Better Blocking the Harvard School of Design


 

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That’s me, Andrew Howard, co-founder of the Better Block with the 2015 class of Loeb Fellows at the Graduate School of Design. Now half way complete with the year long program, my thoughts have already changed about what can be done to make American Cities more liveable. When I first started the program, which brings planners, architects, landscape architects and all sorts of do gooders out of practice and into academia, I thought most of my days would be spent arguing with Harvard (STAR)architects about good building form.

rem-koolhaas-cctvThere have been some days that I wanted to run out of a class because the dialogue had turned to modern architecture as the standard design method for all buildings. I regress, what I have found is that architecture and architects are not the problem.

My first realization was that the problem with architecture and city building today is that we don’t have enough developers. The majority of new development in America is done by multinational conglomerates that build projects using a master developer approach. Meaning they get huge loans for hundreds of millions of dollars, receive public incentives of equal amount and build projects on a short time frame all at once. Which makes for a great ribbon cutting, but a lousy community. So architects are forced to come up with designs and programs for clients that are most of the time only focused on return on investment (ROI) and completion dates. See the Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg below.

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This instant gratification city planning and development is directly counter to the way we built some of the most beloved places in the world. Like the High Streets in London that have multiple owners, built over a number of years. The character and life that is found on these streets have yet to be duplicated in any master planned project I have seen.

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There has been much debate and trials of changing zoning in American cities to try and require developers to build small, walkable places. New Urbanist plans, form based codes, performance based zoning and even no zoning have been touted as the way to rebuild our fragmented cities. Many have resulted in places that got the form correct, but something seems to be missing. I call it the  “Truman Show” effect. A little to plastic. Maybe perfection is boring!

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The question I have now come to is not how to change architecture or zoning, but how to change who is building the city. For most Americans it is easier to invest in a company in a far away country or on the stock exchange than in the coffee shop across the street. In fact, the Security and Exchange Commission says that if you are not an accredited investors with a net worth of $1 million and income of at least $200,000 per year you can’t openly solicit for investment in Real Estate. So most of America is being built and is owned by less than 3% of it’s population. Increasingly the capital is also coming from outside the US.

A combination of changes to laws and practices are beginning to disrupt the status quo Real Estate practices in the US. First, the Wall Street Journal reports that equity crowdfunding holds the greatest potential for opening Real Estate investment up to everybody. The Federal Securities and Exchange Commission is yet to write the new rules, but when it does we could see the greatest transfer of wealth in America. People will be able to move their investment from low yield stocks and bonds into higher yield Real Estate investments, making the American Dream closer to reality for everyone. Political pressure from the US House and Senate on bureaucrats to write the rules is well overdue and is restricting the progress of the JOBS Act and the full recovery of the economy post Great Recession…not to mention local funding would be the catalyst for great small developments and a platform for community building.

Second, Lean Urbanism is tackling the red tape of local government building and zoning controls that have contributed to the extinction of the small developer. In most cities it is easier to build a 40,000 sqft Wal-Mart than a single story streetfront 5,000 sqft commercial space. We have basically built a set of rules that benefits corporate big box and big lot development over small. Lean urbanism is set to  dissect codes and bureaucratic process down to the bare bones to allow for innovation and small developers to take hold. Coined Pink Zones, think less red tape, these enterprise zones in cities will allow for small developers to seed themselves and grow.

Still the question arises, who will build the cities of the future? We can clear the financial hurdles, sweep away the zoning, but who is going to do it? On-line platforms that marry facebook with investing promise to match investors with developers, but that still requires small developers.

We know more people are becoming interested in the state of the city and are no longer satisfied with being users of place, they want to be owners and builders. To date we estimate over 5,000 people have undertaken the organizing of a Better Block and over 300,000 have attended a version of one. We have been successful in making city planning cool again! Better block is speed dating for future investors, developers and business proprietors to meet and test ideas out in real time.  From those projects people have gained the courage and first hand skills to start businesses, run for planning commission, show up to support a zoning changes and some really want to be developers.

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Working with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Project for Lean Urbanism and the National Association of Realtors we will create a Developer in a Box set of tools for individuals and groups that are seeking to try their hand at development. Imagine if lessons learned could be passed down and if technology could fill the gap in small developers skill set. Apps for pro forma, ROI, maintenance, operations and taxes could be created to give a leg up to small timers.

This work will culminate in 2015, during my second semester at Harvard, when I will produce my findings in the Harvard Real Estate Journal, host a forum at Harvard with leading finance professionals and test our ideas in several cities across the US. The result will be a playbook for the next generation of city builders in the United States. A developer in a box platform that will radically change how cities are built one block at a time. Its going to be a great year!

 

 

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