Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘density’

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.

img_20160316_122211649.jpg

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.

img_20160321_174525149.jpg

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.

 

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

There is a growing body of evidence that shows how sprawl is bankrupting communities that cannot keep up with the maintenance of all the infrastructure required to serve the sprawl. New infrastructure (streets, water, sewer, electric, gas) is often conditioned on the developer to install, but they have no obligation to maintain it. That responsibility falls on the local jurisdiction. However, the taxes generated by sprawling developments come nowhere close to being able to pay for the maintenance on the infrastructure. The infrastructure put in place to support the past 70 years of sprawl is needing replacement and many cities are finding themselves without the financial resources for that maintenance.

Chuck Marohn, of Strong Towns, discusses this issue at length and travels the country repeating this message. He compares our post WWII method of growth to a Ponzi scheme. We need continued growth to pay for our long-term liabilities which is simply not sustainable. That’s generally how it’s worked over the past 70 years. Cities approve new development, collect development fees and use those fees to maintain the previously installed infrastructure. They need to continually grow to keep up with maintenance demands. When growth slows, so does infrastructure maintenance.

Part of the problem is that the tax revenue generated by sprawling development is not sufficient to maintain the infrastructure that serves it. Chuck wrote an article comparing a traditional pattern of pedestrian-friendly small-town development with a new auto-oriented fast food development. He analyzed the tax base value of each and found that the traditional development pattern, even though it was ‘old and blighted’, was 41% more valuable than the new auto-oriented development. Read the full article here. That article serves as the inspiration for this post. I was also inspired by the work of Joe Minicozzi of Urban 3. At the New Partners for Smart Growth Conference session I attended he introduced me to the idea of looking at property taxes on a per acre basis to give an apples to apples comparison of how ‘valuable’ a property is to a community’s coffers. A good summary of his work can be found in this Planetizen article.

So I’ve looked at property tax data from 2013 (available from the Sonoma County Treasurer-Tax Collector website) for 2 types of development found in downtown Sebastopol. The first type is a traditional Main Street development pattern of small lots with buildings built out to the front and side property lines. Most of the buildings along this block are single story structures. The predominant use is retail. There is very little mixed use. I compared the amount of property tax generated by these ‘traditional’ properties to three ‘sprawl’ type developments adjacent to the traditional development (yes, 3 sprawl shopping center type developments right on Main St!). The first of these two properties contains a Rite Aid. I think this store was constructed in the 1960’s. It’s a single store sitting at the back of the lot with a parking lot fronting Main Street. The second property was developed more recently (1980’s?) and contains a Safeway, again sitting at the back of the lot behind a large parking lot fronting Main Street. The third is the Whole Foods shopping center which I also believe was built in the 1960’s.

Downtown Sebastopol showing properties compared in this post.

Downtown Sebastopol showing properties compared in this post.

Block of Main Street with traditional development, although not much mixed-use and mostly single-story buildings

Block of Main Street with traditional development, although not much mixed-use and mostly single-story buildings. This block generates $45,059.08 per acre in property taxes.

The traditional block contains 12 properties fronting Main Street with lot sizes varying from 0.05 acres to 0.36 acres. These 12 properties generated $91,920.53 in property taxes in 2013. The total acreage of the 12 lots is 2.04 acres. In contrast, the Rite Aid property generated $29,531.62 in property taxes and is 1.35 acres. The Safeway property (actually 2 separate parcels) generated $65,199.17 in property taxes and is 3.64 acres in total. Whole Foods’ shopping center generate $44,042.60 and is 1.64 acres. Safeway looks like it generates a good deal of money for a single business, but when you look at it on a per acre basis the picture is quite different.

Rite Aid which generates $21,875.27 per acre in property taxes.

Rite Aid which generates $21,875.27 per acre in property taxes.

Safeway generates 17,911.86 per acre in property taxes.

Safeway generates 17,911.86 per acre in property taxes.

