To better facilitate neighborhood growth, should we first start with small changes?

By: Michael A. Spotts, President

Yesterday, the Washington Post's Lori Aratani wrote about opposition to increased development in the Northern Virginia suburb of Reston. Reston is benefiting from the Silver Line expansion of the WMATA rail system, and more recent development (and plans for development moving forward) is somewhat more "urban" in nature. While some have embraced this, others are resisting the change in neighborhood form, with one local activist stating, "People who moved here bought the zoning."

This comment prompted me to think about the extent to which neighborhoods ("what you're buying into") are perceived to have permanence.  Let's put aside for a moment the notion that the true cost "buying the zoning" is likely to be beyond the means of all but the wealthiest when accounting for the costs of maintaining a development pattern. Even if that was attainable at a broad scale, I do not believe permanence of form is a healthy condition for communities. Whether in biology or real estate development, evolution is important for health and survival. However, there are policies and protocols in our municipal governance that can either promote adaptation or reinforce notions of permanence. To that effect, I'm including below my relatively informal Twitter thread from yesterday that discussed the problems with rigid zoning and building codes and how incremental change may be able to create a mindset that allows for more substantial change in the future

Twitter thread by Michael Spotts via SPOOLER

1. Per last RT, it is remarkable how durable "we bought the zoning, too" line of thinking is.

Jonathan O'Connell@OConnellPostbiz

If you don't want new development in your neighborhood then you don't get to have a new Metro system that the whole region pays for! …

2. We need to start combating the notion that community form will remain frozen in amber for all time, as it can lead to exclusion, decline, or both over a long enough time horizon

3. As much as we need a radical zoning/land use restructuring, in many places this is nearly impossible due to politics. We therefore need to first make incremental progress at adjusting this mindset.

4. If you're starting this process in a neighborhood that's getting redevelopment pressure, you may already be too late.

5. From a practical and social equity perspective, it's better to set precedent that change can come to all neighborhoods, not just the ones without wealth/clout to resist.

6. So this starts with small, incremental changes. Loosening setback requirements. Tweaking parking regs. Allowing ADUs.

7. Basically, for regulations that cause a property owner or homeowner to say to themselves, "wait, I need a permit/waiver to do that?!?", consider starting there.

8. You can shift the variance/waiver burden of proof from the citizen (prove why is this necessary and won't cause harm) to the govt/neighbors (prove, at your cost, why this will cause harm or is unnecessary).

9. Different communities will focus on different things, and that's good. But the main point is, if we want to more effectively and efficiently allow mixed-use, mixed-inc, missing middle, density, etc., we might first want to stop making people jump through hoops to add a fence. /end