Month(s) in Review, June and July, 2016: Part 2, From abbey to Madonna

August 23, 2016 | Abbeys, Apartments, cathedrals, Co-ops, company town, Employer-assisted, History, Jeddah, kayfabe, Month in review, New Lanark, Roman Empire, Speculation, Trimontium, Workforce housing | No comments 99 views

By: David A. Smith


[Continued from yesterday’s Part 1.]


Yesterday’s Part 1 of the two-month retrospective covered my ruminations about walled cities, some of which, like Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, eventually no longer needed their walls and burst their boundaries; some of the others built around medieval castles retreated into ever-smaller grounds, by the late Middle Ages becoming little more than fortified houses.  But even in medieval times, most days were not sieges, so the municipal form centered on the castle needed more than just defense, and for that grew up churches.



Evidently defenseless


Yet they were costly expenditures of capital (for materials and labor), so their establishment, raising (of both stones and funds), and upkeep occasioned the invention of the third form, profiled in Part 3a, The abbey and its revenue model, Part 3b, the abbey and its physical form:




The abbeys’ campus model


1. Abbeys were designed to be self-sufficient. Like Roman forts (and unlike medieval castles), abbeys were designed for establishment in an empty or hostile territory, which meant that not only were they new construction developments, they also could count on no in-place infrastructure.  Thus the abbey was designed to develop its own complete environment with site infrastructure: work, sleep, cooking, and water/ sanitation all had to be site-based and reliably at hand because any service interruption spelled trouble.



Rievaulx (Rivers) Abbey in its dell, looking west in mid-morning


With this the monks could set up a primitive agricultural model, but of course agriculture has always been rural; it required little more than a village for basic trading, and many a family built their own self-sufficient woodland homestead. 


2. Abbeys were designed as mixed-use campuses. Even with the natural advantage of water, an abbey could not function by bread alone, it needed ongoing cash flow.  For that, it would need the revenue model described in Part 3a – subscription-based salvation, the post-life insurance policy – and for that, the abbey need to be a mixed-use campus.  The layouts were masterpieces of efficient use mixing, as illustrated by this plan of Beaulieu Abbey, a Cistercian abbey founded in 1203:


To my surprise, the more I wrote on abbeys the more it turned out I had to say/ speculate, so I kept going with Part 3c, The abbeys’ capitalization model, Part 3d, The abbey’s development/construction model:


1. Lacking long-term finance, abbeys were financed on major gifts


So used are we to the availability of long-term debt for capital improvements – home purchase, home upgrading, or the expansion of a theological campus by selling air rights – that we forget that this is a very new invention dating (as far as I know) from the early nineteenth century, when (for example) New York City invented municipal finance to pay for the expanded water system in Manhattan.


Debt instruments, after all, depend not only on a stable currency but even more fundamentally on the ability directly to enforce the contracts and indirectly to bind the sovereign (since they were among the first large-scale borrowers, with Felipe II twice going bankrupt, in 1557 and 1596) so it’s little wonder that long-term financial banking could not exist in the medieval period, where only the clergy (souls and excommunication) and the nobility (castles and weapons) had any ability to enforce payment of debts and only came into being in the Italian Renaissance (and that as a recapitalization, so the world’s first bank was a ‘bad bank’).


Without long-term debt, large-scale capital investment could be made only in three ways: plunder (always a popular short-term strategy, including among the Scottish), extortion (protection money presented as ‘taxes’), and major philanthropy.  Of these, for moral and practical reasons, the abbey monks could choose only the third – which made them history’s first capital campaigners, as illustrated by the (excerpted, Wikipedia) story of Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire:



By now you can find the lay brothers’ dormitory (bottom), reredorter and infirmary (downstream)


In laboring so to create an understanding of the abbeys’ history, I came to realize that the capitalization model – absence of debt compelling continuous grant-raising – was both a curse and a blessing.  Though cathedral construction took decades or more, once it was built, it was all paid for, and the cash flow annuities were huge. 


That combination – no debt, annuity cash flow – is dangerous.  Debt tightens a company,” Henry Kravis is quoted as saying in Barbarians at the Gate, and our tour of the abbeys showed that the absence of debt makes an enterprise flabby, especially when coupled with an intellectual product whose price one can continually raise and whose quality one can continually dilute.  (Are you listening, universities?)  These ideas found their expression in Part 3e, The abbeys’ symbiotic aggrandizement, Part 3f, The abbeys’ overreach and their destruction:


Founded as the isolated outposts of civilization amid the painted heathens, they became of commercial and intellectual activity, usually surrounded by towns that had grown up around or alongside their campus, spinning off secular business from the innovations the abbeys created, imported, or scaled.


As they did, the abbeys also shifted from being predominantly spiritual entities selling salvation as a byproduct of faith to diversified secular operating businesses providing products and services throughout the community.



