Friday, September 5, 2014

Urban Infill. Good Thing or Bad Thing?

So my dad turned 80 earlier this month, and to celebrate we all went out to eat at one of his favorite Italian restaurants. The place has been around since before WWII and it's one that Dad remembers fondly from his youth.


The inn is just a few miles from Dad's house, in the neighborhood where he grew up - which used to be the Italian section of town.

We took a meandering route to get there so Dad could show us all of the schools he attended as a child, as well as the boarding house that his grandmother (my great grandmother) used to own.


As the Italians integrated into the larger society, the area became primarily Hispanic or Latino, and now... well now it seems to be transforming into Denver's latest hip and trendy neighborhood.

Seriously, the amount of construction going on there is really amazing - there must be a new group of town houses or condos going up on practically every block!

I call this "Lego Construction" Seriously, doesn't it look like it's made from Legos?
To tell the truth, this phenomenon is not unique to my father's neighborhood, it's part of a much larger trend going on here known as "infill." Basically the city has been making a concerted effort to get people to live closer to downtown rather than way out in the suburbs.

So zoning laws have been changed, huge investments have been made in light rail and other forms of mass transit, and there's a movement to make Denver into one of the country's most walk-able/bike-able cities with things like bike sharing programs and improved infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians.

I've gotta say I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand the sustainability nut in me is jumping for joy.


I mean it's almost like a dream come true... light rail trains, people walking and biking to work instead of driving 30 miles from the exurbs. It's like the city planners have gone sane or something!

And remember my bike lane fantasy where I dreamed that the city would take some low traffic streets and turn them into bike-only right of ways? Well, something very similar is actually happening! They're called "bike boulevards."


OK, they're not quite as cool and groovy as my phantasmagorical pipe dream because they don't prevent as much vehicular traffic as I had hoped, but the plan is to optimize certain streets for bicycle traffic with stop signs oriented to require traffic to stop for bikes, easy ways to get across major thoroughfares, low speed limits for cars, and "traffic calming" devices like roundabouts designed to keep speeders from driving too fast.

And get this... the first one is gonna be in my neighborhood! For reals... a bike boulevard right here in the barrio! My city council rep must have had to stand on his head and do back flips to make that happen! (BTW - I refer to my neighborhood as "the barrio" because it's one of Denver's poorest neighborhoods with a mostly Hispanic/Latino population. In Spanish "barrio" simply means "area" or "neighborhood" so I don't mean the term in a derogatory way.)

So as you can see, part of me is really, REALLY excited about the changes coming to my city.


But there's another part of me that's a bit leery of all this change. I mean while it's fabulous to see the revitalization of so many of Denver's oldest neighborhoods, I've gotta admit that I feel a bit sad to see so many old buildings being torn down and so many areas losing their character.

I've gotta wonder how much longer my great-grandma's boarding house will be there... or even my dad's house for that matter. His house (which is nearly 120 years old, and that's OLD for this part of the world) sits on a huge lot, so I'm sure there would be plenty of developers who would love to knock it down and build several dwellings there.

And when poorer areas "come up" and become gentrified, what's to become of the lower income folks who currently live there? It's not like the poor folk just disappear because they get priced out of the neighborhoods where they grew up... they've got to go somewhere.


Denver is trying to address this issue through a new affordable housing ordinance which will require builders to either make a certain percentage of the units in new buildings "affordable" or else build an additional lower rent facility somewhere nearby.

But the ordinance is limited, and one has to wonder who gets to define "affordable." Seriously, it's hard to find even a studio apartment within the city and county of Denver for under $1000/month! And the vacancy rate in Denver is at about 5% meaning there aren't many places available to rent to begin with.

I'm already noticing a new trend here in the barrio - white people!


I'm not exactly one to talk on this subject, because I am pretty much the whitest of the white, but it would make me very sad to see this neighborhood lose its ethnic character. However if the cost of housing continues to rise... which it seems quite likely that it will, I think it's almost inevitable that middle class white people will start moving to more affordable neighborhoods like mine.

So I dunno... is all this change a good thing or a bad thing? I think one could make an argument either way. Is sustainability really "sustainable" if it prices out a huge chunk of the population? I mean, people clearly want walk-able and bike-able neighborhoods because they are flocking to them, and that's a good thing. But how do we do it in a way that's inclusive rather than forcing out entire populations? And are we really accomplishing anything if all we achieve is moving rich people closer to the city and poor people further out?

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this whole topic. How has your area dealt with these sorts of issues?




