Fields of Dreams in Tysons Corner

Earlier this week Cap’n Transit wrote about Tysons Corner in the context of the Silver Line TIFIA loan application and Tysons’ Smart Growth redevelopment. This development plan is something I am quite familiar with as it was the subject of my MA thesis, and his post brought to mind some of the weird issues in the plan.

I am skeptical of Smart Growth generally, and the Tysons plan exemplifies some of the problems that are common to grand Smart Growth redevelopment plans. In an effort to win the support of all progressive causes, Smart Growth plans sometimes encompass many competing objectives. For example, a Smart Growth agenda may advocate increased density while simultaneously championing historic preservation and open space without acknowledging that these goals are opposed. Because of the emphasis on top-down planning inherent in Smart Growth, prices do no reconcile these competing goods.

In the Tysons plan, this planning and consensus building somehow came to include strong support for emphasizing athletic fields. Developers who build in Tysons are required to either provide fields or pay into a fund to support fields on public land. I think that the support for athletic fields comes from the popularity of intramural sports on the National Mall where 20-somethings play sports in think tank or Hill staff leagues after work. Maybe Fairfax planners think that providing athletic space will lure young adults to the suburbs. This issue has gotten so much attention that residents outside of the Tysons area have even started lobbying for fields in Tysons to avoid the traffic of young Tysons residents driving to other parts of the county to find sports fields. The plan calls for 20 new fields of two-to-three acres each for a projected population increase from 17,000 to 100,000.

From a pedestrian perspective, dedicated sports fields in Tysons will create long expansions of dead space, contrary to county planners’ stated objectiveness of liveliness and walkability. Maybe I’ll be surprised and the Tysons fields will all be well-used. Even if they are though, this valuable space will not be put to much use outside of the evening and weekend hours when the weather is decent. This space will be used by a narrower group of people than those who would use more general park space that could include fields.

Given that the objectives of the Tysons redevelopment include creating a more walkable urban form, it would make sense for the plan to take cues from existing places that succeed in these areas. I’m trying to think of an example of a successful and walkable downtown scattered with dedicated full-size athletic fields, but I’m coming up blank. Sure, they may have some open space, but nothing like the Tysons field quota. Northern Virginia developer Keith Turner explains the difficulty of striving for open space and density at the same time:

“We can turf and light dozens and dozens of fields for the cost of building one or two fields in Tysons,” Turner said. “I am not saying that’s the solution, or we won’t try to build as many fields required in Tysons, but it should be looked at,” he said. “Just from an economic standpoint, it just makes sense.”

Developers’ resistance to providing these fields indicate that these acres of green space could be put to more valuable and more walkable use. If other cities take this approach of attempting to lure residents with athletic fields, maybe someday we’ll all be reading The High Cost of Free Soccer.

A message to journalists and academics from George Haikalis

I spoke to George Haikalis (trust me, he’s a lot smarter than his HTML looks), a regional planner and former NYCTA official, about the high cost of New York City transit. He had a message to the press and academia:

Part of the problem is that we don’t really have a very strong independent technical press, or independent academic community that really understands anything about railroads. We’re pretty much at the mercy of the big engineering firms, and those firms pretty much do the bidding of key bureaucrats, who have a central theme: keep this within their family.

“Their family,” or course, being the agency they work for. In the case of East Side Access and the canceled ARC project, which is what we were discussion, this means (/meant) LIRR and NJ Transit getting their own unspeakably expensive deep caverns just so they wouldn’t have to share any of the existing abundant station platforms with other regional railroads.

A Moral Case for More Immigration

This is a post outside of the typical urbanist issues we write about here, but one that I think is very important to cities. At Forbes, Adam Ozimek writes that economics bloggers are failing to make the case for the importance of permitting increased high-skilled immigration:

I think it is professional malpractice that economists see trillions of dollars in pareto improvements going to waste and don’t scream about it from the rooftops daily because it’s not as fun to argue about. I don’t think the public has a good sense of the extent to which more high-skilled immigration would help us, and part of the problem is precisely that we don’t scream this from the rooftops with the regularity and fervor it deserves.

 As urbanization is a process of migration, the issue should be of prime concern for urbanists as well as economists. Many of the world’s greatest cities were built through immigration, and the variety of cultures in cities creating diverse food, arts, and events are an important factor in making cities interesting places to live.

While I’ve been broadly in favor of more immigration as long as I can remember, through a few experiences I’ve become much more passionate about broadly increasing the number of immigrants allowed to move into the United States. High-skilled immigration is an economic no-brainer, but I think from a humanitarian perspective we should be allowing more immigration from all backgrounds.

I spent a semester in college in Guadalajara, Mexico. There I worked in a school for niños trabajadores, children who attended school for a few hours a day and also worked in jobs like selling flowers or gum.  The non-profit school was run by some amazing teachers, but it was difficult knowing that the prospects for these students in school and outside of school were difficult.

