Thursday, May 31, 2007
Should governments act to protect the rapidly disappearing "motel modern" style of architecture? Some years ago, a few eyebrows were raised when the 1951 Lever House in Manhattan was designated an historic landmark; will postwar motels be next?
The June edition of the Atlantic (America's most readable magazine, for my money) includes an enjoyable essay by Wayne Curtis on ideas to preserve the '50s motels, with their clean lines and Jetsons-style architecture, designed in the golden age of middle-class auto travel. Once scorned as cheesy, the motifs are now considered classic Americana.
Curtis focuses on Florida, a state that hasn't (with the exception of the '30s art deco motels on Miami Beach) been as celebratory of its Americana architecture as has California. In places such as Treasure Island (near me in Tampa Bay), which Curtis whimsically calls "a sort of Motel National Park," there exists little desire to protect the old beachfront motels from the incessant pressures to replace them with larger and more profitable condo towers. More hope exists off the beach, in the city of Miami, where there is a private effort to scrub motels and market them for "retro tourism." Up north in Seaside, the new urbanist gem, a faux old motel offers rooms for more than $200 a night -- a nice summary of the some of the criticisms of Seaside.
Will we soon see a local government designate a '50s-era historic motel district, and perhaps even redevelop an early-space-age motel as a museum of postwar travel? Mark me down for early admission ….
Wednesday, May 30, 2007
Has the growth in rule-restricted communities in America led more people to believe that they SHOULD have the right to control how their neighbors live, even when they have no legal power to do so?
In the June edition of the Atlantic Monthly, this topic is addressed in an interesting essay by Virginia Postrel, who often writes provocative things about community and design. She discusses in particular a controversy in south Phoenix, where a community-wrenching battle has raged around a homeowner's decision to pain a house red, in a sea of cream-colored look-alikes. Postrel, whose sympathies appear to be with the rebel, suggests that the domination of rule-bound HOAs in America, especially in places such as Phoenix, has lead many Americans to assume that their neighbor's house color is something that they can, or should be able to, control. Unlike in decades past, she reports, most cities now hold some sort of design or aesthetic regulatory system, which can restrict even those homeowners who have sought out a private subdivision for the reason that it holds no HOA.
The pitting of homeowner rights against majority wishes reveals interesting twists in the views of many Americans, most of whom express a profound belief in "property rights" - until they hesitate when asked about whether their neighbors should have the right to paint their house purple and pink stripes. It also says a lot about the issue of whether government should be able to regulate effects, including environmental problems, that "spill over" property boundaries. Postrel notes that the issue of the red house has galvanized public opinion in Phoenix.
I'll say it again. Forget Iraq; forget high gas prices; forget health care rules. Nothing affects Americans more in their day-to-day lives than land use and community law.
Friday, May 25, 2007
It's a common observation, of course, but the land uses of big continental European cities forms a stark contrast to those of the United States. The 15-mile ride from the airport of Rome passes through mostly farmland and small towns, until the city, with a population of more than 3 million, quite abruptly appears, with multi-family housing. In the United States, a similar stretch would be filled with housing subdivisions. How does Rome avoid sprawl? (Or, from another perspective, why don't affluent Romans live in detached houses on the outskirts?) There are many factors. One factor is tough land use laws that makes the preservation of farmland a paramount goal. Another is a transportation policy that builds few new auto roads (even though Rome holds a "beltway" and most Romans own a car). Another is an attitude toward metro living. As in many European cities, living in central Rome is pleasant, vibrant, and chic (and demand-driven expensive). The limited suburbs are both bland and far from the action of the city (Mussolini built the cold "EUR" suburb in the 1930s outside the old city walls). Accordingly, most affluent and middle-class Romans would prefer a spacious city apartment above a trattoria than a house in the suburbs.
Wednesday, May 23, 2007
Advocates of reforming America's wasteful land use practices often suggest that big changes are needed -- replacement of the auto-based culture with public transport, rejection of suburbs for the city, and abandonment of carbon-heated spaces with other techniques. But perhaps the future of a "smarter" land use isn't in big sea-changes but in twists in the established system. This week, fresh from a trip to Rome, I discuss some ways in which European culture manages to create a quality of life equal to that of the United States, while conserving land use and other resources.
One big story in American news this week is that we may soon start seeing on our roads the microscopic "smart" car, made by Daimler, that is now ubiquitous on the streets of Rome and other crowded European cities. The smart makes the Mini Cooper look like a Chevy Suburban.
