In my prior post, I explained the need to expand the geographic area where later-born generations of Americans can live a good life, and have access to a wide range of employment opportunities, affordably. Commercial real estate investments that make this possible have the best chance to be profitable and useful in the coming decades, especially after the next bust makes the entry point for them lower.
In this post I’m going to describe a specific, small-scale example with the potential to substantially expand access to rail mass transit, and the large number of jobs it connects with in metro New York. It is based on a new technology that has been rapidly adopted by food delivery workers, some of the lowest-paid workers there are – small, light, electric powered and electric assist bicycles. If those workers could afford to own their own e-bikes, and adopt the latest technology, workers in other industries and occupations certainly could.
Before being generalized, this example starts with a neighborhood in my hometown, Yonkers, New York, not far from where I grew up. Park Hill was featured in a recent New York Times article.
It is a neighborhood of mansions built from 1900 to 1920, with other houses added later in the large spaces in between, on a hill overlooking downtown Yonkers. When it was built a spur on the New York Central’s Putnam Division ran from Getty Square in Yonkers to Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx, where a transfer could be made to New York Central trains to Grand Central Terminal and 9thAvenue Elevate trains to the Manhattan’s West Side. This provided access to New York City jobs. The spur ran behind the stores on Broadway at the bottom of the cliff. One of the Park Hill mansions had a private elevator, for the use of the owner and his neighbors, down to the train.
There were also extensive jobs in urban west Yonkers itself, in factories downtown and in the Nepperhan Valley, where the Alexander Smith Carpet Factory employed thousands. My family advanced up nearby Nodine Hill, a working class area, over a couple of generations. A streetcar connected Nodine Hill to both industrial areas and Getty Square’s stores and services.
The Getty Square spur on the Putman Division ended service in 1943. The carpet factory closed in 1954. Suburban Westchester boomed with corporate campuses in the years to follow, but Park Hill and Nodine Hill were left as places that combined the disadvantages of living in a city (from the suburban point of view) with the disadvantage of the suburbs. The need to drive everywhere, with one car per adult. Then employment shifted back from suburban to urban, increasing the importance of transit access, and leaving these neighborhoods even more isolated, or so it would seem.
Down the hill, high-rise apartments have been built in close proximity to the Yonkers train station on MetroNorth’s Hudson Line, which provides service to Grand Central Terminal in 35 minutes.
As of now, however, this recent reinvestment only extends for a couple of blocks.
Here is a house for sale up the hill in Park Hill, a 4,000-square-foot 1910-built mansion with beautiful details and stunning views, for less than $800,000, or $194 per square foot.
Zillow thinks they’ll get something close to that, but I have my doubts. First, what young buyer who is willing to live in urban west Yonkers needs a 4,000-square-foot house? Even if the building were given for free, who wants to pay those operating costs? Overlarge homes, popular in the era when affluent families were large and had servants, as when this house was built and again in the 1980s and 1990s during the McMansion era, are falling in value all over the country.
A lot of those houses are starting to show their age — and the prospect of updating something that size can overwhelm buyers. “A 6,000-plus-square-foot house built in the late 1990s with minimal or older updates might need a new kitchen, updates to all four and a half baths, new flooring, and interior paint…That can easily top $250,000.’’
This house apparently had a quick renovation that addressed those issues, but the listing says it “needs TLC.” Does that mean the replacement of major systems – electric, gas, sewer, plumbing, boiler, roof? Just since 1990, we and the former owner of our Brooklyn rowhouse have replaced most of those systems, at great cost. Our house was built in 1915, and the current electrical system is apparently the third.
Then there are the shared infrastructure liabilities. The address is Van Cortlandt Park Avenue, but the access from that street is up a cliff on a staircase that has crumbled. In reality the house is served by a private street in the rear. The Trulia listing says a second lot on the property can be developed, but only if the new owner agrees to replace an aging sewer line for the entire block. What does that say about the condition of that sewer line right now?
For comparison, here is an 1885-built, 3,705-square-foot house for sale in Park Slope, Brooklyn. The price is $2.9 million, or $780 per square foot, or nearly four times as much as the Park Hill house. Zillow believes the seller will get something close to that, though I suspect the market may be shifting.
There are some differences. The Park Slope house was built pre-automobile, and it has no parking, like nearly all the other houses in most of Brooklyn. And it is described as “well maintained.” But it is also a three family house, which might explain where its former owners got the income to pay for all that maintenance.
Politically, urban west Yonkers has come to be dominated by suburban east Yonkers, and that means the subdivision of the Park Hill house into apartments or condos is almost certainly illegal. And yet if the City of Yonkers wants those beautiful buildings to be maintained and receive reinvestment, it is going to have to make exceptions. Perhaps the ground floor, with its grand rooms, could be a shared space for three units upstairs, each with its own kitchenette.
