Friday, October 23, 2009
I have written before about how Houston's Montrose neighborhood recently made it into the American Planning Association's Top 10 Neighborhoods in America. Montrose is an eclectic neighborhood that is home to Houston's arts and LGBT communities, as well as a critical mass of museums, restaurants, and other cultural amenities. This story is about the relative success of tattoo parlors in the area: Body Art: "Tattoo Zone" makes mark along Lower Westheimer.
For most businesses, having a clump of competitors within walking distance would be a bad thing. Not so, say the tattoo artists on lower Westheimer, where five shops are clustered between Dunlavy and Yupon streets.
“Actually, it's good for business,” said Larry Shaw, a third-generation tattoo artist and a 30-year mainstay at Shaw's Tattoo, 1660C Westheimer. “It's like a tattoo zone, more or less. People think of tattooing and say, ‘Oh, Westheimer. Lower Westheimer.' ”
Now of course, neither the text nor the map of the local zoning ordinance (oh wait, Houston doesn't have a zoning ordinance!) declares an official "tattoo zone." But I do find two points from this article to be relevant:
First, even in the Unzoned City, land use regulation has so pervaded the culture that people tend to instinctively think of geographically-clustered land uses as "zones."
Second is the interesting point that the individual tattoo parlors consider themselves to be economically better off because they are located in an area (or "zone," if you must) that is also home to business competitors. Is this fact part of the argument for zoning, or for free market ordering?
As promised earlier, today I report about our field visit Tuesday to Hawkinsville, Georgia. Hawkinsville/Pulaski County is a small community (population 10,000) south of Macon. Its primary industry is agriculture, and it has an award winning regional hospital. The people of Hawkinsville are hospitable, smart and creative.
Unfortunately, Hawkinsville has the very urban problem of declining housing stock in its core. Actually, I should say that this is a pretty common problem in communities of all sizes. Hawkinsville is not the only town I know of in rural Georgia dealing with delapidated housing. Fortunately, Hawkinsville is using some old urban redevelopment laws in a creative new way, and has established its own redevelopment authority. HURA, as it is popularly know, has already cleared many properties and is working on redeveloping an abandoned cotton mill into affordable lofts. (View a blog about the history of Hawkinsville, including the cotton mill, here.)
Our little delegation to Hawkinsville included my colleague Matt Bishop of UGA's Archway Partnership, and my former student and current client Heather Benham of the Athens Land Trust. Matt's background is in public administration. As Coordinator of Operations at Archway, his job is to connect university resources to communities in need of expertise. Heather was a student in the clinic six years ago, and is now an expert in her own right on community land trusts. We had a great conversation with Hawkinsville local leaders about the possibility of HURA forming a land trust, and how that might help them in their redevelopment efforts. We also ate good barbeque at Sow Bellies, which I highly recommend if you're ever in South Georgia.
These types of projects are great for my students to see, because it shows the interdisciplinary nature of land use law. It also allows my clients to mentor each other to solve common community problems. We'll continue to work with Hawkinsville over semesters to come, so I'll likely report more about their interesting and innovative work as time progresses.
Jamie Baker Roskie
Thursday, October 22, 2009
Jane B. Baron (Temple) has posted The Contested Commitments of Property, forthcoming in the Hastings Law Journal. The abstract:
The means by which property organizes human behavior and social life is the subject of profound and heated debate. On one side, information theorists emphasize that property works in rem, using standardized signals to tell all the world to keep off things owned by others. On the other side, progressive theorists emphasize property’s capacity to promote human flourishing, respect for human dignity, Aristotelian virtue, or democratic governance. The divide between these two schools of thought represents the most vital dispute in a quarter-century of property scholarship, and it seems likely to preoccupy academics (and their students) for at least another generation.
This paper claims that debates between informational and progressive scholars, despite their prominence, are not adequately understood. Such debates currently center on whether the right to exclude is fundamental to property law. This issue plays out doctrinally in arguments over whether trespass is property’s paradigmatic rule, and metaphorically in arguments over whether exclusion rights, as opposed to human relationships, lie at property’s “core.”