Italians, and Romans in particular, are as crazy for automobiles as Americans are. Comparing the Eternal City in 2007 with my last visit 16 years ago, the streets are filled with more cars and far fewer of the once famous little Vespa scooters that were so popular with postwar Italians. These have mostly been replaced by larger motorcycles and by cars. But Romans have learned a trick or two in driving and parking their vehicles in a crowded city with few garages (and a growing number of driving and parking restrictions). The "smart" car is so tiny that it is practically square: it is not much longer than it is wide. Accordingly, one can quickly park the car perpendicular to a curb, as with a motorcycle, while behemoths such as the Mini Cooper must be parked parallel to the curb. With this little step, Romans can enjoy the comforts of an automobile, while using up as little space as possible. We may see perpendicular-parked cars on the streets of Manhattan, Miami, and Seattle some day soon …
Monday, May 14, 2007
While the middle-class-oriented media howls over the housing "slump," the flattening of prices might help one contentious problem -- the crowding of many families, usually immigrants, into a single suburban house in affluent areas. The Washington Post published this week a thoughtful story on the political issue in Fairfax County, Virginia, outside Washington, which is one of America's biggest counties, with more than a million residents, and one of its most expensive. With most land zoned for single-family residences only, the only choice for many immigrant families is to join together in a single house. The Post points out that this phenomenon annoys neighbors not only because of racism, but because driveways and roads did not anticipate such living arrangements.
The Land Use Prof Blog will return on May 22, 2007.
Friday, May 11, 2007
At what level of government should urban growth boundaries be created? In Ventura County, Cal., west of Los Angeles, the decisions are made largely on a city to city basis. While this enables localities to plot their own fate, it also raises the classic drawbacks of land use law at a local level: Cities are encouraged to “push” unwanted growth to their neighbors and, sometimes, cities may be encouraged to “pull” especially wanted developments away from others.
Many dynamics may have been at play in the recent vote of residents to increase the urban growth boundary of Santa Paula, which voted this week to open up housing construction in Adams Canyon. The city had voted against similar proposals in recent years. The planned new development would bring in about 500 new homes, mostly in the “upscale” category, to a city that currently has few affluent residents. Would the vote have gone the same way had the plan been to open up the boundary for higher-density and more affordable housing?
Wednesday, May 9, 2007
Here’s an interesting international land use story. By the end of the century, demographers predict that the world’s largest metro area will be -– not New York, Tokyo, Shanghai, or Mexico City –- but Mumbai (formerly called Bombay), on India’s west coast. But the city is built on a peninsula into the Indian Ocean that makes land values extraordinarily high, and bound to go higher. One area of the central city is Dharavi, sometimes called “Asia’s largest slum.” Because of its value as land, real estate developers want to buy the area, redevelop it for wealthier residents, and relocate the slum dwellers, with compensation. NPR devoted a long and thoughtful segment to the issue this morning. Quick analogies to the ill-advised “slum removals” in U.S. cities in the 20th century fail when one hears about the unhealthy conditions in the slum.
It is easy to assert a Kelo-fueled anger at disturbing the rights of residents, and to assert that no one be forced to leave if they do not want to. It is also sensible to be skeptical of plans for “compensation” that may turn out to be hollow and insufficient, especially if they are based on promises of future action. But it should also be kept in mind that one of the best ways to help the world’s poor is to find a way that they can tap into the wealth of the market, as many poor Indians are doing by working for companies that export to the West, bringing in money that, ironically, helps drive up Mumbai’s land values. Perhaps the one valuable thing that many residents of Dharavi hold is the right to valuable land. If it is done correctly, a compensation system for buying this right (providing either cash or a new home or both) may enable many of the residents to live healthier and happier lives that they could otherwise could ever hope to enjoy. Now, is there a good government to be a watchdog and make sure that the land use compensation is done properly?
Monday, May 7, 2007
It’s been about a decade since state and local governments picked up the terminology of “smart growth” and began passing laws to discourage suburban sprawl in favor of “smarter” ways of accommodating new demand for housing, commerce, and industry. The newest edition of HUD’s publication Cityscape includes an essay studying this movement. The article by HUD’s Regina Gray is entitled “Ten Years of Smart Growth: A Nod to Policies Past and a Prospective Glimpse Into the Future.” A link to a pdf version of the article is here.
Gray focuses special attention on state “smart growth” efforts, including those of former Maryland governor Parris Glendening. Although I haven’t yet read the entire piece, I was struck by Gray’s comment that is it is difficult to assess the effectiveness or value of “smart growth” laws as a whole because the term has been used, in effect, as a “catch-all” to cover a variety of restrictions. Some of these have been well-thought-out rules to encourage infill and high-density developments. Others, in my view, have been examples of local NIMBY, without greater public benefit, that simply have used the smiley mask of “smart growth.”
