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Sprawl: It is Stealing Real Money Out of Your Pocket or the Taco Johns of Buffalo

Sprawl is stealing money from you and you are allowing, even encouraging it to happen.

In the book “Suburban Nation”, authors Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck ask the question; ” How obvious and damaging does an error have to be before it is addressed and corrected?”  They suggest that Jane Jacobs gave the answer  to this question in her well known work, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”, when she wrote; “The pseudo-science of planning seems almost neurotic in its determination to imitate empiric failure and ignore empiric success. ”

The damage done to our cities, towns, and countryside by sprawl style planning is obvious to anyone willing to notice.  Unfortunately a very large segment of our population only knows sprawl style living and thus finds nothing wrong with it. Our society has been conditioned, over generations, to accept sprawl as “just the way things are”. But, the way things are, in our modern-day sprawling car centric America,  is a disaster.  It is a disaster physically, socially, environmentally, and financially, but we allow it to expand unchecked with neurotic determination.  If the general public has a tough time recognizing and coming to terms with the first three disasters, perhaps the third, that of financial disaster, will tip the balance in favor of urban planning sanity.

I’ve written many times about the economic drain sprawl puts on society.  You can read a few of these posts here, here, here, here and here, among others. Public discourse on urbanism and sprawl has traditionally focused on the negative physical and psychological impact of sprawl.  However, research, writing, and  discussion has increasingly focused on the heavy financial burden that sprawl forces onto our society. A post on the Strong Towns Blog by Charles Marohn (engineer, planner and Strong Towns president) from 2012, titled “The Cost of Auto Orientation” ,and recently updated in July 22nd  here , provides a powerful example of this financial drain.

In the story, Marohn describes how his home town city of  Brainerd Minnesota planned for blight removal on a main artery running through downtown.  The replacement for the “blight” was to be auto centric style development, which the city labeled General Commercial.  The blighted blocks slated for removal were densely built with small commercial buildings.  The City believes that making this major roadway more favorable to auto centric business will improve the commercial viability of their downtown district.

Marohn’s story compares one of the old style blocks to one of the “improved” auto centric blocks. He points out that the two blocks are identical in every way except that one is built out for people while the other is built out for cars. He describes the plan thus:

The old and blighted block is a remnant of the incremental, historical development pattern. It represents one of the first increments of growth that cities experienced on their periphery; a small investment in a pop up box. This is the cheapest, credible investment that someone could have made in a commercial property here in my hometown back in 1920. In their comprehensive plan, the city has indicated that this block is a redevelopment opportunity that would, to use their language, ultimately become “auto oriented”.

This is exactly what happened two blocks, which used to look like the “old and blighted” block but now contains a new Taco John’s. Definitely auto-oriented with a large off-street parking lot, two drive through lanes, a large sign and a setback/orientation consistent with highway development. If we are to believe the city’s planning documents, this entire corridor will someday transform into a collection of buildings of similar design and orientation.

In order to facilitate the Taco Johns car centric development, the City granted the restaurant chain a 26 year subsidy through its Tax Increment Financing fund.  So, how is that shiny new building working out?  Well, it turns out that the crummy old blighted block, the one containing 11 separate properties, the one with and many separate businesses, is dramatically more valuable than the shiny new auto centric block containing the single user, Taco Johns restaurant.  Taco Johns has an estimated 2014 value of $618,000 versus the “blighted” block value of $1,104,500!  The City is actually subsidizing a reduction in property value to accommodate a drive through restaurant!

Marohn goes on to note, that over the 3 years in which Strong Towns has tracked the two properties, the old, so-called blighted block, lost an aggregate three percent in value while the Taco Johns lost a whopping 23% in value.  Marohn notes, that even if Taco Johns did not receive the tax subsidy the old blighted block would be paying a huge 79 percent more in taxes because of its higher value.  How is this justified?  How much more value would the old blighted block have today if that Taco Johns subsidy had instead been used to improve the pedestrian experience.  The insanity of wrecking value to order to accommodate cars takes your breath away.

Not to be outdone, Jordan Then, board member of  NorthBuffalo.org, posted a Buffalo version of the Taco Johns story.  In his story  titled “The Taco Johns of Buffalo”, Jordan compares two similar blocks on Hertel Avenue. He states:

Inspired by Charles Marohn’s recent blog post “The cost of auto orientation, update” I decided to run the numbers on one of my least favorite developments in my neighborhood of North Buffalo with the City of Buffalo, NY.

… Some years ago, with the City’s blessing, Walgreens demolished most of a block of older two-story mixed-use buildings to build a new store. It had three curb-cuts, parking for 51 cars and a drive-thru pharmacy. The rest of the block and the block across the street maintain their historic structures, in various states of repair.

Using the City property tax data, Jordan shows that the densely built historic Hertel block is valued at $1,725,000, while Walgreens, with its parking lot, is valued substantially lower, at only $875,000. The City collects $51,284 from the dense older block.  Walgreens pays a comparably paltry $26,013 in taxes.  The older block pays almost 100 percent more in revenue to the City while providing the benefit of a more pleasant human scaled environment that houses at least ten locally owned businesses and several residential apartments.  Walgreens gives the City less revenue, a big blank wall on the sidewalk, and a giant dead parking lot on the corner. Where is the gain here?  How is this justified?

How does a poor city like Buffalo justify this kind of tax giveaway to a big out-of-town corporation?  Ask your mayor, ask your councilman. why?

All images taken from the Strong Towns story posts. I highly recommend Strong Towns for more discussion on urbanism and how we can move away form the insanity of sprawl.  Their web site includes a blog as well as a regular podcast.

Written by David Steele

David Steele

Architect ( a real one, not just the armchair type), author of "Buffalo, Architecture in the American Forgotten Land" ( www.blurb.com ), lover of great spaces, hater of sprawl and waste,
advocate for a better way of doing things.

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