Notes From Babel

Archive for the ‘Land Use’ Category

Jerry Brown takes aim at RDAs and Prop 13

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The Sacramento Bee reports that Gov. Jerry Brown is thinking about dismantling California’s redevelopment agencies.  While in law school, I published an article in the Albany Law Environmental Outlook Journal about California redevelopment law, the perverse incentives it creates for local RDAs, and the toll they take on our neighborhoods and budgets.  In particular, RDAs play fast and loose with “blight” determinations to get their hands on tax increment revenues that might otherwise flow to local school districts.  RDAs provide little voter participation and arguably constitute an improper delegation of legislative power.  And they cost over a half a billion dollars annually in administration alone.

California redevelopment law also provides RDAs incentive to redevelop areas irrespective of the likelihood that development might have been initiated by private enterprise.  In fact, it may be argued that the tax increment financing structure incentivizes RDAs to redevelop those areas most susceptible to private development, since these projects would have the highest likelihood and highest rate of return.  Yet, if RDAs are necessary, it is to ameliorate those areas that have the lowest likelihood of attracting private development.

I’m interested in seeing the arguments develop, but my instinct is to favor the proposal.

Also today I read that Brown is already addressing the splash damage of Prop 13 and the centralization of power in Sacramento that it created.  (As FlashReport notes, the media is spinning this as an attack on Prop 13, but this misstates what Brown has actually said.)  Not that this was unexpected, but he’s sure come out of the gate with guns blazing.  I’ll say this:  It’s going to be an interesting four years.


Written by Tim Kowal

January 4, 2011 at 11:13 pm

Saving Cleveland—And the Rest of America’s Declining Urban Centers

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I meant to link this a couple weeks ago when I first watched it—Drew Carey teams up with Reason to create a short documentary on how Cleveland, once one of America’s great urban centers, has become a shell of what it once was.  The series is called Reason Saves Cleveland.

Speaking of solutions to our urban dilemmas, I also just finished James Howard Kunstler’s Geography of Nowhere.  Although peppered with invectives against sprawl and capitalism, Kunstler’s book seems to suggest that Kunstler is neither wholesale in favor of urban planning nor wholesale opposed to capitalism.  The automobile is indeed the cause of sprawl and the drastic change in the design of our urban centers—I might not lament this as much as Kunstler, but I do have to admit I like many aspects of older cities and smaller towns.  But there are two observations about this I find much more interesting than the old “for” or “against” positions on sprawl:

First, one should not blame automobiles, or understate the value they have added to our lives.  When Henry Ford started pumping hundreds of thousands of affordable, mass-produced Model T’s into the marketplace, no one could have imagined how this would have changed the look and feel of future cities.  No one would have realized that the mass-produced car would have led to cities where pedestrians, to paraphrase Kunstler, feel like so many bugs about to be squished by giants.

Second, to lament the look-and-feel of today’s big cities and sprawled-out suburbs need not mean that one has to be for onerous smart-growth policies, or for razing the ticky-tacky Agrestics of the country and chasing their bewildered inhabitants back into the dirty, impoverished cities from whence they came.  In fact, those who lean towards free-market approaches—and who thus reflexively object to implementation of “smart growth” policies—might be startled to learn that when it comes to town and city planning, sprawl is not the natural, free choice of a free-market.  Instead, zoning and land use regulations governing set-backs, street widths, lot sizes, etc. all cause cities to tend toward the “sprawl” that new urbanists love to hate.  Many of these policies even start at the top—at the federal government, tied to spending bills that require states to adopt them and impose them on cities in order to get lavish federal subsidies.

Thus, free-marketeers and localists may have the right premise: let’s let the people choose.  But they may not be right to suggest that the people already have chosen, and that they’ve chosen “sprawl.”