Fountains Abbey, with its extension economic additions:

The Abbot’s House, its Great Hall, and support buildings


Meanwhile, with the dominant monopoly came the short-cut knockoff products.  Why have monks praying hour after hour, when it can be much more economical (and therefore more profitable) to offer not salvation itself but reduction of penance requirements via indulgences:


indulgence is “a way to reduce the amount of punishment one has to undergo for sins“ which may reduce either or both of (1) the penance required after a sin has been forgiven, or (2) the temporal punishment after death (called Purgatory).


Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that the monasteries and church could raise only so much from appeals to faith, indulgences became the spiritual equivalent of paper money: they could be mass produced, sold in whatever denominations the market would bear, and even in some cases wholesaled. 


(On our vacation, I recall seeing, possibly in Mary Queen of Scots’ house in Jedburgh, an indulgence made out in favor of the local laird, for him to fill in the names of up to thirty people at his discretion.  Shades of the Letters of Transit!)




Finally leaving the abbeys behind us, I spent a relatively modest two parts dealing with the fourth typology Part 4a, The manufacturing company town; and Part 4b, The factory company town;  


Our journey through pre-municipal urban living, begun on a rainy weekday morning with the Boss’s and my contemplation of the now-buried Roman fort Trimontium, has traveled through the twin medieval forms – the fortified castle and the sanctified monastic abbey – to the Enlightenment’s moral men, the communitarian philosophers including Robert Owen, who not only started a town to accommodate the workers in the enlightened factory mills he and his social-investor partners built, but also decided that creating a factory community was thinking in too small a scale:



A lifetime of visioning gives you a sharp gaze


Yet with the emergence of national government came compensatory benefits – representative democracy, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution.  These gave rise to a new form of urbanist, the Utopian entrepreneur, such as Robert Owen (via Wikipedia):


A Welsh social reformer and one of the founders of utopian socialism and the cooperative movement. He worked in the cotton industry in Manchester before setting up a large mill at New Lanark in Scotland.


Owen made no bones about his thesis, announcing in in the first paragraph:


Any general character, from the best to the worst, from the most ignorant to the most enlightened, may be given to any community, even to the world at large, by the application of proper means; which means are to a great extent at the command and under the control of those who have influence in the affairs of men.


To put this into practice – doing well by doing good – Owen invested his and his wife’s fortune:


After falling in love with Caroline Dale, the daughter of the New Lanark mill’s proprietor David Dale, in 1799 Owen married Caroline and convinced his partners to buy New Lanark, founded in 1785 by Dale and Richard Arkwright and powered by the falls of the River Clyde.



No, George, you can’t have your own town any more


Today New Lanark is a historical open-air museum, its economic proposition gradually dissipated as industrialization and automation moved the jobs from Europe to America, from America to the emerging world, but the idea of the planned community of live-work-play-socialize continued onward.  George Pullman of railroad fame, another progressive who hired blacks when it was unusual to do so, built a benevolent company town, Pullman, Illinois, but “In 1898 the Supreme Court of Illinois ordered the Pullman Company to divest itself of the town, which was annexed and absorbed by Chicago.”




During July I took time to summarize my posting in halcyon May, and used that as the occasion to explore what I think has come to define twenty-first century American politics, Month in review: May, 2016: Part 1, The world of kayfabe and Part 2,  Breaking the blogger’s fourth wall:


With the rise of social media, kayfabe has become the dominant mode of fame creation and maintenance, where the life soap opera makes the tweets that boost the clicks that sell the ads that pay for the fame merry-go-round:



I knew something was up when she said, “Oh, I’ve got a professional photographer coming”


Politicians are naturally angry about kayfabe’s breakout into the mainstream, because for so many years and decades they’ve had the kayfabe arena all to themselves, whether in creating a persona that they think will garner votes, or alternatively in creating factoids that support whatever narrative is being flogged on the public, as explored in Always look on the bright side … or else (dee doo): Part 1, Gloomy views and positive energy:


I finished up the two months of intermittent but introspective posts with a ­we-bid-you-goodnight ode to one of my favorite kayfabe subjects, Bitch, we’re the co-op boar:


I always thought I should be treated like a star.

Madonna Ciccone

Blogs must be entertaining or they are nothing, and few things can be more entertaining than mocking a self-important bloviator playing the do-you-know-who-i-am card, and who better to play the card than the original, the ur-copycat from whom all other copycats copy, Ms. Louise Ciccone:



I’m so original …



… I copy only originals


For all that she poses as a rebel, Madonna is merely a hugely successful kayfabe character created by Ms. Ciccone for the single purpose of creating a monetizable brand, which she has done to the tune of a speculated net worth of $560 million.  Some modest portion of this she splashes about via multiple houses in convenient trendy venues about the world, in one of which she’s run into an immovable object, as reported as juicily as possible by the ur-copycat Daily Mail July 23, 2016; brown font)


Board members of Madonna’s swanky Upper West Side co-op are appealing to a judge to make the superstar play by the rules after she filed a suit against the building back in April.



3. Who wins the legal dispute?


That’s easy: the co-op does.  Even in a condominium, the trust deed will specify some behaviors that are out of bounds, but in a co-op, whatever the co-op board votes, goes. 


I like to think I’m a role model for women. But I also don’t like to just limit it to women. I like to think I’m a role model for human beings in general.

