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Urban Watch - September 28, 2003 - Death by Government - The Ornery American


Urban Watch
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
By Orson Scott Card September 28 2003

Death by Government

The New Stadium as the Last Nail in Downtown Greensboro's Coffin

I saw on Sunday that the News & Record wants us all to vote against the proposition to ban sports stadiums from downtown Greensboro. Their reason? Because somehow a baseball stadium is going to "revitalize" downtown.

On what planet?

A friend of mine, who happens to be an urban geographer, recently recommended that I read Jan Jacobs's magnificent 1961 book the Death and Life of Great American Cities. This seminal work, which shows up most of the city-planning and zoning theories of the twentieth century for the utter nonsense they are, also happens to be highly readable.

Unfortunately, it appears not to have been in the curriculum of any of Greensboro's city planners.

Admittedly, she's writing about the handful of cities over a million in population, and not only does Greensboro not qualify, hardly a soul in Greensboro wants our town to become New York Lite.

But the fundamental principles of what makes a city vital -- a wonderful place to live and work and visit -- apply to any downtown.

Four Conditions for a Vibrant Downtown

First, a vital downtown has to have mixed primary uses -- retail, office, residential, and even small manufactories, all of them sustaining each other and many secondary uses, like schools, dining, and entertainment.

In other words, people can potentially go to work or school or go shopping ... all on foot. Why? Because everything is within a few blocks on safe, busy sidewalks.

That requires having lots of people using the streets on different schedules. You know a downtown is dead when it only has pedestrian traffic before and after work and at lunchtime, but otherwise is as empty as a ghost town.

A vital downtown has foot traffic all day and well into the night. With the streets always crowded with pedestrians, you feel safe. You also feel that you're part of something exciting. You feel like you're in a city.

This is the great secret of Manhattan: Despite the high price of the real estate, people still live there. And not just rich people -- there are plenty of lower-income and middle-income families who can find a place to live. The result is street life that consists of more than office workers and the homeless.

Second, you have to have small blocks. Having lots of corners to turn allows people on different streets to share their neighborhoods' resources; but long blocks defeat that by forcing each street to be self-sufficient. Long blocks shrink the life of a city.

Plus, they're boring to walk along. You walk and walk, and you don't get anywhere. Like driving through Texas: The scenery never changes, hour after hour, and the only way you know you're moving is the dead armadillos.

Third, you've got to have old buildings. This is one of the worst things that "planners" do: They clear out swaths of old buildings and replace them with all-new construction.

But new buildings have to amortize the costs of construction, so their rents are necessarily high. This squeezes out small and startup businesses, because only the chain stores or high-volume businesses can afford to locate there.

The worst thing about new downtown buildings is that the government or corporations that build them have no thought of the street -- they generally build monuments to themselves (and to the architects). Instead of having many buildings crowded together, offering a great variety to the eye of the pedestrian, you have whole blocks -- and sometimes double blocks -- that consist of a single building or complex.

This kills a street -- and has a deadening effect on all the surrounding streets. Look at the big high-rise office buildings put up in the past thirty years in what used to be downtown Greensboro. Every one of them was supposed to "revitalize" downtown -- but what they gave us was block after block with only one building each.

Think of it -- a whole block devoted to a single bank. That's four streets where one side consists of nothing to look at and nothing to do. Dead space for pedestrians -- something you have to walk past. And in every case, something boring or downright ugly.

Worst of all is the government complex -- a double-length block of nothing. But most cities are cursed with such vanity complexes, even though there is no particular efficiency in grouping many departments together. If government buildings had been dispersed throughout a mixed downtown, they could have been part of a diverse, vibrant city. Instead, they create a huge dead spot where nothing can grow.

Fourth, a vibrant downtown has to have a dense concentration of people. And that's something that our city planners have been working hard to avoid -- everywhere in Greensboro.

You see, these planners made a fundamental mistake many years ago, and nobody has bothered to correct it. They confused high population density with high occupancy.

When poor people are living with two or three families in an apartment, you have a slum -- everybody's desperate to get out. That's high occupancy.

But when the density per unit is comfortable, and it's a desirable neighborhood where people are happy to live, then a high population density isn't bad at all -- in fact, it's inevitable. People are trying to get into the neighborhood, and it makes commercial sense to build places for them to live, right among the older buildings.

Which neighborhoods do people want to get into? The ones that are exciting, full of life, where you can live whole days without ever having to get into your car. Where you feel safe, where you are aware of the people around you, the familiar shopkeepers, the neighbors' children.

And you can't have that kind of neighborhood while following Greensboro's zoning laws.

Death by Zoning

Zoning laws were created as a restriction on the free use of property in order to prevent one person's use from destroying everybody else's -- to keep me, for instance, from turning my corner lot into a pig farm or a paper pulp factory.

But zoning laws quickly turned into a tool of snobbery and stupidity -- keeping the "riff-raff" out of rich neighborhoods, and separating people from everything they do.

