Mind the Gap

45 thoughts on “Mind the Gap”

  1. Thanks for another great post.

    I work in a municipal planning department as a planner and I see plenty of great projects die every single month–actually, I am the one that kills them. Sadly I have to kill them because I am only a servant to an antiquated and burdensome zoning code which the elected officials have no interest in changing, and if I don’t my position is on the line. I’ve spent a lot of time talking with elected officials, building officials, private citizens, other planners, and basically anyone else about how a few simple changes could result in huge improvements to general livability, but the system is not responsive to anything other than a few types of change. Additionally, many of the people making the decisions have no understanding of the actual issues.

    I used to try to help applicants get around the code or slip through the cracks, but too many times I got in trouble for it from above–either directly from my supervisor chain or from upset property owners seeking to maintain the status quo at all costs. A guy trying to put in an ADU for his son to live on his property, a family trying to run a home occupation, someone trying to build a shed without making 3 trips to the planning department–I tried to help all these people out (within the loosest confines of the zoning code), and it did not go very well for me. It is truly disheartening, and I don’t think any change will come until we get a fundamental shift in the way people think about land and property.

    1. Thanks for sharing. I hear this exact same message from many people in your position. Although I also hear plenty of people agressively doubling down on the status quo as well.

      I built a little cottage in rural Hawaii years ago and learned (the hard way) that “Carl” at the permit office was a hard ass who loved spotting people who were “trying to get away with something.” However, “Sylvia” would quietly point to something on the plans and say there’s a labeling mistake that needs to be corrected. “This is inaccurately marked as an outdoor shower. That’s illegal and against the health code. I think what you meant to do is install a hose bib here.”

      We are in agreement. Things aren’t going to change until the general population has an emotional (not a rational) desire for things to shift. We’re not there yet.

      What might bring about that shift? We’ve been here before as a society – more than once. I sometimes wonder how people in the gated exurban compounds or high rise condos would manage in a WWII or Civil War or Revolutionary War type of situation. How well are these living arrangements going to hold up during rationing of food and fuel, power outages, and a redirected wartime economy?

      The places we’ve built are exquisitely designed to thrive in a very specific atmosphere. If conditions were to alter they may not endure as well as people assume. Not that there’s any reason to believe the world is currently in any danger of conflict or anything….

    1. I’ve explored Buffalo and got to know various neighborhoods and people. My experience there was similar to much of the Rust Belt. The older people in charge are ruthlessly wedded to the previous set of arrangements where a couple of the better neighborhoods (wealthier, whiter) were fortified while most of the rest of the city was let go and drained of resources.

      Take a map of your town and put a pin at the address of each important person. The mayor, the fire marshal, the police chief, the superintendent of schools, the district attorney… You can be sure they tend to cluster in a few concentrated spots. And those spots will have the best roads, schools, police protection, and public parks along with the highest property values. Everyplace else? Not so much.

      Attention to the lesser neighborhoods comes after – and only after – property values rise considerably. The city needs revenue and money goes to money. The people who are best able to take advantage of changes in new zoning regulations or building codes aren’t typically the people who live there now. That’s because the new rules are still subject to an endless process that takes technical skill, political skill, time, and serious money. You don’t get Accessory Dwelling Units springing up in mom and pop’s back yard. Instead, you get 200 unit condo complexes with five stories of structured parking.

  2. Every year we should require our local bureaucrats to get up from their desks and build something that complies with their regulations – as of right.

    Then let’s tie their compensation to the financial performance of their project.

    I bet things start to get fixed when the fire marshall has to explain to his wife that there will be no new Lexus this Christmas because the coffee shop he built has to pay off a $120,000 sprinkler job.

  3. Almost acquired an old warehouse to retrofit to apartments with a middle aged Colombian woman who’d done permititing with the city before. Her approach “we tell them we’re doing this (the bare minimum), get our certificate of occupancy, then do the rest under the radar.” I think that grey area approach is the only way most small scale developers can stay in business (seen it with others in the industry.)

  4. Anyone with a wit of economics education knows all this — without a “gap” of “years” “on the ground” “studying” “land use policy”. If it took you that much exposure to reality to lose the politically correct party line thinking, I’m sorry for you.

