A Placemaking Journal

‘Show Me the Money!’ New bumper sticker for the New Normal?

There hasn’t been a New Urbanist Council gathering for a while. Which is why a lot of pent-up anxiety — and hope — found release in Council sessions in Montgomery, Alabama, October 14-16.

These regionally organized Councils are intended to grapple with topics that should be on the table for annual Congress for the New Urbanism meetings but require give-and-take from a smaller group to better focus issues. So some 50 or so folks came to Montgomery to critique recent ideas and projects and to wrestle with propositions to position New Urbanism for the New Normal.

Here is Andres Duany with the overview:

There’s no shortage of topics to put on the table. When all else fails, there’s always the wither-goest-New Urbanism theme to fall back on. But now, thanks to an economy that’s humbled most of the know-it-alls in finance, housing and real estate, there’s a sense of urgency that might have been missing from the same discussion a half-dozen years ago.

The persistent thread in most discussions in Montgomery: “Show me the money!”

Return on investment was always a factor in New Urbanist planning. But it was easier to cope with bottom-line questions when the market was rockin’ and the people doing the asking were developers. New Urbanist design firms built a portfolio of cool places that provided eye-catching returns over time. Of course that was way back in the early days of this century when developers freely roamed the land, banks lent money and everybody assumed 20 percent annual appreciation.

Now the money questions are coming from the new power brokers in planning, economic development specialists in local and regional governments. This stuff you’re drawing looks pretty, say these guys, but what does it have to do with job creation? And now that we can’t stick developers with the bills for infrastructure, where’s the money going to come from?

There’s a way to turn the show-me-the-money question back on economic developers. I’ll make that case below. But first, here’s how Council participants came at the money question at both the macro and micro scales. Texas planner Scott Polikov presented the most aggressive big picture proposition: Leverage a form-based code as the equivalent of a master developer, a guarantor of long-term predictability in an unpredictable economic environment.

Showing an example of a Texas project with powerful transit-oriented-development opportunities, Polikov worked through a pitch to investors — including off-shore funds — emphasizing the potential for long-term returns on mixed-use development guided by the form-based code.

Here Polikov introduces his argument for getting New Urbanists into the international finance conversation:

Coming from the other direction, that of conventionally financed development on individual parcels, is John Anderson. The Chico, California-based designer/builder has been bugging designers to master the bottom-line vocabulary for years. Now it appears his time has come.

Anderson argues that, as dire as the market appears, we’re not at the end of all housing construction for all time. Single-family and multifamily residences will get built. But the realities of the new era in finance and community affordability argues for smaller, smarter designs that pencil out on profit and loss statements local bankers and accountants can understand. Anderson calls it planning for ROBD (Return on Brain Damage).

We’ve invited Anderson to pitch his ideas in this space soon. But in the meantime, here’s a preview:

Montgomery turned out to be a good vantage point from which to glimpse the recent history of New Urbanism. The downtown, where Dover, Kohl & Partners did planning and coding, found traction before the downturn. Two greenfield projects, Hampstead by DPZ and The Waters by PlaceMakers, book-ended the recession. And an infill block of shops and lofts underlines the challenges of getting the commercial/residential mix just right.

Here is Montgomery developer Anna Lowder talking about lessons learned:

Victor Dover, a CNU board member and veteran of the full range of New Urbanist adventures at just about every scale, was, with Duany, a Council keynoter. He provided the zen perspective, arguing that a forced slow down in development is not altogether a bad thing, especially if it allows designers and builders to be more respectful of context and complexity. What’s missing in many block-size New Urbanist projects from the go-go days, said Dover, is the advantage that comes with “intelligent incrementalism.” The slower pace allows for adapting future development stages to the experiences of stages that preceded them.

Here is Dover’s argument in his own words:

What the Montgomery Council didn’t quite get to was the core of the economic developers’ arguments about job creation. While the truth is job creation is far more complex than most of us imagine, there’s an increasingly convincing case to be made for placemaking as an economic development strategy. We’ve talked about the topic here, for instance, and here. And a new book out of Michigan, The Economics of Place: The Values of Building Communities Around People, lays out arguments for a specific region.

So now it’s time to level the playing field for the “Show me the money!” crowd. We know that the lowest unemployment figures are for college-educated workers. And we know that the most concentrated clusters of the college educated, especially college educated young people, are in vibrant urban centers.

It also happens that new company formations are more likely in those urban areas and that company expansions and relocations prioritize access to highly trained workers, quality of life for employees and predictable environments for growth. So let’s compare the advantages of strategies that enable those kinds of job-rich places with conventional strategies for bribing companies to move to areas where none of those advantages exist.

Who’s got the keys to new era economic development now?

–Ben Brown

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