The costs of undevelopment

Sunday’s Burlington Free Press brought us a lengthy cover story about artists in the Pine Street corridor, and their fear of potential gentrification in the area.

The Pine Street corridor is a delightful, funky mix of startups, small businesses, a few larger businesses, food enterprises, art studios, and various creative types. Hipster’s paradise.

It owes its existence to a historical quirk in zoning. As the Free Press’ Molly Walsh reports:

New residential development is prohibited along parts of Pine Street under city zoning rules going back several decades. The rules were created to preserve space for industrial and commercial uses in a 225-acre Enterprise Zone that encompasses much of Burlington’s historic manufacturing section…

Today major industry has largely moved out of the area. In its place art studios, offices and smaller-scale makers of everything from bread to beer to jewelry have sprung up along with start-ups and more established business such as Lake Champlain Chocolates.

That Enterprise Zone has had the unintended consequence of keeping rent artificially low, making it possible for this Creatives’ Colony to develop. The worm in the apple: the corridor would be an ideal place to develop more housing, which Burlington needs badly. But if the zoning were changed to allow housing, propertly values would go up. And rents. And many current tenants of the old industrial buildings would be priced out.

Of course, if you leave the zoning intact, every resident of Burlington is subsidizing the Colony through inflated costs for housing and property taxes.

So the question: is that a tradeoff worth making? If you live in Burlington, are you willing to underwrite the artists and entrepreneurs, and forego the property tax revenue and easing of housing demand?

This is a question that usually goes unasked when we consider development ideas. We see the potential costs (financial, social, environmental) of a proposal, but we don’t as easily see the costs of not developing.

Same question applies to the land formerly owned by Burlington College. The easy question is, “Do we want to preserve it as open space?’ The harder questions are, “Do we all want to subsidize that space through higher property taxes?” and “If we don’t want development there, where are we willing to allow it?” Because we can’t say “no” to everything. We can’t turn Burlington — or Vermont — into a Colonial Williamsburg, frozen in time like a beetle in amber.

Walsh interviewed quite a few Pine Street artists. Frankly, some of them seem a little whiny and entitled. One, for example, acknowledged the need for more housing but asked, “‘Why here?’ is my question. Does it have to be here?”

Well, no, it doesn’t HAVE to be there. But, given the fact that more people want to live in Burlington, it has to be somewhere. If not in the South End, if not on the former Burlington College land, then where? More suburban sprawl in Williston and Essex? (You want to see bad development? Drive a few miles north from I-89 Exit 12, past the endless and growing expanses of strip malls and subdivisions in Williston and Essex.)

If Burlington says “no” to any significant upgrade in housing stock, who does it hurt most? The low- and middle-income people who’ll be priced out of the city, and the environment of the outlying areas, where development pressure will grow.

I hope there will be a reasonable compromise on Pine Street, relaxing the strictures of the Enterprise Zone or trimming its borders. Personally, I’d like to see the Pine Street Corridor retain its character — but I’d also like to see more housing that would make use of existing infrastructure and give residents a short commute by car, bike, or bus to downtown (or Pine Street) jobs.

Overall, I’d like more attention to be paid to the hidden costs of undevelopment. It’s possible to do this intelligently, allowing desirable development while retaining our character.

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3 thoughts on “The costs of undevelopment

  1. Jim Abbott

    You forgot the most egregiously subsidized property in Burlington – golf course. If it was zoned and taxed appropriately – could go a long way in addressing housing needs (and could provide room for student housing.)

    Reply
    1. John S. Walters Post author

      Good point. Golf courses in general are a rich source of tax subsidies for the wealthy. I recommend the work of David Cay Johnston on the subject. Try Googling his name and “Bandon Dunes,” a glitzy course in Oregon. He uses it as an example of how tax policy underwrites the golf industry.

      Reply
  2. NanuqFC

    The other issue is housing for whom? When UVM owns the building and restricts its use to students, does that building stay on the tax rolls or not? And given that Mayor Miro W. is busy enticing the Uni to build more housing , aren’t the rest of Btown’s owners and renters subsidizing that use?

    Reply

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