Sunday, September 18, 2005

Welcome to the neighborhood

If you asked me to describe my vision of Hell, it would probably look a lot like Cranberry Township in Butler County. Nothing but strip malls and franchise restaurants at the crossroads of a couple of highways far (by my standards) from the nearest city of any consequence. What's worse, you can't walk anywhere; if you suddenly run out of milk, you're getting in your car to get some more, whether you like it or not.

Well, now it seems that the people who live there aren't quite as keen on the place as they used to be. The Trib tells us that Cranberry and a handful of other suburban communities are trying to develop walkable Main Street business districts, in some cases building them from scratch or implementing new building requirements to foster walkable communities. It's a welcome development, but the smug, self-righteous part of me is laughing, because the residents and local officials who now bemoan these congested, sprawling communities are the same people who made them that way in the first place.

It's not that I expect everyone to want to live in cities, and I certainly can sympathize with the desire to flee crumbling infrastructure, high taxes and instititionalized corruption. (Not to mention failing schools.) But the best that cities have to offer--intimate, walkable and yes, high-density neighborhoods--can be replicated elsewhere, and on a smaller scale, if we so desire. We used to call them small towns, and they once were considered the heart of this nation, before shopping malls and Wal-Mart choked the life out of them.

But we can have them again, and it only takes a few simple steps. Allow for mixed-use development and multi-family dwellings. Build sidewalks. Install streetlights. Drop minimum frontage and parking requirements. If Wal-Mart wants to build a new store in your community, fine. Let them. But don't give them a penny in tax breaks, and make them pay for at least some of the additional infrastructure their mammoth store is sure to require.

Go visit places like Oakmont and Ligonier. Spend some time on Washington and Beverly roads in Mt. Lebanon. Hang out in Aspinwall. Just see what you've been missing.


Blogger Amos_thePokerCat said...

Care to take any bets how long Oakmont's lotus tinged pipe dream of small shops will last when the Galleria, and Pittsburgh Mills hits 100%? People will make their most honest vote, with their wallet.

If any significant number of people wanted to live in walkable high density living, they would create a demand for it by bidding up prices of residences in these Shang-ra-las. Don't see that happening.

I would like to see the response rate, questions, phrasing, and results from any of these surveys. Sure, I would like the world to be one great big Disney Land, as long as it is free, and does not impact me. Everybody wants a free lunch.

10:58 AM

Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

Interesting that you would pick two shopping malls that, unless I am mistaken, received some form of tax breaks to be built. Of course, it's not like Oakmont isn't already near other big-box shopping centers, though none quite as nice, I'm sure.

There will always be people, and perhaps even a majority of people, who prefer to live on relatively large lots far from any commercial development. But the trend that the Trib describes is taking hold in other parts of the country, if slowly and haltingly.

And the other point as always to consider is how much government policies have historically driven the development of the suburbs, in the form that we know them.

11:26 AM

Blogger Jonathan Barnes said...

I've written about town square developments in the North Hills as a staffer for the Trib and also as a freelancer for the P-G. I had a related story in the P-G about a week before the Trib, titled: “Back to the future: Some northern suburbs eyeing old-style neighborhoods with traditional feel” (Sept. 11, 2005)
The piece is about Saxonburg and Cranberry, where so-called "traditional neighborhood developments" are all the rage.
I generally argee with you, Jonathan, except for the Wal-Mart part. If people want to fight Wal-Mart from building in their neighborhood, it's their right to do so. Besides, Wal-Mart shouldn't have to force itself on a community, should it?

12:06 PM

Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

I apologize, Jonathan, because I did see your article. Nice job.

12:22 PM

Blogger Amos_thePokerCat said...

I picked the two malls (really the same entity, developed by the same corporation) that were mentioned in the story. They opened just recently. They are near Oakmont. If they have tax break does not surprise me. I would prefer no tax breaks, but that is not going to happen.

Those historical government policies were driven by people. If it was not what they wanted they could have been voted out of office.

Shangri la has a web site. An the movement developer.

Interesting, Cranberry just send out questionnaires this summer. No totals on the Cranberry web site. According to the PG, the developement has been planned for two years. Chicken, egg?

