When “Old and Blighted” Development Beats “Shiny and New” Suburbanism

There are plenty of hidden costs to auto-oriented development: increased levels of air and water pollution, safety risks posed to pedestrians and cyclists. But as Strong Towns Blog points out, some costs are hardly hidden at all.

The authors of the comprehensive plan for Brainerd, Minnesota (pop: 13,590) probably thought they had a great idea: Take the properties along busy Highway 210 in the east part of town, an assortment of run-down or vacant storefronts, and encourage their replacement by “highway-oriented businesses.” The plan bases this strategy on the idea that “having a strong highway commercial area… provides for a healthy downtown.”

“The problem,” writes Charles Marohn of Strong Towns, “is that ‘strong’ and ‘highway commercial’ are – in almost all cases – mutually exclusive terms.” Furthermore, the “fast food restaurants, convenience stores, gas stations and other auto-oriented businesses” promoted by the comprehensive plan are actually worth less to the city than the marginal establishments that are there already.

Marohn compares the “old and blighted” development on one block — the kind of development the town would like to get rid of — to the “shiny and new” development down the street, a fast food joint with lots of surface parking:

The eleven old and blighted lots [above left] — some of the most undesirable commercial property in the city — arranged in the traditional development pattern along the incompatible, major arterial of Highway 210 have a combined tax base of $1,136,500.

To compare, the Taco John’s property [above right] — the one that is not only shiny and new but configured precisely as the city of Brainerd desires the old and blighted properties to someday be — has a total valuation of only $803,200.

At its nastiest and most decrepit, fighting the negative auto traffic speeding by and the absence of pedestrian connectivity, lacking all natural advantage from the neighboring land uses that would ideally accompany a traditional neighborhood design, the old and blighted traditional commercial block still outperforms the new, auto-oriented development by 41%. [emphasis his]

The city is shrinking its own tax base by encouraging businesses to turn their backs on traditional Main Streets in favor of busy arterial highways. A cheaper way to maximize these parcels’ value, according to Marohn, would be to restore connectivity to the nearby residential area.

  • AlexB

    I agree with the writer’s point except that I’m not sure this is a great example for the following reasons: 1) It seems pretty obvious that the fast food joint is worth way more on a per square foot basis than the older buildings.  It only covers a small portion of the lot yet is more than half the value of a comparably sized tract of land that is almost entirely built out.  You could tear down the taco place and build something equally highway oriented that would probably overtake the value of the older buildings.  2) “Strong” and “highway commercial” are not obviously mutually exclusive.  In some places, it’s gas stations and pawn shops.  In others, it’s high end retail and fancy restaurants.  It wouldn’t be that hard for most people to find a ton of examples of many kinds of highway development – strong, weak or whatever – just like we can all imagine dense urban areas that are very fancy or very low rent.  3) If Brainerd has a population of 13k, I think it will have difficulty supporting any mass transit or pedestrian based retail until it is exponentially larger; it’s unlikely it has any traffic problems that might convince someone to not drive; and, I doubt most people would walk anywhere even if it were more convenient.

    I think a better set of arguments would be based on the fact that this is a lower income neighborhood.  1) Trying to increase the price per square foot is not necessarily a good idea because it will raise the cost of everything in that area and discourage people from opening new businesses.  If someone of lower income wants to start a new business, it would be much easier/cheaper to start in the red rectangle on the left than the taco place on the right.  2) In poorer areas, car ownership is lower and spreading things far apart in these areas by with parking minimums and setbacks effectively taxes the poor to subsidize car owners, or requires people to put a huge portion of their income into a car just to be functional.

    I think this writer framed things in emotional language (old and blighted vs shiny and new) and then followed up with the gotcha of a single factual comparison that proved his point.  I wish we could all compare ourselves to “Taco John” to feel better.  Think harder.

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  • Danwindham

    One of the biggest problems with the ‘highway’ oriented development like your shiny new example is that all that parking is usually required or highly recommended (in order to get approval) from the local city government. In a lot of people’s eyes a new store with to little parking will die and leave (aka no tax revenue)… But, the interesting thing is that you can put more businesses together that would support each other and the community. These new places like the taco place are specifically built to be a taco place- once it closes, tear it down or look at the empty shell for months. Those ‘old and blighted’ buildings would take far fewer resources to change commercial entities, as evidenced by how old they are. 


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