Monday, April 28, 2014


A while back, I got a solicitation from a local real estate agent whose client was ostensibly in the market for a loft. The agent described her buyer’s ideal “loft”--apparently without irony--as having “at least 2 bedrooms, 2 baths, (and) 1500+ square feet.”

I wondered why the agent bothered using the term “loft” when it sounded more like her client was really in the market for a huge condo apartment, if not a fair-sized house.
Webster defines loft as “an upper room or floor” or “one of the upper floors of a warehouse or business building, especially when not partitioned.” The real estate and development industries, on the other hand, seem to define loft as “a chic new label that can be applied at will to a standard housing formula.”

Initially, the entire point of developing lofts--and perhaps we should be precise and call them commercial or industrial lofts or live/work spaces--was to utilize America’s growing stock of disused but often architecturally praiseworthy commercial and industrial buildings. Artists, musicians, and other people seeking wide-open, rough-and-tumble interior spaces were the first to occupy such buildings, often illegally. They were soon followed by other independent minded occupants of all kinds. 

Despite staunch early resistance from staid city governments and code-thumping building departments, it soon became clear that intelligent rehabbing of nonresidential buildings for living made perfect sense: It put substantial and often ruggedly beautiful structures to good use instead of consigning them to the wreckers. It offered inexpensive living space--initially, at least--along with unparalleled interior flexibility. And at the same time, it revitalized declining industrial areas by introducing a lively, round-the-clock population. 

So, despite bureaucratic opposition by the usual suspects, the loft movement became tremendously successful. Too successful for its own good, alas: It wasn’t long before a certain stripe of developer learned to exploit the profit potential inherent in this formula, while at the same time neatly circumventing the apparent annoyance of having to actually rehab old buildings. Instead, they simply started erecting new ones and tarting them up in quasi-industrial costume. Corrugated siding, metal windows, and a few exposed steel beams suddenly qualified a run-of-the-mill condo development as a “loft” or a “live-work” project.

Well, so what? Who cares what a building is called as long as it serves its purpose? You might as well ask the difference between apples and Apple Jacks. Calling an ordinary, new-from-the-ground-up condo development a “loft” simply plunders the most salable aspects of a valid and environmentally responsible concept without providing any of the social benefits in return. 

Like the US auto industry with its oxymoronic “hybrid SUV” offerings, developers who apply the term “loft” to otherwise unremarkable new projects kill two birds with one stone: They makes buyers--like that lady pining for a two-bedroom, two bath “loft”--feel warm and fuzzy about supporting the same old paradigm. At the same time, they sidestep the bother and expense of genuine innovation, conveniently ignoring the fact that true lofts are a lifestyle, not just a label.

Monday, April 21, 2014


In cities from Chicago to Austin to Berkeley, old-style mechanical parking meters are rapidly being replaced by a new type known as a multi-space meter. If your town doesn’t have them yet, you’ll be getting them soon enough. But unless you work for your city government, you may not find this much cause to celebrate.

Cities like to bill the new multi-space units as being more convenient for consumers, but experience proves otherwise. To park in a multi-space meter zone, you walk from your car to the meter, which can be some distance down the block. Once there, you buy a paper permit imprinted with the expiration time. Then you go back to your car to put the permit in the windshield, and finally go on your merry way.

Other than offering the dubious advantage of paying with a credit card, the added rigamarole involved in using multi-space meters makes it plain that any increase in convenience accrues to city parking departments and not to the public. 
For one, multi-space meters can serve up to ten parking spaces, so there are fewer units to service--an apparent advantage despite a cost of roughly $10,000 each. But for city governments, the real cachet of these new units is that they can rake in a lot more money per parking spaces than the old-style meters ever could. Here’s why:  

Suppose Suzy Doakes has an errand to run and parks in a space served by a multi-space meter. Like most of us, she doesn’t want to risk a parking ticket, so she buys forty minutes worth of time just in case. Happily, her errand only takes her twenty minutes, and then she returns to her car and drives off. 

