Thursday, February 11, 2016

NIMBYism Under the Microscope

Chris Bradford has a post at his new blog, also picked up at Citylab, urging a better understanding of the so-called NIMBY phenomenon. Chris' thesis, as he sets it out, is that "NIMBYism is about monopolizing access to neighborhood amenities."  This is somewhat different from other perspectives which view NIMBYism (a term I use due to lack of substitutes) as an attempt to protect property values, to exclude undesirables or to guarantee privacy.  As Chris writes:
"There are plenty of neighborhoods ... in which the value of neighborhood amenities is capitalized into home prices. These are neighborhoods with valuable amenities that lack close substitutes and which are, for lack of a better word, “under-zoned.” Homeowners in these neighborhoods have strong incentives to obstruct increases in zoning entitlements and to agitate for down-zonings in order to protect the value of club membership. And they do."
The post is very timely for me, as the city I live in is currently considering a proposal to upzone a single-family residential area around a commuter rail station that is surrounded by neighborhood commercial uses.  I won't get into the specifics of the location or the local politics, as the story could be repeated a thousand times across American towns and cities, but suffice it to say that the comments from neighborhood residents on a petition opposing this proposal are enlightening and, I think, strongly supportive of Chris' thesis.  I've excerpted a few of them below:
"I've lived here for 31 years and you are and in some ways already have destroyed the essence of our quaint village of [Anytown]." 
"I'm signing because our lovely [Anytown] is being destroyed, one building at a time. Please stop this madness. The only people benefitting from all this construction are the builders and developers." 
"Stop the intrusion to our community of apartment buildings and additional retail businesses. Our neighborhood is over-saturated. Traffic is horrendous, parking is limited, schools are over-crowded." 
"We have everything within walking distance; movie theater, skating rink, pet store, library, ice cream shop, restaurants, a great ball field. This is why our residents have chosen to live here for that small community feel. We do not need anymore apartments."
"I grew up in [Anytown] and it is a charming village and should remain that way. The streets cannot handle the traffic that would be created from any further development."
"[E]nough is enough. Think about the tax paying homeowners and not the greedy developers."
There is the clear sense here of a valuable amenity, a "quaint," "lovely" village with "everything within walking distance" that has been subjected to competition from new residents.  Because I always prefer a helping of data with my anecdotes, I charted out all the "NIMBY" comments -- more than 80 of them in this case -- based on the concerns they raise in the chart below:

Increased car traffic is far and away the most mentioned concern, with overpopulation/overcrowding second, neighborhood character third, school overcrowding fourth and parking fifth.  Notably, there were no comments citing home values or privacy concerns.  One or two comments did refer obliquely to people deciding to sell in response to the arrival of apartments, but these were linked to changing neighborhood character (a less family-friendly environment) rather than falling neighborhood property values, and implied greater rather than lesser demand.

Again, I think this is strongly supportive of Chris' thesis.  The neighborhood in question is "under-zoned" relative to its capacity, particularly in light of transit access, and enjoys amenities that are underutilized.  The repeated references to traffic, strain on schools and overcrowding are simply different ways of stating opposition to more intensive use of neighborhood amenities by additional residents.  Issues such as increased noise, crime, anxiety over renter populations and similar concerns were cited much less often.

The tone of the comments also provides a window into NIMBY psychology.  Comments are rarely measured in their language and frequently employ hyperbole.  The majority are devoid of any optimism, and one gets the overriding sense that there can be no positive change, only a constant battle against further decline and decay.  This NIMBY mindset, pessimistic in the extreme, appears to be behind the despairing tone evident in much of the commentary.  It may be that these attitudes are most prevalent in those areas where upzoning would be most beneficial for precisely the reasons Chris mentions.

Overall, these sorts of findings suggest that addressing concerns over property values may have little impact in many cases of neighborhood opposition to densification.  Understanding what motivates this opposition will require looking closely and in good faith at the concerns that are raised.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Homeownership Postscript: An Even Grimmer Appraisal

In a recent post, I pointed out how, when adjusted for age and life expectancy, homeownership in the United States is lower than is has been for many decades.  In the comments, it was further pointed out that not only is homeownership itself lower, but that free and clear ownership has been on the decline as well.

There is some data available here, enough to put together a chart over time first using the non-adjusted homeownership rates (blue is homeownership, red is the percentage of all homes that are owned without a mortgage):

As can be seen, there has been a dramatic change over time, with over a majority of owned homes being owned free and clear in the 1920s and 1940s, and thereafter steadily declining to the present figure of just under 30 percent.  The increase in the 1940s may be related to the effects of wartime rent control and the shift in cash investing to real estate during those years.

Today, the majority of these non-mortgage encumbered homes appear to be owned by senior citizens who have paid off their 30-year mortgages.  In light of this, and the growth of the over-65 demographic since the 1940s, it should be somewhat surprising that this statistic has declined.

