Here’s a gentler way to make infill actually happen

Infill is great. When done well, it takes existing places and adds density, diversity and vibrancy. And unfortunately, it can also be very difficult to actually do.

In communities in Utah, I’ve seen infill projects run up against opposition due to concerns about added density, the style of new buildings, traffic, and other things. And of course there’s the ever-present, and usually biggest, concern: parking.

An apartment building under construction in a residential Provo neighborhood.

An apartment building under construction in a residential Provo neighborhood.

Here, for example, is an article on my old neighborhood in Provo, where a proposed apartment development triggered concerns about car storage space. And at this point, I’m sure anyone who actually knows what the word “infill” means is familiar with similar stories. The point: infill is great but obstacles like parking slow things down, cost developers (often small-time locals) money, and generally reduce the amount of infill that actually gets built.

That means we’re not fully capitalizing on the value of the land in our cities.

Ottawa, however, may have a solution. There, the city is trying to solve these problems by creating new rules to deal with parking. Instead of a neighborhood-wide (or, worse, city-wide) zoning ordinance, Ottawa wants would-be infill developers to look at the surrounding properties:

…landowners and architects wanting to build an infill home would first have to look at the 21 lots surrounding the property to be developed and use those observations to create a starting point for what their new home could look like.

Developers will have to look to neighboring homes for things like setbacks, parking, landscaping and other factors as they figure out what they can build.

Most significantly, these new rules also will open up the possibility of some development without parking — a dream come true for many urbanists.

Obviously these new rules could create problems. For starters, they seem like they may actually create as much or more work for developers to go through. I’m also not sure what would happen if someone wanted to build, say, a duplex in a neighborhood of McMansions. If the goal is (to allow possible) densification, basing rules off existing properties may pose challenges.

Apartments and housing side-by-side.

Apartments and housing side-by-side.

Still, I like this plan at least in theory because it acknowledges that cities have little micro-hoods with their own character. In the Provo neighborhood I mentioned above, for example, decades of evolution have produced a huge spectrum of dwelling types. If these new Ottawa rules were rolled out there, looking at nearby properties might give small developers the flexibility to add anything from single family homes to small apartment buildings.

In that way, these new rules might effectively be closer to a form-based code than what many cities currently have. The rules also are almost certainly better than crude, place-crushing parking minimums I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. Time will tell how well this plan works, but whenever cities try to loosen zoning and reduce parking I get optimistic.

Are mid-rise cities better than everything else?

Perhaps the ideal size of a building is just tall enough (or short enough) that people will still take the stairs to the top.

That’s basically the idea Robert Freedman suggests in a great post over at Planetizen discussing the pleasure, economics and feasibility of cities with plenty of medium-height buildings. The idea is that cities need some amount of density to thrive, but massive elevator-oriented towers don’t feel sufficiently human scale.

I agree; pretty much all of my favorite spaces across the world are dominated by mid-rise buildings. As Freedman points out,

In areas of Manhattan where entire blocks of walk-up apartments have been preserved, the human scale provides an amazing and welcome contrast to the soaring, elevator-towers that cover much of the rest of the island. You immediately sense how the heights of the buildings are in harmony with the width of the street. The materials are warm and natural, and, on the Avenues and major streets, the sidewalks are lined with small shops and restaurants. While walking, you have the sense that you “fit.” It’s not unlike retrieving your jacket after having mistakenly slipped into someone else’s that was several sizes too large. It just feels right.

The pictures below include some of the places that have given me an appreciation for mid-rise development. Note how they all have different architectural styles, yet all share some of the same basic forms.

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Boston

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Paris

Street parking in high density Edinburgh.

Edinburgh

An intersection not far from the street in the first picture.

Also Paris

The silver statue in this picture is a monument to Andy Warhol. New York didn't produce people like Warhol, nor did it end up with monuments to those people, just because the arts community worked really hard and was really cool. It happened because New York has the economy and built environment to support those people.

