Tag Archives: Single-family detached home

What Do You Mean By Suburb?

Sometimes I think that a lot of misunderstandings in the discussion on cities relate to inconsistent terminology. It seems to me that we have four different concepts of what a suburb is, so if we’re going to talk about suburbs, we need to be talking about the same kind of suburb. In my personal descending order of preference, they are:

  • Los Angeles: typified by surprisingly dense uniform development filled in on a grid of arterial roadways, usually at half-mile or mile spacing. Development spreads uninterrupted until it runs into an insurmountable barrier, e.g. the Pacific Ocean, 10,000-foot tall mountains, or kangaroo rats. This pattern is a legacy partly of the rancho grants, partly of the US public land system. This is what people think of when they think of sprawl, but it’s actually the least sprawly.
  • Northeast: typified by somewhat dense historic town centers, surrounded by low density exurban development. Subdivisions have larger lots, and there are often large relatively undeveloped areas. This is a legacy of development following the pattern of small farms. Virtually all of the characteristics that urbanists like predate the auto age.
  • South: as I noted in my post on Boston and Atlanta, this is basically the same pattern as Northeast Corridor suburban growth but without the underlying pattern of historic cities and town centers. The South is what the Northeast would look like if no one had been living there to start with in 1945.
  • Midwest: like the Northeast, but even more spread out. Subdivisions are built around small, historic agricultural crossroads, and there can be miles of farmland between exurban towns. Midwest sprawl is typified by an urban footprint that keeps growing quickly, despite relatively stagnant populations, as people decamp the old cities.

In the following sections, I’m going to describe each type in more detail, including why I like or dislike the pattern.

Los Angeles

For LA, let’s revisit the patch of development in Lancaster that I used as a counterexample to Boston and Atlanta.

Lancaster

As I said, this is what most people think of when they think of sprawl. Aerial shots of suburban tracts like this are stock images in any urbanist post about how suburbia is a monotonous, soul-crushing, doomed landscape.

But on many of the things that urbanists claim to care about, Lancaster does pretty well. It has a solid grid of arterials on half-mile spacing, and many of the arterials already have bike lanes. You could throw down bus lanes with POP fare collection and stops every half mile that would basically be Jarrett Walker’s dream grid (well, without anchoring). Add some mid-block crossings for pedestrians and boom, you’re good.

Now, depending on the whims of developers and local planners, there can be a lot of cul-de-sacs and indirect streets. You might have a circuitous path to get to one of those arterials – at least if you’re in a car. I’m always a little amused at the hand-wringing over street grids. Y’all were never kids with bikes? I grew up in a place with lots of cul-de-sacs and disconnected streets. We knew where we could cut through. That’s not to say we shouldn’t try to make new developments better by bringing back the jog, but this is a much easier problem to solve than those faced by other types of suburban development.

Then there’s that sneaky LA density. Let’s take the block in the image above bounded by J, J-8, 15th East, and 20th East. By my count, there are 483 SFRs and somewhere in the vicinity of 190 apartments (making some conservative assumptions), along with, very roughly, 125k SF of retail. If we assume 3 people per house (in line with Lancaster demographics) and conservatively say 1.3 people per apartment, we’ve got about 1,700 people living in a quarter of a square mile (sq mi), for a density of 6,800/sq mi.

In other words, this patch of the Antelope Valley – mostly SFRs, with a big-ass parking lot in front of the retail, the kind of place that people like James Howard Kunstler would call crudscape – already has a density higher than the weighted density of the Washington DC area, and it’s not far behind places like Philadelphia and Boston. Even if we base the calculation on the least dense sixteenth-square-mile, which has 154 SFRs, the density is 5,500/sq mi. Weighted density of Portland, for reference, is 4,373/sq mi. Oh, and it’s not even built out yet.

