Friday, May 26, 2006

Land Use Prof Blog goes on a relaxed summer schedule

  With today's post, the Land Use Prof Blog will start enjoying summer.  It'll be on vacation until June 4 and new posts may appear less frequently in June July, and August.  Time for the sun block ...    

May 26, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

"Overcrowding" masks racism in the exurbs

   What's the biggest housing problem in America's booming exurbs?  From the news in Manassas, Va., outside Washington, the local government apparently thinks that it's overcrowding.  Are there lots of tenements in Manassas, with parents, seven kids, and a grandmother squeezed into a two-room cold-water flat, five stories above a packed street full of push-cart vendors, with only a single tenement house outhouse in a side alley?  No, that was New York in 1910, the last time that Americans worried seriously about overcrowding.  The twist in Manassas is, of course, that the independent city's overcrowding laws are being enforced largely against Hispanic families, who often share a house as a way of coping with the Virginia suburbs' extraordinary housing costs.  Although Manassas recently repealed a restrictive 2005 "family" redefinition, the city still rigorously enforces its overcrowding laws; the city even has an "overcrowding hotline" through which residents can make anonymously tips about neighbors.

   Today's news is that HUD is investigating whether the Manassas law violates the Fair Housing Act by having an unlawfully disproportionate effect on against Hispanics.

   Until I hear that the followers of Jane Addams find 1910-era tenement-level overcrowding in the United States, I argue that governments should abolish their overcrowding laws.  The easy potential for abuse of such laws ("public choice" theory meets the Fair Housing Act) overshadows, in my view, any occasional benefit.

May 26, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Hercules has more muscle than Wal-Mart

   The latest in the Wal-Mart Wars:  A big story this week was the vote of Hercules, a small and tony suburb northeast of San Francisco, to use eminent domain to take land on which Wal-Mart planned to build a store.  While only the most strident property rights advocates shed a tear for Wal-Mart, who will be compensated, this use of eminent domain provides a good chance to tee off against government with both rightist and leftist critiques.   

    First, although this use of eminent domain would seem to fit with Kelo's approval of "government knows best" what's good for the town, what about an analogy to "spot zoning"?  The idea in zoning is that law should treat similar spots similarly, and that government shouldn't single out a single "spot" or landowner for special zoning.  If we applied a like idea to the use of eminent domain, it might be acceptable to use the power for a certain category of land -- "blight" is the most common example, of course -- but not simply because the government doesn't like a particular landowner or its proposed use of land.

  From a leftist angle, an interesting story in San Francisco's alternative paper, SFGate, points out that local opponents argued that the store wouldn't fit in with the wealthy ambience of the town and thus isn't desired.  The point that the Wal-Mart might serve the needs of residents of less-affluent neighboring towns didn't make an impression, of course, on the Hercules council.  So, isn't this simply a Mt. Laurel situation, with shampoo replacing housing:  An affluent suburb uses it land use power to stifle market demand by the less affluent in the area?  Should California law require, as New Jersey did with housing, exclusive towns to consider the market demands of the less affluent?        

May 25, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Shale in Utah, Chagossians in the Indian Ocean ...

   NPR reported two interesting stories this morning about controversies on the edges of land use law.  The first report was about renewed plans to squeeze oil out of shale in the deserts of Utah, made economically feasible once again with high oil prices.  Environmentalists deplore the prospect of the destructive mining, pollution, and water use that oil shale mining would bring.  As someone who loves the solitudes of Utah's deserts, I too would not be happy over large-scale oil shale business there.  But after the public uproar over high gas prices this year, is there any doubt that the majority of Americans prefer cheap gasoline to pristine deserts?    

