Selling San Juan: Part 6

An essay on New West gentrification and the feasibility of preserving community self-determination in San Juan County after the designation of Bears Ears National Monument.

Part 6: Growth and the Not-Entirely-Invisible Hand

The previous parts of the essay have been an attempt to thoroughly describe amenity migration and its underlying socioeconomic logic.  This part is more prescriptive and narrowly focused on development processes.  The six observations below are primers on topics that profoundly affect the particulars of growth, but typically only do so in a submerged, poorly understood way.

1.  There are no silver bullets.

Understanding that the post-war template of car-centric development is problematic is an important first step.  But avoiding car-centric development is not as simple as adopting a replacement checklist.  Towns are a kind of organism and their fate is determined by a nearly infinite range of interdependent variables.  Also, no existing place starts from scratch; the communities of San Juan County already have a legacy culture and development pattern from which their future will stem.

For these and other reasons, I am an advocate of the Strong Towns maxim that a “smart but chaotic” approach to planning and development is much better than one that is “orderly but dumb.”  Put another way, it is a good idea to be skeptical of grand theories and master plans, and to look for ways to incorporate flexibility and feedback loops into processes of planning and development.

2.  Envision San Juan.

I think it is imperative that the communities of San Juan County review and revise their land use ordinances to make them more responsive to increased tourism and amenity migration.  In fact, I would go so far as to suggest this might be the rare instance when adopting a temporary moratorium on development may be worth considering.

I also think this type of zoning review should fit within a comprehensive county-wide land use planning effort along the lines of Envision Utah or Vision Dixie.  The process would bear some resemblance to the San Juan Land Council process, but would focus on elements entirely within local control.  LUDMA rather than FLPMA, if you will.

Such a visioning project might help repair of some of the damage done to community solidarity by the monument process.  The basis for this optimism is that a regional visioning process (1) implicitly acknowledges a shared destiny and love for San Juan County while also providing space for the real differences among its individual communities to play out at the local level; and (2) explicitly excludes the influence of groups from outside San Juan.

Of course, such a visioning process is not merely a feel-good exercise in participative democracy.  Some planning issues can only be addressed at the regional scale and many more issues are better addressed at that that level.

3.  Experts and their limitations.

The use of experts to complete the process of formulating and writing county and municipal comprehensive plans and zoning codes is a good idea.  It’s rarely a good use of a community’s time or resources to develop this particular skillset in-house.

However, a wariness of experts is healthy given that one of the prominent ways in which the modern planning and development process has gone offtrack is through extreme disciplinary specialization.  Whether it is the planner, the engineer, the economic development officer, the elected representative, or the public safety official, there has been an observable trend toward mission creep and insularity.  To overcome this tendency, someone must be empowered to ensure the sub-disciplinary parts are serving the whole and not the reverse.

It is also imperative to do some basic math as part of the process of assessing competing development patterns at the global scale.  Examples include estimating how much land will be consumed, at what rate, and with what consequences to tax revenue, housing affordability, etc. under alternative development scenarios; estimating the short- and long-term costs to maintain and replace the public works associated with the alternative scenarios; making explicit in financial terms the incentives and disincentives embedded in tax and regulatory policy.

4.  Sticking to the plan.

In my experience, it is pretty rare for even a highly imperfect comprehensive planning process to yield a really bad plan.  That’s because comprehensive plans are prepared in the cold light of day when macro threats, opportunities and constraints are front-and-center and narrower interests are subordinate.  When viewed from the big picture and the long term, most people tend to substantially agree on what constitutes a desirable outcome for their community.

The real challenge is the tactical problem of sticking to the adopted plan, since doing so requires faithful, disciplined adherence to the community’s putative vision to many specific land use applications by many different people across many years.  City staff, planning commissions and councils inevitably turn over; Nimbyism is real and it is powerful.  These reasons, and not any deficiency of the comprehensive plan itself, are why the typical actual outcome of development departs from plan to such a significant and disappointing degree.

