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Chester County Press

Planner tells county leaders: Invest in the existing infrastructure of your towns

04/25/2017 12:25PM ● By Richard Gaw
By Richard L. Gaw
Staff Writer

The latest smart growth presentation by Safety, Agriculture, Villages and Environment, Inc. (S.A.V.E.) held at and co-sponsored by Dansko at its West Grove headquarters on April 18, drew more than 150 of the county's top environmentalists, preservationists, architects, builders, elected officials and business leaders.
They gathered to hear a keynote speech by city planner Joe Minicozzi of Urban3, a consulting firm created by Asheville, N.C. real estate developer, Public Interest Projects. By the end of Minicozzi's presentation more than an hour later, it was fairly certain that several of those  who are responsible for opening up smart growth opportunities while preserving open space in the county left Dansko armed with a wealth of ideas.
Idea number one? Attract economic potential to small towns and increase that town's tax base, and leave the outskirts to the farmers, the conservationists and open space opportunities.
In his presentation “Growth and Preservation: Working Together for Economic Success,” Minicozzi encouraged the audience to re-think how they finance, manage, interact and define existing downtown infrastructure, through the guise of two cities of the same name. He told the audience that he recently visited Rome, Italy with his mother, where he saw clear evidence that the city was reinvesting its dollars within the city limits, and thus reinvigorating its DNA. Conversely, downtown Rome, N.Y., where Minicozzi grew up, committed “economic suicide,” he said, by divesting its economy away from the downtown district and to the suburbs.
Referring to his hometown as an example of a city that reinvests in itself, he said that Asheville went from a decaying, under-served downtown area to a thriving rebirth of walkable streets, a re-imagined business culture and 75 restaurants, that draws ten million tourists a year and has made it one of the most popular destination cities in the U.S. Minicozzi said that a prime indicator of investing in communities is seen in the numbers. Asheville has a taxable value of $12.8 billion. One renovated historic building in the downtown district, he said, went from having a value of $300,000 value to being valued at $11 million. Translated, that's a 3,500 percent increase in taxes on the property.
“Just by fixing buildings, Asheville went from a $100 million asset to a $500 million asset,” Minicozzi said. “That's the power of the economic potency of these urban environments that we've tried to shun for the last 50 years, but they've been part of our DNA for the last thousand years. They make sense.”
Minicozzi then brought his argument close to home. Comparing values, he said that the taxable value of the historic Kennett Inn is about $2 million a year for less than an acre, while the value of the Shoppes of Longwood is about $50,000 an acre.
“Which one of these is going to produce more wealth for you?” he asked. “Which one of these is going to be here 100 hundred years from now?  Think about cultivating your wealth and leaving a legacy for your kids and grandkids.”
Pointing to an overhead relief map of the web-like developments that scissor off from Route 82 toward Unionville, which he called “a weird mitochondria,” Minicozzi told local leaders to determine the choices they need to make, how they want to change the system, and begin to explore what's affordable.
“You all have to have a 'Come to Jesus' meeting about what you're doing here,” he said. “You should have an Asheville in Chester County. This isn't hard stuff. Use the information that's there and move past the biases you have.
“If you're not measuring this stuff, you can 't manage it, and you can't make educated decisions about how to bail yourselves out of your problems, and how to make strong economic investments.”
The underlying narrative of Minicozzi's visionary seemed to have kick-started its momentum from introductory comments by Dansko co-founder Peter Kjellerup, who told the audience that the efforts of local leaders should be dedicated toward “the preservation and balance and harmony that we all deserve.”
“What town do you want to be?” Minicozzi asked the audience. “What genetic material do you have in your town that's the same or different than that of Philadelphia? Some are growing bigger and faster, so how do you avoid these things?”
In addition to Minicozzi's presentation, Brian O'Leary, the executive director of the Chester County Planning Commission, gave an update on the progress of Landscapes 3, a strategic planning initiative intended to balance development and land preservation in the county over the next several decades. Landscapes 1, adopted in 1996 and Landscapes 2, adopted in 2009, served to launch the conversation on how the county should incorporate smart growth ideas to achieve that balance.
During the last 20 years, O'Leary said that the conversation has been complicated by an increase in population of 100,000 people in the county, but despite the jump, 132,000 acres – 27 percent of the county -- is still preserved as open space, made possible by a $180 million investment by the county.
An additional $50 million investment, O'Leary said, has stimulated growth potential in several towns in the southern portion of the county.
O'Leary said that the key issues facing the county will be to deal with how a projected population growth on school districts, and how a projected growth of 87,000 additional jobs coming into the county over the next decade will impact the need for more homes.
Additional presentations were made by developer Peter Staz of Core Development; Steven Fellin of PennDOT; and Bob Leonard, a PennDOT consultant.
Michael Cowart, a senior at Unionville High School, was the recipient of a $1,000 S.A.V.E. Founders' Scholarship. The scholarship recognizes the efforts of our local citizens who preserve the quality of life and community character of southern Chester County through smart growth principles. Cowart will be attending Penn State Brandywine in the fall, where he will study electrical engineering, with a career path to pursuing sustainable energy. He was recognized for his efforts to preserve 72 acres in Elk Township.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail [email protected].