Markets not Mandates

A FORUM WATCH EDITORIAL

By. Neil Williamson

I am often struck by the unique sense of place created by the topography, climate, architecture and people.  I tend to see places as a patchwork quilt with different textures and attributes in each city block but an underlying cohesiveness that holds them together.   Such places grow organically — they are not regulated into existence.  

Unfortunately, as I tour new urbanist projects in Florida they look a great deal like the ones I’ve seen in Chapel Hill which really looks a great deal like the one in Portland.  McUrbanism — We’re Unique … just like everyone else.

Such bland vanilla flavoring of these projects are not only the result of boring design but of the tight demands of the regulatory environment.  Last weekend, I was in Bellvue Washington for the American Dream Conference.  Bellvue is just outside of Seattle and has a bustling commercial sector that literally did not exist 60 months ago.  The hotel featured an underground parking garage that linked to two other commercial garages on other sides of the intersection.  In addition, the buildings were linked on the second floor by skyways.  None of these innovative concepts were mandated by law, rather they were true market creations. 

Bellvue Place , linked to the hotel by skyway, is in the top 10 square foot profit performers of high end boutique shopping malls in the United States.  The developer, recognizing the need for customer parking came up with the concept of linked buildings.  At first, the planning department would not approve it.  After significant discussion, the developer prevailed and was allowed to spend an additional $4 million dollars to construct the two tunnels.  The three buildings now house over 5,000 jobs and have been so successful, city fathers are now claiming the linkage was their idea.

Despite the fact that one block north of Bellvue Place is a bus transit center that has over 5,000 riders a day, the owners recognized the customer need for easy, accessible, and free parking.  During the holiday season, the property management opens an off site tenant employee parking facility and provides private transit service between the shops and the employee parking.  A combination of contests and incentives has generated tenant employee participation in the program to the point that the complex can increase its parking capacity by 25%.  .

You can’t regulate your way to prosperity

If the above scenario had been regulated into action it would not have been nearly as successful.  Only the market can respond nimbly to such opportunities.  Through a series of decisions and implementation, Bellvue Place is able to attract high end tenants and high end shoppers.  Early on they recognized the importance of the automobile to their business.  Rather than restricting the amount of parking and restricting their potential revenue, they found innovative synergies to increase parking for all their buildings. Imagination like this can’t be regulated into existence but it can be regulated out of existence.

By removing the choke of  onerous regulation, the market will drive innovative design followed by prosperity.

Respectfully Submitted,

 

Neil Williamson, President

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One response

  1. I totally agree with you that the greatest cities in the world have all grown organically, the gradual accumulation of thousands of private citizens making their own improvements. When social engineers step in to shape a city according to some preconceived notion, whether this is the Futurama of the automobile city from GM’s World Fair or Le Corbusier’s towers-in-the-park experiment in socialism, things never quite go according to plan.

    I just happen to see the markets and mandates distinction played out in exactly the opposite way you do. The New Urbanist developments you are thinking of are probably entirely the creation of the private sector, i.e. just as much a response to market forces as the hotel you highlight. The trouble is most local government regulations prohibit New Urbanist developers from creating the kinds of projects they would like. Infill is often zoned out of most communities by regulation. There are minimum parking requirements. Mixed-use is more often than not illegal. Required set-backs and street-widths are higher than most New Urbanists would like.

    I would encourage you to read Duany, Leinberger, and esp. Jonathan Levine’s Zoned Out. The unanimous response is that it is government regulation that mandates the current low-density automobile-oriented development patterns, and more diverse market options will naturally emerge if those regulations are loosened/changed. The goal is not to eliminate the driveable suburbs, but to allow a viable alternative of walkable urban neighborhoods. That’s where the pent-up demand is not being met primarily (hence the high prices), and where the market would go if it were allowed to.

    This is what I find ironic about groups like the American Dream Coalition. The Interstate highway system, featured front and center on the web site, is the largest public works project in the history of the world, and the it’s maintenance and continued support requires massive amounts of government expenditure (gas tax hardly covers it). If you count other externalities of the automotive system that are not assessed to private users, the public costs continue to mount. (Check out Donald Shoup’s book, “high cost of free parking,” for an economists look at government parking subsidies). I just don’t get how that is somehow the more market-oriented of the two options.

    Government has to have some role in the creation of public infrastructure, but I do not buy into the narrative that sprawl is the market choice and urban living is subsidized. I think that more often than not it’s the other way around.

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