New York City: A Century of Zoning

The Equitable Building from Nassau Street. Photo: Theo Mackey Pollack.

The last straw. The 1913 Equitable Building led to passage of the 1916 law.

Today is the 100th anniversary of New York City’s original zoning ordinance. In commemoration of a century of land use regulation (it was also America’s first zoning law), the local chapter of the AIA has published Zoning at 100, which includes a number of essays by top architects, planning officials, and scholars, looking back, and looking forward. (Thanks to H. for the link!) Authors include Robert A.M. Stern, Bill Rudin, Carl Weisbrod, and Gina Pollara. Looking forward to finding some time to read these.

Here are a few more pictures I’ve taken of the massive 1913 Equitable Building, located at 120 Broadway, which put the issue of development massing at the forefront of city politics, and led to the law.

Spatial and Tactile Urbanism

TwoBridgesJune2016My interest in urbanism has recently shifted to absorbing its visual elements and textures. Working in Lower Manhattan has given me a chance to process the city’s massive urban fabric much more deeply. I use my lunch hours to explore, and I try to go slowly. Also, my S.O. lives in Battery Park City, so I’m often here in the evenings. Being in the city has led me to more photography and less writing. I’ve been able to absorb common law urbanism on a spatial, tactile level: walking the old blocks with their pavements of slate, cobblestone, and concrete; studying the varied architecture, from pitched-roof, colonial row houses to futuristic Art Deco skyscrapers; sitting on park benches in triangles and churchyards; touching the iron and stone and cement. It sometimes surprises me how much there still is to discover in this embryonic core of New York, and how the organic city still lives and exerts its patterns, in spite of all the modern forces that promote homogeneity.

Since I’ve had less to say lately, I’m going to start posting some of the pictures I’ve been taking, in place of frequent commentary. I will add links to Flickr albums with particular themes, and will backdate them to (roughly) when the pictures were taken. (I was hoping to embed entire albums directly into the LT page, but that turned out to be more time consuming than I can handle, given the amount of material I’d like to share. So, a cover photo that links to the Flickr album will have to do, for now). Hope my readers enjoy. And please do comment on the photos. : )

One last thing: if you have a Flickr or Yahoo account, please SIGN IN. Doing so will prevent you from having to occasionally click through distracting ads when navigating my albums. Thanks!

Should America’s Condo Laws be Reformed?

432 Park. Source: Macklowe Properties / CIM. (Fair use.)

432 Park. Source: Macklowe Properties / CIM. (Fair use.)

Matthew Gordon Lasner, who teaches at Hunter College, believes they should. (He also provides a nice, succinct history of residential shared-ownership arrangements in the United States.) There has been an uptick recently in the amount of ink spilled about luxury condominiums as cash-stashes, rather than residences. The Times has been running a series called ‘Towers of Secrecy’, and New York magazine had a long-form article last June about the same phenomenon. The statistic that struck me most from the New York article:

The Census Bureau estimates that 30 percent of all apartments in the quadrant from 49th to 70th Streets between Fifth and Park are vacant at least ten months a year.

So, in a city with no affordable market housing, much the best residential real estate sits almost completely vacant. Wonderful. If the laws can be tweaked to discourage this, they should be. Lasner suggests limits on the numbers of absentee or anonymous buyers — I think those kinds of measures could help.

Still, the results of this development trend are a mixed bag for New York City, even in the realm of social equity. When I worked on Mount Laurel analysis at Rutgers (for New Jersey’s constitutionally-mandated affordable housing programs), one of the factors that we analyzed was filtering — or, the tendency of new, market-rate units to take some of the price pressure off of the existing housing stock. In theory, at least, a larger number of units in a particular region will bring down the degree of competition for housing units, across the board. So, even the development of incredibly expensive luxury units ought to have some knock-on effect for housing affordability in the local market, by taking wealthy buyers out of competition for (and gentrification of) existing units in the same city.

111 West 57. Source: SHoP Architects. (Fair use.)

111 West 57. Source: SHoP Architects. (Fair use.)

Finally, on a purely aesthetic level, I do like the architecture of many of the city’s new sliver skyscrapers. Vishaan Chakrabarti, in particular (who led the design of 111 West 57th Street, above), has an incredible eye, and a vision of urbanism that goes far beyond luxury investment units. Technology allows for the development of slender, elegant towers that were physically impossible in the past. They represent the forefront of engineering and design, and some of them are truly striking. Beautiful architecture — even if it contains private spaces — can still bring value to everyone who spends time in the city.

The Future is Lighted with LEDs

LED lighting at fountains in Trafalgar Square, London. Photo: David Iliff, License: CC-BY-SA 3.0.

LED lighting in Trafalgar Square, London. Image: David Iliff (CC-BY-SA 3.0).

Fast Company has an article about the future of LED lighting, and its potential to alter the settings in which it’s used. The piece seems like a bit of a plug for Philips, and its Hue platform, but the substance is really on the cutting edge. One could easily imagine complex and creative lighting schemes becoming a major component of of the design and aesthetics end of urban planning. International Dark Sky Association already has a model lighting ordinance; the potential for outdoor mood lighting, productivity lighting, and safety lighting just adds to the scope of the artificial lighting questions that will inevitably be considered and mediated by land use laws. And it will dovetail quite nicely with other aesthetic components — what I would call mood-zoning (color palettes, scent design) — that can permit very creative distinctions between planned places. This piece is sure to get anyone’s imagination going.

Looking Backwards: the Kowloon Walled City


The WSJ has a neat documentary about Hong Kong’s late, great Kowloon Walled City, which was torn down just about 20 years ago this spring. The KWC has intrigued me ever since I saw a late-night documentary about its imminent demolition when I was about 10 years old. The KWC’s legal history is an interesting factor in how it came to be: The tiny plot of land that housed the neighborhood was a no-man’s-land of disputed territory, technically Chinese, though ungoverned by China or the Crown colony during British rule, until 1997.

The absence of a sovereign legal authority led to an almost purely laissez-faire development pattern, which, in the midst of an intensely competitive land market like Hong Kong’s, meant extreme density and a lack of both sunlight and adequate sanitation. But in addition to its infamous depravity, the KWC also spurred some incredibly resourceful activities, inexpensive shelter for a lot of people, and an intense attachment by many of its residents. Ultimately, the creativeness and mystery of KWC strike me as its most interesting elements.

What’s there today? A park.

Zoned Out: Update

11th-and-V-zoning-map

Are these killing the next generation’s chance to obtain an economic foothold?

Here are two new articles dealing with the relationship between excessive land use regulation and the lack of affordable housing in desirable metropolitan regions: the first, from Reihan Salam, is something of a polemic (in places), but his analysis strikes me as mostly substantively accurate, and he has embedded links to a bunch of other authors (across the philosophical spectrum) who are making similar points. The other is from Next City, and it deals, again, specifically with the housing costs in the San Francisco Bay area, and ties these costs to the low numbers of housing permits that are issued across the region, in spite of stratospheric demand. The attention coming out of the SF region about housing costs seems greater to me than that which is originating in the New York City region, the other very expensive American metropolis. I suspect that this disparity is due to the resigned cynicism of most New Yorkers about the cost of everything.

On Land Use Regulation and Housing Costs

Source: USGS.

Source: USGS.

Tech Crunch has a very thorough article by Kim-Mai Cutler, focusing on the culprits behind stratospheric housing costs in the San Francisco Bay area and elsewhere: outdated and excessive land use regulations. The sad part of this entire phenomenon, which LT has covered extensively, is that many of the regulations that have become problematic were enacted for well-intentioned reasons, but have evolved and aggregated into political roadblocks that are displacing middle-class residents, foreclosing on people’s opportunities, and entrenching the advantages of those who got there first — wherever there is — versus those who might have something new to offer. Cutler’s piece is good reading, and has nice visuals. So let’s keep belaboring this point until it becomes conventional wisdom: Bad zoning, and its myopic politics, are strangling us. We need to dismantle the antiquated frameworks, and replace them with flexible new approaches that are both more equitable and much more pro-development.

Sustainability After Sandy

Sustainability principles have become such a fallback in discussions about developing new neighborhoods, and redeveloping old ones, that they’ve almost become cliches. Still, I think it’s important to ask the questions that get raised by basic sustainability analysis — and I think there remains a lot of room for planners and developers to go beyond stale platitudes and explore new ways to build fairer and stronger communities. Hurricane Sandy tested each of the three big elements of the sustainability triad: environment, economy, and social equity. Now that it’s been almost a year since the storm hit, it’s an interesting time to take stock and ask: How has Greater New York responded to the post-Sandy crisis?

Post-Sandy Manhattan. Source: Hybirdd, via Wikimedia Commons.

Post-Sandy Manhattan. Source: Hybirdd, via Wikimedia Commons.

The current issue of BOMA magazine has a brief article on this question, as it relates to commercial landlords. (Flip through to page 26, where it begins.) Many of the points discussed have to do with creating workable action plans for before environmental disasters — a simple but apparently crucial adaptation measure. A lack of communications was apparently a major stumbling block in the post-Sandy period, even at the top of the city’s economic pyramid.

In a twist of irony, poorer communities sometimes benefit from the inherent sustainability of their older urban infrastructures in ways that suburban communities do not. The different proportions of residents who lost power in East Orange (a streetcar suburb whose neighborhoods mostly date from around 1900) and West Orange (more of a Gatsby-era suburb, with a lot of post-war development), in the weeks after Sandy, was a great example. There still hasn’t been much talk about finding the money to bury utility lines, though.