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24514 Malibu Road

The story of the Hunt House in Malibu, California — as recounted here by Soho House — has me wanting to serendipitously stumble upon an underpriced midcentury architectural gem along the coast of the Pacific Ocean so that I can spend my weekends fastidiously restoring it to its former splendor.

I have already started looking.

Originally built in 1957, the Hunt House at 24514 Malibu Road was designed by California modernist Craig Ellwood. It was the 1,400 sf weekend home of Dr. Hunt and his wife Elizabeth. Like many of the homes on this street, the minimalist entrance and front facade ultimately step down into a grand waterfront space. Photos and video tour, here.

The current owners, architect Diane Bald and her husband Michael Budman, discovered the house while driving the coast in search of a rental. The Hunt House was marked as for rent or for sale. They rented it immediately.

After four years in the house, an evil developer ended up buying the house with the intent of knocking it down and building something new. But he allowed them to remain living there during entitlements.

Turns out it’s hard to build in Malibu, and so after another four years, he gave up and said, “you know what Diane? You’re the rightful owner of this house, I will never be able to build what I want.” (Quote from Soho House.) It is at this point that Diane bought the house and began restoring it.

That process was documented here on Instagram.

Top Image: Richard Powers via Soho House

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The America we need

The New York Times is running an opinion series right now called, The America We Need. It is all about how the US might emerge from this crisis “with a fair, resilient society.” This piece by Carol Galante covers many of the topics that we discuss on this blog. Carol is a former city planner and nonprofit housing developer. She is now the faculty director of the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC, Berkeley. Here are a couple of excerpts from her article that I think will resonate with many of you:

There are two things we know: The U.S. economy will recover. And the recovery will start in and be strongest in the same cities that were thriving before the pandemic. Economies in places like Seattle, San Francisco, New York and Boston are driven by the innovation, technology and biotech sectors, which are proving to be remarkably resilient to the impacts of Covid-19.

We have an obligation to ignore the short-term reactionary impulse to blame density for the spread of the coronavirus and instead use this opportunity to rethink the policies that impede the construction of new housing, at more price levels, in the places where housing is most needed.

In my subsequent career as a nonprofit housing developer working in prosperous coastal California communities, I spent far too many nights in City Council meetings working to get apartment buildings for lower-income older people and families approved. Underlying the “density” battle was almost always a battle over who has access to the opportunities of a place and who doesn’t, cloaked in arguments about neighborhood character and traffic impacts.

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Acquisition price vs. current market value — which should be your land input?

If you’ve bought land with the intention of developing it and you now think the value of that land has either gone up or down, there comes the question of what number you should plug into your development pro forma. Do you input what you paid for the land or do you input the current market value of the land? The former is probably more common than the latter, but in my view it’s important to consider both scenarios.

If the value of the land has gone up, it means that you think you could turn around and sell it for that price today. And that would mean you would be making a profit without doing anymore work and without taking on any additional risk. That’s an option that exists right here and right now (t = 0). What you want to get at in your pro forma, or at least understand, is the incremental profit margin from taking on the risk and brain damage of actually doing and completing the development project.

To do that, you need to consider the current market value of the land. That way you isolate your land margin from your build-out margin. The one problem with this approach is that the numbers may then tell you not to develop. In a hot market (which is not right now), it is not uncommon for land to get bid up beyond current fundamentals. There’s always someone else who is willing to be more aggressive.

In this case, you may find that most of the development margin is in the land. And you will start thinking to yourself, “How can anyone afford to pay this much? It doesn’t make sense.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that you shouldn’t develop. But at least it gives you a better understanding of the risk and reward trade-off that you’re about to take on. It might also tell you some things about the market.

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The price of leadership

Like many of you, I have been watching The Last Dance. It is a powerful reminder of just how competitive, disciplined, and emotional Michael Jordan was, and still is, about winning at the game of basketball. But the most powerful moment so far has easily been his monologue on leadership at the end of episode 7. Here is that scene. If you can’t see it below, click here.

Watching this brought tears to my eyes. Over the years, I have had teachers, professors, and bosses who have subscribed to this philosophy of leadership. I’m sure many of you have as well. It’s never fun at the time. In fact, it sucks. But usually in hindsight it becomes clearer what that person was trying to accomplish. And you realize how they pushed you to grow.

My own view is that there are ways to win without resorting to emotional bullying. But then it begs the question, if you’re not being extreme, does that reduce performance? Would it have been better for Jordan to be a bit nicer to his teammates, if it meant winning fewer championships? Depends on who you ask.

When you’re determined to move a mountain, win a championship, or create something that has never been done before, it can be incredibly frustrating when you feel as if the team isn’t on the same level or that they don’t care as much as you. So you push. And that’s what Michael did. Winning has a price.

