How much more interesting and how much more walkable would our cities be if instead of bringing mirrored glass towers to grade and alienating everyone, we used the first two stories to create streetscapes of townhomes? How much safer would our streets be if we had eyes on them? People coming/people going?
We should be using the vertical rent gradient to our advantage– street facing structures should be residential or retail uses with windows on the world.
We should go back into the city and rip the front face off these towers at least two stories high and replace them with street facing/street friendly uses and design.
Rent Curves, How Developers can Make More Money and
Urban Design can Improve by Exploiting Vertical Rent Curves
It has always amazed me that
many developers, those veritable profit maximizers, don’t understand that
neo-urbanist principles can improve their returns while at the same time making
them better city-builders and I suppose better corporate citizens. For example,
most of them don’t know that there is a vertical rent curve in most towns and cities as
well as a horizontal one.
In its simplest terms, as you
go out from a city centre, rents drop and as you go up at many points within
the urban fabric, rents increase.
Moving outwards from a typical
city centre, density drops, opportunity for interaction (jobs, entertainment,
education, synergy…) decreases and transportation links become less available,
and rents drop accordingly. Meanwhile, people ‘downtown’, whether in offices or
residential condo towers, prefer to be higher up and will pay more for better
views, less noise and pollution and, as my Aussie friends call it, higher poser
(*Donald Trump is famous for
‘floor inflation’. He claims that the first few floors of many of his towers,
including the Trump Tower in NYC, are so grandiose and volumetric that he is
justified in re-labeling, say, the 12th floor as the 20th. It also allows him
to charge higher prices since the ’20th’ floor is perceived to be more valuable
than the 12th even if their actual elevations above grade are the same.)
It is the latter rent curve
(the vertical one) that is often poorly understood by industry.
I took a photo this morning (it
is July 6, 2011 as I write this) on my way to work of a pretty ugly apartment
tower at the corner of Iroquois and Carling in Ottawa ON.
It is across the street from the Carlingwood Mall in an improving part of town.
It has become quite the desirable area to live in as more folks in Ottawa have realized that
being closer to work has its advantages*.
(* That includes my wife and I.
Recently, we sold our 7-bedroom suburban home and bought a small condo not far
away from the Carlingwood Mall; it’s close to the Ottawa River and walking
distance, for me, to work.)
The first three storeys are
used for a parking garage and the podium facing the street is a blank wall: it
quashes street life, denigrates the area, lowers public safety and is basically
a throw away by the developer in terms of its economic value. It defies almost
all the principles of neo-urbanism and sound city building.
Here’s another look at the
Curve Degenerating at Grade
Now what if the developer had
instead used the volume at grade for front facing, two storey towns or perhaps
for office condos or retail shops with what I call a window-on-the-world (WOW)
effect (which is actually made up of portals overlooking and access to and from
street level)? Would public safety improve? Would the walkable nature of the
City improve? Would the developer make more dough? Would Buyers/Renters have
more options and greater choice? Would the City be made more lovely? Yes to all
I superimposed (rather clumsily
I admit) some towns on the building:
Towns at Grade
Wouldn’t you rather see a
version of this than a blank wall? So message to builder: there’s a renovation
in your future.
I drew rent curves for two
conditions (see below). The first (in yellow) shows the notional rent curve for
a typical condo or apartment tower that ignores the potential for street facing
uses at grade. All units are inward facing and rents just drop secularly from
penthouse to grade: the closer the Buyer or Renter gets to grade, the more
noise and pollution they have to put up with, the worse their views are and the
more perceived security risk there is. Hence, they expect and actually do pay
If instead, the developer used
street facing townhomes or other built forms that take advantage of direct
access to the public room, you could achieve higher rents and better urban
spaces. If you have a young family, wouldn’t you rather have a street facing
town that you and your kids can get out of through a front door? Or if you are
running your architecture practice from one of these towns, wouldn’t you rather
have clients come to your own front door? And how nice would it be to have your
own street facing sign for identification and 24/7 promotion…
Here is what that rent curve
might look like (in red):
for Two Different Conditions of Built Form
postscript: here’s a hand-drawn sketch of a condo tower with towns at grade by yours truly exploiting not only the vertical rent gradient but also the “WOW” effect–what I call the window-on-the-world: more piercings at grade, below grade and near grade mean higher rents, and better/safer streets with more eyes on the roadway…
Here’s another sketch; this one represents a spiral road wrapped around a condo tower or apartment building providing ingress and egress to the world for each unit, no matter how high off the ground they may be: