Posts tagged with "gentrification":
While Chicago has not faced the same levels of displacement due to gentrification as cities like New York and San Francisco, a number of its neighborhoods are experiencing rapid shifts in population and demographics. In particular, neighborhoods like Pilsen on the city’s near South Side, historically home to a large Mexican population, are being eyed by developers as the next hot neighborhood, worrying long-time residents. In at least one case, though, the developers are listening to local concerns and attempting to mitigate any tensions that may arise in the vulnerable neighborhood.
ParkWorks, a proposed 7.85-acre development in the heart of Pilsen, is taking special care—architecturally and administratively—to work with the neighborhood. On the developer’s side, Property Markets Group (PMG) organized a number of community meetings to hear from the people who will be most affected by the new multibuilding mixed-use complex. Rather than the typical presentation followed by a question-and-answer session, the meetings could better be described as public critiques. Presentation boards and texts were displayed, with developers and architects on hand to discuss the issues on a more personal level with area’s residents. Yet the community involvement is planned to extend past these initial meetings.
When complete, the project, which will include hundreds of new residential units, will provide a higher percentage of affordable housing than any other private development in Chicago, according to PMG. The development also plans to employ local residents: Two-thirds of the development’s staff will be hired from within the neighborhood, and businesses moving into any of the 10,000 square feet of retail space in the development will be given a 20 percent discount on rent if they hire one-third or more of their staff from the surrounding community. During construction, an employment center is set to be opened on the project’s site to help enable more local employment. Recognizing the area’s demographics, much of the proposal’s communications have also been bilingual, in English and Spanish.
While the developers managed local relations, the project’s architects and planners, Chicago-based Cordogan, Clark & Associates, have worked to provide for the existing community through design. Notably, 50 percent of the development has been set aside for open green space. This includes courtyards and transverse walkways through the site. The heart of the buildings’ campus will also include an “arts walk” along South Peoria Avenue, which bisects the site. The property is also immediately adjacent to the future Paseo Trail, an urban linear park being developed on a former rail line.
Density is often an indicating factor in gentrification, with either swift drops or increases signifying drastic uncontrolled change. In the case of ParkWorks, the project is filling two large, completely empty tracts of land. Thanks to the large amount of open space in the plan, its density will be slightly lower than the surrounding neighborhood. While this will be a net gain for the neighborhood’s density, it is as if the site were filled with the typical two-flats that populate most of the neighborhood.
There is no question that Pilsen, and many neighborhoods like it, are changing. While as a whole Chicago’s population is declining, white millennials are flocking to the city, affecting the demographics and density of particular areas. Many new city dwellers are the adult children of a generation that fled the city to the suburbs starting in the 1960s, making room for the communities that now define Chicago. So, when any development is built, it will undoubtedly attract residents from outside the existing community—it is an experiment in social integration. For the good of the city, and its many diverse communities, one can only hope that experiments like ParkWorks are successful.
In response to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Housing New York plan, Syracuse University’s Gentrification Lab is exhibiting its (Un)Affordable Housing Fair, a show of six provocative ideas that challenge the idea of an affordable city.
The fair will present six imaginary agencies and their housing proposals for the Bronx, Harlem, and Midtown Manhattan. The work is the result of Syracuse’s annual summer architecture studio, which is based in Manhattan.
Propelled by de Blasio’s commitment to build 200,000 units of new affordable housing, the exhibition's works form a manifesto of architectural prototypes that serve as a counter proposal to normative gentrification. The designs are meant to rethink the relationship between public and private space, addressing questions like: Can public space and public housing be used as an antidote to practices of exclusion? What is the relationship between the size of an apartment and the rate of gentrification?
The Gentrification Lab is a multi-year design and research studio that examines architecture’s role within economic, social, and political forces in the contemporary city. Presentations from previous years' labs looked at real estate development along the L-train and the subway's 4/Lexington Avenue express line.
