Provo Should Build Houses in the Streets

The street near my house is roughly 47 feet wide. On either side, it has 12 foot “park spaces,” or those grassy areas between the street and the sidewalk. These measurements are fairly typical of Provo’s downtown neighborhoods, meaning the city owns a roughly 71-foot wide strip of property on every block. And though residents are supposed to take care of the park spaces, the city is still on the hook for a massive amount of land.

This street is approximately 47 feet wide. The grass strips on either side of the street are about 12 feet wide.

This land costs everyone a lot of money. Obviously, it has to be maintained, repaved, cleaned, and policed. Trees have to be trimmed. Pipes replaced. Infrastructure maintenance, in other words, is expensive and is paid for with tax dollars.

Streets like this also translate to losses via opportunity cost. Every land owner in Provo pays property taxes to the city, for example, but city-owned land doesn’t generate income. It’s a double whammy of maintenance costs and lost tax revenue, which should especially trouble anyone interested in government fiscal responsibility.

And of course wide streets like this also encourage speeding, heat the city up, and reduce safety, among other things.

One way to solve these problems is to turn the streets into development. If all the streets were replaced by houses, after all, there would be less land for the government to maintain and more people paying property taxes. Of course, it’d also provide more housing within the city, increase density, and reduce heat islands.

This was the basic idea behind the city’s decision to hand over streets to Nu Skin and the LDS Church earlier this year. In the case of Nu Skin, the city even gave the street away for free because officials knew they’d recoup the costs later in the form of taxes.

Developing streets is also more or less the approach proposed in a section of the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibit “Foreclosed” in New York. Though the exhibit wasn’t specifically addressing tax issues and government waste — it focused more on affordable housing, environmental issues, and density — it did suggest filling in streets with dwellings:

This exhibit from the MOMA shows housing filling in the streets of a city.

Clearly a city with no streets at all would be difficult, or impossible, to navigate. But the idea is that street space is often wasted and inefficient space. If the streets can be developed into housing or other buildings, there will be more room for people and less waste.

Though the idea of replacing streets with development might appear radical to some people, Vancouver is actually making it happen. Reportedly, the Thin Streets Initiative calls for developing big, wide streets into affordable housing:

The City has an enormous land resource in the form of underutilized streets. We propose dividing 66’ wide north/south street right-of-ways into equal parts, creating two new 33’ residential lots and a narrower 33’ street right-of-way. The new lots would be developed for afford¬able housing. A conservative estimate is that over 10,000 homes could be created, tapping into over $2 billion in land value.

Authorities in Vancouver apparently also realized residents may push back against this proposal, especially as it is implemented in traditional single family neighborhoods. However, officials are making the case that the initiative is crucial to the city’s long-term success:

Naturally, the Mayor and staff realize that there will be pushback to this plan of adding density to traditionally single family neighbourhoods. However, the citizens of the city need to stop thinking about themselves and start thinking about the city and its future role in an increasingly globalized society. Attracting and retaining talent and young people of all backgrounds is key to the cultural vitality of the city. Higher housing costs has already seen many pack up their bags and leave.

In the past, the city has also built “laneway homes,” which are apparently charming but higher density structures built in formerly empty space. This link provides the image below illustrating where all of this new development would go:

If half of a street is turned into lots for homes, a city suddenly has more room for family housing, more tax revenue, and safer streets.

There’s no reason this idea couldn’t, or shouldn’t, be adapted to Provo’s downtown neighborhoods. Doing so would obviously produce some growing pains, but ultimately it would increase the amount of housing available to families and new workers, generate jobs via construction and development, and reduce government spending on infrastructure. The sale of former streets to developers could also provide a huge, one-time cash infusion to the city that could be used for all sorts of projects.

Ultimately then, this sort of plan would be the most family-friendly, fiscally conservative, and environmentally aware path for Provo to head down. And as Vancouver proves, it’s entirely possible to do.

Streets in a downtown Provo neighborhood. Imagine how many more families could live in this neighborhood if half the width of these streets was turned into housing. Also, to get a sense of scale, take a close look at the cars here; though the streets may not look particularly wide, they could probably accommodate five lanes of traffic given the size of the vehicles in this picture.

