Monday, March 10, 2008

Things Are More Complicated Than They Seem

Tonight I take my stand against affordable housing. Funny how life turns out.

UPDATE: So far the comments are a pretty good prediction of how tonight should go, although I'm not sure I'll hear from the pro-cupcake crowd. Here's the deal.

Several years ago, a developer proposed a mixed-use development with a variety of housing and retail options. The development was intended in part to eliminate severely blighted and unsafe transient housing in the community. Public subsidies for the development were approved in the face of substantial neighborhood concern about density and after significant redesigns were required to address these issues.

In the latest in a series of business misjudgments, the developer claims he can't lease the retail space. Instead, he wants to convert the retail space to small efficiency apartments to be rented at rates that would qualify for low income tax credits. In a building immediately adjacent to a single family residential neighborhood, the conversion will increase the number of residential units by 50% over the original proposal and are proposed to have doors opening directly onto a parking lot.

The developer was told that the increased density was not in keeping with the character of the neighborhood and risked overwhelming the existing infrastructure. He was also asked for evidence that he continues to need public subsidies for the restructured development. He refused to open his books and accused a skeptic of the new proposal of hating renters.

During initial design phase, said skeptic took many hours of abuse for efforts to create additional and affordable life cycle housing options. Said skeptic is not a happy camper.

ANOTHER UPDATE: When the meeting opened I politely inquired, "Are you all on crack?" before disemboweling several baby rabbits and tossing them on a pile of burning kittens. When this passive approach failed, I got angry.

32 comments:

Jennifer said...

Good luck, Snag. I don't envy you, but I'm sure you'll put forth a stellar case for the errors of their ways. BS packaged in good is still BS. You call them on it!

fish said...

I am guessing it is similar to your stands against Clean Air(tm) and Freedom(tm).

billy pilgrim said...

...and Cuddly Puppies.

Mendacious D said...

Don't forget cupcakes. And ponies.

Adorable said...

What do you mean your against affordable housing?

What, AG is the only one here who has the brass ovaries to ask this?

No wonder I have to come back to this damn Internets. It's gotten soften and Conservaturd.

billy pilgrim said...

Blog War over here too?

Brando said...

Affordable housing is for poor people, AG.

Kathleen said...

we're all like cream cheese without our AG.

Adorable Girlfriend said...

It's comments like that which make Kathleen the biggest reason for my return!

Snag, thanks for the update. I agree that a small apartment is NO kind of solution for those who need low income and it really offers no solution. If he wants to build larger units that are nicer and charge the same amount and offer cash to the school board and community center, etc. than he should be allowed to do so.

Otherwise, anything short of a free clinic is unacceptable at this point.

fish said...

I, for one, definitely need low income.

Snag obviously hates renters and loves blight.

billy pilgrim said...

Anyone who wants public financing should be wiling to open their books.

I regularly do moderate income housing projects (how else to pay for those chili dogs, AG?) in which the developers receive tax credit financing based on federal block grant money; the developers are required to submit full development pro formas as public information, including developer's fees.

the time frame to pull one of these off is often two years; it becomes a balancing act to pull them off within the established dollar amount with construction increases; and of course, there is always inordinate pressure to minimize my fees.

But you know what? We do them without these kind of handouts.

Now, I don't know the particulars of Snag's situation. Based on his description, I don't necessarily see it as a horrible, bad, no-good project. Sometimes workable solutions strike the neighbors as totally weird and negative at first because it's different. And I can also tell you that I've designed projects that sound even less promising that have turned out pretty cool; it's not unusual for developers to be using sucky designers for these things. And as Snag has kind of implied, suburbs and small towns have been xenophobically opposed to housing diversity.

But the late changes to the game plan, the begging for public monetary input, and the unwillingness to disclose finances all bode ill.

