Breaking the logjam around small change


I want to start out this week’s Member News Digest with a quick vent about a comment I recently heard made by an appointed official in an official project review capacity:

“I want more people living downtown. I want it more dense. But to permit the use to change fifteen years from now without public approval is not OK. I have this neighborhood where I have an expectation, and then it changes. That’s not OK.”

This was, mind you, a discussion about whether a special permit would limit the future change of use to another by-right use of a development which needed a special permit for other reasons. Besides blowing my mind, it was a real reminder of, well, an ideology of control as the best way to create vibrant cities. It creates what I’ve started calling the “master planner’s” trap. It goes beyond the idea of reasonable regulation and then letting people play the game to the idea that if anyone is doing anything without a public plan that someone is getting away with something. In particular it’s a problem among urban liberals, akin to the classic conservative kneejerk defense of auto suburbs. Figuring out how to challenge this (implicit) view of cities is a major challenge for Strong Towns—we have to continue to support and teach a model that is more complex, evolutionary, and distributed. Suggestions on where we should try to start making this case?

  • Over at Granola Shotgun, Johnny gives us some new stories and great photos to illustrate the classic Strong Towns point that someone has to pay for our infrastructure.

That means the HOA members pay to maintain the roads not the government. This is a really important distinction. When people believe their property tax money entitles them to certain things they often have high expectations. They tend to have a very different attitude when they know they’re going to be writing a check directly for the level of service they ask for. This difference in who pays for the roads leads to different outcomes. Back in the late 1980’s I was privy to HOA meeting debates where some members demanded that the roads be paved. They were tired of the ruts, mud puddles, and problems of snow removal. The dirt roads were one of the things that had kept property values depressed for decades. So a consulting engineer was brought in and explained exactly what it would cost to pave the roads. It would be many millions of dollars divided by the forty two homes in the community. That conversation came to a halt instantly.

  • Ben Brown at Place Shakers asks if 2015 will be the year that smaller, more affordable, lower debt housing typologies will take off (and be legalized):

Back in 2005, cottage and cottage neighborhood solutions seemed so obvious — and so immediately popular among those outside the modernist echo chamber — that it seemed just a matter of time before dozens of Katrina Cottage variations would be used to address a combination of issues related to sustainability, affordability and right-sized living in a new era. That it’s taken a lot longer than any of us imagined hasn’t diminished the likely role of small-scale housing and neighborhoods in the years to come. And the pace is picking up.

(Along the lines of my earlier hat-tip to Andrew Heben at Tent City Urbanism, we need to lower the barriers to small, incremental change!)

  • Family Friendly Cities gives us a ray of hope that we may actually be able to bring schools back into our city and town cores. It's a real question I've been wondering about whether/how we can make the return to the city a permanent residency and not just a life stage for when you don't have kids. They also provide some great talking points if you ever have to make the case for new downtown schools, here.

This may be a small victory in an otherwise long process, but it represents the school district’s acknowledgment that Downtown Seattle is becoming a neighborhood of choice for many families, including our own.  If this ultimately carries out to a new school for the city it will provide an opportunity for a unique education experience and confirmation that families do want to live in dense urban environments so long as they are provided the same access to basic needs as other communities. 

  • And at Small Town Urbanism we get an interesting article about an alternative to the wait and see approach. Rather than fighting the developments that come to your door, you can build a proactive vision for what you want, and then actively market to the development community to find someone who wants to pursue it. Having the town do the leg-work of developing public consensus could create real value and make less obviously profitable projects feasible. Of course, this can get messy when the public sector wants too fine a control over the evolution of their community--they may be blocking the good idea they have never thought of. (And what you're marketing may not proforma out; something that a good staff or volunteer can help you at least guess at).

This proactive marketing approach also reduces the risk to developers inherent in the entitlement process. If the community has publicly stated what is desired and if the developer can match their project to those desires it should be a much easier entitlement process, which benefits everyone. Sebastopol has a reputation for being a difficult place to develop and developers tend not to want to take the risk. But there is much opportunity to create a really strong mixed-use core, but the remaining properties need to be developed appropriately to make that happen. The CVS project is not going to contribute in any positive way and we do not have much land available to allow those types of projects to come to fruition.

  • I’d like to end with a ray of hope from Jesse Bailey at Walkable West Palm Beach: a tour of the street infrastructure in Tours France where pedestrians, cars, and a street car share the same space without fences, bollards, and curbs. #twentyisplenty

You can check out the entire member blogroll on the Strong Towns member site. If you're a member with a blog and would like your work to show up there, please let us know about it.