Urban Notebook

To Subsidize Development or Not?

These days it’s not hard to convince people to live downtown, or, for that matter, to get developers to build places for them to live. Increasingly, both millennials and baby boomers want urban amenities. They want to live close to work, parks and restaurants, and they want to be able to walk or bike to them. As a result, downtown populations have soared: 65,000 people now live in downtown Seattle, downtown Los Angeles -- traditionally not a residential area -- is home to 52,000 people, downtown Philadelphia has 57,000, and Boston has 17,000 (a 50 percent increase since 2000). 

Needless to say, these cities aren’t subsidizing downtown development. In some cases, they’ve actually started to extract fees and concessions from developers to build downtown. But that’s not the case everywhere.  READ MORE

When Outsourcing Works

Many public services are now outsourced. From education and transit to garbage pickup and park maintenance, there’s a notion that nongovernmental organizations can do things better. Certainly, privatization has seen its share of successes and failures. But one of those successes is economic development -- at least in Oklahoma City. 

Since the beginning, economic development in Oklahoma City has been handled not by a public entity as in many cities, but by the Chamber of Commerce. Putting the chamber or other private groups in charge of economic development has long been common at the local level. And as my colleague Alan Greenblatt wrote in these pages late last year, it’s starting to catch on in states, too. READ MORE

The Urbanization of the 'Burbs

Not long ago, I was sitting in a hotel ballroom in a suburban master planned community watching a panel of developers talk about, well, master planned communities. The hotel was located in an urban-ish town center with townhomes and mixed-use buildings and parking garages that cost a lot of money to park your car in. It wasn’t lost upon these developers that the differences between suburban and urban amenities were few and far between.

What was really striking, though, was that while they clearly understood the increasing urbanization of the suburbs from a business perspective, they didn’t really understand why it was happening. To hear them tell it, the walkable town center with the restaurants and the coffee shops was just a new type of amenity around which to market the housing in the master planned community. Put another way, they were just building town centers instead of golf courses. READ MORE

The Perils and Promises of a Popular Yet Controversial Financing Method

Tax increment financing (TIF) is one of the most popular financing techniques in a locality’s toolbox. It’s also one of the most unpopular methods among some policy wonks. Intended to eliminate blight in the poorest neighborhoods, TIF projects are often criticized for funneling money away from core services and to neighborhoods that are neither blighted nor poor. But the problem with TIF isn’t the policy itself. When applied properly, TIF can bring the notions of value capture and financial accountability to public works. 

TIF policies vary by structure. But generally TIF works like this: A municipality approves and floats bonds for a new amenity. Then the municipality draws a boundary around the area, estimating which properties will benefit from the amenity. To pay the debt, the municipality uses the added property or sales tax revenue -- called the “increment” -- that results from within the boundary.  READ MORE

In Defense of the Urban Freeway

I live in Midtown Houston just off the end of the “527 Spur,” a freeway stub that feeds traffic in and out of downtown. My neighborhood, once known as Little Saigon, is booming with new apartment buildings, bars and restaurants. It’s a quick car or transit ride to either of the city’s two biggest job centers: downtown or the Texas Medical Center. It’s also just a 10-minute commute via freeway to a third giant job center, the Galleria area.

I lived in a similar neighborhood in San Diego. Little Italy, located downtown, was within walking distance of my job at city hall. But most people in my neighborhood commuted to work by driving north on Interstate 5, out of downtown, toward the job centers in La Jolla and Mira Mesa. Every morning when I looked out my window at I-5, I saw the evidence. Traffic was backed up going out of the city. READ MORE