Monday, February 9th, 2015

Why (Some) Downtowns Are Back by Mario Polèse

[ I’m going to be giving a keynote at Governing Magazine’s Summit on Performance and Innovation in Louisville this Wed. The entire conference is live streaming at Governing’s web site. My session is Wed at 1:30pm, but looks like a lot of great stuff you won’t want to miss, such as the mayor’s roundtable immediately following me.

As you know, I recently joined the Manhattan Institute and its quarterly magazine City Journal. So obviously I’m interested in promoting our work. I think it’s fair to say that for those of you with a strong left orientation, you’re not going to agree with some of what’s published in City Journal. On the other hand, I think that regardless of what your political philosophy is, you’ll find some things that you do resonate with – but more importantly things to engage you. I want to share a couple of pieces from the magazine to give you a sample of what you might find. Here’s one by Mario Polèse from the Winter 2014 issue talking about how (some) downtowns have come back – Aaron. ]

Not so long ago, most urbanists were predicting the demise of downtowns. The data, after all, pointed unambiguously to declining central-city populations and expanding suburban ones in nearly every American metropolitan area between 1950 and 1980. Manhattan lost a quarter of its residents, for example, and Boston nearly a third. The exodus wasn’t confined to the United States. The population of inner London fell by more than a million residents during the same period, and my hometown, Montreal, watched the central borough of Ville-Marie hemorrhage half its population between 1966 and 1991. Businesses were fleeing, the urbanists noted. Central business districts were becoming vestigial organs, legacies of a bygone era before the automobile and the truck liberated us from the tyranny of proximity and brought us the suburban shopping mall.

But downtowns didn’t go the way of the dinosaur. In fact, most of them have begun to grow again. Of the 50 largest central cities in America, all but five saw their populations grow between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, and only two exhibited declines after 2010. For some, the turnaround came in the 1980s; for others, in the 1990s; and for still others, more recently. The title of Alan Ehrenhalt’s recent book, The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City, reflects the nature of this shift—which, again, isn’t limited to the United States. But why are downtowns coming back? And how can we account for the holdouts?

The modern history of the central city is a story of three consecutive waves. The first began during the decades following World War II, though its full impact on urban economies became apparent only later. It involved a structural change sometimes called “deindustrialization” or “tertiarization”: a massive shift from manufacturing to services. The principal beneficiary of this shift was the “business services” sector, which includes finance, insurance, real estate, engineering, management consulting, advertising, publishing, and legal services.

All these business services sought out locations offering a high potential for personal interaction. The objects of exchange weren’t goods but information; human relations were the glue that held the sector together. Unlike manufacturing, business services required little floor space to generate income. Office towers allowed numerous firms to inhabit small spaces, producing correspondingly high property values. In the downtowns of large cities, such industries as manufacturing and warehousing, which demanded a lot of space, were unable to afford the rising cost. They began to decamp for less expensive locales. Meantime, the development of standardized containerization meant that trucks could now carry cargo from ships directly to factories and warehouses. Manufacturers and wholesalers no longer needed to be adjacent to ports and railheads in cities like New York and Montreal, giving these businesses more flexibility in choosing their locations.

So over time, business services replaced manufacturing as the principal economic base of large cities. You might define the tipping point as the moment when combined employment in the three main industry classes that constituted business services—finance, insurance, and real estate; professional, scientific, and technical services; and administrative support services—surpassed employment in manufacturing. In New York, that moment arrived in 1980. Manufacturing still accounted for a quarter of the city’s employment in 1970; today, it has fallen to well below 10 percent. The tipping point came in 1988 in Toronto, Canada’s largest metropolis, and some 15 years later in runner-up Montreal.

Until the late 1980s (or later, depending on the city), business services hadn’t grown enough to undo employment and land-use patterns that downtowns had inherited from the industrial era. Heavily polluted brownfields were left vacant, as were unused docks, empty warehouses, and factory shells. But many of these industrial sites have since been transformed. In Montreal’s old port, for instance, one abandoned dock now houses a science museum; a second has become a popular entertainment venue.

The growth of business services irreversibly altered not only the appearance of most big-city central neighborhoods but also their employment profile. This brings me to the second wave, which we might think of as the residential counterpart of the first. It was a turnaround in the population decline of central neighborhoods.

