Review: Ehrenhalt’s The Great Inversion

Posted: June 10th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Urbanism and Planning, Zoning | No Comments »

The Great InversionIn the acknowledgements section at the end of his book, The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City, author Alan Ehrenhalt demurred he is “no Jane Jacobs” but says he followed her advice for researching cities, namely to study them through close personal observation using a minimum of preconceptions. The results of this approach are apparent throughout his readable and interesting discussion on the changing geography of U.S. cities. The vivid details gleaned from personal observation, especially in Chicago, Houston, and an Atlanta suburb, provide a vitality and richness too often lacking in nonfiction treatments of cities. In addition, his clear prose captures the essence of key intellectual debates –- such as new urbanism and gentrification –- without getting bogged down.

Organized around a series of short city-based cases, Ehrenhalt explores his thesis, that the return of wealthy residents to city centers will produce U.S. cities more reminiscent of the 19th century Paris and Vienna than the typical 20th Century U.S. city, where wealthy suburbs surround a poorer urban core. However, unlike more narrowly construed books like Lineberger’s The Option of Urbanism, or the lack of nuance in Glaeser’s The Triumph of the City, Ehrenhalt brings a reporter’s eye to his subject, presenting wonderfully detailed descriptions of how this trend is translating into unique local conditions. He describes how downtowns are becoming (or attempting to become) more residential, and suburbs are seeking to transform themselves into more urban places in response to shifting preferences. Each of the places he profiles must grapple with unique local conditions. At its best, he captures the interplay between social and demographic trends and urban form that characterizes good descriptions of urbanism. For example, he describes how Philadelphia developed into a city of owner-occupied row homes organized into largely working class neighborhoods. This produced a physical fabric, unique politics, and public policies (such as a wage tax) that together create challenges for neighborhood revitalization and largely confines revitalization to Center City. Similarly, he describes how lower Manhattan’s obsolete commercial buildings contributed to the unexpected residential renaissance there, as they were ideal for retrofitting into condos and apartments. (As an aside, a similar phenomenon is happening in downtown Detroit, including the recent conversion of the formerly largely vacant commercial Broderick Tower into 124 apartments).

The cases, selected to demonstrate the varied impact of the broad trend on urban neighborhoods or suburban municipalities outside the center city include, with these neighborhoods or suburbs noted, Chicago (Sheffield), New York City (Lower Manhattan and Bushwick), Atlanta (Gwinnet County), Cleveland (Cleveland Heights), Washington, D.C. (Clarendon and Tysons’s Corner), Philadelphia (Center City), Houston (downtown), Phoenix (downtown), and Denver (Belmar, Stapletown and Englewood).

In general, the book’s weaknesses are few and forgivable. While general well-selected, the cases show a northeast bias, with the notable absence of any west coast cities, especially one in California. While Charlotte, North Carolina is discussed at one point, another well-developed southern example might have been illuminating given the region’s distinctive culture and history. The relative scarcity of photos (just 18 in 236 pages) is puzzling, given the author’s first-hand accounts. A few more could have helped illustrate the places and people that are so well described. One strength is the well-designed maps provided at the start of each chapter.

My only substantive complaint is the relatively sketchy and simplistic treatment of the planning process that in many cases fostered or responded to the changes he describes. As an example, the light rail systems and accompanying transit-oriented development plans described in Phoneix and Denver are presented as easily adopted proposals designed by an urban elite. This account omits the extensive planning and outreach work required to secure passage of new taxes and new zoning in a largely anti-tax and anti-urban U.S. electorate. (Approval of transit taxes are by no means guaranteed.) However, convoluted planning processes that feature negotiations, ever-evolving renewal designs and plans, and interminable hearings and meetings make for tedious reading. But greater attention to these issues would help avoid two common misconceptions about U.S. urban development. First, that it is simply the product of heroic, top-down planning, such as the urban renewal feats orchestrated by Philadelphia’s renewal-era planner Ed Bacon. This type of “star planner” has faded from the scene given the separation of power and resources in U.S. cities. While leadership remains important, public action requires cultivating consensus among stakeholders. A public process that defines goals, refines plans, and analyzes proposals is often required before projects are funded and approved. The second erroneous impression to avoid is that planning is not needed because cities change by the market forces alone. Of course, private industry does not provide infrastructure, transit service, parks and public services required for urban life. While planning and public sector action may lead urban change, or respond to private initiative, it is an indispensible factor in any account of urban change.

