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In search of what Obama built

From six stories above the corner of Cedar Street and Sixth Avenue, San Diego looked unaccustomedly quaint—an old-growth seaside town of mission-style churches and midcentury office towers strung along tidy streets leading down to a sunny harbor. The interstate, bane of the southern California metropolis, was just a block north, but on a Monday afternoon in early spring traffic was thin, so the freeway noise was hard-ly detectable.

Since March, this 3,500-square-foot rooftop prospect has been a private reserve for tenants of the newly built Cedar Gateway Apartments. The residents, installed in sixty-five units, have full use of the building’s deck, and they don’t come up here just for the views: laundry machines are housed to one side in a room with broad windows designed to let parents keep an eye on children as they play outdoors. A green roof, kept fresh by a concealed irrigation system, retains storm water and absorbs solar heat.

“It’s a beautiful place, an awesome place,” said Patrick Muzio, a new tenant who came here from an apartment in San Diego’s blighted Southeast section. Muzio, who is fifty-seven, unemployed, and studying full-time for his GED, was able to afford the move thanks to a government-funded housing initiative that places low-income families in multi-unit buildings alongside individuals who, like Muzio, are suffering from debilitating mental disorders. The families get spacious new homes in a prime location at below-market cost, while those who need it can receive on-site care from trained staff.

The exterior of Cedar Gateway is made up of an irregular pattern of steel and plaster panels, an aesthetic perfectly in step with the condo-contemporary mode popular among developers in downtown San Diego. John Silber, the architect who designed the building, said his goal was to make the building as inconspicuous as possible in a neighborhood of more upscale developments.

Silber was retained in 2007, but the project was put on hold as both private and public investment disappeared after the 2008 economic crisis. With the development’s fate uncertain, its prime backers—San Diego’s Centre City Development Corporation, the nonprofit Corporation for Supportive Housing, and a consortium of real estate companies—turned to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for help. In 2009, HUD came through with a $14 million commitment from TCAP, its Tax Credit Assistance Program; the grant was enough to allow construction to begin.

And the reason HUD had the money available? The $2.25 billion pool of funds that became TCAP was appropriated by Congress in February 2009 as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA)—the oft-debated, frequently maligned stimulus bill, the centerpiece (along with the 2010 Affordable Care Act) of the Obama Administration’s domestic policy. Cedar Gateway is a stimulus project.

But since the construction signs on Sixth bearing the telltale circular insignia came down, no one would have any reason to suspect the building’s origins. Asked whether he knew that Cedar Gateway was funded by ARRA, resident Bruce Smith said he didn’t really know how the development was financed.

“It’s all publicly funded or something like that,” said Smith. “All I know is, whoever paid for buildings like these, they’re doing San Diego the biggest favor.”

At the time the $787 billion Recovery Act was passed, both critics and supporters of the law thought a major transformation of the American landscape was at hand. Some estimated that as much as $150 billion would be spent on domestic infrastructure.

In retrospect, belief in the stimulus’s potential seems rooted in certain other ideas then in circulation about Barack Obama and what his election meant. In particular, the parallels frequently drawn between the president and Franklin Delano Roosevelt led many to conclude that the Recovery Act would be Obama’s Works Progress Administration, an ambitious building spree that would litter town and country with beautiful new dams and bridges and city halls. “The New New Deal” was the cover story of Time, with a photoshopped Obama sporting a homburg and a cigarette holder.

Yet today it is safe to say that the average American does not have a clear sense of what was built with the money. The problem may be that the stimulus wasn’t big enough to change the built environment in a noticeable way; from the beginning, advocates of forceful Keynesian pump priming warned that ARRA’s infrastructure budget was un-WPA-ishly parsimonious. But construction spending was in fact much greater than the figure listed in the act for transportation and infrastructure. A good portion of the $206 billion officially tagged for education, energy, and health ultimately found its way to the building of new structures and the overhauling of old ones. Other instruments and subsidies, like the Build America Bonds authorized by ARRA, which total $181 billion to date, make the final construction budget bigger still.

