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Forty Percent of the Buildings in Manhattan Could Not Be Built Today (nytimes.com)
321 points by strivedi on May 20, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 233 comments

> New York’s zoning rules were intended to create less cramped quarters, but they also have consequences for the number of aggregate apartments in the city. Such limitations can quickly decrease the supply of housing, and most likely drive up rents. If every tenement in the city were reconfigured in these ways, they would be less crowded, but there would also be fewer apartments to go around.

Another part of the article says almost 3/4 of the square footage in Manhattan was built between 1900 and 1930. I'm not sure how these regulations are supposed to have anything but a profound effect on rents. I can understand that people want to preserve aesthetics, but at what cost?

There are many working class people who have unconscionable commutes into Manhattan partly because of NIMBY zoning laws.

These regulations are the results of social evolution, and explain why it's so hard to be a young adult today, across all industrialized societies.

I believe that the saying "The first generation makes it, the second generation spends it, and the third generation blows it" applies to societies as well as families. Current policy makers have no idea about the cost at which today's societies were built, and take for granted what they've been given and squander it. NIMBY laws are absolutely an example as the cherished old buildings were built in a different type of political climate and could not be built today, ironically.

"The first generation makes it, the second generation spends it, and the third generation blows it."


Interestingly, this adage about hereditary rule is one of the loan phrases brought back after the First and Second Anglo-Afghan wars. Primarily these were from the language of the ruling Pathans (as we would call them Pashtuns.)

The original Pashto, more literally translated:

"The grandfather was born in a tent. He remembers living in a tent. He will lead the people well.

The father was born in a tent. He remembers both living in a tent, and living in a palace. He will lead the people well.

The son was born in a palace. He has never lived in a tent. He will not lead the people at all."

There are several of these Afghan sayings, from both the Pashtunwali and folk-wisdom, that the British officers brought back home. The most well-known of these most don't realize is an Pashto loan phrase at all:

"Revenge is a dish best served cold."

It's much more universal than that. Variations on this proverb occur in many, many cultures and languages:

there’s nobbut three generations atween a clog and clog

dalle stalle alle stelle alle stalle

quien no lo tiene, lo hance; y quien lo tiene, lo deshance

富 不过三代 (wealth does not pass three generations)

Probably wishful thinking. Here is an analysis done that shows wealth lasting 7 centuries http://www.vox.com/2016/5/18/11691818/barone-mocetti-florenc...

That doesn't necessarily contradict the proverb. It's saying that somebody who starts out poor and then rises is still likely to have descendants who are poor. That is actually a statement that social classes are sticky.

Piggy backing off your comment to share these two great contrasting articles on maintaining wealth.

First the Vanderbilts (who lost it all) http://www.forbes.com/sites/natalierobehmed/2014/07/14/the-v...

Then the Mellons (who have never been richer) http://www.forbes.com/sites/abrambrown/2014/07/08/175-years-...

Probably my favorite series of work from Forbes.

Gloria Vanderbilt has an estimated $200 million, so I wouldn't say the Vanderbilts lost it all. Rather than 3 generations shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves, it's more like 5 generations from America's richest to merely very rich.

Alfred Vanderbilt was less fortunate. He decided not to take the Titanic at the last minute, but 3 years later was on the Lusitania when it was torpedoed. Despite not knowing how to swim, he gave his life jacket to a young mother and died. (This is an interesting counterpoint to yesterday's article "Does power really corrupt" about how the rich are less caring.)

Alternatively, 7 centuries without new lasting wealth / dynasty's. Clearly, some groups understand how to maintain wealth, but for most newly wealthy it's easy come easy go.

On that time scale, I'm guessing IQ differences would come into play.

I'd be fascinated if they did a study on whether noble lineage predicts intellectual performance.

As a piece of side-data, Jews have, for many centuries, been above-average in wealth, and it's well-understood now that they're also above average in IQ. They've also long been discriminated against and sometimes massacred. Even in Nazi Germany, where Jews were openly hated, they remained wealthy. Even after WW2, when their families had been butchered and their homes destroyed and their things stolen, they quickly became wealthy again within a few decades.

In this case, it seems the Jewish IQ advantage consistently weighs more in their favor than their social disadvantages weight against them.

It's mostly a culture of investing in education for their children and working both smart and hard in business. Plus, there were tons of piss-poor jews in the US and elsewhere and tons still are.

Plus, there are tons of explanations for the advantage besides IQ: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ashkenazi_Jewish_intelligence

It's quite a stretch to know that one group has a higher average IQ (by ~10 points) and yet still insist that there is some other explanation for why they are economically successful in every society.

I mean seriously. Question is there: Why are Jews wealthy? Answer is there: 110IQ. These are obviously the fixed cause and effect; everything else (e.g. culture of intellectual achievement) is just the fuzzy link between them.

>* It's quite a stretch to know that one group has a higher average IQ (by ~10 points) and yet still insist that there is some other explanation for why they are economically successful in every society.*

Actually, you probably just confuse cause and effect. Why do the jews have higher IQs? Answer: because they are wealthy, so their offspring have had the benefit of better nutrition, better early care, etc, and better selection of healthy and intelligent prospective partners. Tons of hereditary and environmental factors come into play just by being wealthy.

Not to mention that not all -- or even the majority-- of jews are wealthy, nor are all successful. These claims are mostly the province of stereotype, not to say racism.

I sincerely doubt that it's genetic. There just simply wasn't enough population isolation to generate that level of genetic variation over the timescale involved (even a couple kiloyears isn't that long in evolutionary terms.)

In the early twentieth century, the world also marveled at Jewish athletes. That isn't exactly the stereotype anymore.

If you perform even a casual examination of Ashkenazi Jewish culture in the United States (if such a monolithic group could be said to exist), you'd see a few fairly common elements: bilingual study from an early age, a strong focus on education as the path to wealth, strong family ties creating a social safety net, kin-group contributions both tangible and intangible, and among the wealthy, all the factors that go along with having wealthy parents.

Wealth confers a bevy of physical advantage: early childhood nutrition, sanitary living conditions, and a stable family environment all come to mind.

Finally wealth conveys a package of invisible advantages: better parenting strategies, more parental involvement, intellectual confidence, social belonging, really an entirely different series of mental models for understanding and navigating the world.

People underestimate exactly how much parents' shape their children's destiny. Data from admissions programs, studied during ththe affirmative action and legacy admissions arguments, demonstrates the single most powerful predictor of a student's likelihood of finishing undergraduate education isn't GPA, SAT, or high school institution; it's the level of education completed by their parents.

The point is that it is very difficult to disentangle the effects of any combination of wealth, genetics, epigenetics, and a particular culture, especially compounded over generations.

No, the study shows that similar families are rich today as back then. It does not say what happened in between. It could well be that these families lost and regain their fortunes multiple times.

Strictly speaking, the aphorism relates to the nouveau-riche. Old money may have other aspects of social entrenchment to wealth, which is only disrupted by major social disasters like World War I or the Black Plague.

Life is more complicated then Keynes at places. SARDAR title is bestowed after 5 generations for example in PUNJAB regarldess of what 3 of them did with their money.

It's really not some crazy idea. I'm sure you've heard

"My grandfather rode a camel, my father rode a camel, I drive a Mercedes, my son drives a Land Rover, his son will drive a Land Rover, but his son will ride a camel,"

That reads more like a joke about Land Rover maintenance costs.

Yeah, it's so common as to have become a television trope.

It's not difficult to see how a life of luxury can cause one to divorce the notion of wealth (or power) from the hard work necessary to obtain it.

Formal name for the pattern is regression toward the mean:


that quote is just about oil running out.

The source of the quote, Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, died in 1990. By my reckoning the last Land Rover generation will have been born by now.

And this precisely defines the reason for the existence of institutions, which can continue the execution of a set of values longer than a single lifespan of a human. A well designed institution can continue to amass wealth and power throughout its multi-generational existence.

I'm fascinated by this topic. How do the legacy-type families do it? I'm talking your Kennedies, your Bushes, etc. Preserving wealth and power for generations?

An excerpt from http://www.forbes.com/sites/carlodonnell/2014/07/08/how-the-...

"Joseph P. Kennedy’s choice to place his fortune in trusts is possibly the single most critical reason why the family wealth is still around today. The most obvious benefit was to protect the fortune from the prying fingers of ne’er-do-well heirs, said Laurence Leamer, who wrote three Kennedy biographies. Trusts often prevent beneficiaries from tapping more than 10 percent of principal, said Rick Kruse, principal at Kruse and Crawford, which offers estate management advice.

The trusts also protect the family assets from another set of prying fingers: Uncle Sam’s. By holding assets in so called “dynasty trusts,” which are passed from heir to heir for decades, if not longer, the Kennedy family fortune is largely insulated from the estate tax, Kruse said. Handled correctly, a dynasty trust could potentially maintain an un-taxable fortune indefinitely. The oldest Kennedy trust on record dates back to 1936."

The same way "legacy type" universities, or "legacy type" companies do it. An institution is a set of processes, governing rules, and feedback mechanisms which serve to reinforce the core mission. Individual (fallible) control is ceded to the rules and processes in exchange for ensured existence.

