Tag Archives: comp plan 2016

Of Vacation Rentals and Density Debates: Duluth City Council Notes, 4/10/17

11 Apr

The Duluth city council was on the forefront of urban planning debates this past Monday, as it discussed vacation rentals and density within the city limits on the same night. In both cases, I’m going to poke at urban planning orthodoxy mildly, not because I think it is wrong, exactly, but because I think Duluth needs to ask some questions rather than simply accepting trendy thinking. The details:

Vacation Dwelling Units and Neighborhood Effects

The first debate involved a permit to allow a vacation dwelling unit (VDU; think Airbnb) on Berwick Court, a cul-de-sac off of Arrowhead Road near Hartley Park not far before Kenwood Avenue as one heads west. John Ramos at the Reader covered this one in detail when it was before the Planning Commission, so I won’t belabor the background. At Monday’s meeting, several neighbors said the VDU was wrong for many reasons, though they gave only one concrete one beyond the vague “character of the neighborhood” stuff one always hears on this sort of issue: an immediate neighbor is old and not exactly in possession of all of her faculties, and may have some unfortunate run-ins with VDU guests. Council President Joel Sipress delicately described his interaction with her as “challenging” when he went up to do his due diligence on the property. As a result, he and Councilor Em Westerlund amended the permit to require the addition of a screen between the VDU and the elderly neighbor. Both the amendment and the permit passed 8-1, with Councilor Noah Hobbs preferring to stick with the original screenless recommendation from the Planning Commission, and Councilor Howie Hanson opposing the thing entirely in a screed against an the “erosion of neighborhoods.”

This was an issue that blew up normal battle lines and inspired good debate. As with the Uber debate two weeks prior, the normally solidly progressive Sipress expressed considerable leeriness of this supposed progress, and went into his nuanced monologue mode to worry about the effect on neighborhoods. Councilor Barb Russ seconded this, and suggested the city revisit the criteria for VDUs and find some way to limit dramatic changes. Councilor Jay Fosle, normally the voice of no to this sort of newfangled scheme, showered love on VDUs, saying they created economic activity and scoffing at the suggestion that “a bunch of nasty people will come and rent the house.” Hobbs, meanwhile, brought up the biggest sticking point with any neighborhood-based policy: how on earth do we devise a “hierarchy of neighborhoods” for awarding of VDUs without making some potentially prejudicial decisions? Sipress and Russ both readily conceded this point. Anyone who’s observed city politics knows this runs the risk of just opening up a door for whoever yells loudest to get permits denied, and that these people are inevitably going to be older, more affluent people who have the time and resources to devote to hammering city councils.

If the city does revisit this and sees a need for continued limits of VDUs, I would advocate for quotas within neighborhoods, set by some blanket standard such as population. This would remove the influence of well-connected neighbors and prevent the emergence of “vacation rental ghettoes.” That phrase sounds silly as I write it, which perhaps betrays my natural bias here: in principle I think VDUs make a lot of sense. However, I prefer not to make unfounded assumptions about how their consequences at a large scale, and while this is a different phenomenon from the fashion in which neighborhoods tip from majority homeownership to long-term rentals, a neighborhood that achieves some critical mass of homes without long-term residents does probably start to erode some. (No, one or two houses on a cul-de-sac do not represent that sort of critical mass.) I also think decisions that take good single family housing stock off the market may pose some problems in a city like Duluth, as the council’s next great planning debate showed all too clearly.

The Great Density Debate

The other hot button issue involved a resolution that, as initially worded, would have encouraged the city to consider “high density zoning”—basically, taller buildings—in its ongoing comprehensive plan process. Councilor Zack Filipovich brought it forward, and took a beating for his trouble. A big part of the issue was the process, which Filipovich conceded: this resolution appeared seemingly out of the blue immediately before the previous week’s agenda session, and Hobbs seemed to speak for many on the council when he said he’d wished they’d had a chance to debate this before it came before them all as a whole. He and Sipress, who once again seemed quite presidential in his ability to give a nuanced take on the concerns of the council writ large, offered an amendment which dramatically reworked the resolution, and instead pitched it as a call for greater density using all potential development tools, from infill to redevelopment to townhomes.

