The Virtues of Incremental Development

Would you rather live here….

One more angle to think about when appraising Amazon’s HQ2 project in Arlington… A single developer, JBG Smith, will have a disproportionate impact on the evolution of the urban fabric in the National Landing district of Arlington and Alexandria. In theory, a single big developer can mobilize more resources, carry out better planning and execute a more uniform standard of design than could an uncoordinated army of small builders.

… or here?

Not so fast. Over on the Strong Towns blog, Daniel Herriges compares “Texas donut” approach typical of Dallas, Texas – a monumental ediface consuming an entire city block — with the incremental approach of traditional development in Charleston, S.C.

“Incremental development doesn’t mean slow, small, or cautious. Incremental means many hands,” Herriges writes. “The ‘increment of development’ is how big each project is, but says nothing about how many projects are taking place.

He continues:

It’s a truism that the invisible hand of the market—or call it the emergent wisdom of the crowd, if you’re averse to “market” rhetoric; they’re the same thing—makes better decisions than any individual or small group in power, no matter how visionary they may be. You know those experiments where a crowd is asked to guess the number of gumballs in a jar, and when their guesses are averaged, they get it right to astonishing precision? Even though no one person’s guess is that close?

2,000 small-scale developers can produce emergent answers to questions like, “How much housing does this city need?”, “What’s the right mix of commercial and residential?”, or “What’s the right mix of single-family and multi-family housing?” 20 big developers, on the other hand, will likely misjudge to some extent.

Definitely something to think about.

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4 responses to “The Virtues of Incremental Development

  1. The thing to remember on development in most places including Virginia – is that in addition to the stipulated zoning – ANY developer can make ANY proposal over and above the base zoning and the locality can and will approve it if they feel it mitigates impacts and adds good value to the area.

    That would include higher levels of residential or higher levels of commercial if the proposal demonstrates it is a “good” one.

    In fact, in Virginia, the locality MUST act within a year on the proposal.

    The idea that localities “do not allow” density – is just wrong. Most of them stipulate a basic density or type of zoning – but all developers are able to make proposals and if their proposals ADD value they can and are approved.

    That’s a basic responsibility of govt – to protect existing property owners and to assure that “growth” is “good” growth that adds good value and benefit to the community.

    • Why then is zoning in Virginia, the results it produces, so chronically awful? Like in most of Northern Virginia, in Harrisonburg, or Richmond, or Front Royal or C’ville Virginia, for example.

      • Actually, because in theory it’s prescriptive and in practice it’s loosey goosey…

        “Planning” is not easy to start with and it’s even harder over a longer period of time when many different aspects of development – evolve.

        Yes -we can point to the failures… I keep asking – show me where it has worked as “planned”…….

        Also – we blame government for doing too much then not doing enough – it’s damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

        Finally – all planning – is dramatically affected by transportation infrastructure – how IT is “planned” and how it influences development – almost irregardless of zoning or intended zoning.

  2. A lot depends on the location. If a building is within 1/8 of mile of a Metrorail station, lots of density, sufficient proffers and a very tough TDM plan with substantial penalties for bad results is appropriated. As one gets further from a rail station, densities should begin to drop significantly.

    Re proffers. Fairfax County Public Schools have “discovered” that, since 2002, it has spent $2.43 billion on capital programs and obtained $20.6 million in cash proffers. That’s a whopping .73 %. I don’t care how crooked the state is, it’s hard to come up with a bigger example of local government’s sell-out to the real estate development industry. To hell with taxpayers, teachers, students, parents. It also goes to show the absolute incompetence of the media as it ignores a huge scandal and government corruption just because it doesn’t involve a Trump. Further, we residents of Fairfax County may be better educated than most other Virginians but we are certainly stupid #$%^ rubes when we vote.

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