    1. Most people actually don’t study economics or the intricacies of land use regulation. It really and truly is news to most people that you can’t just add on to your home in the way you might like or open up a business without hitting multiple barriers. Really.

      Here’s my analogy. Take an expert in any of these professional arenas and ask them how to yoke an ox. What? You’ve never plowed a field before? Dah!

      1. Even if you have an education in economics and work with land-use regulation for years (which exactly describes me), the aspects that can bite you are not obvious until you get to the knowledgeable “code consultant”. Especially the change(s) to existing property or structures that might trigger requirements for sprinklers, backflow preventers, water meter size, sewer size, stormwater handling, accessible second or third exits, loading space, maximum occupancy, FAR/land coverage or other arcane “code” changes. And no one expert seems to know them all.

        1. That’s exactly right. As an engineering consultant for developers, I deal with this all the time. We can provide general caution to our clients, but the regulatory process is a moving target with subjective reviews that are performed long after the property has been purchased.

        2. > And no one expert seems to know them all.
          And when they are wrong: when the health official says 150 seats is the limit under this fire suppression system, but the fire inspector says you can only have 145, and now that you stated 150 on your application, the new fire control system is mandatory, the first official just shrugs. Talk about no skin in the game.

          [BTW, feel free to swap “fire inspector” and “health official” in this tale. It’s NOT a matter of finding the right person; none of the city people know exactly what they are supposed to be enforcing.]

  5. Speaking as someone who spent nearly two decades in the business of real estate, sat on County boards, etc…. I will testify that the article here is both true and untrue. It’s true that the nickle-and-diming of anything innovative, recycled, or otherwise useful is a commonplace. Folsom, CA just bled a proposed CoHousing development dry with useless studies and fees. Nothing built, but honestly, an attractive addition to a pathetic old downtown just went away because of their behavior.

    The untruth is that (often) whenever plutocrats want a zoning variance, a change in land use, etc. They get it at the drop of a hat. The Sacramento Kings got not only a chance to “streamline” environmental requirements for their new stadium, they got a quarter billion dollar subsidy so they could build it.

    “No one ever lost money underestimating the intelligence of the American public” said P.T. Barnum. Never more than today.

    1. That’s not an untruth in the article. It makes me wonder whether the article was read or understood. The article, in fact, is pretty plain that large-scale redevelopment is successful often because it has the kind of money required to burn through bureaucratic obstacles.

      The fact is that small-scale operators and localism are what’s suppressed by regulation. That’s the way it’s always been. Rules and regs are no bar to megacorps; they do not have to obey because they will always buy their way out. Which means you cannot target regulation at them, either: their ability to avoid suffering the consequences of regulation will not become less effective with more regs.

      If you want to encourage small local business, deregulate. If you want faceless multinationals to own everything, throw up as many rules and regs as you can. It’s that easy.

    2. John is correct. The Sacramento Kings would hardly be described as the “little guy” who, in the article, gets crushed by over-regulation. Instead, the Kings bring the only kind of redevelopment (the giant, landscape-changing, tax-incentive kind) that can afford to pay $1,000 per hour for lawyers to sort through the exact same regulation that an aspiring bakery owner has to take on. Large bureaucracy means change can only be done with huge projects.

    1. Yes, Low-Tech Magazine is always full of cool content. From my perspective we “could” run a civilized society on water, wind, sun, etc. For 5,000 years we did – in fits and starts anyway. But it wouldn’t look like the society we have now. And most people aren’t interested in going back to simpler old ways if they can still hold on to the life they know. In the end we will make a transition back to less complex systems that use less of everything. But it’s going to take a century or two and it won’t be voluntary.

  6. We should be focusing at least 75% of our regulations on the top 25% highest-value/impact groups. Instead it’s distributed equally, which means that national chains can build big-box stores, developers can build huge low-density suburban developments and luxury condo high-rises, and heavily-polluting industries have the political clout to lobby for exemptions to environmental regulations, while small business struggle with parking requirements, moderately-sized apartments and ADUS are not allowed by the zoning code, and renovating buildings for new uses have prohibitive mandates around landscaping and stormwater management.

