Last week, I anticipated the Northfield City Council’s discussion of amendments to the Land Development Code by comparing the tax revenue from a selection of different development patterns around town (thanks to David Delong for mentioning Community Resource Bank – 3 stories on the highway with less than minimum parking – a variance was granted to reduce the parking lot size – would be valued at $2,294,118 per acre with tax revenue of $95,894 which narrowly beats the downtown block and is 5x better than neighboring Target; multistory development wins on or off the highway). The ensuing Council discussion was somewhat encouraging, mostly predictable, and once unintentionally funny.
Encouraging: My previous post had its intended effect of inserting into the discussion the idea that low density, sprawling development is less valuable to the city’s tax base than more compact, multi-story development.
Predictable: The usual backlash complaining proposed regulations will kill all development along with the (false) presumption that asking questions about how we develop indicates a desire to preserve Northfield circa the Defeat of Jesse James.
More encouragement: let’s see if we can nudge the conversation past the adversarial stance where questions about how we develop are perceived as advocating for no development whatsoever to acknowledging:
1. Cities (with help from higher levels of government) adopted policies and spent money on infrastructure which encouraged and enabled the low density, low productivity pattern. In the news recently is this report on the policies which have encouraged unproductive development and its costs (See also CityLab, Washington Post, and the press release for the report). “The market” is not free, but the highest and best uses are strongly determined by government action.
2. Developers are not altruistic and will act to reduce their costs and increase their profit. Since government has helped make sprawl profitable for them and create the market for it, we shouldn’t be too surprised about fears that shifting regulations away from sprawl will hurt business. Private sector development has to be able to make money.
3. Cities need to make development deals which allow developers to make money, but also increase the city’s long-term economic and environmental health.
4. Reversing the unsustainable pattern of low density, high infrastructure cost, low tax revenue development will require a comprehensive and sustained effort involving leadership, education, policy and regulatory change, encouragement (and incentives), collaboration with other units of government and patience. The current proposed LDC changes are just a chance to open the conversation, but will change nothing on their own.
Funny: I just had to laugh when Council Members Delong and Ludescher complained about undermining the Planning Commission’s hard work. When I was on the Planning Commission, it was the Commission recommending actions perceived as anti-development; Mayor, then Council member, Graham lead the charge to overrule Planning Commission recommendations and encourage developers to come directly to the Council for approval. The Planning Commission is an advisory board; its recommendations can be accepted, revised or rejected depending on Council politics at the time. Circa 2003, it was the Council defending the status quo; in 2015, it is the Planning Commission.
Encourage the Council to continue to ask questions about how to promote the development which is sustainable and creates wealth for all taxpayers.