A nimby with good intentions is still just a nimby

We have, one hears a lot these days, a polarised nation. But there's one thing almost all Americans can agree on: We don't want that developer to put up a big apartment building down the street.

When such opposition is voiced in the suburbs, the reasons cited are often straightforwardly self-interested. "We are not going to tolerate anybody parking in front of our houses," a resident of Fairfield, Connecticut, declared in February at a city meeting to discuss a proposed affordable housing project on his street.

Last December, opponents of a 200-unit apartment building project in Millburn, New Jersey, seemed mainly concerned about the hundreds of new students who might pour into the township's excellent public schools.

Propose a new apartment building in a big city, though, and opponents have a habit of mixing aesthetic and even moral judgments with the not-in-my-backyard stuff.

Here, for example, is a San Francisco resident explaining at a community meeting last month why she's opposed to a nine-storey affordable housing project planned for her neighbourhood: "I have a beautiful view of the cityscape. And the cityscape is going to be gone, and I don't want that," said Ms Joelle Chartier. The Bernal Heights resident called the project "selfish, insane and out of character", and said the city should consider lowering the number of units and look elsewhere to build up.

Here's a Seattle resident telling a local reporter in March why she opposed the construction of an 11-storey apartment building on a site now occupied by a parking garage in her neighbourhood: "None of us should accept this," Ms Cindy Aden said. "There are ways to build attractive neighbourhoods that don't have to be so odious that no one is happy about it... It requires more citizen input. It requires that this process be slower and therefore probably more costly, but the result is something that has community buy-in."

A San Francisco street view. Across the US, residents in various cities are protesting against the siting of new housing developments in their neighbourhoods, claiming the aesthetic and moral high ground.  PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Lest you think this is just a West Coast attitude, here's a city council member and former mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, expounding at a city council meeting in April on why she's against the construction of an 18m-tall apartment and retail complex in her district: "It's way too high. It's too intense. And I would like to know what the architect's inspiration was for the design elements of this project. It's too long," said Ms Patsy Kinsey, drawing applause from local residents who came out to oppose the project. "I'm sorry, I can't go for that. It's not right."

These are just three cases I happened to stumble across in the course of my daily reading over the past couple of months (there are many more if you look). They seemed important because the difficulty of building new housing - particularly the sort of high-density fill-in housing that all the projects mentioned above represent - is getting to be something of an economic crisis in the United States (maybe even the world).

In a column last month, The Economist's Ryan Avent offered suggestions for addressing the crisis. One, which he credited to Professor David Schleicher of Yale Law School, is to directly address the economic self-interest of development opponents: New buildings normally generate extra property tax revenue for the city once they have been completed. Some portion of the expected rise in the tax take associated with a proposed new development (the tax increment) could be promised to nearby residents in the form of a temporary property tax rebate, scheduled to last, say, 10 years if the development went ahead.

Another possibility, Mr Avent wrote, is to change the political equation by shifting land-use decisions away from the neighbourhood level towards a more citywide and statewide scale.

These are good ideas. But when I read anti-development remarks like those above, I also can't help but think that part of the solution has to do with neither economic incentives nor political ones.

It's purely about attitudes. How do we convince today's urban development opponents that they seldom if ever occupy the aesthetic and moral high ground that they claim for themselves?

There was a time when anti-development activists did hold the high ground. When the great activist Jane Jacobs organised opposition in the 1950s to urban planner Robert Moses' proposals to build an expressway through the middle of Greenwich Village in New York City, she was making the world a better place - or at least keeping it from getting worse.

Same goes for the thousands of San Franciscans who gathered in Golden Gate Park in 1964 to oppose new interstate highways through the city. And the historic preservationists in the 1960s and 1970s, who kept grand old buildings and even entire neighbourhoods from being destroyed for urban redevelopment, were fighting a good fight too.

In those days, it was government officials trying to force sweeping, poorly conceived changes - many of them involving freeways - on communities. In the examples above, it's private developers (a non-profit, in the case of the San Francisco project) trying to squeeze a big new building into a neighbourhood.

From the admittedly two-dimensional perspective of Google Street View, none of the projects seems wildly inappropriate. The San Francisco building would be on a busy street at a site now occupied by at least two garages.

In Seattle, the apartments would, as already mentioned, replace a parking garage - in a downtown neighbourhood that's already home to not just big buildings but also a football stadium. 

The project in Charlotte would displace two rather charming- looking restaurants with a parking lot between them; across the street is a charmless strip mall.

This high-density residential development is in many cases being encouraged by city, state and even federal officials, which has led to some talk of social engineering. But the social engineering has already been going on for decades in the form of zoning rules, setback restrictions, minimum parking requirements and other land-use regulations that discourage density. All that's been happening lately is a modest shift back towards density.

So, if you don't like the fact that a new apartment building in the neighbourhood will take up parking spaces or ruin your view of the "cityscape", go ahead and complain about that. Maybe an arrangement can be worked out.

But if you're going to argue that letting a developer build new apartments in a city that sorely needs them is "selfish", "odious" or "not right", it's time you got over yourself. You are no Jane Jacobs. You're just a nimby.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 07, 2016, with the headline 'A nimby with good intentions is still just a nimby'. Print Edition | Subscribe