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Archive for December, 2011

What’s in a Name?

The Touraine.

The NYT Real Estate section has a nice piece about the renaissance of naming apartment buildings in New York City.  Urban land developers have rediscovered this age-old marketing tactic, and it’s a good tradition.  It has particular resonance in New York City, where the sheer stock of apartment houses can make it a struggle for any one to stand out, no matter how beautiful, luxurious, or well-located.  The article makes a passing mention of the Touraine, a stunning new building with compact, solid, symmetrical features and heavy echoes of the classic pre-war style, located on East 65th Street, at Lexington.

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In spite of vacant mansions across the Sun Belt, and abandoned properties across the Rust Belt, we still don’t have enough affordable housing in the places where it might help.  That’s the conclusion that Matt Yglesias reaches in a recent Slate squib, shortly after the Economist‘s Ryan Avent wrestled with the same basic issue, at length, in The Gated City.  It’s a real problem.  It may be that we’re long overdue for a political system that finds the courage to tell homeowners: Look, you’re going to have to accept less distorted property values, and get used to having some new apartments in the neighborhood.  But the question is, logistically, how?  Given the outsized influence of ultra-local politics on land use regulations, it’s a Sisyphean task.  In New Jersey, Mount Laurel hasn’t been adequate, and neither has targeted redevelopment.  It’s not thatGiven the degree of political and bureaucratic bullshit that obtaining a building permit can often entail, investors are understandably sour toward any residential construction project that doesn’t promise big returns.

I fear that the longer this goes on, the more currency proposals like Avent’s will gain.  That is, it begins to seem more sensible to ask: why not simply cut the Gordian Knot, and abolish all but the most utilitarian building codes?  It is particularly maddening to see the entrenched resistance to any sorts of sensible reforms, because addressing this unmet demand could be a real boon to the economy, with benefits redounding to all– including the homeowners who would predictably resist.  That is, targeted land use reforms aimed at freeing a meaningful portion of urban land for new, modest residential uses would put tradesmen and laborers back to work; allow a broader base of people to invest in the country’s strongest metropolitan land economies; and could ultimately lower labor costs in those regions where opportunities tend to concentrate.  Unfortunately, we’ve been waiting for at least fifteen years for the political system to acknowledge that there’s anything undesirable about having a status quo of astronomical housing costs.  I’m not holding my breath.

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South Orange Station, Twilight

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I’ve spent some time looking over satellite images of the Bronx and Upper Manhattan, and here’s what I’ve found:

1. As mentioned earlier, there’s a row of five small detached Victorians on Terrace View Avenue in Marble Hill.

2. There is a good number of large, (possibly) Victorian-era detached houses on either side of University Avenue, just south of 183rd Street, near the old N.Y.U. campus.  Presumably, most of the houses here date from either the very-late-Victorian period or after 1900.  (Note that the architectural detailing is not very elaborate on most; and that N.Y.U. arrived in 1894.)

3. There are random extant detached Victorian houses throughout the Bronx and Marble Hill.  They are frequently sandwiched between more recent apartment buildings, and their original details have often been neglected or obscured by modern siding, roofing, pavement, or other modifications.

4. The houses on Woodycrest Avenue are unique.  They combine (1) large houses and lots, (2) green, spacious landscaping, (3) distinct architectural details, and (4) an uninterrupted series of original structures.  Together, these qualities preserve a small but remarkable slice of New York City’s suburban Victorian fabric.

5. This fabric deserves legal protection.  Here’s a spreadsheet that I put together.  It lists the land parcels that might comprise a small historic district.  It also provides a photo of each.  Not every one of these houses is individually noteworthy, but some are.  And those that are not are included because they remain part of the historical context, and play an interstitial role in the cohesion of this small but noteworthy district.

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One topic I’ve addressed here several times is the more participatory development process that shaped the urban fabric of the pre-Euclid era.  For lack of a better term, this process could be described as organic urbanism– but such a description would ignore the role of specific legal devices from the English tradition that helped to shape the process.  So common-law urbanism might be a more accurate term.  The point is two-fold: First, to describe a specific phenomenon– the slow and broad-based process by which towns and cities grew in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  And, second, to distinguish that phenomenon from the ultra-planned New Urbanism of today.  I venture to say that one of the essentials of common-law urbanism was the centrality of a simple paradox: regular, large-scale patterns, filled in by the very individualized use of parcels.  Here’s a graphic that illustrates:

Brooklyn Hts. Map: Google.

The setting is a few square blocks in Brooklyn Heights– as good an example as any of a well-loved city neighborhood.  Some of the blocks were laid out centuries ago, but most of the buildings date from the mid-19th century.  Note that the blocks, themselves (outlined in blue), are near perfect rectangles.  Yet the building footprints (outlined in violet) show countless variations.  Each structure has a different shape.  Setbacks are varied.  Depths are varied.  Heights, too.  The presence of bounding alleys and courtyards has clearly been decided on some kind of ad hoc basis.  Side-by-side lots are combined to accommodate larger buildings.  The larger pattern holds together neatly because it circumscribes the prerogatives of each of the subordinate individual participants.  At the same time, the individual contributions are as rich and varied as those who built them, giving the neighborhood a granular variety that tempers the severity of its overriding geometric order.

The common-law approach to urban land use did not arise in a vacuum: It reflected a larger legal approach that predominated in the common-law era of the English-speaking world: Individuals were given a good amount of latitude, up to a well-known threshold at which the law spoke with a certain clanging finality.  In a world with fewer people, fewer still autonomous people, and far fewer methods of omnipresent social control, this balance was probably a necessary element of legitimate rule-making.

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‘The Greatest Grid’ at MCNY

Time Out New York has a neat story about a new exhibit that documents the 200-year-old New York City street grid, now showing at the Museum of the City of New York.

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