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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Fucking Towers in the Goddamned Park

posted by on March 27 at 15:15 PM

When will this idea die?

In the comments thread of almost every Boom post I write, regardless of the development at hand, Will in Seattle remarks that what Seattle really needs are 100-story residential towers to provide affordable housing. He’s also suggested they should be surrounded by green space.

Sorry, Will, nothing personal, but towers surrounded by green space is one of the worst urban planning concepts ever conceived. Buildings 100 stories tall – parks or no parks – cost a ton of money. When subsidized to make low-income housing, towers have resulted in slums in the sky and urban decay on the ground—because people will choose to live in isolation when packed into dense artificial “communities.” Slog comment hero Fnarf, thankfully, has rebuked the notion again and again. I agree with Fnarf’s indictment over here, and I really love this one (even though it’s kinda mean) over here. The old idea, pushed by French architect Le Corbusier, is now widely discredited.

But that doesn’t mean developers have stopped pushing towers in the park. New York’s MTA chose Tishman Speyer to develop the West Side railyards. The buildings aren’t quite 100 stories, but here’s the towers-in-the-park proposal.


The NYT doesn’t mince words about the project today, in an article titled Profit and Public Good Clash in Grand Plans.

Like the ground zero and Atlantic Yards fiascos, its overblown scale and reliance on tired urban planning formulas should force a serious reappraisal of the public-private partnerships that shape development in the city today. And in many ways the West Side railyards is the most disturbing of the three. Because of its size and location — 12.4 million square feet on 26 acres in Midtown — it will have the most impact on the city’s identity. Yet unlike the other two developments, it lacks even the pretense of architectural ambition….

Rising on a vast platform to be built over the train tracks, the project is conceived as a series of soaring corporate and residential towers flanking the northern and southern ends of a narrow park running from 10th Avenue to the West Side Highway, between 30th and 33rd Streets….

Designed by Murphy/Jahn, the buildings are a throwback to the days when corporate Modernism was taking its dying breaths. Towering glass blocks, their most original features are a series of deep cantilevers that allow the developer to suspend buildings over the High Line, the public park being built on a stretch of abandoned elevated tracks in Chelsea….

The full article is over here.

RSS icon Comments


This last hour of work is always the hardest, and at this point in the day, I've already looked to the NYT website. You have anything else? Anything new?

Posted by Ziggity | March 27, 2008 3:20 PM

goddamnit, couldnt you let Will just have a dream no matter how stupid it was? It's like smashing a retard's favorite toy in front of them; totally fucking cruel.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | March 27, 2008 3:22 PM

Have you ever been to Vancouver BC?

... (pin drops) ...

I rest my case.

Posted by Will in Seattle | March 27, 2008 3:31 PM

I know nothing about architecture or urban planning, but I read fnarf's meanest comment just for fun and HE said that the tallest residential buildings there are not even 50 stories. Fnarf, are you trustworthy?

Posted by leek | March 27, 2008 3:34 PM

Canada is full of Godless, Homo-marrying, socialist medical care providing, left leaning peaceniks. America is Blessed by God (the songs say so) and We put traditional family and everything else first here. Every one deserves their own home with a yard and a car too, That's the American way. How DARE you suggest we could learn ANYTHING of value from Canada. (That pin was made in China).

Posted by Sargon Bighorn | March 27, 2008 3:36 PM

When subsidized to make low-income housing, they have resulted in slums in the sky and urban decay on the ground

Subsidized, low income housing does results and slums and urban decay when built above a certain height - that height being one story.

Posted by JMR | March 27, 2008 3:36 PM

I don't pretend to know anything about architecture or urban planning, but there's got to be some middle ground? It seems to my totally uninformed opinion, that building some tallER buildings in most cities is advisable because a) so many people now want to live in ciites (as mudede posted about recently) and b) because urban sprawl is also pretty crappy.

In my head, we'd have more 20 story mixed use buildings that would be luxury condos and businesses. Rich people would live on higher floors because uh ... they're rich and want "views," and middle class people would live on lower floors. That would leave those three story buildings with garden (read basement) apartments more affordable for us poorer folk.

Okay, that's probably all wrong, I guess what I want to know, Dominic and Fnarf is, what IS the best way to combat urban sprawl and allow more people to live in the cities especially as more and more people are flocking to them. I totally get that it's not 100 story buildings, but what are the current theories? Any really well designed cities from this point of view that you can point out?

Posted by arduous | March 27, 2008 3:38 PM

The Fnarf vs. Will in Seattle beef is taking over Slog. Can we have something funner like an Issur vs. Ecce Homo beef?

Posted by poppy | March 27, 2008 3:43 PM

Does Will know that Canada is a totally separate country with a different system of government and a different economy?

Posted by Gomez | March 27, 2008 3:43 PM

Oh, @ 4, Wikipedia confirms Fnarf's statement about the height of Vancouver's buildings:

Topping the list of tallest buildings in Vancouver as of March 2008 is One Wall Centre at 150 metres (491 ft)[112] and 48 storeys, followed closely by the Shaw Tower at 149 metres (489 ft)[112] and 41 storeys.[113]
Posted by arduous | March 27, 2008 3:43 PM

Arduous, lamentably, no prosperous city will ever have enough affordable housing. It's always a game of catch-up. Sad but true. But the short answer is this: provide incentive to build rental units and small condos that promote sidewalk activity near the urban core. The longer answer about how to do that in Seattle is here.

Posted by Dominic Holden | March 27, 2008 3:48 PM

what IS the best way to combat urban sprawl and allow more people to live in the cities

You loosen up zoning a bit, you loosen up height limits where it's practical, then you get the hell out the way.

And don't burden developers with this, that and the other rule about making X% of the housing "affordable".

IF there's an army of people pining to live in the city, developers will figure it out and respond accordingly. I tend to think this alleged swarm of people that wants to live in an apartment in Seattle but simply can't afford it is a bit of a mirage, but I trust good, old-fashioned, greedy developers to have a better handle on it than I do.

Posted by JMR | March 27, 2008 3:52 PM

Thanks Dominic, I must have missed that article the first time. That was really interesting and helpful.

Posted by arduous | March 27, 2008 3:54 PM

Oh my God. I love you, Dominizzle.

Posted by Mr. Poe | March 27, 2008 4:00 PM

towers surrounded by green space does work (actually adjacent is a better term here). Vancouver has proven this. Mind you this does not mean that towers in dense surroundings without green space does not work. They both work.

Posted by jeff | March 27, 2008 4:03 PM

@6 - the way around that is mixed income development, where you actually mix the income levels on each floor. Now, of course, this happens with the very top floors going to the ultra-rich (trust me, that always happens), but the remainder you tend to mix 3BR/2BA, 2BR/1BA, 1BR/1BA for the various income levels in a floor.

You have to make sure the bottom floors feel like a community space, so that people keep gangs out of course, but you rely on the moderate-to-rich people to call (and get) the cops if trouble happens.

jeff of course knows that the thing is that you have to surround the towers with green space and they need to be near transit and community retail. Anyone who has actually lived in Vancouver BC (and Burnaby etc) understands this, because we've not just seen it, we've seen it work.

