Courtyards, Alleys, and Apartments


Source: NYPL Digital Archive

I’m happy to report that The American Conservative, in its New Urbs featurehas 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.


Source: NYPL Digital Archive

Spotlight: Museum at Eldridge Street

Eldridge Street Synagogue
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.

New Jersey Law Update: Mount Laurel

Scales and Lamp USSCA 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.

What Makes Property Private?

Stones once set off private property. Photo: John Fielding. Used with permission.

Stones once set off private property. Photo: John Fielding. Used with permission.

In a piece called, “This Land Is Your Land. Or Is It?” Justin P. McBrayer uses the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon as a jumping-off point to question some of the most pervasive assumptions about private property, including how it comes to be, and the moral standing of one’s claim to ownership. Challenging the idea that history illuminates claims, he writes:

What are the chances that the money you used to buy your phone can be traced backward through your employer, your employer’s customers, and so on back through history without passing through the hands of a serious injustice? Slim to none. The same can be said for the seller’s side of the transaction. Chances are excellent that your phone arrived in your hand only after the exploitation of workers, abuse of the environment, theft, fraud, human trafficking, or any number of deal-breaking injustices.

This is true. It is especially true of currency, which passes through so many iterations of title, often in short periods of time. But even with tangible or intellectual property, and especially with land, a good number of today’s titles were created or have changed hands since their creation via some form of trickery or theft. Knowing this to be the case, one of the major challenges of property law is to determine when, if ever, the law should throw its weight behind a private claim to ownership. One could make the argument that the presumption ought to be against such claims; that the burden of proof should fall on the person in possession who seeks to claim anything more than mere possession. To some extent, this burden already exists. Buyers take title at their own peril, hence, the need for title insurance. But the burden could be greater. Good title, itself, could have to be proven against the presumption of historical wrongs, before it could vest. That is to say, the moral rationale that underpins legal title could have to be proven by the one claiming ownership.

One inevitable result of such an approach would be to have much more property in common ownership. That is to say, such a burden would be so difficult to meet that, were it to be established as a requirement, nearly everything in private hands would default to the commons. From a socialist viewpoint, this mass erosion of title might seem desirable, providing as it would a basis for tearing down claims to private property that are undoubtedly dubious, but that nonetheless, because they are supported by legal presumptions, provide the basis for real economic and political power in the present time. But, as with most attempts to legislate an ideal, such a structure would present its own host of difficulties through its intrinsic conflicts with human nature. The human propensity to fight over property creates powerful incentives for the law to sanction and settle who has title to what, without necessarily examining the immemorial chaos that has gotten us to the status quo. By decisively recognizing titles, and presuming that possession can be equated, in most cases, with recognizable ownership, the law averts an infinite number of potential conflicts, and creates incentives for individuals to acquire wealth peacefully, rather than by force.

This compromise, like most law, remains both logically and morally imperfect. But, so what? If, as Holmes famously remarked, the path of the law is experience, not logic — that is, if there is no perfect answer to the power struggles that characterize life within civilization that can be reconciled with what we know of human nature — then why shouldn’t practicability have the last word on these matters, at least when what is most practicable is not in direct conflict with any fundamental moral consensus? From such an angle, the current system of private property titling is actually quite defensible, so long as there is sufficient opportunity in the marketplace for those who act legally and peacefully to acquire enough private property for the system of incentives to work. With this caveat, the system largely keeps the peace and provides incentives for individuals to work, invest, and improve their property. The practicable imperative, therefore, is not to divest a large number of economic stakeholders of their admittedly dubious but nonetheless socially stabilizing claims; it is to ensure that enough economic opportunities exist for others, still in line, to ensure that existing claims do not become the obsessive objects of jealousy and scrutiny.

Up Next: Self-Healing Concrete

Emily Matchar at has an article on the state of the art of self-healing concrete. The concept:

Inspired by the human body, Jonkers [the inventor], who works at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, created self-healing concrete. He embeds the concrete with capsules of limestone-producing bacteria, either Bacillus pseudofirmus or Sporosarcina pasteurii, along with calcium lactate. When the concrete cracks, air and moisture trigger the bacteria to begin munching on the calcium lactate. They convert the calcium lactate to calcite, an ingredient in limestone, thus sealing off the cracks.

The article notes that the embedded bacteria can remain dormant in the material for more than 200 years. The current high price — about $40 per square meter — means that the material will likely be reserved for use in special situations, for the time being, such as underground and underwater structures. Meanwhile, Nwakibe Kanu at HAKSblog provides a somewhat broader survey of self-healing materials. He writes:

Other self-healing materials have built-in microcapsules filled with a glue-like chemical that can repair damage. If the material cracks, the capsules break, exposing the healing agent and sealing the crack. It is possible that such a mix will be viable on a large scale within the next five years.

This is all pretty awesome.

Construction Leads Union Jobs


A vision of Hudson Yards. Source: KPF (fair use).

This story is consistent with what I’ve been hearing, and it suggests that the growing unionization of the New York metropolitan workforce is being driven by strength in the real estate sector.

It’s going to be a strong few years for new construction in the Tri-state area. Hudson Yards is now seriously getting underway; the Cornell-Technion project is gaining momentum; and the redevelopment of the World Trade Center continues. Add to these the residential booms in Northern Brooklyn and Western Queens; the blue-collar renaissance of the West Bronx; de Blasio’s push for more affordable housing units, citywide; the commodification of NYC residential units, and the sliverscrapers it has spawned; and the potential upzoning of East Midtown; and it’s hard to miss seeing that New York real estate is entering a significant phase of expansion. If confidence fades, this could change, but a lot of these projects are already approved and financed, and right now the momentum remains strong.

This, right now, is a heyday for New York City. America may still be in moderately bad shape, post-2008, but New York City has never been wealthier, safer, more polished, or more in demand. The uptick in local construction activity is creating a lot of new union jobs in Greater New York, which is good for working people’s incomes — and it signals their growing political clout, as well.

New Pad

We’re working on moving LegalTowns to the BlueHost server, where advertising and a true domain are both possible. The page will still be supported by the WordPress platform, and it will look substantially similar to its present format. We (that’s the royal ‘we’) are still working out a few kinks in the coding — mostly visual issues — but hopefully we will announce a launch later this month. Will update accordingly.

An Update

I’ve been very busy juggling more time-sensitive priorities over the last couple of months, and my postings here have suffered. I apologize to regular readers for being AWOL during that period, and I will try to be more clear about it in the future when things come up. I’m having a little bit of a breather now, so I’m going to begin catching up the New Jersey Land Use Updates. I should also have more general content soon. Thanks for reading. – T.

EHS Settles Fraud Accusations

This caught my eye, and brought back some memories. I stayed in an EHS building for a semester when I was at the New School, back in 2001. The company was a total slumlord. The school had a contract with EHS, so when I signed up for university housing I was given a room in one of their buildings, as if it were a dorm.

The place was in Brooklyn Heights. EHS had recently acquired the building, and the room hadn’t been touched since the acquisition. The previous owners had used the building as an SRO, so, really, it hadn’t been well maintained in a very long time. There was a small private bathroom within the room, and its doorknob was broken. The door itself had a big, black shoe mark squarely in its center, as if a previous tenant had tried to kick it in. This was a plausible theory, at least, given its tendency to trap a party inside, when fully closed. The water was never quite hot. The faucets would come off of the sink, exposing the tops of the valves. The carpeting in the main room had a plate-sized burn mark in the center of the floor. It didn’t seem like they had even thoroughly cleaned the place prior to the beginning of the semester. Other rooms in that part of the building were comparable, but there was another wing where things had at least been painted. It was very random.

I put in a request for a room change, but it went nowhere. I put in work orders to get things painted and repaired, but they went nowhere, either. And as anyone who dealt with the New School in those days knows, complaining to the university would have been an exercise in sheer futility. Then 9/11 happened, and having a shabby dorm room seemed like a very small problem. We actually took on additional roommates in that building — students who had been displaced from a building in Lower Manhattan. What a terrible time.

Trees v. Power Lines

On a smaller note, something about the utilities’ storm response in my neighborhood struck a nerve. Whenever I’ve spoken with anyone from any of the utilities, they’ve eventually come around to the same issue: Trees. Almost to a person, every customer service rep, lineman, or technician has pointed out that we have a lot of old trees in this neighborhood, as if this explains why our services are being restored more slowly here than in some neighboring areas. Seriously? So, now the trees are to blame for utility companies’ logistical problems? Just out of curiosity, I compared the outage rates that PSE&G was reporting several days after the storm in two neighboring municipalities: West Orange (where I live, and where most wires are overhead), and East Orange (which is an older city, where most of the utility lines have been buried for over a hundred years). The difference was striking:

Municipality                             Total Customers    Customers Out     Percent Out
ESSEX – EAST ORANGE CITY         30,403                 6,525                21.5%
ESSEX – WEST ORANGE TWP        19,970               11,078                55.5%
Source: Public Service Electric & Gas.

