Market Urbanist Meetup [Manhattan Edition] March 22, 2014

Meet us at Herald Square at 3pm by the Statue

Market Urbanists will be gathering again in New York City for an informal meet up.  Last year, we explored the fascinating ethnic neighborhoods of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  This year, we’ll meet in Midtown Manhattan, where some ethnic enclaves are nestled amongst towers and bustling streets.

Come join a wide cross-section of urbanists in attendance:  architects, journalists, economists, real estate developers, planners, and students.  Anthony Ling of Rendering Freedom set up a Facebook event for the meetup.  We’ll meet at 3pm in Herald Square (right in front of the clock tower on W 35th St.)  Please sign up on Facebook, and tell your friends.  (Anthony also set up a Market Urbanism Facebook group to help us connect to fellow Market Urbanists)

See you then!

 

https://www.facebook.com/events/1455717651329006/

NYU 2031: Rise of the Mole People

A few things.

First of all, the New York Times in 1992 on the postmodern skyline blight that is the Sony Building (then still the AT&T Building):

This proposal marks the latest instance in which landlords have tried to recreate ill-conceived or little-used arcades and plazas, which generated lucrative bonuses for builders but not much in the way of genuine public amenities.

In one of the most dramatic cases, a dank arcade under 2 Lincoln Square, an apartment tower on Columbus Avenue, between 65th and 66th Streets, was enclosed in 1989 and turned into a home for the Museum of American Folk Art.

The Sony plan is likely to provoke wide debate on whether the public will gain or lose through the renovation, given the celebrity of 550 Madison Avenue itself, which was designed in 1978 by Philip Johnson and is marked on the skyline by a Chippendale-style broken pediment.

Sony’s proposal calls for a net reduction of 8,727 square feet of space at ground level that is now devoted to the public; space that could conceivably be rented to retailers for about $200 a square foot.

And now the New York Observer in 2012, on NYU’s 2031 plan, which will involve upgrading the quality and quantity of open space while adding new buildings to their modernist superblocks in the Village:

“We are making publicly accessible [existing] open space that is not—and is not perceived—as publicly accessible now,” university spokesman John Beckman told The Observer.

Still, this ignores the fact that this is already N.Y.U. owned land, and many of the impediments in place that the university cites, such as fences and locked gates and requisite visitor passes, could merely be done away with by the institution. The public space would not be the best, but it still underscores the fact that there is not nearly a net open space gain on the scale the university is suggesting.

But the Greenwich Village is, of course, sacrosanct, being the home of Jane Jacobs and one of the first neighborhoods in America to gentrify after urban decline (that is, regain its former stature – there are some places, like Lake Shore Drive in Chicago and the Upper East Side in Manhattan, that never lost it).

Speaking of Jane Jacobs, commenter Benjamin Hemric, in one of his epic comments the other day, pointed me to this footnote on page 194 of The Death and Life:

“Dear, are you sure the sotve is one of the 51 exciting reasons we’re living in Washington Square Village?” asks the wife in a cartoon issued by protesting tenants in an expensive New York redevelopment project. “You’ll have to speak up, honey,” replies the husband. “Our neighbor just flushed his toilet.”

Washington Square Village is, in my opinion, the nicer of the two complexes that NYU wants to redevelop, despite not having the pedigree of I.M. Pei’s Silver Towers next door.

And finally, from another Observer article, right after the plan passed the first of two major City Council hurdles:

[Community Board 2 chair David Gruber] said the community did not get a single major concession from NYU, among them a hope that the Mercer building on the north block would be eliminated entirely. It was something everyone from the board to council members to The Times‘ architecture critic had asked for, but NYU said it was impossible given the huge underground building it was building on the north blocks for classrooms and labs.

“In order to for it to work, we have to be able to access it, for ingress and egress,” Alicia Hurley, the NYU VP shepherding the project, told The Observer. “People have to be able to get in and out.”

Why do they need to go in and out? Surely it would be more beneficial to the community if the mole people were contained within the earth’s crust!

I’m not sure what the ratio is now that the aboveground space has been reduced, but the plan was originally 1.4 million new square feet above ground, and 1.1 million below. Light and air are so important to existing residents that newcomers have to spend their daylight hours underground.

