Glance at any headline, and prevailing wisdom would seem to argue that overbuilding (and a glut of unsold units) has been the norm for development-minded downtowns of late. Seattle , for example, took just three years to build or approve 23,000 new residential units, half its stated goal of 47,000 by 2024, a glut partly fueled by rezoning, especially in formerly height-restricted neighborhoods such as Capitol Hill.
During boom times, rezoning alone was perhaps enough to trigger new construction. But for municipalities serious about infill—particularly in subprime but transit-rich areas needing redevelopment—it’s turned out to be less effective.
Take New York City. One of the centerpieces of its initiative to house an expected 1 million new arrivals in the coming decades was the Jamaica Plan. Covering 365 square blocks surrounding a major rail hub in Queens, it was the largest rezone in the city’s history, projected to bring 9,600 jobs and 3 million square feet of new commercial space to the area.
Even though it’s been over three years since the resolution passed, almost none of the expected 5,100 units of new residential construction have materialized. In fact, the only real activity has been at MODA, a 350 unit, mixed-income rental complex that opened this summer.
That the Jamaica Plan is routinely touted in promotional literature as both a success and a linchpin of New York’s housing policy makes this even more troublesome. Though it meets a bevy of feel-good criteria (utilizing existing transportation infrastructure, responding to community input, etc.) where is the new housing?
To be fair, the rezone came at a particularly bad time in the nation’s economic development cycle. But even Jamaica’s most passionate boosters wish progress would move along faster, particularly for an area hoping to serve as an example to similar communities. It begs the question: Can redevelopment on a meaningful scale really only occur in already sought-after areas?
Cities across the country are grappling with this very question, and experimenting with different strategies. Some offer density bonuses for developers who invest in certain underserved neighborhoods (and not just for inclusionary housing). Others are lowering permit fees for new construction, and implementing “Fast Track” development reviews in targeted areas. Creative financing is particularly crucial, especially now that shrinking tax bases are constraining tools like tax incentives.
These are all roadmaps worth examining as other subprime areas get targeted for infill growth this year. Seattle has just begun a comprehensive study to revitalize Pioneer Square, a historic, transit-rich neighborhood maligned by residential developers because of its seedy reputation. Bronx’s Lower Concourse is another candidate for transit-oriented redevelopment in the coming years, with a new zoning resolution to promote new housing passed in 2009.
For these as well as Jamaica, it remains to be seen what unique blend of incentive, investment, buzz, and market forces will produce lasting results.