By contrast, this paper suggests that academics’ singular focus on exclusion has obscured even deeper questions about property’s stability, its institutional mechanism for change, and its very status as a distinctive field of study. Rather than pursuing unproductive controversies over what lies at property’s “core” and “periphery,” this paper presents a different metaphorical contest as a more accurate account of the issues in modern property law. Information theorists employ the metaphor of property as a machine - a machine that, with minimal tinkering, has produced a good-enough social ordering and will generally continue to do so. This mechanical metaphor is inconsistent with progressive theorists’ view of property as a conversation. The progressives’ conversation metaphor expresses the view that we need to continually question whether the system is good enough, that we need to openly debate the quality of the human relationships that property produces, and that we must revise property rules that fail to fulfill our underlying value commitments. This metaphorical contest is important doctrinally because it reflects conflicting views about whether we can ever unreflectively trust property rules to express our values. “Machine” and “conversation” suggest very different visions of how much faith we should have in our existing system of property, of whether it is good enough, and of whether we can trust ourselves to improve it.
In contrast to the spiderweb of interstate highway and railway connections typical of the eastern United States, much of the west - particularly the southwest - has far less transportation infrastructure. Las Vegas and Phoenix are connected in large part by a single highway that shrinks to one lane in each direction for many miles. Las Vegas and Southern California are connected by I15, a major interstate highway. Anyone who has ever made the trip between the two areas, however, will quickly tell you that the road is not big enough to handle the weekend crush of visitors into and out of Las Vegas. And there is no rail service between Las Vegas and any of these areas.
Las Vegas is vying to be the hub of a future network of southwest railways. Similarly, many companies are competing to create this next generation of rail transportation. The two leading proposals pit traditonal steel on rails technology running from Las Vegas to Victorville, CA against magnetic levitation (Maglev) trains that will run between Las Vegas and Anaheim, CA. For those unfamiliar with the cities between Las Vegas and Southern California, I'll try to put the two proposals in context. A railway between Las Vegas and Victorville is the equivalent of building a railway to connect Washington DC to New York City, but dropping riders off in Philadelphia, PA and telling them to get to New York the best way they can. A railway between Las Vegas and Anaheim is the equivalent of getting the DC riders to Newark, NJ and giving them the option of taking a cab or renting a car into New York City. There are, of course, real facts on the ground (so to speak) that help to explain some of the differences between the proposals. Cost is a big deal, as is the feasibility of the technology. Moreover, the pesky Cajon Pass between Vegas and Southern California contains steep grades that would defy the steel on rails technology. Finally, no large transportation project can go proceed without political and fiscal ... intrigue. Each side is jockeying for political and economic support, with dizzying results.
I don't want to dismiss the other contenders in the race too quickly. The southwest offers the opportunity to dream big. For example, I am certain that few could have envisioned today's glittering Vegas metropolis emerging from a dusty airstrip and a few scattered motels in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Here is a brief description of the other rail contenders:
SolaTrek, a highway-decluttering maglev hybrid that motorists would be able to board while the train is in motion; Texas-based Robert Pulliam of Tubular Rail, which puts the rails on the vehicle and the locomotion in a series of O-rings stretched across the countryside; and America’s Sunlight Bullet Expressway, a subsidiary of a Las Vegas-based operation that would blend rail transportation with electrical transmission lines linking cities with solar-power-generation stations.
It will be interesting to see how imaginative today's leaders will be.
Deep in the heart of Oklahoma oil country, the United States Federal Reserve Banks owns...a...shopping mall. Unfortunately, its pretty well dormant. Except, that is, for the oil pump slowly grinding away in the parking lot (albeit one that the Fed does not own because it doesn't own the shopping mall's mineral rights--a somewhat curious concept in the first place: "shopping mall mineral rights").
