Thursday, May 31, 2007

Jordan Green's Greensboro

Yes! Weekly's Jordan Green tries to build a case that Greensboro's sprawl is being driven by powerful real estate interests that unduly influence city council members with campaign contributions. There's a lot of good reporting about who contributes to whom, and who voted for what, and I'm glad that someone in the local press was willing to do that kind of legwork.

But Jordan got some things wrong. He wrote,

Does sprawl suck the economic energy out of struggling inner urban areas, drain city services such as police and fire, and saddle Greensboro with ever-widening concentric circles of gray fields and blight? Snippets of comment from city council meetings and various formal reports provide half answers, but city planners and elected officials show little engagement with the problem. [emphasis mine]
That is just plain inaccurate. City planning staff is intensely engaged with addressing sprawl by encouraging infill and inner-city development, and Green would have found this out if he had talked to city planning director Dick Hails or comprehensive planner Heidi Galanti. He also could have talked to Andy Scott, Dan Curry, or Sue Schwartz in Housing and Community development, who have been successfully pushing urban redevelopment for over a decade. Green's only interaction with planning staff seems to have been an e-mail from planner Ben Woody.

Here's a rundown of what I know about city staff activities in this area.

Planning staff tried to encourage compact development right after the city's comprehensive plan was adopted by recommending against rezonings that went against the plan's future land-use map. But the developers cried foul, and the city council told staff to cut it out.

Planning and HCD staff conceived and carried out the Ole Asheboro, East Market corridor, Willow Oaks, and the Southside redevelopments. Southside won a national smart growth award. Staff has recently worked through the South Elm redevelopment plan, and received federal grants to clean up brownfields there, and are now turning their attention to the High Point Road corridor.

They worked with neighborhoods and developers recently to devise a Neighborhood Conservation Overlay ordinance, which is designed to protect older neighborhoods from decay and inappropriate development. They developed neighborhood plans in Lindley Park and Aycock. They are currently working with developers and ordinary citizens to write a set of downtown design guidelines to make sure that continued downtown development is on the right track.

And city staff have been working with consultants, developers, and citizens for over a year and a half to rewrite the city's land development ordinance, which will have elements that allow developers new options in building mixed-use projects, as well as new protections for older, inner-city neighborhoods. (Disclaimer: I'm a member of the advisory committee that is working through the new draft ordinance.)

Obviously, I think it's wrong to lay the problem of sprawl at the feet of a disengaged city staff.

I also think it's wrong to lay it at the feet of elected officials or of real estate developers. I think Marlene Sanford of TREBIC got it right when she said,
The challenge has not been that we won't propose higher densities. The challenge is that when we propose higher densities there's a neighborhood revolt and the densities get negotiated down. It's schizophrenic. You can't be against both density and sprawl. You have to pick one.
Developers are eminently practical people: they want to build what people want to buy. It wasn't developers or planners who opposed two recent infill projects: it was neighborhoods.

We have sprawl because we want sprawl.

Recommended reading: Sprawl: A Compact History, by Robert Bruegmann.

Update: Hoggard reports a conversation on rezonings with the Greensboro real estate industry's most successful advocate, Mark Issacson.


Sandy Carmany said...

You quoted Marlene Sanford as saying:

"The challenge has not been that we won't propose higher densities. The challenge is that when we propose higher densities there's a neighborhood revolt and the densities get negotiated down. It's schizophrenic. You can't be against both density and sprawl. You have to pick one."

I had a long interview with Jordan where I expressed the very same opinion almost verbatim along with the idea that development needs to occur in both places and one does not exclude the other, it merely depends on the needs and circumstances.

David Wharton said...

You're right, Sandy, and growth is going to continue in both places.

HOT is another good example of planners and elected officials trying to contain low density growth, with most opposition coming from the neighbors.

Anonymous said...

I love this blog but I must disagree that we get sprawl because people want it. The entire USA land development process, outside of strong, older cities like Boston, New York, Chicago, etc., is like the software program governing the world in the movie the Matrix.

There are biases and strictures everywhere that inexorably lead to suburban dwellings being the only type of structures being built.

Let's name a few.

