how much of a city’s downtown is taxable private property, downtowns are best-understood as parks, public property. Downtown serves as the geographic equivalent of 4th of July and Memorial Day rituals. You can’t compel people to participate in these rituals and find them meaningful, but their complete absence would signal the complete absence of national pride. Similarly, cities whose downtowns languish usually lack civic pride.
Urbanists grasp the basic civic importance of a commonly-accepted physical center, but they sometimes oversell the economic benefits of downtown revitalization. There can be backlash. Downtown revitalization sometimes fuels downtown vs. neighborhood tension. Was it all for the tourists, or to satisfy some mayor’s “edifice complex”? Did residents benefit at all? Small businesses such as restaurants, boutiques and art galleries are crucial for downtown revitalization. But businesses that small (50 or fewer employees) with no ambition to grow will do little to strengthen the broader metro economy. The holy grail of urban economic development policy is an abundance of good jobs for workers of all levels of skill and education. Heavy manufacturing used to provide such jobs; boutiques and coffee shops do not. Nor, for that matter, do hotels and convention centers.
Maybe downtown revitalization has nothing to do with economic development. The standard justification for the use of taxpayer money to support private development in downtown is that these funds stimulate private investment. Officially, government is making a bet on taxpayers’ behalf, whose success may be judged through tangible fiscal and economic benefits such as a net increase in tax revenues, lower taxes for homeowners, and more jobs for area residents. But perhaps taxpayers are willing to spend this money because they are ashamed of the decrepit state of downtown, and they want it to come back. If downtown is a de facto public park, public expenditures on downtown revitalization may be justified simply for the sake of itself, even we are talking about tax breaks for Starbucks and luxury condo developers. It’s still a bet—all development is a bet—it’s just that the definition of success is different. Free market advocates denounce all forms of public subsidy for economic development, but the public should be allowed to speak for itself. To many citizens, sprucing up downtown is at least as justifiable as improving parks that they haven’t heard of and never visit.
But this argument that public money should be spent on downtown revitalization to boost civic pride would be easier to swallow were it not for the sneakiness of public subsidies for redevelopment. Most subsidies are tax expenditures, which are inherently less transparent than direct appropriations, even though the budgetary impact is the same. Communities want curb appeal, but seem unwilling to pay for it, or, more precisely, accept the fact that they are paying for it.
What do the people want? What’s possible? Everyone wants jobs, growth and good schools, but also a pleasant downtown. The second goal seems to be more realistic than the first set of goals. How many former industrial cities’ unemployment rates or SAT scores exceed statewide averages? Worcester may outperform Providence, but that’s not setting a very high standard. Perhaps the possible, not the ideal should define standards for urban success. If so, then the conventional wisdom is accurate, and Providence does deserve to be more closely studied and more highly regarded than Worcester.
Stephen Eide is a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and editor of the blog Publicsectorinc.org, where this article originally appeared.