Laugh at me if you want, but we basically need to rezone the city - you want to keep building 4-6 story and pave over the single-family housing? Or would you rather do spot high-density surrounded by greenspace that's usable and do it without getting rid of the single-family housing?

Posted by Will in Seattle | March 27, 2008 4:11 PM

Oh, green space. Just another way of saying "gigantic lawn" and satisfying folks' desire to be at one with nature without having to build a full-fledged park.

I find it curious that, as homeowners are increasingly converting their lawns to gardens, municipalities want to build more lawns.

Posted by joykiller | March 27, 2008 4:14 PM

And we all know how trustworthy Wikipedia is, it's not like they would ever edit things to, oh, let's just say, hide someone's ex-girlfriend ...

In arguing a point, I can play your game and say 20-40 story - and then you'll try to meet me at the 10-20 story level - which will be bad for Seattle.

Or I can argue 40-100 story and get you to mentally break out of your 6-8 story prison and realize we can build up to 100 story and then you start negotiating in the 20-60 story range. Which gets me where I want you to be, but you think you won.


Posted by Will in Seattle | March 27, 2008 4:15 PM

the way around that is mixed income development... You have to make sure the bottom floors feel like a community space, so that people keep gangs out of course, but you rely on the moderate-to-rich people to call (and get) the cops if trouble happens.

I lived in a high-rise in New Jersey where the upper floors were market rate and the lowest couple floors were Section 8 - hmmn... I guess our "community space" was inadequate.

Posted by JMR | March 27, 2008 4:22 PM

towers in a park don't work

read jane jacobs' "death and life of great american cities" and get back to us, ok?

Posted by kinkos | March 27, 2008 4:22 PM

Quick, someone tell Federal Way.

Posted by K | March 27, 2008 4:25 PM

Several studies have shown that people who are incompetent generally do not realize they're incompetent.

Apparently nothing will persuade Whisser that he knows virtually nothing about urban design.

Posted by gnossos | March 27, 2008 4:26 PM

But, Will, Vancouver doesn't have any 100 story buildings so how could you have seen it work?

Besides, what you've described sounds a lot like Cabrini Green, which I actually am (slightly) familiar with, having lived near there.

Cabrini Green USED to be mixed-income but gradually became more and more low income as middle class people fled the place. And it was actually located in a pretty damn decent part of Chicago- on the North Side near Lincoln Park.

Mixed-income is great in theory, but of the buildings I've seen in practice, it hasn't worked out so well. Upper middle class people have no problem living with middle class people and middle class people have no problem living with lower middle class people, but ultra rich living with the poor just doesn't seem to work. There's a building in downtown LA that is or was trying it, and the result is no rich people want to live there. Simply put, they don't want to ride an elevator with some poor people if they don't have to. And they don't. They're rich.

As for this:

You have to make sure the bottom floors feel like a community space, so that people keep gangs out of course, but you rely on the moderate-to-rich people to call (and get) the cops if trouble happens.

Ignoring the elitist tone of this paragraph, it's kinda ridiculous. Moderate-to-rich people don't want to babysit their poorer neighbors. Given the opportunity to live somewhere where they'll have to call the cops if "trouble happens" or to live somewhere where they don't, they'll choose to live somewhere else.

Still if you were talking about 15-20 story buildings, I might concede that that seemed somewhat reasonable, and I'd want to do more research on similar buildings in Vancouver. But it's the 100 story thing that gives me the most pause. If the tallest buildings in Vancouver are less than 50 stories, how can you possibly think that 100 stories is the answer? What are the mixed-income buildings in Vancouver that you are enamored with? Do they have Wikepedia pages or pictures? Can you link to an example of one of them and why it works? And how tall are THEY?

Posted by arduous | March 27, 2008 4:26 PM

Jane Jacobs was pretty damned critical of the towers, "projects" and planned communities of the 60s, if I recall correctly.

Posted by NapoleonXIV | March 27, 2008 4:26 PM

will @ 18:
"Truly, you have a dizzying intellect."

Posted by point x point synopsis | March 27, 2008 4:30 PM

@19 - no, you kept people separate by floor.

You have to mix them in most of the floors. So any specific floor has at most 40 percent of one economic group, with fractions from the others.

You also need to upzone the bottom floors a tad.

Again, go see Vancouver BC.

Posted by Will in Seattle | March 27, 2008 4:33 PM

We have to think about what we want to look like in 40 years, when thinking about what we do today. Because what we build today will still be there 20-40 years from now.

Do you want Seattle to be only upper-middle to rich to ultra-rich in nice single-family neighborhoods?

Or do you want people who work here to live here as well?

Vancouver did it.

We pushed ours outwards and got sprawl.

Posted by Will in Seattle | March 27, 2008 4:37 PM

@18, No, Will, Wikpedia is not wrong. Google "One Wall Centre," and look over those entries. Most of them mention that One Wall Centre is the tallest building in Vancouver. And your whole bargaining doesn't make any sense. First of all, there's a vast difference between proposing 40 story buildings with 100 story buildings. When you talk about 100 story buildings, your entire line of thinking is discredited even if there *may* be some grain of good to it.(Which I don't know, I don't know anything about urban planning.)

But my point is you can't bargain with people like that. It doesn't make any sense. It's not a technique that works, or is working for you now.

And anyway I don't believe that you actually are trying to bargain your way to 20-40 story territory. That 1200 Stewart building that you dismissed as not tall enough in January is planned to be 33 stories.

Posted by arduous | March 27, 2008 4:40 PM

"Because what we build today will still be there 20-40 years from now."

Unless it's a 100 story tower, in which case it will still be under construction 20-40 years from now.

Posted by joykiller | March 27, 2008 4:43 PM

Is there anyone here with real experience who can quickly pencil out the per square foot cost of a building that's gonna be over 1100 feet tall?

Posted by NapoleonXIV | March 27, 2008 4:54 PM

My favorite part of Will's "argument" is where he pulled out a supporting source, Building Defensible Spaces. He got the title of the book wrong, as usual; it's Creating Defensible Space, by Oscar Newman. But the best thing about his citation? THE BOOK ARGUES AGAINST TOWERS IN THE PARK.

The book Will cites is a powerful argument AGAINST Will's thesis.

Don't believe me? Here, have a look yourself. The entire book is online, in PDF format:

Now, in case Will wants to argue that he's talking about SOME OTHER book -- he has previously said "oh, I meant the Canadian publication" -- be aware that (a) no such book appears with his title in the National Library of Canada or in OCLC WorldCat and (b) Oscar Newman is in fact extremely well-known for his concept of "defensible space", and every book ever printed with those words in the title is either by him, by one of his students, or in honor of him. One of them is by former Secretary of HUD Henry Cisneros.

ALL of these books are extremely clear on the concept of "towers in the park" as a model for public housing. It's the WORST IDEA ANYONE HAS EVER HAD for public housing; it creates crime, destroys community, and isolates the poor in frightening vertical ghettos with no possibility of street life.

The very concept of "defensible space" was created to describe the precise thing that Will envisions. Yet Will, who apparently cannot read, took away from this book the EXACT OPPOSITE of what it says. Feel free to allow that mind-blower inform your opinion of his reliability on this and other issues.

Posted by Fnarf | March 27, 2008 4:55 PM

PS: Dominic, I love you.

