Against Euclidean zoning

Since takedowns of Euclid are thankfully all the rage these days…

The most obnoxious question I got during oral defense at UChicago was from a genuine-article “provocative libertarian” economist, who launched a broad attack on zoning as a severe impingement upon “freedom” (i.e., his treasured consumer choices). My stammering defense of zoning then amounted to, pretty much, “because we can.” (Zoning and preservation are, seemingly by historical accident, two of the few broad regulatory tools the US Supreme Court has granted to local governments.) Zoning is what planners do because it’s what we’re taught to do, and what we’re used to doing — but planners rarely question whether it’s the right tool.

In a planning law class back in 2011, we were asked to make oral arguments for or against a theoretical municipality adapting, or tossing out, its existing zoning laws. Having checked that said assignment is no longer being assigned, here are the notes I wrote up for my broadside against the institution of Euclidean zoning.

Coming up with this was pretty revelatory, honestly. I already had ten years of experience with zoning codes and knew that its structure was kludgy — but had also once (at my BA oral defense) mounted a spirited defense of zoning and its Constitutional basis against a purely theoretical attack by a genuine-article Chicago economist.

I’m a little less sold on FBCs these days, having learned a bit more about their limitations and administration — but the anti-Euclid arguments have only been bolstered by what I’ve learned of zoning’s history since.


For too long, our city has struggled to regulate land use under the rubric of a conventional zoning ordinance. This ordinance, although revised within the past generation — unlike in many other major cities[1] — still has its roots in a fundamentally flawed legal framework that derives its authority from the landmark 1926 Euclid vs. Ambler Realty[2] ruling by the Supreme Court.

  • Euclid established a legal framework of regulating use first, density second
  • Society has changed since 1926; social problems, social goals, social structure have all shifted dramatically
  • Our understanding about how to shape cities, and how best to shape cities, has also changed
  • New problems demand new solutions

The zoning code that the city currently labors under suffers from an outdated, inflexible structure that fundamentally cannot address or implement the lofty goals embodied in the city’s ambitious new Comprehensive Plan. If it is to implement that plan—as it is legally obliged to do, under state law—the city must therefore discard its current zoning ordinance and replace it with one organized around form instead of use and density.

1. The zoning code is organized first and foremost around the outmoded paradigm of regulating use.

  • Zoning began as a way to regulate nuisances inherent in many urban land uses[3]
  • In particular, Euclid set up a list of reasons for regulating land use: fire apparatus, safety (crime), reduce traffic and confusion and thus street accidents, nervous noise, “favorable environment in which to rear children,” “free circulation of air and monopolizing the rays of the sun…”
    • Zoning codes since then have focused on these, since it set the regulatory precedent
  • Yet since the 1920s, many of the externalities and nuisances that zoning was originally intended to prevent have been regulated separately
    • Pollution of air and water
      • Laws preventing industrial pollution have been so successful that the primary sources of urban air and water pollution are now “non point source”[4]
        • Has little to do with large industrial facilities
        • Outside the realm of control for zoning
        • Indeed, to the extent that runoff and smog are caused by parking lots and automobiles, our region’s emissions are likely exacerbated by suburban zoning
      • Enforcement and monitoring of these laws is done by specialized, trained teams[5] better able to protect neighbors from nuisance—even hidden ones, like toxic chemicals—than mere distance
    • Noise
      • Leading complaint is airplane noise, which is increasingly regulated by federal law[6] and by airport regulations
    • Fire suppression through much more stringent fire codes, including sprinkler and fire alarm requirements
      • Fires have become so rare[7] that our fire department responds to more car crashes than fires
        • To the extent that our zoning ordinance foster auto-dependent development, it could actually be undermining life safety
      • Public health
        • Antibiotics, not fresh air in houses ensured by zoning ordinances, that ultimately cured the low-level tuberculosis pandemic
        • Improved sanitation and medicine, not zoning, takes credit for public health advances of 20th century
          • 4 of the 10 most long-lived countries in the world are very high density city-states (Monaco #1, Macau #2, Singapore #7, Hong Kong #8), all of them prime examples of the high density and mixed uses that Euclidean zoning “protects” Americans from in the name of our health. The United States is #50 by the same measure.[8]
        • Housing code minimums in many respects are broadly superseded by today’s living standards
          • Tenement Law remains in effect, and its remnants are throughout the zoning ordinance
            • Definitions of families and households are woefully out of date, given shifting family composition[9] towards non-family households
              • “group houses” of house-mates particularly young adults or students[10]
              • co-housing usually requires contentious zoning changes
            • Minimum space per occupant outdated
          • Today’s use and bulk restrictions in the zoning ordinance have at best a tenuous nexus to actual public health, safety, and welfare
            • Setback laws
              • No public health need has ever been established for a one-acre-lot zoning category, nor for 100 ft. front setbacks
              • Instead, such excessive standards are more likely to ensure that no homeowner need view another’s laundry lines
            • Separation of uses
              • What public health objective is facilitated by ensuring wide distances between residences and modern industrial facilities?
              • Such facilities are nowadays as likely as a typical household to work with toxic chemicals
            • Noxious uses can and are handled and sited with other regulations
              • Siting of public facilities like landfills and prisons regulated under state law
              • Siting of alcohol-related uses largely accomplished outside zoning
              • Sign regulations are already outside city’s zoning ordinance

2. The zoning code’s “cumulative” structure inherently valorizes single-family housing above all else, which has insidious effects throughout the system