Harvard University is a good example of a durable institution, look at how its bylaws and processes protect its mission, but more importantly how its feedback mechanisms try to identify and purge potential threats to the institution. In a lot of ways it is similar to programming, only with people who can be modeled as unreliable computers which don't always follow their instructions. So you need interconnected missions of individuals to support the institution's mission. At some point if you have enough individuals who are off script the institution will fail, but with clever process and incentive one can minimize that risk.

W.R. Hearst set up a family trust with limited control by family members.


Many urban building typologies are effectively illegal in nearly all of the country (but not Manhattan below 110th Street) due to parking minima, even in supposedly-unzoned Houston.

One of my great hopes for autonomous vehicles is that they will finally break the political logjam where existing neighborhood residents demand new housing/businesses in mostly parking-free neighborhoods require offstreet parking to preserve their own access to street parking. (And that bike lanes/pedestrian space/etc that require taking back some of the land that car owners usurped at midcentury become possible.)

For dense city cores I'd prefer parking at the edges (part of the city) and forms of people movers (think caves of steel / tomorrow land belts).

For other places I agree that eliminating street parking is ideal, but believe that more underground/in-building parking is necessary, with enough space for useful vehicles to park safely.

Honestly, in Manhattan they should eliminate automobile access to a great deal of the streets and avenues.

They are in the process of doing it, at least slowly.

There still needs to be some sort of delivery truck access, irregardless. Parts of downtown Chicago provide an interesting example with multi-leveled streets, the big deliveries and trash collection can be all be done out of sight.

I suspect very soon we will see a city, or multiple cities, start blocking off certain streets and then neighborhoods to non-autonomous vehicles. Maybe it will be Manhattan, maybe it will be another city. This lowers the bar for how advanced the self driving tech needs to be by a lot. You can have 100% traffic enforcement. Pedestrian deaths should almost be completely eliminated short of some very unusual edge cases.

Sounds like they should resurrect the pneumatic delivery system.


It had never occurred to me to limit streets in cities to autonomous only cars, but that makes total sense.

I've recently been musing on a similar theory, but for safety regulations, redundancy, and preventable disasters, for example at nuclear power plants, or the recent example with the Washington DC subway system shutdown. Initially, there are lots of safety regulations and redundancy, and the power plant goes for a while with no accidents. Then, either the people working there fall into complacency and get lax on the safety regulations, and/or politicians or higher-ups looking to cut costs cut some of the redundancy, in either case thinking "it'll be fine, there's never been an accident". Then the inevitable happens, and suddenly there's a renewed interest in safety and redundancy. Rinse and repeat.

The implication of this is that while it might be theoretically possible to operate a nuclear power plant safely for an indefinite period, the inevitability of relaxing safety regulations after a long period of no accidents virtually guarantees an accident after a certain amount of time. I'm not sure if there's any empirical (i.e. non-anecdotal/confirmation biased) evidence to support this theory, or what could be done about it if it were true.

See also: The resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases every few generations, because parents who never experienced the disease since their generation had the vaccine decide that their kids don't need the vaccine.

I've been thinking along similar lines for many years, though with the language of externalities. For example, here's a comment of mine from 2012: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4361596

I haven't thought about safety like you have, but my bias is to wonder if part of the reason regulations get lax is that they first get complicated due to the influence of people motivated by their own selfish interest. Perhaps over time people add crap to regulations, which makes it hard to sift wheat from chaff, and this leads to backlash? With the final sin being to forget Chesterton's Fence? That would fit with my experience.

One thought-experiment idea I had was a society governed not by rules but by unit tests for rules. That would allow any cop or citizen to globally change a rule if he found an exception that didn't violate existing tests. See the final section of http://www.ribbonfarm.com/2014/04/09/the-legibility-tradeoff. Of course then the problem is that people would start gaming the tests rather than the rules. That's as far as I got.. :) These days I try not to think about the hard instance of this problem, and instead focus on an easier problem: avoiding externalities in software projects using more thorough tests. That's going a bit better.

NYC is still very cheap. With roommates and an hour long commute, you will be looking at $700-800/month rent.

Why is an hour long commute considered acceptable?

If you value your time at $50/hr, a daily 1-hr commute equates to an additional $2,000/month

People who live with roommates an hour away to save money almost certainly don't value their time at $50/hr.

In addition, it may be useful to have some sort of mental model of how you value your time. "Seriously, you make six figures and spend an hour a week doing some task you despise to save $5?" However, most people aren't in a position where they can directly trade in, say, an hour of commuting time for a check.

I value my time much more than my space. Hence living with roommates close to work.

It's not by any means outrageous when the average commute for people not living in NY is probably ~30-40 minutes.

Software engineers in Silicon Valley earn $250k+ and many are still willing to live in SF with a 1-2 hour commute one way.

All I need now is to find the person willing to pay me $400 every night for sleeping.

Alternatively, I can slap whatever "value" I like on my time, but since I'm not the person paying me, that's just some words to make me feel good about myself. It's actually "worth" whatever I can convince someone to pay, and I can't find anyone willing to pay me for doing nothing for them.

what's so bad about sitting on a train for an hour? its some nice personal time to do whatever you want or just space out and relax.

Being stuck on a train for an hour isn't the end of the world. But taking the same train ride twice a day, 5 days a week?

I value my time highly (not because I'm some rockstar who bills $300/hr, but because I like having autonomy over my own life). Assuming I sleep 8 hrs/day, work 8 hrs/day, and spend 2 additional hrs/day doing chores like showering, cooking, random errands, working out, etc, that only leaves 6 hours of free time.

With a two hour roundtrip daily commute, that cuts my free time by 1/3 and only leaves me with 4 hours to myself. Thus I place a high premium on those 4 hours.


I think it's absurd that 1 hr+ commuting times are pretty normal (I live in NYC, and even 2-3 hour commutes are pretty common), and I think we should be striving to reduce this wasted time by increasing density in cities, making transportation more efficient, and increasing workplace flexibility (eg. embracing remote work).

I think it's a bit of an open question whether density will end up cutting average commute times.

It hopefully enables more people to have short commutes but the lower density housing around cities doesn't go away.

maybe I'm weird but I recently traded the density and short commute for a longer bus commute (hour each way) out to the suburbs and I actually like it better. I like having my work and home be two completely separate worlds, as well as not having to smell fermented bum pee on the suburban bus routes.

Personal time on a train? We must have very different ideas about personal time. Or maybe trains.

For how many square feet of non-shared personal space?

Lol, I can't tell if you seriously mean this

The reason those commutes are awful is not because Manhattan is unaffordable. The areas around New York City are among the least functional urban zones I've ever encountered. Total, utter, abject mismanagement of resources——and I say that as someone who used to live in Sheldon Silver's district of Manhattan. It's unreasonable to expect Manhattan to be affordable, but it's not unreasonable to expect the surrounding areas to be safe, able to operate trains, have reasonable housing, etc.

I'm sorry if I offend anyone, but New Jersey and Long Island are a toxic trash fire compared to somewhere like Tokyo. I wouldn't send my worst enemies to live in a place like Jersey City or East New York.

I have to agree. It always boggles me when I visit Manhattan and think to myself: "This is one of the richest and grandest cities in human history - so why are the public spaces so putrid?" Constantly stepping on old gum and cigarette butts...and God help you if you need to use the subway on a hot summer day.

I often feel the same way walking about San Francisco and encountering the unmistakeable stench of human excrement.

Having been to old European cities like Berlin and Rome, I was surprised at how graffiti-strewn their walls tended to be, but at least their streets were CLEAN!

Berlin is without a doubt the nicest city I have ever been to. Every time I go there, I think to myself, why couldn't the T in Boston be 10% as nice as the U/S-Bahn system? I absolutely hate cities, and I think I could possibly stomach living in Berlin.

It's a shame the US really came into its own around the time of the automobile. Once cities were designed around cars, it became impossible to dislodge. Old European cities were constrained by the distance one could reasonably travel by foot, so they were densely packed together. When I lived in Rome for a short while, every service I needed - groceries, dining, haircut, gelato - was within a 3-block radius. Pretty much the entire city was like that.

As much as we want to densify in the US, the fact is that two-lane streets with sidewalks HUGELY increase the distance between buildings and are horrible for walkability. Most of the twisty streets in Rome could fit 1 Fiat at a time.

I wish we could do that here, but we would A: have to knock down almost everything and start from scratch, and B: figure out a way for emergency services to get there and back quickly.

I agree with this. With cars came the idea that different parts of the city could be optimized for different things. Work in one place, shop in another, sleep in yet a third. But that means you have no option but to spend a lot of time traveling between these places.

Another small thing that makes a big difference: in Japan there is basically no street parking anywhere. There's a ton of small automated parking lots, and lots of car-elevator parking. When you buy a car, the police visit to confirm that you have a private parking spot. Not having the visual noise and clutter of parked cars everywhere makes it easier to keep the place clean, makes room for bicycles, etc.

If you think that Jersey City or East New York are representative of the areas around New York City, then you don't know the region well at all. Along the commuter train lines extending out of the city you will find many of the most beautiful, safest, most walkable, best-educated (with good public schools), most politically-engaged, and community-oriented towns in the country.

