Tuesday, February 08, 2011

"Prudent Growth"? Multifamily McMansions?

A Coconut Grove, Fla., McMansion circa 2003. Are McMansions destined to be apartment houses in the next decade? (Miami Herald photo)
I came away from last week's New Partners for Smart Growth conference with a notebook full of interesting ideas, factoids and thoughts:

• Can we scrap the term Smart Growth? It insults people, which doesn't help anyone make needed political and business changes. But "sustainability" isn't much better. For one thing, the way a community develops is much more complex than buying fluorescent light bulbs, which is what "sustainability" means to a lot of people. "I try to avoid using the word 'sustainability,' " Raleigh Planning Director Mitch Silver, who is president-elect of the American Planning Association, told the crowd Saturday. The term means too many things to too many people, he said.
I vote for not calling it anything, since any good planner/urban designer/policy maker worth her or his salt knows what to do anyway. If a term is absolutely required, what about "Prudent Growth" or "Responsible Growth"?

• Two different planning/development experts predicted that many of the McMansions built in the past decade will end up being broken into multifamily housing. Arthur "Chris" Nelson, who gave an interesting demographics presentation, even offered floor plans for converting a 6,000-square-foot-house – "modest by McMansion standards" – into three apartments. He noted that multifamily's share of the demand for new housing 2010-20 will be 50 percent. Considering population, age and market-demand projections, the U.S. is overbuilt on single-family housing, he said, and underbuilt on multifamily.
Silver, of Raleigh, also pointed to that likely result. "What are we going to do with those 4,000-square-foot mansions out in the suburbs," he asked.

• Silver gave an excellent talk about Raleigh's planning and zoning efforts. He self-deprecatingly noted the city's "Sprawleigh" nickname and described a wide-ranging effort Planning Raleigh 2030, that aimed to get residents to envision what they wanted their city to look like in two decades. (They used different outreach methods for different age groups.) The city's new comprehensive plan was adopted in 2009. Unlike Charlotte, that isn't all the city did. "If you just have a policy plan sitting on a shelf, it has no value," Silver said. "It's important to have the one-two punch" of adopting the plan and then codifying it.
So the city is completely rewriting its zoning code, which will be, in part, a form-based code. That's a code that worries less about what you're doing inside the building (office? store? apartments?) and more about how the building behaves in its surroundings. "Sprawl is fiscally irresponsible and frankly, too expensive to maintain," he said. (I guess he doesn't have to worry about REBIC and influential suburban subdivision developers complaining to his bosses when he says things like that, right out loud and in public.)

• The Atlanta BeltLine project was described as "the most transformative project in Atlanta since the airport was built." (quote is from Atlanta City Council member Joyce Sheperd). It's a $2.8 billion redevelopment project to create public parks, multi-use trails and transit along a mostly abandoned 22-mile railroad corridor that encircles downtown Atlanta and connects 45 neighborhoods. It's a huge partnership, and involves a 6.500-acre tax increment financing district (covering 8 percent of the city's land area). Along with local, state and federal money expected to be spent, a nonprofit Atlanta BeltLine Partnership is raising money from philanthropic and private sources, as well as local, state and federal funds.

Almost half the right-of-way has been leased, optioned or purchased. So far 3.5 miles of permanent trails have been built, as well as 8 miles of interim hiking trails.
Brian Leary, CEO of Atlanta BeltLine Inc., told the conference gathering, "For the last 14 years Atlanta has been looking for its next Olympic moment." He clearly thinks the BeltLine is it.


Anonymous said...

I think the Beltline represents more of an evolutionary growth of Atlanta versus the revolutionary event of the Olympics.

Of course this makes me wonder if we'll have to spend 15 years or so from the DNC 2012 before evolving...

Anonymous said...

In my hometown many elegant old close to town mansions were converted to apartments in the 30's and 40's (as happened I'm sure in many cities). They stayed that way for many years, with tenants gradually changing from the middle class to the poor. Then suddenly in the 90's these buildings became popular again and many were either reconverted into large homes for the well to do or else into elegant condo flats. So it seems to me that the comment about multifamily McMansions is really a comment about nothing new. This all seems to go in cycles.

Anonymous said...

"What are we going to do with those 4,000-square-foot mansions out in the suburbs," he asked.

Well, unless "we" own them "we" are going to leave our grubby hand off them. This isn't the Soviet Union, yet.

EuroCat said...

To anonymous 09:40:


Perhaps we who own these monstrosities will get tired of heating and cooling and maintaining excessive square footage that we don't use, get tired of making mortgage and tax payments on something that's wotrh less than half what we paid for it and that we can't sell, and we decide to convert to a 2- or 3-family to make more practical economic use of the property that we own.

Perhaps we are plagued with a bunch of empty McMansions in our neighborhood, foreclosed, bank-owned, and falling apart. Perhaps we are wondering what somebody is going to do about the messes, as the bank doesn't perform basic maintenence, the vandals have moved in to ply their trade, and the weeds grow up as neighboring property values go down.

Perhaps we in local government have to find ways to address these issues, too, as we begin to realize that our zoning laws don't permit multifamily conversions, leaving the we of the first paragraph stuck with economic albatrosses around their necks, leading eventually to the result in paragraph 2. Perhaps we all need to work together to find better solutions to housing, land use, adaptation and reuse, and other community issues that effect everybody, not just you.

Anonymous said...

You can't sprinkle sugar on cow patty and call it a sugar donut fool. Smart growth is what it is, liberarls waging war against people who don't want to controlled by people have an agenda on roads and the combustion engine.

Anonymous said...

" Are McMansions destined to be apartment houses in the next decade?"

Many of our suburban subdivisions will become the new slums in THIS decade.

Much of the bliss and avoidance behavior (gated communities) that characterized many of these places is being replaced by joblessness and foreclosure anxiety.

Next stop? The curb, then an apartment, then maybe a rental home-for a short time-then..by then they won't much care. The new standard will be a roof over your head. Period.

Anonymous said...

Ultimately, there are only two types of planning: "Planning I like" and "planning I don't like."

Similarly, there are really only two types of growth: "Growth I like" and "growth I don't like."

Those are the terms you should use, Ms. Newsom.

Jumper said...

Our very own Jumper suggested the remodeling of McMansions into multi-family units beginning back in 2002 or so.

Re.: liver mush, here's a similar dish:
Seems the biggest difference is oatmeal or barley instead of corn meal.

Anonymous said...

What makes the house in the picture a "McMansion"? What are the criteria that dictate whather a home is a real mansion vs. a McMansion?

Bréanainn Séaghdha said...

A real mansion is a large home built entirely to the specifications of the home buyer. A McMansion is a large home that the home buyer picks out of a catalog of available designs pre-configured by the homebuilder, where the buyer's freedom to choose is limited by builder's desire to mass produce housing while maximizing profits.

A mansion is personal and more expensive, a McMansion is mass produced/all look alike and cheaper.

Michael Lewyn said...

How about the term "walkability"? It gets to what "smart growth" supporters really favor, and its literal meaning is the same as its planner-jargon meaning (unlike "sustainability" or "smart growth" which have hardly any real literal meanings).