In doing research for a post the other day, I stumbled upon this excerpt from a book called A History of Housing in New York City by Richard Plunz that I think has a useful lesson about development and regulation:
The garden apartment would not have emerged unless it was profitable. In this aspect the garden apartment represented a major change in developers’ perceptions of profitability in relation to the issue of coverage for moderate-income housing. Prior to the 1920s, it was always assumed that of reduction of coverage [sic] would increase costs and reduce profits. The arguments for reduced coverage remained exclusively within the realm of social good, or of marketing, in the belief that apartments associated with better conditions for light and air could be expected to demand higher rents. This common wisdom changed, especially with the new accessibility to cheap outer borough land. It became apparent that reduced coverage on low-cost land might reduce costs enough to increase profits, in spite of the lower number of apartments. Thus, the financial imperative in New York City for moderate-income housing evolved from the 25-by-100 food lot mandated by the Tenement House Act of 1879 to the 100-by-100-foot lot of the Tenement House Act of 1901, to the perimeter block of the 1920s. A key these larger-scale developers was the use of a unified open space, with simplified construction detailing and reduced investment costs per room while raising rental rates. Higher tenement densities with less open space were less desirable because they required more complex and expensive spatial organization in order to provide adequate light and ventilation. The new economic formulas applied especially to housing for the arriving middle class, whose space standards were far less stringent than for tenement design. In the developing outer areas, open land and reduced values permitted reduced site coverages.
The “garden apartment” is essentially a non-rectangular building whose shape, ranging from the modest light court building with hole in the center to more winding designs, allowed it to let in more light than a solid block. It sacrified lot coverage for better light in the apartments and perhaps even a breeze, and filled in the voids with gardens. While the building changes in 1879 and 1901 were driven by regulation, the garden apartment appeared because people valued light and airand developers could make money off of people’s desires – in other words, it came about through market forces. On the demand side this was facilitated by the poor immigrants who used to call the tenements of lower Manhattan home becoming richer (and was perhaps also abetted by limits on new immigration), and on the supply side builders were allowed by the lax regulatory regime to try to satisfy this demand.
But when we fast forward to the present day, it doesn’t seem even remotely possible that developers would make such sacrifices for middle-income apartment dwellers in desirable urban areas. Land has simply become too expensive and development too uncertain for developers to not build the maximum floorspace allowed by law, and unsubsidized middle-class new construction in cities is pretty much nonexistent. With no more undeveloped land in the five boroughs and a zoning code that prohibits any significant new vertical expansion, the city is like a balloon being squeezed, with the pressure causing the balloon to expand into any void it can. Unlike the 1916 code, which made room for 55 million people, the modern zoning code barely allowed the city to register any growth at all in the last census. Like a squeezed balloon, buildings in desirable innercity neighborhoods will shoot up wherever the zoning code lets them, overpowering anything that isn’t landmarked down. The effect is illustrated most vividly in downtown DC, where the federally imposed height limit results in the proliferation of boring, glassy boxes, all about 12 stories high, built right up to the zoning envelope – all with the highest office rents in America. However boring Northern Virginia’s glassy new skyscraper patches along the Orange Line are, at least you get some variation in height and shape and occasionally builders have enough money left over to pay for high-quality construction and design. No such luck with downtown DC.
With a balloon, we all know that the way to return it to its natural shape is to just have faith and let go. With urban development, the garden apartments of the 1920s tell the same story – the only way to sustainably house people in a comfortable and affordable way is for the planners and current residents to release their grip on our cities and let them grow to their natural size and shape. We need to go further than the Bloomberg rezonings and allow development until we get to the point where upzoning desirable neighborhoods doesn’t result in an immediate torrent of new development overpowering any neighborhoods in its wake. The progressive instinct is to try to legislate good outcomes into existence, to the extreme of DC’s metro authority dictating that new development on its land must have “meaningful cornices” and 14-foot ground-level ceilings, in addition to the already overburdened panoply of standard zoning tools. Some cities’ planners might make slightly better choices than others and their cities will be slightly nicer, but no amount of enlightened technocracy is going to bring back the vitality of America’s once-great cities. In order to do that, we have to have enough faith in our fellow citizens to just let our cities go.