Havana, Cuba–Stagnation Doesn’t Preserve Cities, Nor Does Wealth Destroy Them

[My second in a two-part series on Havana, Cuba. Here’s the first article.]

Havana, Cuba

Before taking my trip to Havana, one thing that I was curious about was how a half-century of Communism had affected the built fabric. While there are obvious disadvantages to economic stagnation, I figured that it would have at least created a charming-looking city. There are, after all, a handful of U.S. cities, and numerous European ones, that have resisted growth, modernization, and the automobile, only to remain quaint and historic. But it didn’t take even a 10-minute cab ride from the airport to realize that my assumption about Havana had been naïve—even if it is still held by many of the city’s blissfully uncurious tourists.

In fact, very little about Havana has been “preserved.”  Instead, everything in the city is merely old, and because little gets produced, nothing is replaced. This applies to the automobiles, furniture, hand tools, manufacturing equipment—and most certainly the buildings. Collectively, this stagnation has destroyed the look of the city, with a physical blight that stretches nearly every block from downtown to the outer slums.

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If I could define in one statement what Havana looks like, after four days of extensively biking and walking through, I’d call it the Latin American Detroit. It was a once-great city that declined because of bad policies, and its pervasive ruination serves as a constant reminder of this. The houses themselves, while large and ornate, are almost uniformly inadequate by U.S. standards. If they have not crumbled to the ground altogether, many are caving in. The foundations are crooked, full of holes, and marred by broken windows and doors. Because of Havana’s European roots, stucco is a common material, but on most buildings is falling off, or in some cases has disappeared. Almost every building has dirt and grime, while some are covered in it.

And this is for Havana’s nice parts. Once I began biking out of the central neighborhoods and into the slums, I found that symbols of past wealth disappeared altogether, and were replaced with what in the U.S. would be considered shacks. These structures were usually patched up with knotted wood, metal scraps, and thatching. One gentlemen who lived in the poor neighborhood of Cerro, and who I spoke with at length, described his area as akin to a Brazilian favela—which I found believable. The two pictures I took below were from his front porch, and mirrored the aesthetic of such areas.

So what is it like to live and work in these buildings? As one might expect, the outside decay permeates to the inside. The best access I got was through a 24-year-old working-class woman named Indira. I met Indira on my first night in Havana when stopping to ask directions, and after noticing that she spoke good English, took her to dinner. We became friends, and she invited me into her downtown apartment, where she lived with her mother and father-in-law. The apartment was roughly 150 square feet—far smaller than a typical New York City micro-unit. Because it had a high ceiling, the family had built a horizontal wooden floorboard halfway up the wall that served as the second floor, and built a makeshift staircase leading up. This upstairs “room” was for the mother and father-in-law, while Indira lived in the main room below, sleeping crammed against the kitchen.

Even in such a small space, there were numerous malfunctions. There was no hot water, either for cooking or showering. In fact, the shower did not even work, meaning that the family instead took scrub baths. Because the toilet didn’t flush, they had to pour water into it each time after use to accelerate the draining. The built-in wooden floorboard was clearly sagging under the weight of the upstairs furniture, raising concerns that it would one day collapse. As for the actual roof—it had been crumbling for years, and was fixed recently by a neighborhood handyman. To pay for the work, the family had to spend over a year saving up $150.

 

The main story of Indira's apartment.

The main story of Indira’s apartment.

 

The second story, upheld by a wood board

The second story, upheld by a wooden board

 

Public Infrastructure

Just as peoples’ private houses were crumbling, so too was the public infrastructure—again, much like Detroit. The public spaces, while well-used, were typically full of trash, overgrown weeds, and broken objects. Many parks, for example, were defined more by concrete than grassland. Streets, if they were even completely paved, were filled with potholes and had such poor drainage that, after it rained, they would gather huge puddles.

A water-less pool

A water-less pool

 

I wasn’t able in my short time there to analyze the underground infrastructure. But if it is like everything else in Havana, I would assume that it, too, is crumbling. For example, contrary to what tourist brochures say, Havana’s tap water is considered undrinkable by locals, and I was routinely offered bottled water to avoid catching chlorida.

