For Humans, By Humans
April 17, 2018 9:12 AM   Subscribe

Let’s buy some parking lots, in-fill them with walkable neighborhoods, and make a profit - Andrew Alexander Price lays out a proposal to create dense, human scale neighborhoods by following traditional urban planning schemes. (PDF)
posted by The Whelk (47 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
 
You'll want to keep it a secret, otherwise those parking lots are not going cheap anymore.
posted by Glomar response at 9:22 AM on April 17, 2018 [2 favorites]


I love this inspirational, yet realistic, plan! It's great to see that the author also included costs and the potential profit. The money part has to work out for anything to become a reality.

The one thing I'm left wondering about is zoning. Would cities allow this sort of thing? I guess it's different in different cities. Maybe that's why the author didn't address it.
posted by Triplanetary at 9:34 AM on April 17, 2018 [1 favorite]


There are reasons to keep some convenient surface parking, just structure its access for public good. Tiny cars, single women, etc.
posted by Baeria at 9:41 AM on April 17, 2018 [4 favorites]


Uhhh, cities have already figured this out, with even rosier financial prospects for the developer. It's called a high rise. Except for the walkable streets part.
posted by Keith Talent at 9:44 AM on April 17, 2018 [1 favorite]


This is fairly standard urban planning in a lot of places nowadays, as part of a push for more walkable downtown areas. Columbus, OH has had a lot of infill happening in the Short North area; before I moved away, there was a lot of discussion going on about this corner here where there's currently a surface lot. Salt Lake City, mentioned in the article, has also been doing some of this downtown; see this episode of 99 Percent Invisible.

The relatively small city/town I'm in now has just finished demolition of a block of older buildings and adjacent surface lot, which is again, going to be infilled with a higher rise apartment building and shops.
posted by damayanti at 9:53 AM on April 17, 2018 [3 favorites]


In-between streets like those proposed here do make for some of the most comfortable, attractive neighborhoods i can think of. For a while I led tours in Boston's North End, and these one-block-long streets are among the nicest places to be. Bonus, not much traffic/street noise at all, even in the midst of an urban living setting.
posted by Miko at 9:53 AM on April 17, 2018 [4 favorites]


DC recently updated its zoning laws to allow for "alley homes". Some people see this as a literal NIMBY issue while some developers are on it as the next big thing.
posted by peeedro at 9:53 AM on April 17, 2018


Zoning will stop you from building this, just about anywhere in the country. Especially in places that already have some of these neighborhoods, and where people claim to value them. They value them by refusing to allow more to be built. Remember the recent FPP with the links to stories about this? Can't build new dingbats in LA, all but 22 structures in Somerville MA are non-conforming, etc.

Drainage is also an issue. This is one of the excuses for zoning - where does the water go, in a rainstorm?

I'd love to see more old-style cities, but I am weird. Most of the USA is heavily invested in disallowing them.
posted by elizilla at 9:58 AM on April 17, 2018 [13 favorites]


This proposal essentially outlines how developers can become rich by selling high-end real estate to very rich people. Sure, it would be more livable than high-rise condos or other alternatives now being built, but it only solves problems for rich developers and rich homebuyers. I would like to see this kind of thinking applied to affordable housing.
posted by beagle at 9:58 AM on April 17, 2018 [10 favorites]


I've been working on a roguelike game, so I've been deep in procedural generation for classic video game dungeons. This tickles the same part of my brain. Which is, I guess, unexpected?
posted by lumpenprole at 10:07 AM on April 17, 2018


This proposal essentially outlines how developers can become rich by selling high-end real estate to very rich people.

Right. The average 'coarse grained' giant apartment is building 2 bedrooms that cost around $300k per unit, which is around $250 a sq ft, about half his numbers. And $300k for a new 2 bedroom is more than the US median home price, which is closer to $100 a sq ft - around $200k.
posted by The_Vegetables at 10:15 AM on April 17, 2018 [1 favorite]


Drainage is also an issue. This is one of the excuses for zoning - where does the water go, in a rainstorm?

