Density Is Needed Everywhere In Provo

Last week I was saddened to hear that at a city meeting a proposed apartment building was criticized because, among many other reasons, it ostensibly added density to the south Joaquin neighborhood.

The development was rejected — an outcome I favored because it had too much parking and therefore probably didn’t add much density after all — but in the aftermath I felt it’s probably time to revisit this topic. (I’m also speaking generally of anti-density rhetoric I heard about second hand, not of any specific person or comment. My impression was that many people said great things at this meeting as well and I mostly don’t know where specific people fall on this issue anyway.)

So here’s the thing: density is good.

One of the main reasons I started this blog was to argue that adding density would preserve and enhance the character of pioneer neighborhoods — not destroy it — and that it could be done without tearing down actual pioneer homes. Here are some posts I’ve written in the past as I’ve researched that thesis:

One of the few communal gardens in Provo… and it also happens to be next to a pocket of higher density housing. That's not a coincidence, it's a necessity.

One of the few communal gardens in Provo… and it also happens to be next to a pocket of high-ish (or more accurately medium) density housing. That’s not a coincidence, it’s a necessity.

Jane Jacobs and Density 101

Density Without Destruction

Decoding Density

Community Gardens Require Density

More People Means Less Traffic

Building Cities for Trick-or-Treating

Mo’ People Mo’ Money

Why Density Matters

The Way To Get More Retail Downtown

Dense Cities Will Save America

What Houses Close Together Look Like

Let me be clear: I support much higher density everywhere in Provo. I think adding density to the Joaquin neighborhood above 500 North — which I’ve been told is the plan — is great for example, but relatively inconsequential due to the demographics and size of that area.

Instead, I’m in favor of adding density in Joaquin below 500 North, in other Pioneer neighborhoods, and elsewhere. These areas are proximate to downtown, already somewhat denser than other neighborhoods, and have thousands of acres of wasted space that could be developed into higher density housing.

This is one way to increase density: putting awesome homes really close together. This doesn't really exist in Provo, so if we wanted it we'd need to aggressively pursue it.

This is one way to increase density: putting awesome homes with shallow setbacks really close together.

It’s also worth mentioning that “density” is not synonymous with Manhattan or Chicago; we don’t have to demolish everything and put up glass towers — though a few wouldn’t hurt so people who prefer that option could actually live in Provo. Density can be increased with low-rise multi-unit buildings (generally my preferred option), single family infill, alley homes, accessory apartments, etc. Pocket neighborhoods are explicitly a density-increasing strategy; if you like them, you like increasing density.

It has been my assumption that most people who oppose density are really opposing bad design. Most examples of medium or high “density” in Provo are horrible apartment complexes surrounded by terrible parking lots. In many cases these examples aren’t really dense; a student fourplex surrounded by eight or more parking spots might seem dense, but a few row houses with less parking may actually be denser, while also being more attractive and livable for families.

This site includes several apartment complexes. But it's also poorly designed. The apartments are also so spread out by parking that this isn't actually high density; rather it's pretty low density.

This site includes several apartment complexes. But it’s also poorly designed. The apartments are also so spread out by parking that this isn’t actually high density; rather it’s pretty low density. Low density and bad design are both problems that need solving in Provo right now.

In any case, I join with critics of bad design; we should demand livable spaces for our cities and not tolerate crap. There was a fair amount of crap in the recent proposal for the Joaquin neighborhood — mostly in the form of the parking lot — and so it was rightly rejected.

But I’m not going to mince words here: if you truly oppose density you’re wrong. As I’ve argued over and over and over again on this blog, density leads to increased safety, more downtown retail, better restaurants, more diversity, more walkability, and even more green space. It reduces the strain on government and increases efficiency. When density and good design converge — think Paris, Rome or even Rio de Janeiro — the experience is viscerally, almost ineffably, pleasurable. The reason we don’t have these kinds of spaces in Provo isn’t because they can’t exist, it’s because we continue to make well-intentioned but very poor decisions — often about density — about our city.

As I wrote above, I favor adding density all over Provo. I oppose plans to unilaterally prevent density increases in south Joaquin or anywhere else for that matter. And I fundamentally believe that more people should have the opportunity to enjoy the city’s big trees, old architecture, walkable infrastructure and burgeoning cultural scene.

In the end, if Provo resists adding density it’ll lose a lot of interesting people who currently see in it more potential than perfection.

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6 Comments

Filed under building, construction, Development

6 responses to “Density Is Needed Everywhere In Provo

  1. I mostly agree that Provo needs to be more dense everywhere. Why the heck do we require 8,000 or more sq ft lots in most of Provo? We get all hung up about a handful of units on 5th North when everyday the City requires our new neighborhoods to be built at extremely low densities. Provo needs to be better and leave it to Saratoga Springs and Lehi to build the ghettos of tomorrow.

    At the same time, I think we have a responsibility to preserve the historic single family (or single family looking) homes in northern Maeser and south Joaquin. I don’t mind adding more units, but not at the expense of good homes. Increased density here should come with better historic preservation and design guidelines.

    • I agree that the historic homes should be preserved. I think the best way to do that is to add high quality housing to the mix around them. That would raise property values (b/c the parking lots they’d replace pull values down), give historic neighborhoods more political clout, etc.

      My feeling is that the best way to preserve the architectural character of Joaquin et al is to add density. I see these neighborhoods as become more like the avenues, with a mix of condos, apts, and historic buildings.

  2. Tosh

    i agree!! ESPECIALLY when some of the developments involved are a BLOCK away from BYU, and they are REPLACING old, dilapidated bldgs and their parking lots. one was approved a few weeks ago, but had some dissenting voices. while i AGREED with diane christensen about home ownership in provo 100%, and i consider myself to be a supporter of HOME OWNERSHIP in the city, a block away from BYU was NOT the place to make a stand on the issue. if HOMES would have been put there, in 3 years they would have been FULL of students and thus not FIXING the problem. we NEED density. we need to be SMART about it too. by BYU and DOWNTOWN are OK, IMO. now, this these same 7 story condos would have been built in a neighborhood further away….k, i can see where she is coming from.

  3. Pingback: Density, Parking and a Charming Neighborhood | (pro(vo)cation)

  4. Celeste

    There were many people for increasing density right next to the BYU but holding density down 4 blocks away so as to force a better quality of projects North of 500 North. The fight is not really about density at all, it is about quality projects, saving some good looking historic architecture (emphasizing those homes South of 5th North in the Joaquin area) but having a systematic approach. Lets focus the density increases immediately south of campus at the start and have long rang goals for further south that reflect the needs of the populace that lives and uses each of the areas.

    • Celeste

      The fight is not really about density at all – was supposed to say “The fight is not really all about density, its about… (Argh! I do not know how to edit comments here)

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