Friday, May 10, 2013

Promoting Fine- Grained Neighborhoods

A large mixed-use project on the Oakland waterfront, Brooklyn Basin, was recently announced with great fanfare.  Politicians from Oakland Mayor Jean Quan to Governor Jerry Brown lauded the proposal, which will be built with extensive foreign capital.

Urbanists promptly weighed in with their thoughts on the plan, offering cogent analyses of the strengths and weaknesses.

I find myself holding an opinion that is contrary to both sides.  Regardless of the planning issues, regardless of the foreign capital, regardless of the jobs and economic activity that the project would create, I hope the project goes away.  My reason is that it’s a monolithic project.

Jane Jacobs argued that cities should be fine-grained, by which she meant that development should occur in small, discrete chunks, constructed by different developers for different uses using different architects at different times.  One of her primary arguments is that a neighborhood needs a supply of older buildings with lower rents to act as incubator space for new businesses.

There are other arguments that can be added to hers.  A friend recently wrote that he and his wife had chosen a fine-grained residential neighborhood (which usually means pre-World War II) because they hoped it would lead to a heterogeneous group of neighbors.  Their expectation was met.

I’ve often made the argument that a fine-grained neighborhood encourages reinvestment.  At a residential level, consider a homeowner who lives in a housing tract from the 2000s and who wishes to remodel his kitchen.  He’d better enjoy cooking because it’ll be hard to capture the value of a remodel when his resale competes directly with nearly identical homes up and down the street.

But put the homeowner in a fine-grained neighborhood where the homes are all different, and it will be easier to recapture the value of the remodel.  The fine-grained neighborhood encourages reinvestment and continual revitalization.

And now we have a further reason to support Jacobs’ theory.  Eric Jaffe of Atlantic Cities reports that Duke sociologist Katherine King studied Chicago neighborhoods to find if a fine-grained development pattern improved the social ties in the neighborhood.  Interestingly, she inverted my friend’s assumption about a fine-grained neighborhood leading to a heterogeneous group of residents.  She used age diversity as a proxy for fine-grained development.

King found what Jacobs would have expected fifty years ago.  Fine-grained development, as represented by age diversity, leads to stronger social ties.

Which brings us back to Brooklyn Basin.  I’m supportive of developing the site as a mixed-use project.  But under the current planning concept, I think the mostly likely results in fifty years are “gracefully aging but economically stagnant neighborhood” or “slum”.  Neither is acceptable.   But the uniform, undifferentiated nature of the plan will constrain the possibilities for adjusted visions and reinvestment as the project ages.   Plus it appears that it will also lack good social ties.

To me, the preferred fifty-year future is “economically active with constant reinvention and new uses”.  To achieve that goal under a single developer is difficult and unusual.  The better way to achieve it is to incorporate multiple developers.

There are large projects for a single developer is required to implement overall site planning or infrastructure needs before allowing individual developers to tackle individual parcels within the project.  The master developer concept works well for this situation and I would have favored it for Brooklyn Basin.

But I also understand why the master developer concept is infrequently used.  Under the current land-use paradigm in which more and more infrastructure is required while cities are less and less able to participate in the infrastructure costs, a developer must often fully build-out the site himself to recapture his infrastructure investment.  It’s an unfortunate situation, but there’s no obvious solution in sight.

And so Brooklyn Basin moves ahead and we once again fail to leave to the next generation what we should, land-use patterns that are conceived to regenerate and to renew themselves for a century or more.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (
(Note: Rendering is from Signature Development.)


  1. On a recent tour of TOD sites, I got to see your point clearly: the unfortunate result of single large developer seems to be same/same/same appearance despite little changes in facades, colors, etc. Your analysis shows me why I was drawn to Petaluma many years ago: the residential heterogeneity, at least on the westside, is tremendously appealing, even beyond the rich aesthetics — a diversity of ages, incomes, lifestyles and ethnicity.

    1. Barry, thanks for the comment. I think the key point on Petaluma isn't that it had a secret formula for heterogeneity, but that much of it, particularly on the westside as you note, was built pre-World War II. The pre-WW II land-use approach resulted in development that many of us find appealing today. Indeed, the core of urbanism is capturing the essence of that land-use paradigm and bringing into the 21st century.