A vacant lot on the California coast: green activism or the color of money?

This article will feature an assertion I’ve made in the past, and I have ruffled feathers for it then. In all likelihood, I’ll ruffle a few more this time around. Yet I’m sticking to my guns.

So here goes: far too many communities embrace the notion of urban parks as an absolute good—of parks for parks’ sake—without any real consideration as to whether it’s a prudent use of scarce land, given the other market forces at work. All too often, the solution is clear: the city’s parks department should sell the land and let the buyer develop the heck out of it.

Before I tread further down this facially extreme libertarian footpath, some context is necessary. One might speculate that I target this assertion for cash-strapped municipalities that should reduce their assets, many of which they lack the resources to maintain. But no; quite the opposite. I’m referring to places that are wealthy, prosperous and can generally boast land values well above the area median. These are the communities most beholden to the notion that public space represents an intrinsic value, largely because the constituents themselves overestimate and confer excessive value to the ideals associated with conservation. More than a few affluent communities across the country boast their fair share of pocket parks and civic spaces that are verdant, pulchritudinous, and lifeless.

In some cases, I suspect the reason these parks are persistently empty is because they lack the right programming: that is, they offer soccer fields or a basketball court when far more of the neighbors simply seek a quiet place to sit. But in most instances, the mismatch is even more basic: there’s simply more parkland than the community demands. Even high-density urban settings often reach a saturation point, where the need for parks is less about quantity and more about quality, or even strategic placement. After all, urban parks are more likely to offer benefit if they serve as an informal place for people to congregate; people like these civic spaces because they are already vibrant with people coming and going. Perhaps it’s a chicken-and-egg relationship, but the correlation between undesirable urban parks and lewdness or even violent criminal activity is powerful; the two conditions reinforce one another. Thus, an oversupply of green space in dense or prosperous (or dense and prosperous) urban settings does not help the municipality in quite the same way that the land would, if left to the private sector to make a more judicious determination of the optimal use. And the ensuing private land use is something new from which the municipality gains, in terms tax revenue through the added value of greater economic activity. And the constituents thus eliminate the albatross of a costly park that no one uses. A double win in most respects.

To illustrate this contentious assertion, I offer an unlikely example: the coastal town of Mendocino, about 150 miles north of San Francisco.IMG_0252 At first blush, an unincorporated community of less than 1,000 people wouldn’t seem very comparable to San Francisco, Manhattan, Chicago, Washington DC, or any of the other milieus conjured through my previous paragraph. But Mendocino, while tiny and not exactly urban, still shares the most of the characteristics of an organized settlement, in contrast with the unspoiled wilderness typical of most of the northern California coast. Since it’s California, it’s almost expensive by default. But Mendocino is also distinctive because its breathtaking surroundings have made it both a popular artist colony and a tourist destination. It’s hardly struggling.IMG_0260

IMG_0256IMG_0259Situated on a tiny cape of the same name, Mendocino bestows sapphire tides cleft by proud rocks in three directions to its many weekend visitors. And it’s small enough that it’s virtually impossible not to catch a glimpse of the ocean, even when smack in the middle of this reticent little hamlet.

I visited during the late-fall off-season, but apparently in the summer, tourists nearly overwhelm Mendocino’s modest little streets. But it’s definitely small. No stop lights. Only intermittent sidewalks. Not including back alleys, I was able to count eighteen blocks that comprise Mendocino’s core. That’s it. And smack in the middle of this grid is an open space.Heider Field MendocinoOne’s first impression, most likely, is that Heider Field looks like nothing special. And that impression, by most people’s estimates, would be accurate. It does not seem to feature anything other than an acre of minimally maintained grass: no landscape, no playground equipment, no softball diamonds, no goalposts. There so little evidence of improvement to the land that, without clear evidence of grading, odds are strong that the unevenness of the ground under the scraggly turf would make any high-energy sport undesirable if not impossible. iI’s unlikely that it’s safe enough for an impromptu game of flag football. Even croquet might not work. Here’s another view:Heider Field MendocinoPretty unremarkable.