One entrée into the topic of public sector planning might have been the issue of zoning, a topic with only three entries in the book’s index. Ehrenhalt discusses zoning in the section on Houston, which famously lacks this type of land use regulation. This chapter describes how Garret Coleman and the Midtown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone are using property purchasing and restrictive covenants to to slow gentrification in the Third Ward neighborhood. While alluding to them briefly, the analogous public mechanisms to these in other cities are not described, which include zoning and historic preservation laws, and the plans that guide detailed regulations. In fact, several recent books on zoning are notably missing from a generally comprehensive biography (including Levin’s Zoned Out, Talen’s City Rules, and Ben-Joseph’s The Code of the City).

These complaints aside, the book is unparalleled as a useful portrait of American cities. U.S. metropolitan regions are dynamic and complex, and inevitably evolve much more quickly than our understanding of them. This makes book like this especially useful. Therefore I believe it will be a seminal text of popular urban geography for this era, in the same category as such classics as Kunstler’s Geography of Nowhere (which vividly described and critiqued suburban development) or Garreau’s Edge City (which coined a term for places like Tyson’s Corner in the first place, which are now attempting to develop greater urbanity). These books share a vitality and journalistic sensibility that helps us better grasp the cities of today, whether the readers are scholars, professionals, or residents interested to know more about their place in the evolving urban tapestry.

> The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City [WorldCat]

Zoning Conflict Heats Up In Cambridge

Posted: October 21st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Massachusetts, Zoning | Tags: | Comments Off

Charles River near Cambridge, MAExiting the Trader Joe’s near my home in Cambridge recently, I was approached by an intense man who asked: “Are you a registered voter in Cambridge?” He was collecting signatures for a petition that would put a recent zoning amendment adopted by the City Council on the ballot for a referendum. The City Council was “selling out,” he explained, to “corporate interests.”

In fact, this very issue has sparked dozens of articles in local blogs and newspapers in the past few months, even provoking an editorial in the Boston Globe. In fact, the group asking for my signature succeeded in collecting the signatures of 11,461 registered voters — fully 18% of all voters in the entire city — within less than a month of the final City Council vote. The effort to overturn the proposal involves a “millionaire” activist, a direct mailing sent to all Cambridge voters with a creative, propagandistic photoshopped illustration (below), and even a hired PR consultant.

What was the issue? Maybe it is an up-zoning of low-density neighborhoods? A change to allow industry in residential districts? In notoriously liberal Cambridge, maybe a change that would decrease housing affordability? None of the above. The conflict is about the city’s sign ordinance. Like any good public dispute, it either boils down to conflicting idiosyncratic private interests or a general issue needing a new policy, depending on your point of view.

Microsoft Building at One Memorial Drive in CambridgeCritics argue the dispute boils down to a specific issue. One Memorial Drive (left), a tall commercial building on the Charles River, is half occupied by the Microsoft New England Research & Development Center. According to the Cambridge Chronicle, the company would like to install a sign on the building. However, the building is outside of the special Kendall Square zoning district where building signs are allowed, and probably couldn’t prove hardship to get a zoning variance. Phillip Ragon is a CEO of another corporate tenant, Intersystems, who opposes the sign on the building. He has admitted to funding the opposition, but claims the popular opposition is authentic. Supporters of the change, which include city planners and Tim Rowe, head of the Cambridge Innovation Center, argue it just makes it easier for Cambridge to celebrate its innovative businesses.

I will defer to the city’s documents first. Available on this webpage, they includes the text of the ordinance revisions, and five additional documents. The amendment to the sign ordinance allows businesses renting 25 percent space in building of at least 100,000 square feet to put a sign at the roofline in certain neighborhoods through obtaining a “special permit” from the Planning Board. The sign must have natural or external illumination, and be less than 60 square feet, or 90 square feet if the location was above 100 feet. In addition, the law would allow for a signage plan for an entire lot where the total allowable sign area could be allocated to one, larger sign.

