Chapter 13: The Laws – How We Live

THE NORTH STAR of moral certitudes, or at least prayerful assumptions, for developers is that human nature, and hence the marketplace, is rational. Hence, predictable. Therefore, they believe, all they have to do is figure out what the rules of human behavior are, and they will be rewarded greatly. There are two things they find most perplexing:

  • Government bureaucrats and planners. These people, developers believe—to the extent that they are not familiar with the market principles that yield these Laws—have self-evidently preposterous ideas about how human nature works in the real world.
  • Human nature itself. Which, developers acknowledge, has an unsettling habit of appearing rational only in hindsight.


As E. Wayne Angle of Homart Corporation ruefully put it, "The market has laws, although they do not grind as fine as the laws of physics." The following are some of what developers believe to be the Laws. Note how many of them boil down to one of two tyrannies: (1) time; or (2) because that's the only way anybody could figure out to park the cars. Note also how many of the Laws are formulaic. They are rules of thumb about human behavior expressed as equations. They have been found to produce reliable results under circumstances that are disparate or that sometimes seem to be utterly alien. In other words, they reveal an underlying order in what appears to the uninitiated to be chaos.

In fact, while some developers may bring unusual insights or instincts to their work, as a breed they usually have only the one skill not typically found in other people, that of doing high-order mental arithmetic while talking about a completely different subject. Sources are in the Notes.

THE LAW OF UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES: No matter what your plan is, the result will always be a surprise.

THE FARTHEST DISTANCE AN AMERICAN WILL WILLINGLY WALK BEFORE GETTING INTO A CAR: Six hundred feet. The length of two football fields.

FIRST COROLLARY TO THE SIX-HUNDRED-FOOT LAW: In a mall, thou shalt never let a shopper see how far it is to the next anchor store. Thou shalt break her line of sight. If you make her aware of how much walking she is really doing inside a mall, she will leave the building and take her car to the far end rather than walk. And once you've let her out of the building and into her car, there is a significant chance that she will say forget the whole thing and go home.

SECOND COROLLARY TO THE SIX-HUNDRED-FOOT LAW: The most remote parking space in Edge City is rarely more than three hundred feet from its building's entrance.

THIRD COROLLARY TO THE SIX-HUNDRED-FOOT LAW: In either a downtown or an Edge City, if you do everything you can to make casual use of the automobile inconvenient at the same time that you make walking pleasant and attractive, you maybe, just maybe, can up the distance an American will willingly walk to fifteen-hundred feet. A quarter of a mile. And this at the substantial risk of everybody saying forget it and choosing not to patronize your highly contrived environment at all. See also Friction Factor in chapter 12, "The Words."

WHYTE'S LAW OF THE NUMBER OF BLOCKS AN AMERICAN WILL WALK IN MOST DOWNTOWNS: Three, maybe four.

THE NUMBER OF BLOCKS AN AMERICAN WILL WALK IN NEW YORK CITY: Five.

THE SPEED AN AMERICAN MAN WILL WALK IN A BIG-CITY DOWNTOWN: A little under three hundred feet per minute.

STROLLING SPEED PAST A SHOP WINDOW OR MERCHANDISE DISPLAY: Two hundred feet per minute.

THE NUMBER OF PEDESTRIANS PER HOUR AT MIDDAY REQUIRED TO MAKE AN URBAN CENTER WORK AND BE LIVELY: One thousand.

WHY ELECTED OFFICIALS FEEL THEY MUST ENCOURAGE COMMERCIAL DEVELOPMENT OR DIE: For every $ 1 .00 of tax revenue that comes in from a residential subdivision, as much as $1.22 goes out to provide services, especially schools. By contrast, for every $1.00 of tax revenue that comes in from commercial development, at most thirty-two cents is required in expenditures, usually for roads. (By the same calculation, if you really want your jurisdiction to remain solvent, you could leave it as farmland. Agriculture requires almost no expenditures of public funds—a maximum of seven cents for every $1.00 it brings in.)

THE TRACT MANSION HYPOTHESIS: There is some speculation that the one exception to the above law is homes over $350,000 Some calculations seem to demonstrate that they may bring in more in tax revenue than they consume.

THE FIRST MULTIMILLION-DOLLAR STRUCTURE USUALLY BUILT IN EDGE CITY: A mall.

HOW MANY CUSTOMERS MUST LIVE WITHIN A FIFTEEN-MINUTE DRIVE OF A MALL FOR IT TO BE SUCCESSFUL: A quarter of a million. Roughly the population of Las Vegas.

