Government planning

After the Twisters

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David Beito and Daniel Smith compare disaster recovery in two towns devastated last spring by tornadoes:

In Joplin, [Missouri,] eight of 10 affected businesses have reopened, according to the city's Chamber of Commerce, while less than half in Tuscaloosa[, Alabama,] have even applied for building permits, according to city data we reviewed. Walgreens revived its Joplin store in what it calls a "record-setting" three months. In Tuscaloosa, a destroyed CVS still festers, undemolished. Large swaths of Tuscaloosa's main commercial thoroughfares remain vacant lots, and several destroyed businesses have decided to reopen elsewhere, in neighboring Northport.

Bum BUM ba-dum dum. Bum BUM ba-dum dum.

The reason for Joplin's successes and Tuscaloosa's shortcomings? In Tuscaloosa, officials sought to remake the urban landscape top-down, imposing a redevelopment plan on businesses. Joplin took a bottom-up approach, allowing businesses to take the lead in recovery….

Tuscaloosa's city council imposed a 90-day construction moratorium in the disaster area, restricting commercial and residential redevelopment until officials could craft and adopt a long-term master plan. Many of the restrictions remained long after the moratorium officially expired. Joplin, by contrast, passed a 60-day moratorium that applied only to single-family residential structures and was lifted on a rolling basis, as each section of the city saw its debris cleared, within 60 days.

The Alabama city's recovery plan, "Tuscaloosa Forward," is indeed state-of-the-art urban planning–and that's the crux of the problem. It sets out to "courageously create a showpiece" of "unique neighborhoods that are healthy, safe, accessible, connected, and sustainable," all anchored by "village centers" for shopping (in a local economy that struggles to sustain current shopping centers). Another goal is to "preserve neighborhood character" from a "disproportionate ratio of renters to owners." The plan never mentions protecting property rights.

In Joplin, the official plan not only makes property rights a priority but clocks in at only 21 pages, compared with Tuscaloosa's 128.