This map shows (in pink) where the new rules will apply, commercial districts in the east and western edges of the city:
Sign Ordinance Map

The organization “Save our Skyline” argues the following:

On September 27th, the Cambridge City Council approved an amendment to the city’s Zoning Ordinance. The new law – known by many people as the “Microsoft Amendment” because it emanates from that company’s plan to erect a sign atop the tallest building overlooking the Charles River – will lead to a proliferation of unwanted corporate signs along the Charles River and throughout the city. This amendment is bad for the citizens of Cambridge because it:

• Reduces the quality of life in our city.
• Represents a huge uncompensated giveaway
to big landlords.
• Harms small local businesses in order to help
big out-of-state corporations.

Although there was strong opposition at every public meeting held to discuss this amendment, the majority of City Council members chose to ignore public input and move forward with what amounts to the “corporatizing” of Cambridge.

The group sent a flyer, presumably to registered voters, likening the policy to a corporate giveaway:
Skyline Mailer

This anonymous comment in the Cambridge Chronicle offers another point of view:

The new sign ordinance modernizes an antiquated and inappropriate variance process. The changes originate from concerns of former ZBA members, city planning staff, and Planning Board members. They have been worked on for over a year and not in response to one building or one sign. The new policy is based on substance and facts not on corporate vendettas and spin. Intersystems was behind the orchestrated campaign to distort the issue due to their past conflicts with their landlord and co occupants of One Memorial Drive. They manipulated well intentioned groups like the Charles River Conservancy and spread misinformation. I am glad that six members of the city council did not allow personal vendettas to cloud over a substantive and needed policy discussion. In fact – the standards and criteria in the new Special Permit actually will result in smaller and less illuminated signs than nearly every sign that has been approved in recent years by a variance process. The council did a good thing and put signage review in the hands of design professionals and the Planning Board.

This image, provided by the city, shows the type of signs that would be allowed under the ordinance, although critics may be quick to point out larger signs are possible on tall buildings.

Building Identification Signs

The situation is no doubt made worse by embittered East Cambridge residents, captured by this comment on CCTV: “People in my end of town, East, have been complaining for ever that We get all of the development, traffic, bio-hazards, noise, and unwelcome light from the commercial tax revenue engine that our city planners have built next to us.”

The debate will rage on until the issue appears on the local ballot for voters to decide, either a November 2011 or a special election. Local political observer Robert Winters sums up the options now facing the City Council:

It will be interesting, perhaps even entertaining, to see what happens next. The City Council could rescind their approval and, by doing so, look like spineless and incompetent political jellyfish. That may be their best option. On the other hand, they could let the storm pass and allow the measure to be placed on the municipal ballot in 2011 coincident with their reelection campaigns. Gone are the good old days of rent control trench warfare. We’ll have a municipal election dominated by propaganda about signs. There may be a $500 annual individual contribution limit for local candidates, but it will be sky’s-the-limit for a “Citizens United” type of campaign in Cambridge indirectly instructing misinformed voters who they should vote for based on one hopelessly overstated and relatively unimportant issue. Perhaps the safest option for the City Council would be to dip into the public trough and fund a special election on this single item safely segregated from next fall’s municipal election. In recent years, the Cambridge City Council has shown over and over again that incumbency protection is Job #1, so perhaps this is the most likely next step

What are we to take from this debate? Is it truly a petty dispute between tenants that has spilled out into the public sphere? Does allowing signs on private property constitute a severe theft from the public trust, akin to a Wall Street handout? Or does the anger represent deep-seated frustration with corporate power in general in our society, and the sign ordinance serves as a legible lighting-rod?


> City of Cambridge: Sign Ordinance Information
> Save Our Skyline
> Boston Globe: “Big signs threaten river skyline, but Cambridge can reconsider” (Editorial, 10/16/10), “Critics put city on notice over sign rules” (10/9/10)
> Cambridge Chronicle: “In Cambridge sign battle, a call for transparency and truth” (Editorial, 10/14/10), “Cambridge Election Commission clears way for challenge to controversial sign amendment” (10/20/10), Cambridge Chamber of Commerce denounces anti-sign group’s campaign (10/15/10), “Cambridge City Council passes controversial sign ordinance” (9/30/10)
> Letters in response: Cambridge sign battle is real, Terry Ragon responds to Cambridge sign battle editorial, Cambridge sign op-ed ‘refreshingly well written’, Cambridge council vote is how democracy works, More signs needed to trumpet Kendall Square identity
> Cambridge Day: “Sign ordinance takes step forward in defiance of ‘campaign’” (9/15/10)

