This week, Clayton proposed granting a 50 percent property tax abatement for 20 years to a $72 million luxury apartment development—The Crossing—in the heart of downtown Clayton, an area which the city council absurdly declared “blighted.” The city argues that the development will bring more economic activity and act as transit-oriented development.
We have written many times before that using tax incentives to lure development either generally diverts development from other areas or, worse, provides tax breaks to development that would have occurred anyway. These abatements put the pressure of funding local services on businesses or areas of the city that are not so favored by the city council. This type of central planning by tax policy creates an uneven playing field that is unfair and ultimately economically damaging. Allowing a luxury property developer and future residents to pay lower property tax rates, when rates were just increased for the rest of Clayton, is questionable policy.
The argument that this development will boost transit ridership is also flawed. While changing zoning restrictions to allow less parking for a downtown building is not objectionable, using possible transit ridership to justify tax favoritism is bad policy. The relative affluence of Clayton has meant that local MetroLink ridership is far below what planners hoped for before the station opened in 2006. Original projections would have had the Clayton station serve 3,000 riders each weekday shortly after opening. Today, total ridership is 880 per weekday, and only 213 Clayton residents use the MetroLink to get to work. Four times that number walk.
The idea that luxury apartment dwellers will greatly boost this ridership is unlikely, because the affluent typically own vehicles and are much less likely to use transit than those with lower income. Even if all the residents of The Crossing did use public transportation, is it not enough that city, county, and federal government spent hundreds of millions building a light rail line to Clayton, and they continue to provide subsidized tickets that cover less than a third of that rail’s operating costs? Do we need to subsidize their luxury apartments next to the station as well?
Chances are some of the new residents will use transit, more will walk, and most will drive to their destinations. As for the local economy, the effects of diverting development and rearranging tax burdens will go unseen. But the good news is (for those with the means), new luxury apartments are coming on the market! And just wait until you see the location …