Tag Archives: density

Affordable Housing in Boulder, Colorado

By Dom Nozzi

February 20, 2017

I posted a quote on Facebook meant for the many people I know in Boulder who believe that as much as possible must be done to stop growth and development:

“The opposite to bad development is good development, not no development.” – Padriac Steinschneider

Someone replied by stating that “[n]o one said anything about no development and growth. This is discussion about affordability which is a separate issue. We can grow a lot and build mostly unaffordable housing, or we can grow less and preserve the affordable housing that we have and build mostly affordable new housing. Those are 2 very different affordability outcomes unrelated to growth.”

My response:

The underlying hope — and often the quite outspoken belief — for a great many in Boulder is no growth. I’ve lost track of how many times I see people in Boulder fight to raise development fees or call for more meetings for a proposed development plan (mostly for added opportunities to stop the development).

Or state that population growth is our number one threat.

Since fees are so very high in Boulder already ($11 million in fees paid by Solana, for example), and since added time is very expensive for developers, higher fees and more meetings is, for many who call for such things (if they are honest), an effort to prevent development.

For many in Boulder, Al Bartlett is a patron saint. Over and over again, he sounded the alarm that population growth is a huge threat (and implicitly, for many who hear his message, that population growth must be stopped in Boulder).

Since there is no humane or practical or constitutional way for Boulder to stop population growth, the next best thing has been to fight to slow it down as much as possible (while hoping that such efforts will eventually stop growth or at least push it to towns outside of Boulder).

One way to clearly see how stopping growth is the underlying objective is the extreme opposition to density increases in Boulder. Since Boulder cannot grow outwards beyond city limits (without great difficulty), or upwards due to severe height limits, fighting against density increases is another way to stop growth in the near future.

I don’t see how growing less preserves affordable housing, or how growing more removes affordable housing. Most people I know who support more compact, walkable growth and more housing are, like me, supporting the idea of making it easier to build such things as backyard cottages (or other forms of ADUs), co-ops, smaller houses/apartments, and converting some industrial and surface parking land to housing. Each of those tactics inherently provide more affordable housing.

By contrast, those pushing for slower growth or no growth often strongly oppose each of these options for more affordable housing.

It must be noted that growth in Boulder is already very slow when one considers how very desirable the quality of life is here, and the fact that we have had a very low maximum annual residential growth cap — I think that cap still exists.

Instead of supporting the affordable housing tactics I note above, many slower growth advocates call for heavy-handed local government market interventions, which I believe is unsustainable — in part because it leads to many unintended consequences. Slow growthers are forced to adopt such a “command economy” tactic because the idea of creating the new and relatively affordable housing I mention a few sentences back would mean more people, and for too many of the slower growthers, that is not in any way acceptable. Al Bartlett, after all.NIMBY-protest-Toronto-Boston-SanFrancisco-neighbourhood-airport-housing-preservation-Condo.ca_-512x341

I would love to see the slower growthers support building new housing that is affordable, as you say above, but all I see is opposition to such new housing. I see opposition to:

1. ADUs.
2. Co-ops.
3. Loss of parking – often as a way to create more housing.
4. Providing less parking for housing or unbundling the price of parking from housing (both of these are powerful ways to create more affordable housing because parking is extremely expensive).
5. Reducing the amount of parking that a developer must provide.
6. Smaller lots or smaller houses.
7. Buildings taller than 1-2 stories.
8. Adding smaller shops or offices into residential areas or incorporated into the same building.
9. Smaller building setbacks and smaller open space or landscaping requirements for new developments.

Personally, I would love to see in Boulder a big increase in smaller homes, without parking, that are an easy walk to shops and offices. I would love to buy such housing, as I’m sure a great many in Boulder would want to as well. But the supply of such walkable housing in Boulder is vanishingly small. And the demand is huge (and growing due to the fact that many Millennials seek such housing). That bids up the price of such inherently affordable housing artificially. Given the very loud opposition I hear from so many of the slower growthers (which I increasingly call the anti-city, anti-environment folks), I’m not optimistic that the supply of such greener, more sustainable, more affordable housing will grow much at all.

One cynical form of optimism on the affordable housing front is that since cities such as Boulder now have way more drivable suburban housing than the demand for such housing, we can expect that such housing will be relatively affordable in future decades, because supply will far exceed demand.

Most of Boulder was built during an era that put low-density, single-use-zoning, drivable suburbia on a pedestal (in part by adopted zoning regulations that make compact development illegal). In the coming decades, it will be the cities that are able to incrementally make such unsustainable places more walkable (and create new neighborhoods with such housing) that will have a future. That inevitably means more compact housing, which means a more affordable and greener lifestyle (because the huge expense of paying for car travel will decline and the huge per capita environmental impact of car travel will diminish). It also means more people living in neighborhoods, which is anathema to those who seek to retain a drivable lifestyle.

