Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Should Lawrence adopt the Smartcode?

Is the Smartcode worthy of its name?

“Smart growth, or sustainable development, has been tested as a policy in at least two-dozen states since the 1970s, when the term first appeared. It's evolved over the decades, to be sure, but the chief goals remain: to plan better, rein in sprawl, redevelop in established urban areas, promote mixed-use growth near transit and in environments that are easy to walk around, and offer a range of housing types that are affordable to different incomes. “ - Lincoln Land Institute Smart Growth: Form and Consequences (2002).

The Smartcode does nothing to rein in sprawl, it works against the redevelopment of established areas, and it does not ensure that development proceeds at a sustainable pace. While it makes a nod to mixed-use and the ability to walk around, it does nothing to ensure that affordable housing is provided in new developments. As such, the Smartcode fails to deliver what it promises.

The Smartcode is a poorly designed development code that removes most public input from the development process and circumvents needed review of many development projects by both the Planning Commission and the City Commission.

The basics are as follows:

Certain districts would be designated as appropriate for development. Once designated and zoned, no further public input is permitted on any development proposal. Yet, we know from experience that citizens rarely become involved in the zoning process; they only become involved when a development proposal comes forward.

If a developer plans a development within these districts, and if a committee of planning staff members (called the Consolidated Review Committee or CRC) finds that the architectural design of the development meets the design guidelines of the Smartcode, then a building permit is issued.

There is no review by the Planning Commission, and there is no review by the City Commission. Because public input is only received through hearings before these two bodies, there is no public input on the process.

The Smartcode assumes that if land is zoned, that the developer can build at any time with only cursory staff review. If the market cannot absorb the new development without negative impact upon existing space, the Smartcode does not prevent this negative impact. In fact, it facilitates growth at an unsustainable pace.
If the CRC does not approve the development plan, the developer may appeal to the Planning Commission. There is no obligation for the CRC to inform the public of the development plan or seek out public input. If the public does learn of the development plan, it has no capacity to provide input. The public cannot appeal the decision of the CRC to either the Planning Commission or the City Commission.

The Smartcode calls for subsidies to certain types of developments that meet the architectural guidelines within the code. It is apparent that the Smartcode calls for subsidies to development that will take place without subsidy and fails to assist development in older neighborhoods that will not take place without subsidy. This is wasteful and counterproductive.

Good design does not resolve all planning problems

Smartcode is a needless giveaway to the developers. The Smartcode derives from a false belief that if development meets certain design guidelines, that all of the other planning and developments problems resulting from the proposal are resolved. It would be nice if beautiful architecture could overcome all the other problems, but it cannot. There is nothing in the Smartcode that prevents the development community from its continued overbuilding. If the district is zoned and if the development plan meets certain architectural guidelines, then the development can obtain its building permit even if the neighbors object and even if the development will have a negative impact upon other parts of the community (such as traffic congestion or adding to an already overbuilt supply of space).

The planning staff made a few modifications to the initial draft of the Smartcode by agreeing that the CRC will examine a developer provided market analysis and traffic impact study. The staff has not demonstrated either the skill or the willingness to respond appropriately to market studies in the past. There is nothing in the Smartcode mandating attention to these issues now. Further, there is little reason to believe that developer provided studies will tell the truth. In Lawrence, we have seen many false reports, making phony claims and exaggerated promises. For every piece of failed real estate, there is a market study saying the property would succeed. The planning staff have accepted and approved these studies in the past. They have made few, if any, efforts to correct these studies or to create their own studies. This record does not suggest that the public can trust the planning staff to do better in the future.

Building space faster than growth in demand for that space

The greatest threat to Lawrence is the excessive pace of growth in the supply of real estate. The community should expect, even demand, good design without offering subsidies or accelerated access to building permits. The community should be a part of the development process from the zoning decision all the way through to the final development plan approval.

The development industry confuses growth in supply with growth in demand. Economic growth is assessed by the growth in demand, which is the growth in people and their income. When we have more people and these people have more income, then their spending will demand more goods and services.

These goods and services may include more homes and support more retail stores. Note that building more homes and stores does not generate more people or income. Demand must precede supply and support supply. If supply is built beyond the available demand, then bad things happen. Older shopping centers empty out and become blighted. Older neighborhoods decline. Developers never pick up the cost of this blight; they simply look to the taxpayers to pay the very expensive costs of redevelopment. Even this expensive redevelopment fails unless there is sufficient demand for the revitalized space.

Sustainable growth means supply growing no faster than the growth in demand

It is crucial to the health of any community that the growth in supply be kept at a pace that matches the growth in demand. Unfortunately, the development and construction industries are prone to overbuilding. Cities, under pressure from developers, are prone to over-zoning. This is true throughout the nation, not just here in Lawrence. Preventing excessive growth in supply is easy and costless; it only takes well-managed growth controls by the community.

This is the purpose of the market analysis requirement integrated into the planning process. Lawrence has ignored this analysis because it has, for years, indicated that Lawrence is building more homes than it needs and more retail space than it needs and more office space than it needs. Developers and builders have brought political pressure on the planners to ignore the market signals indicating that the market is building at an unsustainable pace. Except at the extreme, developers make money even in overbuilt markets. Thus, the builders and developers have captured control of the political process to prevent the community from taking steps to slow the pace of growth.

What Lawrence needs is smart growth management tools not misnamed smart development codes that are giveaways to a development industry that has proven itself prone to overbuilding.

Lawrence should not adopt the Smartcode and should actively work toward bringing the pace of real estate development in line with the growth in demand for that development.

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