The difficulty of land assembly and acquisition in close-in urban neighborhoods remains a chief impediment to urban redevelopment, particularly when the land use is being changed to accommodate housing or a mix of uses, according to a group of industry experts recently assembled by the Urban Land Institute.

The challenges associated with land assembly, which involves purchasing two adjacent properties held by different owners, and various ways the public sector can support urban revitalization through land assembly assistance, were discussed during a forum drawing a variety of private and public representatives with expertise in development, urban planning, architecture and urban design.

Forum participants pointed out that while there is a pressing need for more infill development to help counter suburban sprawl, land assembly obstacles are formidable: high land costs, limited supply, difficult site assembly requirements, long chains of title, and the desire by some property owners to hold land indefinitely for speculative use. “As a result (of the obstacles), much potentially usable land in close-in areas is bypassed because it is cheaper and easier to build further out,” said ULI Senior Resident Fellow for Urban Development Maureen McAvey, who chaired the forum.

While land assembly is “not popular, not what politicians want to run on,” they should realize its importance as a catalyst for economic growth and community enhancement, McAvey said. “It’s clear that political leadership is absolutely essential to get this (packaging land for development) done,” she said. The issue of assembling land to spur economic development is gaining importance as more localities seek ways to generate revenue and overcome fiscal constraints, McAvey pointed out.

Daniel Konnor, director of infill land acquisition for John Laing Homes in Van Nuys, Calif., commented that changing demographics (including more childless households) support more close-in infill development, in turn sparking an interest in land assembly. “A lot of people want to move back in (closer to downtowns) now, and this has created demand for new housing,” he said. (U.S. Census data shows that between 1990 and 2000, several cities–Houston, Seattle, Chicago, Denver, Portland (Ore.), Atlanta, Memphis and San Diego–all experienced greater increases in population in their downtown areas than as a whole. In addition, some cities–Cleveland, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Detroit–experienced population increases in their downtowns while losing population as a whole.)

However, despite the demand, efforts to produce infill housing–particularly moderately priced housing–are often stymied because much of the land available in downtown areas is zoned for commercial use, requiring zoning changes that can be time consuming, and which may delay or complicate the appraisal process, Konnor said. “We need cities to re-examine their zoning process and help us do our jobs,” he said.

Forum speaker John Kromer, senior consultant at the Fels Institute of Government in Philadelphia, pointed out that the presence of vacant land in metropolitan areas has evolved from a symbol of urban decline into an urban asset. Rather than sidestepping efforts to reuse the property, many public officials are seeking to repackage the properties as prime development locations, he said. “The most appealing business climate is useless if there is no property available,” he said. A Brookings Institution survey of 70 cities found that on average, 15 percent of the land in the areas nationwide was deemed vacant, Kromer noted. Moreover, the same survey found that only 56 percent of the cities used a computerized method to track land; and the method most frequently used for notification about abandoned properties was “calls from neighbors.”

“There is little doubt that there is a need for redevelopment in older neighborhoods, and eminent domain can make that possible,” commented Allan Mallach, research director of the National Housing Institute in Roosevelt, N.J. “However, local officials must be able to effectively sell (communicate) what they are doing to their constituencies…their actions must be transparent, sophisticated and inclusive…Grand plans are necessary. But you have to have a process that is meaningful to the people directly impacted. If you don’t have that, the grand plans are worthless.”

It is becoming increasingly difficult for cash-strapped localities to accumulate sufficient funds to acquire and assemble properties, forum participants said, pointing out that existing federal programs can be used more effectively to improve urban land use planning. For instance, Community Development Block Grant funds issued from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development are seldom used for land assembly, because localities must stretch the grants so thin to cover a wide variety of local needs. A federally funded pilot program dedicated to cover land assembly and acquisition costs would be a useful tool, participants suggested.

The Urban Land Institute is a nonprofit education and research institute representing all aspects of land use and development disciplines.

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