Why Building Better Places Isn’t About Money

Debunking the myth that good design is too expensive

Coby Lefkowitz

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The Pearl Hotel & Main Street in Rosemary Beach, FL, a newly completed community. Source: Jeff Brummett

In popular discourse surrounding real estate development (outside of the narrow realms of Twitter), there seems to be a general acceptance that wherever possible, we should try to create more quality, beautiful places. From local observers, visitors passing through, and casual conversations among friends and family, this sentiment is consistent whenever one is confronted with much of new construction today.

So pervasive is this sentiment, that it’s become a common pastime to guess in futility why we can’t build as we used to. Technology is better, construction practices are more refined, access to materials is far easier than historically was the case, capital is more fluid, and it’s easier than ever to get inspiration on great projects from around the world. Is it just too expensive to build like we used to? What gives?

Common Suspects

In searching for answers, we arrive at a few common suspects, all of whom share some blame, but not enough to explain the grinding down of our places to the dismal state they exist in today. There’s our usual foe, modern zoning codes, which demand many things of buildings. From intensity, to setbacks, bulk, lot size coverage, parking minimums & height provisions, our buildings aren’t shaped by the hands of talented designers, but the sterilized, pseudo-technocratic regulations that guide how structures must interact with the built environment. In some studies, parking minimums have been found to account for an average of $50,000 in increased project costs per space, and upwards of 50% of the rent of new apartments. It’s not a matter of necessity, but antiquated code that forces an arbitrary amount of parking and costs.

More broadly, the guiding principles of road design within planning disciplines mandate harsh expanses of asphalt that stretch out & widen our cities beyond human scale, and endanger our communities. Wide roads are anathema to good places. They’re also very expensive to maintain.

New buildings are governed by building codes, those essential provisions that designate best-practices of creating safe, secure, habitable places. These codes shape design by laying the framework for…

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Coby Lefkowitz

Urbanist, Developer, Writer, & Optimist working to create more beautiful, sustainable, healthy, equitable and people-oriented places.