Sunday, March 05, 2006

The Poplar Terrace Travesty

I've often argued in the abstract that the solution to dysfunctional human settlement patterns is not giving local government more power, it's removing that power, especially when it trumps private property rights. Now comes a concrete example from Fairfax County to prove my point.

According to the Washington Post, Centex Homes offered to purchase the houses of residents in the Poplar Terrace neighborhood about a 10-minute walk from the Vienna Metro station. The developer has offered about $700,000 for roughly 70 single-family houses, which are aging brick ramblers worth about $400,000 on average -- a handsome premium for existing property owners.

Centex asked Fairfax County to build 30 homes-per acre -- a mix of condomiums and townhouses -- on the 40-acre site instead of the one or two per acre there now. Proposed density actually would be less than the Metro West project suggested by Pulte Homes south of the Vienna Metro station. A "residents task force" raised hell -- apparently representing someone other than the residents of Poplar Terrace -- and Centex eventually gave up.

There are two points worth making here. First, government here is the problem, not the solution. As long as property rights are respected, and in this case they would have been, neighborhoods should be allowed to evolve towards their highest and best use. The so-called "rights" of residents living nearby should not trump the rights of the landowners of the property directly affected. Furthermore, it is economic insanity for Fairfax County to thwart the natural evolution of property near Metro stations to higher and better uses.

The second point is this: Fairfax County wants to raise billions of dollars to extend Metro rail to Dulles Airport. But if the County stands in the way of re-developing the land to higher density in the immediate proximity of the Metro stations, thereby undermining the effectiveness of the Metro as a transportation solution, it forfeits any right to sympathy from anyone else in the state. If I, as a Richmond resident, saw Fairfax planning to maximize the benefit of existing and proposed Metro stations along the lines of Arlington County, I would be inclined to support the multi-billion dollar expenditure. But as long as the County persists in making self-destructive decisions like this one, I have no desire to pour my good tax money after bad.

As Mark Anstine, a broker in the Poplar Terrace deal, told the Post: "It's a travesty. Where else can you get 40 acres this close to Metro? You can't, and you will not ever again. The opportunity will be gone forever."


At 2:46 PM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

How do you square this with your argument that government should have the right to prohibit development?

At 5:05 PM, Blogger Jim Wamsley said...

This is only one example of stale zoning. When some residents of the condominium next to Huntington Metro investigated development, the county told them that zoning did not allow it.

It looks like the “proffer package” talks.

At 7:32 PM, Blogger Toomanytaxes said...

One of the biggest problems in addressing these proposed projects in Fairfax County is that the Board of Supervisors has failed to define "Transit Oriented Development." It's pretty difficult to measure a project against non-standards. (It's also hard to reject one either.)

The second problem is that the Orange Line may well not have the capacity to handle a significant increase in demand from additional development. Neither issue seems to concern the BoS.

Washington Post columnist Ron Shaffer, aka Dr. Gridlock, recently had the following to say about the BoS in response to a community meeting's questions about developer influence over the Fairfax County officials. "It's very troubling," said Shaffer. "It's as if they [local government officials] were just obsessed with development."

Meanwhile, Fairfax County residents received their new real estate tax assessments, which most likely precurse the sixth straight double digit increase in taxes. Is this a great place to live or what?

At 8:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Or what.

At 7:45 AM, Blogger Larry Gross said...

I read the same article and also was struck by the lack of support for that kind of development - which has had with other recent and similiar proposals.

The article stated a lack of standards for TOD - which as pointed out in the article and in this blog I find to be rather curious since there has been a continuing region-wide dialogue about the need to move in this direction.

Now we find out that this is another one of those issues where folks seem to support the general concept but have problems with specific proposals that do seem to meet the premise of the concept.

We've seen this down Frederickburgs way also with proposals for development that seem to meet New Urbanist principles but get turned down - often because of concerns about increased traffic and congestion.

