Zoning, Robert Scarano and the art of density

My colleague Richard Green has noted the usual story about sprawl and zoning going around the interwebs here and here. Richard clarifies that sprawl is not a market outcome, it relates to zoning.

Zoning may not be a market outcome, but it is an outcome of the urban political economy. If there is one thing that I learned as a professional planner: everybody loves density until it is proposed near them. Then a whole bunch of concerns, and some of them legitimate, arise about bringing in a bunch of strangers into an intimate residential setting, about crowding schools and other services like parking, etc.

That first question about neighborhood identity gets beat on pretty hard: density hawks like to dismiss such concerns as merely exclusionary. I can’t do that, though of course the effects are exclusionary.

People buy and move into neighborhoods believing those neighborhoods are one thing; market sorting works to some degree. Proposing to put a large project in the middle of the neighborhood represents social change, sometimes a big one. I’ve watched plenty of my planning colleagues over the years who were huge density hawks go ballistic over proposals to build density near them. “It’s out of context!” They say. Sure. So zoning is at its best about giving the collective some voice about context. Zoning by its nature excludes. At its worst, the control becomes exclusionary of the socially vulnerable.

Thus our structures for controlling context are racist and classist and reflect the interests of the powerful. Our neighborhoods are racist and classist, in turn, because our society is. We probably can not expect our material lives to be radically different from our society and culture because the former is a product of the later, to some degree.

Justin Davidson comments on the outcast architect, Robert Scarano Jr. in the Daily Intel. You can see Davidson doesn’t hold back: he dislikes the buildings, the way Scarano conducted himself, and, it seems, Sarano as a symbol of gentrification in New York during the Housing Boom.

What do you think? Is overbuilding a form of theft? Is Scarano doing any harm? Or is he a sort of a Robin Hood for density?

Building up and building density requires more art than Sarano applied, as it can overcome objections about the context of density. In the end, that’s the test of architecture: does it work as a building and space? Does it contribute to or detract from its context? Does it make you think? I’m not a person who thinks architecture should always be beautiful, but it should be more often than it is…

After looking up a few of his buildings, I have to agree with Davidson, ultimately. These are terrible buildings. In the case of the latter, it’s plopped into the middle of the Bowery, one of New York’s more interesting gentrification stories, and it’s a ghastly building– both cheap-looking and out of scale; the out of scale problem would be less of a problem were the first not true. The Bowery deserved better.

It is interesting that when you are found out lying about your buildings, you’re done practicing in New York. Because there comes a point where you can’t inspect every building tip top to basement the way you can in a Fresno or in a Des Moines. I’m normally all about challenging dumb rules–and many US zoning rules are dumb–but not in this case.