Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Zoning: The Other Reasons

Nathan Lewis and Benjamin Hemric have written some great commentary on last week's zoning post on the origins of zoning and the concerns that may still drive its popularity today.  If zoning does not preserve property values, as research suggests and even zoning's defenders admit, what are some of these other concerns?  As they suggest:
  1. Protection against the effects of "congestion," which in practice means automobile traffic and parking spillover.  This partially accounts for opposition to higher-density projects which are clearly indicative of increasing property values: for example, new luxury apartment towers in Queens' Long Island City neighborhood, where existing residents demanded large quantities of garage parking even in the absence of city parking minimums.  Traffic associated with "apartment houses" also made in appearance in the Euclid v. Ambler decision as a justification for density limitations. 
  2. Exclusion of the poor, for both quality of life and economic reasons.  The latter point relates to property taxes: even if upzoning increases land values, it may be that net property tax revenue, per resident, will fall, resulting in a decline in the quality of city services and the necessity of a tax hike.  Exclusionary zoning could then be seen as a way to keep property taxes low -- at least for so long as the mounting externalized costs of a very low-density development pattern can be postponed.
  3. The "neighborhood character" argument, which Benjamin Hemric alludes to and which is captured in this 1994 paper and in the old Disney animated film Benjamin mentions (The Little House).  This I think gets at the heart of what zoning means when it states an intention to "conserve" the neighborhood.  In essence, the neighborhood as it exists meets the density preference of the existing residents, and that any further densification would result in a perceived decline in quality of life, regardless of any increase in property values.  Cashing out by selling and moving away is not always a desirable solution if one has a long-term investment in unique neighborhood institutions and amenities.  To some extent this is the same argument advanced by the foes of gentrification.
  4. Finally, protection from harmful or noxious uses.  Although this reason is far less significant than it was 100 years ago, when promoted as a pre-emptive measure against a select group of activities it has a certain logic as an efficient alternative to costly and drawn-out nuisance lawsuits.
As to each of these justifications, several questions could be posed, such as: Is this goal a legitimate end of the police power?  If it's a legitimate end, does Euclidean zoning actually help achieve it?  And if so, is it the best or most narrowly tailored way of achieving it?  Are there unintended consequences or other negative side effects associated with the regulation?  Could the same concerns be addressed more simply and less intrusively by some other approach?  And so forth. 

In answer to the last of those, Benjamin's suggestion of reviving a variant of the original, 35-page 1916 New York zoning resolution is an interesting one.  He's not the only one to have this thought: a 1993 City Journal article on New York's modern zoning code, still very relevant today, had positive things to say about its simplicity, predictability and clarity.  I do have some thoughts of my own on all this that I'll get around to in a post or two.

15 comments:

  1. Discrimation is the corner stone of wise decision making, and communities depend on wise decisions.

    A poor college grad and a repeat felony just released would both be looking for cheap housing and when it is against the law to directly discrimate between them communities are forced to find other legal ways to discrimate by raising the price until only professionals can live there.

    If property owners could actually use their property as private you might see more pocket neighborhoods that restrict entry based on non-price factors. But since everyone is still paranoid about out in the sun racism you get destructive spawl and burned out urban cores but people happy that evil racism is defeated in name only.

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  2. I know, right? It was based on a Caldecott-medal winning children's book, so no doubt influenced a few young minds. I remember reading "Mike Mulligan" instead -- a bit more of a pro-growth, pro-urban viewpoint in that one if memory serves.

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  3. I think this "Little House" film describes the situation more than five million words from "urban theorists." The basic problem is that no form of urbanism in the U.S. (19th or 20th century hypertrophism) has ever produced a pleasant environment for family life, including children, seniors, and moms. Whatever the attractions of the big city, "the best place to find peace and happiness is in a little house, on a little hill, way out in the country."

    Actually, I agree with this. Until the problem of making urbanism pleasant is solved -- there is, in practice, only one solution -- people will grasp for the only solution they know, which is the Small Town America ersatz-farmhouse on a quarter acre.

