Editors Note: Although this article may seem longer than the Ken Starr Report, Jordan Baer has left it together as one article due to the fact that he believes it is time our community had a serious discussion about the enormous impact urban sprawl is having on our urban blight. In order to shorten the article somewhat, he has assigned a number for each source/reference/link that can be found at the bottom of the article. This article is published without opinion, editing or bias.
FIGHT THE BLIGHT, OUTLAW THE SPRAWL
Last month, I decided to expand my efforts into the forum of urban blight. You may recall, the main picture in my article dealing with the need to improve our code enforcement was the old Frontier Liquor store located behind the Evansville Civic Center…
Today, I am very proud to announce that the fallen roof portion of the building has been repaired…
First of all, I owe the City-County Observer a huge thank you for the work they have done on not just this issue but various other issues as well. Thanks to the City-County Observer the roof on the old Frontier Liquor store is repaired, several thousand dollars have been earmarked to begin cleaning up the two city cemeteries (I will have more on what I’m trying to accomplish next with this project in a later article), the James Bethel Gresham house is now in the hands of ECHO Housing Corp and is hopefully housing homeless veterans, and the Wilson Auctions banner was taken down from the late Roberts Stadium Gate 1 just a few days after making the CCO.
I find these latest accomplishments to be sound evidence that keeping city hall in front of the public eye via the media is the best way to accomplish good public policy. Hopefully, these successes will also begin to deter city hall from committing bad public policy such as the Homestead Tax Grab, the selection of the convention center hotel developer without letting the public discuss and debate the different proposals, and the act of placing a “general conclusion” page in a report without even bothering to get the approval of the task force in charge of the report. All of these acts were done behind the scenes by various people in an effort to curb good public policy, but with the help of the City-County Observer, we can fight against these injustices while rebuilding what’s left of our city at the same time.
I would also like to thank Mr. Ben Miller and the Evansville Building Commission for their prompt response in enforcing city codes on the old Frontier Liquor building which had been contributing to the city’s urban blight for more years than I can remember. Although this repaired roof may seem inconsequential in the grand scheme of the city, in reality it is an enormous victory as it proves that the Building Commission is committed to being the government department that finally takes the problem of urban blight head on. Currently, there is a for sale sign on the building, I have to believe that the improved condition of this building can only help its resale value as well as the value of the properties around it.
A few Sundays ago, the Evansville Courier & Press made urban blight their main front page story. Inside the article, Mr. Miller said that code enforcement came mostly from those who voluntarily reported violations to his office. While some may not value the work the Building Commission does or even the idea of maintaining our existing urban core, I am not one of them. I feel like we need to strengthen our enforcement of building codes for the following reasons…
- Eliminating urban blight will improve property values for the majority of Vanderburgh County residents who live in the city.
- Maintaining existing city infrastructure will prevent the need for more expensive urban sprawl
- Eliminating urban blight will work hand-in-hand with the goals of KEB to make Evansville more marketable to visitors, tourists, and young professionals looking to relocate.
- Eliminating urban blight is proving to be one of the few things that are uniting the city of Evansville. This task could be the one issue that finally turns the city around by establishing a sense of community among local residents.
- Improved code enforcement is critical in the fight against demolition by neglect. There are several houses and properties that add character and value to the city that I would like to see saved before falling victim to neglect. 210 and 212 W. Michigan come to mind first.
Yes, I am more than willing to round up more blighted properties, but at the same time, I feel like the city needs more than just a voluntary report system to identify and then eliminate urban flight. In a January article to the Courier & Press (1), Lloyd Winnecke said the following, “Looking forward, it is my intent to continue operating city government in a transparent and open manner and I encourage you to become civically engaged.” In keeping with the mayor’s transparent objective, I respectfully request that Mr. Miller publish an article in the City-County Observer detailing what the city can increase support and/or funding for in order to allow the Building Commission to effectively eliminate as much urban blight as possible.
Before I dive into an existing threat to the fight against Evansville’s blight, I would also like to thank Evansville Police Chief Billy Bolin as well as the Evansville City Council for passing an ordinance that will be a tremendous asset in the fight against the blight. I firmly believe that this legislation, which was initially controversial, is now the law of the Evansville land because of the time Chief Bolin took to communicate and discuss this ordinance with the public including those on the CCO instead of trying to get it passed with closed door meetings and private phone calls like we are seeing too many times here with other projects.
