6024e71ab75fc755933515a5551434d414f4541This afternoon, I read the recently published book, The Cul-De-Sac Syndrome: Turning Around the Unsustainable American Dream by John K. Wasik. Throughout the past few months, I have been contemplating a post on how the current economic recession was fueled, in part, by the machinery of sprawl development and the unsustainability of what former President George W. Bush referred to as “the ownership society.” For decades, America has subsidized expansion and sprawl, neglecting and disinvesting in our urban areas and inner-cities and, instead, investing billions and billions of dollars in order to expand road, drainage, sewage, and utility infrastructure to encourage and complement the development of vast, never-ending swaths of suburbia.

Mr. Wasik’s book reveals, in no uncertain terms, how the economics and the subsidization of sprawl, along with an overbearing emphasis on home ownership (at any cost), have contributed to the blight and decay of inner-cities across the nation. The problem was, of course, amplified and underlined by the collapse of subprime mortgages and the proliferation of home foreclosures, but for many people, it should come as no surprise that we were doomed to failure. Not only were millions of people buying houses they could not afford, the government, on all levels, helped to create those conditions by rubberstamping and subsidizing this expansion, with little to no regard of the opportunity costs or of the negative effects– increased energy consumption, an over-reliance on the automobile, plummeting property values in formerly vibrant neighborhoods and downtowns, and, ironically, increased exposure to health risks.

When I hear people dismiss smart growth as some type of socialistic experiment, I can’t help but laugh. Without a doubt, many of the same folks who reject an intuitive reinvestment in inner-city neighborhoods have no appreciation of the massive government subsidization in the suburban sprawl they hold up as “the free market.” Nor do they really care. For critics, it’s mainly about lifestyle, not about economics.

And when I hear people argue that the public should not spend a penny in areas plagued by blight and crime, I usually cringe, particularly considering that, in my own experience, most of the people making such an argument are the beneficiaries of millions of dollars in public infrastructure and public services, augmenting the values of their large-lot single-family homes, their schools, and their parks and recreation facilities. (By the way, I am not, in any way, suggesting that people, like me, who live in large-lot single-family homes are somehow universally opposed to inner-city reinvestment– just that the vast majority of the small minority of critics are attempting to argue bad economics to justify a lifestyle decision, a decision, by the way, that is in no way being threatened by a focused effort in the inner-city).

Oh, and there is one more thing: Studies prove that reinvesting in existing infrastructure and encouraging in-fill, densified development can create substantial opportunities in the private-sector and, on the whole, best ensures the public’s return on investment. (I will expand on this in a subsequent post).

I don’t wear rose-colored glasses, and I don’t believe it’s honest or appropriate to gloss over the significant challenges that we face, as a community, a State, and a nation. If we could snap our fingers and immediately redevelop our inner-cities, we would have snapped our fingers years ago. It’s just not that easy.

We are all ill-served when we refuse to base our decisions on reality-based assumptions and instead prefer abstract hypotheticals. There are a couple of reasons that some areas of Alexandria have been able to attract retail and commercial opportunities and some haven’t, and we should all be honest:

1. Although traffic count is important, retailers care much more about population density and median household incomes. There must be a critical mass of residents within a certain pre-defined service area, and the median household income of the area should indicate that residents have the buying power to purchase products at the retailer’s price points. National retailers do not base their decisions on emotions; they look at the numbers. The higher the population density and the greater the median household income, the more attractive an area is to a developer. Incentives and infrastructure matter, of course, but in today’s recessionary economy, retail and commercial developers (at least those whose projects actually ADD value to an area) aren’t going to take on feel-good projects unless their business model is sustainable.

