What is Urban Renewal?

Urban renewal districts and the agencies that administer them have been around for generations, but there seems to be a lot of misunderstanding about how they work. The concept is simple enough and generally resembles a deferred compensation program many of us invest in for our retirement.

Oregon law allows cities or counties to designate an area within their jurisdiction that is blighted or in need of renewal. Usually, the blight is self-evident in the form of vacant buildings or lots, higher crime rates, and lower property values. Urban renewal attempts to correct these problems, not by increasing taxes, but by distributing them in a different way. Property taxes within a district are directed to all the taxing entities within the district and are held constant at the time the district is created. The distribution of those taxes does not change over time. Only increases in assessed value, either from new construction or rising values, are dedicated to improvement projects within the district that help accelerate its renewal. Projects can range from infrastructure improvements to fixing up old buildings. The taxing jurisdictions, such as school districts, counties, and cities, are essentially investing the increase in value with the expectation of a much larger increase in revenue when the renewal designation expires.

The controversy over urban renewal usually arises because someone notices that tax revenues that might be applied to pressing problems today are being used for purposes that only pay off in the longer term. California Governor Jerry Brown, when faced with a fiscal crisis in his state a few years ago, terminated all of the state’s urban renewal agencies to close immediate funding gaps. This move certainly helped state government solve its most pressing shortfalls, but it did so at the expense of many cities and their future revenue growth. Just as cashing in an IRA early might allow someone to solve a financial problem today, California’s decision will mean there will be less money to support services down the road.

Urban renewal, however, isn’t just about the distant future. Albany’s urban renewal advisory board heard a report this week from local businessman Herb Yamamoto about the effects of an urban renewal partnership with his company, CADD Connections. He pointed out that the grants and loans that allowed him to purchase a dilapidated building on Seventh and Lyon not only helped remove an eyesore, but also attracted at least 16 jobs to Albany. The redevelopment of his property increased the property tax revenue from the site and added jobs to the local economy at a time during the recession when few people were investing in anything.

Anyone with a retirement account knows that not every investment is successful. Similarly, not all urban renewal investments produce a benefit in the short term. Critics point to these projects as evidence of failure, when they may only represent a relatively small percentage of the overall investment. There is an element of risk in any investment, and that’s true whether we put money into buying something we need or want today or save it for the future.

I believe Albany’s decision to form an urban renewal district nearly 15 years ago has produced visible results that a short walk through our downtown will verify. More importantly, the Central Albany Revitalization Area (CARA) has already produced significant economic benefits with the promise of more to come.

The Lunatic Fringe

I was having dinner with some well-traveled friends the other night, and we started a discussion about how the vast majority of people we’ve met in our trips throughout the world have been decent and kind to us. We hear so much about violence and wrong-doing that it’s easy to forget how we are usually treated. I’ve also found that when I am considerate toward others they are far more likely to be considerate toward me.

Islam continues to get a bad name because a relatively small minority of adherents brutally kill people in the name of their religion. Internet sources tell me there are about 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, yet the number who actually harm others is a small fraction of the total. My experience in visiting and living among Muslims is that most value the same things we value. I literally owe my life to the goodwill of countless people who worked with me during my assignments in difficult places.

I have often wondered why we are so easily led astray by people who I will charitably refer to as the lunatic fringe, and I would offer up the following possible reasons:

  1. Passion – We may like to think we are rational beings, but emotion and passion play a big role in our decision making. Emotional people feed our appetite for passion, which I believe has both physiological and psychological roots. I’m not sure what else could explain the popularity of people whose only qualification for celebrity or political power is the volume and venom that comes out of their mouths.
  2. Blame – It’s seductive to believe that some evil or misguided group of people is the source of all our problems. It would be humorous to list all the different groups that have been persecuted throughout history if the human costs were not so tragic. Often, the victims of earlier persecution become the persecutors when they achieve the power or position to do so.
  3. Misinformation – Many who would seek to capture our support or sustain our apathy know that most of us do not really check their facts. Information presented as truth is too often misinformation or argument cloaked as fact. The Information Age allows us to see vast amounts of information without providing much guidance about its accuracy or relevance. The volume of stuff on the Internet can make it difficult to judge or even find decision-making information.
  4. Ignorance – Modern humanity probably knows more than any generation that preceded us; but even the smartest, most educated people are essentially ignorant about entire fields of knowledge. Our lack of knowledge is routinely exploited by those seeking power and fortune.
  5. Circumstance – Bad things sometimes happen regardless of what anyone does or does not do. We die, lose money, and live through countless trials because in many cases we have no choice. Taking advantage of negative circumstances by promising something better is a proven route to power.

The list of ways a vocal minority can lead us to do harmful things is probably much longer than my five observations. I think the antidote, however, is relatively short and simple. Kindness, consideration, service, knowledge, and general goodwill go a long way toward frustrating the ambitions of the lunatic fringe. Refusing to hate, even when there may be more than sufficient justification to do so, is perhaps our best protection.

“The Really Big One”

I think every resident of the West Coast should read an article in the most recent edition of The New Yorker entitled, “The Really Big One.” We have been hearing for years about the potential for a massive earthquake in our region, but this thoughtful, well-researched article should cause all of us to consider our response to a very real threat.

My greatest concern is for children. I visited Sri Lanka in 2006 and met a number of children orphaned by the tsunami that struck the island in 2005. I can’t adequately describe my feelings as some of these children bowed before me as I handed them bank books with small balances that had been donated for their benefit. I also remember visiting Balacot, Pakistan, in 2008, which was the epicenter of an earthquake that killed more than 17,000 children in their schools and more than 77,000 people throughout the nation. The keynote speaker at the conference reminded all of us that the real tragedy was that most of these deaths, particularly in the schools, could have been prevented and would not have occurred if a similar quake took place in California, Chile, or Japan. He could not have made that claim for Oregon.

Ironically, the Oregon State University geologist and expert on the Cascadia Subduction Zone, Chris Goldfinger, quoted in The New Yorker article is currently waging a fight against his own university to halt construction of a new marine science facility in Newport’s tsunami zone. Goldfinger is suggesting the area be turned into a park now, rather than a memorial park after a tsunami strikes. The Oregon Coast Aquarium and several other facilities are already located in the neighborhood. The dispute illustrates the difficulty of this issue.

Most of us are reluctant to bite the bullet and spend large sums of money on a problem that seems distant and unlikely. Authorities in New Orleans knew years in advance that the community was unprepared to withstand a Category 5 hurricane, but they were unwilling to invest several billion dollars to upgrade the city’s flood control system. In hindsight, saving two thousand lives and many billions of dollars would seem to have been a worthwhile investment.

Albany voters recently approved a bond measure that will bring all of our public safety facilities up to the most current seismic standards and insure that our most critical emergency service personnel will be able to respond. Unfortunately, most of our schools and other places where we congregate do not meet this standard. I don’t have a simple solution to suggest, but I believe we should be talking more about the problem and doing some serious planning.

Personally, I am going home tonight and repacking my 72-hour kit that will allow my wife and me to have the basic necessities during an emergency. There are many on-line sources to advise us about what needs to be in a 72-hour pack, and I would encourage everyone to act now to prepare a kit. We know with some certainty that an earthquake will occur in this area within the next 50 years. The least we can do is make sure we are individually prepared.