Posted by Fnarf | March 27, 2008 4:56 PM

@26 & 27, Will, I've admitted that I don't know squat about urban planning. But during the time of this thread, I have done some quick Google searches to have an actual discussion with you. I've done my best in earnest to do my homework.

No, I haven't been to Vancouver in recent history. No, I don't remember what it was like. If you want to show me what is so good about Vancouver, I would love it if you could say more than, "go see Vancouver."

What am I supposed to see? As far as I can find on all of the internets, Vancouver doesn't have any 100 story buildings. I'd appreciate it greatly if you could respect the homework I've done, and the thought I've given YOUR argument, with a more cogent filled out argument on your part, and with a more clear example of what it is you're talking about.

I just am really looking forward to seeing the 100 story Vancouver buildings I've heard so much about. Thanks.

Posted by arduous | March 27, 2008 5:01 PM

Will, the only person with a "moving target" here is you.

First, it was "build 100-story towers". When it was pointed out to you that there are no 100-story residential towers anywhere in the world, that there are only four 100-story buildings of ANY kind anywhere in the world, that they are phenomenally expensive vanity projects, and that every super-tall residential tower anywhere in the world is in fact expensive luxury apartments, not cheap public housing, you changed your tune.

You started demanding 40-100 story towers instead. You continued to use Vancouver as an example, even though Vancouver barely has any 40-story towers, and they aren't residential, and they CERTAINLY aren't public housing; again, they are high-priced luxury apartments.

Now you're talking about 20 stories. Every time you get called on your BS, you change your story. You do this on EVERY subject, but none more than this one.

Posted by Fnarf | March 27, 2008 5:04 PM

In a certain sense, I feel I can always rely on Will.

Posted by elenchos | March 27, 2008 5:04 PM

Will must've come up with this idea after kicking back a few beers with the Clintons in the 1970s, after a hard day's work on the ARPAnet.

Posted by tsm | March 27, 2008 5:04 PM

Not to endorse Will's ridiculous arguments, but a few points:

1. Corbusier wasn't French.

2. The Chicago Spire will be more than 100 floors, all residential.

3. Chicago's geology is not good for skyscrapers (or so I'm told), but Chicago has plenty of tall buildings (on the other hand, I take it earthquakes are not a problem for Chicago, so maybe that helps).

A few questions:

1. Is there a book that deals with these ideas in a rigorous but accessible way? More rigorous than Jane Jacobs, ideally.

2. How are the upper east and west sides of Manhattan different from towers in a park? After all, for the most part, those neighborhoods seem to consist of towers within walking distance of Central Park. I'm not saying they're ideal neighborhoods, but they aren't so awful.

Posted by minderbender | March 27, 2008 5:07 PM

So, is the purpose of this thread to officially declare pariah status for WiS, or what?

Posted by laterite | March 27, 2008 5:13 PM

@37, actually "Devil in the White City" which I HAVE read does a good job about talking about the architectural innovations of Chicago architects to build taller buildings there. It's actually a really fascinating read even if you don't know much about architecture.

But yeah, I think it helps that once you're able to build them, you're not likely to have mother nature rumbling and knocking 'em down.

Posted by arduous | March 27, 2008 5:13 PM

@38: The nail that sticks out gets pounded down.

Posted by NapoleonXIV | March 27, 2008 5:15 PM

Let's not change the subject to "tall buildings". The subject here is tall buildings SURROUNDED BY GREENSPACE. There's nothing wrong with tall buildings, and every city has them in its core. Many of them are residential, at least in part, and high apartments with views command premiums on the market.

But they're not in parks. Not the good ones, anyways. Look around Seattle -- hell, look around Vancouver, or New York, or Chicago, or any of the cities that have these buildings. They're PART OF THE URBAN FABRIC, not isolated in surrounding voids. There are a couple of these isolated buildings in Vancouver, built in the reclaimed waterfront area around Coal Harbour, and they SUCK ASS. Yes, even in Vancouver.

Posted by Fnarf | March 27, 2008 5:17 PM

@39, that's my source as well. I think Fnarf at some point was arguing that New York is tall in downtown and midtown but short in between for geological reasons. That may be true, but why can't Chicago's innovations be transplanted to New York? I mean, right now I'm in Battery Park City, which is basically built on landfill. Maybe that's not as hard as it sounds (maybe you can just drill down to submerged bedrock), but it seems to me that geology is unlikely to be the constraining factor in Manhattan. But maybe I'm missing something.

Posted by minderbender | March 27, 2008 5:19 PM

@41: I think we can all recognize the futility of Will's plan. But why can't something similar work fairly well? So for instance, what if you had high-density (but not 100-storey) corridors served by mass transit, with retail at ground level and parks within walking distance? I know, it's expensive, but it seems as though it could function well.

Posted by minderbender | March 27, 2008 5:23 PM

@ 38, I actually like Will in Seattle. He's a nice guy and usually adds something constructive -- if not always on the mark -- in comments.

However, this conversation about 100-story low-income housing towers surrounded by green space really should end. I'm hoping this thread will sorta exhaust the conversation so we can all move on.

Posted by Dominic Holden | March 27, 2008 5:24 PM

After all, why build 100 story towers when we can house the low income in a parallel dimension?

Posted by NapoleonXIV | March 27, 2008 5:26 PM

Now that both Fnarf and Dominic have posted, I renew my request for a book (or other material) that sheds some light on this subject. I have been reading scattered stuff, but I would like to get some grounding to fit the pieces together.

Posted by minderbender | March 27, 2008 5:27 PM

@37: Central Park West is not IN the park, and the buildings aren't that tall (by Will standards). They're part of the city; they belly right up to the street.

It's worth pointing out, again, that the buildings along Central Park West are not public housing. They are in fact the most expensive real estate in America.

Look at a city like San Francisco, which is the densest city in America after New York, is carpeted not with tall buildings but lots and lots of medium-rise 4-6-story buildings close together. That's the smart way to create density.

Minderbender, that book I linked to is a great introduction to the subject. His model is based on cities like San Francisco, New York, Boston, Chicago, and others that have, or used to have, oceans of basic housing stock that worked. The idea is creating a sense of ownership by having small, relatively short buildings, built together like row houses, with private stoops, and a street out front that comprises a visible, defensible public area. You can see who's there, and you have a private space you can retreat to. It's not a complicated notion; it is in fact the kind of housing that developers made on their own throughout the nineteenth century all across America AND Europe.

EVERY place that has demolished this type of housing and placed its residents in towers in the park has suffered horribly for it. There are literally hundreds of examples.

Posted by Fnarf | March 27, 2008 5:28 PM

Minderbender, I will ask my friend who is an architect for some reading recommendations and post it in this thread when I get a response from him. Might take a day or so for him to respond to me though.

Posted by arduous | March 27, 2008 5:29 PM

I'm curious about what Napoleon@30 asked too, and more generally I'm wondering about building cost as a function of stories. I'm assuming it's nonlinear, and grows much faster beyond 40-50 stories or so.

Posted by tsm | March 27, 2008 5:30 PM

Let's have a 200 story building. Then stuff all sorts of people in it. Make the top floor a tourist attraction.

Then when the earthquake, fire or terrorist act occurs, Slog will have fodder for 5 or ten years.

