Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Looks like the Richard Floridas and New Urbanists are wrong

Another strong argument is made against the New Urbanists in the latest from "New Geography." The Myth of the Back-to-the-City Migration.

One of the reasons I always bring back this topic is because so many of the bad points of the most influential leftists rear their head here.

Remember Granholm's Cool Cities? This is what he was referring to. Richard Florida's thesis. It's not working, but it's still being pushed,
even here in Livingston County. The real key to attracting workers is simple. Work. Right now of the cities, Houston is king.

Are people moving back to the city? Nope. From New Geography

Pundits, planners and urban visionaries—citing everything from changing demographics, soaring energy prices, the rise of the so-called "creative class," and the need to battle global warming—have been predicting for years that America's love affair with the suburbs will soon be over. Their voices have grown louder since the onset of the housing crisis. Suburban neighborhoods, as the Atlantic magazine put it in March 2008, would morph into "the new slums" as people trek back to dense urban spaces.

But the great migration back to the city hasn't occurred.

That's obvious. The census numbers keep showing that with one or two exceptions like New York.

Housing prices in and around the nation's urban cores is clear evidence that the back-to-the-city movement is wishful thinking. Despite cheerleading from individuals such as University of Toronto Professor Richard Florida, and Carole Coletta, president of CEOs for Cities and the Urban Land Institute, this movement has crashed in ways that match—and in some cases exceed—the losses suffered in suburban and even exurban locations. Condos in particular are a bellwether: Downtown areas, stuffed with new condos, have suffered some of the worst housing busts in the nation.

One of the big pushes to these overpriced downtown lofts, apartments, and condos is "walkability". The drawback is cost for the space, no land, more rules and regulations, city crime, parking, and for families, usually bad schools. Now some people are cityfolk, and I don't have any problem with that whatsoever. I prefer small towns and the country. My dream house is 20 acres of woods and an average house where I can go hunting. That's my preference. Live and let live. My problem is when the so called "progressive" crowd wants to force everyone to move to one room lofts in cities, in the name of global warming. I have a problem wasting money when a small portion of elites want this train to nowhere, subsidized by tax money.

There's more.

The story in downtown Las Vegas is massive overbuilding and vacancies. The Review Journal recently reported a nearly 21-year supply of unsold condominium units. MGM City Center developer Larry Murren stated this spring that he wished he had built half as many units. Mr. Murren cites a seminar on mixed-use development—a commonplace event in many cities over the past few years—as sparking his overenthusiasm. He's not the only developer who has admitted being misled.

Behind the condo bust is a simple error: people's stated preferences. Virtually every survey of opinion, including a 2004 poll co-sponsored by Smart Growth America, a group dedicated to promoting urban density, found that roughly 13% of Americans prefer to live in an urban environment while 33% prefer suburbs, and another 18% like exurbs. These patterns have been fairly consistent over the last several decades.

Demographic trends, including an oft-predicted tsunami of Baby Boom "empty nesters" to urban cores, have been misread. True, some wealthy individuals have moved to downtown lofts. But roughly three quarters of retirees in the first bloc of retiring baby boomers are sticking pretty close to the suburbs, where the vast majority now reside. Those that do migrate, notes University of Arizona Urban Planning Professor Sandi Rosenbloom, tend to head further out into the suburban periphery. "Everybody in this business wants to talk about the odd person who moves downtown, but it's basically a 'man bites dog story,'" she says. "Most retire in place."

Even Vegas, and that actually does qualify as a cool city. The trends are accurate, although I prefer country to suburb or exurb. My own experience sees this. Most of the empty nesters I know, still stayed in their homes. Why move? This is where their roots are.

What about these "young professionals" we all hear about for the past 10 years.

What about the "millennials"—the generation born after 1983? Research by analysts Morley Winograd and Mike Hais, authors of the ground-breaking "Millennial Makeover," indicates this group is even more suburban-centric than their boomer parents. Urban areas do exercise great allure to well-educated younger people, particularly in their 20s and early 30s. But what about when they marry and have families, as four in five intend? A recent survey of millennials by Frank Magid and Associates, a major survey research firm, found that although roughly 18% consider the city "an ideal place to live," some 43% envision the suburbs as their preferred long-term destination.

Same as it ever was. Party in the city, but when it's time to settle down, different priorities take over. A well told word of caution is given.

The condo bust should provide a cautionary tale for developers, planners and the urban political class, particularly those political "progressives" who favor using regulatory and fiscal tools to promote urban densification. It is simply delusional to try forcing a market beyond proven demand.

Rather than ignore consumer choice, cities and suburbs need to focus on basic tasks like creating jobs, improving schools, developing cultural amenities and promoting public safety. It is these more mundane steps—not utopian theory or regulatory diktats—that ultimately make successful communities.

This sounds familiar. Jobs not fluff. Crime not lofts. Schools not rails. It's the meat and potatoes issues which are important if cities want to make comebacks, not Richard Florida's template.

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