The Rise of the Community Builders: The American Real Estate Industry and Urban Land Planning The Rise of the Community Builders: The American Real Estate Industry and Urban Land Planning
By Marc A. Weiss
2002/09 - Beard Books
1587981521 - Paperback - Reprint - 242  pp.

This well-documented, historical perspective is valuable reading for those interested in urban history, urban planning, and land development.

Publisher Comments

Category: Real Estate

Of Interest:

A Short Historical Introduction to the Law of Real Property

Building American Cities

Land Title Origins: A Tale of Force and Fraud

Land Use Policy in the United States

The Land System of the United States: An Introduction to the History and Practice of Land Use and Land Tenure

This informative book focuses on the evolution of real estate development in America, particularly the large-scale, well-planned developments that have graced the American suburbs in our time. The Rise of the Community Builders covers the period from the 1890s to the 1940s, showing the important contributions made by "the community builders" to the American land development scene and to the American dream of a safe, attractive environment in which to raise their children. Marc A. Weiss emphasizes the role played by land planning, zoning, and subdivision controls in creating these new residential neighborhoods.

Referring to an earlier edition:

Synopsis: In this "look at the evolution of urban real estate development in America,"  Marc Weiss focuses . . . on the large-scale developer--the 'community builder'--and on the . . . land and building projects common in American suburbs since the 1940s. Spanning the subject from the 1890s to the 1940s, he {seeks to} explain the . . . role of land planning and regulation in the creation of new residential neighborhoods, and emphasizes the part played by zoning and subdivision controls.

Annotation: Marc Weiss explains the important role of land planning and regulation in the creation of new residential neighborhoods from the 1890's to the 1940's.

From Turnarounds and Workouts
Review by Gail Owens Hoelscher:

This fascinating book covers the early period of American residential planning, from the 1890s to the 1940s. Author Marc Weiss defines "community building" as site planning and development of land patterns into which lots and houses are placed, and the relationship of those houses and lots to one another. A community builder, he says, "designs, engineers, finances, develops and sells an urban environment using as the primary raw material rural, undeveloped land."

The idea of designating urban land for strictly residential purposes was fairly new at the end of the 19th century. Prior to that time, planning had been haphazard, with new owners of land generally permitted to build on it what they wished, whether a home, store or manufacturing site. The first of the community-building efforts resulted in high-income neighborhoods of houses built in a wide range of architectural designs and by various builders. At that time, land subdividers and homebuilders were generally separate entities. Homebuyers bought not only a house and lot, but also certainty in the future of their immediate surroundings.

In the 1940s, the Levitts of Levittown conducted one of the first experiments in which one company carried out the entire process from planning and land improvement through to building and selling houses, along with parks and shopping centers. In this case, economies of scale were recognized in the housing industry, perhaps for the first time. In 1930, celebrated architect Clarence Stein commented, "…the house itself is of minor importance. Its relation to the community is what really counts…It is impossible to build homes according to the American standard as individual units for those of limited incomes. If they are to be soundly built and completely equipped with the essential utilities they must be planned and constructed as part of a larger group."

The author recounts the crucial role of these pioneer community builders in developing subsequent public policy, calling it "private innovation preceding public action." He cites, among others, the concepts of street classification, lot size and shape, set-back lines and lot-coverage restrictions, easements, and design and placement of recreational amenities.

In order to carry out their design visions, community builders relied heavily on a new legal concept: deed restrictions. In effect, homebuyers gave away certain private property rights by accepting limitations and mandates set out by the builders. These restrictions ranged from paint color and landscaping to, unfortunately, racial exclusion. Some of these voluntary restrictions led to land planning tools such as zoning laws, which regulated the use and size of structures, and subdivision regulations, which imposed standards in lot size, street width and other physical improvements in the subdividing of land for residential areas.

The author recounts the development of all aspects of the American housing industry, including home insurance and mortgages. He devotes considerable time to the development of zoning controls and the up-and-down relationships between private real-estate developers and public policy makers. He shows how conflicts between the public and private sectors in the diverse elements of the real estate industry have affected real estate development as a whole, using examples mainly from California but from other states as well. The book is well documented and surely valuable for students of urban history, urban planning, and real estate development.

Marc A. Weiss developed this book from his Ph.D. dissertation at the University of California at Berkeley. It was first published as part of the Columbia University Press History of Urban Life.

From R.A. Beauregard - Choice

Weiss explores in detail how community builders, through the National Association of Real Estate Boards and with governmental planners, struggled with planners and developers on how . . . planning would occur. California, and Los Angeles in particular, provide the focus as centers of subdivision and zoning activities during this period. . . . Rich in historical events and individuals, yet sensitive to the political-economic context, this work is essential reading in the history of urban planning, suburbanization, and real estate development. A major contribution to our understanding of the city building process in the US.

From Mark I. Gelfand - Business History Review

Weiss has given us a solid account of the 'modernizing of the real estate industry.' As a work of urban history, the book unfortunately does not provide much information about the type of communities these builders actually created, either before 1940, when the study ends, or in the postwar era, when the labor of the previous four decades bore fruit. As a work of business history, the book is disappointing in its failure to supply a clearer picture of how private profit and public good coincided or remained apart. But as a synthesis of urban and business history, it is an important book that should be on the shelves of scholars in either field.

From Roger D. Simon - The Journal of American History

Critics of the modern suburb and of the planning profession will see here evidence of the open collusion of planners and vested real estate interests.  Weiss makes no attempts to disguise or apologize for the overlapping interests, but he suggests that the appearance of voluntarism associated with accepting FHA standards and the modest power of planning boards and agencies represented the limits of American tolerance for public control of land use and development. He is also more sympathetic to the postwar tract development than many other urban historians and social critics. The book does lack any detailed case study showing how the community builders transformed a particular parcel over time. . . . On the whole, however, this is a carefully researched and concisely written work.

Marc A. Weiss is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, D.C. He was special assistant to the secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development from 1993 to 1997. He is a known expert on Urban and Regional Development; Housing and Community Development; Economic and Business Development; Public Policy and Planning.


Acknowledgments ix
Prologue xii
Chapter One Building Communities 1
Chapter Two The Rise of the Community Builders 17
Chapter Three Community Builders and Urban Planners 53
Chapter Four The Los Angeles Realty Board and Zoning 79
Chapter Five The California Real Estate Association and Subdivision Regulations 107
Chapter Six Community Builders and the Federal Housing Administration 141
Conclusion Modernizing the Real Estate Industry 159
Notes 163
Index 223

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