On the Preservation of Old Buildings

Comments

1
Charles, have you read Gaston Bachelard's "Poetics of Space"? I'd be curious to see how that jives with your conception of urban space.
2
you are so wrong right now. I WILL WRESTLE YOU.
3
Yeah Charles, go ask the proprietors of Manray and Kingcora - and the people who lived in the little apartment building behind it - if they've all found cheaper spaces on the hill.
4
If the new construction actually results in an increase in density -- the space isn't pissed away on setbacks, "open space", parking, larger units, or whatever -- then Charles is right, if unsentimental.

Unfortunately, that's not the rule for new development in this city.
5
It's true Jane Jacobs didn't particularly understand economics, and it's true that in general, the higher the supply of developed space, the more affordable it is for entrepreneurs or new households. In reality, there's always plenty of office space going begging. Local governments would rather allow offices to be built than any other type of development because they place such low demands on public services like education, parks, and trash pickup. 

Jane Jacobs would have had another major reason for opposing the development of 40-story buildings where one-story buildings used to be. In the empirical research that was her biggest contribution to the theory of how urban spaces work, she found that the security and livability advantages of density stopped between three and five stories up. Beyond that height you can no longer look out your window onto the street, and a trip downstairs and out onto the sidewalk starts becoming as big a deal as a drive to the soccer field out in the suburbs. Less foot traffic means less safety and fewer small businesses springing up. She would probably say, sure, pack the housing units in, build them right up to the sidewalk, but stop way before you get to the 40th floor. 

Libertarians like Glaeser like to claim Jane Jacobs as one of their own because they misread her as letting developers do whatever they want. The truth is a lot more complicated. It's not that a building taller than five stories can't be a nice place to live, but it's a lot more expensive because you need a lot more security. High-rise neighborhoods that work are not cheap places to live, and the dysfunctional ones are seriously scary, way scarier than any shantytown. 
6
Charles, I would argue that your position is too extreme. The situation can be thought of like environmental concerns. Government regulation is the only tool available to make sure that the profit interest of few isn't going to have permanent direct negative effects on the many. It is a balancing act. Otherwise, Charles, you would be leaning pretty hard to the capitolist camp.

When people morn the loss of institutions they rarely patronized, I am with you. The memory on capitol hill and all of its transplants is short and their nestalgia that of a child that lost a cookie. However, to presume that land ownership alone, in spite of a successful business with cultural and geographical significance, is free reign to tear down and build whatever is simply near sighted. There are costs in transition and costs in the perceived lack of identity, and costs to the people who must move, and many other costs that play no role on the balance sheet of a developer that the people and the government should weigh from time to time.

In short, I am often with you on this point, but try to add some nuance and stop being such a damn free market capitolist.
7
sadly, i agree with @4. @6, @4 thinking is my thinking precisely. but to borrow the words of rummy: you build with the city have, not the city you want. also, im still very much a marxist.
8
Old buildings add character, diversity, and identity to the area.

Don't believe me, go visit Boston.
9
"Preservation is an action in sacrifice of future possibilities. The future needs its own space." - Qingyun Ma
10
There's been a huge amount of new construction in Manhattan in the last 30 years. Let Bauhaus reopen there. Rents must be really low.
11
What about Penn Station? File:Penn_Station3.jpg">http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Penn_S…
12
sorry; this should work.
13
The wrinkle here isn't so much the simple supply/demand, but the actual cost to the tenant. An old building is usually paid for, and that cost was extremely low compared to current prices so a lower rent isn't going to bankrupt the owner (who is sometimes also the tenant). When a new building is built, or even when an old building is sold at current prices, there is a lot of pressure to be profitable which means much higher rents to cover the higher purchase price.
If you go around to the quirky little businesses in most cities that have survived the chains, the redevelopment, the gentrification, you'll find that most of them either own the building they're in or they have a very old landlord who also lives there. Otherwise they all get kicked out for higher rents from another Starbucks.
14
Excellent point, casusbelli. The Penn Station atrocity is the best example of why pro-modernist fundamentalism is wrong. The correct approach is to preserve neighborhoods and buildings that are worth preserving, but not get sentimental about crappy buildings just because they are old. In other words, moderation and pragmatism. Sweeping statments like Charles' are not helpful.
15
@8: the flip side to that is, try to rent an apartment or buy a house in Boston proper. Somerville, Cambridge, Medford etc don't count. City limits only. Good luck with that.
16
Yes, because tearing down anything with history and building huge dense glass towers has made Vancouver SO much more affordable.
17
@14, yes, but how do you implement guidelines for preservation that prevent new developments from getting bogged down in arguments about what should be preserved? Penn Station should have been obvious, but who ultimately will be tasked with deciding what stays and what goes? Most buildings, no matter how crappy, are precious to at least somebody.
18
The last paragraph is nice troll but doesn't fit in with the rest of this. King Street Station is functional for what it is. There is no redevelopment because the function of the building still exists.

