Thursday, August 28, 2014

Investment In Sense of Place

We may be a bit smug in Durham, North Carolina where many take retention of sense of place as a given.  But we can learn from the observations of a New York entertainment journalist transplanted to Raleigh, a city to the south and east that has taken a path not so fortunate:

“Once this kind of development gets started, it is hard to stop it.  And all of a sudden you wake up and wonder what happened to your city.  How did it start to look like every place else?”

Several decisions in Durham have nudged it in the direction of a “Disney-fied theme park with no character” by chipping away at those natural and “built” elements that have made it distinct.

National surveys show that by 9 to 1, Americans believe their community could benefit from a community plan while only 17% believe their community should be left alone.

When it comes to neighborhoods, more think they need protection than revitalization.

Only a fourth believe elected leaders are best able to understand changes that will make a community better compared to fully one third who view community planners that way, perhaps saying more about perceptions of the undue influence of developers.

Rated highest – neighborhood representatives.  More than half of Americans, including 54% of Republicans “want to participate in local planning decisions for their communities.”

In what should send a strong signal to regulatory-obsessed regressives in state legislatures across the nation, water quality and protecting neighborhoods rank as top priorities, just after schools and before roads at the local level.

One of the intriguing things revealed in a recent analysis of feasibility studies and related correspondence by community leaders (don’t be misled by the title) is the primary justification for public funding of mega-cultural facilities such as theaters, stadiums and civic centers.

As a community leader confided to me years ago after a controversial theater project, these facilities are first and foremost a way of propping up property values usually to appease private development lenders, but often to block the encroachment of nearby blight.

Ironically, as disclosed in this excellent overview of the revitalization of Downtown Durham, the pivotal secret, as it has been in most downtowns since their advent 14 years ago has been the use of “New Market Tax Credits” from the federal government.

Interestingly though, a qualification for a lender (but obviously not the eventual development) is a “primary mission of providing investment capital for low income communities or low income persons.” Investing In Place

This intermediate lender then recruits investors, including financial institutions, with a 39% tax credit to, in turn, make marginal development projects feasible while increasing capacity to help truly low income neighborhoods.

According to reports, many types of tax credits including, perhaps, historic tax credits if granted for the adaptive reuse of an old factory, for example, can be used as collateral to leverage a loan.

Propping up or increasing adjacent private property values with a publically-financed theater, stadium or convention center is often needed as well for the same reason.

This federal program has resulted in $40 million of tax credits to date issued to 836 projects, and between 2003 and 2006 alone, Durham ranked sixth in the nation for New Market Tax Credits, first on a per capita basis, with 90% going to revitalize the 1-mile square downtown.

There is no shortage of people who take or are given credit for Downtown Durham’s current renaissance, but as the report suggests, the most credit of all, both here and across the country, belongs to every day taxpayers across the nation.

As I mentioned, national studies show that Americans prefer protecting neighborhoods to revitalizing them.  They also have different ideas about economic development.

Half believe the ideal community will have “locally owned businesses nearby,” the ability to “stay in their neighborhood as they age,” as well as sidewalks, transit options and neighborhood parks.

Only a third cite a unique character and/or culture.  Sense-of-place is about being distinct, not unique, coherent as though temporal, not manicured or “Disney-fied.”

Jobs are important to half, but two-thirds believe investing in schools and features such as transportation, walkability and diversity are a better way to grow the economy than investing in recruiting companies which nearly always require tax subsidies.

Quality of life features such as cultural and sports facilities are cited by just 1-in-5, on a par with having friends and family live nearby.  A third view “centers of entertainment” a high priority but only 1-in-10 view professional or college sports that way.

Top priorities for public investment by Americans are new sidewalks and pedestrian crossings, upkeep of existing roads, new roads and of course, education.

When it comes to economic development, regardless of size or type of community or region, Americans favor spending on high-speed internet, affordable housing and safe streets.

There is a distrust of turning over decisions to developers, planners and elected officials for the reasons outlined in the op-ed by a Raleigh transplant, not because of development per se, but when developers “show no respect for history, culture or anything else that makes a city special.”

The writer points to a Durham success as something for which Raleigh should strive.  But he could have just as well pointed to several recent examples of what not to replicate.

It is much too soon to “knock on wood,” Durham!

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