Institutional hurdles to dense infill development

dc cranescape - CC image from yawper

A common theme is emerging among those thinking and writing about cities, from Ryan Avent to Ed Glaeser to Paul Krugman – our land use controls have stunted growth in our developed and productive areas – our cities. So, a simple fix would be to just allow more development, right? Glaeser makes the case that one American city, Chicago, has done a pretty good job of that, and as a result housing prices there are low relative to other large cities.

But for anyone who’s watched the intense battles over seemingly innocuous projects in our cities, it’s obvious that simply allowing more development isn’t that simple. No matter the reasonable arguments in favor of such development, opposition is often intense and emotional, and the institutional decision making processes favor delay and often unfavorable decisions in terms of increasing urban densities.

A few weeks ago, Austin Contrarian posted about a new draft paper from David Schleicher at George Mason.  Over the past few weeks I’ve been reading and sharing some reactions to the paper in my sidebar feed (a workaround for my use of the sharing features of the new Google Reader).  I’d like to compile some of those thoughts (and somewhat related posts) here.  First, the abstract of Schleicher’s draft paper:

Generations of scholarship on the political economy of zoning have tried to explain a world in which tony suburbs run by effective homeowner lobbies use zoning to keep out development, but big cities allow relatively untrammeled growth because of the political influence of developers. Further, this literature has assumed that, while zoning restrictions can cause “micro-misallocations” inside a metropolitan region, they cannot increase housing prices throughout a region because some of the many local governments in a region will allow development. But these theories have been overtaken by events. Over the past few decades, land use restrictions have driven up housing prices in the nation’s richest and most productive regions, resulting in massive changes in where in America people live and reducing the growth rate of the economy. Further, as demand to live in them has increased, many of the nation’s biggest cities have become responsible for substantial limits on development. Although developers are, in fact, among the most important players in city politics, we have not seen enough growth in the housing supply in many cities to keep prices from skyrocketing.

This paper seeks explain these changes with a story about big city land use that places the legal regime governing land use decisions at its center. Using the tools of positive political theory, I argue that, in the absence of strong local political parties, land use law sets the voting order in local legislatures, determining policy from potentially cycling preferences. Specifically, these laws create a peculiar procedure, a form of seriatim decision-making in which the intense preferences of local residents opposed to re-zonings are privileged against more weakly-held citywide preferences for an increased housing supply. Without a party leadership to organize deals and whip votes, legislatures cannot easily make deals for generally-beneficial legislation stick. Legislators, who may have preferences for building everywhere to not building anywhere, but stronger preferences for stopping construction in their districts, “defect” as a matter of course and building is restricted everywhere. Further, the seriatim nature of local land use procedure results in a large number of “downzonings,” or reductions in the ability of landowners to build “as of right”, as big developers do not have an incentive to fight these changes. The cost of moving amendments through the land use process means that small developers cannot overcome the burdens imposed by downzonings, thus limiting incremental growth in the housing stock.

Finally, the paper argues that, as land use procedure is the problem, procedural reform may provide a solution. Land use and international trade have similarly situated interest groups. Trade policy was radically changed, from a highly protectionist regime to a largely free trade one, by the introduction of procedural reforms like the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act, adjustment assistance, and “safeguards” measures. The paper proposes changes to land use procedures that mimic these reforms. These changes would structure voting order and deal-making in local legislatures in a way that would create support for increases in the urban housing supply.

Bold is mine.

In other words, the procedural causes of slow zoning approvals are systemic.  It’s a similar argument to that in favor of the “zoning budget,” some procedural change to give the broad yet shallow interests in favor of development an equal say to the narrow and intense sentiments often in opposition.

Matt Yglesias takes Schleicher’s lead and looks at this in the political context of urban governance:

In other words, if U.S. cities had regularized party systems each city would probably have something like a “growth and development party” that pushed systematically for greater density. Its members and elected officials would, of course, have idiosyncratic interests and concerns that would sometimes cut across the main ideology. But the party leaders would be able to exercise discipline, the party activists and donors would push for consistency and ideological rigor, and it’d be off to the races. Instead, most big cities feature what really amounts to no-party government in which each elected official stands on his or her own and overwhelmingly caters to idiosyncratic local concerns rather than any kind of over-arching agenda. But different institutional processes could change this, and create a dynamic where growth, development, and density are more viable.

