Friday, April 24, 2015

Post No. 150: NO! NO! Not a SIXPENCE!!

Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (1746-1825) knew a bad deal when he met one
Those readers concerned about the supply of America's chutzpah resources may take comfort. John Frew, who is leading the redevelopment of Cedar Rapids's dying Westdale Mall, has determined that the $10.5 million city taxpayers have contributed to this project is not going to be enough, not by a long shot. If this commercial property and its sprawling parking area, completely inaccessible by anything but motor vehicles, is going to live again, it's going to take another $11.5 million. A very white elephant--by comparison, the current phase of downtown redevelopment, which has some actual civic significance, will cost about $3 million--just got whiter.

The city hasn't immediately responded to this ask, instead forming a Special Westdale Review Committee of the City Council to review and make recommendation. City Manager Jeff Pomeranz made a most guarded public statement: The amount and terms and conditions of assistance are fluid, depending on negotiations.

Given that it hasn't yet been agreed to, it is premature to become outraged at the wanton expenditure of public money on a project that has no civic benefit. So I'll have to settle for being irked that Mr. Frew apparently felt very comfortable asking for the extra dough. What does this say about the relationship of developers to city government? About the relative weight in policy decisions of the public interest versus personal connections? And if anyone thinks that, in the end, they won't get whatever they ask for, I would welcome a reassuring communication.

Thankfully, the ask is "sufficiently significant" (in the words of reporter Rick Smith) that Pomeranz recommended City Council consideration, and that the Gazette reported it on the front page. How much goes on that doesn't trip these triggers?

If Westdale Mall can once again be the site of successful businesses, that would be great. But it should be up to businesses to make those decisions, without government subsidies. Even in its heyday, Westdale was probably not supplying the revenue-per-acre that you would find in a well-designed downtown. And, surrounded by "stroads" as it is, it will never be integrated into a walkable community. (See this TED Talk by architect Ellen Dunham Jones featuring some ways mall projects have achieved real connection.) Westdale could crumble into rubble without impacting the City of Cedar Rapids.

Reading this news, I immediately flashed on a quotation attributed to Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, a South Carolinian who participated in the U.S. Constitutional Convention of 1787, and was later appointed ambassador to France by President George Washington. While there, he and two other American representatives were approached by men purporting to speak for the French government who demanded substantial bribes in order to settle the issues that existed between the two countries. (The incident became known as the "XYZ Affair.") Pinckney's response, later prettied up into "Millions for defense, not a cent for tribute," actually was something like "NO! NO! Not a sixpence!"

In this budget-conscious era, we need to demand greater caution and accountability in public spending. Transparency should be easiest at the close-by local level. We need to learn to say "NO! NO! Not a sixpence!" to dubious investments of our money, whether they be malls on the edge of town, baseball palaces in cornfields, or water parks that require their own interstate exits. At the very least we ought to rid ourselves of the illusions that these projects are somehow going to pay for themselves in the long run, or that these sorts of deals are the only way to get the town we "deserve."

All this budgetary stuff comes as I reflect on two years of this blog. Reading and writing, listening and watching have taught me a lot, and I continue to feel that within all of us are the seeds of a community that nurtures, strengthens and values each of its members. New urbanism, to which I attach, is one movement that is trying to build a brighter-yet-workable future. The Westdale stuff reminds me that while we work for this vision we also need to cry out against public actions that work against community-building. "First do no harm," said Hippocrates.

Second, the city should not be paying for projects that waste public money and harm the city's capacity. NO! NO! Not a sixpence!

SOURCE: Rick Smith, "Westdale Mall Developer Asks for More Upfront Money to keep Construction Going," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 13 April 2015,

EARLIER POST ON WESTDALE: "A Big Ho-Hum," 12 May 2013

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