Thursday, June 19, 2014
Many of the exciting conservation easement cases (yes I did say "exciting conservation easement cases") come up in the context of facade easements. I think facade easements just sound sketchy questionable to many of us. Someone with a beautiful historic building gets a tax deduction for agreeing not to destroy the facade of that beautiful home. My gut reaction is to object that the landowners unlikely had any plan to mar one of the aspects that likely drew them to purchasing the building. In fact, I have heard more than one landowner brag that they just got a tax deduction for doing what they were already doing. On further consideration though, we can see that there might be value to the public here. This is particularly so in an area where (1) landowner are having trouble affording the upkeep on the homes or (2) where economic pressures or a lack of other protection mechanisms put the buildings at risk. Some have argued that such restrictions always have value. That is, even if we have a landowner who was already planning to protect the building and the home is in a district where local laws prevent destruction (or require upkeep), you never know what the future holds in terms of other landowners or changing government whims so a facade easement may end up saying the parcel one day. Personally, such speculative value doesn't seem the best use of public funds when we can confidently identify so many places where conservation yields immediate results.
Scheidelman v. C.I.R. (2014 WL 2748623) decided yesterday by the Second Circuit is the latest in a saga over the deduction of a Brooklyn townhouse. In 1997, Huda Scheidelman paid $255,000 for this house in the designated Fort Greene Historic District. The district is designated as a historic district by the National Park Service and by NYC's Landmarks Preservation Commission. Under these protections, it is illegal to alter the facade without the consent of the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
In 2003, Scheidelman donated a facade conservation easement to the National Arhcitectural Trust, now renamed the Trust for Architectural Easements. The Trust's recommended appraiser valued the conservation easement at $115,000 and Scheidelman claimed a charitable deduction for that amount on her 2004 tax return.
After an audit the IRS rejected her claimed deduction as not being accompanied by a "qualified appraisal" as required by statute. The Tax Court agreed, but the Second Circuit vacated and sent the case back for a de novo review of the fair market value of the conservation easement. After doing so, the Tax Court determined that the value of the conservation easement should be $0 because it did not diminish the property value of Scheidelman's townhouse. Using the standard before and after method of appraisal, this calculation makes sense. Because other laws already restrict the property, the presence of the conservation easement doesn't change the value of the property. Of course, some may argue that the before and after method isn't appropriate and perhaps instead we should do some calculation based on value to the public but well... that's a harder number to crunch and more open to abuse. The Second Circuit just upheld the tax court's finding that the deduction had no value.
My favorite line of the Second Circuit (per curiam) opinion is the statement that conservation easements do not represent a per se reduction in fair market value and in fact may even serve to enhance property value.
Tuesday, January 28, 2014
Like many nerds tech-savvy people, I have an alert set up with WestLaw to send me any new law review article or case that even mentions the phrase "conservation easement." It sends me a lot of fluff, but every now and then I find a gem that seems to have eluded the 5,000 SSRN lists I get. When I saw an article entitled "Environmental Preservation and the Fifth Amendment: The Use and Limits of Conservation Easements by Regulatory Takings and Eminent Domain," I just couldn't resist dropping everything and reading it immediately.
I was surprised that I didn't know the author (Beckett Cantley of Atlanta's John Marshall Law School) because well the conservation easement crew is a small one. Turns out that Cantley is an interesting combination of a tax law prof who also teaches property. As the title suggests, the article focus on standard 5th Amendment takings analysis. Unsurprisingly, this involves a large focus on exacted conservation easements. As I am sure all none of you know, my 2005 dissertation was entitled Exacted Conservation Easements, and I have a small obsession with the phenomenon.
Cantley has an interesting take on the issue.
First, he asks whether there is a market for conservation easements. He contends that a landowner's ability to voluntarily sell a conservation easement constitutes an "economic use for regulated land that could help avoid a regulatory taking by lessening the economic impact of environmental and land use regulations." I assume the argument goes this way: The government entity enacts a land-use law that restricts development. The landowner argues that this violates the 5th amendment under a Lucas-style total deprivation of value argument. The government entity says no we haven't totally deprived you of value because you could still donate or sell a conservation easement on your land. Of course, it would be pretty tricky to find a willing buyer for such a conservation easement but probably not impossible to find someone willing to accept the donation (depending on the features of that parcel). But what would be the value of the donation? Would it be zero? Well the current regulations do not allow development, but conservation easements can extend regulations (making them more stringent, giving them certainty, extending the restriction in perpetuity). So the value of the conservation easement while low, is probably not zero. Cantley suggests that such a conservation easement market would be so speculative that it would not be enough to defeat a Lucas-style takings claim.
Second, Cantley analyzes the ability of a government agency to create a conservation easement with eminent domain. This is a tricky issue. As a threshold, it would only work where the government entity had eminent domain power. Some states prohibit creation of CEs via eminent domain explicitly. In other places, it is just politically sensitive (not to mention potentially hard to calculate). The best example of this phenomenon was when the Highway Commission in Wisconsin exercised eminent domain over holdouts for scenic easements along the Great River Road. One of the confusing points for me here has to do with the fact that when a parcel encumbered by CE is condemned, most jurisdictions acknowledge the CE is compensable and they pay the CE holder for their lost property interest when they pay the underlying landowner just compensation for her property interest. Do such payment policies mean that the jurisdictions recognize CEs as something one could take via eminent domain without taking the fee title? Just an interesting way to do parcel by parcel regulation? Spot zoning with compensation? Something several folks have speculated about but few governments seem interested in pursuing just to amuse us academics.