Indeed, the substandard nature of Havana’s built entities were so common that after awhile I stopped noticing. For example, when I attended a rainy futbol match at a renowned Havana stadium, I sat underneath a roof that leaked constantly, getting soaked alongside other fans. Can anyone imagine this being tolerated at a U.S. arena? When I used bathrooms even in nice establishments, I would find that there often weren’t toilet seats, door locks, or (you guessed it) toilet paper. Schoolyards had swimming pools without water and basketball hoops without rims. And on it went.

This is how life is in Havana. And I soon realized, given this, how buffoonish it would have been to go around looking for examples of “historic preservation.” Such preservation is an aesthetic notion from the First World, driven by those who are willing to pay more to retrofit attractive old housing. But in a city of extreme poverty, preservation is the pragmatic steps people take to prevent their roofs from caving in.

a public park...

and a public waterfront

So How Does Havana Compare To…San Francisco?

Have you ever read an article that was so hilariously wrong that you wanted to pick your laptop up and chuck it across the room? This was my reaction to one article I read several days after returning from Havana, with the city’s horrific conditions still on my mind. On June 8, MarketWatch.com published an article by columnist Therese Poletti called “New Tech Money Is Destroying The Streets Of San Francisco.” Poletti explained that a flood of wealthy executives were moving into San Francisco, buying old homes, and altering the interiors.

It is now hard to find a Victorian home for sale that has not been gutted, its architectural details stripped and tossed. And owners or developers — looking to sell at a premium in the frenzied real estate market to “techies with cash” — hope to appeal to the tastes (or lack thereof) of current buyers, by turning once-charming homes with detailed woodwork, built-ins and art glass, into clones of Apple’s minimalist retail stores.

This trend has been developing for several years, but it seems far more prevalent today, with construction sites sprouting across the Bay Area and especially in San Francisco. And in addition to the remodeling frenzy, older buildings appear to be disappearing at a scary pace.

Before even addressing Poletti’s point, let me just set the record straight: San Francisco is not being “destroyed.” I can testify from having lived there in 2012, and visiting several times more, that the city is an architectural gem that has largely stayed in character since being rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake. Much of the city—including almost the entire northeast portion—is an oasis of historic Italianate, Queen Anne, Craftsman, and Art Deco construction. These buildings roll along the hills flanked by clean, well-paved streets, and small, impeccably-landscaped yards. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, San Francisco surpasses any other major U.S. city, and perhaps any European one.

The reason for this is two-fold. San Francisco has expansive historic preservation laws that make it difficult or illegal to alter thousands of structures. Compelling arguments have been made that the city takes this preservationist impulse too far, to the detriment of adding new housing supply–although such laws help maintain its unique character. But the other factor—to which Poletti seems oblivious—is that the city has a large professional class with the financial wherewithal to maintain these homes.

I would argue that this second factor, more than the first, has preserved San Francisco. You could put a historic overlay designation across Detroit, and it wouldn’t change much. The Motor City suffers from decay because it has undergone six decades of depopulation, and this has left no one around to preserve its own large historic stock. But the Bay Area has been flooded with capital during this period, and this has strengthened its culture of preservation. Maintaining a historic home, after all, can be an expensive endeavor that requires ripping out floorboards, replacing pipes, and other structural changes. It is usually done by educated, well-off households who have either the money to fund repairs, or the time to dedicate sweat equity. Perhaps not every family preserves their homes precisely to Poletti’s specifications, and I don’t blame them, since it is difficult to live in a floor plan that was laid out a century ago. But she should not miss the broader point, which is that San Francisco has remained as it is because of the demographics it attracts.

Instead, she claims that these groups are “destroying” the city. She is thus spouting the same myth that is advanced about historic preservation by urban progressives, who seem to think that wealth and gentrification works against preservation. But a fair-minded look at U.S. cities demonstrates the opposite. If one looks at America’s most notable historic neighborhoods–the Back Bay in Boston; Capitol Hill in DC; the French Quarter in New Orleans; much of northern San Francisco; much of Manhattan and northern Brooklyn; downtown Savannah; and downtown Charleston–a unifying feature is that they have great residential wealth. Meanwhile, there are numerous cities—Baltimore, Philadelphia, Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland—that have a similar number of historic structures. But many of them sit hollowed-out because of decline.

