This week I participated in a newly formed group that will be bringing Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns and Joe Minicozzi of Urban3 to Sonoma County, California this fall. Sonoma County is experiencing the same challenges as most places across the country in terms of urban form and municipal governance and there’s a need to redefine the conversation.
Santa Rosa is the seat of government for Sonoma County. I’m going to highlight two different parts of town and two very different forms of urbanism to demonstrate the basic message behind both Strong Towns and Urban3.
This is the historic downtown of Santa Rosa. It’s compact, walkable, bikeable, and has good quality public parks. Most buildings in downtown are two stories tall, although there are many one story buildings and a few buildings that are five or six stories. This is a textbook example of a traditional pre World War II North American downtown.
Here’s an image I pulled from Google Earth. I’ve highlighted the buildings in order to show the relationship between the public infrastructure (roads, sidewalks, water and sewer systems, etc) and the productive private activity (shops, restaurants, offices, apartments) that exists on that public chassis. There’s a high value-to-infrastructure ratio here.
A couple of blocks from the downtown core you’ll find an assortment of modest, but charming bungalows on quiet tree lined streets. This is how most towns were built in previous generations. The Main Street downtown provided employment, commerce, education, vitality, and affordable apartments, while the nearby bungalows supplied a comfortable home life for middle class families. These two areas in close proximity actually make each other more valuable and improve the overall quality of life for the entire town.
And here’s the famous Sonoma County rural landscape. Historically, this landscape wasn’t merely picturesque or a refuge for the natural world, but a highly productive agricultural belt that fed the town by way of small diversified family farms. The countryside supported the town and the town supported the countryside.
This is an area very close to downtown that has followed the post World War II suburban development pattern. This kind of urban form caters exclusively to the needs of motorists. For miles there’s a cavalcade of muffler shops, discount tire emporiums, carpet warehouses, parking lots, drive-thru fast food outlets, used car lots, nail salons, and liquor stores.
Here’s a Google Earth image of exactly the same scale as the image of downtown. It’s an apples-to-apples comparison of how the same amount of land is used with two different development patterns. These are almost all single use, single story buildings surrounded by generous surface parking lots and wide high speed roads and highways.
From a municipal standpoint the value of private property downtown is exponentially higher than the cost of the modest public infrastructure that’s needed to support it. Downtown is a money maker for local government whether they know it or not. Usually they don’t since they haven’t done a detailed accounting of their own assets and liabilities. Then there’s the number of jobs and apartments that exist in this one building compared to the same amount of land in the suburbs. There’s no comparison.
In contrast, the cost to the taxpayer for the massive horizontal infrastructure that’s required to support the low value activity along suburban roads is a clear financial loser. There just isn’t enough tax revenue coming in from these businesses to cover the ongoing costs of maintaining this landscape. How many acres of parking and roadway do you need in this location to generate the same number of jobs and housing that exist in one block downtown?
At the moment the political debate is dominated by two groups. The first group insists that any form of compact, mixed use, transit served density is an abomination that must be stopped at all costs. Respectable, decent, law abiding, prosperous Americans live in fully detached single family homes and drive cars. Anything else is just communism. (I’m only exaggerating slightly and I’m omitting the racial component of this perspective.)
The other group cries tears for the poor and oppressed, as well as the suffering planet. They can’t tolerate new growth since it wastes resources and chews up the natural landscape.
And by the way, these two groups are tightly intertwined. The pro growth conservatives will march on City Hall to preserve the open space next to their existing McMansion in order to maintain their quality of life and property values. And the tree huggers will fight tooth and nail to prevent low income affordable housing from being built anywhere near their home for similar reasons.
This is why we need to redefine the conversation with the help of Strong Towns and Urban3. They demonstrate the actual numbers involved with various forms of development and the long term consequences of pursuing one path rather than another. Towns can then take that information and move forward as they see fit. Different towns will use the information in different ways based on local culture and circumstances.
I own property in Sonoma County so I have a vested interest in how these things play out. I don’t want to see the countryside consumed with strip malls and subdivisions. But I’m not fond of big sterile apartment complexes plopped down on the edge of the Interstate either. Doing nothing (the longstanding method currently in place) results in serious “externalities” that are even more expensive and unpleasant than not addressing the immediate challenges. I want a different set of options.
Here’s that same image of downtown, but this time I’ve colored the parking lots blue. Downtown could double its stock of apartments, shops, and/or offices by rewriting the building code and zoning restrictions. There’s clearly a huge pent up demand for housing in the area. If the city allowed private property owners to convert these parking spaces into small scale buildings (precisely what was there a century ago) supply and demand could begin to rebalance. The more people that live downtown the more customers there will be for local businesses and the more vibrant the neighborhood will become. The more commercial activity that occurs the more tax revenue will be collected and the more funds will be available to provide services to the population. Yes… suburban customers will find it less convenient to drive and park in town, but those customers will be replaced by people who live nearby and walk to shops. These urban inhabitants will be a self-selecting population who will voluntarily live car-lite.
No new green fields will need to be paved in order to supply the pent up demand. That will make the environmentalists happy. Who will morn the loss of these parking lots? Existing suburban neighborhoods will be completely unaffected by downtown infill so the NIMBYs can “keep calm and carry on”.
Here’s another example of how market forces could combine with a different regulatory framework to transform the existing landscape. The Naked Pig is a fantastic local eatery with great food, excellent service, and high quality design. But the location?
This is the kind of neighborhood that doesn’t appeal to the upscale suburban crowd. But it isn’t sufficiently urbane to appeal to city people either. As an old college room mate of mine used to say about such places, “It lacks luster.” The Naked Pig was once a Greyhound bus station. This is aging suburbia. This is the destiny of all the shiny new strip malls and muffler boutiques once the synthetic spray on stucco and cheap T-111 plywood siding begin to weather and weeds start to grow in the cracks in the asphalt. This is what happens when the middle class migrates to the new tract homes and new strip malls that were built five miles down the highway. And there’s a huge amount of this crap all over North America.
Look at this image of the suburban commercial corridor again. It’s mostly vacant land in the form of surface parking and the left over space between highway ramps. If property owners were allowed to build new structures on that land – without the usual insistence on minimum parking ratios, height restrictions, minimum setback requirements, single use zoning… (the list of restrictions and requirements is very very long) the market might just sort itself out.
Again, these declining locations aren’t likely to meet with much resistance from NIMBYs or environmentalist since neither considers this sort of place worth fighting for. If the kinds of people who created the Naked Pig were let loose on this landscape they might be able to do a whole lot more than transform an old bus station. They could transform the entire neighborhood. And it wouldn’t cost the city or county much to sit back and let it happen.