Friday, November 15, 2013
I no longer follow Georgia news closely, but recently my Facebook feed lit up with multiple article postings and opinions about the Atlanta Braves' plan to build a new stadium in suburban Cobb County, abandoning Turner Field, which they've occupied for only 16 years. Sentiment amongst my friends is running about 20 to 1 against the move. It even merited national attention from a Huffington Post blogger. He brings up the not-unfamiliar criticism that Cobb County has no business spending $450 million on a new stadium when they're furloughing teachers:
Now it seems that Cobb County is one of the 100th wealthiest counties in America, and the 12th most educated. So $450 million must be chump change -- it's not like they're Philadelphia, slashing public school teachers in the face of massive budget cuts. Oh, wait... actually they are sort of like that: "Cobb County's school board approved a 2013-14 budget Thursday night that will result in five furlough days for all employees, the loss of 182 teachers through attrition and a slimmer central administration staff."
The cuts are the result of reduced state aid and lower property tax revenues -- although apparently the lower property tax revenues that are low enough to mean fewer teachers aren't so low that they can't BUILD A NEW BASEBALL STADIUM! For a team that already has what you and I might, sanely, consider a pretty new baseball stadium.
I'm friends with several local government lawyers, and my friend, law school classmate, and former member of the Georgia legislature Rob Teilhet rightly pointed out that building the stadium has no direct relationship to school funding. But, as Land Use Prof chief blogger Matt Festa noted in a blog post he wrote in 2009 on stadium controversies generally, claims are often made that the overall economic development caused by the stadium will benefit the community generally. This project is no exception.
Jamie Baker Roskie
Friday, November 1, 2013
Marie Boyd (South Carolina) has posted Zoning for Apartments: A Study of the Role of Law in the Control of Apartment Houses in New Haven, Connecticut 1912-1932, 33 Pace L. Rev. 600 (2013). In it, she reviews building records and Sanborn maps to give her reader a complete picture of the restrictions placed on apartment development before and after New Haven's first zoning ordinance in 1926. Here's the abstract:
This article seeks to contribute to the legal and policy debates over zoning by providing a more detailed examination of the impact of apartments on both pre-zoning land use patterns and the zoning process during the formative initial stages of zoning in the United States than has been provided in the literature to date. Specifically, this Article analyzes the impact of apartments on both pre-zoning land use patterns and the zoning process in New Haven, Connecticut. It focuses on the period beginning with the selection of New Haven’s first Zoning Commission in 1922, and concluding with the passage of New Haven’s first zoning ordinance in 1926. Through this detailed historical account of the realities of zoning, this Article demonstrates how — due to delays in the enactment of zoning — New Haven’s first zoning ordinance, rather than shaping the future growth of the regulated area, was instead shaped by existing land use patterns and political considerations.
Wednesday, October 30, 2013
So it's been quite awhile since my last post, but I felt compelled to share the end of the story about putting a Wal-Mart in downtown Athens, Georgia. If you're a longtime reader of the blog you may remember that an Atlanta based developer proposed a mixed-use development, anchored by a Wal-Mart, in the center of Athens. (See my previous post here.) Although Wal-Mart never expressed official interest in the project, many local residents were highly opposed to the idea.
Yesterday the local paper featured a story saying that the developer has now abandoned the project entirely, due to market conditions. The development featured student apartments as its residential component, and downtown Athens is already overbuilt in that category. However, the site, while topographically challenging, is prime real estate. I'm sure as market conditions improve something will eventually be built there.
Jamie Baker Roskie
Tuesday, July 23, 2013
I am not sure how many of you are readers of High Country News, but it is of course the go to source for news about the West (especially if you are interested in land use, conservation, or rural peoples). I get it in hard copy because even though you can get it electronically, it is hard to beat seeing their large format magazine with awesome images. An article by Ray Ring from the June 10th issue caught my eye and I thought might be interesting to some of you.
In Paradise at a Price, Ring examines how conservation goals collide with affordable housing. He uses Jackson, Wyoming to tell his tale but it is a story we have seen in many towns. Jackson has some special challenges because of its high percentage of publicly owned land, but we see similar patterns in several resort communities. The story is a simple one. Beautiful areas attract people. Beautiful areas with recreation opportunities in particular end up with communties dominated by fancy vacation homes and amenities for tourists. Real estate prices are high. But all those tourists and Californians with second homes still need goods and services. The problem is that employees of the stores, the ski resorts, the hotels, and the grocery stores can't afford to live in Jackson. This means we need afforable housing projects. Unfortunately, in areas like Jackson the affordable housing projects compete not only with other private residential development but also with conservation efforts.
