Small Projects, Big Cities: An Abundance of Gems

I have a new essay at City Journal, in which I’ve reviewed Jim Heid’s recent book, Building Small: A Toolkit for Real Estate Entrepreneurs, Civic Leaders, and Great Communities. In this ULI Press publication, Heid, a Bay Area developer, offers a genuinely holistic and comprehensive approach to developing city lots (or combinations thereof) as small urban projects. His approach fits within the tradition by which cities have customarily been built: one small piece at a time.

Heid’s exploration shows how building small urban projects remains possible, and can still yield excellent results; but he also illustrates how the bureaucratic, regulatory, and financial parameters of present-day development culture have taken a timeless, iterative, and once-efficient process, and transformed it into something that is often much more difficult and expensive than the proponents of healthy growth should want it to be. This fits, unfortunately, with much of what we have covered at LegalTowns over the years.

On a practical note, Building Small offers readers a wealth of topical templates (hence, the ‘toolkit’ title), covering development tasks that range from structuring a special-purpose entity, to stacking funding from diverse sources, to working with attorneys (and identifying the qualities of good ones). Heid’s book is recommended, especially for planners and lawyers who value the development of coherent townscapes, and whose contributions to code development would be enriched by a clearer understanding of the small builder’s perspective. Small projects make great towns and cities.

Victorian brownstones on Carroll Street in Brooklyn. Most neighborhoods were traditionally developed lot by lot. This practice continued in American cities through the industrial era. While several adjoining lots were often built in tandem, the inherent potential for diversity on a single block, tempered by consistent spatial dimensions, due to building-lot sizes, fostered a balance between a spontaneous richness and an overarching order. This deepened over time, as individual owners modified their structures, or combined lots to create larger buildings with dimensions that were often neat multiples of the most prevalent, smaller houses. This quality of ordered irregularity is typical of older, traditional urban settings, like Park Slope, seen here; it is often absent from master-planned, strictly-zoned communities.

The Intrinsic Value of Poor (or Adaptable) Neighborhoods

Howard Husock’s The Poor Side of Town: and Why We Need It looks at the history of American housing policy since Jacob Riis. Exploring the social and economic value of poor neighborhoods, Husock examines how urban processes are intertwined with civil society, and their traditional role in allowing Americans (especially migrants) to shape their lives and obtain an initial foothold in a commercial society. Husock also explores how a century of American public policy — in particular, the growth of prescriptive land use regulations and the failures of large-scale public housing — has interrupted or distorted the participatory, resourceful urban adaptations that once fostered new communities and small-scale property wealth. My review of this timely and thoughtful book is now up at National Review.

Pace Jacob Riis, many working-class neighborhoods of the industrial age, like this street in Philadelphia circa 1910, comprised small rowhouses or other human-scaled housing options. Source: Helen Parrish, National Housing Association (1911).

Besim Hakim on Traditional Urban Growth

The historic center of Tunis, as it appeared circa 1890. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In the spring, I mentioned the work of Besim Hakim in an article at TAC about the traditional urbanism of the Mediterranean. Since then, I’ve had the good fortune to speak with Hakim (an incredibly kind and knowledgeable man); and also to read an earlier book of his, Arabic-Islamic Cities, in which he laid out his findings about traditional urban planning rules from the Islamic world. Here’s an excerpt from a review that I offered:

Excellent research and analysis. The author provides an in-depth study of the traditional rules and urban forms that shaped urban growth in the Islamic west (i.e., the Maghreb and Andalucía). Much of what he uncovers and writes about (including treatises by medieval jurists and observations of repeating patterns) adds significant depth to the conventional present-day, Western understanding of urban genesis.

The author’s primary case study is the old city of Tunis, which sits near the Mediterranean coast, close to the site of ancient Carthage. For more than a thousand years, Tunis grew according to a bundle of simple and flexible traditions. The author’s maps and diagrams illuminate these visually — and an accompanying narrative provides context and explanation. Topics range from the small (e.g., party walls, windows, houses, and cul-de-sacs) to the large (e.g., marketplaces, religious sites, defensive walls, and citywide patterns).