A few of the students were from families who had immigrated to the United States illegally and had been deported back to Mexico. Their parents were risk takers who were willing to do something illegal and dangerous for the chance to make their families better off, to give their children the opportunity to go to school full time rather than for a few hours a day while working to help meet their families’ basic needs with little chance of receiving an education beyond grade school.

The following summer, I spent some time working with migrant farmers in Colorado who received seasonal visas to pick peaches. This is the type of work that natural-born citizens have demonstrated their unwillingness to do. After a day of hard manual labor, the migrant workers would study English and study for the citizenship test they would likely never have a chance to take. It’s baffling to me that we wouldn’t want to allow people with this type of work ethic to stay here and bring their families if they wanted to.

These personal anecdotes are very trivial in the scheme of immigration policy but have meaningfully shaped my pro-immigration views. As Adam points out, the economic data that comes down clearly in favor of increased immigration has not proven successful in moving policy toward a more favorable stance on the issue. This issue seems to be one that people decide based on their morality, and I believe stories like mine demonstrate that policies limiting immigration keep out the most driven and entrepreneurial people who we should want to join our country and our cities.

As Bryan Caplan explains in his work on the topic, forcing those who were unlucky enough to be born in impoverished and unfree countries to stay there when they are willing to go to great sacrifice to leave is immoral, and immigration opponents face a high barrier to demonstrate that immigration has sufficient negative consequences to justify this immorality. While these opponents to immigration often suggest that permitting low-skilled immigrants into the country will put Americans out of work, the majority of research on the topic suggests that this impact is small. This is because jobs are not finite; immigrants of all skill levels can create economic opportunities for themselves and citizens as they move into the country by increasing the division of labor.

Immigrants are by definition an entrepreneurial and motivated group. Permitting more high-skilled immigration should be a given, and is probably the politically easiest place to start, but allowing more low-skilled immigrants the opportunity to move to the United States creates important opportunities for people not lucky enough to be born into a wealthy democracy. I agree with Bryan Caplan’s general approach to this issue, more moral than economic, even though the economic benefits are obvious, and maybe Adam is correct that the best way to bring attention to the issue is simply to write about it more.

The Renewed Debate on Inclusionary Zoning

Stephen Smith and I co-wrote this post. In case you haven’t been following Stephen elsewhere, he’s also been writing at The Atlantic Cities and Bloomberg View.


This year, some of the first apartments and condos subject to inclusionary zoning laws in DC are hitting the market, stoking debate over development laws that the city adopted in 2007. The inclusionary zoning requirement is currently stalling the city’s West End Library renovation with Ralph Nader leading efforts to include an affordable housing aspect with the library project. Inclusionary zoning advocates often base their support on the desirability of mixed-income neighborhoods, while challengers argue that inclusionary zoning is an inefficient way to deliver housing with unintended consequences.

Heather Schwartz, who studies education and housing policies at the RAND Institute, says that one important feature of this policy tool is that it gives low-income families access to high-income neighborhoods while at the same time limiting the number of low-income residents in a neighborhood. She said, “Since IZ is a place-based strategy that tends to only apply to high-cost housing markets, it can offer access to lower-poverty places than housing vouchers and other forms of subsidized housing have historically done.”

David Alpert, editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington, a local urban planning blog, offers another argument in favor of inclusionary zoning, “a policy that builds support for both greater density and affordable housing,” he said in an email. “Much of the opposition to greater density involves a feeling that it is just a ‘giveaway’ to developers who make the profit and impose some collateral burden on a neighborhood, but many people are more supportive of the density if it serves an affordable housing goal.”

While inclusionary zoning proponents may see its ability to introduce just a few low-income residents to a higher income neighborhood as an asset, it does not typically meet an area’s demand for affordable housing. Montgomery County, MD, outside of Washington, DC has one of the nation’s most established inclusionary zoning problems. In over 30 years, inclusionary zoning has created fewer than 13,000 housing units in the county, which area developer AJ Jackson with EYA describes as “a drop in the bucket of housing demand.”

Jackson explains that the requirement to take a loss on some units leads developers to build only higher end housing, where they can make up the losses they take on the affordable units, making the remaining market-rate units still more expensive. Jackson suggests that the only viable solution to the problem of a lack of affordable housing is to increase allowable densities broadly. He points to several neighborhoods in DC and surrounding counties are currently zoned for commercial or light industrial uses, but that profitable residential development could succeed with zoning changes.

However, he points out the political obstacles to this type of development. He said, “For these jurisdictions, office density and jobs are great. But residents take more than they give in tax revenues,” so city officials may oppose residential development for budget purposes. An even greater obstacle may be current residents’ opposition, a well-documented setback to all sorts of DC-area projects from residential to restaurants.

