Saturday, June 2, 2012

Urbanism with blinders on.

When an instructor for a real estate and development class told his students, “You can’t own a view,” he said it with the nonchalance that suggested it should become a mantra.  What he was implying was that neither the developer nor the prospective property owner should stake all of an investment on the quality of a view.  No legal recourse exists to enjoin a landowner from building in a fashion that inhibits or weakens another individual’s perspective from the window or front door, regardless of how much that waterfront, mountain range or skyline gratifies the eyes.  Lines of sight are nebulous enough that private ownership of them is difficult to protect or enforce: if everyone was entitled to his or her view, nothing could ever get built.  Any collective attempt to protect a view loses its punch, because the magnificence or importance of the objects beheld is highly subjective.  Thus, the retention of the prized object itself will usually earn more legal credence than access to the “viewshed”, a contemporary buzzword appearing in Wikipedia (but not most dictionaries).  While it is possible that Landowner A could seek an injunction against Landowner B’s development permit under environmental, historic preservation, or public health considerations, in most circumstances, view deprivation does not evoke a judge’s sympathy.

Nonetheless, the private market continues to demonstrate how greatly people value a fantastic view in aggregate, regardless of the likelihood that something else in the future will impede it.  Waterfront high-rise residential buildings still command high prices, not only because of the proximity of the building’s front door to the water, but also because of the terrific views at the pricier higher levels.  The fenestration of many high-rise buildings exclusively orients itself toward the side with the great views, since windows on the other side are not worth a fraction.  Conversely, the market also tends to shun properties with particularly poor or unappealing views.  The price that consumers attach toward great views makes this fairly recent multifamily development in downtown Indianapolis, known as the Maxwell, that much more of an oddity.

The developer Kosene & Kosene completed this structure a few years ago, with the intention that it would function as condominiums, but it entered the market at the bursting point of the real estate bubble, when downtown condos sat empty and unsold.  Thus, the developers repositioned the building as luxury apartments, and the smaller units (studios and one-bedrooms) sold quite briskly.  The numerous chic Art Deco references probably aligned with young professionals’ tastes, and the location just south of the heart of the Lockerbie Square neighborhood was ideal.  In short, the Maxwell could command high prices as rentals.  And, as Indianapolis midrises go, it’s big, at 105 units occupying one quarter of a city block: with the exception of an interior courtyard, it covers nearly the entirety of its parcel, indicated through this side view:

The above photo also reveals that the designers devoted the entire frontage along Ohio Street to retail and saved the back for slyly concealed resident parking spaces.  Such a move placates urban advocates who have criticized other midrise developments in Indy for neglecting retail altogether; the Regional CenterDesign Guidelines of Indianapolis also stress the need for first-floor retail in residential developments.  However, the absorption of this retail space so far has been problematic.  As this December 2011 photo below indicates, most of it remains vacant, almost three years after completion:

Only the easternmost corner has a tenant—a total of about 25% of the Maxwell’s retail GLA.

To its credit, the Maxwell has successfully secured a highly successful temporary tenant for that large space in the past: the Indy Winter Farmers Market.  But it has never found a permanent occupant.  Why is the retail here so hard to lease, when it has a reasonably high-density concentration of well-heeled residents right above it?  Well, the building doesn’t sit at a prominent intersection: the north-south street at the corner, Park Avenue, is never more than a local road, with very low traffic volume.  This building sits right at the southern edge of a neighborhood, with an as-of-yet largely undeveloped ocean of parking directly south of Market Street, which weakens its opportunities for pedestrian activity.  Very few other buildings in this portion of Ohio Street support retail, so the Maxwell is largely alone in that regard.  But the biggest Achilles heel is what sits directly across the street from this upmarket residential building:

An electrical substation—not most people’s idea of the Eiffel Tower, the Chrysler Building, Lake Tahoe, or even the Hollywood(land) sign.  Such goliaths are commonplace in downtowns, since they provide a centralized source for the “stepping down” of voltage from the original (coal) power plants to a more suitable level that serves neighboring communities.  My estimate is that the average buyer would think this is ugly.  Who would want to view this from a front window?  Accompanying its ungainly appearance is the toxic perception—whether real or imagined—that they are noisy or potentially dangerous.  Given these considerations, what prospective business owner would choose this as a location for a restaurant or boutique when so many better alternatives exist?  While it’s hard to tell from the photographs, the one tenant (Civil Engineering Consultants, still there at the time of this blog post) has Venetian blinds which it often keeps partially drawn.  Despite the positive buzz the Maxwell generated when it was completed, I have my doubts that even during the best of economic times it would have worked as a condominium, thanks in large part to that view.  Renters are going to be less particular, but clearly an owner will just see this as one facet of the overall investment, and not a positive one.