Now, on the exacted CE front, Cantley notes that generally Nollan and Dolan analysis apply but in some places there is a bit of trickiness with what constitutes an "exaction" meriting Nollan/Dolan analysis (i.e., nexus + rough proportionality) versus just a regulatory act with the less demanding Penn Central balancing test. I have written about this weirdness before in New York where the case of Smith v. Town of Mendon held that conservation easements are not actually "exactions" even where they are er... exacted. As I speculated in a recent piece for the Environmental Section of the New York Bar Association, I think the broad definition of exaction in Koontz overrules Smith v. Town of Mendon and makes it pretty hard to argue that you can't exact conservation easements. One bone I have to pick with Cantley is his description of exacted conservation easements as being required donations. I think we really need to remove the donation language from our talk about such CEs. Landowners are sometime surprised that they can't (or well at least they shouldn't) get tax benefits from these exactions because they associate all CEs with tax breaks. It also looks to me like Cantley must have written his article pre-Koontz (unsurprising considering the pace of law review publication). I think that case may change his assessment that failed exactions are not cognizable takings... or maybe it depends on how/when we assess failure.
Interesting stuff! The artcle doesn't appear to be available for free on SSRN or elsewhere, but those of you with access to various legal databases can find it at
Beckett G. Cantley, Environmental Preservation and the Fifth Amendment: The Use and Limits of Conservation Easmeents by Regulatory Taking and Eminent Domain, 20 Hastings W.-N.W. J. Envtl. L. & Pol'y 215 (2014).
Tuesday, July 16, 2013
Pamela Ko (Sage Colleges) and Patricia Salkin (Touro College) have posted What Every Land Use Lawyer Should Know About the Emerging Use of Health Impact Assessment and Land Use Decision Making, New York Zoning and Planning Law Report, Vol. 16 No. 6 (May/June 2013). The abstract:
The field of Health Impact Assessment is relatively new to the United States, but already a number of state and local governments are incorporating these assessments into land use planning and decision making. In five years, the use of HIA in the U.S. has increased dramatically with more than 100 HIAs completed or in progress in the U.S. from 2007 to 2010. This article provides a brief overview of HIA in the United States, describes how it is being used in other states with respect to land use decision making, and examines how HIA is starting to be incorporated into traditional land use and environmental decision making in New York.
Add public health to the list that makes land use one of the most interdisciplinary fields of legal practice.
Monday, July 1, 2013
The past few weeks have been exciting ones for Supreme Court opinions. Busily finishing a book chapter, I did not have time to read Koontz carefully until Friday and of course by that time, I also had a stack of blog postings and news articles to peruse as well by then (Note to self: Post earlier next time so I don't have to read everyone else's posts first and try to avoid repeating them). As so much has already been said (and said better than I could), I am going to highlight the way the case could affect New York law (particularly conservation easements in NY). I get giddy anytime we here the Supreme Court mention conservation easements even when well they aren't really talking about conservation easements.
As we all know by now, there are two intriguing topics in Koontz.
(1) Timing. I like to think of this as when does a takings become a takings even if that is a bit inartfully said. On this point, I think both the majority and the dissent get it right. In thinking about the life of a permit and associated takings case, we generally see a landowner trying to get a permit to build on her property. In exchange for the permit, the permit-issuing agency requires something of the applicant. For example, let's say you want to build on your 10-acre property that is mostly wetlands. The local governement may allow you to build on 2 acres as long as you restrict building on the rest of the property with a conservation easement. Nollan tells us that the government's demand must have a significant nexus with the harm. For example, where the landowner converts wetlands, the exaction should be aboout protecting wetlands or the ecosystem services provided by wetlands. Dolan tells is that the government demand must be roughly proportional to the harm caused. If the property owner is converting 2-acres of wetland to dry land, you need to make sure the exaction compensates for those 2-acres -- requiring creation of a 100-acre wetland park would likely be considered disporportionate (unless you could show that those were some amazing super wetlands that were being destroyed). Okay, so far so good. This has been the established analysis for takings in the exaction context for some years now. This case now says, what if the governement tells the landowner that in return for developing 2-acres, she needs to protect 8 acres and the landowner thinks that is not proportional (i.e., violative of Dolan's rough proportionality rule).
Could our hypothetical landowner challenge this as a takings? Note, nothing has actually been taken at this point. She had not actually given over the 8 acres.
I actually think that Justice Alito gets it right (not sure I have ever written that phrase before) here when he says, yes. It simply doesn't make sense to go forward with the project and then seek compensation for the 8 acres. This is especially true in the context of exacted conservation easements because they are perpetual. What would we do afterward if a court held that the exaction was too much? It would be pretty hard to change the perpetual conservation easement at that point and compensation can be challenging to calculate. Although I agree with Alito on this principle though, I think Justice Kagan has a better read on the facts in Koontz. Here, it looked like the Water District (the permit agency) and the landowner were in negotiations over what type of exaction might be appropriate. Koontz made an offer. The Water District made a counteroffer, but said it was interested in further negotiations. Instead of more back and forth though, Koontz jumped straight to the lawsuit. I am not sure how to figure out at what point we would say that we have the final word from the agancy and its decision is ripe for review, but it doesn't seem like this should be it. The agency was still in discussions.
It also seems that Alito and Kagan both agree that Koontz doesn't get compensation here, as again nothing was actually taken. Does he get his permit issued though? That doesn't seem quite right to me either. It seems like we should go back to the agency to get another round of negotiations and a chance to impose a proper exaction.
