May 1, 2008
Left and libertarians and big bad boxes …
What’s an article from the libertarian “Reason” magazine doing reprinted in “Utne Reader,” an alt-left reader with a picture of Barack Obama on the cover this month? The reason is an essay by Michael C. Moynihan arguing that land use laws restricting big box retailers such as Wal-Mart are silly and unnecessary. The reason? Big boxes chains don’t know their clientele as well as local retailers, and many customers prefer the local touch and knowledge –- many of the same reasons touted for land use restrictions. Moynihan relates the success story of an indie music-and-sundries store that has outlasted big-box music retailers in Boston. Its secret? Tattooed employees (among other factors, I’m sure) that appeal to hip young Bostonians.
I’m not sure that Moynihan’s choice of music retailing is the best example (downloading and online shopping has all but killed off the industry entirely) but his larger point seems sound. He also relates the story of the fears back in the 1920s that big retailers such as Woolworth’s and A&P (young people: ask your grandparents about these) would kill off mom-and-pop stores, just as Wal-Mart-phobes do today. The lesson seems sound: If people want to shop at a big box, land use laws probably won’t do much good (they will simply drive till they find one) and those who prefer locally oriented stores will patronize them. And there always a lot in the later group, at least in certain places. So now we see why it’s in Utne …
April 30, 2008
The food crisis and the changing land uses of rural America …
What’s happening to food and how has law contributed to the shock? The Washington Post printed a readable primer on the complex topic this week; the report today concerns the massive increase in corn farming over the past few years, spurred in part by laws requiring the use of ethanol. These changes are having a profound effect on the grain belt. Acreage devoted to corn in Iowa, the biggest corn state, rose by more than a third over the past 20 years; in Kansas, traditionally a wheat state, corn acreage more than doubled over that time. Yesterday, the Post reported on the fall in wheat production, which raises the price of bread.
Meanwhile, Congress continues to debate an enormous farm bill, which will shape farm and rural land use for years to come. While high farm prices haven’t discouraged Congress from continuing a host of farm payment programs, there is an effort afoot to shift some of the payments away from farmers and toward consumers.
April 28, 2008
Of history, Hitler, hofs, and hip hop …
It's settled law that demolition or alteration of buildings can be restricted by law simply because something historic happened there. But can, and should, historic preservation laws extend to restricting the "use" of a building, when no significant change to the architecture takes place?
Here are two vignettes. In Berlin, Germany, voters this weekend failed to cast ballots in sufficient numbers to trump a decision of the regional government to close old Tempelhof airport, built in Nazi Germany but made famous during the postwar airlift, when food and supplies kept West Berlin going, in spite of a Soviet blockade. (German law holds the intelligent nuance of not allowing the results of a referendum to count if not enough people care to vote.) The terminal building won't be torn down -- it's protected by law -- but it probably won't be used as an airport any longer. By today's standards, it's far too close to downtown, among other drawbacks.
Meanwhile, in the Bronx, N.Y., local activists are trying to preserve the status as low-cost housing of 1520 Sedgwick Ave., where, many say, hip hop music was invented by DJ Kool Herc back in the early 1970s. Some proposals would turn the building into higher-priced housing.
It's one thing for government to preserve historic buildings from defacement or demolition. It's also rather uncontroversial to put in place historic plaques and conduct tours. But should land use law impose restrictions on the use of a building, simply to maintain its historic use, in the face of market pressures for other uses?