Do you find yourself looking around your neighborhood and seeing a need that's not being fulfilled? Walking your dog past the same run-down buildings and vacant lots, you have to wonder why no one can fulfill these needs when there is clearly so much pent up demand.
In my previous two posts (1) (2), I've talked about what kind of small-to-mid scale urban development people want and why no one is providing it. I also talked about how this type of "Missing Middle" development has only just begun to be identified as a dire need by cities across the country, but goes against the grain of today's status quo of planning and development.
To cultivate this type of development, you need what you need to cultivate anything - the right type of soil and the right farmer.
THE RIGHT SOIL
Missing Middle development, being a historically successful type of urban fabric, does best in the neighborhoods that were originally constructed to support it - the types that are getting a lot of attention today from developers of all kinds, though small developers are especially poised to exploit its inherent advantages, baked in to what is great 'soil' due to these factors:
1. AMENABLE ZONING
Zoning laws can give and they can taketh away - depending on the values they were written to reinforce. Old central neighborhoods can be harmed when limitations on the number of units that can be built on a lot are set up for large suburban plats, leaving smaller historic lots to often find themselves too small for even a single unit! Forget about providing off-street parking when your land is too small to develop a building. When zoning laws render your existing city non-compliant, it's time to rethink them.
Fortunately, across the country, cities have caught on to the value of easing restrictions to entice development of historic cores, creating amenable zoning for Missing Middle development. Here's what we look for:
Parking Exemptions. Required accommodation of something as large as a car is problematic for dense neighborhoods with limited land, and is a huge burden to place on anyone. Acknowledging that historic neighborhoods accommodate vehicles on streets, streets that also provide space for alternative modes of travel - pedestrians, bikers, streetcars and buses - means that smart cities credit them this inherent capacity and don't use the law to make them use valuable private land over to parking. Capping allowed off-street parking also ensures that developers not accustomed to this inherent bonus don't waste valuable space with inappropriately accommodating cars over the people who actually exist around their building.
Multiple Principle Buildings. Allowing in many zones multiple principal buildings is huge, in that it brings back the legality of the concept formerly known as the mother-in-law suite, or sometimes the carriage house. It means that a full unit with a kitchen and bath can be created and rented out solving two problems - rising mortgages vs falling wages AND high rents due to lack of available properties. This solution is DOUBLY effective when combined with...
Reduced Lot Size Requirements. Adding a mother-in-law suite on a smaller urban lot had been done for centuries here, until we decided that density was inherently bad. Even if you can have multiple buildings, if your lot size is too small to meet the area per dwelling requirement, it doesn't do you much good. Appropriately sized requirements should shrink with the neighborhood it applies to.
2. A GOOD GRID
A city grid pattern, or what may remain of it after post-war development and freeway construction blasted through it, is the magic sauce that allows good investments to make a maximum impact. An isolated new development reachable only by freeway exit cannot transmit its value to its neighbors. But a street grid's inherent connectivity and flexibility and adaptability allows for such value to travel very efficiently, like blood circulating through arteries. As long as any part of the grid is hooked up to value - a central business district, a park, a popular commercial strip - that value has the means to flow to your lot via the grid. How?
- By allowing multiple modes of transportation via multiple routes, a grid allows access to value for anything else connected to it better than any other urban pattern, as proved by the entire history of human settlement.
- As a workable urban pattern for housing, commerce, farming, or really anything, it's non-limiting nature provides a platform for development to adapt quickly, to mature and grow and evolve - thus retaining its value when things inevitably change.
- A smaller, granular scale of development inherent in a grid makes it less prone to a large failure taking down the whole ship, as long as multiple sources of value remain connected, creating resilience.
- In most of our cities, the grid and its infrastructure already exist, meaning you can leverage that infrastructure to your advantage, rather than recreating it somewhere else. Plug and Play!
3. EXISTING AMENITIES
We talk about value, but what does that value look like? Anything, really, that is active and productive. A park, a barber shop, a grocery, a salon - in a city with a grid, these things are all a connected part of your development already, convenient and accessible, for free. These amenities are recreated at great expense anywhere that towns are developing in isolated pockets reachable only by Exit 128 to Route 12 northbound. Inside casinos and cruiseships, inside 80's style malls; in Disney World they built a huge one in the middle of a swamp. These are built by huge entities, multibillion dollar corporations, with teams of architects and engineers and financiers. If you're not able to save up a billion dollars to create your own, historic gridded city neighborhoods offer small affordable chunks with access to all of these amenities, or at least the potential for them.
Why should this excite New Orleanians? All we have is a big ol' historic super-grid with an immense array and variety of lot sizes plugged into a series of big ol' amenity centers pumping value into areas blanketed with some of the most amenable urban zoning in the country. Your Sharpie will run out of ink checking all the boxes.
Intrigued? You might just have what it takes to be a Neighborhood Farmer.
The type of developer in the best position to leverage this new (but not really new) kind of urban growth needs to be...
- TENACIOUS & ADAPTABLE - Look, things have not been done this way for a long time. The system is lazy, and it's not set up to accommodate what it sees as new concepts when it could be spending its time processing the immense volume of standard, low-effort offers for as long as it wants to. Pulling the capital together requires that you be creative in using all the resources you can - tax credits, non-profit community developer partners - basically building your own support system. It's a lot of blood, sweat and tears before the first shovel meets dirt, which usually works best when you're…
- LOCALLY-ORIENTED & INVESTED - To go through all this, you need to want it. Love your neighborhood, because the things you do for love are the things you'll need to do. You also may need the support of your neighbors, and that always works better when they actually are your neighbors. And there's no argument with them when they're on board with your vision to increase your value and theirs, and everybody wins. With every small victory, small improvement in your neighborhood, compound that success and roll it into your next thing, and truly make your neighborhood your farm.
- A PLANNER BY NATURE - To realize a vision, you need a plan. And you'll need all manner of plans - financial, building, business - and professional advice to make sure those plans are correct in their assumptions. Online resources can get you started, but a good professional architect and general contractor will pay for themselves, especially on your first go round. There is a growing national community advocating for, hacking zoning/building code for, and coaching small developers change our cities. These organizations offer great planning, design and financing resources, as well as hard data arguing for a different kind of urban growth:
- Incremental Development Alliance - Small developer resource powerhouse, with online material, community and a traveling workshop.
- Congress for New Urbanism - Advocates for creating great urban places through policy reform.
- Small Change - Innovative crowdsourcing platform for development, providing a new means of access to capital for small developers.
- Strong Towns - Pragmatic, logical advocates for how cities should be building to repair urban fabric.
- Guerilla Development Co. - Exemplifies the Show Your Work marketing approach, great resource for working models and projects.
- Missing Middle - Repository for all things related to this once-dying, now-reviving form of development.
- Lean Urbanism - Small developer resources in the form of papers and sample proformas.
Last but not least, having money helps, but even if you don't, that should just be a matter of time and tenacity if you have the characteristics of a good neighborhood Farmer.
There's a reason not everyone does it. Construction is harrowing, but ultimately, it is intensely rewarding to have shaped the space in which you live your daily life. Moreover, it is important work to repair the functionality of our cities, cities whose inherent efficiencies are paramount to a sustainable future. New kinds of growth are met with resistance at first, and may feel wrong because of it - it's like working out new muscles that haven't been used in a while. But develop those muscles, and you'll be able to do things you never thought possible.
Interested in hearing more? Start a conversation with us about a lot you walk by and wonder...