The Deal Imperative, or How Bi-Partisan Growth Machines Create Terrible Development

[So long, St Croix farmland.]
At a post-election victory party last night toasting my new city council member, I was reminded again about the stubborn intractability of urban growth politics. The party went down in an old school bar along one of St Paul's working class main streets, and in addition to the usual fleece-and-MPR DFL types, there were plenty of thick necked guys in suits gathered in circles, patting each other on the back, and talking about fishing and local development politics. I’m was bit out of place, but I found myself overhearing a conversation between two union guys about the Vikings’ stadium. I immediately went over and said, “Are you talking about the Vikings stadium? God, it’s terrible!”

They looked as if I’d just stepped on a kitten.

Their assured responses came quickly: “It’s 3200 jobs!” “It’s like a modern day WPA.” “My members are calling me every day about it.” “We need it more than ever.” “Arden Hills is a great site, it’s land prime for development.” And finally, “Don’t worry, we’ll convince you eventually.”

We agreed to disagree.

The list of problems with the Vikings stadium plan is a long one, and I won’t dwell on it. It’s a huge tax on poor people to build an auto-dependent sports arena in the middle of nowhere for the benefit of a super-wealthy real estate developer from New Jersey at a time when government is completely broke and has been cutting every conceivable vital service for almost a decade. Also, it’s quite unpopular all across the political spectrum. But, at the same time, it’ll likely get built because of the intractability of development politics.

It’s the same story for the St Croix bridge & freeway to nowhere project, where the unlikeliest of coalitions have come together to break Federal environmental regulations in order to spend 700 Million dollars on a huge new freeway and bridge project for a few thousand people in rural Wisconsin in an era when the market for sprawl development is at an all time low and infrastructure all through the state is crumbling and/or falling into the river because of a lack of funds. Yet, it’s easier to find a latté at a Mormon convention than a Minnesota politician who doesn’t support the misguided project, and it’ll likely get built because of the intractability of development politics.

The problems with this kind of approach are too long to list here. You’re probably already familiar with the arguments: environmental issues, wasteful public investments, social problems associated with fragmentation, inequality, and isolation. My point isn’t to go over these again.

Rather, it’s to try to explain why we keep making terrible decisions about urban development despite the long list of “logical” reasons to re-invest in our actually existing cities. I’d like to begin to figure out why, even in the face of “good government”, “smart growth”, and “best practices planning”, politicians will almost always side with “dumb” sprawl development, tax-giveaway deals, and building endless freeways.

And it seems to me that one of the basic reasons why these incredibly misguided projects go ahead is because of the way that development interests come together politically to create growth for growth’s sake. Big development “deals” like the stadium and the bridge have dense coalitions in each of our two political parties. Democrats are lobbied heavily by construction and engineering labor interests like the two guys I met last night, while Republicans (and Democrats) buddy up to wealthy businessmen (real estate developers, corporate dudes, billionaire owners) that make a lot of money off of new freeways and land deals.

And at the local level, particularly in an era when a lot of traditional manufacturing has moved to cheap labor countries in the Global South, this kind of “growth machine” politics has become synonymous with economic growth. In many cities, there isn’t much that the government can do to “boost the economy” that doesn’t involve huge new development deals. It’s almost the only tool in the box.

So for most local politicians, surrounded by businessmen, construction contractors, and developers, real estate deals are the economy. Land development is synonymous with progress. $2 gasoline is coming back any day now, and another housing boom is just around the corner.

Urban growth has been the goal for so long in the US that our cities have become economically dependent on land speculation and sprawl. As Upton Sinclair said, “it’s difficult to get a man to understand something if his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Given how many salaries have become tied to our tailpipes today, I don’t have a lot of hope that we’re going to stop making dumb development deals anytime soon.

[A horde of orcs preparing to attack an artistic stadium rendering.]


Anonymous said...

If you want to see the Vikings stadium debate in microcosm, look at my hometown of Sioux Falls, SD. Yesterday they passed a new $115M Events Center at the site of the old arena, an unwalkable, parking-lot filled, auto-dependent wasteland, instead of a proposal to build it along the river in the downtown. A big money marketing campaign called "Build it Now" overwhelmed the grassroots "Build it Downtown" movement. Intractability at its finest.

P.S. if you're interested...
Potential downtown site: http://bit.ly/vmwBCU
Voter-approved wasteland site: http://bit.ly/t6IdhR

Bill Lindeke said...

its the same story everywhere. we are all Sioux Falls-ans now!

Alex said...

This post should be required reading for every human.