Bike trails, transit lines and compact multistory urban development are more than just feel-good projects for those with a green streak.
They, along with other aspects of “smart growth,” add value to cities as they compete for jobs and population in the new economy.
That was the message from planning professionals from across the country gathered downtown at the sixth annual Louisiana Smart Growth Summit, hosted by the Center for Planning Excellence.
“There’s sort of an altruistic theme going on,” observed Jane Brooks, who chairs the urban planning program at the University of New Orleans, commenting Friday near the end of the two-day summit.
“But there’s also a competitiveness of cities and how to position your city as the place where the new investment is going to go and where the jobs are going to go,” she said.
Through countless slides and statistics, panelists stressed that compact developments, tied together by transit lines, are a money-saver in the long run for local municipalities and their residents because they cut down on travel, infrastructure and public safety costs.
Many pointed to the area between LSU and downtown — a neighborhood known as Old South Baton Rouge — as a place where housing and commercial services could be developed without the high costs associated with building in outlying areas lacking infrastructure.
“If I go anywhere in America and I see hundreds of acres between the university and downtown, I want to create value there,” said Tom Murphy, a former mayor of Pittsburgh and a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute.
The Old South neighborhood has been identified by the proposed Future BR comprehensive plan as a good site for a streetcar line along Nicholson Drive. And transit lines are often what add value and desirability to property, said Chris Leinberger, visiting fellow with the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution.
“You put a streetcar line down there, and you will get high-quality development,” Leinberger said.
“You’re sitting on a huge opportunity here,” Murphy remarked.
“Downtown housing has become very valuable, and there’s a real premium in the desirability of living downtown,” Brooks said, noting a number of new residential units are being planned in New Orleans for new buildings and retrofitted older structures.
“And there’s been a lot of economic development discussion around communities wanting to attract this sort of ‘creative class,’ ” she said. “Often younger people will choose the community before they choose the job. So they’ll choose where they want to be, and then they go look for a job in that environment.”
When cities continue to sprawl — an endemic situation found in many communities across the country — the costs to maintain them rises with each mile of added roadway and sewer line, planners said.
“What we told people is, if you don’t support urban development, what you’re really saying is, I’m a homeowner and raise my taxes,” said Mitchell Silver, chief planning and economic development officer and director city planning in Raleigh, N.C.
“You don’t have to add taxes. You don’t have to cut services. You just have to plan smarter,” he added.
However, no matter how “smart” a new infill project manages to be, it often still requires site improvements such as utilities or even transit stops. These are often funded by using tax increment financing, where the increased property tax the development will generate is used to fund some of the infrastructure and other costs.
Locally, these arrangements have drawn the ire of tea party members who disapprove of both the government meddling in private enterprise and taxes being levied without a vote.
“The citizens have a right to vote on any tax that goes before them,” said Joyce Linde, a member of the Tea Party of Lafayette, who sat on a panel about the controversial financial instruments and their potential role in development.
But Charles Landry, a fellow panelist and lawyer specializing in TIF arrangements, said that if a TIF is applying only the additional sales or property taxes to itself, it need only be voted on by the residents within that district.