Goldilocks Urbanism and the perils of Density Caps

Interesting article in the Atlantic Cities about a Brit who moved back to the suburbs because he found that the chic urban districts weren’t really any less Stepford than Londoners’ most negative stereotypes of the ‘burbs, they were just a different kind of Stepford.

Most people should be familiar with the cycle by now. Poor creatives (artists) move into a neighborhood, which then attracts affluent creatives (architects, marketers). These in turn attract affluent people who wish they were creative (lawyers), by which point the neighborhood is no longer attractive to the artists. (Civil engineers are commuting from exurban tract homes in a Kia Sedona with crushed cheerios on the carpet.)

The eventual gentrification of every neighborhood in which artists congregate is sort of inevitable. But the “forcing out” which Mr. O’Sullivan describes, where upscale people and establishments “take over” from what was there before, is largely a product of zoning, specifically of density caps.

Let’s look at the Montrose. When I lived there I always got my dry cleaning done at the 7-7 cleaners. Originally this was in the stripmall next to Copy.com. But eventually their lease was up for renewal and the owner wanted to bump their rates a little.

Now if the Montrose was under strict caps on new development, what probably would have happened was that 7-7 stayed next to Copy.com and just raised their prices. But this is Houston. No zoning. And in the interim, some California investors had opened up another stripmall a few blocks east. So the cleaners moved there, and last time I looked there was still no tenant where they used to be.

The same thing rolls out with residential. If the ‘trose was under density caps, what would happen is that the bungalows would stay put and the garden apartments would get torn down to make way for condos, pricing out the people who live in the 1BR garden units now. But again, there’s no zoning. So what actually happens is the condos and townhomes get built where the bungalows used to be, and if anyone tears down a garden complex, it’s to replace it with an even larger apartment complex.

People complain about how the Montrose is too expensive now, but I just did a quick craigslist search and found a decent selection of 1BR’s for $650 or so. Five years ago those same apartments were going for $525-535. So yeah, it’s more expensive, but that’s only like a 4.20% annualized increase. No one’s being run out of there.

Of course, if you’re the starving artist type, $650 a month for a 1BR is still a bit much. Maybe you’ll head to the 3rd, or the 5th. Or you might just recognize that Sagemont is the new Heights and get a jump on the crowds.

2 thoughts on “Goldilocks Urbanism and the perils of Density Caps”

  1. Hey, I’m a civil engineer and I proudly consider myself among the “wish they were creative” class… even if I have to drive to Ralph’s or Vons for groceries b/c the Whole Foods around the corner is too #$&! expensive.

  2. Well, I got the idea that the city is not so much “too gentrified” but the fact that it’s just not that different from the suburbs and the suburbs are far cheaper.

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