  • Cumulative or pyramid zoning establishes single-family housing at the top of the ladder, and they are allowed in almost all zones—“They must not be a problem to anyone, so they’re allowed in all zones”
    • The pyramid intrinsically valorizes larger single family houses and larger lots
    • Zoning sets up a proscriptive approach, typically with maximums or minimums but rarely sets two bounds. One end is almost always left open, and the net result is that it makes less dense, sprawling development easier to build in more zones
      • Maximum FAR = smaller buildings always welcome
      • Maximum density = fewer houses always welcome
      • Minimum lot size = bigger lots always welcome
      • Minimum parking requirements = bigger parking lots always welcome
      • Minimum setbacks = bigger yards always welcome
    • Proscriptive approach typically results in all development within a district adhering to the maximums, preventing any diversity of building types and promoting segregation by income and family type[11]
  • Maintaining property values and residential exclusivity are specifically mentioned in Euclid as an appropriate use of zoning laws (“development of detached house sections is greatly retarded by the coming of apartment houses”)
  • “Affordability” is the opposite of exclusivity, and there has been momentum towards that end of the spectrum
    • Affordability is an integral part of the housing section of the comprehensive plan
    • Inclusionary zoning has been debated locally
    • Housing and transportation have grown substantially as a share of household expenditures since the 1920s[12]
  • Nuisance flows both ways: not only are detached houses threatened by other uses, but other uses are threatened by residents. Cumulative zoning does a poor job of protecting from residential users.
    • Industrial operations are constantly threatened by residential neighbors, so much so that some cities have developed restrictions to protect industrial zones[13]
    • Farms at the exurban edge receive complaints by neighbors over early-morning noise, smells, truck and tractor traffic
    • Nightclubs frequently threatened by encroachment of residential, particularly owner-occupied housing, into the industrial and commercial areas that they typically locate in
    • Although our zoning ordinance does not protect views, residents are much more likely to block new construction if it obstructs their views; this inhibits commercial growth, particularly at the edges of downtown
  • Zoning’s emphasis on promoting single-family residential protects against overcrowding, but what about under-crowding?
    • Over-crowding was a public health concern, typically associated with tenements
    • Now more likely associated with large immigrant families living in single-family houses
    • Under-crowding also has consequences, mostly associated with suburban sprawl—particularly the high cost of providing public services, from life safety to transportation
    • Evidence shows that zoning codes’ bias against multi-family construction has led to the systematic under-supply of multi-family across entire metropolitan areas[14]
  • Despite many attempts to fix the code, the blunt distinction based on occupancy poorly addresses the range of moderate density housing types available
    • Euclid ruling created a bright line distinction between single and multi-family: “[apartments] bringing, as their necessary accompaniments… increased traffic and business… [traffic increase injurious to children in] “quiet and open spaces for play”[15]
    • Creates problem in existing areas of mixed single- and two-family houses
      • Contextual infill, or even replacing what’s already there, becomes very challenging
    • Accessory apartments, coach houses, and “granny flats” cause a lot of trouble with the zoning ordinance—there’s a spectrum between “bedroom” and “housing unit” but the zoning code doesn’t make that distinction
    • Interesting low-scale multi-family building types—zero-lot-line houses, bungalow courts, courtyard apartment houses—have been prohibited under conventional zoning and can only be built under onerous discretionary approval processes

3. Yet use and density regulation is powerless to affect urban design

  • Zoning, by itself, makes for a lousy way of controlling urban design
  • Its proscriptive approach forbids bad development, instead of encouraging good development[16]
  • This failing can be seen in the vast array of other methods that have emerged to attempt to regulate urban design and achieve better development
    • design review committees
    • discretionary approvals (site plan review, planned unit developments)
    • special exceptions, zoning changes
    • overlay, character, neighborhood districts
    • historic designations and conservation districts
      • These have proliferated to such a great extent partly because they are the only reliable way to regulate design
      • Yet they are only able to maintain the existing appearance of a district, rather than guide growth into something else
    • private development covenants and restrictions
      • These have become so complex and punitive that they are often confused with zoning in the public mind—because what else could possibly be so complicated?
    • Net result is a system of Byzantine complexity, completely beyond the comprehension of all but a select few zoning lawyers and zoning administrators
    • Ludicrous over-regulation results for small projects, such that a contextual infill set of townhouses in a historic district—the sort of development that will be needed if the city is to promote more infill—requires just as many approvals and months of work as an 300-acre subdivision
  • The primary means of controlling design in the zoning ordinance is through setbacks and through Floor Area Ratio, a crude measure of building bulk. FAR is particularly ignorant of urban structure, block structure, and scale
    • “FARs by themselves give communities little control over the shape and placement of buildings”[17]
    • Rewards tall buildings, assembling large lots
    • The 110-story Sears Tower was built as-of-right under Chicago’s FAR restrictions, originally intended for 16-story high-rises
  • “Zoning’s lack of a positive prescription for physical form has facilitated the intrusion of incompatible development types into traditional urban neighborhoods.”[18]

4. Further amendments will only worsen matters.

  • Much tinkering has been done around the edges of our zoning ordinance
    • overlay districts
    • mixed use zones for downtown and neighborhood commercial streets
  • These changes do not address zoning’s failings in 90% of the city
  • Changes like these merely shovel more complexity and opaqueness onto what is already an opaque process
  • Changes like these are typically reactive
    • Every so often, someone finds a loophole in the zoning ordinance, exploits it, ruins neighborhoods, and then shames City Council into closing it using yet another zoning patch. This process is not unique to our city.
      • The “Vancouver Special” was a 1980s abuse of accessory unit regulation, resulting in numerous out-of-character houses[19]
      • “Four plus ones” and “dingbats,” apartment buildings hovering over a sunken parking podium, addressed the shortage of studio apartments in 1960s Chicago and Los Angeles but were found unsightly by neighbors
    • Rarely do we launch such code-fix efforts until damage has already been done to a neighborhood
    • Has been done a few times in conjunction with neighborhood plans, but such neighborhood-specific zoning (like overlays) just add even more complexity to the zoning code
  • Result is a Frankenstein of regulation: far too complex text and procedures. Neighbors and citizens cannot understand and cannot reinforce zoning administration
    • “And so, we have, as they say, the best—really the worst—of all possible worlds. We have every possible world.”[20]
  • Zoning is no longer a reliable and predictable guide to neighborhood change
  • Has become too easy to game the zoning system through politics
    • Find a zone that fits your needs (regardless of what the property is) and get the property spot-rezoned, since the assumption is that everything is ripe for rezoning
    • Go for a discretionary approval, under which just about anything is negotiable
  • The fundamental structure of zoning is unable to cope with modern concerns. Attempts to update zoning have up-ended the zoning system and made it overly complex. This complexity makes zoning inherently arbitrary and capricious, raising due process concerns.

