Neighborhood regulations and some alternatives

Community activists in my in-town Atlanta neighborhood are lobbying to designate our neighborhood as an historic district and introduce extra scrutiny and prohibitions on the modification and demolition of homes built prior to 1967. Additionally, they seek to introduce significantly higher hurdles on the subdivision of lots in an effort to “keep density in check”.

I would, of course, like to see my community move in the opposite direction, and eliminate the prohibitions on the construction of multifamily and neighborhood commercial that were introduced here in the late 1970s via Atlanta’s first modern zoning ordinances.

Show me a wonderful neighborhood, and I’ll show you a place that is either new and required a highly politicized and expensive rezoning, was built without zoning, or was built before zoning. My neighborhood in Atlanta is such a place. So are peninsular Charleston, I’On, Serenbe, and Glenwood Park.

Nevertheless, at this point in time, getting people to connect exclusionary zoning with a degraded built environment and auto-dependency seems like a “bridge too far” for too many of my neighbors—my hope at the present moment is that we’ll simply stop digging in our already extremely deep hole.

What follows is the letter I shared with the community leaders who are reviewing the proposal and who will make a recommendation to the City of Atlanta.

P.S. Archive Atlanta, a podcast by Victoria Lemos, has an outstanding overview of how zoning came to cities. She and her interviewee Josh Humphries focus on Atlanta, but the story is the same all over America, and they do an exceptional job at exploring the dark history that prompted Americans to accept such a novel abridgment of their property rights. If you ever wonder why the newer parts of our cities aren’t as awesome as the older ones, this episode will help fill you in—and (hopefully) give you some pause the next time you want to speak out against urban infill, walkability, or a diversity of housing types.

Re: Ansley Park Forever draft Interim Controls

“If you want to move people, it has to be toward a vision that’s positive for them, that taps important values, that gets them something they desire and it has to be presented in a compelling way so that they feel inspired to follow.” – MLK, Jr.

“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” – Proverbs 29:18

Dear Neighbors,

Late this week, a printed copy of the 18 page, densely worded, draft Interim Controls arrived in my mailbox. Thank you to the brave soul who shouldered the responsibility of hand delivering these documents to all of our neighbors.

Given the timetable presented in the document, I pushed aside the obligations of my daily life to give it my full attention. I also reached out to a number of Ansley Park Forever board members (whom I am certain are already getting bombarded with questions). All of them got back to me immediately, and I’m grateful for their prompt replies. Jennifer [last name withheld] was gracious enough to speak with me at length late afternoon on Friday. Others generously committed to today or tomorrow. Though I have not yet had the opportunity to meet with them, given our timetable and my existing commitments, I am compelled to submit this in advance of those discussions.

After having deliberated on it for the brief amount of time available, here are my initial thoughts and questions.

  1. What is the vision for our neighborhood? What are our values?

Whatever path our community leaders advocate for the neighborhood should advance toward a positive vision for this place, for those who live here, and (most especially) for the great many more people who will live here in the future—and we should pursue that vision in accordance with mutually shared values.

I could not find any sort of written vision for the neighborhood on the Civic Association’s website. Does one exist? And have we articulated what values will guide us in pursuit of that vision? If we don’t have a vision or values—and it seems to me that we don’t—we need to develop them! If a vision and values do exist, kindly make them more prominent on the website and in the board’s communications.

A clear vision and core values should guide every decision or recommendation the Civic Association makes, including the manner in which it comments on or reacts to documents like the draft Interim Controls.

From this document and from all the messaging I have heard from APF, I can’t infer any vision, but I can definitely infer two core values:

Controlling. It’s right there in the document’s title!
Change-averse. This proposed ordinance clearly seeks to make change more difficult.

Personally, I don’t aspire to either of these values. I would rather see us advance values like welcoming, convivial, beautiful, walkable, and prudent.

  1. How much direct experience with urbanism, land planning, architecture, land use ordinances, etc do APF members have? How much direct experience do the members have with obtaining “Certificates of Appropriateness” from the City of Atlanta, or otherwise complying with the type of ordinance they seek?

Jennifer couldn’t speak on behalf of all the APF members, but from our discussion, it sounds like the answer is “not much”—and maybe “not any”. APF seeks to shoulder hundreds of property owners with perpetual encumbrances that they themselves do not have significant experience in navigating and which relate to fields and disciplines that they themselves have little to no experience in.

