Durable Growth

Missing middle housing: Where to find it and where to encourage it

Webster Street apartments

Webster Street apartments

I’ve written about Opticos Design of Berkeley and one of its principals, Dan Parolek, on several earlier occasions.  First, I reported on Opticos’ role as the lead consultant for the Petaluma Station Area Plan.  More recently, I noted the national award given to Opticos by the Congress for the New Urbanism for their work with Cincinnati’s new form-based code.

And now, I can report that Opticos has begun staking out a key element of urbanism as their particular domain.  In Parolek’s term, it’s the “missing middle housing”.

I recommend reading Parolek’s entire article on missing middle housing.  It runs long, but Parolek uses his words well, explaining the urban gaps left behind by the missing middle housing and some possible configurations for reestablishing it.  But for those without the extra minutes, I’ll try to summarize.

Most use-based zoning codes divide residential uses into single-family and multi-family.  Within the two categories, there is usually a variation in allowable densities, but ultimately there is a clear physical delineation between single-family and multi-family homes.

If we look around neighborhoods that have been built since World War II, the line is obvious.  Multi-family housing is almost always a place apart, built by different developers, served by different parking, and separated from single-family homes by clearly evident fencing or landscape buffers.

But if we look at older city neighborhoods, the places that were developed before the use-based zoning codes assumed their dominance, we find a blurring of the line.  Stealthily scattered among the single-family homes are buildings that have a scale and character similar to single-family homes, but contain multiple residences.  Those buildings are important to city life because they provide the density necessary to support walkability without undermining the single-family feel that many find comfortable.

But with many recent zoning codes having outlawed these middle housing options, hence Parolek’s use of “missing”, the potential for walkability is undermined.  Parolek argues that reestablishing the missing middle is a key step toward reestablishing walkability.

Parolek goes on to present possible configurations for new neighborhoods with the missing middle restored.

With Parolek’s words fresh in my mind, I relooked at some older neighborhoods of Petaluma, visiting examples of the missing middle about which he wrote.  And then I considered the future of a neighborhood that will soon come under pressure to change, perhaps adding more of the missing middle.

Interestingly enough, my visit to examples of the missing middle began before I even left my driveway.  Directly across the street are three small buildings that may have begun life as a motel.  (In the days of slower transportation, Petaluma would have been a logical place to spend a night before continuing onward to the Sonoma County coast.)  Or it’s possible that the buildings originally housed workers in the egg industry that once dominated my part of town.

Today, the buildings contain six small apartments, tucked in a neighborhood that is otherwise solidly single-family.

And despite the concerns of some about bringing the missing middle into single-family neighborhoods (take a look at the third comment on the Parolek article), the folks who live in the apartments have blended well into our neighborhood.  We haven’t all become friends, but my wife and I have become sufficiently acquainted with several of the residents to invite them to our home for the annual neighborhood Christmas Eve party.  We’ve become even more familiar with their pets.

A Street Apartments

A Street Apartments

Moving further afield, I’ve always been charmed by tiny A Street.  Barely 300 feet in length, A Street is host to a collection of smaller single-family homes and larger, older homes that have been converted to apartments and a few offices.  Separated from downtown by only a parking lot, A Street provides a fine environment for those willing to leave their cars at the curb for the day.  It would be a different place if the larger homes hadn’t been subdivided to provide more density.

On the north edge of downtown, I’ve long been intrigued by a pair of Italianate apartment houses near the corner of Bodega Avenue and Howard Street.  The buildings appear to have been originally constructed as apartments, but scaled to fit within a neighborhood that is otherwise single-family, a cheek-to-jowl configuration that would rarely be permitted under contemporary zoning codes.

Howard Street apartments

Howard Street apartments

I finished my loop of Petaluma with the East D Street neighborhood.  Originally laid out as the far eastern extent of Petaluma, with large lots for extended produce gardens and poultry sheds, the neighborhood has long been encircled by the town.  Recognizing the potential income in additional dwelling units, much of the neighborhood has evolved to fill the oversized lots with Hollywood bungalows, granny flats, and an infill apartment house or two.