To see why it happened, we need to understand the forces that had previously been driving households away from the center: rising incomes, growing ownership of cars, the postwar baby boom, and high crime. A general rule of housing economics is that as incomes rise, households demand more floor space per person. As they prospered during the postwar years, families aspired to better, bigger homes, perhaps with a garden and even a pool. They found the space they sought in the suburbs, where land was cheap and plentiful. Automobile ownership also rises systematically with incomes, and it enabled numerous households to move to those spacious suburbs. And the baby boom, of course, meant more households with children, which demand more space than childless households do. Over the four decades following World War II, these trends produced ideal conditions for urban flight and suburban growth, especially when combined with the growing urban crime and disorder that marked the era.

But eventually, the lure of the suburban dream began to diminish. Starting in the 1990s, incomes rose less rapidly than in the past, slowing the demand for housing space. Automobile ownership stopped rising, stabilizing at about 800 cars per 1,000 people, according to the World Bank. Single-person and childless households accounted for an increasing share of the American population. The suburbs kept growing, but the great era of rapid suburban expansion seemed to have ended.

It can be argued, too, that tastes and preferences changed. The car is no longer the status symbol that it once was, having been replaced, among today’s youth, by concert tickets or the latest smartphone. As America’s infatuation with the car wanes, owning a two-garage split-level house becomes less glamorous. In an article published in Urban Studies in 2006, City Journal contributing editor Edward Glaeser and Joshua Gottlieb convincingly demonstrated Americans’ change in preferences toward urban living. Before 1990, the larger the city, the higher the average wages paid there, even after accounting for cost of living. After 1990, that relationship reversed itself, meaning that workers now accept lower wages for the privilege of living in big cities. They must be receiving something in return, the authors argue—specifically, access to the amenities and pleasures that central big-city living offers, from restaurants and museums to concerts and learning institutions. I’m inclined to agree with Glaeser and Gottlieb that the fall in urban crime rates since the 1980s explains only part of the new taste for urban living, but it, too, was important.

But the most powerful reason for the second wave was the first wave, which produced well-paying jobs downtown. That is, the main reason households began to return to the center was that the best jobs were there. New Yorkers have long since grown familiar with gentrification, the replacement of poorer, generally blue-collar, populations by wealthier, professional ones. But the phenomenon took place in downtowns all over North America.

The two waves that I’ve just described reshaped central neighborhoods, making them magnets for rising cohorts of entrepreneurs in digital firms. This is the third wave, currently in full motion: high-tech start-ups seeking out central neighborhoods. Downtowns are the new battlegrounds of the digital economy.

True, Silicon Valley remains the top player in that economy, whether you’re measuring the number of high-tech start-ups per year or the amount of venture capital invested. That isn’t about to change; few places can match the Valley’s buzz, its location near two top engineering schools, its superb scenery, and its local supply of risk-tolerant venture capitalists—not to mention the entrepreneurial spirit that California, despite its dysfunction, seems to bring out in people. Nevertheless, smaller clusters of high-tech start-ups are springing up in many central cities. New York’s cluster has (predictably) been dubbed Silicon Alley (see “Net Gains,”); London’s, Silicon Roundabout. San Francisco’s South of Market area, or SOMA, is an emerging hub of high-tech activity. Following a multibillion-dollar cleanup, the South Boston waterfront area, a short walk from the financial district, is also becoming a high-tech hub, attracting firms from nearby Route 128 and Cambridge.

To understand what’s happening, take a closer look at the neighborhoods being colonized. New York’s tech cluster is located chiefly in lower Manhattan—specifically, the Flatiron district, Tribeca, Chelsea, and nearby neighborhoods that have completed the transition from warehousing and manufacturing to residential and nonmanufacturing commercial uses. In London, the heart of the cluster is Shoreditch, an old blue-collar neighborhood to the northeast of the financial district. South Boston is also an old warehousing district with recycled rail yards and docks. These areas’ distinguishing feature is that each is within walking distance of the central business district. If the second wave took place because of housing, the primary factor here is proximity to other firms.

