Spot zoning nibbles away at the capital city
December 8, 1988
Spot zoning is one of those dead horses I kept beating in the hopes that it might get up and pull Springfield toward a more sophisticated land use and development policy. Every city allows exceptions to its zoning rules, but in Springfield exceptions are the rule.
Hermit crabs!" I said the words out loud in celebration, but fortunately no one overheard me; I was walking down South Grand at the time, and pedestrians in that part of Springfield are as rare as Shakespeare lovers on the city council. I had been trying for blocks to recall the name of the crustacean which houses itself by appropriating the abandoned shells of other creatures. As so often happens when I am abroad in the city, I was in search of a metaphor, in this case one which might describe the hodge-podge conversion of single-family houses into shops and offices.
You see them everywhere, in Springfield especially in the older neighborhoods. A fresh coat of paint, a sign (usually mispunctuated) plopped into the yard advertising products or services so unappealing that I wonder whether Barnum wasn't misquoted, and that when he said there was a sucker born every minute he was referring to the world's sellers rather than buyers. Most of these 'businesses" are hardly more than hobbies, confetti left littering the city after Reagan's mad ball, proof that entrepreneurship has become a hot new pastime. The ambitious middle-class Springfieldian apparently dreams of having her own insurance agency the way her mom dreamed of having separate bathrooms.
I am all for the incubation of small businesses. I am a small businessman myself. But the conversion of dozens of viable houses in viable residential districts into Mom-and-Pop (or more likely these days, Mom-and-Mom) enterprises is worrying. Buying a house is a poor person's way to acquire not just a premises but a parking lot. (Thus the appeal of such properties compared to the downtown business district.)
Whatever the suitability of these properties for business—and most of them will be out of business before you can say "comprehensive plan"—they detract from the city as city. The trend results in the dispersal of commercial land uses, which means that doing business in the city requires more automobile trips, more gasoline, more parking spaces than it otherwise might. It reduces the stock of low-cost housing, and in the process speeds neighborhood decline. Adjacent houses become less valuable as places to live (especially if they are demolished for accessory parking) and that discourages reinvestment; also, since their neighborhoods seldom offer expansive commercial possibilities the pace of further conversion (and thus the opportunities to sell out) is scant. The wave of commercialization which planners have expected to engulf South Grand Avenue between Second Street and MacArthur Boulevard for the past twenty years, for instance, has to date only dampened a few basements.
Springfield once was notorious for the eagerness with which it "spot-zoned" commercial uses into residential blocks. The result was a hybrid urban form, shaped by neither the market (which would have compelled a more widespread pattern of mixed uses) nor planners (whose zoned city was thus compromised). Instead we saw urban design-by-donation, in which exceptions to agreed-upon land use patterns were negotiated by politicians and their benefactors.
We don't see spot zoning much anymore. Instead, we have what might be called creep zoning, as properties near—not necessarily adjacent to—existing commercial lots are redeveloped for commercial use as well. On this particular walk I noticed three instances in just a nine-block stretch of South Grand (at Spring, Holmes, and State streets) where businesses have opened on lots facing side streets which intersect South Grand but which themselves are residential in character. It's as if, when the planners drew in commercial zoning along that thoroughfare, the ink bled a little. The results cannot be justified on grounds of contiguity or coherence, except by a lawyer paid to do so; they are classic instances of the-area-is-going-to-hell-anyway approach to land use control. That such intrusions are not as egregious as those the old spot-zoning used to allow is small comfort; to say that Springfield's promiscuous zoning policies have thus been reformed is like saying that a paroled bank robber has been reformed because he now robs nothing bigger than a gas station.
Most cities' official land use plans have much more land zoned for "higher" uses as multi-family residential or commercial than would be needed under the most extravagant projections of economic growth. Such plans are highly political documents, of course, and they reflect the urgent preferences of local landlords who like over-zoning because it leaves them with the widest range of options for development. A plan is, of course, a guess about the future, and some provision must be made for the natural market-induced changes in land use. But consigning whole districts of single-family housing to commercial conversion is dumb.
Planning prohibitions alone are little protection against this kind of redevelopment anyway. The perfect example is the neighborhood around Lincoln's home. The purchase by the Department of Interior of the eight blocks surrounding the house was made to erect a moat of sorts to keep out gimcrack commercial intruders. The demand for gift shops, even food service near the house is real and reasonable, especially now that tourist traffic has picked up again. But instead of intelligently accommodating that demand inside the site boundaries (and thus pre-empting private entrepreneurs less respectful of the site's ambiance) the feds banned it.
The result is that properties immediately outside the site's boundaries are being converted into souvenir boutiques. (In a poignant irony, one of these is located in the frame house most recently used as the law offices of former mayor Nelson Howarth, the most eloquent opponent of the commercialization of the Lincoln home area.)
The city has responded with plans to expand the protections of its "historic district" zoning to the wider Lincoln home area; the only certain effect of this is that the inevitable new businesses will be driven farther away from the home than ever and thus will be even more likely to fail.
That fate, by the way, is nicely ironic. Local government which used to occasionally see its role as ameliorating the consequences of development, lately sees its role as a promoter of development. By allowing new businesses to locate where their chances of success are so marginal, the city manages to advance neither the cause of land use or of economic development. City hall, as a glance at Springfield's land use plan will confirm, is not zoned for common sense. ●