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Mid-Range Density

December 6, 2013

When Bob and Jane Greenberg moved from Vermont to the Seattle area to be closer to their children and grandchildren, a 1,000-square-foot cottage turned out to be the ideal solution to their housing needs.

After living in a bigger house on a large tract of land outside Seattle and a small transitional apartment in the city, the Greenbergs bought a home at Ericksen Cottages, an 11-unit community on Bainbridge Island west of Seattle. The Bainbridge Island website describes it as a “vibrant, diverse community — rich in history, culture, and natural beauty.”

“I think what we liked was that there were separate houses, but it had very much a neighborhood feeling,” Bob Greenberg said. “You could walk to town. You could walk to the ferry. You could get by with one car.”

Added Jane, “I think one of the things that really attracted us is the gardens. When we look out our window we look at another house, but we also look at beautiful gardens. Some are communal and then each house has their own space where they can do what they want within reason.”

The Greenbergs grow pears which Bob described as the “size of small melons.” Ericksen Cottages exemplify a type of compact, mid-range density housing choice seen by advocates as vitally important to the future needs of the housing market. The design was inspired by the walkability of urban settings and a recreation of housing choices that were common before World War II. After the war, when zoning came into play, those home choices either disappeared or became dilapidated as developers rushed to build bigger houses on bigger lots in sprawling suburbs.

Architects, planners, developers, academics and others, many with New Urbanist backgrounds, are urging the market to focus on more modestly sized housing choices, many in multi-family buildings, on medium-density, single-family locations within walking distance of town centers.

They say the buyers for this type of housing are typically downsizing Baby Boomer retirees and Millennials, or often single women, buying their first homes. The Greenbergs are slightly older than the first wave of Boomers but otherwise fit the profile.

Daniel Parolek, a New Urbanist architect in Berkeley, Calif., speaks frequently about his vision to provide a greater variety of housing choices in walkable urban contexts between the spectrum of single-family homes and apartment buildings, which he calls “Missing Middle Housing.”

“There’s a convergence of the demand created by Baby Boomers who are moving back, not just into city centers but into surrounding single-family neighborhoods, and the Millennials who want walkable urban living,” Parolek said. “The demand is just going to continue to grow.”

Parolek advocates building combinations of duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, cottage & bungalow courts, townhouses, live/work units, mansion flats and courtyard apartments to provide the housing that’s missing.

Advocates of modestly sized homes built in medium-density locations say the most desirable locations are walkable neighborhoods close to urban amenities. That does not mean, however, in dense urban centers such as downtown Seattle.

“These housing types need to be within a walkable urban context,” Parolek said. “Really what people are trading is size for amenities that are typical in a walkable, urban context and sometimes higher quality.”

“What I tell anybody who is looking for a house is, ‘Locate the grocery store first and then buy a home close by, especially if you want to live a walkable lifestyle,’” he said.

Linda Pruitt is a Seattle developer, whose The Cottage Company developed Ericksen Cottages on Bainbridge Island plus seven other cottage communities north, east and west of downtown Seattle.

“I find in my development work my primary buyers are empty nester Boomers who are selling the big house, the big lot, the kids are grown and gone, and they’re looking for more lifestyle freedom,” Pruitt said.

“The first question my buyers ask me is what can I walk to, but they don’t want to live in an intense downtown urban setting, they don’t want to live in a condo,” she said. “They want to live in a single-family neighborhood in a single-family experience.”

The Greenbergs live a short walk from the center of Winslow, a hub of activity on Bainbridge Island, a popular, affluent Seattle suburban city. Bob said it’s an easy walk from their cottage to a supermarket, drug store, several good restaurants, a medical clinic, boutiques for shopping, the ferry to downtown Seattle and other amenities.

“It’s a much more simplified lifestyle than what we had before,” he said.

Another feature of the communities advocated by Parolek is reducing dependence on automobiles, which have dominated planning for development in suburbs and other areas for decades. In the multi-family buildings he advocates, Parolek says residents should be limited to one off-street parking place.

Pruitt said, “It isn’t that the Boomers want to live downtown, it’s that they don’t want to be isolated in the suburbs in their single-family home where they have to enter and exit through a garage door and have to get into a car to get a quart of milk. They are tired of an auto-dependent, isolated lifestyle and a closer-in neighborhood, connection to neighbors in a community with walkable amenities nearby is a better lifestyle for them.”

The Cottage Company’s homes face toward common areas beautified with gardens and walkways — not driveways and streets. Cottages each have a nearby one-car secure garage, with additional parking located on the perimeter of the garden court.

George Ford, who lives with his wife, Nancy Snell, in Conover Commons, a community developed by The Cottage Company in Kirkland, Wash., said residents there park in inconspicuous covered garages on the perimeter of the property.

Instead of walking from their garages directly into their houses, Ford said, Conover Commons residents exchange greetings with neighbors sitting on their front porches when they walk between their cars and houses. That makes for a warm, friendly community where people really get to know their neighbors, he said.

The convergence of Baby Boomers and Millennials in mid-range housing raises the possibility of parents and a child buying homes in the same or nearby community.

Lydia Lee, who lives at Conover Commons, said she and her husband, Alex, bought a cottage for her active, 70-something mother in a nearby cottage community to make her life easier. Lee is a stay-at-home-mom who is raising two adopted children in a 2,200-square foot cottage.

At 53, she jokes that she’s a Baby Boomer living a Millennial lifestyle.

