What with Jane’s Walk coming up, I was struck by this item in Sam Hall Kaplan’s piece on the latest controversy in Greenwich Village:

I was not concerned about the density then, as I am not now, being born and ill bred in New York. Further, the village always attracted tourists and students, as I was, given the cost of housing there always being a few dollars too much. And it still is, as I was reminded recently when passing the old Hudson Street haunts where Jane and Bob Jacobs lived, and checking out a notice in the window of one of the area’s now ubiquitous real estate offices. Advertised was a rental for $9,000 a month. I distinctly recall the Jacobs paid $7,000 to purchase their building a few doors down. That of course was a few years ago.

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Well, originally for me – but I expect PT readers may have some suggestions.  Add them in Comments.

Asks Sam:

I am developing the program for the Vancouver Urban Forum on June 6. I am wondering who you might recommend as someone who could articulate the anti-density argument well.

Also, do you have any thoughts about:

 — local people with interesting contributions to the topic of “achieving urban densification”.  Because the formula is biased toward short presentations [7 minutes, 12 minutes, etc.], it might be easier to find local people interested in this.

 — studies or insights from elsewhere that could be highlighted. We plan to have sessions where there will be brief summaries of some of the topics that are being covered in other places.

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I”m off to the Island for a couple of days.  So to keep PT readers amused, here are a couple of items from two Michaels – Alexander and Geller – who in the last few days both came up with questions related to zoning, development and urban form.  Why not help them out with your own insights.  Add to the Comments!

From Michael Alexander:

Let’s use, as a classic example, the Safeway next to the Broadway-Commercial Skytrain. Brent Toderian used to use it as the poster child of poor land use, about which the city apparently could do nothing. . Let’s say the land was zoned for a 20-storey building, but Safeway chose to build its usual warehouse-in-a-parking-lot. As I understand it, they have that right, because zoning is a maximum, not a minimum. . . Now it’s 30 years later and land values have appreciated exponentially, so Safeway says, let’s cash this sucker out. They sell to a developer who pays handsomely for the land with the 20-storey zoning, and files a maxed zoning application. The city at last has the TOD it’s been denied for 30 years, the developer is out the market value of the land and zoning, and Safeway has reaped all the benefit. . Instead, what if the city had said to Safeway: build low if you like, but you lose whatever part of the zoned FSR (Floor Space Ratio – or density) you don’t use. The city then banks the zoning. Thirty years later, someone buys the property from Safeway, but Safeway can only sell one storey of FSR, and that determines the selling price. The new landowner tells the city she want to build up. Lovely, says the city; you can go to 20 storeys, if you pay us the difference in land value. . In other words, Safeway, use it or lose it. . Instead of selling, what if Safeway finally develops an urban sensibility and says: City, we want to build up. The city responds, you can go to 20 storeys if you pay us the increase in land value. You didn’t use it? Now you have to buy it back. . _______________________________________________ . From Michael Geller: . In a conversation I had this past week at City Hall, planners asked what I thought of allowing higher densities and larger highrise floorplates than have historically been approved in Vancouver. (The floorplate of a building is the area of each floor.) . For decades the maximum for a highrise building has been around 570 square meters, which has resulted in Vancouver’s ‘skinny point-block towers’ so often admired by visiting architects and planners. This was the size established for Downtown South, most of Coal Harbour and the North Shore of False Creek. In a typical Vancouver building, approximately 70 square meters of the floorplate is taken up by elevators, stairs, corridors and mechanical shafts. The remaining area can then be divided up into suites. … . What prompted the question from the City planners is that they are now being asked to approve increasingly larger floor plates in order to improve building efficiency and affordability. The Planning Department is not just looking at fattening the towers; it is also being asked to consider alternative building forms such as larger double-loaded slab buildings that are so common around Toronto and other cities. Unlike Vancouver’s slender point blocks, these buildings can easily be twice or three times the floorplate size and much more efficient and cost effective. . I think the time has come for a full public discussion on just how far Vancouver should deviate from its past practices when it comes to building form and density. Should we forego the slender point blocks? Should we permit Toronto sized slab buildings around the city in the name of affordability ? . At what point do we trade off the form, massing and appearance of buildings in order to achieve greater ‘sustainability? When is too much density too much? Read more »

Michael Lewyn in Planetizen: 

Traditionally, low-density zoning has been based on a desire to exclude so-called “undesirables” and thus keep property values high.

