The vacant Home Depot building on Macon’s Eisenhower Parkway, looking like a Mondrian painting. (Photo: Jackson Dillard, Center for Collaborative Journalism)

The Slug’s Progress:

Commercial blight, growth addiction, and the future of Macon, Georgia (and thousands of cities exactly like it)

This is the prepared text of a paper that I delivered in April, 2015 to Macon’s second Palaver Club, which I joined a year before as its youngest member. I am publishing it now, two years later, apropos of news that Macon’s Target store on Eisenhower Parkway is closing.

I expect all of you gentlemen remember quite vividly the phase of life I am experiencing now. Having achieved, after much struggle, a measure of success that makes a prosperous future for myself appear finally more likely than not, the anxieties that nibble constantly at the edges of my mind increasingly have less to do with my own wellbeing and more with that of others. Particularly, my baby son.

I think of the huge challenges that Freddie’s world will face:

— International and domestic social instability caused be the ever greater concentration of wealth in the hands of a new global nobility

— Resource scarcity, from water to oil to land to the rare earth minerals that make so many of our technologies work

— The exploding cost of healthcare

— The exploding cost of education

— In many places, the exploding cost of housing

— Environmental degradation, mass extinctions

— Climate change, the mother of all problems

I see a common thread in all of these that will make Freddie’s world harder, more dangerous, less beautiful and less just than it could be: All stem from our society’s addiction to growth. And when I say, “Our society,” I refer to the global First World, though of course there is great diversity within that category, and of course there are growth addictions in the Third World as well. These are caveats I will not have time to explore in my talk (unless they’re late getting us the check again).

Addiction may be too strong a word to use, at least when it comes to some facets of growth. According to the Census Bureau, the average size of a new home built in the U.S. when I was Freddie’s age was 1,725 square feet. In 2013, the most recent figure available, it was 2,598 square feet. That’s insane; that’s even bigger than it was at the peak of the housing bubble. It’s a 50 percent increase in new home sizes, just in my lifetime thus far.

How many of you gentlemen had to share a room with a sibling when you were young?

Now, how many of you have grandchildren who are sharing a room?

Let’s remember also that the average U.S. household when most of you were boys was about 3.5 people. Now it’s 2.5, yet for some reason the houses are 50 percent bigger.

While I’m sure many of you wish you hadn’t had to share a room, I think we can all agree there’s no essential reason why houses should be getting so huge. We don’t need the space. It’s an indulgence. And while one can certainly become accustomed to an indulgence, one does not become addicted to it. You become addicted to dependencies.

And First World society is dependent on population growth. Witness the case of Japan. So much of the futurism and science fiction from my childhood in the 1980s and 90s predicted a 21st century in which the U.S. and Japan competed for global hegemony, and while Japan remains the world’s third-largest economy (a very distant third after the U.S. and China), it is amusing to me how wrong those predictions turned out to be. Japan has stagnated for a quarter century, and things are about to get a lot worse there. Why? Population decline.

Japan is an island nation where many people are packed like sardines. According to one real estate firm I found online, the average apartment size in Tokyo is 187 square feet. That’s smaller than the average parking space in the U.S. Therefore, you might think that a little slow and steady population decline might be a good thing for Japan. And long term, I still suspect that it may be.

But short term, that decline is having terrible consequences, because the economic and social systems of any developed nation are predicated on having a certain ratio of young people to old people, working people to retired people, net producers to net consumers. In the coming decades, Japan will simply not have enough workers to support its aging pensioners.

The U.S., with it’s birth rate of just 1.88 babies per woman, would be in a similar pickle right now were it not for immigration—the unjustly maligned saving grace of our economy.

So whether it’s indulgence or dependency, we’re obsessed with growth. Companies that don’t report increased earnings every quarter see their stock prices dive. Economists talk about two consecutive quarters with the same per capita GDP as being tantamount to recession. Holding steady isn’t good enough, for some reason.

And then there are cities. And when I say cities, I don’t mean arbitrary political boundaries; I mean amalgamations of contiguous or nearly contiguous developed land. The Census Bureau defines them as “densely populated areas with at least 2,500” people. Using this definition in 2007, the USDA calculated that 61 million acres of the country are urbanized. That is more than a four-fold increase since the end of WWII, when the ubiquity of the automobile forever changed the way we plan and inhabit cities.

And you can’t blame that whole increase on population growth; the nation’s developed acreage has grown at about twice the rate of population. We’re all just taking up twice the space as we did in 1945.

