The Shape of Things to Come

29 thoughts on “The Shape of Things to Come”

  1. I’m confused. I keep reading how cities favor commercial development for tax (and other) reasons over residential. Yet this site and others assert (contrary to conventional wisdom) that commercial is far less self-supporting than residential. Why such differing interpretations?

    1. Fair enough. Okay…

      Traditionally, commercial development generates more tax revenue for a given municipality while requiring significantly less public support. Residential development costs a town more in services and infrastructure – over the long run – than it generates in taxes.

      Two points.

      First, most towns do all sorts of things to encourage commercial development (see above calculations) and go as far as to poach old businesses from other locations and induce new businesses with special incentives of all kinds. In theory bribing enterprises to settle in your town will spin off jobs, new growth, and lots of indirect economic activity. But we’ve reached the logical end game of this system where everyone is in a race to the bottom where each jurisdiction is compelled to offer ever more generous packages than the competition with diminishing returns. Not offering such sweeteners is basically an announcement to all companies that you are a hostile uncompetitive location.

      Second, “growth” in the form of new construction of any kind generates short term economic activity, impact fees, and immediate cash infusions to revenue strapped municipalities. So even if residential development generates a negative return in the long run it gooses the tax base in the short term.

      I’ll refer you to Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns where he describes the Ponzi scheme development pattern.

  2. Thank you for this terrific post and all the others on this site. My tiny whine of a comment relates to the line that a big apartment building “may load up the area with additional traffic congestion.” Apartment buildings don’t create more cars, don’t drive more cars, and don’t cause people to drive more cars–the convenience of driving (including total cost and existing servicing infrastructure) does. For example, an apartment building built in the center of a city with no parking spaces provided would probably not see any corresponding increase in traffic congestion at all–before moving in there any renter/buyer would have to already have been committed to living without dependency on a motor vehicle. However, an apartment building built next to a highway interchange in the middle of nowhere likely would see an increase in traffic congestion–but this is a function of the serving infrastructure, not the land use itself!

    While this seems like a petty complaint about a secondary remark, the pervasive idea that land use is somehow linked to traffic congestion is what created parking minimums, which go a long way in making the built environment worse, and facilitating an even more car-centered environment. Thank you!

    1. Yes and no.

      When a new apartment or condo building goes up in a place like NYC, Boston, or San Francisco there’s enough preexisting high quality urbanism, walkability, and transit that many people voluntarily choose not to own a car because it simply isn’t necessary. Even people who do have a car tend not to drive very much because other options are just better.

      But that’s 0.000001% of North America.

      When similar buildings go up in a place with an overwhelmingly suburban culture with only a smattering of urbanism in little islands connected by partial half assed transit people want and need to drive.

      The stuff I’ve seen in places like Dallas, Los Angeles, and Nashville is typical. People want the immediate convenience of local urban amenities in specific neighborhoods, but they still drive to work, bulk shopping, and visit family and friends in the larger metroplex.

      This isn’t a failing of the buildings themselves. It’s simply the reality of the larger matrix.

      1. Thank you for your response. I don’t think we disagree–I would just like to emphasize that it isn’t the building that causes the traffic, but the people using the serving infrastructure that causes the traffic. And it definitely is the reality of the larger matrix–but a lot of people seem to think that this matrix was simply inevitable and the byproduct of progress when it was actually determinedly constructed over time. So–uses don’t cause traffic, people do. An apartment building will only cause as much vehicle traffic as the surrounding roads can handle. If apartments exist with no garages, then the only people who can live in them will be people without cars. If apartments are mandated to have garages (and so people have to pay for the space), then one is likely to see people living in them who have cars.

        I believe that if we could begin with changing the language of how we talk about traffic generation we might eventually get people to think about why some options are better now and whether things have to be that way. This would especially be important for infill: When someone proposes a commercial/residential building on an unused lot, in most places in the US, neighbors will go out of their minds complaining about potential problems with parking and traffic. But that is because they are assuming that the only people who will use that building are the ones who drive everywhere. But people have to drive everywhere because we don’t allow anything to be built that doesn’t require a car. So who takes the first step? Do we hope that people will go against their convenience because it is better for the planet/their health/the community? Most likely not.

