The Norman Transcript

May 12, 2013

High density: Is this all you’ve got?

The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — Editor, The Transcript:

I must admit that after I read John Lungren’s letter to the editor (“High-density housing will occur in Norman someday,” May 5, 2013), I was pretty irked — so many errors, factual and conceptual! 

After some reflection, however, my irritation faded into a sort of bemusement. Is this really the best that advocates of high-rise/high-density development (HR/HD) can do?

The elephant in the room, of course, is that the citizens of Norman — including the development community — already hashed out these issues in the summer 2012 High Density Public Discussion Series. 

After what was, frankly, an attempt to sell citizens on HR/HD, the majority decided that they would prefer to go slow in order to protect Norman’s current assets (especially its neighborhoods). The development community, however, spent the fall and winter trying to either circumvent or subvert that consensus. Mr. Lungren’s letter is just the latest effort in that process.

Usually, when a firm wants to sell you something, it tries to convince you that the product is good for YOU.  Mr. Lungren is trying to sell HR/HD, however, on the grounds that it helps entrepenuers. 

They are the ones, after all, who want to “[m]ake housing available,” “agree that there is a need for more housing … and want to satisfy this need,” and think “Norman needs to compete.” 

On the substance, these claims look false: housing in Norman seems fine as it is — few vacancies (as Mr. Lungren himself points out) combined with price stability, the hallmark of a well-functioning market. More importantly, this is just a weird approach.

It is good for salesmen to like their product, but aren’t they supposed to be convincing us? I don’t think we can trust HR/HD advocates to do a good job of safeguarding Norman if they can’t even get their own sales pitch right.

Mr. Lungren points to exactly one public benefit of HR/HD — it would be friendlier to the environment than urban sprawl. For a variety of reasons, however, this is not a good argument for the sort of HR/HD developers have been advocating for Norman. In the first place, building up helps only so long as it replaces building out. Given the customers envisioned — students and young professionals — HR/HD is unlikely to even slow single-family-home-driven sprawl. More crucially, Norman developers are unwilling to cap suburban development in return for permission to go higher and denser in urban areas — they want both. Finally, if we are worried about the effects of sprawl, we should confront them directly by charging suburban developers and owners with the full costs of their decisions (e.g., impact fees). (Given our water worries, everyone now admits that Norman doesn’t cover its costs when it comes to new development). 

We need zoning to protect common community values; with that in place, appropriate prices for city services (and the market mechanism) can prevent environmental degradation.

Lacking a persuasive argument, Mr. Lungren resorts to the claim that HR/HD is inevitable. There is a lot to say about this position. It looks like a crude version of Marx’s economic determinism; it seems to be an attempt to undercut public participation (‘give up now because your fate is already sealed’); etc. The most important thing, however, is to see that that this view is false. Whether to have HR/HD is a choice our community makes. The majority of citizens have already made their decision clear — some higher densities are OK, but Norman should not ‘go all in’.

The only question now is whether Norman’s elected officials will let people like Mr. Lungren distract them from that consensus.

Stephen Ellis