Should We Subsidize a Town Center?

 

By Dom Nozzi

September 26, 2002

Why have property values have risen recently in American town centers? As someone who has lived in a town center neighborhood since the late 1980s, I would attribute the recent increase to a number of things.

First, many cities have seen a dramatic improvement in the health and perceived safety of downtown in recent times, which makes town center neighborhoods a more hip and fun place to live. For those yuppies who are concerned about safety, an apparently safer place to live is another reason.

Yuppies and other wealthy people have been gentrifying town center neighborhoods by renovating homes and bidding up the value of homes by moving into such neighborhoods at increasing rates. The yuppies are being attracted by the other improvements I mention here.

Town center neighborhoods tend to be built with timeless design strategies that will NEVER go out of style. That is, unlike contemporary neighborhoods, it is walkable, human-scaled, romantic, and safe for kids and seniors and pets. It is designed to make PEOPLE happy instead of cars. It is therefore a sociable, friendly place where people know each other and watch out for each others’ collective security. It comes as no surprise, as a result, that many town center neighborhoods now have the fastest rate of property value increase of any neighborhood in the region.

The tragedy? Nearly all local governments in America make it largely illegal to build these kinds of neighborhoods in other parts of the city. The streets are too narrow, the setbacks are too modest. There is too much mixed use and mixed housing types. The street intersections are too small. Etc. Etc. Etc. We have met the enemy and he is us…

In recent years, a growing number of people have been getting sick of the congestion, street without on street parkingtraffic danger, sterility, auto-dependence, and lack of neighborhood friends that they find in Sprawlsville. As a result, in growing numbers, we are seeing people seek out the traditional, in-town neighborhoods nationwide. They are seeking a sense of place. A sense of community. Things they are denied in their suburban, antiseptic lifestyles.

Does It Make Sense for a Community to Subsidize Their Town Center?:

I believe we are using a very important principle when we “subsidize” a town center. The principle that says we should tax what we want less of and subsidize what we want more of. We want less sprawl and a more healthy town center.

Sadly, too many cites mostly subsidize sprawl and add burdens to their town center.

I don’t think there can be any question that a healthy town center benefits the entire community. Even those who live in the suburbs. A healthy town center increases suburban property values. Instills civic pride. Creates a sense of community. Creates a necessary lifestyle choice.

Assuming we can agree that we ALL benefit from a healthy town center, why should we not subsidize something we want more of, or want to improve? Is it not a matter of fairness and equity? After all, we’ve  poured BILLIONS of tax dollars into ROAD subsidies in sprawlsville (interstates, multi-lane arterials, etc.). WAY more than we would ever subsidize in a town center. Many suburban road subsidies induce the market to build large shopping areas and shopping malls. Without the Big Roads subsidy, those places don’t exist. With the subsidy, the malls swoop in and in the process KILL town centers. So a TINY subsidy for downtown is simply a tiny way to try to even the playing field, and compensate for how public tax subsidies have destroyed the town center. Nevertheless, the town center subsidy pales in comparison to the sprawl subsidy for roads, utilities, emergency service, postal, etc. It is those who live in sprawl that are on welfare in a BIG way. When so many suburban dwellers attack tiny town center subsidies, they are demonstrating hypocrisy.

And getting back to why suburban folks should support a healthy town center: A healthy town center means that people are less likely to desire to flee in-town locations for sprawl locations. And as we all know, it is WAY more costly to provide services and public facilities in those remote locations (and by providing those facilities and services, we subsidize people in remote locations). THAT costly sprawl is the primary reason why we have “high” and growing taxes at the local level. Costly sprawl lifestyles, NOT tiny town center subsidies, are the prime drivers of high and growing local taxes.

Another way of putting this: If we desire to moderate the property tax burden, the most effective way we can do that is by ending subsidies for sprawl, and increasing subsidies for in-town locations. By proposing we stop the public assistance for a healthy town center, suburban folks cut their own throats. Because a downwardly spiraling town center means more flight to costly sprawl locations. This flight ultimately causes our taxes to go through the roof.

Or we accept a lower quality of life. Or both. The tax increase due to tiny town center subsidies are trivial by comparison.

If it were up to me, we’d pour a lot more subsidy into our town centers, because I believe doing so would be equitable and beneficial to the entire community.

 

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Filed under Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design

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