The Urban Planning “S” Words
It seems in urban planning there’s no shortage of locker room talk to describe development and infrastructure you personally don’t like. For example, the epithet “sprawl.” Some may say “I know it when I see it,” but too often it’s just an insult with no objective definition; perhaps just a place with bigger back yards than where you live. Here in my home city of Bloomington, if I were so inclined I could call Woodbury “sprawl.” Someone from Woodbury could call Lake Elmo “sprawl.” Many city residents consider the suburbs in general to be “sprawl.” By using the term so loosely, the implication is one lifestyle choice is objectively morally superior.
Nor are the cities themselves immune. There’s been plenty of talk demonizing single family homeowners in places like Highland Park and the Wedge. Having made the biggest investment of their lives into their neighborhood and expecting the character of their neighborhood to remain unchanged, many (understandably) don’t want hulking apartment towers next door blocking their light, invading their privacy, and bringing traffic and parking. If people wanted to live like that, there’s already plenty of single family homes right next to apartment buildings, commercial buildings, and busy streets (as well as neighboring three-story single family homes) to purchase in both central cities.
Then there’s the word “stroad,” seemingly used to describe anything that has more than a pair of narrow travel lanes. I support “stroads” in certain situations: AADT more than 20,000 with no chance of building a freeway, like 66th Street in Richfield, or to replace the Four Lane Death Road section of West Old Shakopee Road in Bloomington. So I avoid using the term, preferring the laborious “wide suburban style-road.”
Which brings us to “subsidy.” We all know the claim that the “city subsidizes the suburbs,” which is true, but misses the point that society is full of subsidies. Those like me that choose not to have kids subsidize those that do. Those like me who are unmarried subsidize those who are. Renters subsidize homeowners like me through the mortgage interest deduction. People like me with decent-paying jobs subsidize Medicaid and food stamps for those who don’t.
There’s even a direct cash suburb-to-city subsidy, the 1971 Fiscal Disparities Act. My home city of Bloomington is one of the biggest losers: 8% of my property tax, or half my mortgage deduction (for a citywide total of $19 million) goes into that pool. Saint Paul, full of non-tax paying government buildings and educational institutions, is a big winner (it’s a wash for Minneapolis). But this post is about a more subtle kind of subsidy: how the suburbs bear the burden of hosting subjectively undesirable land uses for the cities, things like guns shops, big box retail, and car dealerships.
Guns, Groceries, Gasoline, Gutters and GMC
Although there’s plenty of Cub Foods in the cities (for now), there’s exactly one Menards (in Midway) and Home Depot (the Quarry). For the most part if you want to fix up your house, and with the age of housing in the cities there’s a lot of it being done, you’re stuck paying outrageous prices at the local cute urban hardware store or else driving. People in the suburbs most certainly use these (there’s nonstop clamoring for a Hy-Vee on the East Bloomington Facebook group). But the suburbs have more of these type of land uses than they would need just for their own residents.
Here’s a map showing grocery stores in green, home improvement stores in blue, and discount / hypermarkets in red.
The map might not look too bad at first glance, but consider population density. And if we assume the five urban Cub Foods locations in green and the Lake Street K-Mart are not long for this world, the map gets extremely sparse in the center. It’s not hard to see that with the coming of Hy-Vee, Cub’s days are numbered. Hy-Vee seems not particularly interested in taking over existing stores, and at any rate the Cub stores are much smaller than their preferred size.
Suppose you need a new car (78.19% of Minneapolis households own one). Sorry, can’t buy one at all in Minneapolis, go to the suburbs. The map is even more dramatic.
Need a gun? (In Minnesota 44.7% of households have one, and this may be under-reported) Sorry, can’t buy one in Minneapolis, go to the suburbs. The last gun store in Minneapolis closed last year amid allegations the city was attempting to ban gun stores through zoning. With 2nd amendment-rights advocates nationwide focusing on castle doctrine and constitutional carry (both bills introduced this year in Minnesota but did not advance), it’s unlikely unofficial bans on commercial retail sales will be challenged anytime soon. I didn’t do a map for gun shops because trying to figure out which pawn shops and sporting good stores sell them would be a herculean task, but it’s worth noting one of the largest ones in the metro is less than a mile outside city limits in Robbinsdale.
What about gasoline stations? There’s still many in the city, but Richfield has double the number of gasoline pumps per capita. Does the average Richfield resident really drive twice as much as the average Minneapolis? Maybe so, but the smaller gasoline stations typical of the cities are going out of business. The business model of a couple of pumps in front and a small store that sells hot dogs and smokes is no longer viable. When you only make 3 cents a gallon, you need to sell a lot of it to be successful. That means a lot of pumps, so people don’t see a line and decide to drive onto the next station. And in addition, sell a lot of high profit items like donuts and car washes, with a store that has parking so motorists will stop on their way to work.
Attempts by city gasoline stations to expand to be viable have met with mixed success. Bobby and Steve’s on Washington Avenue and Holiday on Central Avenue were able to expand, despite opposition. SuperAmerica on 40th Street and Lyndale Avenue was not. Unsurprisingly with fewer gasoline pumps per resident in the city, the place was packed when I visited. But if you have a tiny capacity on low-profit items, you cannot be viable no matter how busy you are. For now SuperAmerica is still open, but since it doesn’t offer a car wash or the food offerings that an expanded store would have, it won’t be open forever. City residents tend to yawn when an individual gas stations closes, figuring a passably urban cafe will be better, but what if there’s eventually only a couple of stations in the entire city? Maybe they figure no great loss, the suburbs can build more large stations to accommodate them, which is my point exactly.
The Reasons for This
It’s not hard to see why things are this way, but I will spell them out. Land is simply more valuable in the cities, and is less conducive to things that take up a large surface area relative to their value. And can you imagine the outcry if Home Depot wanted to build a standard prototype in the city, even on decaying low intensity industrial land?
Again, I don’t think it’s because city residents don’t patronize these types of stores. The locations right at the periphery of the city seem to argue against this. There seem to be plenty of people in the city that, aside from having a shorter commute and smaller garage, live more or less like anyone in the suburbs. Again I point out the 80% car ownership figure, and when I’m unlucky enough to brave the horrific congestion on I-35W at rush hour, the Diamond Lake, 46th, and 36th ramps are full of people getting on the freeway. These are not suburbanites driving home to Blaine from an overnight visit with relatives in the city. Even at the Soo Line Apartments, which is right next to a light rail stop, skyway connected, in middle of downtown, and provides no on-site parking, 70% of residents keep a car anyway.
Finally, going forward I imagine that with all the talk of local ordinances that would dramatically drive up the costs of doing business or reduce convenience for customers, this pattern is only going to be reinforced. The downtown food trucks that cater to office workers getting lunch aren’t going to move to the Bloomington Home Depot parking lot. But I foresee businesses that have some discretion on their location will choose to locate outside the city. Is it coincidence that Hy-Vee is opening just out of reach of these ordinances?
So what’s the point of this? I’m not suggesting that Minneapolis raze a neighborhood of affordable homes to build a 47th and Cedar Menards to go with the new Starbucks drive-thru there. Just that we all acknowledge that we all live together in an intertwined society full of subsidies, “stroads,” and “sprawl.” Let’s try to acknowledge that sharing goes around in all directions; people have wanted and expected space and privacy since the beginning of the nation even though it’s only in the post-war years we’ve been in a position to provide it to the masses. Using “s-words” to describe lifestyle choices, as well as over-simplistic, over-idealistic solutions to real problems like congestion such as “live near where you work” or “ride a bicycle” only anger people rather than contributing to discussion.