Category Archives: Development

How To Buy A Home That Grows in Value

Continuing the transit theme from the past few days, here’s one way to ensure your house increases in value: make sure it’s located near a transit station.

That’s according to a study commissioned by the American Public Transportation Association. The study argues that people are willing to pay more for housing located near public transit:

Moving beyond the traditional arguments that good schools and neighborhood amenities impact hous- ing prices, emerging research has indicated that urban form and transportation options have played a key role in the ability of residential properties to maintain their value since the onset of the recession.

Studies have shown that consumers are willing to pay more for housing located in areas that exemplify new urbanist principles or are “traditional neighborhood developments.” These neighborhoods are walkable, higher density, and have a mix of uses as well as access to jobs and amenities such as transit.

I’m an example of this.

People, including me, are willing to pay more for housing located near transit.

People, including me, are willing to pay more for housing located near transit.

As I mentioned earlier this week, I just moved to Salt Lake to be closer to my job. I chose the location of my new home based on proximity to my office, but equally important was proximity to Frontrunner. We pay considerably more per square foot for housing in Salt Lake than we did in Provo and we’re willing to do that because it’s located three blocks from the Frontrunner station and one block from a TRAX stop.

The study goes on to mention that housing near transit was more resilient during the recession. (I haven’t finished reading the study yet but if I didn’t blog it now, I’d never get around to it. I’ll finish it Friday after work.)

On the other end of the spectrum, Grist reported earlier this year that there are 40 million McMansions that no one wants because they’re not located in walkable, transit-oriented neighborhoods:

Only 43 percent of Americans prefer big suburban homes, says Chris Nelson, head of the Metropolitan Research Center at the University of Utah. That mean demand for “large-lot” homes is currently 40 million short of the available stock — and not only that, but the U.S. is short 10 million attached homes and 30 million small homes, which are what people really want.

Taken together, then, it’s pretty clear what kinds of housing will retain and increase in value: transit oriented ones. That should be helpful for people with a home purchase somewhere in their future; they just need to check potential sites’ proximity to public transit.

Homes without access to public transit don't retain value well. In some cases no one even wants them.

Homes without access to public transit don’t retain value well. In some cases no one even wants them.

For those already in a home, being along the Wasatch Front, and particularly in Provo, happens to be a good place because we have an expanding transit system and a growing population. However, it’s important to keep in mind that supporting transit — as well as transit-promoting development like density, mixed uses, low or no parking, etc. — is also a reliable way to improve home values.

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Filed under commuting, Development, economics

What City Is the Future of Utah County?

Yesterday, my former colleague Genelle Pugmire reported on a new project in Vineyard that’s beginning to break ground. From the article, it looks like it’ll be a commercial project, though from what I understand the ultimate goal is to build a big, sprawling, suburb in the same area.

That’s obviously unfortunate — we don’t need more sprawl, of course — but one thing in particular stood out from Genelle’s article:

Last year [project manager Steward] Park was invited to speak at the Utah Valley Chamber of Commerce Summit at Sundance. He said he followed Provo Mayor John Curtis — a relative of Park — who was bragging about growth in his city.

Park quipped, “I said, with all due respect mayor, the future of Utah County is at Geneva.” He added that with what is planned there is no doubt.

In other words, some cities in Utah see growth as a kind of competition and are actively trying to become the region’s center.

I’ve long felt that there is a finite amount of growth and investment money that will pour into Utah County in the coming years. That amount may not be fixed, but it also isn’t endless. What’s telling about this article is that some cities and developers agree with that perspective and are chasing whatever investment they can get.

Provo needs to out compete these sad little suburbs. That means making things like infill, in particular, happen; Provo doesn’t have sites like Geneva Steel that can be redeveloped but it still needs to add a lot of housing to accommodate population growth. Ultimately, Provo is an appealing place that has a lot to offer, but without a lot more diverse and affordable housing the biggest population boom in memory will be diffused across the valley and a tremendous opportunity will be lost.

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Attached Homes in Salt Lake City

While driving around Salt Lake City recently I saw these two homes:

Two old, attached homes in Salt Lake City

Two old, attached homes in Salt Lake City

As is apparent, these homes are attached to one another. They’re also apparently historic and have a “house” feel to them. Or, in other words, they don’t look like condos, town homes or apartments.

