Aaron Renn’s March 24 posting on “The Logic of Failure” and his reference to “silver bullet” solutions for redevelopment and revitalization reminded me of my visit to the “Creative Cities Summit”, about revitalizing cities, three years ago this fall. The setting, timing and venue could not have been better, at least in terms of provoking thought about how to do things better.
The setting was Detroit, the time was October, 2008, when the financial markets were crumbling, and the venue was Renaissance Center (“RenCen”), the Robocop-like mixed use center that is headquarters for General Motors. I flew in the night before and opened my door that morning to a newspaper lying in the corridor on which the top headline read “GM in Merger Talks With Chrysler”. This was the beginning of the end as the auto industry had known it for the last 100 years, and those very same corporate managers were coming to work 30 floors above me.
This was my first trip to Detroit, so I decided to take a quick ride on the People Mover to see the city. With a station attached to RenCen, this automated system took me on a loop around the city, on elevated tracks 20 feet above street level, without my having to set foot on the street.
The first thing I was conscious of was that this was supposed to be rush hour and no one else was on the people mover. For that matter, there were few people on the streets. Some cars streamed off the freeway and almost directly into the RenCen parking garages, but not many, and even fewer people were out walking.
Most of the buildings between the stops also seemed to be empty. Most of were of the same pre-WW II vintage and quality as those on North Michigan Avenue in Chicago and in Mid-town in Manhattan, but there was no one in them. It was like an old Star Trek or Twilight Zone episode in which something has happened and the population has disappeared.
I gradually became aware that many of the stops were at Sim-city like attractions – the kind you are allowed to build when your city gets to a certain size- such as the convention center, an arena, a baseball park, a football stadium, and a casino. Each of these must have taken hundreds of millions of dollars to build. I thought, “They’ve been spinning the roulette wheel, hoping to get the tourists and suburbanites back into the city”. But what had the city fathers done for the residents themselves? Later I was to walk through Campus Martius, a center city park that people take considerable pride in, but even in the middle of the day it was largely empty. On the last day of my trip I walked up Woodward Avenue, the grand street at the center of the city that used to be the main place where people shopped. The buildings on one side were largely empty. The buildings on much of the other side were simply gone, some torn down for underground parking garages that were to be the new base of new office buildings to be built by private developers. These office buildings didn’t materialize.
After this trip I began to compile a list of the “silver bullet” solutions, of redevelopment projects that city leaders have put in place in various places across the U.S. over the last sixty years like those I saw in Detroit, and that I present here. Early in my career I prepared marketing and feasibility studies for these things, so I knew there would be a number of different kinds, but I was still surprised at their number when I stopped counting. Like Baskin Robbins, there are 31 flavors on the list, and it would be easy to add to it.
Graphic by Carl Wohlt from an original chart and information by Rod Stevens/Spinnaker Strategies. Please do not re-use without attribution.
Notice that the largest category is retail and tourism. If you really looked behind the rationale for most of these projects, you would find that most were in fact aimed at tourists or at suburban shoppers who had fled the city. The grand-daddy of all redevelopment projects is Ghirardelli Square, which remains vital to this day, although the upper floors have now gone condo for rich people who want to keep a place to stay in the city. Ghirardelli inspired the festival marketplaces of the 1980’s, many built by the Rouse Company, and many of which are now struggling. These later morphed into the food halls inspired by Granville Island in Vancouver and the Pike Place Market in Seattle, and, more recently, the market halls or sheds for farmers markets that have recently begun to show up. Notice the trend here for an ever-more-local clientele. Partly this is due to retail trends. When Ghirardelli first opened, it was filled with unusual boutiques selling clothing and glasses not found in the malls. Today you can buy these things at suburban “town centers”, where chains like Crate and Barrel keep a good selection of wine glasses and linens.
There is almost a flavor-of-the-month approach for transportation as well, which really started with the downtown connector freeways aimed at whisking shoppers to ailing main streets. More and more cities are now tearing out these freeways and converting the space to parkland. What’s more interesting is the evolution in rail, from heavy systems like BART and the DC Metro, to light rail in places like San Diego, to the current passion for street cars. Transportation is becoming lighter than air, and now this is even an urban gondola in Portland, with Vancouver planning a second on Burnaby Mountain. Years ago Disneyland had one of these, for frenetic visitors eager to punch all of their E tickets.
Notice how few kinds of business-related projects there have been. Science parks, which started with Stanford and the Research Triangle, have mostly been in the suburbs, but a few are in the city, such as Yale’s Science Park, and more are on the drawing boards. Carnegie Mellon’s Collaborative Innovation Center may be the best example of integrating academia, industry and the city, for here private sector tenants come together on a campus in the middle of a very urban city.
