The Commissioner — Spring 2010

Commissioner's Voice

The True Market for Smart Growth

By R. Hunter Gee
Metropolitan Nashville-Davidson County Planning Commission

Communities around the country are talking about smart growth. While many have developed community-driven visions for their future, implementation remains the challenge.

Small towns are seeing their historic centers and rural character continue to deteriorate. Large cities — economic engines of their regions — lack adequate affordable housing and have aging infrastructure. Mid-tier cities, after years of growth, realize that they have limited land for economic development or open space preservation.

We agree that the market drives economic development and growth. But is there an adequate market for high-density employment centers, urban living, or walkable mixed use retail centers? Cost to the consumer matters. Therefore, "the market" for urban infill is shallow given the cost of land, infrastructure, parking, and building codes plus developers' challenges with land-use policy and zoning, land assemblage, and NIMBYism. Urban infill is difficult, expensive and time-consuming, ultimately costing the consumer more than traditional development.

Ironically, the cost of urban infill to the community is much less. As Chris Leinberger points out in his book, The Option of Urbanism, Albuquerque, New Mexico, determined that the public infrastructure costs for suburban house­holds are 22 times more than those in urban areas. Conceivably, we taxpayers are paying 22 times more to provide a cheaper alternative for the consumer. Isn't this the definition of public subsidy?

So the playing field is not level. Until we offset additional developers' costs for urban infill and the community's costs for suburban sprawl, we don't truly understand what the market wants.

The City of Nashville has begun tackling the issue. Under Director Rick Bernhardt's leadership, the Metro Planning Commission has implemented new policy and zoning tools that incentivize redevelopment. The Community Character Manual, our new land-use policy application for the entire city, lays the ground­work for intensification coupled with high-quality urban design. Recent rezonings of our entire downtown and a number of our commercial corridors and centers offer developers greater heights, and thus more development potential.

Land-use policy and zoning changes are a first step. Infrastructure-related fees, utility rates, and stormwater requirements in most communities are inequitable, given the cost to the community. Land costs and land assemblage will remain two of the biggest hurdles to overcome.

Regional government and restructuring the tax system and fees are unappealing to most politicians. Schools, police cars, and sewer lines do not vote. People do.

First, people must embrace a common vision that we support in the election booth. Next we must understand the true cost to the community for infrastructure, maintenance, and services. Finally, we must provide our elected officials with a clear roadmap to offsetting those costs, one at a time. Only then will we level the playing field, create choice for the consumer, and understand the true market for smart growth.