5.  Small-scale, incremental growth. Always.

One of the defining characteristics of the post-war development pattern is the way it departs from a centuries-long pattern of gradual, granular growth in favor of a systemic bias toward “lumpy,” large-scale projects.  When, for example, the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker are horizontally integrated into a big box store or when they take the form of franchisees of national brands taking up tenancy in the local mall, certain negative consequences are predictable if not inevitable.

On the front end, barriers to new entry are raised by large-scale development to a level that completely shuts out the small-time operator.  Big buildings on big lots require big money during the development and construction phase, as well as during the subsequent lifespan of business operation.  So, if “Bigness” is the form of growth San Juan County encourages, on purpose or by accident, it will almost certainly be fueled disproportionately by out-of-town money pursuing business models built on car traffic.  By contrast, smaller buildings on smaller lots designed primarily with pedestrian traffic in mind are within the reach of many more would-be developers and small business owners, some of whom already live in San Juan County.


Image: Strong Towns, Johnny Sanphillippo.

At the end of the lifespan of a large-scale project, like when all the value is extracted from the mall or big box center, a town is left with a giant empty husk that goes radically negative on a tax-versus-services basis and is difficult or impossible to retrofit as a more human-oriented, flexible space.  In general, the process of depreciation and obsolescence of a large-scale project occurs all at once and its upkeep and disposition involves the motivations of a single (usually institutional) property owner.

By contrast, providing an evolutionary advantage to “Smallness” intrinsically elevates the “smart but chaotic” preference for multiple, non-fatal bets.  If a single store on Main Street goes out of business, its failure is generally limited to that space; it doesn’t take the entire street or neighborhood down with it.  If donuts can’t make a go of it from a given storefront, maybe burritos can.  Whereas Big is brittle, Small is supple.

Granted, the degree of risk faced by San Juan County on this front may seem relatively low — malls and big box stores are not feasible in SJC — but it is still incredibly important that the community think hard about the tradeoffs between local versus absentee ownership, the difference between building a community for people rather than cars, and how to encourage the construction of buildings that will stand the test of time as beloved community objects instead of flimsy monuments to planned obsolescence.

6.  Empower locals (more “win points” for incrementalism).


Image: Strong Towns.

The perception is that starting almost any business these days takes a lot of money and expertise.  This perception is even stronger when that business is development.  And of course there is truth to this.  However, it is also true that this perception is partly a practical and cognitive byproduct of the predominance of globalized capitalism and the suburban growth pattern, both of which are characterized by scale economies.  Remember, car-centric development was not the norm for most of human history and until very recently, development was a set of activities undertaken primarily by ordinary people using the materials and technology commonly available at the time.

So, the task before a place like San Juan County is not to invent a completely new model of development as much as it is to undo or reverse certain biases toward Bigness and to awaken the latent tendency among locals toward independence and DIY-ness.  I believe it is a worthy and absolutely realistic goal to create a systemic bias that enables the local person who loves their community and looks at the boarded up gas station or vacant lot and thinks “someone ought to do something about that,” to… actually do something about that.

Here are three specific places to start: don’t treat the small, simple project the same as the large, complex one for purposes of zoning and building approvals; at least consider reflecting in the impact fee and/or tax code the economic and environmental advantages of adding an incrementally more intense mixture of productive uses to the existing system of public works compared with expanding the system of public works to new, widely-spaced, monofunctional residential areas; facilitate sound how-to instruction of the knowledge necessary to get started as a small-scale developer.

Parting Thoughts

Note that all of the observations above are based on the premise of growth — that there will be increased tourism and migration to San Juan County now that it has been amenitized by the Bears Ears designation.  Is it possible to either stimulate or blunt this new demand?  Yes, of course.

But I think it is unwise to assume that maintaining status quo is a realistic possibility.  I also think it would amount to insult on top of injury if tourism and amenity migration largely displaces locals physically, culturally or economically, or if the new demand for San Juan County is met primarily by businesses in towns on the periphery of the county and carpetbaggers.  More optimistically, the influx of interest and capital represents not just a threat but an opportunity to the residents of the county.

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