The studio is led by Syracuse Architecture Visiting Professors Elma van Boxel and Kristian Koreman of Rotterdam and New York–based architectural firm ZUS. Hilary Sample from MOS Architects will give the keynote speech at the opening reception on August 3rd.
(Un)Affordable Housing Fair will run from August 3 to 4 at Syracuse University's Fisher Center. To attend, RSVP through Eventbrite.
Architecture should never be excused from conversations on gentrification, but building design often takes a back seat when we consider the various forces behind neighborhood change. Ultimately gentrification engages so many issues—of city planning and policy, of income and racial inequality, of housing discrimination—that it’s impossible to tackle one without bringing in the others. Through this lens, architecture becomes part of a much larger conversation about our cities, and also a powerful tool in efforts to make rapidly changing neighborhoods more equitable.
A gentrification story that lends itself easily to study and dissection can be found in Harlem, an Upper Manhattan enclave that emerged as the best-known African American neighborhood in America following the Great Migration of the early 1900s. One hundred years later, the neighborhood—still a stronghold for New York’s African American community—is also home to multimillion dollar townhouses, big-box retail, a soon-to-open Whole Foods, and a dramatic uptick in white residents. What happened? The latest author to tackle the subject is Brian D. Goldstein, an assistant professor of architecture at the University of New Mexico. His book, The Roots of Urban Renaissance: Gentrification and the Struggle over Harlem, takes a multipronged approach to tackling that loaded question.
In his book, Goldstein explains how Harlem became a sort of testing ground for government-backed redevelopment throughout the 20th century—an often-hostile effort that sowed the seeds for more grassroots, community-led development. This push and pull between the government’s ambitions and community-based organizations persisted through the decades before the neighborhood essentially become a case study for “New York City Gentrification 101.” But the most fascinating question posed again and again by Harlem residents, and echoed throughout Goldstein’s book, is what the streets of Harlem should look like, who should design them, and who gets to inhabit them.
It would be a disservice to the book to boil down the many factors at play between Harlemites and the city government to decide that fate of the neighborhood. Goldstein makes the argument that Harlem’s recent wave of gentrification is a result of effective community-led developers who brought new mixed-income housing, supermarkets, and shopping malls to the neighborhood—which in turn brought a growing middle-class, and then upper-class, population. His point, essentially, is to debunk the idea that the gentrification of Harlem was solely imposed by outside developers and investors.
Goldstein makes a convincing argument to prove this—he traces the strength of these community organizations to ARCH, a radically innovative community developer founded in the mid-1960s, then details the proliferation of community development corporations (CDCs) in the following decades. It’s worth noting, however, that if these organizations are to be “blamed” for the gentrification of Harlem, they were founded in response to a city government with Robert Moses–like tendencies to bulldoze communities and replace them with “towers in the sky,” or to ignore the needs of the neighborhood altogether. Harlem always has been a radical neighborhood in that it has flourished even as the city government treated it with disregard—and it has hardly lost that energy today.
Goldstein, an architecture professor, is sure to point out cases of innovative and notable architecture and architectural practices, of which there are many. Not all are considered successes. In 1966, when the city opened Intermediate School 201, designed as a “showcase” for modernist architecture and curricular innovations, parents protested. As Goldstein explains, “Initially, the city had touted the intermediate schools as models of racial integration, but little in the initial planning of I.S. 201 in the early 1960s suggested that administrators were pursuing that objective with conviction.” The same year, at a vacant lot known as Reclamation Site #1, a proposal for a modernist state-office-building complex designed by the African American–led firm Ifill Johnson and Hanchard caused controversy. Local activists considered the block-long project a threat to Harlem’s identity, as well as their aspirations for community control—a flyer released in 1969 asked, “What’s to be built on Reclamation Site #1? Something for black people or a state office building for white people?” Both projects illustrate that architecture in Harlem has often gone beyond simple building design—the process has long engaged questions of race, inclusion, and community needs.
