My May 17, 2020 blog post ( Paying for Stuff We Use) talked about how communities pay for the services provided to their citizens, primarily through property taxes – the assessed value of different land uses. There was further discussion and references to different processe that may generate more revenue, not by land uses, but by calculating the value per acre.
Value per Acre Analysis
This analysis is detailed in Value Per Acre Analysis: A How-To For Beginners, using property information – size, ownership, zoning, assessed value, and taxes paid. This information is usually available from the local (town or county) tax assessment office.
This information can then be mapped, using Geographic Information System (GIS) or Googele Earth.
To illustrate the the impact of this method, the following example compared two existing commercial properties – a large “big box” store versus a smaller “mixed use “use site ( commercial uses on the first floor, with residential above).
In addition to calculating value per acre, there are two other key findings – taxes paid by each property owner and employees for each use.
Refer to the following chart to really see the major implications of this new analysis and the impact on a commuity’s budget and fiscal sustainabilty :
This clearly puunches holes in the long held belief that large commercial uses generate more tax revenues than smaller parcels. Communites have then continually engaged in attracting larger commercial uses, not fully understanding the real fiscal implications.
Large commercial boxes, malls and shopping centers (bricks and mortor) have been in decline for many years, now accelerating due to the pandemic and the resulting shift to online shopping.
This also wastes valuable land, with their huge and unneeded paved parking lots. As a result, malls are undergoing a rapid transformation to other productive uses– affordable housing, recreation centers, medical facilities and other mixed uses.
When stores close (i.e. JC Penny, Sears!) then malls decline and become eyesores.
A vlaue per acres analysis provides an opportunity to
“…to make sure that its land use is productive: that is, that the activity taking place on that city’s land is creating enough wealth to support the infrastructure and services needed for that place to continue to exist and thrive.”
Source: Strong Towns
This really a Return on Investment (ROI) anaylsis for communities to understand the long term fiscall impacts from proposed development projects, annexations and re-zoning. Do they actually provide revenues, now and in the future? Will the community be fiscal sustainable?
Here are examples how some communities have analyzed their current and future land uses, comp plan polcies to determine the impact on curernt and future revenues and budgets and how they align with their development policies:
Bastrop, Texas – Establish fiscal sustainability as a critical metric for growth management, development character and budgeting
Brownsville,Texas – Develop fiscal baseline for the city, understand how and where to invest resources to close their funding gap, and prioritize economic development incentive (TIRZ) opportunities that support the City’s goal to revitalize the core downtown
Pflugerville, Texas – Build alignment within Council, expand the conversation around density and mixed-use development, plan for future infrastructure obligations, and maximize value capture of key development sites in a fast growth suburb.
The key takeaway from this analyis:
“…a city can help close its funding gap through adjusting its development pattern, potentially without raising taxes. Our objective is to provide information and new perspective so that city leaders can align their development and service model with what citizens are willing and able to pay for – now and in the future.”
Source: Kevin Shepherd, Verdunity CEO & Project Principal
So What’s Next
While I believe more communities need to do this kind of analysis, my concern is twofold. – why isn’t this being done by other places and how to start and move past the entrenched status quo and try this?
The key issue – if this is needed and provides a path to fiscal sustainability, how can a community actually implement this?
Housing and zoning continue to be hotly debated issues, given the recent passage of Portland’s landmark houising initiative. This follows efforts by other states and cities to allow other housing types in single-family zones.
Changing single-famiy zoning is seen as a way to increase housing supply to lower prices and provide greater housing choices. The other primary motivation is to end racial and economic discrimination. Single family zoning is seen as a major enabler for these policies.
Pushback has centered on disruption and incompatabilty with the existing neiegorhoods, increased density and traffic, reduction of parking availability, and reduction of property values. Some pundits would argue that racial discrimintaiton is still the real reason for opposition to change.
The city of Minneappaolis amended their zoning ordinance in 2019, allowing duplex and triplex housing in all single family zoned areas. As of September 2020, building permits for this housing type totalled three (3), (Triplex building permits requested in Minneapolis this year: 3), a less than expected result. One can argue that addtional time is neeed for developer’s to react and then build these units. Others argue that reduction of mininal building height, land lot width and depth requirements are needed.
There is then contunued discussion in the planning profession to support or opposse removal of single family zoning.
“14 total planning voices, taking up the question of whether or not single-family zoning’s time has come — and, if so, what to do about it.”
Eric Jaffe, Side Walk Talk, Medium
Reasons to change single- family zoning are summarized first, followed by counter arguements and my commentary.
WhyChange single -family zoning:
People can still build single-family homes – Changing the zoning allows other types of houses, in addition to single-family or detached houses.
Communities can still prevent Manhattanization – there is fear that allowing more houses will result in greater density, like New York (Manhattanization). This cna be prevented with height restrictions, consistent with each commuity or neighborhood and market conditions.
The missing middle can unlock affordability -differnt housing types – towhouse, duplexes, and the like, offer buyers a choice and greater opporttunity (affordabilty) to buy a house.
Upzoning won’t necessarily spoil housing investments – One planning scholar argues it’s not the role of planning to maintain or enhance property values. I believe this is a part of the larger issue of racial and ecomonic inequity. Providing housing diversity (change the zoning) is needed but, needs to be fitted to the conditions of each community.
Existing tenants can be protected – this means not displacing existing residents in the neighborhood (gentrification). This a very real problem, particularly for renters. There is no easy solution, other than paying attention to the community, providing other programs to maintain neighborhood cohesivenees. This must be balanced with the need for addtional housing.