27 comments :

  1. I love where you said who gets to decided what's affordable. You know who they are building them for, it will be affordable to the upper middle class. Like you said, everyone else will have to go. The whole idea definitely has it's good points but all income levels should be taken into consideration in these cases - unfortunately it never is.

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    1. Excellent point... affordable for WHOM? I mean I'm set because my mortgage is paid off, so each time the house values go up it's like money in the bank for me. But pity the poor people who are renters. I ran into a fellow on the bike path who had just moved here and couldn't find anything he could afford. I guess we'll just have to see how it all plays out.

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    2. I'm in the same position you are, but income is still a struggle to make ends meet and keeping me constantly behind on things no matter how frugal I am.

      We were both very lucky to grow up in a time and place where prejudice was unlearned. These days people in general aren't categorized by race or religion which is wonderful, but now we're all categorized and judged and by income level!

      And now that I'm on a roll - I don't know how taxes are in your area, but even though I own my home outright I have no idea how I'm going to pay over $2000, after homestead exemption, when I get my bill which should be arriving soon! So bottom line, who really owns my home - me or the government?!!

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    3. Martha, as recent events in my part of the country have made blatantly clear, we are deluding ourselves if we think we're living in a post-racial society.

      http://billmoyers.com/2014/03/06/is-america-a-post-racial-society/

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    4. Thanks Melissa I will check out the link. I know it definitely still exists but I do think my generation was raised much differently than my parents, and I know how I've raised my own children. I shouldn't have made such a generalized statement.

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    5. Hey Martha,

      Well, as Melissa pointed out, I think it's pretty clear that we as a society have a long way to go on the issue of race. Which isn't to say that we haven't made progress - there is certainly much less overt racism, and there's now at least a tacit understanding that it's not OK to discriminate on the basis of race - I'm sure that especially in the south that's a palpable change.

      But as the issue of gentrification points out, I think it's complicated and difficult to address inequities that run sooo very deep. And as you pointed out, racial discrimination is often being supplanted by class discrimination, which is not exactly color blind in and of itself since the poor people are disproportionately black and brown.

      I don't have any answers, but I do think that a willingness to look at the issue is a good start.

      ANYHOW, I am very fortunate to live in a state with low property taxes. I think mine run about $700/year - of course I do live in the barrio! :-) Denver also has a property tax exemption for senior citizens who have owned their homes for a certain number of years, so if I can just hang on for 20 more years or so... :-)

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  2. I have no answers to your questions, but I love your grandmother's boarding house and I think the Lego creation is u.g.l.y, but I'm a lover of old architecture and I like to see it preserved whenever possible. My preference is to see old buildings incorporated into something new and vibrant, but how to make that happen? I dunno!

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    1. Isn't that a pretty old house? Unfortunately it's now sitting right next to some new yuck, so we'll see how long it lasts.There are lots of old buildings being re-purposed here, but there are also a lot being lost.

      CatMan lives near one of the new light rail lines so his neighborhood is also going crazy. Recently some builders bought the house next door to him which sits on a double lot. They paid $400K for the house, knocked it down, divided the lot and built 2 new houses each of which is selling for $700K.

      It will be interesting... that's for sure!

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  3. As far as a affordable, I don't know about where you are, but around here the government subsidizes a certain number of units to be affordable by lower income people. Whether that's enough to give everyone who currently lives in the area a place to live, well that's another question.

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    1. That's very interesting. I don't know if Denver has a program like that. Hmmmm....

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  4. I completely understand your mixed feelings. Gentrification and the reshuffling of urban poor is a huge issue. I don't know of any places that have a decent answer/solution on a large scale. And it's sad because as it becomes "hip" to once again live in more central urban areas (that are walkable, bikeable, and transit-friendly), the people who get pushed out are those least able to afford the costs of owning an automobile.

    Mixed income housing sounds good, but as you point out, is the "low-income" housing actually affordable for those who need it? And, to succeed, this kind of development has to overcome the biases and prejudices between various economic classes.

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    1. Yup... all very true. Of course, since I have no control over any of this, perhaps I should just try to enjoy the new bike infrastructure and increased value of my home.

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  5. First I love your great-grandmother's home. Those old brick home were built to last and continue to look good. I grew up in Erie, Pa at a time that income wasn't a big deal. Unlike most cities on water the waterfront land was where most of the poor lived. There was access to the water just about everywhere. Then gentrification came along. The poor were moved out of their homes into apartments and run down homes in other neighborhoods and the entire waterfront was closed off to build a convention center, yacht club, million dollar condos all of which are gated to prevent the riff-raff from trespassing. What has happened is that those who were displaced became angry. They don't feel a connection to their new housing (can't even call it home because it doesn't feel like home) and crime jumped all through the city. Those who didn't live along the water are angry at losing the open land around the water they fished from, placed they held picnics.

