Floor Space Index

In an extract  from his latest book Triumph of the City Ed Glaeser argues that one way to improve urban living would be to increase the floor space index, and allow higher buildings. In another recent article, Ajay Shah argues that the presence of army land in the middle of cities is again hampering urban growth and development by increasing intra-city distances and reducing space for the common man inside the cities. I was thinking about these two concepts from the point of view of Bangalore.

Floor space index (FSI) is a metric that controls the total supply of residential area within a city. It is defined as the ratio of built-up area of the house to the area of the plot it stands on. Currently, in Bangalore it is capped at 1.5. This means that if I own a site measuring 60′ by 40′, the maximum area of the building I can build on it is 3600 sq ft. Clearly, by capping FSI, the total supply of residential area in a city is capped (assuming cities don’t expand outwards, of course). Currently, a lot of the development going on is of the type of builders acquiring “underutilized property” (old bungalows, say) and then “unlocking the value” by building buildings on it up to the permissible limit.

So I was wondering what were to happen if the government were to tomorrow decide to act on Glaeser’s recommendations and suddenly increase the FSI. For one, it would jack up the value of land – since there is more value in each piece of land that can now be “unlocked”. On the other hand, it would lead to a gradual fall in prices of apartments – since the limit on the supply of “floor space” would go up, that would lead to a fall in prices.

Existing owners of “independent houses” (where they own both the house and the land it’s built on) would be overjoyed – for now the value of the land they own would suddenly go up. Existing owners of apartments wouldn’t – their net worth takes a sudden drop. But all this doesn’t matter since both these groups are highly fragmented and are unlikely to matter politically.

What one needs to consider is how builders and real-estate developers would react to this kind of a move, since they have the ability to influence politics. For one, it would allow them to build additional floors in properties where they already own the land, so they have reason to stay positive. On the other hand, due to the increase in land prices, new development would become much more expensive than it is today, thus making it tough for them to expand. Another thing to note is that increased supply of housing and office space in the city would definitely negatively impact the prices of such holdings on the outskirts, and I’m of the opinion that a large number of real estate companies might actually be “long” housing space on the outskirts and would thus lose out in case the FSI were to be increased.

There are other implications of increasing FSI, of course. One of my biggest nightmares is that density in cities will increase at such a high rate that the sewerages won’t be able to handle the extra “flow”. And then there is the issue of increased traffic – though it can be argued that increased density means that commutes might actually come down. Overall, to my mind at this point of time, the picture is unclear, though given the overall incentives to the powerful real estate community it is unlikely to happen. Though I would definitely welcome any increase in FSI (this has nothing to do with my financial situation; and yes, based on my current holdings I’m “long FSI”).

As for army land, there are vast areas that used to once be on the outskirts which are now inside the city. If the army were to decide to sell them to the city, I’m sure it would be able to make a really large amount of money. But then given that the army is not a profit-oriented institution, it has no need for the money so will not let go of the land. In fact, as I write this, the army in Bangalore has taken up the development of lands around the inner ring road – some townships and football fields have come up. But then, this is not the use that Shah envisaged – for none of this actually integrates enough into the local economy to make an impact. And so for the army to sell the land, the decision would have to come from the central government. And given that increase in in-city floor space is likely to negatively impact the powerful real estate companies, don’t be surprised if they were to lobby against the sale of urban army land.

Tailpiece : A while back there was this issue of Transferable Development Rights. When the BBMP wanted to widen roads it announced that people losing land would be compensated in the form of tradable TDRs. For that to be effective, a necessary condition is that the cost of violating the building code is actually high.

Urban living and restaurants and liquidity

Last night I had dinner at Alfanoose, a small Mediterranean joint off Broadway. I had hummus and salad with pita bread, and had also brought along a falafel sandwich which is now sitting in my fridge and is likely to get consumed today for breakfast. Excellent stuff. Absolutely brilliant. And not expensive at all – ten bucks for the hummus and salad, and six for the sandwich. Considering that USD = 10 INR according to the Idli index, this is extremely reasonable, insane value for money.

I have been intending to write this post for ages, about how one of the best positive externalities of urban living is restaurants. When you are living in a desolate area, with not too many people around, there is no option but to cook your own food. Even if you live in a village ora small town, the number of people who are willing to eat out will be small, which means it makes little business sense for someone to open a restaurant there. You are likely to find a handful of them, but the lack of competition will mean that you can’t really trust quality.

There is a network effect in restaurants. Some people don’t eat anywhere but at home, and some don’t cook at home at all. However, there is the large middle ground of people whose consumption of restaurant food varies directly with quality and liquidity. And these two concepts are inter-related – the bigger the town is, the greater the required supply of restaurants which means more competition and thus higher quality. And higher quality leads to higher demand (more fence-sitters converted) and the virtuous cycle goes on (of course, population and the fact that some people don’t like to eat out limits the boundaries of the cycle).

Another thing is that the larger a town gets, the greater the liquidity of the food market in there, there is more variety. If you remember Bangalore in the 1980s, when I was growing up, there was one standard type of restaurant. Where you would get cheap idli and dosa and a few other standard snacks, and a few “north indian” items at meal times, and every time you wanted to eat out you had to go with one of these. And you would have noticed how with the growth in the restaurant market in the 90s you got more variety.

What makes cities such as London and New York such foodie havens is their size, and also that culturally people here are more inclined towards eating out than in other places such as India. This leads to insane liquidity in the market, and as I explained above that leads to more variety, and so you get more niche food. And when you have cities as large as New York or London, what you get is full-fledged liquid markets in cuisines that are everywhere else considered niche!

So because of liquidity in otherwise niche markets, in each cuisine you will find various kinds of restaurants. Like yesterday I had awesome hummus at this self-service place! While in a place like Bangalore to get any kind of hummus you’ll have to go to a fine dining place and spend a bomb.

Another thing I realized is that when liquidity is thin it usually occupies the top end – like how in Bangalore you get non-Indian stuff only in high end fine dining places. But I suppose I’ll write about that in detail some other day