The Zoning History of New York’s White Brick Apartments

530 Park Ave.

The rehabilitation of the postwar glazed white brick apartment building continues apace, with the condoization of 530 Park Ave., a 1941 (okay, almost postwar) 19-story white brick building. I happen to like New York’s postwar white brick buildings, and am even warming up to the red brick variants – I’ve always consider anonymous white brick to be the most New York of New York buildings.

One reason that I like them is that because of the history of New York City zoning, they have the form of prewar buildings, with the embellishments (or lack thereof) of the postwar era.

Up until 1961, New York’s developers were still building under essentially the 1916 code. While the 1916 code definitely restricted and guided growth in the dense commercial core, where it encouraged set backs and discouraged Equitable Building-like dense massings, developers in residential neighborhoods like the Upper East Side generally did not bump up against the zoning limits. The setbacks on 530 Park are slight and decorative, and likely built according to the style of the day (which was heavily influenced by larger buildings downtown whose shapes were dictated by zoning).

So buildings erected before the 1961 code took effect tended to be lower than those that came after, but they covered more of the lot and their façades were flush with the sidewalk. Some of them included garages for the newly-motorized middle- and upper-classes, but they were small compared to those that came after. Above all they were governed by the laws of supply and demand. If you ignore the materials and lack of ornament, they were a lot like prewar buildings. But the brick apartment buildings of the ’40s and ’50s were the last in New York City built according to supply and demand, which is why I think we’ll come to hold them so dear in the future.

Goodbye free market, helloooooo 1961 zoning code! (Ruppert Towers, built in 1979, in Yorkville on the Upper East Side)

After the 1961 code went into effect, building form in New York City changed radically. The new FAR system combined with public plaza bonuses rewarded taller, thinner buildings (where new buildings managed to sprout at all), breaking the street wall, and perhaps encouraging architects to pay less attention to surrounding structures for context. It also downzoned the vast majority of the city just as people were seeking more living space per capita, meaning that these taller apartment buildings didn’t always hold more people.

And then there were the minimum parking requirements, which required huge garages and parking lots that forced developers to think of cars before they thought about good design, obliterating any trace of good architecture in the outer boroughs, where the buildings were the most modest and the margins were the slimmest. The parking minimums also did some damage in Manhattan, until the EPA stepped in and forced the city to stop requiring parking in neighborhoods south of Harlem.

Most of the city is still zoned according to the 1961 code, but the post-Jane Jacobs emphasis on the pedestrian view has corrected some of these issues. There are no longer plaza bonuses, and there are some incentives for ground-level retail.

But the overall densities of the 1961 code are still in effect, which means that virtually all construction in the desirable parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn bumps up against zoning limits, and land prices are so high that even luxury builders end up having to skimp on materials to make projects pencil out financially.

I know it’s a risky thing to say, considering how drastically aesthetic tastes change, but I have a feeling that 20 years from now, we aren’t going to feel as good about the architecture of the ’70s as we do today about white brick.

Why do condos even exist?

It sounds like a dumb question – they exist because people like the security of owning a home combined with the services and lower costs that apartments offer, duh! But upon further reflection, condominium-style tenure can be a bit problematic.

The main problem, as I see it, is that a building that’s been carved up into condo units can almost never be redeveloped. So much so that preservationists have been known to cheer on developers doing condo and co-op conversions of historic properties:

Indeed, sometimes preservation advocates look to condo developers as white knights. Since the Bialystoker Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation on East Broadway closed last year, Laurie Tobias Cohen, the executive director of the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy, has been “extremely eager” for a developer to buy the historic building and convert it to co-ops or condos. The closing of the nursing home was a great loss, she said; the goal now is to prevent the demolition, or further deterioration, of the building. “What we don’t want,” she said, “is to lose any more of the built historic fabric.”

This is no doubt an elegant solution to the problem of unprotected historic buildings, but what about the less-than-stunning condos and co-ops that have been built in the US – and pretty much every where else in the world! – since the end of World War II?

Why are condo buildings impossible to redevelop? Simple: gravity! You can’t keep your apartment on the 17th floor while someone demolishes their 5th floor unit. In Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore, they call condos “strata” apartments, which reflects what they really are: floors of apartments layered inseparably atop each other. To redevelop a condo or co-op building, you have to buy every single unit, after which you can dissolve the condo structure and own the property in fee simple (i.e., ownership over both the land and the structures on it – the way you own a detached or attached single-family home, or a landlord owns a building). And buying up every single unit in anything but the smallest of buildings is next to impossible.

