Thursday, March 31, 2011

Thoughts on urban policy to think about

I enjoyed Claude Gruen's New Urban Development.  The author knows the economics and adds the lessons he absorbed as a long-time consultant on urban development.  And the book is short and readable.

Gruen's last chapter discusses his 13 favorite development policy reforms.  #9 is "Vest Tenants of Redevelopment with Rent Differential Subsidies."  In other words, in cases of eminent domain purchases, treat the renters to more than relocation assistance. #10 is "Distribute a Portion of Sales Tax Revenue on the Basis of Population Rather Than Point of Sale."  That would be an antidote to local governments' scramble for new retail development in their cities -- especially in light of Proposition 13-type limits on property tax revenues.  #11 is "A private Alternative to Public Urban Redevelopment."  This is timely as public redevelopment is now even unpopular with the likes of Gov Jerry Brown.  "... private parties who have acquired 80 percent of properties within a blighted project area will be granted the power of eminent domain to acquire the remaining 20 percent."  But there would be additional payments to these former owners from project profits once these are realized.

A recent NY Times Book Review Essay by David Greenberg is titled "Why Last Chapters Disappoint" ("No Exit" in the print edition).  "Why do books on social problems always end with suggestions that are banal, utopian or beside the point?" 

That one hit home.  Many of us should watch what we recommend. 

I would not characterize Gruen's 13 points as "banal" or "beside the point."  But some of them ("Plan and Zone to Add More Development Than Would Be Required by Estimated Likely Demand Growth,") assume a long run forecasting ability that planners simply do not have.

But readers should chew on all thirteen.  They are from a smart man with lots of professional practice experience, which comes across in all of the chapters leading up to the recommendations.