Friday, September 19, 2008

A Modest Proposal

I've tended to stay away from non-baseball topics like stadium subsidies and the like, mainly because my whole job is about advocating for one public policy versus another, and baseball is a break from all that.

But today I'm going to make an exception and do something I never get to do in my job--offer a completely politically unrealistic but common-sense proposal that is just too obvious ever to go anywhere.

What got me thinking is an article in today's Post about how the stadium isn't meeting its projections for attendance, and as a result tax revenue is down. There's also an accompanying story fretting about how the Southeast waterfront area around the stadium isn't growing as fast as people had hoped.

Now, none of this should be a surprise to anyone. Virtually every economic study ever done has shown that stadiums are a terrible way to spark economic development. People who go to games from outside the area generally don't linger--they get right back in their cars and go home. And people in the area who do go to games are spending discretionary income on baseball that they otherwise would have spent in other local businesses like bars, theaters, museums, etc. And since MLB isn't a local business, the stadium acts as an economic vacuum-cleaner sucking revenue from local businesses and shipping it out of town.

Indeed, some of the tax revenue at the stadium is new--people from outside the area who buy tickets and food at the park would have likely spent that money closer to home if not for the ballpark. But no stadium has come close to paying for the public cost of its construction, and Nationals Park is no exception.

The only economic argument is that it will spur development in the area
(an argument the voters of the city roundly rejected every time they had a chance to weigh in--just ask Harold Brazil, Linda Cropp, and Kevin Chavous) . They point to Verizon Center as the model, even though Penn Quarter's proximity to downtown and the National Mall made it a lock for a boom as the city's overall economy grew in the '90s, stadium or no.

So here's my proposal for a lead-pipe cinch, low-cost way to guarantee economic development in the area around the stadium from S. Capitol Street all the way west to the Navy Yard and the river. Tear down the Southeast Freeway. Don't bury it, don't rebuild it, just rip the fucker out.

Just like the Dan Ryan in Chicago, which walls off nice neighborhoods like Bridgeport from the poverty-stricken areas to the east, or the Cross-Bronx Expressway in New York, which destroyed dozens of decent, working class neighborhoods, the Southeast Freeway is a huge impediment to development across the entire area.

Just walk down 8th Street below Penn Ave.--the booming blocks known as "Barracks Row." Ten years ago that whole strip was shaky. Now, it's booming with restaurants, bars, etc., but you get to the freeway and bam! it ends. There are a few businesses on the other side of the freeway, but really the highway is choking off any ability for Barracks Row to expand any farther. It's the same all the way from 395 to where the freeway ends at the Penn Ave. and the Anacostia River.

The Southeast Freeway serves no purpose except to help federal employees and other commuters who live in the suburbs and work in the city (and whose income the city can't tax anyway) get out of dodge at 5 sharp. Locals don't use it except as an occasional short-cut to Rock Creek Parkway or for the once-a-month weekend trip to Pentagon City. It's ugly, polluting, and a magnet for crime and blight.

All across the country these inner-city freeways are Katrina-esque neighborhood killers, except the waters never recede.

I know, we're Americans we build roads, dammit. And then we drive on them until we die. Nevermind that the billions we spend on oil is funding the terrorists. Nevermind that every time a new highway is built traffic gets worse. Nevermind global warming or air pollution or any of that. Highways, cars and freedom--that's the American way. Subways are for communists.

Field of Dreams was a great baseball movie, but when it comes to urban development, they had it all wrong. The truth is, if you tear it down, they will come.

Ok, off soapbox. I promise it'll be all baseball from here on out.


Dave Nichols said...

Problem is, when they designed this city, they never expected 8 million people to work here every day, and it is woefully inadquate to handle the amount of traffic coming in and out of the city every day. 395 and the SW freeway are the only way people south and east of town can get it. it's longer for me to drive to the metro than it is to drive downtown.

Steven said...

I hear you, although I don't think it was a situation where 'no one thought of it.' I think the car companies and the construction guys and the oil guys all had more political clout in urban planning post-WW2 than working people whose neighborhoods were leveled.

That said, here's my wildly unpopular but common sense solution to your dilemma (following up a wildly unpopular initial proposal):

People should live closer to where they work. Walking distance, ideally.

ckstevenson said...

I thoroughly agree with the impact of the freeway, but I can't say your idea is totally common-sense.