No one found this broader emphasis controversial, though Filipovich tried again to get at his original point, which seemed to come out of his conversations with city planning staff: they think the city is already doing what it needs to do on the infill and redevelopment fronts (which is mostly true), but needed this added pitch to encourage height. The rest of the council balked at this, given the political sensitivity of views; Hanson went off about how this might be in response to specific projects (which Filipovich roundly denied), while Fosle found the whole debate much ado about nothing, as it is the unified development code, not the comp plan, that ultimately settles these questions. While there is probably some merit to further outlining standards for upward growth, Duluth’s planners need to do a much better sales job instead of ramming a quick resolution through. In the end, the councilors tabled the whole mess.

Discussion strayed far and wide and to interesting points, though, and one of the more frequent topics was Hermantown. Filipovich first noted that it is the fastest growing city in the region (which is true), even as its prices are not inflating, whereas Duluth’s are doing so despite the fact the city isn’t growing. Real estate listings in Hermantown are up considerably, whereas Duluth’s market only seems to get tighter and tighter. Hobbs countered that this was a bad analogy for this resolution, as Hermantown’s growth was anything but upward: instead, it sprawls outward far more so than Duluth. Given Duluth’s relative lack of available land and aging infrastructure that is difficult to maintain, let alone extend, that sort of growth pattern is not a realistic option at any sort of scale.

The Hermantown debate also illuminated the battle lines between those who we might call the critics of the happy talk about Duluth’s direction in recent years (Fosle and Hanson) and the liberal optimists’ club. I will counter one of Fosle’s critiques, in which he wondered where this supposed job growth was coming from in a city with a stagnant population: while the Duluth metro area may not be getting dramatically larger, its job growth over the past decade is reasonably good, and relative to its population growth is actually very good when compared to most peer cities. (If someone wants numbers to back this up, I can oblige.) As I’ve been at pains to note in other posts, the metro area has been growing steadily since 1990—not quickly, but steadily—and basically all of this growth is beyond the city limits, namely in Hermantown. As Hobbs noted, these outlying areas have the obvious perk of having a lot of available land, and Fosle and Hanson tagged on a few additional concerns that may lead people to move beyond the city limits, such as perceptions of crime or newer infrastructure or a desire for space. (No one mentioned the other major driver I’d put up next to land availability, though. Hint: it involves a different Duluth elected body that I cover on this blog from time to time.)

Still, I think the Hermantown-Duluth comparison is illuminating, though perhaps not in the way councilors thought it was. Whatever the benefits of density, large new apartment or condo complexes do little to make Duluth appealing to a lot of the people who are electing to move to Hermantown and its ilk. To the extent that housing decisions drive this move—and they certainly do—any response by Duluth to try to stem that tide will require an expansion of the single-family housing stock. Given the relative lack of buildable land within city limits, that’s going to mean renovation (or teardowns) and infill or bust. That isn’t cheap, and requires further study to understand the costs, but if the city does want to retain younger families and build the tax base through housing development—a goal I firmly support—I see no other option at this point.

This doesn’t invalidate the broader emphasis on density, which is spot on, especially when it comes to commercial property. On the residential side, I think the city can handle a few more Bluestones and Endis, and would wholeheartedly support them. However, I’m skeptical that the market justifies a broader glut of market-rate apartment complexes that would build the tax base. Duluth doesn’t have a ton of upwardly mobile twenty-somethings, and those who are tend to get on the marriage-and-kids train faster than in other cities; for that matter, there is still a reasonably affordable single-family housing stock. (Yes, options are tight, but the market here still looks heavenly for this soon-to-be-house-hunting 27-year-old when compared to Minneapolis, to say nothing of anything on the coasts.) And while there have been some increases in other populations that lend themselves to density—seniors, low-income people—the sort of dense housing they need isn’t going to prove a windfall for city coffers.

