Not long after I moved to Gainesville, I found myself chatting with a man at a party. Making conversation, I asked what he did for a living. He responded, “I’m a farmer.” Then, with a wry smile, he continued, “I farm Yankees—six to the acre.”
He was a developer, and I am a Yankee. I had practiced architecture and worked with developers in several places, and studied real estate development in graduate school, but I had never heard his profession described quite so bluntly. Welcome to Florida, I thought.
I was reminded of that exchange recently, as I watched a video presentation made to Gainesville’s Community Redevelopment Agency in 2018. The speaker, Joe Minicozzi of the consulting firm Urban3, compared the City to a real estate development corporation. He spoke about the productivity of Gainesville’s acreage, asking, “How many jobs per acre does your community produce? How many taxes per acre? How much value per acre?”
His firm has worked with cities around the country and has developed a method for visualizing productivity using three-dimensional maps. In his presentation, he compared more tax-productive sections of Gainesville with less productive areas and compared cities across the country with each other.
He summarized his key point, “As soon as you start stacking the stories (in a building) you’re seeing the wealth grow.” Density, he argued, is profitable for cities.
He compared our City’s most tax-productive land—the six-story Hampton Inn downtown—against the far less productive one-story Walmart in southwest Gainesville. The Walmart is surrounded by acres of onsite parking, while the Hampton Inn has none. The difference is the denominator: How much tax is produced per acre of land?
Listening to his presentation, I understood that, from his perspective, many of our City’s properties simply are not “pulling their weight” in generating tax revenues.
When I studied real estate development, I learned that increasing density (“upzoning”) is one way developers make money. Even before turning up dirt, land becomes more valuable based on how many dwelling units it might hold, if developed. I had never dreamed municipalities might adopt this logic.
I was also taught developers must balance risk and reward. While they sometimes make lots of money, they also take risks: Will the local market support their project? Will the regional or national economy be stable or improve as the project proceeds? What kind of unexpected obstacles will emerge? How much of their own money will they invest, and how much might they lose if the project fails?
Minicozzi’s presentation helped me understand how cities could think of properties contained within their boundaries like Florida developers do—as acreage to be “harvested.” As he said, “If you get more money you can pay for more cool things like this park out here,” referencing Depot Park.
But, using the developer’s model, what about the City’s risks?
Cities make policy decisions that may take years to play out. Their elected policymakers are often long gone. If a gamble fails, the city and some of its residents, not its decision-makers, suffer.
For property owners, the story is different. Once their property has been upzoned, with the goal of “stacking stories” to increase revenues, owners realize the benefits only if they develop or sell their property. If the property owner is, or aspires to be, a developer, this is a welcome reward.
For homeowners, though, whose goal is to live in their homes, the risks are significant. Their taxes likely increase as properties around them become denser, generating more taxes and changing the local taxing calculus. In some cases, new development will bring unwelcome neighbors, especially if sketchy landlords attract sketchy tenants. Traffic and other impacts to local infrastructure will be borne by those who choose to stay rather than those who sell.
In a recent City Commission hearing on the elimination of single-family zoning, one frustrated resident implored those in the room to “follow the money” to understand why some City Commissioners are making decisions that appear irrational to many. While she implied Commissioners might be profiting personally, the answer may be much simpler.
By voting, time after time, to increase density across the City, “stacking the stories,” as Minicozzi advised, the City will have more money to “pay for more cool things.”
The City’s mission apparently has shifted. Rather than taxing residents to provide for basic services, balancing ambitions against tax rates, the City plans to expand its tax base, by promoting not six but 15, 60, or 120 Yankees (or “climate refugees”) per acre. The City hopes to grow its way to prosperity, while current residents will pay the price.
Kim Tanzer lives in Gainesville. She is a former UF architecture professor who was also dean of the University of Virginia School of Architecture.
The opinions expressed by letter or opinion writers are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of AlachuaChronicle.com. Letters and opinion pieces may be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org and are published at the discretion of the editor.
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