The "Clevelandification" of Urban America (or how Manhattan is becoming a rich ghost town)

George_Apley

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I stumbled across this article from CityLab, and while it doesn't say anything we haven't talked about before with regard to Boston, I think it's a general urban topic for discussion.

How Manhattan Became a Rich Ghost Town - CityLab (The Atlantic) by Derek Thompson

To sum up:

Manhattan finds itself with deadened and/or sterilized streetscapes in certain neighborhoods because
  • "The rent is too damn high"
  • Amazon
  • Landlords holding out for long-term commercial leases from big-money chains
None of that is new to us in Boston either. But I did like how Thompson concluded the article with a cry out to the soul of the city:

In Jane Jacobs’s famous vision of New York, the city ideally served as a playful laboratory, which nursed new firms and ideas and exported its blessedly strange culture to the world. Today’s New York is the opposite: a net importer of the un-weird, so desperate to bring in national chains to pay exorbitant leases that landlords are willing to sit on barren blocks.

[...]

“America has only three cities,” Tennessee Williams purportedly said. “New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.” That may have been true once. But New York’s evolution suggests that the future of cities is an experiment in mass commodification—the Clevelandification of urban America, where the city becomes the very uniform species that Williams abhorred. Paying seven figures to buy a place in Manhattan or San Francisco might have always been dubious. But what’s the point of paying New York prices to live in a neighborhood that’s just biding its time to become “everywhere else”?
 

BarbaricManchurian

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Sounds way exaggerated imo. Have you even visited nyc recently? It’s absolutely incredibly bustling everywhere and with many great parks and retail and food trucks never more than a few steps away. The local flavor is unmatched by anywhere else and probably getting a bit more upmarket overall, with new food halls, parks, high line (yup, new retail, there has almost certainly been a net increase in nyc), but there is absolutely no other city in the country that is even in the same magnitude of bustling as nyc. Now people are choosing to pay that much to live there and there is absolutely no fucking way it would drop to Cleveland levels of demand just because of a few empty storefronts that will get filled eventually anyway. Incredibly off-the-mark article.
 

BarbaricManchurian

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Other cities may be getting homogenized, but they were never much to begin with lol. It takes good local urban design to add place making and local flavor. And I think the Boston area does a superb job with that overall, easily top tier. If you’ve ever traveled extensively through the suburban hellscapes of america you’d understand.
 

vanshnookenraggen

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Sounds way exaggerated imo. Have you even visited nyc recently? It’s absolutely incredibly bustling everywhere and with many great parks and retail and food trucks never more than a few steps away. The local flavor is unmatched by anywhere else and probably getting a bit more upmarket overall, with new food halls, parks, high line (yup, new retail, there has almost certainly been a net increase in nyc), but there is absolutely no other city in the country that is even in the same magnitude of bustling as nyc. Now people are choosing to pay that much to live there and there is absolutely no fucking way it would drop to Cleveland levels of demand just because of a few empty storefronts that will get filled eventually anyway. Incredibly off-the-mark article.

Visiting is different than living here. High end blight is a huge problem. 5th Ave used to be lined with both tiny shops and big box stores and now it's one empty store front after another. All the new luxury buildings with ground floor retail aren't helping either.

Personally I think what will happen is that many of these former retail spaces will convert to residential. We have much more need for housing then another high end coffee shop or bank branch.
 

meddlepal

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Visiting is different than living here. High end blight is a huge problem. 5th Ave used to be lined with both tiny shops and big box stores and now it's one empty store front after another. All the new luxury buildings with ground floor retail aren't helping either.

Personally I think what will happen is that many of these former retail spaces will convert to residential. We have much more need for housing then another high end coffee shop or bank branch.
Isn't the shop problem really just a outcome of how much online shopping has damanged Main Street shopping? Honestly I'm surprised Newbury St in Boston is still thriving and I do wonder how long that can last for as well...
 

vanshnookenraggen

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Isn't the shop problem really just a outcome of how much online shopping has damanged Main Street shopping? Honestly I'm surprised Newbury St in Boston is still thriving and I do wonder how long that can last for as well...
It's everything that the article outlined.
 