We all need to be challenged. Some people, like Michael, are good at pushing themselves to be the best that they can be. Others need more external help. How best to do that is the great debate. But as Fred Wilson said on his blog earlier this week: “Leadership is not being liked. Leadership is being respected and followed.”

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Building size matters

If you’re trying to figure out how to make housing more affordable, it should be fairly obvious that it’s probably a good idea to actually understand the costs associated with building new housing. That is, more or less, the title of this recent series by Brookings about innovation in design and construction. The four-part series is based on the findings of a report that was written by Hannah Hoyt and published by Harvard’s Joint Center of Housing Studies and NeighborWorks America.

Now, costs vary by geography. Each city has its own nuances when it comes to development. And this should not be construed as a silver bullet. But what they are trying to do is identify design and construction savings to help the overall equation. Part of their argument is that building typology matters. Build smaller — hopefully out of wood — and you can bring your hard costs down. The problem with this thinking is that the trend lines are moving in the opposite direction.

Here is a chart from the same Brookings article:

In 2000, about 23%, or almost a quarter, of all multifamily units completed in the US were in a building with fewer than 10 units. As of 2018, that number had dropped to somewhere around 5%. At the same time, the number of completed units in buildings with 50 or more units has gone from 14% in 2000 to about 61% in 2018. Things got a little wonky after the global financial crisis, but generally the trend lines are pretty clear.

Some of this likely has to do with our “return to cities.” But I think the bigger part of this story is that development cost structures are pushing the market in this direction. For more on this topic, check out: Demystifying the development pro forma.

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85 years of US advertising

There’s an argument out that there this pandemic isn’t necessarily going to precipitate new changes, it’s simply going to accelerate changes that were already underway. Benedict Evans begins to illustrate this point in a recent blog post called, COVID and cascading collapses.

In it, he starts by looking at US print advertising revenue. In the first decade or so of the consumer internet, newspapers and magazines actually managed to hold their own. It’s not until after 2008 that they really start to fall off and lose significant market share to internet advertising (most of which belongs to Google and Facebook).

Intuitively this makes sense. During a crisis, budgets invariably get cut. And then when the market comes back, as it always does, you have people actually thinking about where those dollars should be spent: “Hey, maybe we should put some more money toward that Facebook thing.” It’s a reset moment.

The other interesting thing about the decline of print advertising is that if look at a longer time horizon — say 85 years, as Benedict did — you can see that its share has been declining for a very long time thanks to television. Of course, now television is changing. US consumers are “cord-cutting” faster than they’re moving to buy things online.

Cascading collapses, as he calls it.

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City guides in the pre-smartphone era

I came across this stack of old Wallpaper city guides while reorganizing a few things over the weekend (because that’s what happens on the weekends now). They are pretty beat up and color faded from travel. It looks like these guides are still being published by Phaidon (along with an app), but it’s been well over a decade since I bought one.

I know the exact time period of the above books because I used to do really nerdy things like date and location stamp them when I got them. The Rome book was July 2007 and I picked it up in Dublin, while I was there working for a real estate developer before the global financial crisis. I also discovered old phone numbers and email addresses written inside of them. Usually it was a Hotmail address.

What I liked about these guides is that they were fairly condensed — good for a long weekend — and they were generally design-focused — perfect for architecture nerds like me. Their restaurant, bar, and club selections were also just fine as a jumping off point. After that it was up to you to make your own adventure.

I sent this photo to my friend Alex Feldman over the weekend — he also went without any sleep in Berlin — and he reminded me what it was like at this time. This was 2007. The first iPhone was just being released. Its map functionality was nowhere near what it is today (or didn’t exist). And I certainly didn’t have one. I had a Blackberry with a plastic wheel on the side. It was basically a giant pager.

To navigate a city at this time meant using a physical map. It also meant getting repeatedly lost and having to ask real people where to go. Alex also reminded me that I made him wander all around Berlin so that I could buy a new pair of glasses. What can I say, this was pre-laser Brandon and I needed cool architect glasses. They ended up being red.

As frustrating as this must have been at times, there’s something nice about traveling without knowing each and every step and without being able to summon an Uber at any point in time to take you exactly where you want to go. In fact, this is probably the central ingredient of all good travel: you need to allow yourself to be open to new experiences.

One of the great lessons of Anthony Bourdain was that you have to get out of your comfort zone. Cities have both highs and lows, but there’s real value and authenticity in the lows if you’re willing to engage beneath the surface. Perhaps that is the irony of old fashioned guide books in the pre-smartphone era. They were supposed to tell you exactly where to go, but they actually helped you find the opposite.

The only city that I never actually got around to visiting from the above stack is São Paulo. As you can tell, Brazil has been on my list for many years. I did make it to Rio de Janeiro a few years ago and São Paulo was supposed to be October 2020. But I’m pretty sure that trip will need to wait. Maybe I should leave my phone at home.