Madonna Ciccone


It’s instructive that Ms. Ciccone’s previous confrontations show a clear pattern: direct flouting of the rules, followed by legal bullying, then followed by abrupt concession when challenged.


Two days before the [parking space] deadline, she removed all the signage and her driveway was given a fresh lick of gray paint.  


Am I fantasizing too much to hope that when the judge dismisses Ms. Ciccone’s suit, the decision is only five words long? 


Bitch, they’re the co-op board.

Month(s) in Review, June and July, 2016: Part 1, From Jeddah to castle

August 22, 2016 | Abbeys, Apartments, cathedrals, Co-ops, company town, Employer-assisted, History, Jeddah, kayfabe, Month in review, New Lanark, Roman Empire, Speculation, Trimontium, Workforce housing | No comments 86 views

By: David A. Smith


Beginning in June, I did something that I hadn’t done for over a decade – after having posted one installment every business day since mid-2005, I ended up skipping quite a few business days, the blog being a temporary casualty of a stretch of both intense AHI work and four weeks’ nearly back-to-back travel, including a tent-pole event, a two-day executive education seminar on affordable housing under the aegis of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, held in Jeddah:


I haven’t posted for more than a week because it’s been an incredibly busy week; first with speaking at the World Bank’s 7th Global Housing Finance Summit in Washington DC, where I talked about taking housing finance and housing affordability down the income pyramid.


Then, with scarcely a pause for pause back in Boston, I traveled all the way to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to co-teach an executive education workshop on the challenges of affordable housing.



Tall guy squeezing an invisible beach ball:

In Jeddah, explicating the challenges of housing finance


Though most of my time in Jeddah was spent in a hotel/ conference center, that Tantalus curse of the business traveler (to go everywhere and see only the same things each time), we had an evening’s outing to Jeddah’s old city, al-Balad, which occasioned some later reflections:


Even after the Arab Revolt and the establishment of Saudi Arabia, Jeddah remained principally the walled city:



Jeddah, 1938: the wall is obsolete down but its virtual boundaries remain


With the economic boom brought by the oil era, Jeddah boomed too, its population rising well above a million and spilling north, east, and south.



Beyond the boundaries, a boom in development


As a self-taught urbanist, I claim the solipsistic luxury of discovering for myself things that others have already worked out, which gives me license to legitimize my combination in satiable curiosity and airy willingness to speculate from first principles without bothering to research, and for a great many years I’ve been fascinated by path dependencies [I’m a global expert in affordable housing in 2016 because the first multi-week temporary typing job I took in 1975 was in affordable housing – Ed.], such as these:


Outward from the point.  Cities grow outward from their founding point, and if that founding point is water-based (Boston, New York, Bombay), the resulting city will usually be an urban-planner’s nightmare.  Among my favorites are:


Boston, where the entire transportation system started at Long Wharf.




Manhattan, where bridges and tunnel run through Lower Manhattan because ships landed there.



Yes, of course, now I see why we should run a bridge/ tunnel that way, and then a shoreline road around Brooklyn and Queens!



Opening the Battery Tunnel, 1950


Ordered to messy.  Cities are always rationally laid out for their first value proposition (redoubt, marketplace, manufactory, transportation hub, political capital) and then remake their urban configuration as their value proposition changes.  This also means they usually migrate from planned to self-evolved – and, a sardonic reader might comment, so do these blog posts, which start somewhere and end somewhere and jam in between.



Chaos is multiplicity without rhythm – M. C. Escher


Promptly after Jeddah, I took 2½ weeks of Actual Vacation with the Boss, in Scotland, which we love for many reasons including its complicated absorbing outdoor history, and over the ensuing tramps through fields and up and down dark moist sandstone and granite steps inside Historic Scotland properties, this naturally put me in mind of prior ages, and that got me wondering about the forms of Pre-municipal cities, four typologies: Part 1, The Roman Fort:


In the modern, developed world, the adjudicator of real estate law is the government and its court system, and in the English common-law model, land issues are adjudicated at the lowest level of government: the municipality and its companion traveling court, the circuit judge, which dates back to Henry II and includes among its number Abraham Lincoln.  What, I wondered while standing in the Newstead light rain of typical Scottish weather, came before municipal government? 



A reminder of the glory that was Rome


Before there were cities, the land was not empty – at least, not devoid of people nor of claims and uses.  Over the land was spread an invisible tessellation of claims, like air traffic control towers or Joshua trees; all land was owned, with none of what Maine calls Unorganized Territory.  Pre-municipal ownership, however, recognized different levels of claim and divisible rights: rights to farm, rights to forage (as in whatever washed up on the beach), rights to build, rights to occupy.  The undeveloped land was nevertheless divided up for suzerainty, and at the center of the suzerainty area was the pre-municipal city: a complex multistory built environment that created an urban community suitable to house those who came to establish it.



Looks like a landing jet, doesn’t it?