I’ll quickly note that I’m not saying Duluth shouldn’t build dense housing for these populations; the city does have some real affordability concerns, and I applaud the recent push to get more lower-income units in a development in Duluth Heights, which is both near jobs and may help de-concentrate poverty. We do need to be clear-eyed about the realities of who uses dense development, though, and recognize that there’s a clear role for the Hermantowns of the world to house some of these people, too. The density gospel in contemporary urban planning gets a lot right, but it’s not a panacea, either. We need to think beyond that to get to the heart of issues.

Advertisements

Planning Duluth: Let’s Talk About Housing

20 Nov

As Things happen in national politics, Duluth marches along with…community engagement sessions for its comprehensive plan! I attended a meeting for my council district last week that allowed me to draw things on maps and be a good, engaged citizen. At this event, I received a list of planning-related research questions, which it shared at a community event I attended last week, divided by topics. Today, I’ll offer up my semi-solicited opinion on the housing-related questions.

What three qualities make your neighborhood a great place to live?

I live in Endion. Its perks are its big, cool old houses; easy access to downtown and multiple east side business districts; and an eclectic mix of people, from college students to old money to lower-income people.

I will also answer for Lakeside, where I’ve spent a majority of my life. It’s a reasonably affordable yet very pleasant place to raise a family; it has great neighborhood schools; it has easy access to big parks.

What three aspects of your neighborhood would you like to see changed?

Endion: Better maintenance of some rental properties; lack of a defined neighborhood center, or real sense of neighborhood at all. The third thing isn’t necessarily something I’d like to see changed, but at least investigated: how necessary are these one-way numbered streets? I certainly appreciate them when I drive to work, but they slice through the neighborhood and make it less pedestrian- and child-friendly. I’m not convinced we need two one-way streets (First and Third) going the same direction.

Lakeside: Some renewal in the old business district; something happening with the old Rockridge property, so long as it preserves access to the Hawk Ridge trail; continued gradual, planned growth on the edges and redevelopment of vacant/declining properties to meet market demand in a desirable neighborhood.

What does a healthy neighborhood look like?

A variety in age of housing stock. Easily accessible local businesses that provide most basic necessities, and connections to jobs. Thriving schools, and children playing freely. Outdoor hockey rinks. (Okay, I guess we can allow other sports in the neighborhood parks, too.) In Duluth: access to a more wild park space. Few to no highways or high-speed roads carving through the neighborhood. All those pretty things.

What types of housing are missing from Duluth?

The same type that’s missing from a lot of places: a middle tier that rises above student or-low income housing, but isn’t on the top end like some of the (very welcome) new apartments coming on line on the east side. Mid-tier homes for new families. Homes that are accessible for aging people looking to scale down some.

Are you satisfied with the quality and quantity of housing that is affordable to you?

As someone who just went through an apartment search, I found myself a gem, and after living in larger cities, Duluth is remarkably affordable. That said, I was looking for a while before I landed the unit I got. There’s a lot of older housing here that just isn’t in great shape, but could be phenomenal if it were patched up. It’s all right there in front of us if we invest in it. The top end was also thin for a while, though that is changing.

What kind of housing should be planned for individuals and families moving here?

Housing that does not rely on the passive voice in its planning process. Also, I’m not sure why people moving here should have different types of housing than those who are here already. Am I missing something in this question?

How should people who need assistance with daily living tasks be provided with housing?

With housing that makes it easier to do the tasks they need assistance with, presumably. But, yes, it is important to keep this consideration on the table.

How should parking needs of residential uses be accommodated in neighborhoods?

Woo, heavy planner-speak in this one. If there was any question about it, I support alternate side parking; it’s just so much better for snow removal. I think this question is also getting at the city’s recent rediscovery of its limits on parking on lawns and “improvised” driveways, which is an issue in college areas. The city’s approach to date appears sensible: give people a year to adjust, but then, yes, enforce it to clean up those rental properties with yards that have become mini parking lots. Densifying the campuses so that not every student needs a car would be a win, too. As someone who went to an undergraduate university where practically no one drove, I can assure people that it’s actually a great arrangement for all involved. Also, if the city is ever in a position to develop new subdivisions with alleys, do it: this gets cars off the street and also opens up more street parking, since there isn’t a driveway every 20 feet.