Friday, May 4, 2007
Is the beauty and grandeur of the Washington, D.C., skyline such that it shouldn’t be punctuated by tall buildings? From time to time, there are proposals to ease the federal government’s land use law that in effect limits buildings to about a dozen stories in the nation’s capital. Remarkably, the tallest building in the city remains, except for the Capitol and various spires and columns, the Cairo apartment building, which was constructed to a then-monstrous 16 stories in 1894 (a fact almost as remarkable as the fact that New York’s tallest building was finished in 1931), at the dawn of the elevator age. For decades, critics of the Washington law have suggested that it makes D.C.’s office architecture bland.
Today, sprawl and pollution are added to the list of the unwanted effects of the height restriction. By limiting the supply of office space downtown (the famous K Street area is packed with back-to-back dozen-storey buildings, with hardly a single gap), the law pushes offices to the outskirts, most famously Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, an “edge city” that is one of America’s largest in terms of office space. The Washington Post published this week an article about the renewed debate over whether to amend the height restrictions. Advocates of change point out that the de-centralizing effect of the law exacerbates traffic and greenhouse gas emissions in the Washington area. Supporters of the height restriction, such as architectural critic Witold Rybczynski, argue that allowing tall buildings in Washington would destroy its unique character and make it look like anyplace else, just as tall buildings in Rybczynski’s Philadelphia make it look like a smaller version of New York.
European cities have also struggled with height limits, of course. The most famous compromise solution is that in Paris, where high-rises cannot be built in the old city, but are encouraged in La Defense, just northwest of the city, on the line of Champs-Elysees. Washington’s law has created its own versions of La Defense, the closest of which is Rosslyn, Virginia, just across the Potomac River. (I’ve often wondered whether tourists flying down the river to National Airport are confused as to which side of the river the “downtown” sits). Changing the law to allow tall buildings in certain areas would create a windfall for those favored sectors. Nonetheless, I think Washington would be better off to allow tall buildings that do not impede the visual vistas of the monumental core.
Thursday, May 3, 2007
Earlier this week, I criticized a key provision of the Fair Housing Act that allows discrimination against people under 55. Today comes a story about the other half of 42 U.S.C. sec. 3607(b)(1), which allows local governments to bar big group houses. Specifically, the provision states that “Nothing in this subchapter limits the applicability of any reasonable local, State, or Federal restrictions regarding the maximum number of occupants permitted to occupy a dwelling.” This allows government to use land use laws to keep out big houses of undesirables, such as recovering drug addicts, petty criminals, and college students. Although the biggest court case about the exception resulted in a victory in 1995 for the Oxford House, an organization that sets up group houses for recovering addicts, that decision was largely the result of the fact that Edmonds, Wash., imposed an occupancy maximum only on groups that weren’t traditional “families.”
Currently, in Columbia, S.C., the Columbia Outreach Addiction and Recovery Services is fighting a city ruling denying a special exemption for an existing 13-person group house for recovering addicts. The challengers assert that the city is violating both the FrHA and the Americans for Disabilities Act. They will have an uphill battle. While the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Oxford House case that sec. 3607(b)(1) was designed to prevent overcrowding, not to foster traditional families, smart local governments can still craft ordinances that, in effect, will bar only big group houses. Such ordinances are spurred largely not by concerns of overcrowding, of course (overcrowding is hardly an issue in any American house these days), but to keep out unwanted group houses.
Tuesday, May 1, 2007
Among the most depressing of the myriad stories about post-Katrina New Orleans is the uncertainty of public housing in the city. A federal judge recently ruled that a lawsuit by an advocacy group for public housing residents will go to trial later this year. The Advancement Project asserts that HUD and the Housing Authority Of New Orleans are violating both landlord-tenant law by not allowing residents to return to their buildings and federal housing law by discriminating against black people in government decisionmaking.
HUD's plan is to demolish some of the old public housing units and to replace some of them with new housing that mixes people of various types of income. It is no doubt true that some public housing buildings were not significantly damaged by Katrina. Nonetheless, for anyone who saw the deplorable state of much of New Orleans's public housing before Katrina, the prospect of re-working how the very poor are housed in New Orleans seems too promising to pass up. It is hard to disagree with the Washington Post's editorial that laments the lawsuit's effect of delaying the new plans.