5. The future: a form-based code

  • “What can you recommend, when the very theory behind such a zoning resolution—not merely its detail—needs drastic overhaul and rethinking?”[21]
  • “It became evident that this regulatory framework was really what was driving suburbia, sprawl, and the things that were bring criticized as being inefficient and unsustainable.” – Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk[22]
  • The city needs an entirely new framework for guiding sustainable neighborhood change
  • A new framework for zoning should not be proscriptive (thou shalt not) but instead prescriptive (thou shall), and reward performance (outcomes) rather than merely measuring inputs
  • As Jane Jacobs pointed out, the typical zoning ordinance focuses on use when the scale that use operates on is typically a greater determinant of its impact on the neighbors, and court cases have found that small industrial uses are largely compatible even in residential areas[23]
  • The basis of our zoning should be one that fosters mixed communities, rather than having segregation (by use and bulk) as its core principle
  • A form-based code (FBC) seeks to use buildings to shape public spaces, not to have buildings that merely enclose private spaces[24]
    • Such a code regulates the form (shape) of buildings, thus granting great certainty to neighborhoods about what kind of buildings will be built—particularly compared with the insufficient bulk restriction that FAR provides
    • An FBC also addresses in detail how buildings interact with streets and other public spaces, the basics in how buildings are “good neighbors”
    • An FBC is perhaps the tool best able to implement the urban design goals of New Urbanist plans; hence even cities with relatively modern codes have adopted FBCs in order to realize specific development plans
      • Milwaukee commissioned a specific FBC to realize Beerline B, a particularly innovative and excellent infill development
    • An FBC still contains use restrictions, but use controls are secondary to building form controls
    • Unlike a PUD or other such discretionary approval, a FBC can apply design controls equally to multiple landowners across a broad area. This allows for high-quality design, executed by many stakeholders (instead of a stultifying large project), and the evolution over time of an urban area in accordance with a plan[25]

[1] For example, New York City’s current code dates to 1961; several other cities with codes of similar age (Baltimore, Chicago, Philadelphia) have only recently rewritten their codes.

[2] Village of Euclid, Ohio vs. Ambler Realty Co., 272 U.S. 365, 47 S.Ct. 114, 71 L.Ed. 303 (1926)

[3] Hadachek vs. Sebastian, 239 U.S. 394, 36 S.Ct. 143, 60 L.Ed. 348 (1915)

[4] In the Washington, D.C. region, the primary air pollutant is ozone, of which a plurality (40%) comes from autos. “Ozone Pollution,” Clean Air Partners, accessed 5 October 2011, http://cleanairpartners.net/ozoneinfo.cfm

[5] In particular, state environmental protection agency

[6] “Stage 4 Aircraft Noise Standards,” Federal Aviation Administration, 14 CFR Part 36

[7] Dan Mihalopoulos and Michael Lipkin, “In Tough Times, Fire Department Untouched,” Chicago News Cooperative 13 May 2011

[8] “Country Comparison: Life Expectancy at Birth,” CIA World Factbook, accessed 6 October 2011, http://cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2102rank.html

[9] City of Ladue vs. Horn, 720 S.W.2d 745 (Mo.App. E.D.1986)

[10] McMinn vs. Town of Oyster Bay, 498 N.Y.S.2d 128, 488 N.E.2d 1240 (N.Y. 1985)

[11] Jonathan Barnett in Congress for the New Urbanism, Codifying New Urbanism, Planning Advisory Service 526 (Chicago: American Planning Association, 2004), p. 5

[12] Total “shelter” costs rose from 23.3% of consumer expenditure in 1918 to 32.8% in 2002, a 41% increase. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “100 Years of U.S. Consumer Spending” (BLS Report 991), pg. 10, 58.

[13] Joel Rast, Remaking Chicago (DeKalb, Ill.: Northern Illinois U.P., 2002)

[14] Jonathan Levine, Zoned Out (New York: RFF, 2005), pg. X.

[15] Euclid

[16] Ellen Greenberg in Congress for the New Urbanism, Codifying New Urbanism, Planning Advisory Service 526 (Chicago: American Planning Association, 2004), p. 39

[17] Jonathan Barnett in Congress for the New Urbanism, Codifying New Urbanism, Planning Advisory Service 526 (Chicago: American Planning Association, 2004), p. 3.

[18] David Rouse and Nancy Zobl, “Practice Form-Based Zoning,” Zoning Practice, May 2004, p. 1.

[19] John Punter, The Vancouver Achievement (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2003), p. 118.

[20] Norman Marcus, “A Brief History of the Zoning Resolution,” in Marcus, ed., Zoning for the New Century (New York: Real Estate Board of New York, 2000), p. 15.

[21] Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: Random House, 1961), p. 235

[22] Nate Berg, “Brave New Codes,” Architect July 2010, p. X.

[23] Goldman vs. Crowther, 147 Md. 282, 128 A. 50 (Md.1925)

[24] Robert Steuteville, Philip Langdon, et al, New Urbanism Best Practices Guide (Ithaca: New Urban News Publications, 2009), p. 188

[25] Steuteville et al, 186-187

Coming soon to a power center near you: Ikea?

Big Blue Box

Atlanta, Ga.

Ikea is in the midst of a complete rethink of their US store strategy, rapidly announcing the cancellation of multiple superstores that were due to open in 2020: in my hometown of Cary, N.C., outside Nashville, west of Phoenix, and Fort Worth. Other stores set to open in 2020 could also be canceled, affecting plans in northwest Denver, the East Bay, and northwest of Atlanta. Stores already under construction, like one in Norfolk, are proceeding as planned.

As Ikea branched out from America’s top-20 metro areas (median population ~5 million) to the top-40 metro areas (reaching some with populations below 1.5 million), it doubled its store footprint — but now each new-build store addressed fewer than half as many potential customers. Some of the mid-sized cities draw from large hinterlands and can easily support full-sized stores, like Salt Lake City or Jacksonville… but many blur into Ikea-served regions nearby: Hartford, Providence, Tulsa, Richmond, Raleigh, or Buffalo and Rochester (near Toronto). Even within the megacities, customers on the far side of town, or downtown, don’t want to carve out an entire day to drive all the way across town to wait in long lines and stress-eat meatballs.

Much has been written, albeit with few details, about Ikea opening shops in city centers. A look at their small shops in the UK and Canada indicate that they’re primarily using these new compact store formats to reach smaller metro areas, not necessarily “alpha” global cities, and to fit into strip malls where people are already shopping.

A quick review of the five US-drugstore-sized “IKEA order and collection points” in the UK & Ireland turns up:

  • two urban locations, although with plenty of parking, in large metros with existing suburban stores (London & Birmingham)
  • two suburban locations outside smaller cities that previously didn’t have IKEAs (Norwich & Aberdeen)
  • one suburban location, across town from an existing full-size IKEA (Dublin)

Canada’s six “IKEA Pick-up and order points” are up to twice as large — about the size of a small supermarket, from a Fresh Market on the small end (20,000 sq ft) to a Whole Foods Market on the large end (40,000 sq ft). They are all located in suburban locations, outside smaller cities in Ontario and Quebec. Around Toronto, for instance, are a series of smaller satellite cities — close enough that people could drive to the city for Ikea, but in practice rarely do. The biggest city, Hamilton, has a full Ikea, but what do with the smaller ones? Now that the PUP exists, every city can have a conveniently sited Ikea. For instance, Ontario’s Tri-Cities, a collection of college towns (Kitchener, Cambridge, Waterloo) about 60 miles outside Toronto, with a regional population of about 500,000. There, IKEA located in a Costco-anchored strip mall in the center of the region — well away from the area’s universities. All of the six PUPs are adjacent to either Costco, Home Depot, or the like; five are in power centers, and one in an enclosed mall (although untraditionally anchored by Walmart).

