Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Rybczynski in Slate on Ordinary Places

Witold Rybczynski, Slate's architecture critic, UPenn prof, and author of many fascinating books, has an article--well, they call it a "slideshow"--called Ordinary Places: Rediscovering the parking lot, the big-box store, the farmer's market, the gas station.  It's a nice presentation with photos and commentary and well worth taking a quick look.    

Rybczynski has written scads about great public spaces, traditional neighborhood development, and so on, so he certainly isn't a defender of sprawling suburbia.  So I think that his comments on the "ordinary places" in the slideshow are interesting, and make a good point about finding value in the spaces in which we live.  Rybczynski cites landscape historian J.B. Jackson's concept of the "vernacular landscape."  For example, here are some counterintuitive observations on that evil, un-green scourge of our soulless car-bound culture, the Parking Lot:

Whether you are going to a farmers market or a big-box store, chances are you will have to park. Parking lots, rather than squares and plazas, are the most common public outdoor open spaces in America. They are complicated social spaces, where travelling gives way to arriving, driving to walking, privacy to publicness—and vice versa. Although inevitably described as "seas of asphalt"—they look bleak in photographs—they are orderly, clean places; Jackson once referred to their "austere beauty." Parking lots are also surprisingly civic. People politely observe rules of behaviour for the sake of the common good, parking between the lines, staying out of the handicapped spaces, driving slowly. It is one place where cars and pedestrians happily coexist.
Interesting stuff; definitely check out the link for the photos and commentary.

Matt Festa

August 24, 2010 in Architecture, Community Design, New Urbanism, Parking, Sprawl, Suburbs, Urbanism | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Leinberger (vs. Kotkin): Walking--Not Just for Cities Anymore

On The New Republic's excellent "The Avenue" blog, Christopher Leinberger (author of The Option of Urbanism) discusses a recent Brookings debate with Joel Kotkin (author of The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050).  From Walking--Not Just for Cities Anymore, Leinberger notes:

I just had a debate with Joel Kotkin, whom many consider to be an apologist for sprawl. Surprisingly, there is a convergence between his view of the next generation of real estate and infrastructure development and mine: a constellation of pedestrian-friendly urban development spread throughout metropolitan areas, redeveloping parts of the central city and transforming the inner, and some outer, suburbs. There are certainly differences between the two of us: I happen to see significant pent-up demand for walkable urban development and massive over-building of fringe car-oriented suburban housing and commercial development.

In fact, I see compelling evidence that the collapse of fringe drivable suburban markets was the catalyst for the Great Recession, and the lack of walkable urban development due to inadequate infrastructure and zoning is a major reason for the recovery’s sluggishness. Joel feels the demand for walkable urban development is a fraction of the future growth in households. I think rail transit, biking and walking infrastructure are crucial to make this walkable urban future happen; Joel thinks bus rapid transit is as far as we have to go in the transit world… making cars more technologically efficient is his main answer.

I have been hoping that Leinberger will prove correct about his belief in the untapped market demand for walkable urbanism, which has not persuaded Kotkin and other critics.  Leinberger concludes:

We need move away from 20th century concepts that confuse the conversation. If I am right, 70 to 80 percent of new development should be in walkable urban places, and my research leads me to think the majority of that development will be in the suburbs.

Matt Festa

July 13, 2010 in Density, Development, Downtown, Exurbs, Financial Crisis, Local Government, Mortgage Crisis, New Urbanism, New York, Pedestrian, Planning, Sprawl, Urbanism, Zoning | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, May 14, 2010


In a funny confluence of events my colleague, Pratt Cassity, sent me a blog by writer Brad Aaron (formerly of Athens, now of NYC) on Streetsblog.  The blog is about an episode of the American Makeover webseries on Atlanta.  The film includes notable Atlantans like Robert Bullard, known as the father of the environmental justice movement and the head of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University, Howard Frumpkin of the CDC, and Charles Brewer, developer of one of Atlanta's rare truly New Urbanist developments, Glenwood Park.  Although the film is ostensibly about Atlanta, it's really about Atlanta's status as the poster child of urban sprawl.  It's funny, short, and pithy, and would be a great introductory piece for students about sprawl and its effects, for good and for ill.