I could certainly appreciate an argument that Heider Field is a much-needed reprieve from an overdeveloped, threatened coastal setting—except that a map easily reveals that parkland is hardly in short supply. It’s everywhere: about half of the cape consists of the Mendocino Headlands State Park. (There’s also another pocket park a few blocks away: Friendship Park, of similar size, which at least featured trees, landscaping, and a baseball diamond.)Mendocino map2Heider Field is there in the middle of it all, outlined in purple. It comprises 90% of the northern half of the block, bisected by a dirt path. The remaining 10% of the block consists of a humble white chapel.IMG_0270IMG_0269

I had to dig a little to find the story behind Heider Field (but only a little). Apparently it is not, nor does it ever appear to have been, the property of the adjacent Mendocino Baptist Church. Over four decades ago, the owner (last name Heider) considered building an unconventional educational institution on the land, but residents were not keen. John Heider sought to sell the land, and a group of Mendocino activists collaborated to form the Mendocino Land Trust. Collaborating with the state, the Land Trust initiated a land swamp that ultimately conveyed the property to California State Parks. And it has remained in this condition ever since.

This is where I (most likely) get people’s dander up. I do not think Heider Field is a prudent use of the land. I recognize that I’m an outsider, I have no real connection to Mendocino, and it is hardly my place to make declarations of how a community should grow. But I’m entitled to my opinion, and I cannot help but draw the conclusion that this is not conferring a great deal of benefit to anyone. I find little evidence that Heider Field gets used for much of anything except possibly some weddings in the more favorable weather. But even then, does this field really compare to the spectacle just two blocks away, at Mendocino Headlands?IMG_0262Or the other direction?IMG_0282

The fact remains that Heider Field’s ecological value is minimal in its aggressively mowed current state. Perhaps, during other times of year (like this photo), it’s allowed to grow out in a tangle of wildflowers. But, in its November state, it’s a monoculture. As mentioned earlier, it’s not carefully enough maintained to offer great recreational opportunities; that’s clearly not a priority. And it constrains the supply of what the state of California seems to suffer in general: good housing. Here’s the site immediately across the street from Heider Field.IMG_0274A row of charming single-family homes. Would Heider Field—and Mendocino as a whole—be worse off if we replicated this very low intensity development pattern and allowed a few dozen more people to live here?

Yes, I’m positioning this insignificant little pocket park in a tiny town as a metaphor for a bigger problem in California. The state—through an aggressive regulatory environment that both induces and compounds the strain on supply—has suffered exponentially rising housing costs for the last decade or so. And they were always high. And everywhere one go, one encounters a culture that seeks to constrain new housing construction even further. Obviously the relief on the market provided by developing Heider Field is so small that the phrase “statistically insignificant” doesn’t even apply. And since Mendocino is far away from a major urban center, the appeal of living in a remote area will never be that great (unless you’re retired). But even given the village’s obscurity, median home prices at the time of this post are well above $500k; it’s difficult to find even an unimproved lot under $250k; many of the homes are well over $1 million. The residences across from Heider Field would easily approach $2 million.

Obviously my bold assertion—that the State should sell Heider Field to a private homebuilder—is likely to be hugely unpopular in certain circles. After all, would providing more dwellings in a rural hamlet mostly appealing to vacationers achieve anything? But the broader question remains: is Heider Field in its current state achieving anything? The map featured earlier demonstrates that Mendocino is not suffering a shortage of protected lands; I wouldn’t begin to suggest chipping away at the park that generously spans the littoral areas of this cape. But an inactive vacant lot—which is all Heider Field really is—accomplishes less environmentally than a slight relaxation of development restrictions would accomplish economically.

I’ll be frank, and this is where I’m at my most callous. I seriously question the intent of the activism behind the Mendocino Land Trust, which sought to preserve Heider Field in the 1970s. While I understand the possibility that a higher intensity use—John Heider’s proposed school—could prove disruptive to the quiet residential setting, the act of subdividing the land into eight to ten lots and an access road would just provide more of the same settlement pattern that already dominates Mendocino. It would compromise nothing about the environmental integrity of the area, and it would allow a handful of families to enjoy a distinctive setting, while raising the tax base for Mendocino County (remember this is not an incorporated area itself). If it’s not obvious already, I see the outward expression of virtue through this conservationist drive as a deflection for some garden-variety NIMBYism. And it’s a social attitude pervasive on the California Coast.

The “drawbridge effect”—of long-term homeowners harnessing land use laws to keep additional development out in their immediate vicinity, where housing is needed—is a huge contributor to the fact that San Francisco’s median home prices are up to 25% higher than New York City’s. If the powers that be in San Francisco were cultivating zoning and permitting laws that aligned housing supply with the demand, at least a portion of the city would look like Manhattan. But it doesn’t. And while this compromise provides spectacular vistas among the Bay Area topography, while salvaging much of San Francisco’s distinctive vernacular architecture, it also keeps out many people from entering that surging tech market.

