Monday, July 30, 2012
Matt has the legality of the various proposed Chick Fil-A bans covered. As numerous commentators have pointed out, prohibiting Chick Fil-A stores based on the opinions of the store's owner is flagrantly unconstitutional. While most commentators have focused on the First Amendment, I think Chik Fil-A has an equally strong legal argument under the Fourteenth Amendment given the Supreme Court's decision in Village of Willowbrook v. Olech, 528 U.S. 562 (2000): it is a violation of the equal protection clause to discriminate against a particular landowner due to "animus" against the landowner.
To me, the more interesting question is why city officials would propose something that is obviously unconstitutional (leaving aside the possibility that these officials are dumb, which is of course a legitimate possibility). In fact, if city officials really wanted to prevent Chick Fil-A from locating in their towns, the very worst thing they could have done is announce publicly their discriminatory animus toward the franchise. As land use folks have seen time and again, it's really easy for communities to exclude land uses they don't like (e.g., affordable housing) by citing vague concerns about traffic, noise, congestion, and so on. They rarely make the mistake of saying "we just don't want poor people living here." Now, because of what the various officials in Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, etc have said, it will only be harder to exclude Chick Fil-A even if the city has legitimate concerns about traffic, noise, etc because the inference of discriminatory animus will be so hard to shake. So why, to repeat my question, are city officials doing this? There are two possible answers, as I see it:
1) City officials see themselves as having nearly absolute power over zoning. Such a sense of entitlement may stem from a variety of sources: 1) city officials' authority is rarely challenged by repeat-player developers who would rather not anger city officials they may have to deal with again and again; 2) the news media rarely takes up zoning issues as causes celebre, and 3) courts are largely deferential toward local zoning practices. This sense of entitlement may be especially acute in Chicago, where the informal practice of "aldermanic privilege" essentially grants the alderman in each ward the unfettered right to dole out land use permissions.
This is the less likely of two alternatives, however.
2) City officials knew all along that what they were proposing was unconstitutional, and never had any serious intention of banning Chick Fil-A. The real reason for their strident statements: signalling that they are gay-friendly communities. Under the public choice model of local governance, cities are conceptualized as "firms" who compete for affluent residents and tax revenues. Richard Florida has provocatively argued that one of the greatest potential resources for cities are gay residents, who tend to have high disposable incomes and have had a history of revitalizing depressed neighborhoods in many urban areas. Thus, it makes sense that these cities would want to signal their friendliness toward gays, and it especially makes sense that once one city so signalled, others did the same to ensure that they're not seen as any less gay-friendly. In this sense, the proposed Chick Fil-A bans are very similar to then-mayor Gavin Newsom performing gay marriages in San Francisco in 2004 in flagrant violation of California law.
One footnote here: If I'm right, why did New York mayor Mike Bloomberg so forcefully diverge from these other big-city officials and declare that cities have no right to ban Chick Fil-A? Perhaps Bloomberg felt he already had sufficient credibility with gays that this was an unnecessary stunt. In addition, cities aren't just competing for gays but for business. Bloomberg's corporate instincts probably led him to conclude that potential investors in NY real estate might be deterred if the city started engaging in viewpoint-discrimination among different businesses. This shows the delicate tap-dance big city officials have to constantly engage in: give sufficient tribute to the liberal constituencies while not alienating big business.
Saturday, July 28, 2012
Even the culture wars often end up in a land use controversy. Over the past few days, public officials in Boston and Chicago made statements that Chick-fil-A restaurants would not be welcome in their jurisdictions because of the anti-gay-marriage opinions expressed by the company's CEO. According to the Wall Street Journal's Jack Nicas, one Chicago alderman went so far as to state that he would personally deny a permit solely on that basis. From First Amendment Trumps Critics of Chick-fil-A:
Chicago Alderman Proco Moreno wrote in the Chicago Tribune Thursday, "Because of [Mr. Cathy's] ignorance, I will deny Chick-fil-A a permit to open a restaurant in my ward."
I don't agree with the CEO's statements either, but it's pretty clear that, under the Constitution, his opinions can't legitimately be the basis for granting or denying land use permission. Cleveland State law prof Alan Weinstein put it best:
Alan Weinstein, a professor of law at Cleveland State University who specializes on the intersection of land-use law and constitutional issues, said he has seen officials try to use zoning laws to block adult stores or religious institutions, but never a commercial enterprise because of political views. He said that beyond the First Amendment, "in the land-use sphere, the government has no legitimate interest" in the political views of an applicant.
That last observation is key. Most of the commentary on this issue has revolved around the CEO's First Amendment rights. And it's true that free speech is one of the only areas where the courts will apply strict scrutiny to overturn government land use decisions. But as Prof. Weinstein notes, this question isn't even really about regulating actual speech on land; it's about the rational basis for land use regulation itself under the police powers.
