Tag Archives: urban planning

The Silver Line, Form Based Building Codes, the Hard Pressed Taxpayer whom I Throw under the Bus.


I’ll start with a direct quote from Wikipedia;

“Form-Based Codes foster predictable built results and a high-quality public realm by using physical form (rather than separation of uses) as the organizing principle, with a lesser focus on land use, through municipal regulations.” (I will ignore the self serving “results in a high-quality” blather in this article.)

It seems that the latest fad in city planning is “The New Urbanism” aka “Smart Cities.” Our Grand Rapids area has bought into it. The idea is that we should live in crowded conditions along linear tracks where benevolent public-private entities arrange our jobs, leisure, shopping and public transportation, all of it ‘’walkable.”

Where to begin.

The public transit is easiest; the government built the Silver Line along our western border on South Division (32 million dollars) and we’re taxed directly millions for its operating budget. It is also planned to restrict the traffic flow along this road.

The rest of this scheme envisions private investors building apartments, stores, restaurants, offices and factories along this corridor so that a population of young, technically savvy  fictive entrepreneurs would move in, start businesses, leave a low carbon footprint and eschew urban sprawl.

In the matter of building the utopia, these urban planning romantics should be embarrassed that Kentwood and most of the Grand Rapids urban area has been built over many years under rules imposed by a constantly changing cadres of academically trained urban planners. The result looks like Fort Dix, NJ-you know, vast groupings of uniform buildings all constructed by the low bidder, painted the same color, bland and aligned, used for the same purpose standing like so many soldiers at attention. A few hundred yards away stands a grouping of a different generation of boring structures representing  the fashion of the day when it was produced by government fiat.

The planning and zoning commissions needed to distance themselves from evidence of their past sins, and sought salvation by trying to copy the few interesting portions of the urban area like the west side of GR and the Hill District that had been built before planning and zoning desecrations.

They think that abandoning the zoning that forced landowners to restrict the uses of their land to do what the government wants to now forcing builders to build structures in shapes and configurations that planners favored but allowing a wider range of uses (housing, retail trade, manufacturing)  all in the same neighborhood would rebuild deteriorated areas. Thus the hallowed “form based building codes.” All new building would be forced to have the same general architecture, in this case looking like what was built during the horse and buggy era,  but would be allowed to have different uses.


The planning commission has been studying this for years as have Grand Rapids and Wyoming. Wyoming has actually re-written some of their codes to implement this advance of civilization. Now our planning commission wants 25K to hire a consulting firm to re-write our codes. I asked why we just couldn’t rip off the Wyoming codes? The answer was that our planning commission wanted to do it again, uniquely, or some such balderdash.

I voted with everyone else to authorize the expenditure and for this I apologize. In my defense, my “nay” would have only prolonged the farce. And remember the ancient saw, “Against stupidity the gods contend in vain.”

Our Commissioners Attend the Annual Strategizing Conference. I Emerge Not Terribly Depressed

We “city fathers” and heads of department spent an otherwise sunny Saturday at a well planned and executed meeting in which an imported facilitator led us along the usual pro-forma, management-approved ruts that these affairs always follow. I will relate a few of the bland recommendations. We needed to foster the Kentwood brand, speak well of the city government,  continue to foster the feeling of safety and orderliness that our residents may (or may not) treasure, keep costs and taxes low, and guard against threats coming from the economy, from civil unrest, or from other governments that could derail our plans. By way of boosting Kentwood, the meeting was held in downtown Grand Rapids.

There were no ringing calls for spending money to reach the Promised Land or for imposing new onerous regulations on the citizenry. I participated actively and at the end, had no idea about what future we had designed. The upside is that not having a concrete plan about where we should be going will allow the future to come as a complete surprise rather than as an continuously visible failing goal pinned on every cubicle wall, viewed daily with dread and anxiety.

I am of course not without some personal ideas about what we in the commission should do to manage our future. I start from a perspective of an outsider gazing down from a longer distance, darkly. Kentwood, it seems to me, has numerous threats, both internal and external, any one of which could thwart any well thought out plans.