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Written by Tim Kowal

April 17, 2010 at 12:13 pm

To Sprawl or Not to Sprawl

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Seems several people lately have taken to writing about land use and urbanism and sprawl—perhaps taking a mental health break from the HCR debate.  As I’ve been trying to finish an article touching on the topic, I wound up burning through much of my Saturday morning reading all the cited articles in this post by Austin Bramwell.  One of those links was to this lengthy and very enlightening article by Michael Lewyn.  Lewyn lays out in detail the argument that sprawl—popularly characterized by purported free-marketeers as the very joi de vivre—is actually a result of the deliberate machinations of government.  The argument, at about 30,000 feet, looks a bit like this:

Big cities used to be pretty hot stuff until about 1950.  By then, however, cars had become ubiquitous, and the 1956 Interstate Highway Act began to invite well-to-do city dwellers to explore the possibility of outskirts living.  The Federal Housing Administration’s mortgage insurance program doubled down on this incentive, giving mortgage insurance to new low density areas.  This drain of the affluent out of the cities left the cities with a bigger share of poor folks, which the federal government exacerbated with affordable housing subsidies—driving even more poor people to the inner cities.  The State Zoning Enabling Act, adopted by many states, allowed new suburbs to regulate land use to further attract the affluent and keep out the poor.  Anyone still tenacious enough to stay in the cities gave up once their kids got to schooling age, and the reality of sending their kids to lousy urban schools with the local riffraff finally broke their spirits and sent them packing for suburbia.

As a result, starting with the 1950s, every single decade has seen a decline in population in almost all of the nation’s major cities.

This all had me going—I’m ambivalent on the urb/ suburb question, but I certainly don’t like the thought of some place-hunter making up my mind for me.  If sprawl is the result of choices freely made, then let it be.  But if the deck’s been stacked by government controls and incentives, then it can’t be said that the choice was a free one.  All of a sudden, the principal justification for sprawl—that it’s what people want—is out on its ear.

Then I came across William Bogart’s Don’t Call It Sprawl on Amazon, and then this interview on  Bogart’s view is much better than either the pro- or anti-sprawl camps, or even the libertarian/conservative position espoused by Lewyn.  In short, Bogart argues that we are naive to think that we can get our heads around what a “good” city might look like.  Instead, the planning, developing, redeveloping, moving, and starting over that goes on in our communities—the fluidity in land use planning—is not a side-effect or symptom of bad ideas, but instead an essential, healthy component of human societies.  Here is a key exchange:

reason: You write that “lags in investment mean that existing metropolitan structure will always be inefficient.” You also note that “if all the houses in an area are newly constructed at the same time, then they will likely become obsolete at the same time.” So is the inefficiency a good thing?

Bogart: It gets us away from that static view and more towards a long-run view. Those static inefficiencies are perhaps a cost of a long-run efficiency. You’re much better off having a place where there is this constant flow and flux. That flow and flux means that things are leaving that shouldn’t be there anymore, and things are coming in that think that it’s a good place for them, and maybe it works out and maybe not.

A wonderful book in many ways is Edge City by Joel Garreau. He talks about people who look at some of the places in Venice and say, “Why can’t we build something like that in America?” They forget that the city developed over 800 years. It’s not as though an urban planner came in and said, “Let’s build this plaza.” Developers would go in and build something. If it was great it lasted and people redeveloped it and kept it, and if it wasn’t then 20 years later someone came in, tore it down, and built something else. Over the course of a few hundred years you might be left with something pretty nice as a result, because the good stuff stays and the bad stuff goes.

A lot of our negative judgments are taken perhaps too quickly. Some of these Baltimore neighborhoods with rowhouses, maybe 30 years ago someone said, “Why would anyone want to live in a place like that?” Well, it turns out that there’s a large number of people who want to live in places like that, for very good reasons. Had we done things that were advocated with bulldozers and wrecking balls, they would have lost that opportunity.