Now, in the old days, the next person who parked in Suzy’s space could “piggyback” on her leftover time. The new multi-space meters have managed to stamp out this tiny joy of urban life. Why? Because when Suzy drives off, her parking permit--and the extra twenty minutes she’s already paid for--go with her. The next person to arrive has to pay for the same twenty minutes a second time. 

Hence, while old style meters could never take in more than 100 percent of the posted hourly parking rate, multi-space meters can actually take in multiples of the posted rate. How much more? A recent article on the installation of 31 new multi-space meters in Berkeley, California reveals that meter revenue increased nearly 300 percent, allowing the manager of the city’s parking service to rather nonchalantly conclude, ”They have far exceeded our projections."

Given this neat ability to double down on parking fees, cities across the country are scrambling to replace their old meters with multi-space units. Granted, in these difficult days, it’s tough to begrudge cities an additional source of income. What’s more, from an environmental perspective, it may not be a bad thing to make driving even more of a headache than it already is. But please, city officials--don’t try to tell us that this change is being made for our convenience. People who actually use these machines might not agree. When Chicago recently began replacing its old parking meters with multi-space units, for example, one driver offered the New York Times his candid opinion:

“I hate them,” he said. “It’s just another ridiculous way to squeeze us.”

Monday, April 7, 2014


The other day I was rummaging through a local architectural salvage yard when, way out in one corner, past the rows of forlorn toilets and racks sagging with old sinks, I came across a depressing sight. It was a literal mountain of fancy whirlpool tubs, each of which some home buying couple had once considered absolutely indispensable to their master bathroom. In reality, these tubs had been unused, unloved, and finally ripped out and given away. And here they were, a moldering monument to a silly but ubiquitous fad that’s still with us today.

Dubious building fads are certainly nothing new. In tract houses of the 1920s, for instance, a separate breakfast room was deemed a must, even if many of them were barely big enough to fit a table, let alone four chairs. Upscale ranch houses of the 1950s, on the other hand, frequently boasted an indoor barbecue, a patently impractical feature that was almost immediately covered over to net more counter space. 

During the technology-mad 1960s, home intercoms were the deluxe gimmick of choice. Visitors were supposed to announce themselves at the front entrance, and through the miracle of the transistor, their greeting would be transmitted as an unintelligible garble to the “master station” inside--usually located next to the front door, where one might just as easily have spoken to the visitor face to face. 

Topnotch tract houses of the 70s offered buyers the “conversation pit”--a sunken area ringed with upholstered seating, and often equipped with a fireplace as well. Here, guests would presumably chat it up while lounging around in polyester suits. Alas, nothing kills natural conversation like being urged to engage in it, and the conversation pit barely outlived the Carter administration.

I could go on citing such examples--cavernous master bedrooms, gigantic master baths, living room wet bars, multiple fireplaces--but you get the point. What makes home buyers covet such features--often at no small cost--when in retrospect they seem so obviously impractical? Some people blame developers for pushing extravagant gimmicks to spur sales. If this is the case, the strategy has generally been been right on target. For decades prior to the Great Recession, they were rewarded for peddling gimmicks by selling gobs and gobs of houses. Given this history, it seems that home buyers are at least complicit in creating demand for useless bells and whistles. 

In fact, until the housing market finally collapsed under its own weight, we material-mad consumers were still lusting after restaurant-style ranges and refrigerators, dual dishwashers, three- and four-car garages, and yes, even those ever-more-ostentatious bathrooms with their whirlpool tubs. When it comes to buying houses, we’re as susceptible to gimmicks as we are in buying all those other overwrought consumer items we’ve been snapping up by the armload. 

One would hope that our recent economic troubles would sharpen our discernment for what is useful and what is not. If it doesn’t, some of us will be finding great deals on used whirlpool tubs.