Exactly how big is anyone’s guess. Michael Grabell, author of Money Well Spent?, an account of the stimulus’s effects, couldn’t come up with a definitive dollar amount for building and infrastructure spending. One could almost believe the claims of Rush Limbaugh, who this summer stated that the administration’s promised stimulus construction projects simply “didn’t happen.”

One problem is that the stimulus buildings aren’t readily identifiable as such. Projects proceeded under the catch-as-catch-can mantra of “shovel-readiness.” By opting for the preapproved and the rough-and-ready, the administration touched off the stimulus’s vanishing act: without any nationwide coherence to their design, these structures are doomed to hide in plain sight.

Economist Brad DeLong, a vocal supporter of infrastructure spending, said that the focus on speed and buildability came at the urging of Christina Romer, former chair of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers. “Romer was very strong on saying we have to get the money out, as opposed to doing big signature projects,” said DeLong.

“You might say it’s a lost marketing opportunity,” said HUD secretary Shaun Donovan—but the economic benefits of the shovel-ready approach were too great to ignore. The decision mirrored the one made to distribute stimulus funds directly to individuals as a payroll-tax credit rather than a check in the mail: good for the economy, bad for publicity.

The lack of a positive narrative about ARRA-sponsored construction has left ample room for criticism from the president’s opponents. In August of 2010, Senate Republicans Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and John McCain of Arizona published a report on the “100 stimulus projects that give taxpayers the blues.” As Coburn and McCain write in their introduction, “Some projects accomplish such questionable goals as putting in new windows at a vacant government building [and] replacing a new sidewalk with an even newer one.” The administration has made efforts to counter this brand of messaging (the White House released “100 Recovery Act Projects That Are Changing America” shortly after the Coburn–McCain broadside), but only sporadically.

Indeed, so little effort has been made by the White House to account for stimulus construction that even the federal government hasn’t calculated how many structures were built with the funds or how much money was spent on them. The Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board maintains, an impressive online resource with information on every cent of stimulus spending. But that information is searchable only by geographic location. It can show you a map with every stimulus recipient in your neighborhood, but it can’t tell you how many schools and hospitals and senior centers were built nationwide.

“We did study groups,” said Nancy DiPaola, chief of congressional and intergovernmental affairs for the transparency board. “Everybody wanted to be able to put in their zip code.” The result, however, is that it’s nearly impossible to see the forest of stimulus-funded public works for the statistical trees.

One thing does emerge clearly from the available information: by far the largest recipient of ARRA construction dollars has been the American highway system. The Department of Transportation boasts of more than 13,000 roadways and bridges built or resurfaced since 2009. Advertised by roadside ARRA signs, these improvements have been foremost in the public eye, as anyone who’s been on an interstate in the past three years can attest. But that also means that the strongest association most Americans have with ARRA is a traffic jam.

Appearing almost as frequently in the state-by-state listings as highway projects are disbursements to encourage energy-saving weatherization of both private and public buildings ($8 billion, a program of the Energy Department) and to improve water-treatment facilities ($6 billion, an initiative of the Environmental Protection Agency). The small-bore, unromantic character of ARRA’s contribution to the country’s physical plant plainly accounts for the feeling that stimulus construction hasn’t amounted to much.

So what about some actual stimulus buildings—substantial, four-square structures that could add a little bulk to ARRA’s meager public profile? They’re out there, though you have to know where to look.

In Nebraska, for instance, McCook Community Hospital has two new wings, for patient care and for surgeries, with sleek, glazed fronts and an adjoining courtyard. Outside New Orleans, ARRA helped build the new Patrick F. Taylor Academy, a public school focusing on science and technology. In L.A.’s Angeles National Forest, there’s a ranger station that looks like it is made out of Lincoln Logs. And in the old steel town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, there’s a crisply functional office park meant to be a technology incubator. The buildings on Alcatraz have new solar panels; Rice University has a new physics building; Van Buren, Maine, has a new land port of entry; and the Cheyenne River Sioux of Eagle Butte, South Dakota, have a new health center sporting a sky-and-cloud mosaic mural in somewhat dubious taste.

