More on Density

Commenter Benjamin Hemric replies to my previous post on Manhattan density, arguing that,

1) It’s very interesting that people seem to have very, very different goals and objectives here — and it’s good that these are expressed and out in the open. Otherwise people wind up talking past one another.

The Jane Jacobs goal (which is where I feel I’m coming from) believes there should be HEALTHY (self-generating, market-based) cities (for a variety of reasons, including economic and social ones) — and more and more of them to meet a growing world population. (I think Glaeser also shares this part of the Jacobs viewpoint.)

The saving of the environment (to extend what I see as the Jacobs’ viewpoint) is a by-product. And it isn’t from piling more and more people into a relatively small part of a city but from having many successful high density districts — and by having many dense cities, which by their very nature are greener than suburban sprawl.

2) It seems to me that it’s important to remember that the outer boroughs (to use the NYC example) and nearby northern New Jersey are not pristine undeveloped land, but already pretty well built up albeit oftentimes at relatively low density areas — so making them denser also helps save the environment.

The implied question is as follows: the New York region wants to add more people; where should we plan on housing them?

My environmentalist answer is that they should be housed in dense areas – it doesn’t really matter which ones, as long as they’re walkable and transit-accessible. Even marginally dense areas are okay as long as it’s part of a concerted effort at TOD – say, residential and commercial upzoning in Eastern Queens along the LIRR in conjunction with offering rapid transit-like service levels on commuter rail.

The Jacobsian answer that Benjamin is giving is that they should be housed not in the densest neighborhoods, but in somewhat less dense neighborhoods, on the theory that they’d become greener due to the additional flux of residents. This is, in principle, a good idea. The residents would cause more environmental impact than in Manhattan and live in what are now less walkable neighborhoods, but would induce such development that the impact of existing residents would drop. But it’s not clear which effect dominates, and since both options are much better than any alternative, both should be legal and encouraged; there’s no need for landmarking to force people out of the Village and into Brooklyn.

But that’s all in principle. In practice, densifying outer-urban neighborhoods is a political nightmare. Christof Spieler once wrote about how in Austin, development is governed by a coalition of NIMBYs and suburban developers and boosters. The result: it’s hard to increase density in existing urban neighborhoods, and easy to develop greenfield exurbs. In New York, a similar thing is happening, in reverse – it’s easy to develop in Manhattan’s non-landmarked areas, and hard in the outer-urban neighborhoods and the suburbs. (New York’s exurbs are also growing very quickly, but are too remote and lightly populated to matter.)

Adding density to parts of Queens and Brooklyn where it would introduce a tipping point in favor of walkable urbanism may well be harder than repealing landmark restrictions in the Village. Community boards are always drawn from the wealthier and more connected segments of society, and in those areas they invariably own a car. A new development in Flushing was saddled with extra parking, and NIMBYs all over outer-urban New York oppose dedicated bus lanes due to loss of car lanes.

The conclusion is that the alternatives to density increases in Manhattan are more parking garages all over the Outer Boroughs, and greenfield suburban development in the few parts of the suburbs in which there’s space (typically nowhere near rail). I’m all for walkable densification along outer ends of subway lines, or if commuter rail modernizes then also near train stations. Wake me up when that happens. Until then, the best approach is supporting political reforms to make both Manhattan densification and outer borough densification easier.

10 comments

  1. Joseph E

    Re: “I’m all for walkable densification along outer ends of subway lines, or if commuter rail modernizes then also near train stations. Wake me up when that happens. Until then, the best approach is supporting political reforms to make both Manhattan densification and outer borough densification easier.”

    While Manhattan might (in theory) be able to double in population to 3 million people over the next decade with the right policies, that would only absorb a small percentage of the expected increase in population in the US. Doubling the population of San Francisco, central Chicago and central LA and other existing high-density areas is not enough. We need to get higher densities in moderate areas, and make it possible to build new moderate to high density (20 to 40k people per square mile) developments in underused urban areas or even greenfield sites, if we are going to provide enough housing and employment locations in walkable, transit-accessible areas, for a growing population.

