We all know the benefits of rehabbing urban blight and transforming suburban sprawl into walkable, sustainable communities. And for the most part, we all think it’s a pretty good idea. So, Lynn Richards asks, “if we all think this is so great, why isn’t this happening more?”
The short answer is money, but not necessarily for the malevolent reasons a statement like that suggests. Maybe a better way of putting it is “economics.” And that story is a whole lot more complicated.
Richards, president and CEO of the Chicago-based Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), will be the keynote speaker at the 2015 NJ Future Redevelopment Forum on Friday, March 13, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Hyatt in New Brunswick. More than 50 presenters will include five northern New Jersey mayors, planners, bankers, architects, capital investors, designers, developers, and grantors. Cost: $190. Visit www.njfuture.org.
A native of Rochester, New York, the daughter of artist Sabra Richards, Lynn Richards found her lifelong love of cycling by riding five miles each way to and from school. At the ripe old age of 14 she cycled from Rochester to Lake Placid on her own (that’s a five-hour drive over 280 miles, by the way).
She graduated from Allegheny College with a mostly self-made academic record of what she calls “Sovietology” in the late 1980s. In 1988 she moved to the Soviet Union (because she could, and because she didn’t buy the political rhetoric that the Soviet people were evil, it was the government that was evil and she wanted to help the people find their way) to work with environmentalists. As communism fell, Richards was involved in providing Soviet-bloc environmentalists with computers and modems, which accelerated the death of the communist state. “After that, the Iron Curtain could never come down again,” she says. “People could communicate too freely.”
By 1995, after moving from Moscow to Kazakhstan (“because Moscow was too tame now”) she decided that she had had enough of Eurasia and returned to the States to pursue a double master’s in public administration and environmental science from Indiana University. “I saw that as a bridge position,” she says. “Scientists don’t understand policy and policy makers don’t understand science.”
In 2000 Richards joined the Environmental Protection Agency, where she held various positions, the most prestigious being acting director and policy director in the Office of Sustainable Communities. She stayed until last summer, when she took over at CNU.
Banking on redevelopment. To understand the economics behind redevelopment requires a brief grounding in the realities of doing the work. Look at what happened (and didn’t) in Topeka, Kansas, not long ago. The city government there wanted to restore a fairly weathered Main Street, and one developer — a small one — started working on a three-story, mixed-use building that was to have retail on the ground floor and condos upstairs.
The trouble was the property was purchased with a non-conforming bank loan, and that matters, Richards says, because with a non-conforming loan in place, potential condo buyers were not able to get mortgages for this building. “It stopped the developer dead,” she says. “And it ended development in Topeka.”
Well, it ended redevelopment on the Main Street idea, anyway. And sadly, Richards says, this is not atypical. Redevelopment has many barriers, including rules and regulations regarding the actual work. And they’re not all governmental. Those are tough enough to deal with — stipulations for stormwater development, parking requirements, etc. — but a few variances can overcome these hurdles.
Lenders, on the other hand, hampered by tight regulations and still spooked by anything resembling risky credit, have their own rules. They will fund developers, Richards says, but then along comes the fine print of things like those non-conforming loans that do not allow potential residents to mortgage private living spaces. Or maybe a bank will require something from a builder that itself requires further variances — which translate into more time, more resources, more work, and more workers to complete aspects of a project, all while the world around quietly gets more expensive.
The municipal angle. It’s not that cities and small towns don’t want to beautify rundown places, Richards says, it’s that governments are not very good at seeing more than one thing at a time. For the most part, municipal codes and ordinances and legal infrastructures are written with greenfield redevelopment in mind. The most basic way to understand this concept is, there’s a large plot of land, a developer buys it, and the developer builds on it.
But this is a lot easier when it means building new buildings on a plot of land where nothing is. The developer knows what the rules are and he plans for them before he starts working. He can put houses down, make sure the retention basins are in place, throw in some greenway, and you got yourself a new residential community.
The way the rules are written, Richards says, makes this kind of development incredibly economical for a developer who doesn’t have to contend with repurposing, removal of environmentally questionable refuse, or adding amenities to conform with local parking, traffic, population, and ratable rules. “The developers aren’t being bad guys,” she says, “they’re just following the rules.”
If municipalities make it easier for developers to build from scratch than to rehab blight, they also make it tough on developers with visions of transforming Main Street. “A lot of municipalities do single-objective investment,” Richards says. They build a road to drive on, but not a road capable of handling building and expansion. Or they build a park, but not as part of anything that would make people head that way. Rather than investing in stages of growth, she says, governments think about what needs to be done right now to fix a problem.
It’s not necessarily governments’ fault. They can only work with what they have, and that often is a tight purse. The good news here, though, is that it doesn’t always have to cost a lot of money to make a worn-out area pretty again. Starting with some outdoor benches and turning blighted street corners into parks, Richards says, can be great investments to start things rolling.
Some non-money numbers. Richards says that “survey after survey” indicate that about half the U.S. population overall wants to live in vibrant, walkable communities, where they can stroll, walk the dog, ride bikes, and shop. The other half would rather live more remotely, away from people.
The aim, Richards says, should not be to force new urbanism — the revitalization of urban spaces — on people who don’t want to live in a place like Princeton, but rather to provide those Princeton-like places for those who do want them. The biggest fans of new urbanism, unsurprisingly, are millennials. Roughly 70 percent of millennials — who are, by the way, about to become America’s largest generation — want to “live in really cool places,” she says.
You would think this would increase redevelopment projects, but the truth, Richards says, is that the market is responding only about 5 percent. Maybe 10, but closer to 5. Largely due to money. If you’re not an already-wealthy development firm that can ride out the bumps and deal with the inflation wrought by time taken to complete a project, it doesn’t look good for you. And big developers tend to gravitate toward big plans, not small rehab projects on a building on Main Street.
It’s not just money. Even if money is not an issue, a prominent hurdle in urban redevelopment is a simple lack of vision. Or, better said, a lack of ability to see what people really want in new urban communities. Governments, Richards says, have a way for just doing things and expecting people to be cool with them.
But people do tend to know what they want, as long as you ask them in the right way, she says. Just asking “what do you want?” doesn’t typically work, because non-development people don’t tend to think in development terms.
A better way of asking, Richards says, is a question like “What would make your life easier and better?” The answer might involve building a small park where stay-at-home moms can take the kids, or a dog park where residents can let their dogs get some exercise and socialization, off the paved path.
Another way to do it is to ask what questions people have about life in the city. An amazing number of people will say things like “why is the bus service so slow?” Richards says. And from there, planners can glean problems with actual solutions.
In short, the answer is to ask and listen, and not just by sending E-mails or updating websites. Some towns have literally taken to the streets, with pushcarts, rolling up to residents and asking how the city can improve things for those who live there.
“This is where you can start the conversation,” Richards says. “Don’t ask what you’d like to see, ask what would make it easier for you to live your life.”
— Scott Morgan