I will personally say that the exact opposite is true; what I am completely in favor of is local growth and development, which includes bringing industry, manufacturing, jobs and spending here. (Here being our county, state and, ultimately, country.) Growth and development are both fairly nebulous concepts that get tossed around in conversation and have taken on many different connotations for different groups of people.
For example, not all development is sprawl; infill development is the exact opposite. According to the Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington, “Infill development is the process of developing vacant or under-used parcels in otherwise built-up areas where infrastructure is in place. Infill development results in a more efficient use of land and existing infrastructure such as streets and public utilities. Ideally, it achieves compact land use patterns and densities high enough to support improved transportation choices and public services, as well as a wider variety of commercial services, cultural events and other amenities. Maximizing use of existing public facilities should lower the per capita costs of providing and maintaining services.”
The infill-development model has been used successfully by Habitat for Humanity for years. In our area, Habitat houses have gone up on vacant lots on Mears Street and the north side of town. Here, infill development is not limited to Habitat for Humanity. We might not be aware of it, but we have quite a bit of infill development occurring in Wilmington—some of it for profit.
According to Dave Spetrino, president of Plantation Building Corp., infill is a vital part of our urban growth pattern. “[Plantation has] built over 120 housing units downtown in the last 10 years,” he says with a grin. It’s an interesting portfolio, which includes mixed-use development at the New York Hatters building (the first floor has Dynamic Images Salon & Spa, and the upper floors are residential), the Tanyard Parish building on Front Street by Chandler’s Warf, and an assortment of single-family houses from Church Street to the North Fourth area. Spetrino, himself a resident of the Historic District, wants to see old homes protected. More so, he’d like to see even more people move to downtown living. He espouses a “build it and they will come” mentality toward the interplay with mixed-use neighborhoods.
“Once you get the critical mass of people, the commercial comes quickly,” he says. “Business people will race to fill that need. Business people are good at sighting needs and finding ways to meet them. With that will come much more stability with retail traffic.”
Infill development is far from simple. City lots are 30 feet wide, with no room to spread out, and usually come with existing power lines to work around, old plumbing and sewer to connect to, and occasionally site contamination with which to deal. “Invariably we dig up stuff and find stuff we wish we hadn’t found,” Spetrino explains. “Kerosene tanks in the front of the yard for fuel delivery is common in residential areas. The issue in the central business district is unsuitable soils—of foundations buried over time.”
In order to support a building like the New York Hatters, concrete piles (for bridges or piers) were sunk 20 feet into the ground. Spetrino chuckles and adds, “The four things we have to worry about first with a big downtown project like New York Hatters or Tanyard Parish are stormwater, parking, pet waste and trash.”
In spite of challenges, Spetrino and many others across the country are committed to the long-term advantages of infill development. “It adds value to the community,” he says. “It increases our local tax base [and] is an attractive use of the existing infrastructure. You are building more sensibly downtown because you are building with an existing streetscape. I’ve never had to build a sidewalk.”
He continues by excitedly reciting one of his favorite quotes by James Nicholas: “Infill development is publicly cheap but privately expensive, while sprawl is publicly expensive but privately cheap.”
His point is well-taken for developments like Brunswick Forest. Public services must be brought to the neighborhoods: utilities, roads, sidewalks, to name but a few—and all with a big price tag. Working with existing infrastructure eliminates those expenses for municipalities, but still creates jobs in construction, revenue from fees and permits and increases the tax value of the property.
The potential that infill development has to create jobs and drive growth in the core of our American cities and to re-vitalize potentially economically viable areas is very real.