Infrastructure strains can be managed – traffic, parking and open space are the infrastrucure most affected. Reducing parking requirements is a growing technique in many communities. Transportation alternatives – transit, bus, ride-sharing and biking may also offer solutions, but is a locational issue. New design tehniques can aso perhaps reduce infrastructure demands. The shift to working from home can reduce car depedency, while shopping and other needs could met within the neighborhood, thus encouraging walking. There is the greater demand on infrastructure when development is pushed farther from the denser core areas.
Counterpoints and Commentary
Minneapolis shows the path forward – the city did it’s homework , knowing the impact that restrictive housing had on minorities. The new city zoning ordinance then “allowed” three residential units on all parcels and multi-family units “by right” near transit hubs.
Incremental change is wiser – The writer cites Sydney, Austraila that developed a “modified set of rules in areas that are already suitable for greater density.” This seems to be perhpas less controversial and confrontational process.
Political capital is better spent elsewhere – One scholar argues “that tackling single-family zoning will require enormous amounts of political capital that could better be deployed elsewhere, such as targeted affordability programs. ” I would agree that zoning change is a long process, but the success of afforfabilty programs is dubious at best. The same scholar does argue for a more measured approach, rather than ending singe-family zoning. This is similar to the incremental approach.
Focus on undeveloped areas – this is applies to infill or vacant properties in existing communities, linked to inclusionary/performance based zoning and housing mandates.
Ethics demand a change – The American Institute of Certified Planners (I have this designation) has a Code of Ethics that states “We shall seek social justice by working to expand choice and opportunity for all persons, recognizing a special responsibility to plan for the needs of the disadvantaged and to promote racial and economic integration.”
What’s needed most are new housing models – for me, this is THE critical need, regardless if zoning is changed or not. It must model the life cycle housing shown on the graphic below.
” This new model must encourage middle- and low-income housing, give these households access to good schools and jobs, and provide pathways for them to catch-up on the generations of wealth-creation they’ve missed out on.
Harley F. Etienne, University of Michigan
The housing crisis will continue, impacted by the pandemic. The outcome is unknown given current record low interest rates, and contiuned demand. This is offset by increased prices due to a shortage of available existing houses and not enough being built. The push for new housing will then continue and with it advocacy to change zoning. Stay tuned for more in later posts.
After a short break, this is the promised follow-up to my August 17 post, that talked about my Town’s Comprehensive Plan update process and my initial thoughts about the draft plan, after the two required public hearings.
The Town Council (TC) held their virtural public hearing on September 12. Building on my observations from the August 17 post, I submitted a six page comment letter. Addtional information included page referenced comments of specific goals and implenentation actions. Noteworthy recommendations included the following:
A town dashboard to measure progress, increase transparency and public engagement (Pensacola Metro Dashboard – ” Like the dashboard of a car tells you where you’re going, and how the important functions of your vehicle are working, so too we thought the Pensacola Metro Dashboard would be a way to get a snapshot of how the community is progressing.“
A Comp Plan Implementation Dashboard to link town decisions to comp plan goals and actions.
Include maintenance costs for all the infrastructure the town will own from annexations should be included in fiscal impact analysis. See the following reference: Why Does Infrastructure Cost So Much.
It is critical that the town grows in a planned and fiscally sustainable way. In general, residential development does not necessarily pay for the services generated. This doesn’t mean ban new houses, but rather a better process to measure fiscal impact. See the following reference – https://fiscal.verdunity.com/
My letter was the only one submitted and I provided the only “public” testimiony at the virtural hearing. This was disappointing, but not unexpected given the pandemic and minimal outreach efforts by the town.
TheTC intially did not want to keep the public record open to allow addtional written commets, but finally agreed at the last monent because the final future land use map had not been included in the draft plan . The record was then held open until Friday, September 18.
One would assume that the Plan under condideration for approval would be complete and therefore could be approved. That apprently was not the case . The final future land use map was only a draft and not the final map prepared by the consultant. Staff indicated they would contact the consultant and find out when the final land use map woud be produced, hopefuly wthin the next several days.
First, a DISCLAIMER – I am not an attorney. However, I am baffled how an incomplete plan (openly admitted ) can be approved?! To me, this is a recipe for a sharp attorney to file a lawsuit or other legal actions stopping the approval process. Call me an alaramist, but I have seen and experienced this from my previous work in other Maryland counties and communities. In my mind, this is NOT the right process for review and approval of a Comp Plan, the devlopment guide for the next ten years!
The TC held a work session on Monday, September 21 to consider formal adoption of the Comp Plan. The Planning Commission was also invited to participate.
No other comments had been submitted during the 5 days the public record was open.
The TC, the Planning Commission and staff reviewed my comment letter and rightfully concluded that they were primarly about plan implementation. They are right and that was my intent. However, my other intent was and will be to use the letter as a guide to remind them there is no real plan without implementation. There can be adjustments, as conditions change, but that at least suggests they are focused on implelemetation.
At the end of the work session, there was consensus to move forward to formal approval of the proposed Comp Plan at the TC’s official buisness meeting, Monday, September 28.
Staff said the consutlant had not yet completed and subimtted the “final future land use map” for the Comp Plan. This could then be added later, as “an amendment to the plan”. I guess that works (again, I’m not an attorney), but but my training and experience suggest this still not the right process. There was perhaps pressure from the State Planning Department to finish and adopt the Comp Plan to meet their ten year update requirement.
A plan and then implementation is a critical need for our town, as yet another annexation proposal (senior housing,medical offices) is ready for submission. So now there are three residential annexations and the start up of a previously approved (1992) residential residential annexation.
So we need an executable plan, with transparency and public engagement!
The state is expected to pass and enact a new law to end exclusionary zoning by enabling local governments to pass rezoning changes by a simple majority rather than a two-thirds super majority vote. Many communities only permit other than single family housing through a zoning change or exception. A two year study, released in 2019, documents this process restricts housing choice, diversity, while raising prices. With an expected passage in September, the law is a major shift to stop exclusionary processes, allowing for more housing and options.
“For too long many [Massachusetts] cities and towns have used the supermajority rule as a tool of racist exclusion to protect exclusionary local zoning and perpetuate modern redlining.
Jesse Kanson-Benanav, Abundant Housing MA
Major lessons learned include:
Voters are Pro-Housing – the article cite recent changes in Cambridge, Newton in the state, but also Boulder and Minneapolis. This is seen as a major shift that will be sustained. While I agree there is progress, there seems to be little desire in my town and county to really confront the the obvious affordability and diversity issues here. My sense is this is due a general lack vision and progressive thinking, lack of resources and technical expertise to take meaningful actions. This is not willful, but just going with the flow mentality.
Activists Must End State Barriers – There needs to be sustained and coordinated actions by pro-housing groups to force changes to the regulations and other policies that are barriers to need housing, This has resulted in changes in Colorado, Oregon, Texas and Washington. In Maryland, housing reform legislation was introduced during the 2020 session, but failed because lack of full support and COVID-19. I suspect it may be re-introduced, but will have to complete with budget cuts and related pandemic issues. Activists in Maryland include Maryland Affordable Housing Coalition, Fair Housing Action Center of Maryland, and Community Development Network of Maryland.
Governor Support is Key to Passing Housing Choice For any public policy initiative political leadership is essential and the author provides positive examples – Massachusetts, and Washington State governors. This is countered by neutral leadership – California and New York, These are surprising, given California’s infamous high housing prices and the New York – governor’s past job as Housing and Community Development Secretary. Maryland’s current leadership is lukewarm at best about housing and perhaps may not change two years left on a second term,but countered by an active General Assembly.
The passage of this was the culmination of a six year effort to change the city’s housing affordability and availability. The ordinance allows four to six homes on any lot if half are available to low income residents. In addition, the law removes all parking mandates in 75% of the city’s residential land. The graphic below provides a visual of the new law and impact on needed “middle housing”
This effort builds on previous reform efforts from Minneapolis, Austin, and Vancouver, Oregon state. The city’s Residential Infill Project provided the institutional expertise. This also counters major opposition by demonstrating increased density and different housing can be integrated into existing neighborhoods.
It is striking to note the success of this process mirrors the lessons learned from Masscuasetts:
There was a support from citizens to overcome long term resistance to change. This initiative was started by a “local micro developer“. At the public hearings “pro-housing testimony outnumbered anti-housing testimony more than six to one.”
There was also a robust and vocal collaboration by local community housing activists – Hacienda Community Development, the Cully Housing Action Team, Sunrise PDX, amd other state organizations AARP Oregon, the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods, Oregon Walks, 1000 Friends of Oregon.
Political leadership was provided by the Mayor and City Council members. Prior Oregon state housing reform legislation also provided both political and policy support.
An important quote many communities ( including where I live) need to consider:
It shouldn’t take six years for any city to agree to give itself permission to build the sort of homes that every city once allowed.
The technical issue here, over enforcement of a provision of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, isn’t massively important to the number or price of homes that get built.
So-called “missing middle” housing options like triplexes, courtyard apartments and cottages aren’t radical or even unfamiliar. They’re just scarce—because they’ve been largely banned from cities across Cascadia and the rest of the US and Canada. In Portland, the bans began in 1924 and expanded almost citywide in 1959. Almost every city in either country that’s existed for more than a century has a similar story.
The technical issue here, over enforcement of a provision of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, isn’t massively important to the number or price of homes that get built.
What matters more is a battle of big ideas. Is it good to have a diversity of housing types and prices in every neighborhood? Or is it bad?
Sightline, Michael Anderson
I believe it is good to have this big idea – housing diversity and affordability! I hope my county and town embrace these “big ideas”!
It is especially relevant now as my town adopts a new Comprehensive Plan, and an opportunity to also update the current antiquated zoning ordinance. A further urgency is review of three large residential annexation requests, proposing over 6,600 dwelling units.
The challenge is can or will our political leadership support the needed housing reforms discussed here?! Many examples and best practices are available for us to at a minimum start!
This is written from two perspectives, first as the Town Planning Director from 2011-2014, after being on the town staff since 2008, working on downtown revitalization implementation. This gave me the opportunity to assist the previous planning director on the 2008 update.
The second perspective is as a citizen, town resident, with many years of planning/community experience at the town, regional and state levels.
In Maryland, each county and municipal comp plan must have specific elements and must be updated every ten years.
The town initiated the update process with a Kick off meeting , asking attendees to participate in a series of exercises :
1. Branding Exercise
2. Live/Work Map
3. Opportunities VS Challenges Exercise
4. Objectives and Principles Exercise
The results were then complied and posted on separate Comp Plan page on the Town’s website.
