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Editorials • September 1, 2008

CONFESSIONS OF A RECOVERING CITY PLANNER

I came to California to attend the College of Environmental Design at UC to get a masters degree in city planning.  For the last forty years, I have held a MCP from our august local institution making me in some circles a genuine city planner.  I think recovering city planner might be more accurate.  

I bought my first house in 1970 and a replacement property in 1976.  As I was not ready to move, I rented the new place – two houses on one lot south of campus - and stayed in my old house for another year.  At the end of that year, I realized that, through the twin miracles of leverage and appreciation, my two properties made more money than I did working as a campus planner for the aforementioned UC.    And so in 1976, I gave up my last actual job. I sold my original house for over two-and-a-half times what I paid for it (less than a tenth of what it would be worth now) and used the proceeds to support myself and to start a somewhat dilettanteish career buying and fixing up real estate.  I have been known to say that real estate, particularly real estate development, is the confluence of art, science and money.  I later realized how much government plays a role in the process but three out of four in the plus column ain’t bad.  

In my brief career as a city planner, I had worked, however briefly, for local, county, state, federal and foreign governments.  I found the bureaucracy stifling and my ability to sit at a desk for eight hours a day virtually non-existent. It was good to get out.  After nearly a third of a century on the other-side-of-the-counter, I must conclude that city planners exist to stifle the creativity of other people.  To be fair, what they do is a reflection of the values of the people they work for – the politicians – who in turn, or at least in theory, reflect the values of the people for whom they work – the electorate.  How well this process works is of course debatable.   I still think that, while Berkeley is clearly more left-of-center that the country as a whole, the electoral process is dominated by a group which is even more to the left.  The leftier-than-thou activists maintain control by making the process so cumbersome, time-consuming and distasteful that those who disagree with them dip their toe in the political waters and give up in short order.  After an initial experience in Berkeley politics, they give up even before they start.

Planning in general has expanded its focus over the years.  Zoning, for example, was originally meant to merely protect property owners from one another, ostensibly to their mutual benefit.  If you buy a single-family house in a single-family neighborhood, it would be nice to know that no one can build an abattoir on the vacant lot next door.  Within reason, this appears to be sacrifice of unfettered property rights that makes sense.  It is in fact mutually beneficial.  (Houston is the only major city in the US without zoning but achieves this minimal goal through property covenants and restrictions which attach to the property.)

Over the years, however, other property rights have been sacrificed to ever-broadening goals.  Maximum size (usually controlled with set backs and height limits) seems protective of the immediate neighbors and the larger neighborhood.  But what justification is there for minimum size other that setting a minimum wealth level for neighborhood entry?   Is this a legitimate function of the police power? 

Another common use of zoning is to designate areas where more noxious uses are contained.  A specific area where higher levels of noise and odors are permitted seems necessary if these uses are to exist at all.  Planners, however, will take it a step further and use these protective measures to limit or deny some uses and encourage others.  They may permit office space but not other clean, low-impact uses such as warehousing or light assembly.  By what right?   Toward what end?  In a commercial area, they may deny entry to certain non-offensive uses simply because they do not like them or they offend some political sensitivities.  I can start a hamburger restaurant and call it McDougall’s but you cannot start a franchise called McDonald’s even thought it is a proven formula that consumers have voted for time and again with their dollars.  Why is that?  The impacts are the same. 

And then zoning is used to raise government revenue.  Pre-Proposition 13, cities regularly zoned for commercial uses over [particularly dense] residential uses because the former generated more taxes that it demanded in services and the latter was just the reverse.  Even Berkeley will put aside its distaste for individualized transportation and rezone the large chucks of freeway-fronting property for automotive uses because it cannot (okay, will not) live without the sales tax revenue generated by car dealerships.  This is akin to the federal government simultaneously subsidizing tobacco farming and trying to get people to stop smoking.  

Sometimes planning and zoning measure are used to preserve nostalgia.   Berkeley has resisted the use of its commercial areas for more modern activities when there is a threat to some perceived historic inventory of manufacturing facilities.  There have been references to Berkeley’s glorious working class heritage which of course must be preserved.  Huh?  Why would any legal use of property be denied when it is no more impactful than a permitted use? 

Why have planners expanded their mandate to encompass as many controls on individuals as possible?  Because the politicians for whom they work like power for power’s sake.  Why do the politicians do it?   Because they know better than you do what is good for you.  Oh yeah….and because we let them.       

 

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