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I went to a conference recently and participated in a tour and session on ‘Missing Middle Housing.’ Missing Middle housing is a term coined by Dan Parolek of Opticos Design, Inc. Missing Middle refers to housing types between a single-family home and multi-family apartments that are compatible in scale to single-family residential neighborhoods. Some examples include duplexes, triplexes, courtyard apartments and bungalow courts. These were common housing types at one time and may still be found in older neighborhoods but they are generally not compliant with zoning codes developed post WWII and we subsequently do not see them built much anymore.

In older neighborhoods these housing types served an important function as affordable housing in walkable neighborhoods. They provide a diversity of housing choices for households of different sizes and incomes in predominately single-family home neighborhoods. Individual units of Missing Middle housing are generally smaller than average home size today and even when multiple units are combined on one property, the overall scale still fits in neighborhoods with single-family homes. They help support walkable neighborhoods with transit, services and amenities within walking distance by increasing the number of residents in a given area.

Missing Middle housing often result in housing densities in the range of 16-35 units/acre. But as was discussed at the conference only looking at density can be very misleading. Density is very abstract for most people and not a good way to evaluate whether a project ‘fits’ in a neighborhood or not. It really has much more to do with the scale and detailing of the building than with the resulting density.

I decided to investigate Missing Middle housing in Sebastopol with a couple of examples.

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img_20160316_122149404.jpgimg_20160321_174449244.jpgThis is an apartment building on the corner of Main Street and Calder. Built in the early 20th century, it is just south of the downtown core where the street is populated mostly by  early 20th century single-family homes, some of which have been converted to commercial buildings. This building has 6 apartments. I believe they are a mix of 1 and 2 bedrooms and probably some of the more affordable rental units in town. I think if asked, most people would find the building is appropriately scaled and fits well in the neighborhood.

The lot size for this property is 9,846 sf or 0.23 acres. The resulting density is 26 units per acre. I think there might be 3 off-street parking spaces.

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The on-site parking for a 6 unit apartment building. Not only is  this not enough parking under the current zoning code it also does not meet any modern standard for the design of a parking lot. No striped spaces, driveway access is not wide enough, no accessible parking space, etc.

This property is currently zoned Office Commercial. That zoning designation does allow for residential uses with a maximum of 1 unit per 2,900 sf of lot area. On this parcel that would allow 3 units. The parking requirement is 3 spaces for every 2 units if they are limited to 1-bedroom. A 2-bedroom unit would require 2 parking spaces on its own. So if you were to develop three 2-bedroom units you would be required to provide 6 parking spaces on the site. If you built three 1-bedroom units you could probably get away with 4 parking spaces. So today you could build half the number of units currently on the site, and need to double the amount of on-site parking. The current 6 unit building with 3 on-site spaces is an existing non-conforming use of the property.

However, I don’t believe anyone would find this building out of place, or that it generates too much traffic, or that it creates a parking shortage in the neighborhood. Residents of this building can easily walk downtown and have a relatively affordable rent. But we’ve zoned this kind of building out of existence.

I live around the corner from this building.

High St-Duplex

My house

My house is modest bungalow built in 1922 with 2-bedrooms and 1 bath, a little over 1,000 sf. My lot is 3,750 sf (0.09 acres) which results in a density of 11 units/acre. (for readers not familiar with the measurement  of density you take the number of units and divide by the lot size in acres. It’s like determining how many units would be created if you built out an entire acre of land with my exact property).

My lot is zoned Residential Single Family 2. This is considered a medium density single-family home district. I’ve realized there are a lot of requirements in this zone that my house does not comply with. Minimum lot size is 6,000 sf in my zoning district which results in a density of 7 units per acre, hardly what I would consider medium density. My lot density of 11 units/acre is a bit more medium density in my mind. Minimum lot width is 60′ in this district; mine is 50′.

The front yard setback in this district is 20′. There is an exception that if the block is already developed, the front setback may be the average of the setback of the improved lots on the block. So my 12′ setback technically complies because all my neighbors have setbacks less than 20′. I’ll also note that the rear yard setback is 20′ (my house is about 16′ from the rear property line) so my 75′ deep lot would be limited to building in the center 35′ if I stuck to the current zoning requirements.