(2) Definitional. Now, this is a question that has been intriguing me particularly since I moved to New York. What constistutes an exaction and therefore requires Nollan/Dolan analysis versus just run-o-the mill Penn Central style inquiry. I have had severeal conversations during my brief academic career on what constitutes an exaction (with Tim Mulvaney almost convincing me that requirements to paint your house a certain color should qualify). Logically, it makes sense that anything we are demanding of the landowner in exchange for a permit is an exaction. Thus, anything that is not the permit application fee or something already required by another law should qualify. Some courts and commentaters assert however that exactions are only interests in land. This has been an interesting issue in New York because of a case called Smith v. Town of Mendon from New York's highest court. In that case, the court confusingly held that a conservation restriction was not an exaction because it there was no public access but because it was bound by precedent the court acknowledged that you could have monetary exactions. In a short piece written between oral argument and the issuance of the opinion in Koontz (for the Environmental Law Section of the NY Bar Association), I discuss the meaning of exactions in New York and ponder the potential implications of Koontz on New York's rules. It seems hard to swallow New York's definition excluding conservation easements in light of this opinion, which seems to read exactions so broadly.
Overall, it is hard not to agree with commenters who believe this decision just makes things messier for courts and complicates land use planning. Tim Mulvaney has a great summary of course, with links to others chiming in.
Thursday, March 7, 2013
We are pleased to share with you our latest fact brief: Sandy's Effects on Housing in New York City (PDF) Our report is the first independent, comprehensive analysis of the Superstorm's impact on housing in New York City.
The study revealed some surprising insights into the impacts of the Superstorm Sandy. It found that low-income renters were disproportionately impacted by the storm's surge; over half of the victims were renters, 61 percent of whom make less than $60,000 per year, instead of middle-class homeowners. It also exposed the age of the housing stock affected by the surge; 82% of the properties hit by Sandy were built before 1980, before the latest flood maps and building standards were established.
The report also summarizes newly available information about the characteristics of properties in the area in New York City flooded by Sandy's storm surge, as well as demographic characteristics of households that have registered to receive assistance from FEMA. The study was released in partnership with Enterprise Community Partners, who provided a similar analysis on Long Island and New Jersey.
Lots of interesting maps and data in this report, which should be of interest to anyone researching law, land, housing, and disaster planning
March 7, 2013 in Affordable Housing, Beaches, Coastal Regulation, Community Economic Development, Environmentalism, Federal Government, Housing, Local Government, New York, Property, Redevelopment, Scholarship, Water | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Tuesday, January 22, 2013
For those of you interested in conservation easements (particularly historic façade easements), you may have been following the Scheidelman saga.The next installment is now out.
In Scheidelman v. Comissioner, T.C. Memo. 2010-151 [Scheidelman I], the landowner sought a deduction for a façade easement burdening her Brooklyn brownstone. The Tax Court disqualified an appraisal because it viewed the method of calculating the easement’s value inadequate. Appraisals must include the method of valuation used as well as the specific basis for the valuation. The appraiser applied a percentage to the fair market value of the property before conveyance of the conservation easement. The Tax Court found that the appraiser had insufficiently explained the method (i.e., the percentage approach) and basis of the valuation (i.e., the specific data used).
The landowner appealed to the Second Circuit. The Second Circuit [Scheidelman II, 682 F.3d 189 (2d Cir. 2012)] reversed the Tax Court, saying that the shortcomings of the approach should not disqualify the appraisal.
On remand [Scheidelman III, T.C. Memo. 2013-18 ], the Tax Court accepted the Second Circuit's assessment that the appraisal was “qualified” but still thought it was crappy was not credible. You can check out the case if you want to delve into the nitty gritty of appraisal methods. The most problematic issue appeared to be the fact that the appraisal just picked a number between 10 and 12% of the fair market value of the home when trying to determine the value of the conservation easement. The appraiser's reasoned that those are the numbers that courts and the IRS seem to like instead of actually looking at the property and making an assessment.
I am enamored of this case though because in the end the Tax Court said no tax deduction is warranted. The evidence demonstrates that façade easements actually increase the value of homes in this area. Additionally, the landowner herself admitted that she was seeking a tax deduction for something she would have done anyway. Here is my favorite quote from the landowner:
"Well, I was primarily interested in preserving my house itself in light of the dramatic development that was occurring in and around Fort Greene during those years and still is. I was also intrigued by the tax benefit of preserving the facade which I had intended to do anyway. …I also wanted to benefit tax wise. I didn't know how much I would benefit, but I wanted to benefit from what I was already intended to be committed to doing."
I have been disturbed fascinated by conservation easement tax deductions that pay owners not to do things they never planned on doing. In understand that there can be some value to the conservation easements becuase perhaps future landowners would have other desires, but it is hard for me to reconcile that worth with the high value of tax deductions current landowners receive. I am glad to see the IRS and Tax Court calling these landowners out. Maybe if a landowner seeks to claim a tax decuction for a conservation easement and we see that the conservation easement increased the value of their land, they should have to pay that difference to the treasury.
Saturday, December 22, 2012
Today I stumbled across this compelling Associated Press story about how urban advocates have very mixed feelings about how the Newtown shootings have seemingly changed the national debate around gun control.
The moment also is causing some to reflect on the sudden change of heart. Why now? Why weren't we moved to act by the killing of so many other children, albeit one by one, in urban areas?
Certainly, Newtown is a special case, 6- and 7-year-olds riddled with bullets inside the sanctuary of a classroom. Even in a nation rife with violence, where there have been three other mass slayings since July and millions enjoy virtual killing via video games, the nature of this tragedy is shocking.
