Land Use

Urban Design Hipsters Are Evil


With top design professionals approving projects, West Belle Place can still be chic.

"Some historical context is in order," orders Sarah Williams Goldhagen, architecture critic for the not-dying-fast-enough New Republic. Goldhagan's op-ed on urban planning and landmark preservation will surprise anybody who has ever tried to do anything involving real estate – from opposing Bruce Ratner's destruction of a Brooklyn neighborhood to trying to get permission to install a toilet – in New York City.

Writing in Los Tiempos de Nueva York, Goldhagen argues that what's holding our recessionary cities back is not the layers of bureaucracy that prevent everybody except bazillionaire developers from adding any value to the cityscape. Apparently we need even more layers of bureaucracy, but they have to be layered more prettily, or something: 

It's not preservation that's at fault, but rather the weakness, and often absence, of other, complementary tools to manage urban development, like urban planning offices and professional, institutionalized design review boards, which advise planners on decisions about preservation and development. 

It's that lack, and the outsize power of private developers, that has turned preservation into the unwieldy behemoth that it is today. 

Goldhagen is sticking up for building preservationists, who seek to prevent new projects in favor of maintaining antique buildings. Preservationists are under the "most high-profile attack on the movement yet" – Goldhagen's description of some criticisms of the movement by the Pritzker Prize winner Rem Koolhaas. 

There really are plenty of actual high-profile conflicts pitting preservationists against new homeowners, longtime homeowners, small businesspeople and others. But that's not what's at issue here. It's pretty revealing that the nitty-gritty of land use doesn't get as much attention as a complaint from an internationally celebrated architect. But Goldhagen would rather light a candle than curse our darkness: 

Instead of bashing preservation, we should restrict it to its proper domain. Design review boards, staffed by professionals trained in aesthetics and urban issues and able to influence planning and preservation decisions, should become an integral part of the urban development process. At the same time, city planning offices must be returned to their former, powerful role in urban policy.

Nice teeth, Rem.

To the extent that there's a moral difference between city planning apparatchiks and landmark busybodies, I'm a little more inclined toward the latter. The premise of the preservationists – that my aesthetic prejudices preempt your right to pursue happiness with property you have paid for – is reprehensible. But at least some preservationists are occasionally driven by genuine nostalgia. Planning, permitting and zoning hierarchies, on the other hand, would be rogues even if they were honest. (Which they are not: land use bureaucracies are legendary cesspools of corruption.) 

As described here, progressive-era land-use regulation was a protection for "urban dwellers" who "realized that developers…would never reliably serve the public interest." Goldhagen describes the Big Apple's 1916 zoning resolution as the turning point for an era of urban planning that has blessed us all despite occasional setbacks when "populist, antigovernment sentiment among voters began to shift power back into private hands." But future episodes of revanchism can be squelched by empowered design-review boards that will ensure "the public" loves both new and old buildings. 

In fact, New York's zoning resolution followed by more than half a decade the 1910 zoning law of Baltimore's progressive Mayor J. Barry Mahool, who explained that "Blacks should be quarantined in isolated slums in order to reduce the incidents of civil disturbance, to prevent the spread of communicable disease into the nearby White neighborhoods, and to protect property values among the White majority." 

There's plenty more like that in Christopher Silver's essay [pdf] "The Racial Origins of Zoning in American Cities." As anybody would expect whose nose is not buried in an issue of Architectural Digest (which isn't even about architecture!), laws designed to favor and exclude particular styles and behaviors have always been bound up with, and in many cases were preceded by, laws designed to favor and exclude particular people: 

Throughout the early 1900s, and well beyond 1917, racial zoning and its objectives remained a mainstay of many American planners. Racial zoning was not just a manifestation of the backward South out of touch with the mainstream of urban reform. Although the South invented and made wide use of racial zoning, the region relied on Northern planning consultants to devise legally defensible ways to segregate Black residential areas.

Racial zoning practices also transcended the South. Select Northern and Western cities, especially those where the Black population increased rapidly, also experimented with racial zoning. The nation's planning movement, not just its Southern branch, regarded land use controls as an effective social control mechanism for Blacks and other "undesirables." According to H. L. Pollard, a prominent Los Angeles land use attorney, "racial hatred played no small part in bringing to the front some of the early districting ordinances that were sustained by the United States Supreme Court, thus giving us our first important zoning decisions." Chicago, too, was a bastion of racial zoning enthusiasts. Despite evidence that the racial zoning movement was national in scope, it initially concentrated in Southern cities owing to the relative size of the Black community (which ranged between 30 and 50 percent of the population in many places), and it then spread northward and later westward in response to the migration of Southern Blacks.

It is also important to note that Southern cities experimented with racial zoning and comprehensive zoning in tandem with, and not merely in the wake of, land use regulation efforts elsewhere. The 1908 ordinance of Richmond, Virginia, to regulate the height and arrangement of buildings, which was upheld by the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals in 1910, "was used by proponents of zoning in New York City as a precedent for persuading the city and state legislatures to act favorably on their recommendation," and led to the landmark 1916 zoning ordinance, Also on the basis of the 1910 decision, Richmond drafted and enacted a racial zoning scheme early in 1911. Racial zoning in Southern cities was as much a foundation for overall land use regulations as were regulation of the garment industry in New York City or encroaching industrial uses in Los Angeles.

This is the part of the conversation where defenders of zoning ridicule the idea that we are still bound by the bigotries of our forebears. Sure, planning intervention still produces separate communities, but good taste knows no color (except maybe Burnt Sienna). We're well past that kind of narrow-mindedness, right? 

What planning department allowed this to be built?

I'm not so sure. The proud planning history of Los Angeles includes anti-Semitic zoning, Nat King Cole's one-man desegregation of Hancock Park, and racially restrictive "covenants" on property titles. Today, the favored term of zoning disparagement is the epithet "Persian Palace" to describe gaudy mansions built by Iranian-Americans. When you look at the type of people who end up on the receiving end of land-use enforcements – from rooster restrictions to harassment of Antelope Valley hillbillies by "nuisance abatement teams" to censorship of outsider artists via permitting requirements – they sure don't seem to be folks at the top of the food chain in terms of political influence. 

That's the attraction of urban planning: It allows discrimination but dresses it up as discriminating taste. 

I wouldn't expect these matters to be on the mind of a New Republic architecture critic. That is the problem. This kind of Platonic flapdoodle is easy in a world of design mavens who believe people would like housing projects if only they were drawn up by Rem Koolhaas. But the laws we're talking about produce non-theoretical misery for those Americans who, for a variety of reasons, are less than fully stylish. 

Courtesy of commenters xenia onatopp and P Brooks.

Bonus: The "Block Buster" episode of All In the Family, featuring the late, great Thalmus Rasulala: