Jane Jacobs and the Mid-Rise Mania Part 3: NMA E-Newsletter #653

Editor’s Note: The following content, reprinted in three parts over this and the previous two NMA e-newsletters, is presented with permission from Randal O’Toole’s The Antiplanner, a blog whose tagline describes its point of view: “Dedicated to the sunset of government planning.” O’Toole is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute who specializes in land-use and transportation issues. Read Part 1 HERE and Part 2 HERE. 

While we don’t have a beef with all urban planners, among their ranks are those who believe in reimagining communities as self-contained ecosystems where most of life’s essentials are within walking, bicycling, or public transit distance. The net effect, which causes Vision Zero proponents to swoon, would be the virtual elimination of car ownership and driving in urban settings. 

We share this material in its entirety in three installments because it presents in fascinating detail how history has shown that pod-based, high-density community development is a seriously flawed concept. Individual mobility, and the freedom of choice associated with it, is a fundamental right. If we don’t stay vigilant, that right will be planned out of existence.   


1000 Friends of Density

In 1988, the Oregon Department of Transportation wanted to build a new freeway connecting Interstate 5 to the heart of Washington County, west of Portland, to serve the new high-tech industries settling in the county. The freeway would allow people, raw materials, and finished products to move between California and Washington County’s Silicon Forest without going through the congestion of downtown Portland.

Earlier in the decade, Portland had drawn an urban-growth boundary around itself, requiring that almost all new housing and other development in the region occur within the boundary. State regulations required this and boundaries for other major cities. The rules also required every city (or, in the case of Portland, the metropolitan government that oversaw the boundary for Portland and 23 of its suburbs) to review their area’s housing needs every five years and expand its boundary so that there would always be a 20-year supply of land for new homes.

In 1989, a group called 1000 Friends of Oregon, which had appointed itself as the land-use watchdog overseeing how cities and counties implemented the state’s land-use rules, wasn’t happy with the proposed new freeway. Most of it would be outside of Portland’s growth boundary, and 1000 Friends feared that the boundary would be expanded to allow housing in that area. Of course, with so many new jobs in Washington County, this would actually have been a logical place to expand the boundary.

1000 Friends commissioned a lengthy study called Land Use, Transportation, Air Quality (LUTRAQ), which purported to find that meeting the region’s housing needs with higher-density housing within the boundary would result in less driving-related air pollution than expanding the boundary to allow low-density housing.

In fact, as University of Southern California planning Professor Genevieve Giuliano showed, LUTRAQ revealed that density and land-use policy had almost no impact on transportation outcomes. LUTRAQ’s computer models found that planners could only influence transportation by requiring every shopping mall, office park, and other development to impose stiff parking changes, something that had never been done.

Center Commons, a transit-oriented development in Portland. Planners provided fewer parking spaces than apartments, so residents illegally park their cars in a fire lane or on the sidewalk. 

One of the authors of LUTRAQ was an architect named Peter Calthorpe, who had been influenced by The Death and Life of Great American Cities. He promoted what he called traditional neighborhood design, “traditional,” meaning before cars, meaning mid-rise and single-family homes on small lots so that more people would be within walking distance of a grocery store or transit stop. (In fact, mid-rise housing had been built in the United States from roughly 1870 to 1910, so it could hardly be called “traditional.”)

In 1991, Calthorpe and other like-minded architects and planners met at Yosemite National Park’s Ahwahnee Hotel, where they wrote “principles” for city development. These principles included density, walkability, mixed uses, and surrounding cities with greenbelts that would be permanently protected from development. They called their movement the New Urbanism.

Beaver Creek, a mid-rise development in the Portland suburb of Beaverton. The ground floor is supposed to be shops, but all are vacant because planners didn’t provide any parking for them. Eventually, they were converted to apartments.

While discarding Le Corbusier’s high rises, the New Urbanists kept his authoritarianism. All new development, they said, should follow their principles, and existing low-density suburbs should be redeveloped to meet those principles as well.

