Tag Archives: salt lake city

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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An Update, Or, This Is Now The View Out My Window

DSCN9611

The picture above is a view out my current window. So, I have officially moved to Salt Lake City. (If you’re interested, read this earlier post where I explain my new job, which is what precipitated the move.)

It is with difficulty that I write this because, as I’ve written before, I love Provo and consider it my semi-adopted hometown (I was born in Provo but grew up in LA). However, the commute was killing me and I can’t very well write about the evils of driving a lot without practicing what I preach. One of Laura’s and my goals is also to reduce our overall driving and moving allowed us to do that; I now commute on foot to work and only drive when going on assignments and Laura commutes via Frontrunner, bus and bike.

As I wrote earlier, Laura and I hope to come back to Provo to live. In the meantime we’ve been in Provo at least once a week because most of our friends and family are still there. In other words, you’re only slightly less likely to see us on the streets than you were before.

So, you might ask, what does all of this mean for this blog?

For starters, I’m planning to do some sort of relaunch in the near future in which this blog becomes a more pan-Wasatch Front urbanism site. I’ll still write about Provo because I like it, know more about it that other places, and because I think Provo is where most of the exiting developments in Utah are happening.

But I’ll also write about other cities along the Wasatch Front. In reality, I already do that so not much will change, except that maybe I won’t tie everything thought back into Provo’s Center Street, the Joaquin neighborhood, or whatever else. So in terms of content, much of the blog will stay the same.

I’m not totally sure when the relaunch will happen; I have a bunch of posts in the queue right now that I want to publish before doing it and I haven’t settled on exactly how the re-imagined blog will work. But it’s coming and I thought it was only fair to mention it.

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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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Streets Are Like Sentences, Or, Making Walking Less Annoying

Walkability is about more than safe, interesting streets lined with potential destinations — though those things are extremely important. It’s also about eliminating the little pressure points that annoy people and make them wish they weren’t walking in the first place. In other words, much like sentences, streets need to be “edited” not just for big things but for the little problems as well.

I’ll try to touch on various little pedestrian problems in the future, but for now note the cross walk buttons in the picture below. For some reason, one of them has been placed in an illogical and difficult-to-find spot.

A crosswalk in Salt Lake City.

A crosswalk in Salt Lake City, looking west.

In the picture above, the green arrow points to the East-West crosswalk.

But bafflingly, the button to trigger the signal for that crosswalk is located on the poll near the North-South crosswalk. It’s marked by the red arrow and is a good 20 feet from the crosswalk it serves.

The button may have been installed on that distant post to save money — though Provo has installed separate posts in some places that’s clearly more expensive — but that still doesn’t explain why it faces North, away from the correct crosswalk.

The same intersection, looking north.

The same intersection, looking north.

The picture above further illustrates the problem: one crosswalk button, marked by the red arrow, is easy to find. The other button, however, is on the other side of the pole (north) and almost as far from the crosswalk it serves — marked by a green arrow — as it can be. Just putting it on the side of the pole facing the photo (south) would have been a huge improvement.

These sorts of things are like typos; people don’t stop moving when they hit them but they do momentarily slow down. And the problem is particularly bad in Utah, where large streets create huge street corners; when I walked up to this intersection it took me at least three times as long to find the button as it would have at a better-designed spot. It was a brief pressure point that didn’t need to exist.

People won’t give up walking as a result of little errors like this. But they will be annoyed, if only subtly. And that’s unfortunate because the emotional memory they’ll have from walking will be negative.

The point is that a good street should be like most forms of good writing: it should blend into the background and let the user flow from one point to the next. Exceptional beauty can stand out, but both writing and city design fail when the mechanics become clunky and slow or when they call too much attention to themselves.

Finally, note how in these pictures there aren’t actually many people on the street; that’s the best evidence of all that the design of this street isn’t working. With better “editing,” streets like these should become more lively and pleasurable to use.

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Parking Structures Don’t Have to be Hideous

Just a quick post today about parking. I’m sure we’ve all see parking structures that looked like huge concrete boxes. They’re boring at best and spatial black holes at worst.

But over the weekend I was up at the University of Utah Hospital and saw the structure in the picture below. As a parking structure, it’s still an under performing piece of real estate.

But it’s also not bad looking. It just goes to show that as is the case with other kinds of buildings, parking structures can be well-designed or not.

20130122-092911.jpg

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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:

Screen shot 2013-01-16 at 7.37.00 PM

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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Build Neighborhoods Out of Malls

Malls in Utah County and everywhere else are struggling. If this is news to you trying reading this article that has some background and history, or click here, here, or here for recent posts on the subject.

