Density as an Answer

It seems that our leader, Jim Bacon, is on the cutting edge of new thinking about how to address the rising cost of housing.  (Of course, this is no surprise to BR readers.)  An article in yesterday’s New York Times describes how planners, economists, and environmentalists across the country have begun to advocate more density.

The target of the critics is detached, single-family residential zoning. “It is illegal on 75 percent of the residential land in many American cities to build anything other than a detached single-family home,” the authors contend. They created maps, included in the article, depicting the residential area within many cities (and some suburbs) that is zoned for detached, single-family residential units. (There are no Virginia localities shown.) There are real contrasts. In New York City and Washington, D.C., only 15 percent and 36 percent, respectively, of the residential land is zoned for detached, single-family homes, whereas in Minneapolis and Charlotte, N.C., the percentages are 70 and 84, respectively. Cities in the western part of the country have even higher percentages restricted to detached, single-family units.

Some areas are taking action. Minneapolis has recently ended detached, single-family zoning; Oregon is considering legislation that would allow options as dense as fourplexes in larger cities and duplexes in smaller cities; and Seattle has upzoned six percent of its single family-zoned land. As expected, there has been strong opposition from homeowners in these areas. In the California legislature, such opposition has stalled a bill that would affect local zoning statewide.

It is remarkable how much effect small changes could make. According to the authors’ analysis, “Over time, if just 5 percent of the largest single-family lots in Minneapolis — lots of at least 5,000 square feet — converted to triplexes, that would create about 6,200 new units of housing, according to UrbanFootprint [a software program]. If 10 percent of similar-sized lots in San Jose, Calif., added a second unit, the city would gain 15,000 new homes.”

It may be time for policymakers in Virginia to begin looking at such changes.  As for me, I am glad I bought my detached house with a yard, small as it is, thirty years ago.

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18 responses to “Density as an Answer

  1. The New York Times story is 40 years out of date. What a laugh!

  2. PLEASE keep state government out of local government zoning decisions.

  3. I have fixed the link to the NYT article. (I don’t think that would affect Reed’s comment.)

  4. I would love to claim credit for being a pioneer on this issue, but I am not. Once upon a time, when the Piedmont Environmental Council sponsored this blog, Bacon’s Rebellion wrote about land use issues extensively, and the pros and cons of density is one of the issues we wrestled with. A former land use planner, Ed Risse, blogged extensively. He used to say that if Fairfax County were redeveloped at Reston densities (hardly an urban dystopia), it would accommodate Northern Virginia’s population and economic growth for the next 40 years.

    • Frankly, the ignorance of the New York Times and its kind is astounding if one has spend decades fighting for a particular issue the Times now addresses. Where have these clowns been for the past 40 years. Aren’t these people paid to see what is going on in front of their nose in the real world. Should not they be empowered to educate the reading public with the news of it every day for decades. What has been happening to America to breed such incompetent and base ignorance?

      I suspect that much of this long term ignorance, and its emergence only now from long and readily observed facts for decades in the form of newly birthed true believers, is one manifestation of the almost total collapse of higher education in the liberal arts in this country. So now, when the ill-educated are ‘woke’ finally, their knowledge and understanding is so shallow, superficial, theoretical, ideological and agenda driven, that they are far more dangerous to us all than before. Hence, the very legitimate concern suggested in Susan Lascolette’s comment above.

      Now too, of course, we see this rampant and gross lack of education and real experience most everywhere in our society. A new Federalist article sheds light on one aspect of this massive public problem brought on by the collapse decent higher education in American for the great majority of its students.

      https://thefederalist.com/2019/06/19/americans-gobble-history-books-colleges-shut-history-departments/

    • How many dues-paying members of the Piedmont Environmental Council live in multifamily housing? It was founded and continues to exist to keep even suburban densities out of “Horse Country.”

      Jim, seriously, contact the PEC and ask my question.

      • I have no problem with the lifestyle and habits of the dues paying members of, and general mission of, the Piedmont Environmental trust. But for them, we likely would have lost much of our precious historic lands, and history, in Northern Virginia, the historic town of Waterford being only one of nearly endless examples. The fact that the Piedmont Trust would oppose a Rosslyn to Ballston solution to the Virginia Piedmont is quite understandable. And it in no way is mutually exclusive to the Trusts support of Smart Growth that is build around the central and critically important idea of dense urban residential products at critical nodes in lieu of stand alone single family lots. This Jim has supported of two decades at least and one I played a roll in getting started four decades ago. The twin sensibilities of the Piedmont Trust, and Smart Growth done right go hand in hand, in my view.

        • Ed Risse and others always said we need more dense places. So let’s triple the density of towns in the Piedmont. Warrenton could be a lot more dense.

          • Reed Fawell 3rd

            There is merit in that, done right. Same for Shenandoah Valley, where there are splendid opportunities if they be done right as well, improving these places dramatically.

  5. I miss Ed Risse but he did take a lot of flak, in part, because he more or less advocated strict govt control of land use.