The “Pick-up and order points” (PUPs) address many of the potential customer segments that its previous superstore strategy missed. Since they’re 90% smaller than full-sized stores, they can easily branch out into smaller metro areas, or fill in around megacities. As a bonus, they can go into existing spaces, for faster and cheaper build-outs, and can go into first-tier locations rather than being shunted to second-tier sites which happen to have room. Several have even backfilled existing dark big boxes — e.g., Birmingham was a Toys ‘R’ Us.

Two of the cancelled locations, in Cary and Nashville, were being planned as part of turnaround plans for dying malls. Those locations contrast sharply with the first wave of Ikea USA locations, which were often right outside fortress malls. Future PUPs will likely be in well-trafficked power centers, close to fortress malls, and are a terrific opportunity for landlords like Kimco or DDR.

2020 update: IKEA Canada has closed all PUPs; it’s replaced those with outsourced “collection points” where trucks drop off the day’s orders at a 3PL‘s warehouse, with no on-site shopping. It’s continuing to open mini-stores in central cities. In an interesting twist, Ikea’s captive shopping center developer (a la Sears & Homart) Ingka Centres has announced it’s shopping for adaptive-reuse opportunities in US gateway market CBDs, beginning with repositioning a newly built, but already failed vertical mall in SF’s Mid-Market.

Focus preservation resources on the best, and let the city continue to evolve

Comment submitted to HPO, regarding its Preservation Plan.

I am a homeowner, in a historic landmark building. I have been a National Trust member for my entire adult life, and have spent almost all of that time living in National Register-listed buildings. I consider myself an ardent preservationist.

It therefore pains me to say that the historic preservation process in DC is broken — as I have recently documented in Greater Greater Washington. The District has designated almost as many historic structures as New York City, which has 6.4 times as many total structures. Thousands of unremarkable buildings such as production-built rowhouses and strip mall parking lots, almost identical to thousands or even millions of others around the country, have been deemed by HPO and HPRB to be “locally significant” for seemingly no other reason than the fact that they exist.

Kennedy Street commercial strip

Kennedy Street is a rare rowhouse corridor that’s still allowed to evolve with new structures, instead of being frozen in amber by overzealous historic preservation

I became a preservationist because I am pro-urbanism, and want to maintain the rich urban fabric of small-scale buildings, evolved over generations, that was common in pre-WW2 America. It is dispiriting to see that NIMBYs have hijacked the historic preservation process to stop that very process of urban evolution that created the places they claim to admire.

Instead of pouring all of its resources into finding more and more mediocre buildings to designate as “locally significant historic resources,” HPO should instead halt the process of reviewing outside nominations and focus its efforts on a comprehensive, District-wide survey of structures to identify those of high historic and aesthetic merit. Los Angeles has eight times the land area of DC and six times as many buildings, and completed a full survey of its structures within eight years. Meanwhile, DC HPO is now 40 years old, and has not completed a District-wide survey — ignoring many potential treasures in overlooked neighborhoods, while lavishing time and attention to ensure that no detail is overlooked for every single building in the District’s prosperous quarters.

Historic preservation also should not triumph over other aspects of the Office of Planning’s remit. The District has other planning priorities besides preservation, including creating affordable housing, allowing more people to live and work near transit and the regional core, and increasing renewable energy production. HPO and the HPRB must find ways to balance their own mandates with others’.

Idle speculation: podium apartments, floating above a parking lot

Podium construction: if it's good enough for these guys, it's good enough for you

As of 2015, the IBC now permits multi-story concrete podiums. At first, this was mostly of interest because it permitted even taller “double podium” apartment buildings, with up to eight stories framed mostly in wood.

This diagram (by Nadel, Inc. for Multifamily Executive) shows the effect between The Podium and The (Double) Podium: you can squeeze an additional floor in above grade, and because it’s concrete (heavy line) it can be used for residential, retail, or parking.

Yet using that magical concrete-framed second floor for residential (which could just as easily be wood-framed) seems like a bit of a missed opportunity. Instead, the second floor could be a mezzanine parking level for the wood-framed residential above — as was done in the mixed-use Grey House at River Oaks District pictured above, or in this mixed-use development on LA’s Olympic Blvd.

The real breakthrough possibility for the parking mezzanine isn’t atop retail, though: it’s atop yet more parking.

It just so happens that a 65-75′ wide module fits either a double-loaded apartment building or a double-loaded parking aisle. Therefore, a four-story building (three floors of Type V residential, one level of parking) can be stacked atop an existing aisle of parking — without diminishing the existing parking lot, and without excavating any parking.

It’s the suburban infill version of “have your cake and eat it, too”: keep your parking and add infill housing, too.

3 over 2

Developing these air-rights infill parcels used to require some pretty tremendous trade-offs. The first such projects that I saw were designed by Gary Reddick, a Portland architect who won a CNU Charter Award in 2004 for two such projects. Jury chair Ellen Dunham-Jones subsequently wrote about these in HDM:

In Seattle and Portland, where there are very good markets for residential development, Sienna convinced a variety of non-residential building owners to sell the air rights over their parking lots or roofs for housing. In Portland’s desirable and compact Northwest neighborhood, Sienna saw the parking lot of a specialized medical center as a potential housing site. After producing a pro forma, the firm approached the owners and showed that it could provide them with a covered, forty-three-space parking lot (with only three fewer spaces than before) and a million-dollar profit in exchange for stacking an additional layer of parking (with a separate entry) and two stories of condominiums. The built project, Northrup Commons, screens the parking with duplexes entered from the streets and adds two floors of apartments.