I’m pleased that East D Street has already begun an evolution toward filling the missing middle housing, but I suspect it will be under pressure to evolve even further.  The SMART station is slated to open in the next 18 months at the western edge of the neighborhood.  Hopefully not much later after that, development will start on the first elements of the Station Area Plan, with moderately dense residential extending outward from the station.  And perhaps a decade after that, the reuse of the current Fairgrounds may begin on the eastern flank of the neighborhood.

Bungalows along Wilson Street

Bungalows along Wilson Street

I applaud all of these changes, but I’ll also acknowledge that the changes will put pressure on the East D Street neighborhood to add further residents.  People will be attracted to the urban vitality and the easy transit access of the new developments, but some won’t be able to afford the cost to live in new construction.  Converting existing homes to apartments or adding granny flats within the East D Street neighborhood would be a solution toward which the market will push.

(As one example, two participants in the Urban Chat Fairgrounds process are looking for a site to try a creative approach to senior living.  I encourage their thinking, but have suggested that they look to acquire existing buildings in the East D Street neighborhood rather than a new Fairgrounds building.  Using existing buildings would control their capital costs.)

A well-written zoning code, preferably form-based, would help ensure that the East D Street neighborhood changes in a way that benefits both the existing and new residents.  I know that many residents of East D Street are happy with their neighborhood as it is, but the Station Area and the Fairgrounds will put pressure on the neighborhood to change.  And it’d be better to manage the change than to try to put a bell jar over the neighborhood.

In passing, I’ll also mention parking.  At present, it isn’t clear how much parking will be available at the station or how well Petaluma Transit can serve the station.  With those conditions, it’s likely that parking will spill into the East D Street neighborhood.  I suspect that parking management will quickly become a hot topic.  Although different than the missing middle housing challenge, the two may be susceptible to a coordinated solution.

There is irony in this discussion of East D Street.  As Opticos was beginning their work on the Station Area Plan, I suggested, in my role as a member of the Citizens Advisory Committee, that Opticos look at the East D Street neighborhood to help manage its transition.  They seemed amenable, but the look didn’t happen.  Perhaps there were funding or scoping issues of which I wasn’t aware.  But today, nearly five years later, Opticos is nationally recognized for their work on missing middle housing and the East D Street neighborhood is in need of a missing middle housing policy.  It was a missed opportunity.

The concept of missing middle housing is subtle, but real.  And it can be important to urban vitality.  If you’re motivated, take a look around your North Bay community and look for good examples of missing middle housing or places where missing middle housing could fill a need and then comment below, or email me, with your insights.  I’d like to see other North Bay communities through your eyes.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

8 comments to Missing middle housing: Where to find it and where to encourage it

  • I applaud Dan Parolek’s concise and descriptive writings that completely describe the ‘missing middle’. There is such a need for more housing choice in all our communities. The ‘missing middle’ accurately describes our approach to develop…and completely responds the the demand for appropriately sized housing that meets the needs of small households of typically one or two. Kudos to Dan Parolek it’s a pleasure! Linda Pruitt, The Cottage Company

    • Linda, thanks for the comment. I also have much respect for the way Parolek has brought attention to this gap in the housing market. I’ve also visited several Cottage Company project, enjoying both the settings that have been created and the craftsmanship.

      However, I have a question. Parolek made a comment at CNU 23 that seemingly placed your product at the lower end of the density necessary to fill the missing middle gap. I’ve made a similar comment to other land-use folks. Have you thought of adding units, such as micro-apartments over the garages, to increase density and to broaden the housing range?