New York City

I could go on, but you get the idea. I think it’s worth pointing out here that those of us who care about cities and are interested in making better ones need to sell this type of development better to the larger public. When most people I know think of “density,” they either think of skyscrapers or small-but-cheap, car-oriented apartment complexes from the 1960s and 1970s. We’re doing a terrible job of helping people understand how wonderful density can actually be.

In addition, this idea may require some special tooling in Utah, where many of our cities have a fairly unique street grid. As Freedman points out, the definition of a mid-rise is relative to its surroundings:

…we analyzed a number of successful mid-rise streets from around the world and found a correlation between street width and building height—a ratio of approximately 1:1 or less. The buildings are roughly as tall as the street is wide. When lined up side-by-side these buildings create a streetwall. When streetwalls face each other along both sides of an Avenue they create an “outdoor room” or defined space. It’s the proportion of that space that creates the distinct mid-rise ambience. Again, it just feels right.

In other words, your buildings need to be as tall as your streets are wide. I’ve discussed this idea at length before, but in light of Freedman’s post it’s worth considering that mid-rises may not simply one good option, they may be the best option.

Apartment and home construction growing in Utah

IMG_1008My colleague at the Tribune Tony Semerad had an interesting piece last week on the rapidly growing housing market in Utah. Basically, a lot of people are banking on new single family home construction, while a lot of others think the future is in apartments. On apartment vacancies, he writes,

Apartment developers already are bringing a record number of new dwellings to market in and around Salt Lake City in a kind of boom in multifamily units, particularly downtown.

They’ve been spurred by falling vacancy rates for apartments, which, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, closed 2013 at around 6.7 percent statewide, down from 8.3 percent just five years ago. Local analysts say the number has dipped as low as 5 percent in recent months.

So what does all this mean?

I think it shows that we’re at a pivotal moment right now in Utah, where we have the opportunity to channel a lot of demand into better city building. We can either opt for sustainable, transit-oriented places. Or we can keep building sprawl.

Phoenix, massive garages and parking minimums

Over the past couple of months I’ve visited downtown Phoenix several times for my day job at the Tribune. When I first arrived, I was pleasantly surprised by the city; my previous impression had been that Phoenix was all sprawl and no city, but the downtown is quite nice.

However, after walking around in downtown Phoenix I was struck by how much vertical parking it has. Salt Lake City also has a lot of downtown space devoted to car storage, but the breadth and creativity of Phoenix’s garages is impressive:

A new tower, built on at least seven floors of parking.

A new tower, built on at least seven floors of parking.

The base of this building is enclosed and looks like it could be offices, but actually it's parking.

The base of this building is enclosed and looks like it could be offices, but actually it’s parking.

The entire, brightly glowing base of this building is parking.

The entire, brightly glowing base of this building is parking.

None of this is especially unusual — many generally car-centric cities do this — but it still represents a massive amount of resources dedicated to cars. Just in the three pictures above, 30 percent or more of the buildings seems to be dedicated to parking.

Imagine if the money that went to this kind of parking went to something else, particularly something that directly generated revenue. Or, imagine if it had been used to build entirely new structures. Much like Salt Lake, only more so, downtown Phoenix feels completely abandoned at night; if the city half a dozen new residential buildings that feeling would radically change.

In any case, I was curious why developers in Phoenix were willing to devote so much of their budgets to parking. Actually I was pretty sure I already knew, but a little investigation confirmed it: parking minimums.

Like so many cities, Phoenix requires developers to include parking. You can read the requirements here (scroll down about a quarter of the way), but here are some of the stand out points:

• One- and two-bedroom apartments must have 1.5 parking spaces.

• Single family homes must have two parkings spaces.

• Gyms must have one space per 150 square feet.

• Movie theaters must have one parking space for every 3.5 seats.

• Skate parks, veterinarians, tennis courts, swap meets and just about anything else all must have parking.

I could go on and on with these highly specific and highly expensive parking requirements. Offices, which abound in downtown Phoenix, also must have parking, though the requirement varies by square feet.

