Reconnecting Rockland: “Modernist Zoning Controls Our Towns”

BY JARED RODRIGUEZ

A forward thinking (and backward looking) monthly column on zoning, planning, and development by Jared Rodriguez, a Stony Point native schooled in civil engineering, architecture, and real estate development.

"The Radiant City" by Le Corbusier

Americans determine what products are sold and what buildings are built by choosing where to live and what to buy, in an open and free market. Or, that’s what I have always believed. However, the free market does not apply to the development of America’s built environment over the last 75 years.

The places that we’ve chosen for our homesteads, the places we’ve chosen to raise our families and set down roots, are mostly a product of government intervention in what was a free market. Zoning, government control over private land use and rights, and vast government subsidy dictates what can and cannot be built in every town in the United States.

The concepts of zoning and land use planning began with good intentions. Initially, planners and government officials wanted to keep industry away from homes. However, zoning and land use policy was commandeered by architects and planners who had a common vision for ideal living.

"Edge City" by Frank Lloyd Wright

Architects like Frank Lloyd Wright (of “Falling Water” fame) and Le Corbusier (a founding father of the Modernist architectural movement) came together to dictate how cities (and suburbs) are built. These “visionaries” promoted their ideas to the federal and state governments as a supposed way to boost the economy to ensure America would remain a superpower for decades to come.

Much of this proposed economy hinged on road construction, the automobile industry, and the construction of new suburbs. Zoning regulations like minimum setbacks from the front of a house or business to the edge of the road, minimum house size, and minimum parking requirements were engineered to eliminate traditional downtowns and limit new construction to strip malls, high ranches, big box retailers, and more current suburban “staples.”

The strip mall is a pure physical manifestation of zoning regulations. A developer does not merely decide to build a strip mall shopping center and begin construction; the strip mall is his only option within the limitations of these outdated and misguided zoning principals.

For example, if a developer proposed to recreate a quaint colonial village in Stony Point, say, a small and traditional downtown that George Washington might have encountered on his way to battle, the proposal would be banned by the current zoning and land use code. Our most traditional forms of development in America are otherwise illegal. What would Washington think?

In highly-zoned suburban locations, Americans spend up to 40 percent of their income on driving-related costs. Choice was not built into this picture; a car is the only way an American living in suburbia should get around in the Modernists’ architectural vision. An American simply had to own a car in order to participate in the economy. Zoning laws made sure of it.

Le Corbusier (yes, that’s his full name), a French architect who lamented the United States’ escape from World War II damage and destruction “. . . so we could have started from a blank slate,” had a major influence on our built environment. He said in his book “The Radiant City,” “The cities will be part of the country; I shall live 30 miles from my office in one direction, under a pine tree; my secretary will live 30 miles away from it too, in the other direction, under another pine tree. We shall both have our own car. We shall use up tires, wear out road surfaces and gears, consume oil and gasoline. All of which will necessitate a great deal of work . . . enough for all . . .”

Le Corbusier describes our current way of life. His vision intrigued politicians beginning in the 1930s and 1940s, and they went to work building the new economy according to this vision.

Government soon poured our post-war wealth into a road system previously unseen on earth. A great deal of our current debt is attributable to the creation and maintenance of the nation’s highways. Gasoline taxes, tolls, and registration fees fund no more than 25 percent of the costs associated with maintaining the system; each year, the debt burden continues to balloon.

President Eisenhower swiftly appointed “Engine Charlie” Charles Wilson, chairman of General Motors, as Secretary of Defense in 1953. Soon after his appointment, Wilson authorized the largest federal expenditure in U.S. history on the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956, otherwise known as the Interstate Highway Act. The act created the vast ribbons of asphalt that we recognize today. When media inquired about possible conflicts of interest, Charlie coyly responded that he could not conceive of such a situation “. . . because for years I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa.”

Perhaps we can consider this the first ever auto bail-out? Our auto companies have never paid back these trillions of dollars in debt incurred to subsidize car travel.

Architects like Le Corbusier, politicians like Eisenhower, and industry leaders like Charlie Wilson could not have envisioned a future where oil was difficult to secure. The system these men built, underpinned by zoning, land use policy, and government-subsidized highways, relies entirely on an American public that can afford to drive.

As soon as driving becomes unaffordable, the system begins to unravel. We have been witnessing the first bumps in the road for the last 10 years. The good news is as the current system faces trouble there may be a chance for a better style of development in the future.