The same could be said when comparing Havana with Poletti’s San Francisco. Both cities have similar architecture and planning, but their differing economic histories have led to opposite preservationist destinies. Wealthy and growing San Francisco is a city where thousands of structures remain in superb shape, and where people grieve over minor alterations. Havana’s system has produced a crumbling city where the desire for preservation gets lost in a sea of basic needs. If Poletti really wants to see a “destroyed” city, she should visit the latter.

a public housing complex from the outside...

a public housing complex from the outside…

 

and from the inside.

and from the inside.

 

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Travel Update: I’m Going To Cuba

Miami, FL

1. My two Forbes articles this week included one about how inclusionary zoning has replaced rent control as urban America’s preferred housing price control; and one about how San Francisco’s housing prices are causing creative class exile.

2. There was another interesting recent housing story in San Francisco, when city supervisor David Campos–who represents the Mission District–proposed putting a 2-year moratorium on market-rate housing in the gentrifying neighborhood. While activists support the measure, even San Francisco’s establishment liberals have deemed it counterproductive. Here are formal oppositions published by the San Francisco Chronicle; from the local Democratic Party; and by supervisor Scott Wiener, a renowned affordability champion. Wiener includes in his Medium op-ed a statement that will hopefully one day be read, contemplated, and internalized by every anti-gentrification activist in America:

New residents aren’t moving to the Mission because of new development; rather, they’re moving to the Mission because of the Mission, amazing as it is. People who want to move to the Mission will move there with or without new development. And, without additional housing, they will put more and more pressure on the existing housing stock. Evictions and displacement are the inevitable result of that pressure.

To counter, here’s an editorial by Campos criticizing Wiener for “channeling the ghost of Ronald Reagan.”

3. And yes, you read that headline right–I’m going to Cuba! I’d been flirting with the idea ever since President Obama normalized relations with the nation (just earlier today he removed it from the state sponsors of terrorism list), and being in Miami seemed like an excuse to go. I’m slated to leave early Sunday and return Thursday, June 4.

Traveling to Cuba is still not easy, much less available to the broader U.S. A person must fit one of 12 categories, and they are rather narrow (I qualified as a journalist, and am expected to keep a record of my activities). Few U.S. airlines offer Cuba flights, and the ones that do leave only from select cities. While numerous Cuba travel agencies exist here in Miami, some don’t have a single staffer who speaks English, suggesting that they cater more to Cuban-Americans connecting with their families than gringos. But I wanted to see a country in the final throes of its half-century stagnation, before it inevitably changes from increased tourism and new-found access to U.S. banks. I plan to visit las ciudades de Havana, Trinidad y Santiago de Cuba, while exploring much of the countryside in-between.

I realize that much has been written about the effects of Cuba’s Communist system on its living standards. Two particularly illuminating articles I found were by New York Times columnist Roger Cohen and global traveler Michael Totten, who described what life is like for the many citizens who live on their allotted $20/month. Other journalists have taken a more positive tone by noting that Cuba has full literacy, minimal homelessness, and a relatively efficient health care system. But I’ll suspend judgement until arriving, and don’t know how much I’ll add to the conversation anyway, since I’m only there for 4 days.

One under-represented thing, though, that I’d like to explore is the nation’s reportedly vibrant street culture–and the causes for it. As PlacesJournal noted in an extended essay, Cuba’s urban neighborhoods have not been disrupted in the last half-century by excessive urban renewal, automobile through-traffic, or change in general. This has prevented modernization, but helped preserve their historic character and walkability. Such neighborhoods may be poor, but, as I’ve read and heard from Miami locals, are clean, safe, and full of people, music, and well-defined civic spaces. One doesn’t have to embrace Cuba’s overall political structure to acknowledge that there are probably still design lessons to be learned from its cities, and I’m looking forward to seeing what those are. Hopefully I can report back next week with plenty of photos.