From a pragmatic perspective, it's pretty easy to imagine a counterfactual scenario where an unpopular political opinion on the other side of the spectrum could likewise result in negative land use decisions under such a precedent. It appears that this constitutional reality is setting in, and the public officials are backtracking. Here's a video interview with the WSJ reporter:
I was one of the other "land use experts" who talked to the reporter, but Prof. Weinstein definitely said it best.
So to sum up: Many of us disagree with the Chick-fil-A CEO's opinions, but everyone seems to agree that it would be unconsitituional to prohibit the company's land use on that basis.
Tuesday, July 24, 2012
Patricia Salkin (Albany) has posted Zoning Ordinance Variances, published in the American Planning Association's PAS Quicknotes, no. 38 (2012). The abstract:
This short piece designed for planners describes the purpose of variances, both use and area variances, conditions on variances and alternatives to variances.
It is an excellent short introduction to the legal concept of variances. There is a lot of confusion out there on the differences between variances, special exceptions, nonconforming uses, and zoning amendments as methods for altering the rules. In addition to planners, I think it would also be a great piece to share with clients, community members, . . . and land use law students.
Monday, July 23, 2012
Westchester County's protracted battle with HUD over the implementation of a 2009 lawsuit continues. By way of background, the case, United States ex rel Anti-Discrimination Center of Metro New York, Inc. v. Westchester County, New York, was brought as a qui tam action under the False Claims Act, alleging that the county, through certifications made to HUD to receive Community Development Block Grant funds, falsely certified that it fulfilled its obligation to "affirmatively further fair housing." The Anti-Discrimination Center (ADC), which brought the case, claimed that Westchester failed to consider race-based impediments to housing choice and failed to identify and take steps to overcome these impediments, as required by law. The DOJ intervened and negotiated a settlement on behalf of HUD. The settlement requires Westchester to, among other things, spend $51.6 million to develop, primarily in municipalities with overwhelmingly white populations, at least 750 affordable housing units that affirmatively further fair housing. The County also must affirmatively market the housing in surrounding areas with significant non-white populations. The court appointed a monitor to oversee and facilitate implementation of the settlement. (In the interest of disclosure, through my work at the Furman Center, I provided technical assistance to the Monitor's team earlier in the process).
The County argues that it is complying with the settlement and is ahead of schedule in constructing the units. However, the ADC has asserted, that the locations of these units so far, which are often isolated from the surrounding community, fail to further the settlement's underlying goal of desegregating housing patterns. The County has responded that the cost and availability of land restrict the options available. The County Executive, who was elected after the settlement was reached (and has repeatedly said he would not have signed it), contends that HUD is overreaching, requiring the County to take actions beyond the terms of the settlement. In May, the District Court ruled against the County, finding that it failed to comply with the settlement's requirements that it promote legislation prohibiting source-of-income discrimination.
The most recent contentions focus on zoning issues and the County's compliance with a requirement that it conduct an "Analysis of Impediments" (AI), which examines barriers to fair housing choice. HUD has withheld funding from the County, declaring the AIs it has filed fail to properly consider the impact of race on housing choice and whether local zoning regulation is exclusionary. The County's AI concluded that no exclusionary housing existed in its municipalities. Rather than revise that submission in response to the Monitor's list of deficiencies, the County refiled the same AI, accompanied by a legal analysis by the Land Use Law Center at Pace Law School, supporting its approach.
The County argues that its review of local zoning followed the analysis of exclusionary zoning put forth by the NY Court of Appeals in Berenson v. New Castle, which requires that local zoning ordinances consider regional housing needs in developing a "properly balanced and well-ordered plan." It concludes that all of the local ordinances consider regional needs and allow the development of multi-family housing and a range of uses and consequently are not exclusionary. Therefore the County need not take any further steps to comply with the settlement's requirement that it use "all available means," including taking legal action, to address a municipality's action or inaction in promoting the settlement.
HUD's response, and the next steps in this dispute, will raise interesting questions regarding the relationship between a County and its municipalities, the definition of exclusionary zoning and scope of judicial review of local zoning, and the courses of action available to HUD in challenging local zoning.
Thursday, July 19, 2012
I am very excited for the opportunity to blog on the Land Use Prof Blog over the next month. Thanks to Matt Festa and the other editors for inviting me to do so. As Matt mentioned in his introduction, I am a Research Fellow at NYU's Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. For those not familiar with the Center, we are a joint endeavor of NYU's law and public policy school and we conduct interdisciplinary legal and empirical research on land use, affordable housing, housing finance, neighborhood change, and a host of other urban issues. Although we particularly focus on issues in New York City, we are increasingly pursuing projects in other cities and working on national affordable housing and urban policy issues.