All four of these typologies built a city for a purpose, and in their way they tell the story of the evolving purposes of a city, starting with the first typology: the Roman outpost fort, such as Trimontium in Scotland, at the farthest extent of the Roman Empire’s reach into Britain:


In 79 AD, Trimontium was probably built by the Ninth Legion during Agricola’s northern series of campaigns ending in the victory at Mons Graupius in 83 AD. About 10.5 acres in extent (double the size of a small fort) it was built of turf and timber and defended by an enormous rampart of earth cast up all round the playing-card shape of the fort from the 20 feet wide ditch.


About 86 AD the Agricolan fort was extended to 14.5 acres and its defences strengthened (rampart now 43 feet wide and 25 feet high). The timber-walled buildings were now placed on stone footings for longer life.




[Upon return to Boston, we watched a short-lived BBC wistful comedy series The Detectorists, which I cannot recommend too highly; it’s a long slow sweet ode to people, the past, and ring pulls. – Ed.]



Don’t all crowd in, there’s plenty of room for everyone


After the Romans came their leavings, dominated by Part 2, the medieval castle:


Spend enough time looking at the surviving Roman structures, many of them two millennia old, and as we saw yesterday one cannot help but admire the Romans’ capacity for organization and management, and for civilization’s sake regret Rome’s fall – but fall it did, a victim to the invention of the stirrup, the emergence of a new fearsome fighting force, the mounted cavalry, and the subsequent evolution of a new superhero: the mounted knight.



Iron man, thirteenth-century-style


Against a mounted knight in the field there was no practical defense.  Artillery had not advanced to the point of military utility – at this stage bombard weaponry was human-powered, as via the trebuchet (another clever Roman engineering invention).  The fall of Rome came at the hands of mounted cavalry, and as long as such practical superheroes existed, they were unstoppable – though they required a massive capital infrastructure to sustain them.  Armor was expensive to make, requiring high-quality iron and steel.  A horse to bear both rider and armor was likewise a considerable investment. 



Porcupine, human-style


Hence, not for the first time, economics dictated military hierarchy: unarmored men-at-arms could wield a pike (needing only a steel spear point) and advance in formation; men with a sword, shield or some light chain mail (the middle-class accoutrements) could be part of light infantry, and pay for their protection by serving in their liege lord’s campaigns that he used in service to his liege lord, the earl, duke, or king.  At the apex, the killer weapon, the mounted armored knight. 


For a while (I think; this is my own reinterpretation of history), Europe’s revenue model was kidnap and pillage.  (Something similar is happening now in Venezuela, where gangs in slums have become a power more effective than the government; I may post on the subject if I can get caught up on the blog.)  That didn’t very work well for anybody – it never does.  It’s short-term gain leading to longer-term impoverishment – and the result was the shaky bottom-up-evolved order known as the feudal system: serf to local lord, lord to liege, liege to sovereign. 


Feudalism, with its delivery of basic protection at the cost of taxation, created the economic cryptobiotica to stabilize some bases for revenue production – and the quid pro quo as between small self-employed entrepreneur (serf or craftsman) and liege lord was protection.  That’s the basic business model the Romans offered, just rebuilt bottom-up using the new killer app of the mounted knight, with one critical difference: instead of a fort guarded by thousands of infantry largely alike in their armaments, the defensive model was a shielded perimeter inside which mounted knights could not penetrate – the medieval castle.



Caerlaverock castle today




In Rome, the gods were a pantheon and they could be worshipped anywhere and at any time, but with the coming of Christianity worship became regularized as to both time (Sunday) and place (a consecrated church). 


Temporarily used for contact details: The Engine House, Fire Fly Avenue, Swindon, SN2 2EH, United Kingdom, Tel: 01793 414600, Email:, Website:

Spiritual but way too small to hold all the parishioners


Castles had no place for ordinary churches – the keep was too small, at beast there would be a private chapel for the lord and his retinue – so the churches grew up outside the fortified castle, and led to the third form of pre-municipal cities:


[Continued tomorrow in Part 2.]

Zoning by the Taste Police: Part 7, Good and bad, I define these terms

August 18, 2016 | Apartments, ARZ, as-of-right zoning, Cities, Density, Development, Essential posts, Housing, Manhattan, New York City, San Francisco, struldbrug buildings, Taste police, Urbanization, Zoning, zoning-by-taste-police, ZTP | No comments 100 views

By: David A. Smith


[Continued from yesterday’s Part 6 and the preceding Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.]


Let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.

Bob Dylan, 1968


By now it’s apparent from the previous six parts of this post (especially the last one) that ZTP is anti-affordable housing, because affordable housing is on the wrong side of the Law of Economic Bias:


Law_affordable_housing_economic_bias (large)


That’s not the end of the harm ZTP does.  Separate and apart from the down-zoning that usually accompanies it, ZTP imposes surcharges – non-revenue-generating features, additional application and compliance costs, delays in development (meaning higher development-period interest), and the risks of failure – on every form of property. 


Sources used in this post


The New York Times (February 29, 2016; dark green font)

The New York Times (May 20, 2016; black font)

Boston Globe (July 24, 2016; brown font)


A continuously more complex and protracted process of reviewing every change in use or density or occupancy in the urban built environment has only one logical ending, and not a happy one.