Whole Foods center generated $26,823.10 per acre in 2013. This property is directly across the street from the Basso Building

Whole Foods center generated $26,823.10 per acre in 2013. This property is directly across the street from the Basso Building (below)

The traditional block of Main Street generated $45,059.08/acre in property taxes in 2013. Rite Aid generated less than half that at $21,875.27/acre and Safeway generated even less per acre – $17,911.86/acre. Whole Foods center generated a little more than half the traditional block at $26,823.10/acre. Better than Rite Aid and Safeway. (Part of the reason for the higher per/acre value of this shopping center can be attributed to it’s much lower ratio of parking than Rite Aid or Safeway as anyone that tries to parking in this lot can attest.) I’d like reiterate that the traditional Main Street block is a very low density development with mostly older 1-story buildings and little mix of uses. The newest building on the block, which was built roughly 11 years ago, is a 2-story building sitting on 0.36 acres. It generated $42,775.17 in property taxes in 2013 for a per acre rate of $118,819.92!

The Basso Building on Main Street generated $118,819.92 per acre in property taxes, a whopping 6.6 times more than Safeway!

The Basso Building on Main Street generated $118,819.92 per acre in property taxes, a whopping 6.6 times more than Safeway!

This higher density (and it’s only a 2-story building) generates 6.6 times the property tax per acre than Safeway! Imagine if the whole block were developed to this value. Why would a city allow a Safeway-type development? We certainly need places to buy groceries and I have nothing against Safeway per se, but what if it were part of a mixed-use development? What if Safeway had offices or residences above it? What if the building was up at the sidewalk, with structured parking behind? It would generate a great deal more in property tax revenue than in its current sprawling configuration. So in addition to contributing a fraction of the property taxes of more traditional development Safeway and Rite Aid properties completely kill the pedestrian-oriented function of the Main Street block to the south.

The City of Sebastopol will be conducting a public meeting to get input on ideas for the development of a prime 2+ acre property in the heart of downtown. The property is privately owned, but the owner is interested in selling and is open to hear what ideas the community has for it’s future. It will be important to keep the value of a new development in mind when considering what to build there. It is obvious to me from this analysis that it is imperative that this parcel should be developed as a mixed-use multi-story project. It will be crucial to get this right. We cannot afford to approve a single-story, single-use structure on this property. It was never discussed in this manner, but it is another argument against the proposed CVS/Chase project located a block away.

This is the property to be discussed in a public workshop. It is directly across the street from the town plaza. It used to be a lumber yard and is not a tractor sales store. Not the highest and best use of a property in the center of downtown.

This is the property to be discussed in a public workshop. It is directly across the street from the town plaza. It used to be a lumber yard and is not a tractor sales store. Not the highest and best use of a property in the center of downtown.

This was an easy analysis to complete and I’d encourage others to do the same in their communities. It’s really eye-opening to realize how much better traditional urban development patterns contribute to a communities tax base. And it’s a conversation that is long overdue.

Read Full Post »

The word density tends to elicit a strong, generally negative, response from many people. The mere mention of the word brings out opponents to a proposed development project, en masse.  Particularly in a small town like Sebastopol, density seems to conjure images of overcrowded tenement-like living conditions, faceless apartment tower blocks, crime, congestion, and pollution. Some people live in small towns like Sebastopol to avoid what they perceive as the ills of living in higher-density cities. However, there are many examples of higher density neighborhoods that are lovely places to be and quality walkable environments depend on some level of higher density to be successful. San Francisco is one of the most sought after places to live in the country. There may be many reasons for this but one certainly has to be because it is such a walkable city. Even with all those hills it’s a great place to walk. The numerous commercial neighborhoods thrive because of the number of people living within walking distance. Small town commercial districts also need people to survive and a certain amount of density is necessary. It is obvious, however, that all density is not created equal and we need to support the development of ‘good’ density if we want our towns to thrive without being choked with traffic.

Density is a metric that is used in zoning codes to describe the number of dwelling units per acre allowed in a given land use category. Unfortunately density as a measure of dwelling units per acre or people per acre is a sterile metric. It says nothing about the experiential nature of a neighborhood which is critical in understanding whether the allowed density will help create a walkable environment. A 3-story development of 30 units/acre with well-detailed architecture, front stoops along a generously wide sidewalk with street trees and quality street furniture can feel much less dense than a bland 20 story apartment building surrounded by open space and parking built to the same ‘density’. Simply building a 30 acre/unit apartment building without considering how it will contribute to the pedestrian environment will not in itself create the desired outcome. The pedestrian realm must be considered. Sidewalk width, landscaping, street design, building architecture all impact how the building will connect to the larger neighborhood. There are many examples of both good and bad density. The Lincoln Institute has a great section of it’s website and has published a book Visualizing Density devoted to understanding the many faces of density.