 

What is wrong with “How to Make an Attractive City”

critica

How to Make an Attractive City”, a video by The School of Life, recently gained attention in social media. Well presented and pretty much aligned with today’s mainstream urbanism, the video earned plenty of shares and few critiques. This is probably the first critique you may read.

The video is divided into six parts, each with ideas the author suggests are important to make an attractive city. I will cover each one of them separately and analyze the author’s conclusion in a final section.

1 – Not too chaotic, not too ordered

The author argues that a city must establish simple rules to to give aesthetic order to a city without producing excessive uniformity. From Alain Bertaud’s and Paul Romer’s ideas, it can make sense to maintain a certain order of basic infrastructure planning in to enable more freedom to build in private lots. However, this is not the order to which the video refers, suggesting rules on the architectural form of buildings.

The main premise behind this is that it “is what humans love”. But though the producers of the video certainly do love this kind of result, it is impossible to affirm that all humans love a certain type of urban aesthetics generated by an urbanist. It is even less convincing when this rule will impact density by restricting built area of a certain lot of land or even raising building costs, two probable consequences of this kind of policy: a specific kind of beauty does not come for free.

Jane Jacobs, one of the most celebrated and influential urbanists of the modern era, clearly argued that

“To approach a city, or even a city neighborhood, as if it were a larger architectural problem, capable of being given order by converting it into a disciplined work of art, is to make the mistake of attempting to substitute art for life. The results of such profound confusion between art and life are neither art nor life. They are taxidermy.”

The video also makes a factual mistake when it states that London skyscrapers are carefully planned. Their location, in fact, is based on preserving specific viewing corridors established almost 200 years ago. As The Economist reported last year, views of these landmarks have completely lost its relevance in contemporary London.

2 – Visible Life

The video argues that cities full of street life are more desirable. That is observably apparent, as people’s preference is observable in their chose to be drawn to these spaces. Nevertheless, the video makes a contradiction: first saying that Hong Kong is an example of a city with street life, then claiming cities full of skyscrapers aren’t conducive to street life.  Cities with “anonymous commercial towers” do not necessarily lacks street life: New York, Hong Kong, Tokyo and City of London are examples of cities full of skyscrapers that have active street life.

3 – Compact cities

Suburbanization and sprawl has been vigorously incentivized by public policy, most massively in the United States. United States policy featured an Interstate Highway System with massive investment in large road projects; education funding that favored good public schools in the suburbs; subsidies that favored owning larger-and-larger homes such as Mortgage Interest Deduction; zoning restrictions such as minimum lot areas and setbacks, as well as state support for the auto and oil industry. These programs fueled a form of urbanization we’ve come to know as suburban sprawl. Compact cities, which the videos celebrate have typically grown spontaneously without significant interventions.

The historic European and Brazilian downtowns typically have shorter commute distances, an intensive street life and a smaller dependency on the automobile.

4 – Orientation and mystery

It is true that people have diverse preferences for urban form, and that an attractive city can supply a greater variety of forms. However, it is dangerous for a city to dictate a certain kind of urban form for the city as a whole, even if it is a mix between different models. Although we can control form within a neighborhood or a large-scale development, municipal norms with these goals in mind can generate distortions exactly because of the infinitely varying  preferences of the citizens. Incapable of catering to all the subjective preferences of everyone that participates in the city environment, planners inherently lack the capability to determine ideal quantities of orientation and mystery the video suggests. In a truly organic and complex city, orientation emerges in a truly spontaneous and decentralized way that brings more “mystery” than any planner can fathom.

5 – Scale

Here the author quotes Joseph Campbell: “If you want to see what a society really believes in, look at what the biggest buildings on the horizon are dedicated to”, and deduces that we don’t actually collectively value sports shoe corporations, tax specialists, the oil industry and pharmaceuticals, as a few examples. But is that in fact true? A certain citizen may even say that he does not value these corporations and services, but he is a daily consumer of shoes, he pays his taxes, burns fuel and uses plastic products. And when he gets sick, he relies on pharmaceutical drugs. In the behaviors of each person, a preference for these goods and services is in fact revealed.  The video misunderstands how the complexity of the economy actually works and how preferences in society are be manifested.