        All I am saying, is I hope collectively we can move away from using the language of causality between land uses and a specific type of transportation–this just further entrenches the problem (whether we are aware of it or not). In other words, when people say it’s inconvenient to walk, let’s emphasize that that is because we’ve made it most convenient to drive. We have spent many decades and billions of dollars of transportation (read: automobile-favoring) dollars to ensure that the other options that are just better are the ones that include the automobile. Thank you!

  3. Wow, a 7 story wood-framed apartment building. That will mulch up nicely when the staples holding the siding rust away.

      1. Wait, the Crescent–isn’t that the huge block of apartments going up in former parking lots beside the interstate running through Tampa? Yes, I and architect acquaintances have wondered the same thing–how did they ever get approval to go stick built seven floors high? In hurricane country, where everything now has to stand up to a Cat 5 storm? I grew up watching old fabrics mills go up in flames, they won’t have anything on this one when the time comes.

        1. The seven story building pictured is actually in Nashville, not Tampa. But it is next to a highway so… same same. Time will tell how these places hold up to the elements.

  4. Of course, the population isn’t going down, so this implies that people are moving from these places to places with more economic value and likely higher density. In a sense, these suburbs are coal country where the mainstay industry is in decline and anyone with hope gets out.

  5. reduce, reuse, recycle. Some old infrastructure may need bolstering and tweaking, but I’d hope that’d be cheaper than just building fresh elsewhere. By the way, all these abandoned places, if they’re not gonna be used (and the wrecking ball’s coming for them anyway), is there a way to tear up the concrete and recycle it? That’s what concerns me about the environment, the square miles of abandoned parking lots that just collect heat. Make those areas green again.

    1. Doing nothing is always an option. You’d be surprised how quickly weeds turn to saplings and saplings turn to a forest. It takes about twenty five years before you can hardly notice the old asphalt. Small patches of concrete (like sidewalks and curbs) don’t crumble as quickly, but they get covered with leaves and soil eventually. I wandered around Chernobyl a few years ago and nature has completely reclaimed the entire city. After seeing that I realized a few strip malls are easy in comparison.

      The real question is how people are going to manage while they’re forced to live in these places during the long slow economic slide. I can see a number of work arounds that would be fairly pleasant. Re-ruralizing the landscape to productive agriculture works. I’ve seen that on the household level. But that requires letting go of the current model. I don’t see that happening on a voluntary basis at the municipal level…

      1. Growing up in rural New England allowed a person to see how changing land use plays out. During the 1820-1840’s before the advent of railways, the population reached it’s height, with almost all the land cleared for small farms. The subsequent migration of people from those lands to the factories in industrializing cities and more fertile plains of the midwest meant that those areas reforested. Walking in this new second growth, which by by the 1960’s was pretty extensive, you’d often stumble across stone walls and foundations where people used to live. In fact, as suburbanization spread more widely, you’d see those stone walls get incorporated into the new developments with residents not even realizing the human effort that went into their construction, and how this meant people did live there once before.

        That period saw the lost of a political party (Whigs) and start of a new one (Republicans), and a backlash against massive immigration coming mostly from Ireland and Scotland, the Middle East of it’s time. I would not be surprised that we’ll see quiet a few parallels playing out between that time, (including the potential for break up of the nation) in the next 10-20 years.

        1. All great points. People don’t live long enough to notice the long slow pendulum swings of history. But change comes all the same. My goal is to understand how the next cycle is likely to play out and get ahead of the curve.

  6. Neither does the popular culture that sees such infill as a direct assault on the American Dream

    It’s ironic that the rules intended to preserve a “traditional American neighborhood” end up blocking thing like granny flats and second story addons, which fit in just fine, and force infill to be these giant apartment/condo complexes, which don’t.

    I live near downtown Orange, which is effectively a big historical district. I don’t think they allow much small-scale infill anymore because I don’t see any going up. But they did in the past and generally it’s just fine. There are several house where a small apartment building of 2-6 units was built in the backyard of one of the early 1900’s cottages in a compatible style and they’re just fine. There are also lots of cottages where a 2nd story was added, sometimes for an apartment and sometimes just to make the house larger. Those you don’t even notice unless you look carefully. We also have some midcentury style apartments which entirely replaced the cottages I assume were once there. They aren’t as nice, but even they don’t wreck the neighborhood.