So in theory, carving a building into condos should diminish its property value. All buildings are depreciating assets (long-run historic potential is too far into the future to matter), but when you own property in fee simple you can replace the buildings on it, ideally with bigger, more valuable ones (although not always “bigger” ones…more on that later). This option basically doesn’t exist for condos and co-ops (which for the purposes of this discussion are the same). One would think that dividing a building into separately-controlled residential condos would be so damaging to property values that nobody would ever do it, and yet, at least in the United States, it happens quite often.

The federal enabling legislation for the condominium form of ownership didn’t actually exist until 1970, when it was enacted for the benefit of Puerto Rico, and not, I believe, because of pressure from mainland developers. There had always been co-ops, at least in New York City (like the Dakota), and I’m not sure if these prewar co-op buildings were ever redeveloped (anybody know?), but they were only for the very wealthy and were much rarer during New York’s unregulated prewar growth period than they are today.

But condos didn’t become popular on the mainland for another 10 years after the 1970 enabling act (remember, the federal legislation was not passed in response to demand by mainland developers), so the oldest condos in American cities aren’t more than about 30 years old. But these are beginning to age – aesthetically, functionally, and density-wise – and I think in the not-so-distant future we are going to begin to feel negative repercussions from buildings that basically can’t be torn down without violating someone’s property rights. (I’ll also discuss later how Singapore does exactly that to get around the problem of a nearly 90 percent home ownership rate in a city-state chock full of multifamily buildings and a culture that has no love for second-hand apartments.)

I should also add that the inflexibility that comes with dispersed ownership in condos and co-ops can be problematic even before redevelopment. I once spoke to someone at a firm that did energy retrofits for prewar buildings in New York who said that even when the return on investment is obvious, it’s sometimes very difficult to get co-op and condo boards to approve the upgrades. But apartment landlords, he said, are much more economically rational, and are therefore willing to invest money when they see the savings. That seems borne out in this NYT article about a highly polluting heating oil used in New York that the city is trying to convince apartment buildings to phase out. It doesn’t mention rentals vs. co-ops/condos specifically, but all the drama in the article revolves around trying to convince co-op boards – not landlords – that it’s in their financial interest to do the retrofit. (I don’t think those sorts of oil furnaces were still around by the ’80s when condos became popular.)

So, back to the original question: why the hell do condos exist?

Though most of the (very smart!) real estate professionals I’ve talked to about it had never thought about it, I’ve read a few theories, and have a few of my own, which I’ll list, but I encourage readers – especially those with knowledge of foreign property markets where incentives and outcomes differ – to chime in. (I’m interested especially in East Asia, where the value placed on new housing is much higher than in long-built out American and European cities.)

So, without further ado, a few possible reasons why condos and co-ops exist…

Tax subsidies. Henry Hansmann at Yale Law wrote a paper in 1991 arguing that condos and co-ops exist mostly for their tax advantages, and that absent these, there would be far fewer. I emailed Henry recently asking if he still believes this, and he was nice enough to respond that he did, but that he hadn’t really kept up on the issue since 1991. But the paper is pretty persuasive, with the caveat (as always) that the math is beyond me. Here’re the first two paragraphs of the paper, which is available as a free PDF:

Twenty-five years ago, cooperative apartment buildings were uncommon in the United States, and condominiums were virtually nonexistent. Since then, however, both forms, and particularly condominiums, have spread rapidly through the real estate market. This article explores the factors responsible for this development. In the process, it also assesses the relative transactional efficiency of consumer ownership and investor ownership in multiunit housing.

I argue that two factors appear principally responsible for the recent spread of cooperatives and condominiums. First is the large tax subsidy to owner-occupied housing that has existed since the Second World War and that has been particularly large during the past two decades. Second is innovation in the forms available for organizing ownership in multiunit dwellings. A variety of considerations suggest that the first of these factors has been more important than the second and that, in the absence of the tax subsidy, cooperatives and condominiums would occupy a much smaller share of the housing market than they do at present. In support of this analysis, this article offers the first sophisticated calculations of the magnitude of the pure tax subsidy to owner-occupied housing, as opposed to rental housing, and of the changes in that subsidy over the past fifty years.

In support of his tax theory he mentions the relative paucity of commercial condos, where ownership is not privileged in the tax code over renting. In fact, I recently worked with a New York City developer who bought and carved an aging postwar skyscraper across from the United Nations into condominiums to market (very successfully, it turned out) to foreign countries for their permanent missions to the UN, specifically because they don’t have to pay property taxes by virtue of their sovereign status, while their landlords do.