This will not end well



6. Zoning by the Taste Police slowly kills cities


Much though doomsters from Malthus to Paul Ehrlich have sought to claim otherwise, throughout the last two centuries humanity’s population has steadily risen, and along with its average human standards of living.  (There’s still plenty of inequality of circumstances, to be sure, and what AHI does is intended to reduce that inequality even if just by a smidgen, by helping people who are too poor become less poor through better sustainable affordable housing.)


Down-zoning vs. Zoning-by-Taste Police (ZTP)


Down-zoning replaces the current ARZ with a new ARZ; ZTP kills ARZ entirely.


Down-zoning is a wholesale prospective change of as-of-right zoning (ARZ).  It occurs when a community has decided to put a cap on future development, an invisible ceiling on height (say) but set at a level above the current built environment.  Indeed, most forms of pure zoning represent down-zoning (compared with the status quo ante).  Down-zoning changes development limits but retains the principle of prospective judicial certainty via safe harbor.  Developers can still build as-of-right, just up to the new (less dense) zoning limits.


ZTP is a retail review.  Total density (measured by FAR or PSI) is only a precondition, not a safe harbor; the individual property-by-property review gives the Taste Police an opportunity to comment on anything and everything.  As-of-right zoning (ARZ) is thus dead, and with its death also die prospective certainty and judicial remedy for political unaccountability.


Rising population means, among other things, that cities must become larger.  (The alternative, having more people live in the same cubic area, is a road to ruin because human beings kept in too-close quarters go mad: depressed, insane, belligerent, or some toxic combination of all.) 




That growth must be in at least one physical dimension, outward or upward, and of the two, by far the better is upward.  Aside from social or psychological differences (e.g. I find cities lively and stimulating, not everybody does), more dense cities are measurably better per quantum of people accommodated: vertical technological living is greener, more efficient, more sustainable, and better for the economy.



Future new jobs going to sleep in the future sky


The upward leapfrogging of buildings, and the concomitant displacement or demolition of lower-rise buildings whose crime is to be vertically obsolete creates a natural human reaction: anthropomorphizing them, we sympathize and want to preserve that amiable jumble, which is always visually charming (especially if viewed from a convenient passer-by distance).  So we want to protect the endangered species:



Chinatown: Lively, urban, messy, informal – and irreproducible under New York’s ZTP


Many buildings in distinctive Manhattan neighborhoods like Chinatown, the Upper East Side and Washington Heights could not be erected now:  



Oh, ths is way too dense, let’s tear some down


Properties in those areas tend to cover too much of their lots (Washington Heights), have too much commercial space (Chinatown) or rise too high (the Upper East Side). Areas like Chelsea, Midtown and East Harlem, on the other hand, would look much as they do already.


ZTP is a luxury that a city’s elite adopts when they think their city has the secret of perpetual economic and social success – booming economy, rising values.  In Maslow’s hierarchy of urban needs, questions of taste rank at the bottom, after job growth, schools, public safety, public health, environmental quality, and sociability.  Anyone who doubts this hierarchy need only visit the emerging-world fast-urbanizing city of your choice, and you’ll see the hierarchy visibly displayed from block to block, as poorer people sacrifice the inessentials in favor of earning power for themselves and their families.


ZTP traps a neighborhood in amber. 



You’re respectable because you’re old


“Look at the beautiful New York City neighborhoods we could never build again,” said Stephen Smith of Quantierra.  “It’s ridiculous that we have these hundred-year-old buildings that everyone loves, and none of them ‘should’ be the way they are.”


While understandable – we’re all nostalgic now and then – it leads to incongruity, and in particular the urban paradox of (x) inefficient land use coupled with (y) high ground-scape density:


For a nightmare version of Boston’s future, look west.  Because San Francisco and other Bay Area communities didn’t build enough to absorb a rapid influx of tech workers, growth-averse residents have awoken to find once-affordable neighborhoods transformed right out from under them.  


They’ve resorted to nutty ballot initiatives that try to turn back the clock and defy the law of supply and demand [And of urban land – Ed.].


Cities are organic; they are constantly devolving or evolving.  They can shrink, and if they shrink too fast they can fragment or die, but more often they grow, and in that growth is created human wealth and human prosperity. 



Can’t they stay babies forever?


Failure to evolve means failure to improve means perpetuation of poverty. 


In strangling cities’ growth, ZTP also acts not only to perpetuate poverty but also social and spatial exclusion: it creates physical barriers that inhibit or prevent aspirants from becoming city dwellers, what Rakesh Mohan called the ‘third-class carriage’ mentality:


Yet our city planners have a third-class-carriage mentality: “I’m inside, don’t you dare come in.  You’re much better off where you are.”  Most urban planners live in some of the largest cities in the world, yet they complain cities are too large. 



Seeking to invite the poor in



7. The times they are a-changin’


Good and bad, I define these terms, quite clear, no doubt, somehow.