In 1993, the Oregon legislature modified land-use laws to allow Portland and other cities to meet their future housing goals by rezoning existing neighborhoods to higher densities, thus reducing the need to expand growth boundaries.

In 1995, Metro, Portland’s regional planning agency, adopted a plan that set a target of reducing the share of households living in single-family homes from 65 percent in 1990 to 41 percent by 2040. The plan called for rezoning dozens of single-family neighborhoods along with numerous transit corridors for multifamily housing to meet this target.

Portland-area planners decided to build mid-rise, mixed-use apartments throughout the region. This proved one of Joel Garreau’s “laws,” which was that “government planners . . . have self-evidently preposterous ideas about how human nature works in the real world.” Mid-rise residential buildings made no economic sense, so Portland decided it would have to subsidize them.

Subsidies included up to two decades of property tax waivers, tax-increment financing, low-income housing tax credits, sales of public land at below-market prices, and direct grants to developers from such sources as the Federal Transit Administration. Many of these grants went through Portland’s transit agency, Tri-Met, and the fact that Tri-Met’s CEO, Tom Walsh, had a family-owned business, Walsh Construction, that specialized in building subsidized mid-rise developments didn’t seem to bother anyone. Portland also relaxed the fire code, allowing lower-cost construction, creating serious fire hazards in the future.

Beaverton Round, another mid-rise development centered around a light-rail station. Two developers went bankrupt trying to make this work with the limited parking approved by planners. Finally, a developer convinced the city to allow a parking garage, and today most residents drive to work just like everywhere else in the Portland area.

Other cities that have attempted densification, including Denver, Los Angeles, Oakland, and Seattle, have also subsidized many of their mid-rise projects. Some cities, such as San Jose, have used urban-growth boundaries to make housing so expensive that developers will build mid-rise housing without subsidies, but even then, there is resistance.

For example, in 2014, San Jose zoned land near its downtown area and commuter train station for mid-rise, mixed-use housing. For years, the land sat undeveloped until Google agreed to build offices, retail, and housing in the area, but only if the city rezoned to allow high rises.

City planners presenting the idea to the city council endorsed the lifting of height limits, saying it would allow more housing and produce more tax revenues for the city. So much for planners rejecting Le Corbusier’s high rises.

Not surprisingly, mid-rises and other densification in the Portland area haven’t had the effects on transportation that Calthorpe and other density advocates predicted. Studies by the Cascade Policy Institute found that people living in mid-rise developments in transit corridors were not significantly more likely to take transit to work than anyone else in the Portland area.

Per capita driving in the Portland area increased by 11 percent between 1990 and 2019.

Per capita transit ridership also increased, but by only 6 percent.

Moreover, for five years before the pandemic, driving had been increasing, but transit was declining. Portland developments also revealed that when planners limit parking (who needs parking when they live next to a light-rail line?), residents park on the sidewalk or other illegal places. At the same time, ground-floor shops fail or are never rented.

Learning the Lessons

While urban planners say they have learned the lessons of the failures of 1950s urban renewal projects, they haven’t. They are still advocating for density. They are using even more authoritarian methods to force that density on unwilling urban residents. While they may say they prefer mid-rises, they readily support high rises, such as in San Jose and Portland’s South Waterfront development.

Planners who once took their ideas from a Swiss architect who was something of a nutcase now take their ideas from a New York City journalist who was something of a nutcase whose primary credential was that she lived in an obsolete high-density neighborhood in the nation’s highest-density major city.

Yet, said the executive director of the Congress for the New Urbanism in 2000, “there’s no question that [Jane Jacobs’s] work is the leaping-off point for our whole movement,” which planners now apply to towns, small cities, and suburbs as well as the few great cities that are left across the country.

Most Americans wanted to live in single-family homes before the pandemic, and the coronavirus has probably increased that desire. Cities that continue to subsidize and promote mid-rise housing while discouraging single-family housing are imposing miseries on their residents in the form of unaffordable and lower-quality housing, traffic congestion, and higher taxes needed to fund the new infrastructure to support the higher-density housing. Jane Jacobs’ mid-rise mania should be stopped now before it can do any more damage.

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