But still: "There's a lot of talk now about we have to protect our children. We have to protect all of our children, not just the ones living in the suburbs," said Tammerlin Drummond, a columnist for the Oakland Tribune.
In her column Monday, Drummond wrote about 7-year-old Heaven Sutton of Chicago, who was standing next to her mother selling candy when she was killed in the crossfire of a gang shootout. Also in Chicago, which has been plagued by a recent spike in gun violence: 6-year-old Aaliyah Shell was caught in a drive-by while standing on her front porch; and 13-year-old Tyquan Tyler was killed when a someone in a car shot into a group of youths outside a party.
Food for thought.
Jamie Baker Roskie
Friday, November 9, 2012
As Hurricane Sandy spread its path of destruction in New York City, there was suddenly an urgent need for a fleet of expensively equipped, city-inspected, self-sufficient mobile food-delivery vehicles that could flee to high ground during the flooding and the winds, then drive to dispense hot meals to the hungry in devastated neighborhoods.
That exotic vehicle already existed. It is called the food truck.
And indeed, dozens of the trucks survived the storm in working order, then immediately began feeding needy citizens in broken neighborhoods where brick-and-mortar restaurants were still closed. Thanks to the generosity of individual donors, New York City agencies and sponsoring corporations, much of that food has been free.
A little local entrepreneurship, a little corporate sponsorship, and voila! some hungry, cold New Yorkers get fed! It's always nice to see creative generosity during tough times.
Jamie Baker Roskie
Tuesday, October 2, 2012
Robert C. Ellickson (Yale) has posted The Law and Economics of Street Layouts: How a Grid Pattern Benefits a Downtown, forthcoming in the Alabama Law Review from its lecture series on boundaries. The abstract:
People congregate in cities to improve their prospects for social and economic interactions. As Jane Jacobs recognized, the layout of streets in a city’s central business district can significantly affect individuals’ ability to obtain the agglomeration benefits that they seek. The costs and benefits of alternative street designs are capitalized into the value of abutting lots. A planner of a street layout, as a rule of thumb, should seek to maximize the market value of the private lots within the layout. By this criterion, the street grid characteristic of the downtowns of most U.S. cities is largely successful. Although a grid layout has aesthetic shortcomings, it helps those who frequent a downtown to orient themselves and move about. A grid also is conducive to the creation of rectangular lots, which are ideal for siting structures and minimizing disputes between abutting landowners. Major changes in street layouts, such as those accomplished by Baron Haussmann in Paris and Robert Moses in New York City, are unusual and typically occur in bursts. Surprisingly, the aftermath of a disaster that has destroyed much of a city is not a propitious occasion for the revamping of street locations.
Highly recommended, with lots of interesting planning-type details in addition to the larger importance to land use theories and approaches.
Monday, August 27, 2012
The NY Times has a recent article on home businesses in New York City, some of which operate in violation of zoning rules. The businesses discussed include one-room hotels, children's used-clothing shops, personal training, and a vegan cookie business. Operating a business from home is of course, partly motivated by high commercial rents. The article notes that the number of these businesses in New York is unclear:
Because so many home businesses operate under the radar, it is hard to say just how many there are. Complaints to the city’s 311 telephone system about illegal commercial use in a residential area have been decreasing. In 2011, the tally was roughly 2,150, down from about 2,450 in 2008. Even so, the data may not accurately reflect the full range of complaints about businesses, because annoyed tenants who call 311 to carp about ungodly noise may not know about zoning rules.
Not every home business is legal, but the prohibited businesses are not always obvious:
Not surprisingly, kennels and veterinary practices aren’t allowed to operate from homes. Zoning rules also prohibit a curious mix of other businesses, including advertising and public relations. Stock brokerages and offices for real estate, insurance and interior design aren’t supposed to operate from a desk in the bedroom. Running a commercial kitchen at home isn’t permitted, either — “home processors” like Mr. Semosh cannot use commercial-size equipment.
New York City's Zoning Resolution, at Section 12-10, expressly includes “fine arts studios,” “professional offices,” and “teaching of not more than four pupils simultaneously” within the definition of permitted “home occupation.” It expressly does not include, among others, advertising or public relations, barber shops and beauty parlors, interior decorators’ offices, stockbrokers, ophthalmic dispensing, and real estate or insurance offices. In addition, the code prohibits the sale of articles produced elsewhere and exterior displays. One person who does not reside at the unit may be employed “in connection with the practice of a profession.” Finally, the home occupation must not “produce offensive noise, vibration, smoke, dust or other particulate matter, odorous matter, heat, humidity, glare, or other objectionable effects.”
It is not clear that the prohibited occupations are more likely to produce these nuisances or would cause more traffic or related negative externalities in a neighborhood than the permitted home occupations. It is worth considering whether the categorical acceptability of "professional offices" and the outright prohibition on "beauty parlors," without regard to a specific uses' impact on neighboring properties, reflects a class-conscious determination of what is desirable and should be replaced by a more careful consideration of specific factors that affect residential neighborhood character.
For a discussion of how home occupation regulations might be modernized, see this publication from a few years ago by Patricia Salkin.
Wednesday, August 15, 2012
The New York Observer has a list of the 15 Most Fascinating NY Real Estate Cases of the 21st Century, based on a survey of NYC real estate lawyers. Although most involve contracts or financing gone awry, a few involve zoning and land use disputes. They also make use of Sherlock Holmes-esque titles, like "The Case of the Mischievous Mall Developer."