Milwaukee has had a pretty strong development climate for the past few years, at least until the Republicans sank the economy. Developers have not been able to dictate terms for some time; it's been the other way round, so we've been able to ask for higher levels of design, more public amenities, and so on. In a town that has been hopelessly retro for longer than I've lived here, architecture has been jerked into at least the twentieth century if not the twenty first. It's not to everyone's taste, but it adds to the complexity and diversity of the built environment. A vital city, like a vital democracy, can be a bit messy sometimes.

Long answer on someone else's blog. Sorry.

But it still doesn't explain why Snag hates puppies and unicorns.

fish said...

Yeah Snag, why do you hate puppies and unicorns?

Snag said...

BP, thanks for your thoughts. I was hoping you'd weigh in (not that I don't appreciate the rest of the comments also). What I realize I didn't make clear was the development in this case has already been constructed. Any reconfiguration is to an existing building, leaving very little room (we're told) for design improvements or other changes to improve the building's fit in the neighborhood.

The reason for the public subsidies in this case had to do with some redevelopment issues; soil conditions and an existing building with negative net worth. While I am, based on experience, usually suspicious of developer handouts, a judicious use of them in this case was warranted. The problem is we're not getting what we paid for.

On a more vulgar note, the pied pipers of New Urbanism can kiss my ass.

Pinko Punko said...

Oh Snagsby,

If you lived in California sprawl HELL you would appreciate new urbanism.

almostinfamous said...

i think all meetings need references to crack cocaine and felines introduced to flames.

rabbits, i'm a bit ambivalent about.

the conversion will increase the number of residential units by 50% over the original proposal and are proposed to have doors opening directly onto a parking lot.

that's just a really BAD idea. i would be against it too.

Mandos said...

I'm totally not with you and with Pinko on the New Urbanism front. Either be a rural area and run a farm, or be a city. The burbs with lawns and picket fences are doomed one way or another, as is the lifestyle they represent.

Up with density.

billy pilgrim said...

I have a love/hate relationship with New Urbanism.

The ideas are basically the right direction; really, it's just a summary of Old Urbanism, or What Towns and Cities Used to Be: higher density, front porches, mixed uses, pedestrian oriented development centered around transit and walkable amenities.

The ex-mayor of Milwaukee (stepping down when he got caught screwing an aide, go figure. What the hell is wrong with these people?) is now the President of the Congress for New Urbanism; he used the principles to direct much of the new development planning in Milwaukee to very positive effect.

A hill adjacent to the house I grew up in was redeveloped using a plan by the big deal new urbanists Duany Plater-Zyberk (gesundheit!). Middleton Hills. It meet fierce and devoted opposition from the community because it contained ALLEYS(!) and also oppo from the fire department because the tighter streets didn't allow them to drive their biggest, shiniest toys at the highest speeds around and around. even made my parents move out of their house.

But it got built, came out very nice, and wound up as a wild success, resulting in some of the highest property values in the city.

However, NU is often used as trendy cover for the worst development practices of standard developers; a pastiche to make sprawl and greenfield development more palatable to people who haven't had any experience with anything except standard post-war suburbs. DPZ also do some of this kind of stuff.

Snag has a basic point. Brownfields have been largely abandoned due to the Republicans erasing and pilfering Superfund cleanup money, and the original polluters are often distanced, by time, sale, age and death, so developers are sought with cleanup funding. It's not unreasonable to say that the City will help you clean this land up, but you need to provide the City with something in return, and while negotiation is always possible, breaking an existing deal without being willing to provide justification is suspicious.

"Trust Us" is not a contractual position, as amply evidenced by our Wonderful Republican Administration.

However, I also suspect a fair number of the opponents to the project, and/or it's alterations, are simply taking advantage of an opportunity to derail what they see as an encroachment by Them.

Again, I don't know the particulars, and I've been on the receiving end of ardent community opposition myself from time to time, so I know that perfectly good intentions and stellar design can seem alien and threatening to people who have become accustomed to their community as it is, or was.

But Change is Good. I believe that, or I wouldn't be working to build new Stuff. Intelligently directing that change is a harder thing, and many communities kind of suck at it.

But this isn't a call to put more architects in charge of things. Just look at the chairs we design.

