[This Steve Bailey column appeared recently in the Post and Courier, and is reprinted here gratefully with permission.]
For all those who think the peninsula has gotten far too much for far too long,
Joe Minicozzi has this to say: Do the math. Minicozzi is an architect by training, but it is his ability to crunch numbers about cities in startling ways that we care about. An urban planner with the schtick of a late-night talk-show host, Minicozzi has used his economic model all across America to show how cities and counties have for years been taking downtown tax revenue and using it to subsidize sprawl and services in the suburbs.
Charleston is a case in point.
Minicozzi, a principal at Asheville-based real estate consulting firm Urban3, was hired this year by the S.C. Community Loan Fund to do the math about Charleston development, what pays off in tax revenue and what doesn’t. The short answer: “Old Charleston,” with its walkable streets and tightly packed mixed-use downtown, is a goldmine while the suburbs with their big-box stores and surface parking lots are a desert.
To make an apples-to-apples comparison, Minicozzi measured property like we do cars: How many miles a gallon does a car get? How many dollars in property tax does a development produce an acre?
He figured the value per acre by dividing the county’s 2015 taxable value of a property by the acreage. The result was the structure’s taxable value an acre, not how much an owner paid in taxes.
Minicozzi overlaid his data on Charleston area maps. What you get is dramatic Mount Everest-like spikes in property value on the peninsula and smaller but significant peaks along the beaches and a few developments like I’On in Mt. Pleasant. The suburbs look like freckles.
Some examples: The eight-story People’s Building on Broad Street, the city’s first “skyscraper,” is the single most valuable building in Charleston County, at $103.7 million an acre, Minicozzi’s analysis shows. The tiny two-story Tavern Wine and Spirits Shop, America’s oldest liquor store, built on East Bay in 1686, is valued at $13.4 million an acre.
Contrast this with what suburban development produces, or more precisely doesn’t produce: The Mount Pleasant Walmart is valued at $564,085 an acre, the Citadel Mall in West Ashley at $1.7 million an acre and Northwoods Mall in North Charleston at $1.8 million an acre.
“I was trying to wake people up,” says Minicozzi, whose firm helped revive downtown Asheville.
Minicozzi, 47, slices and dices the same data many ways. My favorite: Urban3 found that everything built on the peninsula before 1776 covered about 21 acres. Those buildings were worth about $16.4 million an acre and paid a stunning $631,000 in county property taxes in 2015. Compare that with the Walmart at Tanger Mall in North Charleston, which also covers about 21 acres. It is valued at $866,760 an acre and paid $47,000 in county property taxes. “The question I have is are you creating value?” he asks of too much of what we are building today. Of old-line Charleston, he says: “Not only are they doing it, they have been doing it for 240 years.”
Density is a bad word in suburban communities like Mount Pleasant and West Ashley, but it is how you create value. Just seven-tenths of one percent of all buildings in Charleston County are more than three stories. Yet they represent 10 percent of all property value, Minicozzi found.
Mount Pleasant may despise The Boulevard apartment complex, but it is valued at $10.4 million an acre compared with $2.3 million an acre at Mount Pleasant Towne Centre with its sea of surface parking lots. The Boulevard’s sin is one of design, not concept, he says. “Buildings pay taxes,” says Minicozzi. We need to remember that, too, on the peninsula before we surrender some of our most valuable waterfront land for parking lots for cruise ship passengers
The lesson of Minicozzi’s maps: Density pays, sprawl costs.
West Ashley wants to remake itself, and it should. Consider: Taken together, West Ashley’s almost 6,000 acres have a taxable value of about $2.6 billion, according to Minicozzi. When the Lorelei project, now a landfill on the upper peninsula, is built out in 20 years, it will have an estimated taxable value of $2.2 billion, the developers say. And that is on 160 acres.
West Ashley needs to look no further for inspiration than Charleston’s walkable downtown urbanism. To continue to reject density, to prioritize infrastructure designed for more cars to drain the city of more people faster is in effect asking for endless urban subsidies for police and firefighters, water and sewer and other services. It is how cities go broke.
“The peninsula is covering the nut of all that infrastructure,” Minicozzi says. “West Ashley has to understand that right now it is not that productive. It has to change. And that is not going to be an easy conversation to have.”
Until that happens, the issue isn’t whether West Ashley is getting its fair share — but whether West Ashley is pulling its weight.
Steve Bailey writes regularly for the Post and Courier Commentary page. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.