I started to wonder about the creation of a duplex on my property. Doubling the size of my house would still only be about 2,100 sf which is still below the average size of a single-family home built today. Adding an identical unit on the second floor is perfectly conceivable and would not look out of place in the neighborhood.

High St-Duplex

My house as a duplex – please excuse the crude photoshopping…

But it would not be allowed by current zoning which for one does not allow duplexes. Creating a duplex would increase the density to 22 units/acre. Far above the current allowed 7 units per acre.

With a duplex I would be required to provide 4 on-site parking spaces. I have a single-car width driveway along the side of my house (which I currently don’t park in because my car bottoms-out when I try to get into it). I don’t know if I would be allowed to provide all 4 spaces tandem style (one behind the other) but it’s the only way to fit 4 spaces on-site. Parking spaces are required to be 18′ long which would reach 72′ into my 75′ deep lot. Which is technically is achievable, although probably not desirable as it would consume nearly 20% of my lot area.

I am allowed to create a second dwelling unit on my property. Sebastopol limits second dwelling units to 840 sf. So instead of doubling my house footprint I could build a second floor addition and make it a separate unit, but the size would be limited to 840 sf. Not bad, but I’m not sure what harm another 160 sf would cause, which is the size of another bedroom, or a home office. The parking requirement for a second dwelling unit is only 1 on-site parking space which is easier. A second dwelling unit also does not count toward the density of a parcel. So I could add a second dwelling unit and not increase the density as far as the zoning code is concerned.

Through the General Plan update process currently underway, the medium density residential land use would be increased to 12 units/acre which would allow my current property to be in zoning compliance. But really, what harm would come of allowing two 1,000 sf units on my property? It would provide me with rental income, another family with an affordable apartment and increase the number of people that can walk to the amenities and services that downtown Sebastopol has to offer.

Sebastopol real estate is expensive and there is a lot of concern about creating more affordable housing. Updating our zoning code to allow more missing middle housing would go a long way to helping with the affordability problem. I’ll discuss some ways this can happen in a future post.

 

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Sebastopol, like many other small towns, needs to get a handle on its parking requirements. Current zoning code parking requirements is often at odds with good urbanism. Without a mechanism such as a parking assessment district, or simply reducing on-site parking requirements, our attempts at creating good pedestrian-friendly urban environments fight an uphill battle. Sebastopol has several city-owned, free surface parking lots that, like surface parking lots everywhere, leave gaping holes in the urban fabric.

Main Street Sebastopol has almost 2 whole blocks without a parking lot or auto-oriented use. (The north end of the west side of Main Street has what used to be a gas station but is now a smog check business.) These two blocks are full of traditional zero-setback buildings, mostly one story with a couple 2-story buildings sprinkled in. And while I think the buildings could be taller, these 2 blocks generally work.IMG_20150718_113337891_HDR

IMG_20150718_113245274IMG_20150717_171825281_HDR IMG_20150717_171532233 IMG_20150717_171720942_HDR IMG_20150717_171707259_HDRUnfortunately, these two blocks could not be built today. Any new building needs to provide on-site parking. Now this isn’t 100% true. Sebastopol apparently did have some kind of parking district at some point, although it’s a little vague. My understanding is that once upon a time, downtown property owner’s were allowed (required?) to buy into a parking assessment district. They paid for a certain number of spaces to be allotted in municipal parking lots for their building. If one of these lots is redeveloped they can credit the number of spaces they had ‘purchased’ toward any new parking requirement.

I would like to look at one specific example. We have a live theater company in Sebastopol, Main Stage West. The theater is in a small 2-story building on the corner of Main Street and Bodega Ave. My understanding is that the ground floor was originally a pharmacy with offices on the second floor. The offices are still on the second floor, but the ground floor has been converted to an intimate theater. It’s a great resource to have in such a small town, and does provide some after hours activity downtown. I don’t know the exact seating count, but I think it’s around 80 seats. The building takes up it’s entire lot. There is no parking on the property.

Main Stage West Theater. The theater is on the ground floor with offices above. The building takes up the entire lot.

Main Stage West Theater. The theater is on the ground floor with offices above. The building takes up the entire lot.