Here is the same analysis using my age-adjusted homeownership figures (1920 is omitted):

In addition to the above, of the majority of homes that are encumbered with mortgages of all types, the percent of equity in those homes has been steadily falling as well, as shown on the below chart:

The chart speaks for itself, with a decline in the 1950s and 1960s likely related to a growing use of the 30-year mortgage with its lower down payment requirements, a stabilization through the early 1980s, and a precipitous decline during the cresting and burst of the housing bubble in the late 2000s.

The implied conclusion here, that a dramatic expansion of debt has been necessary just to maintain the illusion of a stable homeownership rate (setting aside the explosion of debt in the 2000s necessary to support an increase in homeownership), puts an even more negative spin on the figures from the preceding post.  In short, a decline in homeownership has until the past few years been masked by shifting demographics and an increase in household debt.

One last point here is that although homeownership fell back to its earlier baseline (in non-adjusted figures) following the real estate bubble, equity has not risen back to to the prior 60-70% range, even in spite of the many institutional cash buyers on the market.  The debt legacy of the bubble appears as though it will be around for many years to come.

Related posts:

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Are Millennial Families Really Seeking a Car-Based Suburban Lifestyle?

A recent article by Lyman Stone makes the argument that the return to cities observed during the late 2000s, rather than being primarily a reflection of increasing preferences for urban living, was a temporary phenomenon caused by a bubble in suburban real estate which for a brief time made city renting significantly less expensive than suburban buying.  Under this theory, there was no great change of preferences among the so-called millenial generation or others, but only a temporary price inversion caused by fleeting and unsustainable cost factors.

The general idea that land rents are higher toward city cores, and lessen in a concentric pattern outwards from the center, is not new.  As the "bid rent theory," it was developed by William Alonso in the 1960s, and has applicability to cities from the distant past all the way down to the present.  Modifying but not necessarily contradicting this theory is the concept of the "favored quarter," in which bid rents are determined by cardinal direction from the core rather than by distance alone.  In contemporary cities, both the bid rent and favored quarter can be easily found and mapped.
Income distribution map of Dallas/Fort Worth by Bill Rankin.
In general terms, the bid rent theory holds that commercial uses will compete more intensively for space in central areas, resulting in higher density (and higher cost) housing forms as residential uses are forced to bid against non-residential uses for scarce land.  By contrast, the favored quarter may represent a wealthy neighborhood using the zoning power or self-rule to insulate itself from non-residential or high-density residential competition, thereby securing what is in effect a subsidy for a valued central location.  This sort of abuse of the zoning power, at city-wide scale, has been the subject of a tremendous debate in recent years.

None of this is new or particularly controversial.  The bid rent theory does not presume anything about residential preferences, so far as I am aware, though we might imagine that the same proximity and centrality that is attractive to commercial uses is also appealing to residents who could enjoy that same immediate proximity and centrality as a major amenity.  At the same time, the hustle and bustle of commercial uses are repellent to those who, for their residential spaces, crave some degree of quiet enjoyment.  Central areas are also likely to be disfavored by those, such as young families, who value large living spaces and high quality public schools above even immediate conveniences where both preferences cannot be met simultaneously.

In a post a while back, I also doubted as to whether these underlying preferences had changed, and that inflated costs in suburban areas and/or foreclosures, had driven higher demand to rent in urban areas.  This is not really contradicted by the National Community Preference survey, which continues to show that people highly value the single-family home and immediate, walkable convenience:

The most undersupplied areas, relative to demand, are the "suburban neighborhood with a mix of houses, shops and businesses," the "small town," and the "rural area."  These patterns seem to be amplified for the millenial generation, with a particular emphasis on walkable neighborhoods.  Oversupplied, relative to preference, are the mostly residential suburb and city (although I suspect many of the "city" residential areas are largely "suburban" in character).  I do not know exactly how "small town" differs in form from the mixed suburban area, but one imagines the category to be inspired by the fictional New England village of Stars Hollow from the Gilmore Girls show, with its vaguely New Urbanist mix of houses and shops with quirky and eccentric independent proprietors immune from the long arm of Walmart:

Stars Hollow set, and also, I believe, for Hill Valley from Back to the Future.
The allegedly unrealistic image of the town in the show has been critiqued here, but I still think the popularity of the series has something to tell us about the environments and lifestyle people idealize, even if the particular example in the show may not be economically plausible.

Lest we imagine that these choices are in fact economically or spatially incompatible, or that what is being sought is the unobtainable single-family house in Central Park, this is the essence of Japanese market urbanism: an extremely compact assemblage of small single-family homes (and some apartments) that is pedestrian and bike friendly.  This must be the case, since lower densities will result, for the majority, in the perception of a "residential-only" neighborhood.  Naturally, Japanese-style development (as described by Nathan Lewis here) is one thing which the American cities have almost entirely failed to provide, although a few neighborhoods here and there, generally developed before 1930, provide a reasonable facsimile.