Posted by Dave Coffman | March 27, 2008 5:31 PM

@44: Understood. Sometimes it seems like it's his default answer to many unrelated development issues. However, I also see a lot of shit slung WiS's way in a lot of comment threads, and Fnarf seems to get particularly nasty from time to time. Just observations from someone who's been reading and posting on Slog since day one.

Posted by laterite | March 27, 2008 5:35 PM

@42, geology absolutely is the limiting factor in Manhattan. "Going down to bedrock" in the medium-rise parts means going down forever. I suppose it's theoretically possible, but not economically feasible. Manhattan's bedrock is at surface in midtown, then dips WAY down, then surfaces again at the tip.

Building on fill is difficult and expensive. It often involves pounding in thousands of wooden pilings -- like big telephone poles -- that "float" the building up. The old Kingdome was built this way, I know.

A famous example is Trinity Church in Boston's Back Bay. It's built on pilings, which are actually submerged in the groundwater under the fill. There is a danger to the church, in that surrounding tall buildings, like the 60-story Hancock Tower, are pushing down on the fill and moving the water table in such a way that the tops of the pilings are being exposed, which causes them to rot. If rot led to damage to this famous landmark, Hancock will be looking at a multi-billion-dollar settlement. I don't know what they've come up with; I haven't looked in a while.

There are any number of good books on skyscraper construction, and of course on Manhattan architecture. I'll check in the ol' basement and see what I can come up with. On urban planning, Jane Jacobs is indeed the place to start, but there are loads of good books that follow her.

Needless to say, ZERO of them advocate for towers in the park.

Posted by Fnarf | March 27, 2008 5:38 PM

There is nothing wrong in principle with residential towers built near parks. #37 points out the avenues surrounding Central Park in NY. An even better example is IM Pei's Society Hill Towers in Philadelphia ( Those have been a desirable place to live for over 40 years, although some might object to how out-of-scale they are in that Colonial neighborhood. Still, they are great-looking buildings in a park-like setting.
Of course those are wealthy areas. Obviously what doesn't work were the public housing projects of the 50s and 60s that were towers built on green spaces, which were corruptions, not implementations, of Le Corbusier's ideas.

Posted by twee | March 27, 2008 5:38 PM

@28 and all the Fnarf rants - I should point out that what most of us former and current Vancouverites refer to as "Vancouver" is in actuality the Greater Vancouver Regional District.

Vancouver, East Van, Burnaby, New West, Poco, etc.

Yes, it's still too short. We're talking the future, not today. Your misreadings of what defensible space was designed for, your lack of ability to understand that people adapt to their circumstances, and your standing up for the right to make Seattle into a city By Of And For the Ultra-Rich and the few artists they permit to live here, is what the issue is.

I never asked for "high-rise low-income 100 story towers in parks".

My description consistently is the logical extrapolation of the functional choices where you have tall towers (no, not 20 story) preferably in the 40 to 100 story range (based on local aspects), situated near transit hubs (e.g. within walking distance of a light rail station), which have adjacent functional green space (not walled off, not gated, including mini-playgrounds, with some retail mix to make it safer like coffee shops and newstands), and near larger parklike areas (near is relative, basically as far as you can bike without thinking it as "far").

Now, do you want to continue watching us replace 1-3 story mixed use and residential housing with 2-4 story mixed use and residential housing and keep all the vast majority of Seattle zoned for primarily single family housing, or do you want to let people who are poor, lower-middle, and middle class also live in the same city they work in?

Because if we choose your present course, they have to move to the suburbs and commute in - which means more greenhouse gas, more traffic congestion, and Seattle becoming the playground of the rich and their hangers on.

That is not the Seattle I want, even if Fnarf does.

Posted by Will in Seattle | March 27, 2008 5:40 PM

Thanks Fnarf, I will check it out. It's funny, Matt Yglesias blogged (tangentially) about the same thing today. Must be something in the air:

I think the "towers in a park" idea is appealing at first because it addresses several needs that are acutely felt in big cities. First, it really sucks to live in crowded areas with no trees or open space. However, sprawl also sucks. Towers in the park bring open space to high-density areas. They also arguably support mass transit by putting a lot of people within a short walking distance of a train station.

However, if what you're saying is right, open spaces and density are not mutually exclusive - it's just that this particular way of reconciling them doesn't work out in practice. We can build high-density neighborhoods near (but not in) parks, so long as we design them with an eye to pedestrian traffic, retail space, and other amenities (hopefully mass transit too). However, we should probably also acknowledge that when a neighborhood is well-designed, it will probably be expensive, too...

Posted by minderbender | March 27, 2008 5:42 PM

I'm late to this discussion, I know, but...

Vancouver is not a model for mixed development or whatever. It is significantly denser than Seattle, yes. It is, in my mind, a far better place to live, yes.

But it has a lot of the same problems. There's a huge homeless/mentally ill population and huge drug problems in the downtown eastside, such that the acronym "DTES" is known Canada-wide and is used as an example of Urban Things Gone Wrong. They keep talking about affordable housing, but then they go and do things like promise a huge amount in south False Creek and then build $500k condos instead. The city is buying up crappy old hotels and turning them into affordable housing areas, but at the rate of ~100 units every year or so, which doesn't even slow down the problem.

So, we have problems up here, too. Lots of them. Walking around Yaletown or Waterfront or the West End, you don't see them, but they're there--I work in Crosstown and take the bus through Main and Hastings every single morning. Go see that world.

Now what I have noticed here is a tendency towards transit-oriented development. Ride the SkyTrain waaay out, like to Surrey or Coquitlam, and you'll see residential and mixed-use towers right next to the transit stations. The residential is mostly high-end condos that are bought and immediately rented out, but still, they're nice places to live.

You'll see that in Seattle, too, though, once the light rail's done--look at the development going in along MLK already. You just need the transit first, and it -is- coming.

Posted by Cow | March 27, 2008 5:42 PM

@29 - they built a lot of taller buildings a lot more quickly in Dubai, Hong Kong, and Singapore .. are you saying we in America can't do the same?

Or are you admitting you never get out of America in the first place?

Posted by Will in Seattle | March 27, 2008 5:44 PM

I meant to add--you hear the same things here that you did in Seattle about middle- and lower-class squeeze. Nobody can afford to live in Vancouver anymore, etc. etc. Median house price is around $900k (and you thought it was bad in Seattle?).

The only real difference here is that we have better transit, so living in Surrey or North Vancouver isn't the same social death sentence that living in Auburn or Bellevue is.

Posted by Cow | March 27, 2008 5:44 PM


.. I've become curious on the structural and mechanical engineering of high-rises. While I don't have enough together to write a coherent slog post (yet), here's a bit to start off with:

* The costs are very non-linear. There are threshold heights at which the cost suddenly increases. Why? Basic things, like installing functional residential plumbing, rapidly become technical feats as the buildings get taller. Also, the taller the building, the more of the square footage that must be devoted to mechanics and access. The WTC towers did some novel things, but also made them a headache to evacuate...

* Geology matters, as does seismic activity. One of the world's most dangerous fault lines, the Seattle fault, neatly bisects the city--roughly following the path of I-90.

* A good book on the technical engineering of high-rises? "High-Rise Manual" edited by Johann Eisele and Ellen Kloft. Available at the UW library.

