Land assembly: Solving the land puzzle in American cities
Tuesday, October 30, 2018
We see lots of seductive grand visions for how our cities might look, laid out on master plans that make anything seem possible. But the reality is that these plans generally do not start with a blank canvas.
Indeed, the largest obstacle to the reshaping of our cities — whether that is for economic development, smart growth or housing delivery goals — is something much less sexy. The not-so-simple task of land assembly.
Cities across the U.S., Europe and elsewhere are struggling with housing crises and the need to provide affordable, connected places to live for citizens. While plots of land might exist, and are often of a significant size, they are rarely under single ownership. Instead, there can be a complex maze of fragmented ownership and interests that needs untangling before you even get started.
What is land assembly?
Land assembly is the process of taking on a plot of land with high potential but highly fragmented ownership, and making it work as a whole. It is a key tool for strategic planning that helps us build in the right places in our cities, particularly in densifying well-connected plots in the urban core.
In this way, it becomes a tool for combating urban sprawl, which can happen when developers skip over complex sites in the urban core because they are simply too problematic to unravel.
Once assembled, these parcels of land also become more economically viable. If they have to separately decontaminate and service each piece of land, developers lose interest and are more likely to leave them vacant.
There are obvious challenges. It is notoriously difficult to get everyone on board with a large-scale development, and one major barrier in putting these land puzzles together are the “holdouts.”
Essentially, once a landowner gets word that the wider area is to be developed, they can extort whoever wants to develop the site for higher and higher prices, and possibly never sell at all. This has produced iconic stories of land assembly lore like that of Edith Macefield, whose Seattle home now sits wrapped by a mall, or the dogged Spiegelhalter’s jeweler shop in London and the lopsided building that was built around it.
The European model: a proactive approach to land assembly
Cities in continental Europe are seen by many urbanists as a model for getting land assembly right. Forward-looking municipalities in these cities often actively “land bank” plots over many years, based on their spatial plans for the future and the growth centers they are promoting.
However, at other times the powers of eminent domain (or compulsory purchase) are also called for.
Cities in Germany, the Netherlands and France are known for their proactive approach to land assembly. This might involve setting up a joint venture that intervenes more directly in land in targeted places, pooling land from different developers and using state investment banks to decontaminate and service the land, preparing it for use.
This sort of approach has also made it easier to link up transport and development, helping to free our cities from car dependency.
In the U.S., such intervention is less readily welcomed, and compulsory purchase makes local governments nervous (however, that is changing as urban regeneration projects become more common — a controversial landmark court case in 2005 revived the debate over the use of the tool in U.S. cities).
Meanwhile, there are some interesting cases of how cities have taken innovative approaches. The two examples here come from two urban areas with somewhat different characters — Portland, Oregon; and Genesee County, Michigan.
Portland: getting the private sector on board
The European model for getting houses built is based on a strategy of incentivizing development, but also constraining the rights of private owners in the name of the public interest. The US model, however, relies more on private developers taking the lead.
Portland, Oregon, is regularly highlighted as mecca for "Smart Growth," clustering its growth around public transit nodes and also taking a progressive approach to land assembly. Through the Portland Prosper program and its Urban Renewal Areas, incentives are offered to developers to entice them through negotiation rather than ultimatums.
The city is well-known for using Floor Area Ratio (FAR) as a tool that allows developers to “buy” extra floors on their building in exchange for commitments to public infrastructure.
Genesee County: finding the opportunity within a problem
In Genesee County, local government took a different approach — building up their own land bank of properties on a site close to downtown Flint, Michigan.
A great example of taking the problem of tax foreclosure cycles and transforming it into an opportunity, a government agency was set up in 2004 that soaked up these plots for more valuable use. Many parcels of land which used to host drug houses or were sitting vacant are now used to restore value to the community and units are sold off at affordable prices.
The scheme has admittedly run into problems, with the agency struggling to sell off some of the units due to financing obstacles. But the broader approach seems a promising experiment.
The muscular European approach to land assembly is certainly effective, but one that still struggles to gain acceptance in the U.S. political culture. However, there are progressive cities and communities here that are experimenting with different models to overcome land fragmentation an unlock plots for development.
There is certainly no one-size-fits-all model, but all land assembly requires a lot of creativity, great powers of negotiation, and a more forward-thinking, long-term view than is usually the case.
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