The View From Up Here

high line condo

Zaha Hadid condo design next to the High Line.

Edward Glaeser argues that blanket historic district designations can stifle development and drive up the costs of living to the point that only the wealthy can afford to live in the district. He cites Paris and Manhattan as examples. He also praises the high rise for its ability to provide the biggest bang for the buck in terms of housing to ground space and suggests that a more lax attitude about building up should be embraced in cities. I think these are both valid points in theory; however, in practice, there are so many forces at play shaping the development of cities, things don’t always pan out that way.

As I thought about potential examples, it occurred to me that hybrid scenarios may be the most dangerous in terms of destroying economic diversity. What happens when the character of an area is attracting developers and zoning allows or even encourages them to develop luxury high rises? It feels like we are seeing this in most of our big cities (San Francisco and Brooklyn come to mind) and it goes beyond the standard gentrification argument because it is often policy that is encouraging these transformations and in many cases, even subsidies for new development.

I think the High Line in Chelsea presents an interesting case study to illustrate the point. The project is widely regarded as one of the most successful and creative re-use projects in the past decade.  And it is a great example of innovative design as well as a lovely park. However, due to some—let’s call it creative—zoning by the City, a number of luxury high rise condos are being constructed around its southern end, threatening the views and the feeling of open space that the park was initially praised for providing, and negatively impacting the surrounding neighborhood, which is already virtually unaffordable.

Reconfiguring an initial plan for a local landmark historic district by re-drawing the district so that none of the properties adjacent to the park were included, the City left those areas free for developers and is approving structures up to 30% taller than even the non-historic zoning allows. It’s an interesting scenario where a re-use project and the historic character of the area has heavily influenced the market value of the surrounding real estate, ultimately, to its own detriment. And it proves that none of this ever happens in a vacuum. It doesn’t make sense to discuss the market value of preservation without the support of policy incentives and protections, particularly when there is an arguably contrary policy driving new development.

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