How to Sidestep FAR Restrictions: Mezzanine Floors

Most municipalities use the Floor Area Ratio (F.A.R.) metric to restrict development within their communities.  F.A.R. is calculated by dividing the total floor area of a building by the area of the site it is built upon.  In achieving planners’ and neighbors’ questionable objective of “preserving the character” of their communities, F.A.R. is a somewhat arbitrary metric that does little to effectively regulate “character”.

In what I see as a great example of the silliness of FAR limits, a recent development in Brooklyn used an interesting, yet not unusual, method to build more space than allowed by zoning laws: mezzanine floorsFrom Curbed NY:

On the blueprints as "storage space" and not calculated into the building’s overall floor-to-area ratio, the zoning-busting half-floors can be converted to living space after the fact, as long as it’s kept reasonably hush-hush—though the broker in this case eagerly told the gadfly, "Those storage spaces can be converted into living spaces after the closing." Maybe a bump on the head is to blame?

Photos from original source, Pardon Me For Asking:


The lengths developers are willing to go to subvert zoning, goes to show the extent that restrictions harm the marketplace.  Unfortunately, methods like this aren’t effective against more affordability-destroying restrictions such as limits on the number of units allowed on a piece of land.

Tagged (7 things about me)

Chris Bradford at Austin Contrarian tagged me back in December. It hasn’t fallen off my radar, and I’ve been meaning to get to it this whole time. I’m supposed to tell seven things about myself and tag seven other blogs to do the same.  (I probably won’t tag others.  Is that lame?)  It seems like a good opportunity to break from the usual seriousness of the blog…

1. Speaking of Texas, I’ve only been there once – the 2005 World Series in Houston. I had some great BBQ, but the friendly Houstonians were as memorable as the game. Many saw me with my jersey, smiled, and said, "welcome to Houston" when I was expecting, "go back to Chicago…" I now try to extend the same hospitality to visitors I see on the street – except Packers fans. (Sorry, I just can’t.  Someone wearing a Packers jersey could save my life, and I’d still probably cling to that rivalry.  Goes back to my two years of being a F.I.B. in Milwaukee…)

2.  In my past life, I was a structural engineer.  I worked for mostly public clients, none of whom impressed me at all.  This heightened my distaste for bureaucrats.  Rather than refocusing on private clients, I went back to school to study real estate development.  Studying economics in preparation for masters-level business classes opened my eyes to a new way of seeing the world.  This exploration continues here….

3.  My first job was at Little Caeser’s Pizza.  It was fun for awhile back in my high school days.  I honestly don’t have any stories of disgusting things we did to people’s food.  But, I will say the tuna salad for sandwiches was not always fresh, and the quality of the ingredients decreased quickly while I worked there – especially the sausage and “butter” spread for Crazy Bread.

 4.  I love food.  Just about any kind of food, especially spicy food.  My favorite culinary ethnicities are Mexican and Thai, although I haven’t yet been impressed by any such restaurants in New York.  I’ve had some good food in New York, but I really miss Chicago style hot-dogs, Italian beefs, and pizza (deep and thin).  You really can’t find that stuff anywhere outside of Chicago.


5.  I am color blind. So, if something on this site looks weird to you, it’s probably because it looks normal to me. Let me know – I’ll fix it for all you normal-sighted folks.  I usually don’t mind the disability – in fact, I enjoy having something somewhat distinct about me to befuddle my friends.  It also gives me the excuse to strike up conversations with strangers.  “Excuse me, what color is that stop light?”  (I see “2” in that group of dots, but they say normal people see “5”.)

6.  My first child, a son, is due March 9, 2009, which may effect the frequency of posts for a bit.

7.  I blog under “psuedo-anonymity” to prevent the false perception of conflicts of interest regarding my current development projects, which may make things at work more complicated.  Although, readers who have emailed me directly know my full name, and those who friended me on facebook know even more about me. (if you friend me, just put in the note that you’re a reader so I know it’s not spam)

Any questions?

Urban[ism] Legend: The Myth of Herbert Hoover

Please don’t misread the title. Herbert Hoover is not a man I consider a “Legend” – quite the contrary.  I use the words “Urbanism Legend” in the context of the series of posts intended to dispel popular myths as they relate to urbanism.

