Mike Kohut, Mayor of the 12,000 person village of Haverstraw, NY, is looking for ways to cost effectively strengthen his town’s tax base and maintain its character. He’s considering tapping home-grown, entrepreneurial small-scale, incremental developers and making better use of underutilized properties owned by local governments. “In addition to the obvious vacant lots” said Jared Rodriguez, a local advocate and champion of small development, “parking lots, and other low-yield uses owned by the village are great candidates for adding small buildings.” Often, local governments across America become the owners of last resort for properties lost through foreclosure or other problems. Most had a building on them at one time and now are economically “underperforming assets” in a local public sector portfolio. “In towns and cities across America, there’s a pressure to combine urban lots into larger consolidated parcels to get developers interested,” said David Kim, an architect from nearby Tarrytown. “That’s because in the last 60 years America’s development industry has become specialized in either large, suburban residential subdivisions, or large urban tax-credit developments. No firms specialize in in-filling single properties in places like Haverstraw, Tarrytown, or anywhere else across America.” That creates an great opportunity for local, small-scale, neighborhood-based redevelopers and builders. Kim is a board member of the Congress for the New Urbanism, and a co-founder of the Incremental Development Alliance, both of which champion such homegrown development, the kind that build almost every American neighborhood before the advent of the car and the consolidation of the residential construction market,
What Counts here for a village Mayor? A quick analysis shows that of 35 underutilized sites the village owns, they could be transformed into anywhere from __ – ___ buildings with ___-____residential and mixed use units, and be generating up to $____ a year to local coffers.
We have small developers in every community–the people doing …[from Ulster Co]. I’m even one of them. Finding and organizing them, and linking them with a mayor who wants to rebuild his village is a lot easier, and a lot cheaper than other routes such as requests for proposals for larger projects that can only be replied to by large, out of town firms. The scale such firms need to work at is…large. Not only is that’s what they know how to do, that’s what it pays to do. It takes about as much administrative and predevelopment work to design a 40 unit building or a 40 home subdivision. But it takes many more times the work to plan for 40 units on 35 village-owned lots and with thin margins. This is why developers today pursue work at large scales. And when they do come into towns like Haverstraw, they can endanger the community’s existing small–scale fabric. Most American main streets average three stories. Many minimum sized developer-driven buildings can double that to make new construction projects cash flow. If you want development, and that’s all contemporary developers build, that’s what they’re going to propose when local governments ask, said Kim. “If you want stuff that fits the character of what you have, we’ve seen turning to local small-scale developers as really the only answer. The great thing is that what comes with that approach are so many additional local benefits.”.
Haverstraw is considering launching a local Master Development Team composed of key village staff, local place-based advocates, and existing small-scale developers. To jump start such a learning process in a place where not so much of this kind of development has happened in recent experience, the MDT will add a “ringer”-an experienced small-scale, incremental developer, who can join the team, share learnings and be the first one to organize a redevelopment project on one of the city-owned lots. By offering the first lot at a discount, the project’s feasibility increases (especially in a high cost market like New York’s Hudson Valley within an easy drive of New York City). But, the discount is far less than typical subsidies given to large scale developers. And, it will result in a project being built in a matter of months. With everything the team learns in observing (or being part) of the first project, others can follow, more efficiently. Each project enables local officials a close up look at whether and which of their local regulations and policies actually inhibit or slow down small scale development. And in this way, their shared experiences creates a backlog of tweaks and changes to local policies and practices to make the next small project easier, faster and often, cheaper.