Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Rape and pillage II

Alternate title: Barbarians at the Gate

In the original Rape and pillage post, Spot wrote a little about one block in Edina's efforts to keep the barbarians—speculative builders of neighborhood soul-killing monster houses—out. That post included a short video that the residents of the block recorded for presentation to the Edina City Council. Here is the video again:

After initial signals from the communications people at the city that the video could be presented, the council decided at the meeting not to show it. Here's the council deliberation:

Sorry; really sorry.

Nearly as interesting to Spot, however, was a discussion that took place later in the meeting. During a presentation by the "Massing Task Force," a truly Orwellian moniker for a group whose spokesman didn't seem to think that massing was really so bad, there was some discussion among the council members of just "letting the market solve the problem."

Spot is sad to have to inform the council that "the market" isn't going to solve the problem, unless you consider wholesale destruction of neighborhoods as a solution. It is sort of like putting foxes in the henhouse as a "market-based solution." It is a notion so naïve that it scarcely warrants discussion, but the idea that the market place is a benevolent force that will always work for the public good has gotten traction in some circles.

Well, it doesn't. The market place is a good at allocating private goods, but not at promoting or preserving public ones. The private interest, the spec builder who comes in, buys a lot and "scrapes" it to build a house that rips a hole in the neighborhood, must be compared the the public interest, the immediate neighbors interest in light and air, and the neighborhood's interest in preserving the aesthetic character of the neighborhood. The market place will never vindicate the public interest here. Never.

That's why we have zoning laws. Zoning laws exist to vindicate the public interest. And the people on that block in Edina selected council members and a mayor to enact ordinances appropriate to their protection. These are the people, many of whom have been around a long time, who vote, pay taxes, and raise families in the community, not the fly in and fly out builder.

Here's what the city has done so far:

Edina, Minn., a Minneapolis suburb filled with rambler-style homes from the 1940s and '50s, changed its zoning in June after a spate of teardowns in the past three years. The city requires larger setbacks on narrow lots to limit the size of new homes, says Cary Teague, planning director.

"We were seeing a lot of builders tearing homes down and bringing in fill to build up the house for a walkout basement," he says. "Now, it can't be raised more than 1 foot from the existing foundation."

Homes as small as 1,200 square feet are being replaced with homes of up to 6,000 square feet. One just sold for $1.8 million, Teague says [with evident pride, says Spot].

Teague, a past president of the National Procrastinators Club (okay, Spot made that up), points with pride to the fact that setback on sidelots have been increased. Apparently so much that only a 5,500 square foot house can be built next door to Sandy Carlson! This is progress!

From the same USA Today article, here is what Atlanta is doing:

The Atlanta City Council approved a zoning ordinance last week that bans the construction of giant homes on small lots. In a compromise to appease builders, real estate agents, residents and planners, the city links the size of a home to the size of the lot. That allows big homes on big lots and small homes on small lots.

This is known, boys and girls, as a FAR, or floor area ratio limitation. Minneapolis has one now. But the big thinkers in Edina have apparently considered but rejected the idea. A FAR is the foundation of any meaningful anti-McMansion initiative. Apparently, the City of Edina isn't really serious about the problem.

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