Friday, March 9, 2012

The need for aged buildings

The Filene's "Memorial Hole" in Downtown Crossing
[Continuing series about Death and Life of Great American Cities]
The economic value of new buildings is replaceable in cities. It is replaceable by the spending of more construction money. But the economic value of old buildings is irreplaceable at will. It is created by time. This economic requisite for diversity is a requisite that vital city neighborhoods can only inherit, and then sustain over the years.
I find this chapter of Death and Life to be the most depressing. Not because of its tone or content necessarily, but because of its implication. Three of the four characteristics of successful districts--mixed uses, small blocks, and density--can be encouraged or developed in the short term through thoughtful action, deregulation or planning. But there is only one way to get aged buildings: time.
As for really new ideas of any kind--no matter how ultimately profitable or otherwise successful some of them might prove to be--there is no leeway for such chancy trial, error and experimentation in the high-overhead economy of new construction. Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.
One of the problems afflicting American cities is vast tracts of empty space in otherwise urban areas. Boston is no exception; having flattened many blocks in misguided fits of urban renewal, or for highways and parking lots. When politicians and developers get together and decide to do something about this, they usually produce mega-projects that fill up entire blocks with new construction.
Part of Assembly Square design

I can think of several such projects coming up, off the top of my head: Assembly Square, a transit oriented redevelopment of a failed mail in Somerville (more discussion). Fenway Center, which is replacing acres of parking lots and also taking "air rights" over the Mass Pike. There will be new construction in place of the old Boston Herald building. And most infamously, the "Hole" in Downtown Crossing, where a developer decided to play games with the city by knocking down the Filene's building partially and then stop for several years.

All of these projects devote many words in their planning or promotional documents to considering the needs of pedestrians and transit users. It is, after all, the fashion these days. And perhaps they are even sincere, although the amount of parking included in these packages is suspiciously large. Some of the documents carefully sketch out expected flows of people through painstakingly landscaped and architecturally intriguing corridors; replete with ground-level commerce and sidewalk cafes. It all looks quite wonderful on paper. But yet, I can't help but wonder, will these just be sterile failures? Will the promenades be promenaded? What will draw economic activity, and therefore, city vitality? The plans account for density, mixed uses, and to some extent small blocks. But none of them include old buildings, and therefore, none of the economic diversity that can only exist with low overhead.
Fenway Center rendering
So is there any way this dilemma can be avoided? Alternatively, is it possible that Jacobs was wrong about the need for aged buildings? The first impulse is to suggest "subsidization" as a means to dodge the problem of high rents. But Jacobs wrote a convincing counter to that idea: the political reality of subsidization is that only "acceptable" businesses would be permitted in the space and this "paternalistic" attitude would be just as stultifying as high rents. Also: the subsidized spaces would be the first on the chopping block when the inevitable economic realities of development took hold. Subsidies are not an alternative to low overhead.

But surely increasing the amount of commercial and residential space in a city will have beneficial effects overall? Businesses moving out from old buildings into new ones will leave space in old neighborhoods for new businesses. That is, assuming they can entice the existing businesses to give up their established home in favor of a new, unproven location. Some kinds of businesses can and do move around like this, as she does point out, using the example of Brooklyn. But this isn't really helping the diversity of the new neighborhood, just possibly the old ones. On the other hand, some of these new developments are embedded closely with existing city districts. Perhaps that is sufficient, in those cases.

Why does it seem like this dilemma is more difficult in the 21st century compared to the 19th century? For example, it was not uncommon for many cities (including Boston) to lose neighborhoods to out-of-control fires. Yet, they picked up and rebuilt everything, and didn't seem to suffer the same kind of stultifying effects that new development brings today. Perhaps it has to do with the increasing costs of providing modern facilities, up to modern safety standards. Or perhaps the same problem existed back then, but over the years became obscured and forgotten.


  1. I wonder about this too, and we've been discussing it a bit in the comments on Steven's post on this chapter.

    I suspect in your last paragraph that the key difference is between "in the 19th century THEY picked up and rebuilt" and in the 21st we have new developments that are immediately sold. How many developments like the ones you're speaking of are immediately flipped? How many are built by a company or organization or family which intends to use it themselves for the next few decades?

  2. You have to build new buildings to eventually get old buildings. Greenwich Village wasn't always 19th century buildings and older neighborhoods aren't neccesarrily good business incubators -- most of the North End these days is pretty expensive and the only way to get an apartment around Beacon Hill is to be filthy rich.

    The reason age is important for neighborhoods is because neighborhoods must be lived in, broken in like a pair of shoes or driven until the new car smell is gone.

