American Cities Have a Conversion Problem, and It’s Not Just Offices

There is a dilapidated office building on Water Street in Lower Manhattan, and building an apartment there makes a lot of sense. His 31-story building, which once housed AIG’s headquarters, has windows on all four sides and a shape that lends itself to the addition of corner rooms. In cities with too few houses, 800-900 apartments can be accommodated. Across the street, an office not much different from this one is already a residence, Another is on the way.

But 175 Water Street has a problem. Financial district offices, as long as they were built before 1977, are exempt from some zoning regulations that make conversion difficult. And this office was built in his 1983, six years behind him.

“There is nothing in the building, its structure, its machinery, its structural engineering that would prevent it from being converted,” said Richard Coles, managing partner of Bamberton Group, which developed both conversions across the street. Told. Mr. Van Burton, who also owned a 175 Water, was serious about converting. At one point, it seemed that New York City would change its 1977 standards and make simple, no-cost reforms to drive more conversions. There was support from Mayor Eric Adams and Governor Kathy Hochul. According to Coles, it takes just one stroke of the pen.

But that idea, along with the rest of the governor’s housing policy, was scrapped in the state legislature this spring. Mr. Van Burton decided there was no change and sold his estate.

The block today speaks of a much bigger problem than the stagnant office sector. There, cities have failed to evolve despite many changes around them: the needs of their residents, the nature of the economy, and the emergence of new threats such as the housing crisis and climate change.

A healthy city needs to build new and restore old. But they also perform the regular trick of metamorphosis, which turns existing constructs into something new.plant become a loft apartment.industrial waterfront become a public park.become a warehouse Startup office and restaurant scene.

The pandemic temporarily forced American cities into this transformation.they turned enter the restaurant from the sidewalkfrom the park to the hospital, turn the street into an open space. Today, we will need to permanently and at scale transform offices into apartments, hotels into affordable housing, parking lots into bike lanes, driveways into traffic routes, and office parks into real neighborhoods.

Ingrid Gould Ellen, professor of urban policy and planning at New York University, said, “If the last few years have taught us anything, it’s the need for flexibility and the ways we’re going to take advantage of it. We need to be open to surprises,” he said. Sky. “

But decades later, that flexibility has worn off.

American cities have transformation problems.

The problem is more precisely a complex web of interrelated issues.

Zoning codes have sprawled and become more prescriptive. We intentionally added a speed bump to our development. environmental reviews, etc. and public meetingand has often been used to defend interests narrower than social interests.

We want buildings to be accessible, sustainable, hurricane and earthquake resistant, and much more than they were even decades ago. they stop flying birds and provide public space. While each new target is worthwhile, it widens the gap between buildings built decades ago and what today’s regulations demand.

And over time we have developed a more rigorous view of the built environment. That is, homes should acquire value indefinitely, politicians should secure their value, and property owners should have the right to refuse changes.

If you want to turn your office into an apartment, or turn your back porch into an enclosed home office, what are the cumulative effects today? Or so is zoning. Or so do neighbors. Or so is the phrase in state law decades ago. Alternatively, politicians have asked that the wording be changed.

“What a mess we’ve created ourselves,” said Emily Turren, a professor of urban planning at the University of Chicago who studies zoning. “Mother Lode of City Rules”

These regulations in many cities dictate exactly how many parking spaces are required per 100 square feet of pawn shops (unlike the parking spaces required per 100 square feet of furniture stores). These detail the architectural flourishes that a builder must apply, the minimum square footage a home can occupy, or the size of individual units in an apartment building.

Today, many missions are loosed from their original intent. (Keep slaughterhouses away from actual homes? Keep people out of storefronts burning wood that can catch fire?)

“With all these rules, you lose sight of what kind of city you’re trying to create,” says Tarren.

These rules specifically prevent conversion. In New York, a hotel must have a six-foot backyard. However, a residential building requires a 30-foot building. Does that mean developers should do the following? Cut out the back of the hotel to make a houseBut why draw such a thin line between buildings where people sleep for a short time and buildings where people sleep permanently? Most cities in America a century ago No such clear distinction was seen.

And why can one office building be residential, but not another across the street?

The 1977 standard for Lower Manhattan (and the 1961 standard for other parts of the city) is so important because zoning rules in this area allow office buildings to be larger in volume than residential buildings. . As a result, only about half of AIG’s buildings are legally residential.