Some are internal problems that we can address. We have debts and a defined pension plan about half invested in stocks.  Inflation, reaching only 0.7% in the USA last year, has been on a steady decline for 35  years. The inflation rate in much of the industrialized world is less than zero. If deflation takes hold, our equity markets would undoubtedly collapse, shriveling our defined pension plan and plunging the city into deep financial crisis. We should invest the defined pension plan money in long term treasury bonds or offloaded our risk by buying annuity policies for covered employees. We should also pay off our bonds when they are due rather than refinancing them at “low” interest rates. If deflation reaches 5% per annum, our real interest rates will look more like 8% at a time when real estate, income and sales taxes are all falling  making governmental revenues scarce. Deflation threatens the general US and world-wide economy but handled properly, it could make Kentwood with its relatively low debts the shining diamond of our region.

We can’t do much about the rest of the threats that we face.

We in Kentwood are tied in with the economies of Grand Rapids, Michigan, Detroit and Chicago/Illinois with their huge debts; defaults will cramp our finances and economy.

The average Kentwood  income has diminished from 49k to 39k in the last 10 years. I’d argue that the diminution is not because our citizens are working less, but rather because economically less productive residents are moving in.

Our real estate market has not recovered back to its admittedly bloated 2007 level.

Michigan’s DEQ (of Flint water fame) wants all new developments to retain all storm water on the property, but we have impenetrable clay soil and so may not be able to develop empty areas of our city.

The Feds have fantasies about distributing poverty to all neighborhoods in an apparent pursuit of equality, thereby improving our collective protoplasm, or something.

Our diversity, seen unaccountably as a virtue, could turn on itself turning ugly and cause devastating costs and hatreds.

Large portions of our city are were built in the 1920s and are on the cusp of economic obsolescence.

So I would plan working only for our survival. We should bend our energies to forestalling crippling losses and parrying threats that could destroy the vaunted peace and perception of orderliness in Kentwood.

I’m glad that the conference didn’t advance any new adventures in which we would fritter away our money. Opportunities in our city will come irregularly and from eruptions in the private sphere or in nature that no official can anticipate. (Who would have foreseen North Dakotans as being transiently wealthy due to fracking or more recently becoming a center for drone research; they had merely to let prosperity happen.) Hopefully, if and when opportunities come knocking, our city will still be functioning and able to benefit. Our leaders should curb their impulses to snuff out spontaneous and often disruptive innovations with regulations and planning, or, heavens forbid, subsidies.

I Reminisce on the Monroe Pedestrian Mall as It’s Echo is Erected on Bridge Street MW

I commented on the article in Mlive today. The “walkable communities” has come back. Someone observed, “Dumber than the Bourbons, learned nothing, remembered nothing and will believe anything.”                                                                                                http://www.mlive.com/news/grand-rapids/index.ssf/2015/08/bridge_street_to_close_for_con.html#incart_river

This scheme does so remind me of similar project that these ambulance chasers finished about 35 years ago; does anyone else remember the Monroe Pedestrian Mall?

I had an experience there some years after it opened. I was standing on the mall late one afternoon, having visited some business or another, not another person in sight along its entire 3-4 blocks. A woman rounded the corner on the next cross street, lifted her skirt, re-arranged her slip and then noticed me. She kept her dignity and continued walking as though no one else was there; and, of course, no one was.

That particular governmental plan lasted maybe 15 years, probably drove Seketees, Herps and a nice bookstore, whose name I forget, out of business.

Wish the businesses and official well. It’s nice to see bad ideas recycled.

A Visit to Washington State; Rural Poverty, the Solons in Olympia, HUD, and What Disruptions We Need to Foresee

Kris and I vacationed last week in Washington State, mostly on the Olympia peninsula, staying at a low key “farm” B and B, at some distance from the usual tourist haunts.   We had a great time, hiking, biking and just talking in the evenings with our hosts, Joy and Joe. We learned something disconcerting during those lazy talks. It seems that this spectacular coastal region of the state was home to thousands of lumber related jobs which all disappeared when the environmental movement became ascendant 20 or 30 years ago. Tourism has not filled the void and so rural poverty now dominates the peninsula outside of the few tourist magnets. Obese, tattooed smokers loitered around the few gasoline stations and unpainted single-wides were hidden behind the lush evergreens. There is drug abuse, domestic violence and petty crime. (The perps won’t walk very far, and the rest of the peninsula is untroubled and spectacular.)

