Enabling Density

“Compactness” Is Key, but Often Requires High-Quality Design for Success

Ed McMahon regularly uses the term “density” in his work, though he’s not a big fan of the term when it comes to creating or re-creating walkable, 15-minute neighborhoods.

Illustration: new condominium complex

Photo by Daniel Dinuzzo on Unsplash

“It’s important, of course,” said McMahon, a senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute (ULI) in Washington, D.C. “But it’s not necessarily the most important thing.”

McMahon would prefer to use the word “compactness” rather than density because he believes the latter term has a negative connotation for many people.

Regardless of which term you employ, he extols compact communities as great places to live because they are often “where you have a mix of uses and housing types, locally owned businesses that meet your needs and other necessities,” said McMahon, who lives in the walkable neighborhood of Tacoma Park, Md., outside of Washington, D.C.

“We’ve known for a long time that it is very costly for cities to spread things around further apart,” he said. “For years, even though household sizes have been shrinking, the amount of land used by each household was increasing. And at the same time, we segregated all uses and you had to drive everywhere for everything. So, people were spending more time driving longer distances.”

McMahon said density demands high-quality design first and foremost. When he worked for Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening on the state’s Smart Growth program, he said one of the things “we learned about density was that you can’t just stick more look-alike houses together and expect everyone to like them.

Density demands high-quality design first and foremost.

“Density demands compensating amenities, such as sidewalks and neighborhood parks and play areas and bicycle paths. And, it demands access to green space because if your yard is smaller, it means the public areas will need to be bigger.

Density also means giving people choices for getting around. “You could have a lot of density, but you might still have to drive everywhere if you didn’t have choices like transit and bikeways, as well as nice places to walk. So, walkability and bikeability go hand in hand,” he said.

Density doesn’t need to be everywhere. “I’d say good density is focused, well-designed, contextual, walkable, improves neighborhoods and is soulful, while bad density is scattered, poorly designed, not contextual, is auto-centered, degrades communities and is soulless. In fact, many of America’s most charming and high-value neighborhoods are relatively dense,” he added, citing Georgetown, in Washington, D.C., and Old Town in Alexandria, Va.

Compact communities are great places to live because you have a mix of uses and housing types.

McMahon said one of his pet peeves with a lot of new housing is when developers pay little or no attention to the vernacular of an area. “Great neighborhoods accommodate locally owned businesses of arts, culture and food. They don’t just have chains.

Infill Strategies

Revitalizing a blighted neighborhood takes time, according to the Center for Community Progress, a 10-year-old organization that focuses on “turning vacant spaces into vibrant places.”

That means small steps that might include offering pop-up libraries and creating green spaces where buildings once stood, while the neighborhoods are revitalized.

Community Progress has partnered with the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® through a program called “Transforming Neighborhoods” to help local groups receive NAR-financed technical and other assistance.

The program aids community leaders — including REALTORS®, city officials, nonprofits and others — in their efforts to revitalize abandoned properties and turn neglected areas into neighborhoods that meet many of their residents’ needs.

“We fight systemic vacancy,” said Jovan Hackley, director of communications for Community Progress. “We deal not simply with just one empty house on the block, but with all the laws and decisions that led to the building in a neighborhood being abandoned.

“We fight displacement and disparities to create communities that aren’t just full, but have assets for the existing residents. That’s the complete cycle of property revitalization.”

Great neighborhoods also accommodate locally owned businesses of arts, culture and food.

Community Progress does this primarily through land banks, which obtain properties at low or no cost through the tax foreclosure process. There were only six land banks when the organization was created in 2010, but that number has since grown to 200.

In a nutshell, land banks are government entities or nonprofit corporations focused on conversion of vacant, abandoned and tax-delinquent properties — which can destabilize neighborhoods — into productive use. Land banks, which often have special powers, are used to acquire title to problem properties, eliminate liabilities and transfer properties to new, responsible owners in a transparent manner that results in outcomes consistent with community-based plans.

“But we’ve also expanded into code enforcement and partnerships with important communities, of which real estate agents are some of the most vital,” Hackley added.

Liz Kozub, associate director for Leadership & Education at Community Progress, said sometimes abandoned properties are turned into gardens and pocket parks to improve neighborhoods.

“We look at green spaces as assets for communities,” she said. “So, if we are talking about comprehensive, holistic communities, there should be tools and resources to transition those properties to places to better complement community goals such as placemaking projects. That fits into the 15-minute neighborhood concept.”

Community Progress did a series of 20 blog posts last spring around what Hackley called “creative placemaking on problem properties,” that included setting everything from neighborhood gardens to pop-up grocery stores or pop-up libraries in both urban and rural communities.

Kozub said pop-ups are traditionally used to provide a type of excitement and inspiration and to fill a need on a temporary basis. But she noted that they can also move a property in the direction of a more permanent re-use in line with community goals.