Myths and fallacies about Herbert Hoover are abundant these days as the media discusses the Great Depression. Most of the myths incorrectly accuse Hoover of being a laissez-faire ideologue. However, Hoover is better described as a Progressive, and strongly believed in the power of government to shape society. (at the time Progressive elitists enjoyed a home within the Republican party and advocated vast social engineering programs such as alcohol prohibition) This was a significant departure from the relatively laissez-faire doctrines of previous Republican Presidents Coolidge and Harding. In fact, Hoover’s commitment to progressive programs prompted Franklin Roosevelt’s running mate, John Nance Garner, to accuse the Republican of “leading the country down the path of socialism” during the 1932 presidential campaign.

I urge everyone to learn more about Hoover’s progressive interventionist policies on your own. (I also recommend Rothbard’s America’s Great Depression)  But, let’s look at Hoover’s anti-urbanist interventions, and legacy of sprawl.

Hoover, an engineer by trade, was a strong supporter of the Efficiency Movement, a significant campaign of the Progressive Era.  He believed everything would be made better if experts identified the problems and fixed them, and that efficiency could be achieved through government-forced standardization of products. This helps explain Hoover’s zealous affection for planning, zoning, home ownership, and various objectives often shared by the (often conflicting) elitist-progressive strains seen in Robert Moses or Lewis Mumford (and later New Urbanists).   (not to be confused with the Roosevelt New Deal Democrats who preferred intervention to promote decentralization and ruralization)

Hoover’s philosophy on planning and zoning could be exemplified by his praise of the Regional Plan of New York he gave in 1922:

The enormous losses in human happiness and in money which have resulted from lack of city plans which take into account the conditions of modern life need little proof. The lack of adequate open spaces of playgrounds and parks the congestion of streets the misery of tenement life and its repercussions upon each new generation are an untold charge against our American life. Our cities do not produce their full contribution to the sinews of American life and national character. The moral and social issues can only be solved by a new conception of city building. The vision of the region around New York as a well planned location of millions of happy homes and a better working center of millions of men and women grasps the imagination. A definite plan for its accomplishment may be only an ideal. But a people without ideals degenerates one with practical ideals is already upon the road to attain them.

(Later in 1922, progressive zoning triumphed over property rights in the US Supreme Court ruling, Pennsylvania Coal v Mahon, which decided, “property may be regulated to a certain extent, [but] if regulation goes too far it constitutes a taking.”)

We can trace the rapid growth of the adoption of zoning codes to Hoover’s tenure as Commerce Secretary during the 1920’s, when Commerce changed from a minor cabinet post to the most visible cabinet position. Before Hoover’s term as Commerce Secretary began in 1920, only forty-one municipalities throughout the United States had any sort of zoning laws. However, after eight short years this number had skyrocketed to 640. Popularity and legal legitimacy of planning and zoning grew rapidly through the 20’s with help from Hoover’s influence.  By 1924, the US department of Commerce under Hoover wrote the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act, which, had it passed Congress, would have granted cities the power to, “regulate and restrict the height, number of stories and size of buildings and other structures, the percentage of lot that may be occupied, the size of yards, courts, and other open spaces, the density of population and the location and use of buildings, structures and land of trade, industry, residence or other purposes.”  Instead, many states used the act as framework to implement comprehensive plans on their own.  (Zoning as we know it today was Constitutionally validated by Euclid v. Ambler Realty two years later.)  Then, in 1928, Hoover’s Commerce Department rewrote the Enabling Act in the form of the Standard City Planning Enabling Act to more precisely address and promote the use of master plans and comprehensive plans.  The primary principles of the SCPEA were to:

1) organization and power of a planning commission to develop a master plan
2) plan for the physical development
3) master street plan
4) approval of public improvements
5) control private subdivision of land
6) develop a regional planning commission and regional plan.