My plan during the next month is to talk about a few interesting projects I am pursuing with the Furman Center, a few of my personal research projects, and of course to write about new land use issues.
For this first post, I thought I would discuss one of the big land use issues on our radar here in New York, Mayor Bloomberg's recent proposal to rezone a significant part of East Midtown Manhattan, in the area around Grand Central Terminal. Over the past decade the Bloomberg administration has dramatically altered New York City's zoning through over 100 rezonings affecting approximately one-quarter of the city's land. This new proposal, which includes changes in the rules governing the use of the air rights/transferable development rights over Grand Central (the rights at issue in Penn Central, only a fraction of which have been sold) raises a number of interesting issues and questions.
The proposed rezoning (see the Department of City Planning study presentation) covers 78 blocks and seeks to encourage the development of more modern and taller office buildings in an area where the average office building is currently over 70 years old. The proposal would allow new buildings substantially taller than what currently exists in the area and potentially as large as the Empire State Building. These new buildings, which would only be allowed on sites that cover a block's full frontage on one of the area's avenues, would provide larger floor plates, fewer internal supports, and other amenities the City feels are needed for the area to stay competitive with business districts in "global competitor cities."
What is particularly interesting is that -- rather than simply upzone the area to allow these larger buildings -- developers would be able to obtain greater densities (through a higher maximum floor-area-ratio) as-of-right (meaning no required city planning approval process) only by either purchasing transferable development rights (TDRs) from nearby landmarks (the major seller being Grand Central, which has nearly two million square feet available) or by obtaining a bonus in exchange for a contribution to a City fund dedicated to area improvements. Beyond these as-of-right FAR increases, even taller buildings (close in size to the Empire State Building) could be constructed, but would be subject to a Special Permit process, which would include a design review and would require certain public improvements to be provided.
The proposal raises a host of issues. If additional density is desirable in the area, why not simply rezone, rather than require the purchase of TDRs on the private market or contributions to a City fund? Is the City simply selling an upzoning or demanding an exaction from developers? And of course, for area residents and workers and potential developers other concerns exist: what effect would these new buildings have on the nearby subway, which already operates above capacity, and how much will it cost to buy these additional square feet of permitted development?
The proposal is also interesting because it represents the latest example of the City's creative use of transferable development rights, a tool that in New York has historically operated in a manner akin to density zoning or, in the case of landmarks, as a means of mitigating the effects of development restrictions. These new programs in New York use TDRs instead as a means of furthering traditional and quite specific planning and land use goals in a manner more akin to how TDRs have been used in suburban and rural areas nationwide. The City's proposal builds upon the use of TDRs in the rezoning of West Chelsea, site of the elevated High Line Park, and at Hudson Yards, an area west of Penn Station in Midtown Manhattan. Both these districts involve the innovative use of TDRs to serve a variety of planning, preservation, and development goals. Vicki Been and I will be exploring these themes further in a forthcoming article.
At the Furman Center, we are also nearing completion of the first comprehensive database of TDR transactions in New York City. We have recorded data on over 400 of these transactions between 2003 and 2011 and have begun reviewing the data to learn more about the market for TDRs in New York and how developers use them in place or in addition to other tools for increasing the size of a project. I plan to say more about this data, our plans for it, and its relevance for thinking about TDRs in other cities in a future post.
Wednesday, July 18, 2012
It's been exactly a year since we last blogged about the siting of the mosque in Murfreesboro, Tenn. Last month, opponents of the mosque convinced a county judge to enjoin its construction by alleging that they were not given adequate notice of the zoning proceedings. Today, US District Court Todd Campbell granted the proponents an injunction based on RLUIPA to allow construction to proceed. The members of the local Muslim community were represented by the The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. Here's a copy of the TRO.
Monday, July 16, 2012
Michael Lewyn (Touro) has taken his analysis of sprawl north of the border in Sprawl in Canada and the United States, 44 Urban Lawyer 85 (2012). The abstract:
The purpose of this article is to show that, in Canada as in the United States, government regulation promotes sprawl through anti-density zoning, minimum parking requirements, and overly wide streets. However, Canadian cities are less "sprawling" than American cities- perhaps because at least some of these regulations are less onerous than in the United States.
It's an interesting article that makes an original point. We tend to assume that places like Canada must be more regulated than the US, but it isn't necessarily true when it comes to land use. Lewyn suggests a potential link to comparative levels of sprawl.
