More on the redevelopment of Northgate Mall in response to the Call for Action by the Walltown Neighborhood:
What I don't see in any of these discussions is the role the City has to fund the public-facing desires of the community. We cannot build the city we want without the private sector. Alienating them - treating them as an enemy - is NOT going to help get us to want we want. "Affordable" retail, housing; streets that advance accessibility for all, and open spaces that benefit the community and the environment should involve a public investment of money. To realize a better City requires a diversity of people: ethnicity, income, race, sexuality, etc. As much as it appears to pain a lot of community activists, it must include wealthy people to help pay for the services and facilities we want and to support the businesses that will provide opportunities for people.
It is right to involve the public in this process, but we are going to fail to negotiate without a fundamental understanding of the trade-offs and unintended consequences of our actions. For example, development is going to happen - the Triangle is exploding. We can either maximize our infill potential to truly expand access to economic and social opportunity or development will continue to eat up our surrounding rural counties. Infill and concentration of development also help us to maximize the investments already made in infrastructure and help us to ween off automobile dependency, and economic segregation, and when done well, help us to preserve our natural environment.
NIMBYism is a real threat and in cities like Durham with a politically active and well-educated population, it is indeed a threat to our regional environment, economic mobility, health, and other tangible goals. To this end, we must understand fundamental development economics and urban design principles. If we are indeed interested in building the best city for ourselves and neighbors and future generations, we must approach private developers as our partners, not as adversaries.
I am an urbanist – I like cities. Not the cities built since about 1950, although there are some places in cities built after 1950 that aren’t totally horrible since the 1930s and accelerating after World War II to reach a crescendo in the 1990s, American cities ceased being the places they had been for millennia and became something mechanical, impersonal, and uninspiring with architecture and landscapes to boot. Cities were just places of commerce or places to house humanity; they were the reflection of our culture and history. Architecture and public spaces inspired people to advance their lives although historically and tragically, the social, legal, and cultural constraints frequently squashed the ascent of individual advancement.
The quality of the built environment and the careful consideration of how we plan for our communities is something that can appeal to both conservatives and liberals -- because at the end of the day, the built environment impacts the goals of both. You can have a healthy return on investment and protect the environment; you can build for the wealthy and address poverty; you can improve fiscal efficiency and reduce the carbon footprint. The built environment's impact on every facet of our lives is utterly profound. You can even do it without extensive, complicated, legislation. In fact, you’re more likely to achieve your communities’ goals when the process is simpler. Is it clear and articulated; have you secured the support of your political decision-makers; have you informed the public about the law of unintended consequences?
The built environment’s impact on our personal lives and society is profound but go largely underappreciated. As we watch rural farmlands and forests develop, empty lots in cities go undeveloped, poverty becomes endemic, personal health declines, air, and water resources are compromised, and both physical and economic mobility are destroyed. In one way or another, this is less about public policy than it is about our built environment.
Cities built by the public sector aren’t always failures, but the list of public-sector-driven development failures is long, including Adolf Hitler’s visions for Berlin and Warsaw and other places new and old. Next, we have the Communist-inspired version of city building and, closer to home, the urban renewal projects of the 1960s and 1970s. Their aspirations for an ideal future met reality if only in the design of monolithic spaces designed for mechanical giants. Ugh. There are more successful examples of places generally loved by most, Paris, for example. But, ultimately, our favorite places/spaces have been built by the private sector. As much as many will cringe, the economics of developing places is a reality.
Ultimately, good places are designed, not legislated. We need to encourage this, not fight it. One of my favorite examples of the private sector building good places is the streetcar neighborhoods of the early 20th century. These places were at once walkable and transit-friendly. Because cars were not yet the dominant form of mobility the nature of movement in the early 20th century was still pedestrian in scale and so were cities. The high-water mark for urban design and placemaking came before the institution of zoning and the modern profession of Planning.
With both eyes open, if we aren’t vigilant, developers will follow the “path of least resistance”, meaning, they are most likely to invest in and build where it’s easiest. At the end of the day, developers are looking to maximize their return on investment. But, there is a way for the public sector and citizens to work with private investment to build better cities, towns, and neighborhoods. The first step is understanding how it all works.
Development/Density Follows Transportation
Never has a city formed when you couldn’t access it. The arguments against light rail and mass transit are inherently flawed and we let the anti-transit forces get away with it. They argue, that “there isn’t enough density” to support fixed transit. Fixed transit means transit with stations that can’t be moved (at least not easily). Fixed transit creates “nodes” around which activity clusters. Nodes of activity have always been the signature of a town or city, at least until the automobile. Civic buildings, workplaces, and schools are nodes but so are intersections of transportation: an intersection of streets, a streetcar stop, or a freeway interchange. Anti-transit types (conveniently?) ignore this fact while witnessing the “development/density follows transportation” rule in action: construction of freeways is responsible for the creation of new nodes of activity, albeit automobile-dependent nodes. The places that developed around the automobile aren’t just inhospitable to pedestrians and other non-car users, they are fundamentally “anti-urban”.