As Dave points out, a lot of people use the freeway to get to/from work, both in and outside of DC (I went from Arlington to New Carrollton on it for a year).

You have to account for the commuting impact if you were to get rid of it, and the costs of addressing this are beyond prohibitive.

So given the costs of just ripping it out, I think we'd be better off burying as much of it as we can.

Plus people love their cars.

Steven said...

The fact that people love their cars speaks to the political feasibility, not to it's actual common-sense-ness.

People would either a) get on the Metro, or b) move closer to work.

There's no chance that people will stop working for the federal government or that the federal government will move away from DC.

Now if you're personally a commuter and really hate the Metro and love driving to work every day in traffic, then you'd be inconvenienced, and I can see why you wouldn't vote for me. There are always winners and losers in any public policy.

But I don't see why I should have to experience higher crime and a poorer economy in my neighborhood and endure greater risk of terrorist attack from all the money going to oil producing countries who fund extremists and watch NYC go underwater from rising sea levels just to protect the commuting preferences of suburbanites.

Rob said...

I agree with Steven, they should tear that fucker out and build a LOT more mass transit into and out of the city. There is no reason why there should be a lot more light rail (which is the cheapest mass transit option aside from buses assuming the track is there) out into the exurbs, and putting in a new rail line where the SE Freeway currently runs and forking it into Anacostia or MD would spur economic development in those areas and provide rail service to areas currently under served.

It would be expensive as crap, but there is solid economic data which states that unlike stadiums rail stations do spur development if they are in walkable areas.

Will said...

Steven, move to Europe. You'll find the way of city living much more agreeable, the politics too.

But I guess none of that really matters, because there's no baseball here.

Steven said...

@will--fair response. I knew when I wrote it that I would lose some people who are used to agreeing with me.

OK--enough politics. I'm already bored and thinking I shouldn't have made this post in the first place. this blog is a bout baseball, and I apologize to everyone who came here expecting my take on Peavy v. Balester.

An Briosca Mor said...

You all don't seem to know the history of why that freeway is there, which is really the story of why there aren't MORE freeways like it in DC. Back in the 1960s, the great plan in this land was to have a network of interstate highways that passed right through the middle of all the big cities. Such highways were built in cities like Baltimore (I-95), New York (the Cross-Bronx Expressway) and Boston (whatever that elevated highway was that got replaced by the Big Dig). The plan was to have I-95 pass right through the heart of DC, connecting Richmond and Baltimore. All was proceeding smoothly until that plan was killed by intense neighborhood opposition. The only part that ended up being built was the SE-SW Freeway that survives to this day. (So now you know why 395 just dies at NY Avenue and 295 just dies at RFK.) They weren't envisioned as commuter roads, but since they were there, that's what they became.

I agree that they are eyesores and to some extent subdivide the city, creating ghettos on one side of the freeway with civilization on the other. That ghetto-ization is aided by the freeway, but the freeway is not totally responsible for it. It is possible for civilization and neighborhoods to exist on both sides of a major interstate highway - for example, look at Arlington which is split in two by I-66 as well as several examples where communities straddle the Beltway. At this point, though, if the SE-SW freeway was removed, there would have to be something put into its place a la what was done in Boston with the Big Dig. But with the massive expense and massive cost overruns that resulted from the Big Dig, the likelihood of such a similar project ever happening in DC is slim verging on never. I think that given a good economy, the Ballpark neighborhood will develop just fine despite the freeway. It's the economy that's the key thing. Until it improves, little or no progress will be made.

Steven said...

ABM--thanks for your perspective. You're right I don't know the history you recount, but it makes sense. It certainly would be worse if 295 went straight through to Balt the way the Dan Ryan goes right through the city to Milwaukee or 95 through Balt.

There are a million reasons why what I'm saying would and could never happen. I don't think the choice is status quo or boondoggle, but what I'm envisioning is a wholesale reorganization of our economy and how/where people live that is just totally pie in the sky.

In my world, cities would be walkable and clean. Everyone would work a short walk or public transit ride from work. Suburbs wouldn't really exist farther than Arlington, but no one would want to live in the suburbs because urban parks and schools would be so great. There wouldn't be ghettos because there wouldn't be this extreme division between rich and poor so that whole quintiles of society fall into an endless cycle of poverty, incarceration, joblessness and crime...

You may say that I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one. I hope someday you'll join us, and the world will be as one.