August 14th, 2011

Where the apartments are being built

R. and I have been puzzling over the Northborough Crossing development. On the one hand, it makes a ton of sense: within an hour of both Providence and Boston, and even closer to Worcester. Still, it seems weird that Avalon has put a couple of big complexes in there recently (at Northborough Crossing and in Shrewsbury). These are greenfields New Urbanist developments (well, for sure the Northborough Crossing is New Urbanist). There is green field space closer in (to any one of these, for sure, altho perhaps not to capture all three job markets, plus the Marlboro exurban office space) to develop on (never mind greyfields opportunities). But no one is building stupid stuff right now; this _must_ make sense.

And I think I've figured out how it makes sense. If you lose your house to foreclosure, you don't go straight to living on the street (especially if the foreclosure moratoria bought you enough time to save up a big pile of money for rent, say); you go rent an apartment. So putting in big complexes in the area for families who lost their houses to move into might make sense. And while Massachusetts by no means suffered disproportionately from foreclosure, Worcester County suffered more than most of the rest of the state. These should pick up a lot of families that lived scattered around, but who work in Marlborough or nearby -- and also pick up some number of families that lived very close by and don't want to transfer their kids to a different school (that I'm a lot less sure about).

_Foreclosing the Dream_, William H. Lucy

Subtitled: How America's Housing Crisis is Reshaping Our Cities and Suburbs

This is an American Planning Association book, so even in its paperback form (believe me, not available as an ebook. _PLEASE_ prove me wrong) it is over $30. The lone review on Amazon is dead accurate (by Michael Lewyn of Jacksonville, FL, if others show up later and you wonder which one I'm referring to): the data-heavy parts are excellent, the rest is iffy. In particular, Lucy's analysis is fairly crappy.

The first few chapters lay out something that I'd worked out on my own: starting around 1990, affluent whites started moving back towards central cores, at least in some cities (not Detroit. Conspicuously not Detroit), a trend which got notably stronger in the ensuing two decades. At the same time, new households were also forming out on the periphery, including households which didn't commute to the local core, but rather to an "edge city" elsewhere on the periphery. So: two trends: a trickle, widening to a stream headed back to the center, and a wider stream from the older suburbs to further out suburbs. But that second stream was so heavily encouraged by multiple administrations wanting to increase homeownership rates (for various reasons of their own) that when circumstances turned against it, it showed much less resilience than the movement to the core.

While Lucy's projections are in line with what I expect, I feel like he's missing a lot in describing closer-in/older suburbs that do well. He is writing in terms of suburbs experiencing teardown activity rebuilding single family homes on existing lot vs. suburbs that need to be helped to expand 1945-1970 small housing. As a side note, Lucy does _not_ explain why teardown monster houses are different from added-onto small housing (it's simple: monster house price justification requires a 3x; add-ons only require you to get the size up to what you need it to be, which is going to be more like 1.5-2x -- it would have been nice if he'd pointed this out, however no one ever does). There's one spot where he mentions suburbs that have townhomes being built in them, but it's very tangential; he doesn't get into lot combining _anywhere_, much less greyfields being redeveloped with residential.

Lucy has a very nice demographic analysis based on the generation after the boomers being small: they are in household formation years, and there are fewer of them (believe me, I am well aware of this, as a member of this cohort). Lucy does not draw a lot of attention to their comparatively high rate of lifelong childlessness, which just makes what he is pointing out more extreme. That is, through the high household formation years of the boomers, you could just keep building houses. But once they've all reproduced (or not) and bought houses to support that activity (or not), you really have to at least slow down (and possibly stop for a while).

Lucy says some incredibly silly things in analysis later in the book. He goes to some effort to show that foreclosure rates were low in places where house prices with respect to median income were really high -- and then he says policy interventions should work to bring house prices down with respect to median incomes. He also talks about how suburbs that don't benefit by location/transit/whatever will need help. I understand the idea is not to completely screw people, but there's a part of me that just goes, why? I thought the goal was to get people to move to some areas and away from others -- and now you want to dilute the effect? Create transit, encourage transit oriented development, and then _reinvest_ in the areas you _don't_ want people in?