Interestingly, this  was much worse 20 years ago as the lumber industry collapsed casting tens of thousands out of work and into pauperism. This caused a political outcry heard in Olympia. The State of Washington upper class decided that it could solve two problems at once by moving its chronically welfare dependents out of the slums in Seattle and Spokane where they seemed trapped and out into the pure air of the Olympia peninsula where their welfare checks would inject money into the lagging economy and cause prosperity(!).

The result was pretty much what you’d expect. Crime skyrocketed and law enforcement resources were strained to the maximum. Schools could not cope with the influx of culturally and educationally incompatible kids. The freshly introduced adults had never had to think independently or act when stores, doctors and government offices were 50 miles distant. Housing and environments were trashed. There still weren’t any jobs.  Folks of all stripes left when they could, leaving behind the current lower class who live off casual jobs in the few businesses, pop off an occasional elk, or get welfare, basically the “disabled” receiving SS benefits.

I bring this up because I foresee a similar problem for Kentwood arising from new rules  that the zealots in HUD at the national level are proposing. It seems that this federal department means to eliminate poverty, racism, and what have you, by with holding funds from communities that are not able to show that they have dispersed all classes of citizens into each other; this scheme is supposed to elevate those who can’t afford “decent housing” to the cultural, educational, employment level of those who have earned their presumably “unfair” places in their pleasant, peaceful communities by working and saving for their selfish advantages. (All of this is based on a theory and one or two anecdotes-social engineering is like that.)

Historically, a community like Kentwood could declare that it conformed with HUDs mandates and get the money (which is all that counts.) This didn’t work, so HUD has done extensive study on the epidemiology of where minorities, poor people and the deprived live, or don’t. They have used several “innovative” study techniques and claim infallibility in diagnosing our social pathologies. All of this is in service of intending to tell communities exactly what/where/how they will make provisions to distribute the underprivileged into our neighborhoods.

And therein I see the similarity to the Olympic peninsula of Washington. I don’t know how many of our tax dollars we recover via these HUD grants, but if it’s substantial, we in Kentwood might want to look more deeply into that and similar failed social engineering experiments and marshall the arguments necessary to forestall the lusting of the central planners who are even now collecting comments before implementing their rules

Deepening the 40 Million Dollar Hole of our Silver Line by Digging up South Division.

The city commission is now bent on finding some way to “rejuvenate” South Division.   I don’t know why we’d bother except that the strip seems to consume a disproportionate a amount of police resources, and the tax base could be increased if the population and businesses were to return.  Rejuvenate implies a return to a previous youth, a better time. So we need to review the economic history of South Division. We’ll see that the glory of those bygone days are nobody’s savior.

The road led to Kalamazoo and it paralleled the all important rail lines. Working class neighborhoods like those around the Cottage Grove, GM, and Steelcase  factories developed because raw material and finished products could be moved to factories and stores. Organic neighborhoods with work places, stores and entertainment evolved, all within walking distances of each other. Housing was inexpensive and not regulated. One bought a place near where the husband worked (often ethnic considerations intervened,) women stayed at home, cooked, sewed clothing, shopped every few days walking to the nearby supermarket, bakeries and butchers for fresh food since the iceboxes operated only fitfully.  Kids walked to the small parochial or public schools and quit when they were 16 years old. Men walked to the factories or used the family car for business. Families patronized local businesses with whom they had personal connections.

South Division businesses also catered to the heavy truck and automotive traffic between Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids. The daily shopping from the neighborhood and the needs of travelers along the thoroughfare supported the myriad of small shops and tradesmen in that simpler era.

All this came to an end about 50 years ago. The standard of living had improved and folks stopped having huge families. They could afford a second car and wives needed to go to work to pay for the nicer house in the suburbs. No one felt energetic enough to spend a few hours weekly walking to a local small shop when Meijers Thrifty Acres, Roger’s, Eastbrook and other malls were just a short drive away and offered so much more at lower prices.