If someone wanted to build a theater of this size on Main Street today, they would have to provide on-site parking. The Sebastopol Zoning Code requires 1 parking space for every 4 seats in a theater. For the Main Stage West theater, this would require 20 parking spaces. for the roughly 2,200 sf second floor offices you would need 6 parking spaces (1 per 400 sf). That’s 26 parking spaces total required for this building. You couldn’t get 26 parking space on their existing site even if there was no building. The lot is 25’x87′. you actually can’t even make a parking lot with those dimensions. Assuming you could line up parking spaces in the 87′ dimension and just pull in off Bodega Ave you could get 8 parking spaces. But no room for a building, unless you built it above the parking lot. Theoretically, the building could have purchased some parking spaces when the parking assessment occurred, but I’m fairly certain they did not purchase 26 parking spaces.

We’ve essentially made the Main Street we love today impossible to build.

There is a very underutilized property at the opposite end of the block the theater is on. It had been a gas station but today is a smog check station. (Great use for Main Street, right?). The lot is about 59′ wide and 165′ deep. 9,735 sf. Say the theater wanted to move and build a slightly larger facility, assume 150 seats. That would require 38 parking spaces. If you wanted second floor offices about 24 parking spaces. Total 62  parking spaces required. I’m pretty sure that since the site had been a gas station, they never bought into the parking assessment district and would be required to supply all 62 spaces on-site. Impossible.

Smog Check property

Smog Check lot

Smog check lot

Smog check lot

Forget the theater. Make the ground floor retail with 1 floor of office above. 48 parking spaces would be required. Maybe you just make the ground floor parking and build above with a small retail space along the sidewalk to screen the parking behind. Say 800 sf of retail with 9,735 sf of office above. 26 parking spaces required. You could fit about 14 spaces on the ground floor behind the retail. That doesn’t work either. It is impossible with today’s zoning code to build a good urban building on this site.

This is not right and needs to be fixed if we have any hope of creating a good walkable people-centric downtown. Sebastopol needs a parking assessment district where downtown property owner’s are required to pay a fee that will be used to construct and maintain a municipal parking garage. And the parking garage must NOT be free. People that choose to drive and park downtown should be required to pay for the privilege and for the financing and maintenance of the parking facility. We cannot have good urbanism with the current parking requirements downtown.

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Housing costs can be directly related to the very basic economic theory of supply and demand. As demand increases and supply remains the same, the costs necessarily go up. This is very much evident in Sebastopol today. Sebastopol is seen as a desirable community to live in. It’s small, has good schools, low crime and is located in a beautiful environment with close access to nature. The median home price in Sebastopol is $675,000. A household needs to make well over $100,000 to afford the median priced house in Sebastopol. The median family income in Sebastopol is $50,900. There is a disconnect.

The number of housing units built in Sebastopol in recent years has been quite small. From 2010 to 2013 there have been 55 residential units constructed.  Thirty-four of those units were part of a single-family self-help affordable housing development. These numbers have done little to make housing more affordable in Sebastopol. While I’m all for advocating more multi-family housing near downtown I believe there is another option for improving housing affordability.

Secondary dwelling units (also known as Accessory Dwelling Units, granny units, as well as numerous other names) are allowed in Sebastopol. These have the ability to create much needed affordable housing. Currently, second dwelling units are allowed on all parcels zoned for single-family, duplex or multi-family uses. The city has reasonable development standards when it comes to second units. Single-story detached units may reduce rear and sideyard setback requirements by half (2-story or attached must comply with the setbacks established for the district they are located in). The height for a single-story unit can be up to 17′ and a two-story unit up to 25′. Second dwelling units do not need to be considered part of the maximum lot coverage allowed. Secondary dwelling units of 2 bedrooms or less only require 1 off-street parking space which may be parked in tandem with other off-street parking required for the property. Secondary dwelling units are allowed by right, except that 2-story units must be reviewed by the Design Review Board. For those of you not familiar with secondary dwelling units, this website has a lot of information and examples.

This house has a second unit on the lower level.

This house has a second unit on the lower level.

