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.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

When progressives can be really "flawed"

(Flawed = the other F word)

Arlington County's Green Party has come out against the streetcar for Columbia Pike because "it is a precursor to gentrification" according to "Streetcar Plan Finding Critics on Left and Right" from the Sun-Gazette. Republicans, and fortunately there aren't too many of them in Arlington County, think that it's better to focus on car traffic rather than throughput. See the previous blog entry, "Editorial in the Examiner against the Arlington Streetcar" for more on that.

There is no question that better transit drives housing demand. And increased housing demand, especially in the face of constrained supply, increases costs and leads to displacement.

The response shouldn't be to not improve transit, which in what should be obvious but often isn't to progressives (who challenge streetcars in DC on similarly ridiculous grounds) significantly improves the access to work, school, and other destinations as well as the quality and speed of the trip--which matters significantly to those who are transit dependent, it should be to deal with the potentially negative effects that increased housing prices have on people of limited means.

One of the things that people don't seem to understand is that newly constructed housing is always more expensive than extant housing, because it is new and cost more to build at today's prices than did comparable housing constructed decades ago. From the article:

Nearly 1,000 new apartment units have been constructed in the Columbia Pike corridor over the past three years, all significantly more upscale than what has been seen in the corridor in the past. So far, the new development has been in addition to - not in place of - existing housing units.

The point is to deal with this reality, rather than try to keep our heads stuck in the sand. I can't claim to be an expert on housing supply, but the proscriptions for maintaining access to lower cost housing stock aren't difficult to figure out and provide. Trying to not add better transit won't do anything in terms of "warding off" intensification of land use and increases in rents and the conversion of rental housing to owner-occupied housing. Here are some possibilities:

(1) adding to supply; (2) having nonprofit housing organizations acquire and maintain a portfolio of rental properties (apartment complexes, etc.) that remain permanently affordable relatively to price increases; (3) price controls; (4) jobs development and other programs that help raise the income levels of households otherwise at risk for displacement, etc.

We're in a market economy and capitalism isn't going away any time soon. Therefore the solution isn't to not improve the quality of life and reduce automobile dependency, it's to increase the ability of people to participate successfully in the market economy.

Note that these are the same issues faced by Langley Park/Takoma Crossroads in the face of the coming of light rail there. See "Crossroads community in cross hairs for developers, immigrant advocates: Immigrant groups fear gentrification along Montgomery-Prince George’s line" from the Gazette.

And this has been an issue elsewhere such as in Portland with the yellow line light rail and in Seattle with the coming of light rail there. The Pacific Northwest Magazine of the Seattle Times had an article in July 2005 about the construction of light rail and the impact in a neighborhood similar to Anacostia, Columbia Pike or Langley Park, "MLK Way: More than a highway or a piece of the next grand plan, it's home." Change is painful and the pain is undeniable."

Also see "If you build it (streetcars) does economic development magically happen?" from 2008.

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