If a lot is already paved for parking, presumably it already has a solution for drainage to accommodate that huge developed surface.
posted by phooky at 10:16 AM on April 17, 2018 [3 favorites]


love how america has basically become a "it can't be done" society except when it comes to eminently practical and needed things like hyperloop, car tunnels crisscrossing the los angeles basin, and mars colonies
posted by entropicamericana at 10:22 AM on April 17, 2018 [31 favorites]


It's funny that they use Beacon Hill as their inspiration. They're a few miles off.

Boston's Seaport in the 1990s

What it is on track to become

Generally all high end housing, expensive restaurants. No hardware stores, sorely lacking a real grocery, no 24 hr pharmacy. It has gone from being a place to park cars to being a place where people park money.
posted by bl1nk at 10:24 AM on April 17, 2018 [4 favorites]


This is sweet, charming New Urbanism, as has been advocated by wise, naive souls for decades. But as he says, "I am not a developer or an expert at this." Private developers profit-maximize. Existing residents/property owners resist adjacent development. etc. etc.

Sadly.
posted by PhineasGage at 10:29 AM on April 17, 2018 [2 favorites]


There's quite a bit of townhouse development going on in Brooklyn -- not really because developers like it, but because some neighborhoods are zoned to height limits where the combination of the lack of high rise economies of scale and the willingness of people to pay bonkers premiums for single family makes the townhouse the most profitable format.
posted by MattD at 10:32 AM on April 17, 2018 [1 favorite]


The kind of strictly segregated zoning that is the norm in the US really isn't the norm pretty much everywhere else in the world.

Abolish strict zoning and re-establish the idea that shops, homes and even some forms of light industry can and should be located in, around and even sometimes on top of one another and you'll go a long, long way towards making walkable, livable, decent cities. They will probably be about half the size too.

What you will need is strict noise and licensing ordinances to replace the physical separation of different kinds of land use. Harder to enforce, but the benefits, savings and improvement in overall living standards are worth it.

The US can choose to do this in two ways. Either you do this voluntarily, at the local level, with time to experiment, copy good practice and improve.

Or, you can do it helter-skelter, under extreme duress, as climate change, fossil fuel prices, economic changes, automation and demographics all simultaneously force your hand.

Either way, American cities are not staying the way they are now.
posted by Happy Dave at 10:33 AM on April 17, 2018 [12 favorites]


The US can choose to do this in two ways. Either you do this voluntarily, at the local level, with time to experiment, copy good practice and improve.

americans can always be counted on to do the right thing, when they've exhausted all other options
posted by entropicamericana at 10:36 AM on April 17, 2018 [4 favorites]


They've been madly building luxury apartment buildings on every open space that they can find here in Pittsburgh and now 5,000 units later, they've found that there just aren't that many people willing to pay $2500 a month for an apartment in the rust belt.
posted by octothorpe at 10:37 AM on April 17, 2018 [3 favorites]


octothorpe: "They've been madly building luxury apartment buildings on every open space that they can find here in Pittsburgh and now 5,000 units later, they've found that there just aren't that many people willing to pay $2500 a month for an apartment in the rust belt."

Yeah, because five floor rabbit hutch 'luxury' condos are not, actually, nice places to live. They're boxes, built for profit primarily, with livability as an afterthought. That's not what TFA is proposing.

Ironically, there's a lot of the same sort of shitty building going on in London. I suspect those will be the ones that feel the inevitable correction the hardest. A lot of them are speculative investments, not places to live.
posted by Happy Dave at 10:41 AM on April 17, 2018 [2 favorites]




That's not what TFA is proposing.

Well, the TFA is proposing selling units at $553 per square foot which seems insanely expensive to me. That might work in New York or SF but it's ridiculously high for most of the US.
posted by octothorpe at 10:48 AM on April 17, 2018 [3 favorites]


Either way, American cities are not staying the way they are now.
That's actually an interesting concept. There is plenty of evidence that the US has always (generally) been built the way it is now - ie low density on ridiculously wide streets (seriously - check old photos from nearly any city from as far back as the 1840s, way before cars, to see how wide streets are). Those wide streets are really what made the car revolution so powerful in the US - there didn't need to be that much land taking downtown because there was plenty of land for multiple lanes of traffic, which didn't really make sense at the time.

Sidewalks separating pedestrians from traffic are also common back to the early 1900s.