In Sebastopol, the maximum allowable size for a second unit is limited to 840 sf. While it may be possible to get a 2-bedroom unit in 840 sf, it would be rather tight. I imagine most secondary dwelling units that are built to 840 sf are probably 1 bedroom units. The property next door to mine added a second unit about 10 years ago. It is close to 840 sf and 2 stories tall. It has 1 bedroom, and a loft area that functions as a second bedroom, but does not have a separate door, or closet for that matter. The home is nicely designed and fits well in the neighborhood and it’s property. The owner actually had to get a variance for a reduced backyard setback (which abuts my sideyard), to make it work. The woman who built the home had raised her family in the house, but she was now living in her home alone. Her original plan was to move into the second unit and rent the main house. But in the end she decided to stay in the large house so there would be room for her children and grandchildren when they visited and she rented the second unit.

Secondary Dwelling Unit

Secondary Dwelling Unit

The house is on it’s third set of renters. The first 2 families were each a single-mom with 1 daughter. A married couple recently moved into the house part-time. The unit worked well for the single-parent with 1 child, and was probably more affordable than renting a house on it’s own parcel. There are a significant number of single-parent households today and they often do not have the same financial capacity as two-parent households which makes it difficult for them to find housing in Sebastopol.IMG_20150327_155941151

The previous renters in the house next door had to move out as the new property owners needed to move in while they renovated the main house on the property. It took the woman several months to find replacement housing during which time she spent house-sitting or living with friends. I know it was a stressful and challenging time for the woman and her daughter, but in the end they did find something that suits them. Another recently divorced friend with 2 children also had to find new housing and spent months looking for something in town. She was finally able to find a small home for rent, but again after several very stressful months, and in the end the home she ended up with was less than ideal, but all she could afford and find at the time.

I think we need to take a look at our secondary dwelling unit ordinance, and allow for larger second units. These could serve to house underserved population in our community all without needing to expand our infrastructure and without significant impact on our existing community. I think we should allow second units up to 1,000 sf which would allow for 2 decent-sized bedrooms. In order to allow for the larger units, I think a parcel should have a minimum size, and maybe include the second unit in a maximum lot coverage. it certainly wouldn’t work well on my 3,750 sf lot, but there are certainly some larger lots in town that could easily accommodate a 1,000 sf second unit. The nearby city of Novato allows second dwelling units up to 1,000 sf on lots over 10,000 sf. There is another property in my neighborhood that has a second building on the property that actually contains 2 additional units. As far as I can tell, it provides affordable housing, at no detriment to the rest of the neighborhood.

Single parents, young families, young adults living in shared housing, the elderly, families working in the lower wage service or agricultural industries, all could benefit from having more, and larger, second dwelling units in Sebastopol. Housing for these populations will keep a strong mix of people and incomes in our town which is important for a vibrant community. It enriches our lives to mix with people who might be from different income levels or age brackets, or ethnic backgrounds. And these units also make housing more affordable for the property owners by providing an additional source of income. My new neighbors have told me that one of the reasons they purchased the property was because it had an income-generating unit.

This home has a studio unit on the lower floor. Great for a young single person.

This home has a studio unit on the lower floor. Great for a young single person.

Not only will these larger second units provide affordable housing for a segment of the population that has a difficult time finding it, but when built in town they allow for the residents of the second dwelling units opportunity to walk and bike more than getting in their cars. We do not need to build more infrastructure (streets, water, sewer, gas etc.) to accommodate these additional families, but rather use existing infrastructure. It increases the density without impacting the overall character of our neighborhoods. Secondary dwelling units create additional housing in our already built-up environment and take pressure off adding new housing outside of town, which will only adds to more traffic congestion.

The Sebastopol City Council will be reviewing the draft Housing Element of the General Plan on March 31st, 2015. They should approve strong language in support of secondary dwelling units and allow for larger units to provide housing for a wider variety of incomes and family types.

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This is an interesting blog post that discusses good and bad density. Many people, particularly in small towns like where I live, are very resistant when you mention density. But when advocating density in a town like Sebastopol, I’m not talking about skyscrapers or even multi-family type buildings. Single-family neighborhoods can be dense as discussed in the post. And can create walkable, human-scaled places.

Building Dense Does Not Have To Be Dense.

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