Tokyo neighborhood.
Quite a bit has also been written as to whether the millennial generation will, in time, leave urban areas, as though there was some question as to whether this particular age bracket would buck the trend of all groups before it.  As Joel Kotkin wrote two years ago:
"The millennial “flight” from suburbia has not only been vastly overexaggerated, it fails to deal with what may best be seen as differences in preferences correlated with life stages. We can tell this because we can follow the first group of millennials who are now entering their 30s, and it turns out that they are beginning, like preceding generations, to move to the suburbs.
These trends can be seen on a nationwide basis. Among the cohort of children under 10 in 2007, the number who lived in core cities as of 2012, when they were 5 to 14 years of age, was down by 550,000. Families are the group most likely to move either to the suburbs or smaller towns. This movement, plus the high degree of childlessness in large urban cores, suggests that many of those who are leaving the core cities in their early 30s are parents with young children."
Now, for families with young children approaching kindergarten age who lack the resources for expensive private tuition, school quality emerges quickly as an important preference, subordinating almost all other concerns.  But this does not mean that these families do not desire an urban lifestyle, or, by their housing choices, are rejecting such a lifestyle.  The survey data seems to broadly refute that idea.  Rather, the cruel spatial economics of exclusion favor low-density, restrictively-zoned places for "good schools," and American cities offer few other intermediate options.  Abandoning an urban life, with its high costs, is a sacrifice for one's children rather than, necessarily, a pursuit of an ideal.  The choice is reinforced by the panoply of incentives the US tax code offers to those who would buy rather than rent.  Many other families with financially limited choice, shut out of suburban options by restrictive zoning and other exclusionary policies, must remain in urban areas regardless of their preferences.

Seen in this context, I do think the New Urbanism has tapped in to something important in the American psyche.  Only, as Nathan Lewis has written about, it has generally (but certainly not always!) done so too literally, using lackluster American examples as inspiration rather than successful ones from abroad.  I do not think the American imagination is so literal, though.  Stars Hollow passed as a New England town even though it bears no resemblance to the typical Connecticut small town with its large central green and sprawling layout.  What was important was not the specific form, but rather the walking lifestyle, the spontaneous interaction and the community as a whole.  The set simply provided the urban form necessary to sustain the belief that this lifestyle was possible for the characters.

If a real-world development does not offer a sufficient density, or sufficient flexibility in terms of mixing of uses, these things will not occur, and you will have little more than a film stage set.  Imitate a Japanese neighborhood, on the other hand, and you may have more success.  Perhaps clad the buildings in Georgian and Colonial facades for the tastes of American buyers, but leave the form alone.  Do not obsess over mixing of uses or "apartments over the shop" -- these things take time and happen gradually, not all at once and from the beginning.  A suburb built to this form, odd as it may seem, will meet the stated preferences of American buyers, families included.  The demand is certainly there.

The New Urbanism, whatever its failings, has at least recognized the situation, changed the conversation and opened new possibilities not only in terms of building, but regulatory reform and making possible traditional forms of urbanism under contemporary city codes.  This blog is intended as a sort of continuation of this new conversation using a slightly different vocabulary.   

As to what such a new neighborhood might look like, Nathan Lewis has already written at length, but in another post, I'll reiterate some of his findings along with an example that could be done today.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Is the Decline in the Homeownership Rate Even Greater Than Thought?

One of the most heavily reported stories of the post-housing bubble economy has been the decline in the American homeownership rate, which has supposedly fallen to levels not seen since the days of the Lyndon Johnson administration.  Although ownership data is often broken down every which way, including regionally, across ethnic and income groups, over time, by immigration status and by age bracket, one analytical quirk I've noticed is that the non-age comparisons are rarely themselves controlled for by age.

This is highly significant, since homeownership is, obviously, heavily correlated with stage in life.  While only around 33% of 29-year-olds own homes, by age 39, this number leaps to around 49% (according to age bracket data from the 1990s to present).  This fact has major consequences for comparisons among nearly every demographic group, but even more so for comparisons over time.  How so?   Consider that a major age-related change since the 1940 Census has been an increase in the median age of around 10 years due to a decline in the birth rate and a substantial increase in life expectancy.

What is the significance of these changes for the homeownership rate?  The chart I prepared below uses averages of ownership by age bracket for 1994 and 2014 to estimate interval changes and make a complete graph showing that, in general, the rate increases until around age 66 (one would think related to post-retirement home sales) and then gradually tapers off thereafter, while still remaining well above the overall average.

