Housing bubble fallout: lost jobs in land subdivision

The long-lasting consequences of the housing crisis of the late 2000s continues: an analysis of the American industries losing the most jobs by percentage includes the land subdivision sector.

9. Land subdivision

• Employment change 2008-17: -49.3%
• Employment total: 40,207
• Wage growth 2008-17: +35.5%
• Avg. annual wage: $71,744

The U.S. housing market is beginning to return to normal following the Great Recession and housing market crash. Housing starts in 2017 were similar to 2007 levels, before the crash. The land subdivision industry, which divides land into parcels for housing and other purposes, suffered as a result of the market’s struggles. As of 2017, industry employment is just about half of what it was a decade before.

This was never a large sector but a drop in jobs of nearly 50% is substantial.

Since I know little about what land subdivision requires on a daily basis, I wonder if this decrease is primarily because of a slowdown in housing starts or are there other significant changes in the industry such as new efficiencies and approaches?

Ordinances and zoning against dollar stores

With evidence that dollar stores provide poor quality food options and limited jobs, some communities have used certain tools to restrict their presence:

While some local governments continue to lure dollar stores to town with tax subsidies and incentives, others are doing the opposite. A dollar store NIMBY movement has been gaining traction.

In Chester, Vermont, for example, residents argued in 2012 that allowing dollar stores to come to town “will be the beginning of the end for what might best be described as Chester’s Vermontiness,” per the New York Times—a statement that itself perhaps signals the class and race associations dollar stores have come to embody. In Buhler, Kansas, the mayor saw what happened to surrounding grocery stores in neighboring Haven and rejected the dollar store chain, also citing a threat to the town’s character.

“It was about retaining the soul of the community,” he told The Guardian. “It was about, what kind of town do we want?”

More recent efforts have used zoning tweaks to limit dollar stores, whose small footprint usually lets them breeze past restrictions big-box stores cannot. In Mendocino County, California, dollar store foes passed legislation restricting chain store development writ large. And in April, the Tulsa City Council passed an ordinance that requires dollars stores to be built at least one mile away from each other in North Tulsa. It also tacks on incentives for healthy grocers and supermarkets providing healthy food to locate in that area. “I don’t think it’s an accident they proliferate in low socio-economic and African American communities,” Vanessa Hall-Harper, a city councillor who grew up in North Tulsa and shepherded the ordinance, told ILSR. Since then, Mesquite, Texas, has followed suit with a similar move.

Communities have fairly broad powers to encourage or limit the presence of certain kinds of development. If they do not desire the building or the opening of a dollar store, then they can limit or eliminate the possibilities for a dollar store in that community.

Of course, the dollar stores can respond with their own tactics. Here are a few I could imagine (drawing from similar cases involving other businesses):

  1. Building just outside the jurisdiction of the municipality.
  2. Working with a neighboring community who is willing to have them.
  3. Mounting a public campaign against the community to tout the advantages of their business.

While the third option might be more of a nuclear option, the first two mean that another municipality could benefit from sales tax and property tax revenues, the limited number of jobs, and easier access for nearby residents.

Chicago architects as political lobbyists

The tension between the art and business sides of architecture is evident in a new report from the Chicago Tribune:

A virtual who’s who of Chicago architects has given tens of thousands of dollars to City Council members who hold near-total power to determine whether their projects get built, a Tribune investigation has found. Architects even have hosted fundraisers for aldermen…

The bulk of the money flows to City Council members in Chicago’s fast-growing wards. The architects and their developer clients have reason to stay on good terms with aldermen, who hold the power to advance a project, send it back to the drawing board or kill it.

From the start of the current building boom in 2010 through mid-November of this year, those with an occupation listed as “architect” have given more than $180,000 to aldermen, their ward organizations, and other city politicians, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Illinois campaign finance records show.

The architects’ firms have donated even more, bringing the total haul for politicians to well over $350,000.

One sociological study of the field of architecture, Larson’s 1994 book Behind the Postmodern Facade: Architectural Change in Late Twentieth-Century America, discusses how architects found themselves in the postwar era needing business, therefore designing a lot of buildings with little aesthetic beauty or input, yet wanting to privilege the artistic and aesthetic side of the discipline.