Christopher B. Leinberger, on Dec. 20th, 2006, had this to say on the topic (he is the author of The Option of Urbanism):

“…walkable urbanity is entirely different than drivable suburbanism. The underlying financial and market principle of drivable development, aka sprawl, is that “more is less”; more development reduces the quality of life and financial returns, leading developers and their customers to perpetually go further and further to the fringe in a fruitless search for very things (open space, drivable convenience, perceived safety, etc.) this development promises. It is a downward spiral.

Walkable urbanity works under financial and market principles that “more is better”; as more dense development takes place with mixed-uses within walking distance and multiple transportation options to get there, the place gets better. Hence the environmental, fiscal (government tax base), community building AND project financial elements all become better. It is an upward spiral.”

And Vince Graham:

“If what you sell is the perception of privacy and exclusivity, then every new house is a degradation of the amenity. However, if what you sell is community, then every new house is an enhancement of the asset.”

 

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Phoenix or Siena? Do We Reduce Environmental Impact by Stopping Growth? Or Ensuring Growth is Better?

By Dom Nozzi

February 13, 2018

Someone posted a rebuttal to the excellent guest opinion in the Boulder, Colorado newspaper by Zane Selvan’s about the environmental impacts of low density development in Boulder:

“There it is again: ‘per capita carbon footprint’. I’m concerned with Boulder’s ‘net’ carbon footprint. Density and infill proponents want to increase the population and increase the net carbon footprint in order to achieve a decrease in per capita carbon footprint. It’s the only way they can do it. It’s oxymoronic. Boulder will become a bigger, dirtier more crowded city overall in order to become slightly cleaner per individual. It’s a self defeating policy.”

My response: If Boulder’s 108,000 people were spread out over a lower density, more dispersed and car dependent pattern, the impact on the environment would be much more brutal and unsustainable. As it stands now, Boulder’s low-density pattern already fuels a huge amount of car travel and carbon emissions — way more than if that 108,000 people were in a more compact, human-scaled pattern.

For those, like me, who prefer a “small town character,” Boulder would feel much more like a small town if the city was much more compact, rather than dispersed. If our parking lots were smaller and more rare. If our roads and intersections were less massive. For me and many others, “small town ambiance” is much better achieved when we have a compact, human-scaled dimensioning of our neighborhoods and town centers and road infrastructure.

Small town character, for me, has far less to do with the number of people who live in Boulder.

There are hundreds of cities and towns in Europe that demonstrate this.

When I am at a monster huge Boulder intersection with a double-left turn lane and six or so through lanes, I feel like I am in Houston or Phoenix. I feel uncomfortable, exposed, unsafe, anxious to leave, and disappointed about what has been done. There is no sense of place whatsoever, and it feels “big city” even though I would often be about the only human at that intersection. By contrast, I can be in, say, Pearl Street Mall with hundreds of people, but the human-scaled dimensions create a small town sense of place and comfort and pride.

It is sometimes claimed that the only reason certain cities are compact and walkable is that they have convenient public transportation (and “my city does not have convenient transit”). But having convenient transit service is not simply a matter of citizens asking for it or elected officials providing it. Places like Phoenix and Houston and many neighborhoods in Boulder don’t have convenient transit because citizens have spent decades demanding…

  • Low density
  • Short suburban buildings
  • A huge amount of free parking
  • Wide, free-flowing, and free-to-use roads

Each of those elements make it extremely difficult if not impossible to provide convenient transit in a city. The fact that Siena and NYC and much of Boston and DC have convenient transit is that they opted to build densely and did not go hog wild in making cars happy. Why is transit not convenient in much of Boulder? Why is it so convenient in bigger US cities? Is it because they are smart and Boulder is stupid? I think not.

I prefer convenient transit and “small town ambiance,” which is why I regularly advocate compact, 2-5 story neighborhoods and town centers with scarce, priced parking and human-scaled streets. The fact that so many in Boulder fight to the death for low density, one-story subdivisions with abundant parking and wide roads largely explains why Boulder is losing its “small town ambiance.”Big city vs small town ambiance

How ironic.

Notice in the photo set that in the “small town ambiance” places in Siena and Boulder, we are looking at places that have a relatively compact collection of people living, working, shopping, and playing. In other words, “small town ambiance” is often found when we have a relatively large population size. Also notice the taller buildings in the two “small town ambiance” images compared to the two “big city ambiance” images. In other words, “tall” buildings do not necessarily create a “big city ambiance.” Indeed, the opposite is often true.

