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Archive for May, 2014


The WSJ has a neat documentary about Hong Kong’s late, great Kowloon Walled City, which was torn down just about 20 years ago this spring. The KWC has intrigued me ever since I saw a late-night documentary about its imminent demolition when I was about 10 years old. The KWC’s legal history is an interesting factor in how it came to be: The tiny plot of land that housed the neighborhood was a no-man’s-land of disputed territory, technically Chinese, though ungoverned by China or the Crown colony during British rule, until 1997.

The absence of a sovereign legal authority led to an almost purely laissez-faire development pattern, which, in the midst of an intensely competitive land market like Hong Kong’s, meant extreme density and a lack of both sunlight and adequate sanitation. But in addition to its infamous depravity, the KWC also spurred some incredibly resourceful activities, inexpensive shelter for a lot of people, and an intense attachment by many of its residents. Ultimately, the creativeness and mystery of KWC strike me as its most interesting elements.

What’s there today? A park.

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World Trade Center Update

Above is some video that I took of the September 11th Memorial around 5 pm yesterday. It was my first time seeing it, and also my first time walking through what used to be called Tobin Plaza, since 2001. What can be said? The architects and planners did good work. I thought the external Memorial’s effect was powerful, without being overtly depressing. I found it interesting that while the new Trade Center buildings are asymmetrical in design, the elements of the memorial Plaza — the pools, of course, but also the seating, the paving stones, the ivy beds, the lamps — are all very symmetrical, like a series of subtle echoes of the Yamasaki buildings that were lost. I don’t know yet if I’ll visit the museum, which opened this week to some, and opens soon to all.

Here are some still photos of the Plaza. The North and South Pools correspond to the footprints of the former towers, respectively:

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HousingNYThumbHere’s Mayor Bill de Blasio’s affordable housing plan. It’s interesting, and in in some ways ambitious, but let’s keep in mind that 80,000 new units is a very modest goal for a city of more than eight million people. Ultimately, the only phenomena that will make a difference in New York City’s housing equilibrium will be, either, the liberalization of development policies to allow for construction that meets demand; or a collapse in the desirability of the city.

I also have strong philosophical objections to the paternalistic caste system of bureaucratized affordable housing, within which a certain number of below-market units are bestowed on the metropolitan economy’s deserving worker bees — with all of the bureaucracy and micromanagement that the bestowers desire. If local government would simply get out of the way (within reason), and allow developers to build to the market’s demand, then I suspect that a much broader base of people with low to moderate incomes would be able to obtain and negotiate housing arrangements, on their own terms. Ultimately, the tranches are less important than the total: if de Blasio’s land use policies result in a significant expansion in the number of city housing units, it should help. If not, then 80,000 new “affordable” units will be a drop in the bucket.

Liberalization of land use policy is where the real promise of a more equitable city lies. And to bring about the required sea change, first, the policymakers have to get past the NIMBYs.

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Seth Pinsky, who headed the NYCEDC under Mayor Bloomberg, says no, according to an article in this week’s Real Estate Weekly; and he hopes that Mayor de Blasio’s delayed affordable housing plan will focus mainly on creating units for low-income residents, who really have no market options remaining.

Pinsky’s is an interesting analysis. Basically, he seems to be saying that if the city builds a lot of middle-income housing, it may deflate the housing market pressures that are causing middle-class relocation — a phenomenon that should be sustained, because it improves the city’s marginal neighborhoods. In so doing, the city may also take some pressure off the poor, but only by leaving them in their current, decrepit units. If, on the other hand, the city builds a lot of low-income housing, then the very poor will get fresh new apartments, which will represent an improvement in their living standards; and the city’s middle-class will continue to respond to the increasing expense of prime locations by relocating in patterns that improve the city’s marginal neighborhoods. At first glance, the first approach sounds self-defeating, while the second approach sounds like a win-win.

The problem is that, historically, we’ve tried the second approach. We’ve had the experience of building large numbers of fresh, clean units for low-income residents, and this did not work out very well. The housing projects of the 1950s-70s enjoyed very short honeymoons before they turned into urban dystopias. Sociologists had a number of theories about what went wrong (e.g., the scale of the developments, their concentrations of poverty, elevation from the street, lack of ownership). We don’t really know what combination of factors went wrong in public housing, which is all the more reason to be cautious about making the same mistakes, again. As a counterpoint, middle-income housing in New York City (and elsewhere) has worked — whether in the form of Mitchell-Lama rental apartments, limited-equity cooperatives, or simply market-built modest housing units in suburban-zoned neighborhoods. In addition, middle-income New Yorkers are not without options. Accordingly, they have some leverage, and the city’s housing policies ought to acknowledge it.

I’m sympathetic to Pinsky’s analysis, and I do think middle-class housing pressures have had a beneficial effect on many of the city’s formerly marginal neighborhoods. And obviously — as challenging as it can be to live on a moderate income in greater New York — the situation is much more desperate for those who are genuinely poor. But Pinsky’s approach strikes me as too simple, for a couple of reasons. First, there’s no way that even the most ambitious middle-class housing proposal from City Hall would result in enough new units, in a short enough time, to deflate the market pressures that are reviving the neighborhoods on the frontiers of gentrification — or to move those frontiers deeper into the city’s fabric. Second, there’s scant evidence, in the history of urban planning, that public efforts to develop large numbers of new housing units, exclusively for the poor, can result in the kinds of neat-and-tidy improvements to urban poverty that proponents of such efforts would like to see. In fact, these efforts almost always backfire.

Ideally, the regulation of land use would be liberal enough for development to keep up with demand, across the various tranches of the city’s real estate market. But it’s not, and this means that additional efforts have to be made to advocate for the development types that are most needed. Today’s city needs more housing for everyone.

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The Bronx is Next, Ctd.

The momentum just keeps building:

Keep your eyes on the Bronx. That’s the next borough. They’re ready for it. They have land available, and that’s the primary factor.

Louis Coletti, CEO, Building Trades Employers Association, in TRD.

Today would have been my grandmother’s 99th birthday. She grew up in the Bronx, mainly in the 1920s, and like so many city kids of her generation, she moved out of the city as soon as she moved out of her mother’s house — first to upstate New York, then to northern Westchester, and eventually to a tiny apartment in New Rochelle, where she grew old. But what happened in, and to, the Bronx was not lost on her, or on the other family members or friends who started life there. And if they were living today, I’m certain that they would be pleased to see the old neighborhoods beginning to recover.

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Graffiti as Amenity

IfGraffitiChangedAnything

The New Yorker has a piece about how NYC developers are starting to incorporate graffiti — or graffiti-like fa├žade elements — into their new luxury condo projects. (Think: the Bowery and Long Island City — not Gramercy Park, obv.) Apparently, they expect it to be a selling point with hip buyers in the luxury market. The weirdness continues.

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11th-and-V-zoning-map

Are these killing the next generation’s chance to obtain an economic foothold?

Here are two new articles dealing with the relationship between excessive land use regulation and the lack of affordable housing in desirable metropolitan regions: the first, from Reihan Salam, is something of a polemic (in places), but his analysis strikes me as mostly substantively accurate, and he has embedded links to a bunch of other authors (across the philosophical spectrum) who are making similar points. The other is from Next City, and it deals, again, specifically with the housing costs in the San Francisco Bay area, and ties these costs to the low numbers of housing permits that are issued across the region, in spite of stratospheric demand. The attention coming out of the SF region about housing costs seems greater to me than that which is originating in the New York City region, the other very expensive American metropolis. I suspect that this disparity is due to the resigned cynicism of most New Yorkers about the cost of everything.

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