So it’s a welcome history lesson that the book highlights the work of J. Max Bond Jr., an architect and the first African American director of ARCH, who pushed forward a vision “of an alternative urban future centered on [Harlem residents’] daily lives.” Bond celebrated the “black aesthetic” in architecture, integrating the language of Black Power into ARCH’s work. It’s around this time that the concept of “activist architects and planners” took hold—professionals and amateurs who saw their work as deeply integrated with radical forms of participatory democracy. In that vein, Bond established a program in 1968 to help bring African American and Latino talent into the hardly diverse world of architecture.
The strength of ARCH highlights how things shift when community-centered organizations have agency over neighborhood development. Goldstein puts it this way: “[The] concern was with representation, with the resonance between those who made decisions about the shape of New York and those impacted by such decisions.… [It] was the idea that a designer’s race or ethnicity mattered, that people of color—whether professionals or amateur activists—were particularly attuned to the needs of neighborhoods like Harlem, and that they could thus uniquely plan their future.”
But as anyone familiar with the world of New York real estate knows, much development with public interest is the result of a number of compromises. Harlem’s community development corporations, for example, were still highly reliant on outside partners and city funds, often threatening activists’ dreams of local self-determination. With ample public funding, some CDCs were able to spur large-scale, profit-oriented projects along 125th Street, Harlem’s main drag, but the projects lacked the community engagement once prioritized. The arrival of these new projects also coincided with a rush of newcomers to New York, who pushed gentrification to its limit not only uptown but in Brooklyn and Queens.
But the practice of architecture and planning engaged with matters of race, equality, and empowerment persisted, and even offered a blueprint to other African American neighborhoods like West Oakland in California and Bronzeville in Chicago. In the conclusion of the book, Goldstein recounts a 2001 event in which J. Max Bond Jr., no longer with ARCH, asked, “In what image will Harlem be re-created?” It’s a question New Yorkers will never stop asking of their neighborhoods. But Goldstein illustrates well how Harlemites not only asked, but thoroughly engaged. Although the results were mixed, it’s impossible to deny how the neighborhood was radically shaped by the opinions, persistence, and ingenuity of the people who actually lived there.
The Roots of Urban Renaissance: Gentrification and the Struggle over Harlem Brian D. Goldstein, Harvard University Press $39.95
This article appears in The Architect’s Newspaper’s April 2017 issue, which takes a deep dive into Florida to coincide with the upcoming AIA Conference on Architecture in Orlando (April 27 to 29). We’re publishing the issue online as the Conference approaches—click here to see the latest articles to be uploaded.
Across Miami-Dade County, organizations like Miami Homes For All (MHFA), Struggle for Miami’s Affordable and Sustainable Housing (SMASH), Miami’s People Acting for Community Together (PACT), and Fanm Ayisyen nan Miyami (FANM), among others, have been instrumental in launching affordability campaigns across threatened and economically distressed neighborhoods. In the process, these groups are lending a voice to many of the Miami working-class communities as the forces of gentrification and luxury development rewrite the region’s urban fabric.
Miami real estate is booming but in all the wrong ways. A recent flowering of luxury condominium development coupled with a surging population and decades’ worth of under-building have pushed rents sky-high. Miami’s growing urban core—especially the neighborhoods of Brickell, Overtown, and Wynwood—are beginning to push past their traditional neighborhood boundaries, destabilizing surrounding communities. According to the 2016 Housing Miami Together report compiled by MHFA, an advocacy group dedicated to alleviating local poverty, Miami has the nation’s highest percentage of rent-burdened households. In response, advocates are pushing for increased development of affordable housing units and for mixed-income and transit-oriented developments across the region.
MHFA held a special housing summit in 2016 that spawned the aforementioned report. The conference led to increased efforts by groups like nonprofit housing developer South Florida Community Development Coalition (SFCDC) and PACT, a direct-action organization made up of religious congregations and groups, to push the county to implement a slate of pro-affordability reforms. The groups were instrumental in getting the county to establish an Affordable Housing Trust Fund that would be used to harness additional resources for new affordable units. The county contributes 25 percent of proceeds from certain county-owned land sales to the fund, which itself dedicates 50 percent of overall resources toward the development of very low– and extremely low–income housing. MHFA also provides Section 8 project-based vouchers through the Miami-Dade County Public Housing and Community Development Department in order to embed Section 8 housing in market-rate developments.