You’ll recall I first visited this august body a little over a year ago as guest of Giles [O’Neal]. Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism, where I teach, was embarking on a reporting project about urban blight in Macon, and Giles asked me to engage you all in a discussion of the topic. Our reporting was then published in The Telegraph last fall. We pointed to a number of specific problems, many of them legal in nature:

— The lack of a practical legal framework for code enforcement, to make sure that people keep their properties in a certain, minimal state of repair

— The unbelievably arduous legal process involved when the city, or anyone else, wants to take possession of an apparently abandoned property

— The legal loophole known “zombie foreclosure,” in which homeowners default on their mortgage, walk away from the property, but then the bank conveniently doesn’t take legal possession of the property until the last possible second, thus avoiding any obligation to keep it in good condition during the interim, which can be years (or forever)

But the big picture that I hope our reporting painted is that Macon now simply has too few people inhabiting too many developed acres. In medieval agrarian-speak, our land is insufficiently manned. We don’t have the people or the money to effectively care for every inch of the sprawling city we have built.

The most common critique I saw of our reporting reasoned that blight is a mere proxy issue. The real problem, these critics said, is economic and population stagnation. Indeed, but this is where we get back to the topic of this paper: growth addiction.

Cities have evolving needs. They should be able to grow, shrink and adapt to accommodate whatever population needs to live there at any given time.

Of course, an addict never really has to deal with his problem until his fix runs out. Likewise, cities don’t have to deal with the worst consequences of bad urban planning until the population spigot turns off. If your city keeps sprawling outward, and there are people moving in to fill that space, you’ll have terrible commute times but at least your land will be fully manned. But when the people stop coming, and the sprawl keeps going… You get what we have here in Macon today.

Economic and population growth are wonderful at papering over all kinds of problems, but perpetual growth is definitionally unsustainable. Sooner or later, the problems will catch up to you.

I should acknowledge here that sprawl is a problem almost everywhere in the U.S., but I think we have a particularly aggressive brand of it here in the South, where it has been driven by hysterical white flight and enabled by highly permissive land use policy.

Our blight series in the fall focused largely on residential blight — abandoned houses. With our students, we’ve recently completed a supplemental package of reporting on commercial blight — empty shopping centers. These stories will run in The Telegraph toward the end of the month. And it’s a story that I have found altogether more disturbing.

Many of you may know Larry Crumbley, a commercial realtor at Fickling & Company. I gather that his fellow Middle Georgia realtors regard him as the local real estate data guru. At my request, Larry did some market analysis and determined that more than 20 percent of Macon’s suburban retail square footage — that’s everything outside of the downtown core — is vacant. That’s about twice the national average for suburban retail vacancy.

The Eisenhower Corridor, once the beating heart of Middle Georgia retail, is about 30 percent vacant, and that’s not even counting some properties that — in Larry’s opinion — will never be used as retail space again, like the old Westgate Shopping Center.

Now, it would be one thing if these stores on Eisenhower just closed down. But in the case of Wal-Mart, and in the case of Home Depot, they didn’t close; they literally just picked up and moved further down the road, leaving massive, hulking shells behind, surrounded by acres of empty blacktop. New development cannibalized the old. Think of all the stores that decamped from Eisenhower for the Shoppes at River Crossing, Pier 1 being the most recent example; it’s still happening.

Even as Macon-Bibb’s population and economy have flat-lined, developers have built vast stretches of new strip retail in what was previously farmland or open space. Our mayor, the honorable Robert Reichert, has been an enthusiastic supporter of many so-called greenfield developments and has placed people on the Planning & Zoning Commission who cast votes to make the projects possible. But even Mayor Reichert, in a recent interview with me, conceded, “You need to grow the population in order to support additional or new commercial activity. Otherwise,” he said, “you’re just shifting it around in the community.”

Just shifting it around the community. That makes it sound so much more benign than it is. Commercial developers have been dashing around this city and county for the last half-century, chasing affluence. First the upper-income people move a little further out from town, then come the strip mall developers to sell them stuff. Then the wealthy people move even further out, and then the retail chases after them again. Because we don’t have enough newcomers in Macon to fill the empty space that gets left behind, strip retail has moved like a slug across the landscape, leaving a trail of slime behind it. Developers and retailers have no doubt reaped big profits while we have been left with the aesthetic and economic expense of their detritus.

The slug’s progress could have been halted at many turns by our local politicians and planning authority. This being the South, and the South having a generally laissez-faire attitude toward governmental regulation, you might say that people should have the right to build what they want to build on property they acquire. But we all have a significant public interest in restraining unnecessary commercial sprawl. Our taxes pay for the roads and sewer lines that lead to these new developments, and our taxes pay for the police who have to patrol the vacant wastelands those developments create elsewhere that become hotbeds for crime. Who knows, our taxes may eventually pay to demolish those old buildings after the companies or shell-companies that owned them go belly-up. Certainly, all of those depressing, vacant frontages make it harder to attract new business to the city. Several commercial realtors told us just that.

Mayor Reichert, to his credit, displayed great intellectual honesty when talking to me on this subject. He acknowledged the downsides of sprawl, but he said that if local government starts saying “no” to greenfield development, then it is likely to go to another community entirely. He may be right. I’m just not so sure that would be a bad thing.

