This Times article, I think, really takes aim at the largest zoning-related cause of the housing crisis. Single-family neighborhoods will have to give way to multifamily development, one way or another, if we are ever going to build enough housing units to absorb demand in the places where economic opportunity exists. The California law facilitating “granny flats” is one step in the right direction. New Jersey’s Mount Laurel doctrine is based on a prescient, 1970s recognition of the exclusionary role of zoning. (Unfortunately, it has not done nearly enough to counter the zoning-driven shortage of affordable housing, especially in Northern New Jersey.
What other measures will come, based on the principle (which we have often recited) that restrictive zoning is creating artificial housing shortages? Innovation in this realm cannot happen soon enough. At some point, the dam is going to break. There will either be more housing; or there will be a dampening of the regional economies in places that cannot provide a housing equilibrium. What worries me, next, is that the artificial shortage of housing may have become such a chronic, long-term situation in our most affluent regions that we may have reached a point where the economy is dependent upon an artificial shortage being preserved.
That is to say, so many mortgages have been written on the assumption that astronomically high prices are stable; so much private wealth is now sunk into ultra-high-cost real estate. If the regulatory barriers came down, and builders were able to begin to catch up with market demand in places like New York City and California, then how much wealth would gradually begin to evaporate as prices trended toward a healthier equilibrium? The saving grace is that — absent a watershed court decision — the gears of this change will probably be quite slow to turn.
I have a new article published at TAC’s New Urbs blog, about the history and legal structure of New York City’s limited-equity housing cooperatives, which continue to provide surprisingly affordable, high-quality housing units in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the United States. The piece tells the story about how limited-equity co-ops got started; their philosophical roots; their early successes; why the model declined in popularity; and how an approach that recovers its best qualities might be be compatible with various subsets of the polarized political landscape of contemporary America.
I think there’s little question that the shortage of affordable housing in the regions with the best economies is a major driving force in the structural inequality that characterizes our current moment; and that the biggest beneficiaries of this status quo are rent seekers, rather than actors who contribute anything dynamic or innovative to the economy. Taking the role of speculation out of the equation can do a lot to keep prices in line with what residents can actually afford. For the reasons described in my article, I think this is an important idea that deserves to be recovered and applied in today’s metropolitan real estate economies.
Driving home from the train station on a recent night, I heard this piece on NPR’s Marketplace: a story about a recent California statute that makes it significantly easier for homeowners in that state to develop additional units on their property. Here’s a link to a memo from the Department of Housing and Community Development, describing the changes. Among other things, the new statute overrides certain off-street parking requirements, which can preclude new units that would otherwise be permitted under zoning rules. These requirements are particularly onerous in large cities where public transportation is a viable option — and this law takes aim, specifically, at requirements within walking distance of transit. Of course, this development is just a small step toward achieving a land marketplace that is actually allowed to be responsive to market demands, rather than legal ones; but I think it is a very important one.
As early as the mid-1970s, the primary cases in New Jersey’s Mount Laurel doctrine began to lay out all of the major land use regulatory devices that have stifled the development of resourceful housing options since the early 20th century. Getting rid of unnecessary off-street parking requirements, and taking a publicly favorable stand toward in increase in the number of units in heavily-regulated suburban neighborhoods, are both major steps toward dismantling the regulatory morass that has been strangling housing development as the amount of raw, zoned land has dwindled throughout our major metropolitan areas. This is an important step in the right direction. Would be interested in hearing from people who would like to see a similar bill in New Jersey.
One of the most important takeaways from the NPR story was its hard evidence of pent-up demand for smaller, less-expensive housing units in pricey California. Local builders and contractors who specialize in the construction of small homes cannot keep up with demand. Their schedules are full for months into the future.
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.
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.
I’m happy to report that The American Conservative, in its New Urbs feature, has just published my article about the land-use efficiency of New York’s turn-of-the-century apartment houses. My piece focuses on the period before zoning — although building safety codes did impose some limits on construction — with an eye to the simple, practical measures such as courtyards and alleyways that builders of the time used to make efficient use of small parcels — and to make room for more people to live comfortably in New York City. Hope you enjoy.
Incredible. The Museum at Eldridge Street, located near the base of the Manhattan Bridge is a restored 1887 synagogue — the first house of worship built by Eastern European Jews in New York City. The block on which it is located is now very much Chinatown, but in the late 19th century it was at the heart of the Jewish Lower East Side.
