What He Said

In the commentary below, Robert Steuteville, editor and publisher of New Urban News, makes the case that anti-density NIMBYs are a “societal plague.” As has been noted numerous times on this blog (e.g. here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), Seattle is not immune. And we shall soon find out if upzones in the SE Seattle light rail station areas will be the next victims of the plague.

Because the topic is so relevant and the author so seasoned, I’ve posted the Steuteville piece in its entirety. But first, a few choice lines for all you short attention spanners:

“To solve the problems we face, zoning reform has to take place at least 10 times as rapidly as it is proceeding now. And I think that’s going to occur, so to speak, over dead NIMBY bodies.

“Nothing noble, or even rational, fuels their opposition to smart growth.

“NIMBYism is the can’t-do spirit, which is in danger of strangling this country if we let it.”

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From the June 2008 issue of New Urban News:

We can’t let NIMBYs sink reform

By Robert Steuteville

A case can be made that NIMBYs (not-in-my-backyarders) pose a serious threat. That’s right: The neighbors who fight, to their dying breath, a zoning change or a “high-density” development — anything that has more people per acre than their subdivision — are a societal plague.

We’re facing many crises, including spiraling fuel costs, a housing stock that in many places is losing value, and carbon emissions that cause global warming. All of these are related to land use. We cannot cut back fast enough on fuel use and carbon emissions when 80 percent of the built environment is designed for driving, to the exclusion of walking, mass transit, and other modes of transportation.

Because of changing demographics, rising fuel costs, and other factors, America’s dominant pattern of large-lot housing and segregated uses is increasingly out of whack with the market. This leads to dropping property values.

Market forces are not by themselves a solution — but they could help if we let them. The market for compact, walkable, transit-friendly development is woefully undersupplied. By some estimates, if we did nothing but build that kind of housing for the next 25 years, the US would still have a surplus of large-lot single-family houses.

The key to the problem is zoning that has systematically restricted density and mixed use for 80 years. This kind of zoning is self-perpetuating, because the homeowners who move into the large-lot houses have the power to maintain the zoning, regardless of market demand for other kinds of housing.

Form-based codes are an answer. Nonetheless, after two decades of work by new urbanists, no more than 100 form-based codes are on the books in the US. At the current rate, we’ll reform zoning in America in another century or so. That is too long to wait.

Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, is home to the Amish, and has some of the nation’s best farmland. Large-lot sprawl has been devouring this precious resource for decades, forcing many of the Amish to move to Upstate New York and other regions in the search for affordable farm land.

In the early 1990s, planners, developers, and other officials around Lancaster began to discuss smart growth and traditional neighborhood development (TND). Their meetings culminated in a regional plan — called “Growing Together” — to manage growth and save farmland. One of the municipalities involved, East Hempfield Township, was lucky enough to have some of the nation’s top planners design developments in accordance with that vision. East Hempfield could have been a model for smart growth. Instead, NIMBYs stormed the municipal building by the hundreds to protest a code that would have allowed TND to move forward.

“People felt it was too far, too fast, and we got our hands slapped,” East Hempfield planner Mark Stivers told the Lancaster News. Too fast — after 16 years of careful and deliberate planning.

NIMBYism is worst in the Northeast and California, where it’s not uncommon for even the best development — projects that are clearly smart growth — to take 5 or 10 years to get approved or denied. But there are NIMBYs all over, even in places that are relatively welcoming to development. To solve the problems we face, zoning reform has to take place at least 10 times as rapidly as it is proceeding now. And I think that’s going to occur, so to speak, over dead NIMBY bodies.

Nothing noble, or even rational, fuels their opposition to smart growth. With conventional development, there’s some justification. With smart growth, it’s fear of change, prejudice, stubbornness, and the mentality of the mob.

Meeting the coming challenges will be enormously difficult — perhaps as difficult as winning World War II — and we will need every bit of the old can-do American spirit. NIMBYism is the can’t-do spirit, which is in danger of strangling this country if we let it. We must not let that happen.