If you want something to rail about density - go to planning meetings where the city discusses new buildings for its government offices. Libraries, jails, general office, blah blah - all stuff that must go in neighborhoods. They have eminent domain, so land cost and making cost efficient use of land is not a consideration. City departments routinely build one story buildings on land that should be multi-story because single story is the cheapest to construct. They have no fiscal demand to build higher.

The city rebuild libraries all over the city over the last decade. All one story, most with surface parking. Why didn't the departments with other neighborhood needs, or affordable housing, not get built on upper stories?
19
As usual, Charles oversimplifies to make his point. Old, historic buildings that are standing and being used aren't "memories," because... wait for it... they are standing and being used. They may evoke some nostalgia for a time when architects took pride in design in even the most basic structures, and builders took pride in construction quality, but that wasn't what Charles was talking about.
20
Glaeser is just flat out wrong here. I mean COMPLETELY wrong; he's completely bass-ackward. He doesn't understand what Jacobs was saying, and he doesn't understand how cities work.

Old buildings provide cheaper spaces. They just do. This isn't because they have "character"; it's because they are paid off. There's no brand-new half-billion dollar note to service; the old systems like water pipes and electrical wires are simple to maintain. The apartments and shops in them RENT FOR LESS.

New construction is horrendously expensive. Look at all the new condo construction that's gone up in the city in the past decade -- those are not cheap apartments, they are $350,000 condos. They WILL BE cheap, in fifty years, when they start to wear out, and have been repurposed once or twice, and generally join the fabric of the city, but they are FAR from cheap now.

In most cities, new construction is the most expensive to rent or buy.

Even in cases where new condo towers go up where previously only single-family homes were, density is increased but rents are not lowered -- they are dramatically increased.

What makes city neighborhoods work is the MIX of old and new. Neighborhoods that suddenly fill with block after block of new condos do not become cheaper; they become more expensive. They do not become (or stay) mixed-race; if anything, they get whiter. They certainly are not more accomodating to new immigrants. New immigrants (and inner-city people priced out of gentrifying areas) seek out older, shabbier, run-down, neglected, UNBUILT areas of the outer ring.

The more I hear from this Glaeser fellow, the more uninformed and nonsensical he sounds.

Poor people would never in a million years be allowed into any new building where King Street Station is. They are finding space in White Center.
21
You go too far, Charles, but you're right in spirit. Why shouldn't KSS be torn down? Because of all of the empty parking lots that are less useful and valuable. Like the one right next door that they've started turning into tall(ish) buildings.

Now the Ballard Denny's... no argument there. Though I still think this would have been a good compromise.
22
I find it curious that someone who worships thinkers like Benjamin can have such a view of urban development. Who wants to go for a derive in Bellevue? That is what rampant development is turning historic neighborhoods like Capitol Hill into. Density, fine. Fill in a parking lot. Developers that go plowing down historic neighborhoods to put up disposable architectural crimes are human excrement. Greedy soulless human excrement.
23
@20 You're missing some basic economics. Every new home we build in Seattle means one more family can afford to live here. Replace a 5-unit structure with a 50-unit structure, and that's 45 new units on the market. The old, shabby buildings just became less valuable.

