Invest in City Hall or other land uses

by Tom
(Santa Fe, NM)

Visitor Question: When you have 60 acres empty in the middle of town, does it make sense to invest in the city hall over housing? Culture? Entrepreneurs? Is a city hall economic development?

Editors Reply: As background for all readers, you identified yourself as from Santa Fe, New Mexico. A very brief look at news articles there shows that the city is discussing whether it should consolidate its own scattered operations onto an abandoned art and design college campus, which perhaps would also leave room for other uses also on the 60 acres. Some existing buildings could be utilized, but city officials are indicating that infrastructure would need to be beefed up.

Our policy has been never to wade into a local controversy, and we don’t intend to do so here. But our comments on the general ideas you raise may help you decide how to view the redevelopment issues.

Taking your last question first, our answer is that a new city hall is not economic development. We hasten to say a new city hall and adjacent city offices may meet other public purposes of efficiency and effectiveness in government, but unless the plan facilitates new permanent employment, it is not an economic development tool in and of itself.

Our pages about the definition of economic development and what activities provide an economic base are relevant in answering your basic questions. Simply pointing out that economic development entails generating new activity that brings new money into your community--and not merely constructing or refurbishing buildings--can help residents raise the level of discussion.

Some might say that relocating city offices into the complex would generate other activity in the area that would constitute economic development. That is certainly possible, but without a clear plan, it is unlikely. It's not as if a city hall is a magnet for other businesses that want to be near it. A city hall is not a Walmart headquarters where other businesses that need to be near Walmart's nerve center gravitate toward the area.

Others would say building a new city hall or redeveloping existing buildings into a city hall will generate employment. We say "yes, but…" to that. Eventually construction comes to an end, so while it may bolster construction firms in the short run, in the long run, construction employment will not rise because of a couple of years of city complex work.

Now we look at whether city hall is a more important investment than housing. If the city needs more housing, or more housing of a certain type or affordability, that should be a high priority. Housing in and of itself is not economic development either, but if there is an absence of housing that workers in your major economic sectors can afford, then housing becomes an economic development issue, as well as a social equity and a community spirit issue. You want your firefighters, teachers, and social workers to be able to afford to live in the city. Tourism sector employees need affordable housing, with affordability here tied to transportation costs and options as well as rents or mortgages.

So housing need versus housing availability should be the subject of some serious data crunching to see if housing is a more important priority than rationalizing the operations of the city government.

With housing, two possible "mismatches" are key. Is there a mismatch between the cost of available housing and the amount that people seeking housing can pay without exceeding 30% of their income? Is there a mismatch between where people want to live and need to live to keep their work commute minimal, and where the housing they can afford is located? If the answer to either is yes, consider if particular types of housing development on the 60 acres would help solve either problem.

Next you ask if a new city hall is more important than culture, if we read your question correctly. Culture can definitely constitute economic development (as you and others can see on our page about the arts and economic development), but it also might constitute simply shuffling the location of existing activities. However, the arts are much more likely than government offices to spawn new related activities and feed off of the creativity of being located near one another. This area again requires thorough study of existing arts organizations, their space needs, their willingness to relocate, and the potential for new employment-generating activities if they were in close proximity.

Since you are in Santa Fe, a city with a fascinating mix of Hispanic, non-Hispanic American West, and Native American cultures, you also should consider the opportunities to create more interaction among groups and to celebrate the distinctive plus that each culture offers. (For more on this, check out the community cultural development discussion on this site.) Again, assess the needs of each distinctive community, and also the needs of the city at large for more interaction and appreciation among groups, to see if this approach might make sense for the site.

Lastly you ask if investing in a new government complex is more important than investing in entrepreneurs. From a purely economic development standpoint, entrepreneurship is much more likely than government, housing development, or culture to generate new jobs and new money coming into your city.

But you need to evaluate whether entrepreneurs are adequately served already, and whether organizations such as incubators need to and are willing to relocate. Budding entrepreneurs definitely benefit from being in proximity to one another, as detailed in our business incubator and innovation district pages.

To evaluate the importance of more support for entrepreneurship, we would look at what industry clusters make up Santa Fe's economic specialty, and whether baby firms in that industry cluster are interdependent and would benefit from more opportunity to locate and grow near one another. You might find that the ecosystem for entrepreneurs is already robust and well located geographically.

Since there is a 60-acre campus, it may be viable to mix all of the above. But if you want to retain an artsy edge (appropriate for a former arts and design school), the mix will be tricky and demand sophisticated branding and design efforts, lest the entire project fall flat because no one wants to be there.

Another piece of the puzzle is the potential contribution of a new city hall to a sense of community and building or repairing of social capital (the network of relationships within the community). In plainer language, the city could and should contemplate uses for the city hall building after hours. Can community organizations, arts groups, and other nonprofits use conference and meeting rooms free nights and weekends? Can a buzzy coffee shop or quick eatery serve both the city hall lunch crowd and an after-hours restaurant use? Can the building itself be designed like many office buildings now, minimizing the size of personal office space and maximizing informal gathering spaces for employee quick meetings during the day and for other groups to use in the evenings?

We recommend a thorough analysis of the needs of all four activities--city government, housing, culture, and entrepreneurship--and how well those needs are currently being met. Record those needs that show a deficit in the simplest chart form and then analyze both the costs and the long-run economic and social benefits of meeting those needs. This could begin a more intelligent civic conversation.

Of course, just because you identify one type of need as more pressing than the others is no sign that the 60 acre site in question is the appropriate location for that activity. Assessing location would be the second big civic debate and practical discussion.

These are some preliminary thoughts as to how your city could approach the redevelopment of a former college campus.

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