Archive for July, 2011
In the mid-1980s, when the office market was down, I worked on the conversion of an office building into a residential project within 200 metres of a downtown subway stop. The office building, circa the 1950s, was viewed by the owners as being more marketable as a residential building.
In this project, I faced challenges on several fronts. For one, the distance from the lot line to the windows from both a zoning context and a building code requirement for fire rating was too short.
Another issue was the use of the residential units for live|work purposes, meaning people would live and work in the same unit with jobs like accounting or jewelry making. This raised cost issues with code requirements. If people were working and living in the same space, did we need to meet building code requirements for fire and safety, meaning two means of exit and entry?
In the end, we created a successful condo project right next to transit on a very busy street. The new, very small and affordable units allowed many people to enter the housing market. For some, it reduced their transportation costs by working from their unit right in the heart of the city within a walk of everything they needed.
From this example, the demand for live|work grew. I worked on many more projects over the years, and the live|work idea presented itself as an excellent solution to a problem that plagued us planners back in Toronto. How to liven up street frontages when commercial uses might not yet have a market in an emerging area?
The answer was live|work units with the potential to convert to full commercial uses later, when the market existed to support it. There were and still are challenges to this idea. First, builders build what makes money now. They don’t like to accrue extra expenses. Successful live| work space is adaptable, so it has to be designed with flexibility. For example, a restaurant needs high ceiling heights to allow for the exhaust equipment to be run across the ceiling and be vented to the exterior. This means ceiling heights of around 3 metres (10 feet). To create those spaces or convert them later costs money.
Another challenge is the resistance from condo associations to be landlords for commercial space. Live|work is the answer. The condo owner owns the unit and the condo association does not have to be a landlord.
In Toronto in the 1990s, we identified all the streets in the downtown area where we wanted to have commercial space. We called them “priority retail streets” and the frontages of new buildings were required to be retail uses with small storefronts. Banks were not included. We learned a valuable lesson. Zoning cannot force retail into a storefront. Only the market can do that. There were streets where the retail storefronts remained vacant for several years because the market did not exist.
On streets where retail can occur in the future, designing buildings now or retrofitting them to accommodate retail uses later can provide retail spaces when the market arrives.
Here in MoCo, we have been working to gradually bring these concepts into the landscape of our urban areas. For some people in the County, live|work is a new idea, although it exists in the Kentlands. The commercial | residential zoning category “CR” brings incentives such as adaptable buildings, priority retail and mixed uses to places like White Flint, Takoma Langley, Wheaton and Kensington. It will be a gradual process. The market is not yet strong enough for some builders to provide retail bays at grade in some locations. So is the answer flex space that can later be adapted?
As we explore bus rapid transit along the arterial corridors and consider if transit can be a catalyst to improve those corridors, the community should consider how the at-grade frontages are used. The market for retail will not exist in many of these places and we cannot force it. The experience of the Metro Pointe project on top of the Wheaton Metro is a good example where despite being right on top of a metro stop, the retail storefronts remain empty several years after construction.
Buildings do not have to be high rise to provide live|work space, nor do they have to be located in high traffic locations. In fact, many live|work spaces are more successful off the main road and in more pedestrian scale places. Just the type of locations where the larger retail stores or chains do not believe there is enough street traffic to justify a new location.
As we move forward in MoCo with our sector plans focusing on places like Burtonsville, Glenmont and the East County Science Center, creating adaptable space in our buildings is an important factor in sustainability. We will not have retail on every main street frontage. Few communities do. We can create space however that does provide terrific amenities for people who might want to live and work in the same unit. And those same spaces may convert over time into full fledged retail locations.
It is important to create the tools to help foster this type of development. Our new mixed use zoning is a step in this direction. Encouraging adaptable buildings, such as those with high ceilings on the ground floor, helps to foster business growth over time and makes buildings more marketable. Because this is a new concept in MoCo, it may be difficult for some to understand the importance of encouraging developers to build this type of space in the right location.
As more and more infill takes place around the urban spaces in the County, the option for live|work space will become more attractive. Builders may see the rear of their property as more than a service entry and a possible way to increase their leasable space. The recently approved office projects that front Georgia Avenue but also back onto Fenton Street are a good example where the secondary frontage could be much more than the back of an office building.
We have a ways to go in the suburbs, where the trend is to park in front of where we shop. Right now, this is a deterrent to live|work space for some. However, the types of activity that traditionally occur in these spaces is not a high traffic generator but rather a “destination” activity. I am hopeful we can get some spaces occupied that we can point to as good local examples .
