Archive for September, 2011
Commercial Residential Zone Amendments to the Montgomery County Council (pdf, 1MB) – Tuesday, September 27, 2011
Most folks have difficulty understanding the concept of density. The word itself can create reactions at the opposite ends of the spectrum. In some cities, the planners’ motto could be “Give me density or give me death” – it is simply understood that density brings diversity in everything from services, transit, shopping and housing and yes, traffic.
Here in MoCo we find frequent resistance to anything associated with density or growth. A big shift in how residents here view density came with White Flint, where people began to realize that to get the amenities and services they wanted, more density would be required. Density is one way to incentivize property owners to take on the economic risks (new debt, market fluctuations, leasing) of refurbishing buildings in tired-looking strip malls that are actually profitable as is.
A month or so ago, I wrote about density meaning different things at different locations. I focused on the Chevy Chase Lake master plan area, where some folks expressed surprise that we were not advocating high-rise buildings. My point was that density means different things in different places, and there is a growing movement that reflects development from past eras, where mid- rise buildings are being looked at as the “new” high rise. I am not going to cover the same ground here. What I would like to do is raise the issue of what density looks like.
Watch this fun video we put together, the MoCo Density Quiz. We don’t expect anyone to know the answers, just to consider the examples and compare the varying density numbers. There are some surprises. Buildings do not have to be tall to rack up some sizable density numbers.
Interesting numbers. The townhouses can add up to considerable density that, relative to surrounding areas, is quite high. In last week’s posting, I commented on how we have so little land left to develop, and that it was time to look at the corridors as places to grow as we bring bus rapid transit to those areas. There are several examples of existing local buildings that could fit well along those corridors.
One of my favourite buildings anywhere, the Montgomery Arms apartments, is in the video. A beautiful series of rental apartments that are an incredible relationship of buildings to pedestrian spaces and those corner window treatments are stunning (something builders get grief from building officials today if they propose them). Is that too much density, say, for New Hampshire Ave just off the Beltway heading north to Route 29? Think of all the FDA employees who might love to live there and then cycle to work.
Many folks associate the word density with tall and very tall buildings. Well, what is tall? Have a look at the following video – sped up, walking along a busy urban street. Can you tell how tall the building you are walking past is before the end of the video? There is an active street frontage, people eating at a sidewalk café, an arts facility and gift shop.
The key here is that the tower portion of the building, around 30 floors, is set back from the edge of the street with a narrow floorplate. The focus at grade, at the pedestrian scale, is an active set of uses geared to performance spaces and activities that highlight the city’s role in film and theatre. Walking along the street, the pedestrian is unaware of the higher portion of the building. This is a successful display of integrating a very dense building into the fabric of the neighborhood.
Many folks living in subdivisions believe another subdivision like their own offers too much density that will bring extra traffic. It is sort of like a snowball effect, where each new subdivision occupies farmland, bringing people who don’t think there should be any more built.
On the opposite end of the scale, there is a growing movement to bring affordable housing choices into areas that are very expensive to live. Some refer to this as micro housing, meaning smaller spaces. There is a tremendous market for this in MoCo and other communities, where housing costs are so high and where there is very little land left in which to build. A good example is under construction in Portland, as this video shows.
This development looks terrific and will provide affordable units to a lot of people in a neighborhood that will become stronger as a result. Is this type of infill a new idea? No way. One of my favourite housing developments on the planet in an old St. Louis housing development from the 1920s. This is a dense single-family housing development set perpendicular to the street. From the street, you see the ends of two small houses across from the terrific 1868 Victorian era Tower Grove Park.
These homes are not that much smaller than the Dutch colonial my wife and I own in Silver Spring. It offers a very safe place for children who are not playing outside against a street. Cars are not the primary design feature nor do they clutter the front yards. Is this development too dense? Would anyone even notice when passing by on the street? This type of development is not possible in most areas in the county.
Micro housing styles could be attractive to a wide range of people, from seniors looking to live closer to children, to housing your recent college grad who cannot afford to be on his own, to an option for renting. Could this type of housing fit in urban neighborhoods, replacing the garages that too often are storage for things people no longer use?
