Funding Visionary Urban Redevelopment

As urban planners use their expertise to devise strategies to secure funding, cities then can focus more attention on economic development

By Howard M. Blackson III

Cities often rely on urban planners to help turn their development or revitalization dreams into tangible realities. Through imaginative collaboration, creative thinking, communication, choices and, ultimately, consensus, planners help guide the emerging transformations of cities and towns desiring to redevelop, grow, prosper and improve quality of life.

In determining a city’s trajectory and end goals, planners embrace all elements of city making, from transportation, stormwater and other infrastructure to “complete streets,” private partnerships and greenspace. All the while, they shepherd a project through both the big-picture vision and details such as complex legal, regulatory, technical and social hurdles to create great hubs of activity where residents and visitors will want to gather and live. Then there’s the money.

Grand, transformational city plans – visions that require paradigm shifts in thinking across all aspects of effective urban development – often require grand amounts of funding to achieve. However, in this age of constrained and sometimes unpredictable federal and state infrastructure and related funding, city leaders face a formidable financial challenge in bringing their visions of the future to life.

Consequently, urban planners have found themselves working even more closely with city leaders to devise plans that include creative approaches and design elements that might attract local investors and benefactors, whether private developers, foundations, philanthropists or other groups with a vested interest in the city’s future. Think environmental stewardship, energy conservation, diversity, education and the arts, among other constituent considerations. To intimately understand the cultural and economic landscape of their city, city leaders should be collaborating with planners to devise approaches for generating public and private investment opportunities that ultimately benefit everyone.

In these situations, creating plans that seamlessly intertwine transportation, recreation, public services, housing and community institutions with private development can generate revenues and financial resources to achieve necessary funding. Planners attempt to balance a shared revenue approach between public and private funding to leverage the investment value and timing. The more cooperation that can be achieved among local municipalities and business interests, the more cities are able to avoid the often destructive competition for tax base within a region.

Planners are responsible for formulating the appropriate development models, patterns and plans to help cities achieve and fund their visions.

For example, in the middle of San Diego’s Balboa Park, the nation’s largest urban cultural park, sits a long neglected public plaza, the Plaza de Panama. For almost 60 years it served as a parking lot for the adjacent museums. In 2013, a bold move was made to temporarily remove the parking and test results. While the museums feared losing visitors and revenue if the parking at their front door was removed, the city knew that the plaza was intended to a be a public gathering place for pedestrians, bicyclists, families, kids and visitors to San Diego’s civic jewel. The city secured corporate partners to finance improvements to the plaza in 2015, adding tables, chairs, umbrellas, benches, games, an “outdoor living room” and lawn area for lounging and gatherings. Specially-crafted presentation panels allow the adjacent museums to share their collections and exhibits outside to the general public, and the plaza now hosts performances and special events. Ultimately, the combined public-private partnership resulted in a successful mixed use space that contributes to increased museum revenue.

Identifying not only local businesses but also national organizations with an overarching interest in seeing cities blossom is an essential challenge for city leaders and urban planners. Planners and municipalities work with Southwest Airlines as part of the company’s “Heart of the Community” program to secure grants and program participation. The airline understands the vital role which public spaces play in cities, specifically as a means to enhance their customers’ travel experiences, and numerous communities benefit from the investment in public improvement projects.

Here’s another funding option to consider. By charging impact fees to private developers to offset the cost or impact of new developments to their surroundings, cities can pay for the infrastructure to serve those projects, pay for parks and schools for new residents, and finance fire departments and other city services to keep new developments safe. State and federal laws require that many fees satisfy a nexus test so that developments only pay for offsetting the impacts they create. Planners and engineers assist municipalities in understanding these baseline conditions and give guidance to determine manageable impacts these decisions generate.

This understanding influences and incentivizes certain kinds of development types, such as redevelopment plans, master plans and zoning updates. Planners are responsible for formulating the appropriate development models, patterns and plans to help cities achieve and fund their visions.

As urban planners use their expertise to devise strategies to secure funding, cities then can focus more attention on economic development to rethink transportation, parks, libraries, schools, emergency services, homes, shops and jobs. And at the end of the day, despite federal funding hurdles, they still can achieve the reality of safe and enjoyable urban spaces.

Howard M. Blackson III, CNUa, is Director of Urban Design, Michael Baker International, bringing 25 years of experience as a national leader in crafting innovative urban design plans, codes, and programs to his role with the Michael Baker International Urban Design Studio.
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