The synagogue was almost lost to abandonment in the 1970s, but has now been meticulously restored. I walked in on a lunch break last week, expecting just to look around and take some pictures. Instead, I was lucky to coincide with a scheduled tour with an incredibly knowledgeable docent, Ester, who told the story of the congregation from its founding in the late Victorian period through the neighborhood’s transition, the synagogue’s decline, and finally the building’s beautiful restoration.
The blue stained-glass window is recent; the rest of the details are original. Most of what looks like marble or masonry is actually wood. Very much worth a visit.
My favorite of the city’s Art Deco skyscrapers, this soaring Pine Street tower was built as the headquarters of the Cities Service Company, predecessor of Citgo. The Cities Service logo — a pyramid within a cloverleaf, usually black or green in trade dress — can be found pervasively worked into the concrete and metal exterior details, and the interior details, as well. Designed by architects at Clinton & Russell and Holton & George, the 952-foot tower opened in 1932.
Last year, I posted a batch of pictures that I had taken of the exterior details at ground level; and of the tower within the skyline of Wall Street. It is a striking tower, sleek and tapered at the top. But given the dense cluster of tall buildings that now characterize the neighborhood, it is a challenge to find a clear shot of more than its very top. Fortunately, an outside detail (above) provides a scale model of the complete tower in clean, white concrete — like the building itself.
A residential conversion was recently completed, which includes a beautiful top-to-bottom restoration of the landmark skyscraper. I doubt the building could have looked much sharper in 1932, when it opened amid the Great Depression, having been on the drawing board before the fortunes of Wall Street turned dark. The redeveloper, Rose Associates, has really done an incredible job.
Here, I include a number of new pictures of the grand lobby, the basement, and various stairwells and corridors.
Hope you enjoy. I love this building, and think you will, too.
Hard to believe that it has been 16 years since that morning. I was in my second year of college at The New School. A few lines from a piece that I wrote shortly afterwards (mostly for myself, so that I would be able to remember exactly what I’d experienced):
I went upstairs to class and took a seat. My advisor, Henry, was already there, getting organized. A minute later the second professor showed up. A small argument ensued between the two.
“Do you know what’s going on out there?” said Stuart.
“Yes, but I think we need to go on with class,” said Henry.
“A lot of people are out there watching…. We may not have everyone.”
“Well, I’m not much for that. We should go on with who we have.”
“Well, it’s pretty hard not to watch … the fucking World Trade Center is on fire. Another plane just crashed into the South Tower.” Everyone in the room was jarred.
“Oh my God. Some kind of … attack?”
“Oh yeah, it’s definitely an attack.”
“Well, what do you think? I mean, it’s important … but I think what we are doing here is important, too.”
“I mean poetry isn’t the least important thing.”
“No, definitely not. I guess we should go on.”
“Yes, I think that would be the right thing to do.”
Later, after the class had finally been dismissed:
I turned left and walked on through the grid of streets, up through the warehouses and housing projects beyond Ninth Avenue. I wasn’t sure where I was going; I just gravitated in what seemed to be the right direction. I lived in Brooklyn Heights that semester, but I was walking the opposite way. Getting back to my room would have involved either a long detour through Williamsburg, or a trip straight through the scene. Instead, I thought I might have to walk all the way to my uncle’s apartment on 207th Street — and I didn’t know if anyone would be home, if I did.
I managed to stay cool-headed, but I was really unsure of what I should do. I kept going north and west. Getting out of the heart of the city seemed like the main idea. At some point, it occurred to me that a ferry might be crossing to New Jersey, so I made my way west to the Hudson River. If I went back to the town where I had gone to high school, I would find someone to put me up overnight. It wasn’t far away; just across the river from the city. But it was a different world. By that point, I was sure that I didn’t want to go back to Brooklyn….
There were thousands of people walking up Twelfth Avenue. Most of them had walked all the way up from the site. People were sort of talking to each other briefly and moving on. It was strange. You don’t usually talk to strangers in a moving crowd, but everything was different then. Normal street smarts seemed useless. The ethos of minding your own business and ignoring anything out of the ordinary? I knew that would not work anymore. But how could you replace it with something else?
There was a middle-aged man in a suit who told me he worked at the World Financial Center. His hair and jacket were covered with gray ash. When the first plane smashed into the North Tower, he began to leave, but his boss said, in all seriousness: “That’s a World Trade Center problem. This is the World Financial Center. Get back to work.” I laughed, and he moved on.
There’s more, but it’s not really in any shape to be posted. Maybe one day I’ll clean it up and share it here as a single piece of writing.
Click on the above photo to see my full album.
