Dumb urbanist idea #761: The Equalizer

Way back in 2004, I had this to say about the “privately owned public spaces” that dot New York City as a result of its 1961 Zoning Resolution, “all those interstitial spaces in Manhattan created when a real-estate developer has had to offer a public accommodation as a condition of being permitted development rights or floor-area bonuses: a plaza or a garden, a shaded alcove or even a simple bench”:

Most such spaces, it is true, are little more than unloved, non-revenue-generating voids in the cityscape, and treated as such by all; relatively few are understood as public amenities capable of spinning off benefits beyond the mere financial. But it’s hard to overstate how important it is to the life of a city to have copious amounts (and types) of space in which you can sit for free, unhassled by rentacop and barista alike, whether you’re there to enjoy a brown-bag lunch, write urban haiku, or simply watch the traffic go by.

I still believe that. But the fact is, the pace of vertical development being what it is hereabouts, Manhattan is replete with such spaces. Maybe we simply don’t need any more. But as it happens, there’s something else that developers might be able to provide that we do require, fairly acutely.

So I wanted to offer an idea I’ve been kicking around of late, a modification to the standard arrangement that might actually return to the island something much more useful to its future than yet another pocket park.

On the one hand, this idea is so stupidly simple that I can’t believe nobody’s proposed such a trade-off before, and on the other, what with my research skills being what they are, I’m not able to scare up any evidence that such a measure has in fact been mooted by anyone. (My more knowledgeable readers are invited to leave evidence of “prior art” in comments, as I simply cannot wrap my head around the idea that nobody’s had this brainstorm before, or one very much like it.) At any rate, here it is:

For every floor of commercial development permitted in excess of the ordinary statutory maximum, the developer must provide n,000 sq ft of affordable housing within one kilometer of the site of the proposed variance.

I’m obviously neither an attorney nor a housing-rights activist, so I’m sure the language could use some adjustment. It’s also true that what the measure is aiming to achieve hinges much too delicately on the precise definition of “affordable” – I can imagine the hyperpolitical, gloves-off wrangling even now. But there’s the gist of the idea: you get to build your corporate megashaft, and in return the city gets not merely housing options for people that would otherwise be forced to flee, but entire high-density mixed-use districts.

Is such an idea prima facie untenable (you’ll pardon the pun) in the current, developer-friendly climate? Oh, assuredly so. But only in the same way that other urban-improvement measures were once dismissed as unthinkable, impractical or uneconomic, from mandatory curbcuts to segregated bikeways. If we want this kind of thing badly enough to organize and agitate for it, it’s within reach.

Stated most nakedly: wouldn’t affordable housing, within walking distance of the jobs themselves, beat another few dozen wind-tunnel parklets all to hell? Or is that too sensible an idea by far to ever take wing?

6 responses to “Dumb urbanist idea #761: The Equalizer”

  1. Adrian McEwen says :

    I’m no expert on such matters, but we do have something similar in the UK. In Cambridge (where I’ve heard of such schemes as I was living there [MSR will be great fun for you I’m sure]) the developers of the “Executive Apartments” in the centre of town have to provide a certain quota of affordable housing as part of the development.

    There is a lot of debate as to what “affordable” means, especially as most first-time buyers are priced out of the market, and if you’re selling the affordable housing, how do you ensure that the buyers (even if they are the people you’re targetting) don’t make a quick profit selling their property on at market rates?

    At least one of the developers in Cambridge managed to buy their way out of the commitment too (although presumably the council could/did use the money to build the affordable units), and I’ve also heard accusations that the affordable properties in one development are in the worst part of the site and are to an extent ghetto-ised.

    I think it’s better than nothing, but not as beneficial as it first sounds.

  2. Chris says :

    Yes, I believe in the UK any newbuilds have to include a percentage of affordable housing in the same development, not even 1km away. Of course, these end up being the flats with bad outlooks, no light, etc., and of course developers are masters of getting around the law, but it’s generally been seen as a good idea, I think.

  3. Enrique Ramirez says :

    One urban planning instrument for this is the density bonus: it works slightly different than the scheme you propose. In other words, for every unit of affordable housing added on to a project, a developer gets a statutory F.A.R. increase. This is not a dumb idea at all, and it can be quite controversial as it incentivizes density — an important thing to do in a city like Los Angeles, but perhaps not so in New York. Here are some links that may be useful (caveat: these are in LA, but I think the impulse behind them mirrors your own).

  4. Abe Burmeister says :

    I think I’m missing something in this equation. The concrete islands all over the place are not there because the developer chose to build that way, there is no reason they couldn’t have built flush to the sidewalk and then implemented a stepped back design. Given that they already made that choice I’m not sure how compelling the idea of building a second development just to grab a bit more space on the first development is as an incentive. They might just go taller for one. Isn’t it just easier to change the building code to mandate better building behaviors?

    Also worth noting that just about every single one of the new developments around town has plenty of “affordable housing” built in due to the tax incentives involved. It be interesting to see a study of how well that is working, but the sense I get in general is that it’s impact is rather minimal.

  5. Enrique Ramirez says :

    The density bonus/FAR/FSI increase ideally works on the same project/development … it is not an instrument for building a second development “to grab a bit more space on the first development”. So it is a slightly distinct scenario from the ones that Abe questions. It’s another issue of public resource allocation writ large, and one that recognizes that building anew is just that — urban planning works on a model that looks to new projects to correct past problems. Really. But to address some of the issues Adam raises, there are density bonuses proposed for West Coast New Urbanist/TOD (Transit-Oriented Development) projects that emphasize putting housing next to transit nodes as well as work places.

    Interesting, because this is one area where New Urbanists (West Coast Calthorpes, and not East Coast DPZ’s) are actually providing good ideas. Again, the density demands on the West Coast and Southwest are different than in the Northeastern US.

  6. Rob says :

    Yep, Chris is right, in the UK there has to be a certain percentage of affordable units. Usually a minimum of 35%, which is then broken down further to look at dwelling types in detail.

    For example, a brief I have on my desk right now says:

    “Project should provide following mix:

    25% 4 bed
    25% 3 bed
    20% 2 bed houses
    20% 2 bed apartments

    Of the affordable, 70% should be ‘shared ownership’ and 30% ‘resale covenant’. At least 75% should be family housing and 10% for people with disabilities…”

    etc, etc.

    (Adrian – note the ‘resale covenant’ aspect in response to your concern about buyers getting rich quick)

    As for the quality and location, I guess that kinda depends on the quality of the developer/architect/planning authority. I challenge Chris to take a walk round one of my schemes and tell me which are for sale and which are or rent :)

    The definition of ‘affordable’ is certainly questionable. The market here has reached such a state that very little is actually affordable to first time buyers. I’m in the midst of a few projects that are trying to deliver layouts in such a way that it allows the developer to deliver a higher density scheme and sell each unit at less than the standard market price.

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