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Feeling Great About Development In Your City?

Updated: Nov 14, 2023

Same here. Let’s talk about why

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been fortunate to hang out with a couple of friends and family that I haven’t seen in over a year. And we were talking about how all our communities have changed.

Construction and housing came up and the comment was made, “…some developer bought the whole block and put up a building that looks the same as every other building…no character.”

My friend wasn’t feeling good about development in her community and you might not be either. But it’s difficult to put a finger on exactly why.

Big Developers Only

Buying a whole city block takes a significant amount of money and real estate know-how to navigate what is likely multiple private and public owners.

Development today has become so specialized (read: complicated) that it takes a significant amount of time, resources, and skills to finish a project. It wasn’t always this way.

In order for big developers to participate, the project needs to be a certain size so that they can make money. Larger projects allow for developers to get economies of scale with material costs. Once they have a system that works, they then take that system and replicate it across communities. It’s why all new developments look the same.

Expensive Infrastructure

It’s a lot easier to take an empty field on the edge of town and put your project on it than it is to operate in an urban area. On the edge of town, there’s less political resistance. The risk of environmental contamination is lower. The land is flat and likely a big square. To acquire the land all you need to do is work with a couple of owners.

By building in the empty field on the edge of town big developers work with local officials to build infrastructure to support their project. Stormwater management, utilities, roads, sidewalks.

All that extra infrastructure results in a significant bill later on down the road for the city. It’s difficult to balance a budget that can’t pay for itself.

Infrastructure is a forever cost. Communities look around and wonder where all the money went. It’s because we’re paying for the bill for sprawl that took place over the last decades.

Car Dependant

When you keep building on the edge of town, it means it’s difficult to get to the new development unless you own a car. When you arrive, you need a place to put your car. Which results in more expensive infrastructure to support the development.

The problem with being car-dependent is that life takes place on foot. You start and end every journey by walking. In Walkable City, Jeff Speck observed,

“If you can only access a social scene by car, it means you’re also managed by invitation.”

Vibrant downtown areas aren’t managed by invitation and they aren't dominated by cars.

Mass Produced, Mass Decline

Even if infrastructure were free and car dependence wasn’t an issue we still have a market timing issue. When a new developer drops 400 units onto the market, they’re the hot new commodity.

But what happens in 10–15 years when they’re not new anymore?

People don’t live there. The 400 units are empty and then what? One developer sells to another and the cycle repeats itself.

All this leads to the point that big development is fragile. Short-term the project might seem good (even though it looks like all the others) but what about the long term?

How might we make it possible for smaller developers to participate? How can we incentivize developers to use existing infrastructure? How can we throttle the age of our housing in our communities portfolio to avoid mass decline?

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