This article was not about conservation easements, but its description of conservation easements in Jackson illuminated two somewhat conflicting concerns with conservation easements. I'll give you the facts and then explain my concerns.
- More than 97% of Teton County's land is public (owned by federal, state, or local government)
- This leaves only 78,000 acres of private land for development
- Much of this private land is covered by vacation homes for the wealthy
- 1964 local planning laws established overlay districts, protecting wildlife habitat and scenic views. This restricts development on 48,000 acres (leaving only 30,000 unrestricted acres).
- Conservation easements prevent development on 22,000 acres. Most (but not all) of the conservation easements are within the overlay districts
- 20,000 acres are too steep to build on (I think this may leave 10,000 unrestricted developable acres but I am not exactly sure what category these 20,000 acres fall into)
- Restrictions throughout the county limit things like building height (usually nothing over 2 stores) and include specific rules limiting construction near things like spawning areas and swan nests
Okay, so now my concerns. Note, there are many concerns here about affordable housing which are obviously just from looking at the facts above and are well explained in Ring's article, so let me just look to the conservation easement issue.
- Conservation easements are part of the problem on the affordable housing front. The restrictions on development puts up obstacles for people trying to build needed housing. Depending on your goals, you may be okay with that outcome but most of these conservation easements are ways for wealthy people to protect their views and open space (often with receiving attractive tax breaks). I know protecting these beautiful areas is important, but when we let private individuals make all the decisions about what to protect ... it makes me nervous.
- Conservation easements may not get you a lot of bang for your buck. The article states that most of the conservation easements in the community are in areas already protected by overlay districts. This makes me really curious about what type of compensation or development permit the landowners got in exchange for the conservation easements. What are they worth if land use was restricted without them. Admittedly, the conservation easements may have additional restrictions and will remain even if the County changes the contours and rules for the overlay districts. I don't have information about these individual conservation easements, and I am sure the Jackson Hole Land Trust would be pissed at perturbed by my claims but I have seen several examples from conservation easements I have dealt with directly where the landowner receives a large benefit for agreeing not to do something she never intended to do.
Just some food for thought
Wednesday, July 17, 2013
This past weekend I was in Southern California for a family wedding, and we had the chance to go over to the Getty Museum. It is a spectacular place for many reasons including land use and architecture. Right now, and through July 21, the Getty is featuring an incredibly interesting exhibit called Overdrive: LA Constructs the Future, 1940-1990. It tells the story of how LA was the archetype for American land use and development in the postwar era through the end of the 20th Century.
Tuesday, July 16, 2013
Darren A. Plum (Flordia State) and Tetsuo Kobayashi (Florida State-Geography) have posted Green Building Geography Across the United States: Does Governmental Incentives or Economic Growth Stimulate Construction? The abstract:
As green building activity continues to rise across the country, some state governments decided to create incentives that would motivate developers to voluntarily pursue third party certification for their real estate projects in order to assist in meeting sustainability and environmental goals. Despite the growing number of studies in green buildings, the geography of green buildings and sustainable construction only includes a few studies, which emphasize the lack of green building research from the spatial perspective and their relevance to public policies. This study analyses spatial distributions of certified green buildings in relation to governmental incentives deemed necessary to further environmentally friendly public policies that embrace sustainable construction practices while applying a regression analysis over time to determine the impact of such a course of action in relation to economic growth. This study focuses on each of the six states that applied tax incentives. The regression analysis between the number of certified green buildings and Gross Domestic Product in each state shows positive correlation between the two indicating an economic growth is a significant factor to explain the growth in green buildings.
Sunday, March 24, 2013
For those of you who just cannot get enough of Richard Florida, the Daily Beast this week features an exchange between Joel Kotkin and Richard Florida on whether Florida's evolution as a proponent of cities being geared toward the "creative class" constitutes a full-scale retreat from his emphasis on this group as a generator of local and regional economic growth. Florida's installment references a related piece on the importance of urban design that promotes personal interaction that he published in the Wall Street Journal back in July.
