The rolling rock of central planning

The rolling rock of central planning

Pittsburgh plays a central role in John C. Teaford’s instructive 1990 book “The Rough Road to Renaissance: Urban Revitalization in America, 1940-1985.”

And its succinct, if not prescient, conclusion comes to mind as the wraps were taken off last week on the long-delayed and long-awaited redevelopment of the Lower Hill District’s 28-acre tract that once hosted the Civic Arena (itself a child of the bulldozing part of the Steel City’s “renaissance” that bowed nearly 80 years ago.)

As the Post-Gazette reported it last week, principals of the Pittsburgh Penguins — handed development rights to the old Igloo site after strong-arming government types for public dollars from a plethora of sources to build a new arena – came up with their grand vision after deciding to “do something great.”

Ah, the badly worn moniker of the central planner, eh?

After a number of false starts, the venerable National Hockey League franchise has announced a mixed-used development that includes interspersed housing, retail, office, restaurant and entertainment components.

As one Penguins official boldly proclaimed, “We think this development will be the center of energy for the region.”

Silly us, we thought that’s what the centrally planned North Shore was supposed to be. Or the now-being rejiggered western South Side. Or any insert-name-here centrally planned development that has come down the pike over and over again.

Of course, this will all be different, we are assured. For this will be, as another principal of the project touted it in a radio interview, an “organic mixture.”

Ooooohhhhhh.

Sorry, but the Lower Hill plan hardly represents anything “organic,” a la the eastern South Side (excluding the centrally planned Southside Works), the Strip District or, say, Bloomfield.

Instead, it merely represents the latest in a long line of heavily artificially fertilized central planning, fertilized even more by hefty doses of media-generated rah-rah-sis-boom-bahing, replete with repeated “Wows” and “Gees” but woefully little in the way of the necessary point-of-order reviews.

In short, critical thinking always tends to go on holiday when these things are announced.

And how ironic that is, considering the biggest rap against the bulldozing of the Lower Hill decades ago was how that was a central plan. But, of course, defenders balk at the comparison as being apples to oranges; this time, they proclaim, all “stakeholders” were consulted and each special interest was assuaged.

But it’s still a central plan that, by central planning’s very nature, seldom is successful. That’s because central planners steadfastly believe they know better than what truly is “organic” – the marketplace.

A truly “organic” Lower Hill redevelopment would have involved selling smaller tracts of land to the highest private bidders, not the politically connected who perpetually feed at the public trough.

It would have involved allowing neighborhood development to take its natural course to meet the natural demands of those who choose to patronize and/or live in the district.

It would have been allowed to develop naturally, i.e., “organically.”

Back to that conclusion of the Teaford book mentioned at the outset.

He notes that when it comes to urban planners, there’s always “a ready market for urban panaceas.” And, no matter the degree of past success — or predictable failure, it must be added – or multiple decades of planning and implementation, “the concept of renaissance still (charms) policymakers ready to continue the journey along the road toward that elusive goal.”

Past being prologue for central planners believing they can command the marketplace, it’s difficult to think this latest touted panacea to end all needs for panaceas will be any different.

Sad to say, central planners are much like Sisyphus, in Greek mythology the crowing and lying king of ancient Ephyra, who was punished for his haughtiness by being forced to roll a giant boulder uphill.

Of course, that boulder perpetually rolls back down that hill. But, and for eternity, Sisyphus is forced to keep attempting to crest the hill.

Think of that boulder as a metaphor for the marketplace – a marketplace that central planners perpetually fail to understand and a marketplace that, by its very nature, will ignore the planners’ commands by rolling back over them.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).