If you’ve got an acre of land, and a magical get-out-of-jail-free card, which cash crop do you grow — wheat, soybeans, or marijuana?
That’s a good metaphor for a city’s decision to invest in its downtown versus sprawl, says Joe Minicozzi, the new projects director at Public Interest Projects. Minicozzi uses the pot-vs.-soybeans hypothetical because people intuitively grasp the value of cash crops — that an acre of high-grade weed throws off 10 or 20 times as much income as a food crop.
And so it is with dense urban development, which can help cities balance their budgets by generating many times the per-acre tax revenue of sprawling developments. Emily Badger outlines the logic in a fantastic piece for the Atlantic Cities, worth reading in full if you want to understand how cities can conquer their budget crises by reinvesting in their existing downtowns.
Asheville has a Super Walmart about two-and-a-half miles east of downtown. Its tax value is a whopping $20 million. But it sits on 34 acres of land. This means that the Super Walmart yields about $6,500 an acre in property taxes, while that remodeled JCPenney downtown [completed by Public Interest Projects] is worth $634,000 in tax revenue per acre. (Add sales tax revenue, and the downtown property is still worth more than six times as much as the Walmart per acre.)
“As a community, if you have a finite limit of land, would you want $6,500 or $20,000, or $634,000 downtown an acre?” [asks Minicozzi].
Urban development is also much cheaper to maintain than sprawl, because it requires so many fewer miles of roads and utilities, and can thrive hydroponically in your closet with only a grow light.
So if you were in charge of the budget for a city, which would you rather spend money on: Expensive sprawl that can’t even pay for itself, or dense urban development that could bring your town’s budget into the black? In a future of tight budgets, not to mention soaring gas prices, redeveloping the city centers that have served humanity for thousands of years is the only option.
The Simple Math That Can Save Cities From Bankruptcy, The Atlantic Cities.