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Planning expert: Suburban sprawl is the fast food of economic development

A noted city planning consultant from Asheville on Tuesday told Charlotte leaders that low-density suburban development is the junk food of local government – tastes good at first, but ultimately it’s bad for you.

Speaking at a seminar organized by the Sustain Charlotte advocacy group at UNC Charlotte’s Center City campus, Joe Minicozzi told about 30 attendees that he’s done studies in cities across the country that bear his theory out. He said compact urban development like what’s happening in Charlotte’s South End today produces far more tax revenue per acre than sprawling suburbs and big-box stores.

He used as an example his firm’s experience redeveloping a six-story building in Asheville. Buncombe County officials originally wanted to put a jail in the area, but Minicozzi’s firm, Public Interest Properties, argued that the county could get far more value out of the area by redeveloping it.

His firm’s viewpoint prevailed, and he said the building, worth $300,000 in 1991, is now worth more than $11 million after being redeveloped as a mixed-use center. It generates $634,000 per acre in property taxes, he said, compared to the local Walmart, which yields $6,500 per acre.

Local governments are embracing a money-losing proposition when they embrace suburban sprawl-style development, he added, because it often costs more to deliver utility, police, fire and other services than such properties give back to local government via tax revenues.

“Cities are going broke, and where’s all our money gone?” he said. “It’s because we’ve made all these development decisions that are essentially upside down financial losses.”

While it doesn’t make sense financially, he said governments keep doing it out of habit, and because they see suburban development as connected to “the American dream” of having a big house with a spacious yard.

He compared it to his own habit of eating chicken wings while he watches football on the weekends.

“It’s like eating chicken wings followed by a big load of ice cream and some bacon,” he said. “It feels great. But there’s costs to it.”

Frazier: 704-358-5145; @Ericfraz on Twitter
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