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Spiky population density maps

I rediscovered the maps and work of Alasdair Rae this morning. (He has appeared on this blog before in posts like this one here.) Alasdair works in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the University of Sheffield and is author of the blog, Stats, Maps n Pix. Recently, he’s been publishing maps showing population densities around the world. He also gets into the details of how they’re made. They are pretty cool to see.

Here are the Great Lakes.

And here is Brazil, as well as a map of the world (without any land shown). Canada and the United States barely register on this second one.

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A question of land value

Let’s say that we have a piece of development land worth $100. That is the market value of the land based on its highest and best use at this particular point in time. Now let’s assume that the land was just encumbered with a new burden: inclusionary zoning. All of a sudden there is now a requirement to make available X% of any residential units built at 50% of average market rents for the area.

Technically, the land is now worth less than $100. And there is a school of thought out there that, in instances like this one, the price of all land should automatically reset downward to offset and account for the inclusionary zoning burden. But as I have argued before on the blog, land prices tend to be fairly sticky, unless the owner is distressed and really needs to sell.

So what can often happen is that the land owner will stubbornly cling to the original $100 number. The thinking being, “I was once told that my land is worth $100 and so that’s the minimum price I’m willing to accept.” In this scenario, you may need a broad increase in rents in order for a transaction to occur. This way the market rate units might be able to fully subsidize these new affordable units, preserving any margins and justifying the original $100 number.

Of course, the impact of inclusionary zoning is a hotly debated topic and there are a number of variables to consider. And so I will leave it at that for today. The real purpose of this post is to consider another permutation. Let’s once again say that we have a piece of development land worth $100. But instead of being owned by 13 siblings — and 3 cousins that live abroad and can’t be reached other than by fax — it’s owned by the government.

In this case, the government wants to sell the land and is considering two options. It can either (1) sell it for $100 and maximize immediate taxpayer revenue or (2) it can sell it for $80 with the condition that the buyer agree to deliver X% of affordable units (and a bunch of other goodies and positive externalities). I would also add that this fictitious town is experiencing what some might call a housing crisis.

If you were a private sector actor, you would probably choose option 1. You would take the additional $20 and retire to Florida (I’m off by a few zeros). But this is the government we’re talking about and presumably the government is thinking about the broader public good. Which option do you think is better at maximizing that?

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Sidewalk Labs, Uber, Lime, and the demise of urban density

Today I am going to talk about 3 things that recently happened and/or that are on my mind.

Sidewalk Labs pulled out of Toronto. I think this is sad. A lot of people have said that they’re surprised, but not surprised. The official reason is that this unprecedented environment has made it financially infeasible for them to develop the 12-acre site, while still adhering to their core principles. I don’t have any inside knowledge of the situation, but I can’t help but think that this is probably just an opportune excuse. They were getting beat up pretty badly by Toronto on all fronts, even though they had put forward an incredibly ambitious development proposal. As I said before, I can’t imagine many (or any) “conventional” developers coming forward with something like this. The last plan I saw was 1/3 non-residential, and 40% of the residential component was to be priced below market. And never mind all of the other innovations that were being contemplated.

In other tech news, Uber just led a $170 million investment in Lime (the micromobility scooter company). I think this is smart — both from an overall mobility standpoint and, selfishly, as a shareowner of $UBER. It is being reported that this round of investment values Lime at about $510 million. This is a 79% decline from April 2019 when it raised its last round. So presumably, Uber is getting a pretty good deal here. The bet is that the urban landscape demands multi-modal transportation solutions, everything from bikes and scooters to cars and public transit. There is also an argument to be made that in the short-term, our post-pandemic world is going to gravitate toward individual mobility and away from things like public transit. I’ve heard a few people say that, as we re-open the global economy and try to maintain social distancing, we’re going to face two major mobility bottlenecks: transit and elevators. Sounds like more testing would be a prudent idea.

Above, I was very careful to say “in the short-term” because I think the narrative that is emerging around the demise of urban density is entirely overblown. Few of us are clamoring to jump back into a mosh pit right now (perhaps a metaphorical mosh pit), but I also don’t believe that we will suddenly look to sprawling Brasilia as a source of urban inspiration. While it is true that “disease did shape architecture in the 20th century” (Alex Bozikovic wrote a good piece on this over the weekend) and that there have been oscillations in terms of how we view urbanity, I also know that this isn’t the first pandemic that our cities have lived through. The Hong Kong flu of 1968 is thought to have killed one million people around the world after, allegedly, emerging in one of the densest cities ever created. Hong Kong’s relationship with Beijing is a tenuous one right now, but it still remains one of the world’s most important global cities.

Perhaps cities are more resilient than we give them credit for.

Photo by Touann Gatouillat Vergos on Unsplash