Bob Dylan, 1964


Until a decade ago, I was clueless about zoning’s stranglehold, and it’s taken posting regularly for that decade for me to discover, amid the pointillist welter of localized stories and exploration of the history of American urbanization for me to identify and name Zoning by the Taste Police, and then to finger ZTP as the principal culprit in making housing un-affordable in growing cities and doing all the things the good liberals who live around me say they oppose – excluding those not like us, making homeownership and quality housing less affordable for aspiring households and newcomers to the city, and contributing to spatial and social separation.


In Massachusetts, we treat disputes over storefronts and condo projects as the most local of local matters. As the legislative session draws to a close, a bill to reform zoning rules statewide to promote more housing construction looks doomed.

For most of this decade I’ve also felt isolated, as if I were the only one to see it.




Finally, that is changing, not from my Boomer generation but from the next ones, who have learned to ignore what my peers say and just look at the consequences of what we do:


It does not have to be this complicated. In honor [Irony? – Ed.] of the code’s hundredth anniversary, the Municipal Art Society of New York has called on City Hall to consider overhauling the code in a way that would make it intelligible to all.


There is a movement starting, whether here in Massachusetts or with the Bay Area Renters Federation (BARF, brilliant acronym):



A gal who gets it: Sonja Trauss of BARF


Now we see faint stirrings in San Francisco, in Boston, and even in ultra-ZTP New York:


Since it was approved in 1916, the ever-evolving, byzantine code has changed many times to suit the needs of a swollen metropolis. Just in March, the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio won approval for a vast citywide plan that would encourage sleeker, more affordable developments.


Will the wheel turn back toward prospective, inclusive development?


I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.

Bob Dylan, 1964



Zoning by the Taste Police: Part 6, Can’t just wish those pressures away

August 17, 2016 | Apartments, ARZ, as-of-right zoning, Cities, Density, Development, Essential posts, Housing, Manhattan, New York City, San Francisco, struldbrug buildings, Taste police, Urbanization, Zoning, zoning-by-taste-police, ZTP | No comments 102 views

By: David A. Smith


[Continued from yesterday’s Part 5 and the preceding Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.]


Sources used in this post


The New York Times (February 29, 2016; dark green font)

The New York Times (May 20, 2016; black font)

Boston Globe (July 24, 2016; brown font)


By now it’s apparent that ZTP inhibits affordable housing, because affordable housing is on the wrong side of the Law of Economic Bias:




This unremarkable conclusion whizzes past the Times as if invisible:


If every tenement in the city were reconfigured in these ways [To conform with the down-zoning – Ed.], they would be less crowded


While I think Mr. Chaban is attempting to suggest that the individual apartments would be larger, to infer from this they would be less crowded isn’t accurate at all.


– but there would also be fewer apartments to go around.



With fewer cubicles, you’ll all be less crowded in them


The sites would be less dense, and there would be fewer apartments on each site, but there’s no reason to think any apartment would be less crowded – in fact, the most probable consequence is that the fewer (remaining) apartments would be more crowded, with more and more illegal roommates, impermissible subdivisions, with overcrowding and dangerous conditions, such as this piece, reported only a few months earlier in the very same newspaper (New York Times, February 29, 2016; dark green font) that I found with fifteen seconds’ Googling:


Rafael lives with four other people in an overstuffed apartment in Jackson Heights, Queens, that measures less than 500 square feet.


He shares a bedroom with his mother. Two men sublet a second, smaller bedroom that Rafael created by subdividing the living room with drywall.




Rafael, 51, a waiter, in his bedroom in Jackson Heights, Queens, which he shares with his mother. They live with three other people in the apartment, which is illegally subdivided.”


Illegally, I note:


Rafael, 51, is a Mexican immigrant who works as a waiter and insisted that his last name not be used to avoid tipping off the landlord to his illegal subletters


His brother sleeps in the kitchen on a mat that he rolls up every morning and wedges in the corner, opening a path to the front door.


There are belongings occupying just about every square inch of space. Clean dishes and cookware are piled on the countertop because there is nowhere else to store them. Clothes are jammed in bags along the kitchen wall. Shelves overflow with bills, magazines, pill bottles and dog food (for the resident Chihuahua). Bicycles are stacked on top of a cupboard.


“That’s the life here in New York,” said. “It’s not easy for anyone.”


According to the latest Census Bureau data, about 9% of all households — or nearly 280,000 units — in New York City have more than one person per room, a common government measure of crowding. A decade ago, the rate was 8%. The change represents nearly a 13% increase. By comparison, the national crowding rate is 3.4%.


Overcrowding in New York City, already almost three times the national average, is also on the rise, and what the New York Times seems unable to understand (or unwilling to admit it understands) is no mystery to its former subsidiary the Boston Globe:


Meet Matt Gruber. He’s the current treasurer and past president of West Roxbury Main Streets, the organization tasked with sprucing up the commercial strip along Centre Street.  West Roxbury’s reputation is as a suburban Eden within Boston, an enclave undisturbed by the construction cranes downtown.


We’ll give Globe columnist Dante Ramos his bit of hyperbole though I doubt many would describe West Roxbury as Eden.



