Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for November, 2011

‘Fracking’ v. Euclid

Heard this story on N.P.R. tonight while driving home: The Pennsylvania State House is considering legislation that would preempt local land use policies that restrict ‘hydrofracking’ within their jurisdictions. I think it would be fair to say that this proposal aims at the heart of US zoning’s basis for legitimacy.  That is, keeping industrial nuisances out of residential neighborhoods is the most basic premise for authorizing a zoning ordinance.  Historically, zoning was a direct response to the land-use chaos ensued from the Industrial Revolution.  Seriously: If the state won’t allow local governments to keep hydraulic fracturing out of residential neighborhoods, what business does it have authorizing them keep out apartment houses or barbershops?

Read Full Post »

Detached Victorians on Woodycrest Avenue, around W 164th St., New York City.

Earlier this year, I wrote about a cluster detached Victorian houses along Woodycrest Avenue, around 164th Street, in the High Bridge section of the Bronx.  In doing so, I explained why I thought they might be the last significant group of this type of architecture that remains in the Manhattan-Bronx street grid– a geography that roughly corresponds to the pre-1898 City of New York.  Tonight, I found a graphic at Big Map Blog that adds some context to the Woodycrest houses: an 1897 bird’s-eye view of the urban fabric that surrounded the then-developing Grand Concourse:

It’s an unusual perspective.  The core of Manhattan, to the south, would lie far to the left of the framed perspective.  The land in the foreground is what’s now called the Bronx, and the narrow, horizontal strip of water that runs behind it is the Harlem River.  Beyond that are the bluffs of upper Manhattan, and in the far background, the New Jersey Palisades rise above the Hudson River.  Basically, this image shows the northern frontier of New York City’s urban growth at the end of the Victorian period.

It’s hard to know how accurate the details are.  It would take a good amount of work to determine, for instance, just how precisely they depicted what was on the ground in 1897.  Based on the presence of a number of landmarks (viz., the Croton Aqueduct, the Broadway Bridge, the tower in High Bridge Park), and the accuracy of its major-streets pattern, it would be fair to conclude that this is a relatively faithful snapshot of the city.  On the other hand, I don’t think there was ever a suspension bridge that connected Inwood Hill with Spuyten Duyvil.  So, you have to take the given visual data with a fair degree of skepticism.

Look at Harlem: the gridded blocks on the far left, beyond the Harlem River.  You can see that the boxy, attached row houses and apartment buildings are beginning to fill in the landscape.  Rapid development may be indicated by the completely vacant land that is being gobbled up by sudden density.  That is, it doesn’t look as if there was ever a phase of detached house development in these blocks– they just went straight from greenfields to urban density.  For example, here’s a close-up of Seventh Avenue at 145th Street:

In another three decades, this level of density would come to cover nearly the entire scene of this drawing.  But moving right, circa 1897, you see trees, fields, and detached houses with traditional pitched roofs.  Did these all exist?  Probably, in some form.  Most of the components of this low-density scene are gone today, but at the end of the 19th century they were still, apparently, typical of the uptown landscape, on either side of the Harlem River.  Even if this image were ambitiously forward-looking, it wouldn’t present any less density than what actually existed at its time.  So this close-up view of development along the Concourse near Tremont Avenue is illustrative:

If this depiction is accurate, it provides an interesting context.  A lot of these houses, especially those in the foreground along East 177th Street and Mount Hope Place, appear to have been ornate, turreted, large homes.  The low density of these blocks at that point in time fits with some research I did in grad school which indicated that most of the large apartment buildings above City College (Broadway/137th) were built after 1900.  Of course, the entire uptown scene depicted in this image might have been an ideal setting for the construction of many spacious, airy Victorian houses, if the rapid march of tenements hadn’t borne down on the new lots as quickly and persistently as it did.  But we do see a scattering of detached Victorians in the snapshot of 1897, including the ones that still survive on Woodycrest Avenue:

This is a reverse perspective of the modern one, above, but it’s absolutely the same block, in spite of the fact that the old map, interestingly, calls the street Bremer Avenue, rather than Woodycrest.  And if you look around the rest of the image, you’ll see other houses here and there that are either clearly detached Victorians, or possibly detached Victorians.  Some even have details, like wraparound porches, mansard roofs, and conic towers.  (Significant clusters can be found in the blocks around Claremont Park, around 183rd Street west of Aqueduct Avenue, and along the steep bluffs that rise above the Harlem River.)  Again, the accuracy of the specific details would take a good amount of legwork to verify, but their very presence suggests that they were representative of at least some portion of the area’s architecture.  Today, the vast majority of these types of houses are gone from the blocks of uptown New York City, long since replaced by the large apartment buildings that are now, themselves, becoming historic.