Jamie Baker Roskie

May 14, 2010 in Architecture, Community Design, Density, Development, Georgia, New Urbanism, Pedestrian, Sprawl, Suburbs, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Nolon on the Law of Sustainable Development

John R. Nolon (Pace) has posted The Law of Sustainable Development: Keeping Pace, forthcoming in the Pace Law Review.  The abstract:

This article describes the emerging field of sustainable development law and examines whether it is up to the challenge it faces. In a world of finite resources overrun by sprawl, threatened by climate change, short on fuel, and long on greenhouse gas emissions, the law must keep pace. After discussing what sustainable development law is, the article considers the relationship between change in society and the evolution of legal principles, strategies, and practices, particularly with respect to land use, property, and natural resources. Documented in this review is the steady change exhibited in the common law applicable to the ownership, use, and preservation of natural resources, the rapid spread of zoning in the early 20th century, and the current explosion of climate change litigation and regulation. Based on these and other examples, the first half of the article demonstrates that the law can and does evolve in response to crises in society, particularly when lawyers, judges, professionals, and policy makers are trained to understand that law is an instrument for positive change. The article then turns to why law schools matter by drawing lessons from the author’s personal experience at Pace University School of Law.

Matt Festa

May 12, 2010 in Climate, Scholarship, Sprawl, Sustainability, Zoning | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Hollander on Shrinking Cities

Justin Hollander (Tufts--Planning) has posted Moving Toward a Shrinking Cities Metric: Analyzing Land Use Changes Associated with Depopulation in Flint, Michigan, in Cityscape, Vol. 12, No. 1, 2010 .  The abstract:

Cities around the globe have experienced depopulation or population shrinkage at an acute level in the last half century. Conventional community development and planning responses have looked to reverse the process of depopulation almost universally, with little attention paid to how neighborhoods physically change when they lose population. This article presents an approach to study the physical changes of depopulating neighborhoods in a novel way. The approach considers how population decline creates different physical impacts (more or less housing abandonment, for example) across different neighborhoods. Data presented from a detailed case study of Flint, Michigan, illustrate that population decline can be more painful in some neighborhoods than in others, suggesting that this article’s proposed approach may be useful in implementing smart decline.

Matt Festa

May 11, 2010 in Detroit, Housing, HUD, Scholarship, Smart Growth, Sprawl | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Bronin on Curbing Energy Sprawl

Sara C. Bronin (Connecticut) has posted Curbing Energy Sprawl.  The abstract:

Energy sprawl - the phenomenon of ever-increasing consumption of land, particularly in rural areas, required to site energy generation facilities - is a real and growing problem. Over the next twenty years, at least sixty-seven million acres of land will have been developed for energy projects, destroying wildlife habitats and fragmenting landscapes. According to one influential report, even renewable energy projects - especially large-scale projects that require large-scale transmission and distribution infrastructure - contribute to energy sprawl. This Article does not aim to stop large-scale renewable energy projects or even argue that policymakers focus solely on land use in determining whether energy projects are allowed to proceed.

Rather, it proposes that we advance the legal institutions necessary to facilitate one possible solution to energy sprawl: the alternative energy microgrid - that is, small-scale distributed generation between neighbors of energy derived from sources such as solar collectors, wind power systems, microturbines, geothermal wells, and fuel cells. Microgrids are attractive from a public policy perspective. They decentralize energy production, reducing the need for massive transmission lines and large centralized plants. They allow property owners to achieve economies of scale by spreading the costs and the risk of installation and maintenance among many parties. They provide cleaner alternatives to conventional energy methods of production. And they improve system efficiencies by reducing the amount of energy lost during transmission across long distances to end users.

