On corners: My father and Jane Jacobs

by Sandy Ikeda

Also in “The City” section of Sunday’s The New York Times is a fun article about city corners called “Cornerville” that details the intensity of life at a particular spot of urban convergence, the intersection of 23rd Street and 7th Avenue, near the famed Chelsea Hotel.  (Curiously, the article seems to just stop without really ending.)

Anyway, my late father often told me, when I was very young and more interested in real estate values than in studying cities, that it’s best to invest early in corner properties, whether in the city or country.  He prospered by following this strategy, but he didn’t explain why it worked.  Jane Jacobs does, sort of.

Jacobs stresses the importance of corners for overall economic development in a city, or more precisely, she argues that, ceteris paribus, short blocks are preferable to long blocks (which translates to more corners).  Having shorter blocks and more corners multiplies the ways of getting from point A to point B, which enables pedestrians (and drivers) to experience more diversity of use at street level, and offers vendors more good locations to supply that diversity, than otherwise.  Because roughly twice as many people will pass by a corner property per hour than locations at mid-block, the former naturally tend to be pricier than the latter.

A rule of thumb for the success of an urban center is that about 1000 persons need to pass through every hour (see Joel Garreaus’s Edge City).  Short blocks and multiple corners make this more likely, as people who find streetscapes interesting tend to attract still more people, and more business.

Had he known her work I think my father, a wise and practical man, would have found much practical wisdom in Jane Jacobs.

3 thoughts on “On corners: My father and Jane Jacobs

  1. The question is why efficient markets don’t wipe out the advantage of the corners. Unless your father was the only person who knew this trick, it seems the price of the corner lots should rise enough to compensate for their higher expected stream of benefits, making them no better or worse an investment than the mid-block lots.

    Re: Jacobs’s point, it makes sense, but it seems to look at only the benefit side of the ledger. Shorter blocks imply more space dedicated to roads instead of buildings (unless the roads are narrower, I suppose). The reductio ad absurdum is a city consisting of corners only — similar to Bastiat’s “negative railroad” that consists only of stations. To avoid the absurd conclusion, it must be true that the at some point the costs of shorter blocks exceed the benefits.

  2. Well, the key is in the phrase “invest EARLY…” (emphasis added). To be farsighted enough to know where the growth is going and then invest in lands/parcels, WHICH INCLUDE valuable corners, seems to be essential. This generally means buying very early in the cycle; something that most people won’t or can’t do. I’m talking years in advance here – but not usually more than 10 years.

    Also, the middle pieces can often be sold off earlier for other uses to residential or commercial buyers and the corners kept back. The ‘middle buyers’ can still get, what is to them, ‘a deal’ (because it’s still a few years down the road) and the seller makes back his investment cost, or can. The corners become valuable in later years as the place where support services can be built.

    In that way, oftentimes, those corners end up being more valuable than all of the rest of the land put together. At least, that’s how Dad did it.

    My opinion (based on a long lifetime of observation of Dad and my own experiences) on the reliance of the ‘efficieny markets’ is that they are the composite (or averaging) of the local transactional communities’ actions – people. And people are more conservative (somewhat risk-aversive) and mid-sighted. I have observed that these so-called market efficiencies really cannot compete with a talented, far-sighted individual who can take that apparent riskier position, and who can ‘wait it out’.

    Anyway, I’ll end on this note: the concept of ‘corners’ is very old, and abstract, and is encapsulated in the phrase ‘cornering the market’. It works in every area of life for those few individuals who understand the concept AND act on the opportunity.

    – Sandy’s Sis

  3. Someone should have told this to the idiots who laid out Manhattan — the interminable block between 5th and 6th Avenues could use two other avenues between them.

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