And not just other digital firms: as the tech industry moves away from simply making hardware and software and begins producing computer-accessible content—from music and video games to news and broadcasts—it finds value in being located near the entertainment, publishing, and broadcasting industries, traditional foundations of large-city downtown economies. Proximity to financial institutions, another traditional downtown pillar, is also helpful: meeting a rich banker or an eager venture capitalist is easier in lower Manhattan than in the New Jersey suburbs.

There are cultural reasons for the third wave as well. Asked on TV why his large computer-animation firm, Ubisoft, decided to locate in downtown Montreal, a founding shareholder pointed out that the company’s employees worked at all hours. They wanted to be able to walk across the street for coffee or a sandwich at midnight—or, alternately, to visit a bar at noon. Few wanted to commute, he added, and of those who did, many biked. Is it any surprise that such firms want to be in 24-hour cities, rather than in suburban districts that empty out after 5 PM? And that such employees are choosing to repopulate center-city neighborhoods, rather than drive in from afar? The symbiosis of workplace and residence is further strengthened by a growing construction trend in which condos occupy upper floors, offices occupy lower ones, and retail stores occupy the ground floor, creating a new generation of mixed-used neighborhoods.

It’s also the case that high-tech companies, like the business services of the postwar years, require relatively little floor space. Many need nothing more than a few laptops and desks and can consequently pay those downtown rents. And in some downtowns, third-wave firms can recruit graduates of nearby engineering or tech schools, such as Montreal’s McGill University and École de Technologie Supérieure. New York mayor Michael Bloomberg was hoping to accelerate just this kind of symbiosis when he announced plans for an ultramodern technological campus on Roosevelt Island, across from Manhattan, to be run by Cornell University and the Technion–Israel Institute of Technology.

In several big American cities, though, the downtown resurgence hasn’t taken place; the areas continue to struggle and deteriorate. In most cities, the average office rent per square foot is higher downtown than in the suburbs—in New York, downtown rents are twice as high. But in Cleveland, according to data from the major real-estate firm Cushman & Wakefield, office space is no more expensive downtown than in the suburbs, and in St. Louis, it’s actually cheaper. Office-based firms in those cities don’t see downtown as a valued location and aren’t willing to pay more to locate there. Data for downtown Detroit are unavailable from Cushman, probably because demand from prospective clients is so tiny that there aren’t enough properties on the market for information to be produced.

An economic geographer would call this phenomenon a loss of “centrality,” which refers to the geographic point with the highest market potential for firms. It’s highly unusual for a big city to lose centrality. Even during the height of the population exodus—the 1960s and 1970s—the central business districts of New York, Boston, San Francisco, and most other cities never lost it. Why have Detroit, Cleveland, and St. Louis?

No simple answer exists to that question, though part of the explanation involves successive badly run city administrations, white middle-class flight, and a shrinking tax base, things that create a downward spiral of deteriorating services and rising taxes. And just as the reasons that some big-city downtowns have failed to revive are various, so are the solutions. No magic pill—be it a sports stadium, a convention center, or a shopping mall—can single-handedly bring back a moribund big-city downtown (see “Urban-Development Legends,” Autumn 2011).

Still, these troubled areas could learn a few lessons from the success of many of their peers across the nation. For one thing, the key to downtown resurgence is jobs—chiefly, jobs in business services. If finance firms, consultancies, head offices, advertising companies, and so on flee to the suburbs, the task of reviving a downtown will prove far more difficult.

Also, successful downtowns are mixed-use centers that are busy around the clock, not just from nine to five. A 24-hour downtown isn’t built overnight, so to speak. But it’s true that teaching institutions can sometimes bring in clienteles with a taste for 24-hour living. It wasn’t a coincidence that New York’s first gentrified neighborhood—long before the word “gentrification” came into fashion—was Greenwich Village, near New York University.

Another lesson is that you can’t separate the health of a downtown from that of the wider metropolitan area. Cities with resurgent central neighborhoods also have strong metropolitan economies. This means, for one thing, that strong national or regional corporate centers will find it easier to maintain strong downtowns; by contrast, smaller cities whose downtowns are largely dependent on retail have a harder row to hoe. It also means that revitalization initiatives can’t be limited to the central city. Some level of cooperation between city and metropolitan area is necessary—if only to ensure that they effectively share the cost of metro-wide infrastructure, such as public transit.

