Monday, February 24, 2014

What if They Don't Build It and/or No One Comes?: Combating Zombie Subdivisions

Jim Holway (Sonoran Institute), along with Don Elliot and Anna Trentadue, has written Combating Zombie Subdivisions: How Three Communities Redressed Excess Development Entitlements, Land Lines Vol. 26, No. 1, pp. 4-13.  Not only is the article available through the Land Lines website, but so is the larger report on which it is based.   That is called Arrested Developments:  Combating Zombie Subdivisions and Other Excess Entitlements.  Here's a summary of the magazine piece:

The Teton County Valley Advocates for Responsible Development (VARD) stepped in and petitioned the county to create a process to encourage the redesign of distressed subdivisions and facilitate replatting. VARD realized that a plat redesign could reduce intrusion into sensitive natural areas of the county, reduce governmental costs associated with scattered development, and potentially reduce the number of vacant lots by working with landowners and developers to expedite changes to recorded plats.

On November 22, 2010, the Board of County Commissioners unanimously adopted a replatting ordinance that would allow the inexpensive and quick replatting of subdivisions, PUDs, and recorded development agreements. The ordinance created a solution-oriented process that allows Teton County to work with developers, landowners, lenders, and other stakeholders to untangle complicated projects with multiple ownership interests and oftentimes millions of dollars in infrastructure.

The ordinance first classifies the extent of any changes proposed by a replat into four categories: 1) major increase in scale and impact, 2) minor increase in scale and impact, 3) major decrease in scale and impact, 4) minor decrease in scale and impact. Any increases in impact may require additional public hearings and studies, whereas these requirements and agency review are waived (where possible) for decreases in impact. In addition, the ordinance waives the unnecessary duplication of studies and analyses that may have been required as part of the initial plat application and approval. Teton County also waived its fees for processing replat applications.

The first success story was the replatting of Canyon Creek Ranch Planned Unit Development, finalized in June 2013. More than 23 miles from city services, Canyon Creek Ranch was originally approved in 2009 as a 350-lot ranch-style resort on roughly 2,700 acres including approximately 25 commercial lots, a horse arena, and a lodge. After extensive negotiations between the Canyon Creek development team and the Teton County Planning Commission staff, the developer proposed a replat that dramatically scaled back the footprint and impact of this project to include only 21 lots over the 2,700 acre property. For the developer, this new design reduces the price tag for infrastructure by 97 percent, from $24 million to roughly $800,000, enabling the property to remain in the conservation reserve program and creating a source of revenue on it while reducing the property tax liability. The reduced scale and impact of this new design will help preserve this critical habitat and maintain the rural landscape, which is a public benefit to the general community.

Conclusion

While recovery from the most recent boom and bust cycle is nearly complete in some areas of the country, other communities will be impacted by vacant lots and distressed subdivisions well into the future. Future real estate booms will also inevitably result in new busts, and vulnerable communities can build a solid foundation of policies, laws, and programs now to minimize new problems stemming from the excess entitlement of land. Communities and others involved in real estate development would be well-served by ensuring they have mechanisms in place to adapt and adjust to evolving market conditions. For jurisdictions already struggling with distressed subdivisions, a willingness to reconsider past approvals and projects and to acknowledge problems is an essential ingredient to success. Communities that are able to serve as effective facilitators as well as regulators, as demonstrated in the case studies presented here, will be best prepared to prevent and then respond and treat distressed subdivisions and any problems that may arise from excess development entitlements.

Jim K.

 

February 24, 2014 in Community Design, Density, Mortgage Crisis, Sprawl, Subdivision Regulations, Suburbs, Zoning | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Serkin and Wellington on Exclusionary Dynamics Beyond Zoning Ordinances

Chris Serkin (Vanderbilt) and Leslie Wellington have posted Putting Exclusionary Zoning in its Place: Affordable Housing and Geographical Scale, 40 Fordham Urb. L. J. 1667 (2013).  Here's the abstract:

The term “exclusionary zoning” typically describes a particular phenomenon: suburban large-lot zoning that reduces the supply of developable land and drives up housing prices. But exclusionary zoning in its modern form also occurs both within the urban core and region-wide. Exclusionary zoning at the sub-local and regional scales results in property values that fully capitalize the benefits of living in higher-wage regions, and the value of local public goods (like high-quality schools). Lower-income households then cannot meaningfully access those advantages, even if every municipality accommodates its fair share of regional need. The long-standing focus of exclusionary zoning on the content of local ordinances, instead of on these broader exclusionary dynamics, has defined the problem of exclusionary zoning too narrowly. We remedy that deficiency in our contribution to the Fordham Urban Law Journal’s Fortieth Anniversary issue.

