Piano Tuner Defeats Casino Agency — But Why?

Here’s some good news: in New Jersey, the government can’t take your land for a public purpose unless it has, actually, um, specified a public purpose. That’s good. But here’s the bad news: in Atlantic City, a state agency called the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority has spent the past five years trying to do precisely that, to a local couple. Specifically, the agency tried to leverage the state’s power of eminent domain to take away Charles and Linda Birnbaum’s three-story building and “bank” it for an unspecified future use.

Here’s some human context about the decision, from Amy Rosenberg at the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Birnbaum retained the right to keep the home his parents, who were Holocaust survivors, bought in 1969, because the state’s Casino Reinvestment Development Authority could not provide assurance that its plans for the property and surrounding area “would proceed in the reasonably foreseeable future,” the court ruled…. Birnbaum’s mother, Dora, lived in the house on Oriental Avenue until 1998, when she was killed during a home invasion. Birnbaum, who lives in Hammonton with his wife, rents out the upper floors and uses the first floor for his piano-tuning business.

Your tax dollars at work, New Jersey. It’s good that the court said no. But maybe this case is a signal that it’s time for the state to stop acting as a legal henchman for casino developers. Casino gambling has failed to bring back Atlantic City, after more than four decades. It has, however, destroyed much of what once remained of the traditional seaside urbanism of America’s prime Victorian-era beach resort. And it has resulted in perverse scenarios like the one at the center of this lawsuit.

The Defeat of California’s SB-827

Sad to report that a promising and important piece of legislation went down to defeat this week in the California State House. SB-827 , placed in the hopper by Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), would have superseded municipal zoning ordinances to permit five-story housing development within half a mile of most railroad stations, and within a quarter mile of certain major bus routes.

California, of course, has some of the highest home prices in the world. More than its booming tech economy, a resistance to new development, combined with decades of population growth, has driven the crisis. Local political resistance comes from two sources: sentiment and shrewdness. Between residents who hate change, and those who realize that their own property values are inflated (at least while the music keeps playing) by an artificial shortage, it is usually possible to muster opposition to any new proposed development if the permission-granting institution is only accountable to municipal residents. SB-827 would have overridden the local political resistance to new development in the parcels most able to support higher densities than what is presently allowed.

The shortage of affordable housing in the metropolitan regions of California — as in the regions surrounding New York City, Washington, and several of the capitals of Western Europe — is perhaps the most salient driving force behind rising inequality in the West. High housing costs block people from moving to the cities where the opportunities exist; they shut people out of opportunities to build equity in real estate; and they enshrine the economic advantages of those who inherit, or can afford to purchase, real estate in hot markets. Ryan Avent wrote about this phenomenon at length in his well-written piece, The Gated City. LT has belabored it for years. And my recent article advocating for a left-right consensus on zoning reform is focused on the costs of bad zoning policy.

The good news is that, although SB-827 has been defeated, it has also significantly raised the profile of the nexus between zoning and housing supplies. The expectation (and certainly my hope) is that a revised version of the bill will be presented soon. It is a hopeful sign that in the California State House, even the bill’s opponents were forced to concede that the diagnosis was accurate, even as they rejected the prescription. This issue is not going away, and neither is the impetus to address it. I don’t think we can (or should) be returning to a Victorian-era, common-law land use policy, where bare-bones building codes, private covenants, and nuisance lawsuits are the only restraints on private development. BUT, we do need to move in the direction of significantly liberalizing the density restrictions on housing development in competitive real estate markets. SB-827 would have been a major step in that direction; and with the heightened awareness that its debate has caused, creative variations on the proposal can now be tested in the laboratories of democracy.

Only with a lot more supply — new units — can the cost of housing be returned to some sort of equilibrium with people’s incomes. And only with such a change can we hope to create in the economic centers of the West a tangibly more egalitarian economy.

Kunstler, Techno-Ambivalence, and the Social Arts

The City Rises. Umberto Boccioni (1910).

The American Conservative’s New Urbs section has an insightful new piece by James Howard Kunstler, entitled “The Infinite Suburb is an Academic Joke“. In a dryly funny essay, Kunstler takes on the group-think of elite urban planning schools for its one-sided techno-optimism (or, as he calls it, techno-narcissism). Among other errors, he cites the willingness to buy into an anodyne vision of driverless cars, drone deliveries, and “smart” suburban neighborhoods (whatever those may be), as the emerging vision of default American settlement patterns. He also notes a continuing obliviousness to energy considerations; and a subtle disdain for traditional urbanism (in spite of its time-proven viability). It’s an important piece, worth reading.

Like Kunstler, I find it increasingly difficult to abide the almost willfully-blind optimism of those who believe that the answers to humanity’s most profound civilizational challenges will be found through information technology. Faith that IT can be used to solve our most intractable problems is fast becoming the 21st century’s version of the faith in social science (and its attendant ideologies) that led to so many catastrophes in the last century. Both have a common origin: an intoxication with the recent achievements of human ingenuity supporting a fallacious belief that our technical genius can somehow (and soon!) be systematized into processes that will resolve human problems (e.g., individual psychology, law and culture, and political economy) that have always plagued civilizations; and that have always been best addressed through social arts that draw, in the words of Holmes, on experience — not logic.

Techno-optimism doubles down on the essential fallacy of the 20th century, while a close study of tradition — including traditional urbanism, in the world of planning — learns from the mistakes of the past. By no means would I advocate a blind adoption of past practices. But a conscious adherence to those that have worked is defensible. Techno-optimism, on the other hand, is the product of a broader fallacy of conventional wisdom in our time: one which holds that because we now have the tools to do things that people in the past have been unable to do (or, similarly, because we have access to information that previous generations did not have), we are ipso facto smarter than any generation that has lived before us. And yet, in fact, the opposite may be true: because information is so readily available, we commit less actual knowledge to our memories; and because we have advanced, technical tools that carry out so many repetitive tasks, we learn fewer hard skills, and fewer of the granular nuances of those that we do learn. A more cautious approach would acknowledge that the more rigorous demands presented by the technical limits of the past may have honed a more refined set of skills in the practitioners of those times, and that we may have much to learn from studying the time-tested arts of social customs.

The traditional Western social arts include law, religion, philosophy, rhetoric, fine arts (to an extent), politics, and (sadly) war. To these I would add business, which was not studied as an art in Classical or Renaissance/Enlightenment times, largely because it had not yet emerged as a topic of legitimate inquiry. Nevertheless, business clearly fits with the other social arts more than it does with any of the hard sciences. I use the term social arts here, intentionally, to make a point. These studies are much broader and more flexible than the modern social sciences. They are studies of how human behavior can be influenced, managed, or changed. They are understood to be skills that draw on long experience; the art in these fields consists of having gained the sophistication to intuit which tools to use for particular effects in a certain set of circumstances. It is presumed that their subject matter is too complicated to be understood with total precision, or to be addressed by a universal approach. In some ways the work of a social artist appears to resemble the work of a magician more than it does the work of a scientist. A judge’s gavel, an architect’s pencil, or a priest’s censer may seem more like a wand than like a tool. Legal, aesthetic, and religious doctrines may, at times, seem more like spells or superstitions than hard knowledge. And yet the practitioners who know something about their craft are able to achieve results. Urban planning, too, is a social art — not a first level social art, like those named above; but a subordinate hybrid of fine arts (i.e., architecture) and law. Today, because of zoning and other factors, politics and business have taken on much greater influences than they traditionally held. Religion has become an increasingly peripheral factor in Western planning. Nevertheless, the attempt to turn urban planning into a science gave us strip malls, cloverleaf interchanges, and Euclidean zoning; urban planning, properly treated as an art, gave us Pompeii, Venice, and the great cities of the Victorian period.

The abandonment of the time-tested wisdom of the social arts in favor of the radical, but more technical (and therefore apparently more sophisticated) experimentation with the social sciences was not entirely stupid or negative; it was likely a necessary step in the process of incorporating the sudden flood of new knowledge and experiences that had come with the rapid expansion of science and industry in the 19th century. But it was too one-sided, and it became a prime example of a proverbial baby being thrown out with the bathwater. At least some of the nihilism and anomie of the 20th century can be attributed not just to the pace of scientific change, but to the dumping of cultural knowledge that might have helped to ground individuals, communities, and their institutions while those larger technical changes were being processed. It is not an unrelated phenomenon that, over the same time, buildings devolved from cathedral architecture to Brutalism; or that governments devolved from kingdoms and representative democracies to include fascism, communism, and consumer capitalism. The danger of our current intoxication with technology is that we may go through a parallel, and perhaps greater, dumping of valuable cultural knowledge to the one that took place in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The value of studying the traditional methods that have worked throughout history is that they can provide a context for processing rapid change.

Safety Codes, Politics, and the Crowding of Old Manhattan

‘Old law’ tenements on New York’s Lower East Side. Theo Mackey Pollack.

My recently published piece highlights how architects and builders used resourceful massing devices to save scarce urban land when developing many of the Late Victorian apartment buildings in New York City. So I was intrigued by a journal article I recently found that examines the city’s massing in the same period from a different angle: the restrictive height regulations that governed buildings and even, in the pre-zoning era, placed artificial restrictions on builders that may have exceeded the requirements of safety. In Keeping the Tenants Down: Height Restrictions and Manhattan’s Tenement House System, 1885-1930, Professor Michael Montgomery highlights the history of tenement laws and other safety codes in New York City during that time, shining a spotlight on how they limited the ability of the market to respond to the demand for more and better inexpensive housing units.

A bunch of examples of pre-law, old-law (dumbbell/airshaft), and new-law (courtyard) tenements can be found in my photo galleries of Chinatown and the Lower East Side.

On the Outskirts of Town

Casey Bill Weldon, 1936.

We gonna leave here, mama. I don’t want you staying here.
I don’t need no iceman, I’m gonna get me a Frigidaire
That’s what I’m gonna do when we get on the outskirts of town.

The promise of the modern American suburb was a measure of independence. Given how annoying the constant interaction of urban life can be, the suburbs seemed to offer a wholesome alternative. And when the suburbs were being built as physical towns, they offered urbanism on a more human scale than big, industrial cities. But what happened when the suburbs, because of evolving land use policies, essentially became the permanent outskirts of town? When the development of urban nodes — with their opportunities for social and commercial interactions — was banned within walking distance of people’s new homes?

In some cases, suburban developments offered a space to create artificial fiefdoms; a separation of households from entire categories of interactions. Many blue-collar American men faced the first green shoots of female economic and political parity in the period preceding the suburban boom. (American women in the 1940s had proven their economic power by essentially running the domestic industrial system while the men who were their peers were in Europe and the Pacific, fighting World War II.) A certain type of American man would likely have recognized that his tenuous status was in flux. Having the iceman hanging around was not a pleasant thought!

It is well documented that mid-20th century suburban development patterns helped prolong the racial disparities that characterized American life. My question is, to what extent did the post-war land-use policies also slow the progress of feminism? And to what extent did the men who participated in these developments recognize and value that aspect of the physical forms of these communities? Having listened to American women who lived through the mid-20th century, it is hard not to recognize how stifling of an arrangement that iteration of suburbia could be.

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.

Where Will it Flood as Sea Levels Rise?

We hear more and more about the threat to coastal cities from rising sea levels. But being able to visualize the local spatial implications of this phenomenon brings it home in an entirely new way. One of the most interesting tools is the Surging Seas Risk Zone Map, from Climate Central, a Princeton-based independent organization that promotes public awareness about climate change. Here, you can search for any location, and visualize the contours of new shorelines with sea levels that have risen in increments of feet and meters.

Here’s a map of what would happen in the Newark Bay basin by 2100 if sea levels rose by more than two meters, as envisioned by a recent analysis of the potential loss of significant Antarctic ice sheets:

NewarkBasinSLPlus7ft

Urban New Jersey, plus 7 feet of sea level. Source: Climate Central, Princeton, N.J.

In this scenario, Newark Airport, the entire Seaport area, and much of the Ironbound has been flooded. In addition, Newark Bay appears to have swallowed up most of the salt meadows, and the blocks along the tidal portion of the Passaic River are under water. Finally, take a look at Hoboken and downtown Jersey City, on the far right: the Hudson River waterfront has essentially become a barrier island, while the blocks leading back toward the Palisades have been saturated.

Meanwhile, here’s a look at some of the coastal areas of New York City, under the same scenario:

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Coastal New York, plus 7 feet of sea level. Source: Climate Central, Princeton, N.J.

The submerged areas on this map (e.g., the Rockaways, Coney Island, Howard Beach, Canarsie, Red Hook, and the South Shore of Staten Island) line up almost perfectly with the areas that experienced the most destruction from Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Keep in mind that these maps offer a vision of what could happen with just a seven-foot (7′) rise in global sea levels, which is now being held out as a plausible scenario for 2100. Some of the projections to the year 2500 show global sea levels rising 49 meters.

Anti-Urbanism and Edward Hopper?

Night Shadows. Edward Hopper (1921).

Night Shadows. Edward Hopper (1921).

I recently read Tom Slater’s 2002 article, “Fear of the City: 1882-1967: Edward Hopper and the Discourse of Anti-Urbanism.” It’s really a fascinating piece. Slater argues that much of the imagery in Hopper’s art is part of a deep and old tradition of suspicion of cities in the American worldview. Slater claims that a “negative discourse of the city … began with the pastoral musings of Thomas Jefferson and was furthered significantly by the transcendental contemplations of Ralph Waldo Emerson, [and] grew stronger and became embedded in social life through powerful representations of urban malaise in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American literature, art, and social theory.” He then closely analyzes four pieces by Hopper — Night Shadows, Nighthawks, Approaching a City, and Sunday — to illustrate his thesis. I strongly recommend reading the piece.

Slater cites Hopper’s childhood in then-rural Nyack, N.Y. as the source of the artist’s skepticism about city life, and he describes the contrast between the ideals of small-town America and the exploding urbanism of large, east coast cities that occurred in the late 19th century. Of Hopper’s relocation to New York City — where he would spend most of his life — Slater writes:

Hopper lived through a time of continuous changes to the cityscape, and changes in the neighbourhood where he lived, Greenwich Village, were as profound as in any area of the city. Hopper was dismayed by the ‘crushing of Washington Square’ by the erection of tall buildings around the park which he saw as ‘huge coarse and swollen mounds—blunt, clumsy and bleaching the sunlight with their dismal pale yellow sides’ (citation omitted). Such signs of unruliness and dislocation were serious violations of all that he had been brought up to believe, that humans should be in harmony with nature and situated away from anything which would disrupt this most Victorian, even puritan, way of existence.

(Slater, 141.)

It seems to me that by the late Victorian period, some of the contrarian hallmarks of early 19th-century Romanticism — especially, the idea that humans should make an effort to live in harmony with nature — had calcified into a set of bourgeois notions of propriety, in somewhat the same way as the countercultural values of the 1960s have been repackaged into the predictable platitudes of Whole Foods advertising, today.

Nighthawks. Edward Hopper (1942).

Nighthawks. Edward Hopper (1942).

Slater sees Hopper’s haunting imagery of dark, foreboding, and lonely urban scenes as part of a long (and presumably unwarranted) tradition of city-hatred in American thought, rooted in this culturally idealized view of nature. He cites this larger narrative as a key source of the American political establishment’s long hostility toward urban interests. In that, Slater identifies something real: There certainly is a tradition in America of ignorant hostility toward big cities. (Is it not the inevitable reciprocal for a country with a frontier mentality to also have some degree of contempt for those who choose to live in more thickly settled locations, rather than strike out for the West — or the suburbs?) But I would hesitate to assign Hopper’s work to that thread. His city scenes are layered: Though often dark and alienating, his settings are also mysterious, enchanting, and beautiful. Inhabitants frequently seem conflicted, or unfulfilled, or stoic, but not necessarily miserable. These internal contradictions remain true of large cities and their inhabitants today. To acknowledge them, and their inherent sadness, is not to malign the city. It is simply to observe it honestly.

Furthermore, one must concede the reasonableness of Hopper’s skepticism — if that’s what it is — about many of the circumstances that he depicted in New York and elsewhere. The early urban planning movement was made up of people whose biases were quite the opposite of anti-urban, and who were driven by precisely the same visceral and moral reactions that Hopper seems to have experienced in response to the excesses of industrial urban life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There is something undeniably harsh about a society whose excesses are not tempered by humane concerns. This is something that radical, reformist, and conservative thinkers all observed in Hopper’s time (and continue to observe, today). Its expression is hardly the hallmark of a puritanical, anti-urban mind. More to the point, as I interpret his images, the object of Hopper’s disapprobation is not urbanism, per se, but the heavy industry that pervaded cities in his lifetime, and the rapid change that it imposed on those in its path, including its disruptive impact on the individuals and traditions that required stability and patience to flourish. Though not mentioned in Slater’s piece, House by the Railroad has long struck me as one of the most haunting and tragic of all Hopper’s works. Notably, it is set not in a large city, at all, but in the small Hudson Valley town of Haverstraw, N.Y.:

Edward Hopper. House by the Railroad (1925).

House by the Railroad. Edward Hopper (1925).

Slater’s article is fascinating on many levels, and I strongly recommend reading the entire piece.

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.