Single-Family Houses and the Affordability Crisis

A zoning map from East Rockaway, New York, shows the abiding prevalence of single-family housing zones (Residence A) in a highly competitive land market.

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.

Zoned for single-family.

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.

 

California’s Radical Experiment: Granny Flats

Most would not be as fancy as Alexandre Dumas’.

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.

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.

Spotlight: Rockaway Blues and Coney Island Rain

Rockaway Blues & Coney Island Rain

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

New Apartments Lead Housing Starts; Thoughts on Infill

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.

Williamsburg

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.

A Tale of Two States

shore1

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.

Fire and the Skyscraper

Triangle FireI found this chilling contemporary account of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, from a 1911 issue of McClure’s magazine. In addition to providing a minute-by-minute description of the tragedy (which killed 146 garment workers — mostly young Jewish and Italian girls from the Lower East Side — and spurred the rise of the labor movement in New York City), the article offers an incredibly detailed description of the use and misuse of industrial buildings in Manhattan, and the building codes that existed, at the beginning of the twentieth century. As heartbreaking and infuriating as the story is, I couldn’t stop reading it.

Bloomberg’s New York City

Michael Bloomberg has put an array of game-changing development projects at the forefront of his administration’s urban planning policy– and seen a lot of them through. As Bloomberg prepares to leave office at the end of his present term, The Architect’s Newspaper has put together a fascinating survey piece that describes many of the individual projects of the Bloomberg era, which together have reshaped the city in the most significant ways since the time of Robert Moses. (Thanks, Jon Goldman, for the tip!)

A new vision for Coney Island. Source: NYCEDC.

As a New Yorker (regionally, at least), I have very mixed feelings about Bloomberg’s planning legacy. On one hand, I now work in the city two or three days each week, and I have to say that I really enjoy the streetscaping changes that have been made to Broadway, in particular. Sometimes, when I feel like I need some exercise at the end of the day, I’ll walk up Broadway from the office in Gramercy Park to the PATH station at Greeley Square. The transformation of Broadway is palpable: Traffic lanes have been replaced with trees, bike lines, and outdoor seating. One day last week, a wedding was being performed in the middle of the street. With the reduction of motor-traffic, it became clear how much of the stress-inducing aggression that one expects to find in New York City is a direct result of having homicidal drivers competing for blacktop. Without them (or, even, with fewer of them), Broadway– in Midtown– has been transformed into a relatively quiet and peaceful setting. The redevelopment of Broadway is part of a wider administration focus on complete streets. No doubt that further reductions in vehicular traffic, as the Bloomberg administration has sought, would improve the ambience of the city, immeasurably.

On a much grander scale, I also really admire the ambition of a lot of the city’s signature projects, as highlighted in the Architect’s Newspaper article. The Hudson Yards Redevelopment Area, for example, will herald the most significant change to Manhattan’s geography since the 1920s: It will open an enormous new section of the city to Midtown-style development, supported by a  city-financed extension of the No. 7 subway (which is almost complete), and by the 2005 and 2009 upzonings of nearly 60 blocks on the Far West Side. Across town, in the middle of the East River, a new Cornell campus on Roosevelt Island will greatly increase the university’s footprint within the city limits. Downtown, the new World Trade Center is finally coming together, while Governor’s Island remains an empty canvas–but not for long. It’s an exciting time in New York City development. Forget about the numbers– the money to be made, the square footages to be built. Just look at the pictures in the above-mentioned article, and try to not be impressed by what’s happening.

On the other hand, I can’t help but feel that the city has become too managed, and too planned, on a human scale. It’s hard to characterize, exactly, what has been diminished over the last decade. But it feels as though the chaos and spontaneity that once made New York New York have been methodically reduced, and what we now have in New York is something more like a polished European capital, whose politically-connected denizens have shaped it to showcase their own riches and refinement, than like the crazy American city that we once loved. I still remember a city whose energy and danger seemed to promise that anything could happen here. What happened to that? The city of today is easier to deal with, in some ways. But it’s also become a preening, intolerant, and exclusive in-club, in ways that America’s largest city should never have been allowed to become. There’s something that I just find deeply dispiriting and stifling about much of New York now. It represents, I think, in all of its hair-splitting regulations, its commercialized hipness, and its matter-of-fact acceptance of locked doors, the decisive transformation of metropolitan America into a class-structured society whose boundaries are increasingly impenetrable to all but a select few. Its neatness is not something to celebrate.

