Doing the Math

One of the fundamental insights of the Strong Towns movement is that in the 20th century we built vastly more public infrastructure than our tax base can support long-term maintenance on. Too much of our shiny and new development is actually low value per acre and for the amount of public investment required to support it. We call this “doing the math.”

For example, a developer comes to your town to build a new cul-de-sac carved out of a farm on the suburban fringe. In exchange for the right to build twenty houses they will build all of the public infrastructure to support them: roads, pipes, power lines, fire hydrants, etc. and then hand that over to the town. The town gets a free road and a bunch of new tax paying houses—growth! Tax receipts go up and the town uses them to pay for more and better schools, parks, public buildings, police, fire, etc. However, the long-term maintenance cost of repairing the roads, pipes, lines, etc. cannot be supported by the low tax revenue per length of road, pipe, line etc. Every thing is great for the first 30 years, but then the road needs to be repaved, the pipes lined, the sidewalk starts looking shabby.

Hat tip

Roughly speaking, public infrastructure needs can be understood as a function of intensity of service, amount of private investment, and land area. Bigger sites have more road fronting them, longer for pipes and wires to travel, etc. Higher demand uses create more demand for wider roads, bigger pipes, and fatter wires. A city or town should, in general, be looking to get the best value per acre. After all the city’s or town’s most fundamental resource is its land. Are you using it well? Are you getting a good return in tax revenue on your public investments? You might be surprised at how properties stack up.

For example, here’s a typical house in a suburb outside of Providence, assessed value $305,000, on a almost half-acre lot; value per acre: $664,782 per acre.

A run of the mill strip mall, like where you’d find a Trader Joe’s, is worth a lot more of course, assessed value of just over $9 million, and on 6.88 acres of land, it’s worth about $1,317,572 per acre; about double our single family house—though Bald Hill Road is certainly more than double the public infrastructure than the quiet residential street.

A more upscale retail destination, such as this portion of the Chapel View shopping center, does better, at 10.78 acres and an assessed value of $18.5 million, it clocks in at $1,716,141 per acre.

But I’d like to contract these shiny, prestigious properties with a much more hum-drum building: a little, run-down mixed-use building on the west side of Providence, with a liquor store on the ground floor and a couple of apartments upstairs.

At an assessed value of just $321,500 it doesn’t seem impressive. But it creates that value on just .07 acres, meaning that it has a value per acre of $4,592,857, more than two and a half times the value, per acre, of the prestigious Chapel View shopping center!

In other words, if you’re looking to get a better rate of return on your city’s public infrastructure investments, you would better off building lots of little Reyes mixed-use multifamily buildings, than big shiny new shopping centers.

One of the reasons (though hardly the only one) our cities and towns always seem broke is that we keep building expensive public infrastructure for low value private investment, and the tax revenue doesn’t keep up. The suburbs may seem shiny and new, but after that first gloss of new development wears of, the decay sets in. Good cities are built frugally, incrementally, ensuring that we get the best return from our communal public investment.


What the Amazon Headquarters Beauty Contest can teach us about Economic Development

The economic development world is all abuzz with last week’s news that Amazon is courting cities for a second headquarters that will match their current, in Seattle, with 50,000 employees and over 8 million square feet of office space. To no one’s surprise, the State of Rhode Island has declared its intention to submit a proposal to lure Amazon’s new offices and tens of thousands of highly paid workers.

Let’s first acknowledge that Rhode Island and Providence aren’t going to win this competition. A quick read-through of the Amazon RFP and a bit of reflection on the recent move of GE to Boston and Amazon’s current headquarters in urban Seattle and it’s clear that the Providence metro area doesn’t have the scale, employment base, public transportation system or any number of other requirements of the proposal. The State and City will no doubt offer a generous package of incentives. But so will dozens of other cities—cities that are larger, with faster growing populations of young college graduates, rapidly improving transit systems, superior bike infrastructure, and urban placemaking projects galore.

But this post isn’t about being negative. I get that the state has to respond to something like this, so I’m not going to dwell on whether that’s a good use of resources. I’m more interested in what this Amazon mega-RFP can teach us about what we need to be doing as a city and state if we want to grow our economy in the 21’st century.

Amazon is in Seattle because that’s where it was founded. Lesson: We need to spend our time and resources strengthening homegrown businesses so that they succeed and grow with their attachment to Providence and Rhode Island. Amazon is also in Seattle because of the large and growing pool of highly trained workers; they will be looking for a well-educated metro-region that is also attracting many new young, highly trained workers. They will be looking for something similar in their new location. As Joe Cortright writes at City Observatory, “the location decision is going to be made by the HR department.”