As a result, the older a population grows, the higher its homeownership level should be, all else being equal.  Intuitively, it should be shocking that today's homeownership rate is comparable to that at the height of the baby boom era, when the national median age was only 28.  The Census Bureau has apparently made some adjustments to more recent ownership data to reflect changes in age structure, but I was interested in doing the same for the decennial data going back many decades.

The data has been adjusted to account for 1) changes in the median age, normalized to 2014, to reflect that an older population is centered around a much higher ownership level, and 2) changes in the life expectancy independent of median age, to reflect that the older people live, the higher the homeownership level is likely to be.  First is a plot of the non-adjusted decennial Census data (plus 2014), showing the familiar pattern of a large jump in the 1940s due in part to wartime rent controls, a slowdown in the 1960s, and a general stagnation since that time.

Once we account for the demographic changes, however, it becomes obvious how the aging of the population has masked a major decline since 1970.  The chart below shows the data adjusted for change in median ages only.  Note also how the slowdown in the 1960s has disappeared and been replaced by a substantial increase, as the population was growing younger during that time.  This is more consistent, I think, with the conventional wisdom that the 1960s were a boom time for new buyers as much as the 1950s were.

Finally, if we account for life expectancy as well, the trends are further amplified, showing that, in age-adjusted terms, today's homeownership rate is lower than that of 1940, which was itself a low point only a little above where it had been in the depths of the Depression.  A peak is reached around 1970, after which there was and continues to be a decline (the upward blip in the mid-2000s is not represented here).

My attempt at analysis here is definitely not the last word in examining this data, and no doubt there are flaws, but it at least leaves open the possibility that today's homeownership rate, in the context of age adjustments, is lower than it has been for a very long time, at least as long as 80 years and perhaps as far back as 120 years or more.  With more data on earlier Censuses and a more rigorous approach more refined and complete results could be calculated, but I would doubt whether the overall picture would be greatly different.

The question as to why homeownership peaked around 1970, in these charts, and declined thereafter, is one which has been discussed in many other and related contexts.  Nathan Lewis has written extensively about the abandonment of the gold standard.  Ben Ross has discussed the changes in land use policy in the 1970s, including the rise of environmentalism, which threw up new barriers to development and reduced the supply of new housing coming to market.  Seeking a full explanation would be far beyond the scope of this post, but I think it is noteworthy that the results are broadly consistent with other economic markers, including inflation-adjusted income.

Finally, it it may be interesting to compare these trends with those of Europe, as shown on this graph which I grabbed from Twitter (via Antony Slumbers):

Although the US continues to have a lower homeownership rate than the Eurozone, and far lower than many individual countries, I suspect this difference may disappear or even reverse once median ages are taken into account (the median age of the Eurozone being over 41).

Spreadsheet with data and charts here.

Related posts:

Sunday, December 27, 2015

When the Market Built Housing for the Low Income

In a recent post, Daniel Kay Hertz examines residential filtering, the process by which housing units depreciate and therefore become available to lower-income buyers or renters over time.  In particular, Hertz examines a Stuart Rosenthal article on the phenomenon which I have examined critically here and here. Although he makes the very good point that the filtering process is not operating in unhindered fashion in many large American metros, he also makes the claim, which I have seen in many other contexts and by other authors, that "very little private housing in the United States was originally built for low-income people."

Although this may be somewhat accurate so far as it only applies to formal housing developers, throughout the history of American cities and indeed most other cities in the world, a large portion of the housing stock came from the informal economy, most of it purpose-built for indigent migrants or very poor laborers.  This was the case even in some of the largest and wealthiest cities in the Western world until fairly recently.

In the typical city, such housing would (and is) either be found on the outskirts or on very low-value urban sites, such as floodplains, rocky ground or steep slopes.  Infrastructure was poor and public services were minimal or nonexistent.

American Favela: The "Dutch Hill" area of midtown Manhattan in 1863.  Source here.
Rather than filtering down, these rudimentary settlements had and have a tendency to "filter up" internally, as residents gained a foothold economically and improved their dwellings.  For most Americans, the best-known of these types of areas are the so-called "Hoovervilles" of the Depression era, when the unemployed and rural migrants occupied low-value or underused land near city centers:

Seattle, WA in the 1930s. Source.
These crude shacks offered little more than shelter from the elements, but they were the result of people in dire situations doing the best they could with what they had available.  Governments then and now refused to accept this reality and, rather than trying to improve the conditions within these settlements, generally favored mass eviction and demolition.  In an interesting twist, this style of development has been rediscovered by contemporary American cities (particularly Seattle), and, without apparent irony, has been rebranded as the "tiny house village."