It would be unfair, and perhaps too easy, given his personal characteristics, to lay most of the blame for this on Mayor Bloomberg. These changes have been coming for a generation, and many are the results of national and even global phenomena. Furthermore, to give credit where it’s due, the Bloomberg administration has probably done more to prioritize the development of affordable housing than any New York City mayor since the 1960s. Few things represent the narrowing of the city more starkly than its cost of living; and while Bloomberg’s willingness to tackle this may simply make good business sense, it also addresses an inequity that has been tolerated for far too long. At the same time, Bloomberg has had more than 10 years to leave his mark on the city, and it is what it is. There may be more affordable units in the pipeline as a result of his policies, but rest assured that their numbers will be very tightly controlled; and never will enough of them be permitted through the city’s land use policies to threaten the astronomical market equilibrium. Instead, the experience of living in New York City will become increasingly bureaucratized and contingent for those who are not rich: As Bloomberg once gloated, he believes the city is a “luxury product” for which people ought to expect to pay. And pay they do. His is not a vision of a city whose plans respond to the needs of its people; rather, it’s a city whose political players make room for the people they might need.

A Land Use Riddle in Newark

One summer during graduate school, I often walked past the National State Bank Building on my way to an internship in Newark’s City Hall. The building is located at 810 Broad Street, at Edison Place. I wondered: Why did Cass Gilbert, architect of the neoclassical tower that was completed in 1912, design his building to have a completely detailed façade that faced a mid-block lot line?

It’s unusual for a zero-lot-line property to have its lot-facing wall detailed. And this one is elaborate. How did the developers here know– correctly– that more than a century later, their southern exposure would continue to look out on sunlight and green space, rather than find itself pressed flush against a high brick wall?

A first thought was that maybe the bank had owned the yard, but that didn’t seem to check out: Behind the yard is an older, church-related structure which the green space adjoins; across the yard, and closer to the street, is a very old church. These two structures are related: along with the yard, they make up the campus of the Old First Presbyterian Church.

The Old First Church had its origins in the Puritan congregation of Robert Treat. Treat’s was the party that settled Newark under a charter from Governor Carteret in 1666. The church building, itself, was begun in 1787, simultaneous with the Philadelphia Convention. That’s all pretty significant, at least on a local level. Could the history of the church have meant that its property would be preserved by some device that predated formal historic designations?

It sounds plausible that Newark might have had an ad hoc arrangement to preserve its first church, even though widespread historic preservation statutes didn’t arrive until the late 20th century. But even if some arrangement had been made to preserve the historic church, that structure is located far enough from the lot line that the intermediate land, including the yard and the auxiliary building beyond, could presumably have been sold and developed without disturbing what was meaningful to the city’s history.

Another thought was that there might have been a burial ground on the land in question, and that some common-law precept would have therefore prevented its future development in the minds of 1912 architects. I actually thought this was the answer, but it turns out that what had looked (to me) like tombstones once before are actually weathered concrete benches. Here’s the patch of land, and it doesn’t contain any visible tombstones (at least, not in the summer undergrowth):

The gates are usually padlocked, so it’s difficult to get close. But a look at the Sanborn map from 1892 also fails to support the cemetery theory:

In 1892 there was, in fact, a large cemetery near the Old First Church, but it was in back, where the Prudential Arena now stands, reaching east toward Mulberry Street. The land in front was not labeled at all. Meanwhile, the same bank also had a previous building on the site of its 1912 building. So, what’s up here? Are we dealing with a private law device? Some early way of preserving genuinely historic properties, including their grounds, before everything that had grown old was ‘historic’? Was there some sort of a covenant between the bank and the church?

