Saturday, August 29, 2009

Entrepreneurbia: New Urbanist Folly of Zoning-Free Neighborhoods

Amy Traub looks at a suburban design competition winner based on a rather noxious mix of new urbanism and the unrealized myth of a "free" market:
And that idea is simple: get rid of the zoning regulations that prevent commercial businesses from operating in residential areas. Then, stand back and watch entrepreneurs transform suburban subdivisions into flourishing mixed-use areas.

As a serious proposal, this leaves a lot to be desired. Consider that the marquee business is a single-family home turned nightclub. I may be raising my family in Manhattan, but even I don't want thumping music next door until 3 a.m. every night. And who wants to wake up to find their neighbor's house suddenly transformed into a medical waste disposal firm, or a dog kennel? In general, it's a good thing zoning regulations exist. The answer isn't simply to "abolish poorly conceived zoning laws," but to conceive better ones, laws that allow for mixed use areas, denser development, and the infrastructure to handle it (a significant weakness of the Entrepreneurbia design, as several commenters pointed out) without necessarily letting a disco spring up on every corner.
I'm perpetually arguing with doctrinaire conservatives on one side and progressive urbanists on the other about the wisdom of easing residential zoning restrictions or boxing out neighborhood feedback in order to allow commercial enterprise in residential zones. The assumption from my opponents seems to be naive and overly optimistic: boutique shops, hip restaurants, and coffee bars will magically emerge as if every neighborhood could be Germantown or 5 Points.

The market reality is that every neighborhood cannot be trendy and otherwise innocuous. There will still be niches for unpalatable businesses like car washes, pawn shops, and convenience stores. I have yet to see new urbanists flocking to the idea of designing for those kinds of establishments. Yet, once zoning rules and public feedback requirements are relaxed, and as we open residential zoning to mixed-use and commercial development, the genie is out of the bottle. We have to accept any kind of business that chooses to locate next to our home. If its a used book store, great. If it's a quick-sacked, brown-bag liquor store, not so much.

Part of the problem with living in Salemtown is that we live right next to a neighborhood that already has an established restaurant line-up and a growing mixed-use boutique culture. Relaxing residential zoning here may promote the same. However, I believe that relaxation is just as likely to invite less than desirable lower tier businesses because the restaurant and boutique market is already saturated a few blocks down. Germantown's ├╝ber-popular Monell's recently filed for bankruptcy, which reinforces my perception that there may not be much more room for new neighborhood restaurants, wishful thinking aside.

In the final analysis, developers and entrepreneurs who want to relax residential zoning to allow mixed-use should have to make their case to neighborhoods and under the strictures of sub-area plans. That is the only way to insure that undesirable businesses don't encroach on residential quality of life.


  1. Sir,

    I read your comments about Janell Ross and her piece in The Tennessean. I've been reading your blog for some time now and enjoy reading your comments. Although I must admit, I disagree with some of them. Also, I've learned a great deal from your insight. However, I think you need to be more fair in some of your analyses. Before moving further, I should say that I too live in North Nashville (11th and Buchanan), and I know and respect your neighborhood association leader (Freddie O'Connell). I've also done a considerable amount of work with progressive and social justice organizations in Nashville.

    Though Ms. Ross is not perfect, her general observation about racial profiling is correct. Racial profiling and borderline unwarrented stops of many black residents -- stops that presumably would not happen in Green Hills -- are common occurences in North Nashville. (I have been unfairly stopped.)

    The Ross piece was the first time the Nashville media exposed what seems like an established policy by the police department. I think Serpas believes minor traffic stops can prevent more serious crimes - a kind of "broken windows" approach applied to Nashville. That is, if he could increase the number of stops in high-crime areas -- stops based on minor violations (i.e. playing loud music, driving with a broken headlights, going 5 mph past the speed limit -- then it gives the police leverage to check driver licenses for warrents, past felonies, etc, and potentially make arrests. Accordingly, penalizing small violations in high-crime neighborhoods can prevent more serious crimes. I believe this is the police department's official policy. The research is, indeed, controversial and I have some problems with it. The challenge with this policy, if it is an official one, is that similar traffic/driving violations occur in middle-class and upper-middle class communities, but consequences appear to be much less. For example, if one goes to traffic court, an overwhelming number of the people seem to be African-American. It hasn't caused much public controversy because Serpas has been fairly saavy and sophisticated about courting established black leaders to back his policies (this is a common belief among progressive black activists). Moreover, there are some blacks, including working-class blacks, who are willing to support any policy -- even a policy that may lead to racial profiling -- as long as it can stop crime.

    Further, a general concern among black activists is that some residents of Germantown, Salemtown, and Hope Gardens may receive different levels of treatment from the police because of the influx of whites (and some black professionals) who now leverage influence via the neighborhood associations. In other words, it's possible that the police department treats white residents (and even some black middle class residents) in North Nashville communities. I'm sure this requires some research, but a similar debate took place in East Nashville three years ago.

    As I stated earlier, Ms. Ross is not perfect. I also know for a fact that her editors often scale back some of her articles, and as a result, the context tends to be sacrificed. Some of her original pieces (before they are chopped up by her editors), I've heard, have more context and nuisance. Based on my experiences with her, most of her articles about race are informed by previous conversations with people, often activists or residents directly affected by the problem. These individuals often approach her for pieces, which then must be approved by her editors. Her Salemtown article, most likely, did not come out of thin air. She probably was approached by someone -- maybe even someone in the Salemtown community -- to write the piece. Also, in terms of her article, the NAACP organized the town hall, which was a spin-off of CNN's Black in America meeting. They set the agenda, invited multiple speakers, etc. Her story was not based on an opinion, but reported the content of the town hall.


    Sekou Franklin

  2. “The answer isn't simply to "abolish poorly conceived zoning laws," but to conceive better ones” got me thinking… within our sexy new (of course it’s new - grin) urbanism, do we have palatable solutions for the darker businesses (brown bad liquor stores, used cars lots, strip clubs ) that we don’t love next door? Is there a successful example that deals with the elephant in the room without total banishment being the only rigid hope?