Strong Towns’ definition: “a street/road hybrid … besides being a very dangerous environment (yes, it is ridiculously dangerous to mix high speed highway geometric design with pedestrians, bikers and turning traffic), they are enormously expensive to build and, ultimately, financially unproductive.”
Lead pipes to carry city water? Graceful public transit or weekday-only buses? An engaging downtown to attract businesses and customers? Open spaces for healthy living? Car-centric or bike friendly?
Decisions on matters like these are made every day in American cities, and they impact generations to come, reaching hundreds of years into the future. Once made, they are not easily corrected. Always, they are a reflection of a community’s values and its vision.
Chuck Marohn is the founder of Strong Towns, a nation-wide organization promoting cities that are financially solvent for long-term prosperity. Marohn, who travels the country lecturing on how to build strong towns, takes issue with American development organized around over-reliance on automobiles, saying it results in long-term debt, poor health and a lack of fulfilling neighborhood life.
Last October Mahron came to Salem to meet with local officials and make a public presentation at the Salem Public Library. Before his meetings, Salem citizens took Chuck on a tour of the city, which he had never visited, so he could get a feel for our past decisions.
The following is an excerpt from the conversation the group had in the car that day.
It focuses on South Commercial Street, an infamous Salem ‘stroad’* and Kuebler Boulevard, a potential future stroad.
John Gear is a local attorney who arranged and helped sponsor Chuck’s visit to Salem and Tom Andersen is a Salem City Councilor.
We join the three as they drive thru town.
Tom Andersen: How about that sidewalk cafe over there on the stroad?
John Gear: Yeah, isn’t that a pleasant place to have coffee?
Chuck Marohn: It is. There’s two things that I love to do on my Facebook page. The one is to take a video of these kind of things, where it’s like, “We’re going to create, like, the French cafe out on the stroad, and then just sit there, have the close‑up where you’re sipping your nice drink and then turn and pan and get the [makes traffic sound].” Yeah. The other one is, I love when the churches put up the “No parking, except parishioners” signs. The churches tear down the neighborhood, and they have the big parking lot. Then, they put up the “Church parking only.” I always post those and put, “What would Jesus do? He would tow your ass. Because this is church parking only.”
John: This stroad, believe it or not … we’re not even a third of the way down this stroad. Yes, we have had such a boom, literally a financial goldmine of turning really nice farmland into this.
Chuck: This is very sad, and it’s very sad because, like you say … visually, it’s not great but I think people who like this stuff would say, “I like to able to go to Pizza Hut. I like to be able to get my Dominoes.” And yeah, this is what the market wants. “Taco Bell drive‑through is great. I can run here during lunch.” For me, this makes me sick to my stomach because of the enormous amount of wealth that we have blown on this bonanza in one generation.
I’m guessing the evolution of this thing is that it was a smaller road at one point and then got expanded, because you can see the little glimpses of stuff that’s been here for longer than two decades, stuff that’s been here 30 years, 40 years, and it’s not aged well but we’ve just skipped past it because that’s what you do. There’s no natural renewal mechanism to actually have these places avoid decline and stagnation.
John: No one cares about these places.
John: They’re disposable.
Chuck: They’re built to be disposable, but in a functioning market, what would happen is that there’d be so much value created that as one of the places went into decline — so the roof goes bad, the parking lot goes bad, the sidewalk gets old, and the person who owns it did a poor job running their business — they’re at the point in their life where they’re not…
John: They’re done.
Chuck: They’re done. Those things happen. Those are just human things. They happen in Venice. They happen everywhere. In a functioning environment, there’s actually a cycle where people will come in and buy that, and then improve it up to the next thing. When you have a Taco Bell drive‑through, and it doesn’t work or it goes into decline or it’s not the thing, when you have a gas station like this, what is the next use for that? It is exactly what is there.
John: Tattoo parlors, mostly.
Chuck: Or something really, really low on the economic spectrum. A tattoo parlor, a pawn shop. Then that just has this visual cue, like, “Now we’ve reached the decline phase. Flee.”
John: Flee. Yes.
Chuck: It is sad … America has spent trillions on stuff that is like throwing the wedding party, throwing the big birthday party.
John: If growth made wealth then Salem should be wealthy as hell. Boy, look at all this growth we’ve enjoyed.
Chuck: I’ll go back to Disney World. An American family will spend $5,000, $6,000 going to Disney World on Spring break to live in what, essentially, is high end mixed‑use housing — take transit to a walkable downtown.
John: A pseudo downtown.
