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Facilitating neighborhood change through automatic upzoning

April 19, 2012

If you haven’t read Chris Bradford’s idea on Austin Contrarian on automatic upzoning for neighborhoods as a way to facilitate necessary change in them, please do so now. Basically, his idea is a mandatory upzoning of parcels, or entire neighborhoods, at the end of some specified long-term time frame (he throws out 30, 40 and 50 years as possibilities). This idea might work because over such a long period of time, virtually everyone currently living in the area is guaranteed to have migrated out or passed away. However, as it stands now the fact that in the short term neighborhoods don’t change en masse, as he puts it, means that they easily resist change for long periods of time. This is accomplished because at any given time 99 percent of an area’s residents are short- or long-term residents who moved into the area because they liked its character and want to preserve it. The very low proportion of turnover each year or so mostly keeps out those who would desire change, since they would be a huge minority and would probably be paying a premium in the meantime for the preservation they don’t care about.

I really like Chris’s idea. It would be a relatively painless and palatable response to the NIMBYism that precludes changes to neighborhoods that would benefit cities as a whole, but are resisted by that neighborhood’s residents, who feel they have more to lose. This way, what they usually feel they have at stake is largely preserved, while ensuring that if change is in the cards for the area, it will probably happen sooner rather than later.

Central questions as to how it would work remain, though. Those that come to mind are which neighborhoods would be targets for such upzoning, and what kind of upzoning and how much would take place. In comprehensive planning, future land use maps are often based on sound population and housing unit projections for an entire city or metro, with residential land use allocated in some way throughout the area. Similarly, commercial and industrial land uses could be tied to population (especially for retail land use) and even employment projections for the area. A city (or region) would have to determine somehow how much greenfield development on the outskirts they will allow (or should allow), and how much they will allow in existing neighborhoods through upzoning. So, it seems like the amount of upzoning needed (a number of additional housing units needed metrowide, divided by an assumed density to get the amount of land needed) is a fairly simple calculation. It would likely require an update every few years, but this is usually done with comprehensive plans as well.

But how exactly should this development be allocated? In terms of which neighborhoods to upzone, these could be chosen in service of some goal that would benefit the metro as a whole. Top ones that come to mind would be the ones that offer the most accessibility or drilling down further, adding development that would have the least negative (or the most positive) effects on travel times or jobs-housing imbalances. A meta-analysis of transportation research by Reid Ewing finds that regional accessibility (e.g. number of jobs within five miles/30 minutes by car) affects travel time the most, when compared with other factors including density and street network design of the immediate area. (Street network design was the second most important factor.) This method, therefore, would in general call for most central city neighborhoods to be upzoned to some extent, though results would vary by city. Cities/urban areas that are exceptions to the monocentric model would produce some very different results for this, and possibly different methodologies altogether to identify neighborhoods. (Dallas-Fort Worth comes to mind.)

Another goal that these upzonings could serve is affordability, which has become more of an issue in central cities, especially in large cities. If neighborhoods are evaluated as census tracts or block groups, median rents more than 150 percent or so of the regional median (a totally arbitrary number) could demand upzoning. Some trend analysis of rents could be in order too, and could be preferable, given this method’s lower possibility of picking up elite neighborhoods near the urban core, in which upzoning would likely be more difficult. Again, the region would have a total number of target housing units based on growth projections to allocate throughout the region. Allocation of affordable housing is a strategy that’s already being undertaken in California, utilizing their Regional Housing Needs Assessment, created by state law and updated every 7 years. The RHNA allocates a certain share of a region’s needed low and moderate income housing units to each municipality in it. The implication of the methodology I described, though, would probably be to increase density in areas with development pressure, which would bring down housing costs overall; not to increase affordable housing in certain areas per se. In addition, California’s mandate seems to apply only to municipalities as a whole, so therefore, California cities can place low and moderate income housing units wherever they like, so long as they allocate enough land. Still, some variation of this general idea is already taking place in the U.S., which could help enable its adoption elsewhere.

It’s clear we need better mechanisms through which established parts of our cities can change to accomplish many of our objectives relating to transportation, land use and even economic development . Some problems must be approached regionally, and given our fragmented system of government and political power, this is usually extremely difficult. Neighborhoods should have their role and their say in development, but they shouldn’t have permanent domain over what is, in the aggregate, a regional issue. This method would provide much-needed relief, especially in fast-growing cities like Austin. And it’s important to note that this would not mandate development in any given area, but would simply allow it to occur in more situations.

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