In a 1996 article published by the American Planning Association entitled, “The Real Story Behind the Standard Planning and Zoning Acts of the 1920’s” [pfd], Ruth Knack, Stuart Meck, AICP, and Israel Stollman, AICP wrote:

[Hoover] was, in many respects, a progressive who hoped to reform society by reforming the operations of government. To some extent, in fact, the Commerce Department under Hoover could be said to be the first activist federal agency-presaging the New Deal vigor of the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Of particular importance to land-use planners is the fact that Hoover took an active role in shaping the statutes that govern American city planning.

Hoover was instrumental in starting the “Own Your Own Home” suburban advocacy movement, which lasted through the twenties. The government and business leaders of the “Own Your Own Home” movement described the single family home as a “symbol that could build consensus” and a “hallmark of the middle-class arrival in society.” To encourage home building, Hoover created the division of Building and Housing within the Commerce Department to coordinate the activity of builders, real estate developers, social workers, and homemakers as he worked closely with banks and savings and loans industry to promote long term mortgages (a new concept at the time – sound familiar?). Hoover’s promotion of home ownership as an investment of the 20’s remains a concept embedded in the American psyche, and may have helped contribute to our current financial mess.

The 1920’s also ushered in huge spending increases under the Federal Highway Act of 1921. At the time, highways were under the jurisdiction of the Department of Agriculture. Nonetheless, Hoover hosted two conferences on traffic while he was Secretary of Commerce. These conferences yielded a Uniform Vehicle Code and a Model Municipal Traffic Ordinance, which were heavily influenced by the automotive trade associations.

While popular legend paints Herbert Hoover as a laissez-faire ideologue, the evidence says otherwise, particularly when it comes to urban issues.  Many of the problems of sprawl and auto-dependency derided by today’s progressives can be traced to policies of yesterdays’ progressive elitists, including Hoover.  Maybe modern-day urbanists should look at Hoover’s legacy of land use policy and suburban advocacy, and reconsider their support of Hoover-like intervention and “stimulus” today that will burden future generations as Hoover’s legacy burdens living generations.


For further reading, here’s a recent article from Citiwire (as permitted) I googled-upon when searching for more information on the “Standard Zoning Enabling Act” of 1926:

Hoover’s Other Error: Making Sprawl the Law

By Rick Cole

For Release January 18, 2009

 Take any great place that people love to visit. You know, those lively tourist haunts from Nantucket to San Francisco. Or those red hot neighborhoods from Seattle’s Capital Hill to Miami Beach’s Art Deco district. Or those healthy downtowns from Portland, Oregon to Chicago, Illinois to Charleston, South Carolina. What do they all have in common?

The mix of uses that gives them life are presently outlawed by zoning in virtually every city and town in all 50 states.

Crisis offers opportunity. With real estate in a freefall, there is an opportunity to lay the foundation for a more prosperous and sustainable American landscape.

If only there is the vision and political will.

Scrapping zoning codes is the single most significant change that can be made in every town and city in America. It would aid economic development, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, foster healthier lifestyles, reduce dependence on foreign oil, protect open space and wildlife habitats, and reduce wasteful government spending.

Zoning is a legacy of Herbert Hoover. As Commerce Secretary, he championed the “Standard Zoning Enabling Act” to address “the moral and social issues that can only be solved by a new conception of city building.” In 1926, the Supreme Court upheld zoning to protect health and safety by “excluding from residential areas the confusion and danger of fire, contagion and disorder which in greater or less degree attach to the location of store, shops and factories.” The quite sensible idea that people shouldn’t live next to steel mills was used to justify a system of “zones” to isolate uses that had lived in harmony for centuries.

Under zoning, new neighborhoods were segregated by income, and commerce was torn asunder from both customers and workers. Timeless ways of creating great places were ruthlessly outlawed. The sprawl spawned by zoning spread from sea to shining sea.

Almost everyone admits the environmental and social devastation caused by sprawl. Yet it remains the law. What’s been lacking is the tool for producing great places instead of bleak, auto-dependent landscapes. If “zoning” is the DNA of sprawl the coding that endlessly replicates the bleak landscape of autotopia, then what is the DNA of livable communities?

