Home Rentals, Density, and Neighborhood Revitalization
Tuesday night the Carbondale city council rejected an application from Home Rentals for a special use permit that would have allowed the construction of a four unit apartment complex adjacent to the library on Monroe Street. I think the council made the correct decision, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts. But I wanted to write this post in response to some comments made during the council’s discussion. I originally wanted to include a response to a statement from the library board of directors, but I’ve run out of space, so that will have to be covered in a future post.
I’ll start by restating the reason for my objection to the special use permit for Home Rentals. I had only one reason to oppose the special use permit: Home Rentals’ dismal maintenance record on its existing properties. Their rental houses are in poor shape and their apartment buildings are among the ugliest structures in Carbondale. In recent years, Home Rentals has covered many of their properties in unappealing clay-colored vinyl siding, which has only made their appearance worse.
If Home Rentals built attractive apartment buildings and properly maintained their rental houses, I would have supported the special use permit. I favor increased residential development and increased density in and around the downtown. It was only because of Home Rentals’ poor reputation that I opposed the development. Since this position goes against conventional wisdom in Carbondale, I’ll explain at length.
In this post, I’m going to confine myself to a few comments about the discussion at Tuesday’s council meeting. During the discussion, council member Don Monty raised a concern about density. I couldn’t write fast enough to get an exact quote, but his concern was something to the effect that he sees landlords trying to build as densely as they can – trying to get as many people as possible living on each parcel – and that this is potentially problematic.
Council member Chris Wissmann, in his best comment of the evening, replied that density is the opposite of sprawl, and that our citizens have expressed their opposition to sprawl development. To his credit, Monty recognized the merit in Wissmann’s comments.
Monty also mentioned an example of a high rise development he recently visited in Chicago in which density was achieved by building vertically and moving parking underground. This allowed the developers to devote a substantial portion of the parcel to green space. Monty recognized that this type of development probably isn’t practical in Carbondale.
My comments on this exchange relate to density and green space. I’ll start with density. In March of 2009, I attended a meeting at the Carbondale Middle School. The purpose of the meeting was to take ideas from the public about what ought to be included in the new comprehensive plan. I heard comments from several people who wanted a more “walkable” community. It’s worth thinking about what we mean when we say we want “walkability.”
Strictly speaking, every community is walkable. It’s possible to walk along a busy freeway. It isn’t legal, but it’s physically possible. It’s possible to walk along a “Miracle Mile” style commercial strip. It isn’t fun, but you could do it. I occasionally see people walking down Route 13 between the mall and the strip malls on the north side of 13. They’re taking their lives in their hands, but they are able to walk there. You don’t even need a community to walk – it’s possible to walk through woods and cow pastures.
But that isn’t what we mean when we say we want a walkable community. We mean that we want the ability to walk to a nearby coffee shop or tavern. We want to be able to walk to a restaurant or grocery store. We want to walk to a movie theater or concert venue. We want to be able to walk to work or to a nearby park. And we don’t want to walk alongside a freeway with cars screaming past at 70 miles per hour. We want to walk on a nice, wide sidewalk on a regular street with cars moving at a slower pace.
This is achievable, but it requires density, among other things (short blocks, relatively narrow streets, on-street parking, etc.). If you want to live in a 2,500 square foot house sitting on a two acre lot and also live in a walkable neighborhood, you’re out of luck. The two are in conflict, and there is no way to resolve that conflict. We need density if we’re going to have the customer base necessary to support the coffee shops, taverns, restaurants, grocery stores, movie theaters, and concert venues. There is no way around it. We have to choose whether we want walkable neighborhoods or low density neighborhoods. We can’t have both at once.
Of course, we can have both walkable neighborhoods and low density neighborhoods – we just can have them in the same neighborhood. It seems to me that the logical place for walkability and higher density is the center of town. Carbondale isn’t a large enough community to support walkability and high density in every neighborhood. Ideally, some parts of town would be walkable and feature the high density necessary to support walkability. Other neighborhoods are low density and it’s impractical to walk to your destination.
In Carbondale, low density is no problem. If you want to live in a low density neighborhood, you buy a split level on Sunset or Parrish. And it’s still sort of walkable. You can go on an evening stroll around the neighborhood and back home, you just can’t walk to a restaurant, coffee shop, or tavern. In Carbondale, walkability is the problem, as the comments at the planning meeting in March 2009 showed. The solution is greater residential density in and around downtown.
I could (and probably should) write more about density, but I still need to address green space. I have to move on, but I’ll return to this subject in a future post. For now, I’ll turn to green space. Again, it’s worthwhile to consider what we mean when we talk about “green space” or its cousin “open space.”
At the March 2009 meeting at the Middle School, I heard a number of comments advocating more green space, often from the same people who advocate walkability. So what do we mean when we say “green space?” Do we mean the grassy strip between eastbound and westbound Route 13 near the mall? Probably not. Are we talking about the expansive lawn surrounding the First Southern bank building on Marion St.? Again, probably not. Are we talking about my front yard? Depending on the context, maybe we are.
I think this conversation would benefit from a fairly long quote. This is from James Howard Kunstler’s The City in Mind. Kunstler is a novelist, but he’s probably best known as an amateur urbanist and social critic. His book The Geography of Nowhere is most likely his most famous work. It decries what some have called the “malling of America.”