Yes, there is a massive disparity of wealth in New York City, and in the region generally, and that definitely has an impact on the livability of many places within the region. The suburbs of New York are among the most wealthy communities in the US, but several of NJ's cities are among the poorest; unfortunately, there is also a racial component to that disparity that must not be ignored. To really live well in the NYC area, unfortunately, you must have money, which makes living here very hard for many young people starting out. But beyond a doubt it is easier (and cheaper) to live well around New York City and still be an hour's train ride from downtown than it is in San Francisco or LA. And only in this region do you still find successful adults who don't even have a driver's license, let alone a car.

I don't know Tokyo, so I can't comment on the direct comparison you made. But I would suggest that every urban area in the world has its disadvantaged neighborhoods, and if you are comparing the wealthiest parts of the cities you have visited to the poorest parts of the NYC region, then that is not a fair comparison.

I lived in lower Manhattan for 20 years. I know the region well.

Perhaps you would consider places like Forest Hills, Queens or Bushwick, Brooklyn or Staten Island or Hoboken or Teaneck or Westchester to be the "most beautiful, safest, most walkable, best-educated (with good public schools), most politically-engaged, and community-oriented towns in the country". For me, none of those places are within even the top 200 "most beautiful, safest, most walkable, best-educated...etc." places that I've been to in America or elsewhere.

Do I have high standards? Yes. My personal opinion is that the area around NYC sets a low standard and achieves against it, and that comments like yours perpetuate the fundamental issue, which is essentially a stubborn kind of underachievement.

I was thinking more Summit, Madison, Larchmont, Bronxville, Mamaroneck, Ramsey, Ho-ho-kus, Sleepy Hollow, Tarrytown, Nyack, Nanuet...and that's a pretty short list, and not including anywhere in Long Island or the 5 Boroughs.

One thing that you will probably agree with, being as you are someone who lived for so long in lower Manhattan, is the fact that most people who live in lower Manhattan will frequently find reasons to avoid leaving the confines of Manhattan and Brooklyn whenever possible. Perhaps you don't know the region as well as you think you do?

OK, but, why do people avoid leaving the confines of Manhattan and Brooklyn?

I had a car for many years in NYC, and I mostly used it to get as far away as possible. That liminal zone outside the city is beyond depressing to me. I've never been a huge fan of suburbs (even the quiet, tree-lined ones), but huge swathes of the areas around NYC are best described as semi-abandoned, litter-strewn, century-old, razor-wired-wrapped, pigeon-shit coated blight. And the means by which one passes through these areas are broken. The highways are perpetually "under construction", yet covered in potholes. The trains are crowded, dirty, late, filled with crazy people, on fire, etc. Half the cars are being driven by people who probably don't have valid licenses, and have the common courtesy of PCP addicts. Trashcans overflowing with rats scurrying around. Piles and piles of trash bags leaking toxic fluids into the gutters and sewers. And every ten blocks or so is an "am I going to die today if I walk near here?" housing project. (Probably you won't die, but don't use your iPhone!)

I'm sorry, but it's a disgusting mess and we can and should do sooo much better. I'm not someone who wants the world to be a Connecticut country club——in fact, I would almost hate that more. I'm talking about a civilization where people carry around a reasonable amount of shame and humility and build atop the nice things that others have left behind instead of accruing sedimentary layers of ill will and misery on their own doorstep.

(For the record, even Manhattan, and definitely Brooklyn don't meet my standards either. Tokyo. That's a far bigger city in a country with a failing economy, but is clean, pleasant, and orderly in every direction.)

Dangerous idea: Tokyo is that way because it's full of Japanese people. New York will never be that way because it isn't.

>Tokyo. That's a far bigger city in a country with a failing economy, but is clean, pleasant, and orderly in every direction.

The country may have a failing economy but it's also a vastly different culture to a degree that makes it hard to compare. London is probably the fairer comparison.

I'm not really going to defend Manhattan though. I lived there one summer--albeit in the 80s as a student when there was a lot worse things about it than today. But, much as I do like visiting from time to time, I'd never want to live there.

> The country may have a failing economy but it's also a vastly different culture to a degree that makes it hard to compare. London is probably the fairer comparison.

The bits of London outside Manhattan are also pretty rubbish.

Look, as a fellow 20-year New York City veteran, you can see in this city what you want to. You're clearly taking a bleak view on it. I'm sorry you've viewed so much of the city through this lens and been turned off by it. But this really speak more of your lens than intrinsic qualities of the city.

I agree with you that the educational infrastructure here is sadly lacking. And the highways.

I largely disagree with most everything else you've shared. Jersey City and East New York aren't remotely similar to each other - huge swaths of Jersey City are perfectly livable and lightyears ahead of East New York, which is notoriously one of the city's most challenged neighborhoods. Huge swaths of Jersey City are also downtrodden, but... it's an entire city. It varies up and down. East New York is just a single neighborhood.

Trashcan cleanliness is middle of the road - I've certainly seen better but I've certainly seen worse. New York is a far cleaner city than the stereotypes suggest. Some blocks are absurdly filthy. Others are pristinely taken care of and perfectly clean.

I couldn't disagree more strongly on your attitude about housing projects. They are not death zones. You're not placing your life into your hands by walking through them. You can use your iPhone walking straight through the middle of many of them and you will have zero problems of any kind. You're doing a real disservice feeding into peoples' worst paranoid fears about housing projects. Some have more problems than others. Most are filled with decent people and most are far more stable than reputations suggest. Some housing projects I'd feel uncomfortable walking through But most I wouldn't (and don't).

And so on. We could debate these perspectives forever, but I've learned quite clearly that you can take two people who live in this city for the same exact amount of time and find one who views it as a filthy godforsaken land of misery and poverty while the other sees it as an inspiring place full of passion, beauty, and inspiring and deeply giving people. Eye of the beholder is a real thing here. I won't fault your perspective but I seriously challenge the idea that it's some uniquely accurate perspective.

I, for one, couldn't imagine wanting to live in Tokyo over New York, no matter how pleasant it is (but I wouldn't mind better train service).

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, you had me laughing out loud.

However, there's something you're missing: just how dynamic this city is. And I'm afraid part of that is the Manhattan bubble that makes it hard to see what goes on outside of there.

Namely, you mentioned a list of neighborhoods earlier that matched the litter-strewn image you alliterated to here. It's true that many are shitholes from an aesthetic perspective. Some of the local neighborhoods also have your common element of suspicious, aggressive people who seem to pay no mind to tossing litter, etc. And Brooklyn drivers seem to have this 'Neglectful Psychopath' sort of persona. And teenagers ride around on dirtbikes, shuffling zombies yell and moan in line in front of the methadone clinics, etc. We can continue forever painting these sorts of images.

But these places were neglected for so long, with a poverty rate so high. Meanwhile there's a breakneck pace of change. You didn't mention Cobble Hill, which was a shithole, or Fort Greene, which was a bang-bang shithole recently, nor Prospect Heights before Barclays Center, unrecognizable and cheap a decade ago, nor (let's keep going backwards), Williamsburg with its empty Bedford Ave (as little as the early 00's there was little of what there is today, as I recall going there for music lessons). Let's keep going backwards: the East Village was a litter-strewn shithole where you had to walk in the middle of the street to avoid getting mugged (Alphabet City, I'm talking about), now you have multi-million dollar condos going up between aves B and C! Let's keep going backwards: Soho, and even Greenwhich Village?

This city changes, and that's one of the themes of the article we're referencing. Some of the areas in Brooklyn making a comeback were once where the wealthy specifically lived (some of most beautiful, custom-stoneworked brownstones are around Putnam and Hancock in southeast Bed Stuy where investment bankers are now moving). Now that the city's attracting so many residents, there's outward pressure to expand and finite supply of housing in which to do so.

Bushwick will never be a Connecticut Country Club (unfortunately, because then I wouldn't have to avoid walking on dog poop all the time). But it's becoming more and more an area like the affluent parts of Brooklyn (slowly but surely), which themselves have met or exceeded your comfortable little corners of lower Manhattan (where I also lived 10 years). Even places with 40% poverty rates have condos going up and NYU grads moving there.

In fact, the pace of change is so breakneck that DeBlasio got elected on a platform to protect those most affected by the change. And that's a constant theme of the City Council too. Demand is so high, the demand is pushing these 'shitty' areas to improve. Gentrification is a topic on people's minds and a source of arguments all day, every day here.

I'm going long on your detested outer boroughs: I've bought a place. And yes, in the meanwhile I have to clean up the garbage of my neighbors as it floats into my yard.

Gentrification is a topic on people's minds and a source of arguments all day, every day here.

I grew up in the East Village in the 1960s. One of my favorite memories of Tompkins Square Park, when I returned for a visit in about 1980, was graffiti that read "stop the gentrification of the Lower East Side". So gentrification is a process that has been ongoing in NYC for many many years.

I'm going long on your detested outer boroughs: I've bought a place.

I'm with you in terms of where to live. I'm raising a couple of kids in a suburb of Portland Oregon, and it's infinitely nicer than the East Village of the 1960s. And, for kids, it's probably much nicer than the East Village of today (but I don't know for sure since I only return about once a decade).

