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Author Archive | Seth Zeren

Doing the Math

This article has been cross-posted from Strong RI with permission.

One of the fundamental insights of the Strong Towns movement is that in the 20th century we built vastly more public infrastructure than our tax base can support long-term maintenance on. Too much of our shiny and new development is actually low value per acre and for the amount of public investment required to support it. We call this “doing the math.”

For example, a developer comes to your town to build a new cul-de-sac carved out of a farm on the suburban fringe. In exchange for the right to build twenty houses they will build all of the public infrastructure to support them: roads, pipes, power lines, fire hydrants, etc. and then hand that over to the town. The town gets a free road and a bunch of new tax paying houses—growth! Tax receipts go up and the town uses them to pay for more and better schools, parks, public buildings, police, fire, etc. However, the long-term maintenance cost of repairing the roads, pipes, lines, etc. cannot be supported by the low tax revenue per length of road, pipe, line etc. Every thing is great for the first 30 years, but then the road needs to be repaved, the pipes lined, the sidewalk starts looking shabby.

Roughly speaking, public infrastructure needs can be understood as a function of intensity of service, amount of private investment, and land area. Bigger sites have more road fronting them, longer for pipes and wires to travel, etc. Higher demand uses create more demand for wider roads, bigger pipes, and fatter wires. A city or town should, in general, be looking to get the best value per acre. After all the city’s or town’s most fundamental resource is its land. Are you using it well? Are you getting a good return in tax revenue on your public investments? You might be surprised at how properties stack up.

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What the Amazon Headquarters Beauty Contest can teach us about Economic Development

This article has been cross-posted from Strong RI with permission.

The economic development world is all abuzz with last week’s news that Amazon is courting cities for a second headquarters that will match their current, in Seattle, with 50,000 employees and over 8 million square feet of office space. To no one’s surprise, the State of Rhode Island has declared its intention to submit a proposal to lure Amazon’s new offices and tens of thousands of highly paid workers.

Let’s first acknowledge that Rhode Island and Providence aren’t going to win this competition. A quick read-through of the Amazon RFP and a bit of reflection on the recent move of GE to Boston and Amazon’s current headquarters in urban Seattle and it’s clear that the Providence metro area doesn’t have the scale, employment base, public transportation system or any number of other requirements of the proposal. The State and City will no doubt offer a generous package of incentives. But so will dozens of other cities—cities that are larger, with faster growing populations of young college graduates, rapidly improving transit systems, superior bike infrastructure, and urban placemaking projects galore.

But this post isn’t about being negative. I get that the state has to respond to something like this, so I’m not going to dwell on whether that’s a good use of resources. I’m more interested in what this Amazon mega-RFP can teach us about what we need to be doing as a city and state if we want to grow our economy in the 21st century.

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Not the apartment for you

If you go to public hearings on new development projects often enough, you’ll hear a familiar refrain—the apartments are too small, there’s no garden, too little parking, etc.—which boils down to: “I wouldn’t want to live there.” Well, guess what, not everyone wants to live where you do.

Some people live alone, some people have big families; some people like small places that are easy to clean, some are cheap, some have lots of furniture; some people like to garden, some people like to come home from work and watch Netflix, some people drive, some people walk, bike, or take the bus. Well, perhaps, this building isn’t built for you.

Healthy neighborhoods need a range of housing types, from family sized apartments and homes, to micro units and hip bachelor lofts and everything in between. The desire to have other people live the way I do, (“I like to garden. Gardening is important to (my) community. This building has no gardens. Therefore it’s bad for our community”) is a suburban desire. It’s the desire for middle-class conformity and normalcy.

When you travel to other healthy cities around the world (or even in the US), you see the vast array of ways that people are happy to live. I hope that you’ve found a place you like to live; I don’t think it’s helpful to kick away the ladder of other people finding places they may like to live. Guess, what, this apartment isn’t for you.

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The impacts of where we park

A few weeks back my wife and I were walking around the corner of our street on the west side when we noticed that if felt different. On both sides of the street the curbs were parked with cars—our neighbors across the street were having a house party. Typically there are few cars parked on our street, with the consequence that the street feels very wide and cars go speeding down it. But with the street densely parked the drive lanes are narrowed; drivers feel more constrained driving down the street causing them to slow down. Sometimes cars even have to stop to give way to a car going the other way, helping slow traffic on an otherwise quiet residential street with many children and pets. There’s even a name for this kind of street, a “give-way street.”

We saw another example of this phenomena during PVD Fest. The Sunday party in Dexter Training Ground meant that hundreds of cars were parking in the usually vacant on-street parking spaces around the park. Usually Dexter Street and Parade Street feature cars accelerating up the wide drives past a park where children play, but again the parked cars slowed traffic by narrowing the road width, and bonus: put a wall of steel between the moving cars and the sidewalk and park.

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