Planning vs. Development: Can We Really Choose One?

In theory, the current financial crisis is a good thing for neighborhood planning. With developers slowing down their projects because they can’t get financing, there may be an opening for planners and community leaders to step up their long term visioning and strategy efforts. A window of opportunity has opened up, during which community groups can try to work more closely with city, business and institutional leaders to craft intelligent plans to set the tone for future development.

As I said, in theory. Even another Great Depression wouldn’t change the basic mind-set of most mayors and corporate heads, which is that more development equals better development. Of course, given that more development naturally leads to increased tax revenue.

So twisting the arms of our leaders to shake loose benefits for things communities really need — reasonably-priced housing; stores that sell things people actually need; decent public transit — will continue to be a great struggle. It will happen as a result of the development approval process — where developers make deals to give certain things to city government or to neighborhood groups — rather than through a rational, forward-thinking planning process that precedes development.

Here in Boston there is a program known as linkage that has been in place for 20 years through which the city government gleans funds from commercial development projects over 100,000 square feet in size. The funds are collected at a rate of roughly $8 per square foot and redirected toward affordable housing projects. Another $2 or so per square foot is taken and redirected for job training. It ends up being a pretty substantial amount of money — often millions from each development.

The money goes into a city-wide kitty and only rarely comes back to the neighborhood where it was raised. And yet because of the potential this money represents, CDCs that have an outside chance to be the developers who get access to this money find themselves wondering if they should voice support for the corporate development projects. Even though the project itself might not be of much use for the people who have to live in the immediate vicinity.

Often these development projects are so huge that they violently overrun the existing zoning rules for the land they’re built on. The city, eager to have the money (and the property taxes), says sure, you can overrun our zoning. And the CDC is left wondering, do we make a stand for good planning, or do we make a stand for the outside chance of making some money ourselves?

This is a question that comes up for community groups even in the best of economic times. There are ways out of the contradiction of CDCs being both planners and developers — CDCs can form separate 501©3 agencies to do development, for example. But the fact is that CDCs are often grass-roots, neighborhood-based organizations that residents expect to provide planning leadership. At the same time, they are dependent on physical development for their survival.

David Holtzman is a planner for Louisa County, Virginia, a freelance writer, and a former Shelterforce editor.


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