Ed Glaeser has a sprawling feature story in The Atlantic about skyscrapers that’s full of urbanist history and themes that I’ve been meaning to blog about for a few days now. It’s a great article, with a lot of New York history in it, but I wanted to highlight a few bits.
The part I liked most was where Glaeser talks about what I’ve called development as preservation and others have called adaptive reuse – the idea that making use of existing developed land is the best way to preserve historic buildings, although Glaeser also points out that it’s useful for preserving open land like parks, too:
In 2006, the developer Aby Rosen proposed putting a glass tower of more than 20 stories atop the old Sotheby Parke-Bernet building at 980 Madison Avenue, in the Upper East Side Historic District. Rosen and his Pritzker Prize–winning architect, Lord Norman Foster, wanted to erect the tower above the original building, much as the MetLife Building (formerly the Pan Am Building) rises above Grand Central Terminal. The building was not itself landmarked, but well-connected neighbors didn’t like the idea of more height, and they complained to the commission. Tom Wolfe, who has written brilliantly about the caprices of both New York City and the real-estate industry, wrote a 3,500-word op-ed in The New York Times warning the landmarks commission against approving the project. Wolfe & Company won. In response to his critics in the 980 Madison Avenue case, of whom I was one, Wolfe was quoted in The Village Voice as saying:
To take [Glaeser’s] theory to its logical conclusion would be to develop Central Park … When you consider the thousands and thousands of people who could be housed in Central Park if they would only allow them to build it up, boy, the problem is on the way to being solved!
But one of the advantages of building up in already dense neighborhoods is that you don’t have to build in green areas, whether in Central Park or somewhere far from an urban center. From the preservationist perspective, building up in one area reduces the pressure to take down other, older buildings. One could quite plausibly argue that if members of the landmarks commission have decided that a building can be razed, then they should demand that its replacement be as tall as possible.
There’re also some great parts where he talks about the economics of skyscrapers. Apparently the marginal cost per square foot of space between about the 10th and 50th floor is less than $400 (!), meaning that average construction costs can be dramatically lowered by adding stories. He also has nice things to say about building in Chicago (which I know have been echoed by Adam). He pays due respect to Jane Jacob, but takes issue with her ideas about skyscrapers, and I agree with him. The end of the article is dedicated to India’s urbanism woes, which are apparently pretty bad. In 1991, Mumbai fixed an FAR of 1.33 throughout most of the city, which means that the average density of non-street space in these areas is, at most, 1.33 stories – a shockingly low number for a poor city of 20 million. He mentions Singapore favorably, and notes that when it implemented its congestion charge in 1975, it was not a wealthy country.
One thing that I couldn’t get on board with, though, is the part where he sounds like he almost wishes that the anti-density restrictions were reversed. In the last sentence of the blockquote it looks like he’s just using it for rhetorical effect, but here he sounds like he actually believes it:
If Mumbai wants to promote affordability and ease congestion, it should make developers use their land area to the fullest, requiring any new downtown building to have at least 40 stories. By requiring developers to create more, not less, floor space, the government would encourage more housing, less sprawl, and lower prices.
If density is really regulated out of existence and pent-up demand is as huge as Glaeser says it is, then why would we need to require people to build skyscrapers? Ed Glaeser is very much a libertarian-leaning economist, so I doubt that he really means that we should do this, but the language he’s using is giving ammo to the war-on-cars crowd who hang on every sprawl-forbidding regulation as evidence that they are the norm, when I obviously do not believe this to be the case. I understand that The Atlantic is not putting this story out there to convince libertarians, but this is the kind of thing they like to jump on as evidence of a vast liberal conspiracy to herd freedom-loving suburbanites into 800 sq. ft. apartments and force them to ride bikes to the light rail station in the freezing cold.
Another part that I wasn’t so sure of was this one, where he gives his third recommendation for land use policy going forward:
Finally, individual neighborhoods should have more power to protect their special character. Some blocks might want to exclude bars. Others might want to encourage them. Rather than regulate neighborhoods entirely from the top down, let individual neighborhoods enforce their own, limited rules that are adopted only with the approval of a large share of residents. In this way, ordinary citizens, rather than the planners in City Hall, would get a say over what happens around them.
I know that Glaeser probably really meant the “limited” part of “limited rules,” but I fear that people will instead focus on the “individually neighborhoods should have more power” part. While a lot of libertarians support governing at the lowest level possible, I think experience has shown that giving localities more zoning power often results in more restrictive anti-density zoning. As much as libertarians deride regional planning efforts, such efforts seem to result in more complete property rights those wishing to do high-density development.
But beyond those two things, it was a great piece, and I’m glad The Atlantic is giving urbanism the space it deserves.