Why Climate Change Fizzled as a Rationale for Upzoning

By Peter Dorfman

In the fall of 2019, when Bloomington’s Plan Commission and City Council debated an amendment to the Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) to push multiplex housing into single-family zoned core neighborhoods, plex proponents based their case on three principal arguments:

  • Housing affordability — The suggestion that new housing, at whatever rental price point, would bring down rents by increasing the overall housing supply;
  • Economic/racial justice — An assertion that single-family zoning is inherently exclusionary and discriminatory; and
  • Climate change — The argument that older detached houses are less energy-efficient than multi-unit housing built to higher building emissions and energy retention standards; that Bloomington’s commitment to reducing its climate impact necessitated replacing those older houses with plexes and row houses in which units shared internal walls; and that densifying core neighborhoods would reduce car traffic by enabling more people to walk to downtown.

Ultimately, the amendment attracted strong community opposition and the City Council voted it down. But in 2020, as expected, the Hamilton Administration brought back plexes in the form of a new zoning map and an aggressive new UDO amendment.

The City’s planners, in multiple presentations on the map and amendments, have admitted repeatedly that upzoning the core neighborhoods will not lead directly to development of affordable housing. But once again, community advocates for dense housing have mounted a campaign to convince residents that upzoning Bloomington’s core is necessary to achieve housing justice.

Their case in 2021 is again based on the theoretical notion that more apartments will eventually lead to lower rents. And they have regularly seasoned their argument with accusations that opponents of density seek to preserve their “privilege” as homeowners and prop up an unjust system of economic and even racially-motivated exclusion.

What seems to have faded from this year’s debate is the climate argument. Densification champions seem largely to have abandoned the suggestion that new plexes in the core will have a significant impact on Bloomington’s carbon footprint.

There could be several reasons why climate talking points have been left out of the argument this time around. One is that advocates simply lost the argument on its merits. It made sense only when proponents were suggesting teardown and replacement of houses — an idea that attracted sharp-elbowed opposition from core neighborhood residents who love the traditional vernacular architecture that makes Bloomington what it is.

More importantly, residents were won over by the logic of preservation: The supposed energy efficiency and emissions savings from new, energy-conscious construction would be more than offset by the energy cost of tearing a perfectly livable house down, hauling it away to a landfill and rebuilding. Bloomingtonians accepted the proposition is that the most environmentally responsible housing policy is to conserve the housing we already have. While advocates still push for denser housing to be built in the core, hardly anyone has been pushing for teardowns.

Of course, the heart of the climate change argument was the suggestion that increasing walkable access to the city’s downtown (by enabling more people to live in the dense neighborhoods immediately adjacent to it) would cut down on car traffic. This talking point isn’t entirely illogical, and arguably there has never been a better time to push it than the fall of 2019, when downtown Bloomington thrived and progressive indignation at the Trump Administration’s gutting of environmental regulations was at its highest. But in the end, the argument wasn’t compelling enough to carry the mayor’s push to upzone the core over the finish line.

It may have been that the City’s singular focus on foot traffic downtown starkly contradicted its own Comprehensive Plan, which calls for development of both housing and amenities in multiple nodes away from the Square, and bluntly and repeatedly urges the City to avoid burdening the core residential neighborhoods with new density.

The walkability argument might have been more powerful if the city’s major employers were downtown. But they aren’t — the big employers are the university, concentrated on campus, and the life science industry which is mostly out in Monroe County. Certainly, some of the city’s car traffic is headed for downtown amenities, but densifying the core would have little effect on Bloomington’s commuters. It didn’t strike many residents as credible that a significant proportion of downtown’s low-paid service sector workers would be able to afford the new market-rate apartments that would be created in core neighborhoods as a result of upzoning.

Anyway, that was then. In 2021, walkability to downtown is a harder rationale to sell, given the timing. The City is hellbent on pushing the new upzoning proposal through in the middle of a pandemic, when many of Bloomington’s most popular downtown amenities are shuttered or less accessible. The argument for reduced car traffic seems strange to residents when two of the most visible and expensive construction projects on the city’s skyline are huge parking garages. And stroller access to urban amenities stands out as a “first world problem” when the local news headlines are dominated by criticism of the city’s treatment of its growing homeless population.

Still…we’re still waiting for the administration’s revised upzoning proposal to be made public and make its way to the Plan Commission for debate. There is still plenty of time for the City and for upzoning advocates to revise their case, and for climate-based arguments to come back into the picture.

The Larger Reality

The sustainability argument for density is unlikely to be any more convincing this go-round. The basic physics haven’t changed. And there is a larger reality that advocates for density based on “climate justice” will have to address.

If we densify already-dense core neighborhoods by adding plexes, current residents of those neighborhoods are going to give up something they value. Renters included. They’re going to make a quality of life sacrifice.

I believe those residents would be willing to make that sacrifice — if they saw that someone less privileged than themselves would benefit from it in some practical, measurable way. That’s what’s missing — that undeniable practical benefit. 

The UDO includes provisions that will make Bloomington more resilient to the disruptions that are coming because of climate change. Which is great. 

But when advocates talk about dense housing as a way to reduce Bloomington’s contribution to atmospheric carbon, I can’t help thinking about a transatlantic flight I took in 1983. That was in the days when planes had smoking sections. On Iberia Airlines, the smoking section was the left side of the plane.

Think about where we are. Bloomington is five miles across. We’re in a 25 square mile bell jar. What’s outside that bell jar? That’s Southern Indiana. If we reduce our carbon output inside the jar, Indiana won’t even notice. It will just go on blithely spewing out carbon. Because Southern Indiana doesn’t care what we do here. Indiana thinks the inmates are running the asylum in Bloomington.

If those people even notice what we’re doing here, what will they see? They’ll see that Bloomington passed an ordinance that made it harder to own a single family home here.

The argument that densifying Bloomington will reduce the number of cars or miles driven in the city is far from convincing. And anyway, we can’t keep Martinsville’s carbon out of our atmosphere. Martinsville couldn’t care less about ours.

Until Bloomington is in a position to change hearts and minds beyond its borders, until we can lead the surrounding counties into a regional initiative on climate change, our efforts to marginally reduce our carbon output may make us feel more virtuous, but building plexes won’t have any practical impact on Indiana’s climate, or even our own in Monroe County. This is just an ineffectual, symbolic gesture

By all means let’s build energy efficient new housing in greenfield areas of Bloomington. But if the plan is just to cram duplexes into the core neighborhoods, don’t be surprised if people who live there don’t want to be signed up for the symbolic gesture.

For the purpose of debating zone mapping or UDO amendments on plexes in core neighborhoods, I humbly suggest we refrain from talking about climate change altogether.

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