Wealthy San Francisco residents may have their private street back but this may not bode well for the city

Remember that private street with wealthy residents in San Francisco that fell behind on its taxes and was sold at auction to some other California residents? The street is now back in the hands of the well-off residents:

For now, Presidio Terrace belongs to its residents again. Their victory isn’t cause for celebration, either. The city’s first-ever tax sale reversal smacks of preferential treatment. It’s hard to imagine elected leaders going to bat for, say, each homeless individual who has had property seized by the city. Farrell, the city council member quoted above, is also the author of Prop. Q, a controversial measure approved by San Francisco voters in 2016 that allows the city to clear homeless camps given 24 hours notice.

But the saga of Presidio Terrace may not be over yet. Although the city promised they’ll get their $90,000 purchase price back, Cheng and Lam have said they plan to sue. For progressive politics, San Francisco was once a city upon a hill. Now it’s rich people squabbling over one.

While New York City rightfully gets a lot of attention for its mix of world-leading buildings, residents, activities, and expensive housing, San Francisco may be a more fascinating case. A limited amount of land (both due to local policies and different topography) plus rapidly increasing wealth in recent decades (with the tech industry leading the way) plus consistently liberal politics yet sharp divides between the rich and poor makes for big housing problems. Kind of like how President Trump regularly uses Chicago as a case of how crime is not being addressed, San Francisco has become a common conservative rallying cry for how not to address housing and growth.

At the same time, many of the housing issues facing San Francisco also are issues for many other American cities: how to construct more affordable housing when few want to live near it? How to encourage jobs for many residents that provide good standards of living (which then gives people access to more housing)? How to encourage economic growth and development across the city rather than within particular trendy or desirable neighborhoods?

Increasing the density of London’s suburbs

The mayor of London recently released a new planning document for the city and it includes more housing in the city’s suburban areas:

Often, [suburbia] stays under the radar of urban theorists and policymakers. But it is emerging as a major untapped resource and, therefore, a battleground in the struggle to find somewhere, anywhere, to put new housing. Last week, the mayor, Sadiq Khan, revealed his draft for the new London Plan, the document that will guide the planning decisions of the city’s boroughs. He wants – and who wouldn’t? – more housing, more of it affordable, well designed and energy-efficient, complete with spaces that encourage walking, cycling and the use of public transport. He has limited powers – he can’t, for example, ordain the large-scale public housing programmes that even the estate agents Savills now thinks are necessary – but he can manipulate the planning system to promote some kinds of development over others.

His eyes alighted on the suburbs. Between the First and Second World Wars, while London’s population increased by 17%, its land area doubled, a reflection of its rapid suburban expansion at a much lower density than its historic centre. In theory, this means that if suburban densities could be nudged up, very many more homes could be accommodated within London’s boundaries. As Professor Tony Travers, of the London School of Economics, says, Greater London could house 20 million people if it was all built to the same density as the inner borough of Islington.

So Khan wants to encourage, within 800 metres of transport links, developments that provide more housing in the same space. In doing so, he hopes to encourage smaller-scale developers and lower-cost housing, in contrast to the luxury towers promoted by his predecessor, Boris Johnson, in the name of meeting housing needs. This might mean building on gardens or building at four storeys instead of two.

He has, say Tory opponents, “declared war on the suburbs” and will make them “overcrowded and harder to get around”. Yet making suburbs denser could make them better. In principle, having more inhabitants means more life in town centres and high streets, which makes shops and businesses more viable and makes it easier to sustain such things as local bus services.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Building suburbs to higher densities is a popular idea among a number of architects, planners, and urbanists in the United States for many of the same reasons but opposition from established suburbanites can be fierce as increased density is perceived to threaten a suburban way of life (more land, more driving, more exclusivity in terms of class and race).

I wonder if the solution in the London area is in the part cited above: keep the higher densities to mass transit nodes. Plans do not necessarily have to include higher densities everywhere in suburbs; rather, transit-oriented development could concentrate more and cheaper housing in locations where new residents can easily access mass transit options for the entire region.

