Say what you will about types of in-fill development, getting people back into the core city is beneficial for Memphis.
Memphis' population isn't growing, so as people move out into the suburbs, it means building new schools, new sewers, and new roads for basically the same people who just left the old ones behind. It also means everything is more spread out, so people drive farther, spend more time in their vehicles, use more gas, and spend more of their income on transportation. Not to mention that hollowing out the urban core deflates the tax base, leaving less money for services.
But, with all the reasons people leave the city, how can you lure them back?
Tuesday night, West TN TAPA and the Coalition for Livable Communities screened Cleveland: Confronting Decline in an American City, a documentary about deterioration in Cleveland's urban core, at the Ben Hooks library. [There is talk of them doing more of these movie nights in the future, and I certainly hope they do.]
Though at one time the nation's fifth largest city and home to some of the country's steel manufacturers, Cleveland now has 195 acres of vacant and unused industrial land. Like Memphis, they've also had sprawl without population growth as people have moved to suburban areas.
The irony is that people now want urban atmospheres in suburban areas and developers are building dense, downtown-like developments in areas miles away from the core city. (I am choosing to call this faurban = faux + urban.)
The same developments could be done in the inner city, but it's much more challenging to amass the amount of land you need and it's more expensive. In Cleveland, for instance, it costs $200,000 to get an acre of already-developed land ready for redevelopment.
"Look at what we did downtown," says Memphis Housing Authority and Housing and Community Development director Robert Lipscomb. "You have to eliminate the risk. You have to incentivize the private sector to get involved."
In Hough (pronounced huff), a neighborhood in Cleveland, the city has set up a pilot program to incentivize home owners to move back to the urban core. In addition to a land bank, where people could get lots very inexpensively, the program also gives the residents a 15-year tax abatement on their property taxes.
I think the knee jerk reaction might be that you can't do that. That you should get that land back on the tax rolls. But under the alternative in which you can't get new residents moving in and the area continues to decline that land isn't going to be adding anything to the city coffers, anyway. If you can build a critical mass of residents, you can create an atmosphere that brings in other businesses, retail and maybe even other residents who will be paying property taxes.
While I was working on my story this past week about the 125-rental home Buehler development in North Memphis, Harold Buehler actually proposed this very idea for Memphis.
"Some families are never going to come back," he said. "But there are some families who said, If I could have no property taxes for 10 years, that would help me come back."
The opponents of Buehler's proposal saying the rental homes would contribute to blight in the neighborhoods told the County Commission that they would rather see comprehensive redevelopment plans. Buehler agreed.
"We'd love to see a comprehensive plan, but it's no good without some comprehensive money," he said.