The essay below originally appeared in The Avery Review, Issue 21 (January 2017) and was recently collected in a book called And Now: Architecture Against a Developer Presidency. This essay is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.
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Ego and social networks, more so than efficiency and expertise, are rewarded in the attention economy in which [real estate developers] operate.
Much has been made of having a corporate executive in the Oval Office. Donald Trump claims that, given his business experience, he will be able to be an effective negotiator, grow the economy, and make efficient allocation decisions with scarce resources. On the campaign trail, in tweets, and in televised debates, Trump has sold himself as a man of commerce, connected only to the material, productive economy and not the fictive, financialized one responsible for the Great Recession. He repeatedly criticized Hillary Clinton’s Wall Street ties, contrasting them to his own righteous independence, noting, “I don’t care about the Wall Street guys… I’m not taking any of their money.”
But real estate developers, particularly those in the high-stakes world of downtown commercial real estate, are not ordinary businessmen. Large-scale developers generally subscribe to a worldview that grants them considerable agency as strategic risk takers in an environment that is (according to them) largely of their own making. To see development potential that few others see, to take risks that few would want to shoulder, and to control the physical settings in which millions of people go about their daily lives—all this fosters a God complex to which few corporate CEOs would admit. Such sentiment is captured by Tom Wolfe in his novel A Man in Full, as the developer-protagonist admires the Atlanta skyline from his private plane. He mentally pats himself on the back: “I did that! That’s my handiwork! I’m one of the giants who built this city! I’m a star!” Ego and social networks, more so than efficiency and expertise, are rewarded in the attention economy in which they operate. Read more…
Doing construction in New York City is dangerous and expensive. Cut the pavement in the wrong place and crews can rupture gas lines. Hit a water main, short a backup generator. These sorts of mistakes cost the city $300 million each year. Worse yet are natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy — where floods caused a three-day blackout and left two hospitals without power — and threats like buried chemical tanks and national security issues. In Bloomberg Businessweek, Greg Milner follows the people who are creating the city’s first three-dimensional subsurface infrastructure map to create a safer city that can self-regulate and grow more efficiently, and where agencies and private utilities can coordinate. In a very real sense they are pioneers, of a frontier that lays below our feet. Detailing pipes, cables, sewers, wires and electric lines, even soil types, the map will be the first of its kind, and if it works, it could make New York a model for the world’s future smart cities.
Because of data from satellites, we can now map the world down to about 6 inches. We’ve almost reached the point Jorge Luis Borges describes in his short story “On Exactitude in Science,” in which cartographers built “a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.” But the world beneath our feet remains shrouded in darkness. “Light and radio waves don’t go through dirt like they do air,” says George Percivall, chief technical officer for the Open Geospatial Consortium, which is helping to develop global standards for underground mapping. “The next frontier, in both a literal and figurative sense, is underground.”
New York City’s daunting infrastructural labyrinth is like the “Here be dragons” decorating ancient maps. Underneath the 6,000 miles of asphalt and concrete road lie thousands of miles of water, sewer, gas, telecommunications, and electrical infrastructure. And let’s not forget the 500 miles of underground subway tracks or Con Edison’s 100-mile steam delivery system. In its entirety, it’s known to no one. The individual details of the vast underground are hoarded and guarded by the various stakeholders. Con Edison has its electrical map; the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) keeps track of water and sewer pipes; the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) could tell you where the transit tunnels are; and so on.
Imagine the city as a living organism, a body consisting of various systems—respiratory, nervous, skeletal—that share the same space and even intertwine. Now imagine surgery performed on that body by a surgeon who knows the location of only one system, who looks at the body and sees only blood vessels or bones. This is the odd condition of New York—a body subject to what, viewed through a wide lens, looks like perpetual triage. Each year, for repairs or to facilitate construction, the streets are sliced open 200,000 times—an average of almost 550 cuts per day, or 30 per street mile every year.
I get wrapped up in issues about gentrification in my hometown of Seattle. When I do look up to see how the story plays out elsewhere, it’s often in nearby San Francisco or Oakland or Portland. I look there for what we can learn and what we have to lose.
My own narrow focus is why I was surprised to read about the gentrification of Mullae, an industrial-artistic district in Seoul, South Korea, where “the neighborhood’s unique features were destroyed through over-commercialization.” It’s a familiar story, as artists to join with residents to keep neighborhoods like Mullae — or Boyle Heights in Los Angeles or New York’s Chinatown — authentic and alive.