Of particular interest are "The Case of the Masterpiece & The Condo Ad," involving a dispute over advertising, public art, and landmarking. The "Case of the Museum and the Architect" involves a building designed by Jean Nouvel next to MOMA, as well as zoning, landmarking and air rights issues. "The Case of the Brooklyn Basketball Arena" gives a very truncated summary of the series of legal battles over eminent domain and the construction of a new arena for the Brooklyn Nets. (For a more detailed account in response from critics of the development see the Atlantic Yards Report). And "The Case of the Abused J-51" details the legal battles over rent regulation following the $5.4 billion purchase of Stuyvesant Town.
Monday, August 6, 2012
Over at Next American City there is a five-part series of interviews being conducted with staffers from New York City’s Department of City Planning, discussing changes to city zoning. The first two installments provide some interesting insights into two innovations to the zoning code.
The first installment looks at the FRESH program, a combination of zoning and tax incentives that are intended to encourage the entry of grocery stores into underserved neighborhoods throughout the city. The zoning incentives include a bonus allowing the construction of a larger mixed-use building if a developer includes a ground-floor grocery store as well as the easing of parking requirements.
The second installment looks at Zone Green, a set of changes to the zoning code that relax barriers to adding more environmentally friendly features to new and existing buildings. Installing such features can often require lengthy approval processes to allow elements not permitted by the building code. Both posts are worth checking out.
On an unrelated note, following up on Stephen’s recommendation of the Pruitt-Igoe Myth, which I strongly second, I wanted to mention a proposed design for the current site, much of which remains empty, that I came across a while back. It offers a neo-classical approach that tries to link the site back with the surrounding grid.
Thursday, August 2, 2012
As I mentioned in my first post, I want to use some of my time as a guest-blogger here to introduce a few projects I am current working on through the Furman Center. Today I want to talk about a fairly new project examining regulatory barriers to the construction of smaller housing units.
There has been significant discussion recently of the benefits of allowing the construction of very small apartments. In Boston, Mayor Menino has advocated the development of micro-units, smaller than those permitted by current regulations, targeted at young professionals. As reported on the PropertyProf Blog, San Francisco is exploring ways to reduce existing unit size minimums from 290 square feet to 220 square feet. In New York, Mayor Bloomberg announced a request for proposals to build an apartment building with units measuring between 275 and 300 square feet (currently units must be at least 400 square feet). The associated request for proposals for the project has already been downloaded over 1,000 times by interested parties throughout the world.
Parallel with this discussion of micro-units, a number of municipalities, both large and small, are rethinking regulations governing the construction of accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in single family neighborhoods. Some communities, such as Santa Cruz, California, have gone further and actively encourage the construction of accessory dwelling units by providing technical assistance to prospective landlords, pre-approved designs, low-interest loan programs, and other resources. These units, which may be located over a garage or in a basement, offer opportunities for encouraging denser development and urban infill. They also are seen by some as a way to help seniors maintain their homes or “age in place.”
Efforts to encourage construction of smaller housing are motivated in part by the recognition that changing demographics and household composition have created a mismatch between demand and existing housing supply. A recent book, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, explored the increasing prevalence of single urban dwellers. New York City’s Citizens Housing Planning Council raised attention to this issue through a recent project called “Making Room,” which enlisted a set of architects to propose different designs for innovative housing types that would meet these changing needs, but would demand regulatory changes in order to be built. The project recognized that many individuals, who cannot find housing that meets their needs, currently live in unregulated apartments within an underground housing market. These illegal conversions and other sources of affordable housing can create dangerous living conditions for occupants.
Smaller units – both in the form of micro-units in a multifamily development and accessory dwelling units in a single-family residential area – hold promise for serving a variety of needs: providing affordable housing, fostering greater density and more sustainable development patterns, increasing demand for mass transit in an area, and, as championed in Boston and New York, making expensive cities more attractive to young professionals who spend little time at home.
One supporter of the micro-unit proposal in New York was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying that “the city should ‘not be charged with regulating people’s preferences.’” This is, of course, the deeper question raised by changing the regulatory landscape to permit smaller housing units. Are these changes simply a matter of removing a (perhaps, to some, anachronistic or paternalistic) constraint on individual preferences? Or do the laws restricting this housing continue to serve an essential public purpose related to the health, safety, and welfare of residents? Commentators have noted that the zoning regulations that will be waived to allow the micro-unit prototypes in New York City were instituted in the early 20th Century to provide more humane living conditions, particularly through greater access to light and air. But modern construction methods and technology may provide news means to address these same health and safety issues, without returning to dreary and dangerous tenement living.
The discussion about changing regulations to allow smaller housing units is really just one piece of a broader question: do changes in living patterns, family composition, and technology demand a radical rethinking of the legal framework that governs urban life? Should the presence of vast amounts of currently illegal housing be seen as an indication that existing regulation is too strict and prevents the market from meeting demand? Are some regulations championed as serving goals related to health, safety and welfare, really more about the aesthetic or other preferences of existing residents?
To address the narrower regulatory questions raised by compact housing units, the Furman Center has begun a project, in partnership with CHPC, looking at a number of cities throughout the United States and examining regulatory barriers to smaller housing units, as well as efforts currently underway to change regulations or build these forms of housing. We are planning to study New York; Washington, DC; Austin; Denver; and Seattle, a mix of cities with varying degrees of interest and progress related to these issues. We will be examining a broad range of existing regulations, including zoning, building codes, accessibility laws, and occupancy regulations, that might prohibit or stymie the construction of these types of housing. Our goal is to outline the regulatory barriers that policy makers would need to address if they wished to allow more compact housing and to frame the questions that would need to be considered in conducting a more sophisticated cost-benefit analysis of the potential tradeoffs of changing these regulations, some of which may still serve a vital role in making cities more safe and livable.