MHFA executive director Barbara Ibarra said, “We treat homelessness as a part of the affordability crisis,” adding that her group is focused on what is referred to as a “continuum of housing” that spans from the market-rate sector to various other income-defined groups, including formerly homeless individuals. Ibarra explained that MHFA is working, broadly speaking, to expand the prevalence of mixed-income communities across the Miami-Dade County area. She added, “It’s frustrating to see luxury development going on without any forethought being put to housing for people who take care of and work in those buildings. [Developers] have not been building housing for them.”
And it shows. A big problem in the rental market due to the apartment shortage has been the rise in slumlord-controlled properties. Adrian Madriz, project leader at SMASH, an initiative within the Center for Social Change, said, “Our organization seeks to smash the slumlords that target Liberty City and Overtown. They are grossly negligent and keep buildings in woeful disrepair.” The group’s program in those neighborhoods has seized properties from area slumlords and converted them to community ownership via a community land trust. The units are ultimately renovated as affordable housing and rent-to-own properties. Madriz added, “People are being priced out of decent living conditions. They’re being forced to live in places with cheaper rents in properties that are in worse repair.”
SMASH is currently working on two housing projects and is looking to develop emergency housing solutions for residents removed from extremely dilapidated or unsafe living conditions. For the latter effort, SMASH is looking to modular, shipping container, or prefabricated building systems to increase housing availability substantially. Madriz explained that certain shipping container designs can be engineered to be stronger than typical Type-V construction, an important consideration in the hurricane-prone region.
Developers, advocates, and city agencies are also working to implement a mix of so-called “2-percent fixes” like density bonuses for inclusionary housing, relaxed parking requirements, and upzoning measures. The measures individually boost housing production slightly and when taken together can make for sizable shifts in housing affordability. Regional partners are using these measures in order to incentivize the development of more deed-restricted affordable and less expensive market-rate units.
Miami-Dade is currently redeveloping the Liberty Square public housing projects in North Miami. Seven hundred existing units will be rebuilt as a 1,500-unit mixed-income, mixed-use community by developer Related Urban Development Group. Alberto Milo Jr., principal and senior vice president, said, “There has been a void in the development of workforce housing within the City of Miami,” adding that too many projects are “being developed with either all low-income or all market-rate units, but nothing in between.” Related’s growing portfolio in the region will include increasing amounts of mixed-income housing to take advantage of new incentives aimed at increasing affordable resources via mixed-income developments. When asked about whether mixed-income developments can relieve pressure on Miami’s historic working-class neighborhoods, Milo explained that they “are essential to the long-term viability of these lower-income neighborhoods, and will give quality housing choices to many working individuals and families.”
Ibarra also supports the idea, and described expanding the inclusion of low-income housing units in transit-oriented development across the city as “very critical” to maintaining affordability.
In many ways, the emerging mixed-use and transit-oriented trends pit developers and newcomers focused on a vision for a denser, transit-accessible—and, potentially, more equitable—Miami against longtime residents increasingly being priced out of their own neighborhoods. The sentiment led the neighborhood of Little Haiti on the city’s north end to fight for official city designation as developer Cho Dragon Management and architects Arquitectonica pursue a new 15-acre “innovation district” there. The $1 billion project aims to bring a 30,000-square-foot coworking space, a sculpture garden, and a 15,000-square-foot innovation center to the neighborhood. The problem is that new developers working in the area have taken to branding their projects after the historical moniker Magic City, a designation taken from a time before the neighborhood was populated by Haitian immigrants. FANM, an organization in Little Haiti that works to empower and deliver social services to Haitian women, recently worked to get the Little Haiti neighborhood officially designated by the city. The fear among the Haitian population is that as development moves in, Little Haiti will be wiped from the map.
