Tuesday, December 22, 2009

TADs and encouraging revitalization

Stephanie Ramage's recent post about TADs is interesting.  I disagree with Ramage about the magnitude of her criticisms, but I think they are very valid.  To summarize, she views them as too politically motivated and too big a burden on services and future tax revenue.

She uses Historic Westside Village as a sort of case study, which I think isn't very illustrative - Westside Village started as a Bill Campbell boondoggle, and the TAD component comes in later in the story.

There are plenty of other successful TAD projects in the city, but I largely I think Ramage's criticisms shouldn't be completely dismissed.  As a supporter of TADs, I wouldn't be doing myself any favors by ignoring the very real risks inherent with TADs. 

What I want to focus on though is what I think the fundamental difficulty with TADs is:

But the trick to a TAD, says John Matthews, an expert on TADs at Georgia State University's Fiscal Research Center, is that they should be designated for areas that are truly blighted.

Atlantic Station, for example, was built on a brownfield, a place so contaminated by the steel mill that formerly occupied it that no one wanted to build anything there. Oddly enough, it was developers, not City Council members, who came up with the plan for Atlantic Station.
The problem I have with this statement is that TADs are designed to help areas where the market does not support development.  At the end of the day, Ramage is basically saying the city has no business trying to finance development in areas that can't support it.  I think there is a case for the "but for" criteria TADs are designed around, but I don't really want to focus on that at present. 

I think the biggest problem with Westside Village (and lots of other developments) is that people have tried to take short-cuts to the neighborhood revitalization cycle by skipping the "risk-oblivious" stage that includes artists and young people.  Simply building new stuff in bad neighborhoods isn't going to revitalize anything, as we are seeing.

If we can agree that the city should be trying to revitalize downtrodden areas, then just how SHOULD it be trying to do this instead of with TADs?

Going back to neighborhood cycle, I think it is a matter of identifying what attracts the risk-oblivious and the risk-aware residents.  Some folks will suggest that true revitalization is spontaneous, and the government just gets in the way.  That might in fact be true if we are talking about historical government "revitalization" programs like Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium or Underground Atlanta.  But can anything be done that might try to encourage more traditional, "spontaneous" revitalization?

So what are risk-oblivious and risk-aware residents attracted to, other than low rents?  A sense of community, pedestrian environments, historic bungalows, local stores, neighborhood amenities, local bars and clubs.  So perhaps instead of issuing bonds to finance new, private commercial development, the city should be focusing on supporting community amenities to compete with the suburbs.

What can the city invest in and offer that the suburbs can't?  We can spend more on transit and neighborhood parks.  We can use financial programs to encourage rehabbing old homes and small-business loans for local shops and restaurants.  We can make zoning easier for nightlife.  We can spend our energy on improving street grids and infrastructure, as painful as that can be for the public.  And finally, we need to provide a high quality of basic services such as public safety.

While I still think TADs are a good idea, I also think that they can divert our attention from the more fundamental issue of attracting people to the city.  If we can attract people to the city, then TADs will be much more successful in terms of getting projects over the hump.  

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