Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Balancing the provision of social services facilities vs. overconcentration and "nimbyism"

Today's Post has a letter to the editor, "Embracing community diversity," calling out as nimbyism and anti-social part of a story told within a real estate feature on the Truxton Circle neighborhood in DC ("Truxton Circle reclaims its identity"), of how residents successful opposed "the presence of a new education and training program for Latino youth accompanied by expanded housing opportunities for their families."

While I happen to agree with the letter writer that the program as proposed seemed to make a lot of sense, what I do understand that the letter writer does not, is that residents in the Truxton Circle-Eckington-Bloomingdale area do feel "put upon" because of the presence of a great number of social services facilities already in their neighborhood, from methadone clinics to homeless shelters.

While ADA laws in DC and generally are interpreted to mean that these types of facilities can not be opposed on zoning grounds (which is why opposition in the Ruxton-Riderwood area of Baltimore County to the placement of a small mental health halfway house for people of means within their neighborhood is not likely to succeed, see "Sheppard Pratt completes Ruxton purchase for rehab center" and "Sheppard Pratt facility unfair to Ruxton — or any other neighborhood" from the Baltimore Sun), I do believe that there is a quality of life and "quiet enjoyment" argument that can and should be made in terms of "overconcentration" of such facilities in particular neighborhoods.

The North Capitol Street corridor is likely one such place, given the number of facilities located in the area, from say M Street north to Rhode Island Avenue. Reston in Fairfax County, where the letter writer hails from, probably not so much.

What the ADA law means in practice is that one facility on its own cannot be denied zoning approval, if it meets the general requirements within the zoning category.

Because zoning and building regulations are applied for the most part to individual projects on a case by case basis--singly rather than collectively--there is no question that certain areas can become "dumping grounds" when many such facilities locate in the same area. As a result, I do believe that an overconcentration exception should be able to be made at some point, in terms of the addition of new facilities to particular areas.

Although part of this is a matter of management. For example, for years I lived around the corner from a homeless shelter. When it was used as a transient housing facility, it was a terrible neighbor, and people loitered throughout the neighborhood during the day, until they could go back inside. Later it became (and still is, although I don't live there anymore) a managed facility as part of a multi-stage drug rehabilitation program, and except for occasional ambulances and such, you'd never know (except for the lack of children) that the building was no longer a school and housed people with needs.

The funny thing about that "shelter" is that its presence was frequently used as a chimera to explain bad things in the neighborhood. For example, residents criticizing liquor shops for sales of products most likely to be consumed in the public space were told that this was happening not because of the liquor store, but because of the "homeless shelter." Well, in the drug rehab program, people are not allowed to consume alcohol or they will be kicked out. It wasn't that facility that was causing problems, etc.

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