What I Would Do About Upstate: Part 4
My previous posts on Upstate concerned the portion of the region that is too far away to receive any economic benefit from proximity to Manhattan, the area roughly north and west of State Route 10 and, in the mid to northern Adirondacks, Route 30. South and west of there, in the eastern Adirondacks, the Catskills, and the Hudson Valley, the economic conditions are different, and so is the issue. The issue is over-development, and the loss of the natural and rural attributes that draw people to the area to begin with. When I was a child, my parents took me to northern Westchester County to pick apples. We brought our children to Northern Dutchess County to do the same. Projecting current trends forward, our grandchildren will have to head for Washington County to find the first pick-your-own orchard.
There is a growing exurban secondary commuter zone, from which people commute to expensive Westchester and Fairfield communities (from which people commute to Manhattan). And, there is a growing “telecommuter” zone in places like Hudson, Rhinebeck, Margaretville, which have attracted second homes occupied on weekends, and primary homes for those who work remotely for New York City businesses, traveling to the city to work a couple of days per week. The numbers are not large, but are sufficient to generate extensive secondary growth as the income of Manhattan-linked workers creates demand for retail and consumer services. The result is spreading development and population growth, even as the older farm-and-factory economic base continues its slow decline, as elsewhere upstate. That is the good news.
The bad news is spreading urban sprawl is, once again, eating up the land, to the disappointment of long time residents and newcomers alike. This low density, widespread development pattern not only pushes out farms and prices out natives, but also raises taxes, because infrastructure is expensive to provide to those who are widely dispersed. At first the newcomers are a good deal. Rural America, by necessity, has heavily subsidized infrastructure and public services with excess capacity, so at first newcomers are just using space on the roads and in the schools that would otherwise be wasted. Eventually, however, traffic gets worse, sewage from too many cesspools close together contaminates the groundwater, and schools become crowded. Higher taxes are required to remedy the situation – taxes the newcomers can afford, but existing residents often cannot.
The question is, how can this growth be enhanced by improving links to New York City, while at the same time channeled to preserve farmland, scenery, and the city’s watershed? The best answer I have to the latter question is something that has been discussed in theory but never tried in practice – a region-wide transfer of development system (or, perhaps, several county-wide systems).
Such a system would work, for residential development, like this. Imagine the current land use regulations permit houses to be built on two-acre lots, which I believe (rural development is not my specialty) is the minimum acreage on which cesspools, rather than an expensive sewer system, is permitted. Thus a farm with a house on 200 acres could be sold for the development of an additional 99 houses. A transfer of development rights system would provide a second option. The farmer could keep the farm and house, subject to certain use restrictions, but sell the rights to otherwise develop the land to a builder at the rate of one house per acre. Thus, the farmer could sell the right to build 199 more houses, which would be transferred elsewhere.
The “elsewhere” would be a series of planned villages where higher densities would be permitted. An acre there would also come with permission to build one house. But it would in addition be eligible to receive development rights transferred from other places, like the 200-acre farm, up to perhaps 30 units per acre depending on what a developer wanted to build. The villages could be developed with a combination of one- and two-family attached houses (as in Brownstone Brooklyn), or detached houses on small lots and garden apartments (as in Queens). Large one-family houses on relatively small lots are another possibility. The market would determine the specifics. Unlike Brooklyn and Queens, however, the dense villages would be surrounded by open countryside, which would otherwise be preserved as is – permanently, based on property rights owned. The deed restrictions the developers would be required to purchase from landowners outside the villages would be handed over the state or a regional or county entity in exchange for permission build more densely in the villages. If the ratios were set as I have suggested, the development of one acre in a planned village would preserve 19 or more acres outside it. Commercial space would be regulated similarly.
