Wednesday, April 16, 2008
Will Americans accept living above stores? A generation ago, the answer probably would have been a resounding “No!” in a nation suckled on the notion of separation of commerce and residences. A few optimists might have offered: But what about New York or Paris, where millionaires live above stores? Today, the notion of mixing land uses is downright acceptable. Even in Tampa, Florida, near me, which is one of the world’s least dense cities, condos have been sold atop stores for the affluent.
But old shibboleths die hard. From Dallas, Texas (motto: “Think large. Live big” -– not exactly the idea behind density!) comes a fascinating story about the lack of success of mixed use-complexes. According to the Dallas Morning News, the problem is not renting residences, but renting for retail; many of the stores have proven difficult to rent. The theme of the story is that density-loving governments push mixed-used plans, even in places where retail probably won’t succeed. Or perhaps the residents of the mixed-use developments simply can’t accept the idea of visiting a store without getting in their cars …
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
“Density” captures the essence of most plans to foster “smarter” growth and change the American tradition of sprawling land use law. But the seemingly simple idea of allowing –- or maybe even encouraging –- denser development often runs into opposition in a nation that has been reared on thinking that low density is the ideal. This week, I write about a variety of stories that reveal the growing pains of density.
Los Angeles is of course the quintessential low-density metro area –- built in large part after the introduction of the automobile, and spread out by virtue of its revolutionary freeway system. But with more than 4 million people now in the city, more than 15 million within 50 miles of downtown, and new sprawl blocked by ocean mountain, and desert, Los Angeles is looking for ways to increase density.
But density naturally has its opponents in Los Angeles. One of the most vocal is Zev Yaroslavsky, a County Commissioner and former City Council member, who recently wrote an anti-density opinion column for the L.A. Times. His guiding principle? Density should not be allowed to interfere with the “character” of a residential community.
Monday, April 14, 2008
Can a town have too much affordable housing? May local governments think so, as they try to avoid the presumed tax and other unwelcome consequences of allowing low-income residents into their jurisdiction. So it was in Canton, Mass., an affluent exurb south of Boston, which in 2003 denied an application by a developer to build rental units and low-cost single-family homes. Under Massachusetts law, however, a locality must devote 10 percent of its total housing units to low or moderate cost housing. An aggrieved developer may appeal to a state Housing Appeals Committee. Although Canton did not meet its statutory obligation at the time of the denial, it later claimed to do by allowing another affordable housing project. Did this later action in effect moot its legal obligation to the earlier applicant?
No, said the state Housing Appeals Committee, relying on a regulation which fixes a town’s obligations as of the date of a denial of a permit application. Why did the town say it didn’t want more low-cost housing? Increased traffic, of course! The Housing Committee called this an insufficient reason for the town not to fulfill its duty. Fighting all the way –- as so many localities, do –- Canton appealed to the Massachusetts courts and won in the Superior Court, which found that the housing regulation “skewed … the delicate balance” of the law too far in favor of developers of low-cost housing.
But the developer, Canton Property Holding, LLC, and the state Housing Committee prevailed on appeal to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. In a decision handed down last Friday, the high court held that the Committee’s rule for determining the date for assessing a town’s compliance was a rational one, and that courts must to defer to rational agency regulations. The Supreme Judicial Court did not find that more low-cost housing would be too much. (The court’s decision is Zoning Board of Appeals of Canton v. Housing Appeals Committee, Mass. Supreme Judicial Ct., No. SJC-10057, April 11, 2008.)
As housing prices continue to either stagnate or fall across the nation, many localities will no doubt fight with even greater tenacity their obligations to foster low-cost housing.