Keeping with the small space theme, perhaps the greatest proponent of small space living in the world is the nonprofit retailer Ikea. (Did you know that Ikea is a Dutch corporation controlled by a tax exempt, not for profit Dutch foundation?) These folks have it down pat. It is somewhat contradictory that Americans have fallen in love with Ikea products, geared to small spaces in Europe and Asia, to furnish our very large spaces.
Ever check out the 440 square foot or 360 square foot fully furnished apartment displays in Ikea? Could you live there? We have a proposal for White Flint for a multi-unit building containing small dwellings like this. My guess is that, if built, they will be snapped up by recent college grads living at home because they cannot afford to live in typical homes in this county. (There has been a 38-percent increase in adult children living at home in MoCo).
How would this type of building be perceived from a density standpoint? It will not be a large building, but it would have lots of units. Will the density of the product be judged by the second factor or should we even worry about it? It will be on the subway line and a very busy street.
Early in my career, I processed an application to convert a Victorian house into 36 self contained apartments averaging about 200 square feet each. A dense project – certainly. A needed project, very much. The occupants of the building were middle-aged men who were somewhat down and out. They were receiving training and skills help, yet this building offered them the dignity of having their own homes. Just like any of us, they wanted pride in a place they could call their own. It was a major leg up for these folks.
So, density can mean tall buildings or small buildings with lots of units. The impact of density can be interpreted differently, from worrying about traffic to hopes that it will bring more services and amenities and enliven neighborhoods. It can increase county revenues to help offset increasing costs associated with lower density development. And it opens up new opportunities for home ownership. This last benefit is something this county needs to offer if we are to keep our younger citizens here, where we hope they will build careers, maybe families and businesses.
Each year, metro area planners prepare forecasts on how much growth is expected in the next few decades. In July, we presented a different take on these forecasts to the Planning Board, expanding beyond growth in jobs and housing needs to consider the land needed to accommodate that growth. The story is very interesting when we consider past county growth trends and whether MoCo has enough land to grow the same way.
This is a very big story for MoCo. Along with the changing demographics, where we grow is one of the major defining factors in the future sustainability of the County.
The big picture
Let’s consider job growth. Using the Council of Governments model, we project a 33-percent increase in jobs (167,000) over the next 20 years, a seven-percent decrease over what we saw between 1990 and today. We also project a 21.5% increase in the number of housing units (77,500), which mirrors what we saw for the past 20 years. These projections would mean a bigger gap in the jobs-to-housing ratio. Translation: more people commuting farther to work.
Not surprisingly, we predict the biggest job gains to be in Area 2 running up the I-270 corridor and east along the Beltway, including the FDA complex. With lots of surface parking lots ripe for redevelopment like White Flint, there is tremendous potential in this area of the county. Area 1, inside the Beltway, is expected to be the smallest job gainer — no surprise because this area is largely developed within the job centers. We are seeing infill on single lots in this area, but large redevelopment opportunities are few. However when considering the actual land used to accommodate the job growth, Area 3 is the biggest consumer of land. This is to be expected, given the suburban-style office development in the area.
The next part of the story is how much new office, retail and industrial floor space is needed to accommodate job growth? We determine these numbers by multiplying the projected jobs in each of office, retail and industrial sectors by the amount of floor space the market now builds per employee. (The average office employee uses about 225 square feet.) This math results in an estimate of:
• just over 26 million square feet of new office space
• 6 million square feet for retail
• 5.8 million square feet for industrial
To put those numbers in perspective, downtown Rockville and the surrounding area currently represents about seven million square feet of retail space.
What does 6 million ft2 look like?
At current land consumption rates, those new jobs would take 1,552 acres. This number factors in both the urban-style employment development that uses little land as well as the office park development built at much lower densities.
While the growth in the number of housing units compares to the past 20 years, there will be a major shift in the type of housing built. The demand for multi-family housing, particularly rental housing in the short term, will be the dominant new housing product. Now, single-family houses (singles, towns) make up 68 percent of all units in the county. Over the next 20 years, that share is expected to drop to 59 percent.
We predict just over 19 percent of the new housing will be single family, while the remaining 80 percent will be multi-family units. And this is a positive shift given a number of factors.
