Argument: “Why more McMansions are bad news for first-time home buyers”

McMansions may be good for builders but not so much for people looking to purchase their first house:

Home building has been steadily picking up this past year after taking a sharp nosedive during the recession, although production is still far below historical norms. Orr said home builders are moving forward with cautious optimism, being wary of their pre-recession mistake of overbuilding.

So to help make up for the slowdown, builders are now making homes larger once again. Bigger homes means bigger sales revenue — and for only a minimal bump in construction costs, Orr said.

The trend has been to the detriment of first-time and lower-income buyers, who are finding both the new and existing home markets offer them very few options today.

“They (home builders) have kind of abandoned that sector,” Orr said.

The existing home market nationwide — but particularly in Phoenix — has been facing a chronic shortage of homes for sale, and the problem is most severe in price ranges below $200,000.

Many buyers have thus turned to new construction out of frustration. But given the sharp price hikes of new homes recently, lower-income buyers aren’t finding the same relief, Orr said.

In other words, builders can make more money on the bigger homes for those who still have money to play with. But is this just about builders? I wonder if there are two other things going on here:

1. The article hints at a depressed existing house market, suggesting that there isn’t enough movement in the housing market for these older smaller homes, what might be called “starter homes,” to become available in large numbers.

2. In addition to not much existing inventory opening up, perhaps there simply aren’t enough buyers for smaller houses for builders to take notice. What numbers are we talking about – how many first-time home buyers in the Phoenix are not able to find a home they want? This reminds me of recent data from the Chicago area: while housing starts may be up a large percent, the housing market is still not operating at normal.

That all said, if people want to get into purchasing a home can’t do so or are delayed, this could contribute to more long-term problems for the US housing market.

No one-size-fits-all approach for building a downtown baseball stadium

A new study examines the divergent outcomes after the construction of new baseball stadiums in downtown Denver and Phoenix:

That Coors and Chase Fields had diverging fates is no accident but rather the result of poor planning, write Arizona State researchers Stephen Buckman and Elizabeth A. Mack in a recent issue of the Journal of Urbanism. Phoenix’s attempt to copy Denver’s success shows that sports stadiums are not a one-size-fits-all solution to downtown redevelopment efforts. On the contrary, Buckman and Mack argue, these projects must strongly consider the natural form of the city to avoid failure:

A key consideration that is often overlooked in the planning phase of these projects is the historical urban growth patterns and resulting urban form of the cities in which stadium development projects are proposed.

Buckman and Mack conducted a point-by-point review of both stadiums in their effort to determine what factors contributed most to their success, or lack thereof. They quickly found that population differences weren’t the source of the difference. Phoenix and Denver had similar demographic profiles at the time the fields were being proposed, with no marked variations in age of the potential fan base or ability to pay for tickets.

Where they began to see a clear difference was in urban form. Metropolitan Phoenix is a widespread area without a distinctive downtown core. Its satellite cities of Glendale, Tempe, and Scottsdale all have significant attractions and downtowns of their own that create what the researchers call a “centrifugal effect” on potential visitors to downtown Phoenix. By some estimates, Phoenix has the least developed downtown core in the country.

Denver, on the other hand, has a historic core that dates back to the city’s founding in 1858. In addition, the city itself is far less expansive: encompassing only about 150 squares miles, to more than 9,000 for metropolitan Phoenix. The result of this urban form, for Denver residents, is a considerably more convenient proximity to the stadium.

More broadly, it sounds like having key structures in and near the baseball stadium is very important, perhaps even more so than the particulars of the stadium itself. In other words, building a stadium with little already existing around it might have little impact on the surrounding area. Downtowns work because they are clusters of activity; there are not just office buildings but also nearby residences, restaurants, and cultural institutions that help insure a broad range of visitors to the downtown. Baseball games then become another activity that people want to go to because the games are part of the scene of the whole area.

I visited Coors Field for the first time this past August during the 2012 American Sociological Association meetings. Since I was staying near the Convention Center, we had to walk about 15 minutes to the stadium. The walk was pleasant in itself; Denver has a nice scene between these two destination points. Unlike some other major cities where the downtown is dominated by large buildings, this area has primarily low-rise buildings. People are outside walking around or eating. The stadium itself seemed to be at the edge of the downtown area closer to I-25 but it was clear plenty of other fans were also walking through the surrounding LoDo neighborhood and enjoying the night.