The situation in Mullae now calls for artists and factory owners to unite in resistance to speculative capitalism. Otherwise the neighborhood will follow the model of Daehangno, Bukchon, Seochon, Garosu-gil, and Jogno in becoming a generic shopping district. Landlords in those areas earned fortunes by raising rents until the neighborhood’s unique features were destroyed through over-commercialization. What followed was not prosperity but hollowness. Young people stopped visiting areas that were no longer seen as “authentic,” and as retail dropped off, building owners chose to leave spaces vacant rather than lower rents. We see a hint of this now in Mullae, as several spaces on Dorim-ro have sat empty for the past few months, despite strong interest. The sole hostel, Urban Art Guest House, is on the last year of its contract, and proprietor Lee Seung-hyuck is not sure whether he will stay, as the building owner intends to triple the rent.
In the latest issue of Mother Jones, Clive Thompson investigated how the rise of autonomous cars, and Americans’ desire to live in more walkable cities, will mean no longer having to set aside vast amounts of land for parking lots. Many articles have offered a utopian vision of our autonomous driving future, but what I particularly like about Thompson’s piece is that he offers another vision of the smaller changes that are likely to come first—like cities eliminating requirements about how much space developers must set aside for cars, or a collective move to autonomous parking:
“You don’t need fully autonomous cars to get big reductions in parking. Already some cars can parallel park themselves. Carmakers could soon produce vehicles that you drive yourself but that, once you’re at a parking lot, you send off to find a space by themselves. Since nobody would need to get in or out of them after they parked, they could position themselves as snugly together as Tetris bricks, fitting far more cars into our existing parking lots and garages. Achieve even this small feat of self-driving, and it could be possible to never build another piece of parking, says Samaras, the Carnegie Mellon engineer.”
This “safer bet” is where the second generation of Portland’s food industry intersects with the region’s commitment to density in the face of growth. Micro restaurants and food halls celebrate small spaces. Their inherent informality appeals to diners who treat dining out as an everyday form of entertainment. The small, turnkey spaces make it easier for established local food businesses to expand. “It took only three months to get all nine Letters of Intent at Pine Street signed,” says project developer Jean Pierre Veillet, principal of Siteworks design-build firm. “There’s a hankering for small space in the city’s core.”
Projects like Pine Street and Bethany are the logical evolution of food carts — a codifying and commodifying of the once gritty first-generation food entrepreneurship. Done right, they will ensure that Portland’s food cred will continue to grow, one meal at a time. The statewide food system that fuels these restaurants, and other food-based industries, is also evolving. That is: The first generation of food business would never have taken off without the quality and diversity from Oregon’s small, family-owned farms. Will those conditions persist for the second?
—In Oregon Business, Amy Milshtein writes about the way a few new food hall projects signal the future of restaurateuring in Portland, Oregon, and how the city’s rising rents, increasing density and success as a food destination have pushed it into a new phase of greater polish, greater competition, higher financial stakes, and greater responsibility to create sustainable food systems.
But at what point should cities make this decision to stop subsidizing for-profit development? And how do they know when enough is enough? That’s the question being asked in Kansas City and in cities around the nation as downtowns bounce back from years of abandonment only to find that developers still expect the aid they were receiving when downtowns were far less profitable places to be.
“Urban leaders still tend to overpay for development because they internalized low civic self-esteem bred by decades of being told they were too polluted, too dangerous, or too school-deficient to attract investment,” says Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First, an organization that advocates for economic development policies that lead to better job opportunities for working families. “When the back-to-the-cities trend started taking root, albeit very unevenly, cities were so glad to finally land deals that they routinely overpaid, not having a solid grasp of the demographic and market forces they should have been channeling instead of subsidizing. It’s especially true for retail and entertainment projects, which generate very poor-quality jobs. I have yet to find a city that has figured out how to ‘take the foot off the pedal’ and stop over-subsidizing, even when gentrification becomes a problem.”
—Sandy Smith writing for Next City about Kansas City’s KC Live development, and and why cities are still paying developers to build in their downtowns—despite the fact that many downtown areas have become profitable again.
The city’s origins are clouded in rumour and speculation. Some describe it as a vanity project of Than Shwe, the former military leader of the country. Many believe the “audacious” name given to the city might reflect “illusions of grandeur or … perhaps another sign of [Than Shwe’s] possible dementia”, according to one 2006 US government diplomatic cable, released in the trove of documents published by Wikileaks.
Other theories have pointed to an increasingly paranoid junta wanting to move the capital away from the sea, fearing an amphibious US invasion. Instead, the seat of military and political power now sits closer to the restive regions where separatist movements and ethnic groups are pushing for greater rights for bitterly oppressed minorities, including the Karen and Rohingya.
