Today, you think of new tract housing as an exclusively suburban phenomenon, something you see way the hell out at the urban fringe, in places like Rockland County, Irvine or Modesto. You don't see that anymore in expensive coastal cities, because New York and California's local governments have decided that it's more important to keep Greenwich Village, West LA and Palo Alto exactly as they were in 1970. But it wasn't always this way. And if you'll hop in the DeLorean with me, I'll show you some examples, and give some ideas for how to bring back mass-produced homes in urban centers.
(It's not just all about zoning reform, though zoning reform is obviously necessary.)
Our first stop in the DeLorean is Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, 1899. We're going to go to Lefferts Place, where I used to live with Abby the opera singer, Nathan the composer, and Baby Love the cat.
In the year 1899, the noisy, polluting steam locomotives on the old Fulton elevated were replaced with modern electric trains, and so the neighborhood got a whole lot more desirable, real fast. The result was a bunch of greedy developers tearing down graceful Civil War-era mansions to put up cookie-cutter rowhouses. The developers cut corners left and right. They even cheaped out on the facades, using cheap sandstone blocks shipped from quarries in Jersey and Connecticut instead of quality materials like marble or granite.
I'm talking, of course, about these five lovely brownstones, which enabled the upwardly mobile middle classes to afford fancy neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy. And this process happened all over New York City at the time - it's what created the most durable neighborhoods of New York, like the Upper West Side, Park Slope and Bed-Stuy.
Now, let's fast-forward another five years to turn-of-the-century San Francisco. We're take you to Waller Street, out in the old Western Addition, where it's the same story: sketchy real estate guys building a bunch of oversized, gaudy, tacky duplexes out of the cheapest materials possible, replacing the old small-scale farms that were there previously.
Here, again it's the same story as in Brooklyn: the cheaply-built tract homes that I'm talking about are these lovely redwood Victorians. If you want to buy one, it'll run you $2-3 million. In early 20th-century San Francisco redwood was the cheapest material available.
Our third and last stop is the 1960s, in Santa Monica, where the post-war housing shortage led the same sketchy types of developers to start tearing down the worn-out bungalows of the 1920s, and replacing them with cheap wood apartment buildings - basically, boxes over a carport. This is LA's love-it-or-hate-it dingbat apartment.
Were they reviled at the time? Of course. These dingbat apartments let upwardly mobile Angelenos afford places like Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, after all. But now, they're considered quirky Modernist icons, with their goofy-looking decorations and overwrought, pretentious names.
But what hasn't yet appeared in the 21st century is a contemporary equivalent of the brownstone, the Victorian, or the dingbat. And it's not entirely clear how you'd get there. After all, all the examples of cookie-cutter infill I've discussed here relied on cheap labor, and labor is expensive in the 21st century. Worse, the construction industry hasn't improved its productivity much at all since 1945.
So, how do you make cookie-cutter homes work in the 21st century?
But I think a major part of creating a 21st-century cookie-cutter is for cities to create standardized, preapproved building plans.
First, standard plans make it easier to build, because a major holdup when building new buildings is getting City approval in the first place. And there's precedent for this - San Jose and Los Angeles have approved standard backyard cottage designs, which cuts down the approval time from 2-3 months to 2-3 days.
Thus, in San Jose or Los Angeles, you can literally go up to the counter and order, say, a No. 5 for the back yard. And if you start doing the same for rowhouses and small apartment buildings, you can likewise cut the processing time from 2-3 years to 2-3 weeks.
Second, pre-approved building plans mean you can actually mass-produce prefabricated housing on an industrial scale. While standardized, prefabricated homes have existed since the late 19th century,
standardized, modular homes haven't really caught hold yet in the 21st-century residential market because it's hard to establish economies of scale. It's expensive as hell to maintain all the infrastructure to do modular buildings, and mass-produced patterns are difficult to establish when each one must be tweaked to fit each city's building code.
But standard, preapproved plans and fast approvals change all that. In the backyard cottage market, you're already starting to see this happen, with companies like Abodu and PrefabADU able to get a cottage put up in 3-6 months instead of 6-12 months.
And if you do that for apartments and rowhouses, you really can generate economies of scale. If you think about it, the classic East Coast rowhouse is a good place to start: they're basically boxes, ~18-25 feet wide, 2-3 stories tall, and ~50 feet deep. You can build them as a single-family home, as a duplex, or a triplex, and you can fit two of them on nearly every single-family lot in greater New York, LA or the Bay Area. With pre-approval, you can crank them out in huge numbers to replace the worn-out single-family houses of the 1920s and 1950s.
It means, in short, industrial production of cookie-cutter urban housing. This is part of a long, honorable American tradition going back a hundred and fifty years, and it is a Good Thing. After all, using a cookie cutter gets you lots of cookies.