Recoding Downtown


Here's a market paradox: In recent decades, the massive redevelopment of many older cities has led to the seeming antithesis of dynamic urban life. Innumerable downtown streets have been lined with new but sterile "box" buildings and are often devoid of any activity not generated by offices. There are many causes behind this effect, including bad development, zoning, and a tangle of safety code restrictions.

Safety codes have been deadly for older buildings. Many owners who have considered rehabilitating old properties have had to abandon their plans when faced with the enormous costs of bringing a structure "up to code." The reason is the bureaucratization of safety. Like all regulation, such codes cover ever-expanding territory, from wiring to stairwells to hallway widths. In theory, the codes are not ironclad: Inspectors usually have leeway in passing on building elements–such as hallways–that may not impinge on safety. But safety bureaucrats are like other bureaucrats: Faced with a choice, they are likely to say no. Owners, faced with having to widen every hallway in a building (or not knowing what they'll be faced with), are that much more likely just to demolish their old properties.

But in 1998, New Jersey revamped its approach to such codes. The state drew up a set of highly detailed new guidelines that give more importance to some rules than to others, depending on the nature of the project. A proud state official recently told The Washington Post, "We've transformed a regulatory crap shoot into an informed business decision." According to the state, the new rules have saved building owners as much as 25 percent on rehab projects.

In April, Maryland adopted a similar reform. But in that notoriously anti-business state, the rationale wasn't a fair break for building owners; it was the state's war on "sprawl." Maryland wants to use these "smart codes" to pit its older cities against its booming suburbs.

Even so, if "smart codes" manage to spread further, it won't be because of safety bureaucrats, who'd lose power under them. It'll be through pressure from property owners and others who stand to profit. Profiting most, however, will be the cities and those who use them.