Tag Archives: Downtown Wichita revitalization

Articles about the redevelopment of downtown Wichita and its impact on the economic freedom of Wichitans.

In Wichita, waiving guidelines makes for bad policy

Remarks to be delivered to the August 18, 2009 meeting of the Wichita City Council.

Mr. Mayor, members of the Wichita City Council,

I am here to ask you to deny the request for special assessment financing for the Lofts at St. Francis homeowners association to make repairs to their building.

I’ve spoken to this council about how the facade improvement program, in general, is bad public policy. In this case, it’s bad public policy compounded by the waiver of principles or guidelines that this council recently set in place.

I realize that special assessment financing means that the city is not making a grant of money to the homeowners association. Instead, the city is making a loan, which is required to be repaid over time.

What concerns me about this situation is that two guidelines in the city’s facade improvement program must be waived for this project to obtain special assessment financing.

The first is the private investment match. This is designed to ensure that the property owners have “skin in the game” and that the taxes will be paid back.

Here, the city is proposing that since the building’s owners have made a past investment in this property, there’s no need to require a concurrent investment. It hardly needs to be noted that anyone who has purchased property has made a past investment in that property.

Second, facade improvement projects are required to undergo a gap analysis to “prove” the need for public financing. According to the city’s report: “This project does not lend itself to this type of gap analysis; however, staff believes that conventional financing would be difficult to obtain for exterior repairs to a residential condominium property like this.”

So the city proposes to waive this requirement as well.

There seems to me to be a defect in the manner of ownership of this building. While the homeowners association and the individual condominium owners might not have anticipated that repairs would be needed so soon after the building’s opening, they must have contemplated that repairs and maintenance — to either exterior or interior common areas — would be needed at some time. How does the association plan to pay for these?

So what will happen if the city council doesn’t approve the special assessment financing? The agenda report states “Each individual condo owner would be required to fund a share of the cost.”

Isn’t that what private property owners do: fund the cost of repairs to their property?

According to the Sedgwick County Treasurer’s office, the appraised values of these condos range from $103,000 to $310,200, with an average value of $201,943. The maximum amount being added to each condo’s assessment is $4,022, although I have learned that the actual amount may be closer to $3,000.

That’s along the lines of what it might cost to perform a few repairs and paint a house that’s worth what these condos are worth. So I think it’s hard to make the case that these property owners can’t afford to make these repairs on their own without a loan from the city.

Furthermore, if the goal of the facade improvement program is to provide an incentive for property owners to fix up their buildings, I would submit that such incentive is not necessary in this case. This building is a valuable residential property, and the homeowners have a strong incentive to maintain the integrity and value of their property.

Mr. Mayor and members of the council, let’s ask these owners do just what thousands of homeowners in Wichita do every year: take responsibility for the maintenance of their own property without looking to city hall for help.

Wichita special assessments for repairs is bad policy

Lofts at St. Francis, Wichita, Kansas

At Tuesday’s meeting of the Wichita City Council, a privately-owned condominium association is seeking special assessment financing to make repairs to its building. In order for the association to succeed in its request, the council will have to waive two guidelines of Wichita’s facade improvement program.

Special assessment financing means that the cost of the repairs, up to $112,620 in this case, will be added to the building’s property taxes. Actually, in this case, to each of the condominium owners’ taxes. They’ll pay it off over the course of 15 years. (A conversation with the president of the homeowners association brought out the possibility that the actual assessment may be in the neighborhood of $75,000.)

So the city is not giving this money to the building’s owners. They’ll have to pay it back. The city is, however, setting new precedent in this action.

Special assessment financing has traditionally been used to fund infrastructure such as streets and sewers, and new infrastructure at that. The city, under its facade improvement program, now allows this type of financing to be used to make repairs and renovations to existing buildings. That’s if the building is located in one of the politically-favored areas of town.

By using special assessment financing in this way, the city seeks to direct investment towards parts of town that it feels doesn’t have enough investment. This form of centralized government planning is bad public policy. The city should stop doing this, and let people freely choose where to invest.

