Untenability, lack of sustainability, worthlessness – all words that come from lack of planning. Take a look around you and you may realize the businesses that have folded during this economic downturn. I hear the housing market isn't finished with its free fall, and I wonder about the ruins of fast-food places that hang around crumbling sidewalks like dinosaurs bones.
“But, they're throw-aways,” one architect told me as he described the reasoning behind one hamburger drive-through that went belly-up here two years ago. “They build, they go in the red, they close.” The trouble is that this particular hamburger joint has a specific architecture, and it cannot be re-used for any other business. Not that the original owner wants to sell...this corporation holds on to the land despite the ruins, and one day – finally – the owner may return, destroy the structure and cash in on the land value.
Meanwhile, residents and passersby are subjected to this vacant ruin with grass growing through the parking lot fissures. The structure and its value diminishes everything around it. But, it's not like the residents didn't allow this business to exist in the first place. Greed, hopes for sales tax and a cool new building – all these enticements pushed residents to say “aye” on a plan that had little to no sustainable value.
Mary Emery had a different vision when she planned a community called Mariemont in the 1920s. Thanks to the inheritance from her deceased husband, Ms. Emery felt she had a responsibility to do the “right thing.” She funded the planned community of Mariemont, Ohio, as a community for the working class that continues to have tons of class.
I finally visited Mariemont last week, and I was floored by what I saw. It's like seeing the Mona Lisa or the Liberty Bell in person, versus seeing it in pictures and listening to legends that make those items seem larger than life. The Mona Lisa and the Liberty Bell are much smaller than you'd imagine. Mariemont is like that – it's like a Hyde Park (as in Cincinnati) for munchkins. The homes are exquisite, but I doubt they're over 2,000 square feet. The garages are small. The stores created for the center of this village are so small that the only surviving entities are offices and service businesses. No room for a grocery store, nor for a drug store in today's demanding society.
But, you'll never find a “for sale” sign on a Mariemont lawn. This community is so desirable that no home goes vacant for long. The urban planning makes it desirable. It's walkable. You can ride bikes without fear of being mowed down by a pickup truck with a loud muffler. You could walk to restaurants, to wineries and to shops on the outskirts of this planned village and never have to buy a tank of gas if you worked at home.
Despite this desirability, the per capita income for the village was $32,897 in 2000. This income has increased, and shops around the village sell “ordinary” clothes that can run $200 for a plain cotton blouse. But, it isn't just planning that makes this almost 100-year-old village desirable. In 1980, a handful of residents joined together to create the Mariemont Preservation Foundation. This organization's stated purpose is to "receive and maintain funds to be used for public benefit to maintain and enhance the historic integrity of the Village, to avoid urban decay and beautify the Village, and to preserve and improve parks, playgrounds and public area. Such activities are for the ultimate purpose of enriching the lives of citizens of Mariemont."
I talked about the intrinsic value of historic preservation in a previous article, and the height of this effort is to preserve, re-use and to sustain community. Plus, it's a good effort at recycling. And, it's a grand effort at keeping dinosaurs such as that fast-food restaurant at bay as well as big-box stores.
Not that I'm against fast-food restaurants or big-box stores. I'm against bad planning, no matter if it's a neighborhood or a portfolio. A vacant store front that housed a former fast-food restaurant or major chain store is like a stock that you've kept in a portfolio far too long, simply because you didn't want to give it up. That stock is not an historic treasure...it's a drag on your personal economy.
Take a look at your portfolio, and tell me if there are stocks that you just can't seem to look at any more. These stocks may not excite you (not that they ever did – you may have purchased them with little insight or foresight); but, you just can't seem to let them go. Maybe it's because you haven't decided to take a loss just yet. But, tell me – when are you going to take that loss? Aren't you experiencing that loss now?
When you first drive into Mariemont, you know you're in a different world. The scenery changes. It's well-groomed and easy on the eyes. When you leave Mariemont, it's as if the world has become harsher, more glaring. You're met with eyesore after eyesore after the radical contrast of strong planning and well-constructed living spaces. This village is an example of new urbanism, despite its age...and its value continues to rise...
..but, only because the eyesores never existed.
Now that tax season is over, I plan to dig into my portfolio and into my psyche. I know that half my portfolio is filled with losers – with stocks that I purchased because I was greedy, or because they were the “in” thing to own. Now, they're worthless, and I plan to mow them down to make room for something more fruitful, if not more exciting.
Planning can be boring, especially when plans are made and nothing is accomplished. And, the laws of physics demands that any void be filled with something...even if it's just hot air. When I eliminate those dead-weight dinosaurs in my portfolio, I don't know what I'll purchase to fill the void. But, I do know that my attitude might change just with those sales. There's nothing like eliminating the untenable, the unsustainable and the worthless to feel a renewed sense of purpose.