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Texas-size Thinking

Curtis Johnson / Feb 14 2013

For Release Thursday, February 14, 2012
Citiwire.net

Curtis JohnsonLegendary Chicago planner Daniel Burnham would like Scott Polikov. No timid plans, no boutiqued, half-done solutions. Polikov – attorney turned town planner and public-private partnership consultant – spoke in mid-January to a roomful of rest estate developers, financiers, planners and local officials at an event sponsored by the Minnesota chapter of the Urban Land Institute.

Polikov was bursting with big ideas – even for small places.

He told this audience that the key to better development today is a mindset centered on economic strategy. “We never approach a project and start out by just planning,” he said. “We start with a market study, to see what level and what kind of investment will actually produce good results. Planning, in the absence of examining market conditions, ought to be considered malpractice.” This approach could provide more local funding capacity for infrastructure, to make up for diminishing federal capacity.

Proving his point, he put up slides from a small Texas community. The scene looked familiar to anyone who’s seen small cities with neglected centers. Roanoke, Texas, just north of Fort Worth, has a population of 7,000. Despite a median household income of almost $80,000, the city’s center looked weary and worn. It was a tableau all too familiar: aging concrete spread all over, with the usual eruption of power poles and tacky signs pointing to places people already know how to find. Few pedestrians in sight. And because it’s Texas, a predominance of pickup trucks.


Downtown Roanoke – Top: 2006, Bottom: 2012. Source: Gateway Planning

Polikov’s firm, Gateway Planning, did a market study, including an inventory of assets that might be leveraged into bigger dividends, such as a popular restaurant and historical trivia (Bonnie of the infamous Bonnie and Clyde duo grew up there). The market study made a good case for $8 million in publicly financed improvements along Oak Street, the heart of downtown. The city council adopted Gateway Planning’s form-based code, which Polikov calls the new “master developer.” Essentially, form-based codes regulate the types and characteristics of buildings, streets and public spaces, but let the market dictate the uses that go into those buildings.

Six years later, property values along Oak are up 300 percent. The bonds for infrastructure improvements will be retired in less than a decade. The place looks and feels different. New buildings and adaptive re-uses of old ones are lining its shoulders. The mayor’s dad’s car wash is still there, but it’s in a better neighborhood, and “progress,” as Polikov puts it, “doesn’t mean putting anyone out of business.” There’s suddenly interest in developing housing, mixed with entertainment and offices, at the end of the street.

Looking at how this place-making approach can be used at the regional level, Polikov described a corridor stretching from south of Fort Worth northeast all the way to Plano, some 62 miles across the Dallas-Fort Worth region. Dubbed the Cottonbelt Corridor, it’s prime territory for development if it gets the transportation infrastructure it needs, especially connections to the region’s rapidly burgeoning rail system. Left to the public sector, this won’t happen. The metropolitan planning organizations, regional transportation planning groups, have already trimmed their project lists by some $50 billion because federal statutes require plans to be constrained by assured future revenue.

That, Polikov explained, invites a robust use of the “value capture” approach, whereby the underlying financing for infrastructure and development carves out a share of the economic gain to reward investors for the risk they’re undertaking. Polikov pointed to one parcel of 100 acres within this corridor and adjacent to a toll road; it’s land owned by the University of Texas at Dallas, which would appear to be a willing partner in a value-capture deal.

Market studies for this corridor pencil out at about a $10 billion value gain. But in addition to lining up a steady chain of willing landowners, the project must negotiate the consent of multiple municipalities. Polikov said one key is securing the consent of the Texas legislature to create a single regional district to coordinate all the cities, counties and developers along the line.

If they do, he said, it will demonstrate that the public sector is beginning to see that it’s not political risk that should dominate these decisions, but economic risk – and that using value capture can turn that risk into almost certain rewards.


Curtis Johnson is president of the Citistates Group.

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4 Comments

  1. Ethan Seltzer
    Posted February 14, 2013 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

    “We never approach a project and start out by just planning,” he said. “We start with a market study, to see what level and what kind of investment will actually produce good results. Planning, in the absence of examining market conditions, ought to be considered malpractice.” Curtis… you must be kidding. This isn’t planning, it’s redevelopment. Substitute redevelopment in this sentence, and I’m there. But frame longterm planning with a market study, and I’m not. It’s not longterm, it’s not a precursor to engagement. Market studies are, by their nature and limitations, short-term in their outlook. Sure, if you don’t care about or are even hostile to longterm planning, then engaging markets and responding to market failures is about as much “planning” as you’d ever like. However, if you think that acting proactively on community values and aspirations is a worthy and useful thing to do, this is hardly planning.

  2. Mary Means
    Posted February 15, 2013 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    Ethan, you make an interesting point. However, not all planning is long term, nor should it be. How do you redevelop a blighted area if not with a plan? Market studies are crucial, yet are often tacked on at the end at best. Some of the only funding for planning that’s available to communities in NY State is for redeveloping former industrial areas in sad towns. Yet, it requires the bulk of the funding to be spent on lengthy and costly environmental and engineering studies — in places that are so off the beaten path that there is very little market for the land even were it in pristine condition. Were the market studies done first, one could have a better idea of the potential land uses — and clean the land up accordingly. There is such a thing as an induced market, working from assets and with visionary community backing. Planners need to be more imaginative in considering the possibilities, and to consider motivation and momentum as important factors in implementation. Too many long range plans fall way short of motivating the actions required to overcome inertia.

  3. Posted February 15, 2013 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    I began with malpractice in the nineties in Presidio, Texas.
    Unsure, inexperienced, I had notions to follow the legacy of Hassan Fathy in adobe building, right in the fringes of the Chihuahuan desert where people claimed to be fond of earth architecture. Ha! Turns out only the highly educated are. My experience was successful in unexpected ways.
    I still maintain this form is the future in dry climates and am therefore moving my teaching center to Tucson and Chihuahua city.

  4. Posted February 16, 2013 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    The marketers and preplanners will cue up the record so the big engines of finance can fund more lifestyle centers, whether they are in new locations or old. If the retailer or other tenant can pay the rent, fine. This of course will eliminate 80% of extant local business. More visually palatable versions of Walmart mentality are not in any way progress….this is simply socialism favoring the rich, and old landowners cashing in. This is a reminder from Your Jacksonian Democrat.