In my last post, I mentioned some of the wonderful things I recently discussed with Brent Wilde, Provo’s assistant community development director.
Among the many positive developments that Brent talked about, he also mentioned that neighborhood demand has generated interest in using zoning to encourage single family homes in downtown neighborhoods. The idea, Brent explained, is that land in those areas will increase in value and, as old apartments fall into disrepair, they can be replaced with valuable single family homes.
Brent and I only briefly discussed this topic, but because I’ve heard similar ideas floated by other people, I wanted to dwell on it for a moment.
This issue is obviously complex and no one is more excited than me to see the elimination of beat up old apartment complexes. On the surface, this seems like a generally great idea.
But it isn’t necessarily. If the old apartments aren’t replaced with newer, better ones — or possibly something like pocket neighborhoods — density will decrease likely down to near-suburban levels. That, in turn, could
• Undermine area businesses by shrinking the consumer base
• Reduce foot traffic and “eyes on the street,” which would negatively impact safety and crime rates
• Lessen downtown neighborhoods’ political clout
• Swap somewhat environmentally friendly apartments with environmentally unfriendly detached homes.
Like many people, I was raised to celebrate suburban living and single family homes. These things represent the American Dream.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean downtown neighborhoods should look like Highland, but with older homes. I’m planning many more posts on why density matters in Provo’s downtown neighborhoods, but for now suffice it to say that reducing population density would cut against everything that modern urban experts are trying to accomplish. And in my own case, I would rather have beat up old apartment complexes than low, suburban-level density. The ideal, of course, is a neighborhood filled with many mixed dwelling types, from old homes to high quality apartments. (Here is an article on historic neighborhoods in Washington D.C. where density is a major issue.)
Significantly, my impression is that resident demand has driven the desire to replace apartment complexes in downtown neighborhoods with single family homes. That’s certainly something I’ve experience during my time in Provo; people hate the local apartment complexes and their attendant problems.
But if it’s true that resident demand is behind this idea, I’m excited because that means new, increasingly informed demand can also reverse it. Ultimately, then, I’m hopeful that we can identify ways to maintain and increase density while simultaneously solving the very real problems that currently plague downtown neighborhoods.