That last point is another secret strength of the LA suburban pattern: no one is under any delusions about what we’re doing here. Everyone expects and hopes that those vacant lots will get developed. The home builders want it. Retail and business owners want it. R Rex Parris wants it. And the folks in the apartments on the other side of J-8 aren’t going to mourn the loss of those dusty lots. If you were to liberalize the zoning, eventually you’d end up with dingbats like Palms or skinny-but-deep redeveloped Cudahy lots like you see in their namesake city and places like El Monte. This year, Lancaster changed its zoning to allow accessory dwelling units. In LA, the expectation is that more people are going to show up, and that’s a good thing – the opposite of the premise under which suburbs in New England operate.

Northeast

Now, in total contrast to LA suburbs, where people basically expect and want growth, the assumption in New England is that you have a town perfected by the descendants of Myles Standish and John Winthrop when they settled it in 16-whenever, and all this growth is irredeemably ruining the historic character of the town. Let’s have a look at The Pinehills, a recent major subdivision in Plymouth, MA.

Plymouth

The Pinehills is what passes for smart growth in a lot of the Northeast; the Boston Globe says the state uses it as model, in an article that proves my point by citing a resident as a 10th-generation descendant of William Bradford. The permits allow for a little less than 3,000 houses on 3,174 acres – or in other words, a final density of about 1,800/sq mi, well down into exurban territory and on par with places like Bismarck and Pocatello. New England is the land of two-acre zoning. The expectation is that the intervening area will never be developed. Every suburban resident in Massachusetts subconsciously fancies himself an English baron, entitled to undeveloped wood lots for fox hunting or whatever.

This is a development 45 miles out from Boston. The low density means that it is always going to be impractical to serve the area with transit. The insistence on rural character means that the arterials are unpleasant and unsafe for biking and walking. As I said in my Boston/Atlanta post, every dense neighborhood that exists in New England existed 60 years ago. Tom Menino and Joey C can conjure a few new urban districts out of semi-vacant industrial land, but that’s about it.

It’s important to note that this a fundamentally different mindset, and it affects all aspects of policy. For example, recent MBTA commuter rail extensions like Newburyport serve towns with comically low populations and population densities (Rowley, population 5,856, density 290/sq mi) that have no realistic prospects for appreciable growth. Deval Patrick gets accolades from Streetsblog for proposing “smart growth” density of 4 SFRs or 8 apartments per acre near transit stations, which will produce population densities on par with. . . Lancaster. Of course, that’s only if they actually develop an entire square mile around the station. Which they won’t, because it’s New England.

Despite all of this, the Northeast still benefits from legacy town and city centers. I’m not sure what you can do with the low-density exurbs, but the presence of these nodes at least means that people see what density looks like.

South

With the South and Midwest, we’re into territory I don’t have personal familiarity with, so I welcome any thoughts or corrections. In general, it’s harder to find “typical” suburban development outside of California, because there’s more variability. For the South, I’m going to revisit the Atlanta area: Redan, which is just outside the 285 beltway on the east side of the city. I tried to find an area of development that had some apartments, since they seem to be more common in the South than in the Northeast or Midwest. I’m looking at the area between the 278, Wellborn, Marbut, and Panola.

Redan

This part of Redan has a density of about 4,900 sq/mi, which would make it very dense by Atlanta standards, where weighted density is only 2,173 sq/mi. Part of the problem is that it’s just very hard to pick a representative plot here. The area sprawls so far that the edges are mostly undeveloped, which makes them unsuitable for measuring the pattern in the region. Here’s another shot, west of the 285, in Powder Springs. Looking at the area between Powder Springs, New MacLand, Macedonia, and Hopkins.

PowderSprings

This area has a density of about 2,600 sq/mile, which is in line with what we expect for the region.

Looking around the South in general, using old images available in Google Earth, it does seem to me that more recent development has been build a little more densely – perhaps as developers have realized they’re running out of land? It also seems that the planning and development culture of the South is such that the region wants to keep growing in population, which is not really the case for the Northeast and Midwest. However, I’m not sure if the political and social structure of the South is ready for upzoning and density on the level of Houston or Los Angeles. The low density of the South makes it difficult to provide effective transit and more costly per capita to maintain infrastructure.

