What is Good Growth? What is Good Development?

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.


  1. Noel Kuck says

    One of my pet peeves is the blind way that cities allow new development while there are scores of vacant structures around. Just the infrastructure required to sustain a new buliding, i.e., utilities, fire, police, transportation and roads, snow removal, etc., don’t add up in comparison to making it first mandatory that these empty buildings be evaluated for redevelopment and reuse. Incentives could be offered for their redevelopment that should easily be less costly than building new.

  2. The city has done an excellent job of planning in some ways but is very poor in others. They need a real development plan rather than taking whatever developers bring, which tends to be boomtown CONDOS now HOTELS now APARTMENTS, rather than building in measured and sustainable ways. The other area where the city needs to improve is ensuring livability within the types of urban/dense/central districts they are striving to create. There are instances of businesses running roughshod over residents, and vice versa, going in in the downtown at the moment, and the city does nothing to help.

    • This statement is inaccurate. First, as we speak there is a surprisingly equal number of condo, apartment and hotel units under construction simultaneously. The same is true for proposed projects and those completed in the past few years (including Office with the Tombras building). Second, it’s very unwise to centrally plan with such minute precision; or to categorically prohibit whole segments of CRE development. Who is going to make such decisions and based upon what information?

  3. I moved here from Memphis. Just look at Memphis if you want to see a perfect example of developers being allowed to do whatever they want. Farmland was cheap and elected officials were in the developers’ pockets, so now almost every foot of Shelby County has been paved over, and the city can’t afford to maintain the infrastructure and can’t afford adequate police and fire protection for 300+ square miles of city area. I am so, SO glad to see Knoxville talking about smart growth NOW. It is absolutely essential to keep legitimate checks and balances in place.

  4. Thank you so much for addressing this issue! Having worked with development projects in the past, this has long been a pet peeve of mine in many cities. Responsible development is so important, not only for esthetics, but for all of the reasons listed above.
    Another consideration I wish cities would look at during development and road repair is the addition of grated areas so that the included trees are not chocked out by the lack of available absorbable surface. A few years ago Maryville College lost one of it’s beautiful old century trees to this very thing as they had surrounded it with pavement leaving no possible way for water or nutrients to get to the roots. Nature also appreciates responsible development! Responsible development is everyone’s responsibility! Thank you again for addressing this.

  5. This article is a great primer for discussion on so many levels for Knoxville and the future of development in the area. I couldn’t agree more with the idea of more infill & increased density downtown. I am happy to see that vacant lots are finally being filled downtown with new structures, and with that comes the increased concern that the new structures represent positive and sustainable growth and not just the cheapest possible product to fill the site. Not every project will be a beautiful butterfly that wows the masses, but raising city standards & requirements that developments must meet, and then holding strong and not caving to the excitement or fear of losing the project will be important. Mixed-use should be a requirement of every downtown development in my opinion and the city should not ever waiver on that. All garages should have liner buildings or retail at the pedestrian level, and the city should not waiver on that. Everyone wants Knoxville to grow. Some people want the suburbs to grow more and downtown to stay quaint and small-townish. Some people want downtown to be a dense metro with walkable blocks and a variety of retail options. Some people want the bedroom neighborhoods of downtown to get equal love and density to make them more inviting. I think most people fall somewhere in the middle of these three ideas if you could imagine them as a Venn diagram. It’s great to see this as a discussion that is happening in the city right now. I hope with the increased availability of information on developing projects in the city will also come the increased scrutiny and carefulness towards the process of design. Not every project will be a beautiful butterfly, but hopefully, the days of slapping something mediocre together will be on the decline in coming years. I will add, however, that if we want better-designed buildings in Knoxville we will also have to be prepared to pay for the design and deal with the fact that Nashville & Atlanta make construction very expensive in our city as well. Good job Alan!

    • Wait there are actually people who want the suburbs to expand? And downtown remain small? What good would that do for anyone?…

      • As alien as it sounds there are some people that technically live in Knoxville city limits and live about 95% of their daily lives out West or somewhere far away from the CBD. These people only come into town like once or twice a month at most and they complain about the lack of parking and the wait to get into a restaurant and they just wish all this development downtown would stop so they can enjoy it more as a casual visitor.

        • I mean I live out west too but I know there’s more parking than the Market Square Garage and know how to make reservations. I just feel like I die a little inside every time I see more of those atrocious “Brick-in-Front” vinyl sided houses bring built.

          • Terry jenkins says

            Who gave the developers permission on blocking the view to the river with the development on Henley street bridge

          • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

            Permission isn’t needed for that. It’s legal and happens in every city, though it’s often disliked by those who lose their view.

  6. I’m a little discouraged by how these developers come in and clear cut all the trees when they build a new housing development (i.e. Hardin Valley) I live in one, but they actually left a lot of the original trees… It’s so much nicer…a park like setting. Who wants to live 20 feet from the house next to you, that also looks identical to yours, and not a single mature tree left in the whole subdivision?? If I wanted to live in treeless Kansas I would have moved to Kansas…. You’d think that the regulating committee would have a say regarding this.

    • Thank you for saying this. Do NOT cut down all the trees! They add value to property. I hope Recode Knoxville is able to stop the destruction.

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