The hidden cost of campus-style development

One of the hallmarks of our development pattern over the last 20 years has been the “campus” style of development. In the 1990s it seemed that every major corporation was looking to move its headquarters from a large central city out into to a bucolic suburban setting. And rather than building high-rise office buildings, they would place a one or two-story building in the middle of a field, build roads and sewer and water into that building, and mow enormous amounts of land so as to create a park-like feel. Preserve a couple wetlands, leave a few trees up (or plant a few) and throw in a couple walking paths and you’ve got the makings of a development that your company can not only advertise as a respite to its employees from their busy lives outside of work (even as they slave away inside their office cube) but also as an example of how environmentally conscious you are. There may even be a public bike path running alongside the campus that the city and the corporation teamed up to build in the name of providing alternative transportation options.

In our own Twin Cities metropolitan area, when I think of campus, it is this development in the eastern suburbs, but there are numerous examples (the campus is in the center of the screen):

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What is often overlooked in the placement of these campus-style office complexes however, is how utterly inefficient and unproductive they are. Usually, a city is so enamored with the idea that a large corporation is going to place its headquarters in their community that they fall all over themselves in welcoming the development. If there is a concern at all, it usually has to do with ensuring proper landscaping within the development, sufficient stormwater ponds or adequate “stacking” distances for cars at the stop lights at the entrances. The fact that the campus style of development will eat up thousands of feet of road frontage and sewer and water lines without any proportional increase in the tax base to support the ongoing maintenance of those facilities is completely lost.

And while our friend Kaid Benfield and others have pointed out that the campus-style headquarters may be going out of vogue for large corporations, it is very much in style for school districts and governments looking to construct new facilities. I’ve driven through many, many cities in Minnesota’s rural areas where they have moved their schools and their city and county office buildings out to the far ends of town or across a busy highway from their historic downtown, placed the building in the middle of a 40 acre parcel, and irrigated the remaining 35 acres so as to create that park-like feeling. In the case of schools, much of that open land goes to provide acres and acres of ball fields.

For this community, they have both (notice the school/ball field facilties in the top/center of the screen. The county government building complex is immediately to the south. The historic downtown is located further south, across the state highway):

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I could point out that schools and government office buildings do not contribute to the local tax base – at least directly. I could argue with the assumption that lies behind these efforts to move schools and government offices out to such large acreages, That is not the point of this post. Let’s assume that they do actually need 20-40 acres of land. (In Minnesota, our state has policies for new high schools to have somewhere in the neighborhood of 60-100 acres. Think about that for a second and realize how ridiculous that is. It’s a wonder that those of us who were educated on a meager few acres ever learned to write a complete sentence or throw a baseball!).

The defining aspect of the campus style of development is that the first few hundred feet back from a road is “green space”. Area that basically serves the purpose of tricking all of us into thinking that we are seeing the beauty of nature or our community’s commitment to providing environmentally-friendly stormwater infiltration areas, but that generate nothing to the tax base that supports the ongoing maintenance of our public infrastructure. If we understood how unproductive developing land in this way was to our future budgets, there is no conceivable way that we would allow it to happen. And the irony is that in this particular case there may actually be a way to “have our cake and eat it too”.

Rather than committing so much space to lawn and “open space” along the public infrastructure that we are going to need to maintain over time, we could simply require or otherwise ensure that these areas are used productively – for uses that will actually contribute to the local tax base without requiring even more infrastructure to be built. In nearly every case this land that borders the public infrastructure could be platted out and sold for commercial or residential development. The internal roads built to serve the government offices or school facilities could also be used to serve these homes and businesses. If the school or government needed to “recover” the lost land, they could do it at the rear of the property – where it doesn’t eat up land that requires all of the infrastructure to serve it. If there was ever an argument to justify the creation of “flag lots” – lots that have enough space for a driveway into the property and then open up into a much wider dimension in the rear – this is it. If it’s important that the public building have a visual presence along the main road (and I can find reason to say that it is), then put that building up front but reconfigure the rest of the buildings and ball fields and whatever else is needed on that property to the rear where there are no unneeded roads or sewer lines.

We can’t afford to ignore the productivity of our development patterns anymore. We need to build Strong Towns.