What is “Anti-Urban”
Understanding “anti-urban” starts with at least one understanding of what being “urban” means. In our context, it means several things:
· places where the built environment has eradicated the ability of people from across a broad spectrum to interact with each other
· places that have obliterated the interconnectedness of spaces and neighborhoods.
· places where they only shared spaces are private and inherently undemocratic.
Sprawl is the primary culprit in our battle, in the United States but now elsewhere, against the degradation of the environment, social and economic advancement, the richness of diversity, and human connection.
There is a direct correlation between the availability of housing (quantity) and the price of housing. Barring any outside involvement, i.e. public sector investment, the price of housing will be associated with quantity. That's a fact of economics. Developers will not build where there is no demand, although, to be honest, developers can overshoot a market's ability to "absorb" inventory: Las Vegas was a good example.
Taxes and Service
We want/need public services: parks, streets, sidewalks, schools, public safety, training, assistance for people who have fallen on hard times, a built environment that protects the health of the natural environment, clean water, functioning sewers, etc. To pay for this, the public sector needs revenue. This is acquired in the form of taxes and fees. There is a "breaking point" based on housing value, one of the biggest resources for public revenue, where the value of property below $X is a net negative on public resources - in other words, below a certain point the value of property costs more for services than it produces in income for a city. A healthy city is one with a balance of wealthy residents with those who are less fortunate.
Poverty and Opportunity
A largely under-discussed component of poverty is the built environment. The vast majority of jobs have been and continue to be in places that are far from our poorest neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the sprawling nature of our pattern of development means that access to these opportunities to afforded to those who can afford a private vehicle. Mass transit is unsupportable in an automobile-dependent built environment. An example of how our society once made upward mobility more accessible to the working classes was the proximity of housing to factories. Factory towns were walkable. The rich and poor lived within the same geographic area; the poor could access employment, education, and social and cultural opportunities within a geographic area that was accessible by walking, or later, by streetcars.
The bottom line is this: work with the private sector to improve the density of our city to achieve our goals because without the private sector we will not. Don’t eschew the importance of income diversity – we need wealthy residents for a host of reasons not the least of which is to pay for the social, cultural, and economic goals we pursue. Not at the expense of the poor but in concert with them. Don’t pretend that development will occur, especially in a region like the Triangle, and it’s in our purview to determine if it happens within the fabric of our existing infrastructure or outside it on our farmlands and forests. And for god’s sake, remember that development (and opportunity) is tied to our transportation system and specifically, the design of our streets. Streets like Roxboro Road are an affront to our goals to advance economic opportunity and tackle environmental catastrophe.
These are my initial thoughts – an outline.
On Monday, September 12, 2022 at 11:38:03 AM EDT, Brandon J. Williams <[email protected]
Dear Walltown neighbors and Durham residents,
Last Thursday, I spoke on behalf of the Walltown Community Association at the City Council work session advocating for the integration of affordable housing, affordable retail, community green space, and environmental sustainability in the redevelopment of Northgate Mall (see full comments attached). We asked City Council do two things to advance our resident-led vision for that property:
Convene a table where Northwood, Duke–who owns the old Macy’s, City staff, and representatives from our organizing coalition can work to integrate community priorities into the redevelopment; and
Commit funding and other resources to support the implementation of that collaborative plan.
Today, we are asking all of you to contact the Mayor and other Councilmembers and let them know you support our requests. You can email the entire council at [email protected]
or using the individual contact information below.
Elaine O’Neal (Mayor): 919-560-4333, ext. 10269; Elaine.O'[email protected]
Javiera Caballero: 919-560-4396, ext. 10272; [email protected]
DeDreana Freeman: 919-560-4396, ext. 10276; [email protected]
Jillian Johnson: 919-560-4396, ext. 10278; [email protected]
Mark-Anthony Middleton: 919-560-4396, ext. 10277; [email protected]
Monique Holsey-Hyman: 919-560-4396, ext. 10274; [email protected]
Leonardo Williams: 919-560-4396, ext. 10273; [email protected]
As you advocate for this critical issue, please explore and share the details of our work and findings in the report, Building a Place for All People: A Community-Centered Vision for the New Northgate Mall. We have engaged well over 600 residents via surveys, focus groups, outdoor presentations, and an April 2021 press conference.
Others in the area also see the importance of this redevelopment and have presented ideas that underscore key aspects of our process and designs:
Durham Planning Commissioner Nate Baker provides an example of “Inclusive Mall Redevelopment Done Right”
Local urban planner, Phil Veasley, share his “Northgate Mall Vision”
Thank you for your time and support.
On behalf of the Walltown Community Association,
Brandon J. Williams
"From beatboxers to beat breakers, like the yellow brick road we go where the beat takes us..."