The regime, and Than Shwe, pitched the move to Naypyidaw as akin to building a new Canberra or Brasilia, an administrative capital away from the traffic jams and over-population of Rangoon. Not many believe this story. “By withdrawing from the major city, Rangoon, Than Shwe and the leadership … sheltered themselves from any popular uprising,” suggest activists Benedict Rogers and Jeremy Woodrum in their book Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant.
Hillel Aron’s “The Last Freeway” was published in Slake in 2011 and appeared as a Longreads Member Pick in September 2013. It’s a story about a city (Los Angeles), a freeway interchange (where the 105 meets the 110), and a man (Judge Harry Pregerson). Aron explains:
“Well, my friends Joe Donnelly and Laurie Ochoa had this great quarterly called Slake, and I wanted to write something for them, so we sat down and talked about it… I think maybe I pitched it to them, I can’t remember. I’d was just always fascinated by freeways, growing up in Los Angeles, and I loved that Reyner Banham book, The Architecture of the Four Ecologies. When I was kid, I was completely enchanted by that 105 / 110 interchange, the carpool lane one, which towers above the city. It’s basically like a rollercoaster. Actually it kind of sucks—since I wrote the piece, they’ve turned that carpool lane into a “toll lane,” so normal carpoolers can’t use it anymore without one of those fast pass things. At any rate, I did some research and it turned out that (a) the 105 was the last freeway built in Los Angeles—the end of an era, really. And it was so tough to build that it basically set a precedent of not building freeways anymore. And (b), there was this nutty judge who turned the whole thing into a New Deal-style public works program to benefit the communities that were being bisected by this massive beast of a freeway. And he also ordered them to stick a train in the middle of it, which didn’t quite go to the airport, but that’s a different story…”
Passengers in the lounge car of the Empire Builder enroute from Chicago to East Glacier Park Montana, June 1974: Flickr, US National Archives
Thanks to a travel grant and a discounted Amtrak pass, Danya Sherman recently spent thirty days traveling around the country by train, studying the public realm of long-distance rail travel. Sherman formerly served as Director of Public Programs, Education & Community Engagement at the High Line.As a planner and cultural programmer, she hoped to learn what makes trains such powerful spaces for interaction, and how those lessons can be applied elsewhere in the urban environment. In a recent piece for Next City, she explored some of these ideas:
The long-distance train is one of America’s greatest and least heralded public spaces. Perhaps without intending to, the train encapsulates many qualities of public spaces that planners and designers try so hard to create. It is democratic in that it serves people across many different communities, geographies and interest groups. It is diverse in that it appeals to a broad spectrum of people across ages, ethnicities, races, nationalities and genders, and critically, it facilitates connections between these different people. (While traveling from New Orleans to Los Angeles, I met a gay couple going to Houston, a Latino family headed to Albuquerque, an indie rock-loving pizza-maker from Austin, a minister going to Tucson and an L.A.-bound retired merchant marine who taught me how to play dominoes.) Unlike planes, trains foster a sense of appreciation and curiosity about the landscapes through which they pass, which in turn help passengers develop a deeper connection to place.
The physical qualities that help to facilitate this sense of connection are human-scale design, a clean and safe environment, and an aesthetic that is straightforward and not overly fanciful. The dimensions of the car make it (generally speaking) cozy and comfortable, but spacious enough that you aren’t on top of the person seated next to you. (When people are too physically close they tend to retreat emotionally and mentally, as anyone who has ever ridden the 1 train during rush hour in Manhattan can attest.)
That long-distance trains aren’t designed with one specific aesthetic, demographic or psychographic in mind means that the ride is more about what’s unfolding within the space rather than the materiality of the car. It also frames the passing landscape in a way that makes it easy to use as a conversation starter. This follows the concept of “triangulation,” which William H. Whyte, a famous public space researcher and advocate, coined to describe a third element that gives people something easy to talk about.
Next we looked at street suffixes — the “roads,” “drives” and “boulevards” — and found that, for instance, homes on “Washington Street” are usually different from homes on “Washington Court.”
For one thing, a house on Washington Street is probably older. Different street suffixes were popular at different moments. “Streets” and “avenues” were stylish in the 1950s, “ways,” “circles” and “courts” in the late ’80s.
Street suffixes also offer clues about the size of their neighborhood. Boulevards and avenues include the most homes on average, while courts and lanes include the fewest.
Most significant, suffixes have a lot to say about home prices. Homes on “streets” are almost always among the least valuable. If you’re looking for a higher-value home, you’re much more likely to find it on a “way” or a “place.”