Thursday, June 26, 2008
Infill in a western city might mean building a garden apartment complex on land formerly used as a parking lot of the edge of downtown; infill in an established suburb might mean construction of three-story houses in a neighborhood of now-disfavored brick ranch houses. But in an old city such as Philadelphia, infill means creating development that will both be popular and will fit with neighborhoods that were largely completed before the automobile. In the city of brotherly love, an initiative called “Infill Philadelphia” is promoting designs to revitalize older city neighborhoods. The projects will seek to bring back to life underutilized or abandoned buildings and to bring new development ideas to moderately sized empty spaces in the city. And cities such as Philadelphia have far too many such spaces, both because houses have been abandoned and because small industry and businesses have moved elsewhere.
One special challenge that faces Philadelphia is its large stock of 19th century row houses, which were perfectly reasonable forms of urban housing back then, but seem too cramped, too narrow, and without enough modern features for many 21st century American families -- even the low-income families that make up much of Philadelphia's population. Among the design challenges of infill plans are to adapt these houses –- either by remodeling, expansion, and sometimes teardown –- to make the old neighborhoods both appealing to today’s families, affordable to low-income households, and able to stand up to the stresses of life in Philadelphia today …
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Wednesday, June 25, 2008
One of the dilemmas of infill –- allowing new construction in an already developed area –- is that it often upsets the expectations of landowners and residents concerning the land use and density of the community. Whether it is allowing stores in an area that has been exclusively residential, or allowing larger houses in a neighborhood of one-story ranch houses, infill often faces strong local opposition, or at least local skepticism. And political scientists tell us that legal efforts often fail if they offer, on one hand, broad but thin public benefits (as some infill does, by counteracting sprawl) and, on the other hand, narrow but concentrated costs upon citizens (such as those owners whose expectations may be upset) who fill tooth and nail against the plan.
Infill may seem especially jarring in the cities in the nation’s interior, where sprawl has seemed especially natural, considering the open spaces and relatively low land prices. I still remember my surprise when, as young lawyer on one of my first cases, I visited Casper, Wyoming, and saw the pattern of central city neglect and suburban sprawl replicated even in a small city on a Western plain. Today, even such interior cities are tackling the issue of infill, both because of market pressure for more central development and policies encouraging it.
Tulsa, Oklahoma, is currently undergoing such a debate. In the face of a variety of infill plans, the city has proposed authorizing some “neighborhood conservation districts,” which would give some power to neighborhoods to regulate their land use. Some see this as a means of controlling unwanted infill; others see it as an odious regulation of private property. Whither infill in Tulsa? Not surprisingly, the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission stated last week that it is in no rush to change its policies with regard to infill. Stay tuned …
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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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