An open line: And a plug for dense urban core development | Arkansas Blog

Sunday, November 10, 2013

An open line: And a plug for dense urban core development

Posted By on Sun, Nov 10, 2013 at 4:57 PM

The line is open. Finishing up:
click to enlarge THERE'S GOLD THERE: A dense downtown makes more sense than sprawl, a developer says.
  • THERE'S GOLD THERE: A dense downtown makes more sense than sprawl, a developer says.

* DENSITY VS. WALMARTS — DENSITY WINS: Here's some food for thought that has some application in downtown Little Rock. It's about a family fortune and a dreamer who applied money and creativity to redeveloping downtown Asheville, N.C. It took some convincing of those who believe acres of parking lots are the first consideration for any development project.

A snippet from an excerpt of the book "Happy City," which should be quoted liberally when the big box lovers point to the acres of concrete in, say, suburban Arkansas, and pronounce it good. (Even Conway is getting with the downtown redevelopment idea of late, BTW):

To explain, [architect Joseph] Minicozzi offered me his classic urban accounting smackdown, using two competing properties: On the one side is a downtown building his firm rescued—a six-story steel-framed 1923 classic once owned by JCPenney and converted into shops, offices, and condos. On the other side is a Walmart on the edge of town. The old Penney’s building sits on less than a quarter of an acre, while the Walmart and its parking lots occupy thirty-four acres. Adding up the property and sales tax paid on each piece of land, Minicozzi found that the Walmart contributed only $50,800 to the city in retail and property taxes for each acre it used, but the JCPenney building contributed a whopping $330,000 per acre in property tax alone. In other words, the city got more than seven times the return for every acre on downtown investments than it did when it broke new ground out on the city limits.

When Minicozzi looked at job density, the difference was even more vivid: the small businesses that occupied the old Penney’s building employed fourteen people, which doesn’t seem like many until you realize that this is actually seventy-four jobs per acre, compared with the fewer than six jobs per acre created on a sprawling Walmart site. (This is particularly dire given that on top of reducing jobs density in its host cities, Walmart depresses average wages as well.)

Now, it would be nice if we could add some more private oomph to the downtown redevelopment vision. $22 million in tax money for tech park development is something, but public dollars alone aren't enough.

Minicozzi was talking about Asheville, but you could just as easily plug Little Rock into all the blanks in this passage over the last four decades:

Even low-rise, mixed-use buildings of two or three stories—the kind you see on an old-style, small-town main street—bring in ten times the revenue per acre as that of an average big-box development. What’s stunning is that, thanks to the relationship between energy and distance, large-footprint sprawl development patterns can actually cost cities more to service than they give back in taxes. The result? Growth that produces deficits that simply cannot be overcome with new growth revenue.*

“Cities and counties have essentially been taking tax revenues from downtowns and using them to subsidize development and services in sprawl,” Minicozzi told me. “This is like a farmer going out and dumping all his fertilizer on the weeds rather than on the tomatoes.”**

He's preaching to a one-man choir here. And still we're not through building more gigantically expensive freeways to shuttle workers from the core of Little Rock back to the 'burbs, as if this makes sense. See Little Rock's stagnant sales tax revenue for a clue. Also the expensive new sewer lines and treatment facilities to sere the sprawl into a new drainage basin. And so on.

Happily, there's some reverse movement. Anybody out there want to take a flyer on the Donaghey Building?

* CALLING A HOG WRITER FOR PRAISE: It's paywalled, unfortunately, but veteran sports columnist Nate Allen is getting a lot of deserved chatter in Hogdom for his tough column yesterday on Jeff Long. He looks askance at the Razorback athletic director's scoring a bonus for the second year in a row for getting his name linked to a job search at another university. Allen's take is that Long is high demand for his perceived integrity in firing football coach Bobby Petrino after the motorcycle incident. Allen says this overlooks Long selling his soul to hire Petrino in the first place. He sees Petrino as a fellow whose integrity had been questioned by many. Allen wrote in the Saturday Democrat-Gazette:

Then Petrino’s motorcycle accident publicly revealed that he had promoted his mistress from the Razorback Foundation to his football staff and bought her a car.

For any other UA department head, firing Petrino would have been routine and probably accompanied by questions from higher-ups sharply inquiring why this went unchecked for so long. But in college athletics the mighty are so nearly untouchable that firing a successful coach transforms an athletic director into a national novelty bulging with bonuses.

Haven't seen much like that in these parts since, oh, Fred Morrow.

* WEEKEND GUN REPORT  Fox 16 reports that a Jefferson County justice of the peace was shot in the face outside a Pine Bluff nightclub. Could have been worse. Could have been at that teen birthday party in suburban Houston where two were killed and 20 injured when shooting broke out.

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