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A Republican Mayor’s Efforts to Tame Suburban Sprawl in His Community

Carmel, Indiana City Hall

Carmel, Indiana City Hall

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Carmel, Indiana, Mayor Jim Brainard, who has built a lot of traffic roundabouts, has reservations about the Trump administration’s infrastructure proposal.

Carmel, Indiana’s mayor, first elected in 1995, is among the longest serving in the U.S., and he’s spent that time trying to harness suburban sprawl that he fears President Trump’s forthcoming infrastructure plan will only exacerbate.

Jim Brainard, a Republican, hasn’t shied away from warning Trump against leaving the Paris climate deal or from entertaining the possibility of President Mike Pence lately.

Now the mayor, known in urban planning circles as a champion of building traffic roundabouts, is voicing concerns President Trump’s “Rebuilding America” plan could turn public-private partnerships (P3s) into monopolies operating infrastructure, while receiving ample tax credits at the expense of taxpayers.

“How do you build something besides sprawl?” Brainard asked in an interview with Route Fifty.

He emphasized this important reality: “Sprawl is killing cities financially.”

Carmel began as a poor, small Quaker farming community in the late 1830s and has grown into a 50-square-mile car-oriented suburb of about 100,000 residents, 18 miles north of downtown Indianapolis. Car-oriented sprawl shaped Carmel, courtesy of the Interstate 465 loop around Indiana’s capital city, which forms its southern boundary.

Sprawl is the result of building car-oriented infrastructure that supports an outward migration of people, something that’s been underway for decades as federal, state and local government agencies have built highway networks meant to maximize vehicle speeds, said Adie Tomer, a fellow with the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program.

After World War II, U.S. factory workers were better off than anywhere else internationally, and they wanted to get out of the city—leading to unparalleled disaggregation for the first time in history. Tax codes incentivizing outward growth and the use of automobiles, along with people’s sociological demand for more personal space, made sprawl possible, Tomer said.

Sprawl has led to spatial mismatch: People living well outside where almost all of their economic activity takes place. This mismatch has led some cities, particularly large coastal ones, to try to regenerate their urban cores, Tomer said.

When Brainard first ran for mayor, Carmel lacked a downtown, and voters were clamouring for a walkable community.

Because of the automobile, historic city grids with blocks stretching one-tenth of a mile had been abandoned in favor of quarter-acre to half-acre lots—a lot more ground to cover. And the advent of the internet had businesses interested in relocating their offices from Indianapolis to Carmel, which was closer to many workers but needed stores, bicycle infrastructure and circulating public transit to form a more robust commercial core of its own.

Public-private partnerships and tax-increment financing built downtown Carmel, close to 100 buildings, with access to 180 miles of trails, and city parkland that’s expanded from about 100 acres to 1,000 acres. Old Town was turned into a design district, and four blocks south the new downtown was anchored by a $175 million arts complex.

While Indianapolis sold its water utility, Carmel kept its own—paying 50 percent less for the resource than the capital at one point, Brainard said.

Cities looking to build out take a calculated risk that they can make back the money they invest in infrastructure development with tax revenue from economic development, but sometimes there’s not enough market demand to move out to their place, Tomer said. In other instances, the manufacturing plants that were once a city’s backbone move outside the U.S., and the service-level work moves to the downtown of a regional economic center—as Rust Belt cities experience all too frequently.

Brainard’s approach has been to build up, not out. Rather than building a 10,000-square-foot building in a 40,000-square-foot lot with parking that pays for none of the additional infrastructure required, he points to Western Europe, which has for centuries made more revenue off of five-story buildings with sidewalks, cafes and ground-floor retail “that works.”

A road must be stretched 20 times as far to get the same amount of capital, Brainard said, because water pipes and other infrastructure must be extended, emergency personnel staffed, streets paved and schools built.

“It’s always going to be more efficient to provide services in a higher-density area,” Tomer said.

Will Trump’s infrastructure package threaten that while incentivizing sprawl? Not likely based on the admittedly little we’ve seen of the plan so far, Tomer said.

The tax increment financing Carmel is fond of will likely remain untouched, Tomer said, while the mortgage interest tax deduction—which has a massive impact on the housing market and isn’t going anywhere—will likely have a bigger impact on development patterns.

“If the Carmel mayor and his team there are willing to collaborate with the private sector, they could actually build out more modern infrastructure than they have in the past,” Tomer said. “That could make them more competitive in the region to attract more people and businesses.”

Because the private sector prefers to get involved where there’s an ability to capture private revenue streams, more rural parts of Indiana are likely to struggle under Trump’s infrastructure plan—especially if they’ve lost their manufacturing base. In that scenario, Carmel would be “the last place to fall” because it’s part of the greater Indianapolis region, Tomer said.

“It’s at the state level where Trump’s infrastructure proposal could have a more varied effect,” he said.

Trump’s federal budget proposal is more of a “statement of purpose” than a “live policy document,” but mayors like Brainard aren’t pleased to see the Community Development Block Grant program up for elimination. Last fiscal year, CDBG was funded at the $3 billion level for sewer expansion and housing among other infrastructure and non-infrastructure projects.

When Brainard was in college, Republicans recognized the pitfalls of a one-size-fits-all approach, the mayor said, with Nixon’s revenue-sharing program balancing out rich and poor states and localities while giving them spending control.

“It’s an extremely effective program, absolutely critical to many cities to provide a decent level of services,” Brainard said of CDBG.

The White House’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, doesn’t see it that way, arguing the program doesn’t work and that lowering the federal tax rate and letting cities tax as needed to fund infrastructure projects is the better approach. But that ignores the fact that poorer cities have less tax revenue available to them than wealthy ones, Brainard said, and residents deserve beautiful cities—especially those that can’t travel.

“While many of the nation’s cities and metropolitan areas are strong and continue to drive the national economy forward, many have not yet rebounded from the Great Recession,” Tom Cochran, U.S. Conference of Mayors executive director, said in a statement. “We cannot and will not turn a blind eye to these communities that are hurting from federal disinvestment.”

Brainard worked with Vice President Pence while President Trump’s No. 2 was governor of Indiana and said he was very generous sharing state infrastructure funds with localities. Pence wasn’t as interested in mass transit, but Brainard is optimistic that might change were he elevated to the presidency.

Carmel is among the top five U.S. cities for traffic roundabouts—it currently has 104 of them— another aspect of Western Europe street design that Brainard has embraced to reduce vehicle carbon output.

Unlike Trump, Brainard isn’t a climate change skeptic and was in the nation’s capital last week speaking at a Pew Charitable Trusts event about flood-prepared communities. Carmel has experienced an uptick in climate-related flooding and has installed porous pavements and parking lots, as well as bioswales to filter out impurities in the local water supply. The city also started a fast-growing stormwater utility and is in the process of performing $40 million worth of water and stormwater improvements—impressive for a city of its size.

Undergirding everything Brainard does is his belief that “edge cities”—suburban locations with higher daytime than nighttime populations and downtowns—are the future and suburban sprawl is not.

“The suburbs are going to be the new city,” he said. “It’s going to be about what we build and how we build our cities to be livable—how we focus on people instead of cars.”

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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