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DOB Commissioner hints at sea change (including FCR's plans?): "you have to figure out how to build bigger, and better, and modular"

Given the city's housing squeeze and numerous illegal units (such as apartments in single-family houses), policy analysts and even city officials are now grappling with the idea of supplying new forms of housing, such as small but updated single room occupancy (SRO) units and multiple units attached to a house.

That was the subject of an intriguing conference yesterday titled "Making Room," sponsored by the Citizens Housing and Planning Council and The Architectural League of New York. (Here's coverage in WNYC, City Limits, and Urban Omnibus.)

I'll have some more coverage in another post but first would like to focus on the comments of Department of Buildings (DOB) Commissioner Robert LiMandri, who seemed skeptical toward the new ideas--which would generally add density without changing the overall scale of neighborhoods--and supportive of an alternative: building towers via lower-cost modular construction.

It sounded very much like the DOB has been having serious conversations with developers--say, Forest City Ratner--that want to do exactly that.

LiMandri: solutions too small
LiMandri first expressed skepticism about the model of a newfangled SRO with shared space like kitchens. Like some others at the conference, he wondered who would be responsible for maintaining and policing such space.

He also questioned the emphasis, as several presenters suggested, on living smaller, using multi-function furniture (a bed folds up, a table becomes a desk). "Living smaller is not necessarily the way I want to live all all the time," LiMandri said.

While he praised the ingenuity behind such things as movable walls, he observed, "You go talk to anyone else in the U.S., and they go, Ohmigod, you should see what they live in in New York. So, if we want to make this city a place to come and live, we need to offer flexible solutions, but I’m of the opinion that they don't always have to be smaller."

LiMandri: building bigger

“It’s about affordability, which drives to the question of how do you pay for it, and how do you finance it, and, who's in charge of building it," LiMandri continued. "So my sense is you have to work on the financial equation piece, and you also have to figure out how to build bigger, and better, and modular."

"Those are the kinds of things that are going to transform our marketplace so that it doesn’t necessarily have to be the old way we built buildings. You build buildings all the time... If you sit in the same matrix, there's only so much margin you can cut until you have to make the mold. My sense is we’re at that time where it’s not just about building smaller.”

LiMandri: where to build

The final piece, he suggested, is "unlocking the big value in the property," either by increasing the coverage of the lot--which would eliminate backyards and, he suggested, not be acceptable to many, or building taller.

"I actually live in [suburban-ish, upper-middle-class, Hollis Hills] Queens," he said. "And the whole reason we moved there is so that the lot coverage isn't 90%... So there is this push and pull with what people here think the people there want, and unlocking the value. If you unlock the zoning value, you will get development. And you will make it more affordable, and you don't necessarily have to be smaller."

That implies either that such Queens residents would accept taller buildings with less lot coverage or, more likely, that the city would steer development to areas that can better accommodate towers.

There are, of course, a lot of working class Queens neighborhoods where houses already contain illegal apartments, and a way to upgrade them and make them legal might be a solution.

But prefab construction apparently is seen as a solution, though it's not clear whether city officials are embracing the notion of 35-story towers of record-breaking height, as Forest City Ratner has suggested,  or still substantial buildings of more modest ambition.