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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Zero-Sum Development Unique To At-Large Planning

This is a little bit away from my “normal” routine, but I couldn’t help but notice a nice blog posting for a change written by one of the Janesville Gazette journalists making an excellent observation about small stores and other walkable features that usually anchor neighborhoods with a sense of community and identity - are absent from the Janesville cityscape. The writer risks authoritarian wrath by asking the simple question “why?”

JG Excerpt:
What happened to Neighborhood commerce?
We have commercial districts, sure--Milton Avenue, West Court Street, Center Avenue, East Milwaukee Street. But they're mostly made up of strip malls and parking lots, or little clusters of standalone buildings. There are no streets with sidewalks full of walk-up storefronts that give a neighborhood a central focus.

Some would have you believe that TIF district hand-outs, state grants, tax credits, zoning changes, utility perks, water and sewer give-aways, growth plans and government control have nothing to do with it. Yet, most free market “entrepreneurs” refuse to initiate their personal income venture without getting what they can from the local tax base.

The entire north side retail blow-out was city hall planned, zoned and rubber stamped consistent with city "Growth Plans." To think otherwise is absurd. Don’t be fooled, Janesville fueled this with incentives on purpose, not by accident of the free market will.

But I also would say there is more than just a relationship "stretch" between Janesville’s at-large city government and the at-large city planning and development style. There are no truly delineated community districts in Janesville with political representation bargaining for or negotiating on behalf of the district’s residents or neighborhoods. Unfortunately, without someone fighting for neighborhood (district)interests, most of Janesville's developmental growth came at zero-sum. What new growth we gained at the fringes, came at nearly equal cost and expense of what we lost inside. In Janesville, it’s a 90 year-old plan that is defended by those who know better, and by those who don't.

When the at-large city officials and their business insiders want community involvement, they commission for it in a neighborhood meeting at their request, not ours. The residents eagerly jump at their command for a sense of involvement. This “disconnect” gives nearly total control to a handful of city hall individuals who by nature do what they believe is best for the "at-large" interests of the moment, not for the neighborhood and certainly not for those facing consequential negative effects.

Because inherent to this form mirrored by the lack of democratic district representation is precisely what the Gazette writer noticed – the lack of friendly neighborhood stores and gathering places walkable from your home for that irreplaceable sense of associative interaction and identity otherwise known as "community."

Unless you enjoy living near the warm and walkable downtown like I do, you're probably in an unwalkable yet delightfully tacky suburban setting in the city. I'm not knocking it. Many like it that way.


Anonymous said...

Your zero sum growth culture describing Janesville business development is spot on. But you forgot about all the parks scattered across the city. They perform a great service to each "neighborhood" as a gathering place for play and other community activities. Thay play a positive role in Janesville.

Louis Kaye said...

I love parks and completely agree they are one of the bright spots in the Janesville city landscape. But...they have become the default mechanism when all else fails.

If GM folds, you can bet turning the compound into a park is in the top ten things city planners will consider. Some of Janesville's parks are nothing more than vacant business land (or residential) greenscaped into an acceptable alternative. Some are monuments to "no ideas" and displace investment and focus elsewhere.

To check growth, Janesville could have been planning and buying vacant land at the fringes of the city and turn it into parkland or community gardens as a buffer zone. At the same time, earmark some of the parks in the inner city for development.

If our energy crisis is real, this could be the new direction anyways, but I would argue it shouldn’t have taken an energy crisis to bring about genuine “inner growth.”

Thanks for the comment.

Anonymous said...

The body of work here is amazing.

Seriously Louis, why are you wasting time with Janesville's city council and the Gazette. You should consider running for state office or challenging Ryan.

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