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WHAT IS STRONG TOWNS?

Strong Towns is a media organization leading a national movement for change. We’re challenging every American to fundamentally rethink how our cities are built, and we’re shining a spotlight on an approach that will make us truly prosperous.

 

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Why can’t your city ever seem to fill a pothole, but they always seem to find a loan for a new highway or stadium or civic center? And what if there were a way to get your city off the path of catastrophic debt and put them on a course to a stronger future—and what if it all started with ordinary people like you and me?

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May 30, 2018

 

Whether you're an urbanite or a lifelong resident of a suburb, you probably have an opinion on suburban design. You may have a preference for the quiet of suburban neighborhoods or you might feel a strong dislike toward "McMansions." Today, we're here to debunk four common myths about suburbia that come from both sides of this spectrum.

 

Myth #1: This is just how people want to live.
Myth #1: The suburbs exist because that's the way people want to live. The only reason we have the suburban style of development with its large homes, three car garages, big box stores and wide, fast-moving streets, is because people prefer that sort of living, right?

Busted: The suburbs exist because that's the style of development that has been regulated into existence and funded by governments across the nation.

Joe Cortright from City Observatory explored this concept in a 2016 article, citing data from a study of two cities—one, more urban in development pattern (Boston) and the other, more suburban (Atlanta)—to see where people with a preference for urban life live. He writes:

People whose stated preferences were more urban were much more likely to actually live in an urban neighborhood in the Boston area than in the Atlanta area—suggesting that in Atlanta something might be preventing them from satisfying their preferences. At the same time, people who expressed preferences for the most auto-oriented neighborhoods were able to satisfy that demand the vast majority of the time in both regions—about 95 percent of those in Atlanta, and 80-90 percent of those in Boston. More rigorous tests prove that this difference is statistically significant.

You can also read more about the government policies that impact suburban-style housing here.

 

Myth #2: The problem is sprawl.
Myth #2: Sprawl is the biggest problem with the suburbs. If we just stopped building so many one-story buildings and winding suburban roads, we'd be fine.

Busted: The problem is a development pattern that is financially insolvent.

Chuck Marohn writes in "Sprawl is Not the Problem":

During the Great Depression and after World War II, America began to build places at a grand scale and did so, increasingly, with the belief that what we built was then finished. New construction devices and cheap energy sources allowed us to work at this grand scale and increasing affluence allowed us to dream big... The wealth and prosperity of the America of the Suburban Experiment is largely an illusion, a distortion brought about by what we've called the Growth Ponzi Scheme. It manifests in quick growth and job creation followed by increasing poverty, enormous income gaps, declining neighborhoods, concentrated power, unpayable debts and, as a result, widespread social anxiety.

The Growth Ponzi Scheme which is obsessed with building anew and has forgotten the tried-and-true method of building incrementally over time is what is slowly destroying the suburbs. It's not a specific style of building, it's a failure to plan for the future, resulting in a land use pattern that is financially insolvent.

 

Myth #3: Suburban residents pay for their lifestyle.
Myth #3: Suburban residents are paying for the cost of their lifestyle.

However we feel about culs de sac and strip malls, we can at least agree that the people who live in suburban areas are paying for that way of life, so what's the big deal?

Busted: Across the country, we see that urban areas subsidize suburban living to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

Look at the poorest urban neighborhoods in your metro area and you will find that they are the ones subsidizing every spread-out piece of infrastructure around them. In "Poor Neighborhoods Makes the Best Investments," Chuck Marohn writes:

On a per acre basis, neighborhoods that tend to be poor also tend to pay more taxes and cost less to provide services to than their more affluent counterparts.

 

Myth #4: We can make the suburbs more financially productive if we try.
Myth #4: We can turn the suburbs into financially productive places if we just try our hardest.

Busted: No. There's too much suburban development for this to ever happen.

