This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.
I appreciate Roger Valdez’s straight-up acknowledgement that yes, there is “social engineering” going on in American cities:
Yes, we are social engineers, but no more so thanRobert Moses and his followers, who built “free” highways and subsidized, auto-dependent single-family communities that ate up land, fuel, and energy for more than half a century. That kind of social engineering has run out of (cheap) gas. The answer is to engineer more wisely, not to return to the Wild West or mimick South American shanty towns.
Shortly after I read this article I found myself walking home past the recently-closed M Street grocery on First Hill. Though M Street was popular with the locals, it couldn’t make ends meet after the building’s owners doubled the rent on them. While doubling the rent seems extreme, keep in mind that the property’s new owners, the Ohio Teachers’ Retirement System, bought the development for $75M back in 2006. Gotta recoup that investment somehow.
The reason I bring up the M Street grocery is that urban living (and suburban living) is all about choices. The choices we make necessitate other choices. Developers on First Hill are required to provide parking (this requirement was mercifully reduced to 0.5 spaces/unit, but only after the M Street building was completed), which increases the costs of development, and thus the amount of rent that needs to be collected on the building’s tenants. Furthermore, requiring parking makes it easier for M Street’s residents to own a car, which makes it more likely that they — and their neighbors — will be able to patronize grocery stores further afield. Especially if those grocery stores, are, say, the nearby QFC or Whole Foods, both of whom offer free customer parking.
Thus, only certain kinds of businesses can afford to stay open in neighborhoods like First Hill — and apparently grocery stores are not one of them. Which is a problem, but it’s a problem that results directly from car-centric “social engineering.” We may wish to take a “ducks unlimited” approach to urban planning: “sure, give them parking spots, we’ll offer them such awesome retail that they’ll choose not to use them!” In reality, however, choices and constraints prevail. By choosing to have parking minimums, we’re directly limiting the type of retail that can exist at the ground level. Fortunately, we’re making the right choices in First Hill. What about your neighborhood?