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17 Comments

Filed under Development, economics

17 responses to “Provo Should Build Houses in the Streets

  1. Genelle Pugmire

    So Jim. . . after seeing the pictures I believe that Orem could take State Street from the SCERA to 400 South and make a lovely arts district with mixed use or just restaurants and small shops, museums, art displays and actually make an area that could become an ecclectic “downtown arts district”. . . . .thanks!

  2. Matthew Taylor

    Downtown streets have 82.5 feet of right-of-way. Typically two feet behind the sidewalk is the property line. Although your concept has merit, implementation and political will to do that seems insurmountable.

    • jimmycdii

      I does seem difficult, but I think a gradual implementation efforts along with education and effective marketing could make it work. In other words, I think it would be possible to sell this idea to the public.

  3. These are the kinds of ideas that the City really needs to consider, even if the idea seems impossible. Personally, I’m not in love with it, but this is the kind of thinking we need. I would prefer turning streets into greenways with bike/ped access (this would only work where you have alleys). The point is well made that our streets are way too stinking wide and this costs the city a lot of money.
    From curb to curb the city has at least 12 feet that they can get rid of while still maintaining parking and two-way traffic. I’d love to see some creative ideas for what to do with this. We can give property owners deeper front yards, wider sidewalks, wider parkstrips, and/or bicycle facilties. These are practical suggestions, but we shouldn’t rule out crazier ones.

    • Thanks! I also really liked some of those practical suggestions. My feeling is that anything that reduces the width of the street is a step in the right direction.

  4. Maria

    I absolutely HATE this idea! The whole reason I choose to live downtown is because of the very atmosphere you decry and want to change. I LOVE the big trees, green parking strips, wide streets, and space between houses. If parking strip space is reduced, there also goes room to plant the big shade trees. As more grassy parking strips are converted to “eco-friendly” strips, how many do you see that have trees planted in them…hardly any! [That is my biggest beef with xero scaping parking strips.] I have invested a lot of money in my home with the intent to live there until I die. I do 90% of my shopping in Provo in order to keep my tax dollars here….however, if Provo was foolish enough to adopt this plan, I would absolutely, without a look backwards, sell my house and move elsewhere. If I wanted to live where I could reach out and touch my neighbors house, I would have bought a condo. I didn’t and don’t want to–ever.

    • There are definitely different ways that this idea could be implemented, some of which would be bad, but I don’t envision it actually putting most homes within arms length of each other. I also wouldn’t be in favor of the elimination of the park strips. Instead, I envision this idea as basically just adding another row of homes in what is currently street space. There would still be big trees and park strips. This is primarily a way to reduce street space.

  5. Matthew Taylor

    Another challenge, referring back to the Vancouver concept. Utah blocks are unique compared to Vancouver or most other places in the nation. Our blocks are square with rows of homes on each side. Vancouver has rectangular blocks with homes only facing two sides of each block. Their concept is much more feasible to implement where they are just adding a couple homes to the end of each block. In Provo, what are you going to do where narrowing a street will impact homes on any block face you do it. You could just do it on the corners and then make an very wide parkway between the corners? There is some cool design stuff that could be dreamed up, but it will be rather costly and probably increase maintenance costs, and who would want to take that on? Property owners won’t want to. The City probably can’t afford to.

    • Yeah, Provo’s blocks are a major challenge here. So I’d say lets just do it on the corners, and have the wide street in the middle. I’m going to write a post on this soon, where I’ll try to draw what I’m talking about, but basically it’d mean narrow streets on corners and wide streets in the middle of the blocks. That could still add hundreds of homes to central Provo, generate millions, and save maintenance costs.

      So, Matt, do you know where I live? If so, tell the city to sell me the half the street to the east of my house. I’ll get together some investors and we’ll build three stand alone houses. I live on a corner, so lets try it there as an experiment. 😉

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  12. this is dumb

    This is stupid. You don’t realize that the property line goes to the middle of the street, and the city has a right of way. Removing the street would give the land back to the home owner.

    • Actually in Provo the line between the right of way and private property usually lies about two feet inside yards. Or at least, in Joaquin, which I used as an example, it does.

      But you’re right in saying that eliminating the street would create more private land; that’s the point. The goal is to rid the government of a financial liability and turn it into something that generates tax revenue.

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