September 1st, 2011

Whyte's _City_, more comments

I should be clear: I'm enjoying the book. But periodically, I hit a snag where I go, yeah, I bet that's not fair for some reason I wonder what it is.

At the end of a chapter about gentrification's brighter aspects (which I wildly agreed with in almost every single respect), Whyte talks about "cities-within-cities".

"A recent example is Presidential Towers, a middle-class development in Chicago." I hate when people say "Chicago". It's not that it isn't true. It's that it is a generally useless level of detail. PT is West Loop. And it's worth knowing that it is 4 towers, 49 stories, about a dozen units per floor. He doesn't mention any of this. Instead, he quotes. "Writing in Inland ARchitect, Catherine Ingraham hails it as ersatz city." Everyone else describes it as a residential complex with a mini-mall. Ingraham continues, the quoted section concluding with "The development stands as a bulwark against the very diversity that it capitalizes on."

Whyte contrasts PT unfavorably with St. Francis Square Co-op in San Francisco. "With its town-house groupings, interior open spaces, and private patios, it is one of the pleasantest neighborhoods you will see anywhere. It was built for low- and middle-income people twenty-five years ago. To repeat a point: a design that is well conceived for a time and place tends to be timeless. We should not have to search hard for such lost lessons. They are all about us."

What does yelp say?

Obviously, PT has _way_ more reviews than St Francis Square, because PT has about 9x as many units as St Francis Square. Both places appear to currently support a lot of diversity: PT has a lot of turnover, a lot of recent immigrants from China and India (making that diversity slam look, um, weird in retrospect), and a ton of college kids. It went through a recent ownership change and has completed substantial renovations. St Francis Square has switched from limited equity coop to market-rate (and no, I don't know what that means in a California context), still has some of its original residents -- and apparently a substantial gap between those original residents, other people who qualify for affordable housing, and people buying in at market rate. The latter are the ones doing the renovations. There is a wild diversity of reviews at yelp and apartmentreviews, but the idea that one of these has aged better than the other does not really hold up -- unless you share Whyte's bias against high-rises.

One thing that really stood out in _Arrival City_ was how new arrivals to the US and Canada from India and China and elsewhere could reproduce social networks within a high-rise context. High rises are _not_ inherently problematic. The college kids also seem to like (altho not uniformly) PT, which suggests that there's some hope for people born here as well, at least for part of the life arc.

I _really_ want to like Whyte. Whyte likes cities. I like cities. I loved Jacobs (altho I'm really wondering what I would think if I reread _Death and Life_ right now) because Jacobs likes cities and I like cities. But I have this sneaking suspicion that the things I like about cities and the things that Whyte or Jacobs like about cities have limited overlap. There are _real_ problems with high rises, especially high rises that are single-use (whether all-residential or all-commercial -- all industrial high rises are rare to non-existent) and place massive demands on their surrounding neighborhoods and offer nothing to those neighborhoods at street level. But high rises can work fantastically well, and even when they get totally screwed up (Newmark in Seattle springs to mind, altho at least it never was at risk of falling down like the newer Seattle building that was built wrong) they don't disappear: you can opportunity after opportunity to fix the problem (Newmark again springs to mind). I can't help but feel that Whyte and Jacobs suffer from biases as pervasive and self-invisible as those of the suburbanites they chafe against.

Whyte on building office towers

p 334 I'm going to quote extensively and hope it qualifies as fair use, because I really want to _not_ misrepresent his argument.

"Conventional economic development programs concentrate on hanging on to big firms with tax abatements and other defenses." This was specific to the period Whyte was researching and writing, but isn't totally wrong now. This strategy has numerous problems: "tax abatements come on strong in the boom periods, when they are least warranted...Corporate gratitude ... is a nonfactor. ... Sponsors of big office projects press for concessions and threaten to pack up and go to Stamford if they don't get them. If the city calls their bluff, they will probably stay. If they do go, it will serve them right."

"Most cities have assumed that [major office projects are the prime source of new jobs] and have equated office building construction with the city's economic vitality. But the growth is in firms that are priced out of the tower market. They need older, somewhat beat-up quarters off to the side but not too far from the center."

Whyte then quotes Birch saying companies that can afford tower rents aren't making new jobs and tower development destroys older buildings that were cheaper to rent. There's an obvious question and give Whyte credit (lots and lots of it) for asking it and providing an answer:

"If the number of people who can afford the high rents of the towers is diminishing, how come so many new towers are being built? It is not because of any excess of demand. Office vacancy rates across the country have been rising for some time. The impetus for construction has been financial. It has been driven by a huge supply of investment capital."

It would be a wrong to say that any segment of construction is hot right now, but the towers that were going up in cities like Seattle prior to the bust were residential, and some of the same arguments were brought up against them that Whyte brings up against commercial space: tearing down aging buildings with less expensive rents to put up a new building with higher rents (or sales price in the case of a condo building) decreases availability of the kind of space that people need and increases the availability of the kind of space that we already have too much of. In theory, markets shouldn't do this, but when there's a big pile of money looking to become a bigger pile of money, the high markups associated with luxury housing are pretty appealing.

It's an interesting argument and at times it is correct. When I read sites about multifamily development, there's an obsessive attention to vacancy rates, absorption and ability to raise rents that suggests developing new multifamily right now is very appropriate (altho you do have to get the price point right, multifamily for rent developers are not focused on the very high end right now, and some of the for-sale developments that didn't finish or didn't sell-out prior to the bust got down-converted to for rent for more reasonable parts of the market).

