Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Jane Jacobs revisited: density

If you don't want to read the chapter on why density is key to successful cities in Death and Life of the Great American City by Jane Jacobs, you can read Ryan Avent's piece in the New York Times, "One Path to Better Jobs: More Density in Cities."

It's Urban Economics 101.

Also see Cities in Full by Steve Belmont, which is an extended discussion of the importance of density and recentralization.

In my opinion, Belmont's book is probably the most important book in urban studies and planning since Death and Life.

Relatedly, there is an excellent review of Ryan Avent's new Kindle book on cities by Toronto architect Lloyd Alter, "Ryan Avent's The Gated City: Are NIMBYs Killing The Economy? (Book Review)," on Treehugger.

Alter makes the same points as I and others do about Glaeser's argument against historic preservation as somehow anti-center city, an argument that Avent has also adopted.

From the review:

He lists all the usual suspects, the tools that the NIMBYs use to delay stop development: zoning rules, historical designations, public pressure "to preserve neighborhoods, views, and buildings they love from changes they fear."

Now I am not an economist like Edward Glaeser or Ryan Avent, I am an architect and former real estate developer in Toronto. I am also past President of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, and have spent some time thinking about these arguments that have often been used to attack historic preservationists. I am tremulous, criticizing PHD economist types, but they are stepping onto my turf here, and I think that Avent has it backwards.

First of all, I would dispute whether New York or Boston are preventing development of new housing for middle class people; when I come into town I see vast areas of brownfields, empty warehouses ripe for conversion, crummy main streets screaming for redevelopment. But where is the development happening in New York? In the hottest, most expensive parts of town, like Chelsea, where Shigeru Ban designs $3,500 per square foot Shutter Houses. Builders like rich people; that's where the money is.

... You could completely remove the height and density restrictions and developers would still build apartments that were too expensive for the middle class because construction and operation of a building in Manhattan at high density is expensive, period. Monthly operating costs alone in a New York building are higher than rent in other cities. Just hard construction costs of housing in New York, exclusive of land, are probably four times that of a wood frame house in Phoenix. It has less to do with NIMBYs and more to do with concrete vs wood, tight sites vs wide open ones.

Real estate developers like restrictions and controls; it keeps out the riff-raff. Housing was cheap in Phoenix and Houston because the price of entry was low; anyone with a pickup truck and a nailgun could be a builder. There were few controls on sprawl, low gasoline prices let people drive 'til they qualified, the idiotic mortgage interest deductibility encouraged purchasing instead of renting. Mortgages were given out to anyone. The result was inevitable oversupply and market crash. The reason New York and San Francisco did not crash is because of those limits on supply.

The basic point is that almost without exception (parts of San Francisco, DC, Manhattan, and Boston excluded) traditional center cities have abundant amounts of land available for redevelopment, that for the most part, redevelopment is a nonissue, and that in the areas that are in high demand, such as Greenwich Village, were they to be redeveloped as tall buildings, the quality of life reason for why the place is in demand would be eradicated.

Preservation has been a great strategy for retaining and enhancing value in neighborhoods and in adaptively reusing old buildings which in their "old" use (such as manufacturing) are no longer productive assets. A couple examples of this include this piece from Philadelphia's Design Advocacy Group's August newsletter, "Preservation is Good Business" and "Ambitious Plans for Building Where Sears Served Atlanta," from the New York Times about an adaptive reuse project in Atlanta. (There are hundreds if not thousands of examples of this kind of benefit to local revitalization efforts from historic preservation.)

Any economist who can't understand that argument in the context of explaining why some cities prosper and others don't (besides coastal location, economic clusters, and agglomeration economies) probably shouldn't call themselves "urban" economists.

In DC the argument gets a little tricky, because of the height restriction on tall buildings, which isn't a historic preservation law per se, but does have to do with preserving viewsheds with regard to national monuments.

For economic reasons, I am ok with puncturing the height restriction for DC's central business district, although the reality is that within my lifetime, it's too late to have much of an impact on the ability to support new business, innovation, and entrepreneurialism (see the argument in Jane Jacobs about "a large stock of old buildings" being a key factor to the success of center cities).

Sprawl, deconcentration, automobility and the decimation of efficient transit, more than anything, has led to the death of center cities. Urban NIMBYism is a problem, but it is a dependent variable that is a minor factor compared to the general direction of metropolitan economies being focused on sprawl.

That being said, Ryan's piece _on density_ is extremely well-written.

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