Where Did All the Small Developers Go?

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The famous New England triple-decker is a case in point. The triple-decker is a beloved housing type in New England because of its early (lowercase “d”) democratic appeal. For its owners, many of them working-class immigrants, it was a path into the middle class: you could own the building, live in one unit, and rent out the other two. The many thousands of these built in the late 19th and early 20th century were largely not built by professional developers, but by casual investors, factory, and mill owners, and small-time carpenters.

Pick a building style, and find a similar history. The English basements of Washington, DC, proliferated beginning in the 1870s and originally served as semi-separate kitchen and working space for domestic servants and hired day-laborers. But as the city grew and housing demand increased, most were adapted into the auxiliary rental apartments that today’s planners call ADUs.

Ad-hoc adaptation shaped these patterns. Where a design choice was widely replicated, it was because something worked and was copied and became part of a development vernacular. People talked to each other; people shared know-how. There was an ecosystem: networks of tradespeople, laborers, lenders, and small-scale developers you could plug into and learn how to do the work.

This doesn’t mean development wasn’t big business. It was. Land speculators carved up subdivisions at the edges of cities, and faced criticisms that would sound quite familiar today. But even the big developers of the time were working on the scale of a few blocks, not a few square miles, and almost always contiguous with the urban fabric around them. This produced a template that you could fit into at any scale: You could subdivide a few blocks, but you could also buy a single lot and build on it. You didn’t have to be a big-shot developer. And cities under tremendous social stress were able to grow and flex and accommodate rapid change because of that.

It Takes a “Swarm”

If you want to grow good things that will last, and you want to do it at speed, you need to set in motion processes that will take care of themselves. You can’t micromanage it all. I like to talk about small developers and builders as a “swarm,” a term I’ve borrowed (with permission) from planner Kevin Klinkenberg. It’s for a reason—and not the menacing one you might associate with a word like “swarm.”

What we need are ecosystem builders. We need pollinators. People who will share and transport the seeds of good ideas and help them take root in more places. It’s not just about who does the work of pouring cement or hammering nails or placing a pipe in the ground. It’s about who is working to grow, share, and keep alive a culture of building the stuff we need. A “swarm” of neighborhood makers does this work separately but together, in harmony but without one guiding hand.

The Missing Small Developer and the Missing Middle

Who builds your city? The answer to the latter question changed a lot in North America’s cities and towns as the postwar suburban experiment took hold.

This was a gradual change. As late as the 1960s, incremental development was still thickening up the urban fabric in places. A 1964 book called The Low-Rise Speculative Apartment by Wallace Smith describes this phenomenon as it appeared in Oakland, California. (I learned of it from this excellent thread by Twitter user TribTowerViews.) Small-time developers in the 1960s built hundreds of small apartment buildings on scattered lots around Oakland, many of them replacing older single-family homes. At least a third of these developers appeared to have no real-estate industry ties, and by and large these projects did not involve the practices—such as land assembly—typical of corporate developers who build at larger scales.

But the immediate postwar era was the last gasp for the swarm. Since then, the development business has consolidated. There are fewer builders than ever, but they work at larger scales than ever. Urban land costs have skyrocketed, requiring larger projects to turn a profit. Wall Street exercises unprecedented influence in what gets built where. In older cities, a wave of downzonings in the 1970s through the 1990s froze neighborhood evolution, rendering most of what was built there in the past illegal to replicate. No one of these things is The Culprit, nor are these factors independent of each other. They are all deeply interlinked.

In any case, the kind of small-developer activity documented in Oakland in the 1960s is almost unheard of, let alone that which built Boston or Philly or Chicago. Where it happens, it’s the province of a rare breed of committed entrepreneurs whom we see as having some almost supernatural combination of hustle, drive, ingenuity, and pride of place.

The phrase “Missing Middle” describes a key physical consequence of the missing small-developer ecosystem. The term, coined by Dan Parolek of Opticos Design, refers to certain building types, such as small apartment buildings, multi-unit houses, simple mixed-use structures with a storefront and a residence, that were the building blocks of those blossoming 19th-century metropolises, but that are scarcely produced anymore. They are not friendly to the business model of production builders and big finance, which Johnny Sanphillippo characterizes as “predicated on vast amounts of institutional complexity and debt.”

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