Firestone talks (take ii)

Now I got quite interested when this slide came up. The left axis (vertical) shows the elevation of the condo, ie what floor it is on. The horizontal axis shows increasing rent or price. The faint yellow line shows the rent curve for a building with apartments on the ground floor. These apartments are often the lowest price, as they have no view, no privacy from passersby. The red curve shows what happens if the base of the building is constructed in “townhouse” form. The value of these units goes up significantly. Then the value drops off for the lower rise apartments, and climbs again with height.

Most interestingly, almost the same graph was supplied by a major condo developer’s architect a few months back in an explanation of why it was WRONG to put townhouse units along the ground floor. His explanation used the same curve, but pointed out that the two storey townhouse units were being made of concrete, ie high rise materials. And being two storey, were large. Being large, they had a lot of square feet. And therefore a price (value) to match.

Thus far, architect and Firestone agree. BUT, said the developer’s architect, one can buy a conventionally built (wood frame) townhouse nearby much cheaper than the concrete one in a tower. And likely with better yard conditions. Ergo, he cautioned us that demanding developers to provide townhouse type units at the tower base was to demand the most expensive units, which were unlikely to be family-friendly financially, and he cited the slowness that they were selling at a west side condo now being marketed. Now the developer was being forced to somehow market the townhouses to non-family buyers or sell them at less than cost to be competitive with wood frame housing nearby.

I took this argument to yet another developer I am acquainted with, and he said that he avoided the issue by never building townhouses at the base of the tower. He preferred parking garage and lobby only; and any townhouse-type units he would build slightly away from the tower so they looked blended in but were in fact stick-built so they could sell competitively. In essence, this developer was agreeing with architect #1 who said the high value of the ground floor unit was a problem, not an asset, but he had a workaround for larger lots. Now builder #2 also told me that on another building he is proposing some work-live loft-type units on the ground floor to get around the unsuited-for-families-but-demanded-by-planners-and-community-association townhouse units.

All very interesting. And I’ll remind readers who may have forgotten, that in previous posts I have suggested that the ground floor of all commercial and condo buildings be zoned for anything goes, as the buildings have 100+ year life expectancies, and what might work today (ground floor apartments) might be better converting to a office or retail use later on. Alas, our City tries to lock ground floor uses into one use only via zoning and other impedimenta.

Manhattan is dense, but not all buildings are mixed use. The office-only buildings, the residential-only buildings, are in close proximity to each other in terms of miles. They are often fairly far apart in terms of travel time, which means there are distinct neighborhoods of different land uses eg office area, university area, residential area, warehouse area. I think new buildings along traditional main streets should be retail at grade, with a floor or two of offices above, and residential above that or in the back-facing units. But other than that, not every building has to be mixed use. There should be a fine mix of building uses though. Especially if they can capture synergies such as parking garages (offices want them during the day, condos want them at night, churches want them on Sundays, etc). While there are some bright spots (eg Cathedral Hill development on Queen Street) there are many more cases where agreement is not making any progress at all (eg Champagne Avenue). And don’t forget, big companies don’t exactly thrive in scattered offices, but want large contiguous floor plates, which makes them difficult to shoe-horn into condo towers.

Do you think the decline of urban areas is the fault of planners moving architects out of the controlling role?

This slide reminded me that the poorest people live on the most valuable land, because that is where the slums are. Slums crowd lots of people into a particular area. By this measure, condoland on LeBreton Flats is …

There was a major stir of discontent in the room when Firestone presented the few slides arguing against an urban growth boundary. While mentioned, it wasn’t a major part of his speech, but did serve to introduce the material shown on some subsequent slides.


Tomorrow, the good doctor starts giving his prescriptions for a better Ottawa.

One thought on “Firestone talks (take ii)

  1. “Do you think the decline of urban areas is the fault of planners moving architects out of the controlling role?”

    I think there’s definitely a case to be made that the bureaucratization of city building and the expulsion of design from city building (which is commonly associated with planners, not without some cause) were major contributors in the decline of urban areas, but let’s not forget another group got involved in city building who heretofore had not really been involved either: transportation engineers with a love of cars.

    New high-capacity roadways were planned, designed and built under the watch of transportation engineers, not planners (e.g. Jacques Gréber’s Parisian-style boulevard plan for the Queensway became a freeway courtesy of the MTO’s engineers), allowing cities to expand geographically much further than ever before. Planners ceased to “plan” for people and instead went about planning for cars (but only once the engineers had first designed the roads for cars) by ensuring (through zoning) that the built environment served the car through things like set backs and parking requirements. Meanwhile, in existing areas the old urban fabric began to break down as people, businesses and money left for the [temporarily] greener pastures of the suburbs.

    But I dispute that architects ever had a truly controlling role, except maybe for Speer in Nazi Germany. Letting architects loose might get you a slew of pretty-looking tall buildings, but at street level the things they design can be insipid, if they even have a street level. It was an architect, after all, who first came up with towers-in-a-park and we all know how well that turned out.

    If anything, the lessons of the last century are that not much good comes when those from one of the major three disciplines (architecture, planning, engineering) dominates city building.

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