So, is it any wonder that Phoenix is famous for sprawl and car dependency? Or that despite being one of the top 10 most populous American cities it’s downtown just barely compares with much smaller Salt Lake City?

This is probably a good place to point out that parking minimums are among the most absurd and ill-concieved land use policies ever. If people actually want parking, the market will respond; there’s no reason to require supply via laws and ordinances.

Luckily, some cities are beginning to recognize that. In Vancouver — which despite a reputation for good planning also has parking minimums — city leaders are working on a plan to allow condos without parking. Significantly, that move is expected to lower housing costs:

Removing underground parking can slice about $40,000 off the price of a unit, which would help Vancouver tackle its housing affordability problem, Somerville said.

That, I think, is the key: when parking minimums are eliminated, everyone — from developers to home buyers to companies renting office space — have greater choice and cheaper options. Parking will still exist as a result of demand, but those who don’t want it suddenly don’t have to pay for it. It’s a win-win approach that hopefully more American cities like Phoenix and Salt Lake City will embrace.

Urbanism with big government

Last week, Emily Washington explored the ways roads are built in societies without much government. The idea is that people will carve roads out of their public land because doing so serves their economic interests. Washington uses early American settlements among her examples.

A massive street in downtown Salt Lake. This is typical of many streets in Utah's capitol.

A massive street in downtown Salt Lake. This is typical of many streets in Utah’s capitol.

The post was particularly fascinating because Salt Lake City illustrates almost precisely the opposite circumstances: strong, early government imposing rigged infrastructure that produces low density neighborhoods surrounded by high-cost infrastructure.

The development of Utah is a fascinating and somewhat unique story that deserves more space than I’ll give it here, but this is the Reader’s Digest version: Mormon pioneers fled religious persecution in the East, ending up in the Salt Lake Valley. There, they built cities using the “Plat of Zion,” a street grid that in Salt Lake ended up with massive, 10-acre blocks and huge streets.

Brigham Young, the leader who led the Mormons to Utah, envisioned the big blocks serving multiple purposes; residents would be able to grow crops in the middle and live at the periphery. And the wide streets were supposedly big enough for teams of oxen to do U turns. It was all very functional.

A huge street in Coalville, Utah, population (aprox) 1,400.

A huge street in Coalville, Utah, population (aprox) 1,400.

Salt Lake City is the best-known example of this type of development, but the early Mormons colonized the entire region with this technique; today, small towns across the state have massive blocks (they vary in exact size from town to town) and streets that are 60, 70, 80 or more feet wide. Walking around these towns, it sort of feels like they all expected to become Chicago, but never grew beyond a few thousand people.

This plan may have worked well for a semi-agrarian group of settlers. In fact, Andres Duany and other prominent urbanists spoke excitedly of what today we call the “Mormon grid” last year at the annual gathering of the Congress For the New Urbanism. The idea was that the problems with this grid are more a function of modern (car-centric) design than the grid itself.

I’m not entirely convinced by that argument, but either way the problems with the Mormon grid are legion today. The huge streets are expensive, comparatively less safe, and simply horrible for place making. (Have you ever tried cafe seating beside six lanes of cars going 60 mph? It’s very unpleasant.)

The big blocks also pose problems; not only are they unpleasant for walking, but the deep centers are hard to develop because they lack access to streets. That, in turn, has created a low-density city in which there has been little demand for the privately-created streets Washington described in colonial America.

In the context of Washington’s post last week, I’m wondering if many of these problems are connected to the type of government Utah had at the beginning. When the pioneers arrived, they basically had a theocracy, with their prophet Brigham Young also serving as territorial governor. It was a strongly hierarchical system in which the leadership structure was determined before the people ever arrived in Utah. It was the polar opposite of the anachric society of colonial America.