A $29 billion trail from the Federal Reserve's bailout of Wall Street investment bank Bear Stearns ends in a partially deserted shopping center on a bleak spot on the south side of Oklahoma City. The Fed now owns the Crossroads Mall, a sprawling shopping complex at the junction of Interstate highways 244 and 35, complete with an oil well pumping crude in the parking lot -- except the Fed does not own the mineral rights.
Isn't the irony thick...the U.S. taxpayers, through our backing of the Fed, now essentially own a dead mall.
The Fed finds itself in the unusual situation of being an Oklahoma City landlord after it lent JPMorgan Chase $29 billion to buy Bear Stearns last year. That money was secured by a portfolio of Bear assets. Crossroads Mall is the only bricks and mortar acquired through bailout. The remaining billions are tied up in invisible securities spread across hundreds, if not thousands, of properties. It is hard to be precise because the Fed has not published specifics on what it now owns. The only reason that Crossroads Mall has surfaced is that it went into foreclosure in April.
On Wednesday in Houston there was an interesting conference called "The Truth About Smart Growth: Setting the Stage for the Housing Collapse--National Conference on What Works and What Hurts." It was organized by Houstonians for Responsible Growth, a local developers' PAC that advocates generally on the pro-property rights side of various issues. The conference was co-sponsored by Heritage, Reason, Cato, and several other groups. It had a lineup of speakers that included some of the nation's leading land use scholars from the libertarian perspective.
Tory Gattis was recruited to give the introduction and to moderate. Gattis is a social systems architect in Houston whose insightful commentary on his Houston Strategies and Opportunity Urbanist blogs has made him one of the leading voices on land use issues in Houston. Among the highlights from the speakers:
Sam Staley of the Reason Foundation spoke about Houston's land use system compared to the dominant mode of planning and zoning in other American cities. Staley says that Houston's system is superior because it is dynamic, flexible, and responsive to the market. These factors actually enable Houston to offer some of the types of development that proponents of smart growth want--such as higher density and mixed use--without the increased costs caused by overregulation. He correctly observed that Houston is not "unplanned," but rather that it has mostly private planning, through covenants and site development platting. Staley warned Houston against adopting zoning or more stringent land use regulations.
Wendell Cox of Demographia then presented "How Texas Averted the Great Recession." There are many Texans who have been hurt by the recession, but Cox is generally correct that it hasn't been as bad in Texas as in many other parts of the country. One of the reasons is the nature of Texas's economy, and another is that there wasn't really a housing bubble to begin with here. Cox argued that the more permissive land use regulatory environment allowed development to more accurately track the market demand in Texas, and that adopting smart growth policies would drive up the median multiple (ratio of average home price to income) to an unacceptable level.
Luis Vera of LULAC spoke in support of Proposition 11, which will essentially constitutionalize Texas's anti-Kelo prohibition of economic development takings. I'll post more on Prop 11 soon. Vera gave an interesting speech talking about land use and housing policy as possibly the next great civil rights issue, in part because of the disproportionate impact that eminent domain sometimes has on minority neighborhoods; he said (I paraphrase) something like: we (i.e. LULAC and property rights groups) may not agree on things like immigration, but we agree on keeping the American Dream alive.
Randal O'Toole, from the Cato Institute and the Antiplanner (and who has suggested that urban planning caused the housing bubble), spoke about the possibility of an "alternative vision" to achieve the goals of smart growth through less restrictive means. Turns out that this alternative vision is pretty much Houston. O'Toole has extensive command of housing statistics and regulatory policies from across the nation, and makes a good case that the non-zoning approach is at least partly responsible for the areas in which Houston has outperformed other cities. There were a few other interesting speakers as well, about which I might post later.
So is Smart Growth (or perhaps more accurately, government regulatory policies intended to achieve Smart Growth) really that bad? The speakers at this conference are among the land use experts who make the best case against it. At the end of the conference I spoke with Joshua Sanders, the Executive Director of Houstonians for Responsible Growth, and he indicated that the audio/video links might be put online; if they do, I will post them.
