What is Good Growth? What is Good Development?

Knoxville Skyline from the South Knoxville Bridge, June 2017
Knoxville Skyline, December 2016

Please don’t expect that either I completely understand the answers to those questions or that I can condense the information to a meme-sized statement. Urban growth and development are complicated topics. Sometimes it’s easier to point out bad development than it is to explain what would be good development.

But it is critical that we grapple with the questions and it is important that more regular citizens understand and demand good development. We’ve seen past generations of development which ripped apart communities, destroyed entire city blocks and otherwise set cities back. Whether inspired by greed, racism or misguided good intentions, the results are the same.

Do we need more skyscrapers? Are we better off to have six story buildings? What materials make for better buildings? Out-of-state developers may have more money, but do they care about anything other than making more money? Is there a way we can use their investment, but assure ourselves well-designed, thoughtful development?

And who is making certain that we get good development – not just development that meets minimal standards and will look pretty and shiny for the moment, but become a liability for another generation? When developers meet with city officials to present plans, does the city have an architect present who can distinguish between excellent construction and design and something less? Do we have an urban planner who is looking at the larger context and how each project does or does not contribute to our vision for good urban development?

Knoxville Skyline from the South Knoxville Bridge, June 2017

Those are a lot of questions that we need to answer. Some of the answers, as we currently operate, might not be the ones you might wish to hear. One thing we are getting right at the urban core is our current trend of producing in-fill projects. It makes complete sense if you think about it: We can build on a vacant lot that already has infrastructure waiting in the street or we can build a new suburban development which requires new infrastructure which the city then must maintain.

The worst thing a city or county can do is allow development in every far-flung corner, assuming responsibilities for maintenance of new infrastructure it cannot possibly afford. And, no, the taxes generated by the resultant development does not pay for the infrastructure costs in the long-term.

In, “The More We Build, the Poorer We Get,” on the Strong Towns website, Charles Marohn makes the argument using the state of Illinois to make the point. The state needs (and he says this is an underestimate) $21 Billion A YEAR to repair its infrastructure. It doesn’t have the money, and yet, more infrastructure is built. He says much of the current infrastructure will have to be abandoned.

This formula holds at the city, county, state and national level. Our passion to spread out, fueled by our automobile dependence, will result (and is resulting) in economic ruin. Yes, it’s true in Illinois, but think of all the bridges and roads that can’t be repaired nationally. Even small cities like Lafayette, Louisiana have built themselves all the way to being broke.

Knoxville Skyline

Marohn says the solution – either by deliberate, thoughtful choice going forward, or simply because the money isn’t there will be fewer pipes, roads and other infrastructure as it deteriorates beyond use. He also pointed to Detroit as a cautionary tale:

We only need to look to Detroit to see how brutally painful this transition can be. Detroit was the first city to experiment with the auto-oriented development pattern that now dominates North America, doing so aggressively following World War I and through the 1920’s. In a sense, American cities copied the Motor City, just not aggressively until after World War II. This puts most cities in Illinois a decade or two behind Detroit.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, Detroit leaders throughout the era of decline promised every neighborhood they would not be abandoned. The relentless math suggested otherwise, a reality we’ve seen play out on the ground.

The following video follows through a bit on the theme:

Finally, there is an insidious form of development, which is really non-development. In this case, a “developer,” purchases large amounts of land or numerous buildings and, after making big promises, does nothing. Often the plans sound so grand the city buys in and gives them benefits, states give them grants – and then nothing happens.

In an excellent article on the topic, “The Clemen’s House Paradox: When Development Dollars Speed Neighborhood Decline,” Kea Wilson documents one extreme case in St. Louis in which a particular developer owns hundreds of buildings and allows them to crumble. What’s the angle or financial reward? Maybe simply waiting until the blighted areas become hot enough for development. He’s already more than doubled his money on a parcel of land the city sold him, then eventually bought back.

Night Skyline, Knoxville, April 2013

In St. Louis, as here, this kind of shell game is devastating, particularly if the party owns important buildings in a redevelopment area. Money is flowing for development, right now, but that won’t always be the case. If some of our best buildings don’t get developed during this boom, they may never get developed – and that is a cost the city can’t afford to stand by and bear.

So, we end with where we started – so many questions. How does the city aggressively confront the people who are damaging our progress? If the answer is timidly and slowly, we may lose the battle to preserve some of our best buildings. We may wind up with empty buildings sporting so many empty promises. We need to get this right.