Some people say that a larger number of people have a larger carbon footprint than a smaller number of people. Well yes, that is obviously true. But is there a practical way for us to halt population growth? After working academically and professionally in environmental science and town planning for 40 years, I know of no humane or constitutional way for us to stop population growth.

What some would like us to do is to nudge the growth toward other communities, but that does not reduce the carbon footprint. It just shifts it to less politically powerful or more affordable places. Such an effort also disperses human settlement rather than having human settlement be more compact, and that ramps up the overall carbon footprint.

The effective way to reduce overall carbon footprint, then, is to not waste our time trying to do the impossible (stopping human population increases) or being NIMBYs (by shunting the growth to politically weaker places).

The key is to work to have development occur in a more compact, sustainable way that promotes a healthy, happy city. When we do that, people are less likely to want to live in low-density, car-dependent places (because town center living is more enjoyable and enticing).

Boulder’s dispersed, low-density development pattern means we have plenty of infill development opportunities so that we can become more compact, safe, sociable, and walkable.

With compact, relatively gentle, context-sensitive infill (small condos, compact apartments, mixed use, small houses, row houses, small lot sizes, small or no setbacks, 2-5 story buildings, accessory dwelling units, co-ops, replacement of surface parking and suburban setbacks and sprawling industrial/warehouse areas with urban buildings) — not to mention the elimination of required parking — we substantially increase affordable housing opportunities. That would mean we’d have less people being forced — for financial reasons — to move to outlying, car-dependent places. Again, the overall carbon footprint would go down.

Despite the conventional wisdom we still hear too often in Boulder, it turns out that being pro-city is to be pro-environment. To be anti-city is to be anti-environment. Compactness is the new green.

Phoenix or Siena? I prefer the compactness of a Siena over the low-density Phoenix (or Orlando)…

 

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Filed under Politics, Road Diet, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design, Walking

What Tools Can Be Used in Boulder Colorado to Create More Affordable Housing?

By Dom Nozzi

September 15, 2017

Boulder, Colorado – due to such factors as its strikingly picturesque setting, its outstanding climate, its proximity to a large number of world-class hiking and biking trails, its proximity to ski resorts (and many other stupendous outdoor adventures), and its impressive bicycle and transit facilities – has one of the most expensive housing markets in the nation.ho

The question often raised in the city, therefore, is what tools are available to make housing more affordable in Boulder. A common suggestion is to build more housing in the city.

There are a number of effective ways that more housing can provide more affordable housing in Boulder.

Since land is so expensive in Boulder, newly created housing needs to minimize the amount of land that a house consumes (compact condos, for example, or small apartments).

By revising zoning regulations to allow shops and offices and other destinations within residential neighborhoods, a larger number of households can reduce the number of cars they must own. Because each car owned by a household costs, on average, $10,000 per year, a significant amount of money that was being used for transportation can instead be allocated to housing if the household can reduce its car ownership from, say, two cars to one.

The City should incentivize or require new developments to unbundle the price of parking from the price of the (non-single family) home so that a household can save significant dollars by opting not to pay for unneeded parking. Land for parking is a big expense given the expensive land cost in Boulder.

These important affordablility opportunities can be explored to a much more substantial extent in Boulder, as most or all of them have hardly been deployed at all.

 

 

 

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Florida Growth Management Has Put Gigantism on Steroids

By Dom Nozzi

September 17, 2017

Florida Growth Management and its “concurrency” is a high falutin’ term which has, almost single-mindedly, been directed toward ensuring that new growth happens concurrently with widened roads and more parking. All other concurrency concerns arestreet without on street parking trivial by comparison (such as parks, water, schools, etc.). “Sufficient” roads and parking is equated with maintaining quality of life.

Tragically and ironically, these obsessive efforts to ensure happy motoring is about the most effective way to undermine quality of life, not protect it.

For Florida Growth Management regulations to truly protect and advance quality of life, those regulations should be focused on promoting the people habitat, not the car habitat. State and local growth management regulations must insist on quality urban design, which is largely achieved by requiring new development to be compact and human-scaled.

Since Florida started state-directed growth management back in the early 80s, the state has gotten the opposite.

Communities have instead been degraded by dispersed, car-scaled design. Why? Because to be happy, cars need dispersed, low-density, single-use development. A car-based society induces gigantism, and the gigantism disease has been administered growth hormones via “growth management” and “concurrency.”

Maybe someday Florida will wise up and adopt planning laws that promote quality of life. It has done the opposite for 35 years.