    Of course Orange is rumbling toward a financial catastrophe, as taxes cover only about 75% of running expenses and no, of course they’re not creating funds for future pipe replacement or pension expenses. Even being a somewhat wealthier city than average in a pretty successful part of the country isn’t enough. Right across the city borders in Santa Ana and Anaheim they are at least allowing the large-scale infill which will help with the budget but there’s almost none of that in Orange (one building, separated from most of the city by *two* freeways *and* a river). We have a few years left of a massive trust fund from development fees and then the first post-digestive matter hits the rotary air displacement device when taxes don’t cover operating expenses. Even more will come over time as the piping and pension shortfalls come due, but that will be over decades.

  7. For many places, perhaps most places, and for quite a while, I think you’re probably right that local governments will be reactive rather than proactive in dealing with this mess.

    I think and hope there are two types of jurisdictions that might fare a bit better. The first type, like my New England college town, are places where there is already some existing fine-grained dense development and some popular support for returning to that model. Our town is currently revising our zoning to do things like allow accessory dwelling units by right, for example.

    The other type of jurisdiction that might do OK is the type where zoning (or zoning enforcement) is minimal already. I hear a number of rural locations in the South are like this. A lot of strip malls have been built, but on the other hand the rules may not prohibit small infill from being built either.

  8. Funny you should mention Norman Rockwell in this piece, because the first photographs in this piece had already made me think of another American artist of approximately the same period, Edward Hopper. Your photos often do. Same sort of feeling of detached isolation in them and even when there are people together in them, they still have that disconnected thing going on, where they aren’t at home in their landscape. Which I guess is sort of what you are trying to get across. They are very illustrative.

  9. I don’t expect people to spend money maintaining the car parks of dead strip malls. It won’t take long before they’re covered in vegetation – they certainly won’t look like they do now after a couple of decades lying empty.

    That’s leaving aside potential human action. Some cities might decide to break up the asphalt and tear down the buildings, to accelerate the process of getting rid of an eyesore.

    1. But that solution simply externalizes even more cost onto the municipality.

      And you can’t demolish your way to a beautiful suburb.

      1. How much does it cost to pulverise asphalt?

        You might be able to demolish your way to beauty, but you can get rid of a lot ugliness that way. If it doesn’t cost to much, people might prefer having a lot of grassland and shrubbery in their town, instead of a lot of empty parking lots – particularly if those parking lots are attractive camping places for roving bands of homeless people. It’s just helping nature along, anyway.

        1. Don’t confuse attractiveness with productivity. A field of wild flowers pays the same tax as asphalt.

          In my experience there are distinct stages of what you’re describing. First municipal authorities (and private home owners associations and business improvement districts) notice the physical decline of a place. So they impose penalties for people who don’t keep up appearances. This buys some time. Eventually there’s no way to stop the hemorrhaging and fining people for empty worthless property doesn’t work. Bulldozing blighted buildings as part of planned redevelopment often occurs, but new buildings don’t always get built on the empty lots if there’s no market demand or available financing. The cost of pulling up weed choked asphalt outstrips the available cash on hand so the weeds turn to saplings… Been to Detroit lately?

          1. Exactly. (Except a field of wildflowers might pay less in tax than the asphalt field, since it would be an “agricultural” use instead of a “commercial” one.)

            1. I don’t think a field of asphalt pays taxes if no-one is making any money from it.

              Conversely, letting someone scrape off the asphalt and turn it into a pick-your-own business might at least give you some sale taxes.

              1. I’m not disagreeing with you about what “could” be done with crappy vacant land. I’ve blogged about re-ruralizing as a solution. My point is that we aren’t doing these things on an anything like the required scale or with official support because towns are obsessed with the old suburban growth model. Towns are desperate for tax revenue to plug the massive funding gaps that are required to keep the current arrangements going.

                Urban agriculture or re-wilding works when a town decides to let go of much of its infrastructure (returning paved roads to gravel for example) but it doesn’t pay for new sewerage treatment plants or municipal pensions. Compare these two posts:



                1. Unplanned ‘re-ruralization’ is worse than empty buildings. It’s worse to walk past an unmaintained empty lot of weeds than it is to pass a shuttered business, but that still has public infrastructure such as sidewalks. At walking speed you also notice that empty lots are magnets for trash.

                  Sure, if the city or developer spends the time and money to turn that lot back into a usable bit of public infrastructure, with sidewalks and street trees, it could be an asset. But they never do that.

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