FANM’s efforts paid off when the city council voted to approve the designation. At the meeting, Marleine Bastien, executive director of FANM, said, “We are elated. Now no one can come and erase the name of Little Haiti. If this decision was not made today, in a few years Little Haiti would disappear.”
Developers are continuing to run into opposition in the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago. At a recent community meeting to discuss revised plans for the CLAYCO-designed eight-story development, community leaders weighed in on the scale of the many new projects in the area. With more than five transit-oriented developments either planned, built, or under construction in the neighborhood, locals have been vocal about their opposition to the increased density and the possibility of rising property taxes. More than one protest has marched through the neighborhoods streets in the past year. Protestors carry signs reading, “STOP GENTRIFICATION EL BARRIO NO SE VENDE” (Our neighborhood is not for sale).
Partisan political discourse still pretends as if there’s a climate change “debate,” yet the government is already acting extensively to prevent crises from rising global temperatures. Across the country, local and federal agencies are working with architects and planners to protect communities and redevelop neighborhoods in the aftermath of climate-related natural disasters. But what happens to residents who are too poor to get out of the way of storms—and too poor to return—and why is anyone rushing to live in disaster zones?
Catastrophic natural disasters share a common feature with accelerated processes of economic development: at vastly different rates, both can result in large-scale displacement. An article by Brentin Mock on environmental news site Grist uses a pithy phrase for the disparate impact climate change can have on lower-income residents: it’s the “ultimate gentrifier,” he wrote, citing the exodus of more than 300,000 low-income residents from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
The description may be provocative, but studies by environmental scientists at the EPA’s Climate Change Division partly support the notion. Within the 6,000-square-mile area at high risk of flooding by 2100 due to a mid-range two-foot sea-level rise, almost 750,000 residents belong to the most socially vulnerable groups. These are most likely to be disproportionately impacted by storms and least likely to have the resources to move.
But are rich people really are moving into areas where low-income residents are being displaced by storms? Sadly, in some cases, yes. A New York Times story on high-rise condo construction in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, reports that, far from retreating from flooded areas, a building boom is driving up prices.
Currently, local and federal agencies only spottily provide the necessary infrastructure and policy frameworks to protect against climate-related catastrophes ranging from forest fires in Southern California, earthquakes along the Pacific Coast, tornados and flash flooding in the Midwest, and hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico. Adequate planning, federal aid, and environmental regulations can and should prevent disparate impacts of climate-change related severe weather events on low-income residents. In practice, prioritizing where to improve infrastructure falls to local governments that have worse financial constraints and often carry an implicit economic bias toward the most financially important areas.
In Alaska, higher temperatures are increasing erosion and thawing the permafrost, causing homes to sink in the mud. More than a dozen Inuit towns have already voted to move, including Newtok, which has acquired a relocation site through an act of Congress, and the 650-person Bering Sea village of Shishmaref, which commissioned AECOM’s Anchorage office to study the feasibility of relocation sites. Yet the cost of these moves, estimated at $214 million for Shishmaref alone, is far beyond the means of the inhabitants; a UN report on climate change and displacement notes the lack of state and federal governance structures to support these moves.
Some low-lying neighborhoods in New Orleans are undergoing a similar policy of unofficial abandonment, swallowed up by nature through neglect. These places are not gentrifying—they’re simply disappearing.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), reorganized in 2003 under the Department of Homeland Security and reformed since 2009 by Obama administration appointee Craig Fulgate, now talks about what it calls a “whole community” approach, emphasizing participation and engagement of a wide range of stakeholders. It needs to do more.
“FEMA has changed its rhetoric,” said Deborah Gans, who has conducted planning studies for low-lying neighborhoods in New Orleans and Red Hook, Brooklyn, most of which flooded in 2012 during Hurricane Sandy. “They don’t really know how to do it yet, but at least they’re talking the talk.”
