Albuquerque Journal: “City Should Address Growing ‘Bad Infill’ Problem”

From the March 14, 2010 Albuquerque Journal:

A new two-story house in an unassuming Santa Fe neighborhood is built six feet from the back lot line and looms over the windows of the neighboring one-story home.

Across the street from one of old Santa Fe’s most notable Pueblo Revival-style historic homes, a row of faux-Territorial condominiums backs on a parking lot big enough to serve a neighborhood strip mall…

It’s…”bad infill”, says former city councilor Karen Heldmeyer, who has put together an informal tour of these and other properties she says are all allowed by city development rules, even in the notoriously rule-burdened historic district, and are eroding the city’s neighborhoods…

Part of the problem, Heldmeyer says, is that Santa Fe has very liberal rules about building an “accessory dwelling”–a casita or guest house–on a lot with a primary residence…

The Jay Street homeowner, says Heldmeyer, has virtually abandoned his yard and stopped using his rear bedrooms because the floor-to-ceiling windows on the Young Street “accessory dwelling” overlook them…

[In a place where land with two homes has been turned into five,] “People buy, then they realize there’s no parking.”

…Developers anxious to capitalize on the old neighborhood’s proximity to the Railyard built a couple of multistory condominiums that residents felt were inappropriate. They complained, and the city was asked to study the “built density”–how many structures the neighborhood actually had, as opposed to how many the zoning actually permitted. Land use officials found that the built density was substantially lower than the high-density zoning in place, and the City Council approved a change…

What it boils down to, says Heldmeyer, is “who the city is going to accommodate. The residents? Or the real estate speculators?”

See also:

The Santa Fe Review: The Sorrows of San Acacio  (1/29/05)
One by one, modest old houses were gutted and rebuilt, sometimes doubling in size. New lots seemed to magically appear. What looked like the small junk-strewn side yard of a crumbling adobe shack near Camino Cabra was recognized as a legal lot and granted exemptions to “footprint” requirements (a house can occupy only a certain percentage of the land) and “setback” requirements (it must stand several feet back from the property line). The grand new home that has arisen from the weeds and beer cans practically touches the walls of its neighbors. A few years later the shack itself changed hands and has been transformed into another grand residence…

This is what the urban planners celebrate as “in-fill” development. In theory it reduces sprawl. In actuality what you get is both sprawl and the loss of what little urban open space remained…

Visitors from out of state find all of this astonishing. In the real world, creating a new lot in the middle of an established neighborhood is a very big deal. One of the axioms of responsible city planning is that a “buildable” lot must have a certain amount of frontage on the public right of way–that you cannot just decide to sell your backyard. In fact, neighbors opposing just such a lot split recently discovered, to everyone’s surprise, that Santa Fe’s own development code contains a similar restriction. But it has been routinely ignored for years.

Portland Infill Design Strategies: Best Practices for Context-Sensitive Infill Design
Backyard patterns (page 12)
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…

Latest Kohl Condo Proposal for North Street: 20 Units as Duplexes 
The density would still be too high relative to the amount of land suitable for building. The proposed units look like they are squashed into North Street’s backyard space. This disrupts the character of the neighborhood and intrudes on neighbors’ privacy. The units would not be in harmonious relation to their surroundings, a condition of the special permit Kohl needs.

Topographical Map Shows How Kohl Condo Proposal Will Eat Into a Rare Stand of Mature Trees in Downtown

Northampton Redoubt: Urban Ecology, Planting Trees, and the Long-Term View (emphasis added)
If we remove all of our in-town forested areas and wetlands they will likely be gone forever or at least a very long time. We would do well for posterity to err on the side of caution. For example the cost estimate to restore part of the downtown historic Mill River channel runs into the millions of dollars. Had the river’s diversion in the 1940s been handled differently, perhaps with a sharper eye towards the future, maybe today we wouldn’t be searching for dollars to make its restoration a reality.

Photo Essay: 10 Reasons People Like Trees Around Them; Will the Sustainable Northampton Plan Put Urban Trees at Risk?
If you walk down North Street, imagine most trees between houses gone and replaced with a near-solid wall of housing. [Click the link above] and decide if that’s growth that’s smart, or growth that smarts…

Condo Monotony: The Future of Ward 3?
This is the condo development on Hockanum Road:

The New Draft Sustainable Northampton Plan: Balancing Compact Growth Against Taxes, Urban Greenspace, Homeowner Preferences
An objective of the Plan is to “implement ideas for maximizing density on small lots”. (p.16) It calls for the City to “consider amending zero lot line single family home to eliminate 30′ side yard setback”. (p.69)

Planning Board Adopts Sustainable Northampton Plan
…[NSNA is] concerned…about the reference to densities of 50 years ago. Much has changed since then. In particular, women have far more jobs outside the home, meaning more cars are on the road. By the same token, more families have become too busy to dedicate an adult to shopping in small amounts on a daily basis. If you’re buying 50 pounds of groceries and supplies at a time, you’re probably going to prefer to do that by car rather than walk or use the bus. Factors like these mean that a neighborhood that had comfortable density in 1957 might be perceived as congested with cars today.

Edwards Square Meeting with Plassmann, Huntley: Video  (5/19/10)
Residents observed that parking on the street has become tight since a home nearby increased its number of rentable units from 2 to 7. This is an example of a general issue that needs to be addressed by proponents of infill and Smart Growth: how to manage the added cars.

Video: Zoning Revisions Discusses Making Core Urban Neighborhoods More “Conforming”, More Dense (4/22/10)
Some members of the committee are interested in changing the zoning code so that 70% of the lots in URC will become “conforming”. This implies greater density would be allowed, perhaps much greater. Committee chair Joel Russell observes this might cause an increased need for parking spaces.

The risks of poorly managed densification are substantial. These include parking shortages, traffic jams, overwhelmed infrastructure, vanished greenspace and charming historic neighborhoods turned into an ugly mishmash of incompatible buildings. We hope city officials will study the experience of places like San Diego and Houston, and put protections in place before contemplating higher densities in the infill receiving areas. These protections include infill design guidelines, an appraisal of increased needs for parking and infrastructure, and monitoring tree canopy and impervious surface by ward.

Scrape-Off Redevelopments Provoke Backlash in Denver Neighborhoods

“Power at the Local Level: Growth Coalition Theory”  
…local power structures are land-based growth coalitions. They seek to intensify land use. They are opposed by the neighborhoods they invade or pollute, and by environmentalists…

The growth coalitions also have a well-crafted set of rationales, created over the course of many decades, to justify their actions to the general public…