HT, Chris O'Byrne.
Tuesday, January 22, 2013
For those of you interested in conservation easements (particularly historic façade easements), you may have been following the Scheidelman saga.The next installment is now out.
In Scheidelman v. Comissioner, T.C. Memo. 2010-151 [Scheidelman I], the landowner sought a deduction for a façade easement burdening her Brooklyn brownstone. The Tax Court disqualified an appraisal because it viewed the method of calculating the easement’s value inadequate. Appraisals must include the method of valuation used as well as the specific basis for the valuation. The appraiser applied a percentage to the fair market value of the property before conveyance of the conservation easement. The Tax Court found that the appraiser had insufficiently explained the method (i.e., the percentage approach) and basis of the valuation (i.e., the specific data used).
The landowner appealed to the Second Circuit. The Second Circuit [Scheidelman II, 682 F.3d 189 (2d Cir. 2012)] reversed the Tax Court, saying that the shortcomings of the approach should not disqualify the appraisal.
On remand [Scheidelman III, T.C. Memo. 2013-18 ], the Tax Court accepted the Second Circuit's assessment that the appraisal was “qualified” but still thought it was crappy was not credible. You can check out the case if you want to delve into the nitty gritty of appraisal methods. The most problematic issue appeared to be the fact that the appraisal just picked a number between 10 and 12% of the fair market value of the home when trying to determine the value of the conservation easement. The appraiser's reasoned that those are the numbers that courts and the IRS seem to like instead of actually looking at the property and making an assessment.
I am enamored of this case though because in the end the Tax Court said no tax deduction is warranted. The evidence demonstrates that façade easements actually increase the value of homes in this area. Additionally, the landowner herself admitted that she was seeking a tax deduction for something she would have done anyway. Here is my favorite quote from the landowner:
"Well, I was primarily interested in preserving my house itself in light of the dramatic development that was occurring in and around Fort Greene during those years and still is. I was also intrigued by the tax benefit of preserving the facade which I had intended to do anyway. …I also wanted to benefit tax wise. I didn't know how much I would benefit, but I wanted to benefit from what I was already intended to be committed to doing."
I have been disturbed fascinated by conservation easement tax deductions that pay owners not to do things they never planned on doing. In understand that there can be some value to the conservation easements becuase perhaps future landowners would have other desires, but it is hard for me to reconcile that worth with the high value of tax deductions current landowners receive. I am glad to see the IRS and Tax Court calling these landowners out. Maybe if a landowner seeks to claim a tax decuction for a conservation easement and we see that the conservation easement increased the value of their land, they should have to pay that difference to the treasury.
Friday, January 4, 2013
Living in Pennsylvania (as I now do) I feel compelled to see the new Matt Damon movie "Promised Land," which opened in local theaters yesterday. The movie is about fracking, and the trailers look very intriguing. (I saw the trailer while seeing Tom Cruise's new movie "Jack Reacher" which, while most notable for multiple visceral fight sceens and car chases, also has a land use angle - SPOILER ALERT the villians are developers trying to get an advantage in a development project in downtown Pittsburgh.)
Today I was searching for a review of Promised Land and I stumbled across this article on NPR.org, which had an interesting critique of a scene where local citizens vote on whether fracking would happen in their town.
The film remains in the realm of fiction as the town debates an upcoming vote on whether drilling and fracking should be allowed. In the real world, there's almost never a vote.
"In Pennsylvania, where this film was made, municipalities have very little authority over what happens," says Kate Sinding, senior attorney and deputy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "They certainly don't get an up-and-down vote."
Still, I think this movie is a "don't miss" for land use afficianados, and I plan to see it soon.
Jamie Baker Roskie
January 4, 2013 in Clean Energy, Community Economic Development, Development, Economic Development, Environmental Justice, Environmental Law, Environmentalism, Local Government, Oil & Gas | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Saturday, August 25, 2012
The Philadelphia Inquirer has an article providing an overview of the city's new zoning code, which replaces its 1962 code. The new code allows high-rises to be built more easily in the city's central commercial district and along its waterfront as-of-right. (See map of new zoning districts.) It also "assumes the city's population will grow in the future, and it encourages higher density buildings to accommodate the newcomers." (Note: Philly's population has declined from slightly over 2 million in 1960 to slightly over 1.5 million today.)
