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From the Architect's Desk

Why NOT in my backyard?

On 18, Dec 2017 | No Comments | In From the Architect's Desk, Rants and Wisdom | By lthomas

The first weekend in December, an article in The New York Times caught my eye.


In “The Great American Single-family Home Problem,” writer Conor Dougherty reported on an abandoned house in Berkeley, California, where a developer bought the lot with the intention of razing an older single home in order to replace it with three smaller homes. Even though this was well within the zoning law, the neighbors did all they could to block the project.

In another recent Times article, “What happened to the American Boomtown, ” Emily Badger writes about the same issue from the viewpoint of companies hoping to attract talented new employees.  In areas of rising prosperity she notes, “…the larger problem is that [workers] are blocked from moving to prosperous places by the shortage and cost of housing there.”

In many desirable urban areas there is an affordable housing crisis. Much of that is being driven by lack of inventory – not enough houses means you pay more for what little there is. Typically the answer seems to endlessly build “luxury” apartment/condo high rise buildings— yet these are not more affordable at all. But when someone tries to develop, say, a small, low-scale apartment building in a typical single-family city neighborhood, or build two or even three smaller, more affordable homes on a single-family residence lot (something that might lessen the price burden)… Oh no! Not in my backyard! Just try to get the zoning variance for that one!

Here’s a quote from Dougherty’s article explaining the challenge:

“The problem is that smaller and generally more affordable quarters like duplexes and small apartment buildings, where young families get their start, are being built at a slower rate. Such projects hold vast potential to provide lots of housing — and reduce sprawl — by adding density to the rings of neighborhoods that sit close to job centers but remain dominated by larger lots and single-family homes.

 “Single-family neighborhoods are where the opportunity is, but building there is taboo,” Mr. Romem said. As long as single-family-homeowners are loath to add more housing on their blocks, he said, the economic logic will always be undone by local politics.”

This attitude of “Not in my neighborhood!” within the bounds of a city, which by its very nature is meant to be a dense community, doesn’t make sense to me. Perhaps because when I look in my own historic backyard, I see how well mixed-size residential homes can cohabitate.

After reading this article I went for a little walk around Roland Park where I live. I passed three or five sections of rowhomes, duplexes of varying lovely designs, low-rise apartments and grand, single-family homes. All within about four blocks.

Not only do we have a mix of houses, we have a mix of people here. How wonderful it is that young couples with children can buy into the neighborhood, professors and faculty at nearby Johns Hopkins University and professional couples like us can live in a semi-detached home, and retirees and single, young professionals can rent or buy the condos/apartments. And of course, if you want a big manse on a gloriously landscaped lot, you can have that, too. We can walk to shops and restaurants. What’s not to love? Why would anyone fight this?

Many people think it will destroy their home value. Not so. Those big homes in our neighborhood? They don’t come cheap. My duplex isn’t detracting from that biggie’s resale.

Others assume it will make the neighborhood look like a big mess. If only developers would use architects and look for creative solutions, then this would be a no brainer. My neighborhood (and others like it) works because it was designed to work. Back in 1891 the Roland Park Company planned out this neighborhood with its mix of housing stock, its plan for roads and back lanes, even its community resources like business space, churches and a library. I think that even back in the early 1900s developers understood that there could and should be housing for many size families within one quality neighborhood.

There is always a parking and traffic conundrum. Where will we put our CARS?! The most likely solution lies in creatively utilizing the layout of land parcels to accommodate parking. Our neighborhood is a mix of those who street park and those who utilize the small garages that frequently connect to the lanes behind the homes. Of course, back in the day this neighborhood was served by a trolley car – any conversation about mixed housing density MUST include a discussion on improving public transportation.

I love urban life. I can mix with lots of different people from many different backgrounds. I can walk or bike to places without needing a car. And I actually enjoy being part of a dense community.

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