Despite such benefits, regulatory, political, and economic barriers thwart microgrids. For example, state laws prohibit or severely limit their viability, while neighbors may object to living nearby. This Article offers three proposals to address such barriers. First, Congress should require states to consider a model standard for microgrids, just as it has required states to consider model standards in other areas of utility law. Second, states should provide guidance to localities with respect to siting and permitting microgrid projects. Third, states should develop and authorize legal institutions that would support microgrid projects, drawing from Professor Robert Ellickson’s proposal for block improvement districts, which accommodate the public-private nature of shared energy. Together, these proposals would support small-scale energy sharing collectives whose emergence could transform the American landscape.

I attended Prof. Bronin's presentation of this at ALPS and it's a fascinating paper.  Bring on the microgrid. 

Matt Festa

April 27, 2010 in Clean Energy, Environmentalism, Local Government, Scholarship, Sprawl, State Government | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Texas Sprawl Goes Out With a Bang

They imploded Texas Stadium recently, which was in the suburban city of Irving in the DFW metroplex.  What is Irving going to do with all of that land?  Turns out they have a plan, as described in this story: Texas Sprawl Goes Out With a Bang: Development Sprouts on Irving Transit Line.  

Once the last traces of Texas Stadium are cleared away this summer, Irving intends to dust off plans drafted 10 years ago to transform the Cowboys’ former home and the surrounding acreage into the densest, most walkable neighborhood in the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex outside of downtown Dallas. An extension of the Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) Orange line is slated to run through the stadium footprint on its way from downtown to Dallas-Ft. Worth (DFW) International Airport. . . . The stadium site is the next piece in its urban puzzle.

That piece has three owners -- Irving, the neighboring University of Dallas, and Southwest Premier Properties, a private developer -- whose holdings comprise 468 acres. The plans the three chipped in for 10 years ago (and resulting zoning) call for things like four- or five-story apartment blocks with ground floor retail rather than single-family homes. (The Greater Irving Las Colinas Chamber of Commerce tossed some renderings up on its Web site Monday. “’Urban-suburban,’ is a phrase we’ve been using a lot lately, says Maura Gast, the executive director of Irving’s Convention & Visitors Bureau, referring to the notion of urban densities in a suburban setting. “Everywhere the DART is going is driving more density. The market will support it; developers have started jockeying along that path.” Where the stadium once stood, Gast would like to see something like Chicago’s Millennium Park -- at least she has the acreage.

Part of the reason for the assessment of market demand for urbanism is that the nearby Las Colinas area that is home to corporate offices but lacking in other dimensions.  

The glittering towers featured in the opening credits of Dallas -- one pair seemingly clad in gold leaf, another as black and viscous as an oil slick -- lie not in Dallas proper, but in the remnants of El Ranchito de las Colinas, the 12,000-acre “Little Ranch of the Hills.” The same year DFW opened just west of it in 1973, owner Ben Carpenter unveiled his master plan for a wholly-owned-and-operated city carved from those mesquite-shrouded hills -- the largest urban development in the country. Before a single plot of land was sold, he ordered the dredging of lakes and canals, stocked them with gondolas, and ran a monorail overhead. "It is Disney World for the affluent," Texas Monthly reported in the 1980s.  [paging Chad Emerson!]  "In fact, when executives from Disney World visited the development a few years ago, one of them commented that it was a shame ol’ Walt couldn’t have lived to see the real thing."

What’s most interesting about Irving’s plans to add density in its last undeveloped corner is the tacit admission that Las Colinas’s gold-plated office parks and single-family homes are no longer enough. "The piece that has always been missing from Las Colinas is the human density that’s missing on weekends and at nights," says Gast. The reason for adding that piece is an eminently practical one -- it’s what those corporate tenants, their workers and developers all want. Irving is embracing transit-oriented development because it thinks it can make money doing it.