The other thing that will challenge the ability to provide effective suburban transit in the South is, like the Northeast, the mishmash incoherent network of arterials. Unlike Los Angeles and the Midwest, the South and the Northeast inherited a winding network of colonial roads that make it very hard to design transit routes that don’t have a lot of turns. Whereas Western runs over 25 miles due south from Los Feliz to San Pedro, in the South and Northeast, you’re lucky to find an arterial road that doesn’t change direction at random and dead end after a few miles. In addition, the insistence on maintaining “rural character” means that there’s often public resistance to widening arterials (even to provide transit) and building things like bike lanes and sidewalks.

Midwest

From a 10,000-foot view, the Midwest seems to have more freeways than the rest of the country, along with bigger suburban lots. That, combined with low population growth, seems to me to make this the purest form of sprawl, and the least sustainable. For our example of Midwest suburbs, I offer up Michele Bachmann’s district: Stillwater, MN. Take the area between 75th St, Neal, McKusick, and Manning.

Stillwater

This area checks in at a density of about 1,200/sq mi, with 300 SFRs and 150 apartments. The weighted density of the Minneapolis MSA is 3,383 sq/mi, so this area is low and it may yet get denser. However, it’s hard to see it reaching Lancaster densities anytime soon. On the plus side, the Midwest does have a good arterial grid.

Notice that many of the subdivisions in the Midwest have large lots – what Californian planning would call “estate residential”, and relegate to a few affluent communities like Acton and mountainsides that are too steep for denser development. You won’t find any development like that in the LA Basin, the Valley, or the vast majority of Orange County. Where it still exists in the IE – for example, Fontana – the lots are being further subdivided into typical LA suburbia.

In the Midwest, though, like the Northeast, there’s no expectation that these areas will ever get any denser. With low population density, a mindset that opposes further development, and far-flung subdivisions, it’s hard to see how these areas could be served well by transit, or become very walkable. When I listen to Charles Marohn, I sometimes have to remind myself that he’s talking about places like Baxter, which, other than being called a “suburb”, has remarkably little in common with a place like Corona.

Summary

I promise you, all of the images in this post are at the same scale. It is interesting to look at them next to each other and compare. The differences that I’ve outlined in this post explain why I think the LA development pattern is the best and why I’m essentially bullish on the future sustainability of LA.

For reference, here’s a quick tabular summary of the differences between these four types of suburbs. Suitability for walking and biking pretty much correlates with density, because if the place isn’t dense enough, you won’t be able to walk or bike to anything worthwhile, even if the infrastructure for it exists.

suburb-table

Advertisements

‘Round Palms: I <3 Dingbats

Next up in my Tour d’Palms is Clarington Av, which runs from Venice to National two blocks west of Hughes Av. Clarington is a little more heavily traveled than many of the residential streets in Palms, I think because it distributes/collects a fair amount of neighborhood traffic, and connects Palms to downtown Culver City. Probably partly as a result, almost all of Clarington has been redeveloped to apartment buildings, though a few SFRs are still around. You might want to open up an aerial map in another window and follow along to get an appreciation for the variety of building size and type. Without further ado:

At Clarington and Venice, we have an absolutely classic LA scene. With Sony Pictures Entertainment in the background, we have a 1985 strip mall on the left offering a mini world tour (Miyako Sushi, Villa Tacos, Giovanni’s Trattoria, Mama’s Indian, Thai BBQ, a convenience store that is somehow related to Myanmar, plus a party store and a nail salon for good measure). On the right is a generic four-story office building, also dating to 1985. It’s been vacant for a while, but the “for lease” sign recently came down and they’ve started painting the exterior.

DSCN0102

On the opposite side of Venice is an upscale Thai restaurant and a Smart ‘n Final Extra.

North of that and across the street are two large apartment buildings (built 1982, left and 2006, right).

3785Clarington

Then, we have this long, skinny dingbat, built 1963.

DSCN0103

Across the street, there’s a 1964 dingbat that’s one of my personal favorites.

DSCN0106

I like it because it looks like a giant whale straining cars through its baleen.

