Smart growth and your Sierra Club local

Taking refuge

In California, trees hug you

I was recently updating the DC Sierra Club chapter’s web page on smart growth, on which I’ve added a few links to resources about the Club and Chapter’s heritage of smart growth advocacy. Even I was surprised at how thoroughly the Club’s key policies embrace smart growth.

The overarching “Sierra Club Strategic Plan Overarching Visionary Goals” document lists as two of its 21 strategies:

Maximize energy efficiency across all sectors, including transportation, urban design, and land use. […]

Protect our air, water, land, and communities from pollution. Promote environmentally sensitive land use and urban design to minimize sprawl, provide a healthy environment for all, and minimize resource use.

Interestingly, the strategy that calls to “Protect and restore wildlands and waterways” continues that those wildlands serve a specific, objective, quantifiable purpose: “to provide large and connected habitats.” Not to protect the favorite views of favored humans, or to protect property values for landowners, but to rescue non-human species from the threat of habitat fragmentation.

The Policy on Urban Environment, adopted by the board in 1986, states (emphasis added):

…the Sierra Club urges planning and policies which stimulate…
Infill” residential and commercial development on unused or under-used land within city boundaries…
Preservation and revitalization of urban neighborhoods, with residents protected from unreasonable economic and physical disruption…
Attractive, compact and efficient urban areas; with densities and mixtures of uses that encourage walking and transit use, and encourage more efficient use of private autos in balance with other transportation modes…
These development patterns and transit improvements would conserve energy, water, land and building materials while enhancing the pleasure and safety of urban life and reducing travel distances.

The Transportation Policy, adopted in 1994, supports policy and systems that “encourage land uses that minimize travel requirements; strengthen local communities, towns and urban centers.”

The broad Energy Resources Policy (PDF) directly refers to smart growth and transit. In section VII.A.3:

Reduce the need to drive passenger vehicles by shortening the distance between workplace, home, shopping and school, using “smart growth” planning and improved transportation options. Provide safe and appealing options for walking, bicycling and mass transit, including light rail passenger trains, which will reduce vehicle trips, emissions, fuel consumption, and the demand for new roads and pavement. Well-designed mixed-use communities create long-term reductions in energy usage. Appropriately designed public transportation systems are an essential component of a sustainable energy society… Congestion pricing should be applied, when feasible. Parking costs should be efficiently and conveniently unbundled to give consumers and employees more control over how they choose to spend their money.

If your local Sierra Club entity is proving unnecessarily obtuse in not living up to these policies, I’d suggest engaging by appealing to the Club’s strong sense of tradition, deference to higher authorities (encoded in the “One Club” policy), broader principles, and yes, policies. One specific idea: ask them to review the “Guidelines Governing Decisions on Schools, Hospitals or Other Projects Serving Economically Disadvantaged Communities.” (Tell them “it’s on Club House, under Public Facilities.”) Those require specific steps before Club entities decide to oppose or endorse a public facility, with a specific mention of “low-income housing project” (and thus many large-scale infill developments subject to inclusionary requirements). Those steps require the Club to have a face-to-face listening session with those who will benefit, and a written assessment of the proposal and “any feasible environmentally superior alternatives” — which cannot include displacing housing to sprawling locations. Even where opposition by the Club may very well be warranted, the policy requires that it be thoughtful and considered, rather than knee-jerk.

Deck chairs on a sinking beach

I was pondering the testimony I delivered last May to the HPRB:

Where it all began

The original boundary stone at Jones Point.

Global warming poses a grave and imminent threat to not only humanity’s future, but to our shared past as well. In a recent issue of Preservation magazine, National Trust for Historic Preservation president Stephanie Meeks wrote that “as preservationists, it is incumbent on us to reckon with climate change bravely.” If left unchecked, the higher sea levels caused by global warming threaten the very existence of countless historic structures within the District of Columbia, including a great many of the surviving structures from its earliest days. For example, the original cornerstone of the District of Columbia (at Jones Point in Alexandria) was originally constructed on dry ground — but now sits below today’s sea level, hidden by an obtrusive concrete seawall and visible only through a protective cover. From the Jefferson Memorial to Randall School, Mayfair Mansions to Tingey House, global warming could very well obliterate scores of DC landmarks.