Just some pictures from a couple of trips to New York City beaches this summer. Honey and I made it to Rockaway Beach on an absolutely beautiful day, in early August. The ocean was about as blue as you could imagine, and the beach has been completely remade with white sand and a new boardwalk, replacing the one that was destroyed during Hurricane Sandy. The little things in the photos that look like pebbles are actually tiny clams, coming in by the thousands that day with each wave, then burrowing their way into the sand when the water went out. It was really something to see.
About a week later, I wound up on a work-related field trip to the coastal parts of Brooklyn, to observe the progress that my program has made in rebuilding private homes in Gerritsen Beach, Sheepshead Bay, and Coney Island. We were supposed to have a happy hour afterwards on the Coney Island Boardwalk, but it was cancelled because of the intermittent (but occasionally heavy) rain. The neighborhood was eerie and abandoned, with wet streets and empty sidewalks. I thought it was photogenic. It’s interesting to me how many of the individual artifacts of the Coney Island my grandparents would have visited are still there — Nathan’s, Luna Park, the Cyclone; and even more interesting, from a planner’s perspective, that this famous seaside spot has never been redeveloped.
At the end, I included just a few pictures of the work that our program is getting done in the Sandy-affected parts of Brooklyn. It has been a long process getting to a point where physical progress can been seen in these places. Everyone who has been involved in since 2013 should be proud of what he or she has done, especially the homeowners and tenants who have stuck with it for the long haul.
A bunch of green acorns just caught my eye while walking in Eagle Rock Park. Interesting how subtly the shapes of nature were incorporated into the standard forms of traditional 19th century urbanism. A lot of the old street lamps look like flowers. I think its an artifact of the mainstreaming of certain elements of cultural Romanticism by the late Victorian period.
I’m happy to report that The American Conservative, in its New Urbs feature, has published my article about the key factors that shaped Late Victorian urbanism in the United States. My piece focuses on this period before zoning, and explores the physical, legal, economic, and cultural phenomena that drove neighborhood development in the absence of comprehensive plans. I chose this period because it has intrigued me for a long time; and because so much of the New Urbanism of today seems to be imitating the forms of that era without necessarily asking the important questions about the larger context that created them. TAC deserves credit for taking a lead in discussing the important dynamic between urban form, society, and sustainable communities. Here’s a nice piece by executive editor Lewis McCrary about the walkability of New Jersey shore towns, many of which I have walked through, and many of which have an urban fabric that dates from the same period that my article describes.
My office is just across Park Place from the landmark Woolworth Building. Once the world’s tallest skyscraper, the whimsically Gothic tower still dominates the western edge of New York’s town green. Back in the fall, I took a guided tour of the lobby — which is otherwise off limits — which turned out to be a pretty incredible experience. Here are some pictures.
Would definitely recommend to anyone with an interest in the building itself, early skyscrapers, tesellation and mosaics, the transition from classical to modern architecture, or just the history of American business. The colors are incredible. Likewise, the masonry and marble. Photos in my album begin in the main lobby, then move to the back of the main floor, down into the basement (where a lost entrance to the subway can be found, sealed off), and finally up to the balconies, where you can almost touch the tiled ceilings.
Here are some pictures I took of a special exhibit at the Rutgers Law Library in 2013, focused on the Mount Laurel doctrine, its history, and its legacy. I just discovered them while I was going through old photos, and thought they might be of interest to some readers. Incidentally, I was in John Payne’s Con Law class during his last semester of teaching at Rutgers. His untimely death was jarring for those of us who were in his class. Interesting fact: he and his wife lived in a Frank Lloyd Wright house, in Glen Ridge.
Was up on the walkway of the Manhattan Bridge. The view is really incredible, especially of the rooftops of Chinatown, and the lower stretch of the East River. The walkway sways a little bit in the wind, and — there are subway tracks right beside it — it really shakes when a subway goes by. It’s much less touristy than the Brooklyn Bridge, and still reminds me a little bit of how the city was in the 80s and early 90s: lots of graffiti, neglected infrastructure, homeless people. I saw three street people getting high, and another lying flat on the walkway.
Click on the above photo to see my full album.
Just some pictures from a recent visit to the Montclair Art Museum, which has a nice collection of George Inness paintings and personal effects. Inness was one of the best artists of 19th century America, specifically, the Northeast. A native of the Hudson Valley, he was sometimes associated with the Hudson River School, but he maintained a distinct approach that defies classification. His palette reminds me a little bit of Van Gogh’s, but his subject matter is much more realist. He spent a bunch of time in Montclair, taking the countryside around Newark as inspiration for a number of his paintings.
