In Praise of Density

After a long stall, it seems new construction in the greater New York metropolitan region is finally picking up again, although not so much in areas outside the urban core, such as my current neighborhood, Riverdale.  Nevertheless, areas already quite dense, such as Brooklyn Heights, the Upper West and East Sides, and even Jersey City, are finally becoming denser.

Reading about some of this new development, I find far too much opposition by people who logic would dictate should be in favor.  Some of this is extremely personal NIMBYism, such as complaints about blocked views, but unless your new view will have almost no visible sky or natural light, or unless you are losing truly magnificent open views, I think even this is illogical.  Opposing development in areas that are already quite dense and lack sufficient transit is also rational, at least until new transit is completed (such as on the Upper East Side along the Second Avenue Subway). For those who own their apartments, it is quite possible they will lose significant potential capital gains on their purchase, and so opposition, while extremely selfish, is also rational.

However, for the majority who rent, I am deeply confused as to why so many of them oppose new development.  After all, new development in their neighborhood will slow or even reverse rises in their rent.  More people living on a block will improve the quality of local amenities such as stores and restaurants and increase demand for more public transit.  Some areas with significant tourist attractions, such as most parts of Manhattan below 96th Street, already have pretty good services and transit frequency on weekends, but also some of the highest rents in NYC.  While preserving the charming character of blocks of 100+ year old townhouses may be a large part of the appeal of these neighborhoods, there’s also quite a few older ugly buildings that remain standing only because a beautiful new building would not be permitted to be quite as large.  This issue is also present in some older commercial districts, such as Midtown East, where Bloomberg is already working to change the zoning regulations to allow taller buildings, but this is mostly an office district, not residential, so the concerns are different.

In Jersey City, which has lots of office space but few tourists, the wait for a PATH train can reach half an hour off-peak.  Many of the ferries do not even run on weekends. Additional residents in their area could petition the local government to pay for more frequent trains off-peak, which is far easier and cheaper than building tracks and train stations where none exist.  Private transit operators, such as NY Waterway, would likely respond to the increased demand even more quickly.  And, of course, mitigating rent rises remains a priority on Jersey City’s posh waterfront.

I recently finished reading a very interesting book by Edward Glaesar, an economist of cities at Harvard, titled Triumph of the City.  I believe it is an excellent book, with my chief complaint being that perhaps it does not go into enough detail regarding his economic reasoning, as evidently this reviewer did not really understand his arguments.  That reviewer seems not to have gotten one of the fundamental points regarding inner city poverty.  The poor are still far better off being poor in a city than in rural or ex-urban regions.  Now we also learn that poverty is moving to the suburbs, too.  The poor will always exist, but we as a society should encourage them to live as close to the urban core as possible, in mixed-use high rises with a mix of free market and income-restricted units, and within easy walking or transit distance of job centers.  In most existing urban areas, that means tearing down undistinguished row houses or factories and putting up skyscrapers in their place.

Back to the real world, it is hard to say whether his book will truly have any impact on New York City (Glaeser is an ex-New Yorker and often talks of NYC as his favorite example city).  Already the relatively large amount of new development allowed (by NYC standards) has failed to stem rent and property price rises.  While financial conditions generally favor buying over renting more now than at any time in at least the last 20 years, I am afraid Manhattan has entered a new bubble phase that could be popped if just a few (dozen) more skyscrapers were built.

If just 50 mid-size skyscrapers, about the size of the tallest of the Riverside Boulevard or the Battery Park City developments, were added to the city’s skyline, I estimate there’d be room for about another 50,000 residents, roughly a 3% increase.  If we similarly put 100 such buildings at half that density in some of Brooklyn’s close-in “hipster” neighborhoods and perhaps another 50 in emerging neighborhoods in Queens, we’d probably get enough new housing supply to ease the strain on NYC’s famously high rents to prevent future rises for the next 10 years (though probably not enough to actually cause a fall in rents).

In fact, given the rise in rents in recent years at well above the inflation rate, we should probably aim to limit future rent rises to under the inflation rate (due to market forces, not regulation).  As Glaeser points out, cities that have been much more open to development, such as Chicago, have remained affordable even as their economic prospects and livability have improved.  In New York, on the other hand, even the most pro-development mayor in several generations seems to have given up and turned instead to making small spaces more efficient via “micro apartments”.  I’m not sure whether the next mayor will make any effort to encourage new development, but I sure hope so.  I don’t know about today’s post-college singles crowd, but I’d prefer not to house my family in an apartment the size of some large suburban closets.

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2 thoughts on “In Praise of Density

  1. I’m sorry you weren’t able to understand my response to Ed Glaeser’s book, and also apparently missed the fact that it wasn’t a review. Perhaps you should read more carefully?

    • I actually really enjoyed reading your notes, although I think it’s still fair to call what you wrote a review. The style, including the random stories and cherry picked examples, is fairly typical of pop science books these days. If you want some hard substance, you should consider looking at the original academic papers. I think you may have misunderstood many of his examples, though, and perhaps that is not your fault, since he didn’t do a great job of elaborating on the broad economic principles. I think he dumbed down the books significantly in order to appeal to a mass audience, but at the same time I, as an economist, understood the economic logic behind his arguments. For example, I understand your knee-jerk hostility to bankers and to the huge income inequality they generate. However, I’m fairly certain they leave far more economic value to the city than low skill industries (e.g. automobile manufacturing).

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