   The second story concerned a recent decision of a British court in favor of the  Chagossians, the native people of the Indian Ocean's Diego Garcia, who were expelled from the British-owned island in the the 1970s so that the United States could build a military base in the strategic location.  The British government acted with cavalier disregard in kicking out the Chagossians, many now argue.  Although the D.C. Circuit recently held that the U.S. government's actions were political questions and that the U.S. government owes the people no compensation, British courts are turning in the other direction.  Thus the complaints of undue power and racism in eminent domain reach a global level …

May 23, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, May 22, 2006

"Unsuitable trades" -- an anecdote of zoning history

   The greatest debate in American land use history concerns the 20th century practice of zoning.  For some, the chief effect of zoning has been what governments and the Euclid decision said -- the furthering of the general public welfare by separating incompatible uses and shaping growth to serve public goals. For critics, the chief effect of zoning has been to assist certain private interests -- influential ones, of course -- to exclude uses and people that these interests do not want around. 

   A snippet of history in support of the skeptical view is found in John's Tauranac's history of the creation of New York's Empire State Building, which I'm reading in honor of the famous office tower's 75th birthday.  Many people are familiar with the role that downtown Manhattan's Equitable Life building, which rose a shocking 38 stories straight up and above the narrow streets in 1915, played in encouraged New York City to adopt a zoning law.  But if height, bulk, and shadows were bothering people downtown, other interests were at work in midtown.   The booming garment manufacturing industry -- mostly small firms of Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe -- was spreading toward fashionable midtown Fifth Avenue.  Alarmed, a group of wealthy retailers pushed to zone the garment manufacturers away from Fifth Avenue. The New York Times opined on Oct. 2, 1916, that the "invasion of unsuitable trades, bringing throngs of workers who would monopolize the sidewalks and repel fashionable shoppers, was undesirable."  New York City adopted its first zoning law that year.

May 22, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The international debate over use vs. preservation ...

[Global Saturday]

   It's happening all over the world -- While environmentalists implore third world nations to preserve their natural resources, governments and local residents see quick profits from using the land to extract minerals, timber, and water, and start up intensive agriculture.   

   The Washington Post today prints an fascinating piece about the Papuan region of Indonesia, where the government has shut down the logging of tropical forests. The story is not simply good versus evil.  On the one hand, local farmers have for centuries cut down some trees for subsistence and today complain of lost income; on the other hand, much of the recent logging has been done for international timber operations that illegally ship the wood out of the country.  Matters are further muddled by changing national policies and conflicts between national and regional authorities.  And the environmentalists' preferred win-win solution of ecotourism is not likely to help the Papuans ...

May 21, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, May 19, 2006

New ideas for helping the Mid-South's "Delta"

   The national political debate rarely records talk of  "the poor" anymore; all politicians speak only of caring for "working families."  Local politics in some cities inovolves the issue of homelessness.  Rarely, however, does our hyper-metropolitanized nation think much about the rural poor any more.  This would have shocked liberal politicians from the 18th century up to fairly recently, when big programs such as the Tennessee Valley Authority sought to help desperately poor rural areas.

   It is refreshing, therefore, to read the Economist's interesting article this week on the Delta region of the Mid-South -- the largely African American farming area on either side of the big river in Mississippi and Arkansas.   By some measures the poorest region of the nation, the Delta has been hurt in recent years both by the technology boom (most residents are not online) and by hurricane Katrina, which has slowed the tourist trade down to the Gulf Coast.

   Sensible plans to help the Delta focus on its strengths -- fertile soil and a citizenry skilled in tilling the soil.  Instead of relying largely on cotton, local governments are investing in facilities to foster farming of the sweet potato -- that famous crop that provides more nutrients per work than any other food.  Local grasses are useful in making bio-fuels, which some expect in part to replace petroleum products in the near future.  And east Arkansas has a plan to moisten its enormous rice fields with irrigated water as underwater aquifers dry up.  One problem -- much of the water would come from the White River, whose adjacent wetlands are where birders claim to have seen the once-thought-to-be-extinct-and-still-elusive ivory-billed woodpecker.               

