This piece was originally published in the Albany Times-Union, and is being republished here with permission of the author.
Travel not only to downtown Buffalo, but to many of its older suburbs and you’ll find decaying sidewalks, half-empty shopping centers, vacant lots and abandoned homes. But travel a few more miles into what was until recently open countryside, and you’ll find big new suburban homes on former farm fields. Meanwhile, the population of Erie County as a whole continues to decline.
This odd combination of declining population and accelerating sprawl is actually quite common across upstate New York — the vast area north and west of the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge. It’s the Upstate Paradox. And for the past two years, as I’ve crisscrossed the state seeking ideas for making our communities more economically and environmentally sustainable, no land use challenge, among the many in New York, seems more problematic.
While some would argue that high taxes and excess regulation are the cause of this hemorrhaging, inefficient land use and development are key causes, too.
However, land use and infrastructure policy is the big ticket item about which we can and must do something meaningful now. Our state legislators can approve the Public Infrastructure Policy Act (A-8011/S-5560) in this legislative session. The bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, and and Sens. Susan Oppenheimer, D-Westchester County, and Velmanette Montgomery, D-Brooklyn, seeks to align the planning, grant-making and capital funding efforts of state entities with smart growth criteria. It would direct and redirect funds to projects or places with existing investments in public infrastructure.
Why must we pass the Public Infrastructure Policy Act?
Simply put, upstate cannot afford its current pattern of sprawl without growth. The population trends and fiscal reality upstate suggest that we need to use public funds to catalyze community economic revitalization within the bounds of already developed areas. If state policy does not curtail upstate’s sprawl without growth patterns, higher property taxes and service cuts may well continue.
According to a recent Cornell University study, between 1990 and 2010, the 49 upstate counties lost roughly 100,000 people, while the 13 downstate counties gained more than 1.7 million residents.
By 2035, the study suggests, upstate will lose an additional 670,000 residents, even as downstate gains an additional 1.4 million.
Six western and central counties — Erie, Niagara, Monroe, Onondaga, Broome and Oneida — are projected to be 18 percent smaller by then, compared to 1990. In contrast, between 1990 and 2035, New York City is expected to grow by 30 percent, and the U.S. population overall by more than 50%.
Yet new development outside upstate cities and villages continues, seemingly unabated by the population patterns and economic realities, as too many local leaders and citizens try to solve development-caused problems through more development.
This upstate type of sprawl is not just an aesthetic blight of generic strip malls, cookie-cutter tract home developments, big box stores, enormous parking lots and roads so wide with turning lanes that few pedestrians dare to cross. It is far worse.
Today’s upstate sprawl extends considerably farther away from town and city centers; consists of larger homes built on larger lots (many of which demand more in services than they create in tax revenue); demands extension of increasingly costly municipal services to far-flung communities; and requires more infrastructure that is more difficult and expensive to build, operate and maintain. The associated cost and tax burden is borne by a shrinking and aging pool of taxpayers.
There is simply no reasonable expectation in most of upstate New York that population, home values or tax revenues can cover the costs of future decline and expansion of infrastructure.
Instead, upstate New York’s future requires that we refocus development and growth around its strengths — its educated work force, existing infrastructure and housing stock, educational and medical institutions, natural resources, working farms and aging but committed population.
Subsidies, when there are any, should be used as investments designed to enhance the needs and potential of places — whether they be urban areas, main streets or town centers — where there is an existing public investment in human and physical capital. That is what seeds Smart Growth, and that is the essence and intent of the Public Infrastructure Policy Act.
Peter B. Fleischer is the executive director of Empire State Future (www.empirestatefuture.org), a nonprofit advocacy organization focused on the economic revitalization of New York’s older industrial places – main streets, town centers, and urban areas — through the incorporation of smart growth principles in land use and development decision-making.