The fact that this ordinance overwhelmingly passed the Evansville City Council is proof that Evansville can do great things when everyone agrees to come together in a transparent way. I now challenge this council, as well as the city in general, to remain committed to this form of government and this level of fight against the blight that is quietly destroying the city we all call home.
With all of that being said, I now want to address an issue that if left uncontrolled will continue to cause insurmountable damage to Evansville’s health, Evansville’s finances, and Evansville’s competitiveness. That issue is none other than urban sprawl and it is now rearing its ugly head on Evansville’s Westside after having already ruined the city’s Eastside.
Urban sprawl is nothing new to Evansville. Back in 2011 after roughly $25 million was spent on widening North Green River Road, which was the most expensive locally funded road project ever in Vanderburgh County (2), then Vanderburgh County Commission President Lloyd Winnecke said the following: “This is a sign of vision and growth,…” Last year, Mayor Winnecke said the following last year during the opening of one of the legs to the proposed Interstate 69 project that runs parallel to North Green River Road, “This will be a transformational change for our community” (3). One of the main talking points from those who support the construction of this interstate was that a USDOT study showed that “47,000 jobs are created for every $1 billion invested in roads.” (4)
So is all this government road construction followed up by sprawling private development a sign of “vision and growth” for the city? Well, not exactly. Shortly after USDOT released their study, the Heritage Foundation, which is a conservative think tank, countered with the following…
“Regardless of how the federal government raised the additional $1 billion, it would shift resources from one part of the economy to another, in this case to road building. The only way that $1 billion of new highway spending can create 47,576 new jobs is if the $1 billion appears out of nowhere as if it were manna from heaven.” (5)
When the government shifts its monetary resources to constructing urban sprawling roads, it drags the private sector who then shift their brick and mortar operations around this new infrastructure. Thanks to former Vanderburgh County Surveyor Bill Jeffers who graciously invited me down to his office last year, I have been able to read the current “Comprehensive Plan” for the Evansville Area Plan Commission which is also available online (http://evansvilleapc.com/). Sure enough, page 6-4 of the General Land Use section says the following…
“The I-69 Environmental Impact Statement describes the anticipated impact on
land use as follows: “….the project may both generate new growth and shift existing growth to
locations in proximity to the proposed Interstate, particularly to areas adjacent to
proposed interchanges.” ”(6)
Although development has been pushing farther and farther away from the urban core on the northeast side of town for many decades, it doesn’t take more than a quick glance to see that very little of this development is growth while the vast majority of it is merely a shift in land use. Gone are Welborn Hospital, the Executive Inn, and even the famed Tennessean restaurant. And in their place are Deaconess Gateway Hospital, a slew of Dunn Hospitality hotels, and a wide array of interstate diners such as Cracker Barrel and Steak-N-Shake.
Did this shift in land use benefit Evansville? So far, the answer to that question has been a resounding no. According to the US Census via Wikipedia, Evansville’s population has dropped from 130,496 residents in 1980 to 117,429 residents in 2010 (a difference of 13,067 residents) (7) while Vanderburgh County’s population has increased from 167,515 residents in 1980 to 179,703 residents in 2010 (a difference of 12,188 residents) (8). In other words, what has been labeled as growth and expansion for Vanderburgh County is nothing more than a shift of residents fleeing the city of Evansville due in most part to bad urban planning.
While we have seen the traditional finger pointing on “temples to sports”, downtown development, and 21st century infrastructure projects as the reason for Evansville’s financial struggles, the truth is, urban sprawl is by far and away the biggest strain on our city budget. It is one of those things that don’t get blamed for financial budget messes due in large part because it is silent but violent. Its enormous costs don’t strike local residents as too burdensome due to the fact that it looks like something the government should be financing anyways. But the reality is, it is nothing more than an inconvenient truth for both Evansville and Vanderburgh County.