(The HPRB approved the application that day, and the building is moving towards construction this year.)

The sad thing about my statement today? Global warming will go pretty much unchecked under the present policy regime. Points-of-no-return are rapidly approaching for the terrestrial ice sheets of Greenland and West Antarctica; even with the boom in clean energy technology, there’s no stopping sea level from rising several meters or even many meters. Ten feet, twenty feet seem matter of course now; hundreds of feet is within the realm of possibility.

Is everything that we’re fight about within our low-lying cities about to go for naught — are we just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic?

As Ian Urbina noted in the Times in November, property sales in flood-prone coastal areas are already slowing suspiciously. It’s impossible to know exactly why, but the rising incidence and cost of even “nuisance” flooding (as extensively reported by Ryan McNeill, Deborah J. Nelson and Duff Wilson from Reuters last year might well be causing people to think twice about purchasing in flood-prone areas.

What happens when the defenses start to run out? Will land suddenly, or gradually, become worthless? One fascinating “natural” experiment to watch is in Palm Springs, where the Desert Sun’s Rosalie Murphy wrote about the consequences of the expiring land leases that underlie half of that city. Condos are going begging for buyers, since expiring land leases can’t be encumbered with fresh mortgages — but commercial development often continues apace, since the mortgage terms are shorter.

I appreciate that the Trust is thinking more intersectionally, to the point of reframing its work as “reurbanism.” But given the forecasts, it’s tough for me not to see a lot of local skirmishes over waterfront sites as pretty pointless.

Friday photo: The old new towns


Excerpted from Letitia Langord and Gwen Bell, “Federally Sponsored New Towns of the Seventies,” Growth and Change 10/1975.

Earlier this week, startup incubator Y Combinator made a bit of a splash by hiring a lolcat entrepreneur to work on its “New Cities” program. The entire endeavor appears to be completely ahistorical. So, in an effort to help them out, here’s a reminder of the last time someone (the federal government) splashed out a lot of money to build cities from the ground up in America.

It’s worth noting that, 40-some years later, only The Woodlands has evolved into something resembling a city, with its own economic base — but probably due to its location in metro Houston, which sustained population growth of 20%+ per decade from 1970 through 2010. Several of the others remain half-built, pleasant-enough bedroom communities, and a few of them hardly ever got off the ground.

It turns out that city-building, and especially economic development, is an iterative, incremental process that’s highly resistant to shortcuts. Yes, economic booms do happen in unexpected places, but almost all of those are associated with large institutions and relatively unskilled labor. Re-creating the intricate economic interdependence of a 21st century metropolis will prove a monumental challenge, especially in an era of subdued labor mobility.

Some guesses as to implications of autonomous vehicles

Autonomous vehicles, driverless cars: ask two people what they think, and it seems like you’ll get three opinions. Here are my reactions to four recent publications on the topic — keeping in mind that previous reports of distance’s death were an exaggeration. (As CBRE’s Revathi Greenwood notes, vehicle speeds won’t change, and so Marchetti’s Wall still remains. Even if the drudgework of driving is taken away, travel time still has a cost, and we’d rather be at our destinations already — e.g., “are we there yet?”)

WSJ (columnist Christopher Mims):

  • AVs will be limited to small areas for the foreseeable future. “We’re likely to see vehicles that don’t require drivers but can only operate on a fixed, well-mapped route in cities with fair weather… the consensus of those I interviewed is that it will be many years before we get cars that can truly go anywhere.”
  • Existing trials (Singapore, Pittsburgh, Babcock Ranch), which are limited to relatively small, intensively researched areas that are frequently remapped. Level 2/3 autonomy will remain limited to expressways, which have a protected ROW.
  • Echoes some of Recode’s timeline (perhaps similar sources were interviewed).
  • Takeaway: Autonomous shuttles will appear within campuses, urban districts, and planned communities, initially as “walk extenders.” “Robot valets” will enable more remote parking and reduced parking footprints. Freeway driving may shift to autonomy, but uptake is limited by consumer acceptance (see next).

