On Chuck Marohn and Strongtowns

(Guest Commentary by Rockne Cole)


Rockne Cole

I went to an excellent presentation by Chuck Marohn tonight at the ICPL. Chuck is a certified civil engineer, hailing from Brainerd, Minnesota. Early in his career, he designed roads, highways and cul-de-sacs, not exactly thrilling topics, but in last the six years, or so, he has changed focus, becoming one of the leading proponents of small, incremental, organic growth for villages, towns and cities.

Marohn has started to quantify the economic benefits of traditional downtowns, and neighborhoods. He is not the first to recognize this, but he is particularly effective at showing, with hard numbers, how traditional development and neighborhoods outperform sprawl. He also cautions about the long term liabilities associated with mono-cultural, suburban based auto-centric developments.

It takes decades to pay for initial development costs, and afterwards, the property taxes do not pay for the upkeep costs. This, according to Marohn, is why we can’t pay for anything. The bills are becoming due for past decisions. That is his central thesis.

But rather than paraphrase what he said, I’ll highlight some themes and quotes that he made…

  1. Top down development tends to be orderly, but dumb. Collaborative, bottom up development is usually chaotic, but smart. (This is Jacobs in distilled form. Love this)
  2. A mixed use “blighted area” in Brainerd consisting of multiple use, commercial developments was worth 1,200,000 per acre while a new tax subsidized long john silver development was worth $800,000 in 2012. Two years later in 2014, the blighted block decreased 3% while the fast food joint lost 23% value.
  3. The full bill on sprawl based growth becomes clear after about 30 years in. In the meantime, tax revenue continues to grow, while the costs associated with deteriorating infrastructure remain hidden until the full bill comes due. Marohn refers to this as a “Ponzi Scheme.”
  4. To be successful, rather than taking giant bets on big, flashy projects, towns and cities should focus on small, incremental growth over time, taking lots of small bets throughout the city. To illustrate this, he described two examples from Memphis. In the 1980’s, Memphis, using hundreds of millions of public subsidies built a glass pyramid, literally, to attract an NBA team. Once the Grizzlies went there, they hated it and demanded a new structure, leaving the pyramid empty within 15 years of being constructed. It has a “happy” ending, a BassPro Shop now sits there after receiving millions of dollars more to locate there. To contrast this, he described a neighborhood in Memphis that built its own bike lane and repainted its lanes without permission, transforming the neighborhood with no public money. (I really like Mayor AC Wharton btw… In addition to being a huge proponent of low cost transportation alternatives like biking and walking, he is also a civil rights legend, and recently called for removal of all confederate monuments in Memphis).
  5. TIF sucks 80% of the time, representing past failures, and lack of vision. It fits into the quick-fix schemes that Marohn associates with past development failures. He likes about 2% of TIF use, and 18% of projects, reasonable minds can differ. (I like that ratio. If you want public subsidy, you better be inclusive, serving the community through high numbers of work force units, highest environmental and labor standards to build it.)
  6. Marohn understands the attractiveness of vertical developments to planners. If historic downtowns are thriving, why not stack that growth even higher? Marohn highlights market distortion as a reason for caution. When it happens immediately, shortcutting one from development stage to another, massivie subsidies are nearly certain since a mature market cannot support it. Once built, economic dislocation and centralization of wealth is nearly certain to occur, further polarizing the town. He described the “new inversion.” In the 1950′-1980’s higher income folks fled cities to the suburbs, but at least the economically marginalized lived in places connected to shops, transit, and jobs. That is now reversing, according to Marohn. Wealthy are now moving back in to the core, leaving certain burbs economically isolated and cut off. Vertical, flashy projects accelerate those trends.
  7. In Marohn’s view, no development should be greater than 4 stories for the next 60 years, or until Iowa City adds an additional 100 thousand people. In other words, after the town has grown organically to the point where the market can actually pay for the vertical growth.
  8. Traditional places tend to promote local ownership. Chuck’s body shop is usually run by a guy named Chuck that you know. Non-traditional tends toward mega-corps like Walmart, and Target, sucking the wealth out while leaving very little for people that actually live here.
  9. Look at the numbers. He has done that. Traditional, grid based, mixed use, neighborhoods outperform parking lot based business nearly every time. (Think of our North Side. It perfectly illustrates that point.)
  10. If you don’t like the direction of your city, stand up for it, and outline your own vision. Work with kindred spirits. Identify the parts that work, and ask why. For the parts that aren’t, why not?

Yes, this is just one person’s view, but he is becoming highly influential in smart growth circles, attracting both fiscal conservatives and small is beautiful historic neighborhood progressives. He, along with Andres Duany, are having a huge impact on cities and towns, keeping the best parts of the old ways while embracing the new (when it’s proven itself over time). I am huge fans of both, and of course, the ultimate urban theorist, Jane Jacobs. (“The new grows out of the old.”). So you even if you disagree with Chuck, you should listen to what he has to say. He backs it up with numbers. He is such a big shot now he even talked to the head of the Iowa DOT today. That’s really hitting the big leagues…

And you know what the best part about Chuck is? Even if you don’t agree with him, the consequences of implementing his ideas can never be dire. He advocates taking small bets throughout the community. If a $16,000 neighborhood grant fails, so what. We can handle that. If a $16,000,000 TIF fails, then that’s another matter. No one vision predominates, but community as a whole does. I like Chuck Marohn.

Note: As a community-based information resource to foster public engagement, the Iowa City Architecture website avoids taking sides on local issues. However, we welcome articles like the one above that help explore issues relating to development in an articulate, respectful, substantive, balanced, and factual way. Through open public discussion, understanding and awareness is broadened so we can arrive at the best decisions as a community. Submit your comments or articles via our contact page.

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