Matt Festa

April 20, 2010 in Density, Local Government, Planning, Redevelopment, Smart Growth, Sprawl, Texas, Transportation, Urbanism | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, April 19, 2010

Keep Portland Precious?

From last week's Economist, an editorial about whether Portland, Oregon's success as a environmentally-friendly, dense, bikable community can be replicated, or whether it is unique.

The locals, in fact, enjoy feeling odd: “Keep Portland weird”, say bumper stickers on the city’s cars, which all seem to be hybrid-electric vehicles. “Keep Portland sanctimonious,” mumble a few contrarians, while others savour the irony that Portland had to steal the slogan from Austin, Texas. But on the whole, Portlanders not only love their city but believe that it is, and ought to be, a model for the rest of America.

I'm a Portland transplant; I attended Lewis & Clark College and lived there for eight years post-undergrad.  There are some things I miss about Portland, and many things I admire about its transformation as a city.  However, when folks here in Athens hold up Portland as a paragon and model, I get a little itchy.  I hate to sound like an old-timer, but the house we bought for $65,000 in 1992 is now easily is now worth four times that.  The neighborhood grocery store has been replaced by Whole Foods, and the local restaurants and repair shops are now upscale eateries and boutiques.  The city may be more desirable, but it feels more elitist.  Is it possible to have one without the other?

Jamie Baker Roskie

April 19, 2010 in Density, Development, Housing, Planning, Sprawl | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Forum: Land Use in the Unzoned City (@ South Texas)

The South Texas College of Law is pleased to invite the public to what promises to be a very interesting forum called Land Use in the Unzoned City: Regulation, Property Rights, and Smart Growth in Houston's Future.  From the program:

Houston is the only major city in the U.S. without traditional zoning.  What should the government’s role be in regulating land use and development?  How should the law and the land intersect?  Should Houston stay as it is, adopt zoning, or consider Smart Growth principles to reduce sprawl and protect the environment?  Do regulations and policies to promote New Urbanism or transit-oriented development work, and are they right for Houston?  Our panelists will offer their perspectives on the future of land use in Houston and across the U.S.


David Crossley, President & Founder, Houston Tomorrow

Kendall Miller, CEO, Houstonians for Responsible Growth

Prof. Craig Anthony Arnold, University of Louisville & University of Houston (visiting)

Prof. Asmara Tekle, Texas Southern University

Moderator: Prof. Matthew Festa, South Texas College of Law

When:  Tuesday, April 13, 12:00 noon
Where: South Texas College of Law, 1303 San Jacinto, Downtown Houston, Garrett-Townes Auditorium

The event is being hosted by the student Real Estate Law Society, with co-sponsorship from Houston Tomorrow and Houstonians for Responsible Growth.  I'm very much looking forward to it.  If you can be in Houston next Tuesday, we'd love to have you attend (did I mention free lunch?).  Contact me if you have any questions. 

Matt Festa

April 8, 2010 in Community Design, Conferences, Density, Development, Form-Based Codes, Houston, Lectures, Local Government, New Urbanism, Planning, Smart Growth, Smartcode, Sprawl, Transportation, Urbanism, Zoning | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

New Approaches to Urban Redevelopment

Saturday I attended a very interesting lecture by Ken Reardon, who is a planning professor at The University of Memphis and a founding member of the Memphis Regional Design Center (MRDC).  The lecture was part of an event called "Look at That!  Fresh Approaches for Urban Redevelopment in Athens."  The economy being what it is, many of our clients are looking for help with redevelopment, rather than combating sprawl, so I took the opportunity to attend this event, sponsored by the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation.

Reardon's lecture was very interesting.  First he had all the participants engage in a group dialogue about our vision for Athens' future.  Ideas included more urban agriculture, better downtown development, preservation of our small town character, and more affordable housing.

