Thursday, October 11, 2018

Growth and Infrastructure

The City of Richardson's planning and zoning commission approved the long promised "Town Central" development on the land surrounding the Chase Bank building on Main Street in downtown Richardson.
Called Town Central, the planned project includes 430 apartments and townhomes, more than 20,000 square feet of retail and commercial space, parking garages and open space. ... Paris Rutherford, principal with Catalyst Urban Development, told the planning commission. "This will be equivalent of kind of a Bishop Arts District feel."

Rutherford knows how to win votes by promising to recreate the popular Bishop Arts District vibe in downtown Richardson. Promises, promises. We'll see. Dallas's Bishop Arts District itself has seen a flurry of new development that has been met with some resistance by local residents and doubts by urban planning experts. So, color me skeptical that a Richardson developer can replicate the good parts from scratch. I've been burned before.

But that's not what primarily prompts this blog post. On Facebook, a critic reacted to the news with, "I'm tired of them continuously adding more apartments. The infrastructure can't handle it."

Is that true?

If you are speaking of schools, maybe yes, maybe no. High-priced, one-bedroom apartments, which many of these new units are, usually add very few children to the neighborhood schools. But for argument's sake, let's grant the claim. If you add housing, you'll add children. If you add enough children, you need to add on to schools or build new schools. But what this analysis omits is that the new children bring new parents (aka taxpayers) to pay for those new schools, so the so-called problem brings with it resources needed to solve the problem.

If you are speaking of streets, it's a different story. In the case of Town Central, no new streets are needed to support this huge addition of apartments, townhomes, retail and commercial space. The streets are already there. We're just filling in parking lots. In fact, the increased density makes paying for surrounding street maintenance more affordable by spreading the cost out among more property taxpayers.

Strong Towns highlights a case that "perfectly illustrates the financial problem with the suburban development model." Fate, Texas, east of Rockwall, recently annexed a neighborhood that includes a cul-de-sac with 22 houses. When faced with the need to repave that street, which had been neglected by the county, the city realized that it would take seventeen years of property taxes from the 22 homeowners to pay for the cost of even the cheapest method of repair, a chip seal, that might last only 5-7 years. And that's if the neighborhood taxes were entirely dedicated to street maintenance, leaving police and fire protection and every other city service unfunded. It also would require using none of the property taxes on shared arterials that the 22 homeowners need to go anywhere once they leave their own cul-de-sac. In 5-7 years, the city would be looking at needing to do it again, while still looking at ten or more years of collecting taxes to pay off the previous reseal. The mathematics of the problem are easy to see on a cul-de-sac, but the same problem faces suburban development all across America, not just in cul-de-sacs. Simply put, the mathematics are not sustainable.

So, if you think we can't afford higher density development because "the infrastructure can't handle it," you've got the argument exactly backwards. We have a problem affording basic street repairs in suburbia, but the solution lies in more density, not less.


glbeach said...

Mark, I'm not certain I can support your analysis of this. I do understand the Fate discussion - that's fine. But having lived in an apartment before I also know I did not as a citizen - or as a parent pay taxes per se. I understand the logical extension that the apartment owners will be paying property taxes - and therein lies the rub. Have any of the builders of apartments been granted any tax abatement to construct apartments in Richardson? I do not know. I do know many commercial structures have received some tax largess from various political subdivisions.

I suspect the real basis of the comment, "the infrastructure can't support it" is based in the frustration many feel as they sit through a traffic light for the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th time in areas where traffic was once free flowing. And also at the degradation of some main arteries based on the higher usage they now sustain.

I do hope they can achieve some degree of the "Bishop Arts" vibe in and around 75 at Main. Frankly, I liked your idea of putting 75 below ground level and turning that entire area into a pedestrian park akin to what is seen over Woodall Rogers in downtown Dallas.

At least, that is one man's opinion.

Mark Steger said...

Gary, you make good points. Tax abatements have been handed out too freely. But note that the ones I'm aware of are abatements for city taxes, not school taxes.

Also note that tax abatements are temporary, but cities live forever. In the long run, there will be additional funds for those streets. Not as much funds as if the tax abatements were treated like handing out real money (which they are), but still more than if those parking lots remained undeveloped forever.

As for keeping the cars moving, I think designing our cities for max cars is another source of unsustainability. Paving enough lanes so you don't ever have to wait for two or three light changes to get through an intersection during morning and evening commutes leaves us with streets that are ridiculously over-built the other 18 hours in the day. Our lack of patience is extravagantly expensive.

glbeach said...

Hopefully, as time passes, Richardson will move farther along the path of the 2009 Comprehensive Plan and actually have more "transit oriented" development so that there will be affordable and reasonable alternatives to having to essentially drive everywhere you may need to go. Granted shifting the societal and cultural mindset away from driving to biking, walking, busing, or trains will take quite some time to accomplish but as each of these alternatives is more properly designed into the "design" fabric of the city they will be more acceptable. And more mature and available.