How to make a better public case for abundant housing in four steps

After witnessing a positive result in front of a neighborhood council for a small project in Los Angeles, Virginia Postrel suggests four steps can help smooth the process:

Respect matters. Especially in liberal enclaves like West L.A., opposition to new housing — and to change in general — comes wrapped in the rhetoric of democracy and procedure. Activist residents, including official representatives, are jealous of their prerogatives as neighborhood incumbents. They’re more likely to say yes — or at least not say no — if they feel they’ve been listened to…

But so do the rules. Under a law signed in 2017, anti-development activists can no longer easily block new housing if it meets zoning requirements and incorporates 10 percent low-income units. One reason the Mar Vista project garnered support was that activists feared the alternative would be something less considerate of neighborhood sentiment.

 

Showing up is important. By answering questions and treating the meeting as important, the developer’s representative helped flip sentiment in Mar Vista. And the Abundant Housing LA speakers made arguments that often go unspoken in such forums. They reminded locals that by not letting people build housing near jobs, they make traffic worse, and that by blocking new apartments, which tend to be expensive, they send high-income renters into places where they push out middle- and lower-income residents. Beyond the specifics, it’s simply harder to argue against housing when you don’t have the overwhelming majority.

Don’t assume residents are against housing. In March 2017, Angelenos had the opportunity to vote for a slow-growth initiative that would have blocked at least a quarter of new housing developments. They overwhelmingly said no, defeating Measure S by a 70-30 margin. “That stereotypical kind of Nimby does exist, but there aren’t really that many of them,” says Burns. “When you really talk to people and you put a face on what it means to develop more — to add more housing — and it’s somebody who lives close by, you can really come to some sensible kind of compromises with folks.”

 

Generally, these look like good steps anybody seeking to redevelop property could benefit from. From some of my own work, these would be helpful for those constructing teardown houses in the suburbs as well as religious groups seeking to alter an existing building or construct a new building. Building a relationship with people in the community as well as presenting a cogent and reasonable case can go a long ways.

At the same time, I wonder if these four steps might be idiosyncratic and apply only to certain places and at certain times. This particular case is from a state and region that has a large need for more housing. The description of the steps above suggest that residents were more open to this project because they feared something worse. Additionally, this project is within a city and region that is already very dense (and one of the densest regions in the United States). Residents are used to denser housing.

I suspect redevelopment would be a much tougher sell in areas or communities that are (1) primarily comprised of single-family homes with some distance from denser land uses and (2) where housing demand is lower (or is perceived to be much lower – the Chicago area may have a big need for affordable housing but it would be hard to convince many communities of this).

 

If golf and football are dying sports, what would happen to that land?

I recently discussed NIMBY responses to redevelopment of golf courses but this had me thinking more broadly about land dedicated to sports and recreation: what happens to the land if the activity becomes less popular?

Golf was the sport cited in the CityLabs article:

Golf is dying, many experts say. According to one study by the golf industry group Pellucid Corp., the number of regular golfers fell from 30 to 20.9 million between 2002 and 2016. Ratings are down, equipment sales are lagging, and the number of rounds played annually has fallen.

Part of the bust can be blamed on the fallen fortunes of a single person: Tiger Woods. Golf boomed in the 1990s and early 2000s as the charismatic superstar raked in titles. Then, beginning in 2009, it faced a one-two punch of recession and bad press when its star golfer’s chronic infidelity came to light.

But the bigger story involves the sport’s aging demographics and the athletic tastes of Millennials, who just aren’t that into an expensive, poky sport that provides few health benefits. Unless the golf industry can change its ways, the decline will mean a lot of empty greens across the country. How that land is used—or isn’t—could reshape America’s suburbs for decades to come.

Beyond golf, the next sport that comes to mind is football. If youth leagues continue to see a decline in participation, less park and school land would be needed for football fields. What would then happen to that space? For a good number of high schools, that land is already shared with sports like soccer and lacrosse. Park space could simply become large fields again. But, some football facilities could be turned over to other uses (and cause NIMBY issues similar to those faced by golf course redevelopment).

What other sports could be next? Baseball still has a lot of young players but imagine that participation dries up in a few decades. Baseball fields can take up a lot of space. Could there be sports that arise and take up some of this space? Nice basketball courts would be welcomed in many places but neighbors and communities often have concerns about building these. I can think of several lesser known sports but cannot realistically imagine they would become so popular as to take up public park space or space at schools. But, perhaps parks in a few decades will include a much wider variety of sports fields and spaces to better serve a fragmented sports playing populace.