"Poor people would never in a million years be allowed into any new building where King Street Station is." But there will overall be more supply in the city, so rents drop in the run down place nearby. And remember, today's new homes are tomorrow's rundown affordable units.
24
Edward Glaeser completely misrepresents Jacobs, at least as I read her. One of her main points is that successful neighborhoods have a diversity of buildings to support a diversity of uses. Older buildings have recouped their original construction costs and are cheaper compared to new buildings with the same amount of unit density in the same neighborhood. They will attract and keep lower-rent tenants compared to newer buildings in the same area. Also, with a mix of building ages, the neighborhood changes gradually and is more likely to avoid the boom and bust which is typical of neighborhood evolution. You don't end up with the situation where a neighborhood falls apart all at once with building types that are no longer useful for what's going on in the city and the neighborhood.

Towers add a lot of units at the same time, and so too many on a block can destroy the diversity of building types by overwhelming them with a particular vintage and set of uses. Also, they often violate other practices that Jacobs supported, such as short blocks with eyes on the street and lots of street-level retail that attract activity and reduce crime.

If people took her recommendations as a whole, they'd add density without falling into the many traps that happen when you add as much density as possible to add demand without thinking through the consequences to a neighborhood as a whole. She was really a lot more nuanced than most of her acolytes and critics.
25
Not much of an argument Charles, since you are as usual unspecific. Some old places deserve razing, some new buildings shouldn't be built, and so on. To your one specific point, KSS, you're wrong: It has provided many more, and lasting jobs, than a new building would have, merely by needing constant upgrading and repair. And it is a grand spire, a rare thing, in the midst of so much commonplace. When I drive by, it gives quite a unique pleasure.
26
@21, those parking lots are not King Street's. I don't think King Street has ANY parking spaces.

That new building is going to be mostly extremely expensive condominiums. Even the required "affordable housing" is defined as "affordable to people earning 70% of the King County median", which is $70,000 per household -- so, available to households earning $49,000 or more, which means, essentially, no black or Hispanic people or recent Asian immigrants (Hispanic/Latinos in King County earn on average 50% of the median; African Americans 54%, both well below the threshold).
27

Here's what I think.

Because of people such as yourself, Seattle stopped being Seattle in 1995.

Since then we've been looking for the next Seattle.

Right now the next best thing is Kent.

28
@23, the thing you're missing is that if you build too much too fast, you lose the old, shabby buildings entirely (and the old, not-shabby ones too, like the Bauhaus block), and then you've just killed off what makes the neighborhood work. So everyone that made the neighborhood work goes to a different neighborhood or even out of the city. So you have a less interesting, less useful neighborhood for the next several decades, after which everything will have to be replaced en masse because it becomes obsolete all at the same time.

The key thing with density is to phase it in over time, and to replace the buildings that aren't working or are falling apart. The hard part is preserving the older buildings that still work, and the people that come with them as either residents or regular visitors. I don't think anyone knows how to do that, and a certain amount of failure and neighborhood boom and bust is probably inevitable. But it's foolish to pretend that more density at all costs is the best strategy. Density is only one of several related factors that make a city work. Diversity of uses is another, and just because it's hard to do doesn't mean it shouldn't be a major consideration.
29
@23, the old shabby buildings just got a lot more replaceable, too, which means they too will soon be gone. There are virtually no affordable units left in many areas of the city that used to have them; those people are moving out, to places in the 'burbs. The central cities are filling with well-off white people, and are becoming bedroom communities for the main economic engines, which are are corporate campuses in the suburbs. The cultural engines likewise are the suburbs, where the immigrants go (where the cheap apartments are, and where the cheap new construction -- i.e., cruddy but affordable single-family homes way out beyond the urban ring, or in closer places that have been and probably always will be bypassed by gentrification, like Skyway and Delridge.
30
@23, re "basic economics". There's more to it than just "supply and demand". Supply and demand of WHAT? $350,000 condos do not contribute to the supply of the same thing as $600/month apartments; they are different markets.
31
Simply put, the places that are expensive don't build a lot, and the places that build a lot aren't expensive.

