Beautiful city

Driving around Newburgh last August, New York Magazine writer Simone Kitchens got the sense that some kind of change was going on. Many newcomers, “drawn to the incredibly affordable, stately housing stock and growing creative communities,” were moving in, she said. Might Newburgh have the potential to become the next Hudson, “the onetime working-class town where antique lamps now go for $7000?” 

But Kitchens’ tale included a cautionary note. The author wondered whether Hudson’s revival, which had resulted, she said, in longtime residents being priced out of the community, might not have constituted “a kind of cautionary tale for these developing small towns, which, after struggling through decades of decline, are showing glimmers of a turnaround and are intent on growing a different way.”

The reporter visited three Hudson Valley communities, which to emphasize their degree of transformation she labeled New Newburgh, New Catskill and New Troy. Once downtrodden, she wrote, the three hot urban newbies were now hoping their recent welcome revitalization “doesn’t get out of hand.”@Cheapoldhouses is a very popular Instagram account that features affordable properties with some architectural distinction such as New York Magazine found. The site is run by historical preservationist Elizabeth Finkelstein, a Nyack resident who calls Cheapoldhouses “the most architecturally intact rabbit hole you’ve ever fallen down.”

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Most of the rundown but elegant properties are in Midwestern or Northeastern places — like the small cities of the Hudson Valley and the rest of upstate New York — that have in the last half-century failed to find new sources of money to replace those provided by their now-disappeared manufacturing bases. Their housing stock reflects the memory of a vanished past prosperity. 

What the Hudson Valley has that other parts of upstate New York don’t have is nearness to New York City, the largest agglomeration of knowledge workers in the United States and perhaps the world. Young New York City artists and knowledge workers, some well-to-do and others of more limited means, have been moving to the small formerly blue-collar cities of the Hudson Valley. At the same time, an increasing number of Hudson Valley commuters are traveling southward to jobs in the New York City metro area. Finally, the flexibility many enjoy in the tech-driven gig economy encourages young people to think they can make a living outside the expensive big-city rat race.  

Some house-hunting pilgrims choose one distinctive Hudson Valley community, others another. Some move entirely, some buy cheap second homes, and some commute. Each small city has its unique mix of characteristics, its own special sauce. One size doesn’t fit all. Each community must find its own path to turnaround, each must find its own balance between providing what the newcomers want most and safeguarding what the existing community values most.

 “Whether returning Beacon to its heyday or rebuilding its cityscape in anticipation of newcomers, the developers have a vision to advance,” wrote reporter Arvind Dilawar in The New York Times in an article titled “Booming Beacon” on March 3 of this year. “Residents may disagree and continue to fight against what they see as the destruction of their city, but even they recognize that they need to provide a comprehensive alternative for Beacon’s future.”

Booming Beacon is. A local reporter for The Highlands, Jeff Simms, listed the number of new residential units in a dozen developments approved in Beacon in the past five years. The total count came to an astounding 790. The 2010 federal census listed Beacon’s population as 15,541. With that kind of increased housing stock, the census estimate predicting a continued decline in Beacon’s population is likely to be incorrect.  

Dilawar’s story focused on one development, 344 Main Street on the corner of Eliza and Main streets, which contains commercial spaces on its ground floor and 24 rental apartments on its three upper floors. 

Beacon city government says one- and two-bedrooms at 344 Main will soon be available under the workforce affordable housing program, with rents starting at $1508 per month. A number of two-bedroom market-rate apartments are available with rents starting at $2500.

A New York Times photo caption says 344 Main, located a block from the Colonial Revival fieldstone post office built in 1937 (complete with an interior mural of a map and landscapes of the region painted by Woodstock WPA artists Charles Rosen and Clarence Bolton), “towers over the rest of the block.” It’s bigger, all right, out-of-scale and not exactly right-sized. But “towers over” ventures into the hyperbolic.  

Developers have been seeking to meet the demand for housing. Supply has been lagging. The development process takes time. Some community residents worry about proposals diluting the special character of their communities. They also see development as increasing gentrification, displacing poorer service workers in favor of better educated, more privileged young knowledge workers.

Others, including most developers, are quick to pin the Nimby label on their opponents. They see relaxed regulation and more permissive zoning as the path toward greater housing supply. Whether housing was market rate or affordable, there’d be more of it for more people, spurring more and better economic growth. 

The academics who have studied these issues are divided. As the price of housing rises, those on the lower-paid side of the economic divide, who must spend more of their income on housing, inevitably experience greater economic pressure. Will the rising tide lift all economic boats? Or will the poorer folks have to abandon ship, leaving the now-more-attractive inner-city housing stock to those who can better afford it?

Failures in housing markets can certainly retard economic growth. But will permitting market-rate housing without a substantial contribution for affordable housing solve the problem? That’s what’s doubtful.

“Upzoning is far from the progressive policy tool it has been sold as,” claims a new study by economic geographers Michael Storper and Andres Rodriguez-Pose. “It mainly leads to building high-end housing in desirable locations.” 

The additional market-rate housing, they argue, mostly attracts skilled workers, bringing more money into the community. But the cost of housing goes up for everybody, edging lower-paid workers out of the community. Greater density alone is likely to increase displacement. 

What will increase value for everyone? A 2019 study by Gerald Carlino and Albert Saiz published by the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank found that both large and small cities with more attractions and more picturesque locations had a significant edge when it came to growth in population and jobs. Studying American cities from 1990 to 2010, the authors called this focus on urban amenities “the beauty premium.” Don’t dilute what you have, they said. It’s what gives you your comparative advantage over other places. It’s why these smart new people choose you. They want to be part of what you’ve got. 

This paper found a significant statistical relationship between lifestyle amenities and economic development within metropolitan areas. Access to a central recreational district proved an important determinant of demographic change and economic evolution of city neighborhoods.  

Other recent studies have pointed to the concentration of recent economic growth in the large “superstar” cities. The Carlino and Saiz paper, “Beautiful city: Leisure amenities and urban growth,” found that the beauty premium was unaffected by city size. Smaller and medium-sized places with more parks, historic buildings, proximity to water and mountains, and clearer skies and less rain were perceived as beautiful as well.

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