You want to link parts of your region together. The Federal government will give you 80% of the money for a highway, with very little documentation explaining the purpose and need for the facility. The Federal government will only give you 50% of the capital cost of a rail transit line, and require massive documentation explaining the need. You're a local government official with a limited public purse. What do you build?

Next, you want to "improve" a street in your neighborhood by adding a midblock crosswalk. The NCDOT will FIGHT you, because "that would only encourage people to walk and potentially cause accidents."

Next, a developer wants to build a shopping center. The Institute of Traffic Engineers' handbooks tell you to put in enough car parking for the day after Thanksgiving, so that the lot sits empty most of the year. But they don't require any bicycle parking, and they don't allow people who arrive at the store on foot or by bus to not have to pay to subsidize the free parking for all those who drive.

Finally, here's a great "free market" test that you can conduct in Greensboro:

Call up the building permit office and tell them there's a piece of land you have your eye on in a residential neighborhood just outside the new Greensboro loop.

Tell them you want to tear down the house on the land, and build a 1500 sq ft ground-floor coffee shop/bar that comes right up to the sidewalk with 1 story of office above (also 1500 sq ft) and 2 stories with two 750 sq ft apartments on each floor above the offices. Total space 6000 sq ft.

Say "what do I have to do to get it built?" Write down the steps required.

Tomorrow, call up with a similar scenario except tell them the exact same thing except you want to build a 4500 sq ft single family McStarter Castle with a 1500 sq ft garage. Write down the steps required.

Compare. Contrast.

For a counterpoint review on Bruggeman's book on sprawl, James Howard Kunstler has some good things to say.

David Wharton said...

Anon, thanks for your comment, and thanks for reading. You are absolutely right that the regulatory environment, transportation policy, and even lending practices greatly favor single-family development.

I hope you'll be happier with the new development ordinance, which should make that mixed-use project on the loop you mention quite a bit easier to accomplish (it would fit into the new MU-L (Mixed-Use, Low Intensity) or NB (Neighborhood Business) category.

But I also believe that the transportation and regulatory biases you observe are largely reflective of consumer preferences for the privacy and independence that automobile-oriented living and planning affords them. This is not to say that the regulations are not distorted somewhat by industry lobbying and old habits. But the vast majority of people still prefer to drive to work; they don't want to take the bus or the train.

And if you've been paying attention to the letters to the editor in G'boro lately, you'll know that people's attachment to their single-family, single-use, low density suburban neighborhoods is very intense. They oppose new mixed-use projects or townhouses and apartments near their neighborhoods with an almost rabid ferocity.

I don't think the land-use regulatory environment will change much unless people begin to believe that their quality of life will improve in denser, more pedestrian-friendly, more urban places.

One of my aims on this blog is to persuade people that that's true, and that's why I write about riding my bike to work and walking around my neighborhood.

I don't know whether it's working, but it's still fun, and that's why I keep doing it.

Anonymous said...

A fair response. As Yoda would say, "Yes, yes, the NIMBY force strong with the Greensboro is..."

And frankly, it is strong in many, many places. Nevertheless, I find that the "market preference" for suburban living is vastly overstated, over-represented, and overbuilt by the distortions evident across the regulatory environment. You also mentioned the anti-innovation streak that runs in the lending industry. Yet another part of the Suburban Matrix.

There have been recent studies that suggest that up to a third of US citizens, given a choice, would
prefer to live in a walkable, compact, mixed-use, transit-oriented community.

Yet I'm sure we'd agree that less than 10% of the housing stock being built in Greensboro, maybe even less than 5%, could be described as urban in nature, with the remainder being completely suburban.

I think another piece of the puzzle is that most of the multifamily housing being built today (in that suburban style) is just pathetic in the quality department. People haven't seen good multifamily housing in years, so they don't want any of it.

Of course, this also reflects the general quality of the tract builder single family homes, which may have as short as a 20-30 year design life. (As opposed to the much more sturdily built homes in Aycock or Winston-Salem's West End)

So you have the regulatory Matrix, the banks, and the NIMBYs coming out of the woodwork.

What to do? Your blog is an excellent contribution. Still, we need more courageous public officials to advocate for and explain to the public why building the same old suburban stuff ultimately poses serious problems for the community.