I'll keep reading and working; expect the post sometime before I perish.

Posted by Jonathan Golob | March 27, 2008 5:49 PM

oh, and @34 - one of my high school classmates lives in Dubai - she sent me vids of the city, which are on YouTube. Another of my friends lives in Hong Kong - and has done the same.

@58 - house prices - again, for Single Family Homes. And yet, people can and do LIVE and WORK in Vancouver, East Van, Burnaby, New West, Poco, etc - they just house-share, or live in apartments.

Back when I lived in Vancouver BC in the late 80s, most houses cost around $600K - to you that's expensive, they think you're just now catching up to them.

Posted by Will in Seattle | March 27, 2008 5:49 PM

I do get nasty. I won't apologize, either. The thing is, I understand that people are sometimes wrong; I am sometimes wrong, maybe even often wrong. I don't get angry when people are wrong.

I do get angry when these conditions are met: (a) it's a pet subject of mine; (b) the wrong opinion is flippant and poorly thought out; (c) the wrong opinion is repeated over and over and over again; (d) the wrong opinion is on a complex topic that can easily lead to its being believed by casual bystanders; (e) the wrong opinion is formed by poor observation and learning that should by rights have produced the opposite impression (see most post @31 above); and (f) the wrong opinion is one that is harmful to civilization.

Basically, Will pushes my button on this subject. Unfortunately for him, he is poorly equipped to argue his viewpoint, since he has no facts, no understanding of the issue, and has never read or understood anything on the subject, and I have. And I care a lot about it. So I let him have it.

Posted by Fnarf | March 27, 2008 5:49 PM

Will is my buddy and all, and I always enjoy his company, but somehow I don't think he'll be happy until we're all living in storage lockers like in Neuromancer.

Me, I'd rather live in a soddy on the Nebraska prairie than ever tolerate that kind of "New Urbanism." Just me and the sky and a fire of buffalo chips. :-)

Posted by ivan | March 27, 2008 5:50 PM

Fnarf, a few points about geology.

1. I think in Battery Park City they just drilled down to bedrock, so yeah, I can see why it's not a helpful example for me.

2. However, unless I'm missing something about Chicago geology, it's marshy there and they can't drill down to bedrock. Nevertheless they don't seem to have too much trouble putting up very tall buildings.

3. Presumably there are better materials for pilings than wood. I mean, I don't know much about construction, but if there's anywhere in the US where it would be worth spending some extra money for more height, I would think Manhattan would be it.

Posted by minderbender | March 27, 2008 5:52 PM

@56 said about Vancouver, "But it has a lot of the same problems. There's a huge homeless/mentally ill population and huge drug problems in the downtown eastside"

Sigh. Look, that's because it's one of the warmest places in Canada. People move to port cities because you can get drugs there, but the percentage of homeless and mentally ill is not WORSE than Seattle has. In fact, their homeless and mentally ill on average have better health care, and more services.

Posted by Will in Seattle | March 27, 2008 5:54 PM

@61: "I am sometimes wrong"

That is a shocking admission from you, fnarf, but too non-specific. You are such a know-it-all, so I'm wondering how sincere you are when you say you're sometimes wrong. I think it might just be a rhetorical devise. So could you please provide some concrete examples of when you were wrong? (Or is the only time you were ever wrong when you wrote that you're "sometimes wrong"?)

Posted by twee | March 27, 2008 5:56 PM

He's frequently wrong, actually. But his sense of humor is as legendary as his numerous credentials from zoning boards worldwide, as is his combat experience in the Antartica Wars of 1998 to 1999.

Posted by Will in Seattle | March 27, 2008 6:05 PM

You know what, I'm actually GLAD Will brought up "towers in the park" because actually a minderbender noted, there is something really seductive about it.

Had Will never brought it up, Fnarf would never explained why it was bad, and I would understand a lot less about urban planning than I do now.

So, thanks for the urban planning lesson, guys. This is why I heart Slog.

Posted by arduous | March 27, 2008 6:07 PM

One of the best books ever written on how the destruction of row-housing "slums", to be replaced by these infernal towers, destroys the lives of the people who live there is The Urban Villagers: Group and Class in the life of Italian-Americans by Herbert Gans. It's a bit heavy on the 60s sociology (with accompanying jargon) but it's devastating in its impact.

For more on how cities actually work, see City and The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces by William H. Whyte. Intensely readable, and eye-opening.

Great Streets by Allan Jacobs (no relation to Jane) lays out some of the basic principles that makes cities work. So does City Comforts by occasional Slog commenter David Sucher. I'll bet that one has a useful bibliography in the back.

A cranky but hilarious and informed look is Peter Blake's Form Follows Fiasco: Why Modern Architecture Hasn't Worked.

Robert Caro's The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York is a sledgehammer of a book, probably the greatest biography of a city ever attempted. It's extremely one-sided (and really long) but engrossing, and a great deal of it is devoted to the horrors of urban renewal. There are tons of good books in this category, though, devoted to a single city but with lessons applicable to everywhere: New York, Boston, and Chicago lead the pack, because they were the most important US cities in the early skyscraper-building era (roughly 1860-1920), and also suffered some of the most oppressive urban renewal. Keep in mind that "urban renewal" up until Jane Jacobs turned the world upside down MEANT towers in the park. There's also a ton of stuff about English cities; London, Manchester and Liverpool all suffered more from the efforts of the post-war planners than they did from the Luftwaffe's bombs.

Skyscraper by Karl Sabbagh is a breezy business-book look at how tall buildings actually get made, which will shed some light on why they aren't likely to be low-income housing.

This is just off the top of my head; there are undoubtedly lots more I'm forgetting, and even more that I've never read. Do what I did, and comb the bibiographies of recent books that tell the truth. If I had to pick one, not just for topicality but pleasure of reading and expansion of mind, for a non-professional reader, it would be City by William Whyte. I'm sure there are real architects and planners on board here who will sneer at that one!

Posted by Fnarf | March 27, 2008 6:14 PM

If Will wants to live in Dubai, I heartily encourage him to move there. Also, seeing as how Dubai has essentially sprung up out of the desert in the past few years, there is no evidence that they're not constructing the biggest property bubble of all time. Places like Hong Kong and Seoul, which DO have external reasons to exist, are not useful models for North American cities.

The whole point of Jane Jacobs is that we can achieve high densities without building gigantic shitholes. Neighborhoods like the West Village in New York, or most of San Francisco, to name just a few examples, achieve much HIGHER densities than typical towers in the park schemes, even though the individual buildings are much shorter, because they don't waste space. Wasted space isn't just uneconomical; it destroys community, since things are farther apart and thus harder to walk to. Walkable neighborhoods do not require (and do not usually have) widely-spaced super-high-rises. Not even in Vancouver. Or New York.

Have you ever been to Paris? Almost no high rises at all, except for one big one and a big cluster at La Defense outside the city. The city is packed tight with medium-rise buildings, and with some of the greatest street life in the world. London: ditto.

Will may have visited more places than I have (which is not an inconsiderable number), but he's seen less and understood less.

And he still hasn't addressed the mystery of why he cites the book that best destroys his own argument.

Posted by Fnarf | March 27, 2008 6:35 PM

I don't want to live in an apartment tower knowing that some decrepit alcholic 50 or 60 floors below me smokes in bed.