A related lesson: strong downtowns and suburbanization are not mutually exclusive, as anyone who has driven through the sprawling suburbs of Washington, D.C., or New York can testify. An exodus from the center can occur for two diametrically opposed reasons. Suburban office parks can spring up because a downtown is too strong (and therefore expensive) or because it’s too weak. Firms leaving Manhattan for cheaper office rents in New Jersey are the sign of a growing downtown; firms leaving central Detroit for the safer, cleaner suburbs are the sign of a dying one.

Finally, the many current policies that restrict real-estate supply downtown—rent control, restrictions on building heights, and so forth—are a luxury that only cities with solid, growing downtowns can afford because they drive up prices in the center and discourage people and businesses from settling there. How far we’ve come since the 1970s, when downtowns seemed doomed and governments were concerned with revitalizing them! Today, those governments are doing the opposite, restricting growth in downtown areas and, in too many cases, turning them into coveted prizes occupied by a lucky few. Abandoning these misguided policies would reinforce the gratifying shift that cities all over the country and the world are witnessing: a return to the center.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2014 edition of City Journal.

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Topics: Economic Development, Globalization
Cities: Montreal, New York

Thursday, February 5th, 2015

What is the MTA Reinventing, Anyway? by Alon Levy

[ Alon Levy’s Pedestrian Observations site is a great look at public transit for those seriously interested in the subject. He’s lived in many countries and has studied systems around the world, bringing a global perspective to local projects. And he takes an analytical, “good government” approach of proposing systems that both produce high value and are cost effective. Here’s his take on what’s need at the New York MTA – Aaron. ]

In the last few years New York’s MTA has gone through multiple cycles in which a new head talks of far-reaching reform, while only small incremental steps are taken. The latest is the MTA Transportation Reinvention Commission, which has just released a report detailing all the way the MTA could move forward. Capital New York has covered it and hosts the report in three parts. Despite the florid rhetoric of reinvention, the proposals contained in the report are small-scale, such as reducing waste heat in the tunnels and at the stations on PDF-pp. 43-44 of the first part. At first glance they seem interesting; they are also very far from the reinvention the MTA both needs and claims to be engaging in.

Construction costs are not addressed in the report. On PDF-p. 53 of the first part, it talks about the far-reaching suburban Grand Paris Express project for providing suburb-to-suburb rapid transit. It says nothing of the fact that this 200-km project is scheduled to cost about 27 billion euros in what appears to be today’s money, which is not much more than $150 million per km, about a tenth as much as New York’s subway construction. (Grand Paris Express is either mostly or fully underground, I am not sure.) The worst problem for transit in the New York area is that its construction costs are an order of magnitude too high, but this is not addressed in the report.

Instead of tackling this question, the report prefers to dwell on how to raise money. As is increasingly common in American cities, it proposes creative funding streams, on the last page of the first part and the first six pages of the second part: congestion pricing, cap-and-trade, parking fees, a development fund, value capture. With the exception of congestion pricing, an externality tax for which it makes sense for revenues to go to mitigation of congestion via alternative transportation, all of these suffer from the same problem: they are opaque and narrowly targeted, which turns them into slush funds for power brokers. It’s the same problem as the use of cap-and-trade in California.

One of the most fundamental inventions of modern government is the broad-based tax, on income or consumption. Premodern governments funded themselves out of tariffs and dedicated taxes on specific activities (as do third-world governments today), and this created a lot of economic distortion, since not all activities were equally taxed, and politically powerful actors could influence the system to not tax them. The transparent broad-based tax, deeded to general revenue through a democratic process, has to be spent efficiently, because there are many government departments that are looking for more money and have to argue why they should get it. Moreover, the tax affects nearly all voters, so that cutting the tax is another option the spending programs must compete with. The dedicated fund does neither. If the broad-based tax is the equivalent of market competition, a system of dedicated funds for various government programs is the equivalent of a cartel that divides the market into zones, with each cartel member enjoying a local monopoly. In this way there’s a difference between the hodgepodge of taxes the MTA levies and wants to levy and Ile-de-France’s dedicated 1.4-2.6% payroll tax: the payroll tax directly affects all Francilien workers and employers, and were it wasted, a right-wing liberal politician could win accolades by proposing to cut it, the way New York Republicans are attacking the smaller payroll tax used to fund the MTA.

The proposals of where to spend the money to be raised so opaquely are problematic as well. There is a set of reforms, based on best practices in Continental Europe and Japan, that every urban transit system in the first world should pursue, including in their original countries, where often only some of those aspects happen. These include proof-of-payment fare collection on buses, commuter trains, and all but the busiest subway systems; all-door boarding on buses; mode-neutral fares with free transfers; signal priority and bus lanes on all major bus routes, with physically separated lanes in the most congested parts; a coherent frequent bus network, and high off-peak frequency on all trains; and through-service on commuter rail lines that can be joined to create a coherent S-Bahn or RER system. As far as I can tell, the report ignores all of these, with the exception of the vague sentence, “outfitting local bus routes with SBS features,” which features are unspecified. Instead, new buzzwords like resiliency and redundancy appear throughout the report. Redundancy in particular is a substitute for reliability: the world’s busiest train lines are generally not redundant: if they have parallel alternatives those are relief lines or slower options, and a shutdown would result in a major disruption. Amtrak, too, looks for redundancy, even as the busiest intercity rail line in the world, the Tokaido Shinkansen, has no redundancy, and is only about to get some in the next few decades as JR Central builds the Chuo Shinkansen for relief and for higher speeds.

The only foreigners on the Commission are British, Canadian, and Colombian, which may have something to do with the indifference to best industry practices. Bogota is famous for its BRT system, leveraging its wide roads and low labor costs, and Canada and to a lesser extent the UK have the same problems as the US in terms of best industry practices. Swiss, French, German, Japanese, Spanish, and Korean members might have known better, and might also have been useful in understanding where exactly the cost problems of the US in general and New York in particular come from.

The final major problem with the report, in addition to the indifference to cost, the proposal for reactionary funding sources, and the ignorance of best industry practices, is the continued emphasis on a state of good repair. While a logical goal in the 1980s and 90s, when the MTA was coming off of decades of deferred maintenance, the continued pursuit of the maintenance backlog today raises questions of whether maintenance has been deferred more recently, and whether it is still deferred. More oversight of the MTA is needed, for which the best idea I can think of is changing the cycles of maintenance capital funding from five years, like the rest of the capital plan, to one year. Long-term investment should still be funded over the long term, but maintenance should be funded more regularly, and the backlog should be clarified each year, so that the public can see how each year the backlog is steadily filled while normal replacement continues. This makes it more difficult for MTA chiefs to propose a bold program, fund it by skimping on maintenance, and leave for their next job before the ruse is discovered.

I tag this post under both good categories (“good transit” and “good/interesting studies”) and bad ones (“incompetence” and “shoddy studies”) because there are a lot of good ideas in the report. But none of them rises to the level of reinvention, and even collectively, they represent incremental improvement, of the sort I’d expect of a city with a vigorous capital investment program and industry practices near the world’s cutting edge. New York has neither, and right now it needs to imitate the best performers first.

This post originally appeared at Pedestrian Observations on November 25, 2014.

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Topics: Public Policy, Transportation
Cities: New York

Wednesday, January 28th, 2015

New York’s Little Blizzard That Couldn’t

The “storm of the century” hit New England hard but was a bust in New York. I went out and surveyed the realm yesterday morning and filed at story over at City Journal:

New York’s “storm of the century” turned out to be a bust. Rather than the predicted 30-inch “snowpocalypse,” only eight to 10 inches hit most of the city. That’s not to say that it had no effect. It happened to be the perfect amount of snow needed to turn Central Park gorgeous. By 10 o’clock, park streets and paths had already been plowed, and joggers, kids with sleds, and even skiers were out enjoying the winter wonderland. With the streets mostly empty, the morning was a welcome respite from traffic noise, bicycle rickshaws—and bikes, period, as cyclists appeared to be skipping the festivities. I missed the clop-clop of horse-drawn carriages, however—a sad preview of what awaits if Mayor de Blasio succeeds in his quest to ban carriage rides.

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Topics: Public Policy, Urban Culture
Cities: New York

Thursday, January 15th, 2015

Why Policing?