According to the article:
Because the previous code was so outmoded, the Zoning Board of Adjustment had gotten in the habit of handing out variances almost at whim, even when a project deviated dramatically from the neighborhood context. The haphazard process invited abuse from powerful gatekeepers, most of them Council members. It often seemed you only needed to make a campaign contribution to obtain a variance in Philadelphia.
Developers advocated for a more predictable development process, which would enable the city to better compete for residents and jobs. The new code is approximately 200 pages shorter than its predecessor.
Two thoughts come to mind after reading this article. First, the discussion surrounding the new zoning code echoes the considerations raised in relation to tax reform, particularly the desire for simplicity and predictability and the concern that a code laden with amendments, overlays, and other complexities favors sophisticated actors. Second, as Philadelphia pushes greater density and potential population growth in Center City, what will become of outlying city neighborhoods, which have seen substantial population declines (and a significant number of vacant properties) in recent decades? In May the city launched a website mapping its inventory of 9,000 vacant properties, approximately one-quarter of the estimated 40,000 abandoned buildings in the city.
Thursday, August 23, 2012
“I can say this is the same as the crisis in Thailand in 1997,” said Hua Ngoc Thuan, the vice chairman of the People’s Committee of Ho Chi Minh City, the city’s top executive body. “Property investors pushed the prices so high. They bought for speculation — not for use.”
The article describes a Vietnam that sounds similar in many ways to the US and other places: a real estate bubble fueled by overpromotion; a recession that has left land development projects uncompleted; a disproportionate impact on younger workers; hard times for certain sectors of the economy, while others are relatively unscathed. Of course with Vietnam having dived in to the global economy in the past generation, the American recession and the European debt crisis are also having effects in Vietnam. But it's still quite interesting that the trigger seems to be a real estate bubble.
Sunday, August 19, 2012
Mark D. Bauer (Stetson) has posted ‘Peter Pan’ as Public Policy: Should Fifty-Five-Plus Age-Restricted Communities Continue to Be Exempt from Civil Rights Laws and Substantive Federal Regulation? The abstract:
Although millions of Americans live in 55-plus age-restricted housing, little research has been done to determine whether these communities benefit their residents, or the nation as a whole. This is particularly ironic because these communities exist in contravention to anti-discrimination laws by virtue of a specific exemption granted to real estate developers by an Act of Congress. Ordinarily age discrimination is prohibited by the Fair Housing Act, Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Successful lobbying by special interest groups carved out an exemption for 55-plus housing.
The original exemption required developers to offer elders special services and facilities in these communities in return for the exemption. Over time, those requirements were eliminated and now the only requirement is that these communities exclude families and children.
While lifestyles focused on golf and tennis may be attractive to younger retirees, older Americans often find themselves in communities bereft of the services and facilities they need for basic life activities and safety. The very nature of these communities result in elders left with depreciating homes, and many are without the financial means to retrofit their 55-plus home or to move into a community better adapted for their needs. This Article explores a popular form of “senior housing” that is unsuitable for most older Americans.
August 19, 2012 in Community Design, Constitutional Law, Development, Federal Government, History, Homeowners Associations, Housing, HUD, Real Estate Transactions, Scholarship, Sun Belt | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Friday, August 17, 2012
Martin D. Heintzelman (Clarkson--Business), Patrick J. Walsh, and Dustin J. Grzeskowiak (Clarkson--Business) have posted Explaining the Appearance and Success of Open Space Referenda. The abstract:
To guard against urban sprawl, many communities in the United States have begun enacting policies to preserve open space, often through local voter referenda. New Jersey sponsors such municipal action through the Green Acres Program by providing funding and low interest loans to towns that choose, through a referendum, to increase property taxes and spend the money raised on open space preservation for the purposes of conservation and/or recreation. Understanding which factors contribute to the appearance and success of these measures is important for policy makers and conservation advocates, not only in New Jersey, but across the United States. Although previous literature has examined this issue, this is the first study to account for spatial dependence/spatial autocorrelation and to explore dynamic issues through survival analysis. The traditional two stage model from the literature is extended by incorporating a Bayesian spatial probit for the first stage and a maximum-likelihood spatial error model in the second stage. A Cox – proportional hazard model is used to examine the timing of referenda appearance. Spatial dependence is found in the second stage of the analysis, indicating future studies should account for its influence. There is not strong evidence for spatial dependence or correlation in the first stage. The survival model is found to be a useful complement to the traditional probit analysis of the first stage.
