Monday, April 16, 2012
In a recent WSJ op-ed piece, historian David Beito and economist Daniel Smith point out that Joplin, MO has put togehter a more effective response to tornado destruction than Tuscaloosa, AL. The reason for the divergence, the authors argue, is that the cities have imposed drasticlly different land use regimes. While Joplin is "letting local business lead the revival," Tuscaloosa has mandated an inefficent set of "top-down rules."
The reason for Joplin’s successes and Tuscaloosa’s shortcomings? In Tuscaloosa, officials sought to remake the urban landscape top-down, imposing a redevelopment plan on businesses. Joplin took a bottom-up approach, allowing businesses to take the lead in recovery….
The Alabama city’s recovery plan, “Tuscaloosa Forward,” is indeed state-of-the-art urban planning—and that’s the crux of the problem. It sets out to “courageously create a showpiece” of “unique neighborhoods that are healthy, safe, accessible, connected, and sustainable,” all anchored by “village centers” for shopping (in a local economy that struggles to sustain current shopping centers). Another goal is to “preserve neighborhood character” from a “disproportionate ratio of renters to owners.” The plan never mentions protecting property rights.
In Joplin, the official plan not only makes property rights a priority but clocks in at only 21 pages, compared with Tuscaloosa’s 128. Joplin’s plan also relied heavily on input from businesses (including through a Citizen’s Advisory Recovery Team) instead of Tuscaloosa’s reliance on outside consulting firms. “We need to say to our businesses, community, and to our citizens, ‘If you guys want to rebuild your houses, we’ll do everything we can to make it happen,’” said Joplin City Council member William Scearce in an interview.
Instead of encouraging businesses to rebuild as quickly as possible, Tuscaloosa enforced restrictive zoning rules and building codes that raised costs—prohibitively, in some cases. John Carney, owner of Express Oil Change, which was annihilated by the storm, estimates that the city’s delays and regulation will cost him nearly $100,000. And trying to follow the rules often yielded mountains of red tape, as the city rejected businesses’ proposals one after another….
Joplin took a dramatically different approach. According to interviews with local business owners, right after disaster struck the city council formally and informally rolled back existing regulations, liberally waving licensing and zoning mandates….
The owner of one Joplin construction company told us that when it came to regulations, the “city just sort of backed out. . . . We had projects that we completed before we got building permits.” Said another Joplin resident: “When you have the magnitude of that disaster, really the old ways of doing things are suspended for a while until you create whatever normal is. . . . The government was realistic to know that there is a period of time when common sense, codes and laws that are in place to protect people are suspended for the sake of the greater good.”