    So I’m on your side with adding density in Manhattan, but the real fight is in the rest of the region, and the rest of the country.

  2. ant6n

    Isn’t there a certain density after which it not only gets really uncomfortable to live in an area (hard to sell to suburbanites already) – but will also be less sustainable?

    I’m thinking that sky scrapers actually use a lot of resources, and all infrastructure needs much more capacity to handle the stronger ‘crush loads’, which wouldn’t be so strong if the population is spread a bit. Doesn’t too much residential density destroy the capability of an area to be a multi-use area which may be more robust and possibly lead to less travelling?

    I really don’t know, but I feel there should be a sort of ‘optimal density’ from an urbanism, health and environmental point of view.

    • Alon Levy

      Well, the point I’m intermittently making is that you don’t really need residences to be true skyscrapers (but office buildings are another matter). Or it could just be that I’m used to not thinking of a 20-story building as a skyscraper.

      Office space has higher rents than residences, which means that commercial areas can crowd out residences, but not the reverse. The reason the densest residential neighborhoods are not commercial hubs is that the land is not needed for office use. Residential-only zoning can contribute to this, but that’s a separate matter.

      And for the record, I think it would be a terrible thing if the Upper East Side and Upper West Side became more commercial, because the subway can’t adequately serve them unless you live next to a particular line. If New York were capable of affordably building subways under 86th and 125th then it would be okay, but it can’t.

      Maximum comfortable density is another matter. But, to be honest, I didn’t find my section of the Upper East Side uncomfortable at all. The census tract I lived in had 61,000 people per km^2; a neighboring tract I spent some time in had 72,000 people per km^2, and did not look uncomfortable either, aside from narrow sidewalks coming from Second Avenue Subway construction. There’s a big difference between this and the now-demolished Hong Kong slum with 500,000 people per km^2.

      • BBnet3000

        Indeed. When theres talk of high density living comfortably, i immediately think of the Upper East (and West for that matter) Side and Monaco, where high rise apartment living is the norm, and the people are not poor.

        “Or it could just be that I’m used to not thinking of a 20-story building as a skyscraper.” lol. Youve been in Manhattan too long, though to be fair on the UES they dont really feel like what you would think of as residential skyscrapers. I personally use the term “high-rise” to refer to anything taller than say, 6 stories, up to around 15. Above that is a skyscraper in my book.

        Not everyone wants to live at density that high, but clearly a lot of people do because the demand and prices are very high. Id like to see more people in New York City itself with the hope that the Metro Area could contract a bit, because its way too big with way too much sprawl.

  3. Joseph E

    The Overhead Wire has an interesting post about increasing density in central Austin, in the neighborhood next to the university and near downtown. He believes that zoning laws were preventing landowners from building the denser residential area that prices demanded, which led to inefficient longer commutes on campus buses from across town, and meant students had to live in neighborhoods where they needed to own a car to get anywhere: “How to Free the Market and Reduce VMT – Austin’s West Campus”

  4. Benjamin Hemric

    Alon,

    Thanks for articulating your thoughts regarding my original comment. They are very helpful in understanding where certain people may be coming from.

    I’m not sure if I will have the time, however, to fully discuss all your thoughts right now in these current comments. So in these current comments, my intention is, rather, to give a brief, general outline of what I see the issues to be — in the hope that this will provide the basis for a further ongoing discussion, if not in this thread, in other threads in the future.

    Again, as with my last comment in the other thread, I hope you don’t mind if I put my comment in a dialog format as it helps me write more quickly.