  7. This is one of those dilemmas that doesn’t have a good answer. While I do strongly believe in streamlining the regulatory environment in commercial districts, there is an issue with regulations that are for good purposes, and should be on the books in some form, but when taken as a body of requirements are still cost prohibitive to many.

    Since it is very unlikely that we will ever be able to reset the regulatory environment, where we start over and craft everything from scratch, people should be required to eliminate a regulation for any new one they seek to add. Perhaps it could move into that every other month or year is devoted to removing old, archaic, poorly formed, or unnecessary requirements. Perhaps there can be a gradiated compliance process for existing buildings (which could encourage preservation and redevelopment too).

  8. The destruction of any situation,project,or organization is often a result of bureaucracy. At its best it can only accomplish employment and that huge cost can not be recovered .The template for zoning, permits and fees can be very similar in many areas of the U.S. by way of lobbyists,municipal organizations and corporate salesmanship.The” curb cut “has been the most common deterrent for repurposing of commercial structures, in my experience. The best strategy is to buy on the cheap at times and in areas where others fear.Make improvements that do not require a permit,keep the building true to its original form,be cautious of Gov offers with strings attached and opportunities may arise.The more potentially useful properties that can be owned and maintained by individuals ,with similar goals and opinions can lessen the grip of urban decay, poverty and bureaucracy.

  9. I subscribe to various email lists from my small city. The most interesting are the special use permits. They allow for things like parking reductions, business operations in zoned areas that would not normally allow it, grandfathering existing activities after re-zoning, etc. One of the most contentious business types are used car dealers and light industrial flex space, as the city is trying to banish them (asinine move). SUPs need to be updated and re-approved when there’s a change such as ownership, biz name, biz type, etc. I have seen ownership and name changes for existing SUPs loaded up with onerous additional requirements such as re-analyzing a parking reduction under current (stricter) rules, réévaluation of storm water management, changes required to operating hours and delivery hours, noise restrictions, health department rules, trash can and dumpster relocation or concealment, etc, etc.

    Small business is dying in this prosperous close-in suburb of Washington DC, and our government wonders why.

  10. Guess this explains some of the stagnation and mostly empty smaller stores that are on main streets in small-town Texas near me. Maybe 1 business is open out of 5 possible spaces, and none of them are restaurants. If I had a million dollars, I’d love to do some restoration and renovation on the old main street properties and make it so people don’t have to drive 3 or 4 towns over to go hang out or meet people. I’d love to have a small used book shop and coffee counter or something to have a meeting place for people that’s not a country diner reeking of decades of burnt toast and cigarette smoke or a fast food chain (that’s about all we have around here).

    But even before I pulled out the graph paper to do some basic planning, I would know it’d be way too much to retrofit and comply with new laws. Amazing all the hurdles they put in place to make sure properties can’t be used right now and create new jobs. Ugh.

      1. I’m proud of our urban food coop, which we opened on a whole lot less…and we required use and parking variances. But there were a lot of people involved who knew how to work the system, too, and we generally had city support.

  11. In New York City, all the buildings got re-used. Everything was illegal, but nothing was enforced, except against the “wrong kind” of business or people, in response to a complaint. Sometimes a little tip for the buildings department was required.

    Actually fixing the rules is apparently politically impossible.

  12. “Mandatory parking requirements, sidewalks, curb cuts, fire lanes, on site stormwater management, handicapped accessibility, drought tolerant native plantings.”

    I don’t understand. Are these just “crazy California” regulations or are they universal? I find it hard to believe that little unincorporated Graton, of all places, has parking minimums . . .

    Would the owner have faced fewer hurdles if he had picked a business-friendly place like Houston, TX instead?

    1. I’ve been all over. The particulars are different everywhere, but the outcomes are almost always the same.

      ADA is federal civil rights legislation.

      There are exceptions, but off street parking minimums are ubiquitous – typically one parking space per seat in a restaurant or bar. If the law doesn’t mandate it per se outraged neighbors will often make it so when they oppose a “change in the character of the community.”

      Many of the things that shape our buildings and towns come from requirements from the banks who finance such projects. They have a cookie cutter checklist of accepted standards.

      It’s not just one thing. It’s EVERYTHING.

    2. “””Would the owner have faced fewer hurdles if he had picked a business-friendly place like….”””

