Meeting City needs

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Sept2006

Meeting city needs

By Paul M. Bray

I have been asked why hundreds of millions of dollars can be spent on projects like a convention center when, for example, neighborhoods are decaying, children are failing in school and health issues are not being adequately addressed.

An answer is not easy but a sense of the dynamic work in many cities can be found in a book co-authored by a former UAlbany professor.

Urban Fortunes by Harvey L. Molotch and former UAlbany Professor John R. Logan offers an explanation on what makes winners and losers when it comes to our cities. It describes the inherent conflict between local elites seeking “exchange value” or, simply stated, to make money from urban land through projects like stadiums, malls and convention centers, and residents who seek funding to support “use value” to satisfy their essential needs of life like public safety and education. Local elites usually win.

Local elites or as they are called in the book the “growth machine” are lawyers, bankers, architects, developers, real estate brokers, engineers and public officials who act in concert to make places safe for capital investors to develop. This can be done by tax benefits, economic guarantees and protection from environmental laws that might derail a project. Mayors are at the center of things because they “have extensive authority and fiscal responsibility for land use, revenues and levels of urban services” and, as is happening in Albany, they have the ability to attract state funding.

Residents concerned about use values advocate for good education for all students, good libraries, better code enforcement, preserving historic buildings, maintaining parks, streets and sidewalks and/or public safety.

The Albany Convention Center project is an example of the growth machine at work. More than two hundred million dollars of state funding and local public funding from the county hotel tax will protect the private developer and investors for the Center. The Center’s public authority created by the state legislature will facilitate the project by assembling land. If necessary, eminent domain can be used to take privately owned land.

The summer meeting of the Albany Convention Center Authority was an illustration of how local elites benefit. First, the Liberty Square site for the proposed Center was selected. The beneficiaries will include the landowners of the site and prospective developers. Then the Authority endorsed five local law firms that will be eligible for lucrative fees from the Authority. Members of the Authority also discussed the environmental review that will also provide work for engineers.

As the Convention Center project goes forward, use value of city land declines. Albany continues to lose population. Too many buildings are vacant. It is closing police stations while street violence increases. The Council of Neighborhood Associations is calling on the Mayor for much improved building code enforcement.

A convention center is unlikely to increase use values through promised spending by convention visitors on meals, lodging and entertainment resulting in new jobs and increases in tax revenue if the Brookings Institution is correct about convention centers in cities like Albany being chronic losers.

Convention centers are an oversized, poor fit in traditional cities. They are much like big box stores usually with glass walls to stand out. Their need for parking and for access by large trucks coupled with predominant use by out-of-towners and many dark days when no events are held do not make them attractive for local residents.

Some members of the Albany Common Council and community activists are seeking to have community needs addressed by the Convention Center Authority through a community benefits package. This kind of agreement may cover job training and construction jobs for local residents and improvements for neighboring areas.

Community benefits would be a step toward responding to community needs but going forward with costly projects like convention centers takes too much oxygen out of efforts to meet Albany’s pressing needs for better education, public safety and restoration of inner city neighborhoods. A smart city takes care of its use values first.