There are so many attractions of living in Manhattan. But there are so many downsides. E.g. your neighboring apartments' cockroaches become your cockroaches. Their mice become your mice. The single 15A electrical circuit that powers your entire apartment is inadequate. The Hare Krishnas waking you up when they walk down the middle of the street, chanting at 4 AM. The week-long non-stop fireworks around the 4th of July. Etc.

C'est la vie.

Well, it sounds like you are part of the solution, and that's the only way it will ever get fixed. When we say that a place has been neglected, the people who live there are ultimately to blame. A civil society is a bottom-up effort, not top-down.

You've probably seen it but WNYC has a whole podcast series on gentrification and East New York in particular.


You cherry picked the one Metro North line that's not a total hellhole. Median Rent in Mamaroneck is $4700/month, Median house sale price is over a million. It's 27 miles from Grand Central and you will spend 2+ hours a day getting there and back minimum.

Even Connecticut has gone nuts. Once you get past Greenwich it's a (literal) train wreck all the way to Boston.


I purposely named towns on four separate rail lines, and there are probably two or three dozen more communities with a similar profile in the region that are similarly well-connected by rail. Yes, Mamaroneck is one of the more expensive communities I named; for what it's worth, though, Mamaroneck is 36 minutes from Grand Central by train (which is one reason it is more expensive). Other places are much less expensive, although you may be on the train for an hour or so before you get to where you are going in the city.

44+ minutes at morning rush now. Buying a million dollar property then watching your commute times increase 10% every few years is another joy of living in the area.

Would someone care to explain the condition of Hempstead without invoking racism?

The areas surrounding Manhattan are very safe (especially by American urban standards) and the MTA is an reasonably capable railroad operator. It's terrible at capital projects, however.

The MTA is a pretty horrible railroad operator. It goes far beyond being bad at capital projects. They're not good at day to day operation of a railroad (look at the % of trains that are deadheaded). They're not good at labor relations. There is insane intra-organization disfunction between MetroNorth and LIRR.

Worst of all, they're seemingly getting worse at safety.

I believe a large part of the problem is that the MTA is actually funded/managed by Albany instead of NYC, even though it only serves NYC. That makes 0 sense. I also think it's time to eliminate the distinction between the LIRR and MetroNorth.

> I believe a large part of the problem is that the MTA is actually funded/managed by Albany instead of NYC, even though it only serves NYC. That makes 0 sense. I also think it's time to eliminate the distinction between the LIRR and MetroNorth.

Brief storytime about the MTA. When the subways were built from the 00s through the 20s, some of the lines were owned by private operators, specifically the IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit) and BMT (Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit), and some were owned by the city: the IND (the INDepdent Subway System).

Then, then depression hit. Fares were pegged at 5 cents. All the private companies were bought by the city. The MTA was formed. Now, by the early 50s, the MTA controls the entire subway system.

Around this time, Robert Moses works to convert NYC to a fully car-based city. Subway ridership declines. The elevated lines are torn down, streetcar service halted. The MTA goes bankrupt in the 1970s. They're bailed out/bought up by Albany, thus leading to the current system where Albany controls the MTA.

I agree that control of the MTA should go back to the city, but good luck getting Cuomo to give it up.

> They're not good at labor relations

Indeed, yet the labor unions are also part of why the operating costs are so high. Each active subway train requires two human employees according to union policies. On lines with CBTC installed, no humans are technically required. The unions also fight against automation improvements such as this that could dramatically improve capacity and cut costs.

> There is insane intra-organization disfunction between MetroNorth and LIRR.

Not to mention NJ Transit, the PATH, and, forward-looking, DeBlasio's proposed waterfront light rail (which would be operated by another authority entirely).

Fascinating. Robert Moses and his car-heavy vision of the future was a seriously misguided effort. My guess is that a lot of the current squalor around the city leads back to his desk, too.

If you are looking for an excellent book about what Robert Moses did for/to New York, I would recommend the Power Broker by Robert Caro (who is also known for his (ongoing) definitive biography of Lyndon Johnson):


As well as a raging racist. Not just a firehose and attack dog racist, but full on these people in these neighbourhoods do not exist in my mind, racist.

> MTA is actually funded/managed by Albany instead of NYC

The MTA board has six members appointed by the governor, four appointed by the mayor, and 1 each appointed by the county executives of Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester. There's also four members appointed by the county executives of Dutchess, Orange, Rockland, and Putnam but they all share one vote. The funding situation is even more complicated.

Come to Japan, and I will show you safe cities and trains that work. Even your measuring stick is broken.

> The areas around New York City are among the least functional urban zones I've ever encountered.

I would assume the greater NYC is the best functioning urban area in the USA?

However, if you measure by European or Japanese standards, then everything in USA is bad.

I remember on reddit when a Swedish guy started randomly looking at Google street views in northern Indiana, and was remarking how the occupied properties look like they were abandoned, and how often guns were brandished at the Google StreetView car. The houses looked exactly the same as those within a 10-minute drive from my house in a major American metro area.

A big part of it is how young American cities are. Many European cities are celebrating 800 or 1000-year anniversaries. Many American cities are celebrating 100 or 150-year anniversaries.

"I would assume the greater NYC is the best functioning urban area in the USA?"

Probably not. I'm thinking Denver and Minneapolis, pound for pound ?

Maybe Las Vegas ... as terrible (aesthetically) as Las Vegas is and as hellish as I think it is to be there, it seems to function fairly well.

Actually, now that I am thinking about it, I'll bet San Diego is probably the best managed urban area in the US.

Well, the public transit in SD is terrible. There is the "trolley", which basically a toy serving the downtown, and a bus system where most of the routes stop at 7pm and don't run on weekends at all. I recently moved back to the Washington DC area after living for some years in SD and despite the troubles of the Metro, it is 1000x better than the SD situation.

"Well, the public transit in SD is terrible."

Agreed. But the question was which city is best managed, not which has better amenities in one or the other category.

Having lived in both DC and SD, I would give say San Diego is relatively better managed.

"Another part of the article says almost 3/4 of the square footage in Manhattan was built between 1900 and 1930"

That isn't exactly unexpected when pretty much every factor in construction says that it gets harder to build the more developed an area is. Comparing pictures shows that plenty of high buildings has been built since then. [0] [1]

"I can understand that people want to preserve aesthetics, but at what cost?"

Politically motivated zoning rules isn't first and foremost about aesthetics, it's about preserving property values (at the high end) and not being squeezed out (at the low end).

[0] http://stuffnobodycaresabout.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/... [1] https://c2.staticflickr.com/6/5133/5513286501_4589ac5cc0_b.j...

>There are many working class people who have unconscionable commutes into Manhattan partly because of NIMBY zoning laws.

It's partly because of NIMBY zoning laws, but I'd say it has more to do with our awful public transit system. It's bad enough trying to head downtown within Manhattan on the Lexington Ave express -- commutes from the outer boroughs can be measured in hours. There are no plans for new subway lines (excluding the 2nd Ave subway, which isn't even fully funded) and city council won't approve true bus rapid transit.

> There are many working class people who have unconscionable commutes into Manhattan partly because of NIMBY zoning laws.

Why are these people so eager to work in Manhattan if working there sucks so much?

If employees refused to work in places with unacceptable commutes, employers will create other places to work.

If enough people want to "live the dream" or have some reason they Absolutely Must Work in Manhattan, all the dressage in the world won't stop it from becoming intolerable.

While capitalism tends to balance itself out, zoning laws aren't as flexible. It's a fine line between inconvenient to intolerable, as more and more people living in San Francisco are discovering.

Because an office in Manhattan gives you access to talent from the entire heavily populated (20 million) and relatively well educated NY metro area. (Which in turn grows because highly educated people are drawn there for employment opportunities. Positive feedback cycle.)

An office in SmallTown USA gives you access to the talent of the 10,000 people who live in SmallTown and an additional 10,000 people who live in the vicinity and are willing to drive 30-60 minutes to your office. And anyone who's educated and had a choice has moved to a larger city.

> And anyone who's educated and had a choice has moved to a larger city.

If they've rationally moved to the larger city, I don't see why anyone should cater to their problems.

You can't have it both ways, where people are rationally moving to cities but also surprisingly victimized by cruel city commute times.

Also, there is also plenty of room between SmallTown and New York City. It's a strawman to think the alternate to to Manhattan is a town of 10,000.

Sure there's in between sizes, but the population willing to commute to a suburb of NYC is also small relative to the city proper; as is the population available to a mid-size city (which may have commute time problems of its own and doesn't have the employment draw of the hugest cities).

And people may both move irrationally in search of employment and move rationally despite huge commute times (if the greater chance at a higher income outweighs the commute time for you). Or you may move based on rational principles but incorrect premises about how long you'll have to commute. Or move despite a long commute with the expectation that working in the city will give you chances to advance in your career and soon be able to afford a shorter commute.

I'm not claiming there isn't a problem, but these numbers seem odd to me. 75% of the square footage was built between 1900 and 1930. But only 40% of the buildings could not have been built today.