By contrast, Washington describes Pennsylvania as growing into a thriving mercantile center that abandoned William Penn’s “greene countrie towne” idea. In Utah, Young had the political and cultural clout to see his version of the “greene countrie towne” actually built.

This system worked very well in many regards — the Mormons thrived quite well in a harsh desert environment — but, again, it left a legacy of costly and hostile urban design in the 20th and 21st centuries.

It’d be reductive to say that no government (Pennsylvania) always produces great places and strong government (Utah) produces bad places. Obviously, we can think of exceptions to that rule (e.g. Haussmann’s Paris, arguably and among many other examples).

But, still, Utah seems to support Washington’s thesis: she argues that “laissez-faire urban development” produced the great, economically agile spaces in the East. Utah shows that when you lose the laissez-faire part of the equation, you can also potentially lose those great places.

The sidewalk is blocked, but the street remains open

In downtown Salt Lake City, just a few blocks from my home, construction has closed a sidewalk. That’s not particularly noteworthy, except that A) it’s one of downtown’s wider — and therefore better — sidewalks, B) it’s on one of the most pedestrian friendly streets, and C) all the space reserved for cars remains open.

Here’s what it looks like:

IMG_5472

In the picture above, the construction area is marked with yellow tape and signs. Significantly, this street has a row of diagonal parking along with a single-but-very-wide lane for cars. All of that space remains unobstructed.

It’s also worth pointing out that the diagonal parking isn’t even used all that much; why was this second car space left open at the expense of pedestrian space?

In the grand scheme, this particular situation isn’t that important.

But it does seem to capture the way we often don’t even think twice about marginalizing pedestrian infrastructure, while doing the same to car space is verboten. Imagine, for example, if the construction crew erected a temporary sidewalk in the street, blocking it to cars but leaving the space open for people. What if the city required any construction to maintain a clear pedestrian path, no matter what?

That’s entirely doable — and I’d argue it’s a better solution than blocking pedestrians — but as the picture shows, it doesn’t always happen. There would probably be an uproar if it did. My point is that cities too often automatically marginalize pedestrian space for an array of reasons, and we need to reconsider that strategy.

One of the more important aspects of “urbanism,” at least as I see it, is fairness for different modes of transportation. In this case, that means trying to rethink the way we treat foot traffic so that it’s weighed more equally against vehicle traffic. That makes economic sense, both because pedestrian infrastructure is generally cheaper and because walkable places are often financially stronger.

In other words, we shouldn’t give preferential treatment to cars just because traditionally that’s what we’ve done. Instead of asking, “how can we maintain traffic flows?” we should be asking, “how can we make this space better and more vibrant for users of all kinds?”

(Maybe) Salt Lake City will get more transit oriented development

Salt Lake City owns a patch of land right beside the newly-constructed streetcar line. The mayor wants to sell the land to make way for privately-funded transit oriented development.

So, hooray for TOD!

Except here’s what has to happen for that plan to work out:

An appraisal of the property has yet to be completed, according to a spokesman for the mayor. […]

It cannot be sold until the City Council agrees that it is surplus. Then the council must hold a public hearing, wait six months, and then rezone the land for development. […]

If the council agrees to sell the land, the Becker administration must go through the rigors of an open “request for proposal” process that likely would seek developers to build dense housing and retail space.

On top of that, there’s all sorts of NIMBY resistance to developing this land.

There are a couple of different ideas for what to do with this land, but what I glean from this article is that they’re all years away from happening. If they happen at all; with so many layers of bureaucracy it wouldn’t be surprising if the current vision for this space is scuttled altogether.

I get that building in cities is hard and takes a long time; when a lot of people live close together there are a lot of concerns to deal with.

But here’s what I take away from this: if we’re going to invest so heavily in transit — the street car line in this area wasn’t cheap, after all — we need to make sure that it can actually deliver on its promises of development. It’s not enough to simply throw down miles of light rail track and hope for the best. Ultimately, if our regulations make development nearly impossible then the money we spend on infrastructure will be less of an “investment” and more of a pipe dream.