Q&A: Uncertainty Reigns in New Wild West

 

As inscrutable as public policy may be sometimes, academics and professionals alike sometimes like to believe that they have all the answers. Sometimes, though, an esteemed professor such as USC planning professor Lisa Schweitzer, willingly throws up her hands. That’s essentially what she did in a recent New York Times article on Ft. Collins, Colorado, in which she declared the current real estate market to be an utter mystery. CP&DR recently caught up with Schweitzer to find out what she meant and to discuss the topsy-turvy state of affairs in California.

Several weeks ago you told the New York Times “four years ago I thought I understood development. Now I think it’sLS anyone’s guess.” Whatever brought you to that conclusion?

 

With the great recession and the housing crash, development is more complicated now than it was four years ago. Back then we had the New Urbanists and smart growthers forming real estate coalitions with environmental organizations and transit agencies. And everybody thought they had the answer.  But we’re just going to have more growth and it’s going to look at a certain way that makes everyone happy. Well, we’re not in that world anymore.

 

(The Brookings Institution’s) Christopher Leinberger just wrote an op-ed in the New York Times saying that the “future is urban.” Leinberger seems to think that seniors are going to sell their homes and downsize. But there’s no real evidence of that.

 

This generation of seniors is a real wild card. They’ve had one environmental shock after another. They’re a very large group of seniors—we’ve been talking about that for years.  If his prescription right and this group of baby boomers all decide to sell off their houses and move to condos, that would be one thing, but I see a group of people whose homes have declined in value, their retirement savings has been very volatile.  I just see them as having a tremendous amount of uncertainty. 

 

Meaning that people whose incomes are uncertain are not going to flock to lofts downtown?

 

Probably not. For people who are living in metro areas and have their houses mostly paid off, it’s not easy to move when you’re older. You have your friends, you have your neighbors. You might keep it because it gives everyone a place to stay when they come for Thanksgiving.

 

If the push to downsizing is because of income, they may actually leave urban areas entirely. Because urban areas are expensive to live in. You might see relocation to second-tier places like Roanoke, Va., Iowa City – they have really great medical care and really cheap real estate.

 

Your quote was in an article on Ft. Collins, Co. How much of that related to Ft. Collins specifically, how much of it relates to California?

 

The things that’s so nice about Ft Collins is that they seem to be putting energy front and center. That to me is one of the biggest questions in infrastructure, the economy, and planning: what is our new energy source going to be? How are we going to equip our cities for new energy demands?

 

What effect will that have on the form of the city?

 

I don’t think that that’s necessarily an urban form question. It’s an infrastructure question and it’s a major investment questions. We’ve had the distributed energy argument (solar panels vs. faraway power plants) for years. It’s taken us a long time to even get to the point of a foreclosure relief plan. This idea that we’re going to use urban form to solve all of our ills doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense in a universe where real estate is not moving along very quickly.

 

Given the uncertainty that you’ve described, what does that mean for planners in California? Is it their job to be prescriptive?

 

I have a broad and catholic view of planning, so it’s not necessarily all focused on urban form and material space. I think the planner’s role is to help people clarify what they want our future to be. One of the things planners need to remember how to do – and this is something that hasn’t gotten a lot of love or affection – is just basic community development. Places in California are devastated by the foreclosure crisis. Those are places that need to be thinking, “Now what? What’s the plan?”

 

There’s a whole bunch of things we need to think about with these big honking houses that are going to sit empty in places like Fresno. There is probably a market in Fresno for converting those places to duplexes. That’s a tangible thing that would help some of the mismatch between where people are now and where home values were 2-3 years ago. So planners’ job is to generate ideas, amplify what other people say that they think is intelligent and useful.

 

One of the biggest planning factors in California now is of course SB 375. What do you think of implementing SB 375 in this real estate market?

 

I think actually SB 375 makes that easier, even though everybody’s broke. Growth politics are the most wrenching when there’s actually a lot of growth going on. The state has made it very difficult to build anything other than retail and housing, and it even makes building those very hard. In an economic climate there’s lots of reasons to go elsewhere. Without those kinds of growth pressures – without people chomping at the bit to build things, you don’t have a lot of enforcement activities. You don’t have a lot of limitations to put on people.

 

There’s a chance that some businesses will try to do what we did with the stadium in LA: ‘oh, it’s bad economic times, give us some breaks on new legislation regarding climate change.’ But I don’t actually see a lot of that. I actually see the major conflicts coming up with new developments changing California’s energy future with existing legislation like CEQA and those kind of internal constructs making it harder to get climate change mitigating businesses and services going. I wish I had happier things to say.

 

Infill developers have recently been raising their voices in Sacramento. Is this a sea change in terms of lobbying efforts in trying to shift the conversation towards infill?

