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.

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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.”

 

Recently: instant neighborhoods, unmasking institutional capital, dockless bikeshares compared

Cranes around Navy Yard, from roof of 100 M SE

Three things I’ve written elsewhere this week, the first two inspired by the mechanics of my neighborhood’s growth:

1. “Instant neighborhoods” don’t make for great cities, but DC insists on them in GGWash. I really do relish living in a neighborhood that’s growing and changing quickly, but it’s a little bit unnerving to think that we may be repeating the biggest mistake of Southwest’s past — the hubristic assumption that our best-laid urban plans can anticipate every need, for all time.

2. Meet the everyday people who own these iconic Washington-area buildings in  GGWash. Amidst a lot of dark insinuations about outside money, it’s kind of funny to uncover the rather more quotidian reality of who’s paying for all these new buildings.

3. I wrote a Twitter thread about riding all four of the new, dock-less bike sharing systems that have launched in DC this past week. Click through for the reviews:

 

Amazon’s HQ2 RFP prioritizes site readiness and talent, not incentives

Parking crater at Spooky Park, Yards

Site availability, not incentives, are of “paramount importance” to Amazon.

A lot of the early press around the Amazon HQ2 announcement zeroed in on the usual economic-development narrative of a company shopping around for incentives. Yet a close reading of the RFP reveals that incentives are actually a middling concern for Amazon.

The RFP reveals (as Benjamin Romano also writes) that Amazon feels that it’s outgrown Seattle; they feel as if they’ve hired everyone in Seattle who could work for them, and growth requires tapping into a new labor pool. The company isn’t hungry for cash; it needs people, space, and speed.

I’ve plucked out the various considerations listed in the RFP and rearranged them roughly in order of urgency:

“Paramount importance”

  • “Finding suitable buildings/sites,” i.e., initial size of 500,000+ (up to 1.0 MSF) available in 2019, expandable nearby to 3.5 – 6 MSF over three phases and potentially up to 8 MSF beyond 2027
    • Keep in mind that a high-rise office building takes about a year to build, so groundbreaking should occur by mid-2018
    • For perspective: the TSA just awarded a build-to-suit contract for a 625,000 sq. ft. headquarters on a greenfield site in Springfield, Virginia, where the buildings are drawn, the developer has cash in the bank, the land is already cleared, and the office will open in late 2020
  • “Optimal fiber connectivity”

“Must be” or “required”

  • Close to a significant population center that can fill 50,000 jobs (many of them technical)… Direct access to significant population centers with eligible employment pools
  • Strong university system
  • Compatible cultural and community environment, diverse population, higher ed, officials eager to work with company

“Critical”

  • Highly educated labor pool
  • Initial and ongoing costs
  • Travel/logistics for employees and to other facilities
  • Site has access, utilities, zoning

“High-priority considerations”

  • Stable and business-friendly environment and tax structure

“Key factor”

  • Travel time to major highways and arterial roadway capacity

“Significant factors”

  • Incentives offered by state/province, local communities

“Important”

  • Near airport with daily flights to SEA, NYC, QSF, WAS
  • Stable and consistent business climate (demonstrated via testimonials from other large companies)

“Ideally”

  • <30 miles to major city
  • <45 minutes to international airport
  • <1-2 miles to highways
  • 0 miles to mass transit (rail or bus)

“Preference for”

  • Metro with 1M+ people
  • Urban or suburban location to retain/attract technical talent
  • Communities that think big

“Want to”

  • Employees will enjoy living there, recreation, education, high quality of life

“Could be, but does not have to be”

  • Urban/downtown
  • Similar layout to Seattle campus
  • Development-prepped site

Site-specific statistics that must be provided, and therefore will be considered:

  • General site information
  • Ownership structure, notably if government owned
  • Current zoning
  • Utilities present
  • Total incentives offered and terms, if legislation is needed, estimate uncertainty thereof, timeline
  • Highway, airport travel
  • Transit options, including bike and pedestrian