    The “problem” with development is not the cost of the house but the cost of the infrastructure to serve that house – primarily transportation and if you ask folks in NoVa and it’s satellite exurbs if they want to see more development, more density – they will tell you in no uncertain terms that the transportation network in NoVa is maxed and cannot take “more development”.

    Anyone reading this who has taken a car trip to NoVa anytime recently will, I strongly suspect, agree that NoVa is a full-bore transportation hell-hole.

    So sure, make it more dense – remember, in Virginia, ANY developer CAN make ANY proposal to the local governance and they are free to approve it if they like it. It does not matter what the base zoning is – it can be re-zoned and more often than not – IS – in the exurbs like Fredericksburg and Stafford. Great swaths of rural land has been converted to fairly dense single-family detached subdivisions – on the order of 3-4 units per acre with denser townhouse type zoning that is nearer to water/sewer and major roads.

    So here’s the problem. Whether you build more homes in NoVa or in Stafford – the net result is more cars on NoVa roads and more cars on I-95.

    So I put this question to the folks who say that NoVa could have more density but the government “restricts” it. What exactly would you do about the transportation network – to accommodate more cars.

    And NO FAIR pointing to METRO – if you are the same guy who hammers METRO for being a failed system!

    What exactly is YOUR solution?

    I doubt seriously that you can build more major road. Maybe one more bridge over the Potomac – maybe a few more lanes on the beltway in some locations… but you’re really not going to add region-wide capacity and even if you did – the roads that connect would be gridlocked.

    Clearly though – there are more dense places in the US – NYC, Chicago, Houston, Atlanta, LA. Have any of them solved the “density” puzzle?

  6. Same here – 1200 square foot and enough yard to grow veggies in to pitch in for the food banks.

  7. Most City Planners know and will tell you that zoning laws drive everything. Much thought and planning and consensus and buy-in go into changing and updating these laws. These changes are necessary to drive the desired Smart Growth Design principles (i.e. denser housing) into City/Regional planning.

    • Jim, you have just said it all in a nutshell, zoning laws drive everything in America. That is why Tyson’s Corner is startlingly different from Charleston, or Clarendon. Why Bozeman, Montana is so startlingly different from Aspen, Colorado.

      But I wish this were always true – “Much thought and planning and consensus and buy-in go into changing and updating these laws.”

    • You have to get all the stakeholders together at the table and make sure everyone’s voice and vote is heard and counted respectfully. The early days of this type of process can get ugly but soon the parties realize they must work together.

      After years of strife, once the residents of Tysons and neighboring communities got invited to the table, consensus positions were reached and, since the Plan was adopted in 2010, the fights have been small in size. Virtually everyone, except the Clementes (the View), work within the Plan. Of course, there is some pushing at the edges but no wholesale attack on the Plan’s basics. The level of certainty is much higher for Tysons developers than if they can pushed through a totally unreasonable Plan.

  8. Zoning in our Fredericksburg area is a negotiating tool between planner and developer. It does not “restrict” affordable housing – actually the contrary. Read on.

    The base by-right zoning is a starting point for negotiations and it does not “restrict” development – it just requires development to account for and mitigate it’s impacts. Great swaths of the Fredericksburg Area including the counties of Spotsylvania and Stafford have been massively rezoned from low density to higher densities and indeed the resulting homes are “affordable” as heck – Folks come in great numbers from NoVa to find their “affordable” home in our region!

    We have grown from 100,000 to over 300,000 in 30 years or so.

    So those mythical “restrictions” that prevent affordable housing – just not true in our area. This is where NoVa workers come for affordable housing.

    Now, I-95 from our area to NoVa is a gawd awful mess from the commuters but I really don’t see how making NoVa “more dense” is any better – that density up there will also generate auto trips and all those cars on the beltway – they could be from NoVa or Fredericksburg!

    But folks who want the kind of “affordable” single family detached housing found in the Fredericksburg region are not going to find it in NoVa and it’s not because of “zoning restrictions” – it’s simply because undeveloped land is scarce and very expensive. It’s not bad government regulation.

  9. re: different places do zoning differently.

    A couple of things.

    If we think there are good and bad zoning practices – why not compare and contrast the different places as opposed to continually point out the bad practices only? If there are places with good zoning practices, we should point them out and advocate for others to follow that lead!

    One commenter said that the State should NOT dictate zoning practices.

    If you talk to developers – over and over they cite the uncertainty of zoning policies between jurisdictions. Each one has it’s own approach and both local developers and developers of chain businesses spend money and hours trying to follow each local recipe.

    And – as has been said – some of them are BAD.

    Let me give a clear example.

    What if localities could dictate street design instead of VDOT controlling it. Do you think it would be better if VDOT just let each
    locality do roads according to how they want to?

    I-495 would be different for each segment in a different locality?

    Is a standard and uniformity imposed by government higher up than the locality a good or bad thing?

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