Yet another downside to municipal fragmentation is the loss of institutional memory. Many are realizing that urban decay is not a process intrinsic only to central cities due to their inability to adapt to the automobile, but rather a byproduct of the American slash-n-burn style of city-building that can strike anywhere, but at a specific time, often about a half-century after greenfield development. Unfortunately, as urban decay hits the suburbs, these fragments of cities are less able to learn from the experience of their older siblings what will combat and what will hasten the process of decay.
So when I came across the Strib’s article on the impending redevelopment of Brookdale Center I couldn’t help but think of Minneapolis’ earlier efforts to redevelop the commercial district at Lake & Nicollet. The moribund Brookdale is probably in a more extreme situation than the struggling but alive Lake & Nicollet of the 70s. The connection in my mind is the use of TIF to subsidize a developer to build a low-intensity, single use development of the sort that, in all likelihood, will be redeveloped in at least the same time frame as the structure it’s replacing, if not sooner. Here’s a statement from the very study looking at redevelopment options for the mall area, 2003’s Brooklyn Center Opportunity Site:
Modern retail development often becomes obsolescent in the matter of a few decades…
So what do they go and build? A modern retail development. You gotta wonder if Brooklyn Center knew who they
were hiring when they commissioned the study – Calthorpe and Associates is run by one of the founders of the Congress for New Urbanism. After the completion of the study and a plan a few years later, the city actually included an 8 point refutation of their principles in their comprehensive plan, with the brilliant recommendation of increasing highway-oriented development and reducing open space.
What is likely to be built is the exact opposite of the design principles enumerated in the Opportunity Site Master Plan & Development Guidelines (although the plan actually applied to a site across Bass Lake Road from Brookdale, and I don’t know if there was ever any move to extend it to the Brookdale site). Not only do we get a big box Wal-Mart, with its auto-dependent acres of parking and low-intensity land use, but accessory retail uses are scattered throughout the site, making future infill much more difficult. To be fair, it is possible the planned smattering of smaller stores will never come to be, as a local retail real estate consultant notes in the Strib article:
“The challenge for the developers in Brookdale is, what are the stores that would see an opportunity to be at the Brookdale site that don’t already have a location that serves that area?”
In addition, complementary stores would have to stock items that are unavailable at Wal-Mart, or that are appreciably better or cheaper than at the retail giant.
What could Brooklyn Center have done differently? They already had a policy framework (in the Opportunity Site Master Plan) to encourage mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly development, but they followed the old suburban course, waiting for a developer to come along and proposed a PUD along the lines of the Master Plan. If they had looked at the success of older cities in guiding development with zoning districts or overlays, they could have had zoning in place that would have discouraged the Wal-Mart style of rapidly-obsolete shopping strip. Maybe Wal-Mart would have just moved up the street to a less restrictive city, but maybe they would have come up with a plan more like their proposal for Washington DC.
I’m writing under the assumption that Brooklyn Center wants to move away from auto-dependent commercial strips. They have every reason to do so. From the 2000 census to the 2005-09 ACS data, single-occupancy vehicular travel declined only very slightly and public transportation use increased at a similarly minuscule rate. But in the same time frame, poverty increased dramatically in the suburb, from 7.4% to 12.9% of individuals. This suggests that an increasing number of Brooklyn Centrists could benefit from the affordability of transit and improved opportunities for walking.
Brooklyn Center is only one tiny part of the region, and an adjustment of regional priorities would result in better development in inner ring suburbs. A map from the Calthorpe planning effort shows as a third-tier regional center, while distant Maple Grove ranks as a second-tier center. Why is our region prioritizing development in distant greenfields over vast acreage closer to the city? These priorities have consequences, exemplified in the Bottineau Transitway’s decision to bypass existing transit centers, such as Brookdale, in the hopes that new transit centers will spring up on the fringe.
Until we agree to focus development in existing areas instead of on the edge of town, the municipal cogs that make up the regional machine will continue to spin freely, leaving minor cogs like Brooklyn Center to make their own mistakes.