It’s a classic natural experiment, where a sudden event subjects two different scenarios to a comparable set of circumstances, with observable differences between the results. It’s no secret that suburban neighborhoods lose power more frequently, and for longer periods, after storms. And, of course, with a storm of Sandy’s magnitude, one would expect outages to be longer and more widespread. But stop blaming the trees. East Orange has plenty of old trees, too. It also, quite frankly, has a poorer population that enjoys less political clout — leading to an older infrastructure, fewer political favors in a time of crisis, and whatever other indignities such a disadvantage might entail. Yet two days after the storm, the percentage of East Orange households in the dark was approximately one-third of the percentage in suburban West Orange.

Yes, we do have a lot of old trees in this neighborhood. We’re very fortunate, and for the most part they’re great to have around, but sometimes they do come down when there’s a storm. But there’s a practice that’s worked for more than a hundred years to mitigate the effects of storm damage on utilities that transmit by wire: burying the lines. The practice also has the added benefit of creating more attractive neighborhoods by removing one of the most ubiquitous eyesores of the postwar American landscape. It’s not a perfect solution, and in flood zones, it might even do more harm than good. But, in light of the growing frequency of severe weather events, the time has come to start making this investment, again, in the places where doing so would be most effective.

The utilities don’t want to spend the money, and they’ve avoided doing so for a long time. Going forward, that has to change.

Back From the Storm

It’s funny how unaware one can be of his dependence on modernity until a ten-day stretch without power comes along. Fortunately, aside from the epic utility interruptions, there was no trouble at the house. Nearby, things weren’t so lucky. This was the scene at a neighbor’s place after the storm:


Note that this picture was taken after a hundred-year-old tree had been removed from the roof. Here’s a shot of another tree that came down in the same vicinity:

So, the effects of Sandy were fairly bad in this part of Essex County. We have an elevation of about 500 feet a.s.l., and we’re situated on the first ridge of mountains that runs behind the coastal plain– so we took a direct blow from the high winds that came in off the ocean. But the impact here was still mild compared to what happened in low-lying areas of the region: There was no flooding here.

We had no idea, initially, how extensive the damage had been to the entire utility system. There wasn’t much specific communication from PSE&G, Verizon, or Comcast. In the end, it took ten full days to have our electricity restored — almost to the minute. To this day — 23 days after the storm — cable television has still not been restored. Go Comcast! No one in this cluster of houses uses a landline, so who knows what happened with those?

New Study Finds Fault With New Jersey Land Use

New Jersey 1884.

New Jersey Future presents a concise digest of a sobering new report by researchers at Rowan University, concerning the land use patterns of New Jersey since 1970.  The report finds modest support for a positive impact from the Mount Laurel doctrine, but an overall increase in both exclusionary zoning policies and inefficient land use patterns.  The report also finds a growing separation between the locations of housing and employment opportunities in Monmouth and Somerset, a trend that foreshadows more wasted resources and greater traffic congestion.  This is not how the state should be developed.

End of El Norte?

For the last generation, Mexican migration to the United States has been one of the strongest factors driving neighborhood change, labor markets, and housing demand in American cities from California to New Jersey.  Now the Times has a report, riffing off of research by Princeton’s Douglas Massey, that suggests that the long era characterized by heavy migration from Mexico may be coming to a close.  If the trend is real, it will be interesting to examine how U.S. urban development is influenced by this change over the next several years.

Adverse Possession in New York

The NYT has a lighthearted story by Sam Roberts about an abandoned railroad track right-of-way in Brooklyn.  Neighbors have enclosed and taken possession of the strip of land for their own ordinary purposes.  Reading the article led me to do some quick research: It turns out that, in 2008, the New York legislature enacted a statutory revision that seems to complicate what otherwise could have been the neighbors’ textbook common law adverse possession claim.

R.P.A.P. §§ 501(2), et seq., now states:

2.  Acquisition of title. An adverse possessor gains title to the occupied real property upon the expiration of the statute of limitations for an action to recover real property pursuant to subdivision (a) of section two hundred twelve of the civil practice law and rules, provided that the occupancy, as described in sections five hundred twelve and five hundred twenty-two of this article, has been adverse, under claim of right, open and notorious, continuous, exclusive, and actual.

3.  Claim of right.  A claim of right means a reasonable basis for the belief that the property belongs to the adverse possessor or property owner, as the case may be. Notwithstanding any other provision of this article, claim of right shall not be required if the owner or owners of the real property throughout the statutory period cannot be  ascertained in  the records  of the county clerk, or the register of the county, of the county where such real property is situated, and located by reasonable means.