What happens within tall commercial buildings is never as simple as their appearance. They often house the companies that produce or support the computers we use, the planes we fly in or the milk we have with our everyday breakfast. Such a city reflects the social valuation of a complex network of voluntary action that generates the products and services that make our lives better.

Soon the author argues for preserving views and limiting building heights to five stories. The rule itself is a paradox, as a four story building will have its view blocked by a five story building. Going even further with this reasoning, we can infer that a single-story house can block the view of another single-story house. Arguing for the preservation of views is, in fact, a direct contradiction with what it means to live in a city.

In any case, it is not reasonable to limit buildings within a city to five stories. The height of the old cities the video refers to was not defined by planning norms, but by practical necessity of walking up and down stairs in an era before the elevators we now take for granted. In contrast to today, top floors in pre-elevator buildings were always the cheapest as they were the hardest floors to reach. Limiting building heights to five stories suggests an artificial and arbitrary limit to real estate supply, a tangible side effect of the “sense of insignificance” the producers of the video talk about.

6 – A local city

The video says that buildings must not look alike everywhere in the world, as his trips get boring and because each city has a specific climate, needs and different positive and negative attributes. It argues for a strong local character and for the use of local forms and materials.

This is very true with commercial real estate in Latin America, where developers have built several glass towers which are totally inadequate for a tropical climate. These designs are intended to copy temperate climate buildings in developed countries, where the “greenhouse effect” within glass-enclosed buildings is conducive to indoor working environments. Smart builders will certainly learn from these mistakes and develop more adequate local solutions instead of imitating inefficient and inadequate forms.

The use of local forms and materials, however, is a major problem. Aesthetic and architectural form – trying to separate it from building technology – were always globalized, being influenced by different cultures and ideas. The same argument goes for materials: locally available materials will hardly be the best for every specific building.  This principle can be applied to any object. It is impossible to imagine a pencil, a single and relatively simple object, to be produced only with local materials, much less an entire city. The historical examples given in the video were built that way mainly by lack of options, not by an aesthetic or functional preference. The only contemporary example given, architect Glenn Murcutt, does not use local materials and whether he designs are distinctly “Australian architecture” is a very subjective interpretation.

Conclusion

In the last section, the author asserts that the greatest challenges to implementation of these ideas are a lack of political will and intellectual confusion about aesthetics. This was one of the most dangerous ideas the video communicates. In saying that it is possible to affirm what is inherently beautiful or ugly, is realistically impossible as these are not universal truths. I personally know people who find the glass towers the author hates beautiful. Others think the Brazilian favelas or the shantytowns in Bangkok are the most amazing and spontaneous expression of humanity. Some even think Paris is not the romantic city travel guides tell us, but instead a repetitive and boring vision of the past. The stand the video takes is worrying, as it argues for a correct and universal aesthetic enforced by increasing political power.

The tourism statistics used in this argument is simply false. Dubai, Singapore, New York and Hong Kong are part of the top ten most visited cities in the world and represent urban aesthetics and form opposite to the one argued in the video. For example, my personal experience of Frankfurt does not align with what the video says: I had the opportunity to spend a few days there on vacation and thought the city was amazing.

The final conclusion is an attack on real estate developers, who apparently greedily fight to make the city an ugly unattractive place. Unfortunately not everything is easy in this world. Some developers invest in renowned architects to serve niche clients and citizens that are willing to pay a premium for aesthetic extravagance. However, those who build for the masses cannot budget for extravagance, as real estate is usually the largest expenditure in someone’s life – and the burden of housing costs ever growing in most part because of very regulations the video is promoting. The given example of New Town, Edinburgh is actually perfect, as it is one of the most expensive neighborhoods in town.  Ironically it’s probably the neighborhood with the least amount of street life because of it’s strict residential zoning.

Another contradiction is when the video argues a city cannot be shaped by a free real estate market.  However, most of the cities the video uses as good examples were, in fact, built by within extremely deregulated real estate market compared to today’s standards. This is true for almost all medieval cities, old London neighborhoods, the Marais in Paris (what was untouched by Haussmann’s renovation) with the additional examples of Hong Kong, New York and even the historical centers of Brazilian cities.

