Urbanism Author Ben Ross Book Excerpt and L.A. Event Tues 4/29

Dead End

Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism, by Ben Ross

Washington D.C. area transportation activist Ben Ross has a new book out entitled “Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism.” Ross is the longtime president of Maryland’s Action Committee for Transit and a frequent contributor to Greater Greater Washington. Below is an excerpt from Dead End” which focuses on the rise of not-in-my-backyard “Nimby” movements and how they played out in Southern California.

Ben Ross will be in Los Angeles next week, reading from and signing Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism” on Tuesday April 29th, 2014, at 7:30pm at Skylight Books in Los Feliz. Skylight is located at 1818 N. Vermont Avenue, L.A. 90027 – easy walking distance from the Metro Red Line Vermont/Sunset Station. 

The Age of the Nimby

Into the real estate scene of the 1970s came a new social phenomenon. Neighborhoods across the country sent a message of “Not in my backyard” to, it sometimes seemed, anyone who wanted to build anything anywhere. The behavior was so common that the acronym of NIMBY, coined at the end of the decade, soon lost its capital letters.

Exclusion in itself was nothing new. Suburbanites had long labored to keep less prestigious people and activities out of their neighborhoods. Minimum house price covenants went back to the 1890s, single-family zoning to the 1920s. On occasion the urge to exclude had found potent political expression, as when Detroit voted Republican in the 1949 mayoral election. The sociologist Herbert Gans, writing in 1965, could observe as a matter of course that “middle-class homeowners use zoning as a way of keeping out cheaper or less prestigious housing, while working-class communities employ less subtle forms of exclusion.”

But this earlier exclusionism had a narrow focus. It aimed only to protect residential neighborhoods and had no animus against builders per se. In the 1920s, homeowners were commonly on the same side as development interests. Real estate dealers often organized the homeowners, mobilizing them to pass zoning laws and stop racial mixing.  Civic associations flourished in the new suburbs after the Second World War, but here they were less political. As late as 1966, an experienced zoning lawyer could write that “the average suburban community believes commercial and industrial developers are desirable suitors while residential developers are not. ”

Just a few years later, this distinction had vanished. Now any building, of any type, had to be kept out, and nimby homeowners were the scourges of the real estate industry. Where homeowner associations existed under covenants, they took the lead. Elsewhere voluntary civic associations sprang to life. A full-fledged antigrowth movement emerged, equipped with ideology and political leaders. Horizons broadened as development was fought not just nearby but also throughout the town or even the county. City neighborhoods resisted as passionately as suburbs.

Soon “slow-growth” activists were winning control of some suburban governments and gaining influence in many more. Incumbent politicians who managed to fend off the insurgencies found themselves adopting their opponents’ agenda. The tide slackened briefly during the recession of the early eighties—the usual trigger for homeowner mobilization was an unwanted development project in the vicinity. The pause came to an end in 1985 when Florida adopted a statewide system of growth control, and the next year a wave of antigrowth activism washed over California from north to south. Growth limits continued to gain in popularity over the remainder of the decade.

Unwilling to admit—and often unable to recognize—the status-seeking motivations that lurk behind their agenda, opponents of development search for any convenient excuse to oppose something that might be built nearby. Traffic is a perennial objection, blessed by the Supreme Court in Euclid v. Ambler and never since out of favor. Another common tactic is to go after the builder rather than the building. Homeowners appeal to the sympathies of the uninvolved, presenting themselves as innocent victims of oppressive developers.

If roads are empty and the builder is an uninviting target, other arguments are at hand. There’s too much parking or too little. If houses are proposed, offices are what the neighborhod needs; if offices, houses would be better. Property values will go down; we will be priced out of our homes.

When all the usual arguments fail, new excuses must be cooked up. In this endeavor the drafters of 1920s zoning rules set a high standard of creative thinking—the ostensible reason to ban billboards in residential zones was to deprive fornicators of opportunities for concealment—but more recent generations have not lacked in imagination. One French bistro in Beverly Hills, wanting to open a second restaurant nearby, found neighbors worried that its patrons would urinate in the street while waiting for their foie gras.

Ever since the 1970s, large-lot suburbs have played the environmental card. When growth controls first blossomed in Marin County, there was an unspoiled ecosystem to protect and such arguments had a real point. But in Los Angeles, complaints of “Eden in jeopardy” came from wealthy retirees who built mansions in the fire-prone desert canyons of the Santa Monica Mountains. Political influence here overcame the deficit of plausibility, and the National Park Service began to buy up land in the vicinity.

Development then spilled over into Ventura County, and the Santa Monica Mountains homeowners fought back by putting into office there an insurgent county supervisor named Maria VanderKolk. The novice lawmaker misperceived the priorities of these suburban environmentalists. Elected on a promise to preserve a mountain tract called Jordan Ranch, she succeeded in making the entire ranch a park, along with two adjacent canyons. This achievement, in her sponsors’ eyes, was a betrayal—the deal that saved the ranch authorized urban-style building on nearby flatlands. VanderKolk, when her term expired, became a private citizen again.

To read more from Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism by Ben Ross, see also Streetsblog USA and Greater Greater Washington – and come hear him in person on April 29th at Skylight Books.