Thursday, December 11, 2008

Is NYC Becoming Too Dense? Who’s to Say?

Is it possible that parts of the city are becoming too dense? If that were so, would anyone have told us? Or would we perhaps know it first, as Jane Jacobs would tell us, sensing this for ourselves? There might be no official announcements, no official recognition. The answer is partially subjective and people’s opinions will differ. But when Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Daniel Doctoroff announced his departure, it was noted that in six years he presided over 78 rezonings covering about 16 percent of the city’s non-parkland, so maybe now is a good time to ask the question. There is building all around us, with some terrifically large projects proposed like the Solow development on Manhattan’s East Side and the Hudson Yards proposal on the West Side.

Experiencing Density: Herald Square and Bryant Park

I found myself asking the question of whether perhaps we might have reached a density limit one warm afternoon the fall of 2007 as I stood on one foot on a corner of 34th Street and Sixth Avenue at about 4:30. I was waiting for a space in the crowd to clear so I could put my other foot down to proceed in the general direction I wanted to go. I had just passed by some buildings on 34th Street that looked as if they might be sold for redevelopment. They have been demolished now. There was talk in the air that Macy’s might be lured from its home, undoubtably paving the way for even more density. Earlier I’d walked by Bryant Park marveling at the commendably intricate recent adjustments to its design but also noting how little of the late afternoon sunlight was reaching the park. A new Durst building about which many good things can be said was in the finishing stages on one side of the park. The building is very large.

Density is Good . .

I consider myself a proponent of density. I love New York City for its density. There are many areas of the city where I stand and look at recently built buildings and ask, “Why couldn’t that building have been built taller?” But where do we stop?

. . . But We Reach a Limit Where We Want Protection

Last year I was at a Landmarks Preservation Commission meeting when it entertained an owner’s application to take down the back of his townhouse in order to get more light and air after a new multistory residential tower was built close to his property line. One of the commissioners wondered whether “this was a first.” More typically property owners want to maximize the density they are permitted. The solution of tearing down your own property to create space between you and your neighbors, akin to buying an extra seat on airline for elbow room, may not be something many of us can afford but it is interesting. There may be other signs that the public is reaching its limit when it comes to density. Creation of historic districts and changes to the zoning code in order to have “contextual zoning” have developed new-found popularity. Each technically pursues another purpose, but each tends to have the effect of also holding down density, which probably contributes to the new zeal we have seen in their pursuit.

Higher Permitted Density as an Accelerator Pedal for Development (A Spongy Unreliable One)

While other things have a practical effect, the main control over density in the city is the city’s zoning code. As (most would agree) the city ought to grow, most neighborhoods are zoned to permit additional building and growth. In fact, zoning to permit a higher than current level of density might actually be regarded as sort of an accelerator pedal for wanted development and to stimulate development generally for its desirable effect on the economy. Other things being equal, if a robust economy provides gas, development will follow. The harder the pedal is pressed with a raised level of density (in other words the more permitted density is raised), the more pronounced the response. But if the economy is slow or conditions in the neighborhood not primed, this economic vehicle isn’t always quickly responsive. With the economy in steep decline, we may see, in contradistinction to last year, no impetus toward development.

Interrelationship with Other Neighborhoods, Projects, Subsidies: the Syphoning Effect

Potentially, the fuel for movement can be syphoned off by other neighborhoods competing with better incentives. That was true when the 15,372 Co-op City was built was built with subsidies. Among other things it is credited with having drained the Grand Concourse of its population. A project like Atlantic Yards, with its disproportionate subsidies, also stands to siphon off development from other areas.

The Density Lurch Forward, Just When You Want to Ease up on the Accelerator Pedal

Ironically, you often get the phenomena of a lurch or more pronounced acceleration of actual development and building just when communities might be want to ease off on the density pedal, viewing the density permitted as too great. Communities cannot quickly ease off the density gas pedal. This is because down-zonings must go through the city’s Uniform Land Use Review and Procedures process, which involves public notice and takes time. And these days, because of demand, city staff for the process is in short supply. Until the process is complete there is a race to the finish line as land owners and developers rush to construct “grandfathered” properties with zoning that will thereafter not be allowed. An additional incentive for quick last-minute developments may even be stimulated by the realization that competition will be precluded. This is the kind of race to the finish line that occurred with the contextual down-zoning that went into effect for Fort Greene-Clinton Hill in July 2007.

