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Real Urbanists Don't Require

This came up in one of those forums where I'm spending way too much time. I'm responding to an RG4N officer who, I honestly believe, does in fact want more urban development.

You want to claim urbanist bona-fides? It's all about loosening rules to ALLOW people to build higher or denser or more mixed-use; not requiring it. When you start requiring people to build what you want, you leave yourself open to the possibility that they'll tell you to build what THEY want.

Allow? Great. Encourage? Even better. Require? No, and this is where
you rubbed a hell of a lot of people who would normally have been your
allies (like me) the wrong way.

Can't emphasize this enough. Banning or requiring should be a last resort and very very very infrequent. For instance, I'm marginally OK with requiring street-facing retail on downtown parcels largely because it falls under "Encourage" as in "We'll let you build very high and very dense and in return you will do XX". But I could sympathize with a view of that as "Require" in which case it's harder to defend (still possible given the expected duration of these land uses compared to the suburban model, but much more arguable).

Take another example: parking. Currently, we require suburban levels of parking almost everywhere. Very stupid and very restrictive of the market. But it's just as bad to have a maximum level of parking like Portland does. If somebody wants to build parking, they ought to be allowed to do so. Under "encourage", it'd be OK to give additional height in exchange for fewer parking spaces per capita, sure. But the base entitlement should be that you do what you want, within some very loose public-safety constraints.

If you focus too much on the "make them build what I want them to build" path, you confirm the worst fears of every suburban Neanderthal out there - that smart growth really is about forcing people to live in big hives and giving up their cars. Not good for the brand, as it were.

This entry was posted in the following categories: Urban Design


I agree.

I've been ok with the city requiring street-facing retail downtown. The justification for that is something like this: In order for a retail store to prosper, it must be part of a vibrant market district. A vibrant market district requires several contiguous blocks of street-facing retail. Without assurances that there will be a vibrant retail market, a developer won't risk valuable space on retail. Everyone else makes the same decision, so no street-facing retail gets built.

These types of market interventions are risky for the city, though. The city has to guess correctly that there will be demand for the market district it is mandating. If it gets it wrong, there will be a lot of empty store fronts or, worse, less redevelopment (= new housing_).

It looks like the city guessed right on the 2nd Street retail district. (I hope it has.) Some of the places down there appear to be flourishing. I'd be interested in hearing whether the merchants there are happy with their location.

I understand the push for minimum parking regs, even though I oppose them -- they're a sop to surrounding neighborhoods who go into a tizzy over a street-parked car. Maximum parking regs seem unnecessary. Developers don't have an incentive to include "too much" parking. They try to build just enough to get full market price for their units. Making them sell fewer will require them to cut the market price of some units -- i.e., it will function like a tax, without offering much in return.

While pragmatism may inform some peoples' desire for minimum parking regulations, it doesn't make them any more defensible ethically than maximum parking restrictions. That's the point - and you can't and won't get small-scale urban infill unless you eliminate all parking requirements (lots under a certain size simply can't handle the burden) so you lose the natural evolution towards density we used to get for 'free'.

And the benefit of "maximum" parking regs is that they provide incentives for more people to take the bus, because there's less free parking. I'd rather just build rail myself, but apparently we lost the ability to do that 50 years ago.

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