The Federal Reserve Bank of New York is a truly incredible landmark. Completed in 1922 in the style of a Florentine palazzo, this stone fortress was built to house the most important regional branch of the Fed. Its design served the secondary purpose of communicating the solidity of American banking under the Federal Reserve System. The smooth-faced, rusticated masonry alternates between blocks of gray and tan, conveying something that cannot be moved, while hinting at the silver and gold that still backed up American currency at the time.
Tours of the interior are available, but tickets can be hard to come by. Once there, the Fed requires that you take part in a guided tour, which runs about an hour. Honey and I went one day last summer. Although such tours are not my favorite approach to exploration, I found this one incredibly interesting. The guide provided a short history of the Federal Reserve System; the construction and architecture of the building, itself; and a tour of the active gold vault, deep below Liberty Street. Unfortunately, the Fed has a very strict prohibition on photography within the building (under penalty of camera confiscation).
A good decision was handed down by the New Jersey Supreme Court today on an important Mount Laurel controversy. In its unanimous ruling (responding to an interlocutory appeal from the Appellate Division), the Justices found that New Jersey municipalities must address the housing need that formed while the so-called Third Round numbers were in flux, between 1999 and 2015, in addition to the current need. This means the state’s towns and cities will be required to facilitate a larger number of affordable housing units.
Justice Jaynee LaVecchia, writing for the Court:
As to the fundamental disagreement — whether the gap period must be addressed — we waste no time in settling that issue. There is no fair reading of this Court’s prior decisions that supports disregarding the constitutional obligation to address pent-up affordable housing need for low- and moderate income households that formed during the years in which COAH was unable to promulgate valid Third Round rules.
Right on. The persistence of Mount Laurel cases highlights the virulent opposition from New Jersey municipalities to a 1970s finding that municipal zoning may not be used to exclude housing opportunities for low- and middle-income families in entire municipalities. For more than 40 years, certain towns have perennially fought to prevent this law from being carried out in a meaningful way. Their main complaint — though they rarely concede this in public — is the ‘fiscal impact’ of households whose children add to the public school rolls without contributing enough in property taxes to cover their costs. (Incidentally, the same stupid approach to school funding is one of the chief reasons New Jersey has become a paradise for strip mall development: more ratables, no kids.)
Credit goes to the New Jersey Supreme Court, which has maintained its jurisprudence on Mount Laurel for more than four decades. This has been done in the face of constant political pressure from those who would rather allow exclusionary, market-distorting zoning laws to go unchecked, allowing towns to become more exclusive, while pricing out more and more long-time residents.
Just some night photos from the Hoboken rail yards and surrounding blocks. (Click on the above photo to see my full album.)
As much as Hoboken has become a bland commuter city, a lot of the industrial-era infrastructure survives. The waterfronts in Hoboken, Jersey City, and Weehawken once served as a break-of-bulk point for all rail lines coming back to Port of New York from the American interior. In the 19th century, passengers and freight bound for New York City would leave the rails at these stations along the New Jersey waterfront to be ferried across the Hudson River to Manhattan. In the early 20th century, the Hudson Tubes made passenger service into Manhattan possible; and, later, the tunnels to Penn Station allowed the main lines to enter the city. Today, the PATH system still links the sites of three of the old New Jersey terminals: Hoboken (once the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western terminal), as well as Newport (once the Erie terminal) and Exchange Place (once the Pennsylvania Railroad terminal). Here is a map by James R. Irwin, showing the old setup:
One the most striking buildings in the New York Commons area, the Surrogate’s Courthouse was begun in 1899. In addition to housing the Manhattan probate court it is home to the municipal archives and is therefore sometimes called the Hall of Records.
The Surrogate’s Courthouse has some of the city’s most ornately detailed interior masonry, including heavy columns that support a mezzanine that encircles a soaring atrium. Building materials include variegated colored marble, like something out of classical antiquity. Natural lighting is sparse, and late-Victorian lamp fixtures do not fully compensate. It is enough to create a pervasive gloominess throughout the building. Together, these elements set the tone of its echoing corridors, which comprise a labyrinth of beautiful but eerie spaces — so fitting for a courthouse of this jurisdiction. This building is about death and dusty records, and its architecture reflects those cold facts through darkness and weight, but it also captures the somber and transcendent role of the law in making permanent the legacies of those who are gone. To be anodyne was not a priority in 1899.
Click on the above photo to see my full album.