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  4. PART I

    Before I comment on the current post, I'd like to clarify my previous comments a bit.

    1) Although, I'm inclined to believe that increased density and mixed uses are likely to raise rather than lower property values, I'm not sure if it's quite an open and shut case -- especially across the board. So I do think more hard data needs to be gathered.

    I haven't had time to read the studies that are linked to in the post, but they don't seem to have the kind of data I'm thinking of (although perhaps, upon closer inspection, they do?). From a quick look, though, they seem to talking about zoning "in general" and "in the long run." The kind of data I'm thinking of would be more specific. For instance, in a row of NYC rowhouses, does the rowhouse that is next to a tall apartment house, a factory, a funeral home, etc. have significantly lower value than those down the block?

    2) Also, I wonder if the economic effects, if any, are significantly different depending on whether a building is in an urban neighborhood vs. a suburban or semi-suburban neighborhood? My guess is that the economic effects in an urban neighborhood are pretty small, or nil, while those in a suburban or semi-suburban neighborhood might be more significant. (I'm thinking, for instance, of a suburban home that might abut a funeral home, restaurant, gas station, etc. along a commercial strip.)

    3) Assuming that some legitimate uses do lower property values of adjacent properties a little (but not a lot), is this really a bad thing (from a policy perspective)? Is it really better for cities to have homogenous property values across the board?

    It seems to me that, from a Jane Jacobs-inspired viewpoint, that some variation in property values is good for a city as it allows, economically, for a diversity of people and uses.

    However, from the point of view of individual property owner, this is likely seen as a chancey, bad thing as their property might lose more (or, not gain as much) in value than their neighbor's.

    4) I also want to add some other "concerns" to my list of possible legitimate concerns to be addressed.

    One concern, which I'll insert between concern i) and ii) is what if the market changes and the area becomes no longer really desirable for apartment houses?

    Another concern, which is perhaps more of a variant on ii) than a new concern is what if a developer "miscalculates" and his more intensive use becomes a failure. Specifically I'm thinking of a situation where a developer builds what he/she intends to be a legimate hotel/motel in or on the edge of a residential district, but the legitimate hotel/motel doesn't work out and it becomes, instead, a hourly rate hotel, a homeless shelter, etc.

    Benjamin Hemric
    Thursday, June 2, 2011, 9:10 p.m.

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  5. PART II

    Regarding the "neighborhood character" argument:

    1) In my opinion, increasing land value "should" trump preservation of neigborhood character as a public policy concern. (However, in the real world, current residents vote, and future residents don't.)

    2) But even though the self-interest of current residents would seem to always dictate that neighborhood preservation triumphs over "progress," in fact, this hasn't always been so.

    Using NYC as an example, if neighborhood preservation had always triumphed over progress, we would never have NYC!: e.g., Times Square, Rockefeller Center, the cast iron buildings of SoHo, the department stores of Ladies Mile, Chinatown, Central Park West, etc., etc. So people are (or, at least, have been) capable of defending progress over preservation.

    It seems to me that, in fact, that it is only relatively recently (since the 1960s?) that we've seen neighborhood preservation consistently triumph over progress.

    Among other things, people seem to have become more skeptical about progress over the years. (Think how progress was lionized as recently as the 1939-40 New York World's Fair.)

    Plus, it seems to me that part of their skepticism is justified because of the triumph of orthodox "modern architecture" (international style, cutting edge "blob" architecture, etc.) over "modern traditional" architecture (e.g., art deco, etc.) is also one of the culprits here. The value system of the orthodox modernist community is largely anti-urban, so what is lionized in architectural magazines, etc. is unlikely to represent real "progress" IN TERMS OF URBANISM.

    3) Aside from skepticism about progress and despite the supposed acceptance of the ideas of Jane Jacobs, it also seems that most people don't see high-densities and mixed uses as "progress" (even if it results in the Gold Coast of the Upper East Side, Greenwich Village, etc.).

