Revisiting State-Level TOD Planning

Last month I wrote about Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy’s ambitious plans to create a state-wide Transit-Oriented Development corporation, essentially making the case that Nutmeggers and planners alike should give the idea a chance. In short, I wrote (and believe) that the state needs some control over station areas to maximize the relatively significant investments it has been making in transit and combat rent-seeking by suburban NIMBYs. That being said, I think the discussion is worth revisiting and sharpening, since this legislation is potentially a really big deal both for Connecticut and the planning world.

The Connecticut proposal brings up two related issues: the question of regional governance and the question of whether state government is any more trustworthy than local government when it comes to progressive principles of planning and development. Let’s tackle these individually.

Regional Governance–Does it Matter?

Angie Schmitt posted a summary of my piece on Streetsblog.net, and it provoked a number of responses, mainly along the lines of “but state governments suck too!” Fair enough–we’ll talk about that below. One commenter wrote that

I have a feeling that Streetsblog is very, extremely casuistic when discussing the “whose level of government should do what”, without any consistency on the arguments, only some specific situation where it will support whatever arrangement works for a single case, damned be unintended consequences.

To which I say: so be it! If I have one feeling about forms and structures of governance, it’s that we don’t matter nearly as much as we think. I’ve been taking a course on regional governance this semester, and while it is perhaps the bias of my professor, the overwhelming takeaway has been that the exact structure of governance and government matters less than accountability, good stewardship, and the intentions of elected officials. This point gets hammered home over and over again in one of the primary books for the course, David K. Hamilton’s comprehensive 2014 Governing Metropolitan Areas: Growth and Change in a Networked Age.  As LetsGoLA wrote in one of my favorite-ever urbanist blog posts,

None of this really matters, though, if the people running the agencies are acting in bad faith…In fact, in the context of discrimination, regional consolidation can make things worse, even if it makes technical sense. For years, urbanists bemoaned the lack of a regional transit agency in Detroit. The feds finally forced the issue, and in late 2012, the state created such an agency. The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) was charged with administration during the transition, and promptly used its power to reduce Detroit’s transit funding by 22%. When the problem is a desire to avoid treating some people fairly, technical solutions are helpless.There are no apolitical technical policies.

So yeah, let’s embrace casuistic governance. Whatever works, we can do. After all, casuistic policymaking is as old as the Western tradition; Hammurabi’s Code is largely written in a casuistic mode, as are many biblical legal passages. I don’t really care who runs things, as long as stuff gets done. And conversely, no structure of governance should be afforded less skepticism or held less accountable than any other.

Can (and should) we trust Connecticut state government to be better at TOD than cities?

Anstress Farwell of the New Haven Urban Design League was kind of enough to have coffee with me last time I was in New Haven, and we took the opportunity to chat about the governor’s TOD plans. Anstress, who is inarguably New Haven’s top urbanist scold and city purist, is appropriately suspicious of the ability of any level of government to implement progressive planning principals. It’s an entirely understandable attitude in New Haven, the city that probably did more per capita (it took more federal dollars than any other city per capita) than any other to destroy itself through “progressive” urban renewal.

And it’s completely reasonable to be suspicious of the intentions of state government, considering that it’s pushing giant new garages next to the train stations in both Stamford and New Haven. And yet, in other places, state government has pushed TOD against the NIMBYish intentions of suburban towns, and the state could hardly make existing conditions worse in many places, and seems likely to force some reluctant municipalities into compliance. It’s also worth noting that local government has been on board with the new garages in both Stamford and New Haven, while New Haven is making only halting strides towards tackling its downtown parking addiction.

So can urbanists and progressive planners trust Connecticut state government to implement good policy, should it gain power over station-area land use? There certainly seems to be reason for skepticism. But it also seems unlikely that the state government could do any worse than municipalities are currently doing, and centralizing planning might at least streamline some processes. So I guess the answer is a resounding maybe.

If we can’t trust anybody, what should we do?