Rent regulation. In certain cases it appears obvious that condos and co-ops were created because rental profits were artificially capped through rent controls. This was definitely the case with the massive wave of co-ops that appeared in the ’80s in New York City. Landlords realized they couldn’t make much money renting the units at regulated prices, so they sold them to tenants at unregulated ones. Because the current tenant was the only person they could sell to, the tenant had an unusual among of pricing power (especially in the ’80s, before prices started skyrocketing and, at least I assume, raised the possibility of luxury decontrol so that landlords gained the upper hand), and therefore many got “insider deals” – that is, they bought their apartments as co-ops for less than market value.

I once read – but cannot confirm – that rent controls in prewar Europe had a similar effect on tenure choice in new construction. Rents were regulated but sales prices were not, so many builders (and maybe landlords with already-built buildings?) decided to simply sell the units outright as co-ops or condos (can’t remember which) at prices that were unregulated. Then again, in Europe there is (and was) also the aforementioned issue of restrictive land use regulation, which was introduced earlier than in the US (where the really restrictive stuff didn’t start till the 1960s), so it may have been a factor in encouraging condos/co-ops. (Someone who actually knows what they’re talking about regarding Europe, rent regs, and housing tenure – please validate me and/or set me straight!

Restrictive land use regulation. This is one that I thought of on my own, although I don’t think it’s as solid as the tax subsidies and rent regulation explanations. Redevelopment can only happen if the government lets it happen, and though zoning doesn’t (usually) forbid you from razing and rebuilding, it does often prevent building a bigger structure. Some will eventually redevelop their property even if they can’t raise the square footage, but they’re much less likely to do so. And if your right to redevelop is curtailed anyway by land use regulations (even more so if it’s got historic preservation protection), then you’ll have less compunction about giving it up entirely by carving your property into condos.

Time value of money. Economists dating back to the School of Salamanca have taught that a dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow, and that a dollar in a million years is practically worthless. Redevelopment is by definition far into the future from the time that the developer is making the choice between rentals and condos. The “option to redevelop,” as one developer I spoke to called it, may simply be too far into the future to matter, and especially to overcome the benefits of owning your own home without having to maintain the grounds and, at least in cases where the units are stacked on top of each other (i.e., in an apartment building), without having to pay for your own plot of land.

* * *

While the problem of impossible-to-redevelop condos is most acute in apartment buildings, where you physically cannot redevelop one unit without disturbing the rest, it has also hindered non-stacked condo units. Lydia DePillis (peace be upon her) recently noted an example in DC’s ritzy Logan Circle neighborhood of non-stacked condos, usually found in more suburban locations, that were originally built as affordable housing, but now can’t be redeveloped because the owners can’t all agree to sell. Which is a reminder that condos’ lack of redevelopment potential is not only a problem for a city’s overall affordability and fabric (and aesthetics, in many cases!), but it also really sucks for condo owners who’d like to cash out but can’t because of their intransigent next-door neighbor.

Now onto the case of Singapore. Singapore has highly encouraged homeownership as a means of social engineering (despite its free market bonafides, Singaporean housing policy is highly interventionist), and has been very successful at it: at 87 percent, its homeownership rate is trumped only by former communist countries that simply deeded people’s state-owned apartments to them after the fall of the wall (which I’m sure is going to become a huge problem once Eastern Europeans become wealthy enough to want to redevelop their infamous housing blocks).

But Singapore is also an incredibly dense city-state where the vast majority lives in multifamily buildings, so “homeownership” means owning your own strata unit (their term for a condo, also used in Australia, New Zealand, and Canada). And like all strata and condo buildings, the owners will almost never reach an agreement to sell, so they cannot be redeveloped by conventional means. Combine that with the ugliness of the buildings and the fact that Singaporeans, like all East Asians, place a high value on new homes, and you can begin to see the problem. (Worthwhile to note that en bloc sales were not allowed until a few decades after the homeownership policy took off, and it wasn’t private investors who built the unredevelopable strata towers in the first place – it was the government.)

So to solve it they instituted something called en bloc sales in 1994. The basic idea is that if a certain percentage of a designated building’s residents choose to sell their units (it used to be 90 percent, now it’s 80), then the developer wins the option to buy all the units (including apartments belonging to the “minority owners,” or those who did not approve the sale), which he can exercise at whatever price the supermajority agreed to.

