I should say, to begin with, that I’m not totally unsympathetic to Charles Marohn’s call for flexible height restrictions. If there were a referendum tomorrow as to whether we should replace all the density restrictions in Chicago’s zoning code with his proposed rule – you get 1.5 times the average height of surrounding buildings – I would probably vote yes. (Although I’d be more likely to vote yes if there were another clause that gave you the option of building, say, 1.5 – 2 times the width of the street your building would face, which would allow much more density on major streets like Western and Irving Park.)
But still, I’m skeptical. I’m skeptical mostly because I think Marohn doesn’t fully grapple with the trade-offs the “incremental” approach requires, at least in mature, built-up city and inner suburban neighborhoods – and because I think those tradeoffs have really serious implications both for politics, and for the sort of urban fabric/soul-of-the-city questions that he seems to care a lot about.
Let’s take, for example, the two high-rise apartment buildings that have been proposed next to an L stop in my neighborhood. At 11 and 15 stories, the taller one would be roughly twice as tall as anything in the neighborhood (there’s an eight-story building a few blocks away), and roughly four times taller than the standard three-to-four-story building canopy in the area. This is exactly the kind of non-incrementalism that Marohn opposes, and I’ve heard more than a few people express the feeling that they’d rather see all those units come to the area in the form of more traditional three-flats than a big and flashy new tower.
But what would that actually look like? The towers are supposed to have roughly 250 apartments. That’s 84 three-flats, or roughly four full block faces. But if each of those three-flats is replacing a single family home or two-flat, then you’re not getting three new units in each building – you’re getting one or two. To get 250 new units, you would have to tear down 100 two-flats and 75 single family homes and redevelop them as three-flats: 175 old buildings, or roughly nine block faces. If we want to concentrate this density near the same L station, that basically means that every adjacent block would be entirely demolished and rebuilt with modern three-flats. Even if we discount the units that could be built on the empty lot where the towers are proposed – something that exists in very few places in Logan Square, or in most other neighborhoods in the city where development is occurring – we’re still talking about the wholesale destruction of at least a hundred historic buildings.
This, obviously, is a problem. It’s a problem from a logistical point of view, because assembling 100 or 175 or whatever separate properties is obviously harder, and probably more expensive, than buying a single, larger property. (And though Marohn has responded to this criticism by saying that he doesn’t care about the cost efficiency of construction, anyone who cares about housing costs, and the social problems related to ones that are too high, should.) It’s a problem from a preservationist point of view, because you’re requiring the teardown of historic buildings and streetscapes at a massive scale. It’s a problem from a Jacobsian urban planning point of view, because you’re eliminating the older building stock that provides most of the cheap housing and commercial spaces that create space for diversity in neighborhoods like Logan Square. And it’s a problem from a political point of view, because people generally don’t like it when every single building on their block is torn down and replaced with something that looks completely different.
I’m not sure how much the historic preservation and Jacobsian old-building issues bother me, or if I could deal with them. I am more confident, however, that the people who don’t like having a tall new building a block or two or three away from them would not be any happier about having all, or half, or a third of all the buildings on their street torn down. I could be wrong! And if I am, okay.
But the fact is that the kind of incremental development Marohn is championing is pretty rare, at least on a scale that would come close to matching the housing growth from a handful of very dense projects like the towers above. One of the only examples I can think of are some of the inner neighborhoods of Houston, where a loosening of density restrictions in the late 90s has unleashed a wave of townhome and small apartment developments in formerly single-family-home areas.
But Houston is obviously an outlier in the laxity of its building regulations, at least in neighborhoods like this one. (And people there aren’t necessarily happy about it.) Otherwise, the North American successes I’ve heard of in outlying neighborhoods – especially around transit – have come from targeted, out-of-scale development right around rail stations in places like Toronto, Vancouver, and suburban DC.
I should also say that part of the disagreement here, I think, comes from the fact that Marohn and I live in very different places. Marohn is from a small, generally auto-oriented town without, I would imagine, a huge pent-up demand for housing, and without the same kind of historic housing stock that people in places like Chicago are attached to. (Although maybe people there are attached to their housing too: I don’t know.) In any event, the case for new, large residential projects to inject as many housing units as possible, especially near transit, is clearly much weaker in the kind of place Marohn lives than where I or many of his detractors on this issue live.
Which is to say that I’m sort of sympathetic to his argument, and I think that in some contexts, he’s probably correct. But the costs and benefits of what he’s proposing in Chicago are very different from the costs and benefits in a place like Baxter, Minnesota, and I think he ought to be a bit more up front about that.