Locate density and multifamily housing near transit lines and in underperforming commercial corridors, which have been overbuilt in suburban America.

Hackley said Community Progress is backing the Neighborhood Homes Investment Act, which is part of this Administration’s “American Jobs Plan.” It would give investors a federal tax break if there is a shortfall in the value of a property after it has been revitalized.

An example would be an abandoned property that cost $60,000. If a buyer put $100,000 into restoration, but the value was still only $120,000, he or she could reap a tax benefit.

Community Progress is also supporting the federal “Restoring Communities Left Behind Act,” which would make $5 billion available to local communities through a grant program administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. It would fund neighborhood revitalization activities, including homeowner rehabilitation assistance, weatherization, improved housing accessibility for seniors and people with disabilities, housing counseling, refinancing, property tax relief, and more.

So where else would you want to think about putting density? There are a few key locations. One is near large transit investments, like transit lines, and the other big places — and one of the easiest places — is along underperforming commercial corridors, which have been completely overbuilt in suburban-retail-strip America and that was happening even before the pandemic.

“That’s where multifamily housing is going. Single-family neighborhoods are always objecting to putting multifamily buildings in their neighborhoods. Well, you don’t have to do that if using struggling strip malls. And you’ve already got the infrastructure there. You’ve got sewer and water and it’s on a four-lane road typically,” McMahon said.

He believes the future belongs to mixed-use, 15-minute neighborhoods. And that cities and developers are becoming more creative. Some cities are now putting affordable housing on fire stations and libraries. “That cuts costs because 20 percent of the cost of housing is land. Right across the street from the new ULI offices is a new fire station with 40 units of housing on top.”

McMahon emphasized that there is no “one-size-fits-all” formula for creating 15-minute neighborhoods that are successful. “The best developers start off analyzing the site and try to learn from the place. That is how you create value. If you can’t differentiate your real estate project in the world we live in today, you will have no competitive advantage. In fact, many REALTORS® have said, the ‘place’ is becoming more important than the ‘product.’ What’s going on outside of the house always has more impact on the value of a piece of property than what’s going on inside the house. The character of a neighborhood is always more important than granite countertops in the house, which is why sidewalks, context, bike lanes, accessible transit, schools, businesses, grocery stores and things like that are so important.”

Accessibility Premium

Bob Myers, a team leader for the RE/MAX Realty Services in Rockville, Md., said people are willing to spend 10 percent more for homes in the upscale, walkable Kentlands neighborhood of Gaithersburg.

People are willing to spend 10 percent more for homes in walkable neighborhoods.

“People are willing to pay a premium to live here because it is compact and has a lively energy,” explained Myers, who said the community has a mix of condominiums, apartments, an over-55 building, townhomes and single-family houses. It also has a number of small businesses, a post office, restaurants, salons, a movie theater, grocery, a school, a couple of small lakes and a brewery.

“It has its own unique feel to it and people who live here really like the convenience of it,” added Myers, who said Kentlands won awards when it was started in the late 1980s as one of the first urban-suburban, walkable neighborhoods.

“Things are pretty close together and that was the point of having a neighborhood that had sidewalks and would be a nice place to walk to things that people need and want to do. On weekends in the summer, there are bands that play in the courtyard, where residents like to hang out. It has all the attributes of an upscale area. It works.”

In Bremerton, Wash., the story is a little different.

Revitalization of Vacant Property

Located on the west side of Puget Sound, Bremerton’s downtown is on the rebound from a decades-long slump, said Wes Larson, CEO of the Sound West Group, a full-service real estate company and developer.

“For a long time, this town was everyone’s poster child for revitalization in the Northwest,” said Larson, who grew up in Bremerton and is the son of a naval shipyard worker. He later lived in New York City and Vienna, Austria.

“It’s historically been a blue-collar town and currently has a population of around 40,000,” he said. “The Navy base and the shipyard have been the backbone for the economy. But back in the day, when things weren’t going so well, it was called ‘Bummertown.’

“Having lived in New York, what inspired me about coming back to Bremerton is that I think it could become Seattle’s Brooklyn, which went from being blue collar to very urban and hip and a preferred place to live outside the city. I see a lot of parallels.”

Illustration featuring a mixed-use area in Bremerton, WA

Courtesy of Sound West Group

Larson said he thinks density is extremely important to the revitalization of downtown Bremerton because compact housing will “serve local needs for workers’ housing for employers like the Shipyard, as well as spur more retail and service businesses downtown.

“Density will also benefit and feed off — and from — the transit connections like the ferries to Seattle. It will create the synergies for job growth, as well as activating redevelopment of older buildings and repurposing them to more productive uses. All this will attract greater activity, investment and more growth.”

