Thursday, August 28, 2008

Tacos 1, L.A. County 0, but the game isn’t over …

    In the latest development in the growing field of mobile-food vending land use law, a Los Angeles county judge struck down yesterday a county ordinance (applicable outside the city of Los Angeles) that made it a crime to park a taco truck in one spot for more than one hour.  According the L.A. Times, the judge ruled that the law was unenforceable in part because it was too vague.
Taco      Now, it’s easy to speculate that such a law, adopted in April, was spurred by brick-and-mortar restaurants that have to pay rent or property taxes (but not necessarily gasoline)and that fear competition from cheap and mobile food vendors, of which there are hundreds in LA. County.  But let’s remember that there are good reasons for restricting certain land uses –- just as a homeowner might not like a steakhouse next door, it wouldn’t want a taco truck parked all day in front of the house.  Perhaps the county, which has promised to appeal, needs to craft a more subtle law that focuses on preventing land use harms.  After all, I want to make sure I can get a street taco next time I’m in L.A. County …

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August 28, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (4)

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Sprucing up foreclosure lanes …

   While Congress is busy mortgaging the nation’s financial future to rescue Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, local governments are busy with more urgent efforts to ameliorate the social harms of abandoned and foreclosed homes, especially those concentrated in low-income neighborhoods. 
Boston    In Boston, Hendry Street is a bleak site of abandoned and boarded up houses (see the picture on the Boston Globe site).  Not only does this situation attract crime and vandalism, it further decreases the value of existing occupied homes, sometimes pushing extant homeowners closer towards foreclosure.  So the city’s plan is to take title to some houses and to sell them to developers who promise to maintain and repair them for new housing (probably many in the form of rentals).  The city has already reached a deal with one developer.
    Here’s hoping that the plan (which, to be clear, is funded in large part by federal assistance) works, and that the money is spent more effectively at the local level than the larger expenditures may be at the federal level …

August 26, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (1)

Monday, August 25, 2008

Which kind of downtown should government offer?

   What sort of walkable “downtown” do Americans like?  The answer may inform what types of projects that governments foster and approve, in an area when vitalization of the city is the mantra of urban land use law.
Mammothlakes     Here’s an anecdote from a recent visit to Mammoth Lakes, Calif.  Mammoth is a resort town in the eastern Sierra, favored by Angelenos for skiing and summer hiking.  It is a fairly new resort and holds little of the history or sense of community of an established city such as Aspen, Col.  Because of its recent success, however, Mammoth’s developers have rapidly built the usual upscale commercial developments of a resort town –- European bakeries, fancy cafes, and “high end” clothing stores, often in fairly dense strips.  Where do visitors (and residents) walk on Friday night?  Not along the established streets, but within the wholly planned “Village at Mammoth,” which offers food, ice cream, and piped in music in a fully controlled environment.  Visitors appear to like the wide "streets" without cars (although one can park underground just steps away), the visual appeal of the prefectly maintained cute architecture and stores, and the sense of complete security and control that a planned “village” provides.  Urbanists may disparage such “fake” towns, but the typical American –- or at least the typical visitor to Mammoth –- likes it.

August 25, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Is there still growth in the exurbs?

   Will high gas prices and tight credit stifle the exurbs?  Many stories so assert, of course.  But this may not be the complete picture.  NPR today ran a nice segment (including some quotes from Penn’s urban commentator Witold Rybczynski) about Chester County, Pa., with anecdotes about how a seemingly Penn exurban county may continue to grow.  There’s the two-income couple that commutes in different directions –- one to Philadelphia and the other to Baltimore –- for whom Chester County makes economic sense.  There are businesses for which settling in Chester County is a good “regional” choice.  And there’s a plan for a putatively new-urbanist-tinged “town center” in Malvern that is designed to draw businesses, retail, and residences, all in proximity to each other.  For some, life in a planned new exurban town may –- like a 19th century small town –- make more sense than life in an old-fashioned big city.
  Why might a corporate-planned town sometimes be attractive than a “real” one? Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post.

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August 21, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A tale of two regions … in land-use restricted California …

    A California vacation last week got me thinking about … well, land use law, of course.  Urbanists argue that legal restrictions on sprawl would foster development in the central city and encourage a high-density, walkable sense of community, in contrast to America’s longstanding desire for an auto-based culture.  A problem with this argument is that it’s difficult to test.
Fortbraggca_2     But California, which has for long imposed some of the toughest land use laws in the nation, offers a proving ground.  In much of California, especially in the hills and mountains that cover half the state, development is severely restricted by topography, a lack of water, and stringent land use laws, including those imposed for the purpose of conserving environmental resources.  Northwest California offers a striking example.  I noticed that even small cities that are not classic tourist towns –- places such as Sonoma’s Sebastopol and Mendocino’s Fort Bragg –- retain a good amount of their pre-sprawl-era commercial buildings (often attractive wooden commercial blocks) and a sense of walkable density.  I could not help but conclude that the inability to sprawl has preserved and cultivated these downtowns.
     By contrast, California’s wide-open Central Valley offers far fewer restrictions, as it is offers flat terrain, irrigated water systems, and traditional land use (agriculture and industry) that triggers less desire for environmental protection.  And, in contrast to the distinct and fairly compact towns of the north, the Central Valley population along Route 99 spreads out in a largely undifferentiated and auto-dominated sprawl from Sacramento to Merced.  Now, it must be conceded true that hard-working Modesto may never attract redwood-peeping tourists, as Fort Bragg (pictured above) is starting to do (although Modesto, like many of its nearby valley cities, touts itself as a “gateway to Yosemite”).  But the California contrast does help prove that land use restrictions can get Americans out of their cars and can and do foster high-density downtowns.          