It is found in timeless ways of building, updated for the 21st Century, including the need to accommodate cars. It regulates incompatible uses without the absurdities of conventional zoning. It is calibrated for new buildings to contribute to their context and to the larger goal of making a great place. It does so primarily by regulating the form of buildings, since that is what determines the long-neglected public realm of streets and sidewalks. It does that by regulating setbacks, heights and the physical character of buildings. For example, a form-based code could protect the existing scale of a neighborhood from the “teardowns” of traditional homes for replacement by McMansions–or facilitate the evolution of an auto-oriented commercial strip to a mix of uses, including residential and/or office over retail.

Called “form-based codes” or “smart codes,” this alternative framework for shaping great places exists, and it’s quietly spreading.

Where it’s been tried, it’s been a success. Seaside, Florida, the poster town for “new urbanism,” was “coded” rather than zoned, and ended up on the cover of Time magazine. In 2003, Petaluma, California scrapped its zoning regulations and adopted a new code for 400 underdeveloped acres in their Downtown, producing more than a quarter billion dollars in new investment. Now cities as diverse as Miami, Buffalo, Tulsa and La Jolla are pursuing “form-based codes.”

Unlike zoning, “form-based coding” is not a “one-size fits all” solution. The rules for form in a dense urban center are distinctly different from those for a predominantly residential suburban neighborhood. In each case, the form and character of buildings are “calibrated” to achieve a cohesive and complimentary sense of place.

Still, widespread adoption waits upon the widespread recognition that the time for reform has come. The real estate meltdown provides that wake-up call. The model is broken. Financing generic products (class A office; suburban housing tract; grocery-anchored strip center; business park, etc.) through globally marketable securities has become radioactive. By the time supply and demand right themselves, the financial and economic unsustainability of sprawl will be laid bare.

Of course, one can never underestimate what historian Barbara Tuchman called “the march of folly.” Perhaps in the interest of “stimulus” to the moribund economy, we will be willing to spend trillions more to subsidize sprawl. But in the end, as economist Herbert Stein pointed out, “That which cannot go on forever, won’t.”

Before that day comes, we can save untold environmental, economic and social damage by the widespread adoption of coding that respects human scale, restores the proximity of complimentary uses, and repairs the damage done to the American landscape and our rich (but abandoned) tradition of creating fine neighborhoods, towns and cities.

Scrap zoning. Adopt coding. Legalize the art of making great places that people cherish, that produce economic value, and that leave a lighter environmental footprint on the land.
Rick Cole’s e-mail address is columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to

The Nation’s mass transit hypocrisy

by Stephen Smith

I was heartened to see an article about the need for mass transit in the pages of The Nation, though I was severely disappointed by the magazine’s own hypocrisy and historical blindness. The article is in all ways a standard left-liberal screed against the car and for mass transit, which is a topic close to my heart, though I’d prefer a more libertarian approach to returning America to its mass transit roots as opposed to the publicly-funded version that The Nation advocates.

The first bit of historical blindness comes at the end of the second paragraph, when The Nation argues for government investment in mass transit on the grounds that it will “strengthen labor, providing a larger base of unionized construction and maintenance jobs.” But don’t they realize that the demands of organized labor were one of the straws that broke the privately-owned mass transit camel’s back during the first half of the twentieth century? Joseph Ragen wrote an excellent essay about how unions in San Francisco demanded that mass transit companies employ two workers per streetcar instead of one, codifying their wishes through a series of legislative acts and even a referendum. Saddled with these additional costs, the streetcar companies could not make a profit, and eventually the lines were paved over to make way for the automobile. Mass transit companies, whether publicly- or privately-owned, cannot shoulder the burden of paying above-market wages and still hope to pose any serious threat to the automobile’s dominance.

The second, and perhaps more egregious error, comes a little later, when The Nation lays the blame on every group but itself for the deteriorating state of mass transit in America:

Nonetheless, smart growth and transportation activists still have high hopes that the Obama administration and a Democratic Congress will revitalize mass transit. But institutional stumbling blocks–including generations of federal policy favoring roads and cars; pressure from fiscal conservatives; and the power of auto, oil and highway construction lobbies–may cause them to miss this opportunity.

