The Ugliest Word in the English Language

Cahaba_Heights_DevelopmentContinuing on a similar idea from my previous post, let’s look at the ugliest word in the English language. No, that that N word, silly. NIMBY.

WBRC FOX 6 reported last week that Cahaba Height residents have formed a group to fight a planned mixed-use development on Cahaba Height Rd. This is actually a battle that has been going on for a while now and the developer has already downsized the plan to appease local residents.

“When I pulled my application last time I said I wanted to work with the community and that’s what I’ve done,” said Hydinger. “I’ve gone from 150 units to 81, so right off the bat that would double the amount of retail we had originally.  I’ve gotten rid of the parking deck. I mean, I’ve made major changes all due to community input.”

As reported by FOX 6, resident complaints include: “potential negative impacts related to property supervision, students who walk to and from school, impact on carpool lines, safety and security, and future campus design.”

“We don’t feel like a highly dense development is going to be the right neighbor for the school.  But we are in no way opposed to development.  We would love to see our community become the walkable village that we were promised in our master plan.”

Another resident was quoted as saying “Whether this development is three stories or four stories or five stories, it’s still an apartment complex,”.

As someone who has lived in China, I laugh to myself whenever I hear people in America say “highly dense development.” However, I will confess that I do not live in Cahaba Heights and am not intimately familiar with all of the planning issues that might exist with this development. I also cannot speak to the merits of its urban design (probably not that good given this is Cahaba Heights) since I haven’t found much info. But just taking a brief glance at this, it appears to be just another classic case of nimby-ism. Let’s look at some of the reasoning that has been reported. In my opinion, the most “valid” reason development is often opposed is traffic. This can be a real issue since suburban design often creates, even in very low density areas, congested roadways. When everyone is forced to drive everywhere and only a few main roads connect endless suburban, cul-de-sac neighborhoods this is an inevitable outcome. But according to what has been reported, traffic doesn’t seem to be the only or even primary concern. Let’s looks at these other quoted concerns:

“Property supervision”

I’m really not sure what is meant by this. Whoever owns the property will supervise it, correct? Isn’t that the value of private property rights?

“Student’s who walk to school”

I think creating a dense, pedestrian friendly, urban neighborhood would be very advantageous for this goal. Not many children walk to school in the burbs. I don’t see how this project would negatively affect anyone walking other that the issue of traffic, which at least from a pedestrian point of view can be handled by effective urban design including sidewalks, crosswalks and traffic calming measures. I think it’s ironic that the opposition is quoted as wanting a walkable village but is opposing the primary means by which that would become reality. Unless you allow developers to come in a change the design and built environment to be more urban and walkable it will remain the same.

“Future campus design”

I assume they mean the school campus? Can anyone explain how this will adversely affect campus design? If the campus is on one property and the development is on another how are they going to affect each other? The developer can’t steal the school’s land.

“Safety and Security”

This will be the first time I say this on this blog but it will certainly not be the last. The more people, the safer you are. That is a page ripped straight out of Jane Jacobs. When you have busy areas with lots of foot traffic and eyes on the street this creates safety. Making an area denser helps. People get mugged in back alleys because those areas are hidden from public view. When you walk the street all alone at night with no one around is when you feel most vulnerable. Adding a mixed use development facing the road creates foot traffic and more eyes to watch the street. So I am not sure why safety is getting brought up unless that is really just code word for something else, which brings us to the real topic of this post.

This opposition is not an isolated incident but a common pattern in many suburban neighborhoods. Residents are opposed to this because they do not want apartments or condos built in their neighborhood. Why? Part of the reason is people have the foolish expectation that they are entitled to live in small, quiet single family detached housing neighborhoods, even if they live in a huge city. This area is next door to the Summit, one of the largest shopping districts in the state and two of the most heavily traveled roads-280 and 459. You would expect there to be a lot of development/traffic/people. Another reason is because people that live in big suburban houses view apartments with suspicion for attracting the wrong “elements.” Classic racism and classism. No matter that these apartments will be anything but cheap or that there is currently huge demand for apartments which this developer is simply responding to. In the eyes of many sub-urbanites, allowing your neighborhood to build apartments is allowing it to go “down hill”.

Another development recently got axed by NIMBYs and this example is a particularly sad one to me. A developer named Mark Gold bought the Mountain Brook swim and tennis club and wanted to turn it into a mixed use space with condos and retail. A great way to redevelop a vacant piece of property? Not according to Irondale who rejected the plans. It didn’t matter that Mark Gold had invested millions in the Crestwood and Station at Grants Mill shopping centers, trying to turn them from vacant blight to places people in Irondale would want to go and be proud of. Nor did it matter that Irondale could definitely use “almost” any development it can get given the decades of flight and abandonment that has occurred in that area, culminating in the colossal failure of the Crestwood Mall.


One resident opposed to the project was quoted “We are a community of single-family dwellings and we want to keep it that way,” This is a common excuse for why development like this should not happen. “This area has always been suburban, detached housing, not mixed use/town home/condos”. Just because you want to live in that type of housing doesn’t mean everyone else wants to, but when you keep developers from building the housing people want people are forced to live in the housing you want and suburbia becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. This is the hard reality many people in cities need to understand: cities change. Residents can be proactive in advocating that they change for the better, but they will change. Irondale has changed. It was once a booming suburban development. But those days are long over. People can recognize this and try to reinvent Irondale as something better, or they can continue to let Irondale die. In economic terms, it’s about leveraging your assets and minimizing your liabilities. Irondale long ago lost its ability to compete with newer, further out burbs such as Trussville. But is has huge advantages, such as having a very easy drive into downtown. It can redevelop and become a denser, mixed used urban-suburban neighborhood that people want to live in.

So ultimately, what does this mean for the city of Birmingham? In the words of Napoleon, “never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.” Ok, so enemy might be a little too harsh a word for the burbs, but I do think this this is great, at least in the short term, for Bham. Why? Because downtown is quickly turning into the only place developers can build anything other than sprawl. For an entire generation developers focused on building the next suburb and only had to contend with how many trees needed to be cut down. But now developers need to build in already built urban areas. If the burbs won’t let them, Birmingham will be happy to take their money.


Update: Check out this excellent article by John Archibald on Hoover blocking apartment developments.



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