Thursday, August 16, 2012
Foreign Policy recently has published its Special Report "Cities Issue." While the issue is themed on urban affairs generally, its articles coalesce around the amazing urban development taking place in China. From the website intro:
Our special issue dedicated to the cities of the future has its eye squarely toward China, because the cities of the future are increasingly going to be speaking Mandarin -- even more than you realize. It's no longer news that China has embarked on the largest mass urbanization in history, a monumental migration from country to city that will leave China with nearly a billion urbanites by 2025 and an astonishing 221 cities with populations over 1 million. But this isn't just about size: It's about global heft. And that's where the scale of China's transformation into a world leader is truly astonishing. In an exclusive index for FP, the McKinsey Global Institute has run the numbers to produce what we're calling The 75 Most Dynamic Cities of 2025 -- an extraordinary 29 of which are in China. Some are already global powers, from top-ranked Shanghai to manufacturing dynamo Shenzhen; others, from Fuzhou to Xiamen, were little more than provincial backwaters in the 20th century but look to be household names in the 21st, powering the global economy not just through their sheer size but also through their urban innovation and pulsing drive. Europe, meanwhile, will manage only three cities on the list by 2025; the United States finishes second to China -- a very distant second -- with 13. Still think that debate about Western decline is overblown?
There are a whole bunch of interesting articles at the website. Just one that I'll highlight is New Urbanism pioneer Peter Calthorpe's Weapons of Mass Urban Destruction: China's Cities are Making the Same Mistake America Made on the Path to Superpower Status. Again, there's a whole lot of interesting analysis at the FP Cities Issue website.
Wednesday, August 15, 2012
The New York Observer has a list of the 15 Most Fascinating NY Real Estate Cases of the 21st Century, based on a survey of NYC real estate lawyers. Although most involve contracts or financing gone awry, a few involve zoning and land use disputes. They also make use of Sherlock Holmes-esque titles, like "The Case of the Mischievous Mall Developer."
Of particular interest are "The Case of the Masterpiece & The Condo Ad," involving a dispute over advertising, public art, and landmarking. The "Case of the Museum and the Architect" involves a building designed by Jean Nouvel next to MOMA, as well as zoning, landmarking and air rights issues. "The Case of the Brooklyn Basketball Arena" gives a very truncated summary of the series of legal battles over eminent domain and the construction of a new arena for the Brooklyn Nets. (For a more detailed account in response from critics of the development see the Atlantic Yards Report). And "The Case of the Abused J-51" details the legal battles over rent regulation following the $5.4 billion purchase of Stuyvesant Town.
Thursday, August 9, 2012
Sara C. Bronin (Connecticut) and J. Peter Byrne (Georgetown) recently published a new casebook called Historic Preservation Law, Foundation Press 2012. HP is quickly becoming a central part of land use planning, as the authors make clear in this excerpt from the Preface:
This book was written for anyone interested in the increasingly important area of historic preservation law. With this book, we hope to advance and encourage the teaching of preservation law, shape the way the field is conceived, and create a practical resource that will be consulted by attorneys and other preservation professionals.
Our approach to the subject is reasonably straightforward. We present the most significant legal issues in preservation and place them in a contemporary context, identifying contested questions and areas of reform. The format of the book is traditional: edited leading cases with notes that provide explanation, extension, and issues for discussion. Given the interdisciplinary nature of the field, we belive that the legal issues can only be understood in light of historical, aesthetic, political, and administrative issues that make up the larger realm of preservation. Accordingly, we provide secondary materials, both legal and non-legal.
Because we focus on preservation of buildings and sites, we present preservation as part of land use or urban development law. Thus, we provide extensive treatment of local preservation law, which regulates private property, as well as relevant issues in real estate finance and project development. We also provide comprehensive treatment of federal law, including the National Historical Preservation Act and related statutes. In addition, we explore federal laws that address preservation vis-a-vis cultural property issues, particularly regarding Native American and archaelogical sites. Preservation has also generated important and interesting constitutional questions related to takings, religious freedoms, and free speech rights, which we address.