A successful walkable urban environment depends on a mix of uses and people frequenting those uses. It has shops, restaurants and business open throughout the day. It has an interesting streetscape with good landscaping, seating and dynamic shop windows. A good walkable urban environment creates opportunities for spontaneous social interaction. This happens often in a small town. I almost always run into someone I know when I walk downtown. It has been shown that places where these spontaneous meetings occur are more creative and productive. They also serve to strengthen community connections.

Opposing density for the sake of opposing density will limit our ability to create a successful walkable environment. I think it’s safe to say most residents of Sebastopol want a thriving Main Street. But for Main Street businesses to thrive, they need customers. Most of the existing older residential neighborhoods around downtown are in the 4-8 units/acre density range. This is not very dense. There are also very few mixed-use buildings downtown that contain residential units. (In regards to actual ‘downtown’ housing I think there might be 3 buildings with at least 1 residential unit on the second floor. I’m sure there are no more than 10 second floor units downtown.) With the addition of The Barlow we now have more retail and restaurant destinations downtown, which is exciting, but I am concerned that we lack the amount of residential density necessary for these businesses to thrive (as discussed in a previous post, the 12 acre development does not include any residential units – a huge missed opportunity). With the limited number of people living within walking distance of downtown, many people patronizing downtown businesses have no other option but to drive. This is what creates congestion downtown.

By increasing the number of people living downtown we can reduce traffic congestion as those people will be able to walk to their destinations and leave the car at home. Unfortunately there are a limited number of sites available downtown that could be developed with a mix of residential units. The city should be doing all it can to support the development of housing on these remaining parcels. There is a 2.5 acre parcel across the street from the town plaza that is ripe for a mixed-use development that includes housing. The city council recently approved formation of a committee to evaluate the future development potential of the site. This will hopefully lead to the successful marketing of the property to a developer who will include housing as part of the eventual program.

Old lumber yard parcel. 2.5 site across the street from town plaza

Old lumber yard parcel. 2.5 site across the street from town plaza

The Sebastopol Northeast Area Specific Plan had proposed 300 new residential units in a 20 acre area (or 15 units/acre) adjacent to our existing downtown. (The 12 acre Barlow development was a significant part of the plan area). This is a medium range density and something that was completely achievable. But the proposed density was a rallying cry for people opposed to the plan – and a significant reason for the failure of the adoption of the plan. Opponents painted a picture of a crowded congested city and implied that the proposed number of units would be developed overnight inciting fear in the community for those slow to accept change. What was muddled in the discussion was although the specific plan would have allowed for the development of that total number of units, it did not require it. The current zoning designation for the downtown core zoning designation ( which encompasses most of the downtown care) allows residential units to be built when part of a mixed use project at the density of 1 unit/1,000 sf of lot area. This is an effective density of 45 units/acre. (By contrast, Sebastopol’s high density residential zoning district allows for half that density.)  This is a fairly high density for a small town like Sebastopol and would be allowed by right under the current zoning. The failure of the Northeast Area Specific Plan dealt a real blow to the creation of more housing downtown.

We need to learn to describe housing projects by a means other than density. We need to explain the real benefits to the public realm that will occur when we provide more people living within walking distance of working, shopping, transit and recreation. A project is more than it’s density. A great pedestrian environment is about the qualitative experience, not the quantitative which is a limitation of the word ‘density.’ Density downtown needs to be understood in a qualitative manner and not dismissed because of the negative associations it triggers for some. Walter Chambers writes in the Voice of San Diego that instead of talking about density in the units/acre way we should discuss it in terms of social exchanges per acre. I like this idea, because more density does allow for more social interactions which are an important aspect of a great place. If anyone has other ways to describe density I’d love to hear about it.

 

 

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: