Upzoned by Strong Towns

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November 9, 2018  

Can Walmart Restore the Town Centers It Helped to Kill?

Ask many of your neighbors, and they’ll tell you no one is more responsible for the demise of Main Street businesses than the big box stores that undercut them on price and buy-it-all-in-one-place convenience. But now, one supercenter seems to miss the mom-and-pops they arguably helped to make extinct—or at least, they miss the kind of town centers that those small businesses used to anchor. And they’ve announced plans to help bring the cozy town square back in a bold new form.

That’s right: according to a new article from Talk Business and Politics, retail giant Walmart has announced plans to develop the parking lots and adjacent greenfield space near some of their stores into walkable, diverse business centers that “combines entertainment venues, local food vendors, health and fitness services and recreational opportunities in a way that connects and engages the community.” Early artist renderings for a Rogers, AR location show something between a Disney-style mini town and a strip mall, albeit with a little extra green space and some gathering spaces where there’d usually be an uninterrupted sea of parking.

Strong Towns staffers Kea and Jacob have different takes on this project, and in this episode of Upzoned, they dig deep to hash it out. ST Community Builder (and former corner store owner) Jacob is optimistic that Walmart is finally turning away from the giant parking lots that have been its signature and is thinking of innovative new ways to put that land to productive use. Upzoned host (and former small bookstore worker) Kea is less sure that building a miniaturized town “center” all at once at the whim of a single corporation is all that much less fragile than the lots they’ll be replacing. Jacob is excited that wellness services and social spaces will be deliberately situated right by the big box rather than marooning superstores that many rely on out on the edge of town; Kea shares why she’s skeptical that residents will treat their face-lifted Walmart like a real third place destination rather than grabbing their same old groceries from the superstore and getting right back in their cars—because she’s seen projects like this fail firsthand.

Then in the downzone, Kea talks about the new docuseries Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat that’s inspiring her to re-think how we can build strong towns with a diversified array of industries while still preserving artisan food traditions that have anchored communities for generations. And Jacob talks his favorite recent reads: Dying and Living in the Neighborhood by Prabhjot Singh, and Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in the Neighborhood by Michael Ruhlman.

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November 2, 2018  

Do You Really Have to Wear a Bike Helmet?

In the world of biking, perhaps nothing is more capable of inspiring an argument than 20 ounces of foam, plastic, and chinstraps. We’re talking, of course, about the humble helmet. But when it comes to road safety, that single object can become a cypher for a whole host of anxieties about how we build and move through our dangerous streets.

Transport cyclist Carlton Reid recently made his feelings crystal clear in his bluntly-named Forbes article, “I Do Not Wear a Bicycle Helmet.” Reid argues that, while a bike helmet will keep us safe if we hit a rock on a mountain bike trail and go flying, they’re virtually useless in the kind of crashes that many cyclists fear most: ones involving a motor vehicle traveling at a high or even moderate speed. And while it certainly doesn’t hurt to strap on a Bern before they kick off on their cruiser, Reid believes that shaming riders who choose not to armor their skulls every time they go for a ride can function as a serious barrier to cycling—and as he points out, “it’s far healthier to cycle without a helmet than it is to never cycle at all.”

When Strong Towns shared Reid’s article on social media, we weren’t surprised to see that it generated some heat. So on this episode of Upzoned, we’re going a little deeper, and revealing what Strong Towns staffers Chuck and Kea do themselves when they head out on their bikes—and what we wish we could talk about if we could just set the helmet fight aside, let people make their own choices, and start talking about the infinite other ways we can make riders safer.

Then in the downzone, Chuck talks about a book he’s reading that’s making him question whether slavery ever really ended in the United States, and he and Kea both weigh in on their favorite seasonally-appropriate spooky TV shows.

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October 26, 2018  

When it Comes to Housing, Do Millennials Have a Different American Dream?

Despite reports of $10,000/week avocado toast habits ravaging their bank accounts, studies show that Millennials and other young Americans are still managing to buy homes now and then. But the specific homes they’re choosing might not resemble what their parents might have picked—and the new American Dream House might suggest something startling about our future.

At least that’s the premise of a new opinion piece from the New York Times by Candace Jackson, The New American Dream House is One You Never Have to Leave. Jackson argues that today’s homebuyers have become disillusioned with the idea that real estate is a rock-solid investment and that a successful American can safely aspire to trade up and out of their starter home and into a succession of ever-bigger McMansions over the course of their lives. Instead, Millennials and other buyers are demanding homes that they can stay in indefinitely—and for many, that includes granny flats that can house parents as they age to save on retirement home costs, basement apartments that can be rented out for a little AirBnB income, and modular floor plans that are adaptable when economic times get too rough to make a move possible.

Strong Towns staffers Kea and Daniel are both members of that Millennial home buying generation (though they prefer the term “Oregon Trail Generation”; #alwayschoosethebanker). In this episode of Upzoned, they talk about how they chose homes with an eye towards an uncertain economic future, and what they think about Lennar, the nation’s biggest homebuilder, getting into the accessory dwelling unit game. And then they wonder whether the generation that came of age during the financial crisis is uniquely likely to become Strong Towns advocates—and what the continent might look like if they do.

In the Downzone, Kea recommends Pick of the Litter, a new documentary about training service dogs that provides some fascinating insights into what it really takes for visually impaired people to navigate our built environment (and also provides some super cute puppies). And Daniel talks about a book by Mark Kurlansky that traces the history of mankind by following the much longer history of a substance you might not think about often: common table salt.