Tuesday, June 26, 2012
Just wanted to follow up on Stephen Miller's post about the new TDR Handbook. I've had the privilege of working with co-author (and planning consultant extraordinaire) Rick Pruetz on several TDR projects here in the Southeast. This Handbook is a follow on to Rick's two previous books, Saved by Development and Beyond Takings and Givings. Rick is amazingly knowledgable and very generous with his time and expertise. We just finished helping the City of Milton implement a TDR program as part of their form-based code. I will continue to work with Rick during my year off (which starts Friday!).
Jamie Baker Roskie
Monday, June 18, 2012
Bustic, Gaeta & Radeloff on Using Zoning and Land Acquisition to Increase Property Values and Help Fish
The ability of zoning and land acquisition to increase property values and maintain largemouth bass growth rates in an amenity rich region
Source:Landscape and Urban Planning, Volume 107, Issue 1
Van Butsic, Jereme W. Gaeta, Volker Radeloff
Land use change is a leading cause of environmental degradation in amenity rich rural areas. Numerous policies have been used to combat these negative effects, including zoning and land acquisition. The empirical effects of these policies on the environment and land markets are still debated. Using a coupled economic–ecological model in conjunction with landscape simulations we investigate the effect of zoning and land acquisition on property prices and largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides) growth in Vilas County, WI, an amenity rich region with growing rural development. Using econometric models of land use change and property prices, we simulate four alternative land use scenarios: a baseline simulation, a zoning change simulation, a land acquisition program simulation, and a land acquisition program+zoning simulation. Each scenario is simulated over 82 separate lakes. For each scenario we calculate the length of a 20-year old largemouth bass, property prices, and number of new residences at simulation years 20, 40 and 60. The policies have small effects on largemouth bass size and property prices on most lakes, although the effects are more pronounced on some. We also test if the increased property values due to land acquisitions are greater than the cost of the land acquisition program and find that in our case, land acquisition does not “pay for itself”. Our methodology provides a means to untangle the complex interactions between policy, land markets, and the environment. Empirically, our results indicate zoning and land acquisition are likely most effective when targeted to particular lakes.
Friday, June 15, 2012
Via Congress for the New Urbanism, I came across this link to what looks like a great panel discussion hosted by the Cato Institute and cosponsored by Next American City, called "The Death and Life of Affordable Housing." Here is the link to the video. The session features a terrific lineup of thoughtful commentators. From the event description:
Featuring Ryan Avent, Author of The Gated City; Adam Gordon, Staff Attorney, Fair Share Housing; Randal O'Toole, Senior Fellow, Cato Institute, and author of American Nightmare: How Government Undermines the Dream of Homeownership; Matthew Yglesias, author of The Rent Is Too Damn High; moderated by Diana Lind, Executive Director and Editor-in-Chief, Next American City. . . .
The Cato Institute and Next American City will jointly host a panel discussion about housing and development policy in American cities. For several decades, U.S. policymakers have grappled with how to make housing more affordable for more people. In the past year, several new books have claimed that various government tools, such as zoning and subsidies, have limited people's access to desirable, affordable housing—while other leading thinkers have suggested that markets alone will not create socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable communities. With a shared goal of creating livable, affordable communities for all people—but diverging ideas of how to get there—the panel will give voice to a range of perspectives on the hotly debated issue of how to shape 21st-century American cities.
I plan to check it out this weekend. Enjoy,
June 15, 2012 in Affordable Housing, Books, Conferences, Development, Environmentalism, Housing, Lectures, Planning, Scholarship, Sustainability, Urbanism, Zoning | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Wednesday, June 6, 2012
Christopher Leinberger (Brookings) and Mariela Alfonso have published Walk this Way:The Economic Promise of Walkable Places in Metropolitan Washington, D.C., an economic analysis of certain DC neighborhoods using walkability measures. The study offers four findings:
--More walkable places perform better economically.
--Walkable places benefit from being near other walkable places.
--Residents of more walkable places have lower transportation costs and higher transit access, but also higher housing costs.
--Residents of places with poor walkability are generally less affluent and have lower educational attainment than places with good walkability.