“A city is like a tree,” the mayor said. “If it isn’t growing, it’s dying.” The key, he said, is to pursue “sustainable” growth.

But this is where his argument breaks down. Perpetual growth is, by definition, unsustainable within a closed system—whether it’s a city, a nation, or a round, blue spaceship hurdling through the icy black void. It is a lie we tell ourselves because it always feels good in the short term.

Instead of perpetual growth, we should strive for perpetual improvement.

Maybe the U.S., as the richest country in the world, doesn’t need to be constantly growing its per capita GDP every quarter; maybe instead we need to ensure that the copious fruits of our national labor are distributed more equitably. Regardless of your ideological feelings on wealth redistribution, history indicates to me that if we don’t do it, the proletariat will one day storm the Bastille.

Maybe in Macon we need to be doing a better job promoting infill development instead of greenfield development—making the best of the city we already have before we go off and build more of it.

So how do we do that? Well, there’s a bunch of policy stuff I could spout about smart urban planning; in fact, the non-profit Smart Growth America will be visiting Macon later this year to do some seminars with local officials, at the mayor’s request. That’s good. We need local leaders with the knowledge, courage and foresight to say “no” to counterproductive development. We need leaders who can articulate this counterintuitive truth to the voters: Not all economic growth results in net, long-term economic growth—which is the thing we actually want.

But I think so much of the solution here lies with individual choices. It is ironic to me that many of the people who have decried Macon’s sprawl and blight problems, some of them commenting on our stories at Macon.com, have been people who I happen to know live in McMansions off Bass Road.

Instead of doing what so many other people are doing these days and reinvesting in our beautiful and historic urban core, these hypocrites have situated themselves on the leading edge of northward flight, perpetuating the decades-long cycle that got us in this mess to begin with.

We must concentrate our population. The millions of dollars our local government is spending knocking down a blighted house here and a blighted house there is, I fear, a futile exercise. [Former Macon Mayor C.] Jack Ellis, though he has been wrong about many things, was right when he said we need to think about wiping entire outlying neighborhoods off the map.

How we do that is a different, very complicated topic that I’ve thought a lot about. Basically, we need an inclusive community planning process so we can together determine which neighborhoods have a future and which neighborhoods don’t, and then we need to craft end-of-life plans for the latter. Detroit offers some both good and bad examples of how to decommission neighborhoods; thank god we don’t have to do it on anywhere close to the same scale.

The critical mass of reinvestment in downtown Macon is a wonderful thing, long overdue. But it’s not good to have a prosperous center, prosperous outer suburbs, and in between a fat donut of desolation.

I’ll tell you, when I first moved to Macon coming on three years ago, I was aghast by the width of the asteroid belt of semi-inhabited sprawl that surrounds the jewel of a city in the middle. I’d lived in a city of comparable size a few years earlier—Bloomington, Indiana—where on weekends I would get on my racing bike at my apartment downtown and in 10 minutes be out of the city and riding through endless vistas of corn and soy and hedgerows and barns. I miss that in Macon; it’s one of the worst parts of living here, and if I leave one day, it will be one of the reasons why.

As unsexy as it is, advocates for a brighter, better, more beautiful, more livable Macon need to gradually turn their attention away from downtown and toward our inner-ring suburbs. Downtown is going to be OK now, fingers crossed. Habitat for Humanity, an angel of an organization, the entity best-suited to fix residential blight, has — I fear — been spinning its wheels in Lynmore Estates for the last decade. They’ve done amazing work there, but I’m not sure that neighborhood, tucked away on the fringe of the city, really has a future.

Habitat needs to go to work in Pleasant Hill, Tindall Heights, or the area around Central High School — places with lovely, historic housing stock that are walkable to major employment centers. This is a major problem in cities across the country — we are pushing our poor out of urban centers and into automotive suburbs where they are literally stranded. People who can’t afford cars are stranded in these neighborhoods with no reliable way to get to a job, to social services, or to any other means of advancement. Low-income housing needs to be in walkable communities, which is why Habitat needs to get out of the Peach Orchard.

And our Habitat chapter needs to get the support it deserves. As I reported last fall, Valdosta’s Habitat has an annual budget three times the size of ours, despite the fact that it serves a smaller city.

Our zoning code needs to be updated to coax developers into fixing up or replacing the shopping centers we already have in the inner ring. Yes, crime is an issue, but with new life, new economic activity, comes a different element. I personally think we need restrictive measures that bar most forms of greenfield development, though I recognize that’s probably a political nonstarter in this town. There are certainly many positive incentives that can be offered to developers to do infill instead, from tax credits to higher density allowances.

Perpetual improvement, not perpetual growth, is the answer. And until we change that fundamental mindset, we will only be digging holes that our children, or our children’s children, will have to climb out of.