Thursday, September 16, 2010

New Views on Zoning: Smart Growth

Now a days more and more planners are becoming New Urbanists.  New Urbanism champions encouraging higher density housing, mass transit and mixed uses within smaller areas that make fully contained neighborhoods with a myriad of land uses within a two to three mile area.  Huh?  What this means is that New Urbanists want to recreate the old city neighborhood that existed before the advent of zoning; remember the business with the family quarters above it, walkable streets and street cars.

The idea of the importance of the mixed use city neighborhood was first touted by Jane Jacobs in her book
The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  Written in 1961, the book lambasts urban planners for their shortsidedness in building large multi-family housing projects with interior public spaces (such as parks and playgrounds) to separate the inhabitants from the unclean, noisome street.  She argues that the busy, noisy street was what kept people safe.  Seldom used interior spaces became inhabited by hoodlums and were danger zones.  She stresses the importance of the local shopkeeper as a trusted member of the neighborhood who helps glue the neighborhood together and has a vested interest in keeping the area safe.

In order to recreate this ideal neighborhood New Urbanists instituted a strategy called Smart Growth.  Smart Growth uses a number of tools to force density and encourage mixed uses.  Zoning designations that allow mixed uses started to come into vogue in the early 2000s.  In 2002 the City of San Antonio came up with a plan for its first New Urbanist Neighborhood, City South.

 Since this area of the city has long been underdeveloped, city leaders had big dreams that encouraging mixed uses (along with a new Toyota Manufacturing Facility) would create interest and desirability for the area. Unfortunately, so far most growth still occurs mostly in the far north and western areas of the city where residential land is considered more attractive, and school districts more competitive.

San Antonio included Smart Growth use patterns in its new Unified Development Code (UDC) adopted in 2006

This Unified Development Code includes "Use Patterns" for various forms of smart growth development such as traditional neighborhood development, transit-oriented development, neighborhood centers and conservation subdivisions, new infill development zones, parking caps, and street design and infrastructure options.

The purpose of this code is to consolidate the regulations pertaining to patterns of development in San Antonio. These use patterns reflect either the majority of anticipated permitting activity or the patterns, such as traditional neighborhood development, that the city would like to encourage. Each section describes the use pattern, the procedure for approval, and the standards relating to approval, with cross-references to other parts of this chapter where needed. The intent is to present a visual, user-friendly overview of the regulations that apply to those types of uses or development styles.
Three new zoning designations were adopted, Mixed Use Districts (MXD), Transit Oriented Development Districts (TOD) and Infill Development Zones (IDZ).  MXDs encourage concentrated mixed uses like the old fashioned city neighborhood, TODs encourage mixed use zones along proposed light rail lines and IDZs allow flexible uses for unused land parcels (brownfields) in inner city areas.

Most of Downtown along with several neighborhoods, surrounding the central business district, within Loop 410 have MXD designations.  There are also several neighborhoods outside of 410 with lower density MXD designations. (Check out this site to see zoning maps in PDF form, be warned, these are huge files.)  What's interesting is a lot of the MXD designations outside the Loop are over existing residential neighborhoods.  Concievably, home owners could have home business, which has been strictly banned.  However, mixed uses are still segregated to certain areas within these districts, so MXD designations are somewhat misleading.  So the only truly mixed used zone with the potential to become a New Urbanist neighborhood, other than Downtown is City South.

In 2008, Bradley Schacherl conducted an applied research project for the Texas State University Public Administration Program called Assesing Smart Growth in San Antonio, Texas.  He concluded that
The City of San Antonio recognizes that it must enact policies to control its
tremendous growth and fight the effects that sprawl and years of unbridled growth have
caused to its infrastructure and land. However, the City has chosen to enact partial
policies and does not seem fully committed to all aspects of smart growth, or must
overcome certain obstacles associated with Smart Growth. San Antonio’s population is
majority Hispanic, of which many are of Mexican origin. City administrators must focus
on this demographic and package certain Smart Growth policies in a way that is attractive
to this population. The City has done a very good job with its array of revitalization
projects and continues to redevelop land including brownfields. San Antonio also does a
fairly good job of providing mixed and affordable housing. Areas like Coliseum Oaks
and Arroyo Vista prove what San Antonio can accomplish once it wholeheartedly adopts
a smart growth plan. The example of City South has become a model of smart growth
and New Urbanist policies in San Antonio. This area showcases the types of
communities that can be created in San Antonio and should serve as an example for other
local neighborhoods and developments.
Schacherl suggests that
first, the city must work at establishing new developments as Traditional Neighborhood Developments and to provide incentives to transform existing neighborhoods into TND. A prime example of missed opportunity is the Alamo Quarry Works (AQW). The AQW has everything except some type of dense housing mixed-in.  Perhaps some apartment complexes, or condos would fit perfectly in this immediate area.  This housing would also facilitate more mass transit out to this area and could turn the many parking lots into a concentrated, central parking garage. The second area the city must focus on is its mass transit system, with particular emphasis on upgrades to its pedestrian accessibility. A truly efficient and accessible transit system will attract more riders and will support additional revenues through increases in fares. Locating more
transit stops in accessible areas in the neighborhoods and designing neighborhood
improvements around these transit stops would be an acceptable first step. Next, the city
needs to evaluate and rework many of the stops in the downtown and commercial areas to
be more pedestrian friendly and accessible. An aggressive plan for a light rail system
should be created and fast tracked to serve the city and alleviate some of the growing
traffic congestion. To help with costs, a light rail system could be implemented in parts
to serve the areas with the greatest need first. The system should be designed anticipating
the growth and addition of more lines as funds become available.