Then Reardon discussed how the MRDC has helped some of the most disadvantaged neighborhoods in Memphis, using team members from local design firms, University of Memphis, the Urban Land Institute, and other partners.  He declared himself most proud of a project that turned the largest outdoor drug market in Memphis into a farmers' market, which is truly a noteworthy accomplishment.  The center also played a key role in helping Memphis pass its new, form-based, Unified Development Code.  All the time he was talking, I was thinking, "We need that here!"  I'm planning to spend some time picking Reardon's brain over the next several months.

Jamie Baker Roskie

March 30, 2010 in Architecture, Community Design, Crime, Development, Downtown, Georgia, Historic Preservation, Housing, Sprawl, Zoning | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

County Struggles to Pay for Unused Infrastructure Capacity

In our relatively short time as co-editors of this blog, we've written several times about the impact of the implosion of the housing market.  (Just check out our housing and mortgage crisis categories for many of these posts.)  Recently, the local paper here in Athens - the Athens Banner Herald - carried a story about how nearby Jackson County is struggling to pay for the expanded water and sewer service they built to meet the expected demand for new home building.  Jackson County is an exurb of Atlanta and before the economy crashed it was experiencing massive growth.  Now, as in so many places in the country, subdivided land is little more than "PVC farms" (so called because they are empty except for PVC pipes sticking from the ground where homes are to be built).  The Jackson County commission's solution to this is to begin charging a $10 a month maintenance fee on the pipes.  However, with many of the builders gone bust, they will have to wait to collect this fee from future developers.  Let's hope that works out for them.

Jamie Baker Roskie

March 17, 2010 in Development, Exurbs, Georgia, Housing, Local Government, Mortgage Crisis, Sprawl, Suburbs | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Has Regulation Saved Some Cities from Foreclosure Crisis?

From today's NYT Opinionator Blog, a piece on what's happend in California - the unregulated sprawl in the Central Valley vs. the strictly regulated urban core:

...[L]ook at the cities with stable and recovering home markets. On this coast, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and San Diego come to mind. All of these cities have fairly strict development codes, trying to hem in their excess sprawl. Developers, many of them, hate these restrictions. They said the coastal cities would eventually price the middle class out, and start to empty.

It hasn’t happened. Just the opposite. The developers’ favorite role models, the laissez faire free-for-alls — Las Vegas, the Phoenix metro area, South Florida, this valley — are the most troubled, the suburban slums.

Would stricter land use regulation kept us out of this mess?

Jamie Baker Roskie

February 11, 2010 in California, Exurbs, Financial Crisis, Mortgage Crisis, Sprawl, Zoning | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Property and Space from a Different Angle

Matt Festa posted last week about a dispute over property falling from space.  Today my architecture source (you know who you are) sent me a link to an article from the NY Times on-line entitled, "Space: It's Still a Frontier."  This article, however, is about an entirely different kind of space - the underutilized, trash-strewn, unmaintained space amid urban greenspace.  Or, abandoned mall space.  Or empty foreclosed homes, block after block.  It's a wide-ranging piece about all the ways in which we fail to use land wisely, and the economic and environmental consequences.  The piece also discusses how creative folks are using GIS and other tools to map those spaces and consider solutions to this land use dysfunction.  I'm not the most visual person in the world (which is weird for a land use lawyer) but I know that the tools the planners, designers and mappers bring to our work is incredibly valuable.  In fact, earlier this week I blogged briefly about some of the excellent work being done by UGA Environment & Design professor Alfie Vick and his students in collaboration with our clients.  You can view video, maps and other resources about their work here.  Their work is invaluable in helping communities envision a better future.