HOW BIG A MALL MUST BE BEFORE ITS DEVELOPER IS VIEWED BY HIS PEERS AS HAVING HAIR ON HIS CHEST: One million square feet (twenty-five acres under roof) and/or three levels.

WHY ONE-STORY MALLS ARE OBSOLETE IN POPULAR LOCATIONS: If the mall had enough shops to meet demand put upon it, it would be viewed by customers as too sprawling to walk. (Also, the land would be too expensive to build on at that low a density.)

THE AMOUNT OF GROWTH IN AN ESTABLISHED EDGE CITY THAT IS GENERATED BY COMPANIES ALREADY LOCATED THERE: Eighty-five percent.

HOW MANY STORIES UP OR DOWN AN AMERICAN WILL USE THE STAIRS: One. Frequently zero.

FIRST COROLLARY TO THE ONE-STORY-CLIMB LAW: In a three-level mall, the main entrance should be at the second level, from which it will only be one story up or down to get to the other levels. Otherwise, people may never go to the farthest level.

SECOND COROLLARY TO THE ONE-STORY-CLIMB LAW: In a three-story town house, the garage entrance, and hence the kitchen, where one unloads the groceries from the car, should be at the second level, for the same reason as in the First Corollary.

THIRD COROLLARY TO THE ONE-STORY-CLIMB LAW: In an office environment, even if a building is only two stories tall, it must have an elevator.

FOURTH COROLLARY TO THE ONE-STORY-CLIMB LAW: Multiple-family housing—apartments and condominiums—that are three stories or taller must have an elevator.

FIFTH COROLLARY TO THE ONE-STORY-CLIMB LAW: Since elevators and escalators demand rigid and heavy support structures, buildings that require them are more easily built of concrete and steel than Sticks and Bricks, thereby substantially increasing the cost, and increasing the likelihood that the structure will be viewed as Hardscape.

SIXTH COROLLARY TO THE ONE-STORY-CLIMB LAW: The world moves, in residential construction, at three stories. Residential structures either have to be less than three stories above the main entrance, in order for you to build them without elevators, or they have to be high-rise. Once you start building a residential structure of concrete and steel to accommodate an elevator, your costs kick into so much higher an orbit that you have to build vastly more dwelling units per acre in order to make any money.

HOW MUCH TOTAL SPACE IS REQUIRED TO MEET THE NEEDS OF AN OFFICE WORKER: Two hundred and fifty square feet. (Actually, this can vary from 175 to 350 square feet depending on market conditions. But the rule of thumb is four workers per thousand square feet.)

HOW MUCH TOTAL SPACE IS REQUIRED TO PARK THE CAR OF THE OFFICE WORKER: Four hundred square feet.

HOW MUCH SPACE A HUMAN TAKES UP, RELATIVE TO HOW MUCH SPACE HIS CAR TAKES UP: Five-eighths.

THE RULE OF THUMB FOR CALCULATING HOW MUCH TRAFFIC EDGE CITY WILL PRODUCE: Ten million square feet of office and retail space equals forty thousand trips per day.

THE AVERAGE DISTANCE FROM THE MAIN OFFICE OF A COMPANY IN EDGE CITY TO THE CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICERS HOME: Eight miles by road.

HOW TO MAKE A SUBWAY PAY FOR ITSELF FROM THE FAREBOX: Give its riders only three choices: take the train to work; live under Chinese communism; or swim the South China Sea. (Hong Kong has the only subway system in the world that does not require subsidies.)

HOW MANY SWITCHES IN TRAVEL MODE A COMMUTER WILL PUT UP WITH: Usually no more than one. Typically, zero. In other words, it is conceivable that a commuter will walk partway and take a bus partway, switching travel mode once. It is also possible that a commuter will take a car partway, and then switch to a train, switching mode once. But a car-bus-train two-mode-switch will rarely be utilized. Far more typically, once a person is in his car, you will never get him out of it into a different mode, no matter how bad the traffic is.

THE PROBABLE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF RIDERS YOU CAN HOPE TO SWITCH OUT OF THEIR CARS AND INTO A COMMUTER RAILROAD, SHOULD YOU BUILD ONE: Twelve percent. In other words, ten million square feet of space may yield forty-eight hundred train trips.

THE NUMBER OF RIDERS A HEAVY-RAIL SYSTEM NEEDS PER DAY TO BE COST EFFECTIVE: Fifteen thousand.

HOW BIG AN EDGE CITY WOULD HAVE TO BE TO GENERATE THAT MANY RIDERS: More than thirty million square feet of office space.

NUMBER OF EDGE CITIES THAT BIG AT THIS WRITING: Zero.

