September 2, 2014

Editor's Page

Cookies

Mark R. Howard | 5/1/2007


Mark Howard

I remember, from a graduate school class years ago, a case study involving federal specifications for chocolate chip cookies. The specs -- meant for vendors interested in selling cookies to the U.S. military -- went on for at least 10 pages in single-spaced type, spelling out in excruciating detail everything from the permissible gluten content of the flour, to the kind of chocolate, to each cookie's allowable "diameter at its greatest dimension" -- about 2.5 inches, as I remember.

The case offered plenty of bureaucracy-gone-wild entertainment value but was a good lesson in procurement and cost-benefit analysis: The cost of developing all those specs, and the inefficiency inherent in following them, were way out of whack with the benefits they produced in terms of cookie quality and level-field bidding. Decent chocolate chip cookies, of course, were available from a lot of companies, packaged and ready to eat -- the military could have saved money by just buying some off the shelf rather than creating the messy bureaucracy involved in bidding out the process. I've read since then that the military has given its cookie procurers a lot more latitude.

My favorite part of the lesson, however, was the fact that the authors of the specs weren't able to write in a requirement that the cookies taste good. The specs, in other words, made it possible to guarantee everything about the cookies except the most important thing for the soldiers -- flavor.

There's a little something like the chocolate chip cookie case going on about 15 miles east of Tampa in Plant City, where an effort is under way to translate some noble goals into rules and regulations.

The city is trying to deal with a real problem. A lot of recent home building in the city has involved tracts of single-family houses built cookie-cutter style by big production builders. The city tried to draft a law to force the developers to moderate their practice of carpeting the landscape with identical homes. Which is to say, the city wanted the builders to quit building ugly boxes with no character that didn't fit the rest of the city's housing stock. The law called for standards relating to lot size, facades, rooflines and garage placement.

The development community and some members of the city commission, however, "expressed concern" that the proposed standards were too onerous -- that they "constrained customer preferences and marketability." Which is to say, the developers know they won't make as much profit if they have to build more than one model.

(It's interesting to me that the development community raises "marketability" as an issue without ever actually building anything different as a point of comparison -- like American automakers who've been behind the curve on fuel efficiency twice in my lifetime, arguing both times that fuel-efficient cars weren't "marketable" -- until Toyota and Honda built them.)

In any event, the city wasn't able to move forward with a law of its own devising and decided to request proposals from consultants to help it develop "anti-monotony" regulations for future subdivisions that both the city and builders can live with. Ironically, that request for proposals is a classic little piece of cookie-cutter bureaucracy all its own: It specifies everything from the kind of regulatory documents and final report to be produced, how many presentations (three) the consultant will make, how many printed and bound copies of the final report will be provided, the format for the proposal, etc., etc., etc. -- even how to mark the envelope in which the consultants submit their proposals.

The whole process, of course, is likely to turn out just like the chocolate chip cookie specs: The bureaucracy will grind away, the consultants will produce specs for more regulations, and then the lawmakers and developers likely will dilute them in the name of compromise and come up with a final list of acceptable ingredients.

The houses in the tract subdivisions may get a slightly more diverse palette of styles, but they'll still be tract subdivisions. Just as the military with its cookies, the best Plant City will be able to do is to spell out requirements for everything but what it really wants -- a sense of character and community in its new housing stock. Flavor, that is.

Plant City's real problem rests not in the way production builders design homes, but in the way the city designs allowable land-use patterns. Unless communities structure those fundamental regulations to require mixed uses, green space, transportation corridors and the like in whatever development they allow, they will fight the battle against monotonous subdivisions on the margins, and to little effect. They may coerce a developer into adding a model or two into a product line, but the net effect in most cases will be lipstick on a pig.

As with cookies, there are plenty of off-the-shelf land-use models to consider as options. Among others, Andrés Duany offers what he calls SmartCode for free at smartcodefiles.com. Developer Syd Kitson seems to be doing a good job incorporating smart planning into his Babcock Ranch development.

The issue of cookie-cutter subdivisions transcends questions of house-to-house aesthetics in another way. A Brookings Institution study has found that while cities still have a higher percentage rate of poor people than suburbs, the number of poor people who live in suburbs in the U.S. today exceeds the number who live in cities. The study also found that the shift of the poor from cities to suburbs is happening more quickly than anyone thought possible.

In other words, unless communities get suburban development right, those cookie-cutter suburbs that Plant City and other communities are worried about from an architectural standpoint today stand good chances of ending up as tomorrow's least-desirable housing -- slums-in-waiting.

Tags: Politics & Law, Editor's column, North Central, Government/Politics & Law, Housing/Construction

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