Downtown Brooklyn: An Example of Too Little Development Followed by Too Much Permitted Density?

Downtown Brooklyn is an area that has been historically slow to develop. In 2004 the area was substantially upzoned in pursuit of hopes that the area won’t continue to be so overlooked, but there will be lag time before hoped-for development will be seen. Even before the 2004 upzoning, greater density had long been permitted without being taken advantage of. We are only at the beginning of what the new permitted higher density will bring. Would some argue that new zoning would now permit too great a density or that the vision of the old provisions was actually superior? Until the advent of actual development the question was academic. The new Downtown Brooklyn zoning is accompanied by height caps so some of the harm of initial new building may be limited, but with rapid change the preservation of historic buildings is in particular jeopardy (see: Sunday, November 30, 2008, Landmarks Preservation Commission: Will Times Special Series Have it All Covered?) and the are other effects about which people are complaining (see: Sunday, December 07, 2008, Some Place Like Home: FUREE's new film takes on Downtown Brooklyn rezoning).

Increasing Density Gradually

Jane Jacobs, who considered herself a proponent of high density, was of the opinion that while density should be high, increases in density should be brought about gradually. (See: Saturday, November 29, 2008, Jane Jacobs Atlantic Yards Report Card #4: Appropriate Density? NO.)

By inference, if we find that density is being created too rapidly, we should pull back by pressing on the accelerator pedal of significant density upzoning in areas either not as hard or not as long.

Empirical and Subjective Contextually Based Judgment

In the end, how much density is too much must be an empirical judgement that will be based in large part on how it is experienced. No matter the actual usage, New York’s poorly designed Penn Station will tend to feel too dense in comparison to the much better designed Grand Central Terminal. And some density just works better; for instance, if mixed uses lead to use of space at different times of the day. Density works better with short blocks and frequent streets.

Desirable Density and Respite

Manhattan, the most densely populated county in the United States, is very much a center, and should tend to be dense. But all of it? Probably we want different areas with a variety of densities, with neighborhoods cleverly intermingled so that one needn’t travel far to partake of density’s stimulation or respite from it.

Recognizing How High Permitted Density Often Is Already

Currently the Borough of Manhattan is about 147 residential units per acre in its densest areas. On average, there are about 37 residential units per acre in the entire borough (the borough is more than just the island) including all parks and unoccupied areas. The most direct zoning control of residential density is the zoning code’s limit of maximum “floor to area ratio” (“FAR”). It often isn’t practical or possible to build the maximum permitted FAR because of other limitations such as height or setback requirements, but what people may not appreciate is just how relatively high a density FAR requirements sometimes permit. Where a plaza, arcade or lower-income housing is involved, density can reach a permitted 700 dwelling units per acre, (the maximum residential density permitted by the State Multiple Dwelling Law), a substantial move up from the 147 figure for the current densest areas. (700 d/u/p/a is exclusive of streets, frequency of which can vary.)

Whose Voice Is Heard When It Comes to Recognizing Appropriate Levels of Density

The institutionally well-represented real estate industry spurs city agencies and politicians who are alert about generating development revenue; this ensures that there is continual opportunity for growth. There isn’t a shortage of places to build, though developers complain about the price of land. But when it is a question of needing to ease up on accelerating density, that is mainly left for the public to sense though it lacks institutional support for the task.

