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.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Nimbyism: Standing up for what's right or "nihilistic selfishness"?

In the UK, Planning Minister Greg Clark called opposition to changes in planning processes by the National Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England as "nihilistic selfishness." See "Minister criticises National Trust over planning reform" from the Financial Times.

From the article:

A government minister has criticised the National Trust, saying the charity is “not serious” and has made “risible” claims that planning reforms would lead to breakneck development across the greenbelt.

Greg Clark, a minister in the department for communities, said those who sought to “preserve in aspic” their towns were guilty of “nihilistic selfishness” because they would prevent young people from getting on the housing ladder.

The outspoken comments come amid a row pitting the government against the National Trust and the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England over a new “presumption in favour of sustainable development” that would make it harder for councils to reject projects.

Critics say the clause is a directive to build and flies in the face of the coalition’s localism drive. Some fear it could lead to thousands of homes being built across the greenbelt.

The National Trust said it believed in growth but not at any cost. A spokesman said: “For the last 60-plus years planning has been used to guide development to the places that need it while preventing sprawl, protecting open countryside and safeguarding designated areas and historic buildings . . .  Whilst we believe in growth, that’s a fundamental change that puts all of the above under threat .”

2. There is an interesting video done in 1986, featuring Paul Newman as narrator, about the potential for negative impact of adding high rises to neighborhood areas of Manhattan.

3. "Nimbyism" is a pejorative, true, and mostly true, in that people tend to not be able to have a more nuanced approach. It's all or nothing, usually nothing because people tend to be against change.

My line about development is that I am not against development, but I am against s****y development.

And I am continually flabbergasted at how much bad development there is.

What do you do when the Planning and Zoning Regime lets you down?

People think that the planning and zoning laws are written to ensure positive contributions to the city, but for the most part, that's not actually the case.

Regulations "balance" community interest with property rights. That's fine.

But the execution of property rights is often more about minimizing outlays by the developer rather than ensuring quality or even a potential maximization of revenue--this seeming contradiction is the result of the difference in time frames concerning the land--a community has to deal with a property forever while the property owner only for the time they own the property.

When your time frame is short term, your decision calculus works to maximize your benefits while minimizing your costs. Usually this comes at the expense of quality.

A case in point is the Walmart issue in DC.

Walmart strategically chose locations in DC which limit the ability of community input into the program. Only 1 of the 4 sites allows for extraordinary input into the process. One site doesn't even require any approval at all, while two sites have a review process, but a process that is built upon a bias for approval.

The plans for development at these locations show the limits within DC planning and zoning regulations in terms of promoting better practice.

The willingness to push developers to do better is dependent on how willing elected officials are in standing up for broader concerns. All along I said that regardless of the particulars, the Office of Planning would come out in favor of the development because virtually all of the city's elected and appointed officials came out in lockstep in favor.

While I am not surprised, I am extremely disappointed in how the DC Office of Planning (and to some extent the DC Department of Transportation) have wimped out with regard to the evaluation of the building application for the Walmart store proposed for Georgia Avenue NW in Ward 4.


I would say that the findings are "derelict" on at least 5 points:

a. They said it was out of the scope of the Large Tract Review procedure to consider economic impact as a neighborhood impact. I disagree. This could be litigated but I am hardly in the position of initiating a lawsuit, especially one that could lose because Courts typically give a lot of leeway to government agencies in terms of defining how they respond to matters within the context of regulations.

But I don't see how "economic impact" isn't a legitimate "neighborhood impact" that the LTR process is supposed to manage and mitigate.

b. By not saying that there is potentially negative economic impact on the retail environment in Ward 4, specifically Georgia Avenue, prevents the development and funding of focused mitigation programming.

c. The proposed development is a single use project at a location where DC planning documents state that mixed use should occur.

Zoning regulations are not set up to promote the preferred or best or highest value development, but the minimum type based on the regulations. Planning documents "encourage," they cannot require.

While this is the case, the LTR document could have strongly encouraged that the site be developed over time to maximize the benefit to the city.

Developers do try to satisfy the concerns of elected and appointed officials because they do business with them in an ongoing fashion.

But the city didn't bother pushing on this point, likely because Walmart has already been welcomed with open arms and bear hugs, greased in part by donations by Walmart Foundation and other interests.

d. The proposed development is at a badly designed street intersection (Georgia and Missouri Avenues NW). Increased traffic for the store will further stress the intersection, as well as future redevelopment at the Walter Reed site.

Rather than address the problems in a significantly comprehensive fashion, for the most part, the structural problems were ignored.

Likely there will never be a fix made of this intersection (at least within my lifetime), while this is the best time to do so.

e. Most of the transportation demand management initiatives undertaken by DDOT were ordinary.

The city had the opportunity to push Walmart to adopt an extraordinary urban-appropriate measure, which would have been to have a delivery service, and to deliver purchases say above $50.

They didn't pursue this.

Additionally, while it is not uncommon in other jurisdictions for shuttle services between transit and stores to be provided as part of a development agreement (e.g., this is done in the East Carson district in Pittsburgh, at the Ikea development in Red Hook, Brooklyn, etc.), the city did not attempt to pursue this with the Walmart development on Georgia Avenue, which is about 2 miles north of the Petworth Metro station.

4. You can talk all you want about how the city is great, committed to placemaking, focused on complete streets, is developing its creative economy, etc., but every time you fail to defend the quality of place, sustainable transportation, and the building of a resilient, local economy, you are failing the city.

The real nihilists are the ones who fail to take the responsibility for allowing those characteristics that define and extend the quality of the city to be diminished.

The "nimbys" take solace in their opposition, because it's not like the elected and appointed officials fulfilled their duty of acting in a nuanced fashion protecting both the rights of the property owner and the needs and desires of the city and community in terms of building stronger and more resilient and successful communities.

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