One of the ideas that Anstress and I threw around when we chatted was the idea that instead of TOD power resting with any particular level of government, it should instead reside in the area of policy. That is to say, the state should establish a strict set of benchmarks for land use around stations, and give local governments a certain amount of time to meet them. Should municipalities prove unable to meet those benchmarks, the state would then be authorized to seize the land through eminent domain (which it of course already legally is) and add it to the inventory of a statewide TOD authority. This way, it would be the TOD benchmarks–rather than the state authority–that would become the center of the policy. It would be clear that the intention is to achieve good land use, rather than just to concentrate power in the hands of state government at the expense of municipal government. And the targets for municipalities to  meet would be clear and public, meaning the reason for a state takeover would be clear if that should in fact happen.

Obviously, suburban municipalities in Connecticut are going to resist any initiative that threatens to bring them dense development. And city governments clearly need some work as well There is, therefore, an obvious role for state government to play; but what should it look like? In my ideal world, the state would be foregrounding good policy rather than centralization of power in its messaging and actions on the topic, which would likely help them sell the TOD authority as well. Cynical political bartering will most likely win out, but I can dream, can I not?

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5 thoughts on “Revisiting State-Level TOD Planning

  1. A very good piece. But you note that Anstress “is appropriately suspicious of the ability of any level of government to implement progressive planning principals.” You then cite New Haven’s experience with the Model Cities program as evidence of this. In fact, New Haven was very successful in implementing what were widely held to be “progressive planning principals” through this program. I think the real lesson is the need for humility on the part of planners (FWIW, I trained as one). If you have not read it already, I think you would enjoy “Ten Great Planning Disaster”; even though it was published decades ago, its lesson is still valid.

    • I’m well aware that New Haven thought it was implementing the best principles of progressive planning during the urban renewal area. It wasn’t clear from my language, but what I was trying to say is that New Haven is well aware of the _danger_ of runaway planning.

      I’d argue (as I think most historians of New Haven would) that the blame rests slightly more on the political echelon than anyone else. Certainly, the planners and engineers were responsible for implementing an insane, car-centric, neighborhood-destroying set of plans, and it is indeed a story of hubris. But that’s not the whole story. Richard Lee was a very special, charismatic, and talented man, and his vision drove urban renewal in New Haven to the nth degree. And physical renewal isn’t the whole story either; Lee’s administration implemented a comprehensive suite of repressive technical and political policies, including racist policing, civil rights violations, suppression of free speech, and the like. I think Doug Rae makes a compelling case in _City_ that the failure of renewal-area New Haven was that it thought only in terms of government, not governance, and that that cultivated the hubris of a “progressive” government that ignored any semblance of actual public interest, much less the voices of its citizens.

      Anyhow…I do need to develop better language than “progressive planning,” because as you note that’s a loaded term that’s been abused in the past. I’m not as worried about a state TOD authority because its efforts would be limited to a small part of the city, but obviously it needs to be handled with the utmost sensitivity. What New Haven can’t afford, however, is for fear of any kind of planning to paralyze it and make sure no one (in government or not) ever tries to mitigate the mistakes of the past, which is where it is right now.

  2. Two points – First, no one can question that the quality of government is paramount, and good government is rare, resulting in skepticism about all government. That does not mean that the size of government is irrelevant to the likelihood of success. When any municipality can veto a regional planning decision, we have a size problem. When a federal agency like HUD follows a nation-wide cookie-cutter solution, we have a different size problem. When it comes to planning, governments that are too small to effectuate meaningful change and governments that are too large to understand local issues are both unlikely to succeed.
    Second, as Kevin McCarthy points out, the progressive planners have their share of failures. Continuing with the New Haven example, the Model Cities program was a merger of government and planning. Mayor Lee’s administration was run by progressive planners, and Dick Lee bragged about it in the New York Times. The political goal was to eliminate poverty. The planning was all top-down, with little sense of community interests.

  3. I don’t trust the state administration’s ability to evaluate the TOD benchmarks honestly — I’d expect them to give a pass to their buddies who didn’t comply, and to declare that excellent projects which do comply “don’t comply” if they didn’t like the guys behind the projects…

    I think you’d have to have the evaluation of whether the benchmarks were achieved done by *judges* or possibly even *juries*. Not administrators.

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