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Friday funny: This town ain’t big enough

Image from Imgur user crunchtooth.

Can anyone definitively say the gunfight at the OK corral wasn’t to settle a zoning dispute over pop-up condos?

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

April 24th, 2015 | Permalink
Tags: fun, law

Things I’d rather ban than bars

click to enlarge
T-Mobile store. Image from T-Mobile.

Someone has proposed a moratorium on liquor licenses in the U Street area. It seems unlikely to pass, but regardless, here’s a partial list of things I’d rather ban proliferation of in DC:

  1. Bank branches. In the age of ATMs, banks are offices, not retail. They have a deadening effect on sidewalk life and drive up the cost of retail space for everyone else.

  2. Cell phone stores. Proliferation of luxurious cell phone stores is proof that we’re all paying way too much for cell phone service.

  3. Pharmacies. Unlike cell phone stores, it is an important convenience for every neighborhood to have a CVS or Wallgreens. But after the 3rd one opens in your neighborhood, are you really excited about a 4th?

  4. Froyo stores. I like froyo, but it’s obviously a bubble that’s about to burst. No way can so many survive long term.

  5. Empty storefronts. Griping above notwithstanding, we shouldn’t ban anything as long as we have empty storefronts. Even that bank branch is better for sidewalk life than nothing.

February 11th, 2013 | Permalink
Tags: economy, law

Protect the internet

Today BeyondDC steps outside its usual urbanist role to help raise awareness of a big problem: Congress is considering breaking the internet with a set of radical new laws that would give private corporations nearly unlimited power to accuse anyone of copyright infringement, and to then effectively shut down that person’s website. The effect of such far-reaching and broad regulations would be catastrophic to the free exchange of ideas on the internet as it exists today.

Several of the internet’s largest sites are participating in a “blackout” today, shutting down their main content in protest of a law that could shut them down for real if passed. BeyondDC may not be Wikipedia or Reddit, but everyone needs to know about these proposed bills. We cannot let them pass without a fight.

Here is more information if you are interested. Below are some screencaps of major webpages taking part in today’s blackout.




January 18th, 2012 | Permalink
Tags: in general, law, site

Why sign regulations matter

One of the most basic rules of urban design is that pedestrians need things to look at. Good walking cities are by definition visually messy cities. For this reason, many urbanists are hesitant to support strong sign control regulations. Signs provide things to look at, after all.

When Greater Greater Washington discussed illegal signs at the Uline Area earlier this month, many of the comments suggested that the signs should be allowed, or that the city shouldn’t waste time enforcing sign rules.

I do think there is something to be said for a colorful streetscape, but it’s easy to say that from the vantage point of an already heavily-regulated environment. A handful of illegal signs might very well improve the visual diversity of a street, but if we eliminated sign regulations entirely is a “handful” what we would get?

In a previous job I worked in the zoning division of a local planning office. Part of my job was to process certain types of sign applications. Whenever I started to feel like I was wasting my time, I looked over to this image, which I kept tacked to my wall. It was, and is, a healthy reminder that seemingly mundane regulations do make a positive difference to our built environment.

Route 66, Albuquerque, mid 20th century. Photo by Ernst Haas.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

August 26th, 2011 | Permalink
Tags: law, urbandesign

Traffic? What traffic? continued

The comments from my last post are interesting. They seem to fall into a couple of categories: 1) People who think it was smug for me to point out that I don’t have to sit through the same hell they do, and 2) people who feel it’s important to point out that not everyone has the choice available to them, because the city is expensive and/or a lot of jobs are located in the suburbs.

I don’t put much stock in the first comment. I will not apologize for opting out of a miserable experience, nor for suggesting that opting out is possible. The second comment on the other hand is much more fair, and I think it merits some further discussion.

It’s true that not everyone who would like to live a traffic-free urban lifestyle can freely choose to do so. This is because we don’t have nearly enough urban supply to meet the demand, and because our transportation system is skewed heavily to an auto-oriented extreme that makes driving easier the only practical option in all but 6 or 7 cities around the country.

The real lesson, therefore, isn’t so much that some people are capable of opting out of the system (and though it isn’t available to everyone, the choice is certainly available to many people who don’t take it). Rather, the lesson is that we need to stop dictating that most people live in suburbia via bogus land use regulations and transportation subsidies that force most development in that direction.

One commenter opened his comment by asking “Why is it that affluent city dwellers demand that everyone adopt their chosen lifestyle?” He later backed off the statement, but I think it’s a particularly ironic question, because the fact that so many people want to live in the city but can’t is a very strong indication that reality is the other way around. If the market weren’t so restricted, urban developers would be able to meet the demand for urban living. If the supply weren’t so much smaller than the demand, more people would be able to choose to opt out traffic, which would benefit everyone (including those remaining on the highways).

Not to put all the blame on nefarious suburbanites. The city needs to improve itself too, especially the schools.

Ultimately the best comment in the thread came from someone named Steve, who summed things up thus: “The response to this annual story from the Post about the UMR should be that more people should be given the opportunity to opt out of traffic.”


January 21st, 2011 | Permalink
Tags: government, land use, law, roads/cars, transportation

Height limit academics versus policy

We’re coming to the end. Ryan says:

“Dan changes the subject and suggests that scrapping the height limit is entirely unworkable for political reasons. That’s obviously true; I have no illusions about the likelihood of this happening. And undoubtedly, if some allowance were made for taller buildings, it would involve all kinds of compromises and decidedly non-economic negotiations.”

So when it comes down to discussing actual policy prescriptions, we come to the same conclusion. Ryan thinks practical considerations are “changing the subject” and I think they’re “holistic thinking”, but that’s just semantics. True, our biases for what we perceive as most important influence how many and what sort of trade-offs we’re willing to make in an ideal situation, but after cutting through both our bullshit, we find that we’re largely on the same side regarding what the city should actually be trying to do.

So how do we get there?

October 21st, 2010 | Permalink
Tags: law, urbandesign

Height limit trade-offs and practicality

parking lots
Parking lots on the fringes of downtown San Francisco, Boston and Chicago.

Ryan Avent says he has a hard time taking my views on the height limit seriously until I honestly grapple with the trade-offs the limit involves.

Ironic, as I might say the same about him. His response to my suggestion that the height limit may have value that his strictly numbers-based approach doesn’t take into account was to repeat the same economic argument over again, as if the non-economic trade-offs don’t matter.

When I say we should raise the height limit in some places but not others, I’m balancing economic, urbanist and political needs. When Ryan says we should raise it wholesale, he’s thinking in one dimension.

Further, there are real holes in his theories about urban development. In response to my claim that the height limit induces development in areas that would otherwise be underdeveloped such as NoMa, Ryan claims that eliminating the height limit would actually lead to increased development there because it would free up marginal areas for less expensive building types.

On paper that theory might make sense, but in reality it never happens that way.

What actually happens in cities with unlimited vertical development potential is that they end up with a lot of tall towers surrounded by surface parking lots. Eliminating the height limit raises the potential land value of every parcel in a given area, so that developers can’t justify building short buildings. Instead of filling in underdeveloped parcels with whatever development fits or whatever the market calls for, builders “bank” land by leaving it undeveloped until they can justify a skyscraper. The result is that every large city in America except New York and Washington is scattered with parking lots.

If we raise the height limit, on the ground experience from every other city in the country tells us that NoMa won’t develop at all until land owners think it’s ready for skyscrapers.

This may not fit academic models of how urban economics should work, and perhaps it is illogical, but it is absolutely how things do work, like it or not.

But the biggest problem with Avent’s position is practical: Getting Washingtonians to agree to something as radical as changing the defining regulation of our city will take a more holistic approach than he seems willing to accept.

There are real trade-offs to raising the height limit that a strictly economic model doesn’t address. Trade-offs like the quality of the pedestrian experience, like how we develop the city’s neighborhoods, or like the emotional value many perceive in having a capital city where economic speculation is specifically checked in order to maintain a distinct monumental civic core. These issues matter to a great number of Washingtonians, though it may be hard to attach monetary values to them.

Ryan talks very intelligently about economics, but at its root this is not an economic question. It’s a political one, and it is not likely that Ryan’s proposals will be taken seriously by decision makers unless he grapples with the non-economic trade-offs that raising the limit involves.

I think that’s too bad, because we could be moving this discussion forward based on the common ground we do have, and figuring out how to make strategic changes to the limit actually happen. Instead we’re stuck in ivory towers on the ideological fringe, arguing in circles and hoping for a Hail Mary.

October 20th, 2010 | Permalink
Tags: law, urbandesign

Is Cato turning around?

The Cato Institute is one of the leading Libertarian think tanks in the country, but they have long had a big problem. Their foremost writer on transportation and urbanism, Randal O’Toole, doesn’t actually believe in Libertarianism. Although he never uses these exact words, his basic position on all things urban is that ‘a large portion of the market prefers auto-oriented suburbia, therefore the state should mandate and heavily subsidize auto-oriented suburbia‘ (here’s a recent example). It’s a profoundly anti-Libertarian position, and it has tarnished Cato’s reputation in the field for years. How can they be taken seriously in discussions about cities when their senior fellow on the subject is such an obvious hypocrite?

It is gratifying, then, to find other Cato writers speaking more reasonably about the subject. On Tuesday, Cato published a blog post by writer Timothy Lee titled Free Parking and the Geography of Cities, in which Lee makes the well-founded point that government regulations requiring large amounts of parking in every development inherently make walking impractical, which discourages people from walking, which encourages car use, and that therefore such regulations manipulate the free market. Progressive blogger Matt Yglesias agrees, and notes that such manipulations instigate a “feedback loop” in which every car-oriented development increases the impracticality of walking, which in turn begets more car-oriented development.