• the housing market nationwide over the next five to 10 years will be in multi-unit housing with a focus on the rental market
• affordability improves with multi-family units in a range of both sizes and tenure
• the MoCo housing market needs diversification to provide products that are attractive to younger people, now priced out because of high costs, as well as multi-unit living popular with seniors looking to downsize
At our current housing densities, meaning the number of housing units per acre, we predict a need for just over 9,000 acres of new housing. Obviously, single-family housing consumes a much higher percentage of land than multi-unit housing. We predict that while only 19 percent of the new units will be for single-family housing, those units would consume around 70 percent of the land needed for the new residential units. Area 3 is the part of the county where most of this development would occur.
Current building projects in the county paint a picture of the future. Construction is just starting on two projects that reflect past and future trends in county housing. The Cabin Branch single-family site plan housing project in Clarksburg has over 2,000 housing units, while plans for mixed-use projects in White Flint will see the beginning of the 9,000 new multi-family units expected there in the next 15 to 20 years.
Where we can meet the demand for housing?
It’s easy to identify the options, harder to implement them. MoCo has only about 14,000 acres of vacant land zoned for greenfield development, meaning land where nothing has yet been built. Much of this land is scattered and in places where if it had been easy, people would have developed there by now.
Considering that we need around 9,000 acres for the new housing plus 2,000 acres for employment uses, we will have to consider infill development on a bigger scale than the past.
We project a need for 3,000 acres for new multi-family units. However, we have only 325 acres of land zoned for this use available as greenfield development. So where will the units go? There is only 2,900 acres of land zoned for commercial and mixed uses in the county and this is already built on. Even with considerable redevelopment of these lands, we cannot accommodate the expected need for land for new housing.
There is a large pipeline of approved yet unbuilt projects in the county. Can these projects make a dent in the needed capacity? Assuming everything in the pipeline gets built, and that is a big if, there is still a gap of over 18 million square feet for the commercial and office segment and a gap of around 60,000 units in the residential projections.
In sum, here’s where we stand.
• growth is expected to slow over the next 20 years but still be considerable
• we have very little new land left to develop
• we have very little land zoned for multi-unit housing and we have little commercially zoned land to accommodate the projected demand
• our processes for reviewing land use change are lengthy and cannot adapt to market changes in a timely manner
How can we prepare for the future demand given the above factors?
The first big step is to rationalize our zoning rules. That exercise is well underway. Considering where we can grow is a big step. We have done well planning our nodes like White Flint and Twinbrook. We are underway on the East County plan and Glenmont will begin shortly. Now we need to consider connecting these “nodes” by looking at our corridors, the subject of a previous blog post. These arterials don’t show the best side of MoCo, and given the emerging work on bus rapid transit, offer tremendous opportunities for growth connected to transit.
We need to look at what we have built and how we can make it better.
• Office parks – if we want to improve our jobs | housing balance what better place than to create new housing on some of the hundreds of acres of grass surrounding the lonely office park buildings?
• Parking lots – there are 160 acres of surface parking in White Flint and already it is being transformed into mixed uses. There are over 8,000 acres of surface parking in the county, a negative environmental condition we must improve upon. How many of these can be developed at varying scales into uses that bring people closer to their daily needs?
• Malls – this building form — as a strip mall or full-fledged mall — is struggling around the country. The White Flint model of phasing development by first building on the surface parking while the malls continue to operate is a fiscally sound way to approach redevelopment that benefits the owner and the existing community. How many of our 100+ strip malls could benefit from a remake into a neighborhood center that offers more services and options for people who live in the neighborhood?
• Process – Have our processes resulted in development that is better than what we see elsewhere with a fraction of the time needed to get through the approvals? The answer is no. Our arterial roads and shopping areas are the same as places that don’t have zoning. There is a pressing need to rethink how we approach land use approvals. Instead of being so focused on the steps of a process, we should start with what we want the outcome to be, then work backward.
MoCo will grow. MoCo needs to grow to support what we have built and the style of living people have become accustomed to. The future pattern of growth will be different and more sustainable, in the form of multi-unit living with mixed use on infill sites. This better matches the changing demographics of the county and fits our need to diversify our housing to make the county more affordable and attract new people.