Living downtown a draw for next-gen talent, jobs

Some have questioned the value of residential and mixed-use developments in downtown and other parts of Providence. Their question: “Don’t we need jobs, not housing?” The answer: Residential and mixed-use projects will produce jobs, as well as other long-term benefits to our city and our state.
Projects such as those planned at The Foundry, the Kinsley Building, and even the Industrial Trust Building at 111 Westminster (aka the Superman Building), are needed to support a strong and comprehensive economic-development strategy.
Further, due to high construction costs, rents that are much lower than Boston and real estate taxes that are much higher, city tax-stabilization agreements are needed to allow projects to go forward. In total, the benefits are many and ultimately include increased tax revenue for the city.
The direct and immediate benefits to the economy are well-documented. Temporary construction jobs as well as permanent jobs in both the ground-floor commercial units and upper floor live/work spaces are a result of these development projects.
In addition, the spending by residents on goods, services, restaurants and entertainment feed the economy and support even more jobs. Based on the population of residential projects already completed in downtown Providence, up to 50 percent of downtown residents will be new to the state, bringing in new dollars. They bring new income and state sales taxes, as well as new city taxes on automobiles, restaurant spending and phased-in real estate taxes.
While these are important benefits, perhaps the most significant one is the continuation of efforts to create a vibrant, 24/7 city that has a mix of residential, office, cultural, retail and institutional uses, along with quality public space. Successful downtowns allow people to live, work, learn, dine, shop, relax and connect easily with others.
Metropolitan areas that have – at their core – an active and dense mixed-use downtown attract and retain quality entrepreneurs, managers, inventors and artists who in turn attract new businesses, and grow and start their own businesses throughout the area.
The International Downtown Association captured these trends in a recent report, “Downtown Rebirth: Documenting the Live-Work Dynamic in 21st Century U.S. Cities.” It highlights thought-leaders on the topic, including Harvard professor Edward Glaeser, who celebrates on a global scale the innovative, entrepreneurial, job- and wealth-creating function of dense, mixed-use centers in his book “Triumph of the City.”
The report also points to Bruce Katz, vice president and director of the Metropolitan Policy program at the Brookings Institution, who has written that innovative companies and talented workers are attracted to dynamic and active districts, with anchor institutions and cutting-edge firms connected to housing, office, retail and 21st-century urban amenities. Jennifer Bradley, co-author of “The Metropolitan Revolution” with Mr. Katz, recently presented these thoughts along with proven case studies in Providence.
These vibrant, mixed-use districts are becoming even more important because of a generational shift in the labor force. The nation’s 80 million millennials, also known as members of Generation Y (born after 1980), will make up roughly half of the U.S. workforce by 2020 and 75 percent by 2030. What type of communities will retain and attract this labor force? According to Urban Land Institute’s “America in 2013” survey, 62 percent of the members of Generation Y prefer neighborhoods that are close to offices, shops and restaurants, and 63 percent plan to move in the next five years. Again, to attract increasing numbers and encourage them to stay, housing and mixed-use developments are essential. This group already has helped fuel a demand for Providence downtown housing, where the occupancy rate is currently at 98 percent.
Attracting and retaining this talented labor force is the best economic-development strategy. Companies around the country are following the talent and moving into vibrant, mixed-use districts and downtowns. Another report by the Urban Land Institute, “Emerging Trends in Real Estate 2013,” suggests that office absorption rates and rents tick up in the stronger 24-hour downtowns. It recommends that office investors focus on dense urban places where Generation Y members want to work and live.
Successful cities around the country have recognized the economic-development importance of mixed-use, vibrant, 24/7 downtowns and have encouraged residential development. One example is Austin, Texas, a capital city with a strong university presence, comparable to Providence.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, the city provided downtown housing incentives such as public land donations, tax incentives, grants, permitting facilitation and density bonuses. As a result, Austin has attracted 6,000 residents within the past 10 years. During that same period, downtown Austin added 6,000 new jobs. According to staff of the Downtown Austin Alliance, as the residential population has grown, there has been a higher demand for office space and an increase in office rents.
The city’s comprehensive plan, “Providence Tomorrow,” says that downtown should be a pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use district with residential, businesses, institutional, cultural and public uses. This strategy was reinforced recently in the city’s Providence Downtown and Knowledge District Plan that was the basis for its rezoning two years ago.
We encourage the city to approve tax-stabilization plans for projects like The Foundry, the Kinsley building and others that are ready to proceed to construction. Let’s fill the empty historic buildings, reap the benefits, take advantage of the strong demand for downtown housing and continue the quest to create a downtown Providence for the 21st century. •

Dan Baudouin is executive director of the Providence Foundation.

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