Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Air Rights

Michael Kimmelman has an interesting front page article in the Times today.  With these questions,"do we need more public oversight when it comes to the city’s stratospheric architecture? Are we selling off our skyline to the plutocrats? Or are those who occupy these spaces serving up much needed tax revenue to the city?" he asks the most penetrating political questions to grace the front page of the Grey Lady in memory. Disregarding horse races between powerful actors, ignoring "partisan" "divisions" and instead considering what is universally obvious about the relationship of money and power to anyone who tries to live in Manhattan he asks why wealth alone should dictate the form of our shared human habitat. 

"Do we need more oversight when it comes to the city's stratospheric architecture?" is an intricately pointed question. The author appears only superficially aware of what it is he has asked. In a sane world where the origin of most useable energy was recognized to be the sun, an urban zoning envelope would look like this:
Solar Envelope: Low Tech Magazine

Alas, ours is not such a world and Mr. Kimmelman glints off the surface of this glaring reality blind to the incentive structure that zoning is, assuming underlying property rights extend logically to the stratosphere. While urban living is vastly more efficient in total energy use than our current dominant suburban form, a land use model that took energy availability and long term sustainability seriously would look at the sun and its relationship to property boundaries in a form similar to the "mineral rights" under ground. Before even this though,  the issue of oversight asks more than our current institutions can provide. Landmarks has uniquely and for the benefit of the wealthy determined their usufruct extends no higher than the aging and myopic eyes of that institution can focus: the last time I stood before that august commission, looking to modify a tiny penthouse, making it
three bedrooms rather than two by displacing an obsolete fire tank with a bedroom, ANYTHING visible from the public right of way was regulated. But then I was working for mere millionaires, not billionaire job creators. 

Later in the article Mr. Kimmelman arrives at the notion that those properties who's development would cast shadows on Central Park might merit a higher level of public review. This from the valid point of view that such impacts affect the broader public. But this is no less true of the overall sun blocking characteristic of all tall buildings, in fact all urban building, in any case. Because of the inherent energy efficiency of urban living, I'm generally open to the idea of tall buildings, dense sun blocking development and the possibility of remote and concentrated energy capture methods to support them. So I would not advocate a Solar Envelope as illustrated above for mature historical cities like New York. None the less, the thinking behind the Low Tech article is the kind of deep integrative investigation of the environmental externalities of development that needs to be imported into our urbanistic thinking. The act of building as practiced at this advanced stage of the hydrocarbon era is among the most ecologically important of human activities.

We are selling off the skyline to plutocrats. There is no question about that, it was ever thus in New York: show me a skyscraper built by a group of community activists (not super-rich who happen to be involved in their communities). Styvesant Town and its peer developments from the long expired New Deal are as close as New York has come to aspirational residential architecture for the actual public. While these developments are a 

Styvesant Town
great success for the city, with competition for residency resulting in long waiting lists to this day, I think we can all agree their aesthetic aspirations are prosaic at best.  A proper rethinking of urban land use would include consideration of the incentives for quality design, including public aspirations beyond prose. Public oversight should be interested not only in solving today's immediate needs, but providing for the richness of future experience that can continue to build on the strengths of density: richness and variety rather than repetitive monotony. 

The plutocratic preening currently in process has, at least, the benefit of producing some interesting designs. In fairness to Portzamparc no architect can spare his sites from bad clients: hubris and misaligned incentives can extract execrable architecture from even the most considerate hands. Despite this, the crop of new residential buildings of the last decade have been the best since the 20s: more's the pity it takes serial bubbles on Wall Street and a smorgasbord of welfare for the most rapacious to extract such benefit from our current system, so perverse are its built in incentives. The massive effort of central planning necessary to execute these ambitious urban projects mostly take place in the offices of private financiers and their paid consultants who all have every pecuniary incentive to displace whatever costs they can onto the public: the environmental degradation of raw materials extraction; the carbon foot prints of off shore material production and transportation; labor exploitation abroad where profitable; labor exploitation on the construction site where possible. 

There is tremendous planning in all of this, make no mistake, but it is private interests who are doing most of the planning. And to the extent that the negative externalities enumerated above are avoided it is not through the interests of these agents, at least not primarily, often it is specifically despite them. This is not to say that there are not people of good character involved in development, of course there are and I've benefitted from working with them even while the city benefits from their efforts. There are however also crooks, schmucks and scammers as well, and even the best intentioned private developers have built in financial incentives to generate these externalities: the markets they compete in allow them and once they are allowed they become a competitive advantage for the unscrupulous. That the central planning efforts are in private hands create the surface affects Kimmelman is reacting to while at the same time leaving the policing of negative externalities baked into the process to increasingly underfunded or conflicted public agencies. 

"Are those who occupy these spaces serving up much needed tax revenue to the city?" Decidedly not. In a sane world, again, incentives would encourage things beneficial to society while penalties would penalize things detrimental. Ours is one in which tax abatements encourage the blotting out of the sun and the discharge of carbon into the atmosphere on a monumental scale. While "air rights" transfers threaten to overshadow Central Park in the here and now, just before, and all over the world the same perverse incentives encouraged a giant carbon belch that conjures the physical drips of stuff for these ethically conflicted stalagmites shipped and dripped in our fair city. Similarly, in a sane world, engaging people in the doing of productive things would not be penalized, while in ours the people who actually drip the drips of stuff to make the things are taxed at a rate an order of magnitude higher for their real constructive effort, their labor, than are the hoarders who store what portion of their hoard they can in these overpriced inflation hedges while expensively re-branding themselves "job creators". 

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