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October 19, 2018  

Is Landlord Greed Responsible for Vacant Storefronts in NYC?

Manhattan has been among the most populous, economically vibrant, and in-demand places on the planet for generations. But you wouldn’t know that from looking at its retail vacancy rate.

At least that’s the premise of a new article from CityLab entitled “How Manhattan Became a Rich Ghost Town.” According to author Derek Thompson, 🎶 [Hamilton voice] the greatest city in the world 🎶 has been plagued by a surprising paradox: a hyper-productive development pattern that’s placed the world’s largest concentration of wealth and customer volume right outside shop owners’ doors, paired with sky-high commercial real estate rents that even the most successful stores somehow can’t afford. The result? On the most valuable land on the planet, as many as 20% of storefronts are sitting empty—a phenomenon City Lab attributes to a combination of greedy landlords holding out for big chains, slow retail sales growth failing to compete with rising rents, and the gradual erosion of all physical retail in the face of Amazon.

But in this week’s Upzoned, Chuck and Kea reveal the surprising reason why we shouldn’t trust our first instincts about why storefront retail is dying, even in the cities where it seems best poised to thrive. And then they explain why, if we want to re-activate these crucial elements of our streetscapes, we should be asking ourselves a fundamentally different set of questions—and taking a fundamentally different set of actions to reverse the troubling trend that’s stealing many of our most crucial third place businesses. (Hint: it has a little something to do with the insanely weird way commercial mortgages work.)

And then in the downzone, Chuck talks a book about game theory that’s currently blowing his mind, and Kea shares a recent podcast series that’s challenging her to think about the strange forces that shape an important element of our everyday world: the clothes on our back.

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October 12, 2018  

Opportunity Zones, But for Whom?

If you’re plugged into the urbanist blogosphere, you’ve probably heard something about the new federal Opportunity Zones by now. And you might even think they sound pretty good. After all, anything that incentivizes investment in underserved areas sounds like a pretty good deal—and by eliminating capital gains taxes on new development in some of the poorest regions of your state, there’s no doubt that the money will come pouring in.

But Upzoned hosts Kea and Chuck aren’t so sure. Is a big bucket of money really what these neighborhoods need? Will outside developers really build the kind of locally responsive, fine-grained stuff that would make these towns strong and lift up the people who are already there? What would a better Opportunity Zones program look like—or is using a federal program to develop a neighborhood like steering an ocean liner with a canoe paddle?

And then in the Downzone, Chuck and Kea talk about their recent reads. Hear Chuck’s final thoughts on Mariana Mazzucato’s The Value of Everything, and get the behind-the-scenes scoop on Kea’s recent interview with author William Knoedelseder on his new book Fins: Harley Earl, The Rise of General Motors and the Glory Days of Detroit.

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October 5, 2018  

Failure and the Scientific Method

Failure is an essential part of the scientific method—negative results help us rule out erroneous theories and hone our understanding. And the value of an instructive failure is not limited to laboratory science. In all human endeavors, including city building, our missteps give us vital information that helps us do our work better next time around.

On this week’s Upzoned, Kea and Chuck discuss the New York Times article Congratulations. Your Study Went Nowhere.  The article deals with the phenomenon of publication bias in science: studies yielding negative results are less likely to be published and widely disseminated than those that appear to confirm their hypotheses, and this tendency can lead to bad science. Kea and Chuck take this and run with it, carrying on a broad philosophical conversation about why humans in all disciplines could stand to celebrate their failures instead of shying away from them. Then, in the downzone, Chuck gets a little weepy about seeing Hamilton with his family, and Kea discusses the Flint water crisis as it's portrayed in Michael Moore's new documentary, Farenheit 11/9.

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September 28, 2018  

House Flipping in the Rust Belt

Are house flippers exactly what the Rust Belt needs to recover from decades of systemic disinvestment, or a dangerous speculative game that fragile places shouldn’t be playing?

That’s what Kea and Chuck are talking about on this week’s Upzoned, and it’s a lively debate. Chuck, who lives in small-town Minnesota, is excited by the idea that ordinary people with a few basic home-repair skills can turn their sweat equity into a decent living while gently helping neighborhoods recover from decline. Kea, who grew up in Cleveland and Michigan and now owns and manages a handful of apartments in her new hometown of St. Louis, MO, is a little more cautious: she’s seen developers like the kind Chuck’s describing, but she’s seen far more flippers buy buildings en masse, do shoddy renovations, and transform neighborhoods in a way that’s far from gentle. And when cities give tax increment financing to help these speculative flippers do it even bigger, things can get even uglier.

Listen in to hear them hash it out, and dig into the arguments from Reuters's recent article, How Tech Jobs Helped Rust Belt Become House Flipping Hot Spot.  And then in the Downzone, Chuck and Kea talk about Extant, a sci-fi TV show that Chuck’s been bingeing, Chuck’s most recent read (The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy by Maria Mazzucato), and Florida
by Lauren Groff, a collection of place-based short stories that Kea loved.

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September 21, 2018  

Big box stores think their tax bills should be lower. Are they right?

In Episode 2 of Upzoned from Strong Towns, Kea Wilson and Chuck Marohn discuss an article on big-box stores and the taxes they pay. Many of these companies argue that their taxes ought to be lower. Find out what we think of this argument.

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September 11, 2018  

Dams and Reservoirs Won’t Save Us

In the first episode of Upzoned, Kea and Chuck used this article from the Texas Observer as a springboard to talk about the challenges of meeting basic water needs in North Texas and other super-dry desert climates.

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