  1. How diligently did Ansley Park Forever explore alternative options?

Jennifer answered this question for me: There was very little effort invested in exploring alternative methods to address the concerns of APF, and almost no effort invested in exploring options that don’t require burdening property owners in perpetuity with additional regulatory restrictions. Aside from one brief and quickly abandoned conversation, it sounds as if they immediately began pursuing regulatory solutions.

If one can achieve a goal through persuasion and voluntary participation, even if one is supremely confident that the goal is righteous, is the voluntary path not preferably to coercive regulation? Isn’t it therefore necessary that advocates diligently explore non-coercive options to address their concerns before entertaining regulation?

Jennifer and I discussed some initial voluntary ideas during our call, and I gather she felt they were both worthy of exploration. If I am correct about that, instead of committing to a regulatory path, shouldn’t APF begin by exploring ideas like these?

Below, please find a summary of the two alternative paths we discussed in our call:

A. Self-imposed deed restrictions

APF could easily and affordably engage an attorney to develop a template deed restriction that any property owner could voluntarily adopt at nominal expense.

[Two neighbors] have adopted an extremely restrictive version of this sort of thing by voluntarily subjecting their own property to the standards set forth by the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation. That difficult and costly path is, of course, open to anyone who wants to pursue it, and I’m suggesting something much, much easier:

Any property owner can voluntarily encumber their own property with the general controls set forth in APF’s document.

Though I understood Jennifer to be open to this idea, she did raise an objection: What if the significant majority of people were unwilling to encumber their properties in the manner that APF desires? First, do the members of APF know that they would not; have they tried? And second—and more importantly—if some significant number of property owners would not voluntarily encumber themselves thusly, is it morally right to legislate that everyone must?

At the very least, let those who advocate for these restrictions adopt them themselves before we begin the conversation of mandating that others shoulder them without their consent!

B. A fund for the purchase, encumbrance, improvement, operation, and sale of homes APF deems are worth preserving

APF could launch a fund (I suspect there are some wealthy people in this neighborhood who share APF’s preservation goal!) to acquire significant properties, perpetually encumber them as they see fit, renovate them, rent them out for several years, then sell them.

Given the desirability of the neighborhood, this seems like a sustainable venture. It would work like this:

i. Propose to property owners to purchase a first-right-of-refusal option for a nominal fee;
ii. Acquire the properties when they come up for sale. The APF fund will be buying them at a market rate, financing their purchase and renovation with a combination of debt and equity (the former coming from conventional bank financing and the latter provided by interested neighbors);
iii. Operate the renovated properties as rentals for three or more years;
iv. Encumber the properties pursuant to the general rules established in their Controls. It is worth noting that, rather than being compelled to rely on a blunt force standardized restriction for all properties, they could easily modify their encumbrances to reflect each individual property’s particularly preservation-worthy characteristics.
v. Sell the properties (and make some money!) three to five years after acquisition.
vi. Repay the investors and bank, and use the proceeds to fund additional acquisitions.

Imagine each of these properties with an Ansley Park Forever seal marking its front.

Something like this would require zero coercion and create zero antagonism in the neighborhood. It would inspire people and bring them together. It would spotlight exceptional design, meaningful history, and the great designers, craftspeople, and contractors who help build and care for our homes. It would advance a culture of positivity and conviviality in the neighborhood. If done well, these homes would sell at a premium and inspire their neighbors—both those who build new and those who renovate. It would be a win-win-win-win-win for the current and (most importantly) future residents of Ansley Park.

These are but two of what I imagine are dozens of viable alternatives to additional regulation—I came up with these two in a single day of thinking about it. Surely neither of these options are perfect or flawless, just as surely as there are better options not yet explored.

Before we contemplate encumbering people’s property in perpetuity and without their consent to satisfy the fears of a subset of property owners, APF should aggressively evaluate and pursue alternatives—and they should invest their energy most in the sorts of strategies that would bring our community together. They (and you, and all of the neighborhood) should view with suspicion any path that is inherently divisive, such as the one in front of you today.

The Interim Controls are clearly not the best path forward for our community, they are terribly divisive and unquestionably unpersuasive to a great many residents, and there are obviously better alternatives to APF to truly achieve their preservation goal.

I have a great many more thoughts about this—as I am sure do a great many other residents of Ansley Park—and I regret the lack of time available to me for deliberate reflection and patient discussion. I would be delighted to discuss this further, and will gladly make myself available to you and/or members of APF should anyone be interested in that discussion.

Thanks for your consideration,

Geoff Graham

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s