Next a Request of Interest (RFI) was posted, requesting firms to submit a statement of their services and interest in this project. Interested firms attended Q&A session with the Planning staff to clarify the scope of services and answer questions. As a result, a formal Request for Proposal (RFP) was posted. Ten consultant firms submitted proposals. This was a significant change from the 2008 update, done by in-house planning staff, with assistance from the other departments.
Using a scoring system, the staff rated the proposals and made a recommendation to the Planning Commission. They in turn endorsed the staff recommendation to the Town Council. This selection was approved and the selected firm received a notice to proceed in December 2018.
The process officially started in July with evening listening sessions, ending in October, 2018. The public provided input about key elements of the plan, to include Municipal Growth, Downtown Development, Transportation and Economic Development. The results were then posted on the Comp Plan website.
A Steering Committee of citizens ( I was a member), business owner,s major employers (local hospital, Board of Education, fuel distributor) and representatives from County staff (Planning, Economic Development – appropriate as the town is the County seat and a major employer) was formed and met to review the initial draft on the new Plan . Comments and feedback were provided resulting in two revised drafts – August 2019 and January 2020.
The January 2020 draft was then submitted for a required 60 day review period tothe State and the County, as required y law. Their respective comments were then incorporated into a May 2020 revised draft and then presented to the Planning Commission for their review. They held a virtual public hearing on July 7, due to COVID-19. The Plan was recommended for approval to the Town Council. Interesting to note there were no speakers signed up to testify and the Planning Commission denied a request to keep the public record open for an additional week.
The recommended 2020 Plan will be introduced to the Town Council, the final approval authority (5 members – the Mayor and 4 Council persons, all part-time), on August 24, with a public hearing (virtual) scheduled for September 14.
Stuff beyond control
When the update process started, no one could have anticipated the COVID pandemic, much less the devastating impact on the Town’s staff and their workflow. The Town Hall is stilled closed and the staff like, many others, had to adjust the working remotely.
The good news (if there was any!) was that the update process was well underway, with most of the public outreach completed. So when the pandemic really hit, the staff and consultant were in the writing phase.
The downside was lack of public participation at the July Planning Commission hearing, This is understandable, but see the Not so Good comments.
The revised plan was prepared by a consulting firm. Nothing against the staff, but having an outside perspective provides needed objectivity while adding planning/best practices from other communities.
Good use of listening sessions prior to actual writing of the plan,providing an opportunity for community input and perspectives while educating the staff and consultant team about the community – their needs, desires and concerns. They got to know the community better.
The Steering Committee meetings were also a good and a needed technique to hear community reaction to the initial draft Plan. The staff and consultants then heard directly from major stakeholders about recommendations and needed revisions.
The Planning staff is much improved, professional and better organized from previous 2008 update process (that includes me!). They had more knowledge and were better focused in organizing and executing the process. This includes organizing the listening sessions, the Steering Committee, managing the consultant contract, effective incorporation of comments into the draft Plan and finally leading the Planning Commission through the process. They are to be commended for their work, made that much harder due to COVID.
The Not So Good
Any plan is a snapshot in time, not in control of events, dated the day after approval. As the 2020 plan moves to certain adoption, the Town is at the confluence of events beyond their control – the long term implications of the pandemic and a flurry of development activity. This includes possible construction start of a 30 year old residential annexation project with 3,200 units at build out (10 years?). Next are two new annexation requests, the first a 800 acre parcel with over 3,000 units, with a 20-30 year build out and a smaller one (175 residential units).
While no plan can anticipate the future in precise terms, my concern is the new Plan lacks a real vision of what the Town can be. Do they want to be just another “anywhere USA” or a unique place, protecting their values, history and environment?! This is not advocating for NOT IN MY BACKYARD (NIMBY) or the opposite (YES IN MY BACKYARD – YIMBY), but a place with standards and a regulatory process protecting the community’s character. There should a be response other than just accepting the way it’s always been, the status quo, given bad past practices – strip commercial centers along the major highways, at the expense of downtown businesses, lack of sidewalks, lack of housing diversity and affordability.
While the public participation process was a significant improvement over the 2008 update, it was still somewhat limited – we have to do it, so let’s get it over with. Yes, there were listening sessions and a Steering Committee, but once they stopped meeting, there was no outreach until the announcement of the Planning Commission public hearing. This results is a top down plan, written by consultant, but not necessarily really reflecting citizen wants and needs. While the pandemic certainly was a key factor in limited attendance at the July 2020 Planning Commission hearing, the required public hearing legal notice was delayed by the local paper and as a result, was eventually posted in a much larger metro paper. In addition, a request to keep the public record open for an additional week for comments was denied by the Planning Commission.
A Comp Plan is not effective if there is no implementation. It must be THE policy document guiding all decisions, not gathering dust on the shelf. A Capital Improvement (CIP) is an effective implementation tool, using the budget to plan needed projects identified in the Comp Plan – road improvements, water/sewer, sidewalks, parks/recreation.
The Town initiated a CIP two years ago, during their annual January retreat in advance of the fiscal year (FY, starting July 1, ending June 30) budget. While a good start, the 2020 Comp Plan provides an opportunity to refine and further synchronize the current CIP, reflecting its policies and recommendations.
Another implementation tool is the Zoning Ordinance. The current ordinance is dated and a patchwork of various changes over the years. There were major changes over the past two years. While perhaps needed and at the time some urgency for amendment, the zoning is again dated and out of syn with adoption of the new Plan. It doesn’t reflect the significant changes in the community, new planning techniques and thinking about how places grow and develop. This is urgently needed in response to COVID-19.
