Thursday, February 09, 2006

Planners’ New Urbanist Utopias crash into reality

Planners are always coming up with Utopian ideas. Then those ideas get heaved against the plaster walls of the real world and shatter like porcelain teacups. (Feel free to share your war stories on that front, below.)

“Live-work units” – they’re all the rage among planners, and some developers, all over the country, especially (but not exclusively) in New Urbanist-styled neighborhoods. They’re buildings with retail or business space on the first floor and homes on upper floors.

It’s easy to see why they’d be popular: They’re an unfilled niche in the development market, aimed at people who own small businesses and don’t want to have to pay to rent/own both a home and a business site, or who don’t want to have to commute. Planners like them because they’re “mixed use” and, among other praiseworthy attributes, cut down on how many auto trips people have to make.

Plus, they can increase a city’s stock of affordable housing if you figure that not having to shell out for a separate space for your business gives you more money for your home.

Here’s the wall that they hit: Building codes don’t recognize them. If you’re a developer trying to build live-work, you’ll probably have to build the whole building under the commercial building code, even residential floors. That pushes your building costs so high that – guess what! – it isn’t affordable any more, and the units may not be able to compete with other residential development on the market.

I wrote a column in the Observer a few weeks ago about the difficulty developers have when applying the state’s building codes to mixed-used buildings. It spurred a call from Jim Bartl, Mecklenburg County’s director of code enforcement. He knows all about the live-work problem. “We’re getting pummeled by it all across the country,” he said.

Bartl, an architect, is one of North Carolina’s unsung heroes for his successful push to revise North Carolina’s state building code to make renovating older buildings dramatically easier. (That change, first enacted as a pilot project, was made permanent last year. Builders, planners, historic preservationists and downtown revitalizers all over the state should applaud Bartl and state Sen. Dan Clodfelter, D-Mecklenburg, among others.)

Turns out Bartl is working with a national committee to change the International Residential Code and the International Commercial Code – the documents that underpin North Carolina’s state building code – so they recognize live-work units and make it easier to build them without compromising safety and fire standards. The committee will submit its proposal to the International Code Council in March. It could be adopted by spring 2007, and North Carolina’s building code would likely adopt the changes after that.

It wouldn't get us anywhere near Utopia, of course, but it should make mixed-use and New Urbanist development a bit easier in the state of North Carolina.


JAT said...

I watched this very issue crash into the New Urbanist utopia of the Kentlands in Montgomery Co. Md. Planners really thought they had a handle on the live-work problem but did not expect the wrinkle of people renting out the space above their biz to tenants, sometimes employees. Bottomline, owner-occupied, you were in compliance, rent it out and you weren't. Happy tenants were kicked out and owners saw the value of their hobbled "live" units plummet. The code has to address this option -- biz owners basically piggy-backing into real estate investing, creating affordable housing in close-in areas along the way -- or an unpleasant surprise may await some folks.

UNplanner said...

As a planner, I watched the codes of my old city (100K+ pop) put the kibosh on a developer's interest in converting obsolete 2nd floor offices in an old downtown walkup into res units. Just two blocks away, another developer was able construct a new building with a restuarant on the first floor, office on the second and his own loft on the third. It was nicely designed and with the help of a few variences, it sailed through the planning commission. Hit or miss...

What I cant figure out is why multi-use structures are so hard to contemplate in the first place. Go to any large city in the Northeast or Industrial Midwest and you will see scores of simple walk-ups with first floor commercial and 2nd through 4th floor residential. I lived in one in Chicago and visited them in NYC and Boston. Most were built in the early 1900s and are still standing, with many dating far earlier than that. Contemporary developments in many urban neighborhoods continue to follow that old pattern. I watched several "live/work" style buildings go up in Chicago with little fanfare. Sure you could tell they were newer, but they worked with the existing urban fabric

It seems to me, this is a problem with the newer (suburban)jurisdictions that had little or no hands on experienced with mixed use. To those planners, the residential, commercial and industrial colors all had their proper place on the map and never should they mix. Perhaps that's why their codes have such a problem comprehending a proposal that puts an apartment on top of a store.

