Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Problem With Zombie Lots

Stockton, California suburb
Hello Everyone:

By now, news of the Grand Jury in Ferguson, Missouri declining to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Michael Brown has been blasted all over the solar system. Blogger is not happy with the decision, nor is blogger happy about the senseless acts of violence committed in the aftermath but unfortunately, this is symptomatic of our world.

Changing the subject, today we are going to talk about another symptom of contemporary life, zombie suburbs.  No, this post is not about zombies living the American dream, this post is based on the CityLab article titled "The Unfinished Suburbs of America," by Alana Semuels.  The article looks at the thousands of partially developed acres across America that were abandoned after the housing boom went bust.  Ms. Semuels looks at the fate of these zombie suburbs and what should happen to them.

Unfinished suburban street
Stockton, California
Photograph by Alana Semuels
Alana Semuels begins with the story of Janeen Milhorn and her husband.  The Milhorns bought their four-bedroom house ranch-style house in Stockton, California in 2004.  The house appealed to them because it sat on the farthest lot in the development, giving them more land and looked onto a hay field. However, the lovely hay field was quickly snapped up by developers during the real estate boom adding to the speculation and building throughout former farmland in California and the West.  In 2006, the developers began construction, platting the land and paving roads.  They installed street lights, electrical cables, and streets signs named for rock stars i.e. (Mick) Jagger Lane and (Jimi) Hendrix Drive.

Then came the recession and the dulcet tones of construction ground to a halt.  The streets and the sidewalks remain, as do the lots with electrical wire sticking out the ground like broken guitar strings. Amid the acres of abandoned lots, only a few houses stood complete.  None of these zombie lots were near the Milhorns.  From one window, the Milhorns saw the neatly tended lawns and pretty gardens of their neighbors in the completed development.  However, the view from another window was quite different-a bleak looking field with street signs, lamp post, and no houses.  The empty field soon took on the appearance of the town dump with overgrown weeds, beer bottles, shopping carts, toys, and plastic bags.  Coyotes and skunks also found the field appealing.

The sidewalk near Janeen Milhorn's house
Photograph by Alana Semuels
"It's kind of horrible," says Ms. Milhorn as she stood in her front garden, looking out onto the neighboring abandoned development.  The Milhorns put up a fence along their property's boundary to keep out the animals but it has not stopped people from cruising the empty streets or partying in the tall grass.  The road block that was put up to keep out trespassers was taken down after a drunk driver rammed into it.  These days, the empty cul-de-sac streets are a race track for dragsters and bikers.  This is development is but one of hundreds of zombie subdivisions across the United States. They are obvious reminders of the housing boom and bust during the days when everyone wanted and could afford a nice house in the suburbs.  When the economy plunged, many of the developers behind these idyllic slices of the American pie went bankrupt and construction ceased.  In some instances, a few of the new home owners moved into the half-finished subdivisions, requiring service delivery.  In other cases, the land remains empty, except for the odd road or sidewalk.  The Sonoran Institute ( estimated that "In some counties in the West, anywhere between 15 to 33 percent of all subdivision lots are vacant."

"The town dump"
Photograph by Alana Semuels
  In a report published by the Lincoln Institute of Land   Policy, Combating Zombie Subdivisions and  Other  Excess Entitlements, author Jim Holway, Ph.D  writes,
Since the post-2007 real estate bust, which hit many parts of the region severely, eroding subdivision roads now slice through farmland and open space and 'spec' houses stand alone amid many rural and suburban landscape...Without correction, they will continue to weaken fiscal health, property values and quality of life in affected communities. (

Finished houses next weedy lots
Empty lots not only bring down property values, they also pose a hazard to human health and safety.  They are sources of wildfires and flooding contamination. Further, empty lots can cost municipal governments money that they may not have because they have to allocate funding for public safety or snow removal to these remote places without the expected benefit of property taxes.  If the threat to human health and safety is not enough motivation to do something, anything, then what is the solution to lots that look like leftover sets from 28 Days Later?