The Town Council pubic virtual hearing is September 14. I will testify and provide a detailed comment letter for the record. This will include my observations here and specific comments, with page references. I will urge the Council to keep the record open for more public comments. This is too important, the stakes too high to close the record and then vote to approve.
One positive benefit from COVID-19 has been the significant drop in vehicle miles of travel (VMT) – less cars on the highways. This is primarily the result of people working from home (WFH) and sheltering in place.
One would have assumed that with reduced cars on the road, there should then be a reduction in traffic deaths. Sadly, a wrong assumption.
“U.S. traffic fatality rate jumped 23.5% in May, compared to the year prior, despite the number of vehicle miles driven in that month dropping 25.5% amid pandemic-related stay-at-home orders.”
National Safety Council (NSC)
Why has this happened?! It is too soon, without additional data to draw specific conclusions yet. However, I notice significant speeding on roads where I live, including local neighborhood streets , with a speed limit of 25 MPH. This is generally consistent with the Governors Highway Safety Association, part of the National Safety Council stating:
…speed is another “dramatic problem” contributing to the increased traffic fatality rate, especially as drivers take advantage of open roads. An estimated one-third of all traffic crashes are due to speed, yet we’ve never given it the priority that it really deserves … because everyone speeds. We all do it, we’re all guilty of it and there’s never been public support, or really doing anything serious about it.”
Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA)
But for pedestrians and cyclists (the other transportation users) , this is a continuing trend – decrease in vehicle accidents, but increase in pedestrian deaths. Note this data is prior to the COVID-19, so there are likely more walkers and cyclists out there.
1. More walking has increased exposure, as one survey1 estimated that the number of Americans walking to work in the past week increased about four percent between 2007 and 2016;
2. Most pedestrian fatalities take place on local roads, at night, away from intersections, suggesting the need for safer road crossings. Over the past 10 years, nighttime crashes accounted for more than 90 percent of the total increase in pedestrian deaths;
3. Many unsafe driving behaviors, such as speeding, distracted and drowsy driving, pose risks to pedestrians, and alcohol impairment by the driver and/or pedestrian was reported in about half of traffic crashes that resulted in pedestrian fatalities in 2017; and
4. Finally, the number of sport utility vehicles (SUVs) involved in pedestrian deaths has increased by 50 percent since 2013. By comparison, (non-SUV) passenger cars’ involvement in pedestrian fatalities increased by 30 percent over the same time period. Although passenger cars still account for the majority of pedestrian deaths, SUVs – which generally cause more severe pedestrian injuries – make up an increasingly large percentage of registered vehicles.
I speed at times as well, but now much more aware because I am a walker and cyclist. It is also personal, as a friend of mine, an avid cyclist, was hit by a car on a two lane rural highway. He did all the rights things – on the highway shoulder, riding with the traffic. Thank goodness he survived and is making a steady recovery. The driver was charged with reckless driving, passing a car, then over correcting and never saw my friend on his bike, in broad daylight.
“…takes a systems approach to enhancing safety. Rather than exclusively faulting drivers and other users of the transportation system, Vision Zero places the core responsibility for accidents on the overall system design, addressing infrastructure design, vehicle technology, and enforcement.
Communities then need to commit to the following actions:
» Building and sustaining leadership, collaboration, and accountability – especially among a diverse group of stakeholders to include transportation professionals, policymakers, public health officials, police, and community members; » Collecting, analyzing, and using data to understand trends and potential disproportionate impacts of traffic deaths on certain populations; » Prioritizing equity and community engagement; » Managing speed to safe levels; and » Setting a timeline to achieve zero traffic deaths and serious injuries, which brings urgency and accountability, and ensuring transparency on progress and challenges.
Vision Zero Network
While some cities and communities have adopted Vision Zero as policy, actual progress (reduction of accidents and fatalities) has been slow in the US, in contrast to other countries, for example Denmark:
Road deaths in Oslo (pop. 673.000) in 2019:
Pedestrians: 0 Cyclists: 0 Children: 0
The graph shows the reduction of road deaths there since 1975.
So why is the US so far behind, even with reduced traffic from COVID-19? A January 2020 Strong Towns post provide some reasons, given our placed based politics and how our communities have developed. Recommendations were provided for the long way forward.
So Vision Zero as a design problem is just this: eliminate all instances where a driver could hit a pedestrian at a speed greater than 15 to 20 mph, even if one or both parties make a mistake.
This means in places where people will be out and about (i.e. streets), cars and trucks must either be kept out entirely, or must not travel faster than 20 miles per hour.
It’s a simple rule. No cars moving fast enough to kill a person in places where people are going to be. No people in the (rare) places where we allow cars to move fast enough to kill a person. That’s it. It’s not, at its core, about enforcement, or clever design, or better signage, or even better, more attentive, more conscientious humans. It’s about speed. Speed is what kills.
When you think about what would actually have to change in American cities in order to achieve that change in our travel speeds, that’s where it gets messy, though. Vision Zero is a simple engineering problem, but a wickedly complex social and institutional problem.
Holistic institutional and cultural changes:
An emphasis on allowing (and rebuilding) complete neighborhoods where you can meet many needs within a 15-minute walk, and cars (where they’re present) move slowly and defer to people on foot.
Connecting those complete communities to each other by high-speed roads and/or public transit.
Creating alternatives to driving, and unlocking the strength in numbers that pedestrians enjoy when walking is a mainstream activity (29% of Oslo residents walk to work, just shy of the 34% who drive).
Recognizing that bike and pedestrian infrastructure comprises many of the highest-returning investments a local government can make.
Eliminate things like free parking in busy areas, which induces extra car trips.
Enforcement where needed to deal with the minority of true scofflaw speeders. (Oslo has markedly strict penalties for reckless driving.)
Traffic calming to turn stroads into slow, safe urban streets.
These are ambitious changes that will require persistence, leadership (political and community and from the bottom up), money and a comprehensive perspective. This not all about design, but really about lowering speeds on roads, accommodating total transportation needs – walking, cycling.
These changes are beginning to happen in larger urban areas (i.e. New York, Barcelona, Bogota, Milan and others) but will continue to be a major challenge in all communities.
My community (population of 10,000), typifies these challenges – reactive rather than proactive planning,road design for moving traffic (vehicles) rather than for all users and lack of leadership and funding.
This needs to happen to improve our quality of life and the environment. I am hopeful my community and others will embrace and become advocates for these needed changes to improve our quality of life and the environment.
Last’s week post talked about needed zoning reform , exposed by the current pandemic. Zoning reform started at various places around the country with some success but still has a long way to go.
There continues to be ongoing controversy about this, linked to the long standing issues of affordable housing and economic segregation – specifically, the dominance of only single family housing in communities. If you analyze your zoning map and ordinance, you will be surprised by this dominance. See my July 12 post and the referenced analysis of urban areas by the New York Times ( June 2019, Cities Start to Question an American Ideal: A House With a Yard on Every Lot ).
This has included “upzoning” – the removal of single family zoning, allowing increased density (units/acre) with other housing types – townhouse, duplexes, cottages and the like. See the images below:
The intent is to add to the housing supply (and variety), reducing their cost. Minneapolis and Oregon were successful in changing their respective zoning laws and requirements. Other places failed in their reform attempts, but likely will try again – Maryland, Virginia and California, the most prominent. This more radical reform has been equated to YIMBY – Yes in My Backyard.
As expected, there has been and will be continued opposition (loosely linked to NIMBY (Not in My Backyard), that increased density and other housing types change the character of the neighborhood, lower property values and violate the long held belief and tradition that a single family- home is the American Dream.
But there are numerous studies and facts that single- family zoning and our archaic zoning laws have contributed to racial and economic discrimination, fully exposed by the pandemic.
More moderate reforms are now developing, attempting to avoid the I win, you lose game. Places are communities where people live, work and play. This doesn’t have to be a zero sum contest, particularly when it’s about basic human needs – shelter and opportunity for self-support.
more “missing middle” housing. The term refers to any low-rise construction that is denser than detached houses: backyard cottages, townhouses, small walk-up apartment buildings. In 19th and early 20th century American cities, it was the bread-and-butter of moderate-income housing. Think of Boston’s “triple deckers,” Atlanta’s midtown fourplexes and sixplexes, and Baltimore’s rowhouses.
But the other needed element are the other zoning requirements that hinder housing – parking requirements, minimum lot sizes, height limits and more. One size doesn’t fit all, so these regulations should be flexible, tailored the a community’s character, culture and history.
Tweaking zoning codes doesn’t necessarily make housing construction feasible at lower price points. Leaders can’t always know what type of housing homebuilders in their locality will be able to profitably build. This depends on local demand, the existing housing stock and the milieu of regulations. That’s why reforms that appear to allow more housing to be built on paper may not result in the flexibility homebuilders actually need.
“Gentle” density can save our neighborhoods A Brookings Report, offers another option, avoiding the false choice of large single family houses on large lots versus high rise towers to achieve needed densities – more housing. They argue for “gentle increases in density – such as townhouses, two-to four family homes, and small scale apartment or condominium buildings.” The post then illustrates , using Washington, DC, that this can increase housing while lowering their cost. See the chart below:
Three important lessons learned for other communities:
First, it is possible to add more homes in single-family neighborhoods while keeping buildings at similar scale. When viewed from the street, three adjacent townhomes or six small condos can be constructed at approximately the same height and mass as existing single-family homes.
Second, allowing smaller homes that use less land is an important way to improve affordability. .
Third, diversifying the housing stock in exclusive neighborhoods creates better access to economic opportunity.
Another moderate reform is allowing Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU’s) by right or by meeting certain conditions – lot size, building height, parking, design. Montgomery County, Maryland, a wealthy community north and adjacent to Washington, DC,amended its zoning ordinance to allow accessory apartments, after a year along analysis and six month public engagement process. The amendment was approved in July 2019, after an acrimonious campaign by supporters and opposition groups.
I hope housing reform will continue and accelerate, fueled by the pandemic and the need and desire to do and be better.
This will be tested shortly in my community, a bastion of single family housing, with limited other choices, based on the familiar developer’s cry – “but there is no market for that here!”
Two large residential communities are now poised to more than double our population, (estimated at 10,000).
One was annexed into the town 30 years ago, but the owner could never obtain the financing to build. Now there is a potential contractor purchaser, the largest home builder in the country and is raring to push dirt.
The second project is a proposed annexation, that also has been around for a long time, but again, new owners, with money, now want to actually submit the annexation application.
My concern (and there are many, but here – housing) is that the town elected leadership don’t settle for the same drab, cookie cutter subdivision we always see. Rather, they should press the developers to engage the community to find out what housing we really want, need and is affordable.