Whether unconscious or not, it would seem that the folks at Kosene & Kosene who built the Maxwell took the aforementioned maxim “you can’t own a view” and inverted it to their advantage.  The location, just outside of the edge of one of the city’s elite urban neighborhoods, endowed it with an apparent strong potential to market as luxury or at least high-end housing.  But the appearance of the electrical substation across the street deflated the assessed value of the property and no doubt helps to explain why no other developer had stepped up to the plate in area that had been experiencing a multifamily housing boom for years.   Maybe the biggest element of risk was the attempt to build condos here; like most urban condominium projects, the developers have usually conceived of the viability of their structures as apartments as well—part of a safeguard against a soft ownership market.  And the Maxwell could continue to enjoy viability as a high-end apartment complex for years to come.  But my guess is that if it someone hoped to make it into a condominium complex, he or she would have to do something about that substation.

Three options come to mind.  The first, though widely implemented in Europe, is relatively rare in the US: to bury the substation.  Anaheim (California) Public Utilities received a fair amount of attention when it recently built a new substation under the 2.5-acre Roosevelt Park, with maintenance access points built inconspicuously into a hillside.  The inception of this new substation was a response to steady population growth—a contrast from the already existing one across the street from the Maxwell in Indianapolis.  Burying a pre-existing substation would amount to a huge expense for merely aesthetic goals, and since there is no financial incentive for Indianapolis Power and Light Company (better known as IPALCO, lesser known as a subsidiary of Virginia-based AES Corporation) to do so, the most likely resolution would be funding through a city subsidy.  Since a subsidy to improve aesthetics of a small, obscure substation is likely to prove hugely politically unpopular, this solution is probably already dead in the water.

The second of the three options would be to conceal it through a sheath, as has been attempted many times, with mixed success.  All too often, the resultant structure is an imposing, windowless titan of brick or concrete, surrounded by a chain-link fence—an marginal improvement over the exposed utility that is so architecturally uninspiring that online searches offer few examples (this one in Chicago is an exception).  But it doesn’t have to be this way: European cities have long sheathed their substations within chic façades, and, according to a 2008 New York Times article, Consolidated Edison found a way to hide a recent South Bronx substation within a multi-story sheath with “windows”, which proved so effective that passers-by asked when the condos would start going up for sale.  Cheaper than burying an existing substation, building a sheath would seem to be the best option if the owners of the Maxwell ever hope for a viable conversion of their apartment building back to condominiums at some point in the future.

The third and final option is a flight of fancy, but I have to mention it because it echoes an endeavor I proposed in this blog a few years ago, in order to mitigate the relentless prominence of utility cables across older New Orleans neighborhoods.  The following 2009 NewYork Times article references how electric substations “lack the perverse elegance of utility poles or transmission towers”, in order to bolster an argument for following Anaheim’s example by burying one under a city park.  Perverse elegance was exactly what I had in mind when I thought that New Orleanians should turn their tangle of poles and electric wires into a pop culture meme, much the way they already had with water meter manhole covers.  And trendy loft apartments have found beauty in exposed ventilation ducts for at least a decade or two.  Who’s to say substations are objectively ugly?  Surely a gifted spin-artist could turn the spiny monster across from the Maxwell into a suavely strummed chord from a twelve-string guitar, or an irregularly metered stanza from an urban poem.  Since it’s probably a bit dangerous to host a café, art installation, or a miniature skate park within the chain link fence (or even along the sidewalk adjacent to it), one can at least probe the substation’s intrinsically curious qualities, like the one in the photos below:


What’s going on with those railroad tracks that terminate abruptly at the chain link fence?  Do they serve a purpose, or did they have a function in the past?  Could they have linked to an old interurban line?  If this parcel of land offered even a trace of a sordid history, it could re-integrate itself to the public consciousness in a chic fashion that just might even allow it to transcend its perceived assault on the senses.  Obviously this option is a stretch, but it would undoubtedly prove cheaper than blotting it from the landscape, and it would earn a greater integrity because of the creative verve that generated it.  (Whether it would last a full decade as “hipster infrastructure” is another concern altogether.)

The act of brainstorming these potential solutions for the Maxwell Apartments in Indianapolis only serves to weaken the “you can’t own a view” assertion—even if it’s true from a legal standpoint, the psychological ownership of views are immutable.  Quite simply, people will think they own a right to this view if they own property that forces them to look at it.  They will manifest their sense of ownership in either planning and development hearings, or simply through deflated prices and reduced market demand.  Only steady persuasion of the reality of the real estate market stands any chance of convincing them otherwise.  In this downtown Indianapolis neighborhood, a small parking lot that sits immediately to the west of the Maxwell no doubt also suffers a reduced demand for residential development because of the utility substation across the street.  But perhaps, in the future, a potential developer of this parking lot could team with the owners of the Maxwell and IPALCO to build a safe, aesthetically pleasing sheath around the substation.  Any initial costs incurred would be recouped in improved property residential values due to the superior view, and IPALCO may enjoy reduced maintenance costs, since the substation would no longer be directly exposed to the elements.  The only other alternative is for them to higher a PR guru far more gifted than the writer of this blog.