Parolek said extensive research of housing demand by others shows that a minimum of 20 percent of potential buyers in any market want to live in walkable urban neighborhoods, but the market is substantially short of meeting the demand.

“In almost any city, 10 percent or less of the housing on the market is in a walkable urban context,” he said.

Boomers and Millennials are major factors in reshaping the demand for new kinds of housing, but the market will also be driven in coming years, the experts say, by a growing number of single-person households, now almost 30 percent of the market in most areas.

“That in and of itself could make this smaller, more urban housing type in higher demand,” Parolek said.

Many of the single homebuyers are young professional women — Millennials — who are highly educated, have good jobs and make good money. Others, in some areas, are widows eager to rebuild their lives in smaller, low-maintenance homes in welcoming communities.

Bob Turner, who is developing Habersham, a New Urbanist community near Beaufort, S.C, said his community has become a significant “widow’s market.”

Habersham is a waterfront community known for its Southern coastal ambiance, Spanish moss-draped oak trees and a historic style of architecture that gives the Carolina Low Country its special charm. The town plan was designed by Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co., the Miami architects who were among the founders of New Urbanism.

Turner said Habersham features stacked duplexes in two-story units with an elevator to the second floor that are ideal for widows. He said the units are located on small lots with a courtyard in back.

Habersham features many of the housing types advocated by Parolek, including cottages, granny flats, townhouses, live/work lofts and mansion flats — multifamily homes that look like mansions, but are divided into three or four apartments.

“There’s a social side of having people from different age groups and different income levels live in the same place,” Turner said. “They’re not buying it because it’s affordable, they’re buying it because it’s all they want. A lot of buyers are saying, ‘We don’t want big lots, we don’t want big houses, we want to simplify our lives.’”

After the Mississippi Gulf Coast was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, New Urbanists working on the recovery developed plans to build small, easy-to-assemble cottages as better substitutes for FEMA trailers. They learned there was a much stronger demand for their cottages than they had anticipated.

“We approached it initially as disaster recovery and just had our head to the ground,” said Bruce Tolar, an Ocean Springs, Mississippi architect. “What we found from that was that the next disaster was the housing bubble burst and then the economy went in the tank; next thing you know we’re building right-sized housing. We found we really fit in well with the lease and rental demands that were coming out of it.”

Tolar has been involved in developing cottage communities on infill lots in Ocean Springs and nearby Pass Christian, both in walking distance of downtown. He liked the concept so much that he moved his office into a 1,324-square-foot cottage at Cottage Square in Ocean Springs.

The size of the housing units advocated by Parolek vary considerably. The first unit in Mississippi was a tiny, 225 square feet. For units in traditional Missing Middle buildings, “I would say 1,200 square feet tends to be the upper threshold but many are much smaller but highly desirable,” Parolek said.

Cottages in Pruitt’s Cottage Company communities run up to 2,500 square feet.

Prices range from about $200,000 for smaller units at Habersham to $735,000 for a 2,475-square-foot, four-bedroom home in one of Pruitt’s communities just a few miles from Microsoft’s world headquarters.

To make the smaller is better theme work, Parolek and Pruitt agreed, builders must pay attention to detail, making sure to get the most out of every square foot of space. Quality is one of the major selling points in mid-range density developments, they said.

“You just have to get really creative with the floor plans,” Parolek said. “You have to have built-ins, a smaller kitchen, probably a shared dining/living room space. You can get quite a bit into 650 square feet if it’s designed well.”

The Greenbergs said their home is full of built-ins and they have plenty of room for nearly everything they need. “Although they’re small, they live big,” Bob said.

The only exception is the dining table, which seats just four people. No problem, though Jane said, when their children and grandchildren come for the holidays they eat their meals in the community’s shared Commons building.

So how is the U.S. housing market doing at meeting the demand for smaller, mid-range density units? “Very poorly,” said Parolek, placing the blame on years of misguided, counterproductive housing policies.

“There are a lot of different obstacles in place, and it starts with zoning codes that either don’t encourage or else discourage this housing type,” he said. “That’s why we promote form-based coding because it promotes this range of housing types.”

Parolek said form-based codes are “taking off. It’s being done all across the country. It’s growing very rapidly, but it needs to be growing even quicker to meet the growing demand.”

Parolek has been a consultant to a number of cities that have adopted versions of form-based codes, including Flagstaff, Ariz., and Cincinnati, Ohio. In November 2011, Flagstaff adopted a form-based code designed to preserve historic buildings and promote smart development of two older neighborhoods in walking distance of downtown. Historic Route 66 runs through the area.

“While we haven’t had any big projects coming through yet under the new code, we have had tremendous interest,” said Roger Eastman, Flagstaff zoning code director.

“There was a real potential of those historic structures being torn down and much bigger out-of-scale structures being put in their place,” he said. “This code ensures that doesn’t happen.”

A “cool little project” next to the Northern Arizona University campus near downtown Flagstaff on South San Francisco Street was planned before the form-based code took effect, but is exactly what city officials had in mind when they adopted the code, Eastman said.

He said the three-story building features 9,000 square feet of office and retail space on the first floor, with 24 two- and three-bedroom apartments on the second and third floors. The project is located in the flood plain of a drainage ditch, so the developers raised the first floor four feet above natural elevation and put parking underground.

While it wasn’t approved as a form-based code project, it really is one in its form, design and function,” Eastman said. “We look forward to having this built.”