There are firefighter-training facilities and federal courthouses and airport terminals and libraries and high-tech research labs and bridges in Berkeley and Kansas and Alaska and Arizona. There is, in short, no dearth of new construction—good, bad, and indifferent—that came out of the stimulus. But there is, in the public mind, no such thing as a “stimulus building.”

Rhode Island’s Wickford Junction train station isn’t in the town of Wickford Junction; there’s no such place. The name belongs to a series of shopping malls in North Kingstown, Rhode Island, owned, since 1982, by local businessman Robert Cioe.

Even before he acquired the site, Cioe saw the potential for a commuter depot there. “I had been looking at this property for several years, because it has two thousand feet of the main rail line from New York to Boston,” he said. Thirty minutes to Providence, an hour to Boston, and surrounded by fairly dense suburban neighborhoods, the site seemed an obvious place for a new node in New England’s transit network. Given the ever-increasing volume of rush-hour traffic along I-95, officials at the Rhode Island Department of Transportation had long agreed.

After nearly three decades agitating for the project with state, local, and federal agencies, Cioe and RIDOT finally have their station. It’s not exactly modeled on the Gare d’Orsay: the train platform abuts a large, brick-bound box that’s meant to resemble the old textile mills that dot the nearby communities. The main function of this “station” structure is to provide parking for 1,100 cars. Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee was blunt: “As parking garages go, it’s beautiful. But it’s pretty much a parking garage.”

Chafee, a former Republican senator turned independent, was on hand for the opening of the new station in April, and he seemed convinced of the project’s economic potential. The governor is equally emphatic about the importance of ARRA to the project: the federal Department of Transportation stepped in with a $4.35 million grant in early 2009. “Wickford Junction in particular is really symbolic of the positive contribution that the stimulus has made,” said Chafee. “[Its effects] will be felt for decades to come.”

Whatever the station’s merits, however, chalking them up to ARRA is a bit of a stretch. The DOT stimulus award represented only a fraction of the project’s total cost of $25 million. Though most of that funding did come from the federal government, it came from sources other than ARRA. By Cioe’s account, it was the byzantine contractual negotiations between Amtrak (which owns the right-of-way) and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (which operates the new service) that delayed the project. But for that, said Cioe, “this thing would have gotten done in 2003 or 2004.”

That’s another drawback of shovel-readiness: the Obama Administration can’t take sole credit for the projects it is funding. Another example: the new Anacostia Health Center in southeast Washington, D.C., is a handsome crag of a building with a slender glassed-in wedge on its eastern face, perched atop a steep hill in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. For the previous eleven years, its eighty-eight doctors, nurses, and other employees had been working out of a windowless corrugated-metal structure a few blocks away. The new facility’s floor plan makes it possible to quickly coordinate treatment for patients with multiple medical needs.

When the Department of Health and Human Services awarded the initial ARRA grant for Anacostia to Unity Health Care, the nonprofit that operates the center, Michelle Obama went to Unity’s Upper Cardozo location to make the announcement, giving the project the administration’s imprimatur. But the $5 million in stimulus money came after Unity had already acquired the property, after it had hired an architect, and after it had already identified major sources of funding. “Obviously it was better to take the money from the stimulus than dip into our operating fund,” said former Unity vice president Jonathan Weinstein. So far as his company was concerned, the stimulus was merely a timely expedient.

Because of the piecemeal nature of most of the funding for ARRA construction, even modest efforts by the White House to seek recognition for the act’s accomplishments have become a target for stimulus skeptics, some of whom are themselves recipients of grants. Robert Cioe complained about a federal DOT official who came to the Wickford Junction opening: “All he did was talk stimulus.”