The architecture of stars versus what emerges in cities

Ron Grossman contrasts Chicago’s architectural gems and the more organic ways that neighborhood buildings developed:

The architecture of affluence breeds anonymity.

Nearby sidewalks don’t play on my heartstrings like those in a blue-collar neighborhood. Walking a block in Pilsen is like looking at Chicago history through a kaleidoscope.

Narrow three-story structures are topped with elaborate false fronts and a bit of Baroque ornamentation reminiscent of the Czech homeland of its original owners. A side wall may be painted in the vibrant palette of Orozco or another of the celebrated muralists of the current occupants’ Mexican homeland.

In Bronzeville, construction crews can be seen pulling jury-rigged partitions out of brownstone mansions. Built in the 19th century for the city’s wealthy, they were divided into sleeping rooms for poor blacks during the Great Migration of the 20th century. Now the neighborhood is gentrifying.

In many American cities, the past – written into stone and other materials in the form of buildings – will disappear unless specific preservation efforts are made. And, if the new structure can be a showpiece, something designed by a noted architect or firm and offering an unusual take, so much the better.

Two quick responses in my own mind:

  1. What will future city residents, say a few decades or centuries down the road, think about the construction booms taking place in many wealthier neighborhoods? If those future residents continue to prize progress, perhaps the loss of more original structures won’t matter.
  2. Like many culture industries, trends come and go in architecture. Is a rejection of cold, impersonal modern architecture more about that trend or more about letting individual properties and neighborhoods develop on their own without intervention from starchitects or government leaders? These are two different issues: whether you like the latest trends and whether you think architectural decisions should be made on a small scale and under the control of local residents.

Chicago’s 29 year old white flight reassurance program has paid 5 homeowners

A Chicago program to help protect homeowners on the Northwest side has collected millions of dollars since 1988 and only been used 5 times:

The Northwest Home Equity Assurance Program was enacted via public referendum in 1988 in a bid to prevent white flight in a handful of bungalow belt neighborhoods. A tax-based fund was created to guarantee homeowners within its boundaries they would at least get paid the assessed value of their houses when they sold them.

In the years since, every one of the roughly 48,000 homes within its boundaries has kicked in a few extra dollars each year on its property tax bills to the equity fund. As the Chicago Tribune reported in May, the program has paid just five claims by homeowners who couldn’t sell their houses for the assessed value while amassing $9.57 million in two accounts…

Bucaro, who like other board members receives no salary, cautioned against starting to make home loans. The organization has neither the expertise nor the staff to figure out how much money it’s appropriate to lend people or to assess the risk of such loans…

Bucaro said the Northwest Home Equity Assurance Program has somewhat been a victim of the housing success in the neighborhoods it covers, since most people simply get more than the assessed value of their homes when they sell. Maybe the program has outlived its usefulness as a bulwark against white flight, he said.

I do not know the details of this program but it sounds like the money was simply not necessary. Even as Chicago still feared white flight in the 1980s – and the decades after World War II led to a significant population decrease in the city – the home prices in these neighborhoods did not fall. Even as numerous Chicago neighborhoods changed from white to black after 1950, the Northwest side did not. The neighborhoods in this area are still primarily white (though the Latino population has grown).

One ongoing issue is what will happen to this money but another is when the city of Chicago will officially put an end to a white flight deterrence program.

Almost all suburban residents’ concerns about redevelopment expressed in one meeting

Naperville is pursuing a redevelopment project just south of the downtown train station and a recent public input meeting provided almost all the typical suburban concerns about redevelopment:

Land use and traffic are emerging as top concerns about redevelopment plans for 5th Avenue near the Naperville Metra station.