The policy started with buildings that were built by the state-owned Housing Development Board, which is responsible for the vast majority of housing in the city-state, but I was told by Dr. Alice Christudason, an associate professor in the Department of Real Estate at the National University of Singapore, that private developments became subject to en bloc sales with less-than-unanimous consent in 1999 under the “Land Titles (Strata) Act,” which “supersedes any contracts made,” which of course didn’t contain any provision allowing for non-unanimous en bloc sales. (Not sure if newly-built private strata buildings contain any en bloc provisions?)

En bloc sales are very controversial, though (there’s even a TV show about them), and I can’t imagine a non-authoritarian country like the US or Japan tolerating that sort of routine violation of property rights quite the way Singapore does it.

It’s also worth noting that in some ways, a lack of redevelopability can be a positive externality. The ugliness of a 30-year-old condo building next door is mitigated by the fact that it won’t be replaced with a larger one that will take more of your light and air. And if the building is attractive – like the New York City co-ops of the turn of the last century, or possibly 1980s condo towers in the year 2100 (who knows, it could happen!) – then it’s not such a bad thing that it can’t be torn down. A lot of people much smarter than me don’t seem too concerned about the issue: I talked to NYC real estate guru Jonathan Miller about this a few months ago, and his thought on it was that it just contributes to a skyline that reflects all the layers of New York’s history.

But I do think that at some point it’ll become problematic, at least in East Asia. Thirty years from now, for example, is a 90 percent-urbanized China really going to want today’s unattractive, shoddily-built, auto-oriented condo towers marring the skyline and taking up precious land? Authoritarian China may adopt Singapore’s en bloc method of redevelopment, but what about democratic countries like Japan and South Korea that have more respect for property rights? (I’ve been told Japan didn’t have the condominium form of ownership until the early ’70s, but that means the older buildings are starting to become ripe for redevelopment.) Eventually I suppose everything will become attractive in an historic way, but what about the intervening years? (Or am I overestimating the number of condos in East Asia, and they’re actually a relatively rare form of housing tenure in multifamily buildings?)

Update: Here’s an article from March that @graemebone on Twitter sent me about Vancouver strata buildings facing this exact issue, with ballooning maintenance costs being the trigger. British Columbia passed its “Strata Titles Act” in 1966, so they’re facing these issues a few years before we will in the US. Some interesting bits about how they’re just now starting to deal with it:

“There is an implied provision in the Act, which is that if you have more than 10 units in a project, there will be one jerk,” says lawyer Patrick Williams, one of the city’s premier condo-law experts. “One jerk can bring down the whole house of cards, hold everyone to ransom.” Gioventu, from the owners association, is also less than reassuring: “If you live in a 64-unit building, think of those other 63 people you have to sell with as being like your in-laws.”

Until now, those dysfunctional relationships have been tested over familiar stresses: leaks, maintenance reserves, noise, pets, prostitution, grow-ops. Williams knows of just two cases in B.C. where judges have issued decisions on impasses between owners who want to stay and those who want to demolish and sell the land. (In both cases—one a three-owner condo in Kitsilano, the other a larger project in Burnaby—the judges ruled in favour of the owners who wanted to demolish over those willing to keep pouring money into maintenance.)

Even getting to those decisions hasn’t been easy. “The Strata Property Act here is really in its infancy,” explains Williams. Buyers don’t realize how fuzzy the law is when it comes time to shut it all down. It also sets the bar high for how much agreement is needed: 100 percent. Condo owners who can’t get that in their buildings have to go to court—as the Cypress Gardeners have done—to try to get a judge to order a sale. As if that weren’t enough, there’s another hurdle: the institutions that hold the mortgages may not go along with the deal.

And here’s some interesting research on en bloc sales in Singapore, in the same article:

In search of other jurisdictions where condo dismantling is further along, UBC professor Tsur Somerville and a group of colleagues looked to Singapore. “This is where we’re all headed,” says Somerville. They looked at the sales of 285 condo buildings after 1994 (when the government introduced regulations allowing developers looking for low-density properties to tear down and rebuild at higher densities). Their study found that the more units in a complex, the less likely the owners would agree (and the less likely a sale would happen). They found that another factor blocking sales was the difference between the smallest and largest units in a building: where units were similar in size (and, consequently, price), sales were more likely. Buildings that were owned mostly or entirely by investors reached sales agreements more easily. And sales became more likely when Singapore changed its law, reducing the owner consensus needed from 100 percent down to 80 or 90.

