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Posts from the Smart Growth America Category

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Here’s How 45 Firms Explained Why They’re Moving Downtown

Two or three decades ago, the standard criteria for choosing an office location was often, “Where does the boss live?” says land use strategist Christopher Leinberger. And the boss inevitably lived in a car-oriented suburb.

core_values_reportBut the tide’s been shifting for a while now, with more American companies ditching suburban office parks for downtown locations. In 2013, Zappo’s chose to head to the center of Las Vegas, setting up shop in the former City Hall building. Biogen, a global biotech firm, tried out the Boston suburbs for four years before moving back to the heart of Cambridge in 2014. In downtown Raleigh, software firm Citrix recently took over an abandoned warehouse just three blocks from the Amtrak station.

Smaller companies are doing it, too, in smaller urban areas. In Conway, Arkansas, this year, Big Cloud Analytics opened a two-person office, pinning their company’s expected growth to the downtown’s projected resurgence.

A new report from Smart Growth AmericaCore Values: Why American Companies Are Moving Downtown” [PDF], takes stock of this trend over the past five years and seeks to understand what motivates these companies to choose central locations.

George Washington University’s Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis and the real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield surveyed 500 companies that made the move downtown and interviewed executives at 45 of them. It was like a “giant focus group looking at why people are doing this,” said Leinberger, who helped guide the report. An interactive map shows where these companies are relocating.

The survey identified a few key factors underlying the move downtown. The biggest one is an increased ability to recruit and retain employees — companies are finding they get a competitive edge with an office in an accessible, walkable location.

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Calculating the Big Impact of Sprawl on Cities’ Bottom Line

A Smart Growth America fiscal impact analysis found that high-density development produced way better returns for local political jurisdictions.

The fiscal impact of different development scenarios for a 1,400-acre parcel in Madison, Wisconsin, on government’s bottom line. The sprawliest scenarios provide the smallest public returns. Chart: Smart Growth America

When someone builds a new home, does it make the city stronger and more fiscally sound? Or does it drain public resources? The answer depends a lot on where it’s sited and, more specifically, where it lies in relation to other homes and businesses.

Smart Growth America has developed a fiscal impact model that helps predict how developments will help or hurt the municipal bottom line. The tool they developed [PDF] takes into account how density affects the cost of delivering city services, from streets and sewers to fire protection, school busing, and garbage collection.

SGA applied its model to a proposed 1,400-acre development in Madison, Wisconsin, called Pioneer Square. Researchers varied the density and number of units across five development scenarios, ranging from “low density” (about two housing units per acre) to “Compact Plus 50″ (about 7 units per acre).

According to SGA’s model, the higher density development scenarios would have a far better effect on the city’s budget [PDF]. Compared to the “low density” scenario, “Compact Plus 50″ would generate 233 percent more revenue per acre for the city.

SGA says the results are actually conservative because the tool assumes higher-density properties will have lower taxable value, due to smaller lot sizes.

Unfortunately, most cities don’t use very sophisticated methods to estimate the impacts of new housing developments. Instead, reports SGA, they assume each new home in the city will impose the same costs as the average home. That ignores all the variability in types of housing — and could leave cities with big financial liabilities down the road.

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Making the Case for Complete Streets

This complete street redesign in Hamburg, New York, decreased collisions 57 percent. Photo: Smart Growth America

This street redesign in Hamburg, New York, decreased collisions 57 percent. Photo: Smart Growth America

Redesigning streets to make room for people is a no brainer. “Complete streets” projects that calm traffic and provide safe space for walking and biking save money, reduce crashes and injuries, and improve economic outcomes. Need further convincing?

Smart Growth America has done some number crunching, looking at the impact of 37 complete streets projects from communities across the country. Here are the major findings from SGA’s new report, Safer Streets, Stronger Economies.

Complete Streets Are a Bargain

The average cost of a road diet — reducing the number of motor vehicle lanes on a street — was $2.1 million. In other words, pocket change. Per mile, three quarters of the complete streets projects came in below the cost of a typical arterial street project cited by the FHWA.

Here’s an amazing example: Portland, Oregon, spent $95,000 restriping Multnomah Boulevard and adding signs and bollards. That tiny investment reduced speeding by half and increased cycling 44 percent.

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The Most Dangerous Places to Walk in America

Pedestrians are especially at risk on wide, fast arterial roads like this. Photo: Smart Growth America/Cheryl Cort

Walking should be the healthiest, most natural activity in the world. It is, after all, one of the first things humans learn to do.

But in far too many places, walking can be fatal, thanks to roads designed for speeding cars.

In 2012, 4,743 pedestrians lost their lives in traffic collisions in the U.S., and over the last decade, nearly 50,000 people have been killed while walking — that’s 16 times more Americans than were killed by natural disasters. Another 670,000 pedestrian were injured over that period, one every eight minutes.