The final blow came when 131 opened, robbing South Division of its traffic. Motels, restaurants, auto repair shops, distributorships and the like died. Buildings disappeared and the resulting empty lots hosted used car lots. Low end businesses came and went. It acquired a reputation where one could buy illegal drugs or sex.

Now come the Urban Planners who never yet saw a stable failure that they wouldn’t try to make worse. There was “free money” around and so they built a Silver LIne up the middle of South Division, promising that it would resurrect Lazarus, but there’s not been a flicker of life after four years. What to do?

Well, there’s always the deeper mysteries of Smart Growth. What our Planners envision for South Division is an eight mile long strip mall with stores on the first floor and apartments full of bright young folks on the second and third floors, all of them visiting their favorite bars and coffee shops daily, strolling among outdoor cafes while talking about internet startups, in January yet. The Planning Svangalis  would re-zone this area into something called “form based” code which means moving 80 year old buildings festooned with awnings projecting over the sidewalks closer to South Division, parking cars behind the buildings, planting trees in the space between the sidewalk and street and slowing or even preventing auto traffic on the road by marking the pavement for bicycle lanes. Cars would be forced into the two central unmarked lanes greatly increasing the likelihood of collisions. (Cars are the enemy for these guys.) The buildings would house businesses that catered to the walk in crowd on the first floor and rental units on upper floors.

Politicians in Michigan and other failed states bought into the notion that computer savvy young people would return from Houston, California and Georgia based on “studies” and “surveys” that showed that smart, progressive young people were avoiding getting driver’s licenses, preferred public transit and living in downtown “walkable” communities which Urban Planners would provide. They would return in droves to Buffalo, Flint, Newberry…..A Miracle!

I’ve not been converted.  There is virtually no vehicular traffic on South Division and with New Urbanism, there will be less. Why would a merchant or saloon keeper start a business if few customers see his signs? The neighborhoods along South Division are not the most prosperous and won’t support upscale businesses. The residents living within a half mile of the road have long since forgotten how to walk and it will take a federal program to re- inculcate that habit before the proposed sidewalks on South Division will be flooded with eager shoppers and gawkers.

The more fundamental problem arises in finding the businesses that our Planners assume will populate this 2 mile long strip. 28th Street and Alpine Avenue carry an enormous amount of vehicular traffic and have attracted almost all of the national chains that are today deliver the bulk of commerce, but our mayor has struggled manfully to attract just two franchised businesses to our 28th Street corridor even as Ruby Tuesday closed. Serious money will not invest in a strip mall to which customers have trouble gaining access. The poorly capitalized and inexperienced businesses, small oriental groceries, tattoo parlors, payday lending, a few off brand fast food joints, prostitutes and drug dealers are already there and struggling.

The bottom line is that the population and their earnings is a zero sum game that will support only so many retail outlets. These have long since been established elsewhere. If our Planners foresee new, upscale businesses for the South Division corridor, these will have to be enticed from elsewhere using tax money taken from successful businesses on 28th Street. I don’t think that those businessmen will be sympathetic.

I had played with the idea of getting rid of the zoning and planning for So. Division to allow for industrial and more open commercial use. Small factories and distributorships would have great access to the nearby 131 expressway and provide jobs for nearby residents. But lurking in the background are the enormous and empty GM and Steelcase factories; the problem is, once more, that there are too few businesses to use the space. A lesser problem is that the established real estate interests in Kentwood would never allow competition to their sinecures on industrial property.

Just because I have no ideas about what to do about the economic zero on South Division doesn’t elevate the schemes of our Planners to anything more than evanescent fantasy.

Public Land Use Planning from the Victim’s Point of View.

My distrust of “Land Use Management” did not arise out of some LIbertarian screed, rather it grew out of seeing the insensitivity of Planners to what the market place and human flourishing dictated.

Over 10 years ago, my wife and I became one of the minor victims of Planning and Zoning in Grand Rapids. We owned 3 acres of mostly swamp on the East Beltline SE and foresaw selling it as the kids moved on. The property to our south, a magnificent seven acres on high ground and wooded, was for sale and we thought we’d piggy back onto that obvious big deal.

