What Was the Rush?

By Peter Dorfman

Mayor John Hamilton was on WGCL radio a few weeks ago. The local station does a weekly live check-in with the mayor. At the tail end of the conversation, Hamilton was asked about upcoming City Council business, and he had this to say:

“Hey, you might want to sign up for a report on the plexes – remember the plex stuff going on? We got a report, I think maybe end of this month, early next month, that’ll say, “Hey, remember all that we discussed? But let’s look at what actually happened. Hint: It won’t be much. So, there was no sky falling.”

What Hamilton was referring to is a required, twice-yearly report from the Planning & Transportation department on the impact of last year’s amendment to the Unified Development Ordinance that eliminated single-family zoning in Bloomington. We got that report tonight, at the City Council’s regular session, from Development Services Manager Jackie Scanlan.

And guess what: Bloomington’s opponents of the city’s ill-advised upzoning successfully stopped it! Or so Council Member Steve Volan would have you believe, since in the six months since passage of the UDO amendment that did away with single family zoning in Bloomington, developers haven’t stepped up to fulfill your “paranoid expectation that whole blocks would be dismantled by bulldozers.”

(That’s how Volan characterized the concerns expressed last year by upzoning opponents, in his comment on the Planning report. I appreciate a clever turn of phrase and wish I could take credit for it, but it seems to me Volan might have overdramatized the expressed concerns of upzoning critics just a tad.)

As expected, Scanlan told the City Council that since duplex development was authorized (through an ordinance signed by Hamilton in August), no one has applied to build a duplex in a formerly single family neighborhood. (There have been three applications to build new multifamily plexes in mixed use multi-unit zones; two are under construction.)

A lot of us who pay attention to local development have known this for months. We’ve been looking forward to the report, and to seeing how the administration would spin the lack of duplex development. What Hamilton, and Volan, are suggesting is that upzoning opponents’ projections that allowing new duplexes would open the door to urbanization of the core neighborhoods were unfounded. Needless to say, we beg to differ.

Actual construction starts for new duplexes represent a trailing indicator. There are all sorts of reasons to expect development to lag — start with pandemic-related labor shortages and skyrocketing building material prices, and the likelihood that the resources developers would need for duplex conversions are committed to larger multifamily projects in Bloomington. The leading indicator relevant to this discussion is the rate at which residential properties have been bought by investors for development into rentals, as opposed to individuals or couples who actually intended to live in these houses. But that wasn’t part of Scanlan’s report, because those transactions don’t touch Planning until the buyer applies to demolish a house or build something.

It amuses me to speculate that the flippant “Chicken Little” allusion that seems to have taken up residence in John Hamilton’s head might have come from a May 11, 2021 blog post in The Dissident Democrat, which noted: 

“Council members are trying to put on a collegial show of fellowship and compromise — now. But in six months, pro-density planners, commissioners and Council members will be back, arguing that they came together and passed the upzoning measure, and the sky didn’t fall. They and their supporters will be demanding that the city once again throw open the neighborhoods for unrestricted plex development, to deal with the affordability crisis or climate change or whatever that week’s rationalization is.”

Council Member Kate Rosenbarger took the first baby step in that direction tonight, positing that prospective duplex developers saw the process as over-regulated, “difficult and unpredictable.”

The Planning report, and Rosenbarger’s and Volan’s predictable spin on it, just underscore the cynicism of the upzoning campaign. Why was it necessary to prioritize the effort to crack open the core neighborhoods for urbanization in 2020/2021, in the middle of a pandemic?

Clearly, the goal was to get this done as far as possible in advance of the 2023 citywide election. The assumption was that, by this time next year, Bloomingtonians will have forgotten all about plexes and moved on to some other progressive crusade.

Rest assured, the citizens in Bloomington’s core neighborhoods will not have forgotten “the plex stuff” by May 2023. Dissident Democrats will not let next year’s Mayoral and Council hopefuls forget their role in foisting this policy on a city that had broadly rejected the idea either.

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