This means two things. First, Rhode Island needs to continue to improve educational attainment, not just at the elite end, but in the wide middle. But also, crucially, it needs to continue to do the things that are attracting new highly trained professionals to move to cities: exciting placemaking, bike infrastructure, beer, transit, and infill development.

This is what the street view looks like in front of Amazon HQ—transit, walking, biking, and dense urban development

When you look at the City and State you see little understanding of the importance of creating the places that these professionals are looking to move to. From RIDOT’s Rhode Works program of rebuilding highways, to the ailing and underfunded RIPTA transit system, to the City Council’s recently passed resolution making it harder to create bike lanes, you don’t get a sense that our political leaders are trying to emulate successful places— from Portland, OR, to Denver, CO, Austin, TX, Washington, DC, or Cambridge, MA.

So we’re not going to win the Amazon HQ2 RFP—it would probably be bad news if we did, but that’s another story—but we can learn some useful lessons to grow our City and Region so that someday we will be the kind of place that won’t need a mega economic development relocation to have a prosperous, equitable economy.

Not the apartment for you

This post was cross-posted on Greater City Providence.
If you go to public hearings on new development projects often enough, you’ll hear a familiar refrain—the apartments are too small, there’s no garden, too little parking, etc.—which boils down to: “I wouldn’t want to live there.” Well, guess what, not everyone wants to live where you do.

Some people live alone, some people have big families; some people like small places that are easy to clean, some are cheap, some have lots of furniture; some people like to garden, some people like to come home from work and watch Netflix, some people drive, some people walk, bike, or take the bus. Well, perhaps, this building isn’t built for you.

Healthy neighborhoods need a range of housing types, from family sized apartments and homes, to micro units and hip bachelor lofts and everything in between. The desire to have other people live the way I do, (“I like to garden. Gardening is important to (my) community. This building has no gardens. Therefore it’s bad for our community”) is a suburban desire. It’s the desire for middle-class conformity and normalcy.

When you travel to other healthy cities around the world (or even in the US), you see the vast array of ways that people are happy to live. I hope that you’ve found a place you like to live; I don’t think it’s helpful to kick away the ladder of other people finding places they may like to live. Guess, what, this apartment isn’t for you.

The impacts of where we park

This post was cross-posted on Greater City Providence.
A few weeks back my wife and I were walking around the corner of our street on the west side when we noticed that if felt different. On both sides of the street the curbs were parked with cars—our neighbors across the street were having a house party. Typically there are few cars parked on our street, with the consequence that the street feels very wide and cars go speeding down it. But with the street densely parked the drive lanes are narrowed; drivers feel more constrained driving down the street causing them to slow down. Sometimes cars even have to stop to give way to a car going the other way, helping slow traffic on an otherwise quiet residential street with many children and pets. There’s even a name for this kind of street, a “give-way street.”

We saw another example of this phenomena during PVD Fest. The Sunday party in Dexter Training Ground meant that hundreds of cars were parking in the usually vacant on-street parking spaces around the park. Usually Dexter Street and Parade Street feature cars accelerating up the wide drives past a park where children play, but again the parked cars slowed traffic by narrowing the road width, and bonus: put a wall of steel between the moving cars and the sidewalk and park.

On street parking actually helps make our cities safer and more human scaled. But this is what many of our streets look like regularly.

Where are all the cars? Well, for decades suburban-style zoning regulations have required every building to provide parking for its occupants on site, which has mandated the paving of gardens and the demolition of structures to create parking lots. Similarly, for decades there was a prohibition against on-street parking overnight on city streets. This has recently been rolled back—now you can get a permit to park on street overnight. But you still have to get off the street in the event of a snow emergency, so there still has to be an off-street parking space for your car somewhere.

Off-street parking, in addition to widening streets and speeding up traffic, reduced open space, adds driveways and curb cuts, increases storm water flow and takes up scarce urban land which could house people or businesses instead of cars that aren’t being used 90% of the time.

Prior to moving to Providence, we lived in Cambridge, MA another dense urban neighborhood where most properties didn’t have parking (or enough of it) for all their residents, with the consequence that most everybody parks on street. The effect was to slow down traffic, protect the sidewalk, and connect people as they walked between their house and car. Rarely did I have to park more than a block away from my door (but even then—good exercise). It could be inconvenient to load and unload your car… but with the benefit that it discourages you from driving so much. And yes, we parked on street in the snow, and shoveled out parking spaces. In Cambridge the parking ban only applied to major commercial streets. It’s not perfect, but it worked.

We already pay for this pavement on the side of our roads through our taxes, why are we paying again for off street parking? Let’s get the full value from our roads and land. Providence could join its more prosperous urban cousins and actively encourage on-street parking. Allow on-street parking on side streets through snow storms, eliminate off-street parking requirements, and encourage filling in parking lots with people and businesses, so we don’t have to drive so much in the first place!