Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Cats on a Piano and Infill Development

Dateline: 11:39 am March 23, 2009 Filed under:

“There are the same number of notes in the Moonlight Sonata as there would be if you put two cats on a piano for twenty minutes.” Those are the words of a John Anderson, Principal of Anderson Kim Architecture + Urban Design of Chico, California, when describing how our various zoning related codes prescribe but don’t always achieve good results. If an infill site allows, say, 50 units according to the zoning code and FAR rules, there are many possible outcomes as far as both form and function. In other words, those 50 units can be a Moonlight Sonata of development or simply two cats on a piano.

I’ll give you an example. The city doesn’t matter, so let’s call it Springfield, USA. A developer with good design sense was considering constructing an infill project on a small mid-block site along a bus line. Surrounding buildings are two and a half story homes and three story apartment buildings. The developer starts with the city’s comprehensive plan, which encourages infill development and affordable housing along transit lines. From that information, he sketches out a rough plan for small, relatively affordable studio apartments in two buildings on the site that blend in well with its immediate surroundings and the general character of the neighborhood.

He takes that to the city planner, who is a friendly, by-the-book kind of guy who believes in good development. The planner notes that the building mass of the developer’s plan would be well within the allowable floor area ratio (FAR) – half of the allowed FAR, in fact. However, the zoning for the site only allows 17 units on the site – the developer’s plan calls for 22.

Having fought numerous fights with local neighbors over density, this developer wasn’t quite ready to put on the gloves again. And so, the project falls in the the vast repository of “great projects that never were.” When that happens we all lose. I have seen this developer’s work before, and it is good. Very good.

To add insult to injury, the developer told me he checked, and his proposal would have been legal by right under Portland, Oregon’s zoning code. Ouch.

Or take another example. A small area plan establishes a 35-foot height limit for development. The reality of development means you cannot reasonably get a four story building built. You are pretty much limited to a three story walk-up six plex or something small scale. To make that pencil out, a developer in this case would be required to price units well above $500,000, a price point not very marketable in that location along a busy roadway.

So we know this isn’t fiction, nor is it an isolated incident. It is one played out regularly on urban infill sites across the country. Too often our dated zoning codes meant well at one point, but prevent very good development from occurring today. This is a problem faced in countless cities, and a precious few are addressing it adquately.

So what is the answer? I know only that there is not one single answer. Form based codes are worth pursuing, but any change in zoning must be based on development that is realistic in the marketplace and must be flexible enough to change as that market evolves.

With much of our urban policy, I am told again and again, the metaphor is like turning a ship. It takes time. There must be public buy-in, strong leadership, and inspired design. We have our hands on the wheel. We must start turning that ship. When a developer comes forward with an attractive infill project, he or she must be met with open arms.

We want more Moonlight Sonatas, not cats on a piano.

I’m always happy to borrow from U2 when I say “she’s gonna dream up the world she wants to live in, she’s gonna dream out loud.” – Zooropa.

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