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 192 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:

 

tilted_houses

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:

 

orwell_bbc_radio

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.]

 

freewheelin_bob_dylan

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.

amadeus_emperor_franz_josef_ii

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.

 

19_jones_street

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. 

 

tenement_building_laundry

Laundry drying among tenement buildings

 

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

 

necktie_workshop_division_street_1888

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. 

 

19_jones_street_west_village

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.

 

stating_the_obvious

 

[Continued tomorrow in Part 6.]

Zoning by the Taste Police: Part 4, Beloved in many skyscrapers

August 15, 2016 | Apartments, ARZ, as-of-right zoning, Cities, Density, Development, Essential posts, Housing, Manhattan, New York City, struldbrug buildings, Taste police, Urbanization, Zoning, zoning-by-taste-police, ZTP | No comments 103 views

 

By: David A. Smith

 

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

 

People don’t do what they believe in, they just do what’s most convenient, then they repent.

Bob Dylan, 1986

 

As established in yesterday’s Part 3, whereas As-of-Right Zoning (ARZ) operates with a small number of bright-line rules that reduce to mathematical formulae, Zoning by the Taste Police (ZTP) becomes progressively more complex, and usually without mathematical algorithms, as the ZTP Board grapples with such metaphysical questions as How many square feet is a cornice worth? 

 

cowboy_philosophy

Don’t think too much, Tex, just keep chewing

 

As the subjective factors can never be reduced to invariant quanta, what arises in ZTP is less a code of principles than an accumulation of common-law development folklore (“Last year they liked this that much, so maybe they’ll like it this much again”).

 

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’

 

Because folklore is ever-changing and tastes are never static, a zoning code that merely recapitulates the hundreds if not thousands that leads to the next problem:

 

 

4. Zoning by the Taste Police adds cost and uncertainty

 

When people envision zoning’s application to the urban environment, they tend to imagine a blank canvas – cleared land, urban fallow, property with nothing atop it.  That makes the idea of zoning somehow less intrusive: we’re just trying to shape what will grow. 

 

topiary_house_westwood_manor

Yes, that’s what we envisioned for new housing

 

While that’s an understandable blind spot in people’s imaginations, its consequences are immensely harmful, because 95% of the property New Yorkers will live in five years from now already exists today, and it will need renovation.

 

age_us_housing_stock

And the rate of new construction is slowing down

 

If fact, the further into the future we look, the less the rate of new production and the greater the fraction existing property, because the typical home is getting older:

 

median_age_housing

Aging half as fast as time itself

 

[I’ve just spent five minutes gawking at that chart, because there are half a dozen inferences to be drawn … but I can’t digress into them now.  Suffice it for now that I intend to dig into this and figure out what I think! – Ed.]

 

millet_peasants_digging

The topic will merit quite some digging

 

While modestly enough displayed, that chart shows a truly remarkable finding: in 20 years, the average age of US owner-occupied housing has aged 10 years. 

 

Sources used in this post

 

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

Boston Globe (July 24, 2016; brown font)

 

And that’s nationwide; in an anti-development high-density environment like New York City, where ZTP assures that any new property will take several years to move from conception to groundbreaking, the average age must be much greater.  So what ZTP concerns itself with mainly is existing property, and here’s where it becomes truly recursive and madness-inducing.

 

The laws have gotten more restrictive over time, giving an edge to properties built in earlier eras.

 

Existing properties are ‘given an edge’ only in the sense that new-build properties have been gang-tackled and sat upon before they even got started.

 

Patrick Peterson

We have some comments on your proposal

 

Meanwhile, existing buildings have a gecekondu-esque right to exist under ZTP but they have no ZTP right to revive or modify themselves. And that makes them struldbrugs, ever declining, unable to die.

 

bowie_coffin_hunger_doves

You stood for a hundred years, my love, but now you can no longer stand

 

In Midtown East, many nonconforming structures have low ceilings and columns that make them unappealing to new businesses. 

 

Yet even in death, a struldbrug building in a ZTP jurisdiction has one precious attribute: its non-conforming post-downzoning footprint or building envelope – so its dysfunctionality will be preserved even as a new high-rise grows above it.