Many unique elements of Islamic and Mediterranean urbanism (e.g., covered markets, privacy measures shaped by religious traditions, and arcades over public streets) are treated carefully. Citations to the Quran and Hadith illuminate the cultural aspects of the Islamic components (or justifications) of the urban form. (A later book by the same author, Mediterranean Urbanism, traces a variety of similar urban phenomena from ancient times down through the Byzantine Empire to the building practices of Christian Europe.)

This is a valuable piece of scholarship that is focused on the traditional, sustainable building patterns of vernacular urbanism. Urban planners, lawyers, builders, and architects should read this (as well as Hakim’s Mediterranean Urbanism) for a deeper understanding of how towns and cities were traditionally formed. Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in urbanism, history, property law, or the dynamic between customs and the built environment.

I’m gradually making progress on an essay that I think will be of interest to general readers, that will examine some of this history, including what Hakim has uncovered. In the meantime, I highly recommend Hakim’s work to readers with an interest in the nuts and bolts of more traditional approaches to urban growth. His writing is incredibly interesting, well researched and documented, and relevant to the challenges towns and cities face today.

Urban Forms of the Mediterranean

My latest piece is up at TAC‘s New Urbs — an essay reflecting on how nature and culture have shaped the urban patterns of the Mediterranean region, and what we might learn from the wisdom of this particular Old World approach. Not surprisingly, the writings of Camillo Sitte (about Italian towns, in particular) figured heavily in this piece — as did a fascinating scholarly book: Mediterranean Urbanism, by Besim Hakim, which identifies, translates (!), and analyzes many of the written laws that historically shaped the towns and cities of Southern Europe and the Near East. Hakim’s book, which examines influences from Greece and Rome through Byzantium and Islam, is an incredible resource for understanding one of the world’s richest cultures of traditional urbanism.

A street in Rome.

Apartments Are Hot — In the Suburbs

The Times has another article jumping on the bandwagon about the supposed ongoing urban exodus — with a twist. This one reports anecdotal evidence that apartments in suburban towns are seeing a surge in popularity among fleeing urbanites. (Sorry for the paywall. If you’re not a NYT subscriber, you can usually still read a few articles for free if you log in with a Google account.)

I’m going to take a wait-and-see approach to this trend. I have long believed that the New York City region, and similar metropolitan regions with high housing costs, ultimately need to expand their geographic footprint of multifamily housing beyond its current locations to accommodate long-term population growth. I still believe that. But what we are seeing in 2020 is a separate and discrete trend, driven by people’s more immediate desire to get out of the city, and to have more room, as work and home suddenly compete for the same space.

It’s not clear yet how these trends are going to intersect with the housing markets in the suburbs. If working from home (WFH) turns into a permanent phenomenon that outlasts the pandemic, then some of the built-up pressure may come off of competitive regions, including their inner-ring suburbs, as people are free to go further afield and seek permanently larger spaces. In such a scenario, there may be additional suburban growth at the metropolitan fringe, but less demand for new apartments nearer to the core. On the other hand, if most people return to their daily commute (or something close to it), then the suburbs may find themselves needing to absorb more commuters — as trends indicated before 2020 — and doing so in the form of more apartments.

It’s an interesting question — and one, I think, that is still very open. If I had to bet, I would predict a little bit of both, especially in places like Northern and Central New Jersey: a continued need for growth in demand for (1) compact, commutable units and (2) larger, WFH-friendly properties at the fringe, and beyond. In both scenarios, good planning will be a necessity to ensure that new growth takes the form of attractive and sustainable neighborhoods.

New apartments take advantage of commuter rail service in suburban South Orange, N.J.

Building the West Bronx

A surviving Victorian in the West Bronx. Photo: Theo Mackey Pollack

I have a new piece in City Journal about how the West Bronx evolved from a series of suburban neighborhoods of Victorian houses (built in the late 19th century when the City of New York first incorporated the wards north of Manhattan), into an urban environment of (often beautiful) apartment buildings. The transition mainly took place between the turn of the 20th century, when subway service began, and the onset of the Great Depression, when construction and migration both came to a near standstill. It remains a model of how cities can grow incrementally, by allowing the construction of apartment buildings when demand for housing rises.

As it looked in 2012. Credit: Google Maps

This piece is something of a spinoff from the original research that I did several years back, and reported on this blog, about the last few Queen Anne-style Victorian houses along Woodycrest Avenue in the neighborhood known as High Bridge. Sadly, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission declined a proposal to preserve these last few detached gingerbread houses on the NYC street grid (that is, the one begins in Manhattan and continues north to the Westchester County line), and many have now fallen to the wrecking ball.