The authors urge inclusion of walkability measures into lender underwriting criteria, developer feasability analyses, and private foundation sustainability metrics. In a brief article on TheAtlanticCities.com, Leinberger argues that walkability in neighborhoods has become a price benefit and that cities need to meet the growing demand. (Hat tip to my NDLS colleague Chris O'Byrne for sharing TheAtlanticCities.com piece)
Tuesday, June 5, 2012
Earlier in the Spring, Matt let us know about the availability of the first chapter of Daniel Mandelker's Designing Planned Communities (2010). Now, Prof. Mandelker (Washington U.) has posted the next four chapters of the book. The entire book can be downloaded from the author's website. Here are the links to the second through fifth chapters in order with the author's descriptions:
This is the second chapter in a book, Designing Planned Communities (2010), that reviews the concepts and ideas that go into the design of planned communities, and explores how local governments can encourage and provide for their good design through land-use regulation. Planned communities require a number of design solutions: a design for the entire project as well as designs at the site, building, and streetscape levels. The discussion of these issues in this chapter assumes a planned community large enough to need design solutions at the project level and for a number of subsidiary elements such as mixed-use centers, neighborhoods, sites, buildings, and streetscapes. Many of these design solutions are also required in smaller planned communities such as mixed-use communities. All planned communities need a neighborhood design, for example, and all must consider designs for buildings and their sites. This is true even of cluster housing. The chapter surveys the design ideas, concepts, and solutions that are available for planned communities and for each level within these communities.
This is the third chapter in a book, Designing Planned Communities (2010), that reviews the concepts and ideas that go into the design of planned communities, and explores how local governments can encourage and provide for their good design through land-use regulation. This chapter shows how design policies and standards can be incorporated in local comprehensive plans, design guidelines, and manuals for the purpose of guiding the design of planned communities. Comprehensive, or general, plans are mandatory in many states and contain planning policies for the future growth of the jurisdiction. Land-use regulations and decisions are expected to take the planning policies into account, and, in some states, must be consistent with the plan. Design policies can be one of the elements in a plan. Design guidelines and manuals are separate and usually unofficial documents that supplement planning policies in the plan and land-use regulations in the zoning ordinance.
The role these documents play in the review and approval of planned communities varies. Significant design detail in these documents can provide a policy framework for planned community zoning amendments or for formal design standards in planned community regulations. Alternatively, some local governments adopt design guidelines and manuals if they know they will not be able to update their zoning regulations for some time, and need policies to support rezoning requests and variances that may arise from major conflicts with underlying zoning in the meantime.
This is the fourth chapter in a book, Designing Planned Communities (2010), that reviews the concepts and ideas that go into the design of planned communities, and explores how local governments can encourage and provide for their good design through land-use regulation. Design standards can be included in the planned community ordinance, where they function as one of the standards local governments consider when they review planned community projects. Such standards in planned community ordinances present a different legal problem than design standards in advisory plans, guidelines, and manuals. Design standards in ordinances are regulatory, and compliance with these standards is a condition to project approval. A constitutional problem may arise, however, if the design standards contain qualitative terms such as “harmonious,” “creative,” or “innovative,” which courts may find unconstitutionally vague.
There is no way around the constitutionality problem if only words are used to set forth a standard because all descriptive words are ambiguous and indeterminate. There is no language “fix” that can solve this problem. This chapter provides examples of design standards that use indeterminate terms that may make the standards vulnerable to constitutional objection. Selecting these standards for discussion was done intentionally, partly because plans, guidelines, and manuals can help give meaning to indeterminate standards, and partly because the constitutional objections are not as serious as many imagine. At the same time, local governments may not opt out of this problem by declining to have any standards for planned communities. A review without standards of planned community projects is an unconstitutional delegation of legislative power.
This is the fifth chapter in a book, Designing Planned Communities (2010), that reviews the concepts and ideas that go into the design of planned communities, and explores how local governments can encourage and provide for their good design through land-use regulation. Design standards in planned community regulations can raise constitutional problems because a court can hold them unconstitutionally vague or an unconstitutional delegation of legislative power. This problem occurs especially with planned community regulations that contain indeterminate design standards, such as equirements that a planned community’s design be “creative” or “harmonious.” The judicial record on the constitutional issues is mixed. Some courts have struck down stand-alone design standards that are not part of a comprehensive program for regulating planned communities, but some have not. Courts have upheld design standards when they are one element in a program of planned community regulation. Even when the courts have struck down design standards, they have provided drafting guidelines that can avoid constitutional problems.
Monday, June 4, 2012
Recently I came across the following cluster of five houses in an otherwise standard subdivision of front-
facing houses with their usual (yawn) front setbacks, side setbacks, and usual suburban land use controls that created the dominant suburban urban form.
The image of these five houses in Teton County, Idaho, however, will immediately induce a land use lawyer's headache. Inevitably, everyone knows, that if there is the will to make something like this work as a "one off" experiment, someone will call it a "planned unit development," or something like that, and there will quickly be a retreat from the strictures of the dominant code and a run for the relief provisions, whatever they may be locally. Maybe its a conditional use, maybe it's a special use district, a planned unit development. [Insert your local jurisdiction's relief provision here.]