Jamie Baker Roskie

February 4, 2010 in Architecture, Community Design, Development, Environmentalism, New York, Sprawl | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

President Obama's New Strategy for Urban America

The President spoke recently to the U.S. Conference of Mayors.  The video is here and the transcript is here.  He explains his strategy as follows:

Our strategy to build economically competitive, environmentally sustainable, opportunity-rich communities that serve as the backbone for our long-term growth and prosperity -- three items:  First, we'll build strong regional backbones for our economy by coordinating federal investments in economic and workforce development -- because today's metropolitan areas don't stop at downtown.  What's good for Denver, for example, is usually good for places like Aurora and Boulder, too.  Strong cities are the building blocks of strong regions, and strong regions are essential for a strong America.

Second, we'll focus on creating more livable and environmentally sustainable communities.  Because when it comes to development, it's time to throw out old policies that encouraged sprawl and congestion, pollution, and ended up isolating our communities in the process.  We need strategies that encourage smart development linked to quality public transportation, that bring our communities together.

* * *

Third, we'll focus on creating neighborhoods of opportunity.  Many of our neighborhoods have been economically distressed long before this crisis hit -- for as long as many of us can remember.  And while the underlying causes may be deeply-rooted and complicated, there are some needs that are simple:  access to good jobs; affordable housing; convenient transportation that connects both; quality schools and health services; safe streets and parks and access to a fresh, healthy food supply. 

He indicated that this strategy will be reflected in the budget submitted next month.

Matt Festa

January 26, 2010 in Affordable Housing, Development, Environmentalism, Federal Government, Smart Growth, Sprawl, Transportation, Urbanism | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

News You Already Knew - a.k.a Too Many Strip Malls

Today on public radio's Marketplace, a story about how the recession has shown that strip mall space has been way overbuilt.  No suprise.  The story predicts no new strip malls will be in the Sunbelt for years.  No problem.  The downside, though, is that strip malls are struggling because local businesses are struggling.  ("Regional" malls are anchored by chains that don't rely on just one location to stay afloat.)  The decline of locally-owned business is a trend I hope will be reversed sometime soon.  Maybe they'll be helped by cheaper rents for commercial space.

Jamie Baker Roskie

January 6, 2010 in Community Economic Development, Development, Sprawl | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, December 24, 2009

It's a Wonderful Life & The Mortgage Crisis

I had my annual viewing of It's a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra's 1946 classic, the other day, and it reminded me that a few commentators over the last year have drawn comparisons between the world of Bedford Falls and the Bailey Building & Loan, and the conditions that caused the current mortgage crisis. 

The comparisons seem to go in two directions.  Some have argued that when America ditched the Bailey Building & Loan model of small local banks as the locus for local real estate development and financing in favor of the nationalized lending institutions and international trading of pooled mortgage-backed securities, it set us on the road to ruin.  But others have argued that it was the very assumption advanced by George Bailey that individual homeownership was the sine qua non of civic life and human flourishing that led to suburban sprawl, the decline of cities, and the irrational financial overleveraging that led to the subprime bubble.

Below are some links to articles comparing It's a Wonderful Life to the mortgage crisis, and I'll leave it to you to decide which critique is more persuasive, or whether there are elements of both that are true.

Just yesterday, Ray Brescia (Albany Law) sided with the Bailey Business & Loan and the CRA in "Banker's Holiday: Strengthen 'George Bailey's Law'" on the Huffington Post

Andrew M. Rosenfeld (Chicago Law) compared the localized backing of whole mortgages with the national market process for securitzed mortgages last year Newsweek's "It's a Wonderful Mortgage Crisis."

Ross Douthat in the Washington Post suggested laying much of the blame on George Bailey for the expansion of easy credit and government overpromotion of suburbia in "Not So Wonderful Now: Looking for someone to blame in the worsening crisis? Let's go back to Bedford Falls".  Douthat ultimately comes back to a limited defense of Bailey's vision, though.

I know that others have remarked on this theme so leave a comment if you know of a good one that I missed. 

Watching the movie again left me with one more related thought: which is better, Beford Falls or Potterville?

