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Endless Self Storage Facilities

Sometimes something is so over the top that I just can’t let it go. It’s a refrain that keeps coming back again and again. That’s what happened after I read a New York Times article about the current spate of building and selling of high-end condos in Manhattan.

First, there are the stratospheric prices we’ve all heard about. In New York City, high-end means millions and not just seven figures, and the residential housing market is segmented much like the 1%. There are now luxury, super-luxury and ultra-luxury units with prices starting at about $3 million, $5 million, and $10 million respectively. But apparently the markets are getting a bit tired, and prices may even be peaking. As one real estate marketing guy asked (with seemingly no sense of irony), “How many people can actually spend $25 million for a home?” Well, if you have to ask ….

Then there are the details that take the situation beyond the ridiculous and into the absurd. The Times article mentions one of the developers, Adam Gordon, who is described as having shifted his focus. Rather than developing luxury buildings, he’s chosen to take an 11-story building on 61st Street and convert it into a luxury storage facility. Now, I know the storage business is astoundingly large – according to the Self Storage Association, there are 2.3 billion square feet of self-storage space in the US. But luxury storage space?

That thread led me to another Manhattan luxury building: “Deeded underground parking and maid’s quarters are old news; these days the latest ‘extra’ up for purchase in New York’s priciest condos may be the least sexy: storage bins. At One57, there are 21 of them up for grabs, but those who need the subterranean space to stash away their bric-à-brac can expect to pay big. One57 is asking $216,000, or about $4,000 a square foot for a 54-square-foot bin, according to a recent amendment that Extell filed with the AG.”

A few weeks ago I spent some time with a woman who lives on the Lower East Side of New York in a rent-controlled apartment on a block that is still primarily populated by people like her, that is to say, those who live at the other end of the ultra-luxury spectrum, at least financially. She laughingly described the day a movie crew was filming on her block. She and her friends excitedly sorted through the “discarded” household items on the sidewalks as they do whenever a neighbor leaves stuff out for the taking. When the movie folks told them they were disturbing the film set, my friend thought, “Oh, I just thought it was an unusually good day for shopping.”

What a counterpoint. At one end of the spectrum are ultra-luxury apartments for part-time residents with storage units that cost more than most people’s houses. They represent “stuck money” – vast amounts of wealth sunk into spacious rooms and stuff to fill them even though there’s no one home. At the other end is “free circulation” – surplus goods made freely available to those who need it in the spirit of reciprocity and community. Neither is all good or all bad, but it’s striking how deeply skewed we’ve become toward the belief that security and comfort come from growing our own personal pool of “stuck money”. We fail to imagine the possibilities of the flow, while those who do entertain ideas of a circular economy tend to be marginalized as outsiders and naive about the real world.

In a system that has formed around the desire for personal wealth and the assumption of infinite growth, this is not surprising. But it’s also not sustainable. So why not start imagining what would happen if we let some of that surplus wealth flow more freely through our world? What might it look like if all the stuff that’s in those luxury storage units was put out onto the sidewalk for the taking?

  • Mr. Gordon might build low-income housing or something else that’s really needed in New York City.
  • An industry based on taking up space for stuff that’s not being used would lose about $24 billion per year in revenue (the Self-Storage Association proudly provides this figure), and those who have been paying for storage would save $24 billion.
  • If we stop spending on stuff and start circulating what we already have, the planet may actually get some much-needed relief and regeneration.
  • Innovation and creativity would be drawn like a magnet to the logistical, organizational, pricing puzzles of circulation. There would be new hives of local economic activity centered on pick up, delivery, and listings.Take a look at Stuffstr.com for a vision of what is possible.
  • There would be a revival of repair shops and neighborhood delivery services
  • People who love a good yard sale would think they’d died and gone to heaven!
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