By understanding the city as a complex, emergent environment, we should let go of the urge to impose our personal interests in urban form. The video’s final conclusions, calling for an increase in government control and a rigid regulation of the urban environment is as dangerous and has the same mindset as the failed plans of Brasilia.  And as dangerous as modern urbanism theory in general, which sees the city as built physical space that can be modeled by what planners want to achieve. Cities must be the result of spontaneous and voluntary action by all its citizens, not of a committee that decides what is right, wrong, beautiful or ugly.  Restraint from imposition by those who arrogantly proclaim they know what’s best for the extremely complex organisms we call cities will eventually lead to what I like to call planned chaos.

Travel Update: A Tale Of Two Latino Areas In Miami And San Francisco

Miami, FL

1. The two Forbes articles I wrote this week are about New York City mayor Bill de Blasio’s effort to modernize the city’s courts; and a tech program under New York governor Andrew Cuomo that failed colossally in year one.

2. The highlight of my week, though, came at the tail end on Saturday night, when I explored Miami’s Little Havana, a Cuban neighborhood outside of downtown. What surprised me was how Cuban it actually was, despite abutting one of the nation’s booming financial districts. Almost everyone there is Cuban—save the few gringo tourists like me—and the neighborhood is rooted in their culture. Spanish is the first language, salsa music echoes through the streets, and retail areas are lined with Caribbean cuisine. It’s not unusual to find live chickens running though people’s backyards. The architecture reflects what I’ve seen in photos of Havana, and hasn’t been interspersed with condos and yoga studios.

This surprised me because, usually when I walk into such neighborhoods that abut rich areas, I find that they have been gentrified past the state of being “ethnic.” For example in San Francisco, The Mission District, historically the city’s Mexican neighborhood, is a shell of its former self. While it may have some streets dedicated to Mexican culture, there is literally a one-block demarcation from hipster Valencia Street, and the only thing keeping the old-timers around is rent control. San Francisco also has an increasingly diluted Chinatown and Japantown, and the decline of its black culture is well-documented. Meanwhile Miami’s “Little Havana” is still Cuban and historically-black Overtown remains black. Both neighborhoods are a stone’s-throw from downtown.

The fact that Miami is better than San Francisco at preserving close-in ethnic neighborhoods is surprising, because the cities are similar. Both have experienced a flood of new people and capital due, respectively, to their booming financial and tech industries. Both are warm-weather cities that attract tourists, artists, and the creative class. So how has Miami resisted gentrification? The answer lies in its downtown housing policies.

Rather than acting like they had no clue what to do with all these incoming rich people, Miami officials allowed them a place to go: Brickell. This is a neo-liberal mecca that several decades ago was a low-slung neighborhood. But in the 1970s, it began attracting small banks, and in the decades since has boomed into the “Wall Street of Miami.” It is now home to dozens of banks, and more than just a daytime work center, has evolved into a 24/7 skyscraper neighborhood, with a residential population that doubled from 2000-2010, to 27,000. A 2013 report found that 19 new condos were under construction, and another two dozen were in the planning stages. Along with this has come the fancy restaurants, bars, light rail, and walkable streets.

“If you’re a yuppie in Miami,” said a finance-industry woman who I went on a date with in the area, during a characteristically hopping Thursday night. “You’re going to live in Brickell.”

brickell

San Francisco, meanwhile, doesn’t have a Brickell-like area, and thus not a decisive place for its techies to live. The reason is politics. For one, Brickell’s ostentatious wealth displays conform with Miami’s culture, but would send San Francisco’s class warriors into spasms of outrage. Brickell also wouldn’t get built because San Francisco’s NIMBYs wouldn’t just allow a high-rise neighborhood to go up overnight—or at all. Even when something as harmless as a 12-story condo—8 Washington—is proposed in downtown San Francisco, it faces years of litigation. The stretch of land most eligible to become San Francisco’s Brickell would be the Mission Bay area around the Giants’ baseball stadium. But much of this land is government-operated, and all of it is regulated, leading to parking lots and low-scale buildings.