    – – – – – – –

    A) Alon Levy wrote:

    The Jacobsian answer that Benjamin is giving is that they should be housed not in the densest neighborhoods, but in somewhat less dense neighborhoods, on the theory that they’d become greener due to the additional flux of residents. This is, in principle, a good idea. The residents would cause more environmental impact than in Manhattan and live in what are now less walkable neighborhoods, but would induce such development that the impact of existing residents would drop. But it’s not clear which effect dominates, and since both options are much better than any alternative, both should be legal and encouraged; there’s no need for landmarking to force people out of the Village and into Brooklyn.

    Benjamin Hemric writes:

    Alon, I’m not sure if I understand what you are trying to say here — especially towards the end. (However, I’m not sure if this will impact on the discussion, as I suspect we may be in essential agreement anyway.)

    B) Alon Levy wrote (in part) [added text withing bracked and additional numbering is mine — BH]:

    [i] But [all of the above is okay “in theory”]. In practice, densifying outer-urban neighborhoods is a political nightmare. In New York . . . it’s easy to develop in Manhattan’s non-landmarked areas, and hard in the outer-urban neighborhoods . . . .

    [ii] Adding density to parts of Queens and Brooklyn where it would introduce a tipping point in favor of walkable urbanism may well be harder than repealing landmark restrictions in the Village.

    [iii] Community boards are always drawn from the wealthier and more connected segments of society, and in those areas they invariably own a car. A new development in Flushing was saddled with extra parking and NIMBY’s all over outer-urban New York oppose dedicated bus lanes due to loss of car lanes.

    [iv] The [end product of all these factors] is that the [outer borough] alternatives to density increases in Manhattan [involve] more parking garages all over the Outer Boroughs . . .

    [v] I’m all for walkable densification along outer ends of subway lines . . . . Wake me up when that happens.

    [vi] Until then, [however,] the best approach is supporting political reforms to make both Manhattan densification and outer borough densification easier.

    Benjamin Hemric writes:

    Some general thoughts.

    It seems to me that the above discussion is in some ways different from the original discussion. In the original discussion (based on Glaeser) it seems to me that the question was whether it is a better idea for government policy to encourage increased densities (through revised regulations, etc.) in already very high density areas (specifically in high-density areas like the Upper East Side and Greenwich Village that are largely protected as landmark districts) or, rather, in relatively low density areas (which may, or may not, also be protected as landmarked districts).

    My position was that a) there’s a point of diminishing returns to the benefits of high densities, so that adding density to areas that already have high densitities is more likely to be problematic; b) that adding density to areas that have low densities is, on the other hand, very likely to be beneficial; c) trying to shoe horn in added densities in already dense areas is not only likely to create more problems for those areas but is also helping to deprive low density areas elsewhere from benefitting from high densities. In other words, shoe horning in density into high density areas helps kill the goose that is laying the golden eggs (e.g., by making tourist mecca and profit center Greenwich Village less appealing to tourists) while increasing densities in low-density areas is, instead, using density to help breed other geese that can lay yet even more golden eggs.

    It seems to me that Alon’s comments above are basically speculative ones about the supposed practicalities of densification, both in general and with regard to one area versus another.

    A) First, while it’s true that there’s a lot of opposition to densification in the outer boroughs, there’s a lot of opposition to densification everywhere, including in the already dense areas of Manhattan — espcially the landmarked ones.

    Plus, in terms of political power, it seems to me that the dense neighborhoods of Manhattan — particularly those with lots of landmarking — are the richest, most powerful and most politically savy ones in the city. Thus, I have to disagree with paragraph ii above (where it is speculated that changing landmark restrictions in the Village would supposedly be easier than adding density to parts of Queens and Brooklyn).

    Furthermore, it should be pointed out that the City Planning Commission has just finished upzoning some outer borough neighborhoods, while landmark protection for the Greenwich Village has not only not be weakened, but it was even recently extended to new areas (i.e., to the far West Village.)

    B) In terms of practicality in general, ALL of market urbanism (e.g., fighting overly restrictive suburban zoning, fighting the highway lobby, fighting minimum parking regulations, etc.) is HIGHLY impractical. Isn’t that the point of discussing it on the internet, though?: a) to articulate the benefits of market urbanism and b) to spread the news and to gain converts.