But now that compact neighborhoods are becoming more desirable (and thus more expensive), the argument that density leads to poverty and plummeting property values can no longer be taken seriously.

But Not-In-My-Back-Yard (NIMBY) activists now have a new argument: that far from reducing property values, density increases them too much, by making the neighborhood too desirable.

For a challenging analysis, check out wodehouse‘s response immediately below Lewyn.  It’s complex, but worth contemplating:

As I have been trying to explain on various threads on Planetizen, inflated urban land prices are an obstacle to INCREASES in density in the RIGHT places. Urban land price curves do slope up towards the most central and most desirable locations. But when the entire curve is deflected upwards at the fringe (by serious “discontinuities” in land rents across regulatory boundaries) the prices also rise across the entire city simply because of the way real estate markets work. The result of this, is FEWER potential buyers at each zone apart from the fringe (which is where people “priced out” elsewhere are deflected to – actually to both there and “beyond” the fringe).

He concludes:

NOT having an urban growth boundary, is a MUST. This sounds contrary, but it is the truth.

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First, go here: a view of Delancy Street South in New York City, next to the Williamsburg Bridge.  (If you get the aerial shot, click to go to streetview.)

And then go further up the street by following the white line, placing the little oval at “Williamsburg” with your mouse and clicking.  Or just click your way north up Delancy Street until the seasons change.

If your browser experience was like mine, the transition, from gray to green, will speak for itself.  Use your mouse to swivel around, and see where you came from, now brightened by the foliage of spring.

These blocks – or at least the surface parking lots – are where Manhattan planners think density could go, to avoid disturbing already-developed parts of the city.  You can see the parking lots more clearly here – which makes one realize how few such undeveloped places there are in this part of the city.  For a full list of other potential sites, go to the article mentioned below: Everybody Inhale, top of the second page.

In other words, thriving inner cities are getting down to the last open spaces left – typically surface parking lots and brownfield sites – as well as boosting densities to accommodate the numbers their research tells them are coming.

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How badly?  That’s the questiion asked at the end of a first-class piece on the population capacity of a place like Manhattan.  Or Vancouver.

Given all the tradeoffs and rewards of living in this staggeringly complex, gloriously maddening city, there is no final accounting or projection. When it makes sense for our lives, we make do with less space. Like most things that are a matter of compromise and desire, it comes down to another simple question: Just how badly do you want what you want?

Everybody Inhale can be found in the New York Times’ real-estate section – but Amy O’Leary’s piece is worthy of a broader read.



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These days it’s possible for media to take vast amounts of information – the census – and to create reader-friendly interfaces like these.

Global News has generated 2011 Canadian census-tract maps for population and density here.


The New York Times produced an interface for the 2010 U.S. census, with many more layers, here.


So what better time to check out the veracity of the belief that the West End is the densest residential area in North America.

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In a comment to “Car-less in Vancouver,” Seattle reader Patrick McGrath asks:

Are societal ills like those mentioned in the Sun articles (here and here) part of your calculus when you teach about increased density, nonmotorized transport, etc? If so, how do you address the intersection of your work with those issues?

A tough question, and one I’ve struggled with over the years, both as a writer and politician. Given the recent headlines and letters in the local papers, the subject of street disorder is one a lot of Vancouverites are struggling with today. In Alan Durning’s comments referenced in the previous post, he notes that the city’s mayor Sam Sullivan “sees the scourge of petty crime, drug dealing, and aggressive panhandling as a first-order threat to Vancouver’s urban renaissance.”
So let me add some perspective.

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