Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Vacant for a Decade

Dateline: 10:10 am July 16, 2010 Filed under:

“That site is going to sit vacant for a decade.” That was the quote from a frustrated developer as he left a public hearing this past spring, after the city council voted down his planned apartment project.

I prepared a market study for the proposed project that was voted down. It was to be a market rate, general occupancy housing on a vacant site in an inner ring suburb. Which city does not matter here, nor do the specifics of the project. What matters is this is but one of countless examples across the country of short-sighted cities passing on new development and additional municipal revenue simply by caving in to NIMBYs.

The plan called for an attractive apartment building in a city with little new rental housing in recent decades. The market study indicated that the project could “pencil out,” or be financially feasible. Furthermore, the site in question was located along a transit line and close to freeways and employment. Everything seemed to line up.

The sticking point was that the city, like so many other inner ring suburbs, has a stock of rental housing that averages 40 years old, and these rental units not only suffer from functional obsolescence but also increasing crime. Therefore, in the eyes of the public, all rental housing has a bad reputation and any new project is unacceptable, even with a willing developer, a good design, a market study that supports the project, and the fact that no public subsidy was required.

The city council listened as the development team gave a presentation as to why they believed the project would succeed and bring a $20 million investment to the city at a time when revenue was badly needed.

This was followed by a steady stream of residents who, one-by-one, got up to oppose the project. Over a three-hour period, every single resident, save one, stood up to speak against the project. All opposed were existing homeowners in the city and all were older than 50. One gentleman had the nerve to get up and explain that he not only owned a home in the city, but also several apartments, and the fact that he kept his home in better shape than his rental properties was proof that the city council should kill the project! Even I wasn’t expecting that!

The lone person who spoke in favor of the project was about 30 years old and a recent home buyer in the city. She explained that the city needs to reinvest and that this project would be good for the future finances and demographics of the city. You could tell she was having second thoughts about her home purchase as she explained how she used to live in a neighborhood where renters were embraced, but she can’t seem to meet new neighbors and the area seems unfriendly, with shades drawn and no people out.

The entire spectacle was quite sad, but in some ways, I can hardly blame the city council. The long-time residents are in charge, and they fear change. They moved in when the city was a growing suburb with neat, tidy homes and low crime. Kids played in the parks and attended school. Now the kids have grown up and the homes need some renovations. The apartments built in the late 60s for young baby boomers just starting out are run down and full of people the city founders don’t recognize. Landlords don’t do a good job of screening tenants and crime festers. Even the old drive-thru on the drag is closed and falling down. (This is like a Bruce Springsteen song.) The original owners, now empty nesters, dig in their heels and refuse to change. They hold on to the past, somehow hoping they can bring it back.

All the energy of designers and urbanists like us can’t save a city led by people unwilling to change. Yes, I admit being lumped in to the category of “urban-designy-types” who want to “save” the suburbs. But honestly, this is an economic argument. The plan wasn’t overly original or groundbreaking. It was simply an apartment building that would add to the city’s tax base and provide a housing option currently not provided in the city. Change is the only constant in cities, and locals and their elected officials are scared of it rather than staying ahead of it.

Multiply this scenario by the hundreds of cities and suburbs around the country that act in a manner that is detrimental to the good of the region and their city itself, and flies in the face of their own comprehensive plan, and exactly what is the future of our metro areas?

And yet…one need not be a tea partier to believe that decision-making should be done at the local level. This $20 million decision was made at the uber-local level, essentially by residents fearful of change and a city council fearful of their jobs. If local decision-making is so treasured, it is critical that decision-makers are well educated on the issues.

Perhaps the developer is right and that site will still be vacant in ten years. Maybe a better proposal will come along, one that doesn’t involve rental apartments. I have nothing but best wishes for that city, but I certainly hope a gradual shift in thinking takes place there (and everywhere), perhaps driven by younger, more recent home buyers beginnning to show up for city council meetings and volunteering on committees. One thing is certain…if that lone 30-year-old woman in favor of the project ever wanted to run for city council, I’d contribute to her campaign.

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