West Roxbury, 1858, before it was annexed by Boston


But it, like every square foot of the Boston area, is subject to economic forces that it doesn’t control.  As housing costs rise, and people flock to walkable dining and shopping districts, communities can’t just wish those pressures away.


When it comes to the engine of economic development and the train of property development, affordable housing is the caboose.



When it comes to providing affordable housing for the train crew, naturally enough the caboose comes last


Otherwise, things will keep going down like this: In West Roxbury, on the single block of LaGrange Street that stands between a commuter rail stop and Centre Street, there’s a decrepit old factory that’s been an eyesore for years. 


For those of you interested in the full story, I recommend you peruse the developer’s 66-page Small Project Review Application, Including Transportation Impact Analysis, Submitted Pursuant to Article 80 of the Boston Zoning Code – which, remember, the developer had to pay for, and which is thus an added cost of the project.  I’m going to post a few pictures from it below, if only to illustrate that there’s no negotiating with the Taste Police.


It’s a prime site for a bold mixed-use project.


Indeed it is.  Here is what the property looks like today:



Note the brown façade, the vacant frontage – and for further context, herer’s an aerial of the site:



Burial ground to the north, commuter rail parking lot directly across the street


The site abuts a commuter rail station – West Roxbury, so anyone who lives at 425 Lagrange will have an easy-peasy commute. 


Principal AHI posts on zoning

(Zoning has been a big recurring topic, with 389 posts tagged)


Apr 3, 2005: Zoning is destiny, everything eventually gets built out

Oct 31, 2005: Inclusionary zoning, 2 parts, alternatives are exclusionary

Apr 6, 2006: Zoning and the righteous snobs, used to keep ‘those people’ out

Mar 1, 2007: Zoning oneself blue in the states?, impact on housing prices

Dec 11, 2008: Massachusetts’ Chapter 40B pachinko machine, 2 parts, how it works

Nov 1, 2010; Warts and all, keep Chapter 40B, better than nothing

May 24, 2012: Zoning’s invisible corset , it governs built-environment forms

May 5, 2014: Sunset scarcity, 2 parts, San Francisco’s housing neck tourniquet

Aug 4, 2014: Vertically obsolete 3 parts, New York City must go up

Oct 14, 2015: Too many rules, 4 parts, how ZTP encourages cheating

Jan 16, 2016: Morality, economy, innumeracy, illogic, 8 parts, taste police veto

Mar 28, 2016: Housing in Pogoland, 3 parts, San Francisco’s self-inflicted crisis

Apr 6, 2016: Strung up on the scaffold, 8 parts, enabling ‘permanent temporary-ness’


The property is already densely built up, filling the whole site with virtually no setback.  The result is a bland and blocky streetscape:



You drive by it, probably wondering, When the heck is somebody going to redevelop this property?


Here’s what the developer proposed to put up on the site:



No taller, much brighter, and most importantly, with affordable housing.


The apartment complex that a developer proposed was more sedate.


A total of 62 apartments, on a site ideal for apartment living, with a height and setbacks no larger than present on the site today.


Yet as neighbors complained of parking, traffic, and an influx of transients –


That’s thinly disguised code for ‘those people.




– the project turned into a condo building and shrank from 62 units to 48, and then to 40. 


And guess what?  The apartments cut out each time would be the cheapest, most affordable.  Whittling from 62 to 40 means 22 more families who can’t live in Roxbury, who might be homeless or overcrowded or commuting three hours a day to work.


But the Zoning Board of Appeals still voted it down in April, [Ignoring the mayor – Ed.]


Of course the board voted it down, just as Milton’s residents fought tooth and nail against affordable housing, just as Belmont’s did – just as everybody’s does.  And why? 


– because – well, there’s always something.


Because they don’t want ‘those people in their neighborhood, and with ZTP, they can obfuscate and prevaricate and equivocate for as long as it takes to make the project infeasible, and hence to preserve the vacant, derelict factory that does no good for the community.


ZTP empowers prejudice by giving it standing, camouflaging it in diversionary objections, and making it politically unaccountable.  That makes it objectively anti-affordable housing and pro-exclusionary.



Not done yet?


And we’re still not done with ZTP’s flaws yet.



Not done yet?  Oh, really?


[Continued tomorrow in Part 7.]

Zoning by the Taste Police: Part 5, From 24 apartments to just eight

August 16, 2016 | Apartments, ARZ, as-of-right zoning, Cities, Density, Development, Essential posts, Housing, Manhattan, New York City, San Francisco, struldbrug buildings, Taste police, Urbanization, Zoning, zoning-by-taste-police, ZTP | No comments 184 views


By: David A. Smith


[Continued from yesterday’s Part 4 and the preceding Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.]


Good intentions can be evil, both hands are full of grease. You know, sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace.

Bob Dylan, 1983


As we’ve seen in earlier parts of this post, Zoning by the Taste Police is excessively complex (and becomes progressively more complicated over time), and adds uncertainty, risk, and cost to any development project, whether new building or rehab/ renovation.


