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Against Master Developers

Large developers hurt rather than help city vitality.

When it comes to large-scale planning and development, the majority of today’s cities use master developers. The city puts these big developers in charge of big projects, such as the redevelopment of old industrial areas. In cities or suburbs with more green space, large subdivisions or new neighborhoods are master planned from the get-go.

Essentially, this means the city has subcontracted out the urban planning process. The master developer is in charge of land acquisition, site work, deciding where the infrastructure will go, and even community outreach, if any is needed. In many cases, the master developer will also develop the buildings themselves, though sometimes this is further subcontracted to other developers.

While efficient, this method tends to result in sterile neighborhoods that are never quite as active and popular as anyone wanted or hoped for. This is because vitality is sacrificed to speed and the usual problems of today’s urban planning: size and supposed efficiency.

In traditional American city-building, the roadways are designated by the city. They are often based on the boundaries of the 40-acre sections the country’s interior was divided into by the Northwest Ordinance. Those land parcels were broken up in planning into plats, each about 100 feet deep and with 20 feet of road frontage. Parcels were sold individually to be developed as blocks and individual lots. Towns could grow very quickly in this way—Chicago more than doubled its population four times between 1840 and 1900—but it was organic growth, what Charles Marohn of Strong Towns might call “incremental” growth. In many ways it was still too fast for civic leaders to handle the increase in demand for city services, but Chicago, and similar growth rates in more contemporary suburbs, have been outliers.

This individual plot development is preferable to the master developer method favored today for a several reasons. First, it provides economic resilience. If one hundred entrepreneurs are developing one hundred lots, it will be very likely in a downturn that at least one, and probably more, will succeed and stay in business while others flounder. It is also (at least theoretically) easier to finance a bunch of small projects rather than a single large one.

Let’s look to Boston for some examples. Vornado Realty Trust paid $100 million in 2006 to buy a former department store, Filene’s, in the city’s downtown. They got permits to redevelop the site, demolished it, and began digging. In 2008, when the financial crisis happened, Vornado lost its financing for the project, leaving a big hole in the middle of Boston until a new developer, Millennium Partners, took over and built a new building, which was completed in 2016. In the Boston suburb of Weymouth, meanwhile, the redevelopment of an old airbase into a new neighborhood has been led by four master developers, one of which had its financing collapse and was forced out of the project by the city cutting off its water.

The redevelopment of Boston’s Seaport has also been led by a master developer, WS Development, although somewhat more successfully. But the newest neighborhood in the city is now known for its glass-walled high-rises and its lack of anything approaching human scale or life, a situation exacerbated by wide, fast streets and the rather random choice of lots to build on. The North Point neighborhood in Cambridge is a similar assortment of high-rises but without much in the way of a street grid or street-level anything.

Both Seaport and North Point, however, are proximate to neighborhoods that have incorporated new development much more successfully: South Boston and East Cambridge.

This success is qualified by gentrification that has come with a general lack of housing development in Boston. Rising rents and property values have caused demographic turnover in East Cambridge and class turnover in South Boston, but the urban fabric is the focus here. Both neighborhoods were originally developed in the 19th century as growing numbers of Irish and later Italian and Eastern European immigrants arrived in New England to work in the region’s factories. Boston went from being a small peninsula attached to Dorchester by a narrow spit of land to the city it is today in a few decades. Tidal flats and small islands around the mouth of the Charles, the Mystic and Malden Rivers, as well as Chelsea Creek were dyked and filled to create neighborhoods like Back Bay, the South End, Bay Village, Cambridgeport, Lechmere, South Boston, East Boston, Kendall Square and East Cambridge.

Somewhat unusually for the region, both neighborhoods are also built on a grid plan. Both feature small buildings built on small lots with small street frontages. South Boston’s blocks are a little longer and are sometimes broken up into short dead-end streets to access the block interior. There are a few streets that cross the entire block, but not many. Over the past few decades older buildings have been renovated and subdivided and new buildings have been built, but crucially, the new apartments going up occupy only a few of the lots. In South Boston, new buildings often have ground floor retail spaces, which helps keep the street active.

These little, rapidly changing, street-front buildings are known as “fine grained urbanism,” and master planned neighborhoods are sorely lacking them. Being fine-grained or not does not make or break a neighborhood, but it is often a key element in a place’s success. Sometimes, buildings can use architecture to get away with being big—public and religious buildings are often capable of this. But neighborhoods of public, monumental buildings can be stultifying, no matter how beautiful. Washington, D.C., suffers from this in spades, which the security theater of the last two decades has exacerbated; the office buildings of the federal bureaucracy are huge and while they often have their own food concessions, those are interior and so don’t help activate the streets. The results are long facades that are as dead as they are classically correct.

Ironically, for a practice implemented to facilitate economic development, the use of master developers can hinder it. Large buildings, especially for offices, are traditionally speculative investments. There’s even a correlation between the construction of tall buildings and economic recessions. The Empire State Building wasn’t fully leased out until the 1950s, for example. The competition for tenants in need of a lot of space can be quite cutthroat, especially when cities are frequently willing to offer tax incentives for businesses to relocate. New buildings can be expensive to lease in; Boston’s Seaport was originally intended to be home to tech startups, but only more established companies could afford to rent in the freshly constructed buildings. Similarly, bigness and newness restrict the street-activating retail to restaurants and stores.

Master planner-based developments, with their large, centralized buildings, inhibit the growth of local businesses and reduce the number of firms in the development and construction space. Many smaller buildings would serve better and be cheaper to profitably lease. There are ways to integrate tall buildings into fine-grained urbanism, and not everything at street-level needs to be a restaurant or a store, but problems arise when we let our cities become too repetitive, when we let NIMBY neighbors dictate that there be “open space” or parking lots surrounding every building, and when we only do redevelopment in disused industrial sites instead of permitting small lot redevelopment in existing neighborhoods.

Matthew Robare lives in Boston. This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.

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