Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Rant: industrial to residential conversion

Okay, so this will rate as a rant. When dealing with urbanists who defend contextual zoning, height limits and the like, once they are confronted with the impossibility of increasing urban population and keeping housing prices down without building higher, they will frequently come up with a "magical solution" to the issue. Converting old industrial neighborhoods to very high-density developments.

Griffintown, an old industrial center near the downtown area of Montréal, now being converted to very high density housing with 10 to 20 stories and a residential density of 40 000 people per square kilometer (over 100 000 per square mile)
The urbanists will then say that we don't need to raise height limits in established neighborhoods, we can keep contextual zoning alive, preserve the "heritage" and "character" of these areas and just concentrate all the construction in these old industrial neighborhoods. There, they have solved the Gordian knot of housing supply and conservation!

There is a big flaw to this, in fact, there are many big flaws.

For one, this is what we call in French "une fuite en avant", literally "flight to the front", meaning that when there are problems, instead of facing them and solving them, people try to flee in front of the problems, to stay ahead of them. In the end, they're just buying time, maybe hoping that someone else will solve the problems or that they will go away on their own.

What I mean by this is that, OK, you have a few disaffected industrial areas that you can repurpose for residential uses. That buys you off a few years, or maybe one or two decades if you're lucky... then what? The problem is still there, we still limit housing supply by an obsession to keep areas as is for the benefit of the lucky duckies who had the chance of getting there when it was affordable. The real solution should be to make sure that it is always possible to have areas densify and build more units, that way, the areas that are most desirable will see the greatest housing growth, and not just the areas that have less NIMBYs (or less effective ones).

But it's not just that, these industrial sectors are TERRIBLE places to live in many cases. They lack public services, lack shops, lack everything to support residential developments, because they were built for industrial uses. Everything has to be built from scratch, soil has to be decontaminated, transit lines have to be built, etc... The areas closest to established areas are a bit better off, but as you go deeper into the old industrial zone, it gets progressively worse.

It's not just that there is a lack of services... sometimes, there's the wrong kind of services. For example, look at this development:
New developments in Pointe-Saint-Charles

It doesn't look terrible, doesn't it? It is quite dense, has plenty of balconies and doors and they even planted trees in front, so that they will grow in the future. It even has a walk score of 91, a transit score of 100 and a bike score of 100. It is near a subway that can get to downtown in 15 minutes.
Walk score report for that locationé
Now, what if I told you that these units are pretty damn cheap, nearly suburban-level cheap, costing 250 000$ for 1000-square foot units? How could that be? Well, look at this other image...
Rail lines within 50 feet of apartments, and guess what?
They're EXTREMELY used by freight trains as there is a railyard a few kilometers to the east and one of the few rail bridges of Montréal
The people who live in the area are now protesting incessantly about noise, as train noises have been measured as high as 75 dB, and they may come and go at every hour of the day... or night. I don't like the freight train companies much, but it's not their fault, they have been in the area for a century, and at the time, a dynamic industrial sector sprouted up to benefit from the rail line. But now, the industrial area is gone and the city's urbanists have encouraged promoters to build housing within mere meters of these heavily-trafficked rail lines, in a bid to find a way to build more housing without modifying existing areas.

Getting rid of industrial areas and other job centers for residential zones also mean contributing to job sprawl. Some of these areas were disaffected of course, but maybe they could have been salvaged with ways to alleviate congestion, like with tolls and congestion charges.

So here ends my rant about how converting industrial sectors to residential sectors in order to avoid having to upzone desirable neighborhoods is, in my opinion, a wrongheaded policy, even a cowardly one.


  1. I think it's one of those ideas that works well in the first city that tried it and then got exported to really inappropriate places. In New York, residential conversions work, in the sense that the industrial buildings so converted are so old that they look more or less like prewar residential buildings, there already is subway service because that's how people used to get to work even at factories, and the industrial uses have all long decamped to suburbs with cheaper land and open-plan layouts. If anything, the problem is that some neighborhoods maintain their manufacturing zoning to keep the few remaining factories around when they could easily be turned into lofts. Freight rail? What freight rail?

    Now, place this in a city where the industrial districts were built this side of 1910. Totally different situation now - residential uses might still outbid industrial ones, but it's not like in areas where industry is so wildly inappropriate it's basically a workfare program.

    It's like the High Line - it succeeded because of local neighborhood specifics, and now every US neighborhood wants one.

  2. Minneapolis' North Loop and Mill District neighborhoods are old industrial areas that have been transformed to residential with success. There still are problems with general street activity, pedestrian access, and neighborhood green space. The key to the success was the almost total evaporation of industry. As recently as the 1970s dozens of rail lines dotted the area, now its pretty bare. Great Northern had a grand terminal, railway viaducts, massive grain milling operations are now gone. Replaced with modest apartments and some industrial conversions.

    The few holdouts from its gritty past still hang on, a paper distributor, some machine shops, a women and children's shelter. Others like the Salvation Army have been pushed out.

    The North Loop and Mill District are by far the most popular area for development in the Minneapolis Area metro, There is still lots of room to grow downtown, but I agree that it is no excuse for upzoning.

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