I think maybe the most interesting aspect of this image is its suggestion that such houses in New York City may even have been rare in their own time.  That is, only a handful were built, before they went out of style, before the rapid march of dense apartments filled in the empty canvases of the newly platted blocks.  They are rarer still, today, since so many of the original detached structures of all types in the Bronx and upper Manhattan have been demolished.  It would be reasonable to think that the presence of a Euclidean zoning scheme in 1897 might have saved more of these houses, and encouraged the development of others like them in the upper part of the city.  But such laws would also have prevented the development of the apartments on the same blocks that have since served as homes for generations of immigrants and working-class New Yorkers.  Land use decisions are often trade offs– another reason to take note of the houses that remain on Woodycrest Avenue.  These structures are relics of a New York City that might have been, but never was: a city, visually, more like San Francisco, Boston, or even New Orleans.

Update: The New York Public Library has a 1909 insurance map, shown below, which corroborates the presence of a large collection of detached Victorian houses in the vicinity of Woodycrest Avenue and West 164th Street, including the extant structures and a number that are now gone.  A similar map, dating from 1900, confirms that there was once a similar cluster of architecture in the vicinity of Mount Hope Place and the Grand Concourse: These houses have nearly all been replaced.  Note that the building footprints seen in both maps include wraparound porches, rounded turrets or towers, and other distinctive features of this type of architecture.

Image ID: 1993380  Bronx, V. 10, Plate No. 19 [Map bounded by W. 165th St., Anderson Ave., W. 162nd St., Ogden Ave.] (1909)

Woodycrest/164, 1909.

Concourse/Mount Hope, 1900.

Read Full Post »

People v. Regulations

There was another good piece in the Times today by Michael Kimmelman: this one about the conflict between the embedded priorities of New York City’s building, zoning, and occupancy regulations and the people who require the city’s living space. The crux of the story focuses on the mismatch between housing that is oriented toward nuclear families, and the much more diverse array of households that make up the city. The piece starts with an architectural profile of a new S.R.O. on Bronx Park East, in Pelham Parkway, and describes how permits for such buildings are now relegated to special uses; it then spins off into a discussion about the potential to create smaller, cheaper, and more individualized living spaces on modest canvases of urban land: all good points.

I lived in an old S.R.O., briefly, when I was 18-19, and going to school in the Village. Based on that experience, and the deprivation of light, space, and privacy that it entailed, I’m not sure that the return of the old S.R.O. model to the urban marketplace would be ideal. But the basic concept certainly provides a starting point for land-use efficient housing, and illustrates the creative building traditions that have been stifled by the homogeneous dictates of post-Euclid regulations, even in America’s large east-coast cities.

Read Full Post »

Co-ops or Corporations?

An old post card depicts a California orange grove at harvest time.

The legal rights of business associations have been in the news a lot lately, from the 2010 Citizens United decision to the Occupy movement‘s criticism of corporate personhood.  Corporations have been center stage in the coverage, and less ink has been spilled over their low-key cousins, cooperatives. But the distinction between the two forms is interesting, partly because their uses don’t always follow expectations.

For example, Sunkist, the brand of American oranges, is not a corporation, but one of the world’s most successful cooperatives.  According to its web site, the co-op was formed in 1893 as the Southern California Fruit Exchange, and in 1954 it adopted its long-time trademark as its official name.  In addition to oranges, ‘Sunkist’ is branded on crates of members’ limes, lemons, tangerines, and grapefruits, and is also licensed to the makers of Sunkist orange soda, orange-flavored vitamin C, and other common products.  Last year, the co-op, whose land-use footprint remains concentrated in groves around Los Angeles, took in more than a billion dollars in gross revenue.

Sunkist is hardly alone: Land O’Lakes, of US butter fame, is another large co-op that dominates its market sector, and among Northeast grocery chains, the ubiquitous Shop Rite is a trade name of Wakefern Foods, a co-op since its founding in 1946 by eight independent grocers from Newark.  There are other examples, of course, but the point is that the co-op business model, pioneered in the 19th century by the Rochdale weavers, and followed by Howard, Herzl, and Kazan, is in no way incompatible with commercial viability.  In fact, it is one of the most well-established methods by which small-scale and moderate-scale stakeholders can pool their resources to obtain the benefits of large-scale economies, while simultaneously retaining significant measures of individual autonomy.