This turns out to be tough to replicate elsewhere. Because the residential comes with its own parking requirement, fully replacing the on-site parking requires adding parking somewhere else — either building a new parking lot elsewhere, or digging underground, at super-high cost ($11 million at one Seattle project). Most of the Sienna projects, including Northrup, used sloping sites (common in the Northwest) to tuck one parking level partially or fully underground.

tyson

Since the resulting buildings would block visibility and doesn’t result in an active ground-floor frontage, this particular infill seems best for infilling around Class B offices that currently sit adrift in a moat of parking — such as the above complex on Old Courthouse Road, at the southern fringe of Tysons Corner (image from Bing Maps). Or, many properties along this stretch of the infamous Executive Boulevard near White Flint (image from Google Earth):

exec

* A rough assumption here is that each 1,000 sq. ft. apartment would have one parking space, which works out to about 3:1 residential:parking floor space. The ratio seems to work for the Houston example, which promises its residents the ability to park in-building rather than having to venture outdoors. Sufficient parking for rich Houstonians is probably enough for anyone.

Recently: winning the war on sprawl, over-preservation, office to residential, shared streets, tax bill

I’ve recently published several articles over at GGWash.

  • Sprawl is slowing, but that doesn’t have to mean higher housing prices.” The downtown high-rises under construction only tell half the story of Greater Washington’s housing growth story. While all those cranes are easy to see from afar, what isn’t immediately apparent from the airport (but might be from a plane) is that many fewer acres of the countryside around us are being bulldozed for subdivisions–which for the past century has been where most lower-cost, low-rise housing was built. As a result, the region as a whole isn’t building enough housing for our rising population… Not only is supply overall not keeping pace with demand, but a large fraction of the new supply is in the housing market’s priciest segment: expensive high-rise construction, on expensive downtown land.
  • DC has more historic buildings than Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia combined. Why?” Nearly one in five properties in DC are protected by local historic designation laws. DC is so prolific at handing out historic designations that we have more historic properties than the cities of Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia combined, which together have almost eight times as many properties as DC. While this policy has ensured harmonious architecture across much of central Washington, it also means that Washingtonians are much more likely than residents of other cities to have their construction plans delayed or denied on subjective grounds by a historic review board.
  • Historic preservation in DC saves the loudest neighbors, not the finest buildings.” DC’s surfeit of historic structures results from several factors, notably the broad application of rather vague criteria for designation. As Roger Lewis has written, “the HPRB decision is inevitably a judgment call because much of the evidence for historic designation is inherently subjective.” Since every resident “squeaky wheel” is invited to request historic designation for just about any site in the District, many do — and overwhelmingly, they succeed.
  • DC’s countless thirtysomething office buildings stare down mid-life crises.” No other region can match Greater Washington’s density of 1980s and 1990s office buildings — we built over a million cubicles’ worth, almost as many as in the much-larger New York and Los Angeles regions. Now, these buildings are facing mid-life crises; many require substantial additional investment, as key building systems (like air-conditioning, plumbing, elevators, and roofs) require overhaul or replacement, just as the office market has changed.
  • Not every obsolete office building is cut out to become apartments.” Some, but not all, of these old offices can become residences, depending on their location, price, and layout. Despite considerable media coverage, office conversion has been comparatively limited in greater Washington for a variety of reasons, including a relatively healthier office market and a lack of specific incentives for the practice. Residential conversion offers some promise, but will not be a panacea for either the over-supply of offices, or the under-supply of affordable homes, because not every obsolete office building can be converted to housing.
  • Metro needs a loop to lasso riders from this growing corner of DC.” The way the District is growing is creating another rail bottleneck on the other side of town that will have to be addressed in the future. The Capitol Riverfront is easily the fastest-growing part of DC right now, and by some accounts one of the fastest-growing neighborhoods in America. If all 11,978 new housing units proposed within the Capitol Riverfront get built, the area around Navy Yard station would have the largest household population of any Metro station. Metro’s ridership forecasts, which now factor in development proposals, foresee that the area’s rapid growth might require additional investments, like a new subway line.
  • How are the Wharf’s shared spaces working out?” When the Wharf opened last month, it instantly became the largest expanse of “shared space” streets in the country. Over the past few weeks, it seems like these streets are largely working as they were designed. Even though a few of our commenters were skeptical about whether the approach would work here, so far there haven’t been any major complaints or adjustments needed.
  • The GOP tax plan would make housing and infrastructure more expensive.” Eliminating Private Activity Bonds and New Markets Tax Credits, as the House GOP’s tax code overhaul proposes, would have deep ramifications for funding infrastructure and affordable homes in the region.
  • The latest Republican tax bill changes commuter benefits, but probably not yours.” Tax law will only indirectly affect most area commuters.
  • Added 26 January: “A bold California bill would ease transit oriented development. How would a similar approach affect DC?” A bill recently introduced into the California legislature boldly proposes that every transit corridor in the state be rezoned to permit mid-rise apartments. In Slate, Henry Grabar writes that it’s “just about the most radical attack on California’s [housing] affordability crisis you could imagine.” In the Boston Globe, Dante Ramos writes “the bill may be the biggest environmental boon, the best job creator, and the greatest strike against inequality that anyone’s proposed in the United States in decades.”

 

Brand-new timber loft offices, now for lease

N. Vancouver Ave. frontage of One North

Last week, I published a ULI Case Study about One North in Portland, an architecturally inventive response to my previous speculation that “new-build loft offices could be popular in similar downtown-adjacent submarkets, and transformative for Sunbelt cities where sparse ‘warehouse districts’ have little competing product.”

Indeed, the anchor tenant at One North is a mid-sized tech company that had outgrown its space in Portland’s Central Eastside. As in many other growing cities, there just wasn’t a cool old loft big enough, so instead they found a cool new loft.

T3 Minneapolis under construction

Southwest corner of T3 Minneapolis, showing CLT column stacked above concrete podium

I also had a chance last week to check in on T3, Hines’ new cross-laminated timber office building in Minneapolis. Less than a year after groundbreaking, the structure is complete and the facade is almost completely hung — almost a year faster than a comparably sized concrete building takes to build. The superstructure took less than 10 weeks to build.

The model is so successful that Hines is now replicating the T3 building at another location that’s even hungrier for lofts: Atlantic Station in Midtown Atlanta.

Here in DC, one great location could be the PDR-2 zoned land (90′ height permitted with setback, no residential) on the west side of the Met Branch Trail along Eckington and Edgewood, one of the hottest corridors in town. Another could be around Union Market/Gallaudet, where JBG’s Andrew VanHorn says “we see the tenant base there evolving. The pre-lease opportunities we’re talking to for our office building are all private market, very young companies, as far as their employee demographics.” Or maybe this is what his firm has in mind for the “creative loft office” at RTC West.