UPDATE: Tory Gattis has a post up on Houston Strategies with some thoughts on the speakers' presentations and the text of his introductory remarks.
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
In the spring semester I will be teaching the land use class as a seminar. Our seminars are limited to 20 students and geared toward fulfilling the law school's graduation writing requirement of producing a substantial, original research paper. I'm very excited about the class. I can't quite pull off anything like the development projects in Chad's cool-sounding project development seminar, but I would like to make it a stimulating research-based class.
I have taught land use as a quasi-seminar before, where the grade was based on a research paper, but we still conducted class sessions based on casebook readings. This time it's an "offical" seminar, so I want to design the course around interesting and informative readings, i.e., books and articles.
So I what I really want to know is what readings have you assigned, or would you assign, in a land use seminar? I'm thinking about starting with a few classes on the basics (so maybe a readable treatise would be a good foundation) and then venturing into the various topics more closely. If you had to assign one book or article on a given land use topic, what would it be?
I have a few ideas in mind on particular topics, but I would love to hear your experiences, ideas, and suggestions on this. Please let me know!
The Obama Administration has announced a new "Initiative for State and Local Housing Finance Agencies":
WASHINGTON - As part of its comprehensive plan to stabilize the U.S. housing market, the Obama Administration today announced a new initiative for state and local housing finance agencies (HFAs) that will help support low mortgage rates and expand resources for low and middle income borrowers to purchase or rent homes that are affordable over the long term. Following up on the intent to support HFAs first outlined in February under the Homeowner Affordability and Stability Plan, the Administration's initiative has two parts: a new bond purchase program to support new lending by HFAs and a temporary credit and liquidity program to improve the access of HFAs to liquidity for outstanding HFA bonds.
Read the press release at HUD.gov. An interesting project from both the property and the local government angles of land use.
The Congressional Oversight Panel has released its October Oversight Report: An Assessment of Foreclosure Mitigation Programs After Six Months. The Panel, chaired by Elizabeth Warren, is charged with reviewing "the current state of the financial markets and the regulatory system" and with oversight of federal programs related to the mortgage and financial crises. The executive summary of the report begins:
From July 2007 through August 2009, 1.8 million homes were lost to foreclosure and 5.2 million more foreclosures were started. One in eight mortgages is currently in foreclosure or default. Each month, an additional 250,000 foreclosures are initiated, resulting in direct investor losses that average more than $120,000. These investors include the American people. The combination of federal efforts to combat the financial crisis coupled with mortgage assistance programs makes the taxpayer the ultimate guarantor of a large portion of home mortgages.
It concludes that the programs--particularly the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP)--as currently configured are too constrained in scope, scale, and permanence to achieve the goals of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act (ESSA) in reducing the impact of the mortgage crisis.
The Manhattan Institute's Nicole Gelinas analyzes the report in City Journal with Our Subprime Federal Government: President Obama's mortgage plan imitates the lenders who inflated the housing bubble.
The analysis shows that the Treasury, in trying to keep people in homes they can’t afford, is relying on the same perverse principle that inflated the housing bubble in the first place: namely, that it’s fine to borrow recklessly to buy a house, because house prices can only go up and up.
Gelinas argues that HAMP in particular is counterproductive because it has only enabled homeowners to cut interest rates instead of principal debt for mortgage loans that are now "underwater" (i.e., the debt (original loan) is greater than the current market value of the property). In Gelinas's analysis, HAMP has provided temporary relief in monthly payments but it has actually increased the total debt of its borrowers and caused more loans to go officially underwater.
The Panel and Gelinas may both be right about HAMP's shortcomings. Their recommendations diverge (roughly put--Panel: more; Gelinas: less (Gelinas would favor encouraging lenders to forgive prinicpal)).
