Will Tel-Aviv’s City Center be renewed?
or: Why planners need to start using big-data analytics
Tel Aviv city had recently (January 2018) approved a new zoning ordinance for one of its most desirable areas, precinct no.3, also known as “The old North” neighborhood. The plan incentivizes developers to renew residential buildings by offering additional floor space, in order to upgrade non-historical buildings and to increase the housing stock of the city center, while preserving its unique urban scape qualities. Dwellers benefit from the renewal for free and get improved/new apartments. Since its first phases through approval, the plan was publicly criticized by developers, planners, and residents, claiming that although the plan would allegedly increase the supply of land, at the individual building level it is still too restrictive to economically allow its utilization.
As a Tel-Aviv-based architect who specializes in urban renewal residential projects, it was easy to sense the sharp decrease in the demand for new projects in precinct 3 right after the rezoning was announced. Applying my recently-acquired data analytics skills to the question of the rezoning’s feasibility was a natural choice to me; I used GIS data on the granularity of parcels in order to identify whether the additional floor area given by the new ordinance provides a strong enough incentive to assure the renewal of its buildings. I also assessed the future floor-area ratio (FAR) to be generated by the rezoning, as well as the number of housing units to be added across the precinct, according to the plan’s anticipated utilization.
A quick review of Tel-Aviv’s city center built environment + zoning
Mostly built in the 1930’s under the auspice of the British Mandate in Palestine, precinct 3 is one of the four precincts of Tel Aviv city center (precincts 3, 4, 5 and 6) and is known for its distinguished built environment of Bauhaus buildings and “Garden City” urban landscape. The precinct also contains a meaningful part of the “White City” zone, declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 2003. Following this declaration, a preservation plan for the city had been approved in 2008, designating about 1,000 buildings in the city center for preservation, most of them located within the “White City”.
Covering an area of 243.1 hectare (about 60% of which is within the “White City” zone area), “Precinct 3 Plan”, or its official designation of ordinance no. 3616a, is one of four plans being prepared for Tel-Aviv city center’s four precincts, and the first and only to be approved by the time I conducted this study. The ordinance differentiates between parcels within the White City zone and outside of it, allowing one additional storey outside the historical site and requiring more rigid setbacks from parcel’s boundaries for very small parcels (<500m2) within it. Density coefficient, a proxy for the average size of unit and according to which the number of housing units allowed in a parcel is calculated, is smaller in commercial streets than in non-commercial ones, allowing more and smaller units in main roads. Overall, the plan creates 16,000 housing units to be added to the precinct (predicted for 50% utilization), in addition to the approximately 36,000 housing units that already exist today.
The Python code used to generate this analysis is available on my GitHub.
Being that this research was conducted only months after the rezoning ordinance was approved, its analysis is predictive, using existing, real physical parameters of the buildings and parcels of precinct 3 that were obtained from the Tel-Aviv City GIS, and assesses their future characteristics by relying on the new ordinance guidelines, as they appear in the Zoning Ordinance no. 3616a documentation (Hebrew content only). Attributes that were downloaded for each parcel are parcel ID and area (m²), address, building footprint (m²), number of floors and building type. Floor area and Floor-Area ratio (FAR) were calculated according to these variables.
I assumed an equal, high demand for land for all of precinct 3, meaning a full utilization of allowed floor area in every renewal project to be built.
The research takes into account residential buildings only, and evaluates the economic feasibility of the demolishment + new construction part of the plan, excluding building improvements and construction additions possibilities. Parcels unification option was not taken into consideration in this study. Parcels designated for historic preservation were excluded from the analysis, since the rezoning does not apply to them. Also, new buildings (built after 1980), which are not eligible for the new ordinance guidelines, were excluded from the analysis as well. Overall, 2,161 parcels were found valid for this analysis, about half of the precinct’s parcels.
The economic feasibility threshold was defined as being the current floor area 50% or less than the allowed floor area, considering the givebacks of the current floor space to the dwellers. This rule-of-thumb also takes into account costs of demolishment, licensing’s costs, construction costs and housing costs for the temporally evacuated dwellers, as well as the higher value of land for the additional, newly built floor area. Exceptions to this threshold are big parcels (defined as parcel area equals 750m² or bigger) and small parcels (500m² or smaller), allowing / requiring ratio of 55% in the favor of the dwellers or the developer, respectively.
1. Current (2018) built environment
The majority of the buildings in precinct 3 are currently built with FAR ranged between 1.3–2, generating the continuous, coherent urban landscape of Tel-Aviv, as can be seen in Figure 4. The frequency distribution of the current FAR across the precinct, within and outside the “White City” zone, is shown in Figure 5, revealing no significant difference between the FAR distribution within the “White City” zone and outside of it:
2. Allowed built space according to the rezoning
As mentioned before, the maximum future built space allowed according to the rezoning was assessed by using the existing spatial measurements and applying to them the new ordinance’s guidelines.
