Monday, June 23, 2008
Infill! One can’t tune into the domestic policy debate this year without encountering assertions that we are experiencing a sea change in the nation’s metropolitan land use: the end of cheap oil, the end of rapid sprawl, and even the end of the promise of single-family homeownership. If this cataclysmic change is truly happening, the response of metro governments should be to encourage more infill development, shouldn’t it? Because the U.S. population will grow by at least 30 million in each of the next couple of decades (that’s more than an entire New York and Georgia combined), law must allow for much greater density in already built-up areas, musn’t it? And if we will no longer drive 25 miles to work in a world without cheap gas, law has to allow more mixing of housing and business, doesn’t it? This week I will explore some frontiers of “infill” law in the United States.
In Los Angeles, the great exemplar of 20th century sprawl, notable efforts at infill have made the news … and triggered much hostility. The city council voted unanimously last year to change complicated zoning laws to allow for more density and more infill. In one notable example, the city is helping to subsidize a high-rise (for L.A., at least) complex in North Hollywood, a modest-income area in the San Fernando Valley that is on the new rail transit line. The mayor has touted the development as a model for infill and density. But not everyone is happy. Urban scholar Joel Kotkin has warned against rapidly changing SoCal’s fundamental “DNA.” He blames the rush to “Manhattanize” Los Angeles on pressure from developers. Kotkin cites the famously anti-density L.A. supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky in questioning whether more density would “improve the quality of life.”
To me, the question for land use law is NOT whether infill will “improve the quality of life” for resident Angelenos. There’s no doubt that an established single-family-house resident is likely to become marginally less happy at increased traffic and the blocking of the California sunshine that a high building nearby might cause. But the reason for infill is not that it will make existing residents happier. (To make them truly happier, the L.A. basin should return to its 1920’s population of less than a million people living in a sunny city of open spaces, clear beaches, orange groves, and good public transportation.) Rather, infill is a way to cope with an increasing population (from many directions, including those coming from foreclosed homes in the exurbs) in an efficient manner.
And complaints about increased neighbor traffic are misplaced, urbanists can argue forcefully. While of course more people means more car traffic, at least in the short run, the long-term idea is that infill near transit creates a culture in which many people ride public transportation to work. (And yes, I realize that the existing resident might respond by grumbling, “In the long run, I’ll be dead.”) Moreover, efforts to restrict infill cannot be defended as protecting property interests; property “belongs” to the private landowner first, and the greater community’s interest as great as that of the existing neighborhood residents. Infill is just as reasonable a land use policy as government-enforced sprawl.
So while it may not make sense to try to turn Los Angeles into Manhattan (that would be an awfully big Manhattan), how about London? Paris? Or (easy now, Angelenos) San Francisco?
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