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Monthly Archives: January 2017

Sharks and Cacti in Suburbia

More from my on-going discussion of development in this part of Florida. Just FYI–Vlass is a development firm that walked all over a local plan. single person is responsible for the city’s downturn–even though elected officials presiding over it have the unenviable task of wearing failure–such is the nature of politics. Really though, the problems are very large and deep and historically rooted–and they are not unique to TT. For those who never considered the history of towns like these, you might want to read someone like James Howard Kunstler who has a very informed (though somewhat grim) understanding of the relevant histories. The long and short is that our kind of suburbia is an artificial creation–manufactured by federal government policy after WWII when there was a strong public desire to get as many families in tract homes as possible and sustained by preferential federal funding. Federal money fed mortgages and subsidized everything needed for suburban life from roads to the cost of gasoline. City turmoil in the 1960 accelerate suburban growth and by the 1980s firms were moving to “exurbs” since so much of the labor force lived there and found driving to be less fun than they had imagined. Federal funds for cities bottomed out (think NYC bankruptcy) as voters pulled those funds to the suburbs which only further accelerated the growth of suburbs. The accordion was stretching out its bellows. Suburban towns always had a hard time paying their way though and always looked to state and federal funds to infill. For much of the suburbs’ first 50 years of life, it was city dwellers who footed the bill so other people could have lawns.  But voters put in people who began to cut off Federal funds in the 1980s. Costs of running cities like ours piled up while the subsidies that made them possible dried up (think the Orange County Bankruptcy crisis). Taxes went down at the national level, but those cuts were more than made up for in new local taxes (the ones to infill the loss of Federal monies) and new “fees.” By the 1990s tax cutting in one arena made life more expensive for everyone through new taxes elsewhere and new fees all over the place–tax cuts always mean you will pay more for things–either in new taxes or out of pocket (think Lexus Lanes or the current Student Debt Crisis). Things like water had been seen as a public good and were funded that way. But by the 1990s these were increasingly seen as consumer choices–meaning the user bears the cost (which are always higher when privatized because someone must be making a profit–otherwise why do it at all?). As the quality of suburban life stagnated in the 1990s there also was a mass increase. Cheap land and mass development meant cheap homes for Americans whose real wages have not increased relative to the cost of living since 1970. In 1980 the minimum wage in today’s dollars was $16 and hour! New developments full of affordable homes exacerbated traffic and sprawl problems while the cost of living slowly went up and subsidy went down. In the 1950s, suburban life meant family and home–by the late 1990s it was two working parents sitting at the table fretting about how to pay all the bills. Children raised in this world wanted something else and they began to look with new eyes at the cities their parents and grandparents had abandoned. The accordion began to retract. In the 1990s it was suburbs that superseded cities in crime statistics and by the 2000s the drug problem was no longer an “urban” one, but one of the suburbs and even rural America (think meth). All the while, shrinking pools of government development and infrastructure monies went into cities as the gravity shifted away from the suburbs. Suburban dwellers who had been driven around for decades in a very comfy limo paid for by other folks suddenly had their driver stop, open their door, and ask them to step out of the car leaving them in a dry prickly desert next to a cactus. When the suburbanites said-“wait, I don’t know how to survive here….this was never the deal….?” the driver just tipped his cap, and said “not my problem buddy–pull yourself up by your boot straps,” closed the door and drove off. That is where we are. Having been built with outside support that support is now gone, we are forced to rely on skills and resources we never had. Every one of our structures still envisions a world manageable by gentleman amateurs who the voters ask only to allot the monopoly money. As Vlass and others have shown, in fact, we are minnows swimming with the sharks whose big friendly toothy smiles disguise what those teeth are really there for. On top of that–every similar city is in the same lifeboat and we are all glaring at each other waiting the chance to slit the other guy’s throat and scarf up that last can of water. Hockey players chip their teeth and politicians get blamed for things they cannot control–that is part of the job description and no one puts a gun to your head to make you take either job. But–we still need to grasp where we are how we got here if we are going to find a way to survive under this cactus.

How We Build ‘Round These Parts

I have been participating in a community discussion about local development and redevelopment. It became clear to me that there was considerable confusion and imprecision in the terms people use in discussing building and development. So, I wrote these vignettes to help clarify. I sort of liked them–so here they are.


