Posted on the Boston Forum:
The New Urban Village
By David Dixon | May 6, 2005
AMERICA'S urban neighborhoods are poised for an unprecedented renaissance. Housing demand has shifted to a pattern that favors urban neighborhoods to an extent not witnessed in 60 years. Following decades during which baby boomer families dominated the US housing market and headed for the suburbs, America has become, in the words of the Urban Land Institute, ''a nation of niches." Many of these niche markets favor urban neighborhoods.
A recent study for a planned new urban neighborhood in Baltimore illustrates the power and potential of this historic market shift: Demand is far stronger than it has been in six decades; the market includes people who are young and old, single and married, gay and straight, white and black, with and without children; and these people seek everything from large single-family houses to midrise lofts and apartments. Most important, these diverse households want to share the same neighborhood -- a 21st-century urban village.
Baltimore, Boston, and almost every other major American city have the opportunity to tap these emerging markets to create a new generation of urban living with lively main streets, higher densities that mix many different types of housing, greater economic and social diversity, new parks, reinvigorated schools, and other qualities that will make cities like Boston more livable.
If we build it, they will come. But the answer is not to keep rebuilding the neighborhoods of the past. Along with most of urban America, Boston's traditional neighborhoods were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for largely homogeneous households that shared not only the same economic standing, but similar ages, household sizes, and even ethnic backgrounds. That era is over; but is Boston ready to build the kinds of higher-density, amenity-rich housing necessary to create a diverse new urban model?
In a city of tightly knit, often historic neighborhoods, where can we fit this new development? The answer sits right in front of us in places like Boylston Street in the Fenway, where midrise housing with street-level retail is replacing fast food restaurants. We may also benefit from looking at changing neighborhoods in cities like Seattle, Vancouver, and Chicago. While more than 50 percent of Seattle's housing still consists of single-family homes, more than 90 percent of building permits in recent years have been for five- to 10-story midrise lofts and apartment buildings with shops, restaurants, and art galleries on the first floor that have replaced parking lots, strip shopping centers, and other suburban forms that had crept into urban neighborhoods. Early opposition dissipated as residents saw that the new housing didn't diminish the character of traditional blocks but brought new vitality to commercial districts, schools, and parks.
Boston is riddled with the same kinds of underused suburban-style sites left over from the city's period of economic decline. These sites constitute a frontier upon which to build a 21st-century city that complements historic Boston. A walk along Talbot Avenue in Dorchester tells wonderful stories about the Boston of the late 19th and early 20th centuries -- of ambitious immigrants who came to Boston, found jobs, educated children, and contributed to building the proud city that we love today.
Yet a few blocks away, the Fields Corner shopping center tells a very different story: a vast expanse of surface parking surrounding single-story retail. One block further away is a vacant field. Miles of Dorchester Avenue are lined with single story strip retail fronted by asphalt parking lots. In Jamaica Plain, elegant Victorian houses sit within view of a large MBTA site that will soon become vacant. The historic rowhouses of the South End and Back Bay contrast with the empty gash created by the Massachusetts Turnpike air rights. All of these sites are served by public transit. This same story can be told in virtually every urban neighborhood in this region.
On the same forum, a response from a developer:
ZONING. Why does nobody mention this? Dixon advocates for a dense urban village, but under current zoning such a village is impossible to build. I have thoroughly researched and tried to acquire the Fields Corner shopping center that Dixon refers to. It has an FAR of less than 1. Density requires smaller lot zoning and higher Floor Area Ratio codes. This problem exists throughout the Boston area. Earlier this week I was looking for smaller development parcels in East Cambridge. It's a wonderful neighborhood on the threshold of a renaissance.
But under the current zoning code one cannot build the type of small lot, rowhouses that predominate in the area. In that neighborhood the requirements are especially ridiculous- FAR of less than one and the lot size must be greater than 5,000 square feet- or 50 by 100 feet. A typical townhouse is between fifteen and twenty feet wide and sixty feet deep. In essence, the zoning code is about 1/3 as dense as it ought to be.
The solution is pretty simple. We will get more housing, more vital neighborhoods and lower housing costs if we reform the zoning code to allow for density. And we need to steamroll over the bloody neighborhood groups to get it done. PROCESS is killing development. Look at the Boston State Hospital site- twenty years of process and planning and the moronic neighborhood groups and task forces devise a plan fit for any sunbelt subdivision. A healthy dose of authoritarianism would go a long way these days.
I don’t know why on this forum there’s such hot denial of this plain fact every time I allude to it. Do planners live in la-la land, oblivious to the harm that emanates from most zoning codes?
I encounter every day in my work the reality that zoning laws require, mandate, insist upon, the maintenance of suburban patterns of development, whether they’re appropriate to the context or not, whether they promote growth or stagnation. Particularly prone to the harmful ministrations of suburban zoning are damaged, formerly urban areas on the fringe of inner cities (like Fields Corner): the very places for which we hear endless calls for New Urbanist redevelopment (“...instead of all that Greenfield stuff; how’s that really better than more Suburbia?” Sound familiar?). Such calls fall hollow on the ear without accompanying demands for zoning reform.
Sorry folks, the reason it isn’t being done is quite simply that it’s illegal under the existing zoning.
But it's the developers... Nonsense! It’s disingenuous posturing to blame developers. Developers will build under any set of rules they’re given. If you give them good rules, they’ll build better projects; if you continue to give them the same ****ty rules, you can’t blame them for building crap.
Fortunately, the worm has turned, and it did so just this year; I’m involved in no fewer than five (count ‘em) largish urban design projects in each of which the authorities have thrown in the towel at the highest level on trying to keep conventional zoning as the determinant of what's built. Yesterday I was told point blank by a city’s top planning official: “Never mind what the zoning is; show us something that we like and we’ll approve it.” Music to my ears.
That’s how it should have been all along. What a liberation that the fresh wind of change is blowing! There’s hope for cities again. The wonder is that any one could ever have believed in the voodoo of zoning: making general and specific rules for places unseen, regardless of their specific circumstances. And what abysmal rules!
The four other projects I’m also doing without any regard for the existing zoning that has kept these areas down –in four different states-- lo these many years. I expect them all to be approved.
Planning Departments are finally beginning to wake up and do what they should have done all along: use their judgment.
I’d a thousand times rather be subject to a planner’s personal convictions than to the mindless formulas enshrined in the zoning that he or she might have last year felt duty-bound to uphold.
There’s a new order in the land. Halleluiah. May it enjoy long life or better still, immortality.