The Locker Room

My hometown has gone smart growth crazy

Posted by Dr. Michael Sanera at 09:45 AM

The Economist has an article here on my hometown, Mesa, Arizona. It seems that the city has given up on the old downtown where my father and mother started their radio and TV business in 1946.  The city has annexed five square miles southeast of the city and plans to build a new city center, or as The Economist puts it “A rare opportunity to build an urban centre from scratch.”

Mormons founded Mesa in the 19th century, but it seems that the conservative Mormon heritage has faded. Smart growth zealots took over the city in the 70s.  The city fathers and mothers tried to save the downtown by building a convention center and subsidized hotel. Sound familiar.  When that did not work, they built a performing arts complex with 5 venues.  More recently, the city has turned to TIFs to finance large shopping centers.  Apparently they did not notice that subsidizing new shopping centers on the edge of town further depresses the downtown area.

In the process of redeveloping the old downtown, the city became the eminent domain capital of the world.  The city took or bought hundreds of acres of land; much of it is still vacant because they do not know what to do with it.  Cities can create blight too.

Institute for Justice took the eminent domain case of one of my father’s business associates, Bailey’s Brake Service. The city condemned a two square block area including his shop with the intent of transferring to another of my father’s business associates, Lenhart’s Hardware.  The city would rejuvenate downtown by expanding  Lenhart’s store so that  he could steal business from Home Depot and Lowes. Who says that city bureaucrats aren’t qualified to run a business.

This land was not more than a block from the house my father built and I grew up in. The city demolished all of the houses and businesses in the two-block area, except for Bailey’s building.  Bailey won his case, but later decided to move his shop to another location.

Now the city council is engaging in an even larger, more grandiose plan that will create new city and in the process give a free hand to smart growth/new urbanism planners to dictate the life styles of residents. 

According to The Economist,

The forward-looking part of the plan is that Mesa will be built around an airport. Rather than pushing air traffic to the fringe of the city, as most cities try to do, Mesa will build around its runways. It hopes to become what John Kasarda of the University of North Carolina calls an “aerotropolis”—a city as tied to air traffic as 19th-century cities were to railways.

Don't worry, the city will push to extend the new Phoenix light rail to the new city.

The backward-looking part of the plan has to do with the new city’s appearance. Rather than dictating uses for neighbourhoods, as almost all American cities do—apartments here, light industry over there—Mesa’s planners will determine the appearance of buildings. They want to encourage a mixture of uses in one street, and allow for change (so a warehouse might eventually be converted into apartments). They hope that, by putting many of the essentials of life in a small area, people will walk around. Mesa’s scorching summers might be a problem here.

If the idea is to have mixed use and make it flexible use, then why not just get rid of the plan and let people do what they want. I forgot, that would mean that the planners would be out of a job.

Although DMB [the city's private developer] claims the new city will be an exemplar of “21st century desert urbanism”, it actually looks rather more like a city of circa 1900. The new Mesa will contain lots of neighbourhood parks, the better to encourage sociability.

The truth leaks out. New urbanism is actually reactionary.  It forces people to live a 1900 life style something that many people want to escape.

The Economist saves the best for last:

Yet Richard Reep, a Florida architect, is wary: “Any time architects start thinking they can influence social order, watch out.”


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