Regional statistics that must be provided, and therefore will be considered:

  • Labor pool information
  • Ability to attract talent regionally
  • Opportunities to hire software engineers
  • Recurring sourcing for software engineers
  • “All levels of talent”
  • Executive labor pool
  • Existing and potential university-employer partnerships
  • List of higher ed institutions with relevant degrees
  • Number of recent grads
  • K-12 computer science programs
  • Transit and transportation options
  • Traffic congestion ranking
  • Quality of life
  • Recreational opportunities
  • Diversity of housing options
  • Availability of housing locally
  • Housing prices
  • Crime data (“also”)
  • Cost of living (“also”)

So, what locations make sense on the East Coast?

The RFP only calls out two criteria as “of paramount importance”: fiber data service, and having a shovel-ready site of 0.5-1.0 million sq ft, with on-site or adjacent expansion to 8 MSF.

The site not only should be zoned already, it needs to have utility capacity in place. The 2019 timeline leaves zero time for rezonings, public hearings, geological surprises, soil contamination, lease buy-outs, tenant relocation, wish-upon-a-star transit lines, etc. It means either clean dirt that’s ready to go, or a monster of a cold-shell building that already has construction crews hard at work.

It’s hard to overstate how enormous this project is. It’s more than the total commercial (retail, office, hotel) space that now exists at National Harbor. It’s more than the total commercial space contemplated in the long-range plans for Downtown Columbia or White Flint — much less what’s already gone through zoning approvals. It’s bigger than the entire Capital One campus plan at the McLean Metro, or Under Armour’s Port Covington campus plan in Baltimore. It’s more office space than even what could be built under the Navy Yard area’s zoning. It’s twice as big as the Pentagon.

The Greater Washington office market is the country’s third biggest, after NY and Chicago (other large cities’ employment bases are more industrial). This is one of a few regions in America where developers regularly propose 1+ MSF office sites — largely hoping for giant federal leases. (Granted, cities like Atlanta, Chicago, and Dallas often give away zoning for the asking; Toyota doubled its Plano campus’ size during negotiations.)

Most local sites might have shovel-ready space for Phase 1, but not necessarily plans in place to accommodate phases 2-3-4. Only two come to mind: Tysons Corner and Crystal City-Pentagon City.

  • Tysons: 50,000 jobs is a 50% increase on Tysons Corner’s current employment, and 25% of the 2050 “buildout” number there. As far as I can tell, no one owner at Tysons can accommodate the full 8 MSF buildout, but sites could be combined at two locations:
    • McLean station: Scotts Run, next to Cap One, is the largest single project at Tysons with approvals for about 4.5 MSF of office. Another 0.5 MSF has been approved in two parcels to its southwest, and the Mitre campus can also expand.
    • Tysons Corner station: Lerner has entitlements for an additional 2.3 MSF of office south of the Galleria, Arbor Row has approvals for another 1.1 MSF to its north, and Macerich has approval for another 0.5 MSF office tower south of the station. The Galleria itself hasn’t been rezoned yet, although one idea that’s been presented adds about 1 MSF of office; there are also sites to its west (closer to Greensboro station) that would still be within walking distance.
  • Crystal and Pentagon City have seen 20,000+ federal jobs in defense and homeland security depart since BRAC; there’s over 2 MSF of vacant office available today. What’s especially notable is that most of the offices are already controlled by one very interested  landlord (JBGS). There aren’t many closer analogues anywhere in America to their partnership with Vulcan in South Lake Union: one deep-pocketed owner, one neighborhood, and a placemaking/planning framework that forecasts tremendous growth.
    • [Updated 13 March 2018] From a JBGS filing: “Our holdings alone can accommodate Amazon’s entire long-term space requirement and we have a cost advantage over our competitors given the existing in-place parking and substantial infrastructure. Crystal City has plenty of capacity to accommodate Amazon or any large user looking for a sizeable home in an urban market.”
    • Crystal City has long-term plans to renew the existing buildings and expand office space by about 5 MSF net, including active or expired plans for 0.7 MSF at the vacant 1900 Crystal and 0.65 MSF at 223 23rd St. There’s also about 1 MSF vacant today, and over 1 MSF in 2018-2019 lease expirations that could free up sites for incremental additions.
    • Pentagon City has an entitled site for 2 MSF at the shovel-ready PenPlace, and two adjacent sites are also approved for ~1 MSF of office apiece: Brookfield’s TSA/DEA block (leases are up in 2018-2019) and Kimco’s Costco site.
    • Potomac Yard has a power center to redevelop, where JBG is a partner and could build 1.9 – 5.3 MSF of office after the new Metro station opens after 2020. (There’s vacant land in Arlington, too, but it’s owned by Lidl’s headquarters.)

