Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Suburban Blight

This article is terribly, horribly interesting. It is about certain community leaders' efforts to revitalize a corridor of north Houston that used to be the de facto suburbs just 30 years ago. The area is the FM 1960 highway corridor (really it's a 5-lane cement thoroughfare) from I-45 westward to about Steubner Airline. It used to feature a primary medical district for the north Houston region, family-oriented retail strips, major retail outlets, entertainment, restaurants, and mid-rise office buildings.

But in the past 30 years as the northern boundary of the city of Houston reached FM 1960, and as the suburbs sprawled ever northward into the next county and past one of the nation's earliest and most successful master-planned communities, The Woodlands, the FM 1960 corridor - along its many large adjacent subdivisions, many once affluent - fell into total disrepair.

Now, driving from I-45 westward on FM 1960 to Spring Steubner at night reminds me of driving through Times Square in its worst years. The once neighborly strip centers have bars on the windows, the nice restaurants now long gone, obscenely bright flashing LED lights untolerated in any dignified residential area, pawn shops every other block along with other "low rent" small businesses, and the office buildings that once spared nearby residents from long commutes have fallen into office-slum status.

So now a group wants to create a special taxing entity to tax commercial businesses in the corridor to make "improvements." And here is where suburban politics intersects with traditionally "urban" concerns: the Republican state representatives are sitting on their hands, reluctant to create "additional layers of government", "new taxes", or to do anything local businesses -- even low rent ones -- might find objectionable.

Call it suburban blight. And we'll be seeing a whole lot more of this.

From the article:

That management district would provide a method to raise money, through an assessment on commercial property, to carry out improvement projects in the 1960 area. The annual assessment charged to commercial property owners would range between 9-15-cents-per-$100-property valuation.

In the past two years, Renaissance 1960 has been working on projects aimed at spurring revitalization, including the creation of an Urban Design plan for the community, group “bandit sign” removal efforts and community clean-up days, but work on larger projects would require a larger, steady source of income, management district supporters say. ...Many see signs of deterioration in vacant and abandoned buildings, graffiti, signage, heavy traffic and the perception that crime is on the increase.

Well this is certainly new territory for suburban Republican representatives, such as state Reps. Patricia Harless and Debbie Riddle.
Harless said Renaissance 1960 and Houston Northwest Chamber of Commerce members worked the past two years to communicate the management district’s mission to property and business owners, and they sought letters of support from those constituents.

In the end, 39 businesses representing about 10 percent of the property value in the proposed district’s boundaries wrote letters of support. That is a substantial number, Harless said, but the questions remain about the overall level of support, and the district’s ability to raise enough money to make an impact on the area even if the bill is passed.

“So that leaves us at how do you create a new tax and new layer of government when several major property owners do not support it?” Harless said.
Personally, I think all the smart "major property owners" bailed on this area years ago. Can anything be done now to lure those quality owners and developers back?

Hmmm... this is sounding more and more like a particularly well-known phenomenon... called urban blight.
Riddle said the management district option is not generating a positive response among commercial property owners who would pay the annual assessment. She said there is a misconception in the community that a management district would have the powers granted to a homeowners’ association, but that is not the case.

Because of those limited powers, she said the vast majority of problems on FM 1960 could not be addressed by management district, and there are other ways the community could address those issues with that without creating a “taxing authority.”

“We are all in agreement that doing nothing is not an option,” Riddle said.
Well now that's an understatement, Debbie. Welcome to urban, or post-suburban, politics.