Old building if that seems silly You can ignore this ruleit can also be completely converted into a residence with reduced light, air and garden requirements. For them, cities have extended a little more flexibility.

But that rarely happens.

“If you look at zoning codes, there have been zoning codes for the past century, but they’re longer and more complex,” says Sarah Bronin, an architect and legal scholar in Hartford, Connecticut, who helped rewrite zoning. It’s clear that it’s just becoming,” he said. Her original 1916 Code of New York was about 14 pages. It is now close to 3,500 pages.

Cities have accumulated more prohibitions, more prescriptions, and more appendix tables. more hitches.

“I have a name for the accumulation,” said Phil Wharton, a New York-based developer. “I call it Kludge.”

Another part of the story is not about laws and formal rules, but about the politics and culture that came along with them.

For example, city transportation authorities aren’t typically required by law to hold public meetings on every bike lane or follow nearby property owners on every bus line. Cities have broad powers to alter public roads and public spaces for the public good.but Something similar happens all the time — The neighbors still say no, Or local politicians do, or someone threatened to sue.And the city makes concessions (or wasting years trying not to).

These informal forces are often as powerful as the code of law, but they can be even harder to change, he said. Noah Kazis, Professor of Law, University of Michigan. Legislators can rewrite laws capping housing density, but the bigger challenge is rooting out the notion that neighborhood homeowners can deny density.

This cultural opposition to change (and respect for neighbors) is partly urban renewal. This is partly due to Americans’ increasing reliance on housing as a means of building wealth. The more people expect real estate values ​​to rise, the more More likely to block change for fear of harming it.

Professor Kazis suggested that Americans have become more conservative about change as society has grown richer.

“If you go back 70, 100, 150 years ago, there was a general understanding that housing stock and neighborhood design weren’t good enough. People didn’t have plumbing,” he said. “So it might be a question of how to fix it, but it wasn’t whether to fix it. And that’s not true anymore.”

The world of change we can all agree is necessary has shrunk.

Inflexibility has also proven to be profitable, or at least economically viable, for individuals and cities as a whole. Rare homes boost property values ​​and tax revenues.

Eric Korver, a longtime New York City Planning Department official and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, believes that in cities like San Francisco and New York, people don’t need new growth or development to thrive. said he noticed. These fiscal realities encouraged the politics of saying no, he said.

“It’s the box we fitted ourselves into,” he said. “And we may not find a solution until something really bad happens.”

He said the pandemic, homelessness crisis, and high office vacancies haven’t happened in New York so far.

One example: The pandemic seems to have given nonprofit developers a rare opportunity to transform shuttered hotels into affordable housing. Leveling the groundThe nonprofit sponsored housing developer thought it had found the perfect property. It’s an empty Paramount Hotel in Midtown Manhattan. It’s close to Breaking Ground’s homeless clientele, in an area that hasn’t been able to afford real estate for many years.

The agreement eventually broke down due to opposition from the local hotel union. Now there are no more cheap hotels available. And not a single Manhattan has been converted into affordable housing.

“There was an opportunity there — it was a time-bound opportunity, but unfortunately we, and perhaps others, have missed it,” said Brenda Rosen, president of Breaking Ground.

At Paramount earlier this year, the city opened another kind of temporary housing instead. emergency shelter for immigrants.

The rules that allowed lower Manhattan office conversions date back to today’s echo era. In the mid-1990s, the financial district was hit by a real estate recession. Wall Street was losing banks to mergers and more modern offices elsewhere. people I was worried that there would be too many outdated vacant buildings. Where was once the most valuable real estate in America.

The city’s response in that moment sowed the seeds of the long-term transformation of the financial district into what it is today. Over 80,000 people live.

“There was a sense within the government that if we could tweak economic development and social policy mechanisms, we could create a better situation for the general public,” said Carol Willis, an architectural historian and director of the Museum of Skyscrapers. And there was a broader belief, now seemingly lost, that people could trust the government to do it, she said.

“We are in a different moment,” she said today.

But as the built environment becomes less flexible, the exact opposite is happening to our living patterns. Many people now use their homes as offices and want their offices to feel like home or a spare room. Functions like a hotel. Nearby shops are today a comfortable place for many and not a nuisance.

“Our way of life is more integrated than separate,” says Amit Preiss Patel, an urban designer at Dialog, who has worked on transformation projects for many years. “The difficulty is that our activity is more agile than the physical infrastructure we live in.”

To solve it, we must first all agree that a more agile city makes a better city.

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