Snag: it took a fair bit of sack to throw this out to this crowd, especially with the meager information provided in the OP. SUPER-especially during the week when AG comes back. Like throwing bacon to the 3 Bulls, baby.

billy pilgrim said...

Snag, I got that the building had already been constructed, or mostly. Most of the guys I've been working with usually don't anticipate commercial space to rent for a couple or years, and if his pro forma indicated immediate occupancy, especially in the Bush Economy, then he's an idiot and deserves to eat his fee.

At a detail level, I'm not convinced that opening units into the parking area couldn't be handled in a comfortable manner through landscaping and site elements.

But I didn't read the 50% increase in units part. That's a pretty significant change, and whether it's justified or not (I'm with mandos and fish: I LIKE density and mixed income neighborhoods) it's not what the City was expecting, and is justified in asking for redesign, constructed or not.

Also, I gave the wrong impression on the projects I work on. Many times, the developer obtains some portion of gap financing from the City, but for specific reasons, as you stated: blight, contamination, ugly trees, whatever. But again, in all cases it's an open book process. Nobody's getting rich off this stuff, and I will testify to that.

fish said...

I was actually making a joke about an AG typo, not commentary on whether I like mixed housing or not (I do).

My sympathies lie with Snag on this one though. Nothing is more frustrating than trying to raise serious and (I am sure in the case of Snag) sincere questions that get attacked by kneejerk reactions. If it is low income housing, it MUST BE GOOD!!! If it is low income housing, it will be filled with CRACK ADDICTS!!

I am occasionally on panels to decide funding for research grants. One project was based on a fundamentally incorrect assumption that undermines the entire proposal (asking for $2million). I pointed this out and was met with: yeah this is true, but no one else is working on this and it is important. It got funded. This was the date of my first major stroke. Function of my left hand has been mostly restored however. Smiles are still a little crooked.

Mandos said...

So, I don't want to say that I think that Snag was ONLY kicking puppies. It was more like alternations of "kick a puppy, pet a kitten". The backtracking on the retail space is developer evility---retail and other uses are essential. But after Snag's New Urbanism quip, I became very suspicious of the motivations. As someone who is vaguely peripherally interested in local planning issues himself (but has no vote obviously), it's really easy to kick my puppy on this issue.

billy pilgrim said...

of course fish has a point, piscine though it may be.

I've gone out of my way to be wishy washy and indecisive in my comments; as I said, execution is an issue on these projects.

Even people like Duany Plater-Zyberk, who have an excellent handle on the issues of higher density, traditional style development, can have their work executed poorly; witness Celebration.

I guess what I'm saying is that every potential developer should hire me.

billy pilgrim said...

Also, Snag's opposition may be perfectly justified and supported by right-thinking puppies and unicorns, yet others opposed to the same things may still be motivated by short-sightedness and bigotry.

Okay, now I'm setting stool down and just milking this. But it's obviously an issue that I've had some experience with, both good and bad.

Kathleen said...

Snag hates Rent?

fish said...

but he loves Urban Blight.

Snag said...

What ultimately frustrates me most is that the project is being driven solely by the developer. Given the amount of public funds the community is paying him, I do not feel we are being adequately compensated in terms of green space, aesthetics, compatibility with the surrounding neighborhood and all the rest of it.

There were something like eighteen public meetings or hearings on the original project. Those meetings left opponents not completely satisfied but the opportunity to be heard alleviated long-term resentment. On the revision, there were two. I fear there will be lasting resentment as a result, an unfortunate outcome of a project designed to create housing stock diversity.

Mandos said...

That's the other problem. Urban planning is great but eighteen meetings sounds excessive to me.

My kicked puppy: for various reasons, I am living in a suburb. Sans car. The area is JUST this side of dense to have transit that is vaguely acceptable to my needs, and I am willing to wal 30min to an hour to get to things as well.

If I lived a mile from here, I'd probably really need a car.

I'm on the filthy rich side of poor, but a car would put me on the moderately poor side of poor. I don't know why I should have to invest in a Death Machine to survive. Death Machines will be the death of us.