To decrease the amount of urban sprawl, pollution, and uncontrolled growth, the
city of San Antonio must become more proactive in adopting and enforcing the New
Urbanist ideals. If the City continues to revitalize its established communities, they
should end their practice of annexing suburban areas in an attempt to regain tax base.
The City should focus more on purchasing greenspace and limiting development while it
focuses its priorities on increasing the population density within its city limits.
 This last suggestion leads us to creating non-development zones that circle the city to force higher density growth within the city.  These Green Urban Growth Boundaries, most notibly used in Portland, Oregon, are created by city purchases of development rights to vacant and farm/ranch land that surrounds the city.  These zones do increase residential density within the city, the only problem is they raise housing costs through the roof as Wendell Cox argues on New Geography.

The Issue is Land Supply: The escalation of new house prices during the bubble occurred virtually all in non-construction costs such as the costs of land and any additional regulatory costs. It is not sufficient to look at a large supply of new housing (as the Boston Fed researchers do) and conclude that regulation has not taken its toll. The principal damage done by more restrictive land regulation comes from limiting the supply of land, which drives its price up and thereby the price of houses. In some places where there was substantial building, restrictive land use regulations also skewed the market strongly in favor of sellers. This dampening of supply in the face of demand drove land prices up hugely, even before the speculators descended to drive the prices even higher. Florida and interior California metropolitan areas (such as Sacramento and Riverside-San Bernardino) are examples of this.
One of the reasons San Antonio has been largely unscathed by the Great Recession is the fact the housing is still reasonably priced.  A median priced home inside the city limits is about $189,000 and even more reasonable in the rest of the county, $145,000.  New Urbanists would argue that this is a bad thing because it encourages urban sprawl, which is true, but sprawl in SA mostly goes towards the Hill Country.

Now I'm sure many of you have seen articles in the Express-News about the Hill Country ecosystem being stressed by the amount of development taking place there.  The Nature Conservancy observes that
Hill Country towns today are magnets for Texas urbanites seeking a small-town lifestyle within
commuting distance of Austin and San Antonio. As a result, the populations of seven counties
within the ecoregion are among the fastest growing in the nation. San Antonio, the eighth-largest
American city, continues to grow, with much of that growth occurring in the recharge zone for the Edwards Aquifer.
The very appeal of the Edwards Plateau spurs the greatest challenge to conserving the ecoregion: We are in danger of loving the Hill Country to death. Poorly planned growth;
habitat fragmentation as older, large landholdings are developed; introduction of harmful, non-native species; poor range-management practices; and suppression of natural fire are putting severe pressure on the environment, particularly water resources.
The city has been buying up land over the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone since 2000, implementing a additional 1/8 cent sales tax, approved by the voters, to purchase this sensitive property.  So far the city has bought up 97,000 acres.
2010 Proposition 1
This November 2, 2010, voters will have an opportunity to again consider whether the City may continue to impose a 1/8-of-a-cent sales tax for the Edwards Aquifer Protection Venue Project. This proposition would authorize the City of San Antonio to continue the watershed protection and preservation projects initiated in 2000 and continued in 2005. It would continue to protect water in the Edwards Aquifer by acquiring and preserving land or interest in land in the aquifer's recharge and contributing zones inside and outside Bexar County. The 1/8 cent sales tax would collect $90 million for this project.
 The more land bought up by this project, the less would be available for housing in these areas.  Who knows, maybe someday, City South will finally become attractive to new homebuyers and city growth will become more balanced.  I guess we will have to wait and see.

No comments:

Post a Comment