When I was a kid, it was a fairly short walk from our house to all the stores we needed in the course of a normal week. For years we had only one car -- why would we need another?

Now look at what our zoning laws have done. Every store outside of downtown has to be located in the middle of a parking lot, so you can't conveniently walk from one to another. And the stores are all grouped together, completely separated from the places where people live.

This didn't just "happen." This is required by our government.

A real, living, vibrant downtown simply evolves, with government interfering as little as possible. There are zoning ideas that could help keep a city alive. For instance, requiring that office buildings have many individual streetfront retail shops at ground level and residences for one or two stories above that, with the offices beginning only above the third floor.

In fact, that should be the cardinal principle of downtown building design: Everything from the fourth floor on up can be an architectural monument to the corporation or government that built it, but the first three stories belong to the street.

In Greensboro, nothing belongs to the street. Nobody in city government even has a concept of what a street is for; if they did, Greensboro's downtown would not have been murdered, block by block. (Another block recently died to install a completely needless park. Sure, cities need greenery -- but you get it by planting trees along the sidewalk; you don't tear down the buildings that make it a downtown.)

Border Vacuums

Another street killer is what Jacobs calls a "border vacuum." There are natural borders, of course -- rivers, beaches, lakeshores. These, however, because they can be beautiful or recreational, are often assets. Still, because they force an end to the continuity of neighborhoods, the streets facing such borders often have some of the life sucked out of them.

The borders that cause most damage, however, are manmade. Freeways, for instance, are like having a river in that they can only be crossed in certain places, and they mark a definite end to any neighborhood. Unlike a river, though, nobody wants to come take a walk along the freeway, and if you try dropping a line over a freeway overpass, you'll be arrested.

Greensboro's downtown government complex is a border, and the vacuum it creates has sucked the life out of the streets on every side. Unless you have business there (which, by the way, is never pleasant business, have you noticed?), it's nothing but an ugly obstacle to get around.

The stadium is going to be even worse. Most of the time, it won't be in use. It will completely block visibility. There will be nothing but stadium for two blocks along its length. And when it is being used, it will be even more unpleasant for people in the neighborhood, with noisy traffic and lots of empty alcohol containers.

The people who come to the stadium will contribute absolutely nothing to the life of the neighborhood, any more than the neighborhoods around the Coliseum are "revitalized" by having that big, ugly border right by them.

Don't get me wrong -- the Coliseum is a useful thing to have. So, for that matter, is a baseball stadium. The problem is where you locate such things. Anybody with eyes and a brain connected to them can see that coliseums and stadiums and government complexes, which we already have, never revitalize anything. They may benefit the city as a whole, but they are absolute killers of the neighborhoods where they're located.

So one thing you can be absolutely certain of about Greensboro's proposed stadium: It will absolutely kill any hope of downtown life in its immediate neighborhood. And by cutting off a significant residential neighborhood from convenient pedestrian access to downtown, it will stifle the rest of downtown.

Those who claim the stadium is a "gift" to downtown may be sincere -- but they are only able to believe that the stadium will be "good" for downtown because they have made no serious effort to examine the facts. There is no such thing as a stadium anywhere in America that revitalizes its immediate neighborhood. So to move our stadium to an already-moribund downtown is going to convert that area to being just as "vitalized" as the area surrounding the existing War Memorial Stadium.

Go and look at it. It's a desert, as far as street life is concerned. That's what they want to do to downtown Greensboro.

A stadium is a good idea. We have one. We barely use it, and there's no evidence that killing another neighborhood by moving it there will cause any but the briefest of increases in attendance.

As for the delusion that if we build a fancy stadium, we'll get a better team -- folks, that's not how it works. That's like the cargo cults on Pacific Islands during World War II. The natives wanted planes to come, so they built fake planes like decoy ducks.

Apparently nobody told the supporters of the new stadium that Field of Dreams was a fantasy.

Do you know how you get a major league team? You have a metro population of a million, of which an inordinate number are fanatical sports fans. Fans who grew up playing sports in pickup games with their friends on the living streets of a city.

Kids don't play pickup baseball games any more. Everything is organized by their parents. As a result, far fewer kids associate baseball with the most joyous times of their childhood. Building a fancy new stadium won't increase attendance. It will instantly become a monument to the stubborn ignorance of Greensboro's leadership in the decade of the zips.

Why There Will Never Be Town Life in Greensboro Again

The old pattern was to have three-story buildings where the ground floor was retail or manufacturing, and the upper floors were professional offices, small manufacturing, or -- most important -- residential. These uses tended to be bunched together on short streets, but around every corner there would be residential streets with retail mostly on the corners.

Now, though, our zoning laws prohibit the building of retail buildings with residential apartments upstairs. And the buildings have to be set back from the street and separated from each other by big parking lots.

Imagine, though, how different it could be. Take the big Harris-Teeter at Friendly Center. There's a movie theater complex close by, a big parking lot and a corporate space to front and back, and an uncrossable street separating it from the only nearby neighborhood. An urban dead zone.

