More thoughts on density, procedure, and neighborhood opposition

Downtown Seattle. Photo by author.

On land use procedure: 

In the same line as my previous post about procedural hurdles to adding density, a similar discussion is happening in Seattle. Within the larger realm of procedural hurdles, this focus picks up on the idea of a ‘density’ party. While party organization is a part of the larger systemic issue, it does not address the true procedural issues ow how decisions on density are made.

On the impacts of density:

Matthew Kahn visits dense New York, sees some trash on the sidewalk.  David Owen often talks and writes about urban places being counter-intuitively green, and this is a perfect example.  New Yorkers end up producing less trash per capita than average Americans, but you wouldn’t get that impression from walking the streets.

Within this counter-intuitive reality is the seed of NIMBY opposition. The things that opponents of dense, infill development often come back to tangential impacts such as parking, traffic, trash, noise, etc.  The logical response is to address each of those impacts, rather than put a stop to (or severely limit) development.

One of the items in these battles that is front and center is financial interest – yet it’s the developers that are characterized as greedy for acting in their interest, while neighboring homeowners acting in their own financial interests are pure. Seattle again provides an example of this discussion.

On the challenges of infill: 

Payton Chung highlights several promising development projects in DC. One, the group buyout offer of an old condo along 14th St shows the challenges in assembling properties in a fractured ownership environment.  Payton notes:

The buildings’ condo ownership structure makes redevelopment (in the absence of eminent domain) incredibly difficult. As Lydia DePillis writes, “each of the two separate condo associations would have to vote unanimously to dissolve themselves. Obviously, this would have been much easier with a single owner (whether a rental building or even a co-op, where only a majority of shares can dissolve the association), but condos’ recent proliferation as a way of making homeownership more attainable has the unintended consequence of hyper-fragmenting land ownership.

This reminds me of something impressed upon me in grad school: various decisions of urban form are incredibly sticky.  Once roads are laid out, they are very hard to change.  Residential land uses in particular are remarkably resilient, for essentially this same reason.

On implications for transit: 

Alon Levy draws on Jane Jacobs’ distinction between micro and macro destinations. A macro destination is a large district or place (e.g. downtown), while a micro destination is a specific shop, store, or address.  The implication is that transit-oriented places are spiky places:

It’s easy to just pronounce transit more suited to dense city centers than driving, but the situation is more complicated. Transit, too, thrives on good connections to microdestinations. It can’t serve employment that’s dense but evenly dispersed in a large area – people would need too many transfers, and the result would be service that’s on paper rapid and in reality too slow. Instead, it works best when all destinations are clustered together, in an area not many subway stations in radius.

While many of the contested transit-oriented developments aren’t on the terminal end (i.e. the work trip) of a such a destination, but rather the origin – the larger impact is the same. Transit networks have the centripetal force, while auto-oriented ones have a centrifugal force. Transit works best with density, density works best with transit – enabling the mitigation of those externalities that neighborhood opponents will harp on.

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