25 Responses to “What He Said”

  1. Dan Staley

    I disagree somewhat – this is a normal human reaction for many in the face of a threat (or a perceived threat). When we react this way, we are basically opening ourselves up to being disrespectful of people.

    Many people’s property, identity and lives (th’ Murrican drrrrream!) are tied up in their homes. They bought them and moved to that neighborhood because they liked the environment (please, no comments about loving cookie-cutterism) and they could afford it.

    Sure, there are NIMBYs for the sake of NIMBYs. But the fact that not everyone likes density is never addressed in these arguments, is it? Denver has tried to head this off by designating ‘areas of stability’ and ‘areas of change’, but it has made only a little difference.

    People are people. The problem isn’t the number of NIMBYs, its the number of people. We have to get along in a world of 9B (the built environment for whom we are laying out and building now), and that’s going to be hard for many.

  2. Hassan

    Sorry but this upzoning crap is absolutely NOT necessary to deal with growth and render the city more liveable.

    A simple look at Europe where most cities are mid-rise at their highest and are much more liveable than american cities shows that upzoning is absolutely not a necessity.

    What’s necessary is to revise the worshipping of cars, give land back to pedestrians, have big places that are accessible to pedestrians only, spread the centers of interest.

    If you look at Paris, there’s not one core area that everybody rushes to, there’s multiple areas that all have their own retail, coffee shops, restaurants, style, … with office buildings intertwined with housing. Same for Geneva, Milan, Berlin, etc…

    That’s how to develop a liveable city, instead of having this centralized monster that is so prevalent in the US.

    There’s a reason why all these cities are higher than US cities when it comes to quality of life, it’s because they put people’s quality of life before developers interests and they spread in a consistent way, with efficient public transportation.

  3. Dan Staley

    Well, of course Hassan nails it, but how do we change an entire culture in a few years? Most here don’t travel to Yurp to see what they are missing, and until you actually experience it, it is all a big fat freedom-hating socialist experiment meant to redistribute wealth and kill freedom and babies and take away your lawn.

  4. dan bertolet

    DanS: True enough that not everyone likes density, but there are all kinds of things people don’t like, and when it’s something that is necessary for the good of the community, they suck it up and live with it. That’s how civilization works.

    Hassan: Absolutely true that you don’t need high-rises for livability or density, though I would argue they are appropriate and beneficial in certain places.

    New Urbanist housing is typically lower density than Paris — the author is not talking about very modest upzones, not upzoning for skyscrapers. And there would have to be massive upzoning from single-family to multifamily for Seattle to be transformed into a city like Paris.

    On the other hand, upzoning to create nodes of high density at transit stations helps create exactly the kind of self-sufficient neighborhood that you admire in Paris.

    And re: your last paragraph: I’m afraid things ain’t quite that simple.

  5. Dan Staley

    True enough that not everyone likes density, but there are all kinds of things people don’t like, and when it’s something that is necessary for the good of the community, they suck it up and live with it. That’s how civilization works.

    Yes. And my consistent theme here has been we can’t approach the problem with the attitude of: too bad – “suck it up, pee-pullll and live with it!” It won’t work.

  6. wes

    How do we move forward DS? I’m not sure how well “pretty please” will work. It will be interesting to see how the Neighborhood Plan updates in conjunction with the station area planning will turn out.

    Hassan, upzoning does need to happen. While european cities are not skyscraper ridden, as DB pointed out, they are much much much more dense than the majority of Seattle neighborhoods. Mid-rise buildings are obviously more dense than a single-family house (which makes up the great majority of Seattle). However, even single-family neighborhoods are more dense than here as the average european single-family home is placed closer to its neighbor and is much smaller.

