Rachel Weber is an Associate Professor in the Urban Planning and Policy Department and a Faculty Fellow at the Great Cities Institute. Her research and teaching are situated at the intersection of urban economic development, public finance, and real estate.
Rachel has been interested in the impact of capital markets on urban economies and the built environment since she was a graduate student. Her doctoral dissertation, subsequently published as Swords into Dow Shares: Governing the Decline of the Military Industrial Complex (Westview, 2000) questioned the shareholder orientation of the defense drawdown following the end of the Cold War. She subsequently focused on the mechanisms through which municipal governments construct a nexus between global financial circuits and local assets, in the process debunking the notion that economic development is a strictly local activity. For example, she treats Tax Increment Financing (or TIF) not just as an incentive used by cities to promote growth in specific locations. For her, TIF is also a means of speculating on the future, converting the tax base into new financial instruments to be transacted in public debt markets, and bringing new forms of expertise into urban policy decisions (see articles on this topic in Antipode and Economic Geography). Similarly, assets such as toll roads and parking meters are repurposed from local infrastructure and public goods into streams of future revenues that are sold off to global investment consortia (see articles co-authored with Phil Ashton and Marc Doussard in Urban Studies and the Journal of the American Planning Association). Rachel’s book, From Boom to Bubble: How Finance Built the New Chicago (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming 2015), explores how speculation in capital markets in conjunction with routine professional practices led to commercial overbuilding in Chicago’s Loop during the “Millennial Boom” (roughly 1998-2008). The local state was called in to absorb the surplus left in the wake of this finance-led boom, helping to subsidize and reposition office buildings and submarkets “blighted” by tenant losses (mainly to the new towers) and over-leverage.
Rachel has also written on school finance, the effect of e-commerce on bricks-and-mortar retailers, the design of incentive contracts, and participatory budgeting. She is the co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of Urban Planning (with Randy Crane, UCLA), a compilation of 40 essays by leading urban scholars. Rachel sits on numerous editorial boards for peer-reviewed journals and regularly consults with community organizations, local governments, and journalists. She received formal recognition for her teaching as one of five recipients of the campus-wide 2008 Award for Excellence in Teaching. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Development Studies from Brown University and a Masters and PhD in City and Regional Planning from Cornell University.
Why We Overbuild
Analysis of commercial space use in Chicago indicates continual excess square footage hovering above the US average for major cities. Even during the boom years, Chicago’s Loop was flooded with underutilized commercial space, the bulk of which was found not in the new office towers and condo buildings but in the older structures that predated the boom.
In her forthcoming book, Why We Overbuild (under contract with University of Chicago Press), GCI Fellow, Rachel Weber, associate professor of Urban Planning and Policy, investigates the causes and effects of the dizzying building booms that occur when real estate development, financial markets, and city planning all operate in overdrive to rapidly erect new structures and demolish older ones. The book offers an antidote to conventional analyses of building cycles. Most explanations of urban change assume that developers respond mechanically to the preferences of potential occupants whose space needs wax and wane with the business cycle. In contrast, Dr. Weber identifies the three main drivers of this recent bout of commercial overbuilding that are related not to market demand but to the dynamics of supply: first, the new financial instruments that made real estate a more liquid and fungible commodity and helped to deepen the integration of the property sector and global capital markets; second, the practices of real estate brokers and other investment intermediaries who created incentives to “do the deal,” build and acquire property, and shuffle tenants from marginally older buildings into new space; and third, the policies of city governments that simultaneously encouraged new construction with zoning changes and subsidies while also removing “obsolete” properties still standing from earlier waves of overbuilding.
Participatory Budgeting: Grassroots Democracy in Action
In a time of widespread budget crises and plummeting trust in government, community members and government officials are searching for more democratic and accountable ways to manage public money. In its third year, PB Chicago is picking up momentum and generating excitement about new opportunities for residents to engage their government, have their voices heard and make decisions about how their public dollars should be spent. Together with the Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP) and a broad coalition of aldermen, community-based organizations, and funders, the GCI Economic Development Planner, Thea Crum and Faculty Fellow Rachel Weber are working in several Chicago wards to engage residents in a large-scale experiment in direct democracy where residents in each ward vote to decide how to spend $1 million of their aldermanic capital discretionary funds. For more information about PB Chicago, visit GCI’s Participatory Budgeting page or the PB Chicago page. View the annual evaluation report from the pilot year here.
Rachel Weber “Tax Increment Financing in Theory and Practice” for Sammis White, Ned Hill, and Zenia Kotval, Financing Economic Development in the 21st Century, 2010 Edition. ME Sharpe
Rachel Weber “Keeping Urban Renewal Alive: Planning Consultants and the Origins of Tax Increment Financing” For Restructuring the Local State (Dennis Judd ed.)
Rachel Weber and Daniel McMillen “Ask and Ye Shall Receive: Who Successfully Appeals Their Property Tax Bill?” Public Finance Review Vol. 38, No. 1, 74-101 (2010)
Diana Formoso, Rachel Weber, and Marc Atkins “Gentrification and Urban Children’s Well-Being: Tipping the Scales from Problems to Promise” American Journal of Community Psychology. Winter 2009.
“The Impact of Tax Increment Financing on Residential Property Values” (with Saurav Dev Bhatta and David Merriman), Regional Science and Urban EconomicsSpring 2007
“Valuing New Development in Distressed Urban Neighborhoods: Does Design Matter?” (with Brent Ryan), Journal of the American Planning Association Winter 2007
“Getting the Max for the Tax: Applying Performance Measures to Business Improvement Districts” (with Gina Caruso). International Journal of Public Administration 29, 187-220, 2006.
“Tearing the City Down: Explaining the Incidence of Privately Initiated Demolitions” (with Marc Doussard, Saurav Dev Bhatta, and Daniel McGrath). Journal of Urban Affairs, Winter 2005.
“Does Tax Increment Financing Increase the Value of Urban Industrial Property?” (with David Merriman and Saurav Dev Bhatta) Urban Studies 40:10, September 2003
“Assets and Neighborhoods: The Role of Individual Assets in Neighborhood Revitalization.” (with Janet Smith) Housing Policy Debate 14: 1-2, June 2003
“Equity and Entrepreneurialism: The Impact of Tax Increment Financing on School District Finances.” Urban Affairs Review 38:5, May 2003
“Contracting In: How a Business Intermediary Sought to Create Supplier Networks and Jobs” (with Susanne Schnell). Economic Development Quarterly 17:2, May 2003
“Introduction to Focus Section: Low-Wage Labor Markets” (with Nik Theodore). Economic Development Quarterly 16:4, November 2002
“Extracting Value from the City: Neoliberalism and Urban Redevelopment.” Antipode 34:3, Summer 2002
“Do Better Contracts Make Better Economic Development Incentives?” Journal of the American Planning Association 68:1, Winter 2002
Swords into Dow Shares: Governing the Decline of the Military-Industrial Complex. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2001