An OWS protester in Zuccotti Park

In contrast to co-ops that reap large profits is a new community-owned store in the town of Saranac Lake, New York.  The store is actually organized as a traditional stock corporation– with investor shares that are voted on a pro rata basis– in spite of its grassroots-oriented purpose.  The company had its start when the town’s only chain store (an Ames) closed, leaving residents with a 50-mile trip to the closest shopping center.  (Picture that, in the Adirondack Mountains, in January, and you’ll appreciate the gravity of the town’s situation.)  Wal-Mart came along, but local activists chased it off.  Instead, the Community Store was established, and after several years of raising capital and working through logistics, it is now open.  Saranac Lake offers an interesting inversion of the Sunkist model: Rather than a well-known brand being organized as a co-op, the Saranac Lake example represents community activists who have organized for a common benefit, as a corporation.  It goes to show the flexibility that is inherent in choosing business associations for particular goals, but it’s also interesting that, in this case, the co-op model was passed over.

So, if the issue isn’t simply one of profits versus a common good, or earnings versus savings, then on what issue should the corporation/co-op decision turn?  I suspect the Saranac Lake case is illustrative, in so far as it was driven by the need to raise capital.  It is much easier to raise funds for a project– even a high-minded project whose organizing goals go beyond profit-making– when you offer potential investors pro rata returns on their stakes, and equivalent shares of power over the entity’s governance.  Any other model is a non-starter, unless you’re approaching charities or government for funding.  So, if organizers do not have enough cash on hand to begin, and debt is off the table, then a traditional stock corporation is the way to go.*

Ultimately, the need to raise capital is determinative.  Most co-ops, if you think about it, are buyers’ and sellers’ consortia.  This is as true of Sunkist and Shop Rite as it was of the Rochdale Weavers or is of a food co-op that sells bulk carob chips and Dr. Bronner’s soap.  These tend to have low capital needs at start-up, since they basically function to concentrate supply or demand.  Their members are existing merchants or dedicated activists who have resources to cover initial expenses.  Such entities distribute their benefits to all members on a pro rata basis, so the characteristics of members’ equity are less important.  That is to say, benefits accrue to all, as needed, in the form of the discounted prices that buyers’ co-ops offer their members through collective purchasing power.  Similarly, all the sellers who belong to a growers’ co-op will benefit from a contract to supply a major supermarket chain, or an an ad campaign that increases the market demand for their produce, in the form of more sales or higher prices.  The farmer who sells one truckload gets his fair share of the benefit, as does the farmer who sells ten.  Dues can be scaled to volume.  Since buyers’ and sellers’ co-ops rarely need much start-up capital, and are comprised of entities that can supply those initial needs, there is no need to create an entity that entices outside investors through the promise of its own profits.

A secondary consideration is that co-ops present the membership conundrum: If you don’t require membership of those who would obtain the benefits of a co-op, then there is no incentive for individuals to be active in the entity’s organization, let alone to provide start-up capital, or to pay the annual dues that would support operations in slow times.  It’s the classic free-rider problem.  But, if you do require membership, then you limit your customer base to those who are willing to fill out paperwork, pay dues, attend meetings, and so forth.  Among merchants, and dedicated activists, the added burdens of co-ops are not a significant problem.  Regular buyers, or true believers, will become members, do their respective parts, and enjoy the benefits.  But in retail, the membership conundrum is a lose-lose situation.  Retail stores rely heavily on casual customers, impulse buyers, etc.  These are precisely the ones who would be free-riders of an open co-op, and non-members of a closed one.

Assessing the distinctions between corporations and co-ops can provide some insight about why one form might be chosen over another in a particular situation.  The co-op model is frequently overlooked as an alternative business approach.  But, in the absence of the need for start-up capital or a broad casual customer base, it can actually be a very effective way to organize an entity.

*  Note: The limited-equity housing co-ops of New York City dodged the capital/equity issue by raising money from the dues paid to the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and other local labor unions.  That is, their initial class of investors (the unions) were actually middlemen between those whose money was being invested (the workers) and the capital assets (the buildings).  This allowed the unions to take a more egalitarian view toward investment decisions than individual investors might be inclined to do.  Meanwhile, the secondary class of investors (the co-op residents) actually did obtain pro rata shares of their limited equity: That is to say, their monetary investments were scaled to the sizes of their apartments.

Read Full Post »

The Future of Urban Living

The Guardian now has a page devoted to urban planning.

Read Full Post »