Debating the Root Causes of Zombie Infrastructure

A vacant Michigan strip mall becomes a symbol in a Congressional primary race, but it's really part of a much broader problem.

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The other day, I came upon a YouTube clip that in just a couple of minutes sums up so much of what is broken about America. It comes from the Michigan congressional campaign of Kerry Bentivolio. He’s a teacher, veteran, and reindeer herder (you read that right) who has unexpectedly become a contender in the race to represent the majority Republican 11th district, which includes some of Detroit’s wealthier suburbs.

Bentivolio would likely have been an asterisk in the campaign if the incumbent, Republican Thaddeus McCotter, hadn’t managed to totally fumble the signature-gathering process and fail to get his name on the Republican primary ballot. Now Bentivolio, who has won support from libertarians and tea partiers, is the only name primary voters will see when they get into the booth on August 7.

Let's go to the videotape. It shows Bentivolio standing in the enormous parking lot of a vacant strip mall, traffic whizzing by in the background. It’s a bleak scene, but Bentivolio’s take on it is what makes the whole thing so amazing. Here’s what he says:

I’m at a beautiful, beautiful strip mall in Oakland County. It’s one of the most beautiful strip malls I’ve seen. I like it. It’s got character. I like to call it Neoclassical, but I’m not an architect.

Since I came home from Iraq in 2008, this beautiful strip mall has been vacant. It’s a shame. Look at the detail. It says something. It says, “Shop here.” And there are thousands of cars that pass here every day.

The camera pans over the façade of the place, which looks essentially like every strip mall that’s been built in the last 20 years, with a bit of brick detail relieving the blank stucco walls. Bentivolio goes on to extol the skilled craftsmen who built the place.

Beauty, in this case, is in the eye of the beholder. I immediately thought of another vacant piece of infrastructure in the Detroit area, the magnificent Beaux Arts Michigan Central Station. In just 100 years, this is what has happened to our standards of good public architecture and craftsmanship. It would be funny if it weren’t so depressing.

Then Bentivolio gets to what he sees as the heart of the problem:

[In the 11th District] you see vacant properties everywhere you look. This is the product of an economy that is manipulated, controlled, and over-regulated by the federal government.

The problem with Bentivolio’s analysis is that this strip mall, and the sprawling infrastructure that supports it, would never have been built if it weren’t for federal and state economic incentives that encourage precisely this kind of development: heavily subsidized roads, mortgage tax credits, tax breaks for developers.

I turned to one of the smartest people I know, Charles Marohn of Strong Towns, for some insight. Marohn has written extensively about what he calls the “Ponzi scheme” of suburban sprawl development. He’s also a conservative Republican. Here’s what he wrote to me after watching Bentivolio’s video:

I'll start where he ends -- his conclusion that this is the byproduct of an economy that is manipulated, controlled and over regulated by the federal government. On this we TOTALLY agree.

Here's where we diverge. I'm assuming that he believes the regulations and manipulation are over-taxation, environmental regulations, etc... He seems to suggest that this is a perfectly designed and constructed place that has all the ingredients for success and should be doing fine if people had jobs and could afford to stop there and spend money.

He misunderstands the problem. The federal government has manipulated the market, but they have done so in order to produce strip malls just like this. From the myriad of subsidies for the auto-oriented development pattern to favorable laws and selective enforcement of the finance sector and many, many things in between, the federal government has promulgated this outcome: a nation of consumers and strip malls, the former of which are too broke and over-indebted to continue to support the latter. 

In a real, market economy that lacked federal government manipulation, that strip mall would not be there. Those "craftsmen" he refers to, which are unfortunately just commodity workers doing commodity development, would be doing something else. Perhaps they would actually be real craftsmen and add extra value to a building, not just pump out monotonous boxes with faux-fronts (which are so ubiquitous now that they too have become commodities).

Here's the catch. If this guy went to Washington D.C. and helped repeal ALL of the laws having to deal with growth, development, home ownership, energy and transportation, it would create a lot of change, a lot of chaos and an entirely new national paradigm, but the end result would be a net positive for most cities. The world would look a lot different than this guy perhaps imagines it would -- for starters, this strip mall would be stripped for usable parts and then left to rot -- but in addition to having less outside pressure and control, our cities would also be more energy efficient, more compact, have less environmental impact and look a lot more like the cities we built prior to the Suburban Experiment.

For generations, government policies have been geared toward creating endless landscapes of strip malls like the one Bentivolio looks at with such fondness. In the process we have gutted our traditional downtowns. We have eaten up farmland and forest. We have, as Nate Berg reported this week, endangered the lives of our senior citizens. We have engineered a world where children cannot walk or bike to school without risking their lives. We have created countless places devoid of any real social value.

Watching Bentivolio stand in that parking lot, mourning this vacant strip mall, just made me sad. Is bringing this zombie infrastructure back to life really the best that we can imagine?

Photo credit: Greg Henry /Shutterstock

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.