Greenfill Offers Opportunities for Developers, Investors
With global population topping 7 billion, more people than ever before are living, working, and playing in cities. While public policy experts have only recently begun to come to grips with the implications of this increasingly urban populace, developers, urban planners, and architects have been implementing sophisticated strategies that discourage sprawl and encourage the creation of dense, livable environments for some time now.
The benefits of urban infill and other redevelopment strategies, in fact, have become increasingly apparent, particularly with limited funding for new development and large numbers of abandoned and underutilized properties in cities nationwide. Unfortunately, there has been a general lack of cohesion in how these ideas have been applied.
To counteract this, a strategy is needed that combines the compact communities and energized streetscapes of New Urbanism, the sensible land use and urban planning of Smart Growth, and the environmentally friendly priorities of green design. To that end, development professionals are applying strategic design and site planning, and embracing the reuse of existing infrastructure and site-specific topography to make developments not just greener, but better. The result is an approach that transforms infill into greenfill.
A greenfill approach recognizes that green and infill priorities are not mutually exclusive with great places, and that combining thoughtful planning with inspired design and development can recapture and add value. At a project level, greenfill leverages design concepts in environmentally friendly ways to create memorable built environments with a powerful sense of place. At a community level, greenfill creates vibrant, sustainable neighborhoods. At its core, greenfill marries livability with sustainability. It also makes good economic sense, relying less on high-tech solutions and more on sensible strategies of connection, inclusion, and reuse.
Greenfill not only develops undeveloped or underdeveloped properties. It weaves them back into the larger community fabric. Its effectiveness is based on the simple logic that rehabilitating existing buildings is almost always “greener” than building new ones. Relying on existing civic infrastructure, greenfill is able to use utility networks, roads, and transportation to great advantage. Combined with well-established community and social frameworks, these existing resources can offer what amounts to a ready-made template for development.
Effective greenfill development depends on the relationship of complex economic, political and regulatory forces. Top-down coordination, procedural streamlining, and regulatory reform are absolute necessities. For municipalities, that means developing both a regional plan and a more detailed neighborhood analysis. Big-picture planning helps with coordination and accountability. An inventory mechanism for monitoring vacant and abandoned properties can be a real asset.
A greenfill approach also means reforming tax systems and other policies that discourage speculation and hamper the ability to put underutilized properties back onto the market. Because the process for acquiring a property that has not paid taxes or has been abandoned can be cumbersome, municipalities should consider streamlining regulations to facilitate acquisition and disposal of abandoned properties. Similarly, land value taxes, which tax the land more than improvements on the land, can help to ensure that owners and developers are not penalized for making improvements.
Developers, in turn, need to stay on top of the local tax and regulatory environment, and push local lawmakers to make the property acquisition process as easy as possible. Too many regulatory hoops to jump through or excessive taxes will simply encourage developers to look elsewhere. Right now, there is simply too much inventory for developers to get bogged down in red tape.
Municipalities also must recognize that greenfill development is likely to require some public assistance because the costs of developing in an urban environment typically are much higher than in a suburban site. Municipalities can create sources of capital and subsidize development through tax increment financing, tax incentive programs, business improvement districts, and municipal bonds.
Among the incentives that municipalities have found to be most effective are: waiving development-related fees; city participation in the cost of off-site improvements; focused blight control efforts adjacent to infill development sites; assistance in getting developers through the planning and development process (and, of course, streamlining that process); property tax incentives, such as a 10-year exemption on taxing the improvements; bond measures to fund improvements; extra levies within neighborhoods; creation of tax increment financing districts; lower impact fees; and property tax exemptions.
Some municipalities have also developed a parcel assembly program for strategic land banking. Limiting the land available for development outside of non-target zones, urban growth boundaries, and adopting tax policies that discourage holding on to undeveloped land have also helped to promote greenfill development. So too can the introduction of historic tax credits to stimulate revitalization of historic buildings and even entire sections of a municipality.
Developers again must be fully informed on what development incentives are available, and whether the return on investment in terms of time and cost justifies pursuing available incentives.
Developers also must evaluate the pros and cons of revitalization and reinvestment in older, historic communities. Maryland’s Historic Tax Credit program, for example, provides income tax credits based on a percentage of the qualified capital costs expended in the rehabilitation of a structure. It also has a wide range of eligibility standards dependent on the structure and its location, operating regulations, applications, and deadlines. The same is true in other states and municipalities. As a result, developers and investors are well advised to review each program’s guidelines closely to make sure their project is eligible.
Developers cannot afford to ignore community stakeholders. Residents have the most to gain by encouraging the reuse of vacant or underutilized properties. Educating and engaging with them can help them better understand how greenfill development can revitalize their neighborhood economies and improve their quality of life. This approach also creates a collaborative dynamic instead of an adversarial relationship, enabling developers to secure planning and development input from those who know the area best.
Finally, transparency is an absolute must. Policies and development decisions must be as straightforward and predictable as possible. Public officials, developers, and investors must make their decision-making process transparent and must value positive community input and outcomes.
The recognition that everyone benefits from vibrant, dynamic urban spaces is changing the way people think about urban development and redevelopment. If civic leaders and development professionals can articulate a common goal and consistently focus their energies toward that goal, greenfill development can have a transformative impact on the next generation of urban landscapes.
Dustin Watson serves as partner and director of sustainability with Baltimore-based DDG, an innovative architecture, design, planning and graphics firm with a history of creating high-profile, high-quality interior and exterior environments around the world. Watson is a LEED-Accredited Professional, and DDG is a member of the US Green Building Council.
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