Preach it, brothers

I ended this past week with two days of workshops on historic preservation tax credits, hosted by Downtown Greensboro.  Thursday’s focus was income-producing properties, which are eligible for both federal and North Carolina credits. Much of the stuff I was already familiar with, but it was interesting to hear from property-owners who have utilized the tax credits and from professionals who had worked on tax credit projects.

The most inspiring session came last. Architect Eddie Belk gave a retrospective of his long and successful career rehabbing historic buildings. It was a fascinating talk, especially as he reflected on how his approach toward adaptive reuse has changed over the years. As a student, I am often frustrated by the “it’s always been done this way” argument, and it was refreshing to hear someone so respected in the field be so honest and open to change. Doing so doesn’t negate his past work, which was not only groundbreaking but also responsible in many ways for the positive change in places like downtown Durham. Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed his presentation and am anxious to see his vision for Greensboro’s Revolution Mills (one of his current projects) fulfilled (see the Raleigh News & Record article here)!

Brightleaf Square was Belk's first project in Durham, and it has served as the cornerstone of that city's renaissance. Belk also is responsible for the crowning jewel: the American Tobacco campus. (Photo courtesy of the "Endangered Durham" blog.)

Brightleaf Square was Belk’s first project in Durham, and it has served as the cornerstone of that city’s renaissance. Belk also is responsible for the crowning jewel: the American Tobacco campus. (Photo courtesy of the blog “Endangered Durham)

Just following Thursday’s workshop, we headed over to The Empire Room to hear Charles Marohn (founder of the Strong Towns movement) and Joe Minicozzi (of the Asheville consulting firm Urban3) offer their views on urban growth in their presentation “Dollars & $ense: The True Cost and Benefits of Downtown Development Choices,” which was also sponsored by Downtown Greensboro.  Both of these guys were great, energetic speakers. That being said, it wasn’t like I was a hard sale. I was already on board when they started their talk, so I had more of an “Amen, brother” experience than eye-opening, but they were inspiring nonetheless.

Marohn’s talk was especially meaningful to me as a historian because he talked about the millennium of experience that has informed our approaches to development and how Americans have deviated from traditional urban patterns in the recent past. We have cast this new approach to development as “modern” and “progress,” but Marohn says, and I don’t think he’s wrong, that we are now seeing the consequences of this grand experiment. His talk carried on with the theme of my past semester: the post-World War II suburb (actually, the theme was more generally “suburbs,” because it included the early-20th-century version as well, but you get my point).

Charles Marohn and Joe Minicozzi presented "Dollars & $ense" Thursday night in Greensboro.

Charles Marohn and Joe Minicozzi presented “Dollars & $ense” Thursday night in Greensboro. The image behind them is from an amazing book called The Field Guide to Sprawl, brought to my attention last semester by a classmate.

With the growing popularity of speculative ventures like the Levittowns of the northeast (my example, not his) in the mid-20th century, Marohn argues that we abandoned the traditional, incremental growth patterns that had been the norm since the world’s very first city of Ur. (See what I mean? He really spoke to the history nerds in the crowd. Which was … you know … me.) And he says that doing so has come at a great cost that has manifested itself in a massive amount of public debt.

He interestingly did not appeal to the nostalgia for the past that you so often hear in New Urbanist ideology (this isn’t a criticism, as I share their nostalgia and it baffles me that the two movements seem to butt heads at times). Instead, this was, as the title of the talk indicated, about Dollars and Cents/Sense. Which, if you think about it, is the way you have to approach these kinds of subjects if you want to be persuasive. As I recently reflected about my experience at Preservation Action’s Lobby Day back in February, “I could talk ad nauseam about how much I love old buildings—the stories they tell, the history the represent, the beauty they reflect. I knew all about the environmental benefits of rehab projects. I even knew all about the economic benefits of preservation. It was really only after I participated in in Lobby Day that I felt like I could really talk about preservation in a really persuasive way.” And by “persuasive,” I meant in economic terms. Preservation projects generated this much revenue or this many jobs. Specifics. Hard numbers. People who aren’t swayed by a presence of place or nostalgia don’t respond to supporters’ starry-eyed romanticism. They are swayed by real data that proves the value of what we’re trying to convince them of. So that’s what Marohn and Minicozzi did. And well, I think.

He closed his presentation by arguing that we have reached a critical point, what he calls the “desperation phase,” of the suburban experiment. The mechanisms of growth that we have become accustomed to are waning and local governments are going to be forced to absorbed the local costs of the current development pattern, which he argues cannot be done without large tax increases and/or cuts in services.

Minicozzi spoke in depth about the fiscal inefficiency of suburban development as it has evolved since the 1950s, which he argues is largely responsible for the substantial public debt that Marohn spoke of. Like Marohn, Minicozzi also believes that the reason people built cities the same way for thousands of years was because it works. Density creates more efficiency, he argues, and therefore—according to “the relentless rules of humble arithmetic”—we are “building ourselves poor.” He then threw out a lot of numbers and charts (including a REALLY cool one using Google Earth) illustrating the tax dollars per acre of development generated by buildings downtown and buildings in the suburbs. He moved quickly and if you know me at all you know that my eyes glaze over when math gets involved, but he was certainly persuasive.

While I’d like a little more time with his charts and graphs to really feel comfortable with his argument, ultimately what he says isn’t anything new (nor does he say it is). He points out that the Council on Environmental Quality sponsored a report in 1974 called the Costs of Sprawl, which according to the Cato Institute “found that high density, planned communities are less costly to build and live in than low-density ‘sprawl.’ It also suggested that sprawl produces more pollution than planned high-density developments.”

This is not the first time since I returned to school that I find myself wondering WHY THE HECK ARE WE STILL TALKING ABOUT THIS??!

However mind-boggling, it seems that perhaps the study’s findings are finally starting to sink in (nearly forty!! years later).  In 2012, for the first time in nearly a century (1920, to be exact), American cities grew faster than residential communities outside of the urban center, a trend that has continued in 2013 (read more about it in this Wall Street Journal article). Urban communities around the country are experiencing revivals, as young people seek the vitality and diversity that often can’t be found in the ‘burbs. This comes with its own host of challenges and issues (like how to maintain housing costs for low-income residents when property values skyrocket after a place has become trendy), but that’s a topic for another post (boy howdy)!

Ultimately, while neither Marohn nor Minicozzi offered was a particular solution, I never expected them to. But they certainly hit on a topic that has increasingly captured my interest. I am really interested in learning more about what more they have to say. Marohn was kind enough to give me a copy of his book Thoughts on Building Strong Towns: Volume I, which I plan on taking with me to the UK next week. I also want to start including his Strong Towns podcast in my commuting soundtrack. So if you see me driving down Highway 421 with my hand raised, evangelical-style, just know that I have likely just spiritually connected with someone over the radio about urban planning.

Don’t worry. I’ll keep one hand on the wheel.