Thursday, March 23, 2006

Public-private partnerships for parks

(see if you can say that title 10 times fast...) At David Crossley's monthly Livable Houston meeting yesterday, David raised the very legitimate concern that Houston's expected hyper-growth of 3 million new people over the next 30 years will wipe out many of the large, continuous areas of greenspace in our region (see this HGAC projection). Now, even though the maps look pretty scary, I think his case may be a tad exaggerated, as I live in Meyerland, one of the redder density squares on his map, and our neighborhood is pretty green by most people's standards. But he has a fair point that fragmented greenspace among private yards are not the same thing as larger greenspace areas like Memorial Park.

Some of the problem is being addressed by Harris County Flood Control as they build more flood control parks under Project Brays like Willow Waterhole (discussed before here), but we are a long, long way from the original vision of linear parks along the hundreds of miles of bayous in our region. How can we do more when local government budgets are so tight and land is getting more expensive every year?

Here's a simple solution: for large-scale developers willing to purchase large plots of land for master-planned community development, and also willing to set aside a substantial portion of that land as public park space, let them tap the power of local government eminent domain to assemble the large blocks of contiguous land that they need to make both the development economics and the parks work. It's a true win-win: the developer gets an attractive park space near their community that enhances its value and the land he needs to make the whole project work, while the public gets a nice park out of the deal at no expense to taxpayers.

Now, after the Kelo case, I know eminent domain is a sensitive topic these days. I still feel the same as when I wrote about the case last June: in these non-standard eminent domain cases, it probably makes sense to set a higher hurdle to discourage abuse - maybe a 20% or more premium over assessed "fair market value" for the acquired parcels.

There's another benefit to this approach too. Developers are sprawling ever farther out to find large continuous swaths of land they can get at affordable prices, and they're leaving undeveloped gaps closer-in. Houston and Harris County feel the developer disinterest vs. much more attractive options in Montgomery, Ft. Bend, and Brazoria counties. If this process makes it easier to assemble larger areas closer-in for development, we can get a more compact metro that better utilizes our existing infrastructure, including roads and freeways - not to mention adding parks and greenspace to our core.

Ironing out the detailed processes, requirements, and oversight groups will be tricky, but I think it would be an extremely worthwhile investment in the long-term health of our region.

18 Comments:

At 9:00 AM, March 24, 2006, Anonymous HH Gwin III said...

"Now, after the Kelo case, I know eminent domain is a sensitive topic these days. I still feel the same as when I wrote about the case last June: in these non-standard eminent domain cases, it probably makes sense to set a higher hurdle to discourage abuse - maybe a 20% or more premium over assessed "fair market value" for the acquired parcels."

Tory, there you go again with the bland assumption that throwing money at the problem supercedes property rights.

Absent a COMPELLING reason (which, in my opinion does not include "I want to build a subdivision and some parks.", it is inappropriate to force an unwilling seller to part with his property.

Pragmatically, if we encourage politicians (always eager for campaign contributions) and developers (always eager for influence) to work together in this way, we can all expect to own our property (or our Antioch Baptist Churches) only until someone bigger and more connected decides they want what we have.

America was built on Pareto efficiency. Dictatorships are built on Kaldor-Hicks efficiency. I respectfully suggest Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" as a good read.

 
At 9:12 AM, March 24, 2006, Anonymous RedScare said...

You haven't even convinced me that 12,000 acre master planned developments are in the city's interest, much less that a 12,000 acre development minus a few acres of someone's homestead is an economic failure. The perceived problem of park space can be just as easily overcome by requiring developers to include park space in their plans, just as they are required to build streets and other infrastructure. This would require the developer to address the needs of the future residents without violating one the central rights of a free society, the right to own land.

I am at a loss to understand why the needs of developers outweigh the rights of landowners. These people are not performing a public service. They are engaged in business for profit. In a supposed free market world, they either pay for the land, or they build around it. The only legitimiate use of eminent domain is for the public good. Giving a profit seeking developer an unblemished canvas upon which he may blight the land with uninspiring tract homes on curvy streets does not rise to the level of public good, no matter how blinded by dollar signs you may be.

Your sympathy for unimaginative developers is misplaced. Even Perry Homes has figured out how to build profitably in patchwork fashion. If a scorched earth developer cannot figure out how to do the same, he should be penalized, not rewarded.