Larson’s company has been involved with redeveloping Bremerton’s downtown for a number of years to make it more walkable and attractive to residents and visitors. Sound West Group’s current effort is the $135-million Marina Square, which will have three floors of parking and add more housing to the downtown.

Density is extremely important to the revitalization of downtown.

“Marina Square is the key project, centrally located on the waterfront, next to the ferry terminals, hotels, conference center and restaurants,” he said, noting that it will also have “attractive open space.”

Much of the waterfront has already been transformed with a ferry terminal that opened in 2000 — where commuters can take a 60-minute car ferry or a 30-minute passenger ferry to Seattle — a conference center and condos, which was a public effort by the Port of Bremerton, the Housing Authority and private developers leading the way. Bus service is also available a short walk away at the Bremerton Transportation Center.

Illustration of the Marina Square overlooking the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, WA

Photo by David Lee

Marina Square, which will have two towers with 280 units and includes workforce housing, overlooks Puget Sound and is going up on a two-acre former parking lot. Larson called it the “last and most choice development parcel there.”

Sound West has already converted the old Sears department store and Ford dealership in downtown Bremerton into multi-housing. It also restored the Roxy Theater.

The city changed the zoning to allow for not just commercial, but multifamily housing downtown.

“What was key was that the city changed the zoning to allow for not just commercial, but multifamily housing downtown and that allowed us to develop to demand. The city is now working on Quincy Square, which will honor music icon and Bremerton native Quincy Jones.”

Before the changes beginning around 2000, Larson said Bremerton was a “classic urban ghost town.

“When the Kitsap Mall happened [nine miles north of town in Silverdale], retail departed and there were a lot of derelict buildings left behind. The ones we repurposed were vacant for 35 years. But they are only a block from the waterfront and on the Quincy Square.

“There are still some unoccupied buildings, so this is a work in progress. There is demand for people living downtown. For us, it’s just finding the opportunities that pencil out. The city is very supportive.

“Honestly, it’s finding the properties to work on. We are the main redeveloper of downtown. The problem is that some owners are just sitting on their buildings and asking outrageous prices.”

Larson said he believes Bremerton will boom, in part because the Navy — which now has 15,000 employees in the area — is planning $5-billion of improvements in its facilities starting in 2024.

“This is where I’m from and where my partner is from,” he said. “We believe in Bremerton and what it can become.”

Prioritizing People, Not Cars

Rachel Quednau is program manager for Strong Towns — an organization whose primary goal is to make communities financially resilient. She said the big question for re-creating successful downtowns and walkable, 15-minute neighborhoods often depends on the condition of the community to start with.

“It’s a lot easier to transition an area that has buildings that are pretty close together, has sidewalks and businesses that are already there,” she said. “It’s a lot easier to move that sort of neighborhood in the direction of being more of a fully 15-minute neighborhood by increasing housing options, creating spaces for more businesses and filling in the gaps.

A street lined up with office and residential buildings, featuring a green area and a bus stop

Courtesy of BeyondDC

“Conversely, it’s more difficult if your starting place is mostly winding residential streets with very wide roads, no sidewalks, cul de sacs and large, big box stores and scattered malls.”

But wherever communities are starting, she said the key is to think about making things more human scale, orienting the space towards people rather than cars by promoting sidewalks and bike lanes.

“We suggest looking at what is already successful and building from there. Ideally, you’ll be able to fill in with housing, and businesses like a grocery store, drug store, doctors’ offices and transit to make that a complete, 15-minute hood.”

Green bicycles for rent in Courthouse, Arlington, VA

Courtesy of BeyondDC

Quednau said Strong Towns stays away from any specific “prescribed formulas or any density percentages because every space is different. So, it depends. I’ve seen very small towns that have successful, walkable neighborhoods with only a few thousand residents or even a few hundred people living there.

“The biggest thing to avoid is continuing to prioritize cars over people. That means not putting in huge parking lots and not mandating excessive parking for different sorts of businesses and residential areas and not building anything more than two-lane streets.

“It also means really pushing for sidewalks and curb bumpouts so that street crossings are easy and safe for pedestrians. And making things human scale, not having huge, one-story, one-use buildings that take up a ton of space.

“Unfortunately, there continue to be many new auto-focused, suburban subdivisions cropping up around the country. But there are also many bright spots around the United States where you find attractive, financially resilient and walkable communities that have the things people want and need beyond businesses and restaurants — from houses of worship to libraries to schools and parks.”

Building car-centric communities isn’t a wise financial choice.

Strong Towns believes building car-centric communities isn’t a wise financial choice.

“Having residential and commercial spaces that have the highest productive value per taxable acre is a better plan,” she said. “We encourage places that have a strong economy where local businesses can thrive and entrepreneurs can get started, where people can meet their daily needs within their communities and not have to drive out to the Walmart or some other big box store on the edge of town to get what they need. That makes a lot more sense.”

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