    Plus, judging from people’s comments (e.g., on Glaeser, etc.) almost no one has even heard the arguments regarding the benefits of density for low density areas, so it seems way too early to say it is impractical. On the other hand, there has already been a great deal of advocacy for other aspects of market urbanism, with little favorable movement (at least so far) to show for it. So it would seem that judging in terms of practicality, then, the other aspects of market urbanism are even less practical than allowing for increased densities in low-density areas.

    The challenge with all of this is to demonstrate how people would actually benefit more from market urbanism than from planning.

    C) Very quickly, it seems to me that in comment [iv] above, Alon is concerned that adding density in the outer boroughs would produce more parking.

    It seems to me that this is an area where we differ. If adding density in the outer borough results in added parking, so be it. I don’t see that as a problem.

    And it should be noted that in terms of market urbanism, it seems to me that the argument against parking isn’t that parking is bad per se, but that it discourages density by raising costs. But if areas become dense (including with lots of parking) than parking has not, in fact, discouraged density.

    It should also be noted, however, that as areas become more dense, people become less car dependent. So for those environmentalists concerned about parking, even if parking is added at first, this doesn’t necessarily mean “forever.” (The South Village/SoHo for instance has lost lots of lots of parking lots during the real estate bubble.)

    Benjamin Hemric
    Monday, May 23, 2011, 11:55 p.m.

    P.S. — I may not be able to respond to comments, if any, for a few days.

    • Alon Levy

      If you don’t mind, I’ll reply to both this comment and your previous one.

      First, it is a bad thing if those new outer borough developments have too much parking, especially if it’s forced by law. Cars and density don’t really mix well – the areas that have tried, such as the LA Basin and Bangkok, have severe air quality issues. And that’s before we get into the awful urbanism of huge parking garages. The only place that’s done it well is Monaco, and that’s because the residents don’t drive much – to say nothing of how Monaco is so rich and land-scarce it can afford to make the garages look indistinguishable from the buildings they’re attached to. Density is ultimately a tool to make urbanism work better; if you can only get it at the cost of things that make urbanism worse, then it’s not worth it.

      Second, the “Wait for it” argument doesn’t work for me. SoHo doesn’t have parking minimums; the Outer Boroughs do, outside of LIC. And I’m not going to hold my breath for a housing bubble in Flushing.

      Third, you’re confusing regulations on absolute density, which are at their weakest in Manhattan, with regulations on added density. If both Hoboken and the Village were empty, but all present zoning were still there, then it would be easier to build in the Village. But they’re not empty; they’re already built, at different intensities. Besides, when people can’t afford the Village, they displace current residents in Hoboken rather than move into new housing. It’s always easier to displace than to build up. One of the reasons everyone hates developers is that they know this and come up with creative ways to kick residents out.

      Fourth, fixed costs are an argument in favor of taller rather than less tall buildings. It’s the architectural equivalent of economies of scale. (And yes, I know there are diseconomies of scale at very large size. There’s a big difference between building more WTCs and building more UES condos.)

      And fifth, in practice, the reason it’s easier to build in Manhattan is the relative power of developers and CBs. The Village is relatively anti-development, but other Manhattan neighborhoods, such as the UES, have enough people who can afford market rents that they don’t care. The Columbia and NYU student ghettos are entirely developer-run, so it’s easy to upzone there even when it’s destructive to the surrounding neighborhoods; the CBs only have an advisory role, and the city ignores them when big billion-dollar institutions lobby for things.

  5. quikboy

    How about we make sure market occupancy level doesn’t go too low, before we start popping out even more new buildings? From 2010 figures, it’s said that there are 18.9 million empty homes and about 3.5 million homeless. That’s almost about 5 houses a a homeless person could have to him or herself! Yet we keep building more houses and business buildings, because we just can’t be satisified enough with what we do have, even with the fix-ups. Not to mention the near-zero interest mortages that resulted in 2008’s housing bubble.

