Developer: Build up and close, not far and out

I heard a telling definition of “developer” recently from none other than a developer himself:

“A developer is someone who takes your money and his experience and turns it into his money and your experience.”

The Greater Boerne Chamber of Commerce has been on a mission to advance the conversation about how, where and when healthy development happens in our area.

Within the last year, the Chamber has hosted two presentations with ties to an organization called Strong Towns, a public affairs group dedicated to rethinking how America builds its cities.

Strong Towns exposes the fiscal and congestion-related challenges facing U.S. municipalities, particularly as they relate to creating new infrastructure and maintaining old.

Austin-based developer Terry Mitchell is affiliated with the group. He addressed a Chamber gathering in Boerne last week.

Mitchell compared development in any region to a swath of oak trees with an extensively intertwined root system. A cause on one side of the grove can have an effect on the other. With any kind of development – just like with legislation – there are both intended and unintended consequences.

For example, suburban office parks pop up when a city’s core becomes too pricey and too congested. According to Mitchell, this happened in Southern California in the 1970s and 1980s and then in Austin a decade later.

Decades of urban and suburban sprawl are now hamstringing American cities with infrastructure upkeep costs.

I won’t scare you with the numbers. Suffice it to say the maintenance costs on our existing state and federal roadways are huge enough – and resources are thin enough – to have “gravel” offered as a potential solution. (Gravel is cheap to maintain.)

“You never pay off a road,” Mitchell said. “Every twenty to forty years you have to rebuild it.” He noted transportation challenges are exacerbated by public resistance to toll roads.

Given the ongoing maintenance cost of even brand new infrastructure, some cities are demanding more tax value from new developments in exchange for the future infrastructure costs the cities will absorb.

Cities are also using other strategies to crack the nut. They are attempting to drive more tax base growth on top of existing infrastructure (e.g., build up instead of out).

And they are trying to bring jobs, recreation, services, etc. to where people live in order to minimize transportation needs.

Density seems to be a silver bullet in the fight to leverage past infrastructure expenditures rather than creating new ones. Mitchell referenced examples of triplexes that look like the single family residences on either side of them.

Higher density development can improve quality of life while reducing the cost of life. It can increase community spirit with its common areas and vegetable gardens. It also brings energy savings as unit sizes decrease.

We haven’t always needed much space, Mitchell noted. The average home in 1959 was 953 square feet.  And if you don’t need much space, you don’t have to build that far out, thereby further limiting transportation outlays.

If there’s anything our fiscal pickles and public debt debacles teach us, it’s that we must get smarter about how we grow. Otherwise, we’ll eventually collapse under our own weight.

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1 Response to “Developer: Build up and close, not far and out”

  1. 1 Bob Imler September 24, 2017 at 14:38


    Excellent piece, keep up the good work. See you on Tuesday morning.

    Best regards,

    Bob Imler

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