May 19, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, May 18, 2006

HOA covenants and mansionization

  Homeowners associations assure uniformity -- a rigid conformity, some communitarian critics say.  But this privately enforced uniformity can also ensure a neighborhood's "character" in some ways that communitarians may approve of.  A court in Colorado recently upheld a Denver HOA's disapproval of a plan to replace a small house, like most in the neighborhood, with a 30-feet-high, 5000-square-feet mansion.  The Belcaro Park HOA covenant allowed the HOA to veto house plans that are not compatible in height and appearance with surrounding homes.  Although such discretion to an HOA may ensure stifling uniformity and holds the potential for the mischief of unequal treatment, it can also stop the trend of "mansionization," whereby property owners build giant edifices in the middle of a block of smaller houses -- a practice is especially appealing in an age of high property values.  I wrote about this role for HOAs in one of my first blog entries, on March 16, 2006

   Those who seek to preserve old neighborhoods from behemoths may rightly applaud the covenants and the Colorado court decision.  It allows the private market for covenants to serve the cause of community preservation.  But are existing neighborhoods that do not already have such covenants likely to adopt them today, when many homeowners may be thinking about mansionizing (or selling to mansionizers) themselves?  And are any opponents of sprawl worried that too many such covenants might -- as some who worry about conservation easements "bottling up" useful land forever -- simply push out to the exurbs the desires of Americans for their own mansion? 

May 18, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Eminent domain in “Law After Oil”

[This is the first in a occasional series called “Law After Oil,” in which I will explore what might happen to law if we were to run out of oil.]

   States across the nation this year clamped down –- with varying degrees of likely effectiveness –- on eminent domain by local governments.  The steps might be seen as the beginning of an era of a diminished governmental role in shaping urban land use.

   What would happen, however, if we ran out of oil?  Not simply an oil pinch, as in the 1970s, but a situation in which the world’s supply of oil shrunk so much that the average citizen could not fill up her gas tank and the average power plant could not run on oil or natural gas (and alternatives such as hydrogen and ethanol did not work)?  Such an event is not likely to occur any time soon, but the possibility is not so preposterous any more, considering both volatile world politics and uncertainty over reserves.

   Anti-suburbanists might have us believe that suburbanites would simply join hands and move “back to the city.”  The Chicago of 2010 might look like the Chicago of 1910 –- lots of tenements, streetcars, and pedestrians.  But how, precisely, could millions of people simply move “back to the city”?  Blocks that were apartment houses in 1910 are now parking lots and warehouses; these land uses cannot be transformed overnight.  And what about the land use around a close-in suburban rail stop?  A planner in 1910 would have expected that such land would be densely developed.  With the 20th century phenomena of the automobile, zoning, and NIMBY, however, land even quite close to suburban rail stops have become single-family houses.  Without oil, legions of citizens would be stranded in their exurban homes and pleading for close-in housing.  For the close-to-transit land to be transformed to dense transit-oriented development, the single-family houses would have to be converted to denser housing.  Many of the existing owners would be resistant and would hold out for a premium price.  How could the conversion work?  The most obvious solution would be for the government to use eminent domain to seize these houses and then sell them to developers for apartments.  The government would be acting as a 21st century Haussmann, who used eminent domain to rebuild Paris for the 19th century.  Would opponents of Kelo accept eminent domain in such a situation?   

May 16, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, May 15, 2006

Road-clogged Seattle and transit-friendly Portland -- a tale of two cities

   Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington.  People outside the Northwest tend to think of them as twins –- two pleasant cities nestled among green-glad mountains, under thick clouds, inhabited by a caffeine-buzzed, computer-oriented citizenry.  But there is one aspect in which the cities are almost polar opposites: transportation.  Portland holds perhaps the nation’s most effective public transportation, with buses, light rail, and streetcar options that make it seem among the most European of American cities.  Not by coincidence, Portland is also one of the most densely populated metropolitan areas in country.
   Seattle and surrounding Kings County, on the other hand, holds some of the worst traffic in nation.  The lack of effective public transit is exacerbated by the lakes and bays, which funnel cars into overloaded freeways and surface streets.  In response, the Kings County Executive recently proposed a referendum on a sales tax increase for a greatly improved bus system.  Some Seattlites are enthused, while others, such as syndicated sex writer Dan Savage, point out that in-traffic buses simply aren’t an effective way to move people around a sprawling metropolitan area without dedicated bus lanes.  I agree with Savage –- dedicated bus lanes provide a unique form of efficiency and speed, without the colossal capital costs of trains.  The most famous exemplar is the Brazilian city of Curitiba.  A perceived drawback of dedicated bus lanes is that they impose some burdens on automobile drivers –- lanes are removed from traffic and signals give buses priority.  Do Seattlites, who are famous for complaining about their traffic, have enough of a commitment to public transportation to accept this priority for buses over cars?

