September 7, 2011 Forum

Red Fields to Green Fields Initiative

The Great Recession represented more than $10 trillion in real estate value lost and millions of people losing jobs and homes, according to a recent speaker at Georgia Tech’s midtown campus.  It also generated “an $11.4 trillion rescue program that saved Wall Street and paper assets, but what about physical assets and Main Street?” asked researcher Kevin Caravati in launching the fall term’s Innovations in Economic Development Forum on Sept. 7, 2011.  This year’s theme is rebalancing economic development.

His presentation involved a nationwide public-private initiative called “Red Fields to Green Fields” launched in 2009 and intended to transform overleveraged, misdeveloped properties such as failing malls and vacant buildings into productive turf in the form of parks, trails, urban agriculture and other green space.  A senior researcher at the Georgia Tech Research Institute, Caravati noted “there’s $100 billion in such real estate out there,” adding that it has negative value civically, environmentally and economically.

Metro Atlanta, he observed, has too much residential, commercial, and industrial real estate, and noted that real estate transaction volumes are down 95 percent, which has a huge impact on the economy.  Parks and trails can boost real estate values and return liquidity to banks, he said, adding that the “reconstruction” involved in morphing red fields to green could create 70,000 jobs plus foster better watershed protection and land preservation.

Many opportunities exist, both inside and outside the Perimeter—the 2,850 acres inside would equal 15 Piedmont Parks, he said.  Three possibilities, according to Caravati, are a 1,000-acre Fort McPherson-Honor Farm Corridor, the 36-mile Peachtree Creek Green Belt, and some 400 properties in distressed Atlanta neighborhoods such as Pittsburgh and Mechanicsville. As it stands, parkland covers less than 5 percent of Atlanta’s total area (the U.S. average is 8.6 percent), and the city ranks 57th nationally in acres of parkland per 1,000 residents, almost one-third the national average.  Outside the Perimeter, he said are nearly 22,000 acres of vacant land listed at $154,000 per acre.

To date, the Georgia Tech-led initiative has worked with 11 U.S. cities, including Atlanta, Miami, Los Angeles, Cleveland, and Chicago to analyze impacts of converting their red fields to green fields.  Partners include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Trust of Public Land, and various local community development organizations.

A related effort, he noted, is the federal Build Act, which would establish an American Infrastructure Financing Authority with initial funding of $10 billion for transportation, energy, and water infrastructure and provide low-cost loans to attract private capital.

The session’s discussant was Christopher Norman, executive director of the Fulton County/Atlanta Land Bank Authority established in 1991. Land banking, he said, is a tool for converting abandoned or foreclosed property to productive use, that is, promoting housing and generating business and jobs.  It does not have eminent domain or taxing authority, but does step in where the market cannot or will not work.  Land banks, he said, can acquire titles and manage, alter, insure, sell, lease, or trade property.  There are nearly five dozen land banks nationwide, 10 in Georgia.

A main goal of his organization, he said, is to extinguish past-due tax liens from foreclosed property in Atlanta and Fulton County.  Among its programs are: community land trust, public-private development partnerships, tax abatement, greenspace assemblage, and land banking depository.  A tentative one involves community gardening, which, he said, represents an alternative means of property management and improved accessibility of fresh produce for local neighborhoods.

For further information on the above, contact Kevin Caravati at kevin.caravati@gtri.gatech.edu and Christopher Norman at cnorman@fccalandbank.org.

The innovations in Economic Development Forum is presented each semester by Georgia Tech’s program in Science, Technology and Information Policy (STIP) a joint initiative of the university’s Enterprise Innovation Institute and School of Public Policy. Free and open to the public, it brings together faculty, researchers, students, economic developers, and policymakers to discuss leading-edge ideas and practices in economic development and innovation policy.  For upcoming forums and videos and presentations of past forums go to the STIP website at stip.gatech.edu.