Monday, February 11, 2008

McMansion Tenements

The Remington Private Estates on Wilshire Blvd in L.A.

I'm back from a week in Los Angeles, where the news is how much construction is happening throughout the city, especially in downtown. New condo towers have been going up at a fast pace, with other amenities slowly following (there is now a supermarket downtown). The mortgage fallout has many concerned, of course, that this boom of residential development will grind to a halt, leaving half-completed towers or ghostly buildings with empty units. An article in the new March issue of The Atlantic suggests that cities aren't the ones who need to worry: it's the suburbs.

In his piece titled The Next Slum? Christopher Leinberger—a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor of urban planning at the University of Michigan—suggests that McMansions and cul de sacs are going to be tomorrow's tenements. He writes:

For 60 years, Americans have pushed steadily into the suburbs, transforming the landscape and (until recently) leaving cities behind. But today the pendulum is swinging back toward urban living, and there are many reasons to believe this swing will continue. As it does, many low-density suburbs and McMansion subdivisions, including some that are lovely and affluent today, may become what inner cities became in the 1960s and '70s—slums characterized by poverty, crime, and decay.

We've been hearing for years now that cities across the country are on the rise again, but that recovery has been slow outside the mega-cities like Manhattan (though a recent cover of New York magazine pictures an exploding champagne bottle and feature articles on the pending bust caused in part by a decline of international investment in Big Apple luxury housing). Leinberger sites studies done by the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech as well his own research to back up this assertion.

One of the more interesting developments noted in this article is that police are now mapping foreclosures in suburban communities to predict crime. In one housing subsection in North Carolina, 81 of the 132 homes were foreclosed upon as of December and the empty homes have been vandalized and stripped of their copper wire and appliances. Drug dealers and the homeless have taken up residence in the community, and one resident decided to move when a stray bullet came through the window. In another community in California, 10,000 homes were built in less than four years and many are empty or occupied by renters of "dubious character." There is grafitti, broken windows, and gang activity.

"A structural change is under way in the housing market—a major shift in the way many Americans want to live and work. It has shaped the current downturn , steering some of the worst problems away from the cities and toward the suburban fringes," Leinberger writes. "It's ultimate impact on the suburbs, and the cities, will be profound."

Ahhh. Suburbia.

Leinberger says we should have hope, though, because this research points to the notion that Americans are increasingly choosing walkable, urban living. He doubts the swing will be as significant as the original exodus to the suburbs, but that it will impact cities. In an interview that he did with me last year, Leinberger noted, "the market reality is that there is far more demand for what I call walkable urbanism than there is supply. And that’s going to bear out over the next ten years. Where there’s a lot of demand and little supply, prices go up.”

Which raises the usual questions of displacement. Manhattan has now become a sanitized version of a city. Some are actually hoping for a bust. In that same issue of New York magazine referenced above, writer Joe Lovell wrote a piece titled The Upside of the Downside. "Here’s to bad times—may they restore the city that many of us moved here for."

Let's hope that whatever the pendulum swing means, a return to city living can be one that balances rich and poor and that it won't simply represent a running away from the crime and chaos of the cul de sac community.

What Lienberger doesn't address in the piece is the fact that this foreclosure reality is hitting cities as much, if not more, than suburbia. The Wall Street Journal reports on the devastating impact of low-residency neighborhoods and how foreclosures are adding to the problem. Cities are suing mortgage companies to help offset the fiscal damage in residential neighborhoods. Others argue that cities, for the most part, are actually shrinking internationally. As we urbanize in general, we sprawl in new ways. The Shrinking Cities project contends that cities around the globe are seeing less density and, as a result, will need to rethink the way they build in the first place. Maybe, we've simply built too much of the wrong thing.