A Response To “Creating Healthy Cities”

Block E, our ticky-tacky attempt to "suburbanize" Minneapolis

Block E, our ticky-tacky attempt to “suburbanize” Minneapolis

Depending on how many urbanists make up your social media circles, you might have seen a bit of shade being thrown towards a recent article written for Ohio Business Magazine, Creating Healthy Cities. The website hosting the article offers a comments section, but it appears to be a black hole through which no dissent survives. Luckily, there’s always another way on the Internet, so instead of writing a few terse sentences behind a pseudonym, I’ll instead respond with an article’s worth of more carefully chosen words.

The author of the article, David H. McDonald, paints a fairly dire picture of American cities by stating that of the 300 largest cities in the country, the only successful cities are succeeding by virtue of factors unrelated to planning decisions, such as desirable location or pork spending in state capitals. He also claims that the only two exceptions to this rule are Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, and they’ve succeeded through “an extreme understanding of commercial development and redevelopment.”

Those points, while I disagree with them, could be argued perhaps with a specific data set and maybe a strong case study or two. We don’t get any such data in the article, but we do get a full picture of what Mr. McDonald considers to be an “extreme understanding” when it comes to urban planning.

The first glimpse comes in his description of working for big box retailers in the 1970s, helping to plan brand expansion. His approach to market research was, admittedly, fairly interesting. They just got in a plane and counted how many rooftops were in specific suburbs. If the magic number was reached, they relocated stores out of the city centers and into malls, strip malls, or to a slab of concrete adjacent to a mall. It’s implied that while they were engaged in their aggressive suburban expansion, they were studying the results of their own actions.

“We watched what these cities did to try and react to the loss of their retail and then their residents and they never seemed to understand what they needed to do or how to go about it.”

So already, we know this is someone who has the best interest of cities at heart. But after explaining his background, and speaking about the sad state of the American city, Mr. McDonald offers his solutions to what’s ailing America’s urban centers.

Let’s go through the plan, step by step.

“Cities must demolish old office buildings. They are eyesores and turn off many people who prefer the shiny new suburbs. I like the term “suburbanize a city.”

Oh boy. How closely were you watching what cities were doing again? Because you might recall that cities have tried that approach, to disastrous result. As they supposedly represent the most successful of America’s cities, here’s Cincinnati:

Cincinnati 1955 vs 2013 (via IQC)

And Pittsburgh:

Pittsburgh 1952 vs 2014 (via IQC)

If you can, ignore the massive freeway scars and specifically seek out the little changes – buildings that are now parking lots. There’s plenty to spot.

Since this is a Minneapolis focused publication, I can more specifically name the destruction of the Gateway District and Rondo, or more recently, the embarrassing saga of Block E, the slow decline of Gaviidae Common, or the difficulty in finding a way for the ‘suburbanized’ Macy’s in Downtown Saint Paul to fit into the streetscape better. Those mistakes have been/will be with us for decades, and even the smallest attempts to restore what was lost (such as with land bridges over I-94) can’t bring back what someone deemed an “eyesore” in a different time.

I also take issue with the phrase “shiny new suburbs.” In fact, when I read this line, I had to double check and see whether the article was actually a reprint of some thinkpiece (or their retro equivalent) from the late 70s or early 80s. There might be newer housing and retail developments within suburbs, but it’s ridiculous to claim that the suburbs are still as novel and appealing as they once were in the mid-20th Century. If anything, with rents soaring in the core neighborhoods of major cities, the poverty that once made suburbs appealing to the white, middle class nuclear family is slowing being displaced and migrating out to the first and second ring suburbs. Are places like Maplewood and Crystal still excellent communities to live in? Absolutely! I’ve lived in both! Would anyone who lives there call them “shiny”? No! Never!

But let’s move on. Maybe there’s something else on the list that could help our ailing cities.

“Pave over the lots with free parking or create small parks. These open lots have another name: “Buildable Parcels.” Nothing new is likely going to get built next to ugly, outdated and environmentally unfriendly buildings.”

We did a lot of that too.

It’s a point of celebration whenever one of these “Buildable Parcels” gets developed. Why? Because now we’re finally seeing market conditions downtown that allow for the development of these lots. It’s taken decades to reach this point after being convinced we couldn’t move Minneapolis forward unless we tore down a major chunk of the city. It might be true that it’s harder to build something next to a building considered undesirable. The ugly West Hotel parking lot in Downtown Minneapolis likely gets its development potential dragged down by its proximity to Dreamgirls and Augies strip clubs, despite direct access to the Warehouse District LRT station. The fire at Oakwood Apartments recently drew attention to the sprawling lot that surrounds it, surrounded itself by buildings devoid of street life or retail. And much has been written about Saint Paul’s ‘dead zone’, where buildings without any street level retail create an atmosphere of desolation. Each of these situations presents a challenge to any would-be developer.

The solution, however, is not to tear down blocks of buildings in a blind hope for future buildings to do a better job. Because as bad as an ugly or unfortunate neighboring building is, the flip side…

Satellite View of Minneapolis in 1991

…is that it’s just as hard to build in the middle of an asphalt ocean. And while replacing buildings with temporary parks would be a more pleasant interim solution, when a development proposal does come along in following decades, it’s almost a guarantee that the local community will not be willing to let what they believed to be a permanent park be converted into something else. Just ask the HCRRA.

So two strikes so far on these “extreme” city tips. Anything else?

“Finally, parking in the suburbs is free. Cities will never compete with the suburbs as long as they charge for parking. Never!”

I don’t think there’s any reason for me to argue this point, as many other streets.mn articles have already done so more eloquently than I could. But I do have to ask, if these “extreme” ideas were implemented, who would be the beneficiaries? Certainly not the people who live in cities. To “suburbanize” a city is to make it easier for someone to swoop in, get something quick, and leave, preferably without ever having to leave their car. The infrastructure to support that sort of lifestyle doesn’t benefit someone who lives downtown, or in a core city neighborhood. It would be several articles worth of text to try and explain how urban planning has changed since your days scouting for new big box stores, Mr. McDonald, but I can say with some confidence that your ideas for creating healthy cities are just as nutritious as Mac and Cheese Cheeto Bites.

One final note, one of the most notorious urban renewal missteps in Minneapolis was when the city demolished two properties along Nicollet Avenue for renewal that never arrived. In order to save face, they sold the land to Kmart and closed a major city thoroughfare in a decision that was regretted as soon as the ink was dry. Say, Mr. McDonald, what big box retailer did you say you worked for again?

He has been in commercial and residential lending and appraising, has managed and leased high-rise office buildings, shopping malls and strip shopping centers, and has been involved with building Kmart shopping centers from the gulf coast of Louisiana to Virginia.


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2 Responses to A Response To “Creating Healthy Cities”

  1. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke October 17, 2016 at 11:44 am #

    thanks for writing this and introducing me to a fascinating article

  2. David Markle
    David Markle October 17, 2016 at 11:50 am #

    Good critique. Whether I peer closely at the forces that push and shape urban planning and redevelopment decisions or stand back for perspective on the big picture, I’m reminded of much of our American foreign policy process and the results.

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