Building codes, sprawl and value.

Bill Pote over at Dayton Most Metro has a long post and a small comment debate going on about how restrictive building codes and over-the-top requirements are making redevelopment severely expensive at the cost of much of our existing infrastructure- and empowering sprawl. He asks:

But have we made these codes so restrictive that we’ve destroyed any good chance of bringing our long-vacant downtown buildings back to life? Is there any room for some flexibility and compromises that still ensure proper safety AND make it cost-effective to redevelop and re-inhabit our downtown buildings?

via Restrooms, Elevators and Sprinklers – Oh My! | Dayton MostMetro.

I’ve asked the same question for a long time (search old posts).

There is no doubt in my mind that many of the codes have been pushed through legislation by the building trades. Other rules come from the Americans with Disabilities Act, fire safety, environmental rulings (no more incinerators in homes like the one I grew up in). Many are well intended and good. As Pote points out: “I suppose we could just say to hell with handicapped folks and just make downtown a handicapped-free zone, but that would ensure Dayton’s position on Forbes’ list of the Top Ten Asshole Cities.”

Some cities realized that redevelopment will never take place if there are unlimited growth opportunities through sprawl. These were forward thinkers. Portland, Oregon, said that the city wouldn’t keep extending services and infrastructure outside a boundary years ago. Imagine if Springboro was still farmland and all those school kids who can’t get a levy passed, were still living in Dayton or Kettering?

Is it too late to stop sprawl as we build the Austin Pike interchange? At what point will we draw the line? The population of the region hasn’t grown at the same rate as our consumption of space, and that’s why we’re being sucked dry to afford all this new “development” which just becomes more to support with taxes? Should we implement a zero square footage gain rule? You can’t build new, unless you take X square footage out of the inventory? It might stop the reckless overbuilding of retail we seem to have, and of office space. Call is a cap and trade system for real estate.

Getting back to our existing inventory downtown. How much vacant space do we have? If you believe the survey, it’s around 30%, however, I bet it’s higher because some space has been out of the inventory for so long it’s not even counted. We also still define “downtown” as a very small area, which also skews the numbers. Why is it so important to fill this space back up? Why shouldn’t it be OK to build your corporate HQ in a former cornfield like Reynolds & Reynolds or Teradata instead of being downtown?

As long as everyone is going to continue to be car dependent and drive to work anyway, why would it matter if their destination is Springboro or Downtown? On first glance it shouldn’t matter, in fact, by sending all these people in different directions should relieve congestion since we aren’t all trying to get to the same place at once, right? Wrong. The existing infrastructure was built to concentrate large numbers of people downtown. When I moved to Dayton, Fairfield Road was 2 lanes and there were cow pastures where hotels and office building sit across from Wright State. Now we have 6- and 8-lane roads, yet our population hasn’t increased at all. You and I paid for all that, and we’re also paying for the vacant buildings we left behind, since they still require police and fire protection, and all the other municipal services.

Think of it as having your family stay the same size, your income staying the same size, yet having to pay to maintain 3x the space and automobiles that you had 20 years ago. Hello.

So when it comes to all the additional costs to bring old buildings up to date, from sprinklers to ADA, the real question becomes, is a building more of a burden to society empty or gone? Unfortunately, we’ve been creating empties for so long, it’s become almost impossible with the glut of space, to make the numbers work even without relaxed building codes. The variable that ultimately will save Downtown is the price of gas. When it becomes so expensive to drive, we’ll be forced back to concentrate where our infrastructure was built to support. But only if we don’t make it so expensive to bring the old buildings back. We do have one ace in the hole long term- if global warming does indeed raise ocean levels, one day, Manhattan will be under water, and office space in Dayton will look really good. So keep driving and burning fossil fuels- in the long run, it may be our salvation.

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