Chuck: They don’t go to Six Flags. They go to Disney World because the difference between Six Flags and Disney World is the ambience of the place, not just the rides that you do. You have this thing where that’s what we pay premium dollars for. Then we come back, and we could actually live in that type of environment far cheaper than we could live in this environment, but we prefer this environment. Why?
John: We can get it funded. We can get a loan.
Chuck: Yes. It is not because of our consumer preferences, like, “This is what the market wants.” It’s that the system we have set up to finance it, to insure it, to zone it, to permit it, to build it … all of that delivers this. Again, we get back to that word ‘efficiency’.
If you were the economist Paul Samuelson in the 1930s and ’40s, and you were envisioning a way to avoid going back into the Great Depression, you would have envisioned a system where we would go out and from the top down have a big national public works project that would create these systems all the way down, so that we could just employ people to continue to build, like Lego pieces, of this cookie cutter stuff, and just keep doing, doing, doing it.
That was what we did. The problem is we solved the Depression problem, right? We got into it, and we never were able to…
John: Turn off the machine.
Chuck: Turn off the machine, right. It’s like a…
John: The sorcerer’s apprentice.
Chuck: Exactly, we were never able to dial it back, or redirect it, or have it function differently. We’re trapped. The best economic minds in our country today say things like, “We need a trillion dollar surge in infrastructure spending.” I don’t know if they envision, when they say those things, more of this. But if they do, that scares the heck out of me, because this is what is bankrupting our cities.
John: This is Kuebler Road and when Kuebler used to be out in the woods … this was farm country. Again, it keeps getting wider, and wider, and wider, and higher speed. Now, they want to put … are we coming up…
Tom: Yeah, we’re coming up on it.
John: They want to put another power center mall, the big boxes, out here.
Chuck: What? [laughs]
John: [In Developer voice] “Downtown isn’t fully dead yet. We actually have a Nordstrom, and a Macy’s, and a Penney’s downtown. We need to kill those.”
There’s a guy who owns this property out here who can make a lot of money if we widen this. He’s going to be right in the intersection of I‑5 and Kuebler and there’s going to be a power center there.
Wouldn’t that be great? We can finish off downtown for good and not have to worry about those whiny people who want things downtown.
Chuck: Here’s the fascinating thing about it. I think we all can step back. Americans in general can step back and acknowledge that we have an economy way too dependent on consumption. It has been bad for families. These are just gluttonous bad habits, and I think we step back, and we realize that, right?
Shopping is the number one recreational activity in America. That’s more than walking, more than biking. Shopping is the number one recreational activity. You look at a country where it’s like 55 percent, I think, have a net worth less than $10,000. How is that possible in the richest country in the world?
When we look at it from a city standpoint, and we divorce ourselves from the notion that this approach, that we are dependent on this revenue, is actually bankrupting our own citizens, our own neighbors, we have to step back and realize that, if we build a mall here, people are not consuming more. We’re already consuming the maximum. We’re consuming beyond the maximum. It’s not like when we get another clothier, that all of a sudden I increase my wardrobe size by 10 or 15 percent. In America, we’re already spending the max on consumer spending. It’s not like there is more to squeeze out of that rock.
John: Yeah, we need more retail, more retail space, and we need more rain.
Tom: As I understand your point, it’s not that it’s going to create more demand. It’s just going to suck retail …
Chuck: It moves it around.
Tom: … and move it from downtown, to down here.
Chuck: It moves it around. Let’s talk about that transaction because it takes it from a place where you actually already have infrastructure …
Chuck: … Built — you already have all the stuff you’re committed to maintaining, you already have buildings that are taxpayers‑paying‑tax space. It moves it to a place where you have to create all of that from scratch. It’s almost like if government were actually a business … I don’t like that analogy, but hang with me for a second.
It would be as if we step back and said we have five divisions. One of them is profitable and four of them are losing money. Our solution is to start a sixth division that competes with the one profitable one.
John: [laughs] Exactly.
Chuck: That is a dumb strategy. That is a really, really, really bad strategy. That is what this continual retail … the people who advocate for it will say, “Chuck, it’ll be a regional draw. So we won’t just be cannibalizing ourselves, we’ll also be cannibalizing other towns.”
But the cities that do really well with retail are not in the mall game. They’re not chasing the next big‑box store. They’re the ones that actually create ecosystems.
John: Places you want to be.
Chuck: Places people want to be, with actual ecosystems of people who live near them interacting. Those places are beautiful. They’re high‑demand. People will move there and pay premium dollar. Then they’ll pay premium dollar to visit them. They’ll pay to park. Imagine that.