At $3.00/gallon, budgets are tight. At $4.50 a gallon, which based on the trend from 2003 to present, is only 45 months away, an urban infrastructure completely dependent upon the car is like a lurking heart condition for the regional economy. Relatively cheap oil is the miracle drug keeping everything pumping. What happens when that drug is gone, and your big economic development strategy is an air shipping hub powered by jet fuel?

David Wharton said...

Great link, Anon. I especially liked this:

"Planners need to establish a community vision based on local input, create a master plan, and update archaic zoning laws. These actions will set the stage for private investment in Transit Oriented Development."

That's pretty much what we're working toward in the new development ordinance. The introduction of new mixed use zoning categories is aimed at the transportation hubs identified in the city's comprehensive plans. My reading of the developers' sentiments is that they'll build that stuff if there's demand.

I'm also going to blog soon about a new, large mixed use development near me that I hope will be taking off soon, which is being built by some very old-school Greensboro developers.

That is, I think they're sensing the demand for TOD, and they'll follow the money. The main developer told me yesterday that he's sensing a "generational shift" in the way people think about where they want to live.

Anonymous said...

David and Anon,

This has been one of the most interesting exchanges I have ever read on a blog - and I've read a few.

I already knew and appreciated Wharton's view on the subject of development, but you, Anon, are as knowledgeable - maybe more so - than my friend and neighbor.

Stick around and contribute often. I love it. Sounds like you have some insider's perspective and it is needed.


David Wharton said...

It's always nice when the commenters up the ante, isn't it?

Anonymous said...


Thanks for initiating this discussion. I'm more gratified to have thoroughgoing give-and-take on the course of development in Greensboro with plenty of vigorous disagreement than to receive universal acclaim.

My approach with this story was a bit unorthodox in that I clearly took a stance: It's a broadside. I'm as interested in provoking a discussion as reciting facts.

Your quibble seems to be as much with my argumentation as with the facts I've presented. And I stand by my statement that elected officials and city planners show little engagement with the competing economic impulses of the fringe and the urban core, with the strain imposed on police and fire services by sprawl, and with the commercial hollowing-out of troubled areas of the city.

That conclusion comes from a thorough examination of two year's worth of city council minutes, interviews with four council members, and interviews with not just Ben Woody at the city, but with Assistant Manager Bob Morgan, GIS Mapping Technician Jon Barsanti Jr. and Subdivision Administrator Alec McIntosh. While I found city staff to be sympathetic and well intended, I did not find anyone willing to tackle my full proposition and contend with all the issues I raised as a single piece. Rather, I found that planners and elected officials tended to look at these factors in isolation and refer me to one or another specialist who similarly was only able to address a limited aspect of the query.

In my conversation with Morgan he made this concession about private capital investment in fringe vs. infill development: "They're competing." I take from that that sprawl and blight should be viewed as two sides of the same coin, not as isolated phenomena.

I confess that I was not aware of staff's efforts to encourage compact development after the adoption of the comprehensive plan. If I had known that "developers cried foul, and the city council told staff to cut it out," I probably would have included that in my lede.

Your points about staff's concerted efforts to revitalize Ole Asheboro, the East Market corridor, Willow Oaks, Southside and South Elm are well taken. I submit that these are surgical efforts rather than reflective of a holistic vision for revitalizing ailing gray fields. The moving-target nature of these efforts is such that as the city moves on to a new project the ones recently completely are apt to begin a slow decline. I ask whether these efforts are too incremental to keep pace with the further strains put on neighborhoods and people by the widening class divide and gathering environmental crises.

Which brings me to your final point that the residents of Greensboro are also to blame for our current course of development. I agree wholeheartedly that NIMBYist neighborhood resistance is a major hurdle. Greensboro voters will have to see the benefits of compact urban layouts with strong public transportation systems and ample opportunities to walk and bike to work, shopping and cultural attractions if a new model is to be feasible.

High gas prices, commuter fatigue, active retirees seeking to downsize and young professionals demanding new lifestyle options will certainly have an impact. But overall the trends seem to be pulling in the opposite direction. Should we demand more visionary leadership? Can we afford not to?

David Wharton said...

Jordan, thank you for commenting.

