That damn Growth Machine: developers, incentives, givebacks, accountability
WAMU-radio, the NPR affiliate of American University, has a series now on real estate development in DC, and how developers get incentives, promise "community benefits" as part of various deals, and often don't follow through. See "Empty Promises: Developers Often Don't Deliver," which includes links to other segments of the series.
I haven't listened to all of it, and there are programs to come but I expect that the series doesn't provide any way forward, or a deeper analysis on why this occurs.
First, the issue is that this is way local political and economic elites are set up to work together on local economic development. It's explained in political science as "Urban Regime" theory and in urban sociology it's called "the Growth Machine." I've discussed it ad infinitum, but this entry is as good as any, "A superb lesson in DC 'Growth Machine' politics."
The basic point is that political and economic elites, despite seeming intra-elite competition, have the same agenda, focused on real estate development and land use intensification. It's why when different people get elected, things don't change very much as they are part of the same system (see "The 'system' vs. 'Anybody but Fenty'," Umm, it's the system," and "DC At large City Council Election: one insider picking off another insider is not a 'game changer').
Second, so this means that processes where the developers have to "give back," are under-defined to reduce out of pocket costs.
Third, it's complicated further by the fact that many people believe that in order to develop "your property" you ought to pay into the community.
That's not how capitalism and property rights work, but is a common belief.
I discuss this in terms of networks and community ties in the blog entry, "In lower income neighborhoods, are businesses supposed to be "community organizations" first?." (This belief has also come up in discussions of the WAMU series on community e-lists in Petworth and Columbia Heights.)
And I explain the process by which "community benefits" are triggered here, "What community benefits are supposed to be versus what people think they are about" and "Not understanding what triggers a community benefits process."
And I offer a method for defining, monetizing, and structuring "community benefits" processes much better than how it is done currently, in these posts, "Community benefits agreements (revised)" and "Community benefits agreements: revised (again)." The latter is merely a tweak of one element of the earlier entry.
These pieces are based on my various experiences working on or observing various development projects in DC mostly, but also to some extent with processes in some of the other jurisdictions in the area.
I don't expect that the WAMU series will get into much depth on why the processes work or don't work the way that they do, and a better way forward.
(Note that the images are illustrative only and do not necessarily reflect projects discussed in the WAMU series or in past blog entries.)