According to the website Interstate-Guide.com, the current segment of I-164/I-69 was designated in 1968 but not fully completed until August 2nd, 1990. Part of this project involved construction of a $46 million interchange with U.S. 41 and Veterans Memorial Parkway. At the time of its construction, this interchange was the most expensive Interstate interchange in the entire state of Indiana. The entire project came at a price tag of $160 million! (9). Assuming that figure is in 1990’s dollars, that would equal $291,325,614.59 in today’s dollars (10). And if you think I-69 as a whole isn’t eating Evansville as well as the entire state of Indiana’s budget up still today, think again (11).
Not only does urban sprawl put an enormous toll on local and state road budgets that could use these funds on much needed urban core infrastructure, it also puts a strain on the entire lifestyle of the city. To sum up the list of negative consequences, I choose Wikipedia since they are basic and non-biased. The following is their list (12)…
Health and environmental impact
Increased pollution and reliance on fossil fuel
Increase in traffic and traffic-related fatalities
Delays in emergency medical services response and fire department response times
Decrease in social capital
Decrease in land and water quantity and quality
Increased infrastructure costs
Increased personal transportation costs
White flight (non-diverse neighborhoods)
Looking at the above list, how many of those categories would you say describes Evansville perfectly? In a region that cannot afford adequate sidewalks in BOTH the city (13) and county (14), cannot afford to give the Building Commission a proper system of enforcing codes (15), has already tried to close two fire stations (16), can’t even afford to maintain existing roads (17), and faces the infamous and massive $500 million sewer upgrade (18) while being named the fattest city in America(19), one of the most polluted areas in America (20), and now the 8th most miserable city in America (21), does it really make sense to expand our infrastructure and zoning of private development when we are seeing the negative consequences of it? After all, while Evansville is the 8th most miserable city in the U.S, Ann Arbor, Michigan is the 8th most happiest city in the U.S- a city that put in a green belt just ten years ago (22).
So why am I bringing up all of this? It’s simple, as long as Evansville and Vanderburgh County commit to sprawling, Evansville’s urban core will always continue to have an uncontrollable amount of blight. While Dayton (23) and Indianapolis (24) are building tech parks in their urban core, Evansville is proposing one along I-69 (25). While Kleymeyer Park, which is next to the third oldest active ballpark as well as Don Mattingly’s youth baseball field, sits blighted and open, Bob Warren and the ECVB keep looking in the county to construct their ball fields project. And while city government wants to tear down the old Swanson building due to environmental contamination in favor of yet another open and abandoned downtown lot, Boise, Idaho completely renovated their contaminated building (26) which is helping their city thrive.
And now, Marsha Abell and the Vanderburgh County Commissioners, as well as the Area Plan Commission, are considering allowing a rezoning along the University Parkway that will only result in more urban sprawl (27) along a road that has already cost nearly $31 million to construct and is estimated to cost $50 million more to connect to I-64 (28). Even worse is the fact that Commissioner Abell who says that she wants more walkable communities said that Vanderburgh County Commissioners are, “…eager for as many commercial zonings as can reasonably be built. It’s the most effective way to grow the county’s budget” (29).
As we’re seeing on the east side, urban sprawl isn’t growing the city or county budget. Rather, it is increasing the property tax revenue while also increasing the budget at the same time for many different departments. It also comes with many negative intangible consequences that we are seeing throughout our city that dwarf the benefits of the expanded tax base. In fact, when you look at page 19-7 of the APC Comprehensive Plan, you will see that most of the University Parkway as well as most of I-69 is listed as “future service area” not “existing service area” for our sewer system (30). Shouldn’t sewer expansion be the last thing on the agenda for this city/county?
Last week, I had the opportunity to attend a meeting held by the organization G.R.O.U.P (Growing Responsibly On University Parkway). This group has organized to fight this proposed development and is seeking an overall master plan for the area. I encourage you to visit their Facebook site (http://www.facebook.com/UPSmartGrowth?fref=ts). My challenge to this group is simple- Let this be the beginning of Evansville’s big push against urban sprawl.
I’m completely disappointed that Commissioner Abell, Mayor Lloyd Winnecke, and the rest of local government would talk about urban sprawl as vision, growth, walkable, and/or something good for local governments’ budget. It should be self-evident to all residents that here in the real world they’re shutting Evansville down.