All this makes me wonder: why do condos/strata exist in Canada? Were they given tax subsidies similar to those in the US?

Tokyo’s surprising lack of density

Wendell Cox has received his fair share of criticism from this blog, but his post last week about Tokyo’s surprising lack of density is very interesting. Sure, Tokyo’s suburbs are dense enough to be connected by job centers by rail, but the core is almost completely low- and lower-mid-rise, and thus not very dense:

Tokyo does not have intensely dense central areas. The ku area [historic core] has a density of 37,300 per square mile (14,400 per square kilometer). This is well below the densities of Manhattan (69,000 & 27,000) and the ville de Paris (51,000 & 21,000). Only one of the ku (Toshima) exceeds the density of Paris.

And then the suburbs themselves aren’t as compact as they could be:

Further, according to the Japan House and Land Survey of 2008, Tokyo has a large stock of detached houses, by definition lower density. Nearly 45 percent of the Tokyo region’s housing is detached. One-third of the dwellings within 30 kilometers (18 miles) of the core are detached. This figure rises to more than 60 percent outside 30 kilometers from the core and 85 percent between 60 and 70 kilometers (37-43 kilometers) from the core (Figure 2).

Some might see this as a validation of New Urbanism (which is sort of a bastardization of Old Urbanism), whose response to tall building enthusiasts like myself, Ed Glaeser, and Alon Levy is that “dense doesn’t have to mean tall.” And it’s true – Tokyo manages a relatively high density with very few tall buildings.

But there are costs that Tokyo bears for its lack of height and downtown density.

First and foremost are the high housing prices. Imagine New York City if Midtown and the Upper East and West Sides were still tenement neighborhoods, and everyone living and working above the sixth floor was competing for housing and space in the outer boroughs. Narrow the streets and replace the prewars with postwar buildings, and that’s Tokyo.

Tokyo’s high housing costs manifest themselves in many different ways. For one, people cram themselves into tinier and tinier homes, and are forced to endure the noise of their neighbors in a way they wouldn’t be if half of them could be elevated into the sky. Smaller homes are ceteris paribus good more energy efficient, but not when so many of the homes in the suburbs are single-family detached, and thus less energy efficient than slightly larger apartments that aren’t leaking energy from all five exposed sides.

High prices also cause people to live very far from work. Many of them still take the train, but the commute is very long, sapping what is becoming an increasingly precious commodity: time. And some commutes are just impossibly long, limiting job opportunities and flexibility.

And then on an aesthetic note, the density caps lead to ugly (not to mention energy inefficient) buildings. Japanese cities have very few historic areas left compared to European and American ones, but redevelopment is limited by the fact that many urban buildings are built to the zoning envelope, and thus tearing them down and building anew will result in higher rents per square foot, but not more square feet.

In this way, Tokyo is a little like the northern Brooklyn neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Greenpoint: huge demand drives up prices for a hideous housing stock that isn’t being expanded even when it is replenished.

Many people say that Japan’s low-rise skyline is the result of its earthquake-prone geology, but from what I understand, the consensus among engineers nowadays is that skyscrapers aren’t actually more earthquake-prone than lower buildings. Shortly after Japan’s earthquake last year, R. Taggart Murphy at TNR wrote that “skyscrapers, if properly constructed, were actually more structurally stable than the six-to-eight-story office buildings that then constituted Japan’s standard office blocks,” saying that Japan accepted this engineering reality in the ’60s when it allowed the first skyscrapers to go up.

And in fact Japanese seem to be demanding downtown high-rises. Even after the earthquake, Japanese buyers didn’t abandon high-rises like everyone thought they would:

In the months right after last year’s March 11 earthquake, sales of [high-rise] condominiums in Tokyo dropped 30 percent compared to the previous year. Much of the drop was in areas surrounding Tokyo Bay, which is basically landfill. Fears of liquefaction caused potential buyers of tower condos to reconsider, and for a while the media surmised that planned high-rise housing projects might be abandoned.

That didn’t happen. According to real-estate analysts, the earthquake convinced many commuters to move closer to their workplaces, so if another major one strikes they would be able to get home quickly and without the need for public transportation. And the waterfront is within 5 km of the central business district of the capital.