May 15, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Could meat grown in labs save the world's lands?

[“Global Saturday” -- I’m beginning a practice of talking about an international issue of land use and community development each Saturday.]

   PBS’s “Nature” broadcast last week a program about land use tensions in Africa between lions and cattle ranchers.  Although the attitudes of most of the Kenyans they interviewed were fairly tolerant toward the big cats, this tolerance snaps when lions acquire a taste for their cattle.  It’s the same kind of tension that exists in the U.S. West over protection of the wolf and bison, and in cities over LULUs such as homeless shelters.  The program highlighted how human population pressures –- Africa has more than tripled its population over the past 50 years –- have caused losses in habitat and a critical decline in the lion population.   
   Putting on one’s skeptical glasses, it may be that megafauna such as lions, who need large expanses of land in which to hunt, may be doomed in the wild in Africa, outside of highly protected and monitored preserves.  The world’s booming population simply needs the land for agriculture.
   But here’s a fascinating potential solution.  Scientists report that it is possible to “grow” meat in a lab.  Although using cells to grow tissue is currently very expensive, the idea holds tremendous potential.  Imagine, 20 years from now, big factories in which most of the world’s meat –- chicken, beef, and salmon –- is created.   What extraordinary environmental and land use benefits!  No more destruction of the rainforest for cattle ranches.  Turning farmland back into forests to serve as carbon sinks and slow global warming.  No more killing of animals for food.  And the possible end of world hunger.  The mind boggles.  Let’s get to work!    

May 13, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, May 12, 2006

Los Angeles helps its downtown poor in the short-run -- but how about an "impact fee" for the long run?

   The city of Los Angeles adopted this week a moratorium on closing low-cost residential hotels -– what others might call flop houses -– and converting them into “luxury lofts.”  The move is designed to protect the very poor in the hotels from being tossed out onto the street and into one of the world’s most expensive housing markets.
   The L.A. Times quoted a homeless activist as saying, “We need a home, and right now the hotels are our homes.”  The problem is, of course, that the hotels are not their property.  With downtown L.A. and dilapidated-but-close-in Hollywood appearing more attractive all the time in the freeway-clogged region, the old flop houses are now more valuable for “upscale” housing.
    Considering my drum-beating over the need to provide affordable housing, I won’t step up on a soap box and lecture about how the moratorium won’t affect market pressures and won’t address the underlying dilemma of affordable housing.  But a moratorium is a very short-term solution, if that.
   In the long-run, of course, it will be very difficult to stop what critics call “gentrification.”  Indeed, the fact that affluent Angelenos are heeding the new urbanist calls to move back into the city and avoid their crazy commutes would seem to be a good thing.  And as a matter of efficient land use, it probably makes sense to have downtown areas occupied by workers, not by those who are unemployed.
   The moratorium may reflect the city’s hope that the housing market will collapse and that plans for conversions won’t appear as attractive a year from now.  Or the year may give the city time to figure out something else for those who would be displaced. 
   Here’s a more-long-term idea that was in part suggested by my Stetson colleague James Fox, who studies poverty issues.  Considering that the conversion of a flop house leads to a social “cost” –- the homelessness of some of the most vulnerable in the city, with the likely result that the city would have to help pay for their housing some place –- and considering that a solution short of a ban should be preferable to developers, why not impose an “impact fee” on the conversion developers?  If you’re going to close a flop house, you would have to help pay to house the residents elsewhere.  Or set up a homeless mitigation bank and a trading scheme.  It’s the economic idea of law's requiring a complete internalization of an action's total social costs.   

