Saturday, February 23, 2008

Urban living is making a comeback

In an article for the March 2008 issue of The Atlantic Monthly provocatively titled "The Next Slum?", Christopher B. Leinberger asserts that the subprime crisis is just the tip of the iceberg. Fundamental changes in American life, he writes, may turn today’s McMansions into tomorrow’s tenements.

"For 60 years, Americans have pushed steadily into the suburbs, transforming the landscape and (until recently) leaving cities behind. But today the pendulum is swinging back toward urban living, and there are many reasons to believe this swing will continue. As it does, many low-density suburbs and McMansion subdivisions, including some that are lovely and affluent today, may become what inner cities became in the 1960s and ’70s—slums characterized by poverty, crime, and decay."

The suburbs that he writes about are relatively new developments in the South, MidWest, and West, far from any commercial centers or public transportation. The urban centers that Leinberger mentions are places like White Plains, where a luxury condo sells for $750 per square foot, compared to a luxury single family home in suburban Westchester, which can sell for $375 per square foot. The Greater Danbury region doesn't quite fit either profile, although I recall reading last year that the newest development on the NY state line features homes that sell for over $1 million. But developers are also starting to find ways to bring the city to the suburbs, and provide an alternative to conventional, car-based suburban life. "Lifestyle centers"—walkable developments that create an urban feel with narrow streets, storefronts that come to the sidewalk, and a mix of residential and commercial use, are becoming popular with some builders. In other words, they are trying to recreate the experience of living in a small New England town. Danbury never quite lost that feel, although it was touch-and-go there for a while in the 80s after the Mall was built.

So here we are on the cutting edge of the latest trend. There are already signs, with the new downtown parking garage and the restoration of 238 Main Street, which, by the way, is now accepting applications for the new apartments being created on the upper floors. There is the truly awesome news that the Palace Theatre will be partly re-opened for this year's film festival (and perhaps beyond?). I was not able to attend First Night this year, but I've seen the photos of the interior of the Palace lobby, and all the art deco trim and light fixtures that I remembered are still there. The Warner Theatre in Torrington will have nothing on us once the Palace reopens.

And I think there's still hope for that big empty parking lot that was once the site of the first Danbury Mall, and which is within walking distance of the Metro North train station and the HART pulse point. Leinberger writes that "housing at Belmar, the new "downtown" in Lakewood, Colorado, a middle-income inner suburb of Denver, commands a 60 percent premium per square foot over the single-family homes in the neighborhoods around it. The development covers about 20 small blocks in all. What’s most noteworthy is its history: it was built on the site of a razed mall."

Friday, February 08, 2008

What's the opposite of "smart growth"?

Think you're seeing a lot of these now? You'll be seeing even more of them this year.

On Wednesday night the Danbury Common Council voted 19-2 to allow the Danbury Police Department to be trained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to "handle" undocumented immigrants. The exact details of the deal are not known at this time. The Council voted on the proposal with nothing in writing, as I understand it, so we don't really know just yet exactly what we have committed to do.

I'll be the first to admit that Danbury has problems. But undocumented immigrant workers are just a symptom, not a cause. If we had put the brakes on runaway growth 20 years ago, we wouldn't be where we are today. If we hadn't built the mall, which nearly destroyed the downtown, if we didn't allow developers to build on spec, if we had put the brakes on the McMansions and the condos, if we had supported local farmers instead of forcing them to sell to developers, if we had refused to widen the roads or add any new ones... then Danbury might still be a small town where everyone knows each other. The old stores—Howland's, the shoe store Markoff's (took me a few hours to remember the name), Woolworth's...—they might still be around. It might be a little boring, but it would be stable. Maybe the kids wouldn't stay here after high school, but I'm not sure they do now anyway.

But stablity doesn't buy a second house on the Cape. Stability doesn't buy that sports car. Stability doesn't put gas in the SUV. And stability doesn't make anyone a millionaire. No, there must be constant—or even accelerating—growth, sort of like a shark. And so that's where we are.

So what does this have to do with immigrant workers and cheap labor? Just who did we think was going to fill the vacuum created downtown by the Mall? Did we think that Danbury would just quietly roll up the streets and die? Well, it came pretty close. There are still a couple of office buildings that have never been fully occupied, having been built at just the wrong time, but are inexplicably still standing. Who did we think was going to maintain the landscapes for all the new developments? And who was going to clean all the new McMansions? Who did we think was going to shop at Wal*Mart? Have you ever walked around downtown New Canaan, Ridgefield, or Redding? Can you even find Redding Center? Can you imagine any of those towns letting developers put condos anywhere there is a sliver of land? Of course not. But Danbury does.

Without cheap immigrant labor, who's going to clean those condos and maintain those yards and build those stone walls? Are we going to bus in unemployed workers from NYC... having first checked their identity papers, of course? Or are we going to stop, take a deep breath, and look at where we are and how we got here?

That's the picture as I see at the local level. At the national level, Jim Hightower has said it better than I ever could, in this article titled "Immigrants Come Here Because Globalization Took Their Jobs Back There."

Saturday, February 02, 2008

No Impact Man On Community and Smart Growth

No Impact Man and his family just completed a year-long experiment in minimizing their impact on the environment. They shut off the electricity, walked or rode a bicycle everywhere, and ate only food that was grown or raised within 100 miles of their home in New York City. In the course of the year, they rediscovered community, which is something that those of us who spend an hour or more in our cars each day may have thought had been lost forever. One of No Impact Man's messages is that community hasn't been lost, it's just been misplaced. In yesterday's post, he talks about community, and how it relates to "smart growth."