Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

1% for arts: what about 1% for community?: An idea

I am not sure how I feel about commercial property developers getting "shaken down" for "community" benefits as part of development projects.  I am engaged in for profit business activities myself, and I know that the margins on projects are very narrow, and at some level, the point of business is business.

What people don't seem to understand, often, is that "community benefits" derived from land use development projects aren't awarded just because the business wants to build, they are "charged" in return for benefits received by the developer from changes in zoning, density, variances, or exceptions from zoning and building regulations compared to the planning and zoning controls in place that the property would otherwise be developed under.  The zoning changes result in increased revenue from the project and in turn, community benefits are a kind of economic return.

In short, community benefits aren't awarded "just because".  See "What community benefits are supposed to be versus what people think they are about."

But after reading this piece by Deborah Simmons, "Exacting cost for Costco's arrival in D.C." in one of last week's issues of the Washington Times, about the various "demands" made on Costco by a neighborhood association located adjacent to the forthcoming location of the Costco store on South Dakota Avenue NE, I got to thinking about formalizing the social and community cost of business of locating in a community in terms of a kind of 1% of the project for the community.

From the article:

Will Costco change its corporate community-benefits model to appease its new neighbors in Northeast Washington?  Senior citizens sure hope so as they gear up for a meeting with Costco representatives, city officials and other D.C. stakeholders scheduled for Saturday morning.

ANC Commissioner Bob King and an estimated 1,000 senior citizens who live in the Fort Lincoln neighborhood — an enclave of apartments and single-family homes, and the soon-to-be neighbors of Costco — already have their wish list together.

Their list is not extravagant — exercise equipment, buying-club power, Senior Olympics sponsorship, computers, a few free memberships here and there. Things to benefit seniors and other residents who live in the city as well as those who live in Fort Lincoln, which is bounded by South Dakota Avenue, Bladensburg Road and Eastern Avenue in Northeast.

Much on their wish list doesn’t exactly fit inside Costco’s generous donation box.

To wit, Costco’s website says its donations do not directly fund government entities, individuals or political organizations, and that it doesn’t give money directly to athletic teams, events or sponsorships, or to individual primary or secondary schools.  ... 

But none of these parameters is deterring Mr. King and his voter-rich and very active band of constituents. They want Costco to set up shop in their neck of the Northeast woods, but with certain community benefits “so that these big-box retailers don’t waltz through the community like Grant ran through Richmond,” as Mr. King put it.

Communities need strong frameworks for community benefits agreements -- I've written about this in the past, "Community benefits agreements (revised)" from 2008, although in a conversation I had with Robin Diener of the DC Library Renaissance Project, she makes an argument that I need to write about, that community benefits processes are typically very localized, focused on the neighborhoods where the projects are being constructed, and instead should be focused on providing benefits captured by the city as a whole--and relatedly, about big box ordinances, as I wrote in "Lessons from Walmart's foray into Washington, DC," which also discusses general demands for "community benefits" not triggered by zoning changes.

The 1% idea, which I don't know if I agree with or not, comes from public programs called something like "1% for the arts," where municipal capital improvement projects allocate 1% of the expenditures on the project towards public art, which is then incorporated into the project.

Seattle's webpage on the topic explains how the program of 1% for the arts works there:

The program specifies that 1% of eligible city capital improvement project funds be set aside for the commission, purchase and installation of artworks in a variety of settings. By providing opportunities for individuals to encounter art in parks, libraries, community centers, on roadways, bridges and other public venues, we simultaneously enrich citizens' daily lives and give voice to artists.

Basically, the 1% for the community idea is that for projects of a certain size, they could allocate some percentage between 0% and 1% to community benefits that aren't otherwise triggered by zoning bonuses and changes.

I think it's fraught with peril, has a lot of opportunity for corruption, would need a strict process for deciding on benefits--the participatory budgeting model is an example of how a process could be set up in a manner that is reasonably fair.

But at least it would formalize a process that is happening anyway and is pretty screwed up.

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