 

December 10, 2013 in Affordable Housing, Inclusionary Zoning, Scholarship, Suburbs, Transportation | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, November 15, 2013

Atlanta Braves Stadium Change Causes Controversy

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

November 15, 2013 in Development, Economic Development, Georgia, Local Government, Planning, Politics, Suburbs | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, October 21, 2013

Kirp in NY Times on Mt. Laurel Today

David Kirp (UC Berkeley--Public Policy)  has published an op-ed in the NY Times entitled "Here Comes the Neighborhood."  In it, he discusses the overwhelmingly positive impact of the affordable housing built in the New Jersey township of Mt. Laurel.  Referencing the recently published book, Climbing Mt. Laurel: The Struggle for Affordable Housing and Social Mobility in an American Suburb by Douglas Massey (Princeton-Sociology) with others, Kirp counters the claims of those who saw the judicial response to exclusionary zoning as grafting urban cancer onto healthy suburban tissue.  The cancer metaphor comes from Mt. Laurel's then-mayor Jose Alvarez and seems absurd in light of the overwhelmingly positive effects documented four decades later.

My good friend and NDLS clinic colleague, Bob Jones, sent the link to me because I am working on a paper looking at Catholic Social Teaching's response to overconcentration of poverty.  I think this anectdotal account from the birthplace of judicially mandated inclusionary zoning should complement the 2011 study American Murder Mystery Revisited by Ingrid Gould Ellen, Michael Lens and Katherine O'Regan undercutting some loose talk about spreading violence and disorder through the Housing Choice Voucher program that followed the controversial eponymous 2008 Atlantic Monthly article.

 

Jim K.

October 21, 2013 in Affordable Housing, Housing, Inclusionary Zoning, Race, Suburbs, Zoning | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Dispute over Yard Sign Destroys Fairfax HOA

A Virginia Homeowner's Assocation appears to have gone bankrupt due to litigation over its attempts to enforce its rules against a four-inch violation by a couple's Obama yard sign during the 2008 election.  After four years, skyrocketing assessments, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, the bankrupt HOA is considering selling off the central common area.  From the Washington Post, Feud over sign could force Fairfax's Olde Belhaven to sell square.

Such HOA disputes are as suburban as cul-de-sacs and two-car garages, but few metastasize into legal battles that spend years in the courts, break legal ground and bankrupt the HOA.

Most damaging of all, though, was a move probably unprecedented in area neighborhood feuds: The common area that is the literal and metaphoric heart of Olde Belhaven was put up for sale last year to settle its debts. It appeared that “the square,” as some called the neighborhood, would no longer have a square.

“It destroyed our community,” Maria Farran said.

The litigation ranged from a challenge to the HOA's power to fine the owners, and a retaliation claim.  It made some new law:

In 2010, a county judge sided with the Farrans on the fining issue. The case set a Virginia precedent that HOAs cannot claim powers, such as fining, that are not specifically laid out in their covenants. 

 You can read the whole article for a great description of the legal issues and the story.  As HOAs trend toward more extensive sets of rules, and as not everyone buys in, you can probably finds examples of similar (if not quite so expensive) conflicts in communities around the country.  And one thing that's common to both public and private regulation: when individual property rights clash with collective restrictions regarding people's homes, passions run high--even (especially?) when the stakes are as low as four inches on a political yard sign.

Thanks to Helen Jenkins for the pointer.

Matt Festa

February 12, 2013 in Common Interest Communities, Constitutional Law, First Amendment, Homeowners Associations, Politics, Property Rights, State Government, Subdivision Regulations, Suburbs | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Urban Gun Violence

Today I stumbled across this compelling Associated Press story about how urban advocates have very mixed feelings about how the Newtown shootings have seemingly changed the national debate around gun control.

The moment also is causing some to reflect on the sudden change of heart. Why now? Why weren't we moved to act by the killing of so many other children, albeit one by one, in urban areas?

Certainly, Newtown is a special case, 6- and 7-year-olds riddled with bullets inside the sanctuary of a classroom. Even in a nation rife with violence, where there have been three other mass slayings since July and millions enjoy virtual killing via video games, the nature of this tragedy is shocking.

