Monday, August 04, 2008

Densities, Development, and Regionalism

Harold Miller, Mike Madison, and Chris Briem have been writing and blogging about the City's dense job concentration. As Harold notes, the Pittsburgh ranks 25th in the number of jobs located in the city, even though it ranks 59th in the number of residents. That leads one to the obvious conclusion: the City has the jobs, the suburbs have the bodies.

Mike's teasing out the inevitable tension between the two: "A "City of Pittsburgh first" approach to regional policy threatens to perpetuate the zero-sum thinking that often dominates regional economic developments efforts. If the City grows, the suburbs lose."

It's easy to see (from 100,000 feet) that a better model for City/Suburb relationship is not one of victim and parasite, but one of symbiosis. Picture the region as a hunk of lichen: fungus and algae mutually supporting one another, and, should either one die, the other would not be able to support itself. To draw out the analogy, the City specializes in the jobs, higher education, culture, entertainment and sports, while the Suburbs specialize in housing, primary education, and small retail.

The theory, however, does not necessarily work in practice. Indeed, the City has its own needs for housing, primary education, and small retail, and suburbs have their own needs for jobs and entertainment. Moreover, the suburbs are competing for housing, retail, and jobs amongst themselves. Municipal policy decisions that are made are not made with view to the entire organism (the region), but rather independently and, as Mike notes, as a zero-sum game.

Of course, the problem is that the first municipality to stop playing the game will be the first to lose; politicians need to raise tax revenue so they can bring in more jobs so they can get votes so they can be re-elected so they can do more projects to increase population to raise more tax revenue so they can bring in more jobs, etc., etc. Municipalities (and elected officials) that are unable to raise revenue through population or revenue through employment, start spiraling down the drain.

But, if the City of Pittsburgh invests in a multimillion dollar corporate center, with the view to increase a corporate presence in the region (rather than just slosh jobs around), surely it is not just the City that benefits. Indeed, not everyone is going to want to live in the City and there will be some "leakage" to the surburban communities... a positive externality, if you would.

So I guess the question really is, can the suburbs win by losing, that is, if suburban developments can be positioned in support of larger City development, then would the suburbs benefit with, but not at the City's expense?

Or would that take too much coordination?


Burgher Jon said...

Well put. I think that if we're going to talk about a logical solution, we need to acknowledge that the city is losing the city/suburb game so far. Consequently, the suburbs should get comfortable with the fair solution (initially) seeming slanted towards the city. If they're not interested in ending the relationship that's benefiting them to the detriment of the whole area, then the city could always look at a commuter tax to force their hand.

Anonymous said...

The taxes aren't the problem - it's the schools. Employers don't have to worry about sending children to school with the "underclass", but their employees do.

O said...

If you're going to hide behind the name "Anonymous" you can at least say "black poor children," instead of hiding behind code words.

Bram Reichbaum said...

I assumed he/she was talking about vampires.

I'm trying to follow the arguments Chris, Mike, Harry and yourself are making about cooperative regional development paradigms, but what's eating at me is: it doesn't seem like policymakers have much to do with planning development. *Developers* plan development, or at least seem to, and elected policymakers of all stripes fear being obstructionists. That's not a knock against either, but it means you'd somehow have to sit all of the DEVELOPERS around a table with a big map and convince them to rationally plan what needs to go where, instead of doing what they do best -- taking the path of least resistance and one-upping each other.

I know some of the smartbloggers have hinted that there are realistic policy-level proposals that can encourage more rational development, but I'm mystified as to what those could look like.

O said...

Kinda answered your own question there Bram: what kinds of policies lower the barriers to entry for developers. Given that a greenfield development is more attractive to a developer, if you are the City you're going to provide things (Loans, Grants, tax benefits, TIFs, TRIDS, site remediation, infrastructure, etc.) that allow City sites to compete. (If you're in the Richard Florida camp, you're also looking at amenities and other such esoterica).

It's even little things: about a decade ago (I think it was a decade... time flies and all that), the City had a demand for mixed use housing on its main streets. This wasn't contemplated by the zoning code, and so they created a Local Neighborhood Commercial district to allow for that kind of development.

But even the withholding of money is a powerful incentive for developers. Incentives need not be portioned out by the City in places that are not deemed "critical".

Again, it's not necessarily about planning development, per se, but setting up a framework that encourages a positive outcome for the City.

Anonymous said...

I think that it's both taxes and schools. Developers frequently pitch their sites as being tax-friendly (I've been in more than I can count--this is always the Cranberry/Southpointe pitch) to employers and employees. So that factor definitely needs to be addressed. As for schools, they're terrible. That has nothing to do with race; they just stink. It's a variation on the same city/suburb problem put out above: I want the city schools to do well, but I'm not willing to sacrifice the education of my children as "pioneers" hoping that the Pittsburgh public schools educate them and keep them safe. That's too big of a gamble. I think that alot of employers think the same about the city's financial situation right now, too. The suburbs are viewed as a safe/sound investment across the board; that is what the city needs to combat.

EdHeath said...

So how is this issue affected by consolidation? And I don't mean the faux consolidation on the table now. If we are going to daydream about perfect city-suburban synchronicity (I can hear Gordon Sumner singing now) then we might as well talk abut merging it all, all one hundred eighteen ga-jilliion municipalities in the county. That would make the Cranberry government crap it’s pants. Most likely all the school districts would want to stay independent, but there should be some revenue sharing like they do in some sports. That way Duquesne could afford to hire a teacher or two. I assume the taxes would flatten out across the county, with everybody paying property taxes and there being a much smaller wage tax, maybe one percent or one and a half. So any development anywhere would benefit everyone in the county.