Lucy also has a bunch of ideas about governance structures. He _really_ doesn't like the thicket of government at the local level. But this leads him to say this:

"A risk associated with required collaboration among local governments could be that suburbs' representatives will support highway spending that encourages more sprawl. With many central cities constituting small proportions of metropolitan populations, the possibility that MPOs [Metropolitan Planning Organizations] will promotion deconcentration is a significant danger. Collaboration is a means to an end. The goal should be more compact development, shorter routine trips, and more alternatives to driving alone. Collaboration itself is not the goal."

Clearly a huge fan of democracy here. (<-- Sarcasm.)

I can't really recommend it, altho I'm reluctant to call it a bad book. It is problematic. I'm still working on _Cities and Suburbs_ (which is both better and worse) and _Devil in the White City_ (book club pick that turns out to be weirdly appropriate for my current obsession, altho wow Larson's writing style is not one I care for).

Zoning, in general and more specifically

I've been reading comments threads in odd places lately. The Mount Laurel decisions and COAH appear to be the New Jersey equivalent of Massachusetts' 40B and Connecticut's Affordable Housing Land Use Appeals Act or 8-30g. Anyone know of further instances?

Roughly: a town is generally allowed to decide what can and cannot be built within it, however, the state provides some constraints on "home rule". While wetland and other environmental regulation is really obvious, some states require towns to not block all affordable housing; towns which have too little affordable housing are might find themselves forced by courts to permit a development they had said no to. The details, obviously, matter a lot.

The wikipedia entry on "Inclusionary Zoning" mentions the NJ and MA laws, as well as other ordinances (not seeing any more at the state level, however), altho it does not provide the name of CT's law (anyone know of a book? Probably published by ULI or APA and horrifically overpriced, of course.).

Darien has now crossed the horizon of my attention a few too many times for doing things at the town level that I Do Not Approve Of.

The original Avalon incident:

More recently:

There's lots of coverage if you feeling like sifting through it; I don't.

R. mentioned some story about Don Henley and a parcel in Concord that avoided getting turned into multi-family. Here is contemporary coverage of it, naming the developer (who I will attempt to track next):

One of the better bits in Lucy's books was the remark about how liberals can sound incredibly conservative when you get into a zoning conversation. Before South Lake Union became, er, South Lake Union, there was a proposal to turn it into a massive park with some residential.

I remember some big arguments with N. a couple years later when I joined a little bookstore on the internet; he couldn't understand why Seattle had voted it down. The history link article in no way captures why _I_ was opposed to it: I'd read Jane Jacobs and I Did Not Approve of Big Parks as a result (yes, I did buy a condo across 15th from Volunteer Park, but I also recognize problems with that park and saw no reason to create more of the same).

I think I must just not understand why people are for or against various things. Henley rescuing Walden Woods -- at least for the various adulatory reasons given -- does not strike me as heroic. But then, my feelings about the literary movement centered on Concord are net negative and my capacity to desire to preserve anything statically is profoundly limited, so maybe that's just my bias.

ETA: Wow. People around here really don't like DeNormandie.


Actually, they just don't like development.

That's astonishingly silly coverage. 3 bedroom units for quite reasonable prices, and people think this is abusing 40B? What, because doing anything this complex happens in stages and requires different participants with different skill sets? A local developer had to assemble the parcel (non-trivial) and get it through. Then he sells to a _big_ developer (they're doing Pier 4 currently with New England Development), and it gets built (but they actually added to the scope of the project anyway). Once it's done, it needs someone to manage it, so Hanover can lather rinse repeat: hence, UBS. _This is how it works._ Acting like this is somehow weird does not reassure observers that governance is competent; it sounds like the adults are not doing a good job of communicating reality.

ETA Still More, on the 40B Alexan Concord/Longview Meadow development on Powdermill Road:

From earlier this year:

The developers seem to be a bunch of guys that left when Trammell Crow was, um, I don't have a good way to describe it. Went private and was disassembled?

I'm still trying to track down the proposal to build a bunch of affordable housing units on DOC land in Concord.