Tag Archives: Urban growth boundary

How to Write Your Very Own Pro-Sprawl Trend Piece

If you’re sitting around reading pro-sprawl opinion pieces by the likes of Wendell Cox and Joel Kotkin thinking, “sounds good, how can I get in on this action”, not to worry. There’s a simple template to follow, as demonstrated yesterday by an article in that venerable institution of urban research, Politico. This one was written by Robert Bruegmann, but it doesn’t really matter. Like 80s hair band power ballads, if you’ve heard one, you’ve heard them all.

Anyway, here we go. Items to include:

Generic comparison of cities that, in real life, have remarkably different urban forms: “Atlanta has wrested away from Los Angeles the distinction of serving as the poster child for sprawl.” Bonus points if you use two cities that I chose to demonstrate different types of suburbia.

Everything since 2007? Ignore ignore ignore: “Atlanta, over the last half century, has obviously seen its population and its economy grow faster than most of the older, higher-density, more transit-oriented cities of the United States or Europe.”

Talk about congestion but never mention VMT or transportation energy use per capita: “the greatest congestion and longest commuting times in this country. . . tend to occur in the largest and densest urban areas.”

Assert that transit doesn’t help the poor: “a major expansion of the transit system wouldn’t even benefit most people who can’t drive because the jobs are already so scattered around the metropolitan area, and the poorest people can’t afford the fares.” Oh, you can’t afford a car either? Welp.

Imply or state that expensive cities all have the same land use policies: “it is certainly not true of many of the highest-density places in North America – urban areas such as San Francisco, Vancouver, Toronto or even Los Angeles—where public policies aimed at curbing sprawl have led to sharply higher housing prices.” In fact, these four places have important differences in land use policy. Vancouver and Toronto are building new towers like crazy, and, especially in the case of Toronto, are cheaper than SF or LA. Vancouver, Toronto, and SF all have significant controls on suburban growth at the fringe, but in LA, you can build all the sprawl you want in the Antelope Valley, the Victor Valley, and Riverside County. I’m still waiting for someone to show me the policies in LA that are “aimed at curbing sprawl” other than maybe these things. Show me! SHOW ME!

Equate today’s dense first world cities with Third World slums and old law tenements: “every poor urban area in the world continues to have very high densities by historic standards, usually more than 50,000 people per square mile. On the other hand, every affluent urban area in the world. . . where urban densities often topped 100,000 people per square mile in 1900, in the Atlanta today the figure currently stands at an exceptionally low 1,800 people per square mile.”

Decry anti-sprawl efforts as unnecessary interference in free markets, while ignoring the reams and reams of regulation that enforce suburban development patterns: “as people have become richer they have demanded more space, and they have gotten it everywhere there has been a truly democratic government and anything resembling a free market in land.”

Studiously avoid mention of any other “historical background” that might explain why US cities started decentralizing in 1950 and why Southern cities in particular are very spread out: “this historical background helps explain why Atlanta, as a city in the affluent world that has done most of its major expansion fairly recently, is such a sprawling place.” You don’t need me to spell this one out for you, right? Wink, wink.

Notably on-point critique of a lot of anti-sprawl activism: “it has been a conspicuous fact of urban life that many of the same people who deplore sprawl at the edge are also determined to preserve the character of their existing neighborhoods in the center.” Credit where credit is due, right? We’re looking at you, Westside, Marin County, San Francisco, and Peninsula.

Ignore international examples like Japan when they might be inconvenient for your narrative: “strident efforts to reverse the course of urban history and push these places back into the mold of dense 19th-century cities heavily dependent on public transportation risk destroying the very things that have made them such magnets for population and economic growth in the first place.”

Easy, right? Crank out a few of these and see if you can’t get a job at Reason or Cato.

To be honest, I wish the criticism of anti-sprawl activism and smart growth was, well, smarter. If you read O’Toole, Kotkin, and Cox regularly, you’ll find that they do make good points. But you have to sort through a lot of junk to find them. In a way, the criticisms of dense development are a lot like the “pop urbanist” analysis of cities – unwilling to understand and think about each city on its own terms. One side will tell you that you need more freeways and subdivisions. The other side will tell you that you need streetcars and high-rise development to attract the creative class or Millennials or whatever we’re calling young people with money now. If they say anything helpful, it’s almost coincidental.

Cities are complex. To have any chance of understanding them, we have to be willing to set aside any worries about what a city should look like, and study how they work (or don’t work). And we should be willing to learn from anywhere, but also willing to accept some lessons may not apply. Assuming that all cities have the same problems which have the same solutions is bound to result in recommendations that are embarrassing – or at least should be.

When Does More Expensive Construction Make Sense?

One of the most common criticisms of things like Portland’s Urban Growth Boundary is that they increase housing costs. This is undeniably true, at least on a per SF basis, because denser construction costs more. While prowling around Save Marinwood and Quiet and Safe San Rafael, I found a presentation by John Burns that gives relative costs of construction: about $60/SF for SFR, about $90/SF for garden apartments, and about $200/SF for podium construction. While you might be able to save on transportation costs by living closer to your job, in general the tradeoff you make is accepting a smaller dwelling in exchange for living in a more desirable area.

Still, even with no urban growth boundary to speak of, at some point, agglomeration effects cause prices to rise to the point where more expensive types of construction make sense. See, for example, Los Angeles. When does that happen?

As part of trying to keep track of larger trends, I’ve started following the suburban development homes being offered by the major builders. Partly, this is because others (like Curbed) are already keeping good tabs on development in LA and Orange County. But also, urban redevelopment projects tend to be more unique, depending on the specific developer goals, location, land costs, difficulty of permitting, and so on. In the suburbs, we can look at projects in different communities by the same developer, which makes it easier to compare costs across communities, or we can look at projects in the same community by different developers, which makes it easier to compare developers.

D.R. Horton is a major builder in the region, as of early November it had 25 developments in progress in LA, Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside, and Imperial Counties. Of these, 14 were in Riverside County, highlighting the uneven nature of the recovery. D.R. Horton’s most affordable properties, in Adelanto and Imperial, are selling for about $100/SF, around 165% of construction costs.

Therefore, assuming that zoning allows for it, and market conditions and regulation don’t favor buying over renting, that means garden apartments become economic when prices hit about $150/SF, and podiums when prices hit about $330/SF.

The threshold for garden apartments is pretty low; based on D.R. Horton’s SFR pricing, they already make sense in places like Fontana and Murrieta. Podium construction has a higher threshold; Santa Clarita is getting close, and LA and Orange County pencil out. Note that this is a gross simplification. Small (1-2 person) households often don’t want dwellings as large as SFRs. In a place like Adelanto, a lot of single people could be accommodated in things like garage apartments, let rooms, and so on, if permitted. At small sizes, prices don’t scale linearly because of fixed costs like bathrooms and kitchens, which are more expensive per SF than bedrooms or living rooms.

However crude it is, this analysis is consistent with the expectation that there is a logical progression of densities as you approach more desirable areas: SFRs to garden apartments to podiums.

I should point out that by this logic, high-rise construction doesn’t make sense until prices go above about $700/SF – a level that almost nowhere in Los Angeles has reached. Not to beat a dead horse, but I feel compelled to again emphasize that the debate is not about the aesthetics of mid-rise versus high-rise construction. It is affordability versus unaffordability. If your vision is high-rises instead of mid-rises, your vision is an unaffordable Los Angeles. There’s no two ways about it.