      Probably not, this stupidity is universal. Some places do not have “zoning”, but they have other rules under a different label which accomplish the same thing.

      Push back is having an impact. Waivers for [idiotic] parking requirements are the defacto norm where I am – but that is still a costly process; both in $$$ and just as importantly – time. Also the city is slowly expanding the areas with the “CC” designation – as within “CC” there are no parking requirements. Last week at the planning meeting a developer said “there are no parking requirements for this site” so many times that someone else called out – “Would you like to say that one more time?” It was beautiful.

      But when you start to talk about removing impediments to small-scale development and small developers – the crazies come out of the woodwork like roaches. America is a deeply ironic place. I didn’t think there was a topic that would make people angrier than Accessory Dwelling Units – I was wrong, or maybe the first topic just got them warmed up.

    3. Doug, no, parking requirements, setbacks along major thoroughfares, landscaping requirements, permitting and inspections; they even exist here in Houston. It’s not some sort of wild-west scenario. There’d likely be more mom-and-pop businesses in Houston if it weren’t for our parking regulations. Assembling land for parking lots in popular parts of Houston essentially hinders corridor development.

  13. I see similar institutional indifference/obstruction happening in Ag. I wonder if its part of a more general failure? A slow, creeping decay. Nothing too dramatic.

    I’m in the process of transitioning our NW Wisconsin 300 odd acre grain farm to organic. Universities/officialdom (Farm Service Agency, etc.) have plenty of “programs” to “help” me, but they all depend on putting a lot of money into something that has marginal, at best, returns. Meanwhile, they get paid. Lip service is given to soil health, but for the most part its business as usual. More corn and (soy)beans to add to a huge stored inventory. No real local markets for much else. Much like your view of how cities *will* be used, I don’t see that changing anytime soon. Unfortunately.

    I’m starting small, 65 acres is my test case, and going from there. The markets/infrastructure just don’t exist for things like small grains, which are necessary to an organic rotation. I’ve decided to try a number of smaller scale animal ventures (a few steers on pasture, along with a handful of sheep, some egg layers to clean up the bugs.) I’m close enough to the Mlps/St. Paul to be able to sell a bit there.

    I appreciate your blog, and feel like a I learn something every time you post.

    Thank you.

    1. High praise. Thank you.

      I buy my meat directly from farmers in bulk. A whole hog or lamb, a side of beef, a few dozen chickens… I have a couple of big freezers and do a lot of home canning.

      My pork, lamb, and chicken guy is way up north near the Oregon border about six hours away. He commutes with a refrigerated trailer once a month to make his deliveries here in San Francisco. Cuts out the middlemen. I like giving my money directly to him. My beef guy is closer in, but same same.

      If you can get to the Twin Cities I say build up an urban clientele and do direct marketing. It’s more work in terms of customer service, but it may be worth it relative to selling to a wholesaler. This assumes you have a certified butcher to work with.

      Option #2 is to find high end shops in fancy neighborhoods that sell at a premium to folks with money who pay extra for local and organic. They want to hear your story and see reassuring photos of your farm and animals. “This is Heloise. She loves eating fresh grass in our pasture and fallen apples from the orchard.”

      All systems throughout history all over the planet have had a predictable trajectory. They start out small and scrappy, build up gradually, hit a high, a long plateau, then decline. We’re currently in our late plateau stage.

      This is where we want to maintain things but keep hitting limits. A huge institutional armature hangs over from the growth and expansion phase, but can’t be supported by the contracting reality. Without expansion institutions preserve themselves by cannibalizing.

      1. Bruce F actually stands a better chance of finding a market here in the Twin Cities than in many other major metro areas. The Minneapolis/St. Paul area is blessedly free of major supermarket chains like Safeway and Kroger (though Walmarts and Targets are plentiful). There is a network of food co-ops (and some independents) looking for products like his as well as some supermarket chains which would be interested in featuring a local organic producer and a population base that values his kind of operation. We’re almost over-supplied with such stores. But it would be far easier to sell into this space as an individual operator than it would be to approach one of the big chains and try to fit into their supply chain.