This type of arrangement is common in some parts of the world but rare in Utah. However, it shows that it’s possible to cut out the wasted space between houses without turning your street into Brooklyn (much of which is very nice, though). And yet, as I understand Provo’s building laws, this would actually be illegal to do today.

This also has some other obvious benefits: energy savings, less yard maintenance, etc. And while these houses are clearly not in a high density neighborhood, this design could be repeated over and over to create many attached homes. Or not; like everything, it’s just one more option for increasing density without sacrificing quality and there are almost infinite options for the final configuration.

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Filed under Development, neighborhood

Gradual Redevelopment Trumps Mega-Projects

The Atlantic Cities recently reported on a new study that shows having housing of different ages promotes social ties. The article proclaims that “Jane Jacobs was right” notes that “the results should get planners to stop and wonder whether newer is always better.” It continues,

Empirical results show significant links between housing age diversity (historical development pace) and four measures of neighbourly social relations, even when controlling for other neighbourhood housing features, social composition and individual sociodemographics. It may be that gradual redevelopment preserves community ties, which may take decades to form and which new residents may ‘inherit’ from previous neighbours.

There are a few lessons for the Wasatch Front that we can extrapolate from this study:

Neighborhoods with a diverse mix of building ages foster the most social ties.

Neighborhoods with a diverse mix of building ages foster the most social ties.

1. We shouldn’t be building sprawl, which by definition lacks buildings of diverse ages. This finding seems to support my view that gussied up suburbs like Daybreak aren’t going to be really great for a 100 years or so — after they experience redevelopment. And in any case, it’s tragic that we’re building sprawling, car centric places that aren’t going to be worth anything until long after we’re all dead.

2. Flipping the article’s thesis on it’s head, we should be adding new structures to historic neighborhoods. Just as contemporary neighborhoods like Daybreak don’t work because they’re entirely new, old neighborhoods need diversity as well. This supports the idea that we need infill in historic neighborhoods. I don’t know why this isn’t happening in Provo’s residential neighborhoods; the benefits far outweigh the challenges.

Historic buildings are great, but it's also important to continually add new structures to the mix as well. This fun new building is located in Salt Lake.

Historic buildings are great, but it’s also important to continually add new structures to the mix as well. This fun new building is located in downtown Salt Lake.

3. “Social ties” should be a goal when deciding how to plan our cities. Provo is more or less doing this right now with the Center Street redesign, but few other projects seem to begin with the primary goal of fostering more, better social interaction. However, if we do take that as our objective many disagreements — and pointless NIMBY complaints — will be easier to solve.

4. And, finally, Jane Jacobs’ style observational analysis is a valuable way to understand the built environment. That may seem obvious, but our most expensive projects along the Wasatch Front — the I15 Core project, the proposed super street, the interchange catastrophe — are operating under an entirely different set of assumptions.


Filed under construction, Development, neighborhood

“This is stupid growth”

One of the more depressing things about reading Jane Jacobs is learning how her community rose up to stop massive projects that would have disrupted the city. That’s great for them, but it makes it all the more depressing when our communities along the Wasatch Front do nothing — or, worse, cheer on — massive boondoggles like freeway and interchange expansions.

But that isn’t always the case.

Recently in Layton a group of concerned citizens came together to oppose a proposed highway expansion in their county:

“We don’t want Utah to build a road through Farmington Bay,” Kalt said to the crowd of more than 100, citing the harm to wildlife, the increase in pollution, the cost and the community disruption. “This affects all of us.”

Hundreds of people demonstrated against plans for theWest Davis Corridor, a 24-mile, $600 million highway proposed by the Utah Department of Transportation.

Residents in Layton recently protested a highway expansion in their county.

Later, a UDOT spokesman is quoted as saying that the real question is what route the highway will take. I know the individual people at UDOT are well intentioned, but I’m left wondering if it has occurred to them that conventional highways are not the only, or even best, way to move goods and people. Or, as one of the sources in the story puts it,

“This is not smart growth,” Ingwell told the Saturday crowd. “This is stupid growth.”

 The entire thing is reminiscent, at least to me, of stories I’ve read about communities actually rising up and stopping destructive mega-projects.

