Christopher Sawyer asks if it’s ok for neighbors to extort developers for money:
Naturally, the upset neighbors on Rodman Street behind this lot appealed to Common Pleas court, where many other contentious zoning issues wind up. Earlier this month, Common Pleas denied the appeal in favor of the developer. The project can move forward.
But wait–there’s a new twist. Now the group of Rodman Street neighbors headed by Doug Risen are demanding cash to drop the next round of appeals at Commonwealth Court.
One has to ask: if you’re generally against a particular development, how genuine is your opposition to a project if you’re demanding cash in exchange for your support (or in this case, non-opposition)? That doesn’t sound very ethical to me.
I would put the question a somewhat different way: would a formal system of side-payments be less costly than having so many legal battles over development projects?
Building a lot more housing and mixed-use development would have broad-based benefits for the city and for neighborhoods, but the immediate neighbors do incur some costs along with the benefits. A new apartment building on your block might mean more competition for on-street parking spaces, or obstructed views. Maybe the first-floor retail space becomes a hot new bar that everybody likes, except the neighbors who have to deal with more street noise on the weekends.
Instead of questioning how genuine a group of neighbors’ opposition to a new development is, I’d ask how much they value blocking it. People might genuinely oppose a new development, all else being equal, but they might decide they’re willing to live with it if they can get a cash payment.
I would argue that the only thing that’s really shady about the side-payment request Chris describes is the ad hoc nature of it. Formalizing side-payments between developers and neighbors would be a good idea that could potentially cut down on the amount of money people waste doing development politics in Philadelphia – legal costs, time costs, costs of foregone development, etc.
My favorite idea is the Gentrification Dividend. Give neighbors within a 1-2 block radius of a new building a portion of the tax increment the city collects from the new building. Whenever a new building gets added to the tax rolls, the city collects more property tax revenue. What if neighbors got some of that new revenue? Any time a new building goes up within 1-2 blocks of your building, you get a check in the mail from the city. Everybody gets the same amount, no questions asked.
This would create a constituency for more development, and sap some of the NIMBY energy opposing new housing construction. Right now there’s no immediate cost for the neighbors opposing new housing. But if the city started mailing out Gentrification Dividends, some of the opponents might decide they want cash more than they don’t want new development.