Sure there are places with narrow streets built then, now, and forever -but those are really the exceptions in the US.
posted by The_Vegetables at 10:49 AM on April 17, 2018


Counterpoint: save our parking lots

paraphrasing: "During the auto boom in Cincinnati downtown, there were 273 parking lots. Now we're down to 270. We've got to save the remaining."

LOL. The whole thing is well done.
posted by The_Vegetables at 10:54 AM on April 17, 2018


Well, the TFA is proposing selling units at $553 per square foot which seems insanely expensive to me. That might work in New York or SF but it's ridiculously high for most of the US.

A parking spot is about 300 square feet. Boston actually has deeded parking spots, that is, 300 sq ft plots of land connected to the road system, that you can buy and sell, and where if you own, you can park. One recently sold for $60K. (In Allston. Near downtown, a deeded spot will easily set you back $300K. )

That's $200 per square foot. And that's in Boston, which is not insane like NY or SF. So $553 per square foot for residential space in a sought after location is just about right. And it shows just how much more wealth can be located in a place if the space is not devoted to storing cars.
posted by ocschwar at 10:55 AM on April 17, 2018 [4 favorites]


This is so beautiful. I'm all for this kind of urbanism, especially having grown up in a Le Corbusierisque planned utopia of a Communist apartment block suburb.

Delft in the Netherlands stuck in my mind because of its supremely livable streets (Hopstraat in particular, where young families leave their bikes leaning against the door and plants overflow from window flower-pots).

You'll want to keep it a secret, otherwise those parking lots are not going cheap anymore.: Unless he already bought some of them parking lots.

Drainage is also an issue. This is one of the excuses for zoning - where does the water go, in a rainstorm?
Just mandate vegetation roofs and retention tanks for rainwater, to be used for watering public parks or just cleaning streets.
posted by Laotic at 10:56 AM on April 17, 2018 [2 favorites]


Drainage is also an issue. This is one of the excuses for zoning - where does the water go, in a rainstorm?

A very bad excuse, because when you force people to sprawl out, it makes the flooding much worse.
posted by ocschwar at 10:58 AM on April 17, 2018 [5 favorites]


The_Vegetables: "That's actually an interesting concept. There is plenty of evidence that the US has always (generally) been built the way it is now - ie low density on ridiculously wide streets (seriously - check old photos from nearly any city from as far back as the 1840s, way before cars, to see how wide streets are). Those wide streets are really what made the car revolution so powerful in the US - there didn't need to be that much land taking downtown because there was plenty of land for multiple lanes of traffic, which didn't really make sense at the time."

Sure, but my point is that the conditions which allowed those things (zoning, wide streets, low-rise buildings, low density) are changing.

Consider the things that have influenced development at any given stage of US history.

Cheap, plentiful fuel. Cheap, plentiful land. Lots of water. An economy that can support long-distance movement of goods in pretty much any category. A skilled workforce prepared and able to commute medium-to-long distances to work. Reliable, affordable personal vehicles.

Pick any of those factors and they are about to or are already undergoing change, sometimes radical. Fuel is going to go up in price. Land and population is going to change. Clean water is going to become steadily more difficult to come by. Cheap goods shipped from around the world rely on fuel, economies of scale and geographic arbitrage, all of which are changing. And when it becomes more difficult to get to work, people will start to consider their options.

This might take fifty or a hundred years to happen, but I think expecting American suburbia to continue in its current form is really, really unrealistic. Certainly a lot more unrealistic than the relatively modest, gradualist plan presented in the link. There's just too many invisible or semi-visible resources, supply chains and economic factors required to prop up this way of life.
posted by Happy Dave at 11:01 AM on April 17, 2018 [4 favorites]


The article proposed buying and constructing at the highest prices available, and showed that even at a 25% profit margin, the price per square foot ($553) was lower than the current market price (~$700) for available real estate.

The price in reality would be even lower for construction.

With consideration for making affordable housing, the construction could be mixed use, with some of it being commercial (storefronts, restaurants, a grocery store, even municipal services) and having more of the cost borne by the commercial units and lowering the residential unit costs.

Construction could be 3 stories, with many/most being walk-ups (accessibility, please!), so the first floor is commercial, and the rest residential.

A lot of this is basically what people already love about cities, but it's been regulated out of existence!

