John F. Kennedy once said: “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie — deliberate, contrived and dishonest — but the myth — persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.” Every city has its own urban legends, whether it’s alligators in sewers or harvesting kidneys from unsuspecting traveling salesmen. The good ones always have just enough truth in them to make you wonder whether you should laugh or be worried. The reality is that in today’s viral world, information — regardless of whether it’s right or wrong — can circle the globe with a click of key stroke, so it’s no surprise that local myths spread like wildfire in hometowns, including ours.
As much as I enjoy tall tales, I worry that left unchecked, some of our myths could trigger the onset of community sclerosis — the hardening of attitudes to the point where we actually impair our ability to do the things we need to do to stay healthy because we’re holding on to mis-perceptions. In that spirit, here’s my view on one myth that I want to weigh in on — the West River neighborhood redevelopment project.
West River Redevelopment
MYTH: I’ve heard criticism of the redevelopment of the West River neighborhood. Specifically I’ve heard it called a financial “boondoggle.”
MY VIEW: Since the West River redevelopment project began long before I arrived on the Kent scene, I have no personal affiliation with the decisions made at the time so I could just as easily agree with myth (and use the old “blame my predecessor” line) but the truth is, I see it as one of Kent’s best moves in the last decade.
When I see the before and after pictures of what this gateway into Kent used to look like and what it looks like today I wish I could take credit for it. To me it’s a great example of a city spending money to make a blighted area investment worthy and economic development ready.
I asked our budget staff to go back and tally up every dollar spent in the West River neighborhood. It turns out that over a twelve year period we invested $3.4 million — which went into everything from roads to land purchases and blighted building demolition –which we in turn leveraged into nearly $18 million in additional state, federal and private investments in the neighborhood. In other words, we got $6 more for every $1 we invested in our community. If that’s a boondoggle, I wish I had more boondoggles to go around.
Here’s what else I found:
West River has had more private investment than any other area of the city in the last 10 years.
Property values in the corridor have doubled and the properties adjacent to the corridor have increased at a rate greater than the rest of the city;
There are 140 new jobs in the corridor that bring in $75,000 a year to our tax base. That’s $750,000 in 10 years;
And that doesn’t even take into consideration the remarkable improvement in how the neighborhood looks. Blighted, vacant properties have been replaced by new and restored buildings. Previously 90% of the properties were in violation of city maintenance codes — today, code violations are less than 5%.
It’s not easy to put a dollar value on aesthetic improvements but given the fact that some 20,000 vehicles travel through this corridor everyday — with drivers and riders that could be tomorrow’s new Kent businesses or homeowners — I have to believe we’re leaving a much more positive impression of our city and hopefully that translates into more people wanting to be a part of Kent’s new economy.
Don’t get me wrong, $3.4 million is a lot of money. But it kind of gets back to whether you think Kent is worth it or not. The city leaders thought so back in 1995 and since then so did a lot of private investors who followed the city’s lead and invested significant dollars to transfrom the neighborhood. Most of us are very comfortable taking out a 30 year mortgage to buy a house and I’d argue that the same logic applies to making community investments too. And actually, since the life span of a community is a whole lot longer than a house I’ve heard one local Kent banker argue that even a 50 or 75 year pay back period is very reasonable financially for a city and its community investments.
Just like personal investments, each of us are likely to have different expectations for rates of return and yields over time but whether we expect public investments to pay for themselves in year 1 or year 50 I try to keep in mind that all investments have some level of risk and there are few guarantees out there. That’s just the way the investment game works. I wish I could change the rules for economic development but it is still subject to the same uncertainties as any investment.
That’s why it’s called economic development and not economic inheritance. Development implies taking some action, getting in the game, knowing that things might not turn out as you hope but also knowing that the risk of sitting and waiting for an economic inheritance to come along some day is likely greater than making strategic investments now to help shape your future.
It’s fair to say that the redevelopment of West River has been slower than anticipated but the last I checked nearly all the townhome housing units were sold despite the region’s housing market being at all time lows (this according to local bankers that have said they’ve never seen mortgage applications so low and foreclosures so high in Kent — and these weren’t young bankers so they’ve been around a while and seen a lot in their time).
The Fairchild Avenue bridge project will affect a number of the few remaining blighted properties at the far north end in the corridor so I’ve been using the bridge completion in 2010 as a target date to close out this redevelopment project. There’s a few development ready properties along the river in this corridor and given the surprising success of the Riverside Wines outdoor deck along the river just 1/4 mile down the road, I’m getting a lot of interest from people exploring the possibilities of adding their own businesses in the corridor.
Parking is still an issue in the area but the city has funds allocated in our 5 year capital plan to construct surface parking along the backside of the new townhomes which is meant to serve new and expanding businesses.
From everything I’ve seen or read in the files, the property owners sold their property willingly and at the prices they wanted, usually for more than the appraised value. If negotiations failed with any of the property owners the city just moved on or around them, rather than trying to force anything on anyone.
This was certainly a big project and when you do something that dramatic you’re definitely opening yourself up for criticism. But at the end of the day, I keep coming back to seeing this project as one of best development projects that the city has ever undertaken.