 
At 10:47 AM, March 24, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Well, I suppose if we wanted to stay within the bounds of existing processes, we could add a "park tax" to all developers and then use the money to buy land under eminent domain to convert to parks, but this seemed like a more voluntary, market-oriented approach (since the developer can choose to opt in or not vs. a obligatory tax). And developers are more willing to chip in if they know the park will be next to their development. The goal is to work *with* all the parties involved rather than be heavy handed with taxes or regulations.

 
At 10:52 AM, March 24, 2006, Anonymous HH Gwin III said...

"The goal is to work *with* all the parties involved rather than be heavy handed with taxes or regulations."

Except, of course, the unfortunate homeowner who is forced to sell against his will to the developer/city council.

 
At 11:19 AM, March 24, 2006, Anonymous RJ said...

Tory -

As a related FYI, recent state legislation allows MUDs to get into the park business, and we're already seeing some MUDs in the suburban areas of Houston take advantage of this new power to create and maintain parks. Among other things, this will further help master planned communities and smaller subdivisions alike to create park infrastructure.

 
At 11:58 AM, March 24, 2006, Anonymous RedScare said...

"but this seemed like a more voluntary, market-oriented approach"

"The goal is to work *with* all the parties involved rather than be heavy handed with taxes or regulations."

I couldn't agree more. Now, could you please explain to me what is voluntary about eminent domain? Could you further explain how a market-oriented approach includes enlisting the government to forcibly remove a homeowner from the land you covet, as opposed to reaching an agreement with said homeowner? Does FREE market only mean a developer is free to take any property he sees fit to build his development? Does FREE market not include a homeowner being free to reject the developer's offer?

The only heavy-handedness being discussed here is eminent domain. I am stunned at your callousness towards homeowners, but I am disgusted at your advocacy of using the government to oppress them. Most stunning of all is your view of wealthy developers being denied their right to make a living by selfish homeowners who won't sell out cheaply for the "greater good".

 
At 3:38 PM, March 24, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

The classic situation is one in which 90+% of owners want to sell at reasonable prices, but a small minority of key parcels, realizing they have the ability to kill the whole deal, make outrageous demands far out of whack with the true market value of their land. This is why developers often won't even look closer in, because they know a few cranks will blow the whole deal after he puts in a ton of legwork, so he goes straight to the farthest reaches of the metro where he can buy giant parcels from just a couple farmers or ranchers.

We have eminent domain for a reason: because we can't have a property owner extort a million dollars for a $100K piece of land because it's where a school or a road or a park needs to be built. I'm as big a free market proponent as anybody, but this is one place where it breaks down.

Of course such a system needs checks and balances and controls - and no, developers can't just get any land they want. I think they have to make a case for a situation like the one I describe above: a 90% done deal that just needs the 10% unreasonables dealt with. And if the unreasonables feel they aren't being treated fairly, they always have the court system to resolve disputes.

 
At 4:49 PM, March 24, 2006, Blogger Owen said...

Tory,

I've got to agree with everyone else here. It's true that some holdouts may hold up a private land deal, and that they may be doing so to try and extort developers. On the other hand, they might also do so because they simply don't want to give up their home, even if most of their neighbors sell out. If that's the case, it's their right to do so.

Development of inner areas simply isn't a "public use." It's a very private use, where private developers want to build something for individual buyers. If they also want to include parks, that's a private concern as well. The problem with Kelo is that it reduced "public use" to surplusage, which is an impermissible reading of the Constitution.

I have no problem if the government itself decides to use eminent domain to take the land and thereupon uses it to build public parks. But I don't want developers using eminent domain to build private parks to go along the homes they build, and demonizing those who don't want to sell for whatever reason doesn't really help your case.

 
At 5:07 PM, March 24, 2006, Anonymous anonymous said...

"And if the unreasonables feel they aren't being treated fairly, they always have the court system to resolve disputes."

The courts are not an effective remedy...first, because the holdouts often don't want money, they want their property. After their property has been demolished by the developer, winning cash is a pretty empty victory.

Second, developers often have more resources than homeowners. The Ainbinder group was able to demolish The Ale House in 2001 and replace it with a parking lot because they bankrupted The Ale House's owners with a protracted court case and broke a contract the Ale House's owners had with the previous landlord.

 
At 6:09 PM, March 24, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

> But I don't want developers using eminent domain to build private parks to go along the homes they build

I was very careful to emphasize the word "public" in front of parks in my post. I do not support using this in any way for private parks for master planned communities. They must be public with public access and run by the appropriate government parks dept.

 
At 10:41 PM, March 24, 2006, Anonymous ringzero said...

