Sunday, January 27, 2013

Small Lots and the Evolution of the City

Small lot development in Austin, Texas
Today, we tend to think of small lots as unusable scraps; nuisances which stand in the way of good development. Many redevelopment efforts focus on the assembly of these lots into workable development sites. The small, wasteful buildings can then be swept away to make room for efficient development.

Small lot development in Paris
This is not a view rooted in an understanding of how cities have historically developed, nor in a view that comes from a study of the world's most enjoyable places. Traditionally, city blocks were subdivided into multiple small lots, often just 25' to 50' wide (or about 2,500 to 5,000 square feet), which were each auctioned off and developed independently by their individual owners. Prior to restrictive zoning, these lots would incrementally change over time in response to changing market conditions. This process, which served us well for centuries, is perhaps best illustrated by the work of a fellow named Zack van Schouwen. He studied the daylights out of a single block in New York, and sketched each and every development change that it went through over the course of two centuries.

(Zack von Schouwen)

This is one of my favorite things on the web. The amount of work that went into this project is incredible. You can view the whole history of this block at Zack's website here. Go ahead and check it out. I'll wait.

Welcome back. Isn't it great? If you go all the way to the end, you'll see that this wonderful block succumbed to the urban decline of the mid 20th Century, as well as the property-assembly redevelopment that I described in the first paragraph.

Small lot development in
Washington, DC
The traditional pattern of incremental small lot urban development gave great flexibility and resilience to cities and towns. Sometimes very little change occurred after the first wave of development because there was no economic need. Other times, as an area become more populated, or as streetcars and subways were added, individual lot owners would choose to redevelop their lots to take advantage of an increased demand for housing, retail, or office space in their neighborhood.

Small lot development in Venice, Italy
Small lot development in 
Lucerne, Switzerland
This process is healthy and used to be completely normal. It has many advantages, including: 
  • Great Urbanism. Most importantly, it contributes to great urbanism. While there are some examples of good one-building-per-block urbanism, the greatest streets feature multiple narrow buildings. Such streets have variety, a pleasing rhythm, and a human scale. Also, they naturally lend themselves to having a high number of small locally-owned shops, restaurants, and pubs, rather than large-format retailers.
  • Economic Flexibility and Resilience. Such areas can change incrementally in response to market conditions without outside intervention. If a single building takes up an entire block, it requires a Herculean and disruptive effort to rearrange things. Also, with multiple owners, if one owner goes bankrupt, the whole block or neighborhood doesn't have to deteriorate.
  • More Players. Small lot urbanism allows regular people to be developers. In past generations, the developers of these small buildings were often the owners of the shops on the ground floor. The amount of capital needed for small projects is attainable to a much wider assortment of people, which spreads risk among more parties, and brings more ideas into the fold.
    • It can be done today: The wildly
      popular One Seventh condos
      on a triangular 1,500 sq. ft. lot
      in New York (photo by Google)
        Gradual Change.
         If it seems like more retail space is needed on a block of narrow buildings, but the first owner to covert his ground floor to retail space is unable to find a tenant, then neighboring owners will be hesitant to follow. If in the same situation a single big player misreads the market in the same way, but builds tens of thousands of square feet of space that sits empty, much more damage has been done.
      • Allows Growth Despite Obstacles. If historic buildings or stubborn owners make assembly of large sites impossible, growth is still feasible when small lots are workable. In the era of the mega project, if you couldn't clear a whole block, or multiple blocks, nothing could happen.
      The important development frontier in coming years will be close-in neighborhoods and downtowns. Infill projects in these areas is where the action will be. These areas are filled with small lots, and making these lots workable is an important part of our urban future. 

      The Flatiron
      Presently, various things make it difficult to build small footprint buildings, and we suffer for it. As we seek solutions, though, let's focus on overcoming real obstacles. The problem is not that it is difficult to construct narrow buildings. Architects and engineers can make anything stand up. The Flatiron Building in New York is less than 10 feet wide at its narrowest point and it rises 20 stories. Oh, and it is also triangular. While small dimensions and odd angles can be inconvenient, they are not actual impediments. 

      It is true that larger projects do benefit from certain economies of scale, but that doesn't make small projects infeasible. 

      There are, however, two actual factors that make small lot projects tough to do:
      Small lot development in
      Florence, Italy

      • They're Illegal. Many zoning regulations are biased toward larger projects. The most obvious culprit: minimum lot sizes. There is no justifiable rationale for this. In some far-flung suburban areas this tool is used to maintain a quasi-rural feel, but this is completely inappropriate in downtowns and walkable neighborhoods. New York banned narrow lots in order to get light and air into apartment buildings after the abuses of 19th Century tenement developers, but there are more graceful ways to accomplish this goal. Other rules such as lot coverage maximums (which require a certain amount of the lot to be free of buildings) and side setbacks are unfriendly to urban development, particularly on small lots. These zoning regulations simply need to be eliminated in downtowns and walkable neighborhoods.
      • Parking. Parking structures require pretty long distances for ramping that physically can't be accommodated on small lots. However, we shouldn't let the tail wag the dog. Parking should not be a reason for killing an excellent form of development. Many cities have simply removed minimum parking requirements from their zoning or
        Should form follow parking?
        dinances, at least for their downtowns, and this is tremendously helpful for small lot development. If the political will isn't there to remove parking requirements altogether, an in-lieu parking fee can have nearly as positive of an effect. Such a program allows developers to pay a fee to the city instead of constructing their required parking on-site, effectively buying their way out of their parking requirement. The city then then pools these funds and use them to construct a city-operated parking facility. There are many benefits to this. In addition to revenue for the city which can be used to the benefit of the neighborhood, it also allows parking to be clustered and located in out-of-the-way locations that do not harm the pedestrian environment. It is also more efficient, because the public parking can be used by anyone and will get used throughout the day, unlike private parking which often sits empty during the associated use's off-peak periods.
      A great large lot building in
      Large lot development can be very good, and when it has active frontages, is attractive, and doesn't result in superblocks, it should not be discouraged. In fact, a big project here and there can really kick start things in an area struggling to revitalize. The problem is that when we put all of our eggs in the big lot basket, and discourage small lot projects, we hold back our cities from achieving their full potential.  

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