Friday, October 05, 2007

What Makes a Community: The Problem of Property Ownership and New Urbanism

On a recent day I was reminded about how we young architects often make assumptions based on the way things ought to be rather than the way things are in reality. I am currently involved in mixed-use town center project in the Rockies that follows a masterplan realized by the highly exalted prophets of New Urbanism, the firm of Duany, Plater-Zyberk (DPZ). Although New Urbanism is a more flexible guide to urban and community than many of its critics are willing credit, the masterplan in question was predictably consistent with the traditional New Urbanist aesthetic: dense blocks with street-level retail and several stories of housing above, traditional typologies that that define the various program along with modest building proportions that reflect visual hierarchies from the street. The feel of the DPZ renderings evoke an unmistakably European character, reminding one more of and idyllic Salzurg than a growing city in mountainous American west. There is a steeple-like clock tower, a piazza with grand stairs cascading into it, and stately cinema that looks more like a Parisian opera house than your average suburban multiplex.

And naturally there are blocks and blocks of housing on top of street-level retail, much like traditional townscapes anywhere outside post-war suburbia, but with a distinctively twenty-first century twist: almost all the units will be condominiums instead for-rent apartments. My more experienced colleague had objections with that particular part of the program, declaring that all sorts of problems emerge when people own and live in dwellings above retail stores. Noises, smells, and the coming and going of service vehicles are often too much for condo boards, which have been the institutional vanguard of NIMBYism. I can image nothing more unpleasant than squabbles between the hundreds of residential owners, the handful of retail tenants and the commercial landlord. Apartments are a better fit, since such distractions are tolerable on a temporary basis, and a renter understands that they will have no input on the management of their building. Remember that government (in the abstract) is set up to protect property. Therefore the property-less, such as renters, do not participate while the property owners like condo residents must participate and are fully entitled to defend their interests as much as possible.

Then why not turn all the residential development above retail into apartments, as is traditional in many old towns and cities? I suspect that there are particular financial limits that affect large-scale developments such as instant town-centers which favor for sale residences over just rental types. Funds for other phases of a project can be procured a lot faster by selling units before construction than waiting for rents to pay off the remaining balance over many years. Condominiums have thus become lucrative, especially in a world in which equity plays an increasing role in the raising of capital. As I've written in a previous post, condominiums are becoming one of the most powerful drivers of urban development and renewal, and many real-estate intensive industries such as hospitality are looking for ways of offloading major portions of their properties with for-sale units and timeshares.

Add to this the distinctive American proclivity in owning a home, and enjoying a God-given right to profiting from one's own real-estate and the notion renting or making easy money off rentals seems downright unappealing. Apartments have an important place in the housing situation of in the U.S., but it they are perceived as having temporary value and are not the foundation on which established communities are built. From the beginning of its history Americans of the most modest of means have enjoyed the enviable privilege of owning their own property, as the abundance of land that made it affordable and created new towns out of wilderness and yet made them promptly democratic in governance. Self-defense through gun ownership became a means of ensuring stability of the newly propertied masses along the frontier and had strangely equalizing effect on who wielded political power. In this new paradigm of the American frontier town, renters would become secondary citizens, the people who were not as financially invested in the affairs of the town as the property owners.

To this day, it is understood that renting is temporary and just a transitional stage to eventual home ownership. Sad to say, In most American cities those who permanently rent are seen as destitute or just plain eccentric. When discussions arise between parents regarding what school district to move to, the presence of "apartment" kids is seen as something to be avoided. Apartment complexes are not known for their close-knit sense of community and the low-rent variety are often used as canvases for the portrayal of social breakdown in the community. In addition to the expected shabbiness of un-owned residential units, crime is more likely in among renters who have no real power to monitor various activities. In the recent mayoral election in my home city of Dallas, one of the candidates made it part of his campaign pitch that he would push for the demolition of numerous apartment complexes throughout the city as a way rooting out crime (it makes me wonder what his political party stands for these days).

The disadvantages endemic to apartment life pose quite a bit of a challenge to one of the basic tenets of New Urbanism. To live in greater density and to mix uses vertically in a block may be admirable, but how does that square with the reality that those who chose to live in the blocks aren't committed to it in the long term? How does one create strong and permanent communities where everyone is a renter? It is sensible to desire the restoration of town planning principles that have served us all well until the beginning of the twentieth century. But it should be remembered that there was significantly different dynamic regarding the proportion of the few who owned property over the many who did not. Renting was a normal and long-term way of life, as it still is in older cities that have distorted the supply of housing through rent control. Since then the ownership of property has become more democratically distributed (not necessarily equally) to the point that it makes little sense to avoid owning anything in the long term. Traditionally in history, towns were built building by building, lot by lot, where owners would live in a portion of the building and rent other floors to residential tenants and businesses. New Urbanism collapses the time it takes to create an organic cumulative streetscape that takes decades to build into a matter of months.

This invites criticism about the lack of authenticity from such an accelerated process, but it points more significantly to the New Urbanism's ignoring of how communities in the past were based on a structure of ownership and rental quite different from today. The slow pace of development also ensured an ecclectic mix of people and various levels of ownership from level to within one structure, often with the business at ground level being associated to residential tenants in the building. That kind of connection is lost when there are tenants with separate and unrelated purposes: a chain store inhabits the bottom level, and the apartment residents do their own thing for a few years, neither of which has any stake to what they contribute to each other the surrounding community at large. This is compounded today when developers from outside community have no interest in maintaining ownership of what they have built and would rather choose to let the tenants of the building (none of whom are owners) manage their own affairs yet do not have the financial stake in putting changes into effect.

With condominium complexes, the desired mix of diverse kinds of people and uses are discouraged to the point of championing sameness and complacent behavior, suppressing colorful characters and spontaneous activities within the condo community. At least with renters, there is no pervasive pressure to conform to the strictures of a condo board, and a certain amount of freedom is tolerated from unit to unit. The only drawback there, is that while a diverse population is present, no one within it can make much of a ong-term impact in the establishment of a solid community. Condo owners can in this latter respect, but their predisposition towards oppressive rule making and discipline only leads to one-dimensional communities that prefer carefully staging an appearance of an authentic community over hosting an unpredictable and lively street theatre.

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