NUMBER OF RIDERS A LIGHT-RAIL SYSTEM NEEDS PER DAY TO BE COST EFFECTIVE: Seven thousand.

HOW BIG AN EDGE CITY WOULD HAVE TO BE TO GENERATE THAT MANY RIDERS: Fourteen and a half million square feet of office—more than downtown St. Louis or Cincinnati.

CERVERO'S LAW OF THE VALUE OF TIME WASTED IN TRAFFIC JAMS: People view the time they waste in a traffic jam as equal, in dollar value, to half of their hourly wage.

Robert Cervero of Berkeley, author of Suburban Gridlock, came up with the above calculation, which he believes works as follows:

Suppose somebody makes $10 an hour; $400 a week; $20,000 a year. Cervero thinks that person will pay $5.00 an hour—half of the $10 value of his wage—or $1.25 per quarter hour, to save fifteen minutes of commuting time. Conversely, he or she will eat fifteen minutes of additional commuting time to save $1.25 one way, or $2.50 round trip, or $12.50 a week, or $625 a year.

That is to say, if she saves $625 a year on her mortgage payments, which is to say she saves more than $6000 on the price of her house, she will be willing to eat a fifteen-minute addition to her commute in exchange.

Let's scale that up. A person makes $50,000 a year, or $1000 a week. Which works out to $25 an hour, assuming a forty-hour week. Cervero thinks that person will gladly pay $3.12 cents to save fifteen minutes on his or her commute. Which is $6.25 a day, or $31.25 per week, or $125 a month, or more than $1500 a year.

According to Cervero's analysis, it does not matter a whole lot how that money is spent. If you put in a toll road that saves time over surface roads, they will pay the toll. If you find a way to run a train that is actually faster than a stop-and-go commute, they will pay for it. If you run up the real estate prices—this is how it normally works—so that they can live nearer to their work, they will pay it.

According to his formula, if a person makes $50,000 a year, and is willing to add fifteen minutes to his commute, that should be worth a reduction of about $15,000 in the price of the exact same house closer in. Shortening the commute by a similar amount is probably something for which he will pay $15,000 more.

If he makes $250,000 per year, or $3000 per fifteen minutes, a limo and driver at $1.00 per minute saved possibly makes sense. If he makes $2,000,000 per year, or $250 per fifteen minutes, it may seem rational to save time by renting a helicopter and pilot at $8.00 a minute, or $480 an hour, which is about the going rate. It's worth it to him.

THE PRIME LOCATION CONSIDERATION WHEN A COMPANY MOVES: The commute of the chief executive officer must always become shorter.

WHAT A NEW HOUSE MUST SELL FOR IN ORDER FOR A DEVELOPER TO MAKE A PROFIT: The price of the land under it times four. If you build too much house on the land, it will not sell because it will be viewed as too expensive for the neighborhood. If you build too little, it will be viewed as substandard, given the price. Actually, examples exist of houses selling nicely for the price of the land times two. Also, for the price of the land times seven. However, those examples reflect unusual market conditions. The standard calculation, from which all exceptions spring, is the price of the land times four.

WHAT AN OWNER WHO HOLDS HIS MORTGAGE TO TERM WILL ULTIMATELY PAY FOR HIS HOUSE: The original sales price times three. Two out of every three dollars will go for interest, not lumber and land.

THE PLATONIC IDEAL OF THE SIZE OF AN OFFICE BUILDING'S FLOOR-PLATE: Twenty thousand square feet. ("We decided the way the Law happened was, in 1978, there were six brokers drinking in Clyde's, all from Coldwell Banker," reported Jim Todd, a developer who is active in the Urban Land Institute. "And they all decided that from that point on, twenty thousand square feet would be the size of the office floor and it's always been. And when those six guys get together and change it, it'll change, but in the meantime it's the Law.")

Actually twenty thousand square feet—about half a football field—is the golden mean because an Edge City building is usually a hundred feet wide in order to yield the maximum number of windows and, hence, offices with windows that command high rent, at the lowest total building cost per square foot. The building tends to be two hundred feet long because a hundred feet in any direction is thought to be the maximum distance that can be served by one costly "core." A core is that vertical tunnel in the middle of the building containing all elevator shafts, bathrooms, air conditioning, utility connections, and the like.

Actually, the typical floorplate range is from eighteen thousand to twenty-five thousand square feet. Smaller floorplates carve up better for multitenant use, notes David Shulman of Salomon Brothers. But the largest practical floorplate is thought to be thirty thousand square feet, because that holds the maximum number of employees a manager can effectively walk around and deal with personally in one day.