Smart growth, though not a libertarian movement, has a distinctly libertarian issue at its core: reversing the mandatory low density zoning and parking regulations that afflict almost every city, town, and village in America. But who started the movement for zoning and low-density planning in the first place?  Progressives, a group which The Nation fancies itself a member of.

And in fact, a search of The Nation’s archives reveals that my suspicions were correct: the magazine was, sure enough, among those who were calling for a de-densification of America, and railing against the inefficiencies of mass transit. From the April 24 issue published in 1920, there’s an article entitled “The Lack of Houses: Remedies” in which the author, Arthur Gleason, lays out his policy prescriptions for dealing with what he considered to be a dearth of housing in America. Regarding zoning (which at the time almost always meant separating homes from jobs and decreasing density – anathema to the New Urbanist call for mixed uses and density), Gleason was wholeheartedly in favor of it:

Zoning regulates and limits the height and bulk of buildings, and regulates and determines the area of courts, yards, and other open spaces. It divides the city into districts. It regulates and restricts the location of trades and industries and the location of buildings. It conserves property values, directs building development, is a security against nuissance, a guarantee of stability, and an attraction to capital.

Not only did The Nation circa 1920 abhor density, but it also treated mass transit with disdain, writing that “[s]ubways make a slum out of a suburb.” This is typical of progressives of the era, who saw mass transit as capitalistic and backwards. There was also a tinge of racism to the attitude, as the “slum” was populated largely by Polish, Italian, Irish, and Jewish immigrants, while the “suburb” contained more acceptable non-immigrant Americans.

The Nation pays lip-service to America’s mass transit-laden past, writing that “it predates the automobile,” but then conveniently forgets the reasons that mass transit in America ceased to exist. And that’s convenient, because the reasons – almost all driven by government intervention against streetcars, subways, and density – were once causes that The Nation championed.

This post was written by Stephen Smith, who writes for his own blog called Rationalitate.

Density in the Animal Kingdom

Longtime reader, Dan M. wrote

Hey Adam,
I was on your site and saw that you posted a video about ant cities. ( I didn’t watch the vid yet, so my thought may or may not have anything to do with it)
It’s funny that you posted it because it sounds related to something I’ve been thinking about. I know we have stats for population densities across the world for people, but I have been wondering, in terms of the animal kingdom, which species seem to thrive at which densities?
It would seem to me that the purest form of survival would design the most ideal community in the wild. Termites don’t get vouchers, subsidies, or free health care and work until each unit has been totally expended (no retirement) so it would seem that whatever community they form would be the most efficient for their needs and means (though it would probably technically be a monarchy). I’m not saying the animal world is a particularly pleasant or good model of what we should work towards, but I would like to know what the correlations are.

Anyway, just a tangent of something I have been wondering about, but if we scaled different animal communities to equate to the densities of different types of human communities, which animals would be considered city dwellers, suburbanites, or country folk? What could we learn from that? Thought that would be a fun project to work on…
Make sense to you?

-Dan M

While you could call it a Monarchy because there is a queen, the queen is only the birth-giver, not a ruler. There is no ruler in an ant colony, it’s a completely emergent order.

Well, we know ants are city dwellers. I thought I’d throw Dan’s questions out there to the readers. What do you think? I’ll throw my thoughts in the comments as I think it over…

NY Rent Control Revival

In an act of pure legislative idiocy in the face of overwhelming consensus among economists against rent control, the New York State Assembly started the ball rolling to strengthen rent regulation. NY Times:

The Democratic-led Assembly passed a broad package of legislation designed to restrain increases on rent-regulated apartments statewide. The legislation would essentially return to regulation tens of thousands of units that were converted to market rate in recent years.

In addition, the legislation would reduce to 10 percent, from 20 percent, the amount that a landlord can increase the rent after an apartment becomes vacant; limit the owner’s ability to recover a rent-regulated apartment for personal use; and increase fines for landlords who are found to have harassed their tenants as a way of evicting them.

The legislation would also repeal the Urstadt Laws’ provision that in 1971 effectively took away most of New York City’s authority to regulate rents and transferred it to the state. Opponents of the legislation are concerned that the New York City Council, known for its pro-tenant leanings, would enact laws that are unfavorable to landlords.

