Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Urban decay and sprawl: one community's gain at the expense of another's

Chrysler Headquarters complex in Auburn Hills, Michigan, from Car Design News.

The Associated Press reports in "Unable to pay bill, Mich. city turns off lights: Unable to pay $4 million electric bill, Michigan city turns off and removes many streetlights," that the City of Highland Park, Michigan, in deep debt, can't pay for electricity for streetlights, so they ripped out all the streetlights and the streets are dark at night.

From the article:

Highland Park's decision is one of the nation's most extreme austerity measures, even among the scores of communities that can no longer afford to provide basic services.

Other towns have postponed roadwork, cut back on trash collection and closed libraries, for example. But to people left in the dark night after night, removing streetlights seems more drastic. And unlike many other cutbacks that can easily be reversed, this one appears to be permanent.

The city is $58 million in debt and has many more people than jobs, plus dozens of burned-out or vacant houses and buildings. With fewer than 12,000 residents, its population has dwindled to half the level from 20 years ago.

Faced with a $4 million electric bill that required $60,000 monthly payments, Mayor Hubert Yopp asked the City Council to consider reducing lighting. Council members reluctantly approved it, even in an election year. ...

In late August, contractors from DTE Energy Co. began rolling through the streets, taking out two-thirds of the light poles.

Highland Park is an odd municipality, 2.9 square miles in size, completely enveloped by Detroit, with fewer than 12,000 residents, almost 40% are impoverished.

For years, Highland Park was the headquarters for Chrysler Corporation, and the site of its engineering and design functions.

The city not only received property taxes from Chrysler, they assessed an income tax on earnings made in the city, whether or not people were residents. (This is allowed in Michigan, not in DC.)

So Chrysler provided the bulk of the city's annual revenue.

When Chrysler moved to Auburn Hills, Michigan in the 1990s (Auburn Hills used to be Pontiac Township and a small incorporated city, and is next to Pontiac and Troy in Oakland County), Highland Park lost the bulk of its tax revenue stream.

Meanwhile, Auburn Hills, even with Chrysler's various failures, thrives, especially compared to Highland Park.

In California, as part of environmental reviews, new developments are supposed to address issues of "urban decay" that they might cause.

Clearly, such a provision isn't present in land use planning and development review regulations in Michigan.

From the Urban Decay Study, City of Sacramento Railyards Development Plan:

For the purpose of the assessment and consistent with the intent of the court decisions, “urban decay” is defined as the closure of retail and other stores in the surrounding area as a result of market competition and disinvestment - leaving decaying building shells in a state of sustained vacancy, long-term abandonment, repeated property damage, and/or deteriorated conditions that significantly impair the proper and safe use of the real estate. Properties in areas with higher than normal market vacancies and which have been empty and/or unused for at least three years or more are assumed to be in prolonged or sustained vacancies. An example in Sacramento would be the K-Street Mall, which has suffered urban decay – and is only now being transformed by coordinated public/private investment back to a state of economic vitality.

While this study wasn't as broad as one would be required to assess the impact of Chrysler's leaving Highland Park, you get the idea.

I presume that there were tax incentives provided to Chrysler to relocate, but I'll have to research that the next time I am at the Library of Congress...

One city's benefits come at the urban decay of another's. Also see "A stylish auto hub: Ford, Chrysler created bustling, urban suburb -- and brought it down" from The Detroit News (2007).
Woodward Avenue, Highland Park
Woodward Avenue in Highland Park, Flickr photo by Sean Marshall. (But the street has been like this for decades...)

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