Let’s Take Advantage of The Bad Times

With city budgets shrinking rapidly, municipal governments are desperate to collect property tax revenue wherever they can find it. So they are moving to fast-track new, large development projects that can bring an infusion of new revenue, construction jobs and as other community benefits. It may be economic stimulus, but neighborhood activists are worried about the negative impact of rushing to develop.

Some legislators have listened to their constituents, and are doing what they can to slow down this runaway train. In Boston, a state representative filed a bill recently to prevent a 47-story tower from casting shadows over one of the city’s most recognizable public spaces — Copley Square. Meanwhile, a city councilor told a local newspaper he’d like to see more careful review of small development projects, such as a one-floor addition to a two-family house, even if the projects are allowed by the local zoning to proceed without that review. If the project doesn’t meet the standards residents have set for their neighborhoods, the city could refuse to issue a building permit.

I haven’t had a chance to read the fine print in the proposed economic stimulus package weaving its way through Congress. But clearly what municipal leaders want is more short-term economic development and less long-term planning. There has been quite a bit of outcry among those who see Obama using the stimulus package to do things that won’t really stimulate the economy at all in the very short term. Things like building a green jobs economy, very noble goals but not exactly “shovel-ready.”

It is just this sort of economic slowdown that presents an opportunity for neighborhood activists to put their heads together and create long-term plans for the development they want. When everybody had credit, development seemed unstoppable, it was a deluge. Now municipal leaders are drowning in red ink and they wish Washington would turn the spigot back on. But just as the new administration has lofty goals of changing the economy for the long term, cities and towns should take this down time to do the same at the local level. Throwing money at more of the same kind of development that was thrown up during the housing bubble, without concern for the irreversible negative impacts, seems pretty foolish.

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


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