Is it that new buildings are roughly half the size? Or did they somehow manage to build buildings between 1900 and 1930 that could have been built today? If they could do it then, what is so hard about doing it now?

Most buildings in Manhattan are old. Many of them are larger than current zoning would allow. It is very hard to change zoning law, or the political status quo in general, in wealthy neighborhoods in Manhattan— we have accreted a process that makes change very difficult, though not as ridiculous as San Francisco.

Many new buildings in Manhattan are built in central Manhattan neighborhoods where tall buildings are legal. But new buildings built in wealthy areas of lower Manhattan can be smaller than older ones. See this rendering of 300 Lafayette Street, to be built in place of a gas station, and about half as tall as the 1920s building down the street: https://si.wsj.net/public/resources/images/BN-OA513_NYWTD0_P...

Even midtown Manhattan has zoning restrictions, which is crazy to me. People like to talk about preserving neighborhood characters -- well the neighborhood character of midtown (say 30th-50th excluding east of 3rd) is tall buildings and streets as canyons. That should be a free for all except for preserving a few key buildings and their environs (e.g. grand central).

Similarly, the telos of the LES and EV are cheap houses built as densely as possible at the time they were built to house poor immigrants. You honor that history most by allowing dense housing not by preserving ugly block after ugly block in situ.

By all means preserve Striver's Row and some of the nice block of Greenwich Village but there's no good reason to keep large parts of Manhattan static. Let Manhattan be Manhattan, if you want static move to some quaint village in Westchester.

My understanding is that in Midtown there's been a stronger appetite for building tall on the avenues vs. mid block between the avenues.

That's, as I recall, why there was the infamous chopping of 200 feet from the under-construction Nouvel Tower on West 53rd St - right smack dab in the middle of the land of skyscrapers.


which in my view was a minor travesty and loss of a great skyline opportunity.

1. I'm assuming the 60% were small enough, short enough, set back enough from the property line, etc., that they would meet zoning regulations.

2. The population of NYC has increased quite a bit since 1930.

>2. The population of NYC has increased quite a bit since 1930.

I don't think the population of NYC has increased that much from 1930. By 1930 NYC was a massive city and many boroughs have shrank since then.


Shows were population shrinkage and growth have occurred.

Manhattan used to be far more dense than it is today


True, but Manhattan, where people think it the most packed, hasn't. The population has gone down.

I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that, for most visitors, Manhattan is basically midtown--and they've certainly seen pictures of the financial district even if they've never gone down there. Even for a lot of residents, Manhattan effectively ends at around 100th Street or so. (I've been going to Manhattan all my life and even lived there for a summer and I've never been north of Central Park except to drive into the city and to visit The Cloisters once.)

To me, there's a potential implication in the headline that doesn't quite paint the right picture. Today's zoning code express a plan for dealing with the good and the bad of aspects of previously constructed buildings.

Today's zoning code deals with the height and bulk and uses of existing buildings as facts when determining the hygienic requirements of future buildings. Existing non-conformities are part of the logistical plan for handling change. The tightening of rules over time is the result of the strain prior laxity places on resources today.

This is great analysis. Zoning laws still leave plenty of opportunity for new construction, and Mayor De Blasio has made major changes to encourage new construction, which is the only potential solution for the high housing costs on the East and West US coasts.

For an example of what zoning laws were trying to avoid, look at images of Gotham City from Tim Burton's 1989 Batman, where the buildings grow outwards as they go up like trees trying to absorb all sunlight. http://illusion.scene360.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/tim-...

Manhattan is less dense today then it was a hundred years ago, but it's density can and should increase as taller, healthier buildings are added. http://www.vox.com/2014/9/23/6832975/manhattan-population-de... (Written from the 22nd floor of the first LEED Platinum certified apartment building in Manhattan.)

Reminds me of Barcelona prior to expanding beyond the Roman walls:

"As there was no more land left inside the city walls, all kinds of inventions were used to build more lodgings – houses were literally being created on empty space. Arches were erected in the middle of streets to be built upon, and a technique called retreating façades saw house fronts extended out into the street as they rose up – until they almost touched the building opposite (this practice was banned in 1770, as it prevented air circulation)."

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/apr/01/story-cities-1...

No one wants to go back to the days of tenements, but we need to relax these zoning rules. We need more housing stock at every income level except ultra-luxury.

What's wrong with tenements? [NB Scot here and tenement pretty much means "block of flats"]

Scotland is the exception to the rule that "tenement" is used to refer to the most substandard and overcrowded multi occupancy housing https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tenement

Apologies, was blissfully unaware of that usage.

I live in the "large rooms, high ceilings and ornamental details" kind of Scottish tenement here in Edinburgh - only major downside being the impossibility of charging a electric car/hybrid.

NB And yes, we do have a garden although we're on the 2nd/3rd floors... ;-)

Tenement has a specific meaning, at least in the context of Manhattan, of extremely crowded immigrant housing especially in the late 19th and early 20th century. e.g. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lower_East_Side_Tenement_Museu...

Ok, and what's wrong with that, if the market demands it?

Slumlords tended to not maintain the buildings well, and poor air circulation during hot New York summers meant that people would facilitate disease transmission a lot more readily.

Oh, hey, that's a really good answer, thanks.

Also fire codes.

Nothing at all is wrong with tenements. The East Village and LES are full of old tenement apartments that rent upwards of $2500-$3000/month.

They've also all been converted, after the first and second Tenement House Acts were passed in the early 20th century, making old-style tenements illegal.

In a true tenement, you'd easily have a flat with no windows and no bathroom. You'd share a toilet with several other flats and your shower would be in your kitchen, with no door to separate it from the rest of the kitchen. If there were a fire, you might not have any access to a fire escape other than the front door.

I used to live in a converted tenement in Lower Manhattan. It was incredibly clear that the entire apartment building had been rearranged twice to comply with the new laws. (This is why dumbell style apartments exist). I certainly would never want to live in an actual tenement. There's a very good reason they're illegal now.

What you described sounds like a modern dorm room or hostel, except without window requirements.

Ah but a dorm room has a window requirement and indoor plumbing. Doesn't sound like much but it is.

A New York tenement at its worst has windows on the front and back face only, which are the main room of the appartments since they're the only one to get any light. The building covers the maximum buildable surface of the lot. It is rather narrow and very long. The bedrooms are in the middle of the building with no windows. You don't need light. There's no bathrooms in the building, you use a latrine in the back of the lot.

Most of them got renovated to at least have internal windows, a sink (and therefore plumbing) in the kitchen and toilets on every floor after the code was improved.

Here's a sample floor plan that's representative of early tenements: https://www.nygeo.org/tenement.jpg

Later you got the Dumbbell tenements with windows to the outside in every bed room and, often, an actual bathroom. They've often been renovated to be quite nice today but originally it was about minimizing cost and maximizing rent revenue extraction from the working poor.

Going of on a tangent here:

My current apartment has similar a railroad layout from your picture. I absolutely love it. I keep the "parlor" area neat and clean (which is where front door is). When I have people over, they usually don't come further then that.

Like the monarchs of old, the deeper I allow you in my residence, the more I favor you. From the parlor, a door leads to the kitchen. Most people don't have business there, so I can leave dishes in the sink and what not. And behind kitchen, a door leads into the holiest of holiest, the bedroom. You're a lucky devil if you made it all this way, nudge nudge.

My apartment before this had a more contemporary layout, was even a little bigger, with open kitchen-living room, bedroom/bathroom organized around central hallway. It kind of stunk. Everything sort of was the same, it was difficult to compartmentalize, so when I ended up cleaning I ended up doing the entire thing. There was no progression, no differences in "formality", so the entire thing gave itself away the moment you walked in.

It must be fiendishly hard to design commodious living spaces within a small square footage, but I've become a fan of those shotgun layouts, it works well IMO!

Funnily, the Montreal take on the railroad apartments usually has a narrow hallway going to the Kitchen which is the deepest room.

The bathroom will be "in the kitchen" often as a closet with only a bathtub and toilet, no sink. It's not uncommon for the kitchen sink to be on the same wall as the bathroom and this is the only place with plumbing in the flat (a retrofit, same with electricity and gas.)

Living room will often be right before the kitchen and a "double room" with a large archway separating the two. Meanwhile the front room will often also be a pair of double rooms and normally they're bedrooms with a curtain for privacy or a built up wall.

Usually you only see this layout in older rental units where "renovated" is code for replacing the 1950s gas furnace with baseboard heaters halving heating costs, painting and 100 amp electrical service with breakers instead of 15-30 amp service with a fusebox (my brother's old place had only two 15 amps fuses for the whole apartment. If the fridge's compressor kicked in while the microwave was cooking, pop!)

Right. Because what you see in Jacob Riis' photos for example look just like a modern dorm room in the US. [1] /s

[1] http://youthvoices.net/node/20103

Link was down for me, assume he's talking about this photo (Five Cents a Spot): https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/jacob-august-riis-l...

Works for me but, yes, that's one of his more famous photos.

1) Not far from some dorms I've seen - but yes, most now have A/C, and all have a sink and a window.

2) Better than living under a bridge, no?

