Can’t Catch a Break

Above: A block of small storefronts on 95th Street is prepared for demolition to make way for an auto parts store and a parking lot. Is this what passes for economic growth in our neighborhood?

The more I think about the intersection of economic growth and the physical development of neighborhoods, the more I come to see that the cards are stacked against the little guys. Small-scale developers, entrepreneurs, people who rent their residences by choice or necessity — the converging systems of finance, zoning and planning are almost always set up to limit access to personal or community economic development. Sometimes it is intentional, such as when communities enact large-lot, single- family zoning in order to ensure that their neighbors are only the types of people who can afford such a property. Other times, the little guy is collateral damage, the unintended consequence of good intentions gone bad, such as when we sacrifice walkable streets for high-speed, high capacity thoroughfares, ensuring that a resident of the area must spend a sizable chunk of his or her income on a car just to take care of routine errands.

Consider two stories:

  • In one, a man sets out to buy a small, run-down, mixed-use building in a Cincinnati-area neighborhood and turn it into a property that not only generates income for himself but also can serve as an affordable residence and commercial space for the neighborhood that could use a refresh of its infrastructure as well as new services. However, he can’t get a loan, not because he’s a bad businessman, but because the bank has strict rules about lending for what it considers “investment properties” (typically mixed-use buildings) — minimal loan amounts, commercial vs. residential space, etc. Nevermind that properties in many mixed-use urban neighborhoods are appreciating in value faster than their suburban counterparts and serve as viable fixtures in their communities. So, the man backs away from his plan, opting to buy a residential property instead, leaving the future of the mixed-use building and a good commercial space for a local entrepreneur up in the air.
  • In another, a developer in Cleveland proposes a building with 34 apartments and no parking spaces, a type of traditional building that exists in many cities (think about Chicago’s courtyard apartment buildings), yet has been difficult to build in the past 50 years due to minimum parking requirements written into zoning codes. The Cleveland Board of Zoning Approvals recognized that this type of development would enhance its neighborhood and approved the proposal. But the lending bank was another issue. Without the parking, the bank didn’t think the development would be feasible and refused to grant a loan. The city was forced to write the bank a letter assuring them that the lack of parking wouldn’t be an issue.

These are just two examples of the barriers to economic growth in traditional neighborhoods as well as communities that want to make room for the little guys, the small businesses, the risk takers, the people who add value to a neighborhood little by little. Cities leaders and residents are beginning to see the advantages of walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods and the role they play in fostering entrepreneurial development. Yet a web of policies at all levels of government combined with large financial institutions that are skittish about disrupting the post World War II status quo of development threaten to snarl the sort of growth that would produce the kinds of places Americans increasingly say they want to live in. Whether people live in the city, suburbs or rural hinterlands, they are asking for walkable neighborhoods but being force fed the same pattern of suburban development that we are now realizing costs more to maintain than we are often willing to pay.

Last month, a widely circulated report by the Regional Plan Association explained how the policies of Department of Housing and Urban Development, Federal Housing Administration, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac policies favor single-family, low-density housing developments over their mixed-use counterparts, thereby limiting development opportunities, housing choices and options for commercial space, such as the classic Main Street building that offers a storefront below, dwelling space above. By placing regulatory limits on the amount of non-residential space in a building, these agencies hinder the development of many small-scale, mixed-use projects and re-investment in traditional neighborhoods by curtailing access to federally guaranteed loans and loan insurance. The report notes that 81 percent of federal loans and loan guarantees support single-family home ownership. The rules that these institutions are guided by limit the amount of non-residential space in a building to about one-quarter. In other words, good luck getting a loan for a two-apartment, one-storefront building. Or for adding a residential unit or two above your shop to bring in extra income. But as long as you want a to construct a single-family house or have the means to build a large-scale mixed-use building, congratulations! You’re in good shape. Given what neighborhood politics and zoning ordinances are in many American communities, you’ll probably be less likely to build the latter, though, so the former will continue to proliferate. If we don’t have (smaller, local) financial backers willing to support those in-between projects, we will always get more of the same and continue to prevent opportunities for those who want to do something different. (I highly recommend reading the full report I linked to above — it isn’t terribly heavy on jargon. But if you’re strapped for time, check out the abridged version.)

