(Again, I do not speak for anyone other than myself).
A couple of years ago, I wrote a lot about the need for active revitalization in Alexandria, and frequently, people would respond with legitimate questions and criticisms:
“We’ve been spending millions of dollars in Downtown already,” they would say, “and what do we have to show for it?”
“The ‘free market’ is headed down 28 West; that is where we should spend money.”
“It’s a lost cause. We shouldn’t spend a dime in ‘dead’ areas of town.”
Although I disagreed and continue to disagree with those criticisms, I can certainly appreciate and understand them.
However, as I mentioned in Part One, those critics never seemed to appreciate the tens, if not hundreds, of millions of taxpayer dollars that subsidized the very developments they championed as the “free market.” They would criticize the public’s investment in Downtown infrastructure, yet, in the same breath, they’d point to the $15+ million Versailles Boulevard Extension as a prime example of a market-driven investment. Don’t get me wrong: I think the Versailles Boulevard Extension is an incredibly important project that will create enormous private-sector opportunities and better connect the City. But there’s a cognitive dissonance here: a failure to properly acknowledge the role of taxpayer dollars in creating those opportunities and a failure to recognize that spending $15+ million public dollars to pave a road on farmland means 15+ million fewer dollars for infrastructure in areas where citizens actually live.
As someone born and raised in a family of Alexandria real estate developers, I say this with the utmost respect for the profession and the people: It’s time to fess up. Alexandria’s geographic size did not triple in forty years because its population tripled; it tripled in geographic size because developers, with significant financial assistance from the government, pushed the expansion. I’m not pointing any fingers or casting any specific blame; for more than a generation, this was the reigning economic paradigm, and obviously, the demand was there (even if that demand cannibalized from Alexandria’s historic core).
At the time, Alexandria’s expansion may have appeared to be a reflection of its prosperity, and no doubt, some people prospered from this expansion. But on the whole, this expansion masked some unfortunate truths: Our median household income is abysmal, hovering around $32,000 a year, which is nearly $20,000 less than the national median household income; our per capita crime rate is alarmingly high; entire neighborhoods have fallen into blight and disrepair; and our workforce is rapidly approaching retirement. This expansion also served to excerbate divisions along class, social, and racial lines, divisions that undermine our ability to work together as a community and foster destructive fragmentation and fear.
There is a reason for action in Alexandria.
I know there are some people who believe that reinvesting in our inner-core amounts to socialism. They are wrong. They are ignorant. And they completely misunderstand the project and the purpose.
There are others who may say that such a reinvestment is “speculative.” A few months ago, I met a real estate developer from Florida who told me that she did not “speculate,” and she was serious. If you are in the real estate development business and you do not believe in speculation, you are in the wrong business.
More importantly, if you are in the real estate development business and you don’t recognize the explosive potential of following the public’s investment in infrastructure, you are, most certainly, in the wrong business.
And perhaps, ultimately, that has been Alexandria’s problem for the past forty years: Developers rarely followed public investments; instead, they asked the public to follow their investments. And we built roads, drainage and sewage systems, utility lines, public parks, libraries, and golf courses that served to inflate the value of the farmland that they then carved into cul-de-sacs of houses (that the vast majority of Alexandrians can never afford).
A couple of years ago, I reached out to Jim Kunstler, author of The Geography of Nowhere and an outspoken critic of the public’s investment in sprawl expansion. I tried my best to explain the situation on the ground here in Alexandria, and one of the things he said to me resonates and now seems prescient (bold mine):
Your analysis of the property ownership / city government situation seems valid to me. Apart from the bad codes themselves, there has been an awful lot of bad faith behavior. One might even say that the real public interest was kicked out of the arena some time ago, where land development has been concerned.The good / bad news now is that a lot of the people who benefited from all that misbehavior and bad faith are going to get crushed financially in the years ahead as their property hemorrhages value.
It strikes me that Mr. Kunstler was overly kind in his reply. I assume you have seen his talk at the 2004 TED Conference.
I have been in Alexandria for 16 months now. During that time I have looked at literally almost every neighborhood as a potential place to purchase a home and settle down. Despite inherent problems with space my search for a “good” neighborhood continues to bring me back to the Historic District. Despite the often lack of yard space (I have several rescued dogs) the proximity to resources and work, huge variety of architectural styles, and diversity of people draw me back. Far too many of the “neighborhoods” are, as Mr. Kunstler says, not worth caring about. Pathetic examples of “home” design thrown up as quickly as possible to benefit the…well, you know.
I hadn’t heard Mr. Kunstler’s speech, but I have heard him describe sprawl as the biggest misappropriation of funds in American history. GREAT speech. He is hilarious and spot-on. I hope, one day, we can convince him to speak here in Alexandria. Maybe he would dispel the ridiculous meme that smart infrastructure spending is “communist” or “socialist;” it’s actually good fiscal and public policy.
Thanks for posting it.
Great post Lamar, and well written. I hope that in the near future you won’t feel the need to defend the principles of good planning from those that call it “socialist” or other reductionist labels. Smart growth is indeed where the entire nation is headed. The winds have already changed, and the critics need to get on board.
Another aspect of sprawl, which you haven’t mentioned but is important, is that it encroaches upon wilderness and other natural areas. Central Louisiana is extremely lucky in that it has the Kisatchie National Forest, which offers some excellent opportunities for hiking, biking, hunting and fishing. This land is protected from development (though not from forestation). However, other forested area in Central Louisiana, including some that I used to play in when I was a kid, has been cleared for development.
There is inherent value and social value in keeping our natural areas natural. The cost of losing that value has not been factored into this debate, and is not captured by the “free market.” These costs, which are and will be borne by those in our communities, are external to the market. Anyone interested in development economics must understand the concept of “market externality.” In fact, it has been argued that the two most pressing issues we face today, namely terrorism and global warming, could have been prevented if the markets internalized the unpaid costs of the petroleum culture.