 

nurse_log

The log is grandfathered under the code

 

Some developers have gone so far as to demolish all but the bottom quarter of their buildings, and then build up from there, allowing them to retain the old zoning for their plots so as not to sacrifice a single square foot.

 

Of course, whenever there is developer enterprise in a ZTP jurisdiction, there will also be ZTP downzoners:

 

The city is currently reconsidering a proposal that would allow these buildings to be rebuilt to their original size and possibly even larger.

 

Though never mentioned by ZTP advocates – selective subconscious rationalization, perhaps – ZTP inescapably, invariably seeks to roll back the clock and shrink the city’s built environment:

 

Take 720 Park Avenue, a Rosario Candela classic from 1928 that rises 17 stories and has only 29 units — one of which, a 7,000-square-foot duplex, recently came on the market for $22.5 million.

 

Both 19 Jones Street and 720 Park Avenue belong to a vast group of buildings in New York City that are treasured for their architectural value and historical significance.

 

If they’re so treasured now, why does ZTP prevent the building of any more like them?

 

720_park_avenue_upper_facade

All that architectural machicolation will have to go

 

All that grandiosity is too much for modern zoning, which now constrains such boxy, bulky buildings in this part of town.

 

Despite the evidence right before his eyes, principal Times author Chaban misperceives reality:

 

[720 Park Avenue and its ilk] persevere out of genuine appreciation but also the zoning quirks –

 

I love how the code’s mountain of inconsistencies are labeled quirks, as if they just wandered in sua sponte and now we’ve adopted them. 

 

– that determine the fate of almost every building, new or old.

 

Somehow it has escaped his notice that ZTP didn’t give New York 720 Park Avenue: it was built in 1928, long before ZTP came into effect.

 

[The 1916 Zoning Resolution] included a setback rule in the zoning code, which required buildings to step back as they rose.  It helped create that familiar saw-toothed shape beloved in so many prewar skyscrapers as well as the ersatz ziggurat in shorter structures like 720 Park.

 

720_park_Avenue_when_built

Built at the height of the Roaring Twenties, to the taste of the Roaring Twenties

 

It would be one thing if, in exchange for forcible downzoning, ZTP gave compensatory benefits like real estate tax abatements or investment tax credits, but it doesn’t.  It just chops visions down to size – the ZTP Board’s size.

 

720_park_avenue_tower

Never mind that the visual doesn’t bother anyone, get rid of it

 

That, in turn, is the cause of the next harmful side-effect – one that is never mentioned at all:

 

hector_hammond

The side effects wear off … don’t they?

 

[Continued tomorrow in Part 5.]

Zoning by the Taste Police: Part 3, So convoluted and so dense

August 12, 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 150 views

 

By: David A. Smith

 

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

 

And don’t criticize what you can’t understand.

– Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changing, 1964

 

As we’ve seen so far, during the last half-century the form of urban land-use regulation that many of us knew – As-of-Right Zoning (ARZ) – has been steadily and quietly replaced virtually in toto by a new form, Zoning by the Taste Police (ZTP).  Although notionally prospective in nature, because it covers an entire city and applies to existing buildings whose exterior changes at all, ZTP is in practice retroactive, laying the struldbrug curse on every property.  As I quoted before, The Boston Globe’s Dante Ramos reported to his amazement that:

 

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.

 

If everyone is non-conforming (the ZTP’s polite term for ‘illegal except tolerated’), then there is no ARZ zoning at all, just an endless succession of ad hoc decisions made by ‘the people with nothing better to do’ (as Paul Krugman once quipped to me before he moved to New York and fell over on his left side). 

 

Sources used in this post

 

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

Boston Globe (July 24, 2016; brown font)

 

Now we enter the realm of human psychology: ZTP advocates cannot admit there are no rules or principles, because that would expose them as arbitrary and capricious and they genuinely believe themselves to be anything but.  Instead, therefore, each new ad hoc case must be fitted into a framework, and because these are otherwise intelligent people, they will go to great lengths to explain how what seems to simple folk just picking by taste is in fact actually sensible.