(Emphasis added.)

What strikes me as interesting, and discordant, about this statutory revision is a statement made by its main sponsor, Elizabeth Little, a Republican state senator from the North Country.  In a 2008 memorandum, quoted by Law of the Land, Senator Little wrote:

[If adverse possession claimants] have a reasonable basis to believe that it is their land then that is exactly the good faith dispute over title to real property for which the adverse possession doctrine was established.  Adverse possession should be used to settle good faith disputes over who owns land.

This strikes me as a very inaccurate statement of the principles that underpin the doctrine.  Adverse possession might occasionally come into play to settle such matters, but ordinary boundary and title disputes are readily addressed with other areas of the common law of property.  Adverse possession, in a common analysis, is a teaching that was traditionally aimed at keeping fallow land from being tied up, in perpetuity, by individuals who not only did not make use of the land, but whose relationship with the land had become so tenuous that they’d failed to even object to its use by an uninvited party for an entire seven-year vesting period.  That is to say, adverse possession is a traditional, common law incentive that works to encourage individuals to make use of abandoned property.  It is a doctrine that values the sweat equity of those who would work the land more than it values the paper titles of those who would let it lie fallow.  And it is a device for preventing the perpetual entrenchment of nonproductive, landed wealth.  Put simply by Justice O.W. Holmes:

Sometimes it is said that, if a man neglects to enforce his rights, he cannot complain if, after a while, the law follows his example.

That said, an adverse possessor has always assumed the risk that his bluff would be called before the vesting period had run.  But once such time had expired without an objection by the title-holder of record, the adverse possessor could expect to have a solid legal claim to the property.  The Metropolitan Transit Authority, as its role is described in the NYT story, is exactly the sort of owner against whom adverse possession ought to work.  The MTA, and its predecessors in title, have been absentee holders that have not exercised any incidents of ownership over the land at issue since, apparently, 1924.  In the mean time, the parcel’s immediate neighbors have made productive use of the abandoned property.  During this time, the neighbors’ use has never elicited any objection from the MTA or its predecessors in title.

Under Senator Little’s amendment to New York’s adverse possession statute, it appears that the MTA could maintain a live claim to the land, against the neighbors, in spite of its nearly nine decades of neglecting the property.  Simply stated, this is not right; the common law approach is.

A Google satellite map of the block at issue (East 18th Street between Avenues U and V) is here:

A Closer Look at Chaco Canyon

Jedediah Drolet, a fellow Blousteiner, has spent a good deal of time at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, one of the most significant U.S. sites of the Ancient Pueblo Peoples.  He is also the author of Gambler’s House, a blog which examines the land use, archaeology, and cultural history of Chaco Canyon and surrounding parts of the American Southwest.  Jed’s combination of personal experience and currency with ongoing scholarly research gives his blog a unique perspective.  It’s well worth a read.

New Open Yale Course: Environmental Politics and Law

A new course, recorded last spring, is now posted: John Wargo’s Environmental Politics and Law.  I watched one lecture about LEED certification and some of its drawbacks (#21) and another that looks back over four decades of public lands management in New York’s Adirondack Park (#18).  Both were good.

Other free courses are listed here.  Highly recommended: Diana Kleiner’s lectures about Roman architecture.

World Trade Center Update

The NYT has a progress report out today on the World Trade Center.

With the naked eye, you can make out the fuzz of construction lights at the World Trade Center.

I walked through the site about a month ago, and was impressed by 1 WTC.  I think the real mark of progress will come when the new tower can be readily seen rising up above the surrounding buildings from vantage points in New Jersey and Brooklyn.  That will be the moment when lower Manhattan once again begins to have a distinctive spire in its otherwise boxy and consistent skyline.  It should be soon: You can make out the fuzz of construction lights on the scaffolding now, at twilight, from Eagle Rock Reservation in West Orange Township, New Jersey.  (A distance of 13.4 miles.)

2012 Planetizen Rankings

So Planetizen, the US-News-of-planning-schools, has published its 2012 rankings of 105 graduate programs in the US and Canada.  Has anyone (ever) bought the full report?  I’m kind of interested in what criteria they examine, and how these are weighed.  Here’s how they stacked up their list of top grad schools for 2012:

1. MIT
2. Cornell
3. Rutgers
4. Berkeley
5. Urbana-Champaign
6. Chapel Hill
7. University of Southern California
8. Georgia Tech
10. Penn