These sites compare favorably to other leading East Coast contenders: Schuylkill Yards or UCity Square in Philadelphia and Seaport Square in Boston are by far those cities’ largest sites, with superior access to intercity transport and higher ed, but both are approved for only ~3 MSF of office. (The Philadelphia sites are adjacent to air-rights parcels that may be available later, and for which plans have been floated, but the metro area has a considerably smaller technical talent pool.) The Boston submission ended up focusing on the Suffolk Downs racetrack, which is centrally located within the region but clear across downtown from the region’s plush suburbs and educational institutions.

The obvious sites in downtown Atlanta, like the Gulch, are still visions rather than plans, with fragmented ownership and poor infrastructure/access. It appears 2 MSF of Class A office is vacant downtown, but by far the largest and highest-profile block is Bank of America Center, a mile north — and much closer to Tech and Midtown. Too bad the Gulch isn’t on the other side of downtown.

Colossal loft conversions might fit the bill elsewhere, as with the warm shell of Chicago‘s Old Main Post Office — one of the country’s biggest buildings at 2.5M sq. ft., and so impossibly huge that its size had been the stumbling block to several previous plans. It happens to sit astride a subway line, highway, and fiber lines, and within a block are three approved plans for five new build-to-suit office towers.

It could also spread across a few six-figure spaces on the Brooklyn waterfront; although the area’s comparatively small office market isn’t promising, industrial space is relatively plentiful.

The Dallas Morning News’ old printing plant and the mostly-empty Dallas Union Station building have a combined 425,000 square feet, and happen to sit next to not just many empty lots but also an iconic sphere thing.

Central city or suburbs?

Regarding HQ1, Bezos is on record saying, “We could have built a suburban campus… I think it would have been the wrong decision.” Amazon VP for global real estate John Schoettler echoes: “Jeff said the type of employees we want to hire and retain will want to live in an urban environment…. We could have gone to the suburbs, and we could have built a campus.”

Bezos was also heavily involved in siting the Washington Post’s new office. A key consultant says: “One discipline Bezos brought in was money… He saw [a fringe site] as a lot of empty holes, not urban-istic.”

Update May 2018: Arlington, TX confirms they were told “it wanted an already-developed urban core.”

Which locations have a deep enough talent pool to draw from?

A large labor force, primarily technical but also executive, is another “required” factor. Crain’s Detroit points out that “Amazon’s biggest business impediment is labor”: it has over 6,000 current vacancies in Seattle, 75% of which are technical. Real estate brokerage CBRE recently published a report, based on BLS data, comparing cities’ “tech talent” (“software developers and programmers; computer support, database and systems; technology and engineering related; and computer and information system managers”).