Do neighborhoods need assistance in managing small conflicts like noise, trash, parking, and snow removal?

I will say this: for a city that has such pronounced and recognizable neighborhoods, Duluth has surprisingly little in the way of organized, visible neighborhood organizations. The neighborhood level could be a great place to achieve greater responsiveness on the issues listed above.

But, I urge caution here: it’s very easy to do this badly. I spent the past two years living in a Minneapolis neighborhood with a batshit crazy neighborhood board that should not have been allowed anywhere near the purse strings it had. Neighborhood boards also have a tendency to not be very representative; that is, they’re run by old people with free time. Renters and low-income people are often shut out. The well-attended council district session last week wasn’t a bad example; my council district includes both college campuses, but I was probably the youngest person there, and there were a lot of unpleasant things said about college students. I was offended before remembering that I’m not a student anymore.

I don’t mean to dismiss those concerns. Noise is an issue, and as I’ve written before, it would be great if more students could live near the college campuses instead of mixing in with neighbors who don’t like to have people puking on their lawns at 2 AM. Perhaps there is a role for city action on these fronts, but it must walk a fine line between making sure everyone is actually represented and overbearing big-city government.

Should there be more incentives to improve existing housing rather than new construction or vice versa?

Whatever the city’s stance is on new construction, yes, there should be more incentives to improve existing housing. This city has a large housing stock, and a lot of homes that could be very nice with a little loving. On the new construction front, there is plenty of room for infill in this city too, and demolition and reconstruction on lots with blighted properties. Duluth has done a good job this sort of redevelopment for tourism, so there’s no reason it can’t expand into housing, as long as there’s some money to help it along. (Big if, I know.)

Are you concerned about the resiliency of your neighborhood to withstand a natural disaster?

Not especially; I’m no expert here, but I don’t see any immediately obvious things that Duluth can do to shore up its neighborhoods against disasters other than generally making sure infrastructure is protected from 2012-style flooding. However, this question does give me a chance express my annoyance at the use of the word “resiliency.” While technically a word, it is an obnoxious piece of planning jargon and adds an unnecessary syllable. Do not use it. Thank you. Grammar police out.

How and where should/could we densify the community, particularly if we want more convenient locations for mixed uses?

Well, I’ve already mentioned the UMD area, where we’ve seen considerable success in this already, and there’s plenty of room for more. But lots of the old neighborhood downtowns, from Woodland to Lincoln Park to Spirit Valley, have potential here. Near East Fourth Street, and downtown beyond the already-dense core, also seem like obvious targets. London Road, too; I’m also looking forward to the project at Arlington and Central Entrance in Duluth Heights. These efforts to fix up lousy strip malls that have been outstripped by development elsewhere are excellent developments. There are lots and lots of opportunities here.

Should we consider a “no build” (or urban growth) boundary to limit infrastructure extensions and preserve open space on the periphery of the city?

In principle, nice idea. In practice, it would be a disaster.

Urban growth boundaries are a sexy urban planning idea best known for their implementation in Portland. There, it basically does what it intends to do. It limits the outward growth of the city and forces more density, though there is evidence that such limits on growth inflate housing prices.

Leaving that debate aside, however, there is one huge difference: Portland has a governing body, Metro, that oversees the entire metropolitan area, not just the city proper. Its regulations work because a developer who’s limited in Portland can’t just pack up and move a project to Gresham or Clackamas. If Duluth imposed this, it would have no such luck unless the suburbs and townships (in two states!) played along, which would take some colossal legislative work. Not only would it deprive the city of potential development and subsequent tax base growth, it would actually make the environmental situation worse: market-rate developments would be even further out, leading to even longer commutes and infrastructure extensions. Let’s devote our attention elsewhere.

That’s it for now, but stay tuned…