    One of the problems with new developments in urban areas have is that to make them profitable against the cost of property, construction, meeting codes and zoning, permitting and taxation they can basically only be marketed towards the rich. The poor have been forced into public housing and the middle class has suburbia.

    Planners and developers now think that "mixed use" means "condominiums for the rich with upscale retail at street level, maybe some offices" The idea of neighborhoods where people of all incomes live, work and shop is completely foreign to them.

    And, in the old days, developments that didn't succeed could be repurposed more easily. Washington Square wasn't originally the home of New York's bohemians, they just got a good deal when whoever the developer wanted to rent to ended up going somewhere else and even then there were plenty of shopkeepers, lawyers and mechanics who lived there, not just artists and writers.

  3. "For example, it was not uncommon for many cities (including Boston) to lose neighborhoods to out-of-control fires."

    Not only neighborhoods, but entire cities. Baltimore, Chicago Portland and San Francisco all burned down almost completely in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There was little political wrangling about redevelopment plans. No seeking after FEMA assistance. Everybody just rebuilt as you say.

    I think it's worth mentioning that the character of the private "big developer" really is a modern phenomenon. They hardly existed in the late 19th century, at least according to Robert Fogelson's book ("Downtown"). Fortunes were made in land speculation, less so real estate development. Historically, megaprojects of similar scale had been instituted only by centralized, autocratic governments, typically with the same insensitivity to fine-grained urbanism and the same results.

    A 19th century approach would have simply been to plat out a site, auction small-ish lots, and watch the city grow. That approach does not, however, allow for a single developer to monopolize the profits of a site, and it makes it more difficult for the big boxes to enter the market. But even with a single developer working directly with the city, building up a site takes no less than the same process did in the 19th century -- possibly because a multitude of smaller developers can collectively leverage a much larger sum of investment funds than all but the biggest individual developers.

    1. If there are no old buildings, then as a next best solution, I think there's something to the idea of dividing empty space up into small blocks and auctioning off small lots. It's one way to get a multitude of interests and people involved. As Matt wrote above, and one of Jane's main points, it's all about being able to re-purpose and reuse space. And that is a lot easier when there is a diversity of buildings on the block. Eventually when they do get old, they get old in different ways, and get replaced/renovated at different times. So thinking in terms of decades or centuries, the small plot system can lead to re-diversification of building ages. I'm visiting NYC at the moment, and I went to a bar last night that took over the basement of a Chinatown store and renovated it. It's near a friend's former apartment, which was actually a small factory converted into living spaces. This kind of thing, in my experience, is quite typical of NYC, and really neat.

      One thing that worries me: a single mega developer can and likely will buy up many of the plots for a single mega development, if it is profitable. And that's okay, as long as the small, frequent street network is left intact. But if the developer is so powerful that they can wipe out streets, then you might be faced with a force as oppressive as a centralized planning government.

  4. "Eventually when they do get old, they get old in different ways, and get replaced/renovated at different times."

    That's a good point. It reminds me of Stewart Brand's "How Buildings Learn," where he shows how a row of townhouses, identical when built, gradually diverged over time as their owners modified, renovated and expanded them over the years. Eventually (and it doesn't always take that long), the street appears and functions as though it had been constructed over a long period of time, even though it may have been built all at once. But it does require reasonably small lots.

    The Mexican suburbs have an interesting twist on this idea that combines modern mass production of housing with incremental growth. The new townhouse developments leave a setback in front just large enough for a car, but in Mexican cities there are neither setback requirements nor Euclidean zoning. The result is that the buyers, when they are able, build their own unique additions into the front setback, the opposite of the American approach. Enterprising owners may put in a shopfront and open a convenience store. After a decade or so, the street begins to take on the appearance of having been gradually built up over time, and the lack of zoning means that urbanization proceeds naturally as demand requires.

    For instance here, shortly after construction:

    Another neighborhood, built in the same style, after I would guess 10-15 years:

    1. Walking around the Village I spotted a row of buildings that looked like it had been transplanted out of the South End. Sure enough, the cornerstone was labeled "1870" which coincides with the predominant style then and there. The main difference is that in NY this style of building comprised just a few among an extraordinarily diverse selection, whereas in the South End, it is overwhelmingly ubiquitous and monotonous.

      So, that might be a counter-point to the "small plots, many owners" approach. Of course, it did take and continues to take massive zoning and community intervention to keep this monotony in place (e.g. "Historic" designation).

      Those Mexican developments should be Exhibit A in the case regarding the unnaturalness of zoning.