A few months ago, a paper by George Mason University professor David Schleicher generated a good bit of chatter in the land use blogosphere. The argument: Housing in cities has become too expensive because, without strong local political parties, land use decisions tend to be driven by those next to proposed developments rather than the overall interests of the city. You may think it’s silly that a legislator would seek to limit the number of new residents in their jurisdiction, but their loyalties are to those who already live there, so that tends to be how it works.
In true-blue Washington D.C., the Democrat vs. Republican party system is especially absurd—-mostly, it allows those who wouldn’t have a chance in the Democratic primary to challenge the winner a few months later in a less crowded field. Sure, councilmembers have different opinions on how generous our social services ought to be and how high taxes should go. But fundamentally, the Wilson Building just isn’t divided in the same way as the Capitol complex.
What, then, is D.C.’s primary ideological fault line? From where I’m standing, in the world of development and planning, it’s over how many people ought to be able to live where and how they ought to get around. In practical terms, it shows up in debates around bike lanes vs. space for cars, upzoning vs. downzoning, where commercial uses should be mixed in with residential. A lot of the stuff that’s being decided right now, in fact, as we finalize the overhaul of the city’s zoning code.
Which is why Greater Greater Washington and the Coalition for Smarter Growth’s new advocacy group, Pro-DC, is so interesting. Founded in part to counter the influence of Neighbors for Neighborhoods, a new organization apparently forming over concerns with the densifying, car-discouraging measures in the proposed new zoning code, it’s a citywide effort to push for the type of development that will lead to a more diverse, sustainable, and economically robust urban environment. And of course, its name sets it up in diametric opposition to the “Antis,” GGW editor David Alpert‘s catch-all term for people who oppose the urbanist agenda.
Could we call it the YIMBY Party?
Maybe. Alpert tells me he does plan for it to continue after the zoning debate dies down. For example, the District Department of Transportation is working on a long-term transportation plan for the city, during which some similar debates will come up. Greater Greater Washington is already making endorsements—-one could imagine it recruiting candidates.
Alpert has lots of reasons why a new party system isn’t actually that desirable. On the one hand, not all issues break down along urbanist vs. suburbanist lines. He writes:
The Council often splits on taxes, for instance, and then the coalitions are different. Last year’s tax vote, for instance, had Graham, Wells, Alexander, Barry, Mendelson and Michael Brown versus Evans, Cheh, Bowser, Catania and Kwame Brown, and was it Biddle who was in there too on that side? Then when they were talking about raising RPP fees, Cheh, Bowser, Thomas and Mendelson were all against having a higher fee for those who park 3 or more cars on the street.
So Bowser is pro-transit and pro-CaBi but anti car fees, and Mendelson is pro transit a lot of the time but always nervous about development. My point is that in order to get to a party system you’d have to have a scenario where members are willing to vote with the group more often than they do, and with a 13-member legislature for an electorate that cares about a lot of things besides just urbanism issues, that seems unlikely.
Furthermore, party systems create their own problems.
We’re seeing in Congress a strong tribalism where members take positions because the other side has the opposite position. Many Republicans have become anti-urbanism in large measure because Democrats are for urban places…And, more importantly, take a voter who is on the opposite side on taxes from the urbanist party. Say he or she cares more about that than about restaurants and street trees. He or she would probably join the other party, and then come to take anti-urbanist stances even if he or she agrees with us on these issues.
So Alpert would rather have Pro-DC function more like the Board of Trade or a labor union, which takes stances on issues as they come up, and has relationships with politicians rather than candidates that it backs all the time. That makes sense, from an advocacy perspective.
I’m glad, though, that we now have a more direct way of having this discussion on a city-wide basis, rather than in disparate locations around every disputed development, where residents in favor of Pro-DC’s priorities often don’t even enter the conversation.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery