The size, number, and color of disturbing McMansions in Napa Valley

New large homes in Napa Valley are causing some concerns for a variety of reasons:

“As though rising amid the St. Helena vineyards like a megalith” is how Zillow describes one home. It is 6,700 square feet and has 17 rooms, with such outdoor features as a pavilion, pool and tennis court.

Napa County Supervisor Diane Dillon said an area west of Highway 29 south of Rutherford pretty much looks like a subdivision of McMansions. Plus, the 5- to 10-acre parcels have the potential to be covered in patios and outdoor lights…

“The biggest threat to the valley isn’t wineries; it is the proliferation of mansions,” the APAC report stated…

One thing supervisors want to move quickly on is the color of large structures. Several noted that when the county demands earth tones, the result can be structures colored white – “white whales,” Dillon said some of her constituents call them.

Given the concerns here, I wonder why the County does not just make such guidelines for property that would not allow large homes. Instead, they are talking about various guidelines – how much of a property can be devoted to a home, the color of the home – to try to make the more palatable. If large homes are problems, why allow them?

There could be multiple reasons for this approach:

1. Looking extremely heavy-handed as a local government may not be desirable. In trying to find a balance between property rights and community goals or character, these local officials may not want to encroach too far on property owners.

2. It may be desirable to have wealthy residents on large properties. Perhaps this leads to more property tax revenues. Perhaps wealthy residents help enhance the status of the community. Perhaps big houses may have some problems but they are certainly preferable to small-lot subdivisions or multifamily units.

In the end, it sounds like the McMansions or mansions need to meet certain guidelines but limiting the total number of them might be the largest issue.

Redeveloping golf courses and incurring the wrath of neighbors

Turning land from a golf course to a housing development could be a bumpy process:

Consider that the average 18-hole golf course is 150 acres. At standard densities, that means that your average golf course can host at least 600 new single-family detached homes. Mix in townhouses and apartments, and a single shuttered course could provide housing for thousands of new residential units. This is land in desirable communities: Golf-centric subdivisions built in the 1990s and 2000s feature courses threaded among affluent McMansion-style developments, meaning that the new housing could go in areas with access to high-quality schools and work opportunities…

But the main variable blocking new housing on old golf courses might be old-fashioned NIMBYism. Golf courses, after all, are often interpreted as high-status amenities that raises the value of neighboring homes, despite evidence to the contrary. If golf courses are gone and not coming back, residents often ask, why can’t they turn into permanent parks? Indeed, converting former greens into open space, wetlands, and natural preserves is happening nationwide in places where local land trusts have been able to purchase the tracts.

This can be a more appealing option for neighbors—often much higher income than the average resident of their region—who push to block permits and rezonings that might allow for infill housing redevelopment on idle greens. Earlier this year, voters in Lynnfield, Massachusetts, an outer suburb of Boston with a six-figure median income, voted down a zoning change that would have allowed for a 154-unit senior housing facility on part of the struggling Sagamore Spring Golf Club. Voters in the Rochester suburb of Penfield, New York, meanwhile, recently passed a $3.65 million bond to buy out the golf course and turn it into a park…

Golf probably isn’t coming back, at least not at the kind of scale it once boasted. Whether or not this bust can be a boon or a wash for suburbs and cities will likely be decided by hundreds of small zoning fights like these over the next decade. If recent pushes to downzone and preserve golf courses are any indication, it will take some effort and forethought on the part of planners and policymakers to get former greens productively redeveloped. Once the physical embodiment of tony upper-crust seclusion, these silent driving ranges and ghostly sand traps can be an effective way for more people to find housing in exclusive suburbs—or another means of keeping newcomers out.

There are few things suburban homeowners like less than finding out that the open, green, or park land they moved next to is now going to be a new development. Sometimes this anger is misplaced: if you move into a new subdivision recently created out of farmland and it is next to more farmland, you can probably expect that more farmland is going to be developed. Parks, forest preserves, or land trusts appear to offer more certainty: a private group or local government has committed to that green space and it would take a lot to choose otherwise. It seems like a golf course then falls in between these two options as it looks like green space but it dependent on a steady stream of users. If the golf course does not have enough customers, it cannot remain a golf course forever.

Also taking into account the social class and status of those who might locate on or near a golf course, I imagine communities that try to convert golf courses to new development will have a significant fight on their hands.