The allowed number of floors was determined by whether the parcel is within or outside the “White City” zone, whether it is located on a commercial street, and for parcels within the “White City” zone, whether its area is larger or smaller than 500m². In regards to allowed footprint, the required setbacks from the parcels’ boundaries usually result in a footprint ranging between 42%-56% of the parcel’s area, appearing almost random. Therefore, for this analysis, footprints percentages of parcels smaller than 750m² were randomly chosen between this range. A maximum of 55% footprint of the parcel’s area was assigned to parcels larger than 750m², as required by the plan. Allowed floor area and Allowed FAR were calculated accordingly. Allowed housing units were assessed by dividing the new floor area by the density coefficient, then subtracting 4 units, due to the common housing demand for large units in the highest floors of buildings.
The resulted future FAR and its distribution are shown in Figure 6 and 7. A dramatic change of the well-distinguished, unique urban landscape of the precinct towards wider distribution of FAR across the precinct is shown, mostly noticeable between the “White City” Zone and outside of it.
3. Feasibility results and predicted built environment
The feasibility results were staggering; according to the assumptions led my analysis, only 521 parcels (out of 2161 parcels analyzed, a share of 24%) were found profitable enough to utilize the new ordinance.
The feasible and not-feasible parcels are shown in Figure 8:
Considering the 471 parcels in the precinct that are designated for historic preservation and thus not eligible for the new plan, it appears that the rezoning, though it aims to generate additional floor area, leaves about 80% of the precinct’s buildings to deteriorate and crumble. Figure 9 maps the anticipated FAR according to the feasibility results, plotting the allowed FAR for parcels that were found feasible, and the current FAR for parcels that were found not feasible for the rezoning utilization. Figure 10 shows the frequency distribution of the anticipated FAR across the precinct, following the same methodology. Neither the map nor the histogram follow any common sense of urban structure.
The anticipated urban scape according to the new ordinance, considering feasibility threshold for a project to be conducted, is a mixture of many old and relatively small amount of new buildings, non-coherent and completely different than today’s urban scape of Tel-Aviv’s city center. According to these results, 3,390 housing units are anticipated to be added to the precinct, about only 40% of the plan’s declared goal of 8,000 units.
Discussion and Implications
This study evaluated the rezoning ordinance of precinct 3 of Tel-Aviv city center by assessing its economic feasibility per parcel and depicting the future built environment to be generated according to its anticipated utilization. The analysis showed a significant share of more than 75% of precinct 3 buildings to have no economic justification for utilizing the new ordinance, which practically leaves this meaningful precinct to deteriorate and changes the well distinguished coherency of the urban scape of the center of Tel-Aviv.
These results raise questions regarding the objectives of the new ordinance and whether the plan actually directs the city and its urban realm towards them. Will the plan’s guidelines truly preserve the quality of the landscape of the city center of Tel-Aviv? And is the plan a real lever for urban renewal, considering its incentives are profitable enough for utilization by less than a quarter of the precinct’s buildings? These two questions, leading and motivating me through this study, should inform the local planners and make them reassess this plan and the future ordinances that are under different planning phases these days in Tel-Aviv.
Most importantly, this research should raise a discourse regarding master plans and policy analysis, and the way big data tools and techniques can be applied to urban planning, leveraging it by allowing qualitative and granular spatial analysis.
In order to address the problem of its feasibility, Precinct 3 Plan allows an optional parcels unification of two small parcels (500m² or less), using their shared side-face to build one building on both lots to create a higher footprint for each of them. This possibility makes the new ordinance as a whole more feasible. Future research is needed in order to assess what share of the parcels is anticipated to be redeveloped considering this possibility.
Moreover, a similar zoning plan is about to be approved for precinct 4 (“The new North” neighborhood, eastern to precinct 3), giving much higher incentives mainly due to the fact that precinct 4 does not contain the “White City” zone. This plan is considered to be very profitable. As these adjacent precincts are of a similar, continuous urban scape today, it will be interesting to assess the future urban scape generated by the different ordinances, considering their economic feasibility and anticipated utilization.
The full study, conducted as a course-wide project in “Markets, Design and the City” class (led by Prof. Alain Bertaud; NYU Wagner, Spring 2018), is available here.
A special thanks to Roy Lavian, a Tel-Aviv developer and a colleague whom I consulted with regarding the definition of the economic feasibility threshold under the guidelines of the new ordinance.