    I don't like the look of all uniform buildings and those in your example look like condo/apartments which eliminated the yard most old houses had.

    Yes, the light rail is good and shared walls would cut down on heating/cooling costs but I think homeowners with a small yard tend to keep the area neater, who cares about the outside in these new condensed living spaces when it doesn't belong to anyone specifically.

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    1. First of all, I'm quite sure that all of those new condos/town houses come with HOA's who take care of the landscaping. But I don't exactly see any places for gardens...

      Your description of Erie makes me really sad. It's like the stuff going on in California now with beach access. Seems to me that there ought to be at least some access that is public, but instead the wealthy always want to gobble it up for themselves with a big KEEP OUT sign for everybody else. Sigh.

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  6. I moved into my 'hood right as the gentrification process was starting, so I got ghetto prices. My landlord had such a hard time with tenants in the other 2 units that she owns that she told me if I stayed, she would never raise the rent on me. That was 12 years ago. BOOM.

    Anyhoo, my town did the "percentage of new construction must be affordable" thing for some buildings. I qualified and nearly bought one "affordable" placee for low-income folks when I was making about $32,000 a year (that's in LA County, which is far more expensive than other areas of the country). The mortgage and HOA fees would have eaten 50% of my take home pay. I'm not sure how that's affordable or how one person making $32K is low-income. I mean, yes I make a shit ton more now, but I was working with Habitat for Humanity at the time, and that salary was considered low-income for a family of 4-6. But even Habitat has changed their model out here and is building for more moderate income folks.

    I'm rambling. And I'm gonna keep rambling!

    SO, shit tons of new construction went up in my 'hood, but my building and the one next door are considered historic, so developers can't tear them down to build lego buildings. Thank fuck. Tons of families were pushed out and moved to the northern part of the city, which is gang-ridden, violent and fairly dangerous. Super sad. However, my building is still pretty affordable. Studios rent for around $850-900 (mine is $695 and the ocean is less than 1/4 mile behind me. Pretty lucky) in the old buildings. The new buildings are super expensive condos or super expensive apartments ($1450 for a one bedroom). Yet it's still a fairly diverse area, both racially and economically. Just a few blocks up, there are lots of affordable apartments. Go a few more blocks in another direction and you're back to the expensive stuff. I think we're an anomaly though in our racial and economic diversity, which is part of why I really love this town. Now, if the rest of Los Angeles County would just piss off, I'd never leave!

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    1. More rambling--I know I'm supposed to love high density living, because it's better for the environment, particularly in places with urban sprawl. But I hate it. HATE. IT. I want a yard, assholes. At the very least. Too many goddamned people. Just too many of us.

      I am a rural kid though. I want to go sit out on my porch and stare off into nothing but open space and land. Not another neighbor for a few miles.

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    2. "Too many goddamned people." I think that just about sums up the problem. If we keep going in this direction, pretty soon every city will look like Manhattan. I mean I know there are advantages to density, but I sure as shit don't want to live like that!

      And I can't believe even Habitat for Humanity is forsaking the poor - I mean, wasn't the whole point of Habitat to provide decent housing for poor people?

      I dunno... maybe the solution is just to move away from the city and find a nice small town somewhere. Sigh.

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  7. I think every large city has a problem with gentrification. In Hamburg in the trendy Schanze area, a lot of hip clothing shops have their windows smashed and graffiti sprayed around saying things like "yuppies out". Some of these shops have reacted by incorporating the smashed windows into a kind of a cool window display! But the "redevelopment" continues, rent goes up... and resistance appears to be pretty futile. The government is discussing caps on rent to control the situation but for the here and now it seems to just spiral onwards.

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    1. Hmmm... that's very interesting. Somehow I didn't think of this as a problem that European cities would have too. Maybe it's because I always think there's a racial component to this stuff which you don't see quite so much of in Europe. Or maybe I'm just naive!

      Anyhow, I think you're right about the futility. I mean on some level, change is inevitable, and the people on the bottom of the economic ladder are always gonna end up in the least "desirable" places - it's just that the landscape of what is and isn't desirable keeps changing.

      Maybe the key is not to focus so much on the issue of gentrification per se, but the issue of income disparity. Hmmm...

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  8. That's a shame. I live in a rural area, so I can't speak to this exact problem, but we have a similar one in that all the farm land is being converted into neighborhoods. But these neighborhoods are miles away from businesses. So instead of people who enjoy rural living moving to these places, people move to these neighborhoods, then petition for McDonald's and WalMart to build closer to them, which they do . . and then more farms are turned into houses because now it's convenient to shopping. Followed by the cost of land going up, etc. Bleh. There are just so many people! I can't help but think at some point we're going to run out of good farm land and people will regret building all those sprawling homes . .

