Monday, October 26

The Divided Apartment Problem - Some Attention from Above

In February, I wrote about the damage that subdivided apartments do to the urban fabric. I advocate directing the tax authorities to deal with the phenomenon, taking the task away from overburdened municipalities wielding the week reed of the Planning and Building Statute. In this article (subscription needed), Globes describes similar steps taken by the income tax authorities. While the emphasis seems to be on unreported rent being collected on legal apartments, this could, with proper direction, begin to solve the wider problems that cause peripheral neighborhoods to deteriorate.

Monday, July 6

What Are We Wasting Today?

In competitive spheres, sometimes the best way to get an edge is by wasting profligate amounts of a resource. This behavior, once reserved for the life-or-death struggle of war, is now fully domesticated in the business world. And does it affect our cities and their planning? Hold on to your hats, we've got examples.

First the warfare model:

The Strategic Defense Initiative. This vast boondoggle was conceived near the end of the Cold War, and is considered by some to be the move that ended it. As outlined to the public and to the Russians, the United States set out to outspend the USSR in developing technology that would build a protective shield around the country. What are we wasting? Money! Can we waste more, and faster than the Russians? Yes! Will the other side bankrupt themselves or expose deeper weaknesses trying to keep up? Well, you could say it worked.

This example is just the most recent and familiar of this strategy in war. Other examples include Iranian junior suicide troops in the Iran-Iraq war, reserve industrial capacity in WWII, and so on back to battles in which reserves of animal power are decisive. The key factor becomes the ability to waste, and the clearly signaled intention to waste more and more.

In business, this strategy is used at the top end of the scale of corporate volume, to grab or maintain dominance in a market. Was Netscape a problem for Microsoft in the late 1990's? Microsoft had plenty of programmer hours to waste, and forced the margin cost of a browser down past zero where it remains to this day. Google today maintains much of its competitive advantage by outspending all comers on servers, RAM, processing power, and bandwidth, effectively closing off all but the largest competitors.

What are the parallels in city planning? Part 2 of "What Are We Wasting Today" will try to answer

Saturday, June 13

Preserving Herzl Street

Can urban renewal work? For Americans of the late twentieth century, there are few words more discredited than "urban renewal". This phrase, once innocent and hopeful, was battered to death by years of generously funded, well-intentioned government programs. The mistakes and unfortunate guesses inherent in the plan were discovered and made public only after years of implementation, first by the clarion voice of Jane Jacobs, and eventually by wide consensus. It is safe to say that many years will pass before planners in the U.S. will again dare to present plans that raze city blocks and streets in order to replace them with evenly spaced residential towers.

Strangely, this unfortunate history did not stop Israel's Housing Ministry from naming their flagship urban densification program "Urban Renewal" or in Hebrew, התחדשות עירונית.

Championed for the past 10 years by planner Sophia Aldor of the Ministry, this program seeks to renew built areas in Israel's cities by radically increasing the density of residential units on specific sites. For each apartment vacated by the current owners or tenants, 3 to 6 expanded units will be built, this time with parking, elevators, and obligatory safe rooms. When the towers are in place, the original tenants will be invited back in, and the remaining apartments will provide profit for the builders.

This process - evacuating tenants and rebuilding - gives these projects their more popular name "Pinuy-Binuy" or "Empty and Build". Seen in a larger context, these projects preserve the open green spaces beyond cities, by adding value to the "grey" space within the city and making it possible for developers to add more housing without breaking new ground.

Our office is now working on an urban renewal project in the center of Rehovot, on the corner of Binyamin and Herzl. This project is funded by the Ministry of Housing and administered by the City of Rehovot, and their engineering department. Our goal is to create useful and beautiful urban space within the confines of a technically oriented program of densification. We have the strong advantage of proximity to open spaces at the heart of the city, and the mandate to integrate some of the nearby cultural institutions of the city.

On the other hand, the prevailing design approach of the Rehovot engineering department is decidedly non-urban. A plan for isolated tower blocks would sail through the bureaucracy smoothly, while we struggle to define street walls, hierarchies, and urban spaces.

I'll be documenting our progress here as we continue to design.

Friday, May 22

Weirdest Map of Israel on the Internet

OMG, what happened to the country? Looks like someone has been punching it again.

This time, the culprit is the new and mostly gorgeous site for research mathematical and general, Wolfram Alpha. Maybe Stephen Wolfram and his team hadn't heard that we Israelis are particularly picky about maps, and that the shape of the country is not to be trifled with.  

And, to be fair, they just started.  The site went up to great fanfare last week, and, while not a Google-killer, does promise a great deal of information and some unexpected tools for analysis.  They dig deep into databases and provide graphical representations of most of the kinds of knowledge they proffer, in addition to the written facts and figures.

Still, you have to give some credit for their suggestions for the New Israel. That land reclamation project that stretches from Netanya to Haifa Bay is damned impressive.  So is the new improved curvy road through the Arava.  I always thought that Etzba HaGalil should just taper to a nice sharp point instead of wandering up towards Metulla. I am a little concerned, though, that Israel's famous wasp waist seems to have gone totally anorexic. 

Getting technical for a minute, It seems that Wolfram bought a pretty rough grid of points - maybe one every 10 km or so - to define international boundaries, and decided to complete the rest of the borders by generating spline curves. This probably works well with most countries since they are, for the most part, large and self-assured.  

But what about the tiny, fussy countries?  Waiting to hear from you, Stephen.

Sunday, May 10

Now I'm authentic

How could I be a real blogger without a post about why I haven't been posting for a while? Well I've been busy working on my first facebook application, and this morning I released it.  It has very little to do with urban planning, although some day there may be enough geographical data in my database to do studies on which cities are most prone to which moods.  In any case, if you're interested, try it out and invite your friends.