Several people have expressed interest in this topic. In addition to the ones on Woodycrest Avenue, I tried to document the handful of other remaining houses like these that are on the Commissioner’s Plan-Risse Plan streets of the West Bronx. I documented the research several years back, and most of it can be found here:

Can Dense Cities Survive the Coronavirus?

A street in Greenwich Village. Theo Mackey Pollack.

Yes, according to Vishaan Chakrabarti, author of A Country of Cities, and one of the most well-known progressive proponents of a more urban urban fabric in America. Here’s a link to an interview that Chakrabarti gave last week to Gregory Wessner of Open House New York (which, as an aside, is a wonderful organization that facilitates things like public visits to the Tiffany stained glass at the Neustadt Collection, New York City Hall, and Edward Hopper’s art studio). A quick registration is required, but no fee.

The sprawling conversation between Wessner and Chakrabarti touches on everything from the resilience of urbanism to the pitfalls of ‘exceptionalism’ (e.g., the American variety). The conversation also delves into an aspect of the density discussion that does not get enough attention (in my opinion), namely, the potential to achieve traditional urban densities through low- and mid-rise development patterns; and the fallacy of equating urbanism with an inhumane, impersonal scale.

I’ve seen Chakrabarti speak at Columbia, the Newman Institute, and the AIA’s Center for Architecture. Apart from his flair for urban design, he is a persuasive proponent of the humane aspects of urban density. This timely conversation also reaches difficult questions that have been raised in the context of the coronavirus about the continued viability of large, dense cities. Chakrabarti’s thoughts are fundamentally optimistic, but also — not surprisingly — a challenge to the planning status quo.

The Singularity of Single-Family Zoning

Another mainstream piece — this one by Justin Fox at Bloomberg — zooms in on the role of zoning laws in the housing crisis of metropolitan America. This one focuses on the abnormality of the American approach, which has set aside large portions of our municipalities for single-family housing since the days of Euclid v. Ambler. It feels like we’ve reached a crescendo of MSM coverage of the zoning-affordability question. Here’s another recent article from The Economist. This trend in coverage is good news.

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.

Time for a Left-Right Consensus on Zoning Reform?

Early “use-district” map of Midtown New York. Source: NYPL.

My latest piece — in which I venture into more political writing for TAC — argues that the failures of Euclidean zoning antagonize some of the most fundamental priorities of American traditions on both the Left and the Right; and that there may be an opening for some agreement between people with a broad range of philosophies. For example:

During the postwar era—when suburbs and cars were the way of the future, and cheap, undeveloped land surrounded all our cities—the postwar type of zoning seemed a reasonable trade-off for many conservatives. While it regulated the private land market, it was locally enacted. In addition, its intent was to protect a broad base of individual, private owners.

Today, things have changed. Many of our most prosperous regions have been effectively built-out—few undeveloped lots remain—and laws preserve building patterns from the less populous 1950s and 1960s. This in turn has created an artificial shortage of housing units to which local markets cannot respond. Property owners who could benefit from making more intense use of their parcels find their hands tied by local zoning. Families and individuals are priced out of regions where opportunities are strongest. Personal potential and mobility are limited. And local governments become powerful fiefdoms, selectively approving lucrative projects for (often) politically-connected developers while preventing smaller owners from similarly maximizing returns.

Meanwhile, from the Left:

If local zoning had simply permitted [working-class neighborhoods in major cities] to absorb growth as it occurred, it is likely many longtime residents would never have been priced out by rising rents or property taxes. This means that more young people could have remained in their home communities and benefited from deep ties to family, social networks, and local wealth; and space could also have been made for new immigrants (and internally-migrating Americans) on much friendlier terms. Instead, our inability to accommodate change at the neighborhood level has resulted in the attenuation of countless social ties; the loss of myriad old communities; and an increased degree of hostility and resentment between competing, but similarly powerless groups, over space that never needed to be so scarce. If anything should outrage even the most nominal leftist, it is a bureaucratic policy that pointlessly pits the American working class against new immigrants over something as fundamental as the need for decent housing.

Feel free to join in the discussion at the bottom.