If you’ve taken a stroll through the neighborhood recently, I’m sure you’ve seen a few less than attractive townhouses along the way. It’s definitely been the trend in the last few years: old houses are torn down and replaced with four, six, or even 8 new units with questionable design aesthetics. And the whole time I had assumed that most of them were ugly because of a simple combination of lazyness and cheapness on the part of the developer.
But I learned something interesting in this month’s Squire Park community meeting. Bill Zozel and Ann Schuessler have been looking at how existing building regulations have “features” that actually make it hard to produce dense developments that look good and fit in with the neighborhood.
The biggest problem is the requirement for parking. City code says that each unit in a townhouse development must have an enclosed garage, and each garage must be physically attached to its corresponding housing unit. This drives the typical design you see where the first floor is almost all garage, with two more stories perched on top of it. The garage itself creates an unfriendly street environment because it creates a blank wall down at the level of pedestrians and neighbors. And since the garage takes up so much of the available land, it leaves builders with few options for how to build the rest of the structure. Cost is a whole other factor: the construction of the garage alone can add $25,000 – $50,000 to the cost of each residential unit.
One simple change would be to allow developers to group the garages together on the property, separate from the units they belong to. This would allow them to be placed in the back, along the alley and out of sight.
But I think it’s time to reconsider the parking requirement all together. If you look at the original houses in the neighborhood, you’ll find few with a garage. Somehow people have coped with that for a hundred years or more, either by parking in the street or not having a car at all. So why do we force people who buy new houses to purchase a garage whether they need it or not? We’ve got a lot of transit options in the CD, and things like Flexcar make it increasingly easy to live life without the cost and hassle of a car. Sure some people will still need them, but why not let the market decide that instead of the one-size-fits all requirement of one garage per house?
There’s a bunch of other examples like that where specific building requirements end up driving bad design. Bill and Ann are looking at all of them and plan to go to the city with a list of suggestions that would let us add density while keeping older homes and allowing new development to fit in with its surroundings. They’re hosting a meeting on the topic next Tuesday at 5:45PM if you’re interested in learning more or adding your suggestions. You can also read more about their suggestions at the Squire Park website.