 

Finding more open space in NYC by using parking spots

Eliminate parking along streets and there is more room for people:

The repurposed parking spots are the latest effort to carve out more open space on New York City’s crowded streets and sidewalks. These blink-and-miss-them bits of greenery — called “street seats” — have spread along commercial corridors, though they are often overlooked or overshadowed by sprawling pedestrian plazas. In contrast, street seats are tiny and temporary, returning to parking spots come winter…

There are 18 pop-up street seats this summer, double the number from 2015, according to the city. They range from one in TriBeCa that attracts moms and tots in strollers to another in Brownsville, Brooklyn, that has become popular for alfresco dining. In a hands-on lesson in urban planning, students at the Parsons School of Design at The New School in Greenwich Village have designed a street seat with drought-resistant plants and solar-powered LED lights that draws about 250 people daily…

The street seats grew out of a national movement that began in San Francisco in 2005 when members of an arts collective called Rebar transformed a parking spot with grass turf, a bench and potted tree, and invited passers-by to feed the meter. The experiment inspired a daylong celebration, known as Park(ing) Day, in which people took over parking spots. Later, a new generation of curbside micro parks, or “parklets,” was born…

While each street seat typically takes up two parking spots, the benefits of serving hundreds of people a day — versus a handful of cars — have outweighed any concerns over lost parking, said Shari Gold, a senior manager in the transportation department’s public space program. She added the department approves a street seat only with the agreement of the local community board, and nearby businesses and property owners.

I like the idea: when the weather is nicer, turn some of the street space back to the people. In fact, I would love to see this come to the suburbs, not just on streets but also in parking lots. It would be a little more difficult in locations that are highly dependent on people driving but why not have more outside dining, shopping, and socializing?

A longer-term question about this practice is whether it leads to the permanent loss of parking space and addition of public space. Once people get used to fewer parking spots, can they adjust all year long? I don’t know if proponents have this in mind but it seems like a genius way to reduce the size of roads and parking.

Can we have both protected open spaces and affordable housing?

Conservatives argue that the affordable housing issue is simple: stop protecting open space and let developers build more housing units.

But, beginning in the 1970s, housing prices in these communities skyrocketed to three or four times the national average.

Why? Because local government laws and policies severely restricted, or banned outright, the building of anything on vast areas of land. This is called preserving “open space,” and “open space” has become almost a cult obsession among self-righteous environmental activists, many of whom are sufficiently affluent that they don’t have to worry about housing prices.

Some others have bought the argument that there is just very little land left in coastal California, on which to build homes. But anyone who drives down Highway 280 for thirty miles or so from San Francisco to Palo Alto, will see mile after mile of vast areas of land with not a building or a house in sight…

Was it just a big coincidence that housing prices in coastal California began skyrocketing in the 1970s, when building bans spread like wildfire under the banner of “open space,” “saving farmland,” or whatever other slogans would impress the gullible?

When more than half the land in San Mateo County is legally off-limits to building, how surprised should we be that housing prices in the city of San Mateo are now so high that politically appointed task forces have to be formed to solve the “complex” question of how things got to be the way they are and what to do about it?

The argument goes that this is an example of supply and demand: open more space for development and housing prices will have to drive as supply increases. Is it really this simple? Here are at least a few other factors that matter in this equation:

  1. The actions of developers. Even if more housing units could be built, there is no guarantee they could build cheap or affordable housing. They want to make money and they argue the money is not in affordable housing.
  2. Is cheap suburban housing (what is typically promoted by conservatives in these scenarios – keep building further out) desirable in the long run? Opponents of sprawl might argue that having a cheap single-family home 30-50 miles out from the big city is worse in the long run than a smaller, more expensive unit close to city amenities and infrastructure.
  3. What exactly is the value of open space? Conservatives sometimes argue this is another sign of the religion of environmentalism but there are realistic limits to how much housing and development land can hold before you end up with major issues. (For example, see the regular flooding issues in the Chicago area.) If green or open space is simply about property values – keep my home values high by not building nearby housing – this is a different issue.
  4. There is a larger issue of social class. I’m guessing there are few Americans of any political persuasion that would choose to live near affordable housing. There is a stigma associated with it even if the housing is badly needed. Lots of people might argue affordable housing is needed but few communities want it in their boundaries and middle and upper class residents don’t want to be near it.
  5. Another option for affordable housing is to have denser urban areas. Think cities like Hong Kong where a lack of land and high demand have led to one of the highest population densities in the world. If a region wants to protect its open and green space, why not build up? Many city residents don’t want this – the single-family home urban neighborhood is a fixture in many American cities – and conservatives fear a government agenda pushing everyone into dense cities.

Opening more land to development might help lead to cheaper housing but it would take a lot more to get to affordable housing that is within a reasonable distance from job and population centers.

Using the Forest Preserve to protect thousands of acres

The Chicago Tribune highlights the proactive efforts of the Cook County Forest Preserve to protect land:

Why does Cook County have a bigger, better-distributed array of preserves than does any other U.S. metropolis?

In part because indefatigable visionaries (1) projected metro Chicago to someday grow to 10 million people, (2) figured that property development would devour unprotected plots of land, and (3) staged their own land grab so greenery forever would punctuate urban sprawl. As public health pioneer Dr. John Rauch said after the Civil War in his much-cited push for a Chicago parks district, “we want not alone a place for business, but also one in which we can live.”