Sports spaces come and go over time. Bowling alleys thrived decades ago but now are more sparse. Skate parks started a few decades ago and now are found in many American community. Large cities have spent millions on helping to fund sports arenas but this could stop as communities realize who benefits from the stadiums. Is it too far-fetched to imagine that in a few decades very few people will play sports outdoors due to a combination of a lack of interest in physical activity, inside facilities, e-sports, and simulators that could provide similar experiences? Could parks and outdoor spaces become exclusively about “natural settings” and open land?

 

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.

 

Invoking (a different kind of) blight to take land for Foxconn

The term “blight” is more likely to conjure up images of slums and urban decay (example of Detroit) than farmland and single-family homes. Yet, the Wisconsin village of Mount Pleasant earlier this week invoked blight to take land for a planned Foxconn facility:

Trustees voted 6-1 to declare as a blighted area some 2,800 acres of open farmland and a few dozen homes, all of it earmarked for Foxconn and the development expected to spring up around the planned electronics factory. Trustee Gary Feest was the lone dissenter, and one of only two board members to speak before the vote…

Still, holdouts remain — people who believe the 140 percent of market value the village has offered is unfair when owners of larger tracts of farmland were paid several times the pre-Foxconn price such property was bringing…

As proponents have in the past, DeGroot emphasized not the eminent-domain power the blighted-area designation gives the village, but rather the financial advantages the measure confers. Communities with plans such as the one Mount Pleasant just approved can finance the redevelopment by issuing bonds exempt from both state and federal taxes, which DeGroot said could save the village millions of dollars…

In taking its action Monday, the village is using a section of state law that broadly defines blighted areas. Besides the commonly understood definitions of blight — dilapidated housing, overcrowding, high crime — the statute says an area can be deemed blighted if it is predominantly open and, for any reason, “substantially impairs or arrests the sound growth of the community.”

Here is the Google Maps satellite image of the Foxconn location (according to news reports). All the farmland is clearly visible.

Google Maps satellite image of Foxconn site

Taking land for a sizable or notable project like this is not always easy. The argument that this is good for the community will not strike all land owners as consonant with their property rights. And there may be some irony later in this story involving property rights. A Democratic gubernatorial candidate will be protesting the use of eminent domain as part of his larger concerns about the project. When Republicans are characterized as supporting both big business and property rights, which one wins? And are Democrats pro-property rights?

While Wisconsin has a slightly different definition of blight, this could be compared to urban renewal plans of the mid-twentieth century that used similar reasoning to mark certain properties as blighted. In both cases, officials and developers have a redevelopment plan for the land that is billed as an improvement for the community. In this case, the trade-off is largely open land for increased local tax revenue and a significant number of jobs. With the urban renewal plans of decades ago, history was not kind to some of the proposals as redevelopment could clear affordable housing units, target minority communities, and accelerate suburbanization (in the cases of highways constructed right through urban neighborhoods). Even without declaring some land as blighted, a project this size could be viewed by some as a significant change to the character of the community. “As many as 13,000 jobs” may sound good but this will affect local traffic, housing, and civic services. I would guess that following up with the community in five, ten, or twenty years could relay both intended and unintended changes if all or most goes as planned with the Foxconn facility.

 

As shopping malls suffer, suburbs experience consequences

The slow death of many shopping malls is well documented and it does not just affect retailers and developers; it has consequences for suburbs.

When anchor stores close, it can be hard to find businesses to replace them, because they occupy the multistory buildings at mall entrances that are often at least 100,000 square feet. If no replacement tenant is found, the loss could trigger a decadeslong downward spiral for the shopping mall and surrounding communities.

“The communities wither away, and they never come back,” said Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates, a national retail consulting and investment banking firm headquartered in New York City…

The process of a shopping mall shutting down is slow, often over the course of a decade or more. As stores are boarded up one by one, shopper traffic slows and crime in the area tends to spike, Davidowitz says.

“Malls are big, big contributors to city and state taxes, jobs, and everything,” Davidowitz said. “Once they close, they are a blight on the community for a very long time.”

There are a number of options for suburbs to consider when renovating or replacing malls: try to fill vacant retail space, creating more experiences such as interesting architecture, introducing more mixed uses, and just demolishing the mall and starting over.

But, all of these require time for change to occur, foresight and flexibility on the part of local officials and residents to think about what might be more appropriate in these spaces (as well as how they might diversify their local economy and tax base to offset the loss of tax dollars from a dying mall), and interest in developers and business interests in doing something new. Indeed, a suburb could work really hard to develop new ideas but without an infusion of capital, it may not happen. Or, it may take years for plans to come together and the requisite partners to feel comfortable and meanwhile vacant spaces are just sitting there.

