Anyone who follows local housing discussions will know that certain issues are bound to arise in these conversations. Common issues are affordability, heritage, and urban design. Some of these are considered 'hot-button' issues that can draw in passionate voices on all sides.
This recent Slate article dives into several of these concerns around affordability, aesthetics, and heritage. Beginning with heritage issues, the article refers to a "new wave of housing activists" that argue "the ostensible interest in cornices, mullions, materials, rooflines, massing, and setbacks on new buildings serves as a convenient excuse for neighborhoods to keep everything the same—except for the socioeconomic diversity that once filled their sidewalks."
That's the unfortunate irony of this issue - in an attempt to maintain some of the things we love about 'heritage homes' or districts, we exclude what often made those neighbourhoods so desirable originally - things like walkability, a mix of uses, and the social and economic diversity of the community. "This status quo has preserved the shape of older places, but not the kinds of people who once lived there."
The article says that in more recent times, the preservation coalition's "focus has shifted from protecting the old to policing the new." There seems to be less an emphasis on simply preserving certain buildings, to opposing or demanding changes to anything new that is proposed. The article says, "What was really driving these cities [with conservation districts], from Boise to Nashville to Charlottesville,” says Lemar, “wasn’t about what was ugly, per se. It was concern about density and increasing population.”
We know too that building new housing is expensive - and some of those costs are related not to materials and labour, but to the amount of time it takes to bring housing to market. As the Slate article notes, "Housing is more expensive, and less abundant, in the name of good looks. Not everywhere, but often in the high-opportunity neighborhoods and cities where it would mean the most."
But can't we have affordable and beautiful buildings without density? "Alain Bertaud writes that the decision to build tall or short buildings is not the choice of an architect, developer, or planner, but a natural result of the land values, “purely an economic decision depending on the price of land in relation to the price of construction.” Requiring shorter buildings, as many places do, is tantamount to requiring expensive homes." The article also states, “We have a housing crisis, not an aesthetics crisis,” Bertolet says now. “Giving residents veto power over design will slow homebuilding and make housing more expensive.”
Whatever you believe about how much influence neighbours, developers, councillors, and city staff should have in housing decisions, the slow, drawn-out process we have right now, is not working well for most of us. It adds time and cost to housing developments, and "embitters residents who double down on strict zoning."
Here's what the article's author suggests for a way forward:
"Better zoning laws could avoid these kerfuffles in three ways. First, zoning that actually anticipates what neighborhoods need would give developers and residents a better understanding of what’s expected and permitted, building trust and obviating site-by-site stand-offs. Second, reforming the code around issues like parking and setback requirements would cease to precipitate many of the ugly designs residents say they don’t like. Third, much of what is sometimes considered an aesthetic preference—making sure a project doesn’t include a big, blank street wall, or a cavernous garage opening—can be codified rather than negotiated later."
However, the author notes that won't solve every issue:
"There are drawbacks. The buildings, obviously, look pretty similar to each other. It’s also hard to build a code that vanquishes the back-and-forth. “If you could create a by-right process where you didn’t have the same argument over and over again, I’d be willing to sacrifice diversity in architecture,” said Laura Foote, the executive director of YIMBY Action, a housing-growth group. “But people just want it both ways. Having a giant code and still having a design charrette where people argue—those things are correlated!”
I'd love to know what you think about this - comment below!