Quite the Character

In an ongoing frustration with NIMBYism, particularly NIMBYism cloaked in progressive language, the idea of retaining character comes into play. Obviously the character and built environments of our cities and neighborhoods play a huge role in their growth and sustainability. However, the vaunted goal of retaining character often is used as a way for NIMBYs, rent-seeking incumbent business owners and short-sighted land owners to stifle growth.

This is done through zoning that makes the purchase and restructuring of buildings a huge barrier to entry for new business. It's done through the limiting of certain kinds of licenses (often liquor licenses for restaurants). And it's done through architectural standards and height limitations.

I certainly won't claim that all concerns over the character of a neighborhood are deceitful or unfounded. They are initially very appropriate, but these concerns need to be balanced towards the idea of growth and making the city or neighborhood a place where people want to and more importantly can live. Height restrictions, or the inability to build multifamily housing or parking requirements are all things that conspire against this. I will use my own neighborhood in Louisville – the Highlands – as a place that raises a question for me. In today's climate of undermining growth by over-zoning  would my neighborhood even exist in the way it does today. I have a bar (it likely qualifies as restaurant in a letter-of-the-law sense) that is literally plopped in the middle of a residential area. Down the street from that is a mechanic. These places are beloved and convenient. Having these kinds of businesses within walking distance is part of what makes the neighborhood one of the most desirable parts of the city to live.

I'm trying to imagine a world today where a bar or mechanic would be permitted to plop down in the middle of a residential neighborhood. I'm trying to imagine a world where the white upper-middle class would think it would be a good idea to permit signage like this:


These places exist in my neighborhood today. But I don't imagine we could recreate this in today's environment. And if we were to create something it would have to mimic what already exists in order for it to be in the "character" of the neighborhood. This mimicry idea raises the question of why the character of a neighborhood is defined as something static. Why is it important that we should require Disneyesque, pseudo-historic structures. I fail to understand how character is developed through obedient adherence to the status quo. In reality the neighborhoods and cities people flock to have all had a much more organic growth process. As time moves on the neighborhoods should move with it. But by pricing people out of an area, and zoning things in such a way that they will never get in (after all, these desirable places remain expensive in part due to the lack of available housing) we are in many ways allowing our neighborhoods to stagnate in character, but rise in cost.

If that's considered "smart" or "growth" we need to seriously adjust our frame of reference.