Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Wherein I Agree with New Geography

New Geography is a blog that I occasionally read, mostly because it's on Straight Outta Suburbia's excellent blogroll. They're a conservative blog, and their narratives often run counter to the urbanist paradigm. (It goes without saying that our interpretations of empirical data often are in disagreement as well.) Suburban booster Joel Kotkin, frequent columnist at Reason, is the blog's founder. Thus, it's odd that I find myself in agreement with one of their recent posts, although for slightly different reasons.

In "California: Codes, Corruption and Consensus," blogger Bill Watkins asserts that the California planning and environmental review process is profoundly broken. The long list of "stakeholders" that must be consulted to get damned near anything built, he says, allows for corruption and introduces uncertainty for developers and businesses. Furthermore, the effective veto held by a long list of groups makes it very difficult to build even the most uncontroversial of projects.

The current system for development is undoubtedly an impediment to a great many goals. Watkins wants to streamline the process in order to reduce cost and uncertainty for business. I'd like to see the corruption that results from the process-- visible in the way many megacorporations can get municipalities to waive taxes, fees, and environmental reviews, while small businesses and residents have to pick up the slack in revenue-- significantly reduced. Furthermore, the effective veto held by any "stakeholder" in the area over major projects is a significant impediment to much-needed density and transit improvements. (See, for example, the effect the University Neighborhood Association's opposition has had on the Perris Valley Line, or Beverly Hills School District's opposition to the urgently-needed Subway to the Sea.)

Fortunately, the solution Watkins proposes is amenable to urbanism as well, if done carefully. He proposes that projects that substantially conform to regional and community plans be assured rapid completion. The time for community input (read: opposition) would be during the development of the plan, rather than during the development of a specific project. Not only would this reduce the overall cost and delay of opposition and lawsuits, as NIMBYs would have only one process to disrupt rather than several, but such a review would also allow for the complete reassessment of a community's character and development at a single point in time. Such an opportunity could allow a coherent, urbanist vision of a community to prevail over the present, sprawl-creating zoning systems (which currently continue largely out of institutional inertia, rather than merit.)

Of course, streamlined development review would not singlehandedly allow the accomplishment of urbanist objectives, and I have no doubt that the usual suspects would struggle against the proposal of any increase in density or shift towards sustainable transportation in their community. However, I am convinced that such an idea would at least give advocates of smart growth an even playing field on which to fight, and a meaningful prize worth attaining.

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