As for sprawl, Bogart says this:

The other thing that’s frustrating is, if you read a lot of planners’ critiques of what they refer to as urban sprawl, they’re completely focused on the present. You would think a profession called planning would be concerned with the evolution and transition of areas. But they aren’t. They’ll look at a situation where a few houses have been built, and they’ll say that’s sprawl. Well, perhaps. Or perhaps over the next 10 or 20 years there’s going to be further infill development there — if it’s allowed by the local land-use controls — and in fact what they’re seeing is a city in construction. As a country, we’re growing in population. Those people have to go someplace. And they’re not all going to go there at once.

So we have to think about not just land use at a particular point in time, but where we’re going. Areas change, and a lot of the problems we have in redevelopment are self-inflicted because of the type of land use regime that we’ve imposed on ourselves.

Keeping these observations in mind, let’s now take another look at Lewyn’s critiques.  There is nothing contemptible about the government building roads to give people new choices for shaping their communities.  It might even be forgiven for subsidizing suburban mortgages in order to allow these new communities to reach critical mass.  Certainly, these policies created problems for the traditional cities.  But if we accept a more fluid model for land use and community planning, this is more a puzzle than a problem—that is, certainly there are virtues in both urban and suburban living, so how do we make both of them work?

If fluidity creates these puzzles, fluidity will also help solve them.  This means planners are going to need to release their chokehold on land use decisions and let the market express people’s choices.

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Written by Tim Kowal

March 15, 2010 at 10:21 pm

Why Mass-Transit Exuberance Should Make You Nervous

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Matthew Schmitz at the League is bothered at conservatives’ attacks on mass-transit’s proponents as shills for European style Progressivism.

[T]hey [e.g., Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnoru at NRO] continue to dismiss liberals who argue for mass transit on the basis that these liberals might be looking to foreign templates. This is extremely unhelpful. Mass transit is not the love child of left-wing infatuation with Europe. It’s a policy with a long American history that should be debated on its merits.

I replied with the following in the comments:

In fairness, mass transit does go hand in hand with Progressivist planning agendas:  these days, you don’t get the kind of density that warrants mass transit without a firm grip on land use planning.  To laser in on the real critique conservatives/libertarians are making (or, perhaps, should be making), land use planning, including the push for mass transit, would be just fine were it a response to what people really wanted.  Now, maybe, in some places, it is.  But my guess is that, outside the very old American cities whose densities owe to the booms in American industry during the 1800s, roads tend to serve transit needs as well or better, for less money, and nominal difference in environmental concerns.  This leaves goosebumps as the primary motivator for mass transit initiatives.

An example.  I live in Long Beach (south LA county) and commute to Irvine (Orange County).  The commute is 25 miles, and I’ve found the right times of day to ensure I’m not on the road longer than 30-35 minutes.  A friend of mine in LA who commutes 15 miles from Hollywood to Santa Monica each day, by contrast, averages an hour each way.  Why?  Because Angelinos have drunk the mass transit Kool-Aid and keep dumping bonds (serviced by higher sales taxes, which is the wife and I head south to do our shopping) into one rail boondoggle after another.  Orange County, by contrast, spends its transit dollars on wide open freeways, and lots of ’em.

Would it be cool to take a trolley or a shiny new train to work?  Sure!  It’s why I visit Disneyland sometimes.  If I want to go about my life, though, the smart money’s on freeways.

Though it’s at the southern tip of LA county, Long Beach still shows symptoms of the mass transit disease.  A few years ago, I was sitting in at a city council meeting, and listened as Suja Lowenthal—an urbanist proselyte just like her father-in-law, Alan—carried on for something like 20 minutes on a soliloquy about some idyllic urban paradise of the future that sounded almost borrowed from a passage from a Robert Heinlein novel.  There was no point to her speech that I could discern.  She was just full of beans over the mass transit systems she had seen elsewhere and wanted us to know how eager she was to get to work spending our tax dollars to build her own life-size train set.

Now, downtown LB is kind of a hip, somewhat dense little pocket.  But there’s simply no justification for some kind of grand retrofitting of this city, particularly just because some freshman councilmember’s got the glad eye about trains and trolleys.  Everyone here has cars.  It’s a suburban community.  Next item on the agenda, please, Ms. Lowenthal.