But think how it could have been.

Imagine a grocery store with a public street running down the middle. Each of those departments is a separate store -- still part of Harris-Teeter, with the same management and computer inventory system, but you can enter just the store you want. Butcher shop? Florist? Dry goods? Fresh produce? Dairy?

Upstairs from each of the shops of Harris-Teeter, there'd be offices or condos or apartments. The people who lived there would run down the stairs (or take the elevator) to shop.

And instead of a huge parking lot between Harris-Teeter and the Grande Theaters, "Harris-Teeter" street would continue, with more shops or townhouses, broken up into four small blocks with other shops and more housing down each of the side streets.

The parking garages would occupy the middles of these blocks, with retail or professional offices providing most of the frontage on the ground floor, so that parking would not create a border vacuum.

Now extend this vision right down Sears Street (tear down that slab of a building and replace it with something interesting and fun to visit!) over to Friendly Center. Friendly Center has recently been redesigned to be almost humane for pedestrians -- but what's missing are the second and third stories on all those buildings.

It could be an exciting and civilized place to live. The population density would be pretty high. But people would be on a waiting list to get into that neighborhood.

It would be, in other words, downtown.

If Friendly Center were not owned by a single corporation, it could happen. If Harris-Teeter were not wedded to the business model of enclosing everything within ugly slabwalled buildings, they could get it started. If the local government were not committed to using zoning to kill anything like a real downtown before it can even get started, we might have places in this city were genuine town life could evolve again.

Is there any chance of it?

There are developers who want to build places where town life could evolve. There are people who want to live in such a neighborhood. There are retailers and professionals who would give it a try.

But before it can even begin, we would have to have a complete change of mind and heart in Greensboro's planning department. Chances are that there are some junior employees there who are familiar with Jane Jacobs (and the dozens of other reality-based thinkers about urban geography), but there is no leadership that has even the slightest notion of how destructive the government's every move over the past twenty years has been.

Here's a thought: What if every elected official in city and county government read Jane Jacobs's book -- and picked up William H. Whyte's City: Rediscovering the Center?

If they got enthusiastic they could go on and read Whyte's Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, along with Kevin Lynch's The Image of the City and Allan Jacobs's Great Streets and Jerald Kayden's Privately Owned Public Space. But reading Jacobs and Whyte would be enough to let them see Greensboro through new eyes.

Of course, you can be sure that the people who have made such a mess of our city will be quick to howl that I'm not trained like they are, so I should just shut up and leave the planning to the experts. But you know what? Experts don't build cities -- ordinary people do, and they vote with their furniture. They keep moving their furniture out of depressing neighborhoods and into better ones.

Besides, it's not like you have to master quantum mathematics or string theory to become a city planner. I've read the same books they've read. And I've done something they apparently haven't -- I've compared what the books say to my own experience of cities all over the world, the ones that are dying and the ones that are alive. I'm recommending Jane Jacobs's and William Whyte's books because their writings actually describe the real world.

The idea is not to turn Greensboro into New York. The idea is to stop interfering with Greensboro's natural evolution as Greensboro. Right now our government is doing the opposite of what zoning laws should do. Instead of protecting us from obnoxious destruction of neighborhoods by the installation of uses like pig farms and baseball stadiums, it is actively abetting such destruction -- while barring developers from building the kinds of buildings that allow downtowns to develop and thrive.

Our votes on the proposition to ban the building of baseball stadiums downtown won't erase the past decades of destructive city "planning," but it will draw a line and wake our "leaders" up to the idea that maybe we might know what kind of city we want to live in.

It isn't Jim Melvin's vision of a Greensboro that looks like Houston or Atlanta.

If these ballot proposition fails, and the stadium is built, here is what I predict:

No baseball team can afford to pay rents sufficient to amortize the cost of the building -- or even pay for its maintenance. It will be a money loser from the start. It will end up being a financial white elephant. And it will have not a bit more attendance than War Memorial.

In fact, without the "professional" team, War Memorial stadium might actually take on new life as a center for intracity sports. We'll see ...

But that big new stadium: Those who voted in favor of building it will look at it with wistfulness, remembering their dreams of what it was supposed to accomplish for Greensboro, and never did.

Those who voted against it will grind their teeth whenever they drive or (heaven forbid) walk around it, wishing it were gone.

And those who live near it will feel an ache in their hearts at how their neighborhood was exiled to the far side of that big ugly slab.

One thing, though, is certain. The stadium, if it is built, will never revitalize downtown in any way.

The only "good" it will do is the same "good" that was done by letting various corporations build block-killing skyscrapers:

We'll have more impressive pictures for "Beautiful Greensboro" postcards.

But you know what? I'd far rather have postcards of thriving streets lined with crepe myrtle and mixed-use three-story buildings. A living town. That would be something to write home about.

Copyright © 2003 by Orson Scott Card.

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