    This is one of the reasons I scoff when people say that the ideas of Jane Jacobs have become widely accepted. Not only do you find suburbanists who are anti-high density and anti-mixed use, which is to be expected, but even many (most?) self-proclaimed urbanists are anti-high density and anti-mixed use as well! (We don't want another Upper East Side; we don't want another Greenwich Village; etc.)

    4)And even if one does believe that high-densities and mixed-uses are good for cities, there is still the problem of how districts can SUCCESSFULLY go from "here" (low densities and single-uses) to "there" (high-densities and mixed uses) successfully -- i.e., without becoming a "slum" along the way. A

    s Jane Jacobs, herself, has pointed out a) the in-between stages of growth can be problematic for a district (as it is not longer here, but not there yet either); and development can be done badly or well (so how can it be prevented from being done badly?).

    Benjamin Hemric
    Thursday, June 2, 2011, 9:55 p.m.

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  6. Benjamin,

    Thanks very much for your thoughtful comments. I finally have an opportunity to respond to some of your points.

    “Also, I wonder if the economic effects, if any, are significantly different depending on whether a building is in an urban neighborhood vs. a suburban or semi-suburban neighborhood? My guess is that the economic effects in an urban neighborhood are pretty small, or nil, while those in a suburban or semi-suburban neighborhood might be more significant. (I'm thinking, for instance, of a suburban home that might abut a funeral home, restaurant, gas station, etc. along a commercial strip.)”

    In theory that is probably true, but in the absence of zoning, it is likely that a small suburban house lot far from the main arterials will have a higher value for low-density residential than for car-dependent commercial use. Gas stations depend upon visibility and accessibility to motorists, and will therefore compete for space near highway offramps, adjacent to major intersections, etc. If in that sense zoning only confirms the patterns that would occur in an entirely free market in land, it also prohibits some beneficial uses that might actually occur within the suburban neighborhood – convenience stores, for example, or cafes, or small eateries, which are more reliant on foot traffic and repeat customers.

    “Assuming that some legitimate uses do lower property values of adjacent properties a little (but not a lot), is this really a bad thing (from a policy perspective)? Is it really better for cities to have homogenous property values across the board?”

    I think the existence of a so-called “affordable housing crisis” is a good answer to that. Counterintuitively, with zoning it is possible to simultaneously lower per-acre land values while increasing average per-unit housing costs (the net effect , overall, is lower total property values). These are the perverse economics of mandatory large-lot zoning.

    “It seems to me that, in fact, that it is only relatively recently (since the 1960s?) that we've seen neighborhood preservation consistently triumph over progress. … Among other things, people seem to have become more skeptical about progress over the years. (Think how progress was lionized as recently as the 1939-40 New York World's Fair.)”

    Great points about the idea of “progress.” I think by that time (the 60s) it had become obvious to almost everyone that the new buildings which were replacing the old were of visibly inferior design, craftsmanship, aesthetics and – as you mention – sensitivity to good urban qualities. Since this was really the first time overall standards had fallen so far since the late Roman Empire, there was bound to be a collective shock and the preservation movements are very understandable in that context.

    “Aside from skepticism about progress and despite the supposed acceptance of the ideas of Jane Jacobs, it also seems that most people don't see high-densities and mixed uses as "progress" (even if it results in the Gold Coast of the Upper East Side, Greenwich Village, etc.).”

    If you browse the literature out there (and this goes back to the Euclid decision) there is this bizarre and artificial dichotomy that frequently reappears in which options for density are presented as “single-family detached homes” and “high rise condos.” Rarely mentioned are dense forms of single-family housing or small apartments: rowhouses with courtyard gardens, duplexes and triple-deckers, low-rise garden apartments. Thus for density we are presented with all options except that of the traditional city – and if the choice is framed that way, it’s no surprise that people will react negatively to the idea of densification and spurn the notion that it represents “progress.”

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  7. PART I

    Charlie,

    Thank YOU for your thoughtful commments -- and for the opportunity to participate in an an usually interesting discussion about zoning!

