Urbanist project selling well in Denver

The New York Times discusses a new building in Denver that embraces many of the ideals of transit-oriented development. The Spire is a mixed-use condo building that includes retail and recreation space along with residential units. Saqib Rahim explains:

If they wish, the denizens of this mini-world can step outside into the arts district, or they can walk fractions of a mile to three of Denver’s light rail lines. Spire scores a 91 on WalkScore.com, earning the label “Walker’s Paradise.”

To reach paradise, though, Spire residents won’t have to give up their cars. The 33 floors of residences sit atop a “parking podium” eight floors tall. It contains bikes and cars for rent, but most of the room is for 600 parking spaces. The building has 500 condos.

Denver residents clearly enjoy the option to live in a walkable, transit-friendly neighborhood, as The Spire is one of the fastest-selling condo buildings in the country. It exemplifies that walkable development can be achieved in Western cities that have been primarily built around the automobile. The building’s prime location in the city’s downtown Arts District allows it to command high enough prices to pay for an underground parking podium, but Rahim questions whether transit-oriented development should include any parking at all.

While Denver has adopted many Portland-style Smart Growth features including one of the nation’s largest light rail systems, many city residents still rely on and enjoy easy use of their vehicles. Scott McFadden, a Denver area developer who focuses on TOD said in the article:

“You still need it to go to work and to shop and, quite frankly, to take it to the mountains, which is why you live in Denver in the first place.”

The Spire is located in an area of the city that does not have parking mandates, so the garage was built based only on the perceived demands of the building’s potential residents. Furthermore, the underground podium parking mitigates the negative externalities that unsightly surface lots can create for pedestrians. Rather, the building’s ground floor retail serves adds vitality to the pedestrian landscape.

Stephen tweeted this article last week and makes another interesting point on the parking policies at work here. Throughout most of the Denver area, low densities restrictions and high parking minimums are in place, so the only new housing projects in the city center will necessarily be luxury condos. These residents will demand parking regardless of required minimums. I’m not sure I completely agree here — as a Colorado native, it seems to me that many Denver residents of all income levels will place a high premium on parking for the reasons that McFadden outlines. However, Stephen is certainly correct that many intertwined policies affect parking and transportation policies, beyond those directly intended to.

In my opinion, a more important criticism of the project is that the units would likely be selling for much less if the building were not located in the midst of Denver’s $14 million public-private redevelopment project. This will be a regressive effort, benefiting some of the city’s wealthier residents who are moving into this desirable neighborhood, largely at the expense of other less-affluent residents.

The Spire itself represents a building that will allow residents to enjoy urban living even while still maintaining car ownership. While this is great for those residents and urbanist supporters, Denver citizens should not have to subsidize this lifestyle when they are not enjoying it themselves.

Obama’s sprawl-promoting industrial policy: electric cars

During the past few decades, “industrial policy” was an epithet, and you still won’t see Obama going around calling his “green jobs” projects industrial policy in speeches any time soon. But some think it’s time to shed the stigma, and the flagship Obama industrial policy seems to be electric vehicles – or more specifically, the batteries that power them:

“It was a calculated risk — a lot of money, to be sure, but given the stakes, I think it was a pretty thoughtful bet,” says Ron Bloom, who recently served as an assistant to President Obama for manufacturing policy. “If vehicle electrification really does take off, as many, many people think it will, and we’re not part of it, then we could lose our leadership of the global automobile industry.” Which would be catastrophic. By some estimates, as much as 20 percent of all manufacturing jobs are directly or indirectly related to the automobile industry. Bloom points out that the United States is not the only country betting on batteries; a number of Asian countries have done so as well.

And if a bunch of Asian countries jumped off a bridge, would you do it too? The Times calls it “less like Google and more like Ford,” and I’m not sure if they mean that as a bad thing. I’m not going to lay out a long case against electric cars right now, but suffice it to say I think they’re just another subsidy to the auto-based system, and that the true environmental harm in cars is not their actual emissions, but the land use patterns than they necessitate, and an electric battery doesn’t change this one bit.

I’m certainly not going to lay the blame on urbanists for Obama’s electric car infatuation, but I think it should be a wake-up call when it comes to green jobs and re-industrialization, which planners have been embracing lately. Too many urbanists idolize America’s lost days as a manufacturing employment powerhouse (we’re still a manufacturing powerhouse, just without the “employment” part – or rather, without the large-scale semi-skilled jobs of the days of yore), but as I said on Twitter once, the zoning code is not an appropriate place to take out your resentment at the passing of America’s industrial age. And as silly as Obama’s sprawl-promoting electric car subsidies are, local industrial policy is even worse – I’m pretty sure they got this one from a Simpsons episode, for example.