It's been a real education, the last couple of years, trying to predict the bottom for our purposes, buying, and then watching prices on and off and sales to try to figure out whether we got it right. Translating that lesson into a regional, or national understanding of for-lease markets, however, is really tough. And I also feel like Whyte missed a big part of the commercial space boom of the 1970s: it was probably driven as much by jobs-for-union-construction as anything else. I've never lived in NYC, but the commercial office tower boom was not limited to NYC, and even as a kid it was pretty obvious how unions, elections and work building towers downtown fit together in Seattle. If it wasn't obvious in the 1970s, it was sure as fuck obvious after the boom ended in the early 1980s.

rezoning, JW style

I could say oh, so very, very much. After all, there's the I-was-a-JW-and-much-of-my-family-still-is angle. There's the print-on-paper-is-dying angle. There's the development angle.

And there's that whole alternate universe thing, in which, what if D. had convinced the WTBTS to take her on to help out with automation back in the late 80s? Would she still have developed health problems? Would it have led to a qualitatively different sort of crisis? Would she still have gotten married? Odds on, if that had worked out, I would never have come out to visit as a high school graduation present and seen DC for the first time, which means I would have been that much less likely to return to DC with cousins over a decade later, and certainly wouldn't have appreciated the difference that time made in the nature of the city. If she had gone to work for HQ and they had treated her well, would it have impacted my attitude towards the religion and perhaps stuck it out for longer? This is probably all just an artifact of a total loss of concentration.

Wondering where they are going to?

Apparently, Warwick, NY.

ETA: Above, I say "There's the print-on-paper-is-dying angle". I was sort of kidding. I shouldn't have been.

Front page is downloadable, multiple format magazines, yearbook, publications, etc. Geez.

Things to Do with a Kingdom Hall

(1) Turn it into a funeral home/crematorium.

(2) Move in the police department, or maybe use it as a library, or a community center.

(3) Use it for SWAT team practice.

I'm trying to decide whether this is worth doing with churches in general. The picture for the SWAT team was hilarious.

William Whyte, _City_, the actual review. Sort of.

Subtitled: Rediscovering the Center

I couldn't find a kindle version so I bought one used. I intend to keep it, altho I hadn't thought I would want to when I bought it.

I guess I'll start by saying that I cannot imagine a universe in which I do this book or its author justice by reviewing it. William Whyte was a brilliant, careful, exuberant participant in urban life, well-connected, full of brilliant insight and a fantastic observer who followed the data where it led him, even if that meant having to throw away hypothesis after pet idea after firmly held belief before finally stumbling over the truth when someone complained about his assumptions. It's absolutely worth the time to carefully read it, with frequent interruptions to dig up additional information wherever your curiosity leads you. It's long -- he clearly couldn't include every single detail that might have been helpful to a reader and besides a number of years have gone by and he makes predictions that can be checked.

Whyte's research is so unparalleled and occurred over a long period of time, so it's tough to argue with his observations and dangerous to claim they are not applicable. But just because he observed something doesn't mean we have to agree with how he valued what he saw, much less his predictions about how given buildings and complexes would age. Part of the fun of reading _City_ is that it is _not at all current_. Published in the late 1980s and the research dating from the previous decade-ish, his analysis falls in the empty space between New Towns (which were showing real problems) and New Urbanism (which had not really come upon the scene yet): he values urbanism, favors pedestrians but has not yet come out whole-heartedly against the car, and his reflexive nostalgia for a denser urban environment recognizes that tower development with dead plazas is unhelpful. While he doesn't go as far as some (by, say, becoming completely anti-open space and opposed to all development above a half dozen stories), he does identify some of the major issues: loss of sunlight, a lack of street-level amenities (places to eat, pee and sit), blank walls, a loss of affordable space to incubate businesses (he spends very little time on housing), the problems of allowing cars to park in the CBD, etc.

Whyte has an unusual degree of clarity about what zoning has to offer and the problems with various approaches to it (no pie in the sky by and by on offer here). Even better, he understands the ecosystem of zoning: the importance of community groups applying pressure to planners and zoning boards to the pros can push back on the developers instead of just agreeing to everything that shows up.

That's all fantastic.

Here's the problem: Whyte's city is Lexington, and only for a particular stretch of it (he's an honest man, and he says as much). He visits other parts of NYC, and other cities around the country, but he is so connected to a certain class level, and its scurrying to and from lunch and office jobs and getting haircuts and shopping and getting in and out of subways and commuter trains and so forth that I'm not entirely certain he realizes that there's a whole other group of people who are school teachers and police officers and fire fighters and construction workers in the same city, never mind all the recent arrivals not just to the city but to the country (and NYC has them now and had them then). He mentions that lack of blue collar jobs in some cities -- and how that is a huge problem, one that wouldn't be fixed even if the office parks had been retained by cities instead of lost to the edges of their metropolitan area, and he even compares cities that did a good job of managing the transition from manufacturing to something else. He is even sensitive to issues like cities creating skyways or underground concourses that are disproportionately used by white office workers, leaving the streets to black people who ride the buses (and he even mentions the bus/train brown/white divide). But his office workers are lively and real in a way that no one else is, and I can't quite figure out why. (Even the most detailed bag lady described was a college grad.)

So I guess I'll end by saying that we could all learn a huge amount about how to observe a city (and some of what to look for) by reading this book -- I highly recommend it. But I would also encourage anyone who reads this (or any other programmatic book about cities) to listen carefully for what isn't being said about who the camera isn't focused on. Whyte has this great bit where he describes how corporations decide to leave a city (and he nailed it -- the process was exactly the same in the late 1990s as it was back then, and the impact on a corporation was the same as well), and who follows the corporation when it moves and how their new lives work (or don't) in the new context -- and who stays in the city and how that works for them. If you can hold in your mind the people whose opinions _don't_ drive those decisions, but who still have to find a place to live and a way to get to work and some way to make the paycheck cover everything, you can intuit at least the general shape of the many missing pieces inevitable in a topic so large and so important.