Ask the Mayor? Why Bother?

By Peter Dorfman

John Hamilton is featured today (April 21, 2021) in another WTIU “Ask the Mayor” interview. After the usual round of self-congratulation on the city’s adequate but undistinguished handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hamilton launches into a dialog about his administration’s upzoning push that is so full of dreary platitudes, misleading data, misstatements of fact and outright falsehoods that it screams for rebuttal.

It would be tragic if the City Council, now debating the upzoning amendment to the city’s Unified Development Ordinance, were in any way influenced by this drivel. Some particularly egregious extracts:

1Hamilton: Our community has been growing by about 1,000 people a year, relatively consistently for quite a number of years.

No, it hasn’t. That fictitious number is an irresponsible extrapolation from 2010 Census figures that assumed straight line growth from trends over the first decade of the century. It has been exhaustively documented that Bloomington’s growth has been at roughly half this rate. The administration’s own planning staff admits this. But the Mayor goes right on citing 1,000 a year as the city’s growth rate, even as his own staff has stopped basing development decisions on that fiction.

2Bloomington in Monroe County is a very expensive place to live. It’s the most expensive housing market in the state of Indiana, both for rental and for ownership. 

No, it isn’t. A lot of people in Bloomington keep repeating this exaggeration out of sheer force of habit, but it’s not the most expensive community in Indiana. We rank 6th. Does it matter? Bloomington’s still an expensive place to live. But when the Mayor keeps citing it as the state’s most expensive housing market when it demonstrably isn’t, we’re being misled.

3It’s true in many ways in public life that getting public feedback is you don’t always get equal voices. You know, voting one person, one vote, that’s our concept. Not everybody does vote and some are over-represented. 

Over-represented? By what standard? Please. Opponents of the upzoning plan are organized. They turn up at meetings and they say their piece. It may even be true that they’re better organized than supporters of the measure are, and they turn out in greater numbers. It may even be true that this has something to do with upzoning opponents having time and educational advantages that make it easier for them to turn up at meetings than others might.

But let’s get real: None of that changes the one person – one vote standard. We hold citywide elections in Bloomington every four years. That’s when residents really get to express their feelings about issues that have all been decided by the votes of nine elected City Council members. Each of us gets one vote, period. Some of us might signal how we plan to vote more loudly than others, but it’s still one vote.

Joe Hren and WTIU: Once again, the Mayor gets free rein to frame the debate. More critical questioning would have been responsible and useful. Do better.

4…one of the jobs of a public official like me, or like a city council member, is to try to remind ourselves that you don’t always hear all the voices of everyone who’s interested in a project. Blatant example, on the Unified Development Ordinance. Some of the people who care most about a development ordinance don’t live here now. They don’t live here yet. They want to move here. Well, we don’t hear from them. 

Seriously? Participants in the upzoning debate are supposed to hold back on criticism of a policy that might be unpopular with some unspecified percentage of some unspecified number of in-migrants who might some day live in Bloomington, some number of years in the future?

5…this is a five year process. So it really began back in 2016 with the starting of the comprehensive plan, that was a multi year process has now led to the Unified Development Ordinance.

No. This is, in his term and a half in office, John Hamilton’s most cynical lie. Not misstatement. Lie.

The five-year period he refers to began with the development of the Comprehensive Plan — that part’s true. The Comp Plan represents about 85 people’s dedicated work over two years. What has been going on since early 2019, however, is a methodical repudiation of that Comp Plan. 

Hamilton and his planning staff have cherry-picked some vague generalities in the preamble matter in the plan about inclusivity, social justice and environmental stewardship to rationalize their attempt to warp the UDO — the roadmap by which the city is committed to implementing the substance of the Comp Plan — to reverse the repeated, specific guidance in the Plan against upzoning Bloomington’s single-family zoned core neighborhoods.

The Comp Plan specifies this guidance at least six times, and lays out a design strategy to concentrate growth in multiple, dispersed, walkable “village centers” (think Henderson & Hillside) — and not focus development on the city’s downtown. Hamilton’s upzoning agenda trashes this strategy.

What Hamilton is describing is not a five-year process. It’s two separate, diametrically opposed processes.

6I do always remind people all these documents are in a three ring binder, we can pull a page out next year, we can change things year by year. This is not a Bible we’re creating. We’re creating a guide and we can keep changing it. 

This is one of the administration’s most destructive evasions of fact. Upzoning advocates are laboring under a misconception about the reversibility of this policy. Once we open this door, we will never close it again.

We have no idea how the Planners would monitor the results of eliminating single family zoning or what they would recognize as a problem. We have no idea how big an influx of new plex development would trigger concern on the part of the administration. We have no idea what action the administration would take if out of town developers did rush in and buy up the scarce affordable houses in the core. And if they did, and the city tried to cap plex development or reinstate single family zoning, developers’ lawsuits would break the city. There is no going back from this change, and the Mayor needs to throw out his three-ring binder and stop kidding us about this.

7In terms of the duplexes, the basic view I think that’s represented in the administration’s proposal is this idea of a ‘missing middle.’ 

There are well over 700 plexes in Bloomington now, many of them in the core neighborhoods that would be most affected by upzoning — grandfathered in from the period before the early 1990s, which is when single-family zoning was first introduced here. More than 10% of the residential structures in the Near West Side, for example, are multi-family now. The term “missing middle” is absurd in Bloomington; it is demonstrably not missing.

8So we like many communities are trying to figure out how do you help that missing middle evolve? It’s an evolution. It’s not a revolution.

If a single house is bought, duplexed and converted to rental, that’s an evolution — for that house. When the entire city is thrown open to duplex rental conversion, in a nationwide real estate market where private equity investors are combing the country for build-to-rent opportunities in communities where property values and rents are stable or consistently rising and where demand for market rate apartments is constant and strong…that may or may not pan out to be a revolution, but it is irresponsibly optimistic…it’s downright negligent…to shrug it off as “evolution.” 

9…if things are going in the wrong direction we can tailor it and tweak it and change it. People felt that way a couple years back about accessory dwelling units, there’s a great concern is that going to wreck neighborhoods to allow what are called granny flats or accessory dwelling units and it’s proven not to be the case.

No — see item 6. You cannot tailor, tweak or change upzoning once it happens. 

As for ADUs, we know nothing about the ultimate impact of these structures on neighborhoods. Nothing is “proven.” Why? Because very few have been built yet. Why is that? Because they’re expensive to build and despite the presence in Bloomington of professional expertise in alternative financing, including expertise in the financing of ADUs, it is still hard to finance construction of an ADU here.

ADUs are a promising alternative for introducing gentle density into Bloomington; most of what upzoning proponents say they want to be able to do by way of duplexes can already be done under current law in the form of ADUs — if the property owner is prepared to live in one of the units. That’s essentially the difference between an ADU and a duplex. 

The real reason we don’t have more ADUs in Bloomington is that corporate developers aren’t interested in building them, because of the owner-occupation requirement. So do ADUs tell us anything at all about the impact of throwing neighborhoods open to by-right duplex development? Of course not — corporate developers are very interested in duplexes.

One last quote:

H: I think the debate, for example, about accessory dwelling units or the debate about this missing middle has been…going on for years. And it will continue to go on for years. This is not ending any debate about where we’re headed. The Unified Development Ordinance is a point in time. We’re an evolving city and will continue to evolve.

Translation: If John Hamilton and his supporters on the City Council lose again in this round of the upzoning debate, it ain’t over. Plexes are going to keep coming back, year after year — as long as Bloomingtonians keep electing mayors and Council members who are in the thrall of real estate profiteers.

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