Flickr/ dsearls

Why Prudential thought it could save America's downtowns through its own decentralization.

During one of the darker periods of the American downtown, a Newark-based insurance company thought its own decentralization could be the answer.

Prudential, offering life insurance to Americans since the 1870s, wanted to insure the stability of the American city against the rise of suburbanization by establishing regional home offices (RHOs) around the country. The thought was, if an insurance company believes in a downtown, other companies will feel equally assured.

After generations as an exclusively downtown Newark institution, the 1940s and '50s saw Prudential plan and build new RHOs in Boston, Chicago, Houston, Jacksonville, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Toronto. 

Elihu Rubin's Insuring the City: The Prudential Center and the Postwar Urban Landscape looks back at this unique period in the company's history. Rubin goes into great detail to show just how Prudential saw itself in the context of the American city and how it went about building its new offices.

Prudential executives saw new skyscrapers with their name along the top of each one as a branding opportunity. By building their new RHOs, the company also hoped to stabilize and even establish each city's commercial real estate climate. The strategy gave Chicago and Boston those cities' first new downtown skyscrapers in decades. It temporarily gave Jacksonville its tallest building (Aetna Insurance now occupies the building, but it is still accessed via Prudential Drive). And it foresaw emerging growth in Los Angeles and Houston, building a retail-oriented facility on L.A.'s Wilshire Boulevard and a tower in what would end up as Houston's expansive medical campus (that building was demolished for a new medical building earlier this year).

Prudential's interest in helping cities while helping itself emerged at the same time urban mayors, traditionally Democrats who were more than willing to fight against industry, became more interested in fostering partnerships with Republican business leaders to help fix the central business district.

In Boston, Prudential's declared interest in establishing a massive urban campus to build over a blighted railyard was seen as a godsend by many, something politicians couldn't afford to be seen as opposed to. This changing political climate led to an agreement that had the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority own the land Prudential would build on, selling the air rights to Prudential, which would sign on to the project as a limited dividend corporation. That's something Rubin sees as a fair compromise between a company and a city. "It took Prudential a while to make maximum profit on the project," he says. "That created a sort of balance that you rarely see companies agreeing to today."

What resulted in Boston helped foster the beginning of public-private partnerships in urban development, eventually evolving into the modern era of cities fighting each other over private sector growth via incentives. "Prudential was aware of its importance to Boston and was not willing to go forward until they had their requirements met," says Rubin. "Since then, and it's especially true today, public officials believe that it's worth alleviating a company's tax burden. Because if we don't, then the city and region lose."

The Pandora's box of sorts that came from Prudential's Boston venture has led to less benevolent forms of public-private partnerships becoming the norm. Rubin sees an evolution in these kinds of agreements that don't hold up to the more noble, albeit naive, vision of Prudential; "companies are now so disengaged with the cities they're in. There's something antique about what Prudential was doing, saying they were going to build their 'Rock of Gibraltars' across urban America."

Below, the end results of Prudential's decentralization:

Top image: Boston's Prudential Building, completed in 1964. Image courtesy Flickr user dsearls

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