May 12, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, May 11, 2006

When housing costs are considered, poverty is worst in DC, New York, and California

   Quick: Which states have the highest rates of poverty?  For decades (centuries?), almost all indicators of wealth and achievement, such as poverty, education, income, etc., have mostly southern states at the bottom.  Sadly, the low ends of the lists have tended to be filled with states with the highest percentages of African Americans.  But the federal government’s assessment of what constitutes a family in “poverty” was not designed for an era of extraordinarily high housing costs.  The price of food, not housing, has been the chief cost factor in determining poverty.  Uncle Sam’s measurements have not taken into account the varying costs of living –- a flaw that grows as housing costs take up a larger and larger percentage of everyone’s income. (Why? Unlike almost anything else, no one -- not even the Dutch these days -- is making land, while our nation’s population is now almost double what it was in 1950).
    A hot-off-the-presses report of the Pubic Policy Institute of California has revised the poverty figures to take into account housing costs.  As a result, the report concludes that D.C. (21.0%), New York (16.3%), and California (15.7%) -- all highly urbanized, high-housing-costs jurisdictions -- have the highest poverty rates.  This assessment contrasts sharply with the Census Bureau’s poverty list, which places Mississippi, Arkansas, New Mexico, and Louisiana at the top.
    The report uses HUD’s “fair market rents,” which are calculated largely on the basis of the 40th percentile of rents in a given market.   The explosion in housing costs on the east and west coasts since the late ‘90s has generated a rise in the number of metropolitan families who live in money-stressed poverty, according to the new assessment. 
    (The angels are in the details, of course.  Even in California the national economy has appeared to play a larger role than housing costs in poverty totals; the poverty rate for the Golden State in 1995 was nearly 20%, in conjunction with a national early-‘90s rise in poverty.  And the online report stated that the fair market rent for a two-bedroom unit in San Francisco was $1775 – a number that I discovered did not take into account the 13% decline from 2004 to a still daunting $1539 in 2005.) 
    A policy lesson is that, unlike the 1960s’ traditional thinking, it is housing, not food, that is the money matter of the greatest concern to poor persons.  The dilemma of the rising cost of housing should be a domestic policy issue of the highest priority. 

May 11, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The sorry modern history of urban renewal ...

   What kind of urban development projects destroyed the central city neighborhoods?  Urban historians often point to interstates and other highways, which were dumped down in the middle of cities --- often the poor and black sectors, of course --- with the loss of thousands of homes and the destruction of entire neighborhood fabrics.  After all, the most pressing policy issue for local governments in the '50 seemed to be helping the commutes of new and influential suburbanites.  Robert Moses even planned the pulling down of a large chunk of Manhattan’s now-super-hip SoHo for a freeway.    
    A new exhibit here in Tampa, however, shows a more modern story of urban demolition.  In a pair of striking photos, the Ybor City State Museum shows how Tampa’s famous Ybor City, once home to thousands of Latino and Italian cigar rollers, actually survived the running of Interstate 4 along its edge in the ‘50s.  By 1966, Ybor was still home to hundreds of wooden shotgun houses (prevalent in many cities of pre-air-conditioned South) around the bustling cigar-shop and retail 7th Avenue. 
   But this wasn’t enough for the urban “renewers.”  In a plan not completed until the ‘70s, nearly all of the shotgun houses were bulldozed, in large part through eminent domain.  Unsafe, they said.  Slums, they said.  By the second photo, in 1976, Ybor City was nearly completely a wasteland of empty lots.  Carpet bombers could not have done a better job.  (Today, a few remaining shotguns in Ybor can go for as much as half a million.)   
   There may have been a lot of reasons for the ‘70s urban destruction –-- a sincere but misguided belief that older housing “caused” poverty, the racist fear that Ybor was attracting too many African Americans as the Latinos moved out, and the desire of government and other institutions for some inchoate projects (a junior college, lots of parking lots, and a new condo complex were eventually built on the land). 
   The sad lesson of Ybor City is that cockeyed urban policies lived on until quite recently.  There was hardly a blink between “tear down the slums” and “revitalize the old neighborhoods.” 

