McMansions or Apartments?

McMansions

“McMansions” are an outcome of government downzoning during periods of high housing demand.

In the past few months, as Sandy-related rebuilding continues, discussions in Staten Island’s flood-affected communities have shifted from immediate needs to more perplexing questions of how to rebuild for the long term. There remain many who are unable to return to their homes due to mold, construction, and other problems. They join those who are done with rebuilding, in asking – what happens next? How will the new flood guidelines and elevation requirements change the character of the community, and what do we have to do to comply? What follows is the often unfounded fear of “inappropriate” development.

Getting community residents to think about these issues in an organized, collaborative manner is being done through efforts like the SImagines visioning workshop series. At the first one done for the East Shore, one theme stood out – density. How do we strike the right balance between staying maximally close to the way things were before the storm and rebuilding in a more collective manner, which may actually bring in more residents?

Those who have been in the neighborhoods for a long time – some since the Verazanno-Narrows Bridge opened 50 years ago – have a clear answer: “no apartments.” When asked for clarification, they say that those are buildings with more than three stories, and presumably multiple living units with shared walls. Any rebuilding would then be small-scale, ideally avoiding new construction and focusing on raising existing homes. New residents would not be welcome, as that would increase the area’s density.

Another, more pragmatic point of view was illustrated by an architect who presented a series of drawings that show how whole blocks at a time can be rebuilt. They appear to increase density by focusing each block’s living space on a smaller area – to leave the rest to nature, which would help mitigate fewer storms. Such a project would keep overall community density constant.

In any rebuilding scenario, is keeping density fixed a realistic alternative? New York City is growing, and demand for housing remains sky-high. Many areas, downzoned 8-10 years ago under initiatives to keep development out of areas unsuitable for it due to poor infrastructure,  have not escaped the fundamental problem of high demand (or, in fact, exacerbated it). Basically, an apartment building not built means that several “McMansions” were built – often on land unsuitable for any building at all.

To further explain my analogy, at a fixed level of demand, real estate is like dough – roll it into a ball (high density) and it will have a small footprint. Flatten it (low density) and it will cover a larger area, causing maximally-permitted construction in every nook, cranny, wetland, and dead-end street. Low density zoning is not a solution to the real problem of housing shortage; ultimately it comes back to haunt those same people who think they are getting a larger back yard for nothing, when they merely move away from one set of problems into another.

What does this all have to do with transportation on Staten Island, anyway? It’s all comes back to the old real estate adage – location, location, location. Build tall and dense near transportation nodes, like Hylan Boulevard and New Dorp Lane, and keep density low – but high enough to support real neighborhood living – in vulnerable places like beach-front areas of the East Shore. In a sense, only a holistic review of Staten Island’s development situation – including in neighborhoods that were not flooded – can provide options to any solution of the rebuilding problem. To get away from both negative outcomes – McMansions among rows of bungalows, or apartment buildings in areas far away from transit locations – laments about high density are meaningless.

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