My latest post is online at City Journal and is called “Why Policing?” in which I reiterate my view the crime reduction is overwhelmingly the most important things for cities to get right, especially struggling cities and neighborhoods. Here’s a short excerpt:

New York’s biggest accomplishment was making many poor neighborhoods safe. It’s nearly inconceivable that the struggling neighborhoods of Chicago, Indianapolis, or other cities will see legitimate recovery until they get crime under control. Safe streets in all neighborhoods, not just some, are a precondition of social equality. New York’s experience with policing shows that crime can be greatly reduced with enough political and public will. Such will is lacking in too many places. Other matters of public order, it’s worth noting, don’t get overlooked in any city.

It’s a curious blind spot in the urbanist discussion. There’s this belief that crime is just an ambient force in cities that ebbs and flows as it will no matter what we do. For example, activists routinely deny that police strategy and tactics drove the decline in NYC crime. We always hear instead about an overall crime decline. Sure, without a doubt there was a secular decline in crime that benefited NYC, but that doesn’t explain that city’s vastly outsized success. Places like Chicago and Indy have murder rates 4x NYC. Cleveland is something like 7x.

And of course such arguments never apply to any urbanist preferred policy. For example, pretty much every downtown in America is seeing a bit of a resurgence, with new apartments, restaurants, etc. Yet we are frequently hear streetcars or some other such credited as producing these, even when there are similar results in places without them. I think in this case advocates would clearly see that there is a trend, but that policy and implementation also matter.

Others want to bring up police misconduct. Accusations of that should be investigated thoroughly and fairly, and bad cops need to be held accountable for their actions. But that doesn’t somehow mean good cops implementing good policies should stop doing so. I think we can walk and chew gum at the same time.

And I can’t help but notice an endless stream of pieces pounding the drum about police improprieties juxtaposed to next to nothing about the far too large number of innocent people killed and otherwise victimized by criminals each year.

Twitter user @True_Urbanism shared his remembrances of NYC in this consolidated tweet storm in response to my piece (translated from Twitterspeak):

The most successful economic development policy in NYC was the big reduction in crime. In declining years, so many people fled because of high crime crime. It’s hard to communicate the pall that fell over NYC — even in relatively “safe” neighborhoods — people staying home in evenings, etc. Weird safety “precautions”: carrying mugger $ (so mugger won’t slash out of frustration); triple locked doors…Popular special “Fox police locks” on doors: leaning bars that prevented aggressive robbers from pushing in weak doors! Special instructions from friends regarding which street to use and not to use when visiting (e.g. on Upper West Side, Chelsea). In poor neighborhoods, great demoralization: coming home and being robbed of week’s pay or home robbed of hard-earned appliances. And concerned minority families sending kids to live with relatives to be safe and to be away from bad influences. It seemed like “everyone” was planning to leave NYC when they could finally afford to, or could get a job elsewhere.

The thing is, this is the reality in a lot of urban neighborhoods today in cities outside New York. Parents still have their kids trained to hide under the bed or in a bathtub when the bullets start flying. Just because the rich neighborhoods in many places have crime rates at near-NYC levels doesn’t mean its still not the civic equivalent of 1974 in others.

If we really care about inequality, the first thing we should care about is public safety inequality. Yes, that means building better police-community relations and a lot of other things. But it also means aggressive policing using best strategies we’ve seen work in places like New York.

By the way, this the exact approach urbanists loudly agitate for constantly when it comes to traffic safety: more policing, more enforcement, more technology, more prosecutions, etc. for those violating traffic laws.

I’ll mention one other argument I hear that I don’t believe even the people making really believe. Namely this idea that because NYPD stopped writing parking tickets and such for a couple weeks and chaos did not ensue, that means policing is overrated. As if we’d suffer an instant wave of building collapses if inspectors stopped citing small code infractions, or a major outbreak of food poisoning instantly if health inspectors did the same. I don’t believe the 1970s are sitting in a cage waiting to escape the minute we turn our eye way. It takes time or changes in policy, enforcement, and incentives to percolate through. But you can be sure that if the police stopped enforcing speeding or parking laws, drivers would eventually figure out they could do what they want with impunity. There are eventual consequences to changes in enforcement behavior.

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Topics: Public Safety
Cities: New York

Friday, December 19th, 2014

Why the Rent Is Too High, Reason #239

It’s no secret housing costs are high and going higher in major US cities like NYC, San Francisco, etc. I was just tweeting with someone this week who moved back from Park Slope, Brooklyn to Indianapolis because her rent was being raised by over 50% (possibly that’s a cumulative increase over time – not sure).

