Friday, February 16, 2007
The good news: Many cities are getting more residential units built in their downtowns. The bad news: In some places, many of these units are second homes for the wealthy. Accordingly, while these units have provided work for the construction industry, they do less than might be expected to improve the economic and social life of the city.
The Wall Street Journal reports that many of the new condos in Manhattan in recent years have been occupied by out of wealthy out-of-towners desiring a pied-à-terre. Although no one worries that often-empty condos will cause New York sidewalks to collect dust, the phenomenon does drive up the market price for all housing, further exacerbating New York’s painful affordable housing situation.
Nearby me, in St. Petersburg, Florida, the once-sleepy tourist town is experiencing a boom in towering downtown waterfront condos, selling for extraordinary sums. Most of these units, I’m told, are bought by part-time winter residents only. St. Pete’s pleasant little downtown is being shadowed by the high-rises, but they may not do much to help the year-round health of the city’s shops and restaurants.
I have often bashed government meddling with market forces recently. Let me change my stripes here and suggest a role for government interference to respond to the second-home phenomenon. Law takes various steps to help “homesteads” –- primary residences –- that it reserves from second homes. If government could figure out a way to impose a sensible “impact fee” upon the use of limited urban space for a second-home, the city might get fewer pied-à-terres, and, eventually, a few more low-cost apartments.
Thursday, February 15, 2007
How do you remake a city? The Council of Hialeah, Florida, famous for its Cuban-American majority, voted last week to approve a new zoning plan to create special business districts in the city of more than 200,000, just north of Miami. The plan appears to be part of an effort to remake the appearance and commerce of Hialeah, which is also famous for its low-key and low-density land uses of modest houses, small shops, and restaurants.
I question (as usual) the wisdom of having government try to remake the commercial outlook of a city in a particular way. Typically, much tax money is spent, many grand plans fail, and well-connected businesses tend to do better than those without key contacts.
On the other hand, the Hialeah project, which calls for mixed use development with many low-cost residences above ground-floor businesses, seems like the type of loosening of land use restrictions to allow higher densities that is desperately needed in southeast Florida, where build-able land is rapidly disappearing. If the zoning changes allow for the construction of new buildings in which a fourth-story low-cost apartment unit sits above a small insurance office on the second floor, which rests above a cafe serving black beans and plantain on the first floor, this seems like a rationale and welcome vision for 21st century Hialeah –- or any place, for that matter.
Wednesday, February 14, 2007
What does Orange County, California, need more of, from the viewpoint of government regulation of land use: Low-cost “affordable” multi-family housing units, or “upscale” hotel and condominium units? (Please notice that I give both sides equal treatment with the euphemisms.)
The Anaheim City Council voted yesterday, on a split vote, to uphold its planning commission’s disapproval of a plan to build low-cost apartments and condos near Disneyland. Disney objected to the plan. According to the Los Angeles Times, the planning commission wants to preserve an existing zoning plan that has “revitalized” an area that once was filled with “tacky” stores.
Why does government see the need to try to push out commercial businesses because it finds them “tacky”? Whose sense of taste and opinion is likely to reign in such decisions? Parties who tend to have greater power and wealth, at the expense of those who are poorer and less powerful?
And why is it that we hear howls of protest when government takes private land for higher-tax-generating private development, but if government denies through the zoning process a proposed land use because it wants another, higher-tax-generating land use, we simply nod and move on?
Tuesday, February 13, 2007
Public transportation has been funded with billions of dollars over the past 40 years, much of it from federal funds. (As a former Washington, D.C., Metrorail rider for more than 10 years, I thank of the taxpayers of America.) Some of the dilemmas of the policy of supporting public transportation are shown in places such as St. Louis, where an expensive and physically stunning “light rail” system attracted fewer than 50,000 riders per day in 2006. (One of the most bizarre sights I have seen from the air is that of a jammed freeway full of suburban auto commuters inching their way over bulldozed and empty blocks of St. Louis, which holds fewer than half as many people today as it did 50 years ago.) Overlaying the contentious issues of class, race, and politics is the simple question: Who should pay for these projects?
In the Atlanta metro area –- infamous as one of the nation’s fastest growing and most gridlock-clogged –- the state plans to build a new rail line connecting downtown Atlanta with booming southern suburbs (Henry County, for example, doubled its population in the 1990s). But some local politicians think that the rail line is a waste of money that would benefit only a handful of riders; they have proposed that the line not be built unless each county and city in which a stop is planned agrees to pay for a large chunk of the bill. Some of the opponents are fiscal conservatives; others appear to be skeptics of public transportation in general.
It may be easy to say, “Transportation is a general public benefit and should be paid for by the public at large.” It may also be easy to conclude that the derided “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska debated in the U.S. Congress last year was not a justified use of public funds. A lot of plans are much grayer, however. I suggest a rule of thumb that local governments should pay for about half of the costs –- both capital costs and operating costs –- of transportation projects. Wouldn’t this impose too large of a burden on crowded metro governments? My initial response is that life in the big city is expensive, and that local residents should bear half of the burden of projects –- both roads and rail –- that they need.
Monday, February 12, 2007
Call it the “Goldilocks Syndrome” in land use: Some local residents won’t accept any land use except for the precise type of use that they want. If this desired land use isn’t economically feasible or forthcoming, the opponents block other uses … with the result that land and buildings often stay vacant for many years, and with an eventual use that may be far from what the picky local protagonists wanted.
Such a tale is playing out in San Francisco, where the landmark Mission Armory sat unoccupied, in effect, for more than 30 years. As various proposals for its commercial use were floated, such as a computer center and a skating track ( it is not easy to adapt to modern uses a 90-year-old castle-like landmark designed as an arsenal) each was shot down by local opposition. Here is a link to an entertaining history from the San Francisco Chronicle, from the year 2000, about the frustrating efforts to find an acceptable land use, and an update from earlier this year.
Some advocates wanted affordable housing –- a land use of critical need, of course, in the exorbitant city by the bay. But such a project was not forthcoming, and activists mobilized again to oppose a new plan for … condominiums, of course. (In San Francisco, a unit behind two feet of masonry and without windows would still likely generate a princely sum.) Such a plan to gentrify the Armory was “too cold,” perhaps.
What the Mission District has finally got is something different –- a business that makes kinky sex videos. The company reportedly bought the Armory for more than $14 million. And neighborhood protesters have been picketing, arguing that the business is degrading to women and offers only demeaning jobs. Perhaps such a usage is “too hot.”
If the protesters get their way, the Armory would once again sit vacant, and would once again wait for that beautiful land use prince (Wait a minute –- am I confusing fairy tales?) who never seems to come.