Sunday, September 4, 2011

Using Sidewalks to Finance Sustainable Cities

One of the central themes of the Greening America’s Capitals Report for Little Rock, Arkansas, is that downtown sidewalks are extremely valuable.  Most of the Report’s recommendations focus on making greener uses of the sidewalk space along Main Street – rain gardens and sustainable plantings, downspout fountains, the use of permeable surfaces, and, of course, sidewalk cafés.

The focus on sidewalks is particularly interesting given that Little Rock’s sidewalk spaces are highly regulated.  For example:
  • the Little Rock municipal code prohibits soliciting along the major and minor arterial streets of the city;
  • with the exception of ice cream trucks, food carts and trucks (regulated as “mobile canteen units” in the municipal code), are absolutely prohibited from dispensing any food or drink when legally parked within the right-of-way of any public street in the city;
  • food carts and trucks are also prohibited from dispensing any food or drink when parked on any other public property without prior approval of the city manager; 
  • Under section 30-6 of the municipal code, “merchants occupying property in a business district may display in the sidewalk and/or walk areas in front of or on the side of their property, goods, wares, and merchandise for the purpose of sale, advertisement or giveaway,” but they must first obtain a permit from the city manager.  “No permit shall be issued for a display of goods, wares and merchandise less than six (6) feet from the curbline, or as approved by the city manager, of any given street.”

While the Report is brimming concepts, ideas, enthusiasm, and promise, it does not address the municipal regulatory issues.  It simply falls short when it comes to suggestions for implementation and financing.  This is a troubling problem, since this is the first place naysayers will go to find fodder for dismissing the Report as a portrait of an unattainable (and unneeded) sustainable utopia. 

But it is also a problem that reflects the reality of city management: as the recent debate over a proposed sales tax increase illustrates, Little Rock is in dire need of funds for public safety and the City’s coffers are far from flowing over.  Using public funds to build rain gardens along Main Street while allowing Little Rock’s police force to remain understaffed is an impossible proposition.

One way out of this box would be to “sell” – or, more accurately, lease – the City’s sidewalks.  Here’s how this could work:
  • Using a standardized lease agreement, Little Rock would begin privatizing sections of downtown sidewalk. 
  • The landowners or business adjacent a section of sidewalk would have a right of first refusal to enter into a lease.
  • The lease would necessarily contain some basic requirements regarding maintenance, public health and safety, and walkability, but the arrangement would otherwise yield control over the leased space to the lessee.

The advantages are easy to see.  Because sidewalk space is unquestionably valuable,  (one commentator, Lawrence Solomon of the Urban Renaissance Institute, writes that the sidewalk space outside the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art generates more than $600,000 in rents annually from sidewalk vendors) sidewalk rents could be used to finance downtown sustainability improvements, such as those suggested by the Greening America’s Capitals Report for Little Rock.  Sidewalk leases could have other effects that go to the bottom line.  The revenues generated by products sold in these new retail spaces would be taxable, and lessees would be responsible for maintenance, taking that financial and administrative burden off of the city. 

Ultimately and most importantly, leasing sidewalks would actually return them to public spaces of expression, with the immediate effect of injecting street life, character, and vivacity back into downtown.  It could be a triple-bottom-line trifecta – the City benefits; local businesses benefit; and citizens benefit. 

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