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Real Estate & Property Law: Kelo and Beyond
I Need To See It
By Greg Alvarez
First off, yes, it's been quiet from this end of the blogosphere lately, but honestly, I've been looking around and seeing things come to fruition that we've already covered. Lately I've been thinking a bit about the act of seeing, and how it's such a big part of what land use is all about. Watching the Pope, or B-16 as he's affectionately called in certain circles, it's clear how much it means to show up in person, giving the audience something to study up close and personal, and gives the stamp of legitimacy, removing the specter of the unknown. Glowing tributes to the man filled the airwaves, as we Americans have finally gotten a gander at the "new guy." In the realm of land use, as with most things, people are going to be quite suspicious of new things until they see precisely what is being proposed. Pretty color renderings, and even fancy computer-driven three-dimensional worlds are employed during land use hearings to attempt to replicate precisely what everyone can expect once something is built. But nothing can replace seeing the reality of things.
Take for instance the drastic actions happening in Youngstown, Ohio, which has been suffering the almost cliched path of urban decay over the course of the last four decades. Now facing the foreclosure crisis, the city is left with trying to improve what its remaining residents have to see everyday. Instead of staring at decaying buildings on near-abandoned blocks, Youngstown officials have decided to raze these areas and replace the broken areas with wide open green spaces. Affectionately called "shrinkage," harkening back to one of those famous "Seinfeld" situations, the plan is to contract, attempting to hold onto the portion of Youngstown that is still alive. Will it work? Well, why not try. It sure beats prior plans to bring in growth, like a proposed blimp factory, or a defense facility promised by then-President Clinton. Only time will tell whether Youngstown will see success.
A recent evaluation of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proclaimed that despite his failure to bring congestion pricing to the Big Apple, which proceeds ahead with the pace of a double-decker bus barreling through Piccadilly Circus in London, he has reshaped the look of the city through 76 crafty rezoning initiatives throughout the city, including one that runs down the 4th Avenue corridor outside by Brooklyn door. As one NYU professor chronicles, noting how Bloomberg's plan has brought taxpaying types to once-decrepit areas, "Places like Red Hook that were once a no-man's land are hipster havens, and Brooklyn is now a center for culture and art for the whole country. . . . Whoever thought people would want to live on the Gowanus [Expressway, or is it Canal?]". Whichever one it is, putting aside the grand redevelopment projects to produce enormous towers in Manhattan, the rest of the city has benefited from a little TLC from the Mayor, which everyone can see.
And then, from the big picture there are also the smaller picture tidbits that depict the importance of seeing when it comes to the built environment. A critical component in any homeowner's seeing is an unobstructed view of the sun, in some fashion, from his or her residence. In aptly named Sunnyvale, California, a battle raged in connection with a state law that permits homeowners to require neighbors to cut down trees that block their solar panels, regardless of when the trees were planted. In Sunnyvale, a recent court action highlights the conflict that can result from this law, particularly where the combatants don't particularly care for one another. The accused owners of a few redwoods were convicted in criminal court, and required to prune the offending trees. And with that, the victor in the battle was able to see again.
No matter big or small is absent from this art of seeing. When you think about it, most land use regulations are subject to this standard, even if veiled in such objective measures as setbacks, height restrictions and lot coverage dictates. It all comes down to how it looks. No matter what the new thing may be, beware of the eyes that are watching you, every step of the way.