What I find to be even more problematic is the scale: under HAMP there have been fewer than 2,000 workouts so far (1,711 according to the Panel). So whether the Panel is right in asking for more, or Gelinas is right that even these < 2,000 workouts have been counterproductive, it seems that this paltry number can't have much effect on the overall economy. I understand that the government can't just pull a chain and magically modify millions of mortgages--such an individualized, case-by-case, fact-intensive program like this can't automatically handle massive amounts of cases. But 2,000 mortgage modifications, while perhaps providing important relief to those homeowners, can hardly reverse the tide of the mortgage crisis. The Panel report indicates a Treasury goal of between 2 and 2.6 million modifications--it's unclear to me how the program can ramp up from two thousand to two million, so if you have better information than I do, please leave a comment. Even at this number, the Panel estimates 10 to 12 million foreclosures, so either the Panel is right that the program needs a massive upgrade, or Gelinas is right that we should abandon the effort and focus more on mortgage principal rather than temporary modification of interest rates that perhaps makes bad mortgages worse and potentially re-inflates the bubble.
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
I wanted to give a preview of tomorrow's local hearing over what appears to be a form-based code designed for an area near Charleston's port. One of the issues I've mentioned in prior posts is whether the adoption of a form-based code in a historic district might tend to trump the role of a board of architectural review, which is required (in Charleston, at least) to approve the height, scale, and mass of any new construction within the historic district, a role delegated by law as belonging to the board of architectural review. After additional reflection, this situation seems to raise interesting jurisdictional issues, too.
One way to avoid this problem might be something known as "area character appraisals," where residents, city officials, preservation groups, and other stakeholders agree ex ante on the forms new buildings ought to take. If this type of concensus is not established soon in Charleston, the likelihood of future litigation is likely to increase, especially if a developer gains approval to build a pre-approved form that a board of architectural review rejects. Or by preservation groups objecting to the subject matter jurisdiction of a planning commission that usurps the role of a board of architectural review. Some of these issues will be raised Wednesday night at a public forum. I'll let you know the outcome.
Will Cook, Charleston School of Law
Have you ever driven by a large retail center and noticed rows upon rows of empty parking spaces? If so, did you ever wonder why one big box retailer really needed such a large amount of empty asphalt in order to operate?
Or, what about this situation: have you ever seen metered parking spaces whose rates are so low (say, 25 cents per hour) that its more economical to park at a meter than use transit or a centralized parking structure?
Most of us realize that the above scenarios are not merely unlikely hypos but, instead, an established reality in many cities. Parking is often either too plentiful and free or too limited and cheap--both of which promote an inefficient allocation of transportation resources.
Fortunately, the Washington D.C. area is once again taking the lead with innovative land use policies that focus on the efficient allocation of resources--this time with newly proposed parking laws:
Planners mapping out a new, pedestrian-friendly mini-city in Tysons Corner to dovetail with the Metrorail line under construction are proposing parking standards unheard of in Fairfax County, where three-car families are not unusual.
Buildings near the four future train stations in Tysons will no longer have to have a minimum of parking. The code now calls for at least 2.6 spaces per 1,000 square feet of office space; stores must have up to six spaces per that area. Townhouses get 2.7 spaces each.
The District dumped its parking minimums last year, rewriting the zoning code for the first time in 50 years to set parking space according to demand in a particular neighborhood. In another departure from tradition, Tysons will not only have fewer places to park, but businesses will also have to share spaces. Nightclubbers will park in the spaces defense contractors were in that morning. Considering that Tysons has more land devoted to cars than people -- with approximately 167,000 parking spaces covering 40 million square feet -- they're big changes.
You can read the entire Washington Post article here. It provides several other very useful examples of sound parking law strategy.
The idea of charging a market rate for parking is really a no-brainer. Especially when, in the case of much of the D.C. area, a viable transit option exists in the form of both busses and heavy/light rail.
After all, why should cities require massive amounts of (typically free) parking in suburban settings when many of those spaces don't get used and, instead, merely add to water pollution problems through the unnecessary run-off that all of this impermeable asphalt and concrete causes.
Or, in an urban setting, why should parking meters cost the same at 8pm as they do at 8am (when demand is typically much higher). In these times of fiscal austerity at the local government level, shouldn't revenue streams such as parking meters be used as efficiently as possible.