I was very careful to emphasize the word "public" in front of parks in my post. I do not support using this in any way for private parks for master planned communities.

Forgive me if I'm wrong, but the original post seems to advocate invoking eminent domain for the master-planned community plus an adjacent public park, not just for the park. I think it's the use of eminent domain for the master-planned community that everyone is complaining about.

 
At 10:44 PM, March 24, 2006, Blogger Owen said...

tory,

I didn't catch that -- I apologize. Nonetheless, I would still be circumspect about taking private land... As we see here, passions run high when it comes to eminent domain.

It's also worth noting that Houston isn't bereft of park space -- we have substantially more park space per capita than New York, LA, Philly, and Chicago. Although it's certainly legitimate to use eminent domain for public parks, I wouldn't want to make it a regular thing.

 
At 12:20 PM, March 25, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Ringzero: You are correct that I was advocating eminent domain as part of the whole package, as long as the park was large enough to justify it (part of the restrictions I mentioned).

Owen, I've heard the exact opposite about our park space per capita. Do you (or anybody else) have stats/rankings they can point to?

 
At 5:08 PM, March 25, 2006, Blogger Owen said...

Tory,

A 2000 book by Peter Harnik, "Inside City Parks, ranked the most populous 25 American cities in terms of park acreage per 1,000 residents. Houston ranked 8th:

1. San Diego 29.5
2. Phoenix 27.6
3. Portland 23.8
4. Ft. Worth 19
5. Dallas 18.4
6. Washington DC 17.5
7. Minneapolis 14.9
8. Houston 11.2
9. Seattle 11
10. Tampa 10.2
11. Denver 10.2
12. San Francisco 9.8
13. St. Louis 9.7
14. Boston 8.3
15. Pittsburgh 8.2
16. Los Angeles 8.2
17. Baltimore 7.8
18. Atlanta 7.6
19. Philadelphia 7
20. New York 6.6
21. Detroit 6.2
22. Cleveland 6
23. Chicago 4
24. San Jose 3.9
25. Miami 3.7

Source:
www.dallasindicators.net/DallasIndicators/Pages/ViewFile.aspx?id=348

The national average park acreage per capita for for the 55 most populous cities is 8.

Houston ranks lowest out of major cities in Texas, but major cities in Texas tend to have extremely high park acreage. El Paso, in fact, has the most park space per capita of any major city in the United States. Austin also ranks very highly, and as seen above, DFW also has more park acerage than Houston. This is what the Houston Chronicle and conservationists compain about, but it's only because they ignore the bigger picture.

Source:
http://www.tpl.org/tier3_cd.cfm?content_item_id=6120&folder_id=631

So I reiterate -- Houston is above average in terms of park acreage. I don't think helping developers with land-grabs is justified consitutionally (hence the "public use" requirement), and it is bad policy when Houston so far exceeds the park acerage per capita. Absent a pressing public need for more park space, I don't want the city doing this.

(BTW: Houston's park acerage per capita goes up to 18.7 if you consider county parks, which isn't too shabby either).

 
At 1:49 AM, March 26, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is lack of continguous land *really* a deal-breaker when it comes to developers building in Houston? Are there specific instances in which this was the case?

 
At 6:52 PM, March 26, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Dammit, Blogger is not notifying me of comments again and I just randomly discovered these new ones. Sorry.

I don't know of any, but I'm also guessing a lot of developers don't even try because the risks are too high for the effort required.

Thanks for the stats Owen. That does seem to reduce the urgency quite a bit, although I think some people would take issue with Lake Houston and Addison Resevoir distorting the stats.

 
At 9:23 AM, March 27, 2006, Blogger Owen said...

Tory,

I think some people would take issue with Lake Houston and Addison Resevoir distorting the stats

I'd wager that other cities have similar distorting influences (especially those with double or triple our park acreage per capita). The bottom line, though, is that lower density cities like Houston tend to fare better in terms of park acreage per capita.

On a final note, I would observe that Houston's planning department -- which approves new development -- strictly enforces regulations regarding park acreage. If you build X houses, you need X acres of parks. So we already make demands on developers (my wife could explain this better -- she worked for a planning architecture firm in Houston for a year).

 
At 9:45 PM, March 27, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tory: "Ringzero: You are correct that I was advocating eminent domain as part of the whole package, as long as the park was large enough to justify it (part of the restrictions I mentioned)."

I have real trouble with developers using public parks as a bribe to get government to confiscate people's land.

 

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