Not all streets are equally dangerous. In a new update of its Dangerous by Design report [PDF], released today, Smart Growth America catalogs the most perilous places in the U.S. to walk. By looking at the places that are especially hazardous, we can determine the factors that are putting people at risk and figure out how to fix them.

Here’s a look at what America’s most dangerous streets for walking tend to have in common.

They’re in the Sunbelt

Don’t let the sunshine lull you into a sense of security. Sunbelt cities have hazardous streets.

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Smart Growth America: Sprawl Shaves Years Off Your Life

Want to live a long, healthy, prosperous life? Don’t live in sprawlsville.

These cul-de-sacs will kill you! Photo: ##http://indiemusicfilter.com/tag/sprawl-ii##Indie Music Filter##

These cul-de-sacs can kill you! Photo: Indie Music Filter

Atlanta, I’m looking at you. Nashville, you too. Southern California’s Inland Empire: ouch. Meanwhile, break out the bubbly if you live in Atlantic City, Urbana/Champaign, or Santa Cruz — which all rank close to giants like New York and San Francisco as some of the most compact and connected metro areas in the U.S. That compact development brings a bounty of benefits you might not associate with those places.

That’s the lesson from Smart Growth America’s new report, “Measuring Sprawl 2014,” an update of their 2002 report, “Measuring Sprawl and Its Impact.”

A team of researchers gave a development index score to each of 221 metropolitan areas and 994 counties in the United States based on four main factors: residential and employment density; neighborhood mix of homes, jobs, and services; strength of activity centers and downtowns; and accessibility of the street network. These are the essential buildings blocks of smart growth.

Based on those factors, the most compact and connected metro areas are:

Most compact, connected metro areas, nationally. Image: SGA

Most compact, connected metro areas, nationally. Image: SGA

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State DOTs Let Roads Fall Apart While Splurging on Highway Expansion

States spend more than half their money on new construction. Image: Smart Growth America

States spend more than half their road money on adding lanes and new highways. Image: Smart Growth America

Even though 33 percent of its roads are in “poor” condition, West Virginia spends about 73 percent of its road budget building new roads and adding lanes. Mississippi spends 97 percent of its road money on expansion. Texas, 82 percent.

Smart Growth America reports that the 50 states and the District of Columbia, combined, devote 55 percent of their road spending — $20.4 billion a year — to expansions, according to data states provide to the Federal Highway Administration. Between 2009 and 2011, that investment added 8,822 lane miles to the nation’s highway system — meaning that more than half of states’ road dollars were dedicated to less than 1 percent of their roads.

Meanwhile, states spent $16.5 billion annually, or 45 percent of their total road budgets, maintaining and repairing the other 99 percent of the nation’s roads.

In total, 21 percent of America’s roads are in “poor” condition, based on an international index that measures ride quality and surface smoothness. And the condition of the nation’s roads is getting worse. The last time Smart Growth America checked in, in 2008, 41 percent were in “good” condition. By 2011, that figure was down to 37 percent.

“States are adding to a system they are failing to maintain,” said Steve Ellis of the nonpartisan watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, which co-funded the study, in a webinar hosted by SGA this morning. “Every new lane mile is a lane that will eventually have to be repaired.”

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A Post-Housing-Bust Prescription for Federal Real Estate Programs

The federal government subsidizes housing and real estate to the tune of about $450 billion a year. Roughly 50 uncoordinated programs influence the housing market, often in unintended and insidious ways.

Federal real estate subsidies help ensure that we get more of this than we otherwise would. Image: Walkable Suburb

The Federal Housing Administration’s Single-Family Loan Program, for instance, decreases the relative attractiveness of building multi-family housing — which is more energy efficient and in ever-greater demand since the housing bust. Meanwhile, the granddaddy of all housing subsidies, the mortgage interest deduction, rewards wealthy families who own two homes but does nothing for renters.

Smart Growth America and Locus, a nationwide coalition of developers focused on walkable growth, those programs are in need of retooling as Americans’ needs change. The two groups have reviewed all the federal housing programs and found them to lack a cohesive vision. Together, these programs often serve to undermine public preferences and create all kinds of distorted, less-than-optimal outcomes.

“People increasingly want to live in walkable urban places,” said Chris Leinberger today in a conference call with real estate leaders, but current federal housing policy undermines those kinds of communities. “Today’s programs significantly favor single family homes above all other types. Today’s programs are failing to support existing neighborhoods.”

In response, Locus and SGA have developed seven recommendations that could help ensure private and public investment is spent in the most productive ways, with the best outcomes for middle-income Americans. By the way, these reductions would result in some $33 billion in overall savings.

“Better strategies can make entire regions more competitive,” said Smart Growth America’s Ilana Preuss. “It’s time for our federal programs to reflect that.”

Here are some of the highlights:

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Placemaking to Make Friends: The Case of Cleveland’s East 4th Street

Cleveland's East 4th Street today: no longer a den of drugs and prostitution. Photo: East 4th

Ari Maron had no friends.

