Supersize Your Development

Intersection of Plainfield Street and Hartford Avenue in Olneyville Square circa 1914. (Coppermine Photo Gallery)

Intersection of Plainfield Street and Hartford Avenue in Olneyville Square circa 1914. (Coppermine Photo Gallery)

What does a planned Olneyville McDonald’s and Family Dollar say about Providence’s land-use policies?

By JAMES KENNEDY/ecoRI News contributor

PROVIDENCE — Before the construction of Routes 6 and 10 tore through the center of Olneyville, there was a time when the square was referred to as “Second Downtown” — a place that West Side and Federal Hill residents would walk to in order to shop. Trolley tracks carried many residents from farther away, and postcards beckoned visitors from outside of Providence with handsome architecture and cobbled streets.

Today, Olneyville has many problems that wouldn’t have been anticipated even by the most farsighted observers 100 years ago. With a very high unemployment rate in a state that has the highest unemployment rate in the country, Olneyville may be ground zero for what’s wrong with the U.S. economy. And as residents attempt to pick up the pieces and restore Olneyville to its past grandeur, differences of vision sometimes put them at odds with one another.

The issue crystallized around the joint development of a McDonald’s and a Family Dollar store on a vacant Plainfield Street plot. Opponents of the development assembled Jan. 28 to ask the City Plan Commission (CPC) to enforce zoning requirements for Olneyville Square that require any business that locates there to front itself to the sidewalk instead of being set back behind a parking lot. Residents who opposed the development as it was originally laid out mostly emphasized that they welcomed development of a McDonald’s or Family Dollar, but just not in its current form. Many asked for other changes: multiple stories to bring in housing above the businesses; the buildings be put in adjacent rows rather than set apart from one another, to allow any future businesses space to develop further; and that parking be limited and put to the back of the structures.

Nearly half of Olneyville residents own no car, while another quarter of the population owns only one car. The mood was expressed well in the words of one local resident:

“One thing I'd like to point out is that it seems like the two sides of this argument are in a sense talking past each other. I think most everyone here seems to be in agreement that investment in Olneyville is good, but even those defending the project are not defending the setbacks. ... Olneyville, as you know, is a very high population density neighborhood where over 40 percent of households do not have automobiles. And so what that questions here is really the setback ... I just want to point out that tenants change, even property owners change, but the building environment that we're left with, the building footprint that we're left with, is lasting ... a quality-built environment is something that residents of any neighborhood, including low-income neighborhoods, should have access to.”

Supporters of the development, who also turned out in significant numbers at the Jan. 28 meeting, found their voice in City Council member Sabina Matos, an Olneyville resident:

“You’re going to find individuals who are in support of the project, and I’m one of those. Full disclaimer, I never thought I was going to be advocating for a McDonald’s, that is true, but I am. There’s people that don’t want the project because they don't like McDonald’s. They say it's not good for the neighborhood, it’s a poor neighborhood. We’re just putting food that shouldn’t happen there. I'm a parent, I set the rules in my house. My son loves McDonald’s. So, he’s really excited about this, but I set the rules in my house. I know how often I’m going to go to McDonald’s. The same way I set the rules about how often he can play video games. So, I think that people from the neighborhood are intelligent enough to make their own decision.

“You’re going to hear from the people that don’t want the development to happen just because it doesn’t comply with the city ordinance and what we’re asking to — that the development should have all of the buildings built at the sidewalk level. Well, if we can just set the ordinance and it’s set and nothing can change, then why do we have the (CPC) here?”

Matos, like many supporters, emphasized the need for development in a jobless community, but expressed no particular enthusiasm for McDonald’s itself — McDonald’s did get far more comment than Family Dollar. She also noted that this proposed development may not be the ideal step for the community, but she said it is a step forward.

The decision hung in the balance, with CPC member Christine West advocating that the decision be tabled to the next meeting, to allow planners to make changes to the  design. Commissioners expressed support for West’s proposal, but Zachary Darrow of Darrow & Everett, one of the firms consulted for the project, told the CPC that a decision to put off the project for further changes would mean no project at all. (ecoRI News contacted Darrow & Everett and another firm involved in the project, Bohler Engineering, for comment but received no reply).