If this area were allowed to explode with high-end condos, it would be a natural destination for SF’s techies—just as Brickell is for Miami’s bankers. Many of America’s rich young professionals, after all, have shown a taste for the type of high-rise, upscale, security-laden condos found in Brickell. But because San Francisco lacks such development, yuppies there instead settle for older housing in low-slung neighborhoods like The Mission, Potrero Hill, and the Tenderloin. And this has brought chaos to those neighborhoods, as prices rise and established tenants are evicted.

All this, of course, suggests an ironic aspect of urban housing markets that is misunderstood by most government officials and NIMBYs: “if a city wants to preserve, it must build.” In other words, if a city is being flooded with rich people, then allow the market to build to their specifications, namely in under-utilized areas, and watch them concentrate there. That way, they won’t overwhelm the old-school ethnic areas, keeping prices down, and enabling those areas to function as they long have.

 

Historic preservation: Bad for neighborhood diversity

Even while the likelihood of tax reform in 2015 is questionable, historic preservationists are actively lobbying to save the historic preservation tax credit from the chopping block. Currently, developers who renovate historic buildings can receive up to a 20% tax credit, significantly reducing the cost of renovation relative to redevelopment. New York Preservation League President Jay DiLorenzo is leading the effort to increase the historic preservation tax credit to 30% rather than eliminating the break. Those in support of the tax preference argue that  preservation makes neighborhoods more affordable, more walkable, and even more conducive to innovation than neighborhoods in which market incentives guide re-use versus redevelopment incentives. 

recent study by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Preservation Green Lab supports these claims:

Findings from the three study cities show that mixing buildings from different vintages—including modern buildings—supports social and cultural activity in commercial and mixed-use zones. Many of the most thriving blocks in the study cities scored high on the diversity of building-age measure. Scale also played an important role. Grid squares with smaller lots and more human-scaled buildings generally scored higher on the performance measures than squares characterized by larger lots and structures. These results support the concept of adding new infill projects of compatible size alongside older buildings.

Preservationists frequently point out that Jane Jacobs favored preserving old buildings with her famous quote:

Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them…. for really new ideas of any kind—no matter how ultimately profitable or otherwise successful some of them might prove to be—there is no leeway for such chancy trial, error and experimentation in the high-overhead economy of new construction. Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.

Boston's North End

Boston’s North End

She favored preservation for both the cheap rent that older and perhaps run down buildings could provide for new businesses  and for the aesthetic qualities and level of density that walk-up buildings in traditional neighborhoods provide. She correctly identifies that a variety of rental rates within neighborhoods and blocks allows for diversity and vibrancy that isn’t possible when rental rates are constant across the buildings in a neighborhood. Preservationists and perhaps Jacobs herself attribute this correlation is to entrepreneurs finding inspiration in old buildings rather than new businesses locating in their cities’ least expensive buildings.

However, both Jacobs and preservationists today fail to acknowledge that the cities and neighborhoods where preservation is strongest have uniformly high rents and low diversity because preservation efforts have led to insufficient building supply. Jacobs contrasted preservation with government-led urban renewal efforts relying on eminent domain to raze and reconstruct entire blocks and neighborhoods. She correctly points out that the resulting new construction would be more expensive than protecting old buildings from eminent domain. But this is a false dichotomy. Market-led redevelopment is very unlikely to result in uniform new construction. More likely, developers will gradually redevelop or renovate parcels as it makes sense to do so, creating blocks and neighborhoods with buildings of varying ages that are affordable to diverse residents and businesses of various types.

Ed Glaeser finds that in New York City, per-square-foot real estate prices have risen an order of magnitude more rapidly than prices outside of these districts from the 1980s to the 2000s. Neighborhoods like New York’s Greenwich Village and Boston’s North End are undeniably charming, but today they’re home to universally expensive housing and retail, hardly the bastions of diversity that Jacobs espoused.