  7. joshuadf

    Whoa whoa people. He’s not talking about building heights, he’s talking about zoning reform. The assumption with Seattle “upzones” are of course that urban centers with retail and community resources already exist, which in cases like Roosevelt or the CD is true but in other cases like SLU it is yet to be seen.

  8. Dan Staley

    First, wes, we have to do a better job at dissociating ‘density’, ‘ugly’, ‘traffic’, ‘too many people’, ‘less fraydum’, ‘no yards for the kiddies’, etc.

    Second, we must focus on the fact that for 8-9000 years, we lived in built environments that were generally the same (Breugmann notwithstanding). All of a sudden, in the last 60 years, we changed our built environments. In this economic contraction and fiscally constrained time, we are simply abandoning the wasteful built environments since WWII.

    Third, it is not a birthright to sprawl all over the place. But the economic contraction will point that out to folk. We must build attractive places, as we likely are going to be getting denser, and tensions will necessarily arise.

  9. wes

    Attractive places featuring amenities to assuage those rising tensions no doubt.

    Possibly related, from the DJC:
    ———————-
    Incentive zoning: Right solution, wrong problem?
    October 13th, 2008 by Roger Valdez

    The City Council appears to be moving deliberately and methodically toward approving an incentive zoning proposal. The morning after the public hearing I wrote about earlier, the Planning, Land Use and Neighborhoods Committee held a three-hour meeting including a another discussion of incentive zoning. Conventional wisdom holds that the Council will pass something.

    Councilmember Tim Burgess asked a key question of the incentive zoning discussion: what is our goal? Is it affordable units? How many and where?

    Council staff didn’t really have a clear answer.

    Incentive zoning is a good concept. A Public Health study from a few years ago showed that developers like the idea, provided that there was a real incentive involved. More density might work but an incentive also might be reduced parking requirements or, as Denny Onslow suggested, an easing of local regulations that could make 85 foot development produce housing as affordable as 65 foot development.

    What it will be

    But incentive zoning all by itself won’t get us closer to the larger goals of affordability, sustainability and livability.

    Height is a problem. Large chunks of our city are zoned for 40 feet. That height doesn’t work for projects like Jim Mueller’s at 23rd and Union.

    The city needs more projects like Mueller’s. It activates a property that was blighted turning it into a community asset.

    Incentive zoning is based on the theory that morepublic benefit will be created when there is less regulation. The current proposals don’t address the problem of intersections like 23rd and Union. The Council really needs to ask itself, as Councilmember Burgess did, what are we trying to accomplish?
    ——————–

    Maybe we need incentive zoning for the NIMBYs too? haha.

  10. Hassan

    Yes single family vs. multi-family is somewhat of an issue, but if you take a look at SLU for example, there’s absolutely NO upzoning needed.
    The people who want to build skyscrapers there are either insane of want to make money out of it at the expense of the residents.

    Let’s look at the insane number of parking lots and car dealers present in downtown Seattle, this is all WASTED space. Parking lots should be undeground, public transportation should be improved so that less parking is needed and car dealerships should be on the outskirts of the city, not in the middle of it.

    Is there a car dealership like the Toyota one in the middle of Paris, Roma, Berlin, … ? No, they have better use for such a space : buildings, places and gardens.
    Remove these sores from the downtown area and you’ll get a much more pleasant city to walk around and will have a lot of space to build on without creating monsters that block everybody’s views.

    Now I’m not against skyscrapers, they are useful in the economic core of cities in limited numbers(they’re a good way of having residents on top of businesses in the core to avoid having a whole area dead on week-ends and at night) and can even create a view of their own, however they have no place outisde of that core(except in Manhattan where space is seriously limited but then one could argue that all of Manhattan is the core…).

  11. Matt the Engineer

    [Hassan], I have a feeling that car dealerships and flat parking lots in the downtown area are generally place holders. The land value would make either of these uses immediate failures on their own. But if the land is being used as an investment by large stakeholders, adding a parking lot or car dealership on top of your land will offset any losses instead of having it sit empty. They may not immediately have a buyer that wants to put a skyscraper up, but they’re willing to hold on to the property until someone comes along with the right price.

