Zoning,Speculation and assorted other real estate insanity #1

There is a national sensation where zoning policy, speculation and development swirl into the perfect storm to defeat common sense and the common good. I would say this phenomenom is in evidence here in Mansfield Mass and I’m offering this short post to introduce folks to the topic.

Zoning policy has gotten off the rails here in the USA and I am not alone in that assertion. Post WWII development in the USA did in fact catalyze much prosperity but it was also ruthless in creating disparities and future tolls nobody seem to want to admit were possible. All across the country these bills are coming past due to the great detriment of many. 

The speculation category for this post includes not only the pure capitalistic nature found in real estate dealings but also the personal level kind tied to the perverted sense of homeownership in the USA. I don’t imagine the first type needs much explanation but the latter begs for some clarification.

Especially in suburban settings We the People have adopted an aggressive position on how markets,government and other people should act in relation to making sure any real estate we own always appreciates. The irony paired with this position is our aversion to taxation on the articficially inflated values of our holdings.

For the assorted real estate insanity component I’m just going to cheat a bit. As a society we have all helped make a stew that rigidly defines our communities in ways that defy centuries of logical development & community. When we add everything up we get problems we allege we didn’t,couldn’t foresee and we stay wedded to formulas we know don’t work to provide solutions.

How does this all become such a big problem for a given community? There are many ways but again in the quest for something resembling brevity I’ll focus on one. We end up with a market that is so artificially structured that it perverts the honest market forces needed to develop healthy,strong and resilient communities.

The above image illustrates how neighboring parcels can be developed and valued. This example appears very sound in my opinion. The vacant parcel represents a reality that different municipalities address in different ways. It should also be noted that all too often the physical,and by that I mean mostly the aesthetics, of the vacant parcel tends not to actually impact real dollar value.

This image adds the dimension that is hurting folks at a nationwide scale. The owner of the vacant space has absolutely no reason not to push for $1.5 million price, it is actually quite logical. Now this is where the problem really gathers steam. In a majority of communities the real world maths just don’t support these kind of asking prices. In any given community there is neither the need for higher density development or even if a case can be made for it the cost effectiveness of the final development can’t attract the right developer. Another issue is now the single family homes value is put into play. Does it stay the at the previous value? If the market is strong there is no reason why it can’t apply the $1.5m tag and become a “scrape-off”. What happens when a community loses variety in its housing stock? I could roll on for some time here with other questions and variables but I won’t. I will chime in with one answer to the question though. If the new development is not addressing a real need what happens is a combined market & community devolution. That isn’t good.

So where in Mansfield is this happening? Well for starters in our evolving downtown section. There we’ve bought into the transit oriented development craze and are forever altering the character of the area. We’re doing so unwisely since no reasonable person can insist Mansfield is truly transit oriented to the level the development model was created for.

The above images credit Strong Towns

Another example is this:

1.36 acres that presently hosts the dilapitated former Paine School, an abandoned medical office building and a single family residential home. The asking price the last time I checked was $3.8 million. It is zoned B4. For examples of what can by right be built in the zone see pdf

I think this represents a serious concern for any town. Am I crazy to think $3M plus demolition plus construction somehow finds one anywhere but in the red?

Photo credits Allen Bryer