Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Joe Nathanson: Grants go from zero to $150M in 24 hours

In the drama over the federal budget for fiscal year 2011, one small line item, the Sustainable Communities Regional Planning grant program, was zeroed out on the Thursday before the agreement was reached.

Not only were no dollars to be provided for the program, but specific language in the budget bill called for no federal spending for “sustainable communities.” By the following day, when the government shutdown was averted in the eleventh hour, the program was alive with $150 million in funding.

This bizarre turnaround was described in a press briefing by Shelley Poticha, director of the Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities, a new unit in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Ms. Poticha was in New York City, part of an announced crowd of 1,000 at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel for the Annual Assembly of the Regional Plan Association (RPA). She and Adolfo Carrión, HUD’s regional administrator and earlier the first head of the White House Office of Urban Affairs, were there for a specific pleasant assignment. They had a symbolic, oversized check for $3.5 million to present to the RPA on behalf of its partners in their latest regional planning initiative.

Since 1922, the RPA, a non-governmental nonprofit organization, has been advising state and local leaders on the major issues facing greater New York’s tri-state region. Its first regional plan was a monumental effort issued in 1929, on the eve of the Great Depression.

Once the New Deal recovery efforts were in gear, many of the RPA’s visions for infrastructure investment and regional development provided guidance for truly “shovel-ready” projects.

Transportation advocates

The organization has continued to provide forward-looking thinking for the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut region over the decades. The RPA’s third Regional Plan, published in 1996, was entitled “A Region at Risk.” The plan recommended improvements in regional public transit, greater protection of public open space and bolstering the region’s traditional urban centers.

RPA has also become a national advocate for world-class airports, seaports and high-speed rail. It is currently in the forefront of those calling for a new major airport north of New York to provide relief for the region’s congested airspace.

With the new grant funds in hand — the first regional planning dollars from HUD in a generation — the RPA and its collaborating cities and counties want to prepare for the next wave of development. While the housing market has still not recovered and new homebuilding remains at a low ebb, the regional partners want to be able influence the development of tens of thousands of new homes when the economic recovery extends to residential real estate.

The New York-Connecticut consortium’s grant funds will be used to prepare detailed plans and feasibility studies. The work program contains more than a dozen specific initiatives, including:

-Strategies to capitalize on the Bronx Metro-North transit corridor, maximizing access to and spurring investment in “sustainable, mixed-use housing, improved station visibility, pedestrian access and intermodal connections” at select corridor stations.

-A Long Island Housing Strategy, calling for Nassau and Suffolk counties to create a “Fair Share Housing Plan,” leading to mixed-income housing options at transit-supported hubs in these suburban communities.

-In Connecticut, a feasibility study for a new commuter rail station in Stamford. The station would act as an anchor for the city’s Urban Transitway and serve as a catalyst for the redevelopment of several hundred acres in a corridor with strong transit service.

The Baltimore regional plan

Coming together as a region may have been the most challenging part of the grant submission to HUD. It was noted that New Jersey was invited to join the New York regional application, but the Garden State went its own way — with an unsuccessful outcome.

The Baltimore region submitted its own bid for this competitive grant award. Picking the dance partners was probably the biggest hurdle to overcome, based on observations of various participants.

Ultimately, a proposal was submitted by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, on behalf of its many public and private sector partners. As the introduction to the application noted proudly, “Maryland is the home of Smart Growth.”

It’s quite possible that the Baltimore region, with its own notions of aligning new development with transportation investments, put forward a meritorious proposal.

But only 45 awards could be made out of 240 applicants, excluding a number of worthy candidates according to Poticha. That the program was so oversubscribed and so popular across many regions of the country may explain why funding was preserved by Congress for one more year.

Joe Nathanson heads Urban Information Associates, Inc., a Baltimore-based economic and community development consulting firm. He contributes a monthly column to The Daily Record. He can be contacted at [email protected]