This also echoes research on urban growth machines which tend to emphasize the role of business leaders and politicians in stimulating and carrying out urban development for the sake of profits. This report suggests architects are part of this game too; by donating money and hosting events, they can help ensure they see profit from new development projects (as opposed to other firms participating or projects not getting off the ground.

Does the knowledge that architects are part of the power games that help determine the physical and social structures of a city sully their work? Or, does it shed light on how cities actually come to pass where even those supposedly devoted to beauty and the experience of a structure participate in lobbying?

Naperville considers one of its last greenfield subdivisions

By the early 2000s, the large suburb of Naperville had relatively few large parcels of land where new subdivisions could emerge like they did regularly for decades. One such parcel of land is now up for discussion:

Single-family detached homes are proposed for about 105 acres of the site at Route 59 and 103rd Street, requiring the zoning be changed from agricultural to residential. The remaining eight acres would be rezoned for office, commercial and institutional use to accommodate a new Compass Evangelical Free Church, which already has two Naperville locations and one each in Bolingbrook and Wheaton.

Houses ranging in size from 2,300 to 3,539 square feet would be built on lots ranging from 6,838 to 20,065 square feet, according to plans submitted to the city. There would be multiple floor plans available, and Pulte plans on a “significant setback and buffer from Route 59 to lessen potential impacts on the properties,” the proposal said.

The two-story 38,000-square-foot church would be built at the corner of Route 59 and 103rd Street. It would have a 600-seat worship center, a children’s ministry space, a multipurpose room or gymnasium, second-floor offices, a 5,000-square-foot coffee shop and 307 parking spaces, according to plans.

The requested use deviates from the 2002 Southwest Community Area Plan, which identified the future land use as commercial, senior housing and mixed-density residential. That said, city staff found the Pulte development to be “well-suited and complementary” to the city’s long-term plans, city documents said.

Two reasons why this proposed development makes sense and fits with the existing character of the community:

1. A residential subdivision is consistent with Naperville’s development since 1960. While Naperville has also approved other kinds of developments in certain parts of the suburb, much of the land to the south and west of downtown is now within subdivisions of somewhat sizable homes.

2. The space for a church is not unusual and could be a preferable neighbor compared to commercial or industrial uses. While the church does not generate tax revenues like other possible uses, it also does not present the same kind of noise, light, and traffic issues to nearby neighbors.

One reason the proposal may not make sense for the community:

1. Without many big parcels left, Naperville has limited opportunities to promote other land uses. Another subdivision is consistent with the suburb’s character but is this the long-term direction Naperville wants to go? The reference to the Southwest Community Area Plan is notable as the suburb had thoughts of creating a mixed-use node and even second social center for the community (next to the downtown) on the far Southwest side. Instead, this subdivision will simply add more homes and residents.

In sum, while this may just be another suburban subdivision, this could be a momentous choice by a mature suburb. If Naperville uses this big parcel for homes, does this mean they will seek denser development in their downtown?

Fox Valley Mall “near Naperville” Part 2 – development requirements

A store at Fox Valley Mall prefers to say they are “near Naperville” rather than the actual location in Aurora. How did this shopping center end up across the street from Naperville?

The Urban Investment and Development Corporation (UIDC) started purchasing property for a shopping center in 1966. At this point, Naperville was expanding to the south and southwest at a rapid rate but was nowhere near the size it is today. Similarly, Aurora had an established downtown but there was not a whole lot of development in this area. To help guide its growth, Naperville had developed regulations, particularly in residential subdivisions, to help ensure quality development.

In 1972, UIDC annexed the land they had purchased to Naperville. According to local officials in both communities, the developer chose Aurora in part because of fewer development regulations. Fallout from this choice ensued. Aurora and Naperville signed a boundary agreement to help limit such situations where a developer could play the two communities off of each other. The 1975 Naperville mayoral race included discussion of the loss of the mall. Additionally, the construction of the mall and the loss of status and sales tax money to Aurora helped spur Naperville leaders toward improving the community’s downtown. After the mall opened, Naperville was able to capture some status and money through the opening of stores on the east side of Route 59.

