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Propping up the Bogus ‘American Dream’

August 08, 2013 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

To hear Katherine Kersten tell it, by 2040 oppressed Twin Cities suburbanites will be forced to "live in dense, urban concentrations, even if they'd prefer a house with a yard outside the 494 beltway." That's because of "a huge, unchecked power grab" by advocates of such evils as regional planning and fiscal sustainability.

It's interesting that the 1,400-word diatribe in Sunday's Star Tribune came with the editorial disclaimer "the views expressed here are her own," a caveat not appended to the op-eds of fellow righty Jason Lewis or left-leaning Bonnie Blodgett. KK's strange opinions certainly aren't shared by conservative Strong Towns blogger and consultant Charles Marohn Jr.

"Could someone be more ignorant?" he emailed me in reaction to the Kersten piece. "I've had a couple of people urge me to write a response."

By midweek, he hadn't done so, so I'll use some of Marohn's insightful recent commentary to point out the error of Kersten's overheated but slender arguments.

In essence, she contends that the Metropolitan Council's long-range plans for more compact, efficient development over the next quarter-century, counterbalancing decades of sprawl, are driven by "a core ideological conviction [that] the cause of the poverty and social dysfunction that bedevil America's cities is the greed and racial bigotry of suburbanites -- especially those in prosperous outer-ring suburbs."

This war on the well-off, she claims, "turns on two ideologically freighted buzzwords: equity and sustainability." She says the former aims to redistribute wealth "and make suburban life so inconvenient and expensive that suburbanites are pushed back into the city." The latter, she adds, tries to "override market forces" and limit regional public investment entirely to inner cities and first-ring suburbs.

In the process, Kersten makes liberal (?!) use of some of the right's own favorite buzzwords, social engineering and social planning, while hardly controversial concepts such as "clean energy," "carbon footprint" and "economically competitive" come with dismissive quotation marks.

As Marohn noted in a blog this week, it's sprawl, not smart growth, that is "highly subsidized, socially engineered and quickly becoming passe." And in a July interview with a Pennsylvania Keystone Politics blogger Jon Greeting, he said "development that looks a lot more like the cities of 100 years ago -- more compact, more options for people in terms of transportation ... the places that are the most financially robust and productive ... are the places where you get more money back for every public dollar that you put in."

Marohn added: "A big city is essentially a solvent place -- meaning the core downtown and the core neighborhoods -- subsidizing the insolvent, worse development patterns out on the edge ... You've gotta quit subsidizing all the crap on the edge."

(Humorous aside: It's a hipster adage that "If you're not living on the edge, you're taking up too much space." That may be true in avante-garde aesthetics, but it's the other way around in land use.)

Marohn calls himself a fiscal conservative, the opposite of "resistant-to-change conservatives." "The suburban style of development that they associate with the status quo has actually been a top-down experiment in centralized government," he told Greeting. "People who equate [liberty] with having a wide highway free of congestion [so] I can get to town in 10 minutes ... are lying to themselves."

Naturally, this reminded me of last week's push led by U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann and state Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer to add multimillion-dollar lanes to Interstate Hwy. 94 despite their omission from the state Department of Transportation's 20-year construction plan. Gov. Mark Dayton dismissed their pleas as "political interference on decisions that are made by the professional staff."

These two lawmakers would be the last on earth to approve raising revenues to pay for such improvements. They don't pay for themselves via either frozen-in-time user fees or tax increments from far-flung greenfield development.

In a nutshell, that's the problem with Kersten's latest crusade: We'll ignore economic competitiveness and efficiency as long as we can prop up a profligate, truly unsustainable way of life on the urban edge -- one that we somehow convince ourselves is the natural order of things. In fact, this insistence denies market forces that, to name a fresh example, brought the groundbreaking last week for a 232-unit luxury apartment and townhouse project in a little-used corner of the Southdale parking lot in first-ring suburban Edina.

When it opens next summer, how many upscale folks do you suppose will live there if they'd prefer not to?

This densifying trend holds hope, as well, for outside-the-beltway places such as Excelsior, Osseo and Wayzata that are seeking to remake their downtowns into inviting, walkable places to live. Meanwhile, there's practically no chance that we'll run out of those cherished single-family homes on the suburban edges or, for that matter, in our relatively spread-out core cities, too.

Cavalier rejections of economic efficiency, and by extension freedom and equality, perversely mirrors that found in some quarters on the extreme left.

"A lot of the liberal approach to ... growth and development [comes] from a starting position like 'I care about the environment; I care about social equity, etc.' " Marohn told Greeting. "I care about those things, too. But ... we need to actually start with the financials and ... make sure we have a solvent, functioning city, and then ... let' see how we solve all these other problems."

As a fiscal-realist progressive, I couldn't agree more.



Kersten and Marohn have, respectively, endorsed two recent book releases on the uneasy relationship of cities and suburbs:

Kersten's pick: "Spreading the Wealth: How Obama is Robbing the Cities to Pay for the Suburbs," by Stanley Kurtz of the National Review (2012).

Marohn's: "The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving," by Leigh Gallagher, a Fortune magazine editor.  Marohn calls it "the most important book of 2013."

I'd challenge wonkish bookworms out there to read both and send us a comparative review.

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  • Grant Tiefenbruck says:

    August 8, 2013 at 1:24 pm

    When I read KK’s column on Sunday, my gut told me that she had to be wrong.  I am so glad that you published Marohn’s quote, “Could someone be more ignorant?” about her.  It made my day.

  • Gail O'Hare says:

    August 12, 2013 at 8:34 am

    Thanks so much for this, Conrad!  I’ve been fuming about Kersten’s piece for over a week.  A typical urban “house with a yard” is 40-50’ wide, not 1/4 acre and up.  We’ve subsidized bucolic suburban life with highways, utilities and the irrevocable loss of green space, woods and wildlife.

    Is this also the time to talk about the Southwest Corridor?

  • Dyna says:

    August 12, 2013 at 10:53 am

    Some of the city’s grand schemes to repopulate themselves are wasteful too- For example, Minneapolis wants to turn an abandonned grain elevator into apartments for “artists”, at a cost of a mere half million dollars a unit! And while the billion dollar projects to add lanes to urban freeways are bad deals, it’s hard to justify some of the billion dollar light rail projects too.

  • Ginny says:

    August 12, 2013 at 11:45 am

    Kersten doesn’t know (not surprisingly) that the government promoted, subsidized the flight to the suburbs in the 1950s and onward, with its early policies on categorizing neighborhoods (at the top, new homogenous neighborhoods) and building 41,000 miles of freeway. VA loans and various other policies made suburban living much more attractive but led to the sprawl we experience now. Not to mention the abandonment and disinvestment in cities—which helped create squalid conditions and segregation.
    Dyna, where are your facts about the “abandonned grain elevator”? Where is it and who is developing into half million dollar units for artists? Artists don’t pay a half million dollars for housing.

  • Ginny says:

    August 12, 2013 at 2:40 pm

    It beats me why the strib publishes Kersten. She is inaccurate 90% of the time, and she invariably tries to spread fear. Mainly of big, bad government.