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.

DSCN9834

Boston

DSCN8379

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.