Alana Semuels writes, "It's unclear just how to 'fix' these zombie subdivisions.  While some will be completed as the economy recovers, others may lie dormant for a long time."  This situation is particularly acute as the trend continues for young people and baby boomers wanting to live in more walkable urban settings, instead of suburban subdivisions where they have to drive just to do the grocery shopping.  June Williamson, a professor of architecture at the City College of New York and co-author of the book Retrofitting Suburbia, adds "When things are zoned for future residential development, there's value to that...Landowners can argue that downsizing will lead to a less profitable future use."  Yet, some developers have found resourceful way to do something with zombie lots other than a sea of vacant McMansions.

Developer built docks and ramps in Delta Cove
Bethel Island, near Stockton, California
Photograph by Alana Semuels
Maricopa, Arizona took a novel approach to dealing with zombie lots.  During the real estate boom, the city issued as many as 600 residential building permit a month for new developments, many of which stalled.  Rather than wait and see if the demand would come back, the city put a Catholic church in touch with the owners of the empty development.  As luck would have it, the church had wanted to put up a new building and was looking for a site with existing infrastructure and water service.  It was mana from heaven for the developer who was looking for a client willing to build.  With a wee bit of rezoning help from the city, the church was able to build on the land.

"Out of service"
Photograph by Alana Semuels
Another example is Teton County, Idaho, population about 11,000.  The Sonoran Institute "estimates that 68 percent of the land parceled into subdivisions was undeveloped..."  To remedy this situation, civic officials passed ordinances that allowed the subdivisions to be rezoned.  One of the rezoned developments was Canyon Creek Ranch, original planned as a resort with 350 lots, was rezoned as community project with 21 lots.  The cost of the infrastructure dropped by 97 percent and the environmental impact was reduced.  Ms. Semuels quotes urban developer and consultant Michael Mehaffy, "...clients who bought distressed properties have started to contact him, hoping to start building on them again.  But they want to build something different than was planned before....The market is shifting-people are recognizing that they don't want to live in these monocultural places...They want to be able to walk, enjoy amenities and a nice neighborhood with lots of services nearby."

Subdivision roadblock
Photograph by Alana Semuels
According to Mr. Mehaffy, "But there are zoning codes and headaches that make it difficult to build something different than was originally planned."  Some of the developments lack available public transit.  Others may have residents who bought their houses thinking they were moving to the suburbs, and oppose the construction of apartments or a retail development.  There are some planned communities that already have water and infrastructure that they do not want to lose if the project shrinks in scope.  Mr. Mehaffy adds, "It can be difficult it you're trying, as we are, not just to pick up the pieces and build again, but build in a smarter way, a complete community.

The last developed in a planned community
Photograph by Alana Semuels
Despite the rezoning difficulties, in some places building a smarter, more complete community is working.  Mr. Mehaffy is collaborating with Lawrence Qamar, an architect and urban designer, on a zombie subdivision in Washington state in an area called Ocean Shores.  The development was originally envisioned as a twelve four-story condominium buildings. One building was completed and a few units were sold but the project stalled during the recession and a new developer bought the property at auction in 2012.  "They had a really terrible plan, an awful development that would have been a blight on the landscape if it had been built," said Mr. Qamar.

Messrs. Mehaffy and Qamar have a different vision: a mixed-use, walkable subdivision with small separate single-family cottages, retail and bicycle paths.  The previous plan called for 500 condominium units, the new plan contains about 300 cottage-style "residential units."  "We want to transform this zombie subdivision into something more similar to this village-like vision," said Mr. Qamar.

Meanwhile back at Janeen Milhorn's development, there is no sign of any plans to rezone the community into something more walkable.  There are the random new homes going up but the land next to her property is owned by a different builder who is letting sit.  The Milhorns have tried to contact the city to find out if they could by some of the land in order to enlarge their yard, but the city declined permission.  The city replied that a house will eventually be built on the adjoining property.  Until then, the Milhorns will just have to contend with a zombie lot.

I would just like to wish all my readers in the United States a happy and safe Thanksgiving Day. Enjoy the time you spend with your family and friends.


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