I have and will continue to reach out the the mayor and town council providing relevant information, as they begin their review. I will let you know how things are going!
In most US communities, land and uses on it are regulated through a zoning ordinance. It is a tool to implement a comprehensive plan, a vision and set of policies of how the community wants to grow over a period of 10 to 20 year period. A notable exception is Houston, Texas., even though they have land use regulations.
How it Started
Initially, zoning’s intent was to separate uses into districts – residential ,commercial and industrial, to protect residential communities for the obnoxious impacts from these non-residential uses. New York City adopted the first comprehensive zoning code in 1916, specifically to prevent tall buildings from blocking light and air to the streets. Setbacks from the street were then increased with building height. See CityLab University: Zoning Codes, a good primer about zoning and its affect on our communities.
The legal basis for zoning was established by the famous 1926 US Supreme Court case – Village of Euclid v. Amber Realty Co. . This confirmed that cities had the constitutional authority to regulate uses that could be allowed on private properties,. This is now known as “Euclidian”zoning – separate, individual uses on land.
The zoning ordinance then provides the specific requirements regulating that use on the land. For residential uses, typical regulations include what type of house (more about this later), how large, how far back from the street, how tall.
While the original of zoning intent may have been good, economics, our car dominant transportation and other events and trends, have changed,resulting that zoning was used for economic and racial separation, discrimination and inequality. Much has been written and researched, documented about this .
This is known as exclusionary zoning, – its use and its requirements (large lots, parking minimums) to prevent other than single family housing in communities. This still happens, even after the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
The finance industry practiced “redlining” – “unethical practice that puts services (financial and otherwise) out of reach for residents of certain areas based on race or ethnicity. It can be seen in the systematic denial of mortgages, insurance, loans, and other financial services based on location (and that area’s default history) rather than an individual’s qualifications and creditworthiness. Notably, the policy of redlining is felt the most by residents of minority neighborhoods. a spatially discriminatory practice among credit card issuers, of providing different amounts of credit to different areas, based on their ethnic-minority composition, rather than on economic criteria, such as the potential profitability of operating in those areas.” This too was banned by the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act (CRA).
Reform is on the Way!
But now, the pandemic has again exposed the inequality of zoning while worsening a housing affordability crisis we continue to ignore. Many places are now re-thinking how they want to grow and re-invest in their communities, including eliminating single-family only zoning altogether. A number of states attempted this (Washington, Maryland, Virginia), with Oregon succeeding in earlier this year. Minneapolis was the first city to do this, passing a new ordinance in 2019.
“In most communities, obsolete land use regulations impede the development of vibrant, walkable neighborhoods that combine housing and compatible commercial uses in neighborhoods that offer a variety of homes for every stage of life. Unfortunately, the difficult and costly process of updating municipal regulations is too often out of reach for many communities. The result is zoning that perpetuates the status quo and limits housing access, convenience, and affordability.“
Enabling Better Places: A Zoning Guide for Vermont Neighborhoods
Changing codes should be an incremental process – small, doable steps, leading to next steps, success, building momentum and community acceptance.
The focus is on engaging local stakeholders and leaders for buy in and sustaining the process.
This develops civic leadership needed to sustain needed changes.
My hope is that communities will take the time, effort and money to start zoning reform, using the best practices identified here and in other places.
This will be tested in my community, as the Town Council reviews and adopts a new comprehensive plan and hopefully make the needed changes to the zoning ordinance to implement new plans’ policies. At the same time, two large projects are moving forward, with huge impacts on the town. One is a 800 acre annexation request, proposing mixed use (residential, commercial) community with a 20-30 year build-out. The other is re-start of a primarily residential community (3,000 residential units) ,annexed over thirty years ago., but never started because of lack of funds by the owner. There is now a potential new owner and committed to starting construction.
My hope, as well as, concern is that the town will not fall back on the status-quo zoning, but using this guide and other practices to develop real mixed-use, walkable communities, with a variety of housing types, appropriate for our town, not the cookie-cutter mass we see so often across our landscapes.
There have been many articles and examples documenting how cities across the world have expanded bike/pedestrian facilities and open space as a remedy to COVID quarantine and isolation. See my May 10, 2020 post Walking Out of Isolation.
My ( and others) concern is will this trend continue, given the recent increasing infection rate in the US and the devastating impact on government budgets.
Cities and communities will suffer immense fiscal losses from the pandemic. But an international coalition of cities believes that “funding green stimulus plans focused on job creation” is the key and that “cities are the “engines of the recovery,” and investing in their resilience is the best way to avoid economic disaster.”
C40 Cities , Gobal Mayors COVID-19 Recovery Task Force proposed a series of plans and policies, specifically:
“a green prescription for financial stabilization that emphasizes several familiar pillars of progressive urbanism — renewable energy investment, energy-efficient buildings, improved mass transit, and spending on new parks and green space.”
The 15 Minute City
One specific recommendation is “all residents will live in 15 minute cities”. Paris is then cited as an example for implementation of this goal. The Mayor stated “Parisians should be able to meet their shopping, work, recreational and cultural needs within a 15-minute walk or bike ride.”
While a laudable goal, my skepticism crept in . This is all about large urban centers, with perhaps a longer history and culture for biking, walking and better mass transit options than the US. This is somewhat mitigated because this is not a new concept, previously advocated by planning pioneer Jane Jacobs, and now by the New Urbanism movement and Strong Towns, among others.
