Remarks to be delivered to the October 13, 2009 meeting of the Wichita City Council.
Mr. Mayor, members of the council,
I’m here today to ask this council to put aside consideration of this proposal. My reasons are not particular to this proposal or planning firm, but rather I am concerned that we believe we have the ability to successfully plan at all.
Here’s just one reason why I’m concerned: Wichita’s favorite method of financing developments is the TIF district. Recognizing this, the Goody Clancy proposal under the heading “Opportunities” mentions “Continue to employ established TIF funding mechanisms.”
But as documented by the Wichita Eagle last year, our city has a poor record of financial performance with TIF districts.
Another reason I’m concerned is that our attempts at downtown redevelopment so far have produced mixed results. In particular, the WaterWalk project in downtown Wichita has so far consumed $41 million in public subsidy, and we have very little to show for it. Shouldn’t we see if we can nurture this project to success before we take on projects that are much larger?
Then there’s the presumption expressed by city leaders that downtown must be revitalized for the sake of our entire city. Several months ago I asked Mr. Williams to supply me with references that provide evidence for the claimed benefit of downtown redevelopment. At first he referred me to the mayor’s vision statement. But with all due respect, Mr. Mayor, your visions and dreams aren’t evidence.
We do have a document that describes what’s been built in several cities. But the mere fact that buildings were built or renovated is not evidence of success. In these descriptions there’s no discussion of the cost, or the public subsidy needed to redevelop these downtowns, and importantly, no discussion of the effect on the entire city.
When we look at the effect of things like TIF districts on an entire city, we find evidence like economists Richard F. Dye and David F. Merriman found. They concluded that yes, development happens in the subsidized TIF district. But it’s often at detriment to the entire city.
Besides TIF districts, I’m also concerned about the use of other public subsidy, including a sales tax that some are talking about. I’m also concerned about the potential for eminent domain abuse. This summer I traveled to Anaheim, California to learn about a redevelopment district where the city decided not to use these techniques. The article Anaheim’s mayor wrote about this planning effort is subtitled “Foundation of Freedom Inspires Urban Growth.”
That’s what I’m really concerned about: freedom.
Why aren’t we satisfied with letting people live where they want to live? Why aren’t we satisfied with letting developers’ capital flow to where they think it finds its most valued use? Why do we think that centralized government planning can do a better job of making decisions and allocating resources than the dispersed knowledge of all the people of Wichita?
Randal O’Toole has written about the impossibility of the planning task. In his book The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future, he writes this about urban planners: “Because they can build a house, planners think they can design an entire urban area.”
He expands on the difficulty of the planning task at length in his book.
These difficulties can be summed up like this: If we think that we can plan the revitalization of downtown Wichita, we ought to heed this quote from Friedrich Hayek’s book The Fatal Conceit: “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”
Mr. Mayor and members of the council, our efforts at downtown redevelopment have produced mixed results at best. Yet we have a lot of development — commercial and residential — taking place in Wichita. It’s just not happening downtown. Instead, it’s happening where people want it to happen. It’s happening without TIF districts, public subsidy, or the use of eminent domain.
Why can’t we be happy with that?