The CPC voted to grant the variances required to allow the project to continue. CPC members expressed concern about the development not reflecting the objections of opponents, and some tried to formulate ways to “tweak” the project’s design in order to make it more pedestrian friendly, but only one member, West, a former Olneyville business owner, voted against the plan.

"McDonaldization of society"

An important urban planning model is getting more and more attention across the country, and what it brings to the table may bring these opposing sides — sustainable land use and economic development — together again. The urban design and economics firm Urban3 in Asheville, N.C., uses math that’s receiving a lot of attention from national media. Urban3 asks, should cities be after any kind of economic growth or should they focus instead on how much growth they can squeeze out of an acre of land? The group produces some astounding visual models of what economic output per acre looks like, and its work has helped cities such as Memphis, Tenn., visualize what the balance between land use and economic growth actually looks like.

The firm first noticed the relationship between land use and real value in North Carolina, when staff worked to restore a JC Penney store that had been vacant in Asheville’s downtown for four decades. Made usable again, the property went from being worth $300,000 in 1991 to $11 million in 2012, according to a story about the firm’s work to restore the building, which takes up about a fifth of an acre.

The real insight of Urban3’s logic comes when one contrasts the value of the Walmart just outside of town, valued at almost twice the JC Penney building’s assessment. Emily Badger writes in The Atlantic article:

“Asheville has a Super Walmart about two-and-a-half miles east of downtown. Its tax value is a whopping $20 million. But it sits on 34 acres of land. This means that the Super Walmart yields about $6,500 an acre in property taxes, while that remodeled JCPenney downtown is worth $634,000 in tax revenue per acre. (Add sales tax revenue, and the downtown property is still worth more than six times as much as the Walmart per acre.)”

Urban3 contends that although businesses such as Walmart, which operate in similarly car-centric way to a McDonald’s with a drive-thru, appear to bring far more revenue than other businesses, that when looked at in a broader context are actually very inefficient at producing wealth.

McDonald’s is no stranger to the love and hatred of people all over the world. While it has faced lots of criticism, its most vocal opponents rarely fault it for being economically inefficient. Perhaps the most prominent critique of McDonald’s is George Ritzer’s “The McDonaldization of Society.” Ritzer’s central thesis is that McDonald’s has perfected what Max Weber called “bureaucratic rationalism” in the use of its resources to such an extreme as to have dehumanized the process of eating.

“Hamburger chains strive to discover and implement the ‘one best way’ to grill hamburgers, cook french fries, prepare shakes, process customers, and the rest,” Ritzer says. “The most efficient ways of handling a variety of tasks have been codified in training manuals and taught managers who, in turn, teach them to employees.”

A “degree” in “Hamburgerology” at McDonald’s training institute, Hamburger University  in Illinois, goes into dizzying detail on this subject. Ritzer quotes John F. Love’s 1986 book “Behind the Arches” on the mechanized process of worker assembly involved in the preparation of a Happy Meal:

“[The McDonald’s manual] told operators exactly how to draw milk shakes, grill hamburgers, and fry potatoes. It specified precise cooking times for all products. It fixed standard portions on every food item, down to the quarter ounce of onions placed on each hamburger patty and the thirty-two slices per pound of cheese. It specified that french fries be cut at nine thirty-seconds of an inch thick. ... Grill men were instructed to put hamburgers down on the grill moving from left to right, creating six rows of six patties each. And because the first two rows were farther from the heating element, they were instructed (and still are) to flip the third row first, then the fourth, fifth, and sixth before flipping the first two.”

Efficiency like this could be used for good at times, according to Ritzer. For example, after workers struggled with cardboard boxes carrying buns, Ray Kroc worked with local managers until a more efficient system came about. The old boxes were discarded for open-topped ones that could be reused. This was a good investment for McDonald’s, with the key gain being in the time saved rather than the cardboard. This change no doubt stands alongside others McDonald’s has made over the years, which included boasts at the CPC meeting that it would be using LED light for the building and that it had optimized the landscaped borders of the parking lot to provide more than the required number of trees.

But Ritzer’s overall thesis is that McDonald’s drive for efficiency is the very thing that makes it corrosive to society.

Ritzer says that McDonald’s goal is to externalize every possible cost to others. One of his more interesting terms for this is the creation of the “pro-sumer” or “producer-consumer,” which Ritzer says describes the phenomenon where paid jobs become tasks assigned to the consumer. When a fast-food company finds its workforce spending too much time doling out sodas, it puts the drink dispensers where customers can fill their own cups. Most fast-food restaurants have customers collect their own condiments, napkins and so on. The drive-thru is perhaps the supreme example of this.

