Building the Playground Without Evidence of Children

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A pair of Zachary Malinowski articles recently published in the Providence Journal describe what sounds like the pitch for a light after-primetime drama: a group of twenty somethings bring the City of Central Falls back to life… and finds love along the way.

It’s got an interesting plot, but taxpayers should approach it with some  broader (and more financial) questions than just the compelling narrative that it creates.

[Stephen] Larrick, the city’s planning and economic development officer, enthusiastically embraces the challenges facing the state’s smallest city.

He has big plans for a major transit stop, riverfront development, an urban campground and creating a portion of the bike path that connects Providence to Worcester, Mass.

Larrick is 23 years old and recently graduated from Brown with an undergraduate degree in urban studies and political philosophy.  He joins the 27-year-old mayor James Diossa, 24-year-old City Council member Steven Corrales, and 37-year-old mayoral chief of staff Sonia Grace in what is in some regards a sort of sociology project. “I just started working on the projects that interested me,” Larrick told Malinowski.

Presumably, the hopes and dreams of the people who live in the city (or who heavily subsidize it through state aid) will naturally align with his interests.

Drawing in outside grants, ultimately funded through state and federal tax dollars, the plan consists of a train stop, some “gentrified” apartments in old mill buildings, a walkable main street area, “historic” bridge lighting, a bike-path connector, and a canoe-and-kayaking launch, potentially with “a craft brew pub” and a bike shop.  (By “potentially,” I mean in the vision of the planner, without implying that any investors have expressed interest.)

That last component is telling.  The building that would anchor the kayak launch and shops was sold to a developer by the corrupt, now-imprisoned former mayor Charles Moreau for $200,000.  Four years later, Rhode Island taxpayers, through the state Department of Environmental Management, bought it back for $293,000 and essentially donated it back to the city.

The second article describes an island in the city that would be promoted as an “urban campground” for scouting troops and potentially providing programs for “at-risk youth.”

This all sounds great, and anybody tasked with sitting down and sketching out a plan for an ideal city might be inclined to come up with something similar, but that’s just the problem: it’s a sketch.

The demographics of Central Falls gain its leaders access to government funding that wouldn’t be available to other communities.  And public dollars might transform some areas of Central Falls into a beautiful space, like the water-fire area of Providence, but at least per this article, there’s no indication that masses of camping kayakers are just chomping at the bit to take the commuter rail to Central Falls for a weekend of drifting along the river and getting a mild buzz on craft brews before buying a new bike to head home.

And even if there were, are there enough of them (and are their activities profitable enough) to make the public’s investment worthwhile? If not, who’ll pay to keep the area up and beautiful?

In the meantime, how many small businesses and other investments premised on the interests of the people who’ll actually operate them and evidence of existing demand won’t get off the ground because the government withdrew money from the economy, distorted land values with its purchases, and implemented zoning rules to advance a young man’s specific development vision?



  • Dan

    This is the central planner fallacy in plain view: all problems, even deep-rooted cultural or economic problems, are viewed as a simple matter of tinkering with public policy, building the right infrastructure, and drumming up aid to rebuild society from the top down. It's well intentioned but incredibly naive.

    Progressive-types view tenement buildings as the product of "slum lords" – greedy landowners unwilling to maintain the property and treat residents with dignity. The inconvenient reality is that when landowners do attempt improvements, the property is immediately returned to its prior state by the residents themselves. Replaced lightbulbs are stolen within 24 hours. Holes are punched in newly plastered walls. Cooking grease and smoke coat the kitchens, turning white paint yellow and brown. Rotting food attracts cockroaches, rats, and other vermin.

    Like Rhode Island on the boarder scale, until Central Falls addresses its more fundamental economic and cultural problems, all of these neat superficial improvements will be just another exercise in wallpapering over mold.

  • Mike678

    Good points, Dan–many with rose-colored glasses confuse cause and effect. i am less sure, however, thatthe planners are thinking of the current CF population. Adding a train stop, improving the buildings and services will attract more affluent, upwardly mobile people. Prices will rise, and the current population will slowly be forced out. It has happened in many cities. It is one way…perhaps he oly way…of reinvigorating the tax paying base.

  • Dan

    Mike – The world would be an easier place if chronic economic problems could be solved by throwing more public money at them and building more infrastructure. The fatal conceit in this case is misplaced confidence that the central planners know which buildings to build and which services to subsidize to attract businesses and the "right" kind of people. 38 Studios was a sure thing to bring jobs and high-income software developers to Providence. All the planning experts in the EDC were in agreement, with young tech-savvy progressives cheering them along from the sidelines. We saw what a disaster that turned out to be.

