ULI Boston/New England Blog

Changing How Public Officials View Private Development

By Manisha Bewtra

While driving around my childhood home of Ames, Iowa during school vacation week, I couldn’t help but compare it to my hometown of Melrose. Both communities have wonderful people; both developed as a result of railway expansion and both grew up during the Victorian era. But, while Ames is a college town that has expanded considerably in both acreage and population over the past 20 years, Melrose is a bedroom community without much room to grow. The dynamics that affect Melrose are indicative of many Mass. communities poised to grow but constricted by geography and economics. And, they form the challenges facing municipal leaders and real estate developers.

I am an urban planner by trade and am serving first-term on the Melrose Board of Aldermen. Through this new lens, my views on development have changed. So, it was fitting that during my vacation-week respite, I had the chance to reflect on an experience that forced me to reconcile these differing views—my participation in ULI Boston’s Urban Plan Public Leadership Institute.

ULI invited me and eight other first-term city councilors from Boston, Cambridge, Salem, and Watertown to gain new perspective on real estate development and land use. We were divided into competing development teams charged with responding to a Request for Proposals to develop a 6-block area of a fictional city. Each of us played a specific role – city liaison, financial analyst, site planner, community engagement specialist, and marketing director. We were expected to use our knowledge, our experience, and LEGO bricks to shape our proposals.

The teams had to articulate a clear vision, demonstrate that how their financing would yield a return high enough to attract investors, and showcase how to meet city requirements for affordable housing, historic preservation, and new community amenities while creating a sense of vitality and cohesion for the redeveloped neighborhood. We had a short time to come up with a feasible proposal.

The exercise has already helped be examine the challenges we face in Melrose. Our Victorian-era architecture and street grid gives the city much of its charm and walkability. We have the Commuter Rail, the Orange Line, bus lines and proximity to major highways. We invest in our schools and city services; we have an active Chamber of Commerce and a solid reputation as a desirable place to live. So, how do we harness the benefits of these accolades without turning our backs on the challenges they represent?

Melrose is predominantly residential; only 3 percent of our land area is devoted to commercial uses, and 92 percent of our property taxes come from residential tax receipts. School enrollment is up. Our facilities need repairs and upgrades. Facing our FY19 budget challenges is daunting, and revenue from state aid and property taxes falls short of what we’d need to maintain our desirability and level of service.

If we are to remain a desirable place to live and do business, Melrose must continue to grow, commercially and residentially. And, like the fictional city we reimagined during the Urban Plan Public Leadership Institute, there are many stakeholders and many perspectives that need to be balanced and considered if growth is to be done right. Unlike Ames, we can’t annex any new acreage or rely on a large institution to sustain our local economy. We have to be smart about how we maintain income diversity, excellent city services, and schools. We need to preserve our historic character and encourage the development of more affordable housing while providing opportunities for developers to profit from the risks inherent in building and borrowing. We have to ask the right questions as we structure our RFPs and work with developers and community groups.

Creating fictional city blocks out of LEGOs helped me see development differently and will help me consider different perspectives in a more complex real-world context. Participating in the institute broadened my perspectives as an urban planner and city official, so I can better work with the development community to tackle challenges together. There will always be conflicting interests, but if we are thoughtful in the way we balance economics and land-use needs, we can make decisions that match the inclusive vision we have for our communities.

Manisha Bewtra is a member of the Melrose Board of Aldermen.

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