Most of the urbanist discussion tends to focus around zoning as the reason prices are high. That’s certainly an important factor. But there are also other things driving up costs and rents. The NYT highlighted one of them last Sunday, namely the permit expediter tax:

When Mark Brotter dies, the inscription on his tombstone will read simply: “Thank God — no more plumbing Schedule B.”

Mr. Brotter, 55, is an expediter, an imprecise term that is used to describe the men and women whose workdays are spent queuing up at the Manhattan branch of the New York City Department of Buildings to file the documents and pull the permits that allow construction projects — your kitchen renovation and the high-rise next door — to go forward. “I’m basically a middleman,” he said. For its part, the Buildings Department insists on the title “filing representative.”

Others are employed by large firms that do nothing but expediting, or are on the staffs of architectural or engineering firms. In the early 1990s, expediters numbered 300 to 400; today there are more than 8,300. (Filing representatives must register with the Buildings Department and pay a $50 annual fee for the right to stand on lines at department offices.)

The expediter’s fee varies depending on the outlay of time and the complexity of a job. The charge for securing a permit for a contractor ranges from $200 to $400; for filing a project, $1,500 to $3,500. Plans that must go before the Landmarks Commission are a more costly proposition, as are projects that involve the conversion of a commercial space to a residence.

Now these prices aren’t ridiculous in the grand scheme of things for New York City real estate. But the idea that there are 8,300 people making a living standing in line to file permits for people points to the entire structure of how development gets done in big cities (NYC is hardly alone in this particular industry) in ways that continually raise costs. This is beyond the cost of delays that a baroque permitting process introduces.

Particularly when you are trying to build lower rent buildings, all of the fixed costs you have to incur to built anything (land, permits, expediters, etc.) have to be recovered and amortized across the units. When you have a hyper-complex development environment, these fixed costs raise the minimum viable rent threshold and thus push the cost of construction towards the higher end of the market that is already being served.

To bring the cost of housing down, cities should be working on all fronts, not just zoning to make it happen.

This particular case is instructive regarding barriers to reform, however. If the city made it easy enough to file plans and get permits in ways that didn’t require an expediter industry, 8,300 people would be out of work. Presumably they would squawk about it. I’m sure I would if I were in their shoes As with many regulatory reforms, the benefits are diffuse and hard to see, whereas the costs are concentrated and obvious.

Also, just one reform in and of itself is unlikely to produce immediate substantive change. Broad based reform in many areas is needed, then there will be a lag as investors adjust to and take advantage of the new environment. This may involve shorter term pain for longer term gain, much like disruptive technical innovation.

That’s not a formula politicians like. It’s one reason Japanese Prime Minister Abe’s “third arrow” of structural reform remains mostly in its quiver. Too many interest groups face immediate pain from reform, but the payoff is raising the economic potential of Japan and creating conditions in which future growth can occur, the exact nature of which can’t be predicted. That’s a hard sell to make, which is one reason politicians tend to focus on things that have immediate benefits to at least some people, such as tax cuts or spending programs.

Regardless, beyond just changes in zoning or this or that process or regulation, there needs to be a mindset shift in how these cities approach development to bring about a broad based change in housing affordability.

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

Paris / New York

This week’s video is a split screen comparison of New York and Paris that’s kind of fun. If the embed doesn’t display for you, click over to Vimeo. h/t Likecool

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Cities: New York, Paris
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Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014

The New York Project

Here’s a fun timelapse of New York City. Nothing particularly unusual about it, but the city looks great. Awesome in full screen, high definition. If the video doesn’t display for you, click over to Vimeo. h/t Likecool

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Cities: New York
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Wednesday, November 19th, 2014

Covering Corruption

I’ve written a few pieces on corruption lately. I’ll continue in that theme with this 30 minute video, part of series called “Straight Up” from Brooklyn Independent Media, about how journalists should think about covering corruption. As important topic as obviously the media plays a huge role in breaking corruption stories. If the video doesn’t display, click over to Vimeo. h/t City Limits

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Cities: New York

Sunday, November 9th, 2014

Replay: Global Cities Don’t Just Take, They Give

This post originally ran on April 28, 2013.

