By: David A. Smith
When the history of the twentieth century is written, a chapter should be devoted to zoning. The two-dimensional version was invented in the century’s first decade, and now a hundred years later, zoning in the urban context is so anachronistic as to be dysfunctional, as illustrated by three posts that show zoning’s past, present, and future:
The past. For all the centuries before zoning, mixed-use and live-work spaces were the norm of urban existence, and with zoning they gradually faded into oblivion, even when they were as sensible as having a caretaker live in a library, now known to us only in Tintypes from the time before: Part 1, The dusty stacks of memory:
Rottcodd, drawn by his author, Mervyn Peake
The Hall of the Bright Carvings, which ran along the top storey of the north wing, was presided over by the curator, Rottcodd, who, as no one ever visited the room, slept during most of his life in the hammock he had erected at the far end.
Titus Groan, Mervyn Peake
We who live in urban environments have become so accustomed to paying for housing and it being expensive that we may now and then fantasize of living in the heart of the city, in blissful solitude, rent free, so it is with no little nostalgia that I came upon an affectionate retrospective by Cait Etherington published in the New-York-centric electronic journal 6sqft (July 3, 2016):
Life Behind the Stacks: The Secret Apartments of New York Libraries
Goodness knows how tangled is the reading guide to Your Humble Blogger’s Brain
So incredibly logical and appealing is the idea of living inside a larger structure that it’s virtually a staple of steampunk fiction (cf. Terry Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork or Martin Scorsese’s Hugo), perhaps as a staple for what we recall but have lost as referenced in Part 2, References in the archive, and Part 3, An idea to be returned to circulation:
All of you are in guests in my house
Like the dodo, the work-live librarian is extinct: in New York City, anyhow.
The last known live-in superintendent moved out of the NYPL’s Webster Branch, located at 1468 York Avenue in Yorkville, in 2006.
And the librarian lived in the library for ever and ever … until 2006, at any rate
Although the library-residence post was written as freestanding, it revealed my recent-vintage preoccupation with zoning:
Current two-dimensional zoning models are under irresistible pressure to change. Gig workers, intangible and far-flung web-connected value chains, information work, Airbnb – even with all the fierce defensive pressure of NIMBYs, I think zoning is overdue for a populist revolution. Indeed, 6sqft’s manifesto for modern urban life celebrates proximity and random occurrence:
takes its name from the notion of personal space, introduced by anthropologist Edward T. Hall back in 1966 as a way of defining how people behave and react in different types of culturally established spaces. Hall theorizes that personal space measures just a little over two square feet, while our social space can extend well beyond 64 square feet.
The Hall of the bright cities
The best cities will make the most economical and multipurpose use of their built environment – the worst will place these as far from one another as possible.
It’s time to revive the viability of work-live spaces.
The boarded floor was white with dust which, so assiduously kept from the carvings, had no alternative resting place and had collected deep and ash-like, accumulating especially in the four corners of the hall.
Titus Groan, Mervyn Peake
The present. Anyone who works in urban property development has discovered the anaconda constructions of Zoning by the Taste Police: Part 1, Exactly 22 would be legal:
ZTP is the antithesis of as-of right zoning (ARZ). Where ARZ provides certainty, ZTP creates uncertainty. When ARZ offers speed, ZTP is delay. Where ARZ is all about law, ZTP is all about politics. And where ARZ seeks to expand the built environment and grow vertically, ZTP seeks to preserve the current built environment by stopping growth.
Throughout Eastern Massachusetts, existing block-by-block limits on growth add up to something perverse. As a startling report showed earlier this year, the City of Somerville has banned, well, Somerville. Exactly 22 of the existing residential buildings in that community of 80,000 people would be legal under today’s zoning rules.
Lots of cities and towns have passed similar limits at the request of neighborhood leaders. The underlying message is: We’ve got ours, so who cares if house prices go up?
Whereas ARZ enables cities to grow, ZTP is killing them in multiple ways.
The future will be here at any moment
The asphyxiating effects of ZTP I then documented further in Part 2, Too much, too many, too few, too tall, Part 3, So convoluted and so dense, Part 4, Beloved in many skyscrapers, Part 5, From 24 apartments to just eight:
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.
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 gapand 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:
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 – adapting from his famous essay, 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.
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
What a long, strange trip is ahead of me
The future. The demise of zoning – or at least, its complete disruption – may already be upon us, coming in the guise of Zoning’s fifth column:
As my four columns of troops approach the city, a fifth column of people inside the city will support us and undermine the government from within.
General Emilio Mola, advancing on Madrid, 1936 (paraphrased from Wikipedia)
According to Gordon Gekko’s reading of Sun Tzu, every battle is won before it’s fought.
And greed is good
That dynamic is now playing out in New York City, where Airbnb’s brilliant stealth multi-year campaign, which I’ve documented before, has now reached the crunch point, where its fifth column – apartment occupants making money on the side by renting their pads – are now ready to take on both the Mayor and the Governor of New York – and I’ll bet they win. As presented in Crain’s New York (August 24, 2016):
A third of Airbnb revenue comes from apartments turned into hotels, says study
Data is revealed as Cuomo ponders bill forbidding advertising of such units
Although this is a New York-based story, hence the focus on the share of Airbnb revenue from New York, I’m very confident that Airbnb’s revenue distribution is highly, excessively concentrated in high-cost, high-scarcity cities: New York, San Francisco, Boston, Washington DC, because when there’s plenty of supply, the ‘hotel room premium’ – that is, the price of a hotel room versus the price of an Airbnb rental – will be highest.
Big NIMBY cities never have enough hotel rooms – the development cycle sees to that – and then they slap on hotel taxes, tourist taxes, and other politically logical soak-the-outsider costs. The dynamism of hotel pricing (even more rapid-response than airline pricing, though not as responsive as flower-bouquet pricing around romantic holidays) assures that if there is temporary scarcity, the room rates jump – and that creates economic pressure which will bring marginal landlords into the Airbnb system.
Zoning’s wasn’t the only arc whose pause at the apex and potentially accelerating descent that I chronicled in August.
Applicable to political strategies, too
[Continued tomorrow in Part 2.]