Tokyo doesn’t need to embrace all aspects of the “hypertrophic” city. The streets, for example, can stay narrow. But it’s got to at least give up on the obsession with low- to lower/middle-height buildings if it wants to bring down housing prices, cut commutes, and give its inhabitants more space and privacy.

Come to think of it, a modern Japanese take on Manhattan’s Financial District would be pretty cool!

Before the landmarks…

The other day I was stumbling around Wikipedia when I found pictures of what was apparently the first iteration of New York’s Grand Central train station, called Grand Central Depot. The “depot” opened in 1871 and was built in the neo-Renaissance style that was popular back then (as opposed to the final, neoclassical incarnation), and stood for less than 30 years. It was partly torn down and reconstructed in 1899, and then totally demolished “in phases” between 1903 and 1913 to make way for today’s Grand Central Terminal.

1880 photograph of Grand Central Depot, from Wikipedia

This got me thinking about the old Pennsylvania Station whose demolition was a catalyst for the modern preservationist movement. Like nearly every big old building in New York, it was of course not the first building to stand there – development in cities during the prewar era was as much about redevelopment as it was about building in greenfield sites. It was a given that building would come down and new ones would be built – a city that’s been disrupted in most American downtowns. (Midtown Manhattan is of course one of the few places in the U.S. where this still happens – the Drake Hotel was of course torn down a few years ago by Harry Macklowe, on the site of what is now 432 Park Ave., and the Hotel Pennsylvania across from Penn Station will likely be replaced with an office tower once the market comes back.)

Anyway, I put out a call on Twitter for pre-Penn Station history, and lo and behond @enf alerted me to a panel at an exhibit at the Transit History Museum in Brooklyn, which I managed to find some pictures from on Flickr. Here’s a wide shot of the panel (though you can zoom in pretty close), and here’s some of the text that I could make out:

After extensive investigation, a site for Pennsylvania Station was chosen on the West Side, spanning Seventh to Tenth Avenues and 31st to 33rd Streets. The are was known as the Tenderloin, an infamous neighborhood with brothels, sloons, casinos and dancehalls. Social reformers referred to the are as Satan’s Circus and hoped for a new, affluent neighborhood. The excavation from the station and yards began in 1903, following years of negotiating burdensome New York City bureaucracy. Six city blocks were razed, and an enormous 58′ deep hope was excavated to lay tracks. A small gauge railroad carted away tons of fill. Scaffolding propped up the Ninth Avenue elevated railway, and a viaduct was created to bridge Eighth Avenue across the “cut.” Observers likened the project to the creation of the Panama Canal. Construction on the great station began in 1906.

Funny how “social reformers” nowadays generally do the exact opposite – try to keep poor people in central areas, no matter who owns the property!

Here’s a piece of newspaper propaganda in favor of slum clearance for Penn Station:

This also reminds me of Curbed’s feature on the old, Gilded Age mansions around Central Park that were demolished, some after only twenty years of use (man, do I wish today’s zoning code allowed redevelopment of buildings from the ’90s!), to make way for much bigger luxury apartment houses. Surely each one of those mansions would have been designated a historical landmark by now if it were still around, but then again most preservationists probably also feel that way about the buildings that replaced them.

There’s a general sense among preservationists and the public that redevelopment (which implies demolition) was okay before WWII, since the new buildings were also “beautiful,” but things built these days just don’t live up. But I wonder, how many thousands of landmark-worthy buildings are we missing because of the fear that glass and steel can never live up to brick and limestone?

New York transit officials grudgingly consider using existing track more efficiently

Now that Chris Christie killed the ARC project, which would have built another rail tunnel between New Jersey and Manhattan, Transportation Nation is reporting that MTA boss Joe Lhota is asking the different New York area railroads to do what they were supposed to do half a century ago when they were nationalized: cooperate!

What to do in the meantime?

Lhota tossed out three ideas, each aimed at boosting capacity at Penn Station in Manhattan, the hemisphere’s busiest railroad station and a terminal for New Jersey Transit trains.

He said the station’s 21 platforms should all be made to accommodate 10-car trains, which would mean lengthening some of them. He also said that the railroads using the station—Amtrak, New Jersey Transit and Long Island Rail Road—should do a better job of sharing platform and tunnel space.