Another hope for success for smaller communities – “……this 15-minute change is very doable in cities of any size. All cities have been disrupted, and there are shifts that everyone can make towards a better quality of life in their community.”
Can it Work Here?!
Another burning issue – can this work in car dependent America? The article cites recent analysis that walkable communities “demanded 75% higher rent over the metro average in the nation’s 30 largest cities, all while increasing equity and investment opportunities.” (Soure: Foot Traffic Ahead, a collaboration between The Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis (CREUA) at the George Washington University School of Business, Smart Growth America, Cushman & Wakefield, and Yardi Matrix)
Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, initially a large suburban mall and office center, is now undergoing a transformation to a more mix-use residential community, adjacent to METRO, the regional rail mass transit system. It a long term project, but a real world re-development laboratory for more walkabilty, while reducing car dependency. Initial designs have been criticized for the lack of pedestrian accessibility and connectivity.
“It’s not just a matter of adding bike lanes and wider sidewalks,” she says. “There are lots of arterial roads there and, without real political trade-offs from local officials, and efforts to narrow streets and slow down traffic, it won’t ever be truly walkable.”
Emily Hamilton, director of the Urbanity Project at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University
So What’s Next?!
The article concludes that the disruptions from COVID will spark long -term actions, even in the face of falling revenues:
“The speed at which pedestrian, biking, and scooter infrastructure has been ramped up during the pandemic shows how quickly things can change. Small tweaks to zoning or permitting for sidewalk cafes and cycling infrastructure can build momentum for larger shifts when budgets return.”
For me this is crucial:
“A crisis does have a way of revealing what’s already broken,”. If cities aren’t using the revealing nature of this pandemic, how it’s highlighting disparities and racial inequities, shame on them. As difficult as it’s going to be, it’s a real opportunity.”
Steven Bosacker, GMF Cities program for the German Marshall Fund of the United States
Like many professions, planners have their own acronyms. This is about one of the more s controversial ones, further highlighted by COVID- 19.
NOT IN MY BACKYARD – this is the rallying cry for opposition to development, from zoning changes to proposed housing, roads and other similar projects. Required public hearings are necessary (and usually required) and good for citizens to know what is planned for their communities and to then have the opportunity express their concerns. But the nature of these hearings typically result in opponents showing up, and as as result some projects , having met the standards for approval or perhaps fulfilling a community need, are delayed or denied under the mantra – NOT IN MY BACKYARD.
An example helps, from my time as the Town Planning Director. An application was submitted to annex a 40 acre parcel into the town limits, proposing a small commercial center, affordable townhouses for the elderly and single -family houses. The site was adjacent to an existing single family neighborhood within the town.
The review process is long, ultimately requiring two public hearings, one before the Planning Commission and then before the Town Council, the approval authority. Within weeks of the formal submission of the application, fierce opposition surfaced, based on rumors that the proposed “affordable” townhouses for the elderly were really Section 8 Housing, a Federal sponsored low income housing program. I received numerous calls, not only for the adjacent residential home owners, but also other town residents, all outraged and opposed to the annexation. They didn’t want townhouses and “those kind of people”.
This illustrates the negative connotation of NIMBY, now exacerbated by COVID- 19 and the impact on housing affordability and inequality. This doesn’t mean that pubic vetting of projects is not needed, but for better pubic engagement and information.
The following two commentaries provide a good overview and the impact on housing and other community needs:
“This “win-win” approach to entitlement could overcome many of the formidable barriers to lowering cost and avoiding the divisive “NIMBY” battles, replacing them with something more like “QUIMBY” – Quality In My Back Yard. (A panel convened by Portland’s Metro planning authority made a similar recommendation in 2009.)”
“NIMBYs think and act in geographic units more suitable for the 18th century than the 21st.”
A footnote – the proposed annexation application was withdrawn and never filed a gain,
Counter reaction to NIMBY has been YIMBY, YES IN MY BACKYARD. This supports development and due process in the permitting/review process. At the extreme this movement never sees a development they don’t like.
Their primary causes are housing affordability and higher residential density – “upzoning” . A recent analysis of urban areas by the New York Times ( June 2019, Cities Start to Question an American Ideal: A House With a Yard on Every Lot ) finds that”Townhomes, duplexes and apartments are effectively banned in many neighborhoods.” The example shows that Minneapolis zoning allows for 70% detached single family zoning.
There has been a national wide effort to change single-family zoning and allow denser housing, like duplexes, triplexes, accessory dwelling units (ADUs), and apartment buildings. Upzoning legislation has been introduced or passed in California, Oregon, Washington, Seattle, Minneapolis, Nebraska, Virginia, and Maryland. The federal government has also expressed interest in pressing local governments to relax zoning laws that prohibit multi-family housing.
The article has the following critical points why we should change how we zone our communities:
…zoning literally is everyday life, because it governs what goes where. And it’s circumstantial to affordability, equality, equity, and the distribution of goods, services, and wealth
…the enshrining of single-family homes is increasingly at odds with the realities of 2019 and beyond.
In the United States, we used the precedent set by Euclid v. Ambler—that separating buildings based on what they’re used for is both legal and preferred—to justify the use of zoning and other legal mechanisms, like covenants, to spatially separate people from each other on the basis of race.
That zoning’s application has legally enshrined deep and persistent racial exclusion in America is not up for dispute. Fortunately, we are working toward an increased national understanding that excluding anything but single-family homes is a proxy for excluding other people.