Hello. I am a Big Box Store. I bring shopping convince close to where people live. Sometimes I can offer great prices and selection and I will need a staff–so I bring some jobs too. Builders like me because I am cheap and fast to build. I always demand acres of parking spaces because I want every possible to car to get into my lot–even if that happens only once a year. My lot is bad for drainage, radiated heat, and in the night it can be a really problematic place. home-depot-gives-up-and-closes-the-last-of-its-big-box-stores-in-chinaI sometimes have big floodlights in my lot though to discourage that–it works well, but of course my neighbors get only my warm orange glow all night long. I had my heyday in the 1990s, but online shopping has made my life really hard. In the good old days, I could count on clearing out smaller local competitors and being king of the hill. These days though, smaller competitors have turned to that damn internet and have been cleaning my clock. Still, there are some stores–like lumber–that cannot survive online, so I still have a place at the table. I am a bit generic and alienating in appearance. No one every says–“wow, what a beautiful box store, I want to live right near it!” and consequently I am not great for property values. My main offer is convenience–the three or four times a year you need a new curtain rod or 60 feet of stereo cable, I can save you driving time. I am also subject to fashion though–my brand may be all up market one year, but in a few I am old hat and so I have to do lots of loss leaders and cheap specials to bring back my one-time friends. That only accelerates my loss of tone and my neighbors get less and less happy as I cut back on the little stuff like cleaning out the trash in my parking lot. We boxes are cannibals too–we love nothing more than being just new and shiny enough to kill and eat a similar nearby competitor–in fact we rely on each others’ market research to pick our sites.


Hi everyone. I am New Urbanism Mixed Used Development. Don’t be scared by my flashy title–deep down all I am is just a remade version of ye olde city downtown. The difference is that I am made all out of new materials and dropped lock, stock, and barrel in some place that never had a thing like me before. I have walkability, the potential of old style street life, and I am very fashionable right now. I am GREAT for property values and quality of life. People love to see me, and they will sometimes drive for miles just to be enveloped in my charm and atmosphere. When I am humming I can be home to hundreds and a work place for even more doing all sorts of things. I work best where there is already something very much like me nearby–imagine remaking a blighted chunk of an existing city with something like me! There are great example from big cities all over the country! cityplace4-cnu-florida-new-urbanismWhen a city has all the infrastructure, transportation, and existing population to support me I can be a God send. I can be a bit of a risk though if a plan is overly ambitious or a place does not have any of the infrastructure to make me work well. In those cases, all sorts of questions emerge I would rather we not discuss. Where would all the cars go? And what about parking for those visitors that are going to come and marvel at me? Well… I am not really ready to answer that. In the worst case there might have to be acres of parking nearby or built into structures or the ground–but that would defeat the whole idea. In any case, like ye olde downtowns themselves, part of my mystique is nostalgia for a time before cars dominatied. No one has really come up with a good answer for how to manage me in car-centric areas. Sometimes they just build me. In those cases I am nice to be in, but my full potential is not maximized since residents and visitors are still driving all over the place anyway and needing places to park. I require commitment since I am sort of an all or nothing choice in my full iteration. Do me right and give me what I need and I will change your world for the good. But I am not always great with a less than full commitment. In many cases I am best mastered by thinking carefully about scale–or even seeing me more as a principal, than an actual concrete goal (sorry for my little builder pun).


Hey Folks. I am a stand alone anchor buildings and I feel a bit odd to be here since I am sort of a different animal than a big New Urbanism project or a Big Box. I really am something far more modest–a sort of starter for a large change in an area. People build me when money or space is tight and they are hoping to jumpstart something better than what they now have. These days, I often adhere to the principals of New Urbanism–you will see me built to human scale–that means people feel comfortable near me–not sort of bowled over. No long walks next to vast windowless wall near me. No sir. Human scale means that there is always the possibility of looking up and seeing someone reading, or working, or chatting with friends through windows and comforting views. My New Urbanism cred also shows in that these days I am most likely to have store space at the street level and residences or office space above that. 57549c70183ee-imageYou see, after WWII places like Britain and Germany had their cities leveled and had to rebuild. At the same time, here at home, the Federal Government was eager to finance every new family getting its own house and picket fence. International urban planners from Omaha to the Soviet Union all landed on the same idea for how to build. They said–imagine a house. You sleep in one room, eat in another, bathe in a third, and recreate in yet another. All of these planners arrived at the idea that a town (new or rebuilt from the rubble) could be organized the same way. They imagined living areas separated from work areas separated from shopping areas. Vast arterial highways would move everyone along in their own car from place to place because as far as 1945 was concerned cars would always be cheap and gasoline virtually free. Cars were so cool then and they thought we would always love driving all over the place. The idea worked for a time and it took over the landscape–in fact in America, it completely remade how we live. But then came increasing gas prices, highway congestion, and alienation. Soon people wanted something more like what they had before the war but so many Americans were already living the structures and neighborhoods shaped by the dreams of people who survived the Depression. New Urbanism was one solution to getting some small town shoe horned into something built to be totally different. So, my layout–even though I am single stand-alone–is all indebted to that rethink. But, I am just a small part of it–think of me as a modest start–a baby step and not a full on helping of high dollar investment New Urbanism downtownism. I can be many things too–not just shops or apartments. I can be a medical center, or an office block, a college building, a museum–all sorts of things. It just depends on what a community wants and has. I am a first start–my whole point is to set a ball in motion. If I am done right and things go well, I will be the inspiration for an organically grown set of buildings each doing something specific for its community.