Ritzer is concerned not only by the nature of fast food itself, but by how it affects the culture as a whole. Grocery stores increasingly have salad bars that allow customers to perform food preparation that in the past would be done by an actual employee. It’s increasingly common to see self-checkout machines.

Ritzer’s critique of bureaucratic rationalism in everyday activities goes deeper than these criticisms, though, and a critic of Ritzer’s views might wonder if he stretches the point. Consider the following examples from “McDonaldization” of what Ritzer calls the far-reaching implications of the assembly line in our lives:

• “The department store obviously is a more efficient place in which to shop than a series of specialty shops dispersed through the city or suburbs. In addition, the shopping mall increases efficiency by bringing a wide range of department stores under one roof.” The criticism of the big-box store is of course evident, but just as easily this could describe a large farmers market.

• ”Supermarkets have sought to make shopping more efficient by institutionalizing ten-item limit, no-checks-accepted lines for consumers who might otherwise frequent the convenience stores.” To have a more humanized society, shoppers expecting to pick up just a few items should apparently wait in line with people buying hundreds of dollars of items.

• “Shopping also offers many examples of imposing work on the customer. The old-time grocery store, where the clerk retrieved the needed items, has been replaced by the supermarket, where a shopper may put in several hours a week ‘working’ as a grocery clerk, seeking out wanted (and unwanted) items during lengthy treks down seemingly interminable aisles. Having obtained the groceries, the shopper then unloads the food at the checkout counter, and in some cases, even bags the groceries.”

Ritzer’s pro-sumer argument, where even the most basic efficiencies become a way to put work in the hands of the customer, certainly has merit, but a critic might question why it’s not appropriate for the consumer to make these trades. The criticism, after all, is not just of large chains, but of restaurants and other businesses which have adopted pieces of the McDonald’s model.

Customers at AS220, who by all accounts is eating seasonal, local food, are adopting some degree of McDonaldization because they must pick up their own silverware and water, and order at a counter for a small discount over slower food. But might not cooking itself be regarded this way, if stretched along the logical contours of this argument? The consumer chooses to take on the productive work of making the meal itself in return for savings over restaurant food. In our many interviews, I didn’t get a clear vision of why Ritzer thought this type of market decision-making was inappropriate.

Not about fast food

Joseph Minicozzi of Urban3 agrees with Ritzer that McDonald’s has learned how to optimize every transaction, but disagrees about the meaning of that optimization. Minicozzi describes McDonald’s as a purveyor of food but actually focuses on changing policies around land use, not products sold.

“If anything, my application of ‘per acre’ is a form of 'rationalization' in order to gauge the efficiency of the land, much in the way that McDonald’s would obsess with the most efficient way to squeeze condiments on to a burger,” he says. “Efficiency is a good thing.”

Minicozzi’s thesis tests well on the Providence landscape. From a diverse sample of buildings in different neighborhoods with different land uses, the same pattern of value-per-acre proved true in Providence.

For example, 235 Thayer St., home to a Chipoltle on the ground floor, carries exactly the kind of fast-food fare that Ritzer derides. Sitting on less than a tenth of an acre, the building is worth $636,100, according to the most recent tax assessment. The Whole Foods Market down the street at 261 Waterman has a small parking lot out front, and is valued at $2,222,300. But taken at a per-acre value, the Chipoltle wins hands down — $7 million an acre to the grocery store’s $1.5 million.

The lesson to draw from this isn’t that grocery stores are a bad investment. Though located in a less-valued neighborhood and worth just a bit more than $400,000, God Is Able African Market, in three-story building at 743 Cranston St., is worth $2 million an acre — half a million more than the Whole Foods. Fertile Underground, at 1577 Westminster St. on the West Side, came in at about $3 million per acre, trouncing a 6-acre Super Stop & Shop on Manton Street, worth more than $6 million, but only $1.1 million per acre.