2. Again, incentives and infrastructure matter. Before our inner-city can truly avail itself to value-adding and job-creating private sector developments, we must improve existing infrastructure. No one personally courted Wal-Mart to develop a new super store on Highway 28, for example, and Wal-Mart’s decision had nothing to do with the desires of a neighborhood organization. (Incidentally, in an underdeveloped area, neighborhood groups are much more effective when they focus on the master planning and macro-economic issues of their neighborhood, instead of being preoccupied by political issues and the promise of micromanagerial control– which, to an outside developer, makes a neighborhood group appear more like a special interest and less like an authentic champion). For better or worse, Wal-Mart came because they knew rooftops were popping up all around the corridor, moderate and high-income residents, and all of the surrounding infrastructure was new and well-built. Moreover (and somewhat bizarrely), Wal-Mart actually received incentives to build on the edge of town.

As they say, patience is a virtue, and throughout the country, leaders are recognizing that improving and increasing access to affordable housing in the inner-city is the most critical first step in revitalization. Of course, in the inner-city, there is not nearly as much land for a massive development of large-lot single-family homes as there is in the suburbs; however, there are ample opportunities for densified developments (which can more efficiently increase population, raise household income, respond to a documented need, create a desirable environment for retail and commercial developers, and better maximize publicly-funded services).

We would all be mistaken if we believed the best way to redevelop our inner-city is by attempting to replicate sprawl models. The very first objective of reinvesting in an inner-city, not just in Alexandria but in communities all across the nation, should be increasing the standard and quality of life for existing residents, which means improving existing infrastructure and encouraging the development of quality, affordable housing. Until then, we won’t be able to attract quality retail and commercial developments.

It is a simple formula:

A = Median Household Income/ Population Density

B = Quality Infrastructure

C = Opportunities for Retail and Commercial Development

A + B = C

Certainly, home ownership is important, but if we have learned anything about this issue during the past three years, it is that home ownership is not a panacea and that (perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively) over-emphasizing ownership can cause people to live way beyond their means, inadvertently decreasing discretionary spending (spending that is often bankrolled by home mortgages) and thereby also decreasing buying power.

Even more importantly, private-sector development decisions are reality-based and evidenced-based; there is little room for “emotional appeal.” Your house may be worth $1 million to you, even though it’s only worth $150,000 to everyone else, but if you need the money and you want to sell, you should probably recognize that no one is going to pay a premium for your emotional attachment. Sorry.

And the same thing applies to commercial development: Despite America’s renewed interest in redeveloping inner-city and inner-core neighborhoods, development is still contingent on raw, objective, unemotional facts and numbers. If anyone claims otherwise, then you should ask them if they are willing to put their money where their mouth is; if not, well, they simply do not know what they are talking about.

Although this post is, in no way, a book review, I highly recommend The Cul-De-Sac Syndrome to anyone who is truly interested in learning about the history and the causes of the American housing collapse.

12 thoughts

  1. Lamar,

    I know that “smart growth” is one of your key issues. I hope you understand that Wal-Mart, despite being driven heavily by the market, is a sprawl-enabler. While I’m not in favor of the anti-capitalism efforts to stop Wal-Mart’s expansion, neither do I regard “Red China’s PR arm and retail outlet” as anything approaching benign.

    Wal-Marts do nothing but destroy what main street and “mom and pop” businesses that may have survived the suburban mall revolution of the 70s and 80s and Wal-Mart waves 1, 2 and 3. Also, while a Wal-Mart (and they are almost always Supercenters, now) typically opens in an already expanding area, the presence of a Wal-Mart is like adding fuel to the fire, accelerating and making permanent, the growth area, regardless of whether that growth is “smart” or “dumb”.

    1. Believe me, you and I are in agreement about the destructive development decisions inflicted on communities across the nation by Wal-Mart.

      I’ve posted about Wal-Mart extensively, and I was (and remain) adamantly opposed to giving them a dime in taxpayer money.

      I only offered that particular development as an example of the formulations used by retailers in determining locations.

