No surprise here. Just the latest headline from the toxic culture of law.
The Independent has a piece about recent efforts to revise the DC building height limit of 130 feet (39.6 m). As Washington grows, its century-old height limit becomes a natural experiment in massing regulations and their impact on metropolitan land markets. After providing a brief history of the (aesthetics-driven) massing regulation, the author, Rupert Cornwell, notes:
[T]he price of a European feel is not only to be measured in commuter misery. The ban on tall buildings curbs the supply of space when demand is soaring; the result, naturally, is higher prices, across the board. DC has a chronic hotel shortage, while the cost of office space has hit Manhattan levels, and Washington’s [poor] residents find it ever tougher to make ends meet as . . . gentrification pushes rents remorselessly higher. The city, meanwhile, loses much potential tax revenue.
Washington is an unusually beautiful American city, in the sense that it actually has a classically-proportioned plan. And part of its proportioning lies in the scale of its buildings, which complement the city’s layout. L’Enfant’s 1791 plan predated tall buildings by a century, and in that sense it was silent about building heights. But it was also the blueprint for an airy city of wide boulevards, open spaces, and preeminent public buildings. The 130-foot building limit, imposed in 1899, has been consistent with the original blueprint and its Enlightenment-era political symbolism for America’s capital.
It would be a shame to see L’Enfant’s aesthetic suddenly disrupted; it would also be a loss to market-driven planning innovation to end the city’s role as one of the last American places where old-fashioned land-use efficiency (including the use of courtyards and alleys) is a serious consideration for individual projects. But there are certainly both practical and equitable arguments for relaxing the current height limits. Washington’s recent experience illustrates, starkly (I think), the costs of strictly regulating the massing of buildings in growing real estate markets. Even in cities without such purposive policies, the aggregation of land use regulations is presumably having similar impacts.
I’ve been working on a project for a research center in New Brunswick over the last few months. The legwork has involved conducting interviews with officials at Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) and state DOTs to document their experiences with TELUS, a database-management platform that’s employed for logistical and compliance purposes. Agencies use the software to assemble their federally-mandated Transportation Improvement Plans (TIPs), track their infrastructure spending, classify and prioritize individual projects, and share project data. A web-based version helps officials comply with SAFETEA-LU requirements for public transparency; a land-use projection model works in tandem with TELUS to allow agencies to predict future traffic and land use patterns, as well as employment and population growth.
From what we’ve learned, TELUS seems to have been a big help for state and local transportation agencies. Instead of copying information back and forth between e-mail accounts, Access databases, and Excel sheets (as had been the practice), those that adopted TELUS now have a global framework for managing their project data and making it available. One problem that dogs all of the software in this niche is a lack of standardization among competing platforms. A number of state and local agencies have developed their own programs to carry out the same tasks that TELUS handles. The programs all seem to have been developed separately, with little regard for compatibility with others. In some cases agencies require their subordinate partners to submit data in their proprietary formats, making the adoption of an outside framework complicated. There’s a period of this that occurs in every wave of development– whether it’s rail gauges, or radio frequencies, or operating systems. Individual participants can waste a lot of effort and money by picking the wrong horse. It’s interesting (as an observer).
At the end of the research, two observations (personal, not directly related to TELUS) stand out. The first is the enormous role that the federal government plays in local infrastructure projects, especially in conservative, rural parts of the country. The second is the lopsided preference that federal funding gives to highway infrastructure, as opposed to passenger rail, freight rail, bicycle/pedestrian provisions, and ferry/shipping services. It’s almost a cliché that mass-transit is an insolvent business model, and one that requires massive public investments, while cars and trucks remain ubiquitous symbols of potent American individualism. Imagine how that picture would change if, instead of the highway system, the feds maintained all of the rail infrastructure, and allowed private companies to use it, for profit, at little or no fee? If the highways were all maintained by private entities who had to raise revenues through tolls, or forgo their maintenance?
I’ll post a link to our report when it’s published.
The article begins, “If I could return to just one moment in New York’s story, I would go back to the Roaring Twenties. . . .” Me too.
What it says: “This map of Aranda del Duero is the oldest perspective map drawn in Spain in 1508. The original was made on skin and is preserved at the General Archive of Simancas. Was used as an inspiration for planning the cities of the New World, just discovered. It was presented to Queen Isabella of Castille to document the city limits where underground wineries were already producing and aging the wines from Ribera del Duero.” Note the plaza/forum, the cardo, the decumanus: it’s basically a perfect Roman frontier city. Great wine, too. Thanks, Jim!