Expect some amazingly ignorant quotes from legislators while this is debated:

Linda B. Rosenthal, an assemblywoman who represents the Upper West Side, said that unless rent-regulation laws were changed, middle class people were at risk of being driven out of the city.

Actually, rent control drives out the middle class, making housing only affordable to the rich and beneficiaries of subsidies and rent controls. New housing will be nearly impossible for middle class tenants to find. Plus, for those who favor one particular class of people over others, rent control increases class tensions

“Pretty soon we’re going to end up with a city of the very poor and the very rich,” Ms. Rosenthal said. “Our social fabric will have been torn apart. And that is not what we want in the city of New York.”

Well, she’s right about that, but Rosenthal is co-culprit. Let’s take a collection for her to enroll in a basic Microeconomics course. She can even take it at The New School, for all I care.

There is hope. Democrats have a slim 32-30 majority in the Assembly, so I wouldn’t expect any series regulations to pass without a fight.

Assembly Speaker Silver declared 2009, “The Year of The Tenant”. Market rents in New York are falling quickly due to the financial mess, but I don’t think that’s what he means.

As Harvard Economist Ed Glaeser so eloquently puts it, “Rent control is bad, bad, bad.”

Illinois Court Rules Against Chicago’s “Vague” Landmark Ordinance

Chicago Real Estate Daily:

An Illinois appellate court has struck down the city of Chicago’s landmarks ordinance, saying it is unconstitutionally vague, putting in jeopardy the city’s protection of more than 250 buildings and 50 historic districts.

Judge James Fitzgerald Smith of the three person Appellate Court wrote, “We believe that the terms ‘value,’ ‘important,’ ‘significant,’ and ‘unique’ are vague, ambiguous, and overly broad”, and thus found the ordinance in violation of the state constitution.

The case involved two plaintiffs and two landmarked districts where attempts to downzone the areas failed before landmarking. However, once the case (including appeals) is over, Chicago’s entire landmarks ordinance would be completely invalidated.

Wow! I am surprised this isn’t making bigger waves in Chicago, and other cities. What should we expect to happen if appeals by The City should fail?

Would property owners rush to tear down their landmarks before The City enacts a new landmarks ordinance?

Per Tribune Architecture critic, Blair Kamin (who calls the ruling wrong-headed, but fielded some good comments):

The laws are based on a 1978 U.S. Supreme Court ruling which stopped the bankrupt Penn Central Railroad’s attempt to pile a 55-story office building atop New York City’s Beaux-Arts Grand Central Terminal. In that ruling, the court held that communities have the right to safeguard significant pieces of property, so long as they do not trample the rights of the properties’ owners.

The key word is “significant,” a word that appears frequently in Chicago’s seven criteria for landmark designation, as in the site of a significant historical event or a building that is the work of a significant architect.

It makes you wonder if there is a more robust solution to landmarks that does less to compromise the property rights of the land owners, and isn’t vulnerable to unforeseen court actions that find flaws in ordinances designed to give more power to the politicians. Perhaps, cities could achieve this through the tried and true use of contracts and easements.

I would propose some sort of easement contract with a city. If a city determines a property to have significant value to the community, the city should be willing to purchase a landmark easement from the property owner at or above market value. If the property owner does not wish to cooperate, the City should be forced to go through the eminent domain process to achieve its preservation easement.

Nonetheless, land owners should be compensated in some way for the intrusion upon their property rights based upon some peoples’ idea of ‘value,’ ‘important,’ ‘significant,’ and ‘unique’. In particular, I find the use of the word “value” peculiar. If there is value to the community, which the owner of the property does not recognize, the community should be willing to compensate the property owner for seizing that value at his expense. A property owner should not be burdened with the use restrictions and added expenses of maintaining a landmark for the benefit of the community without being compensated by the community, who wishes to impose its will upon that individual at no expense to itself.

I hope this incident makes cities re-evaluate their landmark ordinances. Particularly, I get an uneasy feeling about landmarking entire districts. Landmarking districts is a roundabout way to downzone an area, and has the unintentended consequences of banning diversity and density, sucking the potential for vibrancy from the neighborhood.

I’ll certainly keep an eye on this one…