We and that neighbor were surrounded by office buildings and a half mile from Woodland and Eastbrook malls.  Neither of us had garbage collection, water/sewer connections, public schools, parks or grocery stores, but nevertheless we were zoned residential when commercial or even industrial seemed reasonable. The owners of the seven acres tried repeatedly to change the zoning, all  to no avail. They held out for about 12 years but finally acceded to city planning. One, infuriated by his perceived loss, called me up and asked me to buy his property instead of letting the city steal it; the price was ridiculously low but I saw no future in owning two properties coveted by unscrupulous bureaucrats.

Burton Ridge apartments, quiet, prosperous and settled rental units were on our north. They owned 40 acres of developable land behind us that were platted and prepared for apartment construction at least twice. Burton Ridge and those 40 acres were the victims of spoliation, bluntly stated.

The city plans, based on some transient theory, dictated a low income housing project be built in a nicer part of town for some flakey social purpose or another, and sure enough, the buildings went up on the neighboring seven acres and were occupied. Things started to disappear and were vandalized in our garage. I tried to institute security to no avail. Burton Ridge renters were really aggravated. I heard complaints of attempted break ins, cars damaged and of confrontations with young thugs. The two long term occupants that I knew by name left.

About a year after the housing project was finished, the developer, wanting to build another 36 units on our plot, approached us with an offer that was $100,000 short of our asking, but it was better than nothing so we took it. Best thing that we ever did since it got us out of the high tax, no services City of Grand Rapids and into Fox Chase Condos in Kentwood with it’s low taxes and a wonderful life style. We count ourselves winners. It was worth more than the $100,000 just to get rid of the aggravation arising from our new neighbors.

The owners of Burton Ridge lost good renters and the the 40 acres of land behind us has and will not be developed; who would? The last I looked, their property is now isolated by a high barbed wire fence. The mainly elderly occupants who moved had to find new lives elsewhere; their lives were disrupted. These are among the costs calculated in those two Economist articles (1 and 2) that are imposed on poor people by urban Planning and Zoning.

But the insult imposed on me by GR zoning and planning commission was not in having to move and maybe missing out on a few bucks. I understand that you have to crack a few eggs to make an omelet, (Stalin?) and what right do I have to brood my egg when great social goods need to be satisfied at the expense of tax paying property owners?

No, the outrage inherent in land use management became apparent after we agreed to sell.

The developer, call him Charlie, was a 40 year old from Cleveland, a nice guy who would fly in GRR to steer the project through to completion. I figured his take at 10% of our portion of the project, about 120K less expenses. I got to be his buddy citing my erstwhile real estate license and willingness to learn how the business worked.

The cloven hoof first appeared when a young fellow with hot,  burning fanatical eyes, showed up with his brand new SUV identifying him as “An Environmental Engineer.” He asked permission and then spent 3 days wandering our 3 acres. He wanted to see my basement with its old paint cans and epoxy left over from building boats, and then clucked his disapproval. On the second day, he called in a consultant and I overheard them saying “Of course it’s wetland, look at those trilliums!” (Had I known, I would have mowed that portion of lawn or spread Scotts weed and feed to make it dry land, but wet lands it would be.)The environmental engineer proceeded to mark off most of the front and sides of our acreage. There was not much room for 36 apartments and things looked grim, but not for long! Two weeks later, the engineer re-appeared and sheepishly moved all of his flags at least 75 feet down the lawn and toward the swamp, room enough for our project to proceed. Oh, and then, when the plans changed a year later, he re-appeared and moved the flags to the north side of the property to accommodate a parking lot and road. Strange how wetlands change, but who am I to impute financial pressures that may have suborned our environmentalist when it was necessary to accomplish the great societal good?

Charlie took me to at least two city planning commission meeting where he presented his case. He was introduced as “a developer who is well known….skilled…does good projects” as though this were necessary to convince the unelected planning commission. He and I would sit at the back where he would mock some of the commissioners, telling me what each would say and the like. Not that the commissioners didn’t make fools of themselves on their own. One mentioned that the current recommendation that he’d read about was for office buildings be next to the road and parking placed behind the building.

The commissioners all called Charlie by his first name, and he knew each by their official title. Cozy, you might say.

The project went through. Kris and I did have to drive to Okemos for the closing; seems that Charlie was in Michigan that day to play golf. I was too polite to enquire further.