But I began to wonder... what if you wanted to build a whole community, or thinking big--a whole city--built upon the premise of this five-house approach? As readers of this blog know, I have recently been somewhat infatuated with the idea of how attention to our smallest living units--neighborhoods--can be an impetus to solving our larger land use and environmental challenges. And so, I find this particular model of five units intriguing. Think about the density of these single-family houses (quite high), and think about the livability of an environment like this (also quite high, I believe). This approach will not appeal to everybody--nothing does--but if it can appeal to people in big-sky country of eastern Idaho, I think it could appeal to lots of other people, too. The combination of density and appealability seems to me a potentially winning combination in efforts to try to build more dense, environmentally sustainable communities.
Now, the question is, how could we make experiments in suburban neighborhood design like this easier from a land use law perspective? One person who has thought about the issue significantly is Ross Chapin, whose book Pocket Neighborhoods, addresses urban design of small neighborhood units in suburban reaches. Chapin's dominant proposal clusters 8 to 12 houses, rather than five, around a central "common," as shown in the graphic here. In addition, the Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington has compiled codes from places that have adopted this style of housing, which the Center calls cottage housing. For those interested in pursuing this, a review of the codes the Center has compiled is well worth it. These model and enacted codes provide approaches to neighborhood design that I believe could prove valuable to re-thinking what it means to live in a suburb, and maybe even in quasi-urban, environments.
Stephen R. Miller
Monday, May 28, 2012
Yesterday I took my kids to see The Avengers, the ensemble superhero movie featuring Ironman, Thor, Captain America, and The Hulk. But before all the world-saving action started up, I caught a throwaway line from the Gwyneth Paltrow character who plays Robert Downey Jr.'s assistant/girlfriend-- referring to their "Stark Tower" skyscraper in midtown Manhattan (powered by some futuristic sustainable energy source, natch) and their plans to build several more, she notes that she was planning to spend the next day "working on the zoning" for the other towers. I made a mental note that this could be a humorous, quick blog post reaffirming my theory that there is a land use angle to everything, and then proceeded to watch the superheroes smash it out with the bad guys to my son's delight.
But just now, the majesty of the Internet has shown me how badly I've been beaten to the punch. Via our Network colleagues at the Administrative Law Prof Blog, I found a link to a blog called Law and the Multiverse: Superheroes, Supervillans, and the Law, which has a blog post--nay, a 1,500+ word essay!--on this very subject called The Avengers: Arc Reactors and NYC Zoning Laws. This is unbelievable--from the same offhand script line that set off my land-use radar, the author delves deep into the New York City zoning code, citing chapter and verse of the regulations; identifies where Stark Tower is on the maps (all with copious linkage); and then explains the legal options available to our developer/hero:
I. Stark Tower’s Zoning District
As it happens, we know exactly where Stark Tower is meant to be located within New York: it’s built on the site of the MetLife building at 200 Park Ave.
(Update: Early on some sources indicated that it was built on the site of the MetLife building and now others indicate that Stark built the tower on top of the preexisting building. This doesn’t change the analysis. Whatever the zoning status of the MetLife building, the construction of Stark Tower was likely a “structural alteration” of the building that would disallow a grandfathered nonconforming use. It certainly exceeded the kind of “repair or incidental alteration” that would preserve the nonconforming use.)
Here’s a zoning map of the area. As you can see, it’s in a C5-3 commercial district in the Special Midtown District, which means Stark Tower has a maximum Floor Area Ratio of 18 (3 of that comes from the special district). Basically this means that if the building takes up its entire lot then it can only have 18 full-size floors (or the equivalent). There are various ways to increase the FAR, such as having a public plaza on the lot. The sloped, tapering structure of Stark Tower means that it can have more floors without exceeding its FAR because the upper floors are much smaller than the lower ones. Given the size of the 200 Park Ave lot, it’s believable that Stark Tower could be that tall, given its shape and the various means of increasing the FAR.
Stark mentions that the top ten floors (excluding his personal penthouse, presumably) are “all R&D.” Is that allowed in a C5-3?
Apart from residential uses, the permitted commercial uses in a C5 are use groups 5 (hotels), 6, 9 and 10 (retail shops and business services) and 11 (custom manufacturing). Unfortunately, research and development is not allowed as a permitted or conditional use in this district. In fact, scientific research and development is specifically allowed in a C6 as a conditional use, which requires a special permit and approval from the City Planning Commission.
So Stark needs some kind of special dispensation. How can he get it? There are many possible ways.
The essay goes on to analyze the options for rezoning, variances, and the related issues of electrical power generation permits and FAA approval, again chock full o' links to the statutes, regs, and caselaw. The author, James Daily, concludes that "while Pepper Potts may indeed have to do some work to get the next few buildings approved, it’s not far-fetched from a legal perspective." Read the whole thing, it's wild, and quite sophisticated too.