Another question I would ask as a baseball fan: could attendance be boosted in a more dispersed region if the team was winning? Or do parks like Wrigley Field win at attendance with little effect of record because fans want to have the experience?

By the way, here is a picture from my seat. While Coors Field might be more successful than Chase Field, the team was not good last year and there were plenty of empty seats as well as cheap seats online.


Comparing the architecture of a Phoenix Frank Lloyd Wright house to area McMansions

A letter to the editor in The Arizona Republic contrasts the worthiness of a Frank Lloyd Wright home and McMansions that are typically found in the area:

The horror of this melee about a Frank Lloyd Wright house is that the men who bought it claim they didn’t know Frank Lloyd Wright from the Wright brothers (New York Times, Oct. 25) and yet they, if left unhindered, decide the fate of a master work of architecture.

In this Mcmansion craze, people employ the horror of the unaesthetic, the death of art. Unlike Wright-designed and constructed homes that seem composed of what nature predicates, “living buildings” that fit the surroundings, these faux Tuscany tract homes on steroids rise up out of the ashes of demolitions in Arcadia, changing the entire landscape of what was once a unique Phoenix neighborhood with their attendant assault on beauty and proportion.

Phoenix does not need to buy the property for the inflated asking price. What the city and its officials need to do is vote for the historic landmark overlay on Dec. 5.

While McMansions can be defined by several characteristics, this letter’s argument relies exclusively on the architecture and design argument. The Frank Lloyd Wright home is a “living building” meant to fit into its surrounding landscape. In contrast, McMansions poorly mimic other housing styles (in this case, importing Tuscany to the Arizona desert), contrast with the landscape, and lack beauty because of their poor proportions.

Frank Lloyd Wright homes are of limited number and according to this Wikipedia list, there are not too many Wright designed buildings in Arizona. See more of the story about the house here and a gallery of images here. According to one of the captions, “The [spiral] house was designed to twist around a central courtyard and also offer views of Camelback Mountain to the north.” And the house may have been a testing ground for another famous work that came later: “Wright chose a spiral design akin to the Guggenheim Museum’s. He had drawn plans for the Guggenheim by then, but it was still some years away from construction.”

Argument: Phoenix is world’s least sustainable city

I recently ran into an overview of a 2011 look at Phoenix as the “world’s least sustainable city”:

Phoenix, Arizona is one of America’s fastest growing metropolitan regions. It is also its least sustainable one, sprawling over a thousand square miles, with a population of four and a half million, minimal rainfall, scorching heat, and an insatiable appetite for unrestrained growth and unrestricted property rights.

In Bird on Fire, eminent social and cultural analyst Andrew Ross focuses on the prospects for sustainability in Phoenix–a city in the bull’s eye of global warming–and also the obstacles that stand in the way. Most authors writing on sustainable cities look at places like Portland, Seattle, and New York that have excellent public transit systems and relatively high density. But Ross contends that if we can’t change the game in fast-growing, low-density cities like Phoenix, the whole movement has a major problem. Drawing on interviews with 200 influential residents–from state legislators, urban planners, developers, and green business advocates to civil rights champions, energy lobbyists, solar entrepreneurs, and community activists–Ross argues that if Phoenix is ever to become sustainable, it will occur more through political and social change than through technological fixes. Ross explains how Arizona’s increasingly xenophobic immigration laws, science-denying legislature, and growth-at-all-costs business ethic have perpetuated social injustice and environmental degradation. But he also highlights the positive changes happening in Phoenix, in particular the Gila River Indian Community’s successful struggle to win back its water rights, potentially shifting resources away from new housing developments to producing healthy local food for the people of the Phoenix Basin. Ross argues that this victory may serve as a new model for how green democracy can work, redressing the claims of those who have been aggrieved in a way that creates long-term benefits for all.

Since the population of the United States has shifted in recent decades to Sunbelt cities like Phoenix, tackling sustainability in these more sprawling and hot places seems like it is important. I wonder how much this sustainability push would require curbing sprawl and if there are some critics who would argue places like Phoenix (or even the metropolitan regions of cities like Chicago and New York) can’t really be sustainable unless they severely limit sprawl.

In two trips to Las Vegas in recent years, I was struck each time by the landscape when flying into the city. I always enjoy seeing cities from above but Las Vegas (and presumably Phoenix as well) shows stark contrasts between deserts which suddenly turn into subdivisions, lawns, golf courses, and then opulent casinos. It is a quick reminder that some of these Sunbelt cities are carved out of the desert and this requires a lot of resources to maintain and expand.