    So unless we can better control and fill up the empty spaces before we throw out new ones, it’ll be a boondoggle for taxpayers to have to manage with providing infrastructure for underused space, while also providing for new space.

    Oh, and more dense =/= better, unless there are even more plans to ensure there’s enough resources and infrastructure for everyone there.

    • Alai

      I’m guessing that the vast majority of those empty homes are in the “wrong” place. It doesn’t do a person much good to get a house in Las Vegas if they work in New York.

  6. Benjamin Hemric

    Alon,

    Sorry for the delay in getting back and, again, I hope you don’t mind if I use a dialog format.

    – – – – – – – –

    A) Alon Levy wrote:

    If you don’t mind, I’ll reply to both this comment and your previous one.

    Benjamin Hemric writes:

    I, too, think it’s a good idea to combine the discussion into one thread!

    – – – – – – – –

    B) First some general thoughts:

    I think it’s important not to lose sight of the original argument, seemingly expressed by Glaeser and seemingly agreed with by you, Alon Levy (which I, Benjamin Hemric, am disagreeing with): that it’s okay for relatively low-density outer boroughs to “protect” themselves (via zoning laws and other public policies, etc.) from added density (even though a good argument can be made, so it seems to me, that added density would make such areas better not worse) [Alternative I]; but it’s not okay for already very high-density Manhattan neighborhoods to “protect” themselves (via zoning laws and other public policies, etc.) from added densities, (even though a good argument can be made, in my opinion, that added density would make such areas worse not better).

    So, remembering this context, here again is the comment that started this sub-thread [the words that have been added within brackets are there to express my understanding of what was originally meant — BH]:

    The [bottom line of this discussion about allowing relatively low-density outer borough neighborhoods from discouraging added density while at the same time not allowing very high-density Manhattan neighborhoods from discouraging added density] is that the alternatives to [allowing outer borough neighborhoods from “protecting” themselves from added density and not allowing Manhattan neighborhoods from “protecting themselves from added density is] are more parking garages all over the Outer Boroughs . . . . ”

    My response is that a level playing field (market urbanism), or even one that might discriminate in favor of already high-density neighborhoods, is actually better for New York City than a playing field which (short-sightedly) “favors” the outer boroughs and “discriminates” against Manhattan — even if, along with higher densities, the outerboroughs also get more parking too.

    – – – – – – – –

    C) Alon Levy wrote [edited text within brackets and added numbering is mine — BH]:

    First, i) it is a bad thing if those new outer borough developments have too much parking, especially if it’s forced by law [because cars] and density don’t really mix well . . . ii) Density is ultimately a tool to make urbanism work better; if you can only get it at the cost of things that make urbanism worse, then it’s not worth it.

    Second, iii) the “Wait for it” argument doesn’t work for me. SoHo doesn’t have parking minimums; the Outer Boroughs do . . . .”

    Benjamin Hemric writes:

    Regarding i) and ii), the idea that cars and density don’t really “mix well” (because of air quality and aesthetic concerns), I suspect we see things evolving differently (and also have somewhat different value systems). As mentioned previously, it seems to me that allowing for added density in the outer boroughs would make them MORE urban (and more “green”) not less — and if this comes with added parking, so be it. As you yourself mention, just because an area has more parking and more cars (e.g., Monaco), that doesn’t mean that an area will necessarily become less urbane.

    Regarding iii): My point is that in the long term, as areas evolve, people’s mindsets evolve too. When areas become more and more urban, parking “minimums” eventually become parking “maximums.” Manhattan has actually had quite a bit of parking. But over time, as Manhattan has changed, the parking is being replaced by other uses. Yes parking minimums would prevent this but, in the long term, parking minimums are not forever.