Monday, July 30, 2012
Matt has the legality of the various proposed Chick Fil-A bans covered. As numerous commentators have pointed out, prohibiting Chick Fil-A stores based on the opinions of the store's owner is flagrantly unconstitutional. While most commentators have focused on the First Amendment, I think Chik Fil-A has an equally strong legal argument under the Fourteenth Amendment given the Supreme Court's decision in Village of Willowbrook v. Olech, 528 U.S. 562 (2000): it is a violation of the equal protection clause to discriminate against a particular landowner due to "animus" against the landowner.
To me, the more interesting question is why city officials would propose something that is obviously unconstitutional (leaving aside the possibility that these officials are dumb, which is of course a legitimate possibility). In fact, if city officials really wanted to prevent Chick Fil-A from locating in their towns, the very worst thing they could have done is announce publicly their discriminatory animus toward the franchise. As land use folks have seen time and again, it's really easy for communities to exclude land uses they don't like (e.g., affordable housing) by citing vague concerns about traffic, noise, congestion, and so on. They rarely make the mistake of saying "we just don't want poor people living here." Now, because of what the various officials in Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, etc have said, it will only be harder to exclude Chick Fil-A even if the city has legitimate concerns about traffic, noise, etc because the inference of discriminatory animus will be so hard to shake. So why, to repeat my question, are city officials doing this? There are two possible answers, as I see it:
1) City officials see themselves as having nearly absolute power over zoning. Such a sense of entitlement may stem from a variety of sources: 1) city officials' authority is rarely challenged by repeat-player developers who would rather not anger city officials they may have to deal with again and again; 2) the news media rarely takes up zoning issues as causes celebre, and 3) courts are largely deferential toward local zoning practices. This sense of entitlement may be especially acute in Chicago, where the informal practice of "aldermanic privilege" essentially grants the alderman in each ward the unfettered right to dole out land use permissions.
This is the less likely of two alternatives, however.
2) City officials knew all along that what they were proposing was unconstitutional, and never had any serious intention of banning Chick Fil-A. The real reason for their strident statements: signalling that they are gay-friendly communities. Under the public choice model of local governance, cities are conceptualized as "firms" who compete for affluent residents and tax revenues. Richard Florida has provocatively argued that one of the greatest potential resources for cities are gay residents, who tend to have high disposable incomes and have had a history of revitalizing depressed neighborhoods in many urban areas. Thus, it makes sense that these cities would want to signal their friendliness toward gays, and it especially makes sense that once one city so signalled, others did the same to ensure that they're not seen as any less gay-friendly. In this sense, the proposed Chick Fil-A bans are very similar to then-mayor Gavin Newsom performing gay marriages in San Francisco in 2004 in flagrant violation of California law.
One footnote here: If I'm right, why did New York mayor Mike Bloomberg so forcefully diverge from these other big-city officials and declare that cities have no right to ban Chick Fil-A? Perhaps Bloomberg felt he already had sufficient credibility with gays that this was an unnecessary stunt. In addition, cities aren't just competing for gays but for business. Bloomberg's corporate instincts probably led him to conclude that potential investors in NY real estate might be deterred if the city started engaging in viewpoint-discrimination among different businesses. This shows the delicate tap-dance big city officials have to constantly engage in: give sufficient tribute to the liberal constituencies while not alienating big business.
Thursday, July 19, 2012
I am very excited for the opportunity to blog on the Land Use Prof Blog over the next month. Thanks to Matt Festa and the other editors for inviting me to do so. As Matt mentioned in his introduction, I am a Research Fellow at NYU's Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. For those not familiar with the Center, we are a joint endeavor of NYU's law and public policy school and we conduct interdisciplinary legal and empirical research on land use, affordable housing, housing finance, neighborhood change, and a host of other urban issues. Although we particularly focus on issues in New York City, we are increasingly pursuing projects in other cities and working on national affordable housing and urban policy issues.
My plan during the next month is to talk about a few interesting projects I am pursuing with the Furman Center, a few of my personal research projects, and of course to write about new land use issues.
For this first post, I thought I would discuss one of the big land use issues on our radar here in New York, Mayor Bloomberg's recent proposal to rezone a significant part of East Midtown Manhattan, in the area around Grand Central Terminal. Over the past decade the Bloomberg administration has dramatically altered New York City's zoning through over 100 rezonings affecting approximately one-quarter of the city's land. This new proposal, which includes changes in the rules governing the use of the air rights/transferable development rights over Grand Central (the rights at issue in Penn Central, only a fraction of which have been sold) raises a number of interesting issues and questions.
The proposed rezoning (see the Department of City Planning study presentation) covers 78 blocks and seeks to encourage the development of more modern and taller office buildings in an area where the average office building is currently over 70 years old. The proposal would allow new buildings substantially taller than what currently exists in the area and potentially as large as the Empire State Building. These new buildings, which would only be allowed on sites that cover a block's full frontage on one of the area's avenues, would provide larger floor plates, fewer internal supports, and other amenities the City feels are needed for the area to stay competitive with business districts in "global competitor cities."
What is particularly interesting is that -- rather than simply upzone the area to allow these larger buildings -- developers would be able to obtain greater densities (through a higher maximum floor-area-ratio) as-of-right (meaning no required city planning approval process) only by either purchasing transferable development rights (TDRs) from nearby landmarks (the major seller being Grand Central, which has nearly two million square feet available) or by obtaining a bonus in exchange for a contribution to a City fund dedicated to area improvements. Beyond these as-of-right FAR increases, even taller buildings (close in size to the Empire State Building) could be constructed, but would be subject to a Special Permit process, which would include a design review and would require certain public improvements to be provided.
