Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Density Discussion

Over the next few weeks and months Sarasota will be discussing density. This will happen as the proposed "density bonus" comprehensive plan change winds its way through the public process.

An instructive essay on density and pedestrian friendly cities is given below. It is from a book City Comforts by David Sucher.

Density is a by-product of creating interesting places.

There is almost universal fear of the deleterious impacts of urban sprawl, and much hope for what is perceived as its opposite: urban villages. The urban village implies "densification", more people in a given area. But the word "densification" lacks poetic, much less political appeal. Certainly zoning changes to allow higher residential density are a necessary component of any central city or urban village strategy.

But allowing higher densities is only a precursor and it can put the cart before the horse. Discussions of density often implicitly assume that people must be cajoled into higher-density housing. Though there is an element of truth to that, the cajoling must take place in the form of creating great neighborhoods.

People are more than willing to live in high density if the amenity value of the surrounding environment is also great. Condos and apartments on the waterfront attract people. So do views. People will clamor to live in an interesting, walkable, human-scaled neighborhood.

One of the tradeoffs (and benefits) of purchasing in a multifamily structure in a dense neighborhood should be that one can walk safely and in comfort to stores, restaurants, theaters, and so forth along pleasant public sidewalks. Such pedestrian friendly environments are called for by the public policy of many jurisdictions, but are lagging in actually creating them. Moreover, and even troubling, we seem to be incapable of managing the public spaces of the pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods that already exist.

A decline in the quality of life in higher-density neighborhoods exacerbates the preference for the single-family home. The detached dwelling offers the home buyer the opportunity to create a private zone of comfort. Even if the public space of the immediate block or neighborhood declines, the home owner has his lot on which to buffer the world.

The buyer in a multifamily environment must deal with high "transaction costs" of condo association decision-making: many committees and rules. There is limited opportunity to enrich the environment because the open space of most multi-family structures is limited and held in common.

Multifamily dwellers are thus forced to take on the task of improving their neighborhood environment in the public space of the sidewalks and streets. They are ill equipped for this task and face enormous institutional resistance from municipal bureaucracies, most of which are still rooted in the task of moving automobiles. It is not uncommon for 50% of an American city's land area to be in the public right-of-way, but most of that is devoted to cars. But in that public space is the greatest possibility of small (and relatively inexpensive) improvements that can increase neighborhood comfort. These small city comforts have potential to benefit a neighborhood well beyond their cost. But they are difficult for home owners to carry out.

Over the past 20 years, and in general the rate of increase in value of multifamily condos has lagged the behind the single-family houses. It seems that people are aware that they will have less control over their neighborhood. Since the basic lesson of home buying is to "buy the neighborhood," this is a bad portent for the future of sustainable cities in which multifamily housing is to play a large part.

The way to densification is indirect. It is to propel local government (or allow private property owners the ability) to create public environments that can compete in quality of life with what one finds in single-family neighborhoods.

There are some interesting thoughts here. Things we should remember as we go down the road to possible density increases in downtown and the surrounding edges. We need to be particularly careful of increasing the density on the east side of Payne Park. This is not within walking distance to the heart of downtown (Five Points area) and there are few amenities and no pedestrian friendly walkable urban areas anywhere close.

There is also the issue of infrastructure. Where are all the cars going to go? If we increase density, people will still want their cars (we have no effective public transportation) and our sewer system is failing. High density and high car usage in urban centers makes no sense. It is a recipe for disaster.

Think about the quality of life along the first block of Fruitville. Cars zooming by within 4-5 feet of the front stoop. Is this walkable or pedestrian friendly? There are no amenities. Added density did not make it pedestrian friendly.

We have put the cart before the horse in some instances. We need to be careful not to repeat these errors.


Anonymous said...

You have such consistently interesting and pertinent posts on this blog. Thank you so much.

Joe Moraca said...

City Comforts is one of my favorite books.

I can see Payne Park becoming a very nice walking / biking area. The park itself will be very walkable --- we can hope 301 just a few blocks away will also become more of a destination.

It certainly is a chicken and egg thing we won't have good transit without the density to make it work ...