Cities: November 2007 Archives

From The American Magazine, a sad story about eminent domain. Dr. Joseph Erondu, an immigrant from Nigeria, opened a dental clinic in Gaslight Square, a rundown neighborhood in St. Louis. After years of being a lone bright spot in a neighborhood known for drugs and prostitution, he heard the magic words: "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help."

Erondu was later thrilled to learn that the city was planning to redevelop the area--until he learned that he wasn't welcome in the new Gaslight Square. St. Louis wound up acquiring his land using eminent domain, forcing Erondu to rebuild his practice from scratch in another neighborhood. Perhaps as a result of the stress, Dr. Erondu fell ill while his new practice was being constructed. He died on June 23rd, 2005, the same day the Supreme Court handed down its infamous Kelo decision.

Erondu's property loss is a story that has been repeated across Missouri and across the United States. Entrepreneurs purchase property in a marginal neighborhood and struggle to build a viable business, only to have the city take their property and give it to a wealthier business with better political connections. Every time that happens, it sends a powerful message to future entrepreneurs that they should think twice before setting up shop in low-income communities.

That's just one of the ways in which urban renewal policies designed to help the poor do just the opposite. Many urban planners argue that the power of eminent domain is needed to combat "blight" in urban areas. But closer examination shows that eminent domain only shifts the problems of poverty to another neighborhood, while destroying the social fabric that is essential for a genuine revitalization of poor neighborhoods. States that truly care about the welfare of their urban poor should prohibit the use of eminent domain for private urban redevelopment projects.

The author of this article, Timothy B. Lee, has coauthored a policy paper outlining the history of eminent domain and its uses and abuses for the Show-Me Institute, a free-market-oriented public policy think-tank based in Missouri.

(Via Eminent Domain Review.)

This week in Urban Tulsa Weekly, I tackle the teardown trend, infill development, and the concept of Neighborhood Conservation Districts as a means of ensuring that new infill construction is compatible with existing development.

I have two photo credits in this issue: A photo from the statehood procession reenactment from the big statehood centennial celebration in Guthrie, which graces the table of contents, and a photo of the prime example of out-of-scale and out-of-character infill development which accompanies the column. A hat tip to tulsanow.net forum member "yayaya" for tipping everyone off to this monstrosity. You can see more pictures on my Flickr set page, Tulsa Midtown McMansions.

Here are some supplemental links on the topic of teardowns and neighborhood conservation districts (NCDs):

For any OKC readers who were offended by a recent entry about the Oklahoma River, let me say that neighborhood conservation is an area where Oklahoma City is decades ahead of Tulsa.

Those who've accused Councilor Roscoe Turner and north Tulsa residents of unjustifiable complaining about the closing of Albertson's at Pine and Peoria need to listen to the podcast of Saturday's Darryl Baskin show. The guest at the beginning of the show was Steve Whitaker of John 3:16 mission, and the topic was "food deserts."

Not desserts. Deserts.

There's a big one in Tulsa. Whitaker said a food desert is defined as an area where it's more than three miles to the nearest full-service grocery. Tulsa has a six-mile wide band without supermarkets that goes all the way across the city.

There are no full-service grocery stores in the City of Tulsa north of Admiral Place. There's a Piggly Wiggly on Admiral east of Harvard, a Warehouse Market at 3rd & Lewis, and another Warehouse Market at 66th & Peoria in Turley. Beyond that you have to go to Owasso to shop.

A food desert makes life harder for those already on the margins of poverty. There are no supermarkets within walking distance. There might be a convenience store, but prices are higher, and the store isn't likely to carry produce or much in the way of healthy food. Driving is getting more expensive as fuel costs rise. Public transit is rarely available when people are off work and can go shopping.

Whitaker and Baskin wondered why, since everyone has to buy food, no one has filled the vacuum left by Albertson's departure.

I read an explanation recently -- can't remember where -- that made a lot of sense. Even though everyone has to buy food, lower income people tend to buy basics and items on sale. In other words, they buy items with low markups. In supermarkets in middle class and upper income areas, shoppers buy more expensive, high-markup items which subsidize the basics. If everyone that shops at a particular grocery buys only the low-markup items, the grocery won't be able to afford to stay in business.

UPDATE 2007/11/30: I took a little drive up Peoria and back down Lewis to check on grocery locations. There are no supermarkets on N. Peoria until you are beyond Tulsa city limits and in unincorporated Turley, which has a Warehouse Market. There is a greengrocers called "Week's" at Apache and Lewis, but I don't know if it's open out of season. At Pine and Lewis, the old Safeway (the newer old Safeway on the northwest corner) is split between a RentQuik and a Save-A-Lot. Although the Save-A-Lot doesn't have a sign out front, banners in the store visible through the windows showed the name. There's a big Supermercado on Lewis just north of I-244. I didn't stop to investigate, so I don't know what hours these stores keep or how their prices and selection compare to stores in my neighborhood.

Reflecting on the decline of the standalone video rental storefront, Steve Patterson directs our attention to the importance of building form over any given use:

It is interesting to see all these changes in the video market, something that didn't exist 30 years ago. Many storefronts, often built for these places, are left scattered around the landscape. Some will remain vacant while others will find new uses. This is yet another reason why the building form should be a higher priority over the use of a structure. The use will likely change over the years but the building form remains in place as long as the building remains standing. As a society, we cannot afford to change buildings for each and every change of use.

People are amazingly creative in the reuse of buildings, but buildings designed for multiple small storefronts seem to be the most flexible. This is evident as you look at the history of Cherry Street or Brookside. What was built to house a small grocery might become a used bookstore and then a restaurant. It's possible to combine several small spaces for a larger use, but it's much harder to take a building designed for one large tenant (a big box) and split it up in a practical way for many small tenants. Part of the problem is the depth of the building. How would you take a 100,000 sq. ft. building, like a small Wal-Mart, and split it practically into spaces of 1,000 to 2,000 sq. ft.?

It's my impression -- commercial real-estate experts correct me if I'm wrong -- that the bigger the space, the harder it is to find a tenant.

UPDATE: In the comments manasclerk mentions the book How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand. I haven't read it, but I'm impressed by what I read in this Wikipedia entry about one of the concepts discussed in the book: Shearing layers.

The Shearing layers concept views buildings as a set of components that evolve in different timescales; Frank Duffy summarized this view in his phrase: "Our basic argument is that there isn't any such thing as a building. A building properly conceived is several layers of longevity of built components."

The layers that make up a building are, in descending order of longevity from eternal to ephemeral: site, structure, skin, services (electrical, HVAC, plumbing), space plan (walls and partitions), and stuff.

According to the Wikipedia entry, Brand says that traditional buildings are more adaptable because they "allow[] 'slippage' of layers: i.e. faster layers (services) were not obstructed by slower ones (structure)." New construction (and by "new" I mean anything built since World War II) generally doesn't allow slippage -- the structure, skin, systems, and space plan are too tightly coupled, probably because that's a less expensive way to build.

No time to elaborate, but here's a comparison for your consideration -- two Tulsa hotels that once catered to VIPs, the Mayo and the Camelot.

TRACKBACK 2007/11/29 from the Planning Commissioners Journal Planning Quote of the Day blog, which I am now adding to my Newsgator page.

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Cities category from November 2007.

Cities: October 2007 is the previous archive.

Cities: December 2007 is the next archive.

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