Esra Magazine has a nice piece about Sir Patrick G., and his role in planning the Israeli seaside city. Geddes had a special impact on what would become known as the White City– a coastal neighborhood with one of the world’s largest concentrations of ultramodern Bauhaus-style architecture. The combination of white concrete, modern lines, green desert brush, wide boulevards, and the blue Mediterranean make the White City a striking conceptual project in town planning. Sadly, a look around the newly released Google Streetviews of Tel Aviv shows that many of the structures in the neighborhood have not been well maintained over the years; worse, many parcels are occupied by ugly buildings that fail to realize the vision’s potential.
Londonist has some details of a novel map by Stephen Walter: an intense look at the secrets that lie buried, physically and historically, under the streets.
Forbes is back on the case of how the aggregation of local land use regulations can distort metropolitan land markets, creating barriers to entry in agglomeration economies, and possibly even slowing economic growth by depriving such economies of desperately needed new blood. This closely follows some of the insights that Ryan Avent hit on, last year, in The Gated City.
To the list of grievances against overzoning, I would add the appalling inequity of making entire metropolitan regions effectively off-limits to the middle and working classes, to the young, and to those who have children– including so many of those regions’ own long-time residents. Government and academic research have almost completely dodged the question about what has driven the massive, native-born out-migration from places like California and the Northeast– and whether this migration has been truly voluntary. To hear the press coverage, millions of stupid people have eagerly given up their proximity to friends, family, and relatively stronger economies in order to snap up cheap, new houses in Godforsaken places. I’m cynical, but not that cynical.
The truth is that housing costs have been forcing people out, and it is apparent that the labor forces in those cities that have been abandoned by the US-born working class have been steadily replaced by migrant workers who see being crowded and overworked in an American city as an improvement. On a long-term basis, this is not a sustainable arrangement. But the ultimate challenge is in overcoming the myopic politics of municipal government, writ large, that resists even the most modest changes to existing land use patterns. I really appreciate that Forbes is keeping up on this story. I feel like this is a drum that needs to be beaten until the harm of overzoning becomes clichéed.
Back in the 1970s, in a harbinger of what has come, the New Jersey Court addressed the issue of what was then called exclusionary zoning in its first Mount Laurel decision. In 1983, Justice Pashman described the specific land use devices that were resulting in the wholesale exclusion of market uses in his concurrence to the second Mount Laurel decision. In those days, only the housing markets for poor and working-class people had been strangled. By the 90s and 2000s, the suburban middle class was starting to get screwed. Today, Silicon Valley and Forbes are complaining. Maybe now it becomes an issue.
The Guardian has an interactive chart depicting the complicated palette of civil rights legislation that affects same-sex couples in different American states. I thought it was interesting (in the calamari ice cream sense of the word) to see, diagrammatically, just how many shades of gradation comprise the broader issue of equal rights for same-sex couples, besides the capstone rights-bundle of full marriage equality. Along with drug laws, capital punishment, and eminent domain, this set of topics really illustrates both the promise and the pitfalls of accepting a more federalist approach to nationally controversial (but regionally more settled) topics.
On one hand, the states with more liberal legislatures have gone a long way toward legal equality for same-sex couples– and nobody would dream of seeing such meaningful legislation come out of the U.S. Congress. By authorizing gay marriage legislatively, as New York and several other states have done, these legislatures have invested their policies with a depth of democratic legitimacy that would not automatically flow from court decisions, at any level, that mandated similar results. So, in a sense, this divergence from the national norm represents a healthy opportunity to maximize the advancement of civil-rights objectives in friendly political climates, democratically, on an ad hoc basis.
On the other hand, you have blue-ish states like Pennsylvania, where even legislation to protect the rights of same-sex partners to visit one another in a hospital has not been forthcoming, presumably because of the conservative dynamic of statewide politics. If you view the United States as a federation of state polities, rather than as a single national polity, then it might be fairly easy to say: Well, let Mississippi have its own laws; we’ll do things our way in the Northeast. But a case like Pennsylvania’s brings the complicated question of such federalism (I think) into starker relief.
That is, as citizens of a federal system, how do we deal with the historical legal land boundaries that have ensnared comparable local polities within political jurisdictions– the states– that now have very different power constellations? Should we simply tolerate that, for the time being, the civil rights of an individual in Philadelphia will be far fewer than those of the same individual in New York City or Boston? Should we push for reform in Harrisburg and every other state capital, while implicitly tolerating that the same individual in Oxford, Mississippi will likely have to endure a much longer and more doubtful slog toward his own eventual legal equality? Or, since these are fundamental civil rights matters, should we push for a national policy which inherently invites the possibility of an ugly national backlash or an eventual national policy that constrains the scope of more favorable local approaches?