Zoning, housing and preservation

March 20, 2023 Blog, Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice, Economics, Historic Districts, History Comments (0) 280

One of the issues of the current decade is the push against single-family zoning, usually from the perspective of increasing the supply of affordable housing, but also arguably from a climate change perspective. In either case, more density is desired. So, how does preservation fit into this? Well, many of the YIMBY proponents of same accuse historic district preservation of being a cloaked kind of exclusionary zoning.

Georgetown, DC

Like many such apprehensions of the historic preservation/heritage conservation field, there is truth in it — if you go far back enough in time. (Pro tip – you need to go back at least 30 years and ignore everything that has happened since).

In fact, historic preservationists have been advocating for ADUs (accessory dwelling units) in districts for the last 30 years – as a technique to insure preservation by offering additional income to owners. I remember it from the Oak Park Illinois Preservation Plan Lisa DiChiera wrote in 1993-94. We have long seen adding extra units as a way to increase density and HELP preserve beloved community fabric.

ADU (casita) in King William, San Antonio

When I do my talk on the history of historic districts, I note that arguably the first modern historic district inspired by residents and not tourists was Georgetown in 1950. It literally took an act of Congress and was perceived – correctly – of causing gentrification and displacing African-Americans. Which it did. A similar thing happened a couple of years later with the first revolving fund in Charleston. Zoning itself emerges in California in the 19th century as a way to exclude the Chinese, and even the density-based New York City zoning of 1916 was adopted by hundreds of suburbs, in part as a way to exclude people.

Ansonborough, Charleston

Historic districts, however, took a different turn starting in the 1960s as they were tweaked by community activists to become something a museum curator would never recognize. This process itself also took 30 years, so that by the time I was fighting alongside community members in North Kenwood, Chicago in 1991-93 to create a historic district, the goal was quite the opposite in terms of race and income. (Race Against Renewal, Future Anterior, Winter 2005)

They included the one on the left but not the one on the right

But it would take a little longer to push the preservation practice a little further in terms of building types. You see, in North Kenwood they refused to include any multi-family apartment buildings in the historic district. You could put in two-flats and three-flats but they excluded century-old architecturally intact six-flats and 12-flats. It would take a couple more years for the preservation community to accept the multi-family as worthy of preservation, even though I argued it in North Kenwood in 1991. When 409 Edgecombe in Harlem, New York became a landmark in the mid-90s, the whole scheme changed. Within a few years, the old Hamilton Heights historic district – which had excluded multi-family – had filled in and marched a dozen blocks up St. Nicholas with four separate additions. Multifamily was now decidedly historic.

409 Edgecombe, Harlem, New York. The apex of Sugar Hill. Thurgood Marshall, Walter White and W.E. B. DuBois among its many illustrious residents in the 20th century.

So, if the YIMBYs accuse preservation of exclusionary zoning, you can let them know they were correct in 1915 and 1950 and there was a lingering effect into the early 1990s.

But they’ve been wrong since.

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Givings

November 26, 2019 Blog, Economics, Texas Comments (0) 1183

Recently the City Council passed a resolution that would require that any amendments proposed to the Uniform Development Code be subject to an economic impact analysis to see how much cost they would add to new developments. Many community activists are concerned that this would stifle public input, although the intention was to identify what extra costs would be passed on to consumers.

Like requiring materials that don’t burn so fast.

I don’t think it will limit public input, but the opponents raised a really interesting question. Why is the question of economic impact always one-sided, namely the side of the developer?

How many of these lights are private?

For centuries there has been debate over the issue of “takings.” “Takings” is when the government takes your property and has to pay you for it. About a century ago some clever lawyers came up with the idea of “regulatory takings” – whereby you put so many regulations on a property you stripped it of all its value. As with most clever concepts, it hit a hard stop in reality when even the prohibition of all development on a beach site in the Carolinas did not zero out property value (Lucas, 1989)

Mercury not so rising – Gotta love New York zoning 1960s style!

Here’s what gets me: Why doesn’t anyone talk about “givings?” Like when New York City doubled the zoning envelope in 1961, effectively giving every landowner a massive boost in asset value. Chicago did the same in 1957 – we were all going to be living on Mars by 2000 anyway, so it didn’t matter. Every bit of IDZ spot-zoning is a public “giving” to a private property owner. That’s what needs to be quantified.

One house becomes four! It’s magic! It’s Giving!

“Givings” are in fact central to the entire history of real estate. In the 19th century canals and railroads were financed by the sale of public land along their routes. Kind of like TIRZ (TIF). In the 20th century it was hard roads and then interstate highways. Today it is tax increment financing, bonds and incentive packages.

Check out legend lower right – a literal monument to hard roads.

The entire history of real estate development is a history of chasing public subsidies, primarily transportation. You hear “Location, location, location” and what that means is “transportation, markets, infrastructure.” Two-thirds of that recipe is public.

I’m not saying public support is bad. I have supported public subsidies of private developments that really made a difference. I’m just saying you need to count on both sides.

preferably without alienating the commodity

Back in the 1980s, there were so-called “impact fees” that municipalities would assess new residential developments that required new sewers, schools, streets, sidewalks, security, etc. That led to whining, which led to the era of “property rights” and by the 90s there were attempts in Congress to compensate owners for the reduction in the property value caused by regulations.

In a city that still has height limits…

That silliness aside, the question has always been formulated on only one side of the equation: What are they taking from the property owner?

I would like to see a strict accounting of what we are GIVING.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Infill in the Fastest Growing City in the U.S.

June 13, 2018 Economics, Historic Districts, Texas Comments (0) 3300

66 people a day are moving to San Antonio.  That is a higher number than any other city in the U.S.  There are less than a dozen cranes downtown, but that is more than San Antonians are used to, and there have been various flare-ups over developments in neighborhoods.

So an opinion piece dived in on the side of top-down planning in the Rivard Report, claiming that San Antonio has a movement against New Urbanism and is in danger of sprawling even further by restricting density.

Check out this sentence: “Zoning decisions shouldn’t be based upon answering the singular question of whether an infill project fits in with the neighborhood.”

Cellars at the Pearl

Zoning decisions are never based on answering singular questions.  The whole point of zoning is that it is a site of negotiation of complicated, multiple questions.  The author references the debate over the Dean Steel site along San Pedro Creek west of the King William area.  Perfect example of the multiple questions being answered by zoning, like, should it be residential (yes), how should it address the street, the creek and the nearby neighborhood, and how dense should it be?

Big Tex on Mission Reach near Blue Star

The Oden Hughes project he cited was a perfect example:  Developer asks for 400+ units, neighbors push back, he settles for 340.  That is how zoning works as a site of negotiation.  Developer probably anticipated the negotiation.  I expect to see something similar at Dean Steel.

Dean Steel

The disturbing thing about the article is it seems to want to give more power to the planners and blame the neighbors for causing sprawl.  There are always those people who will oppose any change.  There are always those who will oppose more density.  And there are always those who will ask for more than they need.  But NONE of them get to decide,  And neither does Baron Hausmann or Le Corbusier or their 21st century wannabes.

Corbu to you, too

San Antonio is not a commodity, it is a place.  Of course the downtown will grow more dense and newbie urbanistique.  You can start by building on the 40% of downtown that is surface parking.  Then you have your industrial sites like Dean Steel and Oden Hughes and Lone Star that can add thousands of new residents without displacing any old ones since they were industrial sites.  You have office buildings that can be converted to dense residential, like these are right now:

You also have Hemisfair, soon to be a new residential neighborhood downtown.  Greenwich Village hasn’t stifled the density of Manhattan, and King William and Dignowity Hill won’t stifle the new residential downtown.  On the contrary, they will complement and economically enhance the new residential downtown just as the Museum Reach and Mission Reach have done for their geographies.  Historic districts preserve and enhance a character that attracts human and financial investment.

San Antonio is not a commodity, it is a place with character.  Planning is not a math problem and people aren’t simply decanted into towers and corridors.  There are multiple reasons 464 people arrive each week and there are multiple components to San Antonio’s character.

Planning and zoning are negotiations between multiple stakeholders that – at the end of the process – answer the manifold question of whether a project fits into a place.

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Plainfield: Historic?

April 7, 2010 Chicago Buildings, Economics, Historic Districts Comments (0) 1356

Another downtown bites the dust – or should we say drinks the Kool-Aid? The latter phrase has been overly misused the last decade or two but it is quite appropriate. Historic downtown Plainfield – a lovely Will County town west of Lockport, has voted down historic landmark status, despite a 21-20 majority of downtown property owners being in favor of it. This was reported in the Chicago Tribune today.

Despite the slim majority of owners in favor, Village trustees voted 4-2 against the district, essentially caving to a minority. Negative motivations – like fear – tend to trump the positive motivations, like the economic security provided by knowing what kind of downtown you are going to have in the future. Another negative motivation: fear of the frightening property regulators, who have somehow not interfered with two renovations of this historic property owned by Pat Andreasen, listed on the state, national and local registers.

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Owning in an historic district

December 3, 2009 Economics, Historic Districts Comments (6) 1722

I own a house in a historic district and last year I blogged about how thankful I was for that fact. Real estate is an asset whose value is largely external – it comes from its location, which is to say, its surrounding buildings and environment. Because my house is in a historic district, its value is assured. Economic studies for over 40 years have confirmed this fact in communities across the United States.

If you look at the history of historic districts – which I did in my dissertation – you find that the first modern historic districts emerged in the 1950s in communities that were concerned about drastic changes to their environment and thus the value of their homes. Urban renewal was one threat, which proposed outright demolition. The other threat was posed by postwar zoning ordinances, which dramatically increased density and thus owners of brownstones or single-family homes faced the prospect of massive highrises next door.

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how does economics work?

April 22, 2008 Economics, Historic Districts Comments (0) 1335

There was a great symposium Saturday at the Chicago Architecture Foundation, one of several in conjunction with their exhibit on the history of Chicago preservation: “Do We Dare Squander Chicago’s Great Architectural Heritage?” that runs through May 9 (See it now!). Prof. Bob Bruegmann opened it up with an excellent history of teardowns and the inquisitive, expectation-overturning perspective he brings to everything. Prof. Richard Dye, an economist, explained the economics of teardowns. Both men suggested that an upside of teardowns was that they shouldered a bigger portion of the tax base, a fact that neighbors of teardowns are perhaps loath to admit. Bob did note that increased values could mean higher taxes for the teardown-adjacent in their little historic houses as well, and he also sagely discussed the new penchant for small houses, which are of course greener and thus more chic and popular with the wealthy. Continue Reading

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“Right” Zoning

October 16, 2006 Chicago Buildings, Economics, Historic Districts Comments Off on “Right” Zoning 1151

Jonathan Fine of Preservation Chicago spoke to my Preservation Planning class today and introduced them to an excellent phrase: “Right” zoning. This is more accurate than “downzoning” which is a phrase commonly used to describe what happens when a local alderman or city decides to reduce the allowable density in a district.

The recent book on the history of Chicago zoning describes the “downzoning” of the lakefront communities of Gold Coast and Lincoln Park in the 1970s and 1980s, which often followed landmarking of the area. Real estate expert Jared Shlaes opposed the downzoning in a 1980 report, and the book now judges that Shlaes was probably on the wrong side of history. Continue Reading

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