Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Election Day - Booze Edition

As everyone should already know, yes, it is in fact election day. While voting for politicians of various stripes can have some effect on urban policy, the most tangible to urban issues, design, and development is actually the wet/dry vote. It may not seem like it, but this issue can actually have a profound effect on city form. The merits, pros, cons, and the completely irrelevant have been stated ad nauseum and you most likely have heard, heeded, and/or ignored much of this information. I'm going to try and illuminate the implications from a city design perspective.

In this particular case, alcohol sales are being treated as a locally undesirable land use (LULU) not unlike a strip club, lead smelter, airport, or highway. In the best of cities, those that don't have any outward effect on the local urban ecology, don't have to be relegated to the edges of a city. Many European cities will move all industrial to a certain sector outside of the city, highways to the periphery, and airports well out of city limits. They also have a much more liberal or open notion to sex, drugs, and alcohol, aka what might be deemed vices (particularly by a more parochial or puritanical society - which DOES NOT imply that they are immune from said vices).

Point being, these uses, bars, liquor stores, strip clubs, etc. can find their way into the fabric of the city, with only the strip clubs tending towards red light districts which are often the seediest parts of town, mostly because of the types of characters that swarm around areas high in dopey, possibly intoxicated and easily targeted tourists.

When we prohibit alcohol sales from certain locations within the city (for whatever purposes), it has an unintended effect. Like any other retail type, there is a direct proportional relationship between availability of goods and total population. Meaning there is a ratio, of population X there will be Y amount of stores.

Many national chain retailers have these formulas so engrained into their business model that they will only locate in spots where there are Z amount of households within a catchment area (the size of which depends on the use, a neighborhood type of use like a coffee shop might look within 1/4 or 1/2-mile. A grocery store might look at 3- to 50 miles.).

If you go to Seattle, there will be at least 1 starbucks per neighborhood. Similarly, there will be a bar or two, or more depending on (calls back to parking paper) whether the neighborhood is a Regional destination or just a neighborhood one. When you ban a Starbucks in one location, you're not going to end up with less Starbucks. Instead, you get two Starbucks in the one neighborhood serving the two.

To end that metaphor, what regional/neighborhood prohibition means is NOT less alcohol, but a surplus of alcohol type uses and auxiliary type businesses clustering at the boundaries of these districts. Essentially, LULU ghettos.

Where one or two uses can be blended or "socialized" within an urban fabric to behave according to the neighborhood's needs, instead they become worse than what was banned in the first place. In many ways, it is the worst kind of paternalism. "We know what is best for you," rather than focusing on the real issues, like education, hope, opportunity, jobs, and a future for those areas most affected. Areas where we falsely presumed building bigger roads meant economic development created a sparse, suburban development pattern that is virtually impossible to police. Instead, the poor must take on the expense of a car to drive to those very same alcohol vendors, that were effectively relocated, not shut down in any way.