But still: "There's a lot of talk now about we have to protect our children. We have to protect all of our children, not just the ones living in the suburbs," said Tammerlin Drummond, a columnist for the Oakland Tribune.

In her column Monday, Drummond wrote about 7-year-old Heaven Sutton of Chicago, who was standing next to her mother selling candy when she was killed in the crossfire of a gang shootout. Also in Chicago, which has been plagued by a recent spike in gun violence: 6-year-old Aaliyah Shell was caught in a drive-by while standing on her front porch; and 13-year-old Tyquan Tyler was killed when a someone in a car shot into a group of youths outside a party.

Food for thought.

Jamie Baker Roskie

 

December 22, 2012 in Crime, New York, Race, Suburbs, Urbanism | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Osofsky on Suburban Climate Change Efforts

Hari M. Osofsky (Minnesota) has posted Suburban Climate Change Efforts: Possibilities for Small and Nimble Cities Participating in State, Regional, National, and International Networks, forthcoming in the Cornell Journal of Law & Public Policy.  The abstract:

This Article provides a novel analysis of the capacity of suburbs to play a constructive role in addressing climate change. Small suburban cities represent the majority of metropolitan populations and emissions; encouraging their mitigation efforts, in addition to those of large center cities, is critical. In contrast to the conventional critique of suburbs as an undifferentiated group of sprawling emitters, the Article analyzes pathways for different types of small, nimble, suburban governments to learn from other localities and find cost-effective approaches to reducing emissions. It intertwines scholarship on (1) cities, suburbs, and climate change, (2) the complex demography of suburbs, (3) the role of climate change networks in transnational governance, and (4) more inclusive multi-level climate change governance to describe the limits of the current discourse on suburbs and climate change and to propose a new model for encouraging more suburban action. Using the Twin Cities metropolitan region as an initial case example, the Article considers what steps different types of leader suburbs are taking and how they are participating in voluntary multi-level climate change and sustainability networks. It argues that, especially in the absence of top-down mandates requiring cities to mitigate their emissions, these voluntary networks play an important role in fostering local action and connecting that action to international climate change treaties. It proposes that these networks could have a greater impact, however, through strategies that reflect the differences among types of suburban cities and foster more cross-network interaction.

Matt Festa

October 4, 2012 in Climate, Environmental Law, Local Government, Scholarship, Suburbs, Sustainability | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Proposed Final Settlement in Baltimore Fair Housing Case

The Baltimore Sun reported this past weekend on the proposed final settlement in Thompson v. HUD, a fair housing case that dates to 1995. 

The case arose when the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland sued HUD, saying that it demolished old public housing high-rises where mostly African-Americans lived — only to move the residents to equally segregated housing and poor conditions in other parts of the city.

Attorneys for the residents said Friday that the government in effect “perpetually locked” African-American families in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, violating federal civil right laws. The settlement, which would cover all claims in the case, was filed in conjunction with Baltimore City and the Housing Authority of Baltimore City.

As the Legal Defense Fund, which worked with the ACLU on the case, notes in its press release, the court had ruled in 2005 “that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”) violated the Fair Housing Act by unfairly concentrating African-American public housing residents in the most impoverished, segregated areas of Baltimore City.  Judge Garbis held that HUD must take a regional approach to promoting fair housing opportunities throughout the Baltimore Region.” 

The settlement requires HUD to allocated money towards expansion of the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program, which has been in place since a partial settlement in the 1990s.  The program has enabled over 1,800 families to move to neighborhoods in other parts of the city and to surrounding suburbs.  Under the settlement, the program will, among other things, fund vouchers and counseling over the next seven years for up to 2,600 additional families.

The case is particularly interesting given its regional approach to questions of housing and segregation.  Housing vouchers can be used throughout the region, enabling participants to voluntarily move to suburban areas with greater employment and educational opportunity.  The program provides extensive housing counseling and mobility assistance to aid families interested in moving to lower-poverty neighborhoods.  For more details, see this  2009 report discussing the progress of the program at that time. 