I also wondered why this doesn’t happen more often. The I15 Core project, which widened the freeway, was a massive incentive for more driving. Why didn’t we all protest that? Provo’s Center Street interchange came down like a hammer on west Provo; why wasn’t there more outcry?

One reason is probably that it’s hard for any of us, myself included, to realize that there are alternatives.

But another reason is that it may also be hard to imagine that these projects actually go through our communities; the people in Layton took action when they realized that there was something very real at stake.

However, all of these projects do have a real impact on our communities. A widened freeway, for example, creates larger dead zones on either side that can’t be developed into much. I struggle to envision a scenario in which parts of west Provo recover from the interchange, and that will have lasting, negative repercussions on the entire city.

In other words, we all have something at stake when it comes to the infrastructure decisions that impact communities along the Wasatch Front. In that light, the protest in Layton will hopefully be the first of many aimed at stopping car-centric, anti-human projects.


Filed under commuting, Development

One Reason To Oppose Aesthetic Regulation

Yesterday I wrote that Provo could use more row houses, but I made a point to say that I’m not advocating aesthetic regulations. My feeling is that while a lack of aesthetic regulations can produce a lot of ugly buildings, it also allows for the creativity and diversity that are essential for a vibrant city. And in the end, a strong market should get rid of undesirable buildings over the long term.

Here’s an example of why I don’t want aesthetic regulation:


This home is located in Salt Lake City. It’s clearly a historic structure and even bears more than a passing resemblance to the Reed Smoot House and the Hines Mansion.


This contemporary building, which I think is quite charming in its own way, sits just down the street from the historic home in the first picture.

The pictures above show that old and new architecture can coexist. In fact, really great neighborhoods are usually filled with this sort of thing. Provo doesn’t have a lot of cool modern buildings, but even “historic” homes in the city cover a surprisingly wide time span; at least at one point we were trying to build an architecturally diverse city.

Another good example of this is Barcelona, which mandates how structures use space but not the exact look of the facades.

But if we start rolling out aesthetic rules this can’t happen. Instead, we’ll end up with a bunch of pointlessly nostalgic, lesser buildings.

I didn’t always have this opinion of aesthetic regulation. In the not too distant past I wished we had some way of preventing the kind of buildings that proliferated in Provo in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

But as I started to critically consider the idea of forcing buildings to look quaint I began to change my mind. In the end there’s a lot to lose by only allowing a knockoff version of the past.

The solution, as I indicated yesterday, is spatial regulation. This is a concept that broadly falls under the umbrella of “form-based code.” The idea is that builders have to work with certain setbacks or heights or sidwalk sizes or whatever, for example, but can work creatively within those confines.

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Filed under building, construction, Development

A Mall-To-Neighborhood Case Study

Last month, I argued that struggling malls could be converted to mixed-use housing developments. The idea is that adapting malls accomplishes several goals simultaneously and economically; it diversifies a city’s housing stock, capitalizes on a huge but (in Utah County) floundering asset, cuts down on the need for massive parking lots, and potentially produces a cooler kind of living space in more monotonous cities.

The Orem mall is a prime candidate for adaptive reuse — or in other words being converted to housing.

The Orem mall is a prime candidate for adaptive reuse — or in other words being converted to housing.

I used Provo’s Towne Centre [sic] mall as my case study, but that’s not even the best candidate.

Orem’s University Mall is already two thirds empty, so there’s really no reason not to give this idea a try there.  Orem also lacks a central downtown, which problem could be remedied by turning the current mall into a diverse neighborhood. The area around University Parkway and 2230 North — near Movies 8 and Shopko — is also a prime candidate for redevelopment; there’s a lot of space there, but the current configuration hasn’t produced anything really successful.

But the real question is, would any of this actually work?

A recent article in The Atlantic Cities seems to suggest it would. The article describes a historic mall in Providence, Rhode Island, that is about to reopen as a housing development:

[…] this spring a shuttered shopping center in downtown Providence will be reborn in micro form, with two stories of micro-apartments above ground-floor micro-retail.

The end product, at least according to the pictures, looks kind of like a much cooler version of City Creek.

There are a few caveats: the Providence mall is historic, micro apartments aren’t for everyone, Providence isn’t Provo, etc. etc.

