Friday, January 19, 2007
[“Downtown Week,” continued …]
What land uses make a city distinctive, memorable, and pleasant? In addition to buildings, roads, and vegetation is its “street architecture.” New York City, that crazy mélange of neighborhoods and districts, is in the process of revamping city land fixtures, such as signs, bus shelters, and newsstands. What’s an overarching requirement? Sturdiness, of course. Too many cities have put in benches, shelters, and signs that simply can’t stand the rain, wind, and, most importantly, the inevitable attempts at vandalism that occur in any big city. In New York, of course, all these concerns are heightened. One thing that won’t change is the bold san serif subway signage, which has been in place since the ‘60s. With clear, easy-to-read white on black words (the reverse would have disastrous in filthy New York, of course) and with routes designated by a letter or number in a colored circle, square, etc. (replacing the old confusing references to the original private companies, such as BMT and IRT, and informal names, such as “Broadway Local”), the city’s subway signs have (along with the largely successful effort in cleaning up the graffiti on trains by guarding them better when not running), helped pull the city out of its cultural near implosion of the 1970s. If the new street architecture works as well and lasts as long as its subway signs, New York will be have succeeded.
Thursday, January 18, 2007
[“Downtown” Week,” continued]
Austin, Texas, is bound to be one of the star cities of this century. Few other cities of its size in the world boast its current prominence in government, education, culture (its somewhat hyperbolic claim of “the world’s live music capital” got a boost with the migration of many New Orleans musicians), and even charm.
But Austin residents are worried that its booming economy will chop away at its charm. The city has proposed rethinking its “view corridors” that protects vistas of the state capitol dome. With new business moving to town, developers are pushing for newer and bigger office buildings, which currently are limited by the many “view corridors.”
Old cities across the world have struggled, of course, with whether and how to restrict high-rise construction that would mar historic vistas. Paris largely relegated high office construction to a specific district, La Defense. London protected a few areas, and has its own outer-city office tower area in Canary Wharf. Washington, D.C., has stuck to its early 20th-century law that no building downtown can rise above approximately 11 stories, protecting the view of the U.S. Capitol, which means that D.C. office buildings are mostly uniform (and thus, some say, boring), while Philadelphia (perhaps not as secure as its more famous rivals to the north and south) abandoned its old rule about towers rising higher than William Penn's statue atop City Hall. My guess is that Austin will wisely cut back on the multiplicity of its corridors and allow high office buildings in more sectors. Austin is primed to be a major world city, and aspiring to a compromise along the lines of what London or Paris have done doesn’t seem so bad.
Wednesday, January 17, 2007
Can innovative methods of compensation –- such as transferable development rights –- serve to assuage the concerns of property advocates while permitting government to regulate for the public interest? The state of Washington is studying this year how TDRs might be used more effectively to preserve nature and farmland in the Evergreen State while at the same time give some form of compensation to regulated property owners.
Last year Washington voted down a property rights initiative, I-933, that would have required more automatic monetary compensation for restrictions on land use, akin to Oregon’s successful Measure 37 in 2004. But Washington Governor Christine Gregoire, perhaps recognizing that the property rights movement is not going away, has put her support behind studies of how TDRs can be used more fluidly to give regulated property owners in designated “sending” areas the right to sell their unusable development interests to property owners in designated “receiving” areas where more development is more acceptable –- theoretically making everybody happier, including the taxpayer.
Chronic problems with TDR programs include: (1) finding enough “receiving” areas in which there is local support for more development than would otherwise be allowed; and (2) the Scalia/property rights argument that any form of partial compensation, such as TDRs, does not meet the full compensation right of property owners who can assert successfully that the regulation has legally “taken” their property.
Tuesday, January 16, 2007
For many Americans, January is the month for getting back to work after end-of-year vacations and buckling down for a long winter. It’s a time to think about the city. Accordingly, I present “Downtown Week.”
I visited Key West, Florida, this weekend, which is not often thought of a “downtown” kind of city. But Key West was built up in the 19th century, when it boomed as a center for shipping, fishing, and salvage. Its lovely downtown is still largely in pre-automobile form, with densely packed wooden cottages (some listed for more than $1 million) and houses on a street grid. One of the most surprising (to me) features of its otherwise high-priced downtown ambiance is “Bahama Village,” a district traditionally inhabited largely by low-income black persons (many of whom are of Bahamian descent and long-time key residents), literally a block west of famous Duval Street. While Bahama Village still holds some public housing and worn shacks, many of the houses are being bought up, fixed up, and put on the market at astronomical prices. Can such a low-income community survive the housing and tourist boom?
I suspect that it cannot survive, and that the forces pushing against Bahama Village are symptomatic of the economic pressures that face any lower-income neighborhood near an economically growing downtown. In big cities, poorer persons are being pushed further out; in some places, the problems of what were once called the “inner city” are now the problems of the “outer city,” as they are in places such as London and Paris. But in Key West, an island, there is almost literally nowhere else to move. (A mayor was quoted as saying that affordable housing was the city’s only drawback.) I suggest that cities with limited downtown housing options need to push aggressively for the construction of low-cost multi-family housing while it still can and where it still can, even if this housing doesn’t fit with the “character” of places such as Key West.