Anonymous said...

Bartl is no hero.

He helped shut down live work units built prior to his self-serving resume padding. His threats to revoke COs cost live/work owners tens of thousands of dollars. All this after many owners were told directly by local town planners that the units were mixed-use zoned and could be live or work.

This is a product that few want (outside of gentrified urban restoration)and even fewer will now build as they're immediately too risky.

Shame on Bartle and the planners/builders involved.

Disgusted in Union Co said...

Hmmmm...I'm not familiar with the downside of Bartl's work as shared by Anonymous #1, but I'd like to know more. My understanding of the creation of the new Renovation Code, though, is that it is a good thing.

As for jat's concern in Maryland: there's one of the "unintended consequences". I see every reason for local governments to regulate residential rental in a live-work unit just as they would in any multi-family format. However, it is an issue that certainly should be addressed in the original zoning/CUP/CO process, not something to drop on unsuspecting owners after the project is complete.

Live-work has proven to be an urban design feature that has held up to the test of time in municipalities throughout the world, and our current crop of planners and municipal officials needs to "get it right" and help keep this essential design tool available.

In our Union County town, I am excited by the prospect of some live-work units being created in a downtown business district over the next few years. We will certainly do our best to address potential snags before construction begins on any project.

Anonymous said...

Many older towns and cities have flat-above-the-shop buildings; it certainly is not a new concept, and I don't see why it should be so difficult to reintroduce.

Anonymous said...

Congrats, Ms. Newsom!

You are realizing that real life is not a sitcom.

One cannot 'live-work' in Birkdale by paying for a $400,000 condo and working at Starbucks or the the Gap.

Additionally, did it ever occur to you that most people DO NOT want to live where they work???

It's bad enough that people are at work 10 hours per day, who wants to walk upstairs and night???


New urbanist tend to ignore what PEOPLE want.

If you read the latest annual survey conducted by the National Association of Realtors on what people are looking for in a home purchase, they list 'proximity to work' near the bottom, and 'proximity to mass tranit' at ZERO percent!

Urbanism may appeal to a select group of emtpy nesters and young professionals who seem to think paying $300 per square foot, outrageous property taxes, and insane condo fees in exhange for being within walking distance of Dean and Deluca is a good idea.

Not a good reason to drag the other 90% of us with families down that dead end road.

I respect your choices. If that is how you want to live, knock yourself out.

Most people do not.

BTW, I hope we levy some IMPACT FEES on all those new uptown condos to help pay for the cost of growth!

Anonymous said...

This issue is simply a sign of the generic ill of America today. There is so much regulation by so many governmental and quasi-governmental agencies the left hand has no clue what the right hand is doing.

In by gone days of less zoning and less building code regulation these live/work units were an available option. Utopian Planning by micromanagers coupled with draconian detailed building codes stopped it cold.

No I don't want to abolish building codes but NC's 3-1/2" thick commercial code without the supplements for the specialty trades (HVAC, Elec, Plumbing, etc..), residential code and the new renovation code seems excessive. And that says nothing to Zoning Codes, Conditional Use Zones, Area Plans, Corridor Plans, Long Range Vision Plans, etc.

Ironic the regulators have now regulated even themselves into a box.

Anonymous said...

Interesting to read Jat's comments, since my first thought was that most of those units live work units are going to become rentals in very short order.

The concept, as others have noted, is hardly new, and in several cities I've lived in in the Midwest and Northeast, is common. But I would bet neither the ground floor commercial space nor the upstairs living space is largely owner occupied, however. I would also bet that the bulk of the living space is typically lower cost housing.