Undoubtedly, local level preservation rules that create historic designations are more distortive than the historic preservation tax credit which marginally encourages developers to renovate rather than redevelop. But incentivizing historic preservation over new construction makes cities more  expensive by reducing supply. Some types of “creative class” businesses might truly prefer to locate in older buildings with character, but old buildings only support diversity of land use to the extent that they provide cheaper space than new construction. Slum clearance is no longer driving high real-estate costs in the most expensive neighborhoods. Historic preservation is now the culprit, ensuring that old buildings go to those wealthy enough to afford them rather than providing inexpensive space for new businesses.

Fictional Scandal at the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission

Stephen’s post on alleged corruption at the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission reminded me of a great scene from The Bonfire of the Vanities that I wanted to share here. Tom Wolfe describes a scenario in which a black bishop wants to sell his church’s property in order to raise money for the congregation. The fictional mayor’s assistant explains:

“The bishop wants to sell St. Timothy’s to a developer, on the grounds that the membership is declining, and the church is losing a lot of money, which is true. But the community groups are putting a lot of pressure on the Landmarks Commission to landmark it so that nobody can alter the building even after they buy it.”

“Is this guy honest?” asked the mayor. “Who gets the money if they sell the church?”

“I never heard he wasn’t honest,” said Sheldon. “He’s a learned gentleman of the cloth. He went to Harvard. He could still be greedy, I suppose, but I have no reason to think he is.”

The mayor meets with the bishop to discuss the issue of preserving the church and realizes that Bishop Thomas is an ideal connection to improve his approval with the black community. The mayor agrees to prevent the church from being landmarked and the bishop is overcome with gratitude at the benefit selling the property will provide the congregation. Then the mayor tells the bishop that he wants him to serve on a new “blue-ribbon commission against crime.” When the bishop declines because the commission would conflict with his role in the church, the mayor says not to worry about the church remaining without landmark status:

“Don’t worry about that at all. As I said I didn’t do it for you and I didn’t do it for your church. I did it because I think it’s in the best interest of the city. It’s as simple as that.”

When the bishop leaves, the mayor immediately picks up the phone:

“Get me the Landmarks Commissioner.” Presently there was a low beep-beep, and he picked up the phone and said, “Mort? You know that church, St. Timothy’s? . . . Right . . . Landmark the son of a bitch!”

[Tom Wolfe, (1987) The Bonfire of the Vanities, Chapter 27]

While of course Wolfe’s portrayal of the interaction between city hall and historic preservation may not be realistic, he certainly captures the quid pro quo nature of development and the corruption that some accuse the Landmarks Commission of today.

Most of The Bonfire of the Vanities has little to do with urban development, but Wolfe also offers very vivid descriptions of both the Bronx and Park Avenue in the 1980s, so it might be interesting to many of you if you’ve not yet read it.

New standards for ridiculousness in historic preservation

Because Arlington County, VA is not home to many properties over 100 years old, planning officials have turned their historic preservation efforts to those properties they do have to preserve. The Sun Gazette reports:

The first phase of the effort focused on only a very narrow slice of property types in Arlington: garden apartments, shopping centers and commercial properties more than 50 years old. Leventhal said those types of properties are most vulnerable to redevelopment.

It sounds like preservation efforts in Arlington will be much less restrictive that the often discussed Landmark Designation in New York. However, the new policy will certainly increase uncertainty and cost for redeveloping protected property. And of course the question here is, are strip malls from the 1960s really worth preserving?

Miles Grant at The Green Miles hits the nail on the head with this quote:

But saying properties more than 50 years old are most vulnerable to redevelopment is like saying cars more than 10 years old are most vulnerable to being traded in.

Sure, if classic cars were protected and not allowed to be traded in, we would see more on the road. The trade-off, though, would be that consumers would not be able to choose the cars that best meet their needs.

While Smart Growth supporters and historic preservation activists share the same propensity for top-down control of development, this issue gets to the core of their inherent conflict. The preservation of car-centric development prevents higher density, walkable communities, even when this is what the market demands. While individuals may attempt to embrace both ideologies, protecting mediocre mid-century suburban architecture necessarily comes at the expense of Smart Growth principles.