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Part 1: Mark Baumer Reflection: Impounding Vehicles & Immigrant Rights

This is part of a multi-part reflection I've been doing following the death of my friend, Mark Baumer . There's nothing graphic i...

Why Do We Make Our Best Neighborhoods Illegal?

I visited East Greenwich properly for the first time on Saturday. Kent County as a whole is kind of a Burmuda Triangle to me. It's really not that far from my home, and you would think I'd go there all the time. There are places I go to in Rhode Island that are much farther actually, and sometimes those places are so pleasant to get to that I'll even bike to them (I bike to Bristol all the time-- 18 mile bike ride-- but E.G. is 15 miles from my apartment). I don't even like to go to Kent County in a car. Awful!

I think part of the reason I never go to Kent County is that so much of it is a suburban wasteland. But there are treasures in between all that. The center of East Greenwich is one of them.

The thing that confuses me most about the horrific awful places in Rhode Island is that they're frequently located right next to, or even sandwiched in between two examples of, really nice neighborhoods. Wickford Village is nice. The center of East Greenwich is nice. In between is kind of awful.  And yet, East Greenwich's Hill District is obscenely expensive. Why is it that something that is clearly highly valued is not more plentiful in the town? Why is so much stuff that people don't like as much everywhere?
I turned to the zoning code for East Greenwich to find out why.

Lot Sizes and Exclusionary Zoning

Why is so much of East Greenwich a hell-scape worse than death? Because the town requires it by law. This was all zoned this way.
The code makes it clear that it values its historic center and the rural past of the western two-thirds of the town, and then proceeds to lay out a lot of zoning rules perfectly designed to destroy both.

A blogger from Los Angeles picked up on my tweeting about East Greenwich, and reminded me just how weird the lot requirements are for E.G.:
East Greenwich makes it illegal to build accessory units (also called "granny cottages"-- basically, small houses in the back yards of existing houses). The only exception is if someone in the family has a demonstrated disability that requires the granny cottage for access reasons. This is really at odds with the idea of preserving the rural character of the rest of the town. And also odd because why would anyone have a problem with granny cottages?
The only kind of housing allowed by right in East Greenwich is single-family housing. All other housing needs special approval. Different zones have varying lot size requirements, and they get even larger than the ones mentioned above. You can really understand what people are going for. They've probably seen a few decades of horrific sprawl, and they want to freeze things in place and hold onto the rural character of as much of the stuff around them as they can, so they create minimum lot sizes. But if I were in their shoes, what I would do is draw a simple map of the town, with two categories: No Development (Forest/Wetlands/Farm), and Develop Virtually Anything You Want (Infill Area). Chances are that if you allowed people to work things out on their own in the infill area, you could greatly expand the area you were preserving outright.

The only exceptions I might make to that would be ordinances fine tuning things. You zoning ordinance should be five or ten pages long, not almost two hundred. Maybe there are things you'd like to decide on as a community. Sidewalks should be x number of feet wide. Put trees in to provide shade. But if you collected all of these things together, they'd be less of a burden on developing new businesses or housing than the simpler looking lot sizes, parking requirements, and so on.

Parking is mentioned 69 times in the zoning plan. Some of the solutions the plan offers are kind of neutral (supporting valet parking is meh. . . ) but some are outright destructive and awful (page 99):
Innovative solutions [sic] will be required to solve the problem of inadequate parking on the waterfront. Sufficient parking facilities should be required [!] of new development projects and should be planned in accordance with the detailed master waterfront development plan. 
Many of the other solutions offered about parking involve some form or another of adding parking: requiring it of new development, subsidizing it through garage building, or coordination and top-down Poliburo planning of it to make sure everyone has valets or cooperative lots. There are innovative solutions, but they're not found in the E.G. plan.

Page 100:
Following state and federal approval, additional marina development may be allowed within the harborline provided there is adequate parking. 
Instead of using the success of a crowded, popular location to drive the development of non-auto transportation to help alleviate demand on parking, the town sees parking as a brick to be hung around the neck of any new marina. Kind of as backwards as you can get on this.

Lot of Empty Parking, But Nowhere to Park
Lots of empty, and semi-empty lots. Lots of space on the street
to park that was illegal to park in. No parking meters. Sad face.

When we visited, we were in a car, carpooling with Rachel's parents. We found no parking on the front street because it all was occupied (and free). We found lots and lots of open spots on the side streets, most of which were reserved for residents. We found lots and lots of parking lots which were reserved for various uses and couldn't be used. We did find some municipal lots, and those were free too, and luckily there was a spot in one of those. But if the town metered parking, returned the revenue to businesses, stopped requiring parking, and let people figure things out without all the reservations, all these varying reserved uses could be traded to better use. Chances are there's actually far more parking in the town center than is actually needed, it's just that people are encouraged to jealously guard it with these reservations.

The Indian food I got was $16. It was good, but not any better than the Indian food I got in my own neighborhood for $8. I can only imagine that the high price of my food was a testament to two things: the limited availability of real estate that looks like the Hill District (and thus, I gather, high rent on the restauranteur who served me, and no competition with that restauranteur), and the fact that the restaurants seem to have cooperatively provided "free" (as in, included in my bill) valet parking. This is an insane solution. Why would I suffer a high food bill to pay someone to take my car and stuff it into a lot when I could figure this all out by paying a meter, and by doing so, allow the development of alternatives to make it possible for me not to drive there in the first place?

Why is a tiny portion of East Greenwich heart-achingly beautiful and overpriced to the point of exclusion? Why is there no market to extend that beauty outward, to compete, and to add more greatness to the town? Why are parts of the town just outside that pale horrifically ugly, awful, and depressing? Because East Greenwich requires it to be so. The market could fix this if it was allowed to.


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