John Infranca

August 29, 2012 in Affordable Housing, Federal Government, Housing, HUD, Local Government, Race, Suburbs | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Schindler on the Future of Abandoned Big Box Stores

Sarah Schindler (Maine) has posted The Future of Abandoned Big Box Stores: Legal Solutions to the Legacies of Poor Planning Decisions, 83 Universtiy of Colorado Law Review 471 (2012).  The abstract:

Big box stores, the defining retail shopping location for the majority of American suburbs, are being abandoned at alarming rates, due in part to the economic downturn. These empty stores impose numerous negative externalities on the communities in which they are located, including blight, reduced property values, loss of tax revenue, environmental problems, and a decrease in social capital. While scholars have generated and critiqued prospective solutions to prevent abandonment of big box stores, this Article asserts that local zoning ordinances can alleviate the harms imposed by the thousands of existing, vacant big boxes. Because local governments control land use decisions and thus made deliberate determinations allowing big box development, this Article argues that those same local governments now have both an economic incentive and a civic responsibility to find alternative uses for these “ghostboxes.” With an eye toward sustainable development, the Article proposes and evaluates four possible alternative uses: retail reuse, adaptive reuse, demolition and redevelopment, and demolition and regreening. It then devises a framework and a series of metrics that local governments can use in deciding which of the possible solutions would be best suited for their communities. The Article concludes by considering issues of property acquisition and management.

Prof. Schindler's article addresses an important problem in communities across the U.S., and offers some innovative solutions.

Matt Festa

May 6, 2012 in Architecture, Development, Economic Development, Green Building, Local Government, Planning, Redevelopment, Scholarship, Suburbs, Sustainability, Zoning | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Southern California's New Regional Plan

My last post discussed some of the backlash against Southern California's new regional plan, which emphasizes high-density transit-oriented development.  California Planning & Development Report now provides some of the details of the plan, including:

  • a total cost of $524 billion over 20 years
  • $6.7 billion in funding for biking and walking
  • $246 billion on public transportation
  • 80 plus percent of all jobs and housing within a half mile of rail stations or bus stops by 2035
  • 68% of all new development would be apartment or condos.

Ken Stahl

April 11, 2012 in California, Comprehensive Plans, Density, Sprawl, Suburbs, Sun Belt, Urbanism | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, April 6, 2012

A car, or a smart phone (for my 16th birthday)?

Two interesting news items crossed the desk this week.

In the first, the U.S. Census reported that population growth in the country’s outer suburbs declined dramatically in 2010 and 2011 compared to the previous decade. And in the second, we learn that people in their late teens and twenties apparently would prefer a smart phone to a car, and that the percentage of young people obtaining a driver’s license has decreased consistently since 1983.

Taken together, these stories hint that our cultural taste for the automobile – and automobile commuting and its associated sprawl – might be waning a bit. But I can’t get over thinking that the news – at least the second piece of news – means something quite different.

Communities of place – cities, towns, etc. – exist because civil society and its economic, social, and cultural relationships have generally required physical proximity. That need for physical proximity has declined, of course, as the telegraph, telephone, internet, and whatever’s next allow us to live farther and farther apart. And it was that capacity to create virtual communities that facilitated much of the growth in outer suburbs and exurbia over the last few decades. If we don’t need to be together physically, we don’t need cities.

From this perspective, the fact that young people prefer a smart phone to a car suggests something different than that we might be entering a car-free future. It might suggest that the physical component of our culture is increasingly less important, reducing further the need for us to gather in specific communities of place. This might be problematic. Is there an emerging generation that will drive less, rely on the car less, and thus reduce our tendency to sprawl and consume more and more land per person? Or will that emerging generation not need cities? Will virtual communities, and the “cities” of Facebook, allow us to sprawl even more? So while we might drive less, at some level, we might also live farther and farther apart, consuming more land and more resources in the process.

Jerry Long

April 6, 2012 in Planning, Sprawl, Suburbs | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, February 6, 2012

Land Use Planning in a Recession - Newton County, Georgia

During his excellent stint as a guest blogger, Stephen Miller posed the question, "Does the best planning happen in a recession?"  Like him, I tend to think that currently most jurisdictions are focused on crisis management rather than forward thinking.

However, one exception is Newton County, Georgia - a community that just happens to be a UGA Land Use Clinic client since we began assisting them in 2003 with sprawl reduction tools like infrastructure planning, agricultural land conservation, and transferable development rights. Newton's forward thinking planning processes are highlighted in a four part series on CoLab Radio.  The first of the series is entitled "Planning for Growth in a Recession."