An aside: this is another strike against “Investment Ready Places.” It sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s easier to move buildings to people than to move people to buildings. The “good bones” that economically unviable places have can have “good enough” replicas in New Urbanist settings like Atlantic Station and Reston Town Center. Not to mention that building all of the new infrastructure to overcome IRPs’ deficient locations, and then rehabilitating their buildings to code, would be much more expensive than just building anew in prime locations. It’s cheaper and easier to build new lofts in Reston than to rehab lofts in West Baltimore, and to build the new rail connection that would make West Baltimore feasible for NoVA’s growing companies.

Cities are built around people, not the other way around.

2017 update: Construction has started on an 800,000 sq ft HT building on the Brooklyn waterfront.

Friday photo: A balcony to nowhere

Twinbrook Hilton, faux John Portman

Twinbrook Hilton, Rockville, Md.

Architect John Portman was fond of putting “balconies” around the edges of his hotels’ massive atria. Perhaps this was part of the concurrent “conversation pit” trend that afflicted malls of that era, maybe people really did just pause and gawk at the tremendous volumes while walking to/fro the elevators, or maybe he liked the “columns around the Forum” look that they lend to the interior. Yet… nobody quite knows what to do with them today.

Who, after all, has need to stop and gather in a hotel hallway, the very definition of a neither-public-nor-private space? Why not go to the lobby, if it’s a public conversation, or into a room?

At the faux-Portman Twinbrook Hilton in Rockville,* the management was sick of complaints from atrium-facing rooms (one-third of the total) about nighttime noise. One option was to replace the atrium-facing windows with airport-style noise-insulating glass, but ultimately it proved cheaper to just wall off the entire atrium with a curtain-wall system – including putting these silly aluminum doors to wall off the balconies. Maybe someday they’ll put furniture out there, which surely will just gather dust. Or maybe there really are people who use these spaces, like maybe gossipy 8th graders on school trips who don’t want to keep their roommates/chaperones awake. (Isn’t that what Snapchat is for?)

Of course, that particular solution is still better than the temporary option I once spotted at the true-Portman Bonaventure, apparently aimed at LA’s exhibitionist-fitness-enthusiast crowd:

Pod people

Westin Bonaventure, Los Angeles, Calif.

* I remember once staying here as a child and getting evacuated from the building by an overnight fire alarm, in my first (but definitely not last) high-rise fire alarm experience.

How Chicago’s zoning excludes small apartments from the neighborhoods

chizone

Chicago’s zoning code has a built-in bias against smaller apartments – except in a few high-density zoning districts, which cover a vanishingly tiny slice of the city.

The zoning ordinance regulates building size and density in three ways: through floor area ratio (FAR), “minimum lot area per unit” (MLA, a backwards way of saying dwelling units per acre), and through various setback regulations. Yet these don’t follow a linear relationship at all; instead, the interaction between FAR maximums and MLA minimums encourages larger buildings with fewer apartments in lower-density districts, and more apartments per building in higher-density districts.

What this graph shows is: If I have a standard city lot in a given zoning district, and I build the biggest possible building with the most possible units, how large would those units be? The answer varies tremendously across the city, from a low of ~600 square feet in high-density districts like RM-6 and DR-7, to “impossible” in the lowest-density districts (note 1).

Most of the city’s neighborhoods, from the Bungalow Belt through the Zone of Two-Flats (mostly zoned RS-3) and into the Zone of Three-Flats (mostly RT-4), is zoned for the lowest-density (left-most) third of this graph. From RM-4.5 on down, the average apartment that can be built at the maximum density must be 1,250 square feet or larger (the size of a large two-bedroom apartment). Sure, you could build studio and one-bedroom apartments, but then you’d have to build huge three- and four-bedroom apartments, too.

Only for RM-5 and above, high-density zoning classifications pretty much only found in a narrow band along the lakefront, do the average apartment sizes permitted begin to dip into one-bedroom territory.

Someone who wishes to build new smaller apartments, like one-bedrooms or studios, in order to accommodate shrinking households can only do so in neighborhoods like Lakeview or Logan Square by either (a) under-building the FAR, at a considerable opportunity cost, or (b) getting rezoned to a denser category. Anyone who goes the latter route might as well build a lot bigger and higher, too.

Methodology notes:

  1. I assumed a standard 25′ x 125′ (3,125 sq. ft.) city lot. In RS-1 and RS-2, you cannot build on a lot that small, hence those values are excluded.
  2. The MLA chosen is the number specified for efficiency apartments, a distinction made in higher-density districts which would skew their figures down.
  3. “BCD” here refers to mixed-use zones that can be designated Business, Commercial, or Downtown depending on the use. What’s important for these purposes is the numeral in the zone name, which defines the density allowed. These zones all permit (and indeed, require) substantial amounts of commercial floor space, which counts against FAR but not MLA; for these zones, I assumed an apartment building with 0.5 FAR of commercial space, and the rest residential. This skews the figures upwards for downtown districts, where one would reasonably expect more than 0.5 FAR of commercial space.

Friday photos: Tokyo’s small scale, and how I learned to love Modernism

Cube

No less an authority on great streets and great cities than Holly Whyte, guiding spirit of the Project for Public Spaces, wrote in City: “But the most fascinating of Tokyo’s streets are its ordinary ones. Mile after mile, they are consistently more interesting than ours. In the Shinjuku district there are more streets to savor than in most U.S. cities put together, and for sheer sensory impact there is nothing to match its back alleys…” (And Whyte’s comparison set was NYC in the 1980s, which hardly lacked for “interesting” streets that packed in “sensory impact.”)

Narrow flatiron

Tokyo disabused me of any notion that classical architecture was integral to creating walkable, human-scaled places, or that newness per se is the problem. Japanese cities show that fascinating places can exist with mediocre 20th-century architecture. And because they’ve shown that it’s possible to build fantastic, prosperous, massive, and efficient cities in the 20th century, they’re much more powerful examples for city-builders in our time than European antiquities.

Tokyo was a megacity in the pre-industrial era: it boasted a million residents back when New York was a mere town of 50,000 cowering on the edge of a vast wilderness. But Tokyo was leveled by an earthquake in 1923, then firebombed in World War II. Unlike other societies, which would use those catastrophes as excuses to re-plat and re-organize, the Japanese rebuilt their cities with largely the same warren of narrow streets and the same itty-bitty lots, but modernized the architecture with the very latest in cement-block schlock. It’s as if Rome were rebuilt by Angelenos in the 1970s. And it’s fantastic.