    Hope you won't mind if I slip into a dialog format, as it helps me write quickly and stay on point.

    - - - - - - -

    1) Charlie wrote [with added text within brackets being mine -- BH]:

    [a] In theory that [lower land values for properties directly adjacent to commercial uses?] is probably true, [b] but in the absence of zoning, it is likely that a small suburban house lot far from the main arterials will have a higher value for low-density residential than for car-dependent commercial use. [c] Gas stations depend upon visibility and accessibility to motorists, and will therefore compete for space near highway offramps, adjacent to major intersections, etc. [d] If in that sense zoning only confirms the patterns that would occur in an entirely free market in land, it also prohibits some beneficial uses that might actually occur within the suburban neighborhood -– convenience stores, for example, or cafes, or small eateries, which are more reliant on foot traffic and repeat customers.

    Benjamin Hemric writes:

    I'm not sure if I understand what you are saying here in [b], [c] and [c] with relation to my original comment. Perhaps I wasn't clear enough in my original comment -- or perhaps I should have given more concrete illustrations of what I was thinking of?

    The point I was trying to make was that if commercial uses lower the value of directly adjacent residential properties, this is likely one of the reasons that homeowners cling to zoning. The reasoning is as follows: "homeowers are afraid that THEIR property will be the 'unlucky' property to have an adjacent commercial use (or apartment house, etc.) literally next door. So, for homeowners, zoning makes the eventually siting of commercial properties (and apartment houses, etc.) less unpredictable and more controlable." (I'm not saying that I agree that zoning is the right policy response, but just that this may be their motivation.)

    To be continued . . .

    Benjamin Hemric
    Saturday, June 4, 2011, 9:25 p.m.

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  8. PART II

    Actually, when I wrote my comment I had a few concrete instances in mind, which I'd like to show you throught the "miracle" of Google maps.

    EXAMPLE A -- In 2006, I went to a surprise birthday party at a restaurant/catering hall in nearby "suburban" New Jersey. I don't drive, so I had to get their by a public bus, which conveniently went right by the catering hall -- although it did involve a change of buses from an intercity bus (from the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan) to a local one. (If I remember correctly, I actually had a choice of two different local bus routes, each of which approached the catering hall from a slightly different direction.)

    When I got to the transfer point, I decided for the fun of it (and also because I wasn't sure if I had missed the connection) to skip waiting for the local bus and to just walk to the catering hall.

    I was stunned! The street the local bus runs along, which is called a "boulevard," is actually pretty suburban -- and as it turns out the catering hall was located in a little cluster of commercial structures in the "middle of nowhere."

    Since it was night, I kind of assumed that one of the cross streets was a major street, but this doesn't seem to be true. The little cluster of commercial does indeed seem to be in the "middle of nowhere."

    Given the liklihood that such facilities cause problems with parking, etc. (I was likely the only guest who didn't arrive by car), I wondered if the property values of the adjacent properties are (or were originally) affected by their presence.

    Personally speaking, I was charmed by the whole set-up. But, again, we're speaking about what motivates people to support zoning, and I was thinking that typical suburbanites would probably not like these kinds of facilities popping up next door to his/her property, because they would fear a subsequent decline in their property's value (when they tried to sell the property). Thus, this would likely be a motivation for the typical suburbanite to support zoning -- to keep out such surprises.

    Here's the information about the restaurant / catering hall:

    Cafe Tivoli
    Shaler Blvd. and Banta Place
    Ridgefield, New Jersey

    If you get a chance (and I realize that, as wonderful Google's "streetviews" feature is, it is still kind of slow and annoying), I nevertheless hope you get a chance to "stroll" down Shaler Blvd. from Broad Avenue (the major arterial, I believe).

    To be continued . . .

    Benjamin Hemric
    Saturday, June 4, 2011, 9:30 p.m.

