Sunday, February 11, 2007

Someone's been reading Jane Jacobs

Ryan Avent at the DCist reminds us that it is diversity which makes great cities. Unfortunately, DC ain't one of them:

almost no one, other than the President of the United States, makes his home among the office blocks of downtown and the Golden Triangle. And it shows. Despite being the single densest employment center in the metropolitan area, holding more Greater Washingtonians at any one time than any other place in the region, the streetscape is strikingly--sometimes shockingly--bleak.

I would add that Adams Morgan continues to be the most vibrant neighborhood in town precisely because its residents have steadfastly fought off various ill-conceived urban renewal efforts by government. The one that slipped by is the Marie Reed Learning Center, an awful eyesore and dead space which nearly cuts Adams Morgan off from Dupont Circle to the south and U street to the southeast.

What is missing in Adams Morgan is daytime businesses, and that, I'm afraid, is because the resident activists lack consistency in their fight for diversity. It's really just a few anti-business Nazis, some of whom I know, who have made it difficult for any large business to move in. Just ask Harris Teeter.

The bottom line is that zoning regs are pure evil, and the enemy of diversity. They are vestiges of the high modernist era, a time in which social planners arrogantly disregarded the interests of the Everyman, the man on the street, as it were, and pretended to have an elite access to and interpretation of information. But the high modernists are dead. Can we not move on now?


Route 50 said...

Ok, I'll bite. Zoning regs are pure evil? I for one like what incremental improvements they can have for open space. And I like the idea that my neighbor can't turn her property into an industrial sludge factory without me having a say in it. Certainly in DC the regs and regulators frequently go overboard, but even in the Harris Teeter example the truck noise question seems to be a legitimate one (even if 20 seems to be a reasonable and workable proposal that should be agreed on). Why not have a forum where people who live in a neighborhood can have a say in what gets built there? My argument is, I hope, decidedly post-high-modern.

Will McBride said...

Yes, I agree, community input sounds like a good idea. But have you ever been to one of these community input meetings? It ain't a representative sample of the neighborhood. It's mainly dominated by a few border-line maniacs, and the rest are people who don't mind maniacs wasting their time. OK, a few are of the ideal concerned citizen type.

The problem is there is no way to get input from everybody affected, and so you are stuck with this very bad selection problem. It's really a general indictment of democracy. There are some occasions when we must fall back on it, but it should always be the last resort, as the framers intended. Zoning doesn't fall into that category. While there are externalities of mixed use development in urban areas, I think those costs are less than the costs of reaching agreement democratically.

For instance, I would really like to see a beer garden on my block in Adams Morgan, like they have in Germany, sort of quiet, peaceful, and often mixed in with residential housing. But of course it is illegal, and so all the beer joints are crammed onto 18th street.

Tim said...

Will, the article by the DCist is so true. The prof i am trying to get the internship with was the planning coordinator for the city of Rockville for a number of years, and he wouldn't approve plans around metro stations unless they were multi-modal (i.e. giving high priority to modes of transit other than cars), pedestrian friendly, and of mixed usage. indeed zoning is pure evil. the original intent of it was to keep a smoke belching factory out of a neighborhood in NYC in the 1800s, but after WW II it was taken to stupidity.
A perfect example comes from Augusta, GA. I was there for winter training with crew and what I saw was very sad. It had what was once a beautiful, vibrant downtown, with apartments above shops, windowed store fronts, tree lined avenues, but then industry moved to the developing world and I am sure what was promised would be big boons to the local economy was "growth" in the form of big box stores with giant parking lots set off the street in the area north of the city. So, all the money and resources went into making a no-man's land of vast parking lots, power lines, fast food joints, and ugly signs has further drained resources from what has the potential to be a beautiful downtown that is very walkable and livable. Slowly but surely we are realizing the error of our ways because people hate the inauthentic, car dependent life which suburbia provides and want a return to small town life where you can actually walk to places and have human contact, but we really fucked ourselves by the development of the last fifty years. To be sure, it is EXTREMELY hard to retrofit an area that is already designed for cars, so we are stuck for quite awhile with this shitty mess we have ourselves in.