It’s not fair for me to transpose San Francisco real estate valuation to microscopic Mendocino. After all, I have made an assertion with regard to Heider Field without knowing if development potential exists. It’s possible there is no demand to build there. But the values of the surrounding area would suggest otherwise, and, in the meantime, like much of California, we see the physical manifestation of very wealthy residents harnessing the law to stymie housing construction, thereby keeping the values on their property sky high. No doubt few or even no people in Mendocino have malicious intents, and it’s probably many don’t even know the underlying forces preserving Heider Field. But they know what the homes are worth, and it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out that an acre of scraggly land isn’t all that productive in its current state. Given the spectacle of the Mendocino Headlands State Park, Heider Field’s not even great for a wedding. It’s time to set an example by letting a few more people in to this exclusive little nook.

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14 thoughts on “A vacant lot on the California coast: green activism or the color of money?

  1. Brian M

    Very interesting argument (including the questioning of upper middle class “progressive” actions which have helped create problems in the State.

    I might propose an even more heretical example: Look at Lighthouse Fields State Park in Santa Cruz. The lighthouse itself, the beach….definitely should be public. I am big supporter of the coastal preservation philosophy, selfish billionaire bleatings aside. But look at the big expanse of land on the terrestrial side of West Cliff Drive. I am sorry, it is nothing but scruffy grass and weeds with a few cypress that could be saved as part of any useful development. A huge chunk of land in a housing starved community. I am not intimately familiar with the site, but it just has always seemed to be a bit of a waste. especially as Santa Cruz is so replete with open area (a couple of miles north…coastal hills for miles and miles).

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      Brian, if you’re describing what I think you are (https://goo.gl/maps/fhDLAkQPCw72), you’re right–that’s huge. And probably a better example than mine in Mendocino, because at least here you’re close to employment centers and the housing shortage is probably much more palpable.

      Even something medium density, like the Oceanview Apartments at the corner of COlumbia and Pelton a few blocks away, would offer considerable relief. But you can bet that the middle-class homeowners just to the north of this land would raise a huge stink.

      Reply
      1. Brian M

        There have to be environmental reasons for this large tract of land being preserved. Maybe due to the Monterrey cypress? I am not sure.

        It just looks…scruffy…to me. Not sure that I would enjoy a hike through the weeds and brown grass. 🙂

        (For awesome multifamily, just go west a bit to The Carmel. Amazing art decoish apartments!

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt

          Those “environmental reasons” could easily be contrived by the neighborhood NIMBYs to advance their aim at keeping density levels low, housing supply constrained, and their own home values sky-high. Even if the Monterrey cypress grows there, it’s hardly the most robust ecosystem, considering it could grow equally well 10 miles away in a less developed area, subject to far less vehicular exhaust and within a larger uninterrupted stretch of biodiverse flora habitat.

          We had a situation in Indianapolis where a sloped patch of land alongside our central canal was proposed to turn into a hotel right before the Great Recession, but a particularly vocal BANANA activist tried to claim first a) it was historic (Lincoln passed through the area on train before he was president and very possibly kissed a baby nearby); b) it was a cherished bit of environmentally sensitive greenery (nothing but turf grass); c) a treasured recreation spot for children (they could roll down the hill). Why this “activist” couldn’t simply be honest and say he didn’t want development is beyond me.

          Reply
    1. Brian M

      Interesting, Chris. I always tend to err on the “pro” development side, but there are some interesting issues here. As is often the case, this little land deal is not really the problem. It’s the overall trends and issues as LEVIATHAN (Global Capitalism) increasingly slurps into Nashville as its next locus for extraction, control, and concentration of wealth and power.

      🙂

      Reply
    2. AmericanDirt

      I glanced at that article a few days ago, and now I’ve read it.

      It can’t help but make me think of the “park” at the NE corner of Illinois and Washington in Indianapolis, which again never intended to exist but sat in development limbo for many years prior to the construction of the Conrad. If I recall, it was a bit of homeless camp until it got developed, and it elicited some scorn from homeless advocates. Though common sense dictates that, when evicted from one high-profile space, homeless individuals will then migrate to the next most neglected but high-profile space. Or, in Indy’s case, it seems they’re going to Monument Circle, which isn’t neglected at all but is certainly high-profile. Nashville is booming more than Indy so probably slightly less affordable, but it’s also sprawling even more, which tends to moderate housing costs.

