Friday, December 7, 2007
If you wanted to figure out whether a neighborhood was safely hip back in the 1990s, you might have asked whether it held a Starbucks. And if you wanted to know whether a “dirty” urban neighborhood was being cleaned up, you might have asked whether there was a gay bar—as gays often were urban middle-class pioneers. But today the urban gay bar is a disappearing phenomenon, according to Robert David Sullivan in a fascinating assay in this week’s Boston Globe. Gay bars offered a sense of community for gays back in the 1990s, he writes. Today, that sense of community is being lost, along with other unique urban commercial places, such as independent bookstores.
Sullivan wisely attributes the loss of urban gay bars to a number of factors—some lamentable, such as the pushing out of all but the wealthy from many urban neighborhoods, and some welcome, such as the more tolerant nature of today’s America. The author also points out that gay bars, like bookstores, are suffering because gay men now meet (and buy books) on the Internet.
I would have emphasized even more another factor in the loss of unique urban commercial places: the continuing, relentless suburbanization of America. In my pleasant little middle-class suburban town of Gulfport, Florida, for example, there appear to be at least two gay bars. If one wants to find a second-hand bookstore or a Czech-Tanzanian restaurant nowadays, the best place to look is often not the city, but some corner of a strip mall in a middling suburban community. For better or worse, this is where diversity can still be found in abundance.
[“New Suburbia”: This is the first of a series on the changing aspects of suburbia.]
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Thursday, December 6, 2007
As I tell my students, no category of prospective neighbors shoots fear into the hearts of property owners as much as the prospect of … college students! In Slippery Rock, Pa., the township’s decision to approve a planned apartment development designed largely for college students (of the eponymous adjacent university) was recently affirmed by a Pennsylvania appellate court. (The case is Ligo v. Slippery Rock Township, No. 2216 C.D.2006 (Pa. Commonw. Ct. Nov. 29, 2007.)
The challengers raised 15 arguments against the township’s approval of a “planned residential development” (PRD). Among the most striking of the challenges were arguments that the local zoning ordinance requires a PRD to be primarily single-family houses, and that the buffer zone must be three feet per unit (there are 244 units planned) around the entire development, which would require a 732-foot buffer! The appellate court rejected these and other interpretations, in part with the principle that, “To the extent there is an ambiguity, a zoning ordinance is to be read in favor of the landowner and against any implied extension of restrictions on the use of one’s property.” Is this a “slippery” slope? (I couldn’t resist.)
Wednesday, December 5, 2007
It was certainly no surprise that the metro areas of Washington, Boston, and San Francisco were at the top of a ranking of the most “walkable” large areas in the nation, according to a detailed new report of the Brookings Institution. Interestingly, New York was only 10th, just two places ahead of Los Angeles. (Sadly, my area, Tampa Bay, was at the bottom of the 30 listed areas.) On the Marketplace radio show yesterday, Brookings’s Chris Leininger ascribed the booming popularity of “walkable urban places” in new locations, such as Pasadena, Cal., in part to young adults who were raised by watching hip walking Manhattanites on “Seinfeld,” “Friends,” and “Sex and the City.” (Was he joking?) More seriously, Leininger suggested that land use law needs to be modified to accommodate more mixed use, walkable neighborhoods that combine apartments, offices, shops, and entertainment, which young people are clamoring for. Attaboy …
Tuesday, December 4, 2007
Conservative critics of the reviled 2005 eminent domain decision of Kelo v. City of New London face the dilemma that their criticism amounts to an argument for judicial “activism” in “legislating” over the heads of the people’s elected representatives. Despite considerable reaction to Kelo in the halls of the state legislatures, its effects continue to reverberate. Yesterday, a U.S. Court of Appeals held that a rent control law does not violate the Constitution, citing Kelo as precedent. (The case is Action Apartment Assoc. v. Santa Monica Rent Control Board. No. 05-56533 (U.S. Ct. App. 9th Cir. Dec. 3, 2007.)
Landlords in Santa Monica, which like much of the Los Angeles area is both diverse and expensive, argued that changes in the housing market have made the city’s rent control laws (first adopted in 1979), especially rules that make it difficult to evict residents, both “arbitrary and irrational.” But Kelo and other precedent hold that a court must defer to a legislature, even in the face of factual evidence that the later’s decision was unwise or outmoded. The federal court cited a precedent from 1991 that rent control “substantially alleviated hardships to Santa Monica residents.” The court did not add, but could have, that even if it could be shown that more renters are harmed by the laws than helped, it is up to the legislatures, not the courts, to make these policy decisions. As conservatives are wont to say, if you don’t like a law, don’t complain to a court; rather, tell your elected representative: “There oughta be a law!”