George_Apley

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Sounds way exaggerated imo. Have you even visited nyc recently? It’s absolutely incredibly bustling everywhere and with many great parks and retail and food trucks never more than a few steps away. The local flavor is unmatched by anywhere else and probably getting a bit more upmarket overall, with new food halls, parks, high line (yup, new retail, there has almost certainly been a net increase in nyc), but there is absolutely no other city in the country that is even in the same magnitude of bustling as nyc. Now people are choosing to pay that much to live there and there is absolutely no fucking way it would drop to Cleveland levels of demand just because of a few empty storefronts that will get filled eventually anyway. Incredibly off-the-mark article.
I think you rather missed the point. It's not that New York is going to literally become Cleveland, or drop to Cleveland "levels of demand". It's that NYC, and other major American cities are homogenizing. You acknowledged this in your second post, but you seem to argue that cities like New York and Boston are somehow immune to this. The argument is that all of the successful American cities of the last twenty years are losing their neighborhoods' unique characters in favor of a standardization of national brands, and that this is largely being driven by increasing property values, online shopping, and greedy landlords.
 

TallIsGood

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Can you explain greedy landlords? Who else do you expect to charge less than market for a fixed resource?
 

BarbaricManchurian

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I think you rather missed the point. It's not that New York is going to literally become Cleveland, or drop to Cleveland "levels of demand". It's that NYC, and other major American cities are homogenizing. You acknowledged this in your second post, but you seem to argue that cities like New York and Boston are somehow immune to this. The argument is that all of the successful American cities of the last twenty years are losing their neighborhoods' unique characters in favor of a standardization of national brands, and that this is largely being driven by increasing property values, online shopping, and greedy landlords.
Umm no. It's because of the Internet and the globalization of trends. So that means food halls and craft breweries in every city. The top end of the new globalized urban trends is top-tier parks like the High Line, the Vessel, and Domino Park. Tons of other cities would want stuff like that, but only the cheaper, easier to set up stuff arrives to lower-tier cities at first, like food halls, farmers' markets, and craft breweries and hipster bars. Because places like New York and Boston are at the top tier and basically two of the "source" cities of all globalized Instagram-ized urban trends (others may be Tokyo, London, Berlin, San Francisco), yes, they are immune or at least resistant to downturns, until culture changes significantly. Yes they are globalized and becoming similar to other cities, but you have to recognize their place within the hierarchy of this, which is near the top.
 

BarbaricManchurian

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I'm not really opposed to homogeneity, I mean urban humans are similar worldwide, and will have similar needs and wants. The most important thing is an urban density and a diversity of facades, and a delightful walking/biking experience. A food hall is way more attractive to me than a dive bar or bodega tbh. Also, I believe the NYC city government agrees, because they are working on standardizing/"upscaling" the exterior design of bodegas, with fines for non-compliance.
 

George_Apley

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Can you explain greedy landlords? Who else do you expect to charge less than market for a fixed resource?
How many threads are we going to drag this into? I've responded to this line of thinking in the Housing thread but I'll take a stab here too wrt commercial.

There isn't a shortage of commercial in New York. Or in Boston. There are vacancies that are being created and then left unfilled because landlords are content to sit on vacant space, demand high rents, and hold out for long-term, deep-pocketed tenant. That sounds more like a market distortion than a supply/demand issue.
 

George_Apley

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Umm no. It's because of the Internet and the globalization of trends.
Literally what I said. Increasing property values, online shopping, and greedy landlords. Homogenization of trends for the "top tier" is also certainly a factor. But it also makes things more boring as all of the big/globally significant cities mimic each other. I'm not talking about parks and brew halls and food markets. I'm talking about the retail environment, and the lost of character that results from the closure of local mainstays.
 

fattony

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How many threads are we going to drag this into? I've responded to this line of thinking in the Housing thread but I'll take a stab here too wrt commercial.

There isn't a shortage of commercial in New York. Or in Boston. There are vacancies that are being created and then left unfilled because landlords are content to sit on vacant space, demand high rents, and hold out for long-term, deep-pocketed tenant. That sounds more like a market distortion than a supply/demand issue.
I’m not sure you’ve described any market distortions there. It’s an unfortunate outcome, but the landlords aren’t being subsidized for the vacant properties by anyone. They are taking real losses today, betting on the future.

I would argue that new tax policies could be effective at CREATING a market distortion that would mitigate the undesirable outcomes we are seeing.
 

George_Apley

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I’m not sure you’ve described any market distortions there. It’s an unfortunate outcome, but the landlords aren’t being subsidized for the vacant properties by anyone. They are taking real losses today, betting on the future.

