Archive for July, 2008

WSJ: High Gas Prices Spur New Interest in Smart Growth

July 7, 2008

The Wall Street Journal today provided more evidence that escalating gasoline prices are prompting more and more local governments to embrace smart-growth approaches to urban development. The focus of the Journal’s front-page story is Sacramento, California, where officials began looking for alternatives to sprawl as early as 2001 but met with resistance from developers stuck in the single-family subdivision mindset.

Eventually, developers saw the light, and now builders are putting up apartments, condos and townhouses at a rapid pace while the portion of the market represented by single-family homes on large lots has been plunging. The change was fostered by the adoption of a growth-management plan covering six counties that emphasized keeping homes and jobs closer together.

That plan, known as the Blueprint, is not mandatory for local governments in the region, but it has been widely embraced, according to the Journal, by “a strange-bedfellows coalition of ordinary citizens, politicians, developers and environmentalists.” As energy costs continue to rise, that support is growing. One developer told the Journal: “I see gas prices making people take the Blueprint seriously.” The accompany image shows how planners want more of the region’s streets to look.

Smart-growth advocates have to walk a fine line. Just because high gas prices are prompting more people to become smitten with smart growth, that does not mean that expensive energy is a good thing. Time magazine makes this error in a feature entitled “10 Things You Can Like About $4 Gas” (No. 2 is “Sprawl Stalls”). Transforming the economy to become less dependent on fossil fuels is great thing—doing it in a way that enriches oil companies and speculators while driving down living standards for just about everyone else is not something to celebrate.

Reality Check Arrives at Ground Zero

July 3, 2008

In case you thought the rebuilding at the World Trade Center site was going along as planned, a long overdue and candid letter released this week from the Port Authority of NY & NJ is your dose of reality.

Since the attacks of 9/11, public officials (mostly former during Governor Pataki’s administration), created a mirage of productive activity at the 16 acres of Ground Zero. What the project needed from the get-go was fewer cooks and one stalwart chef in the kitchen.  Some of us had hoped Governor Spitzer would step up to the plate and ask tough questions like why there’s such a massive amount of subsidized office space planned, but he too caved and since his stay in the state capital was cut short, we’ll never know what long term impact his role might have had.

Now, Gov. Paterson has asked THE tough question about the redevelopment of the 16 acres at Ground Zero by requesting (gasp!) an assessment. Paterson’s willingness to confront the challenges of the rebuilding, (and one of the worst kept secrets in town) are a breath of fresh air and include: the unmanageable size of the project, the “unique interdependencies” (I guess that’s the nice way to say political interests), increased costs and the “doh!” moment was “lack of an effective decision making process.”

Of course the decision making process was ineffective – in large part because it was unaccountable. GJNY and others cautioned early on and regularly that unless transparency and accountability were improved in Lower Manhattan, the development could have a negative impact – mostly on low and moderate income residents and workers.  We weren’t wrong (unfortunately) as billions of dollars in Federal resources were allocated in Lower Manhattan to financial firms and luxury housing developers helping to make it one of the city’s ritziest neighborhoods.

The head of the Port Authority, Chris Ward, deserves credit for giving the Governor an honest critique of what has become an embarrassment.

“Eco-towns” Ignite UK Debate

July 2, 2008

Plans by Britain’s Labour Government to build new “ecotowns” are sparking demonstrations outside Parliament and elsewhere in Britain.

The government wants to build a total of 10 “zero carbon-emission communities,” containing 5-15,000 housing units each, with five completed by 2016. Announcing the project last year, then Labour Housing Minister Yvette Cooper said the new towns would address the country’s urgent need for more affordable housing while cutting carbon emissions.

The developments were to be built on brownfields or surplus public land linked to public transportation, and would serve as a testbed of new environmental technologies for Britain’s emerging green industrial sector.

However, the list of 15 possible ecotown sites recently put forward by Cooper’s successor Caroline Flint has raised questions about the viability of the basic concept and the government’s credibility. Opponents believe the proposed towns represent unaccountable, developer-driven planning that replicates some of the worst features of suburban sprawl.

For example, critics say some ecotowns would be built not on brownfields but on greenfield sites chosen by developers, including some linked to Tesco, a major UK supermarket chain. According to the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the proposed “Pennbury” ecotown would even use up valuable farm land near an historic market town.

Although the proposed eco-developments are in theory subject to local review, some local officials are complaining about the increased demand for costly infrastructure they would create, and about the central government’s failure to take existing local development plans into account. One official attributes the selection of a site near Stratford-on-Avon—an area that already has adequate housing and employment— to the potentially lucrative sale of government land.

In response, ecotown supporters accuse opponents of “NIMBYism.” Prospective developers are also promising various inducements like free public transit, computer terminals with constantly updated transit information, and extensive bicycle paths.

But some people just think ecotowns are a bad idea. A Times of London editorialist recently wrote that “Zero-carbon house-building is about as likely as the odourless fart,” adding “The unremarkable truth is that car use is at its lowest where people live closest to city centres and are linked to them by public transport.”

The Labour government should perhaps consider the proposal by Sian Berry of Britain’s Green Party, who last year wrote that “green” industrial development should be based not on ecotowns but on hundreds of small locally-based eco-projects to retrofit and rehabilitate older housing stock in areas rich in public transit. Working with local officials and groups to “green” such areas would likely produce more, and more immediate, benefits than urbanizing additional greenfields in the name of ecology.

Sex and the City’s Subsidies in Baltimore

July 1, 2008

Critics of urban economic development often complain that municipal officials are too cozy with developers – giving away the subsidy candy store for projects in burgeoning urban real estate markets. Now Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon is at the center of a controversy in which, it appears, she was literally in bed with one particular developer.

Dixon recently acknowledged that while City Council president she had a “personal” relationship with Ronald H. Lipscomb, a prominent Baltimore developer. This relationship, lasting from late 2003 to early 2004, is now fodder for a state investigation into city spending practices.

Even though Baltimore code (Art. 8 Sec. 6-27) bans public officials from accepting gifts “…from any person that the public servant knows…has a financial interest that might be substantially and materially affected …by the performance or nonperformance of the public servant’s official duties,” Dixon allegedly accepted lavish gifts (including fur coats and pricy airline tickets) from Lipscomb. But state prosecutors are finding that it’s Lipscomb who may have benefited the most from the relationship.

Dixon has acknowledged that, as Council president, she “twisted some arms” to facilitate a subsidy deal for a development spearheaded by Lipscomb’s Doracon Contracting and Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse. In 2003, the city gave the Frankford Estates residential development almost $6 million in tax increment financing, an $800,000 grant, and land worth $237,000. It also waived $47,600 in building permit fees.

But that’s not all: During Dixon’s tenure as president, the Baltimore City Council also approved a 15-year “payment in lieu of taxes” subsidy worth roughly $7.2 million for The Zenith, a downtown apartment tower for which Doracon served as a contractor, and a 20-year tax break worth $13.6 million for a joint venture between Lipscomb and two other developers for a residential development called Spinnaker Bay.

State investigations into city spending practices have been ongoing since a March 2006 Baltimore Sun series questioned Dixon’s role in approving city contracts with Union Technologies, which was employing her sister at the time. Union Technologies’ owner has since pled guilty to tax evasion charges and agreed to cooperate with further investigations.