      Reply
  2. Johnny

    Great article and solid reasoning. But… in order to get the current dynamic to change just about every aspect of our current society would have to shift. All the incentives push toward more constraints on development, not fewer. Meticulously altering each restrictive bit of legislation while changing enough hearts and minds to loosen the NIMBY noose is unlikely. I just don’t see it happening as part of a rational intentional transition.

    But what if the change comes in a different form? I see serious structural problems in the economy and society that are too big to be managed with business-as-usual. What if things fail on a large scale and we get a do-over after a crisis?

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      Very true, and thanks for your input, Johnny. I would never dream for this broader cultural shift to take place without a radical stimulus. And even then, I mostly fantasize, since I certainly don’t believe any form of government policy would ever shape attitudes enough (they rarely if ever do). While this NIMBY condition has escalated to fever pitch in California, it’s not particularly great elsewhere in the country, including places that are generally affordable. People like to sidle into a nice area, then bolt the door behind then, and not just to stimulate property values but to keep out the dreaded Other.

      That said, the unaffordability concern is likely to reach that tipping point in California long before the attitudes change, so the only indicator of that sort of “fail on a large scale” would be the bursting of a housing bubble. And if that takes place anywhere in the country, it would be California–and if anywhere in CA, then the Bay Area. Mendocino may fall outside the sphere of influence, and it’s hardly every likely to serve as an epicenter for affordable housing battles. But the Bay Area’s dependence on the tech industry, the increasing challenges for even upper-middle class people to afford a reasonable standard of living for raising two children, and the growing prevalence of remote working could prove exactly that witches’ brew.

      Joe the Tech Nerd may have all the talent that Apple/Alphabet Inc could ever hope for, but he might also like having a decent yard to for his 3+ kids to play in. And he might also be perfectly happy living in Boise. Apple/Alphabet Inc can hire Joe the Tech Nerd, keep him in Boise, pay him 40% less than they otherwise would, and Joe’s still content because it’s still a fantastic salary for Boise. Win-win. Rinse and repeat. Then do the same in NYC/LA/Boston/Seattle/DC.

      Reply
  3. Johnny

    We are in agreement. We aren’t likely to change much of anything about the culture or NIMBY legislation. But the real estate/stock market bubble is already in search of a pin. And the tech sector is no different than the automotive industry. At a certain point it was easier and cheaper to manufacture brake pads , transmissions, and laminated windshields in the Deep South with “right to work” disposable labor and local tax breaks and subsidies than to pay union wages in Michigan and Ohio. Then those parts could be made even cheaper in Latin America and Asia. Then assembly plants could migrate too. Then the back office middle management stuff… At a certain point there wasn’t much of anything left in the Rust Belt – and most of that was automated because robots and algorithms are cheaper than UAW workers and their endless need for health insurance and pensions. That same dynamic is already well underway in Tech.

    The brunt of the pain will fall – as usual – on the marginal players in the peripheral locations. The very best talent and most exquisite venues will manage just fine.

    My motto is simple. Let things fail. Failure fixes itself.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      Very much agreed; really appreciate your thoughts, both here and in your own terrific work. And your Rust Belt analogy should serve as a warning reminder to those in Seattle or San Francisco that, at one point in time, Detroit was the most technologically sophisticated and prosperous city in the nation–and perhaps the world. By today’s standard, it was “trendy”–if such a word existed in 1923.

      Reply
  4. Anonymous

    Clearly you do not have any sense of the concept of a ‘land trust’ – and I suggest you learn a bit more about that before bringing your biased position forward.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      Conceding my potential ignorance, I decided to revisit the definition of “land trust” to make certain I didn’t have it wrong. While it does involve a greater array of legal ramifications than I initially suspected, the primary protection is indeed conservation of land–exactly what I thought, and exactly what I find so disgraceful and disingenuous in the Mendocino context. Which does indeed make me biased, of which I’m not ashamed to admit. I am shamelessly biased against NIMBYism veiled as righteous environmental stewardship, especially in coastal California, where housing shortages are leaving huge portions of the population living in complete squalor.

      But perhaps my biased judgment is clouding me to the ecological benefit of this regularly mowed sheet of turf grass known as Heider Field. If you can inform me of its contribution to the ecological well-being of the surrounding area, I’m willing to admit my fault and perhaps even change my mind.

      Reply
  5. Debbie

    I did not see a photo of the “Bankers Row” houses on the north side of Heider Field. One value of this open space is to give visitors to the national historic town a longer view of those houses as a cultural resource from a time when money created some fantastic architecture. The density of housing described would dilute the historical fabric of this treasure of a town.
    There are other places to build more affordable housing If developers wanted to.

    Reply

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