Besides this, two guidelines in the city’s facade improvement program must be waived for this project to obtain special assessment financing.

The first is the private investment match. This is designed to ensure that the property owners have “skin in the game” and that the taxes will be paid back.

Here, the city is proposing that since the building’s owners have made a past investment in this property, there’s no need to require a concurrent investment. It hardly needs to be noted that anyone who has purchased property has made a past investment in that property.

Second, facade improvement projects are required to undergo a gap analysis to “prove” the need for public financing. According to the city’s report: “This project does not lend itself to this type of gap analysis; however, staff believes that conventional financing would be difficult to obtain for exterior repairs to a residential condominium property like this.”

So the city proposes to waive this requirement as well.

There seems to me to be a defect in the manner of ownership of this building. While the homeowners association and the condominium owners might not have anticipated that repairs would be needed so soon after the building’s opening, they must have contemplated that repairs and maintenance — to either exterior or interior common areas — would be needed at some time. How does the association plan to pay for these?

So what will happen if the city council doesn’t approve the special assessment financing? The agenda report states “Each individual condo owner would be required to fund a share of the cost.”

Isn’t that what private property owners do: fund the cost of repairs to their property?

According to the Sedgwick County Treasurer’s office, the appraised values of these condos range from $103,000 to $310,200, with an average value of $201,943. The maximum amount being added to each condo’s assessment is $4,022, although the actual amount may be closer to $3,000.

That’s along the lines of what it might cost to perform a few repairs and paint a house that’s worth what these condos are worth.

Let’s ask that these owners do just what thousands of homeowners in Wichita do every year: take responsibility for the maintenance of their own property without looking to city hall for help.

Lofts at St. Francis Agenda Report 2009-08-18

Wichita downtown revitalization discussed on Kansas Week

Bob Weeks discusses planning for downtown Wichita revitalization and what he learned on his trip to the Platinum Triangle in Anaheim, California. Host Tim Brown and guest Randy Brown also appear. From the KPTS Television show Kansas Week, August 14, 2009.

The article referred to is Wichita’s getting ready to plan.

Wichita’s getting ready to plan

As the City of Wichita develops a grand plan for downtown revitalization, can we have a process that is freedom-friendly and respects property rights? I went to Anaheim to find out.

Leaders in Wichita — both private and public sector — believe that Wichita needs a plan for downtown. To support this, the city is seeking to develop a Downtown Revitalization Master Plan, a “a twenty-year vision for its thriving downtown.” Right away I want to ask: if downtown is thriving, why does it need revitalization?

The document Wichita used to lure planning firms to apply for the planning job is full of ambitious and colorful language: “a community synergy that is contagious,” “casting a grand vision to realize our potential,” “the bold vision the community is seeking.”

The danger we face is that Wichita’s plan will end up like almost all other urban plans — a top-down effort micromanaged by politicians and bureaucrats, people whose incentives are all wrong. We already have the structure in place, with our mayor promoting the plan for downtown as his signature achievement, and a tax-supported downtown development organization headed by a young and energetic planning professional.

There is a different way to go about redevelopment, a way that respects freedom and property rights, while at the same time promising a better chance of success.

Last month I visited Anaheim, California, to learn more about the Platinum Triangle. This is an area of low-rise warehouses and industry that the city thought would be a good place for redevelopment. (Anaheim’s old downtown was redeveloped starting in the 1970s, is fairly nondescript, and has not met expectations.)

What Anaheim decided to do with the Platinum Triangle is to employ “freedom-friendly” principles in the district’s development. Or, as the subtitle to an article written by Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle states, a “Foundation of Freedom Inspires Urban Growth.”

Here are the important things that Anaheim has done that are out of the ordinary:

No use of eminent domain to take property. The forceful taking of property by government for the purposes of giving it to someone else is one of the worst violations of property rights and liberty that we can imagine. But it’s a prime tool of redevelopment, one that the planning profession says is essential to their efforts to reshape cities.