Capra's audiences have long assumed that the quaint Bedford Falls was the ideal American community and that the wild Pottersville was dystopia.  But a few years ago in Salon Gary Kamiya challenged this assumption head on in "All Hail Pottersville" with the simple observation that "Pottersville rocks!"  I think there's something to be said for this.  Bedford Falls does look a little boring.  Putting aside the implication that instead of middle class homeowners Pottersville's denizens were all living in Mr. Potter's tenement slums, there is no reason that a community can't have a vibrant downtown accessible by neighborhoods.  I know that Pottersville was painted to look like Sin City, but it also provided a busy and walkable area (with plenty of cops on hand to harass disoriented middle-aged bankers and guardian angels), and who's to say the more wholesome entertainment venues aren't thriving just a block or two away off of externalities generated by the seemingly popular Pottersville downtown entertainment district?

Maybe James Lileks put it best: "We all want to live in Bedford Falls . . . but we all would like a night in Pottersville."  But wouldn't a good new urbanist say that they can both exist in the same community?

Merry Christmas!

Matt Festa

December 24, 2009 in Downtown, Housing, Mortgage Crisis, Real Estate Transactions, Sprawl | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, December 19, 2009


Are HOV lanes a good idea?  They are controversial, to be sure.  Some think that they are essential to disincentivizing traffic and rewarding carpooling.  Others think that they are inefficient or infringe too much on liberty.  But for those commuters who live in areas with HOV lanes, the practical question is how to adapt.  KHOU.com reports on the emergence of one response to HOV lanes: Slugging.

HOUSTON – Would you jump into the car of a stranger? Hundreds of Houstonians do it every morning on the way to work to save time and money.

The phenomenon called "slugging" developed in the northeast and has caught on in Houston over the last few years.

The "sluggers" park at a Metro Park and Ride lot and form a line to get into cars with drivers who are looking for a passenger so they can legally take the HOV.

Slugging seems to have originated, or has been most successful in, the DC area.  I think it would be creepy to rely on a commute in a stranger's car (plus, the story doesn't say how they get home).  But on the other hand, I kind of like the free market ordering response to regulatory restrictions--when the government creates an HOV lane, the commuters establish a new informal but effective institution, the slugging line. 

Matt Festa

December 19, 2009 in Houston, Sprawl, Suburbs, Texas, Transportation | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

ULI conference: focus on planning during downturn

The Urban Land Institute recently held its fall meeting in San Fransisco.  According to a summary from the California Planning & Development Report, the tenor of the meeting was that during tough economic times such as this, developers should invest in planning.  From In Bad Times, ULI Talks Planning, not Development:

In particular, the topic seemed to be how developers can participate in the planning game – or, at the very least, work for the government during the downturn. For example, one panel of dealmaking experts focused exclusively on how to become a development advisor to local governments until the market turns again. "Developers understand the value of time and money," said Frank Baltz, of Maryland-based Edgemoor Real Estate Services. Governments don't understand the value of either, he added, but savvy government folks do understand that they can build necessary public projects at a low cost during an economic downturn.

I'm not entirely convinced that this description indicates any turn towards planning as opposed to a strategy for dealing with the slowdown.  But at any rate the summary shows that many developers are quite sensitive to the public side of land use planning right now. 

Meanwhile, ULI and PriceWaterhouseCoppers have released their Emerging Trends in Real Estate 2010 report, which looks like it has a lot of useful information and analysis.  According to F. Kaid Benfield's analysis of the ULI report at the Huffington Post, the overall market may be bad, but it is much better for smart growth than it is for sprawl:

it is clear that the authors, who surveyed over 900 industry experts - investors, developers, property companies, lenders, brokers, and consultants - believe that the prospects for investment are much stronger for smart growth than they are for sprawl. 

We'll see. 

Matt Festa

November 18, 2009 in Conferences, Development, Planning, Smart Growth, Sprawl | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veterans Day & Land Use

A very happy Veterans Day to all, with thanks to those who have served.  In honor of the day, here are a few desultory land use issues involving military veterans.

