Tamara Roy: The car analogy, because everybody in America has cars, is that you’ve gone from the Lexus to the Prius. You get something more sustainable, less expensive, and where demand is huge.
John McAslan: Another interesting one is getting Transport for London [the city’s public transportation agency] and network rail, agencies who have lots of residual land, to become developers. Transport for London believes they can build 100,000 homes in the next decade. I think that’s pretty optimistic, but that’s bringing land back into the system.
Tamara Roy: Wow. By saying “becoming developers,” what does that mean? Do they actually hire people who then will develop?
John McAslan: Transport for London or network rail have masses of land on the edges of their railway system, which were formerly depots or land that was just bought.
Tamara Roy: We have that, too; it’s called Massport. They’ve got tons of land, but mostly they use it as income-producing. They realize they can sell it or give a long-term lease to developers, and they can make money off of it, rather than what you’re saying, which is to be a little more focused and say, “What we need is affordable housing. Can we use this land to a good purpose for society?”
John McAslan: They are looking at effectively developing a property partnership with private developers, and I think there’s something like 15 property developers who have gone on their framework, to develop their land with a combination of private and affordable, but where the concessions are such that the affordable element is significantly higher than the 25 percent envisaged. The private element is affordable because it’s on land that would be regarded as secondary. Its attractiveness is it’s close to public transportation.
Next is looking at bringing back into use unused space above shop units, for instance, which is classic in Great Britain, where you have the ground-level shop. The thing is — and the [new] mayor here is probably going to be a breath of fresh air — to really come to grips with the problem. If government doesn’t do it, then in the next decade people will just drift off and say we can no longer afford to live here. We’ll go to Rotterdam or wherever.
Tamara Roy: That’s happening here as well. What makes you hopeful about what the mayor may do? He said he’s looking at 50 percent, right?
John McAslan: I think 50 percent affordable is probably a political wheeze. He’ll probably not achieve it, but he’s looking beyond the market sector. He understands that the issue can’t be left to the market economy. It has to be tackled differently. There’s all sorts of opportunities to increase density without dramatically reducing the quality of the place. It’s just to get land back in the system. Find a model that gets underutilized land back into play.
Tamara Roy: Do you see the general population understanding this dynamic about housing shortages and density? Because Boston has a community-focused planning process, and that’s often where some of these ideas hit a wall; even though they know there’s a housing shortage, the neighbors don’t want the character of their neighborhood to change. So we get stuck. Nobody wants density. Are you running into the same thing there?
John McAslan: I think we are. In London, there aren’t vast pockets of land that are visible and accessible. There are tracts of land that are disconnected from urban neighborhoods. Also because the scale of development is usually midrise — four, five, six floors. The issue of scale isn’t so much a problem with affordability because to build affordably, you have to build relatively low in scale. Towers are for the private sector. What’s interesting, though, is you get educational institutions like Imperial College expanding their campuses on land that was low cost. Imperial built university student residences, I guess about 20 to 25 stories, in the vicinity of a neighborhood with two, three stories. Huge uproar. But it got planning permission because it was for education. This wasn’t private development. It had massive opposition [but] achieved permission because the view from the local authority was that this is a world university moving into a derelict piece of land, actually an old prison, bringing jobs, valuable resources, and 5,000 students into a neighborhood that was previously dead. The architecture’s pretty dreadful, very big in scale.
Tamara Roy: But there was a positive narrative about it, right?
John McAslan: That won the day. Sometimes scale and quality of building has to take second place to the regeneration of what was a pretty down-in-the-heel part of the city.
Tamara Roy: That’s happening here as well. There are growth zones the mayor is working on, near transit, in some tough neighborhoods. But as long as it has the positive narrative of having a higher amount of affordable housing than a private development would, it has more likelihood of going forward.
John McAslan: Exactly. For instance, we’ve been looking at the Baltimore-Penn Station with Arup for a possible project. It’s got about 5 acres of derelict land as part of the development scenario. When I was walking around there a month ago, I felt, well, this bit of Baltimore, [with] the station 3 miles from the city center, has got very low usage. But the neighborhood is now funky. There’s a college of art. There’s cultural stuff happening.
Tamara Roy: There can be a new day.
John McAslan: That’s where density offers a chance to create vitality. Politically, you’ve got to be open to the bigger picture.
Tamara Roy: One thing you’re talking about, then, is trying to look at what is city- and state-owned land, which makes affordability possible, and how do they overlap with places that might be able to become dynamic corridors?
John McAslan: It can’t be left to the market. It can’t be left to developers. [If] developers are creative, they can see there is another model that they can make money and provide —
Tamara Roy: Something needed.
John McAslan: A provision and a need, then they’re going to jump at it. That’s why I’m not at all dismissive of developers. I think it’s just a case of being politically open to their ability to fund and be creative about mixed-use development. Developers have a huge part to play in focusing their input into ways which also serve the need.
Tamara Roy: And empowering the governmental leadership to be doing it.
John McAslan: Exactly.