Jamie Baker Roskie

 

 

February 6, 2012 in Community Design, Development, Georgia, Local Government, New Urbanism, Planning, Smart Growth, Sprawl, Suburbs, Transferable Development Rights | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, January 30, 2012

Walter Russell Mead on the Crisis of the American Dream

Walter Russell Mead (Bard College) has posted a fascinating essay at The American Interest called Beyond Blue Part One: The Crisis of the American Dream.  An excerpt:

I’ve written in earlier posts about the shift from the first American Dream to the second: from the family farm to the suburban “homestead.” It was a profound change in American life and culture that has not yet been fully explored.  The family farm integrated production and consumption, work and leisure, family and business.  The family wasn’t just a union of sentiment: it was an element of production.  Mom and Dad worked as a team to feed, house and clothe the family, and as the kids grew up they took on greater and greater responsibilities in the common effort.  Their lives at home prepared them for the new lives they would lead on their own: the kids would grow up, marry, and start farms.

The 20th century suburban homestead was a very different place. 

This is almost exactly the theme of an article I am writing, so naturally I find it interesting!  Mead's essay ranges well beyond land use, but his grounding of the "American Dream" in patterns of living and social organization speaks to how incredibly relevant land use models are to the compelling issues facing American society in the 21st Century.

Matt Festa

January 30, 2012 in Agriculture, History, Mortgage Crisis, Scholarship, Suburbs | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, December 31, 2011

ULI Report on What's Next in Urban Land Use

As we head into the New Year, The Urban Land Institute has also been looking ahead at the future of land use.  ULI recently issued its report What's Next? Real Estate in the New Economy.  From the press release:

A new economy is unfolding over the course of this decade, driven by an extraordinary convergence of demographic, financial, technological and environmental trends. Taken together, these trends will dramatically change urban planning, design and development through 2020, according to a new report from the Urban Land Institute (ULI).

What’s Next? Real Estate in the New Economy outlines how every aspect of living, working and connecting will change in major ways, driven in large part by the values, preferences and work ethic of Generation Y, the largest generation in American history. . . .

Among the report’s findings:

  • Technology will reshape work places. Office tenants will decrease space per employee, and new office environments will need to promote interaction and dialogue. Offices will be transforming into meeting places more than work places, with an emphasis on conference rooms, break areas and open configurations. Developers will craft attractive environments to attract young, talented workers.
  • Major companies will value space that enables innovation. They will continue to pay more for space in a global gateway served by a major international airport, or in 24-hour urban centers. Hard-to-reach suburban work places will be less in demand.
  • The influx of Generation Y, now in their teens through early thirties, will change housing demand. They are comfortable with smaller homes and will happily trade living space for an easier commute and better lifestyle. They will drive up the number of single households and prompt a surge in demand for rentals, causing rents to escalate.
  • For most people, finances will still be constrained, leading to more shared housing and multi-generational households. Immigration will support that trend, as many immigrants come from places where it is common for extended families to share housing. This may be the one group that continues to drive demand for large, suburban homes.
  • The senior population will grow fastest, but financial constraints could limit demand for adult housing developments. Many will age in place or move in with relatives to conserve money. Developers may want to recast retirement communities into amenity-laden “age friendly” residences. Homes near hospitals and medical offices will be popular, especially if integrated into mixed-use neighborhoods with shops, restaurants and services.
  • Energy and infrastructure take on greater importance. Businesses cannot afford to have their network connections down, and more will consider self-generated power or onsite generator capacity. Developers, owners and investors are realizing that the slightly higher costs of energy- and water-saving technologies can pay for themselves quickly, creating more marketable and valuable assets. Ignoring sustainability issues speeds property obsolescence.

You can download the full report here

Matt Festa

December 31, 2011 in Architecture, Clean Energy, Density, Development, Downtown, Environmentalism, Finance, Green Building, Housing, Planning, Property, Real Estate Transactions, Redevelopment, Scholarship, Smart Growth, Suburbs, Sustainability, Transportation, Urbanism, Water | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, December 5, 2011

Morgan Stanley says US moving toward "Rentership Society"

I came across a link to this Bloomberg report in reading for my previous post on the Leinberger-Kotkin debate.  The article is a few months old, but I still think it's highly relevant: U.S. Moves Toward Home 'Rentership Society,' Morgan Stanley Says, discussing a report on housing.