Each railroad currently controls a third of the platforms, which sometimes leads to one railroad having too many trains and not enough platforms at the same time another railroad has empty platforms. The railroads also vie with each other for access to tunnels during peak periods. Lhota said capacity would be boosted if dispatchers in the station’s control room could send any train to any platform, and through any tunnel, as they saw fit.

Lhota’s third suggestion was the most ambitious. He said the three railroads—plus the MTA’s Metro-North line, which connects Manhattan to Connecticut and several downstate New York counties—should use each other’s tracks. In other words, trains should flow throughout the region in a way that sends them beyond their historic territory. For example, a train from Long Island could arrive in Penn Station and, instead of sitting idly until its scheduled return trip, move on to New Jersey. That way, trains would spend less time tying up platforms, boosting the station’s capacity.

This is very, very basic stuff – stuff that was promised decades ago when the government nationalized commuter rail, and stuff that even the most hardcore libertarians probably would have conceded was one upside of nationalization. And yet, somehow it never happened. Some cities integrated more than others, but even the more successful cities in the US still don’t coordinate schedules and fares between their mainline and rapid transit railways.

Anyway, this’ll be great if it happens in New York, but the bigger problem is that officials are only considering this after their plans to spend billions of dollars on new tunnels were shot down. This runs completely counter to the German transportation planning principle, introduced to me by Alon Levy, of Organisation vor Elektronik vor Beton – organization before electronics before concrete. In other words, you should make sure you’re using your existing infrastructure efficiently, either by streamlining operations or paying for relatively inexpensive signal upgrades, before digging (very!) expensive new tunnels.

But it gets worse – not only have they made the mistake of trying to build a new tunnel first, but the Transportation Nation author implies that they might even give up the organizational efficiencies once the tunnel is built! The first hint is in the question – “what to do in the meantime?” – but then later it’s even more blatant:

The Regional Plan Association, which held the conference at which Lhota spoke, and other advocacy groups have expressed support for through-running—at least until Gateway Tunnel gets built.

So once the tunnel is built, we go back to the old, wasteful methods and take away the convenience of a one-seat ride from New Jersey to Brooklyn?! This is like saying, now that we’re in bankruptcy we should probably stop lighting our cigars with hundred dollar bills – at least until we’re out of bankruptcy!

I also found these comments from the MTA spokesman odd: “However, it would require lots of capital investment and changes to existing procedures – and we want to know it can be done without affecting on-time performance.”

It is indeed good that they want to “know it can be done without affecting on-time performance.” But the answer shouldn’t determine whether they go forward with regional rail integration – it should determine whether they fire their management and workers and hire people who can!

TRD: Bushwick is staying industrial – no residential rezoning for East Williamsburg!

The Real Deal says that Bushwick, a neighborhood on the L that’s seeing a lot of housing demand spill over from Williamsburg, is not getting a residential rezoning.

TRD describes how the “sought-after northwestern area [...] is zoned for manufacturing, so residential building is largely banned there,” but then buries the lede deep down:

And while the city passed a high-profile rezoning for the Williamsburg and Greenpoint waterfront in 2005 — paving the way for high-density housing in formerly industrial sites — no such rezoning is on the horizon in Bushwick, the department of City Planning said.

The North Brooklyn Industrial Business Zone, which encompasses a portion of Bushwick, was created in 2005 by Mayor Michael Bloomberg as “a sort of policy statement: ‘Hey, these are industrial and are currently used for manufacturing — and should stay that way,’?” explained Mitchell Korbey, head of the land-use department at law firm Herrick Feinstein.

The Bloomberg administration has done a record number of rezonings, but sources said the mayor, along with Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz, wants to keep Bushwick’s zoning predominantly industrial to preserve the city’s manufacturing base. Dolgin, for example, said he recently sold a 46,000-square-foot parcel at McKibbon and Bogart streets for $4.37 million, and the site will be used as storage for scaffolds.

In some southern portions of Bushwick, a mixed-use building can be redeveloped as residential, but a variance is required to do that in most of the popular East Williamsburg area, and they are rarely granted, Dolgin said.

The article says that the SoHo loft law is occasionally being used to convert existing structures, and that hotels and hostels are being built since they’re allowed by zoning.

Then again, Bloomberg’s rezoning days are over after the Midtown East upzoning, so his opinion on rezoning Bushwick isn’t terribly relevant going forward. The real question is, what does Christine Quinn think?