Now its time to get back to my real profession. Recently, Shimon Piltzer and I have gotten the green light to advance our town plan in the center of Rehovot.  We're working on an urban intervention there that includes housing, stores, and a new public square along Herzl Street.  Watch for developments. 

Thursday, February 5

The Divided Apartment Problem - Solutions

In the last post I gave myself a difficult assignment, and now I am bravely returning to deal with the widespread phenomenon of subdivided apartments.  This destructive practice overcrowds buildings and neighborhoods, introduces serious fire hazards, and inflates real estate prices beyond the reach of many sectors of the population. 

The lands registry will not allow sub-units to be sold and registered in a new name, but rental is common, and probably not illegal (lawyers may weigh in on this).  When Tel Aviv attacks the problem, they prosecute the building owner not for the rental itself, but for the physical changes made in the building.  The Design and Building Law prohibits all changes to buildings once they are licensed and built.  However the physical difference between a whole apartment and a subdivided one are elusive and subtle.  Do we prohibit lock-able doors within apartments?  Most apartments have 3 or more of these already!  Are we counting kitchens and bathrooms?  The most common legitimate apartment renovation adds a second bathroom and often a kitchenette.
In any case prosecution under the Design and Building law is complicated and protracted.  Judges often rule in favor of the municipality, only to give an 18-month grace period to fix the violation or license the change. Architects in Israel, embarrasingly enough, are proud experts in the evasive tactics available to them to get around their own law.  I have often been asked to design apartments and houses that are "ready" for subdivision, or include tricks to steal extra area or limit prosecution. Contractors routinely refer to "Phase One", the construction as per the building permit needed to get a Certificate of Occupancy, and "Phase Two", the planned violations carried out after the Certificate is in hand. 

In any case, it is not the physical arrangement of the subdivided flats that is the problem; it is their use, and the business arrangements surrounding their use.  I propose dealing directly with these arrangements using the authority most suited to gather information on business dealings: the tax authorities.

The income tax authority can act quickly to reclassify a particular deal and remove exemptions.  In the case of privately owned rental apartments, the tax exemption is substantial.  Are owners of subdivided apartments really entitled to this generosity on the part of the state?

Overcrowding the residential environment lowers health standards, increases the risk of catastrophic fires, and burdens the infrastructures of streets, sewers, and utilities.  The land use in these areas has been transformed from residential to more of a hotel or hostel use.  Luckily, the legal structures already exist to regulate, tax, and control these sorts of businesses for the public good.

I recommend reclassification of these properties within the regulatory structure of hotels and hostels.  Rezoning of the neighborhoods could lag by years or even decades, but the immediate benefits are apparent.  First and most importantly, the existing laws regulating hotels would insure standards of health and fire safety before lives are lost. Taxing owners as regular business operators would be a truer representation of their activity and provide tax revenue that is now lost.  A third benefit would accrue when the newly regulated and taxed hostel industry drives out the worst of the profiteers.

Thursday, January 29

Subdividing Apartments - Plague or Pestilence?

I am saddened and appalled after a walk around the south end of Tel Aviv.  My stations on this sad sojourn were the small real estate offices peppered through the older poorer neighborhoods south of Lev Tel Aviv.  A picture emerged that was by turns, hopeful, then frustrating, and, in the end, tragic and nearly intractable.  The good news is that the property values in these neighborhoods are rising.  The bad news is that this rise is fueled by subdivision of any and all legal shelter into warrens of tiny rooms for maximum rent. 

Behind any door in the areas near the old Central Bus Station, Shapira, and Neve Sha'anan, you will likely find a corridor with 3, 4, or 5 more steel doors.  Each of these new apartments, even if its only 15 square meters, will bring a market rate of 2000 to 2500 shekel per month.  

According to one real estate agent, the most common size of micro-apartment is around 18 to 20 square meters (about 160 square feet), but he also knew of smaller ones, down to about 9 square meters.  This is the size of a jail cell.

As with any tolerated illegal activity, this use of the built environment drives out all legitimate uses.  Its like growing corn when your neighbor is growing opium poppies.  Eventually, you will join him or sell the land at the inflated price.  Thus large areas of South Tel Aviv are undergoing a seemingly irreversible decline along a number of axes simultaneously.  At the same time these areas are getting more overcrowded, more rundown, and, most critically, more expensive.  

These areas are now unaffordable for their longtime demographic: families of modest means.  When families cannot move in to a neighborhood, the diversity declines and the level of services usually declines along with it.  Should we write off this whole area of town?

In my next post, I'll talk about some possible solutions.

Thursday, January 22

"Improving" Carrot Fields

Adding building rights to a lot is known as improving the lot, even if nothing besides the legal status of the lot is touched. On the books, or on the city maps, the lot is now available for building, and this has an immediate effect on the value of the land. 
If there are enough rights for a profitable building project on the lot, the land will increase in value by about the amount of the expected profits.  The owner will be assessed for this higher value, and the city will benefit from higher taxes, before the first foundations are laid. 

There are some paradoxes, though... If a city decides to "improve" all of its lots, it leaves nothing for the public sphere - parks, recreation, public buildings, even roads and paths.  Not much of an improvement.  The first goal of city planning is to set aside a percentage of the land for public use.

In new neighborhoods in Israel, 50% of the land is set aside at the beginning for public uses. This usually results in a sparse semi-urban environment with wide roads, ample parking and green space. Tel Avivians know it as Ramat Aviv.  

Older areas of the city are denser, with only 25% to 35% apportioned to public use.  These are the areas that have the most recognizable urban character.