In 2008, Homeland Security established the Regional Catastrophic Preparedness Grant program to encourage collaborative emergency planning in America’s ten largest urban regions. In New York’s combined statistical area, which includes New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut, the Regional Catastrophic Planning Team coordinated a series of Participatory Urban Planning workshops that included city and state agencies, nonprofits, community groups, private sector representatives, and even local Occupy affiliates to streamline emergency preparedness, housing recovery plans, and recovery processes in five types of communities.
In the New York area, Hurricane Sandy has increased the sense of urgency. “In New York, about a third of our housing is within our six evacuation zones,” said Cynthia Barton, who participated in the workshops as manager of the Housing Recovery Program for the New York City Office of Emergency Management.
Barton leads the FEMA-supported initiative to prototype interim housing units, designed by James Garrison, which would substitute for the improvised mesh of hotels that sheltered displaced low-income residents in the aftermath of Sandy. The interim housing units, IKEA-like prefab condo boxes that stack up to three stories high in various configurations, facilitate an urban density allowing vulnerable residents to remain within their neighborhoods in the aftermath of severe storms.
“The basis for the project has always been that none of the federal temporary housing options would work in cities and that it’s very important to keep people close to home after a disaster,” Barton said. “In terms of economic stability for people and for neighborhoods, it’s important to keep people close to their jobs. It’s important for mental health reasons to keep people close to schools and close to their support networks.”
But on the federal level, long-term infrastructure improvements are not adequately funded. In New Orleans, landscape architect Susannah Drake of DLANDstudio is working on a gray and green streetscape program for 20 blocks of the St. Roch neighborhood. “The issue is that the base condition was low in terms of the infrastructure that existed,” Drake said. “We’re adding basic amenities for what would be a normal streetscape in New York, but we’re also dealing with the challenge of having very little infiltration and having a lot of water to manage…They’re not things the federal government is necessarily willing to pay for.”
Without federal insurance and public investment in infrastructure, wealthy homeowners don’t tend to move into flood zones. But storm protection, unevenly funded by federal grants, frequently has to be supported by local real-estate development tax revenues that provide lopsided advantages to upper-income residents.
“There’s a historical inequity environmentally in a lot of these neighborhoods in need, and it’s exacerbated by climate change,” said Gans, who led a Pratt Institute planning study on how to locate emergency housing in low-lying Red Hook, Brooklyn. “New York City Housing Authority projects were generally located on land that wasn’t that valuable, and guess what? It tended to be low-lying and out of the way.”
The problem centers on whether to save the threatened neighborhoods or rezone them to exclude residential use. Shoring up a city’s flood defenses can become an opportunity to improve a neighborhood’s environmental equity, but using the prevailing market-based model, focusing stormwater infrastructure in a waterfront community will only push more housing into vulnerable areas.
“As long as we keep allowing people to build market-rate waterfront property, there will be gentrification,” Gans said. “Any development that takes place on the water will be so expensive that it will necessarily gentrify the waterfront. There’s just no doubt about it.”
In Red Hook and Sunset Park, AECOM recently released a plan to place 30-50,000 units of new housing on the waterfront—25 percent of it affordable—as well as subsidize a new subway stop, and implement green and gray infrastructure for coastal protection and flood management. Arguing for the plan as a boost to Mayor de Blasio’s OneNYC ambition to build 200,000 affordable units by 2020, the proposal also runs counter to the idea of limiting exposure to areas of growing risk.
“Why would you build more housing in an area that’s underserved by transportation and that’s in a really dangerous zone, a flood area,” asked Drake, who designed the Sponge Park concept as a green infrastructure element for the Gowanus Canal. “I’m not an economist, but I’m very pragmatic and down on building in flood plains.”
Officially, there is no means testing of emergency planning or recovery aid. Eligibility for the National Flood Insurance Program and high insurance rates affect individual decision-makers. Not so for public housing, where residents’ lack of access to resources makes issues of planning that much more grave. Because of its 6,500 public housing residents, two-thirds of the Red Hook is below the poverty line. Economically, the light-manufacturing industries scattered among its low-rises generate relatively little revenue for the city to justify hundreds of millions in flood protection.