I’m only writing about this because I drove past the site today. There was an empty stretch of curb, and it was a good day for taking a few pictures. It jogged my memory. I’d like to dig some more, but if anyone could shed some light, please do.

DC to Relax its Height Limits?

The Independent has a piece about recent efforts to revise the DC building height limit of 130 feet (39.6 m). As Washington grows, its century-old height limit becomes a natural experiment in massing regulations and their impact on metropolitan land markets. After providing a brief history of the (aesthetics-driven) massing regulation, the author, Rupert Cornwell, notes:

[T]he price of a European feel is not only to be measured in commuter misery. The ban on tall buildings curbs the supply of space when demand is soaring; the result, naturally, is higher prices, across the board. DC has a chronic hotel shortage, while the cost of office space has hit Manhattan levels, and Washington’s [poor] residents find it ever tougher to make ends meet as . . . gentrification pushes rents remorselessly higher. The city, meanwhile, loses much potential tax revenue.

Washington is an unusually beautiful American city, in the sense that it actually has a classically-proportioned plan. And part of its proportioning lies in the scale of its buildings, which complement the city’s layout. L’Enfant’s 1791 plan predated tall buildings by a century, and in that sense it was silent about building heights. But it was also the blueprint for an airy city of wide boulevards, open spaces, and preeminent public buildings. The 130-foot building limit, imposed in 1899, has been consistent with the original blueprint and its Enlightenment-era political symbolism for America’s capital.

It would be a shame to see L’Enfant’s aesthetic suddenly disrupted; it would also be a loss to market-driven planning innovation to end the city’s role as one of the last American places where old-fashioned land-use efficiency (including the use of courtyards and alleys) is a serious consideration for individual projects. But there are certainly both practical and equitable arguments for relaxing the current height limits. Washington’s recent experience illustrates, starkly (I think), the costs of strictly regulating the massing of buildings in growing real estate markets. Even in cities without such purposive policies, the aggregation of land use regulations is presumably having similar impacts.

L’Enfant’s plan for Washington, DC.

America’s Gated Cities

Forbes is back on the case of how the aggregation of local land use regulations can distort metropolitan land markets, creating barriers to entry in agglomeration economies, and possibly even slowing economic growth by depriving such economies of desperately needed new blood. This closely follows some of the insights that Ryan Avent hit on, last year, in The Gated City.

To the list of grievances against overzoning, I would add the appalling inequity of making entire metropolitan regions effectively off-limits to the middle and working classes, to the young, and to those who have children– including so many of those regions’ own long-time residents. Government and academic research have almost completely dodged the question about what has driven the massive, native-born out-migration from places like California and the Northeast– and whether this migration has been truly voluntary. To hear the press coverage, millions of stupid people have eagerly given up their proximity to friends, family, and relatively stronger economies in order to snap up cheap, new houses in Godforsaken places. I’m cynical, but not that cynical.

The truth is that housing costs have been forcing people out, and it is apparent that the labor forces in those cities that have been abandoned by the US-born working class have been steadily replaced by migrant workers who see being crowded and overworked in an American city as an improvement. On a long-term basis, this is not a sustainable arrangement. But the ultimate challenge is in overcoming the myopic politics of municipal government, writ large, that resists even the most modest changes to existing land use patterns. I really appreciate that Forbes is keeping up on this story. I feel like this is a drum that needs to be beaten until the harm of overzoning becomes clichéed.

Back in the 1970s, in a harbinger of what has come, the New Jersey Court addressed the issue of what was then called exclusionary zoning in its first Mount Laurel decision. In 1983, Justice Pashman described the specific land use devices that were resulting in the wholesale exclusion of market uses in his concurrence to the second Mount Laurel decision. In those days, only the housing markets for poor and working-class people had been strangled. By the 90s and 2000s, the suburban middle class was starting to get screwed. Today, Silicon Valley and Forbes are complaining. Maybe now it becomes an issue.