The neighbourhood is fortunately changing but every change is fought by the ridiculous local residents to the tune of 20 meetings for things that eventually never go through because the developer just up and leaves. "Fine!" Most of these things are IMO desperately needed around here and they never happen.

Consequently I'm a little sour about excessive consultation with the local neighbourhood, and a little sour about the concept of preserving the whole single family home neighbourhood with lots of lawns and greenspace thing. It doesn't help that it's heavily divided up and motivated by racial politics.

Mandos said...

It's a surprisingly short distance between being able to afford diversions and outings and things---and eating ramen every day in the cold.

And I really hate driving and really do think that any living arrangement that isn't dense enough to make comprehensive public transit affordable should be abolished forthwith. I can drive, and did last summer. Loathed it.

Snag said...

I drive almost every day far more than I want to, and perhaps in a theoretical world, far more than I have to, but I love where I live and I love where I work and as yet the twain haven't met. I suspect in my lifetime energy prices will force me to change one of those variables, or will force me to change how often I go to my office.

I have the good fortune of postponing that decision, however. Many don't and that we're pushing them further behind does not to me seem a happy social accomplishment.

Mandos said...

I have the good fortune of postponing that decision, however. Many don't and that we're pushing them further behind does not to me seem a happy social accomplishment.

It's also a question of life-ethos, I guess. To me the politics of suburban living arrangements are bad in themselves. The idea of everyone having their own little castle bothers me, no matter the community feel that they get. It doesn't seem to me to be an advance. The glorification of this life seems to me to be the effect and source of a large number of Anglo-North-American cultural pathologies.

What probably shouldn't have happened (C20 American middle-class living arrangements) in the first place is now going to be driven out by price, with climate change as its potentially deadly consequence. Bummer on the climate change, and sad that it's going to hit the lower-end first, but the end of the arrangement is to me the silver lining in the peak oil stormcloud.

I'm sorry about those who liked it, and I'm particularly sorry about the agoraphobes and recluses, but I for one am not going to miss its passing. It's time to end the reliance on the Death Machines of Freedom, the inherent sociopathy of cars.

That said, bad planning is bad planning, and you need the retail space for it to work.

Mandos said...

I mean, the point is, there's something seriously wrong when you *have* to pay more to avoid the car. I mean, I *could* move somewhere where I could engage in car-avoidance and rely on frequent public transit, but it would cost me *even* more than getting a car, and I can't afford it.

That's thoroughly inverted from how it should be by any standard other than economist market-worship.

mdhatter said...

Clearly you hate Apple Pie and T-ball.

As a complete outsider to your situation, but one familiar with Brownfields redevlopment (particularly contaminated soils management), there is one thing I am curious about. Usually these projects are completed with retail or parking on the first floor to minimize potential contact between the residents and the contaminated soil (or vapors, but I assume metals or heavy hydrocarbons are your issues, and not vapors).

The risk assessments conducted during the planning stages of a re-development project are modeled fairly specifically for potential future uses. You would do well to see what density and use the risk assessors assumed, and to make sure the proposed additional use matches the assessed risks (as well as any deed restrictions, which are often used as a tool to ensure compliance with the Risk Assessment scenarios)(e.g. no gardening, no daycare facilities, warn utility crews before they dig, density maximums, no first floor residential, etc... ). Your local Board of Health or Planning department should have (or can easily get) a copy of these development documents for public review.

Snag said...

Now I'm inspired to do a post defending the suburbs. Work travel beckons, however, so that'll be on the back burner for a while.

As for the soil conditions, it wasn't brownfields, it was unstable soils because of peat. The existing facilities on the property had negative value simply because they were so old and dangerous there was no way to rehabilitate them; razing them was the only solution. So there wasn't a need for a buffer between the land and tenants. The retail came from a community driven process in which there was a decision made to create a city center that would reduce reliance on automobiles. Another frustration from this process; by adding more residential, we're going in the other direction.