What City Observatory this week

1. Needed:  A bolder, better building back. In response to an invitation from its authors, we take a look at a  “grand bargain” proposed by Patrick Doherty and Chris Leinberger for breaking the political log jam around infrastructure.   If there is something to be gleaned from Eisenhower and Lincoln (in addition to FDR), it was that each of them proclaimed and implemented an entirely new and much larger federal responsibility for a key aspect of the nation’s development.  Arguably transportation was timely in 1860 and 1956, but the nation’s needs today are different.  Viewing our problems through the lens of transportation, and constructing a grand bargain that provides more (or somewhat re-jiggered) subsidies for transportation misses the opportunity to make the principal focus placemaking and fixing the shortage and high cost of housing in walkable locations.

2. Why can’t DOT’s do environmental mitigation for people and neighborhoods?  Across the nation, freeways have wrought a terrible toll on many of the nation’s urban neighborhoods.  In Portland, we’ve chronicled how three different highway projects over a period of two decades wiped out hundreds of homes and led to a decline of the historically Black Albina neighborhood.  The Oregon Department of Transportation is back, on the one hand apologizing for what it did then, but also promising to double down by widening the I-5 freeway to ten lanes. While ODOT says it supports restorative justice, its clear that the neighborhood needs, most of all, more affordable housing.  Highway agencies like ODOT routinely spend funds on all kinds of mitigation to offset the negative effects of highways (including habitat restoration, noise walls, and even building jails).  We ask why the principle of mitigation that’s used to justify these expenditures shouldn’t be extended to spending to restore the neighborhoods devastated by past (and present) highways.

Must read

1. Parking is the scourge of cities.  UCLA Professor Michael Manville has an accessible and compelling essay explaining how catering to car storage has damaged the nation’s cities. In particular, parking mandates that block and drive up the cost of housing and commercial development, and which transform the landscape into car-dependent sprawl, have, over a course of decades made it impossible or illegal to build the kind of interesting, walkable spaces Americans value most.

Because parking requirements make driving less expensive and development more so, cities get more driving, less housing, and less of everything that makes urbanity worthwhile. This process is subtle. . . . A commercial requirement of one parking space per 300 square feet means developers will put new retail in a car-friendly, pedestrian-hostile strip mall. And a requirement of one parking space per 100 square feet for restaurants means the typical eating establishment will devote three times as much space to parking as it will to dining. America did not become a country of strip malls and office parks because we collectively lost aesthetic ambition. These developments are ubiquitous because they are the cheapest way to comply with regulations.

2. Recapping the housing affordability debate.  Writing at Planetizen, Todd Litman has a comprehensive and opinionated take on the arguments and factions in the nation’s housing affordability.  Like Caesar’s Gaul, the housing world is divided into three ideological parts:  the free market proponents, the housing experts and the  housing supply skeptics.  The “free market” proponents excoriate regulation, particularly environmental regulations which they blame for high housing prices, but as LItman notes, their analyses entirely omit consideration of transportation costs, which mean that low priced housing in sprawling cities comes with higher total living costs for most households.  The labels give away the conclusion:  Litman argues that the housing experts—with references to 14 peer reviewed studies—show that adding housing supply, by eliminating parking requirements, ending apartment bans, and allowing missing middle housing, all done at scale, can moderate or reduce housing costs.

. . . both Free Market Advocates and Supply Skeptics rely on poor quality evidence, and that neither ideological extreme offers comprehensive solutions to unaffordability problems; their prescriptions are only appropriate in specific, limited situations. Housing experts have solid research that can help guide planners to develop the combination of policies that can achieve affordability and opportunity goals.  . . . If we follow the science we can identify excellent solutions to unaffordability problems. There is abundant credible evidence that large-scale upzoning to allow more affordable housing types in walkable urban neighborhoods can significantly increase housing and transportation affordability for low- and moderate-income households.

All this is presented in Litman’s usual clear and methodical way.  Whether you agree or disagree with his conclusions (we’re in broad agreement), Litman has clearly sketched out the basic positions of the different camps.  If you’re looking to get a useful orientation to the multiple and conflicting views on housing and affordability, you’ll find this an invaluable resource.

3. Testing the assumptions behind placemaking. What’s your theory of change?  Around the country, local community development efforts invest considerable resources in a range of placemaking activities.    Brent Theodos of the Urban Institute reflects on the success factors, and in particular the often un-stated assumptions that underpin these efforts.  He’s got a concise and well argued list of questions that should be top of mind when thinking about the complex processes at work in distressed neighborhoods.

Not all conditions can be solved or addressed locally or even regionally—at least not without a mobilization of public resources unlike what we have seen before. Relatively few place-based efforts have thought carefully about which factors can and cannot be addressed locally. Even a robust place-based development strategy may fail in the face of a weakening regional economy or shrinking population. Neighborhoods are not islands. That said, neighborhood redevelopment is possible in declining regions, but doing so requires considerable resources.

In the news

Willamette Week highlighted former Metro President David Bragdon’s critique of the Oregon Department of Transportation’s deceptive sales tactics for its proposed big freeway expansion projects.

The Portland Mercury cited City Observatory’s analysis of the greenhouse gas pollution that would be created by the Oregon Department of Transportation’s $800 million I-5 Rose Quarter freeway widening project.