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« Free Reads -- Alexander Zaitchik on Romance Writers | Main | Free Reads -- Harold Bloom »

July 24, 2003

Free Reads -- Phillip De Vous on Portland

Friedrich --

Oh, it's a conundrum, isn't it? I mean, here I am, all in favor of strong property rights and more modest government. Yet here I am as well, a fan of two heavily-regulated cities, Portland and Santa Barbara. Too bad about all those drive-you-nuts rules -- yet they sure do have nice downtowns.

Phillip De Vous at the Acton Institute warns that the New Urbanism is in danger of playing footsie with regulation-lovin' socialists. Why, just look at Portland! A few readers tell him to chill, and that Portland's a nice place.

Sample De Vous passage:

In recent years there has been no better example of the pernicious effects of the sustainable development and smart growth agendas than the city of Portland, Oregon. So bad are the effects of the smart-growth plan adopted by Portland, that in policy circles the term “Portlandization” has been coined as a shorthand reference for a set of policies that lead to increased housing costs, artificially inflated property values, lower rates of home ownership...

Sample reader comment:

I am having trouble understanding your objection to the Urban planning that has occured in Portland over the past few decades. You state that one problem has been the increased housing costs. I assume you are referring to the increased cost of housing in the city and areas within the land use regulation district around Portland. It seems to me that this could also be looked at as a positive development.

Resolvable or not? You can read the article here.

Link thanks to John Ray, here. The Acton Institute's publication Markets & Morality also features some other pieces on the New Urbanism here and here.



UPDATE: J.W. of Forager23 reports from Burlington, here.

posted by Michael at July 24, 2003


Unclosed underline tag. Danger!

Posted by: Aaron Haspel on July 24, 2003 01:14 AM

Oops, fixed. Much appreciated.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 24, 2003 01:28 AM

The article at the Action Institute is so filled with factual mis-representations and odd conclusions that I would not rely on it except as a good discussion-starter.

For example, only someone hostile to the market could say that it is a bad thing that housing prices have gone up. What it means for housing prices to go up is that buyere VALUE housing more. Hosuing prices are not an independent variable -- they are a reflection of peoples' perceptions.

Increased VALUE of Portland housing means that people want to live in Portland and are wiling to pay the price. The fact that housing prices have gone up is proof that the "bad policies" of successive waves of Oregon government (long before btw, New Urbanism ever came along) have been successful in adding value to the geography of the Portland area.

If someone thinks that low housing prices are an indicator of urban health, there are plenty of struggling cities which are limping along and have great buys on houses.

Now that is not to say that there may not be lots of dumb rules and tedious administration in Portland, though I don't know that either. In Seattle, the rumor among builders is that Portland's permit process is pretty efficient.

Posted by: David on July 24, 2003 10:20 AM

David -- Anything to get a conversation started, eh? Like you, I find it odd that there are some free-marketers who attack the New Urbanism on the basis of being insufficiently market-oriented. How then do they explain the fact that New Urb developments have been such market successes? And that they've done this in the face of tons of rules and regs? And like you I find it odd that some free-marketers attack some sets of local laws on the basis that they drive housing and land prices up. Why not take rising prices as an indication of rising desirability? Wouldn't it make more sense to conclude that the rules-and-regs have had the effect of making the town more attractive? I really can't make sense of this. Only thing I come up with is that the criticizers (not that there aren't plenty of legit ways to go after New Urbanism) are super-hardcore free-marketers -- utopian libertarians, for whom any regulation is a bad regulation. But I could be all wet here. What's your hunch?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 24, 2003 01:43 PM

Though the strong regulations of Portland planning rub my libertarian tendencies the wrong way and I object in principle to the appearance reviews that they have put in place, you can't deny that Portland is a much more vital city than it would be without all this.

There are two things that I have noticed that seem to allow it to work that many people don't notice/don't think of.

The first is that while Oregon has urban growth boundaries, regulates sprawl, etc, remember that Portland is tight on the state border and these laws do not apply in Washington. If you like sprawl, move to Vancouver. If you don't, live in Portland. You are still in the same metro area.

The other is that from my understanding, the rules are clear and applied consistantly and fairly. If the plan says you can build a huge apartment building on a lot, you can do it even if every neighbor objects. This is very different from almost every other city that I am aware of. It is almost better to have highly restrictive laws applied consistantly and predictably as opposed to loosely defined laws that leave approval to the whim of the board.

David - I understand why professionals in Seattle would say that Portland permitting process is much easier for the reason I just stated. The way I understand it is that in Seattle, your neighbors and highly arbitrary reviews determine what you build regardless of how you lot is zoned or what the master plan says.

Posted by: Tom on July 24, 2003 03:16 PM

Michael -- OK. My hunch is that it comes down to "sensibility" --- some people are tone-deaf when it comes to the physical world and simply don't care. These things don't fall along traditional political lines. For example, I find "The New Criterion/Armavirumque" folks extremely simpatico --- except when they say something. I'm one with them at a basic level of sensibility/soul --- for example the very same things that interest them, interest me, and I agree with where they are trying to go --- but then they go and spoil it with some articulation! :)

So, as to "Action" maybe they simply want to gripe, and New Urbanism/Smart Growth (I fail to see the distinction which Action posits) with its occasional excess of enthusiasm and over-promising, is a handy target.

Tom --- You have rightly and shrewdly hit upon the central issue of "predictability" versus "discretion" in land use administration. (You must be a lawyer or builder.) Predicatability needs firms rules, firmly applied.
Discretion puts very decision in play and is useful to politicians/bureaucrats as it allows them to bend the rules, nay even hide them, which enhances their role and makes every decision a political one. The argument for Discretion is that we need it to allow architects to be "creative" and "innovative." I say "tell that to the people who built Paris." Paris was built around a zoning code so simple you could almost write it on the back of a planner's business card.
The bottom line is that "Discretionary" codes (we are talking at the extremes of course) are not essential to build great cities and are corrosive to democratic values.

Posted by: David Sucher on July 24, 2003 04:31 PM

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