Posted by NapoleonXIV | March 27, 2008 6:39 PM

@64 Willie on Vancouver: "but the percentage of homeless and mentally ill is not WORSE than Seattle has."

Jesus. Have you ever been to Vancouver Will? I refuse to believe you've lived there.

Downtown Eastside dwarfs anything in Seattle. There are more junkies in ten square blocks than all of King County. It's third world in its rates of HIV infection. There's a reason it has the second largest syringe exchange in North America.

I could go on and on about how wrong you are on this subject.

Posted by gnossos | March 27, 2008 6:43 PM

Perhaps the best one-stop overview of the planning aspects of this discussion is Public Places, Urban Spaces by Matthew Carmona and others. It's a bit too deterministic for me, as it is intended as a textbook for urban planners and thus implies that actually creating good urban design intentionally today is something that's easy to do (which I don't believe), it covers the area and is clearly written and laid out. It will help demolish the towers-in-a-park notion, that's for sure.

Posted by Fnarf | March 27, 2008 6:44 PM

To continue #71's point, saying "the percentage of homeless and mentally ill is not WORSE than Seattle has" is saying nothing at all. All those high-rises and they've managed to equal Seattle in terms of homeless and mentally ill people. Congratulations.

Posted by joykiller | March 27, 2008 6:50 PM

When they finally build a 100 story residential tower, I've got an idea for a name: Tower of Babel. Whatcha think?

Posted by Gomez | March 27, 2008 6:53 PM

Please note that I am not attacking Vancouver, a city I know and love. I am attacking an idea, and a particular person who clings to that idea for reasons that even he is unaware of.

Note also that Vancouver does not, in fact, resemble Will's vision. I note also that Will in Seattle lives in...wait for it...a low-rise building.

Posted by Fnarf | March 27, 2008 6:56 PM

Fnarf, please stop typing and come home. I think you've pretty much exhausted the subject here.

Posted by Mrs. Fnarf | March 27, 2008 7:00 PM

I hate to do it, but I have to agree with Will in Seattle's general point. Tall residential buildings (let's forget about 100 stories) work very well, even if they're in the middle of greenspace or in the middle of nowhere. They work much better with mass transit than any alternatives. Mass transit just doesn't work well with sprawling stout buildings.

When I visited Korea I was shocked at all of the tall residential buildings in the middle of nowhere. I saw 20-something story residential buildings literally next door to rice paddies. Yet, Seoul has the 4th busiest mass transit system in the world and well over half the population uses it on a daily basis. The Seoul subway has about as many riders as the NYC subway yet Seoul has about half the number of stations.

Take a look at a map and scroll around to get the idea:,+south+korea&ie=UTF8&ll=37.462162,126.925349&spn=0.005842,0.009946&t=h&z=17

Despite all of that empty space, Seoul is about is about 7x denser than Seattle and almost twice as dense as New York City. And notice the lack of strip malls and Wal-Marts.

Posted by poppy | March 27, 2008 7:04 PM

Although my sympathies lie strongly with Fnarf and his sources in this argument, as a former resident of North Philadelphia I feel compelled to point out that while "small, relatively short buildings, built together like row houses, with private stoops" may be a necessary component of "defensible" public spaces, they are very very far from sufficient.

Adherents of various schools of urban planning have a distressing tendency to argue as if architecture is the only or at least overbearingly deterministic factor in the fate of a city, but it just ain't so: take away the jobs, defund the schools, allow the local entrepreneurial class to flee and no amount of clever zoning tricks will ever save a city. North Philadelphia, West Baltimore and large chunks of DC still have what is from Jane Jacobs' perspective is an near-ideal mix of housing stock, but you wouldn't want to live in any of those places. Chicago and New York stuffed most of their underclass into exactly the kind of vertical storage units that WiC is so enamored with, and sociologists are still writing books about what a disaster it was. Economics first, zoning second.

Posted by Doctor Memory | March 27, 2008 7:26 PM

Excellent point, Doctor Memory. That's part of what I was getting at in comment 72. I think the disastrous consequences of some WRONG choices is extremely well understood, but that's far from the same thing as saying that we thus know exactly what the RIGHT choices are, and that implementing top-drawer urban planning ideas will automatically create livable neighborhoods. That way lies the dead end of "New Urbanism".

Posted by Fnarf | March 27, 2008 7:38 PM

#56 vancouver should just build mass transit from Hong Kong to their city. Their really is not much other than a service economy in vancouver. Servicing the immigrants from China who get citizenship by making a large deposits into a Canadian bank. Vancouver is a dillusion. There is a park near Gastown where all the addicts (read non immigrant Canadians) hang out.

Posted by jomama | March 27, 2008 7:48 PM

Here's another one, a New Urbanist classic that, typically, falls down a little when it gets to the "prescription" part, but is unmatched at tearing apart Le Corbusier's model: Suburban Nation by Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk (two of the leading lights of New Urbanism).

Posted by Fnarf | March 27, 2008 8:11 PM

Really, I should have said that my sympathies aren't so much with Fnarf as with The Facts. Luckily for Fnarf, he seems to know them.

And as a postscript, let me second, third and fourth his recommendation of "The Power Broker" by Robert Caro. Not just one of the best books on the subject of urban policy ever written, but simply one of the best books written ever.

Posted by Doctor Memory | March 27, 2008 8:23 PM

Doctor Memory @ 78 says:

North Philadelphia, West Baltimore and large chunks of DC still have what is from Jane Jacobs' perspective is an near-ideal mix of housing stock, but you wouldn't want to live in any of those places.

Whereas I was born and raised in one of those Philadelphia row houses, I can tell you for a fact that *I* wouldn't want to live in one of them again, but a lot of people do.

According to the census, Philadelphia has a higher percentage of home ownership -- 73.6 percent -- than any city in the U.S. with more than 1 million population, by a whopping margin.

Many of those row homes are occupied by third and fourth generations of the same family. To me it is the hell-hole of creation, and I don't even visit anymore. But people are hanging on there at a higher rate than any other large city.

Posted by ivan | March 27, 2008 8:35 PM

Ivan-- I was somewhat carelessly using north philly as an example, but you're quite correct: there are many parts of Philadelphia where the row-house neighborhoods are attractive housing to a lot of people. And heck, even in the worst parts of north philly, it's still better than high-rise housing projects.

Posted by Doctor Memory | March 27, 2008 8:40 PM

Since this post started with a reference to the Atlantic Yards, here's an update from Sunday's NY Times -- doesn't look good for the developers.

Posted by Dod | March 27, 2008 8:53 PM

Fnarf @81

With your recommendations of Duany and Plater-Zyberg I don't understand why you blasted New Urbanism when I brought it up back on the 4th:

Posted by NaFun | March 27, 2008 10:56 PM

NaFun, as I explained then and above I think the New Urbanists are good at diagnosing the disease but terrible at prescribing a cure.

Posted by Fnarf | March 27, 2008 11:55 PM

I'm hoping for Mrs. Fnarf's sake (and maybe yours?), that you returned home.

Big ditto on the books by Gans, Whyte and Caro. They're great.

Posted by gnossos | March 28, 2008 12:17 AM

"Fnarf, thankfully, has rebuked the notion again and again."