 

And the result is our next point:

 

health_care_system_24

Click here to enlarge.  (On second thought, don’t.)

 

 

3. Zoning by the Taste Police is excessively complex

 

Cities are messy.  If Jane Jacobs had no other insights whatsoever (and she had quite a few), that one alone would be worth the price of admission:

 

jane_jacobs_1965

Without mess there can be no city?

 

“The [urban] planner’s greatest shortcoming, I think, is lack of intellectual curiosity about how cities work,” she told the New York Times in 1969. “They are taught to see the intricacy of cities as mere disorder. Since most of them believe what they have been taught, they do not inquire about the processes that lie behind the intricacy. I doubt that knowledgeable city planning will come out of the present profession. It is more likely to arise as an offshoot of economics.”

 

Given the messiness of speed, and the speed of private market OODA loops, those who wish to imagine themselves ‘urban planners’ (a phrase I confess I have trouble typing without breaking in hives because it is so presumptuous) can choose from only three basic strategies:

 

1.     No zoning at all.  Let a hundred buildings bloom, let a thousand business types contend.  Hey, it worked for evolution, barring the occasional species extinction, why not here?

2.     As-of-Right Zoning.  This can be with an expansive envelope (let all grow tall) or a more sculptured one (imagine the thicket of buildings as concrete topiary), but either way, lay out a set of big blocking forms and then let everybody innovate inside their cubic sandboxes to their hearts’ content.

3.     Zoning-by-Taste-Police, where each individual property is scrutinized on its merits as determined by the ZTP Board.

 

brother_another_planet_three_toe

Only three?

 

When you think about it for more than five seconds, you realize those are the only three choices.

 

Many intelligent people rebel at the first option: I’m smart, I can do better than chaos.  It takes a certain experience with markets and complex-systems dynamics to realize that it isn’t chaos when the individual decisions are made by other people who may be uneducated but aren’t stupid.

 

law_committee_tardiness

 

As for the third, the same intelligent people likewise instinctively flinch.  They know ZTP will involve too many decisions, too much committee time, but they think that, like Mozart’s Emperor Franz Josef, just changing a few notes here and there will make it a perfect opera.  So we tweak here and there.

 

tweaking_knob

Just onnnnne little adjustment and it’ll be perfect

 

The problem is, once you start tweaking, you can never stop yourself.

 

tweaking

That’s with an A, not an R

 

The result is a boundary that becomes ever more complex:

 

fractal_squares

You can keep doing this indefinitely

 

That there is no end to this process is partly due to the human desire to accommodate what we like even when we’ve just written a rule prohibiting it, and to proh8bit what we dislike even though we’ve just written a rule allowing it.

 

whitman_contradict_myself

Three’s the supreme egotist’s justification

 

“To understand zoning, you have to have a law degree, it’s so convoluted and so dense,” Mike Ernst, director of planning at the civic group [now senior planner at Arup – Ed.], said.

 

mike_ernst

He liked zoning so much, he went to an engineering firm

 

“The whole process of how buildings get built these days is so confusing and opaque to people. There really should be more transparency, so people can have an understanding of what the future holds for their city.”

 

Ironically, what ZTP’s future holds for their city is the antithesis of everything ZTP adherents claim to want in urban livability.

 

Yet changes brought about with the 1961 zoning overhaul and tweaks since would create a very different 720 Park today.

 

NYT_40_pct_07

720 park Avenue today: what an eyesore

 

First, it would have to be much shorter on the 70th Street side. And, since this building reflects a previous era’s rules on bulk and density, it would have to slim down along Park Avenue, as well.

 

720_park_avenue

From Rubens-esque to Modigliani-like

 

[Preview of coming attractions: Down-sizing the FAR would mean upsizing the per-square-foot price of what’s left or the development economics won’t work, and that will work against affordability. One of roughly a half-dozen ways ZTP is economically exclusionary. – Ed.]

 

The rules were dreamed up by planners in part to ensure that historic buildings would not be replaced with something totally out of context, like the skinny towers now springing up on 57th Street. 