In the first place small retail businesss of the sort that lend themselves to the concept (other than corporate owned stores), are probably not typically able to acquire the financing for their own building. The investor who can afford the building because he operates a successful retail business someplace else is likely to be mindful of the pitfalls of changing locations for any reason other than that dictated by the market he serves.

And "living above the store" is not universally compatible for all types of business. In many cases the owner of such a sturcure will have to choose between maximizing his revenue from the storefront, or maximizing his revenue from the living space, since the business that might produce the best rental rate downstairs may also depress the desireability of the living space upstairs. Living above a popular restaurant/club is not going to be a popular option for someone who wants a quiet environment (unless of course the owner wants to spend a fortune soundproofing the walls, floors and windows.

There's surely a place for it, but I have a feeling that even if/when the building codes ease the way for development of such units, it won't quite represent "utopia" for the owners or the residents. After all, a part of the migration to suburbs in many cities was driven by a desire to finally be able to move OUT of the space obove the store.

Anonymous said...

Government should not TELL people what to do.

Governmment should find out what people WANT and then help them acheive it.


We've tried centralized planning before. It was called communism.

It failed everwhere it was tried.

Lets face it, our 'government' can't adequately direct traffic after a Bobcats game, so good luck on the new urbanism scheme.

As an added personal note, I hope Mecklenburg succeeds at growth boundaries and impact fees and transfer taxes. That's becuase I live in Union County.

If I am REAL quiet at night, I can actually HEAR my property value going up every time some new urbanist says 'land transfer tax'.


Anonymous said...

To the person a few comments back, sure a majority of people do not want to live in mixed use developments or stacked units, but some do. For those want to live in a conventional house in a spread out subdivision, there are plenty of options here for them to do so. I don't see what the problem is for somebody who wants to live in a New York or Chicago-type setting as well. Considering what people are willing to pay for these small units in town, there is obviously a market for it. What's wrong with that? I thought the city and state simplified these zoning rules years ago, apparently not. I am all for simplifying the process to make these things happen. What I can't understand is why certain people are scared or offended by these urban living spaces. How are you being hurt by this? Obviously, the people living near these places aren't hurting, considering how high property values are rising in these neighborhoods. Now that's the market at its best.

Anonymous said...

Considering what people are willing to pay for these small units in town, there is obviously a market for it. What's wrong with that?

Nothing is wrong with EXCEPT when mother government steps in and becomes and active partner in the scheme by enacting regulations that PREVENT people from moving into the cul de sacs and the suburbs.

New urbanists dont want freedom of choice, they want to MAKE everyone live in dense housing by setting urban growth boundaries and not issuing new permits in the burbs.

Thats not the free market, that communism.

People should be able to live wherever they like, either 900 sq foot condo above Dean and Deluca or 5,000 sq foot 5 bedroom on 10 acres in Union County.

Gov-co should just butt out.

Anonymous said...

I don't think ANYONE fears this sort of development, nor do I think anyone has a problem with serving the market that does exist for them. As the poster immeditely above notes, however, some of us would prefer that regulation facilitate serving those markets rather than maipulating them.

The concepts of smart growth and new urbansimt are both efforts at manipulating the market by making the choices most people -the market, in other words- currently make progressively more intenable.

I understand full well that the proponents of carefully managed development under these formulas believe that they ultimately solve a host of problems and provide a superior lifestyle. But they do that from a faily monolithic perspective that necessarily begins from the perspective that they know what people SHOULD want.

That's not a new concept. Modern urban planners differ from previous "visionaries" only in having the hubris to believe that because they can see the failures of past such efforts, they can avoid creating the same morass of problems that past efforts given rise to. They are no brighter, no better educated, and possessed of no greater foresight than the planners who gave us the "Urban Renewal" of the 60's or the "New Town in Town" concept.

(The latter is interesting, by the way: a completely failed effort at mixed price, mixed income, high density housing. For a perfect example, go to Minneapolis and check out the high rise slum called Cedar Square West to see what happens when you put high priced condo's with great amenities, moderately priced rental apartments, and low income, subsidized housing in a nice tight community and DON'T manipulate the market to force people's choices.)