Although it does increase building costs, it is frequently thought valuable to integrate as many twists and turns and sharp angles as possible into the edge of a floorplate. If the number of corners is increased, the number of corner offices is maximized far beyond the traditional four per floor.

See also Floorplate in Chapter 12, "The Words."

THE FUNCTION OF GLASS ELEVATORS: To make women feel safe. Not to offer a view out. Rapes rarely occur in glass elevators.

THE POINT OF CRITICAL MASS OF EDGE CITY: Five million square feet of leasable office space.

THE LEVEL OF DENSITY AT WHICH AUTOMOBILE CONGESTION STARTS BECOMING NOTICEABLE IN EDGE CITY: When you get as much as twenty-five square feet of office space built on each hundred square feet of land. In developer's parlance, this is a floor-to-area ratio (FAR) of .25. See also FAR in Chapter 12, "The Words."

THE LEVEL OF DENSITY AT WHICH IT IS NECESSARY TO CONSTRUCT PARKING GARAGES INSTEAD OF PARKING LOTS BECAUSE YOU HAVE RUN OUT OF LAND: 04 FAR.

THE LEVEL OF DENSITY AT WHICH TRAFFIC JAMS BECOME A MAJOR POLITICAL ISSUE IN EDGE CITY: 1.0 FAR.

THE LEVEL OF DENSITY BEYOND WHICH FEW EDGE CITIES EVER GET: 1.5 FAR.

THE LEVEL OF DENSITY AT WHICH LIGHT-RAIL TRANSIT STARTS MAKING ECONOMIC SENSE: 2.0 FAR.

THE LEVEL OF DENSITY OF A TYPICAL OLD DOWNTOWN: 5.0 FAR and up.

THE DENSITY-GAP COROLLARY TO THE LAWS OF DENSITY: Edge Cities always develop to the point where they become dense enough to make people crazy with the traffic, but rarely, if ever, do they get dense enough to support the rail alternative to automobile traffic.

THE MAXIMUM DESIRABLE COMMUTE, THROUGHOUT HUMAN HISTORY, REGARDLESS OF TRANSPORTATION TECHNOLOGY: Forty-five minutes.

THE MAXIMUM DESIRABLE DISTANCE A BACKSHOP LOCATION CAN BE FROM A CORPORATE HEADQUARTERS: One and a half hours by car, or three hours, nonstop, by plane.

THE MOST RATIONAL EXPLANATION OF WHY THE FIRST THING A DEVELOPER USUALLY DOES IS BULLDOZE EVERYTHING FLAT: A parking surface may not undulate more than 6 percent, by law. If a car is parked sideways on a grade steeper than that, its door will be very difficult to open on the uphill side, or close on the downhill side. Also, the surface will offer unacceptable liabilities when covered with ice.

THE MOST PROBABLE EXPLANATION OF WHY THE FIRST THING A DEVELOPER USUALLY DOES IS BULLDOZE EVERYTHING FLAT: Because architects use T-squares. Therefore, when designing a building, the first thing an architect usually draws is a horizontal base line, which in turn gets incorporated into the final building by the work of a bulldozer.

THE COST OF BEING CANADIAN: U.S. Plus 25 percent. A Swiss economist, attempting to calculate what Canada's kinder, gentler form of urbanity costs the average Canadian, by factoring in differences in currency value, differences in cost of living, differences in wage levels, differences in taxation, differences in levels of government service provided, and myriad other such factors, came up with that fudge factor.

THE GENDER THOUGHT DESTINED TO SELL COMMERCIAL REAL ESTATE, BY THOSE WHO SELL COMMERCIAL REAL ESTATE: Men.

THE GENDER THOUGHT DESTINED TO SELL RESIDENTIAL REAL ESTATE, BY THOSE WHO SELL COMMERCIAL REAL ESTATE: Women.

WHAT PEOPLE WHO HIRE COMMERCIAL REAL ESTATE SALESMEN LOOK FOR IN A RESUME: Background as a jet-fighter pilot. It is an article of faith that the best commercial salesmen are former sky jockeys, although it is the sheerest speculation exactly why that correlation may exist.

JAKE PAGE'S LAW OF SEVERED CONTINUITY: "You name a place for what is no longer there as a result of your actions. So one has Foxcrest Farms, for example, where no fox will ever again hunt and no plow ever make a furrow worth the name."

THE KEITH SEVERIN COROLLARY: All subdivisions are named after whatever species are first driven out by the construction. E.g., Quail Trail Estates.

THE THREE LAWS OF BUILDING: (1) Build. (2) Build at the lowest possible cost. (3) If rule number one and rule number two come into conflict, rule number one takes precedence.


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