During the past few decades, “industrial policy” was an epithet, and you still won’t see Obama going around calling his “green jobs” projects industrial policy in speeches any time soon. But some think it’s time to shed the stigma, and the flagship Obama industrial policy seems to be electric vehicles – or more specifically, the batteries that power them:
“It was a calculated risk — a lot of money, to be sure, but given the stakes, I think it was a pretty thoughtful bet,” says Ron Bloom, who recently served as an assistant to President Obama for manufacturing policy. “If vehicle electrification really does take off, as many, many people think it will, and we’re not part of it, then we could lose our leadership of the global automobile industry.” Which would be catastrophic. By some estimates, as much as 20 percent of all manufacturing jobs are directly or indirectly related to the automobile industry. Bloom points out that the United States is not the only country betting on batteries; a number of Asian countries have done so as well.
And if a bunch of Asian countries jumped off a bridge, would you do it too? The Times calls it “less like Google and more like Ford,” and I’m not sure if they mean that as a bad thing. I’m not going to lay out a long case against electric cars right now, but suffice it to say I think they’re just another subsidy to the auto-based system, and that the true environmental harm in cars is not their actual emissions, but the land use patterns than they necessitate, and an electric battery doesn’t change this one bit.
I’m certainly not going to lay the blame on urbanists for Obama’s electric car infatuation, but I think it should be a wake-up call when it comes to green jobs and re-industrialization, which planners have been embracing lately. Too many urbanists idolize America’s lost days as a manufacturing employment powerhouse (we’re still a manufacturing powerhouse, just without the “employment” part – or rather, without the large-scale semi-skilled jobs of the days of yore), but as I said on Twitter once, the zoning code is not an appropriate place to take out your resentment at the passing of America’s industrial age. And as silly as Obama’s sprawl-promoting electric car subsidies are, local industrial policy is even worse – I’m pretty sure they got this one from a Simpsons episode, for example.
And yet, there are many urbanists who believe that industrial land should be preserved, even when it is adjacent to a central business district. The area to the east of the train tracks at the New York Ave. Metro stop in DC is a perfect example – currently it’s a mix of low-slung, low-density food wholesalers and auto body shops, which a healthy sprinkling of vacant buildings and lots used to park cars. And then there’s the “Central Armature Works,” which looks to be still churning out those armaments, and pretty “centrally,” at that – just a block or two away on the other side of the tracks is a mix of class A office space and expensive new condos. But the are urbanists are more concerned with “unpermitted signs” on vacants than rezoning the vacants themselves, and the Office of Planning thinks – well, why don’t I just reprint what someone from the department said to me in an email:
The land that is zoned industrial is mainly along the CSX Railway lines, and traditionally land proximate to railway lines has often been industrial in nature. We completed an industrial land use study a few years ago, which identified that industrial zoned, service oriented land is in short supply in the District. It recommended retention of most of the industrially zoned land in this particular area, although it did recommend intensification of the use.
It’s hard to see how they’re going to “intensify” the use if half of it is vacant now – where’s the demand? Is there some kind of local industrial policy they’re going to try, and if so, what is it? And I’d love to see that “industrial land use study.” As for the CSX line, that might have been relevant back when there was enough land for a factory complex big enough to justify building a railroad siding, but that ship sailed back when the city started redeveloping the area, and there’s no way in hell any company nowadays is going to be able to take advantage of those tracks.
She also mentions in the email that the zoning has been changed one stop up the line at Rhode Island Ave. to allow more appropriate development, but I think that just illustrates how ill-equipped planners are to be making these decisions in the first place. I don’t blame the Office of Planning for not knowing the the NY Ave. station, which is closer to DC’s core, would do better than RI Ave., but I do fault them for believing that they have the ability to know such things, and then not correcting their mistake once it became obvious that the industrial zoning near NY Ave. was just not working out.
Anyway, this is just a long-winded, 4 a.m. way of me saying: I hate industrial policy. Manufacturing is never coming back downtown, so stop trying to force it, planners (both urban and other)!