Real estate developers play an important role in cities but their legacy is not uncontroversial, argues UBC architecture professor Sara Stevens in her new book, Developing Expertise: Architecture and Real Estate in Metropolitan America. In this Q&A, she talks about how developers’ practices improved city planning but also promoted racial segregation. She also examines how one developer in particular—Donald Trump—fits into this mould.
Were developers a positive force for America?
The record is mixed all the way through. In the book I trace how real estate development became a profession starting in the early decades of the 20th century, when developers and brokers organized national conferences, published journals, and by the mid-20th century lobbied the government for development-friendly urban policies. Before that, you had loosely unassociated property appraisers and brokers and financiers, but the real estate industry hadn’t really coalesced into a single organization.
As developers became organized, they changed the face of American cities. Because many of them had experience building single-family suburban housing, they shifted cities from a very urban model into something that looks a little bit more suburban, with parks and deep setbacks and curving streets and cul-de-sacs.
Did these developers promote racial segregation?
The historical record for race relations in real estate is abominable. Many developers wrote deed restrictions along racial lines to protect their investments, and these restrictions inevitably enforced a landscape of residential segregation. So depending on the city and the development, you couldn’t have black people moving in, or Asians, or Jews. And because these restrictions also went hand in hand with other restrictions that affected the value of the property—such as how buildings should be maintained and how much density would be allowed in a neighbourhood— the result was that neighbourhoods with racial restrictions tended to do better and preserve their value over time.
To be fair, there were also developers who promoted investing in city centres when many people fled to the suburbs after World War II. Detroit’s Lafayette Park is a great example. It integrates high-rises and townhomes and low two-storey apartments into the landscape with a high quality of design. Another is Southwest Washington D.C., where the developer created a very walkable mixed-use neighbourhood at a time when that was hardly the norm.
As a real estate magnate, how does Donald Trump fit into all this?
Like developers who came before him, Donald Trump advocated early in his career for investing in the city centre, when he negotiated for subsidies to support his redevelopment of a New York City hotel in the then-seedy neighbourhood around Grand Central station. At the same time, he reflects a moment of diminished ambitions for the cities and the public good: a shiny, newly remodeled hotel should suffice as neighbourhood improvement and therefore deserves tax breaks from the city government. He has throughout his career leveraged advantages in tax codes to the benefit of his projects. He went so far at one point as to lobby Congress to repeal a set of tax reforms that, though designed to protect investors from undue risk, he saw as limiting his access to capital.
Thus his position today as the pro-loophole candidate, who wants to continue to work the tax code, reduce regulations and the size of government, aligns with his career in real estate. As easy as he is to peg as a kind of evil character, he still reflects back on how the financing of projects and tax law are deeply entwined.
You could say he was also responsible for what I call bankruptcy urbanism. In the early part of his career, he made a ton of concessions to civic groups in his desperation to get Trump City off the ground. This urban development project on the upper west side in New York ended up being a better version of what he originally proposed with parks and affordable housing added on as the planning process proceeded, instead of the single massive tower sitting isolated on a vacant plaza that he originally proposed.
The adversarial relationship in this project, and that often develops between his projects and the surrounding neighborhoods and city planners, mirrors the us-against-them mentality that we have seen shaping his campaign in the last months. In a way that I find very troubling, the developer running for president sees government, financial regulations, and the public as obstacles to his desired ends.