More thoughts about buildings and sound

July 7, 2008 § 3 Comments

A while back, I wrote about a condo development that was being built in front of Arit and John’s living room window. As it happens, the building was finished several months ago, and its units are now being shown to prospective buyers.

The building is fairly typical of its kind, both in that it is breathtakingly bland, and that it uses every inch of vertical and horizontal space that is permitted under city zoning laws. However, the building has two features that are somewhat atypical, at least when they are considered in the larger urban context of Mile End.

The first is the absence of commercial space on the first floor. Unlike the buildings that surround it, which house restaurants, shops, and cafés as well as apartments, the new development is exclusively residential. In the context of a commercial street, even a small one such as Bernard, this difference is important.

The second is the presence of a basement level, which houses at least two residential units. None of the surrounding buildings have habitable basements, nor do most of the older residential structures in the neighbourhood. A few do have what appear to be crawl spaces, and perhaps some of these have been converted through renovation, but by and large basements are not a characteristic feature of Mile End housing.

As someone who is interested in cities and sound, these features make me extremely nervous. They do so because, once the units have been sold, they will serve to residentialize the area adjacent to the building, and this will eventually transform a portion of a public street into a quasi-private space.

Here’s how the process will unfold. The new condo residents will take possession of their units and settle into their newly-acquired status as Mile End homeowners. However, after moving in, some of these residents will discover that living in a condominium that is at or underneath street level is noisy, particularly when the building has a minimal setback from the street.

They will also discover that, in an effort to keep costs down, the building’s developers did not use construction materials that are designed to reduce noise. Because of it, the residents will hear the life of the street that lies immediately beyond their windows, and they will almost certainly complain about it.

Being property owners and therefore property tax payers, the City will take their complaints very seriously. It will issue warnings to local bars, whose patrons spill out onto the streets in warmer weather. It will deny licenses to new establishments which may create noise. It will discourage loitering and other activities that are associated with increased noise. It may even remove the benches that were recently installed as part of a street beautification project, one of which is located a few feet away from the new condo-owners’ windows.

In other words, the City will intervene on behalf of the condo-owners to limit the ways in which the street can be used by other citizens.

Of course, it isn’t the condo-owners’ fault, at least not per se. They moved into a residential building with corresponding expectations of quiet, if not with a great deal of foresight about what it means to live in a building of this type. The problem is that the building should never have been built in the way that it was, which is to say that the developers should have been prevented from constructing residential housing that was doomed to be noisy from the outset.

However, the fault doesn’t really lie with the building developers either, since their only legal responsibility is to maximize their own profits within the framework of existing zoning regulations. The problem lies with the regulations themselves, which virtually ignore the importance of sound in the management of urban space.

To be continued…


§ 3 Responses to More thoughts about buildings and sound

  • rada says:

    the whole situation is wonderfully put forth. I see this as limiting modes of living, that is, trying to control the space within the area of such designed buildings. The potential for such limitations exists, and a key point is the shoddy construction. Or, at the least, there is merely lack of apparent foresight given with regard to the environment and the sound generated within.

    An increase in noise will generate more complaints regardless of architecture type, that is if you have more people moving into an area, such as huge influxes to Williamsburg and other parts of Brooklyn. I’m sure dynamics vary from area to area, but interesting stuff regardless.

  • I love your analysis.

    From a strictly commercial point of view, inserting a completely residential building into a commercial strip damages the businesses on either side by disrupting the flow of traffic. This will happen even without noise complaints.


  • Vila H. says:

    Rada: “Limiting modes of living.” Yes, that’s exactly right. As luck would have it, there’s a Part III brewing, which will probably belabour this point.

    Hey, next time we’re both in NYC, will you take me on a walking/listening tour of Williamsburg?

    Alison: The stupid thing is, the building is zoned as residential, not mixed use. If I wasn’t already overextended in the research department, I’d look into the zoning regulations for the whole street and report back to you. Instead, I’ll observe that only one other nearby building is exclusively residential, and it too is a recent condo development.


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