Planetizen Posts: New Urbanism and Public Notices on the Web

Posted: September 29th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: New Urbanism, Urban Development, Zoning | 3 Comments »

I’ve posted a couple new posts to Planetizen’s Interchange blog recently:

> Should the Internet Replace Newspapers for Public Notices? Most planning and zoning ordinances require cities publish some notices in the local newspaper. In an age of newspapers decline, and with the Internet readily available, I suggest we should amend our laws.

> The Origin of New Urbanism’s Persistent Image Problem: Despite authoring a trenchant critique of contemporary urbanism and articulating a detailed, comprehensive vision for urban development, the New Urbanism movement retains a vague stigma with many American urbanists. Far more than an unfair stereotype, I argue the reputation problem runs to the core of intellectual life among American urbanists, speaking to the way our cities our developed and studied.

Zoning Out Guns

Posted: June 27th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: District of Columbia, Zoning | 8 Comments »

Just because the D.C. handgun ban has been overturned doesn’t mean you will ever be able to buy one in Washington. The reason? Zoning. This from the Wall Street Journal:

Washington has no federally licensed gun stores, so nowhere in the city can residents buy a handgun legally. Under federal law, buying one in neighboring Maryland or Virginia isn’t an option either. If gun dealers sell a firearm to a nonresident, they have to ship it to a licensed dealer in the purchaser’s home state, which then conducts the relevant background checks. “Without a dealer, there’s no place to ship the gun to,” said Mike Campbell, a spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

It is unlikely that Washington will get any new dealers, either. Federal licensing requirements mandate that would-be dealers meet local guidelines and zoning ordinances. Representatives of each of the district’s eight council wards said they would vigorously oppose a gun shop in their area. They also said discussions had already begun over which regulations they might use to keep one from opening.

This approach has been used successfully elsewhere – as of 2005 Minneapolis only had one store, and Washington has already largely eradicated nude strip clubs through onerous zoning requirements:

While the license allows an owner to open a club with nude dancing anywhere in the city that has commercial zoning, a club must sit at least 600 feet away from any schools, community centers and housing. Community members can protest the opening of such a club, and it must get approval from the District’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.

The only problem? As of now, D.C. Zoning Code says nothing about gun shops. Another issue to throw into the mix over in the D.C. zoning update

The Wrong Way the Solicit Participation on the Web

Posted: June 5th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Public Participation, Technology, Zoning | 3 Comments »

I noticed two flawed attempts to solicit public participation on the web recently.

First, on Tuesday Hillary Clinton said the following during her nationally televised speech: “Now the question is, where do we go from here … But this has always been your campaign, so to the 18 million people who voted for me and to our many other supporters out there of all ages, I want to hear from you. I hope you’ll go to my website at and share your thoughts with me and help in any way that you can.” If you read it closely you’ll see she’s only asking her supporters to visit her website, but you can be forgiven if like me you got the impression she was casting a wider net. As the DCeiver noted, when you visit her website the only option is to sign a petition declaring “I am with you, Hillary, and I am proud of everything we are fighting for.” The form includes an “optional” box for comments. I guess asking her supporters to “sign a pledge offering me your unconditional support” just wouldn’t have had the same ring in the speech.

Second, the D.C. Office of Zoning has opened a commenting feature on their website, where visitors are allowed to review and comment on the proposed policy changes to the city’s zoning code. Visitors must download a 115KB PDF of the proposed policy, which is embedded with HTML links to this webpage with boxes for comments.

Sharing policies, soliciting comments, and allowing visitors to view other’s comments are all good things. However, a number of things about the implementation bug me. First, never require someone to download a PDF unless you have no other option. In particular, documents containing text can be easily displayed on a webpage. In general, PDFs are a hassle to download on a slow connection, and for various reasons can cause browser crashes. If the draft policy were presented on a webpage, the boxes for comments could be located near the policy. The current structure requires you to switch back and forth between both documents. Lastly, offering a long page of input boxes all in one place will probably depress the response rate. Breaking it up into just a few pages or fewer fields would make it seem more manageable.