You'd share a toilet with several other flats

This was still quite common in the 1960's in the East Village. I wonder if those buildings have been renovated since, or if those conditions still exist today?

I know at least one person who still lived in an apartment like the that in Greenwich Village in 2012, but yes, the vast majority of those have since been renovated.

I dunno man, there's plenty of housing, and room to build it, once you get outside New York City.

The dumb part, I think, is the tendency for humans to huddle together in ever-greater masses in the corners of our vast continents, like Emperor Penguins.

Penguins, of course, do it so that they don't freeze to death. But many of the people who live in New York seem to just want to live in New York so they can live a New York lifestyle because that's what looks cool on TV.

I live in a tenement in Brooklyn. It's perfectly nice.

What's wrong with ultra luxury? Rich people spend a lot of money.

I think op was just excluding them from the statement that more are needed. There are plenty of ultra luxury properties available in NYC.

How about fewer residents?

Higher density is much more efficient. There is so much expensive infrastructure that you must have that you can share (roads, sewers, phone lines etc.) and infrastructure that's not even viable otherwise like different forms of public transit. If you don't like cities for esthetic reasons you can always move to the country side.

However, as density increases, the supporting infrastructure also can get significantly more expensive to create. Case in point: NYC's Second Avenue subway line that's been in the works for somewhere between a century and a few decades, depending upon how you count, and will end up costing something like $20 billion.

True. But that's probably still cheaper than just the roads alone would be if all those people were living in the suburbs.

Why are there so many businesses/jobs in Manhattan?

At least in London: Every employer moves to London because that's where the employees are; and every employee moves to London because that's where the employers are.

Of course I don't mean /literally/ every employer or employee. But I've certainly been offered jobs in remote locations and turned them down because the locations only had one employer who needed someone with my skill set.

Before railroads, the Erie Canal was one of the few ways to ship bulk goods over the Appalachian divide. This caused the mouth of the Hudson to be a center of trade, particularly shipping goods to Europe. To make money on the return trip, they would put passengers in steerage and so lots of immigrants landed in New York City.

Even before the Erie Canal, New York City was basically the best port on the Eastern seaboard so it was a natural trading center when it was initially settled by the Dutch. (And the Hudson provided good access to the interior even without the canal.)

Because a service and investment economy is based on proximity to those with money as opposed to proximity to factories or resources.

well autonomous driving will do that to cities more than public transportation did.

Not Manhattan, or most other dense cities. There is simply not enough room for every human being who wants to visit to have 50 square feet of steel, rubber, and plastic around them.

I think many are vastly underestimating what full autonomous driving will do to society and movement patterns. Granted it won't be all on the individual level but it will reshape both cities and country side.

Leaving aside timeframes (which I'd argue for cities are decades out) for purposes of discussion, Manhattan is perhaps notable in how relatively little I'd expect autonomous vehicles to affect it. After all, it already has vast fleets of self-driving cars. They just have (admittedly often rather flawed) organic computers in control.

I'd be much less surprised to see impacts in more distributed areas where I could easily imagine people becoming much more tolerant of very long commutes. Especially if, at the same time, there's a greater overall acceptance of sometimes-remote work in some professions, it's not hard to imagine people doing a 2-3 hour commute a couple of days a week.

Why not let the market decide what needs to be built?

Edit: Built too many luxury apartments and those come down I price and are the new middle class apartments. It's the developers loss. Built tons of tenements and either people are happy over cheap housing out no one moves in and they get upgraded or even cheaper. It's magical!

Or surplus luxury apartments simply go unoccupied, being used as stores of value.

Yeah, I know about that from other articles. That sounds like a inefficiency that will resolve itself as that market gets saturated and these apartments go down in price. They will be much less attractive investments then. If you prohibit the market from going its course they will remain empty.

because the market is dysfunctional, for many different reasons. did you read the original article? it describes some of that dysfunction.

The original article describes dysfunction caused by regulations, that would improve overnight by market actors simply it wasn't forbidden.

some of the regulations are necessary and important. others of them are corruption of the system by (literally) rent-seekers trying to protect their incumbent positions.

sorting that out is no easy task. saying "that would improve overnight" sounds like an embrace of oversimplification, which I think is an inappropriate position for an issue like this with so much complexity and uncertainty.

Yeah, apparently "skinny towers" and "boxy apartments" are for some reason undesirable.

The headline is a bullshit statement, and the reporter should know that. I don't expect click bait from the NYT.

Urban zoning isn't the same as the burbs. Most of those buildings could be built today, but would require a variance. The buildings that would "never get built" today wouldn't be a result of zoning, but the ADA -- the need to have ramps eliminates new construction of walk-ups and the requirements for wheelchair accessible elevators increases the cost of construction, reduces square footage and makes it too expensive to build buildings similar to many common Manhattan buildings.

In the case of NYC in the last decade, they also require paying off politicians. If you follow NY news, you'll notice that the US Attorney has been very busy investigating that practice.

Many buildings in NYC are built as-of-right— within current zoning code. As-of-right building is much quicker and cheaper than getting a variance, which is partially why New York.

New walk-up buildings are perfectly common in the outer boroughs, where land values justify them. There's one going up around the corner from me. They meet the ADA by having an accessible first floor unit.

Seriously? Just having one accessible unit counts as meeting the ADA? That's terrible. That would be like having one apartment that's rentable to minorities and saying that satisfies the Fair Housing laws.

Elevators are very expensive to build and operate— requiring every new multifamily building contain one would significantly increase the cost of urban housing by outlawing many common forms of building, and effectively preclude homeownership in many poor urban communities where a 2- or 3- family house is the most affordable route— buildings must be large to amortize the cost of an elevator, and large buildings are usually owned by large corporate landlords. That does not appear to be a tradeoff Congress desired.

"The Fair Housing Act requires all "covered multifamily dwellings" designed and constructed for first occupancy after March 13, 1991 to be accessible to and usable by people with disabilities. Covered multifamily dwellings are all dwelling units in buildings containing four or more units with one or more elevators, and all ground floor units in buildings containing four or more units, without an elevator. Federal regulations adopted by the Department of Housing and Urban Development at 24 CFR 100.201 define covered multi-family dwellings." http://www.fairhousingfirst.org/faq/mfhousing.html

> Most of those buildings could be built today, but would require a variance.

If the buildings will be built anyway, why have the rules in the first place? How is having one set of written rules and another set of actual rules not a form of corruption?

> If the buildings will be built anyway, why have the rules in the first place?

Because the developers have to do something for the city to get the variance, like creating a privately owned public space.

did you miss the qualifier?

A little bit unrelated to the article, but why has the US quit building skyscrapers for the most part? I know there's a few in the works (Salesforce tower) but generally speaking, it seems like the skyscrapers that exist in most major cities were built long ago and they don't plan on adding any more.

That's definitely not true in NYC & Jersey City.

New York is currently having the biggest boom in sky scraper building since the 1930s. My brother is a construction manager on a 70 story building that's going up right now, and it's not even in the top 25 building projects currently happening in NYC.

Only 3 of the top 22 buildings in NYC existed 10 years ago, and I'm considering the WTC to be one building. If you count rebuilding the WTC as a new building, then the only two older sky scrappers in the top 22 are the Empire State Building and Chrysler Building. Everything else is less than 10 years old or currently under construction.


There are dozens of skyscrapers being built in Manhattan right now. The third tallest building in the US (and the tallets apartment building in the world) was recently completed there: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/432_Park_Avenue

No hard data here, but it seems like most of the skyscrapers I see going up in Manhattan are luxury residential [1]. I'd assume it's a combination of scarcity of land, zoning, and project costs. Lately there seems to be a lot of new construction in downtown Brooklyn and many are definitely skyscrapers [2]. Same in LIC.

[1] http://www.amny.com/real-estate/nyc-skyscrapers-tallest-buil... [2] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/18/nyregion/developers-plan-s...

Presumably you don't live in NYC. There are dozens of 50+ story buildings under construction or recently completed in nearly every section of Manhattan and the East River waterfront areas. If you get a good vantage point for a view it's like a forest of cranes out there.

Maybe you just mean San Francisco?

San Francisco actually has several skyscrapers under construction right now too.. The skyline is covered in construction cranes. Not sure where OP is that they're not building.

This random list is a bit dated (2013) but many of these buildings are nearing completion and many more have started planning or construction:


Seattle reporting in, downtown is absolutely full of cranes and large-building construction sites.


Indianapolis reporting in -- we're not building super-large skyscrapers, but we're backfilling the old parking lots that replaced urban blight bulldozed in the 70's and 80's with 10-15 story apartments and office buildings. Salesforce also announced they're taking over Chase Tower, the 48-story tallest building in Indiana, which has historically struggled to push their occupancy rate over 68%.

I think why you don't hear about many cities in America building super-large skyscrapers is threefold: 1) The U.S. is still a very large country with lots of room, especially away from the coasts 2) Construction costs of super-tall buildings scale nonlinearly, so buildings taller than 55 stories tend to not pay off per the square footage value of renting/selling, so mid-scale buildings are generally more profitable 3) Geographic agglomerations mean that creative class folks (like developers) tend to be attracted to existing large cities like SF, Seattle, and NYC

A lot of very tall residential buildings for the ultra-rich are going up right now: http://ny.curbed.com/maps/mapping-the-rise-of-new-york-citys...

