SPURIOUS, CURIOUS REASONING ON PROP B
I have just returned from Europe and painfully read the newspaper accounts
of the many conflicting opinions expressed by respected friends and colleagues
on Proposal B.
As polarizing as it may be among good and reasonable people, this is too
important and pivotal a matter to muddle through with the convenient reasoning
and flawed logic. In my opinion, there are many fallacies afloat.
Fallacy#1- HOUSING COSTS WILL GO UP. While passage of Prop B may marginally
raise LAND costs, it doesn't necessarily mean HOUSING costs will go up.
If building lots get smaller, housing costs can be contained and, if density
goes up faster than land costs, housing can actually become more affordable.
Reduced street and utility capital costs also help to lower housing prices.
Fallacy#2 -TAXES WILL GO UP. This is true only if millage goes up over
time, which the voters decide. Taxes can can actually be better contained
with compact development because infrastructure capital and maintenance
costs are less per dwelling unit.
Fallacy#3 -LEAPFROGGING WILL HAVE A DELETERIOUS EFFECT. Leapfrogging has
been going on for decades, as developers have sought and found ever-cheaper
land by going further out. Although commute distances are increased, this
pattern is superior to a continous carpet of suburban development, because
it preserves pockets of green and habitat. Leapfrog development is okay
if it is compact, environmentally sensitive, socio-economically diverse,
close to existing infrastructure (including public transit), and built
in smaller increments than the massive roof farms that we see replacing
agricultural farms. And if the frog leaps into new or existing mixed-use
villages, all the better.
Fallacy#4 - IT DOESN'T HELP INFILL OR URBAN REDEVELOPMENT. If land is
taken off the market or its development rights are purchased or transferred,
pressure to develop inward toward town will be as great as to develop
outward. True, this infill housing must be encouraged by the city and
towns with initiatives to accommodate the demonstrable demand among many
young and old residents who want to live more urbanely and sustainably.
This is a happy trend to be welcomed and capitalized on asap by Ann Arbor
and other towns.
Fallacy#5 - IT REDUCES FREEDOM AND CHOICE. It tends to do just the opposite.
Cheap land on the periphery and cheap gasoline have conspired to give
us relatively monotonous, monocultural subdivisions - whether repetitive
McMansions for the affluent, garden apartments for the middle class, or
manufactured homes for the poor. (This may be conspiracy of good intentions
but one with so many unintended negative consequences and so much asphalt
as to qualify as the latest road to hell.) With the exception of some
townhouses and lofts, we're down to three basic architectural types not
only in Michigan but across the country, where regional differences have
pretty much disappeared.
Fallacy #6 -TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE. The argument that
the proposed amount of funding is too small is a curious one. Most citizens
agree that the current trajectory of sprawl is not in the public interest
and should be stopped. Any sound corrective step, such as this one, is
positve, however small, however late. To contend that the money is insufficient
and therefore shouldn't be spent is a little bit like saying we should
stop spending on cancer research or housing for the homeless until full
funding is at hand. The next step is to get going on densifying downtown
with more residential units.
The last and biggest fallacy may be that sprawl is a natural and inevitable
outcome of the American Dream, our political freedom and our economic
system. In fact, it has been aided and abetted both intentionally and
unintentionally since WWII by policies of cheap energy and farm land,
highway programs, sewer and water subsidies, mortgage practices, greenfield
siting of schools, malls and offices, underfunded transit, untaxed free
parking, environmental laxities, etc. I'm not against people living at
low suburban or exurban densities, just against the subsidising of it
by the taxpayers who live in town, drive less, use less natural resources,
Prop B is a good start, although not enough to reverse the seemingly inexorable
sprawling of America, which can be stemmed only with considerably higher
land and fuel pricing, as well as new zoning, regional and urban growth
and redevelopment policies. It picks relatively low-hanging fruit that
will only get harder to reach with time. There will no doubt be unintended
consequences , as there always are, but probably not the ones now being
trotted out by the opposition, who are in some cases doing their best
to obfuscate and confuse the voters. Proposition B is an historic beginning
of a new attitude and discipline about how we want to build community
for ourselves and the future.
Douglas Kelbaugh FAIA, Professor and Dean
Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning
University of Michigan
YES on Proposal B Nov 4