Urban areas face unique development challenges
Property development in urban areas faces a wealth of challenges. City permitting, construction and noise ordinances, and outrageous land acquisition costs all come to mind when considering urban development and renewal. One hurdle you face more often in older cities is that older areas were primarily developed in the 1930s through to the 1950s.
At the time, developers tended towards very small-footprint buildings, constructed very close together with individual ownership of each property on the parcel. It is not uncommon to see a single parcel of land with multiple homes and homeowners.
This situation is challenging for large-scale developers because they are unable to buy up all the parcels and homes they need to scale. On the flip side, smaller, more agile projects are possible. With that possibility comes the potential of neighborhood preservation. Instead of a monoculture mega-development with new construction, there might be room for the redevelopment of older buildings, and the local and independent businesses that call them home.
Why circumstances necessitate a change
The reason we see so many cookie-cutter megaprojects is that developers tend to develop where they are going to make money, not where it makes sense for residents. This has led to islands of homes out in the middle of nowhere, with terrible walkability scores, and few commercial businesses to pierce the monotony. This problem is particularly glaring in the suburbs. How have young and community-minded residents responded? By moving into cities, where walkability and mixed-use neighborhoods are the norm.
A new model?
It should be clear by now that we will not find a “silver bullet” when it comes to effective land-use, especially within high-density urban areas. A patchwork approach is far likelier to succeed, and there are a few programs across the country that have had some successes in this regard.
This calls to mind a new real-estate development in East Portland, Oregon, which might provide a model worth following.
Essentially, a nonprofit organization went into an underserved neighborhood, purchased several properties, renovated them, and put them back on the market as affordable rental housing. The goal was to eventually allow the properties to be purchased by the residents, who would then gain a stake in ownership of both the building and their community.
Another creative, and effective, step they took was to set aside the first floor of each building as a commercial space, reserved for resident-run businesses. This move provided an income stream for residents and added to the overall vibrancy and economic health of the neighborhood and the community at large.
The goal of this entire endeavor is to foster a form of self-reliance and ownership in that community, and ideally provide residents and homeowners a springboard to more economically prosperous lives.
A solution in rural areas
Alternative modes of development have the potential to improve the lives of rural residents as well. Despite media portrayals of urban areas as poverty and crime-ridden, some of the worst poverty in the United States lies within rural areas. There are many reasons for this, but one major contributor is the fact that the delivery of services is magnitudes harder in rural areas, due to the lack of infrastructure.
Instead of livable, mixed-use areas where density rules, rural areas have far fewer people per mile. This means that rural businesses do not benefit from economies of scale, and their transportation costs eat into their ability to generate revenue.
Setting up similar, self-sustaining mixed-use developments in rural communities could alleviate some of those issues, and maybe lure back much of the talent that leaves those areas for bigger cities. Instead of constantly rushing to meet heightened demand in cities, perhaps we can solve affordability by focussing development close to rural communities.
River Terrace in DC. Image courtesy of Small Change.