Durable Growth

Row-scrapers for family city living

The row-scraper concept. Image from The Tyson's Corner.

The row-scraper concept. Image from The Tyson’s Corner.

While there is undoubtedly a huge demand for new small apartments in San Francisco, Silicon Valley and the East Bay, new family-sized homes are lacking in new apartment units being built across the region. As cities grow up, it’s vital that they figure out how to accommodate families as all these new single twenty-somethings start to settle down and have kids.

It’s a problem faced by rapidly growing cities throughout the country, but The Tyson’s Corner, a blog focused on the rapidly-redeveloping DC suburb Tyson’s Corner, thinks the answer is townhouses in skyscraper format

There are thousands of people who, in a perfect world, would love to live close to where they work, but find that the square footage to price does not make sense for small families. Many of these folks would love a townhome sized unit downtown that doesn’t cost more than a single family home in the outer suburbs.

When faced with paying more and getting less square footage, the majority of people continue to want the greater square footage, despite a willingness to concede some size if prices were more normalized. In the case of townhomes near downtowns or metro, the pure drivers are all about land. A lack of developable space means exorbitant costs for land, which in townhome formats is more critical due to surface parking needs and maximum 3 to 4 story heights.

In order to get 385 townhome units in Fairfax County, one would need between 14 and 18 acres due to parking/roads, building footprints, open space, screening/buffers, and storm water management. 16 acres anywhere near a commercial center could easily exceed $150 million… which is why you don’t see many downtown townhome projects. That land cost adds a $400,000 premium to every unit. The ones you do see have to be priced well into the 7-figures in order to return the cost of development.

A row-scraper would be a skyscraper which incorporates townhome sized layouts as the typical unit. While construction costs for high rise construction is more per square foot than standard timber, the savings occur from reduction in land cost and combined construction costs from multi-purpose design (rainwater harvesting stormwater management reuse for mechanical processes). A 385 unit townhome property of 16 acres can be reduced to a 2 acre row-scraper (with open space), reducing land acquisition costs by $130 million.

…Prices of $530,000 provide a middle ground for young families looking for the additional space but wanting to retain location. In some cases, even when you expand the townhome search out 10 miles from most commercial centers, prices still remain above $700,000 in many areas for new construction, and well into the $400,000 for smaller aging stock. No wonder so many families who like the idea of urban living end up making concessions to live further out than they’d like.

If the Bay Area had more sensible land-use policies, the market for small units would quickly become saturated, and demand for larger family-sized units for purchase or rent would start to come more to the fore. With solid sound-proofing and good access to parks and schools, there would be no need for families to decamp to the suburbs. The cost for those who place a premium on personal back yards would start to come down, and the pressure to create exurban developments far from anything will start to come down.

In the interim, developers should design small-unit apartments for conversion to larger, family-sized units as urban millennials start marrying and having kids. While the potential profit margin for small-unit developments now dramatically outweighs demand for family-sized housing, eventually this largest of generations will start looking for places to settle.

Cities, too, should do everything they can to ensure the demographic dividend handed to them is not wasted. For over half a century, cities have struggled with disinvestment. Yet without allowing millennials to age in place, so to speak, the gains made by San Francisco, Oakland, and other areas will prove ephemeral.

Written by David Edmondson

David Edmondson

David is a native Marinite working in Washington, DC. He writes about how to apply smart-growth and urbanist thinking to the low-density towns of his home.

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