Beyond housing for the very poorest of the poor, American cities through at least the 1920s built in bulk for the lower end of the income scale.  This housing took several forms:
  • As noted above, shanty housing built by those with little or no experience in construction.
  • Small, temporary and/or transient housing, such as flophouses, boarding houses and other manner of SRO rentals.
  • Small multifamily housing wherein a person of some means would build a home with one or two attached apartments which could be let out at low cost.  Often these apartments would be sub-let to boarders who might occupy a single bedroom.
  • Self-built housing of a higher quality, which might be built from a Sears housing kit, or by a person with some background in construction.  One study estimates as many as 1 in 5 American homes were self-built in the 1920s.
  • As noted in the comments, company towns and other housing built by large businesses for their workers to inhabit. 
The first, second and third of these options were virtually outlawed starting in the 1920s and in the decades following.  What changed during and after the 1920s was not the market's willingness or ability to continue constructing such housing, but society's tolerance for housing of perceived low quality or of profitable use.   The Housing Act of 1937, for instance, was not so much concerned with ensuring affordable housing for the poor, but rather with "the provision of decent, safe and sanitary dwellings for families of low income and the eradication of slums."  Single-room rentals did not fit into this well-meaning but upper middle-class vision.

The "eradication of slums" element of this strategy was more faithfully carried out then the provision of dwellings, and in the process much of the evidence of the low-income neighborhoods of the pre-1950 period was obliterated.  Municipal archives may contain photographic documentation of the condemned neighborhoods, as in the case of Nashville, below, showing a street of tin-roofed shotgun houses and very modest bungalows built in the early 20th century for lower-income tenants.  All were "eradicated" in the 1960s along with much of the surrounding neighborhood and their residents dispersed elsewhere.  That many of these neighborhoods were demolished or saw demand for them fall to near zero, with resultant abandonment, should not cause us to forget they ever existed.

Nashville houses circa 1960; all demolished in urban renewal.  Courtesy MDHA.
It might not be going to far to say that the traumatic process of urban renewal instigated an involuntary filtering, as residents of the poorest areas were literally displaced -- cast out of condemned homes -- and forced to seek new housing from among a diminished housing stock.  These people probably did move into somewhat higher-quality housing, but at higher cost and possibly in more crowded conditions as well.

But what of the fourth type of housing, the proper self-built house?  As it turns out, there was a crackdown on this type of housing as well for reasons that seem to have had less to do with ensuring decent and sanitary housing and more to do with disreputable and exclusionary motives.  The impetus for these changes may have been the mobility provided by the automobile.  I'll quote from one book at length which describes one town's legislative action against black self-builders in Ohio, including one Eddie Strickland:
"In 1946 ... in a series of irregular meetings, the council [of the town of Woodmere, Ohio] passed a building code aimed at restricting do-it-yourself builders, among whom blacks were a prominent group. The code mandated a maximum one-year time limit for the construction of new homes, forbade secession of work for any period longer than forty-eight hours, and prohibited the use of secondhand building materials. Finally, the code required builders to post a $1,000 bond to ensure compliance..... 
"By lifting construction standards (and allegedly enforcing regulations in a discriminatory manner), Woodmere officials raised the cost of home building in the village and substantially limited settlement by working-class blacks. Moreover, the passage of similar building restrictions throughout the county helped limit the number of African American suburbanites in the Cleveland area. The trend had an apparently chilling effect on the attendance of blacks at the weekly land auction in Cleveland, where a number of families had formerly purchased suburban land for delinquent taxes.... 
"Far from being an isolated event, Strickland's confrontation with authorities in Woodmere reflected a national trend toward regulation of the suburban fringe that hastened the decline of working-class suburbanization in the postwar decades. In Cleveland and other metropolitan areas, the proliferation of suburban municipalities led to the extension of land-use regulations to formerly unregulated areas. Zoning and building codes curtailed informal home building and inflated the cost of a suburban home. Racist application of these regulations closed the door on development for blacks, and the enforcement of sanitary regulations led to the demolition of existing black housing and restrictions on domestic production. 
Excerpt from Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century by Andrew Wiese
Disputes over self-built homes continue to arise today in remoter regions, as seen in the recent lawsuit brought on behalf of Amish homebuilders in upstate New York who were being required by local codes to submit architectural plans and install other expensive features in their self-built farmhouses.  The elimination of the self-built home as an affordable option in much of the country, in conjunction with zoning regulations limiting small multifamily housing, setting minimum lot sizes and imposing other similar restrictions, completed the elimination of the lower rung of prior housing options.  Left were only the newer mobile/prefab home, which partly stepped in to fill the gap that had been left, and the filtering process, which though demonstrably effective was not always rapid enough to insure a sufficient quantity of housing nor sufficiently cheap housing, especially in cities with high residential demand.

Of these two options, mobile homes were heavily restricted in where they could be located, and urban renewal destroyed huge quantities of filtered housing, i.e., "blighted" homes.  The result is a market which appears, artificially, not to create low-income housing options.

