The Lubbock Mews – a libertarian approach to revitalizing Lubbock’s struggling neighborhoods

For Lubbockites who want to see the historic neighborhoods of our city revitalize, the rejection of the recent bond election has led to a challenging reality.

It’s unfortunate absolutely essential road repair won’t happen. Along plans for downtown, the roads targeted were throughout the city in a fair distribution. Lubbock will now go the longest it ever has in the modern era without passing a bond package to reconstruct its streets.

Few should disagree how badly the final portions of the 34th Street rebuild are needed, for example. The interest rate the bond received would have also been a multi-decade long low, one of the lowest interest rates Lubbock would have ever had for a bond.

Until a road bond package Lubbock’s citizens find acceptable can be passed, it leaves the city with what can be done with the stroke of a pen to create solutions to address the continued decline of population, families, and property values in older portions of the city.

One solution is to apply a libertarian perspective to the problem.

When a libertarian thinks of a city, they think about property value. In order for a city to be functional, the property values of a city need to be as high as possible so property taxes can be as low as possible while still generating the amount of money necessary for city services and maintenance.

In Lubbock, we are nowhere near balancing the cost of maintenance.

In Lubbock, we are nowhere near balancing the cost of maintenance.

There’s something north of 3,300 miles of road in Lubbock and we struggle to maintain just the major roads. Right now, it costs around $700,000 to $1,000,000 to redo one of those miles and typical streets need to be redone every 30-50 years. A back of the envelope look at this is Lubbock needs a road bond about once every 5 to 6 years in the $100-$120 million range. On a yearly basis, that would indicate a $20 million road deficit gap in our budget each year.

And that’s just the financing needed for major arterials and collectors.

There’s little we can do to decrease the cost of maintenance. The roads we’ve built are the roads we’ve built and we will have to pay for their upkeep forever.

That only leaves one option to trying to right the city’s finances – we need to do more and get more value from the areas all these roads service. The best way to observe this is a kind of financial analysis called a value-per-acre analysis (VPA). A VPA standardizes the property values in a city based on how much acreage each corresponding parcel is relative to the property value and taxes it generates.

We’re in luck because in February of this year, Julio Carrillo with architecture firm Parkhill published a VPA analysis of Lubbock as a white paper showing the scale of the problem. Older areas of Lubbock are seen as a sea of blue indicating they contain very little property value and therefore generate limited amounts of property taxes.

As they are currently configured, these areas are not valuable enough to generate property taxes sufficient for their upkeep.

What’s great about a VPA is the data shown in them is actionable. Lubbock’s City Council can create policies to address areas with low VPAs.

A VPA shows that areas with more flexibility in terms of land uses typically have higher property values. This makes sense from a real estate and free-market standpoint and higher number of land uses means a developer has a larger menu of options to chose from in order to get the greatest value or best use of that land.

The problem with Lubbock’s sea of blue is those areas are limited to only one kind of land use and only one specific type of that land use – detached single family dwellings. By overly restricting the types of activities that can happen in a neighborhood, city regulations stifle redevelopment and innovation.

Why shouldn’t someone be able to operate a neighborhood-friendly business from their home?

Why shouldn’t someone be able to operate a neighborhood-friendly business from their home?

If a talented barber couldn’t afford the cost of leasing a commercial property, what harm would it be for them to start their career in their remodeled living room?

Many older neighborhoods have beautiful parks. If a homeowner next to one wanted to convert their front room into a café, would that not create a desirable amenity for the community to have?

A small-scale Zumba or yoga studio with 6-10 participants a session could easily happen in most Lubbock houses. It wouldn’t be a large investment to convert a home into a live-and-work exercise studio.

Some older Lubbock citizens may remember this kind of activity was once allowed in our neighborhoods. The city didn’t ban home-based hair salons until the 1960s. Multiple neighborhoods had “candy ladies” or “candy men,” where someone would convert their front room into a soda fountain shop and sell various hard candies.

Neighborhoods and the properties in neighborhoods lost value when the city imposed more restrictive land-use policies that forced neighborhood-friendly business activity out of the community. The biggest evidence for this is in East Lubbock, where in exchange for urban renewal dollars to build modern houses, business activities like bodegas and pharmacies were forced to relocate. Even today, East Lubbock residents lament the devil’s bargain that was urban renewal because it ultimately destroyed the fabric of community and economic activity keeping their neighborhoods together.

Removing business activity has deleterious effects in other ways. One of the core strategies for decreasing property crime is to focus on creating “24-hour” cities. Property crime is a crime of opportunity. It may seem paradoxical, but more dense environments with a mixture of single-family, duplexes, and quadplexes that also allow for neighborhood-friendly business activity have lower per capita rates of property crime because people being out and about acts as a deterrent.

The opportunities for redevelopment don’t stop at converting individual parcels into new uses. There are even more transformative options for revitalization when thinking bigger.

Mew is an old-timey word referring to small streets between thoroughfares where stables were located.

One such idea is to rethink Lubbock’s dirt alleyways as becoming “mews.” A mew is an old-timey word referring to small streets between thoroughfares where stables were located. These small streets were too narrow for carriages and only permitted pedestrian or equestrian activity. Over time, the stables became converted into small dwellings and the mews became pedestrian-only walkways.

What if Lubbock’s dirt alleyways became modern mews?

Instead of the typical one-fifth or quarter acre plot being zoned for a single-family home, what if they were allowed to become double-sided lots with one side facing a traditional Lubbock street and the other an internal pedestrian-only mews?

Doing this would solve a longstanding conundrum in Lubbock. How to justify paving non-productive dirt alleyways. Everyone knows Lubbock’s poorly maintained dirt alleyways are a problem, but simply paving them would only add cost to the city’s budget if it was not also tied to new value creation.

A street where property owners agree to add mews residences, small dwelling units in their large backyards facing the mews, would easily increase the net value of the properties enough to support paving the alleyway. The city of Lubbock already does curbside trash collection in some parts of town and the current cost difference between that and dirt alleyway dumpsters is not large, especially when taking into account the new property taxes generated from the increased value of having an addition dwelling per parcel.

This kind of development allows for the homeowner to maximize the value of their land by creating a new source of potential income. In the Tech Terrace neighborhood, a backhouse can rent for more than $800 a month.

What’s exciting is some of the hypotheticals mentioned above are soon to become potential realities. The City Council is set to vote for an updated zoning and codes document, called a Unified Development Code (UDC), in the next few months. In this UDC there are proposed changes to allow for greater flexibility of land uses in older portions of the city. These new zoning standards are called “overlay districts” and they allow for a property owner to access new neighborhood-friendly land uses.

The new kinds of land uses were carefully crafted to ensure they would only be value positive for a neighborhood. Activities like operating an oil-changing or car-repair shop from a home will not be allowed. No loud activities or ones that would clog up streets either.

With adoption of these new zoning and land use standards, Lubbock’s City Council will be unlocking the free market to right the city’s finances with innovative land uses and new economic activity so we can afford to maintain the roads we have, and maybe even get rid of all the dirt that should be paved as well.

The loss of the bond election was unfortunate, but even its passage would have paled in comparison to the transformative potential libertarian redevelopment policy can have.

And this can be done with the stroke of a pen.