Durable Growth

Promoting a diversity of home forms: An anecdote

Coady Court in Petaluma

Coady Court in Petaluma

Over my last two posts, I’ve introduced the idea that neighborhoods with varying types of homes are more likely to thrive over the long term and then explained how and why we got away from that ideal over the past seventy years.

A reader noted counter examples to my thesis about the diversity of housing forms.  She specifically noted the Painted Ladies in San Francisco.

Her point is valid.  I’d add much of the Sunset District to her examples.  I’m not arguing that diversity of form is the sole, or even the primary, factor in long-term neighborhood stability.  Good architecture, historic interest, walkability, access to good schools, and many other factors also play roles.  My argument is only that if one normalizes for all the other factors, then a neighborhood of diverse housing forms will eventually outperform a neighborhood of look-alike homes, with a stronger reinvestment incentive being the reason for the success of diverse-form neighborhoods.

In most cases, a diversity of housing forms is accomplished by creating lots that aren’t intended for mass production by a single home-builder.  Instead, new lots can be targeted for individual sale to buyers who will design and construct homes to meet their specific needs.  This is as true for subdivisions of quarter-acre lots as for walkable streets intended for mixtures of urban housing.

Given that new developments without attached builders will eventually make communities better places, one might hope that city halls would encourage those types of developments.  In most cases, one would be wrong.  Because most voters don’t care, most city halls don’t care about the financial viability of the community eighty years hence.  Instead, the focus is solely on how the new homes will look on the day the builders drive away.  (Personally, I often hang out with folks who take the long view, but we get that we’re outside of the mainstream.)

To illustrate, I have an anecdote.

Many years, working in an unnamed North Bay city with city staff who will also remain unnamed, I had the dubious pleasure of being the engineer on a four-lot subdivision.  Given the small number of lots and the physical challenges of the site, the developer had decided that his best course wasn’t to build homes, but to create lots where buyers could implement their specific visions.  It was a strategy with which I concurred.

Working with a project manager who had been independently retained by the developer to manage the entitlement process, we found a reasonable physical solution to the site difficulties and prepared a map for city review.

In response city staff asked for architectural plans of the proposed homes.  I explained that these would be custom homes, so architectural plans would be prepared by individual lot owners at later dates.  Staff was unmoved and still wanted plans.  While I was formulating an argument to explain the unreasonableness of their request, the project manager, perhaps with a greater eye to his fees than to the good of the developer, agreed to hire an architect to do hypothetical home designs.

To be fair, the resulting home designs were good, quirky and individualistic.  I wasn’t happy that they were required and I grumbled every time I had to participate in the development of the hypothetical designs, but at least I was sure that the city staff would be satisfied.

They weren’t.

After reviewing the house plans, staff asked for color palettes.  As my eyebrows were moving toward my hairline, the project manager quickly agreed to assemble color palettes for each hypothetical house.

In our next meeting, staff asked about landscape plans, with particular regard to the wildfire concerns from the adjoining open land.  The concern was reasonable, so I suggested a condition of approval requiring each lot owner to conform to the wildfire setbacks and landscaping material standards of the local fire department.

City staff didn’t find my suggestion sufficient and asked for the setbacks to be mapped for the hypothetical house plans, with notes about non-flammable materials.  I pointed out that this approach would lock the current fire standards in place for the lots, while a condition of approval would allow future updated fire department standards to apply instead.  Staff was unmoved.  The project manager agreed to calculate the setbacks and to write the notes for my staff to add to the maps.

Next, city staff asked about roofing materials, still worried about fire risks.  Although composite roofs would have been acceptable, they preferred concrete tile.  I agreed that we could put hypothetical concrete tile roofs on the hypothetical houses.

A week later, one of the City people called me.  Because concrete tiles are heavier than other roofing materials, he needed the structural calculations for the houses.  The project manager wasn’t on the call, so I could let my full sarcasm reign.  “So, you want structural calculations for the hypothetical concrete roofs on hypothetical houses of hypothetical colors surrounded by hypothetical landscape materials installed to hypothetical setbacks?”  Perhaps not my most politically smart question ever, but it felt good.  The staff person, after a long pause, agreed that they probably didn’t need the calculations.

And that story is another reason why most contemporary subdivisions are “little boxes made of ticky-tacky”.  (Cue the music.)  It’s too darned hard to do otherwise.

To conclude the story, the small subdivision was eventually created, but the economy has collapsed upon itself by then.  The land remains native, free of any improvements, hypothetical or otherwise.  Probably just as well.

A reader and college professor from Georgia recently linked a post about the best urban college campuses.  The list is nonsense, but can nonetheless serve as a jump-off point to write about college urbanism and summer travel plans.  I’ll take that jump in my next post.

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.

1 comment to Promoting a diversity of home forms: An anecdote

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