There are some, but building very tall skyscrapers has always been a rather risky investment. (The Empire State Building was basically a financial failure.) It is difficult to get projects approved in many cities. But there's probably also just been a decline in companies and developers interested in playing the mine-is-bigger game. See also for some discussion http://www.cbsnews.com/news/wilshire-grand-is-las-newest-sky...

ADDED: As others have said, there are plenty of skyscrapers going up in cities like New York. What you don't have going on as much in the US these days are the very tall iconic prestige/vanity projects that get all the press.

> What you don't have going on as much in the US these days are the very tall iconic prestige/vanity projects that get all the press.

Perhaps that's what I'm thinking of then. Also, I don't live in Manhattan or SF (the cities I'm familiar with include Atlanta, Charlotte, Nashville, etc.)

1. Buildings last a long time. Inherently you will see a lot of old buildings compared to new. Specifically when those buildings are designed to last and have full time engineering/maintenance staff.

2. Density has become less important over the years. Inexpensive worldwide transportation, and instant communication means you don't need some huge office building HQ. Instead you can have a collection of cheaper office parks distributed over several cities.

3. Skyscrapers are still built regularly, but only where demand justifies their construction.

And yet often one of those office parks will be the one that executive management works in, and everyone who wants to get ahead in their career will prefer to work in that one. And everyone who wants to do business with your company will want to go visit that office. Etc.

There is still a huge value to proximity. Sure, you can replace talking formally about a work problem in person with teleconference. You know what you can't replace with teleconference? Going out for lunch. Going out for drinks. Running into someone. The "vague" social schmoozing which is officially not important but in practice can be when all kinds of things get done, informally.

Not wanting to pile on, but even a non-highrise city like LA has had a skyscraper boom recently due to the conversion of downtown into an upscale residential area:


EDIT: I stand corrected. The U.S. has not stopped building skyscrapers.

Your impression does come from somewhere though - I think the key point is that the US has (mostly) stopped building record-busting skyscrapers.

We are building lots of skyscrapers, but they are mundane in comparison to the vanity/PR/pride projects that are going up in other countries that are setting records for height, space, etc. So if you're reading the news you're much more likely to read about projects in the UAE or China than here.

IMO this is perfectly fine - I for one like it when buildings can economically justify themselves rather than be subsidized in the name of national/regional pride.

Having done a residential housing startup, violated zoning, and talked in person to current or form heads of zoning in a number of cities, there's got to be a better solution.

Taking step back, might be worth understanding how this all got started: http://ny.curbed.com/2013/3/15/10263912/the-equitable-buildi...

If you understand the history and common zoning laws, you'll quickly start to see a pattern, that being it's a reactionary system that's often designed by politics, not science.

I personally have given up on the topic, but hope someone is able to make some progress.

Can I ask what a residential housing startup is?

It's dead; for privacy reasons, I rarely give out identifiers.

Core issue wasn't zoning, but managing the dynamics of residents, which I was able to do in person, but not at scale.

Zoning wasn't an issue; meaning the police, head of zoning, landlord, residents, etc. -- all knew we were violating the law, but we were able to manage the issue without issue for the duration of the lease.

If you're trying to understand what residential housing startup would look like, you might look into a now dead former competitor in the space:


Our approach was different than Campus, but generally speaking, we were after the same market.

If you have any more questions, let me know.

Sounds like a variation of AirBNB where the company offering the service either owns or manages the property. I can see where this would get smacked by all sorts of zoning laws. How is it different from extended stay accommodations?

AirBNB, though it tries to do so, doesn't provide a community, culture, etc. - nor does it plan to my know plan to build villages, cities, etc.

If you look into Campus, you'll see that this was the path they planned to take.

By and large, I assume extended stay accommodations are effectively hotels from a legal and zoning perspective. The amenities just tend to differ somewhat from a typical hotel room.

The bit about developers demolishing all but the 1/4 of a building and rebuilding to upgrade while keeping the zoning is nuts.


Same is true of cars on the road -- some or all vehicles from past model years would fail to meet this year's automotive regulations.

Except new cars are universally better than old cars on virtually all fronts. The appropriate analogy would be if we could build 200 mpg cars, right now, today, except they could only be red, and red cars are illegal due to a regulation introduced in 1983 (while everybody agrees that it's great to be rid of gaudy red cars, some people -- mostly unpleasant and tasteless fans of obnoxiously coloured cars -- grumble that the regulation was pushed by the green-paint-industry).

I don't know about universally better... the prices are higher as well.

In 1960 a Ford Falcon ("first Compact Car with mass appeal") cost $1975[1]. In 2016 dollars, that's $15,890[2]. A 2016 Ford Fiesta starts at $14,090 MSRP[3].

I defy you to declare the 1960 Falcon better than the 2016 Fiesta on even a single reasonably objective metric.

1: http://www.thepeoplehistory.com/60scars.html

2: http://www.dollartimes.com/inflation/inflation.php?amount=19...

3: https://www.ford.com/cars/fiesta/

EDIT: @marincounty, your comment is dead. And yes, if I actually needed a car to drive around for practical purposes (and not a collectors object) I'd take the Fiesta.

1975 Falcon had 130 hp, Fiesta has 123 hp.

Fair. However, the Fiesta does 0-60 (a little) faster, and has a (slightly) higher top speed, so at the end of the day, it's not doing the Falcon much good?



I bet this is because due to better technology, the current Fiesta engine produces a much flatter curve of torque, meaning that it is both easier to drive and it accelerates faster.

And don't even start with the fuel economy or emissions.... (but of course, this also means that current cars would choke on the fuel of 1962, and not just because of lead.)

I think it's mostly weight, the newer one seems to be 300kg lighter which is a big deal. But that fact sheet was for the sedan so I don't know if it's apples to apples comparison. The worst modern model is 1.25 Studio (11/12-) 3d @ 16.4 seconds vs. 13 seconds from the 1975 model.

Newest cars are only lighter when compared to recent history. Cars of 1960's were much much lighter than today.

(big-family-sized Cortina DeLuxe of 1962 was 787 kg, present-day supermini Fiesta starts at 1041 kg).

The 1.25 Studio is so slow that it isn't available for sale in the USA--the cheapest $14k model here does 0-60mph in 9 seconds or so.

I'd say it's to do a lot with advances in turbos. Most small engine cars have turbos now that rival anything even a decade a go. This means you can get by with much smaller engines and get similar performance.

True, turbos (even dual compressors as in the case of VAG's TSI) have much impact, but even non-compressed engines (in lower end models) are vastly better-behaved than old car engines.

I once had a Sunbeam Avenger which was horrible in very many ways (not least because of the build quality in English unionized car plants) and an uneven torque curve (with a peak and a not that high peak as such) was one of its problems.

If you dial back on the compression and timing, modern cars would run just fine on 1962 gasoline--probably better than 1962 cars, since electronic direct fuel injection assures even fuel distribution among the cylinders and cools the air in the cylinder, making it less vulnerable to predetonation.

This may depend on geographical area and standards and so on, but at least here in northern Europe, much of the gasoline was made of Russian crude oil and before modern emission standards, it contained lots of sulphur and other impurities. I believe modern cars would start flagging errors with even 1980's gasoline (again, even assuming that the lead would be taken away and replaced by modern additives).

Against what curb weight, though? f = ma, so a=f/m. Ignoring air resistance of course ( and the Fiesta may win there ).

Someone offered you a mint 1960 ford falcon, with 0 miles, and someone else offered you a new 2016 Ford Fiesta.

You would take the Fiesta?

A few reasonable metrics;

A better looking vechicle(Falcon), with a minimum of plastic. Subjective. Sorry.

Ease of repair. Objective. Win, by a long shot. Engine--easier to repair. Transmission--easier to rebuild. Electrical--bone dead simple. There's a reason you still see them on the road--50 plus years later.

There's objective reasons guys of differing demographics/tastes hunt for old Falcons. They are collector cars. They were simple. They were less complicated. In my eyes, they were miniminslistic cool.

I don't think in 56 years we will have Fiesta clubs, or guys scouring the Internet looking for restorable Fiesta's, or maybe they will? I don't know.

(In terms of emmissions you win hands down. Maybe I missing your point? If that's the case--sorry. If I had a huge garage, and some capital, I would be, right now, buying up collector cars, and keeping them for retirement. The only stumbling block I see is the federal government making older vechicles so hard to smog, they will become impractical to pass emmissions. Even, if that happens, I have a feeling guys will retrofit some of these older desirable classics with electric engines? )

Ha, guess what? I just read that comment and thought "Totally wrong, what a fool!"....

And then I did some research, turns out you're right! Just checking average salary in the UK vs a comparable car (Cortina > Sierra > Mondeo) shows that a 1962 Cortina was about 50% of average UK salary, whereas a Sierra went up to about 70%, and a Mondeo today is around 85%!

That doesn't sound right. What sources did you use?

(Edit: mseebach apparently googled the same sources I did, but faster.)