This is the first, or at least the most recent, major casebook on the law of historic preservation that I know of. Professors Bronin and Byrne, who are also accomplished scholars in the land use field generally, have provided us a major contribution with this book, which looks to be *the* significant text in HP law. Land use scholars and professionals should definitely have this one on their shelves.
August 9, 2012 in Constitutional Law, Development, Federal Government, Historic Preservation, History, Local Government, Property, Real Estate Transactions, Scholarship, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Tuesday, August 7, 2012
I just can't enough of Buffalo these days. Yesterday, I posted about our "zombieness" and today I learned of something fun being done with some of our vacant land (up to 20% of the land in the city of Buffalo is vacant -- no that is not the same thing as open space). Some Brooklyn-based architects are suggesting we turn the land into artfarms. Never heard of artfarms? Me neither. The architects describe them as sculptures that serve as agricultural grow structures. Urban farming meets local artists.
"These above-ground, vertically designed sculptures will provide a means to produce fruits, vegetables and flowers for the surrounding community, but they will also provide a creative basis for expansion. In essence, the concept of Artfarms is to create and erect devices that are not just aesthetically appealing, but that will serve a greater purpose by triggering redevelopment."
I hope they find some funding and support to make these happen. Nothing tastes better than a local ogranic tomato grown on a structure that belongs at Burning Man.
Thursday, August 2, 2012
As I mentioned in my first post, I want to use some of my time as a guest-blogger here to introduce a few projects I am current working on through the Furman Center. Today I want to talk about a fairly new project examining regulatory barriers to the construction of smaller housing units.
There has been significant discussion recently of the benefits of allowing the construction of very small apartments. In Boston, Mayor Menino has advocated the development of micro-units, smaller than those permitted by current regulations, targeted at young professionals. As reported on the PropertyProf Blog, San Francisco is exploring ways to reduce existing unit size minimums from 290 square feet to 220 square feet. In New York, Mayor Bloomberg announced a request for proposals to build an apartment building with units measuring between 275 and 300 square feet (currently units must be at least 400 square feet). The associated request for proposals for the project has already been downloaded over 1,000 times by interested parties throughout the world.
Parallel with this discussion of micro-units, a number of municipalities, both large and small, are rethinking regulations governing the construction of accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in single family neighborhoods. Some communities, such as Santa Cruz, California, have gone further and actively encourage the construction of accessory dwelling units by providing technical assistance to prospective landlords, pre-approved designs, low-interest loan programs, and other resources. These units, which may be located over a garage or in a basement, offer opportunities for encouraging denser development and urban infill. They also are seen by some as a way to help seniors maintain their homes or “age in place.”
Efforts to encourage construction of smaller housing are motivated in part by the recognition that changing demographics and household composition have created a mismatch between demand and existing housing supply. A recent book, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, explored the increasing prevalence of single urban dwellers. New York City’s Citizens Housing Planning Council raised attention to this issue through a recent project called “Making Room,” which enlisted a set of architects to propose different designs for innovative housing types that would meet these changing needs, but would demand regulatory changes in order to be built. The project recognized that many individuals, who cannot find housing that meets their needs, currently live in unregulated apartments within an underground housing market. These illegal conversions and other sources of affordable housing can create dangerous living conditions for occupants.
Smaller units – both in the form of micro-units in a multifamily development and accessory dwelling units in a single-family residential area – hold promise for serving a variety of needs: providing affordable housing, fostering greater density and more sustainable development patterns, increasing demand for mass transit in an area, and, as championed in Boston and New York, making expensive cities more attractive to young professionals who spend little time at home.
One supporter of the micro-unit proposal in New York was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying that “the city should ‘not be charged with regulating people’s preferences.’” This is, of course, the deeper question raised by changing the regulatory landscape to permit smaller housing units. Are these changes simply a matter of removing a (perhaps, to some, anachronistic or paternalistic) constraint on individual preferences? Or do the laws restricting this housing continue to serve an essential public purpose related to the health, safety, and welfare of residents? Commentators have noted that the zoning regulations that will be waived to allow the micro-unit prototypes in New York City were instituted in the early 20th Century to provide more humane living conditions, particularly through greater access to light and air. But modern construction methods and technology may provide news means to address these same health and safety issues, without returning to dreary and dangerous tenement living.
