An Upstate Lesson on Sprawl and Economic Disaster

Urban sprawl is not only detrimental to the environment, but it may also be detrimental to your future economic opportunity.

The New York Times recently ran Paul Krugman’s Stranded by Sprawl that discusses how urban sprawl may limit the average person’s upward social mobility. The many traditional harms that sprawl bestows on our communities are well documented; most notably the costly extension of public infrastructure like roadways and sewer lines to increasingly remote locations that leaves city cores, already dense with existing infrastructure, underutilized.

And limited opportunity to climb the economic ladder seems like an obvious but rarely thought of natural extension of standard sprawl economics. As populations shift to the suburbs and exurbs, for instance, it results in diminished resources for urban education. But the study highlighted in Krugman’s article also indicates sprawl is limiting economic opportunity in otherwise growing cities, such as Atlanta, by increasing the distance between the various economic classes.

This hits close to home for those of us from Upstate where significant efforts are underway to reignite local economies.

Combatting sprawl necessarily requires a holistic approach and New York State has steadily increased the tools at hand to meet this challenge, most recently by enacting the State Smart Growth Public Infrastructure Policy Act in 2010 which re-prioritizes state infrastructure expenditures to be consistent with smart growth principles and gives priority to the re-use of existing infrastructure.

Another extremely valuable tool that has been available to the state since 2003 is the Brownfield Redevelopment Program which epitomizes smart growth values by cleaning up contaminated properties and relocating industrial, commercial and residential enterprises back onto locations that once thrived but have since fallen out of use. While often thought of simply as a means for directing development away from greenfields, the significant incentives behind the Brownfield Program makes it a powerful economic development tool for reenergizing city centers.

However, the Brownfield Program is up for review because of a looming expiration date for the tax credits given to developers who clean up and build new businesses on contaminated properties. And an easy fix can be made to better align the program’s generous public subsidies with its intended outcomes- simply target the program’s economic development credits to rebuild businesses on stagnant contaminated properties that require additional incentives to attract developers.

Seems like common sense.

Currently, there are contaminated properties in highly sought after locations that developers are competing over because of their profit potential- regardless of state subsidies. The state is needlessly throwing the same expensive tax credits at these projects as they have made available for potential projects in struggling downtowns marked by abandoned buildings and ‘for sale’ signs. By targeting development credits on “demonstrated need” properties the state can save itself from wasteful spending and provide the incentives necessary to make developers think more than twice about choosing a greenfield or other location over a formerly used site simply because it hosts environmental contamination.

Brownfields by nature are accessible to preexisting utility and public infrastructure and are often situated in formerly bustling areas that are poised for the economic renewal and boost in tax revenue that new development can provide. The Governor and the legislature have the opportunity to make sure the hefty state resources committed to redeveloping contaminated properties go to the communities that need them the most. 

Although New York now has multiple tools to prevent costly sprawl, the Brownfield Program is perhaps the one best situated to catalyze the rejuvenation of Upstate’s many struggling neighborhoods. As the economic and societal costs of sprawl are becoming more widely understood, it is important that the state’s brownfield program proceed with its resources directed where they can do the most good.

Author: Andrew Postiglione