Sources used in this post


The New York Times (May 20, 2016; black font)

Boston Globe (July 24, 2016; brown font)


These features inhibit development across the board, which is bad enough, but in fact ZTP isn’t just an equal-opportunity inhibitor, it actually harms one asset class more than others.



5. Zoning by the Taste Police creates housing scarcity


More than a decade ago, I tumbled to the some early truths about affordable housing, that is always has a cost-value gap and that affordable housing always costs money, but it’s taken me the better part of the decade since to take the logical next steps and formulate the Low of Affordable Housing Economic Bias:



All other things being equal


The Law of Affordable Housing Economic Bias

(The market’s economic bias against affordable housing)


Land-use economics, the Law of Economic Gravity, and the Law of Economic Pressure, all combine to create the market’s economic bias against affordable housing, to wit:


1. Housing is last within development uses.  All other things being equal, every other form of urban development (office, commercial, retail, hotel, mixed-use) will yield higher development profit than housing.

2. Affordable rental is last within housing uses.  All other things being equal, every other form of urban residential (homeownership, condo, co-operative, market rental) will yield higher development profit than affordable housing.


The Law of Affordable Housing Economic Bias is why affordable housing always has a cost-value gap and why affordable housing always costs money, in one of the sixteen forms of resources (eight of them cash, eight non-cash).


To me the Law of Affordable Housing Economic Bias is as real and as visible as gravity, and because of this here is where my irritation with Zoning by the Taste Police reaches its ultimate crescendo:


ZTP is objectively anti-affordable-housing in the George Orwell sense, which is worth quoting in full:



If you hamper the effort of one side, you automatically help that of the other.


Pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist. This is elementary common sense. If you hamper the war effort of one side you automatically help that of the other. Nor is there any real way of remaining outside such a war as the present one. In practice, ‘he that is not with me is against me’. The idea that you can somehow remain aloof from and superior to the struggle, while living on food which British sailors have to risk their lives to bring you, is a bourgeois illusion bred of money and security.


With a bit of point-for-point substitution of terms, we get this:


Zoning by the Taste Police is objectively anti-affordable-housing.  This is elementary common sense. If you hamper the affordable housing development effort of one side you automatically help that of the NIMBY-ites. Nor is there any real way of remaining outside such a war as the fights over urban land use. In practice, ‘he that is not with me is against me’. The idea that you can somehow remain aloof from and superior to the shortage of affordable housing, while living in housing which housing developers have to run the ZTP gauntlet to build, is a bourgeois illusion bred of money and incumbent homeownership.


Once you grasp the Law of Affordable Housing Economic Bias, then the interpretation of this next ZTP example becomes self-evident:


On the cover of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” there on the right side, its cornice almost grazing the N in Dylan, stands 19 Jones Street.


[NB The Times is skittish about posting an image of the album cover, but I’m not – non-profit Fair Use, baby! – so here it is. – Ed.]



Gee, Bob, this is so much denser than Hibbing, Minnesota


It is one of the thousands of buildings in Manhattan with too many dwelling units for its size.


There are simply … too many flats?


Built in 1910 as a tenement, 19 Jones Street predates the zoning code by six years. It belongs to a special family of tenements known as dumbbell apartments, so named because of the way the buildings are squeezed in the middle, creating air shafts.



Just take out a few flats and it’ll be perfect


Such openings were a requirement of the New York State Tenement Housing Act of 1879 –


Again I have to highlight the difference between ARZ and ZTP. 



Laundry drying among tenement buildings


– meant to make tightly packed apartments a little bit more livable.



Nineteenth century live-work space:

Necktie workshop, Division Street NYC, 1888, Jacob Riis


Predating city-wide zoning by 37 years, the New York Tenement Actwas a straightforward health-and-safety measure, one that made good sense in an overly dense and fetid urban environment that fostered epidemics of tuberculosis, respiratory illnesses (including pneumonia, New York being cold in the winter), rheumatism and rheumatic heart disease.


Homeless People Sleeping in Shelter

Men sleeping on the floor of a New York City homeless shelter, 1886


Back in my early post-graduate youth, I lived in a Cambridge (rent-controlled) railroad tenement flat, which had a small rectangular air shaft smack amidships.  It offered no vistas but it created a natural airway that was a relief in summer.  Probably 19 Jones Street likewise accommodated aspiring singles in the big city – in fact, many more of them than can now live in Gotham:


Were 19 Jones built today, it would have to be significantly smaller.


ZTP has decided that the building that sticks up must be hammered down. 



No more freewheelin’ for you, Mister Dylan


The building’s total dimensions would be nearly halved, and a story or two would have to be chopped off.


The number of apartments would fall sharply, to just eight from 24.


There go sixteen apartments – say, forty young New Yorkers no longer able to live in the West Village – all because Even more ironic is that right nearby is an overhoused rent-controlled tenant who’s smugly inflicting a subsidy on the local theater.


Such limitations can quickly decrease the supply of housing, and most likely drive up rents.


‘Most likely’ is the best you can manage, New York Times?  You couldn’t find any real estate expert to state the obvious – it would drive up rents.




[Continued tomorrow in Part 6.]