And that ought to go for every city council member throughout the country.  Unless you were elected to build trains, keep it to yourself.


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Written by Tim Kowal

March 9, 2010 at 6:44 pm

Is Ukiah Unfairly Teeing Up to Use Eminent Domain Against the Palace Hotel?

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Nossaman’s Eminent Domain Report talks about how the city of Ukiah is getting increasingly frustrated with the owners of the dilapidated Palace Hotel in the middle of its downtown, and is currently considering reviving the local redevelopment agency’s eminent domain authority to force the project forward:

Nearby residents recall the Palace Hotel serving as a hub of activity in the 1970’s and 1980’s when it housed a restaurant, a bar, and a popular music venue attracting well known acts.  But the Hotel has been sitting vacant since 1988.  According to the article, in 1994, more than 200 downtown merchants and customers signed a petition demanding that the city have the building either cleaned up or torn down.

The property appraised in 2006 for $309,000, but the owners purportedly want over $1 million.  A study commissioned by the city concluded it would cost $4.5 million just to tear the Palace Hotel down.  Like any redevelopment, the proposed use of eminent domain is drawing a wide range of opinions.

I’d be very interested to know more about the $4.5 million demo estimate—seems like a big number to just float out there all by itself.  And it looks like there have been some suggestions made in the past for renovating or re-provisioning the building for other uses besides tearing it down completely.  The $309,000 appraisal at the height of the real estate boom also seems conspicuously low, and I would guess it has something to do with onerous historic district regulations and other land use controls relevant to this downtown area that tend to make maintaining such properties ridiculously expensive.  As a result, redevelopment agencies are able to low-ball the owners to re-provision their property as they like.

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Written by Tim Kowal

February 27, 2010 at 2:56 pm

Talk about two left feet…

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From Market Urbanism.  Note the last line—I was thinking exactly the same thing:

Just in case you were under the impression that Obama’s high-speed rail commitment was genuine, the Boston Globe would like to disabuse you of that notion:

The railroad tracks from Boston to Washington – the busiest rail artery in the nation, and one that also carries America’s only high-speed train, the Acela – have been virtually shut out of $8 billion worth of federal stimulus money set aside for high-speed rail projects because of a strict environmental review required by the Obama administration.

Because such a review would take years, states along the Northeast rail corridor are not able to pursue stimulus money for a variety of crucial upgrades.

Instead, the $8 billion is going to be split up to ten ways amongst other regions, such as California, the Gulf Coast, and the “Chicago Hub.”

I love the irony of environmental standards stopping the Obama administration from making the one high-speed rail investment that has any chance of getting people out of their cars.

Written by Tim Kowal

February 24, 2010 at 10:31 pm

California’s New “Green” Housing Restrictions

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As California deals with possibly the worst effects of the housing bust and one of the most hostile regulatory regimes in the nation, the legislature nonetheless has seen fit to artificially inflate housing costs even further with new “green” building standards. According to NPR, “[t]he law, which takes effect next year, is the first of its kind in the country.”

Californians already struggle with devastatingly unaffordable housing markets.  The markets in San Francisco, San Jose, San Diego, and Los Angeles/Orange County rank 6th, 12th, 14th and 15th most unaffordable in the world, respectively, according to the 6th Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey.  The reason is land use regulations.  A 2002 paper reported the cost of a buildable quarter-acre lot in San Francisco was $700,000.  The cost of an additional, non-buildable quarter-acre?  A paltry $85,000.  This means that the costs of permitting, fees, and regulatory compliance stacks up well over $600,000Six-hundred grand caused by busy-body lawmakers! One wonders whether they have any idea.

A study of the Seattle market revealed the same trend:  stiff regulations there artificially inflated median inflation-adjusted values by more than $200,000.

How much more will California’s new green laws tack on?

Not to mention—whatever the high-minded intentions are behind the legislation are mooted by the law of unintended consequences.

Written by Tim Kowal

February 24, 2010 at 12:21 am

Posted in Land Use