The technology and techniques of soliciting input online are rapidly evolving, but being honest about what you’re interested in and making the system as easy to use as possible are two good places to start.

Review: A Better Way to Zone

Posted: May 20th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Urban Development, Urbanism and Planning, Zoning | 4 Comments »

A Better Way to ZoneI have mixed feelings about zoning, which may explain my thoughts about Donald Elliott’s new book about it, A Better Way to Zone. A land use law consultant in Colorado, Elliott’s book is dedicated to making “simplicity and understandability not just an aspiration but a guiding principle in zoning.” While I agree with much of the sentiment of the book, I’m not sure he’s struck upon the new way to zone he seeks.

Organized around the goal of making zoning “better, more efficient, and more understandable,” the book contains a brief history of zoning, a critique of the current system as used by most big cities, a discussion the legal framework and values of good governance, and finally a discussion of “ten principles” to improve zoning. Filled with lists of reasons, lessons, principles, and cross-references, this book is obviously the work of an order-oriented legal mind.

Elliott’s concise accounts of the origins and logic of most cities’ “Euclidean Hybrid Zoning” would serve as a good primer on the subject for students or citizens new to the field. Convinced that “almost no one outside of city government, zoning lawyers, and very committed citizen activists can explain how the system works” Elliott passionately argues “zoning ordinances should not be understandable only to lawyers or zoning staff; they should be understandable to average homeowners.” I think the mantra about simplicity is the most important part of the book, and completely agree with Elliott that “the more the public knows, the better they can participate at the policy- and rule-making level.” Let’s hope his call for simplicity and transparency is heeded.

The book’s “10 principles for more livable cities” will come as no surprise to informed readers: 1. more flexible uses (simplifying the number and type of uses regulated), 2. the mixed-use middle (simplify number of zones, create mixed-use zones at the heart of the code), 3. attainable housing (reduce regulatory barriers to affordable housing), 4. mature area standards, 5. living with nonconformities (legalize some nonconforming uses), 6. dynamic development standards, 7. negotiated large developments, 8. depoliticized final approvals, 9. Better use of the internet (he oddly uses the word “webbing” for this section, which I’ve never heard used this way), 10. scheduled maintenance.

While most of the topics discussed under these headings are sensible and needed reforms, all together they don’t add up to anything close to a “new” way to zone. In fact, Elliott is convinced our strange combination of conventional Euclidian zoning, planned unit development regulation, and form-based zoning, will continue. While some communities have implemented the form-based SmartCode, I agree with Elliott it doesn’t appear likely it will totally replace the existing tools in most communities.

This brings us to my mixed feelings about zoning in general.

On the one hand, zoning has caused lots of problems. Its separation of uses has encouraged driving and low-density development. Its parking requirements cover the land with impervious parking lots. It has been used as a tool of racial and economic exclusion in communities across the country. When used to require low density development, it consumes land and worsens global warming. Worst of all, it has often failed to achieve one of its original impetus: to separate polluting industries from residences.

On the other hand, just because a tool has been used poorly doesn’t mean the tool itself is flawed. It is the most important source of power for urban planners, and it can be used to sculpt the public realm, create affordable housing, and genuinely improve cities.

The problem with A Better Way to Zone is the book is mostly unaware of such nuance. In a discussion about an alternative to conventional zoning, the author observes that there may be parts of the city suitable for experimentation, but “in and around stable middle- and high-income neighborhoods, there will still be a demand for zones that produce more predictable development.” The reasons or implications for this go undiscussed. There exists an intellectual chasm between historians who observe zoning has been a highly effective tool of exclusion to the detriment of our cities and types like Elliott who are generally sanguine on its basic foundations. The book’s central strength — its focus on making zoning with simple, efficient, and understandable — is also its central flaw. After all, a simple, efficient, and understandable zoning code may not necessarily achieve a desirable, just, or sustainable outcome. For those we must turn elsewhere.

> A Better Way to Zone: official website, purchase from publisher
> A Better Way to Zone: Ten Principles to Create More Livable Cities

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