These ideas are a key part of contemporary urban planning. It has long been a mystery to planners why, at least on this issue, Libertarian groups like Cato should be opponents rather than allies. Lee’s piece is just one blog post, but hopefully it is representative of a shift at Cato away from O’Toole-style reactionism against change, and towards a more intellectually honest assessment of what a genuine free market would actually mean for our built environment.

Hat tip to Ryan Avent for succinctly summing up O’Toole’s position.

Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

August 19th, 2010 | Permalink
Tags: law, transportation, urbandesign

Cities and the country are different? Who knew?

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Shockingly, Washington, DC does not look like this.

Residents of Washington, DC will continue to be denied Congressional representation because, once again, a bunch of Congresspeople who aren’t from cities want to use voting as an excuse to force the District to drastically weaken its gun laws.

In some places of the country carrying a gun makes sense. If you live an hour from the nearest police station, get the protein for many meals from animals you’ve killed yourself, or have certain jobs, guns are sensible tools to have around. However, urban centers like the District of Columbia are not like that. In Washington the police are always nearby, most people would rather give up their wallet to a mugger than risk dying in a gun fight, and in any event it’s too crowded to use a gun safely without worrying about hitting someone innocent.

Most city residents conclude quite sensibly that the city is better off with fewer guns, for the same reasons that most rural residents conclude quite sensibly that their communities are better off with more guns: Different policies are appropriate in different places.

Wouldn’t it be great if elected officials from both parties accepted that cities and rural areas have different problems with different solutions, rather than trying to force their own local politics onto places that are fundamentally different? Maybe that’s too much to ask.

April 22nd, 2010 | Permalink
Tags: government, law, social

Why the MidCity ruling may not be all bad

DC’s Zoning Administrator issued a ruling that DCRA will no longer grant Building Permits or Certificate of Occupancies for restaurants, bars, diners, coffees shops and carry-outs along 14th and U streets (plus adjacent commercial side streets) because of zoning regulations restricting the availability of space to eating and drinking establishments to 25% of the linear frontage of the greater 14th and U Street area.
- Welcome to MidCity

This is a tough game, because nobody wants to discourage investment in the city, especially in places that are historically underdeveloped. On the other hand, there are some good reasons why this 25% rule is a good one.

One of the most basic tenets of urbanism is that a healthy mix of uses should be encouraged, and while people normally think of “mixed use” as meaning the residential/commercial mix, it also applies to the type of commercial. Healthy city neighborhoods need a mix of commercial types just as much as they need a mix of land use types. If a neighborhood becomes overrun with too many of one type of storefront, that means there is less room for every other type. If a commercial district leans too heavily on restaurants and bars, that means it probably doesn’t have enough hardware stores, clothing stores, book stores, barber shops, or home goods stores to meet the day-to-day needs of neighborhood residents. And neighborhood commercial districts that force neighborhood residents to travel elsewhere for their basic needs aren’t doing their job as neighborhood commercial districts.

This is something that private shopping malls have known a long time, and it’s one of the advantages they have over urban neighborhoods that led to the mall’s dominance in the latter part of the 20th Century. Ownership controls the exact mix of tenants in order to serve every need under one roof and reduce shopper’s desire to ever leave or go anywhere else. Every good mall has one or two sports apparel stores, one or two formalwear stores, one or two jewelry stores, etc. And of course a food court. But unless it’s an older mall struggling to survive (and therefore not picky about who signs leases), there is never more than a couple of stores for any one niche. They want to hit every niche, so they can capture as many markets as possible. In the short term that means some potential tenants have to be turned away, but in the long term it makes the whole mall more healthy. It’s a form of delayed gratification that the major commercial developers of the country are very, very good at.

Of course, we don’t really want our neighborhoods to all look like shopping malls, lest they all look exactly the same. Been to one Lids and you’ve been to them all. But that having been said, DC is generally a city that is overserved by restaurants and underserved by actual stores. And while it’s OK for some neighborhoods to develop specialties (such as 14th Street emerging as a furniture district), it’s in the city’s long term best interests to have as diverse a collection of retail as possible.

Zoning has always been a blunt tool, and maybe the zoning for Mid City needs to be more sophisticated. It’s entirely possible that 25% is the wrong ratio. But in discussing the matter we should remember that there are legitimately good reasons why livable neighborhoods don’t want every storefront to be the same.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

Update: Ryan Avent responds thoughtfully, suggesting that higher residential densities are a better way to encourage commercial diversity, and that as a regional specialty district for nightlife, U Street in particular increases investment in the whole city.

April 8th, 2010 | Permalink
Tags: economy, government, law, urbandesign



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