When he moved back to Cleveland after college, all his friends had moved away. “They’d all gone to New York and Chicago and San Francisco,” he said. “And none of them lived in cul-de-sacs. None of them drove SUVs. They all lived in mixed-use buildings, they were all connected to transit, they were all in walkable communities.” If only they could figure out how to build communities like that in Cleveland, Maron thought, “perhaps I’d have some friends.”

That, he said, was the motivating factor for him to abandon his ambitions of being a concert violinist and join the family construction business.

Maron is part of the LOCUS network of smart-growth-oriented real estate developers, which operates under the aegis of Smart Growth America. LOCUS shows that walkable communities aren’t just pretty and good for the environment — they generate wealth. Not all developers are in it to make friends, after all — they want to turn a profit. The good news is, they can do both.

Maron told his story to a LOCUS conference yesterday in Washington, DC. He said his family firm, MRN Ltd., bought 15 historic buildings in the downtown core, focusing on East 4th Street. The ground floor were all drug fronts, and the street was a center of prostitution. The upper floors were all vacant. There were 250 property owners to deal with, and the big developers just weren’t willing to bother. But Maron and his family bought them out.

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William Fulton on Why Smart Growth Pays and Sprawl Decays

Downtown Ventura, California. Photo: Sargent Town Planning

Earlier this week, Smart Growth America released an important study that illustrates how walkable development results in huge savings and significantly better returns for municipalities compared to car-centric development.

The analysis of 17 case studies found that walkable, mixed-use development produces 10 times more local tax revenue per acre than sprawl. In addition, SGA found that smart growth reduces infrastructure costs by more than a third, on average, and cuts operating costs like police and trash service by almost 10 percent.

William Fulton, vice president of Smart Growth America and former mayor of Ventura, California. Image: SGA

Streetsblog got in touch with the study’s lead author, William Fulton, Smart Growth America’s vice president for policy development and implementation and the former mayor of Ventura, California, to further discuss the implications for local communities.

Here’s what he had to say.

Angie Schmitt: What is the takeaway for communities that are maybe a little more suburban in nature at this point?

William Fulton: Smart growth is not beneficial just for big, urban cities. A community of any size — even communities that are mostly suburban in nature — can benefit fiscally from smart growth. Smart growth patterns even in small and mid-sized cities can have a tremendous influence on the budget. For example, the study from Champaign, Illinois, we cite in our report suggested that a smart growth approach to future expansion in that mid-sized Illinois city could turn a $19 million deficit into a $33 million surplus.

Even taxpayers who live in single-family homes stand to benefit from smart growth. If their communities approve conventional suburban development that generates a deficit, they will be faced with pressure for increased taxes. Smart growth can alleviate that pressure so that even people who live in single-family homes will be able to keep their taxes low.

Sooner or later if you’re a local government… you have to have the next hit from the next suburban development. Eventually you’re like a crack addict.

AS: Despite the public savings associated with smart growth, many communities offer tax incentives to big box stores and that type of development. What does this study say about that?

WF: All kinds of developments see some type of public investments. Conventional suburban developments depend on highway interchanges and other very, very expensive infrastructure.

These retail projects are attractive to local governments because you put money into it, and you see this immediate sales tax “pop.” But there’s no guarantee you’re not cannibalizing your other retail.

A smart growth development that has a lot of well-connected housing and retail will be a far more reliable source of revenue. Generating property tax is a much more stable source of revenue for local governments.

Some hot new retailer comes in and 10 years later they’re out of business. Depending on sales tax is a very risky proposition compared to the very reliable revenue that will come out of a smart growth development.

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Taxes Too High? Try Building Walkable, Mixed-Use Development

Walkable, mixed-use development provides far more return for Raleigh than Walmart, on a per acre basis. Image: Smart Growth America

Smart growth could increase Fresno’s tax revenue by 45 percent per acre. In Champaign, Illinois, it could save 23 percent per year on city services. Study after study has demonstrated: Walkable, mixed-use development is a much better deal for municipalities than car-oriented suburban development.

Smart Growth America recently conducted an analysis of research examining the impact of efficient development patterns on municipal bottom lines. The authors looked at 17 case studies, from California to Maryland, and, taken together, they say the findings clearly illustrate how walkable development leads to healthier city budgets than drivable sprawl.

For starters, smart growth is cheaper to build. On average, municipalities save about 38 percent on infrastructure costs like roads and sewers when serving compact development instead of large-lot subdivisions. Furthermore, SGA researchers say, “this figure is conservative, and many communities could save even more.” In the case studies, these upfront cost savings ranged from 20 percent to 50 percent.

The public savings don’t stop once projects get built. Mixed-use projects also reduce ongoing costs to municipalities for services like police, fire and trash. Smart Growth America estimates the average savings at almost 10 percent.

“Many services — fire, police, school buses, snow plowing — all require vehicles,” said William Fulton, vice president of policy development and implementation at Smart Growth America. “The fewer miles those vehicles have to travel, the lower the costs will be. If you apply smart growth across the board, you can also reduce the amount of cars and trucks that you need.”

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