Let’s Throw a Pity Party

For those wanting to rant about bicycle helmets at Friday night’s public hearing, the enthusiasm was tempered somewhat by the long wait before the item came up on the agenda. The City Council had its usual docket of administrative Ambien to wade through prior to the helmet discussion, including the hit parade of requests for re-zoning. Re-zoning cases often play out something like this:

Developer: Hey Council, I scored a big lot in the middle of [pick any close-in neighborhood] and I’d LOVE to pack a ton of condos / lofts / apartments there. All I need from you is to re-zone my property to a mulit-family lot. PLEEEEEEEEEEASE?
Council: Somebody keeps telling us that Austin’s population is going to double in 20 years. Since such predictions must be considered 100% factual, we’re inclined to accommodate the request. What does the zoning commission have to say?
Zoning: We know where our bread is buttered. We recommend the up-zoning, with a few token conditions to appease the neighbors. Of course the developer won’t observe the overlays and he’ll be back here in 9 months requesting a variance based on a hardship he created himself, but we’re OK with that.
Developer: He’s right, I’ll break every rule short of paving over a Grandmother. But it’s not like you’re going to make me tear down my project.
Council: Fair enough. What does the neighborhood have to say?
Neighborhood: The neighbors would prefer not to live next to a 40 foot canyon that floods their property (assuming it ever rains again). And we’d prefer not to let commercial zoning creep into the neighborhood. Frankly we’d prefer everyone lived in caves, so long as they’re designed with a cozy mid-century feel. But regardless, we’ve put together a compromise that allows the developer to build X units under current zoning rather than the X^2 that he would like.
Developer: B-b-but Council … *sniff* … it’s just not economically feasible to build a project under current zoning.
Council: (in unison, as a hymnal) Economics. Yes, this is about economics.

The subtext varies from case to case, but the economic viability crutch comes out more often than not. And yet, many re-zoning cases have more in common with blackjack than economics. Some developers can sit at the table all night and remain dispassionately objective about their prospects. But there are those who get sucked into the game, and buy property like a gambler caught up in the rush of a fast-moving hand. Only after doubling down with the rent money does it become apparent that life would be easier if the dealer would just dole out better cards.

Pity the poor developer, for his is a game built on hope and desperation, played according to rules that are constantly shifting under regulatory fiat, fickle public tastes, and (yes) economic forces. But as my Grandpa used to say, you’re supposed to play the cards you’re dealt, not the cards you wish you had. Why is that economics only matter after the sale? If lot prices are too high to support the desired development, then (here’s a novel concept) don’t buy it in the first place.

Instead we have a market driven by a common delusion: the seller, the developer, and the regulators are all playing along as though every piece of property is Austin’s last best hope for density. All this occurs with little regard for what density can actually occur under current zoning, and how each property fits into the larger picture. This is supposedly the role of neighborhood planning, but selective up-zoning undermines this process to the degree that developers see little reason to help create opportunities at a macro level when they can generate lot-by-lot windfalls.

Austin is growing, fast. But long before we all live in Jetsons high-rises, there will be some slow-downs, and maybe even a full-blown economic crash, along the way. And nothing contributes to a crash like unchecked optimism (see: 1929, 1987, 2000). There are lots of ways to achieve density, but changing the rules after the fact only feeds developer addiction, with every up-zone encouraging the next gambler to try their luck. If everybody would just play by the same rules, we’d all be in a much better position to navigate the ups and downs on the way to a denser future.

2 Comments so far

  1. M1EK (unregistered) on August 27th, 2006 @ 10:19 am

    Neighborhood planning is a joke – every plan after the one I worked on (OWANA) essentially answered the question “where would you like your increased density?” with “nowhere, thanks”. And ours only squeaked by the NIMBYers thanks to a heavy presence of new urbanists on the planning committee – since then, reactionary interests even in that neighborhood have gained the upper hand.

    As a result, I (and probably City Council) pay the “but but but it violates the neighborhood plan!” argument exactly zero attention.

    It’s a shame the city couldn’t have sacked up and told bad neighborhoods that, no, “no thanks” is not the answer we were looking for. But those are the cards we’re holding in _that_ particular game.

    As for rezoning – GMAFB. You (neighborhoods, like NUNA, the one I live in now) can’t simultaneously complain about developers building de-facto multifamily on single-family lots (“why don’t they just go get multi-family zoning!”) and then oppose them when they try to go get appropriate zoning.

  2. M1EK (unregistered) on August 27th, 2006 @ 10:20 am

    I should mention that, yes, I’ve looked at all the major central neighborhood plans – the best you can say is that the more progressive ones (like NNDL) at least don’t oppose a floor or two of apartments on top of retail in areas currently zoned commercial. That’s the BEST. The worst is far, far worse; like the joke NUNA plan which essentially calls for LESS density than exists today.

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