 

These are the same people, as I recall, who celebrated breakthrough brutalist architecture that leaks, or modern architecture that ruins the art it was built to showcase.

 

Yet they also ensured that many of the existing structures that made up that context would eventually be out of context themselves.

 

zoning_by_taste_police

Remember, regarding the use of your property, we know better than you do

 

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’

 

Naturally, the result of seeking to eradicate urban messiness one zoning variance at a time is a city that is sterile, static, or both.

 

MetLife Sells Largest Apartment Complex In Manhattan For $5.4 Billion

Ah, but it doesn’t need zoning variances, does it?

 

[Continued tomorrow in Part 4.]

Zoning by the Taste Police: Part 2, Too much, too many, too few, too tall

August 11, 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 141 views

By: David A. Smith

 

[Continued from yesterday’s Part 1.]

 

Don’t go mistaking paradise for that home across the road.

– Bob Dylan, The ballad of Franke Lee and Judas Priest, 1967

 

As we saw in yesterday’s Part 1, New York City boomed vertically even after the introduction of the nation’s first citywide zoning code, because that code was As-of-Right Zoning (ARZ): rules were put in place, they permitted a certain verticality, footprint on the ground, and setbacks at intervals. 

 

Sources used in this post

 

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

Boston Globe (July 24, 2016; brown font)

 

 

esb_initially_completed

In designing and building it, we faced a few government setbacks

 

The result was buildings designed precisely to fit within the zoning resolution (Zoning is destiny, after all), that today have an architectural style we find distinctive simply because it arose not spontaneously but through ‘intelligent design’ – that is, architects and developers fitting their visual conception into zoning’s invisible corset (both legal and financial)

 

esb_top_floors

With a little creativity, you too can add 17 ‘floors’

 

 

2.  Zoning by the Taste Police (ZTP) applies retroactively

 

As Bill Fischel pointed out in his email to me, as-of-right zoning (ARZ) applies prospectively, defining what uses may be built on a site in the future.  Inherent in ARZ is grandfathering of anything built before the zoning change, and while I’ve made no study of the matter, I expect that during the first half of the twentieth century the relevant zoning was upzoning – placing caps on the permissible increase in density and verticality, and potential new (and socially intrusive) uses. 

 

Later – and judging from the record it was exactly half a century ago, in 1966 – the nation decided that historic structures required judicial protection from extinction, so the Johnson Administration bequeathed to us the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, which was followed by a pair of incentives: first a super-rapid depreciation of the rehabilitation costs of certified historic structures under Section 191 of the Internal Revenue Code (enacted 1976, repealed 1981), and then in 1976 with the historic tax credit, later boosted, in several useful ways a forerunner to the 1986 Low Income Housing Tax Credit.

 

A natural backlash against the Moses-era demolition of poorer or ethnic neighborhoods under the banner of urban renewal and its newly aggressive deployment of an expanded interpretation of the government’s eminent domain powers, the preservation push set in motion forces for down-zoning – dialing back the permissible expansion of the built environment – and for stop-zoning (my term), which in nullified ARZ, at least on the properties or neighborhoods to which it applied, either by declaring certain buildings or even whole neighborhoods to be struldbrugs or by creating ZTP for those properties or neighborhoods.

 

Yet many of New York’s buildings remain stuck in the past.

 

[Editorial sidebar: What is it about years ending in 6?  The National Park Service is exactly as old as zoning, celebrating its hundredth birthday on August 25 of this year.  – Ed.]

 

Whole swaths of the city defy current zoning rules. In Manhattan alone, roughly two out of every five buildings are taller, bulkier, bigger or more crowded than current zoning allows, according to data compiled by Stephen Smith and Sandip Trivedi. They run Quantierra, a real estate firm that uses data to look for investment opportunities.

 

Mr. Smith and Mr. Trivedi evaluated public records on more than 43,000 buildings and discovered that about 17,000 of them, or 40 percent, do not conform to at least one part of the current zoning code. The reasons are varied. Some of the buildings have too much residential area, too much commercial space, too many dwelling units or too few parking spaces; some are simply too tall. These are buildings that could not be built today.