    Central planning is fundamentally fragile, like economies that suffer from the "resource curse." The fundamental problems of Rhode Island aren't lack of funding and infrastructure. They are central economic planning, dependency loops, and a need to rebuild the political culture from the ground up through good government protections.

  • Mike678

    Dan,

    So, do nothing? How would you suggest we help solve the sore that is CF?

  • John

    Dan:

    I'm intrigued too! How does one clear out the economic ghetto created by a state and federal government through their entitlement programs and constitutional protections? Without the low cost housing that gets destroyed in each cycle, these "citizens" will be forced to leave. If they leave we can tear down their housing? Oh no, it's privately owned so the owner will fix it up again and collect the subsidized rent for as long as he can.

    How do the leaders of the unwashed masses get rid of those who suck your wealth from you? I really want to know.

  • Dan

    Instead of gambling on speculative projects and investments through central planning, the city should:
    a) Reform entitlements to reverse the city's status as a magnet for illegal immigration and welfare dependents
    b) Allow charter school experimentation
    c) Enact good-government protections and transparency requirements
    d) Offer competitive across-the-board tax rates (not tax credits)
    d) Crack down on quality-of-life crimes (graffiti, vandalism, public intoxication)

    Rhode Island and its city of Central Falls are trying to catapult themselves to success through gimmicks when they can't even do the basic stuff right. A strong foundation of efficiency, proper incentives, and good government have to be built before real economic growth is possible. There are no shortcuts in life.

  • Dan

    Note: While some of these are things the city could do immediately, some of the problems are statewide problems that are simply magnified in Central Falls. Cooperation with the state government would undoubtedly be necessary to undo the full damage of bad policy.

  • mangeek

    "there’s no indication that masses of camping kayakers are just chomping at the bit to take the commuter rail to Central Falls for a weekend of drifting along the river and getting a mild buzz on craft brews before buying a new bike to head home."

    I used to live on the Blackstone in Pawtucket, right downriver from CF, and I'd guess that I'm one of maybe a half-dozen people who that sounds like a perfect weekend to. :-)

    Otherwise, I tend to agree. All this stuff is a distraction from the core issues.

  • Monique

    "and a canoe-and-kayaking launch"

    Feasibility study for all of this, please. 'Cause when I go canoeing, the first location I think of as a launch point is Central Falls.

  • Warrington Faust

    I have noticed a recurrent problem in "rebuilding" cities which have no budget of their own. The "redevelopment" relies on "grants". So, plans are slanted toward what sort of "grant money" is available, rather than actual needs. I am thinking that the proposed train station is probably aimed at currently available grant money. Both the train station and the bike path are probably eligible for funding under the Intermodal Transportation Act. "City Planners" are rated by the amount of grant money they can attract. It is entirely normal that their thinking should progress in that direction. This is now the norm.

    Some years ago I signed up for a series of seminars at Harvard concerning low cost housing. The synopsis suggested discussions on new methods and materials. Initially, the "class" was largely pragmatic types, builders and developers. It was immediately obvious the theme was "costs be da-ned, we're here to show you how to obtain "Federal assistance". After the first session, the class halved itself. I don't think that would be the case today. Now, it is the norm.

  • Warrington Faust

    “a craft brew pub”

    I wonder if this now qualifies as a meme. It is difficult to find a redevelopment plan for a small city ,with riverfront, that does not include a “a craft brew pub” (it seems we have become a nation of "beer tasters"). I think it has to be included to show that you are up on current thinking. I am reminded of a loan officer speaking to developers "If you don't list under "assets' $15,000 in oriental rugs, no one will take you seriously". He also pointed out that if you get in trouble, you should never go back to the original lender. That is probably true of those in charge of grants. They may begin rethinking their entire commitment to the project.

  • mangeek

    "It is difficult to find a redevelopment plan for a small city ,with riverfront, that does not include a 'a craft brew pub'"

    I just got back from Colorado, where they have looser two-tier liquor laws instead of our strict three-tier system. It was great to see people of all walks gathering at brewpubs all over town, with their families, to grab a drink (not always alcoholic) and food.

    Rhode Island definitely missed out on that trend, it could have been huge here if we were willing to go back to the drawing board with our ancient liquor laws.

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