The conflict between access to revenues and local needs seems to underlie the rapidly advancing East Side and Lower Manhattan Coastal Resiliency projects, sections of Bjarke Ingels Group’s winning Rebuild by Design competition proposal for the protection of Lower Manhattan up to 59th Street. The projects essentially erect a wall adorned with parks as a bulwark against the sea. They implicitly prioritize the centrally important economic drivers of New York City.
“Ultimately there’s a cost-benefit analysis,” said Drake. “I’m not saying that lives are less valuable in other parts of the city, but when you do an economic cost-benefit analysis between Lower Manhattan and Red Hook, and you’re looking on purely financial terms, then Lower Manhattan wins because it’s an economic driver of the city.”
If it can really be done for that amount, the estimated cost for the Lower Manhattan projects is negligible in comparison to the economic benefit. The Office of Recovery and Resiliency and the Economic Development Corporation of New York have dedicated $100 million to an integrated flood protection system (IFPS) for Red Hook. City capital is supporting a $109 million Raise Shorelines Citywide project that would mitigate sea level rise in Old Howard Beach, Gowanus Canal, East River Esplanade, Mott Basin, Canarsie, Norton Basin, and the North Shore of Coney Island Creek.
“Emergency planning should really be about future planning,” Gans said. “The way you avert an emergency is by making sure you have integrative future plans that don’t put people in harm’s way and mitigate all of the bad decisions you made historically.”
In contrast to the oblivious political climate change “debate,” local governments have already learned from recent extreme weather events that they need to act to improve their planning capacity and infrastructure. Federal agencies are also acting, putting limited resources into protecting against climate change-related disasters. Highly engineered solutions are possible, but they’re unwise as a long-term strategy in the absence of a leveling off of global temperatures and will be cost-prohibitive for low-income communities. Unless the next Congress is prepared to fund a national infrastructure program, the best way to equitably protect low-income residents will be to downzone vulnerable areas and build new public housing on higher ground. Otherwise, we’ll need to accept the fact that our celebrated revitalized waterfront is mainly for the rich.
If the board game Monopoly didn't warn its players of the evils of capitalism enough (as it originally intended to do), then Nova Alea certainly tries harder. Developed by Pittsburg-based game designer and teacher Paolo Pedercini, Nova Alea is a simple yet informative game that strives to instruct its players about the effects of boom and bust culture in relation to the housing market.
In the game, users are required to buy property when prices are low and sell just before the "bubble bursts." Set on a rotating square grid, various forms rise as their value grows, only to to disappear when the market shifts. On the surface, the aim of the game is to accrue as much profit as possible through buying and selling at the right times. However, shortly after this brief introductory period of the game's basic principles, players are made aware of the consequences of their profiteering actions.
Once a resident of Brooklyn and now living in the up-and-coming Garfied area of Pittsburg, Pedercini is well versed in the effects of runaway housing markets. In fact, it was his experience that was the source of Nova Alea's inspiration. Pedercini also wanted to offer something different compared to the likes of SimCity, giving the chance for players to deal with the social implications of unrestricted development while also providing a lens to see how contemporary cities and districts are developing and urbanizing. It is cast in a similar vein to the likes of other recent games like Block'hood, where players are faced with the inconvenient negative effects of what they choose to build.
"Impossible prices drove old residents away and drained the ones who couldn't leave," a voice says, speaking over the background music as the game continues. "Neighborhoods that made Nova Alea unique were replaced with dull repositories of wealth." Now the theme of gentrification has been established, the voice goes on to implicitly introduce hipsters into the fray. "But in the craters left by the cyclical crisis, the Weird Folk settled." Denoted as green pulsating forms that attract "animal spirits," even the Weird Folk have to leave too, "displaced by the revitalization that they themselves started." Now, however, Nova Alea's habitats and habits have been reshaped, "making Nova Alea unrecognizable to its residents."