A transfer of development rights systems has key advantages over the alternatives. Fiat zoning that limits development tends to increase the cost of housing by reducing it overall. It is also not permanent, because it can also be changed at any time, possibly in response to campaign contributions. Development approvals are a locus of corruption in developing areas throughout the country. The outright purchase of development rights, which New York City is pursuing in its watershed, costs tax dollars up front, which limits its application. It also does nothing to encourage development in the areas not protected. The key disadvantage of a transfer of development rights system is political – the authority to regulate land use in currently undeveloped areas (but not already-developed places) would have to be taken from local officials and transferred to a county or regional agency. Those local officials tend to be opposed – especially because of the campaign contributions and other perks associated with their current role.
For infrastructure, a mechanism could be set up in which developers, working cooperatively, would be allowed to use tax increment financing to produce the infrastructure required in the villages. In much of the country, but not in New York State, developers are generally required not only to provide on-site infrastructure but also to contribute to a fund used for off-site infrastructure, in exchange for subdivision approval. In New York State, the cost of infrastructure for newcomers often falls to current residents. In this system, future residents would pay for infrastructure that, because the houses would be closer together, would cost less.
What development pattern would I want for the villages? Having visited Italy recently, placing them on the tops of hills as in Italian hill towns has some appeal. Those towns are certainly pleasant places to be, and similar towns would probably be good places to live and work. And, the better farmland would be preserved, the more flood-prone low areas avoided. But the specifics would vary from place to place.
How would the residents of these villages, and other towns in near upstate, get from them to Manhattan on weekdays, and second homeowners get from the city to the villages on weekends? The best solution, in my view, is to improve what already exists, the network of inter-city buses. Not too long ago, when I was heading home from Belleayre Mountain while my family was staying on with the car, I had occasion to ride a bus for the first time since college. And with modern buses, it was a surprisingly pleasant experience. There were, however, quite a few stops between the Catskills and New York City, and the bus, like most such buses, terminated at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, leaving me with a long ride home. It was fine for every now and then, but not for every week. In contrast, in most Brooklyn neighborhoods, including my own, one can catch a bus to Atlantic City. Right down the block. Why must Upstate be so much harder to get to?
I suggest that a separate bus station be added to the Harriman rest stops on the Thruway, or even better yet a new “upstate-downstate” station be constructed at the intersection of the Thruway and Route 17. The bus companies could be organized into “hub and spoke” routes, splitting revenues when riders didn’t use one company for the entire trip. Traveling to the city on a weekday, buses from various routes through near upstate could be scheduled to arrive the station at the same time. After exchanging passengers, they would travel to different parts of the city the way express buses from Westchester and Staten Island do, providing an option of a trip directly to East Midtown/Long Island City, West Midtown/Midtown South, Lower Manhattan/Downtown Brooklyn, White Plains/Stamford, etc. Evening and weekend trips would work the same way in reverse.
The buses from all companies could be tracked by GPS, and a state dispatcher could determine, by rule, if other buses ought to be held for connections from a late-arriving bus or if passengers on that bus should have to wait for a later option. On weekends, the same network, perhaps expanded to routes through residential neighborhoods, could deliver city residents to their choice of vacation destinations – the various Catskill, Taconic and Adirondack ski mountains, for example. The goal of the system would be to provide access from the villages (and existing towns) to Manhattan and other business centers, and from parts of the city to near-Upstate, without the use of a car. In the new villages, the bus station could be located in a square in the center of town, in walking distance from all parts of it. The cost of such a system would be limited, and could be funded via the portion of federal transportation aid required to be used for enhancing rural transportation.
Southeast Upstate New York, in contrast with the areas father from Manhattan, is already moving beyond its shrinking older economic base, and is becoming increasingly prosperous. It would be a shame if that prosperity came at the expense of its natural beauty, or its long-time residents. To avoid this, the market needs to be provided with another option, rather than forced into exurban sprawl by the usual land use regulations and infrastructure incentives provided by bad public policy. People in places like Dutchess and Ulster Counties – farmers, vineyard owners, preservationists, hikers – care a great deal about this issue, but are unsure how to address it. It may be time to put theory into practice.
Post new comment