 

I do, and I think it’s a really good thing. I think it is harder to do infill than to do greenfield, it’s time to change that. There’s a whole bunch of things that I think are actually dumb rules that we have to change. But we have to have a good lobby that addresses why we have the rules we have regarding infill. I’m a Don Shoup student, like half the people in the world, but it’s not like parking regulations came about simply because planners had an idea to make parking regulations. There’s a political economy of parking. That’s one of the major barriers to doing infill. That’s something that an organized group can innovate. They can try to help provide new ideas. It’s not just balancing the political power. It’s about them being presented with, “well, one of the reason all these parking rules are in place is because communities like them.” So what’s the answer? How can communities get what they need at the same time that we use urban land more intensively?

 

You’ve taken on Jeff Speck and the New Urbanist label. How does a group like infill builders differ from your interpretation of the New Urbanist movement?

 

I don’t have a huge problem with New Urbanism. I have trouble when they portray themselves as victims, which is one reason why the Jeff Speck thing set me off. They’re dominant. Every one of my students is a New Urbanist; they completely own the discourse. My problem is that I don’t think it actually delivers on what it promises. I don’t, for example, see transit as a particularly useful air quality control mechanism. That said, transit is cities is crucial because it provides mobility. And that’s my problem with the New Urbanists, particular the Jeff Specks and Andres Duanys: they talk about how their form of development is better for a whole bunch of social reasons – these are compelling social reasons, but there’s very little evidence to suggest that it actually does that. These places may be nice and people may want to live in them, and that’s in and of itself is perfectly fine. I’m not against walks and pocket parks. I’m against the idea that somehow those things result in social reform.

 

I think people should be 100% ready to demand amenities for their cities, but I don’t necessarily think that architects are the mediators of that. Urban design is very important. But they’re not the ones who should be thinking about what sort of amenities people should be demanding.

 

One of those shorthand things that doesn’t get delivered is the affordable housing promise. It’s one of these things that gets cherry-picked out.

 

Are there ways to achieve the form that New Urbanists want by overlaying other affordable housing policies while overlaying other polities to promote affordable housing?

 

I do. I just don’t know if it is particular practicable in America. But if you think about European cities – the New Urbanist poster child – a lot of them have very high percentages of their housing stock in public housing: in straight-up public housing. There’s a real municipal social net that we do not have. I think the average New Urbanist is very nice and lovely and wants to save the world.  They point to the Charter and say, ‘its part of our vision.’ But somehow it’s not getting translated into reality.

 

You’ve done a lot of work on social justice and looked at the way the Occupy movement has used public space. What have you concluded about the trends in recent months?

 

I have trouble arguing about the Occupy movement with my fellow planners. I don’t understand why people seem to be arguing that this is a disorganized, vague movement. I think self-reflexive enough to hear what people are saying. I hear a very clear message: 1) we should be breaking up the big monopoly banks; 2) we should be forgiving student loan debts; 3), we should be giving more aggressive help for people who are in foreclosure. That doesn’t sound like a vague, inchoate message to me. Whether you agree with those principles or not, I think it’s a very clear elucidation that people think they’ve been taking to the cleaners.

 

And are there urban implications for the protests themselves or for the Occupy agenda?

 

I think Zucotti Park was a brilliant symbolic positioning. The idea that there’s this “public space” in the city that’s actually private. It is in some respects a fundamental violation of what we think of the collective space. Every year when I teach my beginning class at USC, I ask students what their favorite public space is. And many of them say The Americana, which is basically a gigantic indoor-outdoor mall. And I have to explain to people that public space isn’t just being outside. It has to do with whether you can hand out political leaflets. It has to do with whether you can have a strike. There’s a universe of difference between Pershing Square and the Americana.

 

There’s never a purely private city. And there’s never purely public either. But the fact that they can’t differentiate suggests that we’ve missed the balance we want in terms of providing some things together as cities and regions that are shared and welcoming across the board to people of all strata and groups. There’s entirely too much that’s private. We need to start thinking about that collective life of the city.

 

Your home base, USC’s former School of Policy Planning and Development (where CP&DR publisher Bill Fulton also teaches) recently got a name change. The “planning and development” part went away from the name. How do you feel about that?

 

I’m thrilled because I think Sol Price – I didn’t know much about him prior to the gift – is wonderful. I love the conversation that it started. Everybody says you can’t make any money working with the unions. Well, (Price’s) Costco made a lot of money working with the unions. They treat their workers pretty well and still made money. If your idea is good enough, you can make money and still treat people well. That's the kind of universe that I think the faculty in my school are focused on. We believe in markets and institutions and good government and good governance. It’s a matter of striking those balances in an ethical ad thoughtful way. He seems to embody that idea. It allows me to tweak some New Urbanists who were complaining about Costco being a big box. And I say, get off your butt and design a better big box. Instead of arguing that the economic life needs to conform to your aesthetic vision, try to come up with a way to create a new vision for the way that market is functioning.

 

I wasn’t thrilled about (losing “planning” from the name), but we have a bunch of degree programs that weren’t included in the old name, like public administration and health policy. I wish we could include everybody, but if we did that it would be the “School of Policy, Planning, Development, Health policy, Health Administration, Executive Leadership…” and it would get to the point where people’s eyeballs would start to cross.

 

This interview has been edited and condensed.