Outcompeting the Neighbors: The Invasive Species of New Construction
It’s popping up all over our city. New construction. The proverbial canary in the coal mine of gentrification, new construction projects are the final and most undeniable indicator that a neighborhood’s value has progressed to the point of being able to sell premium priced homes to top bracket buyers. In Philadelphia, we have seen the bubble of market demand spreading rapidly in all directions from the center outward, now spurring new property development in an ever expanding wave of gentrification that has left no neighborhood untouched by the burgeoning weight of population growth in our city.
As educated young professionals pour in to take advantage of everything Philadelphia has to offer -- affordable housing, high-paying jobs in science and technology, excellent public transit and bicycle infrastructure (I could go on and on) -- we are seeing demand for housing skyrocket at a pace that supply is struggling to match. Where these same young professionals once clustered in Center City to take advantage of close proximity to jobs, activities, and culture, our further flung and typically lower income neighborhoods are experiencing a resurgence in desirability as buyers and renters compromise proximity for affordability. With demand far outstripping supply, these natural market forces are pushing higher income individuals and families to neighborhoods of historically lower incomes and property values, ushering in the black specter of urban redevelopment -- gentrification.
One year ago yesterday, my husband and I closed on our home in West Philadelphia, acting on those very same market forces that I have just described. An architect and an engineer, we would have happily bought and settled ourselves down in Fishtown, Queen Village, or Graduate Hospital, but we quickly found ourselves priced out of those already gentrified neighborhoods. Choosing long term affordability over proximity (I wanted to quit my job and start my own company after all), we bought the only house we could find after four months of house hunting that both met our requirements and came with a mortgage we could afford. Granted, it needed more renovation investment than the house was even worth, but we’ve been chipping away at our project (one year later, I am still painting kitchen cabinets and we haven’t even started on the walls) and we recognize that it will take many years to fully complete. As first time home owners, we are putting down roots and making investments in a home we hope to occupy for many years to come.
One year ago, we were one of the only white families in a predominantly African American neighborhood, and when I would walk from the 52nd Street station to our house to check in on construction after work, I was consistently the only white woman on the street. Today, a beautiful eighty-degree sunny day in September, I have counted from my office window over twenty white folks strolling down the sidewalk -- with their dogs, their babies, their partners, their parents. The neighborhood is rapidly changing, and I wouldn't even say it's for the better. This brings me to my original intended subject for this essay: new construction. With this influx of higher income residents -- white or not white, it really doesn’t matter -- speculative contractors and developers have begun building new homes in infill locations. At this point, I’ve counted only two new construction projects underway in the neighborhood, indicating a tipping point in the speed of rising property values and population shift. Undoubtedly, more are on the way.
As much as new construction projects indicate an upward trending median income and shifting demographics in response to natural forces of supply and demand, they can also demonstrate something more sinister -- competition for available resources. Just as invasive weeds arriving in an ecosystem can choke out native plants by outcompeting for shared resources such as sunlight, nutrients, or water, so too can new construction on an infill site outcompete its stationary neighbors for available sunlight, views, and space. At least the native plants have an opportunity to adapt and survive; native structures are generally confined to their original form. Considering and responding to contextual architectural forms has perhaps never been more critical than in today's battlefield ecosystem of urban redevelopment.
One of these new construction projects in my neighborhood has delivered a striking example of the lengths (and height) to which speculative developers are willing to go to create as much profitable square footage in a project as possible. This particular home has been built on an infill lot sandwiched between a row of two-story Victorian-era rowhomes and a four-story apartment building. The rowhomes each demonstrate the typology typical of their format, with a walkup covered porch and a bay window on the second floor set back from the property line. The apartment building on the other side had a series of fire escape balconies on the back side, which provided some much needed access to fresh air for the inhabitants as well as panoramic views and sunsets over the western half of the city. The designer of the new home, on the other hand, disregards entirely the formal typology used by the rowhouse neighbors to the west, and delivered four stories of zero-lot-line generic modernity with no setback and an east-facing window box protrusion clearly calculated to capture the morning sun for the new inhabitants. An advantageous design, certainly, but one that disregards the fact that both sunlight and views are shared resources in a dense urban setting.
Designed for its own "optimal" form, the new house has outcompeted its neighbors for both of these precious resources, now unrecoverable by the original families living on either side. Conversely, the contextual form of the bay window is designed to provide both sunlight AND long distance views for every house in the row, thus creating equitable access to these common resources and maximizing benefit for the community at large. By building to the lot line, the developer and architect have interrupted the functional pattern and cast a literal shadow over the windows of the house immediately to the west, forever obstructing access to the eastern morning sun that is so critical to human circadian rhythms. Would you want to wake up each morning in shadow where there once was brilliant sunlight streaming through your window? By building to the maximum height allowed by right in the zoning code, the new house has also built up right in front of the adjacent apartment building's fire escapes and created a dark, shadowy crevasse where once there existed fresh air and limitless vistas.
Perhaps the project will achieve its goals -- to maximize return on financial investment by maximizing occupable area and number of units -- but at what cost? At what cost to the longtime residents immediately next door? At what cost to the value of the overshadowed home, whose property value will be forever suppressed by the towering behemoth next door elbowing it out of the way for a few more square feet of leasable area? Buildings, after all, are not plants. We cannot excuse their designers, their developers, for pursuing solely survival and optimal resource management. Endowed with the capacity of self awareness and the ability to consider the impact of our actions on others, we are both empowered and burdened with the responsibility to design for more than the bottom line alone. In an already gentrifying neighborhood, each new construction project is accelerating the rate of change and potential displacement to existing homeowners and renters alike. Rather than perpetuating structuralized racism by designing for maximum competitive advantage, perhaps its time we change our strategy and design instead for maximum community advantage. We all are human after all, and there really is enough sunlight to go around.