Yes, We’re Still Going Broke Subsidizing Sprawl

Over the last couple years I’ve critiqued the ways urbanists have promoted unaffordable hi-rise condos as being somehow sustainable, how they’ve perverted notions of density and equity for PR purposes with the ultimate goal of making money in real estate. It’s true, making cities so unaffordable that workers can no longer live there is a mistake. Because the place they’ll be forced to move to is far, far worse.

There’s a perception that the housing crash of 2008 halted suburban sprawl. In some places, it did just that. But we’re almost ten years past that epoch, and the home builders associations have been lobbying like they always do for more construction in placeless environs where silly things like public transit or public squares remain unthinkable.

Still too are marketing shills paid to intertwine the idea of upward mobility with urban flight as somehow still being a positive thing. Take this cringe-worthy quote from Ford Motor Company chief sales analyst Erich Merkle on CNN: “[Millennials] might be able to hold off for a period of time, but at some point they will have families, move to the suburbs, and they are going to purchase many, many new cars.

Such an unsettling paternal forecast would be comical if there weren’t numerous development projects that exemplify this regressive view of family, transportation, and land use.

Blanketing over what used to be wild meadows outside my very own childhood home city sits a grotesque, soulless parking crater known as the Eastwood Towne Center. Miles from the actual center of town it expands, depressed between a freeway and a landfill.

The thing was one of dozens of so-called ‘lifestyle centers‘ built in the early George W. Bush years meant to reboot the stale concept of strip malls. Within Eastwood, along with chain restaurants, discount shoe stores, Forever 21, a bookseller, and even an Apple Store resides an obligatory Walmart leviathan, as well as a Sam’s Club.

Somehow somebody deemed this entire mess a “success”, and in 2008 plans were drawn up for a massive expansion northward ironically branded The Heights.

Here is likely as good a place as any to note that Michigan has a steadily declining population, and Lansing has struggled to keep its educated youth from fleeing to cities where the arts, culture, diversity, and active transit all thrive. It’s with these facts in mind that we have to ask: what the hell was Lansing Township thinking?

Recently the Lansing State Journal revealed just how badly shit had hit the fan: “[The] investigation reveals the project has added more than $270 million in long-term debts and obligations to the already struggling township. The Heights’ 88,000 square feet of commercial space has never achieved even 30% occupancy. When cash from the first bond sale wasn’t enough to finish the project, Lansing Township sold $7.5 million in high-risk, high-interest junk bonds and the township pledged funds to make the payments if needed.

Meanwhile in the actual heart of Lansing and nearby East Lansing, a vital bus rapid transit project that would cement new development along a major historic artery faces an uphill battle among business owners still convinced that car-centric infrastructure remains a best practice.

Instead of subsidizing more sprawl to force people to shop in glorified strip malls at the outskirts of town, we should be investing in neighborhoods and commercial districts that already exist. This is where many urbanists and all suburban lobbyists fail: in recognizing how to build and invest in ways that strengthen places, not tear down and spread out purely for profit.

We no longer have the money – or the ecological time left – to keep making these same mistakes.