The now-vacant Nordstrom space in Orem.

The now-vacant Nordstrom space in Orem.

Or just go to a mall. Trolley Square is in serious financial trouble, two thirds of the anchor spaces in the University Mall are empty, and rumors indicate that the Towne Center Mall is about to lose the Gap.

Like many cities, Provo doesn’t seem to have grasped the enormity of this problem; the question isn’t “how can we save the mall?” it’s “what can we do in the not-too-distant future when we are required to move to Plan B?”

I believe the best answer — at least along the rapidly growing Wasatch Front — is to turn malls into neighborhoods.

This idea likely would involve two components: 1) repurposing existing mall infrastructure for housing, etc., and 2) building new (mostly residential) structures in underused mall parking lots.

Repurposing existing mall structures is the most exciting part of this concept. Basically, former retail spaces could be carved up into condos or apartments. Anything would be possible, though a natural outcome would be semi-industrial feeling units — cement floors, exposed ducts, concrete pillars, etc. This type of housing doesn’t appeal to everyone, but it basically doesn’t exist in cities like Provo.

This is a loft in Salt Lake City that was convert from an old warehouse. It's small, and therefore relatively affordable, but costs a lot per square foot. Provo has nothing like this.

This is a loft in Salt Lake City that was converted from an old factory. It’s small, and therefore relatively affordable, but costs a lot per square foot. Provo has nothing like this but could easily use it’s mall spaces to cater to a similar niche.

In other words, converted mall spaces are the warehouse lofts of tomorrow. Even up in Salt Lake City converted warehouses are popular and command high prices per square foot of real estate. For example, listings here, here, here, and here are all unlike anything in Provo right now. This listing is a new building that’s even trying to copy the aesthetic of a converted warehouse.

Aesthetics aside, this type of development provides the opportunity to create big multi-unit buildings at a fraction of the cost. And because the units can vary in size, they can also remain affordable. Right now, Provo basically loses anyone looking for housing in the nice-but-affordable multi-unit market.

The second part of this concept would involve building more housing — as well as other things like schools, libraries, parks, etc. — where mall parking currently exists.

The advantages of this plan are that the land is open, already surrounded by infrastructure, and privately owned. It would take a horrible space and make it desirable and profitable at a fraction of the cost that similar projects require. And if the owners were on board, it would combine the best aspects of both infill and new development.

And there’s a massive amount of space:

Provo's Towne Center Mall, surrounded by staggering parking lots.

Provo’s Towne Center Mall, surrounded by staggering parking lots.

At the Provo Towne Center Mall much of the existing parking already goes unused so there’s no reason this part of the plan couldn’t beginning immediately. It’d almost certainly help the mall by adding customers. The development could be single family homes, apartments, condos, etc. The point is that there’s room for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of residences in this space.

There are an infinite number of possible configurations, but take a look at the pictures of the Towne Center’s north side:

Sears and a parking lot in Provo.

Sears and a parking lot in Provo.

Now imagine if front doors were cut out of the Sears wall for condos, essentially turning it into row housing. On the right side of the picture, where there are cars, there could be more row homes, cottages, or tall buildings. I’d favor something that created a pleasant street wall, but regardless it only takes a little bit of imagination to see this as an incredibly vibrant neighborhood. It’d be a narrow little street filled with families. And it’d make a developer rich.

Here’s another picture:

The same spot from a different angle.

The same spot from a different angle.

In the picture above, imagine homes lining the left side of the street. And again, the great thing about this idea is that much of the infrastructure already exists. It’d be like getting a City Creek (with a bit of Daybreak) in Provo that was far cooler and vastly cheaper. It could be done in a way that incorporated some of the mall’s current function as a retail center, or the entire site could be reimagined. There’d be ample space — perhaps the first floor of the Sears that faces east — for a grocery store like Harmon’s.

This idea really coalesced for me after I wrote a series on building houses in the street. People liked the idea, but thought it’d be tough to overcome the political and physical obstacles. Malls spaces don’t fix existing streets, but they are open, underperforming and not ruled by existing infrastructure or NIMBY problems.

In fact, if cities can make something like this work malls may become major assets, much like old factories and warehouses turned out to be beneficial to post-industrial cities.

Variations of this idea already exist. The Atlantic Cities recently mentioned one, and City Creek and The Gateway also probably both fit the bill.

But all of those projects are firmly grounded in a mall mentality and frankly I wouldn’t reside in any of them. Provo and cities like it, on the other hand, have an incredible opportunity to treat their malls as exercises in adaptive reuse. And in the end if we do nothing that’s exactly what we’ll have in place of our malls: nothing.

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