Any time an economist says "simply put," put your hand on your wallet and demand to see his sources. The odds that he's carefully sweeping a whole host of confounding factors under the rug with that "simply" are somewhere on the far side of 99%.

Manhattan prices are not going to plummet to Houston levels just because New York City adopts Texas-style preservation laws or the lack thereof. Any three guesses you might make as to why will probably all be to some extent correct.
32
Also: "cheap imitation of Venetian renaissance architecture".

All architecture is a cheap imitation of something else. Venetian Renaissance architecture itself is a "cheap imitation", i.e. a modern interpretation, of Classical examples from Greece and Rome. What gives any building its architectural value is its history of providing a usable and possibly aesthetic form (though aesthetic judgements are usually applied after the fact by overactive imaginations).
33
@31, bagels?
34
@33 that's at least 15% of it right there.
35
@30 Sure they are! They're just opposite ends of the market. Build more high-end condos and the prices for those goes down until not-quite-high-end shoppers decide to upgrade. Then their market pool is larger and housing at that level drops. Etc. More homes in the city equals more people can afford to live in the city.

@31 You're looking at only housing prices, not affordability. Sure, housing is very expensive in NYC, but even teachers in Manhattan earn 3x the national average. And believe it or not, NYC has just as restrictive a building environment these days as we do - housing would be more affordable if they were allowed to build higher and faster.
36
@26,

What if we lowered the affordable housing requirement to something that actually made sense?
37
@20: Pretty much. When you build new density in the urban core, you push the working poor out to the suburbs while giving rich hipsters nice new digs.

BTW, I don't think anyone would really want to live in a building where KSS is -- the freight traffic is constant and noisy. In fact, KSS itself never had its potential office space fully occupied; like most large railroad stations it was mostly vacant above the first floor.
38
We need more Venetian Bagel mansions.
39
@35, but THEY ARE NOT THE SAME PEOPLE. The number of $350,000 units is going up; the number of $100,000 units is going down (has disappeared, in fact). The affordable units are not in the city; they are far from it, forty miles or more. Poor people are priced out -- they can't afford their new property taxes. They MOVE AWAY; they don't "upgrade" -- they can't even afford to stay where they are.

There is a huge amount of internal migration going on here -- rich white people flocking to the central city, poor people heading out to the suburbs -- sometimes the same suburbs, now on their way down, that the white people just left.

You can get a house for ten grand if you want to live in Oil Trough, Arkansas. That doesn't have a lot to do with what happens in Seattle.
40
@37, not to mention the swarms of sports fans, almost daily in the summer, less often but more numerous in the winter, who stream past there. You can't get a car in or out after games. It's going to be interesting to see who wants those 700-odd units they're building there.
41
Real estate is segmented. Class A businesses don't lease Class B office space. Dive bars don't compete with Amazon for space but they do compete with boutique furniture stores. Knowing how the real estate market is segmented means you are better able to predict where and how gentrification will happen. The econ 101 supply & demand model Glaeser uses is a vast oversimplification of reality.
42
@39 What you're seeing is the demand side of the equation. We live in a city with so much anti-development NIMBYism that like 70% of our land area is single family homes. Of course prices are shooting up - we have ever increasing demand (our region's population is growing), yet very little new supply. We have very few more housing units than we had in the 1960's yet since then our region's population has exploded.

It's like limiting the number of toothbrushes manufactured because stores charge too much for toothbrushes. Crazy.
43
@42, what are you talking about? We have VASTLY more housing units than in the 60s. Most of the surrounding region was second-generation forest or scrub in 1960.
44
Exactly my point. The suburbs have grown, not Seattle.

Seattle population, 1960 census: 557,087
Seattle population, 2010 census: 608,660

Seattle has a giant "Keep Out" sign, written by NIMBYs, in the form of restrictive zoning and building codes.

Yes, we managed to build a bit in Belltown. But most of our city is preserved in amber. Do you really think that's good for affordability?
45
70% of our land area isn't single-family. 70% of residential zoned property is single-family and not by zoning, but by current *use*. Meaning that, a lot of current single-family use can be redeveloped into multifamily w/o zoning changes.
46
Glaeser is a fucking idiot.
Okay, my credentials: 1. I live in one of the most over built cities in California. 2. I'm a trained economist.

