Make Communities Friendly Again

Published March 31, 2024

National Review Online

In Friends, Joey, Chandler, and the gang were often found hanging out at Central Perk, the fictional coffee shop that essentially served as a neighborhood living room. But a regular haunt in which to wish for a million dollars isn’t just the stuff of TV sitcoms. Part of the charm of living in or visiting Paris, New York City, or other old, dense metro areas is the prospect of having a favorite coffee shop or bakery within walking distance.

Yet the neighborhood corner store is harder to find in newer, automobile-dependent developments and subdivisions. Many municipalities make it illegal to open new bakeries or cafés in residential areas, ensuring the strict Euclidean separation of home and work — named for the Supreme Court ruling on zoning involving the village of Euclid, Ohio — that has characterized too much of U.S. life for over a century.

We can — and should — make it easier for an aspiring barista or baker to open up shop and serve their community. It doesn’t require any public spending, just loosening some of the restrictions that cities have adopted over time that prevent a corner store or neighborhood café from operating and creating a little slice of connection and community.

Washington State was on the verge of opening the door to more Central Perks or options beyond the ubiquitous Starbucks (as a high-schooler living in the Seattle suburbs, I would pass two separate Starbucks to get to the one where I worked). A bill sponsored by state representative Mark Klicker (R., Walla Walla) would have required that cities and towns in the Evergreen State permit small neighborhood cafés — defined as being under 500 square feet, with no drive-throughs or more than two parking spots — in residential areas.

Klicker’s rationale was simple: “Having cafes and small grocers in neighborhood settings has had a positive impact on communities for decades. . . . Small, neighborhood cafes create a welcoming environment for everyone to come together and strengthen community bonds, which makes our communities feel safer and more connected.” The gang at Central Perk would approve.

His bill wouldn’t have mandated any public spending — just allowed entrepreneurs to identify areas that might benefit from a little more commerce and camaraderie and see if they could make it work. It passed the Washington house of representatives unanimously.

But it was a bridge too far for the Association of Washington Cities, the advocacy group that represents the leaders of the state’s cities and towns at the capitol. It lobbied allies in the state senate to strike the bill, expressing concerns about the state overriding cities’ zoning decisions. Never mind that the AWC had recently worked with the legislature on similar concerns around lawmakers’ recent passage of a “strippers’ bill of rights” — influenced by the AWC, a Democratic senator introduced an amendment making the bill voluntary, taking the teeth out of it.

Private-property rights might be important in theory, a lobbyist for the cities told NPR, but “the flip side of that is the rights of the rest of the community who also own property in the area.” There are valid reasons for cities to want to avoid allowing businesses that generate traffic, noise, or pollution to open wherever they want. But if cities are predisposed to let the rights of other homeowners outweigh the ability of a neighborhood café to open up shop, they’ve lost the plot.

Cities’ affinity for local control may be rooted in a healthy desire for a government that is close to the ground and allows for a diversity of approaches and preferences. But the accretion of so many permits and forms and codes and regulations that make it too difficult to build new housing also makes it difficult to experiment with a less rigid, more organic style of living.

Whether through inertia or because of the loudest voices opposing an experiment that most neighbors would find pleasant or unobjectionable, it’s harder than it needs to be for would-be small businesses to pop up in neighborhoods or off the main drag. Cities may be reluctant to give up the permitting fees and the feeling of control over “neighborhood character” that they currently enjoy. And the residents who wish they could walk to pick up a loaf of bread or meet a neighbor for a nicer latte than they could make at home are out of luck. While cities should be given every opportunity to appropriately manage their affairs, the state has a compelling interest to step in if a collective-action problem arises.

A similar dynamic was visible last week in Arizona, where the Arizona League of Cities and Towns marshaled opposition against a bill that would have prevented local governments from regulating certain home-design aspects and lot sizes. The bipartisan Arizona Starter Homes Act included text that would have held: “A property owner’s right to use the property owner’s property, protected from unreasonable abridgment by municipal regulation and enforcement, is a matter of statewide concern.”

The cities’ association complained that the bill “failed to contemplate the nuances of municipal planning and the importance of public participation” — code for meetings and review boards that delay projects and drive up costs. Governor Katie Hobbs, influenced by opposition from the cities, as well as the Department of Defense, vetoed the bill.

Municipalities may be rightly jealous of their prerogatives, but those should not include an ability to unduly stifle growth, artificially inflate housing prices, and stymie creative approaches. Most of the strides made in relaxing zoning restrictions have been made in blue cities, which struggle under the heaviest burden of unaffordable housing. Austin, for example, loosened its housing guidelines and has seen house prices avoid the runaway growth that other high-growth urban areas have seen.

No one is proposing allowing power plants to be built on any street corner; we’re not even talking about a McDonald’s. Republicans everywhere should recognize how regulations currently prevent small-business owners from stepping in to provide a community hub in the form of coffee and bagels. Bills like Representative Klicker’s are a way for free-market principles to create a more walkable built environment, with more opportunity for neighbors — and Friends — to come together and build community bonds.

Patrick T. Brown is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where his work with the Life and Family Initiative focuses on developing a robust pro-family economic agenda and supporting families as the cornerstone of a healthy and flourishing society.

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