It's almost never, ever going to be profitable to produce truly affordable housing in a city for the poor or less well-off. But the author shows that it is profitable to produce additional housing at below-market price, which helps prevent the ridiculous rise of prices. Even slowing the inflation is a whole lot better than nothing, and perhaps this solution is part of a bigger solution.
posted by explosion at 11:03 AM on April 17, 2018 [4 favorites]


love how america has basically become a "it can't be done" society except when it comes to eminently practical and needed things like hyperloop, car tunnels crisscrossing the los angeles basin, and mars colonies


Totally get this, but (and) it makes me think there is something akin to an "uncanny valley" for policy proposals.

That is, the more outlandish the proposal (in some cases, literally), the less it triggers our defense mechanisms and the more accepting of it we might be. Whereas the closer the proposal begins to approach practicality, the more it triggers those same mechanisms, and engages us in critical review.

I may write a paper...
posted by darkstar at 11:05 AM on April 17, 2018 [3 favorites]


Hoboken represent!
posted by spilon at 11:10 AM on April 17, 2018 [1 favorite]


That is, the more outlandish the proposal (in some cases, literally), the less it triggers our defense mechanisms and the more accepting of it we might be. Whereas the closer the proposal begins to approach practicality, the more it triggers those same mechanisms, and engages us in critical review.

This is 'bike shedding', or Parkinson's Law of Triviality. Essentially, people object/insist on contributing to things they can intuitively grasp, while larger, more complex problems/budgets/solutions get a shrug response.
posted by Happy Dave at 11:20 AM on April 17, 2018 [8 favorites]


Dang...there goes my publication.
posted by darkstar at 11:32 AM on April 17, 2018 [2 favorites]


I’m sure ‘Bikeshedding and Nimbyism as applied to New Urbanism’ might be viable still!
posted by Happy Dave at 11:44 AM on April 17, 2018 [3 favorites]


Article mentions Houston. I'm pretty sure I saw something very similar to this somewhere near downtown, though I can't remember where. Possibly near George R Brown convention center.
posted by Beholder at 12:02 PM on April 17, 2018


This might take fifty or a hundred years to happen, but I think expecting American suburbia to continue in its current form is really, really unrealistic.

Over 100 years plus, maybe. But 50, I'm not so sure. The regional transportation plans for 50 years out are already being created - cities change slowly and plan very long-term. Most of our modern build/design plan was products of the Depression, close to 100 years ago, and 'suburbs' is too broad to make such sweeping declarations about.

BTW, I don't find this proposal unrealistic, just very limited due to cost (hard to change but the desire is there) and zoning (easy to change, but limited desire to change yet).

There's just too many invisible or semi-visible resources, supply chains and economic factors required to prop up this way of life. I don't think is true either. The supply chains most assuredly aren't invisible -they are very visible and currently deemed more important than you or I, collectively in terms of taxes and road infrastructure.
posted by The_Vegetables at 12:25 PM on April 17, 2018


I commented above that this is a housing solution for rich folks, who don't need housing solutions. What's needed is affordable housing solutions, and diverse, multi-income neighborhoods. After thinking about it some more, there is a fundamental flaw in the originally-linked paper by Price, which is that the author is holding up 18th and 19th century streetscapes as the ideal, and proposes replicating them on parking lots and city blocks. While those original streetscapes are still quaint and cozy and livable, and certainly salable to well-heeled customers, they are just not a 21st-century solution to 21st-century housing needs.

I happen to be involved as a volunteer with the planning and (hopefully) development of a brand-new village in a rural New England town that has never really had a town center. If we looked to the past for models the way Price has, we'd end up with 20 or 30 white houses, a white church and a white general store around a village green with a bandstand. But we're not doing that. Instead we're engaging a planning outfit specifically to design a 21st-century New England village. We don't know what that means, but we're going to pull the town together to invent it.

