The issue I have with real estate developers these days is the fact that a number of them don’t see real estate as a “multiplier” (in other words, something that influences a bigger picture). For some, it’s a businessman’s game, where politics and money sort of run the show– to the point where properties are nothing more than a “meaningful” investment of which a return is to be reaped. And that’s it: if rent and revenue can exceed capital, contracts, and taxes, then the development is a fiscal winner. On the other end, many of these businessmen aren’t terribly concerned with land use on the micro and macro scale. A number of industrial and suburban tract developers have failed to realize the detrimental potency of their impacts. To them, it’s nothing more than meeting codes and zoning, mitigating impacts, and just being superficially accommodating to the public. It’s a necessity, or a hassle, for them to have to show for a bit of humanity by flashing a smile through the bureaucratic layers between concerned citizens and city planners.
‘Land use’ is pretty much a term that’s been dropped out of the corporatist developer’s handbook. I think the humanism that really evolved with architects like Alvar Aalto hasn’t just been overlooked, but essentially forgotten. What does it mean to make a property really “meaningful?” To be able to accommodate patrons and inhabitants is almost a qualifying prerequisite to conceiving any structure, but the real test is the relationship the property has with not just the neighborhood, but the precinct, the city, the region, and all its residents. On a multitude of levels do we begin to understand how real estate establishes land use not just in environment and planning, but in form, functionalism, humanism, and more. In this age, we’ve allowed the markets to drain the life and soul out of the very vessels we build to live, work, and shop in.
More below the jump.
So what is this life and soul? Pretty architecture? Green space to appease the politically correct masses? Ultimately, I realize that it’s where we start to separate form from function that our troubles really begin. There is a mutual dependency between both where one cannot succeed without the other. You see, a building can do something, but it might not be something. I once asked a planner from the Seattle DPD on how much emphasis the agency put on form-based zoning. The answer was none, much to my surprise. You can blow open the cap on zoning restrictions. You can stuff as many people as you want into urban villages. You can build towering skyscrapers far into the sky. All these things with a great transit system to boot. But even that won’t matter if land use isn’t understood as a pluralistic discipline.
Land use goes far beyond zoning. It’s more than codes, ordinances, numbers, plans, renderings, and drawings. It’s very literal in that we are figuring out how to best use land so that amidst all the ancillary goals of reducing carbon output, increasing density, facilitating mobility, etc. that we really are making communities livable. Real estate has always been an important companion to that. For it to become to remain focused on just being an operational business is a shame that we may regret far into the future.
It’s a constant disappointment that transit advocates have found such fierce opponents, let alone allies, in the real estate industry. The idea of a shared goal between all parties seems convincingly simple, yet so hard in practice when politics and money confound it all. It’s true that almost any enterprise has succumbed to some aspect of political corporatism, but to allow it to saturate our quality of life has been frustrating to say the least. With transit taking the larger role of shepherding growth and development, we need developers willing to understand mobility on all levels. How tenants move throughout these spaces is just as important as how they get get to work.
It’s important to remember that both municipal planning agencies and developers all shoulder a burden of responsibility, some of which overlays to form what has, over time, turned into a grey area. Where there is this overlay, a great deal of discretion exists on the basis that developers can shape land use as much as they do buildings. It’s discouraging when this discretion is ignored. If there is no motivation to apply form to function, vice versa, and everything in between, then real estate has failed to compliment land use.
My one hope for American cities has long been tarnished by the fact that we’ve embraced a culture formed on markets built solely upon monetary output, not quality of life. The demand for money (and ultimately prosperity) is there, and the markets have in turn, adequately supplied. But we’ve been challenged by an oversupply of impactful anomalies that have undercut our vision of livable communities– smog-choked freeways, endless strip malls, and congestion. Was the demand there ever that strong to begin with? I’m not advocating for having the real estate industry regulated or restricted (which is already done on several levels of government) more than it already is, but to simply encourage the industry as a whole to establish shared goals: livable communities, aesthetically accommodating environments, ecologically conscious developments, availability of non-SOV transportation modes, and much more. If there is demand there, then developers should be compelled to respond.