Friday, March 11, 2005

Code blues

The press pulled out the black tie for the MIT Council for the Arts party for the “poet of glass and steel,” Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava ( last night at University Park in Cambridge. But a compelling tale of citybuilding was also being told across the river in Boston in the offices of Utile, above a 7-Eleven in Downtown Crossing. There, architect Tim Love and Tim Pappas of Pappas Properties were explaining plans for an infill development called First + First – two dozen townhouses at the spot where East First Street meets West First Street in South Boston, where the residential neighborhood meets a more industrial zone. The townhouses are touted as a model for city living, with rear-entry two-car garages on the ground floor and flexible living space on the three floors above, including a terrace at the top for all units. City officials have made it clear they want to see more of this kind of housing built, on the hundreds of vacant parcels that are longstanding gaps in Boston’s urban smile. But the designers had to work within the restricting confines of the city’s building code, which requires, just as one example, a second stairwell if the floorplate is so much as a foot wider than the townhouse limitation. Developers willing to try new things in urban redevelopment need more flexibility. Newark recognized that, and cut red tape for builders re-knitting run-down blocks. Creative ideas can get stymied because of rigid rules put together by bureaucrats years ago, and that goes for buildings and street design, as well.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Eminent case

The property rights movement in the US has been on a tear over the last 20 years, proving with its myriad high-profile court cases that it’s not just about ranchers in the West. The quest has been to prove that regulatory actions in land use are the equivalent of a taking – based on the last clause of the Fifth Amendment to the Us Constitution, which says, “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” The movement seems unlikely to come away with a big victory in Kelo v. City of New London, set for a ruling by the US Supreme Court. In that case the “public use” part is at issue, and the court seems uninterested in revisiting 50 years of judicial deference in the justification of local eminent domain. But even in defeat – if that’s what happens – the case will have an impact. Governments and developers may think twice about using eminent domain, and will undoubtedly strive to make a more solid case for how the public will benefit from redevelopment of a site, a prediction made by Leonard Zax and Rebecca Malcolm in the January issue of Urban Land magazine ( One other thing to watch in the aftermath: lingering hard feelings between developers and property rights lawyers, usually hand-in-hand, but on opposite sides for Kelo.