Creativity for the world or for your city gives something back – Charles Landry

I had an interesting conversation about Washington, DC with Richard Layman a few months back. One of his observations, rooted in Charles Landry’s, was that great global cities don’t just take, they give. To the extent that Washington wants to be a truly great city, it needs to contribute things to the world, not just rake in prosperity from it.

Affecting the world, often for good but unfortunately sometimes for bad, is a unique capability that global cities have because they are the culture shaping hubs of nations and world. When an ordinary city does something, it can have an effect to be sure. But things that happen in the global city are much more likely to launch movements.

For example, Chicago did not invent the idea of doing a public art exhibit out of painted cow statues. I believe they copied it from a town in Switzerland. But when Chicago did it, it inspired other cities in a way that Swiss town did not. In effect, ordinary cities influence the world usually by influencing a global city, which then influences the world. Often it is the global city that gets the credit although the actual idea originated elsewhere. Thus the role of the global city is critical. But we shouldn’t assume that all ideas originate there or that other cities can’t profoundly influence the world.

We might also think of bicycle sharing, which was around in various forms for quite a while. But it was the launch of the massive Paris Vélib’ system in 2007 (which according to Wikipedia was inspired by a system in Lyon) that made bicycle sharing a must have urban item the world over.

Similarly it was the High Line in New York that has every city wanting to convert elevated rail lines into showcase trails. New York is really the city that made protected bike lanes the new standard in the United States as well.

Beyond simple urban amenity type items, global cities can also launch profound cultural and social transformations. A few examples.

The first is from Seattle, a sort of semi-global city. It was in such a depressed state in the 1970s that someone put up a billboard that’s still pretty famous: “Will the last one leaving Seattle please turn out the lights?” Yet in Seattle there was a coffeehouse culture that spawned a movement out of which came Starbucks which literally revolutionized coffee drinking in America and event pioneered the entirely new concept of the “third place.”

A lot of people like to attribute the emergence of Seattle as a player to Microsoft moving there from Albuquerque in the late 1970s. However, I think the coffee example shows that there were interesting things already happening in Seattle long before that. It was a proto-global city waiting for a catalyst.

Another example would be the emergence of rap music out of New York City. Or house music from Chicago.

Or consider the 1963 demolition of Penn Station in New York in 1963. The wanton destruction of this signature structure horrified the city and led to the adoption of its historic preservation ordinance. This was not the birthplace of historic preservation in the United States, but this demolition played a key role in bringing historic preservation to the fore, not just locally but nationally.

Lastly, the Stonewall Riots in 1969 clearly played a signature role in the gay rights movement in America. Many pride parades today are scheduled to fall on the anniversary of the event.

Who knows what might have happened with coffee in America without Seattle. But I think it’s clear that both the historic preservation and gay rights movements would have emerged at some point anyway regardless of what happened in New York. However, the events in New York clearly provided a sort of ignition and acceleration.

How many historic buildings in America were saved because Penn Station was lost? (Think about how many might have been destroyed had the historic preservation movement emerged later).

Think about a state like Iowa where gay marriage is legal. How many people in Iowa 40+ years ago had any idea that an obscure incident in New York City would ultimately transform the social conventions of the rural heartland?

I think this shows the power of the global city. I’m sure that there are things happening underground in New York and elsewhere that right now that we don’t know anything about yet that will ultimately transform our world 10, 20, or 30 years down the road. It’s crazy to think about.

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014

Talking Transit

This week I want to share a couple of urban podcasts. The first is another installment in Carol Coletta’s Knight Cities program, this one featuring Vin Cipolla, President of the Municipal Art Society in New York. I should note that the MAS Summit for New York City is actually tomorrow and Friday. If you aren’t attending in person, previous ones were live-streamed I believe, so my assumption is that this one will be too.

Cipolla talks infrastructure, density, entrepreneurship, civic leadership, and outer boroughs in a talk focused on New York City but relevant to other places. If the audio player doesn’t display for you, click over to Soundcloud.

The second is a radio segment in Kansas City featuring Jarrett Walker talking about public transit. As always, this is fantastic, must-listen stuff. If the audio embed doesn’t display, click for the MP3.

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Topics: Transportation
Cities: New York

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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