But I will draw this even more compelling conclusion: Even the world's greatest Superheroes are no match for the awesome power of the Zoning Code and the Planning Commission.
Thursday, May 24, 2012
Everyone in New York is talking about fracking. We routinely have folks stopping by our door asking us to sign petitions or donate money to fight fracking. (In fact, NYSPIRG stopped by last night.) I live in the city of Buffalo, which has banned fracking. This is the case in many towns and municipalities around the state and may work because of New Yorks Home Rule law. As there is a moratorium in place pending some additional environmental review, we have some time before courts fully examine the legitimacy of these local bans. The ban in Buffalo is largely sympolic as no one is proposing to drill any gas wells here, but some of these communities are in the heart of the Marcellus shale.
Last week, Vermont became the first state with a state-wide ban. Again this is probably largely symbolic but the public outcry against this technique is worth listening to.
Friday, May 18, 2012
The Big Apple is now greener than ever. On April 30, the New York City Council adopted some significant changes to its zoning code designed to promote distributed renewable energy and green building practices. These Green Zone Amendments will make it easier for New Yorkers to gain city approvals for small wind turbines, green rooftops, solar energy installations, skylights, and similar sustainable land uses on their properties. The NYC Department of City Planning has posted some short descriptions of the amendments on its website.
Among these new amendments are provisions that encourage rooftop wind turbines on tall buildings and that relax height and other restrictions for solar panels. It will be interesting to see whether the amendments are able to spur a major increase in small-scale wind and solar energy development in New York City in the coming years.
To read a New York Times interview of an NYC city planning official and real estate developer on the potential impact of these new amendments, click here.
Tuesday, May 15, 2012
Paul Boudreaux (Stetson)--the original Founding Editor of the Land Use Prof Blog-- has published a book that addresses one of the most critical issues in American land use in the 21st century: The Housing Bias--Rethinking Land Use Laws for a Diverse New America (Palgrave MacMillan, 2011). Here's the SSRN abstract:
As more than 300 million Americans squeeze into our country, and as single-person households now outnumber families of parents and children, it's time to rethink our land use laws that favor the single-family house. Our zoning laws were created in an age that assumed that nearly everyone outside of central cities preferred to live a house separated from neighbors; this assumption is no longer valid and no longer sustainable for a crowded nation. The Housing Bias explores the legal discrimination against apartment buildings and other forms of low-cost residences and how these laws make housing more expensive for modest-income Americans – a key factor in the development of subprime loans and other risky practices that eventually sparked our current economic crisis. Why do our laws prohibit the construction of low-cost housing? It is largely because existing homeowners prefer to exclude them – an astonishing example of law’s granting a legal privilege to wealthier citizens, a privilege that our nation can no longer afford.
This provocative book explores real-world 21st-century controversies of the housing bias. It visits the recent effort of Virginia suburbs to enforce “overcrowding” laws against mostly Latino families who migrated to the area to build new subdivisions, and then moves to New York, where eminent domain is used through a dubious interpretation of law to seize condominiums of middle-class families to build a new pro basketball arena. The book reports on the story of how laws requiring large house lots prevented the construction of a mobile-home community in a growing rural county in southern Michigan, and then examines the failed effort to legalize the widespread phenomenon of small “granny flats” in the backyards of the middle-class homes in the packed city of Los Angeles.
The Housing Bias concludes by exploring how we could update our laws to accommodate the housing needs of a diverse new America, in which half of all households now consist of only one or two persons. The prescriptions range from the complex, such as using state laws to override the power of local homeowners to zone out low-cost housing in certain zones, to the simple, such as facilitating the construction of apartments above suburban malls. It is useful for libraries and for college courses on society or law or for any intelligent reader. Written in an entertaining and jargon-free style, The Housing Bias is essential reading for understanding the flaws and the future of the American community.
One of the great things about land use is that it is fundamentally about places and their stories, and in this book Paul uses these examples to make a larger point about a critical issue of law and policy. The Housing Bias is definitely worth reading and thinking about.
Sunday, May 6, 2012
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.
May 6, 2012 in Architecture, Development, Economic Development, Green Building, Local Government, Planning, Redevelopment, Scholarship, Suburbs, Sustainability, Zoning | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Friday, April 6, 2012
The food truck wars continue. In this piece on Slate, Matt Yglesias talks about several cities' and states' efforts to ban or regulate food trucks in a way that prevents them from competing with existing restaurants. He cites what he considers a particularly egregious example: a San Francisco ordinance that permits any existing business to comment on an application for a new vending license and directs the city to "consider" whether the new vendor will operate within 300 feet of an existing vendor in deciding whether to grant the license. Yglesias concludes: "a basic rule of thumb seems to suggest itself: The fact that business owners would prefer not to face competition is not a valid regulatory purpose."