When government turned on the faucet for [stimulus] funding, they ran it through the same piping system we had before,” said Phil Harrison, CEO of the Chicago-based architecture firm Perkins+Will, which did the design work for two of the largest building projects to receive recovery funds: the second phase of the Porter Neuroscience Center at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, and the new Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C. From Harrison’s point of view, the stimulus bill was a missed opportunity to find new and more efficient pathways for federal financing, a “more modern way of getting investment into public space.”

ARRA allowed the government to do more of what it was already doing. But there was no visionary program like the WPA to come out of the stimulus. After the breathless rhetoric about the New New Deal bound to emerge from the Recovery Act, the public is understandably disappointed.

But the WPA and its record of public works are themselves myths. In truth, the WPA was not a mass construction program but an emergency mass-employment program, like the Civilian Conservation Corps. To get people back to work fast, the WPA sponsored such undertakings as resanding beaches and dredging shipping canals. Its fame, indeed, may be due to the Federal Writers’ Project, a WPA initiative, which produced a lot of prose but no construction. Only occasionally was WPA labor involved in the building of the courthouses, schools, and public libraries for which the New Deal is now famous.

Much of the construction under the New Deal was managed by the largely forgotten Public Works Administration. The buildings of the PWA (the similarity of the two agencies’ initials was a source of confusion even then) were chronicled in a 1939 book, Public Buildings, that reveals the extraordinary scope of the organization’s activities. Something else that’s revealed: the vast majority of the structures built under the Roosevelt Administration were not grand Art Deco megaliths—like the Hoover Dam (which was begun before Roosevelt took office). Most were simple, functional buildings in Georgian red brick that reflected the prevailing conservative architectural taste of the time (a taste shared, as it happens, by President Roosevelt).

The PWA was never a job creator on the order of the WPA, but in many ways its legacy is far more significant. “In contrast to the hard-to-quantify and -qualify accomplishments of [the WPA], the PWA had real buildings, dams and roads,” writes historian Richard Guy Wilson in the introduction to a second edition of Public Buildings, published in 1986. PWA projects were built efficiently and built to last. Their contribution to American life was sometimes subtle, or evident only with the passage of time. The PWA’s work was not always admired by architects or by the public at large, and the design press seethed about the administration’s antimodernist stance. But the PWA provided a lifeline to the construction industry during a time of crisis, and it created adequate public facilities for a country that needed them. That may be the standard by which to measure the stimulus’s public works.

It is necessary, of course, to factor in some of the things that have changed in the eighty years since FDR took office: “Construction has become a lot more of a capital-intensive industry,” said Brad DeLong, rather than one where “lots of people are piling bricks by hand.” ARRA’s building and infrastructure spending was bound to be less of an employment booster than the PWA’s. The United States today is also much more developed than it was in the Thirties; ARRA’s public works could hardly be as mold-breaking as the New Deal’s. You can’t build the Hoover Dam twice.

The country also doesn’t need grand new projects when so many existing structures are in trouble. According to a 2009 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers, it would require $2.2 trillion simply to restore U.S. infrastructure to a sound level. Almost any concerted attempt to ramp up the pace of public-works construction in the United States has to be greeted as a welcome development.

As with the PWA, ARRA has helped prop up the construction industry. “There wasn’t anything else,” said Terry Herlihy, construction manager for ROEM Builders, the firm behind the Cedar Gateway project in San Diego. Before the ARRA passed, unemployment in the field had risen past 20 percent. Stimulus project leaders have routinely received bids from triple the expected number of construction companies. Daniel Perdomo, who is the office engineer for Clark Construction at the Coast Guard headquarters site, said the atmosphere there is generally one of quiet relief: “People are just kind of being thankful they’re busy and there’s work.”

