Update On The New York City Micro-Unit "Design" Competition: Was This Trip Really Necessary?

Public Meeting in New York, July 31/Screen capture

The more I think about the adAPT competition in New York, the more I wonder what they were thinking. I watched the Livestream of the Q and A this afternoon, and think that quite a few of those architects in the room are wondering what they are getting into.

Don't get me wrong, I think micro-flats are a terrific idea that will be popular with a broad spectrum of the population, from young renters to older retirees to rich people looking for a pied-à-terre in Manhattan, there will be huge demand. Really, they didn't need a competition to prove the concept, it's proven. (See San Francisco here) They just had to relax the zoning bylaw and these units would have got built. As I wrote in my last post,

C'mon, this is New York City. The only thing that has kept developers from building Tokyo size 12 mat apartments (216 square feet) is that the zoning bylaw didn't allow them; drop the minimum square footage requirements and developers will jump at the chance; they do everywhere else in the world.

New York City Planning Department/Public Domain

Secondly, they keep calling it a design competition, but it's not, as I noted in Bloomberg Does Not Announce Design Competition for Tiny Apartments. It's a "Request for Proposals". In fact, design has a weight of only 30%; Programming gets 20%, Financial feasibility gets 20%, Development experience, management and capability gets 20%, and purchase price of the land gets 10%. Yes, the one thing that the City is really contributing to the deal besides a zoning waiver is the land, but 10% of the points go to how much you are willing to pay them for it anyways. That's a sweet deal.

Requirements checklist /Public Domain

Arsonists Not Welcome

Thirdly, their threshold requirements for participation are really, really tough. This is, by conventional real estate standards, a really dinky building on a lot 45' by 105'; most people reading this have houses on bigger lots. That's why there are so many small developers in New York who work the neighborhoods, a site this size is almost not worth doing for the bigger ones. Yet to meet the threshold, a principal needs to have built 75 units in the last 7 years, and managed 75 units in the last 7 years. Add in the requirements that the proponent cannot have been convicted or arson, harrassment, fraud, bribery or larceny, and that considerably narrows the field of developers who might even be eligible for this competition. Then there are the financial requirements:

Applicants must demonstrate adequate financial resources to develop a project of the scope proposed in their submission. HPD will evaluate the Applicant’s assets, bank or other lender references, and current commitments in order to assess the Applicant’s capacity to secure construction and permanent financing, meet construction lender’s equity requirements, absorb any cost overruns, and commence and complete construction of Applicant’s entire Project in a timely manner.

A fundamental disconnect between the size of the project and the size of the development companies they are limiting it to

In the current financing environment, one could spend the next six weeks just trying to line that up and fill in the forms. There is just a huge mismatch between the things they are asking for, compared to what they are actually putting on the table. This just isn't how the development business works on little projects like this. There is a fundamental disconnect between the size of the project and the size of the development companies they are limiting it to by their restrictions.

New York Planning Department/Public Domain

Setbacks? What Setbacks?

Then there is the issue of the clarity of the information that they have been giving out, like this drawing that shows a 30' minimum setback to the rear. Except that it is a corner lot, and they announced in the live conference that there is no 30' minimum setback. There is a setback if you have windows, and indeed this illustrative plan shows windows in that upper right corner bedroom,

New York Planning Department/Public Domain

But the other illustrative drawing doesn't have a window and still has the 30' setback. I wonder how many of the 1200 people who might be working on this project have been treating that setback as a given and are racing back to their drafting boards.

Meeting in New York/Screen capture

Is this trip really necessary?

Particularly after watching the session today, I wonder about the whole thing. The goals are laudable, but the approach is backwards. I initially disagreed with the economist and writer (for the Economist) Ryan Avent when he wrote how zoning bylaws restrict growth in his book the Gated City:

Our thriving cities fall short of their potential because we constantly rein them in because we worry that urban growth will be unpleasant. The residents of America's productive cities fear change in their neighborhoods and fight growth. In doing so they make their cities more expensive and less accessible to people with middle incomes.

But he was right; this didn't need a so-called "design" competition on a dinky site with ridiculously restrictive requirements and a deadline that eats up everyone's summer vacation. They just needed to change the zoning and would have got all of the 12 mat apartments they ever wanted.

Tags: Design Competitions | Less Is More | Living With Less | New York City