Glaeser is a fucking idiot because he assumes perfect knowledge available to EVERYONE about the supply and demand curve will result in a correct price and therefore "affordability."
Economists love to believe that the fairy tales they tell themselves and their students have real world applicability. Unfortunately, as the 2008 Collapse of Capitalism has shown, this is not true. If it were, banks and other "financial institutions" would never have made so many bad loans as a matter of self-preservation. Game Theory as advanced by John Nash, was spectacularly wrong (and in an ideal world, the Nobel Committee would have dispatched a team to take back their prize).
But where "affordability" was supposed to emerge because of more living spaces in places where lots of "living spaces" have been built, there is an overabundance of these places and they're well out of any sane person's notion of affordability (and yes, they're all empty). Exhibit A: Downtown San Diego. Exhibit B: Las Vegas. Exhibit C: The Inland Empire. Insert your own Pacific Northwest examples, but the deeply imperfect market we all live in has made no concessions to what a supply and demand curve dictate.
But hey, economic theory makes for great fairy tales for adults.
47
@46 You seem to be conflating correlation with causation (places where people want to live both have more people and is more expensive). And you seem to be conflating price with affordability. What's the median income in San Diego?
48
"Don't be sentimental".
Easy to say for somebody coming from a continent with practically no historic buildings living on a continent with practically no historic buildings.

Europe says "Fuck you".
49
I am against suburban sprawl, but if you tear down a 2 story building in manhattan and build and 20 story one, it will become either the ghetto, a corporate headquarters for some company, or an unaffordable highrise for rich people. If you go through Brooklyn, you can see many minorities live in rows of only 2 and 3 story historics. It's the white people who want to build towering beach-front style condos everywhere and shun un-remodeled spaces. A white person would complain about every little carpet burn to the landlord.
50
I could only agree with buildings specifically have normal rent. I hate cars for instance. I hate parking lots. Consequently, where I live is perfect, as they destroy parking lots regularly and build often low-income housing on them. One example is the continued Pearl Place, which is very green and low income. I like it quite a bit, is it was just a crumby parking lot before.

http://www.avestahousing.org/uploads/ima…

http://www.archiplanet.org/wiki/Pearl_Pl…
51
@44, you need to get into the neighborhoods more. The number of housing units IN THE CITY has increased hugely since 1960. Families are much smaller now, and the kids have largely disappeared, but the number of HOUSEHOLDS is much higher. Not just in the past decade, either; while Ballard and Fremont added a zillion units recently, neighborhoods like Ballard, Greenwood, Queen Anne, even Phinney Ridge and Magnolia are chock-full of dingbats and apartment houses built in the 60s and 70s.

The difference is these were not built as luxury units, even when new. They're certainly shabbier now than then, but they were always affordable rentals. Nobody builds those anymore, unless the city forces them to stick a few "affordable" units in to get a permit -- affordable in this case meaning income of sixty grand. But we are still adding units, by the tens of thousands, and have been all along.
52
@46 As you must know, being a trained economist, supply and demand do not result in affordability but rather in market clearing prices in perfect markets. Of course, a housing market is never really perfect (in the economic sense), but supply and demand affect price in a huge way. The reason that Seattle's housing prices are so high is because a lot of people want to live there and there is a limited supply of units. Matt's making good sense here, and he even brought in some data @44. If you want lower housing prices in Seattle, you've got two choices: build more units to increase supply or make Seattle a crappy place to live to reduce demand.
53
After being homeless for a year or so in NYC, I became extremely disillusioned with society and the hype and arrogance surrounding rents, and not wanting to live in the country or own a car, simply moved to a smaller city with anti-capitalist values. For instance, where I live now, it is illegal to paste up a sign, so most fast food restaurants are not here, as they cant advertise. I would imagine Portland Oregon would be good if tired of Seattle. People out west are afraid of ice-storms. Cold always keeps out the fuckers.
54
Charles, have you the remotest fucking clue how utterly, banally bourgeois your thinking is? Christola.