  2. Lamar,
    I would be interested in knowing if the book notes the crime aspect of the ‘Cul-de-Sac’ design. In overlaying moderate to low income over areas with dead-end streets its very interesting to note the near match in higher crime in the same areas. Police can’t get through to patrol and there’s no quick way out … kind of like water … it cant drain so it gets stagnant.

    1. Padre,

      Yes it does, but not in the way you suggest (though I think you definitely have a point).

      With respect to crime in suburbia, the book primarily focuses on the ways in which depreciating home values in the suburbs, caused by our unquenchable thirst for expansion, will ultimately result in blight, crime, and disinvestment- a problem that, as you imply, will likely be worsened by the barriers that cul-de-sac patterns present for police and fire response.

  3. Enjoyed the article and could not have said it better. Alexandria, surprisingly, has retained a lot of its mom and pop businesses. When I moved here, I was surprised at how many small businesses existed and how many customers are loyal to them. For being smaller than Shreveport, Lafayette, etc., and having many big box retailers in the area, it is interesting that so many small businesses exist. Actually, it may be “existed” soon. I do note that a few businesses have been closing their doors due to the economy. Do you mind if I repost?

  4. By the way, despite what some may be saying on the Town Talk and other local blogs, no one denies that combating crime has to be an essential part of any redevelopment strategy, which is why a joint Sheriff/APD substation has been a critical piece of the plans for Lower Third, for example.

    Sometimes, I don’t know if people are just fighting for the sake of fighting or if they simply suffer from selective hearing.

    Also, there is someone out there who calls himself or herself a “political insider,” yet they continually and publicly demonstrate complete ignorance about the subject of inner-city redevelopment.

    They’re telling people the City is going to spend $8 million out of its own coffers, when, in fact, the development to which they are referring is being driven by the private-sector. It is actually $7.5 million in private dollars.

    Essentially, the lesson should be: If you have to name yourself “politicalinsider,” you may be “political,” but you’re obviously not an “insider,” whatever that means. The facts have always been available for anyone who cared.

  5. Lamar,

    As I have previously commented on this blog, I think that the environmental impact of cutting down forests to build sprawl development is another major compelling reason to refocus our growth efforts in already developed urban areas. Does Wasik discuss this at all?

  6. Yes, I discuss the environmental impact of growth. The old way of building homes — stick building with 2 by 4s — is tremendously wasteful Modular building is clearly one of the solutions. It’s greener, uses less resources and labor and can be customized. I call towns in the middle of sprawl “spurbs.” We shouldn’t be subsidizing them. Let’s rebuild inner cities and suburbs. Much more in the book!

    1. Hey! Thanks Mr. Wasik for the comment!

      I actually spent an hour last night browsing through Michelle Kauffman’s website: ( http://www.mkd-arc.com/ ) after reading about her work in your book.

      If we can get the costs of these units down, her type of modular housing would be a fantastic way of reclaiming vacant and dilapidated properties in inner-cities– and on a massive scale.

      I don’t think Katrina Cottages can even compete with Kauffman’s models when it comes to energy efficiency and sustainability– which, ultimately, pays for itself in utility bill reductions. (And I know that Katrina Cottages were designed with a different purpose and utility in mind).

      The federal government should be able to create a really innovative home building program around this type of modular housing.

      (Which, to those unfamiliar, is NOTHING like mobile homes).

      Again, thanks for your comment. Your book should be considered a must-read for anyone involved in real estate development, city planning, and urban design.

  7. Thanks, Lamar. I have another architect to consider for your proposed project. Elizabeth Eason, who’s based in Knoxville, Tennessee. She’s done quite a bit of work in the green building arena and has a relationship with Oak Ridge National Lab, which is a hotbed for green homebuilding research (www.eearchitecture.com 130 W. Jackson Avenue, Suite 101 | Knoxville, TN 37902 | 865.525.9066). And I agree, modular housing is the way of the future, but the costs will come down only if these kinds of homes are mass produced and there are state and local incentives to build this way.

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