It's good to see the D.C. area jurisdictions continue to promote efficient land use policies through logical resource-allocation methods like this.
--Chad Emerson, Faulkner U.
Wayne Curtis has a very interesting article in The Atlantic, called Houses of the Future. The intro:
Four years after the levee failures, New Orleans is seeing an unexpected boom in architectural experimentation. Small, independent developers are succeeding in getting houses built where the government has failed. And the city's unique challenges—among them environmental impediments, an entrenched culture of leisure, and a casual acquaintance with regulation—are spurring design innovations that may redefine American architecture for a generation.
An interesting assessment, particularly in its suggestion that private development has been working better so far than any comprehensive efforts to rebuild New Orleans. What does Brad Pitt have to do with all this?
And then, suddenly, amid heroically overgrown lawns, you see a cluster of modern, colorful, and modestly sized homes, looking like a farm where they grow houses for Dwell magazine. These are the fruits to date of Pitt’s other project, Make It Right New Orleans. New Orleanians refer to these homes collectively as “the Brad Pitt Houses,” which gives them the pleasing ring of an ambitious public-housing project from the post–World War II years. But Pitt’s ambitions are not merely utilitarian. He hopes to offer displaced residents affordable, cutting-edge, radically green homes designed by name-brand architects like Thom Mayne and Frank Gehry. And he seems to be succeeding.
Four years after Katrina, the rebuilding of New Orleans is not proceeding the way anyone envisioned, nor with the expected cast of characters. (If I may emphasize: Brad Pitt is the city’s most innovative and ambitious housing developer.)
However, not everyone is on board with Brad Pitt's (architects') designs:
Not everybody is so circumspect. “Oh, it’s all bullshit,” Andres Duany said to me last fall, when I brought up Make It Right. “The high design? That has nothing to do with reality. That’s just architectural self-indulgence.”
Duany has been heavily involved in New Orleans rebuilding since the hurricane, but he advocates both traditional design and traditional methods:
So the central problem, according to Duany: “All the do-goody people attempting to preserve the culture are the same do-gooders who are raising the standards for the building of houses, and are the same do-gooders who are giving people partial mortgages and putting them in debt,” he said. . . .
As an alternative, Duany argues for “opt-out zones” for some of the hardest-hit areas, including the Lower Ninth. Within these zones, residents could rebuild their homes the way the city was originally constructed: by hand, incrementally, and unencumbered by what Duany calls “gold-plated” building regulations or bank requirements.
It's a good article that touches on many land use issues (I just wish The Atlantic had included more pictures in the web version).
According to this article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, states like Georgia and Florida whose economies are heavily dependent on the home construction industry are struggling harder to emerge from the recession.
It's interesting that cities in the Sunbelt that have boomed in good times are now handicapped by their economies based on sprawl. Here's a quote from the article:
This seems to be backed up by what I'm hearing from local officials. One leader from a county in north Georgia told me Friday that local tax collection is way down, and the only bounce they can hope for is from the new VW plant planned in Chattanooga. (Interestingly, the plant is being built here in the States because the dollar is so weak against the Euro, making goods from Germany more expensive here.) People just aren't buying vacations homes in the Georgia mountains like they were before the economy tanked.
The full report is available here. Here's a particularly devastating quote from the report itself:
The recession has had a disproportionate impact on Georgia, because its economy was more closely tied to the housing boom than many other states. The Atlanta metro area was the number one market for single-family construction every year from 1998 to 2005, which marked the height of the housing boom. During this period, more than 416,000 single-family permits were issued in the Atlanta area. The construction boom reached nearly every corner of the metropolitan area, particularly long slumbering areas to the south, east and west of the city. The nation’s housing boom also fueled growth in Georgia’s important forest products and carpet industries. The collapse in new home construction sent the region reeling ahead of the rest of the country. Construction employment has plunged 27 percent since March 2007. Employment in building products industries fell 24.3 percent over the past two years, and Georgia’s carpet industry has seen employment decline 18.3 percent.