Here’s just a random intersection I walked through near Fudomae station, southwest of the city center and outside the Yamanote Line “beltway,” where a friend of mine happened to let me stay in her inexpensive flat. Yet it’s quiet, livable, affordable, fascinating to walk around, and completely illegal in America due to its narrow streets, mixed uses, Byzantine street pattern, high lot coverage, and high density — in other words, its small scale.

Many smaller buildings will create a much more lively streetscape, and more opportunities for cool urban spaces, than fewer but larger buildings. The critical deficiency in American cities, by comparison, is not limited to fixing a single profession, like architecture or even engineering. Rather, our entire system is tilted towards gigantism: our suburban-era parcel sizes, our High Modern-era zoning (which almost require large buildings), our mortgages, our street design manuals, our nonsensically upside-down parking requirements.

inside the void

If the stupendous urbanism yields such terrific results in the hands of ordinary architects, it becomes sublime in the hands of masters like Tadao Ando.

Friday photo: Shared space, residential parking-lot edition

Sofia Lofts, San Diego, CA

The ULI Case Study that I wrote about Sofia Lofts, a 17-apartment development in a neighborhood in eastern San Diego, was recently posted. I was particularly intrigued by how the developer/architects used shared space to maximize usable open space while meeting the letter of the law with regard to parking requirements:

For the balance of the 21 [parking] spaces planned, six more garages are accessed via the courtyard. The plans show seven more spaces within the courtyard itself, immediately in front of the garages — but to keep the space inviting, the spaces in the courtyard are off limits for tenant parking. It’s a small net loss for NDD, which discounts the rent for some tenants who forgo on-site parking, but results in a common area that looks like an expansive garden, rather than a parking lot.

The materials used within the courtyard were also chosen to make the garden feel like a place where cars just happen to be allowed. Part of the driveway near the alley is paved with concrete, but the center of the property is covered in pea-sized gravel. The texture of the gravel slows down cars to walking speed, adds visual and auditory interest, and permits rainwater to filter through. Its inspiration comes from a house in Italy that the Nakhshab family lived in; as Soheil recalls, “The courtyard we would always play in had that type of gravel, and we are seeing the tenants’ children doing the same thing.”

Friday photo: Why did Chicago courtyards disappear?

anti-courtyard

Here’s my old block in Wicker Park (and namesake for this blog): the 2100 block of West North Avenue. It’s also an interesting illustration of how Chicago’s 1957 zoning ordinance made courtyard apartment buildings illegal — even though this eminently livable, passively vented building type defines high-density Chicago neighborhoods like Rogers Park and South Shore.

What did courtyards in were backyards. The 1957 ordinance (mildly updated since) requires a 30-50′ rear yard for residential units in all but the densest of downtown zones; functionally, this is where the garage went. This mandate shifted open space to the rear of the lot, and the entire point of a courtyard building is that the open space is consolidated at the center of the lot.

The 1911 C-shaped courtyard shown at lower right has minimal setbacks along the sides and rear, which results in a generous central courtyard. The 1901 3-shaped courtyard at upper left was required (by a subdivision-specific covenant and by a ‘L’ line easement) to retain front and rear setbacks, and as a result its courtyard shape is so constrained as to be almost illegible. The new buildings at lower left were required to have a rear setback (the ones at far left got a slight variance) and thus consolidate their open space at the front and rear of their lots, to the great detriment of the tiny sliver of open space that the architect sought to insert in the middle.

Other contributing factors to the demise of courtyard apartments include:

  • Parking requirements, which are difficult but not impossible to accommodate in basements. The large courtyard shown here is raised, and could have been built with parking underneath.
  • The fashion for high-rises and for deeper floorplans in general, fed by postwar technological changes — cheaper steel and concrete, improved lighting, air conditioning, elevators, etc.
  • By the time 1929 came around, appropriate sites for courtyard buildings, which required contiguous lots zoned for medium density (at the time, Chicago had three density districts, although then as now the low-density district was pretty capacious). In 1945, when construction resumed, the city’s builders had shifted their attention away from the relatively built-up lakefront.
  • Market distortions that encouraged detached single-family houses instead of apartments.

 

Help, a mall ate my walk shed

Mall entrance

The entrance to Hong Kong’s airport express train is somewhere within this mall. The cross-border bus terminal entrance is somewhere else entirely, and the actual “public” spaces are completely dispiriting.

When I was a small child, John Portman-style complexes were architecture’s futuristic vision: Someday, we’d all live in hermetically sealed downtown compounds of office and hotel skyscrapers set atop multi-story podiums.

My family stayed in several of these hotels on trips; sometimes, my mom would tell me about how she, as a child in Hong Kong, had dreamed of a city of skyscrapers and layers of indoor shops, all suspended above grade so that buses, boats, and cars could fill the ground plane.

That hyper-dense Modernist vision eventually came to pass in much of central Hong Kong, fed by not only its unique geography but also by its unique private-provision model for both rail and property. There’s danger, it turns out, in putting developers in charge of your rail stations; the “gift horse” of free infrastructure comes with strings attached.

When private firms are put in charge of designing pedestrian circulation networks, they will place their values — primarily shuffling eyeballs past storefronts — over the public’s need for legible, direct links from A to B. The tremendously high value of rail access behooves developers to elbow their way closer to the station; the location imperative isn’t to be near transit, it is to be at transit; to make it not just easy, but necessary to traverse their property. And, once the development has cornered the transit station, it will seek to entrap the resulting pedestrian flows within a spiderweb of passages. As Chris DeWolf writes:

Last month, a survey of 657 Tsim Sha Tsui pedestrians conducted by urban design watchdog Designing Hong Kong revealed that 77 percent prefer using street-level crossings over footbridges and subways… “The problem is that bridges and tunnels force you into particular routes that limit your ability to take the shortest path,” says Designing Hong Kong convenor Paul Zimmerman. “People also pick attractive routes. That’s a very qualitative statement, but part of what makes a route attractive is being able to see other people, to window shop, to have an experience. With subways and footbridges that becomes quite limited.”

An early version of this phenomenon can be seen in Montreal’s underground city, the most valuable retail frontage is as close to the train platforms as possible. Thus (almost as in casinos) the developers twist and turn the corridors to herd people past the shops. Future iterations of the phenomenon will soon be unveiled at the World Trade Center mall and at Hudson Yards.

Edit 7 Jul 18: author Marion Girodo has a book of “urban mangroves,” the multilevel urbanism that crops up around metro stations in Montreal, Paris, and Singapore.