August 20, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Unhappy homeless news … and a debate in Philadelphia …

Homeless     Last week I wrote about good news in the effort to assist the chronically homeless in finding stable and fairly permanent housing.  This week comes less sanguine news  –- a controversy in Philadelphia over homeless people in downtown Rittenhouse Square.  Lawyer Christine Flowers wrote an opinion column in the Philadelphia Daily News criticizing city policy that allows people to “defile the public square” by urinating, defecating, and engaging in other antisocial behavior.  Her column led to a debate on NPR yesterday with Flowers and Laura Weinbaum, a homeless advocate.
   Surely we all should agree that a first duty of law should be take a variety of steps to avoid relief in public, shouldn’t it?

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August 7, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Replacing smokestacks with cooling towers? …

   What’s the most extreme locally unwanted land use (LULU) that generates the NIMBY response?  Is it a half-way house?  An oil refinery?  Or, as I tell my students when we read the infamous Supreme Court decision in Village of Belle Terre v. Boraas, group housing for college students?  In terms of effect, opposition to nuclear power plants has been as successful as any effort.  This is not only because a nuclear plant is a LULU: since the incidents at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986, nuclear power has been a NULU. 
Nuclear_power   But the confluence of concerns over globe-warming greenhouse emissions (a nuclear plant emits almost none) and high energy costs have pushed many to reconsider the benefits of nuclear power.   Although some groups still oppose more such plants, other environmentalists see nuclear plants as a lesser risk to long-term health and safety
   As part of this potential “nuclear renaissance,” electrical authorities in the mid-Atlantic states are planning new plants.  One of the most advanced plans is for a new reactor at Calvert Cliffs, on the Chesapeake Bay in southern Maryland, and the focus of a famous case in the ‘70s that led to the complex federal environmental impact statement process.  What is most interesting about the approval process so far, according to this report, is the lack of strong and vocal public opposition.   Maryland regulatory authorities are holding public hearings this month. 
  If new plants are approved and are built successfully, it may encourage governments at all levels to look to replacing traditional electrical-generating sources with nuclear plants, with profound effects on land use.  It’s a good bet that, 30 years from now, we’ll see fewer coal-belching smokestacks and more nuclear cooling towers –- as well as giant windmills -– across our national landscape.

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August 5, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, August 1, 2008

Urban residence revival … even in the OKC …

   In a former job, I got to see a detailed wide-area aerial photo of downtown Oklahoma City, not long after the 1995 bombing.  It was an eye-opening sight.  Like many American cities, about half of the land use in downtown OKC consisted of large surface parking lots.  Office, commercial, and industrial buildings covered nearly all of the remainder that wasn’t streets.   How different this was from the traditional image of a densely built-up urban “downtown”! And I knew that the same vantage in 1920 would have revealed far more small buildings, small apartment houses, and single-family homes.  But like much of America, residential housing pretty much disappeared from downtowns as the 20th century, and its automobiles, progressed.
   But the revival of downtown housing has spread even to Oklahoma City.  In many spots around its downtown, the city -– which will have an NBA team this year –- boasts a number of new, often-high-priced housing developments.  And not just a few “bachelors’ arms” apartment blocks.  The new construction includes a lot of townhouses.  Thirty years ago, a residential developer would have scoffed at the idea of “high end” townhouses near downtown in a city such as the OKC.  Who would want to live downtown, when one could buy a big house with a yard in the suburbs, just as quick trip away on the freeway?  And haven’t you noticed all the parking downtown for the business end of the commute?  Today, of course, the commute may not be so easy, and the advantages of living in the city –- the city's got an NBA team now, if you didn’t know –- are encouraging more affluent people to make the plunge and become an urban pioneer.  And Oklahoma City is not the kind of place to have a dense new development stopped by land use law concerns about too much “traffic” –- most city streets haven’t been crowded for decades, of courses.   
Oklahamacity     Who’s moving into these townhouses?  Mostly empty-nest couples and young professionals, a developer says.  The fact that fewer American households include a school-age child is another factor in making urban living popular.  The Oklahoma developer also states the hope that more families with children will follow.  After all, the video-obsessed generation doesn’t play ball in the backyard, so who needs one?  Getting families to move downtown is, of course, the biggest hurdle to the larger success of urban revival.  How are downtown OKC public schools?  Unless the answer is, “As good as those in the suburbs,” very few affluent families will move downtown.   
  If they ever do, our 20th century conceptions of land use law and policy, which were predicated on separation of uses and sprawl, will have to change, and cities such as Oklahoma City –- did I mention the NBA team? –- may look, feel, and be regulated much differently than it was in the days in which downtowns were half parking lots.   

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August 1, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)