In Kansas, we have a relatively new eminent domain law that, on its face, should provide strong protection to property owners. It’s unknown whether this protection will be effective when a city such as Wichita asks the legislature to allow the use of eminent domain, which is what the law requires. If a city makes the case that the success of Wichita and thousands of jobs depend on the use of eminent domain, will legislators go along?

Overlay zoning that respects existing land use. Instead of replacing existing zoning, the city added an “overlay zone.” This meant that while the land had new permissible uses and restrictions, existing rights were protected. It’s only if existing property owners wanted to pursue new development that they would have to conform to the new development standards contained in the overlay zoning.

No public subsidies or incentives. In California, they’re called redevelopment districts. In Kansas, we call them tax increment financing or TIF districts. In either case, this mechanism allows property owners to, in effect, retain their own increased property taxes for the benefit of their developments, something that the average taxpayer — or real estate developer not working in a politically-favored area — can’t do.

The City of Wichita views TIF districts as a powerful tool for development. The city has many existing TIF districts, and we can expect that others will be created to support downtown revitalization. While many people recognize and agree that the taking of land through eminent domain for economic development is bad, the taking of tax revenues through TIF is subtle. Most citizens don’t know this is happening.

Anaheim did a few other things: it streamlined the permitting process, reduced parking regulation, developed a broad-based environment impact report, and relaxed requirements for balancing commercial and residential uses.

It also used a “first-come, first served” housing permit allocation process. Instead of allocating housing permits to each parcel, permits were allocated to a much larger district. Developers could claim them through a competitive process and use them flexibly.

What’s been the result in the Platinum Triangle? After the district was formed in 2004, development started at a fast pace. But the housing crisis in California has definitely put a damper on the pace of development. An illustration: In a loft project in the Platinum Triangle, condos originally priced at $400,000 are now offered at $250,000. It’s expected that as the housing crisis eases, developers will go ahead with their plans.

The Platinum Triangle offers a distinctly different model for redevelopment than that practiced in most cities. A few other cities in California have noticed and are adopting Platinum Triangle-style, freedom-friendly, principles.

The question we in Wichita now face is this: Will Wichita adopt a freedom-friendly approach to downtown revitalization?

Light rail not good for Wichita

A recent letter in the Wichita Eagle by Alden Wilner of Bel Aire worries that “flat, dusty and hot” parking lots in the neighborhood of the Intrust Bank Arena (formerly known as the downtown Wichita arena) in downtown Wichita will hamper downtown revitalization.

I don’t know if this claim is true or not, but I do know that the solution Wilner proposes — “an area wide light-rail system” — would be an absolute disaster for Wichita. These systems are costly to build and operate, suffer from low ridership almost everywhere they are built, and have many other problems.

In a recent article, Randal O’Toole presented the costs of light rail versus highways:

The average mile of light-rail line costs two to five times as much as an urban freeway lane-mile. Yet in 2007 the average light-rail line carried less than one-seventh as many people as the average freeway lane-mile in cities with light rail.

Do the math: Light rail costs 14 to 35 times as much to move people as highways.

The Government Accountability Office found that bus-rapid transit—frequent buses with limited stops—provided faster, better service at 2 percent of the capital cost and lower operating costs than light rail.

Light rail is the mantra of those who hate cars. They must love waste and failure in its place. Portland is an example of an area that’s built a lot of light rail in recent years. O’Toole points out that in 1980 — before the light rail building boom — 9.8 percent of the region’s commuters took transit to work. Now that number, despite the light rail building boom, has declined to 7.6 percent.

Another article by O’Toole (Light Rail Doesn’t Work) tells of the huge costs, inconvenience, congestion, misallocation of economic development, and increased energy consumption and greenhouse gas output that light rail projects produce.

O’Toole is the author of The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future. As Wichita prepares to undertake large-scale planning for the revitalization of downtown, I would urge our leaders to read this book.