I agree with your point that the council has not made it a priority to check sprawl with any sort of comprehensive strategy. i believe the planning department originally saw the comprehensive plan as just such a strategy, but they are powerless to execute it because the council, for various reasons (some of them good ones), has opted to amend the plan frequently on an ad hoc basis.

So I still believe that your statement that planners were "disengaged" from the problems of urban decay unfairly and inaccurately characterized the work and attitudes of the people I know on city staff in planning and HCD, who work their butts off to solve them, because they care very much indeed about them.

But even if the city were to try to stop sprawl as its #1 priority, its power to do it would be limited. If the city were to draw a line in the sand (as it were) and say "no growth beyond this point," as Portland has done, growth would simply leapfrog out into the county, and city tax revenues would dwindle even further.

Even the Portland experiment has had limited success, and that took a statewide strategy, which will not be forthcoming in NC any time soon.

And Greensboro doesn't have the kind of natural appeal that Portland does that would attract people to live there, if you know what I mean.

Nevertheless, I too would like our leaders to get out in front of public opinion, at least a little bit, on this issue, if only to make the case to people that urbanism is better for the environment, better for their health, better for their quality of life, and better for the economy.

It's too bad that the council has largely left this work to folks like Ray Gibbs and the leaders of Action Greensboro, who have done a great job, but they can't do it alone.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Hoggard- thanks for the kind words.

David, the MU-L and NB designations sound terrific. I'd be curious to know the upper density limit on MU-L.

I will de-cloak a bit. I have a degree in urban planning. Within the last 5 years, I looked into a job with the City of Greensboro, but after doing more research, decided not to apply. My impressions support both David and Jordan's comments. Here are my impressions.

I found the Greensboro city staff to be smart, professional, hard-working, wanting to do the right thing, and unfortunately, as Jordan related, stuffed into silos.

The staff ARE doing the surgical stuff to rehabilitate parcels and blocks in town, while they also ARE permitting megaprojects which swallow farmland and fields on the outskirts. Of course, the City Council helps set their path. (At least one of them admits that the continued development of the GSO loop is a direct assault on downtown revitalization efforts.)

Transportation and land use are super-important and inherently intertwined, but in Greensboro, you'd think they had as little in common as fishing licenses and bail bonds. Urban design, as far as I could tell, was NOT part of the conversation.

Scans of the News & Record indicated that the GSO City Council had a few people interested in planning, but nobody with their eye on urbanism.

What do I mean? This animated GIF says it best:

Urbanism Begins with the Location of the Parking Lot

Watch it change at least 3-4 times to take in the various parts.

So, we've identified a lot of the barriers to better development in GSO. But it sounds like David and some other smart citizens have a nice new mousetrap about to come off the assembly line. Let's assume it is adopted.

The City Council could provide some of the leadership needed by going ahead and rezoning or adding as an option MU-L or NB to be done by right in neighborhoods that are considered appropriate recipients of these zones. Is this likely to happen? Or will anyone wanting MU-L or NB have to go through a rezoning hearing and fight the NIMBY hordes?

We need to make it easy for developers to do the right thing.

David Wharton said...

UU, I think your comments are right on the mark, especially about the council's awareness of urban design -- it just isn't there.

Thanks for the link to the City Comforts diagram, which I've neglected to include in my blog links (fixing that now). You might be happy to know that I presented every member of the advisory team with a copy of Sucher's City Comforts book, courtesy of blog-friend Anna. I don't know whether any of them read it though. If I had the money, I'd get them all a copy of Jane Jacobs, too.

The new development ordinance will not cure our ills, though one hopes that the new MU categories (low, medium, and high intensities) will provide opportunities that developers will take.

But the city council has said to the ordinance advisory team that it absolutely WILL NOT impose those new categories on any properties when the ordinance is adpoted except at the request of the property owner.

Here's a link to the current draft of the LDO with all the new zoning categories. The technical definitions regarding MU districts start on p. 7-32

Anonymous said...

Interesting document with lots to digest. I'll give it a good look. I guess in the current climate, I can understand the City Council being clear and upfront about this.

Any commitment on the other side of the coin? As in, the City Council absolutely WILL ONLY IN EXTRAORDINDARY CIRCUMSTANCES reject an approval for rezoning at request of the property owner because neighbors complaining about the effect on their property values?

David Wharton said...

None whatsoever.