The Replicable Model Myth: The High Line, Portland Streetcar and the Rise of the Creative Class

Hellooo Detroiters, PPPers and those of you who couldn't help but get a little teary-eyed watching "Batkid" -- the little boy with leukemia in San Francisco -- save the day!!


The Replicable Model Myth: The High Line, Portland Streetcar and the Rise of the Creative Class

In a nutshell:  We successfully regenerate neighborhoods not by trying to replicate transformative projects or ideas, but by cherry-picking their useable components.  Our assessment of the latest great idea must also be filtered through a more nuanced lens of the transformative project's true assets, liabilities, resources and context, and those must then be compared with our own project's realities. 

Cherry-pick, but don't try to replicate.  


I get it. You're at a national real estate conference (like the wonderful annual Urban Land Institute conference I recently attended in Chicago) and you hear about an innovative project that was groundbreaking and transformative. Everybody wants one!! You rush out, read everything you can about the project, and maybe even tour it.  You then meet a consultant who tells you they can help you "create your own High Line/Portland Streetcar/Creative Class Neighborhood."

Have I got a deal for you!  A High Line for only $500 bucks!!

Have I got a deal for you!  A High Line for only $500 bucks!!

I’m going to let you in on a little secret: It’s not true. There is a myth being peddled by consultants, knee-jerkingly believed by cities, and spread by true believers. The myth is that you can replicate the successes of these things.
— Calvin Gladney

There will never be another High Line, just like there will never be another Michael Jordan.  Sorry Kobe. Do you have millions of philanthropic dollars and millions of your own city dollars to spark and support the future economic development?  Do you have two tirelessly dedicated private individuals willing to spend hundreds of hours on your reimagined transit infrastructure project, and individual philanthropists and famous people backing it to replicate the High Line? Would the retention of long-standing local businesses and residents be an issuebecause of your project? Do you care?

The NYC High Line.  He's squinting because he's like "Ooooh I hope you're not thinking you can replicate this?!"

The NYC High Line.  He's squinting because he's like "Ooooh I hope you're not thinking you can replicate this?!"

The economic development catalytic effects of the Portland Streetcar will rarely be replicated. Do you have quaint, narrow streets, limited pre-existing major transit infrastructure and a culture attuned towards public transit?  Portland used little federal funds on the first Streetcar line, but in today's world do you have enough local funds for the multi-million dollar federal match?  Are there market-based economics and demographic trends in your area that would make new real estate development trend towards feasibility before you consider streetcar? You want streetcar to only be the final catalytic spark for a neighborhood rather than be burdened with the responsibility of being an independent market-maker.

Don't put too many economic development burdens on your streetcar

Don't put too many economic development burdens on your streetcar

And no, the Creative Class is not going to Rise in many cities.  Or even if they rise, it might not actually matter.  It turns out that correlation isn't causation when it comes to young entrepreneurs, artists and hip dudes in plaid shirts moving to your town.  That dude in a plaid shirt might actually just be, as this New York Times editorial discusses, a regular guy who happens to be skinny, tall and wearing glasses - not a hipster at all. There are too many cities, for example the City of [Name withheld to protect the innocent], that are never going to viably leverage artists, start-up entrepreneurs, architects and hipsters to remake its neighborhoods and spawn new local industries.  Maybe the Creative Class are really just followers (second, rather than first movers) to cities where there is already existing buzz and jobs.

Don't end up with kids who are so hip, but so unemployed. 

Don't end up with kids who are so hip, but so unemployed. 

So are we doomed? If we can't replicate great ideas, how can we regenerate urban neighborhoods?

We regenerate not by replicating, but by cherry-picking.  

  • First, do a clear-eyed assessment of the assets, liabilities, resources and context of the neighborhood and city in which your local potential project sits.  Then, do the same analysis of the project itself. 
  • Second, learn the true context, resources, special advantages and unique circumstances of the transformative project you're studying.  Get those same insights about the neighborhood and city in which the transformative project sits.  Make sure you learn about what was true at the time the project was birthed and completed, not what is true today. 
  • Third, don't try to replicate the original great project, simply cherry-pick the components you can use in your project considering your project's particular assets, liabilities, resources and context. 

If you focus on cherry-picking, but not replicating, great and innovative transformative projects, you will end up with authentic and feasible projects that just might get the results you're seeking.

-- Calvin

Posted on November 23, 2013 and filed under Most Read.