The quote deserves a little context. Kunstler has been invited to give a talk in Missoula, Montana. He arrived early and attended a city council meeting where a battle was taking place between pro-growth and anti-growth activists. From The City in Mind:
…the Anti-Growthers, one by one got up and made impassioned speeches about “open space.” The problem with Missoula, they contended, was that it did not “have” enough “open space.”
This was very funny because Missoula happened to be located in a part of the country where you could walk five minutes out of town in any direction and find yourself facing the greatest contiguous wilderness in the lower forty-eight states, including man-eating bears, cougars, and other bioregional incunabula. The problem as I saw it from a civic design point of view was that Missoula had too much “open space” right there in the center of town. As in many towns of the American West, Missoula’s streets were uniformly too wide and its buildings too low and too spread out with too many parking lots between them. Civic space in Missoula was poorly defined, the building facades were of a uniformly dreary, artless quality, on the whole poorly maintained, too, and there was no systematic planting of street trees. […] The trouble with Missoula was not a lack of open space. The problem was that everything it contained was poorly made, not worth caring about, and unworthy of the condition of collective self-respect called civilization. But there was nothing special about it by American standards. […]
Wherever I go in the United States these dates, it’s the same story. We want Open Space, that’s all. We ask for an abstraction, and an abstraction is delivered – in the form of bark-mulch berms planted with juniper shrubs and other such landscape “buffers” between the Kmart and the apartment “complex.” We get these little cartoons of the countryside deployed everywhere, and we are no better off for them. We want these “nature” Band-Aids because the wound to our urbanism cannot heal. We cannot even imagine it will heal: The scores of thousands of discount malls, and the subdivisions of vinyl doublewide manufactured “homes,” and the tragic collector boulevards lined with “power centers,” and the high schools with ample parking for the whole senior class, and all the rest of the cheap, ugly, provisional stuff that we’ve filled our world up with is too much with us. We gave up on the human habitat in America generations ago. Now we just grimly put up with what we’re stuck with until the next annual trip to admire the scenery in a sacred “wilderness,” such as Yosemite. Heaven, for Americans, is a landscape by Capability Brown with sand traps, numbered holes, and convenient free parking.
It’s not hard to believe that we are hopeless.
[Italics Kunstlers, bold mine.]
Substitute “Missoula” with “Carbondale,” and “open space” with “green space” and you have a decent description of our problem. This quote bears a caveat. I think Kunstler is too relentlessly negative. His standards are too high. But his basic point is accurate. Our problem is that the human habitat is cheap and ugly. It wasn’t always this way, but it’s this way now. “Green space” won’t solve the problem of the human habitat.
I’ll tell you what I mean when I talk about green space. I’m talking about the public space. That term, “public space” probably deserves some definition, but I don’t want to dwell on it. What I mean when I talk about “public space” is the part of the community open to the public. I’m not talking about First Southern bank’s yard. I’m not talking about my back yard. I’m talking about the public rights of way – the streets, sidewalks, and the grassy strip between the two. I’m also talking about our front yards – the building facades and the yards in front of them. And I’m talking about our public parks.
I want to return to the First Southern yard because I think it’s instructive. Our zoning laws call for “green space” in commercial developments (the First Southern bank is located in a BPL district, which requires a minimum front yard depth of 40 feet, a minimum side yard of 20 feet, etc.). So, in response to public demand, we get the First Southern yard.
I have to ask: of what benefit to the community is the First Southern yard? Suppose I want to play Frisbee with a friend. Can I go play in the First Southern yard? Probably not – it’s private property and it doesn’t make sense for a bank to allow strangers to play Frisbee on its yard. What if I want to walk my dog, or sit on a bench and read a book? Is the First Southern yard a good place to do that? Again, I doubt it.
I think Carbondale would have been better served if the First Southern bank had been built on a smaller lot and the building and its parking covered most or all of the lot. Since the development was part of a TIF district, the city potentially could have used TIF funds to purchase a lot in the area and developed it into a public park where I could play Frisbee, walk a dog, or read on a bench. In other words, we generally benefit from public green space, not private green space.
I think we have to be careful when we demand “green space.” I’m all for public parks. I think that wherever possible we ought to have a grassy strip planted with trees between the street and the sidewalk. But I’m skeptical when I hear calls for “green space” on private developments. It seems to me that these requirements are at odds with good urban design. That blank space between the street and First Southern bank, and the blank space between First Southern and its neighbors is wasted space. Sure, it’s green, if we take green to mean nothing more than a grassy yard. But it isn’t accessible to the public, and it is an obstacle to the walkability that we all claim to support.
Better that we allow private developments to be as dense and compact as possible and focus our desire for green space on public spaces that will be used by the public. How would we do this? I’m sure there are many possibilities, but one I’d suggest is a green space fee. Here’s how it would work. In return for a fee, you can skip the “green space” requirements in our zoning code. The fee goes into a special fund used to buy and develop public green space – contiguous, publicly accessible space that adds to our community rather than subtracting from it. This would aid the goal of creating a walkable community and would avoid the kind of wasted space we see in the First Southern yard.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I initially planned to include a response to a statement from the library’s board of directors. Unfortunately, I’m approaching 2,400 words here, which is LONG for a blog post. I’ll have to respond to the library board’s statement in a future post, most likely appearing tomorrow (maybe Monday – blog traffic seems to decrease on Fridays and I’m reluctant to write a long post on a subject I’m passionate about and then publish it on a day when fewer people will read it).
Comments are welcome.