Richard Layman often speaks about the “growth machine” thesis of cities, but I don’t know that it accounts for the more procedural hurdles ‘regular’ infill development encounters, as opposed to big ticket projects.

At the Atlantic Cities, Emily Badger asks: should building taller should be easier?

But how do you grow denser if you can’t grow up? At a certain point – whether it’s in downtown Austin or near a suburban Boston transit station – communities will exhaust the real estate that exists below building height limits imposed years ago for safety, continuity or aesthetics. And then what? Will people let go of these rules?

Given DC’s height limit, Badger focuses on some examples of DC’s stunted growth and the practical implications of such a policy.

Ryan Avent chimes in at The Economist:

Part of the problem, I think, is that people view the built environment as primarily aesthetic in nature. Most of us live in one building and work in another, and almost every other structure in the city is essentially decoration for our lives; I’ve been in a lot of Washington buildings, but my primary interaction with the vast majority of Washington structures is a street-level view of their exterior. The nature of this interaction is such that we underappreciate the built environment as an input to production. It is clear, for instance, that people and machines are critical to the functioning of the economy. There would be huge concern if the government of a city declared that firms located within its boundaries could employ at most 30 workers using 15 computers. But the built environment is just as important a part of the production process; firms pay eye-popping rents for Midtown offices and Silicon Valley real estate because they anticipate getting a good return on their investment. In the same way that a firm which pays out millions in salary or to use a piece of capital equipment also anticipates getting a good return on that investment.

Indeed, the costs of limiting density (or of delay via uncertain procedural approvals) all impose costs that are often hidden, but nevertheless real.  And, sometimes counter-intuitively, the feared externalities of dense development such as traffic never materialize:

“What I’ve found is that what people envision has nothing to do with the reality,” [Roger] Lewis says. “What they envision is ugly buildings, more traffic.”

This sounds counter-intuitive, but taller buildings that are part of a walkable, transit-oriented community can actually help ease congestion. And there’s no reason for these places to be ugly. Tall buildings that make the best neighbors don’t feel like tall buildings at street level. They’re wrapped there in lively retail, townhouse fronts or inviting public space.

The aesthetic concerns over height and density are indeed overblown – good street-level urban design and architecture at the human scales are far more important to building a quality environment than the overall height of buildings.  Obviously, taste in styles is a matter of personal preference, but we have a strong enough catalog of what works in urban design to get the broad principles of those designs into new development projects.

Unfortunately, the structure of the regulations and ordinances seldom make quality development the path of least resistance for a developer – again highlighting a procedural, systemic argument.


9 comments to Institutional hurdles to dense infill development

  • Alex

    The consequences, though, of removing local control at the neighborhood level to the city-wide level might remove a basis for empowerment that is essential to current American’s sense of well-being in a difficult, alienating, ultra-moderizing world. I have been part of local organizations that successfully prevented McDonalds and WallMarts from opening.
    The concept that “growth is good” usually goes undisputed. But growth of what kind and at what cost? If the people of a neighborhood cannot have some control over what their world, their daily living world, is like, it would deeply disenfranchise one of our most important avenues for civic engagement in our cities. Density is generally good, but it is not good at all costs. Contrast the Amish (lots of local control over what is built and what kinds of growth occurs around them) with Shanghai (historic beautiful buildings bulldozed and destroyed in the name of economic growth, to be replaced with cheap, fast construction.) Of course, American cities should land somewhere in between rural farmland and state mandated mass development. But where, exactly? Preservation of ways of life, as well as irreplaceable architecture, is worth the rise in housing costs for most people who want to have some local determinism of their lives and community.

  • Alex Block

    The thing is that growth at the local level isn’t controlled by the micro factors on a project by project basis – the growth is really more about macro factors. Stopping a project locally doesn’t stop growth, it just moves it and re-shapes it – often in detrimental ways.

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  • […] At the very least, some mandatory periodic review of the requirements (in the same vein as the zoning budget idea, but for a specific provision of the code) would help ensure the requirements in place make […]

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