Is this article a call for the return of flophouses, then?  Not in the sense of the negative and unsanitary associations of that term and other like it, but in the sense of a government which recognizes that these older types of housing represent the market's effort to meet vital needs, and that regulation can help meet these needs in a safe and sanitary way without taking an adversarial approach toward them.  These market approaches can be complementary to public housing investments and other public assistance programs, as well, rather than being seen as inferior alternatives.  The tiny house village movement mentioned earlier is one such manifestation of this approach, and shows that the political obstacles need not be insurmountable.

Other and related reading:

Friday, December 25, 2015

That 70s Urbanism, Part II: Fixing Urban Renewal

On Twitter, Cap'n Transit appreciated my focus on Stamford in the previous post, so to continue on the prior topic with an ongoing focus on the 1970s, I'll return to that city to offer some perspective on the past as well as some ideas for the future.

Best known as an office escape for New York-based banks and other companies, the city actually has a history nearly as old as New York itself and, before urban renewal, had a street pattern as intricate as lower Manhattan's old Dutch footways.  The New York and New Haven railroad cleaved the town in the late 1840s, and in the part south of the tracks polluting factories cropped up along the waterfront and canal.  In the 1950s, Interstate 95 ripped another path through the heart of the city, though partly following the railroad right-of-way.

Stamford's downtown in the midst of renewal, 1979. City of Stamford via Ferguson Library.
Finally, a massive urban renewal project, initiated in the 1950s but only carried out in full in the 1970s, destroyed the bulk of the city's downtown area and resulted in the demapping of many streets, even including the primary stretch of Stamford's Main Street.  These streets were replaced by high-speed "stroads," and the office buildings that replaced the fine-grained fabric of the city took the form of glass and granite monoliths perched over parking lots, serving as fortresses against the miasma presumably thought to be swirling on the near-empty sidewalks.  A large enclosed three-anchor mall was constructed over several blocks of condemned buildings.

Reworking 1970s Urban Renewal

The age of massive urban renewal on the scale that Stamford pursued is over, by and large, some planning projects in Baltimore excepted.  Stamford is unlikely to ever engage in another project of such scope.  As I noted in the previous post, however, a city like Stamford can still use those elements of 1960s and 1970s planning to its advantage if it plays its cards correctly.

The 1970s as I wrote were an early golden age of pedestrian infrastructure as reflected by several key elements which are broadly applicable to today's cause of walkability, although not all are today well-regarded:
  • Mass transit (obviously - the 70s witnessing a revival of heavy rail systems)
  • Generous use of elevators in public space
  • Escalators and moving walkways
  • Pedestrian tunnels, skyways and covered sidewalks
  • Pedestrianized streets
  • Enclosed malls and other shopping areas
In addition to the above, Stamford has in the last 20 years enjoyed a resurgence of the "Euro block" apartment form throughout the downtown area, in addition to an earlier boom in townhouse-over-garage condominium construction.  Although Stamford will not be Barcelona anytime soon, good things can be and should be happening, but the downtown is as car-dominated as ever.  How about a plan for incremental improvement?

The plan I put forward has several components, some inspired by Jane Jacobs, some by Jeff Speck, some by Nathan Lewis and Japanese city planning, and by others too numerous to mention:
  1. Extend the enclosed shopping area in the train station
  2. Narrow several of the downtown streets by sidewalk widening and use of bike lanes
  3. Use eminent domain and existing public land to open several new narrow streets
  4. Provide arcaded pedestrian streets where appropriate
  5. Open the mall to the street and re-open Main Street
  6. Use the under-capacity mall and Target parking lots for long-term parking for downtown residents in lieu of parking requirements
In most cases, new streets are built on existing public land and would require little or no condemnation.  Some simply represent streets which were uprooted and de-mapped during urban renewal.  Most vital to these is the continuation of narrow Summer Street down to the UBS building.  The street narrows to only about 16 feet at its southern extremity, and should be continued at that width further south, ideally as a shared space or even pedestrianized shopping street that will provide a safe and attractive walking path from the train station (a moving walkway probably veers too far into parody/Seinfeld territory).  As a 16' street, it could possibly be arcaded as well.  The street would terminate at the UBS building into an existing pedestrian pathway that leads to the train station.

This image, rotated counterclockwise, shows how the new street would appear lined by Euro block apartments and shops, leading with only a couple of curved turns directly to the train station, which has an existing underpass lined with a few shops passing underneath I-95.  This line of shops would be carried across past I-95 and along the path in front of the UBS building, possibly incorporating an anchor store:

Patching Up the Mall

In the previous post, I showed one way the mall could be opened to the street by demolishing one of the car access ramps:

At present, left, and after new entrance.
Additionally, entrances could be punched into the mall at various other points on the exterior, as most parking is actually above the mall, and shopping can be accessed at most points directly from the street.

