The Boxifying of the Built Environment

By Ramsay Harik

There are so many reasons to resist the city’s latest attempts at upzoning the core neighborhoods that it’s hard to know where to begin. Others here have written compellingly on everything from zoning history to basic real estate economics;  for my part, I’d like to address what is for me a central consideration in urban planning (as well as in architecture, landscaping, and just about everything else):  Beauty. 

A previous post on this blog downplayed this issue, a bit too cavalierly in my view. For me and for many others, aesthetics is a very real concern. Are we really expected to simply trust that the developers who will be snatching up properties left and right will have the slightest interest in how our neighborhoods look when they’re done with them?

Our little town of Bloomington is a gem. From the west side bungalows to the old faculty homes of Elm Heights to the venerable campus itself, this town was clearly built with beauty in mind. That fine Italian masonry, that Queen Anne tracery, those majestic street trees: None of that is necessary or cost-effective in the short run. Indeed, it’s much more sensible to warehouse people in soulless cookie-cutter boxes. 

And yet, our Bloomington forebears chose beauty instead, thinking about the soul of our city… thinking about the long run. Our zoning practices, until now at least, have been designed to protect that beauty.

Even without SPEA degrees, our Bloomington ancestors somehow understood that a healthy, happy city cherishes the beauty that nurtures it and sets it apart. They understood that our physical environment shapes who we are, that beautiful surroundings elevate us, and that desolate cityscapes diminish us.  They built fine homes and attractive neighborhoods because they instinctively knew that for Bloomington to be worthy of its name, its built environment needed to match its natural environment. 

People move here for that very beauty.  They don’t come here for the wages, or the proximity to urban highlife, or the skiing. They want to live in a pretty town, with pretty houses and intact neighborhoods.  Now we are being told that none of that matters, that the point is to make ourselves modern and streamlined.

Our city founders’ efforts were for naught:  Foolish of them to aspire to something finer than a mere collection of people boxes.  No, we must build, build, build, warehouse more people, cram in as many renters as possible. Because after all, we are told, millennials just don’t feel like taking out mortgages and, more importantly, rentals bring in so much more tax revenue.

It’s a cramped, impoverished view of what a city should be, or more specifically what Bloomington should be. And it violates that very basic tenet of city planning: Don’t kill your golden goose. First, do no harm.

Turn Bloomington into a playground for private equity concerns and we lose it all: Home ownership, neighborhoods, community, beauty.  We’ll have lots of Starbucks, though. Will that be enough to attract the idealistic young families of tomorrow to Bloomington? I doubt it. It’s a foolish experiment and a terrible gamble with our future. And so utterly unnecessary. 

Two duplexes are situated on my Near East Side block. They’re ugly as sin, and in all the decades since they were built, there has been no evidence that the various renters there are invested in maintenance, improvements, or landscaping.

These duplexes are not enough to ruin the neighborhood, of course, but it’s a slippery slope. A few more and we’d very likely reach that tipping point from single family neighborhood to student slum. The city tells us to do it anyway, that the racial harmony and environmental salvation magically ushered in by upzoning will be well worth the price. Those of us actually living here say no, thank you. 

We are assured by the Planning & Transportation Department that their new zoning scheme will protect neighborhood standards, green space, building size.  Surely they don’t even believe this themselves. Developers, especially those who don’t live here, have no interest in such unquantifiable considerations as neighborhood integrity, community, or beauty. 

Their goal is simple: Quick turnaround on investment, which invariably means putting up quick-build, high-rent blocks of living space. Their lawyers will run rings around our well-intentioned “protections” – if it ever comes to that. More likely, a generous contribution to our “affordable housing fund” will eliminate the need for all that unpleasantness at the outset. 

Are there old homes in our core neighborhoods that really need to be demolished and rebuilt? Of course. Is it possible for newly unleashed developers to create attractive structures that actually enhance a neighborhood’s appeal? Conceivably. I wouldn’t bet on it, though.  

Rather than throwing up ever more apartment blocks, the city should incentivize remodeling and restoration of deteriorating older homes. For those houses that are beyond help, the city could easily encourage their replacement by the kind of tasteful single-family homes that will keep property in Bloomingtonians’ hands and will keep Bloomington’s neighborhoods intact.

Our social-engineers-in-chief seem to think that beauty is a foregone luxury in a time of environmental crisis and growing homelessness – if they think of beauty at all. But beauty is never a luxury; it is what gives our lives richness and meaning.

We are much more than our economic wants, and to reduce us to such is a fundamental betrayal of the public trust. Man and woman do not live by bread alone, to paraphrase Matthew’s gospel, but by every flourish that proceeds from the hands of true artists. May we never forget that cities, like their inhabitants, have souls that need feeding and protection. 

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