Anonymous said...

I don't think the government is anywhere near keeping someone from moving into cul-de-sac in the suburbs. There are plenty of options still being built all the time. I also don't think that it's 'communistic' to implement plans that encourage certain building patterns. When I last checked, the Red Scare was history. The point is, people are going to vote with their feet no matter what. Nobody is pointing a gun to anyone's head to live in Dilworth or Weddington. People in both areas are choosing to live there and paying very well for the priviledge to do so. As far as I'm concerned, if somebody doesn't like Charlotte or Mecklenburg's policies, then hey, PLEASE move over the border and stay out of the way of those of us who choose to live a more metropolitan lifestyle.

Anonymous said...

You're absolutely right: no one is putting a gun to anyone's head and forcing them to live in high density housing. They're simply trying to make it economically more difficult for people of moderate means to make that choice by manipulating the marketplace.

The result is essenitally the same.

And you might not want to wish away all those new residents who would prefer a moderately priced single family home in a typical suburban setting. They still represent MOST people, and more importantly, they represent most people that are at the stage of life where they have the means to advance the local economy.

You're right, though. Peole DO indeed vote with their feet. The fact that they're feet are increasingly taking them out of Charlotte, and out of the county is kind of obvious. Indeed it's probably a part of the impetus for some of the local planning: finding ways to make it more difficult for them to do that. One of the ways to do that is to ignore the method of transportation that most people prefer, incentivize development around mass transit, and discourage it in other areas. In other words, manipulate the market, rather than serve the market.

Wish them into SC, Union COunty, Iredell County and Cabarrus County if you like, but disabuse yourself of the notion that that will have no impact on the Charlotte economy. Business growth, particualrly in Cabarrus County is mirroring those housing patterns. Continue that long enough, and if the so-called visionaries are as wrong now as they have been in the past, much and perhaps even most of the high density housing will become less and less desireable, the property tax base will erode, and the number of residents in the city who require substantial services will grow, and you'll have a fine urban utopia with confiscatory tax rates on those who can pay including businesses, insane property values for relatively modest single family houses that will continue to drive famlies with children over the borders, and choked roads and transportation systems for those who can't afford to get out. Along the way the businesses that will emply those new residents will face the choice of going where their employees are AND lower tax rates, closing the circle.

Fortunately, if you get your wish, in about 20 to 30 years, a new crop of urban planners and vision heads will come along with yet another new plan to remake the city and solve all of the problems created by the cuirrent crop. . .who think they're solving all of the problems created by the last crop.

Anonymous said...

Charlotte is a relatively new city by big city standards. We are a decade or two behind the urban decay of Detroit, Nashville, Houston, etc.

We are in the process of forcing people out of the urban core vai higher taxes and bad schools. Once families start fleeing, the schools go downhill, then more families flee because the schools are bad.

To 'improve' the schools, government raises taxes and expands their role, which just results in more people fleeing to outlying areas. Eventually you have an empty center.

This IS happening in Charlotte, just that Newsom, McCrory and company are too dense to see it.

If you want a prosperous city, you need to slash taxes and split the school district into smaller ones.

Last year Union and Iredell Counties ADDED 4,000 new WHITE students alone.

Mecklenburg actually had a net LOSS of white students even thought the population increased.

That is sad. What it translates to is that two parent households that can move, are doing it, and that new residents are just leapfrogging to the outlying counties.

Newsom and company are too intoxicated by the occasional shiny toy (arena, light rail) to realize that the masses are leaving, taking their parental involvement with them, and telling all their friends to do the same.

The Mayor's 99% focus on things uptown are dragging a once great city down a big-city rathole of debt, crime, and bad schools.

Anonymous said...

Hey Anonymous-- so everyone ought to be able to live where they want? I want to purchase a home close to uptown, close to mass transit, close to a bike path so I can bike everywhere I need to go and dump my car, and I would like to have a "work space" adjacent to my home. I don't want topay any more per square foot than I would in the auto-depenant 'burbs. Where's my place?

Anonymous said...

>>>I want to purchase a home close to uptown, close to mass transit, close to a bike path so I can bike everywhere I need to go and dump my car, and I would like to have a "work space" adjacent to my home. I don't want topay any more per square foot than I would in the auto-depenant 'burbs. Where's my place?>>>

Why do I care???

I dont want to pay for parking.

I dont want to pay my motor fuel taxes to prop up failed mass transit.

I would like the major employers to relocate to Fort Mill, SC (which they are in the process of doing for all the same reasons that homeowners have).

Who cares what you want??

If you want all that, get your checkbook out and buy it.

If you want to 'preserve' historic buildings, buy those too.

If you want to PREVENT teardowns in Meyers Park, just buy all the houses for sale and keep them safe from the evil developers.

You have the power.

Quit asking everyone else to foot the bill.

Quit sponging off working families to support your idea of what society should look like.

Anonymous said...

The answer to that is pretty obvious: anywhere you can find that combination of circumstances.
If there enough people who want what you want, you'll find it. If there aren't, you may have a little difficulty.

The only problem you've got is that you want it at a specific price range, regardless of the cost or the value of the property. And that measn that you have to force someone else to bear the cost. If you want a solid gold Rolls Royce but don't want to pay more for it than a Chevy you've got two choices: keep on wanting, or hire someone to force somebody else to write a check for the difference.

I'm sure if it were trendy enough you could hire government to do that for you.

Anonymous said...

In the midst of all the planning for the great new Charlotte, something is being ignored by an awful lot of people, and it should scare the dickens out of everyone: new business recruitment to Charlotte is down. Way down. Lower than it was during the recession. Lower than it was when the boom went bust.

The raw numbers of new businesses aren't exactly bad, but the trend is awful: it is steadily downward.

There must be a reason for that, and all the folks with visions of the future of Charlotte should be focusing on what that reason is likely to be and working on that issue, if they don't want to see the bleak scenario painted above of a declining tax base coupled to an increasing burden of service.

So what's the number one factor in business relocation site selection for that segment that makes up 80% of our nation's econonic activity (those with fewer than 100 employees)? Taxes. Not high density housing, not mass transit, not affordable housing and not roads. Taxes.

It's nice to plan, but to some degree completely ignoring that Charlotte is the highest taxes city in NC and highest or nearly the highest taxed city in the entire Southeast, while planning all manner of other things, is a bit like the captain of a ship ignoring the leak in his hull while planning to redecorate the ship. It will be really great. . .if it's still afloat by the time all the plans come to pass.

Chilton said...

"There must be a reason for that..." Well, population is growing faster in those areas, thus the number of businesses? I checked the County Business Patterns data, and Mecklenburg added 1,487 new businesses between 1998 and 2003 (about 6.3% growth). During the same time period, Cabarrus added 607 businesses (+21%), Union 744 (+28%) and York 366 (+10%).

The trade magazine Site Selection ranked NC's business climate as 5th in the country in 2004. As for taxes being the dominant business relocation variable, can you point us to a study that confirms this? I think taxes are important, but their importance would likely vary from industry to industry.

Anonymous said...

Population is growing faster in what areas? The numbers aren't a comparison of Charlotte with some other community, they represent the trend in Charlotte. Those numbers -new businesses in Charlotte- are from the Chamber, which I trust is not trying to make it look worse than it is. And it looks bad enough. The numbers:

It is not just that last year was the worst in the last ten (and actually in the last 15 if you go back), but that there is a steady and significant downward trend.