Kelley Blue Book consumer survey:

  • Americans are still broadly uncomfortable with the idea of Level 5 autonomy.
  • Level 4 autonomy is most popular with current US consumers, who still want to be able to take the wheel. Level 3 seems less comfortable than Level 2.
  • However, key early-adopter groups feel more comfortable with complete autonomy: luxury car buyers, consumers with experience with Level 2 AVs, and people used to the backseat: ride-hailing customers and teenagers.
  • Takeaway: The transition to AVs is dependent upon social acceptance, and currently many Americans want to maintain the status quo. The transition might take a while (more Americans will have to try AVs), but may be steep once it happens.

Rocky Mountain Institute forecast:

  • Mobility services in major US metros are a potential $120 billion annual market by 2025, including $60 billion just in large Sunbelt metros.
  • Because AV and EV technologies reduce operating costs and increase capital costs, they will find broad acceptance in high-utilization fleets first, where their low costs will subvert the individual-car-ownership paradigm. (2017’s EVs will be cheaper for fleets than gas cars.)
  • AVs will cut the cost of rides by 60% to be cost-competitive with car ownership by 2018, with another 60% decline in costs as economies of scale are realized. The switch from personal cars to AV fleets will occur between 2020-2025, with long-term demand for cars falling to ~6 million.
  • Lower mobility costs will result in a $1 trillion annual consumer surplus to be spent on other sectors. (Keep in mind that spending on autos has a low multiplier effect.)
  • Even if VMT doubles and more power plants are built, these two technologies will result in sharply lower CO2 emissions (nearly -1 GT CO2E by 2040 = ~13% cut in today’s emissions).
  • Takeaway: Parking demand may sharply decline, but what parking is left will need significant EV infrastructure. Loading/valet zones will quickly need to be implemented. Consumer spending on cars could be pivoted to other spending, like higher-quality real estate.

City Observatory (Joe Cortright) [part 1] [part 2]:

  • RMI’s cost estimates of <$0.50/mile are roughly in line with other published estimates, with lower costs associated with smaller/lighter vehicles. This is lower than the per-mile cost of not just driving, but even short transit trips.
  • However, $0.50/mile is much higher than the perceived $0.15-$0.20/mile marginal cost that most Americans assume for private-auto trips. (Most Americans only consider the cost of gas when driving; costs such as depreciation/wear, insurance, repairs, monthly parking, and wasted time are all considered sunk.)
  • “Pay by the slice” mobility, like car-sharing, tends to encourage shorter trips. Pricing will probably be more, not less complex, with various “surge” surcharges that use information to optimize the balance between travel demand and supply.
  • Rush-hour capacity will still be an issue, especially in high-density downtowns. Rail transit, walking, and cycling will still move more people in less space.
  • Takeaway: Mobility won’t be “too cheap to meter,” as optimists once said of nuclear electricity. As such, central locations will still matter, even if price differentials flatten somewhat. (TNCs are already “filling in the lines” between transit corridors and increasing the value of secondary urban locations.) Whether dense downtowns built around rail/walking remain useful is an open question.

What everyone agrees upon is that this is the first huge shift in metropolitan mobility since the 1940s-1980s shift towards mass car ownership. It’s important to remember that American suburbia is a political and social construct, not a fact of life, and that policies put into place immense structural supports for American suburbs.

McMillan isn’t next to Metro, which is less of a problem than you think

McMillan Reservoir

You can see the Capitol Dome from here. Photo by Eric Fidler, via Flickr

Yes, the McMillan Sand Filtration Site is one mile (from either end of the site) to the Red Line. It’s even 0.6 miles to the nearest express bus route (Georgia Avenue’s 79), and key network improvements are still in the planning stages. Yet from the point of view of someone who wants to reduce auto dependence (and the concomitant pollution, injury, and sprawl), what matters most is that MSFS is close to downtown, rather than close to Metro.

Transportation planning research has consistently shown that location relative to downtown and to other land uses is far more closely associated with the amount of driving than location relative to transit. Ewing and Cervero’s definitive 2010 meta-analysis (cited by 679 other scholarly articles) examined over 200 other studies, then combined the correlations found by 62 different studies:

Yes, it turns out that the number of miles that people drive is four-and-a-half times as closely correlated with the distance to downtown than with the distance to a transit stop. This strong relationship between driving and distance to downtown is borne out in local survey research by MWCOG/TPB. Note that whether an area has Metro access (like Largo or White Flint, vs. the Purple Line corridor) doesn’t actually seem to impact the number of drive-alone (SOV) trips.