DSCN0106goofy

Just past that, there’s an old-school SFR from 1963 with an auxiliary apartment building attached at the back. When I moved to Palms, I looked at an apartment here. It was very affordable, and the building is managed by a nice family that lives in the SFR portion of the structure. Traditionally, this is how home ownership translated into wealth for low-income and mid-income families: the ability to rent out rooms or apartments. This is a much more logical and sustainable way to build wealth than depending on never-ending house price increases.

DSCN0105

North of that building, there’s a three-story apartment and two-story apartment, built 2008 and 1964.

DSCN0108

At the corner of Clarington and Regent, a two-story building and a five-story building, built 1958 and 2011.

DSCN0109

Between Regent and Tabor, you’re pretty much in dingbat heaven. From Venice to Regent, many of the buildings have larger footprints, but on this block, most of them are single lot dingbats. From left to right, built 1962, 1965, 1987, an original SFR from 1922 hiding in the trees, and 1974.

DSCN0110

This building, from 1988, has siding instead of stucco – a dead giveaway it’s a Century West property.

DSCN0111

Here’s that 1922 SFR, looking fine next the a two-story apartment from 1974.

DSCN0112

A typical single lot dingbat from 1963.

DSCN0113

This model comes in blue or yellow, built 1967.

DSCN0114goofy

DSCN0115goofy

Another Century West property (1988) and a modern-style building (1990).

DSCN0116

From the pink stucco to the floating faux rock wall, nothing says 1972 like this dingbat at the corner of Clarington and Tabor. The designer of this thing should get a Pritzker just to teach architects a little humility 😉

DSCN0117

Direct to you from the City of Lights, 50 years ago.

DSCN0118

Between yet another Century West property (1988) and a 2002 double-lot apartment building, we find a couple of charming SFRs from 1917 and 1930.

DSCN0119

On the north side of Palms, there’s three buildings on the west side of Clarington, with considerable variability in size and age (from left to right, 1988, 1963, and 1946). (Note: the 1946 building was recently demolished to make way for an Expo Line traction power substation, I think.)

On the east, two buildings, from 2000 (left) and 1951 (right).

3436Clarington

So on the short block between Palms and Exposition, we have five different decades represented. Between Venice and Exposition, every decade for the last 100 years is present. The variety of building types, ages, and sizes provides a range of accommodations and creates neighborhood diversity. History hasn’t been disrespected; quite the opposite, history has been honored by allowing the city to continue to grow and create opportunity for more people.

If we want Los Angeles to keep growing, stay diverse, and get more affordable, we need to allow more streets like Clarington to grow organically in more neighborhoods in the city.

‘Round Palms: Hughes Av

In a previous post, I explained why the low-rise and mid-rise development of neighborhoods like Palms is the best development pattern to promote affordability, and a recent article in Design Intelligence confirms that three-to-four story buildings are the most cost efficient. Today we’re going to take a closer look at Hughes Av, which runs from Venice to the intersection of Palms, National, and Exposition.

It’s important to highlight places like Palms as examples of LA density, because this is the way neighborhoods grow when they’re allowed to do so organically. Unlike the contrived density of modern planned districts, high-rises don’t spring up everywhere all at once. Single-family houses and small buildings are gradually replaced with larger structures, resulting in a neighborhood with a wide variety of buildings sizes, types, styles, and ages. This is the natural way that cities develop.

Alright, off we go. Characteristic of Palms diversity, there’s a Korean church (built 1937) just north of Venice.

DSCN0084

This four-story block (built 1981) is one of the taller structures on Hughes, and in Palms in general.

DSCN0086

This block (built 1988) is only three stories tall, but has a larger footprint.

DSCN0087

As you work your way up towards Palms/National/Exposition, single-family residences (SFRs) start to pop up (this one built 1939).

DSCN0088

Here’s another SFR (built 1923), holding its own next to a three-story apartment building (built 1991) with a small footprint.

DSCN0089

And on the other side, there’s an apartment block (built 1986) with a footprint twice the size.

DSCN0090

A couple older style SFRs (built 1924 and 1925).

DSCN0091

DSCN0092

Two SFRs (built 1925 and 1931) with three-story apartment building (built 1987) in the background.