  12. Dan Staley

    Matt, I agree, but it is cheaper to convert greenfields. Thus the problem we face.

  13. Matt the Engineer

    Ah, but what’s the answer? Upzoning ups the supply, making land cheaper and shifting demand to the city from greenfields. That’s a good answer.

    But what then? Subsidized brownfield development? Minimum building heights? Statewide tax or even moratorium on greenfield building?

    Hey, that last one’s nice. Why don’t we try that?

  14. Dan Staley

    Statewide tax or even moratorium on greenfield building?

    Hey, that last one’s nice. Why don’t we try that?

    Caveat: I haven’t lived in WA for ~2 years…

    Well, that’s an M37 backlash, and Gregoire’s attempt to allow landowners outside the UGB opportunities to make money on their land is a good start. Folks’ land is their retirement (good or bad), and you can’t take things away from people – esp land like this scale of take-away – without revolt.

    And the supply argument is good as far as it goes, but Ricardian rent and equilibrium drive prices too. We should restrict supply of pipes, roads, etc to places we don’t want and help folks with their retirement in those places, in my view.

  15. Matt the Engineer

    I hadn’t really followed Oregon’s measure37 (link for others like me), or Gregoire’s policy. But I don’t quite get the connection between a tax on new structures on greenfields and taking away land. I say just incrementally increase tax on new greenfield structures – especially since we don’t have M37 in WA. At first it’s more a bueracratic hoop than a tax (having to report exactly where and what you’re building), but after a generation or so it could be a real disincentive.

    And for Oregon, just loophole M37. Increase all real estate taxes, and provide a refund for those that don’t build on greenfield sites. :-P

  16. Hassan

    Matt, I agree they’re placeholders, and the city should pass laws to prevent speculation of this kind, you shouldn’t be able to have eyesores of this type in the city.

  17. wes

    I was hoping the Honda dealership on Boren and Olive would’ve gotten a pink slip with the recent dealership booting in the center city (BMW, mercedes). That one annoys the heck out of me, always parking its cars on the sidewalks, as if that red acura needs to be 10 feet closer to the roadway so that people flying down Boren can see it…they aren’t going to see it either way, no sense in robbing Capital Hillites’ of our walking space.

  18. John of Humdinger

    Why must this issue be reduced to another class war… the single family dwellers versus the superior planners of society?
    If Big Brother must save mankind by stacking the sheeple in cubicles, can’t the land for Dense City be found in any other zone besides single family?

  19. Dan Staley

    John of TemplatedSimplisticRhetoric:

    The BigBro patriot planners want to eliminate single-use zoning. This will help you to behold then that The Almighty Market will allow the John Galts of the world to build cubicles of infinite creative size and height for heroic Americans to create works of lasting importance to display the brilliant light of freedom.

  20. wes

    There are superior planners of society? Who are they? I want to meet them! I wonder how they stack up against the superior single family dwellers, or the superior 30-minute drive commuters flying through my cubicle laden inner Dense City streets because they need to get back to their superior single family dwelling family in their superior single family zone.

  21. jkpete

    Regarding “upzoning”… all efforts should be made to redevelop underused urban land (stripmalls, parkinglots, brownfields, etc…) before increasing density on already dense enough urban neighborhoods. It seems to me that there is plenty of underused land upon which new super dense development will have much less impact on existing residential areas. “Upzoning” an existing and already functional residential neighborhood will always be controversial. So why not avoid the conflict and work in areas where redevelopment can be truly appreciated and showcased?

    It’s kind of like the whole argument around increasing logging on public lands….If the loggers and land managers would just stay out of old growth and roadless areas (where they will always meet intense opposition) they could increase logging in already cut over forests….and at the same time demonstrate their ability to manage a forest for more than just short term cash.

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