      2. Bruce F actually stands a much higher chance of success here in the Twin Cities metro than at many others. For whatever reason, Safeway and Kroger haven’t (yet?) landed here and even the presence of several Walmarts and Targets have yet to suck the air out of the market. There are several food co-ops and a locally-based supermarket chain or two which — based on my watching them — would be happy to work with Bruce to promote an organic product from a local producer (assuming, of course, that it’s not a me-too product in a crowded category like fresh chicken).

        Minnesota (and, to some extent, Wisconsin) are unusual in the U.S. in that many natives either refuse to leave (and, luckily, have not had to for industry, etc.) or plan to come back as soon as their sojourn elsewhere finishes. That has odd effects on those of us who moved here but works very well for people like Bruce.

  14. “While the event was underway the fire marshal happened to drive by and noticed there were people – a few dozen actual humans – occupying a commercial building in broad daylight. In a town that has seen decades of depopulation and disinvestment this was an odd sight. And he was worried. Do people have permission for this kind of activity? Had there been an inspection? Was a permit issued? Is everything insured? He called one of his superiors to see if he should shut things down in the name of public safety. Fortunately the woman he called was in the meeting at the time and talked him down.”

    This describes another type of reality of modern America, The Official, who may be a security guard, or a fire marshal or maybe someone on the town council. They have a title, but unfortunately there is nothing for them to do all day, so they make up busy work to occupy themselves.

    1. I’m not trying to vilify public employees. I’m just pointing out that their job description requires them to do certain things based on the rules and procedures that are in place. If they don’t and anything goes wrong it’s their job – salary, health insurance, pension – that’s on the line. We could have different arrangements that created a halfway space that maintained public health and safety, but didn’t restrict the kinds of small scale and reasonably priced intermediary steps necessary for incremental improvements. Personally, I don’t see that happening.

      1. Agree. Bureaucracy seems to be ill-suited to recognize the need for more than “one size fits all” rulemaking. Oh, sure, sometimes at the lower fringe there will be a “de minimis” exception, but it’s typically really small so that people can’t slice a big project up into de minimis-sized bites.

        Though I am reminded of one neighbor of my folks who expanded a patio, and asked if he was required to get a structural or foundation permit if he poured a footing under the patio “to keep it stable”. The answer was no. Then he also didn’t have to get a permit to cover the patio. Nor to enclose the cover later. (This was long before building authorities got wise to the practice of extending a roof attached to the house, as you noted on a previous post about your Sonoma County place.) Bunky was that kind of guy…playing the edges and exceptions like you, while keeping it legal.

      2. The halfway space you describe can when the businesses are empathetic enough to make sure that when you reduce the regulations, voluntary accommodations for i.e. the disabled happen. I.e. the staff at a restaurant pulls up a temporary ramp for times when a wheelchair-bound individual needs to enter. A community based business is probably likely to do such things, because they have a stake in their community, that is, skin in the game.

        However, if you eliminate the regulations for the large chain businesses, there is probably little incentive for them to make such accommodations voluntarily, especially when it would represent a big cost savings to them not to do so, so we have these regulations so that the elderly and disabled can actually get in to the Walgreens to pick up their prescriptions.

        Unfortunately, it seems like we have a regulatory system which presumes this situation is the inevitable state of things. Would we want to let large developers build $10M+ shopping centers without accessibility built in? Those kinds of places are going to be built, because capital is so concentrated, and most holders of capital prefer the simplicity and “security” of those kinds of big investments.

        How do you reduce the burden on local cottage businesses trying to bootstrap without taking away the sticks that keep large businesses from cutting corners?

        Perhaps we can make building regulations scale up gradually based on the size of the project’s capital investment? Fire safety seems important for a small food-preparation business, but landscaping does not.

        1. Keep in mind the ADA is an American thing, it doesn’t exist other places such as Europe. That is something I notice right away when I am over there. What is life like for the disabled there? Do they have the problems we fear? I also notice people serving me food without gloves on. Still waiting for my first European food-born illness.

        2. Keep in mind the ADA is an American thing, it doesn’t exist other places such as Europe. That is something I notice right away when I am over there. What is life like for the disabled there? Do they have the problems we fear? I also notice people serving me food without gloves on. Still waiting for my first European food-born illness.

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