One dynamic that comes up in DC’s height limit debates is the tension between gains and losses, impacts on the city and benefits to it. New development can clearly add value, but the question is if that value is a mere ‘give-away to developers’ or if citizens (the eventual consumers of that real estate) benefit from robust markets for that product. Likewise, value-capture methods open doors to finance new infrastructure, while others worry about the ability of a city to handle the strain of new development.
This tension raises a couple of issues. Kaid Benfield talks about “softening urban density” in an NRDC article. (though, as Cap’n Transit notes, the same article was re-titled by Atlantic editors as “The case for listening to NIMBYs“) The core argument is the same. While development of the city has large, aggregate benefits, there are indeed local impacts, often perceived as negatives. Benfield discusses several ways to mitigate those negative impacts, ‘softening’ their effect.
While the outcomes of softening are well and good, the real battle is not about how to mitigate impacts of density, but whether it should be allowed at all. In that context, the process for addressing those impacts is important. As Cap’n Transit notes (using the Atlantic’s title for Benfield’s piece), there is a case for listening to NIMBYs – but with a healthy dose of skepticism.
Here’s the problem: NIMBYs lie. They don’t all lie, and they don’t lie all the time, but enough NIMBYs lie often enough that you can’t just take their word for things. They don’t just lie to other people, they lie to themselves. Of course, developers lie, too, and planners lie. We’re all people.
NIMBYs are also irrational. Just like developers and planners and crazy anonymous transit geeks. We’re all people.
Seriously, how many NIMBY Predictions of Doom have you heard? Things that made absolutely no sense? But when you looked in the person’s eyes as they stood at the mic in the community center, you knew that they really believed that removing two parking spaces would lead to gridlock, chaos and honking twenty-four hours a day. And then the two parking spaces were removed, and there was no increase in gridlock, chaos or honking, but the person has never admitted that they were wrong. Somebody, somewhere should make a catalog of these crazy predictions.
We should listen to NIMBYs, not because that’s how you get things done, but because they’re people. People deserve respect, and one of the best ways to show respect is by listening. But listening and acknowledgment do not necessarily mean acceptance or agreement. We need to listen skeptically.
I’ll go one step further: it’s not just about listening, but about having a process in place to address these impacts and assess the validity of these claims – a process to apply a skeptical eye and reach a resolution.
Over in London, architecture critic Rowan Moore is casting a skeptical eye on London’s growing skyline, decrying a shoddy process with (to his eye) substandard results.
Almost all forms of resistance, such as the statutory bodies that are supposed to guide the planning system, have been neutralised, leaving only little-heard neighbourhood groups to voice their protests. All of which, if these tall buildings were making the capital into a great metropolis of the 21st century, might be a cause for celebration. Towers can be beautiful, and part of the genius of London is its ability to change, but what we are getting now are mostly units of speculation stacked high, garnished with developers’ ego. They are invitations to tax evaders to park their cash in Britain.
Of all the arguments in favor of removing DC’s height limit, the idea that it somehow stifles good architecture is the one I find least compelling. I love skyscrapers, but I also love good urban design and a city as an organism, an economic cluster, that functions in a healthy way. The mere fact that some of London’s new towers might not be the most compelling designs doesn’t strike me as a reason not to build up, as many of DC’s stunted buildings aren’t compelling, either.
Some of the same arguments about the capacity to absorb such development also come up: “ It is doubtful, for example, whether Vauxhall is a major transport interchange of the kind that the London plan thinks is right for tall buildings, but it is becoming a mini Dubai nonetheless.” Moore does mention the prospect of capturing the value of new development to fund new infrastructure and London’s Community Infrastructure Levy to help fund Crossrail, but Moore remains skeptical:
It doesn’t help that boroughs such as Southwark and Lambeth are unlikely to be tough on new towers, as they can order developers to contribute “planning gain”, which is money to be spent on affordable housing elsewhere in their territory. Livingstone liked them for similar reasons, as well us for the special delight that skyscrapers seem to have for mayors. Johnson is likely to be influenced by the community infrastructure levy raised on new developments, which helps pay for the Crossrail project. Of course, affordable housing and public transport are good things to have, but thoughtless plunder of the city’s airspace is not the way to pay for them; by the same argument, we could build on parks or on the river.
Building on parks is veering into Cap’n Transit’s above-mentioned NIMBY prediction of doom for the removal of two parking spaces.
Just as there is a simple elegance to tying congestion pricing to transit funding, there is also a simple elegance in tying the value of a growing city into the infrastructure that supports it – and it need not be dismissed as “thoughtless plunder.” Instead, our processes should identify the impacts and seek to mitigate them rather than freeze a city in amber, never to be touched. Participants should shape the result, not veto it.
Aligning our institutions and legal mechanisms to that end is a challenge. The latest piece from George Mason’s Center for Regional Analysis on DC’s housing pinch looks at some of those problems. The existence of impact fees (in the abstract) does indeed add to the cost, but so long as those fees are addressing actual impacts, that shouldn’t be a major concern. The challenges of coordinating approval processes and dealing with local opposition, however, are tremendous obstacles. That is where the need to listen skeptically is quite clear.