Haussmannization Continues, or, Protesting TOD

This weekend, a mile and a half of the Odakyu system went underground.

The old line had level crossings every few hundred feet, as seen in Google. The undergrounding is part of a long-range plan by Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward to redevelop the area around Shimokitazawa Station, a major interchange point between two railway lines that connect to two of Tokyo’s commercial districts. Think Secaucus Junction, but with a low-rise neighborhood in place of the Meadowlands.

Phase II of the plan is to construct a Transit Center on the right-of-way vacated by the Odakyu Line. This gets translated to English as “rotary plaza,” but the concept is the same – a big concrete apron with pullouts, shelters, and enough space for a full-sized bus to turn around. The transit center will be accessed by a new street cut through the neighborhood’s Tokyo-standard warren of alleyways. It’ll have 2-3 lanes (one each way, plus turn bays), wide sidewalks, and landscaping. In cross section it is almost identical to Preston Street near Dean’s Credit Clothing.

Near the rail station, and along the new street, building height limits will be increased to 200 feet. Put together, the plan looks like so:

Not exactly a bad redevelopment plan, eh? Take a major railway station, make it a focal point for bus service, allow higher-density development. Great.

But you wouldn’t know this from reading the English-language media. For instance, a Global Voices article states: “the plan will split Shimokitazawa apart with a 26-meter wide expressway.” This brings to mind an elevated four-lane highway, not a two-lane surface street with a 26m total right-of-way. A New York Times piece also sticks to the divided highways theme, stating: “A shadow has fallen straight across the heart of this pulsing neighborhood. In four years, city officials plan to start building an 81-foot-wide thoroughfare that will slice Shimokitazawa in two.”

So why the misrepresentation? A closer read of the NY Times article suggests an answer. “I couldn’t believe it,” said Kenzo Kaneko, 41, an architect who lives here. “They just announced the death of the neighborhood, without asking us what we thought.”

Longtime readers will recall I’ve previously outlined a four-step process by which neighborhoods are gentrified.

1.) Poor creatives (e.g., artists)

2.) Affluent creatives (e.g., architects and marketers)

3.) Affluent people who like to think of themselves as creative (e.g., MBAs)

4.) Civil Engineers

Shimokitazawa, it appears, is on the tipping point between phase II and phase III. 17-story apartment blocks, with all of the latest amenities, will further open up the neighborhood to muggles. They must therefore be stopped.

Were this article being written about San Francisco or Berlin, I might start talking about zoning. But Japan largely does not practice Euclidean zoning. What Tokyo and other cities do have is density, FAR, and height limits. That’s what comes into play here.

It’s therefore useful to note that the same basic dynamic – neighborhood sees restricted development, people become used to restricted development, huge outcry results when restrictions are proposed to be lifted – occurs in non-Euclidean systems as well. Whenever architectural students from Rice or wherever get together to brainstorm what sort of exciting “form based codes” or other land use restrictions they might lay down on Houston, they should keep in mind the story of Shimokitazawa. Any restrictions on land development at all will inevitably lead to a citizenry that feels entitled to preserve their neighborhood in amber. Densification will be that much harder, with associated increases in sprawl and reductions in housing affordability.

Just don’t do it.

As an aside, here’s the page of the official protest group, where they list their alternative proposals for redevelopment.

2 thoughts on “Haussmannization Continues, or, Protesting TOD”

  1. Tangentially related but this post brings up an interesting point about Japan.

    Japan tends somewhat towards technocracy and as such planners hold a great deal of power. It seems to me that plans are adhered to very rigidly to plans, even very old plans that may be irrelevant, come hell or high water. According to Wikipedia the roadway that is the center of this controversy seems to have been planned in 1939. (The plan’s age does not necessarily mean it is irrelevant but the fact that it’s gone this long without being built should at least tell something about it.)

    There seems to be a general notion that “If it is in the plan, then it MUST be built.” Contrast this with the US where absolutely every major project of every kind is potentially on the chopping block with every election cycle. As a result, Japan tends to have very carefully crafted, more grounded and realistic plans, contrasted with the unbounded optimisim and whimsy that is seemingly pervasive in the US in the face of the fickle nature of politics. Whereas a plan written in 1939 in Japan still holds weight today, there is almost no point to planning with a longer horizon than 2 years in the US since everything is constantly shuffled around so much according to the political landscape of the moment.

    The downside, of course, is that in Japan, once something is in the plan, it is less often re-evaluated to determine if it still is the right course of action, and there is less opportunity for opposition to shut down a project that really is bad.

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