It’s always interesting what generates conversation. I’ve been having this height limitation discussion with many people in many different cities, pointing out as we do a sidewalk lecture how the six story building they call growth is simply ensuring that the neighboring one story shack surrounded by asphalt never amounts to anything more. There is never any debate so obvious is the point. Thank you, however, to all of you that are pushing back on my suggestion of a dynamic height limit. You are forcing me to add some depth to my thinking here.

To me, here is the most important comment provided in support of my contention:

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This is why I started the article with the quote from Jurassic Park. The power we are using didn’t require any discipline to attain. That scene – one of my favorites in cinema – goes on to pose the rhetorical insight: “You were so preoccupied with whether or not you could that you didn’t stop to think if you should.” Amen.

I’ve been in those planning meetings, the ones where we draw lines on maps to show all the great places we’ll run roads and utilities, nary a thought given to the hopes and aspirations of the people living there (unless they are the developer, and then they are at the table driving the discussion). I’ve seen cities set their bond issuances not based on what the return on their investment is but on what the bond counsel is telling them they can borrow without impacting their rating.

Carmel, IN. Living the dream or living a fantasy?

Carmel, IN. Living the dream or living a fantasy?

The poster child for this has to be Carmel, Indiana, a supposedly “conservative” bastion where, at least it seems, someone in power took a trip to Europe where they bumped into a muni bond advisor from Goldman Sachs and, like magic, they now have the most bizarre development I’ve ever seen in North America. Surrounded by stroads, they have towering condominium “village” development with street-level retail, a 1,600 seat performing arts center called the Palladium and a multi-level parking ramp paved with brick and topped with a fountain. This was all done with treacherous amounts of debt and such precarious financing that is has prompted some to call Carmel (correctly) the Enron of municipalities.

“…so preoccupied with whether or not you could that you didn’t stop to think if you should.”

In America, we can do great things – stunning things – when we set our minds to it. The building of the interstate system and the monumental reshaping of the continent that went along with that has no precedent. There is no society that has done what we have done over the past century. None. That can be a source of pride. It can also be a cause of concern. When I look at the levels of debt everywhere, the lack of financial productivity in what we have built, the financial fragility of our population and the inability of our political class – both sides of the aisle – to speak coherently about any of this, and I trend more concerned than proud.

Our ancestors (and again, I use that in the most expansive, global sense of the term) built places slowly and incrementally over time. Many small investments over a broad area. The resiliency of this approach is time tested over the millennia. We’re not going to go back to the 1800’s, nor should we, but there is a lot of applicable, lost knowledge we can gain from studying the way places used to be built. The more of that we can apply today, the stronger and more resilient our cities, neighborhoods and families will become.

A height limitation – like a cap on municipal debt as I’ve advocated for in the past – simply puts a limit on our ability to blow ourselves up. It allows our cities to cook like good stew in a crock pot instead of some easy mac zapped in the  microwave. Yes, it is a restraint on growth….one type of growth.

Some quick thoughts relating to the flood of comments.

  • I’m not advocating for a hard cap as in Washington DC. If you read the post you see that I’m favoring a dynamic limit that would grow – slowly and incrementally over time – as the neighborhood grew.
  • I’m not suggesting that Manhattan is bad or should be torn down. Come on, people.
  • I am not ignorant to the desires and wishes of people wanting to make transit stops more productive. My complaint about these undertakings is, and always has been, the same as my complaint with speculative highway development: I don’t believe in HUGE build-it-and-they-will-come projects when it is the government building it. Small, incremental speculation: okay. Billion dollar investments meant to artificially create redevelopment pressure that isn’t there: how intelligent do we think we are? Are we that much smarter than the people who experimented with urban renewal in the 1960’s? Your towers at the transit stop might help – MIGHT – that location, but what is your plan for all the other places not at the transit stop? No city has enough development pressure to productively utilize the amount of stuff we’ve built.
  • By advocating for a dynamic height limitation, I’m not becoming a lover of regulation and bureaucracy. Or a foe of free market principles. Quite the opposite. In most American cities, the land market is distorted and, as a result, it is stuck. It prices out the kind of incremental development most cities need without providing good market signals to current landowners. Local taxpayers ultimately pay for this distortion when their taxes go up and their investments go bad. Like a business that passes up an acquisition opportunity or a big client because it isn’t the right time, cities can make the same decisions without embracing a nanny state mentality.

Finally, it came to my attention that University of Minneota professor David Levinson wrote about this topic in two really pieces that can be read here and here