Exactly two things wrong with Cleveland

I’ve lived here going on 32 years and I’m finally figuring out some things that should have been obvious much sooner.

Real Estate is a Cost, not a Solution

Cleveland insists on doing “economic development” backwards. We put boatloads of money and effort (and displacement) into large and small construction projects that are supposed to “drive development.” That is not how economics works. If you’re classically trained, you read Ricardo, Malthus, and George; they say “the rent of land is not at all proportioned to what the landlord may have laid out, but to what the tenant can afford.”

The point is that real estate is an extractive endeavor, not a productive one. When you put buildings first, the developers get all the money. Period. This is why we are still poor.

Misapplied technocracy

Cleveland is always looking for a controversy-free technocratic way of avoiding the most glaring political and social problems. We can have a thousand slideshows on why (let’s just say) an express bus to Solon is a good thing, but nobody wants to address the fact that Solon is designed to be inaccessible because people there wanted it that way. Tweak it all you want and they’ll tweak back, faster and more cheaply.

Same goes for nonsense like the Corruption Corridor, which got sold on technocratic grounds but is a social and economic nightmare. Ditto things like the timing of traffic signals on the Health Line (because we don’t dare inconvenience car drivers) and our pathetic implementation of bike lanes (same). These all went badly because the decision makers blew off all equity concerns and did what was easiest.

It’s really simple.

When you use planning jargon to avoid making political decisions like “is segregation okay?” and “are poor people mere obstacles?” and “who benefits from this new highway?” you are enabling the worst possible decisions.

Summary, two main points.

  1. If your “economic development” program has a lot of land transactions and construction in it, you’re working for the real estate people, not the public.
  2. If your “regional planning” doesn’t start by addressing equity and political concerns, you will create a dysfunctional mess that (among other things) puts all the jobs where nobody can get to them.

Most of our political leaders simply don’t understand these two things. They get ahead by being friends with everyone and not offending people with power, but nothing about this system cultivates problem solving. So we get politicians who are cuddly but not big thinkers.

Additionally: The Community Development Corporations (CDCs) don’t have much influence over Point 2, but they’re a big part of the Point 1 problem. They have an incentive to do land deals because a) they get paid to do land deals; and b) it’s kind of hard to justify the “development” part of the job if you start saying no to real estate people.

Edited to add…

I just read Jason Segedy’s analysis titled “Today is Yesterday’s Tomorrow,” which is almost the exact opposite of what I’ve written here and perfectly complementary. I’m saying the political system is such a disaster that our own leadership is causing decay; Jason’s saying that urban decay is endemic to a sprawling society.

I think we’re both right. Cities like Cleveland are up against national trends that outrageously favor outer suburbs, and the political culture here promotes a stupid, counterproductive approach to resisting those trends.

Notably, real estate developers are the bad guys both in my analysis and in Jason’s. I’m going out on a limb and suggesting that maybe real estate itself is the problem.

Rule of thumb

When encountering any article or publication or statement about Cleveland’s “renaissance” or “recovery” or “comeback,” you must mentally eliminate any and all claims based on entertainment venues or any kind of real estate development. Those are trailing indicators; they don’t build anything.

Examples