 

If anything shows the absurdity of New York’s current zoning, it’s these graphics, coupled with the Reverse Incumbency Principle:

 

reverse_incumbency_question

If it didn’t exist now, would we create it?

 

Imagine New York without the Upper East Side and Upper West Side:

 

nyt_40_pct_02

Structures too tall for current zoning

These tend to be apartment buildings concentrated on the Upper East Side and Upper West Side.

 

With the Upper East and West Sides, where would all those New York Times newspapers be delivered each morning?

 

For that matter, where would Timers readers live if the West Village and Chelsea had to reduce their housing stock?

 

nyt_40_pct_03

Structures with too many apartments

The West Village and Chelsea are the biggest offenders in terms of density.

 

And where would these displaced New Yorkers buy their bagels?

 

nyt_40_pct_04

Buildings with too many businesses

Technically, too many square feet dedicated to commercial uses. Mostly concentrated in Midtown and the East Village.

 

In short, the New York City envisioned by its current Zoning Resolution isn’t in fact the New York that exists today, even though the Zoning Resolution’s stated purpose is to preserve what New Yorkers value about New York. 

 

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’

 

Here, as so often in urban land-use politics, what people do works almost directly against what they say they want, leading to only two choices for explanation:

 

1. Hypocrisy, where people use words to deflect attention away from their real motives.  If true, that would mean people who say they want diversity and smart growth in fact want where they live to be a no-growth enclave of ‘people like us.’

 

2. Obliviousness, where people don’t understand that what they propose will subvert their objectives because they cannot ‘see the system (to quote Peter Senge, as I so often do).  If true, that would mean they’d change their views if educated.

 

As I make it a point never put down to evil intentions anything that can be explained through incompetence or ignorance, I haven’t reached a conclusion – though when ignorance allows you to maintain your comfortable prejudices, perhaps the subconscious is at work.

 

subconscious

Funneling thoughts into prejudices for thousands of generations

 

Or perhaps it really is just a maze, due to the next point.

 

[Continued tomorrow in Part 3.]

Zoning by the Taste Police: Part 1, Exactly 22 would be legal

August 10, 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 130 views

By: David A. Smith

 

Gonna change my way of thinking, make myself a different set of rules. Gonna put my good foot forward and stop being influenced by fools.

– Bob Dylan, Gonna change my way of thinking, 1979

 

Somewhere in the last few decades, as-of-right zoning died in American cities, unknelled, uncoffined, and unknown, killed by an ersatz invasive copycat species.

 

face_off_poster

You’ll never notice the change from good to bad

 

This is among the most profound urban phenomena of the last three decades in terms of its impact on twenty-first century American cities, their economic vitality, social and environmental sustainability.  Slowly, insidiously, unwittingly, it threatens to destroy much of what makes America’s globally known cities intellectually and economically dynamic. 

 

In writing these few lines, I find myself amazed at my blindness, and by extension the blindness of others, because even though this takeover of the negatives has been occurring all around us, none of us has realized its significance.  For me the camels-back straws were two modest articles, the first in The New York Times (May 20, 2016), the second a couple of weeks back by Dante Ramos in the Boston Globe (July 24, 2016; brown font):

 

40% of the Buildings in Manhattan Could Not Be Built Today

 

nyt_40_pct_01

All your red structures violate today’s zoning

 

[In the large maps of Manhattan, the colored structures may have been legal when originally built but now violate one or more of today’s zoning requirements – Ed.]

 

By Quoctrung Bui, Matt A. V. Chaban, and Jeremy White

 

New York City’s zoning code turns a hundred this year. That may not sound like cause for celebration — except maybe for land-use lawyers and Robert Moses aficionados.

 

It may, in fact, not be cause for celebration at all.

 

Yet for almost every New Yorker, the zoning code plays an outsize role in daily life, shaping virtually every inch of the city.

 

‘Zoning code.’  How deceptively words can be used.

 

What New York City now calls its zoning code is instead what I dub Zoning by the Taste Police (ZTP). 