The idea of rewarding veterans for their service with grants of land is an ancient one.  I suspect it goes back at least to ancient Rome, and probably before.  Cincinnatus and all that.  It makes a lot of sense, historically, where cash-poor governments asking for or requiring military service have traditionally had one major asset to distribute: sovereign domain over land.  Part of this historical generosity is certainly due to gratitude for service, and part of it must also be the social concern over standing armies in peacetime.

After the Revolutionary War, the thirteen states and the Continental Congress had two major issues: (1) crippling debt from financing the war; and (2) a whole lot of land that was largely unsettled (by Anglo-Americans, that is) and unregulated--the territory from the Appalachian Proclamation of 1763 line to the Mississippi.  The solution?  First, get the states to cede their western claims to the national government.  After the Virginia Cession in 1784, Congress set about making a plan for the western lands.  The 1785 Land Ordinance and the 1787 Northwest Ordinance did not mention veterans  specifically, but they were part of the larger federal program designed to distribute and regulate the western territories with the notion of state land grants to Revolutionary War veterans in mind.  [I have a work in progress on the Northwest Ordinance and property rights].  For you property law fans, the ensuing government survey of the lands was part of what originated the political/geographic establishment of counties and townships across the western states.

So government policy has long favored helping veterans obtain land.  Harold Hyman wrote a really interesting book tracing the effects of this policy preference in the wake of major wars in American Singularity: The 1787 Northwest Ordinance, the 1862 Homestead and Morrill Acts, and the 1944 G.I. Bill

The Department of Veterans Affairs has a home loan guaranty program that allows qualified veterans to secure mortgage loans at favorable rates.  This has been around for a while.  Along with FHA loans, the VA loan program was instrumental in moving millions of veterans into single-family houses. 

The entire story of post-WWII suburban development is in large part a story about how to give veterans--who survived both the War and the Depression--a piece of the American Dream (and also about what to do with and where to put the 8+ million men and women suddenly out of uniform and getting to work on the Baby Boom).  The designers of Levittown(s) were mass-producing single-family suburban homes in large part because of the market imperative of housing returning veterans. 

At the state level, many states have additional programs that supplement the VA's federal benefits to veterans with respect to land- or home-ownership.  Texas, for example, has the Veterans Land Board, which is under the Texas General Land Office.  The Veterans Land Board has a number of loan programs with favorable terms for qualified veterans.  On November 3, 2009, Texas voters approved Proposition 6, a state constitutional amendment to allow the Veterans Land Board to issue general obligation bonds to finance these programs. 

It's a credit to state and federal governments that we have these policies to reward those who have served.  The legitimate critical questions we should ask are whether these are the right policies to express that gratitude to veterans.  Like other government land use policies--such as Euclidean zoning, highway construction, tax breaks on mortgages--land programs for veterans have favored the single-family suburban lifestyle and have subsidized sprawl.  As Chad Emerson has blogged here, these policies seem to be continued in the federal government's responses to the economic crisis.  Can policy that favors veterans for their service be modified to mitigate today's land use problems?

Thanks again to all who have served.

Matt Festa

November 11, 2009 in Affordable Housing, Books, Development, Housing, Mortgage Crisis, Scholarship, Sprawl, Suburbs, Texas, Zoning | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Education, Wealth, and Land Use

Professor Edward Glaeser of Harvard posted recently on the New York Times' Economix Blog about the connections between investments in education 100 years ago with income levels in 2009.  Click here to read "Education Last Century, and Economic Growth Today."  It is not surprising to learn that countries that invested aggressively in education in 1900 tend to be the wealthiest today, whereas those that did not tend to be the poorest.  The study also indicates that people who work or live in close proximity to other skilled people tend to earn more, too.  To the extent that sprawl interrupts this pattern, affordable housing and "smart growth" could provide an antidote.

Will Cook, Charleston School of Law

November 8, 2009 in Sprawl | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)