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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Multifamily development was up sharply in July. The National Association of Home Builders has the report. Multifamily is a construction sector that is often volatile from month to month — it had been down sharply in June. Still, it’s kind of remarkable that new apartment and condo construction turned an otherwise down month for housing starts into an up month. On a related point, the Times has a really detailed multimedia presentation today that models the massing and zoning changes in New York City during the Bloomberg years.
New multifamily development along the East River in Williamsburg. Photo: Beyond My Ken, via Wikimedia Commons.
It’s fulfilling to see all of the new urbanism (literally) that’s happening now, especially in Williamsburg and Long Island City. More units equals a better response to market conditions — a good thing in a city where zoning laws and a scarcity of vacant land led to a chronic housing crisis for the working and middle classes. In addition to the potential relief (over time) to upward pressure on housing costs, the new development is also just really inspiring because of the scale of the transformations that are happening. There’s something satisfying about seeing the imprints of our own time being made on the fabric of the city.
Speaking of which, I had my first grand tour of the new Williamsburg about a month ago, from an old friend who now lives in a condo overlooking the East River on Kent Avenue. We went out to Radegast Hall and Brooklyn Bowl, and walked around the blocks near the waterfront. I’d been to Bedford Avenue a few times over the last decade, but I’d never really explored far beyond the subway station. There’s still some grittiness left in the area, but it’s amazing how thorough the changes to that neighborhood have been since the early 2000s. There has been a ton of new infill development in that part of Brooklyn since it was rezoned in 2005. At night, the streets are full of young people, heading out for drinks or dinner or a live show, or heading home with boyfriends and girlfriends. It’s really very alive, in a way that’s less corporate and managed than much of Manhattan now is. One important point about infrastructure, though: I don’t know how long that part of Brooklyn can keep mimicking the city proper without serious improvements to its sub-par subway service. The whole central part of the neighborhood seems to rely on the Bedford Avenue stop to get into the city. We ended the night around 11:45, and I wound up waiting for more than half an hour, in the Lorimer Street station, for an L train back to Manhattan.
In the short term, it seems like a given that changes like those underway in Williamsburg will have a net inequitable impact on certain residents at the neighborhood level — that is, luxury developments bring wealthier people into a previously undiscovered section, and drive up housing costs for the non-luxury surrounding units. Even with NYC rent regulations, this trend displaces less affluent residents over time — people whose deep reliance on local social bonds makes their displacement that much more painful. In the long term, though, it seems to me, housing costs are determined more regionally than they are at a granular level, and a larger housing stock across a region should temper the upward climb of prices in all but a few places within that region. Historically, since construction of the worst kind of tenements was outlawed, the US urban land market hasn’t produced much new housing for the poor; and it has only produced housing for the middle class sporadically, and with a lot of subsidies. But there are plenty of examples of housing whose occupants became less affluent as neighborhood footprints shifted and regional demand ebbed (e.g., in New York, the Upper West Side for much of the 20th century; and Harlem until even more recently); this is one way, historically, that very solid urban housing stocks have come into the possession of less affluent residents.
But as it becomes more popular, Williamsburg represents a trend in the opposite direction. That is to say, it’s a neighborhood whose fabric was largely shaped by the housing patterns of poor people, in the first place, in the era before comprehensive land use regulation took hold. Betty Smith described a scene from the 1912 neighborhood in the first chapter of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn:
The [tree] grew in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps and it was the only tree that grew out of cement. It grew lushly, but only in the tenement districts.
Basically, a lot of the 19th-century building stock in Williamsburg goes back to the general period that Smith described, when the neighborhood was a classic Victorian city slum. And yet, like the Lower East Side, the East End in London, and the nearer blocks of South Philadelphia, this dense, haphazardly built neighborhood is becoming increasingly affluent, and its gravity is now spawning the development of much more well-appointed new buildings, as well as widespread upgrades to the existing building stock, within its modest and crowded historical fabric.
The Bergen Record has a piece that describes the differing responses by New York and New Jersey to the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. In New York, the Cuomo administration is intent on pushing a buyout program in Long Island that would pay homeowners the pre-storm market values for their properties, and encourage the abandonment of flood-prone areas. In New Jersey, the Christie administration is providing $10,000 subsidies to those who will rebuild and return to the Shore. For what it’s worth, I think Cuomo’s approach is the more sober of the two. But the emotional appeal of Christie’s plan is undeniable, and possibly irresistible in the aftermath of such devastation.