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Witold Rybczynski in American Enterprise

Samuel Staley
May 24, 2006, 8:32am

The most recent issue of the American Enterprise published by the American Enterprise Institute has an excellent interview with architect and Wharton Business School real estate professor Witold Rybyczynski. The interview covers all sorts of issues, including urban sprawl, New Urbanism, and Wal-Mart, but here are a few snippets that really caught my attention:
TAE: Statistics show that only a small percentage of our national territory has been developed, yet land is becoming expensive. How is that? RYBCZYNSKI: I've been studying this in Pennsylvania, where it takes about four years to get permits for a project. In Texas it takes about four months. And that's roughly the comparison. Because it's so difficult (if possible at all) to get building permits in places like New Jersey or southeast Pennsylvania, while population and demand are growing, the result is that the few things which are permitted become extremely valuable. So when we say the land is more expensive, it's not because of some sort of physical reason. It's simply that less land is being made available for building, and so what there is costs more. And that's what pushes up the price of housing. It's not the cost of construction; it's not primarily about demand, it's mainly about supply. .... TAE: How much hope do you have for the revival of New Orleans? RYBCZYNSKI: It'll be a very different city. It'll be much smaller. I think the tourism and such will revive. If the historic network had not been preserved that would be very different. But eventually the convention center will get rebuilt, and people will still go there. There's nothing quite like New Orleans from the tourist's point of view. On the other hand, I think that they've lost a lot of employment that's not going to come back, because there are safer places than that particular city. TAE: That's not a very bright prognosis, because tourism is a low-paying business. RYBCZYNSKI: True. But New Orleans is actually much more like a rust belt city than a sunbelt city. ItŐs a bit like Camden, New Jersey. If Camden burned down, would it be rebuilt? Maybe, but it wouldn't be the old Camden. While cities grow very quickly, they decline slowly. The big reason is real estate; people with all their savings in real estate are stuck there, so you sort of tough it out. But if something comes along that cuts the cord, a decline can leap to the next stage. What should've taken decades suddenly happens in a week. And that's, I think, what really happened in New Orleans. This very gradual decline has been cruelly accelerated. Half the low-income people in New Orleans were tenants--a very high number. The landlords can't afford to rebuild houses for those tenants. If they rebuild, it's going to have to be for somebody with a lot more money, because rebuilding a house costs more than it's worth right now. That's a quandary I don't see any solution to.

Samuel Staley is Research Fellow


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