Narrowing Other Streets

Atlantic Street, onto which this mall entrance faces, should be narrowed from three to two lanes throughout its length with a bike lane added.  A shared space arrangement with bollards (bollards inside the bike lane) would be an ideal treatment.  A new street of 16' or so (not shown) should be run past the facades of these buildings, through the adjacent park, under the mall and into the remnant stub of the old Main Street.  Half of the overly-large park (really a paved square) should be sold off to private parties to construct new buildings along the southern boundary of this new street, leaving a still-large triangular square bounded on all sides by rights-of-way.  

The city should also use its power of eminent domain to open new streets and to complete those discontinuous fragments that already exist.  The below map shows existing streets in red, pedestrian paths in orange, and suggested new streets in yellow:

These new streets also include a pedestrian bridge over Mill River at the upper left, the new 16' street referenced before curving through the park, a new arcaded street through the mall, and two streets creating a three-part division of a large, partly unbuilt block at the right.  Other segments have been added here and there, and the continuation of Summer Street is visible in the center right.


Regarding transportation, despite the likely high cost, it may be desirable to create a second stop in downtown Stamford at either Canal or Elm Streets or along East Main Street.  This would help convert the train system into a small localized rapid transit system, and has parallels elsewhere on the line with New Haven's State Street station, Bridgeport's planned second Barnum station and Fairfield's Metro station.  

A full infill station, complete with station house, was built in West Haven for $80 million, though the Bridgeport's station's cost appears to be nearly double that.  Since Stamford is the last stop for many express trains, it would not unduly interfere with express train operation.  An Elm Street or East Main Street station serving the Cove neighborhood and providing a secondary downtown route might be very popular and would not require much parking.  There is ample room for it, and the existing overpasses dating from the turn of the century, will need to be replaced sooner or later.

Optimistically, a plan like this would have a ten-year time-frame from initiation of planning to start of operation.


Parking is always one of the thorniest issues in downtown planning, but Stamford, for better or worse, is "blessed" with an abundant supply of garage parking.  In particular, the mall parking lot and the Target parking lot are greatly under-used.  In light of this parking supply, if parking minimums cannot be abolished entirely, the city should offer fee in lieu of parking to any residential developer who secures a parking arrangement with one of these local operators.  The number of spaces required to be secured should be as low as politically feasible.

It goes without saying that on-street parking rates should be dramatically increased in the downtown area.  The city is currently attempting to raise additional revenue by imposing new fees on outdoor dining spaces, yet the parking adjacent to it continues to be greatly underpriced.  Although I am generally opposed to on-street parking in areas with high pedestrian volumes, a Shoup-inspired approach that used increased fees for civic improvements could be a positive change.

What Not to Do

Stamford is currently undergoing a major redevelopment project in the Harbor Point area, a former mixed industrial and residential area in the South End of the city, west of the canal.  Although purportedly the handiwork of planners, the haphazard arrangement of streets and commercial spaces creates an environment which at best, is reasonably pleasant, but which at worst is less than the sum of its parts.  

Here are some examples of the decent, the bad and the ugly.  One of the newest areas features a semi-shared space street (interesting) with use of bollards (good), yet the space is overly large (not good) the architecture is completely cold and indifferent (not good) and the scene is altogether too busy with too many plantings (not good).  There are a couple of restaurants along the street to the left with outdoor seating, which greatly helps to enliven the area in the warmer months.

For contrast, here is a street in between two apartments, lined with garages and electric equipment.  This is an unpleasant and even dangerous street to walk down, and it is right off the main park square!

Most unforgivably, in another area close by, is this facade on the local neighborhood commercial main street.  I generally try to steer away from strong language so that readers may make up their own minds, but this is simply atrocious.  The street level must be done better than this.

There are many other changes large and small that one could consider throughout Stamford as a whole, and the city does seem to be engaged in a process of gradually narrowing intersections by bumping out sidewalks, thereby improving pedestrian safety.  With several recent and well-publicized deaths of pedestrians, this needs to be an immediate focus and priority.  Zoning needs to be reformed as well, but that is a post that I have already written.

Monday, December 21, 2015

That 70s Urbanism

1970s suburb, Birmingham, AL.
The 70s, as much as any decade from the 1920s to the 1990s, has gotten a bad rap in contemporary urban planning circles.  It was the golden age of the suburb and the nadir for many urban areas around the United States, not to mention a boom time for highway construction and the development of very low density suburbs on non-gridded street patterns.  Surely there is nothing we can glean from this time period that has applicability to the urbanism of today?