May 10, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, May 9, 2006

Roads, the environment, and takings on "The West Wing"

   Environmentalism and traditionally liberal land use policies remain at odds in some policy arenas.  For an example from the popular culture, Sunday's penultimate “West Wing” television episode had the outgoing chief of staff for the liberal president being asked by an eccentric billionaire for one way to use his gold to save the world.  “Highways,” the liberal character quickly responded, explaining that aid for many of the poor in the Third World can’t reach its destination quickly enough because of bad roads.  Imagine the horror in the family rooms of environmentalism (which heard applause years ago when another "West Wing" character responded to a similar question with "Save the Everglades"), at the thought of the African savanna and rainforest mowed down for asphalt, with loggers, ranchers, miners, and hunters following swiftly behind!      

  Meanwhile, in the same episode, another flawed heroic character tells our chief of staff that he’s “found a typo in the Constitution” –- the National Archives can’t tell him whether it’s a comma or a smudge in the original –- that could “change the meaning of the takings clause.”  He then relates that he’s put in “a call to Tom Merrill.”

   Hmmm, let’s see … “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”  Take out the comma and it’s “nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.”  Sounds the same to me.   How about “nor shall private property be taken, for public use, without just compensation.”  Well, this might just be construed to mean that New London didn’t even have to pay Susette Kelo a cent! I knew those writers were still liberals after all …

May 9, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, May 8, 2006

Why one solution to the affordable housing crunch... isn't ...

   Here are two contrasting footnotes in the nation’s affordable housing crunch.  Today, the Washington Post writes that land in Manhattan is now so valuable for housing that gas stations have all but disappeared from the island.  By contrast, NPR reported yesterday on the troubles of Newark, New Jersey, just ten miles west of Manhattan.  Once one of America’s largest cities, Newark’s population has fallen from over 430,000 in 1950 to only about 280,000 today.  The median home price is, according one source, only about $222,000, less than half that of the entire metro area.
   The contrast is striking: On one hand, there is a dearth of land for housing; ten miles away, a city has lost 150,000 people over the past 50 years.  Why isn’t the latter a partial solution to the former?  The reason is not that Newark is inconvenient.  A quick train ride away and close to the Hudson River tunnels, New Jersey’s largest city makes for a gloriously rapid commute by New York standards.  The reason for its unpopularity is, of course, Newark’s social problems.  Despite the nationwide fall in crime and the revitalization of cities, Newark remains one of America’s most dangerous cities (the NPR story quoted a high school student who said he is afraid of murder and crime each day).  Newark, a great majority of whose residents are either black or Latino, has a median family income of only about $29,000 – less than half of the state average.
   There IS affordable housing and buildable land for such housing in America’s expensive metro areas.  But because most citizens refuse to move to areas occupied by poor people and with crime (and I'll leave unanswered the question whether an area would become more popular if the crime were to fall but the demographics remained unchanged), the vacant lots remain.         

May 8, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, May 6, 2006

An un-American slow-down in highway construction ...

   Historically, what’s the one kind of public works project that the taxpayer is always happy to support?  New schools?  No.  Public housing?  Don’t make me laugh.  It’s highway construction, of course.  Road bond referenda are so often put on the ballot because lawmakers expect taxpayers to vote overwhelmingly in favor of spending money to get them to and fro more quickly, while the lawmakers can avoid voting for higher taxes.
   Across the nation, however, governments are finding that road-building costs are skyrocketing and that projects must be put on hold.  One of the causes is the tremendous world demand for supplies, generated by the 2004 and 2005 hurricanes, the war in Iraq, and contracts from construction-happy China.  And as all consumers know, any good or service that requires a lot of American labor (as opposed to overseas sweatshop labor) is bound to be expensive. 
   State and local governments’ postponing highway construction –- How un-American!   

