Tag Archives: urban planning

Will a New Map for America save Kentwood from PLanners? The Passenger Railroad Sequel

Kris and I flew back from a week in the Dominican Republic last week. Monday evening we returned from Philly and Lancaster, Pa, where a I had the weekend Infectious Diseases gig. We had no way to get to these places except by aircraft; this wonderful technology is central to our way of life. But the present isn’t good enough for some; they want to annoy us with a romantic history, as they would like to remember it.

Resuscitating the abandoned past, a representative from a group advocating a nationwide rail network appeared at our last very busy and time crimped commission meeting. “When we get passenger railroads to go 110 MPH, this mode of travel will become profitable and it will be practical to go coast to coast.” or such like. The blather went on for at least 10 minutes, driven mainly by our mayor, a trained civil engineer born in Roanoke, Va, a major but now sadly fallen rail hub and who had apparently helped design railroad tracks in the past.

I had nearly consigned this political theater to oblivion. Then this article appeared in the Sunday NYT. The newest fad in the urban planning racket is regional hubs and lines of communications among major cities and their surroundings with high speed passenger railroads and internet cables allowing them to form coherent productive units! There are seven such natural groupings in the USA, some even extending into Canada. We here in the upper Midwest are linked with Chicago, Detroit and places further west. How innovative! Grand Rapids linked to growth nodes like Detroit and Chicago! Workers can stay in their backward small city homes and travel to jobs in the far off big city! And it took a thinker from a university in Singapore to figure this out!

The reason why I dwell on this fluff is the hope that this hub and networking fad will displace the current New Urbanism /cool cities/smart growth craze that inserts these planners into Kentwood. Here they insist on spending our money on sidewalks to nowhere, building houses that are handicap inaccessible and creating a mind numbing sameness of the architecture to our city.

The newest scam wants to involve state governors and national politicians in the planning process and that’s just fine with me. They can hold conferences and commission studies to build railroads in the world when self driving cars promise to be faster, safer and more agile, and glass fiber connections in a world in WiFi is already king and in which 5G networks smoke the opposition. The passenger railroads and fiber optic hoses are so dowdy that they will never be funded even by big league out of touch politicians. And local plans to reconfigure cities along ideological schemes (Imagine crowding young bright people into closely packed housing along streetcar lines reminiscent of a hundred years ago with epidemic tuberculosis and where the Spanish flu killed 500,000 Americans in 3 weeks.) will thrown into chaos when word comes down that folks should stay where they want to be. Hopefully the planners will be distracted enough so that we no longer have to tolerate their interfering with normal market evolution.

 

Ramming Kentwood into More Debt, Raising Taxes by the Back Door

We got the Parks and Recreation Commissioners’ minutes for the last 3 months in the latest city commission packet. We’ve been missing a lot more than just delayed reports.

The commissioners are Emily Bridson, Bob Coughlin, Brian Dickey, Mimi Madden, Dustin Moseley, Kevin Small and Chair Bob Jones. Mr. Terry Schweitzer of planning is usually present at their meetings. Mark Rambo, Deputy City Administrator was there in March, the laying on of hands by our City Hall so to speak.

It seems that there are actual plans to replace the Kent Activities Center (KAC) on 48th and to spend more money on other recreation opportunities for “new families” and “new businesses” that will be moving to Kentwood. (And the whole time I thought that we were merely serving the same old long suffering taxpayers and shopworn residents, shame on me.)

The Parks and Rec Commission has been using Federal Community Block Grants, DNR, and some of the money left over from a now expired parks millage to fund new acquisitions and upgrades, and doing just fine. The operational money comes from the city’s general fund and I’m told that we will be in surplus as we pay down our bonds.

The Parks and Recreation Commission envisions expansion of facilities although the amount land in Kentwood hasn’t changed in 5 decades and the city is thought to be 90% “built out.” It’s hard to justify expansion if the supply of park services has been adequate for 50 years; do they think that our aging population want more grassland on which to play soccer or to jog?

There is a saving grace of caution in these minutes that comes from City Hall. I have been asking for data documenting how much our parks and rec facilities are actually used since I was elected in 2013. Are they near capacity, or are they, as my personal observations seem to show, almost abandoned? The Paul Henry Bike Trail that my wife and I did on the Fourth of July was busy enough but not long enough for serious biking. (We were really put off by the traffic along 60th Street and it’s hard to see where this path could be expanded to make it more natural.) We saw a half dozen small parks along the way, all empty on the biggest summer holiday of the year.

Mark Rambo in addressing the Commissioners’ request for guidance in borrowing the money for their new projects, suggests being sure that there is a need for more recreational facility and providing documentation.  If we need to renew the Parks Millage we should know how much is needed, and for what.  The Commission needs to identify activities that are missing in the Kentwood area that the public can’t get when it flocks to Planet Fitness and MVP voting with their own money.

Our Parks and Rec department read the statistically flawed, push-poll-generated parks study from 2 or 3 years ago and apparently wants to rush us past the gritty Kentwood realities to get to some sort of promised land that might be valid in California or in the minds of academic dreamers who state that a community needs a swimming pool for every 20,000 residents. (Where do these numbers come from?)

Just as our police use crime data to focus their resources , the Parks and Rec commission need to show usage, picnic tables occupied by families on holidays, kids playing sandlot baseball on weekday afternoons and young couples watching birds and flowers in nature preserves ere we pile yet more debt and the taxes on our indebted populace to pay for this stuff.

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.

Cute.

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