Friday, September 15, 2006
Here's a quirky Friday story from my home region of Tampa Bay, Florida. It appears that quite a few residents live in houseboats in the public waters, where the inconveniences of poor sanitary facilities can be trumped by a lack of property taxes. But in (or off the coast of) many localities, governments are cracking down on "live aboards" -- and some boaters think that legal restrictions often follow the development of new and expensive beachfront condos, whose owners don't like the idea of, or the view of, people living off shore. Gulfport, where I live, has cracked down, according to the story, but not yet St. Petersburg. With hundreds of new high-rise condo units coming to the once-sleepy downtown St. Pete, gentrification of the sea is not likely to be far off ...
Thursday, September 14, 2006
Chicago’s City Council yesterday failed to override Mayor Richard Daley’s veto of a bill that would have required big-box retailers to pay an especially high minimum wage. It’s usually a bad idea, I often write, to try to impose other social values through land use laws. Why only big-box retailers? Because companies such as Wal-Mart and Target are wealthy and can afford a higher minimum wage? Well, why not big banks, big food companies, and big law firms? A clerk earning minimum wage in one of these big operations would be as deserving of a raise as a clerk who works in a big box.
Because the big box retailers are popular whipping boys in the current public debate? Now we’re betting closer to the truth. If the widespread critical rejection of the Supreme Court’s decision in Village of Belle Terre v. Boraas (1974) (town can discriminate against group houses in a college town) stands for the proposition that land use law shouldn’t “target” (pun possibly intended) one group simply because a lot of people don’t like them, shouldn’t this principle apply to big-box retailers? Land use and labor laws shouldn’t discriminate against big-box retailers simply because a lot of people (including vote-collecting politicians) simply don’t like them.
Another interesting twist to the Chicago story is that the retailers implied that if the ordinance were enacted, they would simply move new operations just over the city lines (indeed, Mayor Daley argued that such a step would especially hurt Chicago’s poorer black communities). I have no doubt that the retailers might have tried this. In the face of evidence such as this, why do some people still doubt the existence of competition among governmental jurisdictions to avoid regulation -– the so-called “race to bottom”?
Wednesday, September 13, 2006
What is “land use law”? It is remarkable how many people, including academics, cannot tell you that this is the umbrella term for law that addresses community development, zoning, sprawl, racial segregation, affordable housing, transportation, and other issues concerning how law shapes the spatial structure of our society, and vice versa. Land use law suffers from a lack of public awareness in part because it was only fairly recently that many people recognized the links among all of its components. Many still refer to the field as “land use planning,” which to me implies that it is still limited to the bureaucratic world of comprehensive plans, zoning maps, and variances. But this is no longer the case. Indeed, professional land use “planners” complain about the overuse and shapelessness of the word “planning,” as noted in this essay by Penn professor and city planner Eugenie Birch.
Prawfslawgs is collecting a legal “research canon,” yet it was only recently that somebody saw fit to tack on land use law to the “property” category (which usually focuses on the rights of private owners vis-à-vis each other). Others place land use law in “state and local government” (although topics such as environmental regulation and housing discrimination are federal).
Isn’t it time that land use law got its due? After all, as I like to say, this field of law arguably affects human happiness on a day-to-day basis (through rules that affect housing prices, traffic, and social integration) more than any other world of law.
Tuesday, September 12, 2006
Sometimes, “big plans” work. Trimuphs include the legal regime that preserved the French Quarter of New Orleans and the design that created the radial avenues of Washington, D.C. At a World Urban Forum this summer, people talked of the big plans of “Vancouverism,” and whether it serves as a model for North America.
Vancouver is new urbanism to the nth degree, as discussed in this video segment from the CBC (click on "Vancouver Model"). The city and province rejected freeways in the 1960s in favor of encouraging downtown residences and public transportation. Today, the fact that jumps out when one visits is residential density –- the city’s downtown is filled with condos and apartments that are intermingled with offices and shopping. Vancouver resembles European cities or New York more than it does even, say, Portland, Ore.
But the model faces obstacles in the United States. Would metropolitan Americans give up the dream of detached-single-family-homeownership for a condo in the city, as many affluent Vancouverites do? The city says that families are attracted to living downtown because it is “clean, green, and safe.” Are many American cities capable of such an achievement, considering our distinct social problems (including poor city schools, into which few middle-class American families are willing to be pioneers) and our almost genetic inability to give public spaces the care that we give our private ones?
Monday, September 11, 2006
It is disconcerting, five years after the attacks of 2001, that there is still little work done on the memorial at what was New York’s World Trade Center. The story of bickering and delays is evidence of the inherent problems in making decisions through a variety of “stakeholders.” It is also evidence of Americans’ propensity for aggrandizement and megalomania; there appears to be a feeling that unless we build a colossally complex memorial, we would not honor the victims sufficiently. Although the city recently announced decisions to scale back some of the more expensive ideas for underground galleries amongst the acres of waterfalls and trees, there is still disagreement over some features, including the question of whether to display of names of the victims randomly or group them by affiliation.
Meanwhile, the effort to change building codes for skyscrapers is proving to be equally difficult, as real estate interests are battling each potential amendment, such as requiring more and greater reinforcement of stairwells. It seems that nearly every “big plan” spurred by Sept. 11, 2001, including the designs for office tower rebuilding, is leading to disappointment.
Sunday, September 10, 2006
“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood …. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will not die.” This is, of course, the advice of the great architect and urban designer Daniel Burnham (1846-1912). One often hears the first part of the quotation, but less often the conclusion about a “noble, logical” work’s not dying. Modern land use plans are too often about big ideas –- and the judgment of whether they are noble or logical is hotly debated.
This week I write about a few such big plans. First, PBS is broadcasting a documentary called “Great Wall Across the Yangtze” about China’s colossal Three Gorges Dams, focusing on the enormous environmental, cultural, and social tolls that the dam project is taking. Such costs are hard to imagine in a republican democracy, where concentrated costs are fought tenaciously, regardless of the diffuse benefits. It is essential to consider the harms, of course, but it is also important to remember that floods in China have killed more people across history than any other type of disaster in any nation. Control of such floods is one of reasons for the dam system; Daniel Burnham would undoubtedly have been pleased.