Publicly-owned, well-located land is a finite resource. When it is well-designed it has the ability to catalyze new development and reinvestment. However, poorly thought-out development can also discourage revitalization and placemaking. Public land is particularly valuable because it can also provide community benefits that are not being provided by the private sector, e.g., affordable housing, open space, schools, and other public facilities. How should a community think about the future of its public land?
One perspective from a strong real estate market is found in a recently released report (Affordable Housing on Public Land in the District of Columbia: Results and Opportunities) by the Coalition for Smarter Growth, a DC-based smart growth non-profit organization. It states that many public land developments in the District have both supported emerging neighborhood real estate markets and capitalized on the value of more mature neighborhoods. However, in high-cost neighborhoods, public land often represents the last opportunity to provide housing at a reduced rent, a citywide need. An example in the DC region is the Arlington Mill Community Center in Arlington, VA. The community vision for the site included a redeveloped community center and it recognized the opportunity on the remaining portion of the site for economic development on the emerging market of Columbia Pike as well as affordable housing in a community that is seeing a growing need. The initial vision called for mixed-income housing but due to the economic recession the developer was unable to find financing for the market rate housing. Thus, the local government and a non-profit housing developer established a public-private partnership that enabled the government to retain ownership of the land while the non-profit built and managed the affordable housing.
In Ann Arbor, MI, the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) is looking at how five city-owned parking areas can better serve the community. (See this post on parking garages and this post on parking lots.) The Connecting William Street planning process is identifying various scenarios for the five disparate lots that meet a range of community desires, including green building, increased vibrancy and housing opportunities for downtown, open space, and a grocery store, among others. What occurs on each site will depend on its exact context, particularly where it is located relative to Main Street, community anchors, and neighbors, as well as the market demand for development. For example, office development is often more finicky about its exact location, whereas housing development can often flourish on different parcels within a neighborhood. Leveraging the market demand for development can create more opportunities for community benefits.
These two examples, one showing the outcomes of the redevelopment of public land and the other showing the planning process, highlight three common public land themes across different communities: the importance of identifying community needs, establishing a community vision, and leveraging market demand for development.