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Real Estate & Property Law

: Kelo and Beyond

Buzz in the Air

By Greg Alvarez, Esq.

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While on vacation in the Canadian Rockies, and having a little time to actually catch up on things aside from lipstick and pigs and illegitimate Republicans, I came out of the cocoon of my summer and realized there is a lot going on around the world when it comes to land use. In Canada, I marveled at observing similar land use innovations to those that are happening south of the border on our side of things. For a portion of my trip, I was in Calgary, which isn't exactly a hotbed of excitement. However, seeing light rail trains criss-cross through the city warmed my heart. Strolling through a pedestrian mall in the middle of downtown, I could see the machinery of thought the city fathers and mothers undertook to keep this part of their metropolis vital. Not that the city requires any assistance. It seemed on nearly every corner new projects, both commercial and residential, were reaching towards the sky. A few burgeoning, hipster neighborhoods sprinkled at the downtown fringe also reminded me of home in Brooklyn. And as my wife and I made our trek out of town to the mountains, the suburban edges exposed age-old issues when it comes to addressing the growth needs of a community.

But it wasn't just my travels through Alberta that caught my attention. I actually had a bit of time to read and catch up. The Globe and Mail, a wonderful national newspaper in Canada, ran a story while I was up north about congestion pricing schemes being discussed in the urban areas of Canada. A periodical I picked up at the local health food store called The Earth Island Journal was exploring familiar, but interesting territory when it comes to congestion pricing, as well as the latest from Curitiba, Brazil, where the almost futuristic vision of the city's leaders brought the most comprehensive urban bus system, it seems in the world, to its citizenry in the mid-1960's. Even the Calgary Herald, in running a special edition on the paper's 125th anniversary, couldn't help but explore the issues involved with suburban sprawl on the city's edges, as well as the opportunities in rehabilitating the inner suburbs to support the region's massive growth. This expansion appears to be driven by the largesse dropped in the laps of oil companies, who seem to drive the area's economy.

Back in the States, I discovered a fabulous series that has been running in the Chicago Tribune on the inner workings of the land use process in the Second City. Sure, a lot of the focus is on muckraking, and finding the inherent conflicts, as well as outright graft, going on in the various nooks of the city. But such a window into a seemingly foreign world, when you don't practice there on a day-to-day basis, can be extremely illuminating. And in these highly political times, isn't it intriguing that the words green and Arnold Schwarzenegger can be used in the same sentence? In California, the Governator will most likely receive a bill working its way through the legislature that would bring state comprehensive planning to the land of sprawl. According to one account, the plan will integrate regional planning, transportation fund allocation and affordable housing needs into land use decision making. Whether Ah-nold will be signing the measure is unclear. Either way, it's a huge step that may become another step in the direction towards sound land use policy in a place where the land use culture has often devolved into pure wild west show.

The flurry of activity doesn't end there. As they say, wait -- there's more! On the foreclosure front, some municipalities such as Boston, Minneapolis and San Diego are getting into the flipping business. These regions are buying, with help from private investors, foreclosed homes, refurbishing them, and selling them off in an effort to hold onto communities devastated by the disaster that doesn't seem to want to go away anytime soon. In less grim news, and harkening back to my walks through Calgary, it seems streetcars are making a comeback. After the auto industry pushed the streetcar out of existence in the 1940's and 1950's, leading to tracks being ripped up in favor of smoother urban streets for cars, the pendulum has swung back. Places like Cincinnati are jumping on the bandwagon led by other locales like Denver, Houston, Salt Lake City and Charlotte. People see the results in such towns as Portland, Oregon, and realize that public transportation isn't necessarily a dirty word. Of course, the usual critics out there point to the fact that such plans are essentially publicly-funded subsidies for the downtown core. This analysis carefully dodges the speeding streetcar carrying the obvious retort -- that's the point. Streetcar systems are part of strategies from public policymakers seeking to reinvest in central cities, reversing the subsidies funneled to the urban fringe that produced the current land use, energy and environmental predicament we find ourselves.

How about the stories that seem to be on the edge of the land use radar, but certainly fall under the umbrella of trends to follow. Take for example in Los Angeles, where the City Council has decided to use typical land use mechanisms to respond to a clear issue affecting many poorer neighborhoods around the country. The proposed measure would impose a moratorium on all fast food restaurants in South Central Los Angeles, one of the less affluent areas within the metropolis. Of course, the restaurant lobby is up in arms, as well as observers who believe that the government is going too far to help regulate healthier lifestyles. But the entire zoning framework is used to delineate where certain uses should be placed. This appears to be another such example. In addition, it has been a chronic issue that poorer neighborhoods are woefully underrepresented when it comes to purveyors of healthier food options, and even a seemingly axiomatic supermarket. In any event, it is a different way to use the power to zone to accomplish public policy goals.

And, from the annals of the more things change . . . it's certainly nice to see that things stay rosy in certain necks of the woods, even when things seem so gloomy in general. Take my hometown of Brooklyn, where the big box (in more ways than one) furniture retailer Ikea has moved to once dormant Red Hook, the naysayers have actually embraced the typically controversial type of development. It sure helps when Ikea offers water taxi and shuttle bus service from other parts of the city, and installs a pretty waterfront esplanade. Linked up with its affordable yet stylish furnishing options, and cheap hot dogs at its cafe, Ikea has brought a winning combination to Brooklyn. Out in the desert in Arizona, more good vibes are coming from Kingman, which is benefiting from the overflow from bloated Las Vegas. Not just the home to the closest Cracker Barrel restaurant to Los Angeles, new housing developments may bring upwards of 80,000 new homes to the now-quiet burg by 2040. With a new bridge over the Colorado into Nevada, that means more opportunity and access to the giant to the north. Of course just because it's slightly to the south doesn't mean there's necessarily more water (which the developers' hydrologists believe there is). But who needs to sweat details when the future looks bright? And down in the Everglades, plans continue to be pursued to preserve the fast-disappearing ecosystem. Florida has agreed to purchase 187,000 acres from United States Sugar to help recreate the historic flow of water from Lake Okeechobee down through the Everglades. Of course, the plan is a little more complicated than this, in that the purchased property would be used in a later swap with another sugar company, Florida Crystals, for the land the state really needs to carry out its vision. Either way, it is part of a continuing push to return an important region in the state's past to an integral part of its future. And this is really what land use is about -- how to adjust and project for the future. That's what keeps the buzz ongoing, no matter what time of year it may be.

Full post as published by Kelo and Beyond on September 12, 2008 (boomark / email).

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