Some suggest that development proposed for this site should instead go elsewhere. If the development is denied, those residents and employees and shoppers won’t just disappear, they’ll just go somewhere else. They won’t go to superior locations even closer to downtown and Metro (because those are so very plentiful!), but rather to far inferior locations. For instance, the life-sciences employers might choose an alternative location within our region that has already approved a similar mix of uses — such as Viva White Oak, Inova Fairfax, Great Seneca Science Corridor, and University Center in Ashburn, all of which are much further from both downtown and Metro.

This isn’t just the suburbs’ fault. Within the District, even more intensive development than what’s proposed at MSFS has already been given the go-ahead at locations such as the Armed Forces Retirement Home, Hecht Warehouse, and Buzzard Point. All of those sites are also inferior to MSFS from the standpoint of not just transit accessibility and distance to Metro Center, but also on all of the other factors shown to reduce VMT.

If the “Reasonable Development” types truly do care about reducing driving, I must have missed their years of caterwauling over the approval of all these other sites — not to mention the countless suburban developments that together pave over 100 acres of open space every single day in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. That’s why I give more credence to the people who do actually care about paving over the region, like the Piedmont Environmental Council — a/k/a the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

Friday photo: ENOUGH!

ENOUGH

A college friend stole this sign off a neighbor’s lawn and gave it to me in 1999 (good thing MoCo isn’t the DPRK). Of all the political lawn signs I’ve had, including a few from early Obama campaigns, it’s my obvious favorite.

Apparently, the sign was made to protest the 1998 Friendship Heights Sector Plan, which set the stage for the Wisconsin Place and Chevy Chase Collection “over-development”s.

All this “over-development” has done the local homeowners a whole lot of good: since 2000, their housing values have more than tripled.

It turns out that this very same group is involved in the recent Westbard protests (of course), wailing about how Westbard is part of a war against Western civilization. Given their history, I suggest taking their hyperventilated claims with a healthy dose of salt.

What Would Jane Jacobs Do about zoning?

Tomorrow would have been Jane Jacobs’ 100th birthday, and so it’s a fine time to reflect upon her magnificent legacy of (empirically correct) ideas. Unbeknownst to many of her fans, she has a significant built legacy. 20 years ago, Toronto asked no less than Jane Jacobs about how to rezone two renewal areas on either side of downtown.

Distillery District

Toronto’s Distillery District, within the King-Parliament area that Jane Jacobs had a hand in rezoning.

The Kings Regeneration Initiative” targeted 400 acres of land along King Street, an east-west arterial with a streetcar. King-Spadina on the west side of downtown and King-Parliament on the east side were both declining CBD-adjacent industrial areas. Then-mayor Barbara Hall invited Jacobs to an advisory group on the regeneration project. “Paul Bedford, Toronto’s chief planner during Mayor Hall’s term, said that Jane kept encouraging him to take risks and to experiment,” writes Barry Wellman. The resulting code was a tremendous departure from how Toronto, and most other North American cities, regulated development:

Jacobs described the process in remarks given at Boston College’ law school:

Yet if the zoning were to be changed to permit dwellings, the developers would be blocked by rules applying to apartments, most especially parking requirements. Land coverage was high and parking couldn’t feasibly go underneath these sturdy but old buildings. Under the guidance of our very intelligent mayor at the time, these and almost all other regulatory controls were removed, except for fire and building safety codes. One rule was added: a ban against destruction of buildings, to prevent aesthetic and environmental waste. You would be amazed at how rapidly those dying districts have come back to life and blossomed. The principle at work here has been the addition of what the previous mixture lacked…

In the case of Toronto’s dying districts of downtown that were revitalized by radically overhauling the regulations, the mayor’s hardest job was goading and re-educating her own planning department, including the youngish man who then headed it.

The results have been breathtaking — and might surprise those for whom Jane is a hero for stopping bulldozers. Not only have the “Two Kings” not lost jobs, as many industrial lands taken out of production have, but the number of jobs has increased by 58%. Even more impressively, 46,000 dwelling units have been permitted in the Two Kings, many of them in very large new high-rises.

