Planning expert seeks to help Memphis get growth priorities in check

Memphis brings to town this week a civil engineer and planner whose provocative message about the “suburban experiment” is gaining traction with financially strapped city halls across the U.S.

Charles MarohnCharles Marohn

No, Charles “Chuck” Marohn is not just another advocate for New Urbanism, smart growth and walkable/bikable streets. Otherwise, the hall where he spoke to an American Planning Association conference in California on April 15 may not have been standing room only.

Marohn uses a different language to speak about urban planning: Dollars and cents.

Local governments across the nation are broke. That’s in large part because of the Ponzi scheme-like way roads and other infrastructure are built to sustain the failed suburban experiment, says Marohn, executive director of the Minneapolis-based nonprofit¬†Strong Towns.

“We’re a long ways gone,” he said of the financial strain of local governments.

The city’s Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team for Neighborhood Economic Vitality is using the Bloomberg grant to bring Marohn to town.

He’s getting an overview of Memphis issues on Monday, and on Tuesday and Wednesday will have meetings with regional leaders, the mayor, City Council members and some department heads.

Marohn will lead a free, public presentation at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at Ducks Unlimited in Shelby Farms near the Agricenter.

The “Curbside Chat” is hosted by Urban Land Institute Memphis, Livable Memphis and Memphis Regional Design Center.

Typical suburban developments of spread-out, single-family housing do generate property taxes, fees and other revenue for a town. But they don’t come close to paying for the long-term maintenance of roads and other infrastructure built to accommodate such development, Marohn argues.

So to perpetuate the “Ponzi scheme,” towns keep pursuing new growth and the short-term wealth it brings.

At first, such new development appears financially sound because the initial costs are covered by the mortgage payments of home-buyers, Marohn said in a telephone interview with The Commerial Appeal.

After all, developers use proceeds from house sales to pay for much of the infrastructure.

Also, the federal government has transportation policies that foot much of the costs to build the bigger roads that make suburban living possible.

But neither developer investments nor federal funds provide cities nearly enough maintenance money over the life cycles of suburban roads.

“The model we’ve been using at the local level since World War II is based on continuing rates of growth,” Marohn said. “To sustain everything we have in our communities, in terms of infrastructure and parks and basic services, requires new growth and ever-accelerating rates of new growth.”

Marohn says he’s pro-growth, but growth that provides a greater return on investment.

That means making the streets in often-neglected traditional neighborhoods much more appealing places to be. So appealing — with landscaping, architecture, beauty, transit, retail, green space, recreation and other services — that people have a strong desire to live on them.

The demand to live on a great street can be so strong that it raises the value of the property along it. And since the value of the space on the street is so great, people don’t mind living closer together than they would in suburban subdivisions, Marohn indicated.

People often tell Marohn that nobody wants to live so close together.

“Here in Minnesota we’ve got all these lakes,” he said. Having a residence or vacation home on a shoreline is so desirable that people are willing to pay $400 a square foot to live on 25-foot-wide lots. “They’ll live as close as you let them because they’re next to a great amenity, a lake.

“So look at the right-of-way as more than a place for moving a car.”

Marohn’s financial message on urban planning is “a new argument people aren’t used to hearing,” said Tommy Pacello, project manager for the Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team for neighborhoods.

“The way cities have grown never looked at the capture of return on investment on infrastructure,” Pacello said.

As program manager for the nonprofit Livable Memphis, Sarah Newstok recently spoke out against the state’s plans to spend $24 million to build a new highway interchange on the outskirts of Memphis.

“Marohn’s talk is an opportunity to engage more people in a deeper discussion about the kinds of public investments we make in order to increase the quality of our existing neighborhoods,” Newstok said.

“For example, Livable Memphis is interested in a community discussion about our CIP (Capital Improvement Program) budget and how we can get a greater return on our public investments. We expect that Marohn’s talk will be excellent inspiration for that conversation.”

Charles “Chooch” Pickard, executive director/chief design officer for Memphis Regional Design Center, sees Marohn’s visit as “a great opportunity to continue the dialogue about how quality urban design or lack thereof can have an impact on the city’s economic future.

“By educating the public and our leaders about how design impacts our city, we can help change the course we’ve been on for too many years,” Pickard said.

Marohn said that even in affluent suburbs, “there’s a limit to what people are able or willing to do to sustain this pattern of development.”

People consider Detroit, where resources are so drained that entire neighborhoods have been scraped and replaced with green space, as the exception because of poor governance. But Marohn believes Detroit is the canary in the coal mine, and that many other cities will experience similar reversals.

Paved roads will be returned to gravel and developed areas will revert to green space, he said.

Of course, the horizontal expansion Marohn claims is unsustainable has occurred inside Memphis, too. A drive down Winchester in Southeast Memphis, for example, reveals empty or underused big-box stores built in the 1980s, and acres of vacant parking lots.

“I don’t have an answer,” Marohn says of such urban-design failure,”… no magic solution that fixes all this.”

The stores were built at a scale that isn’t viable over multiple life cycles. They run through a life cycle and simply die.

“We need to, from a rational standpoint, to start building at a scale that is geared toward neighborhoods,” he said.

While Marohn doesn’t offer a simple solution for such derelict development, he said rational or irrational things can be done.

“No matter what, we can’t salvage them,” he said. But the development could be converted to green space.

Thought should be given to ways to use the development until permanent solutions are brought.

The city also should consider “what type of investment can we put in place here that would allow market forces to come in and redevelop something that would be viable in the long term.”

Sometimes churches want to move into such big-box spaces. “Nothing against churches, but you are not really fixing the underlying problem: The site is built at the wrong scale.”

The big challenge towns have is how to reverse the damage done in the 1950s and 1960s.

“One plausible scenario is that over the next generation things just flip,” he said.

“You wind up with some suburbs being the new slums and have disinvestment and loss of property value. That’s the cheapest place you can live in. The place with the least amount of regulation.

“So you wind up redoing what we did almost in a brutal way. That is a concern. One we have to think through.”

Article from Commercial Appeal