The report goes on to say that the expansion of the housing market also led to an increase in consumer spending, which is now, not surprisingly, decreasing. The report does have a slightly more upbeat forecast for Athens:
Still, housing permits are way down even in Athens, and many homes sit on the market for months. We haven't seen the widespread foreclosures of other areas, but folks are definitely pinching pennies, and according to anecdotes I've heard, homelessness is increasing here.
Jamie Baker Roskie
PS Today we make a site visit to Hawkinsville/Pulaski County, in South Central Georgia. Hawkinsville is a small rural town that has been losing population over the last 20 years but is working hard to preserve and redevelop its historic downtown and its housing stock. More on this visit soon.
The Wall Street Journal has an article about the dilapidated state of one of the most prominent and historic buildings at St. Andrews, the Home of Golf:
For one of golf's most famous buildings, Hamilton Hall in St. Andrews, Scotland, is looking pretty shabby these days. Its red sandstone façade is still impressive, especially when lit by the late-day sun. The building looms over the 18th green of the celebrated Old Course and, more pointedly, over the clubhouse of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club across the street. (Thomas Hamilton, who had Jewish roots, commissioned the grand structure in the 1890s, as a hotel, after being rejected for membership by the R&A.) But peek around back and you'll find broken windows, boarded-up doors and blight. Inside, rubble mounts past the wainscots of rooms with ornate ceilings, dangling wires and invaluable views of the world's most famous links.
Don't say "blight"!!! An interesting read and points to ponder about HP, even if you're not a golf fan.
It does remind me of Justice Scalia's dissenting opinion lamenting the establishment of Federal Golf.
Thanks to Tim Zinnecker for the pointer.
I wanted to post this on Sunday as part of my longstanding (two-week-old) tradition of posting a more lighthearted entry on the weekend (such as the End of the Universe and America's Favorite Cities). But here it is.
This weekend was the Festa Italiana in Houston. Indeed, Festa is the Italian word for party (or feast, festival, or holiday, to be precise). Perhaps that is why my students love Property so much. We had a decent time; my daughter rode a mechanical bull (Italian how?), and we got t-shirts with our last name on them ("always hot, always fresh," indeed!).
What's the land use connection to Italian-American Festas? I can think of two. The basis for the first land use connection is the answer to the question of why city Italian festivals are often held in mid-October. The answer is proximity to Columbus Day. Now there was an era when Columbus's "discovery" of America was the stuff of huge celebrations in the U.S. But nowadays the celebration of Columbus Day is much more fraught with controversy, as Eugene Volokh's recent commentary suggests. One could certainly see the land use lesson of Columbus Day as the European land grab in the western hemisphere. I don't disagree. But I would only mention that for Italian-American immigrants, Columbus Day was historically an occasion of ethnic pride commensurate with St. Patrick's Day for Irish-Americans. For generations of Italian-Americans, Cristoforo Colombo was the great exemplar of Italian contribution to the American experience--the namesake of the District of the capital, a great university, a religious/social fraternal order, and so on.
The more important connection between land use and Italian Festas, to me, is their reminder of the traditional Italian-American neighborhood in many American cities and towns. One of my permanent memories is seeing on the ritual drive down the New York Thruway a building with a sign for the Order Sons of Italy in America. Conscious of my last name, I have been aware of "Festas" in Milwaukee, Scranton, Schenectady, Syracuse, and even Seattle. Like with other ethnic groups, Italian-American immigrants tended to cluster in particular neighborhoods in both big cities and small towns. Some of the more prominent cities had specific Italian or "Little Italy" neighborhoods; among those I have seen are Boston's North End; Manhattan's Little Italy; Cleveland's Little Italy; San Fransisco's North Beach; and New Orleans's French Quarter (yeah, it's called "French," but much of its character was cast by the 19th Century immigrant Italians (ever had a mufuletta in France?)).
