I just finished reading Vital Little Plans, a book mostly consisting of small essays by Jane Jacobs. Where she was off-base was often as interesting as where she was right.
Jacobs was writing at a time when land and housing were both cheap by 21st-century standards. In 1957, she pointed out that downtowns were full of underutilized land. As evidence, she wrote that “land costs are now running less than 17 percent of total cost for building on the most coveted sites in midtown New York.” Now, of course, land is much more expensive in almost any urban center. Today, land prices in metropolitan New York are 47 percent of overall housing prices- and I suspect the number is even higher in Manhattan. For example, a 1/4-acre vacant lot in Washington Heights, one of Manhattan’s poorer areas, cost $899,000- more than a comparably-sized lot in Atlanta’s richest areas.
She writes that old buildings are more congenial for small shops, because they are less likely to yield high profits. Again, this makes sense in low-cost places- but when land prices rise, even old buildings are expensive. (Conversely, in newer, cheaper areas, even fairly new buildings can host lower-cost enterprises).
Jacobs favored decentralized decision-making but was no libertarian. She favored zoning based on performance-related standards, such as noise and pollution. In 1970, she wrote that to limit traffic generation, “standards could designate the number of parking places permitted.” Apparently, she thought that neighborhood activists would want to limit parking. But this does not seem to reflect reality today; in fact, car-owners often wish to maximize parking in their neighborhood, while non-car-owners often tend to be unaware or apathetic of the impact of parking.
She also favored generous protection for historic value, suggesting that such protection could include “whatever the neighborhood considers valuable: say trees over a certain girth, for instance.” She proposed limiting out-of-scale buildings, suggesting that “the relevant standard would be the length of street frontage allowed a building; a small-scale frontage automatically takes care of height in most cases.” All of these policies make sense in a city where there is no need for new housing- for example, in 1960s New York, when even well-off neighborhoods were besieged by the risk of abandonment rather than the risk of high housing costs.
Michael Lewyn is an associate professor at Touro Law Center in Central Islip, NY. His scholarship can be found at http://works.bepress.com/lewyn , and he recently wrote the book "Government Intervention and Suburban Sprawl: The Case for Market Urbanism."
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