This proposition would surely come as a surprise to most land use folks, who generally accept as a matter of course that land use regulations are, at their core, anti-competitive. From large-lot single-family residential zoning that inflates the cost of housing for the benefit of existing homeowners to anti-big-box store laws that are designed to protect quaint mom-and-pop businesses, zoning represents pure economic protectionism. Indeed, the San Francisco ordinance Yglesias mentions is pretty familiar: many zoning laws give neighbors the right to file a protest to a proposed land use change in their neighborhood, which can result in requiring the city to enact the zoning change by a supermajority vote or possibly even block the zoning change (I address the legality of these neighborhood zoning provisions in my article Neighborhood Empowerment and the Future of the City.)
Zoning laws are generally allowed to be anti-competitive because they are thought to be means of combatting free-rider problems. Economists like William Fischel and Bruce Hamilton have argued, for example, that a preponderance of expensive homes on large lots tends to correlate with higher-quality schools. But in the absence of large-lot zoning, people would have strategic incentives to build smaller, less expensive homes in the area just to have access to the better schools. Of course, if too many folks did the same, the very thing that attracted people to the area (the good schools) will be lost as the area becomes congested with smaller homes and more schoolchildren.
Food trucks, it would seem, present an even stronger free-rider problem. Foot traffic is drawn to an area because of the existing shops, restaurants, etc, and the foot traffic in turn generates a demand for more shops, restaurants, etc. Rents and property values go up, as do property taxes, and many high-traffic areas use special assessments or business improvement districts to provide collective sanitation or security services for the area (again overcoming a free-rider problem, as I explain in my Neighborhood Empowerment piece). When a food truck swoops into a high-traffic area, it pays no rent, no property taxes, and no assessments for that privilege, and its lower operating costs enable it to siphon some of that foot-traffic away from existing fixed eateries, thus free-riding on the efforts of those eateries to bring in the foot traffic in the first place. Think of it this way: if the food trucks are sufficiently successful to bankrupt the existing fixed eateries, leaving lots of vacant storefronts in their wake, people will stop coming to the area altogether, and the food trucks will move elsewhere. In other words, the food trucks depend on the existence of fixed eateries to fuel their business. But while fixed eateries pay taxes and fees for the ability to do business in a particular place, food trucks do not. So it should not be a surprise that existing businesses are unhappy.
The solution that suggests itself to me is fairly obvious: since business improvement districts are mechanisms for overcoming free-rider problems, than food trucks should be forced to pay assessments to the business improvement district or special assessment district in those areas where they operate. Legally and conceptually, though, this is difficult to accomplish because special assessments are, as a matter of hornbook law, supposed to be keyed to the benefits that accrue to real property. Because food trucks are not real property, it is difficult to apply the special assessment to them. But wouldn't it be possible for municipalities to use their home rule powers to impose some sort of free-rider fee on food trucks? I would hope that cities and states will consider this alternative rather than simply banning food trucks altogether.
For more on food trucks, see my colleague Ernesto Hernandez-Lopez's piece, LA’s Taco Truck War: How Law Cooks Food Culture Contests.
Wednesday, March 28, 2012
A couple of weeks ago, I sat down and read Matt Yglesias’ The Rent Is Too Damned High and Ryan Avent’s The Gated City back to back. Both were a pleasure to read, for their content, and for the opportunity to kick a couple of bucks to two of my fave bloggers behind an ennobling veil of commerce. As an avid reader of both authors’ online work, there were no huge surprises, but reading the ebooks took me deeper and inspired some more considered thought on their ideas. Ryan Avent and Matt Yglesias (and Ed Glaeser too!) are separate humans with their own identities and ideas. But these “econourbanists” share a core view, and I hope they will forgive me if I consider their work together. Although they arrive at a similar place, the two books take very different roads: Avent’s book is a bit wonkier and more economistic, focusing on the macro role of cities in enhancing productivity through economies of scale and agglomeration; Yglesias treats the same set of issues more polemically and with an emphasis on the personal, thinking about how individuals should expect to make a living in an increasingly service-oriented economy, the importance of accessible cities to the kind of prosperity he envisions, and the perils of any obstacle that makes urban life inaccessible (“the rent is too damned high!”). Read both!
This is a long post with extensive analysis of the reviewed work and the authors' own insights. Waldman is a qualified skeptic of the authors' approaches. A very insightful essay that grapples with the issues I am trying to address in my own scholarship. I am glad to add a new term-- "econourbanist"-- to my land use lexicon! Thanks to Geoff Corn for the link.