We need to create more jobs and housing in MoCo, preferably close together. Trends and predictions show that most new businesses will be small and started by minorities and women. Coupled with the high cost of housing in this County, could live|work spaces be our answer to reducing housing and transportation costs while providing more spaces for new businesses to start? We need to create the framework that can help this trend happen.
What an exciting time to be in the suburbs. Across the country, the burbs are the focus of renewed attention, given the downturn in the economy, drops in revenue, and the realization that the infrastructure we built 30, 40 and 50 years ago is in need of repair.
MoCo is no exception. Like many suburbs, we grew as planned. Comparing the 1960s Wedges & Corridor Plan with the results of the 2010 census shows us that people moved to where we built the houses. Along with them, we built lots of roads to get us where we wanted to go.
Many of those roads now need to be rebuilt. The sewer and water lines underneath those roads is (are) also reaching the end of the (their) serviceable life. Estimates are that by 2040, half of the water infrastructure will need to be rebuilt.
The 1964 Wedges & Corridor Plan with the population dots from the 2010 census. Each dot represents 100 people. This overlay of current growth shows that we have grown as we planned for. In fact, the population projections from the late 1960s are only off by about 100,000 people. Add to this the growing need for transit. Looking at the population map above highlights the issues with servicing such a dispersed population. The County is studying bus rapid transit (BRT) to consider bringing transit to more areas to encourage people to drive less. BRT runs on dedicated rights of way or dedicated lanes at certain times of the day, and is faster than regular bus service.
The planning exercise is identifying a “grid of major roads” where the BRT lines might happen. Yet it tells us a lot more. Could these also be the corridors where we might couple the increase in transit with more housing along those corridors?
Some of those major corridors, particularly those on the busy streets, have commercial uses. Can we improve those uses and, in some instances, the appearance of the corridors? This problem exists across the country.
What is the highest and best uses for some of these corridors? A property owner with a strip mall along Veirs Mill Road is unlikely to change if the property is generating revenue and the property is paid for. What is the incentive to change that current use if it means losing the revenue from leases as well as taking on financing costs to redevelop the property?
There must be a return. White Flint is a good example where new zoning at higher densities brought about new applications for redevelopment. It is those new uses that can bring about the increases in tax revenues that can generate the dollars needed to replace the servicing, build the transit and create more housing that is affordable to the folks who work in our service economy — the teachers, police officers and others who struggle to afford a home in our county.
More housing on our corridors would be a great move to help with all these challenges. And if we can bring small-scale retail in combination with this housing, it would be good for existing neighborhoods as well.
So the picture falls into place. We have some good candidate properties for small- scale redevelopment along some of the corridors. There is the potential for BRT on these corridors. We need to show good ridership forecasts for the transit system to grow. MoCo’s population is going to grow, and there will be a market for homes on busy corridors served by buses. This can both alleviate traffic and lower the cost of housing by providing the opportunity to live without a car, increasing the income used to spend on housing as an owner or renter.
With so little new land where housing can be built; with less than 2 percent of the county available for commercial uses; only 2.4 percent of the county zoned for residential multi-unit buildings, we have little opportunity to create new housing, especially some that would be attractive and affordable to the recent graduates who grew up here.
With the average first-time homebuyer now 34 years old, we need to create opportunities for the graduates of MoCo to choose this county as a place to live and work. This generation spends less time in the home and is looking for smaller spaces to live. As many as 97.5 percent of the residential property in MoCo is for single-family houses. We need to create more opportunities for smaller units where the younger generation –- as well as empty nesters — will want and be able to afford to live.
Typically, we plan places. However, we have not addressed the roads that link them, nor have we created a vision for those corridors. But corridor planning has been around for some time. As the county moves forward with the BRT concept, just like our station planning for Metro’s Red and Purple Lines, we must consider if opportunities to improve our corridors with new housing and retail are a real option. Our planners will pick up the BRT work through our Master Plan of Highways and Transitways in a public process.
Any major transit infrastructure investment necessitates a corresponding analysis and vision of the land use along that corridor. As the BRT initiative moves forward, what is the best way to plan for the potential such a system could offer? We must be sensitive to the existing communities the system will pass along. We must realize much of the planning will be for people who are not yet living along those corridors. A comprehensive consideration bringing people into the mix and decision making will be necessary.