Kicking the can down the road

When a town can’t grow out, it must grow up.

To allow this to happen, cities can’t use the outdated suburban methods of financing for new growth. Doing so will be no more effective than running into a brick wall.

That’s exactly what is happening in the suburb of Roseville, a first-ring suburb north of St. Paul and home to the first Target big box store. The City of Roseville is looking to grow because, as the assumption goes, if you’re not growing you're dying. There is a large industrial parcel slated for redevelopment called Twin Lakes.

Ten years ago, the Twin Lakes comprehensive plan was developed (and the suburb even created a redevelopment project webpage). While the plan isn’t great, it isn’t all that bad either. It calls for commercial and mixed-use districts with walkable, connected places and frontages that include lively shop fronts, arcades, front porches and no blank walls.

There’s a problem. This plan will never see the light of day. The mixed-use redevelopment isn’t going to happen. Instead, the Planning Commission has approved a Wal-Mart.

Roseville is abandoning their decade old New Urbanism inspired plan, one that could help bring long-term resiliency to the community, for one that will bring a quick windfall of cash.

The city will immediately net over $410,000 in “park dedication fees” alone. All this “growth” and windfall tax revenue comes at a price – of which, has been detailed at great length on the Strong Towns blog comparing a traditional block versus a Taco John’s drive-through taco restaurant [see: The cost of auto orientation]. Eventually the bill will be due, and we’ll face the realization that the tax revenue collected will not cover the basic costs of maintaining the infrastructure. This is where we’re at today.

In all fairness, Roseville’s Twin Lakes project has been on the books for nearly a decade with little to show for itself despite receiving upwards of $1.8 million in state and local infrastructure grants (all of which the Wal-Mart will benefit from by the way).

The road block was that Roseville ran out of typical suburban mechanisms for growth; it has no greenfield sites and transfer payments between governments have dried up. Transportation spending didn’t help; including the construction of a Metro Transit Park and Ride Station north of the site. Even tax increment financing couldn’t grease the wheels. These factors were exacerbated by the fact that prior to 2007, suburban development was happening on the fringe. After 2007, suburban development just wasn’t happening.

Part of the problem is that the Roseville was unwilling to spend its own money, and it is this very reason that Roseville was recently sent to Court (and ruled against). In a ruling that flew under the radar, a judge ruled that Roseville’s proposed impact fee (or “voluntary development agreement”) was technically illegal. The City was attempting to levy fees for infrastructure on those looking to redevelop their property based on trip generation, as determined by the Institute of Transportation Engineer’s Trip Generation Handbook. The more traffic a development was to demand, the more the developer would have to pay.

This is backwards thinking, especially if you’re looking to create a medium density mixed-use community with retail next to a Park and Ride station. These developments generate lots of traffic (and that’s a good thing). Roseville was single-handily disincentivizing the exact type of development it actually wanted.The problem is that the suburb wanted growth, but didn’t want growing pains. It wasn’t confident that it could confront the general taxpayer and make a case for this redevelopment. The suburb’s unwillingness to make tough decisions that may have been temporarily painful have resulted in kicking the can down the road – the continuing of the suburban experiment.

To enable real growth, cities can’t use old methods. Cities need to be willing to throw their hats into the ring, create comphrensive plans with real teeth, and, to quote Chuck Marohn, “they can’t make the last person to the party pay a disproportionate amount of the freight.” He’s right. We can’t continue to use “local extortion schemes to make up for the lack of financial solvency the Suburban Experiment has wrought. We need to actually face up and address the issue.”

Current economic conditions have the American collective starting to question the idea of endless suburban growth – the false notion that we can simply build ourselves out of a problem. This is a dead idea. You can’t have real, sustainable growth without a few growing pains.

We have existing infrastructure that needs maintenance, and we can’t rely on new development (or park dedication fees) to cover the burden. We can’t keep kicking the can down the road and abandoning thoughtful plans in lieu of a quick cash payouts. Soon enough, there will be a generation that won’t be able to kick the can, and they’ll be mad.