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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Will Zappos ruin their culture with "Smart Growth" in downtown Vegas?

*Zappos built a brand around being fun, down to earth, and customer service oriented. 
But have they bought into urban planning concepts that are the direct opposite
 - elitist, manipulative and self-serving?

Zappos is leading the charge with redeveloping downtown Las Vegas. That is a good thing. But  have they have been lead astray by some wishful thinking and some flawed urban planning ideas...ideas so bad, that they may threaten to tarnish the Zappos culture?

Take a look at the Downtown Project's webpage on urban development. There are three things that worry me from this site alone: the reference to A) Triumph of the Urban City B) Richard Florida and their goal of 100 residents per acre.

First, Triumph of the Urban City, by Edward Glaeser, isn't bad. The book does not promote "Smart Growth" (note: calling something "smart" doesn't make it so) and the author tends to not support Smart Growth's more oppressive forms of property regulation/restrictions and subsidies. However, he does agree that getting people out of cars and into public transport is good and the way to do this is by dramatically increasing population density.* This puts him in the same camp as the "Smart Growth" crowd in the urban planning debate.

Randal O'Toole, who thinks Glaeser is an excellent economist, does a great job explaining how Glaeser sees high density living through rose colored glasses. O'Toole uncovers several errors made by Glaeser including a very important point --- urban density is not correlated with public transit use:

Glaeser misses a key insight: it is job density, not population density, that leads to high transit usage. San Jose’s jobs are distributed throughout the urban area, while transit regions like New York have high concentrations of jobs at their core. Yet Glaeser seems to think that increasing population densities alone will reduce auto driving.
In other words, packing people into dense cores doesn't make them ride public transit. If people live in the core and work in the burbs they will drive. Cars have freedom to go anywhere, public transit, especially the overpriced and underutilized rail systems, cannot. According to O'Toole, Glaeser has the theory backwards.

The Zappos move downtown will go a long way in creating a strong urban job core, but downtown will need more opportunities like this, not more residents (or hipster pubs). Remember, jobs, not residents, should be the focus. Pushing the city council to be more open to other non-gaming business opportunities will go along way in achieving this better goal.

*The two red circles represent a 10 mile radius from the southern
 and northernmost portions of The Strip.

Glaeser's theory simply won't work in Las Vegas because the core is a 3 mile long strip, from which 95% of the city lives within 10 miles of this strip. People are already very close to a long thin strip we call...the, um The Strip... which IS the core of Vegas.

Next, Zappos is convinced Richard Florida's theory on attracting high skilled people to the core is the way to develop a strong urban center. Florida wants the wealthiest people, with the highest skills.

Randal O'Toole and Joel Koetkin, however, consider this theory to be somewhat elitist and misguided. It is not the elite that create the opportunity for a vibrant urban core, but a strong core of "middle skill" individuals - many of whom have about 2 years of higher education (and many moderately skilled in technical fields). They call this "Opportunity Urbanism" and find Houston, rather than Manhattan, to be a model city.

Personally, I favor not using government to influence the recruitment of elite or middle skilled people. The government's job is not to favor one class over another. So if Tony Hsieh wants to recruit high skilled people, that is his own money and he should be free to spend it as he pleases. However, if O'Toole and Koetkin are correct, Tony won't achieve the critical mass of "creative people" needed to achieve his goal of a revitalized downtown.

*Relatively few people want to live in Manhattan and fewer
 can actually afford to live there. But this is the goal for the Downtown Project.

Third, the Downtown Project aims for a population density of 100 people per acre. A square mile has 640 acres so that comes to 64,000 people per square mile. That is a population density on par with Manhattan and more than twice the density of New York City (Manhattan is the densest part of NYC). This really depends on how big their "urban core" will be (if your urban core is one mid-rise condo it is achievable, but all of downtown Vegas?), but this goal is most likely unrealistic.

Finally, and what worries me most, are the policies embraced by modern urban planners to achieve their ends. These are people who will (or have already) claw for Tony Hsieh's attention and money in order to put their ideas into practice. But watch out Zappos!

Rather than designing the built environment to meet the needs of the residents, modern urban planners attempt to manipulate the people for the built environment.  This is the antithesis of the Zappos customer service centered philosophy.

Modern urban planners, especially Smart Growthers, would be the equivalent of Zappos employees  forcing every customer to buy a pair of crocodile cowboy boots...


Liking the theories of Glaeser or Florida doesn't make the Zappos Downtown Project "Smart Growth" oriented but the Smart Growthers already have their little wheels turning and may already have the hearts and minds of the Zappos Downtown Project.

Patrick Coolican interviewed several urban planners in a recent edition of the Las Vegas Weekly. In what appears to be a consensus among the planners he writes,

To make walking more popular, we need narrower streets and wider sidewalks for comfort and safety. We need more benches for resting, plus interesting stuff to look at.
Sounds great, but read it again. Think about it for a second.

They think we need narrower streets? This has nothing to do with helping residents or promoting walking and everything to do with making driving inconvenient. Remember, modern urban planning is about manipulating people, not meeting their needs. Narrowing streets means reducing lanes in order to increase traffic.

Other totalitarian-ish strategies include eliminating right and left turning lanes with concrete bump stops. In other words, people who want to make a turn hold up traffic for everyone wanting to go straight. These planners try to create more traffic in order to aggravate and inconvenience drivers out of their cars and into public transit. It doesn't work - people like their cars and the unintended consequence is only more traffic congestion and pollution.

*Curb extensions - reduce lanes and prevent people from making turns 
without stopping all traffic behind them.

*Boulevarding - reduces 4 lanes down to 2, with a part-time middle lane for turns only.

*There is no reason for this...unless you want to increase congestion

*Now the planners are just insulting you...

By the way, these planners have the most Orwellian name for this policy. It is called "Traffic Calming." Yes, increasing traffic congestion is supposed to calm drivers. Give me a break.

This post could go on forever ripping into the the land use policies (restricting property owners from developing their properties how they want) favored by the Smart Growth urban planners. Some policies are so bad they prevent landowners from improving their own home property unless the improvement is a high density apartment in the backyard. I won't go into more detail now; there are other good articles on "Smart Growth" you can read for that: here, here, and here to start.

Don't get me wrong, I love Zappos and the Zappos culture. I also love other things about the Downtown Project like "/usr/lib/" (a co-working library downtown - I am a paying member). I even had a big shopping spree at Zappos for Christmas.  I just think Zappos has bought into some misguided ideas and I hope they change their mind.

*Updated Note: There is nothing wrong with wanting people to ride bikes, walk, or ride public transit. The problem stems from the manipulation of human behavior to achieve those ends, i.e. forcing or otherwise inconveniencing people from taking their preferred method of transportation (auto) in order for them to take YOUR preferred method of transportation. Good urban planning should be organic - that is, serving the needs of the people, not the planners.

(PS, Vegas needs a bypass and more highway capacity, not urban light rail or moderate-speed rail to Victorville, CA).