If relatively stable Providence can sustain a mall-to-neighborhood conversion, fast-growing Provo should easily be able to do the same.

If relatively stable Providence can sustain a mall-to-neighborhood conversion, fast-growing Provo should easily be able to do the same.

But the specifics aren’t what cities like Provo should copy. Instead, the broader idea of taking something old and adapting it is the point. The end product can be historic, industrial, or just plain vanilla and can be designed to appeal to any demographic. In the end, however, it simply makes sense to take big empty-ish buildings and turn them into some sort of living space — especially in Utah County, where the population is expected to double in the coming decades.

One more thing also deserves mentioning: implementing this idea could have an array of benefits on the community, but it won’t work if we make the areas surrounding our adaptation cites more hostile. I’m specifically speaking of the area around Movies 8 that I mentioned above. That spot may get a super street, which would produce more, faster traffic. It would be hostile to pedestrians and bikes.

That spot already produces many failed business, which I’ve argued is a result of its design, but if we make it more hostile to people it’ll be that much harder to adapt it into a livable neighborhood. And as this recent example from Providence shows, adaptation really is something that can work.

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Filed under construction, Development

Cities Should Oppose The Prison Relocation

Lawmakers are currently considering a proposal to begin moving the Utah State Prison, which sits prominently on the west side of I15 in Draper. The idea is that the prison occupies valuable space along the Wasatch Front that would be better used for new development. More specifically, some people want to create a tech hub in Draper.

Everyone would benefit from more high tech companies in region, but suggesting that the prison needs to move to bring them in is a fallacious argument. Indeed, it would be vastly better to encourage tech companies to locate inside existing development. As a result, cities like Salt Lake and Provo should be doing everything they can to make sure new jobs aren’t lost to future sprawl. That means opposing the prison relocation.

The arrow points to the approximate location of the Utah State Prison. Lawmakers want to move the prison to make room for tech development, but it makes more sense to create tech hubs in existing urban centers.

The arrow points to the approximate location of the Utah State Prison. Lawmakers want to move the prison to make room for tech development, but it makes more sense to create tech hubs in existing urban centers.

Relocating the prison creates a variety of shorter-term problems. For one, it means more new development even as most cities along the Wasatch Front already have very low densities and plenty of room for more infill. In other words, there is absolutely no need for more massive new subdivisions.

Moving the prison also creates more distant development that requires more driving; Draper isn’t proximate to anything, so new development will require long trips to get anywhere. Historically, Draper has also been filled with car-oriented development, meaning residents have to drive short distances for everyday errands as well. It’s a lose-lose situation, and is particularly baffling at a time when we’re trying to clean up our worst-in-the-nation air.

But city governments should particularly oppose the prison relocation because it effectively stacks the decks against their efforts to win talent and jobs. Why would a tech company move to Provo or Salt Lake, for example, when they can get cheap land from the government in the middle of nowhere?

In other words, moving the prison is a government subsidy for sprawl. It would involve spending hundreds of millions of dollars to just make it less appealing to develop a tech hub in an urban center.

Relatedly, last year I contrasted the new campuses of Amazon and Apple. Basically, Apple is building a huge new building out in the suburbs, while Amazon is investing in the urban core of Seattle.

Lawmakers who want to move the prison are effectively trying to create Apple-style development, even though analysts have said the Amazon version is actually the one that is benefiting its surroundings the most.

Ultimately, there’s no reason cities like Salt Lake and Provo couldn’t, or shouldn’t, create internal tech hubs. Moving the prison, however, makes that harder because it uses government money to pick winners and losers.


Filed under Development, economics

Invisible Guzzlers, Or, Buildings and Energy Use

Right now in Utah we’re beginning to have a discussion about the damaging effects of cars. But if we really want to improve air quality, our health, and generally live in a better world, we should also consider tackling another big polluter: buildings.

An oft-overlooked source of pollution is buildings.

An oft-overlooked source of pollution is buildings.

A recent Slate article notes that in New York City 75 percent of carbon emissions come from buildings. The article quickly points out that in most other parts of the county buildings produce a smaller percent of the emissions, but the point that buildings create pollution is still an important one for any region. And it’s particularly important in Utah because there’s also very little discussion about the need to build more efficient buildings.