The proposal raises a host of issues. If additional density is desirable in the area, why not simply rezone, rather than require the purchase of TDRs on the private market or contributions to a City fund? Is the City simply selling an upzoning or demanding an exaction from developers? And of course, for area residents and workers and potential developers other concerns exist: what effect would these new buildings have on the nearby subway, which already operates above capacity, and how much will it cost to buy these additional square feet of permitted development?
The proposal is also interesting because it represents the latest example of the City's creative use of transferable development rights, a tool that in New York has historically operated in a manner akin to density zoning or, in the case of landmarks, as a means of mitigating the effects of development restrictions. These new programs in New York use TDRs instead as a means of furthering traditional and quite specific planning and land use goals in a manner more akin to how TDRs have been used in suburban and rural areas nationwide. The City's proposal builds upon the use of TDRs in the rezoning of West Chelsea, site of the elevated High Line Park, and at Hudson Yards, an area west of Penn Station in Midtown Manhattan. Both these districts involve the innovative use of TDRs to serve a variety of planning, preservation, and development goals. Vicki Been and I will be exploring these themes further in a forthcoming article.
At the Furman Center, we are also nearing completion of the first comprehensive database of TDR transactions in New York City. We have recorded data on over 400 of these transactions between 2003 and 2011 and have begun reviewing the data to learn more about the market for TDRs in New York and how developers use them in place or in addition to other tools for increasing the size of a project. I plan to say more about this data, our plans for it, and its relevance for thinking about TDRs in other cities in a future post.
Tuesday, July 17, 2012
John Infranca is a Legal Research Fellow at the Furman Center. Prior to joining the Center, he served as a law clerk to Judge Julio Fuentes, United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, and Judge Berle Schiller, United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. John received a J.D., Order of the Coif, from New York University School of Law, where he was an editor of the New York University Law Review, a Lederman Fellow in Law and Economics, and a fellow in the Arthur Garfield Hays Civil Liberties Program. He also earned a B.A and an M.T.S. degree (in moral theology) from the University of Notre Dame. After college and during graduate school, John worked with a number of homeless services organizations, as a case manager for refugees, and as the director of a service learning program in Mexico. He has authored law review articles on the Earned Income Tax Credit and the informal economy, on protecting social security benefits from bank freezes and garnishments, and on institutional free exercise and religious land uses. At the Furman Center, John’s research focuses on land use regulation, affordable housing and urban policy. His recent projects have included providing technical assistance to the court-appointed monitor overseeing a fair housing settlement, analyzing the impact of the market downturn on multi-family rental housing, and legal and empirical studies of development rights transfers, rezonings, and residential landlord characteristics and behaviors.
John already has some great writing out there, and I've seen him at ALPS; we're thrilled to have this rising star join us at the Land Use Prof Blog for the next month.
The latest report from the NYU Furman Center for Real Estate & Urban Policy:
We are pleased to share with you our latest New York City Quarterly Housing Update (Q1 2012). We find that home sales volume rose in the first quarter of 2012, with the number of transactions citywide up almost five percent. Housing prices throughout the city are up 3.5 percent compared to the same quarter last year. In the Bronx, however, prices fell more than nine percent between the fourth quarter of 2011 and the first quarter of 2012--the largest single-quarter decline in the borough since 2002.
The report also finds that the number of foreclosure notices issued in Q1 2012 has fallen citywide since its peak in the third quarter of 2009. However, foreclosure notices in Queens and Staten Island increased by more than 20 percent from the fourth quarter of 2011. You can read the full report here, or the press release here.
The Furman Center's Quarterly Housing Update is unique among New York City housing reports because it incorporates sales data, residential development indicators, and foreclosures. It also presents a repeat sales index for each borough to capture price appreciation while controlling for housing quality. The publication is available on a quarterly basis at:
Valuable data and analysis, as always.
Saturday, July 14, 2012
There is a lot of exciting stuff going on at CUNY these days. Not only have they got themselves a shiny new campus in Long Island City, the just inaugurated their new Center for Urban and Environmental Reform (CUER –pronounced “cure”). Headed up by Rebecca Bratspies, this new center is one of the few places engaging specifically with urban environmental issues. Such an endeavor necessarily involves land use issues. I was lucky enough to be invited to CUER’s inaugural scholar workshop. Titled a “Scholar’s Workshop on Regulating the Urban Environment,” the event brought together scholars from multiple disciplines as well as activists and policy makers. It was an interesting format for an event and I enjoyed hearing from architects, historians, geographers and others. I think we’ll be seeing a lot of interesting events and endeavors from this new center. I know I will be keeping my eye on it.
July 14, 2012 in Community Economic Development, Density, Development, Downtown, Economic Development, Green Building, Historic Preservation, Housing, Local Government, New Urbanism, New York, Planning, Sustainability, Urbanism | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)
Tuesday, May 29, 2012
Coming this July, New York City will launch a bike share program with 10,000 bikes at 600 stations across lower Manhattan (below 59th Street) and the hipster enclaves of west Brooklyn.
David Byrne, former-Talking Heads front man turned biking proselytizer (maybe you've read his Bicycle Diaries about biking in cities around the world), has a great piece about biking in the Big Apple in last Sunday's New York Times. In the article, he focuses on the practical aspects of the bicycle program for daily activities, like getting some groceries or going across town to a meeting.