In sum, the developer of the Fox Valley Mall chose to locate in Aurora for some advantages in the early 1970s. Given the path of the two communities since then, I wonder if that developer would choose differently today. On one hand, a Naperville address would convey a certain status. On the other hand, locating just across the street might be the perfect solution: the developers could get benefits from Aurora while always claiming to be “near Naperville.”

The joint spread of McMansions and apartments in Charlotte

Rarely are the evils of McMansions and apartment complexes joined together but one observer in Charlotte suggests this is exactly the case:

As a 20-year resident of Charlotte, I’ve long observed that shoehorning apartment complexes and oversized homes in and around uptown does not prevent sprawl. Apartment complexes and McMansions are popping up like mushrooms in our historic uptown neighborhoods, yet sprawl has accelerated.

I strongly suspect we’re being sold a bill of goods by elected officials who are firmly under the thumbs of developers. Developers need us to believe they’re doing something for the greater good so we’ll allow them to destroy the character and design of our historic neighborhoods.

At first glance, these are two very different kinds of development. Apartments bring density and certain kinds of residents (whether lower-status residents in the eyes of neighbors or wealthy renters who are gentrifying places). They may include tall buildings or a lot of buildings. In contrast, McMansions are large ostentatious homes that may be teardowns (replacing smaller, older homes). They may not loom over surrounding area like apartments and generally McMansion residents are well off but the change in housing unit may be just as stark.

What appears to be the common thread of concern from this one resident is that both kinds of development are different than what is currently there. If I had to guess, these “historic uptown neighborhoods” are filled with well-kept, single-family homes with decent sized lots built decades ago. Both the McMansions and apartments, in their own ways, present very different kinds of structures. The same concerns might be leveled against an ultra-modernist home or a block of row houses: they are not like what is already in the neighborhood.

Often, McMansions or apartments are restricted to areas of similar structures. This is typically the purpose of zoning: keeping single-family homes away from land uses that residents fear might disturb the neighborhood’s character, and, ultimately, their property values. When developers or local officials start mixing uses, particularly in established areas, this may not go well at the beginning.

What it costs to maintain dozens of pieces of public art in Naperville

Naperville’s Riverwalk and downtown features dozens of works of art. However, it takes resources to keep that art nice and to keep adding new pieces:

In 2016, the city started to set aside about $50,000 a year for maintenance of public art from its food and beverage tax revenue, which is pooled into a fund named for the activities it supports — Special Events and Cultural Amenities.

Since its founding in 1996, Century Walk has installed works at 48 locations, some of which involve several pieces by large numbers of artists, and others that involve intricate or large-scale works by individual talents…

Others on the council agree, but some say there should be a stronger focus on planning for the future of Naperville’s outdoor art, setting aside money for maintenance or requiring future projects to come with some sort of endowment for their long-term care. Century Walk Chairman Brand Bobosky, for his part, wants the city’s maintenance fund increased and coupled with money for new art creation, to the tune of $200,000 a year…

In the past three years, Mondero has repaired the broken tiles on the bench damaged by skateboards, rebuilt a wall called “Man’s Search for Knowledge Through the Ages” that was damaged by a vehicle, repainted two murals, bolted the arm of a sculpted man to hold it in place and cleaned several plaques.

Not all suburbs would be willing to (1) initiate public art in the first place and then (2) invest city resources into it. Yet, Naperville clearly sees it as part of the package it offers to residents and visitors: come to the Riverwalk, enjoy the vibrant suburban downtown, and take in the public art that often commemorates the suburb’s past. The art is not exactly edgy; Naperville is not going after street art or modern art (see the example of the Bart Simpson image that popped up a few years ago). The art that Naperville does have is intended to help tell the community’s story and present interesting visual displays for visitors.

Whether the public art can come first and help create a vibrant suburban area is debatable. Plenty of suburban communities want mixed-use areas that bring in visitors and generate revenue and art is often viewed as part of that package. But, it is unlikely that public art alone could create such a setting. The suburb would already need a confluence of enough residents, resources to apply to such an area, and a good plan for development or redevelopment.