The street near my house is roughly 47 feet wide. On either side, it has 12 foot “park spaces,” or those grassy areas between the street and the sidewalk. These measurements are fairly typical of Provo’s downtown neighborhoods, meaning the city owns a roughly 71-foot wide strip of property on every block. And though residents are supposed to take care of the park spaces, the city is still on the hook for a massive amount of land.
This land costs everyone a lot of money. Obviously, it has to be maintained, repaved, cleaned, and policed. Trees have to be trimmed. Pipes replaced. Infrastructure maintenance, in other words, is expensive and is paid for with tax dollars.
Streets like this also translate to losses via opportunity cost. Every land owner in Provo pays property taxes to the city, for example, but city-owned land doesn’t generate income. It’s a double whammy of maintenance costs and lost tax revenue, which should especially trouble anyone interested in government fiscal responsibility.
And of course wide streets like this also encourage speeding, heat the city up, and reduce safety, among other things.
One way to solve these problems is to turn the streets into development. If all the streets were replaced by houses, after all, there would be less land for the government to maintain and more people paying property taxes. Of course, it’d also provide more housing within the city, increase density, and reduce heat islands.
This was the basic idea behind the city’s decision to hand over streets to Nu Skin and the LDS Church earlier this year. In the case of Nu Skin, the city even gave the street away for free because officials knew they’d recoup the costs later in the form of taxes.
Developing streets is also more or less the approach proposed in a section of the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibit “Foreclosed” in New York. Though the exhibit wasn’t specifically addressing tax issues and government waste — it focused more on affordable housing, environmental issues, and density — it did suggest filling in streets with dwellings:
Clearly a city with no streets at all would be difficult, or impossible, to navigate. But the idea is that street space is often wasted and inefficient space. If the streets can be developed into housing or other buildings, there will be more room for people and less waste.
Though the idea of replacing streets with development might appear radical to some people, Vancouver is actually making it happen. Reportedly, the Thin Streets Initiative calls for developing big, wide streets into affordable housing:
The City has an enormous land resource in the form of underutilized streets. We propose dividing 66’ wide north/south street right-of-ways into equal parts, creating two new 33’ residential lots and a narrower 33’ street right-of-way. The new lots would be developed for afford¬able housing. A conservative estimate is that over 10,000 homes could be created, tapping into over $2 billion in land value.
Authorities in Vancouver apparently also realized residents may push back against this proposal, especially as it is implemented in traditional single family neighborhoods. However, officials are making the case that the initiative is crucial to the city’s long-term success:
Naturally, the Mayor and staff realize that there will be pushback to this plan of adding density to traditionally single family neighbourhoods. However, the citizens of the city need to stop thinking about themselves and start thinking about the city and its future role in an increasingly globalized society. Attracting and retaining talent and young people of all backgrounds is key to the cultural vitality of the city. Higher housing costs has already seen many pack up their bags and leave.
In the past, the city has also built “laneway homes,” which are apparently charming but higher density structures built in formerly empty space. This link provides the image below illustrating where all of this new development would go:
There’s no reason this idea couldn’t, or shouldn’t, be adapted to Provo’s downtown neighborhoods. Doing so would obviously produce some growing pains, but ultimately it would increase the amount of housing available to families and new workers, generate jobs via construction and development, and reduce government spending on infrastructure. The sale of former streets to developers could also provide a huge, one-time cash infusion to the city that could be used for all sorts of projects.
Ultimately then, this sort of plan would be the most family-friendly, fiscally conservative, and environmentally aware path for Provo to head down. And as Vancouver proves, it’s entirely possible to do.