Notice just how briefly projects like Renaissance Center were popular. John Portman, an Atlanta architect, designed the most prominent of these, including not only Renaissance Center but the Hyatt Regency/ Embarcadero complex in San Francisco (which is connected with sky bridges), Peachtree Center in Atlanta, and the Bonaventure Hotel in downtown L.A. At the time these were the wonder of their cities, and tourists came in to gaze upward at the atriums and light-bedecked elevators that moved through these. They almost all included office buildings, hotels, and mini-shopping malls, and almost never housing. Many of these were introverted, arrived at by car in special drop-off lanes, with the pedestrian entrances being hard to find. Few or no lobby windows faced out onto the street. At Embarcadero Center in San Francisco, the main level of pedestrian activity is one floor above the street. and for about 20 years it had a thriving trade of office workers from nearby buildings eating and shopping there at noon. Now most of that lunchtime activity is out walking along the Bay, on the true Embarcadero, or eating in the Ferry Building next to it.
And then there are the truly wacky projects, which may or may not work in their own right. Projects like the automated people movers in Detroit, Miami, and Morgantown, West Virginia. The canal in Oklahoma City’s Bricktown “entertainment” district. And the submarines and battleships, like such as a submarine in the prairie land of Muscogee, Oklahoma and the dreadnaught Olympia at Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia. The Olympia ship may be headed to the scrap heap, for lack of support and visitation and Penn’s Landing has struggled because of its isolation. Fish don’t shop.
Why is it that these projects work in one place and not in others? And why is that Portland has pioneered so many of these projects? I believe the answers are related, and having grown up in Portland, with a family that was involved in creating some of these solutions, I can offer some insight.
Aaron Renn uses the term “silver bullet”, and that is exactly why many cities copy other cities’ solutions: they hope these will magically solve their problems. But as Aaron points out, these other cities frequently fail to adequately define what problem they are trying to solve, and what their priorities are. The approach that works well in one city for one set of challenges will not work well for a different set.
But why has Portland been so successful? I believe there are three reasons: 1) crises and political turnover that opened the community up to questioning and new leadership; 2) a growing facility with problem definition and problem solving; and 3) the attraction of “outsiders” who joined the community and brought fresh new approaches and energy.
Without getting into too much detail, the political crises included a revolt and mobilization of the citizenry in the 1960s, when private interests tried to take over the public beaches. Never before had the legislature seen so many private citizens flood its conference rooms, and this led to other conservation measures like the bottle bill, land use planning and the Willamette River Greenway. This activism, growing at the same time as Vietnam War and Watergate, brought a new generation to power in the early 1970’s, including Neil Goldschmidt, who pushed forward light rail system when citizens revolted against more freeways. And the final event was a very, very deep recession in the early 1980s, when most of the major timber companies closed shop or left town, leaving behind a vacuum of power in which it was easier to make broad-based decisions. Oregon’s growing environmental reputation and the easier entry into the circles of power drew in like-minded people from throughout the country, and some of these people helped push the city in new ways.
Most importantly for Portland, and perhaps for other cities, the community got better at problem solving, at not simply reaching for off-the-shelf solutions. In the 1970s, relatively strong retail, on the street downtown, led the community to reject a multi-block retail project connected by sky bridges that was proposed by Canadian developers. That first light rail line took care of a transportation need when citizens said no to a freeway that would have wiped out miles of neighborhoods. “Fareless Square”, downtown, was a response to federal air pollution rules that made it tough to build new parking garages. The streetcar that opened in 2001 simply connected an already-strong downtown with Northwest Portland, a strong residential neighborhood that is the densest in the state. Portland has had its failures and misspent money – the Rouse project is now ailing and the extension of the transit mall has killed retail along its length- but its successes come because they are rooted in local needs.
Hopefully this trend is developing nationally. The failed Rouse project in Milwaukee, aimed at drawing tourists back into the city, is now re-oriented to more local shoppers, largely because Mayor John Norquist would not give it more subsidies. Money is flowing out of big downtown projects and into more neighborhood-based retail projects, like those sheds and squares for farmers’ markets. And we are putting more of an emphasis on “productivity” projects, aimed at creating good places to work, and fewer on the “consumption” side, retail and housing. More cities are realizing that great places draw good talent, and that they need to focus on the work side if they are going to participate in the modern knowledge economy. Already we are seeing more collaboration between the city and the universities, and while much of this new development still takes place within the walls of the campus, in some places like downtown Phoenix, where the new Arizona State University campus has opened, the city and the university are one, without walls. It will be in leveraging the talents of our people, and our anchor institutions, that we do our best problem solving, and create the most interesting and durable of places.
Rod Stevens is a business development consultant on Bainbridge Island WA, specializing in urban ventures.