Rose Fellow Mayors Outline Plans for Their Cities’ Transformations

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– Nonprofit “eds and meds” can fuel growth, but they remove land from property tax rolls.
– Renovating waterfronts is a common focus of city revitalization.
– “American cities are transforming,” says former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros.

As cities adapt to globalization and the information age, they also must transform their land use, Henry Cisneros, executive chairman of CityView, a Los Angeles–based investment firm focused on urban real estate, said at a forum on the role of public/private partnerships in city building, sponsored by the ULI Rose Center for Public Leadership and held during the ULI Fall Meeting in Denver. “The ground—the real estate—has to change function,” said Cisneros, former U.S. secretary of housing and urban development.

Cisneros led a discussion of the challenges facing cities that included seven U.S. mayors who are incoming and outgoing fellows of the ULI Rose Center for Public Leadership. They included Greg Fischer of Louisville, Kentucky; Jean Quan of Oakland, California; Marilyn Strickland of Tacoma, Washington; Bob Buckhorn of Tampa, Florida; Sly James of Kansas City, Missouri; Pedro Segarra of Hartford, Connecticut; and Angel Taveras of Providence, Rhode Island. Fischer, Strickland, Segarra and Austin, Texas, Mayor Lee Leffingwell were recently named Rose fellows.

In Providence, local universities were central to helping bring the city back from the brink of default, said Taveras. The challenge with nonprofit educational and medical facilities, the “eds and meds” often cited as economic engines, is that though they draw entrepreneurs to the city, their expansion removes land from the property tax rolls. He said the city successfully asked local universities to support the city with payments in lieu of taxes. “They can’t be successful in a failing city,” Taveras noted.

Quan outlined how Oakland is transforming its waterfront, including a former army base that was vacant for years. “We decided to double down on our history and keep our waterfront industrial,” she said. Employment of local residents was a requirement for developers in that area.

Kansas City has focused on reinventing itself as a tech-friendly, tech-savvy city, said James. The national economic downturn co­­incided with the city’s decision to reinvent itself to attract technology startups and entrepreneurs, he noted. The redevelopment focus now is the West Bottoms area, where the Kemper Arena is located and where the nation’s second-largest stockyards once stood.

Buckhorn said the recession taught Tampa that it must diversify its economy beyond the real estate business. “We were crack addicts for real estate,” he said. “We built subdivisions for people who didn’t exist.” With the aid of the Rose Fellowship, the city is trying to make what Buckhorn called its “vastly underutilized river” a focus of revitalization. “We want to make the river the center of downtown, not the edge of downtown,” Buckhorn said. The city envisions turning 140 acres (57 ha) of government-owned waterfront land along the Hillsborough River, a half mile (0.8 km) from downtown Tampa, into a mixed-use destination that will include affordable and subsidized housing.

Strickland told the group that Tacoma has 43 miles (69 km) of waterfront and “an amazing stock of historic property,” thanks to having been passed over by the urban renewal drive of the 1970s. Renewal efforts are focusing on the city’s Hilltop neighborhood and its main artery, Martin Luther King Jr. Way. The area, which she called “the medical mile,” has two hospitals, and the city is working to attract commercial, retail, and other development.

In Hartford, Segarra stressed that taking a regional approach to development issues is critical for his area, which has 169 towns functioning independently. They formed the Capital Region Economic Development Authority, which is charged with fostering development of the downtown. “Our city has a lot of poverty,” Segarra said, “but the economic region is number one in GDP [gross domestic product].”

Noting that various organizations have recently declared Louisville one of the nation’s “foodiest” cities, an International Compassionate City, and the “manliest city,” Fischer joked, “The message is, we’re a city of compassionate men who eat well.” Despite these kudos, the city has launched an “envisioning process” to study how it can continue to innovate and draw more companies like UPS, which maintains a hub at Louisville International Airport, and the revamped Ford vehicle assembly plant and GE refrigerator factory, both of which opened this year.

“The idea is that American cities are transforming,” Cisneros said. “There’s some juice in the economy,” he added, explaining that cities are attracting residents—and educational, medical, financial, and technological companies are investing in cities, creating growth. Twenty years ago it would have been all downturn, Cisneros said.

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