May 6, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, May 5, 2006

Emotion and money at the World Trade Center site

   A report from New York is that the World Trade Center memorial is now expected to cost nearly a billion dollars.  No one knows where the money would come from; donations have not reached anywhere near this total.
   I have been skeptical of nearly everything about the procedures and plans for rebuilding at “ground zero.”  In a sense, the extraordinary competitions, public hearings, and input from victims families and other interested parties was meant to be cathartic.  Instead, we ended up with litigation and a billion-dollar price tag for the memorial alone.
   In my view, the procedures have exposed a somewhat unpleasant side of the American psyche.  We feel that we need to respond to what we saw as an unparalleled disaster with a rebuilding response of unparalleled size, complexity, and expense.  What ever happened to the idea of quiet, dignified mourning?   In small towns across the United States, there are simple monuments marked with 1861-65 and 1917-18 –- epochs more deadly than September 11, 2001 –- that today continue to evoke respect and reflection.  But in lower Manhattan, we demand more -– waterfalls, pools, and acres of construction -– to prove how much we mourn.   If it’s not huge and complex, we seem to think that we aren’t being respectful enough.
   I also have been skeptical of the plans for the banal 1776-feet-tall “Freedom Tower” planned for the site.  It seemed a “given” that a new tower would have to be higher -– if only through a huge pinnacle -– than the enormous Trade Center towers and would return the title of world’s tallest building to New York.  But Freedom Tower is unlikely to be the world’s tallest building in 2016, with giant skyscrapers now planned for Asia and the Middle East.  There are economic reasons why only one New York project since 1931 was taller than the Empire State Building.  Yet in a nation in which emotions are constantly on public display, we feel the need to express our grief over September 11, 2001, through colossal and costly land use gestures. 

May 5, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, May 4, 2006

Lawnmowers, pollution, and land use ...

   Many environmentalists and libertarians would prefer that the typical American remain ignorant about the extradordinary success of the federal Clean Air Act, which over the past 36 years has dramatically improved air quality in the United States.  Environmentalists would rather that citizens not become complacent about dirty air, while libertarians prefer to focus on the supposedly excessive cost of complying with the complex statute.
   A debate that hasn’t gotten much attention this year is a controversy over proposed air pollution controls for lawnmowers.  California, whose politics favors tougher air pollution controls than does national politics, has proposed a new rule to require a catalytic converter for new mowers.  Advocates point out that, for a gallon of gas, current lawnmowers add 93 times (curiously, 1 millionth of the distance in miles to the sun …) more smog-creating pollution than do typical cars.  Manufacturers point out, also correctly, that there are a lot fewer mowers than cars and that they are run a lot less often.  Lawnmower pollution is a mere ladle in the bucket of vehicle pollution.  But does that justify avoiding pollution reduction?   
   The arguments against controls echo those made back in the ‘70s and ‘80s against auto regulations.  Air bags?  The public doesn’t want to pay an extra 500 bucks, the manufacturers said.  Require unleaded gas?  Cars won’t run as well, they said.  But these protections were imposed and the public has adapted quite well.  Taking the lead out of gasoline has removed more than 90 percent of the lead from the nation’s air.  Today, lawnmower manufacturers warn that converters might cause fires (a risk that an EPA study says is minimal) and would increase the price of new mowers.  So far, it looks as if Congress is in no rush to impose the pollution reduction technology for the entire nation.  Once again, law balks when environmental protection asks for small sacrifices in the land use of the average citizen ...   

May 4, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, May 3, 2006

New Orleans's new evacuation plan

   New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin announced yesterday the city’s new evacuation plan for the upcoming hurricane season.  A key feature is a plan to use public transportation to help out of the city those who cannot motor themselves out –- a feature in effect lacking in last year’s Katrina evacuation.  Another feature is the city’s statement that there will be no shelters “of last resort” –- people will not be told that they can retreat to the Superdome or Convention Center as a last resort.  This change is no doubt spurred by the horrible stories resulting from the days of flooding –- even if many of the tales of crime and chaos were not true.   
   Let’s hope that the statement about no shelters in the city is a little white land use lie –- that the statement is designed to get almost everyone out, while the city has quiet plans to provide shelter on high ground for those who don’t obey or can’t get out.  Sometimes a little dissembling is good policy.   

May 3, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)