Three of CBRE’s charts stood out to me:

  1. 50,000 Amazon employees will include tens of thousands of software engineers, yet only 10 metro areas have more than 100,000 tech employees to begin with. For context, consider Amazon’s current need for 4,500 technical employees: hiring those people in Pittsburgh today would require poaching 11% of its tech workforce, 9% in St. Louis, or 7% in Raleigh. In Toronto or New York, you’d only have to convince 2% to leave their jobs, and in the Bay Area or Washington-Baltimore it’d be less than 1.5%.
  2. A key advantage for DC, Boston, or LA is that only these three regions export CS graduates in large numbers. Seattle, Atlanta, DFW, and the Bay Area already have to import thousands of tech employees a year; since there’s only a limited pool willing to pick up and move, recruiting thousands more every year could be that much more difficult. (The RFP specifically asks about university hiring partnerships.)
  3. Regarding costs, CBRE did an interesting analysis looking at the cost of running a 500-employee technology office. DC, Boston, and Seattle all come in at about the same price; SF is about 20% more. The big winner in that table is Toronto, with its large workforce and low wages — which more than offsets the relatively high cost of real estate there.

 

Smart growth and your Sierra Club local

Taking refuge

In California, trees hug you

I was recently updating the DC Sierra Club chapter’s web page on smart growth, on which I’ve added a few links to resources about the Club and Chapter’s heritage of smart growth advocacy. Even I was surprised at how thoroughly the Club’s key policies embrace smart growth.

The overarching “Sierra Club Strategic Plan Overarching Visionary Goals” document lists as two of its 21 strategies:

Maximize energy efficiency across all sectors, including transportation, urban design, and land use. […]

Protect our air, water, land, and communities from pollution. Promote environmentally sensitive land use and urban design to minimize sprawl, provide a healthy environment for all, and minimize resource use.

Interestingly, the strategy that calls to “Protect and restore wildlands and waterways” continues that those wildlands serve a specific, objective, quantifiable purpose: “to provide large and connected habitats.” Not to protect the favorite views of favored humans, or to protect property values for landowners, but to rescue non-human species from the threat of habitat fragmentation.

The Policy on Urban Environment, adopted by the board in 1986, states (emphasis added):

…the Sierra Club urges planning and policies which stimulate…
Infill” residential and commercial development on unused or under-used land within city boundaries…
Preservation and revitalization of urban neighborhoods, with residents protected from unreasonable economic and physical disruption…
Attractive, compact and efficient urban areas; with densities and mixtures of uses that encourage walking and transit use, and encourage more efficient use of private autos in balance with other transportation modes…
These development patterns and transit improvements would conserve energy, water, land and building materials while enhancing the pleasure and safety of urban life and reducing travel distances.

The Transportation Policy, adopted in 1994, supports policy and systems that “encourage land uses that minimize travel requirements; strengthen local communities, towns and urban centers.”

The broad Energy Resources Policy (PDF) directly refers to smart growth and transit. In section VII.A.3:

Reduce the need to drive passenger vehicles by shortening the distance between workplace, home, shopping and school, using “smart growth” planning and improved transportation options. Provide safe and appealing options for walking, bicycling and mass transit, including light rail passenger trains, which will reduce vehicle trips, emissions, fuel consumption, and the demand for new roads and pavement. Well-designed mixed-use communities create long-term reductions in energy usage. Appropriately designed public transportation systems are an essential component of a sustainable energy society… Congestion pricing should be applied, when feasible. Parking costs should be efficiently and conveniently unbundled to give consumers and employees more control over how they choose to spend their money.

If your local Sierra Club entity is proving unnecessarily obtuse in not living up to these policies, I’d suggest engaging by appealing to the Club’s strong sense of tradition, deference to higher authorities (encoded in the “One Club” policy), broader principles, and yes, policies. One specific idea: ask them to review the “Guidelines Governing Decisions on Schools, Hospitals or Other Projects Serving Economically Disadvantaged Communities.” (Tell them “it’s on Club House, under Public Facilities.”) Those require specific steps before Club entities decide to oppose or endorse a public facility, with a specific mention of “low-income housing project” (and thus many large-scale infill developments subject to inclusionary requirements). Those steps require the Club to have a face-to-face listening session with those who will benefit, and a written assessment of the proposal and “any feasible environmentally superior alternatives” — which cannot include displacing housing to sprawling locations. Even where opposition by the Club may very well be warranted, the policy requires that it be thoughtful and considered, rather than knee-jerk.