Byrne notes that some 200 cities around the world have bike-share programs. I've never used a bike-share program, but not for want of trying. When we were in London last summer, my wife and I were trying to find a rack in that city's bike-share program with two bikes for the both of us, and in London's Soho, we had no such luck. The good news is that the program was obviously immensely popular in London, and I have no doubt it will be in New York. (In particular, I predict Ess-a-Bagel on 1st Avenue will see an even longer line as its bagels become just a short bike-ride away for that many more people).
As a matter of policy, however, I wonder whether the best use of bikes is really the freedom it offers for complete trips, or whether biking's long-term value for large cities isn't the ability for people to use bikes to access other forms of public transportation, such as trains. For several years in San Francisco, I rode my bike, rain or shine, from Potrero Hill to the 24th Street BART station, and then took the train in to work. There were a lot of others doing the same. That requires a different biking infrastructure than bike share programs. Instead of the rental bike stands, it requires secure places to park bikes at train stations and safe pathways through more distant parts of the city. The value, of course, is making public transportation options, such as trains, more readily available to more people. Imagine such a program in the far reaches of Brooklyn or Queens linking to the city's established subway system.
Biking programs can take a long time to develop. For instance, San Francisco's bike plan went through litigation and was required to conduct an extensive environmental impact report under the California Environmental Quality Act. As such, thinking through the variety of ways that bikes can assist getting around a city, should be conducted and evaluated up front. Bike shares and bike-to-transit, I'd suggest, are both important parts of the project.
For those cities contemplating such bike-friendly options, I have two free ideas I'm offering to you. First, a bike commuter greenbelt. This is not new, by any means, but this year I've discovered the joys of bike commuting along Boise's Greenbelt, and it is such a remarkable daily experience down by the cool river. For any city that has the option of making this a reality, just do it. Second, parking squids. That's right, parking squids. Parking squids are being deployed by Seattle as a means of creating bike parking within existing parking spaces. The parking squids each park eight bikes and fit within a traditional car parking space. The squids provide utility and whimsy in the same fixture. Could there be anything better in ending a work commute than locking a bike up to a squid before heading to office?
Stephen R. Miller
Monday, May 28, 2012
Yesterday I took my kids to see The Avengers, the ensemble superhero movie featuring Ironman, Thor, Captain America, and The Hulk. But before all the world-saving action started up, I caught a throwaway line from the Gwyneth Paltrow character who plays Robert Downey Jr.'s assistant/girlfriend-- referring to their "Stark Tower" skyscraper in midtown Manhattan (powered by some futuristic sustainable energy source, natch) and their plans to build several more, she notes that she was planning to spend the next day "working on the zoning" for the other towers. I made a mental note that this could be a humorous, quick blog post reaffirming my theory that there is a land use angle to everything, and then proceeded to watch the superheroes smash it out with the bad guys to my son's delight.
But just now, the majesty of the Internet has shown me how badly I've been beaten to the punch. Via our Network colleagues at the Administrative Law Prof Blog, I found a link to a blog called Law and the Multiverse: Superheroes, Supervillans, and the Law, which has a blog post--nay, a 1,500+ word essay!--on this very subject called The Avengers: Arc Reactors and NYC Zoning Laws. This is unbelievable--from the same offhand script line that set off my land-use radar, the author delves deep into the New York City zoning code, citing chapter and verse of the regulations; identifies where Stark Tower is on the maps (all with copious linkage); and then explains the legal options available to our developer/hero:
I. Stark Tower’s Zoning District
As it happens, we know exactly where Stark Tower is meant to be located within New York: it’s built on the site of the MetLife building at 200 Park Ave.
(Update: Early on some sources indicated that it was built on the site of the MetLife building and now others indicate that Stark built the tower on top of the preexisting building. This doesn’t change the analysis. Whatever the zoning status of the MetLife building, the construction of Stark Tower was likely a “structural alteration” of the building that would disallow a grandfathered nonconforming use. It certainly exceeded the kind of “repair or incidental alteration” that would preserve the nonconforming use.)
Here’s a zoning map of the area. As you can see, it’s in a C5-3 commercial district in the Special Midtown District, which means Stark Tower has a maximum Floor Area Ratio of 18 (3 of that comes from the special district). Basically this means that if the building takes up its entire lot then it can only have 18 full-size floors (or the equivalent). There are various ways to increase the FAR, such as having a public plaza on the lot. The sloped, tapering structure of Stark Tower means that it can have more floors without exceeding its FAR because the upper floors are much smaller than the lower ones. Given the size of the 200 Park Ave lot, it’s believable that Stark Tower could be that tall, given its shape and the various means of increasing the FAR.
Stark mentions that the top ten floors (excluding his personal penthouse, presumably) are “all R&D.” Is that allowed in a C5-3?
Apart from residential uses, the permitted commercial uses in a C5 are use groups 5 (hotels), 6, 9 and 10 (retail shops and business services) and 11 (custom manufacturing). Unfortunately, research and development is not allowed as a permitted or conditional use in this district. In fact, scientific research and development is specifically allowed in a C6 as a conditional use, which requires a special permit and approval from the City Planning Commission.
So Stark needs some kind of special dispensation. How can he get it? There are many possible ways.
The essay goes on to analyze the options for rezoning, variances, and the related issues of electrical power generation permits and FAA approval, again chock full o' links to the statutes, regs, and caselaw. The author, James Daily, concludes that "while Pepper Potts may indeed have to do some work to get the next few buildings approved, it’s not far-fetched from a legal perspective." Read the whole thing, it's wild, and quite sophisticated too.
But I will draw this even more compelling conclusion: Even the world's greatest Superheroes are no match for the awesome power of the Zoning Code and the Planning Commission.