Friday, September 10, 2010

Andrew Ross: The Celebration Chronicles

I quoted Andrew Ross the other day in a discussion of dog issues, but really, "The Celebration Chronicles" has nothing to do with dogs, and is only tangentially related to education issues. I just liked the quote. I do that sometimes- find that whatever I'm reading is related to whatever I'm thinking about, even if they're not related at all. I don't know if this is something many people do- see connections where they don't really exist- or if it's just the nature of how my brain works. I see patterns, whether they're there or not, and I like to collect things (see the currently on-vacation House Files blog and my current obsession, It's what I do.

So the point is, if you were expecting dog stuff, or educational theory, or anything related from this review, yeah, no. Basically, the Disney corporation built a town in Florida in the 90s called "Celebration." A whole town. Celebration was built on the basic principles town planning of "New Urbanism": "a mixed-housing, mixed-use, walkable town with small lots, interconnected streets, and an identifiable center and edge" (quote from Ross, read more at the website). Ross describes the original Celebration residents as pioneers in building a community, including in the civic sense. Disney quickly rescinded any visible and outward connections to the town, partially because of the shoddy work the contractors did building the homes, partially because of the negative press Celebration received, and partially because that was the plan all along. Many of the "pioneers" felt disillusioned about one thing or another in town, but it took some doing to get them to band together in a way that would cause them to give up their private organization (HOA) for some government interference.

Ross lived in Celebration for a year, and writes as both an outsider and a "pioneer." He doesn't have a child enrolled in the controversial school, but he volunteers there, and documents how, with Disney's backtracking on their financial backing of the school, along with the parents' panicking about the less-traditional successes of their children, the potential for greatness turns Celebration's school into just another public school in Central Florida. The book is interesting, but for me, the most important part, the spoiler, as it were, was sandwiched in the last third of the book. Disney invested in Celebration, had the town built, not for the money, not because they believed in New Urbanism, although Ross talks a lot about Walt Disney's various theories of future living (Epcot, etc). Disney built Celebration because it was a work-around for environmental legalities. They obtained a permit for Celebration that allowed them to get long-term development rights to the area which were a huge asset:
The "permit" in question was obtained through an environmental mitigation agreement on a massive scale, negotiated with the South Florida Water Management District and EPA head Carol Browner, at that time Florida's top environmental official. In the customary practice of bit trading, five acres of land would have to be preserved for each area of impact. Instead, the company did a wholesale swap. It purchased the entire 8,000-acre Walker Ranch in Osceola and turned it over to the Nature Conservancy to manage as the Disney Wilderness Preserve. In return, Disney won virtually blanket approval for twenty years of development rights on its landholdings. Given the likelihood of stiffer environmental policies down the road, this one-shot deal... was immensely lucrative for the company, and Celebration had been the critical card to play in winning approval.
This wasn't all. Disney also needed a whole bunch of new roads for a new theme park, but Disney doesn't reveal plans until they're about to open parks. They needed to change the traffic patterns of all of Central Florida, which required that they reveal all kinds of their plans to the government. In order to get around this problem, they used Celebration as bait to the various governmental agencies, as they were comfortable disclosing how many traffic trips they believed would be added.
The subsequent agreements were unprecedented for the federal highway system, which does not usually approve new interchanges until they are about to be built. Disney got approval for three new interstate interchanges, some of which would not be built for ten years. The entire city of Orlando had only six interchanges, and now Disney would have five of its own.
Disney pulled off a coup. Ross' book suggests that they pulled off lots of coups, and not just for the Pioneers of Celebration, but the local, state and federal government. The book is a rather dull book with lots of fascinating insights on cities, suburbs and exburbs, corporate and civil governance, and education.