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Thread: Mixed-use densities

  1. #1
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    Mixed-use densities

    I am working on a mixed use project. It consists of 36,000 sf of commercial and 22 dwelling units. There is a great deal of opposition to the amount of density (mostly over fear of apartments). The opponents managed to sway the Planning Commission to recommend 12 units. Staff supports the 22. My question is - it would be helpful to point to some case studies or formulas that show how much density is required to make mixed use work. Any ideas?

  2. #2
    Cyburbian transguy's avatar
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    I'm not sure if case studies would help, or if you would find a large difference in 12 and 22 dwelling units. Instead, I would be trying to find out what the difference (in the public and ultimately the final decision makers opinion) in 12 and 22 dwelling units is. In other words, why are 12 reasonable and 22 unreasonable? Is traffic the cited concern? Not sure if you're in a "sue happy" area, but I would highly recommend that the decision to limit the development from 22 to 12 dwelling units be based on some reason supported by your Staff (e.g. the amount of traffic that would be generated, availability of other infrastructure, and so on). The last thing that you want is to be taken to court trying to defend an arbitrary decision that was made without supporting data.
    Much work remains to be done before we can announce our total failure to make any progress.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian Cardinal's avatar
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    What density makes mixed use work? The answer varies depending on how you are asking the question.

    1) Will the project perform financially? Often the developer will need to achieve a minimum number of units to make the project viable. In some instances this is because of the high costs of land and construction. In other cases - often small towns - the problem is that the commercial space will not support a rent that is high enough to cover costs. It is the rental income from the apartments that makes the project cash flow.

    2) Are there enough households in the area to support the commercial component of a mixed use neighborhood? Yeah, we all fantasize about first floor retail with housing above, but it takes a good-sized trade area population to support those businesses. Many of the communities I work with have this idea that all they need to do is convert those unused second floors to apartments and all those new customers will support a vibrant downtown. Sorry, but adding fifty, or a hundred, or a couple hundred units will change very little.

    Your community needs to decide why it is supporting mixed use. Is it merely to have a certain look and to create a minimal amount of 24-hour activity? Or is it to create a population base to support a business district? If it is the first, then you can get away with a smaller number of units. If you hope to support a business district, you better be adding hundreds, if not thousands of new units.
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  4. #4
    moderator in moderation Suburb Repairman's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Cardinal View post
    Your community needs to decide why it is supporting mixed use. Is it merely to have a certain look and to create a minimal amount of 24-hour activity? Or is it to create a population base to support a business district? If it is the first, then you can get away with a smaller number of units. If you hope to support a business district, you better be adding hundreds, if not thousands of new units.
    We confronted this with our Downtown Master Plan and went with supporting a business district. We haven't even adopted the damn thing yet and we've got a project at 95 units/acre proposed, which will add about 250 units to our downtown.

    Link to our Downtown Master Plan
    I think the fiscal analysis and downtown market analysis will have useful information for you in defending your staff recommendation, at least from an economics point of view.

    "Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."

    - Herman Göring at the Nuremburg trials (thoughts on democracy)

  5. #5
    No amount of density will make commercial work by itself. All retail needs a bigger market than can be supplied by a large surrounding area. To predicate the survival of the stores on the units in the development (unless the development is thousands of units), will lead to failure.

  6. #6
    Cyburbian
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    Cardinal as usual knows what he is talking about. The big picture question needs to be addressed first--will the community embrace the ideal of mixed-use. Really, the individual project is meaningless in terms of some impact. 36K s f and 22 units will not create some central node of activity, but it could be a start.

    Careful about allowing arbitrary discussion of density. 12 is good but 22 not so good? In the current marketplace I imagine the developers pro forma is pretty tight. So a significant reduction like this will kill the project. Hell, I am suprised he can find a bank to lend him money at this point.

  7. #7
    Unfrozen Caveman Planner mendelman's avatar
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    Everyone has given great advice, but essentially, jenalan, there are no forumlas or studies for your situation. Your project is just too small, and, if I understand you correctly that your looking for ways to justify 22 units vs 12, well you're not going to find much.

    transguy really has the best advice - are there definable impacts that the larger number of units would have or conversely would the impacts (traffic, parking, schools, etc) not be impacted in any substantive or appreciable way.

    Any studies or formulas for determining "the best mix of uses" could only exist for areas/developments of large scale - 22 or 12 units is nothing - you need hundreds of thousands of commercial square footage and manyh hundreds if not thousands of residentail units.

    A question related to your project - are 22 units code compliant? If so, it could be difficult for your commission to reduce it to 12 without good defensible data to support their position.

    Good luck.
    I'm sorry. Is my bias showing?

    The ends can justify the means.

  8. #8
    Cyburbian
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    On top of the good advice you've received so far, I'd like to extend one point (made by transguy): Find out why opponents got upset about a mere 22 units (just how small and sparse is this community that 22 units scares people?!) and why they were willing to settle for 12. If possible, try meeting with an opponent or three, preferably in some informal non-adversarial setting (not their home, where they can throw you out at the drop of a pin, or your office, where the "called to the principal's/boss's office" feeling might kick in and make them defensive.) Ask them what's wrong with 22 units, what they think might happen and what they envisioned instead; as Cardinal implied, the locals might not see mixed-use the way you and the developer do, and you might have to address that when you push for the plan with 22 units.

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