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  9. Part III

    EXAMPLES B:

    I was also kind of thinking about some commercial strips (with adjacent single-family houses) in Hillcrest / Jamaica Hills, Queens (where I grew up): Union Turnpike (around 168th St.); 164th Street (between Union Turnpike and 82nd Road) and Parsons Blvd. (between 82nd Drive and 84th Road).

    EXAMPLES C:

    Although none of these examples are the best examples (whose locations I can't think of at the moment), for apartment houses adjacent to single-family homes, here are some that came to mind:

    Parsons Blvd. and 87th Ave.; and 164th Street and 86th Avenue (a charming small apartment house, which was in the heart of a single-family home area when it was built).

    EXAMPLES D:

    Also, if you get a chance, mosey on over to 166th Street, between Hillside Ave. and Highland Ave., and over to Highland Avenue itself, between 164th Street and 166th Street. This area was once an area of single-family homes -- the ones on Highland Avenue being "show place" homes, I think -- that has been "infiltrated" by apartment houses (and later by two- and three-family houses).

    Some of the earlier apartment houses are kind of nice in my opinion, in a NYC version of Miami Beach kind of way. But when I was growing up in the area, a number of single- family homes were torn down for less attractive apartment houses, and I wonder if the houses that were left over (on what were now irregular sites) suffered a loss of value (since it would be unlikely that these leftovers would be purchased later for future modern apartment houses).

    TO BE CONTINUED . . .

    Benjamin Hemric
    Sat., June 4, 2011, 9:35 p.m.

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  10. Benjamin -- the spam filter unfortunately held up a few of your comments. I've gone ahead and published everything while deleting the duplicates as best I could. For now (it's late) just one response:

    You wrote: I'm not sure if I understand what you are saying here in [b], [c] and [c] with relation to my original comment. Perhaps I wasn't clear enough in my original comment -- or perhaps I should have given more concrete illustrations of what I was thinking of?

    The point I was trying to make was that if commercial uses lower the value of directly adjacent residential properties, this is likely one of the reasons that homeowners cling to zoning. The reasoning is as follows: "homeowers are afraid that THEIR property will be the 'unlucky' property to have an adjacent commercial use (or apartment house, etc.) literally next door. So, for homeowners, zoning makes the eventually siting of commercial properties (and apartment houses, etc.) less unpredictable and more controllable." (I'm not saying that I agree that zoning is the right policy response, but just that this may be their motivation.)


    I agree that is likely one of the important motivations. My point was only that this fear is perhaps a bit overblown given the locational preferences of some of the more undesirable commercial uses. And if a commercial use does locate adjacent to your property, that may indicate an increasing value of your land for commercial use also. A decline is by no means guaranteed. What I do think people are right to fear is the automobile traffic associated with commercial uses (and high density residential), but that reflects a general car-dependent neighborhood design rather than some inherent flaw in commercial or high density uses.

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  11. Charlie,

    Thanks for the feedback regarding the problem I was having with posting comments, and for rearranging my commments in proper order again!

    I don't disagree with the idea that commercial uses aren't so bad, but it's another thing to convince "most" people of this (especially suburban home owners).

    Along these lines, I do hope you get a chance to look up the Google streetviews that I mentioned -- in particular the one of Cafe Tivoli, because I rather liked that mix of commerce and suburban residences -- all within an easy bus ride of midtown Manhattan.

    2) I had also wanted to continuing the dialog regarding some of your other comments, but unfortunately I probably won't have the chance for a little while. So hopefully we can pick up the disussion (or a similar one) in a week or two.

    Benjamin Hemric
    Sunday, June 5, 2011, 10:30 p.m.

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  12. Mr. Hemric might be interested to see the Department of City Planning's rezoning documents for Jamaica Hill and Hillcrest.

    http://www.nyc.gov/html/dcp/html/jamaica_hill/index.shtml

    He might also be interested at the fact that the building at 162-16 Union Turnpike was not built according to the zoning regulations for the new R5D zoning. Once the zoning is passed, it is the Department of Buildings that grants approval for building plans.

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