The discussion about changing regulations to allow smaller housing units is really just one piece of a broader question: do changes in living patterns, family composition, and technology demand a radical rethinking of the legal framework that governs urban life? Should the presence of vast amounts of currently illegal housing be seen as an indication that existing regulation is too strict and prevents the market from meeting demand? Are some regulations championed as serving goals related to health, safety and welfare, really more about the aesthetic or other preferences of existing residents?
To address the narrower regulatory questions raised by compact housing units, the Furman Center has begun a project, in partnership with CHPC, looking at a number of cities throughout the United States and examining regulatory barriers to smaller housing units, as well as efforts currently underway to change regulations or build these forms of housing. We are planning to study New York; Washington, DC; Austin; Denver; and Seattle, a mix of cities with varying degrees of interest and progress related to these issues. We will be examining a broad range of existing regulations, including zoning, building codes, accessibility laws, and occupancy regulations, that might prohibit or stymie the construction of these types of housing. Our goal is to outline the regulatory barriers that policy makers would need to address if they wished to allow more compact housing and to frame the questions that would need to be considered in conducting a more sophisticated cost-benefit analysis of the potential tradeoffs of changing these regulations, some of which may still serve a vital role in making cities more safe and livable.
Monday, July 30, 2012
Anyone who has practiced or studied land use law in a state with a strong environmental review process knows how that environmental review process often comes to override the land use permitting process. In particular, urban projects have often suffered from an environmental review process that works better for reviewing greenfield projects, and also from more litigious groups of neighbors that use environmental review procedures either to oppose the project, or seek "mitigations" that benefit neighboring property owners. On the other hand, efforts to ease the environmental review burdens on infill projects often run into a roadblock of environmental groups that believe exemptions for infill projects will likely only lead to more exemptions and a gutting of the entire law itself (the "slippery slope" argument).
This fight has been ongoing in California, and other states, for decades. Several infill exemption provisions from the state's California Environmental Quality Act ("CEQA", pronounced "SEE-kwa") look good on paper, but are essentially unworkable if there are litigious parties involved. Such unworkable exemptions are in the state's landmark SB375 legislation that seeks to link land use and transportation: the list of requirements for applicability of the exemption apply to, well, about absolutely nowhere. Another unworkable exemption is CEQA Guidlines section 15332, which is seldom used where litigation is possible.
With the passage of SB 226 in 2011, however, the state is once again taking a hard look at exemptions for urban infill projects. Under a mandate of SB 226, the Governor's Office of Planning and Research, now headed by Ken Alex, a well-respected former senior assistant attorney general who ran the California Attorney General's environmental division, has drafted a proposed new CEQA Guideline for urban infill exemptions that was released on June 25, 2012 after epic public commenting. The proposed CEQA Guideline is now going through formal rulemaking processes at the state's Natural Resources Agency. A cheat sheet on the new proposed infill exemption is available here. If you want to keep up-to-date on the California infill exemption hearings, you can do so by adding your name at this link.
California's purpose for pursuing the infill exemption is now structured in terms of the climate change debate, but decades ago, the need for such legislation was structured in terms of "sprawl" or "smart growth." We all know that it is harder to build in urban areas than in greenfields, and there needs to be a way to level that playing field and encourage urban infill. Following this latest effort in California will be a chance to watch this debate unfold once more, and now in the framework of the climate change debate.
Stephen R. Miller
Friday, July 27, 2012
As reported on Planetizen, Seattle's City Council approved a series of changes to the city's land use regulations on Monday that, it is claimed, "will create jobs and encourage flexibility and creativity in new development." These changes include an easing of parking requirements for new projects, a higher threshold for the size of projects subject to environmental review, and the elimination of a requirement of ground-floor retail space in certain areas. Last month, New York City initiated a program aimed at speeding up the land use review process and reducing associated costs for developers. New York is also considering reductions, in certain areas, of off-street parking requirements for new developments. (See a Furman Center report on the impact of minimum parking requirements on housing affordability.) Similarly, Los Angeles recently approved five years of funding for its Planning Department to revise the city's zoning code, part of a broader initiative to streamline development approvals.
These programs are championed for their benefits in spurring development and increasing predictability. But for critics they threaten to reduce public input and the careful consideration of neighborhood concerns. It will be interesting to see whether these changes represent a trend, partly motivated by the current economic climate, towards major reforms in city land use regulations and review processes. If readers know of similar efforts underway elsewhere, please share.