Spare Parts

Crony capitalism receives more prominent attention via the Atlantic’s October issue. Gregg Easterbrook takes aim at one of the grandest corporate thieves, the tax-free NFL and its legions of public welfare needy owners.

Considering the public fiascoes in Miami over the Marlins stadium, Minnesota’s nearly half a billion dollar gift to the Vikings and other continued flagrant violations of public interest, I will not hold my breath for any actual progress.

I do love this proposal though:

The NFL’s nonprofit status should be revoked. And lawmakers—ideally in Congress, to level the national playing field, as it were—should require that television images created in publicly funded sports facilities cannot be privatized. The devil would be in the details of any such action. But Congress regulates health care, airspace, and other far-more-complex aspects of contemporary life; it can crack the whip on the NFL.

If football images created in places funded by taxpayers became public domain, the league would respond by paying the true cost of future stadiums—while negotiating to repay construction subsidies already received. To do otherwise would mean the loss of billions in television-rights fees. Pro football would remain just as exciting and popular, but would no longer take advantage of average people.

The ‘next big thing’ obsession of municipalities and regions is often central to these public treasury abuses, as they seek the next big thing that can restore, revamp or just further entrench their status among counterparts in America and the world. Nor rarely can the ‘white elephant’ complex  be far behind as governments chase the highly improbable.

Not for the last time, may I add that civic spirit does not exist in modern America?

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Meanwhile in my new home of Raleigh, we have a classic one-sided “woe be the inner urban poor” story.

So it’s clear to Johnson and her neighbors that someone wants them out – their apartments knocked down and replaced by something more profitable.

The potential sale of 245 apartments for lower-income people has reignited long-simmering fears that downtown Raleigh’s rebirth will crowd out poorer neighbors to the south and east, swallowing up blocks suddenly turned valuable.

For most communities, the obsession by some on the Left for housing equality access taking precedence over infill development is terribly misplaced.

Raleigh’s struggles to overcome its own underutilized urban core are only intensified by these theatrics which accomplish little and undermine much.

Maximizing the productivity of core areas with excellent development potential is an act of social justice in itself, improving countless vital metrics across the board from tax revenues to public service provisions (transit, policing, schools). Concerns that people will be pushed out are valid but ultimately far less consequential than the benefits that accrue from that process.

The brutal truth is that we are in a time where the government (federal, state or local) does not have the means nor the will to subsidize people to live in prime urban real estate at a great discount and at the expense of long-term societal improvement via revitalizing downtown cores in suburbs, cities and towns.

The valid concerns about this process can be addressed by (not a conclusive list):

  • improving transit service (including adding more flexibility into the system) in suburban areas,
  • reforming discriminatory zoning codes in suburban areas that tilt multi-family development away from broad appeal and greater income accessibility,
  • revitalizing and in some cases creating new foundations of non-profit support of the working poor and the fixed-income elderly

Certainly, I have much more to say about this, especially regarding that above list. That is for another time…

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Lost Connection

I have vivid, joyous memories of growing up in a small Pennsylvania town. Living in a neighborhood with sidewalks, my friends and I walked or biked everywhere; even into another state (NY state was 25 minutes away on foot). We enjoyed backyards, public parks and even two wooded areas surrounded by an open greenfield to play everything from football to X-Men in (the cartoon was big then). I walked to school, cut through several backyards in a trek to K-Mart to buy a snow sled after a winter storm, had fights in neighbor’s front yards who were not home (with one exception disastrously), shoveled snow from some of those same neighbors’ driveways and I stayed in a perpetual state of grounding from the very week we moved to the town in 1992 for exceeding my bounds*. I knew more than two dozen kids in my neighborhood within my age range and was constantly at play or ‘hanging out’ with one or more of them when I was not grounded and the weather was not too menacing. We lived and the sidewalk was our highway to everywhere!

*Not yet 10, in the summer of 1993 I rode a bike to the next town over, stopped at a corner market for a Yoo-Hoo and was spotted by my father and the Snap-On salesman having lunch across the street.

Right before 7th grade, my father’s new job took us to the Triad region of North Carolina. We moved to an apartment complex aside a busy state two-lane highway. There were no nearby parks, no backyards for sports besides two basketball courts, and definitely no sidewalks in sight. My seemingly vast group of friends was replaced by a few kids who I played basketball with from time to time. I started to play video games much, much more than I ever had and when I bored of them read even more books than usual. The internet’s arrival in my apartment eliminated my boredom, especially in the heady days of AOL chat where I could enjoy incredible conversations with fellow music and book fans.

However, something was wrong about where we lived. Sure, I felt safe in the complex and riding the bus to school was no tragedy (until I was still riding it as a high school junior!). Still, life had dramatically changed, though I could not explain it except to bring up long-gone friends and the absent freedom of being able to independently walk or bike damn near anywhere I wanted.

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Ten years later, I was completing a research project on the pedestrian experiences of the elderly. The results were grim, especially for those in poor health who needed the outdoors activity of walking the most. A super-majority of elderly lived in ‘neighborhoods’ without sidewalks. Grocery stores and public parks were out of reach, accessible only by car and in rare instances public transit.

It all dawned on me personally then.

Studying urban planning (among other things), I knew the relationship between developers, zoning regulations and urban form. The same options denied to me as a middle-school teens had been denied to many of the elderly I studied. We, indeed a majority of the country, had been presented with a dubious choice: you can get anywhere you want anytime, as long as you have a car. Those without a car were often left behind in planning and governance. They now comprise a quarter of the population and are growing in number. 

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Such arrogant policy is no longer a prudent or justifiable mode of planning and development with the demographics of today and tomorrow. The policies that coerce people into this lifestyle with burdensome regulations and developer giveaways, bribe them into accepting it with future generations’ money paying for waste, and hold them to it with a dubious real estate valuation model are wrecking the country’s finances and harming its productivity. 

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Simply put, we have enormous issues as a country. I want to write about them on this blog and will link them when possible to planning and development.  When I cannot, I will instead look towards the future and do my best to imagine how they will shape the cities and towns of tomorrow.