      • Thanks for the comment! Our work has been focused in single family zones (typically 7200 SF lot SF zoning). The innovative codes we are working under allow DOUBLE the underlying density given that each home have size limits (typically no more than 1200 to 1500 SF). Typically the density is no more than 12 du/acre (on property zoned for 6 du/acre), but no more. Given that in most jurisdictions nearly 80% of all property is zoned SF, this is a significant incremental increase. Multifamily zoned property is already zoned at much higher density and in most cases the missing middle could be built without innovative codes. HOWEVER, there is more profit to be made in these zones with stack flat apts. and condos, thus no missing middle. One of the keys is SF zoned properties. Thoughts?

        • Linda, I think your comment is exactly the point that Parolek is making. Zoning codes have done away with middle housing by creating an artificial divide between multi-family and single-family zones.

          I believe Parolek’s long-term solution would be a form-based code, with which I agree. But recognizing that converting to form-based codes can be an extended, expensive, and potentially controversial endeavor, I think we can look at nearer-term solutions, primarily developers seeking variances to bust through density and/or lot size standards and cities being willing to consider those variances on their merits, sometimes over the din of neighbors with short-sighted objections.

          (Of course, in California, CEQA can also play a role. And not a positive one.)

          In my town, a developer recently proposed a non-conventional single-family configuration that was at the upper end of the allowable density. When some neighbors objected, the applicant, with the concurrence of the city, dropped units until the project density was roughly the same as the surrounding density. It’s still a fine project that fits well on the land and I’m pleased that it’s coming to my town, but when acquaintances point to it as an example of good urbanism, I can only shake my head.

          Thanks for the response.

          • Hi Dave,

            I completely agree that Dan’s point in that the unintended consequence of zoning is to eliminate the ‘missing middle’. Yes, a form based code is a great approach. But, in locales where there is not the political will to take such a step, the innovative codes we have worked under have supported much higher density than the underlying zone and have allowed communities that are models of higher density.

            Our communities, built in single family zones under innovative codes have allowed DOUBLE THE DENSITY of the surrounding neighborhood. While not the density of attached housing stock, it is nonetheless SIGNIFICANTLY more dense (double) than the underlying zone would provide. And, the communities have provided compatible models that are acceptable and will continue to nudge jurisdictions to allow higher densities.

            It’s not the complete answer, of course, but certainly a step in the right direction towards higher density and compatible housing stock.


          • Linda, you’re certainly correct that allowing the doubling of the underlying zoning is a good thing. And it’s an option we often don’t have in California. But you refer to a 7,200 sf lot minimum, so doubling the density results in an effective 3,600 sf minimum. Here in California, we can often have zoning that allows a 4,000 sf minimum, so we end up in the same place by a different route. And both have an effective density of perhaps 10 du/ac. Which still leaves a gap from multi-family densities that might begin at 25 du/ac.

            What we need is city halls saying “We want to encourage 15-20 du/ac projects. Help us figure out how to do it.” And developers saying “We want to build 15-20 du/ac projects and will help you formulate rules.” Right now, I don’t hear much of that dialogue.

          • There is more dialogue here in Washington given the Growth Management Act mandates that require cities to meet housing targets. The innovative codes we have worked with allow double the density WHATEVER the underlying SF zone would allow. We’ve worked in 7200 SF lot single family. But the codes apply equally to 5,000 SF lot single family zones which would allow up 17 homes per acre. Precisely what you suggested and more cities should encourage. It’s a step in the right direction for sure and I can hope these approaches can accelerate.

          • Linda, you’re absolutely correct that doubling the density on top of a 5,000 sf minimum lot size would move the result product well into Parolek’s midding housing range. A form-based code is still a better way to get there, but any approach that gets into the middle housing range is a good thing. Please keep me advised if your company proposes a density-bumped project in a 5,000 sf min lot zone.

            Although the various state regulatory approaches have different names, California also theoretically encourages greater density, including getting into the middle housing range. But as Parolek pointed out in a recent chat with StrongTowns, having general plans with flowery words about density and walkability doesn’t mean much if the zoning codes don’t support that type of development. Also, fear of CEQA repercussions will almost always incent developers to reduce density.