The U.S. homeownership rate has fallen below 60 percent when delinquent borrowers are excluded, a sign of the country’s move toward a “rentership society,”Morgan Stanley said in a report today. . . .

The homeownership rate reached an all-time high of 69.2 percent in 2004 as relaxed lending standards fueled home sales and President George W. Bush promoted an “ownership society.” Mortgage delinquencies, foreclosures and tighter credit for housing loans are reducing property buying, [Morgan Stanley analysi Oliver] Chang said.

“Taken together they are forcibly moving the country away from being an ownership society,” Chang, based in San Francisco, said in an e-mail. “This change is only beginning, and is moving the country towards becoming a rentership society.”

A real estate professional demurs, but look at the reason why:

Most Americans still aspire to own their houses and don’t want to be renters forever, said Rick Davidson, president and chief executive officer of Century 21 Real Estate LLC in Parsippany, New Jersey.

“It isn’t about the financial aspects, but about building a family and having a part of the American dream,” Davidson, whose company is a unit of Realogy Corp., said today during an interview at Bloomberg’s offices in New York. “What really drives purchases at the end of the day is emotional and has to do with lifestyle.”

We're still conditioned to think of homeownership as the sine qua non of the American Dream--but it's not necessarily in our financial or economic interest; it's emotional and about lifestyle.  But is there an adequate range of opportunities presented for Americans to choose (emotionally?) between different forms of lifestyle?  I believe that at their base, issues of housing, community, and urban form are primarily cultural.

Matt Festa

December 5, 2011 in Financial Crisis, History, Housing, Landlord-Tenant, Mortgage Crisis, Mortgages, Property, Real Estate Transactions, Suburbs | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Kotkin: report of suburbs' death was an exaggeration

Last week we posted on Christopher Leinberger's recent New York Times piece on The Death of the Fringe Suburb.  Joel Kotkin at Forbes counters with Is Suburbia Doomed? Not so Fast.  Some excerpts:

Perhaps no theology more grips the nation’s mainstream media — and the planning community — more than the notion of inevitable suburban decline. The Obama administration’s housing secretary, Shaun Donavan, recently claimed, “We’ve reached the limits of suburban development: People are beginning to vote with their feet and come back to the central cities.”

Yet repeating a mantra incessantly does not make it true. Indeed, any analysis of the 2010 U.S. Census would make perfectly clear that rather than heading for density, Americans are voting with their feet in the opposite direction: toward the outer sections of the metropolis and to smaller, less dense cities. During the 2000s, the Census shows, just 8.6% of the population growth in metropolitan areas with more than 1 million people took place in the core cities; the rest took place in the suburbs. That 8.6% represents a decline from the 1990s, when the figure was 15.4%.

Nor are Americans abandoning their basic attraction for single-family dwellings or automobile commuting. Over the past decade, single-family houses grew far more than either multifamily or attached homes, accounting for nearly 80% of all the new households in the 51 largest cities. And — contrary to the image of suburban desolation — detached housing retains a significantly lower vacancy rate than the multi-unit sector, which has also suffered a higher growth in vacancies even the crash. . . .

It turns out that while urban land owners, planners and pundits love density, people for the most part continue to prefer space, if they can afford it. No amount of spinmeistering can change that basic fact, at least according to trends of past decade.

But what about the future? Some more reasoned new urbanists, like Leinberger, hope that the market will change the dynamic and spur the long-awaited shift into dense, more urban cores.

Kotkin provides further statistics derived from his Census analysis.  This debate is central to the future of housing policy and urban planning in America.

Matt Festa

December 5, 2011 in Density, Development, Downtown, Exurbs, Housing, New Urbanism, Planning, Politics, Suburbs, Urbanism | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, November 28, 2011

Leinberger on the Death of the Fringe Suburb

Christopher Leinberger (Brookings/Michigan), author of The Option of Urbanism and many other great pieces, has written The Death of the Fringe Suburb in the New York Times.  The bad news:

DRIVE through any number of outer-ring suburbs in America, and you’ll see boarded-up and vacant strip malls, surrounded by vast seas of empty parking spaces. These forlorn monuments to the real estate crash are not going to come back to life, even when the economy recovers. And that’s because the demand for the housing that once supported commercial activity in many exurbs isn’t coming back, either.

The better news:

Simply put, there has been a profound structural shift — a reversal of what took place in the 1950s, when drivable suburbs boomed and flourished as center cities emptied and withered.

