No Babel Tower For Me: Upzoning and the Manhattan Problem
by New Dealer
Andrew Sullivan has had a very horrible and no good time for the past year and finally reached his breaking point. He is leaving New York and returning to Washington D.C. Andrew Sullivan’s complaints seemed typical of the “I love New York but wouldn’t want to live there” genre. He hated the tininess of his apartment, the noise, the constant buzzing and excitement, always being near people, the constant drain that New York does to the human body and spirit, etc. His readership has been sending him messages of consolation and advice. He should have moved to Brooklyn. One sent a long monologue from Patton Oswalt with the money quote: “New York is a great place to visit, don’t get me wrong. But if you live there full-time, it turns your skull into a cage, your brain into a rat, and the city is just a stick poking the rat all day.”
Part of this pains me but I am a New York partisan. I have been living in San Francisco for the past five years but I can still miss New York with a fierce energy. I miss it when friends post pictures on facebook of their Brooklyn streets in autumn, I miss being able to step into a bodega at any time and get something to eat or a magazine. I miss all the theatre and art exhibits and museums. I miss not having to wait months for indie or foreign movies. I miss the Strand. I miss 24 hour dinners and public transportation.
But after 5 years in San Francisco, I will acknowledge that Sullivan and New York Critics are right about the city being a really difficult place to live and often draining physically or emotionally. Even low-to-the ground and more-residential Brooklyn can be more demanding on the body than San Francisco. I live in a very central neighborhood in SF that gets a lot of foot traffic to and from bars and from tourists because it is part of a neat little walking tour from Alamo Square to Golden Gate Park or the Haight. It is still a lot more quiet and peaceful than my neighborhood in Brooklyn. I’m actually known by name at my local coffee shop by both the staff and other customers.
All of this is a long-introduction to upzoning. This topic comes up whenever we discuss housing and policy or anyone talks about the reasons for skyrocketing rents in America’s major cities or the environmental hazards of sprawl. One of the most common solutions for all of this is upzoning and building more and more tall apartment buildings. Matt Y is a huge champion of upzoning. The typical criticism of upzoners is that their opponents are simply NIMBYers who want to keep their great views or quaint neighborhood charm at the expense of everyone else.
There are times when this is true. San Francisco’s election day in 2013 featured two propositions about upzoning which were basically a fight between millionaires and people who want to build condos for other millionaires. Props B and C for people who want specifics.
However, I am not sure if NIMBYism is always true. Whenever Matt Y writes about the need for upzoning, there are always comments along the lines of “If I wanted to live in New York/Hong Kong/Tokyo/etc, I would move there.”
The New York is a great place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there thought pattern seems to be a common one and part of the issue does seem to be the feeling that New Yorkers are packed into tiny apartments in very tall buildings with a lot of noise and not a lot of privacy. New York Magazine does a weekly interview with a famous or famous-ish New Yorker and one the questions asked is “Where do you go to be alone?”
I do think upzoning needs to happen and I am not opposed to it but I am somewhat partial to apartment living. The right sized apartment can seem more charming and cozy to me than a big suburban house. Impossible to find but I would consider raising a family in a city if I were able to find a good-sized apartment. I would not consider raising a family in a two bedroom and 500 square foot apartment though. However, this does seem to be a big issue for the upzoners and simple cries of NIMBY NIMBY NIMBY are not going to make it go away. A lot of people are very resistant to the idea of living in a Manhattan style apartment building and these people are not necessarily dwellers of big suburban McMansions. For every person that thinks a microapartment is the price you pay to live in SF, there are probably more that say no thanks and move somewhere else.
My questions for the community is what is to be done about this split tendency. Do people have to get used to the idea of microapartments and upzoning or are there certain height and density levels that people are not meant to handle? Are the issues that make New York unbearable for most people unrelated to the size of the apartments and living on the 39th floor? If yes, what are those issues and why do Sullivan’s readers think Brooklyn in more inhabitable than Manhattan?