Can you rebuke a notion?

Posted by yuiop | March 28, 2008 1:47 AM

Well, yes you can; but I think you're right in this case, and the word sought for was "refute".

Posted by Fnarf | March 28, 2008 2:10 AM

1. Holden, Fnarf and many others are dead-on correct except I am puzzled why Fnarf calls New Urbanism a "dead end."

2. This a fascinating discussion and I am impressed with the intense and (generally) sophisticated interest there is in cities. So it puzzles me that with such voters (you do all vote) Seattle has such poor planning.

Posted by Davd Sucher | March 28, 2008 8:09 AM

"Real urban planner" here.

Le Corbusier was a megalomaniac and an ass.

Towers in the park are a recipe for social disaster.

I can definitely second the recommendation of Whyte's "City" as reading material.

Posted by k | March 28, 2008 8:12 AM

Thanks for all the recommendations. I actually read the first 250 pages of Power Broker in the Koolhaas library in Seattle, while on vacation. Fantastic book. I also recommend Making the Second Ghetto, about public housing and segregation in Chicago.

Posted by minderbender | March 28, 2008 9:05 AM

A David Sucher sighting!

The reason planning goes so badly is that the planning is done by older people entrenched in older ways. It's the same dilemma as a baseball team that has a young, great player but won't play him because they promised an older veteran player a lineup spot. For all the Steinbruecks of the world, there are a lot of affluent well-to-doers in power who still drive everywhere and find urban environments nothing more than a quaint local novelty.

Posted by Gomez | March 28, 2008 9:11 AM

This was amazing. Could we start a new feud between WiS and Fnarf please?

Posted by Looptid | March 28, 2008 9:55 AM

Sweet... just requested The Power Broker from SPL. First on the list yeeeahhh!

Posted by leek | March 28, 2008 10:01 AM

David, I call New Urbanism a dead end because of it's utterly abysmal record of achievement on the ground. Look at Northwest Landing, south of Tacoma -- a Peter Calthorpe production. He's given all the New Urbanist ideas free rein, and come up with another car suburb, albeit with some quaint retro design flourishes but nothing of real value or difference.

There are dozens of other examples. I don't think there are ANY counterexamples.

I think the reason for this is two-fold: one, economic forces beyond the planner's control basically demand sprawl in new development; and two, good places cannot be designed, they must occur on their own organically.

No, Gomez, it has nothing whatever to do with old people versus young people. Baseball is a game, not a metaphor.

Basically, I don't believe in free will. I think people choose where they want to live because of economic forces -- not just "the economy" but the shape and texture of that economy. Urban planners only understand about a tenth as much as they think they understand, and the gap between their work and the unplanned environments they are emulating shows it, and probably always will show it.

In short, I don't think it's possible to build a car-free community with cars or a car-based economy.

New Urbanists are good at accomplishing the sorts of things that unaided gentrification has traditionally accomplished by itself, in places that were already laid out and "designed", in a sense, by the fast-buck developers of last century, or earlier. But they're hopeless at creating those spaces from scratch. The economic conditions of, say, the 1880s, or 1840s, or 1920s, made a certain kind of street layout, street width, building type, sidewalk, stoop, alleyway, what have you, obvious and necessary, so they built them. When New Urbanists try to imitate that process, they always get it wrong; it's like a monkey trying to build a watch, if that's not too insulting. The parameters are too difficult to understand, certainly to reproduce; they include things like "how far away are the jobs of most of the people on this street located?" and "do people have refrigerators?"

It's much more likely -- not LIKELY, mind you, but MORE likely -- to just build out the transit stops and cross your fingers and hope that development will figure out how to use them, I think.

Posted by Fnarf | March 28, 2008 10:12 AM

I know this is awfully thin gruel, and mixed evidence at best, but what about this?

Posted by minderbender | March 28, 2008 10:27 AM

Games, Fnarf, are a product of humans, and their behavior patterns. Anything can illustrate the behavior pattern of humans at work.

Posted by Gomez | March 28, 2008 10:39 AM

... provided humans are making a serious effort at it. Stupid shell-game sociological experiments, like with coins and such, aren't good illustrations because it's not something the subjects take at all seriously.

Posted by Gomez | March 28, 2008 10:42 AM

Beautiful example of what I'm talking about, Minderbender. Seaside is a fake. Nobody lives there; it's second homes. And those famously "walkable" streets are empty of people; only golf carts and expensive cars are in evidence. The houses are fabulously expensive, and occupied solely by the super-rich. The town center is a "visual mess". The whole thing is an exercise in bogus nostalgia, a living Lands End catalog. To quote the article, "it speaks of summer holidays of days gone by—perhaps not the holidays you actually had at Virginia Beach or on the Jersey shore, but the ones you wish you'd had."

And what it has spawned is just more of the same strip-mall sprawl, albeit with cute little cupolas. Look at any mall in America today to see, in their new extensions, what New Urbanism has achieved. The last picture, of Books-a-Million, says all that needs to be said about the effect of these dreamy little New Urbanist lectures in the face of the real America.

Another counterstory I left off my book list is Joel Garreau's Edge City, which describes how economics is always going to bulldoze this kind of well-intentioned effort.

Posted by Fnarf | March 28, 2008 11:04 AM

FNARF - your posts on the failure of New Urbanism should be required reading for every budding urban planner (not to mention under-informed Stranger writer).

If wishes were ponies we'd all ride....


Posted by Mr. X | March 28, 2008 12:08 PM

Thanks, Mr. X -- though I have to say I think The Stranger writers on this topic are pretty good overall; witness this post.

Posted by Fnarf | March 28, 2008 12:12 PM

Thanks Fnarf, this discussion has been very illuminating. I feel as though it should continue elsewhere, perhaps on your blog? These concepts are the kind of thing people should have a basic grasp of when they discuss light rail, zoning, etc.

Posted by minderbender | March 28, 2008 12:12 PM

@71 - sorry, the statistics don't back you up. You notice them because they're concentrated in one area, but on an absolute scale, both Vancouver and Seattle (and Portland, it's a port city thing) have always had junkies. Each city has a cycle, usually related to the local, regional, and global economies, but that's why you get such clusters.

@75 - today, sure, but I have lived in fairly tall buildings before. Just because I can afford to live in a three-story townhouse doesn't mean I think we should continue to build/zone such as city policy.

In the end, the reality is that we've already rezoned our downtown to higher levels, Bellevue will probably go more along the lines of what I've been describing (but sadly building it for the ultra-rich to upper-middle-class), and Seattle will increasingly price it's majority single family housing residential zones out of reach of even the standard middle class salary range.

Unless we change.

You can stay stuck in old thinking like Fnarf (and, yes, I regard your thinking as old, more like 90s), or you can adapt to the actual situations we're facing: Seattle's population base will increase dramatically (look at pop projections by the State and County) and if we maintain our current low-rise zoning structures we will price people out of Seattle, other than the rich and ultra-rich and their hangers-on (artists living at reduced rents above their sponsors workplace, that kind of thing).

Posted by Will in Seattle | March 28, 2008 12:19 PM

The world has left you behind, Will. We're already building the kind of housing we need -- the much-reviled "ugly" condo and townhouse developments that are going up around town. Actually, they're not hugely different than the similar (except superficially) buildings that have been infilling the city since the late 1970s. There are a TON of these around town; you should know, you live in one of them.