In New York City, starting around 1970, a similar approach was taken to the design and development of 20,000 housing units on Roosevelt Island in the East River. Now nearly fully-developed, it is an eminently livable place, and includes lower, middle, and higher-income housing. Despite having high-rise apartment buildings, it has a sense of community and human scale. The question asked about Roosevelt Island at the outset was, what should a 20th-century New York neighborhood look like? The answer was not: let's build an 18th-century streetscape. Had Roosevelt Island been developed using Price's scheme, it might have been a nice place to live as well, but it would have none of the diversity and vibrancy that's there now.
posted by beagle at 12:35 PM on April 17, 2018 [1 favorite]


love how america has basically become a "it can't be done" society except when it comes to eminently practical and needed things like hyperloop, car tunnels crisscrossing the los angeles basin, and mars colonies

Yeah, but you are describing one dude, and most people (except for perhaps the HackerNews tech bros) thinks he is an asshole who can't deliver. In fact, just today two articles came about Tesla and it's hard to decide which one is more damaging: The "Report: Tesla Undercounted Injuries and Neglects Safety in its Factory" one, or the "Tesla halts Model 3 production as firm scrambles to improve automation" one.
posted by sideshow at 12:45 PM on April 17, 2018 [1 favorite]


Drainage on cities is something we desperately need to be changing anyway. That water needs to be
collected, cleaned, and saved not routed off into sewers, and eventually dumped into oceans.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 1:40 PM on April 17, 2018 [3 favorites]


It's almost never, ever going to be profitable to produce truly affordable housing in a city for the poor or less well-off. But the author shows that it is profitable to produce additional housing at below-market price, which helps prevent the ridiculous rise of prices. Even slowing the inflation is a whole lot better than nothing, and perhaps this solution is part of a bigger solution.

This is a great point, particularly with regard to the SF Bay Area. Not only is housing development difficult here due to zoning (density restrictions, nimbyism) and byzantine planning committee processes, but construction labor is also a seller's market right now. Construction permits expire before contractors can be booked to do the work on them.

So the only way to get affordable housing built is to decree by law that some percentage of any new housing development must be allocated to affordable housing, which is, in fact, a law in SF and Oakland at least.

But the percentage of units in a new development that by law must be affordable is small, under 20%. How much that could be raised before developers actually lose money is up for debate, but with land and construction costs where they are in the Bay Area, it's probably not possible to build a 100% affordable housing building and not lose money. Most Bay Area municipalities also charge developers "special fees" on any kind of building that gets built, and those special fees go to fund affordable housing, but again, they're a drop in the bucket.

So the market is never going to deliver affordable housing. Tax money must be spent. But: municipal income taxes (like the one NYC has) are against the California constitution.

So if SF needs money for affordable housing, they can't just tax all the finance and tech worker incomes to provide it, the state has to agree to give SF that money. SF does levy a payroll tax on companies over a certain size (and Ed Lee was criticized for waiving it to attract businesses to certain areas) but the high-paying finance and tech companies aren't headquartered in SF anyway.

Meanwhile, the crazy rise in housing prices theoretically should be paying off in increased property taxes, which could then be used to fund affordable housing, except that in 1978 Californians passed Prop 13, which limits property tax increases to 1-2% year, and pegs them to 1978 values. In one estimate that amounted to $12.5B in lost revenue for the state in 2015.

On top of that, prop 13 requires taxes raised by local governments for a designated or special purpose to be approved by two-thirds of the voters, and all tax increases to be passed by two-thirds of both houses of the California legislature. On top of that, a lot of the rest of the state budget is tied up in commitments to fund K-12 and pay state worker pension costs.

So yeah, it's a mess. And I'm not saying there couldn't be a way to build more affordable housing in the Bay Area if there were sufficient political will. It's just that that will also has to come from voters outside the Bay Area. So proposals like the one mentioned here obviously aren't going to fix everything, but in a toolbox where a lot of tools are effectively off limits, new tools are always welcome.
posted by mrmurbles at 7:27 PM on April 17, 2018 [1 favorite]


It seems like it'd be a nice place to live. It doesn't seem designed to provide low income housing; it's designed to make expensive cities look more like nice European cities. There's nothing wrong with it but I don't see it accomplishing more than that.

I don't know how well the math works. Seems like it'd be a reasonably complex capital intensive project and if you run into delays with anything (zoning, environmental, neighbors, soil issues) and subtract cost-of-capital that 30% profit is looking like a pretty slim annual rate of return pretty quickly. I'd be curious if anyone there's in the industry here who can speak to the top-line estimates and how attractive they actually are to an investor.
posted by mark k at 10:28 PM on April 17, 2018


This is basically how I lay out my Cities: Skylines cities. I'm pretty sure things aren't as simple in real life. (The guy's a software developer, and the paper has a certain air of engineer's disease to it...)
posted by destrius at 12:22 AM on April 18, 2018 [2 favorites]


There's nothing wrong with it but I don't see it accomplishing more than that.

I agree with the sentiment that affordability in cities needs to be a high priority. However, I'm really not dismissive of changing the way the affluent live. There are a lot of social ills that come from the levels of consumption and alienation created by current land use conventions. Putting people in more densely occupied spaces, where they can brush shoulders with more individuals and establish a stronger sense of place and social connection, has positive effects that, at scale, can influence change society-wide. Yes, everyone deserves to live nicely like this. But not just because it's pretty - because a number of other benefits are attendant. Pro-social agendas, and the research that supports them, comprise a lot of what underlies the smart growth movement.
posted by Miko at 7:25 AM on April 18, 2018 [1 favorite]




In New York City, starting around 1970, a similar approach was taken to the design and development of 20,000 housing units on Roosevelt Island in the East River. Now nearly fully-developed, it is an eminently livable place, and includes lower, middle, and higher-income housing. Despite having high-rise apartment buildings, it has a sense of community and human scale. The question asked about Roosevelt Island at the outset was, what should a 20th-century New York neighborhood look like? The answer was not: let's build an 18th-century streetscape


More's the pity.

Put the same 20,000 units and the same residents on an island built to look more like the nicer parts of Brooklyn, and you'd have had better outcomes in every way. And a lower maintenance bill because it turns out beton brut is not really something you want exposed to the elements.
posted by ocschwar at 9:02 AM on April 18, 2018 [1 favorite]


Pro-social agendas, and the research that supports them, comprise a lot of what underlies the smart growth movement.

Engineer's disease aside, I love the Strong Towns people because they give me more financial arguments against planning absolutely everything around cars to use with my officially-non-partisan-but-the-ones-in-charge-are-all-essentially-Republican city government.
posted by asperity at 9:30 AM on April 18, 2018 [2 favorites]


phooky: If a lot is already paved for parking, presumably it already has a solution for drainage to accommodate that huge developed surface.

Old lots don't. New lots may include french drains to pull the water down and way as fast as possible, or retention or detention basins to slow down the water or even keep it on-site. Yes, there are drainage solutions for parking lots.


beagle: I commented above that this is a housing solution for rich folks, who don't need housing solutions. What's needed is affordable housing solutions, and diverse, multi-income neighborhoods.

YES, THIS. I got excited that this article might be about diverse in-fill development, instead of maximized profits for monoculture housing. I was hoping for another look at why big box stores are bad for everyone, instead focusing on the sheer amount of underutilized, "underperforming" (economically) parking space that comes with them.

This came to mind in a presentation I saw today, where someone cited the sales, and taxes, generated by a diverse, dense, urban shopping center can be double or triple that of a big-box store, per square foot of total land used (including associated parking lots). That was news to me, and unfortunately I didn't jot down the citation, and I can't find the figures online to back this up.

At this same conference, I learned that a significant part of the local population already spends around 60% of their incomes on housing and transportation combined, and this is the second biggest city in New Mexico. It's not affluent, and the focus of that presentation was on improving the walking and biking facilities in the town, to support alternative transportation for those who want to bike or walk, and for those who have no option because they don't have access to a car.

High density housing would solve the issue of walkability here, but land is so cheap that it's hard to to increase the density of housing and shopping in the downtown core if you're only relying on market forces.
posted by filthy light thief at 4:31 PM on April 18, 2018 [1 favorite]



This came to mind in a presentation I saw today, where someone cited the sales, and taxes, generated by a diverse, dense, urban shopping center can be double or triple that of a big-box store, per square foot of total land used (including associated parking lots). That was news to me, and unfortunately I didn't jot down the citation, and I can't find the figures online to back this up.


Look into the work of Urban 3 which does this kind of analysis. It's generally more than 2-3X. It's astronomically more. But of course, because most development isn't considered on a per-acre basis. We have extra acres? Pave it for Black Friday or for RVs to park on. Still more acres? Plant grass next to the highway. We'll call it 'greenspace' which is generic enough to fool people into thinking it's like a 'park'.

It's a total mindset change.
posted by The_Vegetables at 11:09 AM on April 19, 2018 [1 favorite]


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