But the key stroke of brilliance came in 1904 from architect Dwight H. Perkins and landscape architect Jens Jensen. They studied Cook County’s still open lands and concluded: “Instead of acquiring space only, the opportunity exists for preserving country naturally beautiful. … Another reason for acquiring these outer areas is the necessity of providing for future generations …” The upshot was a state law that created the district and its mission statement — overwhelmingly tipped toward preserving and protecting lands, plants and animals rather than toward ball fields, playgrounds and other park-like recreation…

In January a blue-ribbon panel of outsiders set that 25-year agenda, including: Acquire another 20,000 prime acres selected by naturalists, rehab 30,000 acres overrun by invasive plants, and build a huge network of volunteers and members of a new Civilian Conservation Corps. We’re counting on a new policy council of volunteers with excellent conservation cred to ride herd on the plan. Distinguished groups such as Openlands and Metropolis Strategies also are on the case.

For those concerned about sprawl, efforts like those of the Cook County Forest Preserve, the DuPage County Forest Preserve, and other bodies have helped retain some open land amidst 9+ million residents in the Chicago region. These spaces are often more “natural” than sculpted parks even if I’ve heard hundreds of jokes about the lack of nature in northeastern Illinois (nature seems to equal hills or mountains for many). Chicago may be a world leader in regards to its lakefront parks but the collection of Forest Preserves across the region is also pretty unique.

On the other hand, it would be interesting to note how many Chicago area residents utilize these Forest Preserves that are within an easy drive for many. I drive past several DuPage Forest Preserve properties each day and yet I don’t think I visited any during this calendar year. (In contrast, I’ve used the Prairie Path dozens of times. This trail was started by citizens and today is maintained by a number of groups.) The Forest Preservers are supported with tax dollars so if people want a return on that money, they should utilize these spaces. (However, if everyone did, I suspect these places wouldn’t seem very natural.)

The negative space, inverted skyline of New York City

A photographer decided to look not at the buildings in New York City but rather at the negative space between the buildings:

Wegner is referring to a city made of sky. In the space between the iconic buildings we pass everyday is another type of structure, one that’s totally made of blue and clouds. In his Buildings Made of Sky series, Wegner transforms a city’s negative space into ephemeral structures that look like inverted skyscrapers…

Looking at one of Wegner’s photographs is like looking at a mirage; you’re not sure if what you’re seeing actually exists. In fact, even he wasn’t sure of what he was seeing when he first began noticing inverted buildings suspended between steel and glass. “It was a serial epiphany,” he recalls. “I kept seeing it, but I almost didn’t register what I was looking at.”

To get his shots, Wegner stands in the middle of the street, focuses on the infinity and snaps the picture. “I just look all the way to the horizon, and the streets have conveniently arranged themselves to give you this image,” he says. “People will sometimes stop me and ask what I’m taking a picture of, and I tell them, ‘nothing.’” It takes little doctoring to get the desired effect: “It’s just a matter of flipping the image upside down,” he explains.

Of course, you can’t just stroll around Manhattan or any other big city and assume you’ll bump into a photo-worthy building made of sky. There are factors to be considered, like time of day (he likes early morning and evening because of the glow) location (Midtown’s gridded streets are optimal) and weather (blue skies are better than grey). Still, Wegner says, there’s an element of exploration that is central to his process. “I wander around in fugue state and hope I don’t get hit by a truck,” he says. “I’ve had more conversations with irate cabbies than you can imagine.”

Interesting flip of the script. He manages to take spaces that are not always revered – think of the references to the concrete canyons of New York City – and notes something worthwhile. Plus, this might get people to think about spaces between buildings differently. While some of this happens when people in current buildings complain about new buildings blocking their sunlight or views, large buildings are partly what they are because of their surroundings.

Preferable to selling to a developer for McMansions: creating a paintball facility

One Fairfax County, Virginia couple has decided to develop their 200 acres as a paintball facility rather than let it go to developers and McMansions:

Jeff Waters and his wife could have sold her family’s 200-acre property at 6390 Newman Road in Clifton in “two seconds” to a developer to carve into McMansion lots.

Instead, they’re developing it themselves — into Fairfax County’s first paintball field. The special use permit application was submitted in June. The fees assessed: $16,375.

“We wanted to come up with some way for the property to generate enough income to justify keeping it,” Waters said. “The county wants it to stay an open space. Despite the fact that it’s taking forever, I think the county wants this to happen.”…

This will be green paintball. What could have been 40 lots, 40 septic fields and 36 new acres of impervious surface — or “1,000 pigs,” Waters said — will be a wooded game arena with a couple ancillary buildings.

I wonder if the county and/or the Park Authority would make a good offer to purchase the land itself. I would guess nearby residents would prefer paintball to more subdivisions but wouldn’t they prefer protected open space even more? As the article notes, getting the paintball operation up and running isn’t cheap (between $150-200k). And, imagine the kind of people that are attracted to paintball operations…are these the kind of people neighbors want to see? Perhaps the stick in the mud here are the current owners who appear to want to keep the land themselves – and who could always look for better development opportunities down the road.