Deck chairs on a sinking beach

I was pondering the testimony I delivered last May to the HPRB:

Where it all began

The original boundary stone at Jones Point.

Global warming poses a grave and imminent threat to not only humanity’s future, but to our shared past as well. In a recent issue of Preservation magazine, National Trust for Historic Preservation president Stephanie Meeks wrote that “as preservationists, it is incumbent on us to reckon with climate change bravely.” If left unchecked, the higher sea levels caused by global warming threaten the very existence of countless historic structures within the District of Columbia, including a great many of the surviving structures from its earliest days. For example, the original cornerstone of the District of Columbia (at Jones Point in Alexandria) was originally constructed on dry ground — but now sits below today’s sea level, hidden by an obtrusive concrete seawall and visible only through a protective cover. From the Jefferson Memorial to Randall School, Mayfair Mansions to Tingey House, global warming could very well obliterate scores of DC landmarks.

(The HPRB approved the application that day, and the building is moving towards construction this year.)

The sad thing about my statement today? Global warming will go pretty much unchecked under the present policy regime. Points-of-no-return are rapidly approaching for the terrestrial ice sheets of Greenland and West Antarctica; even with the boom in clean energy technology, there’s no stopping sea level from rising several meters or even many meters. Ten feet, twenty feet seem matter of course now; hundreds of feet is within the realm of possibility.

Is everything that we’re fighting about within our low-lying cities about to go for naught — are we just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic?

As Ian Urbina noted in the Times in November, property sales in flood-prone coastal areas are already slowing suspiciously. It’s impossible to know exactly why, but the rising incidence and cost of even “nuisance” flooding (as extensively reported by Ryan McNeill, Deborah J. Nelson and Duff Wilson from Reuters last year might well be causing people to think twice about purchasing in flood-prone areas.

What happens when the defenses start to run out? Will land suddenly, or gradually, become worthless? One fascinating “natural” experiment to watch is in Palm Springs, where the Desert Sun’s Rosalie Murphy wrote about the consequences of the expiring land leases that underlie half of that city. Condos are going begging for buyers, since expiring land leases can’t be encumbered with fresh mortgages — but commercial development often continues apace, since the mortgage terms are shorter.

I appreciate that the Trust is thinking more intersectionally, to the point of reframing its work as “reurbanism.” But given the forecasts, it’s tough for me not to see a lot of local skirmishes over waterfront sites as pretty pointless.

Friday photo: The old new towns


Excerpted from Letitia Langord and Gwen Bell, “Federally Sponsored New Towns of the Seventies,” Growth and Change 10/1975.

Earlier this week, startup incubator Y Combinator made a bit of a splash by hiring a lolcat entrepreneur to work on its “New Cities” program. The entire endeavor appears to be completely ahistorical. So, in an effort to help them out, here’s a reminder of the last time someone (the federal government) splashed out a lot of money to build cities from the ground up in America.

It’s worth noting that, 40-some years later, only The Woodlands has evolved into something resembling a city, with its own economic base — but probably due to its location in metro Houston, which sustained population growth of 20%+ per decade from 1970 through 2010. Several of the others remain half-built, pleasant-enough bedroom communities, and a few of them hardly ever got off the ground.

It turns out that city-building, and especially economic development, is an iterative, incremental process that’s highly resistant to shortcuts. Yes, economic booms do happen in unexpected places, but almost all of those are associated with large institutions and relatively unskilled labor. Re-creating the intricate economic interdependence of a 21st century metropolis will prove a monumental challenge, especially in an era of subdued labor mobility.