DSCN0093

Now, Hughes Av isn’t going to capture many urbanist imaginations. It doesn’t present the uniformity that gives so many old frozen-in-time districts or contrived modern districts immediate curb appeal. But dig out your Jane Jacobs on diversity of buildings, and you’ll find her extolling the virtues of a street that features everything from a one-story Laundromat to a fourteen-story apartment building.

From a more political and pragmatic perspective, Hughes Av should be an easier sell than skyscrapers. So much of the debate about density in the US has been fouled by the equation of density with Manhattan-style development. And as much as I rip on NIMBYs, they do have a point about skyscrapers. Dropping a twenty-story building into a neighborhood of SFRs is going to create a lot of localized impacts. That’s why the headline contrived urban districts, from the Pearl District to the South Boston Waterfront, are all built on former industrial land.

And that’s the real beauty of Palms. No one is being forced out of their SFR, and even decades after upzoning, there are still many SFRs available in Palms. If you want a condo or to rent an apartment, there’s plenty of those too. People who own SFRs didn’t have their property values ruined, because the ability to build an apartment building creates value. Every year, many owners choose to keep their SFR, while others decide to build apartments. In other words, the city is growing and providing people with a  variety of economic opportunities and choices. As it should be.

Note: the buildings I selected on Hughes Av date to two eras (20s-30s, 80s-90s) but as we’ll see in future posts, other decades are well represented in Palms as well.

Palms Power

As I’ve said before, the affordability of Los Angeles for people and businesses is one of the greatest challenges facing the city. If we don’t want LA to become a boutique town like San Francisco or Boston, we need to make it easy to produce cheap apartments and workspaces. By definition, affordable development does not include any space that is produced by giving developers subsidies or forcing developers to sell or rent at below market rates. Those strategies are not scalable in a meaningful way.

To that end, I’ve defended and promoted the LA pattern of low-rise and mid-rise development, contrasting it with some architects’ and planners’ preference for high-rise towers near transit hubs, surrounded by single-family neighborhoods with restrictive zoning. In previous posts, I’ve called this “Vancouverism”, since this is the strategy pursued by Vancouver. This strategy is often more politically palatable because it aligns the preferences of architects and planners with the belief of NIMBYs in single-family neighborhoods that the city should protect them from change.

However, Vancouverism can never produce affordable development at the same scale that the LA pattern can, because the construction costs are so much higher. As the LA Downtown News reported, high-rise construction costs 1.5 times to 2.5 times as much per square foot as low-rise and mid-rise construction – about $200/SF for low-rise and mid-rise buildings, and $400/SF for high-rise buildings.

Example: at a 10% rate of return and a 30 year term, you need to collect about $1,250/month in rent to cover the cost of building a 700 SF low-rise apartment. High-rise, you need to collect at least $2,500/month. This doesn’t include the cost of maintenance and management, but $1,250/month is down into the realm of affordability. And anyway, the point of new construction is often not to build new cheap apartments, but new upscale apartments for people with more money.

The key thing to realize here is that the cost of new construction sets a reference price for existing apartments that have already had their capital costs paid off and just need to cover maintenance. If new apartments are going for $2,500/month, then you can charge up to $2,499/month for an old apartment. But if new apartments are only $1,250/month, you can never charge more than $1,249/month for an old apartment. So, the less costly the new construction, the larger the market segment that can be targeted with new construction, and the less price pressure on existing apartments.

In other words, if we really care about affordability, we need the traditional LA pattern of development. And since I live in Palms, I’m going to frequently use Palms as a good case study. I’m planning to do some more detailed research, but for now let’s trust Wikipedia and assume Palms was upzoned in the 1960s. At a glance, Palms might look like it’s all apartment buildings of the same size and vintage, but that’s not the case – there’s a variety of building types, sizes, and ages. This includes a considerable number of remaining single-family houses. In a few upcoming posts, I’m going to take a closer look at selected streets in Palms, including the types and ages of buildings, with an eye on the fact that none of the single-family houses have been ruined by the nasties that are supposed to come with apartment buildings.