I would argue that new tax policies could be effective at CREATING a market distortion that would mitigate the undesirable outcomes we are seeing.
Maybe distortion was the wrong term, but I'm arguing that individual landlords betting on the future at the expense of urban vibrancy is a societal ill. Guess I'm a liberal 🤷‍♂️
 

HenryAlan

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I’m not sure you’ve described any market distortions there. It’s an unfortunate outcome, but the landlords aren’t being subsidized for the vacant properties by anyone. They are taking real losses today, betting on the future.

I would argue that new tax policies could be effective at CREATING a market distortion that would mitigate the undesirable outcomes we are seeing.
Your last sentence explains how the empty commercial spaces are a market distortion. As long as the landlord can take a deduction on the artificially created loss, then that's a distortion.
 

fattony

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Your last sentence explains how the empty commercial spaces are a market distortion. As long as the landlord can take a deduction on the artificially created loss, then that's a distortion.
Granted, a tax deduction mitigates some of the pain of a loss, but it doesn't wipe it all away. In any case, I'm not sure there is a tax deduction for failing to collect rent on your property. If you could explain the deduction you are speaking of, I would be interested to learn.

I'm certainly not sure what is "artificial" about any of this. These landlords are real people/businesses and they are making decisions that they believe are best for them in the long run. I get it - nobody likes the outcomes we are seeing here, but vague objections to "greed" ring a little hollow when the landlords are losing money. They are in business and you can be sure the decision to leave the property vacant is not taken lightly.

Don't get me wrong - I think public policy is responsible for a part of these problems and changes to public policy could be part of the solution. Even without policy changes, a market is rarely static. It is more like a pendulum that oscillates around equilibrium. This pendulum is swinging a little wide right now, but it will probably swing back. If it never swings back, that means the equilibrium has permanently shifted to a new normal (in this case, that could be that retail storefronts are no longer the best use of these properties).
 

George_Apley

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fattony said:
I'm certainly not sure what is "artificial" about any of this. These landlords are real people/businesses and they are making decisions that they believe are best for them in the long run. I get it - nobody likes the outcomes we are seeing here, but vague objections to "greed" ring a little hollow when the landlords are losing money. They are in business and you can be sure the decision to leave the property vacant is not taken lightly.
If I were talking about standalone stores with no other tenants I'd agree with you. I'm not. The "loss" is theoretical given that these landlords are often already making money from the rent on floors above ground retail–either residential or commercial. They're simply not earning more revenue from renting the ground retail space. Sure, in economic terms it's a 'loss', but it's not like these folks are in the red because they're creating and keeping a vacancy. If they couldn't afford it they wouldn't do it in the first place. These building owners are operating from a place of financial privilege or they wouldn't be pricing out tenants at all. What you call a "vague objection" I consider "calling a spade a spade." If you think that I'm leveraging harsh, populist rhetoric, you betcha I am.

This pendulum is swinging a little wide right now, but it will probably swing back. If it never swings back, that means the equilibrium has permanently shifted to a new normal (in this case, that could be that retail storefronts are no longer the best use of these properties).
In which case I'll lament the permanent loss of what I consider a key element of a vibrant city.
 

TallIsGood

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How many threads are we going to drag this into? I've responded to this line of thinking in the Housing thread but I'll take a stab here too wrt commercial.

There isn't a shortage of commercial in New York. Or in Boston. There are vacancies that are being created and then left unfilled because landlords are content to sit on vacant space, demand high rents, and hold out for long-term, deep-pocketed tenant. That sounds more like a market distortion than a supply/demand issue.
Whenever you stop labeling landlords as greedy when they don’t rent to folks at below market or decide not to rent a space when vacant because they have a bigger strategic goal. They are in business to make money. They must not be renting the space for some rational reason.
I guess I take issue with the constant labeling of landlords as “greedy”. They own the property. If you want to control it buy it or have the city take it and pay fair value. Price controls never work.
 

George_Apley

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Yeah, it's a rhetorical device. They want more money and in my opinion that desire is leading to behavior harmful to the fabric of the city. I sum that up with the word "greedy". Is it more amenable If I say that I disagree with their strategic financial behavior in the interest of urban vibrancy?
 
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TallIsGood

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I’ll stop. I was just trying to point out that they are no different than others in wanting to maximize financial return. In the same way a tenant is greedy to want something cheaper than it is worth so they can have more money. No I’m not a landlord and not in the real estate business.
 

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