Value Capture: Lessons from Latin America

By Anthony Flint

Anthony Flint is a fellow and director of public affairs at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. He is a regular contributor to The Atlantic Monthly's The Atlantic Cities, as well as Citiwire, The Next American City, Planning magazine, Planetizen, Architecture Boston, and many other publications.

Of all the themes explored in Meeting of the Minds related to urban development and infrastructure, the elephant in the room remains the question of financing. The fiscal situation is dire at the local, state, and federal level, just at the time when new investments are needed for the support of the 21st-century city.

So it is that a hitherto obscure policy – value capture – is getting more attention in the broader context of public-private partnerships. Value capture is based in the recognition that public investments and government actions – a new light rail line, for example, or a zoning change – result in increases in property value for private landowners. Governments are increasingly identifying these specific increases in value, known as the land value increment, and are working with private landowners and developers to seek a commensurate contribution.

The approach is being tested in the U.S. in cities such as San Francisco and Chicago, and in the construction of the Cotton Belt rail system in the Dallas-Fort Worth region. An article last year in The Next City provides a comprehensive overview of these efforts. One tale cited in that article is a particularly vivid illustration of how taxpayer investments are essentially privatized: the case of Frank McCourt, who owned more than 25 acres of prime waterfront property in Boston’s emerging Seaport district. The parcel, just across the Fort Point Channel from downtown Boston, was the site of two major projects: the I-90/Ted Williams Tunnel connector and interchange that was part of the $16 billion Big Dig, and the $1 billion bus rapid transit corridor, the Silver Line, snaking its way underground from South Station through the Seaport and on to Logan Airport. Both a major highway interchange and a Silver Line station were positioned right at McCourt’s property, which became so valuable for residential and commercial development, McCourt was able to sell the land to help him buy the LA Dodgers.

McCourt contributed funds for the Silver Line station, but in retrospect, local and state leaders questioned why he wasn’t asked to pay more, based on the identifiable increase in the value of his property that these major infrastructure projects prompted.

The rest of the world, it turns out, isn’t waiting to pose that question in hindsight. Many countries in Latin America, notably Brazil and Colombia, have passed legislation that supports value capture principles, says Martim O. Smolka, director of the Lincoln Institute’s Program on Latin America and the Caribbean, and author of the newly published Policy Focus Report Implementing Value Capture in Latin America: Policies and Tools for Urban Development.

The policy is manifesting in several key areas of both voluntary and compulsory methods: property taxation and betterment contributions; exactions and broader charges for building rights or for the transfer of development rights; and large-scale approaches such as development of public land through privatization or acquisition, land readjustment, and public auctions of entitlements for additional building rights.

Value capture has long been part of the worldwide urban planning agenda. Its increasing popularity in Latin America, Smolka says, is attributed to urbanization putting pressure on serviced land and concerns about equity and affordable housing. Although in most places revenues are still low, the applications of betterment contributions in Bogotá and of building right entitlements (CEPACs) in São Paulo have generated revenues in excess of a billion dollars for those cities.

Yet value capture is often resisted by powerful stakeholders, notably landowners, opinion leaders, and academics all along the ideological spectrum, Smolka says. He advocates a better dialogue about how value capture actually works in practice, careful management, and public participation. Value capture tools, he adds, are more likely to succeed when used to solve a locally recognized problem.

Cities in North America might do well to look south for some valuable lessons in changing the paradigm for urban development and financing key infrastructure.

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