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    1. OY! Now for some reason that strikes me as much worse than infill. I mean Denver has had it's fair share of sprawl. We have Boulder to the north of us and Colorado Springs to the south. When I was a kid these were all pretty discrete and separate cities, with farmland and open space between them. Now it's just like one giant blob of sprawl between them. I think I'd rather have high density cities than watch any more of the prairie get paved over and turned into housing sub-divisions - owned by people who drive hundreds of miles a week in their gas guzzling SUV's.

      But in the end I think this line sums it up... "There are just so many people!" I read somewhere that the world's population has doubled in my lifetime. That's a terrifying statistic! I mean they say that the growth is slowing, and I hope they're right because as you point out... there's only so much farmland to produce food!

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  9. I grew up in an old Denver neighborhood that was racially and economically diverse. It got discovered and 'revitalized', and now you have to be rich to afford a house. The diversity is gone. I used to think gentrification was good for neighborhoods, as housing prices would rise for all, and old homes would be remodeled and taken care of. But now that Denver's old neighborhoods are so desirable, developers are destroying the very character people at one time found so desirable. My current neighborhood was full of tiny Victorian cottages when I moved in. They're almost all gone - scraped and redeveloped with big, expensive condos and townhomes that maximize the property square footage. I can no longer find a place to park, and often have to park several block from home. The original neighborhood charm is gone. Old neighborhoods, and historic urban areas are a very limited (& threatened) resource. There are billions more people on the planet now than when these areas were built. They will always retain their desirability, and will become the province of rich. I do want to move, but have only just started thinking about where I can go. Whew- thanks for letting me rant!

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    1. Oh yes... the scrape-off syndrome, I know it well. It would be really nice if they would do more to protect the older homes. I think some neighborhoods, like Baker, have done a pretty good job of this, but others... not so much.

      I've read that making parking scarcer is actually part of Denver's urban strategy to encourage people to use mass transit etc. Perhaps the article I read was referring to downtown, but it's happening in a lot of other neighborhoods too. I have a friend who lives near where the old Gates plant was and with all the apartments and construction going on there, parking is becoming a scarce commodity. I think it's great to see people using alternative modes of transportation, I just wish it didn't have to come at such a price.

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  10. That's a tough question. My somewhat cynical take is that you can't protect renters (or any consumer) from rising prices. So the benefits of this sort of urban planning outweighs the detriment, if you're willing to accept that renters will be forced to move over long periods of time. (On the plus side, renters typicallly move on their own accord after a while.)

    As for owners, presumably (or hopefully) they're already protected by a fixed rate mortgage.

    The fly in the ointment is property taxes. Governments have a responsibility to protect poorer homeowners from drastically rising property taxes, especially since the only way they can really benefit from rising property values is to sell.

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    1. I think you are correct... cynical attitude notwithstanding. On some level, the only thing the city is guilty of is making itself a more desirable place to live.

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  11. This is a wonderful topic, EcoCatLady, and one that hits home since the Rocky Mountain West is now the fastest-growing economic region in the U.S., according to the Denver Post.

    "GDP growth nationwide in 2013 was led by metro areas in the Mountain West, the U.S. Department of Commerce said Tuesday. Gross domestic product expanded in 16 of 21 metro areas in the region, with oil and gas exploration making big contributions in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and Montana."

    As long as we continue to have an economy based on the concept of growth, I believe we're doomed. Clearly our world is reaching the end of its ability to support unrestrained growth. Articles like yours help us think about the effects of increased population and what we're slowly giving up to sustain our economic and population growth. Constructing new, high-density housing is one solution, but it totally ignores the greater problem. Thanks for opening up a really interesting debate with your post!

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    1. Yup... infinite growth in a finite world is ultimately doomed. I read the other day that Denver is poised for enormous growth over the next decade because of the oil and gas boom - aka fracking. Goodie gumdrops. Yes... because in a world where we're on the brink of creating an atmosphere that can no longer support human life, what we need is a new system for getting more methane out of the ground!

      I dunno... some part of me knows that these are self-limiting problems - there will come a point when the earth simply won't be able to sustain this number of humans and people will die off - the same way any species that has over populated its environment will. Of course, we're taking a lot of other species down with us. One would hope that at some point enlightened self interest would kick in, but apparently it's gonna have to get much worse before people perceive any sort of a threat. Sigh.

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