The game's narrator adds another dimension when it announces that a resident uprising has forced developers (i.e. you) to slow down. Later, price-controlled properties are introduced, meaning lower profit margins for property moguls such as yourself. As the games comes to a close the narrator proclaims that the Nova Alea has become a "city against its inhabitants. A place made and unmade by money where the delusion of wealth turned everyone into unwelcome strangers."
Nova Alea is available to download for free on Mac, PC and Linux through the developer's website here.
For Anthony Alofsin, AIA, a practicing architect and professor in architecture at the University of Texas at Austin, the concerns of diversity outweigh the concerns of density. Alofsin has been in Austin for almost 30 years, long enough to recount previous boom and bust cycles in the real estate market. Some of his academic research studies builder homes, which remain the most common way Americans house themselves, a statistic largely ignored by the architectural profession. In Alofsin’s view, a diverse mix of individuals—different patterns, passions, occupations, incomes, and ethnicities—leads to an “urban experience,” and Austin is short on this type of urbanity. Alofsin also worries about larger repercussions of civic housing trends: Changes in national family trends combined with the exodus of families from the city center spells disaster for the future of Austin’s public schools. Form-making isn’t important at this scale: Whether a house has a flat roof or fake stone or a turret is irrelevant to the economics at work.
To see what’s on the market now, Creede Fitch, a real estate agent with Skout who focuses solely on modern and midcentury properties, took me on a tour of neighborhoods near 12th Street. Close to the railroad tracks, one luxury spec house near the railroad tracks set a high water mark, selling for around $600,000 last year (it was also featured on the 2015 AIA Austin Homes Tour). A few blocks away, Fitch points out a slim lot with an older structure on-site, clearly not worth salvaging. “$290,000!” he reports, not without disbelief.
Fitch, who himself is building a new home in East Austin, tries to educate clients on both Austin and modern architecture, though he admits that “modern” is not important to many buyers. Fitch is also aware of better ways to increase density; he described one solution where smaller existing homes are maintained and a larger “primary” new build house is placed behind, providing privacy and preserving the scale of the street. A pilot project in this style is a casita renovated by architect Alan Gonzalez, sited on the front half of its lot. The steep price tag—a listed $375,000 for 785 square feet—would make most wince, but it’s a baby step in the right direction.
The good news is that some architects are working to change market realities, or at least their aesthetic dimensions. Jared Haas, principal of Un.Box Studio, spoke with me about a house he recently completed with Newcastle Homes. Knowing the market and the ground rules of spec projects, he designed a clean shape with a restrained material palette inside and out. Instead of the ubiquitous Hardie board siding, he sourced a vertical wood board at a comparable price. The house was purchased before it was completed, and Haas is at work on two more with the same company.
Other models of practice—architect-as-developer, design-build, design-build-develop—offer exciting alternate avenues of investment and engagement, and there are a number of successful examples at work in East Austin. Speculative building is now seen as pejorative, but it can be incredibly progressive. Haas, for one, looks forward to the time where spec projects, rather than further isolating residents, can bring them together in hybrid social spaces. What if speculative housing led the way toward new formats of living?
Later, I drove around East Austin to check in on its progress. I lived in the Chestnut neighborhood for two-and-a-half years in a full-size back house with two housemates; the house’s builder-developer had created a condominium complex of two houses on a single lot, another way to circumvent typical density limitations. It is both smartly dense, lucrative, and ruinous to the property values of neighbors. Nearby blocks are majority new builds, with accompanying new residents.
Construction has started on The Chicon, a three-building complex of affordable and market-rate apartments, close to an intersection that was once singled out as the city’s most dangerous. In 1925, one could take a streetcar from that corner all the way downtown. Now there’s a skee-ball bar on the block. Neighborhoods roll over, sometimes with unfortunate consequences, but the tide keeps going—part of life in a city. I stopped in front of a particularly ugly spec home with walls that bulge and tilt, as if frozen in nauseous mid-collapse. I slow my car to photograph the offense, but instead smile, wave, and move along—there is a moving truck out front with a couple unloading bicycles, ready to make that house their home.