Another factor is access to high-paid jobs, the kind that are clustered in Manhattan. In Brooklyn, a 38-minute subway ride from the Park Slope house gets you to Grand Central Terminal, and Park Slope residents can walk to the subway station. In Yonkers, there is a Metro North station 1.2 miles down the hill from the Park Hill house, the Ludlow Station, for service that would get a person to Grand Central even faster. But how would one get back and forth to the station each day? An extra automobile is an extra expense, and parking is very scarce in urban west Yonkers.
How about a bicycle? When they say Park Hill and Nodine Hill, they aren’t kidding about the hill part.
Google Maps says it would take just 8 minutes to get down the hill in the morning, but it would take 15 minutes to get back up it after a long day of work – with faster moving motor vehicles coming up from behind. If someone were even capable of scaling those hills on a bicycle, which most are not. Google says it is a 213-foot elevation gain, or about 20 stories, up to Park Hill, but it could be more.
The ride from the Yonkers Train Station up Nodine Hill to the water tower? Google says 302 feet up, or 30 stories. Call it the Yonkers Challenge. Any kid who can make it without stopping should get a medal and an ice cream.
Which brings us to e-bikes, which Governor Cuomo has promised to fully legalize this year.
An e-bike could scoot a commuter back up that hill at 20 miles per hour, in eight minutes, no problem. All that would be required is a safe and secure place to store it down the hill next to the train station.
When I commuted by bicycle from Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn to Midtown, I paid $20 per month to lock up the bike on a hook in a parking garage. Now consider this old, multi-story, low-value industrial building directly adjacent to Ludlow Station.
The ground floor may have some value for a retail or industrial tenant. The upper three floors? Not so much. However with a ramp to the second floor, some bike racks, a few of which provide the possibility of charging up for an extra fee, and a security system, that floor could certainly be used to store bikes, and e-bikes. If the second floor filled, additional ramps could allow bicycle parking on the third floor, and then the fourth floor.
The main thing that makes bikes, and e-bikes, so efficient compared with automobiles and SUVs is their small size and light weight relative to their passenger. That reduces both their energy use and the space needed to park them. Consider this commercial bike rack.
At that density, even allowing for space for circulation, how many bikes, and e-bikes could be parked on the second floor of that Ludlow Street building? Hundreds. How many could be parked on the upper three floors of that building? Perhaps a few thousand. Enough to ensure that anyone in Southwest Yonkers who wanted use the Metro North Hudson line to commute to work, in either direction, could do so.
The logical ground floor use then becomes a shop that sells and services bicycles and e-bikes, and related clothing and accessories. The shop proprietor could also keep an eye on electronic monitors, to keep the stored bicycles secure. Rain? The store could sell rain panchos, and for a couple of dollars check them in a back room and provide a loaner umbrella to take on the train. Coffee and rolls in the morning could be another sideline.
In other countries the government provides bicycle parking at suburban train stations. But in our country, given how slowly local governments move and all the politics, bureaucracy and added costs involved, this proposal is more likely to work as a business that just started up, and later asked forgiveness instead of first asking permission.
It would take a while to pay off, since no one now living in west Yonkers moved there with the expectation of using e-bikes to travel to a train station. The business would have to create a market that does not now exist. But consider this. At the $20 per month I paid to park in Midtown, how many monthly parkers would be required to provide a 4.8% return on a $100,000 investment? Just 20, with plenty of upside from there.
Might future west Yonkers residents embrace mass transit and bicycles? It is certainly possible. Look to the right in this photo.
And today? Same spot.
More to the point, bicycles and rail transit might give people a reason to become future west Yonkers residents.
Now let’s generalize the idea.
There are many neighborhoods in metropolitan New York that are too far away from rail transit to walk, where the cost and availability of parking for large motor vehicles is the barrier to transit access.
And a century ago, many multi-story commercial and industrial buildings were built in proximity to what are now subway and commuter rail lines, because freight moved by rail. In some cases the upper floors have become cheap residences, or cheap offices, but in many other cases they are vacant or used for storage.
For example, there is no subway in Southeast Queens, and those living there have to wait for a bus and take it to Downtown Jamaica to get on the subway or Long Island Railroad. Might there be some cheap, upper floor space there that could be used to store e-bikes? A ten second look shows…
Thirty-five years ago, when we were deciding where to live, there were large areas of New York City (let alone the suburbs) that we never considered, because we wanted to live without the cost (and environmental damage) of a car, save up for a while, and then own no more than one car when we had children. And we didn’t want to wait twice, once for a slow, infrequent local bus and once for a train, and (at the time) pay two fares on our way to work.
