Tag Archives: housing

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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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:

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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.

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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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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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Build More Accessory Apartments

One of Provo’s greatest advantages is that many of its single family homes are not actually single family homes; instead, they’re duplexes due to accessory apartments in basements, attics, yards and garages. Though for some reason some people dislike accessory apartments (I don’t understand that sentiment), they are in fact a tremendous asset for the city.

Some of these homes are owner occupied, but some of them also still have accessory apartments.

Some of these homes are owner occupied, but some of them also still have accessory apartments.

This article from The Miami Herald highlights some of the advantages of accessory apartments and notes their growing popularity. The article states that demand for homes with “multigenerational” units is growing and gives people added flexibility. Big families can still use the space all for themselves, or they can house relatives, make a little extra money, etc. with the separate units.

In other words, accessory apartments make homes more adaptable and versatile. For example, it’s easy to imagine a young couple moving into a home with an apartment and renting it out initially, then taking over the space as the family expands. When the kids grow up and the couple finally retires, they can rent it out again for supplemental income. The article illustrates this idea:

Some home buyers just like the flexibility of a home within a home. Jenny Diaz and her husband, Rolando, are planning to move next week from Hialeah to their new home in The Vineyards with their four kids ages 13, 9, 7 and 5.

“It’s perfect for us. You have options of what you are able to do with the space,” said Jenny Diaz, who works in quality assurance at a doctor’s office.

Her family picked The Shiraz, which includes a 600-square-foot suite adjacent to the main home, a three-bedroom, 2 1/2-bath-room, two-story structure.

“It’s a very good way of being with the family,” she added. “I’m going to use the whole house.”

In my own case, an accessory apartment actually made homeownership possible. Having an accessory apartment also has other benefits: it means someone is usually home so break-ins are less likely, it increases eyes on the street, it capitalizes on our grotesquely overbuilt parking infrastructure, etc.

If I had my way, we’d never build another single family home in America without including an accessory apartment. Because homes with accessory apartments can usually still be used as single family homes, buying or building a space without the potential for an apartment is basically throwing away money.

But perhaps the best reason to add accessory apartments is to increase density. As I’ve written previously, Provo badly needs to increase its density even as some good intentions send the city careening in the wrong direction.

The charming bungalow in the foreground of this picture looks like a pretty typical historic home. But because it has an accessory apartment it actually adds twice the density of a ordinary single family dwelling.

The charming bungalow in the foreground of this picture looks like a pretty typical historic home. But because it has an accessory apartment it actually adds twice the density of a ordinary single family dwelling.

Accessory apartments are one way to increase density without fundamentally changing the look and feel of a neighborhood. It’s a soft solution. Homes still look every bit as “homey” and charming, they’re just vastly more efficient and flexible. As a result, it’s my hope that homes with accessory apartments proliferate in Provo.

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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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Provo Needs More Housing Without Parking

In my recent post on converting malls to housing I mentioned the need for more nice-but-affordable housing in Provo. I used loft style housing as my example because that’s popular right now, but really Provo just needs better housing of any kind that is appealing and not geared to either established families or students.

And one really great way to make housing affordable is to cut parking.

As is the case in many cities, it’s standard in Provo to include parking in new development. I recently attended a meeeting about a proposed development in the Joaquin Neighborhood — one of the more walkable places in Utah — that proposed two parking spaces per unit. It’s insanity because parking induces demand for parking.

But even most historic housing in Provo has parking; though there are really old homes here and there that lack garages, they’re the exceptions rather than the rules. The problem, then, is that even people who want to ditch their cars are forced to pay higher housing costs that include parking.

But up in Salt Lake City there are some buildings that don’t include parking. Take this listing, for example:

a condo w/out parking

Screen shot 2013-01-06 at 10.37.06 PMThe link includes additional pictures of this apartment, but really its quite an impressive place. And it has no parking. The result is that the $182,000 price tag buys more home for someone willing to take advantage of the walkable surroundings.

When I asked what people with cars do, I was told that “there’s plenty of parking on the street or you can buy a pass for a city lot.”

Here’s another parking-free listing for a very cheap but very cool place not far from the Gateway and Pioneer Park:

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Note the extremely low price of this condo. There are some financing issues that contribute to that price, but comparably sized apartments with parking in downtown Salt Lake City go for $40,000-$100,000 more.

The point is that a city with aspirations of greatness and walkability needs housing like this. It doesn’t destroy the city, create nightmarish congestion, or generally ruin the world. Indeed it makes the city more diverse and affordable for the professionals and small families who choose these places. In many cases, these places also end up being some of the coolest, most valuable spots in the city.

And as I’ve mentioned before, there’s nothing like this in Provo.

Provo isn’t ready to eliminate all parking and that isn’t a realistic possibility anyway. But it is ready for some housing for people who choose not to drive, or who would rather not have their parking costs rolled into their housing costs. That type of housing is a reality in many other cities and given Provo’s age it’s surprising there isn’t more of it already. But until that changes, Provo will continue to be at a disadvantage in the competition for talent and growth.

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People Actually Want Infill

In a recent post I argued that residential infill is vital to Provo’s success. Implicit in that argument was the fact that at present Provo basically has no residential infill. That’s a huge problem and it must change.

And as it turns out, the EPA report that I cited previously actually presents an economic argument for more infill:

Studies of consumer demand indicate that a growing number of Americans are seeking alternatives to the suburban neighborhoods most commonly associated with late-twentieth century housing construction. National studies conducted in 2006 and 2008 indicate that conventional (large-lot) suburban homes account for only 25 to 30 percent of total demand, with the remainder divided between multifamily buildings, townhomes, and small-lot single-family homes.16 A 2011 survey commissioned by the National Realtors Association found that nearly six in ten adults would prefer to live in a walkable neighborhood with a mix of houses and stores and other businesses nearby.17 The survey also found that six in ten would choose a smaller house and lot if it meant their commute time would be 20 minutes or less.

Many people want to live in denser, more walkable communities. Converting parking lots like this to housing and other uses offers a way to make that a reality.

Many people want to live in denser, more walkable communities. Converting parking lots like this to housing and other uses offers a way to make that a reality.

I’ve had many debates with people about whether the shift away from car-centric neighborhoods and toward stereotypically more “urban” development is real. And of course there will be people who want big homes on big lots for the foreseeable future. Most people, including myself, don’t want to eliminate the choice to live in that kind of environment.

But this report adds to the growing body of hard, statistical evidence that some people do want to be able to choose a different kind of place to live in. Right now that kind of place basically doesn’t exist in Provo, so people who want it go elsewhere.

The idea isn't about destroying more traditional suburbs, it's about taking spaces like this one — which are ugly and underused — and making them habitable. Everybody wins, no matter what their housing and lifestyle preference.

The idea isn’t about destroying more traditional suburbs, it’s about taking spaces like this one — which are ugly and underused — and making them habitable. Everybody wins, no matter what their housing and lifestyle preference.

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