I've seen Italian-American neighborhoods in some small towns, too. To the extent that the neighborhood is making a comeback as a land use planning paradigm, as well as the Traditional Neighborhood Development, it is worth considering (without over-romanticizing) the contributions that traditional, (quasi-) organic neighborhoods from all ethnic and cultural groups have made to American culture. I suspect that many Americans today feel a wistful yearning for a connection with the "old neighborhood" of their family's prior generations.
Monday, October 19, 2009
Andrew M. Manshel (executive vice president, Greater Jamaica Development Corp.) has written A Place is Better than a Plan: Revitalizing Urban Areas is Best Done Through Small Improvements, not Grand Designs for the Autumn 2009 issue of City Journal. The summary:
The importance of small ideas to urban revitalization isn’t widely appreciated. Particularly in the most recent real-estate cycle, many planners, design professionals, and developers produced grand schemes instead. But profound change is more likely to result from a deeply considered idea that alters an essential component of an urban environment than from an elaborate master plan that requires abundant resources and considerable political capital. While some large-scale plans, like Rockefeller Center, are successful, most become impersonal, overbearing failures—or, even more often, are stillborn, the victims of the long process of assemblage, environmental remediation, community participation, zoning adoption, and the securing of financing.
Manshel uses the example of putting movable chairs in several small New York parks beginning in the 1980s to convey a message of personal control over social arrangements, trust, and safety. He seems to be telling a story that is sort of Jane Jacobs-meets-broken windows theory. Plus there is a shout-out to Houston's new downtown urban park, Discovery Green.
I've been reading more and more stories about people who are being evicted or foreclosed on and, in turn, end up living in their cars. This type of situation leads to a whole set of potential land use regulatory questions.
One of the most prominent is whether this type of residential use should be/is permitted in non-residential zones (including public property and even public right of ways).
My nascent research turned up this article from the LA Times earlier this year:
The number of cars and recreational vehicles has swelled so much over the last year that Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who represents the city's coastal areas, has proposed creating special zones away from neighborhoods where people can sleep in their vehicles.
"The community has been going ballistic," Rosendahl said. "They can't park their own cars. Some of the folks who live in their cars and in campers defecate and urinate outside and create other issues of quality of life and health."
His proposal, similar to programs in Santa Barbara and Eugene, Ore., would allow the cars and recreational vehicles to park in select "municipal properties, parking lots of churches or community-based organizations, industrial areas and other areas that would have minimal impact on residential communities." Current city laws prohibit sleeping in a car or RV on the street.
I suspect that this trend, even if it grows only a small bit, could present an entirely new paradigm through which to view land uses. If anyone else has researched the zoning of "car homes", please leave a comment or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
--Chad Emerson, Faulkner U.
The much hyped (deservedly so in my mind) Miami 21 land development code is scheduled for a second reading before council this Thursday. The code's use of the transect as a regulatory organizing tool is particularly innovative and useful.
In advance of the hearing, several very interesting "white papers" related to the Miami 21 effort were recently posted on the official website. You can find all of them here.
This one on waivers and variances may be especially interesting to land use legal types.
Sunday, October 18, 2009
Charleston's Post & Courier published an article today that might come in handy when teaching the concept of externalities and how parties may or not be able to resolve them through internalization (the second concept). The article, by journalist Tony Bartelme, is titled, "What are these black particles? Health and safety concerns bring to light a longtime issue for residents living near coal-fired plant." The article provides examples of issues that might impede internalization, namely the assembly problem, free riders, and other transaction costs. Notwithstanding the presence of black particles in drinking water or a fine dust that covers outside surfaces in residential areas near the plant, some residents have been reluctant to speak out. Others report that complaints to the power company have never been answered, although the company took steps in the past to reach settlements with certain residents, purchased contaminated land, and upgraded systems to reduce pollution. Research conducted by the local newspaper along with area scientists suggest the presence of coal particles in drinking water, although the specific source remains unindentified. Whether and how affected parties will account for these latest externalities remains to be seen. A purely voluntary solution seems unlikely.
Will Cook, Charleston School of Law
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