Lessons from San Diego: Why We Need Infill Design Guidelines

Densification without design guidelines invites problems. Diana DeRubertis analyzes San Diego’s experience for Planetizen:

Residential Infill, 70’s-Style

In 1979, the City of San Diego launched a plan to steer new development into the craftsman-lined neighborhoods close to downtown. The idea was sound: scatter higher density housing throughout existing “smart growth” communities. Part of the city’s General Plan under Mayor Pete Wilson, increasing density in urban areas was good way to accommodate the anticipated population influx without converting open space and agricultural land into tract homes, thereby avoiding costly infrastructure and public service expansions. The growth-management strategy would also redirect attention to neighborhoods that were neglected after the migration to outlying suburbs.

But the new housing diminished neighborhood character and walkability. Pejoratively known as “Huffman Sixpacks”, the six-unit apartment complexes that invaded older neighborhoods were like windowless boxes with a parking lot in front. Architect Michael Stepner, who served on San Diego’s Planning Commission for nearly three decades, explained that the unfortunate buildings emerged through a combination of factors, including increased parking requirements and a lack of design guidelines. Single-family homes fell quickly because the area was already zoned for multi-family units. “All the builder had to do was buy the house, get over-the-counter permits, demolish the house and build the apartments,” Mr. Stepner said. Communities resisted the loss of historic homes, especially given their unwelcome replacements…

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See also:

Our Ad in the May 6 Gazette: “How to Avoid Classic Infill Design Mistakes”
“For the past few decades,” write Knoxville area planners, “the construction of new houses on these vacant lots–infill housing–has often been incompatible with the historic features in neighborhoods of the late 1800’s to 1950’s. Inappropriate infill has been a problem in the ‘Heart of Knoxville’ neighborhoods…

“Following World War II, many single family neighborhoods were rezoned to permit apartments. This was done under an urban development theory that the highest density housing should be close to the central business district. The results have been mixed. In some instances the design of multi-unit buildings are completely out of context to older neighborhoods with apartment buildings looking like they should have been part of suburbia. In places where multi-unit housing is permitted…it is essential to neighborhood stability that new apartment buildings be designed in scale and context with the early architectural features of the neighborhood…

“Multi-unit housing (where permitted by zoning) should have similar front yard space to that of the traditional single-family houses along the street… Multi-unit housing should be designed to continue the architectural rhythm of the block. In addition to the same ‘build-to line’, porches, bays and breaks in the front façade should be created that mimic the look of older homes when looking down the block. This should be done by dividing the building into separate sections which are proportionally similar to original houses on the block.”

Knoxville Infill Housing Design Guidelines: Lessons from Experience

Portland Infill Design Strategies: Best Practices for Context-Sensitive Infill Design
Most residential areas zoned for medium-density development have established patterns of backyards, which create a much-valued “private realm” of outdoor spaces that contrast functionally with the “public realm” of street frontages. Infill development which intrudes significantly into the backyard realm can have substantial privacy and solar access impacts and is often a key concern of neighbors (see pages 35–37).
Principle: Respect the backyard realm by minimizing intrusions by larger structures, where this is a priority…

Toronto Urban Design Guidelines: Infill Townhouses

Springfield Works on Infill Housing Design Guidelines; Residential Design Presentation by Dietz & Company

“Innovative Non-Zoning Approaches to Encourage Smart Growth and Protect Public Health” – Video with Wayne Feiden and Bruce Young
“And then finally, Wayne and I mentioned this earlier, design standards in architectural ordinances. We really need to think about how the infill happens. Because if we’re saying we want a house between two houses, and we can’t get the neighborhood to buy onto houses that are just not helping the neighborhood…” (Bruce Young, Northampton Land Use and Conservation Planner, 12/12/08)

March 10: Zoning Revisions Committee to Meet; Our Suggestions

Video: Zoning Revisions Committee Meeting of 5/20/09
1:30:09-1:38:39… Discussion of design guidelines. Jim Nash:Neighborhood groups have anxiety about what infill will look like.Specifying design guidelines up front will ease the way for other regulatory changes. Residents will have more trust in the outcome. Let’s analyze mistakes from the past.

Condo Monotony: The Future of Ward 3?

Our Ad in Today’s Gazette: A Review of Our Objections to the Kohl Condo Proposal (1/22/09)
True Smart Growth preserves a community’s character, unlike development that “bears little relationship to a community’s history, culture, or geography.” ULI says homebuyers are increasingly attracted to vernacular and historical house styles that characterize their immediate area or region.

Smart Growth vs. “Smart Growth”
…developers often seize on convenient aspects of Smart Growth that align with their profit goals and disregard others. A common result appears to be overlarge developments, inapt developments, and/or excessive density. These are major bones of contention in Los Angeles and Berkeley, to give two examples.

Video: Planning Board Reviews the Latest Kohl Condo Proposal on 5/14/09
Without an understanding of human nature, well-intended Smart Growth policies can backfire, increasing sprawl. If planners want people to live in downtown neighborhoods, they need to demonstrate those neighborhoods will be respected, protected, and handled gently.

Portland: A Photo Tour of Spiraling Densification

Portland, Oregon Voters Sour on Densification Over Time

Scrape-Off Redevelopments Provoke Backlash in Denver Neighborhoods

Houston Chronicle: “Density hasn’t been kind to Cottage grove…”
Density hasn’t been kind to Cottage Grove, a small neighborhood with narrow streets, few sidewalks, poor drainage and scarce parking for the owners of its many new homes and their guests.

Like many neighborhoods inside Loop 610, Cottage Grove in recent years has experienced a flurry of construction of large townhomes that loom over 80-year-old cottages next door. Two or three dwellings crowd sites where one house stood previously. Streets are cluttered with vehicles parked every which way. Water stands in the streets after heavy rains.

“It was shocking to see this jewel of a neighborhood in this condition,” said former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy, a senior fellow with the nonprofit Urban Land Institute who toured Cottage Grove two years ago. “It was about the ugliest thing I’d ever seen, to be honest with you.”