Moosehead Lake conservation easement – who wins?

After years of negotiations, the Plum Creek timber company, The Nature Conservancy and the Forest Society of Maine announced the completion of a $30 million transaction that will create a 363,000 acre conservation easement aimed at protecting the area surrounding Moosehead Lake. The easement will allow continued logging operations and should provide a boon to the local tourism-based economy. The easement represents about 40% of Plum Creek’s holding in the area.

Moosehead Lake conservation easement and Plum Creek development

Concerns remain about the massive development project that Plum Creek won approval for several years ago after a lengthy regulatory process and court battle. That project rezoned nearly 17,000 acres for development including 821 residential units and two resorts with over 1200 rooms.

A local realtor points out that with land prices falling by up to 70% during the Great Recession development is likely years away as infrastructure costs cannot be recouped at current land value levels.

Among the benefits the Forest Society of Maine lists:

  • About 12% of the conserved lands will be managed as ecological reserves
  • The remainder (more than 365,000 acres) will be managed under third party-certification for a sustainable harvest of forest products to the benefit of the state and local economies
  • The newly conserved lands connect to already-conserved properties including 20 existing state parks, resulting in a network of conserved lands totaling nearly 2.25 million acres – three times the size of Rhode Island.

Moosehead Lake, Maine

This does appear on the surface at least to be a “win” for the public though one wonder whether Plum Creek would have been able to secure approvals for any development beyond that it had already obtained. I am curious why Plum Creek and the environmental groups did not negotiate the conservation easement concurrently with the development approval process. That would presumably have given the environmental groups more leverage in the negotiations. With the easement now in hand, will the Forest Society of Maine and The Nature Conservancy feel obligated to support Plum Creek’s future development efforts when the time comes for permitting specific projects?

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Sports entertainment districts

Two recent articles present two very different takes on glitzy sports entertainment districts – Kansas City’s Power & Light District and San Francisco’s Mission Rock project. The former is completed; the latter has just been announced. What do they have in common? Both are anchored by a sports facility; the Baltimore-based Cordish Companies acted as the developer; and each includes the usual mix of chain retail, bars and restaurants.

Power & Light District, Kansas City

The Wall Street Journal has labeled the Power & Light District a dismal failure and significant drain on the city’s budget. The San Francisco Chronicle touts the all but assured success of Mission Rock. While I know San Francisco is not Kansas City, the Power & Light District is a cautionary tale for cities betting their future and investing their dollars in one of these districts.

Kansas City finds itself using general funds for more than 2/3 of the debt service on the $295 million in bonds it issued for the project because projected sales and property taxes generated by the project have lagged. In addition, the city funded more of the $276 million cost of a new arena that has been waiting for its first sports tenant since its 2007 opening. As a result, the city has been forced to cut back on basic services.

The story is much the same in Glendale, Arizona, where the city provided hundreds of millions in funding for a hockey arena and spring training complex only to see the hockey team and adjacent mixed-use development, Westgate, go into bankruptcy. For each of the past two years, the city has covered $25 million to the NHL which now owns the hockey team to cover operating losses. Now the city is facing a $35 million budget deficit and the possibility it will still lose the hockey team to another city.

San Francisco’s plans are even more grandiose – $1.6 billion cost for a park, 1,000 rental units, 1.7 million square feet of office and retail, and parking garages. The Giants and Cordish plan to ground lease 27 acres comprised of existing surface parking lots and Pier 48 and begin construction in 2015. I suspect San Francisco’s efforts to use a sports facility as an anchor and catalyst for a major redevelopment project will be more successful than either Kansas City or Glendale. The worrisome thing is that there are numerous second and third tier cities currently looking at smaller scale, sports entertainment districts (e.g., Allentown, PA) as an avenue to urban regeneration. One hopes that they will not only look at the promise of projects like Mission Rock but also the reality of projects like Power & Light and Westgate.

Mission Rock site plan


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Making the most out of public transit

I was living in the DC area when its metro system first opened in 1976. I remember how bus lines were completely revamped to tie into the nascent rail lines which had the effect of greatly increasing the time of my commute from northern Virginia. In part because of this, I moved into the District to an apartment where I was literally steps from the Dupont Circle station. At first there was a fair amount of opposition from neighborhoods adjacent to the system’s stops to proposal for increasing zoning density. Over time, however, densities were indeed increased and large scale, mixed-use, transit oriented development (TOD) became commonplace in both the Virginia and Maryland suburbs.

A recent Urban Land article caught my eye given this personal history with Metro. It recaps the story of how a true public-private partnership among the District of Columbia, the federal government and private landowners shared the cost of adding a station to serve the recently renamed NoMa neighborhood directly north of the Capitol Building.

The private sector contributed nearly 30% of the cost of the project. In the ensuing eight years the availability of rail service has spurred $3 billion in private investment and over 7 million square feet (650,000 sq m) of development, and that more than 40,000 people have jobs in NoMa. City tax revenues in the 35-block area that constitutes the NoMa Business Improvement District (BID) have skyrocketed from $5 million annually to $60 million.

The Metro authority was a reluctant participant at the outset but eventually did cooperate. One wonders how many other potential transit station sites there are out there waiting for similar redevelopment efforts. The catalyst here was a developer, the Bristol Group, which found itself with a huge old department store distribution center and 8+ acres of vacant land. Perhaps when transit systems are planned or extended rather than having planners arbitrarily decide where stations belong, the public sector ought to open up the process to some form of “bidding” by groups who control enough land in the vicinity of a proposed station to ensure that the public investment pays off in terms of new development, increased property values, and greater ridership.

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