Thursday, 11 July 2013

Bland by design

I could grok changed building rules in Christchurch post-quake. Earthquake and liquifaction changed what we might want from foundations.

But the percentage of building frontage that must be in windows, no matter what? That car parking be hidden?
For example, the rules requiring buildings facing a road or public space to be between 60 and 90 per cent windows would not suit many businesses.
"Such blanket provisioning ignores that such a percentage of glazing may be inappropriate for the retailer, who may need more security, such as a jeweller or a bank; whose security requirements must take a higher priority than urban design,'' the submission said.
"Furthermore, it ignores the needs of department stores or larger stores who may need to place stock on shelving attached to solid walls around the perimeter of building."
The Property Council said that, because glazing was so expensive, the rule would boost the cost of new shops.
"We are strongly opposed to any provisions in the plan change that call for an increase in development costs without sufficient justification."
The submission criticised the requirement for car parking to be hidden from view, saying visible parking was a principle marketing attraction for retailers.
"This is completely impractical for many retail activities, which rely on visible parking to attract sufficient customers in order to remain viable,'' it said.
Prescriptive zoning rules are what deliver boring, expensive cities. Get a long enough list of "every building must", and you'll get a pretty short menu of options that can fit the bill.

I just don't get why we have to be so prescriptive about things that are orthogonal to "risk this building causes to others that are avoidable at reasonable cost." Minimum engineering standards that keep buildings from falling onto passers-by make sense. Council failed to do anything about this prior to the quakes, and even hindered owners who had wanted to tear down buildings that wound up falling down and killing people in February's quake. Even if we take a hard econ line on that individuals should be free to live or work in a dodgy building and trade safety for money, risk imposed on passers by seem sufficient to require either strictly enforced minimum standards or liability rules with compulsory insurance.

I wonder how much intersection there is between the kinds of people who think prescriptive town planning rules are great things and the kinds of people who don't like the tilt-slab construction that's been the consequence of trying to tick all the planning boxes on a budget.

Meanwhile, in America, Matt Yglesias has taken up Donald Schoup's banner on the high cost of free parking. Parking minimums are pretty common in the States: developers then have to put in more parking than they'd like to. Other places have parking maxima, preventing developers from providing as much parking as they think appropriate.

What happens when you stop being so prescriptive around parking?
Michael Manville of UCLA studied a liberalization of parking regulations in one section of Los Angeles and found that deregulation leads to the construction of more housing units and fewer parking spaces. Conversely, tighter regulation leads to a lack of affordable housing and a surplus of parking spaces. That might make sense if parking spaces were a public good, like clean air. But they’re closer to being a public bad. When Chicago mandates the creation of ahigh number of parking spaces per square foot of downtown office building, it reduces the price of parking, but it has a number of negative consequences. Cheaper parking means more traffic congestion on the streets. It also means lower ridership for Chicago mass transit. Perversely, cheaper parking offers a subsidy to commuters from outside the city limits at the expense of Chicago residents living within walking or biking distance of the central business district. And, of course, it leads to dirtier air, not cleaner.
Yglesias recommends abolishing requirements that buildings have parking spaces; I'll also recommend abolishing requirements that they have maximum numbers of parking spaces. If the highest valued use of a piece of land, as seen by the person with skin in the game, is a parking space, why need Council get involved?

Maybe, just maybe, if Christchurch Council focused really hard on a small number of rules around building safety, and dropped the other stuff, they'd be able to competently administer a set of useful rules instead of, well, what we have instead.


  1. The quote at the end of the Press piece says it all: "The city council says the purpose of the plan change is to "'stimulate good design...'". So who decides what constitutes good design? Christchurch City Council has never been able to resist imposing its values on its community. And these are not some formal institutional values derived by internal and external consultation; these are the collective values of the sorts of people attracted to working in local government. Some years ago CCC refused to allow payments by credit card because (and I am not joking) the staff didn't think it was fair for some people to get 55 days free credit and others not.

    There is a hard lesson for the whole sector to learn here: councils work best when they follow rather than try to lead.

  2. One thing (amongst many) that I found baffling with the Auckland Unitary plan was around parking regulations. There are some areas that have parking maxima (you can build as few as you like), and other areas that have parking minima (build as many as you like), but no zones with neither. Maybe I have a lack of imagination, but I cant even conceive of a logical set of principles on which this would be based. How can it make sense to have up to a certain amount, but no more, in some places, as many as you want, but no fewer than X in others, but nowhere with as few as you want AND as many as you want...