    – – – – – – –

    D) Alon Levy wrote:

    Third, you’re confusing regulations on absolute density . . .

    Benjamin Hemric writes:

    The point I’ve been trying to make (a la Jane Jacobs) is that the effect of increased densities are different depending upon the existing density of an area. In low-or mid-density areas, added density is likely to be good. In VERY high density areas (areas that have already benefitted from how densities), however, adding yet even more density is likely not to be good.

    Perhaps I don’t understand the distinction you are trying to make, but I don’t see how it is supposedly relevant to the discussion at hand.

    – – – – – –

    E) Alon Levy wrote:

    Besides, when people can’t afford the Village, they displace current residents in Hoboken rather than move into new housing. It’s always easier to displace than to build up. One of the reasons everyone hates developers is that they know this and come up with creative ways to kick residents out.

    Benjamin Hemric writes:

    While this may, or may not, be true about Hoboken (I haven’t been there in a while), it certainly isn’t true in general — except in those instances where increased density in low-density areas is forbidden by zoning, etc. It seems to me that communities in the outer boroughs, in nearby Northern New Jersey, etc. are chock full of “new” construction — far, far, too much to mention — that’s been built because people can’t afford Manhattan.

    – – – – – – – –

    F) Alon Levy wrote:

    Fourth, fixed costs are an argument in favor of taller rather than less tall buildings. It’s the architectural equivalent of economies of scale.

    Benjamin Hemric writes:

    I still don’t see how this relates to the original discussion about how, in a marketplace environment, the construction of housing in relatively low-density areas is prodded when there is demand for new housing in an area, the high-density areas have become too saturated, and government regulations don’t forbid or discourage added densities in the low-density areas.

    Yes, there are economies of scale in building tall buildings, but these economies of scale are likely just as true (and maybe even more profitable) when buildings are built in relatively low-density areas (e.g., Greenpoint/Williamsburg, Long Island City, etc.).

    – – – – – – –

    G) Alon Levy wrote [added text and numbering within brackets is mine — BH]:

    And fifth, in practice, the reason it’s easier to build in Manhattan is the relative power of developers [versus the Community Boards]. [i] The Village is relatively anti-development, but other Manhattan neighborhoods, [ii] such as the UES, have enough people who can afford market rents that they don’t care. [iii] The Columbia and [iv] NYU student ghettos are entirely developer-run, so it’s easy to upzone there even when it’s destructive to the surrounding neighborhoods; the CBs only have an advisory role, and the city ignores them when big billion-dollar institutions lobby for things.

    Benjamin Hemric writes;

    As I see it, the discussion in this thread, stems from a discussion of Glaeser’s writings, which is basically about very strong community groups, e.g., in the Village AND on the Upper East Side, being “too” successful in opposing additional development in their areas. That’s Glaeser’s “axe to grind,” so to speak.

    So, whether current residents on the Upper East Side are in a position to afford new construction in their area, or not, seems to me to be irrelevant to the fact or the matter and to the discussion. As it stands now, residents of the Village AND residents of the Upper East Side (both areas being areas of the affluent and powerful) don’t want new development (especially high-rise development) and they’ve been “too” successful (in Glaeser’s opinion) in preventing it. That’s his “complaint.”

    So the argument that it is “easy” to increase densities in these areas is not only factually untrue, so it seems to me, but it also seems to contradict a major premise of the Glaeser writings under discussion, which seems to me to be the complaint that the people in these areas are too powerful, and that it’s not easy at all to build in these areas — but that it should be.

    And given Glaeser’s original arguments (and for other reasons as well) the Columbia University and NYU developments are both irrelevant to the discussion, so it seems to me. Furthermore, as a factual matter, it also seems untrue to me that the community groups of Greenwich Village are currently ineffective against NYU and other major developers!

    Benjamin Hemric
    Friday, May 27, 2011, 12:45 a.m.

    P.S. — Again, I may not be able to respond to comments, if any, for a few days.

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