This may be the most painful truth to confront, especially for optimists who constantly try to find a silver lining: But we can turn those empty big box stores into libraries and schools! We can transform those stroads into complete streets! Let me give you an example: McAllen, TX retrofitted an empty Walmart building into a public library to the tune of $24 million. Last year, big name companies planned to close more than 2,500 big box stores. In one year! At that rate, we couldn't possibly finance (much less have the demand for) all the libraries, performing arts centers, museums, you-name-its to fill those spaces.

Strong Towns member Kevin Klinkenberg presents at the 2017 Strong Towns Summit on why we should let urban be urban and let suburban be suburban.

Here's another example: A suburb in Wisconsin is trying to build its way toward a more urban form. The price tag? More than $150 million for a handful of businesses, apartment buildings and a public green space. Unfortunately it's only really accessible by car. So much for urban living. This is simply not something we can apply on any sort of scale to make a meaningful difference.

As Kevin Klinkenberg so expertly argues:

It’s just far too difficult and expensive of a chore to make nearly any suburbia post-1970 into something [more urban]... There’s simply no upside to making un-walkable places into C- versions of walkable cities.

He's right. With the painfully limited amount of resources we all have right now, we must make the hard choices about where to focus our efforts. We can take small steps to help older neighborhoods with a solid foundation to be more successful, or we can take herculean steps to push a few suburban neighborhoods in a slightly better direction, in spite of aggressive cultural opposition. The answer is clear.


 

 

May 23, 2018

The Eastside neighborhood of Olympia, Washington is home to a mix of families and single people of varying ages. Some are homeowners, others renters, but most live in modest historic houses and duplexes built in the first half of the twentieth century. They're close to the downtown and fond of their neighborhood.

A couple years ago, though, residents became increasingly troubled by a wave of crime including robberies and drug dealing.

Strong Towns member Roger Horn is one of those residents and he was serving on the Eastside Crime and Safety Committee at the time. The committee decided to conduct a survey of their neighborhood about the issue and found that around 80% of respondents commented that "getting to know our neighbors" would help reduce crime in the area.
A promotional poster for the neighborhood variety show
A promotional poster for the neighborhood variety show

This realization galvanized a new wave — this time of community activities. Four neighborhood block parties were hosted on a Friday night later that year, and they've become an annual event since. Roger, who had joined the Eastside Neighborhood Association's board by that point was involved with organizing several other neighborhood events including a Christmas caroling get-together, a "Winter Window Walkabout" to view decorated windows in the area, and a forum for city council candidates.

One of the most unique events the neighborhood put on was a "variety show" where residents performed everything from poetry to music to dancing. Organizers intentionally scheduled the show with a 20-minute break mid-way through so that residents could chat with one another, enjoy refreshments and build connections. 80 people attended the event.

Many of these neighborhood activities have turned into annual gatherings that residents look forward to each year.

Today, the neighborhood is also taking a more focused look at the future they want for their community as they work together on a "sub-area plan" — part of the city's Comp Plan process. Roger reports that two town halls were hosted to discuss "what we want to do to make our neighborhood a better place" and a survey is currently out to get feedback on what the biggest priorities are for the neighborhood. The sub-area plan will likely address issues such as transportation, infrastructure, and crime and safety.

Roger believes that this community-building response to crime concerns is quite consistent with the Strong Towns approach of strong citizens working to collaboratively build a prosperous place from the bottom-up. For his part, Roger keeps the list of Strong Towns principles on his fridge as a regular reminder of how to best make his neighborhood stronger, safer and more cohesive.

 

 

May 09, 2018

HOW HOUSING MARKETS WORK — AND WHY THEY'RE AT A BREAKING POINT

(sound familiar White Rock?)

