Friday, April 13, 2007
While downtown Chicago worries about façade-ectomies, a suburb worries about basketball hoops. According to this article, the zoning laws of Crystal Lake, an exurb northwest of Chicago, define a freestanding basketball hoop as an accessory structure, which is prohibited in the front yard. Although a former mayor has applied for a variance and a permit, the city does not seem anxious to enforce the rule against hoops-playing residents of the city.
In most deed-restricted communities, of course, a thing such as a basketball hoop in the front yard would be unthinkable. With the rise of such communities, is it any wonder that even our pro male hoopsters can’t win the Olympics anymore? … But maybe we can still be competitive in video gaming …
Wednesday, April 11, 2007
What’s the purpose of historic preservation? Is it mostly visual, in that old buildings are pleasant to look at? Or is it also cultural, so that we save buildings that exemplify a style of architecture or an historic event? Because they serve as museums of a former age? Is it more mystical –- that an historic building acts as some kind of silent and inanimate witness from the past to the turmoil of the present?
The Chicago Tribune published this week a thoughtful piece by its architecture critic, Blair Kamin, on the common practice of “façade preservation” –- what Kamin also refers to a “façade-ectomy” (actually, shouldn’t it be everything-but-the-facade-ectomy?) –- in which only the facade of an historic building is preserved, while the space behind it is transformed to modern needs: a modern office building or even a parking garage. Kamin’s article, which is critical of the practice, points out successes in fixing up the entirety of some structures for modern use, such as the famous landmark Reliance Building (now the Hotel Burnham) in Chicago, or even reconstructions in which only the girders are saved.
I too am a fan of historic preservation laws, even when I think they sometimes go too far. Like the protection of endangered species, if we allow an historic building to be demolished, there’s no way to get it back. But I’ll differ from Kamin on his view of façade preservation. In the “exuberant” era –- say 1870 to 1920, which also matches the “golden age” of Chicago architecture –- many structures were built largely as facades; behind many a splashy street exterior of stone and sculpture lay a rather functional and bland brick and plaster building of a nation focused on business. Many exteriors were built purely as visual treats, and it does not seem improper to treat them as such today.
Tuesday, April 10, 2007
Stories about new urbanist developments such as Seaside, Florida, often include the phrase “victim of its own success.” One problem with Seaside as a model for American development, the critics argue, is that the well-designed, densely packed houses are so appealing that the price of even a small one quickly rose out of the reach of middle-class families.
A new “victim of its own success” story concerns Washington Town Center, a new-urbanist-inspired 400-acre community in central New Jersey, with clustered houses and a design that encourages walking. The community has been so popular that families have rushed in, not only driving up prices but filling up the local schools. The school crunch appears so acute to local officials that they are considering using eminent domain to stop expansion of the community. What a cockeyed situation!
I discuss famous land use cases in my Property law class this time of year, and it’s always difficult to explain to students why government uses its power to, in effect, discriminate against families with schoolchildren. Aren’t we supposed to have a pro-family society? Why aren’t there protests in the streets –- or at least the level of protests that followed 2005’s eminent domain decision in Kelo –- against land use laws that try to discourage families?
Here’s a bedrock principle to law to follow –- land use law should never be used to discriminate against or discourage schoolchildren or families. If in-migration puts pressure on schools (a pressure that would simply be pushed elsewhere, of course, if a restrictive land use law were adopted), the state government should act to spread revenue for schools so that no jurisdiction finds a need to discourage schoolchildren.
Would such a policy be too extreme? Well, let’s start with a policy that says a jurisdiction with a popular smart-growth, new-urbanist area will get aid for schools from the state to ensure that the locality doesn’t discriminate against schoolchildren. It’s a start ...
Monday, April 9, 2007
One criticism of governmental responses to social problems –- a criticism made by both the left and the right –- is that government is often too slow to act. In fact, once government does create new rules, the perceived problem may have already been resolved, or the proverbial horse may already have left the barn.
An example is playing out in San Diego, where the city government has tentatively approved a plan to limit conversions of apartments to condos by restricting to 1000 per year the number of conversions the city would approve. The plan has been created in response to litigation by opponents of such conversions, who have argued in court that the city has been approving condo conversions without going through all the legally required steps, including an assessment of environmental impacts.
It may well be that the settlement is justified in order to ensure that the city government is following the law. But as a governmental response to the perceived problem of condo conversions exacerbating the “affordable housing” problem in San Diego, one of the nation’s most expensive cities in which to find housing, it comes very late. Had restrictions been in place in 1998, they would have done much more to keep in place some rental housing that otherwise “went condo.” Today, the housing market has cooled, condo conversion plans are being shelved by market forces, and the city is now responding by closing the proverbial barn door …
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