Today, a larger share of those in later-born generations wish to live the same way that we wanted to back then, but the locations where that is possible have become extremely expensive. The availability of bicycle parking, and e-bikes, might expand those locations. Once the concept was proven there could be a few dozen of these opportunities for private bicycle and e-bike parking all over metro New York.
Now consider the other side of the commute, access to workers for commercial property in suburban and peripheral locations. The properties that have fared best over the past 20 years are those with a rail transit station within walking distance. Downtown Stamford, Connecticut, or Downtown While Plains, New York for example. Properties beyond a walking distance away from these nodes have been devalued. I know of at least one office building outside downtown in White Plains that had to offer a shuttle van to the While Plains Metro North station to attract a tenant.
In a bike/ebike parking establishment, the same hook on the same bike rack that served a Stamford or White Plains resident who commuted to Manhattan could also serve a Stamford or White Plains worker whose job was beyond a walking distance from the train station. The workers would arrive on the train and then ride off on their bikes and e-bikes, stored near their workplace. The residents would drop their bikes off and get on the train. With some play to make sure everyone always got a place to lock up, many of those hooks could thus be rented for $40 per month — $20 each for someone who commutes out and someone who commutes in.
The place where I locked up my bike in Midtown, in fact, worked exactly that way. As I showed up to lock my bike before going to work, delivery workers who had stored their bikes (and e-bikes) overnight were removing them for use during the day.
This idea is presumably inconceivable to anyone living in the suburbs, and many of those living in New York City, who is over the age of 40, let alone the age of 60. Being outside in the weather? Getting exercise in the normal course of your day, if using a regular bike or a pedal-assist e-bike? Inconceivable – even as obesity and diabetes soar.
And yet this is an example of the kind of accommodation later-born generations will have to make to live a better life at a lower cost. A $900 pedal assist e-bike and $20 per month to park it is a lot cheaper than an additional $30,000 SUV, $200-$300 per month to park it, plus a gym membership you never have time to use.
The City of Yonkers could choose to help with an investment like this, but in reality it doesn’t have to. Other than perhaps put in some bicycle infrastructure, such as painted lanes, to make it less likely bicycle riders would be run over. And ensure that despite the MTA’s debt the trains keep running somehow, if unreliably.
The question is, given that it is doubtful that e-bike parking is mentioned anywhere in what almost everywhere are obsolete use and parking regulations, would a zoning change be required? An environmental impact statement? Would additional motor vehicle parking be required to reuse a commercial space for bicycle parking? Would a handicapped elevator be required for people arriving by bicycle? Would the city require an RFP, an RFQ, an RF anything?
These are the kind of counter-productive impediments to small-scale, bootstrapping improvements identified by Johnny on Granola Shotgun.
On a walking tour of town officials and development consultants pointed to empty buildings and described all the things that could be done to bring them back to productive activity: open up the blank walls and re-install windows, incubate all kinds of new businesses, paint, outdoor seating… I rolled my eyes. None of those things make any economic sense given the regulatory hurdles involved and the likely negative return on the up front investment. I’ve seen this scenario play out many times before…
Meanwhile the usual big money developers might buy enough of the neighboring buildings and vacant land – with the accompanying subsidies and tax breaks – to rapidly transform Main Street at a much higher economic level. There’s no in-between. You either get permanent stagnation or massive redevelopment. Baby steps are essentially illegal.
The solution was discussed in the recent book Strong Towns.
This is not a call for deregulation as much as a new approach. Many cities are replacing the use-based codes they adopted to facilitate post-war development patterns with form-based codes that come closer to dealing with issues directly related to financial productivity. These are positive changes, especially when the form-based approach allows the neighborhood to incrementally thicken up without needing any special permissions.
If we want productive investment, we also need to be strategic with our regulations…instead of stopping all investment until full compliance is reached, the process should be used to bring the building into compliance over time. For example, if a new business wants to open in an old building, do an inspection and make sure there are no imminent health threats – no frayed wires arcing over bails of hay under a gasoline drip – and barring any urgent issues, let them open provisionally.
Six months later, once they have a sense of whether their business venture is going to be viable, go and document all the code deficiencies with the property. Rank them in terms of urgency. Require the business owner to put 3% of their revenues into an escrow account for addressing deficiencies, starting with the most urgent. When they are done, remove their provisional status and stop collecting the escrow.
To build a productive place, people must be able to start with nothing and, through their efforts, end up with something. When we raise the bar to entry, we not only induce decline, we ensure that many of our neighbors will be left behind. Successful communities raise the bar of prosperity without raising the entry fee.
In each of the large-scale commercial real estate reinvestments I chronicled at the end of my prior post, the lead actor was wealthy and politically influential. And yet in Glendale, CA and Holmdel, NJ, the regulatory process held up investments that the community actually wanted for years. If nothing else, local government should not make it more difficult, time consuming and expensive to do things people actually want. This is one small-scale example.