The photo above is one of the most polarizing images in America today. Be honest, what was your first reaction? This multi-family housing development style, variously labeled five-over-one, LoMo (low modern), SketchUp contemporary, fast-casual architecture, or, more pejoratively, the gentrification building. These buildings have exploded in popularity over the past decade, due in part to a 2009 revision to US building code which allowed up to five stories of wood-framed construction. Like any new trend that soars in popularity, the style is facing a reflexive backlash. Ignore the haters. Here’s why buildings like that award-winning multi-family development in Jacksonville’s Brooklyn neighborhood pictured above are good, actually.
“The exteriors [are] poorly built and subject to quick decay… products of the mechanical age… dehumanizing… monotonous… when one has seen one house he has seen them all…“ These are critiques by 19th century Brooklynites of brownstone rows, as recounted by Suleiman Osman in his sweeping history of the now-iconic American urban style. Osman continues, “Brownstones were an architectural trompe l’oeil designed to give a faux sense of historic grandeur. … While they would later be viewed as authentic, contemporaries dismissed brownstones as modern and artificial.” A reminder that the capacity to be a hater is fundamental to the human condition, no matter how often haterism is proven wrong.
But do these buildings really look all the same? What created that uniformity and why is there so little room for deviation from it? As with any design, it’s a matter of constraints. The first constraint on any new development is code—where these multi-family buildings can be built. In most US cities, the answer is ‘a limited number of special zones but not in any of these massive tracts set aside for single-family housing.’ This exacerbates the backlash, since it effectively results in multiple similar-looking developments going up next to or near each other. The second constraint is cost. This design is cost-effective and can go up fast. Given the nationwide crisis in affordable housing, we should take a moment to celebrate the efficiency with which five-over-ones can add housing stock to a community.
“Aha! These only add expensive new units! How is that going to help make my rent more affordable? Thanks a lot for rolling out the red carpet for gentrifying yuppies with 200 new condo units and a Le Pain Quotidien.” This summarizes the logic behind the pejorative Gentrification building. It is also backwards. People want to move to desirable neighborhoods. When they move, they occupy a unit of housing. The more people that want to move, the more expensive a given supply of housing will become (see: current US housing market). Let’s say a particular neighborhood is desirable enough to attract 400 new residents. In that neighborhood is a tract with 10 townhouses on it that can be developed into 200 luxury multi-family units. Which would have a greater impact on housing costs in the surrounding area as these 400 people move in? Leaving things exactly as they are, though nice, proves to be much more costly in this scenario as newcomers compete with existing residents for scarce vacant units. This is exactly what the data shows us too, in a sweeping new research paper laying out the exact mechanics of how new luxury units help stabilize rents for low-income residents in urban environments.
Gentrification may be coming for your neighborhood, but not on account of that new five-over-one going up. In fact, the less a neighborhood builds, the faster and sharper it arrives. That new boxy mid-rise development going up isn’t here to ruin your neighborhood, it might be your last chance to save it.
Credit: Tony Fruit Office / TAA DESIGN
See? it's a good form you're just being a hater.
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