The really interesting thing is that the article suggests retrofitting buildings to make them greener:

[…] retrofitting almost every building in the city to keep the heat in during the winter and out during the summer. In a nod to Rudy Giuliani, Bill Bratton, and James Q. Wilson, I’ll call it the “triple-pane windows theory” of greenhouse-gas reduction.

The article gets into some and interesting strategies that are specific to New York but that have varying levels of applicability to cities along the Wasatch Front.

And again, this is an important topic that warrants more discussion in Utah. Aside from the occasional LEED certified buildings — which aren’t always that environmentally friendly after all — few people are apparently bringing this up.

One of the easiest ways to cut energy use is to simply turn the air conditioning off. And unlike something like driving — which is sometimes needed to get to work, school, etc. — cooling the air is purely discretionary for most people.

One of the easiest ways to cut energy use is to simply turn the air conditioning off. And unlike something like driving — which is sometimes needed to get to work, school, etc. — cooling the air is purely discretionary for most people.

One other thing also deserves mentioning here: air conditioning. Though the Slate article mostly discusses heating, the need for air conditioning is also often accepted as a foregone conclusion in discussions about energy efficiency.

Yet air conditioning is far from necessary. Though humans have heated their living spaces for millennia, modern forms of air conditioning — and the grossly inefficient buildings it has spawned — has only been around for a few generations. Steve Mouzon calls this the “Thermostat Age” when he points out that historically,

buildings we built had no choice but to be green, otherwise people would freeze to death in the winter, die of heat strokes by summer, starve to death, or other really bad things would happen to them.

The point is that there is one easy way to drastically cut energy usage and emissions: turn off air conditioning and, over time, build structures that don’t need it. It may seem like a challenge when those hot days come along, but in the end it’s really one of the easiest and most obvious ways to cut our individual energy consumption.

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Filed under building, Development, environment

More on Campus Drive

In a pair of recent posts, I argued that BYU’s planned campus redesign is flawed at best. Though I don’t doubt that it’ll be pretty in the vague, office-park way that most of BYU is pretty, I seriously question its positive impacts on Provo generally. The best case scenario, I think, is that we don’t notice much of a difference.

But a redesign that makes Campus Drive — currently slated for closure — more pedestrian friendly could be a fantistic and successful project. To get there, however, it would need to be based not on a suburban grass-plus-parking lots model, but on a multi-modal one. I’m thinking of streets in Paris or Rome; they generally allow cars but under conditions that make walking safe and appealing.

But BYU doesn’t have to look to Europe for an example; west Campus Drive is already what I’m talking about.

This part of Campus Drive is slated for closure.

This part of Campus Drive is slated for closure.

However, this part of Campus Drive is not part of the upcoming redesign.

However, this part of Campus Drive is not part of the upcoming redesign.

The west half of Campus Drive winds slowly around the south and west sides of campus. It includes only two lanes — one in each direction — and is shaded by old buildings with shallow set backs and big trees. Cars typically drive slowly and pedestrians cross at will.* It’s not perfect, but it’s much closer to being perfect than either the eastern section of the same street, or the proposed redesign.

Somewhat surprisingly, Google Street View is available in the area:

A section of Campus Drive on the west side of BYU.

A section of Campus Drive on the west side of BYU.

This image is from the south side of campus and coincidentally shows how angled parking can be used on a non-commerial street.

This image is from the south side of campus and coincidentally shows how angled parking can be used on a non-commerial street. I’m not sure why there are neither cars nor people in these pictures. My guess is they were taken when school was out.

The point is that it’s not necessarily encouraging or inviting to drivers, but it’s not impenetrable either.

East Campus Drive, however, is going from one extreme to another. It’s currently a big, fast street but will soon cease to be a route at all for cars.

As I’ve said before, BYU’s campus redesign is not terrible. (This is an example of terrible news.) It’s just disappointing to see what are clearly good intentions being squandered on something that could easily be better. And as one of BYU’s own streets demonstrates, there are ways to make streets safe and useable for everyone no matter what their mode of transportation.

*The last time I tried to drive on west Campus Drive it was closed for construction. The closure didn’t look permanent, but if it is I would be disappointed. And in any case, the point I’m making is based on the historical state of west Campus Drive, not any future state.


Filed under BYU, construction, Development