If we don't maintain what we have, it will fall apart.
My neighborhood is lobbying the City for $1 million in streetscape redesign money to match $4 million promised by our business district. At some level, this is a reasonable public-private partnership; businesses provide 80 percent of the funding and the city covers the rest. Yet, there is another side to this otherwise agreeable story.
The neighborhood has been arguing that our streetscape is falling apart and it needs to be fixed. They've been making this plea for a couple years. Maintenance is expensive, or so it goes, and it'd be just better if we tore it all out and built something new.
Here's what it looks like today:
Bricks are missing. Retaining walls are sloping. The area is starting to age (well, it's almost 30 years old!).
Something has bothered me about the not-so-old bricked streetscape and the business district's complaint: there's nothing wrong that can't be fixed with a little duct tape and TLC. All of the neighborhood's minor chips and dents could be solved with about $5,000 of brick, mortar and the labor cost of an underemployed bricklayer.
But, if fixing what we have takes such little effort, why aren't we doing it? And why are we spending $5 million to boot!?! And, why should we trust someone with a new, more expensive streetscape if they aren't even responsible enough to minimally maintain the basics of what they currently have?
Let me give you a few examples:
Ten bricks have fallen off, but no one has even bothered to pick the weeds?
A tree has been removed, yet instead of re-planting a tree (total cost: $250 - $400), we let the soil collect weeds?
A patch of weeds? How about some grass, a bench and a bike rack?
Here's the level of disregard: I noticed the condition (left) had been poor for a couple weeks. I decided to get on my knees and get to work. Two minutes later I had rearranged the bricks (right). It's not a perfect, but it looks 10 times better (and it took literally two minutes). In weeks, not a soul who worked for the business or the city government thought to do something.
These are not streetscapes in front of marginal businesses. This is Highland Park in St. Paul. The photos were taken outside of a high-end yoga studio, boutique medical clinic, Barnes & Noble, upscale gift shop, popular book store and a busy sub shop. So, what gives?
The best analogy is that you buy a new house in 1985. For 28 years, you do nothing. Now, it's 2013 and the roof leaks water, the kitchen is out-dated and the basement is moldy. It's in a state of disrepair and you tear it down!
This, of course, is ridiculous. You wouldn't do that! The second the roof started to leak, you'd fix it. When the stove stopped working, you'd replace it. When the basement got musty, you'd clean it and buy a dehumidifier. Now, why aren't we doing this with local community infrastructure?
This is exactly what is happening with my local business district, and likely, yours too. The problem is that people involved assume it's someone else's responsibility. It's a byproduct of the top-down approach. The business district can contend it's the city's fault while the city claims the business district has it backwards. The real is answer that it's not clear. Nobody appears to know what's going on, so by default, no one does anything.
This model takes the constant "eyes on the street" to handle small issues away from locals, or at least, confuses them about what to do. The $5 million project is a big windfall that takes little effort on behalf of the businesses besides a financial contribution. They provide the money and the city rebuilds the sidewalks. Yet, constantly tending to bricks, picking weeds and planting flowers; well, that takes effort (but little money). It's the type of effort that can only be handled by the locals, those who experience and interact with the space on a daily basis.
We've bypassed the maintenance and defaulted to the "built it brand-spanking-new then leave it alone for 20 years and then say it's falling apart and we need a new one" policy. This is how we treat public infrastructure in the United States, be it a water main, public park, sports stadium or pedestrian mall.
There is one place that has a not-so-crumbling bricked planter. It's outside a wine and cheese shop and eye clinic. They've given the street some duct tape and it looks like this:
Not bad. It's the same bricked planter as everywhere else in the neighborhood. It's missing a few bricks, but pieced together and has some flowers. Flowers aren't cheap, but their small investment makes the streetscape better by many times over. If nothing else, while walking past, one gets the impression that the business, and the people who run it, care about the neighborhood.
St. Paul giving $1 million to Highland Park to improve the streetscape is akin to watching your teenager beat up the old Buick and then deciding to buy him a new car because the old car is in such bad shape (that, and there are about 1 million better ways to spend $1 million locally).
The heart of the matter is that this isn't the way we should treat shared infrastructure. We need to constantly be on the lookout at the most local level and constantly care for its health. If we don't maintain what we have, it will fall apart. And it'll cost us a lot more money to fix it back up.
The Star Tribune recently ran an article about Minnesota’s 2006 law change that prevents cities from pursuing eminent domain for public purpose economic development schemes. It prevents cities from condemning property and reassembling it for projects (such as the Best Buy Corporate Campus along I-35 and I-494),
There was a haunting piece of information in The Atlantic Cities that should send shivers down the spines of city leaders across the country.
Over the last 20 years, convention space in the United States has increased by 50 percent; since 2005, 44 new convention spaces have been planned or constructed in this country alone. That boom hasn’t come cheap. In the last ten years, spending on convention centers has doubled to $2.4 billion annually, much of it from public coffers. [Is It Time to Stop Building Convention Centers?]
The desire for convention centers is simple: it brings in visitors with outside money who consume things that are taxed at higher rates (alcohol, hotel rooms, rental cars, etc). From the city’s perspective, it appears to be a win-win. But, these investments come at a cost. In this case, the cost is increased competition.
The article continues,
There aren’t really enough conventions to go around. The actual number of conventions hosted in the U.S. has fallen over the last decade. Attendance at the 200 largest conventions peaked at about 5 million in the mid-1990s and has fallen steadily since then. [Is It Time to Stop Building Convention Centers?]
The number of conventions and total number of people going to conventions has decreased since it peaked in the mid-1990s. The situation we have now is that of more cities are competing for fewer dollars.
It's a classic race to the bottom.
The problem with convention center developments are numerous: there are usually a lot of bad urban design outcomes, they’re large buildings that are essentially single-use that don’t lend much to street life, and they cost local governments a lot of money.
Here’s the bigger problem. Convention centers aren’t limited to just our major cities. Most mid-size cities have them, too. In Minnesota – it’s not just Minneapolis and St. Paul, it’sMankato, St. Cloud, Duluth, Rochester and even Bemidji!
The State pays for most of them. The confusing part is why a State would subsidize Bemidji’s convention center that will directly compete with its other State-aided convention centers in Mankato, St. Cloud, Duluth and Rochester. The cities are competing against each other to provide more space for fewer events and fewer people?
Minneapolis and St. Paul may struggle to make payments on conventions center operating cost overruns or debt service payments, but are big enough to absorb some bad decisions. But, towns like Mankato (pop. 40,000) and Bemidji (pop. 15,000) shouldn’t be risking economic growth on a convention center (or convention center expansions, of which is being seriously considered in Mankato).
I’m going to pick on Bemidji’s new convention-entertainment center. It cost $75 million.
[Image from www.ci.bemidji.mn.us website. Click to enlarge]
The problems here are numerous. Much has been written on convention centers andsporting arenas and their failures at delivering even the most modest of economic gains. This is a concern. But, I wanted to take a different angle.
It’s not just that these projects are economic losers. They more than often destroy prime parcels of real estate with little or nothing to show for it except lots of parking.
It’s approximately 1.4 miles from the center of town, occupies a large parcel of prime land on the south shore of Lake Bemidji, doesn’t add any real value to the adjacent neighborhood and won’t pay any property taxes. A better use of this land could be doing something as simple as just continuing the street grid and added single family homes.
This is a sample of 10 blocks of mostly taxpaying single-family homes that will easily fit on the parcel. Coincidentally, this is approximately the same space dedicated to parking.
To make matters worse, it’s about the same size as Bemidji’s charming and loveable downtown. Financing of the project aside, we need to scale down the size of our developments – especially those in small towns.
Continuing to expand convention center space is the economic development equivellent of gambling aginst someone with a stacked deck. It's not going to end well.