But close behind are issues of stormwater, green space, pedestrian access, the commuter experience and parking…

Promises to take time understanding and synthesizing resident wants and concerns seemed to only somewhat satisfy residents at Ryan Companies’ fourth group input session Friday afternoon. Some who attended said they want very little to be built on the land, which they see as a solution to flooding, traffic congestion and a lack of nearby park space.

“I don’t want high density,” neighbor Dana Aldrich said. “Our schools are already crowded.”

These are all common concerns. Too much traffic. Water issues. Parking. A desire for more green space. The city or developer not taking the concerns of residents seriously. Not increasing the burden on local services (and presumably property taxes), particularly schools. The only thing missing? The suggestion that property taxes will be negatively affected. Given this particular location and wealthy community, it is unlikely the proposed project would reduce property values – but realities do not always stop suburban residents from raising this specter.

It is also interesting to consider how suburban governments can proceed if residents tend to raise the same concerns almost regardless of the project. Something is likely to be done with this land since a good argument could be made that it is not serving the community as well as it might. (Redevelopment can incur new costs but it can also generate new tax revenues.) Development can be tweaked to try to assuage concerns. However, at some point, community leaders may just decide to override residents’ concerns. Perhaps the concerns are limited to a small number of vocal residents. Perhaps they would argue that as leaders they have the greater good of the community in mind.

The suburban life is so great because of…the big city

A piece extolling the virtues of living in the suburbs of the Chicago region emphasizes that the suburbs provide easy access to the city of Chicago. There are 16 reasons provided for the greatness of the Chicago suburbs but only 1.5 of them actually highlight suburban institutions: Portillo’s began in Villa Park and Brookfield Zoo (1 of 2 zoos mentioned) opened in 1934. (I’m not sure what to do with the inclusion of Lake Michigan on the list: suburbanites can go to the lake in the suburbs – in three states even – or in the city.)

Since Americans prefer to live in small towns (see two recent posts on the topic here and here), a piece like this reinforces this definition of suburbs: geographic and cultural spaces where Americans can feel some qualities of small town life while still accessing the best of the big city.

We almost need a companion piece to this one titled something like: “The Reasons I Live in the Chicago Suburbs Even Though I Think Chicago Is So Great.” Are the suburbs only subordinate to the big city or do they have their own noteworthy amenities, attractions, and sights?

(Side note: if we are extolling the virtues of Chicago as suburbanites, I would add more to this list: access to two busy airports that offer reasonable prices to many destinations; great restaurants in Chicago (beyond pizza); all sorts of interesting neighborhoods whose atmospheres are difficult to duplicate in the suburbs; the roots of modern urban architecture; boating opportunities – river and lake – in an urban setting.)

(Second side note: this might serve as a great argument for increased metropolitan revenue sharing and metropolitan governance. If suburbanites love the city so much as use both its amenities and infrastructure, perhaps they should help pay for it more.)

Regulate McMansions in order to provide more housing

Expecting population growth, Portland, Oregon is looking to limit house sizes:

The zoning changes are in the planning stages, and it won’t be until early next year that City Council will vote on whether to approve the changes.

New zoning laws could limit the size of homes, allowing single-family homes to be half the size of the lot. A standard lot in Portland’s inner eastside, which is primarily zoned for single-family homes, is 5,000 square feet. The proposed zoning code would limit that home to 2,500 square feet…

The city says it’s heard complaints over so-called “McMansions,” or homes that are much larger than the rest of the houses in a neighborhood…

The new zoning proposal also calls for increased flexibility in building duplexes, and on corner lots triplexes could be built. The city says increasing density will give families more options where to live.

This is an interesting approach to regulating McMansions. Rather than emphasize their poor architecture, excessive use of resources, or threat to neighborhood character, instead stress that the land could be used for more housing units. And because Portland has both stricter development boundaries regarding its metropolitan region as well as expectations for population growth, zoning for higher density could make sense. It would be interesting to see if this approach cuts down on criticism that property owners should be able to do what they want.

There are probably already a number of McMansions in the Portland area but it is interesting to contemplate a major city or region without any McMansions.