These buildings can provide extremely high densities without giving up much of the comforts of single-family living. The densest cities in North America got that way through these kinds of buildings -- Cambridge with its triple-deckers, for instance.

Not to mention that you're drastically changing the subject.

Or that huge areas of Vancouver -- like Seattle -- are single-family houses on strikingly similar lots.

Or the fact that your idea is thirty-five years further out of date than you claim mine is.

Or the credibility issue, where the one book you (incorrectly) cite is in fact the strongest argument AGAINST your idea on record.

You appear to need to pretend that you're the only one thinking about these things, and that you've got the snappy answer, but I think this desire more important than facts to you. Hence the way you shift away from any part of your argument that comes under scrutiny. You've repeatedly tried to deflect criticism of your argument by painting opponents -- me -- as SUV-loving suburbanites who love sprawl and hate the environment. That actually does more damage to the debate than my nasty personal attacks. Because LOTS of people are thinking about these problems; thinking about them a lot more clearly than you are, and regurgitating misunderstood platitudes less. Seriously, Will: read some books. You owe it to Seattle, and Vancouver for that matter, to understand them better than you do.

Posted by Fnarf | March 28, 2008 1:09 PM

One thing I would say about Dominic's original post is that it implies that "towers in the park" fail because of forced density. Density is not the problem. The problems as I understand them (and I've pretty much only read Jane Jacobs so my knowledge is limited) is that such towers are:

1. Single-use (residential), so there's no reason for anyone to go near them unless they live there.
2. High capital costs that either can't be met while retaining affordable housing in the neighborhood (and you get slums) or by aiming them only at the very affluent, which drives away long-term residents who aren't in that demographic. Successful development comes gradually so that a neighborhood has a mix of building types and uses and the capital costs can be gradually recouped.
3. Isolated from the surrounding area, often by useless parks or parking lots. They create a social dead space in the city.
4. Built for drivers and not pedestrians.

Good neighborhoods have mixed uses, density, frequent streets with good sidewalks, and a mix of newer and older housing. The goal is diversity of uses, including a diversity of incomes. That said, there's no formula for achieving any of this, and a lot of mixed-use condo developments make the mistake of being mixed-use projects rather than contributing to mixed-use neighborhoods. That, and when you get a bunch of them at once you have the single-age high-capital cost problem that drives out long-term residents of modest means.

Low-income requirements for such projects often increase overcrowding, but overcrowding is not the same as density. Overcrowding is number of people per unit. Density is number of units per acre. Overcrowding is bad. Density is good (all things being equal).

As for Will vs. Fnarf, I think Will means well but refuses to learn the facts. That is intensely annoying to read even when he occasionally stumbles into the right position despite his lack of knowledge. Fnarf is usually right because he's bothered to take the time to learn what he's talking about. I think he's too hard on New Urbanism, but right that solutions are harder to come up with than identifying the problem. I thank him and others on this site for getting me to finally read up on this issue a bit.

Posted by Cascadian | March 28, 2008 1:38 PM


I don't know FNARF, even Dominic (who I will agree is far more on the ball with regard to land use than the typical kool-aid drinking Stranger writer) has said on more than one occasion that X new jumbo building is preventing some other building from being built out in the hinterlands. As you know, building em here has no effect on what they're building out there (and in the case of high rise commercial construction, actually does a lot to drive sprawl among new employees/recruits who wouldn't live in SLU, downtown, or even the City limits on a bet).

Posted by Mr. X | March 28, 2008 1:40 PM

@107, I should have been more clear. Density is not a problem on its own, even in public housing. Problems arise when that density is imposed in isolation from the rest of the city. Residents, as Jane Jacobs points out, are forced to choose between sharing all or nothing with neighbors. They choose nothing. In other words, reasons 4 and 1 you cited.

Posted by Dominic Holden | March 28, 2008 1:53 PM

@108) You may be right, Mr. X. It will be interesting to compare the progress of proposed developments on the Eastside to condos downtown. I suspect that they won't all be built, especially not in this economy. But if the most of the ranch home projects cease while condos get built, that could indicate urban density can replace sprawl. Or the opposite could happen...

Posted by Dominic Holden | March 28, 2008 2:03 PM

Good point, Dominic.

Posted by Will in Seattle | March 28, 2008 2:06 PM

I still don't understand any problem with this Hudson Yards project. 3,000 new residential units, 10% of them "permanently affordable," with a ton of retail, green space, and even a new public school? It's 2-5 blocks from four different subway stations -- definitely not isolated. How could anyone have a problem with this? The only problem I could make out from the NYT author is "it's gonna block my view!"

Posted by poppy | March 28, 2008 2:14 PM

This is a totally subjective, unresearched, personal opinion but... I just think higher than 4 stories is rather intimidating. For those who have lived/traveled/seen pictures of Europe, do you ever notice how sweet even the big cities like Paris, Berlin, etc feel? Sort of homely and neighborhood-ly even though they are totally densely packed housing in the middle of a big city. I've always sort of felt it was because they almost never build higher than 4 stories. Something about going beyond that number leaves the buldings feeling quite oversized and gives a more pervasive sense of animosity. Just my 2 cents.

Posted by mintygreen | March 28, 2008 3:09 PM

@113 - a lot of that has to do with the street level feel of the ground entrances and the design of the first few floors - you don't really notice much past the fourth floor, whether you're in London, Paris, or NYC, IMHO.

Posted by Will in Seattle | March 28, 2008 4:09 PM

It mostly has to do with the horizontal scale. The biggest problem with the monster buildings that are going up now -- not the towers in the park, which even Will in 114 appears to have abandoned -- is that they are megablocks. The charming parts of older cities break up their blocks into unrelated chunks, only one or maybe two storefronts wide. Those storefronts are also really narrow, and really deep, which makes for much more interest on the street, and a density of attractions, which is essential to making a street work. It's not about the height alone, that's for sure.

Tall buildings that address the street properly (i.e., the opposite of Columbia Center downtown) are not a problem. I addressed this back in post 41.

One other serious problem with a lot of the new mixed-use development in Seattle is that the retail street level is something of a con; the spaces are shallow strips, and the ground floor is mostly parking behind them. These spaces are not usable for most interesting retail purposes. I would like to see the design board mandate that in order to qualify as mixed use AT LEAST 90% of the ground floor should be retail, and that it be broken up into shopfronts of no more than, say, 40 feet in width.

Posted by Fnarf | March 28, 2008 10:58 PM

Mintgreen is absolutely correct about one thing, that's for sure: buildings communicate with the people who use them, and much modernist building of the super-tall variety communicates intimidation, control, and contempt. Buildings like Columbia Center say "fuck you" to the people in the street (as opposed to the people who drive into the parking garage). Those big blank walls are the most profound evil in our cities, even worse than Will's towers. Compare a building like the Empire State, which is not lacking in height, but is quite friendly at ground level.

Posted by Fnarf | March 28, 2008 11:03 PM

Yea, Fnarf, that seems logical as well. I never could exactly put my finger on it, but I think the narrow storefronts do make an enormous difference in terms of attractiveness and walkability.

Posted by mintygreen | March 29, 2008 3:28 AM

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