I think there is a certain truth with respect to what is known as "greenfield" New Urbanism where the project is dense and mixed use but there is a high probablility that residents will still be daily commuters on I-95.

One would think further North where these proposals are truly redevelopment of infill settlements that the commute issue would be not as much a concern - but it appears that it is still a concern at least in part.

I'm a little buffaloed by the statement about a lack of TOD standards. One would have though that the local governments would have been a lot further along on those standards than they apparently are.

What specific TOD standards are still at issue and not yet resolved?

At 9:12 AM, Anonymous Deborah Reyher said...

Two Things:

1. TOD Definition - my LTE to a local paper, not yet unpublished:

Over 200 people showed up on February 8th for the Planning Commission hearing to evaluate whether the MetroWest development proposal to plant 2248 homes in the 56 acres around the Orange Line terminus Vienna/Fairfax Metro station is really "smart growth." But how can we possibly know? Don't we need a set of principles and standards that defines what "transit-oriented development" is supposed to be before we can evaluate a particular project? For example, testimony at the hearing focused heavily on MetroWest's failure to ensure true mixed-use -- residential, retail and commercial -- which is essential if we really are going to get folks out of their cars. But how do we define what is needed for true mixed-use, and make sure that we get it?

On December 5, 2005, Supervisors Smyth and Kauffmann called upon County staff to put flesh on the "smart growth" bones. The Supervisors said that "transit oriented development can mean virtually anything you want it to mean." Supervisor Kauffman added: "Before we get too much further along in articulating this as something desirable, we must make it understandable and to the extent possible standardized and verifiable."

Two months later, I submitted a Freedom of Information Act inquiry, as there had been no word of any response to this call for content, and absolutely no call for citizen input. The response I got showed that no work whatsoever had been done on this after December 13, 2005, and subsequent inquiries indicated that March 13th would be the earliest date that even a proposed process and schedule for arriving at a definition would be submitted to the Board.

But the 2/8 Planning Comission hearing on MetroWest still went ahead, definition or no definition. This was the one and only opportunity for citizens to speak to the Planning Commission, and yet we had to go in blind about how to frame our concerns, because what "smart growth" is supposed to be in this area remains undefined.

Once MetroWest goes in, whatever mistakes it embodies will be perpetuated in the coming dense development at the Dunn Loring Metro station. It will also etch the blueprint for the coming redevelopment of Tysons Corner. Supervisors Kauffman and Smyth were correct that we need a clearly understood definition to guide us. Why isn't this happening?

2. Poplar Terrace

I sat on the APR Task Force that first heard the up-planning nomination for this project, and almost unanimously refused to approve it. Unfortunately the Post article did not explain what the real problems were with this Nomination, which were 1) no comprehensive evaluation of what the effects of this project would be in tandem with the already incredibly dense (and controversial) MetroWest project; 2) the effects on an already strained Metro system; and 3) the lack of mixed use (and inadequacy even of the mixed use elements at MetroWest).

The Post article unfortunately made no mention whatsoever of the fundamental mixed-use aspect of transit-oriented development. While the opening sentence touts TOD as "absorbing residential growth without aggravating sprawl or traffic," the only way traffic is alleviated is if the close-in developments include retail facilties. Otherwise folks have to get in their cars for every single errand of life. And the only way retail can survive in such developments is with a commercial component to provide customers during the work day. The lack of enforceable mixed-use elements at MetroWest is the single biggest source of community opposition, although the problem is hugely compounded by the massive density and impact on schools and parks.

The Post article, however, talks strictly about residential construction and density at both MetroWest and Poplar Terrace, mentioning only the length of the walk to Metro but nothing about where all these new residents would shop for their daily needs. And it says very little about the fact that Fairfax Supervisors have called for a TOD definition to guide smart growth in Fairfax (which when adopted will certainly address mixed-use issues), but yet are proceeding apace with what may end up to be purely residential dense developments. And it says nothing about the APR Task Force concern that MetroWest and Poplar Terrace had not been evaluated for their cumulative effects on local infrastructure, the main reaon for the Task Force's recommendation against the Poplar Terrace APR nomination. I like the new Post reporter, whose prior articles have been quite comprehensive, but there is a huge aspect of this story that was missed.

I hope this added information adds to the debate....

At 12:23 PM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

"mixed-use -- residential, retail and commercial -- which is essential if we really are going to get folks out of their cars. But how do we define what is needed for true mixed-use, and make sure that we get it?............

Otherwise folks have to get in their cars for every single errand of life."

I think this is one of the fallacies of mixed use development: we assume that if a drycleaner is there we will use it on the sole basis of convenience. But there is also, price, family ownership, brand loyalty, habit, convenience and a host of other issues involved.

Some studies have looked at this and found that if local options are avilable, they are used in addition to, not instead of, other travel. This means we will have to plan for the other travel in addition to planning for TOD.

Ms Rehner also points out other problems. Density is perceived to increase traffic, regardless of other ideology, and this is an experiment we have to live with. We won't know the results for decades, even if we set TOD "standards" tomorrow. We have to make land use decisions on an as is, where is, when is basis, when in fact conditions change, other locations interact, and time is an element: what is inappropriate and unworkable today may be tomorrow's best solution.

And as she points out, Metro is already suffering from overcrowding (ie congestion). Fixing that is going to cost orders of magnitude more than fixing our road problems and with a lesser end result. If it is not fixed, then people will drive and TOD will be seen as a failure.

If Poplar Terrace is important from a planning perspective, the county could buy the land and hold it open until they decide is Metro West works. Evidently, it is not that important.

At 6:17 PM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

This weeks New York Times magazine has and article on Edward L. Glaeser.

He has studied the effect of government regulation on housing costs in Boston and New York. As I recall he and his co-workers found that up to 30% of the cost of a new home is because of government regulation.

It was brought to my attention by the Central Virginia Real Estate blog. Says the blog ....

"While many of his academic peers were looking at, and denigrating, how the majority of Americans have chosen to live, Glaeser (though no fan of the aesthetics of sprawl himself) didn’t think an economist should allow taste to affect judgment. “You shouldn’t go around thinking that all these people are just jackasses for deciding to drive an automobile,” he says."

and further

"Homeowners, he points out, have a strong incentive to stop new development, both because it can be an inconvenience and also because, like any monopolist, stopping supply drives up the price of their own homes. “Lack of affordable housing isn’t a problem to homeowners,” Glaeser says; that’s exactly what they want. "

These are both themes that I have argued here. Proffers and other anti-growth regulation amount to a capital gain for existing residents. It has been argued that people commute long distances because they favor personal gain over societal good, and that we can fix this and encourage "better behavior" by charging them the appropriate price.

But if Glaeser is right, that argument is just as self serving as those who commute. He argues that things like growth controls have changed the way our communities develop, and not necessarily for the best.

His next project is figuring out why growth restrictions have so altered the housing supply. There appears to be a reasonable correlation between liberal enclaves, zoning regulations and high housing prices. Glaeser suggests that homeowners are now using tactics learned in the civil rights movement against developers.

Glaeser argues, as I have, that land use and zoning regulations of the 1920's were entirely different from those social engineering laws passed since the 1970's.

He argues that there is little reason for rebuilding much of New Orleans, and that there is also little reason to try to save Detroit. The reason is that density itself is not the object, the welfare of people is. He says one reason we have cores of urban poor is that even after people leave the city (because location no longer means anything) the housing remains and prices collapse. Poor people flood in to enjoy the low rents. This is why I have said it is futile to try to fix transportation with land use: it takes decades.

I think you are right Jim, the answer isn't more government power, just try to remember that when you promote the idea of giving more power to prevent development where it is "improper".


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