 

batman_taste_police

 

Zoning by the Taste Police (ZTP)

 

In ZTP, every change of real estate – development, renovation, expansion, change of use – requires a case-by-case review and approval by the ZTP Board.  There may be principles or rules purporting to govern the ZTP Board’s deliberations

 

The ZTP Board is usually either composed of or procedurally responsive to ‘Community Stakeholders’.  Community Stakeholders are self-designated and seldom required to prove their standing.  Processes and their timetables are usually governed by the ZTP Board and invite myriad delays.

 

Current examples of ZTP are New York City’s Zoning Resolution and California’s Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).  The Obama Administration’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) Rule heads speedily in the direction of ZTP.

 

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.

 

disappearing_in_smoke

You thought you had as-of-right zoning … can you still see it?

 

New York’s zoning code was the first in the country.

 

I wonder if this article is a Times trial balloon, testing whether the Times’ readership will stand for a shift in their prejudices against development. 

 

There’s a new generation of neighborhood advocates bubbling up in the Boston area — people who realize that protecting a place means accepting growth there. For these “yes in my back yard” types to make a difference, they need to organize and speak out, instead of just grumbling about NIMBYs to their Facebook friends.

 

After selecting a set of facts and statistics that point to a conclusion, instead of expressing it the authors pose a rhetorical thought experiment:

 

As the zoning code enters its second century, it is worth considering the ways it has shaped the city; whether and where it is still working; and how it might be altered so the city can continue to grow without obliterating everything New Yorkers love about it.

 

Because the Times authors didn’t say the obvious, I will:

 

New York’s Zoning Resolution has got to go.

 

all_right_buddy

 

1. The New York City we know was built under ARZ, not ZTP

 

The bays and cliffs of the Empire State Building come from zoning –

 

Mr. Chaban, whom I presume to be the principal wordsmith of the piece, is engaging in journalistic shorthand, offering the feature as a stand-in for the whole.  Of course, long before there was zoning there were cities, and architects (even starchitects like Sir Christopher Wren) to design dramatic and inspiring buildings.

 

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I need no law to have good taste

 

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Holding up pretty well after three and a half centuries

 

The Empire State Building’s rising setbacks are an adaptation to zoning, not an inherent consequence of it, as are these:

 

– as do the arcades and plazas of Park Avenue.

 

To his credit, Mr. Chaban provides hyperlinks.  To his discredit, they don’t demonstrate what he wants them to demonstrate.  Instead of showing how zoning created attractive buildings, the links show that it prevents them from being revitalized.

 

One third as bulky as it could have been

(And note the omnipresent scaffolding)

 

The city’s first zoning code was enacted as New Yorkers began to worry that tall buildings would cast the city into eternal darkness. People feared the spread of bulky skyscrapers like the Equitable Building, at 120 Broadway in the Financial District. 

 

Just recently I posted about the Equitable and the origin of zoning, and without belaboring the point, city-wide zoning was a classical policy/ political reaction, a big net thrown over a vast area based on a single event perceived to be adverse. 

 

Rising 42 stories and 538 feet straight up from the street in a hulking limestone slab, it spread a seven-acre shadow over downtown when it opened in 1915.

 

empire_state_building_shadow

What a horrible shadow … oh, wait

 

empire_state_in_shadow

This way it looks iconic, doesn’t it?

 

Nearly three-quarters of the existing square footage in Manhattan was built between the 1900s and 1930s, according to an analysis done by KPF, an architecture firm based in New York.

 

So focused were the Times authors on the present day that they passed obliviously by the implications of this remarkable statement.  Over the last 115 years in New York City, 75% of the space was built in 26% of the time, which means the average rate of new built-environment was 8½ times higher up through 1930 than from that date to the present.  [Oh, all right, here’s the arithmetic: { (0.75/0.26) / [ (1.0-0.75) / (1.0 – 0.26) ] } = 8.5. – Ed.]

 

What could have caused the gigantic drop in New York City real estate development?

 

terry_pratchett_bewildered

Such as, What will be tomorrow’s AHI blog post?

 

[Continued tomorrow in Part 2.]