Encouraging Fine-Grained Development
March 17, 2016

I recently had the pleasure of visiting Old San Juan, which is a beautiful traditional city.

Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

I highly recommend a trip to Puerto Rico. The flights to San Juan from New York City are about the same price as flying to Arkansas to visit my in-laws. When I visit a traditional city - and when I refer to a traditional city I mean a city that has been built around walking as we have done for most of human history except for a short blip in modern times - I notice they tend to have two things in common;

  1. Narrow Streets for People
  2. Fine-grained buildings

You may want to read my previous piece on granularity if you do not understand what I mean when I talk about fine-grained development.

The first point - narrow streets for people - is pretty self explanatory from the title. I feel like I have talked enough about streets for now, so I will focus purely on the second point - fine-grained buildings.

I was in Boston earlier this year, and Boston is a beautiful city. But, I noticed that much of downtown Boston felt abandoned outside of rush hour when people were commuting to and from work;

Downtown Boston at 8:30 am on a Saturday morning.

Downtown Boston has most of the elements of a great city - very little non-place and a great network of highly-connected streets - but where were the people? From my observations, because this area was mostly monolithic office blocks, outside of working hours there is really no reason to be around - even if they did have the occasional store or two at ground level. Now, Boston is one of my favourite American cities - I am not picking on it, because it is a nice city and there were parts that were bustling.

Downtown Crossing in Boston on the same Saturday.

Boston's Downtown Crossing is a set of pedestrian streets filled with shops. You can see that they utilised faux-granularity here, so that there is an anchor every 25 feet or so. There is enough variety of anchors to always be appealing to someone at some point and that draws in a constant stream of crowds. Faux-granularity works, but it is also very fragile because it depends on the goodwill of the property owner to make it happen (that they did not attempt to turn the entire street front into a single lobby for an office, or just one or two large stores), it also depends on the property owner to remain solvent - otherwise you have a large and expensive abandoned building taking up valuable street space in your city, and finally it makes the aesthetics of the street front very fragile - a single large building that happens to be ugly can ruin an entire street front, while a small ugly building is relatively limited in its impact.

The building to the very right is ugly, but because the street is fine-grained, it does not destroy the overall aesthetics of this street in Puebla, Mexico.

Large buildings are not bad - they should just be used in moderation. Cities throughout history have had large buildings - grand town halls, stadium, and cathederals.


The Colosseum in Rome.

But, you can see that in historical cities, the space between the large buildings was filled in with fine-grained development. Coarse-grained development in a city is like salt and pepper in a meal; a bit of salt and pepper makes the meal taste better, but too much salt and pepper can destroy it, and nobody wants a meal that is only salt and pepper without any real ingredients.

An area of downtown St Louis that is covered in coarse-grained development. All Salt and Pepper but no substance.

One of the duller areas of St Louis at street level that shows off the symptoms of coarse-grained development - large, monotonous, and mostly featureless walls, and very few people around.

I went on a food tour of Old San Juan, and we were walking around the streets with the guide pointing out landmarks and peculiarities over a narrative of the city's history and culture. Our tour guide was describing how the town was mostly laid out by a few companies that sold homes. If you wanted a home and had the money, you would find a free plot of land somewhere in town, and order a house in French or Spanish style and they would build it on that site.

Homes in Old San Juan. I was amused by how they closed the travel lanes of this street for resurfacing, but kept the sidewalks opened for people. This is how you tell when you are in an area built for people.

You would order your houses by how many windows wide you could afford. Naturally the buildings did not always line up and that led to the creation of alleys.

An alley in Old San Juan.

I live in Hoboken, NJ and the largest threat to Hoboken's character are the monolithic block-sized buildings I see appear anywhere that there is an opportunity to redevelop;

A monolithic apartment building in Hoboken that takes up an entire block.

Contrast this to the traditional, fine-grained blocks that are subdivided into 40 or so individual lots;

There is a mixture of older and newer buildings along this street in Hoboken. Here they are around 4 to 5 stories, and I have seen taller buildings in Manhattan while still being relatively fine grained, so I do not think that density is really an argument for coarse-grain development.

I have dreams of one day building my own townhome. I want the cost of entry to get into the property development business - even if it is only to build a home for myself - to be affordable to a middle-class person. There is plenty of under-developed land in the far-west edge of Hoboken.

The north-western corner of Hoboken.

What some of this land looks like.

Every time I head back there I always see a handful of buildings under construction at any one moment. With property values as high as they are, it is not unreasonable to imagine that most of this will be built over in the near future.

A huge building on the western edge of Hoboken under construction.

But, these are the kinds of developments that I believe are also destroying our city's character and instead creating these sterile, empty spaces. What could Hoboken, or any other city, do in order to encourage true fine-grained development?

I was trying to finding a very early plat of Hoboken showing individual lots, and one of the earliest I could find was this "coaster map" from 1886;


A 1886 Coaster Map showing the south western corner of Hoboken from the Hoboken Historical Museum.

What is interesting to note here is that the typical blocks are divided into 34 lots.

Like many cities, Hoboken has a zoning office that must approve all development. If our Zoning Board and Planning Board had interest in protecting our historical character, I would imagine that they might want to stick as closely to the original plat as possible. So, what I propose is that in our zoning code we specify a maximum lot size that matches the original plat, or at least the character of the area we are aiming for. Any redevelopment plans that pass through the zoning office must meet this requirement or apply for a variance. This would not stop coarse-grained development in Hoboken - I think large buildings are great in moderation - but we should be conservative in issuing variances to only those developers that can convince us that it is absolutely necessary. The default path of least resistance, however, would be to subdivide larger parcels of land into smaller single-family, multi-family, and mixed-use buildings.

Would that be sufficient or would it be too restrictive? What do you think?

  1. http://erinamsili.blogspot.com/2011/01/new-years-eve-rome-style.html
  2. http://hoboken.pastperfectonline.com/archive/F8AFF7F5-90A6-416E-8DEB-490869368470