Is Sara Lee a trailblazer, an exception, or yet another corporate taker?

My brilliant planning students at USC often take exception to my unwillingness to believe that urbanism* will save the world, and, in particular, my disagreement with Chris Leinberger that urban places will necessarily lead us back into economic growth.

One objection comes from my homey, Dima Galkin, who edits (beautifully) all my manuscripts before they go anywhere, based on this news story from the Chicago Tribune about Sarah Lee moving back downtown, explicitly to reurbanize:

Sara Lee’s decision to move back to the city is part of a trend. Although it would be more cost-effective to stay in the suburbs, many companies have said that their moves are tied to the recruitment of workers who want to live and work in the city.

“We believe that a downtown location will provide MeatCo with an environment that will be energetic, foster breakthrough thinking, create revolutionary products, offer fresh perspectives and own the market,” Chief Executive Marcel Smits wrote in the email to employees in October.

We unfortunately do not have good data on the “many companies” component here. Because the evidence we have so far is that Chicago, rather than gaining population, lost a lot of population over the last decade. Which means this move on the part of Sara Lee is not necessarily chasing population, but a particular demographic. Which is fine, but isn’t really evidence of saving the world, per se. It could do something to stabilize downtown.

More to the point, the story strikes me as tragic more than progressive, unless you are a hardcore urban-suburban ideologue and think people who live and work in suburbs are bad and deserve what’s coming to them:


The Downers Grove-based company is cutting as much as half of its staff as it relocates between 500 to 650 employees to the city by early 2013. Sara Lee had about 1,000 area employees in January.

Combined with:

Sara Lee Corp. will receive between $5 million and $6.5 million in city incentives to headquarter its meat business at 400 S. Jefferson St., Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced Thursday.

The actual amount of incentives, which will come from the city’s tax increment financing fund, will depend on the number of jobs created. The aid still needs to be approved by the Community Development Commission and City Council.

So Chicago is giving a company that has been teetering on a insolvency for years $5 to $6 million to downsize by roughly half–a net job loss to the region of 500 people–to move the other half of the jobs to downtown, and


“This is a huge win for the City of Chicago, as Sara Lee Corporation has chosen the city to be the home of the new North American Meats company,” Mayor Emanuel said. “The new company will bring these high-paying jobs to the city, as well as its first-class brands and leadership in this key sector.”

Okay. I guess in Mayor Math, this does make sense.

For those who hate suburbs, we should probably note that Downers Grove was established in 1832. The City of Chicago was incorporated in 1837. So, like many of Chicago’s ersatz suburbs urbanists like to treat as whipping boys for sprawl, Downer’s Grove was a place first that then became subsumed in growth.

It’s tough for me to reconcile the payout of incentives with some sort of market process where the city’s inherent spatial advantage, conveyed by reurbanization, just won the day. It strikes me more as a story where a company, planning to split brands anyway, was looking for some good PR to wrap its downsizing in, combined with a mayor who wants to run for president, not unlike his regional peer Barack Obama, on an urban platform.

Regionalism is, apparently, not alive and well in Chicagoland, if the city and its ambitious mayor is willing to pay $5 million to aid in net regional job loss. For years, we had the argument that healthy suburbs required a healthy downtown. Does that not work in reverse when downtowns might be the winners?

*Isn’t urbanism just inherently valuable, I respond. Does it have to wrapped in progressivist, modernist rationales of world-saving in order to be legitimate?