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McNellis: Big City Dreaming

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Mixed Use, Mixed Results

By John McNellis

It’s the “Thou Shall Not” that dooms religion in America. If ecclesiasticals would content themselves with the positive, with instructing us on what to do—to be compassionate, charitable, do good works and so on—rather than forbidding behavior as natural as sweat, our houses of worship would be overflowing.

With zoning, it’s the other way round. If city councils would learn that their inevitable mistakes would be an order of magnitude less harmful to their communities, if they stuck to prohibiting uses rather than mandating them, our architectural landscape would be littered with far fewer carcasses. If you live in a town of any size, chances are you drive past empty retail stores every day of the week. Chances are just as good that a few of those sad storefronts are the redheaded stepchildren of mixed-use projects that, over the developer’s objections, were dictated by a well-intentioned city government.

“Back to Downtown” fad is now sweeping city halls nationwide like non-union janitors

Banning uses—e.g. casinos or adult entertainment—may be God’s work or weak-minded economic folly, but such prohibitions do not spawn buildings that will never lease. They do not cause instant blight; rather, they are among a city’s weapons in its struggle against blight. Nor does forbidding a use harm a town except financially—a revenue loss most of us would gladly concede to keep our neighborhoods wholesome. (If you find yourself wondering whether the wholesome quotient is actually higher where the demimonde is taboo, spend a weekend in Vegas.)

Pascal may, however, have been talking about zoning when he said, “To understand is to forgive.” Zoning is hard and the mistakes cities are making today are the logical responses to those they began making before the Second World War.

Ever since New York City began formal zoning in 1916, municipalities across America have struggled to balance public health and safety, orderly growth and property rights. In their struggles, they nearly all succumbed to the temptation of Euclidean zoning, a neat yet simple-minded approach to city planning. Euclidean zoning is the segregating of towns into exclusive use districts—typically, one for single-family homes, another for apartments, a third for commercial and the last for industrial. The American standard throughout the 20th century, it remains so today across a wide sash of the country. This geometry gave us pristine neighborhoods, a wrong side of the tracks and far more driving than would result from a less stratified approach to zoning.

Thus, if you were a car dealer—or wanted your downtown to appear as if a neutron bomb exploded daily at five o’clock—Euclidean zoning was the ticket. Others, notably city planners, were less enthralled and gradually conceived alternatives to the formula’s gas-swilling sterility. As the “Back to the Earth” commune movement roiled the sixties, a “Back to Downtown” fad is now sweeping city halls nationwide like non-union janitors. And it’s not your downtown planners are talking about. It’s a cool, chic Manhattan, Paris, San Francisco downtown where all uses—save industrial—are mixed together, placed side-by-side and atop one another. A single building today can blend retail on the ground floor with offices, apartments, condominiums and even a hotel above. Mixed-use, the experts claim, is the key to happiness. (As ignorant as we were, most of us had no idea we would be happier living above a supermarket.)

And this approach often works fine in Manhattan, Paris and San Francisco. The problem is now every other burg and village wants an urban feel, a walkable, living downtown with night life and tony restaurants that spill out onto the sidewalks on warm summer evenings. Every town wants to be the set from Sleepless in Seattle.

To achieve this dream, too many cities are insisting upon mixed-use in locations that are, at best, suitable for a single use: Cities are jamming retail into quiet residential quarters and demanding residences atop noisy stores. In short, cities are making the socialist mistake of dictating supply rather than responding to demand.

Unfortunately, blight is built at the intersection of dreams and greed. For example: If, to achieve its sleepless dream, a town allows a developer to build so many apartments that he can make his entire profit on them alone, he will likely agree to build the town’s ill-conceived retail stores at his project. If he does, the retail will remain vacant until it is either demolished or rezoned. Why? Because rent is such a small part of a retailer’s operating expenses, it will lose money in a bad location even if its space is free. Quite literally, you cannot give away bad retail space.

Designing cities to escape the tyranny of the automobile, to allow us to walk from home to work to shopping is a laudable goal, but when that goal is alloyed with a misunderstanding of basic economics and a “We know what’s best” arrogance on the part of cities, buildings no one wants and, worse, no one can use are too often the result.

“Build it and they will come” is a better movie line than a zoning policy.

John E. McNellis is a Principal at McNellis Partners in Palo Alto, Calif.

Photo courtesy of provocativepenguin.com

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