Well, this is perhaps not entirely true.  The 1970s, as well as the decade before it, arguably represented the first time in the urban history of America that planners self-consciously pursued entirely pedestrianized environments, although the inspiration for these areas went back to flights of imagination from the 1920s if not earlier, and the 1950s saw the genesis of several of these ideas, at least in their embryonic forms.    I refer not only to pedestrianized main streets, but to the five great pedestrian creations of the age: the enclosed shopping mall, the international airport, the vacation resort, the convention center, and the network of tunnels and/or skyways.  Each of these represented a vision, if incomplete, for pedestrian-only circulation and commerce on a grand scale, often on the footprint of a small town.  

Do I jest?  No.  The future, if the human imagination is a key to the future, was pointing toward pedestrianism in the 1960s and especially 1970s.  This was, after all, the age of Paulo Soleri's implicitly pedestrian-centric arcology.  Gas prices were soaring by the early 70s.  The 1939 World's Fair vision of high-speed highways was out, and a more refined tecnho-utopianism involving futuristic megastructures was in.  The great majority of the buying public rejected this vision for their private lives, but as the success of enclosed malls shows, they gladly embraced it in many other contexts -- in commerce, for employment, in travel and for recreation.  

The arcology: no highways here, or at least, not the central element! Source.
The tunnel system of Houston and the skyway system of Minneapolis, both begun in earnest in the 1960s, were built out through the 1970s.  Enclosed mall construction, which began in 1956, was in such a boom that four enclosed malls opened from 1969 to 1980 in the city of Toledo, Ohio alone.  Air travel multiplied through the 1960s and airports were expanded on an unprecedented scale.  The very idea of the convention center, although it had been around for decades, attained gargantuan scale by the latter half of the 20th century.  

The hostility toward these type of environments in recent years, has, it seems to me, been based on two primary grounds: 1) the environments, being private and privately controlled, are corporate and sterile; and 2) although the environments themselves may be pedestrian, they are dependent for their business on car-driving customers.  Of these two critiques, however, the second is not inherent to the form of the structures themselves.  Rather, a pedestrian environment such as a tunnel system or an enclosed mall is, as the cities of Japan or Korea bear witness, a better partner to transit and walking trips than it is to car transport.  That the United States largely squandered its opportunities to integrate these structures and systems into its transit networks is an indictment of city planning, but not necessarily of these forms themselves.  

The Japanese, arguably the best city-builders in the world, have not missed this point, and typically have built shopping malls either adjacent to or, in the case below, on top of railway stations:

Osaka's Keihan Mall, over the Kyobashi railway station. Bing Maps.
In the case of American cities, even where the option is obvious and available, no such plans are made.  In Stamford, Connecticut, where nearly the entire downtown was condemned and bulldozed in a vast urban renewal scheme, the new enclosed mall built by the city's hand-picked developer was inexplicably not located next to the city's heavily-used Metro North railway stop:

The mall, at top right, and station, at bottom left.  Bing Maps.
What were they thinking, one could ask.  Note also the very low value placement of the interstate highway just north of the railway line, although this area probably had higher property values than the south side of the tracks at the time of the highway's construction.  In truth, the Stamford planners had given up entirely on any idea of pedestrian circulation outside the new megablocks.  The curated spaces within the new mall were designed to be accessed by car alone, and the structure to this day presents a fortress-like appearance to the outside.  The decision cannot even be explained by a desire to exclude train riders, who then and now tend to be well-heeled commuters to New York and are in general better off than most.

Had the planners of the 1970s left the city alone, and simply redeveloped the train station as a mall, who knows what might have happened by today?  Yet these questions need not be hypotheticals.  Cities have the power to make these changes today.  Stamford cannot move its mall, but it can consider a new infill station closer to it.  It can consider how to improve pedestrian mobility.  It can revamp its bus network.  It can do many things to address past mistakes, but it must be able to understand its mistakes, and even more importantly understand how these creations of the 1960s and 1970s can be a force for good, not merely magnets for a car-driving public.

There are a few easy steps that can be taken at first.  If Stamford wants to fix its mall, tear down one of the car ramp entrances, already duplicated by two others, and install a prominent pedestrian entrance, like so:

Easy?  In the grand scheme of things, yes.  Expensive?  Not terribly.  A bolder step would be an entirely new infill station, one closer to the mall, perhaps at one of the locations highlighted with a green arrow:

Plan a new station.  New Haven already did it, twice, and Bridgeport is doing it, so this need not be some impossible fantasy.  The overpasses need to be replaced anyways, so merge the projects.  Use the gains in real estate value to improve pedestrian connections.  Narrow the streets.  Add bike lanes.  It need not be that difficult!

If hostility toward the idea of enclosed malls, or skyway systems, or convention centers is retained, however, then cities may or may not succeed at revitalization, but they will squander again an opportunity to use these forces for good rather than ill.


Other reading:

See Mallville by Andrew Price for a related perspective on the traditional city aspects of the American mall.