Your defense of sprawl repair
Note to readers: In the spirit of the pre-computer world, I’m going to pen this as a letter to Rob Steuteville of Better! Cities and Towns. If he or anyone else is so inclined, I invite you to continue a discussion using this lost art of civilized communication.
I wish I had more time to write a lengthy response to your piece that you reposted to Build a Better Burb. But, alas, life has been getting in the way of my writing, so I’m going to just offer some fairly-quick thoughts.
The two points that I’d emphasize right up front are this: 1) I’m not saying “not ever” but I’m definitely saying “not now” when it comes to working on sprawl retrofit; and 2), it’s important when sifting through “what to do” that we realize what is rational versus what is emotional. When it comes to spending our own precious time and resources, we have to try (fruitless as it may be at times), but desperately try to be rational.
When you say that “It has too much impact on people’s health, social lives, and the economies of communities” – I basically agree. Obviously, I agree with the diagnosis. It’s why I do this. But, where I diverge is what the prescription should be. It’s just far too difficult and expensive of a chore to make nearly any suburbia post-1970 into something that corrects those ills. At some point in life we all have to make choices, and though those choices may be difficult, they are critically important nonetheless. So I'll repeat from before: there’s simply no upside to making un-walkable places into C- versions of walkable cities. Making marginal improvements to driveable suburbia really isn’t worth the effort. It actually builds mistrust since people’s lives haven’t been transformed like we’ve promised they will be. It gives the entire movement a black eye, and doesn't help us in our most important effort: continuing to build the constituency of people that support walkable, urbane places.
Hey, it’s fun to say, “we take on hard challenges. We are smart and tough!” I'm all for a good fight or challenge as much as anyone. In fact, as you know, most of my career hasn't been working in red-hot markets or with nationally-famous developers. It seems that back in the day we damn-near specialized in working through exceptionally difficult projects, and just figuring out a way. Most of the time, my own ego drove me to say, "Hell yes I'm smart enough to make that project work." But here's the thing: being smart and tough also means knowing which battles are not worth fighting, and which are worthy of digging deep. As a somewhat-older guy now, it's easier for me to see that achieving success is more important than just spoiling for a fight. More on that another time.
I have to say that I'm glad that you mentioned Belmar in Lakewood, CO as a sprawl repair example. I’ve been to Belmar many times, and even toured people around it. I think it’s great. In fact, I’d say it’s arguably the best dead-mall retrofit in the country, with an incredible development team.
But Belmar is also a great case study in the challenges. Even with its success, it remains today an island in a sea of sprawl – a sea that will take many, many decades to change. That is, if it even can change. The bordering arterials are still terrible stroads. Nothing around it in the last decade has even marginally urbanized to become walkable.
In the timespan it will take for this whole area to become even a C+ version of walkable urbanism, good and talented people could successfully redevelop a dozen older neighborhoods or build several new towns on greenfield sites. We could positively impact the lives of tens of thousands of people. OR, we could focus on painfully changing this corridor to improve the lives of hundreds of people, at great expense of time and money.. To continue down the road of sprawl repair at that point is beyond rational – it’s ego and emotion.
But again, I should make sure to clarify. I’m not saying, “not ever.” A time will hopefully come when it makes eminent sense to work especially on the pre-interstate suburbs, and maybe even some suburban corridors. Just - not now. It’s not worth the time, the financial or political risk and we have too many high-quality opportunities that would be stupid to pass up. Let’s not be the people that screw up by spreading ourselves so thin in so many different areas. Most cities in this country are not at all like DC, New York or San Francisco. They desperately need attention to their old, urban neighborhoods that really were built well originally. And, they still need great greenfield examples to show people another way to meet the market demand. Please, let’s keep doing more of that, and not tilt at windmills.
If I were to offer a retort to myself, I would say, “but people of good intention are already working in suburbs and trying to make the world better. It sounds like you're telling them to just give up or move somewhere else. That's not just ridiculous, it's also impractical.” I find that to be a very fair line of inquiry. I loathe talking in the abstract for long, and my personality is certainly one that focuses on "yeah, but, what do I actually do?" So, I intend to reflect deeply on that in my next correspondence.
With best regards,
P.S. I sure hope you weren't a Mets fan.