Edit 17 Jan 17: Henry Grabar in Gothamist writes of “the oculus”: “If Grand Central is a train station with some shops, the Oculus is a shopping center with some trains.”

New PATH - WTC underground passage

Want to get to the PATH, or cross West Street to get to the Hudson? You’ll have to walk down this hall, and oh by the way there are plenty of shopping opportunities.  

A similar landscape may be emerging at Tysons Corner, where the in-process retrofitted suburbia — now and forevermore ridden with alienating highways — shows little sign of ever becoming a Greenwich Village sort of urbanism with small blocks of public streets lined with small-but-tall buildings. Instead, the spatial complexity that’s emerging is of a very different, much more Portman-esque sort. Philip Kennicott writes in the Post:

The decision to elevate the stations — a far less expensive approach than burying them — may well presage this sleek new world of elevated plazas and public areas, disconnected from the ground. A new office building across from the Tysons Corner station is built atop a parking garage, so that at ground level one faces a seemingly impenetrable plinth. Already, a web of pedestrian bridges — some built by Metro, others by private developers — is emerging, keeping us safely above the world of machines and hydrocarbons and asphalt…

One wonders if you will emerge from these stations with [a] sense of pleasant surprise and rootedness in the urban landscape… Likely not. Rather, you will emerge, slightly disoriented by the ever sameness of the commercial and physical space around you, wondering for a moment if you have arrived at the right station, before your basic sense of purpose — to get home, to find a restaurant, to locate a shop — kicks in, and you begin to move by habit and instinct through a pleasantly unobtrusive world of concrete and glass that could be anywhere.

Tysons Corner Center expansion

Tysons Corner Center’s “Metro Plaza” under construction. At left, the bridge to the station, at right, the bridge to the mall.

At Tysons Corner Center, the megamall at the heart of Tysons, building a bridge keeps the distance from station to mall is 300 feet — a 1.6 minute walk. The bridge siphons customers directly into the mall, creating tremendous value in three dimensions: “You’ve got a first floor on the first floor and a first floor on the second floor, so you’ve solved the verticality problem” [of pulling mall foot traffic from the entry to different levels], Timothy Steffan, an executive for mall owner Macerich, told the Post’s Jonathan O’Connell.

This Disney-esque strategy of spiriting people directly into an immersive environment has ample precedent: in fact, Roppongi Hills, a fantastically successful redevelopment in the heart of Tokyo, also uses an elevated plaza to deliver customers from the subway onto the development’s podium. The experience for customers who drive in is akin to what Rick Caruso’s malls or skyway’d downtowns provide: parking garages deadening the street environment all around, but a fantastic public space within. Sure, bus and bike customers have to deal with an ugly exterior, but the privileged modes (driving and heavy rail) get the red carpet.

Amazingly not Portman: Plaza of the Americas

Skyway urbanism in Dallas

My first instinct is to warn “creative” policymakers to be careful what you wish for: these projects result in such high cost and complexity that the only financially worthwhile result is a giant mall. They’re so huge, boring, and bland because of private value capture. Finding room in a private developer’s pro forma to build expensive underground rail infrastructure requires selling stupendous quantities of expensive corporate real estate, which will never be cool and lively. It also requires generous, greenfield-esque parcel sizes. In the worst case scenario, the project fails, and there’s nothing worse than a white elephant in the middle of the room.

Yet as dispiriting as these initial examples are, there’s a glimmer of hope that they’ll eventually be okay. With enough time, enough density, and enough owners, even these bland malls could evolve into something interesting. Hong Kong’s experience shows how the weird linkages that result from generations of ad-hoc decisions and relentless foot-traffic flows have created a hyper-dense end result that can be beautifully complex in a postmodern, emergent-urbanism way. This isn’t immediately apparent from the workaday commercial architecture, but can be mesmerizing when expressed in diagram form — as the recent book Cities Without Ground shows (high-res image slideshow). A two-dimensional plan, or even a figure-ground diagram, is useless when expressing vertical spaces.

Hong Kong architect Peter Cookson Smith described this structure in more essentialist terms in The Urban Design of Impermanence (pg. 84; excerpt):

A cityscape of streets, internalized routes and multi-level links, even without clear articulation, is open to casual exploration, and there is little need for city form to be overly organized or pronounced in order to be legible… This underlines an essential difference between the formal framework of Western public spaces and the more diffused and informal realm of social space associated with the Hong Kong street, where the relationship between public and private spaces is less tangible, and the routes between them work just as effectively in three dimensions as in two.

Perhaps China’s homogeneity and sheer density (bear in mind this is about 1-2 orders of magnitude higher than urban America’s) might increase social trust and thus break down the hierarchy of spaces — people there feel more comfortable wandering down dark alleys. Yet perhaps we could shortcut to that future: emerging spatial technologies, like smartphone-based mapping, are quickly obviating highly legible spatial hierarchies. Customers can now just as easily find a shop hidden in the back corner of a buildings as one that shouts its presence with highway-sized signs.

Or maybe not. Toronto’s PATH system is now 40-odd years old, serves more than 100,000 pedestrians a day (so many that its closure would send downtown into gridlock), and has apparently outcompeted street-level retail spaces. It’s also a navigational nightmare of corporate sameness, according to Spacing’s Kieran Delamont:

The PATH is a mall, first and foremost. Beyond access to over half a dozen food courts, at least two massage parlours, and more sushi restaurants than I cared to count, I put it to you that, with its existing wayfinding system still in place, the PATH offers nothing especially preferable over supra-terranean navigation… It is a seemingly endless maze of mall corridors, hallways, and atriums. Unless you are a person for whom the distinctions between Jamba Juice and Jugo Juice are particularly meaningful, everything in this place feels exactly the same; with each new tunnel you encounter in here, the space expands physically while being visually constricted. Because this space lacks the distinctive landmarks that you often find above ground, there is very little to distinguish it from every other mall you’ve been in. The more of it you explore, the less it feels like you could ever remember any of it…

The balance between mall and transit network is slanted heavily towards the PATH’s commercial interests; the dominant incentive of the landowners is to keep you in their slice of the PATH, not to move you through efficiently.

What we need are architects and developers who understand that, and aren’t afraid to create more interesting, if less-legible and less predictable, places — perhaps even fractal-like, medieval-esque street plans in three dimensions.

Sai Yeung Choi St

America’s lower urban densities mean that our over-commercialized transit districts may never quite achieve this level of spatial complexity, but by golly, why not try? 

[Previous transit-station walk shed coverage: walk sheds & excessively grand rail stations, walk sheds & water transit]