Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Germantown and a Possible Flood of Dollars

I had a spare afternoon in Nashville two years ago.  As is my preference when I have free time in an unfamiliar city, I looked around for urbanism.  I stumbled into the Germantown neighborhood, a comfortable enclave of older brick homes.  There was also a scattering of newer wood-sided homes that blended well with the older homes.  And there were a few modest commercial storefronts.

Germantown was a short distance north of downtown, barely more than a mile from B.B. King’s nightclub.  The average Walk Score for the neighborhood was 68, which implies that many daily chores can be accomplished on foot.

Overall, it was pleasant middle-class urban neighborhood, of which we need more.

But there were warning signs.  At the end of the neighborhood closest to downtown, a multi-story mixed-use building, residential above and retail below, was under construction.  And there were vacant lots within the neighborhood that had mixed-use zoning and were for sale.

Overall, it looked like a neighborhood that was at risk of gentrification, with the existing businesses pushed to become more upscale and the current residents becoming marginalized in the neighborhood that was their home.

I’m pleased when an urban neighborhoods show economic improvement, but improvements that occur too quickly can risk the fabric that made the neighborhoods desirable in the first place.
Since my visit, I had often wondered what was happening in Germantown.  At CNU 21, while awaiting a session on form-based codes, I found myself sitting in front of Rick Bernhardt, the Planning Director for Metropolitan Nashville.  I introduced myself and asked about Germantown.

Bernhardt reported what I had expected.  The gentrification of Germantown was well underway.  The neighborhood was changing.  The existing restaurants had begun going more trendy and upscale.  But the risk that most concerned Bernhardt was the pressure on the small industries that still existed in Germantown.

As he described it, Germantown had a certain “grittiness” that needed to be preserved.  And that grittiness required industry to retain a foothold in Germantown.

Fifty years ago, Jane Jacobs warned about “cataclysmic flow of capital”, the rapid influx of money that can overwhelm good places.  It’s a conundrum for urbanism.  How to make better use of existing urban neighborhoods without burying them in money and newcomers.

A theme that was heard during CNU 21 was libertarianism.  That building good places doesn’t require extensive planning as much as it requires common sense and a hands-off approach.

I‘m dubious about the concept.  Even setting aside the concern that we don’t yet have enough common sense in a land-use decision-making, I fear that a hands-off approach would open the door to Jacobs’ “cataclysmic flow”.

It’s hard to restrain capital.  Once a tipping point is reached on urbanism, or any land-use concept, money tends to flow toward it with unrestrained velocity.  Having CNU 22 in Buffalo, near Niagara Falls, may be unintentionally apt.

Nor is zoning, whether use-based or form-based, an effective response.  Zoning is about what, not about how quickly.

I don’t have good solutions to offer.  But it’s a challenge that we should face so that neighborhoods like Germantown can be simultaneously better utilized and preserved.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (


  1. I come from a background of having gradually grown apart from a religious devotion to libertarian ideals, but back in the early '90s I'd read everything Ayn Rand ever published (including the letters) and bought into most of it (Two issues of the letters sowed the seed of doubt that eventually helped crack my obsession to Objectivism, one on patents, one praising NASA and the space program).

    Then I accepted that violence was a normal part of human interaction, and started voting Democrat... however...

    I'll also note that the existence of a hydraulics and bearings vendor on Petaluma Blvd S. was part of what attracted me to southwest Petaluma.

    I offer that as background to a request that you dive a little deeper into the libertarian aspects, and the notion of who's entitled to decide what constitutes a "good place" and why we'd designate a space as such. A biologist friend once observed that when we try too hard to keep species from going extinct, we create an evolutionary pressure that may make the species weaker.

    I freely concede that we don't have a free market, that transportation subsidies create a horrendous set of externalities, and that it's likely the reason that so many upscale people are willing to settle in Germantown is that they can quickly and easily commute to jobs elsewhere on those subsidized roads.

    But I also think that many of the flaws in our current neighborhoods can be traced to overly strict limits by people who, with the best of intentions, thought they could see the optimal future as suburban sprawl with separated uses.

    I worry that a discipline with a long history of non-falsifiable hypotheses that is adopting en-masse the "one true way" of the current fashion could simply be making a different set of mistakes, with great vigor.

    1. Dan, thanks for the comment.

      I imagine that a great many college student went through a period of infatuation with Ayn Rand. I think my separation from the philosophy was more slow and gradual than yours. I remembered the books with affection, but knew that my beliefs had moved on. And then I recently reread "The Fountainhead". What claptrap! Thirty-five years of doing real-world engineering had given me the perspective to see the ridiculousness of her perspective on architecture. The conclusion, with Wynan Towers being built without consideration of possible tenants, was nonsense.

      With regard to libertarianism and land use, I appreciate your thoughts and agree that land use should have some flexibility to evolve per the wishes of individuals. However, the immediate problem, as you note, is the externalities of current land use practices, which warp land uses away from soundness.

