Friday, February 9, 2007
Whither the downtown park? Nearby me in St. Petersburg, Florida, the city is making an effort to encourage more workers to visit the arboreal Williams Park in the middle of the city. In recent years, the park, like many others across the nation, has been known largely as a center for homeless people.
American cultural history gives us a likely history of Williams Park, which was once a focal point for civic and other events in a winter tourist town. In the 1950s, one might imagine, an unshaven man who lingered in the park after dusk might have been told to “move along” by the local cop, and the man might even have been arrested (especially if he were not white) under the vagrancy laws. As our culture and laws became more enlightened, we scrapped the vagrancy laws and made allowances for homeless people. One result –- fair or not –- is that what should be a pleasant oasis of green and shade in St. Pete is largely shunned by downtown workers and residents. This remains the case even in a city with sunshine more than 300 days of the year and a burgeoning downtown residential population.
A few decades ago, we can imagine that many civic and business leaders might have simply written off such a park as an irrelevancy, as they sped past in their Cadillacs from their office garages to their suburban homes. With today’s greater attention to the health of downtowns, however, more cities are trying to encourage non-homeless people to reclaim their use of downtown parks, without stepping on the needs of the homeless. One of the most famous successes has been Bryant Park in New York City, just behind the main Public Library at 5th Avenue and 42nd Street, where the drug dealers of the 1970s (Were the 1970s the nadir for cities in America?) have been pushed out and lunchtime picnickers have returned. A combination of new design (better lighting, cleaning up), enticing capitalism (hot dog and other vendors judiciously allowed into the park), and a combination of municipal and business efforts lured people back.
St. Petersburg is trying a similar method, starting with Wednesday “Midday Markets” with food and other vendors. This past Wednesday’s kickoff market was apparently a success, even though (because?) there were a half dozen police officers in attendance to ward off any potential clashes between the homeless people and the shoppers.
Keys to the success of getting workers and residents to visit their downtown parks is to get local businesses involved (Appeal to their sense of civic pride?) and to provide some big incentives (such as quality vendors of sausage and ice cream) to visitors. Once visitors realize that they and the homeless CAN co-exist, maybe they WILL co-exist.
Thursday, February 8, 2007
Are governmental land use officials biased against development, especially when it concerns environmental issues? At the federal level, many property owners have asserted that government experts, especially scientists, tend to look more favorably upon evidence supporting preservation of nature than they do contrary evidence. Does the same effect occur in local land use decisions?
In the Utah legislature, a property-right-oriented bill would allow developers to override certain zoning restrictions made for environmental reasons when the developer provides scientific evidence that the land use restrictions are based on poor science. Disputes could end up in arbitration and, presumably, then in court.
Such a process could lead to a thwarting of worthwhile ecological protections by well-funded developers. It could also, by contrast, lead to better science, as decisions would analyzed through what amounts to an adversarial system. Environmentalists who scoff at the idea of having arbitrators and courts second-guess governmental science should be reminded of the historical criticism of the Army Corps of Engineers, which enviros have long criticized as being biased in favor of construction, and the arguments in favor of closer third-party scrutiny of the Corps' decisions.
Wednesday, February 7, 2007
Across the nation, jurisdictions have adopted minimum lot size laws to try to avoid unwanted development and suburban sprawl. Such laws are often touted as preserving farmland and maintaining “open space.” In practice, rules such as five-acre minimums may not keep land as farms; they do, however, keep residential density low. Other effects of such laws are to push the pressure for development elsewhere (sometimes even further out) and to exclude families of moderate incomes. Minimum lot sizes are today perhaps the most notorious element of exclusionary zoning.
If governments are truly serious about “smart growth” and battling land-gobbling sprawl, here is an idea whose time has come: MAXIMUM lot sizes that require HIGH density.
Such laws could be imposed in certain sectors that are relatively favored for new growth and that hold features such as access to public transportation, freeways, existing schools, and infrastructure. Such mandated high density would encourage the construction of “smart growth” housing in the suburbs.
Such rules, of which there are a few extant examples (especially in Oregon), should be constitutional in most places. After all, if it is legally acceptable to depress the value of property by telling the landowner that it can only allow a small number of lots, it should be acceptable to tell the owner that it must allow a large number of lots when the land is developed.
Why would a locality adopt such a rule, which might guarantee an influx of new residents, many of whom would not be affluent five-acre types? One reason would be to encourage multi-family and other affordable housing. Another reason would be to relieve development pressures from other sectors (environmentally sensitive regions or areas with little infrastructure, for example). It would also prove that the jurisdiction is serious about “smart growth,” rather than merely interested in parochial exclusion. As with other efforts to combat exclusionary zoning, it may be desirable for state governments to impose such high-density requirements on localities.
Tuesday, February 6, 2007
Gated communities: Are they anti-social ogres that reflect clannish fears of the “other”? Or they are simply a privately created response to sophisticated new desires for home and community?
Popular perception typically imagines gated developments in Sun Belt exurbs –- an image that may bring with it baggage of geographic and regional intolerance. But gated developments aren’t just for suburbs of Atlanta and Phoenix any more. They are popping up in unlikely places, as the New York Times recently explored in an interesting article about such a community in Brooklyn, NY. Not only is the new development closed to outsiders, it is also residential-only -– no mixed use, thank you –- and low density. It’s enough to make a new urbanist holler in pain.
I’m uneasy abut the gated development phenomenon, although my worries concern things such as auto-traffic channeling more than they do the over-sold assertions that open neighborhoods engender the embrace of differing social classes and ethnicities. But the allure of suburban-living close to downtown is just as appealing to many families as bringing culture and walkable streets to the suburbs is to others.
Monday, February 5, 2007
Eminent domain continues to be the land use issue that most often galvanizes public opinion. In lieu of forbidding government from using its power for the purpose of economic development, how else could the law be made “fairer” to landowners whose property is taken? Professors Amnon Lahavi and Amir N. Licht have recently published a proposal that addresses one of the most commonly cited justifications for such eminent domain –- the “holdout” who stymies the “assembly” of a large private development project.
Under the proposal of Lahavi and Licht, a landowner whose property is taken for economic development would be given the option of accepting shares in a specially created development corporation that would assemble the development project.
While this proposal would likely give affected landowners more money than they might get in a typical fair market value determination –- a goal of many proposed adjustments to eminent domain law –- it seems to do less to address the absolute “rights” issue that seems to bother so many Americans viscerally.
Here’s one historical anecdote on the supposed “assembly” problem for development projects. As explained in Daniel Okrent’s immensely entertaining "Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center," the Rockefellers were faced with stubborn holdouts (in the Great Depression!) to their big plan for midtown Manhattan. Their solution? They simply built around the holdouts. The result? The most acclaimed urban business development in American history.