The shift is durable and lasting because of a major demographic event: the convergence of the two largest generations in American history, the baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) and the millennials (born between 1979 and 1996), which today represent half of the total population.

Many boomers are now empty nesters and approaching retirement. Generally this means that they will downsize their housing in the near future. Boomers want to live in a walkable urban downtown, a suburban town center or a small town, according to a recent survey by the National Association of Realtors.

The millennials are just now beginning to emerge from the nest — at least those who can afford to live on their own. This coming-of-age cohort also favors urban downtowns and suburban town centers — for lifestyle reasons and the convenience of not having to own cars.

Interesting times.

Matt Festa

November 28, 2011 in Architecture, Density, Downtown, Housing, New Urbanism, Scholarship, Smart Growth, Sprawl, Suburbs, Urbanism | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, November 25, 2011

Thanksgiving & Black Friday

I hope all of our U.S. readers had a Happy Thanksgiving yesterday.  As we've suggested before, Thanksgiving is in many senses the original American land use holiday, and itself derives from even more longstanding traditions of honoring the relationship between people, communities, and the land.  Over the years since it became an official U.S. holiday, we still have the element of celebrating the harvest, but I would say it's evolved more into an event that revolves around that other significant land use element: the home.

If you're heading out shopping for the big sales today on "Black Friday" (the day many retailers go "in the black" financially), many of you might be confronted with some other aspects of modern American land use: sprawl, traffic, and the architecture of modern suburban development.  Growing up, we spent Thanksgiving visiting relatives in the older, traditional New Jersey town in which my parents grew up, but which was adjacent to newer suburban development.  Perhaps this weekend, you're experiencing what I often did: on Thursday, dinner at a relative's home in the older traditional neighborhood; then Friday, out to the suburban shopping malls and big-box parking lots.  Looking back, I think I was subconsciously aware that there was a big difference.  It just occurred to me that because of these two major activities--traditional family dinner, then shop-til-you-drop--the Thanksgiving holiday weekend might be about the sharpest contrast that many people experience with such different land use models. 

I wonder how this sort of experience affects people--how it might impact the emotions that many people feel during the holidays when visiting relatives, and perhaps old homes since moved away from, or a walk around the old downtown; thinking about the old days, and talking about how their communities have changed.  I wonder if a holiday spent experiencing the stark visual and spatial contrasts between the traditional neighborhood and suburban sprawl heightens these emotions.  While much of the holiday experience centers around spending time with people, surely the visual and geographical elements of time and place certainly play a big role for many, even if not explicitly acknowledged.  Ideas, memories, and feelings about the places in which we live and have lived must have an effect on the way people think about, and during, the holidays.

I hope that yours were and are mostly pleasant ones.  We're thankful for the opportunity to blog here, and for everyone who reads and contributes in this land use blog community.

Matt Festa

November 25, 2011 in Downtown, History, Housing, Sprawl, Suburbs | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Ballot Box Zoning -- A Response to Festa

OK, I'll bite.  Matt has laid down the gauntlet with his criticism of the initiative process.  This subject is of great importance to land use profs because, at least in many sunbelt states, a good deal of land use policy is made through direct democracy -- so-called "ballot box zoning."  In this post, I want to respond to some of Matt's criticisms and offer a very tentative defense of ballot box zoning.  For those who are interested, I have defended ballot box zoning at greater length (although I ultimately call for its abolition anyway) in this paper.

I must first concede to Matt that the initiative process has serious deficiencies.  He mentions transparency and voter ignorance.  The social science literature confirms that these are major problems.  I would also add a few more: the initiative process is often captured by special interest groups, as money and organizational resources are often decisive in initiative contests; the initiative tends to favor the affluent and well educated, which is not surprising since the affluent and well educated are more likely to vote on initiatives; voters are easily confused by deceptive wording on initiatives, and initiative advocates often deliberately use deceptive terms to confuse voters; the initiative process reduces complex issues to a simplistic yes/no dichotomy in which hyperbolic sound bytes replace rational discourse.  I suppose I could go on, but you get the point.