      Beyond that is the problem of velocity. Whenever I read an early history of New York City and the speed with which neighborhoods changed, forcing demolition of buildings long before they had worn out, so that new buildings could be constructed, I'm struck by the waste of resources. I don't think we can afford to continue that type of profligacy.

      Zoning can help that slow land-use evolution, so we get full use of buildings. But it's important that zoning lead the way toward the land use that would logically exist in the absence of flawed externalities. Urbanism is the attempt to find that type of zoning.

      I can draw a parallel to linguistics. It's important that language be allowed to evolve. Evolving technology and ways of thinking require new words. But allowing language to evolve at a speed that young adults can't comprehend the language of the preceding generation would be counterproductive, resulting in the lessons of the past being too easily forgotten.

      Keepoing a light brake on the evolution of language is a good thing. And keeping a light brake on the evolution of land uses is also a good thing. A well-constructed zoning code is that brake.

    2. I obviously don't want to get too much into a Rand discussion, but I thought your response to "The Fountainhead" deserved a little bit of a raised eyebrow.

      Specifically, we have all sorts of situations in modern architecture and, I daresay, in planning, where the customer is not the user, and where the design is inappropriate to the end user of the building or neighborhood. Or where we use flowery explanations to try to convince the end user that what we are trying to push on them is what they really want, when our models are more flawed than theirs (to which end I cite Alexander's "A Pattern Language", and my exchange with Ross at our last meeting...).

      And myriad disasters, both immediately physically catastrophic and more subtle drains on the long-term economics of a project, have come from change orders or builder's implementations subverting the designer's original intent.

      However, many Objectivists seem to feel that Frank Lloyd Wright is the model for Howard Roark, and having spent a little time down in the Marin Civic Center I have to say that if there were one architect to pick for an example of an egoist building monuments completely inappropriate to human habitation, Wright is the primary suspect.

      I think your linguistics comparison is apt, though I'd go the other way: language more often evolves so that the older generation can't understand it, not so the younger ones are out of the loop, and language usually evolves to better reflect the constraints and ontologies in which it's used. "Jargon" is often really shortcuts for complex understandings, and we can either avoid it, or work to find better ways to more quickly adapt to it.

      There is definitely value in finding a balance between slowing the adoption of jargon so that we can educate people in the newer frameworks, but there is also value in seeking to evolve that jargon even more quickly, to create language to quickly express even more complex structures.

      My career has been built around a class of technologies which have consistently doubled in capabilities by almost every measure every 18 months, so my biases clearly fall towards adapting faster.

    3. Dan, a couple of thoughts. I certainly agree that there are many cases of architecture and land planning where the creative impulse was to give the end user what they needed, whether or not it was what they thought they wanted. I agree that Wright is a fine example, but he's hardly alone.

      But in "Fountainhead", Gail Wynans told Howard Roark not to even think about eventual users, that it would be okay if the buildings were never occupied. I doubt there's ever been a real world project in which the architect was ever given that charge.

      The irony of course is the Roark's work had always perfectly met the needs of the users even if it the match didn't meet the expectation of the users.

      In constructing her fable, Rand put together an owner and an architect who had completely different world views.

      And I agree with your thoughts on the need for language to evolve to cover new concepts. But if it changes too rapidly in other areas, such as law, we create situations in which we misunderstand the rules under which we live. We already have situations where the Constitution is being interpreted using 21st century definitions for words which were understood completely differently in the last 18th century.

  2. Getting back to the point of the post...

    Some time ago Strong Towns ran a few posts on "Good Enough" urbanism. At the time--and still--I thought the most salient point is that it's much easier to redevelop developed properties in the U.S. than it is anywhere else in the developed world. Specifically, it is easy to demolish existing structures and sit on the land.

    I don't know the specifics of Germantown, Nashville itself, but I suspect that a lot of gentrification as we know it happens precisely because of the ease of capital for construction and renovation. This is a feature, not a bug, in my opinion--but what is needed is a way to make it much harder for the Sam Rappaports and Richard Bascianos of the world to buy properties and let them deteriorate, and then be demolished...In short, I think the best actions are not to try and bolt capital down, but rather to make it relatively difficult to demolish existing structures, and to incentivize reuse of existing structures. For the former, we can look at early historic preservation law as a guideline, and modify it to be widely applicable; for the latter, roll out land value taxes faster.

    ...At least, those are my ideas on how to restrain overly exuberant capital, and retain the most lovable parts of neighborhoods.

    1. Steve, thanks for the comment. Your points are solid. I'll offer a couple of thoughts. One, if we allow the cost of building materials to rise through more accurate internalizing of the costs, such as the environmental costs of petroleum, reuse of existing buildings would be more likely. Two, in a walkable community, it would seem less likely that buildings would remain vacant for very long. In a drivable world, it's easy to pass by an unused parcel. By in a walkable world, there is greater value in passersby, which incentivizes building use.

      But I'm not sure that either the increased cost of construction materials or a more walkable world would slow gentrification. Indeed, they might speed it up.

      There's room for more thought on this point.