From what I could find, in 1962 the Cortina was selling at £573 [0] and the average salary was £799 [1]. That's 71 %.

In 2014, the average salary of all employees was £27271 [2] and the Ford Mondeo started at £20795. That's 76 %.

So the ratio is not that much different. And the Ford Mondeo of 2014 is an incredibly much better car.

A lowly 2014 Fiesta at about £10000 would have been a completely unbelievable car in 1962. And not a smaller car. In fact, latest Fiesta has exactly the same wheelbase (2489 mm) as the 1962 large family car Cortina, the Fiesta is 140 mm wider, 300 kg heavier (and so much safer), and the start-of-list engine model in Fiesta has 59 kW which is slightly more than the 58 kW of the tuned-up top model Cortina GT.

[0] http://www.rac.co.uk/drive/car-reviews/ford/cortina/207784

[1] http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2004/jan/13/past.comment

[2] http://www.thisismoney.co.uk/money/news/article-2868911/Best...

[3] http://www.carbuyer.co.uk/news/91004/new-ford-mondeo-2015-pr...

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ford_Cortina

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ford_Fiesta

I got the earnings data from the FT.com site - had it a few years ago, and then copied into a text file that I refer to often (typically when referring to music technology cost vs average earnings, as I teach music technology, and it puts it in context). It gave 1960 average wage as £1042.

I know that cars have got a lot better (I've been a hobby mechanic for 30 years, and I've built a WRC class winning car, so I know my way around an engine bay, and spend a lot less time fixing mundane things that would regularly go wrong on cars of the 70s and 80s) - that wasn't the point that I was making, it was solely on cost for an equivalent car, and something that I was surprised by - I had expected the cost to be much less in relative terms today, not being the same or going the other way (whichever figure you believe, the point largely stands, I think). The reason I was surprised in part is because I had assumed a similar effect as in music technology, which has decreased in price immensely since the 1960s; you can own technology today for a few pounds which would have been "multi house" price in the 1960s, and of course there are lots of technologies and processes which simply didn't exist - in much the same way as today's cars are incomparably better than those of the years gone by.

Yes, a Fiesta is an equivalent in some dimensions of a Cortina, but it's not an equivalent in terms of intended market; the Cortina was the mass market family car of its era, hence the comparison with the Sierra and Mondeo.

I'm getting a 1962 Cortina at £573[1], with average wage £799[2] (71.5%), and a 1982 Sierra at £4515[1], with average wage (in 1980) £6000[3] (75%)?

1: http://www.rac.co.uk/drive/car-reviews/ford/cortina/207784

2: http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2004/jan/13/past.comment

3: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/recession/4323171/UK-rece...

Car brands tend to go up market over time. I think the idea is people who buy an accord and like it tend to have more money in a few years. So they can up sell without making it obvious. Until they introduce a civic the new low end car. Civic has even grown to the point where Honda has toyed with a few new lower end cars. I think the Fit is their cheapest model right now.

> Except new cars are universally better than old cars on virtually all fronts.

More like "expensive new cars are universally better than expensive old cars". When it comes to the cheapest of the cheap Chinese junk, I find them worse than old cheap cars produced by reputable manufacturers.

Oh yeah, and this is true if "all fronts" doesn't include design. Most modern cars are fugly.

One quick way to get a feel for quality difference is to look at warranties, and how they've gone from "powertrain only" (if they were offered at all) to "bumper to bumper", and also how they've gotten longer over time (several companies offer 100k powertrain warranties and 60k bumper to bumper warranties, which would have been absurd in the old days).

If most modern cars are fugly, then 90% of everything made by American manufacturers from 1973-2008 is eye bleach material.

You're referring to cars, or in general?

Cars are vastly different though. A building will persist for decades (sometimes hundreds of years!) and house dozens to thousands of people at once. They also use up vastly more energy and take up many orders of magnitude more space.

An unsightly or unsafe car is easy to remove whereas doing the same with a building is (usually) cost prohibitive. We're all stuck with whatever ends up being built at a given spot for a long time.

Many countries have legally required mandatory periodic tests of vehicles. If your car doesn't pass, you can't drive it.

There are usually 'grandfather' clauses to allow these to keep driving with some level of testing: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grandfather_clause

It's a shame that so much about urban planning just proves the saying "That government is best which governs least."

When I first saw the article title, I thought it might be about all the building materials and specialist skills required for construction that are no longer available or practical, not to mention the cost of building with those materials and techniques now. Zoning issues aside, I bet many of those building really couldn't be built today.

>New York’s zoning rules were intended to create less cramped quarters, but they also have consequences for the number of aggregate apartments in the city. Such limitations can quickly decrease the supply of housing, and most likely drive up rents.

Sure, so?

Obviously, if you allow to squash 10-20 people per 1000 sq ft you could lower the rents -- but unless you aspire to be an urban slum, you should have some limits in place, even if they raise rents.

Why does it have to be simple enough for everyone to understand? We're talking building in one of the most expensive parts of the world where only the richest organizations can afford to build and it affects millions of people directly, and the state and national image. Making it easy isn't necessarily going to protect the interests of the city as a whole.

Junk headline. The day after any building code change, all that came before could not be built again.

A better story would have been now past building codes shaped many NY icons. The Empire State Building's shape isn't some architectural masterpiece, it is a diagram of the building code at the time. It fills exactly as much space as was allowed.

Big ball of mud. The code that is the most impenetrable and hardest to refactor lasts the longest.

Okay I cannot find it, but is there a square footage requirement per occupant for new living spaces?

In New York City the minimum has been 400 sq feet (approximately 37 metres squared) since 1987, however a Bloomberg era experiment allowed creation of so–called microapartments in the 250-350 square foot range.

Is there any zoning for safe space? Does anyone know? Or do i need to build my own bunker like Switzerland did for each and every one of their citizens.... during cold war. Btw is cold war over yet? Or is it just a going through a thaw right now

The zoning laws actually help the diversity, aesthetics aside. As the laws change, the buildings change with it. Some bulky and tall, now skinny and short. The buildings of the era are influenced from the changing laws.

That helps give NY its grit. If you want some pink little buildings, to to Miami Beach.

Times change. Situations change. It's understandable.

I'm curious what all of these increase housing supply fanatics think about cities in the rust belt(Cleveland, St Louis etc) with an oversupply of housing which makes them a hotbed of crime and gang activity?

Housing is oversupplied because those areas are experiencing negative growth due to shitty economies. I would think the shitty economies are the cause of both the housing oversupply and the crime.

You sound just like the people in my neighborhood who oppose any new apartment or mixed-use construction because apartments bring transients and transients bring criminals.

Just to be clear, this isn't exactly right. Population loss in the rust belt is widely misunderstood. Most of those cities didn't lose people; they just moved them out of their urban core. St. Louis, as a region, for example, has grown slightly over the last 40 years. But a whole bunch of people have been doing a whole lot of moving around the area over that time.

You don't have to lose people to get blight. You just have to build new houses and abandon the old ones.

> Most of those cities didn't lose people; they just moved them out of their urban core. St. Louis, as a region, for example, has grown slightly over the last 40 years.

You seem to be confused. St. Louis is a city, and has lost people, just like major cities across the country did. This is part of what led to urban blight. It's the St. Louis metro area that has remained stable/growing.

As a St. Louisan, I'm not impressed by descriptions of the region that emphasize myopically-drawn political borders from 1876. My point, clearly, was that St. Louis didn't lose people to other cities. It lost people to other parts of its own region.

Further, I assure you that people from outside the region make no such distinction when they talk about "St. Louis."

It might not be that housing supply causes crime and gang activity as much as oversupply correlates with poor areas. I may be wrong.

Data certainly shows that oversupply of housing is almost always correlated with crime. Whether or not that is the cause is certainly up for debate but I am very curious about what the argument is that oversupply does not result in staging grounds for illegal activity. Especially based on what we have seen in the rust belt.

The argument is very simple when you consider that the causality may run in the opposite direction. If economic opportunity in an area declines, people become poorer and/or leave. This results in a housing oversupply in addition to an increase in crime.

To me, this is a far more plausible explanation than housing oversupply itself being the cause of crime.

I don't think you're giving the parent enough credit. People didn't leave North St. Louis because of economic decline. There was never any such thing. People left North St. Louis for the suburbs on their own accord -- for lots of reasons. They wanted the new housing that the suburbs had to offer. They wanted to be further from blacks. The car made for an easier commute.

This created an oversupply of housing in the region. St. Louis doesn't have too many houses because people went to other cities. It has too many houses because people abandoned the housing in the urban core and built new suburbs. That obviously did cause a loss of economic opportunity for the people left behind. But it didn't happen the other way around.

That's still an oversupply caused by a fall in demand, not a rise in supply, so it isn't correct to say, as the parent seemed to imply (in a Glenn Beck, wink wink sort of way) that too much construction in places like North St Louis caused the problem. People moving out of a jurisdiction lowers the tax base and hurts the economy; building more housing does not.

People moving out of a jurisdiction lowers the tax base and hurts the economy; building more housing does not.

We're just taking turns flipping over the same coin. The people can't move unless you build new houses. Lack of demand for inner-city housing drives an oversupply of total housing units in the region.

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