The political incentives that confront politicians when they do decide to embrace more development complicate the density bonus calculus. The pro-density argument for inclusionary zoning is that the bonuses allow developers to build where they otherwise could not, but when an area is being targeted for development anyway, anti-density activists can easily anticipate bonuses when base zoning allowances are being hashed out and factor them in to their maximum tolerated building envelope. If those who oppose development in and of itself have enough clout, the “bonus” that developers can be reduced just a technicality.

For example, during the rezoning process for Manhattan’s West Chelsea neighborhood in 2005, New York City Assemblyman Richard N. Gottfried wrote in a statement that the city should follow the lead of the Hudson Yards rezoning, where the affordable housing programs were made “effectively, if not technically, mandatory,” which he attributed to “the leadership of Councilmember Christine Quinn,” now frontrunner to succeed Bloomberg as mayor.

The city did eventually take steps to increase the amount of affordable housing built by Hudson Yards developers by tweaking the “bonus” formula so that the rezoning yielded more affordable housing without more bulk than the administration’s proposal. Some below-market units were carved out of the proposed development, while others were pushed off-site – the affordable housing “will not generate additional bulk in the neighborhood through an inclusionary bonus,” as Chelsea Now wrote in 2009. The affordable apartments will be built on city-owned plots 15 blocks north, which given their location, were destined for development soon anyway.

And for those who support inclusionary zoning programs because of the extra density they can bring to neighborhoods, Assemblymember Gottfried’s suggestion for West Chelsea should be especially troublesome: “The Commission should look for places to lower the base FAR to allow the area available for affordable housing to increase.

Indeed that seems to be what happened. “Building density in the entire [West Chelsea] district has been reduced from the previous plan,” The Villager wrote the next month, “in order to provide more incentives for developers to apply for higher density under the inclusionary housing program.”

And New York City is not the only place that affordable housing groups have fought as-of-right density in the name of bonus incentive programs. Last year in California, some housing advocates were hostile to legislation, supported by developers and environmentalists, that would have forbidden municipalities in the state from requiring more than one parking space per unit in neighborhoods adjacent to frequent transit corridors.

As Lisa Payne, policy director at the Southern California Association of Nonprofit Housing, told the California Planning & Development Report in regards to their opposition to Assembly Bill 710, “We have 30 years of history with density bonus law, that recognizes the value of trading a planning concession, whether it be height, density, or parking for supplying the mix of incomes in a project. This bill would have removed that tool.” Affordable housing groups withheld their criticism of the 2012 iteration of the parking reform bill, but it has yet to pass.

While inclusionary zoning provides significant benefits to residents who are lucky enough to live in allotted affordable units, it does not provide sufficient housing units to address many cities’ housing affordability challenges, and in some cases can even breed alliances between affordable housing advocates and anti-density constituents. As Jackson explains, permitting more and denser development is the only viable path to this goal.

From the experts on charter cities

After my post on charter cities, I received some interesting feedback from Michael Strong, CEO of MGK Group, the company investing in Honduras’ charter cities and Brandon Fuller, a Research Scholar at NYU’s Urbanization Project. The Urbanization Project is headed by Paul Romer who is no longer involved with the Honduras effort.

Both stressed that their visions of charter cities do not rely on heavy-handed urban planning or much initial infrastructure. Brandon, speaking from his own perspective rather than on behalf of the Urbanization Project, said that he views the role of charter city investors as building arterial roads and providing some open space. The charter city government would not set any parking requirements or height limits, so the market would drive urban form at the block level. He writes:

For planning, we favor a decidedly light touch approach. Our thoughts on planning are influenced by our colleague Solly Angel, an adjunct at NYU and one of our principal researchers at the Urbanization Project.

Michael explained that the charter cities where MGK is investing will draw more from LEAP zones than from Romer’s charter city model. One important distinction is that MGK is purchasing land where these zones will be located whereas Romer suggests charter cities should be built on land donated by the host country. He writes:

The Honduran government is not designating a specific location for us.  The current proposal is for them to designate fairly large regions within which we can identify specific parcels and sub-regions that are most appropriate for getting started.

While Brandon might support a larger role for city leadership in building a street grid than Michael does, both made clear that urban development should fall to entrepreneurs rather than charter cities’ initial investors or governments. Both envision that a change in the rules governing the sites of charter cities will draw people who previously lacked an option for living under free market institutions.

As Brandon explains:

The conjecture behind charter cities is that rules, or institutions, play a significant differentiating role. In other words, there are lots of places around the world that, but for lack of effective governance, would be successful cities based on geography and accessibility. What’s more, there’s plenty of pent up demand for life in well-run cities that is not currently being met.

Today Hong Kong and Singapore, often cited as models for charter cities, are two of the economically freest place in the world (pdf). Hopefully charter cities and LEAP zones of the future will continue building on this model, allowing the market to drive urbanization  patterns.