Greetings. I am a Condo, Condominium, or a Co-op. I am basically a Housing Complex or even an Apartment Building like any other, but what makes me special is that I am owned in one way or another by the people who live in me as opposed to an owner who rents the units out to others. There are a few ways I can be owned–classic condos mean each owner is an autonomous owner of a unit in the complex or building–it is theirs outright. condo-paintingsIn a “co-op” on the other hand each owner pays into a coop board who has a lot of say in what happens to the property. The coop board is the collective owner of the entire property. There was a mania for these sorts of arrangements in the big cities in the 80s and 90s. Thousands of buildings that had been made of rental units shifted and are now occupant owned. I have lots of prestige and panache and I am usually good for property values in the surrounding area. My very presence tells people that there are folks with money in town–I am like a concentration of homeowners and so create a very different impression in people’s minds than do rental units. I am only an ownership relationship–I am not a housing form–even though people use the word “Condo” as if it is a type of building. I do mean density though since I concentrate people in smaller areas than single family single lot units. Density can mean traffic–but it also can mean life and commerce. Swings and roundabouts.


Hey gang. You know me–you should at least, since I am going up all over the place these days. I am a New Style Apartment Building. I am THE cutting edge in housing right now. People coming out of college–and there are tons of them–have figured a few things out. One is that they don’t want lawns, another is that they don’t want to pay for patching a roof. They saw their parents fretting over bills at the table in the family’s post-war suburban house and they spent half their childhood being told to mow the law. apartment-design1Now that they are picking a place to live, they want none of that! Instead, they loved their time in college. They loved the cameraderie, they loved the anytime social life, and they loved the shared spaces with their peers. And now they want all of that as they set out on their own–and I am the result! I have open space for pool tables and chairs in my lobbies, and lots of times I have a courtyard with a pool in my center. But I also have shop space for coffeeshops and brew pubs. What I offer is the opportunity to go get a grande double macchiato pumpkin spice soy latte or an amber pineapple Dutch hops pale lager ale any time of day or night and never have to get out of your pajamas–and my residents LOVE me for it. When you see me, you are seeing youth and the future. These days I am most often seen popping up almost overnight at the edges of downtowns or at rail stops along what used to be suburban train lines. I always have a name. The Strand, The Swan, The Palace, The Metro and so on–that is a carry over from dorm culture and the great apartment buildings of the big cities, but residents find it toney and reassuring when I have a name. I can be a stand alone, or I can fit into a large patchwork of buildings. Because I have shops at street level, a community emerges when I cluster in groups. I can be rental units or resident owned–it all depends on my builder and what the community needs. What happens when I am no longer fashionable? No one really knows yet–I am still just too new!


Hey all. I am a Housing Complex but some of you might know me as an “Apartment Complex,” “Condos” or “Garden Apartments.” I am a curious development (no pun intended)–in some ways you can consider me the fruit of poor or no planning. In the big cities there have long been apartments and tenements where poorer folks, new families starting out, or new arrivals to these shores could live with fairly affordable rents. But the cities that blossomed and expanded rapidly after the 1960s had none of that infrastructure. The only type of home was the single family stand alone–and that was fine for a small population. But as cities grew and diversified economically, well, there had to be space for renters–a creature not envisioned by the designers of acres of single family homes. 2c6dc2I am the result of that oversight. Builders bought up acres at the edges of house patches and built miles of small, attached, single unit or multiple unit residences. You can see me everywhere now–in fact I am so ubiquitous that I am almost invisible. You can tell me by a few characteristics. I generally have a name–Palm Gardens, Riverside, or some similar pastoral reference. I generally have a single owner (or a company owner) that may or may not do the management for all of the many tenants themselves or contract it out. Sometimes owners decide to accept Section 8 housing vouchers, sometimes not–it all depends on the owner and the town. Obviously, there are problems for property values when Section 8 housing vouchers pay for many residents. When I slide into disrepair or worse, squalor, it is usually because my reputation or that of my neighbors, has slipped to the point where many potential tenants give me a miss. This is the great dilemma of my life–people need places to live regardless of their income level, so I and my fellows are constantly walking a line between the need to fill units, and the risks of being seen as the the last stop on the way down by neighbors and potential tennents. It is a hard life, and I often end up being the fair haired step child of the housing family. I can come in many forms and many styles, but I am most often found where land is cheap making it less costly for builders to build out rather than up. When things work well–as they often do–I can be great housing for students, young families, and people not ready to buy a home. I can be the location of real and substantive community and people love my pools, gyms, walking paths, and shared rec rooms. When things are bad, they can get really bad–fences surround me and no one can tell if they are to keep intruders out or residents in. The pools get closed, and maintenance fails. My biggest weakness is that I very susceptible to fluctuations in the economy and there really is no security against that since I always cater to the most economically vulnerable among us. In any case, I am a fact of life in many cities.

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