I’m often asked what we can do to encourage more development in our neighborhood, and the glib answer would be, “Do the opposite of everything we’ve been doing.” I don’t consider myself a deregulate-everything-type, but when you see that existing policies might be doing more harm than good, it might be time to think about switching gears or putting a different set of policies in place in order to get the result you want. In some cases, such as the aforementioned bias against small-scale mixed use, the policies are at the federal level, making change a difficult, highly political process. What we can do in that case is make sure we are asking our elected officials where they stand on these issues and electing the people dedicated to turning things around. It’s already becoming clear that some people at the federal level are noticing that antiquated rules are having negative consequences. Even HUD has already relaxed its regulations regarding the commercial space to residential space ratio.

But that is more of a response to the question of what can we as a society do. (The “royal ‘we,’” as one Jeffrey Lebowski might say.) The question I hear most often, though, is in regard to the more local “we,” the residents of Beverly, Morgan Park and Mount Greenwood. I often feel that people who ask this are interested in some type of financial incentive. While I’m not totally opposed to incentives, I tend to think that in many cases they mask larger issues. Tax increment financing (TIF), for instance, asks the government to pick winners and losers when it comes to development, and often, the winner is the person with the time and resources to devote to an extensive review and approval process and create a large-scale, quick-fix project. Done in a vacuum outside of a more comprehensive redevelopment plan, TIF ignores factors like street design, zoning, population density and access to transit that might also be part of the reason development just isn’t happening. And when our officials favor large scale projects, they take on huge risks — like the fact that a bankruptcy doesn’t just impact one parcel, it can impact a whole community. Governments that give these types of incentives are often like failing restaurants who try to attract customers by constantly offering low price specials while refusing to consider that maybe the food just isn’t that good

The most basic thing we can do is simply build a better, more resilient neighborhood — or at least advocate for one. Think about this: One of the key aspects of a community businesses look for when considering where to open is placemaking, or what can commonly be referred to a quality of life issues. Can people easily access things in the neighborhood? Are there amenities nearby that attract new residents, enhance property values and foster a sense of place? Can a person walk to the potential new business safely and conveniently? Can an entrepreneur easily start up a small business that can grow and build wealth over time?

These are things that we can tackle at the city and neighborhood levels, making our community a better place little by little. We can paint narrower travel lanes on our streets to help calm traffic and make being a pedestrian safer. We can take a “complete streets” approach to our wide arterials to accommodate multiple modes of transportation, including bikes. New York City is doing this perhaps better than any other place in the country, and officials there recognize the economic benefits. At one busy intersection in Harlem, traffic reconfiguration and new public space resulted in a 48 percent increase in retail sales.

We can tie together corridors that are disjointed patchworks of parking lots and single-use buildings. Taking a comprehensive look at the parking we have and how it can best serve the needs of the entire area is a more responsible approach to accommodating motor vehicles that blindly requiring developments to include a minimum number of on-site spaces. Parking spaces in general are expensive ($29,000 per above-ground garage space in Chicago), and while surface parking lots are cheaper, they still are barriers for small-scale developers and entrepreneurs: Is it more valuable to put money into your business or buy another lot next door to fulfill a zoning requirement for parking? Is it more valuable to devote half your parcel to asphalt or 100 percent of your site to a profitable service?

I could go on, but the message will remain the same: Remove barriers that prevent the small scale developer and the entrepreneur from getting into the game and building local wealth, and strengthen the public realm to foster vibrancy. The key thing to remember, though, is that this type of growth takes time. It requires patience and the implementation of many inexpensive, low-risk changes primarily aimed at remedying an extensive, decades-old system that favored a single form of growth — suburban sprawl — above all else, long-term liabilities be damned. It’s easy to attract big names with the promise of public money or a blank canvas to construct their megastore. But these places don’t stick around forever. They have little allegiance to the community. When they leave — and they will leave — all they have to offer are gaping holes in the economic and social fabric of the neighborhood.

We’ve had some economic wins in recent years with entrepreneurs who have managed to work within the system to bring something fresh to the neighborhood, whether it be delicious sweet potato creations, craft beer or quilting supplies. But we also continue to bank on the status quo with drive-thru fast food joints, Walgreens and an auto parts store that is one of the more misguided developments I’ve seen in recent memory. (As recently as February, business reporters were talking about Advance Auto Parts’ weak sales and whether O’Reilly Automotive, which operates a store just a few blocks from the future Beverly Advance site, would buy out the company.) It’s as though we are so hungry for new development that we are willing to settle for those that are less than optimal. Instead, we should be priming our neighborhood for what’s good. It’s time we worked toward a new paradigm for economic growth in the 19th Ward.

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