A Modest Proposal: Time-Limited Upzonings

Sensing when maximum desirable density has been reached is a little like trying to drive while looking in your rearview mirror. First come the building permits, then the steel girders and shadows as walls fill in. But until buildings are occupied the experience you’re headed for isn’t there. Given the built-in lags involved, perhaps city upzonings should be implemented with “sunset” provisions, where permitted densities automatically fall back to lower levels unless communities revisiting the question affirmatively endorse keeping higher density possibilities in place. Such an approach might actually result in development activity that is more responsive to upzonings. If you think about it, it could also address developers’ complaints about high land costs. That is because developers’s age-old nemesis, speculative land owners who refuse to sell, would be faced with a ticking clock: sell now or be faced with a rollback of the upzoning there to be taken advantage of.

Looking Back at The Times and Back to Bryant Park

What is written above represents, with little modification, thoughts that a year ago we proposed the New York Times publish, most likely in the form of an op-ed piece. You may correctly infer from seeing our post here that the Times didn’t run with the suggestion. Mostly the Times has not considered the subject of what is an acceptable density in its home city even though areas of New York are poised to become rapidly more dense. At the beginning of this piece we observed that Bryant Park may be surpassing the level of density at which its amenities can be appropriately enjoyed. A few months after we submitted our proposal to the Times, it ran an article that picked up on our observation about Bryant Park. (See: Bryant Park Braces for a Tidal Wave of Traffic, by Glenn Collins, June 5, 2008.) The photo on the side ran with the Times article (click to enlarge).

For a large scale view of a photo that provides an even better representation of the astonishingly dense level of use that Bryant Park is now getting go to Flickr. There you will see the photo (spring lunch at Bryant Park, vol. 3) that was used in the Gothamist when it briefly commented on the Times’ Bryant Park story. (See: Bryant Park to Get Even More Mobbed, June 5, 2008.) (With appropriate permission we might insert that image into this post later.)

These pictures reflect the level of use Bryant Park is getting now, not what it will be getting when the nearby buildings are all fully rented. Because the economy is suddenly slow and office vacancies are climbing, we may not experience that day as soon as we were about to.

Remediation: Durst We Say We Have Reached a Limit?

The Times article began `cute’ with a Yogi Berra quote saying that one day Bryant Park “will be so crowded, nobody will go there anymore.” Remedial measures are being taken to accommodate larger crowds. The park is being altered with more hundreds more tables and chairs being added and ivy beds are ripped out to make room for them.

The new Durst Bank of America building* (with its spire, the 54-story building is the second tallest building in New York City, after the Empire State Building) did not legally have to become part of the Bryant Park Business Improvement District but it did and therefore, together with the Times Square BID, it will be voluntarily paying fees into one more business improvement district than it needs to. That is unusual and while it may be helpful in addressing the problem of the new density to which the building is contributing we may be well past the point where it could be a solution.

But before envisioning where we will be, we should look where we are. From the Gothamist’s follow-up to the Times article, (a quote from Daniel A. Biederman, president of the Bryant Park Corporation):

BPC chairman Daniel Biederman contends that “no other public park in the world is as densely populated,” with Bryant Park packing in over 1,000 bodies per acre – and that’s not even close to how mobbed it gets when HBO screens movies in the summer . . . – and your knees are in your chest.
The Times, ending full circle with a reference back to Yogi Berra’s quote, concluded with New York City Parks and Recreation Commissioner Adrian Benepe’s opinion that, in the end, Bryant Park may be protected by “a self-limiting factor . . .If it’s too crowded, people just won’t go in.” But maybe we should consider that we are simply building at too great a density when the only available open space in an area is space that people feel turned away from.

* (The Bank of America Building was able to be shoehorned into the neighborhood at the maximum possible density because eminent domain by the Empire State Development Corporation facilitated it. In this case the threat of it was sufficient. See Durst buy-back plan sparks controversy, Real Estate Weekly, Dec 3, 2003 and Developers Can't Imagine a World Without Eminent Domain, by Terry Pristin, January 18, 2006 and Demolition Man, Why can’t anyone fight developers anymore? Because builders have discovered that if the state likes their proposals, Pataki will tear down whatever is in the way, by Karrie Jacobs Published April 19, 2004 )

(Modified image below, uses photo from the Gothamist.)

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