And yet, there are many urbanists who believe that industrial land should be preserved, even when it is adjacent to a central business district. The area to the east of the train tracks at the New York Ave. Metro stop in DC is a perfect example – currently it’s a mix of low-slung, low-density food wholesalers and auto body shops, which a healthy sprinkling of vacant buildings and lots used to park cars. And then there’s the “Central Armature Works,” which looks to be still churning out those armaments, and pretty “centrally,” at that – just a block or two away on the other side of the tracks is a mix of class A office space and expensive new condos. But the are urbanists are more concerned with “unpermitted signs” on vacants than rezoning the vacants themselves, and the Office of Planning thinks – well, why don’t I just reprint what someone from the department said to me in an email:

The land that is zoned industrial is mainly along the CSX Railway lines, and traditionally land proximate to railway lines has often been industrial in nature. We completed an industrial land use study a few years ago, which identified that industrial zoned, service oriented land is in short supply in the District. It recommended retention of most of the industrially zoned land in this particular area, although it did recommend intensification of the use.

It’s hard to see how they’re going to “intensify” the use if half of it is vacant now – where’s the demand? Is there some kind of local industrial policy they’re going to try, and if so, what is it? And I’d love to see that “industrial land use study.” As for the CSX line, that might have been relevant back when there was enough land for a factory complex big enough to justify building a railroad siding, but that ship sailed back when the city started redeveloping the area, and there’s no way in hell any company nowadays is going to be able to take advantage of those tracks.

She also mentions in the email that the zoning has been changed one stop up the line at Rhode Island Ave. to allow more appropriate development, but I think that just illustrates how ill-equipped planners are to be making these decisions in the first place. I don’t blame the Office of Planning for not knowing the the NY Ave. station, which is closer to DC’s core, would do better than RI Ave., but I do fault them for believing that they have the ability to know such things, and then not correcting their mistake once it became obvious that the industrial zoning near NY Ave. was just not working out.

Anyway, this is just a long-winded, 4 a.m. way of me saying: I hate industrial policy. Manufacturing is never coming back downtown, so stop trying to force it, planners (both urban and other)!

FRA interview

I’ll (hopefully) be doing an interview with someone at the Federal Railroad Administration (probably a PR person, but since its via email, hopefully they’ll be able to go ask bureaucrats and engineers the answers to some technical questions) for Streetsblog DC next week, so, if you’ve got any burning questions, let me know and I’ll ask them! You can either leave them in the comments or email them to smithsj@gmail.com. Here’s some background for those who aren’t aware of the controversy over FRA’s safety regulations.

Covenants as a substitute for Euclidean zoning

Recently, Adam, Stephen, and I did a podcast with Jake at The Voluntary Life about The Voluntary City. The book is a collection of papers on free market solutions to urban challenges, and we will post a link to the podcast here when it’s available.

In one chapter of the book, Stephen Davies discusses covenants as an emergent solution to the externality challenges inherent between neighbors using their property as they see fit. Since this topic came up in the comments of a recent post about neighborhoods built before Euclidean zoning was widely adopted, I thought it deserved further discussion. A couple of commenters suggested that because properties in Baltimore’s Roland Park neighborhood were sold with deed restrictions attached, the development there was not “organic.” My word choice was ambiguous, but in the post I meant it to signify that the development occurred in response to a market process as opposed to a regulatory regime. Private contracts governed land use as opposed to municipal rules.

Davies explains that covenants first came into widespread use in England, as the country was urbanizing between 1740 and 1850. Because developers could achieve higher values for their land by ensuring complementary uses between adjacent property owners, they put covenants in place to restrict the land uses that would be permitted within a community. Some of these covenants even went so far as to specify house’s architectural details. He writes:

Covenants were used in almost all urban development of the period and for a long time thereafter. Whenever a piece of land or the power to use that land was transferred from one party to another, the transfer, whether a lease or a sale, would normally contain a number of specific stipulations, or covenants. Covenants (literally, treaties) were legally binding agreements between the parties that were part of the contract of sale or lease, so that the failure to observe them could render the sale or lease invalid. . . . They could apply for a fixed term of years or for the term of the lease but were often “perpetual”–in other words, indefinite (The Voluntary City, 28).

While covenants serve some of the same purposes that Euclidean zoning does — preventing land uses that would impose undue negative externalities on neighbors — Davies explains that covenants are not coercive because landowners freely buy into these properties that have covenants in place. Furthermore, developers are competing to create the covenants that consumers most desire. If only deed restrictions limited land use, we would surely see huge variation in their strictness across neighborhoods and cities with some developers perhaps selling lots with no restrictions at all. Developers’ profit incentives and feedback mechanisms to meet varied consumer demand has no parallel in municipally-imposed zoning regulations.

Stephen previously discussed deed restrictions in Houston, the city that many libertarians point to as an example of free market urban development. In Houston, the city actively prosecutes and fines property owners who violate covenants, rather than allowing these contracts to be enforced only by neighbors who would go to the expense and effort to sue violators for breach of contract.

In the comments on the Roland Park post, Charles Gardner points out the awkward fact that privately created deed restrictions are often back by public legislation that allows for enforcement that would not be possible if covenants were treated purely as contracts. In general, the authors of The Voluntary City are optimistic about free market alternatives to zoning. Do you all see potential for deed restrictions replacing top down zoning in urban settings? If so, do you know of any instances of covenant enforcement working well without heavy government intervention?