The following article by Strong Towns member Grant Henninger is republished from his blog, On Prosperity's Road, with permission. It's part of an ongoing series on housing affordability. Find the whole series here.
It is no secret that many cities are in the midst of a housing crisis. The San Francisco Bay area is the best example of this housing crisis, but it is not alone. Just about every major city in the United States and Canada has housing prices that are unaffordable for the majority of residents who live there. These prices are driven by having too few homes for the number of workers in a region.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Decennial Censuses via Governing
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Decennial Censuses via Governing

Housing is a market like any other. Prices are driven by supply and demand. If demand goes up and supply stays the same, prices will rise. That’s exactly what we’ve seen happen over the past four decades as jobs have continued to move to the cities, and existing residents in those cities have opposed the construction of new housing.

The availability of jobs drives people to locate in a certain place. Worldwide, there has been a concentration of jobs in cities over the past century or more. As farming has required less manpower, and finance has found efficiencies in conglomeration, the vast majority of new jobs have been created in major metropolitan areas. Due to the shift in job availability from rural to urban communities, people have migrated as well, following the jobs.

The worst housing shortages are in places with the highest wages for newly created jobs, since those are the jobs in most demand. However, even in a place like San Francisco, wages have not kept up with housing costs. This is for the simple reason that there are not enough houses for the population. As wages increase, so do housing costs. This has the unfortunate effect of pushing out those workers whose wages do not increase as rapidly as housing costs rise. While higher wages may seem like a way to combat the increased cost of living due to higher home prices, they simply fuel ever higher housing costs and actually make the problem worse for most workers.

Unfortunately, cities haven’t built enough new homes to fill the needs of the growing population. For example, San Francisco built 15,853 new housing units from 2010 through the middle of 2016. Over that same amount of time, the population grew by 65,694 people. That means there was only one house built for ever 4.14 people. The average home size across the US is just under 2.7 people per home. To reach that number, San Francisco would have needed to build an additional 8,478 homes, more than a 50% increase over what was actually built.

This period of time, from 2010 until now, has been the hottest housing market in the history of the Bay Area, with the possible exception of the Gold Rush. During a hot housing market, developers should be rushing in to fill unmet demand, because there are handsome profits to be made by building new housing during a housing crisis.

The way developers make money is fairly simple in theory. The developer buys land, pays a contractor to build some homes, and then sells them or rents them out. If the land, construction, and financing costs are less than the sales price of the new homes, then the developer makes money.
Blue = Supply. Yellow = Demand.
Blue = Supply. Yellow = Demand.

Unfortunately, developers view things a bit backwards. They start by determining how much money can be made by selling the homes once they’re built, and work back from there. If they can sell a home for a million dollars, they may figure the construction and financing costs of the home will run a half million dollars and they’ll need a quarter million dollars for their profit. That leaves a quarter million for the land. The amount a developer is willing to pay for land is a residual of the price of the house after all other expenses are paid for.

Of course, the owner of the land might believe there are better uses for the land than a single house, or maybe they think that housing prices will continue to go up so want to wait to sell their land so they can earn more profit off the sale of their land. If that’s the case, they may ask for a higher price than the developer is willing to pay. In a speculative market like many cities are experiencing now, land sits fallow because of this disagreement in land value between the landowners and developers.

One way cities exacerbate this problem is by over-zoning in some areas and under-zoning in others. By over-zoning, cities give landowners a mistaken idea of what is feasible on their land. If the zoning says 100 units can be built on a parcel, the landowner will expect the land value to reflect the possible 100 units. However, if the market won’t bear 100 units, if a developer could only build and sell 70 units on the property, then the developer will only offer to pay 70% of what the landowner wants for their land. If the developer can’t convince the landowner that 100 units isn’t feasible (and landowners often times have very good reasons to not trust the developer), then the land will continue to sit there undeveloped.

The best thing cities can do to solve the ongoing housing crisis is to encourage the construction of more housing. This can be accomplished with three key methods:

Right-size zoning across the city to allow for an incremental increase in intensity across the city.
Reduce unnecessary requirements on new home construction, such as excessive parking and open space requirements.
Remove fees that subsidize existing neighborhoods.
By encouraging the construction of more housing, cities can make themselves more competitive by reducing the cost of living and providing a better quality of life for their residents.

 

 

 

 





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