With regard to efficiency, ARRA’s performance is remarkable for the lack of scandal and reported instances of waste connected with its building projects. “The process was remarkably noncorrupt,” admitted Tyler Cowen, a libertarian economist at George Mason University who has otherwise been a steadfast critic of the Obama Administration.

Eight decades ago, there was very little oversight of the way government construction could and should proceed; today, hundreds of regulations determine how things get built, where, and by whom. To some extent (as Cowen was also quick to point out) this bureaucratic culture blunted ARRA’s potential. Money was spent on smaller, perhaps less pressing projects, and reporting obligations added cost and slowed down delivery. But there are advantages to red tape. Environmental and energy standards, fair-wage stipulations, “Buy America” clauses for building materials, historical-preservation requirements—all these came into play with ARRA projects.

Finally, it is worth asking whether the people living and working in these structures regard them as superfluous, or deferrable, or dull. Bruce Smith, the new Cedar Gateway resident, put it best: “It’s a lot better I’m up here looking down than down there looking up.”

If Smith were to lean just a few inches over the southern parapet and look west, he’d be able to see straight down to the great pinkish slab of the County Administration Center, which stands at the harbor’s edge. With its jazzy moderne façade, the edifice is immediately recognizable for what it is: a project of the Public Works Administration. It is doubtful whether anyone at the Administration Center will ever look uphill and take much notice of Cedar Gateway.

The case for the stimulus as a meaningful agent of change in the built environment of the United States is not a straightforward one. Yet there is a case. On the northern end of Raleigh, North Carolina, a $39 million recovery grant from the Department of Defense helped fund the state’s new 237,000-square-foot National Guard Joint Force Headquarters. Combining resources for military training, police operations, and emergency management, the facility helps coordinate crucial services in the hurricane-prone region. Because of the depth of the recession in the construction industry, the timing of the ARRA funds allowed the state National Guard to complete the project for $21 million less than the projected price.

About forty-five minutes south of the National Guard building, a local engineering firm has just completed work on three projects in the three-square-mile town of Selma. The local library got an extension, the firehouse was renovated, and a new police station was built using more than a million dollars in grants and loans from the United States Department of Agriculture. Town manager Richard Douglas and architect Russell Pearlman were stopping for lunch at a Chick-fil-A recently when they ran into Selma’s former manager, a man who had served in the late 1980s. Could he recall any time when the community had a trio of new capital projects coming online at the same time? The civil servant thought for a moment, then shrugged. “Nope,” he said. In a town whose local paper includes a regular column from a writer who describes his views as “more in line with North Carolina secessionist leaders from the 1860’s,” that was about as effusive as most of the residents got. Still, the ARRA projects constitute the largest onetime investment in Selma’s municipal services in living memory.

The stimulus is the common thread running through all the most consequential public-works projects of our time: the long-stalled, finally on-target Second Avenue subway in Manhattan; the technically fraught and sharply politicized high-speed rail system in California; the new Homeland Security headquarters on the former campus of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. (by some measures the biggest federal building project since the construction of the Pentagon in the early Forties). If ARRA’s role in any single instance is often difficult to pinpoint, its impact in the aggregate is immense. It is also impossible to imagine what the country would look like without it. The ARRA projects will, with time, become part of the warp and weft of the country.

In this election year, the Republican candidate for president is cheerily denouncing ARRA as having unduly benefited Obama’s “friends.” But Mitt Romney may be whistling past the graveyard—and the courthouse, and the community center, and the laboratory. A future Republican administration, backed by a Republican Congress, may repeal Obamacare and dismantle Wall Street regulatory reform. They may revoke every piece of progressive policy put in place during Barack Obama’s first term and knock new federal construction spending down to naught. But they will not be able to unbuild what has been built. Stimulus buildings and infrastructure could yet prove to be Obama’s most enduring achievement. For a complex and contradictory president, they would make for a suitably complex and contradictory legacy.

has contributed articles on architecture, design, and urban culture to <em>Dwell, Interior Design, New York</em> magazine, and the <em>New York Observer.

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