So what virtues could the initiative process possibly have?  I want to focus specifically on the land use initiative, although some of my comments may be generalizable.  Although it is often asserted that local politics are controlled by homeowners who seek to limit or manage growth, that is generally true only in smaller municipalities.  Sunbelt states like Texas and California, however, have a disproportionate number of medium to large-size municipalities, dubbed "boomburbs" by sociologists Robert Lang and Jennifer LeFurgy.  The larger size of these municipalities gives homeowners less political power.  At the same time, sunbelt boomburbs have often pursued headlong development as a means of economic growth and to overcome fiscal constraints imposed by constitutional or political limitations on raising tax revenue.  Lang and LeFurgy accordingly assert that these municipalities tend to be in thrall to the "growth machine," a matrix of developers and related cohorts who facilitate urban growth.  As I further argue in my paper, the fact that many of these boomburbs use at-large voting structures rather than ward voting systems further enhances the power of developers and dilutes the ability of neighborhood groups to fight development.

Obviously, this system is less than ideal for homeowners.  And let's face it: while we might hate those NIMBYs, they have some pretty good reasons for opposing new growth.  For years it has been national policy to induce Americans to purchase property through a combination of incentives, including low-interest mortgages and municipal zoning ordinances that provide some assurances to homeowners that their property values, and hence their ability to pay off their mortgages, will be protected against unpredictable declines.  New growth and the externalities that accompany it are very likely to diminish property values, and hence prejudice the ability of homeowners to finance what is likely to be by far their most significant asset.  Existing homeowners are in effect subsidizing new growth through diminished property values, and although city officials claim that everyone benefits from new growth, it is often a concentrated group of homeowners alone who must bear a disproportionate degree of the cost.  As I questioned in a previous post, it can even be argued that homeowners have a regulatory takings claim -- but courts have never recognized such a cause of action.

As envisioned by its Progressive-era architects, the initiative is supposed to correct the defects in the ordinary legislative process, particularly the dominance of special interests.  And that is exactly what ballot-box zoning appears to do in the sunbelt states -- the very states where boomburbs, at-large voting and the growth machine dominate the political landscape are also the states where ballot-box zoning is most robust.  Ballot box zoning has proven to be a powerful weapon with which homeowners can fight back against the growth machine, because prevailing on a local initiative requires only a one-time infusion of cash and a constituency that is easily organized and highly motivated -- ie, a group of neighboring homeowners who are all extremely ticked off about land use changes around their neighborhood.  This can counteract the repeat player and other advantages that the developer has in the legislative process.  Granted, the initiative process itself invites special interest abuses and all sorts of other problems, but it seems no less messy or dysfunctional than the system of government it is designed to counterbalance. 

Ken Stahl

November 9, 2011 in California, Density, Development, Exurbs, Local Government, Mortgages, NIMBY, Politics, Suburbs, Sun Belt, Takings, Texas, Zoning | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Anderson on Dissolving Cities

Michelle Wilde Anderson (Berkeley) has posted Dissolving Cities, forthcoming in the Yale Law Journal, 2012. The abstract:

During the twentieth century, 3,000 new cities took shape across America. Stucco subdivisions sprawled and law followed, enabling suburbs to adopt independent governments. That story is familiar. But meanwhile, something else was also happening. A smaller but sizable number of cities were dying, closing down their municipal governments and returning to dependence on counties. Some were ghost towns, emptied of population. In those places, jobs were lost and families struggled; crops died off and industries moved on. A larger group of dead cities were humming with civic life: places with people but no longer with a separate government. In these cities, citizens from the political left and right, often in coalition, rose up to eliminate their local governments.

As an end in itself, understanding these changes would be worthwhile. But this past has not passed. An unprecedented groundswell of cities and citizens are currently considering disincorporation in response to economic crisis, tax pressure, and population loss. The dissolution law they are turning to, as it is written in state codes and as it is understood in theory, is immature and thin. Cities’ experiences with dissolution are unknown, constraining our ability to judge the values it serves or undermines. If dissolution is to grow in importance as part of the legal machinery of urban decline - as cities themselves are asking it to become - we must understand what it meant in the decades that passed before.

Dissolving Cities tells the story of municipal dissolution. It is an article of law, theory, and urban history - a reminder that urban growth and local government fragmentation, which have long dominated academic discourse on cities, may not be the upward ratchet we have assumed them to be. Cities can die (legally at least), and when they do, they raise critical questions about decline, governance, taxes, race, and community.

This is a critically important topic for the future of land use in American communities, and Prof. Anderson's article looks like a must-read piece.

Matt Festa

September 21, 2011 in Downtown, Economic Development, History, Housing, Local Government, Planning, Politics, Scholarship, Suburbs | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)