The study ranking concerns of businesses, by the way is also the product of the Chamber, along with the city. Keep in mind that most business is small business. To put that in perspective, the 562 new businesses in Charlotte last year, again according to the Chamber, resulted in 5,667 new jobs: an average fo 10 employees per business. Enterprises of that size are very suceptible to the impact of taxes on their bottom line. And the bottom line for any new business for the first few years is simply survival, so a clear and sharp focus on controllable costs is, not surprisingly of great importantce. And taxes are indeed a controllable cost if locating outside of the city or the county will provide similar market access and lower tax rates.

There's a great example of that just over Mecklenberg's northern border. The largest tourist attraction in NC is Concord Mills Mall. I think it's a fair bet that the developers didn't put it there because of the Concord market. They put it there because it's still the Charlotte market and the costs are dramatically lower. Added to that is the fact that the costs for consumers are also lower due to the lower sales tax, and it draws MOST of it's trade from across the county line.

(And by the way, my business is located in Concord. We were in Charlotte. We saved enough from the priviledge the city-county priviledge license and property taxes to completely cover the cost of putting another salesperson on the payroll. And that's exactly WHYU we moved.)

Anonymous said...

I just have to shake my head at those like the previous poster and Commissioner Norman Mitchell who say either pay higher taxes and embrace a dense metropolitan lifestyle or get out.

Many of these people are the ones who so forcefully oppose a deconsolidation of CMS. Their logic symply doesn't make sense.

They don't want kids in the suburbs (ie, affluent, white, with well educated parents) to have there own school district and thus leave behind a prodominently "at-risk" population in CMS. Yet they continually put forward policy proposals that push middle class families across the county line.

A previous poster shows that job growth in surrounding counties is already outpacing Mecklenburg. According to census data, the median family income is now higher in Union County than in Mecklenburg (a shift from recent history).

Poor schools, higher taxes, and high density development are driving families out of Mecklenburg.

Within the next decade, Mecklenburg will be pushing for some sort of commuter tax, arguing that those who work in Charlotte, but live outside of it should contribute to the cost of government. This will spawn more suburban office parks in surrounding cities, further damaging the center city.

The saddest part of this trend, is that it is the same story told in every urban environment in the US. And Charlotte is making the same decisions that those cities made.

Charlotte use to be a "big small town." Unfortunately, it is becoming a small big city.

Anonymous said...

Since I am that "previous poster" let me assure you that I would be the last person to suggest that those higher costs associated with living, working, and owning a business in Charlotte are a good thing.

I simply recognize reality: those things WILL drive bsiness out; they WILL change the demographics toward more service demands, and they will ultimately make Charlotte a largely poor urban area.

ProudLiberal said...

The on-going tripe-fest that passes for conservative and free-market thinking never ceases to astound me. That so many people do not care about the impact of their lifestyle choices on society as a whole or even their immeadiate neighbors is the pinnacle of selfishness and self-centeredness. Even more sadly, they wrap their selfishness in the American flag and try to shield it from view with a Bible.

Anyway... this is all about choices, as many of my fellow ranters have noted. The simple truth is that the scattered pattern of suburbia is by any measure unsustainable beyond our lifetimes. To pretend that the oil supply is limitless and that asphalt solves everything is to demand that your grandchildren pay for your selfishness. Then again, looking at the train wreck that the "Conservatives" have made of our federal budget, it seems we have already collectively made that decision.

How we got here from a problem with the building code is interesting... nonetheless, the give and take is enlightening

Anonymous said...

Here's where I'm coming from. From the view of a 20-something single young professional, I would prefer to want to live in close proximity of downtown, where I'm in short distance of all of the shops and other amenities that downtown has to offer, and where I could also hop a train or ride my bike to work, rather than living in suburbia and having to fight traffic all the time. Now, if I were a married person having to take care of a family and other responsibilities, I would probably think differently. Maybe living in the city would not be that appealing because I would want to raise my family in a safer environment. Both arguments are valid, to me, it all depends on where you're at in your stage in life.

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