In Olneyville Square itself, Recycle-A-Bike occupies the bottom floor of a building worth $200,500, but with a land footprint of just one-tenth of an acre, the building is worth 10 times that much on a per-acre basis compared to some other businesses in the area. The nearby Olneyville New York System has a parking lot in back that increases its footprint to a fifth of an acre, making the $272,600 building worth only $1.3 million an acre. The United Way at 50 Valley St. is assessed at nearly $600,000, but with a land footprint of 1.4 acres comes in at $423,000 value per acre.

ecoRI News spoke with Nina Maxwell and Mike Giroux of Fertile Underground to get a sense of what one high-value-per-acre business pays in taxes. Fertile Underground pays $500 a month in taxes. But the costs to this small business go much further. “We pretty much have a permit for everything. I mean everything. There’s one for selling ice cream, and one for having chairs inside, and yet another for having chairs outside,” Maxwell says. “We had to pay the state a couple thousand dollars to put in bike racks on the sidewalk.”

If value-per-acre was just about how much money could be squeezed from a piece of land, it might have less currency in the discussion about Olneyville. But Minicozzi says there’s another side to the story — cost. Comments from some supporters of the development said it wasn’t an ideal step forward, but it was a step forward. For Minicozzi, it’s clear that at least sometimes businesses like this are one step forward and then three steps back.

“I think you have to ask yourself, what is the lifecycle cost of the road out front of the business? How much did it take to run sewer service across several acres of land for just one business, instead of connecting it ten feet from the next building over?” he asks. “If you’re in a nice three-story Victorian and someone just plops a gray box next to it, it’s not only about whether you dislike that box. Does that box pay its bills? I think the answer is no.”

We set out to see if the city’s economic development director, James Bennett, has any metrics for these things, or for other costs associated to like projects. Bennett spoke enthusiastically at the Jan. 28 meeting for the development of the parcel into a McDonald’s and Family Dollar store:

“You would think I would be supportive of this project because of the jobs, and there are jobs. I've checked it out, they’re accurate. The jobs particularly that are attuned to the minority community where we’re getting crushed.· We have probably the highest minority unemployment in the country; this addresses that issue. That’s not why I'm supporting the project.

“You would think I’m supporting it because the property taxes are going to be raised between 5 percent and 10 percent. Several hundred thousand dollars, which could be used for infrastructure, schools. That’s a reason to be supportive of these jobs.

“I went by and I got a picture of every building in Olneyville, every one. I looked at them and there’s not one business there that wouldn’t benefit by the increase in traffic. So that's another reason to support it. However, my reason for being here ... is that I do support the councilwoman who works with me at Providence Economic Development Partnership, who helped me get our loan program out of trouble with HUD, who I like to kiddingly call my assistant economic development director, who knows her constituency better than anybody. That’s who I support.

“And lastly, and this is very important. Bob Azar, for 13 years he’s been involved with every major project in the city of Providence. The reason why this city is a jewel is because, part and parcel, of Bob and his staff. I have to tell you, I’m the director of economic development. I don't know the first thing about zoning and planning and all this stuff, nor do I want to, but I’m a business person. I rely on the experts, that’s what I do. A lot of the work that Bob has done for 13 years here is seen around the city.”

Bennett initially agreed to set up an in-person meeting with ecoRI News to discuss the new development, but the morning of the scheduled meeting his secretary wrote to cancel, citing snow. ecoRI News offered to do an interview by phone, and sent an e-mail with questions pertaining to the lifecycle costs of things such as Routes 6 and 10, the sewage overflow system that was just installed in Olneyville, the underground water pipes to the site and RIPTA efficiency. Bennett didn’t reply to requests for an e-mail or phone exchange.

Whether Providence has these policies, or will someday develop them, remains an open question, but Minicozzi reminds us it’s all about business. “Businesses like McDonald’s are being 'rational' and there is nothing wrong with that,” he says. “They are taking advantage of how our policies act. In some cases, they may lobby to have those policies put in place, but for the most part, they figure out where the advantages are in policy, and they utilize those advantages. There’s nothing wrong with that. Where my beef is, is that the public sector needs to understand these weak spots and adapt. In essence, they can learn from the private sector and balance the playing field.

“The good news is that businesses are agnostic about these things, so if we create the right policies, they’ll follow.”

Editor’s note: The full transcript of the meeting can be obtained for free by e-mailing James Kennedy at Full disclosure, he testified at the Jan. 28 CPC meeting to oppose the current plan but uphold the development in a more urbanist style.