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Reducing Car Trips in Boulder

By Dom Nozzi

July 25, 2017

Way back in 1989, Peter Newman and Jeffrey Kenworthy showed that traffic congestion REDUCES air emissions and gas consumption at the regional level. This is in part due to the reduction in low-value car trips caused by the time tax that congestion imposes.

The compact development pattern that can result from more housing being built in Boulder would reduce the PER CAPITA trips made by car. Since Boulder currently has very low-density, dispersed patterns of development (and WAY too much free parking), per capita car trips are very high.large lot subdivision

Boulder is way better off — and is much more affordable and equitable — if the City successfully encourages more compact development patterns through the construction of more housing.

It would mean a lot more Boulder residents can choose to travel by walking, bicycling, or transit.

Environmental quality goes way up when per capita car trips go down. And Boulder will be a much friendlier and happier and healthier place, as healthier, more enjoyable, sociable interaction is much more likely when using transit, when walking, or when bicycling.

Boulder has made a huge tactical error over the past several decades by thinking that minimizing population growth and reducing density was the way to reduce car trips. Instead, that tactic has put too many Boulder residents in cars, made it much more difficult to travel without a car, and has made Boulder a lot less affordable.

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Why Are Mom and Pop Stores So Scarce?

By Dom Nozzi

May 17, 2017

A friend of mine recently complained that the city we live in (Boulder CO) is “planning ANOTHER bank for the Pearl St. Mall! When is enough enough,” she asked?

She went on to claim that there are “15 empty store fronts but that is because of landlord greed.”

“When,” she wondered, “will the city decide that we need to encourage mom and pop stores over banks and large chains that have no vested interest in the city?”

The City of Boulder, I explained to her, is not planning to add another bank to the Mall. A bank president is planning to do that.

Banks, I said, are common in such low-density places (such as American pedestrian malls) that are unable to attract a large number of customers, as are jewelers. If you were a landlord along the Mall, I told my friend, I suspect that you would be aggressively seeking the rents sought by the existing landlords, as I believe you share the same values as those landlords: making money rather than losing money. And I suspect you would not consider yourself “greedy” for wanting to avoid losing money.

Throughout its history, and up to this very moment, Boulder (like a great many cities in America) has desired mom and pop stores along the Mall. But there is almost nothing a city can do to encourage such stores for two primary reasons: (1) The rent is very high along the Mall, which makes it financially impossible for a mom and pop store to afford to be there; and (2) The density of residential and commercial development in the vicinity of the Mall is far too low to attract enough customers to make it feasible for a mom and pop store to survive.

Mom and pop stores only occur when rents are relatively low, when there are a high number of customers living and working in the vicinity (such as in Brussels, Antwerp, Bern, Siena, and many other compact cities), or both.

The Law of Large Numbers, when applied to cities, shows that as a city grows its population, and does so relatively compactly, worker productivity increases, innovation increases, mom and pop stores grow in number, cultural diversity grows, and the range of restaurants and grocery store items grows. The Law partly is driven by synergy. UntitledSynergy occurs when larger numbers of people congregate and work together, and the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Low densities, by isolating creatives, destroys diversity, innovation, smaller scales and the number of choices available.

Boulder is an interesting case because it shows both effects: a very low density, yet relatively high levels of innovation due to the large number of brilliant and creative people who have settled in Boulder — largely due to the high quality of life. If Boulder became much more compact and dense, I believe levels of innovation, diversity, productivity, mom and pop stores, and productivity would grow substantially (the city would also be far more walkable and bikeable).

Boulder’s decades of NIMBYS fighting tooth and nail to lower densities (and the very high quality of life) in the city are the primary reason why mom and pop stores are rare on the Mall and big chains/banks/jewelers are common.

When is enough NIMBYism enough?

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The Fruits of NIMBYism, Part II

By Dom Nozzi

May 28, 2017

I have a friend here in Boulder who complained about how Boulder, Colorado would heavy-handedly not allow accessory kitchens such as hers at her upstairs apartments.nimby-web-2

My response:

Anti-density NIMBYism strikes again. This sort of iron hand is the City acting on behalf of RAGING no-growthers. And FURIOUS motorists who believe they have a god-given, constitutional right to free/easy parking and uncongested roads.

Every single time that a Boulderite screams about building heights being too high or density being too much or buildings being too big or growth being out of control or the development blocking my view of the Flatirons or a project will take away my on-street parking or a site plan delivering houses that are cheek and jowl too close to each other or a development not having enough open space or buildings having setbacks that are too small (and each  of these screams go into Council ears nearly every single day), the less likely it is that Boulder will allow or promote accessory units, granny flats, accessory kitchens, tiny houses, affordable housing, more walking, more bicycling, and more transit.

Oops.

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