Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Town Center School...continued

I think Evan and I are talking past each other.

After my first post against setting aside land in Town Center for a school site, Evan wrote a lengthy reply arguing that my concept of a school – ugly, sprawling, at odds with the rest of the proposed Town Center – was wrong while ignoring my bigger concern, that requiring General Growth to set aside land for a school site would force us to sacrifice some other amenity, like plazas, affordable housing, public art, and other non-profitable but socially-desirable goods.

Although I was prepared to, a commentor stepped in and refuted much of Evan's glowing claims about the benefits and usefulness of a school site in Town Center, even mentioning that we could reopen Faulkner Ridge Elementary School to accommodate the additional students that will be generated by new development (something I had thought about but not written about).

Yesterday, I reiterated the important point in this issue:

If we force the landowners to set aside a piece of land for a school, what other amenity will we be sacrificing? I think we have to assume that there is a limit to the amount of "proffers" we can expect from General Growth and that this limit is related to what we give them.
I thought it was a pretty straightforward question, but Evan's response leads me to believe otherwise. After proclaiming that he and everyone he knows wants General Growth to make a huge profit (something I didn't think we were contesting), he gets to the meat of his argument:
There are certain inherent costs that come with new residential development such as schools, transit systems, and parking. These are costs the developer bares in exchange for the ability to make their huge profits. If it were any other way it would mean that the tax payers would have to pay and why should tax payers have to pay to give someone else a profit? New residential units will mean we will need more classroom space…and thus to say that it is an "either schools or other amenities" argument is patently false. The cost is there and it has to be borne.
After mischaracterizing my argument, Evan then goes on to wonder about the integrity of our elected officials, which is also beside the point.

What about school costs? How, ostensibly, is additional capacity funded. For every new house we allow to be built in Howard County, the total cost of providing the same level of services in this county goes up (while, in theory, average costs stay the same or shrink). Because of these added costs, the county imposes fees on every new residential unit – among others, there is one dedicated to transportation infrastructure and one dedicated to schools ($1 per square foot of living space).

All development in Howard County is subject to these "impact" fees, including development in Town Center. These fees probably do not capture the full costs development imposes on the county, but that is a completely different problem, unrelated to Town Center. If we think the fees are too low, than let's discuss that in its own context, not in the context of downtown. Although we can (maybe/sort of) charge more for development in Town Center through the use of Tax Increment Financing or something similar, doing so would be unfair and might send the wrong signals (unless, it was a very well thought-out, targeted plan).

So, we wouldn’t be pushing the costs of Town Center onto the taxpayers any more than we do with other developments. As I said, if this is a problem, it is its own problem, not Town Center's.

Sometimes, though, developers offer the county more "reimbursement" in exchange for a sweetened deal. Jim Rouse did this with Columbia, donating sites for schools in every neighborhood, many of which the county chose not to use and have since become neighborhood parks. And that is what we're talking about here: General Growth donating land for a school site in Town Center – not whether new development has to pay for school capacity.

My main concern is that General Growth will only offer so much for the right to additional development, meaning we have to prioritize what we think is most import. I'm sure they would set aside land for a school, but after doing so, they may resist building a non-trivial amount of affordable housing or utilizing green building design or building large plazas or helping fund a better downtown transit system or whatever else we’d like to see because these would cut too much into their potential profits to make the Town Center plan financially viable.

Rather than a new school site, I’d like to see a better transit system, a true commitment to affordable housing, green buildings, and more cultural and entertainment choices – none of which represent the pinnacle of profitability – included in Town Center. That is not to say there isn’t a need for additional school capacity. It’s just that I don’t think additional school capacity in downtown is the best use of the limited supply of land or the limited “profit” the community stands to make from this development.


Evan said...

The school site is not "profit" it is a cost that comes with new residential and the question is in part how is it paid for. I will post more on this later at but for now I wan to correct a mischaracterization in this post:

I did not “wonder about the integrity of our elected officials”. To the contrary I was speaking with confidence that our elected officials are politically skilled enough to understand one of the core principles of politics: voters don’t like it when they have to pay taxes to pad someone else’s profits.

I have great confidence that our elected officials have the basic political insticts to realize this.

There is a lot of other stuff in your post that I will get to in a later full post, but for starters I think your assumptions start at the wrong point that clearly doesn't recognize the power the community has in this process.

We have something the developer wants: more residential units. In exchange for those residential units we set the terms for what we need from the developer if they want those residential units. The community, through our elected officials, is in the driver’s seat. The developer's desire for the massive profits they will get is far more than any pressure they can put on us. They want their profits as quickly and as big as possible and the best way for them to get those is to be a partner with the community and provide the infrastructure costs including schools, transit, parking, affordable housing, plazas and public art that will make downtown vibrant, livable, economically sustainable downtown true to Howard County values of mixed income housing, preservation of greenspace, and planning before we build so we have the infrastructure to meet the community's needs.

We are not going to get into playing one community need off another. We hold the power and there is no need to. Stop thinking of this as a begging for scraps. The developer wants something from us. That is the starting point.

Anonymous said...

This is cross-posted at Evanblog

There is one thing Evan and so many others seem to forget. They hold up the original work the Rouse COmpany did as the model but the Rouse Company paid exactly nothing for ammenities. They of corse, formed the Columbia Association, which financed every single ammenity we have on the promise of payment from the people of Columbia. In fact, that is the very reason CA has such an enormous debt. The developer sold all of the houses or at least the units to developers with all the promises of ammenities but didn't finance any of it. The Columbia Association will make millions as well with increase assessment revenue - why shouldn't they bare much of the amenity building "brunt". It is after all - why they were created in the first place.

I agree with his assessment that the developer needs to come forward with some quid pro quo and land is probably the best way to do that, but Hayduke is exactly right, it is unreasonable to go to the that trough for EVERYTHING we need. That might work in la-la land where wishing makes it so, but that just doesn't hold water here.