Of course, this approach would be much more difficult — if not impossible — to enact in America. It’s not that America over-regulates development per se, it’s that we regulate entirely the wrong things about development. As Jay Wickersham writes in the Boston College Environmental Affairs Law Review, the result is “an extraordinary situation. There is no other area in environmental law where the goals of the regulatory program are not just indifferent, but actively hostile, to the best thinking in the field.” From his introduction:

To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jacobs shows us that Euclidean zoning has been hard where it should be soft and soft where it should be hard. Zoning has been hard, or overly rigid, in dividing our cities and towns into uniform, low-density districts, each dedicated to a single primary use. And zoning has been soft, or overly permissive, in its failure to set design standards for streets, and for how buildings front upon those streets, that would reinforce the fundamental character of streets as public spaces…

Supreme Court rulings restrict municipalities to just two regulatory tools* that can shape development: Euclidean zoning (regulating density and land use) and historic designation (regulating appearance, but only meant for very limited circumstances). Euclidean zoning’s fixation on limiting density and land uses enforces conformity; even when it permits change, it’s only towards a distant, built-out end-state set forth in a comp plan. Jacobs writes:

[T]he greatest flaw in city zoning is that it permits monotony… Perhaps the next greatest flaw is that it ignores scale of use, where this is an important consideration, or confuses it with kind of use, and this leads, on the one hand, to visual (and sometimes functional) disintegration of streets, or on the other hand to indiscriminate attempts to sort out and segregate kinds of uses no matter what their size or empiric effect. Diversity itself is thus unnecessarily suppressed. (D&L, 237-238)…

Instead, Death and Life‘s chapter 13 argues for “zoning for diversity”:

The purpose of zoning for deliberate diversity should not be to freeze conditions and uses as they stand. That would be death. Rather, the point is to insure that changes or replacements, as they do occur, cannot be overwhelmingly of one kind. (D&L, 253, emphasis added)

Jacobs was not against regulation, but as an empiricist she held tremendous regard for the way cities had evolved as complex systems over the centuries — and fought the woefully simplistic (and completely ideological, perhaps even “faith-based”) Modern-era planning regulations and programs then in place. Alas, those regulations remain at the foundation of American planning today. Wickersham again:

According to Jacobs, “[a]ll zoning is suppressive,” an interference with the unfettered movements of the real estate market. But Jacobs is not attacking regulation, per se, or even the notion of government planning… she is attacking the functionalist presumptions shared by many city planners. In this view, a city is a functional, repetitive machine, rather than an ever-evolving organism… Her goal is to strike a middle course: to preserve and enhance diversity by avoiding large-scale, cataclysmic physical and social changes (which can be caused by rapid influxes of private investments, as well as by publicly sponsored urban renewal projects), without permanently freezing a community’s character.

Density-and-use zoning is the metaphorical hammer of urban land use: every potential problem ends up looking like a nail, and gets hammered to smithereens. It doesn’t matter if the problem has nothing to do with density or land use, and it doesn’t matter that density and land use are (as the Kings show) pretty darn incidental to the grand scheme of things. The only tool that we have is the wrong one, but we’re going to use it anyways. Wickersham notes that even the modest attempts to circumvent Euclidean zoning through discretionary approvals, or worse yet to somehow require diversity, are doomed to failure from Jacobs’ perspective:

Because these reforms are project-specific, and not comprehensive, the counter-productive, as-of-right requirements of Euclidean zoning have been sidestepped, not removed. To tempt developers into the project review process, regulatory systems will offer a density or height bonus to offset the increased time and costs that are involved. Such incentives can cause all parties to undervalue small-scale, incremental renovation and infill projects—the incremental reinvestments that Jacobs showed us were so important for the stability of an urban district. Thus, favoring large private investments can cause the same kinds of cataclysmic change that Jacobs decried in the public urban renewal projects of the 1950s.

Update: Shawn Micallef has a fantastic summary of Jane Jacobs’ Toronto legacy on Curbed today. The headline of this post spoofs Spacing Store’s #WWJJD t-shirt.

* Non-regulatory tools, like redevelopment, are also legal but are so difficult and fraught with such complexity that they’re unlikely to have a substantial impact on regional-scale land use challenges. Form-based codes are the most promising alternative to Euclidean zoning in the US, but in practice require such a radical overhaul of the planning-and-zoning process that they have yet to achieve wide adoption; Miami is the notable exception that rewrote its plan and zoning code all at once.