There was a previous plan. "The last time Cranberry adopted a longrange plan was ten years ago. It outlined a series of priorities affecting the Township’s future. Today, almost all the measures called for in that 1995 plan have become realities."

Looking at a map, I wonder how many people will jump in their car and go around corner on Rochester Rd to Wal-Mart anyway?

12:44 PM

Blogger Amos_thePokerCat said...

Reading JB's PG article:

$200K 1600 sq ft home in Saxonburg?
$300K for a home in Cranberry?


Some people must have money to burn.

Maybe they hate Wal-Mart because it offends their delicate Bobo aesthetics. (Not to be confused with the BoBoBo-Bo Bo-BoBo anime.)

1:02 PM

Blogger Jonathan Barnes said...

Some of the people who I've spoken with who hate Wal-Mart are folks who once did business with (as in buying from or selling to or representing) Wal-Mart. These folks hate Wal-Mart, they tell me, because of the way it does business.
But as far as those home prices in Cranberry, they are not at all far off, and in fact are lower than some of the homes being built there. Saxonburg, though, I wonder about. Still, lots of people want a maintenance free (i.e., brand new) house that they don't have to worry about.

1:55 PM

Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

I wouldn't be surprised if the homes in communities like Oakmont, Mt. Lebanon, Aspinwall and Sewickley that are closest to each of those communities' business districts were more expensive than comparable homes in the same communities. If you take away Aspinwall's business district, for example, you'd still have a nice community in a high-performing school district, but I suspect you'd take away one of the reasons a lot of people live there.

As to why people don't complain about government policies that favor suburban growth, perhaps, as with your attitude toward tax breaks for shopping mall developers, they are resigned to mediocre government. Or perhaps they have just never given it a moment's thought, and just take for granted the way things are. We'd be living in a much different society right now if voters were as engaged and well-informed as you give them credit for, and if politicians were that responsive to their wishes. A majority of Pennsylvanians no doubt favor property tax reform, for example. I don't see it happening anytime soon.

5:00 PM

Blogger Amos_thePokerCat said...

Sure, property close to nice clean active business districts would have a premium.

I did not say that voters were engaged and well-informed, just that they had the potential ability to change anything that they really do not like.

12:12 AM

Blogger Amos_thePokerCat said...

Over this past Labor Day, CNBC did a rebroadcast of their Nov 2004 program, "The Age of Wal-Mart". It was not the complete hatchet job, that say, like a PBS Front-whine would do. They presented both positive and negative, advocates, and detractors.

Imagine that WalMart is tough on suppliers. I guess they expected a free lunch, and no competition.

I guess you do not remember mutterings about Sears during the 50's and 60's? People thought Sears was going to take over the whole in retail because it was growing so fast. Darling of Wall Street. Very tough on suppliers too. Worked with a guy who used to sell 90% of his company's output to Sears. It went bankrupt when Sears switched to another supplier, probably foreign.

Seen a new Sears being built lately?

7:22 AM

Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

Years ago, many of the same objections raised over Wal-Mart were raised over A&P, which was subject to an FTC consent decree that governed what it could pay suppliers. (I think.)

I'm no fan of Wal-Mart, but all I ask of local governments is that they not throw subsidies at it or any other retail store.

8:43 AM

Blogger Amos_thePokerCat said...

Many years ago, 1979 to be specific. I am not lawyer, do not play one on tv, but looking at this summary, it seems that things went way beyond just being tough, and A&P deliberately tricked Borden to make a lower bid. I would expect that most of the suppliers to Wal-Mart are other large corps. Especially, Super Wally Worlds with grocery stores.

Obscure stuff. Robinson-Patman Act, never heard of that before.

I'm no fan of Wal-Mart, ...

Really. ;-) I would have never guessed.

I do not want local governments, or any government entity, for that matter, to give out any subsidy, but that is not going to happen. Given that local governments want more tax revenue (the real heart of the matter, why not limit the growth of tax revenue ala CO's TABOR amendment?), and therefore are in competition for businesses to move, and build. It is could probably be predicted by some lonely game theorist. It is kinda like the Prisoner's Dilemma

11:04 PM


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