More broadly, the lack of shopping malls hints at a changing way of life in suburbs. Whereas the new postwar suburbs were marked by driving, new shopping malls, and prosperity that allowed people the time and resources to make purchases, suburbs today might be known more for struggling to find retailers, driving to different kinds of places (and less celebration of driving in general), and pockets of prosperity in some places (where malls might still thrive) and then pockets of scarcity elsewhere (where retailers are in short supply or only certain kinds of retailers are available).

Plopping a New Urbanist metroburb into the middle of sprawling suburbia

I recently discussed plans for a “metroburb” to replace a sizable AT&T office campus in Hoffman Estates. Reading more about the proposal, I wondered: does it really work to put a New Urbanist development right in the middle of suburbia?

Under Zucker’s plan, which would rename the former campus City Works, the four-level, 1.3 million-square-foot main building would house offices of varying sizes and shops. About 175 townhouses and 375 multifamily rental units would be constructed on the edges of the property. The estimated total cost is about $250 million. Unlike a typical suburban subdivision, the town homes would line straight streets and have alleys…

Zucker, 57, is a devotee of the New Urbanism, the urban planning movement that seeks to replace the car-oriented monotony of suburban sprawl with lively, mixed-use streetscapes that encourage walking and the formation of community.

Chicago suburbs like Arlington Heights have put New Urbanist thinking to use in greenlighting high-rise housing near train stations. That approach is called transit-oriented development, or TOD. Under Zucker’s plan, Hoffman Estates, which doesn’t have its own train station, would do a variation of transit-oriented development.

“Taking the TOD (elements) and putting them inside a building is really the novel part of this,” said Jim Norris, the suburb’s village manager.

While this may be a clever use of what is a large facility, the overall fit between the redevelopment and the surrounding area could be less than ideal. Here is why:

  1. They want to include transit-oriented development elements even though there is no mass transit nearby. Indeed, this office corridor owes much to roads and Interstate. This could represent an opportunity to push for mass transit to the area: rapid buses along major roads? light rail?
  2. It seems like much of the redevelopment is focused on orienting residents, customers, and workers to the original large facility. While this may be a good use of the existing space, how many people from outside of this development will come in? Will this just be a self-contained area?
  3. The new tissue intended to connect the redeveloped area – walkable streets, alleys, interesting places to go – may or may not connect with anything beyond this development. This happens sometimes with suburban New Urbanist developments; they look and feel great on the inside but then have little interaction with the terrain that surrounds them. In other words, it requires requires a car to get to these interesting New Urbanist areas.

In the long run, a redevelopment that has a more permeable edge as well as is situated in a community that truly wants more New Urbanist development overall rather than in just an isolated location could lead to better outcomes.

Turning a large suburban office campus into a “metroburb”

There are plans in the works to transform the former 150-acre campus of AT&T in Hoffman Estates into a “metroburb”:

Village officials announced in mid-April that they were in talks with representatives of Somerset, who had recognized an opportunity to apply the lessons learned on their conversion of the 2 million-square-foot former Bell Labs building in Holmdel, New Jersey, into the mixed-use Bell Works project to the 1.6 million-square-foot AT&T buildings.

The key similarity apart from their overall sizes is the large central atriums both properties have, Somerset Development President Ralph Zucker said.

“All of our retail is facing that center court,” he said of Bell Works. “It’s really a vibrant street scene … literally a small downtown.”

Somerset’s concept plan proposes using the existing AT&T buildings for 1.2 million square feet of offices, 60,000 square feet of retail shops and 80,000 square feet of conference space, while new construction would add 375 apartments, 175 townhouse units and possibly a 200-room hotel.

Zucker said the term he coined for this concept at Bell Works — “Metroburb” — is one he hopes will become generally used among other developers.

Successful redevelopment of sizable properties is crucial to both cities and suburbs. Once companies make decisions to move away from existing properties, communities have two goals in mind. First, they need to find ways to make that land attractive to other users. Even a nice facility may not meet the needs of many other users or it may be sized wrong. Second, they often hope to turn the property into something that can generate more for the local tax base. At the least, property taxes are helpful but if retail can be incorporated into the property, sales tax revenue can be generated. The redevelopment proposed above seems to tackle both of these issues: it splits up the space into multiple desirable uses (and there are not that many single firms that need 1.6 million square feet) and has multiple uses (business, retail, and residential). This might have the bonus holy grail of redevelopment: the potential for a mixed-use property that could become a vibrant community on its own.

Given the initial use of this campus, it would be fun to see the AT&T history incorporated into the redevelopment. Bell Labs has an important research and development legacy in the United States and featuring its accomplishments could help set this redevelopment apart from other suburban palces that have less character or history.